Art by Margot Jenner.
From the editor:In a dystopian prison, eight women known only by the small comforts they most miss from home (Chocolate, Music, Flowers, Cigarettes, Hot Chips, Internet, Guns, and Privacy) compete for their freedom in a series of cryptic challenges.
Author and playwright Ephiny Gale lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has published more than two dozen short stories and novelettes in Aurealis, Daily Science Fiction, Syntax & Salt, and many more.
From the author: A deadly competition in a futuristic women's prison.
The room is cylindrical, metal, no doors or windows. Nine of us stand in a circle, not touching, but spread your arms and you’d hit someone. I think I could lie flat in here without brushing the walls, but not by much.
The ceiling hatch above us locks shut with a scrape. We examine faces, muscles, body fat. I’ve seen six of these women before; two are complete strangers. We do not trade names or origin stories. We go around the circle and we say what we miss most from the outside:
Chocolate, Music, Flowers, Cigarettes, Hot Chips, Internet, Guns, Privacy.
I am Hot Chips. Privacy says hers while staring mournfully at the circular grate in the floor, and I think oh, she must be new.
When I was brand new I’d said “My Dog,” thinking that was safe, and someone had laughed – not unkindly – and said, “Jeez, at least say your bitch.”
The girl to my right asks, “So where are we going?” and there’s a flurry of overconfident suggestions from those I assume got in through the physical trials. On the metal floor, every little step sounds like the smack of a frying pan. None of these women can know which terrain we’re headed to. We’ve been told YOU MUST NOT ASSAULT ONE ANOTHER, otherwise their disagreement may have turned violent.
Four of us are keeping our mouths shut, including me. I assume we’re the four who got in the other way – “The Lottery” – though it’s not random at all. How much can you give up in a month? Food, sleep, shelter, dignity?
When there’s a lull in the argument, Privacy points out a dollar-sized hole in the centre of the ceiling, releasing a single drop of water every two seconds, which falls through the middle of our tiny room and down through the floor grate. “Maybe we’re not going anywhere,” she says.
This is met with the obligatory smirks and laughter. Still, what feels like about twenty minutes has passed and nothing has happened, and many of us are fiddling with our shirt buttons, our fingernails, with the black bracelets locked on each of our wrists (WIN YOUR FREEDOM printed in Helvetica, light grey).
Once about thirty minutes have passed, there’s an ascending chime like the 7:15 train has been delayed and a strip around the top of the cylinder hisses into pixelated life: YOU MUST NOT FIDGET. It’s lit up for a couple of seconds, and then the same chime plays in descending order and it’s gone.
There is laughter again, the most there’s been, but now everyone’s hands are motionless at their sides, or on their hips, or clasped in front of them. “This the big endurance test?” calls someone with muscles. “What a fucking piece of piss!”
Of course, when you’re not allowed to do something you instantly need to do it a hundred times as much. My scalp, which felt fine seconds ago, prickles as if covered in lice. Itches blister down the sides of my neck, my wrist, above my eye. I trap my hands between the wall and my bottom and try to distract myself.
The others are arguing over whether this is the real challenge or not. I can see them flinching and wriggling every so often, as if to shrug off a troublesome insect. I am concentrating on my breathing.
My newfound desire to scratch my nose is shocking. If someone else raked their nails down my face, that wouldn’t break the rules, would it? I am not desperate enough to share this secret yet.
The bug-eyed blonde on the floor – Flowers, I think, and maybe Melinda – starts complaining quietly about how much it feels like spiders are crawling over her skin. She knows a lot about spiders, too; she mentions several different breeds and the technical terms for the different segments of their legs. The others keep telling her to shut up, but Flowers keeps going, staring catatonically and moaning about rubbing her whole body against tree bark.
Eventually a girl with orange dreadlocks looks acutely nauseous, hauls Flowers up by the collar and raises her free hand in a fist. Flowers gasps and her eyes bug out like one of those goldfish.
At the last moment the fist uncurls and morphs into a middle finger salute instead.
Released, Flowers sinks back into the wall and smiles bashfully – “I’m sorry, Chocolate, did I upset you?” – but then her eyes darken and there’s no confusion as to her innocence. When Chocolate turns her back, Flowers is up like a shot, parting the orange dreadlocks and blowing a single definitive breath on the back of Chocolate’s neck.
It’s more than enough. Chocolate leaps a foot in the air, scratching her neck with her fingernails like she’s trying to rip the skin off. A pitch-black, translucent arm reaches through the metal wall and closes around Chocolate’s wristband, and the whole 5’10” of her is yanked out of the room before the floor has even stopped vibrating from her jump.
Silence from the eight of us in the slightly-more-spacious cylinder. My eyes float slowly across from where Chocolate disappeared to the grate where Flowers is standing.
She looks completely serious. “Piece of piss, right?” she says.
YOU MUST NOT STAND.
There is no doubt anymore. This is our endurance test, and it will get easier and easier to lose, and we will be in here for as long as it takes.
When the second instruction flashes up, accompanied by the chime, we all sink to the ground almost in unison. There’s not enough room for everyone to stretch out their legs at once, which is cause for some squabbling, but a rough hierarchy soon establishes itself.
With their legs out: Guns, the pretty Asian with the high-pony, the first to pee over the grate; Music, an athletic black woman with a chin scar; Cigarettes, a white girl who looks almost plump compared to the rest of us; and Flowers, with her legs half-over all the others’.
It’s not like you can get far away from Flowers in here, but I’m pleased she’s not right next to me.
Privacy asks Flowers why she’s so desperate to get out – does she have children outside? And there’s less laughter than I’m expecting, but all I can think is new, new, God, you’re so new. Flowers says it’s none of their business, but isn’t that so stereotypical, that a woman needs to be a mother to throw someone else under the bus. Can’t she just want to free herself more than some strangers?
The room actually seems to warm to Flowers after that. Privacy climbs carefully over the outstretched legs and crouches over the grate, tilting her head to catch the ceiling drips on her tongue. I glance around and see a few women silently calculating whether to stop her – if they can hold her down until she’s no longer a threat of any kind – but no-one moves.
We take it in turns to crouch under the drip and almost drink enough. While I’m sitting there, hurting my neck and seizing up my limbs, someone yells, “No camels!” which means I’m done for now.
Two or three hours have passed and it must be dark outside. The girl to my right, Internet, who’s said barely more than I have, presses her lips to my ear and says, “Help me with something and I’ll make it worth your while.” I study her bony face, dark eyes, freckles... And nod.
She smiles and holds up the shoelaces she’s pulled free. We’re all in new uniforms for this and I feel stupid for not registering the laces earlier. “I want to sleep,” she whispers. “But I’m afraid I’ll itch. Can you tie up my fingers?”
I thread the laces between her digits and knot them so her fingers stay apart, then tie her hands together with the excess length. Some of the other women make bondage jokes, and though I think a couple understand the actual purpose they’re not sharing out loud.
“You’ll scratch my nose?” I ask, and she does, one long, firm scratch down both sides with her awkward bundle of hands.
“That’s the bonus,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate.
Internet props herself against me, back to back, hands in lap, and might be napping as far as I know. The others aren’t yelling, exactly, but there’s a lively discussion about whether it’s like this every year. The losers aren’t allowed to mention the competition afterwards, and the winner never comes back, of course.
I couldn’t sleep with all that noise.
At one point Flowers unbuttons her shirt, folds it neatly and tucks it under her bottom. Everyone stares at her bare chest with various degrees of subtlety, because there are actual flowers there – tattoos of orchids stretching from her waist to the top of one breast, purple and yellow like permanent bruises.
It should make her more vulnerable, but Flowers wears it like armour and the group seems to treat it as such.
In the wake of this, Guns leans over and sticks her tongue inside Privacy’s ear, and Privacy lets out a horrified gasp but doesn’t jump to her feet like Guns obviously wants her to. I wait to see if The Powers That Be consider this assault, but apparently not, and thankfully Guns doesn’t follow it with anything more extreme.
A couple more hours pass without incident and the group seems to conclude that now, in the early stages, is a useful time to get some sleep. I’ve agreed since Internet slumped against my back, but I can’t let my eyes close. I’m a violent sleeper, the kind that steals the covers and kicks shins and tosses like a suffocating fish.
Some of the other women get shoelaces tied around their fingers. One by one, threats are issued or goodnights whispered and eyelids shut around the circle. Then there’s only Music, Flowers and me awake and staring at one another.
My legs are aching by now, and one of them has suffered pins and needles for the last half hour. I twist carefully on the floor and stretch my legs into the air in the middle of the circle, careful not to touch the sleepers. While I massage the feeling back into my calves, I can see Flowers grinning at me from the corner of my eye.
Flowers is making hand puppets at me. I can’t tell what they are, exactly, but they change rapidly and are surprisingly animate. I force my face to stay blank, impassive. Eventually she cocks her head like poor dumb bitch and opens her mouth as if to scream.
Silence. She shuts her mouth again, then opens it and takes a deep breath.
More silence. She does this a third time, and it really looks like she’s going to screw up her face and shriek, but Music shoves her own shirt in Flowers’ mouth and ties it firmly behind her blonde head.
Flowers jerks against the wall and reaches up for the ties, picking at the knot for a second before realising that’s an awful lot like fidgeting. She glares at Music for a straight hour after that, and Music stares back for a lot of it. Allowing your competition to sleep seems a strange tactic to me, but perhaps Music just hates Flowers. Or loves the silence. Or has a tiny, fragile alliance, like mine with Internet.
We sit there for a while longer until Flowers gradually retrieves her legs from the middle of the circle and picks her way, hunched and Gollum-like, over to me. She unfolds something navy and red-brown between us – her shirt, wet with menstrual blood – and manages to grin at me around her gag.
I open my mouth to protest, but she pivots to the girl on my left instead.
I realise I don’t know this girl, and I don’t remember the thing she misses most – I don’t think I even heard it in the first place. And now Flowers is draping the bloody shirt over her head, and the wet part’s all over her sleeping face.
Flowers sits back down and I’m frozen to the wall, and it’s not like this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, far from it, but it’s so silent and cold and easy when getting here in the first place was so damn hard.
The ascending chime goes off, and it is loud.
Several things happen at once. No-name next to me wakes up with a face full of cotton and blood, and kind of a half-sob and staggers to her feet and gets dragged through the wall.
The rest are frantically blinking themselves awake and trying to focus on their new instructions, which, incidentally, read YOU MUST NOT SLEEP.
And Internet is struggling towards the grate, pulling down her pants awkwardly with her tied hands, and rocking back too far at the last moment...
She pees on everyone but me.
Internet sits back down and doesn’t apologise, because what is there to say, and women don’t generally pee in a 180-degree arc by accident.
There are shouts of outrage and swearing and clearly suppressed wriggling from the other prisoners. Privacy looks like she’s going to throw up, and I expect her to throw in the towel at this point but she doesn’t move.
Instead, Cigarettes is the one flailing and shaking her legs to try and get the piss off them, and bounding to her feet and the urine’s running down her ankles and then there’s a translucent hand around her bracelet and she’s gone.
Guns, Privacy, Music and Flowers are all taking off their soiled shoes and trousers and I think I had better, too, so I don’t draw attention to my relative cleanliness. They toss their trousers at Internet, who is soon sitting in a pile of dirty cotton, and their shoes in a cluster over the grate so they’re not eliminated for actually battering the woman. Music mimes several different ways of ending Internet’s life, including slicing her jugular, wrists, hanging, stabbed in the guts… Music has her thumbs in her underwear and I think she might go and return Internet’s “favour” but Guns mouths “Later” and the room is silent for a bit.
Privacy has started crying in that way where the tears drop but the rest of your face looks normal. Guns leans over and licks them off her cheeks with some comment about water conservation. Through her makeshift gag, Flowers starts humming a familiar tune that I haven’t heard for years and can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a children’s song, one of those ones that keeps repeating over and over.
“It’s that bear song,” says Internet, slowly shifting the peed-on trousers away from her and onto the grate. And of course it is, that song about a bunch of bears in a bed and they all roll over and fall out one by one until it’s just the little bear left and I’ve forgotten what happens then, if anything. Flowers is still humming and Guns calls her a sociopath.
And then there are six of us, and there’s almost enough space to be comfortable, and there’s wakefulness stretching before us like the desert – all the way to the horizon.
The cylinder is truly unpleasant now. The smell of drying urine is impossible to ignore, as is the hunger gnawing at my stomach. It’s easy to imagine the hunger as a seventh person, expanding around us until she fills all the empty space. It’s going to be one of us Lottery girls next, I’m sure, quitting just for the relief of a proper meal.
When the chime sounds again, the pile of trousers has moved and Privacy is squatting tenuously under the drip. Flowers scuttles along the floor and drags Privacy back towards the wall by her biceps, where Privacy flails and collides with Music in a muddle of limbs. Flowers claims the spot over the grate just as YOU MUST NOT TOUCH blinks to life above us.
I watch the conflict flash desperately over Music’s face. There’s barely time to extract herself, so instead she throws Privacy aside. Privacy’s a tall woman so it has to be a big push, but the force slams Privacy’s arms and forehead against the metal floor and there’s no doubt about the pain involved.
The descending tone finishes and Music’s bottom lip quivers. Then there’s a hand around her wrist, and she sinks back into the wall like it’s liquid and disappears.
Flowers is kneeling on the grate, head tipped back and catching the water happily on her gag. The ramifications of this slowly register: as long as we’re not allowed to touch her, and as long as Flowers doesn’t move, she’s effectively cut off our water supply. None of us can reach it without standing or risking touching her.
“Fuck you, Melinda,” says Guns, and we watch Privacy pick herself up like reassembling a doll. She isn’t bleeding or crying, but there’s a hardness to her face I haven’t seen before. I suppose she might have a concussion.
“No-one would blame you for leaving,” Guns tells her. “That kind of hurt – it’s not part of the rules.”
Privacy leans herself gingerly against the wall and doesn’t answer.
“Alright,” says Guns, now addressing everyone. “Just remember that this could be a lot worse. Forgotten what it’s like outside? If you can’t survive in here you’ll have trouble out there. You can’t die in prison.”
Internet tucks her hands between her thighs. “You can die anywhere,” she says.
And it’s tempting. It’s so tempting. How much I want to scratch, stand and stretch, drink and eat my fill, sleep and feel someone’s hands on me. To recover those little freedoms. I have lost all sense of time in this place. How long how long how long.
My tired eyes rest on Flowers and an idea sparks.
For the first time since we were locked in here, I shift from my designated spot in the circle and crawl around to the opposite wall. Guns and Internet swing their legs over to accommodate me.
I peel a couple of pair of trousers from the soiled pile, trying to ignore their dampness, and tie both right legs together at the ankles; they’ll stretch out to almost four legs’ worth of length now. The knot is as secure as I can make it.
I keep hold of one end of the trouser-rope and slide the other end in Guns and Internet’s direction. They both eye it for a second, and then Guns gives me the ghost of a smirk and picks up the cotton ankle I’ve offered. We pull the rope almost tight and it stretches neatly across the diameter of the circle.
Flowers still has her face to the sky and looks oblivious. I feel a delirious burst of satisfaction at the back of my skull.
Guns mouths one, two, three and then we swing the rope in an arc over Flower’s head. It catches her mid-thigh and we hook it under her arms before she can retaliate. We jerk the rope backwards and up, and in a deliciously similar manner to what she did to Privacy, Flowers is yanked off the grate and pinned up against the wall.
For a moment Flowers seems frozen with terror, but I know her stillness is simply profound control of the game. She doesn’t bash her feet against the floor. She doesn’t try and untangle her arms; she will touch us if she does, and she will be disqualified. She contents herself by swivelling her head between Guns and myself, administering some of the most withering looks I’ve seen.
Internet and Privacy tie the last pairs of trousers together – Internet has to remove her own pair for an even number – and between the four of us we manage to tie Flowers’ arms to her sides and her knees together. Then we take grateful turns under the drip. One of us could easily monopolise the water again, but there are still several shirts we can tie in knots, and no-one else wants to end up like Flowers.
A little while later, Privacy comes and leans next to me while Guns is drinking. “Tell me,” she says. “Why no names? No back-stories? Just this one thing you miss. No-one explains properly.”
I feel sweaty and self-conscious and exhausted. “I don’t know,” I mumble. “I guess because those first two don’t matter in here. We’re never getting the past back. But maybe it’s not too much to ask, that one small thing you miss most. Maybe you can get that back, in another life.”
I see her nod from the corner of my eye. “Like hot chips?”
I shrug. “It seems a reasonable thing to want.”
We smile at each other, just a little, and for a moment the competition is a fraction easier.
Then Guns rocks back onto her ass. She stares at the ceiling – the dry ceiling, the ceiling that is no longer dripping – and we are plunged into the next phase with no ceremony whatsoever.
If time had seemed unwieldy before, now it feels utterly amorphous. Logically, we can’t really have been stuck in the cylinder for all that long, but it’s suddenly difficult to imagine life outside these few cubic meters. I fight the nearly-overwhelming urge to leave just to reassure myself that other places – other situations – exist.
And even with my churning hunger and sickening exhaustion, it is so dull in here. No-one wants to talk without access to water, and this test seems to have reduced itself to who can sit here the longest. I wish I was smart enough to think of a way to eliminate the others – I could even justify it as putting them out of their misery – but I can’t come up with a thing.
Finally, Flowers starts crashing her heels against the floor, causing great thumps to reverberate throughout the room. They’re slow, methodical; no one could accuse her of fidgeting. The others glance amongst themselves to see if they can stop her somehow, but it’s not like they can hogtie her. And I am oddly grateful for the interruption, the un-ignorable sound, the vibrations which run up my stiff legs. I feel a rush of absurd affection for Flowers.
But Flowers doesn’t stop the banging. Guns and I end up curled on the floor, shirts cushioning our heads and hands muffling our exposed ears. Privacy and Internet seem happier sitting, though there’s barely room for them to do otherwise. Guns has two Asian characters tattooed on the underside of her wrists, and I spend a good half hour or so trying to deduce their meaning.
I could ask, of course, but that would ruin the game.
Flowers goes on for so long her heels must be swollen with orchid-bruises. I don’t know what makes her snap in the end. But one moment she’s bashing the floor, the next she’s rolling into Internet, whose jaw drops like Flowers has just slid a knife into her gut.
They leave silently, simultaneously.
I guess Flowers decided she couldn’t win. I would’ve thought she’d take Guns with her, but then Internet’s pee has pressed against her skin for the last few eternities. There’s a half-dried bloodstain where Flowers was sitting.
I am very, very lucky.
There are just three of us left. Not at all the last three I was expecting. My brain’s not working so well anymore. I have the sudden image of the cylinder as a time capsule, and someone digging up our skeletons in a hundred years.
The sign flashes YOU MUST NOT TALK, and clearly, no shits are given.
Something flares in my aching chest. Only two more to beat.
I could actually win.
The next part is a small lifetime. I allow myself to fantasise about my possible freedom. Will they let me sleep and wash and dress before throwing me out, or just take me directly outside, starving and thirsty and half-naked?
I will strip ‘til I’m bare and stand in the sun. I will stare at an uninterrupted horizon. I will lick salt and spices from my fingers. I will never take anything for granted again.
The ascending chime, and then YOU MUST NOT MOVE.
Frantic movements as we all try and stretch out onto our backs without touching each other.
Privacy doesn’t have anything between her head and the floor; Guns and I will be much more comfortable.
And for the first few minutes, this is better than the nothingness. I am concentrating on not moving. Not moving a millimetre. Of course, no-one can concentrate forever.
My shoulder blades press down against the metal.
I just have to last longer than the others.
I assume the rules are the same as Sleeping Lions or Dead Fish, those games we played as a kid when the adults wanted ten minutes of peace: breathing and blinking are still allowed. We’re on our backs so we can still read the pixelated sign, though I can’t imagine how our freedom could be restricted further. Our eyes have to be open for that, and so we have to be able to blink.
I think of myself as a corpse. As a mannequin. I am acutely aware of every protesting part of my body. I think of the time I needed my wisdom teeth out, but the teeth were too close to my nerves, and if I’d moved even a millimetre during surgery I would have permanently lost the feeling in my jaw.
So I didn’t have that surgery, but I can do this. I am made of fucking steel.
There are times when I think I want to die, I want to die, but I don’t move. I will not move. Not when I’ve come this far.
A small sound whistles to my right. Guns really must have been comfortable, because she’s snoring. And then, of course, she’s not there anymore.
I think of Privacy. If this was a kinder world, I would sacrifice myself for her, or she would sacrifice herself for me. And things would be hopeful and uplifting and we’d know we’d done the right thing.
But this is not that world.
The chime comes again, for the last time, and it says YOU MUST NOT BREATHE.
I hold my breath on the second last note.
I don’t know if I can do this. I was a decent swimmer, once upon a time, but that was years ago.
I stare at the ceiling and bite my tongue.
The pressure is building in my stomach, my nose, my throat. It feels like my face is an overfilled balloon, about to burst. Heat crawls up my neck. I think I can see Privacy from the corner of one eye: I just need to hold on longer than her. Just a millisecond longer. Then I can breathe.
Privacy is still lying there. My vision is blurring.
It’s involuntary. I can’t- I won’t-
I take a breath and cry out. It’s a tiny cry. There is no energy for tears. My whole body is shaking. I have lost. I will not get to leave. All that, so much for nothing.
I keep expecting to feel a shadowy hand on my wrist, but seconds pass and it never does.
I struggle to my knees. Privacy must know she’s won, but she’s just lying there. Still motionless.
I can’t even see her chest rising. The head blow?
I crawl across the room and press my fingers to her neck, hold them under her nose.
She really did stop breathing.
I slouch over the grate and stare at nothing in particular. It’s awful, it’s a tragedy, but mostly all I can think is I’ve won, I’ve won by default and laugh and laugh inside my head, and it feels like my skin’s just peeled off my body and I’ve been given a fresh, light, clean one.
Beside me, a large panel slides open in the wall and the prison warden steps through, flanked by her usual guards.
“I won,” I say, sounding like a small child and not caring.
“No,” says the warden. “Geraldine won.”
Is that really Privacy’s name, I think, numb. It doesn’t fit her.
I blink at them, feeling like the adults have come home to my messy playroom. “She’s dead,” I say. “I won.”
“You took a breath before she did. You knew the rules. And she’s already received her prize; she has her freedom.”
The wind is knocked out of me. The guards pick me up and carry me out. I cannot move. I cannot speak. Slowly, I adjust to the world outside the cylinder.
Next year, I think. Next year I’ll win.
And in the meantime, little freedoms.
This story originally appeared in Shoreline of Infinity.
An otherworldly banquet of contemporary fantasy, dark fairy tales and soft science fiction, Next Curious Thing collects some of Gale's best short fiction from 2013 to 2018, including 'In the Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold' (Syntax & Salt Editor's Award winner) and 'Wrecked' (Tangent Online Recommended Reading List). In addition to its previously published stories, Next Curious Thing features six brand new tales original to this collection.
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