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a cage for wild things

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Sohee remembers the day she arrived at the institution. It was bright and sunny, the sky a brilliant blue overhead as the car turned in at the tall iron gates, wheels crunching over gravel as they rolled slowly down a long driveway. She remembers sitting on a hard chair and looking down at the brochure she was given while people talked over her head.

Welcome, it said in curling print amidst pictures of landscaped gardens and beautiful, if old fashioned, architecture. Proud history, it said on one page, and providing a home for troubled girls, it said on another. A new life and a new direction begin today, Sohee read, as the brochure crumpled in her trembling hands.

She doesn't remember much from before, and the days after become a blur of dull mornings and hazy afternoons, hours rolling into days into months until she has no real concept of how long she has been here. But that first day remains clear in her mind. The blue of the sky outside, the glossy pages slick in her hands, the prick of a needle, and how the world turned grey.

The bell chimes and they walk in a line towards the meeting room. One of them might pause, head turned at an open doorway, as if noticing something within, but only momentarily. No one falls behind. They file in and take their seats in the circle for group therapy. When it is Sohee's turn to share she talks about her troubled dreams, her bad thoughts, how glad she is to be here where she is safe - any of these words might fall from her lips, just as they always do. What she says doesn't matter. That is not the point. When the bell chimes they rise and go out again.

There might be a lesson next. Or there might be chores. Or a meal. Or bedtime. If there is a schedule it’s difficult to keep track of during the long, hazy days. Sometimes it seems like there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. Then a bell chimes.

Sohee walks along the hallway with the soft floral carpet underfoot. Now and then the hem of her dress brushes against the skirt of someone going the other way. Her head down, she doesn't see who it is, but it is a comfort knowing she isn't alone as she wanders this way for what feels like hours.

A bell chimes. She feels cold. There is a girl with dark eyes watching her. Her gaze pierces deep into Sohee’s skin like a needle. It feels somehow familiar but once she wakes up she remembers that her dreams always feel like this.

There are paths that meander through the neatly kept gardens outside. Sohee looks at them through the window sometimes, following them with her eyes. Outside under the grey sky, beyond the manicured garden beds that no one ever tends, past the hedges no one ever trims, between the trees that never grow too tall, can just be glimpsed the high walls topped with wrought iron spikes that surround the grounds on all sides. It might once have occurred to Sohee to wonder what those walls are there for. The girls never walk in the gardens. And even if they did, they would never want to leave this place where they are happy and safe. This, after all, is their home.

The hallway stretches out in front of her forever as she paces, one careful step after another. The carpet is so soft it almost feels like grass beneath her feet. Sometimes she feels like she might keep walking far enough to reach the wall beyond the trees.

A bell chimes in her mind. Sohee wakes from her dream and finds herself in a hallway. This part of the building must be closed off during the day, it isn’t somewhere she would recognise by the light of day, but at night she often finds herself here. She finds herself here and she remembers that the sky was blue, that there was a prick in her arm, that this wasn’t always her home.

The other girls are here, too, in the forbidden part of the old building with its long, proud history. The staff must not come here. The door must always be locked. It is not a nice place, all filthy and crumbling, the resting ground of so many broken things. It is dangerous. Condemned. And when night falls and the girls open their eyes and finds themselves here, so are they.

Tarnished porcelain is cold under Sohee's cheek. Another girl, Chaebin, stares at her from the opposite end of the bathtub, their bare toes nearly touching in the middle. It might happen that Sohee will walk the halls tomorrow with bruises around her throat, or other marks in other places, nothing but a faint impression remaining of someone's touch. She won’t remember even if the pain lingers. Sohee leans forward, reaches out to touch Chaebin’s face. She doesn't flinch; she waits.

The days are grey and soft and endless. Sohee sits in her chair for group therapy, the other girls around her, each in their own place. None of them have much to say but they all speak when it’s their turn. Sohee couldn’t say, afterward, what they spoke about. They fill the time with words until the bell chimes. None of it means anything. The hours pass. She keeps her head down, forgetting to pause at an open doorway, to look out through the window to the sky beyond. It’s always grey, anyway.

The days are dull but pleasant, each one much the same as the next. Sohee and the other girls are… Well. Much the same.

At night she is not dull. They are not dull girls here, they are a collection of sharp things. Sohee goes to sleep in her bed and all at once her mind is sharp, her thoughts are sharp, her nails and teeth and bones are sharp.

She opens her eyes and sees Chaebin there, waiting, just within reach. Her arm stretches out, touches Chaebin's face, rending deep scratches down her cheek. The porcelain is cold and rough against their skin. The thin nightdresses do nothing to keep the chill from reaching them, sinking deep inside, turning warm flesh to ice. The hard tips of Chaebin’s toes dig into Sohee's shins like shards of glass. When Sohee leans forward and kisses her the touch of her lips barely conceals the sharp teeth behind. She presses harder. The force of it hurts them both. It’s yet to be discovered which one of them will shatter first.

It is the middle of the night but the shadows shift through dark and light and it is never difficult to find their way through the open doorways and empty rooms and never-ending hallways. There are cracks in the walls and floors and ceilings where the forgotten weeds and overgrown vines and untrimmed branches find their way inside.

Sohee passes a doorway and there is a girl lying in a bed of wildflowers inside. There is another girl on top of her, knee digging into her hip, hand squeezing tight under her jaw.

In another room a girl reclines amongst the remains of a broken mirror, looking at her reflection in one large shard. She doesn't seem to notice as the edges cut deep into her palm.

In the next room there is an old wardrobe with a creaking door that whispers of something inside.

Sohee tightens her grip around the axe in her hand and walks on, past a girl tying a red ribbon around the neck of a teddy bear, a pair of sharp scissors waiting by her knee.

These are the games they play. There are nights they chase each other through these halls, taking turns to wear a blindfold. They hunt each other in the darkness although not one of them is prey.

At the bell’s chime Sohee lies down in her bed. The world fades around her, light into grey. The white sheets are smooth and cool against her bare limbs as they cover her like a shroud. It might be her first day here or her last. As her eyes drift closed she runs her hands along her arms, feeling as the warmth seeps from her flesh. In the crook of her elbow the soft skin is marked by a deep, dark bruise. She presses into it with her thumb and the pain is sharp and sudden like a -

A bell chimes. There is a girl with dark eyes staring at her from the other end of the bathtub. Sohee knows that if she touches her, she will shatter. She reaches out.

She runs, the floral carpet muffling her footsteps, her hair flying out behind her as she passes one open doorway after another. The sky is grey outside, but of course it always is and always has been. Here, inside, there are red stains on her dress, something sticky and wet on her skin. She turns a corner and finds a girl waiting for her at the end of the hallway.

Chaebin's eyes meet hers, bright and sharp. Sohee swings the axe.