Chapter 73


    They strolled arm in arm through the hallways, their heels echoing on the old tiles. A powdery light sifted through the windows.

    Overhead was a vaulted ceiling, at least thirty feet high, and on it Byrne saw three layers of paint, each a dismal attempt at cheerfulness. Lemon yellow, baby blue, sea-foam green.

    Christa-Marie pointed to a room off the main entry. 'This is where they take you on arrival,' she said. 'Don't let the flowers fool you.'

    Byrne peeked inside. The remains of a pair of rusted chains, bolted to the wall, lay on the ground like dead snakes. There were no flowers.

    They continued on, deeper into the heart of Convent Hill, passing dozens of rooms, rooms pooled with stagnant water, rooms tiled floor to ceiling, grout stained with decades of mold and long-dried blood, drains clogged with sewage and discarded clothing.

    One room held six chairs still in a semicircle, the cane seats missing, one chair curiously facing away from the others. One room had a three-tiered bunk bed bolted to the floor over a decayed Oriental rug. Byrne could see where attempts had been made to tear away the rug. Both ends were shredded. Three brown fingernails remained.

    One room, at the back of the main hallway, had rusted steel buckets lined against the wall, each filled with hardened feces, white and chalky with time. One bucket had the word happy painted on it.

    They took the winding staircase to the second floor.

    In one meeting room was a slanted stage. Above the stage, on the fascia, was a large medallion made of crisscrossed black string, perhaps an occupational-therapy project of some sort.

    They continued through the wing. Byrne noted that many of the individual rooms had observation windows, some as small and simple as a pair of holes drilled into the door. Nothing, it seemed, went unobserved at Convent Hill.

    'This was Maristella's room,' Christa-Marie said. The room was no larger than six by six feet. Against the wall, a long-faded pink enamel, were three threadbare stretchers. 'She was my friend. A little crazy, I think.'

    The massive gymnasium had a large mural, measuring more than fifty feet long. The background was the rolling hills surrounding the facility. Scattered throughout were small scenes, all drawn by different hands - hellish depictions of rape, murder, and torture.


    When they turned the corner into the east wing, Byrne stopped in his tracks. Someone was standing at the end of the wide hallway. Byrne could not see much. The person was small, compact, unmoving.

    It took Byrne a few moments to realize, in the dim light, that it was only a cutout of a person. As they drew closer, he could see that it was a plywood pattern of a child, a boy perhaps ten or twelve years old. The figure wore a yellow shirt and dark brown pants. Behind the figure, on the wall, was painted a blue stripe, perhaps meant to mimic the ocean. As they passed the figure, Byrne saw pockmarks in the plywood, along with a few holes. Behind the figure were corresponding holes. At some point the figure had been riddled with bullets. Someone had drawn blood on the shirt.

    They stopped at the end of the hall. Above them the roof had rotted away. A few drops of water found them.

    'You know at the first note,' Christa-Marie said.

    'What do you mean?'

    'Whether a child has the potential to be a virtuoso.' She looked at her hands, her long, elegant fingers. 'They draw you in. The children.

    At Prentiss they asked me a hundred times to teach. I kept refusing. I finally gave in. Two boys stood out.'

    Byrne took her hand. 'Who are these boys?'

    Christa-Marie did not answer right away. 'They were there, you know,' she eventually said.


    'At the concert,' she said. 'After.'

    There was a sound, an echoing sound from somewhere in the darkness. Christa-Marie seemed not to notice.

    'That night, Christa-Marie. Take me back to that night.'

    Christa-Marie looked at him. In her eyes he saw the same look he had seen twenty years earlier, a look of fear and loneliness.

    'I wore black,' she said.

    'Yes,' Byrne said. 'You looked beautiful.'

    Christa-Marie smiled. 'Thank you.'

    'Tell me about the concert.'

    Christa-Marie glided across the corridor, into the semi-darkness. 'The hall was decorated for the holidays. It smelled of fresh pine. We debated fiercely over the program. The audience was, after all, children. The director wanted yet another performance of Peter and the Wolf:

    Byrne expected her to continue. She did not. Her eyes suddenly misted with tears. She walked slowly back, reached into her bag, retrieved a piece of paper, handed it to Byrne. It was a letter, addressed to Christa-Marie and copied to her attorney, Benjamin Curtin. It was from the Department of Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Byrne read the letter.

    A few moments later he took her hands in his. 'Will you play for me tonight?'

    Christa-Marie moved closer. She put her arms around him, her head on his chest. They stood that way for a long time, not moving, not speaking. She broke the silence first.

    'I'm dying, Kevin.'

    Byrne stroked her hair. It was silken to his touch. 'I know.'

    She nestled closer. 'I can hear your heart. It is steady and strong.'

    Byrne looked out the window, at the fogbound forest surrounding Convent Hill. He remained silent. There was nothing to say.

The Echo Man
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