The miles flew. The city fell away.
McGill had lucked into one of those rare, mysterious traffic-free pockets on the New York State Thruway where you slipped into a lane and sailed upstate like a slotcar. She was flying the road. It should have been exhilarating. It didn’t come close.
She’d rolled out of a cellphone dead zone. Wished she could have stayed there. No sooner did she have service than the phone started up with a wildly insistent message waiting signal: four missed calls from Ty, four messages, each more hyped and crabby than the last. He got so pissy if she didn’t pick up when he phoned. Yet, he’d made it more than clear that she was not to call him when he was on tour.
She’d interrupted him once in the middle of an interview. One time. Years ago. That had been the end of that. No more calls unless he called her.
God, how she’d come to hate the Touring Ty. A month on the road and sure as shit he would Mr. Hyde into a rockstar cliché, spoiled rotten and full of tantrum. What else could you expect from him, surrounded 24/7 by people paid to feed his every whim?
Too often, she knew, those whims would be women. Another reason he didn’t want her to call. Life on the road was packed to the walls with bed-fodder; an endless stream of slutted-out hotties, each one absolutely sure that she was the one he’d been waiting for—if only he could get to know her very, very well.
Four unanswered calls would give Ty more than enough excuse to sample what was so freely offered; schoolgirl-costumed Harajuku girls being the flavor of the moment. Ty Florey was nothing if not supremely predictable: Sex with strangers was how he paid back arguments with his wife.
Enough. She was fed up with thinking about him; fed up that, once again, he’d elbowed her out of her own thoughts when she was supposed to be concentrating on something else. Ty would do what Ty would do. Sooner or later, somebody would bring her the paparazzi photos. Somebody always did.
Halfway to the house, now. Making excellent time. If this kept up, she’d get there early.
She had her attack planned down to the last footfall. Drop her bag off at the house. Wash the city off her face. Grab a burger. Then head for the hospital, a day and several hours earlier than her appointment…and wasn't Mister Director Doctor Jon Arledge going to be chapped about that.
The cell phone rang again. Not Ty, this time—not his ringtone. She pulled over, dug around for the phone in the passenger foot well where she’d thrown it after listening to Ty’s ranting messages. She caught the call on the last ring.
“McGill. It’s Julie.”
You always took calls from your agent. Even when you didn’t want to. “What’s up?”
“You’re going to love this…It’s the book: You just broke into The Times top ten! Yukio sent over the advance notice. You’ve gotta hear this…”
“That McGill Forester is a master of emotional nuance will come as no surprise to those who know her work from such shrines to fine writing as The New Yorker. What will surprise is the breathtaking depth of character that this Collection reveals in her subjects, a revelation made even more extraordinary by the realization that the transforming episodes are drawn from nothing more concrete than the natures and personalities of her subjects themselves.
“Ms. Forester’s deft and unique ability to capture souls on paper is a cover-to-cover celebration of the minute moments that make us who we are. There are everyday people in this Collection, but no ordinary ones. There is only what is most appealing and most enduring in all of us.”
This was it. This was what she had been working for since the first word she’d ever laid to paper. But this wasn't the place or the time to bask in the well-earned limelight. She had no attention to spare for anything except the work just ahead; not while she had such a complicated iron in the fire. “I’m sorry, Julie. Could you email it? I’m in the car.”
“Headed up to the house?”
“Yeah. Until the piece is finished.”
“How’s the move coming?”
“I am overrun by boxes. Still.”
“At least it’s pretty up there. So peaceful.”
Sure. Pretty. Peaceful. Whatever.
“Any idea when you’ll have the piece finished?”
“It’ll be finished when it’s finished, Julie. Tomorrow, next week, never. Don’t ask me that.”
“It’s not me. Jay’s been calling twice a day, asking for it. He wants to hold the next issue for it. And don’t yell, but he’s still pressing to get you on the talk-circuit.”
“Tell him no. Same answer as last time he asked. No.” As much as McGill enjoyed the recognition, she hated its trappings. She detested readings. She flat-out refused to do the TV talk shows that would undermine every interview she would try to do afterward. Even with her photo all over the dustjacket and newspaper reviews and internet profiles, she was rarely recognized. She liked it that way.
“So how’s Ty?” Et tu, Julie. Ty was the inevitable landing point of every conversation of McGill’s life. She maintained a standing bet with herself, how long people would take to get around to him. Three minutes or less—the talk always came down to Ty.
“He’s on tour. Asia, for two months. I’m supposed to catch him when the tour comes back stateside.”
“That’s so exciting, McGill. That’s got to be so much fun.”
Exciting. Fun. So everybody thought. But truth was, she didn’t enjoy spending time with him when he was working. Arena-rock tours were a wanton counterfeit of glamour. Days of stifling boredom, followed by a boring sound-check, followed by a deafening few hours of hysteria. Then more hours of adrenaline-soaked excess as the band wound down with an endless parade of hangers-on, disposable lovers and temporary best friends. And no sooner did it wrap up in one city than it started all over in the next. Fun. Sure.
“Bet you can’t wait to tell him about making the Top Ten.”
“Julie, you’re breaking up.” She’d just told the White Lie of the New Millennium, but she’d had all the chitchat she could stand for one day. “Thanks for sharing the review. Talk to you next week.”
She fell back into the rhythms of the road. Her thoughts hummed with the miles...
stop sign (noisy brakes, better get those looked at)...
hidden cop (slow down)…
ancient driver–come on, come on (pass. Now.)
coffee…need a convenience store…
Where was that turn? Always missed that turn…
Careful, car parked up ahead. Family potty stop—cute. Dog. Dog…
She hit the brakes, but the scene played out like a sickening mini-movie in slow-mo: the black dog bounding toward her, smiling his dog smile. The little girl screaming. The thump. Oh god. Oh god.
She skidded to a stop on the shoulder and ran back to where the dog lay. It was looking at her, eyes not yet clouded, too close to life to seem completely dead. But the soul was gone from it. A beautiful creature. And she had killed it. She had turned it into one of those pathetic things that lay along the roadside, lost and abandoned when it should have been petted and loved.
The family was standing around her. Mom and dad. Little boy and littler girl. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said; couldn’t stop saying it. This wasn't her fault. The family told her so. They told her two dozen times. But she knew better. She helped the father collect the dog’s body in a blanket. She helped move it to the side of the road. They wouldn’t leave it there, would they? Sorry, sorry, sorry.
What could she do for them? Could she give them money? Could she take the body to a vet for them? The family was kind. They kept reassuring her that there was nothing she could have done and nothing they wanted her to do. All of them except the sobbing little girl with the face drowned in tears.
“You killed him,” she said. “You killed him. Don’t say you’re sorry. You won’t be sorry later, and he’ll still be dead. You can’t give him back.”
The family put the body in the back of their SUV. They drove away. She drove away. And that was where her day really began. That was where her day changed. With the death of a black dog. And when she looked back, she would know that that was when everything in her life changed with it.
Chapter Four: "The Straightbacked Man in the Straightbacked Chair"
By the time she’d reached the gates of the hospital, everything that had happened before that moment was vanished from her. By the time she’d parked the car, all she felt was the sharpened attention that she carried with her into every interview. She was coursing with energy, gearing up for what was going to be the most daunting challenge of her writing life: to reveal the humanity among the patients of St. Amelia’s Psychiatric Hospital. An asylum for the insane.
Showing up a day early was a practice of long standing. She did it every interview, every time. She didn’t want the powers-that-be to pre-edit her experience; didn’t want the asylum’s director gathering all his prize inmates into a tidy tableau for her benefit. Early was always a risky strategy, unpredictable and tough to manage. And Dr. Arledge proved exactly why.
He was lot more annoyed about her premature arrival—and a lot more graceless about it—than she’d expected him to be. “I have a mind to cancel this folly altogether,” he said. “We both know why you’ve done this. Don’t tell me it was a mistake; don’t bother to lie to me.”
Good-looking man, Arledge. Jimmy Stewart, but with none of the charisma. Old money, she guessed. Took himself and his position very seriously. He probably thought he was hiding his displeasure. He wasn’t. He was full of tells.
Within the first five minutes, he’d done what men always seemed to do upon meeting her: They looked at her. All of her. They were measuring her sleek, dark-haired presence for possibilities, even the ones who knew that she was married. How available was she? How easy? What might she be willing to trade for what she wanted? The sex-on-a-stick look. She never failed to notice it, and when she did, she never failed to use it. Men forgave attractive women anything. They couldn’t help themselves. As long as she had that working for her, she had no need to be charming. And she never was.
“No games, then. Fine. You read the clippings I sent you, so you know I’m not here to do an investigative piece on this delightful little place of yours. I’m here to spend time with the patients. It’s about them, not you. And since you know you’re going to come out of this smelling like a rose, let’s not waste time arguing about how early I was, all right?”
He didn’t call her a bitch, not in so many words. But his actions did. He pointed her to a hard bench and left her sitting there for an hour and a half. She could only smile. It would take a lot more than Jon’s little hissy-fit to bother her.
People who had known her only on paper were always surprised to discover the disparity between the warmth of her work and the tough personality that made it happen. She was a prickly character, and she liked herself that way. Disciplined and determined yes, bitch no. You couldn’t write about anything if you weren’t willing to go after what you wanted.
Focus, she told herself. Control what you could, forget the rest. Ignore the hard bench, the passing people, the flickering fluorescent lights, the grey paint, the smells of oldness and indifference. Every distraction, switched off. Nothing but the work. Nothing but the idea. When the attendant finally came to fetch her, everything except the straight-ahead was a distant buzz. She felt her concentration magnify and sharpen. Her notebook hummed in her hand as if there were an electrical current running through it. She was ready.
This was going to be good.
In the day room, in a choreography of long habit, she made herself invisible; positioned herself unobtrusively off to one side and scanned the room. This was her shopping expedition. Her treasure hunt. The sizing up of possibilities, and an assessment of who in the room had the most to offer. She was looking for the balance-point between just enough and not too much. Eyes, hands, posture, expression: These were the tellers of truth that she relied on.
Over there. The guy with the manic mannerisms. The overeager neediness that flitted from one person to another in a painful quest for affirmation. Too much.
There. The bottomed-out, Thorazine-swacked guy in front of the TV—not enough.
There. The twitchy, nervous woman near the Nurses’ Station. Maybe. Some potential there. McGill wanted someone with a foot in both worlds, not wholly here, and not yet fit to be back elsewhere. Yeah, maybe. Maybe. This was more fun than picking out the perfect puppy at the pound.
There. The tentative man trying to hold up his end of a conversation at the snack table. The well-bribed Ward Nurse, Peter, served up the forbidden details on him: His name was Frederick, a schizophrenic who’d wound up here after falling off his meds schedule, responding well now. Worth a try.
She idled over to him, made her presence known and let him make the first move. Frederick was a talker. A teacher in life. From a good family. Overflowing with heartrending self-blame for having let that good family down. He’d been here for three months. He wasn’t sure whether he was ready to go home.
Good. Very good. Not great. Maybe it was the meds, maybe the illness, but he didn’t follow where she led or go where she sent him. For all his talkativeness, he was too removed from himself for her to position him for revelations or to let her draw from his deep places. He wasn’t whole enough to reveal himself fully.
This was going to be harder than she’d thought. She wasn’t accustomed to digging past such big pharmaceutical boulders to find the buried story. Still, what made it challenging also made it invigorating. When nothing worked, she improvised new ways that would. By the time she was finished with Frederick, and done with sequestering herself to scrawl down her impressions while they were still robust and alive, she was ready to go again.
The nervous woman next, yes. Here, the soil was richer: a woman who had been worn raw by the pressures of a failing marriage, an unfeeling family and a sinking mortgage. What was it like, being here? What would her life be like once she got home—what did she hope would be different then? McGill followed the thread of pathos to its center with cool efficiency. She played the woman like an instrument, using every available note of the care, concern and sympathy she barely felt. Done. Recorded. She was keen to move on and start again.
Next. Who next? Not the depressive lost in his own thoughts, with a cold cup of coffee on the dayroom table before him. Not the women a little too wild of eye….
There. The slim, white-haired man in the chair at the window. Of all the people in the room, he was the only one looking out.
“That’s David Emory,” Ward Nurse Peter told her. “He’s a local; lives here in town. They brought him here after he collapsed at an execution. Catatonic on admission. Dissociative state, but responding. He’s a repeater; we get him back in here every couple of years. Interesting case. But you won’t get much out of him.”
She took that as a dare. And a dare alone was always enough to make just about any decision for her. She approached him, this straightbacked man in the straightbacked chair, harvesting the first impressions that would precede her words…and stopped.
Under the standup tousle of white hair, he was a surprise. Not old; a boyish fifty-something. On the too-thin side of thin, yet striking. But what had stopped her were the eyes. Great, dark eyes, almost absurdly intense under their dark brows. This man was not like the others. Not absent, not gone. Alert, not bottomed-out. Those extraordinary eyes were full of... something. As if he was carrying a too-heavy burden that he couldn’t talk about and couldn’t put down.
He acknowledged her with a flicker from his fragmented attention. There was no chaos, here—there was focus. Removed from the madness around him, he wore an utter stillness, yet one without tranquility, as if he were pinioned by an exhaustion so immense that he could barely breathe or blink or do any other thing but exist in that space. A man suspended between here and someplace else, so drained of what animated him that he could not move.
This was not a dissociative state. It wasn’t madness and it wasn’t meds. She was spellbound. What was this man doing here?
Suddenly, across the room, a scream. The troubled quiet erupted in a shrieking, clothes-tearing scrap between the schizophrenic man and the jittery-aggressive woman. A frenzied reaction rolled through the room like a dirty wave, loud, frantic, hysterical. She wanted to cover her ears and hide.
She wasn't alone. She saw the tumult register in the man in the chair beside her. Saw in the great, dark eyes his helplessness at the thing he was powerless to escape.
“God,” she muttered, “that alone would be enough to drive you crazy.”
Startlingly, his voice rose beside her, small and far away, like a man down a well: “…welcome to my world.”
He had given her an opening. But she didn’t get the chance to walk through it. Arledge swept into the room like a gunship and aimed himself straight at her. He was furious. “This is on you,” he said. “I knew it was a mistake to let you come here.” He directed her toward the door with a gesture just short of a shove. “It’s time for you to leave.”
She took a last look back as the door closed. At the slim, solitary figure in the straightbacked chair. At the dark eyes that followed her. As if she had just taken the last seat in the last lifeboat and was sailing away without him.
Novelist Lynn Biederstadt, who keeps a wonderful blog called Sky Diaries, is a Missouri-based novelist whose first two novels were published in four languages under the imprint of Richard Marek. The Eye of the Mind, her first book published by Putnam, was about psychics who could predict natural disasters. Her second book, Sleep, A Horror Story, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Here is a link to the opening of the The Spiritkeeper.