Read Smoke on the Water Online

Authors: Lori Handeland

Smoke on the Water

 

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Chapter 1

“Do I know you?”

I glanced up from the book I wasn't reading to find one of the inmates—I mean patients—of the Northern Wisconsin Mental Health Facility hovering at the edge of my personal space. In a place like this, people learn quickly not to get too close to anyone without warning them first. Bad things happen, and they happen quickly.

“I'm Willow,” I said. “Willow Black. But I don't think we've met.”

I'd seen the woman around. The others called her “Crazy Mary,” which was very pot/kettle in my opinion, but no one had asked me. She was heroin-addict skinny. I gathered she'd done a lot of “self-medicating” on the outside. A lot of nutty people did. When you saw things, heard things that no one else did, you'd think you'd be more inclined
not
to take drugs that might make you see and hear more. The opposite was true. Trust me.

“Mary McAllister.” She shuffled her feet, glanced at the empty chair next to me, and I nodded. She scurried over, sat, smiled.

She still had all of her teeth, which was an accomplishment around here. I had mine, sure, but I was only twenty-seven. Mary had to be … it was hard to say. I'd take a stab and guess between thirty and sixty. Give or take a few years.

Mary looked good today. Or as good as she got. Her long, wavy graying hair had been brushed free of tangles. She'd had a shower recently, but she still wore the tan jumpsuit issued to problem patients. The more you behaved like a human being, the more you were allowed to dress like one. I, myself, was wearing hot-pink scrub pants and a white T-shirt that read
NWMHF
, which placed me somewhere between Mary's solitary-confinement jumpsuit and the jeans and Green Bay Packer designer wear of the majority of the visitors. Not that I ever had any visitors, but I'd observed others.

Mary had been incarcerated a while. The powers that be didn't like to call us “incarcerated,” but a spade was a spade in my opinion, and if you couldn't waltz out the front door whenever you wanted to, I considered that “incarcerated.” Mary spent a lot of time either doped into zombieville or locked away from everyone else. She was schizophrenic, but around here that was more the norm than not. Sadly, Mary was on the violent side of the spectrum—hence the doping and the locking away.

“Willow.” She rubbed her head. “I don't think that's right.”

“What isn't right?”

“Your name isn't Willow.”

“It is.”

“No!” The word was too loud. She hunched her shoulders, glanced around to make sure none of the orderlies were headed our way. None were.

Yet.

“It hasn't always been. It was something else. Before.”

Very few people knew about my past, or lack of it. Mary McAllister certainly shouldn't. Unless she was part of it.

I'd been abandoned at birth. Found beneath a black willow tree on the banks of a babbling brook. Luckily for me it had been July, and there'd been a huge town picnic going on nearby. I'd been found almost immediately, or I'd have been dead.

I'd often wondered why the State of Wisconsin hadn't named me Brook instead of Willow, though I guess Brook Black is a bit of a tongue twister.

“Your hair was red.” Mary leaned in close. “Your eyes were greenish-brown.”

Mary might seem good today but she was still talking crazy instead of truth. Even if I'd dyed my hair from red to blond, which I hadn't, I didn't think I could change greenish-brown eyes to blue, unless I wore superexpensive contact lenses. As I didn't have enough money for new shoes, and putting anything near—never mind
in
—my eyes wigged me out, that hadn't happened either.

“You have me confused with someone else,” I said. “That's okay. Happens to everyone.”

Mary shook her head. But she didn't argue any more than that. The silence that descended went on so long, I nearly went back to my book.

“I know what you are.”

I hadn't shared what I was with anyone, though I guess it wasn't a secret that I was here for the same reason Mary was.

“What am I?” I asked.

Might as well get the truth out in the open, although
murderer
was a bit harsh. The man hadn't actually died.

No thanks to me.

“A witch,” Mary answered.

I laughed, but when her eyes narrowed I stopped. I'd been in here long enough, with people like her, to know better.

“Why would you say that?” Had I done something to her without realizing it? Or did she just think that I had?

“Because I'm one too.”

“When you say
witch,
you mean…?” I'd been thinking
bitch
but—

Mary cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Maybe not.

That interpretation made more sense. If Mary thought she was a witch, it followed that she'd think I was as well. Which meant everyone in here was a card-carrying broomstick rider—at least according to Mary.

“You see things,” she continued. “Then they happen.”

Since becoming a resident of this facility I'd told no one of what I saw when I looked into the water. I'd stopped insisting that those incidents would occur. I wanted to get out of here while I was still young. So how did Mary know about my visions?

“I don't understand what you mean,” I lied.

There wasn't much that could be done about what was wrong with me. No amount of medication made the visions stop. Talking about them with my shrink certainly hadn't. Pretending I didn't have them was my only option, and I was getting better at it.

“You know any spells?” Mary lifted a bottle of water to her lips and sipped. The sun sparkled in it like a beacon. Images danced.

I closed my eyes, turned my head. “No.”

“We'll have to find some.”

“Find spells? How? Where?” I should have asked,
Why?
My first mistake.

The sound of water splashing onto the floor made my eyes snap open. Second mistake.

The puddle on the ground at my feet reflected the ceiling tiles and the fluorescent lights for just an instant before I saw something that should not, could not, be reflected there.

A room with books, books, more books. I recognized the library here at the facility even before I saw myself at the center—green scrubs, blue shirt, bare feet. I was alone. On the floor lay a volume. The title:
Book of Shadows.

I seemed to be searching for something, or maybe someone. I appeared frantic—pale, scared, trembling. What had I done this time?

Then a face appeared in the water, blotting out both me and the library. A man slightly older than me. Longish dark hair, scruffy beard. I'd seen him many times before. He was important, but I didn't know why. He would keep me safe; he would save me. But I didn't know from what.

“Ladies.” The mouth in the vision formed the word; those lips curved.

Strange. It was almost as if—

I lifted my gaze. He stood in front of us. Had I conjured him from my vision in the water?

I snorted. Conjured. Right. Mary's witch talk was invading my head.

“Something funny?” he asked.

I reached out, my fingers trembling as they had in the vision, and he took my hand with a gentle smile. A spark flared where we touched, and I tried to pull away, but he held on, though his smile faded to a frown. From the zap of electricity? Or my odd behavior?

This could not be him. He wasn't real. Even though he felt very much so.

I got to my feet, lifting my free hand toward his face. He was so tall I had to stretch. In my dreams of him I'd known he was big, strong. How else would he protect me from … whatever it was that he would?

He stilled, gaze on mine, but he didn't stop me from touching him. I pushed aside his tangled hair. The tiny golden hoop in his ear made my eyes sting.

“It really is you,” I whispered.

Then I fainted.

*   *   *

Sebastian Frasier caught the girl before she hit the ground, swung her into his arms then stood there uncertain what to do with her.

The other woman, older, wearing a tan jumpsuit, which seemed to have come from the In Custody Collection, beckoned. Sebastian followed her to a room halfway down the hall.

The Northern Wisconsin Mental Health Facility had been built to follow the Kirkbride Plan of asylums in the mid-nineteenth century. Psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride had had the idea that the building itself could aid in a cure. With long, rambling wings that allowed for sunlight and air, the structures were massive enough to provide both privacy and treatment. Built of stone, they were set on equally large grounds, often former farmland where the inmates could work as a form of therapy. They were damn hard to escape from, which was why this one had been designated by the state as the go-to facility for the criminally insane.

Inside the room were two beds. Made. Two dressers—one with stuff on top, one empty of everything but dust. Two closets—one also with stuff, the second just dust.

“That one's hers.” The woman jabbed a skinny finger at the bed next to the nondusty dresser.

“Hers?”

The woman jabbed her finger again, and Sebastian laid his burden upon the mattress she'd indicated. He'd thought the girl an employee—nurse, orderly, maybe another doctor. She was dressed in scrub pants and a facility T-shirt. No ID tag, but he didn't have one either. At least not yet.

Nevertheless, her lack of one, and this being her room, meant she was a patient not staff. She hadn't looked crazy. But he should know by now that a lot of them didn't. Her companion wasn't one of them. Sebastian knew a lifer when he saw one.

“I should probably…” He glanced around for a button, a phone, some way to call a nurse, but he didn't find one.

He stepped to the door, glanced into the hall. No nurse. Although he apparently wasn't very good at spotting them.

There was only one name on the door.
WILLOW BLACK
.

“Is this Willow?” He returned to her bedside.

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