20 years earlier
Our Lady of Virtues Hospital
Near New Orleans, Louisiana
She felt his breath.
A presence that caused the hairs on the back of her neck to lift, her skin to prickle, sweat to collect upon her spine.
Her heart thumped and, barely able to move, standing in the darkness, she searched the shadowed corners of her room frantically. Far away, through the open window, she heard the reverberating songs of the frogs in the nearby swamps, and further still the rumble of a train upon faraway tracks.
But here, now, he was with her.
Go away, she tried to say, but held her tongue, hoping beyond hope that he wouldn't notice her standing near the window. On the other side of the paned glass security lamps illuminated the grounds with pale, bluish light and she realized, belatedly that her body, shrouded only by a sheer night gown, was silhouetted by the eerie bluish glow from those lamps.
Of course he could see her, find her in the darkness.
He always did.
Throat dry, she stepped backward, placing a hand on the window casing to steady herself. Maybe she had just imagined his presence. Maybe she hadn't heard the door open after all. Maybe she'd jumped up from a drug-induced sleep too quickly. After all it wasn't late, only eight in the evening.
Maybe she was safe in this room, her room on the third floor.
She was reaching for the bedside light when she heard the soft scrape of leather against hardwood.
Her throat closed on a silent scream.
Having adjusted to the half-light, her eyes took in the bed with its mussed sheets, evidence of her fitful rest. Upon the dressing table was the lamp and a bifold picture frame; one that held small portraits of her two daughters. Across the small room was a fireplace. She could see its decorative tile and cold grate and above the mantle, a bare spot, faded now where a mirror had once hung.
So where was he? She glanced to the tall windows. Beyond, the October night was hot and sultry. In the panes she could see her wan reflection: petite, small-boned frame; sad hazel eyes; high cheekbones; lustrous black hair pulled away from her face. And behind her . . . was that a shadow creeping near?
Or her imagination?
That was the trouble. Sometimes he hid.
But he was always nearby. Always. She could feel him, hear his soft, determined footsteps in the hallway, smell his scent – a mixture of male musk and sweat – catch a glimpse of a quick, darting shadow as he passed.
There was no getting away from him. Ever. Not even in the dead of night. He received great satisfaction in surprising her, sneaking up on her while she was sitting at her desk, leaning down behind her when she was kneeling at her bedside. He was always ready to press his face to the back of her neck, to reach around her and touch her breasts, arousing her though she loathed him, pulling her tightly against him so that she could feel his erection against her back. She wasn't safe when she was under the thin spray of the shower, nor while sleeping naked beneath the covers of her small bed.
How ironic that they had placed her here . . . for her own safety.
"Go away," she whispered, her head pounding, her thoughts disjointed. "Leave me alone!"
She blinked and tried to focus.
Where was he?
Nervously she trained her eyes on the one hiding place, the closet. She licked her lips. The wooden door was ajar, just slightly, enough that anyone inside could peer through the crack. From the small sliver of darkness within the closet something seemed to glimmer. A reflection. Eyes?
Maybe he was inside. Waiting.
Gooseflesh broke out on her skin. She should call out to someone, but if she did, she would be retrained, medicated . . . or worse. Stop it, Faith. Don't get paranoid! But the glittering eyes in the closet watched her. She felt them. Wrapping one arm around her middle, the other folded over it, she scraped her nails on the skin of her elbow.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
But maybe this was all a dream. A nightmare. Wasn't that what the nuns had assured her in their soft whispered voices as they gently patted her hands and stared at her with compassionate, disbelieving eyes? A dream. A nightmare of vast, intense proportions. Even the nurse had agreed with the nuns, telling her that what she'd thought she'd seen wasn't real. And the doctor, cold, clinical, with the bedside manner of a stone monkey, had talked to her as if she were a small child.
"There, there, Faith, no one is following you," he'd said, wearing a thin, patronizing smile. "No one is watching you. You know that. You're . . . you're just confused. You're safe here. Remember, this is your home now."
Tears burned her eyes and she scratched more anxiously, her short fingernails running over the smooth skin of her forearm, encountering scabs. Home? This monstrous place? She closed her eyes, grabbed the headboard of the bed to steady herself.
Was she really as sick as they said? Did she really see people who weren't there? That's what they'd told her, time and time again, to the point that she was no longer certain what was real and what was not. Maybe that was the plot against her, to make her believe she was as crazy as they insisted she was.
She heard a footstep and looked up quickly.
The hairs on the backs of her arms rose.
She began to shake as she saw the closet door crack open a bit more.
"Sweet Jesus." Trembling, she backed up, her gaze fixed on the closet, her fingers scraping her forearm like mad. The door creaked open in slow motion. "Go away!" she whispered, her stomach knotting as full-blown terror took root.
A weapon! You need a weapon!
Anxiously, she looked around the near-dark room with its bed bolted to the floor.
Get your letter opener! Now!
She took one step toward the desk before she remembered that Sister Madeline had taken the letter opener away from her.
The lamp on the night table!
But it, too, was screwed down.
She pressed the switch.
No great wash of light. Frantically, she hit the switch again. Over and over.
Click. Click. Click.
She looked up and saw him, then. A tall man, looming in front of the door to the hallway. It was too dark to see his features but she knew his wicked smile was in place, his eyes glinting with an evil need.
He was Satan incarnate. And there was no way to get away from him. There never was.
"Please don't," she begged, her voice sounding pathetic and weak as she backed up, her legs quivering.
"Please don't what?"
Don't touch me . . . don't place your fingers anywhere on my body . . . don't tell me I'm beautiful . . . don't kiss me . . .
"Leave now," she insisted. Dear God, was there no weapon, nothing to stop him?
"Leave now or what?"
"Or I'll scream and call the guards."
"‘The guards'" he repeated in that low, amused, nearly hypnotic voice. "Here?" He clucked his tongue as if she were a disobedient child. "You've tried that before." She knew for certain that her plight was futile. She would submit to him again. As she always did. "‘The guards?' Did they believe you the last time?"
Of course they hadn't. Why would they? The two scrawny pimply-faced boys hadn't hidden the fact they considered her mad. At least that's what they'd insinuated, though they'd used fancier words . . . delusional . . . paranoid . . . schizophrenic . . .
Or had they said anything at all? Maybe not. Maybe they'd just stared at her with their pitying, yet hungry, eyes. Hadn't one of them told her she was sexy? The other one cupping one cheek of her buttocks . . . or . . . or had that all been a horrid, vivid nightmare?
Scratch, scratch, scratch. She felt her nails break the skin.
Humiliation washed over her. She inched backward, away from her tormentor. What was happening to her was her own fault. She'd sinned somehow, brought this upon herself. She was the one who was evil. She had instigated God's wrath. She alone could atone. "Go away," she whispered again, clawing more frantically at her arm.
"Faith, don't," he warned, his voice horrifyingly soothing. "Mutilating yourself won't change anything. I'm here to help you. You know that."
Help her? No . . . no, no, no!
She wanted to crumble onto the floor, to shed her guilt, to get away from the itching.
Fight! An inner voice ordered her. Don't let him force you into doing things that you know are wrong! You have will. You can't let him do this to you.
But it was already too late.
Close to her now, he clucked his tongue. In a rough whisper, he said, "Uh-oh, Faith, I think you've been a naughty girl again."
"No." She was whimpering. There it was. . .that horrid bit of excitement building inside her.
"Oh, Faith, don't you know it's a sin to lie?"
She glanced to the wall where the crucifix of Jesus was nailed into the plaster. Did it move? Blinking, she imagined Jesus staring at her, his eyes kind but silently reprimanding in the semi-darkness.
No, Faith. That can't be. Get a grip, for God's sake.
It's a painted image, that's all.
Breathing rapidly, she dragged her gaze from Christ's tortured face to the fireplace . . . cold now, devoid of both ashes and the mirror above it, now an empty space, the outline visible against the light green paint. They said she broke the mirror in a fit of rage, that she'd cut herself. That her own image had caused her to panic.
But he'd done it, hadn't he? This devil whose sole intent was to torture her? Hadn't she witnessed the act? She'd tried to refuse him, and he'd crashed his fist into the looking glass. Mirrored shards sprayed, hitting her, then crashing to the floor in glittery, deadly knives.
That's what had happened.
Or not? Now, feeling the blood beneath her nails, she wondered.
What is happening to me?
She stared at her bloodied hands. Her fingernails, once manicured and polished were broken, her palms scratched and further up, upon her wrists, healed deep gashes. Had she done that to herself? In her mind's eye she saw her hands wrapped around a shard of glass and the blood dripping from her fingers . . .
Because you were going to kill him . . . trying to protect yourself!
She closed her eyes and let out a long, mewling cry. It was true. She didn't know what to believe any longer. Truth and lies blended, fact and fiction fused, her life, once so ordinary, so predictable was fragmented. Frayed. At her own hands.
She inched backward, closer to the window, further from him, from temptation, from sin.
Where was her husband . . . and her children, what had happened to her girls?
Terror burrowed deep into her soul. Confused and panic-stricken, she blinked rapidly, trying to think. They were safe. They had to be.
Concentrate, Faith. Get hold of yourself! Veronica and Abby are with Jacques. They're visiting tonight, remember? It's your birthday.
Or was that wrong? Was everything was a lie? A macabre figment of her imagination?
She took another step backward.
"You're confused, Faith, but I can help you," he said quietly, as if nothing had happened between them, as if everything she'd conjured was her imagination, as if he'd never touched her.
Dear lord, how mad was she?
She spun quickly, her toe catching on the edge of a rug. Pitching forward, she again caught her reflection in the window and this time she saw him rushing forward, felt his hands upon her.
"No!" she cried, falling.
Glass cracked. Shattered.
With a scream she fell into the dark nothingness of the hot Louisiana night.