By Madeline Gressman
“I’m ready to go see it,” Evelyn said one afternoon, stirring her iced tea calmly. We had been sitting silently on the porch, watching the neighborhood children play kickball in the street. I pulled my feet out from underneath me and sat up straight to look at her.
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“Dammit, it took me ten years. I’m ready now,” Evelyn demanded. I gathered up my sweater around me and stood. Evelyn looked up at me, surprised.
“You said now, let’s go now,” I said and slipped on my sandals to head back inside.
Evelyn always demanded that I refer to her as my grandmother, though legally we were never family. Now that she was alone, I had made a point to visit every weekend, whether we were watching Jeopardy, talking about Nora Roberts novels, or sitting on the porch saying nothing at all. She used to braid my hair as I sat on the ground, back resting against her rocking chair. Her fingers were the only ones able to twist my stubborn hair without causing me to yelp.
Evelyn was sitting in the car staring straight ahead, determined, before I had even found my wallet and proper shoes. She turned off the radio moments after I turned the keys in the ignition; the rest of the drive was silent.
The old women’s hospital burned down ten years ago, just as I had graduated high school. There were rumors that my class had set fire to it as some sort of senior prank, but no one had any inkling as to what had actually caused it to be completely torched. A few of us had gone out there a couple months later to see what was left and drink a few beers. To our disappointment, nothing was there but a few soggy and rotted pillars. A loss of our town’s crucial history, someone had said. I hadn’t known the truth back then.
As we turned onto the only road that lead to the hospital, Evelyn grew stiff. The single-lane road had carefully-planted trees that stood straight up in perfect, even alignment from each other on either side. “Like prison bars,” Evelyn had once described them. I couldn’t properly imagine Evelyn’s experience at the hospital; she had spared us any details but said enough for us to know how truly heinous it had been.
“Evie, shush. These kids don’t want to hear it,” my grandmother had said, putting a hand on Evelyn’s arm. She had ripped it from my grandmother’s touch, enraged that anyone try to silence her. Once my grandmother died, I asked Evelyn why she had gone there in the first place. She was stirring her tea then, too, and sighed in a way that told me there was too much for her to tell.
“My parents sent me, you see,” she had begun. “I was troubled. They tried to change me. Tried to change who I loved.”
The rest had come in bits and pieces, so the true gravity had never hit me at once. Evelyn still knew some of the women she had been contained with and regularly had lunch with one named Sissy, referring to her only as her sister in sin. The two had a bond unlike any friendship I had seen, both of them clinging to the only other person that had witnessed what they had.
“I can still hear them when I wake in the middle of the night,” Sissy whispered to me, slipping a cigarette from her purse. “The screams of the damned,” she explained when I turned to her in confusion. “They were always screaming, those halls were always screaming.”
There was still a gravel parking lot, despite the grounds being completely abandoned. I pulled into the closest spot and turned off the car, afraid to look at Evelyn. She didn’t seem upset. As she opened her door, I hung back and leaned against the door, letting her have a moment alone.
“Satan finally caught up to them,” she whispered, holding her fingertips to her mouth, staring agape at the ruins. There was a massive hole where the basement must’ve been, with concrete still holding on to its edges. She gestured for me to come to her and grasped my hand when I did. I didn’t know what to say, how to apologize for what she had gone through. But Evelyn had always taught me there was nothing to say about this place; it simply happened.
Evelyn and I stepped forward into the wet grass, letting it sway against our ankles and dampen our socks. Staring at the massive building, I tried to imagine Evelyn as a young woman, looking through barred windows at the parking lot. I wondered if she knew she would be standing here again over 50 years later.
Evelyn began laughing, shaking her head. Not sure how to react, I squeezed her hand. “Ev?” I asked.
“It’s over,” Evelyn whispered, chuckling softly and turning her face up to the sun. Saying my grandmother’s name, she told her that she was finally free.