A quick message from the author:
Hi, yeah, I know I left a note in the other SS, but I wanted to tell you that this is something I wrote during the week, two days after I wrote the first SS. That’s why I waited so long before I posted this one (and the third story) instead of posting them all together like at first I thought I should. For the full effect.
I think you will understand a little more once you read them all, oh, and also the next one will probably explain why the tone in the stories has been so strange lately.
Hi there, welcome to another Secondary Sunday.
I- uh… I’m not sure how to start this after the other one. I think it was a little… harsh from me to say those things. I’m sorry if I meddled into something that wasn’t necessarily my business.
I know that you might be confused right now, so to give you time to think about things and to ignore and suppress some thoughts that are often better off not being kept, I will tell you a different story today.
This is not about anyone in your life.
This is about… fiction and the comfort of hearing about things that happen to other people and never to you.
I guess I just want to say, I’m sorry?
I know you, and others reading this might not understand what I mean but… I really am sorry.
And, I’m sorry if you’re thinking strange things… again.
So, for now… I guess I’ll just talk about something else. Something different.
A Ghost Story.
This story begins how ghost stories usually do: with an unsuspecting victim. I guess that for the purpose of this exercise we will call her Natalie.
Natalie was always a quiet person. Not in the way people are when they are sad or avoiding something, just… quiet. Simply existing.
She was a talented artist, and she enjoyed painting large oil canvases that had no meaning to anyone but herself. Hers was the realm of the abstract, the unknown, the impossible to understand. And she enjoyed that, almost as much as she enjoyed the simple stillness of her home.
As I said before, she didn’t particularly lived, but she did exist.
She existed in her own realm. She was the emperor of a deserted land, the landlord of a derelict kingdom.
Her story stars the way other stories start, with blood and loud screaming.
She was born 27 years ago somewhere without a name and without a place on a map. Somewhere… forgotten.
She remembers it by the colors and feelings it brought her. There was the deep indigo of the sky at dusk, and thick browns and sagging greens of nearby trees. She remembers like a deep ache the dusty gray of decaying streets and buildings. But more than that, she remembers the languid flick of a brush against the tautness of a yellowed piece of canvas.
She remembers the world as it was before… before reconditioning, before sirens and screaming and blood. God, there was so much blood. She couldn’t even breathe through the thick tanginess of a mouthful of it. She remember how deep and dark the color was. When she first looked down that day she thought it to be her little brother that had dropped one of her pots of paint again. But it wasn’t.
It was her little brother, but in a way she had not expected.
She remembers the wide arch of an unsuspecting morning, the color of it a soft yellow blending into a wave of powdery pink, lighter than the blush on her cheek that time Giuseppe had complimented her on her light handed technique. She remembers how the colors would blend and twists and break and stain it all as the day moved forward.
It started like yellow and pink but it wasn’t too long before the browns and blacks and purples and red started to take over the wall.
It was a Tuesday, a work day.
She remembers because she was late for work that morning. Her brother had burnt the toasts they were supposed to be having for breakfast and she had forgotten to do the laundry so they were both short on clothes to wear.
She went to work to the only book shop in their little, forgotten town wearing a faded t-shirt that had once belonged to someone else, with the name of a band or movie that she did not know and jeans that from their faded wash, many tears and spots of paint had already lived a full life.
She also might remember hugging her brother goodbye two blocks away from their home. That contact and that memory is the only thing that carries her through long torturous days. She remembers that their clothes smelled like old oil paintings, faded fabric softener and dust. Her arms fitted perfectly around his body, and his swam across hers.
He kissed her forehead before they parted and promised to bring sweets from his own work.
She scolded him and told him to stop cutting classes in order to make more money. They were okay.
She went on her way, thinking of numbers, and check balances, and colors, and colors, and colors. She thought of the way trees bowed for the wind but were always able to stand back up. She ignored the situations in which they didn’t, in which wind was able to pick them up clean off the grown and threw them across the land until they laid there, useless, with their roots and thoughts and pain exposed to the world.
She knew they were the trees bowing to the wind.
She needed them not to face a storm. She needed to keep her roots on the ground.
She thought all that, as she walked to her work.
She liked her work. There was something soothing about the methodic pacing through the isles and putting books back where they belonged.
She knew that there weren’t too many people interested in books, the same way there weren’t many people interested in paintings and the words she had to share about them.
She knew their little town was more… scientific… more military… more than the stillness of her brush and her brothers quiet and careful limping steps over creaking wooden boards.
She was vaguely aware that the wind was picking up and there was no way that the trees would manage to remain grounded through the oncoming storm.
But she didn’t picture what would happen.
The first warning came just as she was coming back from her lunch break. She had noticed as she walked through the bustling streets that there was more activity than usual. The sidewalks looked sharper, cleaner, and the people walking alongside her were sharing nervous glances between each other.
She didn’t know why until she saw them. The men in black, pragmatic suits holding onto less than pragmatic bags. She knew what it meant that they were outside and she knew what the less than pragmatic bags were for.
She moved her eyes away from the scene just as soon as she caught sight of them… or at least she tried. There was something about them that day that made her stop, made her stare.
An old lady behind her hissed a long expletive as she pushed her to keep moving forward but Natalie ignored her. She kept her eyes locked with one of the man’s hands. They were a sculptor’s hands, she realized. They had the cracked thickness of skin that had been taught to withstand the abuse of clay and cold and instruments that sometimes missed their target.
She looked at her own hands. Her fingernails all had different shades of colors permanently caked in between layers of frayed keratin. She too had cracked skin but hers was more about a poorly lived life and an inability to remember to wash off the paint thinner off her hands.
Out of everything, she remembers that detail in sharp focus.
The man nodded at her when she lifted her eyes again, and something about that off handed gesture brought her back to the present, to whom she was and who they were and what they were all doing.
She was moving on her way to work… they were doing their work. Disposing of the unnecessary things. They were getting rid of dripping lumps and sore muscles.
The street was cleaner than usual, Natalie noted, because they had been going at it for a while.
She raised her eyes to look beyond the town limits, beyond the foliage of nearby trees and the entrance gates of a forbidden place and saw that there was no smoke coming from the chimney. She noticed that the air smelled like air and not… sweet lies.
She blanched and kept going.
She made eye contact with an old man sitting on a wooden box on the other side of the street and he shook his head in quiet disapproval. That look would’ve made her hackles rise any other day… but that day it felt different.
She didn’t realize why until she was back in the small show room filled with mismatched piles of unsold books.
The man didn’t look angry in his disapproval, but scared.
They all were scared.
Her grip loosened and the book she was holding fell to the ground, never to be picked up again.
She was no fool, she knew what was happening. She knew it had happened before.
She knew of places and cities and towns that used to have a name but didn’t anymore. She remembered the careful whispers the day her parents had left to work on the compound. She remembered the sweet scent that would forever stain their little town after the suits arrived.
She remembered the letter, the words, the rumors.
She remembered a life lived in quiet solitude with another human that had been touched by incidental tragedy.
She remembered the fear that time her brother went up to the plant to beg for a job, for better living, for medicine “please it’s my sister! She is so very sick!”.
She remembered the limping of his leg when he came back. The hollowness in his eyes.
She remembers the hateful look in the mirror whenever she looked at her healthy hands, at her steady limbs.
She remembered the rotten smell of an unfinished canvas.
She remembered the stories other people were sharing, of the towns without memories and the people that were so hollow inside they had nothing left.
She remembered how the skies used to be blue, then pink, then orange, then brown, then indigo.
She remembered how the ground shook at intervals. She remembered the wall. Tall and towering, made of gray stone and black sludge.
She remembers fear like an old companion, now.
She remembers hands. There were so many hands, and so many eyes.
The second warning came as she was staring at her hands where the book used to be. The earth shook, and the piles of books precariously balancing one another came toppling down around her. She didn’t feel them fall or even as they hit them. She was lost somewhere no one would ever be able to find her.
The second warning was also the catalysis.
After the earthquake there was the screaming. Loud. Shrill. Terrifying.
There were men coming in and out of stores, dragging people out. There were questions, loud, screamed into people’s ears, and there were people crying.
There was Natalie, already bruised, already bleeding, and she was crying.
The men were asking about something, someone.
“One of the bags,” they said. “it was in one of the bags and… Some of you critters got it.”
There were harsh fingers sinking into skin that had never been taught that it needed to be hard, that it would some time need not to yield, not to take.
Her fingers were an artist’s fingers. But her feet were stronger, her legs were healthy and powerful to make up for what her brother had to sacrifice to them. She flung her body around and the softness of her skin made it easy for the hands on her to slip and fail to grab her.
She ran on perfectly balanced feet across chaotic streets. It was too much, too soon, too loud.
A gun to someone’s head, a kick to someone’s side. She was running and running and running and running until there was nothing to her world but the burning of her thighs and chest. She run until her world exploded with the deep crimson of an oil paint.
She remembers that moment like the screeching of tires.
She took two steps into the house, her house–their house and she stopped.
There was the pungent smell of paint thinner and burnt bread leftover from that morning, but there was something else. There were two men, standing in the middle of the living room, flipping through books and notebooks and discarding them on the floor. Careless, clinical.
She looked at their hands, those were not an artist’s hands. They were rough and polished, like stubby knives attached to a meaty limb.
She saw them, ripping up pieces of the couch, moving the rug and making disgusted noises every so often. Then one of them grabbed something heavy from the ground, it hung prone from his hands, and he asked “what do you supposed we do with this?” and another one laughed and said “I say we put it with the others.”
It was then that she saw the paint, the blood.
And for a second she didn’t understand.
And then she did.
And then she screamed.
The men turned to look at her. They all had heavy hands but they were not all men. A woman was standing between them. A cruel smile etched into her skin.
Natalie froze under her gaze.
Something about the woman told her run, something about the men told her it would be useless.
She remembers one of them grabbing her roughly and asking her about things, asking the same thing as the ones outside. But she couldn’t see, couldn’t think beyond the pair of panicked eyes staring right at her.
The mouth whispering “I’m sorry,” and the sudden thought that she did not have a brother.
She raised her eyes to look at the woman. She looked… pained.
She said, “Ma’am, do you understand?”
But she didn’t.
“I don’t,” she rasped.
Natalie looked back down to the brother she had now but had never had before. She looked down to the boy that underwent torture so her hands could be hands again and she didn’t understand.
“Philippe,” she said. It was both a question and a statement.
They said something about control groups and blood samples and forgetting. There were so many things about forgetting.
“It’s important that you forget,” Philippe said. “it’s important that you want to forget.”
There was a loud noise coming from her study and she raised her eyes to the sculptor she had seen before. He was holding Daisies, one of her favorite paintings.
He had a frown on his face, and Philippe looked like he had been kicked.
He probably had been.
“I don’t have it.” She tried, thinking back to what the others were saying. “Whatever you lost, I don’t have it.”
One of the men snorted at that. Philippe grimaced.
They told her it wasn’t something they lost, it was something they had gained. And she was confused.
She was confused to the point that she didn’t see where the blood was coming from. She was so confused that she didn’t question the hold of the men of Philippe. She was so confused that she didn’t notice a body lying on the ground.
“I have nothing,” she said. “right Philippe?”
And then she looked at the place he had been… but he wasn’t there. There was nothing there. There was no one there. There were no men, no soldier, no woman.
She was standing in the middle of a gray room. She wasn’t in her home.
She was in a cell, had been in a cell for a while.
She knew that by the bloodied hands printed all over the wall, some where fresh some were not.
She does not remember most of the time there.
She remembers she has a brother. She remembers her name. She remembers she had a family. She remembers she had a job.
She remember she doesn’t have a brother, she never did. She knows her parents died when she was younger, a car crash.
She lived exactly where she lives right now. She lived far away.
She remembers the blood and the hands and the eyes.
There were needles as well. Rough hands that dragged her out of her room at random intervals. There were more earthquakes.
There were incisions in places where there should not be incisions. There were hands that were not hands and hands that were later behaving like hands.
Needles in arms and fingers, and hands, and legs and feet. Shaved heads and sterile showers.
There was a routine: Waking up, banging a tired hand against a concrete wall that had no connection to anyone else but that in turn connected her to hundreds of people. Then the people would come, always wearing suits. Then she would sit in an white room while people asked her questions and touched her, sometimes they hit her, sometimes they took her blood, sometimes they did nothing as she cowered on her seat wondering when the pain would come. There was so much pain. Then she’d go back to her room, she’d be dragged across corridors that did not lead to her room but to others. She would often hear people cry and sob behind the barred doors. She often sobbed and cried in sympathy. She often had no energy even for that.
There was so much pain. So much anguish.
There were earthquakes and the sweet scent of lies.
There were news about other places, about other people. There was art drawn in varying shades of drying blood. The house she grew up in, the parents she wasn’t allowed to have, the brother she
had hadn’t had hand’t had hand’t had. There was herself with sunk in eyes and nails that had been cleaned to clinical perfection but still had a little bit of red in them every once in a while.
There was the woman from before, with the pained look on her face.
There were the men the men the men the men the men. So many men. So many women. So many personal dedicated to their very existence.
There was pain pain pain pain pain pain pain pain. Open robes and throbbing muscles. There was hunger and then thirst. There were shocks and broken bones and “how do people heal? Where do memories come from?”.
There was nothing.
There was a woman whose name had never been Natalie choking on her own blood on the side of the highway.
There was so much of it, coming from nowhere and everywhere.
“How do people heal?” She wondered to herself as the last pieces of her memory were drained away from her body.
How did she heal after what happened?
Why would she get better?
But she did.
Someone found her on the side of the road, someone took her to a hospital and doctors wondered how she would ever be able to heal. They wondered if she would ever remember what had happened to her.
Natalie Rows, her ID said. A local that had been missing for a couple of days. No one said anything about matching photos or dead bodies floating across the country.
There was nothing left of whoever she had ever been for them to match her with a missing girl years ago. Nothing that tied her to another city, another place, another town that didn’t have a name anymore.
She didn’t have a name anymore.
She only had pain and pain and pain and blood. She was a bag of blood constantly dripping through unmendable holes.
But she lived.
Even as everyone wondered how she would ever live through what they did. How would her face ever become a face again? How would her eyes remember to be eyes and her hands turn back into hands? How would she live?
But she lived and lived and moved somewhere no one would ever find her.
She bought a small cabin in the woods with the money she mysteriously had acquired while she’d been gone. The money that had always been there, of course.
She retired to forever live with the memory of harsh pinching fingers and prodding needles.
She often wakes up with muted screams, her face contorted into something that could never be described… and it wasn’t all from the needles and knives and incisions. There was something about her terror that was palpable even to those who were only supposed to be observing. She was terrified enough to be interesting, to… arouse the interest of someone who was only supposed to be watching.
Enough that this person asked for their story, what they remembered.
They weren’t brazen enough to ask about that. But they were curious about the way people heal and how they retain memories. So they asked about the paintings, about the violent scratches of a brush and the varying shades of purple, blue and red.
They wanted to know about the pinks too.
They wanted to know how much a person would remember after all that.
“Enough,” she said. Her voice was tired and her eyes seemed to be focused on something only she could see. “You know, when I came home that day he was sitting exactly the way you are sitting now.”
They frowned. “Who?”
“Him.” She pointed to a mess of sharp lines and electric colors. “He often comes to see me. He wonders if I’ve forgiven him.”
“Have you?” they ask.
She turns to stare at them and then pulls the hem of her shirt to uncover a scar ridden torso. “How could I? How could you?”
They don’t answer. They don’t try to feed the girl lies about science and service and commitment or the fragility of human emotion. They shake their heads instead. Tell them they’ve never been in such a position.
The girl snarls and says, “But you’ve been on the other end? Wanting to be forgiven? Even when you know how impossible it is.” She is not being unkind even if her words are.
They know they can’t… exactly be forgiven.
They know about collateral damage and the solace of memories. They know because they’ve experienced it.
“I don’t think I want to be,” they say, honestly. “I think I want to live with this.”
The girl blinks careful eyes, she is used to being lied to and manipulated by the brother that traded legs and sanity for careful hands.
“You are one of them.” She gasps. She is not referring to an organization of them but to a group of them. She’s talking about her brother and her parents. She means the person she was before.
“So you can…” She trails off. A full minute passes before she carries on. “You can’t.”
“I can’t.” They agree.
“Do you want to?”
At this point the person, the observer lifts one side of their shirt and then lift their hair a little to show a perfectly lined pair of scars. “I tried,” they almost sob, but they don’t. Emotions don’t come easily to them.
“It didn’t work.”
“It never works after the first time.”
“But I forgot.”
“But you didn’t,” they contradict. “If you had there’d be no art.”
The girl is quiet for a long time, and then she finally said “I’d rather if there weren’t.”
There are years of pain and fear tacked onto those words. But the observer cannot know that then, cannot understand it. Not fully. So they simply sit there, thinking about other people and what they might wish to forget. They think about parents that never were and stories better off not shared.
They think about voices and words and story lines that will never happen.
They think about their cat, and how little food they have left.
They think about medical procedures and school to distract themselves.
Then they stand up and they leave.
The girl is quiet through all of this.
She is quiet most of the time.
She raises her eyes and traces a thick scar across her arm with the same familiarity she touches some of her paintings. She feels the ghost of a breath, she hears the muted screams of people through concrete walls and barred doors.
Her body is firmly grounded in the present but her mind is thousands of miles away, locked in a cell where she’s being forced to remember all the things she doesn’t want to remember. Where hands aren’t hands but a weapon. Where ghosts plague every single corner.
She sits there and she remembers the taste of her blood, the feeling of blades against soft skin.
She remembers fingers prodding and scars burning when they’re not allowed to remain scars.
She remembers so much that her body aches with all it will never forget.
And then she forgets.