by Mark Onspaugh
ansas was far hotter than Will remembered. His new dress shirt was sticking to his back by the time he reached the institute. He figured his jacket would hide the circles of wetness under his arms, but he didn’t like that sticky, clingy feeling of the fabric against his skin.
The dealer in Chicago had assured him that the Pontiac’s air conditioner was state-of-the-art, but the damn thing had burned out halfway across Missouri. He had driven all the way to Topeka with the windows down, wearing only his shoes, pants and undershirt. He had stopped at a Mobil station ten miles from the institute and used the restroom to change. At twenty-five his brown hair was already beginning to thin a bit, but his face was unlined, and he possessed the same easy good looks as singer Tommy Roe, who had a hit that year with “Sheila”. He smiled as he remembered the three high school girls in a red convertible who had kept pace with him until he crossed the Illinois state line, convinced he was Roe on the way to a gig. Then, remembering the importance of his appointment, he ceased to smile and put on his dress shirt and tie.
Will pulled up to a pair of massive wrought iron gates, flanked on either side by rough hewn columns of stone that were part of a massive wall overgrown with ivy.
An enamel sign affixed to the right column declared itself in brilliant white with crisp black lettering.
Clear Springs Asylum of Wichita
There was a small guard kiosk on the other side and Will showed the guard his identification and letter from Dr. Carlton Fisk, the director. The guard gave him a tip of the hat as he returned Will’s documents. The gates swung open soundlessly and he drove in. He told himself not to be nervous, but he could feel the perspiration dripping from his pores as if he were a large sponge being squeezed by the heat.
He passed the visitor’s parking area and entered a small lot designated “Institute Staff Only”. He felt a flush of pride when he found the space labeled “Reserved – Dr. Price”.
The grounds were green and well-tended, and small paths meandered around flowerbeds and out to a duck pond surrounded by willow trees. Only two patients seemed to be out, which wasn’t unusual, given the heat. They were seated on a bench by the pond and were feeding the ducks small bits of bread. A large orderly watched them from a discrete distance. He saw Will, surmised he was a new doctor, and gave him a small wave. Will waved back.
The main entrance of the institute was a colonial façade marked by large columns and a pair of sturdy oak doors. Will entered and was relieved to find it much cooler inside.
The interior was light and airy, with terrazzo tiles, white walls and high ceilings. Barred windows in the lobby let in sunlight filtered through gardenia bushes.
The admitting nurse, a rather plain woman in her forties, gave him directions to Fisk’s office. The director was a big man, easily four hundred pounds, with a close-cropped crew cut and ruddy face. He looked like a former quarterback who had gotten fat from rich food and alcohol. Will was careful not to make any assumptions. His professors had assured him that Dr. Fisk was a brilliant man.
Fisk beamed when he saw him, and stood up, extending his hand. This was very different from the more reserved protocol of Chicago, but it was familiar to Will, who had once made a home among these garrulous, hard-working people.
“Dr. William Price, I presume!” Fisk boomed, then laughed at his own joke.
Will laughed, too. The man was so jolly it was impossible not to, and they shook hands. It was like shaking hands with a bear, and his not-so-small hand was engulfed in the other’s massive paw.
“How was the drive from Chicago?” Fisk asked.
“Hot,” Will answered honestly.
“I can have some lemonade brought in, or iced tea?”
“Iced tea would be wonderful, thank you.”
Fisk called to his assistant in the hall, not bothering with an intercom or phone. He saw that Will was startled and laughed.
“Many of the patients are comforted by this trumpet of mine,” he laughed. “If I tone it down they begin to worry!”
A young man with a name tag identifying him as Patient Greg Stevens brought in two ice teas on a tray with a small dish of sugar cubes and another of lemon wedges, as well as spoons and cocktail napkins. Though the tray rattled slightly, he managed to dispense the beverages and incidentals without spilling anything.
“Thank you, Greg,” Fisk said.
The young man smiled, and then looked at Will.
“Thank you, Greg. This is just what the doctor ordered,” said Will.
Greg looked confused for a second, and then Fisk laughed heartily. Greg joined in, his laugh more of a bray, then exited with the tray.
Fisk and Will fixed their drinks and enjoyed them in silence for two minutes. Will had a feeling Fisk was measuring his sense of security, whether he needed to fill silence with trivial conversation.
After a moment, Fisk nodded and smiled.
“Doctor Price, you come highly recommended. Dr. Stanton is a long-time friend and colleague, and he couldn’t be more impressed with you. I am, as well.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“I’m sure you’re tired and would like to see your quarters.”
Will hesitated, then took the plunge.
“If you wouldn’t mind, Dr. Fisk, may I see her?”
Fisk smiled, but his eyes were keen, watchful.
“Ah, yes. She was the subject of your dissertation four years ago.”
“I read it. Most of the staff did.”
Will looked at Fisk, waiting to see if the man was going to comment on his work.
Fisk smiled, took one last sip of his tea, then stood up.
“Let’s go meet her,” Fisk said.
Will, unsure what the man’s silence regarding his paper meant, was nevertheless caught up in the excitement of this moment come at last.
Fisk led him down the hall and to an elevator with burnished bronze doors.
“She’s downstairs,” Fisk explained. “Most of the older patients are. We tried to move some of them to the newer, more modern wing, but many insisted on staying where they felt safe, secure.”
The elevator creaked into service and rocked slightly when they reached the lower level.
Fisk exited briskly and Will followed. The linoleum here was clean but worn, its bright spots of blue and green now scuffed and rubbed into the gray of a stormy sea. The walls were freshly painted, though, and there was no hint of malfeasance or neglect.
Each of the patient’s rooms had a small window of wired glass. They passed rooms brightly lit, others that seemed pitch black.
“We’ve had some attrition over the years,” Fisk explained. “Eventually this entire ward will be given over to support services and file storage.”
Her room was at the end of the corridor, the last one on the left. There was no patient opposite her, just a maintenance closet and a fire exit.
Fisk gestured to the window. Will had hoped to actually meet her, but knew there was a protocol in place to which he must adhere. He stood before the door and peeked in.
She was dressed in a faded blue shift and sat in a straight-back chair next to her bed. She was in her seventies, with long, wavy hair of silver with some white. Her hands were big and gnarled, the hands of a pioneer woman, and they were clasped in her lap. Her eyes were large, their color unknowable at this distance. Her nose was a bit lumpish, as if it had been broken and crudely set a long time ago. Her lips were moving wordlessly.
The picture she was staring at was a child’s rendition of a rainbow. A smiling sun shone overhead, and the colors of the rainbow were slightly off, the red missing and the green twice as large as the other bands. Under it, very small, was a green blob sat that sat atop a thin vertical line of yellow, crosshatched with black.
“Hello, Dorothy,” Will whispered, then glanced at Fisk to see if he had heard.
Fisk smiled. “Did you notice her feet?”
Will looked again, almost expecting shoes that were covered in red glitter. She was wearing unremarkable flats, hospital issue.
Then he saw them move.
She was clicking her heels, three times in succession.
The first two months were busy ones for Will, and he only saw Dorothy Gale on two occasions, both with Dr. Fisk.
His predecessor, Dr. Vincent Colby, had left without notice two months before. Will found that odd, especially in light of Dorothy’s case, but Fisk was unperturbed.
“Colby was a good man, but his heart wasn’t in it,” Fisk confided as they observed Dorothy. She was sitting near the duck pond, but stared at her hands, unmoving.
“I read a couple of his papers,” Will said. “He seemed rather… clinical.”
“Skinnerian,” he said, his rosy face wincing as if he had smelled something bad. “I’d take the whole lot of them with their rats and black boxes and dump them in the Arkansas River.”
“But in light of Dorothy’s family, the farmhands…”
“I know what the papers say,” Fisk said. “But they never found bodies, did they? I think they were lost in the tornado, and the trauma of seeing that is what reduced Dorothy to catatonia.”
“I think that theory has merit, Doctor,” Will said. “But it’s that lack of bodies that makes me question the disappearance of Doctor Colby.”
“I would imagine if you called around to various psychiatric institutions, you’d find he was practicing in another state,” Fisk insisted. “Perhaps even in Europe.”
“But, to leave his belongings behind…”
“Doctor Price, the truth is I feel we are well rid of the man. Unlike you, he was a heartless bastard that felt all of Man’s maladies could be removed by a scalpel or some operant conditioning. If it gives you any comfort, there was no tornado the day he left, not even a slight breeze.”
“You think she killed him, buried him on the grounds somewhere. The police thought so, too. Had bloodhounds out here for three days. They scared the patients and the ducks. And before you ask, they checked Dorothy’s room, too. No one walled up behind the lath and plaster, Montresor!”
Will was unsure.
Fisk clapped him on the back.
“You haven’t left the grounds in weeks. I’m taking you out for steaks and a round of martinis at The Brazier. Doctor’s orders.”
Will looked over at Dorothy, but she continued to regard her hands, as if waiting for them to reveal some great mystery.
The case was already something of an urban legend when Will first heard about it as a youngster in Bramble, a small town west of Topeka. It was the summer of ‘46 and he had just turned nine, the same age as Dorothy when she was found wandering miles from her home in Dryden after the big tornado of 1900. The little girl was unharmed, but everyone at the farm where she lived had disappeared. In Will’s time, the popular versions were that Dorothy had butchered her family and fed them to the hogs or that a ravenous monster had devoured them, driving poor Dorothy mad in the process.
There was no reference to Oz.
The story stayed with him, and he was plagued by nightmares for weeks. As a result, he remembered details of the legend long after his friends had forgotten it.
When he was fifteen, Will went to the public library in Lawrence and researched newspapers from that fateful summer in 1900.
FARM FAMILY STILL MISSING –
GIRL DECLARED INSANE
“WICHITA – Authorities have been unable to find any trace of local farmers Henry and Emily Gale, who disappeared some time during the devastating tornado that struck the region on June 5, 1900. Also missing are three farm hands who had been with the Gales for three year, Ed “Hunk” Chaffee, Clyde “Hickory” Ferris and Leo “Zeke” Mayer and a neighbor, Elmira Gulch.
The farmhouse itself was mostly undamaged by the twister, though local Sheriff Charles Morgan said that it had been shifted on its foundation “slightly out of true”. Locals know the capricious nature of tornadoes, and it is not unusual for one house to remain intact while all around it are destroyed.
What has authorities puzzled is that the Gales, their hands and neighbor have vanished without a trace. The only exception is young Dorothy Gale, the nine year old niece of Henry and Emily.
Dorothy was found wandering three miles from the house, confused and bearing evidence of a blow to the head. The child first told how she had been taken in by a gypsy fortune teller known as “Professor Marvel”, but authorities have been unable to corroborate the existence of such an individual in the area. It was suspected that Dorothy had been abducted by some third party who had also abducted her friends and family, then subsequently escaped.
The story became more puzzling when the girl began to insist she had traveled via the tornado to a magical land “over the rainbow”, and that her friends and relatives remained there.
The land, which she calls “Oz” is supposedly a place of witches and dwarves, talking scarecrows and animals, monkeys that fly, roads of gold and palaces of emerald.
Experts in the field of psychiatry now believe that Dorothy witnessed the murder of the six adults and has experienced a “psychotic break”, allowing her to believe they live happily in a colorful fairy land. Rumors that the child herself may have been involved in the disappearances have been called “ridiculous” by Sheriff Morgan, although he has admitted that the child had an ongoing conflict with her neighbor, Elmira Gulch, and her aunt and uncle over the disposition of her pet terrier, Toto, also missing.
As the child has no other relatives willing to care for her, she has been made a ward of the state and has been placed in the Wichita Insane Asylum for treatment. Doctors are not hopeful.”
Will had been fascinated by the story, mostly by the land the traumatized child had conjured up. To think someone so young could create such a vibrant, compelling delusion! This fascination stayed with him through high school, and led to his pursuing psychiatry as a career.
Now he looked again at his favorite patient, once again seated before her drawing and mumbling as she clicked her now-calloused heels.
It was the only time she appeared animated, other than when the skies became gray and stormy. Otherwise, she exhibited all the classic signs of catatonia, and had to be fed, dressed and washed.
In his first week, Will had leaned close to her to try and discern what she said as she regarded the painting, which he learned she had done in her first year at the institute, back when it was crudely labeled an “insane asylum”.
It was just five words, and she repeated them like a mantra.
There’s no place like home
There’s no place like home
There’s no place like home