By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. It was a gorgeous, searing, multicolored dance of flames tiptoeing along the branches; the blaze instantly made me forget about the windowless grey walls I had been staring at for the past four years. The trees must have combusted from the rays of gold filtering through the cotton candy clouds in the midday sky, I thought. Distant glimmers from a river of honey caught my attention through the thin line of trunks, and I ran towards it in a haste lest the guards catch up with me.
Surely, as soon as I had reached the woods, they poured from the bleak and cold institution, dozens of them, desperately looking for me in the uniforms I had come to fear. I hid behind a tree, praying with all the strength in my heart the flames would surge and swallow them, shielding me from the men’s torture.
“Do you think she ran to the woods?”
“No way. She could never cross the river on the other side, not with her straightjacket on.”
“Let’s try the gravel road.”
I watched as they ran away along the road and relief filled my heart. Freedom, at last. The grey rooms of torture were no more. Never again would they strap me to my bed. Never again would they put their probes over my body. Never again would they inject needles in my veins. All of this because they were jealous of me. They were envious of the way I saw the world, for secretly they wished they were able to see its beauty like I did. Where they saw grey, I saw rainbows exploding into glittering confetti, and they could not take this away from me.
She could never cross the river on the other side, not with her straightjacket on. This was a challenge, and it was accepted. I slid the bottom of my jacket around the lowest of the shortest sapling and pulled. It was tedious work, but I managed to escape the jacket from Hell. Moments later, I was swimming freely across the river of honey. I knew very well how to swim, for I remembered my days on the island, before Mother died.
We lived a carefree life back then. She had warned me early on about the outsiders.
“Always remember Jill,” she said. “Other people, they don’t understand the world. They can’t see what we see. They don’t want to see it. Always remember your freedom. It’s inside of you, waiting to break free.”
That can’t be, I thought. Why would anyone not want to see it? There was no greater joy for me at the time than to stare at the flowers as they talked to each other in the moonlight, telling each other stories whispered to them in times of yore by the night itself. I would swim around the island all day in the ocean nectar as the palm trees bowed to fan me, not thinking about the others in the slightest.
It all changed of course when mother died. They took her body away, and then took mine. Except I was still alive, or so I thought. During my days in the institution, there were times when I might as well not have been. In periods of darkness, I did as Mother said. I remembered my freedom, and waited for it to break free. The men and women in uniform pretended to be my family. I knew they weren't; this was not what family does.
That day, freedom did break free. I sneaked past the guards, escaped their clutches. There I was, swimming in honey, free at last, and it felt so good. Four years was a long time, but the wait was oh so worth it. I got to the wooded area on the opposite shore and ran between the trunks until I reached a clearing. There was a family there, a couple and their daughter, sitting on a gingham tablecloth with a wicker basket. They were enjoying a picnic. Together. A radio set blasted music, and the ten-year-old daughter danced enthusiastically, to the amusement of her parents. She tiptoed just like the flames along the branches. The flowers around me leaned forward to whisper to my ear.
“You should go say hello,” muttered the daisy. “I’m sure they would be glad to meet you.”
“Never!” exclaimed the lily. “They’re Others too. You can bet they’ll have you locked up in no time.”
“You can’t hide forever,” said the daisy. “Sooner or later, you’ll have to come out of these woods. It’s not a home.”
“She doesn’t have a home anymore,” objected the lily. “This is her new life now. A nomadic life.”
The flowers’ voices faded to background noise. I looked at the parents’ love for their daughter as they hugged her, and for the first time I knew envy too. While I was inside, I missed my freedom, for sure. Unbeknownst to me however, I also missed a family very dearly. The music abruptly stopped. A much colder voice now streamed from the radio set.
“We interrupt our regular programming for a breaking news broadcast,” the announcer explained. “Today at 1:42PM, a patient escaped from the Roxborough Institution in northern Woodbridge. The patient is female, Caucasian, five foot four, and is known to experience hallucinatory tendencies. If sighted, call the police immediately and avoid contact. The patient is not believed to be dangerous, but could cause harm to herself or others if feeling threatened.”
The Mother hurriedly turned off the radio.
“What was that all about mom?” asked the child.
“Nothing sweetheart,” she said with false conviction before turning to her husband. “I think the picnic is over.”
“Don’t worry baby,” the Father reassured her. “There’s nothing to worry about. It’s our last picnic of the year, we’ll probably have snow by next week. Might as well enjoy it.”
“Roxborough is awfully close James. It’s right there on the other side of the river.”
“What are the odds we meet this patient, really? They said it anyway, she’s probably not dangerous.”
“Probably. That’s the keyword.”
I backed away. The lily was right. I wasn’t welcome here. Just as I was about to head back into the woods, I saw something falling by my shoulder. It was a flame, a flame falling from a tree. I yelled and dashed out of the way, for I feared it would burn me. The family noticed my presence and feared something else entirely as they jumped to their feet and recoiled.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, I swear!”
It was too late. The Mother was already reaching for her phone, ready to call 911.
The daughter had taken the phone from her Mother’s hand.
“Jane, what are you doing?” she asked, scandalized. “Give me back that phone right now.”
“She’s not dangerous.”
The little girl turned the radio set back on and ran for me under her parents horrified stares. She took my hands and jumped up and down.
“Do you want to dance with me?” she asked with wide eyes.
I hesitated. The couple was clearly mortified. The sensible reaction would have been to run away while I could. I looked at the flowers by the edge of the woods again. The lily was silent, but the daisy rose and whispered.
“It’s your chance. Seize it. It’s inside of you, waiting to break free.”
Her words were enough. I danced with Jane, left and right, up and down. The parents’ concerns quickly faded. Perhaps this was what normality felt like. The flames still danced along the branches, except this time, I wasn’t dancing with them alone. We danced in tandem, as if both of us could see the glittering confetti swirling in circles at a dizzying speed all around.
By the time I stepped into the family’s car that afternoon, the flames were no more. I slept by Jane’s side on the way home. For the first time in four years, I had both freedom and family; a family I could trust. I accepted the Others, and the Others accepted me.