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.

 to be continued

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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.

    Like

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