“I’m sorry things turned out like this,” Emory’s mother said, her eyes staring blankly at the road ahead.
“It’s okay,” Emory replied.
His mother glanced at him, prying a hand off the steering wheel and patting his shoulder. “I promise everything will work out. It’s just until your grandmother gets better.”
Emory nodded. “I know.”
The road braided through the thick forest, weaving between rocky cliff sides and pine trees. Raindrops splattered gently against the windshield. In the distance, Callaghan Manor loomed out of the mist.
Emory’s mother parked in the gravel driveway, their shoes crunching as they stepped out of the car. The air was chilly and still. Callaghan Manor was an insane asylum, although Emory’s mother hated using that term. It was a mass of brick and stone that sat on a remote hill, at least an hour’s drive from the nearest town. Emory thought it almost looked like a castle, with a big wooden door tucked between two towers.
The inside had a peculiar smell, one that sent shivers down Emory’s spine. It was a mix of medicine and antiseptic, and something else that he couldn’t quite place. The walls were covered in cream-colored wallpaper, the floors made of creaky wood. The decor was minimal, a few old leather sofas and chairs and some board games.
Callaghan’s patients milled about, dressed in loose-fitting gowns and slippers. Some sat in wheelchairs, staring blankly out the large windows. Others played checkers or talked to themselves or simply rocked back and forth on their feet. Nurses scurried about, dressed in crisp white uniforms and carrying trays or clipboards.
“Can I help you?” a nurse asked.
“Yes, I’m here to see my mother, Jane Bledell?”
The nurse smiled pleasantly. “Of course, right this way.”
She led them down a winding hallway into the common room, which had
floor to ceiling windows that looked out into the mountains. Emory’s grandmother sat in a wheelchair in the corner, dressed in a white gown and a brown sweater. Her short gray hair hung limply against her face.
“Jane,” the nurse said gently, placing a hand on her shoulder, “you have some visitors.”
Emory’s mother sat in front of her, putting on a big, fake smile. His grandmother stared at her, her eyes empty and unrecognizing. Jane Bledell was only seventy-five, but she looked as if she might have been a hundred. Her skin was sallow and dull, with dark circles under her sunken eyes. Emory couldn’t remember a day in his life that he hadn’t seen her in full hair and makeup, but now she looked like a crumpled, broken version of herself.
“How do you like it here?” Emory’s mother asked slowly.
Emory looked at his sneakers, a sinking feeling in his chest. “Mom, I don’t think she knows who we are.”
“Hush. She can hear you.”
Emory winced. He wasn’t sure she could.
Emory’s mother asked a few more questions, trying desperately to get a reaction. After an hour she sat back on the sofa, trying to hide the frustration on her face. Emory’s grandmother stared straight ahead, oblivious to the world around her.
A nurse with short blonde hair and red lipstick walked over, setting down a basket of rags. “Is everything alright?”
“No, actually, it’s not.” Emory’s mother clenched her hands in her lap. “I was told my mother had a nervous breakdown, but she’s completely unresponsive.”
The nurse nodded. “We usually treat hysteria with a series of sedatives, in your mother’s case, strong ones. I know it may be a bit alarming, but I assure you it’s completely normal.”
“Normal?” Emory could hear the anger in his mother’s voice. “She doesn’t
recognize her own daughter.”
The nurse blinked, caught off guard. “Well…”
Emory’s mother cut her off. “I’d like to see the doctor in charge of my mother’s case.”
“Oh, I’m not sure that will be possible, you see-”
“I’m not leaving until I see him.”
“I…” the nurse swallowed, “I’ll see what I can do.”
She hurried away down the hallway, returning a moment later with a tight expression. “Right this way, ma’am.”
Emory and his mother followed her to the opposite wing, which had a tall tower at the end. She led them through a series of hallways, stopping at an ornate wooden door with a brass handle. The frosted glass above the door was tilted inward to let the heat in. The nurse knocked softly, twisting the knob when a soft “come in” was heard.
“Dr. Kline, this is Mrs. Whitman, Jane Bledell’s daughter. She has some questions for you,” the nurse explained.
Dr. Kline was tall and handsome, with thick black hair and green eyes behind wire-brimmed glasses. He was dressed in a tweed suit and a white coat, with a black fountain pen tucked into the breast pocket. “Of course, Mrs. Whitman, it’s wonderful to meet you,” Dr. Kline said, shaking her hand. “And this must be your son?”
“Yes, this is Emory,” Emory’s mother said.
“Nice to meet you as well, Emory,” Dr. Kline replied, nodding at him.
He gestured for them to take a seat, the nurse closing the door softly behind her. His office was large but cluttered, with leather bound books filling every shelf. The tables were covered with papers and notebooks, the walls with various charts of the brain and the human body.
“You’ll have to excuse the mess, I know.” Dr. Kline smiled, catching Emory
looking around. “Unfortunately my research leaves little time for cleaning. But what can I help you with?”
“Yes, I was told my mother suffered a nervous breakdown a few weeks ago.
My husband thought it best to place her here. But the medicine you have her on seems to be too strong,” Emory’s mother replied matter-of-factly.
“From what I was able to glean from previous medical records and my own expertise, your mother has been suffering from anxiety over the last decade or so, would you say that’s correct?”
“Yes, I suppose so. My father’s death was very hard for her.”
Dr. Kline leaned forward. “Anxiety is a very tough thing to deal with, especially for a woman who has lost her husband. Everything can seem incredibly overwhelming. Did your mother ever seek help for her nerves?”
“No, not that I’m aware of.” Emory noted the annoyance in his mother’s voice. “I believe she was used to it, in a sense. She was always rather excitable.”
“Yes, and when anxiety is left untreated for so long, it’s no wonder she suffered the episode that she did.”
“I appreciate your hard work, but I would like to transfer her somewhere else.”
“Mrs. Whitman, if you don’t mind me saying, I don’t think you like it here.” Dr. Kline folded his hands on his desk.
Emory’s mother scoffed. “Of course not! Who would?”
“It makes most people uncomfortable, yes, but you in particular have been irritable and nervous just in the short time we’ve been talking.”
“Dr. Kline, I have never heard something so rude as to-”
“I don’t mean to offend, Mrs. Whitman, not at all, I merely mean that this building has a very well-known history, and that is hard to accept for most people.”
Emory sat silently in his chair, pretending to be distracted by one of the books on Dr. Kline’s desk. His mother drummed her fingers on the armrest, her mouth quirked in anger. “I think this is an unholy place with an even more horrendous past, and I don’t
want my family anywhere near it again.”
“I more than understand that, Mrs. Whitman. When I was first offered a job here, I was quite compelled to turn it down. Unspeakable things happened here when this was a sanitarium, things that I will never make an excuse for. But all of those doctors are long gone, and I promise you that a completely new age of medicine has made its way to our doors. Callaghan Manor is committed to health and prosperity.”
“My own mother didn’t recognize me, Doctor. You call that a ‘new age of medicine’? You’ve turned her into a vegetable!”
“You see, when she was first admitted, your mother was...Excited, as you said. She bit a nurse,” Dr. Kline said gently.
Emory’s mother shifted in her chair. “She...Bit someone?”
“Yes, I’m afraid we had to restrain her after that. The sedatives she is on now are very strong, yes, but they keep her from putting herself and others in danger.”
“But she doesn’t know or recognize us at all.”
“I understand how alarming all of this is. Seeing a loved one is this state is uncomfortable. I assure you that the side effects will wear off in a few weeks, and she’ll be back to her old self again.”
“So we can take her home?” Emory interrupted.
Dr. Kline thought for a moment. “It’s possible, yes. Right now we are still in the
early stages of treatment, so it’s difficult to tell. I assure you I have my best staff working on it, and they are coming out with new medicines every day. The future looks very optimistic.”
Emory’s mother sighed. “Well, that’s nice to hear.”
“If you truly do want to transfer her, I would understand. However, I have taken the liberty of starting her on a series of medications that look very promising. We would be able to see the results in three weeks.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“In my professional opinion, given the state and age of your mother, I think transferring her would put far too much stress on her body. Since her medication will yield results in three weeks, I suggest you leave her in my care for the meantime. If, in three weeks, the results are not what we hoped for, I will look into another place we can send her.”
Emory’s mother thought for a few moments, pressing her lips together in the way
she always did when she thought. Finally, she sighed. “I suppose that you know what’s best for my mother, and I do want her to get better. I’ll give you three weeks.”
“Wonderful!” Dr. Kline stood up and buttoned his coat. “I’m terribly sorry to have to run out on you, but I do need to check in with a few of my patients.”
Emory’s mother nodded. “It was nice to meet you, Doctor, thank you for your help.”
She grabbed Emory’s hand and turned toward the door.
“Oh, one more thing I almost forgot about. Do you know a Laurence?” Dr. Kline asked.
Emory’s mother froze. “Why do you ask?”
“Some of the nurses have overheard your mother talking to someone named Laurence, though we have no patients by that name.”
“I see.” Emory’s mother shut her eyes for a moment. “Laurence was my twin brother. He died of tuberculosis when we were seven.”
A look of horror crossed Dr. Kline’s face. “Was your brother treated here?”
Dr. Kline pursed his lips in understanding. “Ah, I see. Often times, memories become very blurred to our patients in these circumstances. No doubt it’s very strange for her brain to process right now. That’s all very normal at this stage.”
Emory noticed his mother’s face had grown very pale. They left the Manor in a hurry. Emory could see the whites of his mother’s knuckles as she gripped the steering wheel.
They returned the next week on a Sunday. Emory still wore his church clothes, his mother deciding it would be faster to leave from the service. The rain had stopped, and the sky was a bright, flawless blue. The autumn air was crisp and cool on Emory’s cheeks, their Thunderbird pulling to a stop on the gravel driveway once again.
Emory’s grandmother was in the same place as last time, staring out the large common room windows. They hadn’t noticed before because of the mist, but outside
lay a sprawling garden, patients and nurses wandering through the tall green hedges.
“Can we go outside?” Emory asked.
“I suppose some fresh air might do your grandmother some good,” Emory’s mother agreed. “Excuse me, is it alright if we take my mother outside?” she asked a passing nurse.
“Of course. We just have one rule about the grounds. This is a rural area and it can get very dangerous, so we ask that everyone stay out of the woods.”
“Of course,” Emory’s mother replied, wheeling his grandmother outside.
“Enjoy!” the nurse called. “But remember,” she looked at Emory, “don’t go in the woods.”
Slowly, they wheeled Emory’s grandmother down a ramp and into the grass, where a long marble bench stood in front of a fountain. Emory’s grandmother moved a little in her wheelchair, her head turning slowly.
“Mother?” Emory’s mother gazed at her.
His grandmother lifted a shaking hand, as if she were reaching for something. It fell limply back in her lap, and she stared at it, surprised. “Where did Laurence go?”
Emory jumped. His grandmother’s voice sounded faint and hollow, as if she had breathed the words instead of speaking them.
Emory’s mother clenched her jaw. “Laurence is dead, Mother. He died forty years ago.”
“Mother, do you know who I am?”
Emory’s grandmother didn’t look at her. “You are another lying nurse.”
“No, I’m your daughter, Constance? Constance Bledell?”
No response. A chilly breeze swept through the garden, making Emory shiver and
draw his arms to his chest.
“Emory, could you go inside and get your grandmother’s sweater? I think we left it on the chair,” his mother said, her voice flat.
Emory hurried back up the steps. The common room was empty when he
returned, most of the patients sitting out in the garden. A few of the orderlies rushed about, talking amongst each other in words Emory didn’t understand. He wandered through the furniture, looking for the brown sweater.
“Pssst, hey,” a voice whispered.
Emory whirled. A boy around his age sat by the fireplace, his grandmother’s sweater in his arms.
“Hey!” Emory said. “That’s my grandmother’s. Give it back.”
The kid grinned. “Or what?”
“Or I’ll get one of the nurses and you’ll get in trouble.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will, watch.” Emory turned to find one of the nurses, waving his arm to get her attention. He turned back to point at the boy, but there was no one. The sweater was crumpled in a pile on the floor.
Two more weeks went by, and each day they visited, Emory kept an eye out for the boy. Sometimes he would catch a glimpse of him slipping around a corner, or he would feel a tug at his sleeve and whirl around to see a flash of his brown hair. Emory could never quite catch up to him though, and was left stumbling through the hallways, looking for his new friend.
One sunny Tuesday afternoon, one of the nurses informed Emory’s mother that Dr. Kline needed to see her in his office. They were sitting out in the garden, Emory watching quietly as his grandmother stared at the fountain. And so he was left alone with her, and given a small red ball to play with. He placed it in the freshly cut grass, kicking it in slow circles around the fountain, glancing up every few minutes to see if his grandmother had moved.
Suddenly the boy appeared in front of him, taking him by surprise and kicking the ball between Emory’s feet.
“Hey!” Emory yelled.
It was too late. The ball sailed over the garden, skittering over the grass and rolling into the woods.
Emory frowned at him. “You’re mean.”
The boy gazed at him with a strange expression, one that made Emory’s stomach twist with guilt.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” he said. “That was just my ball.”
“You should go find it,” the boy said slowly.
Emory gazed back at the woods, shielding his eyes from the sun. “But the nurses told me not to go into the woods.”
The boy was gone when he turned back again. Sighing, Emory glanced around, and seeing that no one was watching and that his grandmother still hadn’t moved, he ran for the tree line. The ball had bounced down a small, tree covered hill, the forest floor slippery with pine needles. Several times, Emory lost his footing, sliding on the loose dirt and grabbing for a tree branch to steady himself. Behind Callaghan Manor was a steep drop, a narrow road leading to a door that was locked from the inside. To the left of the road was a large field.
Spying his ball, Emory scrambled down the hill and across the road, his sneakers sinking into the earth. No grass grew, and all the dirt was black, organized into huge mounds that covered the entire field.
Emory picked up his ball, brushing the dirt from it and looking around uncomfortably. And then the boy was there again, standing silently by Emory’s side and gazing at the ground.
“I’m sorry about your ball,” the boy said. “I won’t do it again.”
For a long while they stood there, unsure of what to say to each other.
“I’m Emory,” Emory said finally.
The boy smiled. “I’m Larry.”
Emory paused for another moment, staring at the strange mounds that covered the field. It looked as if someone had been digging, leaving piles of dirt to be washed
away by the rain. He glanced back at the Manor, with its dark stone facade and sprawling corridors.
“How did you kick my ball so far?” he asked.
Larry looked solemn. “I wanted to show you something.”
“Show me what?”
Larry pointed at the field in front of them.
“But there’s nothing here,” Emory said confusedly.
“Yes, there is,” Larry insisted quietly.
“What are they?”
“They used to bury the sick people here.”