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Numbers Game

Anne Catherick isn’t crazy. She can’t be crazy. Crazy is when person can’t see reality—or simply refuses to see it—through a haze that fogs every thought and observation. Anne, however, can see things quite clearly. That has never been a matter of concern or confusion for her. It was what lay beyond the surface that tugged and pulled at the innumerable threads running through her mind. Patterns and shapes and sequences that somehow surrounded everyone, but were only visible to her. It was this gift which Anne’s mother deemed a curse, sentencing her to a medical imprisonment within the four walls and 4,517 square meters of the Hampstead Sanatorium.

Unlike the facility’s other fifty-two patients, she and seven others who’d been deemed ‘a risk to themselves’ were housed in a hall dubbed the Watch Wing. In place of a front facing wall inset with a two by four meter steel door, their cells were adorned with eight metal bars, each approximately ten centimeters in diameter. It was supposedly for their own protection, although Anne found that notion to be cruelly absurd. The facility itself was the greatest threat to her well being. She was a healthy nine and a half stone upon entering the asylum nine years, seven months, and two weeks ago. Since then, she’d been gradually reduced to a frail ghost of her former self. Malnutrition certainly played a part in her deterioration, as did anxiety and depression born of crushing boredom. There were only so many times you could count a room’s 180 tiles.

Did any of the facility’s twenty-three staff members actually expect her mind and body to thrive in this environment? Or did they simply hope for her to wear down into a docile, compliant slug? That certainly appeared to be the goal of her treatments, of which daily lithium injections played an integral role. The piggish brutes who forcibly administered it were also charged with monitoring Anne and the rest of the Watch Wing for all 1,140 minutes of each day—at least, that’s what they were supposed to be doing.

Her warden tonight was Lewis Stanton, an orderly at Hampstead for five of his forty-two years. Approximately two meters tall and eighteen stone. Weak left knee. Very strong, but not fast. An unlikely combination of laziness and aggression. Most of this knowledge was gained from simple observation. When a man routinely holds you down on the floor so that foreign chemicals can be forced inside your body, you can’t help but learn some things about him. But Anne knew other things, too. Things she shouldn’t have known, like that Lewis killed his older brother when they were children and his family never found out. Perhaps it was something he muttered in his sleep after the staff went home and he and sat down in his chair and nodded off. Lewis did that a lot. Anne often struggled to discern whether she was asleep or dreaming, but she couldn’t help but be acutely aware of Lewis’ slumber on account of his snoring. The only time he stayed awake for his entire shift (10:00 PM to 6:00 AM) was if he happened to see a rat. Lewis had a crippling fear of rodents. Anne, on the other hand, found them to be quite adorable. That’s why she was so excited to finally catch one last week. She named it Percy, which was funny to her for some reason, but she couldn’t remember why.

Hiding Percy was easy at first. Then he began to speak. Anne knew that wasn’t normal. Rats aren’t supposed to talk. But when a rat starts speaking to you, you can’t just ignore it and pretend it’s not happening. Ignoring what you can plainly see and clearly hear is crazy. So Anne listened. Percy told her that the combination to the lock on her cell was 0-8-20-18-9-0. The sanatorium didn’t use keys because those could be taken. Combinations, however, had to be remembered, and no one expected crazy people to do that, especially those like Anne who’d been sent to the Watch Wing.

But Anne remembered everything, including the series of numbers Percy had been whispering in her ear every night for the last three days. She knew, of course, that there was no way a rat could know this. But after Anne waited for Lewis to fall asleep and tried the lock, it worked. Her excitement at this discovery was tempered by its source. If the lock hadn’t worked, she could have written off Percy’s revelation as yet another side effect of the chemicals coursing through her veins. Despite her steadily growing tolerance to them, they still managed to pulse and rage between her ears when sleep refused to come. There were also other things besides lithium being injected into her, as well. Chemicals that dulled her senses and caused the patterns which normally filled her world to melt into sludge. But the sequence spoken from between Percy’s clacking teeth and furry jaws had been correct. The lock had opened.

The more Anne thought about it, the more she realized (and hoped) that Percy himself might be just another symptom. A space between their hold over her mind and a stronger tolerance, revealing the patterns she once saw with such clarity through its presently cracked lens. Perhaps she’d simply counted the lock clicks when the orderlies opened her door. She’d used to be able to do things like that with ease. Predict a person’s location based on their stride and speed. Use probable outcomes to guess which shell the marble was hiding under. Determine the thread count of a dress her mother had just sewn based on length and width of its wearer. Numbers had always come easy to Anne. But little girls weren’t supposed to love numbers, much less obsess about them and dream about them and see them in every single corner of universe. Had she been a boy, her compulsive need to count and calculate everything around her would have been seen as a bizarre strength—or at worst, the cross of a tortured genius to bear. Instead, she was deemed unwell, unfit, and undesired, sentenced to a life of dulled senses in a four by four meter room with a floor to ceiling distance of—

“Anne? Are you awake?”

It was Percy—or rather the voice her mind had constructed for him. Anne ignored it. That raspy, high-pitched voice frightened her. Every word whispered from that rodent’s mouth was further proof that her sanity may be irrevocably lost.

“I know you can hear me,” Percy continued. “You listened when I told you how to open the lock. Why refuse to give me an audience now?”

“Because you are nothing but a figment of this wretched place!” Anne hissed. “I do acknowledge that I can hear you, much as it pains me to admit such foolishness. But I will not be forced to converse with you past this point!”

Anne huffed and rolled over. She could still feel Percy’s eyes still boring into her. He made few squeaking noises before speaking again.

“If you wish to get away from me, then why don’t you leave? You opened the lock. Why not simply flee as fast as your feet will allow?”

“Because that would not be prudent,” Anne replied. She was not speaking to Percy now, but to herself. Fleeing had been her first instinct when the lock clicked and pulled apart, but her mind was still sharp enough to know that the average time of two minutes and thirty-three seconds between guard shifts that she used to test it was not a large enough window. She’d wait for just the right moment. For the last few lingering medical staff members to leave. For the twenty-four lights leading down the sixty-two meter main hallway to be shut off, leaving only the three lights above her cell’s twenty meter side hallway on. And most importantly, for Lewis to doze off and begin snoring.

Anne waited in silence. To her great relief, Percy remained quiet, as well. Forty-three minutes and eighteen seconds later, a familiar sound rumbled from Lewis’ chair, like a steam train mixed with a freshly stoked fire. It was time.

Anne put on her Hampstead issued slippers and edged off the bed. She grabbed Percy, as well, mostly as insurance against the sixty-seven percent probability that Lewis would wake up at the sound of the lock unlatching (the man could sleep through own his snoring, but not much else). It was also in part to make sure damn rodent didn’t start talking again and give her away. As Anne wound the lock to its first notch, she chastised herself for having such a foolish concern. Lewis wouldn’t be able to hear Percy. Only she could hear Percy.

“He’s going to hear you,” Percy mumbled from beneath her sleeve. “The lock is quite loud when it comes undone. You must be prepared to—

CLICK!

The lock fell open, springing so hard that it nearly leapt from Anne’s palm. Her relief at catching the device before it clanged against was blasted apart by a loud snort. Lewis’ head whipped up off his chest and turned in her direction. The door had already swung open by then, leaving only ten empty meters between them. Anne instinctively flinched back, then stopped and straightened to her full height. She’d planed for this. Lewis lurched off his seat, sputtering and pointing with a wordless command to retreat to her cell. His first stride, made with his right foot, covered three meters. The next covered less than two.

Weak left knee.

Anne bolted forward. Lewis’ face tightened in surprise, but his body continued toward her. Once there was approximately a meter of space between them, she kicked out with her right leg, applying every bit of force her foot could manage against his left kneecap. Lewis yelped and crumpled to the floor. The hand he’d been reaching for her with smacked against the ground, propping him up before the rest of his bulk could collapse beneath him. Anne waited for two seconds, making sure that his face was facing hers when he started to get up, then flung her left arm forward. Percy flew through the air and landed on Lewis’ face. The guard squealed and reeled backwards. Less than a second later, he began to scream, attaining an octave of protest and dismay that Anne thought wouldn’t have been possible for a man his size. She past him down the hall, refusing to allow herself to look back.

Behind her, the seven other patients on her wing had begun screaming, as well. Some with a tone of understandable shock at such a disruption to their routine. Others carried a timbre of genuine madness, imitating the only clear sound they’d heard in months. None of them deserved this place. But this was Anne’s only chance—or at least the best she’d ever had. The probability of catching a rat again—any rat at all—was less than ten percent. But the probability of catching a rat that remained in her cell with her while acting as a conduit for the fractured workings of her formerly agile mind was—

Stop. No time for these thoughts. She had to leave.

Thirty-four steps took her to the end of the Watch Wing to the main hallway. It was quieter here, although some of the fifty-two patients had begun pounding on the inside of their padded doors. They’d no doubt heard the screams echoing from her wing, as would the other two orderlies. Anne shuffled out of the light glowing behind her and into the dark. It had been seven months, one week, and four days since she’d last had an opportunity to count the steps from her present location to the front entrance. She couldn’t remember the exact number, but even her best estimate was doomed to inaccuracy. Her stride was different now, faster, hitching, and not at all consistent.

After passing the tenth set of doors before the infirmary wing, Anne’s right foot snagged on her white robe. She pitched forward and landed almost immediately in a set of warm, hairless arms. The scented aftershave revealed who it was before she even saw him. Barnabus ‘Barney’ Lector. Thirty-nine years old. Similar size and weight to Lewis, but more solid. Much kinder, too. He’d often had to help hold Anne down during her twice-daily injections, but never seemed to relish the act. He also asked how she was feeling an average of three times a week, which was exponentially more than even the doctors and nurses managed.

“Easy there, Ms. Catherick,” he said, propping her back up onto his right arm. “What are you doing out of bed and out here in the hall? And what’s all the commotion back there about?”

She felt guilty lying to Barney, but there was no other choice. “It was awful, Mr. Barney! Mr. Lewis came into my cell—

“He came into your cell? At this hour?”

Barney stared hard at Anne. Either he didn’t believe her, or he was considering the possibility that Lewis might actually do something untoward with a patient. They both knew that Lewis was not a particularly good man, but he and the other staff were very well compensated. Enough so that taking physical liberties with the patients was a risk most weren’t willing to take. The few who did weren’t likely try it with patients on the Watch Wing. That was what her mother had explained the last time she came to visit four years, seven months, and three days ago. It was the closest she’d shown to a sentiment resembling concern for her daughter—which was of course followed up by a pointed recitation of what it cost to put her in this place she never wanted to be. 2 pounds a day for food, another five for treatment, multiplied at regular intervals of—

“Ms. Catherick?”

Anne blinked, then reminded eyes to widen when she spoke. “I think he was coming in to give me my morning injection early. It seemed odd, but I wasn’t sure. Before Lewis got to my bed, though, the poor man grabbed his chest, fell, and began that dreadful screaming. I know I’m not supposed to leave my room, but I had to find someone so he wouldn’t die right there in front of me!”

Barney considered her statement for approximately four seconds before his face softened from a questioning glare into a nod. “Okay, Ms. Catherick. I’m glad you came to find me. Let’s get you back in your room and get Lewis to the infirmary.”

Anne clutched Barney’s arm and stepped into him. He responded by relaxing his hold on her shoulders, seemingly convinced that she wanted to follow him. After taking seven steps back toward the Watch Wing (four and a half for Barney), she released her grip and bolted back the other way. Barney shouted something, but the blood pumping in her ears muddled the words. Footsteps clacked loudly behind her, which made Anne run even harder. Judging by the interval of Barney’s foot falls and her current rate of speed, Anne deduced that he would catch up to her within ten seconds. She’d planned for this, though. Not to fall into Barney’s arms, of course, but to be near the infirmary wing when she made it past his station. It wasn’t an ideal exit, but neither was the front entrance—certainly not now that she’d been spotted.

Anne rounded the corner and pulled herself behind the infirmary door. Just as she’d noted during her eleven visits there during the last four months, it was unlocked. She slammed the door shut and turned the deadbolt just as Barney barreled into it, rattling the entire frame. When she turned around, she found herself facing two men locked in an embrace and doing something she had often spied her mother doing with a man who she knew was not her father. They unlocked their lips and turned, staring back at Anne while Barney pounded his fist on the other side of the door.

On the left was Robert Becker. Approximately 175 centimeters tall and thirteen stone. Blond hair. Fair complexion. Far and away the most physically attractive staff member by anyone’s standard. In his arms was Logan O’Brien. Approximately 155 centimeters tall and fourteen stone. A fiery demeanor that matched his blazing orange hair. Anne had expected to possibly need to sneak by Robert, but not to encounter him inside the infirmary. His station was ten meters from the front entrance. And she certainly hadn’t anticipating finding him with O’Brien, whose shift had always ended no later than 9:00 PM during the three years, six months, two weeks, and four days he’d been at Hampstead. These were startling variables in the otherwise predicted order of things.

But so was she.

Anne screamed and charged forward. Robert froze in place, eyes wide with a shock of disbelief and fear. Logan turned to face her. She shifted her weight towards the Irishman and lunged. He opened his arms and spread his legs to catch her, forgetting to protect the one area the male staff members were usually very cognizant of guarding while restraining a patient. Logan did not notice how exposed and still substantially erect he was until Anne’s right foot connected with his groin. He howled and went down, knocking over a cart of medical supplies his arms flailed out behind him. His right foot caught Anne’s robe and pulled her down, as well. She landed hard next to the toppled supply cart. A sharp pain sliced through her hand as it slapped the ground in front of her. She looked to see what she’d landed on. Medical scissors. She grabbed them and rolled over just in time to see that Robert had regained his wits and was shuffling towards her. He yanked her up off the floor and into his chest. Before the man could speak, Anne jabbed the instrument beneath his neck, drawing a small drop of blood and halting his voice.

“Say another word, make another move, and river of red will flow from your flesh. Let me go. If you do not, I will gut you right here without pity or remorse.”

Robert nodded and released his grip. Anne backed away, careful not to trip over Logan, who was still groaning and writhing on the floor. She backed up, edging her way down the short hall behind them until her shoulders pressed against the infirmary exit. Robert continued to stare at her as she opened the door and slid behind it. She quickly closed the door and slid the scissors through the outside latch, effectively locking it from the outside. It wouldn’t stop Robert or the other guards from chasing her, but they would have to use the front entrance now, which was at least thirty more seconds away. Factor in the trauma caused to Lewis and Logan—along with Robert’s likely desire not to reveal that he was away from his post and in the infirmary with Logan—and she might have given herself even more time

Anne was still considering this when the realization struck just how fast her feet were moving. She didn’t even remember starting to run, but didn’t dare stop now, continuing to sprint across the dew stained grass and mud surrounding the asylum. Thirty seconds and 127 steps later, she was forced to stop. Her heart was beating so hard that it felt as though it might explode. She tried to count the beats, but quickly lost track. Her breathing was so sharp that it’d become impossible to focus on anything else.

One breath, two breaths, three—

Anne dropped to her knees, partly out of physical pain and partly from the wave of emotion flooding her senses. Her heart felt like it was coiling in on itself, twisting like a vice around the ventricles and shooting a pain up her left arm. It was terrible, but also paled in comparison to the wonderful sensation tingling up her spine. She’d been outside on rare occasions during her time at Hampstead, but never without a guard and never of her own volition. But now here she was, taking free steps and breathing free air.

Anne gasped, pulling oxygen and tears back inside her. She had to keep moving. The guards would no doubt call the authorities, embarrassment and personal injury not withstanding. They stood to lose far more from a patient escaping under their watch. She forced herself up, still clutching her violently knotting chest, and pressed forward, counting steps and estimating distance the whole way. Her soil slippers eventually found purchase on cobblestone, itself connected to an intersection of familiar looking streets.

“Limmerage,” Anne whispered. “I’m in Limmerage, which means I am not far from London.”

That was where she needed to go. For now, at least. A large city with plenty of places and people to hide her. A village like Limmerage was much too small and too close to Hampstead. The authorities surely would make their way here first. With this being the closest village to the facility, a perimeter search was unlikely. Moving at an estimated pace of one and a half times her average rate of travel, then they would arrive in Limmerage by…by….

Anne’s thoughts and calculations were interrupted by the sight of a man walking alone in her direction. He was well dressed, like one would to meet another for dinner. He did not appear to have a particular destination in mind, as evidenced by his small strides and non-purposeful demeanor. He also looked kind. Anne wasn’t sure how or why she felt this way about a person whom she’d never met. Perhaps it was because he was the first person she’d encountered since escaping the asylum. His heart very well might be cruel, but she didn’t think so. He seemed like someone who may be willing help, or at least point her in the right direction to London. It was a determination based on nothing more than a feeling. No calculations. No formulas. Just her heart, which had finally slowed enough that it no longer hurt.

Anne could tell that the man saw her now. How could he not? She was dressed all in white, which had always been her favorite color. It represented a completely blank slate, both devoid and full of every conceivable possibility. A canvas on which her mind could work at whatever feverish or languid pace it desired.

The man stepped toward her. Anne tried to calculate if his increased stride was indicative anything, then stopped. She would simply take the risk and speak to him. It would likely be one of many she’d take over the next few days. The price and reward for finally being free.


NBR7NafpliotisphotosmallNick Nafpliotis is a music teacher and writer from Charleston, South Carolina. During the day, he instructs students from the ages of 11-14 on how to play band instruments. At night, he writes about weird crime, bizarre history, pop culture, and humorous classroom experiences on his blog, RamblingBeachCat.com. He is a television, novel, and comic book reviewer for AdventuresinPoorTaste.com. He can also be found on Twitter @NickNafster79, where he brings shame to his family on a daily basis.