Go back to Chapter 26: Meet the Drakes
AFTER I LEFT Tanesha, Shasta and Elizabeth with Dr. Grey for the I.T.S. session, I went back to the cottage. Kim and I supervised chores for the other nine girls, while Zora reviewed the week’s paperwork.
The Friday ritual for those who hadn’t earned recreation points was to put away their personal items and clean the common areas in the cottage. It should have been fifteen minutes work, but from the moaning and groaning you’d have thought we were asking them to dig ditches.
By five o’clock the weather had cleared enough for us to go out to walk the half-mile loop, which met with more drama and whining than the cleaning had. I found myself thinking that if Dr. Grey had been there, the residents would have worked without complaint and gone out to run the loop like puppies. How did she compel compliance so easily?
I should know.
Whenever I was around her, I found myself saying and doing things I had no intention of doing, and later wondering why. A master manipulator. I didn’t think I’d ever met anyone whom that phrase fit so well. She could see your deepest insecurity like it was written in magic marker on your forehead.
You knew she was going to win, but first she was going to poke you in that invisible, vulnerable spot until you wanted to rip out your own brain. The ghost makes them cut out their own tongues with the grass clipper. Yeah, it was kind of like that.
ON THE WAY to dinner, I saw the group from I.T.S. filing down the wide curving plantation staircase. Thad and Victor looked smug. Shane’s face was expressionless, numb. I raised my eyebrows as Tanesha, Shasta and Elizabeth joined the rest of the girls heading into the cafeteria.
Tanesha narrowed her eyes. “I ain’t talking about it, Ms. Keyes.” Then she turned to glare at Shasta and Elizabeth.
Dinner was Warrick’s finest Southern Country Cafeteria Cuisine—ultra greasy pork chops, margarine-laden mashed potatoes, biscuits, coleslaw that was more Miracle Whip than cabbage, and overcooked, canned green beans.
I put a teaspoonful of everything except the pork chop on my plate and pushed it around with my fork to make it look like I was eating, because I’d learned that Dr. Grey took great offense if anyone was, “too uppity to eat plain, wholesome food.”
I looked over at Kim, the other counselor on shift with me, and saw her doing the same thing—except she had a pork chop on her plate, as well. She’d told me many times that she was a vegetarian outside of Warrick, but that she ate meat here to “set a good example”—by which I suspected she meant to keep on Dr. Grey’s good side.
Kim was a somber woman. Polite and competent, but hard to read. She’d been at Warrick for years, so I figured she had to be tough, but behind her guarded exterior I sensed pain.
Dr. Grey swept into the dining room with the Drakes in tow. “As you see, everyone eats together. We’re a family, here.”
I was struck again by the Drakes’ grotesque appearance. They couldn’t have been more different from Dr. Grey’s cold, polished perfection, but the way she was squiring them around indicated high esteem.
As the strange trio walked up and down between the long tables, scrutinizing us like tourists, conversation was replaced by the clatter of cutlery as everybody started digging into the greasy food like it was their last meal.
I pretended to take a bite, but there was nothing on my fork. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Kim take a huge bite of pork chop, and then almost gag attempting to swallow it—unlike Zora, who was polishing off her plate with genuine gusto.
“Do you actually like this?” I murmured low enough so that the girls wouldn’t hear. Kim did though, and shot me a panicked look.
“I grew up in the county,” Zora said. “This is almost as good as what my gran made, but the potatoes need more salt.
“Eat up, Lacy!” Dr. Grey said, frowning. “Must keep up your strength to be mentally sharp and physically fit.”
“Oh yes, Ma’am!” I said. “I’ve already eaten most of my plate. I’m just taking a breather.”
I shone my brightest smile at her. Normally, I would have been too nervous to fib to Dr. Grey, but I sensed that she had other things on her mind.
“This is just so homey,” Mrs. Drake gushed to her husband. Her lipstick was askew, distorting the shape of her mouth. “Don’t you think so, dear?”
“Delicious,” he murmured, pulling his lips back from his gums in that monkey grin that made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle.
Dr. Grey had turned away, but Kim went on choking down her food.
Oblivious to Kim’s distress, Zora looked down the table and folded her hands primly. “Dame los papas y ensalada, por favor, Tanesha.”
“Speak English!” Tanesha growled. She looked miserable, almost on the verge of tears—and her plate sat untouched, still heaped with food.
“She said—” Elizabeth began.
“I know what she said!” Tanesha snapped. “My ma was a Spanish teacher. But not everybody here knows Spanish, so it isn’t polite.”
I stared at Tanesha in amazement—not only was it the most I’d ever heard her say voluntarily, she’d said it with perfect diction. I wondered if the street talk was a shield she’d adopted after her parents died to make her seem tougher.
“That’s true, Tanesha.” Zora gave her a gentle smile. “We don’t want to make others feel left out. Now, what about those potatoes and slaw?”
AFTER LIGHTS OUT, Kim and I settled in under the buzzing florescent lights of the staff office to do our daily log notes. One of the joys of Warrick was that, after surviving a twelve to fifteen hour day with the girls, you got to relive the whole thing again as you detailed the highlights of each resident’s progress and challenges.
When I got to Tanesha’s file, I started to think about the conversation I’d overheard in the rec room. It seemed clear to me that there was a connection, at least in her mind, between the legend of Buzz Wilson and the therapy sessions. Even the formidable Victor had appeared terrified.
She glanced up. “Yeah?”
“You know anything about a former resident named Buzz Wilson?”
Kim’s eyes seemed to glaze a bit, and she shook her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“The residents think his ghost haunts this place.”
Kim hunched a shoulder. “It’s projection. I can’t go outside and exercise because I’m afraid of the ghost. I yelled at my roommate because I’m afraid of the ghost. I’m having nightmares, not because I was abused by someone I love, but because there’s a ghost.” Kim let out a sigh and turned back to her paperwork, subject closed.
I shoved the log away and pulled my computer out of my backpack. A search using the keywords death, suicide and Warrick turned up only two notices. Daphne, and one other, a girl named Kelly Sales who’d hung herself in the cookhouse, six months ago.
That was it. No evidence of the string of suicides and disappearances the girls alluded to. I knew it was possible that the residents’ ghost rumor mill had conflated two suicides into half a dozen. A few weeks ago, that’s what I would have thought, but something had shifted. I remembered the old joke, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
She regarded me over the top of her glasses. “Yes?”
“What’s up with the Drakes?”
Kim shrugged. “Dr. Grey is always bringing donors through here. They sponsor special events. For the kids.”
“For the kids, my ass!” I snorted. “You should have seen how they were looking at Elizabeth and Shane in the rec room. Like steaks on the menu.”
Horror clouded Kim’s face and then was gone. She ran her fingers through the top of her spiky hair. I leaned closer, taking a chance. “Come on. The truth. There’s something off about this place, isn’t there? I’m not saying I believe in ghosts—I don’t. I’m saying that a predator could use the ghost stories to create fear and cover up his or her actions.”
Kim adjusted her tortoiseshell glasses. “Oh yeah, definitely, I’ve heard of that.”
“Every single episode of Scooby Doo.” Kim pushed to her feet and vanished into the staff bathroom. A second later I heard the shower start.
I sat there feeling foolish. Did I sound like Kat, trying to convince people that demons were real? I rubbed my face wearily. I felt like an animal smelling danger in the wind—hyper-alert, ready to bolt at every unfamiliar face or rustle in the bushes.
I finished my paperwork and fell into a restless sleep. I did bed checks at 11:30 and 1:30. All was calm until 3:20 a.m. when something yanked me out of a deep sleep. I sat, tense and barely breathing, trying to figure out what woke me. I listened intently but heard nothing other than the sound of Kim breathing.
I got up and went from room to room, checking beds. Both Tanesha and Elizabeth were missing. I scoured the cottage again, both bathrooms and living room, and turned the lights on in every room to see if either of the girls was in someone else’s bed—it had been known to happen—but all the other residents were alone and dead asleep. Then I tried the front door. Unlocked. And the alarm was off.
Breathless with anxiety, I rushed into the staff bedroom to wake Kim. But although I called her name repeatedly and shook her shoulders, she only mumbled and rolled over.
Frantic by now, I grabbed my cell phone, but there was no signal. Bizarre, because I’d never had trouble getting reception in the cottage before. I grabbed the desk phone to call Zora’s house, but the line was dead.
I tried once more to wake Kim, but she was so heavily asleep, she seemed drugged.
Not knowing what else to do, I pulled my blue pea coat over the leggings and tee shirt I was wearing, crammed my feet into my sneakers without socks and grabbed the heavy metal utility flashlight out of the desk drawer.
I made one more round of bed checks. Tanesha and Elizabeth’s beds were definitely still empty. Moreover, the beds were perfectly made—as if the girls had never slept in them.
Continue to Chapter 28: The Cookhouse