Today, Lise Quintana and Kevin Sharp explore “How to Move Between Worlds” by Lyndsay E. Gilbert, submitted for Issue #10, Alice in Wonderland.
My name is Alyss and I am mad. My mother visits me in the ‘head hospital’ every night. We call it that because of my little brother Russ.
“Why’s Alyss in hospital?” he asked a few nights ago. “She doesn’t look sick.”
“It’s none of your business!”
He sat on the visitor chair and kicked his legs moodily until Madeline was brought into my two-bed room at the end of Ward C. I had been there all by myself for two months.
Madeline was a concoction of faded blue curls and vines of eyeliner streaking from each eye. She cursed and she screamed, a litany that lit the nurses up inside, but they ground their teeth together because it was visiting hour.
Mother tried to talk as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening but Russ stared in the shameless way that only children can. At Madeline being forced to surrender her mobile (it’s my whole life), her make-up (that’s basic human rights, isn’t it?), her tweezers (I need them so I don’t turn into Must-Ashly or Una Brow!)
After a while they drew the curtains round her bed, and there were some very stern and threatening whispers, followed by a short, loud struggle like a gun going off. Silence fell around us. When they opened the curtains again, Madeline lay fast asleep in bed.
Russ’s eyes turned on me then, a mixture of fear and awe churning the electric blue of his eyes. “This isn’t a normal hospital, is it? This is a ‘head hospital’ for headers!”
Mother bundled him out of there without saying goodbye.
* * *
She returns four nights later. Russ has a Funfax spy-file and takes copious notes on everything he sees. I take a peak and read: Alyss- Nutter Rating: 2. But what is she hidding?
I stop myself from correcting his spelling. By this stage I’m not in a place to judge him because my diary has already transformed into a sort of spy-file too.
Case Subject: Madeline Lila Elliot White. Nutter rating? 10.
They haven’t subdued Mad Madeline, she looks outward. They try to make her spiral down into herself, shut down like a clam shell. Like me. I’ve been echoing in my own chamber, trying to forget about Dinah. Her sleek smile, turning to a berry pout, blowing little Os of smoke to ring around, and bind me. Dinah, my five-year infatuation, ending with a small tablet on her tongue, a blue caterpillar cartoon melting to fizz through her blood and sending her round the bend.
When she jumped from the attic window, screaming that she was outgrowing the house, I wanted to jump after her. It was my fault. I should have stopped her. She said her spirit animal was a black cat, but she didn’t land on her feet. She lay in the garden like a wooden puppet, her red and white striped stockings adding to the sick twist of her skinny limbs. Her neck was snapped and her long black ponytail had slipped down a rabbit hole in the grass.
“When are you going to get over this, Alyss?” Mother asks, not for the first time. “It’s been almost a year.”
She doesn’t understand that this didn’t begin a year ago with Dinah’s death. It began five years before with a stolen kiss, one that fractured my reflection in the looking glass. Cracked it until there were a hundred different Alysses gazing back. All of them a piece of who I was and who I thought I was and who my family thought I was, and who I had become.
I wanted Dinah too much and that muchness made me a liar. That muchness was a dirty secret that I hid under my Sunday skirts at Church when I did the Bible reading every week because of my clear voice and my exemplary morals.
Dinah was a labyrinth and I kept running into dead ends. Just when I thought I’d found the centre of her, and the meaning of us, she spiralled from my grasp.
“I am getting over it,” I mutter. Russ raises his eyebrows sceptically and scribbles another note in the spy file. Even he knows I’m lying.
“Well good,” Mother snaps. “I don’t know what to tell everyone at church. They are asking after you all the time Alyss and I don’t want this to get out, do you hear me?”
I nod, and shift my concentration to Madeline as Mother’s lecture fades into the background, going over and over the fact that I better not tell any of my friends where I am. No visitors allowed.
Madeline is reading a magazine, lounging on her bed and painting her nails purple at the same time. She looks up and catches my eye, then does a yak-yak impression of Mother with one hand.
I suppress a giggle. When Mother and Russ leave, Madeline is asleep. I promise myself I will talk to her. Tomorrow.
* * *
I break my promise, but not because I chicken out. Madeline lies in bed all day and the nurses can’t rouse her. I hover around the room, claiming I have a stomach ache to get out of O.T. It’s no use because Madeline keeps pulling the curtain around her bed, even though the nurses open it each time and tell her it must stay open. When she refuses to come to supper, Sister marches into the room with four nurses behind her like a personal guard. Her bright red lips are set in a hard line as she pulls the curtain back. “Get up this instant!”
Madeline doesn’t even sit up. The only thing she puts up is a single finger. Sister storms in and pulls the bedcover back. She puts one vice-like hand on Madeline’s arm and starts to yank and pull. Madeline whips about like a live wire, kicking and flailing.
“Help me!” Sister snaps, and the nurses rush to action. They wrestle Madeline to the floor and then form a wall between the red faced girl and her bed.
“I just want some bloody privacy, you horrible tyrant!” she screams.
Sister smiles, and even from my own bed I can see bright red lipstick all over her large teeth. “It’s time for tea,” she says is a sugary voice.
The nurses advance on Madeline again but she jumps up and scurries from the room, muttering obscenities as she goes.
By the time she returns, Mother and Russ are already at my bedside.
* * *
I wake the next morning to find Madeline sitting on my bed, fully dressed, a saucer and cup of tea resting on the top knee of her crossed legs. She’s wearing multi-coloured tights and a short black dress that puffs out from the waist with a multitude of net underskirts. The nurses have allowed her to use her makeup. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much eyeliner on one girl. She suits it, with the lovely upward curling lines at the edges. I’ve tried to do that on myself many times and ended up looking like a perplexed panda.
“Sooooo,” Madeline says, and takes a tiny sip of tea with her little finger sticking out. “How long have you been imprisoned?”
I shuffle to a sitting position and clear my throat. I feel a little like I’m moving in thick honey. My night-meds take a few hours to clear out of my system every morning. “Two months. I kind of like it here.”
“If your mother talks half as much shit at home as she does here, I guess I don’t blame you.”
“The nurses are going to tell her she needs to stop visiting so much. Give me a chance to sort things out in my own head.”
“Well, for once I may agree with those harpies.”
“They aren’t so bad. Some of them are nice.”
“Some girl in the canteen told me you have to do something called O.T to get out of here. What’s that, electric shock stuff?”
I giggle. “No, it’s occupational therapy.”
She raises her eyebrows. “What, career stuff?”
“No. Art and drama and workshop. Things to occupy us. There’s also a gym, and meditation and yoga class. Mother says not to do the yoga stuff because it’s from the Devil.”
Madeline grins. “Yes, I can imagine Satan, king of Hell with his arse in the air, doing the downward dog regularly.”
I cover my mouth to keep another laugh from slipping out. “If you do enough O.T, and eat regular meals you get out sooner, that much is true. But you have to work with the psychiatrist and your key nurse as well.”
“O.T it is then. Get up or you’ll miss breakfast.”
* * *
I put on a clean pair of jeans and a pretty top, one Dinah bought me, which is red with a golden cat silhouette. The tail wraps round the left arm. I pinch my cheeks to get some colour in them, and style my hair with a circlet of two little plaits to tame my wild blonde curls.
When I go into the canteen, Nurse Annabelle beams. “You look like a whole new girl today, Alyss! What’s the occasion?”
Before I can answer, Madeline approaches and loops her arm with mine. My cheeks flame. I think Annabelle will be suspicious, but instead her smile widens and she goes back to ticking my name off the breakfast list.
The blush spreads down my neck and across my chest like a wildfire as Madeline leads me out of the canteen. Thankfully she doesn’t notice.
“So, what are we doing today?”
“We can do art or drama,” I say.
“Hard choice.” She tilts her head and looks thoughtful. “Drama, I think. I’m feeling theatrical!”
“Don’t you mean histrionic?” I tease.
“My, my, the kitten shows her claws.”
My mood sinks a little. Dinah. We cross the grounds of the hospital to the drama theatre in silence. Madeline trembles a little. She isn’t as brazen as she pretends.
The drama teacher is a surprisingly anxious woman. She darts around the theatre and constantly checks the time so that sessions never run over. Her hair looks like she’s had several rounds of electric shock therapy herself. There are only four of us there today, and even that doesn’t calm her.
She gives us all a sheet of paper and pencil. “Ladies, today I want you to write monologues.” She paces as she speaks, as if she can’t bear to stand still. Even when she stands on the spot, she rocks on her heels back and forth, and waves her hands as she talks.
“What’s a monologue?” One of the other girls asks. I don’t recognise her or her friend, they are both from ward A or B.
“A monologue is a piece of drama performed by a single actor.”
“Like a speech?”
“It can be. A speech, or just something they are thinking. They could even be talking to a character we can’t see.”
“Are we going to perform them?” I ask.
She nods. “Yes, dear.”
I want to run out the door.
“But only if you want to!”
I relax and notice Madeline already scribbling away.
The teacher puts on a CD of piano music. It’s melancholy and the minor keys pluck my insides. I chew the top of the pencil, and only realise I’m doing it when bits of wood and paint flake off into my mouth.
I trail through my mind for inspiration, and see the caterpillar drug melting on Dinah’s tongue over and over. Then I see her gravestone. Right now she is buried in the ground. Her body just lying there, doing nothing. Lifeless. Rotting. What does she look like now? It’s just a body. It’s not really Dinah. Dinah’s in Heaven.
Is she? Mother doesn’t think so.
I imagine her waking up under there. Screaming in a coffin where no one will ever hear her. The blue caterpillar flashes in my mind again. Maybe there’s a cocoon in her mouth. Maybe right now she’s opening up her dead lips and a beautiful butterfly is crawling out.
Tears drip on my blank page. I dash them away before Madeline can see. I have my inspiration now. I’m not a caterpillar, I’m a girl in a cocoon. But I can’t become a butterfly. I’m stuck in this state forever and my dreams of the past are the only thing keeping me alive.
I start to write it down. What it feels like to be stuck, too afraid of what you might become if you go forward.
* * *
We write for the entire session and the teacher doesn’t interrupt until the hour is ending. I fold my paper until its tiny. When I stand, Madeline pulls me back down. She keeps her grip on my arm, telling me to stay.
“Do you think it would be okay for us to stay here through the next session?” she asks the teacher. “I really want to finish my monologue.”
The teacher checks her watch nervously. “The next class is going to be noisy,” she says.
“Oh we don’t mind,” Madeline insists.
“I suppose you could work in the dressing room.”
“Perfect!” Madeline stands up and pulls me with her. A jolt of excitement strikes my chest. Nerves jangle in my tummy. I flip the light switch in the dressing room, revealing rack after rack of costumes.
Madeline sighs, running her hands along a line of ball gowns. “I love dress-up!”
“Aren’t we supposed to be writing?”
She sticks her tongue out. “Don’t you want to be amazed by my monologue performance?”
I am desperate to know what she has written. I think of Russ’s spy-file and then my diary. Guilt worms its way into my excitement. I shouldn’t be so nosy.
“Well, you’re going to experience it whether you like it or not. So take a seat lady.”
There are no seats so I sit on the floor and cross my legs like we used to in Primary school at reading time.
Madeline pulls a scarf from the rail beside her and wraps it round her neck. Then she holds her pahe out in front of her and reads:
* * *
“How to Move Between Worlds
I heard a woman crying
as if her child was dead
I wanted to console her
But she was in my head
I really tried to find her
It seemed completely real
I remember vividly
The way it made me feel
I wanted her to stop
I couldn’t stand the noise
Others stood unmoving
They couldn’t hear the voice
I thought they were ignoring her
I stared in disbelief
To know this wasn’t so
Brings a strange relief
My mind is playing tricks
It’s trying to betray me
Whispers crowd around
Asking who will save me
As if in lucid dreaming
I think that they will happen
I feel that they have meaning
Either I’m a seer
Knowing what must come
Or living in the past
Where what is done is done
A time machine that takes me
Anywhere but here
Deposits me in moments
Filled with rage and fear
I get completely lost
The time machine is broken
What has really happened?
Which of us has spoken?
Who is still alive?
Who will soon be dead?
What will stop this madness
Spinning in my head?”
I want to hug her, but I am stuck in my cocoon. The thought of her in my arms is a desire to be crushed. I applaud instead. “Amazing, Madeline. I didn’t even think about writing in verse.”
“Maddy,” she whispers. “You can call me Maddy.”
“Well, it was brilliant…Maddy.” I love the feel of her name on my lips. “Brilliant, but sad.”
Her eyes are shiny with unshed tears. “I guess if it was happy, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
I clutch my own page tighter, suddenly afraid that she will ask me to perform it for her. I don’t think I could bear it if she thought I was a freak, if she got scared of me and pulled away. Or if she thought I wasn’t sick enough to be here, I wasn’t hear voices. I wasn’t suffering enough.
She doesn’t ask. Instead she unwraps the scarf and puts it back on its hanger. “Oh my God!”
“What?” I jump up at her exclamation, panicked that Sister is coming.
Maddy points at the hat shelves. “Look at that one! It’s stunning.”
A bright red top hat sits on the very top shelf, alone in the corner. It is wrapped with a sash of black satin which is cluttered with brass pins and feathers and various oddities- there’s a hand-drawn Ace of Hearts card peeking up from under the sash.
Maddy grabs the little ladder and pushes it against the wall under the hat shelves. “Hold this stead for me.”
I do her bidding, all the while glancing back at the door wondering if the drama class is over. I don’t think the teacher wants us riffling through the costumes.
“Maddy, maybe we should go.”
“Just a second,” she groans as she stretches. “Got it!”
She jumps off the ladder and brandishes the hat like a medal. She bows to me, rolling it down her arm and up it very naturally. I laugh despite myself.
She spins it on one finger and then places it on her head.
The ground quakes.
I dive to the floor, pulling Maddy with me. “Cover your head!” I cry.
Maddy pulls away from me and the shaking stops. I look up, expecting the walls to be cracked, the clothing to be scattered. But we aren’t in the dressing room anymore. There is a warm breeze, and a sky of perfect blue above. I’m sitting in grass too green to be real. I close my eyes and breathe in deeply.
My meds must be doing this. Oh God. I exhale slowly and open my eyes. Everything is still messed up.
Maddy tugs the hat on her head once, then again and again, her face growing redder and redder.
“Maddy?” My voice is barely a squeak. “What’s going on?”
“It’s stuck!” she says. “What the hell?”
I try to help with the hat but she is right. It won’t come off. As I pull harder she gasps in pain. Skin tears on her forehead where the hat rests, as if it’s melded to her body. Blood trickles over her left eye.
“Stop pulling, it’s hurting you.”
She wipes the blood away and stares around. Her hand drops to her side and her lower lip trembles. “Alyss? I’m scared.”
Suddenly she seems small. Her vibrancy outdone by the vivid colours around us. I take her hand. “Let’s find the teacher, or the nurses. Maybe we’re getting sick.”
Her palm is sweating. “It feels like a dream. But not a dream. More like…”
“A bad trip?” I finish.
The grass spreads out before us. I breath slowly to keep myself calm, and start walking. The grass goes on and on. It’s endless. I break into a run. Maddy stumbles but I keep her upright. Eventually I see a signpost and a stone path snakes out of the grass near us. As soon as I put one foot on it, the signpost ahead grows larger and a dark forest unfolds around us like a children’s pop-up book. Except there are black shadows swinging from the trees at intervals. I make myself focus on the sign.
Madeline’s grip tightens. “The Tulgy Wood,” she reads, as we approach the sign.
It’s a cross road. Another sign reads, ‘To Court.’ I take that path, praying it will take us closer to the hospital.
“Maybe they are experimenting with new drugs on us,” Maddy says.
“They’d have to have permission first.”
“Maybe I’m starting to see things as well as hear them,” she frets.
“It’s never happened to me before. Hearing or seeing.”
I pick up speed, and eventually the path leads to a large building. It’s the hospital, but instead of old white paint, cracked and stained on the old brown bricks, it glistens red. As if it’s been freshly painted. The front door opens and a fanfare of trumpets sounds but I can’t see any band.
I almost collapse at the sight of nurse Annabelle. My relief drains away fast. She has a Jack of Hearts card pinned to the front of her uniform, and her lips are scarlet, the same colour as Sister’s. She leads a group of patients out behind her, they all carry knives in one hand and paintbrushes in the other. I see Jessica and Honouria and Lucy. Girls from Ward Three.
They turn left and march to a small patch of wall that’s still white and dirty. Annabelle lifts her hand like an old army general and drops it. The girls draw the knives across their forearms in one sudden, slick movement. A scream takes flight like a flock of crows from my mouth. I run forward but my legs don’t obey me. I fall to my knees.
The girls dip the paintbrushes in their arms, dropping their knives one by one into a bucket held by Annabelle. I take in the entire building again, and retch stomach acid on the ground.
“We really are mad, aren’t we?” I say.
“Entirely bonkers,” Maddy whispers, rubbing my back gently.
My scream hasn’t gone unheard. Nurse Annabelle is now marching in our direction with a bucket of bloody knives. Behind her I see Nurse Lydia and Nurse Jackson too. Backup. They have cards pinned to their uniforms too. A ten and nine of hearts.
“You’re late,” Annabelle says. “Time for tea with the boss.”
This time Maddy helps me to my feet, taking my hand and squeezing hard. “Well, I never refuse tea,” she says. Her voice shakes, but she helps me go forward, flanked by the not-really nurses.
As we pass the painting girls, they turn their heads toward us and smile like clowns. They each have a cord of stitches around their neck. As if their throats have been slit and sewn together.
My legs grow weak again, but the nurses push us forward before I can sink down. Maddy lets go of my hand, and we clutch each other, linking arms and huddling as close as we can. The corridors are soaked with blood, and our footsteps smack and splash. They force us to the end of the corridor and straight into the staffroom.
The walls are full of mirrors. I see a hundred Alysses, all with different expressions. I don’t see Maddy or the nurses reflected at all, but they are still with me in the room. At the vary back, where the coffee machine and fridge should be, the Sister and Head Psychiatrist sit on two chairs. Dr Lewis has a King of Hearts card pinned to his tie. Sister wears the Queen tucked into the top of her tight bun.
A girl I do not recognise is on her knees in front of them. “But I am telling you the truth,” she cries.
Dr Lewis jots something down in a file on his lap. “But she is telling you the truth,” he parrots.
“Stuff and nonsense. The truth never makes that much sense,” Sister says. “Off with her head. She needs a brand new one.”
“A swift diagnosis and a simple treatment,” Dr Lewis agrees.
Nurse Annabelle rushes forward, and I think she’s about to stop this hell, instead she scurries into a storeroom and emerges with a box.
Sister pulls an axe from under her chair. Both Maddy and I rush forward at the same time. Jackson and Lydia grab us and lock us in place. Jackson’s strength is absolute. Maddy whips and squirms like a frightened cat but Lydia is unmoved.
Sister’s axe sings through the air and the girls head thumps to the floor and bounces before it rolls. Annabelle approaches Sister and opens the box. I stare with sick, horrific curiousity as Sister pulls another head out of the box. It looks exactly like the one still rolling on the floor. She fits in on the bleeding neck before her, and Annabelle kneels down and sews it on.
Immediately the girl stands up. She staggers around like a drunk until Annabelle ushers her past us and into the corridor. Her rictus grin lingers in my minds eyes, I see it even when I blink, as if it’s been branded on my eyelids.
“Next!” Sister yells.
Now I am marched to the front.
Dr. Lewis flicks through the pages of his file. “Curiouser and curiouser,” he mutters.
“Say what you mean,” Sister snaps.
“I mean what I say,” he responds. “And by that I mean this Alyss is a riddle.”
“Oh, Alyss is it?” Sister says, looking closely at me for the first time. “She doesn’t look like Alyss.”
“Well, I am Alyss,” I say, but my voice is drowned in a sea of other voices. A hundred mirror voices saying, “Well, I am Alyss!”
“Well this is no good,” Sister mutters. “ She doesn’t even know who she is. If she even is Alyss. I say off with her head. She needs a head that knows its own business.”
“I do know my own business,” I scream. Then I turn on the spot as the other Alysses mimic me.
Dr. Lewis scribbles in his file. “She does know her own business…well actually, it appears she doesn’t. We haven’t heard anything of much muchness about her since she came in. She’s a closed book.”
My whole body is hot and trembling. I realise I’m still gripping my monologue in one hand. I should unfold it. Read it to them. Make them understand that I am Alyss. And that I want to be even more Alyss than I’ve ever been before.
“Oh my!” Sister starts. “Look!” She points with a blood stained finger at the wall. The other Alysses are no longer alone. Dinah is with them. A hundred Dinah’s circle me. I only want the one and I can’t have her.
Sister and Dr Lewis gasps as a hundred Dinah’s press their lips to a hundred Alyss’s lips. I wait for shame to crash over me. For Sister to swing her axe. For Dr Lewis to diagnose me as a sinner. Instead I feel a phantom pressure on my lips. Something crawls inside my mouth and scurries down my throat.
“Off with her head,” Sister shouts again. Her axe swings toward me, just as my back tears open. All the Alyses disappear and I see only myself reflected, beautiful wings bursting from my back in a spray of blood, lifting me away from the wicked axe.
“Get her!” Sister screeches.
I beat my wings and soar above the running nurses. Maddy reaches upward and I snatch her from under me.
“You’re here because you kissed a girl?” she asks, dangling from my hands. She kicks Jackson in the face as he tries to grab her ankle. “I hope you know I’ve done more than just kissing!”
Somehow in all the chaos, I feel my face growing red. I fly into the corridor. All the grinning patients have pooled there, and when they see me they start to flood toward me. I fly into the nearest room and land. It’s my own room, my bed looks completely normal. Maddy’s bed too, but I can still hear the grinning girls gushing up the corridor.
“Help me!” I call, closing the double fire doors. Maddy presses her back against one door and I push mine to the other. My wings have folded back into the wounds in my back. I can feel the blood soaking what’s left of my top.
“What now?” I cry, not at Maddy, but at Dinah’s memory. She got me into this mess.
Above my bed the ceiling crumbles like soil as cords of black rope break through like the roots of a tree. A shaft of sunlight pours onto my bed. The grinning girls push at the door. We can’t hold it much longer.
“We have to run for it!”
Maddy nods once and we dash for the ropes. The girls burst into the room, stumbling and climbing over each other as we haul ourselves toward the sunlight. The ropes are soft and smell like coconut shampoo.
I make it to the surface first and scramble up. I’m somehow on my bed again, reaching into a hole in the middle of it. I pull Maddy up. A girl jumps on her back, scrabbling for purchase. Her hand grips Maddy’s top hat, dislodging the Ace of Hearts. I manage to drag Maddy out just as the rope falls away and the nightmare world below collapses.
Then it’s just Maddy and I on my very normal bed in Ward C. My heart batters my ribcage and I choke in mouthfuls of air.
Maddy grabs the top hat and flings it across the room.
* * *
Six months later and I’m back at Church. Mother sits with Russ in our family pew. He’s half asleep from the summer heat and the boredom of the sermon. I stand ready to read my Bible verse. But on the lectern before me I unfold a piece of paper, stained with blood and sweat and madness.
My mouth is dry. I open my mouth to speak and nothing comes out. Mother glares at me, terrified I’m going to mess up. She has no idea. I stare past her and down to the figure standing in the back-most pew near the exit.
Maddy blows me a kiss. I catch it in my mouth and swallow it for courage.
Then I lick my lips and unleash Alyss.