The Broken Line, 18: The Man In The Woods

The Broken Line Chapter 18(Missed the last chapter? Go to 17: Gaspers)


February 10

THE GRAY HAD lifted. In the full morning sun, I pushed past the police tape that draped the cookhouse door and jiggled the hasp on which a decrepit padlock hung. I thought I might have to pick the lock, something I knew how to do from my squat days, but the entire piece of metal lifted easily out of the rotting wood.

“Damn,” I hissed, and my breath made a cloud in the cold air. They didn’t have to do anything but pull.

I pushed the door open and was met by a draft colder than the outside air. The building, even after all these years, still smelled of wood smoke. There was a large open area in the middle of the floor, and the walls were lined with shelves.

I took a quick mental inventory—ladders, loppers, saws, clippers, shovels, pick axes, regular axes, herbicides, weed-eaters, rat poison, paint thinner, chain saws, edgers, scythes, even welding equipment. Aside from the ladders and some burlap, almost every item in the cookhouse could be used as a weapon or a tool for self-injury.

“What the—?” I said out loud, catching myself just before dropping the f-bomb. After years of working with kids, I was pretty good at resisting the impulse to let loose with my favorite expletive when I knew kids might be close by, but Warrick had a way of pushing me off balance.

These kids got penalized for having nail clippers that weren’t regulation, yet here was a shed that a toddler could enter, chock full of weapons? A shed where Daphne and, to hear Elizabeth tell it, other kids had taken their lives.

I looked at the iron meat rack that hung near the cavernous stone fireplace and shuddered, though no sign of Daphne’s suicide remained.

The cookhouse was dank and smoky as a prehistoric cave. Looking at the place, I didn’t believe Dr. Grey’s report that Daphne had come here to masturbate. There was nothing in the least bit welcoming—nothing that would entice a teenage girl to come in here alone, except to find a way to hurt herself. And it had been all too easy.

“This is wrong!” I said loudly. My angry voice thudded back at me and then, somehow, seemed to get sucked into the hard-packed dirt floor. “Wrong!” I screamed again, louder still.

After hanging out with Branson and Vicktergarten for rehearsal and recording sessions, I found myself noticing how sound changed from one environment to another. This room definitely had some kind of sound-canceling quality, but at that moment I wasn’t particularly interested in analyzing the room’s acoustics. I just wanted to vent my frustration at Warrick, and at myself.

Every time I found another instance of something creepy or neglectful, somebody found a way to talk me out of it. Whether it was at UrgePool or Warrick, people who were in charge seemed bent on making me feel like I was being paranoid or immature.

“No more!” I yelled. It felt like a vow to myself. To Daphne. To the rest of the kids stuck in this hellhole. “No more!” As the words burst from my mouth, I heard a low, tortured howl—a sound so full of anguish and loneliness that I flashed back to the night my mother attacked John.

I shuddered as I remembered how numb my body had become, how I’d lost control of my bladder. Now I stood in a cold sweat until the sound died away. No wonder the residents thought Warrick was haunted. I told myself the howl most likely came from an injured animal out in the woods.

I didn’t know what kind of local animal could make a sound that heart-wrenching, nor did I want to. I had bigger problems.

I began searching the building for tools and materials to repair the door. I might not be able to yank out the root of what was wrong at Warrick, but goddamn it, I would fix that lock.

I found a jar of screws in various sizes and started looking for wood I could use to reinforce the rotted door. The whole thing really needed to be replaced, but I wasn’t about to wait for someone to get around to it.

It felt good to be doing something useful. I smiled grimly as I imagined Summer’s or Dr. Grey’s reaction if they knew what I was up to. I felt sure they’d have some explanation, some excuse why I should leave well enough alone.

“Not this time,” I muttered as I dug through a pile of thick plywood-scraps. “Ha!” I pulled out a sturdy board that I calculated would cover the rotted area. I strode over and shoved the door open with my shoulder. As I held up the board against the outside of the door, I saw that it would do nicely. Now all I needed was a drill to attach the plank to the door, and the hasp to the plank.

I went back into the dank building, leaving the door propped open for more light. I searched all the shelves but, incredibly, found no drill. With every other kind of tool available, I figured someone must be using the drill elsewhere on campus.

Warrick had at least one full-time maintenance man, an old guy with a handlebar mustache, Sander or something like that, and I’d glimpsed other workers around from time to time. I thought I remembered seeing someone working by the chicken coop as Zora and I had gone around the drive earlier.

I lit out from the cookhouse, pulling the door shut behind me. The coop was at the far end of the circle, just before it turned to loop back around. I started jogging, anxious to find the drill and get the door repaired. Anxious to do something that felt right.

Just before I got to the chicken coop, I caught a glimpse of blue in the woods beyond the drive. Through the trees, I saw a man in a flannel shirt chopping wood and stacking it in a wheelbarrow. His arms swung with a methodical grace and power, neatly cleaving logs with each stroke.

I left the graveled drive and strode into the woods. “Excuse me!” I called out, but the man didn’t seem to hear me.

As I drew closer, I realized that he was huge, well over six feet tall, with massive arms and shoulders. The axe looked like a toy in his hands. “Excuse me!” I called again.

The man turned around so fast that I jumped back, realizing too late it wasn’t the smartest move to startle an axe-wielding giant alone in the middle of the woods. As I got my first look at his face, I also realized I’d never seen this man at Warrick before. He had cocoa-brown skin and short-cropped hair. Though he wore workman’s clothes—jeans, a flannel shirt and Timberland boots—they all looked out-of-the-box new, not a stain, smudge or wrinkle, like he’d put them on for the first time that day.

“Well, hello!” The man smiled at me like I was the one person on earth he most wanted to see.

He had perfect white teeth and warm brown eyes that crinkled around the edges. He appeared to be in his thirties or forties, but he could have been ninety and it wouldn’t have mattered. He possessed the kind of charisma that movie stars and successful politicians do. The kind that makes you want to watch them doing anything or nothing. I felt flummoxed, like I’d turned a corner on a familiar street only to find myself in another city altogether.

“Hello,” I stammered, trying to focus on the task at hand. I decided to look the man in the chin instead of full in the face. “I’m Lacy Keyes, a counselor here.”

He nodded, and his face went serious. “Name’s Zeke.”

I snuck a peek upwards at his face. Without the smile he was still handsome, but the intensity of his charisma had abated. “I’m looking for a drill to fix the door of the cookhouse.”

His face grew even more somber, leading me to believe he knew about Daphne. That was good, because I didn’t feel like explaining. I just wanted to fix the damn lock.

“I’m afraid that’s not going to do the trick.” Zeke shook his head and bent to lean the axe against the chopping block with a sigh.

“I know the door needs to be replaced, but fixing the lock is better than nothing,” I snapped. “As it is, the kids can walk right in any time they want. Why don’t you build a door and put a lock on it they can’t break? You appear capable.”

He smiled ruefully. “I’ll do that, but wood and screws won’t fix this problem.”

“What do you mean?” I frowned. I wasn’t in the mood for riddles.

“Too many kids have disappeared. They were good kids, too,” he said. “Not the types you might wish away. Hurt kids. Kids that everyone kept hurting.”

“I knew it!” I took a step toward Zeke, but he moved away, keeping the same six feet between us. “How long have you been working here?” I asked.

“Oh, about forever.” Zeke put his hands in his jean’s pockets and stared up at the trees.

I followed his gaze up through the tangle of branches above us, into the bright blue sky, then returned my gaze to his chin. “How come we can see there’s something wrong, but everyone else seems clueless?

“Some people can’t see what’s right in front of them. Some don’t want to. But it’s very simple. You just listen. Listen!”

Zeke’s words penetrated my brain with an almost palpable force, like he’d physically planted them inside me. The sensation was so strange, so startling that I looked him dead in the eyes. Motes of light began to dance in the air between us, sparkling then swirling. They came with such force and brightness that I gasped. A migraine aura.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve got to go.” Of course I’d left my medication in the cottage in my purse, again. How many fucking migraines could a person have?

It’s time, she’s ready…had to get rid … bad monkey … She’s starting to understand … choking on his own vomit … fear soothes. Don’t give up! Legacy. The voices—the ones that soothed and encouraged, along with the ones filled with violence and hate—burst into my head.

As a wave of nausea hit me, I slumped against a tree. Still, I found myself wanting to catch another glimpse of Zeke. As I looked back, the swirling, glittery motes of light were so brilliant my eyes burned. I glimpsed a blue blur above me. The sky, a shirt.

Over the voices, I thought I heard Zeke saying, “Don’t fight it, Lacy. Don’t fight and you’ll win. Just listen.” But it didn’t make any sense.

I was powerless to fight the migraines and all that came along with them: the voices, the flashing lights that obscured my vision, the debilitating nausea. I didn’t want to fight anything; I just wanted it to go away.


WHEN I WOKE, I saw a white ceiling, white walls, and the corner of a white window shade. For a minute, I couldn’t remember where I was.

Images floated through my mind: Zeke’s face, Daphne, clouds, the rotted wood door. But there was no white in any of that. I lifted my head slowly and pulled the room more into focus. Everything washed in white. I was on the examination table at the clinic at Warrick.

Slowly, I propped myself onto my elbows. I steeled myself for nausea and pain, but fatigue and a mild throb at the top of my head were all that remained of the migraine. As I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the examination table, Dr. Clark walked in, wearing a white coat over dress slacks, shirt and tie. He smoothed his tie as he came to the side of the examination table.

“Hello, Lacy. How are you feeling?” He frowned.

“Surprisingly, not bad. Does that mean it’s tomorrow?” I smiled.

Dr. Clark’s dull expression did not change. He glanced at his watch. “It’s Monday, February eleventh. 11:15 a.m.”

“Well, that’s good, I guess. I’ve never recovered from a migraine this fast without medication.”

Dr. Clark picked up a folder and squinted at the contents. “I gave you a shot of Imitrex as soon as Sandy found you and brought you in,” he said. “You were moaning and mumbling that you had a migraine.”

I had no recollection of this, but I nodded anyway.

“He said it looked like you’d been jogging when you passed out.”

“Actually I was talking to a worker in the woods. Zeke?”

Dr. Clark turned away from me and stood facing the window. His action struck me as bizarre, because a white, translucent shade completely obscured the view.

“Lacy, I’m sorry, but I have some bad news,” Dr. Clark said into the shade.

“Am I fired?” I asked.

“What? No ….” Dr. Clark turned around and looked at me, confused. “That is, I don’t think so. Dr. Grey handles all that.” He reached under his white coat and pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket. It was pressed and folded into a thick square, which he balanced on the palm of his hand. “My bad news is … of a personal nature.”

A sudden terror made it hard to breathe. His words had dredged up something that had been floating beneath the surface of my consciousness ever since my migraine had started.

Even while I was passed out, I now realized, I’d been aware of it on some level, this bad news circling like a shark beneath a tiny, fragile raft of not knowing. I put up my hand to ask him to wait. I wanted just one more moment. Just one more breath before he told me.

“There was a car accident,” Dr. Clark rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Your ….” He trailed off, eyes wandering around the room before they finally came to rest on my face. “I’m so sorry.”

I sat mute, unable to move.

“Lacy? Your father….” he said hollowly.

He didn’t have to finish. I knew. My father was dead.

Continue to Chapter 19: Luxury Berth On The Train To Nowhere

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