Institution 28

This one requires an introduction.

I wrote the first draft of this story — all 16,000 words — in one sitting. It was 2001, and I sat at my family's chunky Windows 95-era computer typing furiously into the early hours of the morning because the story just kept coming. It was as if the Peter Ash was narrating the story to me, and I was simply transcribing it. For several years I considered it my best work, but found it difficult to share — though not autobiographical, it felt deeply personal.

I wrote a revised — and substantially shorter — version in 2003. This is the version that appears below (with minor revisions). The prose is improved, and the characters more nuanced, but something is missing: somehow I'd edited out the spark, the very soul of the work. In removing some scenes that seemed too didactic or too exaggerated, I'd also lost an essential part of Toran.

It's now eight years later, and I still can't get the story — or the characters — out of my head. I'm not sure where it will go from here, but something tells me that I haven't heard the last of Peter Ash and Toran Carter.

Carl Sterner
February 2011

What follows is an excerpt from "Institution 28." The full version may or may not be posted at a later date.

Toran showed up one day in August, his hair a tangled mess of curls and his suitcase full of books. Of course the aids got him cleaned up, but even when I saw him with a buzz cut and navy blue shirt, there was still something not really right about him. Maybe it was the way his dark eyes sparkled in the light, or the way his smile stood out lopsided on his face, like somebody gave the corner of his mouth a little twist.

I'm Ash. Peter Ash, actually, but everybody calls me Ash. I may not be the smartest guy alive, and I'm no novelist, either, but I'm the only person who knows Toran's story from the beginning, so I guess I'm the one to tell it the way it really was.

It starts and ends with these Institutions — these schools for the future psychopaths of America — a program for us "high risk" kids who don't fit into normal schools, for the people they're afraid will grab a gun and put a bullet through somebody's head. And maybe they're right. After all, that description fits me perfectly. I killed my mother, four years ago now, when I was in sixth grade, long before I even knew this God-foresaken place existed.

See, the Institutions aren't like normal schools. First off, we all live here. We go home on weekends and breaks, or for special vacations — but mostly we're here in the dorms — the bunker, we call it, because it's this long low metal building that looks like an army barracks or a bunch of warehouses. The buildings feel like an oven in the summer and sound like a train wreck when it rains, the metal roofs like the head of a giant drum. The buildings sit on a piece of old farmland in the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois, cornfields as far as the eye can see beyond the chain-linked fences, topped with barbed wire like a crown of thorns — far enough away from civilization to keep us out of sight and out of trouble. The whole place is crawling with councilors, psychologists (psychos, we call them), special-ed teachers — all kinds of do-gooders determined to make us into decent hardworking individuals. Some of them really mean it, too. It's almost touching, really.

But even the sincere ones didn't know what to do with me; and they had even less of a clue what to do with Toran. Toran was restless and wild and too smart for his own good. He was dangerous, they said. Unstable as hell.

He was also my new roommate.

* * *

"Where the hell are my books?" he asked, standing in the doorway and staring at the opened suitcases on his bed.

I was lying on the top bunk trying to make my hand stop drawing and start doing math, and I didn't know what to say, so I just stared at him stupidly. Toran asked the question again, even less polite.

"They probably got taken," I told him.

"Obviously," he said, real slow. "Where are they?"

"I dunno." I thought about kicking him in the face.

"Are you blind? Did you see anybody come in here?" His words were thin and sharp like paper cuts. Right in the face, I thought — if only he were just a little closer. Bam! — blood and teeth everywhere. "They were fucking gone when I got here," I said. That's when Mr. Mathers showed up.

Mathers was an English teacher, and he was also the dorm supervisor for our wing. He lived down the hall, and he wasn't a bad guy, really, except that he sometimes spat when he talked, so nobody ever sat in the front of his classes.

"Are you Toran?" he asked, smiling.

"Do I have a choice?" Toran asked. Mathers laughed — a tight, forced laugh, somewhere between a cough and a bad impression of a machine gun. Toran stared at him until he stopped, then asked, "You wouldn't happen to know where the hell my books are?" I hated the sound of his voice: the way he changed it to sound so false, sweet on the outside and full of venom underneath.

Mathers wasn't an idiot, but he pretended not to hear it, and explained the Institution's policy on personal items in the dorms — and right then, just as Toran was getting angry — when his eyes lit up and his jaw muscles flexed and he was about to delight in saying something caustic and biting — Mathers said he'd see what he could do, and said that if Toran needed anything else, he'd be down the hall.

Mathers had the books back by the next day — but somehow, I got the feeling that Toran was disappointed. He'd been looking forward to a fight, to making things hard. That's what he was good at.

Like the first day of class, for example. The first thing he did was waltz in late, drop all his stuff on the ground, sit down, and go to sleep. Ms. Higgins woke him up and gave him a warning, so Toran got out some paper and started writing. Mr. Mathers probably would've let it go, but Ms. Higgins wasn't very bright so she asked Toran, "Is there something you’d like to share with the class?"

"Yes," said Toran. "As a matter of fact, there is. I'm writing a letter to our local congresspersons protesting the poor quality of teaching in these Institutions. It reads as follows — "

"Toran," Higgins said, real gentle, "put it away."

"To whom it may concern," said Toran, "I am a student in Institution 28 — "

Ms. Higgins took the paper out of his hand, nice and calm, and told him, "Toran, you know this isn't the way to handle the situation. That's your second warning."

Toran took the paper back from her, nice and calm, looked at her, smiled, and said, "I am a student in Institution 28, one of the supposed 'charter schools' created — "

"That's a detention. And I want to see you after class. Now put that away."

Toran nodded and put it away, and in five minutes he was asleep again. Ms. Higgins looked like she was getting a tooth pulled when she woke him up again, but she didn't have a choice: she'd started the battle, and there was no way that she could let Toran win. "Maybe you'd like to go see Mr. Jackson."

Toran just smiled. "Yes," he said, "I think I would." And he picked up all his things and waltzed out.

Ms. Higgins tried to smile and go on with the class, but her voice was shrill and she kept glancing at us out of the corner of her eyes. She was gone by the end of the semester.

And things only got worse. By the end of the term, Toran was doing more service hours than classroom hours. The rest of the time he's spend in our room, reading. It was like he thought the whole thing was a big mistake, and that somebody was going to show up at the door one day and let him out.

* * *

There was a thin blue scarf I kept hidden in my winter coat, and I would take it out sometimes and smell it. It was my mom's scarf from home, and it smelled just like her: like perfume and dish soap and pumpkins, because she'd worked in a canning factory in the fall. Now it just smells like must and dirty socks, but it really didn't matter. I could still remember her when I had it in my hand.

I was lying awake one night a couple of weeks after Toran got there, my mom's scarf covering my face, listening to the window rattling in its metal case when I heard another sound from the bottom bunk. For a long time I just laid there, listening to Toran cry. "Toran?" I finally asked, talking through a lump in my throat. "Everything okay?"

He didn't say anything for a long time, and then he mumbled, "I'm not supposed to be here."

I almost laughed, because I knew he was going to say that — because it was his part, a line from the script he'd written for himself. "I bet this is all some sort of mistake, huh?" I asked.

"No, Ash, it's not a mistake," he said. "They want me here, so they can tame me and indoctrinate me. They want to make me into a nice little robot who will do his job and smile and not make any trouble."

"And that's why you're here." I tried not to image what he'd actually done.

"You want to know why I'm here?" he asked too loud, sitting up. "Because I broke the rules. Because I don't respect authority. Because some idiot gave me a bloody nose after school and I wouldn't take the blame for it. Because I called my principal an asshole instead of thanking him for dealing out injustices and bowing down to kiss his feet."

"Right, Toran."

"Who gave them to right to lock us up?" he was saying. "The Constitution? I don't think so."

"Why won't you tell me what you did?"

"Because I — " And he faltered for the first time, his voice sticking. "Because it was stupid. Because you won't believe me." And he started telling his tale — the first version of it, anyway. He'd tell it a number of times, and each time it would come out a little different. But this time, it went something like this. He and his friends had gotten caught talking about blowing up the school at lunch one day. He said it was just a joke, but they'd used it to spy on them: to monitor internet access, read emails, interview friends, family, teachers. Other kids used it as an excuse to pick on him, since they knew he couldn't do anything back. But one day he snapped, and everything had just fallen apart around him. One day he couldn't take it, and he pummeled a kid and cursed at his principal —

And I could almost believe him. Because part of him needed so badly to be believed.

"Hey Ash?" he asked, and he didn't sound dangerous anymore — just lonely. Just frightened and lonely, just like the rest of us. "How long've you been here?"

My stomach knotted. "Three years." I was supposed to graduate soon, but I could tell I could tell the psychos didn't think I was ready yet. I could tell by the way they talked to me during sessions, and the way my dad looked at me when I went home.

"What's it like?" he asked. "What's it like to live here for so long?"

"What do you think it's like?" I asked, and it came out meaner than I meant it.

"Do you miss it? The way things were?"

I didn't say anything. I just lay boiling on the top bunk. I wished he hadn't brought it up, because I did miss it. Of course I missed it! I missed it more than he could ever know, because at least his life still existed somewhere. Mine was gone, nothing more than a memory — things could never be that way again, because she was gone. Because my mom was dead. And I had nobody to blame but myself.

Her death — her murder, my mind said, no matter what anybody else told me, that I thought the safety was on, that I didn't know the gun was loaded — was just the beginning. Then everything went to hell. I started cutting school, sitting on the loading dock of the abandoned auto parts store and getting stoned. I started getting into fights because some idiot had trouble keeping his mouth shut about my mom, and I had trouble ignoring it. And yeah, it hurt. And yeah, it made me angry, just like the psychos say when they look at each other and write something like "unstable" on their goddamn notepads. But how could I help it? I would've changed it if I knew how.

And pretty soon they didn't know how to handle me, either. Not my teachers, not my dad. He seemed almost relieved when he found out I was going to the Institutions — when they made me take the tests early, and found everything that was wrong with me. He told me he'd count the days until I got back, but it didn't sound like a promise.

"It's not right, what they're doing to us," Toran said from the bottom bunk. "It's not right."

"No," I said. "It's not right." But the words I really wanted to say were stuck in my throat, eating away at me from the inside.

* * *

My dad sat across from me at the kitchen table and stared at me. "So," he said. "They tell me you're making headway." He'd made lasagna and garlic bread, bustling around the kitchen, trying too hard to make it feel warm and homey. But the fluorescent kitchen bulb flickered and buzzed, and cast a cold light across the table.

"Yeah," I said. "I feel much better." As if I was sick. The things Toran said stuck with me, always at the back of my mind. The garlic bread was burnt, and the lasagna noodles leathery. I chewed them determinedly.

"Well, that's good." He stared at me again. I hated the way he stared at me. He'd never looked at me the same since Mom died — since I killed her. I couldn't blame him, but I still hated it, because it made me think about it, too, and I was tired of thinking of it. Because there was nothing I could do. I pushed tomato sauce around my plate with a blackened heel of bread.

I could've gone home every weekend, but I avoided it at much as possible. It was better for both of us way. When we were together, we only depressed each other. But that didn't stop me from being homesick.

"How's that new roommate of yours?" my dad asked.

I smiled. "He's ... something else."


"He says the Institutions are unconstitutional. He says they're just a way to segregate us by class — a way to jail people who haven't done anything wrong, just because we don't play by society's rules."

My dad "hmm-ed" and leaned over the table. He looked down at its reflective surface, a layer of dust covering the scratched nicked surface: the evidence of emptiness covering the evidence of a former life. He set down his fork on the side of his plate. "Peter, you do have a problem. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, Dad. I know that." But the words came automatically. I wasn't sure what I knew anymore.

We watched a movie, a cop flick, sitting on the floor in front of the TV because the couch was covered with stacks of magazines and laundry needing to be folded — something Mom would never have tolerated. He made popcorn and gave me a mountain of ice-cream overloaded with chocolate syrup — always trying too hard, always with the awkwardness of a special occasion, when all I really wanted — longed for, ached for — was the welcome monotony of an ordinary night.

The laundry on the couch made me sick every time I saw it. It reeked of my mother's absence.

copyright © 2013 by carl s. sterner, unless otherwise noted. more...