Hazzard Manor by Dawn Coen

It was a cold December morning in Los Angeles. The sort that made Margaret grateful she no longer lived in the tundra that was northern Minnesota. The wind whipped through her long black hair and she wondered idly why she’d chosen to sit outside at all.

She looked up from her worn copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. She was fifty pages or so from the end, and there was a noticeable divide in the book. The beginning pages were all soft to the touch, some bent or even torn. The final pages were crisp. Like new. Margaret had tried reading this book, over and over again, over the past two decades. But for some reason she always put it down, somewhere around fifty pages from completion.

She had wondered often what this said about her. In college, she brushed it off as having had more pressing work to do. But later she’d tried again and found the story abhorrent, despite considering herself a lover of all sorts of strange and unsettling stories.

Margaret’s stomach rumbled, empty and aching. She could see the dreadful structure 100 yards away that was the reason for her discomfort. Yet, she had put herself here of her own free will.

Free will, she thought. She couldn’t help wondering if, really, there was such a thing. Often she felt the will of others was forced upon her: the beliefs of her parents during Margaret’s childhood, still haunting her now, even in adulthood; and the expectations of society on the role of a woman. Ideas and constructs, thrust really, like wagging fingers invading her most private parts. No, not there. Disgusting. I mean my soul, she clarified to no one but herself.

There was no one else.

She talked like this to herself a lot. Whole conversations with two seemingly opposite selves. It was the reason she’d finally answered the advertisement in the newspaper for this gloomy place.

Do you need a break? It had read. Is life bringing you down? Do you eat and indulge in the pleasures of life, yet still feel empty? Margaret had answered a resounding yes to all questions. Find your true self at Hazzard Manor, boasted the ad. Empty your body and fill your soul.

And here she was, sitting on a dusty hillside above and outside Los Angeles, overlooking the hazy city in the distance, and closer, gazing upon the large, crumbling structure that was Hazzard Manor.

Margaret had lost track of time. She was almost certain it was the year 2028, but she wouldn’t put any money on it. It didn’t matter. Time was meaningless at the Manor. Elusive. Margaret wasn’t even sure how long she’d been there. She squinted into the weak daylight, fixing her eyes upon shapeless clouds high above. Her eyes burned and then watered from focusing too long.

How long have I been here? she wondered again, more directly this time. It’s December, she reminded herself. I checked in on September 21…but what was the year? she asked. Her memory was hazy, like the air around the city.

She wasn’t sure the last time she’d eaten anything. The memory of an apple was on her tongue: a sour-crisp granny smith, her second least favorite of all the apple varieties. The worst kind were red delicious. Even as a child Margaret had scoffed at the name, which had always seemed ill chosen to her. Or maybe she’d just never had a good one.

That was another question she often asked of herself. Possibly all her life she had experienced the bad side of everything good. Possibly her timing for everything had always been wrong. Off. So that if her timing had been better, her life and her outlook could have been completely different. For instance, if she had flown from Minnesota to Los Angeles just one day later, she might never have met Ben. Her heart might never have been broken when Ben slept with Katerina. Margaret could have met and married Alex sooner, and they could have had a family.

Maybe her life could have been sunny, not hazy.

Instead, Margaret was all she had now. Margaret and all the other lives she imagined living. These lives, these voices, in her great hunger, had started talking back to her louder than before, and more often. The promise of Hazzard Manor had lured her there, to stop the emptiness she felt in her soul, and, Margaret had thought, by fasting, the voices within would quiet.

But Margaret was starting to have doubts. Her hunger was always there, and so were the voices. And she was pretty sure they were both getting worse. It scared her that she didn’t know for certain how long she’d been at the Manor. She couldn’t pick apart the days from the months in her delirium.

The years?

But she had chosen this, and she was determined to see it through to the end. Whatever that meant. The owner, Dr. Mallory Tanner, was not a doctor in any traditional sense. But she claimed to be a spiritual healer. According to Dr. Tanner, Margaret was approaching a breakthrough in her treatment. Two more days and Margaret would be allowed a cup of vegetable broth.

A bell rang from the tallest tower of Hazzard Manor, rousing Margaret from her daydreams about food. It was time to go inside and face the other component of her treatment, which Dr. Tanner called “The Purge.”

Margaret stood up on shaky legs, noting the bones protruding at her knees. She smiled. The fast was working. Soon she would change into something more. Something different. A better version of herself.

Inside her head, a voice echoed, laughing itself into hysterics. The other patients nearby were staring at her, and Margaret wondered if they could hear the voices in her head, too. It was a comfort, to know she wasn’t all alone in her head.

They hear me! she thought gleefully. Then she clutched her stomach, its emptiness aching from the exertion of her outburst. She glimpsed the hazy outline of Los Angeles as she doubled over, but when her knees gave way all she saw was the ominous shadow of the Manor building.

The other patients looked on as if frozen, in awe, and great black birds circled overhead, squawking, drowning out the voices in Margaret’s head, and she fell, dead, with a shriveled smile across her sunken face.

* * *

Daniel saw Margaret fall, her black hair hanging heavy, as if it were dragging her down. He couldn’t help but stare at her gray eyes, open and bulging, partly hidden by her limp tresses.

From somewhere in the back of his mind came the image of a vampire crumbling to dust, as if that was about to happen to poor Margaret. He couldn’t look away, even though he tried. If she vanished into ash he wanted to be there to witness it.

Several minutes passed as he, along with a handful of other starving artists, watched on. They were each frozen, mouths agape, as if December in Los Angeles had made ice sculptures of them all. He shook the thought free from his head. Unlikely, he decided. He shook himself again. Impossible, he revised.

Eventually a pair of Manor workers emerged from the Gothic building. One of them carried something black and folded, tucked against his body at the elbow. Daniel knew what it was. He had known long before the pair even exited the building.

He had seen this all before.

The workers didn’t rush toward the fallen form of what had been Margaret. Clearly they knew as well as he did that Margaret was no more. They approached the corpse and unfolded the ominous body bag. It didn’t take long for them to lift the body and deposit it into the flimsy material. It didn’t need to be sturdy–Margaret had not weighed much more than 60 pounds. The weight of a child, really.

A child like Sammy, thought Daniel grimly. His daughter’s death had set all of this in motion. Not Margaret. Daniel took no responsibility for Margaret. He took no responsibility for his wife, either, who had run off before Sammy even turned one year old. Daniel would not take responsibility for the dozens of other patients who died at Hazzard Manor every month.

But for himself, yes, he took responsibility. He was the one who left little Sammy in her car seat while he ran into the grocery store.

Daniel’s eyes misted over. He had meant to be only a few minutes, but once inside the store he kept walking up and down the aisles, remembering this thing or that thing, that he had thought he needed so desperately it couldn’t wait. The fluorescent lights and cool air conditioning numbed his senses. He forgot about Sammy, not yet three years old, waiting for him, wailing for him, in her car seat.

That had been in August. It was one hundred and four degrees that day, and it was two in the afternoon–the hottest part of the day. Daniel meant to be five minutes, but instead he was twenty-five minutes. By the time he emerged from the grocery store, saw his car, and remembered his child, it was much too late.

So here he was, at Hazzard Manor, punishing himself. That much he knew. He wasn’t fooling himself. He was taking responsibility. He wasn’t hiding, the way Margaret had been hiding (or so he imagined–he’d only spoken to her a handful of times, but it was the impression he always got). No, he wasn’t hiding. He was dying, under the supposed care of Dr. Tanner.

“Sir,” said a voice, rousing Daniel from his thoughts. “Patient? Patient 1-3-4?”

Daniel nodded and gave a noncommittal: “Mmm hmm.” He still could not tear his gaze away from the spot Margaret had fallen. The corpse was long gone now. Erased from existence, just like that, in a matter of minutes. He wondered, as he always did, what happened to the bodies.

“Patient 134, it is time for your session,” said the voice, forcefully this time.

Daniel blinked and swiveled his head to a member of the staff. His crisp white lab coat attempted authority. But Daniel knew better. The worker was one of hundreds of temporary workers that had come and gone in the months he’d been there. Nobody seemed to want to stick around, except most of the patients, who had somehow fooled themselves into thinking they were getting exactly what they needed.

Daniel was pretty sure he was the only one actually waiting to die. He nodded to the temp in the lab coat. “Thanks,” he said, striding as fast as his spindly legs would allow toward the towering gray Manor. Now that his awareness was back in the present moment, Daniel wondered how he’d managed to block out the droning sound of the horn that signaled it was time for The Purge.

The closer he got to the building, the more deafening the sound became. Daniel welcomed it, bathed in it, drowned in it. This was the only time of the week that his mind wasn’t focused on his memory of that horrific day. To him, the horn meant feeling nothing, remembering nothing. That horn was everything; it was the promise of paradise.

He stepped into the gaping mouth of the doorway into Hazzard Manor. This would be his seventeenth Purge session, so Daniel knew precisely where to go. He followed one dingy hall after another, all alone like a rat in a maze. Every patient in the facility would be attending a Purge session, but none ever went to the same place at the same time.

Halfway to his personal massage room, Daniel became aware of his feet slowing of their own accord and he tripped, falling hard. After the impact, Daniel coughed up a smattering of blood. It sprayed his chin, his pants, and the cold, hard floor. He inspected his newly skinned knee and his lips peeled back into a gruesome smile. He wiped his mouth and knee with the bottom of his shirt, smearing it in bright red blood that soaked quickly into the fabric–as if the fabric were thirsty.

Daniel coughed again and tried to ignore the thought of being thirsty. He hadn’t had anything to eat for two days, and his last sip of water had been early that morning.

Daniel picked himself off the frigid, grimy floor and noticed his breathing was labored from the effort. He was dizzy when he stood up but pressed on. Soon he was at the entrance to his massage room. Everything was pitch black. His lip curled back in a sneer. “Massage room” was what the room had been called in the brochure, but that wasn’t even close to accurate.

He pushed open the door, which let out a creaky groan like a wild animal ready to pounce, and he stepped inside. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck. Not nerves. No. Anticipation.

The lights were dim, which was the only spa-like feature provided. The room itself was ice cold and covered with flat-screen televisions, stacked one on top of the next, all blaring with the news, or static, or simply flashing colors as if he had just entered a night club with a pulsing strobe light.

His technician stepped out from a dark corner. Daniel rarely saw Dr. Tanner anymore. Once Daniel had crossed the threshold of being a patient for 30 days, he only ever saw technicians for his Purge sessions. Daniel didn’t mind. It was the pain he needed, not the doctor.

“Hello, 1-3-4,” whispered the technician with faux concern, wearing skintight black leather. For some patients, Daniel knew, the Purge had a component of sexual pleasure. Daniel himself had never understood that. All he wanted was the beating –what the person inflicting pain wore made no difference to him.

Admittedly, Daniel had tried, once, early on in his treatment, to feel aroused during a Purge session. But immediately he realized why this would not work for him: Daniel was at Hazzard Manor to feel pain, not pleasure–not even the humiliating, demeaning sort of pleasure that is derived from being in a compromising situation. Now, seventeen sessions in, all of Daniel’s technicians knew exactly what he needed.

Daniel felt a sharp pinch from behind as the flesh of his upper right arm was gathered into a sort of clamp. The same happened on his left, then on each of his hands. A large chain was placed around his neck, like a necklace, but it was heavy and tight, like a snake constricting. In each session this chain was weighted further. At first Daniel had thought it only felt heavier because his body was growing weaker, but he’d asked Dr. Tanner one day and she confirmed the weights, the clamps, the vices, the noise, the temperature, the whippings, all increased in discomfort each session, in order to further rid the body and mind of toxins.

Fasting alone was not enough.

That was her science, and it had become Daniel’s religion. Half of Daniel wanted to beg Dr. Tanner for a job at Hazzard Manor, and half of him wanted to just die here. It would be only a matter of time before either his mind, or his body, made the decision of which path he would follow.

Either way it was clear to him: he would never leave Hazzard Manor. Ever.

* * *

Nick Couffey watched Patient 134 disappear into the depths of the Manor house. He shivered, but not from the cold. Yes, it was December in Los Angeles, and yes, it was cold for LA, but it was still forty-five degrees–nothing compared to the deadly blizzards cutting their way through the middle of the country this week.

Nick had plans, and those plans did not include Hazzard Manor. He hadn’t left the plains of north Texas to work in a mental institution run by a thinly veiled homicidal maniac posing as a doctor. No, sir. Or in this case, no, ma’am.

The death of Margaret, Patient 52, had affected Nick in a way he hadn’t expected. Maybe it was because Margaret had always smiled at him in a way that felt like they were in on some joke together. Or maybe because Margaret was the first patient he’d encountered in this strange place, on Nick’s first day on the job, just three months earlier. Or maybe it was because Margaret truly believed she was getting better.

Nick tasted copper in the back of his throat and knew he was going to be sick. It became suddenly, forcefully, very clear. He stumbled his way to some waist-high hedges a few feet away and retched into the brittle brown-green branches.

That was it, he decided. He was quitting. He was an employee–not a patient–yet he’d been unable to keep his food down for two weeks. He was starving, yet his body continued to rebel.

Every day he felt himself growing weaker, hungrier, and more agitated. His thoughts were increasingly hazy. Hazy like the Los Angeles afternoon skyline. He choked and gagged, again emptying his insides all over the bushes until there was nothing left.

One of the other staff members approached him warily. “You ok, Nick?” asked Mary. Concern barely masked her revulsion, as if she was performing a necessary duty rather than displaying human compassion.

Nick waved her away. He didn’t need her pity. “I’m fine,” he croaked.

Mary nodded, clearly relieved, before turning toward the imposing Hazzard Manor and vanishing inside. Nick looked around. He was now the only soul left on the lawn. He thought of Margaret again. Where was her soul? Did she have one? He was pretty sure her mind, body, and soul had been sucked dry by Dr. Mallory Tanner. She was no MD, but that didn’t seem to deter the patients from pouring into the place.

Nick dry heaved a few more times before making his way back toward the main house. He would go see Dr. Tanner now, before he lost his nerve. He stepped into the yawn of Hazzard Manor and turned left. Her office was at the center of the monolithic maze, like a cheese prize for the lab rats who managed to solve the puzzle correctly. He didn’t really understand why she would choose to spend her days in a windowless square room, rather than taking a corner office with a view like any sane person would.

The answer came to him like something over a telepathic wire. Because she’s insane, not sane. He laughed out loud and the noise echoed and bounced off the cavernous walls of the narrow hallway. The place was like a cemetery, deathly quiet. With all the patients undergoing Purge sessions, and the other employees nowhere to be found, Nick was utterly alone.

Suddenly there was a scream. Nick felt it deep down in his empty gut and he had to stop and steady himself. It wasn’t unusual to hear screams during the Purge, he had to remind himself. The trouble was, one scream ignited another, and another, and another, like dogs barking in the night. The sound swelled to the point of bursting in his ears, his whole head full of the sound of screaming.

It was then he realized he had closed his eyes. He opened them and discovered he was lying on the floor, screaming. It was like he’d been infected with hunger. His insides twisted with the desire for food, yet the simple thought of food made him want to vomit again.

What is happening to me? he thought. He stood up on trembling legs, swinging his head from side to side, trying to figure out which way he was going, and where he’d come from.

Texas, something in his brain said. You came from Texas. Nick shook away the thought. That isn’t right, he told himself. He tapped his forehead with his palm. Think, man! he yelled at himself.

His thoughts were so cloudy. His thoughts were so hungry. Where is the employee cafeteria? he asked himself. Did it even exist? Did he even exist? Another scream erupted nearby, and it took Nick a full minute to realize the sound had come from his own mouth.

He beat his head against the wall until he felt a trickle of blood. Soon the trickle became a river–hot, sticky and blinding. Nick couldn’t see. The blood was pouring down his face, obscuring his vision. He swiped at the river of blood with his hand and before he could stop himself he was sucking on his fingers, tasting the blood, slurping up the nutrient-rich fluid that his body so desperately needed.

He was quickly overcome by his need. He bit down, hard. He gnawed at his own fingers, teeth grinding against bone. He felt nothing. There was no pain, only quenching hunger. I’m in shock, he realized, too late. Half of his right hand was mangled.

Nick started to cry, loud sobs that racked his body and shook his bones. His stomach rattled and Nick was certain he could hear the bones of his fingers clattering in his belly.

He outstretched his arms and stepped back, trying to separate his body from his hunger. “I WANT TO GO HOME,” he howled. “I WANT TO GO HOME! I WANT TO GO HOME!”

Somewhere behind him a door opened, illuminating a square of the hallway. Nick turned to see Dr. Mallory Tanner coming toward him. All this time and he had made it through the maze, to the prize, and he hadn’t known it.

She came at him with something of a wild grin on her face. He swung the stump that was his right arm at her, trying to shield himself from the look of hunger in her eyes. “No, no, no.” He moaned. “No no no no no no no no no no nonononononono—“

“Come, my sweet boy,” she said. “You must calm down.”

“I want to go home,” Nick cried.

Dr. Tanner wrapped impossibly long arms around his shoulders and held him in an embrace as he stood there, shaking. After a moment the doctor pulled away and looked into his eyes. Her gray gaze held his, while her left hand traveled down his right arm, lifted his bloody, stubby hand, brought it to her mouth, and licked it gently.

“I want to go home,” Nick cried again.

Dr. Tanner continued to suckle on his bloody, mangled fingers as though she hadn’t heard him. Nick wanted to pull away but found he couldn’t. The fight had gone out of him as sure as his blood was flowing from his gaping wound into the doctor’s belly.

“My sweet boy,” she said, smacking her lips. “You are home.”

Dawn Coen earned her BA in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, where she published two poems in the campus literary magazine NOTA. For the past seventeen years she has been living in Los Angeles, writing and producing for television. She hopes to publish her first novel in the near future and is working on her second. She enjoys reading and writing fiction as well as poetry, traveling whenever possible, and drinking red wine.

This author has not provided a photo.