by Nene Adams ©2001 - all rights reserved
all my life about thee,
Let thy strong eyes yearning o'er me
"Want a cup of coffee?" Phyllis Harwood asked, leaning her hip on the counter. Her nurse's uniform was white and crisply starched, blonde hair pinned up beneath the triangular paper hat. Despite the rules on make-up, she wore bright red lipstick and more than a touch of eyeshadow.
Her co-worker, another nurse named Maria Flynn, pursed her non-rouged lips and shook her head. "If I drink any more coffee, I'm going to be able to float to Ward Seven."
Phyllis checked the bubbling coffee pot on the electric ring in the Staff Room. "You're on Seven tonight, huh? That's no fun. You know, there was a nurse here named Lansing who worked Ward Seven for years - since the Stone Age, practically." She took a thick china cup from a shelf, glared at the near empty sugar container, and rummaged inside a small refrigerator for milk.
"Was she transferred?"
"No, she died last night. Of a heart attack at home," Phyllis added hastily. "That's why you've been put on this shift. You'll get used to it."
"I never met Nurse Lansing."
"She had some really bad scars on her fingers and forearms. Other than that, she wasn't too bad looking for her age. Just very severe, if you know what I mean." Phyllis squinted and pushed aside some crumpled paper bags. "Do you have any questions about procedures?"
"Um, Dr. Freeman ordered the patients in Seven to be put into restraints earlier..." Maria broke off, twirled a lock of black hair between her fingers in a nervous gesture.
"He does that every night. All except Jane Doe," Phyllis said over her shoulder. She closed the cabinet, bottle of milk in hand. Her rubber-soled shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor as she turned. "It's standard. We've got orders not to disturb her, no matter what."
Maria lowered her voice. "Her reputation frightens me. Everybody tells stories. She's supposed to be... well, even crazier than the rest."
"I heard she assaulted a doctor about ten years ago." Phyllis poured herself a cup of coffee, lacing it liberally with sugar and milk. "Bit off three of his fingers before the orderlies could peel her off and trank her. Don't remember who told me. Maybe one of the older nurses."
Maria sighed. "I heard an orderly lost an eye because of her, not to mention other grisly stuff. Maybe I should ask Dr. Freeman if I can be transferred to another shift. I can deal with the others, but Jane Doe sounds too scary."
"At least she doesn't throw feces at the staff on odd Wednesdays, like Mr. Parker," Phyllis replied, sitting down at the chipped formica table. "Mrs. O'Malley is more my type. She conducts an invisible orchestra all day. Of course, she strangled her son and grandson with piano wire. She looks like a sweet little old lady, but don't let the act fool you."
Maria caught her bottom lip between her teeth and pressed on with her original subject. "No one's ever seen Jane Doe that I've been able to find out. All the news about her is old... nothing recent, all rumors and no facts. It's weird. Dr. Freeman won't talk about it, either."
"Hmph." Phyllis finished her coffee. "Lansing might have been able to tell you something, but she was a secretive old biddy. Hardly ever opened her mouth, and never talked about Seven. What I find strange about Miss Doe is that she has no patient records. None. Believe me, I've checked."
"They keep her locked in that padded room all day and night. She gets no meds or treatments. There's not even an observation port; just a steel door. How can one woman be so dangerous?"
"I have no idea." Phyllis checked her watch. "Anyway, she's too violent for us to handle, or so Dr. Freeman's told me. Don't let it get under your skin. Help me with the night medication, will you?" She wore a jingling ring of keys around her waist. Going over to the drugs cabinet, she opened it and took bottles down from the shelf, while Maria laid out small paper cups on a tray.
"Lithium, chlorpromazine, imipramine," Phyllis said, dropping colored pills into the cups as Maria reeled off patient's names from a nearby clipboard, "a nice dose of meprobomate for Mr. Parker. Extra thorazine for Miss Bailey - she's been a very bad girl lately, keeps biting the other patients. How is Mr. Frank, by the way?"
Maria shivered. "Dr. Freeman has him put down for electroconvulsive therapy tomorrow. I hate that. They scream an awful lot."
"I"m glad I won't be there," Phyllis said. "Mr. Frank doesn't like shock treatments. The last time, he nearly broke my arm trying to get away. He fought the gag, too, and ended up with a cracked jawbone."
"I know. Didn't Mr. Frank keep a butcher's shop before he came to Ashpool-St. John?"
"Uh-huh. Fourteen people missing, and not a body found. But there were all those lovely sausages in the freezer." Phyllis finished her task, put the medication bottles away, and locked the cabinet. "His poor wife... she changed her name and moved to California."
Maria gagged. "I swear, these stories are horrible enough to drive me insane."
"This isn't a pediatric ward, dear." Phyllis patted a stray lock of blonde hair back into place, and checked her reflection in the shiny aluminum cabinet door. "I know you just joined the staff a couple of weeks ago. It'll take some time to adjust. I suggest you familiarize yourself with the patient records as much as possible. If you have any questions, come to me."
"Maybe I'll have some coffee after all. To steady my nerves."
"You do that." Phyllis patted Maria's hand and picked up the tray of medication. Pills rattled in the cups. "I'll be in Three if you need me. Look, Seven is completely locked-down during the night shift. The inmates know when there's anybody new on the floor; don't ask me how, they just do. Somebody may try and fool you into opening his door by pretending to have an emergency. Don't fall for it. If you think that a patient's in genuine distress, check through the observation port first. Whatever you do, don't unlock the cell door when you're alone. Call for help, okay? That's what big, burly, hundred-and-eighty pound orderlies are for. If in doubt, call me on the intercom, or hit the panic button, and don't get so rattled you make a mistake."
"I will. Thanks, Phyllis. I appreciate the advice."
"Just remember, hon... these people aren't in an asylum for the criminally insane 'cause they think they're Napoleon. All of them are violent offenders who wouldn't think twice about hurting you. Sevens are the worst of a bad bunch. Don't take any chances. Your safety comes first."
"Will do." Maria smiled in relief. "I really appreciate this."
"No problem. This is your first night on Ward Seven, so being nervous is understandable. It'll be okay, as long as you obey the rules and stay smart. And stay away from Jane Doe." Phyllis left the staff room, shoes squeaking on the floor with every step. Maria glanced at her watch. It was time to start her shift. Coffee could wait until her official break in a few hours.
At night, the hospital was mainly quiet, the corridors lit by dimmed bulbs that cast strange shadows on the institutional green walls. Ashpool-St. John had been originally built a hundred years ago as a private residence, and converted into an asylum by the State of Alabama in 1927. Maria knew there had been a fire in 1933 which had destroyed Seven. It had been rebuilt exactly as before, right down to the speckled linoleum. She thought that the pattern of dull crimson splatters on a white background looked disturbingly like spilled blood.
Ward Seven was on the lowest floor of the west wing, in what had been the building's basement. At the beginning of the long hallway, just opposite the stairwell, was a nurse's station - desk, intercom box, file racks, typewriter. On the wall behind the desk was a series of wires that crawled down the cracked plaster and terminated into a plastic box with a yellow button. This was the so-called 'panic button.' One punch would set off alarms throughout the hospital. A duplicate box was fastened to the wall next to an iron-barred door. Beyond this door were the cells.
There were twelve small rooms, ten feet by ten feet, all of them padded. Thirteen, if you counted the cell at the end of the corridor, where the mysterious Jane Doe resided. The patients here could not be trusted to sleep in dormitories like the rest. Every morning, the doors would be opened with almost military precision, doctors dispensing medication and orderlies standing by with rubber truncheons, wet towels and a fire hose. When they were tranked to the eyeballs, Ward Seven inmates would be permitted to mingle in the recreation room or garden under close supervision. All except Number Thirteen, which stayed closed and locked all the time.
Maria sat down at her desk, then jumped up and softly tested the barred door. It was fastened tight. The key was attached to the desktop with a steel staple, on a chain just long enough to reach the lock.
A separate key was required to unlock the door at the top of the stairs (which only opened from the outside). That key was kept at the front desk; the Head Night Nurse - Phyllis, in this case - had another. Maria was locked into this place as completely as the patients. When break-time came, someone would be sent to fetch her.
A tiny bathroom with toilet and sink had been provided for calls of nature. It was in the space beneath the stairs. Maria crept across the floor, trying hard not to make a sound. Flickering fluorescent light sprang into life when she touched the switch. The smell of disinfectant was particularly strong here; the astringent odor hit the back of her throat, making her cough.
She froze, heart beating frantically in her chest, waiting for... what? A roar like feeding time at the zoo? Rattling chains and demented screams? Nothing happened and Maria calmed down, feeling very foolish. Of course the patients couldn't hear her. Their cells were completely padded.
"Next time, I'm bringing a good book," Maria muttered to herself, crossing over to the desk. The scarred laminate top was set in a heavy steel frame. A corner was completely broken off, showing grimy chipboard. She sat down, opened the top drawer, and began to rummage. Old pencil stubs, pens, rubber bands, paper clips, yellowed newspaper scraps... nothing of real interest, except for a ring of keys to the cells. There were three file drawers on the side. She checked those, too. Miscellaneous folders, crossword puzzle books, bobbypins lost in the depths for who knew how long, and a small stack of fashion magazines that were years out of date.
Suddenly, someone screamed.
It was a long, drawn out howl of pure grief and rage, climbing up the scale until Maria had to cover her ears with her hands. That set off the other patients, who began to wail and yowl and curse. Jesus! she thought, pulse pounding again.
The inmates kept up their muffled shouting for a while. Maria shut herself into the bathroom, feeling somewhat guilty. After what seemed like hours but was probably less than ten minutes, she ventured out again. The noise level had abated completely. This time, it was only a raspy woman's voice that came floating down the corridor. "Please, is anybody there?"
Maria stepped back over to the desk, reassured by the presence of the panic button. She did not answer, but sat back down again and resolutely picked up a magazine.
The voice said, "Please, I know you're there." A sob, and she continued, "Help me."
Maria steeled herself. She was not going to carry on a conversation with a dangerous lunatic. She couldn't tell which cell housed the voice, but she wasn't going to investigate.
"Help me, please. I don't deserve to be in this place. I haven't done anything wrong."
"Go to sleep," Maria called loudly. "Be quiet and go to sleep, or I'll have to send for the doctor to give you a shot."
There was another sob, more heart-rending than the last. This subsided, until an eerie silence pervaded Ward Seven.
Maria flipped through the magazine pages, not reading a single word. She didn't know what was worse - listening to the sound of her own breathing, or waiting to hear something worse.
After a while, she felt horribly alone, confined, almost as if she had been buried alive. There was a damp, pervasive chill down here, the kind that crept into her bones and ran clammy fingers over every inch of exposed skin. Next time, if there was a next time, she would be sure to bring a thick sweater.
The atmosphere was oppressive, like the walls were permeated with decades of fear-sweat, urine, boiled cabbage and screams. It would be easy to lose your nerve, to go off your head and start yelling yourself, just to hear another human voice... Maria shook her head. I am a trained nurse. I've worked in other hospitals. There's nothing here more dangerous than my own imagination, so reel it in, girl, and act like a professional.
She jumped when the voice came again. "Help me. Oh, God, won't someone help me?"
"Shut up," Maria said, suddenly cross. She stood up, but had forgotten that the bottom drawer was still open. It fetched her a crack across the bottom of her shin. She cursed, hopping in place while she felt the damaged leg. No blood, but her stocking was torn, and there would be a hell of a bruise later. "Dammit!"
"Help me..." More gasps and sobs, which trailed off into a choked sniffle.
"I said, be quiet!" Maria was half inclined to unlock the iron-barred door and deal with whoever was whining. Phyllis' cautions kept her from acting too hastily. "If I have to come in there, it isn't going to be pleasant. I'll have lots of doctors and orderlies with me. Be good and quiet and go to sleep."
Maria was still angry - at the anonymous patient, at her own impatience and clumsiness, she didn't know. She reached down and slammed the drawer shut. The loud bang echoed off the walls, followed by a strange, fluttering rustle.
She frowned, anger forgotten. What was that?
Experimentally, Maria opened the drawer and closed it again. Nothing. But there had been something, she was sure of it. A sound like paper falling...
She opened the drawer all the way and stuck her hand inside, feeling around the back. Her fingertips could just brush against what felt like a thick sheet of paper, gritty and coarse. Grunting at the effort, Maria strained to reach the mysterious object. After a prolonged struggle that made her shoulder sore, she managed to get hold of it and pulled it out.
It was paper - a sealed manilla envelope, slightly discolored with age and dirt. Maria put it down on the desk and turned it over. There was a typed label on the outside. It read:
Who is Bella Keeler? she thought. Intrigued, she examined the hospital codes on the label, which fortunately had not changed much in the intervening years. Involuntary commitment at family's request for sexual deviancy. Date of commitment: June 14, 1933. Deceased: July 4, 1933.
The patient number meant nothing to her. Maria sat down, blowing dust off the envelope. Well, whoever she was, she wasn't at Ashpool-St. John's for very long before she died.
Sexual deviancy was a catch-all term which meant exactly nothing in psychiatric terms. However, Maria had heard of young girls who'd gotten themselves in 'boy trouble' and become pregnant. Sometimes, the family would have the girl placed in an asylum with the help of their family doctor. He ensured that the scandal was handled privately. The illegitimate child would be placed for adoption, and the wayward daughter returned quietly to her family. Maybe this was a similar case.
Maria slit the envelope open with a nail file she found in the desk. There was a bundle of papers inside, clipped together at the top with a black and white picture. She studied the photo first.
The subject was a young woman, perhaps in her twenties. She was very pretty, with hair cut into bangs over big eyes, an oval face with a straight nose. Her mouth, though... it was set into a thin, serious frown, very severe, as if she was terrified and trying desperately to hide that fact. The expression did not suit her. She should have been smiling.
Poor Bella. That picture had to be taken somewhere in the hospital. She's wearing a cotton gown.
The next page contained personal information. Maria skipped over most of it - place of birth, parent's names, etc. - and went straight to the physical description. Strawberry-blonde hair, green eyes, athletic build... Bella Keeler sounded like a typical healthy young woman. Maria wondered what she had done to be committed to the hospital.
Doctor's notes at the bottom of the page were a near indecipherable scrawl, words mixed with starry ink blots from an inexpertly wielded fountain pen. Maria squinted and looked at it sideways, an old nurse's trick.
Subject brought to hospital by father and mother. Concerned by daughter's inappropriate sexual practices. History of perversity - active lesbian tendencies, open defiance of parental authority, sexual maladjustment. Possible psychosis and hysteria, resulting from morbid masturbation? Recommend treatment of disorder via standard practices. Euthanasia of homosexuality via surgical procedure as last resort.
"Standard practices" included warm and cold hydrotherapy, sensory deprivation, forced feedings and induced insulin coma. Maria saw that she had been given heavy doses of paraldehyde - a cheap, foul-smelling sedative that was usually mixed with orange juice. Bella Keeler had drunk quite a lot of orange juice during her brief confinement.
Maria sniffed. There was a ripe, nasty odor in the air, powerful enough to cancel out the normal disinfectant reek. It blossomed around her suddenly, as though the scent was being blown into her face by an invisible aerosol can. She nearly retched. Greasy banana oil and gasoline, strained through dirty socks and fermented with antique cat's droppings...
As soon as the thought struck her, the odor was gone. She inhaled cautiously. Nothing but the usual sharp scent of a hospital, lightly overlaid with damp. Maria wondered if she had imagined the whole thing. "Power of suggestion," she muttered, going back to the file.
Bella had fought the doctors and staff with every ounce of strength she had, necessitating punishment restraints and constant sedation. During her few lucid periods, she had stubbornly refused to admit that her behavior was depraved and abnormal. Bella had also withstood the pressure to name her 'accomplice in felonious sexual activities.' Homosexuality was a punishable federal offense in the 1930's, and even now some states continued to prosecute under local anti-sodomy laws. Her family was eager to bring her lesbian lover to justice, but Belle thwarted them to the last.
Maria saw that Bella's untimely death had saved her from surgical correction, as it was called. Back then, the procedure meant removal of the thyroid, adrenal and other endocrine glands, as well as the uterus and ovaries, to bring the brain back into balance. Thank God we've come out of the Dark Ages, she thought. Now we cure severe pathological sexual misidentity by a simple clitoridectomy. I wonder if they do that here? No. Phyllis told me that Dr. Freeman won't allow it.
She continued to read Bella Keeler's file. Most of the notes were in the primary physician's hand (Dr. Cooper), but a few towards the end were made by Dr. Richard Freeman. Maria was startled. She'd had no idea that Dr. Freeman was a member of Ashpool-St. John for so long. There was nothing exciting here, merely routine observances.
The final page was a copy of Bella's death certificate. 'Respiratory failure' was all it said. Dr. Freeman's looping signature was at the bottom.
"That's odd," Maria said to herself. "Okay, that might have been the cause of death, but what caused the cause?"
There was no autopsy report.
Is this all?
Something rustled in the top drawer of the desk. Mice, she thought, drawing back a little. The asylum was old, walls full of nooks and crannies that defied modern pest control methods. Maria slipped off a shoe, slowly got out of the chair, and slid the drawer out. She was poised to strike, although the chances of actually hitting a running mouse were nil.
No gray-streaked blurs came flying out, so Maria lowered the shoe. Instead, her eye was caught by different sort of movement.
When she had checked the desk earlier, she had pushed aside some yellowed scraps of newspaper, torn and ragged around the edges. Now she realized that the pieces were fluttering ever so slightly. Stirred by a breath of wind? Clammy damp she could feel, but no breezes. The ward was in a windowless basement, for Christ's sake! Ventilation came from grills along the ceiling...
Maria held her breath, reached out and barely touched one of the newspaper clippings. Instantly, the movement stopped. A prickly sensation started, racing up her entire body until she tingled from toes to scalp. Gently, as if they might explode, Maria took out the scraps and laid them on top of the desk. Her shoe dangled forgotten in her hand.
ASYLUM FIRE KILLS ONE, INJURES FIVE, said a bold headline. It was dated July 4, 1933.
In the early hours
of the morning, the Ashpool-St. John Asylum for the Criminally Insane
Chief Fire Marshal
Leroy Good has investigated the blaze and pronounced it accidental.
"Oh my dear sweet Jesus," Maria whispered. She could almost see the scene in her head. Bella would have been sedated, of course, and probably in a straight jacket which was strapped to the floor. Did she wake up when the smoke began choking her? Or when the flames were roasting her alive? If there was any mercy in the world, Bella would have been unconscious the entire time and not suffered at all.
Then again, Maria had been a nurse just long enough to realize that God's idea of mercy was sometimes horribly obscene.
Maria sorted through the other clippings, and found the rest of the story.
The Fire Marshal and
hospital officials have commended the swift action of Nurse Carlotta
Bella Keeler's funeral will be held on July 8th at the Calvary Cross Cemetery.
Nurse Lansing! That name was familiar. Maria remembered Phyllis mentioning the woman's scars, and the fact that she had held this shift in Ward Seven for many years. 'Since the Stone Age,' was how Phyllis had put it. Maria wondered why she had returned to this place. The night of July 4th, 1933 had to have been a scene straight out of Hell.
She could imagine it - choking on thick, black clouds that made your lungs shrivel, blinded by heat and ash, crawling on scalded knees to each door while flames belched around you, hair crisping, uniform smoldering, skin blistering and burning while the patients screamed... Maria rubbed the broken corner of the desk and shuddered.
"Oh, God... I smell smoke."
Maria jumped, scattering the newspaper clippings on the floor. It was the voice again. Only this time, there was a thread of absolute terror in it that made her flesh crawl.
"It's so hot in here... Lottie? Is that you? Baby, can you hear me?"
Then Maria smelled smoke, too.
Unbidden, her eyes were drawn to the iron-barred door. She was frozen in place, tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth. From somewhere beyond that door, in number Thirteen, there was a faint crackling noise. Trickles of heat were threading their way down the corridor. She could feel it. The voice was coming from there. Number Thirteen. It couldn't be, and yet...
"Lottie? Lottie, where are you? Jesus! I'm burning, Lottie! I'm burning! Help me, oh God, help me! I'm burning!"
Maria pressed herself tightly against the wall, cold sweat gushing from every pore, stink of acrid smoke tickling the back of her throat. A sound of footsteps coming down the stairs - precisely, softly, with the confident authority of a trained nurse. But there was no one there. The door had not opened. She would have heard the clang of the bolt being drawn back.
Suddenly, it materialized out of thin air. A tall woman, black hair drawn back into a coiled bun, blue eyes set in a face that was severely beautiful. Maria gasped, hand rising to her throat, shoe dropping unnoticed to the floor. The... the woman wore a nurse's uniform with a nameplate stamped: Lansing.
"Never again." That cold whisper rang 'round the room, never gaining in strength but always remaining an eerie echo. Maria whimpered in atavistic terror and tried to disappear against the wall. The figure was almost real, save for a certain opaque quality about the woman's skin. Hair-thin lightning bolts crackled around Lansing's outline.
Invisible keys jangled and the barred door swung open of its own accord. Maria watched in wide-eyed horror as the entity drifted down the corridor. When it reached number Thirteen, that door opened as well and Lansing disappeared inside. Immediately, the smell of smoke was gone, as was the heat she had felt. Numbing cold descended, so intense that Maria could see her breath. Her teeth chattered.
"Yes, baby. I'm sorry it's taken so long."
"I couldn't find you. I called you, but you didn't answer."
"I know, Bella. I've been here every night, though. But now it's over."
"I was burning, Lottie. It hurt, I couldn't get away..."
"I know. I tried to get to you, Bella. I tried so hard."
"Can we go now?"
"The doctors said it was all right?"
Maria was paralyzed with fear. She could not have moved a muscle if her life had depended on it.
After a moment of heavy silence, Lansing's reply came drifting back along the corridor:
"Bella, the doctors won't ever hurt you again. Ever. I swear." The pronouncement was flat and final as a tombstone.
"I love you, Lottie. I never told them who you were, no matter what they did."
"I love you too, baby. And I know you never told. They had no cause to do what they did, but it's finished now. No more suffering, no more waiting. It's been long enough. Let's go home."
Two figures emerged hand in hand from number Thirteen. One of them was Lansing; the other, Maria recognized from her picture in the file. Bella Keeler. Jane Doe.
She never leaves her cell... it's dangerous... no records... we've got orders not to disturb her...
Rumors and stories and lies and legends, make-believe fantasies to explain a cell that wasn't really empty, except of a living body. Bella Keeler's soul had been trapped here, reliving her death endlessly, night after night... and Carlotta Lansing had stayed here to relive it, too.
Carlotta was Bella's lover. Maybe she came to the hospital hoping to break Bella out, or at least be close, but the fire got started and Bella died. Carlotta was here. Every night. She listened to Bella dying, screaming, every night. She smelled the smoke. She felt the flames. Every night for... how many years? She didn't save her. She tried, but it wasn't enough. Her scars were more than physical. They went all the way down into her soul.
Dr. Freeman knew. He had to have known. He made her stay here all this time.
The iron-barred door clanged shut behind the lovers. They glided to a stop and embraced. The tiny, sane part of Maria's mind noted that she had never seen such happiness, never experienced such joy as the reunion between these women who had been separated for such a very long time.
Cinnamon-scented wind lifted their hair, tangling it together, strands of inky black mingling with red-gold... molten sapphire eyes melded into emerald, star-sparks bursting in the shared smile...
I love you.
At Maria's feet, yellowed newspaper clippings and a patient's file swirled together and burst into flames.
She screamed, throwing her hands over her head, squeezing her eyes shut to blot out the the impossible sight of dead Carlotta Lansing kissing dead Bella Keeler. Maria screamed and screamed until her throat was raw, and the taste in her mouth was coppery blood.
Someone slapped her, then slapped her again. Maria cowered, her shrieking turning into whispered pleas. "Stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it!"
"Nurse Flynn! For God's sake, nurse, get hold of yourself!"
Maria cracked an eye open. The round, florid face of Dr. Freeman was staring back at her. She had never been so glad to see another person in her life.
"Oh! Doctor, I saw them, I saw them, they were here, both of them," she babbled, part of her aware that she sounded like a lunatic herself.
"I know," Freeman replied. He ran a hand through thinning silver hair. "I was afraid something like this might happen. I came to check up on you."
"What? What's happened?" Maria half shouted, grabbing at the collar of his shirt. "What happened in number Thirteen, doctor? Tell me!"
He clucked at her and removed her hands, holding them tightly in his own. "Calm down, nurse. Take a deep breath."
She shuddered and began crying. "I think I'm going mad," Maria said in a hurt little voice.
Dr. Freeman sighed. "Come here. Sit down." He handed her a handkerchief. "Wipe your face. There's nothing to be afraid of, Nurse Flynn. Not anymore."
"I read Bella Keeler's file," Maria said, feeling that if she could just stick to one point, somehow things would turn out all right. She sniffled and dabbed at her tears. "It was hidden in the desk. You were there."
"Yes, yes, I was there." With Maria finally seated in the chair, Freeman leaned his ample hip against the edge of the desk. He glanced down the corridor. The door to number Thirteen was open. Inside, the cell was a wreck of fire-scorched padding, streaked with black mold. The crumbling remains of a straightjacket could be glimpsed in one corner.
"That's how Carlotta was injured," Freeman said conversationally. "Belle was kept under heavy sedation, like all the patients The administrators had ordered the panic buttons installed, you see. This was the last ward to be wired. Everything was supposed to be safe, but it was the Fourth of July. The workmen were in a hurry. A single spark was all it took. By the time poor Bella woke up and managed to call for help, it was already too late. Cell padding was very flammable in those days."
Maria stared at him.
"The fire started behind a wall. Carlotta managed to get number Thirteen open when she finally heard Bella screaming. The door was extremely hot. She had the impression of the bolt seared into her palm." Freeman was very calm. "The fire came right at her face when the door opened. Ate straight through her shoes and stockings, burned off her hair... Carlotta had to have been in agony, but she didn't stop trying to get to Bella. Ran right through the flames, holding an arm up to save her eyes. That arm was burned down to the bone.
"The buckles on the straightjacket were red hot. Bella was dead, but Carlotta couldn't stop. She dragged her out anyway, went back and saved everyone else, too. I was supposed to be on duty in Ward Three, just opposite the stairwell. I'd slipped out to meet a nurse that I thought I was going to marry. Carlotta cried for help, oh, I don't know how long, and finally used the desk to break the safety lock out. Even if I'd been there, though, I couldn't have done anything for the Keeler girl.
"When she found out Bella hadn't survived, she went completely to pieces. I didn't know they were lovers then. It was after, when Carlotta was having surgery... sometimes, anesthetic makes people talkative. The surgeon told me. I went to see her at the hospital. I couldn't really blame her for wanting to help her lover escape the asylum. By then, of course, we'd started having trouble with number Thirteen."
"What kind of trouble?" Maria croaked. She was not sure she wanted to hear the answer.
"The Fire Marshal's men were the first to notice it. Anybody who went into that cell... well, there wasn't enough money in the world to make them want to do it again. After the repairmen ran out and refused to return, I went in there myself." His jowls quivered. "The whispering was bad enough. And the screams. And the cold fingers touching your face. But then you started burning..."
"Sweet Jesus weeping on the cross..."
"See, the doors are very thick. But that voice carried clearly - much more clearly than it would have on July 4th. Carlotta blamed herself, but frankly, there's no way she could have heard Bella calling for help then. Not in Bella's weakened state. I doubt she could have talked much above a murmur, until panic forced the sedative out of her system. By that time, the smoke had done its work."
Freeman smoothed his hair again in a nervous gesture and continued, "Carlotta insisted on coming back. She insisted on being assigned the night shift in Ward Seven. She wouldn't hear any objections. I'm not a monster, you know. But until she recovered, no one would stay down here. Nurses quit. Orderlies quit. Dr. Cooper himself had a breakdown. I was the only one left who knew the truth. There never was any Jane Doe. I started the story, to explain why number Thirteen was... vacant. Why that door had to be kept closed. Why the 'patient' was never to be disturbed. Some things are best left alone. The staff made up their own stories over the years. That's human nature, especially after our accreditation changed and we began taking in the violent offenders.
"I gave Bella Keeler's private file to her. Let the dead rest in peace, I thought. But there wasn't any peace, was there? Not really. For twenty-two years, Carlotta sat down here, with her uniform and her scars and her secret, and listened to Bella's ghost crying. I asked her why, once."
"What did she say?" Maria's heart was a cold, heavy lump of lead in her chest.
"She looked at me and said, 'Doctor, I couldn't save Bella in life. I can't save her in death. The gulf is too wide and I can't cross it yet. But by God, I'm not going to leave her alone. I owe her that much, even if she never knows.'" Freeman rubbed his face. He seemed tired and old, not like his usual good-humored self. "Carlotta was not a martyr. She was... well, I believe she was marking time until..."
"Until she could join Bella. And everything would be fine." Maria glanced at the handkerchief crumpled in her fist. Slowly, she forced her aching fingers open. "Carlotta Lansing died last night of a heart attack."
"Yes. That's why I had you assigned to Ward Seven. I'd hoped that it would be finally over."
"It is now."
The doctor and the nurse looked at each other, in silent communication that lasted a few moments. "They loved each other so much," Maria said. "Could that be wrong?"
"Carlotta made arrangements to be buried next to Bella." Freeman sighed again. "I've tried to be a more humane man since then. Tried hard to understand." He hesitated. "They were the sanest women I ever knew. Do you... do you suppose, Nurse Flynn, that it's ever too late to apologize?"
Maria shook her head. She was exhausted; every bone in her body felt as if it had been shattered and patched back together with an inexpert hand. But there was still something she had to do.
As she moved from behind the desk, her bare foot trod on something hard and unyielding. It was a name tag. Lansing. Around the printed rectangle was a hospital bracelet, old flaking plastic covering a typewritten strip of paper. Keeler, Bella.
Maria bent down carefully, every movement deliberate, and picked up the pieces.
Dr. Freeman used his private key to unlock the iron-barred door.
There was a hint of cinnamon in the air, and of happiness long delayed and finally fulfilled, as doctor and nurse placed the name tag and bracelet inside.
Cell Thirteen - with all its memories, true and false - was closed and barred forever.
Somewhere, two lovers were smiling.
And all was quiet once more in Ward Seven at the Ashpool-St. John Asylum
for the Criminally Insane.