Trust Me, by Ana Morgan
Completely revised Chapter 1 opening
At five minutes before eleven, Ammi Folkright downshifted into her regular parking spot at the Minnesota State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The aging engine of her old F-150 pickup coughed as she tucked her wallet and cell phone in the glove compartment, and she patted the dash until it stilled.
Carrying an innocent-looking, brown-paper lunch bag, she marched across the snow-slick asphalt toward the imposing granite-block building and waved at the dark eye of the overhead security camera.
The lock buzzed, granting her admittance. She opened the thick steel door and approached the check-in bay.
Curtiss Black greeted her. “You’re like a fine Swiss watch, Ammi. Always on time, even in the dead of winter. Let’s see what you brought today.”
She set the small sack on the table and hoped the big armed guard’s cheerfulness would lead to a waiver of the rules.
He reached into the sack and pulled out a brown glass apothecary bottle. “What’s this?”
“Cough syrup made with honey, ginger, and slippery elm. The second bottle’s for your wife. With the flu bug going around, I thought she might be ready for a refill.”
Curtiss tucked one bottle into a lunch pail, set the other in a wire holding basket, and smiled apologetically. “I can’t let you take in anything herbal. And these?” He plucked out half a dozen tagless tea bags.
Her heart sank. He’s not going to budge.
“Chamomile from my garden. To help Dad sleep.”
“When Sturgeon takes his meds, he sleeps just fine.” Curtiss returned the teabags to the lunch bag and set the sack next to the bottles of cough syrup. “You can pick these up on your way out. Sturgeon’s doing well, by the way. He’s painted nearly nonstop since your last visit.”
Ammi’s mood brightened. Painting was her father’s link to his memories. To the answers that could locate her mother and win his release.
Curtiss drew a handheld metal detector from his holster and ran the wand across her shoulders and down to the felt tops of her clunky winter boot liners. As usual, it stayed silent. He clipped a visitor’s ID to the collar of her lavender sweater-jacket and buzzed her through the sliding barred door.
She hurried to the back ward, where the life-sentence inmates resided, pressed the call button next to the admittance scanner, and stepped back. A bloody nose when she was four had taught her the door opened outward.
Sixty seconds ticked by. She pushed the call button again and wished her visitor ID held the codes to unlock the door. She was allowed only one hour with her father every two weeks. Each moment was precious.
Five minutes later, she jabbed the button like a hungry pileated woodpecker in search of a tree ant.
Joe Taylor finally appeared, dressed in his orderly’s uniform of white shoes, slacks, and short-sleeved shirt. “Sorry, Ammi. We were dealing with a bad reaction to a change in meds.”
Her throat constricted. “Dad?”
“No. He’s in the sunroom. Go on in. He’s expecting you.”
She heard shouts as she walked to the end of a long corridor and recognized the high-pitched voice of her father’s latest roommate, Hanson Bonhomme. In her opinion, the psychotic man was a danger to her father, but the prison administrator, Dr. Franco Puissard, always dismissed her concerns. They disagreed about most everything.
The sunroom jutted out from the building like a bubble on a moon colony habitat. Light streamed through its grill of prison bars, creating distorted squares on the polished brown floor.
Her father stood with his back to her and looked outside.
Once strong and handsome—a rebel, according to her grandfather—he was now stooped and gaunt, with long gray hair in a thin plait that dangled between his shoulder blades. His hands had developed a slight, yet persistent tremor.
Today he wore a faded long-sleeved shirt, baggy sweatpants, and prison-issue slippers. Mounted cameras recorded his every move. Maybe that was why he didn’t turn as she approached.
She slipped her arm around his waist and hugged him. “Sorry I’m late, Dad.”
He spoke softly, as if confiding a secret. “For your sixth birthday, the prison cook made a cake with six candles. I lit them, and you blew them out with one breath.”
“Chocolate with white frosting.” Ammi was elated he’d recalled something so far in the past.
“I have a present for you.” Her father shuffled to his rickety old easel, where a threadbare towel draped a canvas. He tossed back the fabric.
A portrait of her mother sat on the cracked crosspiece. Rea strummed her guitar
on the small square stage in the Lockwood Bar. Curls of black hair framed her mother’s face, lit by a single spotlight.
“You remind me of her,” her father said. “Except she laughed more.”
Ammi stepped close to the watercolor and marveled at the details he’d painted. The purple and pink paisley guitar strap. Neon Pabst and Schlitz beer signs. July 1997 on a wall calendar.
Her grandfather had often described how her mother closed her eyes when she sang the refrain of a song.
“Do you remember the night in the painting?” Ammi asked incredulously.
Dad nodded. “Franco and I sat in a booth. He kept ordering drinks. I drank too much back then.” His gaze seemed fixed on a far-off memory. “She sang Joni Mitchell’s Clouds.”
“What happened after the bar closed?”
“I passed out in my truck.”
Stunned by how much he was remembering, Ammi pressed for more. “How did you meet up with Franco’s father?” And why did you beat him to death?
Joe Taylor burst into the sunroom carrying a cone-shaped paper cup in one hand and a small plastic pill cup in the other. “Time for meds, Sturgeon.”
“Can’t it wait?” she snapped. “We’re talking.”
“Sorry, Ammi. We’re adjusting the timing of everyone’s meds.” He handed the pill cup to her father.
She watched with dismay as her father’s expression turned blank. The orderly’s interruption had short-circuited his memory.
Dad tipped the pills into his mouth and swallowed. Then he covered his mouth and coughed. “Don’t need the water, Joe. What’s on the lunch menu?”
“Cheesy macaroni with cocktail wieners.”
“Can Ammi stay and have some? It’s her birthday today.”
“Next time, Sturgeon. She has to leave now. Director Puissard wants to see her.”
“I haven’t had my full sixty minutes,” she protested. “You were late letting me in.”
“Sorry, Ammi. I’m just following orders.”
Her blood boiled as she glared up at the security cameras. It wasn’t hard to imagine Franco watched.
She scrambled for an excuse to linger. “Joe, how’s your wife feeling?”
He grinned proudly. “Like she’s ready to pop. Her due date is a week away, but she’s hoping the baby comes early. I’m supposed to ask if you’d knit another dream cap. She swears by the one you made for Joe Junior.”
“She’s having a girl, right?”
“Yep. Everything’s pink.”
Ammi swallowed the lump that rose in her throat whenever she talked to an expectant mother or father. She’d never share their excitement. She’d inherited the genes for schizophrenia. “I’ll bring a pink cap on my next visit.”
Her father kissed the top of her head. “Try to laugh every day, Ammi,” he said. “Be more like Rea.”
Ammi covered the painting carefully with the towel and carried it out of the sunroom as Joe led her father away. She called out, “See you in two weeks, Dad.”
Without a backward glance, her father raised his fist. He might have been gesturing to Joe.
Dad had been lucid until Joe interrupted. He might be that way again, after his lunch. Might remember more about the night her mother disappeared. She had to convince Franco to grant her the rest of her court-ordered time.