The pearl-white halls of Bellevue Insane Asylum had a polished cleanliness to them. Only the faintest whiff of ammonia and wet mop hinted at underlying dirt and grime.
Eyes rolling, the doctor side-stepped the patch of hallway where a patient’s greasy vomit was being wiped down. What are they feeding them now? he wondered. Covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve, he motioned for an orderly to hurry, pointing to a gray blob they’d missed. Erstwhile, a nurse tied back her scarlet hair and pulled out a large spray bottle of air freshener, diligently perfuming the scene with flowers.
Looking down at his Rolex, the psychiatrist saw he was running behind later than usual. He quickened his pace, still careful where he walked lest he encounter further unexpected messes. In a place like this, one could never be too sure there weren’t more spills hidden just a step away.
“Ava,” he greeted warmly, smiling broadly with his arms outstretched as he stepped into his office. “So sorry to have kept you waiting.” How many years had passed? Eight? The small-framed girl barely fit on the seat cushion, yet she looked the same as when she had entered at nine. The doctor shook off déjà-vu.
His friendly greeting was met only with prolonged silence and the occasional sniffle.
“Er, are you eating well?” he managed to ask, filling the uneasy space with words. What a terrible question to ask, he realized, gagging slightly as he remembered the aftermath of spilled gruel he had seen. He shuffled paperwork between his hands. Suddenly, his collar felt tight. He loosened it a bit and caught another unpleasant whiff of ammonia and flowers.
“When can I leave?” the girl finally spoke quietly with a tone loud enough to be heard over the rustling of papers.
“My dear child, you cannot,” he said, frowning. Setting aside the papers, he peered down at her sternly. “You can’t ever leave. You need treatment.” The hospital has bills to pay. Your parents want you here.
The girl’s eyes glistened with tears, but her lashes kept them trapped in place—just as she was.
“Well, I do suppose there is one thing.” The doctor’s voice softened at the moisture dewing around the girl’s face as he handed her a tissue. “Before your grandfather passed, he left you an item.” Rummaging through his pocket, he pulled out a small, silver compact. “There, there, I thought this might cheer you up . . .”
After placing it gently in the girl’s palms, he left with discretion. He motioned the passing nurses away to give her a moment.
The girl hung her head while grasping the only thing tethering her to the outside world. Tears finally fell like raindrops on her arms. She wiped them back to protect the gift, a last token from the only person she was sure had ever truly loved her.
For a moment, she sat motionless, lost in thought. While turning over the compact in her hands, she noticed it was emblazoned with the words: For my darling, whom I wish the world to see. As she traced her fingertips over the edges of the lettering, the mirror began to glow with a faint light.
Eyes widening, she gently snapped open the latch. Her grandfather, the famous inventor, had given her a magical portal to the world. Lettering scrolled across the screen, welcoming her to look through the mirror’s portal via her voice-activated command.
“Sky,” she whispered. Birds fluttered across the sky.
“Earth,” she whispered. Large stretches of lush green hill side with broccoli-like tree tops displayed.
“Sea,” she whispered. A blue-green ocean brimming with foam and sea life appeared.
“School,” she whispered, and a list of universities appeared.
“High school,” she clarified.
Hesitating for a moment, the local school finally displayed. Zooming in, she watched the students exit classes. It was a live feed. Some went to the field. A few played soccer. One made a goal. Placing her hand on the screen, the mirror zoomed in.
A detailed profile appeared.
Name: Alec Albright
She blushed. He was cute. A history of all his online records appeared: Facebook streams, Instagram feeds . . . and what was this? There was a link to a website, a dating service with his name right on it. A thought occurred to her that made her blush even deeper. Even if she couldn’t be on the outside, that didn’t mean she couldn’t be a part of it from the inside.
Hands fumbling, she created an account for herself wondering if this would get her in trouble.
Alec looked at his worn leather wallet. It was empty again except for a small handwritten receipt.
I. O. U
The twenty there this morning had disappeared.
Great. Thanks a lot, Dylan. His thought as his stomach growled.
“Don’t worry about it, bro.” Jackson, his soccer pal, tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a credit card. “I got you.”
“Thanks, man. I’ll pay you back . . .”
Jackson nodded with a sigh and gritted teeth as he looked away. “Nah.”
Meanwhile, at home, Alec’s brother typed speedily on the keyboard. A few more keystrokes and Hire a Friend would be up and running for business. The dating service was a solid idea and only required twenty dollars to get started.
Thumbing through photos on the computer drive, he found one taken last year of his brother and him standing side by side, each with an arm around the other’s neck. Although they’d grown to be almost the same height, he still looked up to his brother in this photo. His brother’s lean, tan arm held a soccer ball while his own pale arm carried—of all things—a cracked TI-83 graphing calculator.
Hesitating for only a moment, he began to crop himself out until just an arm around his brother’s neck was visible.
The computer blinked with a message: Upload complete.
Unexpectedly, the door to the house opened and slammed shut, and his brother called his name. Dylan had just enough time to close his laptop, whip out an old math textbook, and slide on some headphones.
“What happened to my lunch money?” Alec yelled.
Dylan shrugged and smiled. Alec stormed off. Meanwhile, the first registrant had appeared. Dylan quickly opened the laptop and began to type.