It would seem that, after some time spent on this short story, I’ve arrived at a point at which there are more egresses to choose from than I had originally planned. Interesting. You’ll find below a story that I had begun with an altogether different ending in mind. I have just realized that this story is tending to meander down a path that I had not foreseen and, in so doing, digressing from the image that helped me form the thoughts of its telling in the first place.
You may have a suggestion or two as to how you would go about it. For now, however, it is to be put in abeyance – its images and ideas, perhaps, more suitable to pieces yet to be formulated.
From the Spring of 1958 to the summer of ‘67, the St. Edward’s Psych Ward was the largest building in Mobile and the only one of its kind south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Though the facade of the building was designed both as an architectural complement to the city’s high-class reputation, and an emblem of society’s advancements in the field of psychological research, an overwhelming majority of the area’s denizens expressed a tacit dislike for it.
The central facility was well built. The two main doors that stood inside an opulent covered walkway and opened to the well-kept reception area were solid oak and, though heavy, swung smoothly when moved. The base color for both the interior and exterior was a light orange. It sounds strange, but in the springtime, when the building was the cynosure of Sol’s rays as it fell behind the evening horizon, there wasn’t a more captivating sight. The color of the ward was lit up and, until the sun set, it was as though it supplied the city with it’s own light.
The edifice housed manifold cases of mental aberrance – everything from the mildest cases of obsessive compulsive disorder to the most self-destructive forms of insanity. The ward’s claim was that it treated those patients whose psychological behavior precluded them from enjoying their respective daily lives. There were some, though few, that were allegedly cured, whose symptoms dissipated, and were released. The majority, however, were deemed terminally insane, and lived out the rest of their lives in a haze of confusion, nonsensical yelling and straitjackets – all within the orange glow of the ward’s walls.
Though the history of the ward isn’t the most macabre. Yet the chilly story of one particular girl is one that merits, at the very least, an honorable mention.
August, 1962 – The first day of Marywell High School began with the usual clatter of students bustling about, excited to be back, though grumbling to all of their friends who had also returned for the year that they couldn’t stand school and felt ill with their selection of instructors. When it came to the topic of classes that invoked feelings of disgust and revulsion, Mr. Donner’s 20th Century American Lit class seemed to be a collective favorite. All four grades of the school were present, give or take thirty or so. The seniors were happy to return to their circle of acceptance among their friends and colleagues. This would be their last year and, though they spoke of how they couldn’t wait for emancipation, there was still some savoring to do. The juniors and sophomores were happy they weren’t the freshmen, yet wanted to be the seniors. The freshmen, contrary to the expectations of most, felt that they had made a marked step of progress in their respective worlds, and were excited for the embarkment upon new path before them. The body of students was directed to the bleachers at the west of the gym to await the year’s commencement speech to be given, as it was annually, by the dean of Marywell High, Barry Lapert. When all were accounted for, seated and contained, he walked from the periphery of the immense gym, across the glossy wooden court into and into the silence of his body, into view of everyone, and began.
“Good morning Marywell High,” large speakers bolted into the four aerial corners of the room came alive and demanded recognition. “Good morning, Sir,” the masses parroted in echo.
“This past summer was one of the most intolerable in the history of Mobile,” the dean’s southern accent skipped off his tongue sporadically; it was one the students had become accustomed to “The heat was unbearable, the mosquitoes were unmerciful, and national inflation, it seems, has put a damper on our God-given right to have fun.” The teenagers that filled the seats kept quiet – some shuffling – a cough. “But, I see that it didn’t stop any of the students from this here Marywell High from comin’ back to be the very best they can be.” Everyone knew what the real message of the speech was going to be and what was coming. “So, as has been customary in years past, as the Juniors and Seniors have their most rewarding years upon them, the incoming Freshmen and Sophomores will be heading to Camp Shaw this Friday to spend the next week integrating with their fellow peers. The dean continued, “Now, to the Freshmen and Sophomores, I know this may seem a bit like…”
Darla Marsh let the dean’s words trail off and her eyes blur. Her mind wandered. She had known that she would be going to camp since the beginning of the summer. Maggie Winters, her best friend since the third grade, told her all about it. She could honestly say with safe conviction that it wasn’t her idea of a dreamy high-school orientation. Marywell High was the best high school in the county and, arguably, the entire state of Alabama, and she had been wanting to enroll in its notable music program since her mother had presented her with a plastic red and gold tambourine at eight years of age. Now, at fifteen, she thought that it was still what she wanted to do. However, the slender balding man that occupied center stage was giving her mind enough to hand the tambourine in.
Friday was still two days away – plenty of time to mould her mind into the numbing state where nothing else around her mattered. She had done it before for a good three or four days. She didn’t see how a week would be that much more of a chore.
That night at dinner, both of her parents seemed to be more interested than normal in the goings-on of Darla’s day.
“Darla, Honey, tell us about school today. What did you do?” her father asked, cloth serviette tucked neatly between the excess skin of his neck and the inner collar of his faded blue business shirt. Her mother, short hair perfectly coiffed, turned and looked at Darla as she pulled a clean fork from her mouth and began to masticate quietly. Supper for tonight was pot-roast and peas. Darla hated pot-roast.
“I have to go to Camp Shaw on Friday,” Darla muttered as she pronged a set of peas with her fork, making sure they didn’t touch the meat. There was no intention of digesting the peas, much less putting them in her mouth; internally she simply begged for the whole event of supper to be done with. It was the peas that took her away from that for the time being.
“That’s great!” said her father.
“Oh how wonderful, Darla, dear,” chimed her mother. Darla’s eyes drifted up from her peas to see her mother’s cheerful face trying to chew and smile at the same time. “Honey,” her father continued, “listen. This will give you a chance to make some new friends and see what school will be like for you this coming year. I know you probably don’t see it that way now, but, Honey, this really is a great opportunity for you.” This was how the meals at the Marsh household went. Darla’s father, Frank, would monopolize every conversation. As such, he stood as the determining factor of the duration of breakfast, dinner and supper. Frank Marsh was a prolix man by nature. He had been this way ever since Darla could remember. She didn’t really know what his job was, something that dealt with insurance or cars or finance. He wouldn’t stop talking from the time he arose to the time he was in his sleepwear, eyes closed and horizontal. Even then, Darla imagined that his lips would be moving to some extent before he had fully attained R.E.M..
Marcy, Darla’s mother, on the other hand, would set personal records if she uttered more than five sentences throughout the day. It wasn’t that she preferred social aloofness or avoided companionship altogether, but that she had been raised in believing that her place in the world required her to be as reticent as possible, barely noticeable, and, in doing so, she would be happy.
Darla, as it turned out was nothing akin to either of them. Now at fifteen, she was a slender girl with shoulder-length light brown hair that never needed brushing and a pair of brown eyes that only glowed when they were closed. She found much more pleasure in the life her mind created for her than the one that she had to live out from day to day. She wanted to believe that she was a venturesome girl, but though she battled it, she continually reconciled herself to a life that was dry, banal and grey. Nothing fun happened here. Every time she woke up, life was all so much a drab and uneventful place. Just once, she wanted to go outside this life. She wanted to her heart to beat furiously and in panic. She wanted to run and feel what it was like to run. She wanted a purpose to run. She wanted someone to dare her to run. At least then she would be living.
“Can I go to my room now?” she asked, not looking at anyone in particular. Her mother’s chewing smile diminished and she touched her lips with a soft white napkin that had laid on her lap. She looked at her husband. Frank finished taking the last two gulps of milk from a tall glass, set the glass back on the table, to the left of his plate, and resumed the carving on his portion of pot-roast. Darla’s mother looked back at Darla and gave the slow nod of approbation. Darla took her plate with her to the kitchen and disappeared to her room.
The rest of the week passed as gloomily as it had begun. Darla had not made the acquaintance of a single soul and Friday morning was upon them. Three yellow school buses were stationed in sequence just outside of the dingy cream walls of the Marywell High gymnasium. When Darla arrived, the students were piling in, their faces pale and unreadable. Darla got in line. The sky was caked over with a superfluity of cumulus clouds; the sun had not shone in two months, the streets were almost empty of life, and when it was Darla’s turn to board, she looked up beyond the vehicle’s steps and noticed the plumes of smoke coming from the conductor’s half-chewed cigar. Not even they could find excitement in this life. With one fewer degree of hope, she walked automatically to an empty seat at the back of the bus and sat. The doors closed and the vehicle inched forward. She was on her way to Camp Shaw.
Everything was silent. There was only the image of the building, the orange building. It was dark, but she could still see the way the walls gave off their color. The building sat up on a hill, the city, a metropolis, rested below as if wanting to remain apart, disassociated with the building. It was the orange of the building, the building itself, that kept the rest of the living world at a distance. The city was comfortable, the people were comfortable, life was comfortable below, away from the structure that sat upon the hill. There were the clouds, dark clouds and rain, that sequestered the building from the more clement atmosphere of the lights below. She could not see what was making the walls give off their orange hue in this dark place. She wanted to know what was inside. She blinked and her thoughts obeyed. She had been placed within, at her own request.
There was a hallway. The walls were white and lifeless. Window panes spoke through the harsh, piercing raindrops of the outside.
Darla sensed herself moving forward through the hallway, toward the window that marked the perimeter of the room on the other side. The white walls of the hallway came to an end and the room in which she found herself was somewhat furnished – a couple of couches, a coffee table in the center of the room and two plants that stood in two corners. There were other seats around the couches and a radio set upon a stand. Opposite the radio, a reception counter. Files filled the shelves in the background in a manner that lacked any assumed organization. Yet, nowhere was there any light, save from the dreary scintillations of the sporadic lighting outside. Everything was dark. Images of another hallway flashed. It was too dark to traverse – no light. She felt something, then. A hand from behind her reached past her head into her line of sight. It was scared, pale and dead. Darla lost her breath.
“You awake?” Darla opened her eyes and saw a hand with an ostensibly pink bracelet waving almost uncontrollably in front of her face. The hand stopped its waving and its owner’s face came into view. A bright smile of a blonde-haired rosy-cheeked girl appeared. Her pigtails jiggled when she laughed. Darla wondered if it was a dream of a vision. Was there a difference? “You were sleepin’ for a long while there,” the voice piped up. “Anyway, looks like we’re here!” The girl clasped her hands together in front of her t-shirt, a black shirt with an imprinted photo of Britney Spears with the words Bad Girl highlighted in glitter, and began to bounce up and down, pigtails flailing behind her. Outside, a sign passed the bus – WELCOME TO CAMP SHAW, it had read.
The buses wound their way into a small cul-de-sac that abutted two wooden structures and formed a circle before they stopped. The children unloaded their belongings and piled into the first building. A man stood outside the structure holding one of the double doors open, tacitly indicating the intended direction of student traffic. Darla filed in behind her no-name classmates and walked through the wooden framework of the ingress.
The room in which she stood was much more capacious that what it had seemed from the outside. The ceiling must have been twelve feet high and, overall, it looked bigger than the gymnasium and the cafeteria combined back at Marywell High. All of the students had scrunched together, filling one end of the room. A man walked from where the doorway was and Darla immediately picked him out to be the man that had held the door for her. He dressed simply enough, a pair of blue-jeans, a flannel long-sleeved shirt and a pair of hiking boots were all to be seen. He wore a big smile as he walked in front of the crowd of young adults.
His name was Jeffrey Staley and he was the campground coordinator. He informed the students of all of the opportunities that were available at Camp Shaw and that for the next few days, each of the students would experience a handful of these. The activities ranged from hiking, fishing, whitewater rafting, gold mining, rock climbing and rabbit hunting. There were also the fixed selection of indoor games that the timid students were more than welcome to – basketball, ping pong, cards and the like. After Staley made the camp introduction, he gave the students oral direction to their accommodations. The students were separated by class and surname – Darla would be in the Timberhouse. She made her way there by following the others from the crowd that seemed to know where they were going.
The Timberhouse was a building located just a few minute’s walk from the warehouse where she received the orientation speech about the camp. It seemed a welcoming building big enough for a whole class of students by itself. Darla walked in and found that there were several wings of the building and each wing had five rooms. There were four beds assigned to each room – each equipped with a shower, toilet and the most basic of bathroom amenities. By reading the name tags on the beds, she was able to spot which would be hers. She had the bottom bunk against the outer wall, right next to the window. Incidentally, She noticed who her bunkmates would be as well. There were three names, one on each of the three beds, respectively. Carla Dent, Sharon McDaniel and Cindy Loeb. She knew none of them. Like her, they were all Freshmen. They had to be; she was assigned to an all-female building for Freshmen. There were also two buildings for the Sophomores, male and female, but they were up the hill a bit more.
Darla wasn’t thrilled about sharing a room with another, much less three others, but strangely looking forward to meeting someone else that had to endure the same high school misery that she did. She had considered doing something unlike herself and actually using this year to socialize, yet…
“So, you’re the fourth, huh?” The voice behind her became gradually audible. Darla’s head turned slightly in time to see a tall, pudgy girl with short curly hair (which was mostly covered with a red bandana), smacking her lips entering the room with a strut of hubris. Dark lenses set within white zebra-print frames sat high above her forehead. Her hands were hidden in a dark blue denim jacket with matching pants. A loose-fitting pink blouse beneath was revealing enough to test the school’s dress code – her sandals clapped at her heels loudly as she entered the room. “I’m Carla,” she said monotonously keeping her hands tucked in the jacket. Darla accepted this to be the most formal manner in which Carla had ever introduced herself. She responded back without hesitation in the normal low voice that was all her own, “Darla.”
Behind Carla, two other girls, at a synchronous pace, came into view. Following Carla’s example, they entered the room without a word of introduction. It was quite clear to Darla that their willingness to meet Darla’s eyes were as close to an introduction as Darla was going to get. She was okay with that.
They stopped in the doorway behind Carla as if that was their rightful place. Carla had apparently established a sentiment of dominance with these girls and they were merely falling in their positions.
“This your first year?” Carla asked curtly. “Yeah,” responded Darla. “Good. Then, I’m sure you know about the Initiation.” Darla had heard of no such thing. “Initiation?” Darla asked. “Everyone always acts so dumb,” Sharon whispered to herself in the back, then piped up to Darla. “Listen, Newbie, this is no time to act dumb. You know exactly what this is. This is a Marywell High tradition and everyone has to do it.” Carla’s eyes fell upon Darla and blinked with complacence and the clic leader’s lips gradually formed a wry smile. “You’ll be called on when it’s your turn – be ready.” With nothing else, the trio made their way out of the room and out of the building.
Darla waited to hear the outer door of the Timberhouse to close before exhaling. She felt her heart beat at a slightly faster pace. She was disturbed and confused. She couldn’t think of another time in her life that she had felt both pressured with such a degree of discomfort. This was the first.
The remainder of the day passed by quickly for the newest members to the grounds of Camp Shaw. The noon and evening meals were held in a building that resembled both a cafeteria and a barn. The students were shuffled through a line where they received a round plastic dish that was dark grey but scintillated at certain angles to the light. As they progressed down the food line, the dish was filled with both entrees, side dishes and cookies for desert. Darla learned that it was the staff’s way of trying to get their guests to feel like they were mining for gold. The jocund ambiance of the rest of the meal hall proved that her classmates were decidedly fond of the idea; Darla was unimpressed.
When Darla returned to her bed that night, she saw blankets draped over the bodies of her bunkmates, all were sleeping quietly. Darla, too, found herself fading as soon as her head hit the pillow. Deep sleep accompanied soon thereafter.
She could hear the moans and cries of humans in this place. They were faint, but audible. They were coming from somewhere above. There were no footsteps, no doors opening or closing – but there were moans; it was the only sound that let her know she wasn’t stuck in the darkness of where she stood. The lighting was unstable. She saw herself looking up to see where the light was coming from. Above it seemed like the sun in the sky was moving. Lights were flinging about erratically – the ground was not moving. Where was this place. Her heart began to beat at a faster pace – subtle at first, but the beating sped up. She felt something on her wrist; she couldn’t move her arm. She tried to run but – another tug on her wrist. What was happen…
SLAM! Darla’s left shoulder hit the ground first, followed by her torso and knees. She awoke in a fright and tried to scream. A sound came out of her mouth, but it was muffled by a gag made of some sort of cloth material. There was a taste of something of the flesh on the item that had been stuffed into her mouth, over which Darla had been bound by a red bandana. Her arms were tied together at the wrist and, before she had time to be fully cognizant of her circumstances, Darla felt a hand forcefully snatch the knot between her wrists and begin to drag her along the floor out of the bunk room and across the main hall of the Timberhouse. There was a chuckle in the darkness followed by a duo of snickers. “I told you to be ready.” The outside door was kicked open and Darla’s body lifted at the waist. She felt her body being tossed through the air; when she hit the bed of the truck, she was unconscious.
It wasn’t so much the low murmur of conversation that awakened Darla as it was the sound of something dripping that was somewhere close to her. The first time she attempted to open her eyes, there was a blinding light that dove directly into her; she winced, closed her eyes again and started over. It was a gradual coming to that Darla made. As she realized that she was no longer in her room at Camp Shaw or anywhere that carried any characteristics of Camp Shaw, she began to breathe more heavily, and her tongue still tasted something grotesque that she could not purge from her mouth as it was still tightly gagged. She looked to each side of her to find all extensions of her body were tied long iron stakes that plunged into the tile floor upon which she was lying.
She was lying on her back staring at the ceiling of a room that, as she looked around, had four walls. One of them, the one facing her, was white. The others were