Here in Camberwell, we like to think of our town as New England's most progressive community. In other towns, the mentally disabled get a raw deal. In Camberwell, we don't discriminate on the basis of mental illness.
Marcella Wicker sniffed the mashed potatoes at the end of her fork. Nothing strange about the aroma. She took a modest bite. It tasted fine. No obvious signs of toxins. She took another forkful.
"Something wrong?" asked the pastor, who ran the church's lunch program.
"You can't be too careful," Marcella said. "My last landlord tried to poison me!"
"Are you sure?"
"Honest to God. I overheard him talking on the phone to a banker in the Bahamas, transferring funds to a terrorist network. He saw me, and he had the key to my apartment. I'm certain he put rat poison in my orange juice."
"Did you drink it?"
"You think I'd be sitting here if I did? I poured it out."
"Marcella, have you been taking your meds?"
"That's poison too."
"Well, I can't force you. By the way, Marcella, are you interested in some paid work?"
Was she ever. Marcella had been fired from a job at a print shop after destroying a batch of expensive invitations. Supposedly, they were for a "bar mitzvah," but there was strange writing on them, and she was sure they were instructions for terrorists. Now she was living in a shelter.
The pastor sent Marcella over to Camberwell University's Center for Housing Priorities. The Center's Director, Betsy Westin, sat down with her. "We're having a Conference on Transitional Housing for the Homeless this afternoon," Westin said. "We need some help on the phones, and I thought, why not get a homeless person to help us out?"
"I'm not sure I can do it," Marcella said. "I've struggled for some time with schizophrenia."
"The Center's policy strictly prohibits us from making any distinctions on the basis of intelligence or mental ability," Westin said. "Do your best."
Marcella was stationed right at the front entrance, sharing a desk with the security guard. But she was nervous about dealing with people over the phone, so when no one was looking, she unplugged the cord from the back of the phone.
Later that afternoon, Betsy Westin dropped by. "How's it going?" she asked.
"It's been quiet," Sheila said. "But it's under control."
A few minutes later, Marcella heard a ring. She picked up the phone.
"There's a bomb," said the voice on the other end of the line.
The deep baritone voice continued. "A bomb. In the School. The building's coming down."
Marcella looked up at the vaulted ceiling above her. It would crush her. Terrorists! She nudged the security guard next to her. "Listen," she said, as she placed the receiver up to his ear.
"I don't hear anything," the guard said.
Marcella looked at the panel, and saw that the line wasn't lit up. "He hung up," she said. "But I heard a man say that there was a bomb, and that the whole building would be destroyed."
"Someone phoned in a bomb threat?"
"Yes," Marcella said.
"I'd better report this," the guard said.
When the campus police arrived, they ordered the building to be evacuated.
Betsy Westin stormed up to the security desk. "Why are we being asked to leave the building? You're disrupting an important conference."
"Someone phoned in a bomb threat," the guard answered.
"Terrorists," Marcella added.
The campus police chief said, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but we're emptying the building and then we'll search room by room."
Westin glanced at her watch. "How long will this take?"
"An hour or two-if it's a hoax."
As conference attendees put on their coats and began to file out of the building, Westin told them "There's no point in standing out in the cold for two hours. We'll have to cancel the plenary session. You might as well go home."
Marcella heard the phone ring again. "The building's about to explode. Why are you still there?" asked the voice on the other end of the line.
"Please don't hurt us," Marcella said. "People are leaving the building as fast as they can."
The security guard gave Marcella a strange look. Then, he took the receiver out of her hand and handed the entire phone set to the police chief. That's when Marcella remembered that she had unplugged the phone.
"Did she field the call?" Westin asked.
"I'm afraid so," the security guard said.
"Do you ever hear voices that aren't real?" Westin asked.
"Only when I skip my medication," Marcella said.
Leaving her coat on the security desk, Westin dashed outside, shouting, "Come back! Come back! It's a false alarm!"
A minute later she returned, rubbing her hands against her shoulders to warm up. "They're all gone," she said. "This cuckoo homeless woman has ruined my conference."
The security guard escorted Marcella from the building.