by B. E. Austin
Content Warnings: Blood, Off-Screen Violence, Minor Violence Against a Child, Depictions of Mental Illness
The emptiness of the waiting room engulfed Virginia. No one sat behind the glass. Virginia hugged her package to her chest. Her eyes darted to the sign by the iron door. Wexler’s State Hospital for Insane Youths. She had been sitting here for over an hour, listening to the clock tick on the far wall. The wall was white. All the walls were white here. She had come to visit her brother, Jack, to bring him his present. Her eyes moved to the iron door itself. As she watched, the door creaked open, and a fluorescent light shone from the empty hall. Virginia stared at it and placed the package into her bag, tiptoeing over to the door. She eased it open. The hinges groaned, and she froze. Silence. She slid through the gap she’d made, then eased the door shut behind her. The lock clicked, and Virginia gulped. She made her way down the white hall.
Virginia had come to the hospital many times, but an adult had always led her back and forth from the waiting room to Jack’s room or Uncle Edwin’s office. In the hospital, they didn’t call her uncle by his name, Edwin. They called him Dr Walsh, and he was in charge of the hospital. Uncle Edwin frightened her sometimes. The quiet, frigid man had eyes like stone, a mountain with snow on top. He always spoke seriously about Jack’s progress, but he was a liar. Virginia knew that all the things he said about Jack were lies. Her parents knew it too. Maybe that was why they didn’t come anymore.
She heard footsteps and ducked behind a cart full of medical supplies. A nurse in a white smock and a hat walked past, heels clicking on the tile. When she had gone, Virginia stood up and dusted off her dress. She couldn’t afford to get caught by any adults. She kept going.
She had to hide two more times before she heard real noise. She hid again, this time sliding all the way behind an open door. Virginia was small for her age, and she put that to good use. She could hear a boy screaming, and the sound was drawing nearer. Jack didn’t scream, so that couldn’t be him. Virginia tensed up at the sound of Uncle Edwin’s voice over the screaming.
‘Walter, we gave you the doll to help you cope, not to feed into your delusions.’ His voice sounded the way the empty, white halls of the hospital looked. Dark shapes passed Virginia’s hiding place.
‘Give him back! Give him back! You can’t take Eugene away!’ The boy screamed and thrashed like an animal. Virginia could see their shadows on the wall across from her. The boy, taller than her and skinny, fought Uncle Edwin’s one-handed grip on both his wrists. In Uncle Edwin’s other hand, he held an indistinct shape out of the boy’s reach.
‘Nurse,’ Uncle Edwin said, voice strained. The boy must be stronger than his skinny shadow let on. A less distinct shadow took the shape from Uncle Edwin, and the boy screamed again.
‘Give Eugene back! Give him back! That’s my brother!’ Virginia didn’t dare move. Her heart pounded in her chest.
‘That is a rubber doll, Walter.’ Uncle Edwin’s shadow pulled open the door next to Virginia’s hiding place and tossed the screaming, struggling boy inside. ‘Your brother is dead.’ He slammed the door and pulled a ring of keys off his belt. His shadow locked the door as banging joined the muffled screaming. ‘Nurse, get rid of the doll and make a note on his chart that we’re changing approaches in his treatment.’
‘Yes, Doctor.’ The nurse’s shadow was no longer visible, her voice young and bored.
‘Where is Gladys?’
‘She said she was, uh, dealing with a mess on Floor One.’ A specific emotion skulked behind the nurse’s voice. Virginia couldn’t pinpoint it. Uncle Edwin scoffed.
‘A mess, yes. They’re daily at this point.’ Uncle Edwin moved into her line of sight with his back to her. He put the hand holding the key ring on the wall as if bracing himself. He used his other hand to push up his glasses and cover his eyes. He stood, hunched over, motionless. The only sound in the hallway was the screaming from the room next to Virginia. Uncle Edwin stayed that way until Virginia felt a bead of sweat dripping down her forehead. He straightened up and put the keys on his belt. He straightened his glasses. ‘I’m doing what’s best for him.’ His voice was barely audible above the wailing, but Virginia heard him. ‘That will be all, Nurse,’ he said louder.
‘Yes, Doctor.’ His footsteps disappeared down the hall. The nurse grumbled to herself, walking past Virginia’s hiding place. She held a naked, rubber baby by the head. A thin, pink ribbon held her hair in place, straining under the weight. The nurse gave no reaction to the wailing and banging on the door behind her, walking at a steady pace. A small radio on her belt crackled.
Helen, the girl is having another fit, a woman’s voice frizzled through the radio on an angry sigh. The nurse swore, putting the doll down roughly on the front of the desk at the end of the hall. She stormed off, her hair and the ribbon bouncing as she left.
Virginia waited until she couldn’t hear anything but the muffled keening from inside the room. She padded down the hallway and grabbed the doll. She held it to her chest like a real baby as she tiptoed back and knocked on the door. The screaming subsided to sniffling.
‘I have your doll,’ she said into the keyhole.
‘You have Eugene?’
‘Yes, I have him here. Let me unlock your door.’
‘Are you an angel?’
‘No, my name is Virginia. Wait just a moment.’ Virginia took a pin out of her hair and jostled it in the lock. She had to put the doll down on the floor to do it, but after a few minutes, the lock clicked, and the door opened. A pair of brown eyes peeked out, red-rimmed with crying.
‘Eugene?’ Walter croaked. She held out the doll to him. He grabbed it, cradling it to his chest and pressing his face against the rubber head, sobbing softly. All she could see of him was a mop of unkempt brown hair and skinny arms with bruises and sores around the wrists. On his arm, a bruise swelled in the shape of an adult hand. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ he said. He lifted his head from the doll. He had a long face and bloody red lines carved down his cheeks. Blood and skin caked his fingernails. ‘Thank you for bringing Eugene back to me, Miss. You really are an angel,’ he said. Virginia looked at his claw-marked cheeks and thought about what Uncle Edwin had said.
‘You take really good care of your brother,’ she told him. Walter’s face crumpled, then his mouth twisted in anger.
‘The doctors and nurses think I’m stupid,’ he said. Something lurked in his eyes that Virginia didn’t like. ‘They think that I think that this is actually—’ He cut himself short. His mouth tightened more. ‘I know it’s a doll. It’s rubber. It’s...’ He took a deep breath. ‘But it is Eugene, even if they can’t see it. He’s come back to me. When I have the doll, it’s like I can hear his voice again. I just want to hear his voice again. I don’t want to be alone.’ Walter’s voice cracked. ‘There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?’
‘No,’ Virginia said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’
‘If there’s anything I can do to help you, Miss, I will. I swear it.’
Virginia stepped closer.
‘I’m looking for my brother, Jack. He lives here. I’m going to go up and check his room, but he’s probably not there. Have you seen him?’
‘I don’t know. There’s a lot of boys named Jack here.’
‘His name is Jack Hudnall. He’s tall and skinny and has black hair. He turned sixteen this year. His eyes are blue.’
‘Umm... oh, do you mean the boy who’s always with Dr Walsh? He’s Dr Walsh’s nephew.’
‘Yes. That’s him. Have you seen him today?’
‘No, I haven’t, but Ruth knows where he is. Ruth knows everything that goes on here. She can see and hear everything. She’s up on the second floor. It’s after lunch, so she’ll be in her chair in the parlour.’
‘Okay, thank you. I’ll try to find her.’
‘Good luck. And be careful of the monster,’ Walter told her.
‘The monster in the halls. Everyone knows about the monster. It doesn’t usually kill patients, but you’re not a patient, so be careful.’
‘Okay, I will,’ Virginia said.
‘Good luck,’ Walter said again. He glanced around before pulling the door shut. Virginia looked around too. No one. She walked down the hall towards the stairs, then stopped outside the door. In the corner, a muddy brown stain marred the white floor and crept up the white wall, stretching across the white ceiling and flaking down onto the floor. Virginia knew the colour. That was blood. She looked at it a few seconds before opening the door and walking up the stairs. Behind her, on the desk, a pen rattled.
Jack wasn’t in his room. Virginia stood on her tiptoes, peeking through the window. The bed was made, and a neat stack of books sat on the bedside table, under which a chair was perfectly centred. Jack wasn’t there.
‘Are you new? I haven’t seen you before.’
Virginia whirled around. A boy, a bit younger than her, sat in a chair down the hall.
‘No, I’m not a patient. I’m here to see my brother, but I can’t let any grown-ups catch me,’ Virginia said. She didn’t know how she hadn’t seen the boy before. He seemed like a shadow in the white hallway.
‘Why? What can a ghost do to a ghost?’ he said.
Virginia didn’t understand that, so she kept talking. ‘Do you know the boy who stays in this room? Do you know where he is? He’s my brother, and I need to find him.’
‘Ghosts don’t need anything. You’re already dead,’ he said.
‘I’m not a ghost, and I’m not dead,’ Virginia said.
‘Yes, you are. You just don’t know it.’ His words stopped Virginia short.
‘I would know if I was a ghost. I wouldn’t be able to touch things or pick things up or talk to living people. Do you know where my brother is or not?’ she asked.
The boy’s black hair hung over his eyes. ‘Everyone is dead. Everyone in the whole world. Except me.’ He lowered his head.
‘How do you know?’
‘I just do. I’m alone. They’re all ghosts, and they don’t even know it. Even you. Everyone’s gone.’
‘Well, if they’re ghosts, they’re not really gone then, are they?’ Virginia said. The boy said nothing. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, Harold, if everyone’s a ghost, they’re not really gone. They’re still here, and you can talk to them and be friends with them.’
‘You’re all dead. I’m alone. I’m alone,’ he said. Irritation flared in Virginia.
‘If you want to be sad and alone, then fine,’ she said, ‘I don’t have time for you. I have to find Jack.’ She turned away.
‘The monster will get you. He eats ghosts.’
‘Is the monster dead?’ Virginia had no more patience.
Harold didn’t answer immediately. ‘No,’ he said after a moment, ‘He isn’t dead.’
‘Then you’re not alone.’ Virginia flounced off. If he wanted to be miserable by himself, she wouldn’t stop him. She walked past a closet and stopped. Blood seeped out from under the door, forming a crescent pool. Virginia looked at it, then kept walking. She had to find Jack.
Virginia climbed to the second floor. Silence hung heavy in the halls. Sometimes, Virginia heard faint sobbing, but she kept walking. She needed to find Ruth, who would help her find Jack. She hoped that Walter had given her trustworthy advice.
Virginia saw the blood before she saw the body.
Blood pooled in the middle of the hallway. Virginia stopped. She saw the drips of blood from above, and she lifted her head, eyes moving up. Two metal rods, embedded in flesh and the ceiling’s plaster, held the nurse’s body aloft. Her arms, legs, and head hung lifeless. Blood dribbled down the rods. It dripped from the tips of her nails, and the drip, drip, drip filled the silence. A pink ribbon dangled from the nurse’s hair.
Virginia stood and stared. When she felt that she could, she looked away. She stepped around the puddle without looking up. She continued on. She didn’t walk very far before a voice stopped her.
‘You’re Jack’s sister.’
Virginia looked up. Through a doorway, in a small lounge, a girl sat in a chair.
‘Are you Ruth?’ Virginia asked. The girl was older than Virginia but not as old as Jack. Straps on her legs and chest held her taut against the chair. A tray across her lap held paper and crayons. The straps left her enough mobility to use her arms.
‘Yes. Walter told you about me,’ the girl said. Virginia walked into the lounge. ‘You saw the nurse.’ Virginia stopped.
‘Did it upset you?’
‘A little bit.’ Virginia looked away.
‘You’ve seen a lot of bad things, haven’t you, Virginia?’ Ruth’s blonde hair fell to her shoulders in waves. Her blue eyes knew many things.
‘How do you know my name?’
‘Jack told me.’ As Virginia stepped closer, she could see the drawings on the tray. They looked nicer than anything Virginia could draw.
‘You know Jack?’ Virginia touched the bag resting at her hip, which still held the package.
‘Jack spends a lot of time on the second floor. Have you wondered why it was so easy for you to get up here, why there are so few doctors and nurses and guards?’ The question was abrupt to Virginia’s ears. She didn’t answer. ‘You already know why, don’t you?’
‘You ask a lot of questions,’ Virginia said. Ruth smiled, snaggle-toothed.
‘I like to know things.’
‘How did you know that I talked to Walter?’
‘I see and hear everything in the hospital. I’m not strong enough to know about other places, just the hospital. They keep me strapped to this chair all the time, so I have nothing else to do but watch,’ Ruth said.
‘Why do they keep you strapped to the chair?’
‘I have fits all the time, and the medicines don’t help. They have to strap me to the chair so I don’t hurt myself. The nurse, Miss Helen. She’s the one who stayed with me during the fit I just had. I didn’t like her much. I knew she’d be the next to die.’ Ruth sighed, and then she had a far-off, sad look in her eyes.
‘I didn’t like her either. She took away Walter’s doll.’ Virginia paused. ‘Where is Jack?’
‘Walter and Harold warned you about the monster. You’ve seen the blood. You’ve seen the nurse. Are you afraid to meet the monster?’ Ruth’s eyes clutched Virginia, not letting her go.
‘No.’ They stared at each other, and an understanding passed between them.
‘What are you afraid of?’
‘I’m scared that the grown-ups will catch me, and I won’t be able to see Jack,’ Virginia said.
‘What are you really afraid of?’ Ruth asked.
‘I don’t think that’s any of your business,’ Virginia said. Her skin was cold and damp, despite the warm air.
‘I’m afraid that my parents will stop visiting me. I know it will happen eventually, that I’ll be alone. Walter and Harold’s parents don’t visit them. Your parents don’t visit Jack. One by one, everyone here gets abandoned.’
‘I’ll never abandon Jack,’ Virginia said. ‘Jack won’t be alone. I won’t let him.’ Ruth looked at her for a long time.
‘You’re too good for this place. Good people don’t belong here. But you know this place is evil. You’re too smart not to.’
‘You’re wrong. Not everyone here is bad.’
‘Aren’t we? Walter, who was supposed to be watching his brother but was too busy playing marbles to notice him drowning in the river? Harold, who stabbed his teacher in his throat and thinks he killed everyone else in the world? The doctors who only care about getting funding from the state, and the nurses who only care about getting paid?’ She paused. ‘Jack?’
‘What about you?’ Virginia asked. Ruth gave her a smile that had seen far too much.
‘I’m not innocent either,’ she said. ‘None of us are here because we’re crazy. We’re here to suffer. This is our punishment. That’s what it is to be alone.’
‘Where is my brother?’ Virginia asked.
‘Why are you so loyal, Virginia?’
‘Where is my brother?’ Virginia asked louder, no longer caring who heard.
‘Leave this room and go the opposite way from the nurse. At the end of the hall, go left. It’s the third door on the right. The door will be unlocked. He knows you’re coming.’
‘Thank you,’ Virginia said. She turned and walked away.
‘Virginia,’ Ruth said. Virginia stopped. ‘After you talk to Jack, leave this place. Leave this place and never look back.’ Virginia didn’t answer.
Virginia knocked on the door before opening it. The room had a tall table in the middle and several lamps crowded around it, pointing down. The lifeless bulbs reflected movement on the other side of the room. Tables with drawers and medical instruments lined the walls. Jack stood in the corner, his back to her, washing his hands.
‘Hello, Ginny,’ he said without looking up. Pink water spiralled down the drain. His entire forearms dripped with blood. It wasn’t his blood.
‘Hello, Jack,’ Virginia said. Only Jack called her Ginny.
‘You’ve had quite the journey, haven’t you?’ Jack kept his eyes on the sink, methodically rinsing the blood from his hands and arms.
‘You were the one who opened the door, weren’t you?’ she said. She could only see the side of his face as it creased in a smile. He had black hair down to his ears and a lean face.
‘You’re a clever girl. I wanted to see how well you could avoid the doctors and nurses. Challenges are good for the mind.’
As Virginia moved closer, she realised that he had blood flecked across his face and in his hair too. She wondered if he noticed.
‘I brought you something. A present.’ Virginia pulled the package out of her bag, wrapped in plain brown paper, tied with a white ribbon. An invisible force pulled it from her hands, into the air. The package floated over to Jack as he dried his hands. Pink stains mottled the white towel. He took the package, sliding his fingers under the folded paper, untucking it. He unwrapped the package without the slightest rip. Doing so revealed a black, cloth-bound book with a small, white fleur-de-lis hand-embroidered on the top corner. ‘It’s a journal. I made it myself. I remember you always kept one at home, but they took it away when you came here.’
Jack turned the journal over in his hands, touching the fleur-de-lis on the other side.
‘Thank you, Ginny,’ he said, voice soft, ‘I appreciate this.’
Virginia smiled, but her eyes slid to the red smears on the side of the sink.
‘I thought it might help you—’ she stared at one of the smears darkening as it dried ‘—I know being here must be...’ Her voice trailed off. She wasn’t sure what she’d planned on saying. She looked back at Jack. He watched her.
‘Why are you here, Ginny?’ he asked. His voice held no anger. No happiness, no sadness, no fear. It was just a question. Virginia looked at the journal in his hands.
‘To bring you the journal,’ she said. Jack said nothing. His impassive eyes contained many things she didn’t understand. ‘To visit you.’ Still, Jack said nothing. ‘I don’t want you to be alone.’
‘You saw the nurse.’
‘Yes. Miss Helen.’
‘Did that upset you?’ Jack sounded like Ruth now.
‘A little bit.’ The same answer she gave Ruth.
‘You’ve seen me leave a lot of bodies behind.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘Yes.’ Virginia brushed her hair away from where it stuck to her cheek in the damp air. She hadn’t noticed the mugginess of the room before.
‘You don’t seem upset,’ Jack said. Virginia didn’t answer. ‘You’re the last one,’ he said. He turned the journal over in his hands. Virginia watched that instead of his face. ‘Our mother and father don’t visit anymore. Edwin is no more than a captive at this point.’ Jack chuckled, eyes focusing somewhere above Virginia’s head. He looked back at her. His expression darkened. ‘Why do you keep coming back? Of all of them, why do you still care?’
‘Because you’re my brother, and I love you no matter what,’ Virginia said.
‘And you don’t want me to be alone.’ The flecks of blood on Jack’s face and hair had dried to a dull maroon-brown.
‘Right,’ she said. Jack’s eyes contained deep, tumultuous oceans. Sharks prowled below the surface.
‘Are you afraid of being alone?’ the sharks asked. Virginia’s eyes narrowed, and the tips of her ears turned red.
‘Does it matter?’ she asked in a shark-hunting voice. Jack threw back his head and laughed. The noise startled Virginia. It was too loud for the muted room.
‘I suppose it doesn’t, little sister. I suppose it doesn’t.’ His teeth gleamed as he laughed, a touch too sharp. He looked at her. The sharks rose to the surface of the ocean, gnashing their teeth. ‘You could stay here. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about me being alone.’ Virginia shook her head. ‘I’d make Edwin give you the best room, the best food. You could mingle with the children who get treated better, the ones whose families donate. We could spend more time together.’
‘No.’ Virginia remembered Ruth’s parting admonition.
‘You’re sure?’ Jack asked. The sharks writhed in the water, waiting for an answer.
‘I’m sure,’ she said, and the sharks submerged again. The door heaved open.
‘Two in one day. Well, I hope you’re pleased with—Virginia!’ Uncle Edwin’s expression jolted from disgusted to horrified. ‘Virginia, little one, what are you doing here?’ His eyes shot to Jack, who showed his teeth.
‘Edwin, there you are. Would you escort my sister back to the waiting room?’ Jack said with a tranquil smile.
‘Hello, Uncle Edwin,’ Virginia said. Uncle Edwin’s eyes twitched back and forth between Virginia and her brother, pulled by some invisible force.
‘Virginia, how did you get up here? You shouldn’t be up here.’ His voice was tense with worry.
‘I had been waiting a really long time, and the big door was open,’ Virginia said. She closed her bag and clasped her hands in front of her.
‘Virginia, dearest, you should have told the nurse at the front who you were and waited for me to come get you.’ Uncle Edwin put his hands on his knees to look at her. Tired eyes met hers through the thick frames of his glasses.
‘There was no nurse at the front. I waited for an hour,’ Virginia told him. Uncle Edwin faltered. He looked up at Jack. Virginia didn’t have to look at Jack to know he was smiling.
‘Virginia’s had a long day. You should escort her back to the waiting room.’
Virginia knew that soft tone in Jack’s voice and Uncle Edwin did too. He straightened up, and for a moment, it looked like he would lash out at Jack, give the boy a piece of his mind. Instead, he deflated and turned back to Virginia.
‘Let’s go, my dear. This is no place for a nice, normal girl like you to go unsupervised.’ He seemed to Virginia to be shrivelled, a once lush plant under the unforgiving winter sun. He offered his hand, and Virginia took it.
‘Goodbye, Ginny,’ the monster said. He appeared calm, but the sharks grinned at them with glittering teeth.
‘Goodbye, Jack,’ Virginia said. Uncle Edwin led her out the door. Before they went, he shot a look at Jack that Virginia wasn’t supposed to see. Helpless hatred smouldered in his eyes. He led Virginia along and closed the door behind them with a clang.
The halls were even quieter now than when Virginia had walked them alone. She walked with Uncle Edwin, letting him hold her hand. That seemed to make him feel better. He guided her around the long way, avoiding the hall where the nurse still leaked blood.
‘Virginia,’ he said. His voice reminded her of the old dog that lived down the street. It laid on the unkempt lawn all day and stared at her with cloudy, red-rimmed eyes. ‘Virginia,’ Uncle Edwin said again, ‘When you came up here to find your brother, did you... see anything upsetting?’ He looked down at her as they reached the stairs. Virginia thought of Walter shrieking in his room, then she realized that he was talking about the nurse. They stopped walking, and Virginia looked up into her uncle’s eyes. Maybe he had been cold once, but relentless fear and pain had melted that facade.
‘Not really,’ she said, ‘but sometimes I heard crying from inside the rooms.’
He relaxed. ‘You don’t need to worry about that. Some of the patients become hysterical at times.’ They continued down the stairs. ‘But you must wait for me to come and get you when you visit. Hospitals aren’t safe for little girls to wander alone.’
‘Are they safe for the patients?’ Virginia asked. Uncle Edwin grimaced.
‘We do our best. We keep the children in their rooms so they’ll be safe. It’s all we can do at this point.’ Fatigue weighed him down. He led her down to the ground floor and out into the waiting room. ‘We appreciate you coming to visit your brother, but you need to remember this is a hospital.’ She let go of his hand. ‘The children here, they’re sick. They’re all very sick.’
‘Like Jack?’ she asked.
He sighed, closing his eyes. ‘Yes. Especially Jack.’ He opened them. ‘Virginia—’ he didn’t say anything for a few seconds ‘—I know you love your brother very much, but if you ever don’t want to come back here, don’t want to have to see Jack again... you don’t have to. Do you understand?’
The metal door opened.
‘Dr Walsh?’ a woman’s voice said. Uncle Edwin turned.
‘Yes, coming,’ he said. He turned back to Virginia, ‘You can get home on your own?’ Virginia nodded. ‘Alright, I have to go now. Goodbye, Virginia.’
‘Bye, Uncle Edwin,’ she said, and he left.
The waiting room wasn’t silent anymore. A fan whirred somewhere, and a nurse sat behind the glass, reading a magazine. Virginia turned and walked out the front door. The chill autumn air hit her as soon as she stepped out. The world outside the hospital hummed with life, the fallen leaves providing splashes of colour all around her. The hospital loomed behind Virginia as she walked towards the bus stop, but she didn’t look back.
Hopefully, next month’s visit wouldn’t be so hectic.
B. E. Austin:
B. E. Austin was born and lives in North Carolina, USA. She is a disabled, queer person who has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil and imagining stories for as long as she can remember.