Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lots of Irons in the Fire

I have been writing, writing, writing! My cover illustrator wants to strangle me, I'm sure. My editor is constantly pushing for more chapters, which is good because it keeps me on track. And my proofreader is a new addition to the team but SO helpful!

Currently, here is the list of projects I'm working on:

Book #2 in the Sideshow series, which will be called Straw Houses. Due for publishing by next fall; currently on Chapter 7.

Misunderstood Monsters, a tale about a clever girl who unravels the mystery of her father's death, appropriate for ages 8 and up. My youngest daughter is so distraught that my books are too graphic for her to read that I decided to start writing something she could read and it is a lot of fun!

Dead in the Water, a YA novel about love, romance, and the ghost of a dead boy. That is due for publication in January, 2014. I need to hurry on that one! I have a little ways to go, as it's only 20,000 words right now.

The Thirty Jesuses (and Other Bedlam Stories), a novel about a mental asylum as told from the point of view of a nurse who worked in one for over 25 years. These stories are based on some that a couple of friends have told me that worked in the mental health field. Some of the stories are very sad, and others are frightening. All of these stories have been changed from the originals, and of course none of the names or locations are remotely close to the names of the patients (which I do not know) or the nurses who worked in these places (all of that is changed). What remains is some of the humorous, poignant, and frightening experiences they endured as they performed these often thankless jobs and I hope I'm doing them credit, while capturing their voices accurately.

Here is an excerpt from The Thirty Jesuses (warning! There is some bad language in this excerpt!):

Chapter Two

“Frisky" was one of my first patients on Ward E, way back in the 1960s. Frisky was considered at that time to be “shell shocked” from the war. His real name was Christopher Hall, a young boy from the farm who returned home after his draft time was up in the military. Only his body returned from the battlefront; his mind remained there in the jungle. While he appeared perfectly normal, with regular features and no distinguishing characteristics, he had himself a good case of the PTSD. Most nights, if he wasn't medicated quite heavily, he'd wake up screaming and then the whole ward would be up clamoring with fear and excitement.

He spent the rest of his time on earth with us on the Ward, looking for his, “black box." No one, including his family and friends, knew what the black box was, and no one ever learned what was in that box. Christopher was such a happy young man most of the time, always smiling. Gentle and kind until evening time...then, he became Frisky the demon. His sweet nature went out the door and that beautiful smile turned into the most horrid ugly grin, like he could cut you up and eat you if you didn’t turn over that damn black box that you stole from him. The only way I could deal with Frisky was to make sure he got his pills every three hours. Otherwise I'd close a door and find him behind it, grinning at me with that devil look. Most patients didn't bug me much, but Frisky was hard to take. Unfortunately, not everyone was as diligent as me. 

Now, most nurses stayed in the office unless there was a problem or if they needed sedate someone. They'd stay in there until their shift was over, all day, and the only human contact these patients would have was that of other patients, unfriendly orderlies, and perhaps the occasional doctor. Well, and me. The other nurses were terrified of most of the patients, and with good cause I have to say. Many of them were violent offenders of the worst kind, but all of them were there for another, deeper reason too. Frisky had only killed in Vietnam but it had sure messed him up good. Most nurses threatened him with the old room if he didn't quit scaring them, popping up in the medicine window regularly and flashing that wicked grin at them, whispering, "Where's my back box, bitch?"

Ward E of the New Mexico State Mental Institution was set up in a way that ensured the nurse's safety so they didn't have a whole lot to worry about if they stayed in the cramped office. See how it worked was like this: patients entered through a double blind entry, where one hallway led to a different hallway and both were blocked off by heavy doors that could only be opened with a key. Once you got past the second door, you went around another hallway into the general population. Each doorway had bullet proof glass and a little teeny sliding speakeasy door underneath the window. So the nurse's station was situated in such a way that a nurse could talk to the incoming or the ones already in there just by going from one side of the room to the other. That way the nurses could talk to either the patient in between the two doorways, waiting to be let into general population, or she could talk to the patients in the general population through the other door. Most nurses did just that, and rarely came in contact with any of the patients. Should a patient require restraint, the nurses would call for orderlies to come help, usually four on duty at any given shift. Only then would the nurses dart in with their ampules of medicine or tranquilizers so that the orderlies could take them to one of the four new restraint rooms that were built right off of that last hallway. This way the nurses only had to go through one door and very little of the general population area to check on these poor unfortunate bastards strapped down to beds or tied to the walls.

But the really scary part of Ward E was the old ward. It was before the double blind entry in a section of the building that was now blocked off. But I had to go through there on my tour of the building when I was hired. I can tell you that those rooms were made of rocks, just rock walls, and there were long rusty chains hanging at various intervals along the wall. A low bench ran the length of these rooms, bolted to the ground and not all of the rust colored stains on the concrete floor were from the chains. Walking through those rooms made every cell in my body freeze until it felt like I had battery acid flowing through my veins. I felt as though I would never be warm again.  It was like the screams of all those poor souls who had been tortured there were trapped in those rooms, left like the images that remain on your eyelids after a strobe light, bouncing off those bloodstained rock walls for all eternity and now bouncing off of my skin only to bounce back again, and again, and again.

Ol' Randy Jenkins had given me the tour personally, down from Salem like a hero on a white stallion or some such nonsense.

"Some of the nurses like to show these rooms to the new patients, you see, so that later if they become unruly, you can use them as a threat when taking away privileges no longer works. It's quite effective; as you can see, these rooms are somewhat unsettling. Patients who spend an hour in here are often quite tractable for long periods of time," he told me in his best smarmy know-it-all voice. Like he was here enough to know what went on. I could tell I wasn't going to like him from that moment on.

I vowed to myself that I would never threaten to put a patient in those horrible rooms. It wouldn't be long before I broke that promise.

Frisky had been pretty quiet up until the moment he decided he was going to hold Margaret Collins, another patient at NMSMI, hostage in return for his damnable black box. I went out on the Ward one evening, about three weeks into my employment and as soon as my feet hit the general population floor, Frisky grabbed Margaret up from the chair she'd been sitting and watching "I Love Lucy" in and held a plastic fork to her throat, screaming, "I WANT MY BLACK FUCKING BOX YOU BITCH!!! GIVE IT TO ME RIGHT NOW OR I'M GONNA KILL THIS CUNT!"

His face was literally red with rage, suffused with blood as the veins in his temple throbbed in time to his heartbeat. Margaret, to her credit, just sat there limply as if she'd done this a million times. She looked kinda bored actually, like she might start doing her nails any moment. Margaret was rumored to be a mob boss's moll, put here to shut her up. I half believed her in that moment.

"Now Frisky," I said, "nobody here has your black box. You need to let Margaret go, so you and I can go look for it, ok?"

I was planning to help him look for it with good old Mr. Shot of Valium in his Bum as soon as he let Margaret go. But he wasn't having none of it.

"I'LL PUT THIS FORK THROUGH HER FUCKING THROAT I SWEAR TO GOD!" His head dropped down to her shoulder, his eyes rolled around wildly in their sockets, and out came that horrible grin, the one that chilled me to my marrow.

Vinnie, thinking he was helping, called out from somewhere behind me, "I got your black box right here honey!" I hollered at him to shut up.

I knew that Frisky was real superstitious. He always made me look under the bed before lights out to make sure no "gooks" were hiding under there. I would use a broom and sweep under the bed, making sure nothing could cling to the mattress and reach up to get him when the lights were off. And I knew that he felt the ghosts of all those people he'd killed in Vietnam, because you could hear him screaming about them in his sleep. Many of our patients screamed or cried out in their sleep. It's like their demons were louder when they were unconscious.

So I broke my own first rule with Frisky that day, and I said, "Frisky, if you don't let Margaret go, I'm going to let Tom and the other orderlies drag you into the old restraint room, chain you up, and leave you in there all night long. You want me to do that?"

It might not have been ethical but it worked like a charm. Frisky dropped the plastic fork with alacrity and dropped Margaret like a sack of potatoes. She picked herself up and went back to her seat. The old bird even had the presence of mind to grab the clicker and turn that sucker up a notch.

It didn't really end well for poor Frisky. He did end up in a restraint room, though one of the new ones and not the old haunted one. He was pretty drugged up from that point on and I never had anymore trouble with him. I wish I could say that I never used that old restraint room as a threat again too but, well, I'm trying to tell my story along with theirs and won't do any good to start telling lies now.