Blackwell Retreat was idyllic from the outside.
It was on an island just off the coast in an old manor house. It stood proudly with three broad storeys and two wings built in pale stone and bright, polished windows, with tastefully climbing ivy breaking the monotony.
It dominated the highest point of the island with its gardens gathered neatly around its feet and smoothed out over the gentle roll of the hill like a floral skirt. The lawns were precisely manicured and kept, with trimmed hedges boxing the gardens into their designated sections. Flowers grew sedately in their beds, never rioting, always fragrant and gentle. Paths wound through the grounds in sweeping curves and patterns, the finely-ground gravel so pale it was almost pink against the vibrant green of the lawns and hedges.
Looping around the perimeter of the Retreat’s grounds and looking over the cliffs of the island, a tall fence in stone and iron created a protective barrier. Carvings and decorative ironwork sought to give an attractive facade to distract from the restrictive nature of such a wall.
At regular intervals along the outer fence stood short, stubby towers. Large enough for a comfortable sitting or sunning room, they had wide views of the lake that lapped at the island’s ankles through generous windows, and were topped by rooftop viewing platforms.
In the brochure, the pictures showed the island gloriously bathed in sunshine, in full colour and all its glory. The euphemistically-named ‘guests’ were shown walking the pink gravel paths dressed all in loose white clothing. They were smiling, cradling freshly-picked flowers, tending the garden beds, looking romantically out over the water while the wind swept their hair up off their shoulders.
The staff were in pale grey, looking caring and attentive. They were offering helping hands and standing protectively nearby. Watching with kindly eyes.
Blackwell Retreat was warm and welcoming, wholesome and holistic. It was the place to go to recover, to rediscover yourself, to heal whatever was hurting you.
On the boat heading over from the shore, the Retreat’s newest ‘guest’ had her reservations about the trustworthiness of the official media. She was sitting in the back of the boat, tucked into a seat inside the tiny cabin with her arms lashed to her sides. She was grubby, unkempt, her dress stained and torn about her knees from when they had thrown her to the ground. A thin blanket had been tucked around her, apparently to keep her warm in the journey across the water but in reality to cover both the state of her dress and the restraints that kept her in place.
A staff member in pale grey was standing nearby, keeping a close eye on her. Unlike those pictured in the brochure, he had a wide leather belt on under his waterproof coat, with rings and loops on it to keep all his essential equipment close at hand. The new guest had already tasted the taser and plastic zip ties; she wasn’t looking forward to finding out what else he carried.
She pointedly wasn’t watching him; instead, she kept her head turned to look out of the boat’s small window, catching glimpses of the island when she could. She stared up at where she knew it was, even when the roll of the boat over the lake’s waves showed her only water, which only added to the vague air about her. She managed to snag glimpses of the wall at the top of the cliff and the bump of one of the viewing towers against the sky.
This was going to be worth it, she told herself, carefully keeping her expression calm and bland. Her determination was all internal; if the staff got the idea that she was more aware than she was, she would be in trouble. More trouble than she was right now.
Her determination had got her this far and it was going to make them carry her right into the Retreat. They had no idea how many times she had tried to get in there through legitimate means: to visit a guest; to inspect the facilities; to work on the grounds. Each time, she had been refused by carefully-worded blocks. Visitors were not allowed to preserve the sanctity of the Retreat. Inspections were unnecessary for a private facility that had no complaints against it and all of its certifications were up to date. Their staff were carefully vetted and they had a waiting list of candidates ready to step onto the island as soon as a vacancy arose, which they almost never did.
It didn’t make sense. They had been lying and everyone knew it. The Retreat had several complaints registered against it, but they were stuck in the legal system, waiting for the cycle of beaurocracy to bring them to the top. Somehow, that never seemed to happen.
The new guest knew because she had raised some of those complaints herself. She had badgered the system to see where the cases were only to be blocked at every turn. She had pushed so hard that the lawyer had used up all her money.
That left her only one way to get onto the island: as a guest. To avoid suspicion and scrutiny, she was going in as an unwilling patient who needed a lot of healing. The local authority outsourced such services to the Retreat in exchange for… well, they called it a public service but there had to be an ulterior motive to the Retreat’s generosity. Like burying complaints in red tape and making evidence of wrongdoing disappear.
Once she had made up her mind, it hadn’t taken that long. Some research and practice had set her off in the right direction. She had stopped washing herself and her clothing. She had locked up her home and given her keys and wallet to a friend. And she had gone to an affluent district, assumed a distant expression, and wandered for two days until someone finally made the call and had her picked up. She had struggled, just enough to make them mean it and expedite her extraction to the Retreat, then she had been unresponsive when she had been put into the cell. She had struggled harder when the grey uniform had shown up and put hands on her. She hadn’t had to fake how the taser had made her shake and cry and soil herself. The hardest part was not looking any of them in the eye.
The little boat had nudged up against the jetty at the foot of Blackwell’s cliffs. Wood creaked and ropes stretched as they lashed the vessel in place. A woman with severe hair had stepped on board in a stiffly-ironed grey uniform that fit her like it was made with her in mind. She was pristine: her uniform was smart and clean and she didn’t have a hair out of place, despite the wind that whipped around the island and ruffled up the waters of the lake. Her voice was as sharp as her appearance and almost cut right through the new guest’s reverie.
It almost threw her totally off her game. She was close to glancing up, even though her name wasn’t Elizabeth or Cochrane. That was just the ID she had had made and tucked into the pocket of her grubby dress. After all, she had made a stir under her real name and they'd remember it. But they didn’t know her face. She had no fingerprints or mug shots on any file. They had no way to know who she was, not now. So she was wearing the name of a woman she had admired since she first learned the story of the reporter who had faked her way into a facility not unlike the one at the top of the cliff.
“Ms Cochrane?” the uniformed woman said again. “Elizabeth? Can you hear me?”
The new guest continued to stare off out of the window as if she couldn’t hear anything at all. She blinked slowly and unfocussed her eyes, which ironically took more concentration than focussing them did.
The uniformed woman gestured pointedly at the man with the belt, who was still watching them. He stepped forward and took the new guest by the arm, half-lifting her to her feet. She pulled her attention into the boat and looked around without focussing on anything. She moved when and where they guided her, tractable and quiet, and tried not to trip over the blanket that seemed deermined to tangle up her feet.
The tricky part was over; she was here now. She had no reason to cause trouble and was still nursing the bruises from when they picked her up off a street corner. They were taking her off the boat and heading up the jetty towards the elevator to the cliff’s top. She was going exactly where she wanted to go.
The woman didn’t try to talk to Elizabeth again. She didn’t speak to anyone: she walked with an imperiousness that expected everyone to part before her and do her bidding, and it seemed that they did.
The three of them paused at a small hut that marked the joining of the jetty to the base of the cliff. The woman stepped inside and signed their entrance off, exchanging quiet words with the person posted inside. The man stayed outside with his hand clamped securely around Elizabeth’s upper arm. Then the three of them stepped inside the elevator car.
The metal cage doors clanged closed behind them and Elizabeth knew that this was it. She had made it. She turned around and stared out over the water as the elevator shuddered and groaned, then scraped into motion with a lurch. It was like the opposite of a mine elevator: a metal cage that rose up the side of the cliff to the lofty heights instead of down into the depths of the earth. To Elizabeth, it felt the same: rising into darkness, with walls that would close around her and shut her off from the rest of the world. The direction was irrelevant; the result was the same.
The car rattled all the way to the top with only a couple of moments that made Elizabeth’s stomach lurch. She hadn’t had anything to eat in nearly two days and she found herself getting lightheaded. Figuring that it would add to her persona, she let herself sway into the man who was still holding onto her arm. He was like a burly rock under that pale grey shirt and didn’t seem fazed by the drift of her weight into him.
The roaring of the water against the rocky cliff base dropped away from them as they squeaked up into the high wind. Elizabeth was getting dizzy and starting to wonder if they’d just keep going all the way into the clouds overhead, and then higher and higher… but the car jerked to a stop so sudden that she almost buckled. The man was all that held her up and he half-carried, half-dragged her out of the car when the cage clanged open. The shadow of the gate at the top fell over Elizabeth and she closed her eyes in relief. She had really made it. She was here.
Now the true work would begin.
“Take her to intake,” the uniformed woman said. “I want her clean.” Her heels clipped sharply as she strode off towards the manor house.
The man holding onto Elizabeth grunted and gave her a shake. “Walk,” he told her, with a tone that suggested things would not go well for her if she didn’t carry her own weight.
Elizabeth tried to pull herself together and hold her own body up, but her head was still spinning and her knees felt like jelly. She let her head drop forward, hair straggling over her shoulders and obscuring her face, and though she did her best to walk on her own, her steps wove drunkenly and she still leaned heavily on the hand guiding her. The man grunted again but was apparently appeased by her ability to mostly carry herself.
He walked with long strides that she had to hurry to keep up with, which didn’t improve her stability at all, and he jerked her around corners by her arm. Her shoulders were already sore and she knew she had bruises developing under the iron grip of his fingers. She didn’t cry out or complain, though; she was compliant and meek, the easiest guest in the world to manipulate.
Though she peeked out through her hair to see where they were going, her escort moved too fast for her to track and the dizziness thwarted her attempts to orient herself. She had no idea where the woman had gone. Tomorrow, she told herself. Tomorrow I’ll start figuring it all out. Today is just about getting in here.
She did her best not to cry out or struggle as she went through what the woman had called ‘intake’, no matter how humiliating and painful it was. Only when she was finally alone did she let herself shake and sob quietly.
“Up.” The command was short, sharp, and as unwelcome as the sunlight that poured onto her head like scalding water.
Elizabeth groaned and covered her eyes, then began to move when someone cuffed her shoulder.
The morning was blasphemously bright as she pushed herself up out of the cot in her tiny room and, from the slant of the shadow against the wall, barely begun. Elizabeth squinted and scrubbed at her hair, sore all over, bleary and weak, but slowly coming awake. So slowly. Too slowly. She frowned and cast about for some clothing to replace the long nightdress she had been put in to sleep. Wincing at her bruises and stiff muscles, she didn’t even notice the nurse leaving the room as she got about climbing into the white shirt and loose pants folded on the chair in her room.
They fed her, which helped to clear her head. The food wasn’t great nor particularly tasty, but it went down easily enough and quieted her stomach. Then a nurse was pushing a pill into her hand and stared hard until Elizabeth put it into her mouth and made a show of struggling to swallow it. In truth, she had palmed it, determined not to let them drug her into senselessness before she had a chance to pursue her purpose in being there. The nurse checked her mouth but missed the sleight of hand, and Elizabeth quietly thanked her slightly-shady friend who had taught her a few tricks after much badgering.
“Why on earth do you want to learn this stuff?” he had asked.
“It’s important, Ronan. It’s for Katy. Please?”
“Fine, fine. But if it doesn’t work and you wind up in trouble, you don’t get to blame me, all right?”
After sustenance and drugs, the Retreat’s guests were allowed to wander the building’s lower floor freely, at least where the doors were unlocked. It was a sunny morning but the outer doors were all barred, leaving some of the guests to sit or stand at one of the many windows, pining for the outdoors.
Elizabeth strove not to get caught up in the slow, calm cadence of the place. The patient shuffle of soft slippers against the polished floors. The long looks at the grounds beyond the walls. Deep breaths and sedated smiles.
Sedated. She reminded herself not to stand out, so they wouldn’t know she hadn’t taken her pill. She shuffled slowly and blinked languidly at the walls around her, trying to build a mental picture of the layout of the building. Paying attention while looking vague was hard work. As soon as she could, she disposed of the secreted pill in an innocent pot plant’s dirt.
She wanted to understand how the place worked and where everything was, but she hadn’t managed to wander down half of the east wing before a burly chest appeared in front of her. She bumped into it lightly and murmured something apologetic, but his hand closed around her upper arm when she tried to redirect her slow steps to circumvent him. She winced and shrunk from his grip; did they all grab in the same place? Was it part of their training? She was going to have bruises on top of bruises after this.
“Time to see the doctor,” he said. A different voice from yesterday, she noted. He was shorter, too. He had the same habit of jerking her around corners by her arm as the other one, though, and he wore the same belt.
He took her to an office that looked like most doctor’s offices she had been in: a desk cluttered with paper and a computer; shelves stuffed with too many books with complicated titles; and more chairs than any meeting in the room ever needed, most of them uncomfortable. She dropped into the one she was pulled to a stop in front of and sat meekly.
“Ms Cochrane.” The doctor was a woman, dressed in the typical white coat over pale grey scrubs, like the nurses. The plate on her desk said Dr Shenlane. “Elizabeth. Do you mind if I call you Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth looked up and nodded slowly, her eyes wide. This was the tricky part. This is where she had to fool a professional. Keep it all slow, she reminded herself. So slow they think you’re struggling to put thoughts together. It would give her time to think and make sure she didn’t rush the answers. It would also help her stay calm and avoid mistakes.
The doctor’s questions were predictable and, if she was reading the woman right, a little bored. Did she know her name and where she was. Did she know why she was there. What happened before she was picked up.
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth said, letting her tone slide into wistfulness. “It’s all fuzzy. I think… something happened? But I can’t remember.”
“How did you get to the corner of…” Dr Shenlane consulted the notes on the file in front of her. “Beltrane and Fry? What were you doing there?”
“I’m not sure… I think I was taking a walk.” She sat up straighter. “That’s it, I was taking a walk. A very long walk.”
“Walks are nice.”
“Where did you walk from?”
“I don’t remember…”
“Where were you going?”
“Away. Just… away. Forward.” She shrugged and looked down at her hands, folded carefully in her lap.
Dr Shenlane sighed and flipped the file closed. “Well, Elizabeth, I think we have some work to do here. You’re going to be with us for a little while - a month at least, while we assess you. Longer depending on your treatment. Do you understand?”
The doctor leaned forward a little. “We’re here to help you, Elizabeth. We’re going to get you well again.”
Elizabeth hesitated and lifted her gaze as far as the surface of the desk. She avoided looking the doctor in the eye as much as possible; she was sure the doctor would pick up the lie if their gazes met for too long. Eye contact always made her feel naked.
“Thank you,” she murmured after a moment. It seemed like the thing to say. Inside, she wanted to tell the doctor where to shove the treatments and promises, but that wasn’t why she was there.
Katy was here, sitting in this chair, she thought. She sat here and listened to this woman’s promises. She probably believed them; Katy had been naive that way. And then she had gone missing.
“Okay, you can go back to the sun room now. Seth will show you.” The doctor rose and smiled, and gestured invitingly towards the door.
Elizabeth rose and shuffled obediently to the door, then let herself out. The rocklike Seth was outside and took hold of her arm to take her back down the east wing again.
This is where Katy was when she went missing, Elizabeth told herself as she looked at the guests around her. This wasn’t like the brochure: there were no warm smiles and freshly-plucked flowers. There were empty eyes and hunched shoulders, defensive postures and wary looks.
And I’m going to find out what happened to her.
Thank you for reading!