In 1990, I was four years old. As my birthday took place in June, I was eligible to start Kindergarten that year. My mother, at the time, was working as a CNA in the county nursing home, the Brian Center. Most of the time, she worked the night shift, but on those times when she would work a dayshift, I would ride the bus to the Center and sit in the basement TV room until she got off work. To call it a TV room, however, was slightly more than generous. It was an alcove in the wall with a few of those ‘padded’ chairs they use in doctor’s office waiting rooms, with a tube TV bolted to the wall. I suppose it served as a break room for the employees, though as many hours as I spent in that room, I never saw anyone take a break. In fact, the only employee I saw regularly was the security guard whose booth was in the corner directly across the hallway from the TV room. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Brian Center, like most buildings in Brevard, was built into the side of a hill, so that the basement at the lower end of the parking lot, where the TV room was placed, was no longer underground. The employee entrance and exit was here, right outside the TV room, and directly across from the Security Station. The hallway formed a right angle here, and the Security Desk was built into that corner. It had a little gate, with telephones and small black and white screens that he would watch, leaned back in his chair with his feet propped up, his massive ring of keys spinning around his finger, jingling each time as they hit, alternately, the back and the palm of his hand. He was a very handsome man, tall and lean, a beautiful chocolate complexion with a neat mustache and a bald head as shiny and smooth as his immaculately polished dress shoes. He wore a pressed blue shirt, his numerous little badges on the front, and pressed black pants. He took his appearance very seriously. After all these years, his name escapes me, but the kindness with which he treated me has never left my memory.
He listened to me chatter on for hours at a time, the self-important 4 year old that I was at the time, and never once showed so much as a disdainful or dismissive air. He listened with a fond smile on his full lips, though sometimes he seemed a bit sad even if the smile never left. I talked to him so often that I hardly watched the TV at all. My mother rarely got the time to come check on me, but the guard always took care of me. When I got hungry, he would press a few quarters into the palm of my hand and send me a few feet down the hallway to the vending machine.
Sometimes Mama would get a spare moment to come look in on me, and would ask where I had gotten the money for my ubiquitous Honey Bun. When I told her he had given me the money, she seemed upset, but she never reprimanded him for it. She never thanked him for it, either, though I always did. In fact, most of the employees seemed quite rude, in my opinion, because no one who ever passed through the hallway ever spoke to him at all. He would make faces at me, behind their backs, as they rounded his corner desk. I never could keep from laughing, though I would have to stop when the passing employee would shoot me a look. I suppose they thought the basement of a nursing home wasn’t a good place for a child to sit after school, but I never wandered the facility. My mother and the guard always told me to stay where I was, and I listened.
I always felt safe, regardless, sitting across from my Knight in Blue Khaki, as he rarely left his desk except while making his rounds of the Center. He would always exhort me to remain in my place, and I would do so until he returned for me to chatter at again.
My mother didn’t last long there. Between the night shifts and the patients, it quickly wore her down. It was hard enough dealing with the dying, who would often cry and beg her not to leave them, or beg her to take them home with her, or ask her about family members that never came to visit, who had literally left them there to rot, there was also those who were far from dying, but far from ever leaving.
There was a young girl who had made a short career out of robbing houses with her boyfriend in order to steal prescription drugs. Her boyfriend injected her with a fair dose of what they thought was liquid morphine. Instead, it was insulin. She fell into a diabetic coma which she never came out of. There was a young man who had made the mistake of drinking and driving, and had suffered a horrible crash, which left him paralyzed and missing almost half his brain. He spent the rest of his life drooling in a wheelchair, dribbling mush onto his bib. I would often see him sitting in the front garden as I would get off the school bus, and I always spoke to him, though I was not aware that even if he could hear me, he could never understand me.
There was an old woman who had lost her mind when she hit menopause, so the story went, and who was known for wandering the hallways at night, baby doll in arm. The story told by the nurses, however, was a bit different. They said that back in the 60’s, this woman had been married, but had taken a lover. Scandalously, he was a black man that worked as a gate guard at Ecusta, the paper mill. She had fallen pregnant and when the baby was born, it was discovered that it was half-black, and the husband snapped. The baby, they said, a little girl, had been taken across the mountain to Jackson County and had been killed and buried there. The woman’s lover suffered no better a fate. They found him castrated, and hanging from a tree. I suppose after that she was never quite right, and eventually she ended up in the hands of the nurses of the Brian Center.
The guard seemed to have a soft spot for her due to the tragedy she had suffered, just like all the nurses, and would often take her by the shoulders and lead her back to her room before the nurses noticed her absence. She always smiled hugely at him, and he would smile back, that same bittersweet smile he would often bestow on me.
There was another young woman there, paralyzed from the neck down. She could not move anything but her head, but had somehow retained her ability to breathe and swallow. She was trapped in her body, fully alert, and though she could not move, she was the one patient that my mother feared the most. My mother had once found her thrashing, inexplicably, and screaming. My mother insists that it was not a seizure — she was very familiar with those — but looked more like someone was throwing her body around on the bed like a rag doll.
Another night, the woman began screaming again. My mother ran to check on her, to ask what was the matter. The woman insisted the Devil was in her room, that she had made a pact with him and that he had come to collect. My mother could not see this Devil, but told me that on these nights the room felt curious, as though the air itself had become heavy.
It was only when I became older that my Mother admitted that the hardest part of that job had been the dead, not the living.
You see, before the Brian Center existed, the building had served as the old Transylvania County Hospital. Don’t get excited. Just remember, Transylvania means ‘Across The Forest’ and if the county has anything, it is plenty of woods.
Many, many people, long before it was a nursing home, had been born, suffered, or died there. My Aunt Abby, in fact, had been born there. The basement had once served as the County Morgue. Thousands of dead had passed through that building, on their way to the funeral parlor, and some of them had never left.
The nurses reported hearing babies crying, completely inexplicably, and women crying. The patients in the area would be checked, only to find that none of them had made the noise. The elevators would travel from floor to floor without anyone pressing the buttons. Perfectly lucid patients would be heard holding conversations with no one at all. My mother would hear the tapping of hard-soled shoes in the hallway, and the rattling of keys, and would look, only to find nothing there. The event that sealed the deal, however, happened late one night, around 3 AM. My mother was walking back toward the nurse’s station and, as she rounded the corner, she saw a man. A bolt of anger shot through her. It was long past visiting hours. That wasn’t the worst of it, however. The man had a dog with him, a large half-wolf, not even on a leash. As my mother marched closer, she could smell the dog: it smelled wet, and sour, as though it were very dirty.
“Excuse me! You can’t be here. How did you get in here with that dog?”
The man turned his head from the room he was staring into and looked at her. So did the dog. Its eyes were red, and it snarled at her. My mother stopped in her tracks and soon the man turned on his heel, and walked casually away…straight through a metal and glass door.
As many hours as I had stayed there, though, sometimes ’till long after dark, I had never seen or heard anything strange.
Now, in 2015, I am twenty-nine years old, and six months pregnant. It is three in the morning, and swimming out of a haze of fatigue-induced deep sleep I hear my mother shuffle into the room. I am staying at her house, sleeping on the pull-out to help take care of her as she is recovering from a total knee replacement. She is in pain and has woken me up to talk and distract her from it until the Percocet kicks in.
We are nostalgic whenever we are together, and talk about the bad and the good times alike. It was me who brought up the Brian Center, and she tells me all of these stories over again.
I have just told her my story, and now she is staring at me very strangely.
“What?” I ask.
“Danyelle,” she says, “We never had a security guard when I was working there.”