The Strings

The walls were a sterile white, bright enough to blind. I kept my eyes partway closed, watching the nurses walk past in their crisp candy striper uniforms, heels clicking with purpose as they ushered patients in and out of rooms. The idea that the red and white pinstripe smocks was fashionable again made me want to laugh. But then I remembered sullenly that laughter was forbidden in these halls.

I swallowed the feeling as I stopped before a dull blue door. The door. She was on the other side.

I unlocked the door and pushed it open, gently letting it shut behind me.

“Hi Vicki,” I whispered to the girl staring at the wall. Her brunette hair fell in lank strands down her back. Her arms were crossed, freshly clipped fingernails digging into her flesh. “I’ve come for a visit.”

“You’ve come to stare,” a harsh voice croaked back. Her head began to rock side to side, as she listened to music I couldn’t hear. This wasn’t my Vicki.

I hesitated before finally sitting in the only available chair: a cheap plastic thing that was likely removed at night. Can’t have any patients beating themselves to death, I assumed.

“No—no I haven’t.”

Vicki continued glaring at the wall, muttering softly. I counted to ten and continued.

“I brought you something.”

Vicki turned, dull eyes finally lighting on me. If there had been a soul beyond those windows before, there wasn’t one now.

“What?” Again the croak.

“A deck of cards. I thought we could play.”

My not-Vicki chucked darkly. “They let you bring those in here?”

“They don’t know I have them.”

Not-Vicki jerked her head sharply, hair whipping across her face.

“They always know.”

Regardless of whether they knew or not, Vicki and I played cards. Slap Jack, War, Speed, our old favorites. There was a glimpse there, just for a moment, of back then. But just before I caught hold it was gone.

“So what now?” not-Vicki asked when we had been playing for two hours. Visiting time was almost through.

“I thought…maybe I could come again. Tomorrow?”

Not-Vicki tilted her head like a confused puppy. “Tomorrow?” She didn’t seem to understand the word. “Okay.”

I slipped the cards back into my pocket, trying to hide my shaking hands. Something wasn’t right here. Not just with my Vicki – my not-Vicki – but with everything. It was too quiet for a mental asylum.

I left Vicki in her room, again holding court with the wall. I passed the empty nurse’s station. There was no one to buzz me out of the wing and no one was paying any attention. Every nurse within eyesight dutifully staring down at medications, charts, and patients as the silently roamed the halls. Before I could change my mind, I slipped into the storage closet on my left.

My heart pounded as I looked over cleaning products and toiletries. What was I even doing? I shouldn’t be in here. But neither should Vicki. And I couldn’t shake the feeling this place wasn’t right.

A basket of dirty towels and uniforms stood in the corner. I held my nose and picked through the garments until I found a smock that was only partially soiled. A questionable stain covered one sleeve, but it would have to do.

I tossed my clothes in a trashcan and buried them beneath used paper towels and a bag of what might have been vomit. The dress felt too short and I tugged on the edges, trying to extend it past my knees. I pulled a surgical mask over my face and reminded myself of why I was doing this. For Vicki. Everything is for Vicki.

I walked out of the closet and down the hall with purpose, passing the room and continuing down random halls. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I would know when I found it.

A hand shoved a pile of papers in my arms and continued walking. I looked down to hide my surprise and pretended to read as I walked. Confidential patient information loomed before me. I couldn’t look away, though I was violating countless laws just from touching the documents. I shuffled through the papers hoping to find the only person I cared about.

Vicki. I didn’t know a thing about the medical profession, but even I could tell her charts were a mess. A transcript of a therapy session sent shivers down my spine.

Therapist: Vicki, tell me how you’ve been feeling?

Vicki: Strings. Strings. Strings.

Therapist: I’m sorry, Vicki. Can you repeat that?

Vicki: The strings. THE strings. THE STRINGS.

Therapist: What strings, Vicki? Can you explain?

Vicki: Pulling. Pulling. Strings are pulling.

After that Vicki went comatose. They carried her back to her room where she had remained, lethargic and unresponsive, for two weeks straight. I had been her first and only visitor, but I wasn’t surprised, considering.

I continued down the hallway, pausing for only a second when I saw the room marked “Operations,” before I walked purposefully inside. I stood in an operating observation room. On the other side of the glass wall was a team of doctors restraining a thin, broken girl. She thrashed on the table, screaming like she was being tortured. Crying about the strings. Wanting to cut the strings.

They stabbed her with a needle and injected a blue liquid into her arm. Immediately she went limp. They laid her gently on the table as saliva pooled in the corner of her mouth and dripped to the floor. One nurse closed her eyelids.

“Bring in the next one,” I heard a doctor say. “This one was too weak. Mark that down, Clarity.”

The nurse who had closed the victim’s eyes made a note on a pad of paper. She tore off the sheet and handed it to the doctor. He nodded in approval and attached it to a plastic sheet protector at the end of the table.

Two orderlies entered the room and wheeled the girl away. The dead girl, I realized. I walked back toward the door, hoping no one would notice me. Vicki, Vicki, Vicki, repeated itself in my head. A chant. A chant for my sister. A chant for my twin.

“You there,” someone called. I felt their voice wash over me, bringing me back to my senses. “Bring in the next one. How many times must I say it?”

I nodded without turning and hurried from the room. I couldn’t escape, not without Vicki.

I hurried to her room. I would trade places with her, I resolved. I would act normal and they would let me go. Vicki could go back to my place and wait. I know she didn’t mean to hurt Dad. I know she didn’t mean it.

But it didn’t matter what she meant. She had killed our Dad. Mom had thrown her in the asylum and could barely even look at me, because we share the same face. I was the only one Vicki had left.

I got to Vicki’s room, but the door was open. There was no one inside.

“Oh, good. Take her please.” A nurse shoved a wheelchair toward me carrying my sedated sister. Her head lolled on her shoulders, tongue sticking out as she mumbled beneath her breath about the strings.

I nodded briskly and turned the wheelchair the direction I had just come from. Time slowed. The nurses, before obsessed with their work, now watched me out of the corners of their eyes. They knew. Vicki was right. They always knew.

I took my time wheeling her to the Operations Room, looking for an exit I could spring for at the last minute.

“Jennie,” my sister, my Vicki, whispered. “Jennie.”

“Yes, Vicki, I’m here.”

“Jennie. Will you cut the strings? Will you cut my strings?”

Her voice was thick, but her own. Her head tilted to the side again, and though I couldn’t see her face, I knew it was pleading.

“Yes, Vicki. Yes, I’ll cut your strings.”