“You probably can’t tell just by looking at me,” said Rafaela, “but I’m kind of an expert on mental health institutions.”
The diaphanous, yet sturdy form of a hospital orderly in front of her did not speak; it just crept forward, pretending not to be a threat.
“It’s subtle, to be sure,” she explained, “but your scrubs and badge are from the twenty-first century. The Ridges Asylum closed in 1993, so this means you’re not an actual resident. Am I right?”
The specter’s next steps were bolder.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she continued, “and neither am I. Why don’t we just go our separate ways and pretend this never happened?”
It crouched and spread its arms like an American football player.
She flinched. “Look, if your purpose is to spook me, then well done. You found my sore spot, okay. Bravo.” Rafaela could not overstate the truth of this. Since she’d arrived at the shuttered Athens Mental Health Institute, she’d comforted the disoriented, frightened ghosts of the cemetery outside, confronted the murderers exiled to graves on the far side of nearby creek, and strolled casually through the dark rooms in the basement where secretive, questionable treatments had been inflicted upon the ill. And yet it wasn’t until she crossed into Ward N. 20 that it occurred to her to be afraid. “So, if it’s okay with you,” she concluded, “I’m just going to run away now.”
Apparently, this wasn’t okay, because it lunged.
Sidestepping, she admitted, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” While it recovered its balance, she fled, muttering the word Crap! every time her feet hit the floor. After charging up all of the staircases until she ran out of them, she ducked through a random door to catch her breath.
“Be cool, dude,” she panted. “You punched a wendigo once. You out-riddled a troll. This is just an imaginary dumbass in comfortable shoes.”
“Do you habitually speak of yourself in the third person,” asked someone else in the room, “or do you have an invisible accomplice you’re addressing?”
“Fuck!” shrieked Rafaela. As soon as her heart restarted, she added, “I don’t care if you’re a ghost or not! You do not do that to a girl!”
“I’m not a ghost,” the voice replied.
Rafaela scanned the floor, which was decorated with the vague imprint of a human’s body. “Were you the shadowy figure watching me from this window earlier tonight?”
“Is your name Margaret Schilling?”
“Then I hate to be the one to tell you this, Margaret,” Rafaela said sadly, “but you passed away in 1978, and it’s two thousand…” She frowned. “Why would you tell me you’re not Margaret Schilling?”
Black hair, smug eyes, crimson lips, crisp jeans, and the most stylish of blouses drifted into the moonlight. The lean, delicate young woman rested a hand on her impatiently cocked hip and replied, “Because my name is Regina de Costa, though many have taken to calling me Gina, despite my protestations.”
Rafaela squeaked, “What the hell?”
“Gina is the diminutive of Regina,” she explained condescendingly, “a fact that should be obvious.”
Gina’s pride fell from her face like an imploding building. “Raffi?”
“What are you doing here?”
It took some time for Gina to process this. “I sought a ghost,” she said. “Apparently I’ve found one.”
Rafaela shrugged. “They are everywhere around here.”
“I was referring to you.”
“I’m not dead,” she told her. “Yet. As far as I know.”
“I’m speaking metaphorically,” Gina replied, “as a commentary on your sudden, unexplained absence from my life.”
“Gee,” she sighed, “that was almost ten years ago. I was eighteen; you were eleven. Seems like a long time to be pissed off.”
“My grudge exists in proportion to the challenges I faced without your correspondence,” Gina told her. “I don’t think you’re aware of how much your guidance sustained me during my tenure at the school in the cave.”
“Are you serious?” Rafaela snorted. “You honestly believe I don’t know what that place is like?”
“What I’m saying is that your experience was similar enough to mine that I expected, at the least, a modicum of empathy.”
With a deep breath, Rafaela asked, “Did Aunt Helena ever tell you why my parents resigned from the corporation?”
“Mother never spoke of it,” she replied.
“The school broke me, Regina.” Rafaela forced herself to remain calm. “I made it three years; that’s it. Not even halfway. I was hospitalized until I was fourteen. I guess I just didn’t have the stomach for it.”
“Why was this never brought to my attention?”
“Why would it be?” Rafaela asked. “You were a toddler.”
“I mean, afterwards,” she clarified. “When I was old enough?”
“A Torres had never dropped out before,” Rafaela told her. “Period. Imagine how much sympathy Grandfather had for me.”
Gina curled her lip without a word and nodded.
“I needed help, and there aren’t a lot of options available for dropouts, so Mom and Dad said ‘Screw it’ and left. I started writing you when you were old enough to go to school, because I didn’t want you to be alone.” She shrugged. “Frankly, I’m surprised my letters got through. I’m kind of an embarrassment.”
“I’m sorry,” whispered Gina.
Rafaela cleared her throat. “‘So what brings you here?’ asked Raffi, changing the subject.” She waited for Gina’s gaze return to the present before continuing, “Did Aunt Helena send you?”
“Mother and I haven’t exchanged words in months,” she replied.
Rafaela blinked. “That’s unexpected.”
“No one is more surprised than I.”
“I’ll be blunt:” Rafaela told her; “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“Is that so?”
“When you set aside hormones, mental illness, and counter-culture,” she confessed, “I stopped writing because I thought you were kind of conformy.”
“Conformy isn’t a word.”
“What can I say?” Rafaela grinned. “I’m a rebel. Linguistically even.”
She watched Gina fight back a smile. “Your wardrobe confirms this,” she said.
Rafaela glanced down at her trademark yellow blouse, green tie, and orange sweater vest. “It’s my look, man!”
“Indeed.” Gina smirked. “I have to inquire about the state of your hair.”
Fingering a silver lock, Rafaela said, “I flunked out of school, remember?
“I wasn’t aware this was a consequence.”
“You never told me what you’re doing here, Gee.”
Gina lowered her gaze to the shape on the floor. “Decades ago, Margaret Schilling left the safety of the institution below for this room. She froze to death in this room, naked and alone.
“Last summer, I abandoned the comfort and consistency of home in the name of curiosity. Of late, I’ve been questioning the wisdom of my choice. I sought out the only one I feel might sympathize with my plight.”
“You know what?” asked Rafaela. “I have a better idea.”
“And that is?”
“On the other side of this door, I’m being stalked by something in the form of something else I can’t deal with,” she informed her. “If you can get me out of this building–which, as a graduate of the school in the cave, I’m positive you can–then you can share this bag of weed I’m carrying and talk to an actual living being about your identity crisis.”
“I’ve never consumed cannabis,” Gina confessed.
“You don’t know what you’re missing. So let’s stop wasting time; you have some baking to do.”
“I assume baking is a euphemism for–”
Rafaela smiled at her cousin. “You are such a square, Gee.”