William Lyon's past forced him to become someone he isn't. Conflicted and unable to maintain the charade, he separates from his wife and takes a job as caretaker at a former mental hospital. Jelley’s Valley State Insane Asylum was the largest mental hospital in California for well over a century, but it now stands empty. William thinks the decrepit institution is the perfect place to finish his dissertation and wait for his divorce to become final. In town, William meets Colby Anderson, who minds the local store and post office. Unlike William, Colby is cute, upbeat, and flamboyantly out. Although initially put off by Colby’s mannerisms, William comes to value their new friendship, and even accepts Colby's offer to ease him into the world of gay sex.
William’s self-image begins to change when he discovers a tin box, hidden in an asylum wall since the 1940s. It contains letters secretly written by Bill, a patient who was sent to the asylum for being homosexual. The letters hit close to home, and William comes to care about Bill and his fate. With Colby’s help, he hopes the words written seventy years ago will give him courage to be his true self.
I'll start off by saying you will definitely need tissues when you read this story. When William found the letters from 1938 that Bill wrote to Johnny and started reading them, my heart broke. William's story isn't exactly all balloons and unicorns but those letters really touched me. Now, in regards to William's story, I would have liked to have a bit more insight into exactly what he dealt with in his youth when he was being "cured" but I understood that it wasn't necessary for the tale to move forward. Colby is a delight, his lessons for William are upbeat and adds moments of much needed lightness. Having said that, I think Colby is a complex character that most readers, myself included, pre-judge him as a bit flakey. Colby and William's interactions are a lovely heartwarming companion to Bill's heartbreaking letters. This is a story that will definitely put the reader through the wringer but it's a ride that is worth every page turning(or tablet swiping) minute.
GRAVEL crunched under the tires of William Lyon’s ancient Toyota. The boxes and bags holding his worldly possessions rattled and shifted. He rolled up the window to avoid the choking cloud of dust kicked up by the Volvo ahead of him, but that left him feeling suffocatingly hot. The AC in his car had died long ago. That had rarely been an issue in the Bay Area, but it was going to be more problematic here in the Sierra foothills.
The road curved around grassy hillocks already gone brown in the late spring heat. Off in the distance he saw a few cows standing placidly in the shade of sprawling live oaks. With mild interest, they watched the cars pass by. The road turned once more as it rose slightly, and William got his first look at his new home.
Jelley’s Valley State Insane Asylum sprawled imposingly across several acres of mostly flat land, with a steep hill rising behind it. The grounds were surrounded by a tall metal fence. The facility comprised several buildings, although he couldn’t take a good inventory of them as he tried to avoid the road’s potholes. But he certainly noticed the largest building, a three-story white stucco monstrosity with a columned front portico and an ornate tower perched in the center of the roof. Even in the glaring sunshine, the building managed to look vaguely sinister. Maybe it was the heavy bars on all the windows, the cracked and peeling paint, or the hollow look common to abandoned buildings.
“Great setting for a horror movie,” he said aloud, then frowned. Talking to himself wasn’t healthy.
The Volvo stopped at a gate in the tall fence. William watched as Dr. Merrick—no, William reminded himself, Jan—got out of her car, pulled out an impressively large set of keys, and unfastened the padlock on the gate. Jan put a little muscle into pushing the gate open, got back into her car, and continued toward the main building as William followed.
The parking lot in front of the main building was paved, although weeds grew lushly through cracks in the asphalt. Jan parked the Volvo at an angle, straddling several spaces, but William pulled in carefully between two faded white lines. He turned off the engine and straightened his tie. He considered donning his suit jacket too, but the mere thought of additional clothing made the sweat drip down his forehead.
Jan was waiting for him by the front steps, a broad smile on her face. She was a tiny woman, almost a foot shorter than him, with her graying hair cut in a practical bob. “Gorgeous building, isn’t it? It’s on the National Historic Register.”
He nodded, hoping his face didn’t look too sour. If the place weren’t historic, he supposed they’d have razed it long ago. In his opinion, just because something was old didn’t mean it was worth keeping, and this heap was a prime example of that. What use was a defunct mental institution in the middle of nowhere? It wasn’t as if people drove by to admire the architecture.
Of course, he didn’t say any of this out loud. Instead, he offered a neutral observation: “It’s big.”
She laughed. “It is. It once housed more patients than anyplace else in California. Not for many years now, of course. They closed it down completely back in eighty-two.”
“It’s, um, a lot of space.”
“Don’t worry. A grounds crew comes a couple times a month to hack back the biggest vegetation, and there’s really no reason for you to step foot in the smaller buildings. C’mon. Let me give you the nickel tour.”
He didn’t especially want a tour. He’d have preferred to move his things inside and get settled. But he tagged along dutifully as she led him across the parking lot toward an open space that reminded him of a grassy village square or a park. She pointed across the space, at a large house that might once have been a Victorian wonder but was now mostly a pile of weather-beaten lumber. “That was the director’s house. Important visitors used to come from as far away as San Francisco and Sacramento and the directors would host fancy parties there. Some of the patients—the better-behaved ones, I guess—would act as servants. There are pictures in the online archives if you want to take a look.”
“It looks like a fire hazard.”
She chuckled. “The board of directors has been trying to raise enough money to restore the house. We’re not far from our goal.”
“You better hurry up.”
She continued around the side of the stucco building, where there was another entryway, this one considerably less grand. It somehow looked a little secretive to William, as if it had been used to furtively move people in and out. More buildings were visible around the back.
“Those were the shops,” Jan said, pointing at a long, low structure that was newer and uglier than the main one. “Roof’s mostly caved in, so avoid it. There’s nothing worth preserving there. A big water tower used to be right next door, but it was dismantled years ago. Don’t worry, though—you’ll have a modern water system. There’s a well.”
That was a belated relief, because it hadn’t even occurred to him to worry about whether he’d be able to take a decent shower. Then another thought hit him. “There is electricity, right?”
“Of course,” she said with a laugh. “They first ran power out here in the thirties. And there’s satellite TV with Internet. All the mod cons.”
They continued to wander around under the increasingly brutal sun, Jan pointing out features as they went. There were a few more buildings, mostly storage for supplies and vehicles, and a row of little cottages that had once housed some of the more capable inmates. Another falling-down wreck of a building had been apartments for the asylum staff. She told him that one building, in moderately good condition, had originally been the women’s facility but had been put to other uses over the years.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at another open space near the main building, this one surrounded by a low iron fence. The grass and shrubs inside the fence were badly overgrown, and a few lanky trees stretched their limbs out mournfully.
She sighed. “That’s the cemetery.”
“I don’t see any gravestones.”
“There aren’t any. Most of the people here didn’t have anyone to come visit them while they were alive, let alone after they died. The hospital kept some records of who was buried where, but they’re really incomplete. We know this isn’t the only place where they laid people to rest, but we’re not sure where all the graves are. About ten years ago someone was considering buying the property for some kind of resort, but when they did some digging near the edge of the property they ended up unearthing a bunch of skeletons.”
William shuddered. “Ugh.”
“That’s what they thought. They backed out of the deal. Nobody’s been interested since.”
Well, William could certainly understand that. But again he held his tongue, and he was relieved when she took them back to the front of the building. She pulled that enormous key ring out of her purse and handed it to him with a little flourish. “You won’t need most of these. The ones for the front door and gate are marked and there’s a list inside that tells you what the others are for. Mostly they’re for interior doors.”
She let him lead the way to the large and ornate front door. He fumbled with the key a little before he managed to turn the lock. The door made a scraping sound as if the hinges were rusty. It probably didn’t get opened very often.
The entry hall was much grander than he expected, with marble floors and ornate wainscoting. The ceiling soared at least twenty feet. An enormous chandelier hung in the middle, thickly festooned with cobwebs and dust and clearly unused for decades. The room was bright with sunlight that poured in through the large windows set high in the walls, and in more recent years someone had installed a series of ugly but functional lights. The space was bare of furniture, but he could see scuff marks on the floor, and he figured there had once been a reception desk and probably some benches or chairs. He wondered whether new patients had entered this way or through the ugly little door on the side.
“You’re free to poke around the building all you want,” Jan said. Her voice echoed off the room’s hard surfaces. “It’s mostly just a lot of empty rooms, or jumbles of old furniture and things. The morgue’s pretty interesting. It’s up on the second floor in the west wing. That was the medical wing. The records room is right near your quarters. We’ve archived only a small portion, so if you get bored and want to pitch in, be my guest.”
“I’ll be working on my dissertation.”
“Of course. I’m sure that’ll keep you plenty busy. Fred tells me that you have quite an impressive data set.”
Fred was Fred Ochoa, supervisor of William’s psych dissertation. He was the one who’d found William this job. “It’s perfect!” Dr. Ochoa had enthused one afternoon two weeks earlier. “I know you like to work in peace and quiet and you’ll have plenty of that. And you’ll get a place to live rent-free.” He cleared his throat. “You’re still, er, a little at loose ends, aren’t you?”
If sleeping in his tiny office at the university and showering at the gym meant loose ends, William most certainly was. He hadn’t really wanted Dr. Ochoa to know about the pending divorce and his precarious situation, but the man was nothing if not observant.
“I don’t think I’d make a very good caretaker,” William had protested. “I’m not a fix-it kind of guy.”
“Not a problem. Basically, your job is just to keep an eye on things. Make sure vandals don’t overrun the place, stuff like that. You’ll have an emergency number to call if something important breaks. You’ll have a lot of room to spread out, William, plus they’ll pay you enough to squirrel a little cash away if you want to.”
William hadn’t said yes right away. But after three more days of a sore back from sleeping on the office’s lumpy love seat, and with no good prospects beyond a half-dozen noisy roommates, he’d taken the offer.
Now, Jan watched him with her head slightly cocked. “What’s your research subject, William?”
“The influence of word frequency and item arrangement in serial recall. I have some other independent variables too, like elapsed time and number or complexity of interfering events. It’s a fairly intricate experimental design.”
“Uh-huh. It sounds very interesting,” she added, but without conviction.
It was interesting—to him, anyway. And not only might his study have some intriguing theoretical repercussions, but there were practical applications as well, such as in the courtroom. But he didn’t bother to explain that now.
“Where do I sleep?” he asked. Almost anyplace would be better than his cramped, slightly mildewy office—well, anyplace but the morgue.
She smiled. “We have a nice apartment set up. This way.”
The double doors near where the desk had once stood were unlocked. Beyond them was a long, gloomy corridor with scuffed floors, peeling painted walls, and more utilitarian light fixtures. The corridor was lined with doors, and the far end appeared to meet another hallway that led off to the right and left. Jan opened the first door they came to, an imposing-looking one made of carved dark wood. “This used to be the director’s office,” she explained.
It was a very large room. Built-in bookcases lined two walls from floor to ceiling, the shelves mostly empty apart from a sad little row of ratty paperback spy thrillers. A few brightly colored rugs—incongruously modern in what was otherwise a very antique-looking room—covered parts of the scuffed oak floor. The chandelier matched the one in the entryway, although this one was smaller and dust-free. Heavy tieback curtains let in the light from two large windows, mercifully unbarred. A grand fireplace was centered on one wall, a sizable pile of logs set into place even though William wouldn’t need a fire anytime soon.
The furnishings were solid and comfortable-looking: a bed flanked by a pair of nightstands, a leather couch and matching armchair, a tall dresser, a mirrored armoire, an enormous desk with an equally enormous padded chair. Two wooden chairs hugged a small round table. Mismatched lamps had been placed on the desk, near the bed, and on a shelf near the armchair. The small, old television didn’t bother William; he’d never been much of a TV-watching guy. Three electric fans stood ready to help move the still, hot air. The inside of the building was cooler than outdoors, but not by much.
Still, this was definitely better than his university office, William concluded.
Jan must have noticed his approval, because she grinned. “Not bad, huh? There used to be a private exam room adjacent. We’ve made that into the kitchenette and bathroom. Come see.”
The small door off to the left led directly into a tiny kitchen, housing a miniature stove and oven, a microwave, a sink, four feet of counter space, and a pair of cupboards. “You might have trouble cooking a feast for twenty in here,” Jan admitted.
“I’m not much of a cook anyway.”
“Well, if you decide to take up a new hobby, the old kitchens—the big ones that cooked for the whole hospital—are on this floor. I doubt any of the appliances work, though.”
The bathroom was basic. No tub, just a tiled shower stall. The sink looked ancient, but the faucet gleamed and the mirror was in good shape. A stacked washer and dryer stood in the corner.
When William and Jan returned to the main room, she cocked her head at him. “So? What do you think? Is it going to work?”
“It’ll be fine,” he said confidently.
“Good. There’s a binder in the desk full of instructions and maps and things like that. The key list is in there too. Oh, and that phone works.” She pointed at a big black phone that looked like an escapee from an old movie. “Cell coverage can be a little spotty out here.”
Fine with him, as long as he had Internet.
She scratched her head. “Let’s see…. Is there anything else you need to know? There’s no mail delivery out here, but you can pick it up at the post office in town. There’s a general store there too. For bigger shopping you’ll need to drive into Mariposa or Oakhurst, but you can get the basics here. The little Mexican restaurant’s not bad. Try their tamales. And call me if you need anything. It takes me a couple hours to get here, but I can probably help you out long-distance. I stayed here myself as caretaker for six months, back when I was writing my dissertation. It was a lovely experience, although I grew lonely at the end.”
William wasn’t worried about that. He was used to lonely.
He walked her out to the parking lot. “Are there, um, animals around here?” he asked.
“Nothing that will eat you. Actually, the wildlife is quite interesting. I learned to bird-watch when I lived here. There are deer and coyotes nearby, but the fence keeps them out. And of course you’ll have your neighbors, the cows.”
“I’ve never lived so… far from things before.”
“Well, it’s wonderful if you like peace and quiet. Now, can I help you carry in your belongings?”
“No thanks.” He didn’t have that many things anyway, apart from his books and papers. He and Lisa hadn’t been able to afford much in the way of material goods, and she’d kept most of their things after they split. At least she’d had an apartment to keep them in, and he thought she deserved to salvage what she could from the marriage he’d botched.
“Okay, then. I’m going to head back. I’ll lock the gate when I leave.” She put out her hand and he shook it. “Good luck, William.”
He watched as she drove off. Even after her car had disappeared around a bend he could see the clouds of dust billowing behind her. That left him alone with his carefully parked car in the otherwise empty lot. He opened the Toyota’s hatch and began to unload his things. “This is good,” he said out loud, and then bit his tongue as he vowed to stop talking to himself.
Kim Fielding lives in California and travels as often as she can manage. A professor by day, at night she rushes into a phonebooth to change into her author costume (which involves comfy clothes instead of Spandex and is, sadly, lacking a cape). Her superpowers include the ability to write nearly anywhere, often while simultaneously doling out homework assistance to her children. Her favorite word to describe herself is "eclectic" and she finally got that third tattoo.
All royalties from her novels Stasis, Flux and Equipoise are donated to Doctors Without Borders.