Woman In The Woods
Fort Keeps, NY — Adirondacks — October 1912
Elissa Crosby tossed and turned, troubled by a nagging suspicion something wasn’t right. The knock at the front door gave her a reason to get out of bed. She lit the lantern on the nightstand and pulled on her robe. The waning light flickered as she crossed the parlor and she stopped when the sinking feeling in her stomach weighted down her legs and feet.
The knock came again.
A shadow backlit by moonlight darkened the curtained glass on the door. Her lips quivered and while the idea of going back to bed, getting under the covers and finding sleep became appealing, she forced herself forward. “Just a minute.”
There were few times when Elissa missed having a husband. When the roof leaked and the lonely bed on a winter night was cold were two. The man she’d unfortunately married was a bastard. Quick-tempered and violent, getting rid of him was one of the smartest things she’d ever done in her life. Although the bruises were gone and the broken bones had healed, the scars no one saw would last a lifetime. It was a shame she’d wasted ten years hiding before wizening up. However, she’d feel more comfortable having a man answer the door in the middle of the night. That would be a third thing she missed. There was no man and just like everything else, she was the one responsible for getting things done.
She unlocked and opened the door. A brisk breeze brought to life the sea glass and driftwood wind chimes before rushing past her. She shivered and hugged her robe tightly against the cold temperature as dead, brown leaves rustled across the high grass out front.
The sheriff stood on her front step with his Stetson in his hands in front of his chest. He spun the hat by the brim. “Hate to bother you at this time of night, Elissa.”
Small towns. First names. Benji O'Sullivan was about her age, maybe a year or two older. Relief filled her for just a moment. O’Sullivan at the door was better than some stranger, but it made her wonder. Why was he here, at her door, in the middle of the night? “Is everything alright, sheriff?”
“Mind if I come in?”
She stepped aside. “Not at all, but I don’t mind telling you, I’m feeling rather apprehensive about a late night visit.”
What happened to calling me Elissa? “Ma’am, Ms. Crosby, we’ve found a body. Is your daughter home?”
“At this hour, she’s asleep in her room . . . if the knocking didn’t wake her, that is.”
“Could you check?”
“Sheriff?” Elissa put an arm across her waist, hoping she could stop the flip flopping. It didn’t help. “I am certain she didn’t witness any foul play. I am certain of it.”
The sinking feeling she had the last few hours, the reason she couldn’t sleep—her legs wouldn’t respond; she was glued in place.
“Can you tell me what this is about? Alice has to be up early in the morning. I’d rather not disturb her if I don’t have to. Perhaps there is a question I can answer for you?” She bit down on her lower lip and only let up when she feared she’d draw blood.
“We recovered a body in the hills not far from here.”
“My Alice wouldn’t know anything about that.” Elissa rolled the hand across her belly into a tight fist. Sharp fingernails dug into her palms.
“I wasn’t sure, but I thought she looked a lot like your Alice.”
Elissa shook her head. “No, that’s not possible. She’s here. In her room. In bed.”
“When was the last time you checked on her?”
When was the last time she’d checked on Alice? “She wasn’t feeling well, barely ate her supper and asked to be excused.”
The sheriff’s eye twitched. “When was supper?”
His features were cast in an eerie mix of candlelight and shadow. Elissa didn’t care for the way the man looked when the flame danced or the way dark and light played over his eyes. “Around about five-thirty, six.”
The sheriff pulled out a pocket watch. “It’s nearly three in the morning now.”
She didn’t appreciate the implication. “My daughter was sick, sheriff. She went to bed early.”
“I am not doubting you, ma’am.” He held up both hands as if pacifying her. Instead she felt patronized. “I’d be remiss if we didn’t at least look in on her. I hope I’m wrong ma’am, that I disturbed your night for no reason. If she’s under those covers asleep, I’m satisfied. There’ll be no need to wake her.”
She ignored the beads of sweat dotting her forehead; more perspiration pooled behind her knees and inside her clenched fist. She kept looking toward the back of the house, where the bedrooms were. “I don’t know what good it will do.”
“It will give me peace of mind, ma’am.”
She wished he would go back to using her first name. It sounded more official and troubling when he was formal.
“Oh, alright. You just wait here. I’ll check. I’m sorry it is going to be a little dark. I only have the one lamp.”
“I’ll be fine.”
She pursed her lips, not caring if the sheriff saw her look of discontent. Elissa shuffled down the hall, past her own room and hesitated with her hand over the knob of her daughter’s door. She stopped, unable to move. Fear and panic set in. Her stomach didn’t just ache, instead everything inside of her sizzled with anxiety. “Sheriff? Can you come here, please.”
He would have to maneuver through the dark. Elissa didn’t turn around when she heard his footsteps behind her.
“I can’t open the door.”
“It’s locked?” he asked.
“No.” She shook her head. This was the reason she’d been unable to sleep. She hadn’t known it at the time but now understood the cause behind the trepidation she’d felt now. “I’m afraid.”
The sheriff reached around, twisted the knob and pushed open the door.
Elissa handed over the lantern. She couldn’t bring herself to look inside her daughter’s room.
The dim light barely penetrated the darkness beyond the doorway.
Helplessly, Elissa forced herself to peer into the darkness. She didn’t need sunlight to see Alice’s bed was empty.
Dropping onto her knees, Elissa screamed. “No, no-no-no!”
Rochester, NY — Present Day
“You’re going home, Jeremy.” The nurse offered up a warm smile. Dressed in hospital blues, hair pulled back, she set a tentative hand on his arm.
Jeremy almost shied away from the contact, but refrained. It went against every instinct. Fighting those urges helped convince doctors he was better. Instead, he folded the last t-shirt from his dresser drawer and placed it on the bed next to his other belongings.
“Are you excited?”
He nodded. Excited was not the word. Afraid worked better. All he’d known the last nine years were the white halls of St. Mary’s. Maybe he shouldn’t have concentrated so much effort on convincing doctors of anything. He wouldn’t be here now, packing his things. It was movie night. He could be microwaving a bag of popcorn and picking out a recliner in the rec room in anticipation of the flick. It didn’t matter what was showing. Movie night was best.
“A little scared?” she asked.
He nodded. “A little.”
She’d faltered, as if she were going to say, that’s normal, but stopped herself in time.
“You’ll be staying with your uncle?”
He wished the conversation would end. There was nothing comfortable about it. Sure, the questions came across as simple. Part of him felt as if he were still being tested, observed. “I was eight when they brought me here. I don’t really remember him very well.”
Although he was afraid to leave, he was also ready to go. The psychiatric floor he lived on housed people who terrified him at times. When Bobby wasn’t standing in a corner talking to the walls, he was punching himself in the face hard enough that he’d broken his nose a time or two. CarryAnn ate anything she could get her hands on. Countless nights she was transported to Strong so the E.R. doctors could pump her stomach. Jethro hated wearing clothing. Orderlies never had it easy when after chasing him up and down halls, they were forced to tackle and restrain the large naked and violent man.
“He’s visited with you many times.”
Visits were awkward. He and Uncle Jack sat at a table in the rec room and talked about the weather, or a football, or baseball game, even though Jeremy cared less about sports than he did about weather. “Yes, he has.”
There was nothing else to fold. Everything he owned was stacked neatly on the bed. He should turn and face the nurse, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Keeping his arms at his side, he stared at his things and patiently waited for her to give up on trying and just leave.
And eventually, when the silence dragged on, she left.
# # #
Dr. Brian Burkhart sat at his desk. Books filled tall cases behind him. Leaning back in his chair, his elbows on the rests, he tapped fingertips together in a pyramid below his chin. His grey hair was neatly parted down the middle and his soft blue dress shirt freshly pressed. A white lab coat hung on a rack in the corner nearest the wall displaying an array of framed degrees. Regarding his visitors over the rim of thick lens eye glasses, he smiled. “Mr. Raines, it is good to see you this morning.”
“You, as well, doctor.”
Jack, a large man, sat straight in an uncomfortable wood chair with broad shoulders back and beefy arms resting on the armrests. He kept hands folded together in his lap. With a full head of deer-brown hair, wide-set eyes and a strong chin, Jeremy wondered if this were a glimpse into what he’d look like in his forties.
“And how are you today, Jeremy?”
Innocuous as the question sounded, answering became a bit more complex. Taking too much time could be perceived as awkward and calculated.
“I’m well. Thank you.”
It seemed unwise pointing out his stomach was unsettled. He wasn’t sure if he needed to move his bowels or vomit. On the verge of perspiring, Jeremy kept his breathing even, calm. Conflicted, he was afraid of going home, but he didn’t want to spend another night inside the institution. Freedom scared him. Staying at the hospital would drive him insane. That is, if he wasn’t already out of his mind.
“Since Jeremy earned his G.E.D. while a resident here, I understand, Mr. Raines, you’ve secured work for your nephew?” Dr. Burkart kept arms on the desk, fingers interlaced in front of him. He leaned forward, his interest apparent and seemingly genuine.
Jack used a fist to cover his mouth when he cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. Nothing fancy really. Diner in town. He’ll be working in back. It’s one of the only places to eat, so it’s a busy spot.”
“That’s splendid. My first job was as a busboy for a party house. Long, long hours, but it taught me about work ethic.” Dr. Burkart nodded, silently, as if finishing his thought silently.
Jeremy tried paying attention. Instead, he studied his Uncle Jack’s profile. Clean shaven, with wrinkles at the corner of his eyes. He looks like my father, Jeremy thought.
Dr. Burkhart said, “Jeremy?”
“Yes. A busboy sounds like a challenging job.”
“Well. I’m not sure how challenging it was. The point is, I learned plenty from working there. Overall, it was an experience. I’ve been thankful for the opportunity from my first day employed.” Dr. Burkhart smiled, his eyes bright, hopeful.
Must be nice. Always optimistic and positive.
“My first job was mowing lawns in the summer and shoveling driveways in the winter.” Uncle Jack returned the smile, a stiff expression. “Made a lot of money, but I broke my back.”
The conversation had turned somewhat surreal and Jeremy handled it best by just smiling and nodding. He wanted out of the small office. He’d have sworn the walls moved. Could the room have been shrinking? He took in a slow, deep breath. He felt the perspiration pool in the recess of his throat and collarbone. It was definitely getting hotter. Jeremy tugged at his t-shirt, but stopped and dropped his hand into his lap. He didn’t want anything he did perceived as mental illness.
If they revoked his release, he might scream; he would scream.
Screaming didn’t sound extreme.
Maybe he was healed and deserved to go home?
He shook his head. If he were better, then why was the office getting smaller and hotter? No one else seemed to notice. Uncle Jack didn’t look uncomfortable, or worried.
“Is everything alright?” Dr. Burkhart asked.
“I’ve never had a job before.”
Uncle Jack shifted his weight around. He faced his nephew. “It’s not much different than going to school. You get up every morning and go to work. Think of your boss like a teacher, or something. You do what they say. Only instead of getting homework, you get a paycheck.”