Though they could not understand why lights were on on the porch or the fountain bubbled in front of the main building, Paul and Amelia were delighted. To make their way around the empty campus was a fantasy with only a single intrusion—the occasional slow driving security guard. He’d circled through twice now, slow enough to make them second guess whether or not they’d violated some unposted regulation.
Amelia had read online that it was ok to walk through the old hospital grounds as long as the posted no trespassing signs were respected.
The pair kept on, agreeing that they’d just act like they knew the rules and that they were not breaking any. Their car was the only one parked on the grounds, in front of that main building.
The campus had been in steady decline since the 1970s and political wrangling and vocal historical groups had halted any attempts to repurpose the nearly 2,000 acres and 200 buildings that now sat wholly abandoned.
Vines grew up and in and through broken out windows. Collapsed roofs allowed for eerie light to stream through from the top and out the front windows. Most buildings had the same small sign staked on the front lawn that read NO TRESPASSING, UNSAFE BUILDING AND GROUNDS.
The majesty of the buildings, even in disrepair, fit with the still, quiet and holy atmosphere. Not a person stirred, no music, no voices, no workers, not a sound except the sometimes late summer buzz of cicadas in the trees.
It was a day trip for the two in the middle of the week in the middle of south Georgia summer for that was when their anniversary fell. It was a way to get away and still be back for early start of school in the south on a Friday.
Sweat dripped down the small of Amelia’s back. She felt it leave off the lower curve of her spine and then splash down again just above the waistband of her underwear. It was the Georgia humid that would find you no matter how early in the day you’d begun.
The only vague feeling of refreshment bubbled with the fountain at the main building.
“I thought you said these buildings were not used at all anymore,” Paul commented as they climbed out of the car.
“That’s what it said online,” she replied shielding her eyes from the glare. She reached one arm blindly back into the driver’s seat, groping for her sunglasses. “Guess it’s ok to park here.”
She locked the doors after taking her vintage Canon from the back seat.
Paul’s dad had given her the camera a couple of years before. It had been his since the late 80s. Before he gave it to her, he’d gotten out his label maker and now her name in all caps raised lettering was stuck to the right of the view finder. She slung the camera over her shoulder by the wide woven strap, looped her lanyard car key around her neck and took her iPhone in hand.
They turned around in the parking lot—weeds were growing up between the cracks in the surface—and looked down across the still street and stairs to the wide open pecan grove ahead. The line of empty buildings stood on either side of the greenway like old headstones in a graveyard.
Surveying the first building, they were almost giggling as they went—primarily out of disbelief that this place could be here, empty, as if it had all been laid out just for them to celebrate their anniversary.
In twenty six years of marriage they’d done their fair share of traveling through work and family trips. Plenty of lovely places with interesting histories or amusement parks with thrill-inducing activities, but all crowded with people. There was always that element, that one thing that prevented fully enjoying the moment. The kid who refused to listen to a parent and despite the same command of “come here” 10 times in a row, never intended to come here. Or that one woman who had to answer the phone call and rolled her eyes and shrugged while you were trying to absorb the still moment. She would nod and move only a couple of feet away while speaking even louder to the person on the other end who was more important than you. Or the person with the dog who came wagging up next to you when you are allergic and uninterested and not making eye contact. The dog that plants its nose directly in your crotch while the owner beams down like they are so proud and you should be honored to be sniffed in such a way.
“It’s not so much the crowd, it’s the individuals in the crowd,” Paul like to quote when speaking of such unfortunate scenarios. Though he was more than able to “work” a crowd and make small talk and be generally sociable, he’d always, always prefer not. He savored quiet places and empty spaces like this one.
Throughout the marriage, Amelia had migrated toward his views and away from old tendencies to placate the individuals in the crowd. Like so many compromises to make a marriage work, they’d adapted and grown and become more alike on this. She now savored the quiet and time away from people in general. This was a delight. Together, yet alone. Intrigued and uninterrupted. Enthralled, but not in any way herded like they’d been the previous summer on a trip to Universal Studios—loaded into lanes of winding metal hand rails and directed from one loud room to the next, shoulder to shoulder with other seekers of diversion.
This was their kind of amusement park. No timeline, no line, no quietly, awkwardly eyeballing the person next to you as you approached the end of a line and tried to assess which of you would get to go first.
Ambling down the sidewalk, they were small between the buildings stretched out on either side of the grove. The absolute still of the shaded grounds was mesmerizing. Their initial chatter died away as they made their stops at individual buildings. Any talk was in hushed tones that only exist for funerals and worship services.
Amelia snapped photos with her phone and then with the somewhat cumbersome Canon. She loved the idea of photography and understanding it well, but she did not. Who knows if these images on film would be the least bit worthwhile but the idea of it certainly was. Everyone was a photographer with their iPhones and Androids and thousands of ways to share said photos. She still loved it, particularly places like this, photos like these would have to turn out to be.
In her parents hometown in east Texas, she felt the same. The hospital where her mother and her twin sister had been born, the hospital her grandfather had designed, the hospital where both grandmothers had breathed their last, that hospital had also been abandoned. After becoming out of date and and unusable, falling between the cracks of the legal and the profitable, it had sat for years slipping into ruin. It was just this year bulldozed. Each visit to her parents included a walk around the grounds and photographing the structure.
She could not let go of the stories of her mother sneaking up the back staircase to go in the third floor where her grandmother labored to breathe in the final stages of cancer. She’d come in to sit at her side and wait for moments of repose. The outside of the building near where she’d been had a green medical cross painted on the white bricks. She snapped that same photo many times. She would stare hard at her phone screen and hope to see something there—something more than the original image held. She would not admit that aloud to anyone when they wondered why she just kept taking pictures of the same building.
She didn’t think it fear of death, but more the intrigue of that passage. On that site hundreds, maybe thousands had moved from this brief time of earthbound wanderings into eternity, the plane that no living eye had seen. She just wanted some kind of insight, a glimpse of that eternal. So she’d taken pictures every time, gone back over and over, wanting to see more, see deeper than the surface. Her mom had mailed her newspaper clippings of the town meetings on what to do with the property and eventually the clippings of the news of its permanent, man-induced demise.
Here in this place in south Georgia supposedly 25,000 had made the move from momentary to eternal, and there had to be some sort of evidence. Some visual clarity. Can it be captured she wondered.
Before each building, the two stopped and stared and breathed in the surroundings. The air hot and still moved slow and heavy into their lungs.
When the sidewalk ran out in front of the last building on the right side of the grove, they surveyed the street and elected to cross the grassy expanse and work their way back on the left side towards the main building.
The pulsating sound of cicadas seemed to grow as they walked between the trees and felt strands of stray tall weeds brush their legs. It would have been a good picnic spot as someone had noted on Trip Advisor.
She wondered what it would look like in the fall, leaves scattered about. Trees stripped bare with their spindly raised arms and the crackle crunch of leaves under feet could only add to the weirdly sacred and ominous feel here.
Paul veered from the path at the next looming structure and peered through dirty windows, said he saw an old bed and some chairs, a torn curtain.
She wanted to look in but hung back on the lawn and continued to eye the no trespassing sign. When Paul turned from the window, she retreated from the grass to the safety of the sidewalk. He asked to take a picture of her there on the front step. After resisting she tried to think how to hide her mid section and smile without a double chin. It was so much more exhausting to worry with vanity.
The final building completing the quad had the marble marker on the end they’d been searching for. Lunatic Asylum it read on the engraved, square marker. They both tried repeatedly to get a photo without a shadow across the words, but the sun’s position had the final say.
From there the path bent out and to the right beyond the auditorium that was now clearly still in use by the local military school. The next building had double front doors with wood trim and glass still intact.
“Let’s get a picture of us here,” Amelia said.
Paul took his phone and began to hold his arm out for the selfie.
“No, look, our reflection in the door,” she pointed. “We can just take it like this,” she motioned as they lined up in front of their own reflection and snapped the photo. She lifted the Canon to her face and focused as best she could on the reflection. She pressed the shutter button and nothing. It was easy to forget to wind the film. She did and then hoped she’d captured the image.
This sidewalk led to the front door but another sidewalk criss crossed in front, allowing a safe approach to the dilapidated front. She leaned close to the window to see past the reflection.
The lobby of the building had tiled floors with faded and crumbling grout, paint peeling away from the walls in long strips and on the left, a cutout window with glass and an opening for speaking and passing items through. Overhead, large drop ceiling tiles were missing leaving a cavernous dark hole and just beyond that, straight on, was the silvery reflection of a metal elevator door. Debris was scattered on the floor including frames that had fallen or been vandalized and smashed on the floor. Further back from the elevator a doorway on the left seemed to lead to a room beyond that. It looked as though the room extended behind the elevator and showed again on the right. On the right side, double swinging doors allowed entrance.
Amelia leaned in closer, narrowing her eyes.
“Is that…is there a light on in that back room?” She asked.
Paul leaned in next to her and squinted. “Sure looks like it.”
“I thought these buildings had been unoccupied for 40 years or more. How and why would a light be on? You’d think power had long been shut off.”
“Dunno. Weird,” he said.
She held her phone close to the window and snapped two pictures before moving on.
She remembered reading in one of the histories that during road work in front of one of the buildings in the 50s, the bulldozer began uncovering skulls and other human bones. The workers had been instructed to continue as it was just one of the old paupers’ cemeteries.
The last stop for today was to be the main cemetery still left on the campus. It supposedly held 2,000 of the original metal markers with only numbers to commemorate the lives of the forgotten. Those few would have to be enough to honor the full number.
Some had died as naturally as possible from a long life and a hard earned illness while others had been choked to death, shocked to death, or of “maniacal exhaustion.” The stories were not easy to read, but in some ways the reading of them made sure the lives were not forgotten. They somehow gained validity. It kept them from being lost forever.
On her phone map, the address for the cemetery showed over a mile walk. Drenched from just standing, they decided to drive. They walked back to the mail building where their car was still the only one in the parking lot.
Relief came when the cool air finally blew through the vents and Paul took the phone with the map began giving instruction.
The map lead them out onto the main road outside of the complex, past a couple of barb wire covered buildings clearly no longer in use.
The next building they passed had cars in the lot, lights on. Standing on the sidewalk were four uniformed officers of some type—police, perhaps? Security? Neither wanting to stare or make eye contact, they couldn’t determine the nature of their work.
She shifted gears and pretended to focus on the road.
Amelia looked at Paul out of the corner of her eye and he was shooting her the same look.
“It’s like they don’t want us here,” Paul finally said once they’d passed the four, as if they were afraid they could be heard from within the car.
“Yeah, they all looked angry,” she agreed.
He could see in the side mirror that they were still on the sidewalk, not moving except for their eyes that followed their car up the road.
Directions led them down a side road that had a sign painted with an arrow and the name of a prison. Weeds grew up tall and the road turned to gravel. It looked like a scene from a zombie movie.
Crunching over the road, the compact car moved slowly and towers from the old prison loomed on the left. Like the other main buildings, ivy grew in and out of broken windows and all was dark. The barbed wire at the top of the fences seemed to hold back the darker shadows, the lurking feel of evil. There was a hopelessness here that they had not felt near the grove.
Wide-eyed their heads turned on swivels as they leaned forward and back within the car trying to take in every inch. They could not imagine how all of this was unused, forgotten. It was so large and overbearing, so much land, so much space. It shouted at them even now. How could anyone, everyone tune this out?
As they drove slowly past Amelia recognized this building from the map for looking like a ceiling fan or the spokes of a wheel from the aerial view. She started and sat up straight, nearly throwing the car out of gear. She reached her hand behind her head and yelped.
“What’s the matter?” Her husband said concerned but agitated by the sudden start.
“My head,” she whimpered. “It is killing me.”
She regained herself and shifted into third gear as they turned to the right.
The sharp pain felt like it split her head from behind her left ear down to the top of her neck.
After winding their way down side streets and the wrong way down one way streets, they’d passed security twice more. Turning another corner, it was like they’d suddenly left downtown and entered a neighborhood. House after house on the outer edge of the campus sat abandoned as well. Trees stuck through windows, garage doors were broken and hanging off of tracks, old trailers were parked on lawns.
In the 8th grade at her private Baptist school, the Bible teacher described the rapture as he talked about end times and the book of Revelation. He had said people would be going about their daily business and then those who belonged to the Lord would suddenly be gone, taken up and out of this life. The apocalyptic description had always scared and interested her. This was what she had pictured.
The rapture had occurred already in this quiet southern section of this lost southern city. People were carrying out their assigned tasks—washing laundry, boiling green beans, leading patients down hallways to rooms for shock treatments, raking leaves in the grove—and God took them all away. Had he saved them all suddenly, rescued them from the horrors that clearly no one wanted to discuss any further. Or maybe it had been the other way round, everyone was damned in an instant. Whatever they had been doing, wherever they had gone, no one was telling.
With no success finding the cemetery, the two circled back again, past guards or security or government workers who again eyed the pair suspiciously. The looks were like ones of recognition, or remembrance—the way you stare when you are trying to place that familiar face. Amelia looked away as if when their eyes were not locked they could not be seen.
Perhaps therein was the answer. They were the guardians of the great secret and were fiercely guarding it. No one would know what these people did. If they divulged the secrets, they too would be taken away unannounced.
There was no more time to continue. The three hour drive home was the deterrent to further explorations. Amelia and Paul decided it was time for lunch and to head back towards town.
The cadence and expressions changed the further away from the campus they drove. They talked like excited second graders—fast and interrupting one another.
“I wanted to come because it’s what you wanted to do and I’m not saying I didn’t think we’d enjoy it, but whatever my expectations were, this was so far beyond them,” he told her.
She was so pleased that he was as enthralled as she was.
At lunch they poured over the images on their phones and lamented over not realizing how much more there was to explore and no more time today to do it.
“Let’s come back in the fall, when the weather is cold and gray or even raining,” Paul said with excitement in his tone.
Amelia wondered how the photos from the film would turn out. She could recall that feeling from 1985 when she used her tiny Kodak with the 110 film and then wait for days for the prints to be ready for pick up. Off centered photos of her three younger brothers or images with streaks of sunlight leaving dabbled spots on the picture were an event.
She felt again at the lower backside of her head. The sharp pain felt during the drive had melted into a fully developed ache, a slow throb.
She’d used up only 30 of the 36 shots and would have to make a point once home to finish the roll quickly and mail it off. Rather than trying a local specialty shop she’d found an online service that would mail the envelopes for film and develop quickly, plus send the digital images.
The more she let her mind dwell in the empty asylum her intrigue only grew and she had plans to research online and uncover what she could about the past and present goings on.
A week later Paul came through the door from work with a package for her.
“It’s the last of your anniversary present,” he said grinning.
Quizzical, she took the padded orange envelope and tore into it to find three books on the old hospital.
“YES! Thank you!”
She began reading them that night and then every time she could in between daily household demands like laundry and dishes and vacuuming and picking up children from practices and school and get togethers at Starbucks.
Online she’d found a full campus map and videos of thrill seekers who’d made their way past security and watchful eyes to the interior of different buildings. Otherwise vacant rooms and hallways were full of leaves and branches and smashed glass. On one of the videos the explorer commented that it was so quiet and stood still to let the watcher experience for themselves.
She leaned in at her computer and the only sound was that rise and fall of cicada. Like a chorus of tiny dry shakers rose and then crested and washed away.
As she strained to hear the background sounds, the unyielding sharp pain in her head struck again—this time harder and more forceful than the day at the hospital.
It was as if she was there again for an instant, that sound of cicadas and that terrible pain flashed behind her eyes. She pulled back from the screen with a quiet yelp and got up to walk around.
She would later take some ibuprofen to help the throbbing that came after.
Is this what a migraine feels like?
Before picking kids up from school, she finished laundry and picked up one of her books again. The first book she’d began was strictly a long list of the first patients ever admitted—names and ages and hometowns with symptoms and indicators for reasons to admit. She’d skimmed mostly looking for familiar names, her own perhaps, before turning to the next book that covered history and personal insights.
This time she stopped short in one of the anecdotal stories from the place—a nurse, named Amelia, had been walking past the Twin buildings when one of the male patients who was working in the yard, picked up an axe handle and killed her with a blow to the head before calmly returning to his work.
Her eyes widened and her hands began shaking. She set the book down.
Well I found my name.
She picked it back up. The story went on to say that after initially putting the prisoner into seclusion, an uproar in the community resulted in the patient being killed in the same way.
Amelia’s breathing was suddenly shallow and she could feel her thudding heart beat.
So much sadness and tragedy and struggle as the people in that place transversed the line of sanity that people were always trying to define. It’s like that invisible line when you drive from one state into another. Welcome to Texas the sign would read and some invisible boundary passed meant a whole other way of life.
Many of the early accounts she’d read told of husbands who’d decided their wives were behaving unseemly or fits of jealousy or rage were too much to contain. A farmer lost his farm and could no longer bear up under the weight of all that he knew being gone. Without livelihood there was no life. That invisible line crossed, there was rarely, if ever, coming back over the border. Rumors circulated and many times confirmed that people had been sent in despite a lack of evidence of the necessity and without an advocate of their own were left with no way out. The sane among the insane could frequently not survive, at least not without abdicating their faculties.
She could not fathom what it would take to work there without fear. This nurse who shared her name, was this pure altruism? Was it just a job to get by? Was it a starting point with hopes of moving up and out or was she invested in these people forgotten and ignored by the world around. Her curiosity only rose and that reminded her that she still had four frames left on her camera roll. She would take those tomorrow and mail off that film.
She reached back and rubbed her neck and pulled herself out of the couch cushion. She set the book on the table and looked at her watch. It was time to thaw meat for dinner and begin to pick up kids.
Later that night, when kids were ready for bed and Amelia and Paul had moment alone to reflect on the day, she shared the story of nurse Amelia and death by axe.
Paul grimaced and then kind of chuckled. It was the awkward you have to laugh because of the horror of the moment.
“Yeah, I know,” she said without him saying an actual word.
“In a weird way, it makes me want to know more and want to go back even more,” she said.
“Yeah, I know,” he said.
“Well, I have printed the map of the grounds. I’m going to mark some of the spots where the stories come from, maybe insert photos of buildings I took. When we go back I’m taking that with us. Maybe we can do that for my birthday—or later in the month.”
Fall had always been her favorite, whether it was an October birthday or college football season or an actual chill in the air she’d never singled out why. It was the intersection of so many things she enjoyed.
For now it seemed like the misery of August would never end.
The next to last day of the month, she’d gone to bed later than usual and then wrestled to go to sleep for what felt like several hours. It was ridiculously hot and despite the luxury of the air conditioner, the practicality of monstrous bills meant a thermostat that never dipped quite cool enough.
She almost always slept fitfully, even on a good night. A side sleeper, she would migrate back and forth, twisted and sweaty. When finally she’d fallen asleep with one day left in the miserable month, her vivid dreams put her smack in the center of the pecan grove.
Looking around she saw she was alone and the sound of cicadas rose and rose until she’d cupped her hands over her ears. The sound only grew; it was as if she’d lifted a cicada filled seashell to her ears. The sound was louder and echoing and uncontrolled. She was sweating and irritated. She thought she heard her husband’s voice call out just as she glimpsed a van with no widows turning down the road. The word security was painted in large red capital letters with a medical cross beneath it. It crept past. She turned toward the voice, and as she turned, the leaves of the trees changed from green to orange to brown and then to gray. She started to walk towards where the van had turned and the crunch of the leaves under her feet took her back. It was the middle of summer she thought and she stopped to listen. The cicadas were gone. The only sound was wind blowing the dried out leaves around her feet and out across the pavement. She spotted her husband at the edge of the grove. He was moving between the empty pecan trees, heading toward her. As he got closer she realized this was not her husband. She did not know the man. She turned away from him and began to walk calmly, quickly toward the first building where a light was on on the porch. She could hear him closing in as the dried leaves gave way under his feet. Instinctively she reached up and behind her as the handle came down.
She shot up in her bed, her thin t-shirt clung to her chest and she gasped as she was not getting any air. The narrow, sharp pain behind her ear struck deep and she choked and turned towards her husband who was no longer asleep. The pain widened. He started and sat up and reached for her. She gasped again, trying to get air and then coughed and began to cry. She touched the back of her head and he pulled her close.
“You are ok Amelia,” he said gently.
Continuing to cough the air began to flow into her lungs. Her pounding heart did not slow until her breath became more regular and he put his hands on either side of her head. His large, warm and strong calloused hands had always brought relief.
The next day she put the roll of film into the mailbox in the self-addressed postage-paid envelope.
And August did eventually end. The rhythm of school and sports and parent meetings and regular church functions finally settled in as they neared the end of September.
Amelia had finished her books and her own personal map of the hospital grounds when the first cool morning came. She began mentioning to Paul they needed to plan their return trip.
His schedule had also quickened again. Half day Fridays were no more, final trips before the end of the year cropped up and he had put off the plans for any kind of fun trip, even a day one. He still had some enthusiasm for the effort though his had waned compared to hers.
She could tell.
After asking a couple of times with no desired response, she decided it best to stop asking until he brought it up. If he’d bring it up. Maybe when he asked what she wanted to do for her birthday she could mention it.
She received an email that the company had received her film and would notify her when the digital images were ready and again with a shipping notification for the prints.
Excellent, she thought.
The early part of October was later out of the question with sports schedules picking up and an unexpected trip to New York for his work. Her birthday came and went with a family dinner out and movie night. She had mentioned the trip and he agreed that it had to happen by the end of the month. They both seemed pleased that it was at least on the list of to-dos now.
It will be better weather anyway she thought as it had still hit 82 degrees on her fall birthday.
They’d agreed that the weekend after next made sense. It would still be before Halloween and the weather looked as though it would be cool and perfect for that following week.
That weekend, he had set aside Saturday early morning and Sunday afternoon to split the wood remaining from the trees he had and his buddy had taken down the previous spring. Though officially they were “seasoning,” earlier in the week they’d cleared out the limbs and sectioned the trunk. The weekend would be for splitting and stacking in preparation for what he always hoped, but rarely ever was in Georgia, would be a cold winter.
This was the kind of outdoor work that Paul loved. It was like he was made to wear flannel and work boots. It was a manly activity that a lot guys liked to pretend was their thing, more for the appearance. Paul, however, was not an appearance guy. He could’ve disappeared off the grid years ago and happily lived by just such occupation. Their older son, in an effort to be closer to his dad, had willingly put in the time on a couple of occasions. Despite initial resistance, he’d even realized he enjoyed the work in the cool air. This year, their youngest had volunteered to take the mantle. He joked that he’d be able to bear hunt as soon as he could grow a beard. Learning to split wood have to be enough for now. He’d bounded down the stairs at 6:45 that morning, dressed in his only flannel shirt and his 10 slim wranglers with rubber boots.
Coffee mug in hand, Paul had grinned and told him they needed a man breakfast before starting their work.
Amelia spent her early morning cleaning bathrooms and vacuuming, regular Saturday morning chores that she liked to have out of the way before football games began. She turned on music and went about her work, still in her sweatpants and t-shirt. While brushing the toilet bowl in her bathroom, the playlist came to an end. After inserting the scrub brush into its stand, she rinsed her hands and dried them before picking up her phone to restart the music.
The tiny red circle on her mail app showed the white number two.
She opened the mail to see that one was from the photo center where she’d mailed her film. The message said that her digital prints were available to view online. Excited, she ran up the stairs to get to her desktop. She recalled picking up an envelope of prints from the local drug store when she was still young.
She logged in and opened the email on her computer and followed the link to the site. There was a folder with her name and the option to download the file to her desktop. She did.
Double-clicking the folder, the images were just numbered 001-0035. She clicked the first image and smiled wide at the first image of the main, stately looking white building at the head of the campus. It was the hub. The image was clear and bright. It looked like the hot day it was during the visit.
She continued through the images quickly to see what was there, most had come out. There were a couple of frames that were dark or out of focus, but for the most part she was satisfied.
Without trying, her terrible dream came to mind. Crunching leaves, the stranger’s approach, the feeling of being unable to breathe.
Closing her eyes she pictured the grove without leaves—wiry black branches. She imagined them from above, on a cold sunny day with tips of branches outstretched, touching. Shadows of the thin branches stretched out on the ground like photos of nerves under a microscope, connected and crossed over and intertwined. She imagined the fine lines of nerve endings in her brain, each with delicate and powerful jobs. Synapses passing information from one to another. She wondered what kind of disruption, what kind of damage might stop that flow, distort it. Cross the wrong boundary and find you cannot be extricated. A connection is lost and then connection to the real is gone, reality scurrying away, slipping out of the corners of thought the way a dream evaporates upon waking.
The man in her dream, was he security warning her away or was he a doctor who was ready to admit her. Maybe he was a patient.
She opened her eyes and looked back at the unblinking images, she clicked through again, slowly this time. She stopped on the image of the building that had been a women’s only portion of the facility. The broken out glass on the second floor window had a glare but just behind the crooked edge of glass, a clearly defined dark shape, the outline of a person.
It cannot be.
Leaning closer she strained at the image again, then enlarged it on the screen. It was a slender shape dressed in a light color, she could see the sharp line of a collar’s edge and the matching sharp line on the hat, like a nurse’s uniform from the ‘40s or ‘50s.
This cannot be for real.
She scrolled further, to other images, searching shadows and windows.
As undone as she was she couldn’t help but think this was what she’d looked for every time—the hospital in Texas specifically.
She’d not found anything else unusual, at least not without longer, more detailed analysis. She wanted Paul to see.
She knew he and Daniel were busy splitting wood, but she also knew she could take them drinks and at least show him this one.
After preparing their drinks, she slid on her jacket and booties and headed out the back door towards the side yard. Their house sat on the top portion of a sloped lot. The side where the two were had a substantial hill. Many a time, he’d split a piece of wood that dropped off the stump and then rolled all the way to the bottom.
She set the drinks down on the end of the truck’s tail gate. Paul had backed up the truck to the side of the driveway that ended just before a hedgerow and the stump where he liked to split wood.
“You’ve got to see this,” he called to Amelia as she stepped outside. He motioned her over and pointed with his elbow to their son who was holding a small axe.
“Show your mom,” he said.
Daniel held it high above his head with his grip firm about midway down the shaft.
“Hold on,” Paul said reaching down to set the wood on end on the stump. “Now!” He said as he stepped back.
Daniel swung with all the might his wiry, thin frame could muster. Thud, the axe stuck fast in the end of the wood piece.
“Oh bummer,” Amelia said too soon.
“Just watch,” Paul said quietly.
Daniel raised it again with the wood still attached and smacked the wood and axe down hard on the stump.
The piece split right down the middle, cracking open and the two pieces lay on opposite sides of the stump. Daniel stood triumphantly, beaming.
“WOW” Amelia called.
His wide, crooked-toothed smiled oozed with the pride of impressing his mom. Before she could say another word, Daniel called, “But you’ve got to see how dad does it with just one chop.”
“I know,” she replied, “I have seen it.” And turning towards Paul she called, “You’ve got to see this” while motioning with her phone.
Paul bent down and set a larger piece on its end on top of the stump. He called over his shoulder, “What is it?”
“I got the email with the photos.”
He was wiping his brow, “What photos?”
“The digital images from the camera and our hospital visit,” she said excitedly.
“Ah,” he said leaning forward for the axe handle.
Daniel had turned aside and begun to stack the five or six most recently split pieces onto the growing pile between the trees where they kept the stockpile.
Amelia started down the edge of the slope towards the stump where the two were, while she looked down at her phone. She touched the screen and the thumbnail images were harder to see in the reflection. She tapped the one she thought had the outline of the woman, but realized instead it was the self portrait they’d made in the reflection of the building’s doors. She touched the screen again to try and go back to the prior image.
Paul raised the axe.
Instead of it taking her back, it zoomed instead on the self portrait. She could see their reflection clearly and something else in the photo. There, behind her in the reflected image was what looked like an axe behind her head. Her thoughts fluttered as she tried to process what she was seeing while taking a step toward her husband. Her boot stuck fast on the root of the stump and she fell forward across it as his axe came down.
“NO!” Paul thundered as he lowered the axe, unable to stop the force of his motion toward the stump. His son turned around.
Blood leaked across the surface of the wood and into the pores.
Amelia blinked and gasped, the sharp pain again gripping her.
Paul bent down and put his hands on the sides of her head. She felt relief.
She could see the spokes of the wheel of Daniel’s bike parked on the hill just over his shoulder. She heard the breeze moving leaves across the driveway. Her eyes moved steadily up along the trunk of the tree in their front yard, up to the dark, spindly, leafless limbs reaching up into the cold, gray sky.