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It seems I can’t go a minute without being hurled back into my wretched past.
The drops of paint dappling the cobblestones are the stains of blood splattering against the wall, of agony and raw pain permeating the scream-filled room. The chains rattling against the barbed-wire gates are the same that shackled Momma to the walls and to the others, the chains that left her wrists pocked with blisters and a brilliant red, a cry of sheer torment against the pale whiteness of her sagging skin. As I make my way towards the schoolyard, my long skirts picking up clods of dust and dirt along the cobblestone path, I am forced to stop as my breath begins to come in shallow, rapid pants, my heart beating much too loud to my frozen ears.
You’re out of the madhouse, I tell myself again and again. You’re out, and you’re not mad anymore.
The tiny hourglass pulses against my neck, almost as if to tell me otherwise, but I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head. No, I am not mad. They would not have let me out if I was. These thoughts are coursing through me when I am knocked to the ground.
I open my eyes to a hulking boulder of a boy towering over me, a cruel light glinting behind his soulless black eyes. “New kid, huh?” His voice is high-pitched, whiny, an almost comical contrast to his monstrous features. “I heard you were in the madhouse. Miraculously cured. You contagious? Gonna make me mad too?”
I am mute. I am no one. I cannot relive those years. I cannot speak to this monster.
From behind the boy emerges a stocky, muscular girl, who prods me with her boot. “How’d you even get cured, huh? That’s not fair. My papa’s gotta stay in the madhouse for life, and you just get to waltz out of there?” Her voice is too loud, too harsh, as if she is bellowing every syllable.
Her kick makes me cringe inwards, and she growls, kicking harder. “Explain yourself, new girl. Explain, or I’ll bash your teeth out!”
I try to speak, but my lips are stiff and frozen shut as memories claw their way up my throat, terror and desperation sinking their talons deep into my heart. All that manages to escape from my mouth is a squeak, high-pitched and utterly pathetic.
Almost diabolically, the girl bares her too-white teeth, which glint in the afternoon light. “That all you can do?” Roaring, she rears back before the steel toe of her boot lurches forward and connects with my chin.
Blood, thick and bright, begins to dribble down from the corner of my mouth, and the metallic taste pools through my being as a sharp pain blossoms from the upper ridge of my mouth to the corner and down, a small white tooth beginning to fall as my lips part . . . when suddenly, something shifts in the air.
The boy and girl stare, wide-eyed, as the tooth freezes, then reverses directions, the blood retreating back into my mouth, the pain melting away until nothing but a cool relief remains. The hourglass at my throat pulses twice, glowing red through the thin cotton of my shirt, before dying down, sand slipping down in the glass.
“What the heck,” the girl breathes as she backs away. She shakes her head, as if to clear it, before continuing. “What the heck are you?”
I open my mouth to explain, to say something, anything, but the boy beats me to it. “Freak,” he growls. “You belong back in the nuthouse. You’ve turned us both insane!”
The look in his eyes--in both of their eyes--frightens me. It’s not just simple rage or disgust that burns there; it is pure fear giving way to fire that lurks in their depths, a blaze that burns deeply and truly. As they retreat slowly, never letting their backs to me, a sort of pressure builds and builds on my chest until I can no longer take it; clutching my books to my chest, I flee. The memories chase me like a swarm of buzzards, nipping at me, clouding my thoughts, obscuring anything else from sight or mind.
“Remember when you were mad?” screeches one buzzard. “You were completely, totally mad.”
“You need to go back to the nuthouse,” yelps another. “Once a freak, always a freak. You’re a menace to society.”
A third raises its voice. “And how come you get an hourglass? Are you just going to let everyone else go mad, like your momma?”
I shrink to the dusty ground as they continue to peck at me, burying my face in my trembling hands. At last, I succumb to the swarm, and I spiral down, down, down, back into the depths of the years in the madhouse.
It is dank, rancid in the dim light of the grimy cell, the stench of unwashed bodies and rot creating a noxious stink. Through the hot haze, ice crystals inch their way across the walls and begin to slowly cover my body, seemingly unnoticed by anyone else. I clutch at the swollen, sweaty hand beside me like a vise, almost frightened of letting go.
“Momma?” I whisper, voice hoarse and cracked with disuse. “Momma, what day is it?”
“Shhh,” she runs her fingers through my matted hair. “Don’t worry, Emélie. It’s not our time yet.”
An ancient lump of a man groans across from us, falling back until he lies in an frosty puddle of his own drool. I shudder until my mother’s hand falls away. “But when is our time? The letter said Papa would get us out, he said he’d get help--”
“Emélie, sweet,” her voice is aching, pained. “There was no letter. You have no papa. We can’t get out of here while we’re still contagious.”
I shake my head and hands, faster and faster, as if to block out what she’s saying, while the ice creeps ever so quickly, showering, covering, pricking me. “That’s not true. He promised us.”
She opens her mouth to speak, but I cover my ears. “He promised us!” I repeat, louder and louder. “He promised!” My words turn to ragged screams thrown out into the world as the ice engulfs me completely, but they are lost in the perpetual cacophony of mutters and moans that grate against my very being.
I am still screeching when the door is flung open, a gust of cold air sweeping over the humid, rag-filled room.
“Quiet down, you lot!” roars the warden, a beefy man with more stomach than anything else. An oversized mask covers his face, and he is clothed in a heavy plastic suit. Dangling from his gloved hand is a razor-sharp whip, already slick and glistening a shiny crimson, its several tails dripping onto the already stained cement floor. As he speaks, his head rolls off his shoulders and begins to talk from the filthy ground. “Now, you folks listen up good. I’m just here ‘cause I’m required to by law. I’ll be testing all of your insanity levels, an’ then I’ll be on my way. I’m not lookin’ to go mad, and I’ll be makin’ sure no one else does, either.”
Seeing my opportunity, I stumble to my feet and struggle against my icy, burning chains towards the warden, to the horror of my mother. She latches onto my arm, restraining me, but I wriggle out of her grasp.
“Please, sir,” I rasp, voice raw. “Please, my papa wants to get me out of here; he sent a letter! Please, let me see it, please let me out, please, oh, please help us--”
I don’t see so much as hear the whip as it streaks towards me and makes a resounding crack against my shoulder once, twice, three times. Instantly, blackness laces my vision, dizzying me as I spot little flecks of multicolor blood spattering on the floor, on his suit. My blood. The warden frowns down at himself, smearing the droplets from the plastic. “That was for your impudence, freak. You’re contagious. There’s no getting out of here.” He snorts and marches to the first patient, leaving me crouched in a fetal position as I’m wracked with spasms of agony, the rest of the room resuming their grim chatter as if I’m not sprawled across the ground, covered in muddled scarlet and blue.
Tears pool from Momma’s eyes as she kneels before me, darkening my shirt with regret and sorrow that quickly freezes over, sending clouds of frosty air upwards. “Sweet Jesus, Emélie, what am I going to do with you?” she whispers as she bandages my shoulder.
“I’m not hurt,” I yelp through clenched teeth as the pain continues to spike through me. “I’m more worried about the ice.”
Her brow furrows, frozen tears raining down in torrents. “You’re worse, much worse than I thought.”
I can feel myself begin to shiver. “Momma?”
“Why is it snowing inside the cell?”
She buries her face in her arms, and her shoulders shake up and down, wracked with great, hiccuping sobs. I’ve never seen her cry like this before.
Moving closer, I wrap her up in my arms. “I’m sorry,” I murmur. “Don’t worry about me.”
My fingers close around something on her neck--smooth and cold glass, a pendant of some sort. I pull at it, and suddenly I am mesmerized, watching as tiny grains of every color of sand seep through a tiny hourglass. “Momma, what is this?”
Her head rises, and as it does, a trembling, wan smile finds its way onto her face. “This? This is a savior, a remedy--but an injustice, and a drug. Illness and insanity return immediately when it’s removed. . . but it’s a cure to all ailments. The only known cure to insanity. Until the sand runs out, anyone who wears it cannot be hurt. They are immune to anything.”
I frown. “Then why are you still here in the madhouse?”
“Because I would do anything to keep you safe, sweet,” she breathes, then repeats it, almost as if to herself. “Anything.”
Her gaze drifts to the warden, hunched over a patient several feet away, then back to me. She wrings her hands before scrunching up her face, an inner war waging within her. Fresh tears leaking from her eyes, she reluctantly removes the necklace, and soon I feel a hiss of strange heat as the glass rests against my throat, a thin black cord holding it around my neck.
A sudden clearness penetrates my vision before a bloodcurdling screech floods the room, but within seconds, I am knocked out cold.
Upon awakening, a new sight greets me. The walls around my cot are bare, but clean; the room lacks the foul stink that I have grown so accustomed to, or any trace of ice. I uncurl my fingers to find they have been clutching a wrinkled paper so tightly the knuckles are white.
With shaking fingers, I read the type with disbelief, a knot of worry spiking through me.
Emélie L'appelle, the note reads, Your tests show that you have been miraculously cured. The doctors would like to have a look at you, and see how you were cured; but in the meantime you have been deemed fit to leave the madhouse. Your mother, however, is critically insane and thus must remain, so you will be living at the local orphanage until further notice. Warden Jermichael Thompson.
The paper crumples in my fist as the world around me shatters into a million fragments of glass, and my conflicted heart, my tears, my surprise, spill out of me like so many tiny grains of sand. I am sane. But Momma has sentenced herself to that dark world that caged me for so many years. The pendant throbs against my throat, ever so painfully, torrential thoughts pouring out of me. I cannot move, I cannot breathe.
Oh, Momma. What have you done?
When I come to from the flashback, I feel broken. Numb. I clutch at the pendant at my throat, feeling poisoned, choked by it. Savior. Remedy. Injustice. Drug.
I blink hard as I tug the cord from my neck. The hourglass dangles from my fingertips, glinting in the early afternoon light. In it, I can almost see the madhouse, the grim face of the warden, flecks of blood speckling the walls crimson. I can see so many bundles of flesh and rags hunched over, coughing, retching, filthy and miserable, drowning in illness because they do not have this antidote. The monstrous girl’s papa, forced to live out the rest of his years in the madhouse, because unlike me, he cannot be cured.
The hourglass falls so easily to the ground, smooth and gentle, cracking and shattering as the world did those long nights before, ice-covered sand tumbling out onto the wet earth.
As my foot grinds the tiny speckles of glass into the now-frosty dirt, I can almost hear Momma’s beautiful, song-like voice, murmuring, “You’ve done right. That hourglass was never a fair thing, and I’ll see you again soon. I love you, sweet.” Her presence wraps around me like a blanket, warm and familiar, pressing in on me with comforting arms.
“I love you, too,” I whisper back, ever so quietly, but it is lost to the swarm of buzzards settling in as I cover the glass shards completely.
Bronx, New York
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