The following is an exert from my novel Common Street Secret in response to the following prompt from The Red Dress Club. I know it’s a little long, so I apologize now. Enjoy!
This week’s prompt asked you to have you or your character find a forgotten letter or card from someone important in your life – whether good or bad. What does it say? How does it affect you or your character? What is done with it?
The room was dark, lit only by the single candle flickering in the center of the room. Heavy breathing is heard from one of the remote corners.
“Leave us,” the Doctor whispers to the Sister. A young nurse with her follows her out, but not without giving the Doctor a judgmental glare. The Doctor closes the door behind them and turns to the corner of the room.
“Nathan?” The sounds of his footsteps hush at her soothing voice. He knows this name. It is the name of her lost lover. He has heard her scream in torment as his ghost taunted her, calling to her, forbidding her the love she so desperately desires. No, he is not Nathan. He is better than Nathan. He can love her, as Nathan never could, for Nathan is no more. Nathan is dead.
“Hush, my darling. Your love is here. I will hurt you no more.” He strokes her beautiful hair. Her face is that of a child, innocent, adoring. She closes her eyes, cradling her face against his hand. His stroking journeys further, the backs of his fingers caressing her bare shoulders and down her arms. The young girl purred and gathered closer in his embrace. In the dark room, he was her Nathan, her lover come back from war. They would marry soon, and she would have his children. They would be happy and she could go home, home from this awful place.
“I have missed you, Nathan. Take me home. Take me home and make me your wife.” She places both hands on his face. Her eyes are glazed. She no longer saw the Doctor. She saw her Nathan, home at last. Her lover returned. She leaned in closer for a kiss…
The guards had checked Vincent’s bags. They wouldn’t allow him to bring any possessions other than the book, which he had covered with newspaper on the bus.
“Take the first door on your left. We’ll bring her in shortly, Mr. Gallows.” The main guard was a tired man. He looked as though he’d just come off a 3 day binge. In his late 40’s, Vincent figured he was going through his mid-life crisis. Vincent nodded and walked in the direction the middle-aged drunk had pointed.
As Vincent waited, he wondered how this second reunion would go. He had many questions but did not want the guards to take her away or drug her again like last time. He needed answers.
Vincent made sure to sit with his back to the door. He knew from his last experience that the facility could not afford to put cameras in the meeting rooms. The plate glass window in the door was the guards’ only means of observation. He crossed his arms, feeling for the case with his glasses in the secret pocket of his jacket. Guards always forget to check the pockets. Vincent knew, even from their vantage point, they would not come in for the case if he brought it out in front of his mother. They would assume that the main guard at the front desk had allowed him to keep it. It was not the case itself that Vincent was interested in; it was the tiny screwdriver he used for fixing his glasses. Vincent was going to offer Caroline Byrnes Gallows her freedom. He was going to get answers. The door opened behind him.
Caroline had changed since their last unfortunate visit. Her un-brushed, though clean, hair had been chopped short, sticking out in disheveled layers. Her face was a mask of scars and scabs where she had persistently clawed at her eyes. Her temples were bloodied and raw from the multitude of shock therapy treatments she’d undergone. She wore the same unflattering grey sweat suit as the other patients in the clinic, a recent rule assigned by the new head psychiatrist, or so Vincent was told by the guards. He watched as she sat down and immediately drew up into the fetal position that was so familiar. The guards looked at Vincent, he gave them a dismissive nod, and they turned to stalk out of the room.
“Hello again, Mother.” Vincent didn’t meet her eyes. She shifted in her chair in angst. She didn’t speak, just watched his movements. He drummed his fingers on the book in a slow, steady staccato. Dadadum. Dadadum. Repetitive as a heartbeat.
“What do you want from me?” She asked eyes fixed on his drumming hand. Moments drag on in silence. Entranced, Caroline stopped moving. She barely breathed. Just sat, and stared. Keeping his voice low, careful not to break the rhythm or her gaze, Vincent began asking questions.
“Where are you from, Mother?” He watched her closely, reading her body for signs of distress.
“Chicago.” Her answer was quick and short. Vincent could tell this was a reflex for her. He decided to try a different route.
“What was your father’s name?” Vincent asked.
“Michael Byrnes.” Her hand twitched at the name. Vincent let the rhythm of the drumming pull her back into the trance.
“Where is he from, your father?” Vincent was not sure if this would lead the direction he wanted, but was hopeful.
“Shreveport.” Her answer was slow. She had to focus more to remember. Vincent kept drumming his fingers.
“Louisiana, right?” Caroline nodded, slowly. Vincent decided to go a little deeper.
“What did you want to be when you grew up? A teacher? A nurse? A doctor?” At the last word, Caroline flinched. She began to sway slightly. Vincent realized that in his excited state, the drumming had gained momentum. He steadily slowed it down to its previous pace.
“Where did you go to school, Mother?” Vincent tried again. His watchful eyes scan his mother.
“Tulane,” Caroline replied. Her voice strained, but she continued to watch the drumming fingers, unmoving.
“What did you study?”
“Nursing.” Her voice was almost a whisper now.
“Did you work anywhere when you got out?” Vincent fought to keep the drumming steady.
“Yes.” Caroline was anxious. She instinctively knew the next question, but in her trance, she could not stop Vincent from asking or herself from answering.
“Where, Caroline?” Vincent leaned forward in anticipation of her reply.
“The Asylum!” Caroline shook with fear. She began rocking in her chair, pulling her legs tighter to her chest. Vincent breaks the drumming. Caroline stopped the rocking and stared at him. She knew something had happened because of how her body was reacting but didn’t know what was said.
“Mother, it is time that you and I talked about the letter.”
Caroline gripped the edge of the table so heard her knuckles turned white and Vincent could hear the bones in her fingers cracking from the strain. The look on her face was that of sheer terror. Vincent could tell it was taking every ounce of her self-control to keep from raking her fingers across her face and screaming in agony. Vincent watched silently as each knuckle began to regain its former color. Releasing the table, Caroline resumed hugging her legs close to her chest and began to slightly sway. Comfortable with this reaction compared to their last encounter, Vincent reached for his glass case.
Vincent removed the screwdriver from the case and set it gently on the table, just out of Caroline’s reach. He pulled out his cleaning cloth and began to run it over each lens, carefully watching Caroline’s reaction. Her swaying slowed and became steadier, a more methodical sway than the twisted jerkiness before. Her eyes gleamed with obsession as she stared at the screwdriver. Vincent returned the cloth to his case and replaced it in the hidden pocket of his jacket. Reaching for the newspaper, Vincent removed the book from its camouflage and placed it gently in front of Caroline. Her stare never broke from the screwdriver.
“Do you know this man, Caroline?” Vincent tapped the front cover of the book. Caroline glanced at the book, then back to the screwdriver.
“Yes,” she said her voice cracking.
“Who is he, Caroline? How do you know him?”
“The… the Doctor. Bad man. Very bad man.”
“How is he a bad man, Caroline? What did he do?”
“He ran. Everywhere. Patients screaming… always screaming! They hated him. We all hated him. Except the Sister. She helped him. With the treatments. All the screaming…” Caroline’s hands twitched. She closed her eyes in deep concentration. “There was a lady, Jane something… Byrd. Jane Byrd. Old black lady, used to be a maid of some sort. Laundry, I think. Terrified of snakes. Thought they were after her. Wanted to be inside of her.” As Caroline spoke, Vincent started flipping through the book. There it was page 8. Jane Byrd.
Jane Byrd – F – Blk – over 48 – Entered August 7th/69 – Native U.S. Washer-woman – Insanity on day of Admittance – Hallucination, to-day the same – Imagines that snakes are after her, with obscene intentions.
“The Doctor wouldn’t leave her alone, thought the only way to cure her was to make her not afraid of snakes. Every day he would go out to the garden and find a little green snake. Harmless, he said. He’d hide it in his lab coat pocket. He’d ask the Sister to give her cocoa tablets to make her numb. He’d lay her on a table and bring out the snake. ‘If you move, Jane, it will bite you,’ he’d say. ‘Then we’ll have to do it again tomorrow.’ He’d lay the garden snake on her stomach. Oh, how she’d scream.” Caroline shuddered.
“Tell me more, Caroline. What did the letter say? Did he send it to you?” Vincent was eager to learn more about the Doctor.
“The girl…” Caroline whispered. “The one he loved. The one he killed.”
“What was her name? Why did he kill her?” Vincent grabbed the book, ready to flip through the pages. Caroline shook her head.
“I don’t remember her name. Young. Real young. All that blood. I didn’t know something that small could have so much blood.”
“From what, Caroline? What happened?”
“From the baby…”
“The one the Sister gave to me. The one I stole…” Caroline looked deep into Vincent’s eyes for the first time since he was seven. There it was; the answer he’d been waiting for. Vincent stood and walked out the door carrying only the book. He never heard a sound as she slid the screwdriver into the waist of her grey sweatpants.