Page 56 of Wicked Burn

Vic put up both his hands at once before he pointed at Alexis Chandler. “Can you be quiet for a second, please?” He focused on Niall. “What the hell is she talking about?” he demanded. Surely Alexis Chandler was batty or something. Niall couldn’t be married.

She would have told him. He knew she would have. That wasn’t something you just forgot to mention when you were in a relationship with someone.

Unless you were purposefully trying to keep it secret, of course . . .

He noticed that Niall seemed to be searching his face for answers just as desperately as he sought them in hers.

“You can’t be married,” Vic declared in a harsh voice.

Niall’s expression sagged. Her posture wilted, as well. She lowered her gaze from his. The gesture was silent, of course, but Vic felt like a door had just been resoundingly slammed shut in his face.

“I am,” she said blankly. “Let me get my purse and coat, Mom, and I’ll be ready to go see Stephen.”


Niall stared at the fake Christmas tree in the large, airy day room. A Christmas tree that was still up during the third week of January was always a bit depressing, but combined with the fact that this particular one was in a mental institution, the sight turned downright gloomy. All of the ornaments were made of paper, of course, no sharp edges that could be put to a harmful use. Niall actually recognized some of the ornaments from the two previous Christmases that she’d sat in this room . . . and that only added to her sense of gloom.

The day room might have been more aptly a day arena, as wide open and large as it was. Evergreen Park had been built in the 1970s, during the height of a period of psychiatric optimism. Niall thought that the original impetus behind building facilities like Evergreen Park had probably been good. But the promise of medical “cures” for such virulent conditions as schizophrenia and manic depression had fallen somewhat short of their expected glorious apex. Government funding for such facilities waned as more and more of the mentally ill were farmed out to less expensive nursing and group homes. Niall doubted that anything in the décor of the day room at Evergreen Park had been altered one bit since the 1970s, except for perhaps the new coats of paint that were likely mandated by the health code.

She sat up straighter when she heard the buzz of the electronic lock on the door that led to the patients’ residential wing. A young male attendant entered the room, followed by Stephen. Despite Stephen’s vast improvements over the past four weeks, it pained Niall to see him shuffle after the younger man like an obedient dog. One thing that had not improved with Stephen’s new medication regimen was his appetite. His clothing hung loosely on his gaunt, stooped frame.

“Good morning, Eli,” Niall greeted the attendant as they approached her. “Good morning, Stephen. How are you feeling today?”

“Okay,” Stephen mumbled.

“He just got a haircut,” Eli said with a smile. “Looking pretty spiffy.”

“It looks nice, Stephen,” Niall agreed.

As usual, Stephen didn’t meet her eyes but stared at the floor. He grimaced as he ran his hand over his burr haircut. The color of it—a rich, golden brown—had once nearly perfectly matched Michael’s hue. Niall saw that a good deal of gray was mixed with the brown now.

Eli laughed at his ward’s distasteful expression over his haircut. “So I guess Rose told you that Stephen wanted to talk to you, right?” Eli asked brightly.

Niall nodded.

“Okay. I’ll give you two some privacy, then. I’ll just be over on the other side of the day room,” he told Niall, giving her a significant look. Dr. Fardesh had taken Stephen off his one-to-one status, whereby an attendant was required to be in close proximity to him twenty-four hours a day due to possible suicide attempts or violence toward others. Nevertheless, Stephen was still very vulnerable to stressors of any kind, easily becoming anxious and erratic in his behavior if his daily routine was altered in the slightest.

Since he began to have periods of lucidity just before Christmas, Niall had made a point of visiting him at least once a week, often several times. She’d spoken with Rose Gonzalez and Dr. Fardesh at length about whether it would actually be helpful for her to come, determined to do what was right under these circumstances and not just whatever her parents determined was appropriate. The only reason she’d agreed to come at all was because Dr. Fardesh said that Stephen had begun to mention not only Niall’s name but Michael’s, both during his brief sessions with Dr. Fardesh and with his art therapist.

“I get the impression that Stephen is trying to work through something, Niall,” Dr. Fardesh had explained last week. “This medication regime we have him on is no cure, of course, but it might be giving him some psychological resources to try and cope, at least minimally, with his past. He’s been drawing pictures of Michael during his art therapy sessions. A few days ago he asked me how old Michael would have been today if he had lived. As you know, that sort of acknowledgment of Michael—let alone his death—has been unprecedented for Stephen since he’s been under my care.”

Niall had been flabbergasted by the news. To her knowledge, Michael’s name hadn’t passed Stephen’s lips since their four-year-old son’s funeral. It was soon afterward that her husband began to drink heavily and that his behavior became increasingly erratic, agitated, and eventually violent. By the time Matthew Manning’s trial came around, Stephen had declined both physically and psychologically to such a degree that Niall had no choice but to hospitalize him.