Lashynna sits in the exact centre of the room, cross-legged on the floor, alone. She keeps her eyes fixed on her hands, which are loosely clasped in her lap. She hasn’t moved in hours.
Lashynna doesn’t want to look up when the door opens. She knows what she’ll see. There will be the two big men, their muscles bulging under their green overalls – the one with the beard and the one without. They’ll look at her with flat-eyed disinterest and turn over the room, as usual, taking everything apart and putting it together again. They never tell her what they’re looking for. They never speak to her. Then they’ll leave food and water for the day and go away. She knows all their movements by rote, can anticipate them, and has no need to look up.
Each day, ever since she first woke up in this room, it’s been this way.
At least that was how it’s been till today.
There’s something strange today, something different. She doesn’t realise what it is for a while. There’s a new feeling in the air, which she can’t quite put a name to. It’s almost as though the room has suddenly got smaller. Slowly, reluctantly, she raises her eyes a little from her hands.
There’s someone standing in front of her. Someone with dark trousers and polished brown shoes.
Fixated, suddenly terrified to look up, she continues staring at the shoes. The laces are perfectly tied, and the leather so highly polished that she can see a faint, distorted image of her own face, the eyes staring black holes in the pale oval of her features.
“Lashynna,” a voice says. It’s a calm, gentle voice, and utterly terrifying. “Lashynna, get up.”
She doesn’t make a move to obey. She can’t. Instead, she stares at the reflection of her own eyes, unable even to blink.
“Lashynna,” the voice repeats. “I told you something. Did you understand?”
Almost against her own volition, she feels herself nod, once. Her head feels heavy on her neck, difficult to move. Her lips form words, but make no sound.
“Is it difficult for you to talk?” the person in the brown shoes asks. “Is that it?”
Lashynna tries again, and this time manages a whisper. “No. I can speak.” It’s the first time she’s actually talked since she’s been in this room, though, and her mouth feels strange, forming the words. She wonders how long it’s been since she’s last spoken.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Lashynna?” the man in the brown shoes asks, as though he’s read her mind. His voice is still calm, kind and terrifying. “I don’t wonder that you’re distressed. But you really ought to get up, you know. Get up and look at me, Lashynna.”
There’s some force in his voice that she can’t deny. Slowly, she unfolds herself and stands, still looking down at his shoes. For a moment, she sways, as though her own narrow feet are too small to bear her height. She doesn’t know how long it’s been since she last stood. Maybe not for days.
He makes no attempt to steady her. “Look at me, Lashynna,” he repeats.
As though drawn by strings, her head rises. He’s quite a small man, actually, shorter than her, with a narrow face under thinning grey hair. He’s got on round spectacles, which reflect the light so that he looks as though he’s wearing silvery coins over his eyes.
“Good,” he says. “How are you feeling, Lashynna?”
She doesn’t know how she’s feeling, except scared. She’s very frightened now, and the worst of it is that she doesn’t know why.
“Come on,” the man says, and his round spectacles flash. “I haven’t got all day.”
Just then she glimpses one of the other men, the one with the beard, walking past. He doesn’t look at her or at her visitor, but the sight of him is oddly reassuring. He’s part of what she’s grown to think if as normal in the room; he’s better than the man in the dark suit with shining discs for eyes.
“I’m all right,” she says.
“Really?” He smiles, acknowledging that she’s lying and that they both know she’s lying. “Well, that’s good, isn’t it? So next time I visit you, you won’t have to be told to get up and look and me while we talk, right?”
She tries to look away from his blank silvery gaze, finds she can’t. “I won’t be able to tell,” she says, “till next time.”
“That’s right,” he agrees readily. “But I think we’ll be finding out, won’t we?” He pauses, and adds sharply, “won’t we?”
She nods, miserably. He smiles again, his thin lips rising and falling.
“I’ll be looking forward to our next meeting, Lashynna,” he says.
Once they’ve gone, she looks at the room, as though for the first time. It’s small, windowless, cubical and white – like the clothes she wears, like the ceiling, it’s all white, even the furniture and the floor beneath her feet. Not that there’s much furniture anyway, and it’s all featureless and blocky like cubes carved out of plastic.
There’s a mirror in the wall – not on, in case she might take it off and break it, and use the glass as weapons – but set into it, the edges flush with the surface. Normally she avoids looking into it. Now, though, obeying an obscure impulse, she goes over and stares at her reflection in the glass. It’s the same old face, thin and long-jawed, with the big dark eyes staring out as though waiting for the world to strike them blind. She runs her fingers over the contours of her face, the skin stretched tight over the bones. She feels brittle all over, from her face to the ribs she can feel if she hugs herself, down to her thin, twiglike toes.
She wonders why she’s been brought here, and how long she’ll have to remain. She wonders if they’ll ever let her go.
She hears the door opening behind her, and turns. It can’t be time already for another cleaning – they’ve just gone, after all, she hasn’t even touched the food and drink they’ve left. But it’s the man in brown, again, and he’s not alone. With him is a woman in a white coat. She’s tall and square-faced and stares at Lashynna with a complete lack of expression.
“Well, Lashynna,” the man asks. “And how are you?”
“You only just left,” she replies. “I’m exactly the same as I was then.”
The two of them, the man and the woman, glance quickly at each other. Has it been longer than she’d thought? The woman stares at her speculatively. “You don’t look particularly happy here,” she says.
“I’m happy,” Lashynna replies. “Quite happy.”
The woman nods. “I see. So you don’t want to go back to your other life?”
“The one outside,” the man says. “You do remember it, don’t you?”
“The one before you came here,” the woman clarifies.
“Of course,” Lashynna says, and then bites her lip. She’s not going to tell them of the sudden rush of emotions, of memories. She doesn’t want to think of lying on her back in the park, watching the sky through a screen of leaves, listening to the chirping of birds and rubbing her fingers in the grass. She’s not going to talk about watching a child and a dog chase each other and tumbling over and over, barking and laughing.
And she’s not going to utter a word of the other memories either. No, she’s not going to think of the draughty old house she’d loved, and the man who had shared it with her. She’s not going to even think of it, she tells herself, and finds the tears starting in her eyes.
“So you don’t mind it at all,” the woman says. “It’s better in here than outside, isn’t it?”
She stares at the woman with pure hate, not trying in any way to disguise it. “Why have you brought me here?”
The woman looks a little amused. “But nobody brought you here,” she says. “You came by yourself.”
“Just think back,” the man puts in. “Do you remember anyone bringing you here?”
“Yes, of course –“ she begins, and stops short. She can’t remember anything about that. All she remembers is falling asleep one night, arms wrapped around him, the moonlight through the window. They’d been talking, discussing something she can’t quite remember. Then they’d made love and she’d fallen asleep, filled with joy and planning for something she was to do the next day. Something very important, only she can’t remember what it was.
And instead she’d woken up here, and she’d been here ever since.
The rage builds in her like a red tide, the anger she’s stored up in all the endless time she’s been in this little room. She feels it rising until she’s literally shaking with it. “I’m going to get you,” she tells them then. “If it’s the last thing I’ll ever do, I’ll get you.”
They look at each other again, and she gets a distinct impression that they’re pleased. It’s almost as though they’re sharing a look of triumph. Why should they be pleased by her anger? It doesn’t make sense.
“Of course you will,” the woman murmurs in a soothing voice, and Lashynna can hear the laughter behind her words. “But things are better here than outside, would you agree?”
Lashynna doesn’t say anything. The man and woman look at each other. “We’ll leave you to think about it,” the one with the disc-eyes says.
The strange things begin happening shortly afterwards. Lashynna doesn’t even recognise the first of them till it’s almost over. It’s nothing much, just a greyish drifting coil of smoke that floats through the room just below the white ceiling, makes a circuit of the room and disappears little by little. If there had been an obvious point of entry for it, or a draught to carry it along, she wouldn’t even have noticed it.
The next thing is nothing like that subtle. She’s sitting on the block which serves as her bed when something huge comes crawling along the floor. It’s at least as long as a human leg and thick as a thigh, and it’s lined with claw-tipped legs that sink into the floor with every step. It scuttles around the far side of the bed, squeezes between it and the wall, and disappears. Before trusting her feet to the floor, she bends over the edge of the bed to look for it. It’s nowhere to be seen.
After that the things start happening at random. Sometimes two or three cleaning visits got by with nothing happening. Sometimes there are things happening all over the room, everywhere she looks. Once she wakes up to find a child sitting on her chest, staring down into her eyes with deep interest. When she goes to touch it, though, it laughs and dances away.
Then one day the man with the discs over his eyes comes again. He stands by the door, looking at her. “Well, Lashynna?”
She doesn’t rise from her place. “What?”
“Everything going well with you?”
“Why shouldn’t it be?” There’s a oozing purple slime sliding down the wall beside the man’s shoulder. He doesn’t mention it, so she doesn’t, either.
“It’s not polite to answer a question with another,” he replies. “So everything is as usual, is it?”
She doesn’t answer.
“Lashynna,” he says. “Do you remember what I told you before? Taking this attitude is useless. I could, you know...”
“Make you do things if I wanted to. What you thought about doing them wouldn’t matter. But you know, that wouldn’t be any good, would it? You have to want to do them.”
“Why? That’s a good question. You’ll realise the answer.” He stands aside and opens the door. For a moment she thinks he’s going to leave, and then realises he’s holding it open – for her. “Would you like to take a walk outside?”
She comes off the bed like quicksilver, without pausing for a word.
It’s the first time she’s been outside the room since she’s come here. There’s a corridor, and she’s not even surprised that its walls are slippery with blood, which pools on the floor and coats her feet with sticky, clotting red. The man with the discs over his eyes doesn’t seem to notice it, and it doesn’t seem to mar the shine on his brown shoes.
“Lashynna?” he asks over his shoulder, without looking at her.
“Once we go through that door...” It’s not a door, not really, it’s a snake’s head, mouth yawning open, long fangs reaching down, dripping what she can only assume is poison. “Once we go through that door,” he says, “you’re going to understand.”
“Whatever there is to understand.” It’s a ridiculous answer, and she doesn’t press it. The floor below the snake’s mouth is set with teeth, too, and she lifts her feet high so as not to touch them. The man doesn’t even pause in his stride, and somehow the teeth don’t touch him. “Come.”
She’s already made up her mind that whatever she sees outside, she won’t show any reaction, but it gets hard when she sees it. The trees are there, the path, the old house at the end, everything that she remembers with all her heart, it’s all there, right outside...except.
Except that the trees have leaves of fire, and the grass is black and smouldering, and on the other side of the lawn the house is lined with flames, flames which climb up to the sky and merge and pulse like a beating heart, throbbing in rhythm to her pulse. And despite the cinders which glow and the smoke that rises from the charred grass, the man with the discs over his eyes walks right out and turns impatiently to look at her over his shoulder. “Are you coming?”
She looks down a moment at the grass, at her bare feet, from which the blood has vanished, and takes a deep breath. “It’s not going to burn, is it?”
“Are you coming or aren’t you?”
“I’m coming.” She keeps her head up, resolutely. The cinders don’t burn her feet; she can’t even feel them. The sky is growing dark, the fires sinking, to be replaced by thick clotted smoke. Something flutters and chitters overhead, spiralling down trailing fire. She refuses to believe it’s a bird, and when she blinks, it’s gone.
“Lashynna,” the man says. “Do you remember what I said before you came through this door?”
“That I would understand,” she replies. “I think I do, now.”
“Yes? What do you understand?”
“All this isn’t really here, is it? It’s just something I’m being made to imagine.”
“Made to imagine,” he repeats thoughtfully. “That’s interesting. Come along here.” She follows him up what remains of the lawn and the side of the old house. Through the nearest window, she can see the bedroom. The bed is a lake of simmering orange flame. “Are you imagining that now?”
“I must be, mustn’t I?” She touches the glass; it’s cool to her fingertips, but it’s there, real glass. She can feel it. She presses her fingers against it, and the palm of her hand.
“So you’re still sure you’re imagining it?”
“You’re doing it,” she replies. “You’re making me think all this, destroying the things I remember. But you can’t destroy them all.”
“No?” He shakes his head, like an adult with a recalcitrant child, and suddenly the glass is hot, more than hot, and she snatches her hand away before she burns her palm to the bone. “Did I do that too?” he asks.
She looks at him, angry, beyond angry, furious enough to kill, angrier even than the time she’d told him and the woman that she’d get them. “You can’t take it away,” she says. “You can’t take him away.”
She opens her mouth to tell him the name, but nothing comes out, and she can’t remember his name. She tries hard, squeezes her eyes shut, tries to think up his face, but there’s nothing. All she has is a fast fading mental image, like a shadow disappearing down a tunnel, merging into the darkness and distance. And then it’s gone.
“Who can’t we take away?” the man asks.
She looks at him, and the sky, which is black with clouds, and down at her hand, which is blistering, huge bubbles growing on her palm. She tells herself her hand isn’t burnt at all, and the bubbles shrink and vanish.
“Shall we go back in, Lashynna?” he asks.
“Yes,” she whispers, and would have bitten back the tears if only she’d thought there were any she could shed anyway.
The room has been changed while she was out, or maybe it’s another room. There’s no bed now, just a mattress on the floor, and the walls are full of figures, images of people and things and trees and animals. Whenever she looks at the walls, the corners of her vision writhe and crawl with movement. As soon as she looks at the movement, it stops, and starts somewhere else.
The walls are part of it, she realises. The walls are in it against her. She gets to where she doesn’t even look at the walls any longer. All she can do is lie on her back then, and stare up at the ceiling. At least there aren’t any faces on the ceiling. Yet.
“Please,” she tells the woman. “Let me go.”
“Let you go where?” the woman asks. “Nobody’s holding you here, are they?”
“Aren’t they? I can’t do anything I want, can I? What if I want to leave – I can’t leave, can I?”
“Of course you can.” The woman stands aside and gestures at the door. “There’s the door. Go ahead.”
Lashynna blinks. From the mattress the woman looks very tall and the door an infinite distance away, but when she gets to her feet suddenly it’s just a small woman and an ordinary door. She expects the two men who come to give her food and to turn over the room to stop her, but there’s no sign of them. The passage outside is bare. Even the blood on the walls is gone, and there’s just an ordinary door at the end.
She opens the door, expecting what, she can’t say. Perhaps a howling blizzard or a desert waste, a desolate rocky shore or a steaming volcano. Perhaps there won’t be anything at all.
But when she opens the door, outside there’s a city. People coming and going, cars and buses, a policeman on the far side of the street frowning up at the sky. She glances behind her.
The man and the woman are there, watching. “Do you want to go?” the man asks.
She swallows, dry mouthed, remembering what he’d said. “Yes.”
“Go then.” He seems amused.
She runs. She runs down to the street and down the pavement, pushing through the people – or she would have pushed through the people, throwing herself against them, feeling the buffeting of them on her hands and the hard roughness of the pavement under her feet. She keeps running, and it doesn’t occur to her to think until she’s run so long that she’s lost all idea of time to wonder why nobody’s caught her yet, knocked her down, or even shouted at her or yelled for a policeman. Finally, she slows to a stop.
And then, with total lack of surprise, she finds herself outside the old house, and the fire is gone and the lawn is healed, and all she has to do is walk up the path and to the door, the door she knows so well. She walks up the path, knowing already that the door will open before she reaches it, and that he will be there, waiting.
The door opens. The man with the discs over his eyes stands there, smiling quietly. He steps aside, and courteously ushers her in.
Head high, refusing to look left or right, she steps past him like a queen, back into the old house, back into her prison, which she’d left but never left, which she can never leave, she knows now, ever again.
Inside her head, it is just like coming home.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015