CHAPTER TEN - ESCAPE


Catherine, on the journey I felt for the first time as if somehow you were lost to me. I knew you were in danger, and yet I could sense no fear.

                       

I was afraid, Vincent, but I couldn't allow myself to feel the fear.

You didn't want to draw me.

I couldn't.

You sacrifice so much.

I would sacrifice everything for you . . .

"To Reign in Hell" (Written by Gansa & Gordon)

Catherine stood staring out of the large bay window in her room, one hand splayed against the pane of glass as if she could touch the sights and sounds and smells of the world outside. She felt the tension and frustration building within her; and slowly she took a deep breath, held it for a heartbeat, and then exhaled. With the exception of her solemn expression and rigid stance, there were no other outward signs of the struggle she waged within. Within, Catherine was acutely aware of the passage of time. Summer would soon be over, giving way to autumn, and for the past several days, she'd felt a foreboding - an inexplicable sense of urgency that she could not afford to ignore. She had to return to Vincent, and she had to leave now before his growing awareness and her own conflicting emotions alerted him to her presence.

Quickly, Catherine reviewed her options for leaving Pinewillow. In the handful of times that she had actually spoken with the head administrator, Dr. Tallenger, he had made it abundantly clear that in his professional opinion, she was far from being recovered sufficiently to warrant being released. With a snort of derision, Catherine's hand against the window balled into a tight fist of frustration. She was well aware of the doctor's professional opinion, and she knew it for the lie that it was. Granted, she might not be one hundred percent in every area, but she knew her body was fit. And even more importantly, she knew what the others did not - that her memories had returned intact. As for Dr. Daniel Tallenger, it had been obvious for some time that he was no advocate of her release. In fact, the man was downright antagonistic any time she was around. While she could only assume that Dr. Tallenger had concerns he felt were valid, it had gotten to the point where frankly she didn't care what he thought. Yet in eliminating him as an option in authorizing her release, she was left with having to escape the facility by more unorthodox means.

Catherine had known, ever since Vincent's nocturnal visit in her dreams, that in the end she might have to resort to breaking out of the facility; and while she had prepared herself as much as possible, to have it now loom up as her only viable alternative, gave her pause. If she were to be captured, what would prevent Dr. Tallenger from sedating her into complying with his wishes? For that matter, what was there to keep him from doing that right now - especially when he seemed more irrational with each passing day? With a resigned sigh, she accepted that there was no way to put off her escape any longer. The danger was growing, from Dr. Tallenger within the center and from Vincent's burgeoning connection to her from outside of it. In the end, it left her with no decision other than to leave as quickly as possible. Anything else was unthinkable.

So today she had decided to bite the bullet and meet with Betty Carlisle. From the time that she'd returned to the land of the living, Pinewillow's nursing supervisor had been a bastion of support and encouragement, even during those difficult first weeks when she had wanted nothing more than to return to that nameless void in her mind where nothing could touch her. Over the many weeks of daily contact with the nurse, Catherine had come to respect and admire this woman who was doggedly determined to help her get back on her feet. Then, too, Catherine was not ignorant of Betty's intervention on her behalf. She knew that on numerous occasions Betty Carlisle had gone to bat for her against Dr. Tallenger. Catherine had even pieced together that when necessary, Betty had used her own considerable clout to insure that she received the therapy and access to facilities that had sped up her recovery.

Catherine felt a deep sense of gratitude as she acknowledged that she owed a lot to this woman who seemed to desire nothing in return other than to see her patient whole and well again. She was a good woman who certainly didn't deserve the added burden of helping Catherine out of her current predicament. But it was because Catherine knew her to be a good woman that she had decided to ask Betty for her help one final time. And while she knew Betty Carlisle, the caring individual, had few qualms about bending Pinewillow's rules to assist a patient, what she would now ask of her was infinitely more. She would be asking Betty Carlisle, the professional and Supervisor of Nursing of the Pinewillow Convalescent Center, to put her career and professional reputation on the line; to violate virtually every rule established for patient care; to break faith with Dr. Tallenger; and to circumvent the security protocols for which the center was so renowned. Catherine knew from personal experience how difficult a decision that would be for a woman who was truly good at heart. It was something that could not be broken down into a simple matter of right or wrong. Remembering the past, Catherine shook her head. No - such decisions were far more complicated than they appeared.

In her former life as a Helper to Vincent's world and an Assistant District Attorney in her world Above, Catherine had found herself routinely confronted with the gray areas of what was "right" to do. It still pained her to think of her role in sending Kanin back Above to pay for his role in a drunken driving accident that had occurred before he had ever become a part of the community Below. Then there was her aid to Elliot when his father had been targeted for assassination. And inexorably she was pulled back to the memories of the deaths caused by Vincent to protect her life. No, there were no clear cut rules to govern all of life's exigencies. To balance the greater good and survival of the tunnel community against rules of the world Above was a constant battle, and she had come to realize that rules in and of themselves served only as a guide for achieving justice. They seldom constituted justice in and of itself, for in the honest pursuit of doing what was right, one was compelled to consider the people and circumstances. And now she would be placing a good woman in the position of having to do just that.

Catherine had no idea if Betty would be willing to make a decision to help her which would force her to cross professional lines and compromise ethical values of a lifetime. Yet, her need to escape Pinewillow and return to Vincent before it was too late outweighed all other considerations. The alternative was simply too devastating as she recalled what the Vincent of her dreams had predicted would happen once Vincent came to the full realization that she lived. This dark side of Vincent who could transverse the physical properties of reality and enter her dreams knew his other side very well. And so did Catherine. She had no doubt that should he sense the truth of her existence, Vincent would come to rescue her at full roar, with little to no consideration for the consequences to himself. So regardless of the remorse she felt at having to approach Betty Carlisle with her difficult proposition, she knew she had no alternative other than to use every resource she had available to make her way back to Vincent before circumstances took all choices out of her hands.

Thus, with the difficult decision made to enlist Betty's aid - a decision which would ultimately, if all things worked out, lead her back into Vincent's arms - Catherine expected to feel a modicum of relief. Instead, she now found herself mired in a kaleidoscope of unexpected emotions: Anger, unresolved, at the circumstances which had led to her current predicament. Fear that any day now Vincent would become aware of her presence on all levels and attempt to come for her. Frustration at her inability to convince the head administrator, Dr. Tallenger, to release her. Determination honed to a razor sharp edge over the months since she'd first reached out and touched Vincent in her dreams. Faith that she would successfully achieve her release and accomplish the journey to the community Below. And Hope for her future - a future she desperately wanted with Vincent and their child. Taken altogether, the feelings nearly overwhelmed her; but now, more than ever, she couldn't afford to allow conflicting emotions to cloud her judgment. So as she stood in her room and gazed out of the window, she ruthlessly began to push the feelings aside, one by one, until she had finally reached a plateau of calm resolve. In a half hour she would have her meeting with Supervisor of Nursing, Betty Carlisle, and she had no intention of being late. With one last glance out of her window at a world that was, for now, beyond her reach, Catherine left the room.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

"Just give me a moment," Betty called out to Caitland who stood waiting for her in the outer office. Quickly Betty scanned her desk one last time to make sure there was nothing that couldn't wait until she returned, and then grabbing her keys off the desk, ushered Caitland back out into the corridor. Looking at Caitland's somber expression, she was glad she'd decided that they would meet in the center's arboretum. Aside from being the most private place for them to talk, the natural environment was soothing, and from her looks, Caitland could benefit from a calming environment. Frankly, Betty wasn't the least surprised that they were having this meeting. She had been expecting Caitland to seek her out for more than a week - ever since the afternoon of her last physical therapy session. Janet Kelly, the center's physical therapist, had signed off on Caitland's individualized treatment plan, certifying that Caitland had attained each milestone and was physically fit to be dismissed from p.t. In fact, in her closing evaluation, Janet had written that there were no limitations to Caitland's physical activities. Betty still could not fathom how Janet's intention to exit Caitland from further physical therapy had slipped pass Daniel's notice. Regardless of how it had happened, the bottom line was that Caitland had been certified physically fit, and this was simply one more indication that the young woman was well on her way to being fully recovered.

Of course, Daniel was still furious over the incident, but just as before when Caitland first awoke, there were already too many of the staff now aware that she had been released from that portion of her rehabilitation program. There was nothing the illustrious Dr. Daniel Tallenger could do to change that, and this time there was no one for him to fire for incompetence. For Betty, there was still a problem in that she knew Daniel would have liked nothing more than to have stopped Janet Kelly. In fact, Betty had just talked with Daniel that morning about Caitland's case, and as usual, he had summarily dismissed all of her recommendations - especially the one that dealt with initiating exit procedures for Caitland's discharge from Pinewillow. His attitude wasn't logical. It wasn't ethical. And it just made no damn sense. Betty could no longer excuse the doctor, and thus she had agreed to meet with Caitland today. As they entered the arboretum, she was pleased to note that they had the place to themselves. Good. If, as she suspected, Caitland was going to enlist her aid in obtaining her release, the fewer who witnessed their meeting, the better.

In the far corner of the room, there was a concrete bench where they could easily observe the entrance to the arboretum, while several large plants conveniently obscured them from the casual glance. For a moment, neither woman spoke, but it was a comfortable silence which gave Betty time to take a long hard look at her patient. Even the seriousness of her expression could not distract from the fact that the pale, withdrawn woman of four months earlier was now gone. Groomed in the standard workout garb that she preferred, Caitland had regained most of the weight loss during her illness. Her skin glowed and the added weight was reflected in a toned figure, compliments of the weeks of regimented aerobic workouts. The sunlight filtering down from the arboretum's skylights highlighted the mixture of gold and brown in hair that now fell in natural waves past her shoulders, rather than the stringy, tangled locks of weeks past. No one could look at this young woman and deny that she was the picture of health. No one, that is, except for Dr. Daniel Tallenger, Betty thought wryly.

"It's absolutely beautiful, Betty. This is my first time coming here." Caitland finally said, looking around in frank admiration.

"Really? I've spent many a lunch hour here, Caitland. I'm surprised you hadn't visited the gardens before now."

"Well, let's just say I've had other priorities occupying my time," Caitland responded with a hint of a smile.

"Don't I know!" Betty responded while returning her smile. "Still, it's important to maintain balance, whether you're recovering from an illness or just planning out your day. But again, we're not here to talk about how you've been managing your time. I think there are other things we need to get to?"

"Betty, you certainly know how to cut to the chase, but you're right, there are other things we need to talk about. As you might have guessed by now, I'm quite anxious to get released from Pinewillow, but I have the distinct impression that regardless of what I do to prove myself ready, nothing short of an order from the President will get Dr. Tallenger to authorize my discharge."

Betty was silent for a moment, and then she slowly nodded. "I think you're probably correct on that score, Caitland. Still, he does have some valid concerns about you - for example, your missing memories. How wise would it be for you to leave Pinewillow before you understand completely what brought you to us so ill in the first place? You could leave here only to fall victim to the same circumstances again, but this time you might not recover."

Hating to have to drop the truth on her so unexpectedly, Catherine nevertheless looked at her directly and told her, "That's not a concern any longer, Betty. You see, my memories have returned."

With the exception of a widening of her eyes, Betty did not immediately respond to this announcement. Instead, inwardly she pondered on why Caitland's news hadn't really surprised her. Perhaps it was because on a subconscious level she had known all along. Months ago Caitland had ceased to appear as a person lost from her identity. On the heels of that thought came the sudden realization that even as far back as when Caitland's abrupt change had occurred, she had obviously trusted the young woman. Except for a comment here or there as to Caitland's dramatic turnaround, she had ceased to badger her with questions. More surprised by this inner revelation than Caitland's disclosure, she nodded her head for Caitland to continue.

"Betty, my memories returned several months ago . . ." Caitland began.

"When you suddenly began to progress in your treatment plan," Betty murmured more to herself than to Caitland.

"Well, yes. That's when it happened - but you must believe that I never wanted to deceive you. You've been one of few people I can truly count as a friend here. But what I learned about myself and why I was so badly injured made it necessary for me to keep those memories to myself. Even now I can't actually divulge all that I've remembered without putting you at risk. All I can really say is that you were right all along. My life was in great danger, and my arrival here was the result of a failed attempt to kill me. I can only hope that the killers believe I am dead. Still the possibility remains that they may be out there - somewhere. As long as that possibility exists, the less you know about my past, the safer you and everyone here will be."

"But what does all this have to do with your need to leave Pinewillow?" Betty interjected.

Then and there Catherine decided to tell Betty as much of the truth as possible. She deserved that much at least. Yet, frustrated by what she was trying to say, while simultaneously trying not to say too much, Catherine felt her calm begin to slip as she rushed to explain.

"The problem is that along with my memories came the realization that there were people I left behind, some good people, who also undoubtedly think I'm dead now. But there's one person in particular who I must return to - someone who will soon know that I'm alive and whose actions will set in motion a chain of events which may endanger the people I left behind, as well as the people here - not to mention himself. I wish I could say more, but this is the most I can explain about it! I asked to meet with you today, Betty, because I desperately need your help to leave Pinewillow and return to that person before it's too late."

Betty raised an eyebrow at Caitland's sudden outburst. "You do realize that what you just said made absolutely no sense to me; and if I were to do what you're asking, I'd be violating virtually all of the center's rules as an employee without really understanding why."

"Of course I do," Catherine replied with obvious anguish. "I'd never ask this of you if I thought there were any other way for me to leave without your help. But my talks with Dr. Tallenger have pretty much convinced me that he has no intention of discharging me any time soon. He has his agenda, and Betty I have mine. The difference is that time is running out for me, and unless I leave soon, I risk losing everything that has ever meant anything to me. I'll lose what's left of my life outside of Pinewillow."

"And I suppose you can't tell me exactly what the danger is?" Betty asked finally.

"No, I'm afraid I can't. I can only ask that you trust me when I tell you that my presence here could endanger not only me, but everyone here. Betty, I must leave immediately."

"But how will you survive? Where will you stay? How will you protect yourself this time?"

"Please Betty don't worry. I have somewhere to stay, and it's a place where I'll be safe with people who I love and who love me. I'll be protected, Betty, and what's even more important, I'll finally be reunited with my son."

Betty stared at Caitland for a long moment, and finally whispered, "You really do remember everything."

"Yes," she replied quietly.

"Then Caitland . . . is that even your name?"

"No, but it's probably better that we continue to use it."

"Alright then . . . Caitland. I guess we need to make some plans to get you out of here."

Catherine could hardly believe that she had heard her correctly - that Betty was agreeing to assist her on the terms she'd laid out. Suddenly, she desperately needed to understand why Betty would put herself on the line for a patient she'd hardly known for more than a year. Certainly, such generosity of spirit was not unusual for those who lived in Vincent's world, but for Betty Carlisle to put her professional reputation, not to mention her career, on the line without the benefit of knowing the complete story. It was unreal . . . and so hesitantly, she looked at Betty and finally asked.

"Why?"

Betty had the generosity to not pretend that she didn't understand Caitland's question, but for a long while she said nothing, simply stared out at the rows of plants where the sunlight that filtered through the taller trees threw patterns of light on floor before them. Then she looked up at Caitland and smiled.

"It's strange, but I just assumed you'd figured it out since you've finally come to me for help - but no matter - you deserve to know the truth about everything. But Caitland, once I have explained what I know, including my reasons for helping you, I'll need you to give me your word that you won't pursue this any further. It will be a closed chapter in my book, and I need it to be closed with you, as well. Can you agree to this?"

"Betty, no matter what the problem may be, I'll always be grateful to you and Pinewillow for sheltering me when my needs were so great. So yes, I agree. You, Dr. Tallenger, and Pinewillow need never fear that I will reveal anything that may come from our conversation. You have my word on that."

Releasing the breath that she hadn't realized she was holding, Betty said, "I believe you, Caitland, and thank you. This is difficult enough to talk about as it is without the worry that what I'm divulging might be used against the center, and ultimately the patients. So I guess the first thing I should tell you is where I fit in to all of this. I've worked hard for the past fifteen years to establish myself as a good nurse at Pinewillow, especially after the deaths of my husband and daughter. Then when the promotion came, I worked even harder to be a good supervisor."

Catherine started to interrupt, but Betty raised her hand to stop her. Standing up she took a few steps away and whispered, "No, please just let me continue."

Catherine simply nodded her head and waited. A frown now marred Betty's countenance, and as if to separate herself even further from what she needed to divulge, she turned away from Catherine. Then, after a moment, she began to speak.

"There's little enough prestige in heading the nursing team at a convalescent facility like Pinewillow, but I've always gotten a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that I made a real difference in the lives of people who have lost and suffered so much. It's never mattered to me that they may not know my name or face, only that I knew I was making their lives - such as they are here - better. And then you arrived, Caitland, a mysterious Jane Doe in the middle of the night. You should know that I had some serious reservations about Dr. Tallenger admitting you at all, but then I got my first look at you. Just one look, and I knew that I could never be the voice to turn you away. You were so seriously ill that frankly, I didn't believe you would survive the night. But Caitland, you did, and the next morning it just wasn't in me to withhold my care merely because you came to us under suspicious circumstances. That was the beginning, when it was easy for me to turn a blind eye to those aspects of your care that didn't go by the book."

"After your medical condition became stable and it was apparent that you'd fallen into a semi-comatose state, there still wasn't much about your case to concern me. No offense is intended, but you were just like a hundred other patients I'd seen and cared for over the years; but then you awoke from your dream world, and nothing about you has been like any other patient I've ever had since. You were so despondent those first weeks, and then it was as if a light came on inside your soul and you began to make real progress. I was, quite frankly, surprised. The other staff were amazed. And there was Dr. Tallenger who I'm sure you know has had a difficult time accepting your rather miraculous recovery."

"That's an understatement," Caitland mumbled under her breath.

      

Betty now turned around to look at Caitland, and then simply nodded her head with an amused smile that conveyed her shared sentiments. But then she grew serious, and more as an afterthought, she added, "On Dr. Tallenger's behalf, let me just say for the record that I've worked with him for more than a decade, and he's always been a caring doctor and an efficient administrator."

Faced with Caitland's look of blatant disbelief, Betty's gaze remained steady as she continued.

"It's true, Caitland. Daniel Tallenger has been an advocate for the humane treatment of patients with long-term disabilities for as long as I've known him. And this is the reason that I found his reaction to you so out of character. The Dr. Tallenger we've both confronted over the past several months is not the Daniel Tallenger with whom I've worked for close to fifteen years. Certainly it's not unheard of that certain patients might rub a doctor the wrong way - doctors are human, too. But his attitude toward you as a patient has been unprecedented and far more extreme than I've ever seen him."

Betty stopped suddenly and once again turned away, and for the first time Catherine realized the toll it was taking on her to admit the problems with Dr. Tallenger. Even though Betty was doing the right thing in facing up to the doctor's faults, Catherine knew it was tearing her apart inside, and she imagined how it would feel to be in Betty's shoes - forced to expose the wrongdoing of someone she felt she knew - someone like Joe in the D.A.'s office. At that moment, Catherine's respect for Betty Carlisle rose another notch. That she would put her patient's welfare above years of friendship and loyalty to Dr. Tallenger - and possibly risk her job and reputation to boot - humbled Catherine. Tentatively, she reached out for Betty's hand and squeezed it in reassurance. Betty looked down at the woman she knew as Caitland and saw the compassion and understanding in her eyes. Then with a shaky smile of her own, she took a deep breath and continued.

"After Janet Kelly approved your release for physical therapy two weeks ago, I decided to have a talk with Dr. Tallenger to set up exit procedures for you. Needless to say, the conversation didn't go very well. In fact, it was the first time I really believed I might get fired, but it also made me face up to the truth. I did a lot of thinking about everything: about how you came to us and how you've fought so hard and come so far to get well. And then, last week I finally began looking into another aspect of your case. I can tell you now, for sure, that Dr. Tallenger is in no big hurry for you to get out of here."

The bitterness in her voice caused Catherine to look up sharply. Without conscious thought, the analytical mind of the attorney who had become renown for sniffing out the smallest leads came to the forefront. Catherine focused on everything the nursing supervisor had shared, as well as what she had not spoken aloud, and as her thoughts flowed one to another, the pieces began to fall into place.

Catherine's expression was one of deep concentration as she softly said, "But why? I can understand that I'm not the doctor's favorite patient, but that should make him more anxious to get me released from the center - not more determined to keep me here. And if his objections were actually due to reservations about my fitness to be discharged, he would have no problem with me completing my physical therapy. So what can Dr. Tallenger get from my being here when all I'm doing is occupying a bed . . ."

Abruptly, Catherine's voice trailed off into silence, and Betty looked back at her. Deep regret shone clearly in her eyes as she said softly, "You see now, don't you? We're not a big facility, Caitland. We have some influential clients, but the expense of providing long-term care at the level that we provide it at Pinewillow is not cheap, and to be honest, the cost of your care was a welcome addition from the business end of our operations. So instead of looking any further into your medical records, I checked the accounts payable files for you."

Betty took a deep breath. She didn't know if Caitland would understand the personal grief that the truth had brought her, but she knew it would have to be said aloud, if only this once. "Caitland, it appears that Dr. Tallenger has been charging your sponsor double what we customarily require for individual long-term care, and a substantial portion of those funds have been diverted . . . I'm not sure where, but it's certainly not going into the center's revenues. I personally suspect our good doctor has an account, or some such thing, where he's siphoning the money. With you being nearly comatose and installed here secretly by a sponsor who chose to remain anonymous, who was there to care enough to question any discrepancies? Certainly not our center staff. As you probably noticed, they're completely under Dr. Tallenger's thumb. Then there's the fact that payment for your care is conducted through the electronic transfer of funds, making it that much easier to divert monies without raising the customary red flags."

Betty paused to rub her temples, feeling the beginning of a migraine lurking just behind her eyes, but pushing aside the growing pain, she continued. "I suspect Daniel felt he had everything well in hand, until you had the audacity to awaken, to recover, and to insist on being discharged. So in light of all that, when you look at Dr. Tallenger's behavior it's perfectly rational, for someone who's embezzling the center's funds. Caitland, you're his cash cow, my dear, and he doesn't want to let you go."

"And this is why I'm willing to sacrifice my job and my reputation to help you leave. What's happening to you makes a mockery out of everything my professional life has stood for, and I can't stand by while you're caught in the middle. Your recovery has been a one of a kind miracle that deserves to be celebrated, not manipulated, denied, and sabotaged for the sake of personal greed. For me, to not assist you would be the true breech of my professional ethics and the cruelest betrayal of you as my patient. So you have my wholehearted support, Caitland. And you were right: it is time for you to get on with your life, and you deserve to be with your child. While I wish it weren't under such desperate circumstances, I can't help but trust that if say you have to leave immediately and that you have a place to go with people who love you and can keep you safe, then this is the right thing for you to do."

For a moment, there was only silence, and then Caitland rose and moved to face Betty. With so many emotions filling her, there were no words she could say and so she reached out and once again touched Betty Carlisle's hand, this time in gratitude. The older woman smiled and reached out to embrace Caitland warmly.

Releasing her, Betty took a second to compose herself. Finally looking up, she said. "Caitland, you're a very special woman, and you deserve every happiness, and now I think we have some very careful plans to make so that we can get you out of here before your special someone comes looking for you."

           

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

By Friday evening at dinner, the maelstrom of emotions were back in full force, and Catherine found it impossible to drum up an appetite. It was only when one of the aides came over to ask if she was feeling alright that she realized the dinner hour was nearly over and she hadn't touched her plate. Hurriedly, she began to eat, alternately chiding herself for being so obviously preoccupied and reminding herself that she needed the energy the food would provide for the challenges she would face later that night. Putting her plate and glass away, she went immediately to her room. While that wasn't her usual routine either, she knew it wouldn't raise undue attention from the night staff. Then too, she needed the time alone to think before Betty came by. Looking at the few personal items she had to pack, she was amazed at how little got by with now. She could remember the days when her clothes, cosmetics, and jewelry could easily fill several rooms. Now, she only had the couple of workout uniforms and a few personal toiletry items. Then, too, even the workout uniforms were stamped with Pinewillow's logo. She'd arrived in this place wrapped only in the sheets that had covered her, and now she'd have to find other clothing as soon as she was away from the center. Quickly, she stripped a pillow and bundled the few items inside. There was nothing else for her to pack, no one she needed to bid a final farewell, and all that was left was to wait for Betty's arrival.

At almost ten, Debbie, the night shift nurse, stopped by to make sure that Caitland was in for the night. They called it bed check, but since Catherine had awakened, none of the staff expected her to actually be in bed by ten o'clock. As usual, Caitland was sitting at the bay window, gazing outward. Debbie came in and sat down beside her, and though Caitland was careful not to let her agitation show, she could only groan inwardly that tonight, of all nights, Debbie seemed to want to engage her in conversation.

Cognizant that there were no other patients on the floor for the young woman to converse with and that the night shift at Pinewillow was customarily a very dull affair, Catherine was normally content to let the chatty young woman drone on about her boyfriend, her continuing education, her parents and siblings, and whatever else she happened to bring up. if Catherine made the appropriate nods in the right places and punctuated her responses appropriately, Debbie would soon wind down the talk, taking notice of the time and telling Caitland that she had to get back to her rounds. Tonight, Catherine wanted nothing more than for her to leave quickly, and so she tried to put the regular interjections in the appropriate places. It was glaringly apparent that she'd failed, though, when Debbie mentioned her younger sister in highschool who had just discovered she was pregnant, and Caitland said, "that's great!"

Obviously insulted that Caitland hadn't been listening, Debbie gathered her clipboard and left. As the door shut behind the aide, Catherine let out a sigh of relief. She hadn't meant to offend Debbie, but her nerves were on edge, and tonight she just didn't have it in her to care very much about Debbie's hurt feelings. Now that her presence had been verified, there would be no more checks until around eight the next morning,

Shortly before midnight, Caitland heard the door to her room open. Unable to know for certain if it was definitely Betty, she pulled the sheets higher around her to hide the fact that she was still wearing her workout clothing, rather than the plain white gowns that most of the patients slept in. It was with a grin of pure relief that she saw Betty's tall, commanding presence silhouetted against the background light of the hall. Quickly, Betty shut the door and motioned for Caitland to come. Dressed in casual slacks and a sweater, Betty looked Caitland over quickly, noticing the half-filled pillowcase that she held. Her expression asked if she were ready, and mutely Caitland nodded. Betty opened the door and peeked through, looking down the hall. Nodding she motioned to Caitland again, and they both slipped out.

Together, the took the first stairwell exit, going down one floor, to arrived at the hall below Caitland's room. Bed checks had already been performed on that floor, and so they were free to walk the hallway around to an emergency exit located to the rear of the building. Quickly, Betty punched in a code to disable the alarm and they slipped into the seldom used emergency stairwell. Within minutes, they had descended the two flights of stairs to the ground floor. This time using her key card, Betty unlocked the back emergency exit door, and both women slipped into the world outside. With Betty's guidance, they crossed the main service road behind the building and slipped, unnoticed, into the woods that bordered the center.

Suddenly, Caitland pulled at Betty's arm, pointing toward the outside security camera that monitored the back end of the building and the surrounding grounds.

Her voice barely above a whisper, Betty patted her arm and said, "No one but Daniel and Security are supposed to know, but those cameras have been offline for the past sixteen months. There's no security film of us exiting the building." And with that they walked deeper into the woods until the trees obliterated Pinewillow from Catherine's direct line of view. After only a half hour's walk, they came upon an unpaved road where an old model Ford Escort sat waiting. Betty smiled at Catherine's dawning realization.

"It was Frank's car - the one he used to drive to work. I've had it for years so it's not new, but it does run, and I've kept the tag current. You'll find the keys inside."

Catherine was obviously shaken and looking at her, she whispered, "How can I ever thank you?"

Placing her hands firmly on Caitland's shoulders, she turned her back toward the car. Briskly, she said, "There's nothing to thank me for, and I refuse to let you fall to pieces on me out here on this dirt road. Look ahead, and you see that the road bends just up ahead. Stay on it, going south. You'll have to keep your lights off until you leave the road, but thank God there's a full moon tonight. You'll do fine, and this ole road will empty out onto the main highway some 10 miles below Pinewillow. Then you just pick your direction and drive. I've placed a road map and a few dollars in the glove compartment, and there's a change of clothes in the back. Now go grab that life you've been longing for."

And with that, she gently nudged Catherine in the direction of the waiting car. Digging in her heels, Catherine whirled around and embraced Betty one last time.

"I'll never forget everything you've done for me."

"And I'll never forget you," Betty replied as she returned the hug and then stepped away. "Now God speed, and hurry. You should be able to get halfway across the state before they even realize you're gone.

Without looking back, Catherine got into the car and on the first turn, the engine started. As she made the first turn into the bend that Betty had shown her, the first tear slowly trickled down her cheek.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

The next morning, Jennifer, the weekend nursing supervisor, walked into Caitland's room at 8:15 to find it immaculate and empty. Caitland's absence, however, wasn't cause for alarm since it was well known that she preferred to do her workouts at the fitness center in the mornings. So closing the door, she left without raising an alarm and continued on her rounds. It was near the end of her shift, just after one that afternoon, that she was notified that Caitland had missed lunch. By two o'clock, she had talked with all the night staff, including Debbie who could verify that Caitland had been in her room for bed check. By four that afternoon, Jennifer was reasonably sure that Caitland was no longer on the grounds. Her first preference would have been to contact Betty Carlisle, but since this was her weekend off, she was reluctant to bother her at home. Then, too, given the severity of the situation, she didn't see any alternative other than to notify the chief administrator of the problem. Thus, it was with a great deal of apprehension that she paged Dr. Tallenger. When he called in, she explained everything she'd pulled together about Caitland's absence. Suddenly Jennifer held the phone away from her ear. If there was anyone nearby who wondered at what his reaction might be, the sound of his angry cursing could be heard for several long minutes . . . stopped only when Jennifer simply hung up the phone and walked out.

In record time, Dr. Daniel Tallenger plowed through the door of an empty room 48-D. A full facilities search was then ordered, and by four o'clock that afternoon, it was apparent to everyone that the young comatose patient, recently recovered and given the name of Caitland was nowhere on the premises. When Dr. Tallenger was satisfied that Caitland was no longer within Pinewillow, he cancelled the search and returned to his office, leaving orders not to be disturbed. Inside, he opened a wall safe that, along with other items, held a slip of paper with only the name of Eliott Burch and a phone number written on it. Slowly, the doctor dropped into his chair and for a while just stared out the window. Then he picked up the slip of paper and began dialing the numbers. When a woman's voice greeted him and subsequently informed him that Mr. Burch was unavailable, the doctor gave her curt instructions that he would hold while she mentioned his name to Mr. Eliott. The tone of his voice left no room for argument, and within seconds Eliott's voice boomed over the receiver. "Daniel, it's Elliott. What's this all about? Is she alright?"

"She's fine Elliott, but I have some rather serious news I need to discuss with you." The silence on the other end stretched for an long period, but the doctor was unwilling to say more until he heard the other man's response.

"Look, Daniel, things are better on this end, so give me a couple of hours and I can be up there where we can talk face to face. We're way overtime for a meeting about her anyway. Then you can tell me what this is all about."

"A couple of hours is fine, and it won't change a thing. I'll be here," Daniel Tallenger said softly and hung up the phone.

A couple of hours would make no difference to the message he had to deliver - that the unknown woman left in his care was gone - and even worse, that she was gone with no memory, no past, and no way to know if her steps would lead her back into the same danger that had brought her to their facility over a year ago.

"Damn," Daniel swore under his breath. In a rare display of emotion his hand swept across the desk, knocking off a stack of papers which included one patient file, stamped "CONFIDENTIAL" in large letters and having only one name on the tab: Caitland. Without a word, the doctor then stood up and gave his secretary orders to have the entire weekend staff assembled. He was coming down, and if he had to face Elliott Burch's rage at this incredible mess, he had some rage of his own to get out.

 


Continued in Chapter 11,