She stared up at the never ending pattern of grey of her ceiling. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been laying there. Hours, probably. Days, most likely. The listless feeling of being incomplete tugged at the edges of her heart and swallowed any desire she might have had to lift her head from the pillows cradling it ever so perfectly. Nothing was bright. Nothing danced. The world was made of sludge and ash and she waded through it day after day looking for color and magic. But, there wasn’t any. It didn’t exist.
Magic was what had brought her to the Underground so long ago. Magic was what she wielded with her words. Magic scratched at the backs of her eyelids when she fell asleep and tickled her lashes when she woke. But, it was never anything more than a dream… a wish. She sighed for what felt like the thousandth time that day and rolled her aching shoulders against the slate blue of her sheets and cracked the stiff bones of her neck before she used what felt like every ounce of energy she possessed to pull herself into a sitting position.
She didn’t glance out of the window to the courtyard dotted with white hospital gowns and pastel colors of orderly scrubs. She knew what they all looked like. She’d been here so long she didn’t need to look up to match any face to the sound of their shuffling or a lingering cough echoing about the cold tiled halls. She slipped her feet into the soft shoes they had given her years ago, her pinky toe poking through a hole worn into the side of her right one. She would have to ask for new ones, eventually. But, she learned her lesson long ago about asking for things. Both in this world and the next.
There was no mirror in her room. In fact, there were no reflective surfaces at all. The doorknob was painted over with cracking pale blue paint. The bed rails coated in black over and over until only a matte, dull color could be discerned. They didn’t like to encourage her whimsy here. The few times she had brought herself out of the fog and made any kind of attempt at looking into a mirror she had been sedated immediately. Half the time she wasn’t sure if what she had seen were dreams or nightmares. They kept telling her that it wasn’t real. It was the result of a psychotic break.
Her mind wasn’t able to accept the reality of what happened that stormy night when she was fifteen and petulant and when Toby was -
A soft moan squeezed from her throat and a nurse looked up from the station several feet away.
“Sarah?” said the woman, pristine eyebrows arched nervously. She saw the nurse’s hand slide under the desk she stood behind, manicured fingers poised over the hidden call button most likely, “Everything all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Sarah said quickly, she turned from the nurse’s station and shuffled softly across the common room, looking for a relatively quiet place to stare into nothingness again. But, as she moved through the halls to the visiting room she saw the glint of gold and the swish of wheat-blonde hair and her heart sputtered in her chest. The rolling fog of her memories lifted softly until the man turned and his large nose and green eyes turned to meet her. She felt a scowl tug at her brows and couldn’t help the glare she cast him. The man froze for a second, and she noticed the thick, gold chain around his neck heavy with a large medallion in the shape of spinning wheel. She lingered only a moment before she continued on her way.
There was a commotion from the recreation room at the end of the hall. Excited claps and hoots filtered through the open door as more patients crowded the doorway. She shoved her way between the morbidly obese patient who’d tried to eat his own mattress just last week and the old woman who only spoke in words and idioms as muddied as ditchwater. Even now she mumbled to herself as Sarah covered her ears with her palms and shoved into the room. Once she passed the crowd at the door she was surprised to find a man standing in the middle of the room with a clipboard in his hand and a fist on his hip as two men set a large ornate bookshelf against the back wall near the window seats.
And, Sarah’s heart warmed. Something she truly cared about. Books.
She wasn’t allowed to have her own books. Her pernicious therapist said they inspired the wrong kind of hope in her mind when she read fantasy stories. That Le Morte d’Arthur and The Canterbury Tales were too much of a negative influence on her already maladjusted imagination. She glowered at the memory so long ago. That therapist was gone - thank, God - but a new one had yet to be assigned to her. It had been nearly six months, and she was barely shrugging off the sleepy, dreamy state of the heavy doses of medication they fed her day after day.
Pills of all kinds. Blue and pink and white. Round and long. Fat and skinny. Sarah made a noise of disgust in her throat as she remembered the chalky taste of them. The man turned his bright blue eyes toward her, a smile melting like honey on his features as he saw her.
“Good morning,” he invited in a voice as candied as his smile. His accent raised a panic in her. Heart beating erratically as her fantasies burbled to the still surface of her mind. She fought to keep them down and felt her eyes widen as the smile slipped from his face.
“Are you alright, dear?” he asked turning towards her. She nodded fervently, keeping her eyes on his face and willing the ghosts of her past away. She was a good girl. She didn’t believe in goblins and faeries and dwarves and beasts. The man came to a stop in front of her, holding his clipboard up for inspections, “You’re Sarah, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” she whispered, clasping her hands in front of her and trying to control the panic shaking in her limbs.
His answering laugh was euphonious and light, “You don’t have to call me ‘sir’, Sarah.” She took a steadying breath and looked up into his sky blue irises, his nose was regal but not straight, his brow was young, and his eyes - most importantly of all - were both the same color. It wasn’t him. It would never be him.
He doesn’t exist. She reminded herself flatly. It was all a nightmare. Not real. Not fair.
It was best that she got that through her head once and for all. Otherwise, they’d put her back on the medication again. She hated the medication. It put her in a hazy state between waking and dreaming. It was then that the nightmares sometimes spoke to her and sometimes didn’t. She was never sure when they’d actually show up or if they’d ever leave.
Sometimes when Sarah was down in the courtyard she’d catch a glimpse of a firey’s tail or a goblin’s helm. It was always just a stray cat or some toy brought in by a parent for their infirmed child. Sarah hated it. Hated seeing all the fanciful things people brought their loved ones. The only thing her Father and Karen did for her was not cry during the silent hour they came to visit every week.
She glowered to herself as the man in front of her cleared his throat. She snapped her attention back onto his clear knowing eyes. He was watching her carefully and she wasn’t sure why. This man acted eerily familiar with her. Or, maybe it was the grade school teacher attitude that emanated from him. He was warm and supportive because the rest of them didn’t know better.
Great. Another idiot who thought they could be cured with love and sunshine…
“Call me Adam,” he smiled comfortingly at her and dropped the clipboard, “I’m the floor director.”
The rest of the patients could have been invisible for all Sarah cared for them, but the new director didn’t even glance their way. His attention focused solely on her. She flushed for a moment, green eyes darting to her hospital mates in the doorway before she cleared her throat. She looked at the silver badge over his lapel that read “Smith M.D.”.
“Director Smith,” she said giving him a nod then darting her keen eyes over his shoulder to look at the enormous bookshelf, “What’s the bookshelf for?” If she tried sounding disinterested she had failed miserably.
Director Smith smiled at her, catching her slight dismissal of his friendly nature and waved grandly at the bookshelf, “A donation from a very generous patron. One who enjoys adventure and the smell of old paper to soiled hospital gowns and sterile floors.”
“So, you brought it?”
His blue eyes cast her a happy glance as he beckoned her to follow him with a wave of his clip board. Several of the door lurkers followed suit and peeked over Sarah’s shoulder as the director crouched over a large box in the center of the room and pulled open the cardboard flaps revealing large leather bound novels and thick dusty books with jackets that frayed and yellowed at the edges of the spine. Each of these books was well loved, the heavy use indicating how many times fingers had pulled open their pages and let imaginations run free.
Sarah looked up at the director, his face filled with wonder and excitement like a little mischievous boy as the other patients crowded around him. Maybe a man who loved books this much wasn’t so bad.
“Aren’t they nice?” he asked them. Some nodded, most stared blankly at the box not sure what he wanted them to get from the donation.
“There will be rules regarding the books,” Director Smith said after he called all the patients into the recreation room. Some of the more cognizant patients, Sarah being one of them, looked positively thrilled to have something stimulating to occupy their minds for once. The television was always on some child’s cartoon loop and there were only so many paper-mâché elephants one could make before wanting to crush every single one into dust and toss them out the windows.
“Rule number one: No eating, throwing, or destroying the books in any capacity. If you are having a hard time reading any of them ask a volunteer or another patient to help you read. If you are frustrated, do something constructive. Do not take it out on the books.
“Rule number two: Return what you borrow. If you find yourself drawn to a particular book they will be lent out to each patient in a library like system. There will be a sign out sheet that will be checked every few days. If a book has not been returned we will come looking for it.
“And, finally, rule number three: Enjoy them. I know this is my first day in the ward, but believe me when I say I have been working tirelessly to make changes for the better as soon as I stepped into the role several months ago, even if I haven’t been here very often I was always making decisions with all of your best interests in mind. Things have been run differently until now. I am here to help. I am a friend. If anything is bothering you - if there is anything that ANY of you need to talk to me about, my door is always open.” He smiled at the crowd. Most of the patients understood him, even if they had the mental faculties of a seven year old.
Something was off about him. Had he been in the ward that long? She couldn’t remember exactly. Sarah stood in the back of the room with her arms crossed over her chest. Sure he was nice enough, but things were never what they seemed. At least that little lesson still rang true over the course of her madness. At this point in time she wasn’t sure whether his nature was benign or malignant. However, years in this ward at least taught her patience. Or maybe that was the drugs. She could never be sure. They put them in their food sometimes. She could taste the acrid bite sometimes, masked in a pudding or meat loaf. The food here was horrible, anyway. She’d rather be a zombie spending her days in a slow tumbling fog than have to weather it sober and lucid for the rest of her life.
“Such a pity…” a toxic voice whispered in her mind. She shook her head, trying to focus on the gathering when she realized that most of the other patients had dispersed and Director Smith was walking towards her with determined strides. She froze, thinking maybe he’d seen her listening to the voice of her childhood tormentor in her head, but when he smiled and came to a stop in front of her she relaxed and hugged her arms waiting for him to speak.
“Sarah,” he said her name so effortlessly as if it held no weight at all with voice like honey and eyes like the ocean, “I wanted to speak with you as soon as possible. I feel like there is a lot we need to discuss about your treatment and your future at this establishment.”
A foreboding crept its way through Sarah’s bones and settled into her body like an old friend. The director smiled happily and held an arm out indicating that they would be having this discussion right away. To Director Smith soon meant now, she would have to remember that. He waited for her to turn and exit the room before him. The sign of a gentleman, Sarah scoffed inwardly. She wasn’t sure why she was being so nasty in her thoughts. Had she always been this way? Was this who she was without sedatives?
She scrunched her nose up at her own behavior. She didn’t like it.
As they reached the director’s office he threw the door open wide revealing grey-white walls and file boxes piled against the walls and on the cabinets behind his desk. There were two tattered blue chairs with wooden arm rests in front of his desk. A single snowglobe ornament with a rickety castle suspended on a hill winked next to the large table-top calendar littered with chicken scratch and notes jotted in the little spaces between the weeks. and waved her inside before following closely and closing it behind them. He motioned for her to sit and circled around his desk and tossing his doctors smock from beneath him as he sat. He pulled the top of the box open and Sarah craned her neck curiously, but the director covered the box again quickly. His eyes glinted in playful admonishment as he clicked his tongue and a decidedly familiar way that sent goosebumps over her skin.
“This is not for your eyes, Sarah,” he said. With the lid angled towards her he pulled something from the box and into his lap, scooting his office chair forward so that it remained hidden. She pursed her lips unhappily.
“Not yet,” he amended before continuing, “There was one thing I noticed when I was reading through all the patient files after I took this position. That the previous Floor Director and the idiot Therapist he employed were harming the patients more than helping them. You can’t fix a problem by constantly avoiding it.”
Sarah stayed quiet. She wasn’t sure what he was going to be getting at, but she wanted to hear it, nonetheless.
“I understand that there was a tragic event in your life when you were fifteen,” he continued. Sarah’s heart squeezed violently as she thought of that night. She felt the panic bubble to the surface again as her breathing became erratic, “It’s alright, I’m not going to talk about it.”
His soothing words placed a damper on the impending doom she felt whenever someone made her speak about her experiences in the Labyrinth. She had been shown over and over again that what she had seen was wrong. It was the hallucination of a broken girl tormented by grief and unable to cope. She was flawed. She was sick. She needed help. They could help her if she’d just listen-
“Sarah,” she glanced sharply up at him. The director was leaning towards her. His eyes were cautious and his features soft, “I’m trying to tell you that I believe you.”
Her jaw fell open so quickly that she heard the hinges of it pop in her ears, “You what?”
He smiled. “In a way, of course. I don’t really think magic exists, but I believe that you saw what you saw. You needed to go to this,” he glanced down at an open chart on his desk, “Underground Labyrinth.”
“Just, Underground or Labyrinth. Not both,” she corrected but then paused thoughtfully, “No, I suppose that’s not right, either. Yes, both. But, not both at the same time.”
The director nodded and made a note of what she said in the chart. He looked up at her, his expression indicating that he wanted her to continue, but Sarah faltered. She was so used to being admonished for talking about the Underground like it was a real place.
It is real.
No, it’s not. She glowered again trying to retreat into herself and protect her consciousness, what little of it she had left. The director sighed softly and set his pen down.
“I would really like you to talk to me about your experiences, Sarah,” So familiar and so aggravating once more, “I don’t believe you belong here. In fact, I know you don’t. You’re no more of a danger to society than I am. You experienced a great loss and suffered a psychotic break. It could happen to anyone. The fact that your parents turned you over to the Hospital at such a young age is regrettable. But, you’re old enough to be reassessed, and I hope to clear you for reintegration into society so that you can put all of this behind you and live your life.”
His words unfurled something in her that she hadn’t felt in a very long time, something she thought might be close to hope. She hoped. What a strange and foreign emotion.
“The anti-depressants they had you on were… unnecessary if not overkill. It’s probably taken them a very long time to work their way out of your system. I had the orderlies lower your dose over the last half year. We took you off of them completely about a month ago, how do you feel?”
A hysterical laugh burst from Sarah’s throat, “I’m… lucid?”
“Almost, yes. Do you feel better?”
“I don’t feel numb,” she said bravely, “If that’s what you mean.”
The director smiled at her, “Cheeky. They told me you were like that a long time ago. I’m glad to see it’s back, even if sporadically.”
She smiled a little, “I’m… not sure what I’m feeling quite yet, but I feel normal enough now, I suppose.”
“That’s fantastic,” he said making a few notes on his calendar, “Then, in about a week I want to see you back in here. You should be weaned off the meds completely by then and we’ll have a chat about everything. I want you to face your demons, not flee from them.” Director Smith looked up at her, pleasure in his blue eyes and a self-satisfied smile playing about his mouth.
“I have one more thing for you,” he said pulling a small red leather book from his lap and Sarah’s heart froze, “This belongs to you. The chart says it was your favorite book before the accident. I’d like for you to have it back so that you can jog your memory about the Labyrinth. And, partly because I also love a good book. It’s a shame they took them away from you for ten years. That therapist was a hack and should have his license revoked.” The director spat the last bit harshly and placed the book on the desk between them, tattered gold letters still legible and menacingly stamped into the crimson leather.
“I can have it back?” Sarah asked, her voice a mixture of excitement at having some tangible proof of sorts that at least she hadn’t made everything up on her own and consternation at what having the book in her possession would bring. There was a source for all her wonder and woe and it lay bound in red leather mere inches from her fingertips.
Quickly she snatched up the book and thumbed through the pages, looking at the worn lettering and yellowed edges with happiness and caution. This was hers. It was the one thing in this whole place that belonged to her and she didn’t have to share with anyone else, but it was also the reason she was here in the first place. The book automatically opened to the page she so often looked at when she was younger.
“You have no power over me…” she breathed, “I could never remember. How silly of me.”
“Well, take it and read up. I’ve already read it cover to cover several times over, and I have to say your younger self had excellent taste in literature. I should like to show you more in this genre, but I need to make sure you can handle it first.”
“I miss reading,” she said absently folding the book to her chest and looking up at the director in front of her, “Thank you.”
He smiled again. Sunlight through the rain.
Sarah lay in her bed that evening as the rest of the patients gathered for dinner. At some point during the afternoon they brought in a vanity for her to use which she ignored as she lay on her bed with her old book spread over the pillows, green eyes hungry for the words on the page. She hadn’t read anything other than textbooks and medical journals in so long. She ached with every scenery description, cried with every adjective, and shivered with every word from the Goblin King. And, when she was finished she closed the book and held it close to her beating heart. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes as she felt a swell of emotion for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
More so because she knew everything. She had experienced all of it first hand, and it tore her heart to pieces because she didn’t want to believe it was fake. She didn’t want to think she was crazy. But, when her father had burst into her room while she had a conversation with Hoggle and Sir Didymus it was hard to pretend at fifteen that she had imaginary friends. She had been discovered. And, sent away.
She sat up after a while and slid the book under her pillow making sure that the Crimson edge couldn't be seen from any angle in the room in case one of her nosy ward mates decided to come snooping around while she was out. She almost left without glancing at the vanity, but a glint of light caught her eye and she stilled with her fingers on the knob before turning very slowly towards a visage she hadn't laid eyes on in years; her own reflection. The planes of her face, once soft and cherub like, were that of a grown woman now. Her lips were full and heart shaped, her eyes a bright green and deep as an ocean, her nose was still turned up at the end and her hair was dark like ink. She saw the rosy tint to her cheeks and the length of her throat covered in milky white skin. She was pale as a ghost with the same haunted look about her eyes.
But, as she turned away from the mirror, she caught sight of something she had never hoped to see again in her lifetime. A moon-faced barn owl perched still as a statue outside the window of her room. It’s large black eyes endless and chilling stared straight at her and her pulse rocketed as she fumbled behind her for the knob of her door.
She burst into the hall huffing and wide eyed like a wild animal and a passing orderly grabbed her by the shoulders roughly.
“Whoa, Sarah, what’s happening?” he asked looking down in concern as he dropped his folders to the ground, paper spilling over the polished floor. Sarah turned back to her room, no trace of the owl beyond the window into the looming twilight.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed, “I thought I saw a bug in my room.” The lie slipped easily from her lips and she practically sprinted away, not stopping to help the orderly as he ignored the strewn files and stepped into her room to check for the imaginary insect she mentioned. She made her way straight to the office of the only person who would be able to help her make it through the next week and on her way to freedom as long as her nightmares remained just that… Imaginary. Distant. Delusions. But, the faint cackle of laughter she heard buried deep in her memories shook her to her core and she trembled in fear.
Please, let me be crazy, she wished for the first time since running the Goblin King’s maze, Please, don’t let him be real.