Asylum

"You're not supposed to talk about it," the man in the cell beside me whispers, his face pressed against the bars.

There is a desperate look in his eyes, and beneath the dirt, his grimy hands are white where they grip the discolored metal. He's been here for a while. You can always recognize the ones who have been here the longest; the eyes tell the story.

And this man has clearly forgotten what it means to be free.

Hygiene is no longer a priority, and his once-orange jumpsuit has faded to a muddy brown. Raggedy hair frames a pale face, lined with premature wrinkles. Whatever this place does, it ages men.

It's a hellhole, to say the least. Filth and trash line the halls, fills the cells. The only people who care about cleanliness are the guards, and they don't mind the garbage when they slip silently into the cells at night for a quick tussle in the darkness.

I once read a bit of the Bible, and there was a story about a place like this, where depravity and pain and suffering abound. They called it Hell.

"They'll kill you if they find out!" the man insists. His eyes dart up and down the empty hallway.

"Will they now?" I whisper, one eyebrow arched in question.

He doesn't understand what this place is. Most of us on the inside don't.

The brochure was colorful and bright, filled with smiling faces and promising words like "caring environment" and "secure facility." It gives hope to the families, soothes the guilt when they abandon their loved one here. But they don't visit, and it becomes all too clear that they never cared.

If you aren't insane when you come here, you will be before you leave—in a body-bag to a shallow grave.

It's quite ironic that "asylum" means shelter and protection. But it's just another comforting lie for the public, another pleasant façade to mask the horror beneath. People are that way, too.

We're all a bit insane on the inside. The people they keep here are the ones who can't hide it.

"What is it that you know?" I ask lazily.

His eyes fasten on me, as if seeing me for the first time. The gaze is bright, penetrating. He doesn't speak, only stares, and after a while, I assume he's forgotten. I close my eyes and sigh, imagining what the sun would feel like on my skin. I don't even know if it is daylight anymore. Time does not pass the same in this place.

"You don't belong here," he whispers conspiratorially.

I open one eye to inspect the man.

"Oh? How do you figure that?" I inquire. A cockroach scuttles across the top of my hand. It tickles, and I flick it away. In the corner of the cell, it lands on its back, its little legs flailing desperately to find solid ground.

Sorry, little friend, but the world's turned upside down. Didn't you know?

"You don't twitch like Ernie, or cry and scream in your sleep like Bill. You don't try to hurt yourself or have fits like me. You're too still," he explains.

His eyes are earnest, as if this is the only explanation. There's still innocence in those eyes, even if it is the naïve ignorance of a simpleton.

"Have you been watching me sleep, brother?" I tease.

He shrugs. "Nothing better to do," he explains.

Too true, brother, too true.

"So, they'll kill me? Is that what you think?" I ask.

Unconsciously, a smile spreads across my face. I glance at the cockroach, whose feeble struggles have ended for the moment.

"You don't belong here," he says again.

"Would you like to know why I was brought here, brother?" I whisper, clamoring closer to the bars. His face is still pressed against the bars, his expression filled with curiosity.

"That's not my name," he whispers.

I'm so close I can touch him now, and the stench of sweat and filth is almost overwhelming. I reach up to hold onto the bar beside him. He jumps at my proximity, but he doesn't pull away. He's curious.

Through the bars, my hand closes around his throat. He immediately struggles, his eyes wide, his mouth gaping as he struggles to breathe. Little sound escapes except for the labored wheezing from his constricted airway. The power thrills me, makes me hot.

His weak hands close over my wrist, but he's too decrepit, too emaciated to resist me. The bright eyes dull, slowly, though his muscles continue to spasm, stirring the dirt across the floor.

At last, he is still.

From the corner of my eye, I see the cockroach right itself. It scurries toward the cell door, toward freedom.

Not so fast, friend.

I pick it up between my index finger thumb, feeling the small body writhe against me. Effortlessly, I squeeze, feeling the crunch of body and bone. The movement stops and the carcass falls. I wipe my hand against my jumpsuit.

The cell is silent again. Eventually the guards will find the body to clean up the mess, but it doesn't matter. I look at the body, the empty eyes still watching me.

"You see, brother, you didn't realize that the most dangerous madman is the one you never suspect."

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Written for the Review Game's November Writing Challenge Contest. Check out the other entries and vote for your favorite between the 8th and 14th.