Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

A Citizen In Childhood’s Country

It was always a relief on the ward when midnight came, bringing the late-night caretakers in their faded scrubs and sensible shoes, carrying their little trays of sweet oblivion from bed to bed and room to room. They passed among the patients like the Sandman himself, leaving even the most devoted screamers sleeping peacefully. The silence wouldn’t last, but oh, it was sweet for a little while. The more damaged patients—the ones who’d been waiting years for sanity to make a house call, the ones who’d outlasted dozens of caretakers and might well outlast a dozen more—had had plenty of time to develop a tolerance for even the most potent sedatives. The worst could take doses that would knock an elephant out and be right back to screaming down the walls an hour later.

Even an hour of quiet was better than nothing at all. Ms. Creelman watched the caretakers moving through with their trays and their serious expressions, allowing herself to relax for the first time since the beginning of her shift. The hospital administration warned her when she applied for the position, but they hadn’t been able to truly capture the scope of the situation. “The residents are frequently agitated at night”—that was what they said to her before she signed her contract, before she signed a year of her life away. Agitated.

They didn’t say anything about the screaming.

“Twelve o’clock and all’s well, hey, Ms. Creelman?” asked Mike, stopping next to the nursing station. He was pulling a safety-yellow janitor’s bucket behind him, and the soap scum that frothed around its edges was faintly tinged with red. He followed the direction of her glance, and shrugged. “Little incident on the ward. One of the patients tried to tunnel out of his room to get away from the monsters he said were coming out of the walls.”

“Has he received medical care?” Ms. Creelman found it difficult to look away from the bloody soap bubbles as they popped, one by one.

“He’s with Brian.”

Ms. Creelman looked up, sharply. “Brian?”

“He was available,” said Mike, and shrugged. “Besides, he gives good bedside, right?”

“I suppose,” said Ms. Creelman, not entirely mollified. She knew that her dislike was ill-founded; Brian was one of the night nurses. He was dependable, and seemed to get along well with most of the patients, even if he took their delusions a little too seriously. That was the part that disturbed her. In a place like this—which would have been called an asylum in any early age, and was now called a “private hospital,” as if that changed its purpose—taking madness seriously was a calling, but taking delusions seriously . . . that was dangerous.

“Don’t worry, Ms. C,” said Mike, resuming his walk down the hall. “It’s twelve o’clock, and all’s well.”

“All’s well,” she mumbled, and wondered why she didn’t believe herself.

• • • •

In the fuss of midnight—the silent progression of sweet chemical dreams, the shrieks of residents not yet sedated, and the howls of Damon Hickman as Brian waited for the painkillers to kick in—no one really noticed when one of the quieter, less troublesome girls on the ward palmed her pills, slipping them into the pocket formed by the corner of her pillowcase as soon as the caretakers turned away. When they looked back she was already relaxing, lashes fluttering against her cheeks in a skilled parody of sleep. The door clicked shut. Her eyes sprang open. So little time; so very little time was left. The next room-check and round of medication would come in six hours.

One way or another, she was planning to be gone when it arrived. One way or another, she’d been here longer than she should have been, and she was long past the point where waiting was enough.

Stripping the bed only took a few minutes. Bundling the sheets in her lap, she sat down on the bare mattress and turned her face toward the room’s small, steel-barred window. Humming a sea shanty under her breath, she began calmly, systematically ripping the first sheet into strips. So little time; so very little time.

Not long now.

• • • •

“Where are you going, Brian?”

Ms. Creelman’s voice was practically at his shoulder. Brian flinched before he could forbid himself to do so, taking a quick stumble-step to the side as he moved away from the sound of his superior. “Nowhere,” he said, turning to face her.

She arched an eyebrow. “Nowhere,” she repeated.

“The supply cabinet,” he hastily corrected. Holding up the first aid kit he’d been carrying, he said, “I need to put this away before one of our patients gets out and gets hurt.”

“Ah.” She looked at him thoughtfully. “Do you enjoy working here, Brian?”

“Ma’am?”

“At the hospital, I mean, not just on this ward. Is this something you would choose to pursue as a career?” Her tone was neutral, but her eyes were cold.

She knows, he thought, before shoving the idea away as firmly as he could. If she knew, he’d already be gone. He’d been careful, so careful, in covering his tracks, and he’d had help—some of the best help in the world. They looked after their own. That was why he was in the asylum. No matter what, they looked after their own. “I find it very refreshing, ma’am. The patients can be a handful, but their way of looking at the world is almost fascinating, if you can just make yourself relax.”

Her gaze grew, if anything, even colder. “And are you relaxed, Brian?”

“Not right now, ma’am,” he said, and swallowed. The image of the patient in room nineteen—little Jane Doe, whose dental records matched nothing in the country, whose chart indicated that she hovered at the cusp of sixteen years of age, who’d been in the same white room with the same white walls for four long years—rose behind his eyes.

So little time.

Ms. Creelman studied him a moment longer before nodding to herself and turning away. “Good. A little caution is advisable in your position.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, as he watched her walk away. A little caution was advisable, yes, but he wasn’t planning to retain his position for much longer. There was, after all, so little time.

• • • •

The case file for patient 347, “Jane Doe,” is sketchy at best; odd, given that she was institutionalized for slightly over four years. She was found on the street, underfed, wearing what the admitting officers described as “nothing but rags,” wandering in what seemed to be a fugue state. Her left wrist was broken, and she did not resist when she was collected, bundled into the back of a social services van, and eventually—after several way-stations and group homes—deposited in a private institution. Her admittance fees and upkeep were paid anonymously, something which had happened before, with other lost children found under similar circumstances. They all seemed to stay for roughly the same amount of time. Then, on or around what was likely to be their sixteenth birthdays, they snapped out of their private madness and rejoined the world. It was strange, but so many things are strange, and at least the children like Jane were quiet. Tractable. Easily forgotten.

So little time left.

• • • •

The moon outside the window watched Jane—that wasn’t her name, that wasn’t her name at all; Jane had been years and years before her, and Jane had chosen this, while she’d fallen into it, getting lost, getting found—as she finished ripping her sheets to shreds and began braiding them with tight, careful motions of her hands. She tied good knots, did Jane-who-wasn’t-Jane. She’d practiced them on hammocks and on sea-slippery anchor ropes, on dried sinew and snares. Her makeshift rope would hold, regardless of which of the two possible uses she chose to put it to. Time was short—so little time left—and her rope would be used, one way or the other, before the sun came up.

Midnight marked the beginning of the last day of her fifteenth year, and she knew what tomorrow would mean. Tomorrow meant telling them her name; tomorrow meant telling them where she was from; tomorrow meant being found forever, not just for a little while. Tomorrow meant that time was up.

Maybe that was good enough for Jane, but she wasn’t Jane. She’d never asked to be Jane. Tomorrow would happen, one way or the other . . . but however it happened, it would happen without her.

Still humming, Jane-who-wasn’t-Jane continued to braid her sheets into her escape, and watched the moon, and waited.

• • • •

In the inquest that followed the disappearance of patient 347, it was discovered that one of the employees of the institute—a Brian Patterson, late of Roseburg, Oregon—had previously been a resident at a similar institute, and with a similar background. He, too, had been found seemingly abandoned; he, too, had been a prisoner in an elaborately detailed fantasy world for years before coming to his senses and telling his caretakers who he was. How, exactly, he’d been able to conceal his past from the hiring manager is still under discussion. It matters very little now. Brian Patterson has not been seen since the night of Jane Doe’s disappearance.

The order of events, as we have been able to reconstruct it, appears to be thus: At midnight, when the nightly medications were dispensed, Jane did not take her pills. Whether this was due to collusion with Patterson or simply an act of childish rebellion is unknown. At approximately half-past twelve, Brian was seen by the ward supervisor, Ms. Creelman, supposedly in the act of returning medical supplies to their proper location. According to her report, he seemed perfectly normal at that time.

At one-thirty-four, precisely, six signal flares were set off in the woods behind the hospital. One of those flares set fire to the surrounding underbrush, necessitating that the fire department be called. The hospital was far enough from the blaze to be deemed safe, and was not evacuated, although the sirens woke many of the patients. The chaos was not resolved until well past six o’clock that morning. By that time, it was too late for anything to be done. The night had been too short; there was, in the end, too little time.

• • • •

The flares burst like blazing roses against the midnight sky, briefly blotting out the stars. Jane-who-wasn’t-Jane regarded them with interest, head canted very slightly to one side. The glittering petals fanned into individual points of tumbling light, cascading down, down, down and out of sight. She resumed her braiding. Lights against the sky were all well and good, but she’d seen stranger on the nights when she was fool enough to take her pills, and time was so short now, so very short.

Shouting in the hall outside her room; shouting, followed by the sound of running feet, and the shrieking blare of sirens. She hunched her shoulders and kept working, fasting now, aware that she was racing more than morning.

So intent was she on her work, and so loud were the sounds outside, that she didn’t hear the key turn in the lock; didn’t hear the door ease gently open behind her, or hear it eased just as gently closed again. Then, the question, from what should have been an empty room:

“What’s your name?”

She whipped around like a frightened cat, lips drawing back from her teeth in a grimace that was closer than a snarl as her fingers clamped down on the half-completed rope. Brian glanced from it to her, pained sympathy in his eyes.

“Mine’s Brian,” he said. “They called me Bandy, because my knees bent in, and I always walked like I’d just gotten off a bicycle.” The first flickers of hopeful astonishment began sliding into her face. He forced himself to ignore them—he didn’t want to frighten her, and the ones who got as far as making ropes were always so easy to scare. “I didn’t fall. My brother did, and I went after him. I spent so much time looking, and I got so scared, that I couldn’t get happy. I got caught instead.”

“Did he?”

Her voice was tiny and rusty from disuse. Brian felt his shoulders relax. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him. I think he must have stayed lost, or he’d have found a way to contact me by now.”

“Good.” She looked down at the braided sheets in her hands, and said, voice still very tiny, “I’m Candle. Tonight. Still. Tomorrow . . .”

“Do you want to go home, Candle?”

The look she gave him was full of startled hope, and fearful longing. “Can I?”

“Tonight,” he said. “Come with me.”

He offered her his hand. After a long silence, she reached out, and—never letting go of the rope—she took it.

• • • •

Brian and Candle walked into the woods behind the hospital, her hand still clutching his, the knotted sheets gathering dead leaves and debris as it dragged along the ground. The fire blazed to the west of them, blanketing the sky in smoke. In all the chaos, it was easy for one nurse and one small girl in a grubby cotton nightgown to slip away. Their absence wouldn’t be noticed for hours, by which time both of them would be long, long gone.

“I’m sorry I left it so late,” said Brian, once they were past the first edge of the trees. “I kept hoping . . .”

“Is he coming?”

Brian closed his eyes, continuing to walk forward. Her fingers in his felt very small. “Not until I leave.”

“Does he know?”

“Yes.”

She didn’t ask him how. There were ways and ways, and some of them couldn’t be used until you’d been found for good. Better not to know. Better just to go. Better just to shut out the sound of shouting, the sirens in the distance, and to listen instead to the steady pounding of her heart, like a drum caught and captive in her chest. “So he’ll come.”

“Yes.”

They walked on in silence for a bit before she said, “I caught my hair on fire once. That’s why my name’s Candle.” Whatever it was before that didn’t matter, because it was still the last day of her fifteenth year, and she was still in childhood’s country; her citizenship had not yet been revoked.

“Good reason,” Brian agreed.

They walked further. “What’s your brother’s name?”

“Sander.”

“I’ll tell him. I’ll tell him you did this.” She turned her face toward him, a pale moon in the darkness, while smoke blotted out the real moon up above, blotted out the stars, blotted out everything but the night, this last night, before her time ran out like his had done. “I’ll tell them all.”

“Thank you,” he said gravely, and let go of her hand. “Go a little further on. You’ll know the way.”

“I know,” she said, and smiled suddenly, dropping her carefully knotted rope before she turned and ran into the woods. For just a moment, through the trees ahead, he saw a glimmering light, like a child’s nightlight—or a candle—being held behind a screen. Then he picked up the discarded rope and turned away, and began the long walk through the woods to where he’d stowed the car he’d be using to drive out of this life and into the next, into a fresh identity composed by another of the Found, into a fresh asylum where their sources indicated the potential for another of the Lost.

In the woods behind him, he heard the sound of silver bells, the sound of childish laughter, and the sound—intangible, implausible, and real as any wish made on a midnight star—of a citizen of childhood’s country having her passport renewed; the sound of a little girl who’d come so close to being Found forever getting Lost, and going home.

Brian smiled, hugging Candle’s rope against his chest, and walked on.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire was born and raised in Northern California, resulting in a love of rattlesnakes and an absolute terror of weather. She shares a crumbling old farmhouse with a variety of cats, far too many books, and enough horror movies to be considered a problem. Seanan publishes about three books a year, and is widely rumored not to actually sleep. When bored, Seanan tends to wander into swamps and cornfields, which has not yet managed to get her killed (although not for lack of trying). She also writes as Mira Grant, filling the role of her own evil twin, and tends to talk about horrible diseases at the dinner table.