“I'm sane, I tell you! Sane! S-A-N-E! Sane! Why are you putting me in here?! I'm sane!” Charles struggled against the nurses' arms. “Let me go!”
The nurses tossed him into the cell and slammed the door shut behind him. Charles began banging on the door and continued to do so even after he knew the nurses who had brought him there were long gone. Finally, he slumped against the door.
“But I'm not crazy...” he whimpered.
“Of course you aren't,” a voice behind him said soberly. “Why else would you be here?”
Charles whipped around suddenly aware that he was not alone.
“Who are-” he began, but the woman sitting before him waved him silent.
“Name's Smoke,” she said in reply to the unfinished question. “Welcome to the Escher-Carroll Asylum for the Criminally Sane. I've been an inmate here for about seventeen years, give or take a lifetime. They count time weird around here.” She shrugged. “And you are?”
“Charles,” the man replied cautiously. While this little dialogue had been going on, Charles was assessing Smoke. The name was fitting for despite the fact that she was at least as tall as he was, her extreme thinness and the bagginess of her clothes made her seem insubstantial. To accentuate the name even further, a limp, smoldering cigarette hung from her mouth. Smoke seemed to be assessing Charles as well, regarding him coolly through mismatched eyes and stringy blue bangs.
“You dress... like a professor,” Smoke stated matter-of-factly.
Charles blinked. “Wh-what?”
“You dress like a professor. You look like you're a pretty stuffy guy, all down-to-earth, never had a chaotic day in his life.” Smoke nodded, removing her cigarette from her mouth for a moment. “You are a lawyer or a professor, aren't you?”
“I most certainly am not a lawyer!” Charles cried indignantly. “I'm a writer.”
Smoke snorted. “Then you must not be very good.”
“And why is that?”
“Because if you were...” Smoke leaned forward, “then you wouldn't be in this hell hole.”
Charles stared at her, confusion and anger smoldering in his eyes. Smoke just shrugged and flopped down on her back.
“Whatever, no need to get angry about it. We might as well try to get along; we're gonna be together for a long time.”
“What are we even in here for?” Charles asked desperately. This was all too much for him; if he didn't get answers soon, his frustration and confusion caused by all the chaos might just inspire him to cry.
Smoke rolled over to look at him.
“It's because we're sane,” she replied soberly. “I thought I made that clear to you earlier.”
Charles felt lightheaded as he looked at Smoke's grim expression, and that was the last thing he remembered before he passed out.
* * *
“Hello? Hellooo? Is anybody in there?” asked an annoyingly perky voice.
“Give the poor guy a break, Bleik. He's been having a rough time adjusting.” Smoke's voice.
“I'm not attempting to make it hard on him!” replied the happy voice, Bleik. “I simply don't want the poor guy to miss breakfast!”
Charles managed to wrench his eyes open, then let out a high-pitched noise of surprise. The small, grinning, lime-green... animal standing over him was smiling a wide doll-like grin.
“Good morning, starshine! The earth says hello!” the animal chirped, thus identifying itself as Bleik, the owner of the excessively happy voice. “It's time for breakfast, so why don't you two come along with me?”
“Who- what- in the world- are- is?”Charles stuttered, attempting with all his might to form a coherent sentence and failing.
“Oh, how rude of me. I'm Bleik, and I'm going to be your rehabilitation officer!” giggled the animal. “I've been working with Ms. Smoke here since she came here, and I must say she's made quite a bit of progress! But you don't seem to be as extreme a case as she was...” Bleik's face rolled into his head and a new one spun out to replace it, clicking into place, and causing Bleik to look thoughtful. He furthered the look by scratching his head and tapping his foot. After a few seconds of doing this, the happy face spun back into view, and Bleik stated that it was time to go to breakfast.
Charles lingered for a moment with Smoke, totally dumbfounded.
“What is that thing?” he asked quietly.
“He's a dog, I think. I dunno. His ears are kinda long and pointy for a dog's though... maybe he's a rabbit of some sort...” Smoke's voice trailed off as she thought about this. While she mulled over Bleik's species, she busied her hands by putting her hair up with a skeleton beret and putting a pair of goggles over her eyes. “I try not to make sense of this place; I'm afraid it might start to be simple, if that makes any sense.”
Charles shook his head. “Not really.”
Smoke sighed. “I'm afraid that if I try to understand the way they think, that I might start to think like them. And that's something I never want to happen. Ever. Even if it does get me out of here.” Smoke headed for the door. “Let's get going.”
Charles followed after her, still confused and curious. “But if it gets you out of here, would it really be such a bad thing?”
“Yes,” Smoke growled, as if to close further discussion. “Anything that makes me more like them is a bad thing. I will never allow myself to become like them.”
Charles nodded. “I do suppose that going insane is quite a bad thing.”
“Psh,” Smoke said. “You don't understand.”
“Then explain it to me,” Charles replied petulantly.
Smoke blinked slowly and appeared to be thinking about something important. “I suppose I could... and I probably should, too.” She looked hard at Charles. “Let me tell you a story.”
Charles nodded and looked attentive.
“When I first came here, I was about twelve, I guess... I'm not sure, to be honest. I can't remember. I do remember, though, that when I first arrived here I shared a room with a young girl- she couldn't have been more than eight- named Camille. She was nice kid- one of those kids that comes home from school and does their homework and chores first thing. But I'm getting distracted, aren't I?” Smoke laughed, but her face was sad. Charles just gave a nod. “Anyway, so Camille and I were cell-mates and best friends. We shared everything with each other. But the longer we talked, the more I noticed strange things about her. She was totally preoccupied with this weird theory that all this,” Smoke gestured around her for effect, “was some dream, and that if she died, she'd be free to go. She started getting more and more obsessed with this idea, until one day...” Smoke grimaced. “We were outside, on one of the towers. And Camille- she- she.....” Smoke's voice grew small, “she threw herself off the tower. She was smiling and laughing as she fell.” Smoke's face was grim, sad. “The thing that really got me though, was what the nurse who had been watching all this said- 'Pity. It's always a shame when they die so soon after rehabilitation.' -but she didn't sound or look like she pitied her at all.” The anger had returned to Smoke's voice. “That's why I can never let myself be like them. I never want to end up like poor Camille, or like the nurse who watched her fall.”
Charles walked in silence beside Smoke after that. There isn't much one can say to something like that, at least, not something that would matter if a stranger said it.
Smoke laughed darkly. “I suppose it's something that happens all the time, but it just seems all the more poignant when it's someone you know.”
“Especially if they're so young,” her companion echoed.
“Yeah.” Smoke fished around in her pocket and pulled out a limp cigarette. “I need a smoke.”
“Can I give you a light?” Bleik asked cheerily.
“Sure,” Smoke replied impassively. After puffing on the cigarette for a while, she asked, “What are we going to do today, Bleik?”
“Well, you two get to do literary analysis today!” the lime-green creature crowed. “You've got some great stuff lined up today. Real classics.” He gestured to a door. “I'll be back for you at the end of the day.” Bleik happily skipped down the hall, leaving the two of them alone.
“What happened to breakfast?” Charles asked pitifully.
“Breakfast often gets short-changed,” Smoke said with a shrug. “It's part of the rehabilitation. You get so hungry you go crazy. Had it happen to the guy who shared the cell next to me. He ate his cellmate.”
Charles swallowed, hard. “Does that happen often?”
“Not really, but it ain't pretty when it does.”
Smoke took a long drag on her cigarette. “Let's get this over with.”
The two spent their day reading incomprehensible literature and answering even more incomprehensible questions on said literature. Every once in a while something would make sense, and they would be asked a question on what was wrong with that passage. At noon, a nurse came in to check on how they were doing and to give them their lunch- a strange variety of assorted fruits. While the nurse was there, they played the perfect crazed angels. As soon as she left, however, they were ridiculing the lack of logic or respect for grammar in the pieces. They made strange statues out of their lunch, then devoured the art out of sheer necessity. When Bleik finally came to retrieve them, the two were quite entrenched in a discussion about one of the 'incorrect' passage's philosophical significance.
“I think he's trying to say that life, the universe, and everything is totally unpredictable and random,” Charles said in a professor-like voice.
“I think he's saying that blackjack is the most important game in the world,” Smoke laughed, puffing on her cigarette.
“Did you have a nice day?” Bleik asked sweetly.
Smoke looked at him, realizing for the first time that her rehabilitation officer was there.
“Oh. Hey.” She held out her packet. “Here's my busy work.”
Bleik took the packet from Smoke huffily. “I wish you wouldn't be so flippant about this.”
Charles handed his packet of literature over as well. “Here you go.”
Bleik's face spun into its 'sad' position. “You two really don't take this seriously, do you?”
“Nope,” the two chorused in unison, brushing past Bleik. “We're headed back to the cell.”
The next day, the two were treated to a lovely lecture on the history of pliglebee. Despite the fact that they both payed close attention to the lecture, neither Smoke nor Charles was able to discern just what pliglebee was. The day after that, the two discovered that pliglebee was a sport somewhat similar to croquet, but much more violent and with constantly changing rules. They lost miserably, and quite painfully. For several days following, Smoke and Charles did not see each other during the day and were forced to do incredibly dull, nonsensical math, until finally it seemed the monotony would be what drove them mad.
After a week's time, (by the asylum's calendar) something interesting finally happened. It was not, however, quite to the two's liking.
“Happy New Year's!” Bleik crowed.
Smoke groaned and sat up, glaring at the lime green intruder. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Too early...” Charles moaned, rolling over and onto the floor.
“So, what's everybody's resolutions?” Bleik chirped, ignoring Smoke and Charles's complaints. “What do you want to do this year?”
“Keep my sanity,” Charles replied grouchily, crawling back into his bed. “And going back to sleep.”
“Get out of this hell hole,” Smoke muttered, still exhausted. She pulled her pillow over her head. “Now get out of here so I can go back to sleep.
Bleik stared. “What a silly thing, you two. But no matter- we're going to be busy, busy, busy, this year! Smoke, you'll be going into some more intensive therapy to bring out your inner psychosis; Charles, you appear to be being equally difficult, but you're still new to the system. I think it would be a good idea to wait a while before we bump you up to more intensive therapy.”
Smoke shrugged. “Whatever. Now get out. I'm tired.”
“Now, now, Smoke, it's time for you to start your therapy. Come along....” Bleik's face remained in its happy position, but his voice was rather annoyed.
Smoke looked at Charles. “Guess I'll see you this evening then. Bye.” She grabbed her cigarettes, goggles, and a jacket, waved to Charles, and then she was gone.
Charles's day went in the way it usually did- incomprehensible literature with even stranger food, then returning to the cell. However, Smoke didn't return to the cell until late that night.
She slunk in, trying to be inconspicuous and flopped down on her bed.
“How did your day go?” Charles asked. “Mine brought me closer to cannibals then I ever wanted to be before.”
Smoke looked up at her cellmate. “I have to get out of here,” she said in a small, desperate voice.
Charles moved closer to her, worried. “What happened?”
“I don't want to talk about it. Suffice to say, I have to get out of here, and soon.”
Charles looked carefully at Smoke, trying to determine what had upset her so. Her hair was mussed and her mismatched eyes were tired. Her clothes, disheveled to begin with, were even more so and had been stained with some dark pigment, though in the gloom of the cell he couldn't make out the color. Something had clearly gone wrong, but he couldn't determine just what it had been, despite the many theories that now buzzed about in his head.
“Don't ask again, please,” Smoke pleaded. “I just want to be left in peace.”
Charles nodded, but was still worried. “O-okay then,” he murmured.
“Thanks,” Smoke replied. “Could you grab my cigarettes?”
“You really should quit,” Charles said as he handed Smoke a fresh pack. “It's bad for your health.”
“And the rest of life here isn't?” she asked darkly, lighting her cigarette with a match she had stashed in her shirt pocket. She took a long drag, then puffed at it in silence for a while.
“We seriously need to get out of here,” she said finally.
Charles nodded in silent agreement. “This place will be the death of us.”
Smoke said nothing, but puffed pensively on her cigarette until Charles went to sleep, calculating possible means of escape.
The next day, Charles awoke in his cell alone.
“Smoke must have already left...” he murmured, gazing at her empty bed. “Wonder what she's doing right now...”
Charles got dressed, paced around the room for a bit, and then sat back down. It was quite dull to be alone in his cell, and once again he wondered what Smoke was up to.
“I guess today's therapy is solitary confinement,” he mused. “I'd say that this might actually be the way to drive someone to madness, but I'm not sure who's listening.”
He got up and paced again, wishing he had some company or at least some paper to write on. He rummaged around, looking for something to write on. He managed to find a pen in his pocket and then began to search for paper. Sighting Smoke's cigarette box, he headed over to take the foil out. There was a dark red-brown stain on the box, but Charles ignored it, more interested in saving his sanity through writing.
He spent the rest of his day writing stories he usually wouldn't have, trying to keep his sanity.
* * *
“See ya, Charles,” Smoke chirped.
“Waaaa?” Charles asked groggily, lifting his head up to stare at Smoke.
“I have rehab to go to, bright and early!” she said with a slightly too wide smile. It was as if the exhaustion and desperation of the previous nights had melted away in some bizarre awakening. “See ya.”
Charles stared after Smoke, unsure of what had happened. He got up, dressed, and was soon greeted by a nurse.
“Good morning,” said the nurse in a sanitized tone. “Today is the day after New Years. Would you like to join us in the mess hall for a day after New Year's breakfast buffet?”
Charles blinked. “All... right...”
But New Years was a while ago... Charles thought to himself. He didn't say anything though, not wanting to jeopardize the opportunity for a meal.
The mess hall was abuzz with life. Inmates, ranging from the totally sane to the nearly rehabilitated milled around tables and picked at the buffet. Rehab officers and nurses also milled about, making sure everyone was being good. Charles approached the buffet table and loaded up a plate for himself, reminded by the smell of normal food just how hungry he really was. A hand fell on his shoulder, and he jumped.
“Relax, it's just me,” Smoke said jovially in his ear.
Charles turned around to look at her. She had a bruise on her left cheek, but didn't seem to notice. Smoke smiled, and it was the smile that sent chills down the spines of grown men. Charles felt the hair prick at the back of his neck.
“I figured out how we can get out,” she whispered conspiratorially. “I figured it out. I'm going to kill them all...” She drew out a bloody knife.
Charles paled. “What are you-”
“Shhh!” Smoke hissed. “I want to be the one to spill it.”
“How did you get that?” he hissed back, confused and somewhat frightened by Smoke's sudden change in character..
“I stole it from Bleik,” Smoke said proudly. She looked like a child who had just won their first baseball game. “I'm going to kill them with it.”
Smoke jumped up on the buffet table.
“You hear that, folks?” she dictated. “I'm going to kill all you rehab officers and nurses! Starting with..... you.” Smoke pointed the knife at Bleik, who quickly looked from side to side, a desperate look having rolled into place. “You recognize this don't you, Bliek? It is yours after all. You shouldn't leave things like this lying around; the crazies might find them.” Smoke's lips curled up into an even crueler smile. “Payback's a kicker, ain't it?”
Smoke jumped down from the table and advanced on Bleik, free hand out stretched. She grabbed him by his ears and lifted him up for all the assembled to see.
Over Bleik's frenzied pleas for mercy, Smoke began to speak, “Here I hold but one gear in the machine that imprisons us. I am a revolutionary. I will destroy these gears and earn us our freedom!” She looked like she fancied herself to be a Moses of sorts. To all standing there, she looked like the executioner, displaying the head of a guillotine victim.
“Any last words of worth?” she inquired darkly, as she began to slide the knife into the thin slot between Bleik's face and the rest of his head.
Bleik pleaded for his life in near gibberish.
“I thought not,” Smoke sneered, and with that she plunged the knife into his head and twisted her wrist, causing the ring of Bleik's faces to pop out of his head. It flew through the air, then hit the floor, rolling to a stop at Charles's feet. He bent down and picked it up, turning it in his fingers. Happy, sad, mad, frightened, thoughtful... the only five faces printed on the ring.
Smoke raised her victim's now lifeless body up, the empty hole where his face should have been staring back at the crowd. It was obvious by her expression that she expected cheers, and, out of fear, a weak hurrah did rise. She grinned triumphantly.
“Who next?” she cried to the audience.
“That will be quite enough, Miss Smoke,” came a calm voice. “You needn't make any more fuss. We are quite terrified by your display and have decided to let you go.”
Smoke looked at the nurse who had spoken. Her voice was small as she asked, “Do you mean it?”
“Indeed,” the nurse replied.
“I can leave?”
“Go right ahead.” The nurse gestured to the door.
“He he heh... hah hah, hah!” Smoke burst out into hysterical laughter. “See? They are cowards! Kill one, and the rest will bend to your will like putty! That's all there is to it! Getting out is easy! Why did it take me so long to see?”
The nurse came over and took Smoke's hand. “The door is this way.”
As Charles watched the white-coated nurse lead the madwoman away, he made himself a promise.
“I can never be like them,” he swore under his breath. “I won't give in.
“I never want to end up like poor Smoke.”