I sat there staring down at the old concrete tabletop while the fingertips of my right hand moved lightly across its surface. Its gritty and bumpy surface tingled my senses, and little bolts of electricity shot up my arm as I slowly moved my hand back and forth. This table is similar to that of a picnic table, but it’s only for four people. It was obviously built to last with its solid three-inch-thick slab on top. Taking a closer look at the worn finish, I could see little pebbles had probably been there for as long as I’ve been alive. Yes, that’s been a while, since I can remember as a small child watching television when man first landed on the Moon. That was 1969, and it was an oversized black-and-white console television. In those days, TVs were like a piece of furniture.
I was becoming lost in my own thoughts, sitting here in prison. I felt just like one of those little pebbles. Helplessly stuck in time, on the surface between here and there. Where the outside world was plain enough to see but is held just out of my reach.
The early morning calm of the prison yard is my favorite part of the day. Very few inmates are out and about at this time, so it’s usually quiet.
With Iowa’s hot and humid summer days, it can be miserable inside without air-conditioning. I welcome a breath of fresh air early in the morning. It’s a time to relax and quiet down my troubled thoughts. A time to just be.
My mind came back to this table, my fingertips still mindlessly floating across its surface. Stopping my hand, I turned my head to look around the prison yard. It was mostly behind me. I noticed it had a gradual slope downward from east to west. I could see several other similar looking tables located at different spots throughout the yard. They seemed randomly placed with no logical pattern. The size of the yard within the fence I would guess to be two or three football fields side by side. I think it’s set up like most other prisons. A weight yard, a ball diamond, basketball and handball courts, sand volleyball, horseshoe pits, and a few mature trees that looked as old as these tables. Around the perimeter there is a sidewalk that runs along the fence. It is said to be a quarter of a mile long for one round trip.
Sitting at the farthest tables away from any of the structures, I was still cast in the shadow of the oldest building here.
The imposing four-story structure for rural Iowa was built with large gray block stones. The plainness of the architecture gives it a stark loneliness. Positioned on top of the hill, its huge rectangular shape blocked out the early morning sun. At that moment, it seemed that something dark and mysterious was held inside the walls. Administration offices I think.
My name is Wayne Conrad and I remember years ago, as a small child, riding down here with my parents. My older sister Sue and my little brother Eugene were in the backseat with me. We all were on a road trip for some reason. Home was about fifty miles behind us. Why we came to the city of Mt. Pleasant I do not recall. At a certain point, we drove by some large buildings. Dad raised off the steering wheel and pointed in their direction. “That place over there, kids, is known as the state’s mental hospital, a place where they put all the crazy people. Otherwise known as the loony bin.”
Silence hung in the air for a moment as we all turned and looked with a detached wonder of what that meant. Mom was quick to negate Dad’s statement with a slap on his shoulder and a comment. “Now Andy, don’t talk like that. Those people have their own problems.”
Then my sister leaned over towards me and said with a laugh, “Wayne, you’ll probably end up there someday.”
Shaking off the cryptic truth of that memory, reality hits me hard. That mental hospital later became the prison that I now reside in. The state just changed the buildings’ purpose, and now, here I sit.
With a heavy breath, I wonder what sort of things happened here way back then? Did they manipulate or experiment on the patients who lived here? The building seems more ominous now. I admit, my only real knowledge of mental institutions comes from movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Maybe this place had their own version of Nurse Ratchet.
I know I’m putting my presumptions and biases on people’s lives whom I could never meet. Probably because most of them are dead. In contemplating someone else’s past, I wondered who might’ve sat right here where I’m at, all those years ago?
At the sound of approaching footsteps, my eyes raised up to the sidewalk, but I saw no one close by. I shrugged it off then looked straight ahead of me. I didn’t even notice the chain-link perimeter fence right in front of me. My gaze went beyond the fence as I clasped my hands together and leaned forward on my elbows. I was focusing on the distant landscape. What I saw was an open field about 200 yards deep and about half as wide. Surrounding it was an impenetrable wall of mature trees in the shape of a horseshoe. As I studied them, I could see many sprawling oaks, an assortment of maples, some unattractive elm trees, several large ash, and mixed into the fold were the defiant towering spires of evergreens pointing powerfully towards the sky above all others around them.
The more I studied this piece of land, the more my mind began to form the vision I had for my future. A secluded acreage in the country. A small one-story home tucked away next to the trees in the back of the lot. A long winding driveway. A place where family and friends would enjoy coming over for special occasions or just to visit. Maybe the grandkids would chase the butterflies. But more likely, they’d be riding their dirt bikes. Me, I’d have a sweet loving woman by my side and . . .
At that point I thought I heard someone’s voice. Then, all of a sudden, my daydream vanished and the fence reappeared right in front of me again. The distraction had brought me back to the here and now. I could see no one around me. Even though this is an all-male prison, the voice I heard sounded like a female’s. Was my daydream that powerful—that I was hearing things? Maybe it was a mix of different sounds carried by the wind from some distant place.
As I rationalized that it must have been my imagination, for an instant I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Maybe it was someone on the sidewalk. When I turned to look in that direction, there was nothing there. A little perplexed, I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. I began to wonder if this place was making me a little crazy? I stood up and paced around for a few moments. Stretching my legs to get the blood flowing. I began talking to myself—I rationalized since I missed having a meaningful relationship with a woman and have often wondered who I’ll meet when I return to the real world. That must be why I thought I heard a woman’s voice at that moment or—I don’t know.
Settling back down at the table, I began to plan my day. I needed to start working on a birthday card for a friend. I also want to write my brother a letter to let him know what’s been happening around here for the last few weeks.
Then out of the thin air of the morning breeze, again I heard that female’s voice. Faintly carried on the moving waves of the wind, to my ears. Like a soft whisper I heard the words, “Don’t try . . . to look . . . at me.”
But by natural instinct my eyes began darting around looking for the source of those words. Again, I didn’t see anything. Confused, I kept searching for some way to explain myself. Coming up empty-handed, I croaked out a response, “What, what’s going on here, who’s there?” Hearing my own words, I thought to myself, surely I’m losing it. Still, I saw nothing.
“Relax,” the voice called out just a little louder, “You’re not losing it . . . look straight ahead . . . like you were . . . a moment ago . . . and I’ll explain.”
Her voice was strangely calming and bewildering to me. No one else was around so I gave in to her instructions. Though I felt a little silly for listening to an invisible source. I wondered who or what’s in my head?
“Now can you see me?” her voice was becoming clearer now. My eyes started looking around all over again.
“What kind of game is this?” I asked with frustration. “Why don’t you show yourself?”
“I’m right here, Wayne, in the corner of your eye, at the edge of your sight. That’s the only place you can see me, though I’m not sure why. So turn back to the fence and look straight in front of you. I’m that something on the left side of your peripheral vision. You cannot look directly at me,” she insisted.
“Okay,” I slowly answered. “Yes . . . now I can see you over there.” She looked to be about thirty feet away from me, up on the sidewalk. Then out of pure habit I turned to face her and she disappeared again.
“Where did you go? Why all this trickery? Are you even real?” I gasped out the words.
I could hear a soft murmur of a laugh as she said, “Yes, Wayne, I am real—I’m talking to you aren’t I? You just can’t look directly at me, that’s part of my reality.”
Reluctantly, I looked straight at the fence again. She reappeared off to my left just like before. It was hard to define her features, and the urge to turn and look at her was overwhelming, but I held my eyes, unmoving.
“Who are you? Are you a ghost? How did you know my name? Can other people see or hear you?” I asked her in rapid-fire excitement.
“My name is Andrea Know, and only you can see me. You see, I used to sit at that same table many years ago. I would sit there and get lost in my daydreams just as you do. As a way to escape this place. I am not a ghost as you might think, but rather a memory from the past,” she explained. “I died here forty-eight years ago at the age of nineteen. The year was 1972. I am only here when the memory is active.”
Hearing all that, I only had more questions for her, but she quickly changed the subject. With a sense of urgency, she said, “My time is about up for today, I must be going.”
Raising my voice, I repeated her words: “Your time is about up?”
Then her words sounded like a man’s voice that came thundering toward me. “When you say something like that to me, you better be ready to back it up, pal.”
I turned my head in shock to find the stout, hulking figure everybody here knew as Bulldog. He was walking with one of his friends on the sidewalk. I’m sure the color drained from my face as I realized I had spoken these words at the wrong time.
Bulldog was muscle-bound—too many years in the weight yard. His arms wouldn’t even fall down naturally to his sides, they were so big. His head looked like it had been screwed directly into his shoulder muscles leaving no trace of a neck. His jaw was set square, his face muscles were tight, and his dark, penetrating eyes were set deep under his brows. His hands were slowly flexing open and closed as if they were the moving parts of a machine.
“Uh, no!” I quickly replied. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
Andrea hurriedly said, “Wayne, I can’t explain it all right now. The memory I live in is about over.” She began to fade.
“So now you’re just a memory, fading away?” I said with a little disgust.
“You calling me a memory now, Old School? Maybe I should make sure this little memory doesn’t fade away anytime soon for you.” Bulldog now stepped off the sidewalk and moved closer to me. His menacing shape looked like a cobra about to strike.
“No, you don’t understand, Bulldog,” I said, trying to diffuse his agitation.
“You believe this guy?” he said to his friend. “Now he’s calling me stupid.”
“Not at all,” I tried to explain as I stood up to meet him. “I’m just talking through some problems.”
“Oh you got problems all right,” he countered.
“Listen to me,” Andrea interjected. “Come back here tomorrow . . . at the same time. I’ll be . . . here. I need your . . . help,” she said, as her voice faded away.
“Where are you going? You want to meet me here tomorrow?” I said in an uneasy voice as I turned my eyes back to the fence. But Bulldog’s voice brought me back to my reality.
“I’m not going anywhere dude, why do you want to wait until tomorrow? You’re speaking tough words right now.” Taking a step closer to me, Bulldog demanded, “I’m right here right now Mister Mouth.”
We were face to face and I felt an impending doom inside me that sickened my soul.
He continued to spit out more words, not giving me a chance to speak. “First, you tell me my time is up, then you call me a memory, even accuse me of being stupid, and now you call me out, but want to put it off until tomorrow? What’s wrong with you?” While he was summarizing his understanding of the situation, his friend had moved into a position that blocked the security camera’s view. By the time I realized this—with the quickness of a snakebite—I was struck. Bulldog’s fist sank deep into my stomach. Knocking the wind from my lungs and throwing my thoughts back to junior high—the last time this had happened. And just like then, my mouth hung open, my face was frozen in horror, and no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to inhale. Back then, I got socked in the gut for talking to some other kid’s girlfriend. He was a bully just like Bulldog. In an instant, my legs gave way, and I collapsed back down to my sitting position at the table. Struggling for air, I turned and leaned over the table gasping like a fish out of water. I slowly got my lungs back. By this time the two of them had headed back to the sidewalk. Bulldog turned and said with a grimace, “Have a nice day, Old School, and watch that mouth of yours.”
I wanted to explain, but now he’d never believe my story—I wasn’t really sure I did. So I just raised my hand and gave a nod of my head, still working on catching my breath. What a jerk, I thought to myself.
The rest of the day was a blur. I couldn’t focus on anything I had planned to get done. Andrea’s image and words just kept replaying in my head, which made a thousand more questions swirl around in my brain. I was useless for normal conversation with my friends, too. I chose to keep my experience to myself. Who would believe it anyway? I returned several times to that same table throughout the day only to find that everything seemed ordinary. She was nowhere to be found.
Finally, the next morning rolled around, and once again, I made my way outside. Walking over to the table in question, it looked to be another great day. Then I remembered that gut punch I received yesterday. That reminded me to be more mindful of what and when I’m speaking out loud to Andrea, if she even shows up. That whole episode yesterday, as weird as it seems—to think that a memory could talk to anyone, let alone me. It doesn’t even seem real today, but here I am, just as she instructed me, more out of curiosity of something unnatural than just merely following her orders.
Taking a few deep breaths, I sat and stared at the fence. Sipping my hot coffee, I wondered if she’d show up at all. I let my mind wander back to that piece of land. To my surprise there were a couple of deer grazing on some grass at the farthest point, back by the tree line. Looks like they were enjoying the morning, too.
Then, just like she had promised, she appeared in the corner of my eye once again. “Oh good,” she said, “you’re here. Good morning, Wayne.” As she spoke her image grew larger as she walked toward me, staying at the edge of my sight. I tried to get a better look a couple of times but she only disappeared, so I forced myself to keep my eyes forward. Her details became a little clearer the closer she came. I could see she had straight black hair. It was shoulder length with a slight curl outward at the ends. Her face revealed her youth, and her eyes and smile seemed to sparkle with happiness. She was draped in a white robe.
“Good morning to you, Andrea, I’ve thought of a few more questions for you today,” I responded with my own smile.
Only a few feet away she held up her hand to stop me and kept walking right past me, out of my sight. Then, I felt a slight pressure on my left shoulder like maybe her hand. She continued talking: “You know, Wayne, it’s been a very long time since I was able to sit with somebody at this table.” As she finished that statement, she appeared at my right side, sitting next to me. Her face was very close to mine, and I could feel her left arm now resting across my shoulders. Her head was slightly tilted forward so one side of her hair hung down away from her face as she looked at me, smiling. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was trying to flirt with me a little. She leaned in toward me a little closer and said, “I like you Wayne—sorry about yesterday, I hope you’re okay.” Then she surprised me with a kiss on my cheek and gave me a mischievous smile as if to say, What’d you think about that? Her gesture made my cheek tingle, and it spread into little bolts of electricity that shot across my face and down my spine. She was considerably younger than I, and even though she was only a memory, I felt awkward, a little disturbed, and excited all at the same time.
Before I could form a response, she said, “I know what you’re thinking, Wayne, I’m not a child. I may look like I’m nineteen, but I’m actually older than you.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I don’t have a lot of time, so let me pick up where I left off yesterday.” Moving her arm off my shoulder, she continued. “Like I said, I am a memory. I only exist when that memory is active. You see, I have a twin sister who is still alive. She is sixty-seven years old, and so am I. She used to visit me here when I was alive. We’d sit at this very table and talk for hours. But for the last several years, around this time of day, she has been having her morning coffee. She sits at her kitchen table and looks at pictures of us together. Pictures that were taken at this very table. Her only thoughts about me are of being here in this place. I come into existence when she is remembering me. Hence, the memory is alive, the memory is me. She’s got me stuck here, that’s why I need your help.”
I nodded my head, listening to this unbelievable story. As her words and their meaning caught up with me, I said, “Wait—what?”
“I can’t explain how this happened.” As she continued becoming more animated, I could see her hair bouncing around a little as she spoke. “Maybe it’s the known fact that twins share a unique connection with each other. Or maybe it was due to all the different medications they gave me—god knows there were a lot of them. Or maybe it was the horrifying shock therapy sessions they performed on me. Maybe that messed up all my neural pathways in my brain causing some unknown result. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things, I don’t know. But whatever the reason . . . ” She paused for a second to move her left arm over my right arm and then slid her hand into mine. Leaning against my shoulder at the same time, she gave my hand a little squeeze. It was like flipping a switch—a connection had been made, but it was one that was unfamiliar to me. Different from any other human touch. It was a very odd feeling, in part because it was hard to remember that this young lady was actually nine years my senior.
I could see that her eyes were looking at mine as she said, “Wayne, you are here now, and you can help me.”
“How can I possibly help you?” I asked with wonder.
“If my sister knew that her memory of me brings me back to life—so to speak. Then if she would only create the memory of me being with her in current time, in her home, we could be together, like this, for the rest of her life. She just doesn’t know that all this is possible. Her memories of me are stuck in the past,” she concluded, with a little despair.
“That’s incredible,” I responded. “I’ve never heard anything like this ever happening before. I still don’t understand how I can help? How did you come to choose me out of all the people that have come and gone over the years?”
“You and I are similar,” she said. “We’re daydream believers; we have imaginative and creative minds. I also know your heart, Wayne. You might’ve done some wrong things in the past that landed you here, but deep down you are a good person. That’s why I believe you will help me. I need you to mail my sister a letter and explain to her everything I’ve shown and told you. Explain the table to her and how you know she has pictures of me and her sitting at this table. Her name is Amber Knox—no wait—she was married, but now she’s a widow. Her last name is Langstraat. Tell her to think of me being with her in her home instead of here.
“Wow,” I exclaimed. “A chance to be involved in a strange story where I can help reunite long-lost sisters? If that’s all it will take, how can I resist? What’s her address?”
As she gave me the address her words began to fade. “My time’s almost up again, I can feel it,” she said.
“I’ll get the letter sent out today, Andrea”
I could barely hear her say, “I’ll see . . . you . . . tomorrow.” Her words drifted away and then she was gone. I felt the heaviness of being in prison return as my shoulders slumped a little, and I pondered what I had just experienced.
Over the next week and a half, we talked every morning at the table. Andrea continued being affectionate to me, and I didn’t mind. She’d sit next to me at the table and once in a while I’d try to get a glimpse of her hand in mine. It, and her arm, would disappear—yet she’d remain. It was the strangest thing. I was grateful that the closer she was to me the better I could see her. I was always cautious that I was never seen by the other inmates in what would seem to be me talking to myself. We shared stories about our lives, we laughed, and sometimes we even cried. She explained how she ended up as a patient in this place at the age of sixteen, and how difficult her childhood had been. She recalled how it was the irresponsibility of the staff that resulted in her death. The anticipation of being reunited with her twin sister dominated a lot of our conversations. Always in the background, I dreaded the thought of her going away. I had become quite fond of Miss Knox, even if she was only a memory.
To my surprise, Andrea told me there were others like her who were also stuck here as memories. She introduced a few of them to me and asked if I would help them get reunited with their families. Of course I would—how could I refuse?
Then, one day, she never showed up again. She was gone for good this time. Though I was sad to see her go—and I might’ve shed a tear or two in her absence—we both knew this day would come. I smiled at the thought of her being back with family once again. I’ll never forget her.
A year has passed by now since I first met Andrea Knox. So far, I have helped four other memories find their way home to their loved ones.
To my happy surprise, Andrea’s sister has written me a couple of times since her departure. It was a secret world that we shared, believing in a memory that was her sister. Apparently as Amber and Andrea were reunited, it took only a few short days for Andrea to grow older. She eventually matched her twin sister’s age and her looks—complete with mostly-gray hair now.
I will always wish I could’ve seen Andrea one more time, but as the saying goes, “You can never go back,” and neither could Andrea. She was right on the edge of reality to me.
I still don’t know who I could tell this amazing story to, so I’ll just keep it here in my notebook, the one about all my experiences I’ve had in prison.
I still daydream about my future, and I know it’s getting closer. I, too, will be reunited with my loved ones one day.