The Same Gift Twice



I can almost remember what I used to keep in the little painted box. Seeing it now pulls at eight-year-old me, still there, deep in my memory under every day that has piled layers over that little girl out there in some quantum eternity, stashing her treasures in an empty candy tin her father sent her.

There was a beaded bracelet, I remember. And a pretty rock I kept inside a stiff-hinged velvet ring box that a friend of my mother’s said I could keep when I fell fascinated with it, snapping it open and closed after finding it abandoned on a side table at her house.

I remember folded paper. I know I had written things down and creased the messages closed against casual discovery. But I can only wonder now what words I tried to save for later. I didn’t manage to save them. A failure of custodial reverence to be sure.

I don’t know if I ate the candy that came in the box. Sweets were his go-to gift for his daughters, and my father had terrible taste in candy. That I do remember.

He is a ghost. My father died the year after he sent those gilded treasure boxes filled with probably not-good candy, one for me and one for my sister. But he’d already been apart from us for years by the time those gifts arrived.

The last time I saw him I was five, with a brain not yet tuned to record the way things were. I have sparks of images, impressions of my youngest life that feel like my own. But in truth, I can’t really untangle what is my own knowledge from what are simply stories other people tell. Of things that happened. Of my father. He’s a ghost that haunts all the tales of him, which are what I have instead of memories.

They say he was brilliant. Witty. Hilarious. Charming. Very tall. He was devout, fiery and eloquent in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. And Sunday nights. And Wednesday Bible studies. He was sought after for his conversation and his counsel. Those are the good stories.

But he was also tipped into hypocrisy by a mental illness that wouldn’t let him keep the commandments of his convictions. His fickle chemistry betrayed his best intentions and dropped him, again and again, into a darker version of himself.

The well of his illness was deep and the climb out was slippery. He’d emerge back into the light that was warm and hopeful, but also cruelly clear to reveal what had been neglected and broken in the fall. He’d walk out into the sun only to have to survey the rubble of his own life, until the last time, at age 44, when he didn’t.

By that time, I hadn’t seen him in over four years, nearly half my life.

Shortly after, the treasure boxes were lost in a hasty move. My bracelet. My rock in the plush ring case. Other things I can’t recall. My little slips of paper.

I remember being hugely upset by the loss of it. But it was the kind of pain that faded in the way most insults do—for me, anyway. Less so, for my sister. We all have teeth marks from some small life-bite that never stops stinging, even though it can be a little embarrassing to confess them.

One of mine is a snow cone, dropped and smashed on a summer sidewalk when I was in the first grade. One of my sister’s is missing, to this day, that damned trinket box.

Forty-some years out and she’s mentioned it often enough, and in sufficient detail, that for Mother’s Day, her daughter, a talented artist, drew her a picture of what she imagined it looked like.

The gesture touched me. And it made me wonder about that box. Maybe I could find a photograph of the real thing for my sister, and to show Erika how she’d captured the essence of it.

I searched the internet for “1970s metal candy boxes” and in mere moments, my mouth fell open and I gasped. Before looking, all I remembered was green and gold and very clearly the shape of the thing. But I recognized it as soon as I saw it.

I’m now a minor expert in vintage candy tins. And in the Blue Bird Confectionery Company. And in the knowledge that there are collections out there of probably everything that’s ever been. And that everything is for sale on Etsy and eBay.

I bought one for each of us and they arrived yesterday. They’re around forty-five years old, but look almost brand new. It’s amazing how well, if kept safe, painted tin weathers. Who would have thought?

They are not the boxes that were once in our father’s hands. But they are little time machines, nonetheless, though the experience is less transporting than it is catapulting. A little dizzying. I didn’t expect it. But my sister reminded me that it was the best actual memory we have of our father. He gave them to us and we remember it. No story required. No ghost.

It’s very strange seeing it now on the shelf here next to me, zapping me back into the past when this thing had the special anchor’s weight that only a prized possession can, strong enough to hold a place in time.

We’re often prompted to invent what we’d say to our younger selves if given the chance, what advice we’d offer to make things better.

And what would I tell eight-year-old me?

Out of fear of the time traveler’s risk—of unmaking what’s good about today by burning all of yesterday’s uncertainty in the crucible of a space-time paradox—I wouldn’t tell her a thing.

But I would ask her what she’s writing on those little slips of paper.


(An aside: I had no idea how poignant the position of the box in the photo would be, between the two titles I wedged it. I just placed it in an aesthetically pleasing spot, as I have all my knickknacks on my bookshelves. That was a strange and lovely accident.)


The Mother’s Day drawing, posted with permission from my wonderful niece, Erika Brown.









I Miss You, My Writerly & Readerly People

We’ve all been in various degrees of lockdown for almost two months now, and I suppose I should be well and truly used to the idea that in-person events related to our shared love of stories and pages and tall tales and Chapter Ones and The Ends aren’t coming back for a while.

But I’m not used to it.

And I miss you.

I can’t wait to see you all again–with nothing covering our faces but smiles.

Until then, xoxoxoxoxo


Review: Recursion, by Blake Crouch

(reposted from the Washington Independent Review of Books – for tons of great reviews, book news, and interviews, click here, then keep clicking)

Every speculative fiction author is a high-wire artist. But it’s even worse than that: no matter how high, windy, or impossible a circus stunt might be, a tightrope walker at least has terra firma anchoring the beginning and end of their journey. And they have a net.

Not so with the authors of stories that bend our recognizable world out of any shape we know. Not so for the writers who strain what-if to the limits of suspending disbelief. In speculative fiction, there is almost every way to get it wrong and so very narrow a thread to cross to get it right.

Blake Crouch carves out his own pedestal by getting it absolutely right with Recursion.

(Warning: This book is so good, I’m about to do that thing where the fizzy drink overflows its glass.)

Recursion follows a scientist, Dr. Helena Smith, who has pointed her powerful brain at the hope of using technology to help Alzheimer’s patients retain their memories, and Barry Sutton, a cop whose life is defined by memories of his daughter’s terrible death and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage.

When Helena’s research draws the attention of a visionary billionaire, his plan to develop her life’s work beyond anything she’d considered sets the fate of the entire world balancing on a string. And the spheres of planets, even more than high-wire artists, don’t teeter safely on a hair so fine.

At a modest 336 pages, it’s astonishing the amount of intriguing, adventurous, terrifying, emotional, philosophical, and even inspirational ground this book manages to cover. One might expect it would take a doorstopper stack of pages to convince us to play along with such a wild reach of make-believe. But Crouch wastes not a word, and at zero sacrifice of lyricism.

Case in point: early on we meet Gwen, Barry’s colleague and confidante, on the eleventh anniversary of his daughter’s death.

She slides off the stool and embraces him, the faint smell of sweat from her ride combining with the remnants of body wash and deodorant, resulting in something like a salted caramel.

He says, “Thanks for checking on me.”

“You shouldn’t be alone today.”

She’s fifteen years younger, in her mid-thirties, and at six feet four inches, the tallest woman he knows personally. With short blond hair and Scandinavian features, she’s not beautiful exactly, but regal. Often severe without trying. He once told her she had resting monarch face.

Every character is just this clearly drawn and every scene orients the reader with this kind of precision. The pedal gets buried in the floorboard from the first chapter and there is no coasting all the way through to the epilogue.

One of the book’s most impressive achievements is that the hinge-pin technology that drives this story is a fantastical extrapolation from a few crumbs of real-life scientific breakthroughs. Helena’s machine (and its application) is the big ask here, the thing you have to believe. It inspires each player’s greed or good intentions. There is no story without it.

If the presentation of the mechanics had been muddled, no amount of clever scene description and snappy dialogue could have saved Recursion. But the capabilities and implications of Helena’s invention are explained in a way that ports with the reader through every plot twist. We don’t doubt our understanding of it. We never have to double back to ask wait, how does all of this work again?

It’s almost impossible to overstate in a nonspoilery review how impressive this feat is. What Inception did for dreams, Recursion does for memories, but arguably a bit more cleanly.

And it kind of had to be that way, because Crouch wasn’t content to come off merely undaunted by the task of mapping out a heady techno-thriller. No, he had to go for the throat. Or the tender heart, as it were. Threaded through the plot’s whiplash and satisfying turns is a love story so poignant and wrenching, it should rattle any armor against the mushy stuff.

Set in both contrast to and in concert with unimaginable-yet-believable horrors (seriously, if you think worldwide death and destruction is as bad as it gets, do let Blake Crouch’s imagination take yours out for some exercise) the partnership of necessity between our heroes carries this tale to its conclusion. Along the way it blooms into an epic devotion between two people that holds lessons for us all to the very last page.

Recursion is reportedly already under development for Netflix by Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves, and that’s great news. But this feels like one of those times that there’s no besting what the author has put on the page. The screen version(s) will be good. Maybe even great. But I can’t stress enough how much you’ll want to take this on in book form first. It has instantly slotted into the ranks of the very best fiction I’ve ever read.

Blake Crouch may be a daredevil, unafraid of any speculative heights, but he’s definitely an incredibly talented writer and thinker. His surefootedness with the spectacle that is Recursion is well worth every ooh and aah it collects. Bravo. *standing ovation*


The Mind Half-Empty or Half-Full: A Tale of Aphantasia



I saw a post on Facebook where someone had come across the term “aphantasia”. It’s the label for the phenomenon of not seeing images in the mind. An estimated 1 – 3% of the population have limited or no sensation at all of mental pictures.

The meme was expressing dismay (and the comments, a deep sadness) over all that aphantasiacs must be missing. This post was specifically imagining a terrible loss in the experience of reading without having the words on the page make a movie in your mind.

Well, I’m aphantasic. And it’s not sad at all. It’s only hard to explain. But I’ll try.

I know what things look like. When I’m seeing the world with my eyeballs, I process visually like everyone else. But there’s nothing that feels like vision in my memory or during invention—in daydreaming or while composing fiction. I can’t see anything. I don’t even really quite know what that would mean.

When I’m remembering or wool-gathering or writing a scene, I’m doing that other thing about what the world looks like: the thinking about it thing – which is a completely different beast.

Everything that’s taken in through my sense of sight becomes something different once it’s in my head. There’s no picture, per se, to recall. It’s kind of like that raining code in the Matrix. I mean, I don’t “see” a code like that either. There’s this altogether separate sense that serves as a transcription for everything that’s gone from visible to conceptual.

Scientists only coined the term “aphantasia” in, I think, 2015, and I first ran across it last year. It’s something I’d been trying to describe my entire life. What’s really funny is that this whole time, I thought everyone else was being metaphorical when they said they saw things in their minds. I thought that calling it vision was a convenient shorthand like even I use—oh, I can picture suchandsuch or I can just see him doing that.

I didn’t know I was an oddball. (Seriously, I’m not sure how many times I have to learn that lesson.)

I’m not missing out, though. I get to hear, see, smell, taste, and feel things the way everyone else does. But all the recorded regular senses, the information that’s delivered in them, is translated into a distinctly different sensory property—a bonus sixth one, if you will, of What Things Are Like.

What things are like and what they look like are slightly different. It’s analogous to the difference between seeing something and recognizing it. Those two sensations are similar (and usually related) but they’re not the same thing. The experience of recognition is different from the physical sense of sight. There’s something else going on there, a non-visual component. That’s what I have instead of pictures in my head.

I feel it like a magnet pulling metal shavings around a thought, giving it shape. Remember that toy? It’s like that. Except it doesn’t look like that. *sigh* This is difficult.

I don’t have images in my mind, but there’s a separate device, a comprehensive catalog of recognition, as vivid and developed—and pleasurable when it’s pleasing—as my other senses. It’s a trove of what things are. Does that make sense?

When I read, I don’t ever bother trying to put together what things or people in the stories look like. I mean, if there’s something where the fact of what it looks like is important to the plot or character, I’ll certainly take note of it. But the description of things translates to me as what it’s like to be in that place or in that body, or the sense of what it’s like to have that fictitious emergency or salvation or despair or triumph.

It seems that for most people, imagining what it would be like to not see pictures with their thoughts is this awful, black, cavernous loss. But it’s nothing like that for me. I have a very rich internal life and imagination. It’s just different from what, as far as I understand it, most of you experience.

And, luckily, reading is a singular pleasure in synthesizing that sense of recognition from words alone.

If someone came to me with a pill or a potion and told me it would give me images to go with my thoughts, I’d only take the medicine if it were guaranteed that I could go back to the way I was before if I found I didn’t like it. From here, the only way I’ve ever known, I can honestly say that vivid visual imagery sounds kind of unpleasant. Distracting. Rushed.

I love being in my head. I love how it feels considering things with that other, translated sense in my mind. It’s an important, even treasured, facet of my experience of being alive.

It’s almost hard for me to imagine how you normals do it. But I’m starting to, ahem, get the picture.

A New Prized Possession & The Title of My Next Book

Now I have another thing to run back inside for should my house ever go up in flames.

All the people under my blazing roof will get sorted out first, and the guinea pigs, too, with or without my help. I’m only half-heartless. So we’ll start after that.

This was the list of what felt irreplaceable before today:

– my wedding album

– my double-dragon pendant

-my sister-in-law’s quilt

my wolf’s head sculpture

-and Lovey (You can read about Lovey here, and yes, I very well might run into a burning building for him. Who’d risk being haunted by that?)

And I might grab my computer, too. All my stuff is properly backed up, but it’s such a pain in the ass to set up a new computer, it might be worth a little smoke inhalation to be able to skip that.

Anyway. Now there’s something new.

See, the MacGuffin in my next book is a nearly four hundred year old painting—Landscape With Obelisk, by Govaert Flink.

Landscape with an Obelisk


That painting was part of the largest theft of personal property in the history of personal property.

On March 18th, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day spilled over into National Hangover Day, two policemen rang the bell at the closed-for-the-night Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. They said they’d received a disturbance call. The security guard let the cops in and, spoiler alert, they weren’t actually cops.

The museum guards got themselves tied up and the robbers spent just under an hour and a half liberating thirteen pieces from their frames and cases, to the tune of over $500 million.

And the artwork hasn’t been seen since.

Now my book doesn’t deal with the famous heist, per se. It doesn’t speculate who might have done this, or suggest a fictional investigative path for this notorious crime. But it does a what-if on the idea that a viral video reveals a glimpse, in a suburban home, of one of the lost pieces.

Landscape With Obelisk, is—in some estimation—one of the lesser treasures taken that day. For more than three hundred and fifty years, it was assumed to be a minor work by the Master, Rembrandt van Rijn. It’s not. It’s an imitative effort by one of his students, Govaert Flinck, a fairly terrific portrait artist who never made it big.

Nobody really knows why the thieves took it. By 1990, the art world had known for years that it wasn’t a Rembrandt, and there were much more valuable pieces that were left untouched, although the faux policemen had free rein in the museum for quite a while that night. The theft of the Flinck remains one of a number of things we can only shrug about where the Gardner heist is concerned.

But it made me imagine a story. So I wrote it.

And then I had to title it.

I like coming up with titles for my work a little bit less than I like getting MRIs. I can take a Valium for the claustrophobia and deal with an MRI.

Valium doesn’t help with titling. I tried.

This poor book went through no fewer than sixty-eight title suggestions. (I think it’s probably more than that. I’m pretty sure I just deleted some of the lists in teary fugues over the months.)

Do I believe in Divine intervention? Define ‘divine’ the right way and I might. Of all things, and after more hair-tearing than I’ve ever done over a title, a quote by the Master himself, Rembrandt, surfaced:

“Try to put well in practice what you already know, and in so doing, you will in good time discover the hidden things you now inquire about.”

Et voilà! The book is called THE HIDDEN THINGS.

It fits beautifully. The title nods and winks at the secrets in the story, and the discovery of those secrets, but also at the personal arc of one of the main characters who discovers essentially a superpower unleashed at watching herself do something impressive in the video. And she sees it all from outside herself, the one vantage point that would normally be forever hidden from her.

But Rembrandt’s quote also eloquently captures something I truly believe about life: You’re never starting from zero. Whatever the universe lobs at you next, you’ve been preparing for it since your first screaming breath. It may not feel the match of what eludes you or surprises you. It may not feel like enough. But the facts and intuitions you’ve been taking on board since Day One have set you up for the next thing. You know how to learn.

So not only did this quote save me from having a book with a blank cover, it made me—for the first time in my entire life—want an inspirational wall hanging.

I had his words put on a plank for my office wall.



And now, a confession.

I was so geeky about it that this plank is cut to exactly the dimensions of Flinck’s Landscape With Obelisk—71cm x 54.5cm.

Worse than that, the incredibly patient and wonderful people at The Blue Spruce Decor Co. cut the wood into three sections, just like the dimensions of the three oak panels that make up the stacked backing under the ancient gesso that Landscape With Obelisk is painted on: 20cm on 20.5cm on 14cm.

I like to imagine his master’s words were always there, hidden under the painting, and I have them now, discovered, beside me while I work on whatever I can’t title next.

This thing pleases me—a lot. It’s one of a kind. So I guess I’ll have to run back in during a conflagration. I suppose that’s the price for ever getting to be this pleased.

(And seriously, if you have a quote or a lyric or a saying you love and might like to have close at hand for your own inspiration, Danielle at The Blue Spruce is wonderful. She works with you enthusiastically to get exactly what you’re looking for. I wholeheartedly recommend them. It’s a beautiful piece.)

Occasionally, I write a poem…

It doesn’t happen often and I actually wrote this one a few weeks back, but I was just reminded of it, because my house is popping and creaking and startling me while I’m trying to work. The other day, from down the hall, I heard the sound of someone walking across my guestroom floor.

No one was there, of course. Of course.



I glimpsed the ghost in me
The rattle and knock
The cold spot already brewing
The foreknell in the floorboard
that does not yet squeak

Second sight and sixth sense
A pocket full of night

I test the balance of the trinkets
on the shelves
I wick the oil from the hinges
in the doors
I map the playground
of the small, fine hairs
at the back of your neck

Vanguard angry
for the time

When I am nothing but
a will peeled off its way


-Jamie Mason




Back to the Read-A-Thon that really wasn’t

So, it feels like a thousand years ago that I gave away copies of MONDAY’S LIE in exchange for reading assignments from the winners. But really it was only January.

Life rather shook things up, so the timeline of the original read-a-thon was, well, blown up. I am, however, completing my assigned reading as I can. It’s great fun. I love this contest and the books it leads me to.

I can mark off another on the list, LITTLE BEE, by Chris Cleave

Little Bee
This book was hugely successful and there is no mystery to its fate. It’s beautiful.

It’s the story of a Nigerian refugee who stows away from hell on earth in a shipping container bound for England. Adrift as an undocumented alien, Little Bee seeks out the British couple whose one and only interaction with her on a beach in Nigeria changed the lives of all the players forever.

Stunning, funny, insightful, and heart-breaking, LITTLE BEE is simply amazing.

Magpie moments: what catches my writer’s eye in real life

Many to most people are storytellers. It’s what we do, for any number of reasons – to report, to inform, to entertain, to warn, to make it so that everyone who comes after doesn’t have to start at zero. We don’t stand on the shoulders of giants as often as we stand on the shoulders of stories.

But for those of us prone to fiction, for those of us whose reports are things that simply never happened and never will, it’s funny what real life offers up as inspiration.

A few days ago, I was on an airplane. The captain announced that we’d all been good citizens and had got situated and accounted for in record time. He said we’d be able to pull away from the gate a few minutes early. So we did.

As we backed out from the jetway, there was a bit of drumming at the right side of the plane. The clatter was enough to have me say to my seatmate, “Ah, the reassuring banging just before takeoff.”

We laughed.

The plane rolled forward and headed to the runway. The banging didn’t stop. In fact, it picked up tempo and insistence. The flight attendants exchanged quizzical looks over their seatbelt seminar and we all realized, at just about at the same instant, that the frantic thumping was coming from the floor.

The flight attendant sprinted for the cockpit, calling to us as she ran, “Everybody stomp on the floor so he knows we hear him!” Presumably, this would keep him from having a heart attack, the poor soul who had landed himself locked in the undercarriage. He was clearly concerned for his safety or else he really, really, really didn’t want to go to Atlanta for some reason.

The plane stopped and someone let him out. Then we were back to normal and off to the friendly skies.

For fiction writers, there are a lot of embers there, in a lot of genres, glowing away in the heart of that little campfire tale. You could blow on any one of them and spark a story to life.

For me, I was caught on the thought of how adrenaline-spiked that man must have been. How hot did his blood burn when the plane started forward and picked up speed? Was he the sort who would laugh it off over a beer later that day, or is he still having nightmares even now? Did it strengthen his faith in the world, that things usually work out fine, or did it rattle him into a nervous wreck? Does he carpe diem more now, or does he check a dozen times that he’s locked the door and turned off the oven?

And how much mileage does he get out of the story of the day he almost went to Atlanta in the bottom of a 737? Is it enough to change a man?

It’s one of the best things, maybe even the very best thing, about being a fiction writer: the possibilities are endless. That’s also one of the harder things. If anything can happen, well, anything can happen. You have to herd those cats and bend the focus onto a rail that makes a beginning, a middle, and The End.

You have to wear blinders to keep on task, but also know when to snatch them off when you’re stuck or the plot is getting stale. You have to pick the right words to make the writing worthy of the imagined thing.

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” It’s true and that’s the hard work of the job. But the fun of the job is getting to be the guy who gets stuck in the belly of a plane without having to be the guy who gets stuck in the belly of a plane.



Some things that happen in life are simply too– too– well, too something to be used in fiction. They’re too stereotypical, too fantastical, too easy, or too impossible to use for representing anything that will look –or feel– like reality on the page.

Art imitates life every day, just as it should. But my art is only allowed to imitate my life when it won’t make me look like a hack. Maybe some writers who are bolder or more limber than I am can work their weirder moments into their stories, but I hold my stranger-than-fiction close. I hoard it because it keeps me alert. It keeps me wondering.

Since I’ll never make fiction of the little-big weirdness that happened at Oteen in May of 2006, I will tell you a true story instead, every word exactly as it happened to me. In the end, perhaps you’ll agree –or not– that rendering this little episode in a novel would be a mistake. It’s only a good story (or a shuddery one) because it really happened.

In the spring of 2006, I had just set my household in order after an extended out-of-state move. We’d finally hit a stride as a family and by early May, the new house felt like home. I knew where I was going and what I was doing. Winter was gone, summer was coming. And the old Oteen hospital was weighing on my mind.

When we’d first come to Asheville, we’d rented an apartment. We didn’t know which end of town would put our house money to the best use, so rolling the unfamiliar roads became a hobby of mine, criss-crossing the entire town, trying to get my home compass fluttering.

There had been a house for sale on the side of a mountain in the Riceville area. Ultimately though, the driveway up to that chalet-inspired deal-of-the-century daunted me. Three times I drove out there and three times I lacked the courage to point my car up a thirty degree slope with switchbacks. (Eleven years later, I find this very funny. After a while, you get used to the driveways around here.)

On the way to the house-I-never-saw, at the flat stretch after the first rise on Riceville Road, is the yellow stucco husk of the old Oteen hospital, a fixture on that spot since the late 1800s. Originally, it was a standard wooden construction of the period, a tuberculosis sanitarium in a time when the doctors believed that Asheville’s air was restorative.

Eventually it was rebuilt as a military hospital and became part of the Veteran’s Administration before falling into disuse after the construction of a more modern complex of facilities across the street. The beautiful Georgian Revival building was abandoned in the mid-1980s, and so was demoted to “the old Oteen hospital”.

oteen5 (250x184)

The fate of the structure was debated over twenty years while the asbestos in the old walls crumbled to poison flour on the floor. The windows broke (or more likely were broken) and the wiring licked through the cave-ins, as the years wore through the ceilings. Damp plaster moldered, green to black, and a wave of rust chewed red holes into the abandoned fixtures.

The woods behind Oteen crept closer. With no chainsaw or lawnmower to discourage them, the tentative strokes of vines and branches eventually exploded into a slithering frenzy over the façade.

Truly, the disintegration of Oteen was documentable. You could measure it and photograph it and shake your head over it. But the dread of the place, the full effect of standing there in the cold sigh of crazy as it poured over the gaping windowsills is something you just had to experience. Not one person I have ever led up there has proved immune to it.


As for me, I’m an unbeliever–with margins. Since my wisdom teeth grew in, I have never been able to sustain any conviction of the paranormal for longer than it took my heart to stop pounding in my ears after a bump in the night. But I have, at times, courted that bump in the night. I’ve sought it out in the weird hope that I could tarry for a while in those margins, maybe even live there part-time in the wondrous, shivery doubt of what if.

The fear that there’s something out there, something more, is also the hope of it. More, after all, is more, no matter what they say about less.

I wanted pictures of Oteen before some civic-minded someone finally got around to it and undid the projection of a hundred years of sickness, suffering, and war-dreams. The building had transcended eyesore–all of that trauma corralled within its walls, groomed into a monument by abandonment and two decades of neglect. There had been plenty of time for Oteen to ferment an aura that was potent enough to raise chills on even someone like me, someone a little numb to these things.

A shave and a haircut would surely civilize the place. A committee would dispatch a bureaucratic tailor to Riceville Road to recut the building’s straightjacket into a respectable blazer with a museum badge on it. But I wanted to preserve, as best my camera could, the way Oteen seemed to me. So on a brilliant spring day, I gathered up my purse and my Kodak and headed out.

I also brought with me my three year old daughter. And she brought Lovey.

Lovey has been with us since Rianne was two months old. You can see him here in this early photo, but what I realized in locating this picture is that if you look carefully, he’s somewhere in almost every photo of her until she was old enough to go to school. Lovey was draped across her eyes to shield her from her first dentist as he leaned in with gloved hands and a babytooth-ogling mirror. Lovey still comes with us on vacation. And there is some discussion of who will take custody of Lovey when Rianne goes off to college.

Lovey is family, but he has never been – with only one notable departure – anything but a stuffed toy.


I parked us in the middle of the service road that ran alongside the old hospital. I had no fear of interrupting any actual service to the building. Service was a long-dead concept at Oteen, probably last administered on-site by the fencing company that had blocked off the entrances.

A KEEP OUT sign had been hung on the chainlink, a warning to every single nobody who would listen. I suppose it had been a service of sorts to advise caution, but hooligans had long since cut a slit through the barricade.

I circled the north end of the building and back around, weighing up the sooty planes and angles for a shot that would stand in on photo paper for the hum of unease that broadcast from the place.

I had to rein myself in, paced to small, slow steps so that my littlest could keep up. She was attached to my right leg by a handful of cargo pants gripped in one dimpled fist. Lovey lolled in his usual pose, pinned into the crook of her other arm, so that she had him close to her heart while maintaining easy access to her thumb. This shining morning, as always, she was my silent child, a sweet cipher in a chattering world – head full of thoughts, mouth full of thumb.

I found my first shot and uncapped the lens. The screens of the porch fluttered in artful shreds around the rotted frames. I was restless before I’d even started, disappointed in advance of the shutter click. I already knew that the errand was an inevitable failure.

I had wanted to snare the vampire mood of Oteen, but it would be invisible in its photo reflection. I knew it even before I pressed the button: the photos would fall short. There would be no catching the spell of this place for memory. And I was right, but I was also wrong.


In the end, it wasn’t me who bottled the lightning. It sure as hell wasn’t the camera. And I don’t know what or whom to credit (or blame) for my three-year-old’s short string of rare complete sentences. She popped her thumb out of her mouth and tugged down on my pantsleg, then said the first – and only – disassociative thing she’s ever uttered.

“Lovey says there are ghosts here. Can I wait in the car?”

My instinct bucked and stampeded from its hidey hole somewhere up under my ribs, and it scared up a herd of stinging chills over my arms and shoulders. There was a riot in my head.

Calm on the outside, earthquake on the inside, I escorted my child’s request to its carseat. I was humoring her, maybe, or parenting with kindness. Yes, that was more the thing. The experts say you should respect a child’s fears, you should resist belittling her concerns— except that she didn’t look scared. She didn’t even look worried. She looked matter-of-factly fine: thumb back in place, head down, watching her own chubby legs pistoning away.

She was completely unfazed by stumping back to the car in pleasant resignation to the instructions of a fabric and rattle-headed comfort toy.

What did she know that I didn’t? But there’s no such thing. There aren’t any ghosts, and there’s no psychic warning so urgent that it sparks messages for us in the stuffing behind sweet little stitched eyes. Surely Lovey doesn’t have an opinion… Surely not.

Then I tried to go back and take the pictures anyway. I snapped a few hurried shots, but I never made it all the way to the dark side, into the gloom behind the hospital where the healthy trees on the outside of the fence dangled dying branches over the Oteen side. I couldn’t do it. Out of sight felt perilously like inviting myself out of my mind.

So I went home.

Perhaps there are ghosts at Oteen. Perhaps the restoration or demolition of the place will someday sweep them out. But when I’m not dabbling in the open space around my good sense, I doubt that there are any spirits there.

But the one thing I can never work down to a comfortable answer, the one thing that keeps this little exchange forever at hand in my memory, is how Rianne even knew the word or concept of “ghost” at that tender age.

I was extremely careful of what my children saw and heard for entertainment. We didn’t do even fluffy versions of the macabre. We hadn’t made any friends in Asheville yet, so there hadn’t been any playdates. She didn’t yet go to school. It was well many years after the Oteen incident before I introduced either of the girls to anything remotely spooky. They’d never even seen an episode of Scooby Doo.

This wasn’t because I was an unbeliever merely rubbishing what I usually think of as nonsense. It wasn’t even for the nobler reason of bubble-wrapping their fragile little psyches against the heebie-jeebies. No. It was all selfishness that kept the bedtime stories sunnier and the Halloween costumes friendly. I simply had no desire to be awakened in the middle of the night to chase the monsters out of the closets.

And for the most part – even on that night – it worked for Rianne, if not quite as well for me.

As for Lovey, our erstwhile ally in the margins, he has never imparted any further wisdom since May of 2006. He’s also never asked for anything to eat, or suggested an activity for the family’s downtime, or requested a song on the stereo in the car. And that’s a good thing. Lovey is sitting on Rianne’s bed even now, benignly mute, as he damned well should be.

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(Sadly, the few not-terribly-good photos I took of Oteen that day were lost in a computer crash years ago. The fantastic photos here are used, with permission. Thanks to Stephanie Rogers of Trances and Portents.)