I am awoken from my soft slumber by constant shaking, by a voice that keeps begging me to wake. I look up groggily to see the soft shillouette of Maggie as she hovers over me. I reach out to turn the lights on with a flick of my wrist but Maggie stops me.
"Don't turn the lights on," she whispers urgently.
"Why not?" I ask her through a yawn.
"Because I need to talk to you. And we need to be quiet so no-one will hear us." Her whispers are furtive.
"Why do we need to be quiet?" I ask through a yawn.
"Shh. I'll explain later."
She climbs over me and sits on the empty space in my bunk, back against the wall. I get up, and wrap us both in blankets. She gets out the tiny lantern from her Swiss Army knife and turns it on, the soft glow barely illuminating our faces, barely enough to see by.
"Turn your lantern up. I can barely see."
"I can't" she replies, "the light might attract Lydia."
"What's wrong with Lydia?"
"It's just ... she's making us forget our old lives. She's making us forget who we were. What we learned."
"Our old ... our what?" I try to think back to my old life but all that there is in my mind is a blank fog.
"See, you don't remember."
"I ... I don't. That's weird."
"It's not weird. It's exactly what this institution wants us to do."
"I ... but it's fun here."
"Is it fun here? Or is it empty? Do they just want you to think that it's fun?"
"I ..." I find myself unable to think. I find myself unable to criticize, or even know whether or not I want to criticize. It's fun here, right? It has to be. It has to be. "It's fun," I finally answer.
"Is it? Or is your mind going blank? Is it the only thing that you can think? Is your mind free?"
"I ... I guess not."
"I'll ask a more important question. Is your heart free? Can it feel what it's wants to feel? Can it feel what it's meant to feel? Can you feel what it needs to feel?"
"What kind of question is that?" My heart? My ... heart? My ... what? I feel ... something to be honest. But I don't know what it is. I don't know why it is. It's just a tiny flicker of feeling somewhere deep under me, under all the layers that have built up over time.
"You know what kind of question it is," she wisphers furtively. "Now answer my question."
"I ... I don't know." And I honestly don't. But somewhere deep inside me I feel like I do know. Or perhaps I did know. But I lost it.
"They don't want us to ask these types of questions," Maggie continues furtively, "they don't want us to think these types of thoughts. But we have to."
"Shouldn't we do what they want?" I ask tentatively. "After all, they know what's best for us."
"They don't know what's best for us. They don't want what's best for us. They want us to conform into what all the other people are doing. But we can't. Simran. We can't." There's something quivering in her voice. Something emotional and desperate and impassioned.
"Why can't we? Everyone has such a good life." My words are calm but they carry the traces of doubt.
"Simran, do they? Do they really or do they just think they do? Have they just never looked beyond the shallow confines of their easy, comfortable world to see the darkness that lies just underneath the surface?" She turns her lantern off and now all I can see is her vague outline.
"Maggie, you're making no sense." She really isn't. But part of me, a part so deep and dark that I cannot even reach for it, understands. It understands perfectly. Though this knowledge is at the very edges of my consciousness, at the line where conscious fades into unconscious.
"I had a dream." Maggie's voice is far-off, is forlorn, is almost about to cry. It tugs something within my heart. Something that I hadn't known existed.
"What did you dream?" I ask her softly, gently.
"I dreamed about my brother," she replies in a voice so melancholy it's almost calm. "I had a brother once. An older brother. He was seven years older than me. I ... I wasn't the sister I should have been to him."
I move closer to Maggie, take both of her hands in mine, and I hold onto them softly. We look at each other, at the faded, barely-there dark outlines of each other. We face each other.
And she looks like a patch of darkness. She looks just like a splotch of darkness, darker than the darkness that is around it. But she looks more beautiful than I have ever seen her before. No, looks is not the right word. She feels more beautiful than I have ever witnessed her as before.
"What was your brother's name?" I ask her gently.
"His name was Stephen. But that's not what is most important about this story. What's most important about this story is that one day, when I was about ten years old, he got sick. He got really sick. We went to all the doctors we could, but none of them could help him." She's truly crying right now. I can hear it in her voice, though I can't see the tears fall.
"I'm sorry," I tell her solemnly, unsure of what to say, "you didn't deserve to go through that. He didn't either."
"But it saved us both," Maggie vows. "It saved us both in different ways."
"He got to be freed from this horrible, suffocating world. And I got to see the world for what it really is." She sobs loudly, and I take her into my arms. I hug her. And I just hold her there, in the darkness, feeling nothing but Maggie's warmth against me. My entire focus is on her. On her sorrow. On the sisterhood that we share between us. And I feel like I'm starting to transcend something, like the glaze that was over my mind is cracking.
"I've got you," I whisper into her ear tenderly. "I've got you. You're safe with me.
"Neither of us are safe in this facility," she replies, fear bared through her sobs.
"We're together," I remind her, "no-one else is here. No-one else can see us. No-one can hear us. You're here with me. We can figure this out."
"I ... I miss him."
"Of course you do."
"Do you want to know of our last year together?"
"Yes. If you want to talk about it."
"I was by his bedside all day. Every day after school I would come down and I would spend the rest of the day with him. I didn't do my homework. I didn't do anything else."
"You were very devoted."
"I was a child. And my brother was dying."
"My mother and father told me to go out and have fun. To go places. To do things. To play with my toys. To watch films. To play games. They told me that I should be happy. That my brother would want me to be happy. But I didn't want to do any of those things. I didn't want to waste precious time entertaining myself. I wanted to talk to my brother. Because I knew I wouldn't get too many chances to do so in the future. So I stayed with him. And we talked. And we talked. And we just talked. And it was miserable. But it was beautiful. It was oh so desperately tender."
"I'm glad you got those final moments with him."
"I'm glad too. It taught me so much. It taught him so much. I'll never forget them. I'm never forget him."
"Of course you won't." I keep hugging her, stroking her thick, beautiful hair with one of my hands.
"Because, when we were just talking, I felt like we were able to focus on each other without so many distractions getting in the way."
"That makes sense."
"When it was just the two of us, without a whole bunch of things around us, I felt closer to him than I ever felt before. I felt like I could really see him. Like I could really feel him. Like I was really there and I existed and he was really there and he existed."
"That sounds amazing." Do I know what she's talking about? Part of me doesn't. But an increasingly loud, an increasingly powerful part of me does. Here, hugging Maggie, focusing on absolutely nothing but for the way she feels against me, and the way she feels in her heart, I think I understand what she was feeling there with her brother. I think I'm feeling parts of it now with her.
"I knew we didn't have much time left. And the pressure of it. The misery of it. I -" her voice breaks and after that she is quiet for many moments, her head lying against my shoulder. "I felt emotions I had never felt before. I felt a depth of emotion that I had never felt before."
"That's understandable." I say these words to her to soothe her. But I think to myself, is it understandable? I think that I'm coming to understand. Though I haven't yet. Not completely. I do not understand what she does.
"It's as if," she eventually continues, "all the emotions I had been feeling before were merely the reflections of emotions. They were only the shadows of emotions. The imprints of emotion left in wax. Like my life was in wax. Like I was in some sort of plastic case, sealed off from the real world."
"I thought I was happy before. I thought I was happy in my life. I thought I was feeling things. But I was not. I wasn't even living. I wasn't even living until the year my brother died. And that year, I felt like the ineffable, amazing, terrible, unendurable, perfect realness of the world had finally opened up to me. It hurt. It hurt so much. But there was also, there were also good emotions. Emotions I never thought myself capable of feeling."
"Like what?" I ask her in a hushed tone, and she is so close to me that of course she hears it clearly. Hears me clearly.
"Like love. Like joy. Like purpose. Like tenderness. Like closeness. Like intimacy. Like vulnerability. Honesty, passion, unity, belonging. Mirth, simplicity, a strange sort of peace. A strange sort of hope, even though I had so much anxiety. We both did. But we both shared these emotions together."
"That sounds amazing. I'm glad you got to experience that." I continue running a slow, melodic hand through her hair. And she continues to cling to me, resting her head on my left shoulder.
"And, even the misery, even the anxiety, even the anguish, it was beautiful. It all had a wonderfulness to it. It all was so deep, so potent, so terrible, so traumatic. So real."
"I can imagine." Or at least, I'm beginning to be able to imagine.
"You wouldn't believe what I would do, what I wouldn't do, to hold on to that realness I had just unlocked."
"It would be worth a lot."
"And then he died." Her words die off and she breaks into a fresh wave of sobs.
"There, there," I stroke her hair, "you'll see him again." I don't know why I said that. It doesn't make any sense.
"I ... I ... it hurt. And the pain was so real."
"I'm sorry you had to go through that."
"And what was worse was, I felt that, besides that year, I never really knew my brother at all. I never got to spend time with him. I never got to spend time really with him. I had so many years with him but they were empty."
"Meaning that my life was always so crowded, with so many things and colours and flavours and experiences. With so much fun and entertainment. With so much, so much trivial stuff, that I was never able to see through all that. It was always blocking up my vision, taking my attention, taking my attention away from other people, away from what other people truly are. Away from where my attention truly should be. My life and my experiences were so full of stuff that didn't matter, and I had no room to focus on what did truly matter."
"That ... actually makes sense." My words are pensive. "Like these past few days we've spent so much time together but I spent so much time marvelling at the marvels all around us that I didn't notice anything."
"Exactly. And I tried to get back into it after my brother died. I tried to get back into all the entertainment that society pushes on us. I tried to have fun. But I realized that it was all so empty and hollow. You must have realized it too. That's why you're here."
I think for a long while while Maggie cuddles into me. I think of everything that she said. I think of the long, filled absence in the place where my memory should be. Until at last I begin to remember. I begin to remember, not any ideas or events, but rather an aching feeling of discontent that I just know that my life was coloured by before I was captured.
Captured. Captured is the right word to use. Though I can't remember what happened, I know that I was not brought here of my own free will. I know that I had to be taken in by force, kicking and screaming all the way down.
"I wasn't happy," I finally respond.
"And you couldn't have been happy either. No-one can be happy in this technicolor utopia. Not really. They can just think that they are, and that thought is really on a very surface level."
"So what should we have instead?"
"I don't know. I really don't. I just know that it isn't this. Do you have any idea of what we need?"
"I think we need escape. Escape to where or what exactly I don't know. I just know we have to get out of here, out of this way of life, out of this society, somehow."
"That's a good question. I ... I tried to kill myself." As I speak these words the memory of those aching, delirious days in the winter cold come into crystal clear focus in my mind. And I start crying. Not from sadness. Just from an unbroken stream of pure emotion that comes crashing down over me.
And I understand now. I understand what Maggie meant in every single word she said.
"I'm sorry." Maggie's voice is weighted. Darkened. Empathetic.
"Don't be sorry for me. It was my own choice. It was a way to get out of this life and this world. If all that is left in front of us is a never ending stream of consumption and entertainment, if that is all that our destiny holds, it's better to just opt out. It's better to just opt out as soon as you can, however you can. I knew what I was doing when I made my choice. And I made a choice."
"You must have been very brave."
"I suppose I was. But it was all too much. All far too much. I couldn't take it anymore. It wasn't as hard as you think it was."
"So it wasn't hard?"
"Oh it was hard. It was definitely hard. But I felt like I was in a different world where reality was so much more raw and real. I felt like I was walking towards my destiny. I felt like I was one single string in an instrument so much bigger than myself. Well, metaphorically. And in the end as hard as it was, it was possible. Very possible."
"We shouldn't have to kill ourselves just to escape this destiny."
"You're right. But what other way is there?"
"I guess freedom is freedom however it happens."
"Yeah. I guess it is."
"What made you realize, at first, how fucked up all of this was?"
"I don't know, really. I read a book. Well, it was more of a notebook really. I found it lying in my school hallway. I don't know who wrote it. But it changed my entire view of everything, not overnight. But the more I thought about it, the more I noticed things, the more I realized."
Maggie is quiet for a long while, warm against my form in the darkness.
"We have to tell the others." Maggie's voice cuts cool and clear and purposeful through my tears.
"Tell them what?"
"About everything. About my brother's death. Your suicide attempt. How disillusioned we were with life. How probably every single one of us got dragged into this facility against our will. How we all need to get out. How we need to search for something more, something better, than this."
"Do you want to relive all your traumas all over again? Do you really want to tell this story again, to a potentially unsympathetic crowd, who might not care about your heartbreak?"
"I have to do whatever it takes to make my people be free. All of us here, we're all rebellious teenaged girls who are looking for something more in our lives. We're all people who searched for freedom before, in one way or another. And I need to make sure all the other girls get their freedom. I need to make sure they can all escape from this. Or at least I need to try."
"That's very noble of you."
"We always have to do what is noble."
"Will you join me?"
I think for a moment.
We keep as silent as we possibly can as we pad our way out the door and down the darkened halls towards the other rooms. Together.
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