Ashleigh Hardcastle is a second-year student at UWA and is completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and psychology. She has been writing short fiction since age nine.
Dark. So dark. The kind of dark that caresses children into peaceful slumbers, as they lie guarded by loyal servants with beady eyes and frozen smiles. But here, in this wallpapered prison frozen in the mid eighties, there is no release. She can’t let go. The grey corners of her consciousness curl and unfurl in anguish, creating a stale breeze that stirs the ever-lurking shadows into life… if you could call it that.
Her eyes are closed. For all intents and purposes, she is asleep. But she is not at rest. In exactly two hours and twenty-two minutes, she will jolt awake. Her eyes will open without her consent, and a bitter sigh will rush through her lips as the familiar surge of exhaustion creeps through her tiny frame and settles in the tight confines of her stomach. A single thought will yo-yo haphazardly around her otherwise stagnant mind: Fuck.
It is two twenty-two on a Saturday morning, and nothing has changed. Thank God.
He is here, alive. But he is no longer in the land of the Living. He feels nothing as the pile of capsules grind their way down his hoarse throat. He prefers it like this; in a way it’s better than before.
And it’ll all be okay, because if he refuses to grant it the privilege of his acknowledgement, it can’t exist. At least, that’s what he chooses to believe, what he has to believe. And if it doesn’t exist, he can. For him, ignorance is not merely bliss it is the only thing keeping his heart quivering its feeble beats as his insides slowly collapse around it. So he clutches to this feeling of nothingness with desperation, dreading what will happen when it ends.
It is two twenty-two on a Saturday morning, and everything is changing. Silently. Rapidly.
Four: the safe number. The control number. The safe number, the control number the dictating number theallconsumingnumber. Everything. That’s what four keeps safe, controls, dictates, consumes. Everything. And she lets it, because otherwise she’d have to think for herself.
So, at four forty-four she will drag herself out of bed. Four steps to the wardrobe, fourteen to the bathroom, another four to the kitchen door. Has to get it right, or an intrinsic voice will compel her to start over from the beginning. If she thought about it rationally, she would realize there is no rationality behind these actions. Rationality, however, wisely evades those like her.
She will be allowed four hours to march through her morning routine of cleaning the already-clean and re-cleaning the already-cleaned-already-clean. She will then walk lifelessly to the news agency and purchase today’s paper, so she can bury her own problems beneath a thick pile of Other-People’s-Shit. As usual.
He will scramble out of bed the second his alarm screeches its monotonous tone, the tuneless shrilling despised by most but cherished by the fated. He will have slept for only three hours. Time is of the essence when time is running out, and sleep is dropped to the bottom of the priority list (slightly below eating but several places above cleanliness). He will rush to get dressed as if the promise of eternity awaits him right outside his front door. It doesn’t.
In an awkward, hurried shuffle he will make his way down to the beach to watch the sun rise, reminding him that he has been granted this, at least. One more day. He will not acknowledge the fire raging through his tired muscles or the struggle to invite air into his lungs as he sits himself down on the icy sand to wait. It will be beautiful, and he will not blink. Can’t afford to lose a second.
He will watch as the regular early morning surfers turn a sickly shade of blue as they take the plunge, and as a carefree couple stroll past holding hands, occasionally shrieking as waves send salty bitterness flooding over their feet. He will watch, and he will wish.
When it is time, he will stiffly shuffle to the news agency to get a bar of chocolate and a paper. He will sit amid the intense hustle of nameless strangers going about their daily business and he will try to remember what it felt like to truly be alive. While he soaks up life by osmosis he will read the paper eagerly. He will cram as much as he can into the time he has left. Doesn’t want to miss a thing.
Her heart forgets a beat. Or four. It should read OPEN. It always reads OPEN at this time.
Panic sets in. She paces back and forth frantically. Onetwothreefour onetwothreefour onetwothreefour… onetwothreefour. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. A mad dance to an intrinsic tune of chaos.
She will not notice the curious and somewhat amused stares of passing strangers as they watch her mutter to herself, still pacing with her arms wrapped tightly around her head. She will also remain unaware of the shrunken figure in a nearby corner whose sympathetic eyes refuse to wander from her distress. She is lost to the rest of the world for the moment… trapped in a horrible dark place of neglected memories. This is what happens when routine is interrupted.
All Hell breaks loose.
In another mind, chaos has paused.
Very few things used to surprise him. Especially people. He felt he had seen them all, knew them all, and could predict them all… until one day he was surprised by the least likely person of the lot: himself. He is now, for the first time, finding himself surprised by another. He observes the apparently unprovoked fit of hysteria occurring a few meters away from him, and for a moment he forgets.
He is grateful for the distraction… it has halted the flood of anxiety. The sign is wrong. He is waiting. And while he is waiting, he is Missing. He doesn’t like it, he can’t afford it.
But he will not allow himself to acknowledge the tightening of his stomach or the nervous twitch in his eyelid. Instead, he will focus on her torment and wonder what could possibly have caused it. If he allowed himself to acknowledge his fear, he would realise that hers has arisen from the same unlikely source. He won’t, though… that would be far too risky, and he can’t afford to take risks. Not any more.
Past and present collide. She jerks back to reality. A pale, wrinkled hand is resting lightly on her shoulder, caressing her out of the darkness. It guides her, helps her dodge the threatening silhouettes of ancient happenings. It helps her escape… back to the place she was fleeing from.
For once, she feels secure in Unfamiliarity.
Now, back here, she will let it guide her through a blur of colours and noises. Everything will freeze. It will be silent and still, and it will take a moment for her to realise she is safe. Her eyes will draw comfort from her surroundings. Stationery, magazines, newspapers. The usual things; the safe things.
She will look into his eyes, and for a moment she will forget. She will forget the past… she will forget four… she will forget everything. For the first time in a decade, she will feel almost human.
Contact. Something he’d forgotten long ago. Now, as he guides a lost soul to safety, a single touch shows him he’s been doing it wrong. Life, that is. Since he learned of his imminent demise, he has crammed as much as possible into his remaining time. And he is doing it wrong. Something is missing. He knows that now… but now is too late.
In four seconds, a resolve will slip. Tablets are nothing without the backup of spirit, and spirit will be lost. It will happen quickly. Notimetothink. No time to Regret.
But there will be contact. Secrets shared silently through eyes and skin. Nothing else. He will covet no emotion. Will feel only acceptance. And in that instant, he will know. He will know this is his last moment.
Surprisingly, he won’t mind.
There is panic. But this time it’s not hers. There is a flurry of people and voices, closing in around him as he collapses on the floor gasping for breath and clutching at his heart as if trying to hold it together. Their eyes lock, and she sees something that wasn’t there a second ago… peace.
This time she is the still one, the only constant in a tornado of change. And she isn’t counting in fours. She isn’t counting.
She will climb in the ambulance with him and grasp his hand. His eyes will not leave hers for a second. As the life gradually drains from them, she will realize… her paper remains back there, unpurchased and unread. She will realize, and she won’t care.
The crazed shrieks of her laughter are drowned in the wailing of sirens. It is some time late on a Saturday morning, and everything has changed.