It was winter and the heat was beginning to tighten around Aiyana’s body. At one end of the square garden, the uppermost branches of an oak tree swayed listlessly, stripped of its swish and thrash. The hedgerow had been forced into early retirement and the staff of the Sunnyside Rehabilitation Centre had erected a bristling electric fence in its place. Aiyana shifted in the plastic garden chair, cursing the humid suit that clung to her skin. Usually, the nurses only allowed the patients outside for forty minutes a day. They found that too much exposure to the elements often caused relapses in their charges. Strange undesirable regressions like thinking that food could grow out of the ground. Or else whispering something that sounded like season over and over again, the way a toddler test-drives the word Dad. But this afternoon, even the nurses in their short sleeves couldn’t bear to stay indoors, impossible as it was to ignore all the fusty mouths breathing in the same air.
The threadbare lawn and silent bulb boxes bewildered Aiyana. What was it all for? She thinned her eyes and made out a smudge of colour in the box closest to the fence. Shaking to her feet, Aiyana raised a withered hand to help shield her eyes. Rather than suffocate until January in the baked earth, two veiny blue crocuses had gasped out of the soil only to keel over almost immediately in the morning sun. Aiyana shambled over and bent to pat their stringy corpses, the way you would a dog or a well-behaved child. What were they? Their flesh was soft and crinkled like hers. It tore easily and between its lips was a sinewy yellow heart. She had seen things like this before. There had been food, lots of it. And people. A wedding, perhaps. And something very much like this, bunched like banknotes in the fist of the bride. Who had been getting married that day? And what had the colourful money symbolized? She wasn’t sure but thought that they were rather beautiful, passed out on the earth.
Aiyana felt a hand on her back and stood up slowly. It was Sandra, the head nurse, scrunched from decades of cigarettes and eating the state-sponsored NutraFix. She was responsible for taking the patients for their weekly shower. Sandra enjoyed watching as they rinsed the human film from their bodies. You’re a dirty old girl, aren’t you, Four? She would say, fingers feeding a cigarette back and forth to her sour lips. Aiyana was desperately afraid of the bathroom’s slippery edges and choked on the idea of falling in front of Sandra. If it ever happened, she would almost certainly need her help to get back up. The thought of Sandra’s iron fingers digging into the gauzy flesh of her naked back, drawing her close, filled her with something not unlike dread.
“What are you playing with there, Four?” asked Sandra, lipstick feathering at the edges of her shrunken mouth.
Aiyana stayed silent. The nurses didn’t like talk of before. It contradicted the new curriculums they had in schools. It was the whole reason Aiyana and the others were here in the first place.
“I’m not sure,” she murmured eventually.
Sandra’s cheek twitched. “I think it’s time for a nap, don’t you?”
She nodded and felt Sandra loop under her arm, sharp nails nipping at her straggly bicep.
Aiyana began each morning with a circuit of mental exercises. She waded deep inside of herself, sifting through the sediment of her brain for any fragments of the past. But it was like panning with a broken net, and the plastic remains of things and people often slipped right through her. On the rare occasion that Aiyana was able to hang on to a memory, she would scrutinise its every curve and recess before delving inside the mattress for her notepad and capturing it on the page in as much detail as possible. She’d already traced everything she could remember about the time before. People had worked constantly. Everything was green, so green you could cut your eyes just looking at it. Christmas was cold and cars wore frosted white chemises. Your eyes could roam deep into the distance, picking up hills, mountains and churches. Breathing didn’t grate the throat.
Some memories were harder to retrieve than others but she instinctively knew that these were the ones worth latching onto. She had rescued one just last week, plunging deep into the bedrock of mush and pulling it out, salt-puckered and riddled with holes. She was six or seven, squeezing a rubbery teat beneath a black and white animal, hot liquid steaming out into a bucket. Her miniature self had dipped her head to the bucket and lifted it up, taking a long rattling slurp. She couldn’t remember the taste but that wasn’t what was important. It was proof. Proof that the videos the nurses forced them to watch in the lounge about the Monsanto labs were utter crap. Food hadn’t always been made in fermenter tanks. There had been something else, something better, before the sachets of NutraFix.
But it was so easy to become muddled. The daily doses of Zolpidem ensured that Aiyana’s memories were off limits to her, moored on the coast of some uncharted island. Her room didn’t help; its pale blue washed walls lending themselves to forgetfulness. Painted in a sweeping circular motion, their currents drew you in then froze you out. There was nothing for the mind to hook onto other than a thin slit opposite her bed through which the nurses made their hourly observations.
This morning she was stuck on her husband. There had certainly been someone after him, but she couldn’t confidently have told you where one had ended and the other begun. She strained for a moment. If there were a nurse at the window they would think her incontinent. The first husband had wanted someone who didn’t take herself too seriously. That was right. A woman whose knots had been worked out and tied into a pretty pink bow. It had seemed to involve a lot of giggling when actually she wanted to vomit. Stomach aching as he told her to calm down, it wasn’t a big deal, everybody fucked their… who was it he’d done? A colleague or a childhood friend, someone just out of her reach. Her attempts to overlook his transgression had been like trying to gargle a mouthful of gravel. Every time she went to speak she would feel a lump the size of a hard-edged pebble embedding itself deeper into her throat. Funny, how that had mattered then. When things had started going missing, necessity had become a bitter lozenge that’d soothed those pains.
Aiyana reached beneath the yellowed blankets, fumbling with the fitted sheet until she felt the braided ridge of the mattress. She slipped her finger inside a small slit in the lining and pulled out a burst of foam and a tiny notepad. She wriggled deeper for the pen and drew both out onto the tent of her knees. On the last page was a drawing she had made when she first arrived at the home all those years ago. It looked like a child’s doodle, shaky and half scribbled out; the soft spot where vision becomes frustration. Aiyana had drawn it just as they had given her the first dose of Zolpidem and the world was leaking colours. She ran her quivering fingers over the outline that stood up on the page like scar tissue. Why had she drawn this? It was an insect of some kind with little looping wings and a monochrome jacket. She gnawed down past the gristle of the memory, running her tongue over its cool bone surface. If she could just suck the truth out of it, the last few years would run clear.
She sat that way for several minutes until she heard a sharp buzz in the corridor as one of the nurses unlocked the door to the main hallway. It was time for breakfast. Aiyana repeated the noise, letting it breeze out of her mouth. Bzzzzz. The creature seethed in the foggy tendrils of Aiyana’s mind. It had been noisy, that was right. Noisy but gentle.
There was a ripping sound and the door to Aiyana’s room swung open. A male nurse hovered in the doorway, all cracked lips and loose jowls. She jumped, heart skipping out of its comatose rhythms, a stone darting across the surface of a lake.
“Breakfast time, Four,” the nurse drawled. He looked neither here nor there, delivering his words in the same weightless fashion in which he woke up each morning.
Aiyana rumpled the notepad up in her hand, trying to make it as small as possible. Old people could pull off flustered and she faffed with her sheets before moving towards the door.
Only the women slept on the bottom floor. The men were the runners. In the time that Aiyana had been in the home there had only been one breakout. A runty looking man named David had made it past the electric fence and into the world beyond. He’d been a journalist in his old life, one of the last before the whole industry went under. Aiyana wondered what was out there, whether there was anything left to run to.
As she muddled through the dusty hallway behind a woman with varicose veins on her calf, Aiyana wondered, did the creature bite? For some reason she thought not. Their slippers dragged in apathetic synchrony across the linoleum until they reached a beige living room. Blu-tacked upon the walls were pictures of the nurses with their Health and Wellbeing certificates. Aiyana had never seen Sandra as happy as she was in that picture, hands cinched around her award. Some of the less mobile residents were parked in their usual positions around the television. It wasn’t on but they watched the blank screen intently nonetheless, mouths popped open. The home was ripe with the residues of its elderly clientele, a distinctive tang of rotting flesh and talcum powder that was somehow muted to aged nostrils. There were several younger patients and Aiyana often wondered if the daily contact with decline made them age any quicker.
Breakfast was the same as lunch and dinner. There was no need for a dining room and the majority of the patients sat on the floor or in plastic garden chairs, depending on whether the staff had bothered to bring them back in. Sandra swooped among them, dropping a small NutraFix sachet the size of a postcard into the lap of each patient. It’s packaging was black and at odds with the beaming blond woman on the front. She was white and spare in the way that had been all the rage after the first famine. The woman promised four hours of no fuss nutrition and dramatically improved energy levels. Aiyana stripped back the perforated wrapper and pressed its edge to her hanging lips. With an encouraging squeeze it oozed into her mouth. It was as if someone had dredged the ass of a pond and then added sweetener. Aiyana felt it bulge between the gaps of her teeth and started scraping it off with the edge of her tongue. She tried not to gag as an unexpected morsel lodged in her throat. It wouldn’t do to be sent to the matron. Not now.
To the left of the television was a door covered in black and yellow tape. The word HAZARD was emblazoned upon a plaque underneath which a man in free-fall seemed to be choking on a jagged bolt. Aiyana thought the colours were strange together. Dangerous. The fuzzy creature bristled in her pulpy brain, emitting a soft monotone buzz. What if it hadn’t been black and white? Things in the outside world rarely were. Black. Yellow.
With a sudden surge of energy, the creature barrelled out of the foggy maze of her parietal lobe, and embedded itself with a shuddering sting into the soft bulge of her hippocampus. Aiyana gasped, almost fitting as her throat became congested with the grey sludge. It was a honeybee. Yes! They had been the start of everything. And there had been food, so much that they had to throw it away. It was the bees that had made the food possible. She wasn’t sure how, some little communion of magic and evolution. Their absence had lead to the demise of the last world and she, like many others, hadn’t fully understood the effects of this at first. Everyone had known that something bad was happening, but the problem never really seemed real. Like trying to grasp smoke. First, it had been a brown people problem. Lack of investment in the right technologies. Her husband had sniggered when he heard that Bangladesh had gone under. We’ll be able to speak to an Englishman on the phone now, honey! By the time the chaos was spilling into white kitchens it was too late. Lashed on by the changing seasons, the honeybees had arrived desperately early to the spring dance and failed to find enough nectar to see them through the following winter. The adult workers went missing, fleeing the hive en masse, never to return. Towards the end, to see one was considered a sign of great fortune. The colour yellow became holy. Slowly but surely, things started disappearing from supermarkets. Long green-stemmed vegetables and the sweet purple balls were first. Aiyana’s neighbours became foxes, staging night raids on the local bakeries and corner shops, their eyes hot with hunger.
The truth wasn’t as gratifying as she’d hoped. It was like flipping through your family tree only to find that your great uncle twice removed was a serial killer with a fetish for skinny blond boys. Her mouth was incredibly dry. Her tongue flopped uselessly, tasteless and inert. She retched twice, bringing up reams of the pond sludge and the living room started to drift. Great forests and rivers of honey swirled behind her eyelids. Aiyana bent forwards, sure she was about to take a dip and felt the dead stalks of her arms being lifted into the custody of a nurse.
They came for Aiyana eventually, hypodermic needles poised between their claws like French Vogue cigarettes. After finding the notepad it was clear she wasn’t ever going to be compatible with the treatment. She knew too much. Aiyana received meds around the clock. Her garden visits were reduced to once a week. Each aching day, the sun poured in through the shit-stained skylight and hung like a dusty veil at the foot of her bed.
As the sun bled out on one of her last trips outside, Aiyana grew increasingly panicked. There was a brown monster at one end of the garden. Enormous limbs grew out of it in long uneven stabs. She kept her drooping eyes trained on it, careful in case it tried to lurch towards her when she wasn’t looking. The large silver fence must be there to keep it from escaping. To distract herself from its menacing outline she tried to remember her name. Surely it couldn’t be Four. It was something warmer. Sweeter somehow. Aayuhhh… Aiyeee…
While Aiyana sat wheezing in the dusk, a furry little winged insect came humming past her left ear. She batted it away, alarmed by its malevolent strum. Punch drunk from the smack and the balmy February air, the bee spun like a downed helicopter, coming to rest at last on the throbbing ground.