I’m so excited to publish ASYLUM in a few weeks that I just can’t wait to share it with you!
Below is the first chapter in its entirety. Enjoy, and stay tuned!
“Be good, June Bug. Take care of yourself,” she said, stroking my cheekbone with the back of her hand like I was some doll in a china shop. “Call me on Sundays, all right?”
I was staring beyond her at the five stories of brick hovering overhead. The sanitarium took up the whole sky—all brick and bars and dark.
“June? Are you listening to me?” My eyes darted back to her face. Her lipstick was too red and it was time to peroxide her hair again. The dark brown of her roots sprouted up from her scalp and faded into a pale blonde she called honeysuckle.
“Sunday is the day they let you call home. I wrote down our new number and put it in your pocketbook.” Her too-red lips said pahket-book—one of the few southern pronunciations she could never cover up, hard as she tried. Since the trial, she’d had to change our telephone number; too many reporters sniffing around. “Be good,” she rattled on. “Don’t make trouble for the nurses. You take whatever pills they tell you to and don’t make any fuss about it.”
Pills. Yep. They would definitely make me take pills. Loads of pills. Piles and piles and mountains of pills. Injections and shocks and mountains of pills. Once on Dark Venture the wardens shocked a woman with so much electricity that her body died. Her brain was still alive, but her body just stopped, still as a corpse. Welcome, June Foster, to Washington Pines Sanitarium. Sweet dreams.
“June. June! Listen, missy. Look at me.” She guided my chin forward with cold fingers.
I batted her hand away, my eyes drifting north to the wrought iron arch behind her head. The i was missing from Pines. I giggled.
“Do you think this is funny?”
“Oh yeah, Ma. It’s hilarious. A real kick in the pants.” Incarceration in a hole like this was definitely not funny. Maybe funny how bizarre my life had become. “Of course I don’t think it’s funny being locked away behind bars.”
“Good. Because this is serious business, young lady. Now, you know you’re going to be in here for a while.”
Lahdy. She could cover up her true hair color, but she’d never be able to hide that Alabama drawl.
“Do ya hear? I’m trying to say goodbye. You’ll be staying awhile.”
I nodded. Of course I was staying. Where else would I go? The iron bars barricading the windows said it all: Ye who pass here don’t ever dream of leaving, unless it’s in a pine box.
“And you know why you’re here,” she pestered.
“Well, let’s see,” I mocked. Of course I knew why I was here. Did she think I was taking a nap when the judge banged his gavel? “Either it’s because I killed a man or because you’re tryin’ to get rid of me. Either of those sound about true, Ma?” I caressed her cheek mockingly, just for good measure.
“Don’t be smart with me, missy. You can get better here. And they’ll help you—you know what.” As if I didn’t know what. “Now I know you were proved not guilty and all, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think you’re—a little—you know…”
“Crazy?” I offered.
“You know I don’t like that word,” she snapped.
“Maybe it just rings a little too close to home for you.”
She scoffed and continued. “Well, with everything that’s happened, I think this is the best spot. They can help you, June Bug, if you let them. Promise me you’ll try?” Her lips pouted in an insincere frown.
I wondered what Frank was doing right now. He’d better be hatching a plan to get me the hell out of here. An image of his face—turquoise eyes and sandy blonde hair, dimpled and tan, grinning at me in the sun—flashed before me. Ma clutched my arm, shaking me, and Frank disappeared.
“Geez, don’t have a cow, Ma.” I batted her hand away. “I promise, okay? I promise.” I didn’t mean it.
“And no more talking to Frank. I mean that. You don’t hear from him; you don’t write him; you don’t try to call him—you hear?”
I sighed, forcing my head to nod up and down. But it was only because I wanted her off my back—I didn’t mean that, either.
“Now gimme a hug.”
“Seriously? We have to do this?”
She wrapped her skinny arms around my shoulders and gave a half-assed squeeze. Dry lips pecked my cheek quickly, like I was contagious. As she stepped back, a puff of her signature scent—a combination of Lady Pink perfume and Chesterfield cigarettes—gaped in the air between us. If the perfume was an effort to disguise last night’s bourbon still seeping from her pores, it wasn’t working. “Goodbye darlin’. Go on in. They won’t bite.”
I thought I saw a hint of a tear fall from the corner of her eye, or maybe I just wished it. Ma was incapable of any emotion not brought on by Four Roses Kentucky Bourbon. She climbed back in the rusty pickup, turning the ignition three times before the engine sputtered to life. Ma waved to the guard as he swung open the iron gate and motioned her through. The truck groaned as she pulled onto the highway, tires spinning in the gravel and kicking up September dust. She didn’t look back.
“Let’s see. June…June…” The squat woman barely cleared the cream-colored front desk. Her plastic nametag read Sherri. She had drawn a crooked heart above the i in red. Sherri’s chubby fingers guided her squinty eyes down a clipboard. “June Foster. Here we go. I’ll need to take a gander in your suitcase and then I’ll show you to your room.”
“Standard procedure, dear. No jewelry, sharp objects, pills, booze, or needles.”
I hoisted my blue suitcase onto the desk. Sherri flipped the lock with her plump thumb and began sifting through my belongings. Her hair was a short peroxide bob that didn’t move when she did. I pondered how many cans of Aqua Net she kept in her bathroom.
“Pajamas, books, sweaters—looks pretty good. I’ll need to take Buddy Holly, though. We have music hour in the common room?” Sherri’s sentences ended on an upswing, making everything sound like a question. “Quite a nice selection, I think.” She held up the record.
“No records? What the hell kind of place is this?” I stammered. No Frank and no Buddy Holly. I felt like I was going to puke.
“Couple years back we had a patient smash one and slit her wrists with it? Can’t take chances anymore.”
“Trust me, if I were going to slit my wrists I would have done it before I got to this shithole,” I said under my breath, scanning the lobby. Inside Washington Pines looked nothing like its prim brick exterior. The walls were cold and cracked, the ceilings yellowed with age and water damage. Every surface was cream-colored, or used to be, now fading to a buttery hue that made the whole place look like an old, faded photograph.
“No profanity, dear. You’ll learn all the rules soon enough. Sign and date here, and then I’ll show you to your room.” She pointed to an empty line on a clipboard that read Admittance. I scrawled my name at the bottom, beneath lines and lines of other patients’ messy signatures. Next to it I wrote the date—September 17, 1957—the day I was to start my junior year of high school. My classmates were headed back to Coulee High and here I was headed into the depths of the loony bin.
Sherri led me down one long hallway and up a concrete staircase, her wide hips swaying left to right under a too-tight white polyester skirt. Her matching white pantyhose made a swooshing sound as we walked the corridor, the only sound besides the buzzing of fluorescent lights overhead. Along the second floor hallway, brightly colored posters broke up the cream. They were the outlines of bodies traced in crayon and filled in with words. Inside the head of one of the outlines was the word “mad” written in red. I think I did the same exercise in kindergarten.
At the fourth door down the hallway, Sherri stopped.
“Here we are: 208. You’ll meet your roommate when she gets back from the doctor. Lunch is at eleven-thirty. Get settled. Mrs. Crouch will meet with you this afternoon to discuss your treatment plan. If there’s an emergency, the telephone on the wall calls the front desk. Checks happen every hour. You must be where you are scheduled to be at all times. Common areas are the gym, the lounge, and the cafeteria. Outside time is based on merit. Questions?”
Yeah, I thought, I have a question. How do I get the heck out of here? But instead I asked, “Who is Mrs. Crouch?”
“Mrs. Crouch is the director of this facility. She is a doctor and personally oversees the treatment plans of every patient.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Holler if you need anything, dear.”
Sherri waddled back down the hallway. Her ass was enormous. Really. Probably the biggest ass I had ever seen on a woman. It looked like two watermelons fighting in a sleeping bag. I watched them spar all the way back down the cream-colored hallway.
After Sherri’s watermelons were out of sight, I turned to assess my room. Two single beds with white sheets and white pillows. One extra white blanket folded at the foot of each bed. Two bedside tables. One wooden dresser with six drawers. One bathroom with one toilet, one sink, and one shower. No door on the bathroom. Great. So I’d have to take a shit in front of my new roommate. Things were looking up.
Across from the toilet was a sad excuse for a mirror—a sheet of metal that was polished to a high sheen. No glass, I assumed, because us crazies were liable to smash it and slit our wrists with the shards. I stared at my reflection in the metal. My once-vibrant green eyes had lost their gloss, fading to a deep shade of olive. The freckles that usually graced my summer skin were gone. My auburn hair lay limp and frizzy at my shoulders. Purple half-moons nestled under my eyes, from crying or sleeplessness or both. I still saw hints of beauty there—maybe the one good thing passed down from Ma—but mostly I just looked ragged.
I pushed my suitcase into a corner and flopped down on the bed. This was going to be a long, long life if I had to spend it in this place. My future stretched out before me in cream-colored cement. Cement and pills and door-less bathrooms and kindergarten coloring and Sherri’s gigantic watermelon ass. This was my reality now. Get used to it, June. You got yourself into this.
I wondered where Frank was. He said he would follow me here, survey the grounds, hatch an escape plan and we’d run away together. Start a new life in Mexico or South America or as far away as we could get. But we didn’t exactly leave each other on the best of terms. I didn’t even know if he would stay true to his word, and maybe I deserved to be stuck in here forever. But if I had to do it all over again, I would. I would kill that son of a bitch as many times as it would take for him to be dead. I’d give anything for Jonas Whitebone to be six feet under and me standing six feet above. I sprawled out on the bed and counted the dots on the watermarked ceiling.