“What is a human? A human is someone arrogant and selfish, oblivious to everything, becoming cruel and miserable. Only if their instincts and basic emotions are controlled, they can be generous, good and selfless”
I never like to wake up. Because for me it works in reverse. Most people wake up from their bad dreams, screaming, but relieved. Me?
I wake up into my nightmares.
No one is sleeping tonight. I can hear the rest of the girls shuddering and flinching in their beds, the covers over each head and the tears dropping silently onto the pillows. The air is still with everyone’s breath held tight, even though it’s not us shouting, not us being beaten.
Poppy’s screams once again resonate through the dormitory and I clench my jaw to prevent myself from getting up and rescuing her. I do not cry, because I have no more tears inside of me. They have been used up and washed away. I decided to be brave, so I locked my heart in a suit of armor and then I cry. In fact, my soul cries silently, not me.
Another scream and I hear a loud thud, which turns into a long echo. Instantly I jerk up from under my pillow, which I used to cover my ears. Please get up, scream again, shout, anything just please get up! My mind hammers. It’s rare that someone should die, but it has happened and little Poppy cannot be dead. If she is, then I will kill them myself for hurting her, an innocent small little mouse.
I hear shouts and a few more sobs echo off the corridors and my heart calms down. She’s alive. Bloody, beaten and hurt, but in the end alive.
I plop back down on my pillow and exhale. I think I might have been holding my breath, but so have the others. One, huge strain is lifted from the air around me.
I remember my first time waking up.
It was in the Consilium, in the scientific laboratories. I can still feel the incandescent lights bounce off my eyelids, making everything seem like one big, silver kaleidoscope. I remember the glacial, metal table biting at my flesh and making my hair stand up from the cold. I was lying there, motionless and naked apart from the thin sheet that cocooned around my body.
The nightmare began when I couldn’t remember what happened to me. I couldn’t even remember my name. The only memories I had in my mind were those of the few minutes after I had woken up.
Then the Healers came. One was with russet flaming hair that looked like a torch on her head and she had leaf-green eyes that were shielded by half-mooned glasses, making her look like a snake. The other one was a man and he had greasy, brown hair that fell in between his eyes and his scalp had a few bald patches, which made me sick.
They told me my name, Katherine, and what happened to me. Then the images came flooding back in. Rita, the red-headed Healer, told me that my mother was a prostitute and my father an alcoholic. He used to beat me frequently and one day it went too far and my father thought that I was dead, so he panicked and threw me out into the streets. The Peacemakers found me and brought me to Dalewood.
That’s when the second nightmare began.
I am to stay in this school until I am eighteen and I have to be disciplined and re-programmed to behave morally and obediently. If you ask me, it is fear they are trying to make us feel. What’s better than a nation of young, clueless and afraid people who haven’t seen the outside world and all they have known is that they would be beaten unconscious if they stood out of line?
I have been punished, of course. Everyone in this inferno has been beaten at least once. The first time, I broke three dishes in the kitchens while I was on chores and the cook beat me with a spoon, leaving a huge green bruise under my eye. She told me that since I have destroyed the others’ plates, I can eat from those to compensate. For two weeks I had to eat from a small shard that I managed to salvage, until they finally let me off.
The second time was when I was late to class, because some of the girls thought it unfair that I had only been punished once and they decided to hide my uniform. I remember not being able to sit down from the belt that hit me.
And the last time was when I was made to stand outside in the rain for the whole day, without any food or water. I’m not sure exactly what I have done, but I think it must have scared the staff a lot, because the look on their faces was so grave that it still glues to my memory. I feel like some puppet that is being played with and manipulated. Just like a doll in a playhouse, doing what they want and thinking what they want.
I am snapped out of my little tantrum inside my head. I see a shadow moving through the aisle of the beds, Poppy. She desperately tries to be unheard and I can see her struggling to keep away the tears, but honestly she is walking like a blind man in a minefield.
No one says anything. No one gets up to help her or comfort her. These are the rules. You aren’t allowed to speak to those punished or help them for the day. I bite down on my lip, regretting what I am about to do.
I can’t help it. Poppy has been taking care of me and helping me to stay out of trouble, by explaining everything and telling me about the life and rules here. What kind of a friend would I be if I just pretend to not to hear her? I wonder who helped her when she came here. No one did and I must help her now.
She disappears into the doorway of the bathroom, but she doesn’t turn on the light. I would have, because I would need to clean the blood, but this is Poppy. She wouldn’t want to annoy the whole girls’ dormitory, even if she was dying.
I sigh and swing my legs to the side of the bed, dangling them. The cool summer night’s air warmly skims up my naked arms and legs. I am wearing a simple, white nightgown that just passes by my knees. I push my feet into my slippers and begin to walk towards the bathroom.
I don’t even need to rub my eyes, because I hadn’t slept and I don’t think I will for the rest of the night. The dormitory is titanic. There are about forty or fifty beds on each side descending down the room. Each girl is either trying hard to block out Poppy’s quiet sobs or already sleeping, oblivious to pain and feelings. That’s how callous you become if you succumb to fear.
The bed covers are from rough cotton and brown, but they are warm. Each bed has a small cabinet beside it with a few belongings like hairbrushes, books, clothes, toothpaste, hair clips, sketchpads and other stuff.
I remember being brought down here to change into my uniform and when I came back out Madame Rees was there to speak to me. She is a scary woman. She is tall and lanky, her bones stick out and everything about her from her paper-thin waist to her sallow skin screamed of unnatural skinniness. Her face was long and hollow, with deep brown eyes that are always squinting, making them look like they are ebony black. Sometimes, I swear that they look definitely black.
Her golden hair is always up in a neat chignon, which doesn’t have a strand of hair sticking out. She is like a snake, waiting to lunge at any victim. She spoke to me with such nonchalance that I couldn’t stop shuddering at breakfast. Her thin, razor sharp voice was like a saw cutting my ears off.
I have never been to the Headmistress’ office, but I guess that whoever has been is traumatized for life. I have seen it; one girl with her hair cut off, another one with her face raked bloody, a boy who couldn’t speak for a month after her got called and then Poppy. I wonder what she has done. I doubt that she will tell me, so I won’t even ask.
They just dragged her out of the dormitory when we were changing. She was still in her uniform when they took her out by her hair. I flinch at the memory. They wanted us to see it. They wanted us to know that we could be next.
I can feel everyone’s ascetic gaze on me, as if trying to scorch me so I burn to the floor before I get to finish my mission. A few hiss at me and I get whiffs of what they say.
“Crap, she can’t be serious!”
“She’s going to get us all into trouble!”
“Someone stop her! What does she think she’s doing?”
“Maybe she’ll finally get beaten unconscious too”
“Wait until tomorrow you slut, you’ll pay for that!”
I keep going, gritting my teeth. Those cows. They don’t know a thing about feelings. They pretend to be friends, but when one gets punished, they act as if they are strangers. All they can do is worry about their own skin. I hate them all. I am glad that they all got hit or slapped, because they deserved it. Poppy didn’t. She’s only a baby.
When I reach the bathroom doors, I push them open quietly and walk in to see Poppy crouching by the sink, blood on her hands. She sobs quietly, but they are suppressed sobs, making it sound like a terrible animal sound.
I am glad for the moonlight, which sends clear and silvery shadows across the bathroom white tiles, making it easier to see. The smell is volatile and it reeks like an animal has died in here. I bet you someone didn’t think that a thing like a flushing toilet exists. I curse mentally at the idiot who left it like this and silently pray that I am not on cleaning duty tomorrow.
Her caramel hair is disheveled and bloody. She is still in her uniform, which is slightly torn and wet from the tears and sweat. The skirt is much too big for her and it hangs down almost past her ankles. I feel bile up my throat and clap my hand on my mouth to prevent myself from vomiting.
She sees me and gasps, scuttling away towards the sinks. I hush her and move gently to hug her. She sobs into my hair and neck, making it wet and sticky, but I don’t care. I am glad I decided to come. Poor thing, she’ll be frightened for life.
“Hush, little mouse,” I whisper, squeezing her shoulders gently, “Hush, they’ll hear us. It’s going to be okay,” I encourage, smiling sourly. She wipes her buttoned nose and hiccoughs slightly. She is so small. She is too small.
Poppy is only ten years old and she is about the size of a little toddler. Her heart-shaped face is full of the images that still flash by her mind. I can almost see them; Madame Rees striking her, her screaming, the Headmistress’ wide malicious grin and the blood. Oh, the blood.
I wipe off her tears, kissing her forehead. She is like my little sister, because we look out for each other. She rarely speaks full sentences and that’s why no one but me is friends with her. I figure it must have been some kind of apoplexy when she was younger or something.
Her eyes are like huge tennis balls that are round and glassy. They are too big for her face, bulging with fear, which makes her look like a scared mouse, so I call her ‘little mouse’. Their usual misty blue is now full of tears and fear. I hate them for what they have done to her. I feel sudden anger bubbling up in me and I suppress the urge to march down to Madame Rees’ office and rake her face with my nails.
“Poppy, what happened?” I whisper ever so quietly and this was a wrong move, because she explodes into violent shivering and more silent tears. She holds up her hands and when I see what she is showing me, I almost hit my head on the sink from the gasp.
The shock is like an electric wire being coiled around my whole body, hitting my heart on each side and burning it up to cinders. Now I definitely know that I have a heart, because it is breaking.
I close my mouth and clench my fists so hard that I think I might have cut them with my nails digging in too hard.
Her wrists are all bloody and raw. They have been burned and there is only one conclusion to that; they touched her with a blazing hot poker, right from the fire. I rush over to the first aid kit and just as I am about to open it, I hear footsteps along the dormitory.
My heart hammers inside my chest and I freeze in my tracks, knowing that I will be burned like that too if I don’t hide. My eyes are wide and full of alarm. Poppy too stops crying and looks at me in sorrow. She thinks it’s her fault. Of course she does. One day, I want her to teach me how to be selfless like that. I bet you that she doesn’t even blame Madame Rees for her burns.
Saying that I almost flew across the room to the toilets in the nick of time would be an understatement. I turn around, beside the cubicle, to see Madame Roche, our history teacher, in the doorway.
She is a squat little woman, but very stern and fiery. She will punish you for breathing the wrong way if she could.
Her old face is round and wrinkly, gargoyle-like, which reminds me of cliffs that have been battered by sea-waves for thousands of years. Her cheeks are dappled in red splotches of anger and her beady, grey eyes are squinting in suspicion, cat-like.
Her thin lips are pulled into a line and she licks her lips, as if she found her next victim. She is quite plump and her hoary hair is up in a plat that is turned into a bun. Her aquiline nose is what makes her look so stern and wicked. She has what they call ‘peach fuzz’ under it, but to me it looks like a man’s moustache.
She is in her nightgown and she holds her usual beating stick. I can almost hear millions of cries coming from it; the cries of each child who was beaten with that gruesome thing.
I shrug, “Toilet emergency.” Her eyes narrow and she looks over at Poppy who cowers over at the sinks. She grunts like a pig and hits her once with the stick on her back. Poppy lets out a shriek and grabs onto the sink, her hand smearing blood across the white marble.
I bite down hard on my tongue. Blood explodes into my mouth, giving off a sharp and metallic sting.
I pretend to look oblivious to everything and walk inside the cubicle, clenching my jaw, while on the inside I feel like a beast has awoken, ready to tear Madame Roche’s limbs apart.
One day, I vow that I will run away from here and bring Poppy with me. I will not wait until I am eighteen to be let out, even though I have a year left, because Poppy would still have eight years in this inferno. I won’t leave her behind to rot in here.
I pretend to go to the toilet and flush the water. When I get out, Madame Roche is still there and her eyes are wide with disappointment. I guess she wanted to enjoy herself by thwacking me as well, as if a bed-time story before she goes to sleep. I press down the urge to smile, because this is my little victory.
“Bed, the both of you,” her raspy voice echoes sonorously and I can see spit oozing out of the corner of her mouth. She sometimes reminds me of a bulldog, ready to bite and snarl at anyone who she doesn’t like.
I sigh and walk down to the dormitory. This is cruel, because Poppy should at least get to wash the blood off or cool down the burn.
I haven’t been burned, but it must hurt like hell, even worse than a cut probably, since the skin is gone. I wince and steady myself from the spinning room. I have always hated blood; the smell of it, the color, the sight. It’s why they never put me on hospital duty.
The hospitals aren’t meant for the punishment injuries. They are for those who have had an accident while playing sport (boys usually), those that have cut themselves at the kitchens or the gardens, those who are sick or unwell, but never for those who are bleeding and in pain from the beatings, no matter how bad the damage. You could be dying from bleeding, but they won’t let you in.
Poppy runs water over her wrists quickly, exhaling and I return to my bed with a few girls giving me dirty looks. I see Willow Grimson scowl at me and smile malevolently, her ink-black head peeking through the covers. She would probably do something to me tomorrow for my actions, so I need to be careful. Hence; no sleep at all for me. I don’t think that, that would be possible even if I tried.
I see Poppy lie back down in her bed, which is three beds down from me. Madame Roche’s footsteps are like a bull stampede through the dormitory. Behind her back people call her the ‘Tank’ because of her bulkiness and impenetrable spirit, as well as her being a history teacher and all. I don’t risk it though, because I don’t fancy having my neck lashed at.
“Anyone who helps that harlot will receive the same punishment!” Madame Roche’s voice booms and the double doors to the dormitory slam shut with an echo that seems to last forever.
She just called a ten-year old little girl a slut. I am frozen in my bed, unbelieving what I had just heard. My mind is blank and not until I realize that she is gone, I finally shuffle down silently to Poppy’s bed.
She is awake, of course. No one who has been through what she has would sleep. I think that she will now stop speaking forever. This is what worries me the most, because no matter what they do to her, this is the most malicious thing.
She used to stutter as she talked and the girls and boys began to taunt her, calling her a ‘Glitch’ and this has made her silent, but she speaks to me a little. Now she will shut up for good.
Her luminous eyes find mine and she bites her lower lip to prevent it from trembling. I stroke her hair gently and kiss her forehead. When I look at her wrists, they are no longer bloody, but still raw and they must be stinging like a thousand bees all at once, but she never says a thing. I quietly grab some cloth from her cabinet and rush to the bathroom to wet it.
When I am finished, I crouch at her bedside, pushing down the urge to gag. This is the sole time that I have cleaned a wound and I am no doctor. I will myself to be brave, because that is the only goal in my life; to remain the strongest.
I gently wrap the damp cloth around her wrist and do the other one as well. Instantaneously, it becomes red, just like a flower blossoming.
She slightly flinches and inhales sharply when I touch the fabric to her skin, but she never complains. When I am done, she exhales in relaxation and her breathing returns to its soft purr.
She takes my hand and kisses the palm, as if to say thank you. I feel her tears being wiped off it, but I don’t mind.
I nod and return to my bed, forgetting about the loose floorboard and cursing, as I nearly trip over it. I fall on the covers and close my eyes. I am tired, but sleep refuses to co-operate. I am left here in the darkness to think about the life I could have had.
One day we will get out of here. Just Poppy and I. We will run away together, free from the inferno that they call an asylum.