No. 27: “Asylum: Book Two of The Thunder Rise Trilogy.”
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
Excerpt follows this backgrounder.
As I noted in the introduction of #33Stories, “I wrote and write because I have to, as I am hardly the first storyteller to remark. During my horror/mystery/fantasy/sci-fi days, I wrote to entertain – to stoke the imagination, to scare, and amuse, to put flesh and blood on the bones of characters born in the wind. But in many of these earlier stories, as with my entire body of newspaper journalism, you will also find a fair dollop of reflection and commentary on social and cultural issues, including religion, politics, the treatment of women, and the stigma surrounding those living with mental illness and intellectual disability, among others. Sometimes, fiction best illuminates reality.”
So it was with “Asylum: Book Two of The Thunder Rise Trilogy,” which I dedicated to a man who spent decades in an institution: “To the late Frank Beazley, Godspeed, my friend.”
In the foreword to “Asylum,” I described my motivation:
This is entirely a work of fiction. I created the characters and events.
But I did not create the historical circumstances in which Asylum is set.
Not so very long ago — within my memory as a journalist who covered their dying days — American institutions for the mentally ill and disabled were as depicted in these pages: warehouses that often became laboratories for the mistreatment of our fellow human beings. Residents suffered needlessly, and endlessly. Time dragged. The real world faded until it was gone. Hydrotherapy, insulin, electroshock treatments, lobotomy, forced sterilization, all of which are mentioned in this book — all were real. All were commonplace. Untold numbers of lives ended beneath unnamed concrete markers in potter’s fields.
Since the 1980s, when I began covering these issues for The Providence Journal, many of these institutions have closed. I would like to be able to report that our society’s treatment of the people who once filled them has become more enlightened. And while there are some communities where this is indeed the case, and while I know of one institution where care is compassionate and first-class — Zambarano Hospital, in Pascoag, Rhode Island, where Frank Beazley, to whom this book is dedicated, lived for so long — overall, little has changed. Many of the mentally ill and disabled are now imprisoned — one institution having replaced another. Many are on the streets, lost, abandoned, and often abused. Some are war veterans, which adds an additional layer of national shame.
And all remain subject to ugly stigma that pervades our society. Stigma that is based on the absurd notion that disorders of the brain are somehow different than disorders of any other organ.
Are we so lacking in compassion?
Have we learned nothing?
READ “Asylum: Book Two of The Thunder Rise Trilogy,” published in 2013 by Crossroad Press.
Herewith a passage toward the end of “Asylum,” in which the people living with mental illness who have been warehoused and abused by the superintendent and staff begin to break free (think: Chief in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”):
The most accomplished police detective attempting to reconstruct what happened next would have been stymied by the extraordinary complexity of the events and the remarkably short period of time in which they transpired.
Reilly, sneaking up on them. Reilly, managing to stifle the compulsion to rush Adams. Skulking through the darkness, across the grass, coming up behind the Victorian. Pausing at the back door. Listening. Going in. Navigating with the flickering light of a still-burning candle. Negotiating a path past Fred’s mice, who have taken the run of the place. Down the hall. To the front door. Stopping, the throbbing in his eye crescendoing to new heights of pain.
And Adams, his back to the door, dancing his death waltz with the old man.
Saint Peter, whose eyes register nothing.
Nick, stalling for time, engaging in absurd rebuttal with the superintendent.
And Sharon, arms across her belly in unconscious protection of her baby.
Reilly opened the door and stepped noiselessly onto the porch.
Nick was the first to see him.
“He’s got a gun!” Nick almost screamed, but he caught himself in time. Reilly brought a finger to his lips, motioning Nick to ignore him. Nick squeezed Sharon’s arm to signal her. He assumed she’d seen Reilly, too.
“...so you see, Nicholas,” Adams was saying, “this little scheme you’ve hatched, while masterfully crafted, will be, in the end, for naught. Your minions will escape, all right — into the maws of an open grave! What say you?”
It was at that moment — in the lull between Adams’s question and what would have been Nick’s response — that a floor board in back of Adams creaked.
As fast as Adams had snatched the gun from Saint Peter, the superintendent pirouetted.
“YOU!” Adams screamed at Reilly.
Without blinking, he fired.
The bullet tore into Reilly’s lower abdomen. Reilly reeled but did not go down. Blood boiled out of him, splashing Adams, showering Reilly’s clothes. There was a second of amnesty and then pain invaded his body, radiating through trunk and limbs to his extremities.
But he did not drop the screwdriver.
He did not go down.
He gritted his teeth and took another step toward Adams.
Nick, simultaneously immersed in and detached from what was unfolding, was running a probabilities program through his mind. How long before Reilly was out of it? How many more bullets would Adams have to fire? How many would that leave in the superintendent’s revolver? Should he rush Adams now? Could Reilly possibly achieve his aim? The questions sizzled through his brain.
Nick remembered a month he’d done in the emergency room of Boston City Hospital — the knifing and shooting victims the cops brought in, night after endless night. Some had lost entire organs — liver, intestines and kidneys were among the favorites — and still they hung on, unwitting testimony to the incredible resiliency of the human machine. The first few times, it amazed Nick, but not the veteran cops who handled it with no more concern than having their post-rescue-run coffee and doughnut. The heart was the big banana, they’d delighted in telling this greenhorn doc. Not the brain, not the lungs or pancreas or any of the thousand and one other organs you might meet in med school. You could even get by without a brain — half of humanity did anyway, yukity yuk — but not the ole ticker. Police manuals were full of cautionary tales of cops who’d pumped a killer’s belly full of lead, only to have him keep on coming — with disastrous results for the poor officer. Not the heart. Without the heart, blood went nowhere, and without blood there was nada. That was why, Nick had learned, police marksmanship — right down to the bull’s eyes on the life-size paper targets — emphasized one, and only one, organ: the one that Cupid claimed.
Adams’s second bullet was wild. It grazed Reilly’s forearm.
Adams’s third shot blew a hole in Reilly’s stomach.
This time, Reilly went down. He lay on his back, his eyes rolling wildly, the screwdriver still clutched in his good hand. Blood, mixed with a yellowish fluid, seeped from his stomach wound, a jagged and nasty thing.
“Oh my God!” Sharon screamed.
Saint Peter was unmoved.
“To think of all the time I wasted on him!” Adams screamed. “Is that your idea of a trick, Nicholas? Is it? Any more in your bag?”
Adams disengaged himself from Saint Peter. Keeping his revolver trained on the old man, he brought his good foot down on Reilly’s abdomen. With the toe of his shoe, he poked around inside the wound.
“For his next trick,” the superintendent shrieked, “Adams the Magnificent will put his foot right through our willing subject!”
Reilly drove the screwdriver through Adams’s leg.
Clean through — and out as swiftly as in.
Adams howled. Reilly stabbed again, and again, and again. Neat little puncture wounds — calf, ankle, through shoe leather into heel and toes. Six stabs, in less than half the number of seconds. An unbelievable, unbearable pain, brought tears to Adams’s bloodshot eyes.
The gun fell harmlessly from his hand and he dropped to his butt, his foot and leg drawn to his chest. He was trying to stop the pain. He was trying to stop the bleeding. He was howling like a dying animal, his madness and rage giving way to the whimperings of a beaten child, more afraid than he’d ever been in his brief life.
Even Nick’s cop buddies would have marveled at what Reilly did next. There was no way the dying man should have been able to sit himself up, but he did. There was no way he should have been able to continue clutching the screwdriver, but he did. There was no way he should have been able to guide it to his mark, but he did that, too.
The screwdriver punctured Adams’s right eye.
Clear fluid ran down his cheek. Adams’s howling reached new heights, rattling the glass in the Victorian’s windows.
Reilly was fading. He did not have the muscle to force the screwdriver where he wanted: through the skull and into the brain, where he could do some serious scrambling before putting the superintendent’s lights out for good. Reilly scratched around inside the eye socket, but got nowhere.
Nick, initially stunned, was coming to. He had Adams’s gun, and he was holding it to Adams’s left ear, cocking it at an angle that would send lead through the medulla — that awesome inch or so of brainstem that controls respiration, heart rate, blood pressure. People have lived through massive trauma to virtually every region of the brain. To Nick’s knowledge, no one had ever survived destruction of the brainstem.
Nick cocked the hammer.
“No!” Sharon screamed. “Don’t kill him. You’ll kill everybody else!”
“He was lying.”
“BUT WHAT IF HE WASN’T?”
Nick pulled the trigger.
There was a crack and a poof of smoke. The bullet took its intended path: through the ear, into the medulla, out the neck. Adams’s eyes rolled and slowly shut. Blood spread in two dark pools across the porch floor.
Adams spasmed. His last breaths were moist, sucking affairs, like a wet vac across a thoroughly soaked floor.
And then he was still.
Nick was not watching. He was stooped over Reilly, smoothing his brow with his hand, talking softly into his ear. The most talented surgeon with the most up-to-date hospital couldn’t put Reilly back together. It was purely a matter of waiting for the heart finally to stop.
“It sounds so... meaningless... but thanks,” Nick said. “Thanks from all of us.”
“The... bastard... deserved... it.”
“He deserved a lot worse.”
“And he’ll get it... where... he’s... going.”
Reilly drew one great, gulping breath and was still. The look on his face told Nick he had not gone an unsatisfied man. The look told Nick he wouldn’t have played it any other way.
“Come on,” Nick said to Sharon, who was with Saint Peter. The old man was still locked in catatonia. His eyes were the only visible sign that he was alive, and not some hauntingly realistic stone-and-mortar creation.
Nick looked down at the train. Shepherded by Roger, what appeared to be the last passengers were boarding.
“He was lying,” Nick said. “At least about them.”
The trio started down the drive. Halfway there, Nick stopped to peer back. He sensed something was happening back there on that hill.
Cracks were spreading across the face of the windows. The glass shattered, raining down in shards. The paint blistered, then peeled, then fell off in long strips. Pieces of slate began rattling on the roof, like the ivories on a player piano. Slate started crashing to the ground. The front door banged open and shut, open and shut, as if caught in some gale-force wind. Shutters clanged and dropped off. Rail posts popped loose and were lost in thin air. Holes appeared in the porch floor and entire planks disappeared.
But the building did not burn.
Nick expected it to, but it did not.
Instead, it aged forty years in thirty seconds.
And Adams — Adams was aging, too, the flesh peeling and stripping away from him in bizarre sympathy to what was happening to the house; the blood coagulating and drying and blowing away, mere dust now; the skin shriveling and blowing away, too; only a skeleton now, and that soon gone as well.
Only Reilly was left, but even he was changing, too. He was shrinking, smaller and smaller, soon gone altogether.
“Are the tunnels clear?”
“Not a soul left,” Roger said. They were standing next to the locomotive. Above them, Alphonse was eager to go.
“The wards have all been checked?”
“All of them.”
“Is everyone on board?”
“Everyone except these.” Roger pointed to a group of perhaps fifty people, most older woman, hovering in the shadows near the caboose. The festivity of half an hour ago had evaporated. This was one somber group.
“Not a fucking inch,” Roger said.
“Jesus. We can’t leave them behind.”
“I know. Maybe we can make two trips.”
“Two trips?” Alphonse interrupted. “I hate to be pessimistic, but I suspect once we’re out of here, there’s no coming back.”
“I suspect you’re right,” Nick said.
“What is it that you need?” Saint Peter asked. With Adams’s grip broken, the old man was on his way back. His voice was still mild and dreamy, but it was recognizable as his. And there were the first traces of a satisfied smile on his lips.
“Another car,” Roger said.
Saint Peter closed his eyes and crossed his arms. The lines on his forehead deepened and extended and he mouthed silent words. Nothing happened. Nick expected a flash of light — a sulfurous explosion — a thunderclap — trumpeting angels — but there was nothing.
Nothing ostentatious, that is.
The brand-new Pullman car simply materialized where Alphonse would have wanted it: coupled to the caboose.
“Jesus!” Sharon exclaimed.
“Will that do?” Saint Peter asked. “Or do we need another?”
“That’ll more than do,” Roger said.
“Get them on!” Nick said. “There’s only one more thing, and that’ll be but a minute.”
“What?” Roger said.
“The rest of the buildings.”
“Leave them,” Sharon said.
“Like hell. Just get on. Give me one minute. That’s all I’ll need.”