Hannah knelt down at the back door. A gentle tug revealed the door was locked. From her back pocket she took a velvet cloth, unfolded it, and removed a slim silver piece of metal. The delicate-looking piece was meant to pick locks, and it did its job.
Hannah suppressed a squeal of delight. Her practice paid off.
Inside a large metal table sat in the middle of the room and counters with drawers lined the walls. It smelled of bleach.
Two other closed doors lead out of the room. From under one came a pale light. To stay under the cover of darkness, Hannah chose the door without the light. The wide hallway surprised her. She touched the darkly colored walls. She was glad she’d left her friends behind. Some things needed to be experienced alone.
If she could find an office, maybe she could find registry of patients or a file cabinet. She’d look up local families who their names in the files. Every family in town had secrets in the Asylum.
She walked down the hall, one hand lightly dragging along the wall, forgetting to take care not to be caught. Was she destined to end up in the Asylum as her mother liked to suggest? Many times her mother said to her father, “She’ll end up you-know-where if you keep indulging her.”
Hannah asked where you-know-where was, and her father dismissed her question. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll always be where you need to be.” But she’d insisted on an answer, and exasperated he’d said, “Hell. Hell is where all the bad people go.”
To her father and most everyone in town, Hell and the Asylum were the same thing.
She’d expected to hear screaming when she got inside. She pictured chains on the walls and nurses with long fingernails and blood on their uniforms. But inside the place was quiet and calm. No one was about. It was so ordinary, she almost hummed.
* * *
Outside, Nurse Stillmark walked the grounds. She scanned the wall, unconcerned with shadows or guards. She knew this world too well. It didn’t take long to spot the rope dangling down the side of the wall moving slightly in the breeze. This must’ve been how those fool boys got onto the grounds. How had security missed them?
Nurse Stillmark took a razor from her pocket. It was amazing how often she found it useful. She kept it exceptionally sharp, and reaching as high as could, with a few deft strokes, the razor sliced the rope apart.
* * *
In one room, slept Odelia Roe. She was young and slept most of the time. Nothing in her room revealed her reflection. If she saw her reflection, she dropped to the floor in grief. They had taken her hair. They said she was vain and wayward. They said her mother was afraid for her safety, and so until she learned to do better, they’d protect her from herself.
Before coming to the Asylum, she wore her hair long to see the sunlight shine on the loops that fell over her shoulders. Heads turned to watch her walk down the street on a bright day. Her hair captivated everyone and got her many things she wanted.
Her mother called the Asylum. She saw her daughter let a boy touch her hair in front of God and everybody. “I can’t control her at all,” her mother told the head nurse. “She’s grandiose and charming. She lies and manipulates. She won’t take responsibility for her actions. She’ll bring shame on this family if we don’t take action.” Odelia Roe was twelve.
Odelia Roe thought her mother would come get her after a few days, and those first few days no one bothered her. They left her alone with her shimmering hair with instructions to think about the consequences of her actions. She thought and thought and paced and paced until she stopped looking at the clock expectantly and her hair fell limp.
They found her curled up, her arms and hair wrapped around her neck. “You’ll hurt yourself,” the nurses said and brought the scissors.
Odelia Roe assumed the nurses threw her hair away, and she consoled herself with the idea of birds and mice finding her hair in the trash. Her hair would hold together nests and burrows. In truth, her great swath of hair was bound with twine and locked away. One nurse, new to the Asylum staff, tried to steal a lock of the brilliant hair, tucking far down in her pocket, but no one ever successfully smuggled anything out of the Asylum and punishments were severe. The new nurse lost her job. Some said she also disappeared. But that was speculation. Besides, management knew perfectly well where she was.
That night as the boy was climbing out onto the roof, Odelia Roe opened her eyes in spite of the sleeping medication. She could do that if she wanted to, and the nurses didn’t know. It was delicious for the nurses not to know. It was her one secret.
Footsteps hurried by in the hall. They were the wrong sort of footsteps. Odelia Roe knew the steps of all the nurses, the security guards, and the orderlies. These were the wrong footsteps and at the wrong time.
Getting out of bed was risky. She didn’t want a nurse to see her up, but she’d never heard these footsteps before. Odelia Roe peered through the keyhole and caught a glimpse of Hannah Robinson. For the first time since being locked away, hope leapt in her heart. Someone had finally come to save them. She knew it as surely as she knew she’d see the sun shine again on her hair before it was too late.
* * *
No files in the courthouse and no book recorded the date the Asylum first opened its doors. No one knew. Rumor said two brothers founded the Asylum to lock away their parents. Others said, no. A Frenchman founded the Asylum for his American wife so she wouldn’t be ill all alone. The husband travelled the world to find the mad and the depressed to keep her company and entertained.
Hannah had her own ideas about the Asylum’s beginning. The rooms trapped the interesting and the different. Everyone of interest was locked away, and Hannah, walking down the dark hall with many locked doors on either side, decided the best thing she could do was set everyone free.
She looked in corners for cameras and kept glancing over her shoulder. One door had a brass plate at its center. The shiny metal read Office.
With her lockpick the door opened in one turn of her wrist.
The empty office beckoned. File cabinets waited behind a large desk next to a wide window. Things of metal and glass gleamed in the dark.
In the rest of the Asylum, patients were waking up. In one room woke a woman who dreamed every night of night of shoes. Her file said she’d killed her sisters in an argument over shoes and a man. She insisted the file had the story wrong.
Next door to her woke a young man accused of stalking one too many dancing girls. And in the room after that woke another young man who believed he was a swan.
The patients woke, but they didn’t get up from their beds. A few were afraid. Most had no memory of waking up in the night and they imagined monsters in corners waiting for them, which was what management wanted them to imagine.
A few patients thrilled at being out of bed even if they couldn’t open their doors. One woman immediately began to dance. Another woman worked at pulling her bed apart as if searching for something under the mattress.
The night had been disrupted, and management was about to notice.
An old woman, Aberdeen Black, got up from her bed and listened. She’d been waiting for years for this moment. Someone was in the hall and was about to set them all free.
Without turning on a light, Aberdeen found the slim knife she’d hidden away under the bed frame years ago. Certain no one had ever found it, she was none-the-less relieved when the blade fell into her hand. She’d not checked on it in a long time. Checking on things increased the risk of being found out. Never look at anything important. It attracted attention.
From the wardrobe, she took out her boots. She didn’t change out of her nightdress. There wasn’t time. The knife she dropped into the side of her boot. Once she stepped out of her room, she’d never allow anyone to lock her in anything other than her coffin.
Hidden cameras watched from everywhere but the man in charge of watching the cameras often fell asleep. Nothing ever went wrong, and watching patients sleep got the better of him. The staff wasn’t much more interesting to keep an eye on either. Nurse Stillmark followed all the protocols and kept her nurse’s cap perfectly straight the whole night long.
When Hannah had shimmied down the rope, he was pouring himself coffee. When she knelt at the back door to pick the lock, he was texting his wife. After the dustup of the teenage boys knocking on the front door, he leaned back in his chair and dozed.
But when Hannah stood in the office and read the labels on cabinets, the alarm jolted him upright. The alarm to the office didn’t sound throughout the building. The alarm wasn’t meant to scare anyone away. The alarm sprung traps.
He stared into the screen and saw Hannah’s shadowy figure at the file cabinets. He rang management. They’d tar his hide for not seeing the girl sooner, but nothing would equal the chaos if she wasn’t stopped.
Hannah found the file cabinet labeled R. The lock on the cabinet was easily picked. If her grandmother or anyone in her father’s family had a file, she’d start with R for Robinson, but the filing system was not what she expected.
She stared at the file in her hand and wondered how she’d find anything in this mess. The file appeared to be about ravens, not about patients at all.
Then light flooded the room.
The suddenness of the light littered Hannah’s eyes with spots. She dropped the file but held her lockpick like a knife. A rushing figure came at her.
Hannah lashed out like her father taught her to do. The lockpick’s pointed edge struck a cheek, and her target jerked. Hannah shoved him and ran. Hands reached for her, but she twisted away, pitching into a bookcase but not slowing down.
Almost to the door, someone snatched the hood of her sweater, pulling her backwards, but the things her dad taught her took over. With all her weight, she kicked backwards into his knee, and he stumbled just enough. She yanked the zipper of her hoodie and twisted free.
She ran as the man lunged. He hit the floor hard, but he grabbed her foot and pulled her down. She flailed on the floor. She kicked. The heel of her boot struck something. She imagined it someone’s nose. The was a great howl and the hands let her go.
Hannah was up and out the door, pounding down the hall for her life. Every light in the Asylum must’ve been on. Heavy, thudding noises raced behind her. She took the first turn and another and another. A dark doorway appeared, and she leapt toward it.
There were stairs, and she was moving too fast to stop. She tumbled, crashing down the steps. At the bottom, she didn’t move.