I was used to the darkness. It made time stretch into a shapeless trail of indistinguishable moments.
I knew if it was day or night from the little light that filtered through the window above my head, projecting strange shapes on the dark screen that had fallen over my eyes. I calculated the time of day from the noises outside and from my routine - the routine I had been forced to adopt for weeks, or maybe months, I didn’t know anymore. As every day blended seamlessly into the next, I stopped looking for indicators of my old reality. I stopped caring. And clearly everybody else did, too. Lying flat on my back on the lumpy mattress, I could only pretend to stare at the pattern of a ceiling that I couldn’t see and at walls I couldn’t touch, to take my mind away from the cold wetness of my underwear and of the bedding I was lying on. Nobody had come to take me to the bathroom since bedtime over twelve hours before, and I couldn’t hold it in any longer. A few seconds of relief had therefore resulted in hours of discomfort. I was desensitised to the humiliation of being reduced to wetting myself, but lying in the cold, wet sheet soaked in my own piss made it impossible to switch off and go to the happy place in my mind. I wasn’t even so sure if such a happy place existed, anymore.
I tugged at the four-point restraints that had me strapped to the bed by my wrists and ankles - I tugged again and again, although I knew damn well that I didn’t have the strength to break out of those leather belts. Even way back then, back when I was strong and still felt like a human being they would have been too tight. Now it was downright impossible, after my insides had been turned inside out by all the cleansing, and the enemas, not to mention the diarrhea I had pretty much constantly in the first few weeks. After that, I never felt like myself again; suddenly I was weak, and they made sure that I stayed that way. Still, my body occasionally refused to accept its state of forced immobilization and I would twist my wrists against the leather straps, rubbing the skin raw until I’d feel the damp, stinging stickiness of blood, bringing a couple of seconds of stillness, and blissful calm.
But nothing was relieving my agitation that morning. Or was it afternoon? I knew that it was going to be one of those unbearable, endless days the thought of which brought that familiar feeling of sheer panic that rose in my chest and constricted my throat, and had me gasp for breath. I willed myself to focus on my breathing but it was hard. Exhale, inhale. Exhale, inhale Breathe deeply, I repeated silently to myself, like those kind of prayers calle mantras hat I had once read about in a handout about the religious beliefs of the Outsiders. It was study material for the Upper Levels and had been accidentally left on the desk of one of the Upper Ranks Officers that I was working for. I’d managed to tuck it under the button-down jacket of my uniform and sneak it out of his office. I remember the fear of getting caught reading forbidden material that night in my bunk, the stapled pages tucked inside the leather-bound copy of The Shepherd’s Journey that I was pretending to study; but I also remember the exhilaration of learning something about the Outsiders. The handout said that in some Outsiders’ religions, people would chant these mantras over and over again to make themselves feel closer to God. I knew, as I exhaled and inhaled more steadily now, that what I was doing would probably put another thousand years between me and ‘Pure’, but it was helping. Breathe, I was now whispering to myself, breathe. The invisible hand grasping my chest and squeezing my lungs was letting go, and I was once again a limp body on a wet old mattress. Tears started to roll down the sides of my eyes, warm and tickly on my skin. I needed to blow my nose. A rivet of snot trickled down onto my mouth and towards my chin where I knew it would end up glued to the hairs that were growing back on my face - nobody had given me a shave for days; where was everyone? I blinked once or twice, to free my eyelids from another build up of tears, and as the tears flowed down my temples and into my ears, they made the sound of water, and in my darkness I saw rivulets of rain, and streams, and rivers. I saw the beds of creeks and runnels dug deep into the soil; I saw canyons. I saw my tears eroding my skin. I saw lines and snakelike shapes forever engrained on my face, like scars, indelible, like tattooed mementos of my pain.
Why was nobody coming today? I wasn’t sure of what time it was exactly, but it must have been quite late if my bladder had reached bursting point, forcing me to abandon any pretense of dignity. They would normally come in the morning. By now, it was probably early afternoon, especially judging by the growling coming from my empty stomach. I hadn’t had anything to eat since lunchtime the day before. I wasn’t allowed any solid food in the evening; instead, the attendant would hand me a tall glass of a bitter, foul-smelling juice, but not before I’d hear him tear open a packet of something which he would pour into the liquid. He would stir it a couple of times and then I’d have to drink it quickly, and let the attendant strap me back down to the bed for the night. Sometimes I would feel so waterlogged that the stuff would come back up in my throat and I thought I would drown. By mornings, I’d be bursting for the bathroom. Why had nobody come yet?
Maybe they’d all gone. I couldn’t hear any noises coming from the corridor, although I was pretty sure that there were no other patients in the ward apart from me - I’d never hear any doors slamming from the other cells, or the attendant’s trolley stopping anywhere else apart from outside my room. Maybe something had happened. Maybe The Shepherd had returned, and the Flock was gathering to leave? Were they going to leave me behind? I’d failed my intermediate levels and was nowhere near Purity; so why would they come back and get me if I was unworthy, anyway? I was going to be left there in my tiny cell while they marched alongside The Shepherd to their salvation. I felt a sudden wave of terror clasping my lungs again, and whatever was left in my stomach rose upwards, up, up into my throat. I pointlessly tugged at the restraints as I broke into a sob half-choked by the burning liquid that was making me gag and by the snot that had built up in my congested nostrils; I started to feel dizzy. This is it, I thought, I am going to die of suffocation from my own vomit and snot and they say just before you die you feel this sense of peace but I’m so fucking scared. My heart was thumping in my ears and I willed myself to focus on its relentless, hypnotic drumming to take my mind away from what was coming, listening, every beat louder and louder, and then I thought that the sound of my pulse had left my body and was coming at me from far away, like the blood flowing back into my veins, flooding in from the corridor behind the locked door, lub-dub, lub-dub, LUB-DUB LUB-DUB until it turned into the sound of hurried steps getting closer and closer and then stopping and then the jangling of keys and a clunk from the door and -
- then I heard Taylor’s voice.