I am taking a page from Dickens and writing a novel in installments. Several souls have subscribed, but for those who want to jump in now, here is what has happened so far. I’ll update these pages with new installments once a month or so until my story is done.
The First Installment
The black birds gathered on the roof at sunset as they did every winter day. They flapped their wings, making a racket of feathers and hollow bird bones. The boy had no memory of being outside, but outside was where he was determined to go.
The grownups warned him illness filled the outside world. He didn’t believe this. If he were sick and the outside were sick, why couldn’t they be together?
The sun, however, frightened him. It burned too hot and bright, and it saw everything. The sun would expose him to the nurses. He didn’t know the punishment for sneaking out, but it would be spectacular.
Nurse Stillmark always used that word. The day was spectacular. The song over the loudspeaker was spectacular. His correct answer to a question was spectacular. His mistakes were spectacular too.
Sneaking up to the attic was easier than he expected, but he’d made a spectacular mistake. If he’d gone down to the basement, he’d have better access to the ground. From the attic, he had access only to the roof. Going up made no sense for an escape but up called to him. Up always called to him.
He had to wait for a deeper darkness. He curled up in the space between the wall and massive, dusty, rusty-hinged trunk and dozed.
The boy dreamed the black birds took him away to where grass bent under his feet, as soft as he’d always imagined, not sharp like the nurses threatened. He woke near midnight. The dream vanished, but the moon floated on high. The window latch moved easily under his small fingers. The cold night breeze startled him and he stretched his hand out, the moonlight striking his skin. This was fresh air. Fresh air was a promise.
He thought about falling. He thought about getting caught. The boy pulled himself through the old window and set one foot on the roof, four floors above the ground and where he was about to discover another world.
* * *
Three teens, two boys and a girl, stood together under the trees. Moonlight glowed through the branches, but only a sharp eye could see the young people standing there. They wore black, as they always did, and hoods hid their faces.
Sneaking into the Asylum had been Hannah’s idea. She’d longed to see the inside for as long as she could remember. Rumors said her grandmother lived in the Asylum, but her parents insisted the old woman rested at the bottom of the ocean. Convenient, Hannah said, to have no body.
The boys, Nate and Clem, had quickly agreed to join in her adventure. They wanted to go. That’s what they said. Under Hannah’s gaze, neither would admit otherwise.
Hannah sensed their hesitation. “I’m going first,” she said. “Don’t follow me if you’re scared.”
The boys insisted they weren’t scared. They said one of them should go first and make sure it was safe.
“My plan. My glory,” she replied. In her gloved hands she held the hook and the rope she’d stolen from her father’s workshop. She stepped out from under the tree, steadied herself, and tossed the hook up. The first few tries sent the heavy hook hurtling back at them. The boys jumped backwards. She tried again.
The hook caught, and she pulled herself up. At the top of the wall spikes and broken glass stabbed outward from the concrete. It took effort, but Hannah climbed up to the top of the wall getting only one shallow cut in the side of her hand. She balanced with one foot on each side of a spike. The heel of her boot cracked a bit of glass. She could see into the courtyard. For the first time, she saw the Asylum’s front doors.
A light shone above the grand doors, but otherwise the building stood in darkness. The moonlight reflected on the windowpanes. No bars covered the windows. She’d assumed there’d be bars.
One of the boys, Nate, called to her.
Hannah looked over the Asylum grounds and judged it safe enough. She was about to say something to the boys, when the sound of a rusty hinge caught her attention. She looked up at the roof and gasped.
A boy in pajamas was climbing out a window onto the steep roof. Surely the child was going to fall. There was nothing she could do, watching this little boy risk his life for no discernable purpose. So, she watched him, and she willed him not to fall.
Her eyes still on the boy, Hannah bent down and picked up the rope. She coiled it into her hands.
“Hannah?” Nate said, his voice hoarse. “What are you doing?”
With all the rope in her hand, she readjusted the hook to let the rope go the other way, and let the rope fall down the other side of the wall. The little boy stood on the roof, his hands outstretch as if catching raindrops, except that no rain fell. Not one cloud drifted across the black sky.
“Han!” Clem tried to shout and whisper at the same time. “Hannie!”
She looked down at the two of them and waved. She didn’t want them with her after all. She’d talked them into coming with her because there was safety in numbers, but this close to her goal, she wanted to be on her own. The boys didn’t dream of the Asylum as she did.
Hannah knelt on the top of the wall and picked the rope up again. The afternoons practicing rappelling down the walls of her parents’ house paid off. The Asylum wall was easy. Of course, it was always easier to get into the Asylum than to get out.
* * *
Nurse Stillmark unlocked the door to the medicine cabinet. The vial’s original label had been scratched off. Someone had written “quiet” on where bits of the label had been. She held the vial up to the light. The liquid shone clear and bright. She picked up the syringe, and shut the cabinet door.
The patients had to be asleep by midnight. No exceptions. Meredith missed a patient once. She didn’t want to make that mistake again.
She checked the time. She kept things to the minute and she went in order. She never varied her path. Change risked getting off the schedule, and the patients appreciated predictability. So did her bosses.
Nurse Stillmark started her round on the top floor, the 6th. There were twelve rooms per floor except for the ground floor with its offices and kitchen and other vital spaces.
The old woman in the first room was already asleep. She slept all the time, but Meredith gave her the nightly injection anyway. The liquid kept the woman’s nightmares at bay. She dreamed of wolves coming in the windows. Nurse Stillmark never dreamed of wolves. She refused to dream.
The second room was dark. The boy liked it dark. He kept the curtains drawn all day, which management encouraged. Townspeople, especially the teenagers, often tried to climb the asylum walls and peer in the windows. No one had ever succeeded, as far as Nurse Stillmark knew, but you couldn’t be too careful.
She knew her way around the room in the dark. She could walk the entire building blindfolded. She stepped over to the bed and reached for the boy’s arm.
He wasn’t there.
Nurse Stillmark turned around and around, but the boy wasn’t in the room. His absence was impossible. The door was locked from the outside. She carried the only key.
She flipped on the light. The boy really wasn’t there.
The procedure, which she’d not had to follow before, was to set off the alarm and lock down the Asylum. If she sounded the alarm, Management would know the boy went missing on her shift.
Nurse Stillmark didn’t want to go into the Office. Everyone knew they didn’t fire people, nor did they allow anyone to quit. She’d find the boy on her own. She’d finish her rounds. She’d look for him. No one would notice. Everyone else was asleep or busy. The boy couldn’t have left the grounds. She’d have heard. Everyone would know. She’d already be in the office.
The Asylum remained quiet. No sound gave away the boy. Nurse Stillmark took a deep breath and walked out of the room as she did every night. The other patients were waiting, and she was several minutes behind schedule as her heart raced ahead.
* * *
Nurse Stillmark made sure the rest of the patients slept. She dropped the empty vial and syringe into the hazardous material waste can. She washed her hands like she always did. Routine was important. When things went wrong, routine hid mistakes and secrets.
She took a deep breath, and turned down the hall. To find the boy she had to look where the boy would go. She ruled out the attic. Nothing up there but the roof and a neck-breaking drop.
Most likely, the boy wandered the halls. He was only six or seven. He could even be eight or nine. Age was hard to ascertain with the malnourished ones, and the boy, himself, didn’t know his own birthday. Or if he knew, he wasn’t talking.
The doctors failed to find a reason for the boy’s muteness—birth defect, disease, or trauma? Nurse Stillmark liked the mute patients best. With the mute ones, she didn’t have to worry about hearing their stories. Hearing patient stories slowed her down.
It was possible the boy possessed enough awareness, just enough, to want something. Most patients wanted something, and that something was not always first and foremost freedom.
In the Asylum basement stood lockers containing the things patients wanted back. Asylum management wouldn’t sell or burn the items, but they refused to return them. The items sat crammed into lockers for years. An inventory was kept, but few staff members glimpsed the pages-long list. The list remained high security.
Nurse Stillmark had clearance for most of the Asylum, but she too wasn’t allowed to look in the lockers. Nonetheless, she knew what was in many of them anyway: the glass shoes taken from a girl who believed rats and birds talked, the red coat from a girl driven half-mad from an attack by a wild animal, and a packet of seeds taken from a boy who began gambling before he was old enough to drive. Patients longed for what they’d brought with them even when they forgot exactly what those things were.
The missing boy had brought something with him, and Nurse Stillmark tried to remember what it was. Ah yes. A handful of pebbles in one pocket and a bag of candy in the other. He had an addiction to sweets, unlike any the staff had ever seen. Either the boy hoped to find his belongings locked away in the basement or to find something made of sugar in the kitchen.
An alarm sounded. Someone was pounding on the Asylum’s front door. Nurse Stillmark cursed. That’s all she needed, a new patient to admit. She straightened her collar. With any luck the missing boy would be frightened of the outside world; he’d curl up in a corner and wait to be found. In the meantime, she had to act as if everything remained under control.
* * *
The little boy stood on the roof and stared out over the world. He saw the wall that surrounded the Asylum and the trees tops beyond. He wanted to touch a tree and see if it felt as he imagined. He had hazy memories of trees. Lights burned in the distance and stars sparkled in the sky. Crickets and other night things chirped and called. The night was louder than he expected. The chill night air worked through his pajamas and the rough roof under his feet. He smacked his lips, and the dark tasted like a cold spoon from his supper tray.
He was afraid, but he wasn’t going to go back. A gasp echoed nearby, and he heard a voice call out a name. But it wasn’t his name. No one ever said his name. He wasn’t even sure what his name was anymore, but he knew the voice wasn’t calling to him. The boy looked around, and not too far away, on top of the wall, stood someone. A girl perhaps, though he couldn’t tell for sure. For all he didn’t know about the outside world, he sensed the girl wasn’t supposed to be standing on the wall any more than he was supposed to be standing on the roof. But he liked her. She was climbing to escape something too.
The flutter of wings startled him. A crow landed beside him. The bird tilted its head. Another bird landed. Then another. Birds covered the roof all around as if they’d been waiting for him.
* * *
Hannah delighted in the thrill of adventure. Once she and Clem had snuck up onto the roof of the school during a pep rally in the gym. They’d spotted two teachers kissing the parking lot and a boy crying behind the cafeteria. Hannah loved being where she wasn’t supposed to be, seeing what she wasn’t supposed to see. But this, the Asylum, was different.
Hannah left the rope hanging down the side of the wall for a quick getaway. The dingy gray rope blended into the concrete of the wall, almost camouflaged. Almost.
She looked up towards the roof. The angle was wrong to see if the boy was still up there. Maybe this place let children out on the roofs at night. Who could say a place like this didn’t? Maybe the inmates ran the Asylum. What did she know?
The night air was cold, but she was too excited to feel it. She took a few steps towards the nearest window when the first bird flew overhead. Odd to see such birds this time of night. Another bird came, and another. She leaned back against the Asylum wall as crows filled the sky. They made no noise other than the flapping of their wings, and they flew from her line of vision.
Passing by a window, Hannah ducked down. She planned to find the back entrance and pick the lock. She’d bought a set of lockpick tools online, and she’d practiced on as many locks as she could at home and friends’ houses. She practiced on locks at school, and not once had she been caught.
A great rustling of wings brought her to a stop. The birds soared from the roof in a tight flock. It looked for a moment as if they carried something. The boy? Hannah shook her head. She believed in fortunetelling, auras, and talking to the dead, but crows didn’t carry little boys off rooftops.
Watching the cloud of birds fly away from the Asylum and over the woods, Hannah remembered the boys who’d come with her to the wall and who were supposed to be with her now. She didn’t regret leaving them behind, but would they wait for her or get lost in the woods on the way back home? She turned her attention back to the task at hand. Being lost for one night in the woods wouldn’t do either boy any harm. Might do them some good. Might make them more interesting.
Nurse Stillmark walked calmly down the hall. She looked straight ahead. Looking at the security cameras was a mistake. Looking brought unwanted attention.
The boy couldn’t be far. No one ever escaped the Asylum. Ever. Maybe they disappeared, but they didn’t escape, and a small dumb boy would find escape impossible.
She got closer to the front door where someone continued to knock, and for the first time she considered the boy might have been taken. Maybe someone had stolen him. Such things had been tried before but never successfully. No one who broke into the Asylum ever got out again.
Nurse Stillmark reached the front door where the doorman waited rocking back and forth on his heels. She shook her head. No one alive in the outside world wanted the boy. No one on the outside knew he existed.
She turned to the doorman. “George,” she said. All the doormen were called George. The name of the doorman didn’t matter and it saved money on nametags. “Do explain.”
George nodded his head at the door and the continuous knocking. “Two young men, ma’am. Both about 140 pounds, I’d say. But one about 5’6 and the other 5’10. They’re wearing black. One is playing sick and the other is playing helper. My guess is they’ll pretend to be brothers.”
“How did they get on the grounds? No one’s opened the gate,” Nurse Stillmark said. If any of the staff opened the gate without clearance, heads would roll. She went through her mental list of everyone on duty.
“Don’t know yet how they got to the front doors, ma’am, but they’re right liars,” George said. “I can tell. They got no call to be knocking here ‘cept idle curiosity and troublemaking. I can spot them a mile away, I can. Teenagers should not be let to be bored, ma’am. They…”
“Yes, George, I understand. If they’re lying, why’ve you not gotten rid of them? I’ve rounds to do.” Nurse Stillmark liked scolding George. It kept her calm. “Isn’t taking care of the locals your job?”
George nodded again at the door. “Right you are, ma’am, but you seem to have forgotten what happened to the last pair that turned up on our door drunk as soup is wet. I sent them straight away, did I not, ma’am? And that did not end kindly.” He took a deep breath. “I been instructed to get approval before shooing the pests away, and management isn’t to be disturbed, ma’am, as you well know. Not for love nor money. Only for fire and maybe a suicide. So.” He nodded at the door one more time. “That leaves you.”
Nurse Stillmark groan inwardly. Damn kids. “Drunk?”
“Don’t appear to be. They is mighty intent on being let in.”
“Open the door then. You’ve got things ready though, just in case?”
He grunted and dragged open the heavy doors. The boy doing the knocking nearly fell inside. Nurse Meredith took note of the white cat hair all over his black hoodie. “We don’t have time for curiosity seekers,” she said. “You’ll disturb the patients with your racket and we aren’t a freak show.”
A few stern words cowed most silly teens on a prank.
The first one thrust his hand out. “Hello. I’m…Brad. Sorry to bother you. Really. I…I…know you must have a lot to do what with the folks you’ve got to help and all.” His smile twitched. “But this here is my brother, Nate, and I think he needs help.”
Nate didn’t move. He leaned against the side of the door, the hood of his jacket hiding much of his face. He gave a low moan.
“If he’s sick, take him to a hospital. We don’t deal with stomach flu or,” Nurse Stillmark paused. “Too much beer.” She gestured for George to shut the door.
The boy calling himself Brad didn’t move. “That’s not the kind of sick he is. He’s…” the boy lowered his voice. “I think he’s going to hurt himself.”
Nurse Stillmark rolled her eyes. “You don’t meet our criteria. Please take your brother to the hospital in town. I’m sure you know the way.”
“You’re lying to me, and I want you to go. Go, or you’ll regret it. We’re quite used to dealing with your kind.”
“Our kind?” The quiet one, Nate, spoke. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’m going to call security.” The nerve of these brats. She had important things to do. They wanted to peek in and stare and have a story to brag about later. Part of her wanted to let them in. Let them in and lock the door behind them.
“Please don’t call security,” Brad said. “We’ll go.”
Nate stepped towards. “My brother here says I’m sick and you’ve got to take care of me. You have a…duty of care.”
“I’ve a duty to get you out of my way,” Nurse Stillmark replied. “George, call security.”
Nate laughed. “You think you’re so smart. You think this place is so secure. Well, I know it isn’t. I know…”
“Shut up, Nate,” the first one said. “Don’t…”
Nate pushed his supposed brother away. “I know that if I really wanted in here, all I’d need was a hook and a rope.”
“Nate!” The boy grabbed Nate’s arm and jerked him backwards. Nurse Stillmark suspected this boy’s name wasn’t Brad. They reeked of lies.
“I’m sorry,” this boy continued. “I thought this was the place, but I’ll take him to the ER instead. Sorry to bother you. As you can see, my brother says crazy stuff. Makes stuff up. Gets into fights.” The possible Brad laughed nervously. “But we’re going to go. Thanks. And really. Sorry. Very sorry.”
Nate quieted, and the two boys stepped back onto the portico. Meredith kept her eyes on them until George had the door shut. “On second thought, George,” she said. “I’m not sure those boys should leave the grounds yet. Call security like I said.”
“It could get messy,” the doorman said.
Nurse Stillmark scoffed. “Nothing we can’t clean up.”
George nodded and turned to the phone at his podium.
Nurse Stillmark thought about what the one teen said and about the missing boy from the upstairs room. “George, I’m going to walk the grounds.”
“Security will do that bit, ma’am.”
“It can’t hurt for me to take a look around myself.” Nurse Stillmark had never gone to take a look when security could do the job, and George gave her a funny look. “Or I could send you,” she said knowing that he never wanted to walk the grounds. He liked his post and nowhere else.
“That won’t be necessary now, ma’am. I know you’re free to walk these grounds as pretty as you please.”
She smiled. “Yes, I am, George. Yes, I am.”
* * *
A few steps away from the front door, Nate punched Clem in the arm. “What the hell, Brad? Brad? Where’d you come up with that? Oh, and you lie about your name, but tell her mine?” He made as if he would throw another punch. “You’re ten miles past stupid. You know that?” He dropped his arm. “Damn.”
“Sorry.” Clem rubbed his arm. “It was hard to think in there.”
“You can’t think anywhere!” Nate swung at the air and kick the dirt.
“Hey, you almost gave Han away. I didn’t do that.” Clem marched ahead, still rubbing his arm where he’d been punched.
Neither boy noticed any other sounds. They were too angry. Nate darted up behind Clem. “Don’t you ever call me your brother again.”
“I thought it would be more believable.” The front gate wasn’t that far away. They were almost free of the place.
“You aren’t fit to have my brother’s name in your head. You know, I don’t know why Hannah spends two minutes with you.” Nate stalked behind Clem as they approached the gate. “You must remind her of a stray dog.”
Clem stopped, and Nate crashed into him. “Leave Han out of this.”
“Leave her out? She’s the reason we’re here.” Nate steadied himself. He prepared himself to take another swing.
“Han’s the reason you…” Clem’s voice trailed off. Five figures stood a few yards away between the two boys and the gate. “Um, Nate,” he whispered.
“She called security after all. That harpy.” Nate spat. “To hell with them. What’s the worse they can do? Call our parents?” He bounced a bit from foot to foot as if he were in a boxing ring. “Like I care.”
Nate shook his head. “They don’t look like they call parents.” And he was right.
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