Author’s note: can be found here!
Credit: All images used in this post belong to the incredibly talented Ellen Lee, who didn’t draw them because I was writing a story; I wrote a story because she drew them.
He thought he felt something.
After 5 years 7 months and 14 days of being Numb, he felt a tingling in his fingers that travelled all the way to his ears, and then to his feet.
The first thought that came to his mind was, I can finally get out of here! since it was his inability to feel anything that had placed him here in the first place.
But the thought only lasted for about 0.67 seconds before it was banished from his mind, because he didn’t really want to leave. After three months of moping, groveling and sobbing in random places, you would’ve thought he couldn’t stand being in the San Diego Youth Psychiatric Ward any longer but a new twist of events had turned everything upside down for him.
And that new twist of events came in the form of Hanna Taylor.
Everyone has a story; it’s just a matter of how interesting it is.
Hugo Weaving didn’t think his story was interesting. He didn’t think the word “interesting” even suited him at all. He wasn’t ashamed of his story, but he wouldn’t go around telling it to everyone, even though that was pretty much considered the norm at the ward. The day he was admitted, a girl with bright red hair who looked a few years younger than him bounced up and started talking about dementia. Five hours later during lunch, she told him the same thing all over again.
Hugo’s story started when he was fourteen. Chronic insomnia ran in the family, but somehow skipped his parents’ generation. He started experiencing hallucinations a month after being unable to sleep and waking up feeling like a corpse. The hallucinations were the worst, there were people who were dead reappearing in his bedroom to talk to him and childhood friends that popped up in the locker room after PE, blowing raspberries at him but nobody else ever saw them except for him.
He felt tired, and then he felt Numb.
His parents were concerned about him but they were even more concerned about other people knowing so they tried to hush it down as well as they could by buying over-the-counter benzodiazepines and antidepressants. They worked for what it was worth, but the Numbness remained.
Four years later, his parents had a divorce and he stopped taking medication altogether.
The Numbness spread to every fibre of his being, until he was sure that even a flame against his skin couldn’t make him feel anything anymore.
One afternoon, he was struck by an idea and decided to head for the bridge near his college. He never knew what it was called, but as he stood on the ledge, watching the waves below him, he wondered if they would make him feel.
Then he jumped.
“Hello,” Hugo greeted the new girl with medium-length ashy brown hair and pale blue eyes who was just admitted that day. She was sitting alone in a corner of the canteen, reading. He could see now that she was reading a book called The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
He could sense her recoiling from him when he approached her, and stopped in his tracks when he was about four feet away from her. Her pale eyes were watery, and he wondered if they had always been that way, if the cause of the moisture in her eyes was her admittance into a youth psychiatric ward or something else that had haunted her life way before this moment. He couldn’t tell. He hadn’t cried for 5 years 7 months and 14 days.
“Hello,” he repeated.
She continued to stare at him, and he noticed that she had freckles, which was nice. He was starting to tell her something about freckles that he had read about last year (“Did you know that freckles are also called ‘angel kisses’ and ‘sunspots’? Because freckles appear most at regions most exposed to the sun?”) when she spoke first.
He looked down at his green Converse shoes. He’d never thought much about it, except that it was his 18th birthday present from his parents.
“Thank you,” he started to say, but when he looked up, she had already walked away, book in hand.
His eyes were already closing, the world already fading, when someone tugged at his left wrist. In mere minutes, he was pulled out of the river and onto land. A bald man with a crooked moustache loomed above him, slapping his cheeks to bring him back to consciousness. He’d wanted to raise his hand to point at the bald man’s crooked moustache and say, “Hey, your moustache is out of balance,” but he found that he didn’t have the energy to do so. So he just stared. And stared. And gave almost imperceptible nods when asked if he was alright.
He never saw his parents after that. The procedures to have him admitted into the local youth psychiatric ward had already been carried out without his knowing. They couldn’t face the fact that their beloved son had wanted to take his own life.
He thought he’d be sad, but then he realised he was still Numb. The waves didn’t have any effect on him.
She surprised even herself. She’d thought she lost all her words but no. She could still speak. She’d said “nice” and “shoes”.
It was a genuine compliment. Those were nice shoes. As nice as breathing in the scent of roses at the park on a hot, humid day with zero clouds. They made him stand out. Among the other grey matter in the ward. The normal people. The people like her. Who fade. Who weren’t real. They were all the same. They were all made of the same matter. But he wasn’t. Because he was different. It might have been the shoes. It might not. But that was why she could speak to him. Unlike everyone else. Because they were all as empty and nothing as she was. As empty as an abandoned can by the West 30 Road. But not him. Because she could speak to him. Because she could speak to him.
Because she could speak to him.
He was having a cup of coffee and she was having a glass of pineapple juice.
“Why can’t you speak?”
“I’m socially anxious.”
“Not even to the staff?”
“Then why can you speak to me?”
Silence. And then- “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“You’re different, I suppose.”
He flinched. “I’d committed suicide.”
She didn’t even waver. “You’re different.”
“Because of nice shoes?”
“What do people call you?”
He laughed. “No. I mean, what is your name?”
He smiled, and after a while, she smiled, too.
Hanna wasn’t at their usual table when Hugo entered the canteen for lunch. He’d initially thought of telling her about the origin of Pi Day, which was on that day itself, and how silly was it that they were celebrating a holiday that was initiated to commemorate a mathematical constant and Larry Shaw, who organized the first Pi Day, didn’t even look like he was right in the head which was ironic because Hugo himself and everyone around him weren’t right in the head, either but no one here ever thought of creating a holiday to sing the praises of a mathematical constant.
But she wasn’t around.
He thought of getting up to find her and then remembered a sort-of contract both of them had agreed with, that was, either one of them would not force his or her presence onto the other if he or her was Lurking unless absolutely necessary, with invitation. “Lurking” was something they said instead of “tired” or “not feeling well” or “ill in the head”, not because they were in denial of their “illnesses” but because they didn’t want to alert the ward staff that they felt sick, which would bring on an influx of various medication which was, to quote Hanna, “as pleasant as having your skin scratched by a hungry tiger”. Hanna Taylor had a simile fetish.
They never told each other their Lurking Places, since it was part of the contract, but Hugo had accidentally stumbled upon Hanna at the janitor’s room once or twice when she had been careless enough to leave the door open wide enough for people to notice her blue eyes. But then again, no one really had any business to be around that area (except for the janitor, obviously, but Hanna wasn’t that foolish to be Lurking in the janitor’s room when he was around). He was strongly tempted to look for her, to ask her what was wrong and in what way could Hugo Weaving be of help to her dilemmas?
But, staying true to the contract, he didn’t.
Hanna Taylor told her story over breakfast one morning, after she realised that she could speak more than one sentence around Hugo.
She used to be “as ugly as a mammoth’s ass who just survived an ice age and didn’t have the time to take a bath yet” in middle school and was the main target of the bullies. She’d even came home once with her hair forcefully snipped off and her teeth drawn on with colour pencils. It was awful, but not nearly as awful as high school. People were no longer people but mutations whose stares were accusatory wherever she went and whatever she did. She started skipping canteen visits during lunch breaks, then skipping classes to hide in a spare classroom where no one ever went to. The day she was caught red-handed, she couldn’t even speak anymore to defend herself, and that was the day her parents pulled her out of school.
But then they realised that home seclusion did worse to their daughter dearest when they came home one day to find her room in chaos. Her clothes were cut up, the windows smashed, and even her books (her books, the only things that ever brought a smile to their daughter’s face) had pages ripped out of their spines. It was the last straw for them when she claimed that “it was the voices that made me do it”.
“You know, once, I asked my mum to show me one other person on Earth who feels like I do, and she said, ‘I can’t, Hanna, because they fade into the background like you do.'”
That evening, Hanna was still nowhere to be found, even though all activities at the ward were already coming to an end. She usually never missed the ward activities. The ward staff made sure of it. They were a pretty strict bunch, the staff at the San Diego Youth Psychiatric Ward. Hanna was a social anxiety patient. They would never let her off the hook where social interactions were concerned.
Hence, at 8 PM, when everyone was allowed to return to their rooms, Hugo headed for the Sagittarius Wing (while using constellations as names for the wards was infinitely better than the names of flowers or colours, it amused everyone that there was no ‘Cancer Wing’) where Hanna’s room was located.
She was already getting into bed when Hugo turned up, but at the sight of him at her door, her face lit up. While Hugo was washed with relief, he could sense something that wasn’t quite right under her semi-faltering façade. However, he banished the thought when Hanna grabbed her shoes, muttered, “Let’s just go” under her breath so only he could hear her and ran out into the corridor. A grin spread on his face. They weren’t supposed to be out of their rooms at this hour, but who was going to stop them?
And then they were running. Barefooted, of course. Thundering through the hallways of the ward in shoes to announce their presences to everyone in the ward was the last thing they wanted to do if they were sneaking out after curfew in the first place. No, not if, when. They were already out.
“Where are you going?” Hugo murmured under his breath once he was close enough to Hanna.
Once or twice, they almost stumbled into ward staff clad in green uniforms, but they managed to avoid them, cackling silently as they escaped from their clutches. For a moment, Hugo almost forgot about Hanna’s absence from activities that day, almost believing her well-being despite her absence, but he was reminded of that underlying sadness when Hanna finally came to a stop at the reception counter.
He’d only been here once, when he was first admitted into the ward, and even then, he was so distracted from reality that he’d never paid much attention to the place. But now he could see the scattered sheets of paper on the desk, full of medicinal names as well as people names scribbled carelessly in black ink across the pages. A dark blue clock was ticking away in a corner of the table, and opened sweet wrappers littered the other. Obviously the receptionist(s) hadn’t bothered to clear up the place before leaving, negligence triumphing over vigilance.
And then there were rows and rows of files the colour of a sick, pale yellow lined up neatly on shelves hammered into the wall. He could see the indices in alphabetical order sticking out in little stickers of various colours. Unconsciously, he found his gaze darting to the bright green ‘W’ sticker jutting out from one of the shelves further back.
He heard a sniff and whirled around, only to find a teary Hanna staring back at him. Before he could open his mouth, she forced a watery smile and said, “I used to be more stable in my emotions, which is ironic because I’m sort of crazy. As crazy as an ugly bat whose body is severely injured from multiple hits against a cave wall because of a hearing malfunction.”
Hugo couldn’t help but smile. “Careful there, or you’ll be a borderline personality disorder case next.”
“They’re going to add that to my list of illnesses, huh.”
“Well, before they do that, I’d like to see my neverending list of illnesses first.”
“Well, why not?” Hugo jumped over the counter, almost slipping on the scattered paper sheets but managing to regain his balance as he found his footing. He skimmed through the ‘T’ section, until he found the file with the words TAYLOR, HANNA printed on the cover.
The hesitation in Hanna’s actions was obvious, afraid of what she might find in the file. Her file. (It was during that moment that she realised ‘file’ was also an obvious anagram of ‘life’ and oh, the irony.) But in the end, she didn’t really want to care anymore and flipped it open.
…patient suffers from acute social anxiety…expresses excessive anxiety level even in small crowds…disorder limits daily routines since young age…bordering on severe paranoia…severe anxiety brings on wild hysteria…
She swallowed. A painful memory was trying to squirm its way to the very front of her mind but she stubbornly pushed it away. “Nope, no borderline personality disorder. Thank the sweet heavens.”
Hugo looked up from his own file and Hanna couldn’t help peeking at it. “What does yours say?”
“Chronic insomnia. As always,” he was grinning.
Hugo Weaving’s smile was contagious. The corners of Hanna’s mouth tilted up just a little. “What would happen if we just…you know, destroy these files?” she thumbed through the pages. There were graphs and diagrams and photos and words and more words. “I mean, and this is really wishful thinking, as wishful as the bottom of a wishing well that doesn’t exist, but our lives are revolved around our diseases, whether we chose for it to be that way or not. I mean, how many times have you entered a shop or just went to school and not have someone judge you by the little abnormalities you have?”
“These aren’t really “little abnormalities”, Hanna.”
“You can’t sleep. I fear people. So what? Sounds like the typical traits of a bratty teenager to me. We just have a heavier touch of bad habits, that’s all. I mean, we could just…” Hanna held the first page of the file, the one with her personal details and photo between her thumb and forefinger, feeling the sheer lightness of the paper, yet realizing the absurdity of how her life was practically defined by this piece of paper, this diagnosis of her mental health. “Tear it.”
And the first page of Hanna Taylor’s life was in shreds.
The reception desk was a mess. After destroying both their files, Hugo and Hanna proceeded to set everyone else free. Suzanne Smith, Hanna’s roommate was the third to be set free, followed by Noah York, who was always, always first in line when queuing up for meals at the canteen, and Jeffery Singer, Ashley Howard, Irene Sanders…the list went on and on.
Their job was done, and they escaped to a different sanctuary.
It was Hugo who found it first, the doctors’ equipment room. He held up a stethoscope when they stepped in and examined it curiously, wondering exactly how the mechanics of something so simple-looking allowed one to transcend all physical barriers to reach the core of a human being: the heart.
“Did you know, if I hadn’t tried to kill myself, I would’ve been a medical student instead?”
“No, I didn’t. Wow, Hugo.”
“Yep, wow, Hugo indeed.”
“Did you know, if my parents hadn’t sent me here after I’d tried to strangle my Biology teacher, I would’ve been the new host for Disney Channel?”
“What about him?”
“You really hated Biology, didn’t you?”
Hanna grimaced. “He was the one who found me in the empty classroom. He was being unnecessarily adamant and forceful.”
“Why are you sad?”
Hugo could see that the randomness of his question had surprised Hanna, but she was quick to cover it up.
“I’m as happy as a 5-year-old who finally found the loo after holding in his two-litre pee for two hours. Besides, I’m here with you. You make me happy.”
He tried to push away the growing warmth in his chest for the moment, saving it for later deliberation. “It’s hidden, but I can see through the pores.”
Hanna stared at him, at his green eyes, and couldn’t help thinking what an anomaly he was. If anything, he was a stethoscope, looking right through her without even trying.
Hugo could see that the moisture had returned in her eyes and when he started to form an apology, she stopped him. “Crying isn’t something to be ashamed of. Crying in front of people, I admit, it’s fearful for me, but it shouldn’t be for those who aren’t diagnosed with acute social anxiety.”
She reached for the stethoscope in Hugo’s hands. “My Aunt Beatrice passed away this afternoon, one of the staff told me. Granted, we weren’t exactly close, but we were family, and inexplicably, she was one of the few people whom I could be around with without feeling afraid. Highly intuitive, that’s what she was. She could sense when I was uncomfortable, or sad, or angry and she would always do everything she could to alleviate my situation. You remind me of her a lot,” she admitted, plugging the ear plugs of the stethoscope into her ears. “She wasn’t grey. Like burnt ashes. She was different. And so are you.” She held the chestpiece to Hugo’s chest, to find that his heartbeat was as wild as a bird in a cage flapping its wings erratically. “Are you nervous, Hugo Weaving?”
She was so close that he could see his own reflection in her tears. “Would it be silly to say yes?”
“No, it wouldn’t.”
They left the equipment room because Hanna had an idea. She pulled on Hugo’s hand and led him to a storeroom where the wheelchairs were stored.
“You know, I haven’t played this in a mighty long time,” she said, her voice dripping with eagerness as she pushed the door open and found rows of neatly folded wheelchairs. “I once made a very silly promise to myself that if I were ever chucked into the cuckoo bin, I would do this at the very least once.” She unfolded one and sat on it, then gestured for Hugo to push her.
Hugo couldn’t resist a laugh. “Being pushed in a wheelchair: Hanna Taylor’s favourite past-time activity. The list of your bizarreness never seems to end.”
He gripped the handles and pushed Hanna out of the room, down the corridor, past the therapy rooms, the lounge, down more corridors, as Hanna adopted a consistent chant that went, “Faster! Faster! Faster!” until everything around them was a blur, until the rooms they passed by were just doors that led to nowhere, until the ground itself held no friction against them, so they were practically flying, outrunning the ghosts of their pasts, loosening the shackles that were forced upon them when they reached their breaking points.
“IN HERE!” Hanna screeched when they arrived at the junction leading to the swimming pool. The swimming pool was somewhat an irony in the psychiatric ward. No sane staff would ever let a mental patient near 22,021 gallons of water so it was often unused, but due to strict maintenance rules, was still cleaned once a fortnight. Some people even called it the Naughty Staff Area after several alleged “interesting” sightings at the pool.
Hanna gestured for Hugo to push her down the water and he didn’t hesitate, planning to participate in the dive as well. Just before the wheelchair was tilted and the sitter deposited rather ungracefully into the water, Hanna yelled, “THIS IS FOR YOU, AUNT BEATRICE!” and the echoes bounced against the walls before both of them entered the water, void of sounds.
Was it possible for someone to look more beautiful in the water? Because with her ashy brown hair that almost looked golden from the reflection of light fanned around her in the water, Hanna Taylor looked gorgeous.
Hanna resurfaced first, and then Hugo. Hanna laughed first, and then Hugo. Their laughter bounced off the walls, and yet they still couldn’t stop laughing at the beautiful absurdity of it all.
“What time do you think it is?”
Hugo looked at his watch, which mercifully still worked despite his submerging it in water for almost half an hour. “Just after midnight.” Both of them were soaked, their clothes clinging to their bodies rather unpleasantly but neither one of them seemed to pay much attention to it. Also clinging to Hugo’s hand was Hanna’s petite one, and while his heart was racing, he kept his composure, the broad grin on his face being the only thing giving his exhilaration away.
“Hey,” Hugo was struck by a wild idea. “I want to show you my Lurking Place.”
Hugo’s Lurking Place was the stairwell between Level 3 and 4.
“Stairs get you places. That’s most people’s common knowledge about stairs. But sometimes, you don’t want to get to places. You don’t want to continue progressing. You don’t want to go up. You just want to stay still. So I chose an in-between platform, because I’ve already gotten to where I want to go, and instead of chasing after others, I stop. Because we’re not machines. They might not need to stop. But I do. And just because they think up is the only way to go, it doesn’t mean they have to drag me with them. So I’m stopping. And sitting.” In one swift motion, Hugo sat down next to a flight of stairs, and Hanna occupied the spot next to his.
“That’s interesting. Maybe that’s why we’re here in the first place. Because while everyone is mindlessly chasing after ashes out there, we’re here, in the in-between, stopping to see things better instead of rushing over them.”
“Are you enjoying your stay here now, Miss Taylor?”
“Just because something is better doesn’t mean it has to be enjoyable. But to answer your question, yes, I am, now that there’s you.”
Hugo had watched enough movies of the romance genre in his lifetime to know a cheesy scene when he sees one, but at the moment, it didn’t seem cheesy at all, because he was equally grateful for Hanna Taylor’s presence. They were two deprived kids finding solace in each other’s presence.
One moment he was staring into those pale blue eyes which were dry for once, and the next he felt her lips on his, and there were no violins playing or apple blossoms drifting around them but it was still the nicest moment Hugo had ever experienced. Hanna Taylor had succeeded in destroying the wall of Numbness that circled his heart, and he could feel again.
For the first time in ages, Hugo Weaving felt sleepy, and both of them slept arm-in-arm in the stairwell.