Fallen Children – Charlie Chitty
December 13, 2019
The sanitarium loomed up ahead, looking as miserable and unhappy as it ever had.
Even though the orderly on the phone had told him in no uncertain terms that the buildings and wards were better than ever, Max Slade remained… uncertain.
The headlights of the car slowly revealed an oak tree resting in the centre of the road, slick with rain.
Max sighed, opened his car door, and stepped out into the storm.
He tried to move it, but even before he struggled to get his arms around the massive trunk, he knew it was no use.
There was no way of navigating the car around it, not without risking the car in a muddy ditch or accidentally tearing off some of the paintwork on any of the thousands of trees that loomed above the thin road, one tiny möbius strip of human civilisation around the uncontrolled nature of Grizedale Forest.
It seemed as if the one gritted road was almost a joke, and Max had already got lost seventeen times on his way to Cumbria’s biggest mental health facility.
He climbed back into his Audi. The interior lights plinked on as the rain mashed against the windshield. He sat with his arms crossed, hoping the tree would move. He pulled a cigarette out of a foil packet in the cup-holder and lit it up.
He briefly considered rolling the window down, but decided against it.
He sat, comfortable, as the warm artificial smog rolled around the car. The only light for miles around was a glowing orange blister. Max sighed, stubbed the cigarette out on his ashtray, and stepped out into the downpour.
He clambered over the tree, feeling the sodden bark sloughing off under his hands. He collapsed on the other side in a freezing puddle that sent chilled shockwaves around his body.
Now he was moving, jogging up the dirt path towards the hillside sanitarium. He could make out a glimpse of it, up in the snow-dusted mountains. It looked like an upturned piece of pottery that had come out slightly wonky.
The chill set in as Max felt the water leaking through the materials of his thick coat and trousers. He’d read somewhere that you could die if you were exposed to freezing water, five minutes until hypothermia set in or something.
He didn’t stop moving.
Despite his worry of a hypothermic death, he found the galaxy of frenzied stars above to be quite beautiful. With no light pollution, and no clouds, the night sky of Cumbria was like looking into the iris of god himself.
He shivered violently, reminding himself to keep moving.
It took him about thirty minutes to reach the sanitarium at a light jog.
And the downpour? Something of a biblical airborne flood. He practically swam towards the building, six inches of groundwater sloshing painfully in his shoes. He couldn’t feel his toes and the numbness was spreading.
And then he was there.
The building was strange, the architecture not quite right. A giant monolith, spotted with pimpled domes complete with rows upon rows of metal bars.
The cells, blistering out of the building itself, almost countless in number, rose up into the storming skies.
He reached a hand out to knock on the door of the sanitarium, a giant oaken monstrosity, only for the door to swing gently inwards with a ‘creeeeee’ and Max Slade leaned into the blanket darkness.
He walked in, still feeling the cold seeping into his bones. And yet he didn’t feel cold. So why was he shivering?
The door shut behind him and he was left in the desolation. Shadows played across the darkened walls. The wind rattled, whispering to the night trees. But it wasn’t all wind… People were whispering, muttering….
Max took a step back, and the lights clicked on.
The lobby of the sanitarium was ancient. Brown potted ferns limped in giant ceramic vases around the reception desk, manned by a sinister looking old man who was rummaging through the letter cubbyholes, looking for something.
A lot of the holes had filled up with cobwebs.
The dome lights flickered above. And Max almost jumped out of his skin.
Thirty staff members were standing on the grand stairwell, one employee per step.
They were all looking at him, smiling.
They weren’t predatory smiles, but there were far too many teeth on show.
Something was wrong.
A man in a dusty overcoat shambled over to Max and introduced himself.
“Oh, sir. Sir! We’ve heard so much about you! Your reputation exceeds you!”
“Precedes.” said Max.
The old man fluttered a hand. “Well, I’ll tell you all about the proceedings in due time. Did you travel well?”
Max indicated the small pond that was slowly growing beneath his feet. The chill was coming back again.
“Would you mind if I use your facilities?” said Max.
“No,” said the old man. “But you may use the bathroom and toilet if you’d like. My name’s Charles by the way, Charles Manter.”
“You should probably wear a namebadge.”
Someone on the stairs laughed, but abruptly stopped a few seconds later.
Charles acted as if he hadn’t noticed.
“I must have misplaced it.” he said.
Max made his way up the stairs, dripping water as he ascended.
“Bathroom’s on the right!” Charles called from below. “And everyone, back to work!”
The employees scattered in every direction.
Max found the bathroom. On the left, three doors down, after he’d reached the top of the stairwell.
He pulled off his ice-wet clothes that gripped to his body and stepped under the shower head. He pulled the rusted faucet towards the red mark that had slowly saturated into pink over the course of many years.
Max stood under the faucet for some time. “Weirdos.” he muttered to himself.
Eventually, the water ran cold and he stepped out. He managed to find a towel shuffling around a musty airing cupboard for a good five minutes. It looked as if it had been knitted by an over-affectionate grandma, but it did the job.
He found an empty bedroom down the hallway and went to sit on the bed.
It all felt a bit wrong. The visit was so… unstructured.
He heard a knock at the door. Max pulled on a pair of trousers and opened the door. Charles beamed at him and strode across the threshold.
“I trust everything is to your liking?”
“Do you… have a bedroom for inspectors?” asked Max, flashing his identification that he’d pulled out of his tangled heap of clothes.
“No,” said Charles. “We just put them in the employee rooms.”
Max raised an eyebrow.
Max began to wonder just how he was going to review the sanitarium. After earlier with every staff member on the stairs, leering down at him, how was Charles so unprepared for a basic visit from inspection?
“But you have a room for stay-over-inspectors and your uplines on-site as specified in your dictate manual, right?
Charles began to pace. Max caught his eyes darkening, as if the friendly smile from earlier had been hiding something in the same way that freshly powdered snow could hide a gaping crevasse.
Eventually he scoffed. “Of course we do! Of course!”
“So can I set up in that room to begin my review?”
“It’s being used.”
Now Max was annoyed. It was one thing to be sent out, driving through the treacherous night, having to leave his car and having to deal with a severe lack of capability at the sanitarium… But head office had already sent another inspector in his stead? He bet it was McGiller. Of course that lazy asshole would never tell him he’d-
“Can I get you anything to eat or drink?” Charles asked, interrupting his train of thought.
Max shook his head. “I’d much prefer to get the ball rolling here. Can I see the a cross-sample?”
“The residents. The people who live here under your care and protection.”
Charles smiled widely. Max breathed an internal sigh of relief. Of course, it was all a practical joke. No owner of a sanitarium was this inept.
And with that, he left.
Max sat at the end of his bed for brief second. Then he pulled on his socks and shoes and sprinted for the door. Charles himself, it seemed, had done a runner and was completely out of sight.
Max ran headlong down the corridor, passing a very sleep-deprived looking cleaner who was mopping a single wet patch on the floor. He turned, reeling down the halls and racing after the disappearing shoes of the man so desperately trying to get away from him.
There was a flight of stone steps that Charles ascended, two at a time. He was panting by now, and Max was gaining the lead.
He tackled him, and the flight of Charles Manter was over before it had begun.
“I’m sorry!” Charles cried. “I’m so sorry!”
The man wept on the steps for what seemed like forever. Max felt uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable.
“I know it all seems so- so- wrong here!” blubbered Charles. “I haven’t had any training! Any training at all!”
And suddenly Max wasn’t so scared anymore. What was wrong was evident. Nothing sinister, nothing negligent. Just a man who had been promoted to a position he wasn’t capable of filling. Hadn’t that happened to so many other men before Charles?
Max knelt down and put an arm around Charles.
Nothing was strange. Nothing was so wrong.
In fact, nothing was as normal as bureaucracy.
“I’ll be fine for this inspection.” said Max, winking at Charles. “As long as you’re all fit for inspection next time, I’m letting you off of the hook with a warning.”
Charles’ face shone. “Really!? You mean it?”
Max clapped him on the back, stood up, and began to climb down the flight of stone steps. “Sure thing. We’re all just trying to do our best after all. It’s only right you get a second chance.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell them!” Charles called, his voice echoing down the stone steps that Max steadily descended.
And so Max left.
He left the sanitarium.
He walked through the light rain.
He got back in his car, and he drove away.
He told himself as he drove that he’d come back in two months, re-assess, make sure everything was okay.
He didn’t notice that the cleaner mopping the floor had been mopping the same patch for two hours.
He didn’t notice the sinister-looking man behind reception had been fiddling with the mail slots for six hours.
He didn’t notice any of the bolted doors that lay only feet away from where he’d stopped chasing Charles.
There were many people behind the doors, all dead from starvation.
Nurses, doctors still in their surgical scrubs, janitors and even the poor woman who had been the chaplain, rotting away in her wimple.
At the very top of the steps was one more locked door. It was the final resting place of the owner of the sanitarium. The name badge he wore on his simple linen shirt was faded and smattered with dirt.
Charlie W. Manter