FICTION: Chapter 26 Castaway (Third Draft, Big Updates)

26: CASTAWAY

All I know is I have to write. So I write. It’s all I’ve done since washing up on this beach. That’s how it feels, that I was lost at sea, alone in the darkness, no idea who or what I am or where I’m from, and then one day I wake up screaming and crying and I’m in a hospital emergency department and they’ve got people, several beefy guys, holding me down because I’m thrashing so much. I’ve washed ashore on a wave and been left, a piece of driftwood, a plastic bag, a lump of stinking seaweed strewn across the sand. The stinking seaweed sounds about right but I don’t know why.

Someone dumped me out of an unmarked van at about 2am in front of the hospital emergency department entrance six days ago. I was naked and clinically dead, with signs of hypothermia, torture, ligature marks suggesting my wrists and ankles were bound, burn marks, and I was severely malnourished, that I looked like “a Holocaust survivor”, and I had to ask what that meant, and the people looking after me were shocked, and they pulled these gadgets out of their pockets and as if by magic produced image after harrowing image of human suffering in striped pyjamas. They said that was how I looked. They said I had been clinically dead. They said it had been as if I had wished myself dead.

I spoke to police officers. There was a case underway. They took impressions of my fingerprints, my DNA, and photos of my bruised, emaciated, stunned face. I didn’t recognise myself when I saw the pictures. I looked like someone who’d survived a war by the expedient of walking through the centre of the most intense fighting. The police told me they were looking at “CCTV footage” from the night I was dumped. When I said I didn’t know what that meant, they explained. I said, “oh you mean closed-circuit TV” and they smiled and said yes, that’s it, but looked puzzled.

Then a shrewd nurse asked me what year I thought it was. I said I had no idea. I had no idea about anything. I just got here. A back room in my head had the thought that I was in so much terrible pain because I’d just been born, fully grown as I was, squeezed down a regular female birth canal.

The nurse told me it was 2017. The date meant nothing. She asked if I knew who was prime minister, or the US president. I said I did not. Someone else said, “It might be for the best.”

I do know what “clinically dead” means. The idea goes through me, cold and shivery. I ask about my parents, my family. When are they coming to get me? They say, okay, who are they? We’ll phone them. And I go to tell them, but then I realise that I can’t remember who they are. I can’t remember them, and I can’t remember me.

I can remember the smell of bitumen and rain and car exhaust from the night I was dumped on the road.

That’s it.

I remember screaming and crying that first night. I remember the male orderlies piling on like a rugby scrum to hold me down. I remember a female nurse to one side holding my hand, telling me I was going to be okay, and that the best thing was to release as much of this feeling as I possibly could.

But she didn’t realise. Nobody realised. I couldn’t be doing this in front of strangers, and in front of female strangers, like this. I couldn’t be seen crying. It was shameful. I didn’t realise quite how shameful until I found myself doing it, and feeling the inside-heat of it, the desire to turn myself inside-out, to turn my face away from view, to hide, to abase myself. I was ashamed. Part of my thrashing was simply to get rid of all these witnesses.

But not all of it. Something eruptive was happening inside me. Something that had been building all my life was at last bursting out, and it didn’t seem to care how much of the host body it took with it. It felt like explosive sobbing. Like a form of crying so violent it could kill you.

They gave me sedatives. They asked me questions. The sedatives helped. I couldn’t answer any questions. I knew nothing. I was a boy lost in time and space, washed up on this beach, alone and nameless.

With an urge to write.

They transferred me to the psychiatric unit. I was assigned a “team”. I had meetings with doctors. They seemed friendly enough, but were clearly puzzled. They said they didn’t get many patients like me. “So many aliens, you mean,” I said.

“Actually,” one of the registrars said (good-looking, sharp-dressed young man with a ginger beard), “we do get our fair share of aliens. You’d be amazed.”

I liked him right away.

They gave me a notebook and a pen. I took it everywhere. I wrote and wrote. I don’t know exactly why I wrote so much, where the urge came from, what I was trying to achieve, why it was the only notable feature about me–

If you ignored all the signs that I had been tortured, suffered hypothermia, and that I had finally died as if I’d wished it upon myself, of all things. Could that even happen?

I asked him. Could you wish yourself to death, if you were in a desperate enough situation?

He thought about it. We talked about the evidence of my physical condition when I was dumped at the hospital. That I had been clinically dead. That I was hypothermic, much-abused, signs of abuse, torture, wrists and ankles bound tight, burns and bruises. Unimaginable abuse. Could you just wish yourself gone?

He wasn’t sure. He’d have to check the literature. But he did say if you refused food as well as water, if you withdrew into yourself, refusing all interaction, you could die in a few days, but it would be hard. I nodded, and wrote it down.

That same registrar doctor, during another meeting, asked me, “Where do you think you were?”

I very nearly threw my chair at him.

The question made me furious. I had been fine, no worries. But I flipped straight to I-could-kill-you in a flash. Suddenly I was full of adrenaline, I was sweating, and I had the shakes. I had to get up and go and stand by the examination bed in the back of the room. My breath was coming in big gulps.

The doctor and I agreed that we would look further at that question later, under less confronting conditions.

I wanted to apologise. I felt as if I had had no involvement in what had happened. It was my unconscious brain. There was something about the issue of–even now as I go to write the words, I hear only a sound like hissing TV static, a screaming sort of sound that hurts, that wants me to leave this area now, authorised personnel only–

I wanted to apologise. Something was wrong in my head.

I learned that it is now August 2017. That there is something called “wifi” that everybody wants, and something called “Facebook” that everybody is on, but which they hate being on, and they would leave, but all their friends are there. I just blink at them. I walk around the corridors of the hospital ward, where other patients are coming and going all the time, either going to groups, needing medication, or to talk to the nurses at the glassed-in nurses’ station, and I see people looking at glowing rectangles in their hands, and they talk to other people about this Facebook and how they love it but hate it, and I don’t know what to think.

Though I do notice that these glowing rectangles look familiar. I ask a young woman, “Excuse me, but is that an Apple iPhone 7?” I feel like I have no idea what I’m even talking about, but something is stirring in the silt at the bottom of my brain.

She looks up at me and smiles. “Oh hi, you must be new! Nice to meetcha! I’m Fiona! What’s your name?” She flashes a big flashy smile. I notice she has a lot of razor scars on her arms and I shiver inside. She seems to notice. “Battle armour,” she says. “Dragon scales.” She holds up her phone. “As for this, no. This is a Samsung Galaxy thingy. It’s way better. Only sheeple buy Apple, smug bastards all of them!”

I barely notice what she says. I feel like an insect who’s just been killed and pinned into a collection. Unable to move. There’s something about this girl in front of me. She looks about my age, fifteen or sixteen, fragile but all personality, bold but brittle, eyes and teeth and fingernails.

And out of place. I’m looking at her from my spot where I feel as I’ve been pinned into her collection and I see her flitter and flutter about, performing for her people, all the people she’s collected, and the thing that surfaces in my mind-without-a-history is, “what are you doing in 2017?”

And I say to her, before I even know I’m going to say it, “Does the Samsung time-travel, too?”

She grins and comes back over and shows me. “Does it ever! And drones, too, look! Best phone ever, I mean, really!” She smells like boyhood fantasies of girls. She smells like boys imagine girls smell like. I don’t know anything, much less even my own name or how to reach my parents–but I can smell Trouble. I know Trouble when I see it. I know, as long as I’m here in this hospital, not to get involved with this girl. She is bad news. She is out of her time.

How would I find my parents? The police who took my fingerprints, photos and DNA said they would put all those things into “matching databases and see what gets spat out”. It’s all routine, they say. If my family reported me missing when I went missing, they would have provided all those bits of information, and they would have been looking the whole time I’ve been missing–however long that’s been. How long have I been gone? I can see I’m just a kid, but I can also see that I’ve wasted away to just about nothing. I’m skin and bone. I’ve seen people flinch and turn away when they see me, they’re so shocked at my appearance. The emergency doctor said that I lost more than half my body weight. My skin is like clothing three sizes,too large for me, loose and floppy, hanging around me, like I’m wearing a circus tent.

I’m in a meeting with my consultant, the senior doctor on my team. We’re doing a “review” of my case. I’ve been in the psychiatric hospital now for two weeks. I’ve been going to group therapy sessions where the emphasis is on the use of cognitive behavioural therapeutic techniques to try to reshape how your mind responds to difficult situations. I can kind of see the idea, and how it might help some people with regular problems, but I can’t see how it can help me and my problems. And I’m trying to explain this to my doctor. I feel like an alien. I don’t belong here. I have no connections to anything here. But in the group I’m supposed to come up with–”

My consultant, who I’ve only seen twice since I’ve been here, but has always seemed like a decent man, is writing out a business card with a fountain pen. He hands it to me. “Here,” he says. “This is the best clinical psychologist in Perth. You can get ten sessions a year bulk-billed through Medicare. She understands aliens. Deals with aliens all the time. She’s practically Area 51. Go and see her, see what you think.” He shakes my hand as I leave.

Just before I exit the door, he says, only half-kidding, “And as your doctor, I’m ordering you to have second helpings of everything. For God’s sake, look at yourself! I’ll talk to the kitchen staff personally.”

Something strange happens as I leave. Something that hasn’t happened in the longest time. It’s so strange that I can tell right away that it hadn’t happened before, in my shrouded life, either.

I walk out of this meeting smiling. I feel just a bit happy. I’m getting somewhere at last.