Excerpt: Never Now Always

What follows is an excerpt from Desirina Boskovich’s debut novella Never Now Always out June 27th from Broken Eye Books. Boskovich’s short fiction has been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, F&SF, Kaleidotrope, PodCastle, Drabblecast, and anthologies such as Aliens: Recent Encounters, The Apocalypse Triptych and Tomorrow’s Cthulhu. Her nonfiction pieces on music, literature, and culture have appeared in Lightspeed, Weird Fiction Review, the Huffington Post, Wonderbook, and The Steampunk Bible. She is also the editor of It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction (Cheeky Frawg, 2013), and together with Jeff VanderMeer, co-author of The Steampunk User’s Manual (Abrams Image, 2014). Her next project is forthcoming from Abrams Image —Starships & Sorcerers: A Secret History of Science Fiction, in collaboration with Jason Heller. Find Desirina online at www.desirinaboskovich.com.

Never Now Always is the story of Lolo, who can’t remember how she came to be in a place with endless rooms and voiceless Caretakers. Her memories are fragmented and blurred, always slipping away, but at least now, she has remembered how to write — even if her only ink is her own blood. Her desperate efforts to recall her past are all she has, along with Gor, her loyal friend inside this bleak place. But perhaps her sister is here somewhere in this labyrinth, too…

(lolo)

There comes a night I cannot write. My tiredness slurps all through my bones—I feel it hard in every thought.

So weary from questions: facts I can’t recollect, days I can’t recall. My skin is filled with scars, some fresh, some scabbed. I’m losing space to cut. I hurt all times and every day. I hurt inside my chest.

I hurt with a rust-red crisscross labyrinth of the wounds across my legs, my arms, my side.

I hurt inside my heart.

This night, I’m swaddled in my bunk. There sounds the beep-booping of machines, the breathing of rapt children. The structure breathes, too, exhaling air, inhaling back. These unquiet rustlings, these songful hums.

I tell myself, Be strong. I tell myself, Be brave.

I am Lolo, and I am the child that remembered writing. I am the one that could save us all. I can’t grow tired. I can’t be afraid. Pain is just pain.

But this night, I can’t steel myself against the cuts.

“Gor?” I say.

“Lolo?”

“Can I come down?”

“Yes.”

I drop myself down this stable ladder, wincing against the pain in arms and legs, resisting urges that my groans and whimpers show. Gor cannot hear; Gor cannot know.

I crawl into his Gor-stink sheets. He wraps his arm around my shoulder. He brushes my forearm’s wound. It hurts me, but I don’t cry out.

“How do you feel?” Gor asks me. I do not remember a time before when Gor spoke these words. I didn’t know he knew such things. He must have learned in his own memory-duties what these complicated words mean.

“Tired,” I say. “I feel tired.”

“I feel tired,” Gor says. “I want to go home.”

His speech brings up such thick and awful feelings. It comes unexpected, so I can’t hold back. My throat is sore, my eyes brimming with hot tears. I feel a lurch inside my chest. I know that feeling. Such few words hold all this feel.

“Go home,” I repeat. I shape the words myself. This speech transforms me everywhere. This want becomes my heart.

The feels are everything, but I don’t know what they mean.

It’s been long since I lay tight in this bunk with Gor. Some days, some nights. I don’t know numbers. This absence is distance, getting wider. This lack is the empty feeling in my arms, but I wriggle my front to his back, hold dear. It’s been long. Does he know?

I don’t know what he knows. Our time is shot with holes.

I think of the Caretakers: it’s different for them. What one knows, all know. Their thoughts are not their own. What one sees, all see. The Voice speaks to them in ways we cannot hear. For children, the Voice is sound. For Caretakers, the Voice is something else. They have no secrets. They have no gaps. They live like one being in many parts.

What comfort, I think. If we could be like them. If we never had to feel alone again. If Gor and I were not two but one. And I knew his memories and thoughts. And he knew mine. And children would not recount their dreams because the dream would hold us all.

If we felt no need to hold our stories because they were held somewhere else. No spaces between us. No walls to separate.

This thought comes to me: one day we will be like the Caretakers. The Voice will speak in silence, and we will hear. I will be Gor, and Gor will be me. The structure will know us all. The story will be shared.

I squeeze tight against Gor’s bony shoulders, against these mournesome thoughts. In this now, our bodies hold us: my blood-marked flesh is vast and wide, my thoughts beyond a gulf that can’t be crossed. Gor squeezes my hand, draped against his own soft belly. I feel his breathing; he feels mine. There is no prick of needle nor gold syringe, but still, I feel the bliss wash over me, the lapping of the light. Gor smells like home.

“I know about before,” he says.

“Before what?”

“Before now.”

I wait in silent mirth, laughing quiet in my chest, lest he say again breakfast. But he doesn’t speak.

“What was before?” I ask finally.

“Home,” he says. “Home was before.”

Again, that feeling, like I’m struck. For a moment, I can’t breathe. The love and longing, the need and loss, all rising up. That feel like tubing in my throat.

“We’ll go,” I say. “We’ll go, Gor.”

This now is here. I’m Lolo. He’s Gor. Together in this bubble as we’ve been before. This night, we sleep soft in tangle of warm limbs and samelike smell of breath and farts.

***

In this now, there is a slope of grassy hillside. Green grass tickles rough and tender on bare legs, leaving woven mesh patterns against my skin. Undeterred, I lay content in emerald stubble, disregarding such prickles, such tickles, such itching delight. Burrowing fingertips into dirt, feeling earth embrace the whorls.

The world smells mouth-watering scrumptious. Dad tends the grill, the fire flickers with the lip-smacking savory of sizzling meats. Mom on the deck, arranging mustard and ketchup, setting out plates.

I stare up at endless sky falling toward the hush of periwinkle. The first star is Venus; the first star is another world.

The first stars twinkle splendorous against the fading light while bats swoop and dive, wheeling like fighter planes, mosquitoes their prey. The cicadas carry the song of a whir and drone and purr so loud it drowns.

Upon me flops this golden fursome beast, rough tongue aflap, wet jowls adrip, black nose all cold and snuffle. He pants and lolls and licks, and I groan and laugh beneath the doting weight.

Beside me, some giggles: just near my shoulder is Tess, sitting prim on a blanket with knees pulled up and sparkle-polished toes. “Ugh! Bentley, off,” I grumble and huff from my mutt-flattened chest.

And he’s off, my thighs the launch pad to run and pant another lap.

Tess sits statue-still with perfect gaze. Tess watches the world. Tess longs to catch a firefly, so she waits and wills the flickering aviators to come to her. I tell her I can catch one faster. She dares me. I bet her. But while she persists in her patient pose, I flail and grab at golden cosmonauts. Each wandering lightning bug escapes my grasp.

Meanwhile, Bentley has set his sights to catch a hot dog. He lingers in usual fashion around the grill, evincing innocence. “Get lost, Bentley,” Dad says and tests a beefy patty. This dog is naught but wounded dignity and sits paws forward, wholly courteous. His manner suggests he is only here to help. Dad deposits a half-dozen charred franks upon the plate and turns back to the grill.

Bentley!

He’s up like a shot, grabs one frank between his jaws, races hasty. A great hue and cry goes up from the man behind the grill. Dad chases the dog across the yard, waving his grease-charred spatula all the way while the dog gobbles it all in one choking gulp, greedy as can be. Dad yells. Bentley licks his chops, not even pretending regret. Tess and I laugh until our sides hurt, and we almost can’t contain our pee.

Bentley slinks away to nurse his paws and gloat. The rest of us take our greedy selves to the deck and fill our plates to feast on picnic fare.

Night falls. Darkness comes. The sky is star-spangled indigo. We settle upon the blanket, Tess and I beside—Bentley between us, snoring now, our fingers buried in his golden scruff.

We are like this when the first fireworks flare and spark across the sky, emerging from beyond the trees, like rage confetti being born. Bentley is alarmed by such pyrotechnics. With the second outburst, he rears up like a startled horse and whines and scratches at our hands, determined to alert us to these perils.

“Shh, Bentley,” we say.

“Put him inside,” Dad says, still tending grievance for the hot dog incident.

“But he’ll be scared,” Tess says when luminescence bursts with splitting thunderclaps once more. Bentley is quite unamused. He cowers, trembles. “I’ll go with him,” Tess volunteers, and something inside me stirs. My sister should not miss this rocket show we cherish. Such magics only happen once a year.

But Bentley quivers pitiful, clearly caught between two yearnings: the urge to run far and fast and the need to bury his trembling snout between our knees for harbor. And Tess is concerned only for this sad creature, earnest to bring him somewhere safe.

In that firecracker-dazzled instant, I see my sister unobscured, her distinct and unrepeated self. This amorphous person who has been beside me all my life sharpens into focus as a rare and peerless soul. Her innermost life unknown to me yet still a matter of fact. By this revelation, I’m stunned (as more explosions sparkle).

“I’ll go, too,” I say.

And this decides eternity. Our paths are fixed. Our destiny resolved. There is no turning back from everything to come. There is no end to how long the infinite can be. Together, with blinds closed against the racket and tumult, my sister and I cuddle and snarfle our fear-farting dog upon the couch until the pyrotechnics pass.

***

In my bunk at night, I make my sharp ink. I draw a dog. I draw a girl. I draw a lightning bug aflame. I draw explosions in the sky. I draw another girl.

These visions of a home are built on senses I’ve forgotten. The scent of grass. The smell of meat. The taste of ketchup. The feel of bare feet upon the frazzled ground. The breeze in my hair. The furry beast.

I remember the feeling of remembering. I remember thoughts about the thing.

Though I can’t recall the thing itself.

Infused with yearning, I try to draw these sensations I’ve forgotten. I hold them to myself like magic spells. I build them from broken building blocks.

I get angry with myself. It hurts so much to render these stupid symbols on this wall, and they barely even brush the truth. They are so far from the feeling they seek to hold.

My tentative scrawlings are like me: a search for words I cannot know, to ask the questions I still can’t form, for answers I do not and may never vision.

Reaching, grasping, blindfolded, and bound.

Not even close to close enough.

***

Gor and I file into the breakfast hall, surrounded on all sides by children. On the surface, all seems the same: bright lights, long tables. The walls glow yellow, their often morning hue. We line up one by one to press our fingertips to the space above each cubby and reveal our breakfast trays. The Caretakers offer their dead dull gaze. Chatter ebbs and flows as we try our voices again.

On the surface, all seems the same, but underneath, something’s changed. As I wait, I puzzle out this different feeling, handle its aspects in my mind.

Same acid glare. Same chow drowned in awful brown. Same cold and leathered meats. Same lackluster pajamas.

I press my fingertips. I take my tray.

As I walk back to my customary spot, I see it: we’ve become tight-knotted camps. The children sit in clusters. Each closed in a circle to themselves, their conversation eager yet quiet as if they hope the others do not hear.

Around Gor and I, the sitting’s sparse. It seems we are left this skimpy handful of children with no clique.

Gor is undisturbed. He scarfs down heaped forkfuls of some gloppy eats. I sit beside. I perk my ears and strain for fragments of the others’ talk.

It is, as always, talk of visions and memories and muffled dreams.

I pat Gor’s forearm. “Stay. I’ll be back.” He nods, mouth full. I grab my tray and sidle over to the closest bunch of conspiring children. They scooch to welcome me into their company and wait, expectant for my story.

But I am canny. I hold my cards. Instead, I press them with one question I’ve come to know must matter most: “How do you remember home?”

Eyes alight, they tell me of their towering world. This needle pierced from ground to sky, and them in the middle, suspended somewhere miles above the brown ground flecked with silver, the brown sky streaked with cream. How they scampered and ran in its tunnels and shafts and played amongst the humming tanks where food grew and fuel brewed. And took the elevator as far up as they dared, always climbing further toward the sky—never quite reaching. But they dreamed they’d reach the top. The ground was yesterday. The sky tomorrow. These time-meaning words they toss with certainty.

“How did it end?” I ask.

But this they cannot say. And they eye me with suspicion. Suspecting now that I am not with them, that their past is not my own. Our fragile stories cannot bear opposition. And indeed, I know this odd tale they’ve constructed—a tower vaster than any city—’tis but a dream. There’s no such edifice. There’s no such place. They are much mistaken.

But I will not disabuse rapt children of their notions. Regretful, I take my tray and move on to the next.

These kids claim to hail from a world called Moon, their home a shimmering bubble on a plane of polished rock. Above, the searing night, the diamond stars, the stretching on eternal. How quiet it must be, that dusty moonscape, undisturbed by human footstep. The kind of world where a labyrinth like our own might thrive. But they describe it lovingly.

“How did it end?”

This they know. I see it in their eyes, their heart-numb gaze, their trembling lips. The bubble pierced. The high-pitched roar as their breathings leaked away. The roar of machinery, the clang of sirens, every warning signal at once to warn at panicked volumes, to let loose bellows and wails. And this, better than silence. Silence is the worst.

They grow sober as they speak of how it feels when air runs out, the fluttering in their chests, the weak overwhelm, lips blue, blacking out. Then seeing the slick, dark orbs of the Caretakers, peering close—too close—inspecting swollen, lifeless tongues.

They are delusional, too. So I leave behind their huddle.

Other children tell of tents strung up in canopies of green. They pranced on swaying catwalks, stretched from tree to tallest tree. They dropped leaves onto the breathing, screeching green beneath. The constant chatter of birds and sweet glimmer of the dew.

But then—I’m rattled to see the girl crying as she tries to speak—the whole ground shakes, like earthquakes, as ancient trees bigger ’round than all this room are ripped and tossed like twigs. When they fall, the whole earth trembles. The forestworld turns topsy-turvy as the Harvesters destroy it all. The birds shriek in panicked fright. The sky rains blood and feathers.

I’m discouraged by their stupid thoughts. I come back around to Gor.

As I made my tours of these raving bands of lunatics around the lengthy table, Gor struck up conversation with those nearest us, or they with him. Timid but jubilant, they cite the allure of the ice cream truck, the patter of flip-flops, the feeling of sand between their toes. They remember a snowman in winter with a carrot for a nose, the mug of cocoa with melting cream, the sting of chapped and bloody lips, the fire’s bright blaze.

Such nows I have not felt myself, yet at some core level, I feel their truth. I don’t know how I know. This sense of coming home, it simply fills my bones.

With tear-choked throat, I share what memories I can.

***

In this now, a looming space with herds of frightened children, ragged breath and staring eyes, moving across the concrete floor. Shivering and much afraid.

Overhead, the roof is almost too far removed to see, where darkness gathers among the metal rafters.

We huddle close, one to another against the cold and windy drafts. It comes to me: this warehouse is larger than an airplane hangar. There are enough children in this place to populate another world.

And I am with my sister, Tess. We are together as we’ve been now all along. I hold her hand tight as can be. I am still the youngest, though only slightly smaller. I need her badly, as she needs me. We cling to each other and wait to see what days or times will come. And though my heart is beating hard and fast and my breath is coming quick, though my throat is hard and tight and shivers rattle through my trembling frame, I know we are together. This we have, at least.

I have forgotten all befores. Already, I cannot remember how we came to be inside this massive loft nor what happened to allow this circumstance. I recognize no faces among the crying, bleating children.

The Caretakers emerge into the room from some door we cannot see. So many, more than we’ve ever seen before, all congregated in one place. They stream in all directions like a horde of insects, like a nest of ants disturbed.

Tess and I cling still tighter, determined that we should not be separated. They will not pry our hands apart.

As the Caretakers approach, they bring overwhelming dread with them like a nightmare, a gross and creeping cloud. They make the edges of my sight feel dim and dark and fogged. My stomach churns, and all this story swirls along the edges. A rushing in my ears. A conviction that the world must end.

The Caretakers grip some kind of tool and press it to the forehead of each child. It whirs and grinds and emits a glare of light. With beeps and whistles, this scanner tells them something.

Tess and I watch all this with trepidation.

Until the Caretakers come to us. They scan her head, then mine, with a tickling, prickling presence just past the edges of my brain. It’s like a shadow creeping close. It doesn’t hurt. But it makes my stomach flip-flop, feel strange.

They point their pale and clammy fingers at our entwined sister hands. They do not speak. They can’t. Nonetheless, we grasp their point: let go our fingers. We refuse.

The two of them with damp and bony hands grip fast the two of us. They clamp our hands. They are stronger than they look: limp and moist but forceful. They pry apart our fingers, and though we shriek and flail, there’s little we can do. We are separated. We are two.

Grabbing fast to my right hand so tight it hurts, the Caretaker splays apart my fingers. He holds my palm to the scanning tool’s hot edge. Fast as lighting, it imprints a symbol on each fingertip. My hand stings, but it’s all too quick to badly hurt.

Soon as this code is imprinted, the Caretaker releases me. It lets go, and I almost fall. I gaze with wonder at my palm, the symbol etched upon each whorl. This blackly purple ink, suspended just beneath the skin as if always part of me.

I look for Tess, to show her, to see if they’ve done the same to her. I look for her, to take her hand in mine.

But she’s gone. In mounting panic, I scan the room. I see only lost and frightened children, so many sobbing faces.

I glimpse her back, her hair. They’re pulling her away. She’s peering over her right shoulder and trying to fight back. But the Caretakers drag her forward.

I lose sight of her amongst all the other roiling kids.

I take off in a run. I swerve and dodge, not bothering to say, Excuse me, tripping and falling more than once but pushing on. With force of sorrow, I will this crowd to part for me.

Once past this wave of children, I reach these towering glass cubes. Four walls, one roof, perfectly encased, this massive cage all made of glass.

There are six—seven—ten—twelve—too many to count. Each fills up with children as the Caretakers sort all kids into these vast transparent hulls.

I see in time, just soon enough, as Tess is herded in this glass. The crate is filled with children, all teeming, frightened, stampeding. I run as fast as I can, tripping over all and sundry, to get into this same box.

Before I’m there, the door slides shut. The edges seal.

This glass is now impermeable, as if those doors were never there at all.

I run around all sides, panting, frantic, heaving, searching for an opening. Instead, I see my sister, looking sadly through the glass. I stand on one side; she on the other.

I slap the glass with mournesome sobs and rage that I can’t break through. She does not rage. It’s not her way. She’s still and quiet as a marble statue.

She places her palm flat against the glass. On the tips of her fingers, I see her own black-purple code. Five symbols.

These letters or numbers or icons—whatever they are, these ideograms—they are emblazoned deep and pure upon my brain. This stark and graven image remains when nothing else remains. This awful vision I will not ever shake.

There’s a sort of grinding, a sound like—a steel ship hull run aground into a granite cliff? A grating sound like this. The floor opens up, becomes a tunnel or a well or a massive shaft into a cave. Her glass box drops, descends, is sucked away. And with it Tess.

But now I know: the tattoo etched into her fingertips is inscribed inside my heart. I don’t know what the symbols mean. But I know how they look.

This piece I can record. This knowledge I can keep.

***

I paint this code upon the wall above my bunk. I make it my study.

I learn this code as if it were my own.

***

The children in the memory lab, we do not leave. We have our sleeping bunks inside our pods, our room for meals, our dressing hall where cleaning happens. We have our parlor where some children talk and others play, and always, there are mystic puzzles, strange games, shifting heaps of blocks that join each other when they touch, becoming different shapes. The Caretakers prod us to the parlor, and the Voice speaks that we play, and we obey—to disobey brings pain. We go to the pedal room for exercise.

Of course, we have the fearsome spaces with chairs that bind and the Caretakers watching in each corner. In these rooms, we remember all nows that came before. And also, we forget.

There are other halls with other labs and other rooms, all filled with tools that make us tremble, shiver, weep. These, too, we can visit if we wish. All are marked with one large symbol glimmering on the walls.

Beyond, we do not go.

It’s wrong to walk in passages marked with other emblems. Why, I cannot say. I don’t recall what teachings made us know. If pressed, I could supply no reasons why the symbol looming in this concourse must be our whole entire world.

But walking in the light of other symbols is like neglecting the order of the Voice. It makes the body ache. It grips the chest with cold. It makes my fingers itch and makes my stomach churn, like heaving silver schools of fish (I know I’ve seen on tranquil screens). With every step, the pain comes worse, and I am more compelled to run.

In visions, I’ve seen the structure climb. I’ve seen this labyrinth built in the wreckage of our worldly home (sweet place of flitting fireflies and grass as green as our dwelling’s walls at lunchtime). I know how vast the maze must be. And yet, we stay in this tight space. Confined to the narrow by our own capricious feels.

Some moments I know: my sister is here. Somewhere in this tangled maze, she is. I don’t know how to get to her. Not yet. But I will.

This I know: I will.

***

It comes to me.

There are whole hours, perhaps whole days, when I forget this code carved on my fingertips. It is with me like breathing. It calls me hither and yon; it summons me to take my lunch tray in my turn, to bring myself to memory rooms like a pirate walks a plank. These things I do without quite knowing. Sleepwalking, here and there.

Then, sometimes, I turn my palm and gaze in wonderment at these characters.

One breakfast, I cup my palm and look. It’s there, of course. There all along. My breath catches quick.

I see it for what it is: my own monogram. Written on my body, which must hold all of me, all that I feel and know, however little this might be. This code my own.

And in this moment, I notice—for the first time? Nothing here is for the first time, that I’m sure—I notice the first symbol, etched into my thumb, is the same that hovers on the wall of every space in our rapt children’s lair.

I look to that hologram and back to my first stubby finger.

Hasty and ill-mannered, I grab Gor’s hand, knocking his flimsy fork away. (Ever good-natured, Gor does not reproach, just scoops his morsels with his other hand, eating lumps with fingers bare.) I turn his palm upward, compare his tattoo to my own. His thumb’s the same. This symbol, we share.

My thoughts grow quick. I run from kid to kid, grabbing hands, comparing. I do not tell them what I think. This secret is my own.

We share the same mark on our thumbs. It marks our territory, what places we can travel without rousing thoughts of buried traumas.

This now, I know. I know this map, the map that leads to her.

Before I leave, I bow beside the breakfast table and palm that fallen fork. I slip it up my sleeve. I do not need this fork. It has no urgent attributes nor skills. But I know now what it is to own something, to save one small token for myself. The feel is sweet.

I sneak back to my bunk. I pull back my mat to reveal the secret stash: things I’ve nabbed to be all my own. Syringe, first. My own first property. Then other bits and bobs: some strips of cloth from undershirts. A stolen block. A purloined spoon. A pilfered sweet, now surely stale.

My fork now joins the hoard.

Stretched out flat, I study the code etched in flaking rust upon the wall.

This is all I have. This is all I know.

Somehow, it must guide me.

***

At night, I wait to hear Gor’s steady snores below. I lay silent, eyes open, back flat and arms straight. I gaze up at my bubble’s curve and imagine I can see the before-world. When there were lawns and dogs and bikes and stars.

’Til Gor’s snuffling breaths come thick and heavy. My time is now.

I slip from bed. I tread soft upon the rails, down the ladder, past my slumbering Gor. Then tiptoe down this lengthy hallway where pods and pods stretch out for lonesome miles, rapt children fast asleep inside each one. The machine lights flicker on the walls. The glimmering arrows point to other prisons. The floor in these halls is always springy-soft, like molded bunks, so there’s not much need to tiptoe. I do it, still.

I hold my breath as children stir and murmur, as sheets rustle and breathing shifts. They are lost in dreams. They pay me no mind.

I see a clump of the Caretakers at the junction where the arrows turn to other halls. I gasp, afraid of what will happen if I’m caught: something bad, I know. I can’t remember what but feel such things will not end well.

I flatten myself against the wall as small and shadowlike as I can. And wait.

Their pale bald heads are turned away from me, so no eyes watch. I flit on past.

Into some vestibule. The door closes, and I’m in an empty room. Nothing but floors and walls, like someone commenced to build and forgot to finish. The floor glows softly, and in this dim luminescence, I see no other door.

But there are facts I know about this place: not all doors are easily seen. Some are hidden, wearing odd camouflage for reasons of their own. Some doors occur where there was no door before. Some doors are made through force of will.

I start from where I am. Pacing slow along the wall, my gentle fingers searching. Reaching high, reaching low. Exploring with my hands.

I reach a corner. I start afresh.

I go on in this fashion until my fingertips find a place they fit, five muted circles too tentative to see. I rest them there until I feel that tingling pulse. My whorls, that wall: they interface. I give command.

There is the door. I go on through.

The hard part starts.

A novel symbol hovers on these walls. Like two squiggle lines married by a slash. This symbol is not imprinted on my thumb, nor my sister’s. This place is just a place that separates. So I walk on through. But the pains begin.

It starts in my chest, this panicked feeling. This tightness, like I cannot breathe. I feel like crying out, begging for air, but I know I must not make a peep.

My stomach roils, all insides shrinking inward, clenching like a fist.

It’s like pain but also like pain’s dread.

Like something stalking me, a dread horde just beyond my shoulder but always drawing nearer.

(A Harvester, ripping children’s limbs, spraying, squirting, barfing blood.)

A coffin that encloses, buried beneath the miles of earth, the ground pressing always closer still.

(A wave of blood.)

Something that will surely hurt or kill me soon, my stubborn self as fragile as a robin’s egg.

I walk. I drag my feet along, no matter how they wish to slow. I force myself to pace through all the stomach heaves and heart tremors. I tell myself it’s not so bad.

It isn’t, though my tears come fast now, trudging down this endless hall, and my jaw aches from clenching.

I do it still.

For a moment, I think to give up, retreat. I turn around. Fall back a step or two. Away from here and back to home. And with this sudden swerve, all my body’s warning signs desist. I feel flooding relief.

But I don’t surrender. I have to find my sister before I forget again. I will forget. We all forget. Time is short.

Another word for time is short.

So I turn my face toward the future, toward the space ahead that hurts, and resolute through all that dread and angst, I go.

I am Lolo, the child who remembered writing, the child who gave her blood, the girl who remembered true the world as it was. And this pain is not too much.

But as I press on, I flash on momentary thoughts of tortures. Of being prodded through these forbidden hallways by the Caretakers wielding pointed sticks. We step, are shocked. Fall back screaming, are poked again, step forward, are shocked again. Again, again.

I will not let this vision surface. I press it down, fierce and forceful as I can. That now is past. This pain is only echoes.

I come to a new symbol: a circle within, a circle without. I see no Caretakers. This is some unending tunnel that connects many others, maybe all. These tunnel walls are dark like charcoal and blank without markings. No lighted arrows show the way. The floor’s firm and unyielding, not like the springy softness where rapt children tread.

I keep on going.

I come to a crossroads. I don’t know how to choose between two ways. One to my one hand, one to my other. I stare at my fingertips as if they hold the answer. I search my tremors.

I search my mind, but I can’t tell if I’ve been at this spot never, once, or a million times before. There is always this sense: all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again. But I’m certain on no moment but the present.

This now is all.

Unknowing if it’s memory or whim, I choose left.

And walk and walk. And take more turns. Until I know I’m lost for sure.

Those pains have quieted, but I’m sore all over. My body aches from holding back, from suffocating all I feel. I feel such hurt. I’m tired.

I thought I could find her: such silliness and such delusions. I am no better than the raving children with their tales of endless skyscrapers and bubbles on the moon and swinging ropes that link the ancient trees. I, too, tell myself stories that can’t be true. To live in this nightmare without a story would be too much to bear.

I sit down for a while, rub my hurting feet. I pick at blisters and worry at my aching toes. For the longest time—truth be told, I can’t remember quite how long—my world has been no bigger than an acorn. My body struggles with such distances.

Perhaps, this night I walked halfway across the world.

Tired, I drift briefly to sleep, sitting there against the polished emptiness of a hard black wall.

In a dream, my long-lost Bentley nudges me. His cold wet snout touches my own small nose. He puts his scruffy paw in mine. “Get up,” he woofs. “Get up.”

I open my eyes. No golden beast to love. But still I stand.

I drag myself forward. The light is ramping up, the glow inside the walls slowly growing bright.

Just ahead, I see what I seek: a triangle, inside a square.

It is a jolt. This vision I’d been holding close, now so large and real. The symbol I inscribed upon the wall, remembered from my sister’s thumb in dreams. Now here.

And something else. I remember. I remember—I can’t say what.

But pain stabs across my side, and for a moment, I catch my breath, grab hard myself. It passes.

This pain is echoes too.

I search for the door into this next place.