Sydney woke up to the rain soaking through the sleeve of her robe. She’d fallen asleep with the window open and the wetness had pulled her from a dream where she’d been running. She couldn’t remember why. For a moment, she lay still, letting the rain continue to drift inside.
Waking up had become one of the hardest things she had to do. In that groggy transition from sleep to consciousness, reality would knock the wind out of her before she was aware enough to stop it. She felt it as keenly as a stab to the chest and it took her a moment to push it down somewhere just outside the realm of emotion.
The consequence of doing this was that she lived each day in an odd balance of going through the motions interspersed with sharp jags of overwhelming pain. She moved through the things she cared about with blinders on, driving forward and doing her best never to stop and think.
It was survival. And in two years of perpetual motion and trying her damndest never to slow down, she hadn’t really gotten any better at it. Still, she was surviving. She may have been holding her breath but she hadn’t yet suffocated or lost the viselike grip with which she tried to hold her life together.
But every other week, it all stopped. At first, it had been Tuesdays and Thursdays like clockwork and there had been outings and movies and music and still some joy, if draped oddly in sadness. Then it had slipped to just once a week. Usually every Wednesday. And it often didn’t go well. In fact, it went increasingly worse and worse as disruptions in the regular routine became a growing problem. Now it was every other week. Sometimes on a Monday to get it over with. Sometimes on a Friday if she’d had trouble working up the courage. These days, she’d often just check-in from behind some pillars in the common room so her mom wouldn’t see her.
Dementia was like a living force. If it had any sense of humor at all, it was jet black and without empathy for those it attacked. Her mother’s had hit early, while she was still in her 50s. At first, it had seemed almost strangely invigorating. There was now a reason for her odd behavior over the last few years. And as someone whose favorite role in which to cast herself was victim, this may have been her greatest turn yet.
Just after the decline caused her to need round the clock care, but while she could still usually carry on a mostly coherent conversation, she’d told Sydney she loved her and pulled her in for a hug for what was the first time Sydney could ever recall. She and her brother had joked about it, how dementia had made her a better mom. How for the first time, they thought maybe she did actually love them.
And then things went dramatically downhill. Her mother had become violent. Any small change in her routine, including the visits she’d once looked forward to, set her off. Her rage was as explosive as it was heartbreakingly nonsensical. She recognized Sydney less and less frequently and lashed out at her regularly. She could no longer go on outings and even favorite movies and music seemed to lose their appeal.
Over the last few months, the dementia had moved on to a new tactic. While the violence was diminishing, so were motor skills and verbal ability. Sydney felt constantly assaulted by the idea that her mom was becoming a vegetable, that she was living in grotesque misery. The thought smacked her in the face. Brought waves of nausea. She tried and failed to find some semblance of peace for the person who, despite all that lurked beneath their bridge, had brought her into the world and been her home.
It was the powerlessness in the face of suffering she couldn’t bear. It was knowing how her mother was living and finding herself absolutely unable to help that had pushed her into a state of numb survival edged always in a horrible, deep, aching kind of hurt. She wanted her mother to die. She would have killed her herself and felt more cowardly for not doing it than guilty for thinking it. She imagined her finally at peace. She imagined her as who she was before she was this. She felt at once outraged and ashamed and sick. She felt something she didn’t think she’d ever have to be. Broken.
She hated that word. Sydney had built most of her life on taking action. On the belief that your circumstances in life did not have to define you. It was why she chose to work with children the government euphemistically dubbed “at-risk.” She knew those words had little at all to do with an individual. That they only had power if you let them. She stood on the platform of her shitty childhood with her back straight and her eyes clear and kicked words like self-pity and broken in the teeth.
She believed in magic. She believed in love. She believed in strength. And above all, she believed in action. When you saw a problem, when you saw a need that you had the skills or the inclination to meet, you got off your ass and you got to work. It had worked for her almost like a religion for most of her adult life. It had been her original plan when her mother had gotten sick and moved to be closer to her. She bought books. She created schedules. She carried them out and felt the salve of her mother’s genuine joy over a Beatles song or a piece of quiche or a slow walk along the creek.
And then everything deteriorated. Slowly at first and then in what felt like a truly spectacular moment of shattering, suspended somewhere in the surreal understanding that nothing anyone did was going to matter now. Sydney felt like dust held loosely together with old, dirty tape. She felt hollow everywhere she’d once felt full. Her sense of powerlessness shook her to her core so profoundly she felt as if she too was losing sight of who she was.
And that was life. For two years now. And strangely, no one seemed to notice. Maybe her shitty tape was stronger than she thought. Or maybe there are some types of loss and pain that are too strange and uncomfortable for other people to try wading in. There aren’t any cards in the grief section for, “Hey, sorry you’re watching your mother die a slow and horrifying death and there’s nothing anyone can do to help.” There definitely aren’t any good motivational quotes for reconciling that with a mother you’re not sure ever even loved or wanted you.
Sydney kicked the rain damp covers off and rolled out of bed. She needed to feed and walk her dog and stop at the bakery before work. Sometimes her mom would still let you feed her a cookie. Sometimes.
Her students were always the best part of her day. She could almost get lost for a few hours in the world through their eyes. Then she’d put them on the bus and the anxiety would start to build. Coworkers talked to her as she packed up and made her way out to her car and she tried her best to sound normal.
Today, it turned out, her mom didn’t want the cookie. Sydney got back in her car and sobbed uncontrollably. Five minutes. Five minutes and she’d left her mom in an incoherent meltdown. She thought of calling her brother but he already knew. So she stopped the awful wailing sounds coming from her mouth and headed home, crying intermittently in silence until she hit the highway and focused on what the people were saying on NPR, willing herself to absorb the words as if she needed them for a final exam tomorrow.
She spooned her dog for awhile before answering emails, making some pasta and settling in to watch some formulaic crime shows and trying to let her brain melt. If she didn’t let herself think about anything, she couldn’t accidentally think about the horror movie of her mother’s life, unfolding just a few miles down the road.
Brush your teeth. Check your email. Go to bed. If your brain starts thinking too much, browse the internet until it stops.
Tonight, Sydney was reading random internet strangers’ answers to such pressing questions as, “If Dr. Seuss was a real doctor, what would his diagnoses sound like?” (I do not like this mammogram. I do not like it, young madame.)
Eventually she fell asleep. In her dream, she’d lost her grandma’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies and she kept slicing her fingers open as she rifled through papers. The blood was everywhere.
She woke up on a pallet. The smell of smoke was in the air, along with something sickly and metallic. She sat up quickly and looked around her. She seemed to be in some kind of warehouse. Fuck. She knew she’d been stressed last night but what had she done? She launched to her feet and tried to remember but the last thing she could grab onto was her dream and before that, her own bed and her dog curled up in the crook of her legs.
Oh god. She had to get home to her dog. She hurried out the open doorway onto the sidewalk and looked around her. Nothing was familiar. She knew her city well and even the street signs looked completely foreign. Overton & House. Where in the hell was that? And where were all the people? A bright yellow tank suddenly turned the corner and rumbled towards her. The military?
She walked towards them when a voice through what sounded like a megaphone yelled at her to get back. She paused. “Put your hands in the air and get on your knees.” Sydney felt ridiculous. She had no idea where she was or what she’d done to get harassed by a damn tank. Apparently she had taken too long to comply. Two men in strange uniforms were approaching her. They didn’t look like any branch of the military she was familiar with. She opened her mouth to ask who they were but before she could speak, one of them hit her in the head with a nightstick.
This time, she woke up on a thin mattress in a cell. She was not alone. She propped herself up on an elbow, just enough to peer around the room. As she did so, a dull pain shot through the back of her head. She reached back and felt congealed blood in her hair and remembered the nightstick. There were eyes looking at her in the silence. She quietly noted seven pairs. The floor was bare concrete save for about a dozen small, dingy mattresses and the only light came from the hallway.
Sydney slowly sat upright. Her companions were both male and female, of no particular age or commonality. She turned to the nearest woman and in the softest whisper she could manage, asked where they were. The woman stared at her, eyes wide and set deep in a thin, freckled face. Behind her she felt a kick against her leg. She turned and an older woman raised a finger harshly to her lips. Sydney pushed her fear away and turned back towards the woman to whom she had spoken. Those wide eyes flitted quickly around the room and then came back to rest on Sydney. She was still for a moment but then she mouthed something. Holding room. “For what?” Sydney mouthed back.
“We have to atone.”
The woman rolled back over, leaving Sydney alone in the ugly, chlorine blue light. She laid down flat on her back and searched the room with her eyes. The only way out was through the barred metal door. There was no window. Nothing. In the long wait until what must have been morning, not a person in the room made a sound.
Finally, several people in the military uniforms Sydney had encountered yesterday came to the door. They were ordered to their knees, hands on their heads, to be cuffed at the wrists, ankles, and together at the waists. Sydney wondered if she was walking to her death but instinct told her breaking the silence would take the mystery out of the question.
They were marched to a room with a small table in the center. Something shiny glinted there but Sydney wasn’t close enough to see what it was. The first prisoner was unshackled and marched to the table. A man in uniform read out her charges. “Adalia Huntengren, charged with underpaying for 340 grams of rice. Atonement is three slashes.” The woman, Adalia, stepped to the table and picked up the object. As she drew back her sleeve, Sydney understood. Three times, the woman drew the knife from elbow to wrist down her arm. When she finished, she still had not made a sound.
One by one, the prisoners stepped up to the table and then disappeared through a door on the opposite side of the room. Tardiness to service shift, 5 slashes. Stealing two potatoes from the block garden, 4 slashes. Finally it was Sydney’s turn. “Unknown female, breaking curfew, 5 slashes. Missing neck code; pending human processing hearing.” Sydney stepped up to the table. When she was in second grade, she’d spent a summer engaged in an escalating dare war with her neighbor Scott. She’d shredded knees and elbows trying to make it down ever steeper hills on a skateboard without being the first to fall. No matter how gory the childhood injury, she’d refused to cry. It was another kind of dare. The memory of those bloody knees flitted through her mind with a weird sense of comfort as she looked down at a table dripping with the blood of strangers. She picked up the knife and thought of water.
When she was finished, her left arm throbbed and red ran from her finger tips like a leaking tap. She was met on the other side of the door by another woman in uniform. She brusquely rinsed Sydney’s arm from a large bottle of liquid that burned like fire and wrapped it in gauze. Then she told her to have a seat. The man who’d been chained behind Sydney was released out the front door onto the street after his arm was dressed. But the freckled woman sat beside her. They were the only two left behind.
Another woman in a dark khaki business suit came through the door. She lifted a clipboard and addressed the uniformed woman with the gauze, “Charlotte Ross, Unknown Female. Two.” The communication here was so terse it bordered on comical. The women exchanged nods and commanded Sydney and Charlotte to their feet. They were ushered into a plain gray sedan and driven a ways to a new building. Human Processing Department. On the drive there, Sydney stared out the window at a city she was now certain was not her own. A backdrop of gray steel and concrete was punctuated by jarringly out of place flashes of color. Bright yellow tanks. A lone building so green it almost glowed. A pink warehouse where lines of people stood with downcast eyes. The streets were mostly empty.
Inside the building, they joined a small queue in the back of a courtroom. The proceedings continued in low monotones with the defendants exiting via one of two doors on either side of the judge’s dais. Sydney was not sure which door to hope for until she watched Charlotte exit to the left with an unmistakable flash of relief on her face. As she walked to the front of the room, she reached desperately for some understanding of what she’d be asked and how she might reply.
“Unknown Female 24, speak your name.”
“Hello Sir. I, my name is Sydney Fallon.”
“Records.” It was a command. There was the briefest of pauses before a man seated at a computer to the judge’s right shook his head. “Sydney Fallon, the union has no record of you. Explain.”
“Sir, I wish I could. I, I am from West Almos in Sattsburgh and I’m afraid I’m not quite sure how I got here. I went to bed in my own…”
“West what? Miss, do you know where you are?”
“Sir, I’m sorry. I was in holding last night but I don’t know how I came to be there.”
“You don’t know how you came to be where?”
“In, in holding Sir.” Sydney tread as carefully as she could. She knew she didn’t have the answer the judge wanted from her.
“In holding where?”
“Here, in the union sir.”
And with the bang of the gavel, Sydney was escorted through the right door.
Her next stop was a hospital where during a battery of tests, Sydney realized for the first time that she was exhausted. Her arm throbbed. Her head ached. Maybe she had a concussion. It was one of the few things she heard listed off by the doctors and nurses attending her that made some form of sense. She clung to the idea that maybe the blow from the nightstick was responsible for her confusion. She could be treated here and soon it would all make sense again.
But they found no concussion or anything else physically wrong with her save a lump on the head and her self-inflicted cuts. This, as it turned out, was far worse news than Sydney could have imagined. She was strapped to a gurney by the fluttery hands of nurses who wouldn’t make eye contact with her and loaded into a van with similarly restrained patients. She smelled urine and saw faces either taught with naked fear or slack and unreadable. For the first time since she’d woken up far from anything familiar, true terror gripped her.
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