The Melodrama of Levi Davis

Daniel Dyal

The things I learned about death, knives, and the grotesque, I learned from Levi Davis in a mental health treatment facility when I was fourteen. I came to Thornwood Children’s Institute, located in the heart of Kentucky, the end of my eighth grade year because I had a penchant for slicing up my own skin and romanticising kitchen knives. I was capital-D Depressed, with parents who did not know what to do with me, so they shipped me off to an asylum three hours from my house.

The first time I made the trip to the Institute, escorted by two staff members, I joked about how secluded it was. “It’s like a prison,” I said, laughing. The building was the punchline. Made of beige bricks, two-stories tall, and no sign indicating where we were. There was just an American flag hanging limp from a pole to the left. To the right, a cage of high fencing that held three deflated balls, a leaning basketball stand, and a graffitied picnic table. 

The first thing the lady running my case took from me was my shoes. “All new students are considered run-risks until they’ve been here for a week,” she said. Her mouth was a paring knife, her hair bathwater blonde. She placed the sneakers on her desk before slapping paper bracelet around my wrist. “You’ll get them back then.”

I toured the Institute barefoot, going from classroom to classroom, hyper-aware of where I placed each foot. A staff member with thinning hair—I would later come to know him as Solomon—explained to me how the Institute worked. The six dorms were split between men and women, each named after a different virtue: Determination, Drive, Dedication, Pride, Persistence, and Perseverance. Each dorm had a motivational poster, for Determination, a man climbing a mountain, his hand grasping the ledge. On the verge of tumbling to his death. I wished to be on that mountain, to have the choice to throw myself from somewhere high. 

Solomon also explained the school system. Students went to classes year round, going within their age brackets. At fourteen, I was just young enough to be with the younger kids, those nine to fourteen, the ones young enough for a mental ward to be a shock, but old enough that it was expected. Solomon showed me around the classes. As we passed each classroom, the teacher stopped mid-thought to say hello. Every time, the students in the class whipped around, eyes training on me. They whispered to one another. I looked elsewhere, held my breath. Pretty soon I would be one of those kids, desperate to see a new face. Glancing at the Welcome Board every time I passed, hoping to see a new name. Anything to stir up some excitement.

Downstairs also held the nursing station. It was a swinging wooden door that was split in half. In the middle of the two seperate doors was a shelf where the nurse would put cups of pills for the students three times each day. “This is where medications are given,” Solomon said. “Do you take anything?”

“Zoloft,” I said. My psychiatrist had also started me on Depakote as well, a nightmare of a mood stabilizer, that made me zombie-like and see things that weren’t there.

Solomon smiled absently. “That’s nice.”

After I was shown around, day staff took me up to the dorm I would be staying in, Determination. Essentially, the dorm was one long hallway. It ran all the way on either side to meet thick metal doors, magnetized shut, accessible only by barrel key. On the left of the hall, rows of doors leading to rooms. On the right, a supply closet and entrance to a shower, where another staff member, Silas, watched me shower the first week I was there in case I would kill myself. Halfway down the left wall, there was wide gap in the wall separating the first three rooms from the last three. This lounge area, what I would soon come to know as the “day room”, was filled with broken furniture. A couch seeping stuffing, a couple chairs to match, a coffee table carved into and scribbled on. The furniture sagged in front of a flat screen television mantled on the wall. A wood case was built around it, the screen protected with thick glass. At the bottom left, cracks bloomed like daisies to the center.

A couple hours later, evening staff gave me a pair of flip flops to use until I got my shoes back. Silas—a big man with a large beard, ruddy face, and knack for playing on his phone all evening—dug in the back of the supply closet until he found a pair. I unwrapped them from dusty cling wrap before jamming them on my feet. Sutherland waited for me before showing me to my room.

The room I would live in for my first three months at the Institute—before my eventual move to Drive in towards the end of summer—was small. The walls were stained with dirt, strips of white peeking through. The bathroom was a toilet and sink above tiled floor, under broken vanity light, and hidden by a swinging half-door. A bed was pushed onto either wall, in the center, a window splitting the wall in two. The window let in the slightest light. The glass was frosted over, impossible to see out of.

As I kicked off the flimsy flip flops underneath the bed I assumed to be mine, the quiet of the dorm broke. Laughter simmered up from somewhere past my room. There was a click, the opening of the heavy, metal door leading to the stairwell, and the noise boiled over into the hallway that was Determination. Solomon, who stood just outside of the room, turned his head to watch the kids file onto the floor.

“Davis!” he boomed. “Come here.” I sat on the edge of my bed, palms slick, throat tight.

“Me?” The voice was deep, the slightest hint of an accent.

“Come meet your new roommate.”

I’m not sure how I heard it over the commotion of the guys returning from school, but I swear I heard an over-the-shoulder “fuck” tumbling off the boy’s lips as he walked to the room. I waited patiently, fighting a swarm of moths fluttering up my throat. The boy appeared in the doorway. He was tall, with thick, bushy eyebrows, and eyes like coal. He looked the same age as me, if not younger. Fourteen and sick, God help us. He stared at me for a moment. I could almost see the gears turning in his head. I said nothing.

The boy frowned, but it was gone in a snap. He scratched his head and grinned.

“I’m Levi Davis,” he said. “What are you in for?”

Levi had been in the Institute almost a solid year and a half before I arrived. When asked about the reason he had been sent there, a light would spark in his eyes. “I hit a security officer,” he would say, fingers flexing in and out of a fist. “He was getting on my nerves.” There was more to the story than that, I was sure, but the only thing that mattered to Levi—his shining truth—was bloody knuckles and handcuffs.

I had been in a short-term treatment facility in my home town for depression and suicidal ideations the month before, but knew virtually nothing about living in long-term. I had come from a quieter background than the other guys—I was scared of violence, didn’t do drugs or drink, and, when I finally would be released, I had a home to go back to. Levi realized right away that I needed someone to help me navigate the unspoken rules of the Institute. Quietly, he took me under his wing.

The first thing Levi taught me was how to make a shank.

It was a Saturday morning my first month there, and all 12 or 14 of us Determination boys crammed together on the destroyed couch, watching the MTV top ten countdown. In the window sat a water dispenser, and beside that, a stack of paper Dixie cups printed with blue and green flowers. As I poured, Sia’s breathy voice warbled “Chandelier” into the room. I turned to face the music. Lifted the tiny cup to my cracked lips. Drank.

Levi lifted an eyebrow. “You know you can make a weapon outta that, right?” 

I nearly choked on the second sip. “What?”

Levi stood from his place on the couch and filled his own cup with water. Teeth marks fossilized around the rim, one side nearly torn through. He drank his water like a shot, throwing his head back, clearing his throat. He stood beside me and grinned.

“It’s the glue.” He traced the bottom of his cup. “You melt it down and you’ve got yourself one hell of a knife.”

He glanced at Solomon and Silas at the doorway, one playing Sudoku, the other staring intently at the music video flashing on the screen. With nimble fingers he pulled the cup apart. I watched the cup expand, the paper pleating together to make the cup bloomed out out there was a daisy in his hand. With his thumb, he pushed against the based of the cup. It bulged outward, and I saw there, in the light, the lining of glue holding everything together.

He crushed the flower in his hand, and blood daisied between his knuckles. Dripped down his fingers. When I rubbed my eyes, the blood was gone, unimagined as quickly as I had created it.  

He laughed as I threw my cup away, water still sloshing over the side.

The week after that, Levi smuggled three oranges and a container of orange juice up to our room. I’m not sure how he pulled it off, but I went in to grab my journal, and there he was, hands drenched in juice. The peels sat in the windowsill next to the open container.

“What the hell are you doing?” The sugary sweet scent of citrus suckerpunched me. Levi did not look up.

“Making alcohol.” He was working on the second orange, jamming his thumb into the top, juice squirting everywhere. He popped his thumb out and the peel rolled back nearly in one piece. He grabbed the piece and placed it on the windowsill, then turned back to me, the naked fruit extended. “Orange?”

I stared in disbelief. I had heard rumors of homemade drug synthesis, but never like this. Levi believed that leaving orange juice out for a week or two caused a form of fermentation, turning it into alcohol. He also believed that smearing an orange peel in toothpaste and leaving it to dry created LSD. It was a kind of alchemy, the swirling together of useless items to create something bigger, better than its parts. While I didn’t believe that juice could rot itself into liquor, I had no doubt that Levi was magical. Anything that he touched would eventually shatter into blossoms, a perpetual bloom.

Other than the occasional slammed door and angry staredown, Levi was slowly becoming a good friend. In our room, we talked about everything. We would both lay there, in the dark, me staring at the ceiling, Levi on his side, biting his nails. We would talk slowly, in breathed whispers. Staff was supposed to make rounds every fifteen minutes, but Silas would only leave his chair for bursts of sounds louder than his music. Silas hated being interrupted.

One night, two weeks into my stay, I asked Levi what he was in there for.

“Don’t bullshit me.”

He bit his nails. In the dark, I could see his large eyebrows furrow. His eyes seemed to glow against the black, a shade or two darker than midnight. We were silent for a while, the only noise the faint blare of Silas’ music streaming down the hallway.

“I did hit the security guard, okay? But it wasn’t my fault.” He blinked. His words split from his tongue and floated into the moonlight. Soft. “I got this anger inside of me and everyone’s blamed me for it. That’s what the officer did. He saw me at school, picked a fight. How could I not fight back?”

I felt myself floating in the darkness.

“Well, what about you?”

I chewed my lip, thinking of what to say. My home life flashed before my eyes, taking form on the ceiling. My mother unsure of what to do. My father hot-tongued, heavy fisted. Me, kicking, screaming, the window open and the screen torn out. It weighed heavy on my chest.

“I tried to kill myself,” I said.

Levi’s gaze sunburned my face. “Don’t bullshit me.”

I sighed. Nauseated. Heart in my throat.

“I… I’m angry, and I fight my parents.” There was a knot in my throat. “I’m sad, and I’m angry, and I want to die.”

Levi nodded. We lay silently, a couple feet apart, watching as our teenage years rotted away. In that dark, I could almost hear his thoughts, the melodrama of Levi Davis slipping into something much more human. Vulnerable. There was nothing from him but slips and phrases of child-like fear for a couple of minutes. And then he sighed out a, “Me, too,” before closing his eyes and going to sleep.

The next day, we began hanging out more and more, both refusing to speak of what had transpired between us. He started letting me in on his plans. During class, we sat next to each other, working out easy algebraic equations and playing hangman. After school, we sat in the day room with Abraham—a narcissist with blue-black hair—and chatted.

I learned pretty quickly, listening to them talk, that the two always had some sort of idea brewing out of the dust our lives had become. There was always some elaborate scheme with crude crayon diagrams or convoluted plan built purely on wishes.

Wanna be a Tycoon? If we pool all of our play money together, we could buy the reward store out of Laffy Taffy! How’s that for entrepreneurship?

If Abraham distracts Silas long enough, I can use these quarters I smuggled in to buy a honeybun.

The longer I had been there, the more wild in nature the plans became. What started with simple things to pass the time—the attempt to create a new religion or build a dictionary of our unique words—led to the digging of the hole on Back Yard.

Back Yard was an expanse of field behind the Institute contained by an uneven line of metal fencing. There was a rectangle of broken asphalt with dented basketball hoops on one side. On the other, a field of grass where I learned how to play soccer. A hill separated Back Yard and the Institute. The hill had a scattering of thin trees and thick roots that burst from the dry dirt before plunging back down again. One day, two or three months after I had been admitted, I found Abraham and Levi under one of those trees. 

They were sitting on their knees, peering down at the earth. Dirt smeared underneath their eyes like war paint. Stained their fingers brown. In one hand, they each held a sharp rock, and in the other, a stick. There was a hole deep enough to hold a softball at their knees, a mound of loose dirt and stray twigs beside them. When I approached my friends stabbing the ground, I had no idea what to make of it. Only that I had no idea whether it was real or not.

Levi wiped his forehead with the back of his palm, looked up at me. The dust rounding his eyes made his burnt-black pupils pop. “Look,” he said, nodding to the start of the hole. Inches before the earth caved in, a rough crayon outline of an underground bunker on scrap paper lay in a patch of grass. “We’re building it near these trees so, when we jump in, none of the staff will know where we went.”

Abraham grunted. He slammed the rock into the ground. The dirt crumbled and he grabbed as much of it in his hands as he could. “It’s not like staff would notice, anyway.”

Levi went back to hammering the dirt from the hole. His wiry arms and pointed rock made quick work. I stood above them, watching with a glassed over gaze as the hole deepened and expanded. Levi knew how to make things crumble. He would smash the rock against the black slopes of earth, and it would avalanche into a pile of dirt. As he went to scoop the dirt from the hole, the sun lit upon the scene, the light reflecting off something long and silver buried in the dust.

Two months in, Solomon was instructed to take our journals. I wasn’t sure why at the time. None of us were. We just heard the instructions fed through the man’s walkie talkie, a muffled 10-4, and then his heavy footsteps, invading room after room in search for our private lives. 

All of us were pissed when it happened, but no one as furious as Levi. He refused at first to give up his journal. He spat curses, kicked walls. When he finally gave in, he threw the book at Solomon’s boots

There were rumors for weeks before they took our journals that the therapists had got wind of something big that was supposed to happen—a protest against classes, an escape attempt, maybe. I couldn’t tell what was true. Levi had not left our room since they took his journal, getting more time tacked onto his sentence. Stewing in the muck and filth of anger. I knew an idea was forming in his head just by looking into his eyes, which sparked like flint when I looked at him. If anyone was going to figure out something, it was him.  I asked Levi one night why they would take our journals away. If they’d ever done that.

He glowered in my direction. “The last time they stepped on our privacy, some kid found a shard of glass on Back Yard. Tried to kill himself with it.”

Levi paced for a moment before laying on his bed. His pillow was bulging.

It was July when the world stopped. I had been at the Institute for three months—I would be out in another three, leaving right before Halloween—and, while I had seen my fair share of ugly anger, I had seen nothing like this. Right after classes, everything was quiet. The entire building pulsated with the silence. I held my breath, unsure of what was going to happen.

And then the first scream broke out.

Someone on Dedication was shrieking. Solomon’s walkie talkie roared to life. Staff support, staff support. Solomon rushed down the hall, bursting through the double doors. Another scream. And another. Now from different dorms. The warbled voices on the talkie more desperate now. Staff support!

Another battle cry pierced the air, this one loud and ringing down the hall of Determination. Abraham had lunged towards Silas. His fists connected once, twice with the man’s face. Silas moved back quickly, nose dripping blood. He jammed down the talkie’s call button. Staff! Support!

Beside me, Levi looked around. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated. I could see the gears turning. Turning. He looked from Abraham to Silas to the door of our room. He stood stock still as the other students joined Abraham, giving in to the anarchy. The gears still turning. And then they shuddered to a stop. Levi jolted into our room, tore back his pillow, and grabbed the lead pipe he’d found on Back Yard. He stopped in our doorway, made a final decision, and rushed into the heat of the battle.

In three months, I would be sitting between my parents on the drive back to my home, quiet and scared of the world I had left for half a year. Feeling incredibly shattered on the inside. I would stare out the window, thinking about Levi, the way he disappeared a month or two after the riot. Saying goodbye as if he was ready for the electric chair. I wondered where he went. I desperately attempted to tap into whatever we had shared that night talking, that psychic link, but I couldn’t. All I could feel was fear. 

I stood in my doorway shaking, feeling both inside and outside of my body. I don’t remember much but his broad shoulders leading the way. His screams bouncing off the hallway walls. It ripped through everything, loud and full of rage. I also remember, so, so vividly, the lead pipe raised over Levi’s head, coated in patches of golden rust. How it seemed to shimmer and pulse against the fluorescents. The perfect tool for an alchemist.

About the Author

Daniel Dyal is a 19-year-old creative writer from Fayetteville, West Virginia. He is a Creative Writing and Gender Studies major at West Virginia Wesleyan College. In his spare time, he likes to read poetry and watch cult classic 90's television shows.