Joint Third Prize: “Mind Shadows”

Cecilia Vacanti

Genesis had taken Lethe’s memories, she was sure of it. She didn’t have any logical reason why she should come to this conclusion. She didn’t remember who she was, where she came from, who her friends were, where she lived. When she reached back into the deepest recesses of her mind all that was to be found was a soft misty haze, a swirling emptiness, a hole where the rest of her life should have been, all the way up until the yellow room — where everything simply…started up again. She still knew how to walk and talk, she knew basic concepts such as reading, brushing her teeth, getting on the train and using a credit stick. Everything personal however, it was a blank slate.

Completely wiped.

It didn’t matter. Genesis had taken her memories, she was certain of it.

She walked down the street amidst the shining towers and under arching metal bridges, as the gleaming Monorail rocketed overhead and dived down into gaping tunnels in the depths of the city. She ambled uncertainly, staring wide-eyed at every landmark, desperately racking her brain for some sign of familiarity, some indication of recognition. Everything was new, cold, unfriendly. Every street corner she rounded was a former friend, returned after many years apart and no longer familiar. She knew she should know them, should understand with ease the intricate windings of the streets and the clockwork of the traffic, the sly back allies and shortcuts and the shapes and contours of the rooftops that made up the skyline. It was disorienting, frustrating, infuriating. She felt as if some part of her brain had been blindfolded, and no matter how hard she grappled with it she couldn’t wrench it off.

She found the nearest Monorail stop and descended into the dim space below. Not having any credit stick of her own to buy a ticket, she followed closely behind a beefy woman holding a carpet bag and darted through the turnstile after her. The woman shot her a disapproving look, but didn’t say anything. Harsh fluorescent lights flickered overhead, illuminating pools of dirty concrete and casting grotesque shadows onto the far wall across the track. Standing next to bored strangers, she furtively studied each person in turn, searching for any hint of a spark of recognition.

A harried looking mother with a stroller.

A frumpy old man in a cheap suit.

A couple of kids in expensive brand-name clothing.

An old woman and her small rat-faced dog.

She had to know somebody out there, someone must be looking for her. Family members, friends, a lover, how in the world was she supposed to find them? The long train slid soundlessly into the station. She filed through its doors with the rest of the faceless crowd and slumped tiredly into the blue plastic seat.

Lethe wasn’t sure how to get inside Genesis. She knew where it was, she could see the tall metal spire stabbing jaggedly upward into the grey sky from anywhere in the city, neon lettering snaking down the walls. It was a lantern, and she, the moth; it drew her in, she knew this formidable eye-sore of a tower held the answers to her strange predicament. She could easily follow the maps and the signs in the Mono stations, they would lead her right up to the entrance, she was sure. But once she arrived, would they let her inside? Would she get past the front desk? If they had truly taken her mind, as she suspected, for whatever reason would they agree to let her come inside their stronghold and confront them? She felt her resolve slip as she realized how naive she was being. Of course this wouldn’t be easy. They had stolen from her! They were not on her side, she was a single entity against a gigantic multimillion credit government corporation. What did she think she was going to do, waltz into the conference room and stamp her foot?

Lethe stared miserably out the dark window of the Mono, watching bars of glowing neon flash past in flickering stripes against the black backdrop of the tunnel. She tried to count them; they slipped away too quickly for her to keep up. She could feel the panic that she had been suppressing up until now starting to bubble and churn inside her stomach, and she squeezed her eyes shut. Images of the room that she had woken up in floated swimmingly across her mind’s eye; walls of sickeningly yellow peeling paint, dull industrial carpeting and air pervaded by the faint smell of rubber. In vain she racked her brain once more, mentally clawing at the hazy space where anything before the yellow room should have been, anything. It was like trying to hold water cupped in her hand. Lethe violently shook her head and kicked the seat in front of her in frustration, causing its occupant to turn and give her a dirty look. She ignored it.

The Mono slid smoothly into another station, this one brightly lit and spacious, full of shining floors and stainless steel. With much static and crackling, the garbled voice over the loudspeaker announced that they had arrived at the Genesis Mono stop, and Lethe allowed herself to be pulled into the throng of people pushing past the doors and sweeping up the escalators. They came out into a large atrium, an impressive, spacious room made almost entirely of glass walls between metal support beams that curved up into a high domed ceiling. She noted that a major portion of the crowd milling around her were now business-looking types wearing suits and skirts. With a sweeping glance she inspected the room and immediately noticed the large security desk at the far end of the atrium. She stayed close to the walls and slowly meandered closer to the desk, staying out of the way of the queue of people gathering at the desk. Edging closer, she craned her neck to peek over the crowd.

The way into the tower seemed to be regulated by swiping the ID chip in one’s credit stick at the desk. Lethe retreated and leaned against the wall, watching and thinking. She had fully expected some sort of measures like this, especially from a government building, but that didn’t stop her heart from sinking. Now what? She studied the patterns of people walking past the desk, the lines at the elevators, the doors opening and closing and leading off into the depths of the tower.

She turned slowly in place, scanning for restrooms, closets and entrances to maintenance hallways, then tilted her head upwards, tracing the path of the elevators with her eyes and picking out the cameras. With a sudden decisiveness she snapped her gaze back down to the floor and strode over to the nearest door labeled “restroom.” She locked the outer door of the room and flicked off the light switch, then made a beeline for the furthest stall from the exit and pulled the door shut behind her. She pulled the toilet seat’s lid down, scrambling up on top of it with her feet up off the floor. She wrapped her arms around her knees and settled in to wait.

* * *
The sun sent a beam of light the color of deep gold through the small windows lining the top of the walls of the restroom. The beams of gold stretched their warm, radiant fingers across the floor, gently caressing the gleaming sinks, radiating in the mirrors and brushing across the paper towel dispensers. They slowly slid down the tiled walls and back across the floor, turning deeper and darker with every passing minute, from sparkling mote-filled gold to burnt orange to crimson, and then gradually fading to a dark watery blue. Shadows crept and oozed out from their hiding places and filled the room with their heavy presence, flowing over the sinks and reducing the room to hazy, abstract shapes; an impressionist version of its former self.

One of the shadows shifted and stretched, then slowly touched down upon the floor and opened the stall door. It stiffly moved across the bathroom, alternately thrown into sharp relief against the rays of silvery moonlight and fading back into the deep bars of black along the wall. It paused before the main door, listening for a moment, then cracked it open a sliver and peered out. The shadow waited for a moment, listening, hesitating, before finally slipping outside. The door shut behind it with a soft snap.

Lethe stayed pressed against the wall outside the restroom and gazed out into the vast, shadowy atrium. The silence hung in space like a heavy cloud, and every sound and movement she made were deafening to her ears. The top of the atrium’s high glass ceiling was lost in the gloom, and sharp, colorful lights from the buildings and nightlife traffic outside threw strange shadows across the floor and walls.

If she were being honest with herself, Lethe was quite amazed that her plan of hiding in the restroom until closing hours had actually worked. She had expected to be found when someone came in to clean, but much to her surprise, no such person had appeared. Of course she was relieved…but it seemed too convenient. Shouldn’t there be cleaning staff? A night guard? Genesis was a major government facility, she would have expected it to be staffed at all hours, at least with minimal security. Yet as far as she could tell, there was not a soul in sight. She slid around the security desk and approached the elevators. With a touch of the softly glowing button, the doors slid open and she stepped inside.

Lethe didn’t have a clue what level to go to, and she didn’t think working by the trial and error method was wise in this situation. The more time she spent wandering about, the more likely she was to get caught. She was certain she would not have access to certain floors anyway, at least not by elevator. Lethe decided to start at the highest floor she could get to, where she hoped the administrative offices would be. She could work her way down from there. She pressed button number 78, and nothing happened. No access without a scan. She tried floors 77 and 76, and did not find success until 75. The button came to life with a soft glow and the elevator began its smooth ascent.

Lethe’s unease rose with the elevator. She had no real plan of attack, no idea who she was about to meet. She didn’t know what she would say when she found someone, or if she would meet anyone at all. She had mulled it over for hours while she had waited in her hiding spot in the restroom, but she had not been able to come up with anything that didn’t sound like pleading. She shivered, then closed her eyes and shook her head, taking deep breaths and watching the floors go by. There were no other options, she needed her life back and this was the only thing she could think of to do it.

The doors slid open and exposed a sizable wood paneled office. A large viewing window to the left took up much of the wall, starting from about three feet off the floor and stretching all the way to the ceiling. It was dark, but by the moonlight from the window Lethe could make out a handsome wooden desk, floor to ceiling bookshelves and several plush chairs scattered about the room. More books were piled haphazardly on side tables, and an old clock ticked from somewhere off to the right. In the daylight Lethe assumed it was supposed to be cozy and old fashioned, but in the gloom the dark shapes and contours of the furniture felt menacing; they were concealing hidden threats and secrets, waiting to be discovered, to discover her. She tentatively edged her way into the room, feeling her way along the bookshelves, searching for any other doors leading off to other rooms deeper in the tower.

A cough.

Lethe whirled, heart hammering in her chest.

A tall, thin shadow detached itself from the far corner of the room and slid over to stand silhouetted against the enormous window. It regarded her in silence for a moment as she stood frozen in panic. Then it spoke, with a soft, high male voice.

“Welcome to Genesis, Lethe. Do you know why you’re here?”

Lethe was paralyzed. She was caught, she had found someone, this is what she had wanted, they found her! The man knew exactly who she was. This was the reason she had come here in the first place, to talk to someone about what had happened to her, to confront the people who had stripped her of her memories…but fear clawed at her insides and every instinct was screaming at her to get out, flee, get away. Her mind spun in dizzying circles and she struggled to realign her thoughts.

“Yes,” She whispered.

The shadow cocked its head. His features were hidden, but he seemed to be thoughtfully watching her mental struggle, waiting for more.

With a valiant effort, Lethe forced composure into her voice and said again, louder, “Yes. I’m here for my memories. You…you stole them. Tell me what you did with them.” The words sounded childish coming out of her mouth, but it was the truth. She didn’t know what else to say.

“Interesting,” the man mused. “Why do you think we’re the ones who took them?”

Lethe hesitated. “I don’t know. I just…know. It’s the only thing I’m sure of, besides my name.” The shadow man stepped closer, and Lethe shrank back against the bookcase. He chuckled and bent down to lean on the back of a chair. “Relax, kid. I’m not going to do anything. This is only an interpretive reasoning test.” He nodded at her. “Your sub-cognition score is unusually high, it’s been quite fascinating to watch.”

Lethe blinked. “What?”

The man shook his head. “We’ll talk more on the other side. It’s time to come out.”

Lethe tensed as he took a small object from out of his pocket and fiddled with it. “What are you –” she began, but was cut off by a sudden violent wave of dizziness. With a sickening twist the entire room tilted to one side, the floor pulled itself out from under her. She fell to her knees, her field of vision beginning to cloud over, and she slumped over onto the floor.

She could see the moon from where she lay. It was so bright. Blinding. She screwed up her eyes, squinting against the harsh light shining into her face. She shivered under the thin sheet, her face itched where the wires were taped. A cool voice wafted over her head: “Subject 8313 Amnesia Simulation: complete.”

Cecilia Vacanti is a violinist and violist studying American Roots music at Berklee. She grew up in Syracuse, NY. Cecilia loves playing fiddle tunes, reading books, taking care of plants, going on adventures, folding origami and staying up way too late, and someday she’d really like to live in France.
Featured Artwork: Selena N. B. H. [CC BY 2.0 (]