The fire stopped.
Everyone stood in a semi-circle around the charred husk. Water still sprayed from the hose the patients held. A rainbow shimmered in the dawning light. Someone cut the valve, and when the squeak hit the air, Hannah snapped out of her daze. She was the first to move.
Hannah dashed forward to what was left of the door. “Nurse Stillmark?” she called.
“Hannah! Get away from there,” her father called.
The patients and Clem stayed silent.
Hannah kicked charred bits of wood out of her way. “Nurse Stillmark?” Ash and grit crunched under her boots and what didn’t crunch was slick from the water. Tendrils of smoke scratched her throat making her cough. She’d have to be quick if she wanted to search before her dad pulled her out.
But it was clearly unsafe. A section of the roof, gone, let early morning light spill in, while the rest of the ceiling puckered and cracked. Twisted metal from a lawnmower poked out from the collapsed wall. The back half of the storage shed remained intact if dark with smoke damage.
She spotted what she was looking for. A narrow door cracked open lead to a narrow space between the building and the bordering wall. There was another way out. “Nurse Stillmark,” she tried one more time, just in case. A line of silver caught Hannah’s eye. In the dirt and ashes was on of her lock picks. “Well, that’s better than nothing.”
By now her dad had entered. “What’re you doing? This building isn’t safe.”
Back outside, Hannah looked over the Asylum grounds. “Where’s the old woman?” she asked.
“That one?” Mr. Robinson pointed.
“No. The woman I’m talking about was wearing a dress, and—”
“Han,” Clem interrupted. “I don’t see Nate anywhere.”
“Come now.” Mr. Robinson straightened up his dirty bathrobe. “Let’s get out of here. Clem’s truck is just over there.”
“I can’t leave yet!”
“Pardon me, Mr. Robinson, but I gotta find Nate. What if he’s in trouble? Can’t just leave him here.”
Mr. Robinson opened his mouth as if to argue but changed his mind. “Course not, Clem. You sure he hasn’t just gone home?”
“Without Han and me? No. No. He wouldn’t do us like that, sir.”
Hannah sighed, frustrated. “Go look for Nate. I’ll wait here.”
Mr. Robinson squinted. The morning sun angled into his eyes. “Promise? No wandering off?”
“Promise. I’ll wait here in case Nate wanders around up here while you guys are inside.”
But as soon as her dad and Clem were out of sight, she looked for the old woman. She didn’t look long. As if appearing out of the ether, the old woman was only a few feet behind her. “Where’ve you been? What happened? I don’t—” Hannah asked.
“Hush It’s time for you to go.” The old woman waved a hand in direction of the gates. “The lot of you.”
Hannah’s thought spun. “But I didn’t even get what I came for!”
“And what was that?”
“Oh my God, you impossible old woman! Files. I wanted to find files. And instead I’ve been chased and attacked and can’t find my friend and am probably in big trouble when I get home and I’ll have nothing to show for it!” She didn’t dare mention the bag of objects she’d taken from the basement, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was entitled to have something.
The old woman chuckled. “What makes you think you deserve something to show for it? Now I’ve got too much to do to be showing you files.”
“Like what? What have you got to do?”
Patients were gathering around them. At first, Hannah looked around in alarm, but their faces were calm and expectant. Their eyes were clear. Surprising herself, Hannah returned the smiles some gave her.
“I thought you were smart like me,” the old woman said. “The inmates are going to run the Asylum, fool girl. And I’m going to help sort things out. No injections that aren’t helpful. No punishments. And when I get them back, all belongings returned. And names will be returned, and files will record their stories.”
Hannah blinked. “You’re taking over? Just like that?”
“I couldn’t have done without you setting me free. So, I thank you for that.”
“Who the hell are you?”
The old woman glanced at the sun now well over the trees. Her fellow patients were murmuring to each other. The smell of smoke lingered. “You come back in a month, and I’ll see to it that you get the files you want. But not today.”
“I don’t understand.”
“And next time, come on your own. No stupid boys. And no father.”
Patients hugged each other, and several of them turned to head back inside.
“My dad is looking for Nate. What do you know what that?”
“I’m sure he’ll show up. Just not where you expect.” The old woman tucked her hair behind her ears and took a deep breath.
Confused and annoyed, Hannah watched the patients making their way across the lawn. It wasn’t enough to be told to go home and wait a month. She wanted to be a part of whatever was happening in this place. How was she supposed to ignore it now? Just then her dad came through the Asylum’s front doors. He looked across the grass and waved. It was clear he had something to say.
“I guess you get to meet my dad,” she said. But when she turned back around, the old woman was gone. She spun around looking but saw no sign of her. She frowned. What was the old woman up to?
Noise from the trees startled her. Hannah looked. A flock of black birds burst up from the branches. “Those birds,” she whispered to herself. “I bet they know what’s going on.”
Then Hannah turned to her dad to hear what he had to say.