Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Seeing Shapes - a short story by Annmarie McQueen

If you stare at a white ceiling long enough, you start to see shapes. Circles, musical notes, maybe a word if you’re lucky. I’ve spent my whole life seeing shapes. That’s what it feels like, anyway, because whatever came before this white room is a mess of jumbled whispers and blurred faces. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, or how long until I can be free. When I ask the doctors tell me soon, but they don’t give specifics. Soon holds no meaning anymore. We don’t measure time in the conventional way, in these wards. Time has become something subjective, personal and precious.  I measure time in the number of moments since I last saw him.

Him is God. I don’t know if he really is God or not, because he never told me his real name. He probably doesn’t have one. He just appeared one night, in my white room, no explanation. I think he was my age, fourteen, from what the doctors told me. They took the mirrors out of my room a while ago. But it was his gold eyes that I saw first, puncturing holes in the dark. He didn’t fit in. He looked too abstract, too real to blend in with the surrounding furniture: a Picasso.

I remember the way he greeted me the first time, plain and simple, asking for my name. I said I didn’t know. “Who are you? Why are you here?” I’d demanded.

“I don’t know either,” he replied. His voice was the sound of mugs, clinking harshly together, an image I recognised but couldn’t place.

“What do I call you, then?”

“It’s up to you, call me whatever you like.”

“Are you here to hurt me?” Maybe I should have been scared. But I wasn’t, not when I had nothing to lose.

“No, I’m not. I’m not like them.” I wanted to ask who ‘them’ was but I knew better; we all have our secrets here, things we don’t discuss. We read them in each other’s eyes instead.

“What room are you in?” I asked.

“Room 404,” he said. That was the floor beneath mine. The doctors mentioned it sometimes; they said it was ‘worse’. “Your room’s nicer than mine,” he added, thoughtful. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you. I just wanted to watch you sleep, it’s fascinating.” It wasn’t meant in a romantic way, I knew that. It wasn’t meant in a perverted way either. This isn’t really a love story, or a horror story. It’s just a story. No labels attached. It was simply because I was one of the lucky ones who could still sleep naturally. Most people here have lost the ability.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mind. I don’t think I can go back to sleep anymore, though.”

“Well, I prefer you awake anyway. It’s not as bad if we’re both awake.”

I sat up, inviting him to sit. “Are you allowed to be here?”

“No, they don’t let me out anymore.”

“Not even if you do what they say?”

He shook his head bitterly. “Do they let you out?”

“Sometimes,” I admitted. “But only into the corridor, to see the others on my floor.” And the lab, but I didn’t mention that. It’s a rule that we don’t talk about the things that happen in there.

“You’re lucky.” He sounded wistful, I think, but I couldn’t be sure. “How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you remember anything from…before?”

“A young boy,” I whispered. “I think he was my brother. But his face is blurry and every time I try to remind myself I feel it slip away a little more. All I know is that I loved him once, and now I can’t stop wishing I knew what colour his eyes were.” I looked away, feeling the familiar sadness I felt every time I thought about my fragmented memories. “What about you?”

“I don’t remember much either,” he said. “Just little snapshots. Like the smell of lemon tea, trees, that sort of stuff. I lived in the countryside.”

“Is lemon tea nice?” I asked.

He nodded. “Nice,” he affirmed. “One day you can try it yourself.” I nodded meekly, the silence pooling around us like liquid. I shifted a little, wincing at the feel of rough cotton aggravating my broken skin. He seemed to notice and I could feel his eyes on me, staring through me as if he understood. “What did they do to you?” he whispered.

I didn’t mind showing him, really. I trusted him almost immediately, because I could see myself in him. I painfully rolled onto my side, pushing down the sleeve of my gown a little so that he could see the stained bandages wrapped around my chest and shoulders and the little stumps that jutted out of my back. “They’re trying to grow wings,” I murmured. “They promised me that one day I would fly, like those birds out there.”

 “Does it hurt?”

“Yeah, a lot.”

He nodded, sympathetic and compassionate. Not surprised though, as if this horror was something he had seen many times before. He probably had, when I think about it. I wasn’t the only one they experimented on. But he couldn’t stay much longer. Said he was worried they would come in and find him here, haul him away by the collar on his neck like an aggressive dog. As he left I asked him to come back again if he could, but I didn’t think he heard me.

He did anyway though, every single night. He would creep in after lights out and something warm filled me each time he returned. I don’t know what to call it, but I think ‘hope’ comes closest.  He began to smile after a few visits. It was such a strange, foreign expression but so incredibly bright. People here don’t smile, most people never learnt how to.

One night he brought a board game with him. He never told me how he managed to get it: such a great prize, a treasure, a fossil from the other world outside of the white room. He taught me how to play a game called Snakes and Ladders, patiently explaining to me countless times what the dice was for and how to count. He knew more than me about life, the institution, the world. I learnt from him greedily, soaking up whatever knowledge I could like kitchen roll.

He gave me the dice after he’d won against me for the 5th time. “Put it under your pillow when you sleep,” he suggested. “Maybe it’ll bring you luck for the next time we play.” Then he told me a story about how little girls used to do the same thing except with a tooth, and how a fairy would take it in the middle of the night and replace it with money.

We never got to play Snakes and Ladders again. Got confiscated, he explained sullenly when I asked the next night. He said sorry and I hurriedly reassured him that I didn’t mind. We could just talk instead. So I shifted over and he lay down next to me, on my clean white newly-issued sheets, and we stared at the shapes on the ceiling, constantly changing and flickering with the shadows.

“If you look closely, that one there looks like a carrot,” I said.

“It looks like an owl to me.”

“I saw one of those through the window once.”

“I saw one kill a mouse and eat it.”

At some point during the night I finally worked up the courage to ask the question that had been circling my mind for days. “Do you think we’re crazy?”

“No, they’re the ones who are crazy for doing this to us.”

“Good,” I said, because it was the answer I wanted. “Do people on the outside do this sort of thing too?”

“Sort of, but they count stars or clouds instead,” he explained. “I used to do it a lot.” Secretly I was jealous that he had gotten a chance to count stars and I hadn’t, or at least was lucky enough to remember doing it.

“Do you think you can show me how to do it, sometime?”

“Of course. When we escape we’ll be able to do anything we want. We could paint the walls bright purple and have dinner at midnight outside on the grass, if we wanted to. I’d teach you the constellations.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s like what we’re doing now, except it’s so much better. You see shapes in the stars – a man with an axe, fish. They all have Latin names, like Canis Major. That means ‘Great dog’.” There was a smile on his face, sad but hopeful, like kindling the embers of a fire. Not quite there yet, but still so beautiful. At my blank look, he let out a small chuckle. “It’s okay, once you leave this place you’ll learn quickly.”

“How do you know we’ll leave one day?”

He shrugged. “I don’t, but it’s better to hope than to give in to them, right?”

I gave him his name that night. God. Ah, I remember now why I called him that. They told us that God created the world, but he was the one who created the world around me and brought things to life. I desperately wanted someone to believe in. To me he seemed to know everything, seemed capable of doing anything. And besides, I thought, if he was God then surely the world couldn’t be that bad a place.

But I never saw him again, after that night I named him.

He stopped coming. I waited all night, refused to let myself sleep, but in the morning my room was still lonely and white. Just like always. It made my chest ache, made my head ache. I could almost feel the ache, personified, in the form of golden eyes that knew more than I did. He knew too much. Maybe they had decided to let him go, or maybe they’d found out and confiscated him like they did the Snakes and Ladders board. I refused to think that it was because he didn’t want to see me anymore.

Two days later I plucked up the courage to ask the Doctor when he came to replenish my body with nourishment. They never told us their names – they felt it might represent attachment of some sort. The Doctor didn’t understand of course, when I demanded where God was, only gave me that pitiable look and shook his head sadly.

“Room 404,” I whispered. “He was in room 404. What did you do to him?”

The professional blank mask was as hard and impenetrable as ever. “Room 404 does not exist,” he informed me curtly. He placed the food tablets on the table. Left. Closed the door behind him, the click echoing throughout the room.

Maybe this makes me a full-fledged lunatic. Maybe you don’t believe me, or believe that God was actually real and not just my imagination. Sometimes I doubt myself, but I know it was more than an illusion. I have the evidence, you see. It’s still there, kept safe under my pillow. Something real. A relic. A memory. Dice.

Annmarie McQueen is a young author and aspiring poet based in the U.K, studying English and Creative Writing at Warwick University. She is the self-published author of YA contemporary romance novel 'Cold Water' and paranormal novel 'Imprint' on the Amazon kindle store. Her favourite places to write include Starbucks, trees and roofs if possible. In her spare time she can generally be found playing the ukulele or taking artistic photos of food.

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