To the Lucky Ones

for an anthology of letters, Letters of Love

Dear lucky one,

I hope this letter finds you alive – all senses and engines burnings – and well. It might find you waiting in line at the Christmas market. It might find you taking a break from sitting in the sun. It might find you doing research for a paper. It might find you in your most uncomfortable outfit, a little too full of life to start cleaning the kitchen – and a little too empty now that everyone’s gone. It might find you in the light, in the dark, in the back of his favourite café, in foreign places, in your parents’ car, in between her cream-coloured pillows, before, after, in the midst of chaos – only, I hope, not too late.

This letter comes to tell you a few things I know to be true, in the naive hope that you won’t mind me not always leading by example. You see, I believe that love, even the love radiating from a stranger’s writings, is better than no love at all, and this is my way of passing it on. Love, as you know, is the only mechanism there is that can put both your warmth and your strength into motion, make you both gentler and more self-assured, sing you to sleep and ready you for war in the same voice. I will spare you the kind of love that social networks, extended families and old lovers are for – that yes, you are beautiful, unique, cared for and always welcomed home (wherever, whomever or whatever your home is) and no, not everybody can love you the same despite this. Instead I’ve got others, wrapped in just as much love – I promise you that. Take a deep breath. Read on.

Allow yourself to roll life between your fingers and laugh at its nonsense from time to time. You can’t change overnight – we build ourselves up too strong to slip into another skin at the snap of one’s fingers, even if they happen to be our own. If you truly want to become an artist, give up everything else and work on your dream for a year. If you don’t achieve anything then you belong right back where you started from. Nobody shows up at your door at three in the morning only to tell you that they don’t love you anymore. If they do, know that they’re lying. People are very bad actors. They never live up to your expectations. Let the world move at its own pace and you move at yours. Eventually there will be some collisions and some of them you’ll love, but you’ll never, ever love anything more than letting yourself shine through the bullshit. Never fill yourself up to the top. Let there always be room for more. Take only what is necessary. Take only what you love. Experiences stay in you, you move out of them. The sweetness and danger of losing control are grossly underestimated. There’s a certain beauty about being a mess too, about painting outside the lines, about outstretching your arms for things at top volume, at their most difficult, at their most needlessly complex. Don’t talk about fear in third person. Fear doesn’t have an identity. You are the fear. Always have a world of your own. Don’t be too eager to make room into someone else’s. One’s inner world is built on grounds that you’ll never fully understand, and you’ll always be cold and starved in it. Would you be happy, sleeping on the couch night after night? Complete vulnerability isn’t strength. It’s you losing to yourself, to your dragon, to your inner goddess. To life. Being yourself isn’t about being your weakest self. Safety is not always a friend. Safety believes that life exists all around you only to be contemplated in silence. Do not enjoy touch or use it, or anxiety will grow on you like bacteria. Indulge into knowing that you’ve made it so far, that you’re sorted, that you got to Heaven. That you are as good as dead. New-found energy is not exhausting. Still waiting is. When you’re on the run, intensity felt light. You remember indecisiveness as a long stormy night, and it’s just not poetic anymore. People and their traumas don’t go together like milk and cereal. If they make you their secret hiding place and you pull the curtains and let the sun in they’ll leave. Not everybody wants your helping hand. Some just want your shoulder. None of your tricks can free them, because freedom isn’t given, it’s taken. You can learn so much from your most badass version. Sad people are like blood clots, waiting there to kill you. Don’t let them melt into you and mix it with your own. The things that you’ve filled up with feelings will always incline the balance in their favour. Allow the new to show you a few tricks before you reject it. Put your heart into it, but don’t forget to take it back at the end of the day. Your fire is the most precious thing you’ll ever have. Don’t give it away to anybody. Nobody needs it. Don’t stain people with imagination and fill all the gaps with cotton candy. Let who they are shine through. Sometimes you’re overly excited at the possibility of having found someone beautiful, that you risk making up miles of them. Don’t. Also, don’t be a vampire. Don’t suck on beauty, on youth, on love; on life. Make silhouettes of spilled ink out of them and pass them on. It’s the essential endurance strategy for surviving the empty soul wilderness, for all I know.

Whoever you happen to be, dear lucky one, know that I mean everything even if I don’t live it all out loud. Ah, I almost forgot! One last quick piece of advice for you: always strive to make your own luck. You won’t get much luckier than that.

Love, A

I Am a Work of Fiction

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Every second of the day is a question that only I can answer – and, because it keeps asking, I am no longer giving it the truth. None of it is true. I say this, but it could have easily been something else, and the best part is that no lighting strikes me down when I push back my sleeves and craft a different answer than on the day before. Nothing actually happens at all.

I am inventing, creating myself one hot minute at a time. I am rarely who I say I am for much longer. When inspiration strikes, I grab it with both hands and put it on in front of whoever happens to be there, which sometimes is just me. If it fits nicely, if I can work with it, I make a mental note to use it in a next story. I don’t dissect my characters on paper, I try them on first-hand and see how they do. It is spiritually invigorating to bleed like me, even if I always bleed as somebody else. My heart is racing, pumping fresh life, burning the diaries, deleting the child; I am my very own work of fiction on paper and off, and this is how I get my fix.

But let me start at the beginning.

I, too, was stuck in a linear story. The story was about me – but it was set in a place where the only way the wind could blow was forward and that, I thought, can not be right. I was living big, round hours for nothing. All they did was blur into the next ones. They did not not belong to me. The story was like a bad first draft. It could not be rewinded, the beginning could not be revised, reverse chronology was a myth and boring facts could not be skipped. Its reality was squeezing out much of what, from the outside, might have looked rich, juicy and fascinating; it was not. It was mundane and clear as day. It lacked details, clues, images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of who I was, which in the story was simply the holder of the lantern that was broken from the start.

Right before the spring, when the weather plays warm one day and cold the next, I began to write. With my head in the already thinning clouds of hope I wrote about the clutter and the cracks in the walls, the photos and the few rare objects displayed with pride in the rooms of those just like me. I was angry, troubled and unexcited; this is why I wrote. I still believed that telling the truth was important; part because I had nothing else to tell, part because I imagined that its ugliness would break it apart. Shortly, a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging took over me as I began to embrace my intersections, and my questions, and my quest for imagining a world beyond it; my world, beyond it. And in the hottest month of the year I rewrote that world as I thought it’d be fair to have it.

Summer opened all my doors and let me out. Every night I came home excited to detonated more little bombs of ink pulsing with feel onto the pages where I could finally be myself – the self that I wasn’t. Within it I found the fragments that refused to be consumed by the world outside, like diamonds I could sift through to collect and discover my true design. Immersed in a whole new mindscape, I was brimming with ideas and a newfound strength to act them out through my characters. Stepping onto paper I made amends for the lack of me, colouring outside the lines and reshaping all the sharp edges. The new dynamics of my mind melted my fears into a liquid flux of poetic madness I never knew existed in me. I felt raw and fluid and infinite, and hard to hold. I taught myself to dream again. To live again. To be shooting stars and comets and fresh faces again.

I was crafting something personal, yet so universal for all to experience – releasing oneself into new worlds, like nightly dreams, where every absurd scene could slide smoothly into another but one doesn’t question why they’re doing what they’re doing; they simply wake up and carry on living something else. But people didn’t want to experience this. They said they didn’t feel at ease around me because they never know what I was thinking, and that my writings were abstract and absurd; like dreams they could not comprehend, so they pushed them out of their minds in the morning.

And life, life was as predictable as always, despite its little tides, its little current. They broke upon me now. I felt almost entirely disengaged with it all; and my writing wouldn’t stop, and my cravings wouldn’t disappear, and my desire for being and changing and being again was eating me away. My characters multiplied, and their power got to me, and I wanted to be them so desperately, only I couldn’t choose. I wanted to live all the lives, and think all of the thoughts and feel, oh my God, feel all the feelings I made up and believed in and fell to my knees in front of their unconsumed intensity, consuming me wholly. I couldn’t push past them. More love streaming out the wrong way was a clear sign I was going to die if I didn’t learn to love myself in real time, from my brightest lights to my icy darkness. But there is no room for somebody like that under this sun.

It was going to be either me or this world that was going to make it – and it was going to be the world, no doubt. The world as we know it can not be unwritten, and writing in small letters on top of the script will only create chaos and confusion. I learned that it was not the way to ask others to read me in my voice; they couldn’t decipher me, and abandoned me after my first paragraphs. I could blame them for not learning to read between the lines, or I could rewrite myself from scratch, swap my past for the new and present it to them instead.

And if they bought it, I could paste it into a hugely absorbing novel with a vivid style and a mad girl for the main character, like they don’t make them anymore.

And, whatever corner of the world they’d have gotten themselves chained up to, when they’d read me they’d say, More please.

And they’d think it was just a work of fiction, when it was me they read through all along.

In Praise of Blood and Noise

The morning was only growing colder. The streets were still dark. Everything was helplessly quiet, unreal. He crawled down roads, staring, as if looking through a window; drenched with past and haunting images of days that now seemed to never have been. But the minutes wouldn’t stop.

He stood waiting in the icy dark, coughing. The chill of the night had entered him. The lamp by the bed was broken so he lay still in the calm darkness, counting the hours until dawn. There was a strange rage inside him and it was fascinating being so angry.

Then the morning came, with its pure air and the things that spoil it – like bicycles going past the train station, their parts creaking, as if on a mission to ease him into the day. He knew the storms would come, and he knew to always let them bend it. His rage was better than breaking. It was a gift.

These were dreams he shouldn’t have had. Nobody should ever have to clean up their mornings like that; but it was impossible to control them. They took place while he was awake, and they were incandescent; burning through him, radiating through him for days – they were, in a sense, the skeleton of all reality. They seemed the work of a sick man, a work of great patience and simplicity and sadness. They were his masterpiece. He knew he could never let another touch them.

But in the mornings, in his shower, in the walk out the door, as he reached for them, turned them around and wondered if, by any rearrangement of events, by any accident could they be slipped into real life, the whole concert fell apart in his hands like old newspaper. There was nothing tangible to stitch together, only memories of things that screamed in his dreams at night. If only he could pull it all out, long and connected like magicians’ scarves hidden in magicians’ sleeves. But there was nothing left but reality, and reality couldn’t give him what he wanted, and he didn’t want what reality was willing to give; so they began to ignore each other.

The early train started rocking along, rushing through villages. Rain was beating against the window. He sat in silence, going ahead only because of some sort of curiosity, to discover where it would all vanish. The world outside was no longer mysterious. There was nothing on the other side; there was no other side. He was living in hell and hell was all there was, daylight to midnight.

Hunched over his seat, listening to the rain, he thought of how what didn’t kill him only made it all much harder. What didn’t kill him kept him up all night. What didn’t kill him made him want to kill it; but he wasn’t all that brave. He sighed, feeling a moment of great loneliness rushing to meet him.

Then the train stopped, and The Day started.

*

When he left the office the clouds had melted like ice, the air was lucid and sweet, and the skies were unexpectedly freshened – all things that did not matter at all. He was battling monsters, pulling himself out of burning building. Back in his silent house, he would spend maddening hours inside mint green walls again, altering past dreams in order to form brighter future ones. He might as well start now.

Certain things he remembered exactly as they were and nothing could be done about them. These fragments entered him, able to part his flesh, a story of things that almost happened and made a world that almost did what he said and almost loved him back before the sunlight plunged everything into the darkness again. They were merely discoloured a bit by time. Most of them, though, had long since been transformed or rearranged to make his insomnia bearable – just like one alters his past memories to better deal with their real life.

Then the light changed and a new quality appeared in it, an intensity that meant aliveness had found a home. Somebody was keeping it from passing through with bold, brusque movements. Somebody was living out loud next to him. Somebody was still living out loud. He brushed his hair behind his ears and coughed hard; he knew he’d thrown something away and he was mean, but he was going in for one last chance at redemption.

A fiction for which a place already existed in his heart turned into fact. Images of her were flashing in front of him, dripping like extra paint onto extra walls. She was a cup of universe, dancing, turning in the orange light with both hands full of life, almost spilling herself laughing and dancing and throwing her head back, letting her hair shake down her shoulders – but never quite.

The future didn’t surprise him – much of it existed already, but she did not exist until then, and she was magnetising and intoxicating. She had quiet and soft-eyes, but her manner was lively and decisive. Equal parts old soul and starry-eyed child, something about her was straightforward and reassuring. It seemed to him that she was the paint brush and the world was her painting.  He knew what she was, and he was ready to fall to his knees like a believer.

It was by glances, exhausted glances from across a crowded place that he discovered her, the flashes of her eyes through the night promising to be his newest, most haunting dream. He confirmed her only in the silences that came after, when they sat next to each other with their arms touching and their legs overlapping. He saw the tender way she touched things and knew that she, too, was soft and alive; sometimes a still day, and sometimes a hurricane. Her power was flickering, sometimes present and sometimes not.

‘I don’t know who you are,’ he looked into her eyes and said to himself, ‘but I’ll dive into you; I’ll get to know you, from your lightest shades to your darkest.’

His curiosity was going down the rabbit hole.

The book was in her lap.

‘What is it about?’ he asked.

‘It’s a brief guide to recreational time travel,’ she answered, and her voice had a sensitive, magical, calm quality. ‘I keep it with me always. I must never be without it.’

He smiled; she didn’t. He fell for it, hard. How she seemed to believe her own fantasies eliminated all noise and blocked all escape routes. He knew he’d hold the image in his head for a long time after the moment had passed. It was his own warm, still thriving with life kind of memory to preserve now, as if he had collected an object he loved dearly and grown too fond of it to put it away.

‘I like your stories,’ he said, flickering through it.

She weaved words like a vivid tapestry in her stories – the kind one thinks of when it’s breakfast and they’re standing in the shower for over an hour, bar of soap in their hand, soaking in the light, wishing they could crawl inside a second skin and relive them reborn, wild-eyes, free.

‘Good, you’ll likely be in one,’ she replied, struggling up, smiling strangely.

She said this quietly but to him it sounded like the ticking of a bomb. She now looked like the edge of a map, the place where things are uncertain and dangerous and make little sense. ‘Here be dragons,’ her face read, and he wanted to be in her every town, on her every street.

Alive. Alive was what she was, through her running, gushing, swirling blood and amongst all the noises of the world.

*

Clinging to her arm he followed, along the dark roads. It was night for many miles, but she insisted to walk. Then she put one hand to the knob and he kept toward the sound of her voice, wild-eyed and sleepless, going up the stairs of the building, in her rooms, amongst her drawings and all her things. He liked existing with her; everything else was sealed up, labeled ‘not now’. He wanted to swim in the way she made him feel, until his clothes were soaked and it would all go straight into his bones, altering his essence and – who knew? – his reality. Anything, but the sighing back to reality. Her, her, her.

He hoped the intro would read ‘This has been created inside her walls, last Wednesday, in memory of life’. In the first paragraph, she would put her head in his lap and closer her eyes, like lying in the middle of an empty highway and listening to the road, and she would like his voice and he could hear her breathing. He smiled; he knew there was no fiction without fact.

‘You sat on my counter, on my couch, on the piano bench. You asked me to play for you. You called me your “girl” and said every song was about us. I was tired and you wanted to stay up and talk. You laid with me on the couch, our faces almost touching and told me you were in love with me. Then you took off your gold-rimmed glasses and slept beside me and held my hand.’

He shook his head; not now. Reality and dream couldn’t blur together tonight.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

They want you to love the whole world but you won’t, you want it narrowed down to one fleshy man who knows what to do with his hands, with your body. A man with almond eyes and a long jaw and a serenely contemplative, kindly mischievous air, who cuts you open until your light streams out between the stitches, no matter how soft, how scar-free you think you are.’

She narrowed her eyes, much to his despair.

‘Nothing,’ he said, cold sweat streaming down his spine.

He could smell them and hear them and touch them and see them. He wanted to cry out loud. The dreams were coming to him.

She came closer, too.

‘Talk to me,’ she said, gently touching his leg. ‘I will listen, and I will write it all down. You and I will make a great story out of this.’

to be continued.

There’s Nowhere To Go

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It was around the age when people start to become interesting that she discovered how interesting she had grown up to be herself. There was, of course, still plenty left to figure out  what truly made her happy, what truly made her sad, what truly made her — but there was plenty of time left for fine-tuning the self, too. She was still too young to doubt herself. Life was vanilla, general knowledge, and the relaxing rhythms of her little world.

She liked the form she was taking. The lack of a solid understanding, or a clue, of the quiet works of her mind, refining her tirelessly day and night, only helped. She had not started to think of the importance of function yet, and was not going to do that for a while. Nobody should take such serious matters into their hands so early in life, after all, because one’s mind changes from sunrise to sunset, and takes an entirely different shape by dawn again  and this is precisely what makes little people like her interesting.

But she was already adventurous in herself, and found new ideas taking shape around each and every corner of her being. Mornings were like Christmas days, over and over again. She was discovering new faces in the mirror, new gestures and new thoughts that seemed to have popped out of nowhere, in her sleep. As if touched with fire and filled with wild hope, she was waiting to see in what ways she was going to change next. It was going to happen, no doubt; it was happening already. The days were burning. She was like hot metal. She was like rain water. She was like the wind. It filled her with love for life and the wonderful things it did to her, and she filled life back with beauty. Soft magic was all around.

There was no rush yet. All the little things will eventually add up to something enormous, she thought, convinced that everything was simply her becoming. There was no big plan. She just kept blooming, and the unexpectedness of it added to how interesting it all was. She liked playing with the present, holding it in her palms, in the sun, in the shades of her own shadows. There was no need to invent other worlds yet, for the one she was part of held all the miracles. She could not imagine something she’d not, eventually, find.

Beautiful surprises were waiting for her around each and every corner of the world, too. If she could have splashed the brightness of those days onto a white canvas, the passionate reds and oranges would have burned its edges, and the cool turquoise would have run, still and strong, all across it. It would have been a wildly beautiful painting, changing from one hot minute to the next; and so, she made a promise to herself. She said, I’ll take you thereas soon as I figure out how to hold the colours down, and know what to paint. That would have been a beautiful painting too, no doubt; perhaps a little less wild, once the colours found their place.

She was fascinated with her own nature, if not a little too much, for she kept growing, changing, turning into new people too often, too quickly, too suddenly. Keeping up was beginning to feel like a struggle and her enthusiasm — a burden, her very first one. There was still too much left to explore. The novelty came and stayed, layers upon layers of new wonders, bending her back and hunching her shoulders. Like Sisyphus, she kept pushing upwards and like his rock, it all kept coming back down to her.

She craved  all the precious and astonishing things she discovered, and taking it all in was proving to be impossible in real time. As you grow up you need to start being your own parent, she then thought, and didn’t let herself out of sight anymore — not for one night. There were no such things as sneaking out, running away, escaping. She was slowly but oh, so surely, becoming her own master; her own puppeteer and her very own puppet, too. She learned the inner workings of her mind. No part of it stayed untouched by the sharp knife of her consciousness for too long. It all had to be mastered until it became lyrical. Bringing excellence out of herself was a mission she knew she embarked on for life. There was nowhere else to go, anyway.

Standing in front of the mirror for hours on end she watched herself marvelling, recording everything. She couldn’t help it. Like a little artist, she could only record; get a good feel for the moment’s scenery and emotional tone, and add it to her catalogue of things to know. Her hands were trembling and her heart was racing with emotion, feeling spectacularly alive. The idea of such perfect control seemed like a creature in the corner of a dream, drawing closer, then vanishing, then reappearing, never less appealing than the time before. She was a lonely highway, going straight into the great unknown. She was also the only one on the road, driving with the speed of happiness, she believed, for she felt smart and wise for learning how to drive the reckless out of her mind. Nobody saw, but she didn’t need to be seen; what she needed was to feel, and then to keep.

She learned how to stop her shakes and push her demons down when she was scared, and use numbness as a silencer for cynicism. It was a rare and wise and divine thing to do, she believed. She possessed a beautiful quality over everyone else. She was winning herself over; she was winning.

But she lost, too. What was she, the master of herself, to do with her wildness anymore? Her wildness had to be tamed, or it would crave sunlight and novelty. She couldn’t take in any more things from life; life had given her so much that she was already filled up to the top. Then life kept giving, and giving, and she kept shrinking in front of it. She was controlling, possessive with her gifts. They were choking her, and stimulating her, and burned like wild fire. She had become a spark.

A pneumonic hurt lived quietly in her lungs and hid in her breathing and whispered in her ears at times. You’ve been real. You’ve been lovely. You’re one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. I kneel down to the lashings of yellow and tell them: ’She’s the one.’ I will take you, and I will love you, again. But she could not crack her soul wide open anymore, like the little girl used to when she thought she had become interesting and wonderous. Whatever the outside world was made of that fascinated her, it was now shut out completely. She took only what was necessary, and erased the door when her masterpiece was complete. What little was left of her wildness was too silent to be heard, and hurt too little to damage her creation. Nothing could affect her, no revelation, no crime. She was like a sad story, like leaves in the street. She repeated herself like a song.

Depression is when you can’t feel at all. Anxiety is when you can feel too much. It is hard to tell if she felt overwhelmed or underwhelmed. It was hard to tell what she was, but interesting? Yes, as interesting as trouble can be, and for just as long.

How To Be Your Own Story

The story underneath the story isn’t always pretty. You have to make up all the words yourself — the way they taste, the way they sound in the air — and twist them in such a manner that one can no longer tell where they came from. When they ask, you tell them you read a lot as a kid, then you let them poke at your thoughts to give them better clarity and fill in their doubts about the meaning. They don’t need to know how you encouraged yourself to leave the mind and step onto paper, with all your words held tightly in your fragile arms, careful not to drop one and walk all over it with your dirty, shaky feet. No. They don’t need to know the words are you. You can’t have people thinking you are as strange and absurd as art. You must tell them you were inspired by books and talks and general knowledge, and carry on with your life as if art was merely an insignificant slice of it, and the first time you tried it you ate it whole.

The process can be excruciatingly slow. No fire from your bones makes it out into the world for a while, or not enough fire goes in. In the center of it all you find yourself completely alone, your existence becoming clouded, strange. They talk in low voices about you. You seem calmer, more assured, they say. The spark in your eyes has died out, they whisper. Parts of you are burning. The party is in your honour, but no one was invited. You hear them through windows partly open, damp air leaking on your face. You hear them through thick walls. Sunlight pours across your skin, your shadow flat on the bedroom door. You have soft eyes and long hair that you wear loose and keep stroking smoothly as you listen. There is shame. There is fear. You can’t go on for too long or you’ll end up washed out of memory, almost out of existence. But then there is dizzying freedom. Your heart beats messily everywhere but outside yourself, in their hands; in your mouth, ears, nose, and toes. It’s a delicious sensation. Peace for you will come later, when your imagination isn’t so vivid, and your spark has lit up so much inside you that it had to die out, or you would have bursted into flames.

This is the map of my heart. My name is the capital, and this up here is the moon. This is the sun. I’m still naming the stars after people I know, but I change the first letters and stir together the remaining ones. This way nobody can connect the dots, and I get to feel like religion in high heels when they praise my creation. I am at the center of emptiness, outside the lines. The sounds separate themselves out here. Everything seems purer, easier to define when you’re undefined. I define. I burn the forests – here, and here – down. I am the forests. These cities are made out of graffiti, rock & roll and tree-lined streets. At night headlights shine in all directions, and I spill dark blue ink and sprinkle star all over them. Boys wrap their fingers around necks of beers and girls standing by the windows in yellow towels, holding hands and breaths. When the day comes my sun splashes it like water, and the brilliance spreads among people. They go for long drives under freshened skies and have orange juice and toast parked in the sunlight, breadcrumbs falling into their laps. There’s a thing in my stomach about telling a brief history of my heart without having to confess anything. My face no longer has the helplessness of someone who is no longer believed in, my hands are no longer an afterthought. I know how to make things come true, advancing upon them like holy cities, pushing aside everything that is not them. My dreams take place when I am awake and it is marvellous, because they dictate my life. Imagination is so integral to both my writing and my reality.

This is how my story goes on, with wide, soft moments growing outwards, at the edges of the map of my heart like an oil stain. They resound in me like waves, so powerful that I can hear them beneath the cliffside. I can’t resist them — they are strange and full of promises, temptation at its finest. They come down like hammers, and ask me to write them down with a gentle hand. They allow me to set my story in order. I grin. I am invincible. Lying on the sofa with my eyes closed, I take in how wild this is and how addicted I am to it. Isolation makes life feel cinematic. I can feel my heart begin to harden and my words begin to form on the tip of my tongue.

In between the spaces where no one roams is where I find my tranquility, and inspiration follows like the loyalest of dogs. The quality of stillness gets me high, and the intensity it holds builds up until it turns into the right words. From here on, it is easy. I put everything in a cone of light, then pick my pieces. This is the place where everything can start to begin; I start to write, they start to see me. Art blends with life once again. I can breathe easy. I know this will happen again. Biting my lips, I try to steady myself.

Picture this: there is an empty space next to you in the backseat. You make it the shape of everything you need. Now you say hello. This is you at your best, commonly known as your strength, but you haven’t been properly introduced yet – so you don’t know what it is, and you don’t know it is yours.

Then: you walk to work, heels echoing on the pavement, still a bit of warmth from the bed clinging to you. You take a seat on the bus and fall asleep to the sound of traffic. The night before you were at your desk, begging it to come back from the window, take off its wet clothes and come sit with you by the fire. You craved its hand around your waist and a new story over a glass of red wine. You were tired, but couldn’t fall asleep, so you waited and you waited until dawn. You feel frustrated. It was only just starting to reveal itself to you, and you couldn’t grab it and make it yours yet.

Or: a beautiful man keeps smiling at you like there’s no tomorrow. He has perfect teeth — square, white, even. He becomes your lover and soon you are making out in the corner booth of a bar. The light is dim and smoky, and he lets go of his secrets into your mouth, and you learn what his thoughts taste like and what he is afraid of, things you thought you had guessed before you first sat down and started writing, but surprise — you knew nothing then, which is why you couldn’t write. It is only when he gently bites your neck and you open your eyes and see him in the near-darkness and your heart falls out of you that you understand you had only just scratched the surface before him. Steam rises from both your cups at once, and you reach for your cigarettes, and even though your world doesn’t make sense anymore, when he says, ‘Look, baby, these tornadoes are for you’ you let them pass you, because there is nothing better than finally meeting somebody who finishes your sentences for you, especially when that somebody is you.

Badland

“The world is not made up of atoms; it’s made up of stories.”
­— Muriel Rukeyser

‘A week? A whole damn week?’ she complained.
That wasn’t what she had planned for. Then again, it wasn’t her who planned it in the first place. Rolling her eyes at the sudden, unpleasant thought, she walked slowly across the room, towards the window. Staring out it absently, she wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the unease settling in.
‘Ah, she talks! A week indeed,’ Tomás nodded in agreement in the back. ‘Well…’
Her new place was clean and cold – like a cell. You could feel like a queen if you lost your bad thoughts, she lied to herself.
‘Well, what?’
‘A week up to a month – or more, depending on your progress.’
‘What?’ she snapped. ‘Do you want me to lose my mind?’
‘No, miss. That’s why you’re here, remember?’ he said, and she could tell the sarcasm in his voice.
She hated the mischievous little smile in his eyes and on his lips, almost as much as she hated the cabin.
‘Kara.’
‘Excuse me?’
‘It’s Kara, not miss,’ she said, loud and clear. ‘That’s my name. Surely you should know that.’
‘Ah. Kara. Got it,’ he laughed. ‘Well, Kara, at least you’re not muttering swear words to yourself anymore. It’s good to see you’re opening up. We’ll soon have more chances to talk. For now I just need to know – no, actually I need you to know – that you’re settling in just fine and you’re willing to continue with the treatment.’
She puffed.
‘So you’re coming back, like… what, every day?’
Tomás gave her another funny look, but otherwise ignored her. He put his leather gloves back on and took the car keys out of his coat’s inner pocket without a word. Time to go it was.
Oh no.
‘Uhm?’ she mumbled, looking up.
‘Kara,’ he smiled back.
It nearly made her smile too.
‘Nothing.’
What if I don’t write anything?
‘Good. And good luck!’ he said sharply and shut the door behind him.

Ah, yes, that she would need… she pressed her forehead against the window and watched him walk to the car. It was a beautiful day, sunny but frosty cold. The sun shining over the mountains of snow, the snow not melting one inch. Ah, the fine ironies of nature, she thought, all the blood draining from her face.
She sighed. Day 0. Seven more to go.
My name is Kara Kohen and I’m here against my will, were going to be her first words on paper. They made me do it, was going to be the ending. It was dramatic enough to amuse her while her heart beat in her chest, loud and fearful. It was also real.

I // Introduction to the New World

In the New World nobody had tragic stories lingering in their minds for years. Neuroscientists had discovered a variety of methods to eliminate intrusive thoughts, whether random or recurring, and all one needed to do was ask for whichever they preferred. Some were dirty but harmless psychological tricks, while others were borderline cruel. After the days of pure modern optimism had their say it was now the era of science, and nobody seemed to be winning momentum like those who – sometimes literally, although uncommon – changed people’s minds. Getting the butterflies in one’s belly to fly in formation, as the saying goes, was insured and, most importantly, non-stigmatized. The un-put-downable thrillers, the gore movies, the typical post-romantic feminist music albums had all been cleared from the shelves and replaced with motivational combinations of sunrises and texts. This was, of course, unnecessary, as everybody was happy to go through a mind cleansing process every few months – or, if they were exceptionally strong characters, every few years – but anything that served the new system was welcomed.

Kara wasn’t. Expelled from every social circle since she entered her teenage years because of her constant refusal to see a specialist, she quickly became a misfit. One by one, everybody left to get better, and when they came back they avoided her so-called bad energies at all costs. On average, most of the people she knew had a mental cleanse every year. She heard that sometimes, they only talk to you. Other times, the whole process is more like surgery. She didn’t really know, and she didn’t really care either. She loathed the idea of an even remotely painful process that would expose layer after layer of one’s memories, dreams and fears, making them vulnerable, ashamed and, although nobody ever mentioned it, dreading a next time. Not telling a soul, she was secretly proud of herself and her bad mind. To her, it had always meant that she was bright, creative and resourceful, and she never would have traded her imaginative nature for a brain bubble bath.

People would wonder, laugh or, if a little braver than most, address her the usual question Penny for your thought? whenever she had an overly contemplative look on her face. In time she learned to ignore them, but occasionally, on the bus ride home or in a corner shop across town, she would say something like Yeah, I’m thinking of death. She would then stand still and watch people’s faces go blue before they walked away in silence, looking over their shoulders at the girl with the bad heart. It was an easy way to amuse herself, but an equally easy one to grow even more cynical, judgmental and dismissive of the world she was, liked it or not, part of.

Mysterious, ambiguous and often defiant, Kara held on to her right to think her own thoughts for a long time. Her friends were inside her head, made-up of fragments of her imagination and living the kind of stories that would have given anyone the chills, because nobody lived great stories in the New World. She never talked, wrote or mentioned them in any way, and was never going to; but the New World wasn’t permissive of outcasts.

But after years and years of saying no to the system, the system decided it was time to win her case. They tracked her down, invited her to a clinic and, one sunny winter afternoon, she was made the friendliest offer available for the troubled ones like her – people who went years seeming to believe they were born with some kind of super powers, and the right to keep them.

The whole process of signing her up bored her to death. She was being forced to join the programme the following week, and despite knowing that it was a lost battle, she resisted the idea to the very end. Fidgeting in her chair, she looked restless and unhappy, which in itself made the old lady at the desk uncomfortable. People were always happy and at ease in the New World, and when they weren’t they still put on smiles on their faces, went to the nearest clinics, and willingly signed themselves up for treatment. Because nobody was forced to do it – unless, of course, they decided not to.

‘Why are your clinics on every corner when I have indigestion far more often than depression?’ she asked bluntly, playing with a pencil sharpener in the shape of a globe.
The old lady stopped filling in the form she was working on and looked up at Kara through her long lashes.
‘Baby girl, you mustn’t say that word again. It’s very ugly and sad, and you have no idea what it’s like to –’
‘What, I haven’t been around for long enough to know what sadness feels like? Of course I know what it feels like. I haven’t been given the treatment yet. But nobody asked me a thing about my right to feel my sadness.’
Her mother grabbed her hand, closed tightly, made into a fist.
‘Kara, please, behave baby. Miss Rosie here is only trying to help. It isn’t her who created the system.’
Miss Rosie quickly glanced at them both once more, then shook her head in the most disapproving manner and returned to her paperwork.
Kara turned to her mother and tilted her head, begging with her big, brown eyes. It made her mother smile, but nod back in miss Rosie’s direction.
‘She is right, you know,’ she whispered. ‘You don’t know much about sadness, and you really should stop talking about it like you do. And, to answer your question, no, you haven’t been around for long enough to understand everything. The New World is so wisely designed that it can not possibly give birth to such feelings. Now…’

Kara closed her eyes and pressed her lips into a flat line. She wasn’t depressed, it was true; she just wasn’t in for all the niceties the New World demanded from her. After all, the world had done nothing for her other than try to monitor her every move. It was only her own world that she could rely on, and that made her oblivious to the one outside where all there was to see was an unattractive craze for obsessive-compulsive smiling, spreading far and wide. The New World was, behind all its clever advertising, tricky, controlling and as dismissive of people like Kara as she was of it. A girl only has so much energy to give, and she had made her choice a long time ago.

‘There you go,’ miss Rosie said gently, handing them a file. ‘You must go and get better, Kara. We need to keep this beautiful world we live in just the way it is. Bad energies only do harm and we’re in for the good stuff, aren’t we, baby girl?’

*

‘I don’t understand,’ she cried on the way home, her mother urging her to keep quiet. ‘How do they know I have bad thoughts, bad dreams, bad… energies, whatever the hell you call them? Have I ever harmed anybody? Have I ever pushed my ideas down their throats –’
Her mother clasped her hand, gently, and looked around. The few people on the bus returned quickly to their books, phones or conversations.
‘No baby, you haven’t, but you’ve got to understand. For the first time ever the world as we know it really is at its most peaceful. It can be a bad world, you know that, and they’re only trying to prevent the history repeating itself. I’m sure nobody believes that you would do any harm, but it’s always better to prevent than to –’
‘Yes, I know it can be a bad world,’ she interrupted, ‘and I can’t help wondering if I’m the only person my age who does.’
Her mother sighed.
‘Sometimes I think that history should be hidden,’ she confessed. ‘Look at what it has done to you.’
Kara remembered the story she had played in her mind to sleep the night before. She wondered if, even without having had somebody like Jade Montgomery in their lives, other people somehow knew things too.
Maybe human nature can never be tamed, and maybe they can’t take it and choose to anaesthetize themselves. Well, I wish them well, if well is what they like. I like keeping my eyes open and looking; inwards.
‘What they’re offering you is the mildest form of therapy, Kara.’
‘But I don’t need therapy, mother.’
‘Good, then,’ she smiled her sweet smile, as if all her worries were gone, but Kara knew better. ‘You go there and relax; just refresh your mind. Better safe than sorry, you know what they say.’
Ah, her mother loved sayings, didn’t she?
Better bad than safe and sorry together, she rolled her eyes once more.
‘Fine, I’ll go, but only for you. I know you’re having a difficult time explaining my behaviour to everybody you know. I’d like to take that off your mind.’
As from mine, I’m taking nothing off.
‘Oh, baby, I’m sure you’re going to come back ten times more blissful than you feel right now! It will be just like a detox, you’ll see.’
‘Only if ignorance is bliss, mother…’
‘Shut up,’ her mother urged. ‘Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. Otherwise you wouldn’t have so much to be grateful for.’
I’m not, but who can tell that to their mother?

*

To say that a rather cynical approach to life was Kara’s only problem would be a lie. She knew that, her mother knew that and, moments after meeting her, everybody knew that. From autism to ADHD, Kara had been diagnosed with every possible mental almost-illness since she was a toddler. In the end, they had to settle for objectivity; Kara was a mighty fine young lady who, generally speaking, didn’t give a damn about the reality of the moment. She had an otherworldly look on her face, was clumsy, had troubles focusing, and often took forever to complete even the simplest task if not under strict supervision. Her parents had to accept early on that she was chronically dissatisfied and stubborn as a mule, but knew that in the New World such people were always going to be seen as threats to the social order. As time went by and they noticed little to no change, they tried to hide their daughter’s behaviour as much as they could – but it wasn’t easy, because Kara had to attend school just like every other child. Unlike them she often came home frustrated with her own inability to do the simplest thing; and it became obvious, although it stayed a family secret, of course, that Kara wasn’t slow because she was stupid, she was slow because she couldn’t be in two places at once.

Ever since we are born, the way we are talked to becomes the way we learn to talk to ourselves; but some of us cross the line. Kara bulldozed down the fence. She would talk to herself all the time as a little girl, sometimes making her parents blush, other times making them gasp in horror. Her mind wasn’t every little girl’s mind; she had lost interest in fairy tales by age six, and instead mumbled fragments of what seemed to be a deeply internalized diary full of unpleasant stories. Her characters suffered deeply from things that were unthinkable, from being lied to or stolen from to being beaten or abused to death. As a teenager she looked slightly more troubled than the rest, often complaining that real time felt like slow motion to her, like boundaries, like limitations. Kara grew up to be a beautiful, yet bookish and tormented girl indeed. To say that she willingly decided to turn into a rebel would be, no doubt, false, so her family never stopped blaming it on the books her grandmother kept on the quiet in the attic.

Until her library was burned down, Jade Montgomery kept it secret from the rest of the family. Every afternoon, after school, Kara would go over for lunch and to have her grandmother, a former teacher, help her with homework; but homework never got done at her grandmother’s house. Kara would sneak into the attic after lunch and read until late, when it was time for her to either go back home or go to sleep. Her grandmother never said a word about it. She was the only person who understood Kara’s deliciously clever, unquiet spirit, and agreed to help her solidify her thinking with the truth, and the forbidden books – the only instruments that showed her the world in a less unilateral approach. ‘Don’t let others tell you who you are. And if you do, at least don’t believe them,’ was her grandmother’s secret advice for her.

Up there, as a child, she learned about the monstrous things that the humanity took part in, and silent terror descended on her mind every night as she recalled them. Unable to sleep, she used the books she read as kindling and her imagination as the fire starter to fall in love with her own monsters night after night. She made up stories that went on and on long after her grandmother and her books were no longer around. The parents of the New World never mentioned the monsters under the bed to their children, but in her Kara’s case, they would have seemed completely harmless compared to the ones living inside her.

She was grateful, but only for her grandmother who furnished her formative years with books, and for the little girl who hungrily opened her eyes to a world far from her sight. She lost her grandmother early, but she would never lose the little girl.

II // Introduction to Madness

On a first note, Tomás smells good, and all of this is new: the smell of oil, man cologne, hot coffee, the scenery. I have never been up in the mountains before. I have never been anywhere at all, as a matter of fact. Have I missed out on life, being so out of tune with it?A slight hint of regret washed over her like cold water. Does he even like me? Other than reciting the safety regulations he hasn’t said much and hasn’t looked at me once. I know it would be unprofessional but I am an attractive girl sitting in the back of his car after all, and would like to be comforted about this whole thing. Maybe he only dates the happy-happy-joy-joy type, which would be unfortunate, but I couldn’t blame him – after all what else is there? I’ve never met anybody like me, and if I ever have, they must all be brainwashed by now. It just so happens that, despite being who he is, Tomás at least looks my type – witty, sarcastic and cynical. I wouldn’t need him to say much if he could only keep that look on his face.

Tomás drove carefully through the bumpy piles of snow on the road and Kara continued to daydream about it being an abduction, but knowing that the term didn’t even exist anymore outside the Old World’s books. Around midday they arrived at the wooden cabin that was going to be her new home for a while.

‘What do you think?’ he asked cheerfully, finally turning to her for the first time.
Kara had her back pressed against the door, spinning the ring on her finger to exhaustion.
‘The same as Pascal – that all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,’ she muttered between gritted teeth.
He stared at her, completely impassive.
‘You will be absolutely fine. I’ll make sure of that.’
His voice put a smirk on her face, but was far from enough to change her mood.
‘Besides, I thought that’s exactly why they sent you here.’
‘Why?’
‘Because you only want to be left alone.’
Kara thought about it for a second. Not about what he said, but about the way he said it. People were cautious and optimistic in the New World, but Tomás seemed frank and straightforward. She liked it.
‘If they pay you to make a show, here,’ she sat up and leaned forward in his direction, ‘take my hand, dear sir, and show me this enchanted castle that you own.’
‘I don’t own it,’ he smiled, showing her to put her hand down, ‘and if you want to… hate somebody,’ he continued carefully, as if testing the word, weighing up its nuances, its meaning, ‘hate the game, not the player. Now stop working on your unhappiness and get out of the car.’

Without another word, they climbed out of the car with bags in their hands. Moment later she watched him trying the key in the door, hurriedly and carelessly, and secretly congratulated herself for being a brave, daring girl; as she should be, if nobody tried to mess with her head.
‘You go first, princess,’ he held the door open and showed her inside.
‘Why, thank you,’ she mumbled, yet making he sure he could hear her. ‘I’m sure I’ll be happy as hell here, on my own. Actually, I take the sarcasm back –’
‘Good!’
‘I will be happy here, on my own,’ she hissed, emphasising the last three words.

He whipped his head around, tight-lipped, but let her explore the room in her own time. Kara kept walking around in circles. The cabin consisted of an open-plan kitchen and living room, and a small bedroom with a bathroom in the back. There was a massive oak wood desk next to the window in the living room, with plenty of notebooks and pens lying around. She sighed sadly. Everything looked welcoming, but she had an awful feeling about being left there alone.
‘You’d better get used to it, you know –’
Ah, you again. Not so unaffected, then? I can’t wait to understand what’s with you too, she thought, still inspecting the old wooden furniture.
‘– you’ll be here for a week.’
A week? A whole damn week?’ she complained.
‘Ah, she talks! A week indeed,’ Tomás nodded invigorated in the back. ‘Well…’

*

Kara had no idea how long for she was going to be there or what she was supposed to do. Nobody was told much at the beginning other than that they would leave the programme feeling – no, being – new people. All she knew was that although under supervision, she was expected to be alone for at least one week and write during the whole stay. The treatment would not end there, but it was the first step towards her getting better. According to the New Theories, the only lasting changes were identity-based, and therefore she was expected to develop a new system of values and beliefs and rid herself of the old ones. Before the inside-out approach could work, however, she had to go through the cleanse – putting everything inside her head on paper, dismissing it as her identity, and destroying all evidence. People thought of the process as a nice symbol for a fresh start, but were always puzzled when the authorities insisted with the process being closely monitored by specialists. It’s just paper, they would say, and the doctors and supervisors would shake their heads and roll their eyes and make them go through with it as if their written stories were the biggest threat to mankind. But people didn’t wonder much in the New World. They would do what they were told, then go home and love their families, water their plants and repeat positive affirmations to exhaustion – or, in the troubled ones’ cases, to disbelief; but even obvious failure was a taboo.

Next, she was meant to see Tomás regularly for a period of 4 to 12 weeks and present him new sets of writings. If they continued to have a negative tone, Kara would then either be sent back or asked to complete an entirely different kind of treatment; what kind, she didn’t know. Everything stayed mainly private. People were rarely banned from discussing their experiences, but were thought to have such respect for the system that they would keep its methods to themselves. In reality, however, just as Kara suspected, people were ashamed of the things brought out of them during the course of their treatments, and even more ashamed of their doubts and demons catching up with them again after some time. In a world where bad itself was a bad word, discussing personal drama and the monsters discovered in one’s mind were embarrassing subjects. It was the kind of thing that one was damned if they didn’t do, and damned if they discussed in too much detail – like sexuality in the Old World, but then again, nobody knew much of the Old World and nobody had any desire to find out.

Kara wiped her nose on her sleeve beneath crisp, clean white sheets, feeling unable to put up a fight for the first time. They told her she could be anything, so she became an independent girl – then she grew up and they made it clear what the parameters were. Now she suddenly couldn’t stick to anything familiar anymore to help her feel comfortable and grounded. She didn’t want Tomás to sense her fear, but she couldn’t hide it from herself.

After all, life was terrible at the edge of uncertainty for somebody who grew up in the New World.By taking her away from it all and not disclosing anything about what her week in the woods was going to be like, they snatched her breadcrumb trail and it was scary. She was going to make some noise about this when she got back, in spite of the people, the system and the gods. People deserved to know what they were in for. False hope destroys quicker than despair. Nobody ever told her how this went, and now she didn’t even know if and when Tomás would be back until the end of the week. Much as she disliked the New World, it was still the only world she knew outside of herself, and she liked the comfort of having something to go back to every now and then. She loved her family, hard, and she also liked another thing or two out there – neon lights, glasses of wine, noises and words and body heat, sharp teeth and laughter, fast cars, grey areas, stubbornness, puddles of mud, breezy weather, cold fingers, street lights, dark curtains, dawns, tenderness. Despite its boring transparency the New World still held enough materials for her to make up story after strange story, and she wanted to hold on to that for the rest of her life.

But she was going to write starting the next day, if that was what they wanted, and then go back home to write some more – about her experience, about Tomás, about what writing feels like when you don’t even want to talk. She once found a page ripped from some old newspaper from the Old World in between her grandmother’s books, and she read the article hungrily. It was an interview with an author, and even after all those years she could still remember bits of it: Enigmatic writer whose dark, unsettling stories drag the past out into the light and create powerful visual images in the minds of the audience; A good story acts as a Trojan horse. The act of telling it is almost like giving a gift to an audience, and they do not even realize that you have packed it full of messages and values until they are already hooked and hanging on your every pause, waiting to hear what happens; and If you are lucky enough not to experience too much conflict on a day-to-day basis, or if you are in an environment where warmth expressions are viewed with suspicion, telling a story is a way to show your audience that you have both in you.

Kara closed her eyes. She could do all that. The only thing she never could was ask somebody why her grandmother kept that article, but then she could never ask about her grandfather without her family making faces either, so it wasn’t very hard to guess things. She simply assumed that the New World got rid of all the misfits before the new ones were born with rage, boredom – rage spread thin, what else? – and stories flowing freely and wildly through their veins. Thanking the old man for passing on good genes, she got up and took one last sip of her after-dinner coffee. It was time to go get a breath of fresh air.

For hours, she didn’t dare check the door in case it was locked. What would have been the point in locking her door when mountains, rocks and snows surrounded her she didn’t know, but she was afraid. As she finally stepped into the cold night air and looked up the house, she became aware of how quiet the world, the real world was up there. It wasn’t the place for her. On the other side there were new feet, and she would go there, crawl there if need be, when this was over. Her mind was the refuge. This was a small war.

Sat parked in front of the house was Tomás, watching her closely. Kara blushed when she saw him, but quickly made up her mind to go to him. Intimidating as he seemed, Tomás was nothing more than one of them after all, and Kara knew how to handle them. As she got closer to the car she could distinguish his silhouette through the fogged up window. She smiled, waved and finally put a big grin on her face and waited for him to open the door for her to climb inside; only he didn’t.
What is it with you, Tomás?
‘It’s the professional way to deal with patients outside of normal working hours,’ he said to her, back inside. ‘I was here to observe and take notes; if you were going to come to me because you needed something, I was going to let you do it yourself.’
Despite his serious tone, Kara sensed sarcasm and playfulness, but decided against mentioning it. It was too early for familiarities.
‘Observe… whether or not I’d be tempted to go off wandering?’
‘You wrote anything today, then?’ he changed the subject.
She grabbed an orange from his bag, thanking him with her eyes for bringing something good to eat.
‘I didn’t know I was supposed to. Today doesn’t even count as part of the… treatment, does it?’
‘No, of course not. I was simply curious to know whom I’m dealing with before… well, before finding out eventually, I suppose.’
‘Well, here I am,’ she said. ‘I don’t need to write to tell you who I am; or for you to tell who I am.’
Tomás smiled condescendingly.
‘Listen, miss… Kara, we are not where we are now for me to get to know you better. My job is to –’
‘Bring me oranges to pass the time and persuade me to be your after midnight writer, indeed.’ she smiled sweetly. ‘You have to admit, this whole thing has a certain romantic element to it.’
Ah, so what if it’s too early, he’s making me do it.
Tomás stood up, visibly uncomfortable with her attitude.
No, wait!
‘You know, Kara,’ he said under his breath, ‘believe it or not, I have monsters inside my head too; sometimes they sound just like you.’
‘You have… what do you mean monsters sound like me?’ she snapped, taken by surprise, in a high-pitched voice.
‘Too daring. Annoyingly so.’
Oh.
‘Is intimidating me part of your job?’ she asked, narrowing her eyes but not taking them off of him. ‘How do you know what’s in my head?’
‘Sometimes,’ he replied, and a subtle smile, less condescending this time, formed on his lips. ‘To answer your second question, for start, you are here,’ he laughed, but then quickly took back his professional posture and straightened his coat. ‘These are all matters I can’t discuss with you now. I hope you enjoy the food, and find the time and the inspiration to write tomorrow.’She let her legs hang loosely from the kitchen counter she was sitting on, disappointed with his reaction. Nobody discussed anything important in the New World, not even her supervisor.
‘But I don’t want to talk to you, or anyone else for that matter, about myself,’ she almost whispered, ‘Not yet. I want to understand what’s going on before I choose to pour myself on paper.’
Tomás scratched his head, nervously. He looked like he had a lot on his mind, but was torn between being open to her and playing his role. He turned around and came closer, if not too close. Out of the blue, a genuine smile formed on her lips this time, slightly throwing him off.
‘I believe that you don’t understand the essential, and the essential here, Kara, is that you don’t get to choose whether or not you should write – not talk – about yourself. We chose that for you when we brought you here. And, on a more personal note, I would suggest you do it because you do not wish to be taken anywhere else but home at the end of the week,’ he said, whispering the last words.
And with that, he shut the door behind him again; and her blood turned cold.

III // Testing the Waters

Kara sat on the porch puffing on a cigarette, thinking about how her mind was really nothing more to these people than fodder for banal chats or made-up stories for strangers to read. She never wanted to spill it out in clear words. She had always been a very private person, mainly because nobody would have taken her side, but lonely was so very different from alone. Kara started to rethink her definition of strength; was she strong enough to not just be lonely, but also alone? She smiled to herself – the treatment was supposed to make her think about her role in the society, rather than ignite her proud sentiments about being a misfit.

It was another bright, icy cold day up in the mountains. Wrapped up in her new checked wool blanket, she buried the cigarette butt in the snow and took another sip of the hot black coffee. Beautiful as it seemed, the weather was deceiving; just like her. It was time to face facts and fears, sit down at the big wooden desk and write.

Conquering demons, depression and nights away from home

Life is beautiful and vivid and wild and I want to run with this passion; but not the kind of passion you expect to see. It’s not loud, in the open. I learned early that there is a better way, more intimate, more intense. It takes fractions of seconds to send shivers down my spine, to make me curl up in a ball, to feel whole like your World can never make me feel (especially when you put me here).

My world has billions of candle lanterns and string lightning, yours only have illusions of big shining lights at the ends. Your tunnels are the illusions. That’s why you don’t see the lights. I have made them up, even in the darkest of places.

You are out there, in the open field, under the sun and stars, but you’re silencing your minds, your hearts and your souls with your pointless treatments. What are you treating? There is human time and there is wild time, and I’m taking my time to be wild; away from you. In small moments I feel magic, hot, pumping magic coming out of myself. What do you feel? What are you treating?

Safer than houses is how I find my own self to be, and it is deliciously satisfying to know that I must be a prime example of one of those lucky souls; the ‘whole package’ kind. I wonder if there are others who think more than your typical thoughts, because I am yet to meet them. I am happily unsettled and unsatisfied, but I crave company, but my kind of company. Your World is a merry-go-round of dolls.

I wish that what you call monsters were real people. I wish I could meet them, hang out with them, marry them. I wish that you, who have no right over me, would let them exist if only in my head. Not even on paper. I have no desire to share my inner world with you just because you can’t let go of the need to know, every second of the day, and let your own minds wander around in the dark for a bit. You are looking for secrets because you can’t believe your own minds. I am not crazy. Crazy isn’t a status; crazy is you and me amplified.

Do you find me odd, unusual, lab experiment for your greedy eyes and helping hands? Good. Leave wild things alone, because they are only beautiful admired from a distance, not up close. The world is your playground. Imagination is mine.

Will never be yours.

Yours, truly

Kara looked at the piece of paper in disgust. It looked like a horribly written draft, and it had nothing to do with the reason she was there. She knew very well why she was there, but what she couldn’t tell was how others knew. She wasn’t going to let go of her fantasies that easily though.

Perhaps I like stories where one rescues the other too much, and I imagine everything in between in too much detail. Playing on both fragility and strength has always been my thing. I am not one, but both. The saviour and the damned, the hero and the damsel in distress. I am both the vulnerable, big-eyed girl, and the monster that saves her after trying to eat her. I am the cat and the mouse, the dragon and the ashes left beneath his sometimes-too-daring flames. I am intensity and passivity all at once. I am two sides of the same coin, two magnetic poles, two people who don’t understand each other through words but whose hearts beat to the same rhythm in the end. Only they don’t know. Only I don’t know it either most of the time.

That’s why I imagine – because I don’t know myself entirely yet. I’m a flock of questions marks flying back and forth and eventually in circles. I understand who I am through scenaritis, and I don’t wish to be treated. I can never experience enough in your world, so I need to be left to do it in mine. I say less than I think, I create less than my mind gives me, and I’m trying to find God everywhere even though I’ve been Him all along; and the lost sheep, and the very definition of contrast. I am the girl in the storyland and I’m not looking to escape.

She opened the drawer and decided to forget about her first attempt at writing. This wasn’t good, it was raw writing, words not quite filtered through her mind. Perhaps this was what they needed, perhaps they would interpret everything the wrong way. She was going to do better the next day, but for now she wanted to focus on something else, such as making food or counting the mountain peaks she could see from every window around the cabin. She would write later, after all there was still time. Maybe she could pull off something on the seventh day and then go home, having fooled demanding Tomás and having kept her mind unaltered, she thought. Then she stopped thinking about it.

*

A short knock on the door woke her up. There was nothing to do, so Kara had been asleep on the couch for hours. She put the blanket around her shoulders and dragged her feet to the door to open it, yawning and sleepily rubbing her eyes. Standing at the door, Tomás looked happy, if not amused, and offered her his first wide grin before coming inside.
‘Is this how you write?’ he shouted from the kitchen a minute later.
‘Not today,’ she said, recovering her strength and walking in.
‘And why is that?’
‘Because anything I’d write today would be related to my confusion about being here.’
Bowls filled with fresh food were all over the kitchen countertops, Tomás looking more concerned about what to cook than her confusion.
‘Ok, you win, if that’s what it takes to make you write. You want to talk, we can talk over dinner. For now, will you help me here?’
‘Sure,’ she mumbled, surprised, nearly tripping on her blanket’s ends and falling over.
‘Hold this, then, and be careful there,’ he said, stretching out his left arm and handing her a kitchen knife.
She gave him a long, hard look, her eyebrows raised in disbelief.
‘What is it, Kara? Have you never chopped off peppers before? You start by cutting off sections – here,’ he laughed and gestured her to take the knife.
Yet she held on tightly to the upper ends of her blanket, staring at him still.
‘Tomás, I’m here… well, pretty much against my will.’
‘That’s right, it is a very entertaining thought indeed,’ he laughed, offering her the knife once more and bringing out the same reaction. ‘Kara, come on, what is it with this knife that you won’t take it?’
‘I… I don’t want you to report me.’
‘Report you for what?!’
‘For trying to hurt you, even though of course I wouldn’t…’ she whispered.
Instantly, Tomás froze, letting his arm fall loose to his side.
‘Did you say that on purpose?’
‘What? No, I… Oh,’ she gasped and arched her back.

She woke up for good, but it was too late. In her sleepiness, she let her mouth do the talking and say things she never should have said out loud. Her family was used to her being weird like that, occasionally letting out a bad thought or two, but always warned her against saying such things around strangers. Whenever she talked about harming people, death or such matters, people would turn away from her. How could she be so stupid and unguarded around Tomás, the one and only person meant to actually watch and take notes of her actions? She let herself fall to the floor, in horror. Who know where she would end up sent next, and all because of her bad mouth.

‘Stand up, Kara,’ he said, and she complied, but didn’t dare to look him in the eyes. ‘Seriously, you said that on purpose? How did it even cross your…’
It so happens that she got very good in time at reading’s people’s voices and nuances, so good that his sudden pause challenged her to look up to him… and there it was, a trace of a smile on his lips – and eyes! – that quickly changed back into his usual mask of seriousness when he noticed her shock.
But it was too late for him too.
Could she play this card? Could she talk to him, or should she apologise and start chopping peppers?
But there went her bad mouth all over again.

‘Why are you smiling, Tomás?’ she asked, her own voice now betraying her amusement and joy at finding him not so intimidating after all. ‘I said an awful thing by mistake,’ she continued, just in case the situation also needed to be saved, ‘and I have no idea how it crossed my mind.’
There we go. Awkward silence starting in…
‘Kara,’ he said, biting his lip to think about what to say next – or keep his laughter to himself? – ‘I’d like you to take this knife and…’ he stopped to bite his lip again, ‘start… hurting, the peppers.’
‘How could anybody hurt… something?’ she asked, taking the knife and feigning innocence.
This could be her ticket out, or her ticket to win him over.
‘Don’t push it!’ he warned and, grabbing another knife, let out a quick, short, wholehearted laughter, as if to say he was relieved – or that he was on her side.

*

Later, in the comfort and safety of her bed, Kara tried the things she learned from Tomás that night to see how they feel. Tomás spoke with confidence the whole time, and rarely looked her in the eye. As if hiding something.

What really affected her was his reaction to her writings from that day. He knew how to find the piece of paper in the drawer and analysed it quickly, perhaps too quickly. After seeming very concerned about her mentioning a lab, he shrugged it off and went back to something alone the lines of This is nonsense, Kara. This isn’t what we need from you. He was clever and knew that she wasn’t putting her heart into it. She closed her eyes, almost tasting the pain of having to give away her secret world. We need you upside down, dripping out every story from that clever little brain of yours. We need you to let go of all your fantasies, scenarios, made-up worlds and people and stories. You need to release them, and free yourself – because this is the only way… out of here.

He was stubborn though; he wouldn’t tell her how he’d know when she was done. Are you going to come and collect them every night? she asked him, and all he said was That is up to me. You just focus on writing. As for the big why, there wasn’t any clearer answer than what she already knew. This is how we do it didn’t do it for her, and his conformism discouraged her once again.

Swallowing hard, she let her mind drift and take her to the other side. She dreamt of all the many things she would never dare to talk about, let alone write. Half, because she was afraid of losing herself, and the other half – because she was too ashamed of showing herself. 

IV // Truth Is a Colour a Texture a Noise a Feel

When she opened her eyes, chills ran up and down Kara’s entire body. Tomás was in the far corner of the room; he had let himself in while she was asleep and was reading her new set of writings. She could tell from the look on his face that he wasn’t happy with them, but in a different way than the evening before. She didn’t dare to move yet. It had been a long day and the last thing she wanted to deal with was him, angry at her for doing what she was told.

She wrote, hard. She wrote despite her fear and in spite of it, of things that were too difficult to even put into words. Her truth wasn’t always a set of characteristics, specific to a story a place a person; her truth was all over the place, messy and chaotic and raw but finally real. All the what-if stories, all the made up possibilities, all the stories she read about at her grandmother’s house and further developed into new ones; bits and hints of all these were in Tomás’ hands, and he looked anything but happy.
Curled up on the couch under the big wool blanket, she put her hands tightly over her mouth and her face between her knees, to contain a yawn.
‘Wake up,’ she heard his voice, and slowly opened her eyes again.

Tomás heard her moving and took a minute to think of what to say. Sitting on the rug in front of her now, he was holding her papers tightly near to him. She knew it was going to be a difficult conversation.
She knew it since she woke up that morning, determined to write.
‘Hi,’ she whispered. ‘What happened?’
‘I knocked. You were sleeping, so I had to use my key and found these on your table. What are these, Kara?’
She blushed. Still after writing so much, she felt so deeply embarrassed by her bad thoughts. It was easy when she got to keep them to herself, but so damn hard when she had to discuss them with him.
‘Just… stupid things that happen to go through my mind ever now and then,’ she lied.
These are my bad friends, who have kept me sane throughout the years in your stupid world of rainbows and butterflies.
He put his forehead on his fingertips and sighed out slowly, looking up at her.
‘I thought people don’t get so easily angry in the New World,’ she tried.
‘The New World… What do you know about the Old World? This is not the New World, this is the only world. People are people no matter when they’re born, which is exactly the reason why you are here – because we want people to be good. Do you understand me? Now, when I asked you to spill everything you’ve got out on paper this wasn’t what I expected to find from… a girl like you.’

She stood up, her sleepiness long worn off, asking for answers with her eyes.
‘You seem lovely, but are anything but,’ he hissed. ‘You’re trouble, Kara. This is going to be a long… week,’ he said, putting his hands on his knees and nervously running them up his thighs. ‘Tell me, do you have a thing for the Stockholm syndrome? I noticed a pattern.’
Perhaps I like stories where one rescues the other too much, and I imagine everything in between in too much detail. Playing on both fragility and strength has always been my thing. I am not one, but both.
‘Yes,’ she whispered through her teeth.
He closed his eyes in despair. She felt bad for him and for putting him through this for the first time.
‘Who would you want to be, then? The victim or the…’
‘Please,’ she interrupted. ‘I do not wish to discuss my stories.’
‘You do not wish to discuss your stories? Kara, you wrote the story of a sick man who falls in love with his victim – and you made her fall in love with him ? That, Kara, is sick. You are sick in the head.’
‘It doesn’t go like that. Stop saying sick. I am sick of your nothingness –’
‘Because they bond over a fire, smoking cigarettes and discussing his troubled past?’
‘Read it all,’ she snapped. ‘You can not dismiss my characters like that. I don’t know how successful I was at creating them on paper, but I can tell you how real they are up here. Anything you want to know about –’
‘Shut up!’ he shouted. ‘I know exactly how real they are. You can not keep them alive anymore.’
She blinked.
‘They are not alive, Tomás. They are just products of my imagination. They are only alive for my own entertainment.’
He narrowed his eyes at her, not telling anything but telling oh so much.
‘That’s it – they’re up here, not out there. They are my stories, and do not interfere with yours. I am good, but I am also bad – and you are a specialist, and you should understand human nature.’
‘Just tell me this story,’ he claimed, calmer, firmer. ‘I want to hear how low you can go.’
Kara sat down on the floor next to him, her back against the couch. All in, then.
‘His name is …’

Kara kept her eyes shut the whole time, expecting him to run away any minute. Telling him the story was also a test. She wanted to see how low she could take him, how low he would go. After all, it was nothing more but an out of proportion metaphor about strength and warmth, and it just happened to grow with her just like all the others. Well, kind of just happened, but the world was so terribly boring… But he stayed strong and, when she finished, she thought she could see the trace of a smile behind his worried look again. She nearly didn’t believe herself – until she saw him, instead of running, licking his lips.
‘Your story feels like reality,’ he said darkly, giving her the chills, up and down.
They were sitting on the floor, drinking hot mulled wine and treating her fantasies like gossip from next door.
‘How does it feel like anything? Such things would never happen in the New World.’
‘No, of they course wouldn’t,’ he rubbed his face, like people do after they tell a lie. ‘Not if we make sure those who invent them get… treated.’
‘What if we didn’t?’
‘Oh, Kara… then it would only be a matter of time until all your dreams came true.’
‘They’re not dreams, they’re nightmares; but strangely, they do me good. I would never want to be…’
She shut her mouth just in time. Telling Tomás she didn’t want to be like him would have been another big mistake.
Lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t seem to notice her hesitation.
‘No, me neither,’ he smiled, and downed his glass of wine. 

V // They Live Inside Us, and Sometimes, They Win

It was barely dawn when Kara woke up, looked around and began to imagine what she wanted to see – a floor, a sky, four white walls closing in – and what she might do with her time. Her thoughts didn’t race around at the speed of light. For some reason it was just blank upstairs. She laughed to herself. She knew the reason; of course she knew the reason.

She also knew she wouldn’t write; not until late, anyway. It was time to relax her mind and take a walk, finally explore the area. She went to the kitchen, made tea, stared out the window and thought of what she would write next, but after Tomás’ reaction last night she was scared to write anymore. Soon after breakfast she wrapped herself up warm, put on her grandmother’s gloves, grabbed the keys from the wooden desk and shut the door behind her.

It was a bright day with not one cloud in the sky and the cold seeping into her bones. Always looking behind not to get lost, she began to climb up the only road there was. She wanted to know if there were others; if there was anything at all out there.

Reaching the top of the hill, she smiled and felt easy, feather-light. She left her bag on top of an iced rock and took a cigarette out of her pocket, and lit it up. It was serene, tranquil, and beautiful. It was frightening, too, but the good kind. She felt alive in the world, and it wasn’t that bad at all. She was going to keep writing when she returned, not so much because it felt good indeed but rather because Tomás intrigued her and she wanted to see more of him. After all, she already had everything inside her, and he was a professional. Whatever she gave him to read stayed between the two of them, or so the protocol said. It was time for her to test his limits, she thought, and her cigarette was good and the air was fresh and her mind was finally clear.

A young girl’s voice came up from somewhere in the distance. She sounded happy and excited, and Kara found her quickly. She wasn’t very far, and she was pointing at Kara. There was a small man too, but he looked quiet, oddly incurious. Finishing her cigarette, Kara ran downhill to meet the two. As she got closer, the other girl looked even friendlier – a brown-haired beauty with rosy cheeks and perfect teeth, wearing a long, warm brown coat. The man, Kara thought, was very old. He walked slowly, but looked healthy and strong otherwise.

‘Hi, I’m Kara,’ she shyly introduced herself.
‘Cassandra,’ the other girl said happily, and before she could tell Kara was given a big warm hug.
It was a lovely feeling after the last couple of days.
‘This is my great-grandfather.’
‘Hello,’ Kara smiled.
‘Are you cold, darling girl?’ the old man asked warmly holding her hand, pointing back at their house – also, it seemed, in the middle of nowhere.
Kara shook her head; she was fine.
As if reading her mind, Cassandra continued:
‘The village is back there, we’re just a little… out of it,’ she giggled. ‘But you should definitely come visit! How long are you staying for?’
Kara immediately understood that she wasn’t the first person the two had met that was there with the programme.
‘Just one week, hopefully.’
‘Plenty of time, then,’ Cassandra smiled.
She had a very reassuring, genuine smile.
‘Come with me to the village’s bar tomorrow tonight, what do you say?’
‘Sure,’ Kara said eagerly, ‘All they want me doing in stay inside and write, and I haven’t got that much to say to them,’ she hissed.
‘Ah, those bastards,’ the old man laughed shaking his head to the ground, then looked up at the mountains. ‘This has been going on for too long, bringing people out here in the cold and leaving them alone with their thoughts; of course they make up stories, what else can somebody do up here? Man is a social animal.’
Kara nodded along to his words, slightly absent-minded.
‘They bring people from all over the country to our village to make them write down their stories,’ the old man continued, ‘I always wondered, what’s the point of that?’
‘But the irony is,’ Cassandra added, ‘that us living here, we don’t believe in their nonsense.’
‘You don’t?’ Kara asked, surprised. ‘So you have never…’
‘Oh, yes, of course,’ she smiled, ‘but they let me go so very soon. I didn’t have much to tell them – frankly, I just live here with my family, and it’s a quiet, simple life. I haven’t got much trouble on my mind,’ she made a funny gesture with her hand.
Kara smiled sympathetically. She liked Cassandra’s sweet nature.
‘Why here, of all places?’
‘Who knows,’ the old man puffed. ‘We even made up a legend, and they let us get away with it. We say that up here people rid themselves of bad energies, and they go to die up in the forests. If people did it in cities, the bad energies would give birth to chaos again.’
Kara looked at him, attentively.
‘That’s a very interesting story,’ she said.
‘Darling girl,’ the old man said kindly, ‘who’s to say that stories must be trusted to be true? They are only stories; they can’t escape one’s mind.’
Kara looked around, restless. She was the queen of stories after all. She knew perfectly well the degree to which stories could end up controlling one’s mind, personality and life in the end. In that sense, stories were as real as the three of them were.

*

That long, endless afternoon, Kara told the papers the story of S. She had an affinity for him, and he wasn’t dangerous; she made him up, and she made herself up in the story, of course, but if they wanted to hear it… She looked at the paper and sighed heavily. So be it, this is my right – and obligation, it seems – to tell the story of my mind just as it is. The real reason behind her newfound eagerness was, of course, challenging Tomás and giving him a reason to perhaps see her in a different light. But that, that could stay on the inside, she smiled to herself.

When she finished, she jumped from her chair and went to the other room to get dressed for going out. Her mind was boiling hot and she was on the verge of crying. She could never fight her thoughts, for they were as much badland as they were her very essence. She was made out of all the bad she could imagine and she was, by every definition, the girl the bad mind and the bad heart. There could be no other reason for somebody to be so ungrateful and out of tune with life, when life was all around her, always pinching her and screaming Pick me! Pick me! Yet Kara was a lost cause, because life, for Kara, was a lost cause too. That was why she was bad. She couldn’t love life hard enough. Of course life couldn’t love her much in return either.

That evening, toxic thoughts and darkness swirled in her mind for such long hours that they could have easily bled out into her bloodstream. She felt crazy for the first time, and she knew she wasn’t going home anytime soon.

VI // You Are Not Bad, Kara

After walking in the dark in what was a mild version of a snowstorm, Kara couldn’t be happier in Cassandra’s house. The old man was asleep, and the girls talked animatedly for a little while before getting ready to leave. The bar was about twenty minutes away, and when she shut its door behind them, Kara sighed a sigh of relief.
It was a ridiculously cosy place for a bar, with coloured globes lighting up the whole room. Warmth, music and human voices washed all over her, all things she had too much of in the past and crazily craved now. Whoever she was, they didn’t know and she would stay a misfit in her heart only for one night.
‘Come,’ Cassandra smiled, reaching for her hand and guiding her to the bar. ‘Let’s get something to drink.’

Kara ordered a beer and never felt happier to get one in her life. Sipping slowly, she looked around to get familiar with the scene. There were more men than women, chattering and laughing all around. She secretly wondered how many of them were just like her; probably no one. They must have all been born and lived their whole lives in the remote village, maybe some even without going through ridiculous treatments. Her mind went to Tomás who was probably back at the cabin reading her awful thoughts, and guilt, shame and nausea all came to her at once. Facing him the next day was going be the hardest thing.
‘Kara!’ Cassandra snapped. ‘Come, let me introduce you to my friends – tell me when you want another one,’ she smiled sweetly, eyeing her beer.
Kara noticed that half of it was already gone.

Later that night, she went to the bar for yet another refill when she sensed a familiar smell. Before she knew it, Tomás’ arm snaked around her shoulders and pulled her close, if not too close again, to him. His body was warm, his breath smelled of alcohol and mint and his eyes were alight with joy. If she
‘There you were,’ he said cheerfully. ‘You could have said you wanted to go out. You are my responsibility, you can’t just sneak out on me like that.’
He was very talkative, and Kara knew it was because he was already drunk; otherwise he would have been furious.
‘If I want to go out,’ she shouted to make herself heard over the music, ‘will you take me?’
‘Yeah, yeah, whatever,’ he put his fingers on her lips as a gesture to shut up. ‘Let’s talk about that tomorrow. Now that you’re here, would you like something to drink?’
‘Are you allowed to buy me drinks?’ she grinned.
‘Don’t push it,’ he laughed. ‘It’s just tonight, and I’ll say you escaped. It happens all the time, they won’t be too harsh.’
‘What, with other patients?’ she laughed, and handed her glass to the bartender.
‘No, I mean at the lab.’
‘What lab?’
He blinked twice, hard, as if he didn’t know what she meant.
‘What do you mean what lab? Kara, another beer? Really?’
‘No, what lab, really?’
‘I thought you… when you wrote… ah, forget about it, we have our things,’ he laughed. ‘Who are you with, anyway?’
She came very close to him, but he didn’t seem to mind. Curious man, Tomás.
‘It’s too loud in here,’ she said in his ear as he turned toward her, ‘and too hot. Let’s go outside for a cigarette.’
‘Sure,’ he smiled, grabbed their drinks and she went for her coat.
She followed him outside; it was grey and it started to drizzle, and she liked the wind and the sound of cars driving on wet streets.

After briefly filling him in on her new friendship with Cassandra and watching him nodding along while watching her lips move as she spoke, Kara lit up their cigarettes and took a deep breath. The cold night air was, three hours of socialising in the dark later, refreshing and invigorating. She waited and waited for him to say something about her newer writings, but felt vaguely disappointed by his lack of interest. He didn’t seem to have any thoughts on the matter.
‘You went to see me tonight?’ she eventually tried.
‘Not you, your stuff. And yes, I did.’
All of a sudden he grabbed her elbow and squeezed tightly, but reassuringly. He was clearly drunk, but Kara could see the same worried look on his face again. He wanted to tell her things that he was not allowed to.
‘I never went through this, Kara’ he confessed.
‘Through having a beer with one of your patients?’ she found herself asking, her mind elsewhere.
‘No,’ he laughed, ‘through… you know… this, that you’re going through right now.’
It hit her hard, the realisation that he was like her in some way. She tried to avoid it, then ran straight into it.

‘I don’t know how it feels to have your thoughts forced out of you; but then again, I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut so they could never guess it was me,’ he frowned, as if recalling an unpleasant memory. ‘What you wrote there, again… I mean, Jesus. You can’t create like that. Not if you want to go back to your life anyway. And you can’t make people up like that. You haven’t defined him. To you he is just a breeze, but what if he’s insane, what if he’s worse? The effects these… thoughts could have if nobody regulated them… You have to think of what you’re doing, Kara.’
Worse?’
‘Whatever. What do you know… which is why you’re here,’ he sighed.
She thought about what would be the best question to start with, given that she didn’t have much time until her cigarette burned out and he would start complaining about the cold. Tomás forgot his coat inside and was already shaking in his black and navy blue pinstriped shirt. Most questions were going to have to wait until much later then, for sure.
‘What about yours? How come nobody wants to regulate yours? Surely you’ve made a mistake or two in your life and said something foolish,’ was what she managed to come up with, although she was also dying to know was what his mind could do.
‘Ah, I’m sure they would love to,’ he laughed, ‘but the things is that I keep quiet, so they can’t tell if I have any – not even by seeing them. Nobody knows which ones belong to whom. Wild guesses rarely work, and nobody takes the time for that. Someone must have reported you, and the way I see you, it could have been anyone.’
He made no sense, she thought.
‘Seeing what? What the hell do you mean? Which ones belong to whom?
‘Forget it, I told you. I can’t.’
Disconcerted, she was now the one wanting to break the cycle. Maybe he made sense, maybe he didn’t – it was all too much for her to understand after the drinking.
‘Are my thoughts that important to you? Is that all you see me as, a sum of thoughts? Am I nothing else but that?’
‘You are not bad, Kara,’ he whispered, as if reading her mind.
She closed her eyes. The rest could wait. Smiling shyly, she went back inside followed closely by him.

It didn’t take long until, between smiles, nods, and getting closer and closer to hear each other over the music, their bodies brushed together and her arms tightened around his neck. Kara pushed herself closer and closer to him, because she wanted him, and because she didn’t want herself. For a couple of minutes she remembered what it’s like to be young and scared and wanting so badly to give yourself away, because you don’t know what to with all that’s been given to you. You do it with eyes wide shut and a burning desire to never get yourself back.

But as his mouth got closer to hers, his arms remained loosely around her waist. He had doubts about making out with a patient, surely. Kara too knew that they weren’t supposed to, but Tomás smelled of alcohol, cologne and Tomás, and she loved it. Her senses returned, either to make her aware of the danger this man could have been or to tap her on the shoulder and encourage her to enjoy the moment.

When she kissed him, life, real life in the New World finally turned into the same shade it was when she read about adventures, bliss and sleepless nights in strangers’ arms from her grandmother’s books. Other boys never really got to her, but Tomás, maybe because he read through her – literally – and didn’t hate her, made her feel accepted, so she could finally accept herself too. Whatever it was, he was closer to her in many ways than many people.

That night she felt new, and strange and beautiful. For the first time, she wanted to give up on her stories and embark on one of her own. Without saying much he managed to crawl inside her mind and make her imagination run wild, not to other worlds but to the very New World she despised, and found herself suddenly in love with.

Tomás’ heart beat faster and faster too, but he knew better. There were things Kara didn’t know of and would have scared the life out of her. People of the New World were born to live a lie, and the kind of truths she asked for were better off hidden from their fragility. He could live both, because he liked the lie and could take the truth, but she seemed inconstant and capricious, and a lunatic too.

Much as he was happy to find someone real, he felt bad about encouraging her. It would have been against the protocol, the world as it was finally shaped, and everything he knew. Like Kara, Tomás didn’t know anyone else who was, by all the New World’s definitions, crazy. Even the lab workers were balanced and happy to go through the treatments, after seeing what kind of monsters the imagination could produce.

She was something else, like him, and it was hard to see a good thing when you across it for the first time, blinded by the lights. Because, like Kara, Tomás could never accept his own bad mind, and the acceptance he got from others was part of the lie.

‘You’re a maddening girl, Kara, in every way, and not every way is good. I like my world all tidied up nicely, and girls like you risk making it very imperfect all over again. Come, let’s take you home and make sure you carry on writing,’ he said, shaking his head.
She fell back on her heels, taking her arms off from around his shoulders.
His eyes moved up and down her body, then he pushed her away.
That was it?!
‘You can’t drive, you’re too drunk,’ she said, sternly. ‘I’ll go see who else is free.’
‘No, no, no, don’t do that,’ he snapped, grabbing her arm and leading her off the dance floor, as if suddenly completely sober. ‘You don’t know these people.’
‘You don’t trust people?’ she asked, raising her eyebrow skeptically. ‘Since when? I thought harming was a taboo in the New World.’
‘I trust people,’ he mumbled, as if thinking to himself. ‘Just not right now. We’re too high up. They might be leaks.’
‘Leaks?
‘That’s what we call the ones who escape from the lab. Sometimes they escape –’
‘Ah, the lab! Yes, tell me about the lab,’ she mumbled, blinking hard and fast and trying to pull herself together as quickly as she could.
‘…it’s hard to control such big numbers, and I swear it’s hard to think of them as people,’ he turned to her angrily, but couldn’t see her expression in the dark. ‘This is why they don’t like you thinking those bad thoughts, because then this happens! Imagine if this was the case in your hometown. You’d never be safe taking a cab.’
‘What are you on about…? What is it with my thoughts and you?’
‘Because they spill into the world, and you never know what they might start,’ he carried on excitedly, giving her another hard look despite not seeing her clearly.
Kara could tell that he was drunk and overly excited, but it was something he was deeply passionate about too. Although confused, she felt connected to him once more. Whatever it was with Tomás, it made him some sort of misfit too.
She slipped her hand into his and got closer, until she felt his warm breath on her cheeks.
‘They say I give off bad energies. Is it because of my bad thoughts?’
Her question was innocent, honest. In that moment, she cared less about the lab he worked in than she did about the reason behind his rejection.
‘Energies?’ he grinned, still excited, looking like a mad yet drunken scientist. ‘Is that what they think they stay? What about you? You wouldn’t really think that’s all bad thoughts are, stories inside your head and bad vibes for your friends, would you?’
‘Well, what else are they?’ she asked calmly, holding her breath.
Tomás laughed, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to know. He got so fired up that he completely forgot his train of thought, the protocol, the status of the curios, crazy girl holding his hand.
‘People.’

VII // Getting Ready to Meet the Devil

Towns at rest, people going home, intermittent patches of glitter and dark everywhere – life, dear life was happening all around her, dancing restlessly through her lashes. Head leaning against the car window, Kara felt wide awake with fear and curiosity. Houses rolled past her like a tracking shot in a film, blurring and disappearing from view the very next moment – as if reminding her not to bother, because everything was difficult, and everything was also fleeting.

The houses didn’t hold her interest for long. The passenger seat – the safe haven, and speed – a delicious break from the reality of the moment, were half-assing their jobs too. On the other side of the car Tomás kept giving sighs of helpless irritation, distracting her from her attempt to stay distracted.

‘Damn you,’ she mouthed silently to herself, and threw an arm over her eyes.

He wouldn’t look at her. Driving fast without saying a word, he only huffed and puffed now and then at his own seemingly unpleasant thoughts – she wouldn’t know, he wouldn’t tell. The car was saturated with him and she still couldn’t tell a thought from the other. Like a mausoleum they were shut up in, it was dark, musty and cold in there, and terribly lonely. If only she knew what he saw her through those quiet eyes of his.

If only he’d stroke her hair and said it was alright.

But his eyes were nothing like silence. Bright and alert, like a small animal that’s just realised a much bigger one is close, his mind was racing around her, circling but unable to confine. Now she knew, and she wouldn’t keep quiet. He had to show her things he was not allowed to show anyone, because now she would go back and question everything out loud. Ah, if only he could drive fast enough to lose himself in a vortex. Anything bigger than him would do, because for once, Tomás did not want the blame, the trouble, the girl.

Fidgeting in her seat, she finally turned to him. He looked tormented. She did not like real life complications much, and would have been happy to forget about this story if only he asked; if he asked anything. Life in the New World was simple, and that quality got to her in time. Her mind was a myriad of thoughts – all revolving around the insane things his mind seemed to believe, and whether they were due to heavy drinking or never receiving the treatment – but she’d have pulled down the blinds and shut them out if he wanted. After all, she was sick enough with storytelling to carry yet another’s burden. From life, she had picked a few things to like, but they did not have tormented faces: highways, rooftops, public swimming pools – all at night, houses with big gardens, flats up high on the last level, oranges, tea, red flowers, rock & roll, coloured lighters, sitting by the fire, large windows and larger beds, sundown, sunrise and sometimes, not going to bed at all, electric people, soul shakers and the lives she could live in five minutes, if nobody loved her enough to tie her down. But a sad man, she did not know how to handle, for she had never seen one before.

She finally let the alcohol kick in and her thoughts disperse, and shut her eyes.

*

Later, as she sobered up after the nap, Kara realised they weren’t up in the mountains anymore. They were driving across a vast, windy field with no trees or houses on either side of the road, at what seemed like speed of light and straight into nowhere.
Her lips were wine-dark and dry and she craved a glass of water and an explanation for where she was being taken, and if it wasn’t too much to ask, why. She had barely muttered a few words when she remembered he would not tell a thing. That was what it would be like. He would not talk, and she could not fight. To hell with it; he was breaking every other rule anyway.

‘Pull over!’
‘Oh no I won’t,’ he said as if he had had the answer ready the whole time. ‘There is nothing to do here. If you’re going to report me, I might as well drive you all the way up and let you have a good luck at what you’ve done first.’
‘Up where?’
‘Kara, you’ll have to trust me on this one, alright?’
‘What? Ah… listen, I wouldn’t… why would I report you, if you actually stop driving like an animal, and putting me at risk?’
Unconvinced, he slowed down and turned to her, listening, thinking. This was her moment, now.
‘Damn your professionalism, Tomás! Just tell me what’s going on – or fine, fine, don’t; but pull over, please! This is getting frightening. You really are driving like an animal. Listen, I’d be crazy to report you for having a couple of beers with me! Now stop this stupid car and let me catch my brea –’
‘What?’
Tomás stopped the car almost as he spoke, looking her up and down with wide open, inquisitive eyes. Listening, thinking, still.
‘Thanks for stopping the car,’ she smiled.
There was no point in arguing and she knew it. After all, she had had enough. She was on safe ground with him, and the rest could wait until they got back.
‘Cigarette?’
He waited a couple of seconds before nodding slowly in her direction, and taking one out of her pack.
‘Why do you think I’d’ – she lit up, then passed him the lighter, watching closely his every move – ‘report you? You didn’t take me out drinking; I sneaked out on you. I wouldn’t report on my own bad behaviour.’
Tomás laughed to himself, shaking his head slowly in disbelief.
‘If this is the case – what if I did, then?’
‘Roles reversed?’ she smiled. ‘I’d lie and say you lied, I guess.’

Tomás took a deep drag and opened the window to let in the crisp, cold night air. Smiling his sad little smile, but visibly calmer, he was the most good-looking man Kara had ever seen – perhaps because he was good-looking in a gentle, melancholic way. There were troubled waters beneath the surface, and she would never swim in them, and neither would others, ever. That in itself was incredibly attractive and exciting for somebody who had imagined people like him her entire life.
Suddenly she felt shy and self-conscious, remembering that it was his job to dive deep into hers – but the whole thing was whirling nicely round in her head, for it meant he’d be close for a little while longer.
He seemed to think about it for some time, but eventually put his arm through hers. She could feel him shivering. When she told him, he said it was cold there. She thought it was, too – but they were in such a gentle, formal place, that she did not dare complain about it. How often would a girl like her go to no man’s land – better, even, with somebody like Tomás?

‘Radio on?’
‘Please.’
His voice, like everything else, was chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving. ‘Love at first listen,’ she thought.

Rearranging herself in her seat, she let her head back and closed her eyes. She’d have fastened herself on him if she could, even if it meant he’d drag her down. Hell or the closest to Heaven she’d ever been, she was in for the thrill, for this was one of those moments she read about in her grandmother’s books from what seemed – no, was – another world, the Old World. It was her and this man and their complicity and their bodies, and fingers, and thoughts intertwined in the night, the cigarettes and alcohol and the lies they’d just promised each other to tell to save their skins; the bad and the badder, the sense of being alive with each other far away from home, a place that felt home to neither, last night, tonight, tomorrow night…

The night felt dark, powerful and magical. Kara thought it was one of those nights she used to read about back in her grandmother’s attic.

A wave of warmth washed over her, then a cold shiver, then more, many, many more. To no surprise, smoking his cigarette in perfect silence, Tomás was waiting for the moment to come. His dark eyes watched closely as she suddenly jumped from her seat, coming to where he was. ‘I’ve been waiting,’ they seemed to say.
‘My God, you weren’t joking. I didn’t take you seriously back there. I should have – right? Oh, please tell me that I shouldn’t have.’
Staring back at him, she thought about what it’s like to be cold, shocked and afraid, as if it were in another life than this.
‘Well, if I knew you couldn’t tell when I mean a thing, I wouldn’t have bothered driving all the way up here. But now that we got this far, what do you say – shall I show you what your imagination has given birth to?’

The principle the New World worked on was very simple, yet it proved to have countless unexpected implications: the bad had to be eradicated. It was a very noble idea and it had been around ever since Eve ate the beautiful apple – except, of course, it never worked. In the New World, too, goodness was a concept that had to be balanced to be sustainable. The bad could be swept under the carpet, no doubt, but the carpet was still in the house. As the good flourished, the bad was only just around the corner, the shadow on the wall in the dark, the bump under the covers, the one thing nobody would have guessed from under the cleverly layered, multi-stranded stories. In Kara’s case, the bad was – surprise! – not inside her, but out there. Up there.

She gasped in horror when he put his hand on her knee, reassuringly – as if to say ‘Welcome to my world – don’t worry, I am here too.’

*

‘This is the highest up this road goes,’ he said, reaching for her hand. ‘From here onwards we have to walk, climb – run, if you’re brave enough. Come along now, don’t be afraid to see it on the outside. It can’t hurt you, I promise.’
Oh, but seeing it could.
‘It’s the things you do to yourself that count, Kara,’ he smiled reassuringly. ‘Whatever a storage up a mountain holds, you hold yourself to sleep every night. It’s your imagination you’re forced to say sweet dreams to, not its consequences.’
‘Storage?’ she frowned.
‘Well, you can call it that, or whatever you want. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. The chances it can ever touch you are close to none.’
‘And yet you dragged me out of the bar just in case there would have been any leaks; I wonder, what happens if…’
‘That’s a story for another night, princess,’ he said and began to climb.
Sometimes, fulfilling your dreams feels like watching your house burn down. There’s nothing you can do about it, because it’s already happening with or without you. You have to stand and watch, remembering the things inside you’re losing, and sometimes it’s the familiar passivity that lets you keep dreaming when the world gets tough that you’ll miss the most. Your dreams are becoming your world now – but no new world comes flawless on a silver platter, like you’d almost expect.
‘People,’ he said, ‘you know? It’s people that we create with our thoughts. And I wish this was an alegoria, and it’d only mean that we make or break our loved ones. It’s not. There are other worlds, but they are in this one – a quote from a writer back in the Old World, but you wouldn’t know.’
‘Yeats. I do know. I’ve had access to books from that time when I was a kid. But what I don’t get is if the Old World is in this one too?’
‘There is no Old World, Kara.’
‘Excuse me? My life has all been a lie?’
She stopped to catch her breath – with the sound of the heart in free fall inside her – but what could she do about it? Nothing. She didn’t deceive herself.
‘I’m afraid so, but I know you know this,’ he winked. ‘The Old World was simply the world as we know it, with these creatures running free among us. Sure, they wouldn’t just pop out of your mind, but they didn’t need to either; there were enough of them to balance the good. Yeah, the world was a pretty violent and unstable place to live overall, but –‘
‘It still is, behind the censorship?’ she asked, pointing at the massive metal gate in front of them.
‘Yeah. Yeah. And the world is constantly changing, evolving. There have been new worlds and old worlds for as long as the world has been a thing, you know? Don’t laugh, I mean it. They think they can just keep it nice and tidy. I’m telling you, the more time goes by, the more these –‘ he pointed at the building far behind the gate, ‘multiply. Like a damned Hydra! You know what that is, yeah?’
‘Yeah, I’ve read about that too. I get what you’re saying. People want to rebel, then; it’s not just me.’
Tomás shook his head.
‘No, but they go and seek treatment more and more often to stay afloat. But, like I said – the more of these –‘ he pointed back at the building, ‘we kill, the more people give birth to in their minds when they get home. It’s the New World’s fastest developing service, and I doubt it will stop, until…’
‘An even newer world?’
‘This just isn’t sustainable. But come, I will show it to you nevertheless. There might be hundreds of years until a new Big Bang in this poor old world, and this is the one we’re most certainly going to have to live in.’
Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he slowly pulled her up and they walked together on flat ground to the gate.
‘You said you liked this world back at the bar though, Tomás. Said you don’t want me to ruin it for you.’
‘Yeah, well, I’m a bit of a coward, but only because I know too much. And I’m sorry. You’re not ruining anything. I’m going to kiss you, you know? Just not tonight. Tonight is already too intense.’
‘Alright,’ she whispered.
More than this, she wanted to crawl wearily into bed, overtired and craving some empty hours to herself.
More than that, she wished to swap the excitement of stepping into playland with kissing the only interesting man that ever lived.

*

She thought, this can’t be so bad, as Tomás was unlocking door after door. I’m going into a museum of familiar faces — of people who never existed anywhere outside my head — and be reminded of all the thoughts I’ve ever had in all the rooms I’d ever slept in, in all the streets I’d ever walked in; and, perhaps, the odd pair of eyes in a jar, blinking violently at me, as if asking me to imagine them a little further.
Tomás’s arm snaked around her shoulder, reassuringly. There was no more anger in him. He had forgiven her, for whatever she’d done wrong that night.
Then I will unthink them, she thought, not knowing how she’d do that. Maybe other forms of treatment include erasing one’s memory. Maybe I can ask for that.
‘Are you ready?’ he turned to her, key in his hand by the last lock. She held her breath.
‘Is it just me?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ he laughed. ‘Of course it isn’t just you. There are too many people in the world for each and every one to be the one. Here is the collective imagination of them all. I’m taking you on a tour. ’
She frowned, not liking his answer.
‘Then who’s the one — the lucky one?’
‘Nobody is,’ Tomás shrugged. ‘What did you expect? And at the end of the day, what would it mean, anyway? What could you possibly get out of being the one?’
‘Lots of things, I suppose.’
‘Yeah, but not at the end of the day. Nobody is anybody at the end of the day. Anyway, are we still talking about this?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she sighed. ‘I’m just not ready to see anything I might have created.’
‘Kara, you have created an entire world. You’ve been imagining crazy shit since you were a baby. Why are you suddenly a coward? You have to own your —‘
‘Show me yours first, then.’
Tomás stood still, eyes locked with hers, smirking.
‘Clever, but no. I’ll show you yours first, then we can talk about distractions. I’ve seen mine already, and you really don’t need to right now. Focus, alright? Listen — they’ve frightened you, haven’t they? Why did you let them frighten you like this? You are not bad, Kara.’
‘And you are the first one to tell me that without blinking, and it still took you until a couple of hours ago to do that, Tomás.’
‘Fine, fine,’ he rolled his eyes, exasperated. ‘I am sorry, if that’s what you want to hear, please forgive me for not knowing what I didn’t know before I learned it.’
‘But you read me —’
‘Oh yes, but I hadn’t kissed you, bought you beer or talked to you until 2am until a couple of hours ago, so reading meant nothing. People are not their writings. People are not even their thoughts, in their entirety, which brings me back to this,’ he said, leaning on the door. ‘This is barely who you are, because you also eat, sleep, and talk to your mother. This is your form of escapism, nothing else, and if it’s bad so be it; mine is awful, by the way. Don’t you look at me like that, I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. And you shouldn’t let anyone make you feel ashamed either. That’s a pat on the head you don’t need, the “calm down, dear”, the patronising wink to the crazy, harmless girl, the water poured on your potential to play God — and nobody should ever take that beautiful, guilty please away from anybody. Come on, Kara, how can you not be ready?’
‘If I’m not,’ she whispered, softly, ‘will they all, uhm, mine, you know… go?’
‘No,’ he said, but paused just as quickly. ‘Well, yes… this is why people undergo treatments. We’re trying to keep their numbers under control. But it’s not as easy as you… think.’
‘Because they keep coming back?’
Tomás pulled her slowly towards the door.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘I don’t have all the answers. Maybe we can figure out yours tonight. Welcome to your reality. Here, everything you can imagine is real.’

VIII // Questions of Identity and Belonging

She was feeling for the knob when she saw the light of his cigarette at the other end of the corridor. His words were still floating insistently in her mind — a seductive but dangerous truth. She could make and break the reality of the moment, and she would do it over and over again, to exhaustion; and she would shut him with her silence a little longer, too, just until she’d seen all of her wildest visions acted out. She thought, ‘My heart could be whole. My heart could be so whole.’

And then she thought: Had this still been the world in Jade Montgomery’s books, this would have been an entirely different kind of story. No gods and monsters, no imaginarium, no new society covering up its people’s dirt and pretending to thrive. It would have been just like in the Old World, where people walked into a café and went to the table on the terrace to have a drink, or got into a taxi and drove along the blazing hot streets to somewhere beautiful where they could be alone, or sat at large desks with white sheets of paper in front of me, the sun outside, and music starting up somewhere, and thought of tomorrow; and, unlike in the New World, there would be a gap in their heads, a blank, as if they were falling through emptiness, because unlike in the New World they wouldn’t know what tomorrow would bring to them.

She wouldn’t have had to make anything up inside her head in an interesting, lively world like that. No, it would be much simple than that — things would just be, no rehearsals, no digging for ideas. Things would happen to her rather than because of her, and she would be living them out loud , in the sunlight, in the shade, in the light and in the dark and maybe — just maybe — in his car out there, if it’d have still been the same car or, oh well, a different car or no car at all. Things would just come, and she would breathe them in and let them wash over her and refresh her heart in the summer, and break her heart in the winter. Stories would come and go, so many of them by then and so many still, until she’d learn to stand on her own two feet, clutch the corners of her dress and say ‘No more, I am a big girl now,’ and then she would embark on a new one, just one. One big, important story that she would write herself, and that would be enough for a life well lived.

In another life, in another world — the Old World — Kara would have went to a summer camp that summer. She’d have been lying on a blanket in sunlight all ay, drinking wine and talking horrors with people who’d laugh at them and then drink some more; they would know they were only stories and could never be anything more, and they would never be anything more.

Maybe one night, in the open yard where beer would have numbed her senses, she would have locked eyes with him and think he was the one. Late that night, after the fire had gone out, she’d have left, eager to sneak back inside and lie awake, watching the lights outside draw shadows on her roof, shivering through layers and night-dreaming without sleep about road trips, overheard heartbeats and the world of possibilities at her fingertips.

Or, if this was one of those daring stories she used to read only when Jade wasn’t home, maybe he would have followed her in the dark. Then, just as she’d be feeling for her door he’d light up a cigarette in the main doorway, and she’d know it was him out of everybody else. The story would not necessarily have to stop there. She never really liked the plain, simple happy endings. And they lived happily ever after. No!What did they live? Where did they go? How did he take his coffee? What would he think of her freckles and chipped fingernails in the sunlight? What would happen next in her story could easily be a sequel on its own. Kara blushed. It was so obvious, what they would have lived next in that world. He’d have taken her skin in his teeth and her jeans at her toes, and the rest would have been a blur that lasted forever, that still was. Perhaps the loud dispense of raindrops in a coffee cup filled with cigarette leftovers in the morning could have been the much, much happier ending to this story, because it would have been no ending at all. No story she ever read ended like that.

She thought: What else? Highways, rooftops, public swimming pools — all at night, houses with big gardens, flats up high on the last level, oranges, tea, red flowers, rock & roll, coloured lighters, sitting by the fire, large windows and larger beds, sundown, sunrise and sometimes, not going to bed at all, electric people, soul shakers and the lives she could live in five minutes, if nobody loved her enough to tie her down.
Still leaning on the door frame, this time without any clear intention of ever finding the knob, she felt his hot breath on her shoulder and his heart beating against her wingbones.

‘What’s wrong, Kara? Spiralling down the hell hole again?’
‘I’m scared,’ she said. ‘I just had new thoughts. If I opened this door now, I’d probably see their stage adaptation. This is exhausting. I don’t want anybody to have access to a record of my thoughts, not even me.’
‘Don’t be silly, they’d be gone by now. You’d need to nurture them over time if they were to stay. The new ones are fragile, like newborns. They don’t have faces and lives of their own, outside you. Things may look like real carvings around here, but they are erasable, there are no encrustations; all is reversible, if you only change your mind.’
‘Like that’s easy to do.’
‘It depends,’ he said, taking her hand. ‘You just said you changed your mind about your last vision.’
‘I just don’t want to see it now, that’s all. It’d be too much. I’ve seen enough for a lifetime.’
‘Good,’ he smiled in the dark; she could tell from the tone of his voice. ‘Then we can come back tomorrow.’
Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he walked her slowly back to the main door.

*

The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzed up over the lip of the can as she brought it to her mouth and sipped. There was no rush for anything in the world as she drank the rest of the night away. Tomás was right there, hand around her waist, another can in his hand. They were back at the car, sitting in the dark, looking at each other.
Human beings truly have a deep need to bond and form connections to get their satisfaction, and Kara was bonding to another human being for the first time. Until then it had always been a book, a thought, a plan to leave. Now, for once, it was a man.
‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘if I ruled the world — no, seriously — I’d never ask you to undo a thing.’
‘Why is that?’
He moved her hair out of her face, slowly.
‘I think I’d like to live in an imaginarium with you. You come up with incredible…’
‘Have you actually seen my thoughts tonight?’
‘Other than the ones I showed you?’ he laughed
‘Yes.’
‘Oh… yes. The new ones.  There were empty rooms and then suddenly, they were not so empty anymore. Very vague, as expected.
There was… me,’ he murmured, ‘in a… room. It was strange to look at, the odd creature. Then there was you,’ he smiled.
Kara fidgeted in her seat.

*

Tomas clasped her chin between his palms. ‘You made me feel alive and well, Kara. You are pretty good at life, better than you think. You are a more badass version of me, I believe,’ he said softly, smiling still.
She nodded, careful not to let herself out, every uncensored inch an entire avalanche of honest echoing through her lips.
‘Don’t go,’ she murmured. ‘I want to keep talking all night. Please,’ she said in a little, little voice. ‘I can’t handle the silence, I can’t handle the lack of warmth and I can’t handle myself tonight.’
She blushed. He knew what she did back there, and she knew he knew it, too.
Tomas sighed, heavy-heartedly.
‘I’ve risked enough for you tonight already, haven’t I?’
‘I’m sorry,’ she bowed her head.
‘Forget it, what’s another hour or two? Come inside, I’ll fetch something from the car and be right in with you.’
She stayed by the curtain and watched him, and after a while he got a blue bag out of the car and walked back to the cabin.
‘You said there is no Old World.’
‘Ah, technically – but what do you call this world, if not a new one? It’s locked up everything it didn’t like. In the past people were both good and bad. Now they can only be good, because all the bad is being consistently taken out and up there. This is not a free world, Kara. We are not free to be those…. People,’ he tested the word, carefully. ‘And it’s a sad fact, because we are them. It’s a strange nostalgia for the bad in us, isn’t it? Who in the Old World would’ve thought people would ever fight to keep the evil inside them?’
‘Leaks, you mean. You think our potential selves living it up back in those cages have leaked from my mind just like that, and they suck…’
‘Kara, Kara, hey,’ he stood up and went next to her, ‘they are not leaks, baby, they are locked up in there, leaks are the ones that…’
‘That escape, yes, but let me ask you something – how do they escape? Have you ever seen one escape?’
‘I have not.’
‘And do you know of anyone who has ever seen one escape?’
‘No, but I have heard of those they found on the streets.’
‘That is a fortress, Tomas. There is no way they could even rattle the bars of their cages. They can’t run away. Not unless their creator makes them.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I’m saying that, in order for them to leak, they need to be… reimagined somewhere outside the lab – if, of course, the person doing it knows they’re in there.’
‘That makes no sense, alright?’ he smiled. ‘I promise you, it makes no sense.’
‘Listen – what if people from the system, who know about the existence of the lab, have decided to release their favourite pets?’
‘Kara, this is the alcohol talking, not you. One can’t do that with only their minds.’
‘One can create them with only their minds.’
‘Jesus. What I mean is that nobody else can do it.’
‘Tell me something. How do they end up there? How is there where my thoughts go?’
Tomas sighed, heavily.
‘Unfortunately, we don’t have access to much material from the Old World, as you know. It’s hard to say why, exactly, that’s where they go. I don’t know how much the technology evolved that they are able to collect all thoughts in there.’
‘How do they know which … thoughts, belong to whom?’
‘They don’t really, for as long as you control them. But it’s very often that people let go of that control.’
‘How’s that?’
‘Well, say you’re feeling terribly lonely, and you make up an imaginary friend. You start thinking of what they look like, what they behave like, what their story is. You imagine them into the world, and that brings you comfort – for that is a hidden, wild part of your subconscious living their own story, right?’
She nodded. She had many such friends.
‘The problem is,’ he went on, ‘that sometimes you need a little extra comfort. You don’t merely need to imagine a fabulous persona living an exciting life. Sometimes you need a pat on the back, a hand on your shoulder that makes things right – preferably with a low, sexy voice, saying things you want to hear.’
She giggled.
‘It’s true, though, isn’t it?’ he asked, and she nodded, again. ‘So then you sit down with your favourite pet, ask them questions and let them do the talking. Do you know what I mean?’
‘You mean, I do the talking through them.’
‘Not quite, no.’
‘But they’re in my imagination, aren’t they? I am imagining them. Surely I get to speak for them.’
‘Most of the times, you do. But sometimes, only sometimes, you grow so fond of them, you wish they were real. You wish they were sitting right here, in this room, with you, and talked to you. Perhaps you already know what they’d say, for you know who you want them to be and imagined them as such. They’d be stronger, bolder, wiser. They’d be your protector, your saviour, your rock. So you don’t bother with talking on their behalf. They have a mind and a soul, and you know what they’re made of, so you give them the freedom to speak to you, or hold your hand, or undress you.’
She blushed. Yet, she knew exactly what he was talking about. He, too, knew it.
‘Now, do you know what happens to the thoughts back in the lab that are given such freedoms?’
She shook her head.
‘They cease being merely thoughts. They no longer belong to their maker. They have gained their very own freedom of thought, speech, movement. Put simply – they no longer belong in the lab, for they are no longer just thoughts. So they disappear!’
‘What?’ she gasped, shocked. ‘How is that even possible? Do they just vanish into thin air?’
‘That’s hard to say, for I have never seen anything like that happening, but you simply can’t find them anymore. The freedom their maker grants them buy them their freedom from the lab, too. Think of the lab as a collective mind. Your thoughts are in there, but when they materialise, they no longer stay in your head. They have become your reality. So, yes, I suppose the final answer is that they go out into the world, as living breathing human beings. You know how every now and then they still find bad guys, right? They don’t show it on the news, but you’ve heard of such things surely?’
‘I’ve heard of bad people, yes. But then they are given the treatment. After all, I believe we’d all be bad without it,’ she chuckled.
‘Indeed, they give them the treatment – the drastic kind of treatment. But my point is, in a world where everybody is, supposedly, inherently good, kind and positive, where they have eradicated bad genes and there is no bad behaviour around to give birth to bad ideas, how can you possibly still have bad people? Think about it, Kara? Where do you think they come from? They come from the few unaltered, or what they call them – bad minds left.’
What followed was a long silence, and Kara could hear her mind screaming at her. At last, she had to ask.
‘Where do I come from then, Tomas? Why has my mind always been badland?’
‘I made you up,’ he laughed, then watched her face change until he could no longer hold it in. ‘I joke, Kara. I would have made you a lot less inquisitive, so you know it wasn’t me.’
She frowned.

to be continued

In the Midst of Fresh Ruins

His name was S. Was, and sometimes I’m not sure it even was at all. This is the story I thought I’d never tell. It’s also my favourite story of all. There are nights when I’m still burning with passion for all the things we did and all the more we could have done. These nights I don’t sleep at all. I toss and turn in my bed for hours, ardent and wanting and alive like I’ve only been since I met him and until everyday life happened and took him away from me. Other nights I sleep well, and I wake up laughing at all the others when I don’t.

‘What am I losing sleep over?’ I wonder as I stretch and think of hot coffee and outfits, ‘Stories with ghosts? Grow up, will ya,’ I tell myself and get up quickly, careful not to start questioning us again, doubting myself again, and generally thinking of all things that will never, ever happen again. The truth is that this story should be buried six feet under with me at the end of what I hope it will be my long and beautiful life, but day after day the same thought hits me — that life can never be as beautiful again.

‘There is blood singing in your veins, yearning life and wilderness and new hearts to be tamed. You can do so much more, you can be all that you want. Leave the ghosts where they belong — in your overactive, stubborn, chaotic mind, and move on from the stories you knitted with theirs; they aren’t part of your story, they aren’t part of anything. They aren’t — and that’s that,’ I try to convince myself as I brush my teeth, roll my stockings up, put on some pretty flowery skirt and head out for yet another day in the land of make believe. It’s funny they call it that, when S was the only one who ever truly, deeply believed in me and he wasn’t even from around here; or around here. I shake my head to shake off my sadness. How did our paths ever cross, and how can I be so sure they ever did? I am not. I have never been, but those new feelings must have come from somewhere. When and where are questions that I am unlikely to ever answer; but the what is so clear to me that every night when I lie myself to sleep and every morning when I laugh at my split personality can’t make up for half the truth I know in my heart.

He is as real as it gets to me, and this certitude warms up my entire body. He lives boldly and vividly in my world. Ah, the devil’s in the details; of course he does, because my world is inside of me. Has it all been only in my mind this entire time? But what time? Is it now? Is it then? Is it never? Is it important? What is the point of something if you don’t let it change you? — and this has changed me more than anything that could have happened. I have fallen in love with the imagination. And if you fall in love with the imagination, you understand that it is a free spirit. It will go anywhere, and it can do anything.

If you want to know about my life, know that it hasn’t always been this mundane background with a splash of surreal. I have big dreams and not enough ambition, big questions and never any answers. I see sweetness in solitude, but I believe in having a soft landing below me if I ever fall, and it has names and faces and unbreakable bonds that make me smile through all the tears. Some stand out more than others, but in the end it’s my safety net, my security blanket, my heart and what I thought to be my life: a bright, young thing, trying a bit too hard to inject happiness into her veins, finding warmth in the road ahead and going on short bursts of adventures to pacify her wanderlust.

I was that, and probably little more, until S happened. And he happened for long days and torrid nights, and it felt like a little lifetime, so different from all I’ve ever experienced that I’m still wondering if I’ve ever experienced it at all. Every memory of him that I cling on to for dear life knocks on my every door, window and crack in the wall, begging me to play it first; and I let go of myself and the world around me, and stop time to get lost in the sweet, secret feelings. Stains on my heart, stains on humanity’s emotional evolution, stains on the world’s history, all the ways in which S affected me are things unheard of. I know of many great love-and-lost stories, but never have I heard of such enigmatic, wild forces that come and go so quickly, changing one’s life forever yet leaving them to ponder on their very existence. Those memories are all I have now and this is supposed to be the end of the story, but strangely, it is only the beginning. My steering wheel still has his fingerprints, and I know it’s because he’ll always somehow be trapped in my world. I can never let go of the idea of somebody thinking of me as the universe itself. Ah, I like being somebody’s everything when I have never been enough for myself. There have never been any others sinking down to such depths to be dancing with all my demons. The demons, God damn the demons, spoon-fed with my fears and instead of silenced their screams burn through my veins and echo in my heart. I know, I’m such a cliché. Isn’t this ordinary life? And yes, I too want to be happy, of course. Because what else is there to be? I need to do this, I’ll always need to, much as it hurts thinking about it, because these memories make the familiar calm come back to me in the way I know that S will never do.

But I write this knowing fully well that what’s been is long gone now, and I need to drain my sadness out through ink and tears and get out of this loop. And I tried and tried to think about the world around me and the problems students have to face and the lovely lady at the corner shop who’s been running her small business for forty years now but I always, always come back to writing about him. I don’t know anything else, and I probably never will, and this is another thing I need to be ok with. I will never, ever find anything that I can connect to on a level so deep that it makes everything pulsate, as if connected to my own veins. S made life vibrant and I experienced the state of being fully alive and aware of my surroundings, of myself, of somebody else to a point it’s painful to go to, even in my head. I can almost feel the hands that can awaken all possibilities and arouse all my senses, imagination, and insecurities. I reset my mind, body, soul through him. When you feel and experience something with so much depth, everything is intensified. In my mind, I’m always going back to raw days, marvels, heightened senses, delicious ambiguity. To wherever the wind blows through our hair and intertwined fingers. S taught me about the analysis paralysis, about how seeing the good in people makes them believe it too and choose to be the good that you see in them, about never-ending adventures and the power of a strong soul.

Imagine a world where the character falls in love with the reader, where you don’t chase your dreams, but — plot twist — your dreams chase you, where books are written about silence and the things people only say with their eyes, their hearts and their vibration, and you’ve imagined the place where he comes from. The place where I think I come from, because it’s clearly not the New World of happiness and rainbows and butterflies. It’s different; it’s difficult to put it into better words. I want to follow this strange, wild creature down to the very depths of my imagination, all the way to where the magic happens — and it happens, I don’t know how I know it but I do, because I’ve never been all the way there yet but somehow I know exactly how it feels — but I’m paralysed by fear. I know its roots, I know where it comes from, and I know what it’s trying to say though. I know, because it’s the same fear we all face after all. I can almost see its rolling eyes and shaking head, hear the you-should-bes and the why-can’t-yous, and ah, the whatifs. What if my rich, vivid so-called memories are just a trick of the mind, if nothing really exists outside the edge of this New World, if the feelings I remember so well from the moments I felt most alive in are nothing but products of my foolish imagination? What if everything I think I remember is just a reminiscence of my mind wanderings to strange, forbidden places? What if S wasn’t real? What if S is real, but I never got even this far down and I’m only crazy? What if I can imagine things that exist somewhere else that I never got to? What if they don’t exist at all? The only testimony that I have are the changes my inner world went through — what if it went alone, with no man called S guiding it with warm hands and soft-spoken words?

Sometimes I don’t know if I’m making him up. I can’t tell reality from fiction. I wake up to new senses, I daydream of new adventures, I close my eyes and I live wildly and I open them and my soul collapses and I gain new experiences when I blink, and this world doesn’t live up to what my subconscious can do, but what if that’s all S ever was — if he ever was anything at all? But then there are his face, his voice, and all the things we did together than make me smile and blush and feel like I’ve already lived a life I’m proud of, and they are as clear as day to me. I just can’t remember what days they happened…