Shelves stretch from floor to vaulted ceiling, far into the distance in every direction. At first, I thought they held books or narrow boxes, but it’s nothing so solid. Shafts of light, perhaps, or points of holographic convergence. There’s meant to be a system. I’m meant to recognise it.
I push the light switch and nothing changes. Off, on, off again, but the sourceless glow persists. That means something.
The screen is in my hand. I don’t remember picking it up and I don’t know where it came from. I type the numbers, but they aren’t numbers. It doesn’t work like that here.
Footsteps come from everywhere and nowhere and you.
You. “I can’t find what I’m looking for. Can you help me?”
“Yes.” The lie floats golden from my mouth and bursts above my head. “But you need to tell me what it is.”
“That’s the thing.” Your eyes shift green blue grey brown. “I don’t remember. I’m not sure I ever knew.”
“Is it the code?”
“I don’t know.” I hurl the screen at the shelves and it shatters in slow motion, crystalline dust caught in a sunbeam.
You trail your fingertips through the hovering shards. “But you’re supposed to know, aren’t you? You’re supposed to tell me.”
I take a step towards you and you take a step back, leaning into the shelves, an endless library of weightless truth. I whisper against your lips, “I don’t think I’m supposed to tell anyone,” and a dark, clawing loss twists through my ribs when I kiss you.
You pull away and reach out to touch my face, breath ragged, your thumb pressing into my lip. “Very good.”
I bow my head in the presence of praise. There’s a patch on the floor where the grid shows through. I cover it with my foot and you look the other way.
Sirens tumble through the streets six storeys below and I pour another shot of whiskey I promised you I wouldn’t drink. The streetlights don’t reach this high and the stars don’t sink this low. Silence burns my throat again like all my pointless words before and I would give what’s left of my pitiful soul for just one more minute with you.
Palms pushed against my eyes fire miniature explosions into a spectrum of galaxies. Regrets swell like dying stars, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know or I didn’t think or I forgot or I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. And I will only ever drown in excuses and my own selfish mistakes.
They’ll come and get me for work tomorrow and I’ll clothe myself in a convincing impression of sobriety. They should test me. They used to, but they let it slide and no-one talks about it. They know I’d fail almost every time now and if they document that they can’t justify keeping me on, no matter how useful I am or how much money they’ve thrown at this already. So they keep it all quiet and nothing is wasted. Except me.
I swallow a handful of pills I promised you I’d quit taking and let the chemicals pull me into sleep, through the dark hollow at the back of my mind where other people’s secrets live. The window is open and lazy currents of air swell into curtains I don’t even bother to close anymore. One of my hands drops from the edge of the couch and I hear my knuckles hitting the wooden floor, but I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything.
The shelves roll out from the centre of my chest and my back arches in sympathy. I gasp for a breath I don’t need and shove the light switch away. The screen floats above my hand and I close my fingers around it, crushing it to nothing.
You appear in front of me. No footsteps this time. “I can’t find what I’m looking for. Can you help me?”
“You’re looking for the code.”
“Yes. You’re looking for it and I have it, but I can’t tell you what it is. It’s locked away. I have to keep it safe.”
You fall back, arms folded across your chest, and float at an angle that defies gravity. “Maybe I can find it myself if you show me where to look.”
I kneel beside you and trace the curve of your spine with a shaking hand. “I can’t do that.”
You grip my collar and we drift and spin, a hazy vortex of stretching shadow. “You’re lying to me again.”
“I’m not. They made it so I can’t tell you.” A tear floats from my eye.
You catch it on your tongue like a snowflake. “But it’s in you. It’s in your head.”
“I know, but so much is in my head and I can’t see any of it. It’s what I signed up for.”
You undo two buttons on my shirt and slide one side off my shoulder. Your breath touches the scars there like ice and electricity. “Does that still feel good?”
I try to reply, but the words come out as numbers.
“Tell me,” you breathe against my history of torn flesh.
“No.” The shelves shudder and collapse and bury you. A distant electronic chirp measures my heartbeat and my fists clench by my sides. Bright light burns my eyes open.
“Very good,” says the person in the mask. It doesn’t feel the same as when you said it. “Your compartmentalisation is excellent. We still need to work on your control, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”
I blink heavily and try to speak, but my voice congeals into a lump I can’t swallow past.
The person in the mask helps me to sit up and hands me a paper cup filled with water. “Here, this will make your throat feel better. Small sips. And don’t try to talk yet. Give yourself time.”
They’re keeping me here tonight. Officially, I’m staying voluntarily for the benefit of the assignment, but really, they’re keeping me here. They let me out for a smoke, though. They probably shouldn’t have, but they did. How much is my body even worth to them if they look away while I destroy it? Is there an equation for that? A point up to which they’ll accept my self-destructive compulsions, but if I go beyond it, they’ll take away my cigarettes and my drink and my medication to guarantee a certain level of return on investment?
There’s a gap in the towering concrete wall where an equally unscalable fence allows me to look at the sea, to hear the waves crashing, to breathe the salt air and let it fight the tar for space in my lungs. Today, everything is grey, distinct only by degrees of motion and texture. Perhaps it’s grey all the time. I don’t come out here very often. Maybe I used to. I’m not sure.
There’s a glitch, an overlay in the part of my brain that still belongs to me, a jittering flash of us on a beach. Not this beach. It might have been years ago, but I can’t tell how much time has passed since anything anymore. The water and sand flicker and fade. Our laughter echoes. The sun goes out. I stop breathing. A machine screams.
I wake to the smell of smouldering skin when my cigarette melts through my clothes. There’s no pain. There should be, but there isn’t. Dusk is gathering and someone is watching me from a window somewhere. I can’t see them, but I can feel them. Being observed has a very specific emotional resonance, and I’m learning to isolate it more effectively between the layers of everything else. Someone here told me it’s important that I know how to do that.
I open my hands like a book, and the shelves spread in a concertina between my palms.
I blink, and the light switch vanishes into a point of darkness.
I shake my head, and the screen dissolves with a crackle and hiss in front of me.
I can’t see you or hear you, but I can feel you. Somewhere. Not physically, but. But.
I close my hands, and they swallow the shelves. This is an action I can choose now.
And you. You. Around me. Inside me.
I gather silence and will it towards you. A void. An answer aching with absence. Finally, I give you nothing. I have nothing to give.
A voice that isn’t yours asks, “What’s the code?”
My own words spiral like a thorned vine from my chest and my tongue bleeds a response. “There is no code.”
And the light in my eyes and my clenched fists and the green line of my heartbeat and the person in the mask and the paper cup and every secret swallowed and every meaning lost.
Dawn breaks and so do I. I don’t know if I slept or not. The last thing I remember was staring down an empty bottle like it was the barrel of a gun, which it may as well have been. My head hurts, but not enough. I’ve given up counting pills, but I haven’t given up taking them.
There’s a photograph of us lying next to me, fractured glass and our faces back when I remembered how to smile. I used to taunt you for printing them, framing them, putting them on display when this was still a home we shared. I told you we weren’t going to forget what we looked like and you told me that wasn’t the point. I get it now. I get it.
This is one of the pictures I gave them when they asked for material to construct my primary trigger stimulus. This picture and a hundred others, videos, stories. I gave them my memories of you, of us, and I wished, pleaded, for an exorcism. I knew the version they made of you wouldn’t be real, that I would eventually have to push it aside. That was the goal. Reject the stimulus.
But still, it would give me some time with something that looked like you, sounded like you, felt like you. Then I could learn to reduce you to nothing and leave you behind. This time it would be on my terms and, god help me, I thought it would heal me.
Now you’re no more than a digital construct, stored on a server deep underground, and there are only two moments left in my life that matter to anyone other than me.
The plane speeds down the runway, and it’s been three hours since (one) they looked inside my head to confirm the presence of secrets I can’t see. In nine hours, I will arrive at a destination defined only by coordinates. Some mirror-image version of them in a facility just like theirs will (two) open my mind and leave me empty.
The anticipation of freedom tastes hollow and anchorless in the moment the wheels lift off the ground. My breath is cradled in the hands of science and magic, and our last night together slips through my fingers again.
We fought, as we did more and more often, over everything and nothing. I drank too much, smoked too much, swallowed pills by the handful and swept barren platitudes towards you across the land mines and razor wire tangles of your completely justified resentment.
You grabbed my shoulders, pressing into the place where a bullet had missed its target a year before. It’s the last time I remember anything feeling as much as it should have. You begged me to turn down the assignment, and I promised it would be the last one. The thing is, I was telling the truth that time and now you’re never going to know.
When you slammed the door, a photograph fell from the wall and the glass in the frame cracked. Sleep found me watching it from deep within a sedative haze under the gathering weight of relentless humidity.
I awoke drenched in sour sweat and shame the next morning when the police arrived. The tide had gone out beyond the pier at sunrise and they’d found your car nestled in the silt with your body still at the wheel.
Now I stare out the window at the clouds below and see them as heaven and rolling water. The recycled air in the cabin tastes stale and the jet engines roar and I am a broken clock.