Chapter 1

A stupid toothbrush. Nothing more than an ordinary toothbrush with a rubber glove wrapped around the bristles and the bottom sharpened to a wicked point that jutted into my throat.

 

I recited de-escalation techniques in my head. Use his name. Make a connection. Keep your voice low and dull. 

 

“Now, Rai, calm down.” 

He stood behind me, one hand on my shoulder, the other on the shiv. I felt no shift in his grip on either.

The first day I’d transferred from Oakdale Women’s Reformatory to the Briarheart mental hospital, they’d issued me a personal duress alarm, like a panic button. Right now it felt white-hot against my breastbone as it hung uselessly on its lanyard.

Now what? I scanned the room. Freestanding metal cabinets rowed the far wall, locked. One of them had a warped door where a patient must once have tried to pry it open. This room was barely used, and I saw nothing close at hand. Nothing in here could help me.

I couldn’t let the fear show. Try to get your hands up between you. Impossible—he was behind me, his back against the swinging door. Get him to agree with you on something.

 I inhaled deeply, kept my tone low. “You worked really hard on that toothbrush, huh? I’ll bet it took a long time.”

A puff of breath hit the back of my neck. “Yeah.”

Oh, thank god. At least he was talking.

“Smart to use a glove at the base. You make great stuff, right? A real craftsman.”

Another “Yeah” puffed out of him.

“It’s really good. Think I could take a look?”

The point moved away from the hollow at the base of my neck. This morning, my orderly friend Abie had brought donuts and I’d picked a sickly-sweet pink one. Now my heart threw battery acid up my throat. Still I didn’t pull away. I let him move, while I stayed still. I had to be cautious. Lack of caution had gotten me here—I had rushed down the hall to help a deranged patient, without ever thinking he might yank me into this unused room. The little radiator whirred on quietly, its dull echo in the empty space reminding me how alone we were.

I inched my hand forward. “Wow, that’s amazing.”

He started to turn the makeshift knife around, to put the handle toward me. Then he stopped. “Waiiiiiit a minute.”

Shit.

“You almost had me there. But no way. Uh-uh. I’m not givin’ this up. And you know, it’s you who’s gonna give me something.” His arm pulled me closer.

“Rai, I just—”

Smash.

The door crashed open and I felt Rai’s grasp weaken. A tall blond man in institutional orange entered. I shrieked, for a moment thinking him a second attacker, but he immediately slammed into Rai with one shoulder. In that instant I pulled down on my duress alarm. It detached from its keychain-like fastener and a shrill whistle bounced off the walls. 

“You fucking cunt!” The words were incongruous from Rai’s beautiful, clean-cut, Asian face. He whipped around and tried to lunge at me. But the blond man wrestled his wrists behind him and forced him to surrender the shiv. The stranger took it, turned it around, handed it over. 

The door burst open with another clang. Mike and Neal stood there, huge in the door-frame in hospital scrubs. Their eyes darted around to make a split-second decision. 

Mike rushed Rai and forced him to the floor in the corner while Neal grabbed hold of the man who had saved me.

“Not him!” I cried. I pushed the keychain back in to my squealing alarm and silenced it. “He’s okay.”

The blond turned his deep burgundy eyes to Neal.

“Sorry, man,” said Neal, letting go and ducking his head down like the blond was someone of importance. I’d seen men act like this during my college internship at Joliet: mob dons, gang bosses. Men as powerful inside of bars as out. I’d have to watch this one. 

Lying face-down with his arms behind him, Rai spat onto the dirty carpet. Most rooms and all of the halls were bare because no chemical can absolutely remove the stains of vomit, spit, blood, semen, snot, coffee, juice, piss—whatever liquid or secretion anyone could let loose or fling. But this room still wore an old nappy rug with sketchy leaf patterns outlined across it. Now there was a phlegmy gob sinking in. I cringed to think I was holding his toothbrush.

“Hey!” Rai’s head whipped into an unnatural position to stare at me, wild-eyed, as the two orderlies swaddled him inside of a wrap restraint. “I was just messin’ around. I swear to god.” Neal and Mike wrangled him upright. Spit flew down his neck and chest when he sputtered one last phrase. “I didn’t mean any harm!”

“You want him sedated?” asked Mike. “Put in solitary?”

My hands were shaking; I could feel it, and I looked down to try to steady them. “No,” I said. I would show no fear, no weakness. “He has class with me later today. I think it will be good for him to go.”

Neal shrugged. “You’re the boss.” He and Mike took Rai from the room and I heard Neal remark, “You’re pretty lucky, man. If it were me, I’d hang you out to dry.”

The silence afterward was more intense than the shouting. For a long minute my pulse raced and a weirdly freezing sweat saturated my body.

“You gonna be okay?” the blond asked.

“Oh. God. Yeah.” I had almost forgotten he was there. I thrust stray hairs out of my face and gave a shaky smile. “So, what’s the name of my savior?” 

“Zander Grayson. Most of the doctors call me Z.” 

“Glad to meet you, Zander. I’m Hannah Weiss.”

“I see that.” He pointed to my name tag with a small chuckle. 

I touched the tag sheepishly. “Right.”

“Glad you’re safe, Doctor Weiss. Still, get yourself checked at the infirmary, ’kay?”

I nodded. He seemed so… normal. The kind of guy who, in the outside world, would spend time rock climbing: clean yet rugged. But his cheekbones protruded through his pale skin. He looked underfed. Emaciated.

“Wait,” I called. He paused. “How did you know Rai was in here?”

“I didn’t know, not for sure. But Dixie kept wringing her hands and looking down the hall. I asked her what was up and she said Rai told her to send you this way.”

I nodded, shaking. “She told me there was an emergency. I had no idea…”

“I saw him come down this hall and then you walk down it a minute later, I pretty much figured there might be trouble.” He crossed to me, took my hair and pushed it back to see the bloody scratch. The back of my neck bristled. “It’s not too bad. I think you can get this bandaged up with no problem.” 

I looked up into his dark eyes. In the room with yellow walls, the honeycombed windows gave an even deeper shade of gold to his hair and lit his skin. 

“I’ll…um, I’ll head to the infirmary, then.” I forced myself straight, fumbled toward the door. Then I turned a sidelong glance at him. “But you know, you can’t go around taking such risks. The orderlies might have taken you down too. You could really get yourself into trouble.”

“For your sake?” He gave a rakish grin and a wink. “I certainly hope so.”

Now that the ordeal was over, my body gave one shaking, violent tremor as if relieving itself of pent-up terror.

“Let me walk you back.”

“Oh.” I stuck my hands in the pockets of my overcoat, grasping the shiv. “Um…” I didn’t know what to say. At Joliet and Oakdale, prisoners didn’t roam the halls freely. But I reminded myself that I wasn’t working in a prison anymore. 

He teased, “I won’t attack you. I promise.”

I had to give a little laugh at that. I smiled up at him. “Okay. Sure.” 

No one spoke as we walked Briarheart’shalls with the shiv in one pocket and blood dried on my neck. I could see they’d already heard: the orderlies and nurses backed up when I passed, silent as if I had a pitiable disease. But no one made light. The same thing could happen to any of us.

“What’s that?” Zander’s voice brought me back. 

“What’s what?”

He stopped, took my hand. I started to pull away then realized what he was doing. He pushed up the right sleeve of my white overcoat. It was my only tattoo—tiny, plain black. A small handful of bird silhouettes cascaded up from my wrist to my elbow. I pushed the sleeve back down again.

“It’s silly.”

“Not if you wanted it on you forever.”

I shrugged as we continued walking. “It represents freedom, I guess. And it’s art on…” I paused, took a breath before continuing. He was a mental patient, after all; he understood these things and could connect to what I was saying. “It’s art on my wrist. So I won’t destroy the art.”

“Mm,” he said. I glanced over and saw understanding in his eyes. 

“Well, thanks for walking me here.” I tilted my head.I stopped outside Director Solv’s office, halfway down the hallway to the infirmary.

“Here?”

I rubbed my neck. “I’m all right. And I’ll need to make a report, I guess.”

He patted my arm. “Rai isn’t really a bad guy, but he shouldn’t have done that. I mean, obviously. What I’m trying to say is…I’m sorry. Especially with you being so new here. You should know it isn’t usually like that. But that will never happen again. I promise.”

I opened my mouth, shut it again. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”

He walked away. The director’s name, MIKKEL SOLV, was stuck in transfer-letters to the wired window of the door. He had emigrated from Denmark in his twenties, and though he Americanized his name to “Mik,” his coffee-cream voice still bore the stamp of a mix of European accents. For some reason, he resisted technological upgrading, and forests gave up acres of trees to supply him with paper. File cabinets were stuffed to overflowing, and more than once I’d had to catch one as it tilted and shove it upright with my shoulder. My fingers always stung with paper cuts and Band-Aids were my daily fashion.

The hospital’s dinginess was made deeper by the general lack of lighting, and though the walls had been painted over for institutional work, damp cracks and crumbles showed the building’s age. It boasted mazes of obscure corridors, a working freight elevator, and the rumored ghosts of half a dozen factory workers who’d lost their lives in the 1800s. From what I heard they were not spectral terrors, but simply men in leather aprons who were there and then weren’t. One nurse, Fern Beasly, had blinked owlishly at me through her glasses as she assured me, on my first day of work, that on the eighth floor she’d seen a man in a red shirt. When she turned to ask if she could help him, he was simply gone.

I knocked.

“It’s unlocked.”

I cracked the door open. “Director?” I asked. “A moment?”

“I have a moment, but no more.” His tone was friendlier than his words. 

 

“I need to let you know there was an attack.”

“Oh, dear.” He put down the papers he’d been holding, took his glasses off and laid them on his desk. “What happened?”

“Rai attacked me.” 

“Attacked you?” He stood and came near. “How?”

“I think he had Dixie Salma in on it. She told me he was in trouble and pointed me down the hall. When I went to help, he jumped me.”

“Are you all right? You’re young and beautiful, just the sort of woman that will draw attention.” He gave a fluttering gesture, his eyes on the window. Distantly, outside the gates, a handful of wavering trees stood between the hospital and a thin rolling branch of the Chicago River. An American man could not have said it without sounding creepy. But he was so casual, detached in a good way, that I simply nodded. He put a hand on my shoulder. “Good.” I was about to tell him about the shiv, when his grip tightened. “Rai will be reprimanded,” he said.

I didn’t want to make anything worse, so I didn’t speak.

“I will go speak to Doctor Ezra right now.” He bustled to the door. “Rai will be reprimanded. And I want a report on my desk by morning.”

I followed him to the door but as my hand hit the wood frame I paused. The barest edge of a black wing poked out from the bottom of my sleeve.

I could take one look, right? 

I went to the filing cabinets and flipped through the Gs. There was Golombeck, Granquist, Gribbons. Not all of them were current; many older files still sat here, for records’ sake. But there was no Grayson.

On a half-thought I went to the drawer on the bottom right, marked Y-Z. Zabinski. Zander. Zoslov. Zander. 

 

I pulled the file and flipped it open. Penned in neat cursive on the inside back of the folder was the name Zander Grayson. Otherwise, the file was empty.

-DEN OF MONSTERS copyright 2018 Savannah D. Thorne

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