DANVERS – The Reckoning
By Rebecca McNutt
Rebecca Maye McNutt was born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1998, after which she moved to Ontario and New Brunswick for a number of years. The first books she wrote were the Smog City book series (better-known as Mandy and Alecto) from the time she was twelve to fifteen years old, which were later published from 2014 to 2016. She also edits books, designs the covers for her own books and writes short stories on occasion. Currently she lives in Halifax, is studying Library & Information Technology, and is working on other projects, mostly novellas. Her favorite book is Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and her hobbies include film photography, reading and watching movies. Danvers: the Reckoning is one of her most recent novellas and one of the first of her books to take place in the United States. Her upcoming novel, Three Little Ghostly Operatives, will be released by February 2017. She is an active author/reviewer on Goodreads and frequently reviews young adult, horror and crime titles.
Mrs. Dawes used to work at the Danvers Mental Hospital for the Insane during the 1980’s, and she thought it was all in the past. Now, in 1999, she’s a workaholic psychiatrist doting on troubled teens, but she’s so busy with her career, that her own teenage son, Rudger, is rebelling and spinning out of control. After an incident that flooded the entire floor of his junior high school, he’s been suspended, seemingly for good. His mother thinks that by traveling to the abandoned mental hospital from her university days in Massachusetts, it’ll be a chance to reconnect with Rudger and recover her own lost memories from many years back. Of course, the sinister old Victorian pillars and arches have absorbed the horrors of previous eras, from lobotomies to electroshock therapy, and things won’t be going as planned. After all, some places are better left alone…
A few spare rays of sunlight, as golden as amber sap running down the smooth bark of a pine tree, beamed down on the sleek turquoise Chrome Ferrari 458 as it sped down the highway, dead brown leaves crunching and shuffling under the rubber tires. Tall birches reached their slender white branches upwards towards the darkening gray afternoon sky like bony skeletal arms, contrasting with the slick black asphalt of the road and giving the small town of Danvers, Massachusetts a surreal and eerie atmosphere.
The car, sporty, shiny and pricey, had been a mid-life crisis buy for the psychiatrist behind the wheel a year or so earlier. Dr. Belinda Dawes was the kind of woman who had that prim, no-nonsense look about her. Her dark brown hair was held up in a bun, practically lacquered in place, not a single strand out of order. With her down-turned pointed nose, her narrow olive-green eyes and her frowning mouth painted with simple peach coloured lipstick, she gave the appearance of a bird of prey, a hawk perhaps, or some sort of bird with deadly talons and a hooked beak that would swoop down and spirit away little mice and moles and rats and voles. Her navy-blue blazer and matching skirt were totally free of wrinkles, her leather high-heels free of scuffmarks or scratches, and her fingernails were doused in clear, glossy polish.
Dr. Dawes scowled visibly. Her son, Rudger, thirteen years old, sat in the passenger seat beside her, a red can of Coca-Cola gripped tightly in his hand, a frustrated expression on his face. Luckily Rudger hadn’t inherited his mom’s birdy traits and features, but instead closely resembled his deadbeat father, a man who’d run off to marry some prostitute he’d met a few months after Rudger was born. The same wide brown eyes and slicked-back black hair in a mullet style, the same ‘I don’t give a damn’ look. Dressed in a Spongebob Squarepants t-shirt and old Day-Glo blue jeans, a pair of gray converse sneakers on his feet, Rudger was the exact opposite of his mom beside him. “Mom, are we there yet?” he whined childishly. “Almost,” replied Dr. Dawes, staring straight ahead, focusing on the road.
It was 1999, mid-October, and technically Rudger should’ve been in school, back at home in their puny two-bedroom apartment in Rochester, but Rudger had recently been suspended. “Your son needs psychological help, Mrs. Dawes,” Rudger’s teacher had said during a parent-teacher conference after Rudger had stolen a classmate’s expensive North Face down jacket and backed up all the toilets in the schoolhouse building, flooding the place with water. The school had one of those old-fashioned circular sinks with the pedals to step on to turn on the water. Rudger had clogged every sink in the circle with dead frogs from the biology lab. He took his fellow pupils’ appointed nickname for him, “Rotten Rancid Rebel Rudger”, with pride.
“It’s Dr. Dawes, not Mrs. Dawes,” was the response. Dr. Dawes was too wrapped up in her job at the Rochester hospital, dealing with schizophrenics and anorexics, to consider her son, who had sat there next to his mom and grinned wickedly, thrilled rather than ashamed of his stupid antics as usual.
“Rudger is showing repressed hostility towards you and towards his estranged father,” his teacher had continued, unfazed and surprisingly reserved. “Perhaps he would be able to reach his full potential in a stricter environment, like a boarding school or an instit….” The teacher had hesitated to say ‘institution’ even though it was right on the edge of his lips, screaming to enter the conversation.
Rudger, very perceptive, knew exactly what this talk would twist itself into, so he slyly ducked down under the wooden table in the meeting room, pretending he’d dropped a pencil while his hands worked away at discreetly tying his teacher’s shoelaces in huge knotted balls, impossible to remove without scissors.
…Hence the suspension, after his teacher had fallen flat on his face trying to stand up after the conference… and that was when Dr. Dawes had gotten the idea that getting away for a couple of weeks would be a brilliant idea, not just for Rudger, but for her as well. However, instead of Rudger’s adamant wish to go to Disneyland or SeaWorld, Dr. Dawes had settled on Danvers State, the town where, before she’d met Rudger’s father, she’d been living in as a nurse, working at the Danvers Kirkbride Mental Hospital. The trouble was, despite the fact that she’d worked there for three whole years, from 1983 to 1985, she literally couldn’t remember anything about ever being there, and all she had that proved she was ever even there to begin with was an old Polaroid snapshot of her in her white nurse’s uniform, the flannel dress, white hat with the red cross, and the white shoes. She had a bizarre longing to go back, if only to patch the hole in the timeline of her remembered life. The hospital had shut down and been totally abandoned in 1992.
“What the hell?” Rudger had groaned when his mom had told him her travel plans one evening over dinner (Kraft Dinner, to be precise). “Mom, why there?”
“What the heck, you mean… don’t say ‘hell’, it’s offensive,” said Dr. Dawes through a mouthful of cheese-powdered noodles, hoping to instill some manners in her son but failing to get through to him. “Think of this as an adventure! Hey, it gets you out of boarding school, at least.”
“But it’s not fair!” Rudger had complained, folding his arms over his chest defiantly. “Danvers… what a dumb name for a town.”
“I thought you loved small towns, Rudger. Whenever we used to drive through rural towns on the way to a new home you used to beg me to move you there!”
“That was when I didn’t know any better,” Rudger had muttered, sullen as always.
“Well, wait ‘till you see the Danvers Hospital building!” Dr. Dawes had insisted. “It’s really something.”
“Really some thing alright, something ugly.”
There was just no pleasing him, it was near-impossible.
She stayed out of his way that evening, distancing herself by logging into her computer and letting it immerse her mind in its digital playground. Rudger lay on the carpeted floor of the apartment, eating a bowl of unnaturally-yellow microwaved popcorn and fiddling with the dials on the colour television so that he could watch The Secret World of Alex Mack without static or interference.
Now, just a couple of weeks later, here they were on the road to the Danvers Hospital. They’d packed as much as they could bring with them, the car was cramped with suitcases and heavy blankets and other junk, and a flamboyant multicoloured patio umbrella was strapped to the roof with rainbow bungee cords. Mrs. Dawes had purchased (rather too hastily) an apartment in Danvers State for her and Rudger to live in, but she knew that the minute Rudger set foot in their new home, he’d be livid.
She’d seen the photos, snapped quickly with a Kodak Instamatic, that the realtor had sent her. Their new apartment had dingy beige walls, and she suspected that the black, festering patch on the kitchen ceiling was likely mold. The apartment building itself was gray concrete with arched faux-Victorian windows, many of these boarded up with rotting plywood. The building was surrounded by a field of nothing but dead yellow grass, the gravel parking lot fenced in with old-fashioned iron bars, and it looked like something straight out of a Stephen King film.
Rudger’s mouth dropped open, hanging agape when he caught sight of the building. “Mom! Ewww!”
“What?” Mrs. Dawes asked innocently. “This ol’ apartment building is pretty interesting if you ask me. It was built in the late 1950’s, and from what the realtor told me, there’ll be a few other kids your age who you can hang out with.”
“I liked my old friends in Rochester,” said Rudger grudgingly.
“Well, don’t you like the style of this building?”
“What style is that? Old and rotting?”
“Mom!” Rudger snapped back harshly. “We can’t live here! It’s nasty and creepy and boring and….”
“That’s enough!” Mrs. Dawes hissed, exasperated. When she parked the car, it lurched forward and she quickly stepped out, slamming the door in frustration. The shimmering turquoise of the car contrasted weirdly with the gloomy apartment property, but she tried not to notice. In truth she hated this new apartment building out in the middle of nowhere, but to admit it to her son?
He’d never let her hear the end of it! “Rudger, please get out of the car… please don’t make everything more difficult.”
“…Fine,” Rudger sighed, “but even if I have to live in this overgrown dumpster, you can’t make me go to the Danvers junior high school. I’ll drop out.”
“Ah, but it’s not legal for you to do that ‘till you’re in high school, and you’re only thirteen,” said Mrs. Dawes, smiling in victory, “so there!” Rudger rolled his eyes defiantly, but got out of the car and took out his suitcase nonetheless.
Stuffed with VHS tapes, books and Pokémon cards, the thing weighed a ton… so of course it was the perfect excuse for him to not have to help bring in anything else until later, which left Mrs. Dawes struggling to carry her beloved cathode ray tube television and psychiatry textbooks in her arms. “We’ll have to come back for the rest after we meet the landlord,” she told Rudger.
“…What are you waiting for? Hurry up before it gets too late in the day to pick up the key!”
“Sure thing, mom,” Rudger replied, lagging behind with his suitcase bouncing over the gravel in the lot, looking almost as if it were dancing. “Mommy’s little future delinquent,” Mrs. Dawes muttered under her breath and out of earshot.
The landlord was watching Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance on TV, a paper box of Dunkin’ Donuts assorted treats in his fat arms. He was wearing oversized sunglasses and an undersized Hawaiian t-shirt, blue with blotchy pink flowers all over it. He was wearing too-tight blue jeans with grease stains and what looked like a few dried spaghetti noodles all up and down the legs. His shoes, brown loafers, were very scuffed-up, and his oily, flabby face sagged at the sides downwards from his creepy, crinkly blue eyes and fat sausage-like lips that stretched over horsey teeth. His slimy graying hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. This guy was the ultimate portrait of tacky, and both Mrs. Dawes and Rudger could at least silently agree on one thing: they needed to avoid this sleaze-king at all costs.
“This place stinks to high heaven,” Rudger whispered impolitely to his mom, keeping a distance. There was an odd lingering odour, something that Mrs. Dawes couldn’t quite identify. “I’ll bet nobody ever cleans this building,” Rudger added with a revolted sneer on his face. “It smells like cats’ piss. Somebody should report it to the local board of health.”
“Rudger! Zip it!” Mrs. Dawes whispered icily.
The toady-looking man finally seemed to acknowledge their presence after his film was done. “You the new residents of Apartment 7F?” he questioned. “The uh, the Dwight Family?”
“The Dawes Family,” said Mrs. Dawes, getting more than a little tired of having to repeat her last name.
“The Dawes Family… well, I’m the landlord, Skunky Tom is what they call me ‘round Danvers on account of my makin’ a little extra pocket change by gatherin’ road patties, skunks squashed flat on the highway, and takin’ em’ to the renderin’ plant… Thomas Wickware is my full name, and rentin’ out apartments is my game. So uh, no pets? No other kinfolk livin’ with you two?”
“Nope, it’s just us,” Mrs. Dawes answered, shivering disgustedly. The nickname “Skunky Tom” gave her the willies. Behind her, Rudger pinched his nose, whispering “phew, what a reek!” with a comedic smirk.
“Looks like we got ourselves a regular couple of city slickers in my little patch of heaven now, eh?” Skunky Tom said to Rudger with a leering smile. “Hey, you ought to meet my niece, Jersey… she’s fifteen, she’s spendin’ the season here in Danvers with me, helping out with repairs and upgradin’ to the buildin’… she’d get a real kick outta you guys, and if you want a free tour of the Danvers Asylum, well she’s quite an expert of sorts, an amateur town historian… she knows everything about that ol’ batcave and she takes photos in there with one of them lil’ Kodaks she got for her birthday… she offered to give you both a tour tomorrow afternoon if you’re up for it.”
“Oh, that’d be just great,” Mrs. Dawes replied, falsely grateful, trying to make small talk without making unwanted new friends. “Does Jersey go to the junior high school here? I’m going to have to register Rudger on Monday.” Rudger made fake gagging noises behind her back.
“Yup, lil’ Jersey sure hates that ol’ school, but it’s her last option,” said Skunky Tom. “If she messes up there, her man’ pa will be sendin’ her to one o’ them fancy special snowflake schools where you gotta wear a lil’ uniform n’ all… she ain’t stupid, but she sure do like her booze, so she got kicked outta her old school when she went into a math test drunk… sheesh, at that age too… the Nineties, tough time to be a kid in this day n’ age, eh?” Mrs. Dawes nodded, though she was a little frazzled by the hectic ordeals of the day.
“Are there any other kids my age here?” Rudger asked demandingly, making it sound more like a challenge than a question. “You know, normal kids, kids who like Pokémon and Power Rangers and stuff?”
“Aren’t you getting a little too old for Power Rangers, Rudger?” Mrs. Dawes whispered through clenched teeth.
“There’s Jersey here, but out past that there field there’s a minimall with an arcade n’ an ice cream shop n’ a Goth store, all that typical adolescent crap,” said Skunky Tom with a dismissing wave of his fat hand.
“…Does Jersey like Animorphs… ooh, or what about Goosebumps, or Eerie Indiana or Are You Afraid of the Dark? or The Simpsons or….” Rudger sometimes got on a roll and never knew when to shut up.
“I got no dang idea wha’ lil’ Jersey likes,” Skunky Tom answered back. He reached into the pocket of his grimy blue jeans and handed two large brass keys with labeled numbers on a yellow sticker over to Mrs. Dawes.
“Welcome to Skunky Tom Estates,” he joked with a hideous chuckle. “Enjoy your stay.”