narrated by Linda Manning
There are shadows in this house.
Turn a light on.
That would be my husband Dean, if he were home. He’s not, at the moment, I don’t know where he is and I don’t care, but it doesn’t matter: I can read his mind.
Not that way. I’m not psychic and I’m not crazy. I just know the way he thinks, the things he says.
And turning a light on wouldn’t help. They’re not those kinds of shadows. These shadows chitter, and hurry. They make sounds I cannot bear and they gather in the sunlight.
I cannot say this to Dean. I would be the recipient of one of his looks, both condescending and agonized and then God help me he would help me. I cannot bear that.
After all, I am only here because of Dean.
Or to put it another way, the only reason I’m here is Dean.
He’s never hurt me physically– at least, I don’t think he has, though time will tell with some of what he’s done. The experimental drugs. The experimental therapy. I married him because it was the only way out. Had I not agreed, my records would still say I was hopelessly insane (we don’t use that word here– yes, you do) and recommend continued hospitalization and the chief of staff’s recommendations are seldom ignored.
I can’t argue with him because while he may never have hurt me physically, he’s hurt me in so many creative ways.
The first time I saw them I’d only been “home” less than a week. Home from that whole “whirlwind courtship” everyone thought was so romantic and wonderful, the recovered patient, the caring doctor, the unexpected and possibly unethical romance, but who cares about ethics when they’re both so beautiful and the story is so sweet?
It was a whirlwind. The sudden recovery, drug dosages dropping off like pounds on an Atkins’ diet. Like snowstorms in spring. The world kept getting clearer and brighter every day and I didn’t understand what was happening and then suddenly I did and that was worse. Because when insanity washed away and reality came in like high tide, I found that stuffy, too-warm darkness in my head had been better.
Whirlwind proposal (you will). Plans (we shall). Wedding (she does, you do). Honeymoon (it is). Home (welcome, honey. Disturb nothing).
Disturb nothing. I was already disturbed enough.
I saw the first shadow the first week. Maybe the second. It seems likely I had at least a week in the sunlight before he started my “therapy.”
Dusty haze. The skin on my forehead felt thick and numb. I’d have rubbed it if I could have but wrapped away in a cocoon of Thorazine it was all I could do to move from room to room in that house, following the sun as it trekked across the late autumn sky. Thorazine is like viewing an impressionist world while wrapped snugly and too tightly in a warm, wet army blanket. Something in it seems to separate the sides of the brain. When you walk, same arm/same leg swing together and you feel like you’re falling. When you think, thoughts seem unable to bridge the gap between lobes. Sides. Whatever. That’s his territory, not mine. My brain is his territory, not mine. I am no longer so familiar with it.
There are shadows in this house.
Turn a light on.
I’m afraid to.
I don’t want to see what’s there.
Laura spent the day with June. Just being out of the house was a gift, being with Juney again, but Dean had added to it that morning when he handed her a credit card and told her she could paint her office any color she chose and he didn’t give her any psychological insights on what colors might mean. He’d given her a kiss as June honked from the driveway and they were off.
“That’s the biggest cup of coffee I’ve ever seen,” June said. “Are you thinking of drowning yourself?”
Just for an instant Laura blinked at the suggestion of suicide, self-harm, instability, and then she grinned. “Dean doesn’t approve of coffee.”
June blinked across the tiny round table at her. “So, what, he doesn’t allow you to have it?” She poured the contents of four packets of sweetener into her small cup.
Laura raised her eyebrows. June frowned with mock severity. “We’re discussing your foibles, not mine.”
“If you let your husband decide on your coffee drinking and then try to make up for lost time. Honestly, that’s Big Gulp size.”
It was, and Laura was happy with it, and June’s teasing and the mall and the pale peach paint she’d bought and arranged to have delivered. She was happy enough to dissemble a bit for Dean’s sake.
“He has a whole cupboard filled with teas I like. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” But she finished the titanic-sized coffee and June nodded and kept her thoughts to herself and outwardly the day was glorious.
She did not think about going home to the shadow-filled house.
“Call me if you need me,” June had said just before Laura got out of her car. But that sounded like Laura was in some kind of danger. Of course she wasn’t. She was home.
She woke calmly, with pleasure. Warm under the covers, she remembered it was Saturday. Dean had rounds at the county hospital today. If she was lucky she’d have till early afternoon alone in the house. No Dean. No questions. No answers.
Laura opened her eyes and frowned. Shadows. There would be shadows. The thought drove her upright in the bed. Bright sunlight streaked over Dean’s polished hardwood floors. Crystals in the window sent rainbows flying. The house was warm and she could smell toast from downstairs. After 9:00, according to the clock radio. June would be up by now, easily. She could call, arrange brunch, be off to meet her before Dean could even think of leaving the hospital and then a movie—can’t have your cell on in a movie after all, and—
A shadow, fat and thick as a raccoon, slid across the floor. The movement suggested too many legs, something like a centipede. Something hurrying.
From long practice, Laura bit back a scream. She gasped, then moaned once. One hand came up and covered her mouth. Then Dean was in the doorway, face concerned, all the professional demeanor gone: his face was a mix of concern (for his poor wife) and exasperation (over his annoying wife.) “What’d you see?”
“I . . . was dreaming.” She refused to look back at the floor. She watched him.
“You were sitting up,” he said without emphasis. That was worse. Calm sometimes meant trouble. The Doctor Is In. You didn’t want the doctor to be in.
She shook her head. From the corner of her eye she could see the unmarked sunny wood floor. “I was dreaming,” she repeated.
“About what?” His voice was deliberate. Slow.
About you. Tell him about you. Something happened to you. He’ll be flattered. “I dreamed something happened to you.” And this was treacherous, too. Who would hurt him; why? Not to mention the patients at the hospital. Not to threaten or imply they didn’t adore him. Not to suggest anyone could mean him harm.
Definitely not to remind him she’d been a patient.
“I dreamed you leaned over to kiss me,” she said and met his eyes. “I sat up to kiss you back.”
For an instant he had no expression, and then he smiled, a dark-haired man with dark eyes standing at the edge of their bedroom. “Then I should.” He crossed to her, scattering rainbows on the way. She watched him until he was close, then shut her eyes and turned her face up to his.
Sometimes, like this, it was almost all right. Sometimes, when he was like this, she could believe he loved her.
“I got Lucille to take my shift today. She owed me from when she was having that affair and I had to keep covering for her long, long lunches and early outs and disappearances.”
Lucille. Dr. Tarron. Aggressive, unsympathetic, more of the Nazi camp than behaviorist or Freudian. Dr. Tarron was taking Dean’s place. Lucky patients, Laura thought wistfully. Still, it wasn’t so bad right at this moment. One of Dean’s hands caressed her shoulder where she lay across his chest. Laura stared, eyes unfocused, into the moving sun lighting the bedroom. “If I wanted to, I could probably never go in again she owes me so much time.”
Something moved. A shadow. No, several of them. Sliding up the wall near the corner of the bedroom, just beyond the windows, just past the sunlight. A column of shadows that danced and flickered like something alive, as if it heard what Dean had said, flown up that instant to fill the corner because he’d said “I could stay home every day with you.”
Lightly. Pleasantly. Turning his head to kiss her lips and don’t let him see, don’t let him see, don’t let him know that I’ve seen something—
But she saw the look in his eyes, and it was already too late.
The bath water swirls around her, warm, almost too warm. The drugs make her drowsy and he won’t tell her what he’s given her. Laura keeps her head up by force of will, staring around the bathroom as if she’s never seen it before. Every feature, catalogued. Every nook and cranny, every fleck of misplaced paint or bruise of wallpaper. Anything she can concentrate on to keep herself awake. Aware. She’s too dependent on him now. He’s wrapped her in warm wet sheets, so close and tight, a cocoon of wet warmth even before he lowered her into the hot bath. The drugs in her system swirl through her, dizzying. She wishes she knew what to expect. The dizzy, dry-mouthed confusion of Thorazine. The spacey, sad, displaced displasia of Demerol. Nightmare-wracked barbiturates. The occasional terror of hallucinogens.
The worst part, though. Not the drugs. Not the confinement. Not the clammy wet of sheets against her skin in a water bath or the fear he’d walk away and she’d slide down and drown. The worst part was him sitting on the edge of the tub, brushing the wet tendrils away from her flushed wet face, his calm voice the voice of the doctor who wants to help and understand and fix.
“What did you see? Laura, what did you think you saw? I need you to confide in me. You need to understand there’s nothing there. Together we can figure this out. I can help you, Laura, help you understand what the hallucinations mean and then together we can make them stop. We can exorcize the demons but you have to trust me. You have to trust me and let me help you.”
His voice was unending, a cadence underscored by her slow droning heartbeat.
Please let me go.
Above the tub several shadows rushed together on the vacant wall. He wasn’t watching her so she let her eyes rest on them, following their movement. She couldn’t block his voice. He talked, reassuring, calming. Loving. About her misapprehensions and fears and hallucinations. About helping her so she’d never see them again, so she could be healthy.
The shadows poised above the bath tub, clearly visible to her. She wasn’t afraid of them now. They seemed to offer strength. If Dean did not want her to see them, they must be something right, and good. Something she didn’t want sent away.
“I can help you, damn it,” Dean said, because she wasn’t listening. “Do you always want to be this way?”
Why not? Laura wondered, the drugs pulling away from her as she watched the shadows cavort. After all, she wasn’t crazy.
I’m not crazy.
I’m not crazy. I was. When my first husband died, so soon after the wedding, when I found myself alone in the home we’d planned for two. Then, yes. Then I found an escape hatch and I took it, fled to it and people who cared about me found me, not eating, not sleeping, not bathing or coping. Not sane. I hurt all over then and it didn’t matter to me what they did. My parents were gone, years ago, my sister a distant stranger who lived across the country. There was June, my best friend, and other friends, but that hadn’t been enough to hold me. A guardian was appointed. The house was sold, our possessions put into storage and in a way, I was put into storage also. It’s not that no one at state cared if any of us got better. No one was actually mean or criminally unconcerned. It was just so understaffed, so few of them and so many of us and my sad little story didn’t leave them much to work with until Dean came along.
Dean pulled me out of myself. He made me laugh. He listened. What I didn’t know was how he was manipulating my drugs, the dosages he raised and lowered so I felt better when he was around, more thick and sad and lost when he was gone. By the time I figured it out it was far too late; wedding preparations were underway and the only way I was getting out now was by marrying my doctor and the only place I had to go was here.
Where the shadows are.
He releases me long after the bath has gone cold. He rubs my back and helps me get dressed. I hang on to him as he walks me to the kitchen, as stumbling and weak as a newborn kitten. He fixes me eggs and sits across from me while I try to eat. There’s no point fighting. The eggs make me sick after the drugs but when I refused to eat once he entubated me, forced food directly into my stomach, doctor’s orders, you need to keep up your strength. When I fought the restraints, he wrapped me so tight the sheets bruised and burned. When I fought him he drugged me for so many days I no longer knew who or where I was.
He doesn’t understand the fight has only changed.
There is no point in fighting the eggs. I eat them and drink the putrid floral cup of Earl Grey he pours me. I nibble toast, which at least is comforting to my stomach. I wait for the analysis that comes with the food.
“Laura, look at me.”
The late morning sun is in my eyes. Dean is only a dark shape looming across the table from me. This seems right. I don’t squint or strain to see better. The sun behind his black form creates a field of white around him. He glows. As if he’s holy.
“Laura, these things you think you see. You know what they are, don’t you? You understand what it truly is you’re seeing?”
Everything in me stiffens, trying to remember. Has he told me this theory before?
Fortunately, he doesn’t wait for me to answer. “It’s just memory, love. Sadness. You’ve been through so much. The shadows, they’re just representations of what you’ve lost, things you’re not ready to face.”
I take another bite of toast. Reasonable, I suppose, if rather blatantly obvious. It would even make sense if the shadows were more figurative, less literal. More ambiguous, less solid. It would make sense if only they didn’t speak. If only I didn’t understand them.
His voice becomes strained. “Laura, look at me.”
I squint into the light now, past him. The sun has moved a little, still blinding in this tiny kitchen, and I can see the shadows gathering past him. Something in his voice has changed. I take another bite of toast, suddenly afraid again, and “Put down the toast,” he says.
“You said I should eat.” I reach for the tea, toast wedge still in the other hand. Dean bangs his hand down on the table and the silver rattles and jumps, the tea spills.
“I said you should trust me,” he says. Shadows stir behind him, agitated, chittering. It takes all my will power not to look at them. I’m positive he can hear them. My heart pounds. Sweat breaks down my spine. I’m so afraid. June’s known something’s wrong, known for a while. If I can distract him and get out, go to June’s, hide—
“Don’t you want to be free?” he asks, his voice too velvet over raggedness. “Don’t you want to exorcize your demons?”
Behind him the shadows boil up, raging, tearing at each other. He twitches, one hand brushing back behind him. He hears them, but he won’t admit it.
“Put down the toast! You need my help! I have to help you!”
Their voices are clear now. I’ve never been afraid of them. For all that I’ve been afraid of practically everything since Dean brought me here, I’ve never been afraid of the shadows.
Across from me Dean breaks off, his face blank for an instant, then full of rage. He shoots up from his seat, both hands smashing down on the table even as he leans across it toward me.
“What do you know? How much? How long?”
I take a step away. I’m still so weak from the drugs, the bath, everything he’s done to me. Like he’s split me into a hundred little pieces, always telling me he wants to help, always shattering anything that threatens to be whole.
Until there’ll be nothing left of me but a shadow.
I stop, then, staring at him, and the voices come through more clearly than ever, individual voices, men and women and somewhere in there, a child.
“How could you?” I ask. I’ve stopped moving, no longer retreating. Dean still comes toward me but his steps are uncertain. He looks past me and I don’t have to turn: I can feel them gathering close to me, remnants; pieces, only.
“I had to.” He spreads his hands, reasonable, explaining. Explaining even though a doctor certainly doesn’t owe an explanation to a patient. “It’s my calling. I’m a doctor. I have to help them save themselves. Help them exorcize their demons.”
“You’ve haven’t done that great a job, have you?” Furious, now, as the adrenaline starts flushing the drugs from my system. I’m sweating, as if the poison is sliding off my skin. “What about all the ones who went out and did things? The ones who killed and raped and . . . and did things, after they’d been treated by the great Doctor Grace?”
. . . Two nurses, in my room. I’m recovering, but slowly, bits and pieces of myself coming back to me and Dean has asked me to marry him and the staff is consumed with it, the congratulations, the questions, the jokes, the well wishes, all of it within his earshot. But he’s not here right now, and me? I’m catatonic again. Cataleptic. Shocky. Gone. They can say anything they want around me.
. . . Two nurses, in my room. A hushed but nasty little conversation.
“The Amazing Grace,” one says, emptying some container into another. Today my eyes don’t want to track. I sit in the wheelchair and stare out the window and the nurses keep talking.
“At least she won’t be like the others.”
“It’s not all of them,” says the younger, smaller nurse. Probably she’s been dazzled by him; he’s beautiful, Dr. Dean Grace, in the same way a sleek, overly-expensive car is beautiful. You may desire it, see yourself going really fast in it, but you know it will never love you, never give anything back, never fit easily in your garage.
The older nurse doesn’t even glance my way. “No, not all of them, or even those idiots on the review board would figure out something’s wrong. But too many of his’ve gone rogue. Come in for torturing animals and gone out to kill humans. It’s like instead of making them better, he’s making them better at doing it. ‘Stead of taking out the bad . . .”
The little nurse makes a sound, a jolted motion, and the older nurse breaks off. Dean stands in the doorway, staring at me like nothing else exists, but did he hear them? Did I ever see either of those nurses again?
“It’s like instead of taking out the bad . . .”
“He’s taking out the good,” I say aloud, and look directly at him. Exorcizing the demons . . . or casting out the good.
It’s a huge leap in logic.
It makes no sense.
It’s magical thinking of the worst kind. Any doctor worth his salt would have me back on meds in an instant.
It’s right. I can see it in his face. The hatred and rage, the angry little boy caught playing with matches or beating the neighbor’s dog with a stick. It’s not a question anymore– from conjecture to knowledge in one hateful glance.
I’m trapped. My legs barely hold me standing. I only got as far as the kitchen with Dean’s help. The adrenaline is making my heart race and making me dizzy but I’m no more able to run than I was before.
You bitch. You whore. What do you know? How can you? But I can’t hear him. My ears are screaming with shock and adrenaline, buzzing, ringing, full of the voices around me.
Weak voices. Lost voices. The good sides of his patients, their anger and violence removed . . . set free. They are shadows.
I take another step back and stumble over something, a chair maybe. Dean’s black medical bag maybe. It catches the back of my calf, my arms start to reach, I’m falling! but it’s Dean reaching to save me so I let go, go soft as the drugs would have me, fall into the mass of chittering, hurrying shadows.
Weightless. Floating. This is a void. Was I afraid of dying? This is nothing. Not fear or pain. I just . . . am.
From somewhere I can hear them. I’ve said I was never afraid of them but is that true? They’re all around me. Soft as cats, they drift against me with no real sense of touch. Am I the same? Soft, formless– a shadow. A thrill of fear runs through me. I can still feel that at least. This is not the release I’ve wanted. I am trapped here. I am nothing here.
Amorphous shapes. Histories. Lives. A sense of stories passed, missed opportunities, longed for events. Stories. They’re stories. No. They’re more than that. They’re ghosts, the remains Dean left behind. The good parts he had no use for.
It’s like ‘stead of taking out the bad, he took out the good.
Bodies, exorcized, out there worse than they had been. The killings. The rapes. The indescribable anger and violence. A few more and even those idiots on the review board would have noticed. A few more.
My body is out there. Whatever I am, however lost I’ve become, part of me remains with Dean. The angry parts. The violent bits. The part that fought him when he took me from state, the part that twisted and thrashed and gave him a black eye before screaming off on foot, stopped such a short distance later when the drugs made me too slow.
Not this time. This time he won’t feed me—what’s left of me—drugs. He won’t want me incapacitated.
All you have to do is wait.
All I have to do is wait.
And send a piece of myself back.
He’ll want me aware.
But he didn’t. And the needle closed in. And the world was closed out.
Impressions only. Jagged flashes of awareness. Dean, above her, his face sweating, hips moving. Were they making love? She felt so sick. She tried to bring her hands up to stop him but she was restrained.
Glass, shattering. Picture frames, window glass. She had screamed.
Oil on her forehead. Dean smeared it there with his thumb. Did he believe he was a priest? Not oil. Jelly. Conductive jelly. The kind they used on electrodes before . . .
. . . he hit the switch and her body jolted in a death dance.
This must be what the electric chair is like. I’ve never killed anyone.
“Get out,” Dean said.
She woke at the end of the afternoon. The room was full of shadows. She lay weak in the arm chair he’d thrown her into, the sun long gone.
She huddled, weaker, in the corner, deep in the shadows.
“You had to push. You had to push and push and push. You couldn’t just go along and let things be the way they needed to.” Dean’s voice is angry. Furious. He paces in front of her, scattering tepid sunlight that comes in through the living room windows. “You couldn’t just let things happen. You couldn’t trust me. I’m your doctor. I know what’s good for you.”
Laura trembled. The sun across her legs was distant, un-warm. She sat where Dean had dumped her in one of the easy chairs, too far gone to care what Dr. Dean “Amazing” Grace did. She held her hands up in front of her face and imagined she could see through them. Everything was small and lost, so far away it hardly seemed to matter. She was separated from herself, scattered as the motes of light Dean strode through as he paced. Here. Hands. Fingers splayed. There. Corner. Across the sunlight. With the others, dark shadows in a light room. Dual consciousness. She could hear herself thinking from the corner, the place where she crouched with the others.
Come back. Come back, bring us just a piece, a strong piece. Of yourself.
Laura stared at her hand again. Cold sunlight fell across the nails. They looked like pearls. She crumpled the hand into a fist, tight, tighter, nails cutting into her flesh.
There was so much she’d never done. Never gone many places. Never met many new people.
In front of her, forward and back, Dean paced and raved.
Around her, all the shadows chittered and swirled. What have you brought us? How strong are you? Can you pull us out? Can you send him away? Insistent voices. Dean, pacing, raving.
“Shut up.” She stood, her fists curled. It felt good. Behind her the shadows dropped to whispers. In front of her, Dean stopped, amazed.
“What did you say?” Fury only a heartbeat away, still buried under shock.
“I said– shut up.” She swung her hands around together, fingers interlaced, caught him just under the jaw and sent him flying, his mouth open, his hands just rising. She sent him flying backward and he caught the back of his leg on something, his little black bag, maybe, and she saw him go down. Go down. Down. Slow motion fall. Until the sound. The crack, his head hit the wall behind him and he slid down it and lay very still.
Very still. Very, very still.
The shadows swarmed. Over the floor. Over Dean’s body. They surrounded Laura, the shadows and the Laura part of the shadows, everything around her, everything surrounding her.
What else can you do? How can you help us? Can you set us free?
Her own voice just one of them.
She could, probably. But there were so many places she’d never been and so many people she’d never met and Laura—the other Laura—was kind of shy and stupid and if she stayed here, why, wouldn’t they think she’d done it?
“Shut up,” Laura said to the shadows and turned her back and walked out of the house and away from her life, starting over, somebody new.
“There are shadows in this house,” the girl said and her voice held a note of unease. She stood in the living room, staring around at the bright spring sunlight, the overhead lighting and still the shadows that seemed to breathe. To pulse. As if they were alive.
“Turn a light on,” he said. Big guy, grinning. He came up behind her from the kitchen, wrapped her in a bear hug and swept her off her feet into a circle. “Turn ‘em all on. It’s our house now!”
“It’s our power bill, too,” she said, grinning. They’d wanted their own house, waited and saved for it. And now . . . the grin slipped a little. Now there were shadows.
But he took her hand, tugging her upstairs to see the view from the bedroom window and where the bed would go and the wall they could knock out between rooms so the next room over could be where the crib would go, and she forgot the shadows in her delight.
Downstairs, the shadows slid and pulsed, and the Laura part of the shadows thought, Come back. Help us. You were a part of me. How could you just leave?
Bio: Jennifer Rachel Baumer lives, writes and runs in Northern Nevada where she lives with her husband and several cats, domesticated, feral and semi-feral.