6

ALEX HAD BEEN FORTUNATE. His Jeep Cherokee had started on the first try.

After the long drive to the older part of downtown Orden, Nebraska, he parked near the end of a side street that sloped off downhill. That way, if his Jeep wouldn’t start, he could let it roll to get the engine to turn over.

In this older section of town there wasn’t much parking other than on the tree-lined streets. The needs of a hospital, parking being only one of them, had long ago rendered the facility obsolete and so it had been converted to a private asylum: Mother of Roses. The state paid for patients, like Alex’s mother, who were placed there by the order of the court.

In the beginning Ben had tried to get his daughter-in-law released into his and Alex’s grandmother’s custody. Alex had been too young to understand it all, but the end result had been that Ben had eventually given up. Years later, when Alex had pursued the same course, he had likewise gotten nowhere.

Dr. Hoffmann, the head of the psychiatric staff, had assured Alex that his mother was better off under professional care. Besides that, he said that they could not legally give him the responsibility of caring for a person who in their professional opinion could still become violent. His grandfather had put an arm around Alex’s shoulders and told him to come to terms with the fact that while there were those who went to Mother of Roses to get help, to get better, his mother would likely die there. It had felt to Alex like a death sentence.

The mature trees on the streets in that part of town and on the limited grounds of Mother of Roses asylum made the place look less harsh than it was. Alex knew that the somewhat distant hill where he’d parked made a convenient excuse to delay walking into the building where his mother was imprisoned. His insides always felt like they knotted up when he went into the place.

On the way over he had been so distracted by scattered thoughts competing for attention that he’d nearly run a red light. The thought of Officer Slawinski scowling at him had dissuaded him from trying to make it through the yellow. As it turned out, the light had switched to red before he’d even reached the crosswalk.

For some reason it felt like a day to be careful. Staring up at the glow of a red light that had come quicker than expected had felt like cosmic confirmation of his caution.

Walking beneath the enclosing shade of the mature oaks and maples, Alex headed around the side of the nine-story brick building. The front, on Thirteenth Street, had broad stone steps up to what he supposed was a beautiful entrance of cast concrete meant to look like a stone fa?ade of vines growing over an ornate pointed arch framing deep-set oak doors. Going in the front was a lot more trouble because it required going through layers of bureaucracy needed for general visitors. Close family were allowed to go in through a smaller entrance at the rear.

Grass under the huge oaks in back thinned to bare dirt in patches where the ground was heaved and uneven from massive roots hidden beneath. Alex glanced up at the windows all covered with security wire. Flesh was no match for that steel mesh. The back of the building was more honest about what it was.

The sprawling lower floors of the hospital were for patients who went to Mother of Roses for treatment for emotional disorders, substance abuse and addiction, as well as rest and recovery. Alex’s mother was imprisoned on the smaller ninth floor, a secure area reserved for patients considered dangerous. Some of them had killed people and had been found to be mentally incompetent. Several times since Alex’s mother had been confined at Mother of Roses there had been serious attacks on other patients or staff. Alex always worried for her safety.

He scanned the top row of almost opaque windows, even though he had never seen anything more than shadows in them.

The steel door in back had a little square window with safety wire crisscrossed through it. When he pulled open the door he was hit by the hospital smell that always made him resist taking a deep breath.

An orderly recognized him and nodded a greeting. Alex flashed a wooden smile as he tossed his keys, pocketknife, change, and phone in a plastic tub on a table to the side of the metal detector. After he passed through without setting off the buzzers, an older security guard, who also knew Alex but didn’t smile, handed over the phone and his change. He would keep the knife and keys until Alex left. Even keys could be snatched from a visitor and used as a weapon.

Alex bent at the steel desk beyond the metal detector and picked up a cheap blue plastic pen attached by a dirty string to the registry clipboard. That string was the most lax security in the entire building. The woman at the desk, Doreen, knew him. Holding the phone to her ear with a shoulder, she flipped through a ledger, answering questions about laundry deliveries. She smiled at Alex as he looked up from signing his name. She’d always been nice to him over the years, sympathizing with him at having to visit his mother in such a place.

Alex took the only elevator that went to the ninth floor. He hated the green metal doors. The paint had been scratched off in horizontal patches by med carts hitting into it, leaving dirty metal to show through. The elevator smelled musty. He knew the tune of every clunk and clatter it made on the way up, anticipated every shimmy in its labored travel.

The elevator porpoised to a stop and finally opened before the ninth-floor nurses’ station. Locked doors led to the women’s wing on one side, the men’s on the other. Alex signed his name again and put in the time: three p.m. Visitors were carefully monitored. He would have to sign out, with the time, when he left. The elevator door at the top was kept locked and no one would unlock it without a completed sign-in-and-sign-out sheet — a precaution against a patient talking his way past a gullible new employee.

An orderly in white slacks and smock came out from a small office in the back of the nurses’ station, pulling his keys out on a thin wire cable extending from the reel attached to his belt. The orderly, a big man who always hunched, knew Alex. Just about everyone working at Mother of Roses knew Alex Rahl.

The man looked through the little window in the solid oak door and then, satisfied that the way was clear, turned the key in the lock. He yanked open the heavy door.

The man handed over a plastic key for the buzzer on the other side. “Ring when you’re finished, Alex.”

Alex nodded. “How’s she doing?”

The man shrugged his rounded shoulders. “Same.”

“Has she caused you any trouble?”

The man arched an eyebrow. “She tried to stab me to death with a plastic spoon a few days back. Yesterday she jumped a nurse and would have beaten her senseless if another orderly wouldn’t have been ten steps away at the time.”

Alex shook his head. “I’m sorry, Henry.”

The man shrugged again. “Part of the job.”

“I wish I could make her stop.”

Henry held the door open with one hand. “You can’t, Alex. Don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s not her fault; she’s sick.”

The hall’s grayish linoleum floor was struck through with darker gray swirls and green speckles, presumably meant to add a little bit of interest. It was as ugly as anything Alex could imagine. Light from the sunroom up ahead reflected off the ripply floor, making it look almost liquid. The evenly spaced rooms to each side had varnished oak doors with silver metal push plates. None had locks. Each room was home to someone.

Cries coming from dark rooms echoed through the hall. Angry voices and shouts were commonplace — arguments with imaginary people who bedeviled some of the patients.

The showers at the rear of the bathroom were kept locked, along with a few of the rooms, rooms where patients were placed when they became violent. Locking a patient in a room was meant to encourage them to behave and be sociable.

The sunroom, with its skylights, was a bright spot in a dark prison. Varnished oak tables were neatly spaced throughout the room. They were bolted to the floor. The flimsy plastic chairs weren’t.

Alex immediately spotted his mother sitting on a couch against the far wall. She watched him coming without recognizing him. On rare occasions she did know who he was, but he could tell by the look in her eyes that this time she didn’t. That was always the hardest thing for him — knowing that she usually didn’t have any idea who he was.

A TV bolted high on the wall was tuned to Wheel of Fortune. The gaiety and laughter from the TV struck a stupefying contrast with the somber dayroom. A few patients laughed with the TV audience without comprehending what they were laughing at. They only knew that laughter was called for and so they laughed out of a sense of social duty. Alex guessed that it was better to laugh than cry. Between the laughter, some of the younger women glared at him.

“Hi, Mom,” he said in his sunniest voice as he approached.

She wore pale green hospital-issue pajama pants and a simple flower-print top. The outfit was hideously ugly. Her hair was longer than the other residents’. Most of the women had their hair cut short and curled. Alex’s mother was protective of her sandy-colored, shoulder-length hair. She threw fits if they tried to cut it. The staff didn’t feel it was worth a battle to cut it short. Occasionally they would try, thinking she might have forgotten that she wanted it long. That was one thing she never forgot. Alex was glad that she had something that seemed to matter to her.

He sat on the couch beside her. “How are you doing?”

She stared at him a moment. “Fine.” By her tone, he knew that she didn’t have a clue as to who he was.

“I was here last week. Remember?”

She nodded as she stared at him. Alex wasn’t sure if she even understood the question. Sometimes she would say things that he knew weren’t true. She would tell him that her sister had visited. She didn’t have a sister. She would say that she had gone shopping. She was never allowed to leave the confines of the ninth floor.

He ran his hand down the side of her head. “Your hair looks pretty today.”

“I brush it every day,” she said.

An overweight male orderly wearing shiny black shoes that squeaked rolled a cart into the sunroom. “Snack time, ladies.”

The top of the cart displayed a few dozen plastic cups half filled with orange juice, or something that resembled orange juice. The shelves in the cart held baloney-and-lettuce sandwiches on wheat bread. At least, Alex assumed it would be baloney. It usually was.

“How about a sandwich, Mom? You’re looking kind of skinny.

Have you been eating?”

Without protest she rose to take a sandwich and glass from the man with the cart when he rolled it near. “Here you go, Helen,” the man said as he handed her a plastic cup of orange juice and a sandwich.

Alex followed as she shuffled to a table off in the far corner, away from the other residents.

“They always want to talk,” she said as she glared at the women clustered on the other side of the room, where they could see the television. Most of the people in the place talked to imaginary people. At least his mother never did that.

Alex folded his arms on the table. “So, what’s new?”

His mother chewed a mouthful for a moment. Without looking up she swallowed and said under her breath, “I haven’t seen any of them for a while.”

“Is that right?” he asked, playing along. “What did they want?”

It was hard to make conversation when he didn’t know what she was talking about half the time.

“What they always want. The gate.”

“What gate?” He couldn’t imagine what she imagined.

She suddenly looked up. “What are you doing here?”

Alex shrugged. “It’s my birthday, Mom. I wanted to spend it with you.”

“You shouldn’t spend your birthday in this place, Alex.”

Alex’s breath halted for an instant. He could count on the fingers of one hand the times she had called him by his name except when prompted.

“It’s my birthday. It’s what I want to do, Mom,” he said quietly.

Her mind seemed to drift away from the subject. “They look at me through the walls,” she said in an emotionless tone. Her eyes turned wild. “They look at me!” she screamed. “Why won’t they stop watching me!”

A few of the people on the other side of the room turned to look at the screaming woman. Most didn’t bother. Screaming in the institution wasn’t an uncommon occurrence and was usually treated with indifference. The orderly with the cart glanced over, appraising the situation. Alex put a hand on her arm.

“It’s all right, Mom. No one is looking at you now.”

She glanced around at the walls before finally appearing to calm down. In another moment, she went back to her sandwich as if nothing had happened.

After she took a sip of orange juice, she asked, “What birthday is it?” She put the sandwich up to her mouth.

“My twenty-seventh.”

She froze.

She took the sandwich out of her mouth and carefully set it down on the paper plate. She glanced around, then seized Alex’s shirtsleeve.

“I want to go to my room.”

Alex was a bit puzzled by her behavior, as he frequently was, but he went along. “All right, Mom. We can sit in there. It’ll be nice, just the two of us.”

She held his arm in a tight grip as they walked back down the depressing hall. Alex walked. She shuffled. She wasn’t an old woman, but her spirit always seemed broken.

It was the Thorazine and other powerful antipsychotic drugs that made her that way, and made her shuffle. Dr. Hoffmann said that Thorazine was all that kept her functioning as well as she did, and that without it she would become so violently psychopathic that she would have to be restrained twenty-four hours a day. Alex certainly didn’t want that for her.

When they went into her simple room she shut the door. The doors didn’t lock. She opened it and checked the hall three times before she seemed satisfied. Her roommate, Agnes, was older. She never spoke. She did stare, though, so Alex was glad that she had stayed in the sunroom.

The TV, bolted high on the wall, was on, but the sound was muted. He rarely saw the TV turned off. The sound was usually muted, though. He’d never seen his mother change the channel. He didn’t understand why she and Agnes wanted the TV on without the sound.

“Go away,” Alex’s mother said.

“After a while, Mom. I’d like to sit with you for a time.”

She shook her head. “Go away and hide.”

“From what, Mom?”

“Hide,” she repeated.

Alex took a deep breath. “Hide from what?”

His mother stared at him for a time. “Twenty-seven,” she finally said.

“Yes, that’s right. I’m twenty-seven today. You had me twenty-seven years ago, nine in the evening on the ninth of September. That’s the date today. You had me here, at this very place, back when it was a regular hospital.”

She leaned close and licked her lips. “Hide.”

Alex wiped a hand across his face. “From who, Mom?” He was tired of the pointless, circular conversation.

His mother rose from where she sat on the edge of the bed and went to a small wardrobe. She pawed through the items folded on the shelf. After a brief search she came up with a shawl. At first, Alex thought that she was cold. But she didn’t put the shawl around her shoulders.

She stood before the small dresser and draped the shawl over the polished metal square, bolted to the wall, that served as a mirror.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

His mother turned back with fire in her eyes. “They look at me. I told you. They look at me through the windows in the walls.”

Alex was starting to feel creepy.

“Mom, come sit down.”

His mother sat on the edge of the bed, closer, and took one of his hands in both of hers. It was an act of affection that unexpectedly brought a tear to Alex’s eye. She had never done such a thing before. Alex thought that it was the best birthday present he could have gotten, better even than fifty thousand acres of land.

“Alex,” she whispered. “You must run and hide before they get you.”

It was startling to hear his name from her lips for the second time in the same day. It took a great effort to summon his voice.

“And who is it that I should hide from, Mom?”

She glanced around and then leaned closer so he could hear her whisper.

“A different kind of human.”

He stared at her a moment. It made no sense, but something about it sounded serious, sounded sincere.

Just then something on the TV caught his eye. He looked up and saw that it was the local news. A police spokesman was standing before a cluster of microphones.

A news crawler moving across the bottom of the screen said “Two Metro officers found dead.”

Alex reached over for the remote and turned up the sound.

“Do you know why they were there, in behind the warehouses?” a reporter asked through the clamor.

“The Center and Ninetieth Street section was within their patrol area,” the official said. “Alleys throughout there provide access to loading docks. We check them often, so there was nothing unusual about them being there in that location.”

Alex remembered when Ninetieth Street, about ten or twelve miles from his house, used to be the outskirts of town.

Another reporter shouted the others down. “There are reports that both officers were found with their necks broken. Is that true?”

“I can’t comment on such stories. As I’ve said, we will have to wait for the coroner’s report. When we have it we will release the findings.”

“Have the families been notified?”

The man at the microphone paused, obviously having trouble getting words out. Anguish shaped his features. He kept swallowing back his emotion.

“Yes. Our prayers and sympathy go out to their families at this difficult time.”

“Can you release their names, then?” a woman waving her pen for attention asked.

The official stared out at the tight knot of reporters. His gaze finally dropped away. “Officer John Tinney, and Officer Peter Slawinski.” He started spelling the names.

Alex’s whole body flashed as cold as ice.

“They break people’s necks,” his mother said in a dead tone as she stared at the TV. He thought that she must be repeating what she’d just heard. “They want the gate.”

Her eyes went out of focus. He knew; she was going back into that dark place. Once her eyes went out of focus like that she wouldn’t speak again for weeks.

He felt his cell phone vibrate in his pocket. Another text message from Bethany. He ignored it as he put an arm tenderly around his mother’s shoulders.

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