The eyes of the Institute glared down at us. Its opaque windows reflected our frightened faces. The stiff mountain of steps retained the bank-like feel, but it was a reform house now for troubled children. The stones lined up in rigid rows unlike my dress, unraveling at the bottom. Squeezing my sister Marion’s hand tighter, I tried not to slouch. We’d been wards of our coven since birth. Stories of our mother rarely passed our ears, but from what I’d gathered, Mom had sniffed her potions one too many times. Auntie Grendel let slip once that we might have another sister running around the backwoods up the butt crack of nowhere. Half of what Auntie Grendel said was crap. She said we were going on a trip, not to a reform house. We didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t need reforming.
I shook my hand free from Marion’s and stepped forward. “Elmira Demilune,” I said, flourishing my hand in the proper greeting. Marion followed suit. The Institute seemed to raise its head, stretching higher. Then the door swept open, and I led the way inside. As the locks clicked behind us, dread settled in my stomach. Auntie Grendel never told us how long we would be in here.
Though the sun had been shining outside, the Institute seemed to repel light. The midnight walls deepened the space, and the moist air drew me in. In the dim light I tried to step forward, but came face to face with a wall. “Left or right?” I asked Marion. She didn’t respond. I grasped for her hand, but caught empty air.
“Marion,” I hissed afraid to speak too loudly. I started to feel out the house for her energy, but I caught myself. Reform meant a break from our powers until we could better handle them, at least that’s what I’d heard.
Taking the left hallway, my stockinged feet squished into the golden carpet. When did I take my shoes off? Or did I forget to wear them?
The hall led to a barren room with wooden floorboards that snagged the strings hanging from my dress. Brassy 20s music blared out of a gramophone hiding in the corner. The music rattled the gothic, yellow dollhouse that leaned against one colorless wall. Sitting beside it, Marion’s faded blue dress puffed out around her on the floor. Her strawberry blond hair draped over her shoulder. My own raven hair bled into my black dress, helping me melt into the shadows when I was at home. Marion could never hide like I could. She always stuck out. It didn’t help that she had freckles dotting half of her face like an incomplete art project.
Inside the dollhouse, wooden furniture decorated each room. Floral and scroll details punctuated every corner. It was like a miniature version of a real house somewhere, right down to the smell of vanilla orchids. On a nightstand in the rosy pink bedroom sat a vase of living mini-roses. The only missing pieces were the dolls.
Marion walked a silver, pear-shaped instrument around the doll house as a doll substitute. “Where did you find that?” I asked.
She pointed to the window sill, and I snatched it from her hands. “Don’t take things that aren’t yours.” Addressing the room, I apologized for her. No Institute officials popped out of the walls. No curses shot at us. Nothing changed.
I wasn’t sure how the Institute worked. Every hushed rumor I’d heard about the place oozed fear. Some said there was a labyrinth in the basement where a chimera chased prisoners. Some claimed torture. Some claimed military school. It seemed like there should’ve been someone there to punish us or direct us at least. Presence of authority seeped from every corner, but no one revealed himself.
As I set the instrument back on the window sill, a row of grey bumps poked up beside the dollhouse. “My dollhouse at home doesn’t have a graveyard,” Marion said. “Is that where all the dolls are?” I hoped not.
Grabbing her hand, I led her towards the front door. No one was waiting for us there, so we continued walking. Around a series of abrupt corners we ran into a cramped kitchen where the table was set for us. We had to skip over chipped tiles and wiggle around the antiqued appliances to reach the table.
Even though rolls were finger food, we used the knife and fork given. Thanking the room, we even excused ourselves when we had finished. There wasn’t a sink to do dishes in, otherwise we would’ve washed up. You’d think that would influence the Institute people, but still no one showed.
With no one to guide us, Marion poked her nose into everything. She explored the halls, feeling along the walls for secrete passage ways. I figured she was wasting her time, but as I trailed behind her, she found a hinge behind a bust of a Persian cat. Together, we shuffled the bust to the side, and the wall panel drifted open, revealing a stuffy staircase. As soon as we stepped into the stairwell, dust bunnies shot up our noses. I started to turn back, but Marion had already ascended into the darkness. The steps rose up like crooked teeth, shifting with every step I took. By the time I reached the top, I was nauseated.
Dirty light pooled into the spacious room. It appeared to have been an office, but the desk was pushed to the side. A few sparse dolls and blocks suggested that now it was our playroom. I glanced over my shoulder, looking for the two way mirror I’d read human psychologists were fond of, but the Institute didn’t need silly inventions like those.
Marion scooped up one of the dolls dressed in black. “It’s you, Elmira,” she said, running her fingers through the dolls dark hair. I peeked over her shoulder. My own violet eyes stared back at me out of the doll’s head.
Looking for Marion’s doll, I spotted a Hispanic one cuddled with an Asian one beside a pile of wooden blocks. Of all the dirty, old toys spread across the red carpet, I couldn’t find Marion’s, but she was too enthralled by the toys to care. When my fingers closed around the plastic arm of Elmira, the air around me chilled, falling heavy onto my shoulders. Dirt poured into my throat, blocking out the air. The room darkened. The walls rippled as if hands were pressing against the inside of the wallpaper.
Marion ripped the doll from my hands, and the room rushed back to the way it had been. Collapsing against her, she whispered soothing words into my ear until the trembling stopped.
“I don’t like it here, Marion,” I said, keeping my eyes trained on the carpet.
“We’ll be good. We’ll make it out,” she said. I didn’t know if we would. The longer I stared at the carpet, the more the golden flowers resembled skulls.