She couldn’t stop wiping her hands on her jacket. It was as if there was some invisible stain, some unseen gunk that she could feel, but it wouldn’t come off no matter how hard she scrubbed. She felt disgusted, and there was nothing she could do about it. She continued nervously rubbing her hands on her jacket, not knowing what else to do.
“Ms. Elena?” a voice called from down the hallway. “They’re ready for you now.”
The girl, no older than seventeen, whipped her head up at the sound. She tried desperately to keep her calm, but she knew that she would never be able. Why was she here? The walls crawled with worms and slime dripped from the ceiling. The lights flickered even as they hung unnaturally, and she was afraid. She could not remember how she got in the sickly hall, but something deep within her knew that she had to get away. She wanted to run, to turn and never come back, but she remained frozen.
“Ms. Elena?” the voice spoke again, closer this time. A hair-covered beast with massive, shaggy arms and drooping jowls poked its head around a corner. Its axe hung ominously from the straps that wrapped around its chest and back. “Ms. Elena, are you coming? You requested this meeting, after all.”
The girl’s teeth began to chatter with fear at the sight of the terrifying monster, but from somewhere outside of her, somewhere further than her own mind, she felt urged to stay. She looked down at her hands and was acutely aware of how dirty her hands were, though they appeared perfectly clean. She scrubbed them on her jacket with renewed vigor, knowing it would do nothing.
“Don’t listen to the creature,” it whispered in her ear. The girl turned to look at the flower-shaped growth that protruded from her shoulder, her constant companion. The flower’s center inclined towards her as if blown by the wind. “There is nothing for you here,” it insisted. “Leave… Choosing to come here was a mistake. They will kill you, they will harm you. There is nothing for you here.”
“Ms. Elena,” the shaggy, massive creature repeated, reaching out a clawed paw. Its bloodshot eyes, though crazed, seemed to implore her. Not entirely sure why, the girl raised a shaking hand and accepted the grip.
The monster grinned and growled low. The girl’s atrophied, shrunken legs shuffled along at the creature’s side.
“Run. Get away. Go. Find a hole and crawl into it. Be anywhere but this accursed place,” the oleander flower on her shoulder whispered. Its pleading was urgent, but for whatever reason, the girl kept walking, trying not to see the blood-red worms as they inched along the walls and called out jeering discouragement. The axe-wielding monster at her side gripped her hand tighter, leading her on through the twisting halls.
“Here we are, Ms. Elena,” the shaggy monster growled from the top of his massive height. “The doctor will be in shortly.”
The hairy creature released her hand then and walked to the doorway, guarding it. The girl panicked at this, thinking that the frightful beast would never allow her to leave, but then she noticed that it faced outward, almost as if it was trying to protect the room from whatever was outside. She felt dirty once again, but she knew that the invisible gunk on her hands could never come off. She scraped them on her denim jacket anyway, desperate to be clean.
“You’ll never be clean,” the oleander hissed. “It’s a lie. False hope.”
The girl was almost convinced by her perennial guide, but she once again noticed how strange it was that the monster who led her to this room faced outward. Trembling, she remained where she was.
There was a change in the room all of the sudden, a shift in the presence. The girl turned to see a figure she could not discern. It seemed to her formless and too bright to perceive. She had to avert her eyes to remain standing.
“Hello, Maria,” it said. “Will you let me help you?”
“NO!” the flower on her shoulder shouted. “No! Never! LEAVE US!” The oleander’s agitation was evident.
The girl, not entirely sure why, gave the slightest nod of her head.
“This will hurt,” the brightness said, “but it is for the best.”
It reached forward and grasped the babbling flower by the base of its stem. The flower screamed, and pain flooded through the girl’s entire being. She could feel the roots in her shoulder tense and pull, and for the first time she perceived that they wrapped all the way around her heart, reaching up into her brain, and all through her. The oleander screeched and roared such that the girl’s ears began to bleed. The roots inside of her pulled where they were planted, threatening to tear out her flesh.
But just when she thought that she would perish, able to bear it no more, the roots were stilled, and in a rush of inner motion, she was freed of them. Her eyes clasped shut and an explosion of light caused her to stumble backwards, striking the wall and slumping down to the floor. Through flickering eyelids, she saw the brightness struggle with the poisonous flower, but as she watched the world as if by strobe light, the brightness became a man, and the flower that had so long lived attached to her flesh became a horn-covered lizard, blazing in a shield of flames. It struggled against the man’s grip, but it did not prevail. The man placed the lizard upon the floor and brought his heel crashing down upon its head. The fiery lizard struggled no more.
Breath filled the girl’s lungs and she felt relieved yet bewildered. Her eyes felt heavy, but they lightened more and more as she struggled to open them.
The man who had been the brightness stood in front of her, being the first thing she saw. He had a well-groomed, chestnut colored beard, and kind eyes. He looked into her with compassion, as he bandaged her wounded shoulder.
This was only the beginning of the changes that had taken place, however. As the girl looked around, she noticed that there were no worms on the walls; the ceiling did not drip with slime. The axe-wielding monster at the door was no more, and in his place stood a vigilant, dark-skinned soldier who guarded the entrance with his assault rifle. He was muscular and fierce, but she felt that she had no reason to fear him.
Then, her eyes strayed to the dead lizard in the corner, still burning with strange fire.
“How do you feel?” the man who had been the brightness asked her.
Unable to grasp the fullness of what had taken place, but aware that something tremendous had happened, the girl shook her head and took a tentative breath.
“I’m not sure,” she began. “My hands still feel filthy, but I guess that wasn’t-” She stopped midsentence suddenly, having lifted up her hands, which had always felt as though they were covered in unseen gunk that she could never get off. Instead of being clean and fresh as they had always appeared, they were instead covered in blood and gore. Horrified, she immediately began trying to rub away the stains on her jacket, but it accomplished nothing. The man who had been the brightness shushed her, and took her hands in his own.
He closed his eyes, and the girl watched in amazement as her red, bloody hands blanched and drained of their disfigurement and damnation. The gore and the guilt passed into the man’s hands, and when he let go, he was the one who was red-handed. He stood up quietly then and walked to the sink, turning the handle, and he began to wash the filth from his hands. When he turned the water off, his hands were clean once again.
The girl could not stop staring at her hands. They appeared clean again, but they felt clean as well- a feeling she had never known. The man who had been the brightness toweled off his hands silently as the girl gawked at her own hands, then poured her gaze over the changes all around her. The room was well-lit and clean, like a doctor’s office should be. Art from various thankful patients lined the walls, and there was a corkboard full of thank-you notes addressed to the man who had been the brightness. A feeling of peace fell over her, and she shook her head in consternation.
“Yes?” the man who had been the brightness asked. “You have a question in your eyes.”
The girl nodded, searching intently for the right words, still shocked from all that had taken place.
“Was I… was I insane before?” she asked. “Or am I insane now?”
The man who had been the brightness finished toweling his hands and he neatly replaced the towel upon its rack.
“You have experienced both worlds,” he said. “You know now which one was madness.”