I used to work on a psychiatric ward with psychotic and dangerous people. I was good at it. My boss wrote in my annual evaluation that I excelled dealing with “difficult patients in crisis situations.” Though I was trained in techniques to physically handle violent patients, the skills I acquired over the years usually allowed me to verbally deescalate patients 95% of the time. Co-workers used to tell me they felt better when I was working the floor. I knew what I was doing.

Then one night all my skills failed me.

Azrael was one of our “frequent fliers.” Built like a Russian weightlifter, he was surprisingly quick for a three hundred and fifty pound man. Claiming mastery of several martial arts, he was religiously preoccupied and uttered gems like “I’m am the anvil upon whom the infidel will be smashed” or “I am death sent to slaughter the unbeliever.” Azrael heard voices, suffered from paranoia and had a very, very violent history.

Me? I never had a problem with Azrael. Whenever he cooked off, usually in response to the shenanigans of other patients, I was able to calm him down. Early in my shift when I helped him shave he told me, “You’re the man, Steve. You’re a good guy.” I was never stupid enough to be comfortable around Azrael, but I was confident in my ability to handle him. Then it all turned to shit.

For reasons of confidentiality I can’t go into details but Azrael began focusing on me; calling me names, muttering threats and even throwing an elbow in my face, deliberately missing by an inch. “You don’t know how to defend yourself!” he crowed. Whatever rapport we had vanished. Then, in response to a perceived slight, Azrael went apeshit.

Walking into the dayroom I heard Azrael say, “I’m going to bust up that faggot” and I had no doubt he meant me. Before I could retreat Azrael saw me, leapt to his feet and said, “I’m going to kill you.” Then he took off his shoes.

I’d stood up to Azrael’s bullying rages in the past, but he’d never taken off his shoes before. He was preparing for combat. Realizing I was facing the modern version of a saber toothed tiger, the primordial part of my brain initiated a massive adrenaline dump. My heart began pounding and as my vision tunneled I remembered Azrael had seriously hurt people in the past. At this point he was so psychotic he was capable of anything. Fleeing was my first thought but Azrael was twenty feet away and would run me down. Thinking about his massive arms snapping my neck I saw my daughter’s face and wondered if I’d ever see her again. Then something inside me loosed an awful war cry.

“Smash his windpipe!” it roared. “Bite his jugular! Rip off his ear! Cave in his temple and gouge out his eyes! Take him with you. Kill him.”

Then a brave nurse swooped in and distracted Azrael for a few seconds. The rational part of my brain reasserted itself and I ran into the locked confines of the nurse’s station. But I knew my safety was illusory. As I listened to his yelling rise and fall I realized Azrael was hunting me. The nurse’s station wasn’t very secure and he’d eventually bust in. Concerned with saving my own skin, I was also worried my coworkers, all women, might get hurt trying to help me. I was also frightened of what I might do. My mind seethed with violence. A killer angel had unfurled his wings.

When I knew Azrael was on the other side of the unit I keyed open the heavy main door and made my escape. For the first time in all my years dealing with patients I ran away.
When I got to the nursing supervisor’s office my emotions were going haywire. I felt fear, relief, shame and a sickening, bewildering rage. Security was called, paperwork got filed and I floated up to another unit to finish my shift. Azrael calmed down after I left.

I was angry when I drove home. I was angry when I kissed my wife and angry when I poured myself a stiff bourbon. Azrael’s threats could have been manipulative bluster but my gut told me death was coming. I had too much to lose. The booze only served to fuel my fury.

After my wife went to bed and I walked into my daughter’s room. As she cooed softly I stroked her hair. “Daddy will always come home,” I whispered, knowing it might be a false promise.

Knowing sleep would not come I poured myself another drink, grabbed a cigar and went outside. As I lit my cigar I noticed my hand was trembling. I was scared. Scared of violent death. Scared of Azrael. Scared of evil. Scared of myself. Shadows engulfed me and as I searched through tears to find the stars all I could see was the seraphic fire of my killer angel.

He roared until dawn.

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