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Chapter 6: Jackie

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Gone -- A Novel about the Rapture
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Walnut State Colony
Thursday, January 2, 3:00 P.M.

Dr. Grace Kimberly, the superintendent of Walnut State Colony, had some very firm ideas about how such an institution should be run. Having at least one upper-echelon administrator on duty for all three shifts every day of the year was one of her stronger tenets. And the policy included all major holidays. This sometimes-dubious honor was rotated among about a dozen experienced department heads with program responsibility and carried the title of Administrator-on-Duty. AOD for short.

Fortunately three senior nurses were assigned this duty for the night shift, 11:15 to 7:15. Mark's share of the week-day P.M. shifts and weekends amounted to every other Thursday from 3:00 to 11:30 and every sixth weekend from 7:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M.

On his way past the switchboard Mark waved to Brenda and then jogged down the center stairway to the florescent glare of the time office. Brenda watched his descent with a rueful smile.

The morning AOD handed mark the PM coverage sheet and he scanned it for plus and minus situations in the 26 cottages. Ten had one extra employee on duty and only four were one short. Quickly Mark jotted down the names of the aides he wanted pulled to the short cottages and handed the list to Maggie Runston, the time clerk on duty for his shift. Her finger pecked the phone buttons as she quietly and efficiently made the necessary pulling calls.

While the pulling was being done, Mark fastened the leather radio holster to his belt and checked out his frequency with Brenda at the switchboard. Each nurse on grounds for the shift would be carrying a one-way voice pager in addition to the two-ways carried by the AOD, two security men, and two food trucks.

Maggie handed him the coverage sheet. "Here's the way we look for tonight, in case you want to check before the AM shift goes off duty."

Mark reviewed the coverage pattern to be sure all cottages were covered after the pulling. Each one was at least at minimum and there were six extras scattered around the grounds. Good to know in case someone went home sick in the middle of the shift or if he needed an extra aide to go one-to-one with a problem resident.

The RN and LPN coverage had seemed okay the first time he looked at the sheet and Maggie hadn't needed to make any changes. RNs were assigned to cover three cottages on a circulating basis and there was at least one LPN in each cottage. The LPNs would be responsible for pouring and administering medication and would take care of simple first aide as well as ordered treatments. The RNs, in turn, would generally supervise the LPNs and handle more serious medical problems. They would also be responsible for deciding when the on-duty physician needed to be aware of a particular issue or see a resident.

Mark relaxed with the knowledge he was adequately covered for the shift. He rose, stretched, and went up to his office. After closing the inner door, he tackled that bloated in-basket.

At 5:45, the beeper roused Mark from the tedious chore of reading the monthly reports of his program supervisors. "Four-oh-eight base to the AOD. Please call the operator Code 1. Please call the operator Code 1. Base out."

Mark started to reach for the phone but decided to stretch his legs and walk down to the switchboard. "Got your call, Brenda. What's up?"

"Just got a call from Cottage 21. Jackie Dark is missing."

Mark felt a constriction of fear in his chest. Twelve inches of snow on the ground, temperature of 10 degrees with an overnight forecast of close to zero, and Jackie Dark was AWOL. Of course he might be hiding or out romping in the snow without a coat. Or, he might be visiting in a nearby cottage, mooching food because of his weight-reduction diet.

"Brenda, call security and all the food trucks and tell them to cruise the area around Cottage 21. Then call Cottages 20 and 22 and tell them to do a room-by-room search for Jackie. I'll call 21 myself."

The phone in Cottage 21 was answered on the fourteenth ring by a breathless Cottage Training Supervisor named Jenny Farthing. Mark knew Mrs. Farthing only slightly but he was aware of her reputation as a very reliable worker. And it was widely known that Jackie Dark was Jenny's pet. Jackie's parents took no interest in him, never writing or visiting. At birth, the doctor had told them they had a child with Down's Syndrome who would be helpless the rest of his life. At that point he had been abandoned to the care of the taxpayers and admitted to Walnut Valley at the age of 11 days.

On at least three occasions in the last ten years, Walnut Valley caseworkers had placed Jackie in the community, twice in foster homes and most recently in a group home. The first placement had occurred when he was 21 years old. But Jackie was so acclimated to the routines of institutional living he couldn't tolerate the community living arrangements provided for him. Each time he cried and bellowed and carried on so that a caseworker had to take him back to Walnut Valley.

Jackie, with his very limited expressive vocabulary, called all female employees "mom". But when he looked at Jenny Farthing, he said it with a capital "M". And the feeling was definitely mutual. Jenny's silver hair was often bowed close to his blond butcherboy in a moment of shared closeness. A squared, stubby-fingered hand would steal up to pat her lined cheek and his broad face would split in a smile of pure and simple contentment. What administrator would have the heart to tell Jenny Farthing she couldn't play favorites with one of the residents.

Without a doubt Jackie Dark was Jenny Farthing's boy. But now he was missing.

"Cottage 21, Jenny Farthing," she wheezed.

"Mrs. Farthing, this is Mark Marlow, the AOD. Understand that Jackie has been reported as missing."

Now Mark could detect the sound of tears underlying the breathlessness. "Oh, Mr. Marlow, I'm so worried. We've searched this cottage from top to bottom three different times and I'm sure he's not hiding somewhere. And I know he was at supper because I handed him his tray myself and he ate a good supper. But then he said he, well, you know. He didn't say it but he showed me that he wanted to go to the bathroom so I let him go upstairs before the rest of the boys were dismissed from the dining room. And . . . and, Mr. Marlow . . . that's the last I saw of Jackie. I don't know where he went or where he is."

"Do you think he has his coat on?"

The sobbing subsided a little as Jenny began to regain control. "We can't find his coat so I guess he has it on. But there's something else that's worrying us and that you need to know about. He refused his four o'clock meds and that means that he didn't take his anticonvulsant. And if he goes too long without that, he's liable to have a grand mal seizure, right out there in the snow. And the way it's snowing now, it would be awful hard to see him if he's lying down in the snow and all."

Mark's own alarm suddenly heightened. "Mrs. Farthing, what's this about snowing?" he demanded but Jenny's control had slipped again and Mark had to hang up.

Turning to the operator, he saw she was crying, too. Brenda had been monitoring Mark's conversation after making her own calls and she pointed wordlessly toward the glare of the sodium vapor light in the rear parking lot. In long strides Mark was at the back door and leaning out into the night. The unmistakable evidence of at least an hour's snowfall was on the AOD's State car in its spot beside the door.

Back at the switchboard, Brenda was drying her tears and was ready for further instructions. "I didn't realize it was snowing again. Whoever's on call tonight as search coordinator, call him in." Brenda checked a list and dialed a number. As soon as Mark was sure the coordinator was on the line, Mark raced down the steps to the time office.

"Maggie, we have an emergency. Jackie Dark up in 21 is missing and the cottage is sure he's not hiding inside somewhere. That means he's probably out in the snow."

Maggie had been taking her lunch break with an orange and a paperback. With Mark's announcement, however, she had grabbed the coverage notebook and was running up the stairs toward the switchboard. Just to be safe, Mark snapped a freshly-charged battery on the base of his two-way. Then he raced up the steps on Maggie's heels.

Upstairs, Brenda reported that Hank Grant, the farm manager, was on call as search coordinator and was already on his way. "Good. No one knows these grounds like Hank. Now, give me all stations."

Brenda nodded and placed the mike up on the counter where Mark could speak into it easily and then began flipping toggles and turning dials. In less than ten seconds, she nodded to Mark and he was in contact with most the employees on duty, either through the PA system or the radios and pagers.

"This is 408 base with a Red One emergency message for all stations and all employees. Repeating, this is an emergency message for all stations and all employees. Jackie Dark is missing from Cottage 21. He was last seen about 5:30 in the dining room and the cottage thinks he has his parka on." Mark's knuckles were white as he gripped the mike stand. A lot of people were on supper break now but this was no time to think of such niceties. He breathed deeply and leaned back to the mike and his audience of Walnut Valley employees.

"We are now going to emergency status. If possible, the people who aren't warmly dressed should provide the cottage coverage. Everyone above your cottage's emergency coverage level should report to 21's parking lot. Take along all the flashlights you can find. And, if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle on campus, I'd really appreciate your driving your rig over to the 21 area. Nurses, you are responsible for making sure this message is received and understood in the cottages you're covering. Hank Grant is the search coordinator tonight and he's on his way to 21 right now. Good luck to all of you. And good luck to Jackie. Base out."

All Walnut Valley employees were responsible for knowing the meaning of "emergency status" as specified in the institution's disaster plan. All non-essential activities were immediately terminated and all available employees were released to help in coping with the emergency. This meant cancellation of lunch and coffee breaks with only a skeleton staff left in the cottage to provide safety-level supervision. Mark estimated that no less than 50 on-duty employees would soon converge on Cottage 21. This group would include food service workers as well as direct-care staff from the cottages.

Maggie had the State Police on the line and Mark turned to take the phone. Quickly he filled them in on the details of the situation with Jackie and the possibility of needing outside help. In the meantime, Brenda was dialing a Michigan number in an attempt to locate Jackie's mother at her last known address. Although she had not been in contact with Jackie in recent years, it was standard procedure to notify the parents of all unusual events in the lives of their children.

The big question was whether to escalate the search another level or wait and see if the on-duty staff would be successful in finding Jackie. With the cold and the dark, and especially the falling snow, Mark decided to take no chances. He turned to Brenda and Maggie.

"Girls, I think we're going to off-duty employees." Both nodded in silent agreement. "Split up the direct-care staff and order them to report for work dressed for an outdoor search. Tell them it's emergency mandatory overtime and all refusals will require a doctor's excuse. I'm going up to 21 and get the search started. Give me a beep if you hear anything."

Mark fervently wished the superintendent was not in Florida. Even the Director of Cottage Life was out of circulation with walking pneumonia. In the past five years Mark had dealt with budget cuts, recalcitrant employees, and an occasional aggressive resident, but never a life-or-death search in a January snow storm. Kind of scary business, making decisions which could effect the survival chances of another human being.

Mark ran down the hall to his office and jerked open a file drawer. He pulled out the bulky institutional disaster manual. With fierce intensity he checked and rechecked the Missing Resident Procedure. Finally he leaned back in his chair, satisfied that all stipulated steps had been followed precisely.

The beeper squealed and Brenda's tense but smooth voice spoke from Mark's two-way. "Four-oh-eight base to the AOD. I have Dr. King on an outside line. Where can I reach you?"

Mark pressed the talk button. "Ten-four, Brenda. Hit me on 224."

The phone buzzed and Mark quickly briefed the cabinet-level administrator in Trenton on the situation. Dr. King responded calmly but with concern and approved everything Mark had done so far.

After the Trenton call, Mark switched his beeper to receive all calls and hurried up to Cottage 21 to join the search party.

When he reached his car in the parking lot, Mark remembered his own snowmobile suit was still in the hatch of the Sprint. Shivering with cold and concern, he hurried back inside the building to don the snow gear. No good chance of doing that in 14 inches of snow or the Sprint's miniscule rear seat.

Up at the 21 parking lot, Hank stood alone and hunched against the driving snow as a long, ragged line of dark shapes punctuated with pinpoints of lights struggled across the broad face of a slope behind the program building. Mark pulled the State car in beside the farm manager's red CJ-7 and joined him in the knee deep snow beyond the plowed area of the parking lot.

"What do you think, Hank? Do we have a chance?"

The stocky farmer responded with uncharacteristic tenderness. "Dunno, Mark. It's really looking bad for Jackie. If it hadn't started to snow, I'd say our chances would be a lot better. Way it is now, if he falls down with a seizure, he'll probably be pretty well dusted with snow before he comes out of it. That way, a searcher could come within a yard of where he is without seeing him, in the dark and all."

Mark nodded at Hank's assessment of the situation and then briefed him on the current efforts to get in more help. "Think we ought to ask for help from the Guard or the Scouts or some outfit like that?"

"Not really," the search coordinator replied after a moment of thought. "With the snow as deep as it is, Jackie couldn't have gone more'n half a mile in the hour it took to get those people up there on the scene. What we're doing now is swinging a line of searchers walking close enough to reach out and touch each other's hands. First they went in a circle around Cottage 21 here. Then they moved out and right now they're making another swing around the bigger circle."

"I see what you're doing. Each time around, the circle gets bigger until ... until we find him. But what happens if we don't?"

Hank shot a brown jet of tobacco juice into a tire track and wiped his mouth on the back of his glove. "We'll keep making the circle wider and wider until the radius is at least half a mile. If we haven't found him by then, we move back in to the center of the circle and do the same thing over again, this time walking shoulder to shoulder.

"Hank, do you know if Jennie Farthing is in the cottage?"

The farmer managed a dry laugh. "She was out here in all this snow in a skirt and stockings, with no boots. Thought she was going to do what those folks up there are doing. I gave her a direct order to hold the fort in there and let folks with warmer clothes tramp through the snow. She got awful mad but she went back in. Someone said she's been doing nothing but crying and praying for the last hour. Not sure about the crying, but we sure can use a heap of praying about now."

"Think I'll go in and talk to her. Let me know if I can do anything. In fact, Hank, I bet some of those girls up there aren't dressed all that well for this kind of thing, either. After I talk to Jenny, I'll join the search line and let someone take a break in the cottage for a while."

"Lots of 'em could probably use a break by now. But, I think I'd rather have you stay down here with me and help get the new searchers organized as they come in. Once the fresh people are on the line, we can start relieving some of the others who aren't dressed so warm."

Mark saw the wisdom of Hank's posture but it was hard to just stand around when a human being might be freezing to death in a post-seizure stupor, right within earshot.

Inside Cottage 21, the remaining 37 male residents were in bed for the night and the overhead dorm lights had been turned out. The sound of tearful prayer came from the visitors' room just off the foyer. Mark rapped on the door and then waited.

Jenny's face was mottled and swollen from crying and she stood with bowed head, in the open doorway, unable to control her sobs. Mark put his arm around her shoulders and led her across the hall to the employee break room.

"Mrs. Farthing, why don't you try to settle down just a little bit and take a break in here where it's quiet. Put your feet up and have a cup of coffee."

The sobbing had eased but her voice was strained with tearful anguish. "How can I sit in here in the warm and take it easy when Jackie's out there in the snow somewhere, dying? It's all my fault, too. I never should have left him out of my sight when he asked to leave the dining room. You may as well take my resignation right now, Mr. Marlow. I ain't fit to work here, a person like me."

The sobbing resumed and Mark considered asking the LPN to slip her an Ativan. "Stop the foolish talk, Jenny," Mark said with gentleness. "I can't think of another person who has more right to work here than you do. By the way, is your LPN in the nurse's station? I need to talk with her a minute."

The young practical nurse's face was also wet with tears but her voice was steady as she related what Jenny thought had happened. Apparently Jackie had just been reprimanded for trying to snitch extra food from his neighbor's tray. Jenny hadn't seen that particular incident and so she didn't realize he might be upset when he asked to leave the dining room early. The best guess anyone had was that he didn't go to the bathroom at all but got his boots and parka instead. Probably tried to walk up to Cottage 26 to mooch food. He must have gotten disoriented in the dark, along with the falling snow, and wandered off the path that cuts across to Cottage 26 on the outer drive.

The LPN freely admitted her error in not making sure Jackie had received his four o'clock Tegretol. She also agreed that the combination of physical exertion, fear, and the missed dose of anticonvulsant might bring on one of Jackie's infrequent but violent seizures. Not a pleasant thought.

Mark felt like crying, too, as he left the cottage and walked over to where a cluster of new searchers had gathered around Hank.

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