The August Featured Story is by Rachel Coles
Please feel free to visit Rachel at: firstname.lastname@example.org
THE ORPHANS OF LETHE
by Rachel Coles
The “blessed” day finally arrived with cussing that would have boiled Holy water into steam. We checked into the hospital. I don't think we were in the labor suite for twenty minutes before my husband Bill ogled at the Romanesque design of the bathroom. I imagined choking him and ripping his nuts off. That helped, but not as much as the epidural.
Before my eyes slid shut, I zoned out and stared at a shadow in the corner behind the heart monitor, and realized that it wasn’t the shadow of the monitor.
A day later, Bill wandered into my room with the rich aroma of pastrami and buttery rye following him like an elderly Brooklyn deli phantom, poaching my fries on the way.
He paused, an errant fry poking out of his mouth. “No…just quality assurance…”
I snatched the bag and stuck my entire face inside, inhaling the greasy goodness. “Stay out of my food, or I’ll eat you.”
He snorted and leaned back in the chair and stretched his legs. “I heard something interesting today. They’re closing down one of the last units for psychiatric folks in the city at University Hospital. The only one left will be Denver Health. If Denver’s full, they’ll have to go to Fort Logan, or get shuffled through the Emergency Department and then back out onto the street.”
“University is closing their psychiatric unit?” I said through mouthfuls of meat. “I thought they just got that new huge building. It was supposed to be the whole point of moving out to the east end of nowhere, so they could have more room. What are they doing with it after the psych unit closes?”
“Luxury rooms for the wealthy. They want to attract more money to the hospital. So they are turning the space that used to be the psych ward into single-patient rooms for body-scans.” Bill shook his head. “I’ll be doing the rest of my residency in the park across from the Denver Rescue Mission, because that’s where my low-income, mentally ill patients will end up.”
I stopped chewing and looked around at my own semi-lavish surroundings in the labor room.
He seemed to read my thoughts, and smiled. “Don’t feel so guilty. They wouldn’t have turned this back into a mental health wing anyway. The suites in the previous labor and delivery wing were like prison cells. They needed an overhaul.”
I poked at a blob of sauerkraut, and glanced out the window. A blanket of snow was swirling around lumps of roadside dirt and iced grime until everything was shifting, glittering white. The wind blew a cruel blast against the double-pane. My attention was caught by my own reflection in the mirror. My image and I swiped at a beige smear of Thousand Island dressing on the wrong cheek. Bill laughed as I pawed both my hands over my face and licked the dressing off my hand.
Then the eyes in the mirror changed. They weren’t smiling or laughing anymore. The face was an expressionless mask. As soon as I focused on it, the face became my face again. I glanced at Bill, but he was busy eying the other half of my sandwich.
It was good to be home, minus dozens of hours of sleep. A chilly draft blasted across the room when Bill came in from work, bundled in a hat and scarf and smelling like frost and ozone. No paternity leave for the wicked.
“It’s windy. Jeez. You’ve been here for five years. Aren’t you ever going to get used to cold? Oh yeah, I forgot, your people have been lost in the desert for forty years. Would you feel more comfortable if I shipped in some sand dunes?” He ducked as a couch pillow sailed past his head and whumped against the front door.
“Sure! Ask your people to build us a teepee,” I shot back.
He grinned, “Wrong tribe, dork! We lived in longhouses. And…hell no.”
“Whatever. You all look alike.”
He shook his fist and kissed me on the top of the head, kissed Tom on his button nose and crossed his eyes at the baby. Tom stared at him in fascination. His head wobbled off my chest and he grabbed Bill’s finger, pulling it towards his mouth. “Oh, guess what! He’s hungry again, what a surprise! ‘Feed me, Seymour.’”
I sighed. “I’m tapped out. We’ll need to use formula.”
“I can take this shift if you want to sleep early.”
“Are you sure? You just got off call.”
“Maybe so, but I’m going to have a hard time sleeping right now anyway. One of my patients didn’t come back for her follow up. The schizophrenic girl from Russia. Police found a body matching her description in the alley behind the King Soopers on Thirteenth Street. It looks like she died of exposure.” He slumped into the worn chair across from me. “We should have kept her, but there weren’t any spots left on the unit. It was an insane night, and now that folks from the VA are being shipped over too...”
I felt badly for him. I knew he was wondering if he could have somehow prevented the woman’s fate. “It wasn’t your decision to release her. It was the attending doc.”
“I know. But I just can’t stop thinking about how somehow, this is my fault.”
“It isn’t your fault.” I handed Tom over because I knew it would help, and it did. Bill’s face relaxed and lit up as Tom gurgled and drooled onto his scrubs.
A few weeks in a tiny house with no sleep and my ‘helpful,’ anxious mother, drove me out into the cold, looking for commodities we needed at the store. Or anything. Once I was done in the supermarket, I rattled the cart briskly towards my car in the parking lot. Tom was just a fuzzy mountain of blankets in the cart with two dark eyes peeping out.
Suddenly a voice startled me, causing my heart to try to leap out of my chest. “Just feel free to run me over! Christ, I’m homeless, not invisible!”
I gasped and jumped a foot in the air when the grungy figure near the sidewalk moved towards me. “I’m so sorry!” I cried before I could think. Then, as I tried to calm my rapidly beating heart, I told him, “I know you’re not invisible, but I really didn’t see you.”
His hard eyes softened. “It’s all right. I didn’t mean to scare you. You got a little one there. Boy or girl?” He peered at Tom.
“He’s a teeny one! How old?”
“A few weeks.”
“Jesus Christ! What’re you doin’ out in this weather?”
“I’ve been in the house for three weeks. My mother’s been here for two.”
He laughed. “I see. You needed a little fresh air and a little get-away.”
I dug for my wallet.
“You don’t have to do that, miss. I don’t want your money. I’m doin’ all right.” He held up his cup of ratty bills. “I got the shelter at night, my coat, my wits.”
His wrinkled, leathery face grew distant for a second. “That’s more ‘n some out here…” he drifted off, and then his eyes sharpened, and he said, “It’s really cold, and here comes the rent-a-cop. You’d better get that little bundle of yours inside.”
As a square-shouldered security guard stalked towards us, the homeless man warned, “You be careful. Some folks out here aren’t okay.”
“What do you mean?”
“The weather makes it worse for some of us,” the homeless man explained. “People get lonely, and scared of dyin’ out here. Nobody sees them, like you didn’t see me with your cart.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“I know you are. But before that cop gets here to chase me off, let me finish. Some of us homeless folk start out just like you. Nice home, nice job. And then they get sick, and they never get better. You know, cause they’re sick in the head. Some from addictions, others, from no reason other than just because. And then their families don’t want ’em, or can’t keep track of ’em, and after a while, the sick people are on their own.”
He hesitated, then turned to me and lowered his voice, like he was going to let me in on a secret. “Their names get lost. Their real names, not what we call them. Hell, I hang out with the likes of Dirty Pete, Hobo Jim, Nuke Girl, and Old Crystal. They have their stories. But after a while, sometimes they lose those, too.” He nodded at me and bobbed his chin toward the security guard who now stood in front of us.
“You can’t stay here, sir,” the security guard said.
“Have a nice night, Miss.” My acquaintance loped off across the street.
I hurried to my car and shivered while Tom pulled the strings out of the puff-ball on my hat that was sitting on top of the Cocoa Puffs.
Sleep deprivation did odd things to my perception. One night I awoke during the wee hours to Tom’s hungry cries from the other room, and turned on the light by my bed.
When I sat up, my shadow didn’t move.
I paused, at first thinking I was still asleep, locked within a dream. I rubbed the sand out of my eyes, and looked again. My shadow seemed to move back and forth, right at the peripheral edges of my sight. When I looked directly, it was a normal silhouette cast by the lamp light.
And then I noticed that the reflection in the mirror on top of my dresser also moved out of synch in my peripheral vision. It was still when I looked at it. My memory tugged at me; I had seen something like this before and was overwhelmed with a strong feeling of déjà vu.
And then I remembered the heart monitor in the labor room when I had delivered Tom. I slid off the bed and threw my sheet over the mirror. I swept through the hallway to the baby’s room, grabbed Tom, and threw on the lights and the TV. Then I sat, feeding Tom and trembling until I fell asleep with him wrapped in my arms.
The alley was dirty, like a dozen alleys, like every alley. A lump of dingy clothes were piled in the corner nook next to a dumpster, almost buried under a blizzard drift. The lump had a smudged, pale face surrounded by an unraveling hat and shawl. Her delicate, frost-rimed eyelashes looked like dragonfly lace. Her eyes were closed, and her lips were parted and cracked. Her rough hands rested upon her chest. An empty cigarette package was barely discernible under the snow that was heaped upon parts of her body, and an empty lighter dangled from her fingers that were the colors of the Arctic sea.
I jerked awake. I had never seen Bill’s Russian girl, but it was dream logic. Let’s just stick Darth Vader and Yoda in there and call it a day, I thought. A groan escaped me as I stood up, and trudged with Tom into his room as the watery light outside paled. He was still asleep and I was ready to fall over.
Maybe the dream that affected me. Or maybe it was the homeless man I had met outside the grocery store who been dismissed by the security guard.
But I started volunteering at the Denver Rescue Mission in June. I sat at donations intake and sifted through an ocean of boxes, sorting piles of pants, shirts and other clothing articles. It was amazing the things people got rid of, because they didn’t have the time to barter on Ebay or hold a good old-fashioned garage sale. All hail the alley recycling system. I found a Chinese gong once, a set of skis, and a baby iguana in a full-sized tank, complete with the topping from a Big Mac that some kid probably figured it would eat. If I found it, it ended up here at the shelter. Jana, the operations manager, peered at the stuff and then at the door, on the other side of which was a legion waiting to receive my alley-finds when the doors opened.
“Seems like there’s more every day,” Jana said, nodding at the crowd.
“Economy,” I said. That was a great explanation for everything these days.
She snorted. “Then how come even when the economy is booming, we still have hoards of homeless? You know that most of these folks have mental problems no matter what Wall Street is doing.” She knew everybody there. She could tell you anything about anyone, and often did.
There was Hobo Jim. He was an old-fashioned boxcar hobo. He hopped trains. He had started out as a manager of a company, and then his wife died, the love of his life. Whatever had happened to her had destroyed him. From that point on, the material world had no interest for him. He lived day to day, enjoying the open sky and stars and the people he met. He was a gentle soul who wished every person he saw on the street a great day and really meant it. It was a good day for him if he saw you smile.
There was Old Crystal. No one knew how old he was. He loved the magic mushrooms, or had before meth had come along. Then he’d loved the meth for years that had seemed like hours to him. His teeth and skin were rotted from consuming the food of Faery. One night, after he had run out of his stash, the demon music faded and the dancers vanished. The powers the Queen had given him were gone and he lay, hacking with pneumonia in an abandoned house that he saw as a feasting hall, alone. A cop had found him because of a complaint report, and instead of taking him to the station had taken him to a hospital. He had been clean for a year but still couldn’t keep a job or a home. The fairies still followed him around corners, compelling him every second he was awake, offering him things he couldn’t touch. And then, they laughed and cavorted in his dreams.
There was Patrick Reilly, the homeless man I had nearly run over with my cart outside the supermarket. Patrick Reilly, from Boston. That was his real name, and he insisted that others use it. He never talked about his past or his life. “What’s done is done. Life goes on,” he would say, gazing at you with eyes that could have been those of a twenty-year-old, or a sixty-year-old, or centuries older. But he always held onto his name.
And then there was Nuke Girl, or had been until last winter. Nuke Girl was the Russian woman Bill had told me about, and she had talked to animals and thought they talked back. She had gotten her moniker because she smoked like Chernobyl, and always offered a light. Jana suspected she had been smuggled here and then forced into the sex trade to pay her passage. Until she died, this had been the longest Nuke Girl had ever stayed in a place.
As I left the crowd to go pick up Tom, someone said that Old Crystal was in the hospital again. Patrick Reilly shook his head and spat near the scraggly base of a tree. “He likes them hospitals. Course, I would, too, if I was in his shape. He’s falling to pieces.”
“Do you think he’ll be ok?” I asked.
“Hard to say. Every time he goes in we think he ain’t coming out this time and he always does. Spent his life cheatin’ death, that one.”
I nodded and started to walk back to my car, but he grabbed my arm. “Give ’em their names back,” Patrick Reilly said. “When they come to you. Those things.”
His pale eyes pinned me, and I knew he wasn’t talking about his companions. My blood went cold.
He smiled. “Talk to them. Them things you see were people once.” He disappeared into the food line.
In front of me is a young boy, dark-eyed, in a green tunic and pants. I know he is my son. But his eyes are distant and cold like the landscape around him. We’re separated by mist and rain and everything is barren and muddy. He reaches into his bag for a drink of water, but when he holds it to his mouth, the dirty, yellow rain gets in and he pours it out. He keeps trying.
I call to him; he looks at me and doesn’t answer. He makes sounds but cannot speak, not even to tell me he’s okay. He isn’t. Around him, shifting through the air, are disturbing creatures cruel and alien, denizens of no genetic tree I ever saw on Earth.
I gasped as I woke. Great. The first of many nightmares I was sure I’d be having about my kid, not the least of which would be when he learned to drive. Then I’d never sleep again.
But now, still a baby, Tom had stopped feeding and looked at me. His eyes held none of the roaming lack of focus characteristic of infants. Old Crystal’s story mixed with the nightmare of my son crawled through my mind. True Thomas cursed by the Faery Queen, who disappeared from the world of Men, to return when everyone he knew was gone. I cuddled my son as he made a reassuring burbling sound, and blew a bubble with his spit.
When Bill came home, I asked him if he had found any records of Old Crystal at the clinic or hospital.
He shook his head, eyes darting around the room. “I know you asked me to check. He wasn’t my patient, but I know the doctor who treated him. And he told me that there are no records for anyone with his identity.”
“What about medical charts?”
“Could the computer have lost it?”
“At that place? It's possible. Their system is archaic.”
“So it's like, what, three years old?”
He flashed a computer-geek grin. “Bite me, Neo-Luddite.”
“Well, what else did he say about Old Crystal?”
Bill shrugged, apologetic. “Not much; his recollection of him was a bit hazy. Docs can get burned out at that hospital. Remember, they take everyone. Which means it's crowded and busy all the time.”
A chill went up my spine in the arid heat. “Or maybe more than his file disappeared.” And then I sighed as I sat down into a chair. “You look like shit.”
His smile faded. “These guys at the clinic are really tragic. I saw a guy a couple weeks ago, complained of pain in his foot. Well, when we pulled his boot off, it came off with a sucking sound because his foot was rotten. And I don’t mean he just had stinky toes. I mean he had gangrene that was never even seen, let alone treated. He lost his leg up to his knee. And he doesn’t have the money for a prosthetic. We can get him a chair, but not much else.”
He stared into space for a second.
“There’s something I want to tell you…” I said slowly. “I’ve been seeing weird things.”
He glanced at me warily. “Weird like what?”
“Like shadows, doing things they oughtn’t.” I told him what I had seen. Or thought I had seen.
“Listen,” Bill said, “I’m a doctor, or at least an intern, and the laws of physics say that your shadow is just a silhouette in a light stream. And a mirror is just a coating of silver covered by glass. But things have gone wonky around here. I’ve seen those things too.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Many Native Americans do. We know there are spirits.”
“What about you?”
“Maybe,” he said, “but I never believed that I would see one.” He let out a nervous breath. “Well, what do you want to do about this?”
“Let’s call your mom. You know, don’t you have that Enemy Ghost Way?”
He burst into a laugh, and rolled his eyes. “That's Navajo. Wrong tribe.”
“Does that matter for ghosts?”
“It does because Mom doesn’t know how to do it. That’s like asking an electrician to fix a water main. Do you know any Navajos?”
I ran for the phone. There had been lovely calm for a few weeks, barring the routine feeding of Tom the Black Hole. The phone rang, and at first I thought it was a crank call. Panting was all I could hear for a couple seconds.
″Schmuck!" I yelled. "Move out of your Mommy’s basement!″ I almost hung up.
“Wait, you there?” Bill caught his breath.
“Bill? What’s up?”
“Remember when you asked about Old Crystal’s records?”
“Well, there are others that I recalled. Their records have all vanished too, and they all have something in common. They all had trouble either remembering who they were, or some psychosis where they lost a chunk of time.”
I shivered and said nothing.
“The Russian girl, you know, Nuke Girl, believed she was displaced in our century, and that she was pursued by an ancient weather figure. Old Crystal believed the fairies stole years of his life. Christ, I think there’s probably more.” His voice echoed on the connection. “But I can’t report this, because there’s no way to prove it. No one seems to remember the files, much less the people. I can’t prove they existed. I don’t know what to do.”
The room was cold and my brain raced. How many of these people drifted through time, bumping into other people only occasionally in a brief moment of contact? They were dark figures flashing by on a corner holding signs for passersby. How long had some of them been there? Some of them had been there for years. Decades? And where did they go, and why didn’t anyone besides Bill and I remember them?
But I said none of my thoughts out loud. “Please come home.” I hung up.
It’s started again. And now it has involved both of us. The shadows shift and move even when we stare straight at them. They reach for us and brush dark fingers towards our bodies but never quite touch us. Sometimes they separate into multiples of shadows.
There are no mirrors in the house. Bill smashed them earlier and threw them away after his image in the cabinet mirror put its hands on the surface when he was brushing his teeth, as though it would come right through.
They never rest. Not for a second. The edges of the silhouettes are like bacteria in Brownian motion, cilia rippling. Bill calls in sick, and hasn’t slept for days on top of the sleep deprivation he was already suffering. But we must stay alert.
I can’t stay awake much longer, but I won’t let them get to Tom. He’s crying most of the time, unable to sleep because I always shift and jerk, and we won’t set him down in his crib alone. I remember what happened to him in my dream, when he is older.
Finally, Bill gets that science-guy look on his face and runs to the garage. He drags every single lamp he can find into the large walk-in closet. Then he tosses everything in the closet out onto the main room floor. His hands are shaking with fatigue.
“If we use a smaller space with no obstacles, it will be easier to illuminate the place bright enough so that there won’t be shadows. Dammit, that won’t work! It would have to be directly overhead, and then it would only work if we never moved.”
“What about total darkness?” As soon as the words leave my mouth we both shake our heads. Our fear of the dark has voted logic off the island. The only place that we aren't haunted by the shadows is in the closet.
I stockpile formula and diaper-changing stuff, ice packs and a cell phone, and hold Tom close as we sit against the wall in the closet. The retina-searing light banishes most of the shadows. We avoid looking at the ones that remain and simmer in the corners of our vision. We call Bill’s mom but she isn’t answering.
After two hours, it becomes clear that our refuge isn’t going to work. It’s stifling in our small prison. It was ninety degrees in the house before we turned every lamp on in the suffocating closet. The funk of dirty diaper only adds to the lack of breathable air. Tom is sweating and crying again. Most of the formula is gone.
I say, “Give them back their names.”
“What?” Bill’s face is drawn. There are hollows under his eyes.
“Patrick Reilly said to give them back their names, when they came to me.”
“That’s helpful. What the hell does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried talking to them, but they don’t speak. Maybe I don’t know how to listen to them; or maybe they don’t even realize that I’m trying to listen. Maybe it’s because they’re used to no one hearing them, even when they were alive. And I don’t know how we can name them if we don’t know who they are.”
“We can’t stay in here with the baby like this.”
“I know!” I yell. “But what else are we going to do? Now I know how Anne Frank felt.”
“At least you could kill a Nazi.”
The white, blind air is more and more putrid and hotter every minute. All three of us are soaked in sweat. Suddenly Tom stops sweating.
This is it. He needs water. We have to leave the closet. Now.
Bill and I look at each other.
I take a deep breath. “You said no one remembered Old Crystal. I think they don’t even remember themselves. They’ve lost their names.”
He reaches over and turns off the lights, all but one. The shadows come in, flood in from the corners and from under the door. There are dozens and they keep coming. The shadows crowd in, splitting and multiplying until they are legion.
Rachel Coles is a medical anthropologist living and working on public health in Denver, Colorado. She lives with her husband Adam and young daughter Rosa. She started writing horror stories because her daughter loves scary stories. Orphans of Lethe is dedicated to Rosa, and to Hobo Jim.