Posted by on Aug 19, 2013 in Excerpts, The Reach


Ten years ago

Beyond the frosted panes of double glass, the wind screamed its displeasure. Day had slipped into night with the coming storm. The WKOB weatherman was predicting three feet of snow today, another six inches tomorrow; the worst storm to hit in thirty years, he said. Do not leave your homes unless it’s absolutely necessary.

The young doctor was listening intently to the radio at the second-floor station when her pager beeped. She checked the code, slipped quickly across the wine-red carpet to the nearest window, and peered out on a desolate winter scene. The little hospital parking lot wore a sheet of inch-thick ice pinned by mountains of plowed snow. It was mostly empty, the hospital all but shut down in preparation for the storm. Only three patients today, and two of them had come in on the same call, a couple of skiers who got disoriented in the woods and had frostbite. One of them, a pretty young thing, lost the little toe on her left foot. The doctor found it necessary to amputate.

Blood. She saw it again as she closed her eyes, bright-red blood coating her gloved hands.

The radio buzzed now and then as the wind made the signal come and go. She opened her eyes. The parking lot lights barely cut through the snow as it started to fall faster. Nothing that looked like an emergency, but she could hardly see anything at all. She shivered as the scene below her faded into a writhing white blanket of dim and mysterious shapes.

Down at the front entrance the admitting desk was empty. Above the little waiting area with its row of plastic-molded chairs, a nineteen-inch television set flickered from a bracket on the wall. The rug here felt damp and the color had faded in a trail from the waiting area to the front desk. Smelled like cleaning solution, and something underneath like a boil that lingered beneath the skin.

The doctor spotted movement through the sliding glass doors. Two emergency techs were unloading a woman from her car. One of them slipped to his knees and cursed, a black man in a green hospital coat and slacks, bare hands and head, tight, coal-black hair frosted with snow. James or something. No, Jack, that was it. Likely to lose his earlobes to the cold if he isn’t careful, and maybe the tips of his fingers too. It could happen in five minutes in this weather. The other one had a scarf wrapped around his neck and wore knitted pink mittens that had been sitting in the lost and found, and he looked warmer, but not much. A country boy, thick and heavy like he might play linebacker on the local college football team. Stewart was his name, or Stan. Young kid. She had only been working there a week and couldn’t remember everybody yet.

The sliding glass doors opened and they wheeled the woman inside on a stretcher. A gust of wind hit the doctor like a gut punch. For a moment the lobby was transformed into a blizzard; the doors closed and the snow settled in the silence like one of those Christmas globes that had been shaken and then put to rest.

She stepped forward to break the spell. The woman was sitting up on the stretcher, wrapped in a white horsehair blanket and curiously calm. She appeared to be suffering from shock. It took the doctor only a moment longer to discover that her new patient was naked under the blanket, and in labor.

The woman’s heart beat slow and steady in spite of the pain she must be in. How was it possible? The contractions are coming almost on top of each other. She would deliver soon. And yet her breathing hardly changed.

The empty car sat sideways just outside the entrance, lights shining away from them, motor still running. The doctor leaned forward, close to the pregnant woman’s face. “What’s your name,” she asked. The woman smiled vacantly. “Your name,” the doctor said again, sharply this time. No response. She pinched the fleshy part of the woman’s upper arm, watched it flush pink. Her skin was creamy and perfectly smooth, almost poreless. She had the look of a backwoods girl but there was something more to her, some special kind of glow or aura.

Pregnant women can be like that, the doctor thought. She’d witnessed it before, but this sort of glow seemed unnatural under the harsh glare of the hospital lights. She stared at the woman’s naked legs beneath the blanket, felt herself enter a slow dream free-fall, and shook her head to clear it. Something seemed to be buzzing far away, like a fluorescent bulb about to blink into life.

“Creeps me out,” the black tech said. “She was doing that in the car when we went to get her. Just sitting there smiling like that.”

“Is there anyone with her?”

“Car’s empty,” he said. “Lights are on but nobody’s home, know what I mean? How in Sam hell she drove here all by herself–”

“Get the delivery room ready,” the young doctor said. Her hands felt clammy and she wiped them across her white coat, then raked her fingers through her hair. She looked at the pregnant woman again. What was wrong with her? Drugs? The situation was maddening. She had come to this little town to get away from the pressure of the big city hospitals and their twenty-hour shifts, and now here she was in the middle of something her very first week. Should have gone into psychiatry like the rest of her friends back at UDA.

They were wheeling the woman towards the delivery room when the power went out.

First there was a great cracking sound, like a tree limb snapping under tremendous pressure. Then a back-surge of air, as if something huge and warm had taken a deep breath.

And then they were plunged into darkness.

“Don’t move,” the doctor said. Dim red lights blinked on down the hall. She waited a moment for the main generators to kick in and give them something more, but nothing happened. It was no good; without lights the delivery room was useless.

They stood bathed in red.

The wind howled. The doctor put her hand on the woman’s belly and found the swelling had moved lower and turned. This baby was coming now.

They set her up right there, lying on her back on the stretcher with her legs spread under the blanket. The two techs held flashlights, one on either side; a nurse appeared with boiling water from the gas stove in the staff kitchen, and towels, along with a few instruments on a stainless-steel tray from the delivery room. The doctor crouched between the woman’s legs, going through a checklist in her head. She could see something now, wet and bloody at the woman’s opening, bright and strange in the flashlight beams.

Sweat stung her eyes. She blinked it away, glanced up and over the blanket.

Something was wrong. “Push,” the doctor said, getting a grip on the baby’s slippery head. “We’ve got to get it out now. Do you understand me?” The woman did not respond, but the doctor felt her muscles working. How could she be so calm? She hadn’t even been given a painkiller, it was too dangerous without knowing what else she was on.

The doctor raised her hands. Blood, dripping from her fingers, her palms. She hadn’t put on any gloves.


She felt the room spinning. The hairs raised on the back of her neck. That great dark something around them took another sweeping breath.

They were engulfed in a huge, smothering silence. The lights blinked on, stuttered, and went off again. She found herself staring at the woman’s face over the blanket as shadows danced in the beam of the flashlight. So beautiful, the doctor wondered through the buzzing that filled her head. She had to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She felt herself falling again, that sweet dizzy rush, and this time she let it pull her down to her knees.

A rattling sound filled the room like the beating of a hundred tiny drums.

“Oh, Jesus Lord,” one of the techs said in a hoarse whisper. “Look at that. Would you the Christ look at it?”

The doctor glanced over through the fog that had begun to claim her, and saw the glittering-steel instruments marching across the tray like tiny soldiers across a silver field. A hollow, deep-throated booming began. The floor shook under her. A great light poured out from somewhere now, and the young doctor squeezed her eyes tightly shut, her head seeming to split wide open. She heard a howling noise like a creature coming at her down a long tunnel, and then she opened her eyes and looked down at what she held in her hands.

Somebody screamed.

It took the doctor several seconds to realize it was her own voice she heard.



Present day

The Thomas Ward School of Psychology is located on Boston’s Beacon Street, within a connected row of converted private homes that seem to ask nothing more than to blend in and keep out of sight. It is a small school, modestly funded, but well known within certain circles as one of the best of its kind in the country.

Jess Chambers climbed the front steps to the porch and paused by the door to the administrative offices, looking absently at the small bronze sign and readying herself for whatever waited for her within. She had been here many times before, but this time was different and she knew it. Professor Shelley’s voice on the phone had contained a conspiratorial edge, something she had never heard before. Shelley was not the sort to fraternize with students outside of class. The call had piqued Jess’ curiosity as it had obviously been meant to do.

She checked the fall of her black cotton slacks and adjusted the collar of her blouse before stepping through the heavy wooden doors and into the reception area, a small, cramped room guarding the administrative and faculty offices.

The room smelled of stale coffee. Several Styrofoam cups sat discarded on the horseshoe countertop facing the door, and Jess resisted the nearly compulsive urge to straighten them up. Computer printouts were tacked to the walls, listing current events relating to the field and lecture times, along with an upcoming conference poster. A table to her left contained stacks of papers and magazines in an organized clutter, below a window that looked out onto the street and the T tracks, where the trains rattled and shook on their way into the city. A bit of gray light filtered inside, but did not do much for the decor.

Though she could hear muffled voices somewhere, the outer rooms were empty. In Professor Shelley’s office she sat down in the slick vinyl chair facing the desk and crossed her hands in her lap.

The room was filled with odds and ends, files and folders, curling news photographs of various unsmiling people tacked to the walls. A few of them she recognized as researchers or faculty members, most she did not.

Though Shelley was known for throwing an occasional pop quiz, she was well respected among her students. It was the mystery which surrounded her that gave them pause; some claimed to have seen her sitting in the butterfly position for hours, her eyes closed. A few had even insisted they’d seen her levitating. These stories were told in the third-hand way of urban legend, often around a bar table, and Jess did not believe them for a second.

But Shelley’s private life remained a mystery. What is it about psychiatrists and psychologists, anyway? Complex minds unraveling each other. And yet, such a need for secrecy. Jess found herself staring in mild amusement at a chart that supposedly revealed the details of the human aura. One thing was certain, no one had ever accused Shelley of being dull.

The Professor was at the door; Jess hadn’t heard her come in. “There you are,” Shelley said. “Hope I didn’t pull you away from something important?”

“I’ve caught up on my reading.”

“You always did seem to be ahead of the game. Maybe I should give a bit more, just to keep you busy.”

Jess risked a smile. Students complained that Shelley gave more reading than the rest of their classes combined. Slightly more to it than good-natured grumbling, she thought, to be fair. She took Shelley’s classes for the challenge, and she welcomed it; but there were others who did not feel they should be spending every spare moment in the library.

Shelley moved rather carefully now around a mountain of old exam papers to her desk, a tall woman in her early forties who bore a striking resemblance to the actress Diane Keaton. She wore a chocolate long-sleeve mock-ribbed cardigan that looked expensive. Her hair was cut in a fashionable, shoulder-length style, and she was blessed with aristocratic bone structure and very long fingers. Slight calluses on the tips, Jess noticed. A piano player, perhaps, or strings.

Normally she carried herself with elegance and style, but she seemed worn down today, too pale, and the circles under her eyes were darker than usual. Something was clearly going on with the Professor, though what exactly that might be, Jess could not guess.

“Let’s see how much of that reading made an impression, then,” Shelley said, sitting down in her chair. “You’re familiar with Jacob’s reconstructive study on depression?”

Jess recited from memory. “A five-step model, beginning with a long standing history of early childhood problems which leads to an acceleration of problems in adolescence, an isolation from peer groups and a dissolution of social relationships, which finally ends in a justification of the suicidal act or attempt.”

“And earlier than that?”

“Extreme separation anxiety or isolation in early childhood, regressive behavior. Complaints of stomach pains.”

Shelley nodded, her graceful fingers steepled before her nose. “But I’m referring to instances of total withdrawal. Come on now. No more book definitions. Give me your thoughts.”

Jess felt slightly off-balance and didn’t like it. Come on girl, get a grip, as her friend Charlie would say. “Let’s see. The child is dependent on a caregiver to an unusual degree. Any unfamiliar event or surrounding sends her into a fugue state, caused mainly by the child’s inability to accurately express what is wrong. Undue stress would come from feeling depressed, without actually understanding the concept. In the most severe cases, lack of response can be a sign of a serious mental disease: brain damage, autism, even schizophrenia.”

“Interesting.” Shelley was not one given to praise easily. Jess could not tell if she was satisfied or not. The professor shuffled some papers on her desk. “Now you’re wondering why you’re here.”

The thought had crossed her mind. She had taken a class with Shelley once before and received an A, one of two that had been given that semester, she’d heard. Now she had her for Neurobiological Disorders, which she was finding very interesting. Male teachers had approached her in a less professional manner before; she was well aware of the effect she had on men. But Shelley was a woman. And this was certainly not a private tutoring session.

“I took the liberty of examining your records,” Shelley said. “You’re interested in child psychology, severe developmental disorders in particular. Any reason?”

“My younger brother was autistic.”

“I see. So there’s a personal element in your interest. But it has to stay out of your professional conduct. I say this because what I’m going to talk to you about requires it.”

“Professor, with all due respect, if I didn’t think I was capable of remaining professional, under any circumstance, I wouldn’t be enrolled here.”

It came out a little more forcefully than she’d intended. But Shelley simply nodded and smiled. “You’ve done well in my courses. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. That’s one of the reasons you’re here today. And the reports from your internship at the DSU clinic are stellar. You haven’t chosen a topic for your dissertation?”

“Not yet.”

“There’s a girl,” Shelley said, “whose case I’ve been keeping an eye on for a long time. Right now she’s in the Wasserman facility downtown. She’s severely medicated, completely withdrawn for the past several weeks, though she has shown the ability to communicate. The director of the clinic has asked for my help in the past, and we’ve had some success. We haven’t been able to reach her this time.”

“Is there a diagnosis?”

“Dr. Wasserman believes she has a schizophreniform disorder.”

Jess felt the familiar early buzz of excitement that came with an opportunity. “How old is she?”


“Awfully young for that sort of illness to manifest, isn’t it?”

“It is. Here’s the nuts and bolts of it, Jess. I’m not sure the diagnosis fits, but Dr. Wasserman disagrees. We do agree however that she may be more responsive to someone younger, less polished, if you forgive the description. To be honest, we could have given this to a counselor on staff, but I wanted to give the experience to one of my own.”

“I’m glad to have it.”

“Good. You have a rare mix of intellect and empathy. I think you might appeal to her. I want you to test her; Stanford-Binet, Weschler, Peabody, Rorschach. Let’s hear any hypotheses you might have, suggestions for treatment. Then, if I like what you’ve done and Sarah shows progress, I’ll allow you to present the case to the board of trustees.”

“It would be an honor, Professor.”

“You’ll do just fine, I’m counting on it. But I want you to understand something. This is not some case study from a textbook. It is not a hypothetical situation. This is a very disturbed child we’re talking about. She can be unpredictable, even violent. She’s had an unusual history from the moment she was born. I know because I delivered her. I’ve been keeping tabs on her ever since.”

Jess tried to picture a younger Professor Shelley in hospital scrubs. She had heard that the professor had been a practicing physician, but had thought it nothing more than a rumor. Shelley was a very good teacher. It seemed to Jess that she had been born to it.

“This girl is…unusual. She’s been in foster care and institutions since she was little more than a year old. I don’t know if she’s seen the outside world more than a handful of times in her life. Don’t misunderstand me. Most of the time she is simply catatonic, and that may be all she’ll be for you. But I want you to be on your guard.”

Shelley rose, signaling an end to their chat. A thread on her cardigan dangled down and trailed through the papers on her desk, at odds with the rest of her. She didn’t seem to notice.

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