The Good Doctor
Prentiss Dires was worried and his wife Rebecca could tell. She could read the man like a book, which made sense considering that they’d been married for almost 30 years. They’d met young, when Prentiss himself was fresh out of medical school. He’d taken some time off to travel and had found himself in Dublin, Ireland. There he’d met Rebecca McGillis. The story of their bonding, romance and eventual marriage is not something worthy of retelling. It was soft, clean and standard. Two young people locked in by mutual attraction. Rebecca, the charming Irish lass, Prentiss, the motivated newly minted doctor, it was rather mathematical and from that equation came a shared life of marriage and two children.
They’d had two girls, Shannon and Amy. Amy was doing well still, a young woman just beginning to find her way into the real world. She’d recently moved out of her parents’ home in Kenner, Louisiana, and found a place of her own out in New Orleans East. She’d started dating a young man who Rebecca Dires adored and Prentiss thought was a bit of a slacker. A young guy that worked at a mall in a video game store whose name Prentiss always forgot. This drove Amy to annoyance, as she was sure her father was doing this on purpose. In all truth, he wasn’t, he just had too much on his mind lately. The other daughter, Shannon, had departed not only the Dires home, but also life itself. She had fallen victim to a local string of serial killings a couple years before. The political murders, as they’d been called in the news. The man responsible had turned himself in though, and was currently spending the rest of his miserable life in a state hospital. He never confessed fully though, and Prentiss, using his connections in the medical field, kept tabs on the kid as he rotted away one day at a time out in Mandeville, LA, a ward of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals now. Should he ever be declared sane, he would be commuted to prison. Prentiss was happy that the little freak named Craig Morgan had no chance of ever walking the streets again. It kept them all safer, because Prentiss had sworn to all the Saints above, that should Morgan ever breathe in the air of freedom, that he would personally find and kill the boy who took his daughter away from him.
That year, the year of Shannon’s death, had been bad for the family, but none took it as hard as Prentiss. Rebecca was tough; her father, a huge redheaded Irishman who spent his entire life breaking his back working at shipyards, had raised his daughter alone, and produced a strong and fearless woman. She took life as it came, head on and without apology. She mourned her daughter, comforted her husband and consoled her surviving child, but did all of this with a certain stoic power that Prentiss both envied and feared a bit.
Prentiss had been raised in New Orleans by a very traditional family in the part of town known as Gentilly. One could almost say his family was of stereotypical New Orleans stock. Both Catholics, Mass attended every Sunday, no meat eaten on any Friday, whether it be Lent or not. They took trips to the lake, voted often, attended every parade and even rode in the Rex parade on Fat Tuesday each and every year. Prentiss had grown up happy and loved, but often wished he’d had a parent like Rebecca’s, a man to instill that strength in him as her father had done for her.
“Life goes on, and so must we,” his wife would tell him when he found himself in a bad spot thinking about their fallen daughter.
“She was so young though, just starting college, all the potential in the world. She was such a fighter, how could this have happened? What did we do to deserve this?” he’d reply, fighting back tears.
“God always has a plan, Prent, you know that as well as I do. Why question it anyway? It’s not like we’ll know until we are called up ourselves.”
Little exchanges like that had carried Prentiss slowly but surely through that horrible year that Shannon had been killed. Rebecca comforted him, but there was also a side of her that pushed him towards his own recovery. She was happy to hold his hand through it, but not while standing still. To take her hand, as her husband had learned years ago, was to be led, not to be coddled and allowed to wallow in pity. She had dragged him, as well as their other daughter Amy when she was feeling particularly distraught over the loss of her sister, through that dark time and finally back into a place that resembled the lives they’d known before their oldest child was taken away.
Prentiss had returned to his practice, Psychiatry, slowly. He cut his patient load in half, not wanting his own pain to somehow reflect back towards those that came to him looking for answers and help. He had to take it his own way, and his wife supported that. One or two patients a day, three days a week was about the pace he’d started back at. Most of his returning patients were thrilled that he’d come back to medicine. He was a good doctor, so they all said, a man that cared. He actually found himself happy to be back at work again, though he didn’t want to admit that out loud. Part of him felt that he was almost disrespecting his deceased child by going back into the normal grind of life. For those moments, though, he had Rebecca to bring him back to reality with her stern, yet loving Irish philosophy on living and dying.
Things had been going pretty well for him actually, and sometimes he would catch himself whistling as he walked to or from his car. Sometimes he’d get home, eat dinner, watch a movie with Rebecca, and not realize until they were in bed at the end of the day that he’d gone from sun-up to sundown without thinking of Shannon once. He’d feel a bite of harsh shame at that sometimes. On nights when this shame kept him awake, he nudged Rebecca awake. She always knew what was wrong before she even rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.
“You’re just living again, Prentiss, ‘tis nothing to be ashamed of. Shannon wouldn’t want you to go out there and join her in the ground, now would she? Of course not! You’re doing what any loving child would want their dad to do, surviving and living.”
She was his rock in these situations, and as time marched on, her words rang true. He was allowing himself to be happy again. This was his own advice that he often gave to his patients- “Allow yourself to be happy, give yourself permission to smile. Sometimes what keeps us down and buried in our worries is the fact that we as people feel that we are required to suffer for some reason or another. We’re not. Choose to feel something good today, grant yourself that much.” His own words rang in his mind frequently, and had been working well for sometime.
However, things had become different with the arrival of his latest patient. He started to worry again. Rebecca could tell just from looking at her husband that things were slipping backwards. He was consumed with something, and she decided to pull it out of him.
“Prent, if your face gets any longer tonight, I’m going to slap a saddle on your back and rent you out to pull produce,” she’d said in a flat and strong voice. “Tell your better half what is eating you up so tonight.”
“It’s… a patient of mine. She was supposed to come in today. I know it’s still early, but I called her and left a message. I thought I’d hear from her by now. False hope, I guess. She’ll probably call me late, once I’m already getting in bed or something. Then I’ll feel relieved and will look much less like a horse. I’m just, getting worried. I think she might do something drastic. I wish I could do more, but… this is all I can do, sit and wait.”
It wasn’t uncommon for patients to occasionally call the Dires home to speak with their doctor. Sometimes it was just for some sagely advice, other times it was when the more pill happy members of the good doctor’s practice would burn through all of their medication way too quickly and call in desperate hope for a refill. Tonight, though, it seemed different.
“Okay then, I know you got that oath and all, so I won’t force you to tell me what is going on, but if you were to decide to empty your burdens, I wouldn’t run off and tattle on you,” she answered.
That didn’t worry Prentiss. Oath or not, he’d shared details of some of his more extreme patients with his wife before. Maybe it wasn’t the most prudent course of action for a doctor sworn to listen and heal minds, but it helped keep Prentiss on the right side of the couch he kept in his office.
“Coffee, then come and sit with me, Rebecca. I will tell you. I have to tell someone, after all.”
“Oh, so now I’m your coffee wench, am I?” she replied sarcastically, but filled his request just the same. She wanted him to talk so perhaps he could feel better; she was also a bit curious. Some of his stories about his patients were outright entertaining, and Rebecca, though she would never admit it, enjoyed hearing them from time to time. She had to fight not to laugh at some of them, like this one girl that Prentiss had treated a while back that needed her mother to call and sing her a lullaby every night. Rebecca had grown up with no mother and only her hard case dad, and found such sentiments as lullabies to be almost laughable. She had a feeling though that this particular patient, the one keeping her husband awake and stressed, might not be such a funny story.
Prentiss took his cup, blew on some of the steam and brought it to his lips.
“Hey, slow down, it’s hot, dummy! You’re going to burn your lips,” his wife scolded. Her husband laughed and thought for just a moment that wives and mothers were not very different at all.
“Her name is Mary. She showed up at my office a few weeks ago, pretty standard stuff. Said that she was suffering from extreme anxiety. She’s 35 years old, seems like she has a good head on her shoulders. I figured at first it was just the usual stress story; too much work, not enough money, you know, the usual. However, she was anything but the standard patient.”
“How so?” Rebecca asked.
“Well, on paper she seemed like the least likely candidate to really suffer from her level of anxiety. She had no children, a steady job in a rather low stress field. She’d inherited her home from her grandparents so she didn’t have a mortgage to worry over. As I said, on paper she seemed to be ahead of the power-curve in life. A lot of my patients would envy her situation, but I could tell after our first session that there was something very wrong going on. She had this… delusion, you see, going all the way back to her childhood.”
Rebecca twirled her fingers a bit, a habit that drove Prentiss crazy sometimes. It meant to hurry the story along and get the good part. Prentiss didn’t know how to articulate to his wife that there likely was no good part in this story at all.
“Okay, fine. I’ve been treating her for a few weeks now, and she told me all about this incident, one that I feel to be very much imagined, a nightmare from her youth, but to her it’s cold hard reality. Tonight, well, tonight… according to her, she’ll die.”
“Or be killed, depending on how you look at her side of it.”
Prentiss sipped his coffee and locked eyes with his wife. She was leaning over, her red locks falling over her green eyes. She was wearing a sleeveless shirt and her orange freckles were on full display. He traced them around her arms with his eyes, a habit he’d enjoyed from the first time he’d seen her naked, way back in Dublin over 25 years ago.
“They wrap around my shoulders and lead right to my tits, same as always, Prentiss. Now stop dragging it out and tell me about this woman who thinks tonight will be her last.”
He sighed, sipped his coffee once more, and told his story.
“As I said, she came in like any other patient, off the street really, no referral, no previous provider or therapist, at least from her records. I know sometimes patients will just pick a name out of the phone book, and I assume that’s how she wound up in my office, sitting on my couch.”
Mary, an attractive woman in her 30s, no real life issues that the doctor could tell from reading her chart. However, it took less than five minutes for him to realize that she had some very serious problems. She came in and took a seat, smiled at him, and then the horrible silence that Prentiss had come to hate fell over them. It wasn’t easy to just break the ice for him with patients; that was one skill he’d never mastered. Doctors of the body had it easy in his mind, fix a broken bone, heal an organ, it was all pretty black and white to him. Issues of the mind though, well, they were harder, at least in his somewhat biased opinion. So, finding the right greeting to break the ice was never easy. It’s not like he could just say, “Hey, so you’re crazy, huh? Well, let’s fix that!” No, he had to engage them in conversation, edge them into it. He was already dreading that song and dance when his patient took the burden from his shoulders.
“I believe I’m going to die before the end of this month,” she said quickly.
“Okay,” he’d replied slowly, taking out his pen and paper. “Why do you believe that?”
“01-30-17,” she’d answered.
“As in January 30th of this year?”
She nodded. “That’s the date he told me I’d die.”
“Alright, Mary, tell me about it. Who told you that you’d die on the 30th?”
“I was just a child then, a happy little girl on vacation. My mother had taken me to Grenada, Mississippi, ever heard of it?”
Prentiss shook his head.
“It’s a tiny little town about 90 minutes from Memphis to the south, and about the same distance from Jackson. A little place with not much to do besides play outside and watch the train blow through town a few times a day but my mother loved it. We went about six times a year back then. My great-grandmother lived there. I called her Granny. See, my mom didn’t have a great relationship with her parents at all, so my actual grandmother was barely in my life, same for my grandfather, although they did leave me their home in their will, that’s where I live now.”
“It always goes back to the parents,” Prentiss thought to himself, and decided to start there.
“Well, my grandparents were very… old school, I guess. Typical New Orleans snobs I suppose. My grandfather ran a business for years and had fallen into the belief that he and only he knew what was right and wrong in the world. They were religious, but not, in your face about it, if you know what I mean?”
Prentiss thought about his own parents and knew right away what she meant. He’d grown up with a similar male influence in his life. Perhaps he’d be able to form a working bond with this patient from just that coincidence.
“Well, my mother, Lynn, she was the wild and free spirited type. So you can imagine that didn’t sit well with her father. She opened a dancing school on Downman Road. If you’re familiar with that part of the city, you might have even seen it, though it was a very long time ago. So, she was young and pretty and kept with all the social circles. She seemed to live off of coffee and cigarettes. I can still remember my grandfather lecturing her about how she was going to blow away in a strong wind. My grandmother, on the few times we did visit them, would always stack her plate with bear-sized portions. It was just a little passive-aggressive statement on her part I think. My mom would just pick at the food though, which of course frustrated her folks all the more.”
“How was your relationship with your mother?” Dires asked, almost smiling at such a clichéd psychiatric question. All he needed was a German accent and the scene would have been complete.
“My mom? We were great. Cancer took her away a little over a decade ago. My grandparents joined her shortly after. Hurricane Katrina took them both at the same time. My grandfather refused to vacate his home, refused to evacuate even though the news and everyone else said that remaining in the city was practically suicide. Their home flooded when the levy broke; they weren’t able to get out.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” the doctor responded.
“Yeah, it was tough, even though we were never that close. It still hurt. They left me their home though, and we were able to gut it and repair it. I live there now. In a lot of ways I’m actually happy we had to gut it out and re-do everything. Close or not, I think it would be strange, depressing even, to live there without them, you know, with the house looking the way it had back when they were alive.”
“And you said your mother died from cancer?”
“Yeah, it came on quick. By the time the doctors found it, it was too advanced. The only positive thing that came of it was that she and my grandparents got sort of close, you know, towards the end. They repaired some of the damage they’d done to each other emotionally.”
“Your mother’s lifestyle, is that what drove the wedge?”
“Oh yes, they hated it. I can still remember my grandfather calling her a whore one morning. They were spraying our apartment for bugs or something, so we had to spend the night at their place. We were having breakfast the next morning, and my grandfather started in about my father, the man that I never met. He believed that my mom just didn’t want a husband to tie her down, so she intentionally kept my dad out of my life. That wasn’t true though. The truth was that my mother didn’t honestly know who my father was. This didn’t help her relationship with her folks at all. They argued about it and that’s when he suddenly called her a whore, told her that she should learn to keep her legs closed, get married and be a decent mother.”
“That must have been difficult to witness. How old were you when his argument happened?”
“Around 8, and trust me, it got much worse. My mother lost it. She had been known to do that from time to time. She’d been hospitalized with anorexia once and I think she was taking anti-depressants. Her moods could swing fast, and my grandfather was a real pro at getting that reaction from her. That morning, he’d already pushed her into the red, and didn’t seem like he intended to stop.”
“'Who the hell is that girl’s father anyway!' he demanded. I could read on her face, him calling me that girl, that had been a mistake. The truth is, I knew whom my father was, or at least I think. My mom, when she was running her dancing school, back when she was a single wild-child, had kept a few lovers. One was a married man, the father of one of her students. They’d had a brief yet intense affair. I saw a picture of him once, years later, on a night when I was pressing my mom harder than usual to know the identity of my dad. I wouldn’t bet all my money on him being my father, but I’d bet some. His face, the resemblance was there. Just some quick picture my mom had snapped of him when he was turning around or something. The eyes and mouth, just like mine. I guess she didn’t want to ruin his life or her reputation. I suppose I’ll never really know, but my guess is that he and I share some space on the same family tree.”
“How did she react to your grandfather's comments?”
“She started grabbing all the breakfast plates that she could reach off the table and smashing them on the floor. Over and over again, leaving little dents in the linoleum. My grandmother just sat there with this look of almost comical shock on her face. Her mouth had formed into a perfect circle. Had I not already started crying, I might have started laughing. My grandfather, however, didn’t freeze in surprise, but rather struck in anger.”
“What did he do?”
“He slapped her, hard. Hard enough to knock her out of her seat and down on the floor. I freaked out, started screaming and grabbing at his arm. He pushed me down hard, and that’s what stopped it all. He loved me, I know that much. Even though sometimes I think he left me his house just to spite my mother. They’d set the will up before her death, and I still think they did that just to get one last jab in at their daughter. But seeing me hit the floor, well, that sobered him from his rage right away. He picked me up and started covering my face in kisses, telling me how sorry he was. My mother got to her feet and grabbed me away from him. She pulled me out the door and to our car without looking back.”
“What did you and your mother do then?”
“Same as always, we went to Grenada to see Granny,” Mary replied.
“Granny was sweet, loving, always with a smile. She didn’t judge my mother for her free spirited life. She in fact praised it. She had an entire wall dedicated just to my mom. Pictures of her when she was a Majorette for the New Orleans Saints, pictures of her dancing with some old actor named Danny Kaye. I think that Granny sort of lived though my mom in a few ways. She was a lonely woman; her own husband had gone on to join St. Peter in the clouds years ago. My mother’s stories enthralled her though, and I know my mom took solace in having one parental figure that didn’t spend all their time trying to shame her.”
“Sounds like she was quite a remarkable woman,” Prentiss stated with a smile.
“Oh, she was. She always smiled; she had this warmth about her that was almost never seen in people. I remember she always wore this old nightgown, no matter the time of day. Meals on Wheels brought her breakfast, lunch and dinner, so I suppose she never had much of a reason to dress up. She lived in a small home out there in Grenada, where she’d lived her entire life. She was my grandmother’s mother. My grandmother had met my grandfather when she’d left Grenada to go to New Orleans to attend school. Granny, though, she was special. My mom always said that she’d be made a saint one day if God knew what he was doing. She died in 1996 at the age of 90. She lived a full life and had few regrets. She brought out a side of my mother that I almost never got to see.”
“My mother was hardened to a degree. She was a woman on the move. Work, men, hobbies, she ate these things in giant gulps. Anything she did was done with an intensity that was in contrast to her open minded free living. But when she got around Granny, I don’t know, she became like a kid again herself. They would sit up for hours telling stories. She would brag on about my small accomplishments in school. You’d think I was out there winning Nobel Peace Prizes by the way she would talk me up, and Granny would just sit there and nod, smiling and joining in on the praise. I remember she had these long fingernails, clean though, not like crazy old lady nails, and I would flop my arm in her lap and she’d gently scratch up and down. It put me in a trance. My mom would laugh, stories would continue and general happiness was felt by all.”
“Sounds wonderful,” the doctor interjected.
“It was… was wonderful. For years we made a regular pilgrimage to Grenada. Spending time with Granny seemed to center my mother. Sometimes, when we got back to New Orleans, my mom and grandparents would actually get along for a while. Those were some of my favorite times too. I mean, I know I’ve sort of painted them to be judgmental, but there was also a wonderful loving side to them as well. The tension between them and their daughter sometimes muddied that, but when things were going well, they were good grandparents. They loved me, I never doubted that, and I do believe that they loved my mother. Maybe all the fighting was just their way of showing passion, I don’t know.”
“You said it was wonderful, what changed that?”
“Well, that, Doctor Dires, is why I’m here. It happened in 1994. I was 12 years old. After the incident, I refused to ever go back to Grenada. When Granny died in 1996, I didn’t attend the funeral. The whole family was there, minus me. I ran away from home, went and hid out at a friend’s house. My mother must have found out that I was there. I think my friend’s parents got wind that there was a teenage girl hiding in their kid’s closet. They knew me though, and instead of calling the cops or freaking out, they just called my mother and told her I was safe. My mom and grandparents, along with some family that’d moved to Houston and some that had moved to Atlanta, all attended. I stayed hidden away in a closet. When my mother got back, she wasn’t mad though. Maybe the funeral had just taken all the fight out of her, or maybe she understood why I didn’t want to go. All I know is that life went on. She lied to my grandparents, told them I was out of town on a school trip or something. But yeah, after what happened in ’94, that damned February night, I could never go back to Granny’s house, hell, could never go back to Grenada again.”
That was where the first session with Mary concluded. They were out of time and Prentiss had other patients to see. She promised that she would return the following week and finish the story. She said that she had to, because the 30th was fast approaching, and she was still convinced that she would die that night. He shook her hand and assured her that she still had lots of life to live. Mary smiled back, but Dires was almost struck into sadness at the small, melancholy smile that appeared on the young woman’s face. It was a smile that said, "Thanks for the kind words, but we both know how this will end."
Over the next week, Dires, struck by a strange curiosity, did some research on Mary’s story. There was in fact a town called Grenada. He dug deeper, looking into family members of Mary’s, and found that her mother, Lynn, had in fact owned a rather successful little school on Downman Road throughout the 70s and 80s. Jazzercise had come to town though and driven a good deal of her business away, which led to the closing of the school. The grandparents checked out as well, both having perished in Katrina as well as the great-grandmother, real name Phyllis, Granny to all others apparently, who’d died from natural causes in ’96. If this was a case of delusion or severe anxiety, Mary was certainly wrapping the rest of the story in the cloth of reality. He found himself strangely eager to hear the rest of her story. This was a strange attachment that he was usually able to avoid, but throughout that week, his mind continued to visit ghostly characters from Mary’s story. The liberated mother, the conservative grandparents, and apparently a kindly old matron named Granny all danced through the doctor’s mind as the days melted away and he finally found himself sitting across from Mary in his office once more.
He greeted her again, this time without the dread of breaking the ice, and asked her how she was feeling about the end of the month approaching. He was hoping that her telling at least some of the story might help in shattering this delusion of hers. He’d also researched some drugs that he thought might help, and was going to offer them at the end of today’s session.
“I have to tell you this before the 30th, before I’m gone,” she began, and Dires felt a flush of disappointment that she was still living under this illusion that her life was counting down by the day. Without further small talk, she dove right back into her story. Dires wouldn’t admit it then, but he was actually a bit thrilled to get back to the tale. Real or not, he was dying to hear the rest.
“February of ’94, we’d gone on what I thought was just another routine visit to Granny. I was out of school for Mardi Gras break, a week off without much to do. We got there and things went the usual route. My mom and Granny swapped stories and caught up on what was happening in their lives since the last visit, you know, normal conversation. What was a bit different was that kids in Grenada don’t get a week off for Mardi Gras, that’s a New Orleans thing, as you well know. So, the kids that I usually would play with in Granny’s neighborhood were all in school. What made things worse was that Grenada had a fairly aggressive truancy program. Kids seen around town on a school day were reported. I actually went out to play on my first day there. Granny gave me a few dollars and asked me to run up to the grocery store around the corner from her house. Not thinking anything about it, I did as I was asked, and wound up being stopped by a cop at the store. I tried to tell him that I was on vacation from school, but he didn’t believe it. He took me back to Granny’s house to get the whole story, and it wasn’t until my mother explained everything, even having to show her driver’s license proving that we were from New Orleans, that he finally left. After that, I was sort of housebound, at least during the day. My mom, on the other hand, ended up running into some old friends in town, some people she’d known when she was younger and would come here to visit Granny. They had made fast plans to go out for drinks or something, which left me locked in the house. This wasn’t really a problem, Granny and I were close after all, and we spent that afternoon telling stories and bonding all the more. I really wasn’t disappointed about being left behind. At least, not until it got dark.”
“What happened then?” Prentiss asked.
“My mother’s little date or whatever ran way late. I guess she ended up having too much to drink or just having too much fun. She called from some bar and told Granny that she’d be home very late, maybe even in the morning. I figured that she must have found a friend. Granny didn’t judge though, just told her to have a good time and be safe.”
“What happened that night?”
“The music got weird,” was Mary’s only response. Her tone of voice though, and the over-all oddness of the comment, caused goose bumps to run down the doctor’s arms.
“I was bored, I won’t lie. I loved Granny, but I was a 12-year-old kid. There just wasn’t that much to do after all the little stories were told. Granny didn’t have cable television, having to rely on the old rabbit-ears antenna to get a few fuzzy stations. Plus, she liked country music; I mean, she did live out in the country, and would often keep the television tuned into whatever channels played those old country programs. Her favorite was this show called Hee-Haw. Ever hear of it? It was sort of like Saturday Night Live meets Mama’s Family. She loved it though, and would laugh so hard that sometimes I worried she might break a blood vessel in her brain. That’s what she was watching that night when things started to get scary. It was dark out by now and I knew my mom well enough to know she wasn’t coming home anytime soon. Due to Granny’s advanced age, she had the television turned up loud. I was trying to read some book or something, but just couldn’t find the means to focus. So, I grabbed my book and politely informed Granny that I would take it to the bedroom. The room that my mother and I slept in when we visited was in the back of the house. It was far enough from the living room to muffle a good deal of the television, but not far enough to drown it out altogether. The room was small and barely decorated, just a bed and a bunch of antique-looking junk stacked up almost to the ceiling. I shut the door and sat down on the bed. There was no ceiling light in the room, only a lamp, which cast a strange glow on everything. The room didn’t exactly scare me, but there was always this sense of… I don’t know, distraction in there. It was like my mind was constantly letting me know I was far from home and alone. Without my mom in there it really did feel distant, more so than usual. I tried to take solace in my book. I’d started reading it back at home, and having those characters and settings visit me out here sort of brought me back to reality. Still, I felt an unease that simply wouldn’t pass. I told myself that it was just because my mom was away and I was bored.”
“Did that help?”
“No, the creepy feeling wouldn’t pass. Finally, I decided to just try and go to sleep. It was still early, but I figured if I could doze off, it would help pass the time until my mom got back. Then I’d feel all right again. So, I turned off the lamp and closed my eyes. That damned television though, Granny still had it blasting out country-themed comedy and now that my body was adjusting to the dark, it seemed as though I could hear every word, just with that muffled effect as the noise drifted through the walls. I could tell that the show was thankfully almost over. I remember that at the end of every episode there would be a musical guest, some country singer or another of course. I was just laying there in the bed, listening as the familiar twang of the guitar started up, hoping that Granny would take the end of her show as a cue to go on to bed herself, or at least give the television a rest, when the singer started up. I remember it was a male voice, and he was singing something low and soft, a love song for sure. I could only hear every other word at first, but as my ears sharpened to listen, more of the song became audible. There was something, doctor, something about his voice, or maybe the guitar twang, combined with being alone in that small, dark room, hundreds of miles from home, that began to make me nervous. Once I began to piece together the words, my nerves began to contort into a dread. It was strange, the trigger of the dread being something as simple as a muffled country song, but the sense of danger and well, wrongness, about what I was hearing continued to grow. I began to latch on to the lyrics of the song. I didn’t want to, but it seemed as though I couldn’t stop myself.”
Dires looked up from his notes and was a bit startled at the expression on Mary’s face. She’d gone pale, her eyes staring directly ahead, not making eye contact but seeming to focus on the wall behind him. She was rocking slightly back and forth.
“What in the song lyrics frightened you so much?” he asked, a hint of hesitation in his voice.
Without speaking further, Mary surprised him as she began to sing. Her own voice, one that had been vibrant, took on a dead tone. “This is how a corpse might sing…” ran through Dires’ mind, and he was shocked at how uneasy he felt, even in the safety of his own office in the middle of uptown New Orleans.
The Coffin Song
She began, singing in that sad, dead tone:
“Time runs up, life runs out,
But I’ll always come for you,
There is no light at the end of the path,
Just a dark and lonesome view.
But do not be afraid when the trumpet plays,
For you won’t die alone,
I’ll come knocking on your door,
And I will take you home.
Because I’ll put you in my coffin,
And take you home with me,
I’ll put you in my coffin,
No light and you can’t breathe,
But I’ll put you in my coffin,
And take you home with me,
Your loved ones cry,
All life dies,
But I’ll take you home with me.”
Mary took a deep breath and stopped singing. Prentiss was grateful, as he wasn’t sure he could have taken much more. He asked her,
“So, that happened when you were 12, and you remember all the words?”
“I’d hear it once more, the next night. Trust me, I didn’t want to remember them, but it stuck in my brain.”
“So what did you do, after the music?”
“I ran out to the living room, tears pouring down my face. I was terrified. Granny was out there, sitting in her chair. She’d just turned the television off. I asked her what that song was, why the man was singing about putting someone in a coffin. I wanted to know why a comedy show would play something so horrible.”
“Granny laughed and hugged me, pulling me into her lap. She told me that there was no song about a coffin, that the closing song was a duet between a man and a woman. No solo act, no coffin, and no death. She told me that I just had a bad dream.”
“How did you respond?”
“I chose to believe her. She was Granny after all, a woman that didn’t lie. She was the sweetest person in the world as far as I knew, and if she said I imagined it, I was more than willing to believe that. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread and fear. Granny let me sleep in her room with her that night. I felt better, having someone with me, not being alone in the dark. However, I slept horribly. I kept thinking about that song, the words that I knew I heard. I wanted so badly to just go along with the idea that it’d all been in my head, but I couldn’t accept it all together. I would be afraid until my mother came back. Hell, I might be afraid until we drove out of Grenada with the car pointed towards home.”
“I can understand that feeling, being young and in an unfamiliar place. It can bring about fear in all of us,” Prentiss replied, and was secretly happy that Mary had returned to her normal demeanor and was no longer staring forward with such intense emptiness.
Mary resumed, “The next day wasn’t better. We woke up early and Granny cooked breakfast. No sign of mom. Granny asked me if I’d had any nightmares from the incident the night before. I lied and told her that I slept just fine. Breakfast was served, we ate and I tried to make small talk with her as we did. About an hour after breakfast, the phone rang. It was my mother, calling to tell me that she wouldn’t be back until late tonight. I still remember how angry I was, really one of the few times I’d ever been that pissed at her. She explained:
“'Baby, I’m all the way in Duck Hill. After we got back to Lloyd’s place last night, some of his old friends called up and invited us out there. Lloyd started making phone calls and pretty soon it was a whole get together. We drove out there last night and honestly I just woke up. My car is back in Grenada and Lloyd has plans that he dragged me into all day, so by the time we get back to the car, it’ll be late.'
“I sat there, holding the phone and feeling anger build. Something worse too, a feeling more like betrayal followed behind it. She’d left me here with Granny, nothing to do but be terrified by songs in the middle of the night, while she was out having a good time. I wanted to be angrier, I wanted to tell her to come and get me right now, that I was more important than some guy named Lloyd and whatever foolishness he had cooked up out in Duck Hill, Mississippi. I wanted to tell her more, that I was scared, that something had happened last night and I really didn’t want to be alone with just Granny. But then I thought about how her parents treated her, how they always tried to make her feel ashamed about everything she did, and I let it go. I stressed that she come home as soon as she could, to which she agreed to try, and we hung up. Granny was looking at me, a knowing gaze in her eyes.
“'Lynn staying out late tonight too?' she asked me.
“'Yeah, hanging out with old friends or something,' I had replied, trying to sound less distressed than I was. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“'It’s okay, dear, we can pass the day together. It’s nice to have company after all. Normally it’s just me and them,' she replied distantly, and the strange comment honestly came so quickly that it was almost missed.
“'Wait, you and who?' I asked her.
“'Well, there’s one in the attic, he’s mean. Two of them live out back, mean too, but they’re more likely to bite you and be done than sit on your chest all night trying to give you a heart attack.'
“'Granny, what are you talking about?' I demanded, scared now.
“'Talking about what, dear?'
“I looked at her, not quite sure what to say. She was just staring back at me, confused. I repeated what she said, about something in the attic and two things in the backyard. She told me that I must have heard her wrong. But I heard what I heard, and her voice was different now too, although I couldn’t quite articulate what was different about it. Deader, that’s the word that popped in my mind, although it made no sense to me. I decided I needed some time outside in the sun. I was too creeped out now to stay inside with her alone.”
“So, what did you do for the rest of that day?” the doctor asked.
“Stayed close to the house, but outside, in the daylight. I didn’t want the cops to drag me back there again, but I needed to be out in the light and the air. I kept away from the backyard though. After all, Granny had said two of something that likes to bite lived back there. I didn’t believe it, I’d been in that backyard the day before and saw nothing, but still, the way she said it, the tone of her voice, I was too scared to go back there. I kept praying that my mom would just pull up. I wanted to tell her about the weird song and Granny’s strange behavior, but I knew my mom well enough to know I wouldn’t see her until tonight… hopefully before I had to go to bed. When it started to get late and I became too hungry to keep pacing around the front yard, I finally gave in and went back inside. I was hoping that whatever strange notions had come over Granny earlier that day had long passed.”
“I thought so, at first. I went back inside and Granny had dinner cooking. It smelled great and my stomach began to growl. Granny had that usual kind smile on her face. She asked me where I’d been all day. I told her I was out playing. She grinned at that and mused on the energy of youth. She served salmon patties, something I used to love, but can’t really stand anymore. I remember I used to drown them in ketchup. She was telling me about how she’d learned the recipe and everything seemed normal. For the entire meal it was as if the night before and the strange conversation from this morning never happened, so, towards the end of the meal, I risked asking her about it.”
“You asked her directly, about the comments?” Prentiss inquired.
“Yeah, and that was when things got weird again, but not just weird; mean.”
“When I asked her about the comments she made, about something in the attic, I still remember her reply. Granny had said:
“'I get spells sometimes dear, just a part of getting old. We all get spells I guess, good ones and bad ones. Mine might be saying something strange that I can’t remember. Yours might be hearing things that aren’t there. Your mother’s might be transforming into a whore at the first sight of cock and liquor.'
“I honestly thought I hadn’t heard that part. I would have never believed that Granny even knew such words, let alone would spin them into a sentence directed at her granddaughter, yet there it was. I looked back at her, my eyes wide, and could only muster enough to request that she repeat herself. Sadly, she did, she’d said:
“'A whore, dear, a dirty little whore, that’s what she is. Put so much shame on us all, but that’s okay, God punishes as well as rewards.'
“How did that make you feel, her saying such harsh things?” Dires asked.
“I can’t explain how it made me feel. I wanted to be furious at her, but this was Granny. I’d never felt anything but love and affection towards her. Even now, even with the nasty things she was saying about my mom, I couldn’t quite mold anything into one emotion. I wanted to run out the door, but Granny had already applied the dead bolt. It was one of those that required a key both on the outside and inside. I was locked in. She still just sat there, smiling, as ketchup dried on her chin. It was like she didn’t even register how terrible the things she’d said were. She kept on going too, and began to speak even stranger things. She’d said:
“'The things in the backyard, they like her. Always have. When she was a little girl and she’d come here to visit, I had to do everything I could to keep them from coming inside. They wanted to see her up close. Normally they just hide back there, only biting if you get too close. They listen when you tell them to stay away though. The one in the attic though, that one hates her. It’s a wonder that it’s never come down and visited her all the nights that she’s stayed here. Awful thing to see up close, especially when it presses its face right into mine; it’s a wonder my heart hasn’t frozen in place by now. Maybe it will be nicer to you though.'
“I demanded that she tell me what she meant. I wanted to know what these things were. I still wanted to know why she said such mean things about my mom. Granny though ignored my questions and simply smiled again, raising one crooked finger towards the corner of the living room.
“'Oh look, dear, there’s one now,' she’d told me, and began to cackle.
“I turned to look, but saw nothing. However, at that moment there was an enormous slam that shook the entire house. I felt that, I’d never forget it. The lights blinked for a moment, the chimes in the old clock rang a little, and I freaked out a lot. I shot from the table and tried the front door anyway. I pulled on the knob, knowing full well that Granny had turned the bolt. I remember looking back at her and seeing her just rocking back and forth, laughing in that shrill voice. With no other options, I ran for the bedroom. I slammed the door and locked it. Like a scared child I hid under the covers and waited. All I wanted was my mother to come back. I would beg for us to go back to New Orleans if I had to, beg on my knees. I just wanted out of Granny’s house, out of Grenada and far away from this insanity.”
“Are you alright? Do you need to take a break?” Dires asked Mary.
“No, we’re almost done. I need to finish this. I don’t want to die having kept this inside of me,” she replied.
Dires was no longer sure that he wanted to hear this story. Everything about Mary had changed. Her voice had gone back to that dead tone, her eyes were now distant and didn’t appear to be returning anytime soon. When she did the voice of the great-grandmother, she spoke in a voice that could only be described as an old witch. It sounded more frightening than it should coming from a young woman such as Mary, yet Prentiss couldn’t deny the fact that he was suddenly very uncomfortable. He’d never been afraid of a patient before, but he was starting to think there was a first time for everything. Still, though, he was a doctor, a healer, and had a job to do. If hearing this young woman’s story was the path to helping her, he’d see it through. He motioned for her to continue.
“I think I fell asleep, hiding there under the covers. I must have, because when I pulled the blanket off of my head, it was full dark outside. What was worse was that I woke up to the sound of the television, to the twang of a country guitar. The voice accompanying that guitar was familiar. I’d heard it last night.”
“Please don’t sing again,” Prentiss thought to himself, but it was too late, she started once again.
“Because I’ll put you in my coffin,
And take you home with me,
I’ll put you in my coffin,
No light and you can’t breathe,
But I’ll put you in my coffin,
And take you home with me,
Your loved ones cry,
All life dies,
But I’ll take you home with me.”
She sang only the refrain this time, but to Prentiss that was not a relief. She was staring directly at him now, singing and rocking. Her eyes were dead; her voice was dry and devoid of life. Her eyes were burning into him. Finally, after repeating the chorus several times, she resumed her story. Her voice and eyes remained fixed and lifeless though.
“I ran out to the living room. I was going to unplug the television, or maybe smash the damned thing, I wasn’t sure. I just couldn’t take that song anymore. When I made it out into the dim light at the end of the hallway, I saw that the T.V. was already off. Granny was sitting at the dining room table, staring ahead, smiling. I looked right at her and demanded to know what the song was about, why it kept playing every night. I half expected her to tell me that I’d imagined it again. I wish she had, doctor, but instead she confirmed my terror.
“'Dear, that’s the song you hear when he has picked your numbers. Why, I still remember when he picked mine, 12-16-1996. Oh dear me, or should I say, oh dead me! I told him not to bother your grandmother or mother with theirs, just to give them to me, that I would bear that cross. It’s not easy. He wouldn’t just let me though. He said that was a lot to keep in one old lady’s head, that’s why he left his friends here, to keep an eye on me, I guess. I sure wish they’d just watch though; the biting and scratching is rough on one such as myself. They get restless though, such as we all do.'
“'What are you talking about?!?' I screamed at her.
“'Well now, ask him yourself, Mary. See, I can’t just keep holding on to all these numbers, it’s too much for an old gal like me. So, have your own, I need a break.'
“I opened my mouth to reply, to ask more questions, when suddenly there was a loud, aggressive and angry slamming on the door. I jerked my head in that direction, doctor, looking to see. Through the window in the living room I could see headlights. The banging on the door grew louder. I started to cry. I wanted to run but my legs didn’t want to work. That’s when Granny called for him to come in. I looked at her, anguish and terror in my eyes, but she only smiled, as though she were excited to have company.”
Late Night Visit
Just then the small clock that Dires kept on his desk chimed that the hour was up. The clock caused the doctor to almost jump from his seat. Mary continued though, and Dires was fine with allowing it. He wanted this over with; he wanted her to go so that this apprehension that had worked itself into his belly could fade. He’d work on a treatment, sure, but he could do without ever hearing this story again. She went on:
“The door flew open. I’m not sure if Granny had taken the lock off or not, but it was open now. Standing there was a man that looked insane. That’s the only way I could describe him. His clothing was normal enough, dress clothes, church clothes I guess you’d call them. He wore a flat brimmed hat that covered much of his face. He was gaunt; he looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. From what I could see of his facial features, he looked old. He raised his head just enough for his eyes to peek out from below his hat. Evil, that’s all I could think. His eyes were evil. I don’t remember the color or anything specific, I just know that if I’d had to look at them for more than a moment, I might have died of fright. He was humming, humming that damned coffin song. I wanted to be anywhere but in that living room, but my legs were still frozen. The old man walked in another step and began to speak in a voice that was old yet powerful, mournful yet full of fervor:
“'01-30-2017…. 01-30-2017… 01-30-2017…'
“He repeated this over and over again. I couldn’t take it. I turned to Granny, silently praying that she would grant me the peace and safety that she had always represented before this damned trip. I screamed at her, begging to know what he meant, why was he saying these numbers over and over again? Granny simply smiled and stated in a warm voice,
“'Dear, don’t be scared, he’s just telling you the day that you’ll die.'
“I couldn’t take it anymore, I ran from the room back towards the bedroom. I slammed the door and as soon as I did I began to hear that horrible song again, this time it seemed to come from everywhere. I ran to the window and ripped the curtains down. My hands fumbled about the lock, but the window was old and the locking mechanism hadn’t been used in probably close to a century. I couldn’t get it to budge. That’s when the pounding on the bedroom door began. I could hear him out there, in that hallway, repeating those numbers. Between loud bangs I’d hear the doorknob rattle. He was trying to get in. Lost in panic and with no other options, I picked up the closest sturdy object I could find, in this case, a book, and smashed the window. It broke and I climbed through. The glass cut my arms and legs a little, but in that moment I didn’t care. Once I was out in the front yard, I saw the old man’s car, what had been shining through the window earlier. It was a huge old car, black. From inside I could hear the radio, and of course it was playing that song. I couldn’t process any more of this. I ran down the street, screaming for help through tears. I rounded a curve in the street and threw my head back once. The old man wasn’t chasing me. When I turned back forward I was suddenly blinded by headlights directly in front of me. I dropped to my knees and covered my head with my arms. I was sure he’d come around and caught me somehow. That was when I heard the door of the car open and close, and thankfully was greeted by the concerned voice of my mother. I looked up, filled with such relief. She was running towards me. I jumped into her arms, sobbing and begging her to take me home, to please just take me home. She was trying to calm me, trying to soothe me, and slowly, as the minutes ticked by and the safety of her arms and her voice began to calm me, I finally regained enough composure to tell her what had happened.”
Dires put down his notes and was relieved to see that some of the old Mary had returned. That distant stare was gone and her face had regained some color.
“Against all of my screaming, terror-filled protests, we went back to Granny’s. There was no black car in the front yard. The broken window remained however. Once inside, my mother began to pelt Granny with questions. I’d told her everything, even the terrible things she’d said about her. And you know what, doctor? Granny didn’t seem to recall any of it. And part of me believed her, because to accept any of what did happen would be to accept so much darkness with it. My mother talked to her for a long time that night, asked her over and over again if anything happened. Granny told a simple story of salmon patties and a tired out great-granddaughter who went to bed early. Granny said that she’d fallen asleep and didn’t even hear the glass break. In the end it was all determined to be a nightmare. My own mother bought into that. And for a long time so did I. After all, the nightmare version made far more sense than the story I told. I wanted to get back to normal, and believing it was all just a bad dream seemed to do it. We spent one last night in Grenada, but we did so at a motel. I simply refused to spend another night in that house. The next morning we drove back to New Orleans, and I never returned to Grenada again.”
Prentiss rubbed his chin and nodded. Now that the story was told, he felt a lot better. That sense of dread that had taken over him was fading to almost nothing now.
“So, Mary, if you say you accepted it as a bad dream, why believe in it now?”
“The dates. Granny died on December 16th of ’96, just as she said she would. Like I told you before, I didn’t attend the funeral, but my mother did. She came home with some of Granny’s personal items. A book was one of them. One day when I was home alone and bored, I decided to dig through some of the stuff. The book, a family Bible, contained a list of three dates. It read:
“Verna was my grandmother’s name. Somehow Granny had been dead on with the dates for the deaths of her daughter and granddaughter. That was when I started to really believe, and now my day is almost here.”
Mary looked down, tears showing in her eyes. “I don’t want to die, Dr. Dires, I really don’t.”
“Then don’t,” he replied. “Choose to live. We will get through this together. I can refer you to a hospital if you’d like. Be somewhere with people on that date. I’m sure you’ll feel better with people around you.”
“It won’t matter. My mother was in a hospital when her date came, fighting cancer. I think it’s going to happen no matter what. I just wanted to tell someone about it. I hate carrying this inside of me.”
“I will not let you die, Mary. I tell you what, come and see me on the 30th. In the mean time, I want you to try out this prescription. It should help with your anxiety, help you sleep better too. I think that once you make it through the 30th and see that you’re still alive and well, you’ll really be able to move forward.”
Mary smiled, but it seemed to come from no place of joy. She took the prescription and tucked it into her purse. She shook Dires’ hand and thanked him for listening.
“And today is the 30th, and let me guess, Prentiss, she didn’t show up,” Rebecca asked.
“No, she was a no show. I called her number on record but got nothing but voicemail. I told her to call me. I’ve been sitting here debating calling the cops and having them go and check on her. Problem is, I don’t believe she’s suicidal, I think she just believes this boogey man is going to show up or something. Calling the police would shatter any trust that I’ve built with her, especially if she simply got called into work or missed the appointment for some other mundane reason. I still want to treat her, I feel that there is more to do, but if I go and scare her off, she may never open up to me again.”
Rebecca went over to the living room mantle and pulled down a small picture of Shannon. She was smiling, looking so alive and full of joy. Rebecca felt her stomach flip a bit with grief. She sat down next to her husband with the picture in hand.
“You can’t save them all, Prentiss, and you can’t look at this Mary woman and see Shannon. If this woman wants to be helped, she will come back. Or perhaps you did help her; maybe she didn’t show up because talking to you got her through it.”
Prentiss looked at his wife and kissed her once on the corner of her mouth. “Thank you, Rebecca, I think you might be right.”
“Of course I’m right,” she replied with a grin, and suddenly grabbed her husband by the hand. “Now come to the bedroom, Prent. It’s my turn to give you some therapy, let you trace those freckles a bit more.”
Prentiss looked down at his phone once, decided that Mary wasn’t going to call, and went to join his wife in their bed. When they were done, he found that he felt much better after all. Rebecca could cure most any problems he might have. He went over to get some ice water for his wife when he noticed the little blue light on his cell phone was flashing. Picking it up, he saw that he’d missed a call from Mary. He felt a bit of shame. He’d been busy screwing while a patient needed him, but he also saw the call came in just a short time ago. He opened his voicemail and listened to the message.
A few minutes later he came into his bedroom. Rebecca looked up. “Forgot my water I see, should have figured…” She stopped when she saw his face. “My God, Prentiss, what has you looking so?”
He sat down next to his wife and activated the speaker on his phone. Next he played the voicemail. He and Rebecca listened to it several times, not speaking, only staring down at the phone, mouths hanging slightly open with confusion. The recording played. Mary’s familiar voice was distorted mostly in static, but the words that did come through chilled the doctor and his wife to their core:
“….it’s dark…..no…air……can’t breathe….doctor….help…..the song….no light….please….”
The voicemail ended. Prentiss and his wife exchanged a look of fear and concern. Mary’s words were distressing, her gasps were terrifying, but the soft twang of a country guitar in the background left them both speechless.
Written by K. Banning Kellum
Published January 18, 2017