Brassy jazz music floated into my ears, easing me awake. The sharp smell of sterilization and the leather straps around my wrists and ankles sent my heart racing. My mouth dried up. Cracking my eyes open, the light overhead pulsed heat. To my left, darkness swallowed the room, but I knew where I was. Only one room had a gramophone.

“Marion,” I whispered. No one responded.

Latex gloves gripped my knees. “Who are you?” My voice cracked.

The hands shoved my knees apart. A metal instrument glinted under the light. It was the toy Marion had found. The hand placed it into my palm. One handed, I turned the top, and the four, pointy bulbs spread open. In this light it looked more dangerous, more like a dentist’s drill than a toy.

The hand snatched it back. Shrinking against the examination table, I had wished I could forget: cold metal, piercing points cutting skin, and squirming shame.

*************************************************************************

The desk, polished and pristine, reappeared in the playroom. Marion refused to look at me, I thought. I didn’t look at her, so I couldn’t know for sure. We suffered separately. Every morning held the same routine: waking up to music and chemicals, bread untouched at breakfast, and endless hours in the playroom.

************************************************************************

This time when I woke up, Marion was sniffling on my right. “Marion,” I called out.

“Elmira,” she squeaked.

“Are you ok?” I squirmed against the restraints like I had done a thousand times before all in vain.

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No,”

I turned my head to try and catch a glimpse of her, but there was no medical table beside me. “Marion, where are you?” I asked.

“Over here,” her voice whispered into my left ear. I looked, but saw no one.

An estranged giggle echoed around me.  From the edge of my eyes I glimpsed her standing between my feet, peeking up at me from over the edge of the table. As she popped up on her tiptoes, pain shot inside of me. The light swung over my head, blocking out her smirking face.

*************************************************************************

I woke up in the playroom, tears crusted to my cheeks. Marion sat absorbed in her Elmira doll. Had she really been in the room with me? Maybe none of it was real. I hadn’t checked for marks, and the pain never lasted. But the chemicals burned in my nose, and even the sound of a single note made me flinch.

Without drawing her attention, I slipped from the room and down the steps. Outside the Institute had appeared endless, but inside each turn led into a wall. Each door I came across led into the kitchen or the parlor. Was I running in a circle? No, the Institute wanted to drive me crazy. All of it was an illusion. It had to be.

“Marion,” I shouted, storming up the steps, “we need to get out of here.”

She stood in the center of the playroom clutching the Elmira doll by the throat. Her jaw fell slack. Her eyes rolled back into her head. A low growling sound flung itself from her throat.

“Marion,” I snapped, shielding myself with the desk. Her face twisted in agony.

I reached for her. “Marion, I’m your sister.”

Her body crumpled in on itself, and she fell to the floor, convulsing. I leapt over the desk almost landing on top of her. As soon as my hand wrapped around her wrist, her eyes popped open. Her mouth formed an ‘o’, body curling into a fetal position. The building shook. The paint peeled off of the walls. The carpet stretched open, revealing rough wood. The windows burst, flooding the room with sunlight.

Rubbing my thumb along Marion’s tendon, her panic faded out like a tornado siren. Before the Institute could heal itself, I picked her up and leapt out the window. My stomach dropped, but Marion caught us, so we drifted down like leaves.

Grass tickled my bare feet. Sunlight warmed my pale skin. I turned back to the Institute. In the sunlight it reflected everything I hated about magic: order, politics, and darkness.

Marion tugged at my hand, her smile cutting across her face and lighting her hollow eyes. With fresh air filling our lungs, we trampled through the woods without a thought to where we’d go.

Fiction

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