art by Noé Nelli

Broken Pine

“Headmistress hangs her tongue up on the door for the night, but tomorrow she’ll shove it back into her throat.” Francisca halted when she heard the words drift from the open bedroom. The lanterns were powered on, casting thin shadows into the hall.

          “But why would she take it out at all?”

          “See these scars, Layla?” Francisca peered around the corner. The bedroom was the smallest in the residences, with a single bunk bed to accommodate two girls. A desk was pushed next to the radiator, and torn curtains fell over glazed windows. She caught a glimpse of the smaller girl at the desk, lifting her shirt partway to proudly display a series of ragged, fading scars along her rib cage.

          “From the tongue?” Layla gasped.

          “It’s long and as rough as sandpaper. When she puts it back, it wraps around her brain like a woodpecker’s.”

          Francisca had heard enough. She emerged from the hallway and crossed her arms over her chest. Both girls were startled at her sudden appearance. “What are you talking about?” Francisca directed her venom to the smaller girl, who jutted her chin out in defiance.

          “None of your beeswax.”

          Beeswax? “Grow up.” Francisca said with a scoff. She shifted her gaze to Layla. “She’s lying. Headmistress is just a regular old hag, okay? Greeves likes to make up stories about her scars.” Francisca resumed her death glare at the smaller girl. “Right, Greeves?” The girl was tiny, but she had a loud, rough voice. It was easy for her to intimidate the new girls. It worried Francisca. She’d worked so hard to stop the cycle of hazing, only for Greeves to be eager enough to start it again before Francisca could walk out the front doors.

          Greeves sulked, drawing circles on a crumpled paper. It took Francisca a moment to realize the paper was an old Detention Resource. The DRs were meant to be returned to Headmistress once completed. “Throw that away before anyone finds it.” She said in a quieter voice. Greeves scowled. “Or let them find it, so you can get an extra five months tacked on your sentence.” Francisca let the sarcasm ooze over her words, but she couldn’t shake the worry that spread after. She cast a quick glance at the new girl. “This place sucks, but don’t believe everything you’re told.”

          The new girl had wide, brown eyes that seemed to take in the whole world at once. Francisca considered how long it would take for the stars in the girl’s eyes to die. A week, depending on how lucky she’d be to witness the Headmistress mete out punishment.

          Francisca returned to the hallway, hurrying before lights out was called. The oldest of them all, Francisca got her own room. She used to have a roommate, but Chelsea had aged out two months ago. She was next. The calendar taped above her dresser showed ten days before her birthday. Freedom had never been so close.             She used a broken crayon to mark off another day. Nine days now. She imagined Chelsea, lounging in an apartment and working as a nurse. No, two months wasn’t enough time to finish nursing school. Chelsea would be working in a fast food chain, doing her homework during her breaks like she said she would. It would be a luxury in comparison to the Academy.

          Unlike the other girls and their bunk beds, Francisca’s room had two twin beds. Her own bed had a fluffy gray comforter with her stuffed animals and assigned pillow. The other bed stood in stark contrast, stripped of its coverings. She noticed a piece of paper on top of her pillow and unfolded the note. Meeting with Headmistress K scheduled for tomorrow after First Meal.

          Francisca was unnerved, especially after the stupid tale Greeves had told. The image of a whip-tongue hanging over the edge of a door manifested in her mind. The Headmistress had plenty of conspiracy theories surrounding her. She was a mean human, but a human nonetheless. Besides, the meeting was expected. Francisca planned to age out in less than two weeks. There had to be plenty of discharge paperwork for her inevitable transition to adulthood.

          She switched off her lantern and climbed into bed, the phantom of the light glowing beneath her eyelids.

          The glow brought her to life in the morning. Sunlight pushed against the frosted windows, with only a three-inch slit of transparent glass at the top of the window frame. Francisca was barely tall enough to see through, though if she angled her head right, she could make out the tops of the trees.

          The kitchen bustled as three teachers collaborated on First Meal. It was hot and stuffy, the price they had to pay for pancakes and sausage. All of the kitchen windows were opened, the ceiling fan spun, and three smaller fans were turned toward the sweating teachers. It didn’t feel that warm to Francisca, but she’d learned long ago not to question anything aloud. She spooned blueberry sauce over her food and dug in with one utensil. She listened as the others interacted with the new girl, but kept an eye on the teachers.

          “If you don’t eat your snacks, Layla, give them to me.”

          “Don’t share with her. She’s always hungry.”

          “That’s why you need to share with me!”

          Francisca chuckled into her plate, pretending to savor the last of the food. One of the girls placed a fork in her lap. She slipped it under her shirt with her one free hand. The new girl, Layla, watched the covert exchange with wary eyes. Francisca met her gaze, fully prepared to cover her tracks. Layla asked, “Are you a student too?” and the wariness vanished without a trace. Relief.

          Someone else jumped in. “Of course she is.”

          “I don’t know why she still goes to school here. Francisca is old.” If she was old, what did that make the Headmistress?

          “She’s leaving soon-”

          “She can speak for herself.”

          “I am leaving soon.” Francisca said, bemused. “I'll be eighteen in a couple days.” Simply saying  it made her heart leap.

          The new girl’s eyes phased into full moons. “They can keep you here that long?”

          Francisca wondered how old the girl was. Thirteen? Sixteen? She could never tell. They could look so much older than they were, worn down by foster care and countless other placements. And sometimes they looked younger, hiding the horrors they’d witnessed behind puppy eyes. “It depends on your situation.” One of the teachers in her peripheral nodded at this. That was the script.

          Greeves appeared at the entrance to the kitchen and announced, “I’ve been here for two years.” She headed toward the dining table and was stopped short by a bulky teacher’s stony grip. Harris. None of them bothered with honorifics anymore. It was only ever the new hires that cared about that. Francisca watched with a careful eye. But Greeves wasn’t bothered. She bared her teeth in preparation to bite, and was quickly released.

          “Headmistress said you’re missing a Detention Resource.” Harris snapped, stepping between Greeves and the table.

          “So? I’ll pay for what I’ve done after breakfast.” Despite the edge in her voice, Greeves looked smaller than before.

          Harris handed Greeves a paper bag. “Hallway breakfast. Headmistress doesn’t want you eating with the other girls until you’ve finished your Detention.”

          “This is stupid!” Greeves exploded. She tried to shove past Harris and was immediately grabbed by two other teachers.

          Francisca was ready to intervene when a hand clamped down on her shoulder. The same teacher who’d nodded at her earlier now gave her an icy look. “If you’re done with your food, Miss K is waiting for you downstairs.” Francisca tried to squirm away, wincing as Greeves started hurling expletives at the top of her lungs. “I’d be careful, if I were you. You might be aging out, but there will be consequences for others.”

          Francisca glowered. Greeves was dragged away to the nurse’s office, her shouts quickly fading. “Why did they do that?” She was startled at Layla’s question. Most girls knew exactly what happened once someone started yelling. Everyone had their own word for it.

          “They’re going to sedate her.” Francisca snarled and shook off the teacher’s hand. “I hate you. I hate this place.” She stomped out of the kitchen. The day had barely begun and her mood had already been ruined.

          The Academy was more of a refurbished Victorian mansion, with classrooms built like parasites attached to its back. All of the bedrooms remained on the second floor, and the doors that led to the residences were locked tight during school hours. Past the kitchen was a smaller set of stairs. Francisca halted at the top and tried to compose herself. She wiped tears of frustration from her face before beginning the descent.

          A chorus of aches and whines erupted with each step, partly muffled by the carpeting. The wood seemed ready to splinter. The basement appeared as unreliable as the stairs, with low, warped ceilings. Actual ceiling lights lit the space, rather than the measly camping lanterns they were rationed up on the second floor. It was one room filled with a desk, filing cabinets, and a closed door opposite the bottom of the staircase. A faint clicking noise came from somewhere. A broken clock, possibly. It was loud enough to be heard, but soft enough to be forgotten a moment later.

          The Headmistress sat at her desk, the computer screen reflected off of her glasses. She looked average: stiff chestnut hair, painted nails, and lipstick that seemed to bleed into her pale skin. But when she spoke, any illusion of docility melted away. “Sit down.” She instructed, typing as she said it.

          Francisca pulled herself into the wobbly plastic folding chair that was positioned in front of the desk. She was careful not to move too much, the fork stuck between her jeans and stomach fat. It stabbed into her, a perfect reminder that she had a weapon while facing the devil incarnate.

          There was a long pause as the Headmistress finished whatever it was that she needed to type. The faint clicking returned to the foreground, and Francisca slowly glanced around. No clocks hung on the wall. It had to be a broken one. But where?

          “You’re almost out of here, aren’t you?” The Headmistress said with a final hit to her keyboard. She looked directly at Francisca for the first time, and goosebumps covered Francisca’ s arms. The Headmistress wore makeup so layered on that her skin might as well have been airbrushed. “What is your plan, Francisca? What will you do after graduation?”

          The accusatory question caused a cold, prickling sensation in Francisca’s gut. “I plan to get a job and live on my own.”

          “How?” The Headmistress asked, clipped. She pulled open a notebook and scribbled something down. With a glance upwards, “Well? How do you plan to achieve this?”

          It occurred to her that the Headmistress had spoken purely in accusations. The truth made itself clear. The Headmistress and her Academy fully anticipated their graduates to fail at life. “Well,” Francisca mirrored the Headmistress in tone. “What resources are in place to help me transition from the Academy to normal life?” She forced down a triumphant smile as the Headmistress paused. Francisca was nearly an adult. It made no sense for her to participate in these fear games, unless it was her who turned the tables. She leaned forward, enticed by the sudden lull in conversation. “I’ll need copies of my transcripts, too.”

          The speechlessness only lasted a handful of seconds. The Headmistress pulled off her glasses and let them rest on her notebook. The clicking continued in the background, small yet incessant. How did it not drive the Headmistress nuts? “I’ll have those transcripts and resources printed immediately. You’ll find them on your bed before the end of the week.”

          It should have felt like a win. Francisca wanted it to be a win. She continuously glanced over her shoulder until she reached the first floor. Free from the shackles of the Academy basement, she hurried toward the classrooms.

          It only took three days for another note to materialize on Francisca’s pillow, on top of a stack of black and white printouts. Francisca ignored them. Another meeting had been scheduled, this time after Third Meal, when the others would be in the residences. Francisca wondered if she would be beaten. She’d never heard of that happening. But she hadn’t heard of a therapeutic school that only allowed its students outside for an hour a day, either.

          The first punishment she’d witnessed had occurred within two days of her admission. Approximately three, four years ago? The memories blended together. The girl had been confined to her room, barred from speaking. She was only allowed to ask to use the bathroom. If she dared to look at the rest of them, an extra day was tacked onto her exile. Francisca barely remembered the girl’s name. She’d been transferred to another placement shortly after.

          It didn’t matter. Francisca would be prepared to defend herself.

          Beneath the bed was a loose floorboard. Inside were leftovers of previous girls’ contraband. Dusty remains of dried leaves, a small shaving blade that had gotten stuck in between two wooden planks, the recently stolen fork, and a pocket knife. Its wooden handle bore scratches and carvings that had lost their meaning years ago. The pocketknife looked as old as the Academy, but its blade remained as sharp as glass. She’d sharpened it many times over the years, always careful not to nick herself in the process. Now, it would finally have a chance to serve its purpose.

          She kept a brisk pace down the hall, intent on getting to Third Meal on time. “Fran!” Her head jerked at the sound of Greeves.

          Greeves sat on the floor of her bedroom, hands hidden by her absurdly oversized sleeves. The hint of a bruise showed under the neck of her shirt, a souvenir from her First Meal fiasco three days prior. She beckoned with one hidden hand for Francisca to enter. Francisca hesitated. “Are you going to flip me off again?” She asked, remembering the last time Greeves had wanted to show her something. The “surprise middle finger” gag was, unsurprisingly, the tiny girl’s favorite joke.

          “Good idea. I’ll do that next time.” Greeves let out an obnoxious laugh at Francisca’s instant change of expression. “Hold your hand out.”

          Now she was even more suspicious. But Francisca did as she was told, mentally preparing for a frog or dead mouse to fall into her palm. A flash of silver caught her eye. She brought the object up to her face. Not a moment later, she shoved it in one of her socks. It sank between her ankle and Achilles heel. “You’re a strange one.” Francisca said it casually, but gave Greeves’ shoulder a grateful squeeze. “Are you coming to Third Meal?”

          “Yep. I got Layla to write my DR for me.”

          “Don’t tell anyone that.” Francisca sighed, helping Greeves to her feet. They walked out of the room together.

          Francisca consumed Third Meal as if it were her last. She knew that the Headmistress waited for her. Time slowed between each bite. She listened to the girls chatter, unable to contribute. The first meeting hadn’t even involved any paperwork. Was the Academy waiting until the last day to go through the discharge process? She had less than a week before she would age out, and she had no idea what was going on. Even with two weapons, she felt more unprepared than before.

          The stairs sounded worse for wear, and the basement had a darker tinge to it than the last time. One of the bulbs had blown out. A packaged incandescent sat on the desk of the Headmistress, waiting to be cut out of its plastic. Francisca sat down in the same wobbly plastic chair. The Headmistress stared directly at her. “How was your day, Francisca?”

          Francisca provided a generic answer, hardly aware of what words passed her lips. She strained to hear the clicking. The clock, wherever it was, must have been replaced. Finally.

          “Good, good.” The Headmistress said, her second “good” harder than the first. She folded her fingers across her knuckles and placed them in front of her. Her hands had a gnarled look, like they’d been sourced directly from a tree. “Did you shut the door behind you on the way down?”

          Francisca’s mouth filled with cotton. “No.”

          The Headmistress pressed her lips together in a disappointed grimace. She swept past Francisca, footsteps pounding up the stairs. Francisca’s heart raced faster than it had been before, and she wondered if this was what a heart attack felt like. The basement door slammed shut and she jumped. She craned her neck to watch the Headmistress float down the stairs. The Headmistress wore a modestly long skirt that flowed around her heeled shoes. She returned to her seat with a flourish, papers scuffled by the minor winds.

          “Why did you shut it?” Francisca asked, shoulders tense. She felt the pocketknife along her waist, and the second weapon in her sock. She would have to duck out of the way first, and then…

          “Chelsea!” The Headmistress barked, not looking away from Francisca.

          Confused, Francisca swung her head around to search for whoever the Headmistress had spoken to. The door at the wall opposite to the stairs inched open. Francisca’s jaw dropped as a young woman stumbled into the open.

          Even in hospital scrubs, Chelsea looked beautiful, though her whole body had a contorted look. Her stubby fingers, cramped and stiff, were held at her sides, while her feet shuffled forward. Eyes as glazed as the windows, she stared into the distance. Nothing like the confident, driven girl who’d been Francisca’s roommate.

          The Headmistress snapped her fingers, and Chelsea clambered forward. A yellow wax emblem was fused to the space between her collarbones. “This is my secretary.” The Headmistress explained, wrapping an arm around Chelsea’s shoulders. But she might as well have been holding onto molded jello. Chelsea did not respond, dazed and swaying on her feet. “She types my notes for me. She had no chance of making it out there, poor thing. Down here, she is cared for-”

          “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Francisca interrupted, earning an evil look from the Headmistress. “We have a chance! Of course we do!” Francisca couldn’t stop herself from getting to her feet to yell. “All of us have dreams and goals! She’s supposed to be a nurse. And I’m going to be a psychiatrist.”

          “How?” The Headmistress sneered and released her grip on Chelsea, who leaned against the wall and slumped to the floor. Her head lolled. “How will you do all of that, when you can’t even feed yourself?” She looked down on Francisca, an inch taller than she’d been five minutes ago. The light directly above the desk had been the one missing a bulb. The Headmistress was dangerously close to the empty socket, growing closer with every rage-stricken breath she drew.

          “You don’t let us feed ourselves.” Francisca said and made sure her feet remained firmly planted to the ground. “We aren’t allowed in the kitchen without supervision. It’s your fault! We have no choice!” Something not unlike sweat dripped down the Headmistress’s face. A thick droplet of it splattered on the desk, coating a stack of papers in flesh-colored liquid. She tried not to look at it in order to maintain eye contact. A muffled whine came from Chelsea, but she was determined not to take notice.

          The Headmistress grew taller and narrower, ducking her head as her neck pressed into the ceiling. Her eye sockets hollowed, and the very eyes that they held threatened to slip out. More droplets fell, sounding heavy. “Why are you not scared?” The question from the Headmistress transformed into a furious shriek, louder than Francisca had been. “Where is your fear, girl? What do you think you are to me?” The shriek narrowed like her frame, the sides melting off into oblivion. No longer words, but a shrill spike of noise.

          Francisca let out a shaky laugh. “I’d be scared, except…I didn’t think it was possible for you to become uglier.” Another, louder whine erupted. The Headmistress swung to look at Chelsea, bending her body over like a snake preparing to strike. Francisca leaned down without moving her head, reaching for the object Greeves had given her.

          The Headmistress screamed to Chelsea, “Get the wax! You look so stupid just sitting there!” Her long, thin arm reached down and snatched Chelsea’s collar, yanking her sharply to her feet. Chelsea swayed again before shuffling away. The Headmistress returned her focus to Francisca, twisting her body in impossible curves. “You will be discharged early, but only so you may work for the Academy. You are in our care, and will remain as such until you can prove you’re capable of being independent.” Her voice lowered, returning to a semi-normal pitch. Her arms dripped with flesh-colored liquid. “Do you understand?”

          Francisca held the object tightly, a cool relief for her sweating palms. “No, I don’t understand. Why does Chelsea look like that?” She asked, her breath growing shallow with nerves. She couldn’t disguise her horror anymore. “What is falling off of you?”

          The Headmistress wiped a hand across her face, then checked the back of her hand. The motion caused half of her face to droop, her flesh molding together as if it were dough. She swore loudly, using her fingers to push the skin back into place. A chunk fell off, revealing bone. She spat out another curse, grabbing at the lump that had landed on her keyboard.

          It took everything for Francisca not to heave. Her hands shook as she struggled with the object. She had to do it now. But the Headmistress came from around her desk and grabbed Francisca’s arm with slippery fingers. The scent of flowers flooded her nostrils. “You’re mine.” The Headmistress said with half a face. She didn’t notice that Francisca’s other arm still held fast to the weapon. Flesh slid off of the Headmistress and stuck to Francisca’s skin. This close, she realized she smelled hairspray. The stiff bob of straw on the Headmistress’s head couldn’t have been held together any other way.

          Chelsea’s shuffling distracted the both of them. The Headmistress moved her head, leaning downwards. She was nearly within Francisca’s reach. “Finally. Bring it here.” Francisca had never sparked a lighter so quickly. The Headmistress’s hair, caked in aerosol, erupted in flames. Francisca dropped the lighter with a yelp. Still open, it collided with the hem of the Headmistress’s shirt and caught ablaze. The Headmistress released Francisca to swat at the flames. They leapt to her hands, spreading across her arms and up her lengthened throat. Huge, slow droplets of waxy flesh slid down, down, down. The lighter vanished underneath the puddle of putty-like substance, but there was no chance of putting the fire out.

          Francisca gave Chelsea a long look, searching for a sign of her old friend. Chelsea’s eyes remained glazed. Her stiff hands held a pot of melted wax, the contents sloshing as she waddled across the room, apparently oblivious to the chaos.

          “Put that down! Get water!” The Headmistress wailed through an opening in what used to be her face. She had thinned out, most of her remains melting into the basement’s ancient brown carpeting. The air stank of paraffin and burned cloth. Francisca’s eyes watered. She grabbed Chelsea’s arm, knocking the pot to the floor, and dragged her toward the stairs. The wax seal had begun to melt into Chelsea’s shirt.

          At the top of the stairs, Francisca twisted the doorknob. It refused to budge in her shaking hands. The Headmistress had locked it. Of course. Through her tears, she blundered back down the stairs. The room had grown thick with smoke, and she pulled the collar of her shirt over her nose and mouth. The melting remains of the Headmistress covered the desk. A keyring had sunk into a semi-hardened puddle of wax. Francisca grabbed it, but pulling it free was painfully slow. The walls caught fire. And the door that had hidden Chelsea. And the ceiling. Fire licked hungrily at Francisca’s shoes. She stumbled as the keyring escaped the wax. Her eyes stung. The more she cried, the more they itched.

          Back up the stairs. Key. Knob. Francisca hauled herself and Chelsea through the door and slammed it shut behind them. It was easier to breathe on the ground floor, but smoke still shrouded the air. She wheezed. She couldn’t breathe. She needed to breathe.

          Someone tugged at her. In the midst of sunset, thick smoke, and her already cloudy eyes, Francisca couldn’t make out a face. But Chelsea’s hands felt warm and sure, no longer hanging at her sides. The two of them stumbled through the old Academy’s hallways, gagging and coughing. Chelsea never let go of Francisca’s hand.

          “Fran!” She recognized the voice of Greeves calling her name, but not where it came from. Smoke clouded her sense of direction. She tripped, expecting to hit dusty wood flooring, but instead made contact with dewy grass. Francisca fought to inhale properly, regaining her bearings. The panic subsided as her body’s functions returned to normal.

          From a distance came a small chorus of voices. Excitement, confusion, fright. “Chelsea?”

          All of the girls had grouped together beneath the Academy’s painted wooden sign. They broke away, surrounding Chelsea and Francisca. Someone wouldn’t stop repeating, “They were melting - they were all melting.”

          Francisca touched the raving Layla’s sleeve shakily. “Who was?”

          “The teachers.”

          The burning house. How else had so much smoke escaped to the upper floor, unless the teachers had met the same fate?

          Greeves sounded raspy from the smoke. “They all started burning out of nowhere. And then they just melted.” Despite the gravel in her voice, she sounded more like a child than ever. “What happened? Why is Chelsea here?”

          Francisca brought all the girls close to her in a huddle. All accounted for. They looked at her with wide eyes, and she felt a sliver of hope. If the girls still trusted her, they would be alright. “Listen to me. I don’t know how, but they were made of wax. Including the Headmistress.  It got too hot. And what does wax do when it gets hot?”

          Another girl chimed in, “It melts.”

          “And that’s all that I can say. Let’s get somewhere safe.”

cw: depictions of institutionalization

NOÉ NELLI wrote the first iteration of "Broken Pine" while in a psychiatric facility, but it took 5 years for the story to become what it is now. While the story is fiction, elements of the “therapeutic facility” come from reality. You can find this story and more at 123beesbeesbees.com.