Missed the first installment? Go to Prologue
Part One: The Walking Wounded
1: Grey Area
February 3, 2014
THE WALKING WOUNDED find ways of coping. Drugs, alcohol, sex, cutting and bulimia were the favored strategies of the residents at Warrick Home. This was my latest job—three weeks and counting.
Though it’s been more than a decade, I remember clearly what it felt like to be desperate and alone, a teenage runaway sleeping in squats and carving my skin. Painful as it was, I’m glad I remember. It made me a good counselor.
By the time I got my GED and started college at twenty-two, I’d stopped cutting myself, picking fights in bars, and shoplifting bottles of vodka to put me to sleep every night. By my senior year in college, when I started doing my social work field placements, I’d lost the spiky haircut, the Doc Martens and t-shirts sporting the names of obscure bands.
Don’t get me wrong—I still liked to have fun. My boyfriend, Branson, played in a band as cool as any that used to grace my shredded tees. But I’d learned to keep the party separate from the professional.
When I went to work, my dark, frizzy hair was blow-dried and brushed out straight and glossy as sealskin. I wore conservative clothes in the latest style, or whatever uniform the job required. It wasn’t me, but I figured that was a good thing—the real me is probably unemployable.
After I quit my job at the Porter School, Branson (supportive boyfriend of the year) said I had issues with authority. He was only half-serious, but I saw the disapproving expression flicker across his face—just like his uptight insurance-magnate dad.
I’d snapped back, “If your mother was locked up for being criminally insane, you’d have issues, too.”
That shut Branson up, but job interviewers were not so easily put off.
I’d worked at schools, hospitals and non-profits—seven jobs in the three years. I had good references, so it never occurred to me I wouldn’t be able to go on picking up new jobs any time I wanted. But apparently I’d crossed some invisible line with prospective employers. The red flags were flying high. No one was hiring Lacy Keyes.
IF I HADN’T been desperate, I never would have considered working at Warrick Home.
I lived in a house owned by my dad and, luckily, he let me defer the rent while I searched for another job. The utility and cell phone companies weren’t as understanding.
“I’d have to sleep there two or three nights a week,” I reported to Branson. We were having Bloody Marys at Bee’s after staying up until 4:00 a.m. the night before. “I’d be gone every other weekend. And it’s in an old plantation house out in the middle of nowhere, past Charles City. Plantations are creepy.”
“Come on, now,” Branson said. “I have cousins living near there. It’s just a stone’s throw from Charles City. Not exactly the middle of nowhere, unless nowhere is sporting more than a dozen golf courses.” He sipped his drink thoughtfully. “The Chickahominy Wildlife Center would make a nice environmental foray for the kids.”
Foray. I gestured for the waiter. I needed a foray of extra celery and olives and any other vegetable that benefited from being soaked in alcohol. “I have cousins from the swamp,” I mocked, poking Branson in the rib cage. “They are of the robot variety.”
Branson shot me a look from underneath the hank of dark straight hair that fell over his left eye. I liked to tease him because, even though we were both born in Virginia, he’d spent so much time in prep schools that he’d lost his Southern accent. Or maybe he’d lost it on purpose to impress his father, a proper Boston man who spoke like he kept wads of cotton in his mouth.
“If you don’t like the countryside, you can come work for me at @TechFix. We could use a receptionist…with benefits.” Branson flapped his eyebrows and leered comically.
“Thanks,” I said glumly. Some women would love nothing better than to work all day with their boyfriends, but I wasn’t one of them. The word suffocating came to mind. I decided I didn’t care if Warrick Home was in a swamp or on the moon. It was a job.
THE SUN WASN’T up yet when I left my house at 6:00 a.m. My interview wasn’t scheduled until 8:00. Though my GPS said an hour and fifteen minutes to Warrick, I wasn’t taking any chances on taking a wrong turn.
“Dr. Grey, our assistant director, is a stickler for punctuality,” the throaty-voiced receptionist had said. Great. I wondered how the stickler was going to like my job-hopping history.
I turned off Route 5, taking a narrow back road past trailer homes and old barns, wondering how the hell I ended up in this mess. I’m a city girl. I’ll wander alleys braving muggers and rats in the middle of the night, but decrepit buildings in the woods give me the willies.
It wasn’t always like that. When I was a little girl, I loved wandering the woods that surrounded my family’s suburban home. I had forts and secret trails and imaginary worlds that were better than any book or TV show.
But when Kat went off the rails, she made me show her all my secret spots—so she could see if they were safe enough. She coached me to run to the most secluded one, a tiny cave behind a laurel bush next to a creek. That’s where I was supposed to go hide if “the demon” ever came after me.
She even cut a trapdoor in the floor of the kitchen pantry that lead to the crawlspace under the house. When he came for me, I was supposed to use it to escape to the cave in the woods.
Even though I never used her escape route, for years I had nightmares about crawling through that dark, dirty space with spider crickets jumping on me, sticky feet and webs against my face, and some nameless horror even worse than mutant bugs in pursuit. Run, Legacy. Into the woods! In my dreams I never got there. I just kept crawling through dark, suffocating tunnels like terrified rabbit.
With every twist of the narrow country lane that lead to Warrick, I felt a growing urge to turn my beat-up black Jetta around and get the hell back to Richmond. The sun still hadn’t risen above the giant old oaks and pine trees that seemed to dwarf the road. Was I really contemplating working out here? Sleeping out here? Should I be dropping breadcrumbs?
The only thing that kept me going was the promise I’d made to myself. Even if Warrick turned out to be some decaying mansion out of a Southern Gothic novel with inbred cousins playing banjo on the porch, I would never ask my dad for a loan or take the job with Branson.
When I finally pulled into the white stone driveway, the forest opened up. I had a view across an expansive lawn to a three story, white-washed brick plantation house. The sun rising behind gave it a rosy halo. A row of columns graced the face of the house and every window winked with a soft glow. Though it was mid-January, they’d left the electric Christmas candles burning.
To either side of the plantation house were rows of white cottages accented by tiny windows with shutters that had been painted dark greenish-black. Swatch green. It comes from Scotland and the British Isles. They used it to hide the mildew. The voice of my mother in one of her saner moments.
I pushed the voice out my head, pulled into the visitor parking lot, checked my hair (slicked back in a tidy bun) and make up (subtle neutral tones) and got out of the car.
I wound down a brick path lined with azalea bushes, and then climbed the wide staircase that lead to ten-foot high main doors. I had to admit that Warrick was well-preserved. It could have been one of the plantation museums that lined Route 5.
In the foyer, a small woman with white hair sat at an antique desk that matched the 1800s style of the house. She stood up, straightened her white wool skirt and adjusted a delicate necklace of what looked like carved ivory owls. She extended her hand. “Marcy, Dr. Grey’s assistant. We spoke on the phone.”
Struck by the incongruity of that deep growly voice coming out of this tiny, conservative Southern lady, I missed a beat before responding. “Lacy Keyes. That necklace. My aunt has one like that. Only hers is some kind of flower. It’s so unusual.”
Marcy smiled brightly. “Oh, I just love this. It inspires me to wear white all year long, even though it breaks those rules about white after Labor Day.”
I smiled back just as brightly, even though I had no idea what rules she was talking about.
Since I’d arrived half an hour early, Marcy gave me a tour of the campus. She pointed out the cottages where the residents lived. She explained that there were eight cottages with twelve kids in each. The east campus housed girls, and the west campus housed boys. Marcy winked. “Got to keep ‘em separated.”
The place looked more like a boarding school than a treatment facility. The whole property was encircled by that white stone drive, and the grounds had been immaculately groomed for winter. Though the imposing forest ringed the property, I didn’t see so much as a stray leaf on the drive or lawn.
“There’s a chicken coop where we get our own eggs!” She beamed as if Warrick Home had invented the concept. “Behind the main house is the old cookhouse. It’s historic, too, but we use it as a maintenance shed now.”
Marcy waved her hand to the east. “The owner, Dr. Clark, and his niece Zora both have houses over there.” I could see a cute cottage with lots of windows and a wraparound porch at the far end of the lawn, and another just like it set back in the trees beyond the drive.
“Dr. Grey has an apartment in the main house. So you see, there’s always support available for the overnight staff—just a hop and a skip away.” She smiled. “That’s a concern for many of the young women who interview here, so I like to mention it right away.”
I took a deep breath, feeling a bit silly that I’d allowed my imagination to run away with me. I knew Warrick Home was a state-licensed treatment facility. That meant it had to comply with a long list of requirements and inspections for everything from proper lighting to record keeping to food safety. Not something a backwoods, shady operation could achieve.
Marcy wound me around to the main house where the bottom floors held a clinic, a modern, industrial kitchen, and a rather impressive dining hall that still showed signs of its gilded past as a ballroom.
As my tour guide lead me up the sweeping main staircase, dramatic enough to curl Scarlet O’Hara’s toes, Marcy told me that the second floor was dedicated to offices, meeting rooms, and Dr. Grey’s apartment. The school took up the top floor. I barely heard her, preoccupied with my struggle to come up with an explanation for my pattern of abandoned jobs. No plausible lie came to mind, but I couldn’t see telling the truth, either.
Yes, I know I left Porter School after only working there three months, but that was because the principal emanated the stench of rotting lilies that always brought on these world-class migraines. And unexplainable voices. Sure, that would go over well. Let’s hire the girl with migraines and PTSD to help wayward teens.
I was still stressing as Marcy ushered me into a mahogany trimmed office with a large window overlooking the front lawn. Dr. Linda Grey sat behind a massive, mahogany desk with a glass top that appeared too tidy to be anyone’s actual work station. No papers or computer, just an elegant blotter, a phone, and a large silver paperweight that resembled those gazing balls some people put in their flower gardens.
As Dr. Grey rose from her seat and came around the desk to shake my hand, my eyes widened. At 5’9” myself, it’s rare that I have to look up to another woman—but Dr. Grey must have been over six feet tall, plus she wore three inch red stilettos.
I pasted a polite smile on my face. Not only was gawking not the best way to make a first impression, I’d heard enough witless observations about my own height over the years—Gosh, you’re tall!— to have realized how gauche it is to comment on a stranger’s appearance.
After a brief introduction, I sat in a red leather armchair, as instructed, while Dr. Grey shuffled papers. She might have been in her thirties or forties. I couldn’t tell. There wasn’t a wrinkle or blemish on her ivory skin or dove-gray suit, and her pale blonde hair had been lacquered into a complicated chignon.
The minutes ticked by as she perused my bloated resume, tapping one manicured finger on the desk. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. “I know I’ve had a lot of jobs, but it’s time to settle down now, and I think this is a job I can really sink my teeth into,” I babbled. “I like a challenge, really. Working with kids is my life.”
Dr. Grey looked up from my resume and appraised me with wide-set, slanted eyes the gray-blue of ice.
My mouth snapped shut and I dropped my gaze. I felt like a fraud. It wasn’t that I’d lied, exactly, but under Dr. Grey’s stare I suddenly felt like I was twelve again: humiliated, ostracized and motherless. Except, this time, there was nobody to blame but myself.
“Legacy. That’s an unusual name,” she said, and narrowed her icy eyes like she thought I was trying to get away with something.
“Yes, ma’am,” I murmured.
Dr. Grey stood and walked to the window that looked out across the grounds. “Wherever did it come from? Is it a family name?”
“My mother picked it out,” I said reluctantly. “She never said why. Everyone calls me Lacy.” I tried to brighten my voice to compensate for the dread that filled me when I mentioned my mother.
“Lacy!” Dr. Grey whirled around so abruptly that I jumped. “Now, that’s a real sweet name. It suits you.”
As I basked in Dr. Grey’s approving smile, I revised my opinion of her. She wasn’t cold. It had only been my nerves.
“I get it, Lacy,” she said, sitting down behind her desk again. “I get you.” Dr. Grey picked up the large silver paperweight and turned it in her hands. The silver, which appeared to have swirls of iridescent snowflakes winding endlessly through it, glinted in the warm light of the desk lamp.
She considered the paperweight and then appraised me. “You have a passion for social work, but you need someone to help you go deeper, instead of skating along the surface of your potential. Lacy, you need a mentor.”
I felt gratitude swell in my chest. “Yes. I … think you’re right, Dr. Grey. If you give me the opportunity, I won’t let you down. I swear.” I knew this job might be my last chance to avoid a career change.
“I’m going to hold you to that, Lacy,” Dr. Grey carefully placed the paperweight back on her desk, pushed a button on the phone and crisply ordered Marcy to send in Dr. Clark.
“As our resident M.D. who runs the clinic, as well as the owner of this property and director of Warrick, Dr. Clark is extremely busy. The bureaucracy involved in running this home … believe me, it’s a minefield. But he always takes time to meet every single new employee.” She smiled again.
An attractive, middle-aged man with plum-dark skin and a high forehead entered the office. As I stood, he extended his hand. “Nice to meet you, young lady.” Dr. Clark had a baritone voice I associated with a strong personality, but he seemed tentative or distracted.
“Very nice to meet you, Dr. Clark.”
“Glad to have you onboard, heard good things, good things.” His dark eyes slid away from my face, and he bent over the desk to sign the forms Dr. Grey had laid out.
Naturally, I knew Dr. Clark hadn’t heard anything about me. It was the kind of thing people say to be polite—a harmless white lie. Yet I felt a sinking in my gut, as if he’d just given me some bad news.
Dr. Clark smiled vaguely at the room and floated out. Trying to shake my unease, I sat down and pasted a smile on my face as I filled out my own forms: W-2 and releases authorizing Warrick to access my criminal and DMV records.
When I’d finished, Dr. Grey came around the desk and placed a surprisingly cool hand on my shoulder, “I think you’re going to love it here. And I’m certain we’re going to love you. We’re a family here, Lacy.”
The interview seemed to be over and I knew I should leave, but Dr. Grey’s cool hand still rested heavily on my shoulder. Move! I told myself, but I felt pinned like a butterfly on a board.
Finally I settled for twisting awkwardly in the chair so I could extend my hand up to her. Dr. Grey took my hand in both of hers and peered down into my eyes. “Yes. I believe you will be a perfect fit, here. I truly do.”
I flushed again under her approving gaze. I felt I would do anything to please this woman. I didn’t usually make snap judgments about people, but Dr. Grey left me feeling speechless with admiration—shy and clumsy in comparison.
Was it her impeccably tailored suit without so much as a wrinkle? Her beauty, or the calm aura of confidence and competence? Probably a combination, I concluded as I walked down the curving stairway toward the massive front doors.
I had to suppress the urge to sing a song from childhood that came to me at random moments, I see you but you can’t see me, the invisible ones stay happy and free.
I felt giddy with the prospect of a new job in this beautiful place, under the tutelage of the charismatic Dr. Grey. I was foolish enough to hope that this job, unlike all the others, would be normal. That nobody at Warrick would trigger the suffocating paranoia that would send me bolting out the door, hackles raised, miserable as a cat who’s fallen into the dishwater.