Under and Amongst the Stars

March 10, 2012
The cement bore very prominent cracks, stretching across the entirety of Cassie’s cell walls. Paint worn off, chips of the old patterned paper lay on the floral-print carpet. She had always imagined the walls crumbling at the cracks, ripping at the seam, since her first year in St. Andromeda’s Home for the Mentally Insane.
Year three of her stay, Cassie was allowed to possess photographs. No one had given her any in the first place.
Year five though, was when the Polaroid snapshots blanketed the mortar and shielded the unsightly crevices. She was given a camera, old and with one roll of film at the start of the year. Cassie hadn’t much to capture in her room.
Ryan started in her seventh year, six months after the renovation. The administration office had used the fire that set in the South Nurse’s Office to wrest money from the government and ever since, the youth came flying in, eager to volunteer. But mostly fervent about the college credits.
Cassie hung Ryan’s charcoal sketches on the wall. They were decent pieces for an art school dropout and wonderful for an amateur psychiatrist that only gets around to painting inkblots. But his best work was his letters home that Cassie would often proofread before mailing.
Turning eighteen, she didn’t receive much in her grandfather’s will. Only his violin with worn strings and a couple dozens of clementines. Cassie remembered his hands always smelled like them when he plucked Moonlight Sonata.
The painting etched on the ceiling was the foremost distraction in her cell. Looked to mirror the Van Gogh, Ryan had decorated the stars to twist like the mad artist once envisioned. The swirls reminded Cassie of the fairytales and lullabies her grandfather told her about such a ridiculous thing as stars.
With all the lights shining from the cities across the globe, the sky shows only a sliver of a moon on most nights. She was sure there were lights in those heavens and her certainty marked her as legally troubled. No one believed in anything beyond his or her immediate reality. And no one wanted the false promise of an adventure.
Ryan painted on her request only. He’d pleaded to the hospital board that the image would soothe the patient and let her reminisce of the attic her deceased grandfather brought her up to, urging her to hear his newest string piece. The hospital board didn’t argue until the White House argued.
“No, no, please. Not the –“ Cassie’s yelling again, voice cracking so often, the words become slurred together. “Stop.” Knees pressed to her chest, her forearms begin to quiver. Her sobs come out in violent waves.
One of the workers sneers, while the other refuses to look in her direction. His eyes are unfocused, as the brush in his hand, thick with a clotted black pigment, wipes away the cerulean paint on the ceiling.
“New government regulations. You’re harboring an illegal image. We’re simply following the law,” one of the men states.
“Just keep painting,” whispers the second man with sloppy handiwork and splashes on his attire to prove it. He keeps his expression under thin-pressed lips.
“Something to tell the boys, eh Seth?” the other chuckles, talking away the fear like humming in a poorly lit basement.
“I just want to leave, all right? She believes in stars. And I’ve heard they’ll do some crazy things to people that oppose their theories,” he hisses, stiff to the bone. The thick-bristled brush he holds is slathering the black paint over the piece of art.
“It’s gone,” Cassie looks up past the men, rubbing her eyes with the heel of her hand. She wipes the pin straight mess from her eyes. All patients dyed their hair. No one could be individual, not while still in alliance with the law.
“’Fraid so. But not to fear, there’s more stars in the sky for ‘ya,” the loud one announces, thumbs tucked into his pockets.
“Don’t feed her delusion, Drake,” the other, Seth, warns. Both stand at the door, waiting for a show from the crazed girl.
Running to the center of the room, she makes sure to sell her insanity, fingers stretching up to touch the moist cover of paint. Pheo adds a few eye twitches before falling to her knees. She lets out these short whimpers and lets the crocodile tears leak. She snaps her neck to one side, eyeing the two workers.
The men leave hurriedly, letting her alone. Sighing, Cassie returns to the bed, moth-chewed sheets unmade and the springs of the mattress rusted to the core.
The painting is gone completely now, she looks to find the one spot the workers had missed. They had unfortunately been quite thorough. With the masterpiece gone, Cassie realizes she can map out where the stars had been drawn exactly. They spin behind her closed eyes.
“Good performance before,” Ryan notes, smiling at her. The light wind is blowing through his corkscrewing curls. Cassie leans back, craning her neck to look at the sky above her. The highway is just past the end of the rooftop. She can hear the occasional siren or skid. The tires just can’t grip right.
Of course she’d miss that painting, but the sobbing hyperbole justified her case of insanity. She needs people to believe she is a raving lunatic before proving them all wrong.
“Being in an insane asylum forever doesn’t make you as insane as you’d think,” Cassie says with a light sigh. The shingles beneath her flat palms are wet with spring water. It must have rained all through the night. “But I’ve learned to fake it pretty damn well.”
“You feel like you’ve been here forever, is that right?” The top buttons of his pallid uniform are undone. This is the shirt he forgot to iron. Cassie notices the pen in his pocket and his folded-up sleeve, declaring a pale arm ready to be scribbled on. Ryan smells like glowing coals and soot.
“Out of the womb and into the nut house.” Ryan glares at her when she lets out a breathy chuckle. “Don’t talk psyche with me tonight. Off limits for the rooftop.”
“You’re lucky I can even get you up here,” he says, folding his arms over his chest. He looks over the roof of the hospital. The bottle of wine is lying on its side against the frame of one of the skylights. He coughs. Cassie imagines it to be either dust or cigarette smoke caught in his lungs.
“This is supposed to help me remember that there aren’t stars in the night sky. And to casually remind me that’s there’s a world beyond my cell. One I play the role of active listener in.” She keeps her chin propped on her knees. Her hands are holding the arches of her feet.
The horizon holds an impending dawn. Cassie is watching the darkness shatter.
“Cassiopeia,” Ryan says sternly. “You aren’t usually like this. Not on the rooftop. Not on Tuesdays.”
“I’m tired,” she responds. Ryan grabs the bottle and pops the cork with his teeth. The atrocious smell of bum wine fills her lungs. It’s the type of alcohol fit for a Shop Rite sales aisle. It’s the cheap liquor that possesses the power of transforming the average high school student into an independent-but-just-idiotic adult for one drunken night. It’s the wine Cassie’s crushed up medication can be easily hidden in.
“Not a good excuse.”
“Of everything.” She takes a long sip, letting the wine fall down her throat. Her tongue wipes away her chapped lips. Cassie can taste the metallic tang of her prescription. “Sick of being wrong.”
“So you’re going to prove them wrong?” Ryan takes the pen out slowly, doing his best to be inconspicuous. “What’s your scheme for that one?” He begins marking his skin with jottings of her mental deficiency.
“I just heard this –“ Pheo pulls her hair into an untidy ponytail. The natural crimson shows proudly and illegally.
“If you say voice, I swear to you, my psychiatric career is complete,” Ryan interrupts. He continues writing away and Cassie is finishing the wine with every long gulp. Her head is lightening with each intake.
Cassie rolls her eyes and gives him a careless laugh. “It was my grandfather’s violin. I heard it play.” She heard this ringing of a symphony in the back of her head minutes ago. It flowed with every word and sound around her. Mixed with Ryan’s voice and the splashing of car wheels against the built-up puddles on asphalt. “Not anymore, though.”
“And about your plan, then?” Cassie leans over far enough to notice a sloppy Venn diagram inked onto his skin.
“I don’t have one,” she lies. Lying isn’t something Cassie usually does. It feels fresh on her tongue. “But everyone’s going to know one day. About stars.”
“About you? Do you want to be famous?”
“No. I just want to show New York City the lights past the streetlamps.”
Ryan looks up from his constant scribbling. “You don’t have a plan and yet you’re this confident.” He sighs. “Is this because of your painting? Is this a sudden outburst of –“ Cassie is laughing again.
“The truth’ll come out.”
“You’re not scared? Anxiety is prominent in cases like…. give me my pen.” Cassie pulls his arm closer and grabs the pen in one hand. First, she corrects his spelling and adds in a few commas with carrots.
Then Cassie writes in capital letters, “THE UNIVERSE IS GOING TO CATCH ME.”

Standing atop the steep slope, the cadence of the violin is whistled by the wind. Cold pulling the skin off Cassie’s bones, goose bumps rise with the dropping temperature. The grass before the straight drop down scurries and the treetops scatter. She feels larger than it all. At one glance, the world seems malleable by just the simple wind. City lights are ablaze in the distant.
Cassie’s run away from everything. You see she was sick of being wrong.
She leans against the power plant walls. Wires drape above her, tangled and pulled from the walls. Cassie thinks about how much time has passed since she left the hospital. The time has slipped through the hourglass without notice.
Long enough for the drugs to have worn off, she thinks with a smirk. Clear decisions now. No numbness.
Taking a rusted lever and folding her fingers around it, she pulls. Her other hand works to pull out and rip all the wires in reach. Cassie stands on the tips of her toes. She can hear the ambient hum of the machines silence. And the song of the strings is now blaring.
Cassie turns, looking at the sky with wide eyes and high hopes. And there they are; there they shine. The city is gone; the skyscrapers disappeared into the darkness. There is no visible flaw in the horizon with the night engulfing the smog in the clouds and the cigarette butts on the staircase to the subway.
The stars are just like Van Gogh’s, moving and glowing in her sight. She steps away from the power plant of New York and finds herself lost in the constellations. Light is illuminating her hands and the sonata she hears is battering against the walls of her skull.
They’re everywhere all at once now. She smiles, teeth showing in her wide gleam. She decides it’s better to stumble upon beauty than to have to forage for it. Cassie thinks back and remembers that the lights follow her, no matter the skyscraper lights or the sunshine.
Cassie’s eyes unfocused, the lights are growing and shielding her vision from actuality. She keeps moving towards the spiraling luminosity until she feels her bare toes reaching the edge of the cliff.
“The universe is going to catch me.”
Cassiopeia leaps and she listens to the strings of the violin ripping. When the arms of the night release her, Cassie’s neck breaks.
The empty midnight sky looms over her, taunting the lifeless body with reality.

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