There are 4 of us here.
And the room is thick with tension. Dark, cold and dripping with tappings of rainwater from the previous night. 2 metres apart, maniac scribbles, loud breaths and thick cigarette smoke. Glances are quick and unsettling, our supervisor looks tired, my legs are weak and my throat thirst from lack of water.
The only thing drowning the creepy chirps of the birds is the kettle steaming. The usual smell of earthy coffee is overwhelmed with a thick feeling of anxiety and fear.
I am scared. It stinks. Everyone stinks.
A few hours ago, the room was filled with vomits and diarrhoea. We all languished in pain, as our legs moved involuntarily—kicking one thousand times per minute. I have died of fever a million times and returned. The painful spasms in my legs have rendered them useless.
The cult-like vibe of the room makes my skin crawl and the members are my enemies. We’ve all fought so hard to be here and we’d do anything to win. To lose is to rot, to lose is to die a slow torturous death. The waiting room is a brutal place, I have failed 17 times, but this time the prize is mine.
It all started 15 years ago, when I asked the devil to borrow me some euphoria, and asked him for an escape from my torments.
I got it.
In an embrace warmer than my mothers’, I sat so high in the clouds, looking down at my tribulations. It was the best dream I had ever had—a lover who caressed my skin and made love to my senses. He whispered saccharine music into my ears and my body ascended, into a place where I met the gods and learnt the secrets of the universe.
Nothing could compare to the blissful apathy. The memories of the kicks and the taunts from my old classmates soon faded into oblivion, and everything was right again.
knock knock knock knock
The devil came knocking. Asking for the debt I owed him. Every night the debt soared in inflation. And I couldn’t keep up with the devil’s requests.
I need more and more and more. My strings go taut and taut and taut.
My lover no longer provided me with euphoria, my lover became a monster who stuck knives in my flesh. A few hours without him was filled with intense agony. An agony worse than the world in which I existed before we crossed paths.
Think of your worst nightmare.
Perhaps it’s snakes crawling on your skin, and big worms eating you from the insides. Being eaten alive—a fatal encounter with a grizzly bear. Perhaps your worst nightmare is being locked in a tiny box, gasping for air as your body pleads for oxygen. Your eyes gouged out with an angled knife, the skin on your face flayed off, your screams stuck in your throat. Being stabbed a million times in the neck, your limbs cut off with a saw.
Your mother is dying and she’s right in front of you. You have the remedy, but you can’t move an inch. You’re stuck in suspension, watching her in anguish. Yet you hold on to the remedy but you can’t administer it. All of these nightmares, happening at the same time.
Now multiply it by a thousand.
Exponentiate by 5.
And add 2.
Your result is an approximation of the magnitude of the punishments I suffered, whenever I didn’t satisfy my lover’s requests. He has taken 3 of my friends in quick succession. The gaping hole in their mother’s hearts will never heal. The euphoria I borrowed, only lasted for a week. It’s been 15 years, yet the grip of my toxic lover is still as tight as ever.
And now I’m here in this waiting room, and for the 17th time, I’m taking my chance to get out of hell.
tick tok tick tok tick tok
The clock strikes 9.
All eyes move to the supervisor. Our necks turn mechanically, as we take glances at the only reason why this is all worth it. Visible from the window, is a house brightly lighted with the sign Moleskine on top of it. The glorious morning sun cast its luminosity on the heavenly structure. It’s immaculately painted in white, creating a beautiful contrast to all the colour and light beaming from its insides. It’s a colourful library, filled with publications of all kinds.
This is it. This is why we all fought to be here. Our one ticket out of hell.
It’s 10 o’clock, and the competition begins. Hours of agony and devising strategies, yet we have no idea what is to come.
Not one word, not a single clue.
Just like the last times I had been there, the supervisor starts with a poignant opening speech.
"Our streets are littered with broken dreams and faces ridden with sores. The intelligent youths of our future are wasting away. The system has failed. And the disease has infected the fabric of our town. This disease does not discriminate, it takes the young, the old, the rich and the poor. We want them back, our future, the people whose smiles used to light up our lives. So here’s a house that cures your disease and grants your biggest wishes. But only one out of 4 will make it there."
It sounds oddly magical but ominous, like something you might read in a fantasy book. But as fantastical as it sounds, for me my wish is simple, I want my son back. I will go to war and shed blood for my son. I will give my limbs if I have to. But the only mountain that has been too high to climb, is the grip my toxic lover has on me.
“Are you ready?”
The loud baritone voice of the supervisor jolts me out of my thoughts. She orders us into different enclosures and we are each given a book. I notice it’s in different colours. How the colours were chosen I have no idea, but somehow I get a blue book.
The rules are simple.
There’s a code to enter into the house, the code is a book, with a contrasting colour. There are no other pointers, and we are given no timeframe, but I know my time is running out fast.
The clock starts.
I open the book, and I’m faced with the most vivid colours I have ever seen. It’s almost like the colours are alive, beckoning at me to come into its kaleidoscopic world. A safe place, away from all my afflictions. There are 5 colours. I stare long and hard at each page, trying to figure out what I need to do to win this time.
Just a coarse and painful sigh escaping involuntarily from my parched mouth.
Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough. Perhaps the answers are imprinted behind the distracting vividness of the colours. So I rub and rub, hoping the colour would fade away and reveal the answers I desperately need.
No clues. No diagrams. No code with special characters.
But something else happened. My hands are stained. I have rubbed so hard that my hands are now stained. I flip very quickly to the next page and rub incessantly. The colours are bleeding, but this time the colour on my hand has become the result of two colours mixed. I have made a discovery, but I’m not sure which one of the many combinations of colours is the key to the house.
I cast a sparing glance at the house again, trying to soak in its essence, and go by the words that come to mind.
Sticky red jam. Jars of cream. A nice read overlooking the sea. A house of endless inspiration. The career of my dreams.
Contrast! Contrast! Contrast!
The word is ringing in my ears. As if 100 ghosts are whispering it to me in increasing loudness and intensity, all in harmony like a haunting choir song.
Amidst the rendition of the ghosts, however, another word comes into my mind.
The opposite feeling to the comfort the Moleskine house would bring, the prominent feeling that has plagued me for the past 15 years. The code for entering the house of wishes has to be a black book.
The only thing my father ever really taught me is colours. He was a painter, albeit an unsuccessful one. My poor father barely had enough money for paint, so we would mix up colours to make the ones we needed. I barely have any memories of my father, as he spent his days slaving away in mines, but if there’s anything I remember, it’s that orange and a lot of blues is the quickest way to make the colour black.
And so I rub, rub, mix, and rub.
The first emergence of black on the cover makes me scream for joy. I have finally figured it out. This has to be the answer.
I have won this time.
I finish up the front of the book as quickly as I can, dashing out of my enclosure towards the house. The road feels light and fluffy, as I imagine my child in my arms, my life finally going back to normal again.
The angels are singing and their sonorous voices fill the beautiful air.
As I approach the door to the house, however, my heart sinks, and suddenly, my legs feel heavy.
The angels go mute.
Another contestant has figured out the answer before me.
Someone else has won.
The disappointment I feel can’t be put into mere words. The muscles in my stomach are tight, and I feel very faint. I have failed. I have failed myself and I have failed my son again. The clouds open and my legs become stuck in brown mud. I find myself on the ground, staring longingly into dimly lit houses filled with images of what I can't have.
Mothers rocking their children to sleep.
The lights get dimmer and dimmer, their movements get slower.
I pass out.
"Lily! Lily! My dear! Wake up my dear!"
It’s Mama Cá, a strange-looking lady with eyebrows squeezed together like a mad scientist.
"How long have I been here Mama Cá?" I slur, as I look around like a young kangaroo missing from its mother's pouch.
“Let’s get you home, darling, you’ve been here for a while.”
And then it dawns on me. Like the millions of times I've woken up on these streets, I have just come out of another hallucination—courtesy of my toxic lover.
We arrive home, no one is outside to welcome me. My son isn’t waiting to give me the hug I yearn for, neither is my mother nor my sister. By now their excitement of my arrival has diminished, the excitement they know would inevitably be destroyed.
tip top tip top
I walk shakily, into the room I have emptied gradually over the years. My family is sat with concerned looks on their faces, on the few pieces of furniture I haven’t been able to pawn. Right in front is my father. Dressed in his blue mining uniform, with a dejected look on his face.
He’s back home now, and in front of him, sits all of his pension.
Just enough for me to go back to the waiting room in my dreams, just enough for me to go back to rehab.