By Jessica McHugh
Not much had changed since the fire. Long before she set foot inside, she could smell the residual stench of those who hadn’t made it out in time. The hospital had always been a grim place, even to those who hadn’t been confined there, but since being gutted by the fire, Taunton Lunatic Asylum seemed even grimmer. Sun poured in through the gaping holes in the walls and ceilings and illuminated the corridors she’d always found so dark and suffocating. For the first time, she walked the halls as a free woman, but her mind still managed to feel trapped by the place. It had a lingering hold on her, and she assumed it always would. After spending nearly six years at Taunton, it had become the only place Avery Norton truly felt at home, despite the fact that it had been no less than a prison to her. She knew each tile and brick and barred window, and they knew her just as intimately.
“Welcome to Taunton, Avery,” they whispered. “We knew you’d be back.”
Her footsteps resounded as she ambled through the sun bridge that connected the wings, and as she progressed, her mind repaired the peeling paint and the holes created by the fire. It swept away the leaves and yanked up the weeds that had crawled in through the fissures, and it filled the silent void with voices and frenetic footsteps. She looked down to see her shoes had become slippers and her dress, a nightgown. Others joined her in the hall, patients and nurses alike, but they were too lost in their own manic business to notice her. Only one person was able to see past everyone else in the cluttered corridor, and she stood at the end of the hall waiting for Avery with a smile that dripped with insincerity. When she opened her arms, Avery walked into them, but she didn’t reciprocate the embrace.
“Hello, Mom,” she said robotically. “What lies do you have for me today?”
The shrill whistle of wind through the cracked baseboard broke her reverie and washed away the restored colors and structures in her mind. Alone again in the faded, broken world, Avery clenched her jaw as tightly as she clenched her fists and resumed the rigid march she had made so many times down the hall to her ward.
The doors were no longer numbered, but Avery knew which one was hers without a second thought. It was the only one that was open, welcoming her home with the same creak that had been there since her first day in the hospital. The sea green paint only remained in patches across the room, and the rest was blackened by smoke damage, but Avery only saw the millions of memories conjured by staring up at those turquoise walls. Her bed was where she’d left it, sheets and all; although it had been significantly burned and collected flakes of paint and rust. The bedside table was on its side with the top drawer open and it invited her inside when the sun flashed against something metallic within. She pulled it open and saw what had compelled her: a silver handheld mirror with smashed glass that gave her a broken reflection and made her straight hair kinky. It hadn’t been her mirror; it had probably belonged to whoever occupied the room after she’d left, but it didn’t matter. There was something in that room that was hers, and it was sitting patiently beneath the third tile from the back wall. She wedged her nail between the tiles and traced it until the grime had been cleared and she could dig her nail underneath the linoleum. It took more effort than before, but she was able to pry it free. The brown leather diary was coated in a thick layer of dust and when she blew it away, it billowed into her face and incited a sneezing fit. She turned the latch and unbelted it, but before she opened the diary, she felt it necessary to take a steadying breath. She’d had the diary since she was twelve years old, and she’d only written in it once, but that one entry was enough to spoil it forever. Besides, what was new and interesting enough about the every day life in Taunton to warrant recording? What about that place would she actually want to remember? When she opened it, a picture slipped out from between the pages, and when it landed on her lap, the innocent eyes looked up at Avery as if begging for an explanation that she couldn’t give. The boy and girl standing hand in hand had their whole lives ahead of them; how could they have known then what they were to become. As she ran her fingers over the photograph, she couldn’t believe how much her appearance had changed. Her hair was still cropped at her shoulders and her bangs were still too long and nearly covered her eyes, but the ebony color she had adored so was gone. She was still thin as a rail and trimmed with muscle, but she looked a lot weaker than she used to. It would’ve been a great mistake to assume her strength by her appearance though; she was still stronger than anyone she knew. Paul Dillon included. Most likely, it was his influence that had made her that way. All those rounds of kick the can and tag had made her slender and speedy while the hours spent fishing off of the Martha’s Vineyard Steamship Pier had taught her patience and stillness. Scaling the abandoned summer houses during the winter made her agile, and walking the roofs without thought of falling gave her balance and confidence. But she knew she wouldn’t have done any of those things if not for Paul. He was brave enough to be the one who brought the girl to join the game, and as it turned out, they were the only ones who lasted through the long haul of childhood capriciousness. Contrarily, Paul hadn’t changed much in appearance. He was still tall and lean with dark brown hair and ice blue eyes that broke through his guarded aura. No matter what, he was always able to draw her in. Even after everything that had happened, that little boy, that man, could still enrapture her. It was the only instance in which she would gladly admit that Paul overpowered her.
They first met when Avery was nine. They first played when she was ten. They first kissed when she was twelve. But before Avery could reach her thirteenth birthday, it was all over.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way; none of it. She should’ve been able to live as free as anyone else. She should’ve been able to trust her own thoughts and truly believe her own convictions. She should’ve been able to play and laugh and cry tears of joy as she and her beloved grew together in life and love. But as much as Avery wished for all of those things, and as many times as she believed they’d finally come true, it was nothing but false hope. On the other hand, acknowledging that truth didn’t make her sad. Each time she had believed her dreams would come true, she felt happy, and she couldn’t deny any moments of happiness in her life. After all, there had been so few.
She placed the picture back into the pages of her diary and smiled. That’s where she would keep him. Right there, forever. She turned to the first page, dated July 2nd, 1953, and the words scrawled across the first line jumped from the page to her lips, rolling through her mind and off her tongue.
“Today, Mom gave me a garden.”
More of Jessica McHugh’s writing can be found at http://www.JessicaMcHughBooks.com
Thanks for posting this! I don’t know if it helped (it couldn’t have hurt) but “Rabbits in the Garden” was just accepted for publication! 🙂
I would still appreciate any comments. 😀 Thanks, everyone!
W0nderful Jessica, congratulations! I really love this opening chapter, you really capture that feeling of return. The words travel smoothly and evocatively from the burnt rubble of the present to the grim institutional past, then back further still, to hopeful childhood. So few words to capture the child she was, her situation, her relationships, and to hint at the ghastly event that changed everything. None wasted. The story you’ve set up is intriguing. I’m in!
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