The nights grew and the days contracted as winter tightened its grip. When she woke that day, it was already dark, and checking the time, she cursed herself for oversleeping. She didn't have that sort of time to waste.
But she did. There would be nothing to do for many days, only to watch in anticipation. Nothing to do but to use up extraneous time, to avoid detection, to enjoy a little of life. And, she supposed, to forget about the people who had recently been captured. A capture that was as good as death.
She barely knew the lost, however. She had only just met most of them, and the one she did know, she was no longer really sure of. And there was nothing left for her to mourn. They had scooped up every trace, and she had forgotten to take any souvenirs, photographs, signatures, proof of life past. Gone, all gone in reality, and leaving her memories with each passing day, as her brain cleared out the old, useless, irreplaceable past to make for the dreary nail-biting waiting of the present and future. It made no sense to grieve for them, and when she tried to dredge up the necessary emotion, she felt only dry and barren, with the acid hint of guilt. But there was nothing she could do. Could have done. It was no different from mourning the death of a dream.
She had merely woken up from their existence.
She shuddered with terror at herself. That was close, too close. Too near the enemy which took people and changed them. Too much like a surrender, a betrayal of self. They were there, and nothing can change that. Truth was immutable, invulnerable to the whims of the time. She found herself grieving for her own being, her own continued life.
She had to find a distraction. Food, perhaps, even though she was not hungry. Tearing through some ration packets, she realised how low her supplies were. No, they would not last her days, let alone a few weeks. She had to go out. Human contact was good too. It was better than sitting here, letting old wounds fester, rot, let the infections of the mind spread and develop.
The nearest restaurant was just down the street. A simple affair, with a large set of French windows allowing a view of the feeders within. A sign hung on the door, proclaiming, redundantly, it to be open, and looking through, she saw that the room within was simply decorated, rows of tables and wooden benches. But the smells of cooking, the sounds of jovial harmony drew her, and she opened the entrance door, and walked in.
She looked around carefully, lest someone would notice her, recognise her, betray her to terror and captivity and death. But no one batted an eyelid. The glances she did receive were full of bonhomie, and the words that they exchanged about her lacked edge. The proprietor sat at his bar, and looked approvingly, beckoning her, and so she approached.
It took a moment, in the hubbub, to notice that the man was trying to talk to her. But by then, he had raised his voice to a booming level, and it sounded to her like a clap of thunder ahead of summer rain.
"What can I do for you, young lady?"
She squinted though she had no need to, tried to scan the menu that lay just beneath the counter. The letters eluded her, and when she peered closer, she found that she didn't understand the words, the names, in any case.
"Take your time," the manager said. "Don't worry, it isn't a race. No one's timing you."
Her heart raced at the names of things she had never seen, or had seen and forgotten. What was fromage frais? Or creme brulée? The values, the prices beside each enigma rose up and up as she scanned across the menu, and she felt increasingly poor, like a piece of wet mud that had snuck through the doors by a miracle, and now only awaited a brush to sweep her back into the streets where she belonged.
"What do you recommend?" she asked, in exasperation.
"Well, the soup of the day is chicken, and we've been serving a lot of pasta today. How about that?"
"I'm not sure if I can pay," she said, her voice a whisper.
"I don't know if I have the money up front."
"Well, maybe you can go for something a little cheaper. I'm afraid it isn't company policy to take IOUs." A smile, but not a cruel one, only one of whimsy, of friendliness.
She tried to smile back, faltered. She doubted she could afford even the cheapest meal. Her hand found the small credit chip in her pocket, and she despaired at how she stood out from this world, braced herself for an about-turn and an unceremonious exit.
"I'll pay for her," a man said. "If she would like to sit with me."
She froze in panic. A figure, seated in a dark corner, wearing an all-weather suit, clothes smart yet sturdy enough to travel in. Her eyes passed over him as quickly as she could, avoiding any sort of eye contact. Her hands grabbed at the counter, squeezed as though she thought the table itself would protect her. But what choice did she have but to accept?
"A true gentleman," the man behind the counter said, voice laden with approval at all this chivalry, all this decency towards the common man, even as she quailed within and without. She walked over across the room, expecting eyes to pan to follow, but again seeing to her terror and relief that no one cared whether she was there or not, that no one even noticed. That all were happy enough to go about their lives without her, without knowledge of her life. She sat down, humbled.
The food did not of course arrive as she expected it to. Looking blankly at the bare table, and then around for a moment in bewilderment, she realised that the meal would actually take time to cook. There was no way out of it, she had to wait sullenly with her benefactor until she had an excuse not to pay attention.
"Don't you agree?" he asked. He must have been talking for some time.
"The terrible state of the catering industry, these days. Once upon a time, there were proper restaurants, where you were seated by a helpful, smiling staff, who would hand you a printed menu and then ask you to pick out your heart's desires. And then they would deliver it, and only ask you for the money after you've finished eating. Out of the kindness of your hearts you would give them some extra, as a tip for their pleasant service. Just as a gift. Unbelievable, isn't it?"
She made a motion with her head that could mean yes, could mean no, but really meant that she did not give a damn either way, and preferred that he would just keep ranting to her unresponsive forehead. To her relief, he did.
"Ironic, too. In this day and age, where inhibitors are supposed to make us into good, caring, honest individuals, they always demand you to pay before you receive your goods. Where's the trust, the implicit belief in general human decency? Let me tell you my theory…"
Everyone, it seemed, has a theory. A glass was placed on the table near her, and looking up, she saw the waiter pour a little wine into it, and then walk away. She swirled the wine around in its glass, a vortex of golden fluid, and pretended to sip from it. This was not the place to get drunk.
"I think the inhibitors were in fact an expression of the distrust we had for our common man. That by installing them, we merely cheapened the real, decent feelings we had for each other, and replaced it with an artificial harmony that really means nothing to us. Exchanged a dynamical freedom for a static stability, if you will. And the trouble is, I don't see how we can get out of it."
She felt a little queasy. Maybe some of the wine had slipped between her lips, after all. But something sounded wrong about what she just heard, something out of place.
"In any case, try to get more sleep, a chance to lie back and dream now and then. You look happier when you are sleeping."
Her head snapped upwards. She see nothing for a moment, and then as her bleary eyes cleared, she saw the dark outlines of a face, hidden beneath a large and overbearing hood. In the shadow, a bridge of a nose, steely eyes, things that looked familiar. The man had finished eating, or had never eaten, and merely sat, leaning backwards a little so that the front two legs of his wooden chair left the floor.
It was him.
She got up.
It was too early. The dining staff had not even laid the table yet, and though she clawed her fingers over the dining table, she could not find a knife, a fork, or anything metal. Anything metal with which to do what, in any case? She could not just lean forward, swing her arm and slash at his throat, could she? Would she?
There were sounds to the left of them, squeaks of the kitchen door opening. A few waiters, all young, coming through carrying food on wooden trays. The man remained still, pretending that nothing had happened, a expression that turned into a patronising frown. A frown which told her to sit down, little girl. To eat up, and not embarrass your parents in front of all these people. Aware of the eyes upon her, she lowered herself onto the seat.
"Hello," he said.
"My name is Sandy," she said.
Sandy, a different person. Whatever between us is dead, and don't try to pretend it is any other way. This is a different person you are speaking to, who will not respond to your trash, and who will just sit here, smile at you, and wonder how many interesting ways you can be killed.
"Hello, Sandy," he said.
She started to mouth what she had thought, but found her mouth glued shut, pursed into an expression she did not understand. Her denouncement came out as a soft, whimpering 'hello'.
"I'm afraid I must be going now," he said. "They don't want me to leave their sight for too long. Even with what I've done, they do not trust me. And I do not trust myself any more."
"They…" she started, a million questions popping into her head.
"I can't tell you much more than that, I'm afraid. I have to go now. I can't explain myself. Maybe you'll understand later. I will be back here each day, at about this time. I'll wait for you."
With that, he rose, and started to walk towards the exit. She craned her head to follow his figure, to try and curve her line of sight around the heads of people who were in the way. The door opened, a small bell sounded, and he disappeared.
A tray landed in front of her. She stared at the unfamiliar food for a moment, picked up the knife and fork, and started to force the edible things into her mouth. But she was no longer hungry, and the food tasted like wood and cardboard in her mouth, tinged with a sense of excitement she could not get out of her head. She should probably get out of here, she thought. He had found her, he could betray her. She must not trust him. But the lock on the handcuff which held them had already been formed, and would not easily be broken.
An interesting memory popped into her head. She had left him many times before, for reasons she could barely remember. Always, she had told him not to find her, but he did so anyway. But this time, this last time, at the dark and immovable Wall, she had told him to find her, to hold onto her, and not to leave her. Perhaps she trusted fate that he would now be gone, exorcised from his possession of her heart, and she would be free again. But, it seemed little had changed. Words did not matter when reality was intent on bending them together.
But everything had changed. She hated him, she told herself. Hated him for coming into her life, for barging in whenever he wanted, for kicking down the gates and weak barricades with which she protected her hallowed places, her temple of memory made pure. It was sacrilege, that each time he sullied her memories, changed her precious past into a future which made her tremble. And she could not forgive what she hoped he did not, but feared he did do.
She ate slowly, listening more to the conversations around her. A child was playing in between the benches, and while he roamed without leashes, the other eaters paid him scant attention. The IH would keep him out of trouble. A couple talked of love across from her. They would never argue, never betray each other.
Instead, they kissed. They moved close as if to whisper some truth, and then, almost as an accident, moved so close that they touched, collided, melted and merged. She could see the dilation in their eyes, the looks of utter ecstasy which infused their faces, simply for being in each other's presence. Their heads gyrated around each other, trying somehow to be even closer, that as their tongues wrestled within their cheeks, the world around them stood still. Hands, she saw their hands, clasped, tighter than the tightness with which she herself would cling to life. They pulsed, again and again with passionate motion. She felt the heat rise to her cheeks.
She couldn't look any longer. She had to look away.
But what was the look she saw in their eyes? Was it really love, love clear as crystal, that made them widen? Or was it the cold ice of the Inhibitor making those feelings, such that they were merely locked in a collective dream? She couldn't look, dared not look. And she had no idea of a comparison, because she could not remember what real love looked like. When she was with him, his eyes were always closed, and her eyes too as the moment approached. What were they afraid of seeing?
She found that she was examining this perfect love as if it were a diamond or some other jewel, held under the microscope, its fire, its light dimmed for objective measurement. Her mind wandered across the case scenarios. Would they still be kissing, if the inhibitor was removed? Did only the IH's whip strike his gaze from the bodies of other women? Was her life saved each day, when he would come home, drunk?
Yet this love was still beautiful, and the possibilities, the cruel knowledge in her mind did not make the appearances less idyllic. It was as though she was in an art gallery, surrounded by the moving images of ideal forms. Or perhaps, she had gone to the heaven of old times, encountered the angels which lacked the freedom of man, but went about their ways in absolute perfection. A perfection that seemed fragile, but was made invincible by the freezing of change, the end of time.
Abruptly, she got up, pushed aside the tray of half-eaten food, and left for home. When she arrived, she drew the curtains more tightly, checked over all the doors, in case he would try to come in again, to violate again her private grief.
But an inexplicable mood caught her, and she returned to the front door, opened it a crack, and sat down exhausted by the dead fireplace. She watched the night from the door-frame crack until it became truly black, and then felt the darkness reach within, and take her to the land of sleep.
She did not dream.