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Authors: Madeleine Roux

The Warden

BOOK: The Warden
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EPIGRAPH

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

to do the right deed for the wrong reason.

—
T. S. ELIOT,
MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL

You know how I define “idealism”? Youth's final luxury.

—
DOUG WRIGHT,
QUILLS

T
h
is exasperating girl still exhibits a strong tendency toward selflessness. Her naive obsession with fruitless do-goodery could prove hindrance or help—I need only convince her that by embracing my vision, she will, in fact, be doing good. My observation of her continues, particularly where the Catalyst is concerned. I thought her compassion for his condition troublesome at first, but no, I will use their deepening connection to my advantage.

—Excerpt from Warden Crawford's journals—June

Brookline Hospital, Spring 1968

I
t was raining. Pouring, actually—a fact that Madge, Jocelyn's bus companion for the last six hours, delighted in reiterating every other minute.

“Do you know how long it takes to get my curlers to cooperate?” Madge sighed, standing next to Jocelyn on the dark pavement, a copy of
Photoplay
held over her head to ward off the raindrops. The magazine buckled in the middle, sluicing water down the front of Madge's coat. “So much for making a good impression,” she muttered.

Jocelyn smirked, warm and dry under the ugly but decidedly practical plastic rain bonnet. “It looks like you've got a condom on your head, dummy,” Madge had teased on the bus, scrunching up her nose behind her
Photoplay
, so that both she and the full-color image of Jackie Kennedy were giving Jocelyn less-than-impressed looks.

“Now who's the dummy?” Jocelyn said as they turned to walk up the drive. They stepped through the lingering exhaust cloud the bus had left behind as a final, indifferent good-bye. The driver had glanced at them repeatedly during the trip. Jocelyn hadn't noticed it at first, and then maybe she'd thought he was
just admiring Madge. Madge
was
incredibly admirable.

A few grumbles from Madge later and they were clicking their way across the paving stones toward the hospital. It looked . . . well, less cheery than it had in the hiring brochures pushed on them at their recruitment meetings. Jocelyn and Madge had graduated together from Grace Point in Chicago with Bachelors of Science in Nursing, Jocelyn with honors, Madge with style.

In the brochure, Brookline shone like a lighthouse on a rock, white, pristine, all glimmering windows and tidy lawns. Patients beamed from their beds or wheelchairs. Nurses smiled with appropriate modesty and wisdom together in the halls. Doctors scrutinized charts, mustaches askew from the depths of their concentration.

“Goodness gracious,” Madge mumbled, drawing to a halt at exactly the same point Jocelyn did.

“It's not so bad,” Jocelyn insisted. She forced a smile, first at the hospital and then at Madge. “Cheer up, buttercup. We're hired. We're
professionals
.”


Single
professionals,” Madge said, giggling. “Oh gosh, am I blushing? I think I'm blushing. It's too good to be true.” She cast a long look around, her smile wavering a little as another gush of rain poured down her front. Jackie Kennedy was looking severely worse for wear. “And here I so wanted to say: we're not in Kansas anymore. Or Chicago, I guess. You get the idea. But the rain's just the same.”

“Are you kidding? We're practically New Yorkers,” Jocelyn teased. A black wrought-iron fence surrounded the front grounds of the hospital. The building sat well back from the
fencing, looming, a little hunched, either from the nearness of the dark clouds or from a shoddy foundation. To the left, New Hampshire College buildings encroached, but only a few students ran back and forth in the quadrangle, their heads bowed under umbrellas. Jocelyn turned back to the fence and stepped up to the gate, pushing on the handle and wincing at the rusty screech that followed. “Yup. Very cosmopolitan.”

“Now who's the spoilsport? Come on, let's get inside. I'm drenched.” Madge hurried beyond her, one hand desperately holding the magazine over her buttercup yellow hair, the other toting along her one and only bag. “What are you waiting for? I want to meet the staff. And the doctors! And my future husband!”

Jocelyn rolled her eyes, but she had to smile; Madge was right, this was a big day for them both. She hurried up the paving stones, her eyes flicking skyward at the suggestion of a silhouette in one of the windows above. It was there and then it was gone, but as Jocelyn ducked inside the hospital, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was being watched.

W
arden Crawford looked up at her briefly in between each page of her application.

Jocelyn squirmed. Wasn't this already a done deal? She thought her application had been approved. Why else would she have made the exhausting trip from Illinois to the coast? That bumpy, cold bus trip hadn't exactly been a Tijuana pleasure cruise.

Keep still
, she reminded herself.
Eyes forward.

The warden's office was surprisingly cluttered for a doctor's. She always imagined men like him leading lives as clean and upright as a drill sergeant's. But papers stuck out of every desk drawer and cabinet, almost haphazardly. Her eye twitched. She was a neat person by nature, a character trait that her supervisor at school had said made her an excellent candidate for nursing. An eye for detail was absolutely required—nursing was hard, unforgiving work, with long hours and immense amounts of pressure and stress.

If a grill cook flips the burger too late the meat is burned, oh well
, her supervisor used to say.
If you make a mistake a patient could die. Do you understand me, Ash? Are you going to flip the meat too late?

Jocelyn bit the inside of her cheek. She hated that image. She hated that it made her think of humans, of human flesh, like meat.

“Chicago is a long way from here,” Warden Crawford said lightly. He had a twinkle in his voice, like every statement might turn sharply into a joke. “I don't think our pizza measures up.”

“Not a problem, sir,” she responded crisply. “More of a chowder girl myself.”

That drew a warm laugh from him. He sat back in his leather chair and put down her application, removing his spectacles and letting them settle in his white coat pocket. “A sense of humor. Good. You'll need that here. It can be morbid work, Ms. Ash. Sometimes you need to laugh or risk going mad yourself.”

Jocelyn flinched. Right. Gallows humor. Madge had warned her that doctors could be crass, even rude.
It's just how they talk
, she'd said.
It's just how they blow off steam
. Anyway, Jocelyn couldn't protest; doctors were treated as gods. Nurses were expected to stand when they entered the room, like they were royalty or something. The whole thing seemed eye-rollingly over the top. Didn't anyone want to stand for the ladies changing bedpans day in and day out?

“You're young,” he observed. Jocelyn flinched again. His lips hovered between a smile and a scowl. “Perhaps too young.”

“My evaluations speak for themselves,” she said. Her voice had become pinched, and so had a nerve in her neck that made her twitch with distress. No matter what, she was not getting back on a bus to Chicago.

Warden Crawford toyed with his spectacles for a moment, pulling them out of his pocket, unfolding the stems, and then putting them right back where they had been. “And what brought you to this profession?”

“I want to—”

“And don't say you want to help people.” He chuckled, the twinkle back in his voice as she stammered into silence. “That's what everyone says.”

“It's probably also true,” Jocelyn replied, maybe impertinently. She never knew quite when to keep her mouth shut, and now she felt more words spill out faster than she could control. “I have to say, I'm confused, sir. My teachers at Grace Point told me there was a job here. Is that not the case?”

Warden Crawford jerked his head back, either in surprise or offense, she wasn't quite sure. He had a young face, but the gray at his temples suggested a more distinguished age. And he was handsome, exactly the kind of serious but gentle doctor Madge was no doubt hoping to snare. Her eyes strayed to his left hand. No ring. It seemed odd that a man of his age would be single. Jokes aside, Camford wasn't exactly a bustling metropolis. Surely there were plenty of women eager to snare a handsome doctor?

He shuffled her papers and then tucked them into one of his messy desk drawers. “Terrence in counseling is always warning me about hiring redheads. Too lippy, he says. Too feisty.” Warden Crawford stood, laughing again, extending a hand to her across his desk. “We could use a little more fire around here. This isn't a place for the faint of heart, which makes me think you'll fit right in, Ms. Ash.”

Phew
. She had the job and she could breathe again and stop clutching her rain bonnet like a life jacket.

“Thank you, sir. Really, thank you. And, it's true, you know. I want to help people.”

“Don't we all?” he murmured, a cold, intense light brightening his gaze. “Don't we all.”

For the first time in her life, Jocelyn felt like she not only had a purpose but a clear-cut course, too. She saw little of the doctors for the first few weeks and even less of Warden Crawford. Assigned to simple, straightforward tasks, Jocelyn began to wear holes in her shoes from making frequent trips up and down the first and second level patient halls, changing sheets, delivering tiny paper cups of medicines, and swapping out, disinfecting, and returning bedpans. Gradually she began to recognize the faces underneath the little white paper hats—the other nurses were cordial, but none of them came close to her friendship with Madge.

Madge, who still managed to find time to flirt with orderlies and doctors alike; there was no telling how she did it. For her part, Jocelyn could barely scrabble together a spare minute to eat lunch.

But that was all right. She had expected hazing, but instead Nurse Kramer assigned her some of the calmer patients. In particular, Jocelyn liked Mrs. Small in 214—her dementia had progressed to a point where her stories varied day to day, but every once in a while the old woman described the fishing trips she used to take with her husband, and Jocelyn would listen intently, giving the patient a sponge bath or trying to coax her to eat breakfast. She would wonder where Mr. Small was now. Had he died before her or had he abandoned this gentle soul? Jocelyn had watched her own grandmother succumb to a similar disease, and she was the only family member who'd bothered
trying to talk to her in the hardest days of her illness. The days when her grandmother would forget who Jocelyn was, sometimes becoming so afraid that she grew violent.

It had pushed Jocelyn into nursing, that sense of injustice, that conviction that nobody, no matter how hurt or ill or old, deserved to deal with something like that alone.

Jocelyn checked the visitation schedule every morning and at the end of every shift, but nobody ever came to see Mrs. Small. It was disappointing every time, she thought tonight, closing up the bound schedule and giving a polite smile to a passing nurse. Mrs. Small could at least look forward to Jocelyn listening to her stories and laughing in all the right places.

By the time Jocelyn reached the dormitory level, Madge was already asleep in their room. Jocelyn mustered the energy to shrug out of her uniform, splash a little water on her face in the communal bathroom, brush her teeth, and shuffle back to their room. A stack of books sat unread next to her cot. As soon as her head touched the pillow, she was deeply, darkly asleep.

She thought the screams were in her nightmares until they grew so sharp and loud her head split open in pain.

The nursing dormitories lay between the floor for doctors above and the floor for miscellaneous staff and orderlies below. Sandwiched between them, Jocelyn's nights had until this point been restful. She flew up and out of bed as if jerked by a puppet master's strings. The screams came again, just as shrill and clear now that she was awake. She had counted herself lucky to be roomed with Madge, who snored only lightly and slept like the dead, her big, movie starlet eyes hidden behind a floral mask. Now she wished Madge were awake to consult.

The scream hadn't caused so much as a hitch in Madge's breathing.

But Jocelyn was awake now. Painfully awake. Her head throbbed, half from exhaustion and half from the shock of that noise knifing through her dreams. She pulled her cotton night-robe tighter over her pajamas, pressing bed-warmed feet to icy linoleum. A shiver traveled up through the floor, and she looked at the small blue clock on the bedside table. Two in the morning. For God's sake, she would need all the sleep she could get for another brutally busy day.

This isn't a place for the faint of heart.

“Ain't that the truth,” she muttered, padding to the window. Even the staff rooms had bars on the windows, and tonight the bars obscured the heavy clouds and the downpour that had continued all day. The grounds below had become oversaturated and sludgy—once bright tulip beds turned into troughs of scattered blooms, flashes of color like the sad remnants of a parade.

At least there was moonlight to see by. Their room was small and sparsely furnished. Madge had already tacked a few magazine images to the wall over her bed, and whoever had lived there before had left a ceramic Minnie Mouse figurine on the windowsill. The paint had chipped, leaving Minnie looking like she had gone a few rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson. Jocelyn picked up the figurine, smirking at its lopsided grin. She wiped her thumb across Minnie's face and more of the cheap paint flecked off, sticking to her skin.

Another scream from the bowels of the hospital startled her, the figurine slipping out of her grasp. It hit the linoleum hard, cracking at the neck. Jocelyn bent to scoop it up, cradling the
figurine gently, worried she might deepen the crack in the head that mirrored her own splitting headache.

“Damn,” she whispered, standing and placing the figure on the bedside table.

With a sigh, Jocelyn pulled her robe shut again and went to Madge's side, trying to shake her friend awake. Madge groaned and pawed at her, then rolled over and continued to snore. Maybe it wasn't fair to deny her much-needed sleep. And anyway, this was a hospital for the mentally unstable, Jocelyn reminded herself. The patients could be suffering from any number of ailments. The worst kinds. The ones that couldn't be fixed with bandages or stitches or a quick dose of aspirin.

But it worried her that the scream sounded like a child's.

Jocelyn knew the lobby and patient floors inside and out now, but this screaming sounded like it was coming from far, far away. She paused at the door. There would be orderlies assigned to help the girl, surely. Nurses were probably even now there with her, trying their best to calm the little girl and get her back to sleep.

Still . . . Jocelyn couldn't imagine returning to bed. It didn't matter what Warden Crawford said, she wanted to help people. She
needed
to help people. Her mother kindly referred to it as a calling, but Jocelyn knew it for what it was—a compulsion.

She collected a sweater from the closet and pulled it over her pajamas, leaving her robe folded neatly over the footboard of her bed. Her shoes were just as cold as her feet, and she shook off another shiver as she carefully, quietly slipped out the door and into the dimly lit hallway beyond.

The corridors darkened as she descended through the hospital. Jocelyn hugged her sweater to her stomach, shuffling along with tiny steps. It was ridiculous for her to feel so scared. This was a hospital, not even that different from the familiar halls of her nursing program and before that her high school. Not that she'd stayed in either place for long. She had tested out of her studies early. Genius-level intelligence, her guidance counselor had said. Incredible aptitude. She'd wanted to be a doctor, but there were so few female doctors, it just seemed like a waste of time to pursue. A nurse was the next best thing, and maybe the status quo would change one day and she could go back to school, put that incredible aptitude to work. For now, that aptitude had catapulted her in short succession from school to nursing studies to here.

Brookline.

The lobby offered a brief respite from the cold and the dark. Warm, cheerful lamps glowed at all hours, illuminating the waiting area with its clean, blue chairs and straightened piles of magazines. The general reception desk was vacant at this hour, but a young, sandy-haired orderly dozed behind the medicine dispensary window, his chin cupped in his palm.

The screams from below apparently hadn't bothered him.

Was she hearing things? First Madge and now him . . . How could anyone sleep through the noise? Maybe she had dreamed the whole thing. No. She had an instinct for these things. Jocelyn tiptoed past the orderly, toward the basement levels, which she had never had a reason to venture anywhere near before.

Nobody had told her in detail what was housed down there. Supplies, most likely, the endless pills and bottles and towels
that every hospital needed, and that appeared every day on the patient floors. A boiler room, perhaps? But whatever it was, she couldn't believe any patients would need to be kept so far from the main levels.

The screams had died down. Jocelyn tiptoed silently to Warden Crawford's office and paused. A light glowed from under the door. Two in the morning and he was still at work? That was dedication.

No sound came from inside his office, though, and she hazarded a few more steps, discovering a narrow hall with no apparent ending. Only a few emergency lights kept the corridor from being completely impossible to navigate. Finally, just as she'd expected, she found a passage leading downward, the door to it conspicuously ajar.

BOOK: The Warden
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