Aug 1 2013 10:00am
Check out Possession, the lastest Greywalker novel by Kat Richardson, available August 6th from ROC Hardcover!
When a comatose woman suddenly wakes up and starts painting scenes she’s never witnessed, with a skill she’s never had, medical science has no explanation. As more bizarre phenomena manifest, including mysterious writing appearing on the patient’s skin and strange voices issuing from her mouth, even her doctors start to wonder whether the woman may be possessed.
Frustrated, frightened, and at the end of her rope, the patient’s sister reluctantly turns to Harper Blaine to discover who—or what—is occupying her sister’s body. As Harper digs into this case of apparent possession, she discovers other patients struck with the same mystifying afflictions and a disturbing connection to one of the most gruesome episodes in Washington’s history…
I don’t like dying. No one does and no matter how many times I’ve done it and how much I know about what lies beyond that thin edge of existence, I still dread it enough to wish for no more—or at least only one more and stay down for good. I’ve died three times that I’m sure of and that’s enough for anyone. I shouldn’t complain—I’m still alive at the moment. I seem mostly normal, I suppose—I have a boyfriend and a pet and a job—but even those things aren’t quite ordinary: The boyfriend is an ex-spy, my pet is a ferret, and I work as a private investigator. I sometimes think it would be nice to just be normal and have a normal job and a normal family, but that isn’t going to happen. I have been down to death and back and whether that is the reason or whether it’s the other way around, I am a Greywalker—one of the rare few who can move through the overlapping fringes of the world of the normal and that of the paranormal. That here/not here world is the Grey and it lies just beside everything you see and contains everything you don’t and never want to. Magic streams and sings through the darkness and the mists of the possible as hot neon light in lines and tangles that burn with power; spirits, monsters, and nightmares are its native inhabitants and I am one of its naturalized citizens. I have been called the Hands of the Guardian—the eldritch creature that prowls the borders of the Grey—and the paladin of the dead. I remain in the “real” world as the go-between, negotiator, troubleshooter, and general fixer for all things Grey. I dance on a hair-thin high wire, balancing between the uncanny and the mundane while trying to keep myself alive a little longer, because I’m sure that my next death will be my last.
The thing about this twilight freak show is that I sometimes know more about the dead than I know about the living, and the ghosts and monsters just keep coming around. They all have problems and the problems seem to be stranger with each new case. Sometimes the Grey things impose themselves on my life with such force and vehemence that the world changes, even if only a few of us can see it. It’s part of my job to make sure these changes don’t destroy the balance between this world and the next without destroying myself or the people I hold dear.
I don’t usually acquire clients in secondhand stores. Books, jackets, furniture, knickknacks—yes. Clients—not so much. I was lurking in the nook at Old Possum’s Books ’n’ Beans where the volumes about music, theater, and philosophy were currently kept—more a comment on the owner, Phoebe Mason’s, sense of humor than any practical filing system—when a woman approached me. Even before I saw her, I felt the touch of her desperation and fear like a cloud of bad perfume.
Her footsteps stuttered as she walked across the scarred old wooden floor, and I looked around and down to find the source of the uncertain sound. Thus, the first thing I actually saw were her shoes: good-quality leather loafers with low heels that had become unevenly worn so each step wobbled just a bit, the dark brown leather scuffed along the sides and toes as if they’d been scraped repeatedly through rough stones. Her designer jeans were baggy at the knee, cinched in at the waist with a belt that didn’t match the shoes, and fit like they’d been meant for a curvier body, while her blouse was so rumpled it appeared she’d misbuttoned it.
I looked up to study her face and saw a once-lovely middle-aged woman with shoulder-length black hair, the gray roots leaving an undyed band about an inch wide along her part. Her cheekbones stood in high relief, hinting at some mix of Asian ancestors with taller Europeans, under skin that was dry, fine-lined, and too tight, as if she’d given up eating and was subsisting on nerves and dry toast. She stopped, her eyes widening as she bit her lip and stared at me for a second. Then she drew a deep breath and asked, “Are you the detective? A friend of Phoebe’s?”
Her question seemed to hang in the air and I took a beat before I replied, frowning a little at the weight it seemed to add to the room. Phoebe had been my first friend in Seattle, but I answered hesitantly, not sure which role this woman expected me to fill: detective or friend. “I… am.” The fading ghost of a former customer wafted obliviously down the aisle and through the pair of us as we stood there.
The woman didn’t see it, but she twitched at its cold passage and gave me a deer-in-the-headlights stare, while a drained shimmer in shades of olive and charcoal around her told me she was terrified. For another moment we just blinked at each other, until I prompted her to tell me what she wanted.
“What can I do for you?” I held back my desire to frown or look sideways at her to see whether she was entangled in the Grey, since I thought either would seem unfriendly and drive this skittish creature away.
“I need—um, I have a sister—” She stopped and shook her head as if she could shake her words into the right order. “I need help. I came here because I’m desperate to find out what’s happening. I was told I should talk to you—” She wrung her hands as she babbled, her body slightly bent, stooped forward as if her chest ached.
I touched her hand and felt a chill of distress twine up my fingers like the tendrils of a climbing vine. I didn’t jerk away, though that was my first impulse. “It’s all right,” I started, patting her hand very lightly and then closing mine over it to stop her churning motion. “Let’s sit down and you can tell me about it.”
She returned a jerky nod, her hands stilling as she let her gaze slide away from mine. I led her down the aisle and around the corner to the coffee nook, where there were a few cushy armchairs set between a fake fireplace and the espresso counter. A one-third-scale replica of a Triceratops skull looked down on us from the wall above the espresso machine, just a few feet from a round traffic mirror that showed the alcove to whoever was manning the front desk. We were alone, but not unobserved, and that was fine.
One of the chairs was occupied by a massive golden feline that laid claim to being a house cat only because we’d never been able to prove it was a mountain lion. “Hump it, Simba,” I ordered, with a dismissive jerk of my head.
With impressive languor and a yawn that showed off white fangs and a long tongue of barbed pink velvet, the cat flowed out of the chair and prowled off to intimidate one of the lesser cats from its sleeping spot. I waved to the two now-empty chairs nearest us and watched the woman stumble and nearly fall into the one just vacated by Simba.
I got a cup of water for her rather than coffee, since I figured that although she looked exhausted, she didn’t need to be any further wound up. She clutched the cup in both hands, her shoulders hunched. Her skin had a sallow cast over its natural lightly bronzed color, and blue shadows of worry smeared her eye sockets. She peered at me like a frightened cat from under a bed.
I sat down and started the conversation since it seemed like she wasn’t ready to. I did my best to give the impression I was earnest, honest, and safe to talk to. “I’m Harper Blaine and I am a friend of Phoebe’s. I’m also a private investigator and I help people with problems. What’s your name and what can I help you with?”
“I—my name is Lillian Goss,” she said. “Lily. Phoebe says…” Her gaze darted around, looking up at me, then down, then side to side in nervous jumps. “She says you see ghosts.”
I was a little surprised: Phoebe hadn’t seemed entirely convinced when we’d had “the talk” about my weird abilities and the grief that they had caused her in the past. Of course, she might have still been mad at me; it was hard to tell precisely what Phoebe was thinking when she was displeased. “Do you believe in ghosts?” I asked.
“I don’t. Or I didn’t. Or—I don’t know. But I believe in God and I believe in the Devil and I believe that whatever has my sister isn’t either one of those.”
I blinked, but I didn’t balk. “‘Has’? I’m not sure I understand. Something… that isn’t God or the Devil has… taken your sister? Is your sister missing?”
“No. Or yes. She’s… not home anymore. But someone else is.”
“Someone else is in your sister’s house?”
“Not her house—her body.”
“You’re talking about possession.”
I felt… well, the British would say “gobsmacked,” but I wasn’t sure that was quite right, either. I just sat still and tried to get my brain around it.
She watched me absorb the idea and took my well-schooled poker face as rejection. She looked at the floor, her hands squeezing the cup so hard that the plastic sides deformed with a popping sound that made her start and gasp. “You don’t believe me!”
“Yes, I do. But why have you come to the conclusion that someone or something other than her own self is occupying her body? That’s quite a leap for most people. In fact, most people wouldn’t even consider that it might be the action of demons or the Devil.…”
“It’s not the Devil! God—my God—wouldn’t let that happen! He doesn’t just—just throw people away. He is loving and forgiving and Julie loves him just as I do. He wouldn’t—”
I stretched my hand out toward her, placating. “Ms. Goss, it wasn’t my intention to offend you. I’m only surprised. Please tell me what made you think some entity has control of her body.”
She bit her lip, clamping down on sobbing breaths. She wheezed and snorted for a moment before she regained some control and was able to speak. “My sister is in what they call a persistent vegetative state—a PVS. She’s not really awake, even when she has her eyes open and seems to be looking around. She breathes on her own and sometimes she laughs or cries, but the doctors and nurses tell me it’s not real joy or sadness, just an involuntary function of whatever’s still working in her brain. She can’t do anything but lie in bed or sit in an armchair. The doctors say if her state doesn’t change soon, it never will; she’ll just deteriorate slowly until she dies.
“But a while ago she sat up on her own and she started drawing or painting something on her bedspread—”
“With what?” I asked. “With her fingers?”
“Yes, at first. I thought she was getting better, but that’s not it. She just paints. She doesn’t improve. The machines indicate that she’s not doing anything—that her brain isn’t sending these signals that move her body—but she’s sitting up and painting. I started bringing her brushes and supplies so she wouldn’t use food or blood on the bed.… Now she just sits up at random times and paints. And then she lies down and whatever spark she had in her goes away again. The machines say she never did anything. Her blood pressure and breathing go up, but that’s all. But these paintings—they’re real paintings—not crazy smeary things.”
“Is it the paintings themselves that distress you?”
“No. She paints landscapes but they’re… they’re odd. Someplace you almost know but can’t name. She paints them—it’s not a hoax or a prank. But it’s not her… it’s not her doing it.” Goss gulped a sob and tried to drink from the crushed cup, getting water down the front of her blouse for her pains.
I took the cup from her hand and fetched her a new one along with some paper towels to mop up the mess. Flustered, she patted at herself, looking embarrassed and finally hiding behind her cup of water for a few sips. Once she’d settled down again, I encouraged her to continue her tale.
“You’ve seen her do this?” I asked. “The painting.”
“Yes. She lives with me now—if you can call what she’s doing ‘living.’ I sit with her all the time. Night and day. Everything is falling apart, but I don’t know what else to do. Nurses come twice a day to help me, but she doesn’t move or do anything unless she’s painting. There are so many machines… but they all just beep quietly away as if she’s only lying there like always. And now it’s getting worse.”
“In what way?”
“She paints all the time, so many hours, and not all the same kind of paintings anymore. Now it’s like there’s more than one person painting. Even when she should be sleeping, she sits up and paints. If I take the brush away from her, she just grabs something else—or uses her fingers—and goes back to painting. Some of the nurses don’t want to come anymore—it freaks them out to be with her. The doctor said I was imagining things, until she started doing it in the exam room. Now even he’s spooked. And all the time she’s doing it, it’s as if her arm is moving without the rest of her doing anything. She’ll move her head around, open and close her eyes, laugh, cry… wet herself… and keep on painting. It’s like she isn’t the one painting at all. It’s just her body being moved around by someone else. Like a puppet.”
“Does she finish the paintings?”
“Not always. But she paints faster now, like she’s racing—or whoever is inside her is rushing to finish before they have to leave again. If she doesn’t finish one the same day she starts it, she’ll never finish it at all. She just goes on to the next painting. Sometimes she’ll do three in a day.”
“I think I need to meet your sister.”
Lily Goss’s face seemed to flower with hope. “Then you’ll help me? You’ll find out who or what is possessing Julianne?”
I had to shake my head. “I can’t guarantee that. I don’t know what’s happening to your sister or if it’s really in my purview. There are some things I can’t do anything about. If this really is some kind of possession, then you need to talk to your priest.”
She gaped and looked on the verge of crying, her aura turning a bleak, muddy green that seemed to drip downward like rain. “No… I already talked to Father Nybeck! He can’t help me! It’s outside his role or something. He said he can’t help me… won’t. Don’t—don’t say you won’t, either. Please.”
She crushed the second plastic cup, sending a gout of water into her lap. She jumped up with a sob and I think she would have bolted if I hadn’t caught her shoulders and steadied her. She felt like a bundle of dry twigs barely held together by her rumpled clothes, and I was too conscious that I loomed over her, but there was little I could do to make myself smaller. I braced her and held her still, saying, “Miss Goss, I didn’t say I wouldn’t help. I said I might not be able to.”
She looked back up at me, her lip trembling and her jaw twitching as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t remember the words.
“It’s all right. I’m not saying no. I’m saying let’s go see.”
“If you’re comfortable with it, sure.”
She didn’t hesitate. “Yes. I live just up the street and we can walk it in a few minutes.”
I convinced her to ride with me in the Land Rover—I didn’t want to have to walk back to the bookstore later in the chancy weather we’d been having.
Fremont has a lot of condos these days, but there are still plenty of single-family dwellings on the narrow streets of Seattle’s former homegrown Haight-Ashbury. Lily Goss lived in a freestanding house that was tall and narrow and very, very modern with a lot of steel, glass, and bright red exterior panels mixed with sections of horizontal wood strips that sported big black bolts holding them to the structure’s surface. Somehow neither the wood nor the red panels made the house look warm; it just looked expensive.
The interior was stark and seemed empty—as if things were missing. I glanced quickly at the entry and the living room as we passed through them. Goss caught me at it as she stopped in front of a tall wall of frosted glass and steel. “My ex-husband took half of the furniture and I had to sell the remaining art,” she said.
Part of the frosted wall slid aside, revealing a surprisingly large elevator. “So, you’re divorced,” I said, following her into the glass-and-chrome box.
Goss heaved a sigh and looked embarrassed, pushing the top button of four on the control panel. “Yes. The church frowns on it, but they don’t prohibit it anymore and I… I’m glad Teddy left. He didn’t have a generous nature and he wouldn’t have coped well with my sister living here, dependent on us for everything.”
“How long have you been on your own?”
“A little over a year. I hadn’t been… alone for very long before Julianne got sick.”
The elevator came to a smooth, quiet stop and we stepped out onto a wide, wood-floored landing at the top of a staircase, with three doors facing us. Goss stood still for a moment and I could hear a susurrous, mechanical mumble coming quietly from our left. Grey mist boiled out from under the double doors on that side.
“I had the master bedroom converted for Julianne. I wasn’t sleeping in it anyway.”
She opened the door that leaked ghost-stuff and showed me in.
I could tell it had been a sumptuous suite originally, but it now more resembled a hospital room. The thick white carpet was covered with heavy, flexible plastic like the material used for floor protectors under office desks. The primrose yellow walls on two sides were almost hidden behind various pieces of medical equipment and monitors. All that remained of the original furniture were a white table—stained with paint and spilled brush cleaner—and a couple of yellow armchairs, one of which was pulled up next to the hospital-style bed near the far wall. A bed table with art supplies and a stretched white canvas standing on a small easel had been placed nearby. A stocky middle-aged woman in nurse’s scrubs and practical shoes occupied the chair, but she jumped up when we came in.
“It’s all right, Eva,” Lily Goss said, waving her back. “Sit down. If Julie doesn’t need anything, you might as well rest.” Goss looked at me. “This is one of Julianne’s nurses, Eva Wrothen. She was kind enough to come early today so I could go out for a while. And that is Richard Stymak. He’s a medium.”
I turned my head to look down the table at the man who had just come out of what I guessed was the bathroom. He was a burly, bearded guy with a geeky air to him, wavy red-blond hair brushing his collar, and a T-shirt with a logo I couldn’t identify peeping out from under his unbuttoned dress shirt.
He raised a hand in a token wave, seeming a bit embarrassed to have shown evidence of bodily functions—as if those who commune with spirits don’t do that sort of thing. “Hi. Um… I’ve been monitoring and recording Julianne’s activities for Lily and trying to contact whoever or whatever is doing this.”
“Any luck?” I asked, hearing Wrothen snort in derision behind me.
“Depends on how you define that. Lot of ghosts around, but they aren’t talking to me.” Then he drew an excited breath and perked up, staring over my shoulder toward the bed. “Oh! She’s up!”
“No, she’s not,” the nurse snapped, looking at the monitors and making rapid notes on an electronic clipboard. “Her blood pressure is up, and she’s upright, but she’s not awake.”
“I didn’t say she was awake,” Stymak objected.
Ignoring the argument, Goss rushed toward the bed and I followed her.
The patient—sickeningly thin, her dark hair hanging limp around her head—was sitting rigidly upright in the bed and staring straight ahead as her left hand groped across the bedspread for something.
Goss snatched a flat paintbrush from a jar on the nearby table and put it next to her sister’s seeking hand. Julianne grabbed it, but nothing else in her body or face seemed to react. I could see the silvery mist of the Grey coiling around her in a thick, moving mass. A clutter of shadows pushed and boiled near the bed, then began to draw aside as the patient started painting on the bedspread.
Goss pushed the table with the easel over to the bed and into place in front of Julianne, who transferred the brush to the canvas. The patient daubed at the canvas with the empty brush for a moment before she swung her arm suddenly to swirl it into paint from the art supply table. She moved no more of her body than her arm, not turning or looking at what she was doing. Then she went back to the canvas, painting with rapid movements.
I drew closer, peering at her. Her aura hadn’t changed since I’d entered the room, but something opaque and dark now hung over her left arm and side, wrapping around her back. Her half-open eyes were focused not on the canvas or the supplies near her, but slightly upward and far away. Her mouth was slack. Goss and Wrothen stood on either side of the head of the bed while I moved closer and then past the foot of the bed, more interested in watching Julianne than seeing what she was painting. Stymak was somewhere behind and to my right, but I didn’t spare any attention for him.
The unconscious woman hit me in the face with the paintbrush. No one really expects a vegetative patient to flip a brush loaded with sage green paint into their eye from six feet away, but I suppose I should have seen it coming—I’m a ghost magnet. I wasn’t sure who or what might be in charge of Julianne Goss’s body at the moment, but it seemed to have a juvenile sense of humor; right after the paint came the babbling.
I reeled back a few steps.
“Turn on the recorder!” Stymak yelled.
“I can’t see it! You turn it on!” I shouted back, swiping thick, sticky oil paint off my face and hoping nothing else was winging my way while I was temporarily blind. You wouldn’t think oil and pigment would sting so much.…
I could hear Stymak and Goss scrambling around me to get to the table where the digital recorder lay. An alarm was going off from the machines monitoring Julianne’s bodily functions. I held still in spite of an urge to help—which in my state would be no help at all; I didn’t want to blunder into the machines by mistake and I could feel the paint starting to burn my eye. I really needed to get to the sink without falling into anyone’s path or crashing into anything vital, but I couldn’t find the bathroom without aid. I cursed my inability to get out of my own damned way, much less get a look at what was happening to Julianne Goss. I squeezed my eyes closed and took a deep breath, shutting out the distractions in the room as I sank into the Grey.
Even with my eyes closed, the ghost world lay bright before me, all white fog and colored light reflecting on clouds of lucid steam. I wound around the churning movement of people and the bright tangles that were ghosts in the room, heading toward the dull heaviness of man-made walls, searching for a sink. The uproar and activity distracted me a little, so I stumbled a bit, hearing the bustle and chatter of the people behind me as I searched for the bathroom. Julianne Goss continued to speak flowing, foreign-sounding words while her sister and the medium argued with the nurse.
I bumped through a doorway into a room that felt much colder and harder than the bedroom, found a sink by feel, and washed off as much of the oily goop as I could, wiping more of it away with a towel. I blinked and looked up into the bathroom mirror, seeing moth-wing streaks on my cheekbones that my swiping with the towel had left behind. My eyes were watering and I blinked some more to clear my vision. It didn’t help much, but I could at least see somewhat more normally. I’d still have to rely on my Grey sight to see any details, though, and that wasn’t usually an accurate view of the world. But might be helpful, since, after all, it was ghosts I was here to see.
When I got back to the bedroom, the hubbub had died away. The alarm was no longer squealing and no one was shouting. Julianne had flopped back into her bed, silent and sleeping, the paintbrush she’d wielded now dropped to the floor, leaving a new blob of color among the others on the plastic sheeting under her bed. Lily was hovering close to the bed as the nurse took Julianne’s temperature. Stymak leaned against a table nearby, wearing headphones and poking at his digital recorder. Between and around them all lay a swarming sea of ghost-stuff boiling with faces that appeared and dissolved again, and sudden extrusions of body parts that fell away into silver mist after a moment’s manifestation. I wanted to see the people in the room better as well, but my left eye stung too badly to make the strain of peering at them seem fun, so I resigned myself to looking primarily at the ghosts.
There were quite a few, mostly the sort of thin, colorless things that haven’t much will of their own left, if any—repeaters, I call them—who continue to go through the same loop of memory over and over endlessly. I was surprised to see so many of them, since they aren’t the sort to go wandering around looking for someone to talk to; usually they just sit in the place their memory loop had lodged and run through the motions until something wipes them away. These had moved from wherever they were usually stuck and clustered around Julianne Goss, continuing their endless loops—walking, talking, and gesturing out of context. There were a few brighter, more colorful ghosts in the misty sea of spirits and I knew they were more likely to have some information I could use—if I could get them to talk to me. So far none of them had turned any attention my way, which was unusual, since specters are usually attracted to me. But these just pressed close to Julianne.
“Someel vague…” the ghosts muttered.
“What?” I asked.
Someone touched my shoulder and I jumped, turning away from the voice and squinting to see who in the normal world had grabbed me. The nurse peered at my face from a few inches away, her breath smelling of lemon-flavored candies and the glimmer of a gold chain peeping from under her collar. “What happened?” she demanded. “Your eye is red and irritated and it looks like some swelling is coming on.” She hesitated before she asked, “Did Julianne hit you with something?”
“The paintbrush,” I said.
“No, really, the paintbrush,” I repeated.
Wrothen gave an irritated sigh. “Back you go to the bathroom. You need to rinse that eye properly or it’ll get worse. You have any idea what nasty chemicals are in paint? Come on.”
She wasn’t anywhere near my height, but we probably weighed about the same, and she had no difficulty turning me around and dragging me back to the sink. Stocky, bossy women have a towing advantage over bemused beanpole chicks like me. I also couldn’t get over feeling it’s just wrong to belt a nurse in the chops.
Wrothen pushed me down to sit on the edge of the bathtub, draped a towel around my shoulders, and did mildly uncomfortable things to my eye involving a lot of liquid that managed to dribble into my ears, the corners of my mouth, and down onto my shirt and jeans in spite of precautions. But it did take the worst of the sting away.
“Well,” she huffed as she puttered around me, “at least we don’t have to listen to Mr. Stymak’s ‘ghost recording’ while we’re in here.”
“You don’t want to hear it?” I asked.
“I do not. I hear quite enough from him and his digital recorder as it is.”
“So you don’t believe Miss Goss is, umm…”
“Possessed? Frankly, I don’t know what’s going on and I certainly won’t go flinging words like that around in a sickroom. It only makes people upset. There’s plenty of things to worry about here without adding demons into the mix.”
“What do you think is causing Miss Goss’s unexpected activity?” I had to splutter around a fall of bitter liquid.
“Sorry,” Wrothen said, patting some of the eyewash off my face. “I said I don’t know and I don’t. If I had any idea what’s going on with any of the patients that are experiencing this, I’d do something about it. But you see I’m not able to. In Miss Goss’s state she shouldn’t be able to sit up and start painting or babble crazy words that mean nothing.”
Was she implying there were more PVS patients like Julianne? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to shut down her current chattiness on the case at hand. “How long as this been going on?” I asked as she poured more liquid over my eyes. I couldn’t decide if it was terrifying or just creepy.
“I can’t discuss it.”
“I’m not interested in the case details, just how long she’s been doing odd things.”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t been here the whole time. She was already painting when I started on the case.”
“What about the other patients?”
“What other patients?” she replied, sounding defensive.
“You said other patients are experiencing this. What other patients? How many?”
She hesitated, scowling.
“I’m not asking for names or details, but surely the fact there are other patients going through what Miss Goss is experiencing is unusual. How many are there?”
Wrothen looked stormy, but a tiny spark leapt off her aura. “I’ve only heard of two.” She gave me a quelling look so pointed I could see it even in my bleary state. “And it’s not something I’ll discuss further.”
Chastened, I changed tack. “Well, then, how long have you worked for Ms. Goss—for the patient’s sister?”
Wrothen patted at my face again, wiping off excess eyewash. “A little more than three months. Blink, please. How does that feel?”
I blinked and my vision cleared a bit, but it was still a little blurry and some of the irritation remained. I told her so.
“You need to see your doctor. He might want to give you something in case there’s some damage.” She whisked off the towel and started to shoo me back into the other room.
I stopped and turned back. “Wait,” I said. “These other patients—”
Wrothen gave me a hard look. “I can’t give you any information about that.”
“I just think it’s interesting that there are others. I thought this sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“It doesn’t happen. Vegetative patients don’t just sit up and start… painting pictures, or writing nonsense, or speaking in tongues. Or talking. Now excuse me. I have to mark up the chart and send a note to the doctor about this incident. Don’t put too much store by what that ‘medium’ says—or Ms. Goss. She’s under his spell and I think it’s terrible the way he’s preying on her fears.” She brushed past me, leaving me in the bathroom with a wet face, stinging eyes, and a host of questions.
In a moment I returned to the bedroom. Things were still a little blurry and the Grey persisted more than I liked, but I could see the living people in the room a bit more clearly. Wrothen had gone to a small desk on wheels near the monitors and was working at a computer keyboard. Lillian Goss and Richard Stymak were bending over the white table, listening to the digital recorder through small headphones. I wondered why they weren’t using earbuds, but I suppose some people don’t care for sticking things in their ears—or they’d been intimidated out of doing so by Wrothen, who I imagined wouldn’t approve of earbuds just on principle.
I went to the table and loomed until they noticed me and looked up from their concentrated staring at the recorder—the way one does when there’s nothing to look at and too much to hear. Lily Goss glanced up first and motioned at Stymak to stop the playback. Then they both pulled off their headphones and blinked at me.
“Have you… got any idea what’s happening to my sister?” Goss asked.
“Well, not really. Not yet. I need to know more—to observe more—which is not possible at the moment. The paint that got into my eye seems to have messed up my vision. I’d like to come back after I’ve seen a doctor and discuss this with you both. And I’d like to hear that recording.” I doubted it was going to be case-breaking—since that kind of thing only happens in TV shows—but I wanted all the data I could get.
“I can make you a copy,” Stymak offered.
“Could you e-mail the file?”
He nodded. “I sure can. It’s large, but if I can’t e-mail it, I’ll send you a secure link you can use to download it. I’ve got more if you want them.”
Yep, he was definitely a geek. My turn to nod. “All right. But let’s start with just the one, thanks.” I turned back to Lily. “I’ll call you to coordinate a time to return, if that’s OK with you.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course. I… I’m the only one here from four to midnight.…”
“I understand. I’ll be in touch, but probably not tonight. Get some rest, Ms. Goss.” I found myself patting her shoulder—a ridiculous gesture I didn’t usually indulge in—and turning away to let myself out, but she rushed to walk with me.
As she opened the front door, Lily Goss touched my arm in a hesitant fashion. “Umm… I’m sorry… about your eye.”
“I’m sure it’s not a major injury and it was an accident.”
“I’m not. Sure, that is. Julie’s been… unpredictable lately. She didn’t used to talk. Now she babbles like you heard today. And she’s never thrown anything before. I am—truly—sorry.”
I wished she’d mentioned the talking and throwing things earlier, but I only said, “Nothing to be sorry for. I’m not quitting. I’ll be back.”
She bit her lip and nodded, frowning and disbelieving me. But I would be back—I wanted to know what was going on with Julianne as much as she did. There were ghosts, and there was something guiding her actions—if not actually possessing her body, which I wasn’t quite sure of.
I did, however, need to do something about my eye. The longer I let it go, the more the sting came back. Unlike another Greywalker I’d met, I had no desire to give up my sight—either Grey or normal. I’d gotten used to seeing the invisible, but it was not an adequate substitute for the normal view.
My eyes were watering badly by the time I got in to see my doctor, who sent me to an ophthalmologist for some kind of chemical test, who in turn sent me back to Dr. Skelleher with the results—dealing with the labyrinth of health care and insurance can be a royal pain in the ass, not to mention the time it takes.
Skelleher’s an odd young duck, but he understands my situation as much as any medical professional is ever likely to and he doesn’t believe there’s a pill for every problem. He gave my eyes a good looking-over and read through the ophthalmologist’s report. He always looked rumpled and sleepless, though a bit less so than usual today—his spiky hair might actually have been styled that way rather than having happened by accident. He had a small following of ghosts standing just behind him everywhere he went. They didn’t seem hostile and he was oblivious to them and any dampening effect they might have had; his aura was bright and colorful, shifting through gold and pink and shimmering, pale blue. Maybe he finally had a girlfriend—or a boyfriend; I had no idea what revved his engine. Whatever it was, he was tired, but pretty content with his life, which is something I rarely get to see.
He plopped onto the backless stool and took a deep breath before giving me the news. “You have some chemical irritation to the lid and sclera. It’s fairly mild, but it’s going to feel uncomfortable and itchy for a few days and may cause you to have some minor vision problems—blurry vision, watering, and so on. Like the ophthalmologist, I’d advise you to rest your eyes as much as possible, but I know you’ll ignore that. Try anyhow. Dr. Michaels prescribed some drops for the pain and some ointment to clear up the irritation, which you need to use twice a day, as I’m sure he told you. If the irritation doesn’t clear up with these meds, I’ll have to insist on your going back to Dr. Michaels. And I know you don’t like to do that. Also, don’t rub your eye. At all. Use the drops and make sure you pat any excess or tears off with a tissue. No wiping with your fingertips or the corner of your shirt or stuff like that.
“If you start seeing anything weird… Well, that’s pretty much normal for you, so let me rephrase that: If the irritation gets worse or you seem to be losing sight, seeing dark spots, having an unusual degree of tearing or blurring, bloody tears, literally seeing red, or the eyelid swells significantly, take yourself to Emergency. And I mean it. You do not want a major eye infection—at least the green pigment wasn’t radioactive, so you missed that complication. But I will bust your chops about it if you don’t do as you’ve been told.”
“Whoa, Skelly! Nice bedside manner.”
He shook his head. “Seriously. This is not something you can ignore. Chemical burns create conditions that can lead to severe infections and we don’t do eyeball transplants. And I shouldn’t have to remind you that your eyes are in your skull, very close to your brain, and you really don’t want massive infections anywhere near the blood/brain barrier.”
“I’m sorry I sounded flippant. I understand the implications.” I didn’t have to pretend to be abashed. “And I know I’m a difficult patient.”
“Actually, you’re not. But you are stubborn and prone to extraordinary accidents.”
I couldn’t argue against that. After all, Skelly had treated me for monster bites, ribs broken by ghosts, and any number of more usual injuries from physical confrontations. Not to mention a small case of being dead once or twice.
“I promise to do as instructed. I’ll go straight home and rest my eyes. But can I ask you a question first?”
Skelly pushed his hands through his hair and gave me a tired smile. “Sure.”
“What can you tell me about persistent vegetative states?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Why do you ask?”
“I have a case that touches on it.”
“Ah. Well, I can’t talk about specific cases and I’m not a neurologist but I can give you a broad rundown. Do you know what a PVS is?”
“It’s like a coma, isn’t it?”
“No. It’s a separate thing. Coma is a short-term state that mimics very deep sleep—it only lasts hours to a few days while the cortex of the brain is severely traumatized. Then the patient either dies because the brain can’t survive the trauma, or they move on to a vegetative state where they may respond to some stimuli, may seem to be awake for a few minutes at a time, but they aren’t actually aware. Usually that state lasts a few days—a couple of weeks at most—while the brain heals from whatever trauma caused the initial coma, and after that the patient wakes up and resumes normal response to stimuli—or as much as they can.
“This kind of thing happens in… say, meningitis cases or head trauma cases and usually resolves one way or the other very quickly. But if the patient’s state doesn’t change—if they don’t wake up and start responding to stimuli after four weeks—we call it a persistent vegetative state, or PVS. To most people it still looks like deep sleep, but the patient may seem to respond to some stimuli and to do things like sigh, laugh, or cry. It may seem like they’re aware, but it’s just autonomic function. They are actually nonresponsive because the brain stem is functioning but higher functions are shut down.”
“So, is this common?”
“Oh no. PVS is rare. Comas aren’t common, so the states that evolve from them are even less so, and most—as I said—resolve long before a persistent state occurs. I’ve never actually seen a case of coma or PVS in my career. Most non-neurologists don’t unless they work in emergency or trauma. And then there are fugue states, which are psychiatric cases of personality disassociation in which the patient has periods of amnesia and denies actions they undertook at that time—not just don’t remember, but actively deny doing them. Fugue states can be related to temporal lobe epilepsy, schizophrenia, and multiple personality disorder,” he added, ticking them off on his fingers.
I shook my head. “That’s not the situation here. The person in question is literally bedridden and seems to be asleep, but she keeps sitting up and painting compulsively. But I have to say, she doesn’t really seem to be ‘there’ when it happens.”
Skelleher stared at me. “You saw this?”
“Today. That’s how I got paint in my eye—the patient flipped her brush at me while she was painting, but it was more like she was a puppet being operated by someone else because she didn’t actually open her eyes or seem to respond to anyone in the room. And then she started babbling and lay back down.”
“That’s… that’s impossible. Not even in a minimally conscious state would that happen. It has to be a hoax.”
“Unless the home care nurses are in on it, I don’t think so. I hear there may be other PVS patients in town who are doing similar things.…”
Skelly seemed appalled. “Really? That’s freaky.”
“You haven’t heard about them?”
“I’m a GP. When would I have time to hear about even the weirdest case that’s not on my ward or watch? I didn’t know there were any PVS patients in the city until you mentioned it. It’s really that rare. If they’re all doing strange things I’d expect the neurologists to be in a lather over it. I’m surprised they haven’t called a conference.”
“Do you think I could talk to the other people involved with those cases… ?”
“No. Not through me or any other medical professional. Patient confidentiality is sacrosanct. If you think it’s true and connected to whatever case you’re working, you’ll have to find another way.”
He looked uncomfortable; I understood his position and didn’t push him. I shouldn’t have asked in the first place, but the coincidence of three rare cases that might all be doing the same impossible things set off every investigatory instinct I had, and I had to understand what was usual before I could reasonably judge what wasn’t. I’d have to find the others by myself somehow and determine what was going on, because one strange manifestation is just a case, but three could be, as Auric Goldfinger said, enemy action. And I didn’t have any living enemies that I knew of. Dead and restless ones… that I wasn’t so sure of.
Possession © Kat Richardson 2013