by Rhian Waller

In the future, science has discovered that we are subject to more complex currents than we can imagine.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



Both, I say.

* * *

I can't remember much from the time before; only the tangled remains of white robes, prayers and mutterings, gifts laid out wrapped in silk and muslin, kisses on my forehead and milk and salt issuing from my mother. Milk when I was born, salt when they took me away.

* * *


The first time I met Selene, I was terrified that I was undergoing an acute psychotic episode. I was thirteen years old and had woken to find that I had bled between the legs (a disturbing enough experience in a place where unauthorised blood was taboo). The hormones and the stickiness and the smell of decaying fish sent my sleep awry and vivified my dreams.

I opened my eyes to a room filled with blue light, dawn light that draped through the small high windows like waterfall curtains, like milky silk. The air was misty with remembrance. The walls were heavy stone and the pale grey granules were what convinced me of realness as I ran my fingers over them.

There was an uncomfortable metal cot in the corner. On it lay a crumpled lump of sheets. They sat up and said blearily:

'What are you?'

Then I came back.

* * *

Here I am, in a small room of my own. To be truthful, it isn't completely my own because I now share it. It is curved like a globe—the coving and the skirting board merging into the walls. Angles aren't allowed here, scissor sharp and dangerous. I live in a lilac fishbowl.

I am currently submitting myself to the weekly check. It looks like a beauty session, except that the filaments of the brushes are used to electronically check the moisture in our skin, our pulse, the presence of bodily deposits and to sweep the possibility of pests from our hair. There is no rouge here, no blusher or firm foundation. The technician sands my nails down to nubs—toes and fingers both. My teeth are already squared by a diet of ruminant foods.

The process is finished and the technician—a respectful, bow-headed wisp of a woman—packs up her tools and wheels them away.

Luca and I look at each other. Luca rolls her eyes—this is only the second time she has put up with the check.

'I don't know why I have to have mine filed,' I said mildly. I am a nail biter.

'How long have you been here?' Luca asks. Her voice is stained with battlesmoke. I flinch. I was not expecting a response. Luca is not catatonic, but she is rude.

'Forever,' I say.

'And you haven't realised that they're doing it to remove your weapons?'

'Of course they are,' I replied. I am too tired to be angry; always too tired. 'They do it to stop us from hurting ourselves and each other. Because of our Condition.'

'Condition,' Luca snorts, and she scratches ineffectually at the stump of her leg. It is rounded, the skin pulled tight and sewn over the bone. She refuses prosthetics.

A pip slides through the sound system and into our ears. It says without words: Lights Out.

I am already sitting on my bed and already wearing my night clothes (we are always in our gowns). I get up, grasp the blanket and cast it into the air to straighten it out, and then I climb underneath. Thick weave wool itches over the thin tissue of my gown.

My official birthday was two weeks ago. I can now legally share a room with another lifetimer. Luca is older than me. She is new to the facility, and is entitled to a private room for two months in order to acclimatise. However, she asked to be moved since she didn't like the colour of her walls.

'Cyan is a poisonous shade,' she said, and then she laughed for no reason I could see.

There is a tacit understanding in this. On the one hand, our carers ostensibly disapprove of dependency, but on the other, they know that what will happen will happen. Starved of contact, we cling to each other like orphaned rhesus monkeys. It is one more strand that loops us together, ties us to this world and secures us from the next, so that we can do what we are meant to do.

I hear Luca's foot slap as it hits the floor. She hops blindly to my bed and sets her stump upon the mattress, creasing it. I roll away to give her room.

'Fuck-bucket,' she whispers as we lie still for a few moments. Her hair is dark and coarse—it smells of the outside. I worry that it might contaminate me. She is crude and her muscles lie like knotted wood over her bones and under her skin. The world is a terrible place, I think, to make a woman so hard. I am better here; I am safe here.

I let her tickle my insides with her blunt fingers and her tongue. I lie still, so still because I am frightened of her. She says: 'Do you know what it is like to be dismembered? To be pulled apart? I'll show you. I'll stick my stump up there and split you in half. Would you like that, bitch?'

Luca can bite and she tears at my hair and hurts me, with her half leg resting over my shoulder.

* * *

Today the vents issued forth the faint smell of citrus to cleanse the corridors.

'I reckon she was a criminal,' says another lifetimer from across the table. We eat with plastic spoons—nothing sharp. Porridge is at nine o'clock. We eat rice with roughage at twelve, stew at five and a light pasta at eight for before bed time after the mandatory social hour.

We all look at Luca-the-potential-criminal. She is slumped over her porridge. If she does not make an effort to at least look like she is eating, they will start putting things in her water that will give her no choice. Her straggly hair drips into the oats. It will be cut off soon, shorn to the shining scalp.

'What makes you say that?' I ask.

'I don't know,' says the lifetimer, a doleful woman with the facial features of a gnu (yes—we know what a gnu is, and ibex and the oryx. We are well read from a library liberal with any texts that don't contain suicide or self-abuse).

'Does she hurt you?'

'Yes,' I say.

We stare with gentle curiosity. Criminality means nothing much to us. We have nothing to steal and she can do nothing to us that we haven't already thought of.

'Look at the lines around her mouth,' says another. 'She's seen a hard life.'

'And her leg as well,' says the first lifetimer.

'Maybe she was a soldier,' someone suggests. Then we go quiet because a carer comes past. They are distinguished from us in that they wear trousers and t-shirts—as white as our flimsy gowns, but thick enough to stand up to the rigours of the outside.

They suck our words away. They have shaved heads, like the skulls of religious acolytes, to prevent us from snatching at them.

During Mandatory Social Hour, we are supposed to talk and share stories or play games of chance or skill. The loser gets the opportunity to choose the next match so that they have an advantage. Cards or blocks or boards and questions. Somehow we all manage to win half the time.

Luca doesn't talk or play. She sits in the corner with her chin in her palms. My Condition makes me cry unreasonably, randomly, like a shredded raincloud. But the clouds in Luca's head make her want to rest, so we leave her alone.

Maybe she was a thief or a murderess, once.

* * *

8:30 am: Wake up call. Showers become available.
9 am: Breakfast Hour
10 am: Private Sharing Hour
11 am: Outdoor Recreation Hour
12 pm: Nurture Hour
1 pm: Lunch Hour
2 pm: Optional Denomination Hour
3 pm: Creative Hour
4 pm: Free Recreational Time (learning and entertainment)
5 pm: Evening Meal
6 pm: Optional Nap Time
7 pm: Group Sharing Hour
8 pm: Light Supper
9 pm: Mandatory Social Hour
10 pm: Final Checks and Night Time Ablutions
10:30 pm: Lights Out.

* * *


'You are older,' she observed, sitting up in bed. Her voice held a rich weave of conflict. I heard a measure of pride plaited with regret for my growing up. It was shot through with a thread of pleasant jealousy. 'I knew that you would be returning.'

She smiled thinly and patted the top of her cot. It was an invitation.

'What name do you have?' she asked. It took me a few moments to rearrange her question into an understandable form.

'I'm Selene,' she said. On the edge of perception, through the thick door, I heard groans and screams and the jud-jud-jud of uncontrollable sobbing. A chill went through me, ruffling my muted mind.

'Where are we?' I asked, my adolescent voice jagging.

The stone walls oppressed me. I could feel the weight of them crushing down.

'This is New Bethel,' said Selene. I saw the bed springs pressing into her thighs and wondered that her skin didn't puncture.

I inspected her and she inspected me. She saw the goosebumps rising on my skin and patted the bed again. It looked like a metal cage.

'You are being cold. Come. Sit.'

This time I obeyed. The stone took away my blood-warmth. I was glad to wrap the dirty blankets around my shoulders, even though it held the tang of fear-sweat and urine.

The light clogged by eyes. Sun through fog. Midnight moon corona. A cataract window.

'Can you open the door?' I asked shyly.

'No. It close.'

We sat in silence. Her skin smelled stale and her face was drawn and pulled tight across her bones. People sometimes find that their skin goes baggy and loose when they lose weight, like unleavened bread dough. Selene was stretched. The arch of blonde hair at her brow was a row of gold thread stitching her scalp to her skull. Her face receded away from her nose. She must have been beautiful before the stones ground her beauty away. There was gentleness still, in the fragility of her breath and the way her hands shook ever so slightly. There were bruises up and down her arms.

I had no way of telling what she thought of me, scrawny and chilled and bereft, with bones too long for my body and my breasts just beginning.

'Are you in prison?' I asked.

'Of a kind. This is a hospital for the brainsick. They do things to us here.'

I shivered. In the library (I was now allowed free access, being fourteen years old) I had read about institutions and the various barbaric practises they'd used on people with Conditions. Maybe I had woven my reading into an elaborate hallucination. When I came out of it, I would tell the carers. They would help me. Until then, Selene and I shared our warmth. She smoothed my bristling crown and asked me about my mother. When I admitted that I could barely remember her, Selene regarded me with compassion, her sad eyes softened by the milk light of the moon.

'Better to not be remembering,' she said. 'It is dislikely that I will forget my mother and my popa or the little ones. Their lack hurts like a needle in the arm, always.'

I was confused by her simile, but I didn't ask her to explain.

Sleep crept up on us as shadows widened the gaps between the stones. Before she shut her eyes, she whispered: 'Be coming again next week please.'

I promised her solemnly. And of course, as soon as I did, I knew that I could never tell the carers, because they would find a way to stop me.

* * *

During the creative hour (three to four p.m.), I watch Luca. She stands before her easel, brush in hand. We are given a wide palette to work with, those of us who paint. Others choose to write poetry or prose on the consoles, engage in craft work, or music which the carers record as it is improvised. We play with harps and xylophones and computer programs that synthesize whalesong and wolfsong. Usually I prefer the instruments, but today I shadow my room mate.

She uses black and red in copious clots. Her horsehair spirals on the canvas, creating voids, vortices and siphoning tunnels of non-colour, around and around and around.

'What is it?' I ask, from around my amateur impressionist vision of lilacs, all good, all natural. I like purple; it makes me want to cry less often and not in the urgent, throat-hurting way. Once I cried so much I thought my eyes would crunch and grind when they rolled, from the salt lodged in the ducts.

'This?' says Luca, gravelly-harsh. 'This is what the world looks like from the inside of a bullet wound.' She adds a staccato series of red splashes.

Her stump rests on a chair for balance. She refuses to sit down. I can see the internal battle written in sweat at her temples, her muscle and nerves screaming for rest, fighting against her will.

In the end, the carers take Luca's brush from her and lead her to a seat by the window so that she can look down upon the meadow. Little white animals grazed, their worlds limited by hedgerows and streams. In the distance there are mountains—in the spring sun they are the same lavender as the Creative Room walls.

'Try selling that one,' mutters Luca as she passed me.

Thief or soldier, I wonder. She knows bullet holes and she knows how to take away value. By not Creating, she is shutting up her energies in a retroactive, unhealthy way. Not only that, she is effectively stealing revenue from the carers. They sell what we Create to a public hungry for our art. The money allows this place, this castle in a valley, to exist with pastel globes, with no frightening edges. They calm people, the paintings, sketches, music streams and articles. They calm people and bring them good luck because they are made by us. To them we are hermits, lightning rods, latter day saints and icons.

I have found peace, of sorts, because I have a secret in a place where there are no secrets, and I have found a love just for myself in a place where love is generalised.

Still, my natural anxiety asserts itself. I haven't imagined Selene in weeks. I wonder if Luca has anything to do with this, her presence changing me.

At night I have to find excuses to leave the room. Sleep escapes me and I pad down the corridor to the toilet.

None of the cubicles have doors and there is a carer stationed on a chair at all times to make sure we don't take in the dirty water or immerse ourselves without authorisation. The carer smiles at me as I hike up my gown and urinate gently into the bowl. I don't know her name. We don't know any of their names.

* * *


They'd sedated her again. That's what she told me it was, through cracked, moisture-less lips. She moaned and made a cocoon of her bedding until the first sting of the needle bled away. Then she cried, hard and hopelessly against the blade of my shoulder. I felt her stain me.

'It is unpossible,' she said, still slurring. 'I shall die here.'

'Shhh,' I said, and rocked her back and forth. By now, through obsessive plundering of the library, I'd worked out where I dreamed. This was the past. I sat beside a living creator—an ancestor of the psyche rather than the blood. She carried the same burden I did and I felt her heart heave with the weight and the waste of it.

'In the future it will be better,' I promised, soothing her brittle hair. 'In the future they will realise our value.'

'What is the value we are?' she asked. Her eyelids spasmed, slapping her cheeks with lashes so white-straw that they were barely visible.

'I dredged up the distant memory of my induction talk, of the weekly assemblies at the youth facility and of the information I'd sieved from historical documents, my research during Private Hour.

'Sometime soon,' I lied, knowing that later wasn't a possibility for her, 'scientists will find that, as well as the commonly perceived dimensions, you know, forward-back, up-down, side-to-side, tides of time, movement in the electromagnetic spectrum and so on—there are many others to explore. They will discover that the organic mind is capable of generating and being influenced by its own field—that emotion is not simply internal, but has lasting and predictable input upon the rest of the world.'

'Mmmm.' My words had taken on the rhythm and cadence of recitation. She was no longer fighting the poison penetrating her veins.

'They will come to know that 'depressives' are a conduit for the negatives that result from organic existence: that they absorb, obsess over, process and punish themselves for the general malaise that affects the gamut of living experience. They exist to suffer so that others don't—so that the species can continue living, killing, seeing those around them die and dying themselves without tumbling into a consciousness of despair.

'This will be noticed, because…'

I cut off my speech because she had fallen asleep. I nursed her until dawn when I found myself drifting, despite the cold and the weight of her head across my kneecap.

* * *

Today Luca broke some of the equipment for Recreation Hour. She grabbed the hoops as they were being passed out and snapped them, using her instep as leverage. The carers were worried that she would use the splintered tubes to cut herself, but she just threw them to the floor.

After that, she stood in the centre of the yard and screamed, full-throated and raw-throated until her lungs gave way and she could only croak. Maybe she was angry because her one leg would not allow her to join in. We must stay out in the yard for an hour each day regardless of sunshine, snow or storm, to receive the requisite amount of vitamin production.

Perhaps Luca is a soldier or a criminal, and she only knows how to destroy. I watch and imagine a giant pair of shears closing around her leg, crunching through the bone and liberating the ooze of marrow.

I ask her about the hoops in the evening, when she is nibbling and tasting my folds of flesh. She lifts her head and growls: 'Shut the fuck up.' Then later, when her fluids mix with mine, she pinches and calls me a 'cum-dumpster'. I think she likes to imagine that she is abusing me somehow, as though she wants to chase the good and soft away. When I set my lips (and my teeth, just a bit) to her nipples I wonder if I feel so very different now than I did to my mother. I will never know. I can't have children because of my Condition.

I miss Selene.

* * *

The colour chart on the wall of the Social Hour room says this:

Reds: are signifiers of power, anger and danger. If you are feeling particularly in need of vitality and focus, please apply for transferral to a Red Room. However, be aware that exposure will be limited.

Orange: is a colour associated with joy and happiness. For levity of spirit and a temporary release from Melancholy, please apply for transferral to an Orange Room.

Pink: is associated with femininity and nurture. It is energising but more gentle than Red, so if you are in need of visual and atmospheric comfort, please apply for transferral to a Pink Room.

Green: is the colour of nature and renewal. For reconnection to nature, please apply for transferral to a mint green room.

Yellow: is a colour associated with joy and happiness. For levity of spirit and a temporary release from Melancholy, please apply for transferral to a Yellow Room.

Blue: is a colour associated with reflection, cool and tranquillity. If your mind is ill at ease and you require relaxation, please apply for transferral to a Blue Room. However, be aware that Blue may deepen feelings of Melancholy.

Purple: shades are associated with imagination and connection to spirituality. If you feel that you lack creative impetus, please apply for transferral to a Purple Room.

* * *


'I am here,' I said, and we embraced each other.

'Without you, I would have been dying,' she says. 'I am counting the minutes until you come again. And every each time you change. You grow so fast. I swear you are an inch taller in a week.'

I didn't want to tell her that for me, the in-between times constituted months and days.

She was my mother and I was her daughter. It hurt me to see her muscles waste. She shuffled around the room in a way so familiar to me that at first I didn't realise that it was a movement I'd seen in mirrors.

One day she showed me the straps on the bed. My expression must have horrified her, because she assured me that they were for 'dislikely emergencies'. Sometimes the world went so black that she—and the other patients—(I could see nothing patient about them. Drugs, yes, but no patience)—had to hit out at it to make it right again.

'I am most lonely here,' she told me.

'To be lonely is to be human,' I said. 'It's perfectly natural.'

'Nature is very unperfect,' Selene chuckled. 'Such silly things you say. No, I mean, it is sad to be here with no friends. Do you have friend?' she asked, with a touch of trepidation and just a little envy.

'Where I live, everything is supposed to be equal. We are all supposed to call each other friends, so none of us do,' I explained.

'That is wiseness.'

'Will you be my friend?' I asked.

'Of course. So long as you are being mine.'

* * *

Today is a bad day. It is one of the days where my tiredness weighs me down so much that I am unable to move my limbs. I miss breakfast, which saps what energy I have left, and the sun through the window, beaming over the green-furred vale, seems dark to my eyes.

Luca comes in and slaps me.

'Wake up!' she shouts. I wail and fail to defend myself. Then I cry because she is so angry that she must soon be sent away to one of the other facilities, where they put the other sensitive people: the ones who suffer from different Conditions that make them furious or manic or not really part of this world at all. Luca is not Sad: she is Mad or Bad.

The carers take her away and one gives me a handkerchief that disintegrates when I blow into it to stop me from smothering myself. I feel guilty because it is my fault that Luca is going to be disciplined, but I stop crying in time to go to the Sharing Hour. Talking about how you feel is all good, all natural. There I tell the listening carer about what I have dreamed the night before, what I feel about Luca, what colour I think the air is today, what the painting I did in Creative Hour represents, how my self-esteem lies, what this ink-blot means—everything except Selene. Selene is mine, my woman to imagine, to cherish and to envision and enflesh.

Later Luca comes back into the room. Her eyes, glittering with the intensity that only black eyes can hold—narrow behind her straggles.

'I'm sorry,' I say as she climbs under the sheets beside me. 'I should have left the bed. It was my fault.'

'That wasn't the kind of waking up I meant,' she growls, her fingers finding my pubis.

'What did you—ah.'

She smells of rage and hatred and denial of self. In time she will come to smell of emptiness, just like the rest of us.

But for now, I drink of her and hope—(Hope? What is that? A word in stories) that I do not hollow her out.

* * *


The screams were louder, closer and more insistent. I felt a spasm wrack Selene's spine. There was a muffled thump of meat on metal and the screams stopped. The sounds of human hurt meandered through corridors and shivered through the grilles of the doors.

'Lithium,' recited Selene. 'Bromide, Insulin coma inducement, electric convulsive therapy, food deprivation, social isolation, cages, rages, broken rulers, beatings, dope, dope, restraining rope.'


'My mouth taste like meat ash this morning. They do not tell me what they are giving me.'

Her arms were bruised again. I could make out finger-presses. There was a particularly bad blotch on the arm farthest away from me.

Grey dove wings spread open at her temples.

'I was section,' she said, 'by three men in blue. They say: we are here for you. This has happened before, I think, but that the shirts were a darker colour. I fight, I bite and scratch. They use their sticks and I am caught.'

'Why did you fight?'

'Why did you not?'

'I was eight years old.'

'Lord forgive them.'

I sat in silence. I was uncomfortable with her mention of religion. The silence became awkward and generated a flame of anxiety in my stomach, so to puff it away, I said:

'There are people who develop a Condition as a result of trauma. Sometimes this is temporary. Others slide into the Condition after years of low-level pressure, like an unrewarding job, a trust-less marriage, bullying, and perceived underachievement. And sometimes they are born with it. That is what happened to me. The Condition, or any Condition, is just a predilection toward certain hormonal or electrical responses. Kedo Ergo Sum. We are anxious, therefore we are.'

I smiled and squeezed her hand, bird-boned, feather-frail.

'Something bad is brewing here,' she said, and then: 'shush-shush.'

For the rest of the night she rocked me and sang nonsense rhymes in a language I didn't know.

* * *

Today they simulated the smell of mown paddock grass, sweet and semi-wild.

The breakfast fibre is carefully measured so that it settles the system. My bowels move regularly, the same amount at the same time every day, just before Denomination Hour. I am shitting (oh, a word that I knew already, but that Luca taught me to use) for most of the devotional time. That's okay; many of us have given up on God(ess)(s). The rest, those who haven't, hold their own beliefs quiet and close—this is the time when they can pray in privacy.

Luca finds me slippering aimlessly down a rounded corridor.

'Come with me,' she says and tugs at me, a crutch lodged in her armpit. It presses red skin. 'Come on!'

She moves fast—slump-lurch. She learns quickly; only a week or so new to this place and already she knows her way through duck-egg blue, through sunset rose and narcissi yellow to the double doors that lead to the yard.

'It's locked,' I say.

'So? Hold this.'

She passes me a crutch and, leaning precariously on one, she pushes her hands up the tissue of her gown and into the wet place between her legs. She withdraws something that glistens silver and uses it to fiddle with the lock. It clicks open and she reaches back under.

'What was that?'


'You hide wire there?' I can't comprehend the potential for bleeding and danger, and the rules contravened. The crutch is taken from my lax hand.

'Yes. Shut your flap.' She pushes the door open and hops through. I follow. She leaves the door just to. No one would think to look for us here: it isn't the hour of physical recreation, and routine, so vital to our equilibrium, is instilled into us.

The yard is big enough that a jogging circuit will take five minutes to complete. No windows look out upon it—what would be the point? The reinforced glass costs more than the building material—and the walls are double head height and washed with mint green.

Luca lifts her head to the sky and laughs. It is a hot, cracking sound. Then, with glee, she heads for the parallel bars.

'We are only supposed to use them with supervision,' I warn.

'Fuck supervision. I don't get no exercise.'

She balances herself between the bars and lets go of the crutch. It falls with a flump onto fine sand. With a grunt, she proceeds to elevate herself with her arms alone and performs a series of push-ups. Her face floods with blood and I worry that she might explode.

'You aren't supposed to do that. Too much exertion brings on an excess endorphin rush. It'll destabilise your equilibrium.'

'Fuck my equilibrium,' she pants, strands of hair glued to her brow. She goes up down, up down. I am anxious that they will notice how flushed she is and how her eyes shine, but we arrive in time for the lunch meal.

One of the temporaries on my bench drums her bare heels against the floor and starts singing the same line of a song over and over again.

I want cookies, I want cake
I want sweet things I can bake.

I look down at the stew, which is chicken and potato with spinach and watercress—the same as it always is. Brown juice trickles off my spoon.

* * *



I suspected that part of my Condition stemmed from my memory. I could remember some things with absolute clarity; I recalled the taste of rejection (rather like rotten plastic), a phrase in a book describing the depredations of slavery, the scent that hung in the air at the end of summer when a grey lid was slotted over the sky. Those things came out at night and swirl in the dimness and sneak in through my nose and my ears and my half-open mouth.

Other things, like mother-love and words of kindness, remained an echo of a hint of a pang of nostalgia.


She was screaming when I dreamed her, and her hair was spreading everywhere, like the waving of her arms and fingers.

Miserable with fear, I crouched in the corner and put my hands over my ears to block out the howling. It didn't work.
There were two people holding on to her, one around her trunk and the other catching a precarious grasp of her ankles as her feet jerked and kicked. Her spine snapped straight like a taut fishing line.

Another person was following on behind, delivering orders.

'Watch that she doesn't convulse. Move your hold to the top of her arm. Apply pressure.'

Selene crumpled onto the bed. With the quickness of practice, the orderlies pinned her face down and the doctor tugged at the waistband of her trousers, exposing her shadow-dappled skin. He administered an injection straight into the muscle-pad of her buttocks.

They didn't see me. They were too intent on their job.

Selene's screams gave way to a shocked burbling. While her limbs were flaccid, they secured her to the metal bed by means of the straps. Then, with a cough and a shuffle, they left, bolting the door.

I unfolded myself and crept toward her.


Her tongue was tapping against her teeth, raising little bubbles of spit. She was speaking and I tilted my head close to hear the words.

'They've took them away, they've took them away, they've took them away, they've…'

She was restrained like a stretched starfish, leaving no room on the bed. I stood on cold stone and sang under my breath and something puzzled me.

Selene had said long ago that loss hurt like a needle in the arm, but her injections were routinely applied through the buttocks.

I found the solution in a tattoo above the crook of her elbow. It was a series of badly inked numbers stretched by growth and age.

Jacob's Ladders lanced through the dirty glass, bridging the dusty air. I imagined Selene riding them all the way up to the clouds and beyond.

* * *

They find Luca with the wire. I don't know how she managed to hide it—under the soft folds of the frame-less bed or within her own softness—I don't know.

They shave her head. She sits under the razor with her jaw muscles pumping like heart chambers. With her hair all fallen around her, she looks like a lifetimer staring at the wall. Afterwards she doesn't move an inch, even though it is Free Recreational Time.

'That was petty,' she says to no one in particular.

'What was?' I ask, because I am closest.

'They have me shorn like a sheep, and all because I kept a secret.'

I feel a pang of fear when I think of Selene.

'Oh they knew, yeah,' she continued bitterly. 'They know everything, control everything. It isn't just our nutrition or our sun exposure, or the colours or the smells. They know where we are every hour of every day, much good it does them.'

'It's for our own good.'


She glares at the temperature dial on the wall.

'It would do us good to be cold sometimes,' she snarls. 'Some of us need thicker skins.'

I take my leave of her and go to the library to watch some archive videos. I feel vaguely uncomfortable for the rest of the evening.

Days pass, all much the same. The grass in the vale below becomes a deeper green and is dotted with tiny yellow flowers. It's all good, all natural. When I look out of windows, Luca sneaks up behind me and says: 'Isn't it a lovely white tower? Aren't you a pretty little Rapunzel? Look, they buzzed away our hair. Who can climb up it now?'

She nips me with her chisel-teeth and lashes me with her tongue, all to make me react. I refuse to meet violence with violence: it isn't in me to. She makes me afraid and the other lifetimers keep away from her as well. They have heard about the wire and decided that yes, she must be a thief as surely she stole it. They cling feebly to the carers when she stalks their way. Her pictures are of grey mountains peaked with black spears that spike the cloud canopy, or of castles made out of rib bones holding her in, for she is at the heart of it all.

* * *


I didn't mention seeing Selene restrained—as far as she knew I had never even been there.

We sat side by side, our calves pressed against the freezing metal of the bed frame. She leaned against the headboard, I against the footboard, feeling the bars press into my rib-cage. The only allusion she made to the incident is when she said:

'The nurses here are afraid. The inmates are stirring.'

'Do you feel mad?' I asked.

'In a world such as this you'd have to be mad not to.' She smiled with thinning lips.

'Do they feed you enough?'

'Oh yes—enough tablets to feast a bear and calm the belly of a wolf. I know what it is to starve, my sweet, and this is not it.'

'I wish I could bring you the things you need.'

'Food of the fairies?' she laughed. 'Or books that fade with the coming of morning, like puddles in summertime? You can't carry iron with you, I know, so I will not ask for a file or a hammer to escape with. I am misfortunate to have such a fey companion.'

'I love you.'

'I love you also.'

I loved an invention of my own broken brain. But she seemed real when we talked and when we gazed out through the tiny outlet into the outside world, hand in hand.

'Sometimes,' she said, my head on her shoulder, 'when the dusk falls and the sky becomes a single blue, you can almost convince yourself that dawn is breaking. But it is always just a trick.'

'Blue is for inner peace,' I said. 'Do you feel peaceful?'

'I do when you are here.'

And that was the last I saw of her, because the next day, Luca came.

* * *

I weave baskets with Luca at my elbow.

'You know,' she says, canines bared, 'they can take away the corners and the blades and the books that tell you about people who jump out of high windows, but if we really wanted to, we could just bite our tongues and drown in blood. They can't stop us escaping if we really want to. There's always a way.'

I glance around—this is dangerous, seditious conversation. No one is listening, to my relief.

Luca is too angry for me to understand her. Clearly she doesn't understand me either, because she grabs me by the front of my gown, her fingers making tube-petals of the material, and hisses into my face:

'Wake up! Don't you realise, they argue that we're a part of nature, but they're utterly denaturising us. What about appetites and fresh air and temperature and the real outside? And what about sex and babies and being alive?'

'We can't have children,' I recite the mantra. 'The hormonal turmoil of birth could push us over the edge.'

'Oh yes, the edge! They won't push us, but they've made an art form out of dangling us just above it! Just the right level of this and that and we'll be depressed and not dead.'

She scares me. Her fists shake me and pull a scab away, and the dark—it is always there and coiling inside like a hibernating adder—breaks loose and moves into my cuts. I feel myself fall into it.

'Leave me alone,' I say. My lungs are shallow.

'Why are you always so pathetic?' Luca shouts. Her breath hits me like a hot hammer. 'They're using you! They're using us! We're just human batteries for hurt. We sit here in this castle, this miserable pinnacle, and we hum the hours away. They use our minds, they use what we create. They might as well open us up to tours so that people can gawp at us.'

I don't think it is a good idea to mention that a few times a year, the public are admitted and that they walk like devotionals all-in-a-line with a carer at the head and at the tail. Pain pilgrims.

Then as the robe tightens around my neck, something marvellous happens. Light shifts, time goes backwards and cream-yellow fades into granite, and I am with Selene.


'I am so glad to see you,' she says, wrapping her knot-jointed arms around me. 'So very glad. I mislike what is going on. There is a storm coming. Some of the patients I believe are…'

Her words are interrupted by an ear-splitting noise: high and incessant like the wailing of a baby. It is an alarm and it kicks me in the blood and tells me to run and to be afraid.

Shapes flash past the door, chasing shouts. I catch glimpses of white and flesh and the sounds of panic.

'It is a breakout,' Selene mouths, muted by the blaring siren. We hold each other tight and ignore the fists hammering on the door. I thank nameless things for the fact that bolts work to keep terrors out as well as prisoners inside. We keep our heads down until the racket goes away.


Luca releases me. Her lips are twisted to one side and she regards me strangely. She knows, I think, until I realise that she has torn my gown and that my collarbone, breast and floating ribs are exposed.

I am happy to be escorted away by two of the carers. They discuss in muted tones all about Luca and how she is trouble and a danger; maybe she should be sent to another centre. I am given a new gown that lies crisp against my skin and teases the fine hairs by trapping them and pulling every time I shift.

Before I met Selene I would have been too poor in spirit to have made such an observation. She has stirred the life in me.

It happens again. After lights out, Luca is grumbling and I suppress a tremor of fear when she hops up to my bed because I can imagine her hands around my throat, or something similar.

She calls me a cunt-bubble and slaps me a little before she begins to explore my navel with her tongue.

There is a flicker of electrical light—quite unlike the generalised illumination of the pastel walls. It is ill yellow-green and sharp in the peripheral vision. I have conjured myself to Selene and her room.

Her eyes sit in black-circle pits. Time is taking her away.

'Tell me about your home,' she says, so I draw a diagram for her in the dust on the window ledge.

'So there are still institutions?' she says sadly. 'Like this one?'

'It doesn't smell like this,' I explain, wrinkling my nose at the stench of urine and cabbage. 'It smells fresh and sweet.'

'But still you are there and nowhere else. Why?'

'They had to collect us up and bring us together, to prevent problems with self-esteem. When the results of the findings were made public, people learned to appreciate those with the Condition, for if we had it, it meant that they didn't. They began to bring gifts and thanks. When I was born and the Condition was detected in me, the gratefulness had turned into a form of veneration. This was problematic, because constant love and appreciation rid many of the Condition, which dispersed proportionally throughout the population. Low level dysfunction was the result. People started to become idle and suffer from unexplained ennui and grief. They began to ask of everything: 'what's the point?' The Condition, weakened because it was suffered by many, caused fewer deaths, but it still prevented people from living properly as well. In the end, to save the fabric of society, known sufferers of various Conditions were collected and taken away to places where they could be monitored and maintained. It is a form of conservation. You see?'

Selene nods uncomprehendingly.

'Never mind,' I say. 'You—you never told me why you were Sectioned.'

She smiles like a serpent.

'I drove the wrong way around a roundabout and I laughed the whole time,' she says. 'It felt so good that I decided to do everything the wrong way. Then I began to talk to people who were there. Sadly other people were deranged: they believed that they didn't exist.'


Luca waits until her mouth floods before she confronts me.

'There's someone else, isn't there?' she challenges through jellied lips. I wriggle, discomforted. 'You know,' she says, dangerous air at the back of her throat, 'in geometry, the strongest shape is the equilateral triangle—three points of contact. You can use it as a perfect fulcrum and it will always sit solid on the base. But remember that human beings aren't fucking geometry.'

She rolls over and spread-eagles herself so that I have to find refuge in her bed. It is cold where her body hasn't been and I shiver.


In Sharing Hour we have a group session. We are asked to imagine an animal-us. I am a mole, small and soft and blind. Luca is a horse—she draws one later fleeting like fast ink across a foggy shoreline, a horn on her brow, mane and tail and withers flaming.

What would Selene be? She would not be an animal. She would be a drop of quicksilver flung through the air. She will magnetize toward me and blend back into my life, I hope.

* * *


They are moving Selene somewhere and I can't stop them. They push the bed with her on it (Why didn't I wedge the wheels, ever?) out of the door and then they rumble into the uneven corridor, the left-rear wheel tick-ticking spasmodically at the line of every flagstone. She moans and cries and flaps her bonded hands like plucked wings.

'Where are you taking her? Where are you going? What are you doing?' I cry, I beg, I beseech.

This is not my dream; this is my nightmare, all lucidity drained away like lymph from a burn. They can't see me as I patter, not caring that my feet are run over. They can't hear me as I scream myself dry and they can't feel me as my fingers slip from their white cuffs.

Selene can.

'Diane,' she says, her tongue thick.

'Yes, yes, I am here. Don't worry, don't worry. I'm right here with you.'

'You're taking her away,' she mumbles. I can't see her pupils but her eyes are open, mostly. 'You're taking her away.'
She isn't talking to me. With a cold shock I understand that she's talking about me.

'Oh, no. Oh, no-no-no-no.'

Oh, I know, I know, I know now. Now!

She is not my construction, my surrogate family, my hallucination. I am hers and they are taking me away.

I stand stock still and a white-coat walks past me or through me or something.

I open my jaw as wide as I can to tear out a scream, but although Selene winces and my eardrums pop, it does nothing to arrest the steps of the white people.

The trolley rattles around a corner and I follow. They go up an elevator and I wind my little finger around Selene's as the wire winches us up. Down another corridor decorated with hyena laughs and rubber rooms and sleeves that wrap you up forever.

We go into a room that hums and I cry my own alarm as they tape electrodes to her head and remove the metal from her person. They put a strap over her tongue and she tries to bite them.

'Don't worry,' I say through carrion lips. 'Don't worry. They don't know what it does because they are only human.' My eyes are covered in red sand. 'Like when they cut and snip all through the middle. They just don't know.'

Electricity fills the air, robbing it of moisture.

'They'll start to learn more, love. They'll learn how to treat us. Oh, it'll go bad for a while—but in the end we'll get it right.'

I hold on to her hand tightly. Whatever they shoot through her system, I will share. I will conduct it away from her. It will earth itself through me.

'In the end,' I whisper.

The white coats move away. Selene rolls her head as far as she can in the harness and meets my gaze. Her tongue roves around the bit uselessly. And.

* * *

I cried so hard that I dehydrated myself until I became a husk and kept the neighbouring lifetimers awake at night. I stopped eating, drinking and blinking.

I was diagnosed as extremely unstable and taken away from the main floor into a holding room where a carer sat with me at all times. They spooned me food that I absorbed because I had been taught to and they tried to make me talk. It was like Sharing Hour every hour.

I didn't feel the first shock, but I felt the severance, and as I snapped forward into now, I knew that I would never see Selene again.

Electro-convulsive therapy causes short term memory loss. I hope that she found solace in the right kind of non-remembering. But something inside me couldn't chase away the shadow of whipping limbs.

I felt numb, as though the blood flow to my brain was restricted. Sometimes I tried to stop up my nostrils and forbid the air entry because of the things that came into me with it.

The carers treated me to massages and took me into therapy rooms where I watched up-lit bubbles shot through columns of water, fizzing and changing colour. I played with fibre optics and made patterns with projectors, and they thought this was a good sign, but I didn't speak to them.

They made me milk-shakes to cover the bitter taste of the drugs they put in them, and because I couldn't be bothered to wash or comb my hair, they washed for me with gentle soft sponges.

In the end they took readings of my pulse and took samples of my blood and brainwaves and asked me to fill in questions about what I thought of myself. I ticked the boxes but I didn't speak.

How abnormal on a scale of 1 to 10 do you feel?
How often do thoughts of self-harm occur to you?
How often do these thoughts take the form of hypothetical plans?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how obsessive would you say these thoughts are?

They monitored my weight and food intake and watched me in the toilet to make sure I didn't force myself to regurgitate.

Generally they treated me with the same respect they always had, ushering me along with delicate finger-prods and murmurs.

In the end they decided that even though I couldn't talk, I was no longer a liability to myself or those around me. My arms grew fatter again and I opened and shut my eyes at the normal rate. I could create, as long as I was not asked to sing.

There was an inch of fuzz on my skull by the time they decided that I was stable and released me back into the general facility.


'I missed you,' said Luca the violent. I stared at the place her voice came from, blind to the movement and deaf to the vibration and the meaning. She came over to me and let me share some of her warm and I gave her cold in return.

* * *


There was an incident today in Nurture Hour.

Some of us tend to the vegetables and herbs, while others collect eggs from the chickens with the clipped wings. We eat potential lives—sometimes I know the cooks open a shell to find a network of veins inside. That's all natural, all good, say the carers.

In the greenhouse, I was pulling dead heads from an edible rose when a lifetimer two rows away got up from the bench and without saying a word, knelt by the strut that held the glass screens in place. Methodically, she began to mash her forehead against it. Other lifetimers ran away, panicking like flightless geese, their gowns flapping bonelessly. I simply stood and stared.

Pretty soon there was a bloody smear on the glass. She carried on with rhythmic determination. The only sound she made was the crunch of bone on galvanised metal. Luca's words came to mind: there's always a way.

The carer with us was young and inexperienced, and she tried to drag the lifetimer away from the wall. The carer was afraid of blood and every time the lifetimer was moved, she simply, doggedly returned to the same spot.

Luca came. She limped up on both crutches, set herself down on the floor behind the cracked, leaking lifetimer, one thigh on either side of the woman, and wrapped both arms around the lurching body. Luca was strong. She resisted every forward lunge with a flex of her muscles. She tired the lifetimer, and when the woman went limp, she set her out in the recovery position and staunched the head wound with part of her bundled-up gown. She was not ashamed to be naked.

* * *


'So, tell me the story, Diane. The story of what happened. All of it, from your perspective. I can steal you some paper and a pencil if you like; I know where I can get some from. One of the bitches in catering owes me a favour.

'Do it because you aren't allowed to. That's reason enough.'

I considered for a while, my mouth sewn up.

* * *

'Know how I lost my leg? Of course you don't. You're too damn placid to be curious. I'm going to tell you anyway.

'I went abroad a lot. I was an activist. I used to go to war zones and give out clothes and medicine to refugees. One time I thought I could train to clear mines. You can see how that turned out for yourself. There's nothing like having shreds of your own leg blasted into your mouth to make you lose faith in humanity. It tastes like raw pork and iron, in case you're wondering, which I know you're probably not.

'I bet the other girls were stirring up all sorts of shit about me. Well, it isn't true, whatever they said.

'This place—it makes me sick. Maybe it's just because it doesn't suit me. You seem to be made for it—I've never seen you get excited or agitated. Maybe you like the walls. Maybe you're sensitive to all the colour therapy and stuff. Fair enough. And there is something in what they say—about mood—pressure, atmosphere and all that. But something about this stinks as well. All good, all natural, they keep saying, except that it isn't. Maybe it would be pointless to try and maybe they're right—if you or I get better then someone else would have to be depressed to balance it out. But maybe not.

'Both ways, they're profiting from us, and that makes me bitter. And for as long as I'm bitter, I'm here. Like you, for as long as you're alone, you're unhappy so you have to stay here. It's a self-supporting process. They have no intention of letting us go.

'At any rate, I don't think we should be singled out and made different. If we're so natural, then why can't we be a part of everything else? And why don't they try to do more than simply make us survive? As far as I'm concerned, this,' a tap of a finger on the tip of the abortive leg, 'is the same as this:' a tap at the temple. 'They both don't work quite right, but something can be done about them. I don't see why a problem with the brain has to be viewed differently to a problem with the body. Fix it if it's chronic and life-threatening, or makes you miserable. Deal with it if you can, like I choose to. But at least give us the choice to do it our way. Do you see what I'm getting at? Good.'

She rocks me in her arms.

'You're hunting for something inside yourself, aren't you? I can tell. A bomb breached me, but you are bleeding on the inside. Something deeper bust up your integrity and made you into mash. Now I can't put you back together, but maybe I can help you do it yourself. If we find a way to be happy then that's the same as finding the way out. We don't need no hair to let down,' she runs her fingers through the bristle on her scalp. 'We don't need no one to climb up and save us. There's always a way, and our way out is in here.' She taps my skull, dull. 'You have a rope in here, all coiled up. You just have to learn to let it lead you, find a window to dangle it out of. Stop letting it gag you. I've stopped letting mine strangle me.

'Now are you going to talk, or are you going to kiss me, or both?'

I open my mouth in the darkness, and the dark stays outside of me.

'Both,' I say.




Copyright © 2008 Rhian Waller

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Rhian Waller: I recently earned an English Literature and Creative Writing BA, and am about to begin a Postgrad doctorate in Creative and Critical writing. I've produced stories of various quality since I was five, and have published a handful of poems in magazines such as Cause and Effect and The Harrow. I would very much like to publish some more.

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