Homer is a small fishing and coal mining village situated on the western peninsula of Alaska. The desolate and unforgiving environment that was home to less than one thousand natives was the place I would spend the next three years of my life, years I would give anything to take back.
It was just after the holidays when I was contacted by the director of Cedar Grove Psychiatric Hospital regarding an opportunity to practice medicine at the small, little-known institution on the outskirts of Homer. It was not uncommon to get job offers from different parts of the country, but I turned down their offer almost immediately without giving it much thought. I was nearing the end of my residency at the University Medical Center in Philadelphia at the time, and although the promise of immediate employment was enticing, this was not the type of job offer I felt I could seriously consider because of the location. How could I possibly leave behind everything I know, the people I love, the city I’ve called home for the past 30 years?
I continued working long hours at the University hospital. The grueling 24-hour shifts away from my wife, Ann, was tough for both of us, but it was her confidence in me and unwavering support that pushed me through the most difficult times of med school. The lack of sleep, however, must have been catching up to me because I found myself daydreaming as I was working with some of my patients one evening. This was highly unusual behavior for me. I’m expected to remain focused and engaged with every patient I’m assigned to, but I couldn’t seem to shake the thought of that phone call with the director of Cedar Grove. Maybe I should have given it more thought before saying no, but how would Ann and our daughter Lela have felt about such a drastic change of lifestyle?
I have to admit, Ann was different from any other woman I’ve met. She was smarter than me — that I’m sure of; and she could accomplish anything she set her mind to. She chose a career as an art teacher at the local elementary school because of her love for children, and I could not have chosen a better mother for our daughter. Lela was seven at the time I wrapped up my final year of medical school, and already proving she was well beyond her years. She was adventurous, smart, and artistic like her mother. All parents brag about their kids, but our little girl was truly special.
Several months went by before I got another call from Cedar Grove. This time, the director offered more money with a very generous sign-on bonus in exchange for a 3-year contract to work at the facility. I owed it to my family to talk it over with them as this offer could potentially solve the burden of my crushing student loan debt almost entirely.
It didn’t take much convincing to get Ann on board with the idea. It seemed like the adventure she was longing for, and so after researching the area, we started preparing for the move. We learned early on that the closest elementary school was more than 30 miles from where we’d be living. Because transportation can be difficult during the cold season, Ann decided she would home school Lela, and if after three years things didn’t work out, we could always return home to Philadelphia.
Breaking the news to my parents was difficult. My dad wasn’t supportive of our decision and my mother was worried, as she is with most things.
“You know 98% of the Grizzly population is located in Alaska, Mark. Don’t you care about the safety of your family?” She had a habit of throwing out wildly speculative assumptions.
“That’s nonsense, Mom, we are going to be just fine.”
“What about Lela, you’re going to pull her from her classmates and the school she loves and go to a foreign land?”
“It’s still part of the United States, Mom.”
“You know what I meant!” she said sharply.
Of course they didn’t want their only son and grand-daughter to move to the other side of the continent but I assured them that we had given the matter much thought, and that this was the best option for us at the time. We exchanged a few hugs, said our farewell and began our long haul to the final frontier.
Getting to Alaska was a journey in and of itself. We passed Cedar Grove on the way to our village. It was a two-story hospital, and had bars on its windows — not exactly a welcoming place, but then again, what workplace is? We switched off the radio to take in all the sounds as we turned down the main road that brought us into town.
WELCOME TO HOMER — POPULATION 990
“Nine hundred and ninety-three,” my wife quipped, looking at me with a loving smile on her face.
Our relocation expenses were paid for by the psychiatric hospital I’d be working at, and covered things like new clothes, temporary housing, and even a snow-mobile, since that is the common mode of transportation in Alaska. Lela couldn’t wait for her first ride on one. As we pulled into the long winding driveway of our new home, we were taken aback by the sheer beauty of our surroundings. The backdrop of our modest log cabin was a beautiful lake surrounded by tall, statuesque trees. The three of us held hands and circled the cabin to take it all in. The freshwater lake looked deep and held some of the clearest water I had ever laid eyes on.
An eagle was flying overhead and landed on a rock protruding from the water’s edge. The air was so fresh, and a stark contrast to the pollution we had grown used to in the city. I locked eyes with my wife for a moment.
“I could get used to this.”
We circled back to our van to start unloading our things. With suitcases in hand, the three of us walked toward the front door of our new home.
“Honey… look at that,” my wife said, pointing to the chimney. “There’s smoke.”
“Huh. That’s odd,” I thought.
I pulled out my keys to open the deadbolt, but the door wasn’t even locked. The house was warm, and the fireplace in the living room had already been lit. Ann and I looked at each other puzzled. Before we could get the rest of our things from the car, we heard a knock at the front door. I told Ann to take Lela to see her new bedroom as I walked to the foyer. A haggardly old woman was standing on the porch as I opened the front door.
“Welcome! We’ve been expecting you, doctor.”
“H-hello… I’m sorry, who are you?”
“Oh I’m just a friendly neighbor from around the bend. I’ve lived here my whole life, you see, and it’s not often we get newcomers in these parts.”
“I hope you don’t mind, I started a fire for you. Wanted to give you all a warm welcome to your new home.”
“Uh, thanks. Well it was a pleasure meeting you. I’ve got a lot of unpacking to do so if you would kindly excuse me…”
She smiled and lowered her head as she turned away and walked down the path of our driveway. Lela and Ann were in the kitchen now.
“Who was it, Hun?”
“Our neighbor. She’s apparently the one who started the fireplace.”
“That’s not okay, Mark. We need to get the locks changed.”
“I’ll get on it, but don’t worry, sweetheart. I think people around here are just more neighborly than in Philly,” I assured her.
After all, we had lived in an apartment in Philadelphia for 8 years and never formally met our neighbors. It’s not exactly the ‘city of brotherly love’ it’s commonly known as.
As the week passed, the cabin was beginning to feel more like home. We were getting used to the Alaskan way of things, wearing several layers of clothing, chopping wood, catching fish for dinner, it was a different way of life. My mom was right about the Grizzlies. There were signs peppered throughout the town warning us of them, but we had a shotgun we carried with us whenever we ventured outdoors. The night sky was like something out of a fairy tale. The spiral arm of the Milky Way was so distinct among the stars because of the lack of light pollution. Within our first week there, we witnessed the Aurora Borealis. It was a spectacular show and Lela was in pure awe. Moving to Alaska had its challenges, without a doubt, but I’ve never felt closer with my family.
The following Monday, I was to report to my first day on the job. When I went inside, the first thing I noticed was the dim lighting. I had been used to the bright fluorescent lights of the hospital back home, but this had a more calming appeal to it. At the entrance was a portrait of the man I had spoken to on the phone, Director James McGall. I followed the signs to his office and knocked on his door. When he approached me, he appeared much taller than I had expected him to be. I extended my hand for a handshake.
“Hi, I’m Mar–“
“I know who you are! Come in, come in,” he proclaimed, pulling me into his office.
“Have a seat,” he said, “We’ve got important business to discuss.”
He motioned to the chair across from his desk and I sat down while eyeing some of his belongings scattered throughout his office. This room was darker than the rest of the hospital. Almost too dark, with the exception of a few lanterns fixed to the wall behind him.
He turned on his desk lamp and ruffled through some papers.
“Hah, so you do have electricity in here,” I joked.
“Well, as you can see, I am a collector of antique things, it’s sort of a hobby of mine,” he said, pointing to some very outdated and peculiar medical devices on the other side of the room.
He pulled my file out from under a stack of loose papers and opened it.
“You’ve got quite the reputation, doctor, graduated top of your class, and awarded twice at the hospital you practiced at in Philadelphia it appears. We need someone like you on board here at Cedar Grove.”
“Well, thank you sir. I’m happy to be here to lend any help I can. Tell me, what are the townspeople like around here?”
“They’re wonderful people. Many are not well-educated, but the residents are hardworking and caring. We have a diverse group of patients we treat here, but many are without family, and prefer a reclusive lifestyle, which, as you know, can make their recoveries more difficult. Unfortunately, they could disappear without a trace and nobody would even notice. It’s a shame.”
After talking a while, he showed me around the hospital. We walked the empty corridors, and passed a few rooms that were padlocked from the outside.
“What’s behind those doors,” I asked, pointing to one of the padlocked rooms.
“Nothing you have to worry about,” he hastily replied. “Come with me.”
“This will be your office,” he said, pointing to the door at the end of the hallway.
“You’ll find all your patient files on your desk. The previous doctor had a family emergency and moved back to California, so you’ll be taking over for his patients.”
He left me alone to get acquainted with my surroundings and I took some time to thumb through some of the files on my desk. I was curious what types of cases I’d be handling here.
It was the usual mental illness I’d been trained to treat throughout medical school: Anxiety disorders, Schizophrenia, paranoia, PTSD, among many other things. The director made his way back and knocked twice before opening the door to my office.
“Your first patient is in 30 minutes. Edgar White. His paperwork should be in that pile.”
I pulled out his file and read it thoroughly. It appeared that his condition had been worsening over time. What started out as seasonal depression had worsened to paranoia and Schizophrenia. I found that highly unusual. Patients should be getting better with treatment, not evolving into more serious conditions. For this reason, I was eager to meet with him.
A little more time passed before a nurse escorted Edgar into my office. I asked him to have a seat and tell me how he was feeling.
“Who are you,” he asked, with a frightened look on his face.
“I’m Doctor Walker,” I replied, “I’ll be taking over your treatment here.”
We talked for thirty minutes and it was clear he was suffering from a wide range of issues. He was certainly paranoid about the treatment he was receiving at the hospital, but that was not uncommon in this field. Building trust with patients takes time. I was still puzzled as to how he regressed to such a poor state of mind, but I wrapped up our session and continued seeing patients throughout the day.
Leaving work left me with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something didn’t seem quite right about that place but maybe I was just feeling overwhelmed. I returned home and was happy to be back with my family after such an odd day. My wife asked how work was, but this time I was careful with what I’d say. I didn’t want to worry her or think I was having any doubts about this move so I told her it was just like any other day at the hospital.
Months went by and the cases I dealt with at work just got stranger. Some of our patients were ordered to be released by the director, even though my professional opinion would have been to keep them for further evaluation. Director McGall seemed pleased with my performance, even though I felt I had not improved the well-being of any of my patients. It all seemed very odd to me. My paychecks were great though, and I was able to pay off my student debt within two years.
Halfway through my third year, things took a turn for the worst at home. My wife and daughter didn’t seem like their usual selves. Ann was suffering from headaches almost daily and confessed she hadn’t been feeling herself. Because of this, Lela wasn’t getting the proper home-schooling she deserved, and I felt guilty for not spending enough time with my family. Work was so hectic that I often missed out on our meals at home and was forced to eat dinner at work.
One night I came home early to find a guest sitting at the dinner table with my family. It was the haggardly old woman I met on our first night moving in. I immediately felt uneasy upon laying eyes on her.
“Why, hello doctor. My husband tells me you’re doing fine work at the Cedar Grove.”
“Is that so? Who is your husband?” I asked.
“The director, James McGall, of course.”
I had no idea if this woman was telling the truth. For all I know she could have been one of our former patients playing a twisted game.
“Come, have a seat. You’ve had a long day, and I’ve prepared a delicious meal for everyone.”
Everyone had already finished their plates, and I was not in the mood to eat. I looked over to Ann and Lela. Their expressions were eerily stoic. Something was off. I turned my attention back to the woman sitting beside my family.
“Ma’am, that’s very kind, but it’s been a long week and I’m tired. I’ll be going off to bed soon so I think it’s best you go on your way.”
I closed the door behind her and locked the door.
“What was she doing here, Ann? Why would you let a stranger into our home?”
“Mark, she’s our neighbor, and she’s cooked some wonderful meals for Lela and I while you were busy working. Until tonight, she’s never mentioned her husband was the hospital director though.”
“Well we’ll see how that story checks out when I go back to work on Monday.”
What was my wife thinking? She’s the one who insisted we change the locks as soon as we moved in, and now she is inviting a strange woman into our home to feed our family. Ann must have been mad at me for telling our neighbor to leave because she avoided me and slept on the couch that night. Monday couldn’t come soon enough.
I walked into work to look for director McGall. He was nowhere to be found so I went back to his office and took some time to study the things in his room. Facing his chair was a photo of a woman, the same woman who was at my house a few days prior.
“Well, at least she wasn’t some nut job,” I thought to myself. I took a look at some of the papers that were sprawled across his desk. There was a spreadsheet that contained the names of some of our patients. Next to their names were dollar amounts, contributions from a source called SkyLabs. As I made my way to my office I noticed that one of the padlocked rooms that was off-limits was unlatched. Curiosity got the best of me and I pulled open the door to find a frightening discovery.
The room contained units equipped with beds and medical devices I had never seen before. Vials of fluid labeled with patients’ names were stocked in small refrigerator. There wasn’t any indication of what drug it contained, which is a code violation in the medical field. I took a closer look at the names on the vials, trying to recognize any of my patients. Edgar White.
“There’s one,” I thought. I kept searching.
Ann Walker. What the hell? I grabbed the vial and put it in my pocket.
Lela Walker. This can’t be happening. I’m dreaming. Wake up. Wake up! Unfortunately, to my horror, this wasn’t a nightmare. I found multiple vials with the names of my wife and child, containing unknown drugs. Was this hospital some sort of sick experiment? Were we getting bankrolled by this laboratory to make people sicker?
“Oh my God!” I said to myself. “His wife has been feeding — no, poisoning my family with whatever this is!”
I hurried out of the room when a nurse walked by and noticed me.
“You shouldn’t be in there!” she shouted as she stepped towards me. I pushed her aside and ran for the exit.
I rushed home to find my wife in a heightened level of psychosis I’ve never witnessed in my professional career. Her eyes were bulging, and she was mumbling something I couldn’t understand.
“Where’s Lela,” I screamed.
She didn’t answer me. I ran to Lela’s room and she wasn’t there. I searched every room in the house. I wanted to call the police but we were without a house phone. The only time we could get cell service is when we drove to the town center 20 miles away. There wasn’t any time for that. Panic mode set in. I grabbed my shotgun and ran out the door to check the perimeter of the house. The floodlights came on as I circled the back of my house and began scanning the water’s edge. Then I saw it. I’ll never get that image out of my mind for as long as I live. It was my daughter’s lifeless body, floating between a rock and a stump in the shallow water.
I completely lost it at that point. I dropped the shotgun and went to reach for her.
“Lela!” I screamed. Something struck me in the back of the head before I could pull her out and I could tell I was bleeding pretty badly. Ann was standing behind me with a large rock in her hand.
“What did you do! What did you do,” I exclaimed. “You killed her!”
My daughter was gone but I wasn’t going to lose my wife too. I just had to restrain her and get her help.
“She was poisoned, drugged,” I told myself. We had to get out of there.
Before I could pick myself up, my wife grabbed the shotgun that was lying on the ground. I jumped up and tried to get it away from her.
“You don’t know what you are doing, Ann! I need to get you help! You need help!” We struggled for control of the gun when her finger clipped the trigger. She was gone. The barrel was pointing at her chin when it fired, and took her life before my very eyes.
I was in a state of shock because of what I had just endured. I cried for what seemed like hours, still covered in my wife’s blood before I tried to get help. Eventually, I made it to the police station. When I told them that my wife and daughter were dead because of the actions of a crazed hospital director and his wife, they looked at me stunned. The officer took me in his squad car, followed by an ambulance to investigate the gruesome scene I had described. I couldn’t bare the sight of my loved ones again so I stayed in the vehicle.
Within moments, the officer opened the car door and asked me to step out.
“Sir, put your hands behind your back. You are under arrest.”
“No, but you don’t understand!–”
Before I could finish my sentence he had pushed me back into the car and slammed the door. Other officers quickly arrived on the scene and I was hauled away. My pleading to the driver was met with silence. I tried to reason with myself at that point. They must be taking me back to the station for questioning, I thought. I tried to calm myself, but I was almost delusional from all the chaos. Tears filled my eyes to the point where I could barely see.
The car came to stop and the officer opened my door to pull me out. I was un-cuffed and quickly forced into a restraining jacket. I blinked to clear the tears from my eyes and took a look at where I was. It was Cedar Grove.
“Here he is,” the officer said, handing me over to a nurse armed with a syringe. “Get this one evaluated immediately.”