Missed the last chapter? Go to 25: Dances With Creeps. Just starting? Go to Prologue: This Is My Knife.
DR. GREY STOOD in the doorway with an expression that seemed equal parts cold fury and excitement, like a goddess about to turn humans into swine. All of the residents stared at her. Even Thad was, for once, speechless.
The kind of altercation she’d walked in on was a normal part of life at Warrick, and I shook my head in bafflement. Dr. Grey’s head snapped my way, and I realized too late why the others had frozen. When Dr. Grey was angry, the best strategy was camouflage. Silly rabbit, I’d flinched first, and now she had me in her sights.
I braced myself to take the brunt of her ire, but to my surprise, she said nothing, only sharpened her glare. I saw a shadow move in the hallway behind Dr. Grey and realized she wasn’t alone.
“This is our game room,” Dr. Grey said. When she turned to face the people behind her, I had the impression that her expression changed—not in the normal way with all the facial muscles working simultaneously—but in a ripple from top to bottom, as if she’d pulled on a mask.
My heart started pounding, sweat beaded on my forehead, and I gagged. For a terrible moment I thought I would vomit in front of everyone. Then, as abruptly as it came, the sensation passed. I glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed, but Thad and the residents were still smiling and looking toward the group entering.
I wondered if the visual rippling of Dr. Grey’s face was a new migraine effect. It seemed that I was starting to experience them without the auras or headaches—not impossible, since migraines were neurological. The symptoms were merely side effects of synapses misfiring, and blood vessels constricting and then dilating. Doctors didn’t really know what caused migraines, so even the hidden events might be the offshoots of an even deeper, as yet unknown root.
An intense glow seemed to surround the group entering the room, heightened by the carnivalesque colors they wore. Dr. Grey, in a royal blue silk suit, came first. Summer, following at her heels, wore a flowing yellow and orange cotton dress in a diamond checkerboard pattern that clashed with her blue eye-shadow.
Behind Summer and Dr. Grey was a couple in their sixties I’d never seen before: a buxom woman in a red velvet and black taffeta dress, wearing so much pale foundation, red lipstick and rouge that she looked she’d just arrived from the circus.
Following the buxom woman was a short, tuxedoed man who resembled a monkey. Sparse strands of reddish hair stuck up from his head. He stood bandy-legged in the doorway and smiled, revealing protruding teeth and wide, shiny pink gums.
“Well, isn’t this cozy!” the woman gushed, flashing a set of crooked and unnaturally pointed teeth. Without waiting for introductions, she rustled over to Elizabeth. The sound rustling taffeta created a physical sensation in my body, light but insistent, like fingernails scraping my skin. “And aren’t you darling, just darling.”
Elizabeth shrank back from the woman’s outstretched hand. The woman clapped in delight and turned toward the man, “Look at this one, Horace.”
“Yes, my dear.” The man took a few obliging steps toward her, but his eyes were fixed on Shane.
“Children, say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Drake.”
All of the residents shook hands with the visitors, as politely as well-bred Victorian children. But the way the Drakes kept staring at Elizabeth and Shane, as if they were picking out cuts of meat, literally set my teeth on edge. I could feel my gums tingling as if an electrical current flowed through them. Then the visual aura descended. This time, instead of the usual flashing lights, my peripheral vision went dark, like watching a movie in a theater.
I felt the urge to scream, or grab Elizabeth and Shane by the arms and run out. Such irrational, hysterical behavior would have gotten me fired, but logic had been overridden by animal terror. The only thing that prevented me from responding to the alarms of my sympathetic nervous system was that I found myself unable to move or speak.
“As you can see, the game room is equipped with state of the art games and technology.” Dr. Grey was saying. “Residents have to earn points in order to be able to use the facilities, and it’s a big motivator. Right, Tanesha?”
“Yes, Dr. Grey.” Tanesha gazed at Dr. Grey shyly.
“Summer, please take Mr. and Mrs. Drake to see the dining hall. I’ll join you there in a moment.”
“Certainly, Dr. Grey.” Summer straightened her back. “Right this way.” She spun around and was gone in a swirl of sunburst cotton and patchouli.
Dr. Grey waited until they had gone. “Now.” She smiled, almost jovial. “Just what was all that commotion about?”
As if her question had abruptly reopened the door that had slammed shut on her arrival, all of the residents began talking loudly at once, and this jolted me out of my paralysis.
I took a deep breath and tested my body by walking to the nearest couch. Still no nausea. None of the usual, debilitating pain that came with my migraines, just the weird visual narrowing. But I wasn’t taking any chances. I fumbled in the pocket of my tracksuit for the tiny pill case I’d bought to carry with me at Warrick.
As the residents vied for Dr. Grey’s attention, each babbling their version of the truth, her eyes moved from one face to another in rapid succession, intently, as if reading. Then she held up her hand for silence. Once again, the residents complied, all eyes on her.
“This concerns me deeply.” Dr. Grey frowned. “Victor is a senior resident, and I would expect that we could take his word for the events he says took place last night.”
Victor smirked and puffed up his chest.
Thad nodded, “Of course, Shane needs to learn that—”
“On the other hand,” Dr. Grey kept on as if Thad hadn’t spoken, and he flushed. “Tanesha is also a senior resident, and she reports that Victor’s behavior here today was inappropriate. Almost as if he intended to cause harm to Shane.”
“He threatened me!” Shane exploded.
Dr. Grey shook her head with a grim expression. “We must get to the bottom of this. Someone is lying, and that is one thing we will not tolerate here at Warrick. We are a family, and when lies and deceptions enter the room, trust and solidarity leave. I want to see all of you in I.T.S. at 5:00 p.m. Whomever is lying, I suggest you take the next forty-five minutes to reflect and make the decision to tell the truth.
Dr. Grey turned and left the room. Thad ran after her, calling out, “A word, Dr. Grey?”
I heard Tanesha’s sharp intake of breath as she whirled toward Victor and hissed, “See what you done now! You gonna wake the ghost!”
“I ain’t afraid,” Victor said, but he had a pinched look around his eyes that belied his bravado.
“Yes you are! Look at your face!” Shane brayed. “Big, bad Victor afraid of ghosts.
“That’s enough, Shane,” I said, from my perch on the couch. “I know you’re angry, but you’ll have a chance to process your feelings in I.T.S.” I hope. The result of Daphne’s last I.T.S. had undermined any confidence I might have had in that process.
Shasta and Elizabeth had retreated to a couch and were talking quietly. Shane paced to the far end of the room, muttering and jabbing the air with his fingers. I decided to give him some space in the hope he’d wind down.
Victor picked up the pool cue and starting shooting at balls with reckless aggression, but Tanesha wasn’t through with him. “You and me had a deal,” she hissed. She was so intent on Victor that she didn’t notice or didn’t care that I sat within earshot.
Since Tanesha and Victor were both senior residents and about the same size physically, I thought it unlikely that they would fight, so I busied myself pretending to read a magazine.
Victor bent over the pool table to shoot. “You ain’t my boss.”
“You want to end up like Buzz?”
Victor jerked upright. From the corner of my eye I could see that he’d blanched, causing his skin to pale so much that he almost appeared blue.
“We’re senior residents. We’re safe.” Victor said uncertainly.
Tanesha shook her head and lowered her voice so that I could only catch part of what she said. “That’s what … heard Buzz … uppity … go anywhere … to anybody.” Then her voice rose again, “Just like you.”
I saw Victor glance my way, eyes narrowed. As I sank deeper behind my magazine I heard him say, “You fucking with me?”
If Tanesha answered, I didn’t hear her. A moment later Thad strode into the room. “Shane, Victor, time to go if you want a snack before I.T.S.”
“You coming to I.T.S. with us, Mr. Morton?” Victor said. While I wouldn’t have characterized his demeanor as meek, his hostile swagger and loud voice had evaporated.
Thad shot Victor a sharp look but didn’t answer. Shane stalked by, still glowering, and headed for the door.
After Thad and the boys left, Tanesha sat at one of the tables, propped her head in her hands and stared at an old copy of Mademoiselle. I stood slowly, anticipating the pounding of a migraine headache in my temples. It was there, but manageable. The medication had worked its magic.
As I passed Tanesha, I glanced down and saw her magazine open to an article titled, “Valentine Gifts to Make Him Sweat!” I had a feeling the magazine could have been open to an article on the joys of eating dirt for all she would have cared.
At the next table, Shasta and Elizabeth had begun playing a desultory game of spades, staring bleakly at their cards. I sat down with them. “Can I play?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “If you want.”
“Only fifteen minutes until I.T.S., what’s the point?” Shasta threw down her cards in disgust.
“That’s okay, “ I said. “I don’t have to play.”
“Not the point.” Shasta crossed her arms and looked out the window where an azalea screened the view of the yard. “I earned my rec points and now I have to leave out of here and go to I.T.S. because of a-hole Victor? It ain’t fair!”
I nodded. “But Dr. Grey doesn’t know that. When she came in everybody was arguing. Including you. I’m sure she just wants to hear everybody’s side.”
I heard Tanesha snort, but when I turned around, she hunched further over her magazine and didn’t look up.
“Who’s Buzz?” I kept my voice casual, but Tanesha flinched.
“Trying to read my magazine, Ms. Keyes.” Tanesha got up to turn her chair all the way around, showing me her broad back and mounds of curls pinned to the back of her head, cascading past her shoulders in ringlets of polished ebony.
“I like your new hair-do,” I said.
Long pause, then a mumbled, “Thank you.
I turned back to Elizabeth and Shasta who had abandoned the card game and were staring quizzically at me.
“What?” I asked.
“You don’t know about Buzz Wilson?” Elizabeth said.
I shook my head. “Tell me.”
“The ghost got him,” Shasta said. “Buzz snuck out of his cottage one night to meet a girl in the cookhouse. When she got there, she found him dead, with his tongue cut out. She went screaming to staff. Woke the whole campus, but when they went to look, his body was gone. Never found him.”
Elizabeth nodded in confirmation. “I know it sounds crazy, Ms. Keyes. I never believed in ghosts either until I came to this h-hole, excuse my language. I’ve heard things I don’t ever want to hear again. Creepy sounds like someone being tortured—crying and moaning. But, when you ask staff, they either say they didn’t hear it, or else they say it’s the wind or an animal or something stupid like that. Like we’re little kids and can’t tell the difference.”
I remembered the moaning sounds I’d heard in the cookhouse the day after Daphne’s death, and felt a surge of guilt. My dad’s death had pushed everything from my mind: the tools that seemed designed to entice kids looking for trouble, the charismatic handyman in the woods. I wondered if he had fixed that lock or if it was still attached to rotten wood.
“Kids be dying around here all the time. Or they see the ghost and go crazy.” Shasta said.
“How many kids have died since you’ve been here? What were their names?”
“Let’s see … Daphne, of course.” Elizabeth’s eyes welled but she brushed the tears away. “Shanelle from King cottage. That boy with the limp … what was his name, Tanesha?”
“Dr. Grey says when you talk about the ghost, you calling him,” Tanesha said, without turning around. “That what you want?”
Elizabeth, looking stricken, whispered, “I forgot.”
“No point in talking to her about it anyway. She don’t believe in ghosts.” Tanesha pushed herself to her feet and turned to us with a weary, hopeless expression that would have looked sad on a forty year-old. On a seventeen year-old it was heartbreaking. “Time for I.T.S.,” she said, and turned to leave.
“Wait.” I stood and walked over to stand in front of Tanesha so she could see my face. “It’s true. I don’t believe in ghosts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe what you’re telling me. Someone is hurting kids here, and I’m going to do everything I can to find out who it is. I promise.”
“You gonna put a stop to the ghost?” A small smile came to Tanesha’s lips, and I felt a sprig of hope that she might start to trust me, just a little.
“I’m going to look into the situations with all the kids who died or committed suicide. If there are as many as Elizabeth says, if anything at all looks suspicious, like maybe some of them weren’t suicides, I’ll do everything I can to make sure there’s an investigation, and not by the same people as before. I’ll go to the D.S.S., police, newspapers, whatever it takes.”
“That’s what Mr. Shepherd said, too. He before all ya’ll’s time.” Tanesha turned to face the three of us. “Mr. Shepherd was a handyman. Mr. Shepherd found kids dead in the woodshed and said he thought something fishy around here.”
Tanesha paused. Although I believed she was afraid, I also saw that she relished playing Cassandra, the bearer of knowledge and doom. Elizabeth and Shasta leaned forward in their chairs so far I thought they were going to fall on the floor.
Tanshesa nodded. “Mr. Shepherd say he gonna fix things. Now Mr. Shepherd dead.”
Continue to Chapter 27: Missing