It was the dead man’s expression that drew me, the depth of feeling on it, bare and exposed and unashamed. Horror. Terror. Longing. Anguish. It called to me.
That’s a lie.
It was his stillness, the blue-grey cast of his skin, shamefully exposed where his mask had slipped in the night.
That’s also a lie.
It was the distorted blur of my own face, an impossible smudge of light reflected in the haze of his blown pupils.
That might be closest to the truth.
It might have been why I reached out with gloved fingers, forgetting the danger. It might be what draws me back, over and over again. It might be what starts the tingling at the base of my skull that spreads and prickles across my scalp whenever I think of the dead, the fluttering itch in my fingers that sets them tapping and twisting.
But it’s not the truth.
I don’t know what possessed me to slip out from under the covers and pad across the crumbling tiles that night, ignoring just how many rules I was breaking. I remember waking, peering across the rows of swaddled failures. It should have been dark, but in my memory, a spotlight lights the inert form of the dead man, a silvery-white glow cast by an invisible lamp. I remember the terrible thrill, the certainty one of us had been taken by the Mara, just like we’d been warned, punished for failing to conform, to obey.
What I don’t remember is fear. Until the dead man, I’d felt fear at the thought of death. Fear when I was dragged away from the other trainees and abandoned to Corrections. But when I saw my first corpse, it wasn’t fear I felt. Not for him, or for me.
I ignored the indecency of getting so close to his shameful nakedness, the line of his jaw and the ridge of his nose uncovered. I further violated benevolent regulation by reaching out to touch the dense roughness of his night-stubbled face. Surrendered to the sparkling, tingling fascination, I must have stood like that for hours before I got caught, one hand pressed to the dead man’s twisted face as if, touching him, I could know what he knew, feel what he felt.
This is the truth of it: I don’t know why I broke the rules so spectacularly.
But the Mara haven’t come for me yet. I learned to hide my reactions. Instead of reaching out to the dead, I’d clamp my hands together in my lap or under my arms, rocking to keep the energy in. It took much longer to train myself not to look.
But I learned. I suppressed the wanting, denied it, obedient. After all, Refuge only exists to keep us safe, from the protective gold threaded through the walls and spun into the ward that haloes the hoods of good Refuge workers, to the careful drilling in how to turn over all desire and wanting to the Mara before the temptation to dream gets us killed. But on Floor 6, Corrections, there’s no gold in the walls and no wards to remind the Mara we’re not food. They only keep the proven failures there. The resisters, the ones who can’t focus, won’t obey. And then they take away everything that protects us and see who survives. Most don’t make it, but I was determined. I learned to face forward and ignore the draw of the dead, to focus on stilling the wilful twisting, reaching dance of my fingers by pinching them bloodless into submission.
They weren’t all like that first corpse, the dead of Floor 6. They weren’t all warped and twisted in torment. The peaceful faces drew me just as much as the anguished ones. It was the depth of feeling, the calm, accepting stillness, just as dramatic in its own way as faces distorted by agony. Just as foreign to me. I wondered what they saw, what they felt in those final moments before the Mara took them.
So few trainees get sent to Corrections. They said I made it out because I was still young enough to learn and change. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I was able to push my failures so far inside because I didn’t have as far to push.
But here’s what I know: I can never mess up again. All I have to do is keep obeying, pass probation, and stop thinking about the dead.
Which would be a lot easier if I wasn’t haunted.
End, CH1 (updated version Sept. 4, 2017)
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