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THE LAST BREATH

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Sally Smithson’s husband died in the early hours of a Friday in the middle of June. Sally, now a widow, mused during the funeral that he must’ve been able to see the first rays of sunshine through the trees in this final moments, as he lay crushed under a fallen trunk. As one would suspect, Andrew Smithson was a lumberjack, as were most of the men in the small village. Sally and Andrew, just barely out of the newlyweds phase, had come here to make a life for themselves. A stable job and a cozy log home Andrew had built to raise their children in had all been crumpled up and tossed down a hole six feet under the dirt.

 

Now, Sally was alone. And to make things worse, she had no way of putting food on the table. She had no education, and no job opportunities. There was only one place for her to go.

 

Crotus Prenn Asylum had made a bit of a name for itself in the local community. A towering, gloomy structure that dominated the area of land Sally’s town was built on. It was a short walk away from her house, and close enough to be the place all the lunatics were carted away to from the big city. It was miserable work, and Crotus Prenn seemed to hire even the most uneducated to do work one would think only medical professionals would be qualified to do. They would hire just about anyone who applied -- including Sally.

 

Her first shift started at the stroke of midnight, and would end when the sun rose at six in the morning. It was a moment like this one that Sally would remember for a long time. She stood before the wrought-iron gates to the courtyard. Above the metal spokes on the top of the fences, the haunting glow of the moon traced the outline of the towering Crotus Prenn Asylum. For the first time, Sally felt a flicker. A burning realization that there was something much bigger than her, and it was staring down and watching her. She feared, for a short second, that the ground beneath her would open up into bloodshot eyes the size of her head, or that the stars would turn into pupils.

 

Sally pushed open the gates and the feeling was gone. 

 




August 15th, 1892

 

There was a dusty break room in the east corner of the main building, for employees to go during their breaks. Sally found it after an embarrassing amount of time wandering the corridors. Crotus Prenn wasn’t a huge place, and it definitely wasn’t the biggest asylum, but Sally found it to be a strange, tightly-packed labyrinth. It was like Crotus Prenn was floating in its own little pocket dimension. The halls were silent as a grave and the lights were weak and dull.

 

As she stepped into the breakroom, Sally was greeted by a stout woman with deep, olive skin and plain, brown hair under her starched, white cap. Her fidgety movements said she was clearly impatient, as she was intently watching the pocket watch in her hand. When Sally entered the room, the woman snapped it shut and fixed her with a beady stare.

 

“Well, you could’ve hurried a little quicker,” The woman deadpanned. Sally could see her face now, and could tell the woman was older than she was, maybe by ten years. This colleague was looking her up and down, assessing her with a harsh criticism, as if this was a job interview and she was Sally’s boss.

“Uhm,” she uttered, “My name’s Sally Smithson..” she said, without any other idea of what to do, she stuck out her hand.

 

The woman snorted indignantly at Sally’s extended hand and turned to pick up a clipboard off the nearby table.

“This is your list of responsibilities. Get them done before your shift is over.” 

 

Sally gingerly took the clipboard from the woman’s hand and quickly scanned it over. When she looked up the woman was gone, having already breezed through the door.

 

A very bewildered and nervous Sally inched into the hallway, peering down the long corridors for any sign of human life. Seeing nothing, she looked dejectedly down at the long bullet-point list on the clipboard and sighed.

 

“You must be Mrs. Smithson,” Sally just about jumped out of her skin and whirled around to see a man standing behind her. He was fairly tall, an older man, with a broad figure and a neatly trimmed, grey beard. Sally’s mouth hung open for an embarrassing moment while she gathered her words. She noticed, in that moment, that the man was dressed in an immaculately pressed suit, especially considering the hour, and how his smile pulled tauter as she stumbled over herself, as if he were dealing with a nervous child.

 

“Yes-- Yes I am, sir.” Sally finally replied. The man gave a slight nod of his head, “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Smithson-- or should I say Nurse Smithson. I’m Patrick Spencer, this asylum’s warden.” So this was the warden, Sally’s new boss. “I-It’s nice to meet you, sir. I’m happy to be working here.” She managed. Spencer gave an appreciative nod at that, and his gaze flicked down to the clipboard Sally now had clutched against her chest.

 

“Now, what’s this?” Spencer asked, pointing at the clipboard. Sally felt herself jump. “Uhm… One of the nurses… Gave this to me,” She tried to explain, “I’m--I’m going to get it all done.” She was now motioning to the list, praying she hadn’t said the wrong thing. Spencer only gave a knowing smirk. “That’d be Nurse Morris, she’s more concerned about getting her duties done than training any newcomers.” He then gave a slow motion of his hand to the hallway behind him, “You’ll find the other nurses down that way. They’ll begin your training.”

 

She felt Spencer’s gaze on her back as she started down the corridor, but she didn’t give any indication that she’d noticed.




 

 

Sally spent the few weeks shadowing one of the other, more experienced nurses. She only saw the aforementioned Nurse Morris a couple times after their initial meeting; bustling about, gripping her pocket watch in her hand as if it might jump up and run away from her.

 

Mr. Spencer, however, eluded Sally. She figured that, as warden, Spencer would have a lot of responsibilities and was just awfully busy. He was usually still on the grounds when Sally arrived at midnight for her shift; holed up in his office, presumably doing some form of paperwork. Then, not long into Sally’s shift he would leave and she would hardly see the tail of his tweed coat as he flew out the door.

 

“What does Mr. Spencer do all day?” Sally asked innocently one night. From across the open dormitory, she heard another nurse scoff, “You shouldn’t pry into other people’s business, Smithson. Especially your superiors.” Sally shrugged it off, but the thought really bothered her. Was she stepping out of line? She didn’t have any real job experience, and the thought of being out of work terrified her.

 

Then, the door to the dormitory slid open, and the nurses turned to see a very frazzled looking Nurse Morris march in with her sleeves rolled up, “One of you is going to have to help me calm Bertie Carver down,” She huffed, “Keeps screamin’ something wicked about this cell neighbour ‘causing a ruckus’.”

 

The nurse that had just spoken to Sally spoke up: “I’ll help you,” then, she turned a hardened look to Sally, “Come on Nurse Smithson, this will be a good experience for you.” Morris gave her a relieved smile and a call of “Thank you, Ruth,” as the two left the room.

 

The nurse -- Ruth -- began explaining as her and Sally made their way down the hall: “Bertie’s been here a few years,” she said matter-of-factly, “A lunatic, just like the rest of them, and he’ll throw a fit if things aren’t just the way he likes them.” There was a stretch of silence, and from down the hall, Sally could hear the distressed shouts of a man echoing off the limestone walls. She shrunk down and kept walking a little faster, hoping her shoulders might cover her ears and block out the sound of those horrible screams.

 

Nurse Morris… said something about a cell neighbour?” Sally croaked. Ruth’s lips formed a tight line and she gave a frustrated glare to Bertie’s door up ahead. “That’s a new patient. He’s been making a lot of trouble for us. Patients included.”

 

“Wha--” But Sally was interpreted by the heavy clunk of Bertie’s cell door being unlocked. Ruth tugged the rusty thing out of the lock and swung the door open.

 

Sally peered over Ruth’s shoulder into the dimly-lit room. The only light came from the blades of moonlight that reached through the cracks in the barred window and onto the floor. It was a simple room, with white wallpaper, dirty floors, a toilet and a thin cot. Sitting on the cot was Bertie Carver. He was curled up in the against the corner of the room, knees against his chest, bony fingers grasping at his shoulders and his face buried in the crook of his elbow.

 

Ruth took a step into the cell, and that’s when Bertie noticed them. His head snapped up and what met Sally were a pair of huge, glassy eyes. He looked sad. Miserable. Maybe even a little bit afraid. She might have thought that Bertie was a young man, but time at the asylum had aged him considerably. 

 

“Bertie,” Ruth began in a commanding tone, “What’s going on? You’re going to wake up the other patients.” 

 

“.. The walls,” Bertie mumbled, pointing a shaking finger to the wall on the opposite side of the cell, “He’s scratching on the walls…” “Who is?” Ruth asked, barely waiting for him to finish.

 

“The Bad Man…” whispered Bertie, shakily. Sally was struck with a sudden paranoia. The way he said that name was like a terrible omen. Ruth on the other hand, simply scoffed: “Mr. Shaye next door?” She asked him. When Bertie didn’t reply, Ruth sighed dramatically, “Alright, I’ll go talk to him.” Ruth stepped out of the room, and Sally scrambled to follow.

 

However, before Sally could get out, Ruth turned to her and simply said: “Keep an eye on him,” and the door shut in her face. Sally floundered. She really didn’t want to be in the same room alone with Bertie Carver. She slowly pivoted around as the muffled clunk came from the hall outside, signalling Ruth’s entrance into the Bad Man’s room. 

 

Bertie was staring at her. He was staring at her like he could see every bad thing she had ever done in her life. He looked sad. Despite her obvious fear, Sally squared her shoulders, gave the best show of authority she could, and stared right back.

 

The seconds ticked by. If Sally wasn’t so busy trying to maintain a facade of confidence, she might have thought Bertie had died, sitting there on the cot. Eyes wide open. He spoke suddenly: “You will be the end of us all.”

 

Sally opened her mouth to reply, and heard the creaking of the door behind her. Ruth was standing in the doorway. She beckoned Sally to step out of the room, which she did gladly. When she glanced back at Bertie, his gaze had turned to the floor.

Chapter Text

November 29th, 1893

 

Sally had met Father Campbell in her first few weeks working at the asylum. She didn’t see him much, as the chapel was only open to patients and staff during the day. But she had gone to confession there a few times, as Father Campbell was a night owl, and a kind man who was willing to be more lenient with that rule. 

 

The first telling sign that Father Campbell was about was a deep, rattling cough as he turned the corner behind the altar.

 

“Good evening, Sally,” he ground out after another cough. “Good evening, Father Campbell.” Sally replied.

 

“Shouldn’t you be inside, working?” He asked with a knowing grin. Sally cracked a smile in return: “I needed to escape for a bit.” “Well, that’s all fine and good,” Father Campbell paused to clear his throat, “But I’d be careful. Mr. Spencer is in quite a foul mood and if he catches you, I can’t say that he’ll let you go easily.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Campbell waved his hand dismissively, “Something to do with the finances.” “Is the asylum going out of business?” Sally asked nervously. Campbell chuckled, “No, no… not for a while yet.”

 

“I should get back,” Sally blurted, feeling the conversation beginning to wane. She turned to leave, but before she reached the chapel door Father Campbell stopped her: “You have a good heart, Sally. But one that can be easily corrupted.” Then, he disappeared behind the altar.

 

Sally stood there, fingers loosely gripping the door handle. She stared at the spot Campbell had been standing. There was a voice in her head telling her to reject what she heard, no matter how true the words rung. It came from a shadowy corner of her mind, and Sally got the overwhelming feeling that the voice was not hers

 

An uncomfortable pressure built in her temples, and Sally quickly turned to leave the chapel, hoping to escape it.



The first time introducing a patient to hydrotherapy was always the worst. It took everything in Sally to hold them down in the grimy bathtubs, while they screamed and thrashed around. Sometimes she was afraid she would drown them. The doctors claimed it decreased agitation in aggressive patients; Sally thought it only made them worse. The hydrotherapy centre was a series of long, rectangular rooms, arranged parallel to each other and connected by the east corridor past the Men’s Ward. The rooms had damp, tile-covered floors and grey-ish wallpaper, plagued by mildew and water stains. Claw-footed bathtubs lined the walls on either side, and were usually filled with cold water to submerge patients in.

 

A middle-aged woman with the name Tillie, as her file stated, was hauled into the room close to an hour ago, and was still struggling with the nurses, Ruth and Morris, who were trying to strip her and force her into the bath. Sally stood close by, completely on edge, ready to rush in if the woman really started putting up a fight. It was almost unbearable to watch Tillie scream curses and swing wildly at Sally’s colleagues. She was wrapped head-to-toe in thin, white blankets which were secured tightly about her feet and sides. She continued to wriggle about as the three nurses picked her up and set her down in the bathtub.

 

Sally stumbled backwards to catch her breath as Ruth and Morris got to work securing wide, cloth strips over the rim of the tub so Tillie wouldn’t be able to wiggle out. The woman seems to calm down for a moment, which the nurses took to converge in the middle of the room. 

 

“A right loon, she is,” muttered Morris. Her pocket watch was plucked for her apron pocket and flipped open. Sally listened to the excited ticking until Morris flipped it shut again. “I best be off,” was all she said before marching out of the room. Just then, Sally clued into the sound of water splashing and turned to see Tillie’s head disappear below the rim of the bathtub. Sally rushed over and was immediately hit with the spray of ice-cold water. She ignored it, plunging her hands down as bubbles of the woman’s breath rose to the surface. Sally groped around the soaked blankets on the woman’s back. Finding a hold under her arms, Sally hauled Tillie up above the water’s surface.

 

She had no time to collect herself, or catch her breath, as she was roughly shoved away by Ruth, who proceeded to secure more restraints around Tillie’s neck and shoulders, supposedly to keep her head above water. Sally took a step back, judging from Ruth’s tense shoulders that she was angry. “She’ll stay there all night,” She spat, and left the room, leaving Sally to follow behind her.



    Warden Spencer eventually took up a much larger role in administering treatments to the patients. Spencer used a more strict approach to managing the population in the asylum, whose numbers were beginning to get out of hand. Patients were restrained in straitjackets and manacles for long periods of time. Cells that normally held one or two people were used for four or more. More than once Sally could attest to seeing him scream profanities at patients. She reckoned Father Campbell was right: running the asylum was really getting to him.

 

 Sally began noticing that a lot of her colleagues were being let go from their jobs, and the night shift at Crotus Prenn became more and more desolate. One of the first to go was Ruth, and the excuse she was given that her sister was quite well off, and that she should be able to get by with her support. Sally never saw Ruth after she was fired, she was only informed by another nurse the next night that she was gone. 

 

It wasn’t long after that the Warden’s ire turned to the nurses and orderlies. He had more respect for the doctors, really. It was the nurses and lower employees who he’d excuse of slipping up and doing something wrong. The first hours of the night shift — before Spencer left for the night — was spent dodging him and tiptoeing over every task, as to avoid setting off his explosive temper.




May 2nd, 1894

 

There had been something ominous about the sky that night, even before Sally reached the asylum to start her shift. The screams were piercing now, as she barrelled desperately down the rows of cells. Something had upset the patients, and now the commotion had spread to nearly every room. The violent clanging of the metal doors and the agonized wails threatened to burst her skull. When Sally first arrived, the moon-tinged silhouette of Crotus Prenn had a foreboding energy around it — a warning.

 

The other nurses rushed by with syringes full of sedatives. Not far behind them was Warden Spencer, who looked absolutely fuming . Sally kept going, but as she attempted to rush past, Spencer caught her roughly by the shoulder. 

 

“What is going on here!?” He demanded. His voice struck loudly in Sally’s ears, and she jumped at the sudden anger. “T-The patients, sir,” she stuttered, “Something one said upset them and now—“ “WHAT? Anything could set these lunatics off, what is it now!?” 


Sally gulped, “They think we’re going to increase the number of treatments, sir.” “Of course we’re going to increase the numbers of treatments,” Spencer bellowed, “Now get back there and sedate them! I don’t care how much chloral it takes.” The warden shoved Sally backwards and promptly turned on his heel, marching back down the corridor. Sally decided not to test the warden’s patience, and turned, dejectedly, back down the opposite side of the corridor to where the other nurses had gone.