There was a picture on the wall of mountains and a lake. Emma stared at it until the lines in the brushstrokes blurred. It was a picture of a picture. No one had painted that. Not that version. Somewhere there must have been a real one that she could touch. It would have little whorls and flaws. Like Ed. Ed had a scar on her elbow from falling off her bike when she was little. Real and flawed and perfect.
Somewhere there was a real mountain and a real lake. Somewhere there was a real person named Ed, who took her to a real home, and a real family.
The Centre’s staff had brought her back. She’d been too hysterical to remember more than trying to crawl back to the van. They had dragged her along the glowing, humming corridors. They had passed over the long bridge. She had seen, even in her panic, pale faces of students in the windows, watching. Above them was the bottomless black sky.
They would remember her. She remembered, after all, a similar thing from when she was little. She would be their example of what happened when you failed. They would learn to fear the blank-faced men.
For her it’d been a boy, body ravaged by hunger. He had to be carried, he’d been so weak. He still struggled in their grip, like a moth beating against glass. Their eyes had met. The wasting hunger turned them huge and dark, full of a wordless plea. When they took him to the door he’d reached out, and his bony fingers clutched at the door frame. She remembered how white his knuckles were as he strained to hold on. Then he was swallowed by the dark beyond.
After that she tried to avoid the doors where the men stood. Whenever they were in a room she would sit as far away as she could, and imagined their eyes drilling into her, seeking out all of her guilty thoughts. They haunted her dreams.
And after all they had come for her, when Wyn made his call.
She’d been brought to the special section of the medical wing, to this room, and put in the chair. It wrapped around her with inexhaustible patience. It moved when she did, gently holding any limb that struggled, until her strength was gone, and she lay in the shape it made for her and cried.
The room was grey and featureless. There was the low, soft hum that she’d never noticed while living at the Centre, but bothered every time she returned for her medical checkups. There was no handle for a door; the line of its shape was barely visible. There was the chair she was sitting in. There was a picture of a picture. There was her.
She felt the chair move, and tried to stand. It felt like liquid sand, but snaked out to grab her back with surprising speed.
Where would I go?
The halls would monitor her progress, lighting up wherever she passed. The doors would refuse to open.
She heard a soft exhalation. The room filled with a sweet smell. It pressed between Emma and her panic, making a cushion through which she couldn’t feel it, or anything else. It was all still there, but untouchable, like you could feel a thunderstorm.
Lights danced over the door when Mary came in, She saw her mouth moving, and her voice floated to her in its own time. She was full of sympathy, but firm. Emma had lied too much. She had broken too many rules. Her results were unacceptable. She had failed. The sweet smell filled her mouth when she tried to explain.
I didn’t mean to fill out my forms wrong. I thought I was right. I tried to do what the application said. I studied all it gave me. I tried to be good.
Mary left. She saw no one else. Her dress was taken away. The chair melted around her, holding her head still. She heard a low buzzing sound. Her hair floated to the floor in glimmering drifts, and was swept away. Even with the sweet smell all around her she screamed and cried and begged them not to. She was washed, and a grey robe was wrapped around her. It wasn’t dove grey or silver grey. It was what was left when colour was gone.
Now she wondered if they were real mountains. Had someone gone out to a lake and painted what they’d seen? Had they brought back evidence of themselves, and watched it printed and reprinted until all of its meaning was gone? Or was it just something they made up in their mind, in a paint-stained room in an education centre?
The painting blurred. The gentling chair moved, causing a breath of sterile air to brush across her bare head. She was struck by a wave of loathing that made her cringe, as though she could leave herself behind.
“I want to go home. Please.”
Her throat hurt. Small as it was, her voice sounded ragged.
Her little apartment, quiet as dust, spotless and safe. She wanted it to be the day of baking class, when she would be daydreaming about Ed laying among the sheets that smelled of industrial cleanser. Ed. She wanted to say something to make her laugh. A million successful tests couldn’t feel as good as Ed’s laugh sounded.
The air hissed past her, over her scalp, making her shudder again. The door lit with swirls and dots, then slid open and Mary returned. Emma’s heart skipped hopefully. The door sealed behind her.
A small chair grew for her out of the floor. She sat in front of Emma, straightening her tidy suit jacket. Emma looked from the door to her, nervous.
“May I please go home?”
“I’m so sorry, Emma.”
“I didn’t mean to lie on the forms.” she whispered.
“Now, you know very well that there was much more to it that.”
Mary shook her head. “You’re making impossible claims. You’ve always made up excuses for yourself. Like all of your ridiculous fears that kept you from making friends. You were meant to work on it. To get out of your shell. You said you were.”
“I had a baking class.”
“Absent so many times, then withdrawn.”
The disappointment in Mary’s voice made her quail.
“It told me I had to. So that I could study.”
“I tried. I did, but…It was the…it changed the questions.”
“For a Centre revision test. So you said. It’s just that there’s no test result recorded. Emma, didn’t you think that we’d keep such records in your file?” Emma shrank back, staring at the floor.
“No. I know that…It said it would take care of it.
“Your episode triggered an investigation. We’ve been looking through your history. Didn’t you think we’d find out that you were altering your employment records?”
“The application said it was looking for a new job for me. I studied for an interview.”
“And you thought that you’d lie about having been let go until you found one?”
“I didn’t. I didn’t lie! It said…it was taking care of things.”
Half through the sentence she gave up. They wouldn’t believe her. It would never be the application’s fault. It was hers.
“It probably lied to you when you checked it. It lies all the time.”
“You must stop blaming other things for your own mistakes. For your lying.” Mary sighed. “Well, anyway. Anyway.”
She took Emma’s hands. When Ed did that it was comforting and exciting. She wanted to pull away. Mary’s hands tightened, secure, as they always had been when she had counselled Emma in the past. Her expression urged Emma to pay attention. And anyway the chair stopped her from moving.
“I worried so much about you. Of all your classmates, you most needed your parents. I watched over you all of your life here. I was there to take you when you lost your mother and father. I promised them that I’d see you grown.”
“Mary, please…I don’t…”
“This is the last gift I can give you. It will be all right, Emma. You always struggled so with your fear. But now you won’t have to.” She smiled, squeezing her hands gently. “There won’t be any fear anymore. No pain. No confusion. You’ll rest. And one day you may be reborn.”
For a minute Emma felt a strange relief. There were many times when her thoughts were so confused and the crushing terror of what might happen paralysed her. All she could think of in those moments was the worst thing. Wouldn’t it be fine if she never had to feel that again? No more hours seized by panic.
Mary spoke to that part of her.
Emma felt her fingers touch her face. “It’s just like sleeping.”
Hours and hours wasted out of a day.
“Will I remember?”
“It’s a sweet, dreamless sleep, Emma, without pain or strife. Waiting to wake.”
There were all of those other hours.
“Not even the good things? There was the most wonderful person, Mary. And there was a song. And ice cream.”
Her heart surged with it. She tried to reach out, to try to make her understand. The chair pulled her back, no matter how she strained.
“It was just beginning,” she whispered, half to herself. “Oh, everything was just starting. Only one more chance, Mary. I understand, now. It’s hard, but there’s so much good! Please…I don’t want to lose it all.”
“I was here. I wasn’t good at it, but I was alive. I don’t want to go.”
“And you may live again, one day. The legacy of your blood may yet make it so.”
“I don’t want that day. I want this one.”
Mary’s eyes were mercilessly sympathetic.
“Please. Please, you said you’d help me. Please.”
“The danger is too great. You know that.”
Mary placed Emma’s hands carefully along the arms of the chair. She looked at them, not understanding until it was too late.
“No!” The chair moulded around her arms. She felt its crawling touch beginning to spread around her neck. “No, please. Please don’t. Please.”
“Everything will be all right, Emma.” The ceiling folded away into a black, bottomless well. Deep in its heart she saw something glimmer like silver. She jerked, straining against the chair.
“I’ll stay with you until it’s done. Then you’ll have only to sleep.”
“No. No sleep. I don’t want to sleep. No sleep. Please, no sleep.”
“It won’t hurt. Just let go.”
Silver dripped down. She jerked. The chair held her so tightly that only her eyes moved, searching out the door.
It touched her cheek, sliding over her face. She closed her mouth when it passed over her lips. Mary’s smile was gentle.
“I’m so sorry. I only wanted to keep you safe.”
The application ghosted through her voice. Emma made to call out. Silver web pouring into her mouth. It crawled over her cheeks, pressing into her eyes.