(Missed the last chapter? Go to Chapter 1. Just starting? Go to the Prologue: This Is My Knife.)
February 6, 2014
I LOVED NEW jobs—a fresh start. No pain, no fear. Another chance to put the past in a box and close the lid tight.
The first three and a half weeks at Warrick Home, I didn’t smell anything but what was truly in the air. I heard nothing but what people were actually saying. No garbled voices, no flashing patterns and lights messing with my vision. Nothing but reality, clean and clear. But then my luck ran out.
I was at the bottom of the stairs when I heard the classroom doors fly open and the sounds of ninety-six teenagers pouring into the upper halls.
I was late.
“Damn!” I whispered. I snatched up the S.I.R., short for Serious Incident Report, that Dr. Grey had told me to correct, and ran toward the back stairs leading to the third floor. I found myself grateful that counselors were forced to wear sneakers and sweat suits at Warrick, as if we were about to run down to a swanky health club for a spin class instead of wrangling traumatized teens.
If one thing had been impressed on me during my training, it was this: you can’t be late. Late meant that fists will fly, that hair will get pulled out in chunks, that eyes will be blackened. Summer Skye, the staff director, liked to say, “Late makes time for hate.”
Taking the stairs two at a time, I dodged other counselors and residents coming down, muttering apologies. “Excuse me. Sorry. Everything’s fine. Just got to get up. Sorry.”
As I rounded the banister on the second floor, the overpowering scent of lilies and copper exploded into the back of my brain, like a funeral wrapped up with a child’s trip to the candy store—cloying flowers and hot, sweaty pennies clenched tight.
I tried to push back the smells and sounds crowding my mind, praying that I could get the girls back to the cottage before the nausea and pain hit.
As the third-floor hallway came into view, I was relieved to see that Kim Pace, the other counselor for Jemison Cottage, already had our twelve girls lined up outside of the science room. Kim arched her eyebrows above her tortoise shell glasses as I flew up the last two stairs and into the hall.
“Sorry!” I said. “Paperwork.”
Kim nodded and started down the stairs, the girls trailing behind her. The newest of them, Daphne and Elizabeth, brought up the back of the line. I fell in behind, to take rear supervision.
I heard two boys yelling down below, followed by whoops of excitement from the rest of the kids, echoing and amplifying in the stairwell. Frank Garrett’s distinctive baritone rose above the chaos. “Shane, come up to the front of the line! Victor, stay there.”
The line stalled while we waited for Garrett to sort out his boys. More indecipherable yelling floated up. Behind us, Thad Morton, who doubled as science teacher and counselor at Marshall cottage, stepped out of his classroom into the hall.
Thad shoved through the line of girls to the banister, and called out impatiently, “Need a hand down there?”
“We’re fine!” Frank replied, but I could still hear boys yelling.
Most of Warrick’s counselors, other than the team leaders, were recent college grads with degrees in social work or psychology. Thad, on the other hand, was Harvard-educated, with a bachelors in biology and a masters in business—the kind of guy I’d have expected to find playing tennis at the Country Club of Virginia, not working at a treatment facility for the kids society has given up on.
If Warrick was a step down for me, it must have been one giant backwards leap for Thad.
Dr. Grey emerged from the other narrow back stairwell at the opposite end of the hall, stilettos clicking sharply on the worn hardwood floor, and I watched Thad’s face change from cocky to something like slavish adoration. Dr. Grey rewarded him with a fond, proprietary smile. I wondered if they were an item. That would explain Thad’s exemption from Dr. Grey’s track suit uniform mandate.
Together they looked like something out of Southern Living: she in an ice-blue silk suit with a short skirt that showed off long, toned legs in black stilettos; he in a white button down shirt, white cuff links, gabardine slacks and custom-made loafers.
Staring at them was making me nauseated. Either that, or the lily and copper smell. Probably the latter. My migraine was cresting toward me.
I needed to get my medication from my purse in the office of the cottage and find a dark corner where I could close my eyes and rest. Instead, I was trapped between my boss and a restless mob of teens. Elizabeth and Daphne, at the top of the stairs, jostled each other for a position at the rail where they could glimpse what was going on below.
When I turned to look again, Dr. Grey was whispering something into Thad’s ear. Eyes glittering, mouth stretched tight in an obsequious smile, Thad nodded his head. I could feel desire wafting off of him like bad cologne.
The next phase of my migraine kicked in. The doctors call it an aura: psychedelic flashing lights and ripples in the air, that wound my nerves tight. I had about fifteen minutes before I had to lie down or throw up.
As soon as Kim and I got the girls back to the cottage, I could ask Zora, the team leader, for my break, but at this rate I wasn’t sure I’d make it in time. Worse yet, Dr. Grey was motioning me over, eyes narrowed. “Lacy, were you late?” she asked. Behind her, Thad shook his head disapprovingly.
“Only a minute!” I said. “I was trying to finish the incident report like you told me to.” I knew I sounded like a child, protesting weakly against mommy.
“Your negligence may have caused a fight. Do you realize that?” Dr. Grey had the cold, flat affect that she got when displeased—a look I dreaded.
“Kim was here with the Jemison girls. They were fine!”
“It’s not only about your girls, Lacy. We’re a family here. Every child you passed on the stairs knew you were late. If you aren’t following the rules, why should they?”
Speechless, I looked at Dr. Grey, her pale, perfectly symmetrical face rendered surreal by the flashing and rippling aura. She was blaming me for the altercation on the stairs? It seemed ridiculous, but then again, I’d never worked with kids as damaged and fragile as these. Maybe something as insignificant as a counselor rushing by was enough to ignite their simmering anxieties.
“I’m so sorry Dr. Grey,” I said, miserably. “I didn’t realize.”
Dr. Grey fluttered her French manicure at me good-naturedly, in one of the lightening-fast shifts in mood I’d come to expect from her. “Honey, don’t worry. You’re new. You’ll just have to learn how to balance the administrative and supervision better. Thad knows all about it. I’m sure, if you’re nice to him, he’ll share his strategies with you.”
Thad smiled so smugly that I wanted to smack his mouth right off of his face. Then a wave of nausea rose again.
“Thank you, Dr. Grey,” I mumbled, and turned to follow my girls. Behind me I heard Dr. Grey say, “You know what to do.” At first I thought she was talking to me, and I felt a rush of gratitude. I really was trying.
Then, overlapping Dr. Grey’s voice, I heard the other voices.
Although I’ve read everything I can find about migraines, I’ve never heard of anyone else hearing voices. But migraines are neurological, so I figured the symptoms could be all over the map. That’s all the voices are, I told myself. Just another weird symptom.
Occasionally, the voices murmured encouragement, lovely and reassuring. Most times, though, they were violent or angry. I tried to tune it out, but it was like a bizarre radio commercial turned up too loud. Six pillars! Pollution, anger, greed, violence, lust, and fear! Drink of the Superior! Drink the tea!
The line of teenagers was moving and I’d rounded the corner, ready to sprint down the stairs behind the girls, when I heard Thad call out behind me. “Lacy, bring Daphne here, please!”
Run, Legacy! Get her out of here. Into the woods! The voices squawked. I looked over the banister and saw Daphne Overstreet one level down—a slender, white, tattooed girl with bleached blond hair—dragging herself floppily as if she were her own rag doll.
I wanted to scream at her to move faster, but there was no point. Unlike the sweeping stairs from the ground floor to the second, which were designed to impress, the ultra-narrow twin back stairwells from the first to the third floor were designed for slaves. This one was clogged with teenagers, and to get to the other, we’d have to go past Thad.
“Lacy, did you hear me?” Thad stood at the top of the stairs, eyes narrowed.
Run, run, run. I wracked my brain for an excuse to keep going, but couldn’t think of one. My head swam, and the aura had narrowed my vision to a small pulsating circle.
Daphne,” I said, my voice weak. But she heard me and looked up. “Mr. Morton wants to see you.” I expected Daphne to bristle, but she seemed to have a half smile peeking out from under bangs as she turned and slouched back up the stairs.
I’d talked to Daphne one-on-one when I took her to the clinic for a bloody nose, the week before. She tried to act tough in front of other residents, but underneath the stripper hair and raccoon eye makeup was a sweet kid. Just scared. Junkie mother, abusive father, multiple foster home placements and a stint at Northrop for attempted suicide. Sadly, it was a typical story for Warrick residents.
Despite the migraine, I felt reluctant to leave Daphne, so I trailed them down the hall to Thad’s classroom. “What’s this about?” I asked Thad.
“A school issue,” Thad said crisply.
I squinted at my watch, rippling numbers, a wave of dizziness. “Daphne has group in fifteen minutes.”
Daphne stopped and looked at me placidly, waiting for further instructions.
“I’ll take her down when we’re done,” Thad said, motioning her impatiently toward the classroom. “You go ahead.”
I hesitated, looking around the empty hall. Dr. Grey had gone, along with all the other teachers.
“I said, I’ll take her.” Thad gave me a pointed look. “I’m sure you have somewhere else you’re supposed to be now. Don’t want to be late a second time in one day.”
I flushed with embarrassment and felt blood pounding in my temples. The pain was coming.
“I don’t care if I miss group, Ms. Keyes,” Daphne said. “It’s just Tanesha bossing everybody else, like she’s staff. I never say nothing, anyway.”
“That’s nothing to be proud of Daphne.” Thad frowned darkly. He gave the girl a little push through the classroom door. “You, in.” Then he pointed at me. “You, out.” He turned and closed the door behind him.
What the hell? Did he just talk to me like I was one of the residents? I wasn’t sure if it was the migraine or my intense dislike of Thad, but my nerves were humming like an out-of-tune guitar, and I had a mind to kick his classroom door open.
And then what?
The aura had receded, so I could see fine, but the pain and nausea were rising. If I didn’t leave now, I would be puking in five minutes. Then, I realized I my calculations were off by four.
I rushed to the bathroom. Made it just in time to heave a violent stream of stomach acid and what was left of the salad I’d had for lunch. Even after my stomach was emptied, I kept heaving.
I heard a woman’s voice in my head, monotone as a computer, Catch the prey, dig in claws, violence empowers, open jaws. Prey struggles, no escape, fear conquers, bite her nape. Trap prey, now rape, lust entertains, wait, wait. Lust entertains, wait, wait.
In between the spasms that shook my body, I lay on the cool black and white tile that smelled of bleach, dimly grateful for Dr. Grey’s insistence on obsessive cleanliness. When my stomach finally stopped convulsing, with the tile against my head like an ice pack, I almost fell asleep. But something nagged at me.
At first I thought it was the voices again. No, I didn’t do it! You’re lying. No. Don’t touch me. I don’t do that. I’m not a liar! You’re the liar! Let me go! You’re hurting me. But there was something about this voice that was different. Human. I drifted, half-conscious, until it hit me.
I shot up to a sitting position too fast, and my head pounded savagely. My stomach heaved again, but there was nothing left in me. I pulled myself up onto the toilet, slowly. Bracing my hands on the walls, I stood.
As I came into the hall, I heard Daphne screaming, “Get off me! Get off me!”
I ran to the classroom, pushed open the door and found Thad pressed against Daphne, holding her in a standing restraint, both of his arms around her from behind, pinning her arms.
Daphne kicked out wildly. Her baggy jeans had slid down on her slim hips as she flung her body from side to side, scattering the plastic chairs and desks.
“Help me, Ms. Keyes!” Daphne shrieked. “Don’t let him hurt me!”
Read Chapter 3: Open Jaws