“It’s about pain,” said the man called Rose.
“Not the good kind, but the kind that rattles the deepest cores of your bones. It burns you fast, then numbs you cold. Like ice in your veins. It’s not even the sensation that’s the worst; it’s the fear. The fear that this time it ain’t temporary. This is a pain that won’t end, ever. So you scream.”
Rose shrugged, bringing a lit match to the tip of his cigar. It crackled and glowed menacingly as he took in a lungful of the vile fumes.
El coughed, twice. She looked around the whispering, wintery cabin for the umpteenth time, ocd-searching for an escape, her eyes resting on the same spots, on the same objects. A wooden chest, a single bed, the sheets unmade messily. A gas lamp, stained. The window creaking in the wind seemed to struggle to shield El and her kidnapper from the tempest raging outside. Their outer clothes were strewn on the chest, their shoes lying at odd angles. A spitting, popping fire punctuated the gloom with a hollow heat; the only source of light other than Rose’s glowing cigarette.
“You ever felt that?” Rose asked. He stared at El for a minute, who stared back. Then at his hands. El went to wipe her stinging eyes, the smoke from the fire wasn’t well ventilated, and her cuffed hands betrayed a harsh melody of rattling and jangling, making Rose grunt, who subsequently made to get up.
“I-“, her voice croaked from disuse. She swallowed, drily. Rose stopped his fidgeting and and his eyes flicked up. “I lost my mother,” El said. “A while back.”
The roaring wind seemed to still, ever so slightly. The flames from the fire leaned in closer to listen. “Took it hard, I guess.” She was trying to be nonchalant, but her eyes gave her away. “The pain was bad so I found another one to replace it. I found a dealer. It’s easy enough, you see, in the Flood. So easy you might think it’s a bloody government incentive.” She tried to sit back against the wooden bedpost, but the shackles on her leg stopped her moving too far from Rose’s reach, so she wobbled awkwardly in place, sat down on the dusty, wood-chipped floor. “LX,” she said. “It numbed me,” Rose nodded slowly, “Pushed the real pain away, made it something I could put into a box, something I could control.” El closed her eyes, “Control. That’s it, really, isn’t it.”
Rose took a drag from his cigarette, staring out past the vibrating window into the snowy tundra beyond. He motioned for El to continue.
“I took too much one time. Angry that this stupid fucking pill could only help a little bit, angry that it was just a symptomatic fuck you to my actual self, hating myself for even needing this shit. So, fuck it. I wanted to see what would happen.” Her eyes were cavernous, dark voids of nothingness. Rose shivered. “Ended up in a dream rehab thing, with some doctor…” She trailed off, losing her thread, her nerve. She was treading a thin line between rationality and an emotional dam. What did the Doc used to say? Lock that shit down, she said to herself, hearing it in his voice. She shook her head, resetting.
“It was the withdrawal,” she said, louder now. She knew if she stopped then the cold silence would weigh down on her chest again like an anvil. “I was afraid I’d be stuck with this pain forever, without the drugs. I was afraid.” El looked up at Rose. “So yeah, I know what you mean.”
El broke eye contact first, staring again at her bound hands. Rose grunted again, taking another drag, and another, and another, until he had whittled down the cigarette to a shrivelled stub. The quiet descended like a damp blanket on them both. El fidgeted in her chains, grimacing at the itchy feeling of the ankle bindings. Their words hung formlessly in the air, unable to leave, staying with them stagnantly.
She had caught him scratching marks into a beaten notebook on the hike up, before he had tied up her feet. She had asked him what he was writing about. Pain, it seemed, was the answer.
They had been here since dark, at least, until the sun had dropped below the surrounding peaks. Rose had shoved her inside, tied her up and left her on the floor while he went to start the fire. She hadn’t struggled, for reasons she couldn’t explain.
He said they had to go off the grid, whatever that meant. He spoke cyberspace, but El only knew dreamspace. She guess the logic worked in both fields. Rose said they were stuck in this ‘scape, least until they woke up. “You’re the bait,” he had said. “Chemical coma was most likely”, he muttered, making a bad job of the fire, coughing like a rifle. “Christ, who knows where our bodies, or brains for that matter, are.” Shaking his head.
The glitch happened two weeks ago. At least, in this dream’s time, which for Rose and El’s actual, real, physical time could be minutes, or months. The clinic, the prison; they were all part of a ‘scape too, like something out of a teenage kid’s short story class: And then they woke up and they were dreaming the whole time-type deal.
El wondered how many levels down they were. How far away in dream worlds were their bodies? How long had they been under? From the moment she woke up in the clinic? Why did Ro-
Rose stood up abruptly, scattering her thoughts like building blocks. He flicked his dull stub of a cigarette onto the already filthy floor. “I’m going to keep watch. Don’t even try materialising, otherwise it’ll hurt, remember?” The glitch had suddenly open up materialising in the clinic, before all hell broke loose. Inhibitory fields, looking like big ghostly spheres of neon, bubbled into existence a couple of minutes later, expanding with every second. They phased right through you, but it was some sort of neural blocker, hijacking your nerves so that if you even thought about forming something in the ‘scape, it hurt like hell. El had tried it anyway, as had every other inmate, and felt the consequences still; as if her whole arm had burned away. Thinking about it too much brought on the edges of a panic attack; she ripped her gaze from her shackled arm.
Rose threw her a fur pelt from a wardrobe, which she had assumed was empty. He opened the door to a shrieking flurry, unhesitatingly stepping out before it slammed closed, leaving El alone in a new, colder void of white noise.