One of the goals of SPFBO is to give a chance to self-published authors to get more exposure. This year I’m taking part in the competition with my own team. You can keep updated on our progress and all of our content on my SPFBO 5 page!
Tales from the Asylum is a new feature I came up with for SPFBO. I wanted to create a unique opportunity for the authors to show off their story telling skills by taking their characters and putting them in an asylum room to see how they would deal with the situation. A lot can happen in a closed space…
Hûw Steer is an author, historian and sketch comedian from London. He’s previously been published in The Future Fire’s ‘Making Monsters‘ (2018), and the UCL Publisher’s Prize anthologies for 2018 and 2016. This is his first published novel.
Maximillian had discovered that she was not very good at waiting.
That, she corrected herself, wasn’t entirely true. With a book in her hand or a pleasant view to mull over, or even some interesting rock strata to observe, she was perfectly content to wait and while away the hours. She was happy to wait for an experiment to mature, relishing the anticipation of success or failure, her mind filled with possibilities. She was a scholar. In many ways, waiting was at the heart of her profession.
What Max wasn’t good at was waiting with nothing to do. And here, wrapped in a straitjacket in the padded asylum cell, she really had nothing to do.
She’d left her books behind, which was just as well given all the personal effects she had carried had been taken away when she’d been committed. It had been absurdly easy to have her taken inside – no paperwork, no doctor’s note, no proof at all that she was disturbed or ill in any way. They had simply walked her to the front desk in the little gatehouse and asked to have her taken away. A little gold to grease the orderly’s palm, and Max had been inside. She’d been marched inside the imposing building, all dark stone and dark tiles, brooding on its own little island just off the main group, without the chance to even ask the warden’s name, and placed in front of a doctor for the exact amount of time it took the balding man to look up from his paperwork, look her up and down, and then order her confined. Max hadn’t even left the room before he’d started writing again, as though she’d never been there. That had stung. But she’d kept her mouth shut as the guards had frog-marched her up the winding stairs, through a truly bewildering array of corridors, and into her cell. Her new home, for the last two days.
Three, now. It had just passed midnight by her reckoning. If she really had been mad, it would have been an utter travesty to treat her so. The fact that she was completely sane didn’t make it much better.
It was dark outside – not that the time of day made much difference to the inside of her cell, which was dim and dull even at high noon. The wan starlight came through a narrow grate at the top of the room, set into the wall. It would be big enough to fit through – but it was barred with iron. The walls were high, and padded with thick canvas. Even if her hands had been free she wouldn’t have been able to climb. The floor was much the same, and the room had no furnishings at all – no bed, no chair, nothing. She could stand, and walk around a little – with not inconsiderable effort, given that her hands were bound in front of her within the straitjacket she’d been forced into. It was immensely uncomfortable.
And there was nothing for Max to do.
At the absolute least she wanted to write down her observations. It wasn’t exactly glamourous, but this was a rare opportunity to see inside a mental institution like this, and her hands itched for paper and ink to record her every thought. It was a shambles, true, a parody of effective healthcare (Max ought to know, given that she studied at the finest hospital, physical or mental, in all the Seas), but that only made her want to write about it more. Her mind was filled with facts and figures, churning with all her myriad observations: the poor quality of the food she’d received; the already debilitating isolation – the only human she’d seen was the man who brought the awful gruel round – the pain in her arms from the tight straitjacket, the total lack of any physical or mental stimulation. There had been no more visits from the doctor, at least not to her, which made her question further the reputation of this place as a haven for the mad and mentally ill.
She’d heard some of the other patients, though. The cell walls were padded but they were far from soundproof, and the muffled voice of the doctor and his assistants seemed to carry through the whole building. She’d heard too much by far already. There were a lot of people in this place, and none of them wanted to be there.
The memory of the sounds had haunted Max when she had finally managed to sleep. She suspected that they would never stop doing so.
This, she thought to herself for the umpteenth time, had better be worth it.
She tried to get comfortable against the padded wall, and failed. The only way to be remotely so was to lie down on the floor – also padded – and stare up at the bare stone of the ceiling. Clearly the asylum’s budget hadn’t stretched to full coverage with the canvas. Her arms ached, pinned in front of her. She should have been allowed out of the jacket by now for a few minutes at least, lest she suffer some long-term muscle damage, but she hadn’t even been freed to eat. The man with the gruel had fed her like a baby; a broad-shouldered man with a closed face and small eyes. Max had tried to get some conversation out of him each time he had come into the cell, but his eyes hadn’t even flickered when she’d spoken, asked his name, whether the doctor was coming. He hadn’t responded at all, had just continued to spoon gruel into her mouth mechanically, forcing her to shut up and eat. Four times the man had come, and four times he had stayed silent, simply gathering his tools and leaving as soon as she was done, locking the heavy door behind him. He hadn’t even looked her in the eye, not once. To him, it was as though Max hadn’t been a person at all.
Max had hoped the man might leave some tool behind, a spoon or pen or something – but he had been careful. The only thing she had managed to do was tease a loose thread in the canvas free with her teeth in a fit of boredom, which was incredibly useful when she had no hands with which to hold it.
It was doubly frustrating knowing that, if she really wanted to, she could probably get out in minutes. But that hadn’t been the point of her coming here. That hadn’t been the plan.
So Max leaned against the padded wall and waited.
She couldn’t even look out of the high window, tall as she was, out into the asylum’s dark grounds. Even they were dark and foreboding, ringed with tall trees whose leaves cast heavy shadows all around. The walls around the grounds were thick and tall – clearly this place had once been a fortress, a bastion of one of the forgotten empires. The main building, in which she sat and waited, would have been the keep, blocky and strong. She’d glimpsed guards walking atop the walls as she was marched in from the gatehouse – itself a seriously sturdy construction, a rusted portcullis hanging ominously from the ceiling – five or six at least, heavy cudgels swinging from their belts. Attempts to escape, it seemed, would not be met with gentle reparations. Presumably there were more guards walking the grounds themselves – she had heard, earlier in the day, the sound of other people outside in the sunlight, whether patients or staff she couldn’t tell. It’s alright for some, then. Maybe in a few years she’d be let out too. Maybe in a few years she’d have actually been treated.
Max didn’t intend to stay quite so long, but it was one of the nicest thoughts she’d had all day.
She went through her mnemonics again, for want of anything better to do. She’d gone through the exercises taught to her as a child so many times now that the taxonomic and astronomical lists were absolutely embedded in her memory. It would have helped to write them down, of course. She hoped she had them right. If he’s left me to spend three days memorising the wrong things then I’ll kill him, she thought to herself. She looked up at the window. It had to be midnight by now, surely. It was time already. So where is he?
But all was still. Max sighed, and began going through the full names of the various species of ironclad shellfish that lurked around the northern coast of her home isles. She wasn’t even a biologist, not properly, but it was knowledge for the sake of it. She closed her eyes as she did so, listening to the sounds of the asylum all around her, to the gently moaning wind through the trees outside, and to the sound of quiet sobbing from the floor above.
She had reached Craven’s Oyster when she heard the faint scraping from outside her cell window.
Max froze, abandoning the memory exercise, turning all her attention to the noise. It came again – a soft sound, something scraping at the rough stone of the asylum wall. Leather, she thought, concentrating. A boot. Well, presumably two. Then she heard a soft grunt, and looked up just in time to see a hand appear from nowhere and take hold of her window’s bar, and a familiar face, sporting a familiar smile, rose into view through the narrow slit.
“Took you long enough,” Max whispered with a grin.
“They have got dogs,” replied Tal Wenlock, looking slightly offended in the moonlight. “I had to take a few detours.”
“Around the whole island?”
“Have you seen the size of those walls?” Tal shook his head. “Good thing we found that side-gate. You’d have been here a lot longer otherwise.”
“I’m not staying here a minute longer than I have to,” Max said, the words heartfelt. “It’s been too long already.”
“Alright, alright, I’m sorry I’m late,” hissed the thief. “Now can you let me in? Much as I’d love to hang here forever, my shoulder’s killing me.”
Max shrugged her straitjacketed shoulders pointedly. Tal scowled.
“Oh for the love of the gods, just break out already.”
Max smirked. Then she concentrated, and let the heat build in her arms, all the energy she had saved over the last few days of confinement boiling out from her blood, and the straitjacket smouldered, then caught, white-hot flames devouring the fabric like a starving man. The buckles came free and so did Max’s arms, and she pulled the jacket over her head as quickly as she could, throwing it to the floor and beating it out awkwardly. She kept the heat bubbling beneath her skin – her undershirt was sleeveless and the night was cold – as she darted over to the window.
“Drama queen,” Tal muttered. Max scowled.
“Do you want to hang there forever?”
“Then I’m left,” she said. Tal nodded.
“Right,” he confirmed. They both closed their eyes and concentrated, and Max took the heat in her veins and pushed it down, channelling it all into her hand, her fingers. She reached up, more thankful than ever that she was tall, and took hold of the leftmost of the window’s three bars. It was iron; she could feel its structure, familiar as a pair of gloves. Perfect. Steel would have taken much longer, and she didn’t trust Tal’s shoulder to hold out that long with its old injury.
Max forced the heat out from her fingers and into the metal. Slowly, it began to glow a dull red, and she had to be careful to keep pushing the heat away from her fragile hands. Carefully, she grasped the bar, still filling it with heat, and pulled. The bar resisted at first, but it was cherry-red, and after a long moment it gave, bending in Max’s hand, the top end scraping free of its socket in the stone frame. She twisted, pulled harder, and the bottom of the bar came away completely. She tossed it aside quickly, the metal thumping softly on the padded floor, sending wisps of smoke where the hot metal met the cloth, and banked her inner fire, wincing at her crimson palm, a minor burn waiting to happen. Careless. But she had been trapped for long enough already, and burns that would heal completely were a small price to pay.
Tal grunted and pushed his own bar into the room. Max saw that it was straight, unbent, and noticed that the stone around its socket had crumbled like sand.
“Very nice,” she said approvingly. “You’re getting better.”
“Seemed a good time to practice,” Tal grunted. “Now do the other one before I fall off the damn building!” He shifted his grip to grasp the windowsill instead of the bar, and Max summoned her magic again. The last bar didn’t take as long – she was already warmed up. She threw the bent metal into the corner of the room, then grabbed Tal’s wrists.
Max pulled, and the skinny thief slipped through the narrow window as easily as breathing, landing catlike on the padded floor with barely a sound. He straightened, dusting off the worst of the stone-dust that covered his dark clothes with more dust from his hands, then pulled his satchel around from the small of his back, rummaging inside.
“Here. Cold out.” Max took the offered tunic gratefully. With her magic banked, she felt the midnight chill keenly in her thin undershirt. Tal didn’t seem concerned himself, standing without shivering in a simple shirt and trousers. His satchel of tricks hung from his shoulder, as always, and his face was dark with lampblack. Sneaking in couldn’t have been easy, and she felt a wave of affection for the man who’d broken in to get her out – before remembering that it had been his idea to put her in here in the first place. On balance, she would give him some credit. Some.
“Thanks,” she said, pulling on the tunic.
“No problem. You’ve got to learn the temperature trick.”
“I’m making progress,” Max said, annoyed. Tal smiled warmly, and her ire faded.
“I know.” He looked around the padded cell, raised an eyebrow. “Nice place you’ve got here. Love the décor.”
“I’m thinking of moving,” Max replied with a smile. “Right now, in fact.”
“Well, let’s get you packed,” Tal said. He paused for a heartbeat. “All done.” Max scowled, but it was very nearly a smile. Tal indicated the door. “Now, shall we?”
“You know where it is?”
“Of course,” Max said, affecting hurt. She hadn’t seen much of the asylum, but she had been trained to look quickly and remember well. She knew exactly where to go to find what she and Tal were looking for. The thief raised a placating hand, smiling broadly.
“Then let’s be off.”
He stepped over to the door. There was a flash of silver in his hands, and the lock sprung open eagerly. The door’s hinges, to her surprise, were well-oiled.
“Showoff,” Max muttered. Tal just chuckled.
“Come on. Let’s find ourselves that key.”
He stepped out into the corridor on light feet, and, smiling to herself, Max followed him.
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Hûw Steer entered The Blackbird and the Ghost into SPFBO and got sorted into The Qwillery‘s group.