The Shadow Keepers

 

ONE

I REACH A finger to a racing raindrop and follow it down the car window until it disappears. And then I find a new raindrop. Raindrop. Teardrop. Essentially the same. But I hold mine in for now.

The tyres come to a crunching halt on the deep gravel. My mother turns off the engine. She shifts in her seat to face me, a hesitant smile plastered on her lips.

“Georgia,” she says.

Beyond the window stands an imposing edifice built with grey bricks and grey slate. The air of misery it exudes matches the weather. The building towers six stories high, indifferent and sterile, fluorescent strips shining in most of the windows. Expect for the top floor. The top floor rests in the eaves, and the windows remain dark. A large, black crow flies close to the building and straight into a closed window. I imagine the sickening thud as bone meets glass. It falls to the ground, stunned, or more likely dead. I avert my gaze as its expressionless eyes stare towards the sky.

I glance at Bart beside me. But he’s face-down in his phone, a flop of walnut hair falling in his eyes. His shirt is wrinkled and stale alcohol seeps from his pores.

“Georgia,” Mum says again. “We’re here.”

I hunch deeper into my seat. “I can see that.”

My stepfather rests a hand over my mother’s. She inhales one of her deep yoga breaths and holds it. Some old crooner’s version of a love song trickles from the speakers at a respectable volume. She snaps off the radio.

“Georgia—”

“Why don’t you believe me?” I sit bolt upright in my seat. If Mum, or the damn court, or anyone of my non-existent friends actually tried to believe me . . . they’d know the court order was bullshit. “I’m not crazy!”

My mother and stepfather exchange a look. It’s one I’ve seen a hundred times in the last few months. They’ve been here before. We’ve had this conversation before, but they’ve made up their minds.

“No one is saying that,” Mom says softly. “But after the incident . . .”

Bart chucks his phone between us. “Give her a break, Mum. I’m sure she remembers.”

I reach for his hand and he squeezes it back.

Another yoga breath for my mother. She sets her face into an emotionless mask; guarded eyes, flat smile. “We know you’re not crazy, sweetheart.”

“Then what am I doing here?”

“We don’t have a choice. It’s what the court decided,” my stepfather replies. “It’s only ninety days.”

Three months. A quarter of a year. I’ll miss Halloween. Out in time for Christmas, if I prove I have recovered.

I look at the miserable, grey building again. Brookwood Hospital. Or Lunacy Asylum for the Insane and Unreachable. It’s the place people with money put their loved ones when they don’t know what else to do with them.

“I don’t belong here.” I hear the edge in my voice, like a caged animal knowing there’s no escape.

“Georgia,” Mum says with that flat smile again. “This place isn’t what it used to be. They don’t do electric shock therapy or hose patients with water. It’s not like that anymore. There’s no shame in it. The doctors and nurses here are the best suited to understanding and helping you.”

“We’ve shown you the website,” my stepfather butts in. “You’ve seen the activities, the art therapy, the group excursions . . . hell, looks like a holiday—”

“Why don’t you go then?” I snap.

A stony silence fills the car. I bury my head in my hands and recall the plastic smiles of the teenagers on the website my mother showed me, her smile equally fake. The psychiatric nurse who will lead group therapy and the psychologists and the psychiatrist who will pump me full of new meds. The girls slouched around tables with their heads bowed, but their eyes were dangerous and their limbs inked. I saw through it all. No one wants to be there.

“Why can’t you help me?” I stare at the racing raindrops, refusing to look at Mum.

“We’ve tried, sweetheart. And we haven’t been able to. Now it’s time to let others in. You heard what the judge said; it’s here, or it’s the NHS hospital. We no longer have a choice. And to be quite honest, Georgia, there’s nothing else I can do for you.”

Bart nudges my arm, and his wobbling smile crushes my resolve not to cry.

“Your father never got the help he needed,” Mum says. “I don’t want that for you. I watched him struggle every day until he died. He joined the army because he felt he had something to prove, that he was tough and could look after us all. He went off to Afghanistan and he died trying to prove it. You’re so like him, Georgia, in many ways. You need to be here. You need to get better.”

“Georgia,” my stepfather says. His solid fingers grip the steering wheel. He looks at me in the rear-view mirror, which I avoid. “We don’t need to rehash everything again. You have . . . issues, and with the smoking and the drinking and the breaking of the mirrors in every shop you go in, you need help. Real help.”

“It was one mirror!” One broken mirror and I’m labelled a loon.

My stepfather wilts my complaints with one sharp look. “You’ve met the doctor and had your assessment. He’s going to help you now. There’s nothing else we can do. So, let’s try and toughen up a bit . . .”

Tears prick my eyes as I tune out his words. I dare a glance at my mother. Her eyes are wet, too. Bart’s hand still holds mine, squeezing, but I can’t bear to look at him. The pity in his eyes would break me. Who am I kidding? I’m broken already.

“Georgia—” Mum starts in again.

I hold up a hand. “Just stop. As you said, we’ve been through it all before. I’m on my own now.”

“Georgia—”

I open the car door and storm into the rain. Pulling my hood over my head, I march up the stone steps to the covered portico.

“Georgia!” Bart runs after me.

I nudge the heavy front door with a wet trainer, testing its strength, hoping it’s locked so I can remain in the world of the sane for just a little longer. It remains firmly closed—a small miracle—but I know this is only prolonging the inevitable. The court ordered me here, and here I must stay. I stand there, waiting for my parents, my anger pooling in my stomach, my skin prickling with indignation.

Bart arrives at my side and throws an arm around me. I collapse into his warmth and his familiar vodka smell. My mother and stepfather follow shortly thereafter, my stepfather dragging my suitcase through the puddles. Gee, thanks Dad.

They join me in the portico. My stepfather turns the outrageously ornate handle of the heavy door—a lion with a ring through its mouth. We go through the wide front doors and drip rainwater onto the wood floor of the yawning entrance foyer. There are two nurses and a doctor there to greet us, standing erect like teeth in a monster’s mouth. Their Stepford smiles have me taking a step backward and looking over my shoulder at the Range Rover I recently vacated. It’s warm and cosy in there and I long to be back on the leather seats, watching the rain drip down the window.

Behind the nurses, positioned in front of a grand staircase is a large stone statue of a bird. It’s tall—taller than me. It wears its chip marks and dents with pride, as if to say nothing could ever destroy it, not even time. At some point in its life, it was kept outside; old bird stains mottle its surface. Its stone eyes keep vigil over the foyer. Its wings are half-erect, as if preparing to take flight. My heart picks up tempo. My mouth goes dry, and my tongue becomes this weird, heavy object that doesn’t fit in my mouth. The panic attack is coming, building. It will be here soon.

“Georgia Boone?” One of the nurses asks, distracting me from my quickening pulse.

I turn towards the voice. According to her label, she is the head psychiatric nurse, and her name is Marion. She wears a blue nurse’s dress and the old-fashioned money belt cinching her waist is pinched so tightly I think she might explode out one end or the other.

She holds a clipboard in her hands and stares at me with grey-blue wishy-washy eyes. An unflattering bob surrounds her face, and her left cheekbone supports the largest mole I’ve ever seen. It sprouts five long, brittle, grey hairs which move every time she speaks.

“Yes,” Mum answers for me. “Yes, this is Georgia.”

“We’ve been waiting for you,” Marion says. Looking down her bulbous nose at me, she holds a no-nonsense clipboard in her fingers.

I ignore her comment and examine the second nurse. Deputy Psychiatric Nurse Willow is the exact opposite of Marion. Taller and skinny. Her long hair trails to the middle of her back, lank and loose, and the roots border on greasy. It’s neither brown nor blonde, but some indescribable colour in between. Her eyes are blue, and I detect a flash of some intrinsic warning in them when she looks at me. She shuffles restlessly from one Hush-Puppied foot to the other. Her hands grab at the skirt of her dress, rolling a finger in the material and then unrolling, only to do it again. I recognize the signs of a nervous disposition. Maybe she ought to be the patient. I’ll gladly swap roles with her.

My heart thuds painfully in my chest again. It picks up speed, as if trying to gallop out of my body completely. I clutch my mother’s sleeve.

“I’m Nurse Marion,” the one holding the clipboard says. “And this is Nurse Willow.” She points to the other.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Willow says, with a gentle five-finger wave.

“I’m Paul. I’m a psychologist here,” the man says, stepping forward to offer his hand. My stepfather shakes it, and my mother smiles warmly at him. “Don’t be alarmed. We’ll take good care of Georgia. That’s what we’re here for after all.”

“Yes, of course,” Mum replies.

“We need you to sign some paperwork,” Marion says to my parents. “Paul will show Georgia and her brother to a pot of tea.” She gestures to an office that leads from the foyer.

My parents follow the two nurses into the room and leave Bart and me standing in the large foyer with Paul under the penetrating gaze of an antique grandfather clock. It leans Pisa-like on the thick carpet, its gentle ticking the only audible noise in the hushed expectancy of the foyer. It strikes the hour, and I jump, grabbing onto Bart’s arm.

“This way.” Paul leads us around a corner to a small niche with a couple of floral sofas and polished coffee tables. A pot of steaming tea sits on a tray with a couple of cracked mugs and a plate of biscuits.

Paul pours two cups of tea and excuses himself for a moment to take my luggage to my room. I sip at the tea, but it scalds my throat.

“Easy,” Bart says.

I point to the other cup. “You could do with some sobering up.”

He gives me his sideways grin.

“Was it a big night?” I ask.

He winks. “It’s always a big night.”

I sigh as a tremble shoots through my legs. Bart notices and rests a heavy hand on my knee. “I wish I could go with you. I wish you could stay. I wish . . .” I close my eyes against the threatening tears.

Bart brings me in close and hugs me, smoothing the back of my head. “I wish all that, too. But we can’t get out of it. I’ve tried.”

Bart is a junior lawyer for a swanky outfit in London. During my case, he was allowed to liaise with my defence attorney. But there’s nothing to be done. I hurt another individual. The last straw in a string of offences.

I stare into the swirling tea. “I was with you when I first saw them, you know.”

Bart pulls away. “Saw what?”

“The shadows.”

Bart nods. Everyone knows about the creatures I see in mirrors. We just don’t talk about it anymore.


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