The First Step
Stonebriar Mental Hospital stood atop a cliff overlooking the sea. Waves crashed at the base of the rocks, sending plumes of spray grasping at the lower windows of the mental hospital. Those skittish inhabitants of the lower levels scurried away from the windows and the storm’s fury. Stonebriar had been strategically placed atop the cliff, its rear to the ocean, to deter escapees. The front of the building was ringed by a huge razor wire fence with an iron gate protected around the clock by a guard and a bank of switches controlling the locks. To the rear, the windows faced a spectacular view of the ever-changing waters, unmarred by tree nor power line as the land ended some fifty yards from the back of the building. There was no need for a fence around the back, as the cliff took care of all the security they required.
On the fourth floor, Jaci Wayne was making her rounds, always starting from the top of the building and working her way down. Being higher up in a storm like this always made her very nervous, ever since a seabird had been blown through one of the windows and turned the hurricane loose inside. The inhabitants of the top floor were, fortunately, some of the lower maintenance patients, not given to making a bad situation worse, and had shepherded themselves down to the third floor while Jaci and another nurse who quit the next day tried to chase the bird out of the hole in the window. Tonight, the wind was strong, but nowhere near as dangerous as it had been the night of the bird, and the patients were calm, accepting their afternoon dose of medication without a qualm.
Jaci stepped into the elevator after the last patient had swallowed their dose, trundling her little cart before her into a florescent lit cubicle of an elevator. Pale linoleum glinted in the harsh light. She pressed the button marked 3 and adjusted her ponytail, securing a few wisps of her dark hair which had tried to make a break for it. The elevator chugged down the track, coming to a screaming halt on the third floor as she stabbed a bobby pin into her hair. The third floor was populated by patients who suffered from various maladies but were not judged to be inherently dangerous. Jaci began her rounds with the woman who peeked out from her room just long enough to snatch her medication from Jaci before slamming the door behind her.
“Have a good day, Mrs. Smith,” Jaci called through the door. The woman within waved through the window with a cheery smile. As long as she never had to leave her room, everything was fine. Jaci passed out her pills to the depressed man who sat in the corner of the TV room and spoke to himself, to the man who had tried to shoot himself and now walked around the halls drooling from a reconstructed face, to the woman who laughed and had to be restrained physically from drawing upon the walls. Everyone on the floor was dosed without incident.
The second floor was also the ground floor, and housed the most dangerous patients. Here were the pyromaniacs, the self-harmers, the stalkers. On this floor stood two guards, or orderlies, as the staff was required to refer to them as such. These two gentlemen were armed with hefty batons. Jaci always managed to get through her rounds on this floor in under an hour though it seemed like much longer. She always took a break before going to the first floor. She needed the rest.
The first floor was poorly named. It was below the surface of the earth and housed the rapists, the murderers, the child molesters, and others who had committed an unpardonable sin and had been judged unfit to stand trial for one reason or another.
Jaci told the intercom, “Going down to the dungeon, please buzz me in.”
The cart jerked as the elevator rose a fraction then began descending at a regular rate. Jaci used the time to tie her ponytail back into a tight bun, where it could not become a handle. She tucked her smock into her scrub pants and squared her shoulders. The door crashed open.
The hallway was white, shining and reflecting the hidden fluorescent with savage intensity. The guards, or “orderlies” at the station by the door were armed. There were four cells in all, each the size of a small bedroom. For twelve hours a day at least, the patients did not leave them. There were no timekeeping pieces on this level, save what the guards wore or carried upon their person.
She walked down the hall, referring to her clipboard and dispensing medication to those cells whose inhabitants required them, even though she knew her rounds by heart. The clipboard kept her from making eye contact. Two purple pills for the rapist on the right, one green pill immediately across from the rapist for the arsonist who burned down his ex wife’s house with her inside. Next to the arsonist was a kidnapper who had been judged to have the mind of a fourteen-year-old boy despite his huge size. He received four purple pills Jaci knew were equivalent to horse tranquilizers, and she was grateful. The last thing they needed was that moose running rampant.
Four pills to the moose. The fourth cell was empty, and Jaci was buzzed through a door at the end of the hall. Through the door, there was a short hallway which led to the door to the women’s cells. She was buzzed through it into an identical hallway of four cells. The first occupant on the right had split open her landlord’s head with a hammer and eaten part of his brain before the police had broken in and stopped her. A single large white pill for that lady. The cell beside hers contained a mother who had smothered both her children and their father when she found out he had been having an affair. She had been found walking through the street sobbing and had not stopped until she had been at Stonebriar for some time. Now with the help of a tranquilizer equal to the dose given to the moose, she just stared.
The cell beside her was empty. Across from it was the last cell on the block, which held a woman who had murdered her daughter because she had turned into a doll or something. Jaci was hazy on the details, as the woman had come in after her last two-week shift. The doll lady would be receiving one bright blue pill Jaci recognized as a strong anti-psychotic. Jaci checked it off on her clipboard and stepped to the slot in the door. It snapped open before her and she jumped back with an involuntary gasp.
“Hello,” Nancy said, smiling at Jaci through the window as she held the medication slot open for Jaci to pass through the pill. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”
“Not at all,” Jaci said, composing herself in an instant. “Take those now so I can see you.”
Nancy the Doll Lady tossed the pill down like a shot of whiskey followed by the paper cup of water Jaci passed through the slot. Crumpling both cups, Nancy opened her mouth and leaned forward to the window. Jaci did likewise, checking that the pill was not hidden beneath Nancy’s tongue. Satisfied, she nodded. “Have a good night.” Turning her cart around, she trundled back to the door separating the men’s ward and disappeared through it.
Nancy hurried to her toilet and stabbed a finger at the back of her throat, bringing up a bit of gruel and one mostly intact blue pill. Another stab brought up a little more gruel, some of it blue. She burped, and flushed the toilet as her stomach gave another heave. Going to the sink, she washed her face and rinsed out her mouth. On wobbly knees, she went to her bed and lay down on the stiff sheets, pulling what passed for a pillow under her head and staring at a ceiling she was getting to know all too well.
As far as she could reckon it, she had been here more than a week but not two. Time ceased to exist but for the medications and mandatory group therapy sessions. Her turn to share her story had come around once so far in their handful of sessions on the block and had earned her the distinction of Doll Lady from everyone, though the staff would not have said it to her face. She endured smirks and jibes from other inmates with stoic silence, knowing there was no point in arguing with the insane.
She had wondered often if she was insane. If she had imagined the hate and insanity and lack of humanity in her daughter’s face and eyes as she stabbed with the knife. She relived it often enough in her dreams and awake, that she felt she could not be wrong. There could be no mistaking that in her own daughter.
Tears came to her closed eyes as she began to review it again, powerless to stop it. She turned to the wall as the tears trickled down her face.
A voice crackled over the intercom.
“Attention patients. The evening group therapy session will take place in fifteen minutes. Thank you.” A click and the voice was gone.
Nancy’s eyelids flickered but she did not move. All the announcement said was that in an unmeasurable period of time, she would be herded into a room with a bunch of lunatics and forced to either listen to their stories or tell her own. She was in no rush. They could take as long as they wanted. After an unmeasurable period of time, the cell doors crashed open and she was herded into a common room off the hallway between the two cell blocks along with all the other loonies. The common room had been set up into rows of chairs with a white board at the front. As they were jostled into their seats, Nancy noticed a man she had not yet seen at their sessions. The huge moose saw her noticing the man and guffawed.
“Hey Doll Lady, this’n guy sez a doll drove ‘im and ‘is daughter insane!” He chuckled. “Maybe youse guys can swap yore stories about th’ scary dolls and we c’n have us a campfire!”
Nancy’s heart stopped, then restarted. She watched the man settle into his seat. He was staring straight ahead as seats filled around him, ignoring even the argument taking place over the chair behind him. She grabbed the moose’s elbow as he lumbered away. “What else did he say? Quick! Tell me!”
The moose looked startled. “He didn’t say nothin’, I ‘eard it from ‘im.” He pointed over his shoulder to the rapist, who was staring at the girl who had eaten her landlord’s brain.
Nancy’s stomach turned but she as she started forward, a portly man with a beard and a woman with short brown hair came into the room and stood before the white board. They both carried clipboards and wore white lab coats. The moose melted into a seat and everyone seemed instantly to find theirs. Silence fell.
“Good afternoon,” the woman said. “My name is Dr Axton. This is my colleague Dr Winston.” The portly man nodded. “Those of us not new to group will recognize us. Those who are new, welcome.”
Nancy shot a glance at the man the moose had pointed out to her. He was looking Dr Axton in the eye as she continued “Our newest member will traditionally stand and introduce himself and explain why he or she is or are here.” Dr Axton inclined her head to the new guy, bidding he stand and do so.
As he rose, Dr Winston smiled. “Please tell the truth about why you are here, we will know if you are not being accurate and disciplinary measures may be enacted.” He tapped his clipboard for emphasis.
The new guy looked around him and said in a clipped, neutral tone, “Eric Hoffman. I’m here because a doll took over me and my daughter’s minds and made us do things we didn’t want to do.”
There was a pause and several of the patients burst out laughing. Dr Axton whirled on them and snarled “Silence!”
They subsided, snickering.
“Now, Eric,” Dr Winston said, wearing the exact same smile. It looked pasted on to Nancy. “You know dolls can’t do anything we don’t want them to do, right? They’re just toys!”
“I know that, sir,” Hoffman said, and offered no more.
Dr Winston’s fake smile twitched at one corner as he looked at Dr Axton, who stepped forward. “Mr Hoffman, how could the dolls take over your minds? Do you hear how absurd that sounds?”
“I do,” said Hoffman, and kept a respectful silence.
Dr Axton sniffed. “Perhaps later you and Nancy can discuss your doll fantasies. For now, we will focus on patients who are not having issues with children’s toys.
Hoffman’s calm facade broke and he looked truly awake for the first time. “Wait, what? Who’s Nancy?”
“You’re obsessed, the pair of you,” Dr Axton said, gesturing in Nancy’s direction. “She says her daughter was possessed by a doll. You can talk after group. Now please, sit down.”
Hoffman sat, and his eyes met Nancy’s. She stared at him. He stared back. Dr Winston began to drone something about impulses.
She mouthed ‘I’m not crazy.’
He nodded and mouthed back ‘neither am I.’