‘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. But then again, it wasn’t her who’d planned it. in the first place. Rolling her eyes at the sudden, unpleasant thought, she walked slowly across the room to the window. She stared out absently, wrapping her arms around herself, feeling the discomfort settle in.

‘Ah, she talks! A week, indeed,’ Tomás nodded in the background.

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. But you just had to make them known to everyone, didn’t you?

‘Well… A week 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 hear the sarcasm in his voice.

She hated the mischievous little smile in his eyes and on his lips almost as much as the place he’d brought her to.


‘Excuse me?’

‘My name is Kara, not miss,’ she said, ‘That’s my name. You should know that.’

‘Ah. Kara. I see,’ he laughed. ‘Well, Kara, at least you’re not muttering profanities under your breath anymore. It’s good to see you opening up. We’ll have more opportunities to talk soon. For now, I just need to know—no, actually, I need to let you know—that you’re settling in well and ready to continue treatment.’

She puffed.

‘As if I have a choice. So you’ll be back, and… How often?’

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 pocket. It was time to go.

Oh no.

What if I don’t write anything?

‘Good luck with writing!’ he said sharply, closing the door behind him.

Ah, yes, she’d need that… 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 shone over the snow mountains, and the snow didn’t melt an inch. Ah, nature’s subtle irony, she thought, as the blood drained from her face.

She sighed. Day 0. Seven more to go.

Or thirty.

‘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 end. It was dramatic enough to amuse her while her heart beat in her chest, loudly and fearfully.

In the New World, nobody had tragic stories lingering in their minds for years. Neuroscientists had discovered a number of methods for eliminating intrusive thoughts, whether they appeared randomly or recurred, and all one had to do was ask for the method one preferred. Some were dirty but harmless psychological tricks, while others bordered on cruelty. Now that the days of pure modern optimism were over, the age of science had dawned, and no one seemed to be gaining momentum as much as those who—sometimes literally, though rarely—changed people’s minds.

Getting the butterflies in your stomach fly in formation was assured and, above all, not stigmatised. The unputdownable thrillers, the horror movies, and the post-romantic feminist music albums were cleared from the shelves and replaced by motivational combinations of sunrises and lyrics. This was unnecessary, of course, because everyone was happy to go through a cleansing process every few months—or, if they were particularly good, every few years—but anything that served the new system was well received.

Kara wasn’t. Since her teenage years, she was excluded from all social circles, mainly because she constantly refused to see a specialist. One by one, they left her to get better, and when they came back, they avoided her so-called bad energies at all costs. On average, most people she knew did a mental cleanse every year. She heard that sometimes they just talk to you.

In other cases, the whole process is more like surgery. She didn’t know, and she didn’t want to know. She loathed the idea of a process that was even remotely painful, exposing layer after layer of her own memories, dreams, and fears, making her vulnerable, ashamed, and, even if it was never mentioned, afraid of the next time. Without telling anyone, she was secretly proud of herself and her bad mind. To her, being smart, creative, and resourceful had always meant that she’d never have traded her imaginative nature for a brain bubble bath.

People wondered, laughed, or, if they were a little braver than most, asked her the usual question, ‘Penny for your thoughts?’ when she’d an overly contemplative look on her face. Over time, she learned to ignore these questions, but occasionally, on the bus ride home or at a corner shop, she’d say something like, ‘Yeah, I’m thinking about death.’ Then she’d stop and watch people’s faces turn blue before they walked away in silence, looking over their shoulders at the girl who was still bad. It was an easy way to amuse herself, but an equally easy way to become even more cynical, judgmental, and dismissive of the world to which, whether she liked it or not, she belonged.

Mysterious, ambiguous, and often defiant, Kara held on to her right to think her own thoughts for a long time. Her friends lived in her head, made up of fragments of her imagination, and they lived the kind of stories that sent goosebumps down anyone’s spine, because no one lived great stories in the New World. She didn’t speak, write, or mention them, but the New World wasn’t lenient with outcasts and was quick to notice them, even if they didn’t put on too much of a show.

After years of resisting the system, the system decided it was time to win her case. They tracked her down, invited her to a clinic, and one winter afternoon made her the kindest offer available to troubled people like her—people who’d believed for years that they’d been born with some kind of superpower and had the right to keep it.

The whole process of signing up bored her to death. She was forced to participate in the programme the following week, and even though she knew it was a losing battle, she resisted to the end. She fidgeted in her chair and looked restless and unhappy, which was enough to make the old lady at the counter uneasy. In the New World, people were always happy and content, and if they weren’t, they still put on a smile, went to the nearest clinics, and willingly signed up for treatment. Because no one was forced to do it—unless, of course, they chose not to.

‘I don’t get it. 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 out the form she was working on and looked at Kara through her long eyelashes.

‘Baby girl, you mustn’t say that word anymore. It’s very ugly and sad, and you have no idea what it’s like to—’

‘What, I haven’t been here long enough to know what sadness feels like? Of course I know what it feels like. I haven’t gotten the treatment yet. But no one has asked me a thing about my right to feel my sadness.’

‘Right? And what about the reason? You have no reason to feel sad. This world doesn’t give you one.’

Her mother grabbed her hand, closing it tightly into a fist before she could answer.

‘Kara, please, be good, baby. Miss Rosie here’s just trying to help. She’s not the one who created the system, okay?’

Miss Rosie gave them both another quick look, then shook her head disapprovingly and returned her attention to her paperwork.

Kara turned to her mother, tilted her head, and pleaded with her big brown eyes. This made her mother smile, but she still nodded in Miss Rosie’s direction.

‘She’s right, you know,’ she whispered. ‘You don’t know much about sadness, and you really should stop talking about it like you do. You haven’t been around long enough to understand it all. So…’

Kara closed her eyes and pressed her lips together into a flat line. She wasn’t depressed, that was true. She just wasn’t up for all the niceties the New World demanded of her. After all, the world had done nothing for her but try to watch her every move. Only in her own world was life fun, and that blinded her to the world outside. The New World was, behind all its clever advertising, tricky, controlling, and as dismissive of people like Kara as she was of it. All it allowed was an unattractive addiction to compulsive smiling that spread far and wide. A girl only has so much energy to give, and Kara had made her choice long ago.

‘Here you go,’ Miss Rosie said softly, handing them a file. ‘You need to go and get better, Kara. We need to keep this beautiful world we live in the way it’s. Bad energies only do harm, and we’re here for the good things, aren’t we, baby girl?’

‘I don’t understand,’ she cried on the way home, her mother urging her to be quiet. ‘How do they know I have bad thoughts, bad dreams, bad… energies, whatever you want to call them? Have I ever harmed anyone? Have I ever forced my ideas on them…’

Her mother gently squeezed her hand and looked around. The few people on the bus quickly returned to their books, phones, or conversations.

‘No, baby, you haven’t, but you’ve got to understand. For the first time, the world as we know it’s really at its most peaceful. It can be a bad world, you know that, and they’re just trying to keep history from repeating itself. I’m sure no one thinks you’d do anything bad, but it’s always better to prevent than to…’

‘Yes, I know the world can be bad,’ she interrupted, ‘and I wonder if I’m the only person my age who knows that.’

Her mother sighed.

‘Sometimes I think history should be hidden,’ she confessed, ‘Look at what she did to you.’

Kara remembered the story she’d played out in her head the night before in order to fall asleep. She wondered if other people, even without having had someone like Jade Montgomery in their lives, somehow knew things too.

Maybe human nature can never be tamed, and maybe they can’t stand it and prefer to numb themselves. Well, I wish them well, if well is what they like. I like to keep my eyes open and look within.

‘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.’

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 hard time explaining my behaviour to everyone you know. I’d like you to take this off your mind.’

As for mine, it’s staying as it is.

‘Oh, baby, I’m sure you’ll come back ten times happier than you feel now! It’ll be like a detox, you’ll see.’

‘Only if ignorance is bliss, mother.’

‘Be quiet,’ her mother urged. ‘Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have so much to be thankful for.’

I’m not, but who can say that to their mother?

To say that Kara’s cynical attitude toward life was her only problem would be a lie. She knew that, her mother knew that, and shortly after she met her, everyone knew that. Since she was a toddler, Kara had been diagnosed with all sorts of mental near-illnesses. In the end, they had to settle for objectivity; Kara was a mighty fine young lady who generally did not give a damn about the reality of the moment. She had an otherworldly look on her face, was clumsy, had trouble concentrating, and often took forever to complete even the simplest task unless closely supervised.

Her parents had to accept early on that she was chronically discontented and stubborn as a mule, but knew that in the New World such people were always seen as a threat to the social order. As time passed and they noticed little to no change, they tried to hide their daughter’s behaviour as best they could—but it was not easy, because Kara had to go to school like any other child. Unlike them, she often came home frustrated because she was unable to do the simplest things; and it became obvious, though of course it remained a family secret, that Kara was slow not because she was stupid, but because she could not be in two places at once.

From birth we learn to talk to ourselves the way people talk to us; but some of us cross the line. Kara bulldozed the fence. As a little girl, she was constantly talking to herself, sometimes making her parents blush and sometimes horrified. Her mind was not the mind of any little girl; by the age of six, she had lost interest in fairy tales and instead mumbled fragments of what seemed like a deeply internalised 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 a little more troubled than the others, and often complained that real time felt like slow motion to her, like limits, like restrictions. Kara grew up to be a pretty but bookish and tormented girl. To say that she voluntarily decided to become a rebel would undoubtedly be wrong, and so her family never stopped blaming it on the books that her grandmother kept hidden in the attic.

Until her library burned down, Jade Montgomery kept this a secret from the rest of the family. Every afternoon after school, Kara would go to lunch and have her grandmother, a former teacher, help her with her homework; but homework was never done at her grandmother’s house. Kara would sneak up to the attic after lunch and read until late at night when it was time for her to either go home or sleep.

Her grandmother never said a word about it. She was the only person who understood Kara’s deliciously clever, restless mind and agreed to help her consolidate her thinking with the truth and the forbidden books—the only instruments that showed her the world in a less one-sided way. ‘Do not let others tell you who you are. And if you do, at least do not believe them,’ was her grandmother’s secret advice to her.

Up there, as a child, she learned about the monstrous things humanity was involved in, and every night a silent terror came over her when she remembered. 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 gone. Parents in the New World never told their children about the monsters under the bed, but in Kara’s case they would have been completely harmless compared to the ones that lived inside her.

She was thankful, 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 had lost her grandmother early, but she would never lose the little girl.

to be continued

4 thoughts on “Badland”

  1. “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.” Really interesting writing, and cognitively complex about the creative process itself.


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