Jason stood with his back to the twenty-foot-high perimeter wall of the prison. His hair moved in gentle waves in the warm summer breeze while his eyes remained closed in serene contemplation. An exquisite sense of freedom pulsated through his entire being as he became aware he could at last walk away from that hellish place.
It’s not a prison, one guard had told him, four years ago on his first day of incarceration. A brick tomb for your mind, maybe, but not a prison.
Built a century ago as an asylum for the insane, for a moment in time it gained prison status. This home for the deranged was now known as “the hospital”. Regardless of classification, it stood as a red-brick monument to the darker side of the human psyche. A mansion for those with broken minds to be studied, and a vault to lock away the toxic effluent of British society. A place for the instigators of real-world nightmares to lay their malevolent heads, to rest, and to plan for a day when they might be unleashed once more. Jason held to the belief, then as now, that his actions should not have entitled him to a room at the hospital.
The last four years of his life had to be written off, but at last he had his freedom back, and for this blissful moment he felt human again. He tried to hold on to this mood of serenity for as long as possible, but it soon gave way to a more familiar feeling of stagnant anger—a monster in all but visceral form.
The monster had been his constant companion for the last four years, taunting his confused waking thoughts and whispering to him through the cracks of his diseased dreams. His mind had become a chaotic maelstrom of disjointed memories and uncontrollable emotions, a boiling caldron of absolute love for his daughter, Emily, mixed with violent hatred for his wife, Zoe. They were once the ingredients that gave his life substance and meaning, until his wife became the poison that brought death and psychological destruction to their door.
These memories spun on an unrelenting loop and always showed the same unbearable scenes: Emily’s blood-glazed eyes looking back at him from her tiny broken skull and Zoe’s throat being ripped open by his own hands.
“Now, you have nothing,” she said with her last breath.
While in the hospital, these turbulent thoughts always brought him to the edge of emotional paralysis, where he teetered until plied with enough drugs to drag him back from the brink.
Although his decaying sanity had been explained to him many times by the various doctors, he couldn’t understand why imprisonment resulted from his actions. Yes, he had killed her. He had murdered his wife in a barbaric way. There was no question about what he had done, and he hadn’t tried to argue otherwise. But, in his mind she had to die: he had justification for murder; the barbarism of the act was unfortunate but incidental. There was no madness guiding his hands.
The judge and jury hadn’t seen things the same way though. For doing what he thought had to be done, he received an indefinite number of years of psychiatric evaluation at the hospital. This involved daily cocktails of brain-dissolving drugs, until he became as docile as roadkill, and hours upon unending hours of talking it through until his brain became numb. As if there was a mystery to what had happened. There was no mystery, and there was no insanity either; his wife had killed his daughter, so he had killed her. Being sent to a prison for the insane was the only mystery.
“Not a prison, Mr Drake, it’s a hospital,” recalled another voice from the past.
“Well, you bastards, I’m out now, and with my brain still intact.” He enjoyed the warm summer sun as it continued to kiss his face, while a light breeze caressed his skin with soft undulating honeysuckle hands. He opened his eyes and tried to focus. Darkness dissolved into a blurry mass of flickering lights. His eyesight registered a meaningful vista as colour and definition filled out the scene before him.
A tree, he thought. A handsome old tree.
He watched the graceful branches of the old oak swaying in a hypnotic soiree with the passing light wind. Sporadic clumps of leaves fluttered in excited pulses as they vied for the affections of the radiant sun.
He took in a deep breath, and then exhaled with slow, practised control.
In with the good and out with the bad, as one of his hippy-drippy doctors used to say whenever Zoe became the topic of conversation. The mere mention of her name always ignited a fire in him, and that fire always became an inferno. The doctor used to cut his angry outbursts short with various words of psychiatric babble. No, he would say, take control of your emotions. Mark the bad ones and then flush them away with a cleansing breath. In with the good, Jason, and out with the bad. Clean and pure in, diseased and rotten out. Clean and pure… Clean and pure…
The doctor’s voice faded from his mind as his gaze fell upon a scattered patchwork of beautiful flowers. The flowers flaunted themselves to the eager bees, which hovered and flew between the colourful nectar-rich landing pads. He watched as Mother Nature’s perfect story played out before him. For a moment, he became a child again, with his senses wide open to let the wonder take hold. Spectacular flora stood proud on a thick carpet of lush green grass, a banquet of colour bowing with majestic elegance in the lazy breeze as a rippling ocean of evening dew sparkled off into the hazy distance.
He had a sudden urge to rip off his clothes and run naked through the long grass, laughing as he jumped about like a madman. He smiled to himself instead. “Time to move on good buddy,” he told himself. He surveyed his surroundings, deciding where to go from here.
The picturesque English countryside extended out in front of him. Far-reaching fields rose and fell with the elegance of feminine curves, while low-hanging trees beckoned him to come and explore. As he walked, he saw explosions of colourful bloom erupting at random points throughout the landscape. A bright spectrum of roses announced themselves to his senses. The vivacious colours enticed his eyes, while potent aromas enthralled his nostrils.
Emily would have liked this, he thought. She loved playing with the flowers, making buttercup bracelets and daisy chain necklaces, causing a fright, from time to heart-stopping time, when she stroked the furry little bees. Stripy bears with wings, she used to call them. Emily had been a spirited six-year-old and fearless in her innocent little adventures.
An energetic robin flew past with its beak clamped around a juicy, fat worm. Jason presumed it made for a twig-woven home and imagined the hungry mouths jostling for the wriggling food dropping from above. Rabbits hopped here and there, deliberating on which tufts of grass were the freshest, unconcerned by this new creature strolling through their domain.
His shoe clipped a congregation of ripe puffball dandelions as he passed, sending their cargo of seeds on an accommodating wind. The tiny carefree fairies ascended in an exquisite spin, shimmering as they danced towards the cloudless sky.
He felt a slight sense of unease. At first he couldn’t understand why. Everything looked so perfect, but the nagging voice inside his head continued to fret. There were no houses, cars or roads. There were no signs of civilisation at all. Anxiety crept into him.
Although retaining a relative measure of English country charm, he knew the town beyond the hospital’s walls had had its fair share of twenty-first-century urban sprawl. He had seen the evidence for the human virus from the windows of the prison van on his journey to the hospital all those years ago. The sky should also be criss-crossed by the ethereal scars of aviation. He remembered watching the many planes fly over from the small window of his cell. But the evidence, or lack thereof, remained clear to his eyes. Apart from the repugnant wall behind, obscuring the psychiatric tomb beyond, there were no cars, houses or roads. And the firmament hung unmolested, save for the resplendent sun melting into the smouldering horizon. As long as he didn’t look back towards the wall, he could be forgiven for thinking he was the only person in a world where people never existed.
He continued strolling across the uncut sea of green, dismissing his itch of unease and feeling sure the peace would be broken soon enough by the human irritation. To hell with the whys and wherefores of my solitude, he thought. Don’t know and don’t care to understand. “I could do with a pint, though,” he remarked to another passing robin. “That would be the cherry on top.”
The field descended into a shallow valley, and Jason caught sight of a cottage on the level ground at the bottom. Not just a cottage, he soon realised, but a cottage pub. He quickened his pace.
As he drew nearer to the pub, his delight grew as he observed its rustic nature: a single-storey cottage with white stucco walls and a thick dark grey thatched roof, with a smoking chimney protruding through the thatch. On an evening like this, he wondered, it must be baking in there. Two large windows formed the happy eyes of the pub, each flanked by dark wooden shutters. In the centre, positioned between the two windows, hung a large wooden door. He strained through squinted eyes to see the name of this gladdening sight, which was on a sign hanging from the left corner just below the thatch. He was still too far away to read it. It’s an old country pub, he thought. It’s perfect, whatever its name may be.
When married life was still a happy affair—a faded memory that may never have been so—he enjoyed dragging Zoe around dusty old second-hand shops. Old photographs were his quarry, simple snapshots of chocolate-box cottages just like the one standing before him now. He framed and adorned the walls of his own modest home with these pictures. “One day, babe,” he used to say to his wife each time he balanced a new picture upon the wall. Make enough money to move to the country; that was the plan before it all turned to shit.
He stopped next to a rusted iron bench, its wooden seating beams long since rotted away. This must be the beer garden, he mused. He looked up at the sign and marvelled at the painted image upon the wooden board. It looked more like a work of art than a simple pub sign.
A naked and beautiful woman stood in a graceful yet strong pose, with a large snake entwined around her goddess-like curves—as if the two were sharing an intimate, almost erotic, dance. The woman’s fiery red hair was hanging down in long loose curls, reaching just below her alluring waist. Jason felt his penis twitch.
He read the name inscribed on the wood, just below the picture:
Perfect, he thought. Would Lilith be behind the bar, ready to pour his drinks with a flirtatious smile and a seductive glint in her eyes? He laughed to himself. At least I’ll be able to get that drink.