Another excerpt from Sunnygrove, this one about Melissa Whitewater going to see her sister at the titular psychiatric hospital and in the process getting caught up in a nightmarish episode with Dr. Schrader, a quirky, fun-loving psychiatrist who also happens to be possessed.
From the road, Sunnygrove Wellness Center looked like a gloomy lighthouse on some black sea in a dream. Endless fathoms appeared to wait between here and that haven for the mentally ill, an island of order in a chaotic world, or so people wanted to believe.
As far as Melissa Whitewater could tell from the few glimpses she'd gotten by day, Sunnygrove looked majestic, with its Victorian buildings and plethora of trees and flowers.
At night, however, Melissa got a distinctly different vibe.
It looked distorted, forbidden, yet at the same time it drew you in. She couldn't really place why but assumed that because day didn't brighten it, you couldn't distract yourself from the truth. Everything was meant to cover society's ugliest bruises.
She still couldn't believe her sister was in there, and on suicide watch. That had come out of nowhere, as Melissa had never expected Amelia of all people would attempt to end her life. Something had gone very wrong. Their earlier phone conversation released some of the pent-up fear she'd been holding ever since receiving word of Amelia's hospitalization, but it still wouldn't be the same until she could see her.
Driving her baby-blue station wagon down the highway, Melissa turned up the car's radio to a classic rock station, wiped at her tired brown eyes, and tried to relax. Today had been one of those days where everything, no matter how small, seemed like a monumental challenge.
She still had so much studying to do but her professors were lenient and frequently reminded her she needed to slow down, which was hard if you'd spent your entire life trying to outrun fears and insecurities. Not that she would ever admit that to anyone. Hell, she would hardly admit it to herself. She would only keep moving forward, pushing herself out of deeper waters one stroke at a time, trying not to drown.
Amelia's the one who's drowning now, not you.
Up ahead the twisted iron gate waited, sharp tips illuminated by halogen floodlights. It opened automatically, electronically drawn inward.
Driving down the long driveway with only a few streetlamps marking the way, gaunt, nearly leafless oaks stood by like silent observers, hands of wood extended as if to beckon you to stay. A faint outline of white and gray still crept across the horizon as the sun continued its trip downward, bathing the countryside in darkness.
A city girl at heart, she preferred the skyline to the countryside, though she was thankful it wasn't too far out.
Metallica's Enter Sandman boomed from the radio, which didn't help in dispelling trepidation. Melissa had always possessed an overactive imagination, but unlike her sister, didn't have the time or patience to follow artistic pursuits. Thus an array of vivid thoughts and mental images made her world more colorful, to say the least, but also made things a bit creepier at times.
Finally she entered the parking lot where only a few cars remained, mainly those of the staff, and backed in a short distance from the main building.
There didn't seem to be any other visitors here. Hoping she hadn't arrived too late, Melissa grabbed her purse and the gift bag containing some items she'd hurriedly picked up for Amelia: a journal, a pack of multicolored felt tip pens, a bag of M&Ms, and a small Garfield plushie.
She wondered if these gifts would even make a difference. At least it would be something to brighten her dreary room.
How will buying her things make up for all the times no one was there?
Melissa headed toward the main entrance, high heels clicking on the asphalt. It was very cold out tonight, the wet chill slithering into your bones. The temperature had dropped in just a couple of hours and the plum-colored wool suit and skirt she wore didn't help much.
She was a thin, dainty woman in her prime, with shoulder length brown hair and elegant features, and though sometimes she felt way too young, lately she was beginning to feel old.
Perhaps she had been pushed to grow up way too soon, leaving behind dreams half-realized and feelings unshared.
But it was too late to go back now.
The building loomed before her: a solid but gracefully built structure with fancy brickwork, gingerbread roof trim and twisting steeples, yet all of this balanced by more subdued, modern design.
The wind picked up, whistling through the trees, cracking their branches together. It moaned against Sunnygrove like a voice calling for help. That would bother most but she had grown up around it. Michigan winters were sometimes harsh but at night, snuggled up in bed with the heater going and the nightlight glowing, it was a sound that lulled, as if she were in her own safe little snow-globe away from the chaos of the everyday, where monsters were too busy fighting the storm to come looking for victims.
Now isn't exactly the time to ruminate on the past, you know.
Her feet were killing her, a sensation which dragged her hesitantly back to the present. There hadn't been time to go back and change, so she was eager to get this over with and go home.
The entrance had a cobblestone path as well as concrete walkways, with elephant ear plants and various flowers on either side: marigolds, morning glories, violets, tulips, buttercups, roses.
Someone sure put a lot of money into this place.
She pulled on the glass doors, finding them locked.
Visiting hours were from 7AM to 8PM, but it was only 6:30 and she couldn't see anyone in there.
There was a call button mounted on the door and below it a keypad. After a moment's hesitation, she pressed it.
Minutes passed and no one came. “Dammit,” Her breath plumed like an extinguished candle. That brief sense of peace began to slip away, replaced by disquiet which was worsened by staring at the shadowed landscape in the distance, at all the empty, barred windows. Sprawling, grassy grounds, apple grove, and elaborate courtyard had all been reduced to a tenebrous suggestion.
Anything could happen at this place. No one would know.
Shoo fly, don't bother me. I don't have time for these silly thoughts. And apparently they changed their visiting hours, because no one's coming.
The wind blew hard, and carried with it a sweet, crisp smell. Apples.
“Hello there, are you a visitor?”
Melissa nearly jumped out of her skin. She turned around to see a tall, lean man in a lab coat, half-buttoned brown leather jacket, and wrinkled slacks. He had spiked salt and pepper hair, a big, white-toothed grin, and his eyes looked yellow in the street light. How the hell had he managed to sneak up behind her like that? Maybe the wind had masked his footsteps.
“Uh...hi. Are visiting hours over?” She was embarrassed at how flustered she probably looked, even more so when the man asked, “did I startle you? I didn't mean to.”
“A little.” She smiled back at him, and his smile widened in return.
“I'm here to see my sister. Is there any way I can get in there?”
“Oh, I can let you in, no problem. The call button is probably broken. That maintenance man must have been distracted by a shiny object or something.” He chuckled.
She stepped out of the way to allow him to punch in a five digit code on the keypad. He opened the door for her and followed her in, going up to the front desk and peering through the glass.
“Julia,” he said in an admonishing tone. “This poor young woman was just standing out there in the cold waiting to be let in. Until we get that button fixed, would you mind periodically checking for visitors?”
“Sure. So sorry to inconvenience you.” As Melissa passed the desk, a young Hispanic lady was hunched over a computer, for a moment looking up from the screen. Her fingers, brightened by neon-green nail polish, flew rapidly across the keyboard, and her brown eyes darted back and forth constantly. They briefly met with Melissa's, and she felt a twinge of uneasiness.
“Do you need help finding your way?” The doctor asked, opening a door to a hallway that would evidently lead to the main wards. The walls were decorated with paintings of animals and landscapes, plaques for doctors and chairmen of psychiatry,and photos of old architecture, possibly Sunnygrove in its earlier days.
“Maybe. I've never been here before. Amelia's in the Juvenile Ward, right?”
“Uh huh. That's where I'm going. It's where I work, actually. Would your last name happen to be Whitewater?”
“It is. My name's Melissa.”
“Dr. Schrader. Call me Alex.” He paused and held out his hand. She shook it. He had a firm grip and held on a few moments longer than Melissa cared for.
“I've already met your sister. In fact, I'm her psychiatrist.”
“She actually called me earlier so that's why I'm coming tonight instead of tomorrow.”
“Visits from family can be a literal lifesaver for people in her situation.”
They resumed walking, passing another administration desk. Orderlies and nurses were moving through the hall as well. Everyone looked up at them. Some smiled, and she wasn't sure if they were smiling at her or at Schrader.
“You look rather stressed,” Schrader pointed out.
“That's because I am. I'm so worried about Amelia. Plus school has been keeping me extra busy.”
“Yep. I still have a ways to go, but I'm going to law school.”
“Ah, yes, an aspiring young attorney, then?”
“Actually, I'm more interested in criminal investigation. Forensic stuff. Having a law degree would be a great benefit to that.”
“Very good choice. We can never have enough of those, at least competent ones. And you do seem like the quiet, analytical type.” He tilted his head to the side, giving her an approving glance.
They passed deserted waiting rooms, storage closets left curiously ajar, and more wall decorations Melissa had the strong compulsion to stop and look at, but she didn't want to waste time.
“You must enjoy being a doctor here.”
“Oh, I really do! I love talking to people and helping them. We do things a little differently at Sunnygrove, which allows more freedom for both patients and staff. I'm glad I'm here.”
Schrader's cheerful mood was infectious. She matched his grin, still wondering how anyone could sustain one in a place like this. Even though they hadn't reached any of the wards yet, that troubled atmosphere hung in the air like a gas.
They continued down the hallway, eventually reaching a more open space where a duo of elevators waited.
“It's on the second floor,” Schrader announced as the first one yawned open, dinging quietly.
Melissa nodded, stepping into the shaft. He tapped the button with a flourish, one that reminded her of how she always wanted to be first to press the elevator button as a kid. She quietly remembered racing her sister to get to it first, much to their mother's annoyance.
As the elevator began to ascend, he said, “I know how hard it is, dealing with someone who self-harms. Its hard to understand but if there's anything you need help with, we here at Sunnygrove are always here for you.”
“Thanks.” His words eased her tired mind.
Standing in silence for a moment, she finally found the courage to ask, “did Amelia really try to kill herself?”
His smile faded and he nodded somberly. “Yes, I'm afraid she did. She took a good amount of pills in your mother's medicine cabinet as well as making several shallow cuts on her right wrist. But judging from the time she did it and the way she went about it, I'd say it was just as much a cry for help as a suicide attempt.”
Melissa felt a pang of guilt. She didn't let it register on her face. She had become toughened over time and was good at hiding emotion, but Schrader seemed to pick up on it instantly.
“I know what you're thinking.” He reached out to place a hand on her shoulder, squeezing lightly. She stiffened before letting herself relax. “Its not your fault.”
He's almost too friendly, don't you think?
Oh, quit it. You're just used to hanging around these staunch, stuffy types.
“I know,” she assured him. “Its just...I don't really understand what would possess her to do that.”
“You'll understand soon. Some people are more prone to these problems than others, but sometimes loneliness is a thousand little deaths.”
Melissa thought that was an odd thing to say, but decided it would be best not to comment on it.
“It must be extra hard for you considering she's your sister. I imagine you're very close.”
We were, she almost said, but bit it back. “Yeah, but we haven't been able to see each other as much lately. I live on the other side of town, and school and work and everything...you know how that goes.”
“Life does tend to get in the way. But I hope you'll have time to become close again, especially now.”
“We will,” she said, disliking some nameless undertone in the conversation.
Maybe she doesn't want to see you right now. Its getting late, and it might be better to see her tomorrow.
But it was too late. The elevator came to a stop.
“And here's our floor!” he said with an out of place enthusiasm, as if something he'd been waiting for had finally arrived. The doors creaked open, revealing a floor that looked dark and partially dilapidated. Only one light revealed what lay ahead; a long hallway, the end covered in shadow.
“Sure this is our floor?” She hesitated.
His brow furrowed in puzzlement, and he looked back at the elevator panel. “Now this is just weird.”
“It was supposed to go to the second floor. Instead it took us....” He trailed off, leaning forward to peer out of the elevator, left and right and then upward, as if checking for something on the ceiling. “Hmmm. This is a construction area we shouldn't be able to access.”
He pressed the button to close the doors again but it refused the command.
Then he pressed it again. Nothing.
Looking at her apologetically, he smiled.
Melissa felt a small chill start at her spine, working its way up like scores of icy fingers. There was nothing unsettling about his smile. Maybe it was a bit too-open mouthed but that was how he smiled anyway; toothy and bold.
What inspired the chill was a subtle shift in demeanor from obvious confusion to understanding, of what she didn't know.
The hallway ahead, beckoning, exuding a cold draft and the scent of mildew and floor wax.
“It appears the elevator is out of order,” he said, and his tone sounded canned, as if reciting a line for a play he had only recently learned.
“We could always take the stairs,” she replied.
“I guess we'll have to! They should be just around the corner.”
“This place is huge,” Melissa said as they stepped out of the elevator. On either side the hallways seemed to go on forever. Bits of wall were missing in some spots and wooden support beams in the ceiling could be seen in the process of being covered up by tiles. Ladders and tools littered the floor.
Lighting was inconstant. Some areas were well revealed by fluorescent bars while others were dishearteningly dim. Anxiety swelled at the thought of going into the dark.
Don't be a baby. Just keep going.
“Its very easy to get lost in,” Schrader admitted, winking. In the better lighting his eyes weren't yellow after all, but a rich hazel. Captivating but somehow unnerving. He seemed like a nice person, if a bit informal and disheveled for a doctor. He treated you as if he knew you, which Melissa couldn't figure out how to respond to. At least he knew where to go.
“I bet so,” she agreed. “So, what floor are we on now?”
He hesitated. “The basement, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.”
“No, it doesn't. We were going up, not down.”
“Apparently not, because here we are. This way,” Schrader took a left, his long legs propelling him quickly. She hurried to keep up, the whole time trying to ward off forming feelings of dread.
The basement, huh? I smell a rat, and not a cute one you'd find in a pet shop window. No, I smell a dirty rat like the ones that attacked the protagonist in The Pit And The Pendulum. Let's hope you can chew yourself out of this one.
The checkered linoleum seemed almost surreal coupled with the dimness and lack of people. She looked at the walls, at pictures of seas and paths and forests, thank-you letters on bulletin boards, awards and certificates for numerous doctors and the facility as a whole. But other walls were faded and cracked and blank and revealing their skeletons, small remnants of a previous state, the Sunnygrove that had once been.
Kids talked about it in conspiratorial voices, speaking of ghosts and satanic rituals, but what abandoned place such as this wouldn't have its share of stories, especially in a smallish town like Mellowbrook? This juxtaposition of old and new seemed tasteless at best and suspicious at worst. Why were they already putting up these things if the walls weren't even painted and repaired yet?
“So much renovating to do,” Schrader murmured, running a hand through his hair. “One wonders if it will ever get done entirely.”
“Well, as you said, the place is big. Very big. Especially the basement. Did you know that a series of tunnels down here connects all the wards and buildings? It was for transporting supplies, for the staff, and for moving patients from one ward to the other. Still is, actually.”
“I remember passing by every now and then over the years. It was just sitting here for a long time. What made them decide to bring it back?”
The question seemed to catch him off guard. “Every town needs a hospital, especially a hospital like this one.”
They rounded the corner and Schrader pointed toward an unmarked gray door at the end of the hall. But when she tried it, it wouldn't budge. She looked over at him expectantly and he appeared to be far away, lost in thought.
He didn't react; just stood there with his arms dangling limply, head tilted to the side as if to listen.
What is the deal with this guy? Is he high or something?
“This leads to the stairs, right?”
“Um...you still with me, Dr. Schra—“
“Call me Alex. No need to be so formal, so stuffy,” he interrupted, apparently waking up from that trancelike state.
“Sure thing. Okay, to be completely honest, this place is creeping me out. Do you have a key to the door or do we have to find another way?”
“Why does it creep you out?” he asked, studying her intently. “Its just a series of halls and doors and unfinished projects. What's so creepy about that?”
Was there a snide tone creeping into his voice? Regardless, Melissa was running out of patience. She didn't owe him an explanation. She didn't owe anyone an explanation and certainly didn't want anyone to know why she was creeped out, especially a shrink who would probably be eager to pick anyone apart if given the chance.
“Look, I highly suggest you quit playing around with me. I have to see Amelia before it gets too late, and time flies, whether you're having fun or not. And I'm not having fun, believe me.” She locked eyes with him and there was no hint of anything sinister or even mocking, just earnestness, genuine curiosity.
“Trust me, its not going to be too late," he started. "Try to calm down, okay? I'm relatively new here and sometimes it gets even me turned around.”
Great. Just the person Amelia needs: a ditz.
“I am calm. I'm just very tired, I've been out all day, and here I am wandering around in the basement, and you show me to this door but it won't open. Why?”
She tried the door again. Still locked. Schrader's smile came back as if he were amused at this.
All right. There is NOTHING to smile about. Just cut it out, you weirdo.
I don't like this. And I'm starting not to like him. He's the rat, and he wants to chew right into you, here in the dark where no one can hear. Get out. Now.
“No, its never too late. At least not for you, not anymore.”
“What the hell does that mean? Are you going to take me to my sister or do I have to—“
Out of the corner of her eye she saw something shift. It was right behind Schrader and looked like a shadow against the wall, but too solid, too strange. Long and looming over the doctor with numerous gangling limbs extending outward on either side, it was serpentine yet also insectile in form and movement; twitching, swaying, hard to focus on. And though there was no way to tell for sure, something about it was also almost human.
No wall behind it as would be with normal negative space, just impenetrable blackness as thick as sludge. No explanation behind it, just fear that cinched and strangled reason.
Turning, she saw it contort like a mirage, escaping quickly around the corner, half-seen, half real.
As her heart sped up and her knees weakened, Schrader asked, "what's wrong?" and he was smiling, and he shouldn't have been smiling like that. Not here, in the basement beneath a mental institution. Not now, when she had no one to watch her back and make sure nothing went wrong.
But things always go wrong. Everywhere you go and everything you do. WRONG. The world is seething with wrongness and disrepair and corruption and negligence and there is no way out.
But that's what I want to do. Scrub away at the filth of it all.
You can't. It just grows back. These are just useless endeavors, Melissa. Useless childish hopes.
“Not to sound cliché, but did you see a ghost or something?” Schrader asked.
“N-no. I..I...d-don't know what I saw.” She hugged herself, not wanting to look weak but feeling as if she would come apart.
“Would you like me to tell you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You see, Melissa,” he said in a conversational, friendly tone. “Sometimes I feel like there's something under my skin. So deep inside its actually a part of me. And no, I don't have a key to that door, because it isn't to the stairs. Heck, I don't know where it leads. Something I've begun to realize is... this place...it does what it wants. We just have to go along with it. I knew the elevator came down here for a reason and nothing I do will get us out unless it wants us to leave. It pulls fast ones like this on me all the time.”
A sardonic laugh escaped her. “Okay, I get it now. You're either more than just a ditz and are tipping over into Crazyville, or you like playing jokes on people. Well, doctor, I don't. I like to get things done, meaningful things.”
“Yes, you seem like quite the overachiever,” he said with apparent honesty.
“And no more small talk. I'm not trying to be rude, I just want—“
The lights above their heads faded, plunging them into nearly complete gloom relieved only by one fluorescent down the opposite hall.
“There have been a lot of electrical failures here as of late,” he informed her. “But this time, I'm afraid it isn't just the wind. You always wanted to believe it was just the wind, didn't you, Melissa?”
His face could barely be seen but there was no question he was smiling wide like some demented harlequin. She began to inch away from him, not wanting to move toward that apparition if it was still there but wanting less to be within arm's reach of the doctor.
“Melissa? Are you afraid?” He took a step forward, then another.
She scrambled for the zipper on the side pocket of her purse, where the pocket knife was. “D-don't try anything or I'll...”
“What are you doing, Melissa?" he asked, still backing her down the hall. "What kind of person do you think I am?”
“I don't know! No one knows who anyone is, but I'm not standing around to find out. I'm getting the hell out of here.” Melissa said, despising the tremble in her voice, by the way she wasn't reading this creep the riot act.
“No, you're not. It has its eyes on you now, and you're not going anywhere.”
Betraying her own iron composure she began to run, down the hall the way they had come. He made no move to stop her. The lights blinked on and off as if reacting to her presence.
A thick, threatening darkness began to fold over everything like a blanket, obscuring vision, obscuring something deeper and more sacred. She couldn't dwell on it, couldn't succumb to it, or she would be eaten alive. That conviction would not be dislodged or reasoned with.
Keep moving. Find an exit. Any exit. The fire escape. Or another set of stairs. Just move, move, move.
You're just like a little girl, running from the big bad bogeyman. Ha ha ha ha—
Shut up and leave me alone! Get out of my head right now! Get out!
Schrader wasn't pursuing, would probably have no reason to, but something else was and had been all along.
The hallways stretched on and on, infinite, impossible. What had only taken a few steps moments ago now seemed endless. Those damn high heels were slowing her down, rubbing painfully against already sore spots and forcing her to limp along.
Calm, rational Melissa could not be calm and could not rationalize any of it. Architecture was static. The mind, however, was not. That was something no one wanted to contemplate, that insanity had finally caught up with them and was moving in for the kill.
She tried a few doors that suggested a way out, though most were unmarked, and all were locked or barricaded by piles of junk.
Turning left and right, going back and going forward, bursting through double doors, past deserted administration desks and neglected offices; none of it did anything.
Even with the lights constantly flickering it was obvious the same scenery was repeating itself over and over, leading her in circles to the same pictures on the wall, the same cracks and holes, the same twists and turns. Like a wraparound background in a cartoon.
This isn't happening. Can't be. Can't.
Oh, but it is...
“Running isn't going to help, Melissa!” came Schrader's voice in a disturbing singsong which seemed to echo from everywhere at once. “We'll get you.”
The second elevator stood open and glowing at the end of the hall.
Reaching it would be the only way out. It would be working, would have to be. Never mind that there hadn't been two elevators before.
Or maybe you didn't notice them?
No, I'm not like that. I'm perceptive, I'm good at noticing things. No way there was another elevator. Not enough room. Besides, this one's open now. Who opened it?
There was a deep, vibrating rumble, as if from massive machinery hidden inside the walls, the floors. She halted and went still, gasping, worried that a trapdoor would open to plunge her into an abyss.
A mental image arrived of strange, rusty gears turning just out of sight and just out of mind. And things like that shadow monster were standing by in cubicles which looked a lot like padded cells, pulling on levers with their spindly insect legs, pressing buttons with their slender fingers, operating the twisted engines which allowed all of this to work.
Against reality, against rationality, apart from but still running beneath it like an underground river. And somehow she had been drawn into it, through Dr. Schrader, through her sister's plight, through useless rules and restrictions which herded one into traps despite being intended for liberation.
She decided to make a break for the elevator but before she could, a pair of strong arms embraced her from behind.
“Hi there, Missy,” he said in a rough, gravely purr. Not Schrader, someone else. Her purse and the gift bag clattered to the floor. She bucked wildly in his grip, instinctively trying to reach backward to gouge at his eyes, but those muscular arms pinned hers.
Another man came out of the darkness as well.
She kicked at him, missed.
His face was obscured and his thin silhouette danced nimbly out of the way. Crazily, a line from an old nursery rhyme came to mind: Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. One of her shoes was shaken loose. The spot just ahead was illuminated as overheads flared, but the shoe had already disappeared, swallowed up by darkness.
She reached up and tried to claw at her assailant but his arms only tightened. He dragged her further away from the elevator, a distant, desperate hope dwindling fast.
“Get your hands off me! No, no! Let me go, you bastards! You can't do this to me! Let go!”`
The lights glowed just long enough to reveal a syringe's long needle glinting wickedly as a scrawny man with a goatee and an orderly's uniform slunk closer, even as the other one began to ease her to the floor.
“You don't believe in bogeymen, do you?” he said, green eyes opening wider as it to take her in. “Well, you better.”
She was too stunned to speak, could only scream; struggling as he bent down, syringe coming closer and closer, slower than necessary as if he were enjoying the effect this had.
“Relax, Missy,” said the first man in a knowing, sarcastic voice, again with emphasis on Missy, “We're doing this...for your own good.” he stifled a giggle, grabbing her wrists and pinning them to the floor as the syringe-wielding man sat on her legs.
Melissa didn't remember the tip of the needle going in, nor did she remember passing out.
The last thing she saw was that shadow monster slithering around the corner and hovering behind the orderly, its human-like torso and head jerking to the side in an unnatural angle, its long, angular limbs stretching and stretching and covering the walls until everything was one pulsing, living shadow.
Melissa woke feeling numb and detached, having no idea what had happened but hearing the wind howling against the house and knowing monsters existed only in dreams.
A soft pillow cushioned her head but the blanket seemed to have dropped onto the floor, where she often found it when getting up in the morning. A warm air lingered, almost uncomfortably so, and seemed to hum with a strange energy.
She stared at the ceiling with half-lidded eyes, looking for stars, two plastic glow-in-the-dark stars she had kept as a reminder of calmer more innocent days. When Amelia and her had still been young and still been close they'd called these their 'Sister Stars” wishing upon them as well as the real ones floating above.
Of course our wishes never came true, but it was nice to dream. In this world, you have to hunt down your wishes, fight for them before they slip away.
Suspended in a sea of uncertainty, those stars had still anchored and comforted her in some vague, disconnected way, usually on the brink of sleep and wakefulness where formless beasts gnawed at sanity and gave no explanation as to why.
Her snow-globe fantasy shattered in an instant at the realization that they weren't there. This wasn't her bedroom ceiling. It was too high and had numerous small, irregular holes, as if something had chewed through it.
She tried to sit up but slumped back down as she realized she was strapped securely to a gurney.
Melissa moaned as the events which brought her here came back in a flood.
The effects of their drug slowly began to wear off. At first she called out quietly for help, but as the moments stretched on she became more frantic, screaming and cursing at nothing, no one.
She thrashed on the metal gurney, her demands to be let go apparently falling on deaf ears. She wasn't the type to lose control but this place and this horrible situation filled her with the sharpest terror she had ever known. Her screams echoed down the halls, so shrill they sounded like they belonged to someone else.
It also didn't help that the lights were still flickering, causing shadows on the ceiling to creep up and pull back, their touch tainting, seeking.
It was disorienting, and judging from the apparition that had sent her running into the arms of the orderlies, signified something was about to happen. Some shift, some change. Like a nightmare seeping into life. Schrader seemed to know quite a lot about it, seemed to revel in it.
It wasn't real. Couldn't have been.
How do you know that?
Because, this is reality.
Is it? Are you going crazy, or were you already heading that way and this just woke it up sooner? Was it a dream? Are you still dreaming now?
Sleep, an inner voice suggested, but she couldn't sleep like this, lying utterly helpless on a gurney in the middle of a mental hospital.
She could hear them whispering. Though their tones were hushed it wasn't hard to hear the subject of their conversation. They were talking about sending her to the Disturbed ward, and at this Melissa began to call out again, straining against the straps and abrading her wrists in the process.
“Good lord, Melissa! Quiet down, would you?” said Schrader.
“You act like we're going to torture you to death.” He leaned into view, subdued, professional expression briefly eclipsed by a mischievous smile. Jacket-less now, he was wearing a patch on his lab coat; a yellow smiley face with four eyes instead of two sewn just below the breast pocket.
“Maybe we are.”
“Why are you doing this to me? You know I'm not crazy!”
“Really? The question is, do you?” He winked, as if sharing an amusing secret.
“There's no reason for you to keep me here! Especially after you took me down there and sent your thugs after me!”
“But Melissa, we had to. You were in a full blown panic attack and would not be calmed down. You were running and didn't seem to have any idea where you were. That was dangerous. Some areas in the basement could pose a hazard if one isn't careful, so we had no choice but to give you something to calm you down.”
“No!” she hissed. “Don't you dare try to pin this one on me. Everything was fine until...that...”
“That...thing. Don't tell me you didn't see it.”
He shrugged, biting on his lower lip. “See what?”
“Shadow. A huge, shadow thing.”
“That's kind of a vague description. But I didn't see anything, at least nothing that would put you into such a frenzy. Poor girl.” His face fell, but there was still a hint of merriment in his eyes.
“Its blatantly obvious you're playing dumb. I'm not stupid, you know.”
“Listen at you, Melissa. You're still in a highly agitated state. If we let you go, you might actually hurt someone or yourself.”
“This isn't right. You're a nutcase, that's what you are. I have rights. You can't take those rights away from me. I'm going to call the police.”
Melissa's usually soft voice was twisted by fear and rage into a thick snarl.
“The Mellowbrook Police Station is a bit tied up as of late. Much has changed, and much is currently happening.”
“You can't just commit people without any outside influence. You can't!”
“Oh, yes we can. Its so much better this way, when there is less interference to impede us from treating all these people in need of help. Judging from your hysteria now, I think there's no question you need help. I've been in the mental health field for 15 years and know all the signs and symptoms of psychosis. Just let me help you.”
“This is illegal as hell, I'm in law school—”
“The aspiring crusader for justice, of course. You have my full support.”
“Then let me go.”
Schrader didn't reply for a long time, and in this silence Melissa realized what he was doing. Goading her, trying to get her as off balance and upset as possible. Why? There was no easy answer, only a flurry of insane questions.
Come on, come on, keep your head on. Don't let him do this to you. Control, Melissa. Get control over yourself. Breathe.
She began to breathe slowly, trying to find a center, to focus not on the current circumstances but on the peace that could be found inside her. She'd taken meditation classes and during more stressful days this ability had proven to be helpful. Now it took the edge off these wild emotions and allowed room for rational thoughts to worm in.
What was that thing? It was a shadow, but...not. It looked alive, tangible.
Maybe it wasn't what it seemed.
Nothing is. But that logic doesn't help me now. I saw it. Hallucination or not, Schrader seemed to be aware of it too, aware of what it was doing to me. He was glad. He was excited. That doesn't make any sense at all.
Schrader's voice broke her train of thought;
“Promising, promising young person, but that attitude of yours is a passion killer. Those high heels make running away so much harder, hmm? Why even wear them, anyway? They look so uncomfortable. Ah, the things women do for beauty. But beauty is relative. What if I told you I think fear is beautiful?”
“Then I'd say you're out of your mind.”
He merely chuckled, coming around to the end of the gurney and tousling her hair. Her brother Jake always used to do that, probably because he knew she hated it. This guy doing it made her skin crawl.
“Ineffectual anger,” Schrader mused. “That's one thing you and your sister have in common. No matter how much you shout and stamp your feet, everyone just thinks you're cute as a button. And you know why?”
He bent close until his face was inches from hers. His breath smelled like apples. “Because that anger is always fear-based. You're a high strung little thing. Always moving and thinking and planning; hurry, hurry, hurry, so terrified of not being in control that you fail to realize you're really not, especially now.”
She tried to come up with a response, anything to get out of the restraints and out of here.
“Don't even try.”
“Hey!” Melissa screeched. “Somebody, please help me! I'm not a patient, I'm a visitor! This man is kidnapping me! Please, tell him to let me go!”
She rolled her head to the side and sat up as much as the restraints would allow, hoping a passing staff member would realize how wrong this was and come to her aid. But no one said a word.
“Have you forgotten where we are? They're so used to hearing pleas for help that it becomes white noise. The hollow, broken sounds of uncountable crazies crying wolf. 'I'm not crazy, really I'm not!'”
A sad look passed over him.
“What's really unfortunate is that the mentally ill are highly reluctant to doubt their own sanity. It makes it so hard to help them because they believe they don't need help. Its always everybody else; hiding evidence, hiding bodies, hiding their true natures. For some, having to acknowledge something is truly wrong means coming apart at the seams. Can't trust your own sensations, can't trust thoughts or words or dreams; always running from monsters. But in all honesty, the monster is you.”
Humming a tune she didn't recognize, he began to roll the gurney down the hallway. Faces passed on either side, faces wearing smiles, concerned frowns, or nothing at all.
There was something empty in their eyes.
“Where are you taking me?” Melissa dared to wonder.
“I don't know, somewhere fun, somewhere you've never been before. It'll be exotic; like a vacation.”
“Let me go right now, right now, dammit. You'll go to jail for this—“
"—I know your faith in the criminal justice system is high. You're young, optimistic, perhaps a tad unrealistic—"
"—Listen here, I'm not some brainless Pollyanna with one foot in Cloud Cuckooland—"
"—and law school. What a feat. Piles of paperwork, unappreciated busywork, and many regrets later, you'll begin to wonder if the universe isn't working against you in your pursuit of order and justice and free milkshakes for all—“
—“Shut up, just shut up! I don't care how witty you think you are. You're in for it. That's not optimism; that's cold, hard fact, Dr. Screwloose.”
Schrader stopped, his face contorting into a weird expression. It looked painful yet it wasn't quite a grimace of pain. A sort of rapture, yet mixed with faint, disconnected fear, confusion. After about a minute he seemed to snap out of it, and his smile returned, brighter and better than before.
“Do you really want to know where I'm taking you?” His intense hazel eyes burned into hers, and she couldn't understand where playful mockery ended and true menace began. Maybe there was no in between with him. Some psychos were like that, so charming and funny until they actually had you right where they wanted you.
Fear continued to eat away at her resolve, and not any ordinary fear; no, this was something older, simpler, perhaps the same fear that drove her to sleep with a night light on when she was a little girl and hide her feet under the covers so something wouldn't nibble at them with slavering yellow fangs.
Why do thoughts like this keep coming to me?
“You'll have plenty of time to daydream later. For now, though, I want you to tell me a few things about your sister.”
He continued rolling the gurney, passing nurses and orderlies and secretaries at desks, and again she tried to convince them she wasn't a patient, to no avail.
A couple of them even laughed.
What kind of place is this?
“And don't worry, your belongings are safe. I'll make sure Amelia gets her gifts. That was awfully sweet of you. It shows you care, and that's all that matters.”
Soon they reached what looked to be the same pair of elevators that had brought them to the basement instead of the second floor.
If in fact that little episode even happened at all!
Schrader pressed the button and turned toward her again, hands knotted behind his back. “Why is she so quiet? Was she always this way, or does it stem from her current situation?”
“Why do you want to know about her? You're her doctor.”
“Yes, but I want to hear it from someone who knows her well. Your parents haven't come around since they dropped her off, which is kind of upsetting.”
“I'm not telling you anything.”
“My, my, such a stubborn girl. But I see what's coming and I feel it, and it's getting closer to the surface. Soon it will pop.” He clapped his hands in front of her face, startling her.
The elevator opened and he pushed the gurney inside. It seemed darker than it had been earlier, smaller.
Of course. Elevators are just great big metal coffins hanging perilously over an abyss.
“Going up!” Schrader exclaimed. “Hopefully it'll take us where we want to go this time.”
The finality of those closing doors sent Melissa's heart into an even faster gallop.
“Was it really just work and school that drove you apart, Melissa? Or did you have to get away? Probably not from Amelia, but from the house, from your parents. Is that correct?”
She didn't reply.
“Hello, hello? Its rude to ignore someone.”
As the elevator began to ascend her stomach lurched, and she shut her eyes tightly, straining to think of this logically and understand why. Was it exactly what it seemed like, or was there something more to it? Can chaos be understood, let alone reasoned with?
This is no time to get philosophical. You're being kidnapped by some crazy doctor.
Can your fickle mind be understood, let alone reasoned with?—
Melissa was snagged from thought by the sensation of something crawling on her left foot.
She sat up and saw something huge and many-legged, an enormous black centipede. Her shoes were gone, leaving no protection. Terror scored despite attempts to hold it at bay, a primal terror that couldn't be quelled. She hated bugs.
“Get it off me!” She shook her foot back and forth but the centipede stayed in place.
“How strange,” Schrader said, regarding the ceiling with a bemused expression. “I don't recall there being an insect problem here. And I would be the first one to notice. I'm an entomologist of sorts. Its more of a hobby.”
“Get it off before it bites me!”
He wagged his finger at her, crooning, “goodness, where are your manners? Say please.”
Even through thickening fear, Melissa's pride spoke up loudly. Saying please to this maniac would only be the beginning, would open the door to a myriad of other humiliations and losses of control.
But it was clinging to her foot, wrapping around it, searching for a good place to dig in.
“Centipedes like dark, damp places where they can hunt in peace and silence. I'll bet you anything there's loads of them up in the attic, which hasn't been entirely renovated yet. Maybe a mother has recently laid eggs.”
She hadn't noticed it before, but Schrader's hand had been resting on her shoulder. Now something else had taken its place. It was another centipede, at least 10 inches long, its red armor glinting in the dull overhead light like a jewel in the summer sun. She could see its mouth scissoring hungrily, and small black eyes. Like a crowd doing the wave the legs rose and fell as it climbed upward, across her throat. She shuddered, stifled a shriek, trying to shake it off, but the countless legs clung.
“Better not do that, Melissa,” he warned. “You'll upset them and they'll bite you. Centipedes are not the most docile of creatures, especially these specimens. They're carnivores, of course, and some of the most successful land arthropods in the world. They're also venomous.”
“Where in god's name did they come from?”
Schrader lifted his hands and stretched them out as if to say nothing up my sleeve, and then stuck out his tongue at her, only it wasn't a tongue.
A centipede dropped out of his mouth and onto her face, cold and
Melissa couldn't stand it anymore. She screamed, a spiral which would lead to madness if it wasn't stopped.
How is this even happening? How?
Even as the one on her face was flung loose, more insects began to drop out of nowhere, all over her body, dozens of them. There couldn't be so many centipedes in here, even if the crazy bastard had stuffed them in his pockets, and one came out of his mouth, for crying out loud, and—
“Having fun yet?” She looked up at him, and the sheer delight on his face was enough to let some anger in, cleaving through the fog.
“You bastard! This is some kind of sick joke, a prank! You and those orderlies are in on it, and somehow you managed to get all these in here and—ah, no, no!”
A swarm of tiny centipedes scurried across her torso while another larger one poked inside her ear.
“I love getting under your skin, finding out what makes you tick, what makes you squirm...”
There were no holes in the ceiling, nowhere they could be coming from. This was absurd, illogical. So, why wasn't she snapping out of it? Why did the sensations persist as if they were real?
“Yes. In the mind of someone sufficiently disturbed, there is no room for doubt, only for distractions. Run away, run away, until one day you can't. Your own insanity has met you head on and it's staring you down. What, oh, what to do...”
So many of them; a teeming horde of hundreds and growing ready to sting and bite and burrow or whatever it was they did, and he was just going to stand there and let—no, make—them do it.
They were in her hair, were skittering up her pant legs and into her shirt sleeves. They were under her skin, in her mind, numberless frenzied scurrying things, thoughts and feelings one swears aren't there but really are, hiding in metaphorical egg cases just under the surface and waiting to be freed.
“Get them off, get them off, get them off, Jesus, just—“
The elevator stopped ascending (or descending, she couldn't even tell anymore) and gave an abrupt lurch, rocking back and forth as though coming undone from its supports, the overheads again flashing on and off.
In that brief illumination Schrader's face was riddled with insects. They hung from his clothes and hair, crawling out of his nose and mouth and eyes, which weren't hazel anymore but like an oil slick, dripping some viscid black slime.
With another hitch they began to plummet downward at terrifying speed.
The gurney rocked back and forth, gravity and the restraints flattening her, holding her down to accept what was coming. For a moment she forgot about the insects and was sure she was going to die, crushed in a cage at the bottom of this facility, the deranged psychiatrist along with her. Both flesh and dreams would be crushed, and no one would ever know why.
“And here's our floor!” Schrader echoed, but his voice was distorted and inhuman, a buzzing sound like cicadas if they could somehow mimic speech.
The elevator came to a sickening, shrieking halt, and Melissa didn't remember anything after that.