Chap 1-5 TALA
It was before Elvis, before rock and roll. We were frozen between death and innocence, between the horror of the second world war and the hope of the moon launch. That’s when Rachel went mad, and Lily was the demon that drove her.
There’s no one left to argue the truth of what happened; it’s time to let her speak. In fact, large sections of my own memory have by now faded into the fog of the past. But Rachel remains bright – so alive, so young, and, in her own way, so innocent.
She gets to tell her own story.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Friday, 23 October 1953
9:00 – Breakfast
10:30 – Art
1200 – Lunch
2:00 – Phone calls
3:00 – Treatment
6:00 – Dinner
7:00 – Movie Night: Double Feature Frankenstein!
10:00 – Bedtime
They leaned together like lovers. His hand rested on her hip. Her fingertips, bloody with scarlet polish, slid down his suit jacket like water off a roof. It was the familiarity of their gestures, more than anything, that gave them away. The ease, the way their heads were so close they could steal each other’s breath. That’s when I knew – just knew – that my boyfriend and my best friend were… involved.
I also knew I was still at homecoming, but the picture before me flickered and greyed, stuttering like caught film. Music jangled through my head, distorted from Frankie Laine into some Frankenstein horror, off-key and echoing. Across the twilight room, bodies lengthened and loomed like evil shadows, then snapped back into focus – Buddy in his only suit, with the white rose I’d pinned to his lapel mere hours earlier; Leanne wore her best pink dress, delicate as a petal. They stood so close they nearly blurred into one. Or was that because I was crying? Their figures distorted into a windshield of raindrops and clouds, and I turned and ran out of the room, unable to witness their betrayal a moment longer.
I’m being dramatic, I told myself, I am. That’s all it is. I’m seeing things that simply aren’t there. LeAnne would never. And neither would Buddy. I just need to catch my breath.
I pelted down the hallway. Lightning seemed to crash behind me, though the windows stayed glossy and dark. I could feel the lightning’s electric tingle sizzling over my scalp. The noise drove me forward, out the swinging wooden front door. The wind pushed my hair into my mouth and eyes. I stumbled on the slippery stone step, falling first to my knees, then forward, nose into dirt.
My hands cracked through a thin icy puddle. Scrambling up, I uselessly smoothed my dress down, as if I could ever get the black mud out with my ruined, shivering hands. As if I could ever make myself pure and pretty again.
Looking down through the lattice of frost starting on my damp eyelashes, the blue print of my skirt surprised me – I was sure I’d meant to wear my best white lace. It was a special night and Buddy loved me in white. I knew he loved me. He’d been my everything since the day he moved next door, when we were only six. It had taken ten years, but he’d finally figured out what I’d known all along – we were meant for each other.
I stumbled down the alley on the side of the building, headed for the parking lot. A sea of dark cars disappeared into the rain before me, some rounded with old-fashioned bumpers. Most were squared off, spiked with predatory fins. I flung myself against the stone building and stared, rough points of rock pressing into my back ribs as I heaved to inhale.
School parking lot is supposed to have the street lights turned on. So we can get home safe. How’m I s’posed to get home safe? I have to find my car. Only ‘51 model out there. Papa made sure. Got me the best. The newest. I’ll find it.
My dad ran the one car dealership in town, as well as the biggest auto repair shop. At some point, he’d morphed from basic street thug into respected business man, long before I was born. That particular night, homecoming night, he loaned me and Buddy the newest car on the lot – next year’s 1951 Ford-O-Matic station wagon.
I forced my eyes to focus and saw four 1951 Ford-O-Matic station wagons in the parking lot. Curvy, disjointed, but there.
That can’t be right. I’m seeing things, I decided, completely unsurprised that I might be delusional.
Then I remembered – I’d left my keys behind one of the bleachers at the dance, neatly tucked in my purse, beside my white wool coat. I had no way to start the car.
No matter, Papa taught me a thing or two. I swung open the door of the closest car, no longer caring whose or what it was, and slid into the long leather seat. No one locked their doors in Weston, West Virginia. Not in 1950.
First I adjusted the seat forward, yanking hard on the bar. I was sure that Buddy had driven us, first to dinner, then the dance. He was only a little taller than me, maybe 5’8” to my 5’5”, but the seat slid nearly a foot forward. It’d been so far back I couldn’t even reach the clutch.
Once close enough to the leather steering wheel, I unscrewed the silver ignition, laying bare the wires beneath. With a yank, I freed the one needed, slid it alongside it’s mate. A spark, a grumble, and the car rumbled to life. I fumbled the headlights on. They wavered weakly, casting a faint glow into the pouring wet darkness.
I pulled out of the alleyway. The rain beat into sleet and hammered the car. I shivered and watched the drops shatter on the windshield. I couldn’t figure out where the windshield wipers were. I couldn’t think, could barely see; the blood rushed in my ears like a hurricane.
I pulled in front of the building, leaving river and road and escape merely yards away and saw the little girl first.
Maybe eight, maybe ten, tiny, with loose long blonde hair held back with a headband like Alice In Wonderland, wearing a loose white nightgown that could have belonged to my grandmother. Her hand, little bigger than a doll’s, was raised to her eyes, as if blocking the glare of the headlights, or peering into the darkness to see me, sitting behind the wheel, barreling towards her.
My reaction happened in slow motion – I turned the wheel hard, sliding across icy mud, headlights arcing.
My heart exploded in my chest, knowing I’d made the wrong call.
Buddy stood directly in front of me, mere yards away. Both his arms reached forward, mouth wide as a cave. He wanted to tell me something, because his mouth kept moving as the car hit him, and his hands kept moving until they disappeared beneath the wheels.
We slid forward together, picking up speed on the slide downhill. I didn’t bother to brake. There was no point.
The car struck the tree with a sound like necks breaking. Branches snapped, tangling in the wipers and front grill of the car. But it didn’t slow us down enough; we kept going. Buddy flailed in front of the windshield, face streaked with blood and terror.
I didn’t hit the brakes, not even then. Frozen by shock, I let the car roll through the rain into the river as Buddy scraped up the hood of the car. His face slammed towards me until his skin exploded red as the windshield turned into a bloody spider web. But the windshield held, and Buddy’s mouth opened even wider, as if he was going to swallow the whole river with his scream.
There’d been talk of a flood, all week actually, as the storm built over Weston, West VA. The river surged, white froth up against the window of the Ford-O-Matic.
I let the water rise up through the baseboards, moving from my toes to ankles to knees and waist as the car sunk.
Instinct took over when the cold hit my chest like an ice hammer. I cranked the window down with a strength I didn’t know I possessed and crawled out into the black water.
Down I went, pulled by the suction of the car, until I kicked to the surface spluttering. Desperately, I gasped and grasped into the darkness for something, anything, to latch a hand onto, to stay afloat.
My arms slid around a solid form bobbing on the surface. I pulled myself half onto it, spitting water.
It’s a log, I told myself. Just a water-logged log. I almost giggled at my own ridiculousness.
It’s not Buddy. Not Buddy’s body. That’s bark, not the smooth fabric of his best black suit. That’s a knot on the tree, not the knot of his tie. And the thorn beneath my cheek is a bit of tangled vine, not his rose boutonniere.
I floated, near-drowned, for an eternity in the blackness, clinging to not-Buddy.
I killed my boyfriend. The thought rustled through my head like a poisonous snake. Sssssss. Killer.
No, no, I defy myself. It was the little girl. I nearly hit her. I had to miss her. I saved her life.
I let go of the log, suddenly too tired to hold my head above water. I felt heavy, heavier than stone, heavy as darkness. The black around me melted to deep purple as I squeezed my eyes tight and let my body empty of air.
My body betrayed me – some survival instinct kicking in from the base of my brain. Arms flailing, I gasped for air. Water rushed in. I coughed it out, which sent even more water deep into my lungs. I felt I was suffocating, falling, letting go….
The strong arm that yanked me out of the water was unwelcome, and rough.
“I got her!” a man called, far above me, up somewhere in the stars by the moon.
The light of the moon nearly drowned me a second time. I could hear sirens as I lay in his arms, limp as a frond, dizzyingly unsure. My eyelids fluttered, stuttered, until they choked high enough to see his profile – Byronic, stern, bold. I nearly swooned.
Then I vomited, viciously. It sprayed all the way back up into my hair. I flicked it back; my savior gagged.
“All right, girlie, try to keep those pretty locks out of my lungs,” he chuckled. “We don’t need to do this dance again. Just breathe, and we’ll have you safe in no time.”
A tall, Heathcliff-like, gorgeous man flickered in and out of my view as I blinked away the rain. Dark hair and a white smile against a sliver of moon. He near took my breath away.
When he flipped me on my side and let me spew river sludge onto the mud, I managed to recover my composure.
“What… the… hell? You oaf!” I spat at him, dribbling vile sewage down my chin. It came out sounding like “whatospell yoaf” as he looped his hands under my armpits and heaved me up out of the water.
“You’re okay, sweetie, you’re going to be okay. Just let me slide you up here on onto the bank.”
He pulled; I vomited yet again. Working together, I ended up on top of the bank, feeling bad and smelling worse. I tried to cover my mouth with my hand before I spoke.
“Cold. So cold.”
It came out clearly, which surprised me. Then the sweet man holding me took off his own coat (navy blue, wool, silver buttons) and wrapped it around me.
“Here you go, sweetie,” he murmured, looking up towards the steps approaching behind us, “stay warm if you can.”
The next voice was dry, like leaves dead before the wind rips them from trees to ground.
“Did you find her? Is she okay?”
She didn’t sound worried or upset, much more impatient and demanding.
“Yes,” the man’s voice answered, deep and rumbling, “She’s in shock. Swallowed some water. She’ll be okay.”
The woman – the one I had already labeled in my head as ‘Evil Governess’ – responded, “Fine, get her up to the hospital. Nurse Paula is on duty. I’ll talk to the police. We don’t need them asking questions.”
I barely processed what she said; the noise in my ears rushed like waves in the sea, or the current of the river I’d just been pulled out of.
“Should we call her parents?” my masculine savior asked. I let my eyes flutter open. He held me close. The old woman spoke, faceless but gray, stern, and severe, backlit by the rotating colors of cop cars.
“No need to trouble them. I’ll call them in the morning. We’ll take care of this. Yes?”
It was an order, not a question.
“Yes, ma’am” my savior replied.
He strode forward, steps secure, staggering only slightly under my weight. We reached the frame of a door of some sort – cold, stone, forbidding. He set me down and I leaned against the wall.
I started and stared. A mottled, gray face stared back at me, inches from my own. I grimaced at it, baring my teeth. It remained ugly and serene. I took a step back and staggered almost to my knees.
“That’s… a statue? It’s not real, right?”
The man who held me chuckled warmly. “No, of course not. Just some gargoyle. Bunch of them around here. Kinda part of the charm of the place, if you ask me,” his lips brushed my hair. “Don’t you worry.”
When the door swung open, the light behind it surprised me. There was a bustle and hustle of people – some in nurse and doctor uniforms, others in simple white pajamas, and a few dressed a lot like me – in something nice, like they were out for a movie, or dinner, or dancing.
To my right lay a sterile, plain hallway, brightly lit. To my left, everything was awash in a warm yellow light, barely illuminated, shining from reflected metal. And straight ahead – a flickering, shifting reality that left me queasy.
It all puzzled my eyes, and my brain, but I let it wash over me – what did it matter to me, anyway? I was being carried by the strongest, handsomest man I’d ever seen. Where I was didn’t matter all that much.
He turned down the right-side hallway. The brightness set glistening bubbles before me; I blinked them away. The strong jaw, so close to my lips, angled back in a peculiarly familiar way. Trying to look up, I fluttered again, in and out of consciousness, just enough to catch the crystal blue color of his eyes.
For a moment, I think I disappeared, completely lost in his gaze, fused with the opalescent fluorescence of the hallway lights. Then, a warm, motherly, welcoming voice nudged me back to reality.
“How’s she doing? We need to get her transferred to a bed, then stabilized. I’ve got a spot for her, just down the hall.”
A few soft, white rubber steps later, and my savior set me down onto a cool plastic bed. The other one, the she – it was definitely a she, all softness and maternal bosom – pulled the curtain closed.
“Just keep her steady for moment, ok? I’ll have something for her in a jiffy.”
I felt a gentle hand on my knee as I writhed and coughed, then her presence was gone. I whimpered.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” he leaned over me, breath warm and sweet, “You’ll be okay.”
I couldn’t help it. I cried out, “Buddy!”
“It’s okay,” he murmured. “It’s all going to be okay.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. I need my parents. The little girl. Buddy. I need to explain. I belong in jail. But no, I don’t, I didn’t mean to. I didn’t do it. The little girl. I didn’t see. How’s Buddy?”
“Shusssssh,” he leaned closer, pressing his lips to my forehead. “It’ll be okay. We’re all just here to take care of you. Don’t fret right now about Buddy, or anyone else. Just breathe. You nearly drowned.”
The warmth of his lips rang through my head like a bell, clearing my thoughts.
“Okay, okay,” I whimpered, letting him hold me.
The needle was large, it looked as thick as my pinky, though it really couldn’t have been. The glass above it held some yellow liquid.
“It’s just Barbital,” the man told me, trying to be soothing.
I fought back anyway, lackluster, like a dying protective instinct as he tried to wrestle my arm away.
Then the man grabbed it firmly, tilting the blue vein on the delicate underside upwards to him. A fierce prick entered my arm and the world shifted. Liquid gold ran through me, lighting up every nerve center in a brief flush of dawn, before dissolving to a strange grey placidity. The world, bathed for a moment in bright metallic rainbows, faded to nauseating sepia.
I choked back acid sewage, rising from the depths of my tumble in the river, as he turned me on my side.
I won’t puke. Not now, not again. I don’t know where I am, but I’m alive. I don’t know what’s happened, but I’ll find out. I won’t puke. I won’t puke.
I didn’t puke. Instead, the world melted into a fluid explosion of colors and light.
Barbital is magic, I told myself. Without remembering getting undressed, with no memory beyond choking down the bilge of the river, suddenly I was warm, wrapped up in a white cocoon of blankets. My wet hair smelled clean and was wrapped in a turban-like towel. Lying on my side, I faced into the room, letting my eyelids flicker occasionally. Just enough to see the red-headed middle aged nurse sitting quietly at a desk on the other side of the room, filling out paperwork. Her pen scratched, focused as a bird digging a worm from a grave.
I drifted in and out of pleasant unconsciousness for what could have been moments or hours, peaceful as Ophelia floating in her watery grave… except my watery grave had turned into a comfortable bed amidst the clouds because I’d been saved by a dark angel. It was a strange, uninterrupted, awkward bliss.
Until two orderlies dragged the other girl into the room, screaming and spitting.
I opened my eyes at the sound; she spit so ferociously that in my altered state I could almost hear it splash off the wall above my head.
Her bare foot, dirty and blue with cold, kicked inches from my face. A shrill screech built up in her skinny frame until it positively shook her ribcage then exploded out of her with the fury of a demon. It was like she existed in super Technicolor, surround sound, everything around her heightened and surging with dark energy.
The girl was close to my age – maybe a little older, a little younger, I didn’t know – what I did know was that she had silky mink curls, a sweet heart-shaped face, innocent white lace nightgown, and the face of the devil, contorted into fury.
I didn’t recognize the two male nurses who held her; they weren’t my Heathcliff, just average brutes in starched white. The same kind nurse that welcomed me raced to the girl, red bobbed hair quivering with concern.
“Here, honey, let’s give you a little something to help you feel better,” she crooned.
The girl wrenched an arm free, eyes wild. She grabbed for the nearest tray, brandishing a scalpel. She brought it first to her own wrist, slicing neatly down the length of it until blood welled in a fine red line, then overflowed, spilling onto the floor, staining her white nightgown crimson.
“I’ll make you feel better, I’ll take you places. Make you feel things. Unimaginable things.” she groaned in an otherworldly demon voice, “I’ll take you all the way to hell.”
With supernatural strength, the girl lashed out, grazing the maternal nurse on the cheek with the curved blade of the scalpel.
The girl laughed, a gurgled maniac noise that I’d never heard outside of nightmares.
“The demons are going to get you,” she screamed, “You’ll wish you’d never been born!”
For a moment, the male nurses were shocked into stillness – appalled perhaps at the violence embodied before them in such a sweet form, all brown curls and innocence.
Then, with quick brutality, they disarmed her and strapped her down. One of the nurses shoved a soft cotton towel as a gag into her mouth while the other strapped leather restraints on all limbs.
“Honey, we can’t let you do that,” the middle-aged female nurse soothed, “We’ll take care of you. No need for any of that.”
The girl before me pulled my attention to her like a rough, twisted rope. Her hair hung in gnarled strands, near-black with a slight hint of blue shimmer. Her eyes were solid and cold as sapphires. I felt, rather than heard her say, “She is coming for you. She is waiting. She is pleased.”
Then she was gone, dragged away by the two male nurses, sweating and straining. Her feet scraped loudly on the tiles, like she was digging in claws.
I stared after her, the corridor now an empty dark maw, until the maternal nurse stepped in front of me.
“Sorry you had to see all that, honey,” she said soothingly, gently smoothing my hair off my face. “Just close your eyes. Get a little rest. We’ll move you to somewhere quieter now, okay?”
The door opened behind her back and she stood abruptly.
“George,” she said, turning.
My Heathcliff stood there, jacket off, revealing a set of loose light blue scrubs. “What happened? I thought Kim was doing well.”
Kim? I wondered. Am I Kim? Is that my name? What happened to me?
“I know – I’m so sorry. After all the commotion, we did a headcount, just of everyone at the event. And she was missing. It appears while we’ve been reviving our little swimmer here, Kim got up to the clock tower somehow. Maggie found her standing there, screaming stuff like you just heard. Just completely off her rocker. Looked ‘bout ready to jump, that’s what Maggie said.”
“Humph,” the maternal nurse said. “Guess even Maggie’d recognize that as suicide, after what we just saw.” She sighed. “Never expected it of Kim. She was just in for depression. And now this?”
“Maggie did a really good job up there, helping Kim, all by herself. She’s going to make a good nurse, really.” George – that must be his name! I realized, excited, Though, Heathcliff sounded better, George will do. George. Solid, strong.
“If you say so,” she huffed back.
“Now, Paula,” George soothed, “Let’s just be grateful that everyone is going to be okay. We got to Kim in time. We’ll have Doc Jimmy take a look at her in the morning. Maybe she’s a good candidate for Dr. Freeman, rather than being sent to that awful place. He’ll be here tomorrow. They can both take a look at her. Maybe have them take a look at Rachel, too.”
“I’m not letting that man anywhere near Rachel. Kim… well, I guess we have to, after that display with the knife. But Rachel’s just hurting herself.”
“Paula…” George’s voice was soft, “I know how you feel. But having them take a look won’t hurt none. They’re the experts.”
Then I felt a hand, large, warm, masculine, rest on my shoulder as I lay curled on the bed, tight up in a ball on my side, facing the wall. It was him.
“Rachel, we’re just going down the hall, okay? Gonna set you up in a nice, quiet place. We need to clean up this mess and it’s nearly midnight – Nurse Paula here has to get her rest too.”
“Yes, dearie,” Paula added, her voice getting louder as she leaned in closer to me, “George is going to roll this whole bed with you in it just down the hall. We both have to get our beauty sleep, right? I’ll see you tomorrow, don’t you worry. George is working the rest of the night. He’ll keep an eye on you. You’ll be okay, honey.”
I heard the rails sliding up and the wheels unlocked. Opening my eyes, Paula gave me a little wave as George smiled down from up above my head.
The stretcher bed rolled; it sounded like the hollow echo of linoleum. Lights flashed in the ceiling as I moved swiftly underneath them – large, metal, cold institutional lights. Almost like the ones we had at Weston High, but even bigger, more industrial.
My eyes closed as we rolled steadily along, and I stayed in a tight fetal ball. I felt and heard the floor transition from linoleum, to wood, to carpet as the quality of the lights around me dimmed and warmed like they were candles in sconces.
Strangely, I could still hear actual lightning, almost closer this time than it had been when I was outside in the rain. I could hear the rain too, all around me. My skin felt strangely confused as well – I couldn’t tell if I was inside or out, continuously expecting to feel wet and finding myself surprised to be dry.
Then the gurney stopped with a slight jounce. I heard George speaking indistinctly to someone, from what sounded like eight feet away, as if he was far down a long tunnel or at the bottom of a well. I opened my eyes.
I didn’t see George – of course, he’d be at the head of the gurney, pushing, I realized. Instead, I indistinctly saw a girl about my own age sitting on a sofa. At first, my vision fuzzed like an out-of-focus TV, until finally the image steadied into weird faded shades of black and white and gray. But she was mesmerizing.
It’s lucky I’m facing the action, because I don’t think I’d be able to turn over right now. I decided, body strangely disconnected from my brain, inflated like the Michelin man in the signs hanging around Papa’s store, advertising tires.
The next image that occurred to me was even worse, like I was one of those large dinosaurs with tiny heads and huge balloon bodies, trying to waggle its tail when its head was a thousand feet away… I giggled a little at my own thoughts. I forced myself to focus on what George was saying to the beautiful girl before us.
“I was just asking if you’re okay, Nancy?” His voice was kind, warm, like he was talking to a frightened bird. “You look a little sad sitting out here on your own. Don’t you want to watch the movie?”
The girl replied, voice low. She was curled forward into herself in almost the same posture as me, except turned from horizontal to vertical – a seated fetal position, with her smooth black forehead nearly touching the pleats of her purple skirt.
“Got a little caught up in the movie, that’s all, nurse,” she replied calmly, slim black fingers tightening and loosening the pleats of her skirt, folding them compulsively up like a compressed accordion and then smoothing them out.
She was beautiful, with short cropped black curls that showed off the profile and skull of a young Cleopatra – that’s what I decided, that she reminded me of a bust of Cleopatra I had seen in a book once.
“Nancy, do you want to talk about it?” George asked. I heard his footsteps as he crossed around my head towards the girl – Nancy, I guessed, though I preferred Cleopatra – and sat down beside her on the small velvet loveseat.
Nancy startled like a rabbit in a trap, looking up at George’s handsome profile, eyes wide and fringed with lashes as long as a doll’s.
“I really am okay, really,” she said, voice higher and lighter, nervous. “It was only the one scene that bothers me. But maybe seeing the double feature was a little too much for me. Watching it all over again, right away, that was all, a little too much.”
“It’s okay, Nancy,” George replied, folding his hands over hers, helping Nancy release and unravel the fabric she’d been crushing. “A double showing of Frankenstein the week before Halloween might not have been the best idea. It’s sure getting everyone all riled up. Not just you. It’s okay, Nancy.”
Nancy nodded. I could see tears starting to fall, shining like diamonds against a dark sky.
“It was the little girl,” she said, like the words were being torn out of her chest, “The little girl did me in. The one the monster got. I had to leave then, slip off, by myself, you know? I lost my daughter, you know, gone, dead, no point in being afraid to say it…” she trailed off.
Her words swirled together in my head, as my brain caught onto two in particular. Daughter. Dead. DaughterDead. They tumbled together in my head in a sickening, swirling rhythm beating a drumbeat, slowly losing all sense of the meaning of the words. Daughterdeaddaughterdead…. I felt myself losing sight of George and Nancy, sitting in front of me. Instead, the image of Buddy and LeAnne, leaning together, Homecoming lovers, flashed before me like a breaking stream of film images, stuttered as strobe. I pulled myself back by closing my eyes, squeezing them tightly enough to cause white fireworks behind the lids.
With eyes closed, I saw myself, floating down the river, dead as the girl in Frankenstein. Not killed by a monster, no. Slain like Ophelia, I decided, coloring the image of myself with a spill of water lilies. That’s better, I decided, soothed.
I tuned their words back in like a scratchy radio.
“I’m so sorry. It was a terrible, terrible loss. Do you need help back to your room? I’m just taking Rachel here to somewhere she can rest, then I can be right back, how’s that sound.” George comforted Nancy.
Nancy flung her hands up, like pigeons startling.
“No, no need, thank you, George. Daddy’s working the weekend and he’s coming to get me.”
“That’s just great, Nancy,” George answered. “Me and Rachel will keep you company while you wait, if that’s okay? I could use the chance to rest my feet, it’s been a busy night.” He chuckled lightly, as if they were settling in to wait for a bus together.
I tried to speak then, unsure what I was trying to say. Maybe just a garbled greeting to the girl, who seemed so strange and yet familiar. Or to say George’s name. Maybe to say my own, to find if I’d figured it out yet. But the words garbled in my mouth, like I was trying to speak around a throat full of cotton.
George and Nancy turned away from me. Footsteps stopped inches past my feet. I couldn’t see over the lump of my own flesh curled up in the stretcher.
But the voice was educated, deep and kind.
“Hey, George, thank you for waiting with Nancy. I appreciate your thoughtfulness, keeping an eye out for my girl.”
“No problem, Doc Jimmy. She had a bit of an intense night. Startled by the film, that’s all.”
I saw Nancy stand, wobbling slightly. Then footsteps crossed to her and I saw a small dark man, mahogany to Nancy’s ebony, holding her up. He had the same delicately carved features as the girl and was barely three inches taller than her. But his voice resonated, assured,
“I’ll take her from here, George. You go on and finish up what you were doing.”
“Will do, Doc Jimmy,” George responded. He walked behind my head again and I felt the gurney unlock. “You’ll stop by and see her tomorrow, right?”
“Nancy? Of course. I’ll be on shift and will swing by as often as I can. You know that.”
“That’s not what I meant. You’ll be by to see her, right?”
“Oh, yes,” the doctor said, patting my shoulder with his free hand. “I’ll stop on by and have a chat with Miss Rachel here too. Don’t worry about that.”
“Thanks, Doc,” George answered, and we rolled away.
Within a few yards, the terrain changed yet again, like walking from a desert to an oasis to a pit. The hallway was dark, darker than the one we’d just come from. The soft rub of gurney wheels on carpet was replaced with the sensation of ice-skating across bathroom tile, slippery and loud.
I opened my eyes. The hall was lit by bare electric bulbs, swinging drunkenly from the ceiling. The windows in front of me were dark; heavy bars in front of the glass glinted like bared teeth.
The outside world felt locked off, inaccessible, which was either terrifying or the most comforting thing I’d felt in a long time.
On my other side, I rolled horizontally past closed doors – I could tell we stopped before an open one because I felt a small rush of cold air, a change in the vacuum around me, that made me aware that space gaped beside me.
George turned the gurney so I entered the room headfirst.
“Don’t worry about a thing, okay? Get some rest. I’ll buckle you in, how about that? Kinda like tucking you in, right? It’ll be okay.”
He crooned almost meaninglessly as he reached across me and pulled a heavy white cotton strap, like a piece of sailcloth, across me. Not too loose, not too tight, it was like fitting a jacket. I felt soothed by the pressure, and the kindness in George’s voice as he said,
“Rachel, I’ll check in on you in a few hours, okay?”
He was touching me. Calling me by name. This warmed me far more than the blankets. It was like a golden wave rising up within me, warming me from the inside out, from my very bones, a warmth deeper than that the spread by the needle into my veins.
He left then. The door closed with a metallic clang, followed by a smooth glide of metal on metal as the tumblers of the lock turned.
My last sight was a blurry rendition of Heathcliff- George’s – face, peering through a small pane of the glass at the top, distorted by chicken-wire.
Rachel, I acknowledged the name to myself. It sounded familiar. Right. I’m Rachel. Ophelia would have been better, like Heathcliff, but I’d take Rachel. It was a soothing rhythmic thought to fall asleep to; I repeated my name like a mantra, Rachel.
I woke to screams. It sounded like a girl shrieking in a shower stall. Cold horror echoed off the tiles that covered the walls, ceiling, and floor, but it came from at least twenty feet away. Perhaps the room next to mine?
I tried to sit up, forgetting that George had strapped me in earlier – minutes? Hours? Days? I was too groggy to know. The thick cotton restraints snapped me back like a bowstring rebounding after releasing an arrow. My head struck the flat, institutional pillow. The force of it threw my eyes open like shades flying up.
I turned my head towards the sudden light. It flickered like a strip of film. I shook my head to clear my eyes, and the scene before me vibrated with my gaze, side to side, then up and down, spinning into clarity like a black and white kaleidoscope.
I was sure I was in a treatment room, by both the placement of the door and color of the tile – a light yellow, caught between cheerful and mocking. I hadn’t seen the drain in the floor before but checking the edges of the flickering vision I possessed showed me that it was there, a few inches away from me, close to the door.
Sitting behind the drain was a chair and sitting on the chair was a man. At least, I thought it was a man. He was so covered in dirt, hair tangled as straw, clothing ripped and ragged that he could have been a scarecrow. He was strapped into the chair, a barebones wooden monstrosity, accessorized by metal loops that ran along his forehead, shoulders, hips, thighs and ankles. The restraints were steel, or iron, but still shook with the fury of the man’s struggle. The wood strained as the man’s pale blue eyes popped.
He growled with the voice of a demon, just like the girl had spoken:
“She’s coming. I can hear her, can’t you hear her, Doc?”
Startling me, the man he actually addressed suddenly stepped into frame.
It was a doctor, wearing white shirtsleeves under a tweedy vest. The sleeves puffed slightly where he’d rolled them up away from narrow wrists. A watch fob dangled down from his vest pocket and he absentmindedly stuffed the swinging timepiece back in with his left hand, as if he’d just been checking the time. He held what looked like a railroad tie in his right hand, angled outwards, thick sharp tip pointing towards the writhing scarecrow.
“I understand, dear sir, I do. You’ll be feeling better in no time. I can help you.”
The scarecrow’s eyes went dark with fear – I was sure they’d been blue, but now were black pools, as if the man’s pupils had expanded all the way to the edge of his lashes, no white at all. Then the sharp object descended. I could almost feel it thrusting into my skull.
A crack shot through the picture before me, like a television changing channels. It coalesced into a little girl, dressed in an old-fashioned white dress with Alice-In-Wonderland hair, a blonde angel all wrapped in a bow. I stared at her. It was the little girl from the dance, from the road, from the crash, before the river, before I ended up here strapped into a bed god-knows-where. The one who’d started it all, the one I’d swerved to miss. The one I’d killed Buddy to save. She walked towards me, her eyes getting huger and darker until I felt myself sickeningly poised above an endless dark gorge, teetering on the edge.
A flash, like a camera going off. The little girl dissolved into mist as the door to my room opened. George stood outlined, scrubs backlit by the hallway bulb.
“Hey, Rachel,” he whispered, “I hope Kim didn’t wake you up. She’s been screaming and screaming. I wanted to check on you. How’re you doing?”
“I’m okay,” I murmured back, as he approached. I wanted to wipe the tiny bit of drool from the side of my chin that came with the words, but I couldn’t move my arm. I also wondered a little why he was talking to me if he truly thought I was asleep. Wouldn’t that just wake me up? Then I decided I didn’t care. He was here, and he’d saved me from the tricks my mind was playing on me. That had to be what it was. Just a trick of my brain. It’d been a horrible horrible night; no wonder I was having nightmares.
“That’s good,” George said, drawing up alongside me. A bit of glass and metal glinted in his hand. “I’ve got an extra bit of the good stuff for you. Only needed to give Kim two syringes to settle her down and I had three prepped. Might help you settle down a bit too, get some real rest.”
I heard the plunger depress before the sensation of the needle entering my skin penetrated the fog in my head. It made a satisfying chunk as the metal of the plunger made contact with the far end of the glass cylinder. The golden warmth of Barbital flooded my blood.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Saturday, 24 October 1953
9:00 – Breakfast
12:00 – Lunch
2:00 – Therapy (Private or Group)
6:00 – Dinner
10:00 – Bedtime
I woke when the door opened, and the light changed. It registered on my eyelids with the intensity of the sun in contrast to the 60-watt bare bulb illumination of the night before. I blinked, pushing my eyes open like rolling a rock from in front of a cave. The night before seemed a mess of scattered images. I had woken from a blackout into the clarity of a new day. My mind felt rested and steady.
A young woman stood over me. She was pretty as a movie ingénue, complete with button nose and blonde ponytail. Her expression, though, belonged on a gargoyle. At least for a moment. When she saw my eyes were open and that I was looking at her, she composed her face into the picture of sweetness.
“Let me just loosen those straps for you, Rachel. George does like to make things snug, doesn’t he? Ugh, this is tough. He’s very strong. There we go,” she said, her voice sing song, like she was talking to a toddler. “Now, upsy daisy! Let’s get you moved and settled in.”
I felt drained and weak, though the world was mercifully steady and bright. My mind was clear, really, if a little dazed.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“Silly girl, you’re where you can get better. You’re in the hospital. You know that. Now, come along.”
“Who are you?” I asked next, thinking it only fair that if she knew my name, I should know hers. Did I know hers? She seemed vaguely familiar.
“I’m Maggie, sweetie. Nurse in training. Don’t you worry about that though, okay? See if you can sit up.”
Using one hand, I leveraged myself up to sitting, letting my legs dangle off the gurney. The room shifted slightly on its axis but then held solid.
“Good job! Now, I’ve got a robe and some slippers for you. Pop these on and we’ll get you standing.”
Looking down, I saw my feet swaddled in white cotton socks beneath a hospital gown printed in faded, tiny blue diamonds. Maggie slid a floppy pair of house shoes onto my feet as I shrugged into a waffled cotton robe, threadbare at the elbows but comforting as a baby blanket. Maggie helped me stand, awkwardly supporting one of my arms and letting me lean against her hip for a moment before she pressed me upright with the effort of someone lifting the leaning tower of Pisa erect.
“There you go!” she encouraged, “You’ve got it! Can you walk? Yes, of course you can, that’s a good girl. Come along now. I need to get you settled before 11 am so I can take my break. You don’t want me missing my break, do you? It’s been a long few days, let me tell you that.” She talked as she walked out the door, into the hallway.
Like I had expected from last night’s gurney roll, the hallway was windows on one side and doors on the other. The windows were bright with wintry sunshine, however, which lit up the metal bars and the made the tiled floors shine.
A fierce pressure in my bladder halted me.
“Wait, wait,” I moaned, “Maggie? Can I use the bathroom? It’s been, well, a really long time.”
A flicker of irritation passed over her bland beauty. “Okay, I guess, but make it quick, okay? It’s almost 11 already, and I’ve not got much time.”
Maggie turned left so hard in front of me that I nearly staggered into her, but she walked right past, gesturing to two doors at the end of the hallway. I had been in the last room at the far end – on the wall perpendicular to my room was a plain wooden door, like a closet or the bathroom back home, and a half door, also wood, that swung like an old time Western saloon.
Instinctively, I reached for the door knob of the full door. I had it open before Maggie could stop me.
It looked like a janitor’s closet, stacked with brooms, buckets, and Borax. I couldn’t figure out why she slammed it so quickly. The only thing that seemed remotely odd was a small metal door, the size a gnome would use, right smack in the middle of the back wall of the closet. I gaped at her.
“Not that door,” the irritation had spread to her voice. “That one.” She waved a hand at the half door, then glanced down the hallway to the far end. I followed her gaze.
Everything seemed very far away, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I squinted. Two boys about my age sat on a couch a few feet away from a large reception desk. Behind the desk stood a solid-looking woman in a white nurse’s outfit, complete with cap and orthopedic shoes. I hadn’t noticed the desk at all, but recognized the velvet couch as the one where Nancy had perched.
The imposing woman behind the desk beckoned. I looked around, confused. Maggie nodded and waved back.
“Now, Rachel, you be an extra good girl, okay? I’m supposed to go into the bathroom with you on the isolation floor, but I see the head nurse wants to speak to me. So, I’m going to pop down there to the front desk and you follow me right directly when you’re done, hear?” She gave me a shove through the door and patted my arm absently before turning, shrinking rapidly to ant size as she walked away.
I stumbled through the door into another tiled monstrosity, filled with more half-doors that barely covered the toilets they were supposed to hide. The wall closest to me had half a dozen white porcelain sinks, scraped and faded and scratched; the far wall was entirely covered in shower nozzles. I used one of the toilets with great relief, feeling it cold against my thighs. I scootched my plain white underwear up and hospital gown and robe back down and walked to the middle sink.
It was surmounted by a once-shiny piece of reflective metal, like a serving tray hammered into the tile, rather than a glass mirror. My face stared back at me, wide-eyed through the tarnish. I was pale, ghostlike, with dark wavy hair falling past my shoulders and green eyes. I reached a hand up to touch my chin, pointy at the tip of a heart-shaped face and watched my doppelganger do likewise.
“I look like Vivien Leigh,” I told myself, pleased. “Like Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. That’s not bad, looking like Scarlett O’Hara. I can live with that.”
Stepping back, I tried to see the rest of me, then gave up and looked down, pulling my robe and gown away. My body looked deflated, a little scrawny, like I had once had pneumatic curves but someone had let the air out. I let the material fall away. It was far more pleasant to look at my face, so I did, leaning in and staring, fascinated.
The tile beneath my feet had radiated cold through the thin slippers and cotton socks. It warmed in degrees, like someone was turning up a radiator. For the first few seconds, I barely noticed. Then the temperature ratcheted up past comfort so far that it felt like I was standing on a scalding hot stove. I jumped back, startled, but my eyes didn’t leave the metal mirror. That’s when I saw him standing in the far corner of the showers.
The man was about my dad’s age, maybe in his forties, with long, stringy, wet hair. Steam rose around him and water coursed down his body. He was naked, red as a lobster, screaming without sound. I saw the water pooling on the tile around him, but my feet remained hot and dry. His eyes turned to me, brown and pleading at first, then dissolving into black emptiness. The only thing I heard, besides the pounding of my heart, was a slight sizzle in the air, like grilling meat. The scene shook then, like a filmstrip, like the visions from the night before.
I backed away slowly, moving through the swinging door without turning away even the slightest, holding his black gaze.
I kept walking that way even after I had passed into the hallway, somehow unable to turn my back on what I had witnessed. I walked down the entire hallway backwards, more afraid of the bathroom than running into walls or doors or living people. Because I knew in the animal part of my gut that instinctively registered life, death, threat, predators and prey, that the man I had just seen, like the one from the night before, wasn’t living. Not anymore.
Walking backwards was disorienting, but I’m not sure it mattered on top of how I was feeling. Between the shock of another vision, and the strange familiar-but-not hallway, I felt like I was balanced on a small ledge dangling over a large drop. I knew I had been down the hallway just the night before, but it was more than that. The very doors looked familiar – with their chalkboards and numbers, hollowed out by a small central window covered in chicken wire. All were closed and empty, the chalkboards bare, except for one. It was the last one, I could feel the open air of the reception area with its carpets and sconces behind me. I stopped in front of it for a moment, remembering.
Was it a class trip? Did we visit a museum or something? No. I know. It was the bookmobile, with Ma, during the summers. I went with her everywhere. Out to the hospital, even the polio wards, and the asylum, the senior center, some of the real rural farms, the glass factory… we brought books everywhere in this town. I figured I’d seen more of Weston than anyone my age, considering how everyone else was all locked up in their cliques and teams and small little lives. I’d spent hours with books, seeing the whole world, and with Ma, bringing the world to everyone else.
I’d been here before. I knew that. And maybe even in that very room – the one right in front of me, at the end of the hall. I wondered if I’d brought books to the inhabitant – or inhabitants – of Room 641. There was a name written on the chalkboard – Kim R. – and a mad, drawn face centered in the window, behind the chicken wire. It was the girl from the previous night, the one who’d been screaming like she was possessed and carried away by two large male nurses. Now, her mouth plastered against the window in an ‘O,’ she still looked quite mad, but not possessed. Not manic, or screaming, or spitting strangeness about the devil. Instead, she was strangely calm, staring at me like a goldfish stuck to the side of its bowl, eyes wide and black, lips pressed to glass. I took two hurried steps backward, feeling relief as my slipper contacted the carpet, as if it was safe, as if it was solid ground.
I turned around. The reception desk and velvet couch was only a hundred feet away. The reception desk was empty – both the stolid nurse and the flighty Maggie were nowhere to be seen. The two boys were still there. And both staring at me. Like I was the crazy one, walking down the hallway backwards. They might have a point, I thought suddenly.
One of the boys, the older, taller one, pulled my attention then. He had wild bouffant hair that my Pa would have declared “way too long for a decent American man,” but in such a very comforting shade of brown, like walnuts or maple syrup. His eyes one shade deeper – molasses rather than maple, and they darted everywhere, settling first like a hummingbird on wall behind me, then to the left of me, and above me at the plastered arched ceiling, before finally resting on me, light as the kiss of a butterfly.
The other boy was much smaller and younger. He vibrated like a contained, compact earthquake, setting his curly black hair and thick brows trembling. He wore a knit cardigan over corduroy overalls. On top of the overalls was a complicated system of leather and metal bracing his legs. It looked like what I’d seen on polio patients at the hospital when Ma and I delivered books to the wards.
“I’m Jude,” he declared, springing his hand out to me like a jack-in-the-box. “Nurse Maggie said I was to show you guys to your rooms.”
He blushed a little saying that, and his eyes took on a slight softness. He likes the nurse, I realized, my own thoughts coming from very far away, floating towards me like a bubble. The tall guy, who’s the tall guy? I mused, shaking Jude’s hand. He’s… different.
“I’m Rachel.” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” he replied, lowering his eyebrows. “Andrew here is new, and Nurse Maggie said I’m to take you up to our wing.”
“Our wing?” I repeated like an echo.
“Yeah, the kids wing. Follow me.”
Jude reached down and unlocked his braces. The other boy, Andrew, picked up his duffle bag and slung it across his back. Jude stared at him.
“Is that all your stuff?” he asked, disbelieving.
Andrew shrugged without looking up, only eyebrows and shoulders lifting.
“Don’t need much,” he muttered.
We started up a curving, grand wooden staircase. Jude talked while he walked, stiffly, swinging first one leg up a step, before using a hand to lever himself up high up to swing his other leg onto the next step.
“Andrew, you are in luck. I know everything there is to know about this place. Been here since I was just a kid.”
“You look like a kid now,” I said.
“That’s just because you’re ancient,” Jude replied, smiling at me.
“Ancient? I’m sixteen!” I declared.
“Sure you are,” Jude said, losing interest. “Anyway, Andrew, this place was built around the Civil War. Big deal for the town, since you’re not from around here, wouldn’t expect you to know. Lots of town folks working here. My folks used to.”
He paused. Andrew didn’t speak, so I did, to fill the silence.
“They don’t work here anymore?”
“They left me here. Took off, at some point. They were just cleaning staff. Got me taken in, got the state’s care when I got sick. Then they… were gone. This is my home and my school and my hospital. Because of these,” he finished, gesturing to his legs.
“Polio?” I asked, remembering the terror of the past few years. A bunch of kids had gotten sick. Some had made it. Some didn’t.
“Yup. Got it when I was little. Never supposed to survive. Parents left me here. I’m not sure if it’s because they couldn’t afford treatment, or that they couldn’t see me suffer.” He gulped air, stifled it as a hiccup, turning his tone casual. “I like to think they couldn’t bear to watch what happened next.”
I couldn’t help myself. As we slowly climbed, I asked, “It was pretty bad?”
“Bad enough.” Jude said. He was silent for a moment, then a huge smile lifted his face like a rising sun. “But God saved me. He has plans for me.” Jude whispered, smile growing even wider, eyes alight “I’m to be an angel, you see.”
I was taken aback. Did he really think that? Could he really think that? An angel? I looked him up and down. He looked like a little boy, small, dark, determined. We’d reached the first landing of the stairs. It opened out into a wide-open space beautifully lit with warm, colored glass lamps that dotted charming tables beside velvet couches. The walls were lined with portraits and landscapes, all tranquil.
I looked up and down the hallway. Some of the doors opened to ornate offices; some were closed. There was no chicken wire, but looking harder, I could still see bars on the windows.
“What’s up with all the bars on the windows?” I asked Jude, trying to change the subject.
Jude stopped walking. I almost ran into him. He locked one brace and spun on his other heel to face me, letting his straight leg follow like a dancer turning. He was breathing hard and his color wasn’t good – a little waxy, like a half-melted candle. But he spoke with good cheer still.
“You don’t remember the bars on the windows? I thought you spent a bunch of time here, with your Ma and all.” He winked at me.
“I did, I did. It’s just… all muddled.” I shrugged. Andrew had stopped just behind me, eyes directed stolidly to the floor, though I could swear his long, elfin ears had been taking every word we said in.
Jude unlocked his brace and started walking again, up the second flight of stairs, tread heavy for such a small boy. “It’s not all the rooms.” He smiled a little to himself. “Who am I kidding? It’s all the patient rooms. Only place without are the staff quarters. Not even the Director’s office has regular windows – they’re worried we’ll fling ourselves out the window in the middle of talking to that witch.”
I thought of the gaunt, gray woman who had been with George when I’d been pulled out of the river.
“The Director… does she look like a witch? I mean, like one from Grimm’s fairy tales. Or the evil stepmother? That’s really who she looks like, the evil stepmother.”
Jude nodded, entire body vibrating with the vigor of his curls bouncing around his head. “That’s her. Evil stepmother. Always liked that image. Good one, Rachel. All their offices are down there, that floor we just passed. That reminds me, Doc Jimmy wants to see you after lunch.”
“Oh, okay. Okay.” I wondered who Doc Jimmy was. Wait – I remember him. He was the compact black doctor who’d taken Nancy to her room last night.
“Do you remember how to get there?” Jude asked, still climbing determinedly. We’d passed another floor, this time more hospital-like, but continued on upwards.
“I…I think so,” I said, figuring it was just down a few flights of stairs. I could find his office on the floor, right?
We mounted the final set of stairs in near-silence, gently punctuated by Jude’s gasping breaths.
The fourth floor was a cross between the hospital-like environment of previous floors, and the hominess of the offices. We walked out into a common room, crowded with backgammon tables and books. There were so many spindly wooden chairs stuffed into the space that it looked like a bare forest of trees, entirely devoid of life.
The hallways were empty also. “Everyone’s in group,” Jude explained, hobbling to the right. He stopped within about two feet at the first door on the right.
“This is yours, Rachel. I’ve gotta take Andrew across the way to the boys’ wing. Maggie said you’re just supposed to wait for the lunch bell and come to the common room then.”
I nodded but didn’t move. Jude looked at me with a remarkably mature expression of exasperation for such a small, young face. “Here you go, my lady,” he said, rolling his eyes and swinging open the door, “see you soon.”
I followed his gesture into the room and heard the door close behind me. I could hear the boys walking away, Andrew’s shuffle softening the steady thump of Jude’s braces. My head felt clearer; the walk up the stairs had done me good, as had meeting the boys. I felt better than I had since… well, since I could remember. I looked around the room.
One side held a stripped metal frame bed, with two boxes stacked in the center of it, both labeled K.R. Beneath the barred window was one long desk with two chairs, one at each end. The desk was entirely bare on one side. The other side held other treasures, though – books! A full row running along the backside of the desk, and two tall stacks at the far end. One stack was hardbound, the other consisted of cheap paperbacks; all were well-worn. I ran my finger along the spines all in a row, like shaking hands with old friends. Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, the Bronte sisters. I could remember the plot and details of every volume. Especially one particularly tattered paperback, Daphne DuMaurier’s, Rebecca. Beside it sat an unfamiliar one of hers, My Cousin Rachel, though equally as well-read. Must have got that one secondhand, I decided.
There was a bed on what I presumed was my side as well. It had to be my side. Those were my books, I was sure of it – except for that other DuMaurier – all I could assume was that my parents had brought some of my things over while I was asleep that morning. They must have handled the paperwork and settled me in. The thought made me feel a little sad, that they hadn’t come to see me. That they’d left me here like this. They must not have wanted to wake me. Or maybe they couldn’t I was on a lot of medicine, I reasoned.
I eyed the bed which combined pancake-like mattress with rough white sheets, though it had a mercifully thick blue wool blanket. I sat heavily down, feeling as though all the weight of my body had suddenly settled in my knees and stayed upright for only a moment before letting myself simply tip over, landing ear first. With a groan, I swung my legs up and over and turned on my side. Through the thin institutional pillow, I felt a flat, hard corner. Sliding my hand underneath, I pulled out a book.
No, not entirely a book. More like a manuscript. Well, somewhere in between. It had a plain paper cover and with “Publisher’s Copy” emblazoned in red ink on the front.
Intrigued, I opened the simple cardboard front. There was handwriting on the first page, a looping masculine hand. The words were surrounded by a buoyant, casual heart shape, like an exuberant hug.
I know how you love your spooooooooky novels. My brother got an early copy of this – it’s sure to be the next big thing. Tell me all about it when you’re done!
- George. My savior from the river, who’d carried me from certain death to safety. I held the book against my heart for a moment, thrilled.
I wonder how he knew that I liked this sort of thing? Oh, of course, he saw all the books in my room! But how did he have time to get it for me? Maybe he just had it lying around. I decided, more intrigued than curious. There was a dog-eared page, presumably a bookmark a few chapters in that I yanked out and set down. I didn’t care who had read the book before me. It was mine now. A gift from my Heathcliff.
I opened the book and started to read.
“Later that summer, when Mrs. Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the fern Grammar School picnic, was the last time had she known contentment or felt peace…”
I read half the book, gobbling it up like it was food and I was starving. It was about a little girl, named Rhoda Penmark, only eight years old. She murdered a bunch of people and a dog. I was struck by the description of her having straight fine brown hair tied in looped braids like ‘thin hangman’s nooses.’ I shuddered suddenly, closing the book on my thumb, absent-mindedly dog-earing the page I was at, thinking of the little girl I had swerved to avoid. That little girl had looked so innocent, almost angelic. Far more angelic than little Jude, whatever he thought of himself. I resolved to ask someone about her; she had to be from around here. If she was from town, I wouldn’t necessarily know her – I didn’t keep up with all the kids. The town had grown a lot in the past few years, what with the glass factory coming. I wanted to make sure she was okay.
A bell rolled through the building, starting from right by my bed in fact. It sounded large as the Liberty bell, loud enough that my head echoed. Quick light footsteps streamed by my door. Someone knocked and said in a rushed child’s voice,
“C’mon, it’s lunchtime, open your door. No one eats until everyone is accounted for, and I’m starving!”
I swung out of bed and opened the door, tossing the book onto the bed. Whoever had spoken was already gone. I could see a huddle of kids growing by the common room and walked down to join them, closing my door behind me.
Jude stood, braces locked at the first table in the common room. When he saw me, he waved wildly, hair standing almost straight up, smile manically wide. Andrew sat beside him. Even seated, Andrew had such a long torso that he was almost as tall as Jude. I pushed through the crowd – most of the kids seemed younger than me, except for Andrew – and sat next to him. Jude seemed to be mid-stream in his conversational flow, as if he’d been talking since he’d left me at my room. He might have been, I decided.
“Now, Andrew, you know Rachel of course, from earlier. You guys are old friends by now, right?” Jude laughed. “There’s a few others that’ll be joining us for lunch this morning. I’ll let you know who everyone is, how does that sound?”
Jude himself sounded how I imagined a carnival barker would, like he was selling Andrew on the wonders of the hospital. Andrew nodded.
“Thanks,” was all he said, “I find people… confusing.”
Jude patted Andrew solidly on the shoulder in a very man-to-man fashion, only slightly marred by the fact that Jude barely reached Andrew’s shoulder, even when the taller boy was seated. Andrew startled like deer. Jude continued, either pretending not to notice Andrew’s reaction, or actually without noticing it; I couldn’t tell.
“Don’t be worried, they’re okay. Perfectly nice people, simply lost privileges for the dining room. And you, because you’re new and all. They want to keep a closer eye on a few of us, yeah?”
Andrew had settled back in his seat after his startle, and now sat calmly, looking straight ahead. His eyes flickered as if he was playing pinball though, so as never to meet anyone else’s, no matter the crowd.
“I get that. I’ve done my research. Practically did a first year in med school on all my own, back home, before Mom died. Cancer. I learned all I could, but no one would listen to me, and there wasn’t anything the doctors could do….” He trailed off.
Jude’s eyes flickered, like he was registering something, filing it away. “Interesting,” was all Jude said. He’d been distracted – sometime during that conversation, a girl had taken the seat directly across from Andrew. She was a few years younger than me, maybe 13 or so, and stocky. She sat curled into herself like a Nautilus shell, chewing on a piece of frayed hair. I could barely see her through the brown haystack covering her face, but it looked like her cheekbones were stretched out wide, and her eyes were narrow almonds.
Jude waved a hand towards the girl.
“That’s Alice. She’s great. Talks a little funny. Not as good as you and me, right? She threw a tantrum this morning. Screaming and kicking like crazy person, eh?” Jude smiled and elbowed Andrew, who didn’t smile back.
Jude continued without registering Andrew’s lack of humor, because right then another girl joined us. She slid cozily into the seat next to me and sat quietly, hands folded in her lap, eyes downcast, tranquil as a Madonna.
“Heya, Nancy, how’re you doing today?” Jude said, leaning across both Andrew and me to tap the girl’s wrist. Andrew shifted so far back in his chair I feared he’d tip over entirely. I let the boy’s hand pass in front of me. It wobbled in and out of focus for a moment, and my chest compressed slightly. I saw Nancy flinch as well, beside me. None of the three of us dealt with touch as well as Jude did.
“I’m fine,” she replied, voice lighter and breathier than it had been the night before. “Papa spent some time with me, gave me something to help me sleep. I’m doing better.”
“Why are you here, then?” asked Andrew, like he was trying to file away her information appropriately, and she didn’t fit the category he wanted to assign her. “If you aren’t new, and you didn’t do anything bad, why are you eating in the common room rather than the dining room?”
“I always eat here,” Nancy replied. “Keeps me safe.”
Andrew looked confused. Jude sat down next to Andrew then, unlocking his braces and scraping the chair forward. “Cuz she’s black,” Jude explained straightforwardly. “Only one here right now. Test balloon for integration, I heard the Director say. Doc Jimmy came on staff across the way so he could get the best for Nancy. But they worry about letting her eat in the dining room. But we don’t mind, do we, Nancy?”
She smiled at the younger boy, her face creasing into a motherly pride. “No, we don’t mind at all, little Jude. We do just fine as the regular clientele of the Common Room Cafe.”
Jude grinned back. “I prefer the Bistro de Asylum. Sounds much more fancy.”
“You been reading those magazines again?” asked Nancy. “All about roaming the world and living the life of luxury?” Her tone was light, but also wary. “You know it always make you upset.”
Jude shrugged, face falling. “I’m fine. Took myself for a little walk. Got it out of my system.”
Nancy looked at me, eyes wet and wide, framed in long lashes. “Jude’s not supposed to be traipsing around like that. Why’d you let him?”
I stared at her, puzzled. “I didn’t let him do anything. I just met him. He said Nurse Maggie told him to take us up to our wing.”
“Unh hunh,” Nancy said knowingly, “Nurse Maggie was trying to get a long lunch again.” She paused, considering. “Though that was smart of her. Gets him back in the wing feeling good about himself and gets her some more time to make eyes at Nurse George.” Nancy harrumphed a little, back in her throat, like the growl of a mama bear. “Anyway, Andrew,” Nancy said, turning her focus to the boy beside me. Andrew shrunk a little into himself, eyes on the table, but nodded to indicate he was listening. “Jude always stays up here with me. To keep me company.”
Jude added, wryly, “And because I’m not supposed to be going up and down the stairs. That’s what she’s not saying. But I get to reading my National Geographic and next thing I know, I have to go exploring, even if it’s only down to the first-floor lobby.” He looked at the three of us equally, pleading. “I can’t stay here my whole life. On this floor. Going nowhere. Now can I?”
I shook my head, appalled. “How long have been here again?”
Jude looked at me strangely, head tilted. “Told you. Forever. I get down the stairs a few times a year. Everyone always has a fit when I do.”
“But otherwise, you’re here, on this floor, all the time?” I couldn’t keep the disbelief out of my voice.
“Ummm, yeah,” Jude responded, attention distracted as the hallway finally emptied. “Hey, we should get down the hall to pick up our trays. Everyone else is gone which means our food’s on the way.”
He stood laboriously. Andrew didn’t offer help, pulling away slightly, and I doubted Jude would have accepted it. Alice stayed in her seat, sullen. Nancy stood and followed Jude down the hall. As she passed the small girl, Nancy leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Don’t you worry, sweetie. I’ll bring yours.” Alice gave a tiny nod, shaking her ragged hair. Nancy beckoned to me.
“C’mon, we gotta get our own.”
I followed. Andrew trailed after us all; I could hear his sneakers scuffing on the linoleum behind me.
We went all the way down the hall opposite mine. I assumed it was the boys’ hall. All the doors had name tags, like Mike and Stevie and Nicky. Jude’s name was written on faded, yellowed paper on one door. Below it was a new label – Andrew. Looked like they were rooming together.
We stopped at the far end of the corridor, beside an open door into a closet very like the one I’d seen on the first floor earlier that morning. I realized I was probably three stories up from that very room in the isolation wing. The walls here weren’t tile, but they were painted the same yellow, like rancid butter. The doors were painted white, solid, with no chicken wire windows. And the floors felt soft, mixing weathered wood with thick carpets. Unlike the staff floor that we had passed, the rugs were scattered here. We stepped onto boards to reach the closet, squishy as if termite-ridden.
The young nurse, Maggie, stood beside George, who was operating a winch system. It squealed like an angry pig. Maggie giggled and ran her hand along George’s arm from his shoulder to elbow. The silhouette of Buddy and LeAnne flashed before me, leaning like lovers at the dance. I pushed the image down. I couldn’t think about that. I just couldn’t.
George called to us once we were a few feet away.
“Hey guys, come and get it!” His voice was confident as he turned to pull a tray out from the dumbwaiter, shaking off Maggie’s hand as he did. I felt a thrill of satisfaction at the disappointment on her vacant ingénue face.
George handed the first tray to Jude, who didn’t even stop, just loped off holding the tray in one hand as he started his slow walk back to the common room. The next tray went to Nancy, who received it like a queen. I was sure I caught Maggie glaring at Nancy, like the black girl was just a bit too pretty for Maggie’s liking. It reminded me of how I used to look at the cheer leaders and popular girls in school. I didn’t want to think about that either.
It was my turn next. I took my tray form George. He winked at me and my hand shook, enough to rattle the plastic cover. He reached out a solid hand to steady mine. I could feel the warmth of the air between our fingers. I pulled my hand back, and the cover slid off entirely, crashing to the floor. The smell of overcooked green beans made me gag. George bent over to pick up the cover and I had escaped down the hallway before he stood again.
Jude had returned to the same table to eat. Nancy was picking at her sandwich, pulling it apart to eat each bite in a discreet nibble. Jude tore into his. Andrew studied his sandwich and green beans for a moment, before using a spoon to relocate an errant bean that was touching his sandwich. Then he used the edge of the spoon to neatly trim the crusts off before eating the sandwich itself. Alice had joined us. She was eating steadily and methodically, working through her sandwich like it was a cob of corn, before eating the green beans one by one, using her fingers delicately.
I stared at my lunch, completely turned off by the smell of beans. I poked at the bread, which compressed strangely. Picking up the top slide, I stared at the baloney. It had a strange, oily opalescent sheen to it. There was a banana on one side of the plate. I picked that up and peeled it back an inch, broke off a piece of banana, and held it in my mouth, letting the sweet starchiness dissolve on my tongue.
Once it was gone, I spoke, pitching my voice a little louder over the chewing. Apparently, Jude couldn’t keep his mouth closed while eating. I tried not to look.
“Do any of you know a girl, blonde, maybe 10 or so? Long hair? Does that sound lie one of the kids on the floor?”
Jude choked on his sandwich, coughing until his face strained red. Andrew stared at him, raising one hand awkwardly as if to pound on the younger boy’s back. Jude shook his head, managed to swallow, and replied.
“There was a girl like that here. Why do you ask?”
“I saw her last night. Nearly hit her with a car. I was hoping to talk to her, make sure she’s okay.”
Nancy looked up from her meal, eyes streaming tears, silent and elegant in her grief. Then she stood and fled down the hall, leaving her tray half-full. Jude shrugged and reached for her sandwich.
“Nancy’s awfully sensitive. Especially about dead kids.”
“Dead. That little girl died years and years and years ago. Some kind of accident. Sometimes people see her. People see a lot of things around here. It’s a pretty haunted building, if you’re sensitive to it. Been around a long time.”
Andrew set down his utensil, aligning it diagonally across his plate.
“Interesting,” he said.
I waited for him to continue. He didn’t. Just picked up his fork and speared another green bean.
“Why do you care?” Jude asked, though his voice was kind and surprised.
Andrew tapped the plate three times with his fork.
“I’ve done some reading,” he said. “Since my mom died.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, letting my shoulder nudge his, trying to be comforting. He pulled back like I was on fire. “I’m sorry,” I repeated, meaning for touching him. Andrew nodded without looking at me.
“Did you talk to her?” he asked.
“The dead girl.”
“No,” I answered, then added, “not yet.”
Jude looked at me, raising one eyebrow inquisitively. “I’ve heard of folks seeing ghosties around here, and maybe getting some thumps and knocks, but no one’s said much about talking to them.”
“It can be done,” Andrew said, speaking with quick intensity. “I’ve done some reading. About flashlights and magnets and electrical signals. There’s some research coming out of Europe right now. Into the paranormal. It can be done.”
Jude stared at both of us. Alice even looked up, now that her plate was clean.
“You two are both nuts,” he commented blithely, peeling Nancy’s banana in three quick pulls.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Saturday, 24 October 1953
9:00 – Breakfast
12:00 – Lunch
2:00 – Therapy (Private or Group)
6:00 – Dinner
10:00 – Bedtime
I looked down, surprised to realize I’d eaten everything, including the lumpy sandwich. I felt strangely good – clear-headed & well nourished. I reached into my pocket for a handkerchief to wipe my hands, slightly sticky from the banana. Apparently sometime when I was back in my room I had changed. It was like I had lost time, only a few inconsequential minutes where I pulled on some faded tan capri pants, bobby sox and loafers, with a soft granite colored twinset. Suddenly conscious of the feeling of the material against my skin, I could also feel my scalp, pulled tight into a ponytail.
I screwed the handkerchief up in my hands and stuffed it back into my pocket. My fingers wrapped around a small plastic tube. Pulling it out, I smiled at it. Carmex. Chapstick. Completely unselfconsciously, as if I was alone, rather than at a table of other kids, I unscrewed the cap and spread it thickly on my lips.
The smell of camphor pulled me back to when I was kid, and sick at home. I was always sick at home, it seemed. Mama would rub my chest with camphor before pulling one of Papa’s plain white t-shirts over my head and turning on a rumbling metal humidifier. Papa would stand in the door, smiling, but taking care not to get too close. He wore the same white t-shirt as me, having pulled off his Rhodes Auto and Salvage button-down the moment the screen door slammed closed behind him. He’d been in the Navy and had rolled his short white sleeves up. With Papa’s dark eyes and wide white grin, I thought he looked like a modern Rhett Butler. Or, better, Stanley Kowalski to my sickly Blanche.
Weston High did A Streetcar Named Desire as the school play, just a few weeks ago, before the homecoming dance. I was Blanche, of course, even though I was just a sophomore. Everyone said they couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. I dove into it, finding such comfort in the freedom of Blanche’s neuroses. The play was brand new; it had been on Broadway until last year, 1949. I’d read in a movie magazine that it was going to be a movie soon, that they’d finished a script, and were looking at Scarlett O’Hara herself, Vivien Leigh, to be Blanche.
Jude was talking to me. He leaned around Andrew’s back and shook my wrist, which flopped like a broken starfish. I pulled my attention back.
Jude gave me a tilted smile. “Earth to Rachel! I was sayin’ that I’m gonna walk Alice back to her room and check in on Nancy. Wanna come with?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to be confined again in a small room after everything that had happened. It sounded suddenly horribly like willingly lying down in my own coffin.
“Suit yourself,” Jude shrugged. Alice stood, barely taller than the table, dressed in a simple blue dress and white cardigan. They walked together slowly, comfortably silent.
Andrew stayed seated beside me. Looking over, I saw that he had arranged his leftover green beans in rows like little soldiers, with the banana peel covering a small pile of cut off crusts, like a dog covering his mess.
He didn’t look at me as he yanked a paperback from a duffle bag, the same one he’d carried up the stairs, though it looked nearly empty now, deflated as an old balloon. He flipped it open, huddled into himself, and started to read.
I waited for a few moments, to be polite.
Andrew looked up, raising his brows so high they nearly disappeared into his hairline. Wordlessly, he half-closed the book over his finger and held it up, cover towards me.
“The Story of Edgar Cayce?” I asked. “What is that, like a novel or something? That sounds like something Edgar Allen Poe would write, but I know everything he’s done.”
Andrew chuckled, a surprisingly warm sound.
“Naw, this is about a real guy. Kind of a paranormal spiritualist. And a psychic, at least according to him.”
“You don’t think so?”
He looked down, reluctantly closing the book all the way.
“Not really. I’m more into hard science. Reality, you know? Rather than mumbo-jumbo.”
“But you believe in ghosts.”
He laughed again, this time with a humble, self-conscious edge.
“Why do you guys think that’s so weird?”
“I don’t think it’s weird at all,” I answered, leaning forward. He didn’t lean away, I notice, which for Andrew, I decided, was pretty much like giving me a big hug.
“Okay, okay,” he said, “Lemme put it this way.” Pulling the book open again, he scanned through a half-dozen pages quickly, as if he nearly had them memorized. “Here’s what Cayce said about ghosts. ‘The spirit of all that have passed from the physical plane remain about the plane until their development carry them onward or are returned for their development here, when they are in the plane of communication or remain within this sphere, any may be communicated with. There are thousands about us here at present.’
“Now,” he continued, I don’t know about all that. But what I do know is that religions all through history have been focused on life after death. And science supports the idea of multiple dimensions, right?”
I nodded, as if I knew enough to agree. He continued without noticing. “So maybe what people think are ghosts are just caught between dimensions. Or they are actually multi-dimensional beings! Religion says they might be demons, or angels, but maybe ghosts and visions are actually aliens. There’s also the theory that what people are seeing when they see ghosts is that it’s actually the shadow, the remnant of some past traumatic event that’s been recorded somehow and plays on a loop. Then again, there’s the theory that it’s all in the viewer’s mind, a delusion or a vision.”
This thought seemed to disappoint him. I shook my head.
“It’s not a delusion, I know it’s not. I’ve seen them, remember? I saw that little girl. It wasn’t a delusion. She was really there, I know it. And I’ve seen… other things. Worse things. Since I got here.”
He looked at me through thick boy lashes. “What do you mean?”
I told him about the flickering film-like visions in my isolation room, and the downstairs bathroom.
“Hmmm. Well, like I mentioned, a major theory is that some horrors make an imprint on the universe. Maybe that’s what you saw? Things that happened here?”
“Maybe,” I said, clenching my fingers together in a squeezing pulse. Thinking about what I’d seen made me profoundly uncomfortable; my skin felt suddenly like it was crawling with spiders. I gave a little shudder, trying to shake them off.
“You okay?” he asked, almost, but not quite, leaning towards me. I could feel the urge vibrating through him, though, like a current between us.
“I’m okay,” I reassured, closing the gap between us with my shoulder. Our upper arms brushed, a light fabric kiss.
The ruckus came stomping up the stairs, a herd of elephants with high children’s voices. Like shrieking mice. I giggled uncontrollably at the image of elephants with mouse heads, storming up the stairs, terrified and terrifying each other.
Looking up, I saw the kids from the floor flooding back. One group, maybe two or three years younger than me, so 13 or 14, was chasing each other in circles. No, not quite. One boy in particular was chasing a few others, boys and girls, arms up like a monster, until the children shrieked with laughter.
“Are they okay?” Andrew asked me, watching the group warily. The oldest boy, the one playing monster, was blondly handsome, wearing a biker jacket over a hospital gown like he was a greaser mental patient. He had caught a smaller girl and was tickling her as she yelped, mouth and eyes wide. “I can’t really tell,” Andrew said, “whether she’s happy or sad – screaming like that.”
I smiled at him. “She’s fine. They’re just playing.” That’s what I figured anyway. Best I could tell. The girl had shiny dark hair in a pageboy that shuddered as she wriggled.
A tap on my shoulder startled me. I jerked in my seat, slamming an elbow into George’s solid midsection. He laughed easily and stepped back.
“Okay, killer, let’s get you to your appointment, how about that?”
“Appointment?” I asked vaguely. Killer? I wondered to myself. Is that what I am? No one’s brought up Buddy.
“Yeah, with Doc Jimmy. Remember? We set it up last night. Though you were a little out of it. Anyway, c’mon.” George gave Andrew a nod, then offered me a hand up out of the chair. I took it, marveling at how steady George’s hand felt.
I followed him down the main stairs, impressed all over again by their shiny solidity, and the sweeping Nautilus shell shape, coiling down through the middle of the… hospital? Yes, I am in the hospital, I decided, letting my fingers trail along the slick dark handrail.
“So, does Doc Jimmy work for the hospital all the time?” I asked, “Or is it just the weekends? He’s, well, he’s not like other doctors I’ve met.”
I couldn’t really remember going to the doctor before, to be honest. Just meeting them when Mama and I took the bookmobile around town.
George looked back at me, suddenly short standing two steps below me.
“Yeah, Doc Jimmy’s here. Mostly he’s over in the violent wing, of course. That’s how he ended up here. So hard to find docs willing to take all that on. He’s up for it, because, well, it’s hard for a man of his color to find much and Nancy gets care here too, so… we’re lucky to have him, Rachel, really. He’s a great doctor. Takes all the shifts the others don’t want, down here or up the hill.”
“Up the hill?” I asked, tracking only every few words.
“The violent wing. Building, really. It’s up the hill. You’ll see it when you go outside.”
“When’s that going to be?”
“Don’t worry, Rache. You’ll have privileges in no time. It was only a little hiccup, last night. You’ll be fine.”
He had continued walking, crossing from the landing on the staff floor towards a small office with a half-closed door.
“About last night,” I started. He cut me off.
“Doc Jimmy will talk to you about all that. He’s the doctor. I’m just a night and weekend nurse. I’m here for you, but he’s in charge of your treatment, okay?”
“You’re here for me?” I asked. “Like, like as my friend?”
“Sure, friend, absolutely.” George winked at me, brushing a wisp of hair back from my temple, tucking it into my ponytail. He opened the door all the way and I floated through it.
Doc Jimmy looked up from behind a massive typewriter, so large it nearly covered his entire chest. His eyes were warm behind small glinting round glasses.
“Hey, Rache,” George called from the door as he closed it, “I’ll pick you up in an hour for your bath, okay?”
“Sure, okay,” I nodded, completely confused. Bath? What the? George is giving me a bath? Impossible.
Doc Jimmy spoke then, voice friendly and contained, professional.
“How are you doing, Rachel? Sit down, sit down. Let me just make a little room.” With some effort, he shoved the massive typewriter to one side. It squeaked as it moved on the desk like a rat being strangled. It didn’t seem to bother Doc Jimmy, though the sound had me curling my fingers hard into fists, nails digging into the wet sand of my palms.
“Now, that’s better. I like to be able to see my patients. You look quite good, Rachel, really, especially given your…. Adventures last night.”
“About last night, Doc,” I started. He shushed me with a wave of his hand.
“Sit down, sit down. Right there, across from me. Can I offer you a bit of tea? No coffee for patients, I’m afraid, but I have a nice herbal blend. Very soothing.”
“No, thank you, Doc,” I said, sitting. “I wanted to ask about what happened. Last night. With me.”
“Of course,” Doc Jimmy nodded, templing his fingers under his chin. I could see the care he’d taken on his nails, rounded and buffed to a sophisticated oval gloss. He was a meticulous man, I decided.
“You had quite a shock, you know, I can understand that. Things got… a little out of hand. But it’s up to you what you do from here, you know,” he continued, “What you want to make of things.”
“But, Buddy…” I choked out. The sick white fish belly skin of Buddy’s drowned face bobbed in front of my eyes for a second, a nauseating vision. I blinked, focusing hard on the calm man behind the desk.
“Tell me how you really feel, Rachel,” he said quietly, leaning forward, pressing his manicured hands firmly down on the desk. “What’s going on inside you? What brought this on.”
I felt a warm wash of absolute trust, like I’d known this man for years, not just a day, mixed with the complete inability to hide anymore.
“Not so good, actually,” I started. He nodded sympathetically, round glasses sliding forward. I kept going; I couldn’t stop myself, the words spilled like vomit in quick jagged chunks.
“I feel like I’m play acting normal, to be honest… like I can see what’s normal, but also I see what’s not so normal, and I don’t know… I like to see the unusual things, too, you know? But then there’s the façade of acting all normal…”
Doc Jimmy smiled at first, crinkles that turned his face into a friendly autumn chestnut, then he downright laughed at me. It was a beautiful sound, like clear water rushing over glistening rocks. I stopped in surprise, to hear an angel’s laugh from my doctor.
He calmed himself enough to speak, “Rachel, you’re doing just fine. Really. Never underestimate the ability to see what’s true and playact the rest according to the rules. That doesn’t mean you’re insane. It means you’re smart and seeing the world. When being able to act normal is a choice, and you’re choosing to make it, you’re doing pretty darn great. See?” He spread his hands out, face falling. The glee that had light his face up darkened like an eclipse.
“Never underestimate being able to maintain the façade of normal. It’s when you CAN’T maintain that façade that things are going badly for you. It’s not even that you see the difference between normal and not, or whatever – it’s that you see it, choose to act normally, and have the ability to follow through. That’d be a good day for some folks, see?” he concluded, deflated.
I reached out a hand and let it hover over his for a moment, finding the warmth between us comforting. Not paternal. More, a kinship. Between humans in pain.
“Nancy knows what’s what,” I told him, suddenly clear on his pain, like it was a bell that’d rung through me as well. “She knows you’re here papa, and that you love her. The rest, well, that’s not so important, is it?”
Doc Jimmy faced me, taking my hand with both of his. I felt a deep urge to pull back, terrified of being touched by him, by anyone, but as he held my shaking fingers, the feeling melted away. I steadied and tried to smile at him. He’d felt my arm relax and smiled a little at me.
“I care about you, about my patients, as if they were my own children. Listen to me, because you are able to understand this: Insanity often boils down to how much space you have between thought and action, Rachel. Think about that. Think whatever you want. Think all the time. But give yourself some time to think before you speak, or act. That’ll help you tame the crazy, right there, don’t you think?”
But then I broke, like a wave crashing against the shore, losing whatever cohesion I had held in my mind into a thousand cheap sprays, like child’s breath in a bouquet. I pulled back, yanking my hand so fast he let go by reflex.
“No, no, no, no no no. I don’t want to talk about what I think I want to talk about what I did. Not what state I was in when I did it, or what I might have seen or not seen – I want to talk about what I did. My actions. That the outside world could see. What happened last night?”
I screamed the final words. I couldn’t stop screaming after that.
Doc Jimmy carried me like a Victorian doll, limp and cotton in the body, but my head and arms and legs felt like china, heavy yet fragile, flailing. What I remember next is something akin to flying, but not, as he held me so gently it felt like flying almost, as he brought me down stairs, down a hall, under harsh lights, with white tiled walls… Oh god, I was back in the isolation wing.
A gaunt, gray woman unceremoniously stripped off my sweater set, until I shivered in just a bra, stretched out on a cold table. The young, pretty nurse, Maggie, she pulled off my shoes and pants. I couldn’t see the doctor, I have no idea where he was just then. I don’t know whether to find it comforting or disturbing to decide that he remained, watching me, keeping an eye on me. Keeping me safe.
I stepped outside my mind for a while then, as they put me in a two-foot-deep, seven-foot-long cold bath, strapping my forehead down with a leather strap, and wrapped a tight sheet around me before strapping it securely to the tub. I left my body entirely, floating above it, watching from the tile ceiling as they manipulated me into the hydrotherapy bath. Doc Jimmy was gone by that point, the door still compressing closed behind him. I liked to think that he knew I’d be okay, and that was why he’d left.
Thinking of him distracted me, at least for a while. The cold took over after that and I felt nothing, thought nothing.
By the time they came back, I felt like a dimmed star, taken to the edge of being a black hole. I had no energy to spare, no heat, not a single calorie that could move exothermically, outside my body, into the air. I had nothing to give, completely frozen and drained. It was the most cold, terrifying feeling, yet ultimately relaxing, like a painless crystal death. They may have called it hydrotherapy, but it felt like hypothermia. Like they’d teased the state out of my neurons through the most direct, brutal way: they made my brain release all the soothing chemicals as if I was dying of hypothermia, because I really was dying of hypothermia.
I opened my eyes when the orange light of sunset reached my lids; it felt almost like a burning, but colder. I sat up suddenly and smoothly as a statue snapping back into place. I was back in my little room; the window behind me had blossomed red now from the light of the sun, coloring the white sheets of my bed.
Shaking my head slightly, I touched my ears. They felt icy cool as marble. Looking around, my gaze pulled and fixed on the box on the bed opposite me. I hadn’t paid much attention to it early, other than to note its existence. It was labeled “Kim R.”
The screaming girl, the one who acted like she was possessed. I slipped out of the bed, drawn to the box like a magnet. It was like I was spellbound, a walking Sleeping Beauty, compelled to snoop. It’s what an Austen girl would do, I decided, opening the box and peering inside.
I shuffled a hand in, coming in contact with the softness of cashmere, and the innocent plush of stuffed animals. The quality of both was very high; I could tell by the fineness of the weave. Expensive.
My fingers brushed something slick and strangely warm. I pulled out a china jewelry box, painted white with ornate gold trim. I opened it to find a delicate, one-inch ballerina, twirling on one toe, the other leg extended long to her side in an improbably high foette. I touched it with one finger. The dancer herself seemed to the be the source of the heat emanating from the box. She was warm, a little damp, as if she had just stopped moving.
The meal bell echoed in my bones a little as it clanged. I teetered slightly, tilting like the Tower of Pisa, as the door opened.
“Honey! You shouldn’t be out of bed!”
The voice was warm, middle-aged, maternal. Paula. I let my knees unlock, and the frozen statue of my body crumbled. I buckled to the ground, still clutching Kim’s jewelry box.
Paula set down the tray she carried and rushed to me.
“Honey, let me help you. You have no business up and trying to walk right now. That treatment takes it out of a person, I’ve seen it, I know. You lay back down here and let me set you up with a tray.”
I gratefully let her pull the covers up to my armpits and fluff my pillows. The tray she carried had slim plastic legs that popped out. When Paula set it down across my lap, it stood a few inches away from the roundness of my legs.
Swooping like a tuxedo-clad maître d’ Paula lifted the plastic cover.
“Now then, what’s for dinner tonight? Looks good, looks good! You’ve got meatloaf, mashed taters, gravy. This is what I’m having for dinner tonight! Thanks to Swanson frozen dinners,” Paula winked at me. “Not like I have time to cook with this schedule. My husband doesn’t mind, he says, since there’s TV dinners now. Says it’s better than when I used to try to cook!”
Paula chuckled and unfolded a napkin, tucking it under my chin. I wore a high-necked white nightgown. The napkin draped down it almost elegantly; I could imagine it a simple kerchief, like in Little Women, or an ornate lace fichu. I smoothed it out a little, reaching for silverware.
I found only a plastic spoon. For a second I stared.
“Yes, well, you’ve had a rough few days,” Paula said, pressing a hand lightly on my shoulder. “You’ll be back downstairs with everyone else, with real metal utensils, and actual glasses in no time. Don’t you worry.” She squeezed my upper arm and left.
I sat for a moment holding the spoon, pointed straight up like I was holding a hammer rather than a flimsy bit of plastic. Suddenly I couldn’t stand the smell of the food, couldn’t stand all the plastic. After a minute’s contemplation, I wobbled up out of bed and opened the door. The hallway was empty; I covered the tray with the napkin from around my neck, draping the discarded food like a shroud.
Exhausted, and a little queasy, I struggled back to bed and lay down.
Once I closed my eyes, it was as if the darkness itself took on weight, pressing down on my chest, slowly compressing my ribs and lungs until I couldn’t breathe. I gasped but found only vacuum – as if the air had been sucked out of the room. Just as I thought that, my ears popped.
I tried to raise an arm, a hand, a finger, but couldn’t. It was like being restrained, but worse. I had been restrained, and recently, and even the tightest leather strap or taut sheet has a bit of give – a millimeter of flex to it. There was no room to wiggle here, or to lift a limb enough to notice any shift I weight. I was pinned, infinitely heavy, as if gravity had tripled.
Stuck in amber, I heard the doorknob start to jiggle. After a few discordant shakes, it settled into a rhythm, like a pulse. The twitching doorknob synced to my own heartbeat as I struggled against the concrete weight slowing my blood. Back and forth, back and forth, trying to breathe, in and out…
Then I heard a sweet girl’s voice singing, from very far away. Like a nursery rhyme, but in a language I couldn’t understand. Almost, medieval. A lullaby of a medieval nursey rhyme, about pockets full of posies, we all fall down, except I couldn’t understand a word of it.
The voice came closer and closer as the doorknob shook until I knew whatever was singing was in the room with me from the sound of the song, though the door hadn’t opened.
I felt it – whatever or whoever it was – standing over the bed, and still couldn’t open my eyes, however hard I fought.
I heard a whoosh, like a door swinging open in a hurricane and felt a rush of cold air as a spark of electricity flashed through my head, then darkness.
I opened my eyes as I opened the closet door. Not the closet in my room. The closet down at the end of hall, that held cleaning supplies and the gnome-sized door to the dumbwaiter. Somehow, I had appeared there, turning the doorknob with my hand, feeling the cool metal icy as lamppost in winter. I dropped my hand from the cold metal and took a step back.
When I did, I felt myself pressed against a tall person, skinny, in a flannel shirt. Turning around, my nose ran into a white plastic button on a cheap, sturdy plaid shirt.
“Andrew?” I said, stumbling back slightly. He steadied my shoulder almost automatically and smiled a little at me.
“Hey, Rachel, what are you doing up? I saw you just walk out of your room, down the hall, and here like you were on a mission or something.”
“What were you doing up?” I asked, pleased with how quickly I was able to distract him. Andrew’s attention suddenly focused on what he was holding – a solid, black metal flashlight, almost a foot long. He seemed embarrassed.
“Oh, ummm,” he stammered, “I’ve heard the place, this place is haunted, you know, especially down here. That little girl Nancy told you about at lunch – that died here? That’s how she died. I mean, where. In the dumbwaiter. Got stuck in it, ripped her head nearly clean off. Was playing hide and seek and had stuck her head out to look around. Decapitated head landed on this floor of the closet, then the body went all the way down to the bottom floor. Not sure if she died that instant, or on the way down, in a strange way. Blood would still have been pumping from the heart. So, she could haunt the whole building or focused on the place she died, as the place her brain died. Figured it’d work to start here. Then the first floor, where her body ended up. Then the floors in between, because maybe technically she died on the way? I’m actually kinda confused as to the precise science of where a spirit would haunt.
I could barely hold back a giggle. Actually, I failed. But it seemed to please Andrew. He looked at me like I’d given him a gift, simply by finding him funny, by finding him charming.
“I wouldn’t know about that,” I said, giggle suppressed into a smile, “but I did see some stuff. Scary stuff. Like a horror movie, but there wasn’t a projector around, you know? That kind of thing.
Andrew came alert as a pointer dog.
“Where did you see it? Exactly, I mean.”
He stared abruptly down at his flashlight, as if it were misbehaving.
“Why are you glaring at your flashlight?” I asked, adding, “And I saw stuff on the first floor. Isolation. Though, come to think of it…”
He interrupted. “See, I’ve read flashlight communication is done by the spirit indicating they’re there by flashing on the light. So, I’m waiting for that. But now I wonder, maybe it was that the flashlight is on and the ghost turns it off? Makes it flicker? That would make more sense, really. Since the ghosts themselves can be thought of as energy, as electricity…”
I smiled at him again. He smiled back as he turned on the light; the brightness dazzled my eyes. It looked like he had stars in his.
“I was saying, Andrew, that something weird also happened in my room. Now.”
“Really?” he asked, obviously intrigued. “Maybe the little girl stayed there? Before she died? I didn’t think to ask Nancy or Jude that. Or her name. We need to ask tomorrow….”
As he continued to talk, we walked. He offered me his arm, elbow bent like a gentleman, and I threaded my hand through, pleased to be strolling in the moonlight (well, by flashlight) with a cute boy. My nightgown (when did I change into a nightgown? I couldn’t remember. My mind felt like Swiss cheese and I almost floated down the hall beside Andrew.
A heavy tread that set the floorboards squeaking interrupted Andrew’s rambling adorableness. His hand shook a little as he released my arm and set the flashlight roaming the hallway. It settled on a large shape, a mountain of a man, directly in front of us.
Andrew jumped, dropping the flashlight. It rolled loudly down the old, slanted floorboards away from us, towards whoever, whatever, stood in front of us. I felt trapped in gravity again, just like I had in bed, terrified and stuck in amber.
The figure sighed as it bent down to grab the flashlight. George’s face appeared in the halo of light as he picked it up.
“Guys, I didn’t mean to scare you. Well, not that much. But you shouldn’t be out walking around like this. Andrew, take the flashlight and get back to your room. Hustle, now, no stops! Rachel, come with me,” he commanded, handing the flashlight to the boy.
Andrew scurried off a little too much like a rabbit for my taste as George inclines his head to me – his hair was extra shiny in the dimly lit hall, slicked back with Brycen. He smelled good, like a man on his way to a date not a night shift job. Awkwardly, I tried to make conversation, as if we were that date.
“Thank you for the book. I started it this afternoon and it’s fantastic.
George looked puzzled, brow furrowed briefly until it smoothed into its broad, almost noble, perfection.
“Oh, yeah, of course! From my brother. He’s in publishing, in New York. Hey, he says he can get me the brand-new Narnia book, the Silver Chair, in a copy edit draft. Would you like that?”
“Hunh, what?” I stammered, thrown out of my fixation on George by the cold dash of literary reality. “There’s just The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the Narnia books. What’s the Silver Chair? I need it. Of course, it needs it.”
George laughed, kindly. “There’s like three of those books. C’mon. I can’t believe I’m telling you this. You know all about books. You and my brother really should meet. You guys would like each other.”
“Well, I like you.” I blurted, then stopped, slapping a hand over my mouth. “I don’t know where that came from,” I felt heat move up towards my face; heat that started a bit lower than my neck.
“It’s okay,” George said, “I know what you meant. I like you too.”
I realized at that we’d reached my room door. I waited expectantly as if we really were on that date and had reached my front porch. George leaned past me and opened the door.
“Get some rest,” was all he said. He looked into the room as I brushed past him. “Oh yeah, Kim’s stuff. I mean to get that earlier.”
He walked in, close behind me, and picked up the box as I sat on my own bed.
“Kim’s okay?” I asked, thinking of her twisted, screaming face.
“Well, she’s still a little… upset,” George said as he stood, holding the box, right by Kim’s bed, only a foot from my own. “But she’ll be better tomorrow. She’s going to see Dr. Freeman; he’s on a special visit. She’ll be better off in the surgical recovery ward, for a few days. Then maybe she’ll come back here. Or maybe she’ll go home! Her parents are excited about that for her, and Dr. Freeman could make that a reality. He’s had great success with some of his patients.”
“What about the others?” I asked.
“That’s nothing for you to worry about. Think good thoughts, say your prayers for Kim. I’ll check in on you when I come on shift tomorrow.”
For a moment, sitting on my bed, close to him, I wondered what it’d be like if he set down the box, closed the distance, leaned over me…
All he did was close the door. I sank almost gratefully back onto the bed and pulled up the covers. With relief, I listened to the quiet as his footsteps creaked away. No singing, no doorknobs rattling. I slept.
I dreamed of small, running feet and a little girl giggling.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Sunday, 25 October 1953
9:00 – Breakfast
10:00 – 2:00 Services in Multi-Purpose Room
12:00 – Lunch
1:00 – Dr. Freeman
6:00 – Dinner
10:00 – Bedtime
The morning bell was like a shovel, digging me out of the hollow of deep sleep. It clanged hugely through the top floor. The ceiling nearly vibrated – I could imagine the bell in the clock tower swinging in a bronze arc, clanging. I sat up, practically salivating from hunger. Less than two days in the place, and I was responding to the meal bell like Pavlov’s pooch.
My door swung open a few inches. I forgot that it wasn’t – in fact couldn’t be – locked. Paula stuck her head in, friendly as a Golden Retriever.
“Morning, sleepyhead! You get to eat downstairs this morning, if you’re feeling up to it. So hustle, hustle!”
Behind Paula I could see Maggie standing behind her in the hallway, looking tired and impatient, white cap askew on her teased bangs. Paula closed the door and I heard their tread down the hallway, interrupted by slamming doors and kid’s voices.
I climbed out of bed and opened the closet door. It was a strange, small closet located under the garret roof. And it was filled with my clothes. Lots of them – from dresses to overalls, with lots of capris and corduroy trousers, worn and patched. I figured my parents must have brought them all over while I was out of it, that first night. It reminded me to ask Paula about talking to them, or seeing them, soon. Though, I remembered, the auto shop and dealership were open on Sundays. Maybe tomorrow? I wondered. The dealership was closed then, though the shop was open every day. Shaking my head to bring my focus back, liking the loose feeling of my hair on my shoulders, I pulled on warm brown corduroys and a thick pink fisherman knit sweater, along with ankle socks and saddle shoes. I left my hair down, though I ran a brush through it, pulling hard, yanking through a restless night’s worth of tangles.
I flowed with the crowd down the hallway to the common room, looking around for someone I knew. I saw Jude standing, braces locked, at the table where I ate lunch yesterday. Andrew stood beside him, running a bony hand through his shock of brown hair.
“Hi,” I said, mostly to Jude, because Andrew had turned away from me.
“Heya, Rachel,” Jude said. “I’m staying up here for breakfast, but you and Andrew and Alice have the okay to eat downstairs. Long as Alice behaves herself, right?”
I looked behind me to see Alice standing there, maybe as tall as my chest, hair in a severe bob, holding a picture book – green, with a fireplace in one corner and a moon in the other; it seemed familiar – against her chest like plated armor. Curious, I strained to see the title, but Alice had her arms crossed protectively over it. Alice glared at Jude, who brushed it off.
“Hey, Jeremy! Jeremy!” Jude called to a boy passing by to head down the stairs. The boy stopped. It was the good-looking blonde boy from yesterday, the one who’d been playing games with the other kids after lunch. He’d added a pair of jeans underneath the biker jacket, and half tucked-in his hospital gown.
“Jeremy, would you show my friend Andrew downstairs? I’m sticking around up here to eat with Nancy.”
“What are you, the boss?” Jeremy asked, more mocking than angry.
“I’m the mayor! The mayor of this institution,” Jude replied, buoyant as ever.
“Mayor?” scoffed Jeremy. “Yesterday you were an angel. I doubt there’s many angel politicians.”
Jude looked confused, brushed a hand across his cheek like he was waving off a mosquito. “I don’t know about all that,” he said, “But best get going. Don’t want to miss the best breakfast of the week.” With that, Jude winked at Andrew and turned his back on us. “I’m gonna go find Nancy,” he declared, unlocking his braces and starting to shamble towards the girls’ hallway.
“You know he doesn’t remember stuff to well,” Alice scolded Jeremy. “Mayor, angel, whatever. He’ll be Santa’s elf come Christmas.” Jeremy shrugged, gave us a half smile straight out of the movies, and took the lead down the stairs. Andrew crossed to join him in two long steps; Alice and I fell behind.
“Have they always used that big bell for meals?” Andrew asked Jeremy. “It’s practically right over me and Jude’s room. I swear, plaster fell on me this morning.” Andrew looked twitchy, running his hands over his sleeves, brushing off invisible errant dust. “I hate being dirty,” he said, by way of explanation.
“Yeah, well, that bell’s used for meals, and meals alone. It’s the only thing the whole building does at the same time, basically. Everything else is by floor – kid’s floor, women’s, men’s, criminal, basket case. The nurses announce what to do, and you go do it. But the bell… you know, it’s fortunate we have it, really.”
“How’s that?” Andrew asked.
“Back nearly twenty years ago, that bell saved a whole bunch of lives. Really!” Jeremy emphasized, seeing Andrew’s skeptical raised eyebrow. “There was a fire, started up on our floor, actually, the kid’s floor. The nurse on the floor notified the fire department, and the cops. But she was smart. Real smart. Instead of setting off the fire alarm and causing a panic, she went and rang the dinner bell! All the patients lined up, calm and orderly, and headed downstairs, across the walkway, and to the dining hall. Lot of patients woulda died if she hadn’t.” Andrew looked pleased as he added, “I hear it was Paula what did it. Back when she was a brand-new nurse.”
Alice chimed in, “I heard it was Paula too. But I heard that a girl died. Up on our floor. Lily. That’s who. She died in the fire.”
Jeremy looked back at Alice, eyes sliding over her head. “Oh yeah?” he answered, uninterested. Alice continued, voice thick and high, but clear.
“Yeah. I used to have her room – it’s yours now, Rachel. When I was little. My parents dropped me here right when I was born, and was, well, different. I found her name scratched into the bedframe.”
“The bedframe?” I asked, surprised. “It’s pretty solid. I don’t know how she’d have done that.” I imagined the unknown little girl sketching out her name with a diamond ring. That’s the way it would have happened in a novel.
“Looked like claw marks,” Alice shrugged, darkening my fantasy. “Dunno. They moved me down the hall when I asked, though.” She added.
“You asked to move? Did you, I don’t know, hear things?” I had to know. Alice avoided my eyes and the question.
“Anyway, I heard the girl got burned up in the fire.” Alice paused, considering, “Don’t know why the bedframe didn’t burn. If she was in her room.”
“I heard she was in the dumbwaiter, in the closet,” Andrew contributed, “From Jude. That’s what he told me.”
I had to know one thing. “Jeremy, how did the fire start?”
Jeremy shrugged, still walking steadily downstairs, leather creaking slightly around his narrow shoulders.
“Heard that some patient was playing with turpentine in the fourth floor common room. That’s why all art classes were moved to one of the new buildings, a fire proof one. You’ll see,” he added to Andrew, as we reached the second floor and crossed through an enclosed walkway from one building to another, “there’s a bunch of connected buildings, besides the main one. Most have something like this,” he gestured to the brick tunnel around us, “some you have to go outside for.”
We crossed from the tunnel into what once must have been a white room, barred windows steamed up from cooking and crowded bodies. It had exposed rafters, unfinished-looking, even though the stains on the walls looked years old. A glass wall separated the cooking area from a serving area filled with metal trays and adults in white shirts and white hats, holding flimsy plastic spoons the size of ladles.
Jeremy led the way as we fell into line behind him, first Andrew, then Alice, then me. Jeremy turned to talk to Andrew, resting a tapered finger lightly on Andrew’s plaid shirt. Andrew pulled away, but not rudely; more like he was acknowledging and then releasing the touch of a lover. I blinked. That couldn’t be right. I had to be overreacting again. What would Jeremy want with Andrew?
I turned when I heard the woman behind me speak, voice sonorous as an untuned organ.
“And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at even in the plains of Jericho. And they did eat of the old corn of the land on the morrow after the Passover, unleavened cakes, and parched corn in the selfsame day. And the manna ceased on the morrow after they had eaten of the old corn of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more; but they did eat of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.”
She smiled at me, then, pleased, showing gaping holes where her top teeth must once have been. The woman was middle-aged, wearing a bedraggled dress and a faded grey cardigan. She rocked side to side, then turned to the man behind her and repeated what she’d just told me. I recognized the Old Testament story of Jericho. The man she now addressed looked like he didn’t – he was enormously fat, shuffling along in stretched out slippers and a cotton bathrobe over blue pajamas. His eyes, small and strangely dilated, darted like insects.
I shuffled forward behind Alice. “These guys are approved to serve the food,” Jeremy explained to Andrew, his voice carrying easily, “You can tell by the white caps. The guys with the black caps, those are allowed to make the food. You know, because it means knives and open flame.” Andrew nodded and moved a few feet down the row.
I stepped up to the serving station. A man, maybe in his thirties, with a narrow mustache like a classic villain, handed me a plastic tray. On it rested a four-paned waffle, still steaming.
A small scream. Closer to a shriek, maybe.
“I can’t eat this,” I said, voice tight, “All the holes. Like, a honeycomb. Or coral. It’s… it’s disgusting. I can’t even look at it.”
The man shrugged. “Not my problem, kid. Everyone gets a waffle on Sundays. That’s the rules. I’m not breaking the rules.”
Andrew leaned over Alice, who looked like she wanted to bite him for the effrontery. He splashed a scoop of oatmeal over the waffle, smoothing down it’s clotted chunks to cover all the holes. I looked at him gratefully, smiled.
“There you go,” Andrew said. “I know what it’s like, to not want to eat some things. Here’s what we’re going to do…” he continued, as he led me down the line, pulling bacon out and making a fence around the blurred waffle, then setting down a spoonful of pale scrambled eggs on the opposite side of the plate.
“How’s that?” he offered the tray back to me.
“That’s just perfect,” I said, smiling at him. His hand shook slightly. I took the tray. We both turned to look for Jeremy and saw him a few tables away, sitting next to an old lady with cottony white hair exploding off her pink scalp like a mad dandelion.
We made our way there, pushing past adults and children alike. Most were wholly focused on their meals, though a few, including the big man behind me, seemed too dazed for hunger.
Andrew sat next to Jeremy while Alice slid in next to the old lady. I sat down in the final chair. Alice motioned at the woman beside her.
“Andrew, this is Jeannie,” Alice said, as if that explained everything.
“Nice to meet you,” I answered, as Andrew just nodded. I extended a hand. The woman looked at it like it was a strange bird. I withdrew it.
“Jeannie’s been here about forever,” Alice added. “They found her when she was about 13, locked up by her mom, never learned to speak. That was ages ago, though. She’s been here ever since.”
The woman waved her hands in a quick pattern, blue veins and liver marks jiggling in punctuation. Alice signed back to her. Because that’s what it was, I realized – sign language. I’d heard about it, read about it books, but never seen anyone do it before. It entranced me.
“Jeannie says she learned to bark, from the family dog. Who wasn’t chained up, even if she was.” Alice translated.
“How did you learn to talk to her?” I asked Alice quietly, not sure if the strange old lady could hear or understand.
“She about raised me,” Alice shrugged. “My parents thought I looked funny and brought me here when I was a baby. Jeannie was like my grandma. I think,” Alice added, “I’m not really sure. But that’s what I think.”
Jeannie nodded, pleased, rocking her hands like she was cradling a baby and smiling at Alice.
Alice smiled back, wide face lifting up into chipmunk-cheeked sweetness. Alice handed Jeannie the picture book she’d been carrying. Jeannie flipped it open to the first page, set it down on the table – she apparently breakfasted on only a cup of tea – and began to move her hands again, fluidly, soothingly.
Alice spoke along with Jeannie’s “reading,” as if the young girl had long-since memorized every ritual word.
“Goodnight room. Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. Goodnight light, and the red balloon….”
I watched and listened as I ate, leaving a single piece of bacon to hold the space between the disgusting waffle and acceptable eggs. Andrew had stacked a good half dozen into the original fence, so I had greasy hands and full belly by the time I was done.
Jeannie puzzled me. Why was she sitting with the kids when she was at least seventy? Could she speak at all? How did she get to the age of 13 without being able to speak? I tried to place her in my personal universe of characters – was she the madwoman in the attic like in Jane Eyre or the investigative unpresupposing detective, like Miss Marple? She had the wild hair of a Baba Yaga, or witch, but her wrinkled face was innocent as a corncob doll.
Once they finished the book, Alice answered what must have been a signed question from Jeannie.
“Oh, you know Nancy. Sure she’s safer upstairs. No one here would hurt her, not with Doc Jimmy as her dad.”
Jeannie frowned and shook her head, clever hands knitting an answer in the air.
“Yes, I know, Jeannie, but times have changed. Schools are going to be integrated and everything. Nothing wrong with having a black girl on the floor. I like her.” Alice settled her thin, wide mouth into a stubborn line.
Jeannie chuckled, a weird gurgling, like someone who had heard what a laugh should be, but never quite figured out what it’s use was.
“Girl crazy. Baby crazy.” Jeannie said, voice hoarse and rusty.
“Be nice,” Alice replied, “that’s what Doc Jimmy says we’re to do for her. And, everyone else,” Alice continued, looking around the table. “We all got our reasons for being here,” she finished, face somber for a child of no more than ten.
Jeannie poked out into the air. “Play pretend. Jeannie know. Jeannie kind.”
“Yes, you are, Jeannie,” Alice softened. “Now, how about I read this time and you help?”
Alice took the book from Jeannie and began at the beginning, sounding out the words while the old woman’s hands wove the air.
I watched, entranced, until a sharp whistle called everyone’s attention. Turning with the crowd, I saw Nurse Maggie-the-Ingénue standing with a sheet of paper at the front of the dining hall, to the side of the now-empty serving station.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, and kids, the daily schedule for today is pretty easy – Sunday and all, right? After breakfast, there’s chapel, which will alternately run Catholic and Protestant services through the morning. If you’re Jewish, you had the chance to go on Friday night, before the first showing of the movie. If you for some reason didn’t, that’s your own fault and you get another chance this Friday. Don’t come whining to me.”
Maggie scanned the room, blue eyes glittering glass. Her gaze rested on me briefly, like she was talking to me, then swept onwards.
“No treatments or therapies for the day, so after church, or if you don’t go to church, you have free time. See the nurse on your floor to check out if you have building privileges and see both your floor nurse and the front desk nurse if you have grounds or off-grounds privileges. Nurse Paula will be taking the day shift at the front desk, and Nurse George has the afternoon and evening.”
Maggie’s color deepened as she said his name. I was sure of it. She continued as if she didn’t notice.
“Rest of the week will be pretty much normal schedule, with two exceptions. Art therapy for everyone will focus on making masks for the upcoming dance, and everyone in shifts by floor will get a visit to the clothing donation room to put together your costume. Okay, that’s it – have a good day, everyone.”
“Dance?” I asked Alice who opened her mouth to answer. She got as far as “Halloween…” when Maggie shouted out again, “Oh, and Alice, Jeremy, Michael and Abigail – you’re helping with the first service. Let’s go!”
Alice shrugged and turned to leave. Jeremy leaned over Andrew long enough to ask “Hey, can you guys take our trays?” and receive a nod in return. Then they were gone. I looked from Jeannie to Andrew, feeling like I should somehow lead the way, but not knowing how. I had no clue what to do next.
Fortunately, Jeannie stood up and cradled her mug in both hands, as if it was a Faberge egg rather than an ugly plastic cup. She led the way and Andrew and I followed, each carrying two trays. Following Jeannie’s lead, we stacked them behind the service station along with everyone else.
Just as I placed mine down, a hand like a chicken’s claw descended, snatching my oatmeal laden, abandoned waffle off my plate. I looked at Jeannie’s kind face. She grinned toothlessly, lopsided. “Every Sunday,” she nodded at me, and walked away. I stared after her.
“Which way do you think the chapel is?” Andrew asked at my elbow.
“I don’t know,” I answered, “but expect we can probably follow the crowd, right?”
We let ourselves be swept along the connecting hallway back into the main building and down to the first floor. From there, we went straight back from the main staircase heading towards the large, basketball-court sized room at the far end. It had a wood floor, marked in fact as if for a basketball court, but a large altar stood underneath one of the baskets, flanked by a giant standing crucifix.
“Are you even Catholic?” Andrew whispered to me.
“I think I am,” I replied, quite sure that I was. What better source of drama than the Catholic Mass? It appealed to me instinctively, with Jeremy walking down the makeshift aisle swinging incense, Alice beside him carrying a Bible almost as big as she was. The priest himself was even impressive – not quite Thornbirds-level romantic lead attractive, but clean cut, tidy in his robes, not too old, maybe Papa’s age, but with a kind face.
“Are you Catholic?” I asked him in turn. “Seems like you’d prefer a more… I don’t know, scientific approach to the world?”
Andrew smiled at me, “You’re right. Mom was Catholic. She used to drag me to church. I’d sit beside her in the pew and recite the periodic table to myself. The multiplication tables before that. Now, though,” he sighed, “I guess it makes me feel close to her. I talk to her during mass, sometimes, to myself.”
I rested my hand lightly on the back of his and he let me for a few seconds, before his skin flickered like a horse with a fly on its back.
The priest spoke then, and I let myself be carried in the rhythm of worship – sit, stand, kneel, pray, join hands, take communion, kneel again… It was deeply soothing, like watching the performance of a beloved play.
As I knelt, wafer crumbling dry in my mouth – I couldn’t face sipping from the communal cup of grape juice, what if someone had spit in it? – I looked around the room more carefully. The ‘pews’ were gray metal folding chairs set on a wood floor marked up like a basketball court. The whole room reminded me of my high school gym, actually, except for the huge folded movie screen behind the makeshift altar. I hunted for a projector, finding it at last on an open second floor balcony that looked over the room itself.
For a moment the light itself flickered, as if someone had switched the sun off and then quickly back on. I saw figures up on the balcony, stuttering like skipped film, just as I had before. Except these two were strange looking, their faces flat and pale, barely distinguishable as human. It felt like when I had watched Buddy and LeAnne, at the dance, together, intimate. They stood so close, one boy and one girl, that their forms dissolved back and forth into each other. They might have been kissing, or dancing, or fighting; the air between them crackled, quite literally, snapping with lightning sparks.
I blinked, trying to recognize them. Was I seeing another death vision, some frozen specter from the past? The girl pressed forward against the boy, bringing him to the edge of the balcony. She reached her hands up, as if to cup his neck, draw his lips onto hers, but instead gave his head a wrenching twist. The sparks around them both flared like fireflies as she – impossibly – picked him up and tossed him off the balcony easily as throwing a puppy in a well.
I gasped then, as the body fell, disappearing as if it had never been at the precise moment of impact. Hands shaking, I pushed my sweaty palms together, fingers tangled in prayer. Looking back up to the balcony, I saw her. The little girl, standing where the stranger had been, solid as if she was flesh and blood. She looked back at me, eyes widening. Abruptly she turned and disappeared. I swore I could hear a child’s patter on the stairs, though they were over a hundred yards from me and enclosed in columns and walls.
The little girl, hair pristine as a Tenniel drawing, flounced out of the stairwell and approached the room, as if she was coming to tell me a secret. Then she stopped, frustrated in her approach, right at the edge of the multi-purpose room that currently served as a holy church. She stood for a moment, up against an invisible wall, and something akin to fury marred her child’s brow.
Then we stood, and sang a hymn, and joined hands. By the time the mass was over, the girl was gone.
Alice and Jeremy stayed with the priest and the two adults afterwards. Jeremy said they’d reset the room for the Protestants, then do the next Catholic service after that. I walked with Andrew out into the hall, following the flow of people again. Some shuffled, some talked to themselves, but everyone seemed quieter now, at least to me. Perhaps they had found a little piece during the service. I shuddered, remembering the horror I had witnessed instead.
As we entered the main hall, I saw the giant front door propped open with a trunk as an older Black man wrestled with a second one. It looked awkward, and heavy, but relatively ordinary. I assumed a new patient was checking in, I guess.
The reaction from the crowd washing around us was anything but ordinary. I could track the moment each person saw him, as horror popped their eyes wide and panic turned vacant faces rigid. I could almost smell the fear pheromones pouring off everyone around me. Except for Andrew. He looked as baffled as I felt. We struggled to hold our ground as the group surged with speed, people fleeing upstairs, and down hallways, like frightened rabbits hiding from a hound by burrowing.
Paula, seated at the front desk, saw us and beckoned us over. We struggled against the tide to reach the large wooden desk and the cheery redheaded woman behind it.
“Oh, good, you two can help us! Andrew, you go help Thomas carry Dr. Freeman’s things to his room, he’ll be staying the night. Rachel, I’ve got a chore for you as well. You’ll get the operating room set up for him, how about that?”
Andrew followed Paula’s pointing finger, joining the man at the front door. Between them, they were able to pull both trunks into the hall. Just as they were lifting one up together, a tidy bearded man entered grandly swinging a cane, as if he was walking onto a stage in a packed theater, rather than the now-empty hospital hallway.
Paula pulled my attention back, snapping her fingers under my chin. Not as if she was annoyed with me, more as if she were calling a favorite pet to heel.
“You know where the supply closet is, right? Across from the room you were in on Friday night. That’s where Dr. F. does his procedures on the days he visits us. I need you to pull a dozen towels out, as well as the mop, and get the Borax mixed up. Gotta clean that whole room up, sterile as we can get it. I’ll have nurses do the cleaning, but it’d be a real help if you got everything ready for them. Okay?”
I nodded. The small man approached Paula and she reached a hand out to take his. Before I saw them clasp, I was gone, hurrying down the isolation wing towards the closet as ice trickled down my spine.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Sunday, 25 October 1953
9:00 – Breakfast
10:00 – 2:00 Services in Multi-Purpose Room
12:00 – Lunch
1:00 – Dr. Freeman
6:00 – Dinner
10:00 – Bedtime
Even at midday, the hallway was dim. I glanced out a barred window as I walked. Gray clouds scuttled across a cold steel sky. For a moment I paused, watching them chase each other, unsure which was predator and which prey.
Then I heard a low groan, inhuman, like a sticky door being opened or old furniture dragged across the floor. It slid into a strange muttering that resembled words, like notes purposefully played flat; it was the eeriest thing I had ever heard. I turned away from the window and walked toward the sound, coming from behind one of the patient room doors, fortified with bars. The chanting – that’s what it sounded like most, like the Latin parts of the mass as intoned by one of the witches from Macbeth – came from the door labeled “Kim.”
I stood on tiptoe to see through the small, barred window. She wasn’t completely shackled; only one leg was bound with a huge metal ring and she was chained to the post in the floor like she was a carnival bear.
Kim’s face was pale except for bloodshot eyes and a bleeding, savage set of scratches down her cheek. The scratches bled and oozed, completely unhealed. I watched her take her hand, form it into a claw, curled like Poe’s monkey’s paw. She dragged her nails down her face, plowing the red furrows she’d created – for how long? I thought I could almost see the silver of a tendon at her jawline but told myself it was my imagination.
I could never have imagined the smell though. It smelled like an old outhouse, fecal but also rancid, like spoilt shit. The walls were daubed with dark smears that I suspected were the source of the smell. As was Kim’s hair… looking closer, I could see that some of the mats had a more solid quality, as if she’d used some sort of pomade or wax or mud to coil her hair. And I knew what that pomade smelled like and it wasn’t Old Spice. Holding my gaze with her bloodshot one, Kim lifted one of the mats and place it deliberately in her mouth, sucking on it thoughtfully like a schoolgirl on the tip of her braid. I gagged. She spoke around it, words finally resolved into something I could understand.
“I can feel you standing there. It’s like a tiny, tiny candle flame trying to light a storm cloud the size of a continent. You can’t do anything. You will be extinguished, squelched like a bug, a firefly snipped out of existence. I can feel you. I can smell you. You want what I had. The secret, the spell, the music for the dancer.”
Kim struggled against her chain, twisting it into knots that screamed, metal on metal, shrill. She pulled herself as close to the door as she could, standing upright, somehow tall enough to look me in the eye. Her eyes glared red, then black, then a bloody muddy swirl.
“You are too frightened to try and even find her! You wouldn’t dare. Too afraid. Too much hers already. You’re gonna let the devil into West Virginia, you know – how awkward is that? I’d have thought she was here years ago, but oh no, you’re the lady of the hour, the one who’s going to set her free. You are the vein and she is the virus. She is coming.”
Shaking, I backed away, then turned and ran. Reaching the end of the hallway, I flung the closet door open, as if expecting it would yield some safety, some place to hide. Instead, I nearly ran into the pert form of Maggie, the ingénue nurse.
“Gee, Rachel, watch where you’re going. You could have really hurt me.”
Maggie was leaning over the open dumbwaiter, pulling out folded linens.
“These came up from the laundry, right downstairs. Fresh and clean. Take these to the room right there,” she pointed at the room where I’d spent my first night. “You’ll find the bucket ready to go. I prefer bleach over Borax, so we’ll be using that. Get started on the walls, first, then the floors. Got it?”
I nodded, reaching out my arms for the pile of towels and sheets. Had Maggie not heard everything happening in the hall? Glancing at the thick wooden door she’d been behind, I decided it was possible, maybe, barely…
“Get moving, then, Rachel! We don’t have all day. The doctor will be here by 1, once he finishes his luncheon with Superintendent March.”
With a nod, I backed out of the closet and turned into the room where I’d been tied up not even 48 hours before.
The same bed stood in the room, complete with leather straps. Beside it was a silver metal rolling tray filled with instruments. Set up on another cart was an awkward machine that looked like a swollen teapot without a spout.
I spotted a bucket in the center of the room, placed next to a floor drain. With a small shudder, I set down all but one of the towels on the bed, then dipped the towel into the bleach and set to work.
The smell of the bleach was a relief, cutting through and burning out the stench of Kim’s room. I had finished the walls and had started the floors when Maggie came in. She went directly to the strange machine, flipped it on, picked up a silver clamp from the metal tray of instruments, and placed it in the top of the machine, followed by the rest of the instruments.
“Autoclave,” she said by way of explanation, seeing me stare. “Dr. Freeman wants all his instruments freshly disinfected, even though he mostly brings his own. Lord knows how often he sterilizes those, to be honest.”
She seemed relaxed and chatty. I asked, “Who is he, anyway? This Dr. Freeman. Is it the guy everyone was running away from? Why would they do that?”
“He’s a great man, that’s who Dr. Freeman is. He’s all the way up in Washington D.C., at the biggest hospital of our kind, St. Elizabeth’s. And he teaches at a university up there. He comes here every few weeks for a day or two, helps us out with the hardest cases, then drives back. It’s very generous of him, if you ask me,” she declared.
Maggie continued to work, changing the sheets on the bed and wiping down the leather straps with alcohol. I tried to figure out if this answered my question and had just decided it didn’t when Doc Jimmy opened the door.
“Hello, Nurse Maggie,” he called. “Rachel, nice to see you. Wanted to check on when Dr. F will be down from lunch with the Supe.”
“1 pm,” said Maggie. “She’s got him at her very own dining table with a meal fit for a king, but he’s always on time. He’ll be here soon.”
Doc Jimmy smiled, holding open the door with a pristine black loafer while he pulled a pocket watch from his vest. It was silver, engraved with an elaborate tangle of initials, and tangled in with the jet beads of an old rosary. It caught my eye because the cross on the rosary was silver also and clanged lightly against the watch as Doc Jimmy unknotted them with skillful hands. With a quick glance at the time, Doc Jimmy smiled again, giving us each a little nod.
“I’d best be going then. The patients can take a little while to get prepped. See you in a few minutes.”
He closed the door carefully behind him.
“Where are the patients coming from?” I asked. “Will it be kids I know?” I looked at the instruments and bed, wondering what exactly this doctor did.
“Mostly they’re coming from the CI wing,” Maggie said offhandedly, double checking the arrangement of instruments she’d recreated out of the autoclave, like an artist evaluating a palette.
“CI?” I asked.
“Criminally Insane. Where Doc Jimmy usually works, when he’s not on weekends, or with his daughter. She takes more of his time than his patients sometimes,” Maggie sniffed, draping a clean towel over the instrument tray once she was satisfied.
Criminally insane? I wondered, shocked. What kind of hospital am I in?
The door opened again, flung all the way boldly this time, unlike Doc Jimmy’s gentle intrusion. The knob banged against the inner tiled wall and rebounded closed. By then, the trim gentleman on the other side had stepped forward. I was in a closed room with Dr. Freeman.
He had small, round wire-rimmed glasses, a neat goatee and dapper suit. The glasses were almost the exact same as Doc Jimmy’s, but whereas Doc looked like Jiminy Cricket, this Dr. veered closer to Mephistopheles. His smile was intended to be charming, and showed nice straight teeth, but it reminded me of a fox, grinning at its lunch.
Maggie seemed quite taken with him, however. She swept over to greet him, extending a hand before leaning in for a two-cheeked European kiss.
“Dr. Freeman! You honor us with your presence. Did you have a good trip from D.C.?”
“Oh, yes, yes,” he said offhandedly, “Thomas saw to it. I sat in the back of the car and read the whole way, actually. Now then, is this Rachel?”
Dr. Freeman breezed past Maggie to me, taking one of my hands in both of his. I thought for a second he was going to kiss it and recoiled. He clasped it tighter.
“I’ve heard so much about you, Rachel. It’s a delight to meet you.”
I opened my mouth to ask how, but Maggie interrupted.
“She was just going, Doctor. I know you need a proper nurse to assist you. She was only helping clean up. Good for the patients to have responsibilities, you know?”
“Oh, indeed, indeed, I do know,” he said. “Very good for patients to feel they are contributing to their own healing. I’d like her to stay, actually, help me out. Spend some time with young Rachel here, get to know her.”
Maggie gritted her teeth. I could tell because her silky rouged cheek flexed in a most unbecoming way.
“Of course, Doctor. Rachel, you can fetch towels for us.”
“No, no,” Dr. Freeman responded, shaking his head until his goatee twitched. “You head over to the ECT room and help out over there, Nurse Maggie. Or I’m sure you have many other duties to attend to. Rachel will be a fine assistant for the afternoon, right, Rachel?”
I looked at Maggie. The nurse turned quickly, so quickly the rubber sole of her shoe squeaked on the linoleum. The door rebounded one more time off the far wall and slammed shut behind her.
Dr. Freeman’s olive eyes twinkled behind his glasses.
“That’s set her off, hasn’t it?”
I couldn’t help it. I giggled. Dr. Freeman chuckled, almost a hiccupping sound accompanied by taking off and polishing his glasses on a large paisley handkerchief.
A rapping at the door broke the moment. Dr. Freeman winked at me as he turned to open it.
“Ah, ah, this will be my man Thomas, with the gear. Come in, Thomas. You know where everything goes. This is Rachel; she’ll be assisting us today.”
Thomas, the black man I’d seen with Dr. Freeman earlier, came in carrying a large wooden box with a brass clasp. He nodded at me, eyes alert, and set the box down beside the autoclave. With ease born of practice, Thomas unlocked the box and pulled out what looked like a solid silver ice pick and child-sized hammer.
“You must excuse my Thomas,” Dr. Freeman continued, “He’s not much of one for chatter. Great man. Wonderful driver. One of my recent patients, you know, right out of the army.”
“Europe or Pacific?” I asked, curious. Papa had nearly had to go. Would have gone if he hadn’t had both his legs broken when he was, as he put, ‘a young punk.’ They’d never healed right; he walked with a limp.
“Neither,” Dr. Freeman said, looking at me with interest, like a scientist studying a pinned insect. “Korea.”
“Korea?” I asked. “Well, I guess that counts as Pacific.”
“Not really,” the doctor responded. He beckoned me over, looked in my eyes, placed a hand on my chin and turned my head gently side to side before pressing three fingers around each of my eyes. I pulled back. Undeterred, he asked,
“Where do you think you are, Rachel?” His tone was soft, almost like a hissing snake.
“A hospital.” I answered.
“And why do you think you’re here?” He sounded slightly condescending to me, suddenly. I twisted away from him in irritation, refusing to look at him.
“Because I was in a car accident,” I muttered. Buddy’s drowning face, the log that wasn’t his body, the little girl I swerved to avoid swam up in my mind. What was real? The girl was a ghost, I was now convinced. Was I imagining her? Was I imagining Buddy? The whole thing?
Dr. Freeman took a step closer, laid a hand on my shoulder.
“Yes, yes, you were. That is true. On Friday night, you stole a car from the parking lot and drove it into the river, that’s what I heard.”
“Stole a car?” I shrugged his hand off, surprised. “No way, I’d never steal anything. that was my car. And it was at the high school dance. Homecoming.”
The doctor sighed, as if this moved him.
“Not this time, honey.” He stepped away from me to open the door again in response to a light knock I’d missed, muttering “Not sure that I agree with the treatment choice. I think my way is better…”
Doc Jimmy rolled the first patient in, unconscious on a gurney. It was an older man, grizzled and drooling. With Thomas’s help, they transferred him to the bed and strapped him down. I remembered very well the feeling of those leather restraints; in a way, I envied the man his peaceful sleep.
Dr. Freeman chuckled as he picked up the icepick and hammer.
“Did you know, Rachel, that the first instrument I used for this surgery came out of my very own kitchen drawer?” He turned the silver over in his hand expertly, catching the fluorescent light, sending a glare into my eyes. I squinted, just as he lifted the man’s left eyelid and plunged the icepick into his head, toggling it around like he was scraping the bottom of a jam jar for the final spoonful.
The blood started when he pulled out the pick and went into the other eye, wiggling the icepick vigorously before retracting it in a second rush of red. Doc Jimmy wrapped a bandage around the bleeding holes in the man’s head before he and Thomas moved the man back to his gurney. The whole thing took less than a minute.
“Say, say, next time, leave the fella in the gurney. They’re completely out. No need to work harder than we have to, boys, right?”
Neither of the ‘boys’ did anything more than nod as they wheeled the man out.
“They’ll be back in a minute with another,” said Dr. Freeman, wiping the icepick down with alcohol. “Did you know – my very first surgery was a housewife, named Ellen. Violently suicidal, then, like magic, at peace. This procedure saves lives, Rachel. However gruesome it may look.”
I lifted a hand to my face. Skin to skin, both felt ice cold.
“I can do it two-handed, even. I’ll show you with the next one. Very efficient. Not too many patients today but one time last year, when I was here for two weeks, I did over 225 procedures. 25 women helped in a single day even! It’s revolutionary, Rachel. Really.”
“Now then, help me straighten up. Wipe up that spill over there and move all these things out of the way.” He gestured first to a pool of blood on the floor where the patient’s head has been, then at the tray of instruments. “All I need is right here,” he said with pleasure, waving the pick and hammer. “Simplicity itself.”
Doc Jimmy and Thomas rolled in the second patient, a young man this time, skinny to the point of skeletal with long brown hair. Lying there, he looked to me like the stone effigy of a knight, representing the dead hero entombed beneath him.
His face stayed peaceful as Dr. Freeman set two ice picks in his eye sockets. Thomas handed him the second set, complete with mallet. Once the picks were placed, the doctor picked up a mallet in each hand and tap tap tapped his way into the man’s skull. Then, still simultaneously, like a gruesome piece of theater, he stirred the picks first clockwise, then counter, before withdrawing them. Through the rush of blood, this time I could see matter on the edge of the picks – whitish grey, like old cheese.
Dr. Freeman talked the whole time.
“Jimmy,” he began, as he jabbed into the patient’s eyes, “You really should let me take a look at Nancy. This procedure could help her. Why, I had a patient, sick with the baby blues, a little tap and stir, and she’s now back home with her family! Wouldn’t you like that for Nancy?”
“Thank you, Doctor, for the thought. I appreciate that you want to help her. It’s not the right treatment for her, though. As her doctor and her father, I am convinced that more… gradual methods will work best.”
Dr. Freeman persisted.
“Come, come, she could forget all about her lost baby in ten minutes and move on with her life! Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like that!”
Doc Jimmy paused then, as he wrapped the patients bleeding eyes, and spoke quietly and firmly.
“There was no baby. There was never a baby. Nancy doesn’t have the baby blues. She has a delusion.”
Dr. Freeman waved this minor concern away.
“Even better ! With this, and maybe a hysterectomy, you never have to worry about her having a child at all. Why, I had a patient, a Kennedy mind you, who, poor dear, was born a bit touched in the head. Touched by forceps, I understand, mind you!” he rattled on, cleaning his instruments as Thomas and Doc Jimmy prepared to roll the patient out.
“This was a few years ago. I hadn’t perfected my method yet. We went through the top of her head, I believe, and she was even awake. Tranquilized, though, of course. I’m not a butcher. It was fascinating though. My partner at the time, Dr. Watts, did the cutting, while I quizzed our patient. Had her reciting the Lord’s Prayer and singing God Bless America until she could no longer remember the words, and that’s when we knew we were done.”
Doc Jimmy unlocked the gurney and began to roll it away. Right before he went out the door, following Thomas, he said over his shoulder,
“Indeed, Dr. Freeman. And she is now an incontinent, institutionalized, incompetent child. I will not do that to my Nancy.”
Dr. Freeman shrugged as they left.
“She’s much less trouble to her family, you know, Rachel. That’s counts for something too.”
I looked at him for a moment then turned to mopping up the puddle of blood on the tile. The rolling gurney had tracked it in bright streaks almost to the door. It smeared and spread as I scrubbed at it, seeming to grow rather than retreat. I imagined the whole room swimming in blood, if I wasn’t there to mop it. So many patients came and went that afternoon. If I hadn’t been there to mop up, there would have been a lake of blood. I kept myself distracted, scrubbing at the floor like Lady Macbeth wringing her hands, trying to get the damn spot out.
It could have been minutes or hours – the patients came and went. Tap, tap into the eye socket. Wrap, wrap up the wound. Mop, mop the blood off the floor. I was in a daze when Doc Jimmy took my elbow and guided me toward the door.
“Here, I think you’d be helpful with this last patient. Thomas can handle things. Come with me, Rachel, if you would.”
His voice was gentle, but insistent. I walked out into the hallway. The afternoon gloom had turned into murky night. I couldn’t believe how late it had gotten. As if he had the same thought, Doc Jimmy pulled out his entwined watch and rosary, flipping the silver case open to find the time.
“It got late, didn’t it? You’d best hustle to supper after we get Kim through the procedure.”
“Kim?” I asked.
“That’s the final patient. She’s down the hall. I figured you’d be a comfort to her.”
“Does this…” I hesitated, “Does Dr. Freeman’s procedure work?”
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” he answered gently. “I hope that someday we won’t need it at all. There’s drugs being developed that will change everything. One in France right now, Thorazine, that might be a miracle for girls like you, or for Nancy.”
Wordlessly I reached out a hand for his watch. He passed it to me like I was a toddler seeking a shiny object. Turning it over in my hand, the watch was cool and heavy. On the back, curling script said, ‘To James, from a grateful patient.’
“That’s lovely,” I said, curling the rosary and watch chain around my wrist like a bracelet, allowing the watch itself to settle into my hand like an egg into a nest.
“My commanding officer. In the war. I was a Navy corpsman. Once I hauled his bony… well, once I helped him out and then after the war, he helped me out. Helped me become a doctor.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said, following him as he walked down the hall, stride quiet but confident.
“It has been, it really has been. First of my family to go to college, much less medical school.”
“You don’t sound, well, from around here,” I implicitly asked, and he didn’t – his accent wasn’t lengthened or burred like a native West Virginian. He sounded like the people on TV, Northerners, all sharp consonants and enunciation.
“I’m from Baltimore. Used to work at St. Elizabeth’s, that’s where I met Dr. Freeman. He took to me, and when the job here came up, as a department head, recommended me for it. Not many Black men are doctors, much less department heads. Even if it is the CI ward.”
I nodded, not quite understanding, though I felt I should. We had reached Kim’s door and I felt my heart freeze in my chest at the memory of what Kim had looked like a few hours before – encrusted in filth, furious as a vengeful spirit and chanting like a witch. I pulled back a little as he unlocked the door and entered after him, reluctantly.
The room was shining white, tiles looking freshly scrubbed. Kim lay peacefully on a bed in the center of the room, no restraints, no chains, hair loose and dark on her shoulders. She looked like a sleeping princess, not a maniac.
“Here,” Doc Jimmy said, “she’s already been sedated. All we need to do is wheel her bed down the hall. Take the end by her head and I’ll take the foot.”
I still had the watch and rosary wrapped loosely around my hand. One of the ebony beads brushed Kim’s forehead as I crossed behind her. At its touch, she let out the shrieking wail of a damned soul and opened her eyes, black to the edges. I jumped back as she began to chant again, mouth frothing.
Doc Jimmy looked disappointed, but not surprised.
“Too bad. I’d hoped to spare her this part.” Expertly, he bound her limbs to the bed with leather restraints, including one wrapped tightly around her forehead and one around her neck, then placed a leather strap in her mouth as well in some combination of gag and bit. She writhed like an animal in a trap.
“Come on,” Doc Jimmy waved me back into position, “we’ll need to take her to ECT now, so she’s unconscious before the procedure. She was supposed to be sedated…” he muttered as we wheeled her through the main entry way to the far wing. We went past the room where I’d been admitted, all the way to the very end of the hall.
There a door stood open. We maneuvered Kim’s gurney through the passage as she turned her head side to side, eyes now wide, white, and rolling. Inside the room was the grim older woman, along with George. They stood on either side of a strange machine, covered in dials and switches like something from H.G. Wells.
“Superintendent March,” Doc Jimmy said, “I hadn’t expected to find you doing the honors yourself.”
The woman sniffed, nose narrow and pinched. “Hardly an honor.” She fixed small pads on Kim’s temples. “Now, stand back.”
I had barely pressed myself against the wall before she flipped the main switch. Kim jerked, heaving forcefully against the creaking straps. She shuddered and foamed. I couldn’t bear it. I didn’t know the girl, not really, had only seen her a few times, but this was too much – seeing the gaunt grey woman inflicting such torment on a girl my own age – it was too much. I slid along the wall, trying to make myself invisible, aiming for the door.
George touched my hand as I went by him, whispered “It’s okay. Get some air. I’ll help Doc Jimmy.”
I couldn’t do anything but look at him, hoping my eyes conveyed how grateful I was. He smiled at me, a small spark of warmth in his eyes in return.
Then I slipped out the door and was running down the hallway and up the stairs, gasping. I felt light-headed, is if I submerged under water, without air. Like I’d felt in the river, drowning. As if I existed half outside my body and with a simple shift to the left or step to the right I could step entirely out and observe myself fleeing up the stairs. I wasn’t sure what I was fleeing from.
The stairs were wood, and old, but carpeted with a sleek polished handrail curling upwards like a vertical labyrinth. On a landing above me a figure flickered, a girl in an old-fashioned white nightgown with a broad silk hairband. She held, resolved into focus for a moment and smiled, beckoning with her head. Her face was sweetly curved in a heart shape, but her features were unresolved, blurred like a doll into vague perfection. She turned and pelted away, disappearing. I could hear her light child’s footsteps above me. I caught flashes of her as I ran, popping in and out of my vision like a flashbulb until I reached the top of the stairs, past even the children’s floor, and could go no further.
I stepped out onto an interior balcony and looked down. Below me was the multi-purpose room, which had served as a chapel that morning. Now, at evening, men and women in a strange assortment of clothes, from bathrobes to one man in a suit and trench coat sat around tables, playing pinochle and euchre and working on puzzles. But the games seemed as mismatched as the people. What looked like euchre was something alien, without rules or reason and every puzzle seemed to be randomly assembled.
Looking around the balcony, I saw to my left a huge movie projector, turned off, lens pointed downwards like the bill of a sleeping bird. A wave of vertigo passed through me, I swayed, realizing that this is where I’d seen my last vision – where the girl had thrown the boy, the princess had killed her prince… It was too much.
Desperate as a cornered animal, I looked for an escape and saw a door ajar on the far side of the projector, creaking closed, as if someone had just passed. The little girl, I knew, had gone before me and I was compelled to follow. I did, up a narrow set of stairs that disgorged me at the peak of the building – the bell tower.
The wind was cold, and the stars provided little light. Just enough that I could see the huge bronze arc of the bell and behind it, silhouetted against the night, the little girl. She sat almost primly on the low stone wall encircling the bell, ankles crossed, hands folded in her lap. I walked warily around the bell to reach her, not sure what to call out, or if I should, or whether she could, or would answer.
The question of what she was didn’t cross my mind.
By the time I reached the far edge, she was gone. I stood looking out on Weston, West Virginia, my home. Well, not quite my home itself – I tried to find it, squinting past the high school football field, out towards the pastures, where my folks had settled down.
I could see Papa’s car lot though, beside the gas station, on the far side of the river but only barely. I pictured Papa there working, maybe doing the books on a Sunday night, while Mama made dinner. I let my small fantasy stop there, not wanting to continue to the inevitable end of the evening – Papa drunk on the couch while Mama seethed and smoked and I retreated into a corner of the couch and a favorite Gothic novel. I lingered instead at the moment before the nightly downfall, when the family was hopeful, again and again, when I was hopeful, again and again, that this night would be different.
I felt a shift in the air first, that feeling before an orchestra starts to play, when a singer pauses to take a breath before opening their throat into song. Then a moving of air, a shift, a suction back away from me then a flow forward, like a breeze, but heavier, weightier, wetter, even.
Finally, the last thing I remember was the noise overwhelming me, banging through my breastbone, up my spine, and into my head. Clanging, clanging, the entire universe reduced to the roiling ring of the bell. It surrounded me, took over my consciousness, until I was not merely the bell itself, but the sound waves, sent vibrating through the air out over the starlit town.