Missed the last chapter? Go to 28: The Cookhouse
I WOKE AT dawn, head pounding, shivering on the cold dirt of the cookhouse floor. I pulled myself up and looked around, fearing the worst, but saw no sign of Shane—no sign of anything but a cookhouse converted into a maintenance shed.
I stood and brushed myself off as best I could, then staggered back to Jemison cottage. I found Zora and Kim in the office, huddled around the coffee maker waiting for it to produce enough java to fill their mugs. They both looked as exhausted and bleary as I felt.
“What happened to you?” Zora wrinkled her nose with grumpy distaste—Zora before her second cup was not nearly as tactful as the fully caffeinated one.
“Is Tanesha here?”
“All the girls are still asleep,” Kim said.
“Are you sure she’s in her bed?”
“I checked fifteen minutes ago.” Kim stared at me, eyebrows raised.
Zora frowned. “What’s going on?”
I shrugged out of my pea coat, dusted with dirt from the cookhouse floor. “Call Marshall Cottage and ask them to check on Shane,” I said. “He was in the cookhouse last night. I was trying to help him but I passed out. When I woke up this morning he was gone.”
“What?” Zora grabbed the desk phone and punched the extension to Marshall cottage. “We assumed you got up early and went running. I can’t—Thad? It’s Zora. Can you check on Shane? We have some reason to think he might have been out of the cottage last night….”
I glanced at Kim, expecting to see some measure of shame for having left me to deal with the disappearance of two residents, but instead her glazed eyes flickered around the room, vacantly. Static interference rewires, rewrites. A whisper in my mind, barely perceptible. I shook my head to clear it, and felt the dull hangover of a migraine.
“Are you sure?” Zora said into the phone. She looked up at me. “Thad says Shane was in bed for all checks last night, and he’s sleeping now.”
The memory of Thad with a mime-white face and lips smeared clown red flooded my mind. He’s a liar.
Zora spoke into the phone again. “I’m not sure. I’ll call you back.”
Now that I knew all the kids were safe, a wave of exhaustion hit me and I collapsed on the couch.
“You said you passed out. Are you sick?” Zora said.
“Migraine. I’m okay now, I think. Exhausted.”
“You need coffee,” Zora spun around briskly, braids whipping behind her, and then groaned. “God, my head. I feel like I drank a fifth of brandy.”
As Zora poured coffee, Kim went into the staff bedroom and came back with a bottle of ibuprofen. “You want some?”
Zora nodded and tossed back the orange pills Kim dropped into her hand, chasing them with her coffee. I watched as Kim did the same. Something was nibbling at the edges of my mind, but I wasn’t able to catch it before Zora thrust a mug into my hands and sank down next to me on the couch.
“Here you go, half-cow, just the way you like it. It would work better if you took it black, though.”
I smiled wanly at her assumption that coffee could set everything right. For Zora, it was like a superpower.
I sipped and collected my thoughts. The night before, I’d been sure I was having a psychotic break—people who wouldn’t wake, shadows with clown faces, head-splitting noise—but today the world seemed normal. I felt grateful for the rich smell of Kona, for Zora’s beautiful, concerned face, even for Kim straightening and dusting the office—her calming ritual.
Gathering my courage, I told Zora and Kim everything that had happened starting from when I found Elizabeth and Tanesha missing. When I got to the part about how I’d tried to wake Kim and failed, Kim looked up from her dusting with an offended glare.
“I’m a light sleeper. Always have been.”
I doubted that, since I always did the bed checks, and she never batted an eye when I got up. “When you finally woke up, you seemed out of it.”
Zora shot Kim an inquiring look. Kim flushed. “I took two Benadryl for my allergies, but that certainly wouldn’t keep me from waking up or remembering something like that! I believe she likes to create drama.”
“How is this creating drama? I found Elizabeth sleepwalking, about to go into the cookhouse. I saw lights in there. I heard people.”
“Could you tell who it was?” Zora asked.
I shook my head, trying to figure out how much to tell her. “I think they were chanting something.”
Kim pointed at Zora, dust cloth dangling from her hand. “I know you’re my supervisor and the boss’ niece, but I’m going to speak my mind. These kids are scared enough as it is with the stories they tell each other. The staff are under strict orders not to add to it. You don’t believe me, ask Dr. Grey!” Kim stalked out of the office into the hall, shutting the door behind her.
“Come on ibuprofen.” Zora rubbed her temples and took a deep breath. “How does Shane figure in?”
“When I went back to the cookhouse looking for Tanesha, I found him with a plastic bag over his head and a belt around his neck. Tied to the meat-smoking rack, like Daphne.”
Zora picked up a pen and started fiddling. “Thad said he’d been in bed all night. And wouldn’t he have bruises?”
I shrugged. “That’s what I thought. But there was padding underneath the belt. It felt like foam. Maybe that kept him from bruising?”
“Maybe. Why didn’t you call me?”
“I tried! Zora, there was no cell reception. The landlines were dead. Even the alarm was off.”
“That wouldn’t affect cell service. And we had lights.”
“Right, sorry. My head is just….” Zora sighed again.
“I pounded on the doors and windows of the staff bedrooms on the girls’ side. I pounded on your door, and Dr. Clark’s too.”
Zora regarded me wearily. “Lacy, I’m sorry, but it sounds pretty unlikely that—” She held up her hand to forestall my protest. “I’m not saying you’re lying. But this is Warrick! If somebody sneezes and farts at the same time the whole campus goes on high alert.”
I smirked at her metaphor in spite of myself, then scrubbed my face with both hands. “Aagh. I know. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Did you know that last night?”
“That it didn’t make sense.”
I thought about that as I gazed around the small, dingy office: the worn furniture, one small window looking out onto the bare fingers of the ash tree and blue sky beyond. It smelled like coffee and lemon Pledge. Outside the door I could hear Kim talking to the girls, the murmur and cadence of their voices rising and falling. Everything felt so familiar, so different from last night.
“Yeah. It felt wrong. But at the same time, in a weird way, it felt inevitable. Somehow I knew even before I knocked that nobody was going to answer.” I shivered. “Like one of those nightmares where you know you’re dreaming but you can’t wake up.”
“Do you think that could be the explanation?” Zora’s voice had gone gentle, like she was talking to one of the residents.
I bristled, wanting to deny the possibility, but I couldn’t quite. Occam’s Razor. Even last night, I’d considered the possibility that I had been dreaming. A dream within a dream.
Zora leaned forward and the wooden beads on her braids made the gentle clacking noise I always found soothing. “I know you’re still upset about Daphne, so it would be natural for your nightmare sleepwalking to take you to the cookhouse.”
“Maybe.” I allowed myself the luxury of hope. Compared to bizarre clown rituals or psychosis, a nightmare sounded almost cozy.
We sat in silence for a minute, each of us entertaining our own thoughts. Then Kim opened the office door. “Elizabeth’s awake.”
Elizabeth came in behind Kim and collapsed on the couch opposite us. Her blonde curls were rumpled and there was a red mark on her plump cheek where she’d kept it pressed too long into the pillow. Kim closed the door and stood, arms crossed.
“Good morning, sunshine,” Zora said with a smile.
“’Morning,” Elizabeth mumbled. “My head hurts something awful.”
“It’s going around,” Zora said. “Is there anything you need to tell me?”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No, but I need you to tell me the truth about last night. Did something happen?”
“Fine.” Elizabeth plucked at the soft pink fabric of her pajamas. “That girl Brandy, from Baker Cottage? She started it.”
Zora and I exchanged puzzled looks. “Started what?” I asked.
“Picking on Shasta. Called her a dyke and knocked her hat off and stepped on it in the dining hall. So I kind of bumped her elbow and she dropped a glass.”
“Elizabeth.” Zora shook her head reprovingly.
“I had to! Brandy is just crazy. And for some reason, she gets away with everything.” Elizabeth crossed her arms and frowned.
“Okay, we’ll talk about that later,” Zora said. “What we want to know right now is what happened after bedtime. Did you go outside for any reason?”
“What?” Elizabeth yelped. “Who said I was outside?”
“Relax. We’re just asking.”
“You couldn’t pay me a hundred bucks to go outside at night. It was a dark moon, too. No way!” Elizabeth bent forward, hooked her arms under her knees and began to rock herself.
Zora nodded. “That’s all for now. You can get some cereal and watch TV if you want.”
Elizabeth bolted from the room, screeching for Shasta as she went down the hall.
“I don’t think she’s lying,” Zora said. “Whenever Elizabeth lies, her eyes get real wide and her voice goes low. If she was out there, she doesn’t remember it.”
Kim sucked her teeth. “I knew it wasn’t true when she said the landlines and cellphones had gone dead at the same time.”
“I can tell you’re not an investigator, Kim.” Zora’s smile took the sting out of her words. “My ex-husband was, though, and I guess some of his suspicious habits rubbed off on me. Phone lines can be powered on and off, and there are devices to block cell phone signals in large areas. Prisons have them.”
“But the rest of it! It’s completely—”
“Let me finish. When you were out of the room, I suggested Lacy may have been sleepwalking. And she agrees it’s a possibility.”
“A possibility?” Kim put her hands on her hips, pressing her advantage. Her attitude irritated me, but I supposed she’d felt attacked when I’d said I couldn’t wake her.
“You know Lacy just lost her dad?” Zora asked.
Kim blinked. “Yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with—”
“You’re lucky, then. After my aunt Lena died four years ago, I had god-awful nightmares for almost a year. She died right here at Warrick.”
Zora had gotten up to pour herself another cup of coffee, so she didn’t catch the look that flashed across Kim’s face, the same horror I’d seen the night before, like something had warped her beyond repair and then been repressed.
By the time Zora looked up, Kim’s expression had shifted to concern. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Zora nodded. “Heart attack. Only forty four years old.”
Dad. Heart attack. My own heart clenched in response and my eyes welled.
“I know.” Zora’s deep brown eyes, rich with compassion, met mine. “Greif comes out in all kinds of ways. It’s not always rational or socially acceptable.” She turned to Kim. “I’m going to make some discrete inquiries about last night, but unless my investigations turn up anything else, I think we need to chalk this up to sleepwalking brought on by Lacy’s emotional overload.”
“But shouldn’t we file serious incident reports?” Kim’s face had gone stiff with disapproval again.
“Why? You don’t even remember Lacy waking you up. Unless there’s something else?”
“No,” Kim said sullenly.
“Then we’ll leave it at that.” Zora nodded dismissively.
Kim snorted in annoyance and walked out of the office.
“Do you think she’ll tell Dr. Grey?” I felt my anxiety rising. In the light of day, the story did sound bizarre, and I hadn’t even mentioned Zeke or my impression that the Drakes, Summer and Thad had been there, painted in clown face.
Paranoia will destroy ya. John’s mocking voice.
“I don’t know, honestly.” Zora tapped her pen. “She’s pretty pissed, and she seems to have a pathological fear of Dr. Grey.”
Zora’s forehead wrinkled. “No, why?”
I stared incredulously at her—she was telling the truth. Every single person at Warrick, myself included, was either falling over themselves to lick Dr. Grey’s stilettos, or trying not to piss themselves with fear, or both—everyone, except the woman sitting in front of me, deftly rolling a pen back and forth through her fingers like a magician rolls a coin.
“She’s terrifying to everyone but you!”
Zora waved dismissively and opened a folder, signaling the end of the conversation. I shook my head in wonder, still trying to absorb the revelation. Zora was immune. I wanted to grab her and dance around the room. Immune, immune, immune! The voices in my head seemed to echo my jubilation. I didn’t know what it meant yet, but the idea filled me with hope.
“You mind if I go for a run?”
Zora glanced at her watch. “It’s seven-ten. You have until 8:00 a.m. wake-up call to run and take your shower.”
ON THE WAY out of the cottage, I went into the living room to greet the girls who were up early.
Elizabeth and Shasta huddled on one long couch, sharing a blanket. LaShawn and Julie sprawled on either end of the other couch, Fatima and Precious each occupied a chair, and Nessa lay on the floor with a fuzzy orange pillow under her head. The kitchenette was still clean: no spilled milk and cereal, no dirty bowls on the counter, which meant nobody had eaten yet. The TV was playing Bee and Puppycat, and the girls stared at it with dull eyes.
“Good morning! How’s everyone?”
LaShawn waved in a desultory manner. Shasta looked doleful, “Don’t yell, Ms. Keyes.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Sick,” Kerri said.
The thought that had been pinging me earlier burst into my conscious mind—I was one of the few people on campus who hadn’t eaten any of the food the in the dining hall last night.
My mind cast back: who else had been missing or not eating? Tanesha—she’d had a full plate of food, but left it untouched. I’d thought it was because I.T.S. had upset her, but I’d never seen her skip a meal before. Victor, Brandy and Derrick, the other three senior residents had left while everyone else was still eating—normally a big no-no in Dr. Grey’s rulebook, but last night she was the one who had called them away.
“All of you are sick?” I walked further into the living room.
“Headache,” LaShawn moaned. “Can I have some Tylenol?”
“Me too,” Elizabeth murmured, gazing at me with haunted eyes.
Kim walked into the living room and gave me a curt nod.
“Ms. Kim, everybody sick. Can we have a quiet day?” Nessa said.
“Everybody can’t be sick.” Kim shook her head.
“Dark moon disease,” Shasta muttered.
The other girls looked stricken, and Kim shot me a glare. “Come on, you’all feel better after you eat. Up, up! Don’t make me turn off the TV, now.”
As Kim ushered LaShawn, Nessa and Shasta over to the kitchenette, Elizabeth took the empty couch as an opportunity to stretch out flat on her back.
Kim gave me a falsely cheerful smile. “Ms. Lacy, better get that run in while you can.” But her words barely registered.
I was staring at the bottoms of Elizabeth’s feet—Elizabeth the fastidious child who wouldn’t get into bed without first taking a lengthy shower; Elizabeth who piled up more laundry than any other resident because she would never wear the same clothes or pajamas twice; Elizabeth who now lay on the couch, the cuffs of her pajamas and the soles of her feet stained the deep, rusty red of Virginia dirt.