She owned the asylums, and that’s all anyone knew.
Most people avoided her. She had that air about her, like she knew every crazy thing you’d ever done. She was good at getting you to talk about yourself, even if you went into the conversation with the best intentions to keep your mouth shut. I’ve seen her do it. And somehow you’ll walk away without knowing a thing about her.
That’s what intrigues me.
When you’re a shy girl who’s intimidated by people in general and conversations in particular, you end up watching her. Wondering how she does it. How she walks like she owns the place and slips her way through conversations, how it never bothers her to have people whisper and stare when she walks by.
She scares me, but even more than that, she fascinates me.
That’s how I end up crouching in the bushes outside the Ellis Asylum, heart beating so fast I wonder if I’ll pass out from it.
She’s inside. I know because I followed her. Now my terror is fighting it out with my curiosity and I’m wondering whether I’ll end up in the hospital or police station.
Or the asylum, I suppose, if things really went south.
I don’t know how long it’s been, but it feels like hours and my heart hasn’t slowed one bit. That can’t be good for my health.
Nothing about this trip can be good for my health.
I can’t believe I’ve made it this far, and it’s that one astounding fact that makes me think maybe I can finish what I’ve started.
I take the biggest breath I’ve had in a couple hours. The advantage to being shy is you learn the art of sneaking. I put every bit of that skill to use now, creeping up to the door and slowly, slowly cracking it open to peer inside.
The front desk is empty.
I listen, holding my breath, but there isn’t a sound.
So I slip in.
I think my chest will explode, the way it feels to keep holding my breath when my heart is going thumpathumpathumpathump–
I dash on silent feet for the nearest hall.
The doors on either side have little barred windows, and sometimes more than one lock. I imagine myself being pushed behind one of the doors and locked in its room forever. I can see myself screaming, pounding on the door, but it’s an insane asylum, that’s probably what everyone does.
I’m scaring myself.
There’s a door to a stairwell on my left and I run through it if only to get away from that hallway of locked doors. I force myself to stop for a moment, to try to calm down.
It almost works.
But then I hear a door open a level or two above me and my heart is in my throat trying to escape from my mouth.
I go down.
Somehow it hadn’t even occurred to me to go back into that hallway. I’m trying to be quiet but I can hardly tell anymore because the heart beats so much louder in my ears now that it’s in my throat. There’s only one level to go down so I slip through the door there and face another hallway.
Only, this hallway isn’t white on white with fluorescent lights.
The walls are a nice kind of dark green, and the floor is carpet. The lights give off a warm sort of glow, and there’s pictures hanging here and there. It’s the first thing that looks safe, and that scares me the most.
I can’t remember why I decided to come here. I just know I had to have been very stupid to think exploring an asylum would be a good idea.
It isn’t even a good way to die.
But I hear distant sounds of someone coming down the stairs behind me, and I run. I don’t look at the pictures. Or the carpet. The hallway bends up ahead and if I just–
I hear the handle from the stairwell being turned and I don’t think. I just throw myself into the nearest room and shut the door behind me. I don’t look around the room, I just squeeze my eyes shut and slide down the door until I’m sitting. Wrapping my arms around my knees is the only comfort I can give myself. I’ve locked myself in a room, and now I am doomed.
Something touches my arm and I scream, then burst into tears because I’m scared and have been for a long time.
Shhhhhh, shhhhh. I hear, and there’s something in the sound of it that calms me. Like how a lullaby feels when you’re very, very tired.
My eyes clear of their tears and I see a figure kneeling in front of me a couple of feet away.
She wasn’t how I’d have imagined an insane person would look like.
I didn’t think there was a particular look I’d be expecting in an insane person, but now I know there is. This wasn’t it.
I hadn’t pictured smooth, beautiful skin, or long wavy hair the shade of pink you find on the inside of an oyster. I hadn’t pictured big, moss-green eyes looking at me like I was some frightened animal that needed calming.
“It’s okay, don’t be frightened.” she says, and her voice lifts the terror away from me. My heart returns to a normal, healthy beat.
There’s a knock at the door, and it opens a crack. “Merilda? Are you alright?”
The girl looks up with bright eyes and nods. “I have a visitor, she was scared.”
Her words are lined with outstretched friendship and security. I’m safe here. I’m okay.
The door opens wider, and a head peers in at me. It’s the lady I’d followed here, the owner of this place.
Suddenly I don’t feel so relaxed anymore.
I blink, looking at the pink-haired girl still kneeling a few feet away. She smiles at me.
“What are you doing here?” The lady says, and I realize in all the time I knew about her, I never once heard her name. Her question is kind, and she, too, looks like she’s trying not to scare me.
“I– I–” but my tongue is twisted up like it usually is when I’m put on the spot. The lady comes in and kneels on the carpet before me.
“It’s alright, you’re not in trouble. My name is Carleen,” she waves a hand towards the pink-haired girl. “and this is Merilda. She’s a siren, that’s why her voice sounds like that.”
“But- but th-that’s not– I mean . . .” my arms suddenly feel limp, as though everything I’ve done today has used up all my energy. I’m not surprised. “fairy tales.” I finish weakly.
Carleen laughs, soft and sweet. “Yes, I suppose we are. It’s not such a terrible thing to be, is it?
“I was following you.” I don’t know where I got the courage to say that much. Then again, it was always Carleen’s skill to get others to talk.
She nods, not looking nearly as surprised or offended as I thought she’d be. “That’s how most of the others ended up here.” her eyes twinkle, and I feel suddenly that she looks very much like a fairy queen. “Would you like to see another world? It’s only down the hall and around the corner.”
I realize now why she never let people know a thing about her. As I’m led down the hall and around the corner, I see what she could never tell the rest of the world. Glittering wings weave back and forth through colorful trees. Mushrooms form a circle at my feet, and there is the bluest sky above my head.
It’s almost funny, how she’s hidden this secret world under an asylum. Like she knew what people would think of her. Like she didn’t care. Like she was ready to laugh in their faces.
Carleen looks over at me, and her expression is warm and inviting. “I know the woodland folk when I see them; skittish, curious, and good at sneaking about. Forest nymph perhaps?” she leads me into the trees. The air smells crisp and sweet.
I feel it settle into my bones. This is where I’m meant to be. Amongst the branches and wings and silvery laughter, under the colorful leaves and bluest sky.
This is home.