Below is the first chapter of my debut crime thriller, Unhinged.
Nobody heard the guttural, agonized moan rising from the bowels of Amy Forsythe’s Webster Hall dorm room. The 1993 Christmas break had all but emptied the Montclair State University campus, leaving Amy as one of a small handful holed up in the all-female residence hall. The frigid wind prowling the campus gusted and whistled around the corner just past her window. Manhattan stood in frozen silence eighteen miles to the east.
Amy staggered, pressing her back against the wall and reaching with trembling arms to steady herself. Tree branches swayed outside her third-floor window, and their shadows brushed the moonlit walls. Another wave of abdominal cramping threatened, and Amy hunched over with grim anticipation. Her long brown hair hung in her face, damp with a sweat that had grown cold.
Something was wrong. And she was scared.
She willed herself to keep moving, her abdomen biting at her with every half step. Sweat pinned her nightgown to the small of her back and her armpits, and the rest of her slender frame wasn’t far behind. Making her way in the dark, her next step brought a shock of cold to her right foot as she stepped off the rug and onto the vinyl flooring. She knew she was across from her desk and near the overhead light switch. She groped with splayed fingers before the knuckle of her right pinky finger found the switchplate, then the switch, and flipped it up. The light was blinding, and Amy turned her head and squinted until her eyes adjusted.
They found focus on the twin beds. Hers was the disheveled twin on the right, to which she had no immediate plans to return. There would be no riding this out. She gasped as the biting graduated to a white-hot pain knifing through her. Her mind may have still been numb from the positive pregnancy test ten weeks ago, but her body had pressed ahead without her.
I don’t want to die.
She steeled herself and turned back toward the front door, catching a glimpse of her right hand. Given what she had been through for the past hour or more, the blood-smeared, trembling hand that lingered on the switch plate was no surprise to her.
Still trying to steady herself, her gaze drifted until it settled on the collage hanging on the wall above her desk. Mom, Dad, and friends looked content, their smiles, laughs, and hugs frozen in time. In the early days following the breakup—and preceding the pregnancy test—she would sit and stare at it, taking in every last detail of every photo, getting lost in their moments before the fear and isolation returned to reclaim her. Pain was the special guest star tonight, and the collage never looked more like just a bunch of pictures than it did now.
Amy’s gaze fell to her desk, where her cordless phone rested in its charger. She had, for a nanosecond, considered taking it into the bathroom with her at the onset of her fifth wave of cramping. But the bleeding hadn’t been all that heavy then. If she wanted the phone now, she’d have to walk on fire to get to it.
She took a few deep breaths to psyche herself for the effort. Her abdomen took on a life of its own, banding and squeezing in ways she’d never imagined possible. She cried out and her knees buckled. The wall was all that was keeping her upright. A deeper, colder sweat licked her skin. She saw stars, and they multiplied at an alarming rate, whiting her vision…
Now or never.
She pushed herself away from the wall and dove toward the desk, fighting to stay on her feet. The pain bit into her with the ferocity of a goring tusk.
Game, set, and match.
No more stars, just darkness and a feeling of slow, weightless descent…
The double doors to the Mountainside Hospital emergency room shot open and birthed the gurney with Amy strapped in. The paramedics called out her vitals to the emergency room nurses and physician as all rushed down the corridor with the precision of a luge team. Amy heard them describe her as in and out of consciousness, and in her dazed state, she wondered which was the case now? The fluorescent lights whipped past overhead, shadowing and silhouetting their faces. Her eyes settled on a familiar-looking young man. She furrowed her brow and tried to form the word. A single syllable escaped her lips twice before she again succumbed to the darkness.
She awakened to the steady beat of her own pulse, opening her eyes and finding focus on the greenish-yellow blip of the heart monitor. Thin bands of florescent lighting bled in from the hallway, offering just enough light to map the confines of the hospital room. From the dull ache in her nether region and the intravenous line in her right forearm, she guessed that she was on the really good stuff. There were gaps in her memory: she had passed out in her dorm room, followed by the gurney ride, and, of course waking up—or was it regaining consciousness? Did it even matter? She’d felt like she was dying, and passing out had been a merciful act on her body’s part.
She craned her neck for a view of her abdomen, but a gnawing sensation forced her to reconsider. Glancing to her right, she spied the bed’s remote hanging from the bed frame. She steeled herself for pain and reached for it, careful not to twist or pinch the intravenous lines in her right arm. Palming the remote, she slid her index finger onto the nearest button and pressed. The bed rose four inches before Amy released it, fearing the return of the goring tusk. She glanced down at her abdomen and, with the lightest of touches, felt the bandages beneath her hospital gown. Did I have surgery?? The heart monitor registered her quickening pulse before a couple of deep breaths returned it to a calmer rhythm.
Just a little higher.
Amy pressed the button again, raising the bed another two inches. A bit of pressure built in her midsection at this angle, but no pain.
“Not too much, now, honey,” a deep, feminine voice called from the doorway.
Amy flailed, fumbling the remote and sending it clanging against the bed frame. Her legs kicked the blanket up, the dull ache in her nether region spiking to a blunt pain before subsiding. The heart monitor chastised her in staccato fashion, and she shot a glance toward the door, but the nurse’s silhouette towered at her bedside. Amy’s gaze traveled up her body, and she figured her to be approaching six feet tall. The light above the bed switched on, and a kind, gentle face gazed back at her.
“That better? Sorry I startled you. You’re in Mountainside Hospital in Montclair. My name is Celia, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. I’m just making my rounds. Would you like some—”
“How did I get here?”
“Your floor monitor, Yolanda, found you and called an ambulance. She also gave us the number for Graham Forsythe. Your father?”
Amy furrowed her brow and said, “He’s overseas on business.”
“Well, we got a hold of him, and he’s taking the first flight home. That’s my kind of dad.”
Amy nodded her agreement. The thought of her father flying home from London to be at her side brought tears to her eyes. He was always there for her, but this was huge. She felt a pang of guilt at disrupting an important business trip, but he’d dismiss that thought as pure nonsense. No business was more important than family business.
“If I have it right, mom is deceased?” Celia asked.
“Yes, long time ago,” Amy said. She had lost her mom in her teens, and she had felt her absence more acutely in the past few months than ever before. Amy touched her bandaged midsection with her fingertip. “What happened to me?”
“You had emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy.”
“Ectopic?” Amy asked. She had no idea what it meant, but it sounded… what was the right word?
“That’s where the egg grows outside of the uterus or, in your case, your cervix. It can be very painful, and in rare cases, life-threatening. Were you working with an OB/GYN?”
Amy shook her head in sheepish acknowledgment that she did not.
“We have several on staff here, if you need a recommendation. You’ll want to continue your care with a licensed professional once you’re discharged. You were in pretty serious condition when they brought you in, but you’re going to be fine. I am sorry for your loss.”
Those last words hung in the air, and Amy felt a rush of emotions through the haze of the narcotics. She was grateful to be alive, and she regretted keeping her pregnancy secret. It had almost cost her life, and her unborn child had not survived. Pangs of remorse and shame tugged at her. The deep sense of comfort her dad flying home gave her was tempered by the thought of explaining the last few months to him. Amy blinked away tears. Celia lifted a tissue box from the rolling table and offered it to her.
“Would you like a few moments alone?”
She shook her head.
“All right. First things first.”
Celia reached across Amy for the remote. The top of Amy’s head tingled, and a sensation of being outside of her own body overwhelmed her…
The lifeless body of a young lady in her late teens, jammed awkwardly and partially buried in a crawl space. Still wearing her thin red pinstriped waitress uniform.
“Oh my God,” Amy blurted through tears. She squeezed her eyes shut, but that did nothing to diminish the image in her mind’s eye. It lingered for several seconds, then was gone.
Celia backed away, her brow furrowed.
“I bump you, sweetie? I’m sorry—”
“It’s not you,” Amy said, adding, “I saw something and…”
Amy’s eyes darted about the room, half expecting the dead teen to have materialized at the foot of her bed, or in the corridor, or just outside her window. Celia followed Amy’s gaze around the room, puzzled, before she looked back at her patient.
Amy had no doubt about what she saw, and absolutely no idea how. Maybe it was a hallucination? A reaction to the sedative? Was she dreaming all of this?
“I saw a… dead woman. Late teens, in a waitressing outfit.”
Celia stared at her with her mouth agape.
“I know how it sounds,” Amy added, wanting no part of an overnight stay in the psychiatric ward.
Celia rallied from her stupor to respond.
“Have you ever experienced a reaction to medication?”
“Not that I can recall,” Amy said. “And I’ve never, ever experienced anything like that before.”
“Let’s hope that’s the last time. I’ll make a note in your chart for the doctor,” Celia said. “Can I bring you back anything?”
“Water, it is.”
Celia hustled out.
Amy took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. She was no psychiatrist, but she doubted she was experiencing a hallucination. And she’d expect a reaction to the sedative would continue as long as she was on it. Not a hallucination and not a reaction. What possibility did that leave open? Celia’s return with a pitcher and a small plastic cup brought a merciful end to her internal monologue. Ice sloshed within the pitcher in rhythm with Celia’s brisk strides. She paused at Amy’s bedside to fill the cup and set the pitcher on the tray table. She glanced at Amy.
“Ready for a sip?”
Celia brought the cup to Amy’s lips, and she took a tentative sip. The cold water felt wonderful inside her mouth and traced a cool path to her empty stomach. Her next sip bore a mouthful, but Celia preempted the third sip by withdrawing the cup.
“Just sip it, honey. We need to slow it down to keep it down.”
Celia brought the cup back to Amy’s lips and she sipped.
“There we go.”
“You’re welcome. How’s the pain?”
“That’s what I like to hear. More?” she asked, bringing the cup toward Amy’s mouth.
“No, thank you,” Amy said with a shake of her head.
Celia set the cup on the tray table.
“Anybody else I should call for you, honey?”
Amy shook her head again. Her best friend and roommate, Dawn Keller, was spending Christmas with her family in New York. She had invited Amy to join them—insisted, as a matter of fact—but Amy found it easier to hide a pregnancy when she didn’t have to look her best friend in the eye as she lied. Though Dawn wouldn’t be one to judge her, Amy was ashamed to tell anyone, and she feared her deception would drive a wrecking ball through their friendship.
“What about Tom?” Celia asked.
“What about him?” Amy asked, her hopes rising. She tried to sound nonchalant, but the heart monitor tattled on her rising pulse rate.
“When they brought you in, you called out for him.”
“I don’t remember doing that.”
“You were in and out of consciousness. When we realized you were pregnant, we thought he might be the father.”
“He is…was,” Amy replied, her voice barely above a whisper. “But he didn’t know.”
“You sure about that, honey?”
“He used protection. It was only… that one time.”
Tom Chambers had been her first. He was tall, dark, and handsome—it sounded cliché, but in the flesh, it was never out of vogue—and she’d been very flattered by his dogged pursuit. They’d dated for a month before he’d invited her home. Home was an upscale neighborhood in Basking Ridge, and though his mom and dad were home, the house was quite large and the walls quite thick. Tom had proven a gentle lover, but he’d grown distant after their lone encounter. The phone calls, the lunches in the Student Center, the pub crawls… everything ceased. Always an excuse, and with time, Amy stopped asking. Right before finals, Amy had spotted Tom leaving the Student Center with a pretty blonde. Sherri, she believed her name was.
Celia spied a tear traveling down Amy’s cheek and pulled another tissue from the tissue box atop the rolling table.
“Thank you,” Amy said as she wiped tears and blew a runny nose.
“You’re welcome. I’m gonna let the doctor know you’re awake. Are you ready for anything more than water?”
“No, thank you.”
“Be right back. You have a call button if you need me,” she said, pointing to it.
Celia left the room. Amy settled back into the silence, wishing the painkillers and sedatives could numb her soul if not cleanse it. She—
“Amy?” a familiar voice said.
She opened her eyes to find Dawn Keller approaching her bedside. Amy burst into tears, but Dawn kept a brave front and embraced her with great care. Her eyes glistened before a renegade tear breached her lower right eyelid.
“It’s okay… it’s okay…”
“I was pregnant,” Amy whispered in her ear.
“I had a feeling. I’m so sorry, Amy. For all you’ve been through.”
“You’re not mad at me?”
“Maybe tomorrow,” she winked, and the overhead light made her brilliant green eyes sparkle. At five foot eight, Dawn was noticed as much for her eyes as for her stature. Her natural beauty didn’t hurt, either. She came from a good family, and her younger sister, Eve, was entering her freshman year at Montclair State. Dawn was fond of saying she embraced her mission in life, which was to coax Amy out of her shell.
Wrecking ball, indeed.
“How did you hear?” Amy asked.
“Yo’ called me.”
Worth her weight in diamonds, that Yolanda. Still…
“I’m sorry to distract you from your family—”
“You’re my family, too.”
“I’m sorry, miss, but visiting hours are over,” Celia said as she entered. “They begin again at eight.”
“Is it okay if I spend the night?” Dawn asked.
“I’m sorry. It’s a liability issue,” Celia said.
“Can I bring some of her clothes back from the dorm? Montclair State is five minutes from here,” Dawn said.
“Thank you,” Dawn said before turning to Amy. “Anything in particular?”
“Something loose fitting. Thanks.”
“Be right back.”
She gave Amy a quick, gentle hug and slipped out.
“You warm enough?” Celia asked as she approached the bed.
“I am, thanks.”
Celia grabbed the remote for the bed and lowered it several inches.
“That better on your abdomen?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Celia cradled Amy’s head and repositioned her pillow beneath it for better support.
“That good, or would you like another one? I know these are kind of thin.”
“Another one would be great.”
Celia’s eyes went to the shelf over Amy’s bed. She leaned forward and reached for an extra pillow, grabbing and fluffing it. Amy’s head tingling returned, and the out-of-body sensation followed…
The dead young lady in the crawl space stares vacantly to the heavens. A glimpse of her nametag: Iris.
“Iris,” Amy read aloud, her body stiff with fear.
Celia continued to fluff the second pillow, slowly shaking her head.
“Iris,” she echoed, her voice distant.
Celia pinned the second pillow to Amy’s face and dropped her considerable girth on Amy’s head, burying it.