Clinical Trial: Fiction from CG Inglis, Part 2
Sci-Fi-O-Rama returns with the second installment of “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, a series of interlocked stories from Toronto writer CG Inglis.
This month’s story delves into the mysterious Institute for Applied Research, where a young woman agrees to take part in a clinical trial to treat her chronic anxiety. When the treatment moves beyond anything she could have expected, she will find herself tested to the very core of her being.
Read on to find out what awaits her in “Clinical Trial“.
A sliver of light edged her profile. She moved, and the light descended along the curve of her neck. Chewing on her lower lip, a knot of tension appeared between her shaded eyes. The touch of the bed was oppressive, as if she was held in the palm of a broad, hot hand. There was no way of knowing how long she’d been lying awake. It felt like hours. She itched to pick up the phone.
“Don’t check it.”
The words hissed at her lips. She was only vaguely aware of the tears that tracked her cheeks. They could have belonged to anyone. Her body was not her own.
“I don’t want to be here again.”
She hadn’t meant to speak, but the silence of the new apartment was overwhelming. She was powerless against it, unable even to control her own voice. Wiping the tears from her face, she threw off the covers.
The living room was a tangle of boxes. As she picked her way between them and sat down on the couch, a heat rose in her cheeks. She should be unpacked by now. It had been a week since she’d moved in, and it was shameful the way she kept putting things off. A normal person would be done already.
“That’s a negative thought,” she whispered, and cringed. She’d promised not to start speaking to herself again. A fish-shaped curl of anxiety passed through her stomach. Her eyes drifted to the knife on the table.
It was a box cutter, with a plastic handle and disposable blade. She considered picking it up, and a tingling sensation licked her fingers. She had the odd feeling that she’d experienced these things before, sitting in another apartment, staring at a similar knife. The blade sang in her mind, filling her with a cold dread. It was too sharp, and monstrously thin. She never should have bought it. A dull kitchen knife would have done just as well to unpack with.
She pressed her knees against her chest and forced herself to look out the window. Pavement and leafless trees were bathed in the orange glare of a single lamp post. Nothing moved. It was a drab, prosaic scene, and she stared out at it as if through a veil. Turning away, she was confronted again by the knife. She imagined taking it in her hand, extending the blade and testing its tip on the meat of her thumb. It would require only the slightest pressure to break the skin. She pictured her blood welling up in a perfect, tear-shaped drop.
Gasping, she kicked at the table and sent the knife clattering to the floor. She took one shuddering breath, and then another, checking to see that her thumb was whole, that her skin remained unbroken.
“You didn’t do it,” she exhaled. “You’re fine.”
The knife was only an object, she sat safely in her own home, and still she had to fight to regain her breath. She vowed that in the morning, when she was stronger, she would throw the knife away.
Thoughts of the coming day caused the little fish in her guts to jump and splash; the trial was scheduled to start tomorrow, and she had no idea what to expect. At least the address she’d been given was close to her apartment. If she wanted, she could even walk there. Besides, people took part in such studies all the time. It was nothing to be worried about.
None of this calmed her. It was a new situation, with people she’d never met, and the procedure promised to be intense. If she had any other choice she would cancel it, but she was running out of options: meditation, endless rounds of therapy, a rainbow assortment of pills – nothing had helped. She was as sick as she’d ever been, and now there was just this experimental procedure, this one chance remaining to her.
She did her best not to think of the knife on the floor.
It was a residential street off 3rd Bridge. Most of the houses had been built in the middle of the past century, and many were falling into disrepair, their gardens choked by weeds, the flagstones crumbling. Faulty pipes issued columns of steam that twisted and moved like long, loose fingers through the frigid air.
She must have made a mistake. There was no way that the Institute for Applied Research would choose a street like this for one of its labs. A great relief flooded through her. She would be spared having to go through with this after all, but when at length she arrived at the correct address this sudden rush of hope vanished.
The house looked nothing like its neighbours. Built well back from the street, it was three storeys of concrete and glass. A frozen pond in one corner of the yard was ringed with sensor lights, and a number of brick circles formed a wandering path to the door. A plaque with the Institute’s logo had been affixed on the wall, and just under the awning she noticed a hemispherical surveillance camera.
Ringing the bell, she was terribly aware of her stance and the set of her arms. The weight of the camera’s lens was centered on a point directly between her eyes. She waited with her chin buried in the collar of her jacket. At last the door swung open. In the entryway loomed a giant.
Taking an involuntary step back, she cursed herself; it was only a very tall, very thin man. There was a touch of amusement in his expression, as if he had only ceased laughing a moment before opening the door.
“Good morning,” he said. His voice was deep and resonant, and it sent a cool shiver along her neck.
“Good morning,” she repeated.
The man stepped aside for her.
“May I take your coat?”
She faltered to respond, and then nodded, flushing. Mercifully, the man did not acknowledge her embarrassment. With her jacket slung over one willowy forearm, he led her along the hall and into a wide dining area.
It was more a garden than a room. Everywhere a plant was growing: vines and ferns and succulents, several man-sized cacti, bamboo shoots and miniature palms, dozens of flowers in bloom. The air was perfumed, the space a riot of green.
“Have a seat, Claire,” the tall man was saying. “Can I get you anything?”
She could only shake her head. Her voice had failed her, and as she sank onto the couch she longed to disappear. It struck her as odd that he had used her name so casually.
“Are you sure?” the man pressed her. “I make a decent coffee. It’s no trouble. I was just about to prepare one myself.”
“Alright,” she managed. He smiled, and strode into the kitchen. Tucked within the vegetation was a gleaming, state-of-the-art coffee machine. There was a soft clattering of glassware as the man busied himself with the cupboards, and soon the machine was hissing pleasantly.
Claire straightened the hem of her skirt at her knees. She took a long, controlled breath. After her initial surprise at his height, she found the man’s presence to be calming. At least he was very polite. Similarly, the room and its lush aromas appeared custom designed to help its inhabitants feel at ease. To Claire, this was just another example of the nearly unlimited resources the Institute had at its disposal.
As she waited, Claire studied the plants. They were almost all exotic varieties, and though she enjoyed gardening, she could name only a handful. As she was getting up the courage to ask about them, her host returned and the question shriveled on her tongue. The man set a porcelain cup in front of her. Then, with a touch of irony, he raised his own cup and drank. Claire did the same, and a low sigh of pleasure escaped her lips; she had never tasted better coffee.
The tall man betrayed no impatience to get started, apparently content to enjoy an amicable silence. Seconds ticked by, and each one that passed without speaking was longer than the one before. Claire cleared her throat.
“I’m not sure how to begin,” she said.
“Oh, but you already have,” the man replied easily. Claire blinked, unsure how to respond.
“Are you…” she frowned, trying to collect herself. “I mean, aren’t you going to ask me any questions?”
“Me?” The man seemed genuinely surprised. “What would I ask?”
“Like, to get to know me?”
“Is there anything I need to know?”
Claire set her cup down on the table. Unsteady, her fingers tipped the edge, slopping foam over one side. She withdrew her hand as if it had been burnt.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered. Just then someone laughed. Claire looked up to see a woman approaching. Short, with a shaved head and warm, chestnut-coloured skin, she swept into the room from the hall. Smiling, she extended one hand to Claire; although she was dressed professionally, the woman’s right thumb had been stained indigo to the knuckle and she wore a silver piercing through her lower lip. With her free arm she clutched a tablet computer to her chest.
“Don’t mind him,” she said, shaking Claire’s hand. The woman had a firm grip, and she did not relinquish it until she’d taken a seat on the couch. “My name is Beatrice, and this lovely individual you’ve been conversing with is V. I’m sorry I wasn’t at the door to greet you myself. I hope you’ve been well looked after.”
The woman’s face was open and cheerful, and she touched the back of Claire’s hand with kind familiarity.
“I expect you’re feeling a little overwhelmed,” she said. Claire attempted to smile as she floundered to come up with something, anything to say. There was an airy quality to her thoughts. The room first ballooned, and then contracted as she took a breath; the plants were exquisitely green, the walls almost impossibly white. Panic fluttered inside her.
“I’m sorry,” she managed. “Are you the doctor?”
The woman’s laugh was kind.
“Me? No, thank you! I suppose you could call me a research assistant. As you know, our work here is experimental. What’s going to take place today will be a wholly unique experience. There is a guide, but we have no doctors.”
“I thought this was a clinical trial.”
“Very much so,” the woman answered. The man called V rose from his seat to collect Claire’s cup. His long legs scythed the distance to the kitchen in moments.
“The initial email mentioned a psychotropic compound,” Claire added.
“Well, for legal reasons we have to use such formal language in official communication, but the reality is somewhat more… holistic. Certainly the medicine is very strong, and an initiate requires guidance. That’s why the rites are organized in this way.”
“I see,” Claire said, though she didn’t. Initiate? Rites? Perhaps noting her confusion, the woman touched her hand once more. She offered Claire the tablet.
“Speaking of legal issues, this is a waiver I’d like you to read over and sign. It’s a standard release of responsibility, and grants the Institute the right to make use of your recorded image.”
Biting her lip, Claire scanned the document.
“To record me, you mean during the procedure?”
“During, and for a period afterward. In order to monitor the results.”
The woman’s voice was friendly. She spoke as if Claire’s concerns were of the utmost importance to her.
“It’s a small price,” said the tall man from the kitchen. “The rite is a blessed experience.”
Claire looked at him. He towered over the counter, his expression unreadable.
“Just press your thumbprint here,” the woman urged. Frowning, Claire put her thumb on the space indicated. No sooner had she done so then the tablet was whisked away, and the woman rose to her feet.
“The observation is unobtrusive,” the woman continued. “More importantly, everyone who’s come here has left feeling better. Most had tried everything else.”
“Everything,” the man chimed in.
“Nothing cures anxiety. Nothing excises depression. Not completely. But then again, nothing comes as close as the rite.”
“It changes everything,” the man said.
“It’s normal to feel some trepidation,” the woman went on. “The rite is likely to strike you as unusual. I urge you to enter with an open mind, but of course if you need to stop at any point, just say so. I will not be in the circle with you, but as I said, we will be monitoring.”
Claire swallowed. She found it difficult to keep up. A touch like a falling leaf landed on her shoulder; it was the tall man, standing at her side. She had not been aware of him crossing the room.
“A month ago I was sitting right where you are now,” he told her gently. “I had the same doubts before my first rite. So did B.”
Claire studied his face. It was as long and thin as the rest of him, the skin strained by high cheekbones and a sharp jaw. His pale eyes returned her look openly. She found herself wanting to trust him.
“You did the right thing coming here, Claire,” he said.
“Shall we?” the woman asked. The man nodded, handing Claire her coat. The edges of his mouth were warmed by the briefest smile. The woman gestured to the entryway.
“It seems to me that depression is a living thing,” she said, ushering Claire along the hall. “It has a presence. Not separate, but a part of the body. It took me a long time to understand that. The problem is that we’ve tried to treat it as a deficiency. A diabetic requires insulin, so we give them injections. By the same token, it was thought that raising the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in a depressed patient would do the trick. Certainly some people do benefit from current drugs, but not everyone, and not enough. We’re only now starting to see how much farther we can go.”
She was holding the front door open. After the warmth of the house the touch of the winter air was like ice. Claire shivered inside her jacket.
“Our methodology was also a problem. Even using the same medicine you’re about to take, the Institute was never able to achieve any meaningful results. Not until they began to utilize a guide. The guide is essential. Without one, the initiate wanders lost.”
Crossing the front yard, the two women entered a narrow alley. Power cables strung between the houses cut the sky into segments. A large crow was perched on one of these, its head cocked, watching Claire through a single black eye.
“Of course, the rites aren’t new,” the woman went on. “Across the sea they’ve been performed successfully for centuries. With all our technology we couldn’t improve on them. It was arrogant to assume we could. We know better now.”
At the far end of the alley the woman unlocked a gate, and they stepped into an enclosed yard. In one corner was a glass shed, or greenhouse. As they approached it, the woman looked at Claire.
“Inside, you’ll see a grating in the floor. You’ll feel a reluctance to touch it, but if you don’t, how will you find the ladder?”
The woman smiled. She pressed Claire’s arm.
“Your way forward is down,” she said. With that she left. Claire repressed an urge to call after her. Instead she swallowed, and with a great effort of will, opened the greenhouse door.
The interior was cold and silent. Empty shelves lined the walls, and in the back a few gardening tools were hung on hooks. Nothing grew; the pots stood empty, and the earth in the planters was cracked. In the middle of the concrete floor Claire found the grate. It was slick with moisture, its surface badly rusted. Here and there a slimy, teal-coloured mold was growing. Revulsion rolled through Claire like a wave.
She could walk away. If she left now, she would be out the gate and through the alley before either of the two strange people in the house knew she was gone. From there, it was only a short distance to her home. She glanced at the door, took one step towards it, and then another. Her hand reached for the knob. It was then she noticed the camera in the corner.
Opaque, hemispherical, it glared at her. Could this be a part of the trial, testing to see if the subjects went along with such bizarre instructions? Or maybe it was a part of the treatment, the rite the woman had spoken of earlier. Claire wilted under the lens, and turned her back on the door. Three quick steps brought her back to the grate. She stooped, and took the mold-covered latch in her hand. Stomach heaving, she wrenched it open.
A bare pit yawned before her; on one side a metal ladder was bolted, but nothing could be seen of the bottom of the shaft. It was solidly black, as dark as the center of an eye.
None of this made any sense. How could they ask this of her, or of anyone? She’d come here seeking help, or at least a chance at help, and they’d escorted her to a hole in the ground and left her. She sank to her knees, glancing again at the camera.
She couldn’t imagine what they must be thinking of her now. She must look pathetic, led along by the nose like an obedient child. She was disgusted with herself for putting up with it. The worst part was that she didn’t have a choice; no matter what was asked of her, all she could do was obey. If she’d had any other option, she wouldn’t have come here.
Digging her palms into her knees, she rubbed her thighs. Moments passed without her making a decision, and she felt the weight of each of them. Gingerly, she began to lower herself into the earth.
With each step, the aperture above her and the world’s light receded. The air grew sharp with the scent of concrete and rust. Claire’s breath was amplified, as was the sound of her shoes scuffling over the metal rungs. It was a long time before her foot touched ground.
Apart from the circle of light overhead, she could see almost nothing. She was alone at the bottom of a shaft, her heart racing. The knot of anxiety she carried in her belly was tightening; beads of cold sweat had sprouted on her back. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around her chest.
A red light blinked on. The change was so sudden, and so shocking, that it took Claire a moment to realize she was standing at the foot of a tunnel. At the far end, suspended above a metal door, was the naked light bulb. The tunnel was walled with concrete, and stretched for maybe 20 meters in a straight line; certainly it passed far beyond the confines of the yard above. Perhaps the Institute had bought up all the houses on the block. Or were there people living up there, unaware of the passage that had been dug beneath their feet?
Claire walked toward the door. Her body looked strange in the ruby light, as thin and artificial as a doll’s. Her footfalls were muted, as was the sound of her breath. Anxiety rose in her chest until she could barely swallow. At any moment she expected the door to open, or the light to switch off, or for someone to touch her from behind. More than once she looked over her shoulder, and each time she was surprised to find herself alone.
Finally she came to a halt in front of the door. She might have given up then, if the thought of going back along the tunnel had not been so overpowering. Steeling herself, she turned the handle and stepped into a softly lit chamber.
Dozens of candles formed a wide circle on the floor, in the center of which sat a man in a mask.
Claire backed away; she was at the threshold when the man raised a hand. She froze.
“There’s nothing in that direction but where you came from,” he said in a soft, lightly accented voice. “Please come in.”
He waved her over, and the gesture was so casual, so completely unaffected, that Claire responded. Carefully, she stepped across the ring of candles and sat down in front of the man.
This close, it was clear that the mask he wore had been woven of strands of dry reed. It offered only the barest suggestion of features, the curved ridge of a nose, and two concave indentations where his eyes might be. There were no holes, though Claire guessed he could see well enough through the gaps in the reeds. He was bare-chested, dressed only in a pair of loose-fitting trousers. From the way his flesh sagged and gathered at his joints, Claire guessed he was well into his 70s. Despite his age, he sat with a straight back, and projected a sense of quiet vitality. In front of him on the floor was a wooden bowl.
The room they occupied was octagonal, and the walls and ceiling were covered in a trailing matrix of vines. The leaves of each plant were long and delicate, their veins a vibrant shade of orange. There were no windows or any other obvious source of natural light, but the plants were clearly thriving.
The old man cocked his head to one side, as if observing her. Claire cleared her throat, one hand gripping the other in her lap.
“I’m sorry for the mask,” the man announced. “It’s a bit much to take in at first.”
“It’s fine,” Claire said automatically. She hadn’t meant to say anything at all.
“It must seem strange to you,” he went on. “I’d do without it if I could, but the mind requires a blank canvas to project itself onto. If it was just me sitting here, with my tired old face, the rite wouldn’t be nearly as effective.”
Claire nodded, hating herself for this pretense at understanding.
“It’s normal to have questions,” the man said. Claire clamped her eyes shut. A moment later she heard herself speak:
“What is this rite?”
The man took some time before answering.
“An old thing,” he replied. “Ancient maybe, and quite potent, but not something to fear. You are safe in this room, inside the circle. This is a place of healing.”
“But the medicine,” Claire began. She bit her lip. “There are hallucinations?”
“My friends above ground may call them that. I prefer the term visions. Whatever word is used, in the end what we see is only a play for the eyes. The real work is done here.”
The old man touched the center of his hollow chest.
“No words can adequately express the rite. There is no way to prepare. Like life itself, like death, the only thing is to dive in.”
He laughed: a pure, joyful sound. Claire felt the tremor of a smile make its way to her mouth.
“If you’re willing to take me as your guide, we can begin to explore it together.”
Claire smoothed her hands over her thighs.
“Alright,” she said.
With that, the man rose to his feet. He walked as far as the circle of candles, but did not step beyond them. Withdrawing a small knife from the waist of his trousers, he reached out to sever a stem from the nearest vine. He carried this back with reverence, cupping it in his palms like a wounded animal. Once he was seated again, he retrieved the wooden bowl and began to massage the cut end of the plant. A viscous, amber liquid emerged. The old man worked patiently, careful to extract every last drop of sap. When he was satisfied, he arranged the desiccated stem around the rim of the bowl.
“Ayimssa is a wild spirit,” he said.
“Ah-yim -?” Claire’s mouth tripped over the unfamiliar word, but the man continued as if she had not spoken.
“Always turning, he moves this way and that. In my country he is found in only one place, a cave near the southern desert. The soil is rich there, as it is here, with the orange powder that is Ayimssa’s food. He digs deep to find it, and grows strong in darkness. Is it not strange, for a vine to grow underground?”
“Yes,” Claire answered. She could not take her eyes from the bowl. It seemed to her that the liquid was glowing faintly. “Very strange.”
“The first of us to find him were just like you – they had no knowledge of what awaited them in the darkness. Climbing down, they left the world behind, and so Ayimssa welcomed them. Every initiate must come to him in the same way, blind to what lies ahead. Thus Ayimssa is generous. Truly, his gifts are lavish, but do not mistake him. He is no servant. Much that he gives he does for his own reasons. Follow where he leads with an open heart, and focus on the sound of my voice.”
The old man extended a hand.
“Now drink,” he instructed.
After a long, quaking breath, Claire lifted the bowl to her mouth. The leaves of the plant brushed her cheeks, and an odor of corroded metal wafted from the sap. The consequences of drinking terrified her. She might rave or lose control of her bowels. She pictured an assault of hallucinations, capering demons, the flesh melting from her bones. A sob was torn from her.
“I can’t,” she whispered. The man placed his hands over hers; his skin was smooth and dry, and strength flowed through his fingers. Claire was shaking her head.
“It is normal to fear the darkness in ourselves. Before, when you faced it, you did so alone. Now, Ayimssa will be with you. And so will I.”
Claire nodded; the man took his hands away. Tipping the bowl, she drank; a flavour unlike anything she had ever known threatened to consume her – rotten, bitter, sharp as a cut in the mouth. Claire’s throat tightened, and she gagged, coughing. Only by forcing herself to the limits of her tolerance could she finish it.
With unsteady hands she set the bowl on the floor. Flickering candle light played over the surface of the old man’s mask. Claire was aware of his voice. He was humming. The sound came from deep in his chest. There was no tune in it, but she closed her eyes to listen.
It was a kind of chant, wordless but powerful. Claire lay on her back. The floor rolled beneath her. She floated on the surface of a black ocean, its water lapping at her hair.
“Locate your breath,” said a voice within the humming. Claire did so: her breath was there, at the tip of her nose, right where it had always been. Inside her chest it spread like the roots of a great tree. As she breathed, Claire sensed the interplay between her self and the world: breathing out, her mouth was not a point of departure, but a locus of exchange. Exhaling or inhaling made no difference. Everything was of the same stuff; everything was part of itself; everything writhed and shifted, like a rolling mass of foam on the crest of a breaking wave.
For a long time she floated. The humming ebbed and flowed, now ascending to a fine point, now dropping to a murmur. Sweat poured from her, and with it a tension that seeped from her muscles and into the water. The knot in her stomach began to unravel. She focused on her breath. The space within her lungs expanded, her chest rising and falling like a bellows.
Over time the humming grew softer, until it was hardly louder than a sighing wind. The water too was diminishing. It seeped from the room through hundreds of secret holes. When it was gone, the humming stopped. The tips of Claire’s fingers scraped dry concrete. With an effort, she rolled onto her side.
The old man sat in front of her, still as a carved idol. He made no sound. Behind him, the vines that covered the walls were rippling. Loosely, Claire watched them wave in an absent breeze. Her body was inert; she felt that the glue holding her together had weakened. Her arms grew heavy. With a soft pop, they detached from her shoulders.
She was not alarmed. It seemed a natural thing, but even as she watched them fall, her arms began to evaporate; they grew misty, translucent as steam rising from a hot pool. Before they reached the ground they were gone. Claire opened her mouth to speak, but no words came to her. Just beyond the ring of candles two wavering lines had appeared. These were her arms, fading back into existence. They hovered in the air behind the old man.
Claire saw that her ankles had uncoupled, and her knees; drifting away, they reappeared beneath her floating arms. Piece by piece her body was lost to her and reassembled across the room. Her eyes were the last to go; when she opened them, she was standing outside the circle, with the old man seated in front of her.
Her mind reeled in a cascade of sensation: candle light and cool air, the blood-rust scent of the sap she’d drank, its bitterness filling her mouth. Panic seized her – somehow she had left the safety of the circle. Frantically, she commanded her body to move, but it would not respond. There was a horrible awareness of being watched: she was utterly exposed, a microbe under a lens. At the far wall, the vines had begun spreading over the door.
She would be trapped; already the plants had converged over the door frame and were slipping around its metal handle. The old man made no sign he was aware of any of this. For all Claire knew, he was asleep, or dead. She tried to call out to him, but her muscles were like wood. Her feet were rooted in place, and her arms stuck fast in their joints. She could only watch as the vines crept ever more fully over the room’s only exit. Soon they had swallowed it entirely. She stood in an orange, leafy prison.
A sound like the clapping of two old, dry hands; Claire crumpled to the floor. The shock of pain hit her knees first, and then her wrists as she attempted to break the fall. Straining, hair streaming over her eyes, she pushed herself up and lurched in the direction of the door.
It was like relearning to walk; her body was a heavy, lumbering thing, a puppet jerking in clumsy hands. Her feet thudded into the ring of candles, causing two to snuff out as they clattered across the concrete, wisps of smoke trailing behind. Claire crossed the circle, and on the far side, ploughed into the vines where the door should be. Leaves lanced her face, scratched at the exposed skin of her neck. Nothing checked her progress. She slipped into the foliage.
Darkness, and the rustling of leaves; she took several great lungfuls of rust-scented air. Arms groping forward, her fear flew ahead of her. One step further, and she emerged into candle light.
She was back in the same room, facing the ring of candles. The old man was gone. In his place was a mirror.
Reflected in the glass was Claire’s body. Beyond the mirror, dozens of tiny flames were dancing. Claire observed herself. She was disturbed by the way she looked: brutally thin, with eyes like sunken pits. Her reflection passed a hand through limp hair. To Claire, whose own hands remained at her sides, this was very strange.
“Where am I?”
It was her reflection speaking. Claire blinked.
“I,” she said. Her reflection took a step back.
“Who are you?”
Your reflection, Claire thought. The other woman’s eyes darted from one corner of the room to another. She looked terrified.
“Where are we?”
“It’s alright,” Claire told her. The woman blinked.
“What are we doing here?”
“Getting help,” Claire said. The woman shook her head. She began to circle the ring of candles.
“There’s no help,” the woman muttered. “Nothing will ever help.”
“You’re right,” Claire responded. The woman stopped moving long enough to look at her.
“So what’s the point?”
“I don’t know,” Claire admitted honestly. The woman uttered a grunt of annoyance. She started to pace again. Her fingers flexed and clenched. She was careful not to step beyond the circle, even at the gap where Claire had knocked over the candles. Growing frustrated, she sat down. Claire joined her inside the ring. The way the other woman rested her arms on her knees reminded Claire of the old man. It occurred to her that this might in fact be her guide, wearing her reflection as a mask. If it was him, the performance was impeccable.
“What’s that?” the reflection asked, pointing.
Claire glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, a knife hung suspended in the air. It was the box-cutter from her apartment. Motionless, it rested a foot and a half above the floor. Cautiously, Claire moved toward it. The knife’s rendering was flawless, every nick and scratch recreated in stunning detail.
“Where did it come from?” the woman beside her asked. Claire shrugged.
“I’m not sure,” she said.
“Don’t touch it.”
The woman’s voice trembled. To reassure her, Claire placed a hand on her shoulder. The knife was now resting on a perfect replica of the coffee table in Claire’s living room. Her brow tightened; she was sure there had not been a table a moment before, but the memory was oddly distant. She felt as if she was looking out at things through a pane of fogged glass.
Stepping back, she noticed that her couch had appeared, as well as the window beside it. Claire faced the street. The other woman came with her, so that Claire was able to observe her reflection in the glass. Outside, the road was orange in the light of a single lamp post.
“What is that?” her reflection asked. Claire squinted: something was affixed midway up the metal post – a small, half-orb of black plastic.
“A camera,” she said.
“Come away from the window,” her reflection hissed. “They can see us.”
The woman retreated, and Claire joined her on the couch. Candle light was playing on the room’s off-white walls. The woman brought her knees to her chest. Together they considered the knife.
“I hate it,” her reflection whispered. Claire took her hand.
“Don’t be scared,” she said. “Nothing here can hurt you.”
The woman’s fingers tensed, and Claire responded with a light squeeze.
“I need to leave,” the woman said. “I can’t be here.”
She scanned the contents of the room, the piles of boxes scattered over the floor. Again and again her eyes were drawn to the knife. It was the only thing that possessed any clarity.
“Neither of us can leave,” Claire said softly. She touched the woman’s face; a tear was slowly crawling along her cheek.
“I’m afraid,” the woman whispered.
“It’s alright,” Claire told her. “I’m right here with you. I’m not going anywhere.”
She closed her eyes. The woman who looked like her sighed, and then fell silent. Claire removed her hand. When she opened her eyes again she was alone. Taking a deep breath, she reached for the knife. She thought of how she must appear to the people watching, a thin woman seated on a couch in her apartment, her face streaked with tears. The handle of the knife was cool in her palm. In her stomach, a little fish was stirring. Slowly, Claire extracted the blade.
She placed her thumb on the tip of the knife. Breath filled her lungs as she pressed down, but her skin refused to break.
Visit us again next month for “The Ride“, the next installment in “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, by CG Inglis.
Follow CG Inglis on Twitter: @viscereal