A square red building greeted us at the end of a long lane way that was lined with devastatingly beautiful weeping willows. Many mentally ill people must have been dragged through the front door. My father’s horses came to a halt when Matthew pulled on the reins. The moment that he leaped from the carriage, he walked past the asylum.
I followed him at a distance, preferring the least amount of talk possible. I allowed myself to feel every strange emotion as my memories of Sarah collided with my concern for Jeremy and the other patients.
Matthew stepped into a small barn. Two sets of voices traveled from the inside. When he stepped outside again with another young man, he flashed me a grin.
“I have to take up the rest of the morning duties. My friend has been kind enough to fill in for me while I took care of you, but I really must get to work here. Pigs and chickens need to be fed and then I must water all of the vegetable gardens.”
“You cannot be serious,” I said. “Is there not an assistant or a servant who would take care of that for you?”
“The state does not budget for such things, old boy.”
“Really? How in the world are you going to find time to take care of these people when you’re busy doing farm work?”
Matthew wagged his finger at me in mock sternness. “Do not forget the household duties. There is a cook to prepare the meals, but everything else is left up to me.”
I blinked back tears of confusion and pity. “I had no idea.”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” Matthew chuckled. “I have a system in place. Just trust me.”
“You are really giving up on your glaucoma research with Dr. Scott for a career as an asylum superintendent?”
“Yes,” he said evenly. “I have.”
“What can I do to help you?”
“I am hoping that you might be able to make use of your perception today. The patients are mainly melancholic or disturbed, and from what I can see, boredom can only drive a human madder. I hope that you might be able to keep them distracted in some way.”
“Do you have a key?”
He dug a hand into his pocket and then handed me the key. “Just don’t let them out.”
We stared at one another for a moment, likely being in the same frame of mind.
“I am sure that you never imagined we would be standing here one day with me asking you to take care of people in an asylum. Though, when I think about it, this situation was inevitable, wasn’t it?”
“Perhaps. I am proud of you, Matt.”
“That makes one of you.”
He went to retrieve a wheelbarrow and then wheeled it over to the barn. The old building swallowed him whole, leaving the patients in my hands for the rest of the morning. I shook my head at the irony of Matthew giving me such responsibility.
When the asylum’s opening door allowed the daylight to shine into the dim entrance, all of my previous emotions fled. I quickly closed and locked the entrance to the outside world. I could have been there myself, but I had a medical friend who knew how to help me.
Most of the asylum people wore white night shirts and sat on beds; only a couple of them stared at me. A few men sat on chairs wearing cloth restraints. Many appeared to be sleeping, or trapped inside of their own mental prisons.
No one made a run for the outside world. There was nothing left out there for them. Not until they healed.
There were more women there than men, and out of the men, none of them were old. I took a deep breath as my thoughts jumbled together. I had no idea where to begin, but I would rather be damned than stand there like a fool staring at people who needed help.
“You seem lost.”
The source of the strange voice stood behind me in a corner. She was a woman of around thirty. Her long, dark hair was matted and her wide brown eyes appeared sad, but her smile was strangely comforting.
“Good day, Miss,” I said.
“Missus,” she muttered. “That is why I am here, after all.”
She eyed me as though I would pounce on her at any moment.
“I am here to help you,” I said. “Please don’t be afraid.”
“That’s what they all say,” she sneered.
“Is there something that I might be able to do for you? Would you like me to bring you a book, or perhaps some materials to keep your hands busy?”
Her eyes grew wider than before. Streams flowed from her eyes as she shook her head.
“A book? Are you an angel?”
She panted, struggling to keep her composure. “Could you give me a copy of War and Peace, doctor? I was nearly finished the book before my husband burned it.”
I winced. “I will bring you a copy of War and Peace.”
The connection between the woman and I broke suddenly as her eyes sunk back into her head and she dropped to the floor, babbling and grabbing her hair. I jumped back and had to catch my breath.
Everyone had such an eerie glow to them due to the poor lighting from small windows. Larger windows would have been better for them. It did not take a medical degree to understand that people needed natural light and fresh air to help maintain their sanity, even if they thought otherwise.
On the other side of the room, a rail-thin boy sat upright in a restraint. I slowly approached him, careful not to seem aggressive or worrisome to any of the other patients that I passed by. The boy turned his head to me and it was then that I realized he was closer to my age. His slouched posture only worsened the evidence of his poor health.
“Hello,” I said quietly.
“You are the new doctor?” he asked, squinting.
“No, I am only helping the doctor. What is your name?”
Jeremy slouched back into his original position. “Leave me alone.”
“Things won’t always be this way for you,” I said.
He shook his head. “If you continue to talk to me, I will yell as loud and as long as I can.”
I took a step back and then rushed to the door, already sweating. Looking over my shoulder, I let myself back outside. Standing under the sun, I allowed new ideas to rage against the dark thoughts that threatened to destroy me. Rustling gravel reached my ears and I drank in the sight of a black carriage travelling down the willow-lined road. It seemed far too fancy to be carrying someone mentally ill inside. I stepped forward and waited for its arrival.
At once, I recognized the navy blue and white parasol that emerged from the door before its dainty, well-dressed owner stepped out.
“Aunt Carol!” I cried.
She ran to me and we embraced.
“I have missed you so very much,” she said.
I held her tighter. “Forgive me for everything!”
She held me at arm’s length with a soft smile. “You started something in my town, Alfred. I need to thank you for standing up against Caleb and his gang of bullies. I am very, very proud of you.”
My aunt’s blue eyes widened. “That was not your fault.”
I fought back tears as the suffocating pain returned, choking me.
“She died smiling,” I began, breathing in the memory of her. “Did you know that? She said that all she ever wanted was an adventure.”
My aunt nodded, smiling sadly. “Her loss of life is a tremendous emptiness to all of us, but you brought some meaning back into her life.”
“I would have taken care of her and allowed her to write to her heart’s content. I would have loved her.”
“I know, but you see, she also loved you. She risked her life so you could live and continue your cause.”
We stood there silently crying. There were people inside of the asylum who needed more help than I did. People with no family to support them. Sarah was lost, but I could at least help to save other people in her memory.
“Why have you come here?” I asked.
My aunt wiped her tears with a white handkerchief. “I came here to help you and your admirable friend.”
“I am not sure if that is such a good idea. This is not a safe place for you.”
“Oh, is that so?”
She returned to her carriage and opened the door. “Will you help me pull out my box of things?”
“What are you up to?”
“I have brought some art supplies. The patients can draw, paint, or color to their heart’s content.”
“You are donating all of your art supplies?”
“Yes, dear boy. I have enough pencils and drawing paper at home. I think that giving these people something to do will help them. Matthew was speaking with me recently about the benefits of art therapy when he was back in town.”
“That boy gets around, doesn’t he?”
“Perhaps we could incorporate creative writing to those who are more inclined to it.”
“And books. There is a disturbed, but bright woman who requested War and Peace.”
My aunt snapped her fingers. “Perfect. I can also bring my collection of books. One of which is War and Peace.”
I hugged my aunt. “You are the most amazing human being I know.”
“What about me?” called Matthew, who was striding past us with a shovel and spade in either hand.
All three of us laughed.
“Well, why don’t we get to work?” suggested my aunt.
I carried the box of supplies while my aunt slowly opened the door to the asylum.
“Good grief! It is dark in here,” she exclaimed.
“Hush. These patients are sensitive to sudden loud sounds.”
“How do you know?” she challenged.
There were many things that my aunt was capable of, but I never imagined her to be good with mental illness patients. Several of the people stared at us. A couple of them stood and walked over to the box. My heart raced as I thought of all sorts of potentially bad scenarios.
“Stay back,” I told my aunt.
She did not listen.
I set the box down.
“What’s in there?” asked a woman with messy hair covering her face.
“This is our gift to you,” said my aunt, clasping her hands together. “For all of you. We are here to help you.”
A few of them walked away, muttering things or focusing on something else, but four of them stayed and watched as I opened the box and took some of the supplies out.
“Do any of you enjoy drawing?” I asked.
“Perfect!” said my aunt with a sweet smile.
She turned to me and said, “I have also brought some chairs. I figured we might need a couple.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “We can pull them up to that table over there.”
I brought in the three wooden chairs from the carriage while my aunt worked to set up a small art area. I watched her in amazement as she worked at getting an art station set up, saying kind words to any of the patients who wandered close to her. I caught Jeremy’s stare from across the room. With my hands behind my back, I stepped over to him. He rolled his eyes and looked away.
“Jeremy, I have a proposal for you.”
He shook his head. “Who in God’s name are you? You’re no doctor.”
“No, I am not. I am friends with the medical superintendent and my aunt has been kind enough to help us reform this place.”
“Reform,” he laughed bitterly.
“I am very sorry for any hardships you have suffered here. I want to propose that if you can promise the doctor that you will not make any attempts to harm yourself, we will provide you with your own room.”
Jeremy frowned at me. “Once you are settled in your room without your restraint, and when we can determine that you will not escape or harm yourself, I have a lot of paper that I can give you for your writing.”
His jaw dropped open. Hope glimmered for but a moment in his dark eyes before he slouched back in his terribly uncomfortable position.
My sore midsection worsened as we neared Sunny Harbor.
“Are you sure there is not someone waiting to shoot me from behind a bush?” I asked.
“I would not bring you here if that were a possibility,” said my aunt.
“People are unpredictable, though.”
“Sometimes, yes, but I assure you that it will be safe for you this time. You caused quite a social stir here.”
“Funny, because I recall being nothing more than an overly curious coward.”
No one could deny that I was a coward. I started things, but rarely finished them. I felt more evil than a man like Caleb for that.
“Stop depreciating yourself.”
The carriage continued past the end of the road; the strong horses pulled us toward the meadow.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“I have something to show you. It will make you happy.”
I was not so sure if I should believe her. When the carriage rolled to a stop some minutes later, my aunt excitedly opened the door before our driver could do so for her.
“Come along, Nephew,” she called.
I had to run after her. Her newfound physical energy was inspiring, to say the least. When we climbed to the top of the hill, the sight before us sent a wave of goosebumps over my flesh.
Several men were digging and setting up tombstones. I walked over, almost in shock, until I reached one of the stones, which read:
Here Lies Jimmy Smithe
Beloved son of Mary and Thomas Smithe
My stinging eyes watched the men work hard to complete the project that I had been unable to begin. They were working so diligently that they did not notice our arrival. Sarah’s recent death may have sensitized some of the townspeople. It was surreal seeing them suddenly honoring the suicides.
“I need to go help them finish,” I said.
My aunt held me back. “I understand that you want to help, but remember that this was your idea. You are the one who started this. I think you should go back to the asylum where you can do the most good.”
“I can help them finish here before I return to help Matthew.”
“I have already paid the driver to take you back to the asylum.”
I crossed my arms across my chest. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Working with disturbed people is a job for a man with your talent and compassion. I have done a lot of traveling and moving about lately and I need to rest for a few days.”
“I want to ask you something. What happened to Caleb?”
She cleared her throat and stared at her shoes. “He has taken a bad turn. His parents had to take him in and care for him. Someone else purchased the store. I would rather he become cruel to himself than to someone else.”
Her sentences worsened the pain in my stomach. Sarah died not so far away from where we stood. Her body rested somewhere in cold finality. I would have given anything to have one moment to hold her, to tell her that she was not alone. She would never be alone. Surely, my dreams about her reached out to wherever she was. I had to believe that.
“Where is Sarah buried? When I am ready, I want to visit her.”
Aunt Carol took my hand and squeezed it. “I will write the location to you once you are away. It is better this way with how you still feel about her. Go on and help Matthew as best you can and finish your writing project. Then, you can see Sarah when you are better prepared. This town will always be here for you to revisit. I hope you will visit me again soon.”
I missed seeing most of the landscape view on my return to the asylum due to being entrapped by the cave of my ideas. My hope to bring respect and memory to the young people who took their lives began with the reburials. The irony was that they were being buried by the very people who hadn’t supported them while they were still alive. Had I not been so weak for the past few months, I could have started and finished the burial project. Despite my failure, I felt tremendous peace that they finally were given a respectable final resting place. It was what the town needed to do for them to heal from its apathy. Perhaps it was better that it worked out the way that it did.
I soon found myself on the steps of the asylum, staring at the front door again. Matthew came up from behind me.
“Did you enjoy seeing the fruition of your ideas?” he asked with a grin.
“I am happy that they will now be remembered properly, but I really did nothing.”
“I am sorry that is what you believe, but nonetheless, I need your help to complete some of the patients’ rooms. Jeremy’s improved since you told him of your plan to help him write.”
My nausea from before eased a little. “Very good. Let us start then.”
It took us an entire week to finish the rooms up with the proper furnishings and remodeled windows. We sized the windows to be too small for someone to climb out of, but large enough to get adequate sunlight. I chose the corner room for Jeremy since it had the best view. I was sure that he would not need to be there much longer before he could go home. Writing in a safe place without societal pressure was likely what he needed years ago.
Matthew and I walked Jeremy up to the winding stairs to his new haven. He blinked, looking from me to Matthew.
“Jeremy,” said Matthew. “I am trusting you to cooperate with us as we remove your straight jacket.”
“You have nothing to worry about. I just want to be free to move around like normal in my own room.”
We helped him out of his binding and he stepped inside, sitting on the bed first.
“Get settled and Alfred will be up with your writing supplies shortly.”
I helped Matthew transfer four other young men and a couple of women – all of whom seemed particularly disturbed – to their new rooms.
I carried the paper and ink to Jeremy’s new room. I knocked clumsily while trying not to drop anything, and then I let myself in. He sat at his desk with a more pleasant expression than I had ever seen him have before.
“The doctor tells me that you befriended Sarah,” he said, staring at me.
I swallowed hard, nearly choking on my throat’s lump. I longed to evade the last conversation I wanted to have. Talking about Sarah’s death would do nothing good for him when he was finally beginning to heal.
“Yes,” I said at last.
Jeremy nodded slowly. I set his writing supplies down in front of him.
“She is dead, isn’t she?” he asked.
The early evening light streamed in through the window, casting a glow on the boy’s questioning face.
“She passed away a couple of months ago. I am very sorry.”
Jeremy toyed with the quill in his hand with an unreadable expression. “She saved me, you know. If only I could have saved her.”
“That was who Sarah was,” I said quietly. “A hero.”
Jeremy looked up at me with a look that would sear itself into my mind’s eye for the rest of my life. “Sarah was a hero who needed to be saved.”
He dipped his quill into the bottle of ink and began to write.