Juno Books

An Excerpt From Dark Maiden by Norma Lehr

[ Information on Dark Maiden ]

Chapter One

Sheila Miller paused on the steps of the Stanley-Waters Psychiatric Institute of San Francisco and tightened her grip on a canvas bag.

A blue canvas bag filled with Timmy's things.

Her dead baby's things.

Treasures she would keep forever.

She hunched her shoulders and fiddled with the button on her tan tweed jacket while she squinted up at the dismal mass of clouds gathered overhead.

Her husband eyed the canvas bag with concern as he turned up the collar of his raincoat and dug in his pocket for the car keys. Grasping Sheila's elbow, he steered her down the steps to the car parked at the curb. After rearranging garment bags and two suitcases to make room for the one bag she carried, he turned and motioned for her to get in.

Sheila breathed in the sea air that brushed against her face. With mixed feelings of relief and apprehension, she left the tall building behind as she silently slid into the front seat.

"It will all be downhill now," Karl said. He smiled stiffly and turned the key in the ignition. "You've gone through the worst of it. Doctor Bernardis assured me you'll be fine." He patted her knee paternally as he scanned her face. "We'll be in the sun in a couple of hours and you can lounge around the pool." His fingers felt like ice as he lightly pinched and wiggled the skin at the corner of her mouth. "Before you know it, the color will be back in your cheeks."

The color in her cheeks? What about the color in her life? The sun would be fine. She needed that to feel alive again. But after the loss of her son what she really needed was a golden inner light to pour over her weeping heart and warm it.

Karl pulled the car away from the curb.

Sheila rolled down her window. She stared up at the corner room of Third Floor East where they had stuck her two months ago after she had cried out for someone to help her find the demon who had taken her baby. Her Timmy.

Most of those days she had helplessly sat in a straight back chair next to the window and compulsively counted the slats of the mini-blinds, sometimes pausing to gaze beyond them to the world outside.

She recalled how the rhythmic pounding in her head had worsened as she watched pedestrians scurrying along on the sidewalks, and let her eyes follow the vehicles on the black shiny streets below. Each person eager to arrive at his or her destination while she sat alone in simulated calm. Alone and tranquilized because everyone thought she was crazy.

Then one afternoon Karl had sat across from her during visiting hours and told her of his decision to accept a business transfer. His firm had recently opened a branch office in Auburn, a town three hours east of San Francisco in the foothills of the Sierras.

"You know where that is, don't you, Sheila?" he had asked patiently. "We pass it on our way to Tahoe."

Of course she knew Auburn. She was grieving, not senile!

"Your position at the hospital has been taken care of," he continued, drumming his fingers on his knee. "Hilary spoke to your Director of Nurses." He wrinkled his brow. "What's her name? Jonson?"

Sheila nodded slowly. "Yes, Jonson. Hilary spoke to her?"

"Of course," he continued. "Everyone at Bay Hospital understands why you're leaving and they all send their best." He stood and adjusted his tie. "Quite a gal, that Hilary. She's been a big help through all of this." He gave Sheila a pointed look. "I hope you appreciate what a good friend she's been."

Hilary's face formed in Sheila's mind. For a moment she could almost feel Hilary's hand on her shoulder two months earlier as they stood beside Timmy's small grave site. When the memorial service had ended, Sheila stumbled and Hilary steadied her as they left the tiny coffin balanced on the chrome frame. "I'm going home with you," Hilary had whispered through Sheila's limp black veil. "For a while anyway. Until you're stronger."

And so she had. Hilary moved into their condo that same afternoon. But Sheila really hadn't wanted her there. She wanted to be left alone to sit in the rocker and hold the crocheted shawl her mother-in-law, Ella June, had made for her baby. Her Timmy who would never grow up, never crawl or say Mama--never take his first step or start school--never.

Timmy's baby book, hidden from her by Karl or Hilary, had been closed on the records of his brief life with a final slam.

Karl's voice suddenly crashed through her thoughts. "It's great that your aunt found us this place, I haven't had time to go to Auburn myself and look around."

He switched on the wipers. The blades scraped at rain drops splattered across the windshield. "Iris has been living in the cottage next to the main house for over a year. She says the house is built on one acre and it's large and comfortable. The owners won't be back from Europe for two years." He raised an eyebrow. "We're set."

He shot her a sidelong glance. "Sierra Hospital is in the foothills. When you're stronger you can apply for a job. That hick town," he snickered, "would pay top salary for a big city nurse like you."

She squinted and used her palm to cover her ear. The tone of his voice banged against her eardrums like a racquet ball. She knew Karl didn't want to leave the Peninsula. He'd always hated the country. His resentment had shown clearly in his eyes at Stanley-Waters when Dr. Bernardis had explained to them both about the advisability of putting distance between her and the house and city where the trauma had occurred.

Crib Death. SIDS. Printed on her mind, and on her little one's death certificate in strong black letters. That's what they all believed. The blood thrummed in her head. No!

No crib death. Timmy had not died of sudden infant death syndrome. He'd been taken.

"In a couple of years," the psychiatrist had gone on, "or maybe less, you may feel comfortable returning to this area." His kind eyes had settled on her for a long moment before he stood and opened his office door. "Please take your time to think about what I've said, Sheila. We can discuss it later."

The move had been decided without her. Karl and the ever-helpful Hilary and made all the arrangements, even contacting her aunt about housing.

Three months before her discharge, she had been led to Dr. Bernardis's office by a nondescript nurse who gently pulled her along the long dark halls; he had done most of the talking while she sat silent, wrapped in a swaddling blanket of fear and grief.

"You're not the first mother to lose contact with reality after a crib death," he had tried to assure her. "This happens frequently. What you're feeling now is normal. When parents lose a child they suffer deeply." He paused and observed her. "Sheila, you are not responsible for what happened to your baby, but to feel as if you are . . . to feel guilty . . . is a normal reaction. You are not unstable."

Sheila clenched her fists and thought, I know.

"These irrational thoughts and feelings are part of the grieving process," the doctor continued. "I'm here to listen to you, Sheila. You can express your feelings to me without fear. I won't try to talk you out of them. Just talking about these feelings helps resolve them."

He paused as if waiting for an response. Not receiving one, he continued. "Because the loss of a child is such a difficult grief to bear, you've found yourself unable to . . . resume your normal activities. This is also a normal reaction. You need to be patient, to give yourself time, and to talk about what you are feeling."

He hesitated and leaned forward. "I can't tell you how long it will be, Sheila, before you have any relief from the pain. I know you may be questioning your own sanity now . . . "

No, not me. I know I am sane.

" . . . but you are sane," he continued. "Sheila, I must be honest with you. You will hear labels voiced by some of the other patients, perhaps even some of the staff. These do not apply to you. You have experienced a shocking loss and are here only to ease your recovery."

His words had bounced around his book-filled office, but they had failed to touch her anguished soul. The night her baby died she'd screamed her story to Karl and the police and to whoever would listen. Then some stranger, some doctor who had been called to examine Timmy, drugged her with tranquilizers. He jabbed her with a needle while he explained she was unduly upsetting Karl with her bizarre story of their baby's death.

Later when she had sobbed out her story to Dr. Bernardis, trying to piece together the horrific happenings of that night, he had tried to reason it out. "You were looking for something or someone to blame and you found it. It's clear to me how that happened. Now let's see if I can make it clear for you." He had thought for a moment. "You say you had been shopping all afternoon in Chinatown."

This was true. During her shopping trip she'd found herself in Portals of Jade, an Oriental art gallery on Clay Street. As she wandered through the aisles, she was drawn to a long panel that hung on the back wall. It was not its subtle shading of colors that had mesmerized her, but the expression of blatant lust depicted on the Asian woman's face as she strolled through a garden. She wore an unusual shaggy gray robe and held an incense burner in her tapered fingers. And one of the woman's long fingers seemed to point directly at Sheila.

Later that night when Sheila had gone to check on her baby, she had seen the same woman from the picture gallery floating over Timmy's still form. "Obviously something about that picture had a negative effect," the doctor continued. "That disturbing image stayed in your mind then surfaced when you went into shock." He removed his gold-rimmed glasses and polished the lenses. Why didn't he listen? Why didn't he stop spouting textbook jargon? "I went into shock," she had insisted, "when that woman murdered my Timmy! Somehow--I don't know how or why--but before I could stop her--she'd captured his soul." Sheila sobbed. "Just like that, my baby was gone."

Sheila had remained in the office that day for what seemed like an eternity, crying out her frustration and heartache to the doctor. Oh, he had listened, but he had not believed.

How could she expect anyone to believe her? The story sounded like the ravings of a lunatic--or, to be scientifically correct, a grief-stricken mother overwhelmed by guilt. But Sheila had not been overwhelmed. She knew she was completely rational and knew, without doubt, that what she had seen, no matter how irrational it might have been, had been real.

Despite what the doctor had said, it wasn't a projection of guilt that had made her see that woman. Not a way of shifting blame. Because she didn't feel guilt. Grief, yes. Huge clouds of grief like the menacing ones gathering in the dark skies above her.

Her grief was hers and she would have to work through it alone. "Maybe what you saw was something unexplainable," her Aunt Iris had offered when they finally allowed Sheila to take phone calls.

Iris could be right. Unexplainable.

"Just maybe, Sheila, what happened was supernatural. Who knows? But it might be a good idea to just let it drop for now. At least until you get out of that horrible place and move up here to Auburn."

She had let it drop. She'd allowed the doctor to assume she was making "progress." She'd let them call her unbalanced or whatever it was everyone did on the other side of her private room. Let them all think what they chose to about my baby's death. Crib death. SIDS. No one will ever make me believe that three months ago on that windy night in March, I did not see that demonic woman kill my Timmy.

Now, finally, she was leaving Stanley-Waters Institute. She had let them make all the decisions and they could continue to do so.

Her job had been taken away. Karl had seen to that. Her furniture and clothes had all been packed by Hilary who, for some unknown reason, felt it necessary to stay on at their condo after Sheila had been shut away in Stanley-Waters. And now she was being whisked away to live in an area she knew nothing about.

Now as she rode through the crowded city streets sitting next to Karl, she vowed to be silent about that night until she felt stronger. Make the best of whatever the future held. In his curious way, Karl was trying. So would she. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in her lap as the car wove through the early traffic toward the Bay Bridge. For now she'd let Karl handle things his way.

The car nosed into the center lane and followed the morning traffic over the bridge. Up ahead the fog moved in through the metal girders, swallowing up the cars, covering them one by one like a shroud.

"Jesus, I can hardly see," Karl muttered as he leaned forward and peered out. Red tail lights in front of him blinked through the haze, alerting him that traffic up ahead had come to a stop. He swore and pumped the brakes.

Traffic moved along in the fast lane but he stayed in the middle. The middle lane was slower but that's where most of Karl's life had been spent. If some people thought him dull, he figured that was their problem. He'd rather be dull and safe.

Safe? What a goddam joke. Here he was on his way to a boring town to start a new job--with a sick wife, he thought bitterly, who hallucinated. And what about the baby? Had that been a safe choice in these times, to have a kid? He'd let Sheila talk him into that one and look what happened.

Sure, he cared for the baby. He had felt something. Responsibility maybe. But in the delivery room when the kid had pushed his way out of Sheila, Karl had felt nothing. Nada! If he was supposed to, if that was the big test, then he'd failed.

He scratched his chin and adjusted his dark glasses. So what? He just didn't react to certain situations. But growing up? Ha! He had reacted plenty then, torn between his strict father and his superstitious mother.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

Maybe that's why he'd never been interested in having kids of his own. Didn't want to see them go through a repeat performance of his childhood.

How could he trust himself to be a dad? Look at his old man. What kind of a role model was he? His thoughts whirled back to those Oklahoma days. He froze as the echo of his father's voice boomed across his mind.

"I want you to stop filling the boy's head with your pagan nonsense, Ella June." The nonsense that had enraged his father was the chants his wife, Ella, recited with deep concentration as she prepared herbal concoctions to treat Karl's chronic attacks of croup.

The young child Karl would bark louder each time his dad's voice rose, making his mother move faster. She flew around the kitchen, grabbing her mixtures, then spreading them on Karl's chest as quickly as she could.

His mother ignored his father's rants. She kept her focus on Karl and stirred her concoctions. Sometimes she would climb up on a wooden stool, boosting her four-feet-eleven-inch height to gather the vapors rising from the boiling pan on the stove. Using fans she had woven from dried reeds, she sent medicated steam down on young Karl huddled under a sheet tent on a cot near the stove. One-half Delaware and proud of her heritage, she undauntedly went ahead with the treatments her grandmother had passed on to her. "Be proud of the blood that courses through your veins, son," she would whisper to Karl through the steam. "Never deny who you are, no matter what."

The shadow of his overpowering father made Karl feel guilty and it lingered on even now. Though he'd outgrown the croup, he felt shame whenever he was sick. As an adult, sickness was not an option for him. When he felt ill, he worked on, regardless.

In later years, his father had finally given up trying to change or control Ella. Still refusing Ella's concoctions, he had died five years ago. Pneumonia. "I could have saved him," Ella June said later. "If he'd of let me, I'd have pulled him through."

Karl never doubted his mother's methods, but he was embarrassed by them. When she talked about her healings, he tried to steer the conversation into different channels.

Now as he waited for the traffic to move on, he brushed the breast pocket of his jacket and felt his mother's most recent letter, letting them know it was time for her annual visit. Anxious about Sheila's condition, she had written to say she was on her way to California to help. She planned to spend time with them before going to his sister's home in Phoenix. After that she would return to Muskogee.

Maybe he could dissuade her from coming right now. She might encourage Sheila to talk about her hallucinations. That might prove to be a bad idea. When they reached Auburn he would call his sister and ask if their mother could visit there first. "Good idea," he said out loud. Sheila turned in her seat, interrupted from her own deep thoughts. "What did you say?"

Karl shook his head. "Nothing. Thinking out loud." He seldom discussed his family or his childhood with her. There were things a man didn't tell anyone. He peered through the fog. "Why doesn't this traffic move?" He slid over and put his arm across the seat behind Sheila's head. "Did you remember to put your medications in your purse?"

"Yes," she said distantly. "I have them."

"I'll stop in Oakland and buy juice. It must be about time to take them."

"I'm not taking them any more," she said without looking at him.

A flash of panic crossed his face. "You're not what?"

"I'm through taking tranquilizers."

"This isn't the time to make waves, Sheila. The doctor said. . . "

She turned to look out the side window.

"Are you listening to me?"

"I'm listening," she said quietly. "But I'm through swallowing pills."

His voice lowered. "I hope you know what you're doing, Sheila. I'm not going to have time to play nurse." He adjusted his glasses. "You are aware that on Monday I start my new job."

"Shut up, Karl."

The traffic began to creep forward. Karl pressed down on the accelerator. "This move won't work unless you cooperate," he said tersely. "I'm not going to be around much, but your aunt will be next door. And I suggest you cooperate with her. We know what's best for you right now. And Mother," he coughed nervously, "will be coming to visit. She can help."

Ella June. Hope flickered in Sheila's heart. His mother would believe her. "When?" Sheila whispered.

"I . . . I'm not sure . . . exactly," Karl replied. He reached for the letter.

"Here's her letter. Are you able to read this? I mean does the medication affect your eyes?"

"I need coffee," Sheila said straightening. "Can we stop? I'll read the letter later."

Karl frowned. "I don't know about coffee, Sheila. If you're not taking your medicine I don't think you should have caffeine."

"Karl!" She mustered all the energy she had left. "Stop it! I am a nurse, for God's sake. I'm certainly capable of deciding what medication I need."

Karl shifted and the car moved along steadily. The hum of the motor helped her relax. She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. On the dark screen of her eyelids, the face of the Asian woman suddenly appeared. Sheila gasped as the woman bared her teeth and let out a triumphant shriek.

"Dear God," Sheila cried, wrapping her arms tightly around her middle. Karl angled a look in her direction.

She pulled one of the plastic containers from her purse, hastily removed the lid and swallowed a capsule.

Certainly capable of deciding what I need.

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Copyright © 2007, Norma Lehr. All Rights Reserved.

Juno Books
copyright ©2007