From the editor:
When Diana starts to phase-shift every time she daydreams, she’s taken off assignment and sent to a hospital for time travelers with the chain-smoking faux-French Fabienne. After a lifetime of avoiding the present, she’ll need to decide if she can embrace the here-and-now.
Author Marlee Jane Ward hails from Melbourne, and her work has appeared in Terraform, Apex, The Sockdolager, and many more.
From the author: A hospital for time travellers, and unrequited love...
They bring her in straitjacketed and I ache for her because haven’t we all been there? She’s a fighter though, a real lump of a girl, all muscle and cord, and she rips and pulls against the orderlies. I feel like I recognise her. The Crusades? Maybe she was a nurse in World War I, or a UFC fighter I saw on pay-per-view one night in a shitty dive bar on assignment in the twenty-teens? She’s got that ruddy, hockey-sticks vibe about her, the kind of girl they’d never send out as a courtesan or a jazz singer. Those jobs go to waifs like Fabienne in room six, a razor-smart imp with a sharp bob who smokes those wretched French cigarettes. No matter how often they confiscate them, she’s always showing up with new packs and little boxes of wooden matches.
But the new girl? She’s the avenging-angel type. Totally Jeanne D’Arc. Tall and blonde. I can see her looking great in a full set of armour, swinging a sword on some battlefield in the middle ages. Of course, she’s probably been there, done that. That’s probably why she’s here.
I don’t see her for days.
Fabienne creeps into my room every couple of nights and climbs on top of me and I let her. She’s a fox and she can’t seem to shake her last assignment, so when she licks up my neck she whispers things I’m pretty sure are filthy, but I’m not entirely sure because I don’t speak French. I prefer girls of the ruddy, hockey-sticks variety, probably because that’s the kind of girl I am, but Fabienne’s pretty great in that way-too-thin, intense Frenchwoman kind of way.
She’s not even French. Really, she’s from Brooklyn and her name is Gina.
They’re scaling back my meds and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I mean, it’s the first step to getting out of here, which is the aim, isn’t it? But what then? Do I just go back to work like nothing happened? There aren’t many folk who can do what we do. Time travel isn’t done with a machine and it isn’t something you can just learn—you’re either born with it or you aren’t.
We’re in high demand and I guess that’s a lot of pressure. There sure are a lot of us in here.
When she finally shows up in the dayroom she’s doped to the rim to stop her from phasing out. It’s a fucking shame to see her like that. She’s like a caged bear or one of those tigers they drug so that stupid tourists can hug them while on holiday in Thailand.
“Hello, I’m Diana,” I say as they seat her in one of the groaning leather chairs in front of the television. She looks up at me through cloud-eyes and blinks really slowly.
She’s a fellow Brit, I’m pleased to find. Either that, or she’s stuck like Fabienne, or Rico down the hall. He’s convinced he’s an apprentice to Michelangelo called Silvio. He sobs all day, begging the orderlies in Italian to let him get back to his lessons and his lover.
Ursula. Germanic heritage?
It’s a comfort to hear a familiar accent. She looks like she’d be at home on a windswept moor, lips chapped, corset straining to hold her in, cursing her father for arranging an inappropriate match and dreading her wedding day…
Fuck, I almost did it again!
I shake my head, hard. Any longer pondering that little scenario and I’d have been back there, pulling my shawl tight around my shoulders, picking up my skirts to dance across the foggy moor, kissing her hand in secret… Shit. Shit!
Four months of meds and therapy and I’m still daydreaming and nearly phasing out like I just got here.
Even through the quadruple dose of Phegia she’s looking at me like I’m weirding her out. Say something, Diana!
“Have we met?”
Smooth. Real fucking smooth.
“Were you… at the cru… the cru…”
I knew it. Crusades. Tattered flag held aloft, chest bound with dirty rags. I can smell the earthy, bloody scent of her. Lots of women fought then, dressed as boys. I picture her with hair cropped shorter, her chest bound in stained rags, bellowing psalms over the steaming battlefield…
Ugh. Stop! I think of Doctor Iverson, the exercises we’ve been working through, and I breathe out a long exhalation.
“…the crews…team building ex… exercises back in March?”
“No, I was at Plymouth back in March. 1588, Spanish Armada. Fact-checking assignment, nothing serious.”
She nods, slowly, blinking.
“If you need any advice, Ursula…”
“Oui, if you need us to show you the ropes, so to speak,” says Fabienne, sidling up beside me. She reeks of cigarette smoke. “So, are you stuck? Or are you a daydreamer like Diana here? No wait, I can guess.” Fabienne taps one slipper, hitching her grey marle trackpants up onto her jutting hipbones. “I think classic PTSD. World War Two, the Pacific. POW camp?”
Fabienne’s gone on too long. Ursula’s nodded off, a little patch of drool forming in the corner of her mouth. Fuck, she’s beautiful.
Fabienne catches me looking at her and I must have puppy-love written all over my face, because she storms off, thumping my shoulder as she goes past me. I know she’s off to phase back to some cafe in France, chain-smoke and drink espresso, to plan sabotage or make love with some mustachioed French Marxist up against a stone wall in a cobbled alleyway. Fabienne tongues her meds and phases out all the time. I bring a blanket over and tuck it across Ursula’s knee, sit in the chair opposite, and try not to look at her too much as I watch a telenovela on the viewscreen.
Group meets every day, in the recreation room. They push the holohockey and pong screens into the corner and set up chairs in a big circle. I can’t decide if I love group or hate it. Doctor Livia leads, and she’s one of those touchy-feely shrink types. She would have loved the sixties. The seventeen-sixties and the nineteen-sixties.
“Diana, are you here with us?”
I’m seeing her braless, hair wild, bellbottoms epic. She’s writhing to Haymarket Square’s Elevator, and I can actually hear the staccato beat and swirls of vocal, feel the first tendrils of some really heavy blotter acid creeping up my spine.
I dig my nails into my palm, cough, trying to bring myself back. Now is not the time for a psychedelic freakout… even though I think that Doctor Livia would be a real wild old lady, man.
“Yes, yes, I’m here.”
“See, group, here’s a perfect example of how Diana’s phasing out represents a real…” She holds up a finger, looking at me kindly, “and I mean no disrespect here, Diana.”
She continues. “It represents a real disrespect for the group and what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
“Hey!” I say. “I respect you all. I just… I just…”
“She just thinks the past is more interesting,” says Fabienne, though we’re supposed to call her Gina here. “More important than what is going on ‘ere. Perhaps she feels like she can make a real difference there.” She stands up, her cigarette fingers clutching at nothing but I can tell that if she had one burning, she’d take a ferocious drag, then throw it to the floor and stomp on it, for effect. “Like what she’s doing there is important!”
“Gina, we are talking about Diana here, not you.” Doctor Livia makes a mark on her softscreen. She hates Fabienne and Fabienne hates her in that way people just sometimes hate each other for no reason.
“I think we are well aware that Diana’s phasing represents a method of escape from her everyday, which she finds dull, to a more interesting time. It is remarkable, the unique way she’s able to phase back to interconnected events, as if there’s some situational resonance between her current experience and a similar events during some prior point in history.” Doctor Livia goes a bit dreamy here. “Like there’s some harmonious strings connecting correlating events that she’s able to pick up on, to ride…” She comes back to, clutching at her necklaces. I zing with greedy pride because I know she’s writing her dissertation on me. She catches a glimpse of my proud little smirk, and she throws me a hard look.
“The real problem here is a complete lack of control. Diana phases even while phasing, creating that tumbling effect that gets her into so much trouble. And I believe it all boils down to being trapped in the notion that something more apt, more interesting is happening somewhere else.”
“It is!” says Fabienne. “‘ere we are sitting talking about ‘ow everyone should be doing this or that, while back there people are suffering, dying!” She pushes her chair over and storms out of the room.
Ah, the French. So passionate. Even the faux-French.
Doctor Livia shakes her head, the beads and necklaces at her neck rattling. She taps furiously at her softscreen, looks up, unclenches her lips and exhales. She’s always so much more comfortable in group once Fabienne’s stormed out.
“Now Diana, would you like to tell the group how that makes you feel?”
“Diana. Diana?” Doctor Iverson prods me gently. For once I’m not in the past, in my mind I’m in Ursula’s room and we’re together on the bed and her hair is all in my face and my mouth. See, I’m hoping that’s the future but we don’t go to the future.
“Diana? Diana, we’ve talked about this. Where are you right now?”
“It’s okay, Doc. I’m here. Well, sort of.”
“Why can’t you stay present, Diana?”
“Shit, doc. I don’t know.”
“Are you looking for something more than this?”
“No. No, It’s more like I’m running from something. I just keep jumping from one place to the next, like it’s gonna change something.”
“But you’re always the same once you are there?”
Ugh. “No, I don’t think that’s it.” But the disdain I feel for him right now, yeah, he’s probably right. I wish we were in a damp dungeon in Seville, me heating a poker on the briar, and the doctor, a blasphemer no doubt, chained to the wall, his eyes brimming with fear of the pain to come…
“Look, Diana. I don’t want to increase your dose again. We’ve been making such progress.” He makes a note on his softscreen. After lunch on Wednesdays are my one-on-ones with Doctor Iverson, one of the few specialists in Phaser mental disorders. “How are the relaxation techniques?”
I nod. “Helpful.”
“And you’re meditating?” he asks.
“An hour a night.”
But later that night, after meditation, when it’s time for meds, I step up to the window and Nurse Patel hands me my little cup. Inside are three little lavender pills. Yesterday I had two.
“What is this? I’m on 40mg. The doctor is stepping me down.”
“Take the pills, Diana. You can talk with Doctor Iverson in the morning.” She shakes the little cup, her mauve nails drumming against the counter.
I’m gripped by a rage so intense I have a hard time drawing breath. I knock the cup from her hands and the pills go flying. Tony from room twelve dives to the ground and collects them, drops them into his slipper and stands up, trying to look nonchalant. Fabienne clenches her bony hands around my shoulders, nails digging into the muscles corded there.
“Calm, Di-ana,” she whispers.
“I’m making a note of this,” says Nurse Patel, her thick, dark lips pursed tight. She hands me a new cup, three new pills. “Take your meds, Diana. I’m not going to argue with you about it.”
I take them. They grate against my throat and the little cup of water she gives me to wash them down tastes like ashes. I close my eyes and see Nurse Patel, hair ragged and knife-shaven and eyes animal-wide with fear, tied to a stake in some cold, muddy town square. I can smell the pitch and the woodsmoke, feel the cold creeping through my coarse-woven tunic as I gnash my rotten teeth and bellow.
I’m so close. I’m almost there. Rage helps.
Everything shimmers and I know I’m actually fading out of the room, like proper fading, my limbs washing out as I straddle times. I haven’t gone this far since I was admitted. Is that the jostle of villagers against me as the crowd surges?
Oh. No. That’s a crowd of orderlies tackling me to the floor. And that’s not the pinch of a splinter as I brush against the barricade, it’s the prick of a mega-dose of Phegia. I’m not going anywhere. Not for a long time.
Things kind of fade in and out for a bit. There’s a lot of white ceiling in there, sometimes I pull against my restraints.
I see Fabienne at the door, her little face framed in the window. She blows me kisses, her lips that brilliant red of the discontinued lipstick she phases out to buy back in the seventies. I see the lips again and again in my mind, see long blonde hair blowing in the breeze. Ursula.
Then there’s the day room. Things aren’t sharp, but they’re clearer. Ursula and I sit in front of the viewscreen and drool together.
They’ve turned on the Ambiance Channel and we watch fields of poppies swaying for hours. Days.
It’s actually pretty nice. I don’t have to worry about anything, not now, not yesterday, not the Middle Ages or assignments collecting early samples of the plague or commissions from grunge-obsessed billionaires to the early nineteen-nineties to snip priceless locks of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s hair. So many of us have gone back that his hair even looks shorter in photos now.
Ursula and I look at each other with dopey eyes and I reach out to take her hand but she just smiles at me sadly. We sit like that, in this timeless place. I don’t want it to ever end.
“Wake up, Di-ana. Wake up!” It’s night. Fabienne is shaking me, her face a white mask in the night black.
“No, Fabienne,” I say, rolling over and pulling the covers up underneath my nose. “I can’t right now, my dose is way too high.”
“Merde!” she hisses, and strips the sheets off me with a flick. “I don’t want to fuck! I want to get out of ‘ere. Get up, you are coming too.”
I sit up. She’s dressed in a grey skirt and a red travelling jacket, those lips a crimson bow, her bob finger-waved precisely. She’s got a little herringbone printed suitcase sitting on the floor at her feet. Her heeled leather shoes are in one hand, and she whispers over the hard floor in stockinged feet.
“I can’t go. I’m dosed to the gills. I couldn’t phase even if I wanted to.”
She pulls a syringe out of her pocket.
“Negia. We could leave right now.”
“Where did you get that?”
“I traded Nurse Bingley for it. Did you know Bayer used to sell ‘eroin in the pharmacies? Right behind the counter. Pure as snow. Not a fair trade, but what can you do? Come, let us go.”
She takes my arm. I pull it back.
“No. There’s something wrong with me. I need treatment.”
“What’s so wrong with you? You like to daydream? You like to escape this life? Who wouldn’t? This place is sick, Di-ana. No one gets better here. Let’s go somewhere else.”
“France? So we can play cat and mouse with the Germans and your Resistance chums? I’m not leaving this place to go to a warzone, Fabienne. That’s ridiculous.”
“Ugh, fine. Post-war, then. Paris. The sixties. We can take an apartment in Montmartre. You’ll love it. I’ll have to change clothes though, this just won’t do…”
She pulls me up out of the bed, takes my arm and wraps it in hers, squeezing tight to plump up the vein. She’s pressed back against me, her hair all in my face and mouth. The needle plunges in with a pop of skin and vein. Right away I feel the fuzzy weight of the drug lift off me. Images of the past flutter through my mind and I can feel an immense pull in all directions. When I hold my hands up in front of my face, my skin ripples in and out of the present.
“Diana. Diana,” Fabienne has dropped the accent. She’s just Gina now, but not just. “We’re right here. Right now.” She holds me tight by one arm and touches my face with the other.
I’m here. I’m really here.
“Ursula…” I say and Gina’s face falls. “Do you have any more of this stuff?” I ask, picking up the syringe.
She fumbles in her little handbag and hurls a bunch of loaded syringes at my feet.
“You think your problem is the phasing, Di-ana,” she spits, accent back and thicker, more hacking than ever. “But that’s not it. Your problem is that you are always looking for the next thing, rather than seeing what’s right in front of your face. Always focused on what you could ‘ave and not seeing what you’ve got.”
I don’t have anything to say. I pick the syringes up off the ground.
“Ugh, I must be out of my fucking mind.” She picks up her case and pushes me out of the way. “I’ll be in the dayroom for the next five minutes if you want to come with me.” She spins on one heel and storms out of the room. “She’s not coming with us though,” she calls behind her. “Ask ‘er why!”
Ursula’s room is dark and silvered from the moonglow coming through the window. She’s curled on the bed, facing away from me. I touch her shoulder.
“Ursula. I’m going. I’m getting out of here. Do you want to come?”
“Sit down, Diana,” she says and I sit on the bed, then lay back onto the pillow beside her. Ursula’s body is hard with muscle but through the thin hospital gown I can see the creeping beginnings of bone. Her shoulder blades jut hard against the white cotton. Her hair is all in my face and mouth. It smells dirty. It tastes dirty. This is not how I imagined it. She rolls over and we lie, face-to-face.
“It got too much, you know? The Crusades, the field hospitals. I know I look the part, but I don’t have the constitution for it. They always give the sexy jobs, the sleuthy jobs, to girls like Gina. I look like I should be carrying a broadsword, but it’s not me.”
I was right! There she is, white-uniformed, blood splattered, handing the doctor a bone saw. I smell the blood, the faint tang of mustard gas. I can’t feel her against me anymore. We’re each holding the shoulder of a man with a ruined leg as the surgeon starts to saw. There’s great thundering outside and I cry out and slam back into myself in the hospital.
“See?” she says. “You phase out. Gina kills Nazis. Me, I like opium. We all get away from ourselves somehow.” She rolls away from me. “You go. I need to be here. Besides which, Diana, I’m married.”
“We’re all married, somewhere. At some time.”
“No, I’m married. Me. And it means something to me. There’s more to me than just what’s in your head, Diana. I’m a person.”
Fabienne isn’t in the day room when I get there. It smells like her perfume. She’s left a message written in that red lipstick of hers across the closest table: Je t’emmerde.
My French is rusty, but I get the picture.
Lights flicker in the hall outside. An orderly called Abrams pops his head in through the doorway.
“Diana, what are you doing up? Have you seen Gina? She’s missing from her bed, her things are gone.”
“Uh—” I say, but then he spots the syringes in my hand.
“Okay, okay… put the meds down, Diana,” Abrahms says. He opens the door wider and hits a button on his sleevescreen. Somewhere down the hall an alarm trills.
“No, it’s not like that…” I say, but already there’s a crowd of orderlies thundering down the hall. I take off. I don’t even know where I’m going, but I bust through the second dayroom door and peel down the hallway. I approach Rico’s room, number fifteen, and I call out to him.
He pops a mussed-up head through the door frame and I hurl the syringes towards him as I race towards the nurses station.
“Go back to Florence!”
“Molte grazie!” he calls after me.
All the orderlies from this floor are thundering along behind me and it’s just like I’m some poor, sorry wretch pounding through the cobbled streets of London, constables in hot pursuit because I’ve nicked some fine damsel’s coin purse from among all her pretty skirts and if I’m caught, it’s transportation to the colonies for me.
I dig deep and sprint harder and I see my breath plume out in a fog and rise above the night street. When I caution a glance behind the orderlies white cotton uniforms fade then darken to thick blue wool and in front of me a mean little group of rats scatters out from a pile of offal heaped in the gutter to let me pass.
Fuck. Fuck! I’ve done it again.
I slip sideways and feel myself pull across and back, back, still running, my bare feet crunching over dried leaves and baked earth. The sun is bright and I can smell burning eucalyptus in the air.
When I glance back I can see it gaining. Lithe, fast and pale yellow, the same colour as the dried grasses it’s chasing me over. Some kind of marsupial lion? Definitely extinct Australian megafauna.
I remember coming here once on assignment from some university, collecting samples of scat and lose hair. Thylacoleo carnifex. An ambush hunter, and I look right just as a second beast leaps out from behind a blackened redgum stump.
Clever girl, I think, pulling left but not fast enough and as I feel the first sharp pull of its huge thumb claw, I slip across, down and forward through things.
I’m bleeding and still running, and peering back I see the glint of firelight on helmets and shields. Someone puts a bottle in my hand, lights a rag trailing from the top. I watch it burn for a second, entranced by the bright, hot flame, then I come to and I stop, turn, and throw it.
The streetscape explodes and in the gaps between the flames I can see the pebbly white walls of the hospital hallway. The fire fades away and all there is to see is the scattered contents of a prep tray on the floor where I’ve thrown it, and the team of orderlies standing there, looking frustrated.
It’s all the same. No matter where I go, I’ll be running away from something, right?
I could just stay in the hospital, work on my meditation with Doctor Iverson, do my breathing, take my meds and get my head together. Stop flitting through history whenever I have a bloody daydream. I mean, shit, maybe someday I could go back to work, try and make a difference like Fabienne always talks about.
You know, I could grow up.
The orderlies creep towards me real slow. I’m waiting for the tackle, but they probably want to make sure I stay solid, so they don’t wind up jumping straight into the wall.
They grab me, and it’s that familiar precise pain of a needle going into my skin, a little rougher than it needed to be.
And Iverson won’t trust me now, not for a while. Probably be up to four tablets tomorrow. But maybe one day I’ll get my head straight. And maybe I’ll find Fabienne and Ursula out there on the job one day and I can apologise.
And I can try to make up for everything.
This story originally appeared in The Sockdolager.