Sutter Cane Memorial
It was roughly a day and a half drive from Blackrock to Fairfield. Sam had stayed for a few hours in a Motel 6, popping pills to knock her out long enough so that she wouldn’t be nodding off behind the wheel.
During the morning Sam had spent an hour on the phone with her foster mom Kathy. It had felt good for the two of them to catch up, and for Sam to vent about being dismissed from work for a week. Kathy threatened to kick the captain’s ass but Sam talked her down. The conversation had then turned to Uncle Brewin, who hadn’t gotten any better. At least he hadn’t gotten any worse. Not yet. Both Sam and Kathy knew at this point that their old friend was living on borrowed time.
On that somber note, Kathy had wished Sam well on her “research mission” and the two ended their call.
Sam thought of Elias. He had pushed to come with her, repeatedly and with increasing insistence… but Sam had held firm in her refusal. If in fact she was taking a hand in her own destiny, then this was something she needed to do on her own. In the end he had agreed to check in on her cat, Mister Perkins, and had asked her to call and check in every few hours. Which she did.
Montana was a beautiful land of prairies and mountains and fields and forests. It was quiet and cold, with long, remote stretches broken by stubborn hubs of civilization.
Several miles out from town, after clearing a mountain pass, Sam had seen something that stole her breath away; she had pulled over at a turnout and exited her Mustang, taking in a view that hadn’t greeted her eyes in over a decade:
The mountain… the flat-top mountain she had gazed at daily during her time in the hospital. The mountain from her dream. Sam’s life and her memories had been so crazy that seeing the mountain… it had been nice to know that what she remembered, what she had dreamed, actually did exist. Truly satisfied that she was on the right track, feeling small bursts of anticipation, she had reentered her vehicle and continued on…
Finally pulling into Fairfield just after lunch time, where she went and met with the older lady she had spoken to on the phone, the one in Public Works who had told her about Sutter Cane Memorial.
Ruth Weisz had turned out to be more than reasonably knowledgeable about many things. She knew, for instance that the flat-top mountain was called Stone Crop. She had offered Sam tea and the two of them had sat in the breakfast nook of her small Craftsman home as the bespectacled woman then spoke at length about Sutter Cane Memorial…
The VA hospital had been under fire for years. Poor funding and terrible management had resulted in a reputation for ridiculously long wait times and disgracefully lackluster patient care.
In some ways the hospital reflected the town itself. Fairfield, though always a small town, had prospered since the late 1800s… until the coal mines dried up. Fairfield then fell into steep decline. Sutter Cane Memorial’s tarnished image, coupled with the town’s slump, had sounded the hospital’s death knell. The closing of its doors coincided with the opening of a new VA hospital in Stanford.
What interested Sam most, however, was what Ruth had said next: directly after the hospital was shut down, government men arrived to oversee its “phasing out.” During that time, much of the hospital’s equipment was hauled away, but Ruth herself witnessed some equipment being brought in. And, at least one of the floors—the fifth—had stayed open for nearly two months, when the rest of the facility was dark and supposedly out of service. After those few months, the remaining equipment was taken from the building and it was shut down for good. It sat now, on the outskirts of town, abandoned, neglected and forgotten.
Sam had asked the woman if she knew a Tom Brewin, and showed her an old picture on her phone, of her and Kathy and Uncle B. The woman said it had been too long, she couldn’t remember. Just to be thorough, Sam asked if the woman knew any of the government men as “Craig,” but Ruth gave the same answer.
After coming all this way, Sam had to see the hospital for herself. She got the address from Ruth and in the mid-afternoon, as a thin veil of clouds slipped over the sun, she traveled to the end of a desolate street and eased into the parking lot of Sutter Cane Memorial.
A high fence had been erected around the property, with signs warning to stay out, that the structure was unsafe. The windows and doors on the first floor were boarded up, and the windows on the six floors above were almost all missing. Nature had retaken the parking lot and much of the lower outside walls. Scattered spray-painted street gang names and crude body parts adorned both boards and walls alike. In the silent stillness the edifice sat like a carcass—the tattooed, pitted, blocky corpse of some stone giant.
Using a floor mat from her car, Sam tossed it over the top of the fence to protect from the sharp ends of chain-link as she climbed over.
On the west side of the building a board had already been pulled away. Sam stepped into a large, foul-smelling hallway littered with trash: bottles, wrappers, condom packets. Here the spray painted slogans and doodles were interrupted only by gaping holes in the walls. Though it was still daytime outside, within the structure light struggled to endure, falling short in corners and nooks and nearly dying out altogether as Sam forged deeper in.
Making her way to what was once the reception area, she pulled out her flashlight. There were the remains of a desk, a pit and ashes where someone had built a fire. Sam continued on, to what was once the elevator banks. The doors were missing, leaving empty, square shafts. Casting the light before her Sam walked to the edge of one and sucked in her breath as she hit the edge, realizing that the stone pit descended at least one more story. She shined her light to the bottom, scattering cockroaches to the four corners. Directing her mag beam upward, she sent pigeons flying.
Searching her memory, Sam recalled that when she would look out of her hospital room, there had been at least three floors beneath her. Maybe four. She thought about what Ruth had said, about the fifth floor lights remaining on after the facility had supposedly shut down… and she set a path for the nearest staircase.
Just around the corner from the elevators she found it. The odors in the stairwell were pungent, and light was even more scarce as she ascended the steps. She stopped to rest on the third floor, nearly jumping out of her skin when her flashlight beam illuminated a rat nosing through some trash.
On she went, finally reaching the fifth story. Turning to her left, she proceeded down a large hall, pausing momentarily when she stepped on a groaning section of floor. It made loud protestations in the enclosed space but Sam had already committed her weight to it. Taking another step, she was relieved when the floor didn’t give way beneath her.
She continued to a room three doors down on the left. Here light filtered in through the opening where a window used to be. The room was fairly small, with a rusty mobile privacy screen in one corner, and rat and bird poop scattered all over the floor. What held Sam’s attention most, however, was the landscape outside the window.
It was a purely unobstructed view of Stone Crop. The mesa reflected on its face the orange light of the setting sun. This was the exact view Sam remembered from her childhood. Standing right here at this window in this exact room.
That same pain she had felt in the psychologist’s office, that dull ache had just returned when she heard a loud groan from out in the hallway. Her heartbeat quickened…
She was not alone.