First chapter of At Death's Door (Freefall #1)
Apparently having conversations with dead people means you're crazy. And no matter how long you try to hide the strange ability, someone is going to find out and they're going to start questioning your sanity. Unfortunately, the more you try to shut out the ghosts who need you to listen, the louder they shout. And the more you try to get your family to understand, the crazier they think you are. Eventually, between your own helplessness and your family's disbelief in your open line with the other side, you end up on a one way trip to the mental hospital.
I don't think I left my room at the hospital except when it was required; for meals, for processing group, and to see the doctor. If it wasn't mandatory for those I wouldn't even do that. The doctor only gave me more medication, and the people in group—who had their own issues—just stared at me. There was no point bothering to “contribute” anymore, and the therapist leading it didn't bother trying to make me. If I had refused to leave my room I doubt anyone would have said much after the first few days of prodding me to go. It wasn't like I was going to be evicted. I was too “crazy” for that. It was supposed to be a short-term treatment facility, but I'd been there for three and a half months, wondering how long it would be before they'd transfer me to something more permanent. When were they going to figure out that no medicine, no therapy, nothing they did or said was going to change what they thought was wrong with me? The problem, as my family and the doctors saw it, was that I believed I talked to dead people. I'd hidden it for so long, but in the last year the dead had become so insistent, the things they said so absurd, and I'd tried twice to kill myself. To be honest, I'm not sure if it was the suicide attempts or the seeing dead people that convinced them to hospitalize me indefinitely. The doctor was perplexed, and of course didn't believe a word I said. My family was downright frightened of me. In fact, at some point during my hospital stay, they disappeared. Took my son and fled, as far as I knew. The terrifying part? The doctors and the police all insisted I had no son, and the address where I claimed to live was the residence of an elderly couple who knew nothing of me. How could they have forgotten that my mother was the one who brought me to the hospital? How could they forget the times my son's father brought him to visit? I pleaded with the doctor to believe me, telling him my son had been kidnapped and I could have sworn he laughed.
Through all of this I still saw and heard the dead; on a good day it was only a couple pushing at me to listen. Translucent figures, young and old, whispered secrets of their loved ones, insisting I go find them. The torture seemed almost intentional and there was no way to make them stop, no blades, nothing to at least distract me. I tried to ignore them, but a pillow over your head won't deafen voices in your mind even if you can't see their distraught or laughing or angry faces. While trying to use the sharp edge of metal under the sink to cut into my wrists, the nurse caught me on her rounds. I ended up sedated and in bed, wanting to scream in frustration at the ghosts nobody else could see. My body and mind were too drugged to do anything but stare at the ceiling. I didn't believe in god, but prayed for death. The next time I wouldn't fail, I swore to myself.
I waited, only leaving my room to eat when a nurse came in, pulled me to my feet, and directed me to the common room. The food wasn't bad, but being around people was getting harder and harder. Their loved ones would stand behind them and beg me to give them a voice. When I'd first gotten to the hospital and the ghosts asked, I shared their requests. But it scared the other patients, and angered the nurses. Ignoring the dead made them louder and more insistent. It soon became too difficult to hear what the real people were saying, and I just tried to nod when they expected it. Mostly they didn't.
Two weeks after that first attempt, four months into my stay, I filled the bathroom sink and immersed my head to drown myself. I took a deep breath of water, then another, but fell to the floor choking. A nurse came again, and tried to help me, but I was so angry at failing again that I swung a fist and then tried to strangle her. The ghosts cheered me on, the sadistic pieces of shit. Another nurse came and managed to subdue me long enough to pop a needle into my hip, which dropped me like a poleaxed bull in the space of two breaths. They must have used a stronger sedative that time. I woke up, who knows how long later, in a different room, on a different bed, in very uncomfortable restraints. The ghosts were STILL talking, at such a volume and so many at a time that I couldn't understand anything they said, except for the repeated word “apocalypse”.
“STOP!” I rasped when I could take no more, my voice hoarse from the unsuccessful attempt at drowning. “I can't hear you all! You have to stop, please just stop. I can't tell everyone your messages. It makes them sad or angry. I don't know why you have to talk to me all the fucking time!”
The other dead fell back, faded away, as one stepped forward. Why were they suddenly willing to be quiet on behalf of one particular spirit? Unlike the myriad others who plagued me, this man was nearly corporeal. His deep voice wasn't distant or faint, although he still spoke in hushed tones. “We talk to you because you are different. We talk to you because the apocalypse is coming and you have to help.”
“I can't help if you make me look like a nutcase! I can't help if I can't hear myself think because all of you are constantly in my ear. And most of all, I can't help if I'm stuck in this place. Nobody is ever going to sign off that I'm safe to go home. Least of all if I'm lying in a padded room in restraints talking to ghosts.”
“You have no idea just how much you can help.” In all the time I'd seen the ghosts of the dead, I'd never had an actual conversation with any of them. They would tell me what they wanted their loved ones to know, or if they were the more recent ones, they'd tell me the apocalypse was coming or that that world was going to end, but they never responded to anything I had to say to them. My heart was like a battering ram trying to burst through my ribs as the new spirit spoke. He appeared thirty-five or forty years old, with short brown hair and the palest blue eyes. “We'll try to be quieter, but you have to be ready.”
Closing my eyes for a moment, I wondered if I should be grateful for his promise to give me a little peace, or terrified at his insistence that I could help. The idea of an apocalypse seemed far-fetched, and the idea that I could somehow have anything to do with it, whether for better or worse, seemed even less believable. When I opened my eyes to ask the innumerable questions swimming around in my head I was alone and the room was silent for the first time in years. And for the first time in years, I closed my eyes and slept, deep and dreamless, for hours. He wasn't joking about the quiet. I wasn't sure how long it was until a nurse woke me while loosening my restraints.
“Think you can be kind to yourself and the staff?” she asked me with what sounded like a combination of gentleness and sarcasm.
I sat up as she finished the straps on my arms, “I'll try to behave myself.” My voice was just as gentle and sarcastic as hers. The last of the straps fell away and I swung my feet over the side, stood up, and followed her to the door. I looked at the clock as we walked to the nurse's station to check my vitals for the day and give me my afternoon medicine. An hour until visitation. Last time for the week. I always waited in the common room just in case my parents or my son were, by some miracle, to show back up for a visit and say I was going home. No matter how unrealistic it might be, I couldn't tell myself to give up. Ghosts, a key part in the apocalypse, and the undying belief in something impossible—maybe I did need to be here after all.
“Sara, you have a visitor.” A nurse touched my shoulder and pointed to a man in his mid-twenties, like me, standing in the doorway to the common room. He was tall, nearly a head taller than me, and I'm a good six feet tall. Shaggy dark hair curled around his ears and grazed the collar of his shirt. He looked a bit embarrassed or unsure about being in the psych ward of a hospital, but when his gaze landed on me, the tension went out of his body as if he had all at once become much more at home in the place. His smile wasn't exactly bright or cheery, but it was still a smile aimed at me that wasn't faked. He came and sat across from me at one of the many tables in the room, all of which had families visiting with their loved ones. For the first time in three months, I had a visitor. To my disappointment it was neither my parents nor my son and his father, nor anyone else I had ever met in my life. Maybe he was confused. He didn't look confused—at least not anywhere near as much as me. And for once the dead were nowhere to be found; just my luck. When the blue-eyed man had offered peace and quiet, I didn't know this was coming down the line. I cursed the damned wily ghost. And then myself for being so strange.
“Umm, Sara,” the man said my name, pulling me out of my odd little reverie, “You look a little out of it. How much did they sedate you today?” He seemed to know a little more than I was comfortable with about my current situation. I frowned, my forehead creasing, and looked down. He reached forward, pushed the curtain of red hair out of my face and lifted my chin so I'd look at him. His eyes were golden brown, like amber, and he looked at me like he'd known me for years.
“Not to be rude, but who the fuck are you? I wasn't exactly expecting anyone to visit today.” Sarcasm was my usual defense.
“Daniel, I'm Daniel,” he introduced himself, ducking his head in a sort of apology. “I know it's out of the blue, especially after the few months—”
“Months?! Try last couple forever! I've never met you before! Then you show up 'out of the blue',” I punctuated the obvious sarcasm with the symbol for quotes as I tried to somehow yell at him without raising my voice, “just so conveniently after I've spent the last 4 months, all by myself, in a fucking nut-house that was supposed to be temporary and wouldn't have been necessary at all if I didn't have some stupid—” I stopped talking, because there was a very good chance he had no idea what I did. Maybe he was investigating the disappearance of my family; I doubted it. Nobody else would even acknowledge they'd ever existed.
“I know about your … what you see and hear. That's why I'm here. I can't get you out of here right now. I don't have that kind of pull. And if you do manage to get out on your own—barring the likelihood that you'll be sent to a long-term facility first—we'll have to find somewhere safe to take you. You have to stick it out. I know you aren't crazy.” He kept leaning toward me even though I was pulling away, our conversation a shared secret that he spoke in a low voice. If he hadn't seemed so serious about it all I'd think it was some sort of joke. He knew too much about me, and cared too much about what happened to me. Too bad he didn't care enough to get me out. “Listen to them okay?”
“To the doctors and nurses?” I asked incredulously. The hell I would. That was asking too damned much.
“No,” he laughed although the mirth didn't reach his eyes, “your ghosts. They're a part of all of this.”
“Part of all of what? How do you know I'm not crazy? Why can't you get me out of here right now? Why do you even care?” I had so many questions that he might answer with some degree of honesty instead of just penalizing me for even thinking about it. This was the very tip of things starting to make sense, but I felt like every tiny answer he laid out caused me to have ten more questions. “For that matter, who are you? Just your name isn't much information—anyone could give any name. How much DO you know about me?”
“Most of those questions I can't answer while you're in here, I'm so sorry.” He rubbed the back of his neck, his other hand rolling a pencil back and forth on the table. It looked like he was holding his breath, and when he released it in one long exhale it was to continue speaking. Maybe he really was distraught that he couldn't answer more of my questions. “I know you are Sara Stone, 28. You were born in Chicago, raised here in Birmingham, Alabama. You have a son, four years old, and you're a single mom. And you talk to people nobody else can see or hear. There's more, but we can't talk about it here.” His eyes never left my face as he listed everything he knew about me. When he reached out as if to take my hand I pulled it away into my lap, his gaze breaking from mine for the first time and looking down at the table where my hand had been as if I'd somehow hurt him by removing it. “When we get you out of here, I'll tell you everything. I swear it. I know my word means nothing to you, but it means everything to me, and I would never hurt you, of all people.”
“When you get me out of here? You know about my son and you won't tell me where the hell he is. Do you even know? The problem is, every time you tell me something I just want to know something else, and all you keep saying is you can't tell me while I'm here. I might never leave here! Or if I do, it will just be to somewhere more permanent.” The nurses were looking at me as my voice rose in anger. “Saying you can't tell me, just makes me think that it's all a conspiracy, and I'm here because someone isn't letting me leave.”
“Shhhh you have to calm down,” he urged me in a harsh whisper. “It's not one person you can't trust, it's all of them. We have no idea who does what here, but something isn't right. They have all the power in the world to never sign the papers for you to leave. And I can't make them, no matter how much I want to. I'm not a doctor, and I'm not family as far as they know. You just need to go with the flow, make them happy, and maybe they'll let you go. I'll leave you a cell phone so that if they do, then you can call me.”
“If the dead stay quiet, then I'll stay calm and go with the status quo. I can't promise anything if they don't. Trust me, I don't want to be sedated and restrained any more than most people. Here least of all,” I assured him, lifting my hands from my lap, resting my elbows on the table and my forehead in my palms. Falling apart, panicking, wasn't an option. He knew about my son, but he didn't say he knew where Danny was. All I wanted to think about was how to find him. But I could only do that if I got out of the hospital. “And even if they let me leave, where do I go? My apartment is already leased to someone else I'm sure. You said my son was real, but you didn't say my parents were. Even if they were at home and just telling people they don't know me, I obviously can't go there. Do they have Danny and just think I'm not stable enough to take care of him? If you know where he is you better fucking tell me.”
“I'll take you home,” he promised. What the heck was that supposed to mean? I just said I couldn't go home, and I didn't think he misunderstood me. The fog of the sedative still lingered, and I was so frustrated and scared I found myself on the verge of tears. I rubbed at my eyes to hold them at bay, and as I pulled my hands away, Daniel grabbed both and held them. “I know it's hard, almost impossible. Just please believe me. This whole terrible part of your life is going to be over soon. And I'll make sure you get through it safely and find your son. I promise.”
“I don't have much choice but to trust you, do I? Just get me out of here. Get me back to my son.” I didn't pull my hands away. His were warm and they surrounded mine, and for the moment that was more comforting than the coldness of the hospital. He let one hand go and reached to the pocket of the leather jacket he wore, pulling out two things. One was a crappy prepaid cell phone which he set on the table, the other was an odd, woven bronze torc bracelet that he slipped onto my wrist. It was beautiful, looked ancient, and had been made with impeccable craftsmanship. It didn't take a person with strong intuition to know it was somehow important. But I couldn't decipher why in the world he would want me to wear something so precious. I frowned and looked up at him, waiting for some explanation.
“The phone is off right now. I can't and won't call you on it, and I don't want it to be dead when you're finally able to leave. Turn it on and call the third number in the contact list, and I'll be here to get you within 15 minutes.”
"And the bracelet?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.
Taking my wrist in his hand, he ran a finger over the cool metal, “I know it seems strange to give you a random piece of jewelry, but I just..." he hesitated, looking at me with a pained expression, "I just need you to wear it. I promise you I'll explain when you get out of here. I know you aren't seeing any spirits right this moment, but at some point they'll be back. You really need to try to get out as soon as possible when that happens, if you haven't gotten out already by that point.”
“Why does it matter how soon I get out of here. It might never happen. It's a lot more likely they'll just take me to Wallace.”
“Just do what I say, please. It will make everything easier. And if things don't go as planned, I WILL find you.” He squeezed my hand and stood up, and I followed suit. Maybe he was just used to hugging people, or he thought I was in desperate need of a hug, but without warning he enveloped me in his substantial embrace, holding me a bit longer than I expected to be comfortable with. It wasn't uncomfortable though. I found myself returning the hug, my forehead resting against a chest that was reassuring and solid, and I wasn't even a hugging person. “I've got to go now,” he said as he stepped away, one hand lingering on my shoulder as he looked back toward the nurse who was stepping into the common room to tell all the visitors they needed to leave. “Try to stick it out and give them no reason to keep you and call me when you're able to leave. I'll be waiting.”
“I'll try,” I agreed, more than a little worried about him leaving me here alone again. There was no reason I should trust him anymore than the staff at this place, but he believed me and seemed to be more forthcoming and also more concerned with my well-being. Maybe I was crazy (they thought I was), but my instinct said that if there was anyone I could trust, it was this man who just happened to show up four months into my stay at the looney-bin. Now, as he was telling me goodbye, I realized I couldn't wait for him to come and get me. He was a glimpse at freedom, and I was ready to see it from the outside instead of just through his veiled promises of hope. “You'd better be for real. I can't handle hoping for something that's a lie.”
“I am real—probably more than most things you've had to live through recently, as terrible as they've been,” he reassured me, with another quick side hug and a tap at my temple—referring, I guessed, to the spirits. “Don't forget.” The nurse ushered him out along with the other visitors and shut the door behind them. The click of the lock was almost painful. I only had time to ask that the cell phone be put in my bag in the closet where they kept most of our belongings. They wouldn't keep the bracelet, if they noticed it at all, because we were allowed watches, books, toiletries, hair bands, and simple jewelry that couldn't be used to hurt ourselves or anyone else. I had to go back to the common room for the dinner they were carting in while we put away our things or got ready to eat. It was a relief to eat without ghosts telling me this and that, or begging to tell their loved one how they died or that they loved them, or whispering in my ear about the apocalypse.
After dinner was the usual nighttime group session where we told whether we met our goals for the day and what we learned. It wasn't much more than repetitive psychobabble, but I did as Daniel had urged, interacting with the group when necessary and staying quiet whenever I could. The therapist stared at me; I'd caught her off guard when I responded when spoken to, and she seemed to perk up quite a bit as if she alone was responsible for the miracle.
“I take it restraints and sedation don't get along with you, Sara?” Her voice was over-sweet and flippant. I had a strong urge to punch her, but I didn't; I wanted to leave far too much for that. I imagined myself in the passenger side of Daniel's car as we pulled away from the hospital and sped off before they could make me come back.
“Yes ma'am I suppose you're right. Not many people like restraints and sedation I guess. And they changed my meds too,” I admitted. “Maybe they're helping, because I'm not hearing the dead people anymore.” Lying was something I'd become quite good at thanks to my special “gift”. The therapist, Roxanne, seemed pleased to hear what I had to say, and gave me a hug after the group session before letting the nurse know I was “feeling better”. It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't because of anything the staff here had done. I glanced down at my wrist to see what time it was before I remembered it wasn't a watch I was wearing, but instead the strange bronze torc Daniel had given me. How long would I have to wait for the doctor to write my release? What if he never did? That was a scary thought I didn't want to entertain.