I haven’t put any of my own writing in this blog yet, so here’s the introduction to my novel in progress, Isolation. Tell me what you think. Would you keep reading? Please Comment.
Found during the 2012 renovation of Shady Hills Mental Hospital:
January, 8th, 1918
I beg your forgiveness for my lapse in our correspondence. Rest assured it indicates no waning of my fondness for you, rather an overwhelming increase in my duties as a physician, here in Shady Hills.
I fear I may have erred in hoping for a quiet country life out West. The Spanish Flu, as I’m sure you know, (your own hospital having been ravaged by it not long ago,) is a formidable foe indeed.
Of late, I fear there may be a still more sinister illness making its way through my little town. The main trouble is, I am, as of yet, unable to find any consistency in the symptoms or presentation. Whether it is all one virus or many, I cannot say with any confidence. It has been like an epidemic of madness. I’m certain you’ll think me overly dramatic, but I tell you it is so.
Several patients of mine have, without warning, gone comatose. They sleep for days, weeks, months, and nothing can rouse them. Some have died in this condition. And yet, these are unlike comas I have seen in the past. The patients are unconscious, of this there is no doubt, but they stir, occasionally, or mutter things. They have been known to respond to music, or the voices of loved ones. They will sometimes squeeze one’s hand or move their hands and feet when prompted. To look at them, one would think they were merely napping, and could wake at any moment.
No head injury, nor known illness can be found in any of them. Stranger still, There have been, mixed in with the occurrences of these strange comas, cases of extreme insomnia, hyperactivity, and even violent mood changes. Dyskenesia is also common, as are headaches (of the migraine variety, I believe), and occulogyric and facial tics.
Everything indicates some malfunction of the central nervous system. I would be tempted to liken it to a burst of shrapnel to the brain, but my patients are civilians, without history of trauma, serious disease, or a congenital mental illness. I am at a loss as to what this could be, or how to proceed with treatment. Needless to say, this has everyone in town, myself included, on edge. I fear panic may ensue, if I remain unable to stem the spread of this infirmity, whatever it is. I pray, with your experience, you may be able to provide me some insight.
Give my best to Elizabeth and the girls.
Shady Hills Gazette May 2, 2012
Due in part to a renewed interest in public health following the Bird and Swine Flu epidemics, the mayor has decided to renovate the old Shady Hills Mental Institute. The Institue was built during the Flu Epidemic of 1918, and was originally intended to help house patients who needed to be quarantined. After the flu epidemic subsided, the town voted to keep the building open, but convert it to a long-term care facility that housed WWI veterans, people disabled by complication of the flu, and so on until the building lost it’s government funding in the 1960s. Current plans are to convert the building to a museum celebrating the town’s history and heritage. It is hoped that this will foster a sense of pride among residents and promote tourism. The renovations, beginning later this year, will be done by independent local contractor Frank Moore, the same man who renovated the high school gym so nicely.
* * * *
Before the headaches, Frank used to sleep soundly. Kyra used to joke that a marching band couldn’t wake him. Now, he was plagued by headaches that made colors flash before his eyes in time with the pounding in his head. Headaches so intense he sometimes prayed for death during them so he’d be free of the pain. Nothing blunted the pain. The only thing worse than the pain was the insomnia. He couldn’t sleep and he couldn’t shake the disturbing ideas that seemed to come out of nowhere, invading his brain.
He’d seen his doctor for the insomnia and headaches, but hadn’t mentioned the violent thoughts. The doctor dismissed both as products of stress and gave him sedatives to help him sleep. They hadn’t worked. He’d been awake for days now. He knew he was in bad shape. He was starting to see things.
He was walking in the park now, well after midnight. He’d gotten in the habit of going out at night even though he knew it worried Kyra. Staying still would be like ceasing to breathe- he’d smother. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. It was a… what do you call it? A compulsion. He was like those guys who wash their hands thirty times a day and turn the lights on and off over and over. Recognizing it for what it was didn’t make it easier to stop. His marriage was starting to crumble. People he cared about were starting to think he was crazy, an asshole, or some combination thereof.
The usual night crowd inhabited the park: teenagers drinking, druggies searching for a fix, and all two of the known hookers in town looking for customers. Lately, even they avoided him.
He broke out in a cold sweat as a searing pain flashed inside his head, leaving as quickly as it came. He stifled screamed, not because of the headache, but because he saw a man up ahead on the path pull out a switch blade and stab an old woman in the chest. Shock and horror registered on her face as bright arterial blood spurted from the wound. With a throaty gurgling, she crumpled to the ground. The scream caught in his throat as he realized no one else was screaming. The teenagers swilled their beers and wine coolers, the druggies continued their hand offs, and the hookers trolled for lonely men.
He looked again. The man was a Douglas fir growing beside the path. The old woman, a lilac bush. He wasn’t phased by how vivid it had been. Using the reactions of the people around him to determine what was real was all that still allowed him the appearance of sanity.
He wandered downtown, following the river, to the old grocery store to buy a stale turkey sandwich or a candy bar. Not because he was hungry, more to pass the time.
In the parking lot, he saw a blond girl carrying brown paper grocery bags. Before he was aware he’d changed course, he found himself following her. He hadn’t decided to, he just did. An uneasiness took root in his stomach as he followed her down the dark, deserted sidewalk. He was closing the distance between them. She was unaware of him, looking ahead at nothing in particular, humming something. He tried to stop, or turn around. He seemed disconnected from his body. Then he was behind her, wrapping her in a bear hug, knocking the grocery bags from her arms. He lifted her off her feet, carrying her off the sidewalk.
* * * *
Hailey tried to scream, but the man’s hold was too tight for her to take a deep breath. She kicked wildly, flailing, hitting nothing. The man stumbled as she threw her weight around, but remained upright and kept moving, maintaining his hold on her.
He dragged her to the alley. She swung her elbow into the side of his head. He dropped her. She landed hard, putting out her hands to catch herself. Pain shot through her left forearm. She scrambled to her feet, and turned to face him. Blood. He was bleeding. His forehead had split where she elbowed him, but his expression registered no pain. His face was slack, mask-like. His motions had an odd, spastic, mechanical quality. He reached out, grabbing her right arm above the elbow. She kicked at his groin, but he blocked the blow. She hit him in the ear as hard as she could with her left fist, ignoring the pain lingering in that arm. A wave of pain so intense she almost passed out shot up her arm and through her entire body. It seemed to phase him, but he didn’t let go. With a cry of desperation, she kicked the sole of her left boot into the man’s stomach with all her remaining strength. He grunted, his face still blank, and lost his grip on her as the force of the kick pushed them apart.
She turned and sprinted, glancing over her shoulder. The man was on the ground, making no move to get up. He shouted something, his head in his hands, his voice muffled. She could have sworn she heard him yell, “Run!”
* * * *
Frank sat in the grimy gravel of the alleyway. He couldn’t believe what just happened. He knew something was wrong with him, but nothing that explained this. He’d blacked out a couple of times, and sure, he had hallucinated, but he had never tried to hurt anyone. In the morning he’d call his doctor about all his symptoms. He’d get a second opinion, see a specialist if necessary. This had to stop. Now. The familiar ache started behind his eyes. As it grew in intensity, he couldn’t keep a conscious train of thought.
* * * *
Frank opened his eyes, and saw his front yard. He sat on the porch, slumped against the front of his house. He was cold, covered with dew. How long had he been here? How did he get home? He tried to remember, but couldn’t. His head throbbed, a vague, distant pain meaning this episode was almost over. He rubbed his temples. Wet. Why was his face wet? He looked at his hand, fighting to see through the fading pain. Blood. His hand was covered with blood. Not just his fingers where he’d touched his head. His whole hand. Soaked. He looked down at his sprawled, unresponsive body and found the same to be true of his clothes. Was he bleeding? If all this was his, it seemed like he should be dead. He took inventory of himself, as he began feeling sensations besides the all-encompassing ache in his head. Legs were sore. Maybe he’d picked a fight and had to run. Face and arms hurt. Why? It felt like someone etched random lines on his skin with a hot poker. He peeled off his jacket. His hands and his forearms were covered in scratches. Cat? Too wide and deep. Thorns? That didn’t seem right either. Nails. Fingernails. He was panicked, nauseous. This didn’t look like a fight. It looked like he attacked someone. Not many men had fingernails long enough to lay someone’s arm open.
He jumped to his feet. He had to get away from the house. Away from Kyra and Justin and the girls. Away from the people he loved. He didn’t know when the next blackout would come. He remembered his earlier thought that no one should be able to lose so much blood and live. Oh, God, no. What had he done? No memories remained, not even fragments.
He started running. At the park, he stopped, bent over from a stitch in his side, and started laughing. Not because anything was remotely funny, but because he remembered thinking the tree by the path stabbed the lilac bush last night. Of course! Why hadn’t he seen it before? He wasn’t really covered in someone else’s blood. This wasn’t real either. It couldn’t be.
He stopped laughing and sat on a park bench, still panting from the jog over. He was finally catching his breath when two men with matted beards and paper bags holding their bottles of breakfast, weaved his way. One stopped, looking at him, elbowing the other. Both did double takes.
“You two okay?” Frank asked, wondering if they’d ask him for money or just mug him.
“I’s ’bout tuh ask you that same queshion,” Said the bum who noticed him first. The bum blinked, squinted, and stared hard at him, “That your blood, or the other guy’s?”
“What? Look, I don’t want any trouble…” This man was obviously drunk. It was a complete coincidence that this guy shared his earlier hallucination. Coincidence. That’s all.
“Look, pal, it’s o’vious you got into it with somebody. I’s jus’ wonderin’ do you need help… Hey, an’ how come yer face an’ arms is scratched up like that? Whud you do? Knife fight a bob cat?” Whiskey scented laughter drifted his way.
Frank looked down. He was still covered in blood. His tee-shirt becoming stiff and brown as it began to dry. It was under his fingernails. The scratches on his hands and arms were starting to scab over. This was real. This was very real.
He took off running again as the drunks continued laughing. He could not- he would not go on like this. He was dangerous, not in control of himself. The time to try to fix this had come and gone. He wouldn’t put his family or anyone else in danger any longer. He knew what he had to do while he still had even a little free will left.
As he ran toward the freeway, it started to rain. By the time he got to the side of the road, it was pouring. He was completely soaked. As if sent by fate, a red semi truck came into view just as he stepped on to the sidewalk. As it got closer, he had nothing in his head but pounding blood and adrenaline. He didn’t let himself contemplate what he was about to do for fear he’d change his mind at the last second. As the truck approached, he had little flashes of family memories. Dancing with Kyra on their wedding day. Alicia helping him refinish the kitchen cabinets. Justin learning to ride a bike. Daisee taking her first steps. He timed it just right. When he stepped off the sidewalk, the driver had no time to react. And, for the first time in a long time, there was no pain. There was only darkness.
By the time Kyra awoke, and went outside to get the paper, all traces of blood on the front porch had been washed away.
* * * *
Hailey rolled out of bed and staggered to her tiny kitchenette. She heard the coffee pot kick on automatically, picked up her mug to fill it, and yelped in surprise. Burning! Her hand, her arm were on fire! She dropped the mug back on the counter as though it had bitten her. Last night! How do you forget something like that? Maybe she didn’t want coffee afterall. She went to the living room switched on the TV, trying not to think about the lingering smolder of pain. The face of the man who attacked her the night before flashed on the screen, startling her. What was that bastard doing on her TV?
The anchor said the man, Frank Moore from the caption, died instantly after jumping in front of a semi truck early that morning. It was almost certainly suicide.
She turned off the TV, pulled her hair back and dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. She drove to the hospital, signing herself in at urgent care. As she sat in the waiting room, she decided she wouldn’t tell anyone he attacked her. What would be the point? The man was dead. He couldn’t hurt her or anyone else ever again. His family had enough to deal with. The nurse called her back to the exam room. She changed, relieved the short sleeves of the exam gown covered the finger-shaped bruises on her arm. The paper on the exam table crinkled beneath her every time she moved. Her mouth felt dry, cottony. She jumped when he doctor knocked, but kept her voice calm as she told him to come in. The doctor seemed rushed, and looked at her chart more than he looked at her. Today, that was what she preferred.
“So, tell me what happened.” He still didn’t look at her, continuing to type on his laptop.
“Oh, I fell. Not much to tell, I guess.”
“Did this happen while you were on duty, or on hospital property?”
“Looks like you were lucky.” He told her, after a short series of tests.
Yeah, sure, she thought, Lucky. She nearly burst into hysterical laughter.
“Your wrist is sprained, but nothing’s broken.”
She nodded, trying to think of an appropriate response, but he didn’t wait for one.
“The nurse will be back to give you a brace, and some information to take home. All common sense stuff. Don’t forget to ice it, take something to help with the inflammation. That sort of thing.”
Pulling out of the hospital parking lot, her face felt hot. How could this happen? How could she have let this happen? Without warning, tears filled her eyes. They flowed in salty streams, filling her vision, forcing her to pull over. She screamed at the top of her lungs. She punched the steering wheel with her good hand. Then she saw her face in the rearview mirror. Puffy. Red. Defeated. No! She wiped her eyes. Dried her face. Continued driving, but she was no longer headed home. She pulled into the parking lot of the local YMCA.
Behind the front desk, the teenage girl didn’t look up from her magazine. Hailey cleared her throat. The girl sighed, setting aside her Cosmo. She gave Hailey an insincere, customer service grin.
“Hi! How can I help you?”
“I want to sign up for kick boxing classes.”