Liya first comes to Darklight Rest on a gloomy autumn day two years earlier, I don’t remember exactly when. It could have been a Tuesday, but there’ve been so many meaningless Tuesdays during my time here that I wouldn’t know. Had I known how important it would all become later on, I would have kept my journal more meticulously, would have found a hidden place for all the forbidden things I wanted to remember. As it was, how could I know that Liya would be more than all the others? People kept dripping into Darklight Rest with steady regularity, once every two or three months, and I was too absorbed with my own issues to care much about them.
I’d heard she’d be coming, of course. Joryanda had told us during lunch some days earlier, received the usual shuffling of feet and reluctant applause in return. It’s not that we minded terribly much. It’s just that once you’ve been at Darklight Rest for a couple of years, it stops being so interesting. You’ve come through the worst of your own Integration, you’ve talked to people, you’ve seen them cry and scream and rage or adapt surprisingly quickly so that after a couple of months, you hardly remember they weren’t always there — but it’s nothing that makes your blood boil anymore. The most interesting is always the one that comes in right after you, because it means you stop being the newest one. It moves you up the ladder, into the circle of well-Integrated sisters of Darklight Rest.
So my memory of Liya’s first day is hazy, but this is the image that’s locked in my mind: It’s a cold and gloomy autumn afternoon, the sky is hung with veils of grey, and a sliver of mist creeps over the ground, curling along the trunks of the weeping willows. It’s one of those days when you hear the river clearly and most of us stay inside, playing chess or cards or sitting together at the fireplace, because that cold crawls under your skin and chills you. And it’s on that afternoon—I’m just on my way to the Commons, taking a shortcut through Serenity Yard (yes, I know), when she sits there on a bench, wearing only that thin white robe someone must have given her at Whitelight, and I realize she isn’t really supposed to be out yet.
This is something I’ll think about only much later: that she wasn’t supposed to be out that day. I believe that changed everything, but I didn’t realise it at the time.
Her sight makes me stop, and the first thought I have is, Fuck, no one else around. Because I’m useless at this good-Samaritan-act, and everyone knows it, but I can’t very well let her sit there, or she’ll turn blue before long. I remember what it’s like, coming here on your first day, and let me tell you, taking care of yourself is one of the last things on your mind.
So I walk up to her bench and she flinches from me and huddles into that robe. She looks like a dead body someone’s dragged from the water: so pale she really shouldn’t be breathing, her hair hanging in tangled streaks over her face, and I swear that hair is nearly white, too, and dirty like she’s been rolling around in the grass. She has two hands that are more bones than anything else, knuckles and fingernails bitten bloody, and the shadows under her eyes look big enough to swallow me up. But when she looks up at me, those eyes make me take a step back. They’re the most colourful I have seen.
“Hey,” I say and stuff my hands into my pockets to ward off the cold. “Are you the new one?”
She stares at me like dead. She looks dead, all of her, the cracked lips, the raw cheeks, the bloodied nose, all except those eyes that are eating me up with their intensity. I think I’d have run if it hadn’t been for those eyes.
She opens her mouth, perhaps to say something, but no sound comes out. That’s not unusual with the new ones. I think I may have been much like that myself, though I’d rather not think about it too much. Anyway, I’ll have to get her inside, or we’ll have a real dead one here soon.
“Did you run from Joryanda? She’s supposed to watch you, isn’t she?” I try to take her arm, and the instant I touch her, she flinches back, and I swear to God she bares her teeth like some wild thing, a cat or a beaver, and then she starts screaming like I’d been trying to rape her or something.
That scream rattles my bones. I jump back and hold up my hands. “Whoa, sorry! Look, I’m not gonna touch you, okay?”
It’s not okay, though, and she keeps screaming and screaming, slowly edging back from me. Soon she’ll be at the end of the bench and I wonder if she’ll just fall into the damp grass and keep howling like that, and I’m fucking frozen, panicked, and have no idea what to do. The moment I take a step after her, she takes off and runs, stumbling over the seam of her white robe, nearly tripping in the high grass, her head lowered like she’s gonna run straight into the Wall and knock it over.
For a moment, I stand frozen, looking around for help. The first couple of windows open up in the Commons, a couple of round faces peek out, but they’re too far away. That girl will have drowned herself in the river by the time they get here.
So I run after after her. It’s not hard to catch up, because she’s still high on the drugs they’ve pumped into her, and she runs like a drunk, veering this way and that, so I catch up with her before she’s even past the weeping willows. The thin branches fall around us, making a kind of shelter for us, when I catch her arm and pull her close to me. I notice that something about her is wet, and cold, and she smells worse than she looks, but she starts lashing out at me and showing her teeth, so I do the only thing I can and lock her in my arms from behind.
She starts fighting like a fury, of course. It’s like holding a fucking horse that’s kicking and spitting, and those feet are dangerous, I tell you, but she’s exhausted and dizzy and probably feeling sick as hell, so I eventually get her down on the ground. Half kneeling above her, I lock her arms on her back, sort of like some badly executed police grip, and she’s whimpering and crying but not saying a single word. That is how Joryanda finds us some endless minutes later, and by that time I’m drenched in sweat.
“Thank goodness, Mariany, you found her!” She hurries to my side, holding up that ridiculous blue butterfly dress she always wears, and kneels beside us in the grass. That’s three of us in the weeping willow round, and I’m goddamn relieved to see her.
“She was on the bench in just that robe. Weren’t you fucking watching her?”
“She escaped. I thought she was still too gone to get up…” Joryanda leans over Liya—of course I don’t know her name at this point—and whispers softly in her ear. It takes only a moment for Liya to cease her struggle and go limp. She has that effect on us, Joryanda. On all of us. It’s part of the programming they put into our heads, I think, and sometimes I wish I could do the same. She’s like some fucking horse whisperer, just for us.
“Come on, come.” Joryanda keeps gently talking to her while she gets Liya to her feet. She does stand up, but looks like a newborn horse about to fall over, and she leans against Joryanda and her dirty hair falls over her face, hiding her eyes. “Help me get her back inside, will you?”
I grab Liya’s free arm, and together we make our way out from under the weeping willows. The next part is the one I remember best because at that time, it was the bit that interested me most. Because Joryanda didn’t take me back into the Commons, as I had expected, or perhaps into the med-wing where surely this girl would have belonged, but in the opposite direction, down the path leading to the Door.
I slow my step when we get closer, when the Door comes into sight, and Joryanda says in that calming voice of hers, “It’s all right. You won’t be going through. But it’s okay to go close. You’re stable enough.”
So we walk up there, and I start feeling the familiar unease that always comes from being near the Wall, though it’s softer here, close to the Door.
I guess I ought to explain about the Door and the Wall, but how do you explain that to someone who hasn’t seen—or felt—it? How can I explain that Darklight Rest was a prison in many aspects, but that we welcomed that about it… and that we could have gone out through that Door at any time, but very few ever did?
In any case, being near the Wall was never pleasant. It ranged from just a slight cold or tingling at the back of your neck, all the way to outright panic and uncontrolled crying, depending how well you were and how close you got. That day with Joryanda and Liya, probably because Joryanda was there and the Door was closed, I did okay. I’ve had worse in my time, especially during my first year. I guess most of us went through that, trying out how close we could get, having competitions about it, making bets to see who’d do best. The ones who did best were usually the ones who ended up in the Grey Rooms for a week afterward.
But anyway, that day it wasn’t so bad. Joryanda took Liya by herself the rest of the way, and I stayed behind on the concrete path and tried to catch a glimpse of what was on the other side of the Door. Because although I never would have gone through it, and most of us wouldn’t have, we were all curious, and I’m sure that those who said otherwise were plain lying. I didn’t get to see anything on the other side, by the way, because, as I learned that day, they’d put up a screen just behind the Door, probably for that very reason.
So that was it. Joryanda took Liya through, back to the Grey Rooms perhaps, and that was the last I saw of her for another week or so. I’d pretty much forgotten about her by the end of the day, and if you think me heartless for that, you’re right. I didn’t have much room for anything but myself, and I think that went for most of us there. It was the simplest way to keep yourself well, caring for yourself. In all its beauty, and for all its great goals of creating Utopia, Darklight Rest was a place full of broken, lost people who had seen things so bad that the only choice they had was to forget them.
After all, why would we have come there otherwise?