I do not know where the boundary is. The point where the normal ends and the insane begins. I have seen them myself, the crazies, rooms and rooms of them, and still I don’t know.

I am staring at the door. There are only two of us on this planet. There is me, and there is her, the one who could walk in this door. But the door remains closed. This is better than when it lets in others, those who are not her. Because the way they open it is the same way she would. The illusion lasts for only a second, but in that second the insides turn to ice and the face is on fire, you can try to disguise it with dark glasses or hide behind a book, but everyone sees right through them, and it must look pathetic, because after a while they stop going in or out, as if the door itself harbors some kind of threat. Whatever tattered remains of reason I have left tell me that I am inconveniencing them all horribly, but it is beyond my power. I turn away, I stare into books, at walls, at Jackal’s ears, anywhere and everywhere, except it doesn’t matter, at the slightest rustle from the other side of the door my gaze locks itself to it, before I can so much as have a single thought about it.

Only when it gets late, too late for her, as she’s never out at this hour, only when I don’t even need the assistance of a clock to be sure she’s not coming, only then can I stop waiting and look around. The faces, the eyes, but in them I can see only doors, hinges, handles, keyholes, and they are staring back at me with weary resignation.

“Welcome back,” Sphinx says, limply waving the gloved rake at me. “Do you even realize how badly you are getting on everyone’s nerves? Would it be possible in the future to keep it to yourself?”

His words hurt me, make me ashamed. I understand this was not his intent, not really, and this makes it worse.

“Look at your mouth.” Tabaqui shoves a shard of the mirror in my face. “Lizard skin.”

In the mirror I see sickening white scales. I run my tongue over them, and they acquire a wet sheen.

Sphinx is sitting on top of the pillow, his dead arms on both sides, palms up. The black leather palms. I close my eyes. In the iridescent darkness comes her face. White, as if powdered, in the halo of wiry red hair. Whiter and harder than in reality.

“I can’t keep it to myself,” I say. “I can’t and I don’t want to.”

“All right, don’t keep it to yourself then.”

These words throw me back to the cold windowsill in the deepening dusk of the classroom, where Tabaqui is telling me: “You can’t bottle it inside. It needs to be let out.” They both said the same thing; they said it differently, and in case of Sphinx this is not at all what he meant, but it came out the same. I understand. I can either be a door maniac and spend the rest of my life waiting. Or I can open the door myself, from this side.

Waiting is much, much easier. Also more cowardly.

I call for Alexander.

“Can I please have the green sweater?”

It’s a talisman. My lips are now the lips of a lizard, and lizards are running up, dancing up the front of the sweater, almost real in everything but color – white; peculiar and unnatural. These would never shed their tails, would never lounge in the sun. They are mine. Everyone says I look good in them.

For some reason putting on the sweater makes me imagine that I could actually drive out to her. What for? Nothing. Just to say something to her, there, on the other side of the door. It’s Tabaqui who senses where I’m headed. He sees me, my intended route, my folly, but he doesn’t say a single word, he keeps our secret, he doesn’t even look at me as I crawl past him.

“Where are you going?” Smoker asks.

“I’m going to break the curse of the door.”

“You’re weird. You are all weird tonight.”

Now that I looked at the door up close, from below, I see that it’s just a regular door, there are a million other doors like it. I open it and break free. I stop being its prisoner. It has been opened; does it really matter from which side?

I drive, overwhelmed by the joy of my insanity, by my courage and my indifferent acceptance of the inevitable ending. All things come to an end, one way or another. I start talking to her before I reach her.

The girls’ territory, which I’ve never seen before, is as familiar to me as if I come this way every day. I drive on invisible rails, knowing exactly where I need to end up.

And here she is. The four girls who were following me in a mute escort fall back. I wave to them and thank them, even though they did not do anything to help me, but to me they are like birds in a forest when you are looking for one single bird – the more of them around, the better your chances.

“Hello,” I say. “My red haired love.”

She comes closer and looks at me, puzzled.

“…So you’d like to know how it was? A curious thing, everybody wants to know, but nobody ever asks. You are the first. Strange, isn’t it? I would tell them if they asked, but they all think it would be painful for me to rehash this. I guess they’re right. Those are not the fondest memories that I have. On the other hand, I do want to share them with someone.

“How I got there I don’t remember too well. I know it was in a car, and the driver spent the whole time talking about his relationship with his children. How he’s struggling to communicate with them. He was sure that I would be very interested in that, for some reason. Or maybe he tells it to everyone he gets to drive. Like background music on the radio. I don’t know. His talking really annoyed me. When your world crashes down around you and your life ends, what you want is to fade away quietly, and things like that ruin the concentration. How are you supposed to fade away when someone is grimly reciting the multiple sins of various teenagers. Especially if he obviously means to convey his conviction that you are somehow mixed up in that as well. Simply by virtue of being about the same age. So I was humoring him, mumbling and nodding at appropriate moments, while trying to ignore the constant mentions of “you” and “your kind”. Turned out, I needn’t have bothered. When we picked up my mother at the agreed spot, he turned to her and declared that her boy is a nasty piece of work, and even though he’s got two of his own, who were certainly going to be the death of him one day, they’re not a patch on me, because it’s screamingly obvious that in the “being the death” department I am simply without equal. And then immediately started repeating the same stories about his kids.

“Funny? No, not really. Not at the moment, at least. He and my mother were cooing in unison for the rest of the way, and I was busy being bitter about the time and effort I wasted on that idiot and his rants instead of thinking of something important to me, and about the reward I got for my trouble.

“When we got there it was already late at night. My mother went to fill out all those forms and questionnaires, they took me to bed, and I fell asleep, right away. I was so tired I didn’t even have time to look around. And when the morning came, I found myself in a different world. Kind of like the Sepulcher. I was in the Dead House.

“The beds were old and worn. You could see in them all the people who had ever lain or sat there. Also coughed, spat, thrown used tissues and picked their noses. It was all imprinted in the frames. In layers. And you know what? I've never seen pillows like those anywhere else. They were under the sheets. You couldn’t move them. One time I lifted the sheet and saw that the pillow was stitched to the mattress. I asked if I could get a normal, regular pillow. They said I couldn’t. What if I decided to throw it at my fellow patients in the middle of the night? Or smother someone with it? You never know what an insane person may suddenly be up to. They explained that any loose object, no matter how harmless-looking, could be turned into a weapon. There was no logic in what they were saying. If it were possible for me to smother people with a pillow, why couldn’t I just throttle them with my own hands? I told them that I couldn’t live without a movable pillow, that I needed to hug it before I could fall asleep. This upset them greatly, but still there was nothing they could do. The rules were very clear and very strict on that point, and on everything else. On the pillows, the blankets, the knives and forks. A very nervous job that must have been, if you think about it, trying to control every little thing. This was all that the Spiders there were busy with, all day, every day.

“They were afraid of the pillows. Afraid of the full moon. Afraid of the crafty crazies. They all had these enormous soft slippers, and they shuffled noisily on the night rounds. There were always rounds. As soon as you managed to fall asleep, there came another round. Stopping at each bed. What was it they were looking for, I don’t know. The master round was at six in the morning. The noisiest and the most thorough. With pointed questions, about how your night went, why were you looking tired, and what was it you had been doing that was so tiring. I often wondered if they themselves would be able to have a rested look in the morning if someone were to do rounds around their beds all night. But you don’t ask questions like this in that place. It would get you marked as a crafty crazy, and that’s the worst that could happen to someone there.

“But if you don’t count the rounds and the morning interrogations, it wasn’t that bad. Books everywhere. Sweets, fruit, gorge yourself all day if you want to. TV, music channels mostly. Budgies in cages. Plastic flowers, bright and gaudy like lollipops. There was this one guy who was always trying to eat them. Liked it, apparently. You know, when you put these flowers that look like candy in people’s faces, you shouldn’t be surprised when someone decides to find out how they taste. But they were surprised, surprised and offended. They were beside themselves with worry when things like that happened.

“Obviously they didn’t have much to cheer them. It must be hard to keep smiling all day while surrounded by scores of walking dead picking their noses. The smiles ossified by the end of the shift. I kept thinking how they would need to scrub their faces with special brushes when they got back home, to make the smiles go away. Either that, or go to sleep still smiling. Except that would freak the kids out. So I guess those of them who had kids did scrub their smiles off.

“Well, I did say those weren’t my fondest memories. But it wasn’t all bad. There was a streetlight outside the window. And sometimes the wind would rustle in the trees. If only the orderlies wouldn’t shuffle their slippers, chasing away the sleep, it might even be tolerable.

“No, the orderlies were nothing like Cases. Cases don’t give a hoot about how they look or what they do or how they do it. The orderlies had everything spelled out precisely, and they always followed every rule. They were told to smile, and so they smiled. The lab coats always freshly laundered and pressed, the voices always soft. Drinking during the shift – absolutely out of the question. Bitter on the inside, sweet on the outside. The job makes them bitter, but it also requires them to be sweet. So that’s how they are. They could never pay me enough to take a job like that.

“Of course not, no one was banging his head against the walls there. Or pulling his hair out. Or being stuffed in a straitjacket. At least I’ve never seen anything like that. No bona fide certified nutters. They just crapped all the time, like birds, the place smelled of a zoo. All I’ve ever dreamed of there were toilets. Streets, cities of toilets, all of them with stuck flushes. And the magazines were sticky from the fingers. The fingers that almost never left their noses. Or other places.

“Listen, if it’s so disturbing to you, I can stop. It’s actually not what I came here for. Why would you need to know about things like that? This is not the real Outsides, and there’s no way for you to end up there, the world would have to turn upside down before you do.

“I’m serious. I am really, really serious, I’m not at all joking. By the way, I have almost no sense of humor. And since I’m being completely and totally serious, I can tell you that most of the things that I understood while there I could have understood right here, and much earlier. For one, I realized that this is my home. I’ve never thought of the House that way until I was taken from it. The worst thing about this was that the realization came too late, or that’s what I thought then. I realized that I couldn’t eat all those sweets that would have caused Tabaqui to squeal and faint – and he wasn’t there to do that. I realized that I couldn’t sleep alone, without Jackal breathing somewhere in the vicinity of my navel and Sphinx bumping my ear every time he stirs. Without the rest of them babbling all through the night about some stupid thing or other, which is nevertheless vitally important to discuss right then and there. I realized that without them I couldn’t be. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t breathe. Then I decided that I should die, since I would never get all of that back. Except it wasn’t that easy. Because that’s the scariest thing about that place – that you couldn’t just die when you needed to, not when they were constantly checking if you were still alive. It’s not that they would really care if you were to suddenly become a corpse, just that this would be against the rules, and their job was to never allow anyone to break the rules.

“Don’t think about this. People like you don’t need this. People like you…

“I am not distracted, why? I am just telling you everything, as much as I can. And none of it has anything to do with you, like I said, that’s not Outsides, that’s… a thing apart. You know what, I think I’ll just tell you how it all ended. Here goes.

“R One showed up. His coming was like an earthquake, the unfortunate building was this close to collapsing.

“No, not really. I’m exaggerating, of course. But try to imagine: R One, with those eyes of his, the eyes of a real dangerous nutter, the kind for whom the Dead Houses are created in the first place, except they’re not that easy to snare, the real ones, so the locals most likely never hoped to meet one in their lives.

“He was the first person who wasn’t dead that I’ve seen in thirty days. The first that the rest of them saw in their lives, probably. No wonder they were petrified.

“The way I behaved was shameful. I wouldn’t want you to have seen me in that state. You, or anyone else. It’s just that I have already lost all hope by that time. I grabbed him and held on. When I saw him, it was probably the most terrifying moment in my life, because I knew then that they had asked him to go and see how I was doing, and now that he did he was going to turn around and go back, and I’d be left there forever. I probably kissed his hands, though I’m not sure. I definitely was not letting go of them. Before he went away he would have had to pry me off, and I wasn’t going to make it easy for him. A hilarious spectacle, I’m sure. He asked if I wanted to go back to the House. I said that there was nothing I wanted more than that. He asked if they had done anything bad to me while I was there. And I said no, all they’ve done was drive spikes through my soul, and it forgot how to fly. He didn’t like that, and he took me with him. The end.

“Back here everything was exactly the way I left it, but time did pass, a lot of time, and there were things that happened without me in them, things I missed, didn’t get to see. They’ll tell me, of course, but it isn’t the same. At first all I wanted was to say to them how much I loved them, but I never did. Things like that are very hard to actually say out loud. And then you came. The most wonderful, wondrous being. The most alive, bright and warm…

“All right, I won’t, if it’s so unpleasant to you. But it was important for me that you knew. Knew exactly who you were. You are more alive than anyone else here, just as Ralph was alive in that place.

“What else should I talk about then? What can I tell you that everyone wouldn’t know already, if you don’t count the Dead House?

“Sphinx? Well, it’s hard to talk about him, he’s not Sphinx for nothing. There are a lot of Sphinxes hiding under one skin, and they are all completely different. And it all depends on which one is loose at this particular time. Which one went for a walk. Their schedules are known only to him, so I can’t be a guide for you there. But he is not my enemy, and he’s not the horror of my life, that’s just Logs’ imagination.

“Well, yes, I did lunge at him with a knife in the canteen. It’s funny to think about that now. How is it funny? All right, not funny, stupid. And not because he’s stronger. Because that was exactly what he wanted from me. He wanted me to move, nothing else. Every night I tried to quietly crawl to where he was sleeping, to throttle him; you think that was easy? And then, when I did that for one hundred millionth time, he opened his eyes and said that he’s taking the mattress and moving to the classroom for the rest of the night, because I am finally good at it. Even too good. I sat until morning like a statue, I just couldn’t believe that he would actually say that. Because up until that day, or rather night, he did everything to show me that he was not afraid of me, that I was too pathetic, too clumsy, that he could safely snore away two feet from me, since I wouldn’t be able to do anything. And suddenly there he was, admitting that, in fact, he didn’t have a decent night’s sleep for some time now. That this was enough, and that he’s getting out.

“And in the morning everything changed. Never again have I heard a single mocking word from him, a single insult. He became a different person. I was sure that he existed in this world only to cause me grief. To poison every minute of my life, every second. That this was his one and only goal. That he is an insane sadist, that everyone lives in fear of him, that nobody dares so much as sigh loudly within the range of his hearing…

“See, now you’re laughing. But try to see it from my perspective. You live alongside this monster, the whole of your life is taken up by thoughts of what you could possibly do to destroy him, and then the monster simply says “all right, that’s it, we’re done” – and becomes a calm and cheerful guy. How could this be even possible? Of course they would all explain to me afterward, giggling, that this was just the damned apprenticeship, that Sphinx only ever wanted what was best for me, and that he succeeded, “look at you crawling, amazing”, and still I couldn’t look at him for a while after that, couldn’t even hear his voice without breaking out in nervous shakes. Oh, I wanted to kill the others too. He wasn’t the only one playing this game, they all participated to some extent. Even Tubby. I mean, Tubby must have been really scared, he loved Sphinx, and here’s Sphinx all of a sudden not paying any attention to him anymore, as if he turned into someone else. Sphinx told me that Tubby’s suffering was the hardest part for him in all this. But that was later. And Tabaqui said that actually all of them were afraid to go to sleep at night, afraid that I would finally get to Sphinx and bite his head off, and that he diligently scattered his traps and squeakers all over the bed, so that they would wake him up if something like that was about to happen.

“I refused to acknowledge Sphinx as my teacher, I never once called him that even in my thoughts. Until the Dead House. Until Ralph coming there. I forgot to tell you, when he came, he wasn’t alone. He also brought my mother. And she brought a photograph of me, from three years ago. I have no idea what she wanted with it, and why she insisted on taking it out of her purse and showing it to me. Maybe she always keeps it close to her heart, for sentimental reasons, or maybe she wanted to compare it to the original. In any case, this was horrible. It is a bit hard to explain. Do you get this sometimes, when you glance at someone’s face and immediately want to look away? Well, the kid on the photograph was one such case. Instantly recognizable as a piece of shit. Sour grimace, puffed lower lip, eyes full of boredom and self-importance. Bestowing the gifts of his condescension on the world.

“Not true! I am not like that anymore. You’re saying this because you haven’t seen that photograph. I’ll bring it sometime. Yes, I have it here, I begged it off my mother in the taxi on the way back. I now own that pigface bastard. To remind myself what it was that Sphinx took up teaching. And also what I would have been now if not for the House. That same bastard, just bigger and nastier. Turns out, there is more than one life within one life. I’ve never thought about it like that before. Now I understand my mother, and forgive her. I wouldn’t want to live with the creature she carried around in her purse either.

“I was going to bow to Sphinx every morning and say “Thank you, O great teacher”, but I never could bring myself to do it. There is no way of saying these words so that they don’t sound pompous and mocking, even when you’re completely serious about it.

“No, never. Just once I asked him what had made him take this huge burden upon himself, and he said that he was still surprised that he’d done it. “There was something in you. Some kind of inner core. I just risked it.” For an hour after that I stared at the pigface bastard. Looking for that core. There wasn’t any core there, none. Or maybe Sphinx just knew where to look, and I don’t.

“You’re laughing again. I like it that I can make you laugh. The way to a woman’s heart lies through laughter.

“I did not come here to tell you about Sphinx. Yes, I am looking for a way to your heart, I freely admit that. I am looking for it day and night, here and yon… Can I kiss you? Just as I thought. No one is ever allowed to do what they want most in the world. In heaven, maybe. Or is it that in heaven you stop wanting for anything?

“I am not a maniac. I simply love you. I want to be with you, always and forever, I want to feel you next to me when I sleep, I want to kiss your mouth and your forehead and your fingers, and the patches on your jeans, and that silly print on your shirt. I want to always carry you in my arms and make love to you everywhere I could, I want a dozen kids with you, all of them gingers, wild and free, with scraped knees and snubbed noses, with the souls that no one would ever be allowed to drive spikes through. Except none of this will happen, so why are you so mad at me for saying it?

“Did you know that your ears are almost transparently red when you stand in front of a window? No, I told you, I am serious, I’ve never been more serious in my life. What do you mean, ugly? You’re ugly? You’ve got to be kidding. You have the blackest eyes in the world, your eyelashes could burn, your hair shines like a small sun. You are a flaming flower on a slender stalk, you…

“Sorry. Sorry. I’m not shouting, I’m whispering, I’m barely audible. And I’m not leaning, I am simply drawn forward. It is unbearably hot in here. It’s not? Well, it definitely is warm. I’m fine, I’m not ill, it’s just this place is hot. Or warm, whatever. And the sweater is scratchy. Does this mean I can’t come anymore? Yes, I’ve ruined everything myself, I understand. I’m sorry. So when can I come again?