|Serena Lawless studied Advanced Creative Writing and Children’s Literature in the Open University and is currently a student of the MA in Writing in NUI Galway. She was shortlisted for the 2014 AM Heath Irish Children’s prize and is currently working on her first Young Adult Novel.|
By Serena Lawless
Don’t. Run. Don’t. Run. Don’t. Run.
This mantra matches my every footfall, keeping my pace.
If I run, they’ll know. I keep my steps even and measured. I breathe in. Don’t. Breathe out. Run. My nostrils burn. The world doesn’t smell fresh, like it should. It is too clean. Clinical. My pulse deafens me, so loud that surely someone else will hear it, but the bass is mine alone. It is all I can hear. There is nothing else. No birdsong, no traffic, just the whine of silence and the panic panic panic of my heart.
The weak winter sun bleaches the world white. The town that I live in – have lived in all my life – looks alien to me, as though viewed through a gauzy film. I know the grass is green, that the bare barked trees are tawny, but I can’t see the colours. I am awake, and my eyes are like those that have been staring at the sun, blinking rapidly, tearing, blind.
When Peter woke – when? Five days ago? Months? Years? – when he woke, he screamed. I remember. He screamed my name and grabbed my arm as he was carried away, uselessly begged me to wake up, told me it was all a lie.
Peter never returned.
I did not scream when I woke. I knew better.
Every morning since, I have walked the same course. Made it routine. Made it a part of my natural daily habit. I bring only one thing, and it remains in my pocket, a comforting weight. Sometimes I run my thumb over the protective shell to give me strength.
I bid a good morning to my neighbours, smile over wide, voice gentle but beaming. Normal, by their standards. I walk until the path beneath my feet becomes earth. Twigs grasp my arms on the narrow forest path, brittle fingers grabbing, pulling me back. The trees give way to a chain link fence, patrolled at all times. I wave at the guards, and they reflect back my vacuous smile.
Everyone is bright. Everyone is content. Everyone is asleep. That is the difference between us; I can see the horrors floating overhead.
The fence ends eventually. There is a road, and a river, and freedom beyond. The morning guard and I have struck up a friendly rapport. His job is as dull as it is isolated. I never bring water so that I can ask him for a glass. I’ve made it routine. Regular. Normal.
Today, I plan to escape.
I slow my pace as I approach the gate, over bright smile in place. The guard descends from his station, and I falter; just a split second, half a heartbeat, barely a moment, but it is enough.
Panic, panic, panic.
It is not the morning guard, guileless and malleable.
He is not awake. He is not asleep. He is something more. Nausea rolls in my stomach; he is familiar, he is not. The uniform that carried him away is now on his back. He wears it well. He wears it with pride.
‘On your way, civilian.’
I clamp my teeth. My jaw aches as I chew on unasked questions. Where were you? What happened? Do you remember me?
‘Do not make me repeat myself.’
I planned to escape. There is nothing of consequence in my belongings, nothing irreplaceable. I planned to escape with the clothes on my back. I look past Peter. If I hold my breath, I can hear the river.
‘May I have a drink of water?’
Peter looks at me for the first time with flat, lifeless eyes. The seconds blend together and stretch, tensing as they thin out. Something rumbles, and I think it is coming from inside Peter, like a growl.
‘On your way.’
Peter’s hand rests on his weapon.
So does mine.
‘Please,’ I say. ‘I’ve walked for miles.’
‘That is not my concern.’
He does not ask how I know his name. I think he knows mine, but cannot say it. What did they do to him? What would I do?
I win; he relents. From inside the cabin, the water sings into the cup. I thumb the protective shell in my pocket one last time.
Peter hands me the cup of water.
I bury my knife in his neck.
He screams, a gurgling sound. My knife is lodged in his neck. I cannot remove it. His knees buckle. The cup breaks. The water dilutes the black blood on the earth.
Run. Run. Run.
I should go. Between Peter’s choked breaths, I can hear the river. He is looking skyward, almost peaceful, when I realise my mistake. His face peels back from the centre like a lotus flower.
I look up and see the horrors overhead.
Panic. Panic. Panic.
Run. Run. Run.