A string of parsnips
The first crack of lighting flashed over the horizon, followed by a resounding rumble which echoed off the cliffside. Another fell nearer, zigzagging into the restless ocean, waves crashing and foaming upon the rocks below. On the abandoned cliffs a man was dragging a young woman, fresh out of girlhood, up by her hair. The rain began to pour down as he pulled her to the edge, yelling and cursing all the way. She yelled too, with a shrill scream that shot out into the air.
He released her at the top, still looming over her like a falcon, a cruel giant. Their words were drowned by the tumult of waves, and the approaching thunder, but one sentence shot through the air like a knife; "I'm not afraid of you anymore!"
In a rage, he grabbed her, shoving her towards the edge. At the last minute, her feet scrabbling on the crumbling rocks, she took hold of the wet folds of his clothes with both hands. You're coming with me! The lighting flashed above them, and as the thunder shook the earth with a deafening roar, both fell down, down, onto the rocks below.
From outside the window, Lysandra heard a car horn blast. She drew near to it, prising apart the net curtains to stare down at the car parked by the side of the quiet suburban road, its engine grumbling impatiently. The car door slammed, and she watched as a man in smart uniform dawdled up the path to her house, running his hand along the calloused brick wall absently. Though her face betrayed little emotion, Lysandra felt cold dread fill her stomach. They were finally here.
"Lysandra, they've arrived! Get your things and come down!"
Hearing her mother Andrea's summons, edged with regret, she hesitantly picked up her suitcase and made the long walk down the stairs, nervousness buzzing inside her like flies. She was certain that if she looked in a mirror at this point, her face would be completely white, even more so than usual. For even in normal circumstances she was a deathly pale girl, with matching silvery blond curls that hung limply either side of her face. She would have been quite pretty if it were not for this, and for the heavily lidded eyes that seemed never to blink, and were so pale a blue that they appeared unearthly silver, as if the ink had been drained from them. Only fifteen years old, she would have made a convincing model for Haunted Houses Monthly.
Andrea was waiting for her in the kitchen with her Aunt Selina. When she spotted Lysandra hanging back on the foot of the steps, she hurried forward and encased her daughter in a hug.
"I'm sorry things have to be this way Ly," she said, her syllables quivering, "but!... I truly think it's for the best!" She had the air of a desperate woman trying not just to convince another, but also- and perhaps primarily- herself.
Selina approached next, a middle-aged woman with short and shocking purple hair, her arms jangling with amulets, a necklace of parsnips strung round her neck. She took this off, and placed it round Lysandra's like an emperor would with a crown of laurels. "Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before," she announced, and then she leant in and whispered, "You need this more than me."
Ding-dong, sang Andrea's oh-so-classic doorbell, and though they were expecting it, all still jumped at the sound.
"I'll get it," said Andrea weakly, as she disappeared down into the hallway.
Once she was gone, Selina put her hand on Lysandra's shoulder. "I know you must be mad at her," she said, "but don't blame your mother too much for this. It's for your sake too, you know."
"I can't help it," said Lysandra in a dead voice, anger and betrayal stirring inside of her. She raked her hand through her knotted hair, ripping the condensed tangles apart. "I know a lot has happened, but… she can't do this to me."
Selina now put both of her firm hands on Lysandra's shoulders, staring her straight in the eye. "For the moment my dear, this is the way it has to be. We have to beat this curse; I won't lose anyone else to it. You have to fight, Lysandra!"
"I know," she said, looking away. She felt no such confidence herself.
What they spoke of was the Eldridge family curse, something Selina strongly- and Lysandra more quietly- believed in. In the space of a few short years, their family had been decimated, and the church had come close to complaining that they were using up all the remaining space in the graveyard. Nobody knew the cause of the curse- most didn't even believe it existed. Andrea, a strong outspoken woman who took pleasure in the practical side of life, thought it was foolishness. But the fact of the matter was that everyday Lysandra found herself slipping seemingly further into the world of the dead. Her father and brother were long gone, but she never felt sad about their deathly departure, due to the fact she saw them every day, and they spoke to her. And that was the reason that her mother was sending her to the Lily Valley Psychiatric Hospital- temporarily, she told her.
Her father had always said that only having one parent screwed up your children. He said it the morning before he was hit by a run-away milk-truck.
Lysandra heard the voices from the corridor getting slowly louder and shortly after, Andrea and a man appeared in the room. She noted that, unlike in the movies, he wasn't wearing a white suit, and indeed, the fabled white van was nothing more than a black Volkswagen. Well, at least that's one good thing, she thought.
He strode over to Lysandra and greeted her kindly; "I know it must be scary, but don't worry, you'll feel at home in no time. I'm Chris."
"Hey," she said coolly, unable to look at him; it reminded her too much of where she was headed, even without the white suit. Andrea boiled the kettle, and they all sat down for tea. Her mother did most of the talking, and Lysandra remained silent, her answers neatly packaged into one-word sentences.
It'll be fine, she told herself, over and over, like a mantra. Just for a few weeks. I can manage that.
Ten minutes later, there was the face-scrunching sound of a chair scraping back, akin to nails on a blackboard, and the man stood up.
"We better get going Lysandra, otherwise we'll be late," he said, looking at his wristwatch.
More hugs were exchanged, though only fully received by Selina. Lysandra's embrace with her mother was very half-hearted, and almost no-hearted. Rather, Lysandra stood like a rock and waited for Andrea to finish, her arms clasped firmly to her sides. I won't forgive her.
The man opened the car door for her, and she clambered in, her suitcase perched on the seat beside her. The driver turned to look at her, his eyes lingering on the string of parsnips around her neck.
"Uh… hi. I'm Ken," he said, staring at this.
She followed his eyes, and instead of greeting him back, she answered, "Do you like parsnips?"
"Well…" he said, both bemused and amused, "they're alright, I guess."
In response to this, she took off the string, and placed it around his neck.
"Thanks," he said, not knowing what else he could possibly say.
Chris got in, adjusting his seat, and turned around to smile at Lysandra. "Alright?" he said, "ready to go?"
"As ready as I'll ever be," said Lysandra quietly. A sense of hopelessness had swollen and broken over her, alleviating her nervousness. But although it made her feel better, it was like the mind numbing chemicals the doctors gave her, and left her feeling empty.
The car pulled out, performing a u-turn on the empty street, and zoomed away. Andrea and Selina waved, her mother's eyes glazed with brimming tears. Lysandra turned away, refusing to look at her.
They travelled smoothly through the outskirts of town, Lysandra lethargically watching the scenery pass by. It was a muggy Tuesday, and few were out, leaving the streets eerily quiet, with only the grumbling of the engine in the background. They passed her school in a sudden blast of noise; girls shrieking, friends laughing, boys playing football on the field. It was lunch time, and behind the wire fence school life went on. Seeing this, Lysandra began to feel oddly dreamlike.
Usually it's me trapped behind that fence, she thought, though this did not make her feel any better. It occurred to her that with school, despite the drudgery and boredom, it at least came with a sense of comforting familiarity. She knew hardly anything about the hospital she was going to, and she had been too proud to ask her mother.
The school rushed behind her, and now they were leaving the town, flying into the country. Countless villages and valleys dashed past her; it was to one of these they drove. Lily Valley, a popular location for hikers and bikers. It had received an award as one of England's Areas of Natural Outstanding Beauty, and Lysandra supposed this would probably prove true in the summer months. But right now, the spirit of winter clung to the air tightly, and the green hills were barren.
They wound down into the valley, with the hospital springing into sight; a ragtag collection of uninteresting buildings fronted by a large driveway.
As they turned in, the car bumping along the gravel, Lysandra spotted a boy- or rather, a young man- sprawled out by the path. He looked about sixteen, seventeen, and wore that careless look that boys often sported, particularly when their lives were definitely not carefree at all. He lay alone, pulling up clumps of grass and tossing them into the wind. As they approached, the driver recognised him, and groaned. He rolled down the window and stuck his head out towards him.
"Mr Harwood!" he yelled, "you know you're not supposed to be out here, so get back to your designated area please!"
Slowly, like a person rising from delicious picnic, his stomach full, the boy got up, giving the driver a salute. "Okay bossman," he said amiably, and he peered over to see who was sitting in the back of the car. "Alright?" he said to Lysandra. She looked away swiftly, an inbuilt reflex, and the car started rolling forward again.
"I better tell Lisa that boy's got out again," said the driver, looking irritable, "he's awful."
Lysandra twisted in her seat, gazing out the back window. The boy was facing the other way, his hands shoved into his pockets. She turned back to face the front, feeling oddly uneasy. They pulled up into the car park, and Lysandra got out, dragging her suitcase with her. She looked around her. Where to now? She thought tiredly. Chris saw her looking, and came up beside her, pointing out the various buildings to give her the layout of the place.
"That's where you'll be staying there," he explained, pointing to a building on the left. "It's called the Blue Block, and it's where most of the teenagers live. You're not allowed into any of the others without special permission."
Lysandra scanned the other buildings with increasing boredom, before she spotted one on the edge of the field, set apart from the others by a high fence.
"Why's that one all cornered off?" she asked.
"Ah," said the man, following her gaze. His face set into a frown. "I wouldn't worry about that one if I were you. That's Red Block. Basically, the high security block, for patients who need more… supervision. If you catch my drift."
He crunched away over the gravel towards reception. Lysandra stared for a few more moments, and then followed after.
The next two hours consisted of sitting, waiting, signing forms and being shunted around from place to place. There was some confusion as her name didn't appear on the computer system, her bag was checked three times, and small children kept appearing round the corner to point and whisper at her, as their block, the Yellow Block, was right next to reception. By the time she was finally told she'd be shown to her room, she was exhausted.
The young nurse who was escorting her, named Sara, seemed to accept Lysandra's introverted tendencies. However, her method to combat them was not the cleverest. To make up for Lysandra's silences, she talked twice as much as she would have done. She talked about life in the hospital, therapists, and soon went off on a tangent about everything and anything. If it wasn't for Lysandra's "yeah"s and "oh right"s she would be having a full-blown conversation with herself. Soon, a slight throbbing began in Lysandra's temple, the sure oncoming sign of a headache.
Upon reaching the second floor, she led Lysandra to what would be her room, still chatting merrily. She unlocked it with a twist of a key, and showed her in. She noticed it had two beds; apparently it was normal to share with a roommate. However, the room was empty, and unless it was occupied by a tidy hermit, she suspected it was vacant.
"Yeah, you've got it to yourself for now," affirmed Sara. "I'm sure you'll have company soon though, the rooms don't tend to stay empty for long. I thought you might like this one- it's got a nice view."
Lysandra floated over to the window, and saw she was right. Her room looked out right over the valley, complete with forests, farms and all. As she watched, a red kite dived down to snatch something from a farmer's field.
So this is it- my cell. Well, a cell with a nice view, anyway.
Sara carried on chattering, and though Lysandra knew she was only trying to cheer her up, her headache was starting to get worse. She wished she would leave her alone to her thoughts. At last, when she couldn't take it anymore, she burst out, "Shut up!"
Sara did so immediately, and when she spoke next, it was in a much less cheery tone. "You can unpack later," she said, the hurt cleverly disguised in her words by professionalism. "Everyone in Blue Block has dinner now- follow me."
Irritated she was not going to get to settle into her prison, Lysandra threw her suitcase down on her bed, and followed Sara out the door silently. However, she couldn't not help but feel a little guilty. S'not my fault, she thought, trying to convince herself.
They followed the stream of teenagers downstairs to the flood on the bottom floor, where the cafeteria lay. Flowing through the double doors, noise hit her like a waterfall. Teenagers chattered and laughed from all corners, and the noise held her frozen for a few moments, long enough for Sara to ask if everything was okay. She seemed to have forgotten what Lysandra had said to her, or, more likely, just put it aside.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," lied Lysandra
"Great," said Sara with a wide smile, "once you get your food you can sit wherever you want. You might make a new friend."
She left, and Lysandra's mouth twitched with irony; I haven't had a friend in four years. She moved over to the counter, looking very similar to the sort of thing they had in the school cafeteria. The food looked similar too. Though there was a lot of choice, it didn't particularly look very nice. Several different shades of slop merged into one, and she eyed them disparagingly. Nevertheless, she got herself a plate of shepard's pie with a carton of juice, and set out on the task of finding the emptiest table. Unfortunately, the room was buzzing, packed with teenagers and staff milling around with diet sheets. There were no completely quiet tables, only one with a boy perched on the end looking nonchalant. She set her tray down there, and realised in surprise that she recognised him. And at the same time, so did he.
"He-----eeey," he said, "I remember you. You're that girl who arrived earlier."
Dismayed, she sat down. "Yeah, that's me," she said simply. She'd been hoping to have a peaceful meal; apparently that wasn't possible.
"You're also the girl who ignored me."
"What's up with that?"
"I dunno," she said, picking up her knife and fork. She wished that he would leave her alone.
"I know I'm not liked," said the boy, gesturing, "but seeing as you don't even know who I am yet, I can only reckon I must be wearing some nasty aftershave or something." She saw it was true- not that he was wearing nasty aftershave, but that no matter how busy the cafeteria got, nobody ever sat down on his table. In fact, she was starting to get funny looks, and they weren't the 'oh look, it's the new girl' kind of looks either. In spite of herself, she found curiosity creeping near.
"What's your name?" she asked. Surprise fluttered onto his face; apparently he hadn't thought she would ask. But all the same, he looked quite pleased that she was interested in him.
"I'm Blaze," he said chirpily.
"It's my nick," he quickly explained. "My real name… well, my real name sucks, so I don't use it. Everyone calls me Blaze here."
"I'm surprised anybody calls you anything," Lysandra said bluntly, gesturing to the teens swarming around the table, the river never ceasing. "They really don't seem to like you."
"Don't know what they're missing," he said with a grin, and he took a mouthful of brownish-green soup. He cringed. "Delicious. Now, what's your name?"
Inwardly, she struggled whether to reply or not. Finally she said; "Lysandra."
"Well Lysandra," he said cheerily, "welcome to the crazy house."
Still, Lysandra caught the surprised, searching looks of her fellow teens, and she couldn't help but wonder; In a place like this, where everyone has problems, and no one is perfect… what ever did this guy do that was so wrong?
Of course though, she didn't ask. After her own painful childhood, she'd learnt that some questions were better left unsaid. And she took another mouthful of shepard's pie; quickly spat it out, before pushing the plate away with a grimace. From her mouth she pulled one long, curling black hair.
Later that evening, Lysandra returned to her room. She sprawled herself out on her bed, pressing her face into the unfamiliar-smelling pillow. She felt the urge to scream, and did so, the pillow muffling the sound. After the events of the day, she felt like crying, but not being a crying sort of person, she screamed again, at the frightening place she'd been pushed into, and the mother who had forced her there.
She felt a hand on her shoulder comforting her, and she swiftly sat up, ready to smack it away. When she saw who it was, she quickly halted.
"Alistair!" she called, throwing herself into his arms. Before her stood her brother, whom others said was dead. Whether he was or not didn't matter to her- she saw him with her own eyes, and that was good enough for her. They say twins share the closest bond that humans possibly can, that they aren't one person, but two halves that cannot be split apart. Lysandra knew that was nonsense; Alistair was not her twin, and yet nobody could have said there was a more powerful friendship than between the two siblings when Alistair was alive. She embraced him whole-heartedly, and smiled her first smile in days.
"Where have you been?" she asked, "I haven't seen you in ages."
When she was alone, she could perhaps say that it was all madness, that she was going crazy. But when he was right in front of her, Lysandra knew that there was nothing more real in the world. With him she felt as though the old times had returned, and though she swore herself a born introvert, she could talk with him for hours at a time. He appeared as he was the day he had died, forever thirteen and a quarter. Whole, solid.
"Sorry Ly," he said, "I've been busy with Dad. I have been keeping an eye out for you though- I can't believe Mum sent you here! You're not crazy."
"I know," laughed Lysandra, "it's mad, isn't it?"
Time passed, and just a few minutes before nine o' clock, a middle-aged nurse with iron grey hair tapped on the door and entered. So caught up with her conversation with Alistair was she didn't even hear, and carried on chatting to an empty space- or at least, that was how the nurse saw it. The nurse shook her head, told her it was time for lights out, making no other comment. She was of course, used to these things.