Spectre of Love, a short story




It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. The same pain, the same fear, the same horror.


Jerran clung to Amy’s arm like a life preserver in a storm-tossed sea. Memories flooded her dried-up thoughts, crashing like waves and threatening to drown her. Her knees faltered, and she nearly crumpled to the floor.


“Hang in there, Baby. I gotcha,” whispered Amy. Jerran had told her new wife it was going to be hard, but until she stepped through those doors, she couldn’t have imagined how hard. How could she describe what it was like? There weren’t words that could capture the fear and anger and mostly the grief she had felt all those years ago.


If only Meghan hadn’t . . .


“I’m fine. Let’s just get this over with so we can tear this place down for good.”

Two sets of stilettos clicked softly across the cold, tiled floor. Aside from a thick layer of dust, the Pinehurst Asylum looked the same to Jerran. Ghostly nurses and orderlies wafted by, too busy to see Jerran and Amy or the lives they had destroyed. The echoes of forgotten screams bounced off the seafoam-green walls. Down the first hall was Jerran's old room.


I wonder if Meghan’s name is still carved into the wall next to the bed. Jerran decided she wouldn’t look. She decided when she bought the old asylum that she would never step foot in that room again.


“We can auction the furniture and medical equipment,” said Amy, trying to draw Jerran out of her memories. “I will arrange for the demolition team to come next week for an estimate.”


Jerran forced a nod. “Sure, whatever you think.”


But Amy knew her too well. After a while, Jerran’s wife patted the back of her hand and asked softly, “Which room is it?”


More memories, this time of shrieking alarms and lights—those awful lights. For a long time after Jerran’s release from the asylum, she considered flashing lights an omen. Harbingers for the end of the world, she huffed to herself. When the listing for the house on Crawford Street crossed Jerran’s desk, she knew they would buy it. Amy loved the Craftsman style and the park across the street, but it was the quiet lane that convinced Jerran. She couldn’t have managed living one more day in the city; its frenetic drone and siren blasts sounded too much like everything she had fought so hard to forget.


Amy tugged gently on her arm, pulling her back from her reverie. “The room?” she whispered.


“The next hall, room 222,” said Jerran as she choked back a sob, but it got stuck in her throat like a pill that was too big to swallow.


As Amy guided her toward Meghan’s old room, she could hear the preamble of the alarms. Their shrieking swelled as Jerran approached the door, and the quiet hall filled with the alarm’s mournful wail. Amy’s face flashed red in the emergency lights, and the seafoam-green walls pulsed brown like glimpses of dying autumn leaves. Amy’s gentle, urging smile looked wrong—out of place. Jerran fought to escape but Amy held her tight.


“Jerran, it’s okay. It’s not real. Those are just the memories. Dr. Welsch said you might have them. It’s the trauma, Sweetheart. You can do this.”


“But I can . . .”


“I know,” Amy soothed. “Now, close your eyes and take a deep breath, the way Dr. Welsch taught you.” She rubbed Jerran’s back with large circles, and Jerran did what she said. Ever since they met four years ago, Amy had always been her anchor. She never left Jerran’s side even when things got bad, like now. Slowly the alarms faded, and when she opened her eyes, Amy’s chestnut-brown skin had returned.


It had seemed so real.


“Ready?”


Jerran dipped her chin.


As they worked their way slowly toward room 222, the alarms remained silent this time. Jerran breathed a sigh of relief as she followed the calm, green-white glow of the fluorescent lights. The door to room 222 was slightly ajar. Inside, it was dark. But Jerran knew it wasn’t empty; it overflowed with the shards of her former life.


Amy pushed the door open and pulled Jerran into the room. The fluorescent lights buzzed to life, and there in the center of the room, just like before, lay Meghan’s diaphanous body floating in a crimson puddle, her black, curly hair flung around her like a broken halo.


Spectral nurses pushed past them while shouting orders, and ghostly orderlies rushed to make space for the emergency crew dashing toward the small room. The alarms were back, the lights flashed again, and Jerran screamed just like she had screamed twenty-four years ago.


“Bring a resuscitation kit. Stat!” shouted the nurse as she rolled Meghan to her back. A sticky, red slick spread down the girl’s cheek, flowing around the outpouring of fresh blood from the wound on her neck. Jerran knew she was still alive the way blood surged with each beat of her young lover’s heart. She watched in horror as it began to lag as if someone had closed a tap.


Jerran lurched forward, but someone was holding her back. “Let me go, please! I can . . .” but she didn’t know what she could do. The doctors had pushed Meghan over the edge because she had loved. They locked her up for her love and professed they could fix her. Their torture even had a name: aversion therapy. It was a bad name for a bad thing—teaching someone to unlove. But Meghan was strong, and it broke her; it broke everything.


Blood coated the knees of Jerran’s ivory pantsuit as she fell to the floor next to Meghan. Someone was holding her from behind, but they didn’t pull her away this time; she was grateful for that. Last time, she never got to say goodbye.


“Meghan,” she sobbed. “I need to know why you did it.” Tears diluted the translucent blood. “What could I have done, Megan? Please tell me.” The nurse tried to move Jerran away, but her flesh was from a different time.


Meghan’s eyes flickered open for the briefest of moments, enough for Jerran to see, to finally understand. For Meghan, it wasn’t an option. She had always told Jerran, “no explanations, no excuses, and no hiding,” and it had taken twenty years and Amy to show her how right she had been. Meghan had chosen to be true to herself in the only way she knew how, and that was to fight Pinehurst’s aversion treatments with the only weapon she had left—her life.


Stabbing pain gripped Jerran. Could she stand her heart being cut out again? Would understanding why Meghan ended her life help this time? Perhaps not, but at least she now knew it wasn’t her fault. Pride and profound sadness surged through her softening twenty-four years of guilt as she watched Meghan take one last breath.


“Thank you for teaching me how to love,” whispered Jerran as Meghan faded from view.


Seafoam-green walls flickered under the aging fluorescent lights. The alarms echoed silently away as Amy helped Jerran to her feet. She wiped the thick dust off her knees and dabbed her wife’s eyes with a tissue she had kept on hand. They quietly retraced their path one gentle, healing step at a time. Once outside, it was Jerran who broke the silence.


“On second thought, don’t call the demolition company,” said Jerran. “I think we’ll leave Pinehurst just the way it is—an empty, harmless husk with a tragic past. It’s the only way to remember the horrors that went on behind those doors.”


“You want to remember?” asked Amy.


“If we replace it with something new, the suffering will disappear with it. It will be as if it never existed, as if Meghan never existed. A new construction will only be a band-aid. What purpose does that serve?” Jerran turned toward the weathered façade. “We will use Pinehurst as a reminder to everyone that there are as many ways to love as there are people on this Earth,” said Jerran as she reached for Amy’s hand and led her to their waiting car.


Yes, Meghan would like that, she thought, and that was all that mattered.


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