Authors: Antoinette van Heugten
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult, #Thriller
During the trip from Des Moines to Plano, Iowa, she drives as Max sleeps. Despite the chaos of suitcases, cabs, traffic and nightmarish arguments, they somehow caught the flight from New York. She had tried every form of plea and coercion to get Max’s agreement to go to Maitland. It was only after she broke down completely that Max relented—just barely. She didn’t wait for him to change his mind. She stayed up all night, constantly peeking into his bedroom to make sure he was…alive. The next day they were on that plane.
Her anxiety lessens as she settles into the thrum of the road. She lights a cigarette and lowers her window, hoping that Max won’t wake up. He hates it when she smokes. The landscape is a flat, weary brown. It is only after they reach Plano and turn off the highway that all around them explodes. Every broad leaf is a stroke of green, bursting with liquid sun. She smells the aftermath of swollen showers and imagines a flood of expiation that wipes the world clean, leaving one incorruptible—the black, secret earth. It is a sign of hope, she decides, a presentiment that all will be well.
As she drives on, she turns her face to the sun, relaxes in its warmth, and thinks of Max as a small boy. One afternoon in particular flashes in her mind. At her father’s farm in Wisconsin, shortly before he died, Danielle rocked gently in the porch swing and watched as the afternoon sun burnished gold into the summer air and turned her bones to butter.
As she sank deeper into the worn cushion, Max clambered up and sprawled across her lap. They had been swimming all morning and, exhausted, Max wrapped his arms tightly around her neck and fell into that syncopated stupor unique to young boys. She breathed deeply of the heady scent of magnolias that hung over them—voluptuous, cream-colored blossoms so heavy and full that their tenuous grip upon stem and branch threatened to drop them softly onto the lush green below. Their scent was interlaced with her son’s essence—a mixture of boy sweat, sunburned skin and dark spice. As she held him closer, she felt his heart echo the strong beat of her own. Eyes closed, she gave herself up to the languid moment of mother and child, perfect in its communion and impermanence—so intense as to be indistinguishable from piercing sadness or exquisite joy. They would always be like this, she had thought. Nothing, she vowed, would ever tear them apart.
It is then that she looks up at the white, arched gate. It is then that she reads the weathered sign. Faded words hang in black, metal letters, pierced against the sky.
it says, swinging in the breeze.
Maitland Psychiatric Asylum.
Danielle and Max sit in a bright orange room and watch the group leader arrange a circle of blue plastic chairs. The linoleum is a dizzying pattern of white-and-black squares and smells of disinfectant. Parents and awkward adolescents file reluctantly into the room. Danielle’s heart twists in her chest. How can she possibly be in this place with Max? The faces of the parents all reveal the same ugly mixture of hope and fear, resignation and denial—each with an unholy, tragic story to tell. They look like burn victims steeling themselves before another layer of skin is stripped away.
Max is by her side, angry and embarrassed because he’s old enough to know exactly where he is. He has not spoken since they arrived. He looks so—boy. An oversize polo shirt finishes off rumpled chinos and Top-Siders with no socks. The sports watch he wears is too big, as if he’s playing dress-up with his father’s watch. Unbidden, he shaved off the wispy moustache the night before they left New York. His mouth is a small line, the width of a piece of mechanical pencil lead. His one act of defiance remains—the cold, ugly piercing on his eyebrow.
Suddenly, the door swings open and a woman rushes in, pulling a teenaged boy by the hand. She stops and surveys the circle. Her blue eyes make direct contact with Danielle. She smiles. Danielle glances left and right, but no one looks up. The woman makes a beeline in her direction. She sits next to
Danielle and pulls the boy down onto the chair next to her. “Marianne,” she whispers.
“Good morning!” A young woman with wild red hair and a name tag that says Just Joan! stands in the middle of the circle. Her voice batters the ear like hail on a tin roof. “This is our group session to welcome new patients and parents to Maitland and, well, to just share our feelings and concerns.”
Danielle hates group therapy. Anything she’s ever “shared” has come around to bite her on the ass. She casts about desperately for an exit sign. She needs a cigarette—badly. Just Joan! claps her hands. Too late.
“Let’s pick someone and go around the circle,” she says. “Introduce yourself and tell us why you’re here. Remember, all conversations are strictly confidential.”
The tales of heartache are overwhelming. There is Carla, the rickets-thin waitress from Colorado who gives her son, Chris, loving glances as she tells of how he snapped her wrist and purpled her eye. After her is Estelle, an elegant black grandmother who tenderly clasps the hand of her doll-like granddaughter, whose pink taffeta Sunday dress only partially veils the crazed, ropy scars that run up and down her coffee-colored legs.
“Self-inflictive,” whispers Marianne. “The mother ran off. Couldn’t take it.”
Just Joan’s sharp eyes troll the room for a victim and then rivet upon Danielle. She stiffens.
Marianne pats Danielle’s hand and quickly raises her own. “I’ll go.” Her voice is a honey-coated drawl. “My name is Marianne Morrison.”
Danielle’s sigh echoes around the circle. She leans back and tries to put her arm around Max, who shrugs it off. She studies the woman who has saved her.
Marianne looks like the bright center of a flower. The pleats of her claret skirt are Gillette sharp, forming a perfectly pointed circle around her knees. A shimmering blouse reflects the gleam of a single strand of pearls and draws the eye to the single gold band on her left hand. Her simple, blond pageboy frames her oval face. Her flawless makeup reflects a level of detail and attention seemingly innate in Southern women. In her case, it enhances her features, particularly a wide, generous mouth and intelligent blue eyes. Next to her, Danielle is aware of her own
black-on-black pantsuit, her severe dark hair and pale skin. She wears no jewelry, no watch, no makeup. In Manhattan, she is an obvious professional. Next to Marianne, she looks like a pallbearer. Danielle glances down. A bag next to Marianne’s chair overflows with all manner of crafty-looking things. Danielle’s depression deepens—like when she sees the pre-prison Martha Stewart on TV stenciling an entire room with a toothbrush or casually butchering a young suckling pig with an old nail file. Or when one of the mothers at Max’s grade school brought a homemade quilt that had the handprints of all the kids on it for the school auction and Danielle gave money instead.
“This is my son, Jonas.” Hearing his name, the boy shakes his head and blinks rapidly. His hands never stop moving. Fingernails scrape at scarred welts on his arms. Danielle instinctively pulls her own sleeves down. Jonas rocks back and forth, testing the chair’s rubber stoppers as they squeak against the floor. All the while, he makes soft, grunting noises, a perpetual-motion-and-sound machine.
“If I have to say something about myself, I suppose it would be that I’m from Texas and was a pediatric nurse for many years.” This does not surprise Danielle. What Marianne says next, however, surprises her deeply.
“I actually finished medical school, but never practiced.” She inclines her head toward her son. “I decided to stay home and take care of my boy. In fact, that is the most important thing about me.” She clasps her hands and then flashes what Danielle believes must be one of the most beautiful smiles she’s ever seen. Her attitude is infectious. The parents all smile and nod, like a bobblehead dog in the back of a ’55 Chevy.
“Jonas’s diagnosis is retardation and autism, and he doesn’t speak, not really.” Marianne pats the boy’s knee. He does not acknowledge her. His eyes roam the room as he taps and scratches. The reddening on his arms deepens to a frozen cranberry. “He’s been this way since he was a little boy,” she says. “It’s hard, you know, to deal with the challenges our children have, but I do the best I can with what the good Lord gave me.” As sympathetic glances pass from the parents to her, Marianne brightens like a rainbow after rain. “His father…well, he’s gone, bless his heart.” She averts her eyes. “Recently, Jonas started getting violent and self-destructive. I want him to have the very best, and that’s why we’re here.”
After she finishes, everyone applauds, but not too much. It’s like being at the symphony. Once or twice—that’s polite. Anything more would be disrespectful. Marianne then whispers to Jonas in some kind of gibberish. In response, he whirls around and slaps her face so hard with a flat, open hand that it almost hurls her from her chair.
“Jonas!” Marianne cries. She covers her scarlet cheek as if to ward off further blows. A male attendant appears; yanks Jonas to his feet; and pins both arms behind his back.
“Nomomah! Aaahhnomomah!” The attendant pushes him roughly into his chair, gripping his hands until he quiets. Everyone sits, stunned. As soon as he is released, Jonas bites the knuckles of his right hand so hard that Danielle winces.
Marianne seems inconsolable; her veneer of optimism shat
tered. Danielle leans over and embraces her awkwardly as the woman sobs in her arms. Normal mothers are oblivious to their enormous, impossible blessings, she thinks. To have a child who has friends, goes to school, has a future—these are the dreams of a race of people to whom she and this woman no longer belong. They are mere truncations, sliced to so basic a level of need that their earlier expectations for their children seem greedy to them now—small, mercenary—almost evil. Their one hope is sanity. Some dare dream of peace. As Danielle tightens her arm around this destroyed woman, she knows that the communion between her and this stranger is deeper than sacrament. She feels the holiness of the exchange, however alienated and bereft it leaves them. It is all they have.
Danielle stares up at the forbidding sign posted on the thick glass doors.
Secure unit. No unauthorized persons. No exit without pass.
The black, merciless eyes of one of the 24-hour security cameras glare down at her from a corner of the room. They learned at orientation that they are installed in each patient’s room and in the common areas. This is supposed to make them feel safe.
It is late afternoon. Danielle stands at the reception desk, but Max hangs back. He is terrified. Danielle can tell. The more afraid a teenager is, the more he acts like he doesn’t care. Max looks bored shitless.
Danielle doesn’t blame him. By the time the group session was over, she was ready to slit her throat.
“Ms. Parkman?” The nurse waves her over with a big smile. “Ready?”
Oh, sure. Like mothers in the Holocaust about to separate from their newborns. She squares her shoulders. “I’m at the
hotel across the street—Room 630. Can you tell me when visiting hours are?”
The nurse’s smile fades. “You’re not leaving tomorrow?”
“No, I’m staying until I can take my son home.”
The smile dies. “Parents are not encouraged to visit during assessment. Most go home and leave us to our work.”
“Well,” says Danielle, “I suppose I’ll be the exception.”
The nurse shrugs. “We have all the pertinent data, so you can go back with Dwayne to the Fountainview unit.” The enormous attendant who came to Marianne’s aid with Jonas appears. Dressed in blinding white, his chest is so big that it strains against the unforgiving fabric of his shirt. As he comes toward them, Danielle thinks of football players, heavyweight wrestlers—men with abnormal levels of testosterone. She looks at her pale boy, who weighs no more than two damp beach towels, and imagines this man pinning him to the ground. If Max bolts, this guy will snap him up in his jowls like a newborn puppy and carry him down the hall by the scruff of his neck.
“Hi, I’m Dwayne.” The wingspan of his outstretched hand is larger than Danielle’s thigh.
“Hello.” She manages the smallest of smiles. Dwayne grasps her hand, and she watches it disappear. In a moment, he returns it.
He turns to Max. “Let’s do it, buddy.”
Danielle moves forward to embrace him, but Max charges her—fist raised, face enraged. “I’m not going in there!”
Dwayne steps in. With one elegant motion, he yanks Max’s arms in front of him; slips behind him; and envelops Max’s entire upper body in his massive arms. The ropy muscles don’t even strain. Winded and trapped, Max flails and twists. “Get your fucking hands off me!”
“Give it up, son,” growls Dwayne.
Max shoots Danielle a look of pure hatred. “
is what you want? To have some asshole put me in a straightjacket and lock me away?”
“No, of c-course not,” she stammers. “Please, Max—”
Danielle is rooted to the floor as Dwayne drags Max down the hall. They come to a menacing red door that buzzes them through. Her last glimpse of Max’s contorted face is seared into her mind. He stares at her with the betrayed eyes of an old horse at the glue-factory gate. He is gone before she can utter the words that strangle in her throat.
At the far end of what appears to be a TV room are four women dressed in jeans and T-shirts—undercover nurses in casual disguise. A large whiteboard hangs on the wall. It unnerves her that Max’s name is already there with ominous acronyms scribbled next to it—“AA, SIA, SA, EA, DA.” The black letters hang final, immutable. She sneaks a look at the typewritten sheet pasted on the board. “AA—Assault Awareness; SIA—Self-Infliction Awareness; SA—Suicide Awareness; EA—Escape Awareness; DA—Depression Awareness.” The words slice her heart.
Danielle glances around the room and notices Marianne chatting with an older doctor. She smiles warmly at Danielle. Jonas plucks at his clothes and twitches his feet in an odd, disturbed way, as if he’s doing the flamenco sitting down. Then she sees Carla and her son go into one of the bedrooms. Her heart sinks. She would do anything to prevent Max from being on the same unit with a boy who would break his own mother’s arm and purple her eye.
An older woman with a shock of short, white hair enters the room and walks up to Danielle. She exudes a calm authority. A conservative, navy suit matches feet shod in dark, sensible flats. Behind small, gold-rimmed glasses are very,
very green eyes. Her doctor’s coat is Amway white. Red embroidery on her lapel says
Associate Director—Pediatric Psychiatry, Maitland Hospital.
She holds out her hand with a smile. “Ms. Parkman?”
“Dr. Amelia Reyes-Moreno,” she says. “I’ll be Max’s primary doctor while he’s here.”
“Nice to meet you.” Danielle stares as she shakes the woman’s hand. Her long, fine fingers are cool to the touch. Intensity and intelligence are evident in her gaze. Danielle’s research of Maitland revealed that Reyes-Moreno is one of Maitland’s most valued psychiatrists, nationally renowned in her field. She glances at the old doctor with Marianne, his veined hands folded as he listens. Both are smiling. Danielle wants him. Someone who looks as old as Freud and who’ll take one look at Max and say, “Of course! I see what they’ve all missed. Max is fine, just fine.” Then he’ll nod his head wisely and go on to his next miraculous cure.
Dr. Reyes-Moreno catches the arm of a young, dark-eyed man who looks like a pen-and-ink rendering of Ichabod Crane. “Dr. Fastow,” she says, “would you mind my introducing you to Ms. Parkman? She is the mother of one of our new patients, Max.”
He nods curtly and fixes Danielle with a milky stare. “Ms. Parkman.”
“Dr. Fastow is our new psychopharmacologist,” says Reyes-Moreno. “He has just returned from Vienna, where he spent the last two years conducting exciting clinical trials of various psychotropic medications. We are honored to have him.”
Danielle takes the hand he offers. It is cold and dry. “Dr. Fastow, are you planning to significantly change Max’s medication protocol?”
His gray eyes are limpid. “I have reviewed Max’s chart and
ordered extensive blood work. I plan to take him off of his current medications and put him on those I believe will better serve him.”
“What meds are those?”
“We will provide you with that information once we are more familiar with Max and his symptoms.” He gives her another cold stare and takes his leave.
Put off by his antiseptic manner, Danielle turns to Reyes-Moreno, who nods reassuringly. “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of him.” Danielle panics as she watches Reyes-Moreno disappear through the malefic doors of Alcatraz. Only the dominating truth—that Max wants to kill himself—prevents her from breaking down those doors and fleeing with him back to New York. She takes a deep breath. There is nothing to do but go back to the hotel and work. She turns to go.