For reasons unknown, my mind wafted from a hypnotic dream state toward acknowledged consciousness. Unwilling to concede, I hugged the pillow to my chest and snuggled deeper into the feather mattress.
Floorboards in the hallway creaked, sounding an alarm deep in my head that thwarted my whilom desire. Half awake—my eyes fluttered. I held my breath and listened with a heartbeat softly pulsing in my temples.
The old frame house stood silent.
I released a pent-up breath—surely it was imagined.
My heart beat slowed, and despite the unexplained, I felt myself once more drifting back to a hazy bliss.
Time stood still.
A sharp sensation on my inner thigh forced a shock so stark that I instantly sat up in bed with a gasping panic. I darned not move, for although I knew not what was lurking, I expected the worst. Gradually, as I blinked my acuity sharpened. I scanned the room which seemed perfectly normal. Pain in my chest acknowledged that I was holding my breath.
With only silence and no evidence or credible reason to believe otherwise, I convinced myself that the entire incident was imagined.
I’ve got to get some sleep.
Frustrated, I fell backward, sinking into the soft, feathery down. Finding a comfortable position, I exhaled while listening to a symphony of crickets through the screened window propped open with a broken broom handle. Nearing exhaustion wrought by sleepless nights, my eyes fluttered and then, with time a blur, I surrendered unto dark tranquility.
A loud bump near the bedroom door so startled me, that I sprang from the bed. I froze, crouched in streaks of striated moonlight penetrating the window, and as I surveyed the room, a sense of fear gripped me. The signature sound of floorboards creaking in the hallway sent my heart leaping into my throat. Fear turned to horror, and try as I may, I couldn’t assuage the feeling that I was not alone.
Trembling under my weight which seemed to have doubled, I padded across the unfinished pine floors, past the open door and into the narrow hallway. Gripping the jamb, I gazed into the adjacent bedroom but saw nothing unusual. A bit tremulous, I navigated the hallway which was pitch black. Loose treads creaked beneath my feet, diminishing all doubt that the earlier sound was imagined.
I forced myself beyond the empty bathroom to the living room. The drapes were pulled and the room was dark, but I knew every corner, every niche, and nothing was amiss. With no prior warning, the mantel clock chimed two a.m., and I almost wet myself as skeletal chills spread upon me. I clung to the davenport, weak in the knees, then stumbled toward the kitchen door, leaned on the jamb, and slid my hand inside to the switch. The room burst with light, and to my surprise, it was just as I had left it when I retired. There on the stained countertop beside the stove, sat my coffee cup and spoon ready for the morning brew. I listened, holding my breath, but other than the drip from the rusted faucet, not a sound could be heard. A clandestine glance revealed that the back door was locked and secure.
I exhaled in hopes of expelling the inexplicable situation. I pushed my hair behind my ears and laughed, although it wasn’t much of a laugh at all. Turning to leave, I noticed my unopened mail scattered upon the floor beside the back door.
I padded the well worn floors which creaked ominously, stooped down, and picked up the envelopes. Rising, I noticed that the electric bill from the East Texas Co-op was ripped open.
I flipped the envelope in my hand.
Ms. Peggy Sue Martin
Rt. 7, Box 2201
Nacogdoches Texas, 77506
I cocked my head.
I didn’t open this…did I?
I tossed it to the counter, and cocked my head.
Hmm, maybe I did…my head’s so messed up.
I raised my hand and combed my locks which fell slowly upon my shoulders.
Lack of sleep…that’s the culprit.
I set my stride, checked the back door once more for luck, licked my finger and painted an “X” on the knob to ward off evil spirits—then took my leave.
Back down the hallway to the bathroom, I pulled the string cord, dangling from the ceiling. The naked bulb shattered the darkness, forcing me to squint. I sat down on the toilet as a cockroach escaped beneath the bear claw tub. It was then that I noticed a tiny scratch with three beads of blood on my inner thigh. Confused, I dabbed it with toilet paper. As the tissue soaked up the blood into blotted circles, I was taken aback, recalling my training in blood draws that first year of nursing school. I flushed the toilet, certain that I scratched myself on the kitchen door jamb. Hearing something scamper in the hallway, I fired a glance, and oddly enough, after a clutching panic, I felt a bit of relief; it was the same sound from last winter when a raccoon got in through a hole under the kitchen sink.
Mmm, I covered those rotted floorboards with chicken wire. I guess that little devil must have found a new entry.
I turned on the water and soaped my hands. A casual glance in the mirrored medicine cabinet revealed dark circles under my eyes.
Frustrated, I shouted. “I…need…sleep!”
The image in the mirror just stared with steely eyes.
I ignored her, dried my hands, and in my periphery, I saw a dark blur the size of man’s body streak down the hallway. A scream tore from me, and I slammed the rickety door, leaning upon it. My knees weakened, and I sank like a lead balloon to the floor. Physically helpless, gasping for air, my heart thumped against my ribs. Paralyzed by fear, each second was an eternity as I expected at any moment, that the door would be ripped from the hinges and tossed aside by the blurred fragmentary creature intent on…
The floor planks in the hallway creaked, ripping me from the throes of reverie. I forced my hand to my mouth to muffle a scream while I waited for the inevitable. Minutes turned into hours, and although the frame house sat eerily silent, I had not the energy or courage to move.
It was a stabbing pain in my back that forced my eyes open, and I realized first of all, that the chiming mantel clock in the living room had awakened me, and second, that I had been asleep on the bathroom floor. I painfully rose to my feet, the horror revised. I retrieved a wooden toilet plunger, the only weapon afforded me. The door creaked on rusty hinges. The hallway was empty. The kitchen light was still on, the house unscathed.
A hysterical laugh escaped me. Had I imaged the whole thing? Was this merely a near identical repeat of last week, yet another of my eccentricities, or was it something psychological?
Too many deaths…too much pain.
The kitchen clock, which was a black cat with protuberant eyes and a pendulum tail, read 5:30.
“Oh no! Late again!”
“Rise and shine, East Texas. It’s the six o’clock hour, and now for your listening pleasure, ‘Your Cheating Heart,’, by Hank Williams.”
I swallowed contempt, and despite no fault by the D. J. that I had spent the night on the bathroom floor, his enthusiasm for the hour so vexed me that I immediately switched off the radio. Gripping the steering wheel, I chose the shortest route, speeding as fast I dared through downtown Nacogdoches.
The oldest town in Texas. I believe it; these brick roads are horrible.
Just south of the newly opened Montgomery Ward, I took a detour and cut past the Bordon Milk Company with a twenty foot statue of ‘Elzie the Cow,’ standing guard over a convoy of milk trucks being loaded for the morning delivery. With one foot on the clutch, one on the brake, and my arm dangling out the window to signal a left turn, I waited on pins and needles for a slow poke, shiny new, 53 Studebaker to pass. I popped the clutch, quite by accident and eased into ‘Smith’s One-Stop.’. As I killed the engine beside the pumps, I saw Robert Smith, the proprietor, who was wiping his hands on one of those red industrial rags, come striding toward me with a smile from ear to ear.
“Mornin’ Peggy. Ya jus could’n wait ta see me again, could-cha?”
I forced a smile.
East Texans have their own language, and for outsiders, the distinct drawl and fabricated words can be confusing. My Grandma Flossie, who spoke the same slang, told me once that I was going to be the first in our family to escape the ignorance and speak articulately. She said, just because you’re born white trash doesn’t mean you have to live that way. She began ironing for the public to cover the expense of a tutor by the name of Beatrice Wilson, who was an impressive speaker. Fancy words just rolled off her tongue, but with all my friends, family, and even the teachers at school speaking the native slang, I’d felt like an outsider. But then I always had, even with those I loved.
Robert leaned on the side of the truck, gripping the window frame. I noticed his finger nails stained black from oil, and in that moment, due to the hour, I wanted to avoid him and I knew darn well that I should, but for whatever reason I flashed a surreptitious glance at his dark blue eyes.
My disdain faltered.
He was a ruggedly handsome man with thick dark hair. He had a single rogue lock that always seemed to dangle onto his forehead. Perhaps six foot and broad in the shoulders, his business never lacked for female customers. Ladies, single and married alike, frequented his station on the corner of Main and Crockett, as much for a personal smile and speculative fantasy as the need for gasoline.
He exhaled, inches from my face with biceps bulging like a comic book hero. I could call on him, night or day, and no doubt he’d come running—but I dared not; too costly.
“Morning, Robert. I’m running late. Fill her up please.”
He jumped into action while the pump hummed with bold numbers sequencing rapidly past fifty cents and picking up speed. He wiped down the split windshield, the headlights, then the back and corner side windows, while the pump’s bell dinged out the gallons. Finished, he stepped up on the running board and leaned into the cab. “So how do ya like ya new job?”
The scent of Old Spice wafted around me. “Fine,” I said, avoiding eye contact.”
“I dun told ya and told ya. A purty girl don’t have ta be driving frum Nacogdoches ta Rusk ever day ta work with nutjobs. Ya could work here and run tha register…sell coke and candy bars. I’d pay ya real good.”
I fixed my gaze on the steady glare of headlights streaming past the filling station, fully aware that if we locked eyes, things would get tense. “I can’t do that, Robert.”
“Why not? Yar a looker. Would be good fer business, and hell girl, ya could be as late as ya like. Ya’d neva want fer nothing.”
“That’s a mighty tempting offer, but you know good and well that I worked long and hard to get my diploma. I’m a nurse, it’s my God-given calling.”
“But ya ain’t a helpin sick fokes. Yer working with a bunch of mental misfits, and yer’a gonna get ye’self hurt. Look at’cha. Yur no bigger’n a minute. One of them thar psychopaths is gonna end up squeezing tha life outta ya…might even eat ya.”
I flashed discerning eyes, and we shared a look. “Are you trying to scare me, Robert Smith?”
“Whut ever it takes ta get ya attention. I want’cha Peggy. I have fer a spell.”
I rolled my eyes. “Not this again!”
“Hell yea,” he grumbled. “Ya know my feelins.”
“Robert. You and I both know you could have your pick of any girl in Nacogdoches and half of Lufkin. Why on earth would you want little old used me?”
He leaned closer with his breath’s warmth on my skin. “Ya jes don’t get it, do ya? Some’a tha best thangs in life er used.” He forcefully slapped the truck door. “Take this fine 3100 series ya drivin. It’s a 47, nigh on six years old, but I figgered it wus a fine piece a machinery. That’s why I fetched it fer ya.”
“And I’m beholding, Robert. But let’s not forget that I’ve paid you the entire asking price of $115.00. We’re even.”
“Naw! Yer wrong, girlie. We won’t be even till ya let me show ye, yer still alive. Danny died, and it’s a cryin shame such a thang happened. But ya ain’t dead. One night in my arms and I could make ya wanta live again.”
“Aw-right. But hear me. One’ these days ye gonna wake up and realize, ole Robert wus right. You’ll see!”
I pressed the floorboard starter with an insentient smile. “Put it on my tab till Friday.”
I gassed the truck, a bit too hard I suppose, and it jumped past the pumps. In the side mirror, I saw Robert with that rag again, wiping his hands as he watched my departure. He had a way of getting under my skin and he knew it.
That little encounter, on top of running late, a truck which now required an oil change, and a dilapidated old house in need of repair, was the icing on the cake. I squeezed the steering wheel so tight that my knuckles turned ghostly white, and the pain of a pent-up breath forced a cracked plea. “Help me, Lord!”
Beneath a heavy sigh, I turned to my mental arsenal and drug out one of my most powerful weapons. Then with a voice that would melt paint, I began singing ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.
I throttled the Chevy onto Highway 69 south, and eventually the tune forced the unacceptable from my mind. I had over the years become quite proficient in such endeavors, thanks to a reliable friend dubbed ‘Denial’. There was, however, a nasty side effect. The troubles always seemed to resurface at bedtime, robbing me of sleep, which kept the vicious cycle of being late to work alive and well, although…last night was an exception. Something or someone was in the house.
My eyes narrowed.
Maybe I should talk to one of the psychiatrists at work.
Suddenly begot by self-doubt, the voice of reason sounded in my head.
Hmmm, maybe not; they’d fire me.
I wiped my sweaty brow with the back of my hand, then stuck my head out the window, for the heat even for this early hour was unbearable. I swung my head and let my locks fly, weaving all over the road. It felt invigorating, but I dreaded the tangles.
Hmm. I wonder if that beauty shop downtown’s still doing those bobcuts for $1.10. I could afford one if Robert would let my tab go another week.
Suddenly, straight ahead, the headlights illuminated a wily possum as it dashed across the shiny dark asphalt. I swerved to avoid the critter, and it was then that it dawned on me that I was once more gripping the steering wheel. The truth hit me like a ton of bricks.
I can’t cut my hair; Danny likes it long. And anyway, doesn’t the Bible say that a woman’s hair is her glory?
A blast of sunlight pierced the darkness as it stole through the towering pines. The beauty was overwhelming, and recalling our companionable joy of such events, I found myself blessed by Danny’s presence. I gently took his hand in mine, gripping the steering column in the other, as six white-tailed deer sprinted across the two-lane highway.
“Isn’t the sunrise beautiful?”
“Danny. Do you remember when your family came down from North Dakota for your funeral?” I belted a throaty laugh. “They were expecting a desert with cacti and tumble weeds, with no idea that this is God’s country.”
“I gave them the grand tour. I even quoted the script that I helped you memorize when you got your job with the National Forest Service.”
“Aren’t you proud of me?”
“I can still quote it word for word, just listen.”
“The Piney Wood Thicket is a forested ecoregion covering 300,000 square miles of pines, hickory and oak, with meandering rivers, streams and bayous supporting abundant wildlife.”
“Did you hear me?”
Silence pressed upon me so loudly, I could hear it ringing in my ears. I gripped the steering wheel with an internal momentum so fierce that I cried out. “God, why do you deny me this one small favor?”
I slammed the steering wheel with my fist.
“Have I not suffered enough?”
Silence, the worst yet.
“Danny. I know you can hear me,” I said and I noticed my voice breaking. “Honey, your family was impressed!”
I fired maniacal eyes across the empty bench seat, and although my heart sank, I was at that point unwilling to capitulate. “After the funeral, they ended up staying an extra week, fishing down on the Attoyac River and exploring the very thicket where we used to hike.”
Chill bumps embellished my skin.
“Isn’t that ironic?”
A palpable silence forced indecisiveness and I suddenly debated my faith. I cocked my head, eyes on the highway.
I can hear your voice Grandma, so why can’t I hear Danny?
I exhaled dramatically.
God, please. I need to hear his voice, it’s been so long.
The hum of the tires on the asphalt rang in my ears, and for whatever reason, it occurred to me that perhaps I simply needed to return to the church of which I’d become a stranger.
Church…Grandma, Rocky Hills, yes—surely that’s it.
My heart began to flutter, and like a tyrannical presence, the past engulfed me. I flinched, gripping the wheel as the Bible-clutching, overzealous preacher at Rocky Hills Pentecostal Church slammed his fist onto the pulpit, his voice reverberating.
“Thou will be cast into the lake of fire, to forever burn for you sins. Repent!”
“Praise God!” Grandma shouted from the front pew as I clung to her two hundred fifty pound frame. I felt the wind from her fluted fan and watched her wiping at her moist face with an embroidered handkerchief scented with rose water. Hundreds of Amens and shouts of Praise the Lord rose up from the congregation. Two women clutching rattle snakes came dancing up the aisle filled with the Holy Spirit while a young boy cast himself upon the floor, thrashing like a chicken with its head cut off. Disturbed by the hysterical cacophony, I watched horrified, clinging tighter to Grandma, who inadvertently cast me off the bench, sprawling on the floor, as she leapt to her feet, shouting, “Victory in the Lord!”
The flashing lights of a highway patrolman’s cruiser warning of a two-car accident, snatched me from the Pentecostal throes.
I let off the gas and slowed to a crawl as I entered Rusk Township, sunlight breaking over the horizon. I spied an old black man riding in a rickety wagon stacked high with melons. I watched him flip the reins over his team of mules, then he waved as if he knew me. Without hesitation, I returned the gesture, braked the truck, then dropped down to second gear. Turning off Highway 69, I sped up the hill past the brick entryway supporting a large, weathered sign that read:
RUSK STATE HOSPITAL
All visitors must check in at the shack.guard
“Good old Rusk,” I whispered with pride. It was in fact a great place to work. Good benefits. And most of all, I loved my patients. I recalled my five day orientation after accepting my current position. The history alone was amazing. Located in Cherokee County, sitting high atop a hill, the facility, which was built in 1870, was originally a penitentiary. Under pressure from the state of Texas and the enactment of mental health laws, the state legislature, around the grand year of 1912, converted it to a mental institution. Newly renovated, the facility consisted of four separate units: Angelina, Cypress, Nuece and San Jacinta, in addition to a chapel and recreation center. The large, two-story administration building also housed a medical unit and cafeteria. Farther up the hill, a remnant of the original prison called Skyview Halls was left unscathed. Constructed with tons of concrete, bricks and steel, Skyview stood like an ominous beacon surrounded by twenty-five foot walls topped with coiled barbed wire. With its white walls, stained yellow from years of rain, the maximum security prison for the criminally insane housed not only some of Texas’s most deranged, but some of its most gruesome secrets.
Horrific tales of mutilations, cannibalism, and murder ran rampant among the orderlies and nurses within the other units. I heard the tales, but I mentally blocked such things. After all, mental illness is just a disease no different than cancer. In my mind’s eye, the two disease processes are one in the same. Both require treatment and both can kill, regardless of religious or socioeconomic background.
I knew this first hand. At a very young age, I lost my mother to cancer and although I didn’t truly understand at the time why she died—I never forgot the word. Memories of an emaciated woman writhing in agony still walk the dark labyrinths of my mind.
Wasn’t that why I chose to be a nurse?
Each man must find his own salvation.
That’s what Grandma Flossie told me, and she was right. I had found my salvation, and by helping the less fortunate, God delivered unto me a sense of worth, of which I was otherwise, quite lacking.
Grandma Flossie—they don’t make ’em like that anymore.
I swallowed hard.
After the cancer stole my mother’s life and my father, George, died in World War II, Grandma Flossie was all that stood between me and an orphanage.
Flossie Rae Nerren, my beloved maternal grandmother, what a fine soul indeed. I can just see her, bigger than life. She was a rigid, outspoken, religious woman who spent every waking moment helping the less fortunate, cleaning her meager home and tending her garden with a tenacity few could muster. Her life was as driven and precise as a regiment of soldiers marching to war. She volunteered at the local old folks’ homes and the hospital in Nacogdoches. In the early 40’s she joined the Rocky Hills church outside the city limits of Alto. She sang in the choir and followed up with visitations to all church members who were down trodden, ill, unable to travel, dying, in need of prayer, or without benefit of the Holy Spirit. Tagging along at the tender age of nine, I discovered, with Flossie’s help, my own calling. I would be a nurse; God’s humble servant.
Grandma, who passed in January of 1951, now resides in the Rocky Hills cemetery beside her husband, Hubert, to whom she was married for thirty seven years. Shortly before she died, she told me that it was God who touched her with the Holy Spirit and led her down the path of mercy.
Was I not following in her footsteps, like a good shepherd, tending God’s flock?
She never said the words, but I always knew she was proud of my ambitions. Her efforts had all but gone unnoticed, for she had no education or degree, and relied entirely on scripture. Regardless, in my eyes, she was the most prudent nurse I ever knew, cream of the crop, my mother, father, sister and brother—everything in one. Losing her was devastating, and there are days even now, when it haunts me unmercifully. A glistening mist veiled my eyes.
Oh Grandma, it’s been nearly three years, and now Danny.
I gripped the steering wheel tighter.
I know you told me to never question God, but it’s so hard, for at times I feel an internal hatred, abhorrent to faith. I’m sorry Grandma, but why deny it? God knows all.
Slowing on the hillside drive, I sniffled hard, quickly wiping at my eyes while drawing nearer the guard shack. I fell in line behind two unmarked black cars with ‘Texas State’ emblems on the license plates.
Hmm, I wonder if there’s an inspection going on?
Sweaty, I pushed my hair behind my ears and inched forward, but when I braked beside the guard shack and caught sight of Ray Billingsley, the guard on duty, I instantly knew this was more than a simple inspection, for he looked as pale as a ghost.
“Good morning, Ray. I’m late again…sorry.”
“Don’t worry about being late. Shift change hasn’t even started.”
“But it’s a quarter after seven. Why not?”
“Old man Jack Reeves up at Skyview chewed through his restraints and took down a nurse and three guards before they detained him.”
My mouth dropped. “They had him in cloth restraints?”
“Hell yeah! Following the damn rules around here will get you killed. If that damn mental health board had to spend one night up there in Skyview with those ungodly demons, they’d change their minds about restraints! Bunch of educated idiots they are.”
“Was anyone seriously injured?”
“They’ll all survive, or at least that’s what they’re telling us. You know how secretive they are, scared shitless the newspapers will get wind of it. The sheriff’s department’s still here and they done called in the State.”
“Yeah, I saw their cars.”
The driver behind me sat down on his horn. I stretched my foot to the clutch, grinding the stick into first gear, but the news had me jittery and my foot slipped. The truck jumped, and died. Frantic, with the horn blasting, I pushed on the floorboard starter with the motor grinding. I smelled gas.
Oh no, don’t let it be flooded.
The engine fired and with pulsing anxiety, I glanced back. “Ray, who was the nurse up at Skyview?”
Ray tilted his head and took a deep breath as he stepped from the shack to my window. I noticed the armpits of his gray security uniform were wet with sweat.
“Suzy Ellison,” he whispered. “That damn Reeves took her down and, excuse my language, but that sick cannibal chewed one of her breasts half off before they could get ’em off her.”
I felt my gut churn as a repulsive sickness washed over me. I gassed the truck and like a cork on a windswept lake, I bobbed across the parking lot.