Lisa Doyle, the head nurse at Lakewood Residence Center, walked up to the reception desk where Margie stared at her computer.
“Mr. Nelson is still not responding, poor guy. His dementia keeps getting worse.” Lisa glanced up from her chart to see Margie chewing the cap of her pen. “Margie?”
“Hmm?” Margie’s bright red hair hung perfectly straight down to her shoulders, flyaways matted down by hairspray. She’d left the top button of her green cardigan open, revealing a precise shirt collar underneath.
“Did you hear me?”
“Mr. Nelson…” Lisa looked at her, wide-eyed.
“Yeah, poor guy,” Margie replied, shaking her head with sympathy.
Lisa made a habit of stopping by Margie’s desk to fill her in on all the residents. Lakewood was home to sixty residents, ranging in ages from fifteen to eighty-four. All residents had mental disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. That is, all residents but one: Peter Doyle.
Peter was the resident Margie had been thinking about all morning, but she didn’t want Lisa to know that. Lisa was the fifteen-year-old boy’s mom—and that was the problem. Margie may have just shattered Lisa’s world.
“Are you all right?” Margie asked.
For someone so obsessed with outward appearances, Margie thought it was ironic that today—of all days—Lisa was wearing scrubs with so many wrinkles they looked like she had left them sitting in the dryer overnight. Her short, bobbed hair was knotted and, looking at the circles under her eyes, Margie wondered if she had slept in her makeup.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Just checking,” Margie replied with a smile.
“All right, well, I better get back to work.” As Lisa was walking away, she added, “Make sure I never use that pen.”
Margie took the pen out of her mouth and threw it in the trash. She was not in the habit of chewing her pen, but she was so nervous about today she didn’t even realize she had the pen in her mouth until Lisa said something. She wheeled her chair as close to her desk as she could, then checked the time. She couldn’t sit still. Her foot tapped on the floor, fingers drumming on the desk as she kept looking toward the entrance for a visitor she was expecting.
It wasn’t easy for Margie to lie to Lisa. The two of them had become close friends. At least, that’s what Margie thought. They were hired around the same time—Lisa as a nurse, and Margie as a maid. It was Lisa who suggested to their boss that Margie be promoted to the reception desk—a job that might not seem prestigious, but Margie was really the gatekeeper of Lakewood. No one came in or out without her approval.
Though Margie was grateful for the promotion, she couldn’t shake the feeling that Lisa had ulterior motives behind her manning the reception desk. There was something behind that sweet smile Lisa wore. And the visitor she was expecting any minute might just be the key to finding out what it was.
* * *
Peter sat at the edge of his bed like he did every afternoon. His brown hair lay perfectly parted and gelled-down like his mom expected it to be, gentleman-like. His clothes, from Goodwill, hung baggily on him. He had worked for years to gain his mom’s trust, and part of that work meant doing things he didn’t like, like gelling his hair and wearing clothes that he was years away from filling out.
Lisa no longer locked his door from the outside, and with all the work Peter had done to build trust, leaving his room was out of the question today. His mom would be checking in on the patients that lived in his hallway. Peter followed most of his mom’s rules, but to keep himself from going insane, he would often sneak to the reception desk to visit Margie, a trusted confidant. Although Margie was a good friend of his mom’s, she had never told Lisa that Peter snuck out. Peter always appreciated that about Margie. In a tightly confined world, knowing that he could trust Margie meant a lot to him.
* * *
There was a buzz at the front entrance door and Margie checked the video monitor to see who it was. When she saw her friend, Angela, and a police officer with her, the thumping in her chest became overwhelming. This is it.
She opened the door, and Angela approached the desk.
“You really had to bring an officer with you?” Margie asked, sweat appearing on her upper lip.
“After doing some digging, I felt it would be the best way to approach this case, yes. This is Officer Halliday.” Angela was very matter of fact, professional.
“But she won’t find out that I’m involved, right?” she asked in a hushed tone.
“I will do my best to keep that promise.” Angela handed Margie papers with legal documentation. “Now can you lead us to Lisa?”
Margie eyed the paper while slowly standing. “Right this way,” she said, stepping out from behind the desk and leading Angela and the officer down the hallway. Every now and then she glanced back at Angela with hesitation, who only gave her a nod of encouragement.
“Lisa?” Margie asked as they approached her.
She was documenting in her chart and didn’t look up. “Yeah?”
Margie cleared her throat and handed her the papers. “Sorry, her credentials check out.”
“Oh, who’s this?” Lisa studied Angela and the officer.
“They’re from Social Services. This is Angela and Officer Halliday.”
“Nice to meet you.” She shook both of their hands. “Who are you here for today?” It wasn’t uncommon for Social Services to visit Lakewood.
“That’s what I was telling you.” Margie pointed to the paper in Lisa’s hand. “They’re here for Peter.”
“Here for Peter? Why?” Lisa questioned, shuffling through the papers.
“Ma’am, are you Lisa Doyle?” Angela asked.
“We are here to evaluate the living situation of your son.”
“What right do you have?”
“We are following through on an anonymous report we received. We just need to look into a few things.”
* * *
Peter tossed his baseball repeatedly in the air above him, letting it fall into his open hand. His room was decorated with legends from the field: Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Sammy Sosa, and the most compelling, Lou Gehrig, who died from ALS—the same disease Peter’s dad passed away from. The disease, nicknamed after the famous baseball player, Lou Gehrig, is what started Peter’s obsession with baseball.
The posters were the only things adding color to his room, and his mom’s way of trying to make Lakewood feel like a home to Peter. Which, of course, only worked for a time. There was nothing about living at Lakewood that felt like home. The smell of cafeteria food seeping through the halls, sharing a hallway with fifteen mentally-ill residents, some of which he had to remind every day who he was; even after living at Lakewood full-time for seven years, it still felt foreign to Peter.
He counted the tosses of his baseball and wondered about life before Lakewood. 292, 293, 294. He and his mom used to live in a town just a few miles away. Their home had been in a suburban neighborhood with lots of kids his age to play with. Then, that all got left behind. Like Lisa did on a few occasions, she brought Peter to Lakewood to spend the evening with the residents. He would join in their kickball tournaments, or call out letters and numbers for bingo. He would sleep in one of the guest suites and have breakfast with the residents in the morning before he went home.
But the last time he visited, it was different. Instead of Lisa picking him up and taking him back home, she came with packed bags to stay.
What Lisa had told him would be a temporary stay became permanent. Now, seven years later, he was confined to their small room, tossing a baseball, waiting for his mom to let him out like she would let a dog out of its kennel.
314, 315, 316. He stopped. Raised voices coming from the hallway piqued his interest. Curious, he tiptoed to the door and cracked it slightly to peek down the hall. Through the small opening, his green eyes focused on something that surprised him. It was his mom, beside a police officer and a woman—both with arms folded, cornering Lisa against the wall.
Who is that woman? And why is there an officer? He closed his eyes and leaned his ear forward as if to heighten his sense of hearing.
“Well, I don’t really see how that is any of your business,” Lisa said defensively, hands on her hips.
“Ma’am,” the woman said, putting one of her palms out as if to calm Lisa. “We are following protocol. Just tell us where your son is so we can gather the information we need.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then we will have reasonable cause to remove him from your custody without questioning.”
Lisa’s eyes narrowed. In defeat, she pointed down the hall. “Last door on your left.”
Peter stepped back from the door, fearful he had been spotted—not by the strangers, but by his mom. He paused for a second before hurrying back to the end of the bed. The words the woman had said lingered in his mind. Remove him from your custody?
His fingers curled around the baseball, the grooves of the stitches indenting his hand. The door creaked with each knock from the officer until it was ajar enough for him to poke his head through the opening.
“Peter? I’m Officer Halliday. Can we have a word with you?”
Peter stared at the officer, his eyebrows furrowed, not knowing how to answer.
The officer invited himself in and motioned the woman to pull up a chair from the corner of the room. She strode across the wooden floor; the room was dimly lit by lamps and the January winter sun shone through the closed window. She sat in front of Peter, only an arm’s length between them, then gathered her papers in her lap and gave Peter an encouraging smile.
“Peter, I’m Angela. I work for Social Services.”
Peter had seen others from Social Services at Lakewood plenty of times. Many of the residents were minors that were being looked after. However, he had never encountered them himself. In fact, for the last seven years, unless a person worked or lived at Lakewood, Peter didn’t have any contact with them. Ever.
“I don’t want you to be nervous. We only have a few questions for you, okay?” She looked him in the eye with a soft, unobtrusive gaze. Her blonde hair spilled over her shoulders.
Peter looked wary, but nodded.
“Can you tell me when you first moved here, Peter?” She motioned her hand around the room as she asked. She looked around, probably taking note of the room’s simplicity; a bed, a nightstand, and a small dresser were all that occupied the space, along with a corner kitchenette that housed a refrigerator and microwave.
“I was eight.”
“And what happened, to make you move here?” She had a way of asking questions in a non-accusatory tone. She was gentle, polite.
“My mom told me we lost our house. We couldn’t afford to live there anymore.”
“When you were eight? And how old are you now, Peter?”
“Does your mom ever talk to you about leaving Lakewood?”
“I used to ask, but I don’t anymore. She doesn’t like to talk about it.”
Angela jotted a note in her folder.
“So she has made you continue living here?” Her blue eyes penetrated through the frame of her glasses.
“I guess,” he said, his hands beginning to sweat against the baseball.
“What do you do here at Lakewood? What’s your daily routine?”
He looked back and forth between the two of them, not sure what they were fishing for. “Um…My mom usually wakes me up for breakfast. We eat here, in our room. Then she leaves to go work her shift and I wait for her or another nurse to come get me.”
“Come get you for what?”
“It depends. Sometimes I play the piano for the residents.”
“Do you do that for fun?”
“I guess it can be fun, but I really only do it because I get paid to.”
“Like a job?”
“Yeah, they didn’t want to hire someone to come each day, so my mom volunteered me. It at least gets me out of this room.”
The officer let out a deep exhale and shook his head. Angela continued writing in her folder.
“Do you spend a lot of time in this room?”
“Pretty much all day.”
“Why don’t you go down to the lake, or into the dining hall with some of the residents?”
“Oh, mom would never let me do that alone. She said it’s too dangerous.”
“Why is it dangerous?”
“She said that some of the residents here could get violent and attack me. Sometimes if another nurse is available to protect me, I get to go to the activities room and play games with them.
Angela glanced at the officer with a disapproving look and Peter knew he had said too much. He wondered how much trouble he would be in later when his mom found out.
“But at least each day I have tutoring,” he blurted out. Peter hoped Angela couldn’t sense his nervousness.
“And when you say tutoring, what do you mean?”
“Mom hired a teacher for me so I can do my schooling here. I use some of my piano money to help pay for that.”
She looked up at Officer Halliday again. “Do you like your schooling?”
“Sometimes. But I really just miss school. I miss having friends.”
Angela continued asking questions. Peter keenly felt that he was under observation; he couldn’t help fidgeting with his hands as he was asked questions about his mom. He carried on explaining how he longed for a normal life outside of Lakewood, why he was here, and why he couldn’t go to a normal school. Angela listened intently, all the while jotting notes in her folder, until they had finally reached the end of their visit. In a calm voice, she told Peter that he would need to gather belongings he wanted to take with him.
“Take with me where?”
“Peter,” she said, looking into his eyes, “We are going to take you to a lovely home for the next two days while we ask your mom a few things. We need to understand why she has made you live here for so long, okay?”
Peter looked at her with both relief and apprehension. He wanted to know why he was here too, but he didn’t understand why he had to be separated from his mom to do so.
“Why don’t you get some clothes and a toothbrush,” she said, beginning to walk to the door before adding, “And why don’t you bring your school books with you too.”
Angela and Officer Halliday left him to gather what he wanted. He wasn’t sure how to pack, but he stuffed some clothes and books in a bag. Then he went over to his nightstand and picked up his Lego figurine that was dressed in a baseball uniform—his friend he named Lou. It was the one thing Peter had from his childhood home. Nervous to walk out of Lakewood for the first time in seven years, he took one last glance around his room; his baseball heroes stared back at him. Leaving Lakewood was something he had dreamed of for years. He just wasn’t leaving the way he thought he would be. With his Lego friend in his hand, he sighed and opened the door.
Angela was waiting for him in the hallway. As they walked toward the exit, Peter saw Officer Halliday with his mom.
“You can’t take him from me!” Lisa screamed. She held her stance well until she saw Angela with Peter. She tried to run for him, grab him, keep him with her, but the officer held her back. “No! Peter,” she sobbed. Her short, thin strands of hair plastered her face, sticky from tears and sweat.
Peter stopped walking, frozen with confusion. They said it would be two days. I’ll be back in two days. But seeing his mom screaming, tears streaming down her face as she tried to push past the officer, he began to wonder if maybe they were wrong.
Angela bent down and whispered in his ear, “It’s time to go, Peter.”
With a soft push on his shoulder, she led him through the exit.
The doors flung open and they descended the steps.
Lisa kept wailing, “Don’t take him from me. Please…” She seemed to lose strength as the doors began to close.
Peter turned back and took one final glance at his inconsolable mother before the closed doors blocked his view. The last thing he saw was her sliding down the wall onto the ground, Margie embracing her as she sobbed.
Out in the parking lot, the cold winter afternoon was silent, but Lisa’s screams echoed in Peter’s ears. Angela led him to her car and opened the passenger door for him. Without saying a word, he sat in the passenger seat, his eyes glazed over. Of all the times he had imagined leaving the hospital, this was definitely not how he pictured it. His dreams of a joyous exit had turned into a nightmare.
The ride was quiet. Angela tried to keep up light conversation, but Peter was not in a talking mood. Peter looked down at his Lego friend still in his hand. Then, closing his grip around Lou and turning toward the window, he let a single tear run down his cheek.
* * *
Peter jolted awake to the sound of his mom’s screams. He had been having recurring dreams about the day he was taken from her—six weeks earlier. The investigation on his mom was still ongoing; Peter got an explanation from Angela that she was not fit to have him in her care right now.
“What do you mean?” Peter asked.
“Well, we don’t know everything definitively. So, for now, we need to keep you here at Elaine’s.” Elaine was his foster mom.
Peter didn’t push for more information. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know what they had found out about his mom. Obviously something was going on if he was still in foster care.
He stared at the luminescent clock. The neon numbers read 2:38. Peter turned on his side and looked at the shadows cast by the streetlight. He hummed to himself to get the noise of his mother’s screams out of his head, but with the sound of wind whistling against the window, he wasn’t having much luck.
Every night he awoke from his nightmare, he had to reorient himself with the surroundings in his room. To his astonishment, each time he was at Elaine’s—that, to his relief, wasn’t a dream. Peter let his rhythmic breathing calm him. The repetitive in and out helped him clear his mind.
The thumping in his chest slowed, and he got out of bed to change his shirt, which was completely soaked through with sweat. The light outside his window burst into a star as tears pooled in his eyes when he yawned. He watched as the points of the star jutted in different directions, and he couldn’t help but think his heart felt the same way—pulled in different directions, tugged by guilt and relief.
Now wide awake, his mind flooding with questions about his mom, he slowly opened his bedroom door and tiptoed down the stairs to the kitchen. It had taken him weeks to feel comfortable leaving his room without permission.
The first week at Elaine’s, he would wait for Elaine to come and get him, just like he had at Lakewood. He was so used to being confined, and under the control of his mom, that the prospect of leaving his room made him nervous. It took a lot of coaxing, but with tenderness, and the help of therapy sessions, Elaine eventually convinced him that he did not need her permission to come out of his room. Still, being the middle of the night, he wanted to make sure he didn’t wake Elaine.
As he made his way down the dark stairway into the kitchen, his bare feet swished against the linoleum floor. He shuffled to the cupboard and pulled out a glass. Then, setting it on the counter, he opened the refrigerator door and poured himself a glass of milk. The light from the inside of the fridge illuminated the room as he put the gallon back on the shelf. While the fridge was still closing, he turned back to the counter and spotted a shadowy figure sitting on one of the barstools. He jumped back, startled.
“Oh gosh,” he said, holding his chest. “How long have you been sitting there?”
“For about a half hour.” It was Elaine.
Widowed for nearly a year, Elaine was lonely. She had kept the house that she and Larry—her husband—had lived in for the entirety of their marriage, but now, with her three children married and living in three different states, she was lonely.
She moved to the wall and flipped the light switch. They both squinted until they adjusted to the light. “So. How ya doing, kiddo?” Her hair was pulled up into a high bun, her grey roots showing.
“Fine,” he said before taking a gulp of milk.
Elaine gave him a reproving look. “Are you sure?” She hesitated before adding, “I heard you stirring in your room.”
“Yeah, I’m good.” He knew he should just tell Elaine what was going on.
He contemplated what he wanted to say. In the last six weeks, he had grown close to Elaine. She felt like a grandmother to him. She and her home engulfed Peter with love. Within the first week, Elaine somehow managed to get a picture of him and frame it as if he were her grandchild. He had his own room. His baseball heroes appeared on the walls. A comfortable mattress and pillows welcomed him at night. The only thing haunting him was his dream. The recurring dream. A dream that relentlessly replayed reality.
Peter cleared his throat. “I keep having a dream about the day they took me from my mom. Over and over I see her curled on the floor sobbing, screaming. And when I wake up, her screams echo. They fill my head and I have a really hard time shaking them.”
Elaine put her fingers over her mouth, seemingly thinking about what to say. Her eyes sagged; she looked exhausted. “Is it every night?”
He shook his head. “No, luckily not every night. But I’m definitely having them more often.” He shrugged his shoulders then added, “I just hope they’ll stop soon.”
“I think it would be best if we mentioned this to Angela. Maybe she will know what to do.”
He didn’t want to admit it, but he knew Elaine was right. He felt awkward mentioning these dreams. In his mind, he was too old to be having nightmares.
“We’ll talk to Angela when she comes in the morning, okay?”
“All right then, let’s go get some sleep.” Elaine squeezed his shoulders then nudged him up the stairs. She followed one at a time to go easy on her arthritic knee.