Your hair, flat against your scalp, black and shiny is what I dream of. Surely doused in oil its lacquer entices my interest. I long to run my palm across it, to rub the tips of my fingers together and feel their wet smoothness, the thick smell to be rubbed into the back of my hand, then lifted to my face as I inhale your lingering scent. But where are you now? I am attempting to find my lover. First there, now there. My pursuit eager, I screech down alley upon alley, narrow streets with their buildings pressing in upon me from above, this one mostly alloy, another mostly stone. What makes him mine? And, even - do you think about me now? Do you consider me, with your gaze, as I move across this life? I cannot be sure where I have ended up, without any technological assistance available to me. Pulled in two, three, four, the childhood structures: a video game for the mind. I am surely not where I expected to be. If I give myself/earn enough points on the way to school, boredom and anxiety colluding with the same route day upon day to create a semblance of duty, hopping over and never to touch the fourth pavement slab (for that mistake would bring loss, failure), eviting the uncontrollable crying fit (tantrum?) at a pain unknown. You give me the small rectangle of wrapped plastic, within which lays the nutrition bar, the leftover snack you’d saved from your lunchbox for your own walk home, a walk which for you had always seemed easy (to me). I had never seen you cry the way I would. Proffered, the red wrapper gracing your tiny outstretched hand, a gift to stop my tears; I now see quite vividly and am trapped by the structures I have built, joints and limbs locked in place, struggling to form the words, expecting/accepting the treat and shortly thereafter managing “really?” Knowing still that it has already become mine through the tears, which in their wetness eke out from your hand to mine the only thing that will quiet me, “thank you” under my breath. Saying that quietly, out of a politeness I know I must offer if I am to receive my reward. A polite gesture I both do not mean and know I must offer so as not to appear rude, so as to uphold the structure we are all inside, that an item belonging to you indeed belongs to somebody, is a private possession, that upon transfer from one’s possession to another’s - transpossession? - first must be gifted and second must be thanked for. Those tears premeditated the exchange. (Did you hear me when I called out to you?) My over-heavy school bag on the dirty ground, filled with too many books and stationery, too heavy to carry around all day, causing my child’s back to ache, constructed and maintained by the memory of forgetting one class’s work book filling me with a daily dread never to be repeated; containing alongside those books my empty lunchbox, its snacks eaten or given to those other crying children as an attempt to stem their tears, tears which seemed all too common despite the apparent naturalness of the venues we children found ourselves in day by day. Crying fits or tantrums spurred by an unknowable injustice, the pain and confusion of the days in this place. Not understanding why I must attend the institution, with its unknowable and unchangeable rules, the price for whose breaking was more than despair - the highest punishment itself comprised of a barring from the institution - which in my mind was the highest reward, to be forced (allowed?) to attend my parents’ workplaces, at their disgust and my ashamed delight. The true punishment for my misbehaviour, I can now reflect, would be the financial burden placed upon my parents: already both working full-time, now their meagre incomes would have to stretch to paying another adult to take care of me. Bound by economics to the institution, to follow its rules in order than I not bring what we termed ‘shame’ to my family - what I can now quite clearly term ‘cost’. Split, hearing and knowing it is most important of all to focus on the sound of her voice, this weight pushing at my back, bare feet extending and pressing cold and bony toes into sand, the rocks and pebbles by the shore of the loch, another hand is stroking and squeezing my left while my right flails in terror and panic. Now pointing, the first finger outstretched while the others cramp in a ball, now accusing, now falling limp, then falling with rigidity to smash at the stones upon which I lie. Another hand rubs the small of my back, whose hand I do not know, pressing at the muscles there in vague circular motion. My face is wet, urgent sounds cascade through the air, incomprehensible yet recognisable as voices and I am being held by a lover - ex or present I cannot tell, but I trust him - the look on his face unreadable and I am pulled, dragged again upwards, to something/somewhere more important (still hearing the mysterious, commanding voice in my ear: “come back to us, Féal.”) To the buzzing of flies, the stench of rot, the walk home: from a place I didn’t want to be to a place I did not want to return. The ache and agony, the split head reeling as if too drunk, in directions through time, the past with its jaws locked upon me, these structures framing my classroom belligerence, quickly seeming to transform from a model pupil to an obstructive one, perhaps from having enjoyed those trips from home to visit the other children, the days only with the loosest of structuring, then with age the structure becoming more and more uncomfortable, confining, informing the routine within which I was able to navigate my mornings, mostly alone, (preferring to be alone?) preferring to hop or jump over the divisions I had created, those narrow funnels filled with dry brown moss: where are you? Between the cracks? Again the pull takes me to your tent, with its musty fish smell, your smile and eyes closing as you drift into sleep, and I sit with a hand upon your foot, it wrapped by a sleeping bag whose newness I’d naively been suspicious of, holding on to that outline of your thin frame and slowly smoking, barely a thought in my mind, until you wake again, with your sweet smile, laughter, and we start the routine anew, speaking of our pasts, your struggles, myself too ashamed to comment much more than a nod or some sound of agreement, then of displeasure at injustice, to be repeated until I would become to cold to linger with you in that nature reserve, to leave you there alone, with my shame and worry, afraid for your safety, your impending death always just around a corner, the question always so close to my lips: “why don’t you just sleep at my house?” but unable to be formed by my tongue, so I would depart, through the dark forest, all the while wondering if I should return, but never returning. How telling what you do for survival I can choose to do for fun. The homeward return available to me impossible for you. Now I exchange the idea of the currency I have earned - coins not given, but worked for, inanely - without much hesitation to sleep in the cold, wet and damp, uncomfortable on the hard dead grass, a bad sleep, the shouts of other travellers waking me throughout the night and too early in the morning. Where you slept, it was quiet, aside from the dog walkers, the wind through branches, the river not too far away. And the love I think I feel for you: my patronising care, your vulnerability enticing me, your anger and moods meaning nothing, forever only temporary. When you would fly into a rage, I would just smile - the worry was still there - but from my position, to your position, you were more entitled to any feeling you may have than any I could imagine for myself. In the present, hands clasping me and whoever’s voice attempting to reach me, it is dark, much darker than when we began, as if the night had just arrived, unannounced, a lover with a worried expression saying my name, holding me, I say, knowing I am wrong, that they are my auntie, the position absolutely familiar: I am inconsolable, a child’s upset, shivering, blubbering, knee bleeding from its brutal contact with the cabinet, my hand snaking round to the small of her back, crying and choking upon her chest, her smell musky, perfumed, but it is not her that holds me in my distress, nor is it you. Feeling again as the arm coddles me, the adult strength of that arm, I am safe, I know, despite the shadowy figures at the edges of my vision, who prowl our environs silently, and once more I am pulled away, with a fear less powerful than the desire to leave this plane, I manage “who the fuck is this behind me?”, a cry, panicked, scared, confused, unsure how much time has passed since what had come before, fainting again, the spin of my vision leading now up, now down. I am telling my dad I would never be builder like him, only a builder, not a real job, defiant myself at the outrage on his face, and I am working on the site, sweltering sun overhead gleaning salty rivulets from my hairline, mixing concrete in a wide plastic bucket, lifting something too heavy to be dragged clumsily from one place to another, bringing down the wooden mallet in its thirtieth or fortieth descent, the head breaking off with a crack as I slip in mud, despairing, knowing it is not where I want to be, where I should not be, where I absolutely will not end up, once I am able to direct my own fate. Punishment mixes and mingles with my shame to tell me: I do deserve this, for my failure. Failure to be a man, shame at my desires. “It’s Gratitude” says the unfamiliar voice, and another, unclear, across the fire repeats it, I squirm and shake (I am later told foam poured from my lips), I hear the siren and chop of the medical transport - always so loud - and am sure a nurse now holds me, readying my body for a lift onto the stretcher. Christ, I think, I really have done it now. Some distance away Tezore is grinning, I know Tezore’s face, they are so tall against the dark loch, hair curling and pushed from the forehead, with the stars glistening and wet above them, holding one of the older models of manual communication device to their face, speaking into it, most words not understandable to me, those I do understand forming ‘exotic’ or ‘illicit’. The man holding me is Chrome. I had been trying to tell him something… Something important, something I was struggling to describe, but which was imperative for me to vocalise. His arm around me is tight, supporting me so I do not fall again, do not sink into the sand. I must have been unconscious. Who was behind me? I realise the hand at my back is Onyx’s, although I cannot see him. The hand which rhythmically strokes my left belongs to somebody I am aware I live with, somebody whose face I cannot see, but whose voice tells me my name, yet I do not trust the information they impart upon me, do not trust that they are not indeed angry with me. I am mewling like a hurt or infant animal. But who is this unknown woman with the commanding voice, who very much seems to be in charge, who I have upset or offended? She scares me, that voice become a representation of power and authority, that I have challenged, whose power over me extends into each corner of my life. I do not want to be in trouble, I do not want to have placed the group in danger through my actions. What led me here, to this confusion? I am unsure. I pull from her, burying my head into my auntie’s chest - into Chrome’s chest - him clutching me tightly, I manage to look at his face: glasses, shock, concern, two figures standing off to my left with equal expressions, their wide eyes covered by glasses which reflect dying embers and the moon. I hear: “you are here, you are okay,” and I am neither here nor okay, I am crying after a painful day of schooling while the other boys in the forest clearing do not know how to react, why I am so upset, and an attempt to calm me with an offering of chocolate substitute. Or they do not care, they only know the unseemly crying fit must end. A cry-baby, making a mountain out of a molehill, prone to overreaction. I shudder out my breaths, seeing the boys’ impatient faces as they make then break eye contact; everybody wants to go home, it is past time. Why am I (again?) holding up the group with my dramatic and emotional outburst? The sand and stones are cold underneath; with some insistence, I feel a coat zipped up over my torso and “get them some socks” as my chilly and bare feet are covered, first one sock pulled on and then the other (as I note the colour of the socks, certainly not mine). “Where are their shoes?” I retch, pain in my bowels, with tears leaking from my eyes, I am ashamed, I apologise, I hear laughter, a giggle from Tezore, communication device in palm, now at their moonlit face, now held aloft, and “they want to speak to you,” I say “give it here” and the old-style manual communication device (where by all the stars did they find one at this hour, in this locale?) is in my hand, a worried voice metallic, translated (Triton? I must be off-world) says “alright, well hold on a second, where are you now exactly, what are your coordinates?” I do not know. The voice asks me if I have a history of strokes, I begin to explain that my auntie, I think, has recently had a stroke, but we have not spoken in years, and that it is surely a sign of stress, but I am not stressed, I am quite sure. The voice - however far away - asks if I have a history of epilepsy, or of heart problems, to which I say clearly “no”, how old I am, to which I reply thirty one (Tezore had previously given it as thirty three), my name (which I, panicked, give erroneously as BK, then am asked if those are my initials, and what is my birth name, which I give, reluctantly, embarrassed to be revealing it to the strangers surrounding me, eyes firmly closed, and the voice on the line cannot spell my surname). Hearing a chuckle from behind, or to my right, why did I give that name? It is no longer mine. I am painfully aware of being gendered, in this emergency I refer to myself as a man, think of the voice on the line as a woman, refer to my friend Tezore as a man, to the person holding me as a woman. The painful yet comforting and widely understood process of gendering now returned to me in this moment, basing itself on nothing but the tone of voices, my hesitancy to explain something unexplainable at the site of crisis, over the surely antique communication device, aural-only, without facial expression, its grip on me feeling tighter than ever, and aware I will have to make another apology to this bewildered group of onlookers for allowing it to run its course through me. The medical transport will take four hours on its flight, and do I want it booked? I say I will confer with my friends, not knowing who around me is a friend, feeling as though I am booking a private transport shuttle and knowing that my insistence on taking the communication device (ancient!) from Tezore was truly about making sure there would be no emergency services present, that the group’s enjoyment would not be dampened by an evening’s trip to the accident and emergencies department of some alien convalescence centre. I say I will be fine to go back to the campsite and that I am with a large group, within which some will surely make sure I remain safe. I am asked if I am sleeping in a caravan and this is where I begin to laugh: “a tent, it’s so cold”, entirely sure I will never set foot in a caravan again, taken roughly to the too-small plastic dwelling within which I could barely turn in bed, sleepless, angry, silent and the person (nurse?) behind me lifts and slides a blanket under me. “A tent? Hmm…” There is some silence through the line, or an absence of speech. “It’s nano-fibre.” I offer, before saying my thanks and pressing the red circle on the device’s screen. I hold it aloft, declaring “I don’t know whose this is.” It is taken from my hand. I am shaking. My head hurts. The structures are still strong within my mind, the frameworks dictating what I must say in response to the questions I overhear and again overwhelmed by the sensation that I am not really here on the beach, that I am jumping the fourth paving stone, that I am in your tent as you smoke spice, that I am walking home from school crying at being surrounded by and misunderstood by and disappointing the other boys my age from my neighborhood, that I am crying after hurting my knee in my auntie’s bedroom and she is holding me as, inconsolable, I shudder and shake, sobs forcing their way up from my stomach, causing my throat to ache, unable to form the words to explain myself, emerging as dribble from my lips and tears from my eyes, catharsis making me smile. I know now the woman behind me is Gratitude, having had it explained multiple times. She has me in the recovery position. I’d heard her illustrate it to Chrome. She must know what to do. I still think of her as ‘her’, not ‘them’, and decide it is a problem for another time, which feels frivolous of me, disrespectful. Who are those figures across the fire? They stand away, at varying heights, unknowns, the other side of the stones Chrome and his partner had pulled from the shore to our perch, the dying flames a barrier between their sanity and my madness. I resent them - have they come here just to watch and grin at my folly? I look up at Chrome and, laughing, realise he is as handsome as he has ever been, possibly more handsome. He is beautiful and strong, the perfect image of a man. My words choke in my mouth, blubbering as spit rolls down my chin, I cough, asking “where am I? Why is there a med transport?” Pitching forward, away from the forgotten stranger at my back, I shout again: “who the FUCK is that?” I feel my eyes crease with turmoil, yet as I try to stand I realise I am too weak, and I fall clumsily back into the stranger’s embrace, a puff of sand billowing across the campfire stones. As I shiver, words are exchanged, and it becomes clear that is time to go back to the campsite. I ask one of the figures across the dead fire, with malice, what do they think they are looking at? If there is a reply, I am not able to interpret it. Someone finds my shoes and helps me put them on. I can lace the laces myself. The pungent smell - wet feet, wet socks, wet boots - is overwhelming, sweet, enticing. It smells like you. It’s really cold now. I’m standing, swaying, supported by Chrome and Onyx, someone’s bag at my feet, and we are waiting on the rest of the group to be ready to leave. How many people, I am not sure. I cannot lift my head to see. They seem to be exchanging words of some kind and despite the silence of the evening, I cannot hear any of it over the pounding in my ears. Chrome and Onyx seem frustrated. I don’t know where my bag is, or who is carrying it, though I know with some guilt it is full of equipment, that I brought far too much with me to the beach, only to make sure nothing would be left behind or forgotten, that someone else would now be burdened with my over-caution. I lean to try to pick up the bag and Chrome stops me, telling me somebody else will take care of it, that now we should just leave, that the best thing to do would be to get indoors. There is a lodge at the campsite. Return to the tent - to your tent? But you’re away, somewhere away, I don’t quite know where. I seem to be getting very overwhelmed. I get panicked over things I do not understand, can not understand. Onyx, attempting to distract me, tells me about a cartoon or an emission with animals, I am worried for the wellbeing of the animals, begin to breathe rapidly, and Chrome’s worried expression hints that to speak or to engage me in conversation might just be the worst thing at that moment. Onyx hands me the nutrition bar and I waver, falling against your weight. You hold me though I am beginning to feel I do not want to be held. As I pull away, you pull me back to you, supporting me, holding me steady. On his suggestion that eating would be the best thing for me at that moment, I say my quiet or loud thank you as I unwrap and bite into your lunchbox snack - you’d saved it all day and now it was mine, for the crying - it is so dry. My thanks are fake. I know this with some certainty. The snack had never been yours: it was waiting to be consumed by me, in your pocket, now in my hand. My throat seizes up, I struggle to speak. I wobble. The dryness in my mouth is unbearable. I panic. “Who has water?” I ask, to the figures, who do not reply. “Who has water?” I hear Chrome, or Onyx, ask. My mouth is too dry and full of the nutrition bar and I cannot spit or swallow and there is no water: I pitch forward, ears ringing, eyes blurring, fall to one knee, and vomit, brown bile covering the rocks at my feet, splattering my boots. What relief, and shame. I hear a sound expressed from the group, Chrome pulls me to my feet as my vision blurs and I am pulled again in two, four, or five, I am telling my dad I think his job is shit, worthless, beneath me. I learned this as a child, so much knowledge absorbed, the fruits of my father’s labour now painfully illuminating just how wrong I had been. But who can blame a child? The crying fit I had thrown when my mam had offered me a blue or orange sleeveless vest, a gift, stylish: I couldn’t have expressed it then, but having the certain knowledge that being attracted to other boys was something unspeakably bad - disgusted and betrayed by my mother, who with her gift wanted to signify my sexuality to all; what pain she intended to cause me! Did I then take a sip of water from a near-empty plastic bottle? I remembered my earlier thirst - we’d been on the beach for hours, and had run out of water safe enough to drink. Chrome, his arm around my shoulder, my arm around his, pulling and pushing me onward over the rocks, away from the beach, urging me to be careful, now an old woman with a wrinkled brown face, swaddled by a deep green cloak which whips around her in the wind, its length threatening to trip me. She is carrying an oil lamp which sputters and lights our way along a dark and winding path, gravel and dirt underfoot, thick leaves and branches pressing upon us from above, the weeds and roots grasping at my aching and blistered feet - whose socks am I wearing? Certainly not my own. The path is dangerous, uneven, long, winding. The light of the lamp, Chrome urges me to focus on. Where is the old woman who had been clutching me to her? Gone now, only Chrome remains, his multi-comm (modern) shining ahead of us to light the way. I look up at the night’s sky, laughing, “the stars look great tonight.” I can see the leopard, the only constellation I can reliably find within my own cosmology, its jaws grinning open, the stars showing its teeth, ears and tail. Pointing, I do not understand why Chrome won’t just stop and admire it with me. Could we not see the bright reflections of Earth or Jupiter from here? Turning, I see Onyx following behind us with that facial expression each of our group (save me) is wearing. His head is bent down low. I am scared and stop our progress, telling Chrome I don’t want to be in trouble, that if we wait on the road I can recover, regain my wits, that if we just wait five or ten minutes, I will be fine once more, and we won’t be caught by the campsite workers, won’t wake the holidaymakers, that no medical transport need be called. He urges me on, says not to worry, that it’s best to be indoors. He turns into the entryway for the boating club, and to my surprise as much as his, I know that we’re not in the right place, that we need to continue upon the path, which clearly was never a path, but a wide road, with neatly trimmed hedges lining each side. This time, it is I who leads the way. Despite the ache on the balls of my feet, I know in which direction we are meant to head. Upon our arrival at the campsite my mood is changed. I am cocky and confident. I stride ahead with a grin and purpose; if anyone catches me, I am merely a drunkenly confident Triton man, and they will surely back down from any challenge I might make. I whisper incessantly to Chrome, at my left. There are more tents arranged about the area we’d earlier made our camp. To the right, thicker nano-fibre tents had been constructed, and I chuckle to myself - had I really convinced the medical worker that my income was high enough to not be sleeping under cold plastic? The only light source (aside from the stars and the moon) comes from the window of the hikers’ lodge - I stumble, fearing someone else has beaten us to it. If there are more strangers inside, will my ploy of drunkenness convince them not to immediately alert some authority as to my condition? We climb the short flight of steps and are at the hikers’ lodge. Through the window, I see with some relief, that it is empty. The lights are on a fifteen-minute timer, I remember, so somebody must have recently left. Chrome opens the door before me and gathers me inside. It is lighter and warmer than outside, yet I shiver. Chrome sits me down on the picnic table in the room’s centre and stands behind me for support, a hand upon my shoulder, warming and firm. The others in the group stream in and out. Just how many of them are there? I close my eyes and I am at my desk, in class, all eyes on me, panicked, I close my eyes and across the picnic table sit those three unknown figures from the fire: they do not understand me, and I suspect this misunderstanding stems not only from the evening’s experiences but stretches further into the past; how I yearn to be understood. One offers to make me some tea; there is debate as to whether the caffeine I desire will be deleterious to my condition; Chrome decides on camomile. The worried look is still on all of their faces, as is their obvious tiredness. They speak about leaving, about returning to their tents, about catching a shuttle the following morning. I live with them! This comes to me suddenly. But why do I live with them? They do not understand me. We live in a public dormitory? Two wear glasses and pained expressions. The third has their eyes closed. All with skin as light as mine, dark circles under the eyes, lids red and puffy. One of the dormmates, Noura, says it would be best for me to share a tent with her tonight, and I am excited, happy at the prospect of not sleeping alone. There is conversation, which I cannot quite interpret. Dan, another of them, asks how I am, with a smile. I just look to Chrome. Vague prepares tea for her and myself, using the portable gas boiler. It hisses loudly. Noura is still looking at me with that expression, cold and exhaustion plain on her face. “Do you all just want to go to bed?” I ask. I would prefer to sit here alone with Chrome, upon whose face I can see the same exhaustion. I do not want him to leave me. I do not want to sleep. Noura is asking where I will be sleeping, logistics, but I cannot understand, I do not know what day it is, or when my shuttle departs, or when I am leaving; I cannot answer her questions, and I am troubled, worry and panic rising again in my chest and throat. She asks once more where I will sleep, and I reply “with you?” and she says yes, and I ask again, then again, turning to Chrome, him seeing the panic on my face, I start to cry: “But who will be sleeping with my tent?” “Nobody.” “But, but…” I cannot make the words leave my throat in the order I wish them to - my tongue is not my ally. I am distraught. “Who will be sleeping with my tent?” I am overcome with the loss, pain and grief on behalf of the tent, which has now been relegated to spending the night in this cold realm completely alone, a fate which I want to save it from, to protect it. I feel faint, light-headed, that feeling I dread from poppers and blood tests - trying to calm me down, Chrome says it does not matter - I see the look on his face, he doesn’t know how to tell my dormmate that she is winding me up, increasing my anxiety - she does not recognise the state I am in - he does recognise my state, as he has, I am certain, rescued me from this very situation many, many times before. When and where, I do not know. I must have forgotten, I must not be able to remember clearly, although the memories are becoming unlocked. Why do I not know the location and time within which this scenario has already taken place? Is my psychosis really so pronounced? Noura offers to stay up, “in solidarity”, but I see the tiredness on her face and her desire to go to bed on time, to catch her shuttle, and I am angry with her, unreasonably so, wishing she would leave me to be alone with Chrome, certain she thinks I am more fine than I am (and what of it? To act as if I am fine seems to be the best solution to ensuring I am, in fact, fine). I tell her and Vague and Dan to go to bed. Or rather, I do not tell, but offer. It is the gift I am giving to them: do not wear yourselves out with my care. But the reality, which perhaps I explain to them, is that their presence is distressing me, that I need to be cared for by someone who knows how to care for me. I realise I have known them for under a year, and they have only met one facet of me; Chrome and Onyx, on the other hand, have certainly seen me in this state before, some time over the course of our seven or eight year friendship, and I trust them implicitly. I turn in my seat, see the empty suitcase propped against the wall, alone, alone and sad, and feel blind momentarily, those familiar white stars swarming my vision, worried for my tent, sleeping on its own, melancholy for the suitcase, it surely feeling despair at being so empty inside. I see heads bobbing up and down through the window. I pull at Chrome and ask who is outside - are they scared to come in, scared of me, of what will happen if they see me? Have I really been so disruptive? Who is out there? I have lost count of our group. Onyx returns, although I was not aware he had left: he has sorted out the sleeping arrangements, moving Chrome’s sleeping bag and mat into my tent in order that Chrome will share with me, to keep me company. I will not be sleeping alone again that night. Noura and the rest of the trio return to their tents, after inquiring as to my wellbeing (I am angry with them and sure I have made this clear somehow - why the anger?); I sip my too-hot camomile tea from its blue metal mug. I ask, grinning, “is the party over?” and glare, my expression puzzled, inquisitive, accusatory: again this unknown and tall woman has entered the room. I hear the voice, the nurse’s voice, commanding, official, my perception of an accent and a gender fused to an earlier panic to form an occupation, a role, one which threatens to out our evening’s surely illegal activity. I turn to Chrome, grasping at his right arm with my right hand (hidden, of course, my arms being folded to obscure my hands, my hand performing my desire, secretly, and none can see I hold on to him, aware that to be seen enacting my desire for another man would bring ruin to us all), ready to ask who that woman is, who called the nurse. I make eye contact with her, feeling my face and eyebrows straining, showing my confusion, when I remember, it is Tezore’s friend Gratitude. I break eye contact, still frowning, and say nothing to her. Sulyen - that’s who that is - and Tezore come inside as well, taking their glances in my direction. I look back, silent. Both ask me how I am, and I just grin, feeling mad. Onyx announces he will go to bed once his language study is completed. The two figures seem to pace around the room, moving things from the table to the steel kitchen surfaces and back again, the empty places left by their reconstruction giving me a sense of my own hollowness. I am sitting on the floor and gazing into Bepaspin’s sweet, grinning face, as he explains how when detained he would teach the other captives to play chess, drawing a board in the dirt and using suitable pebbles as playing pieces. How he would ensure engagement and excitement at the slightest change: “We get to take a shower today!” (Cold.) “Isn’t this food wonderful?” (Cold.) “We are allowed to stretch our legs - do you see the sun through that high window?” (Cold.) Creating a structure to ensure no descent into despair or madness, to make the days feel shorter. Making a game of the humiliation. From the comfort of my side of the border, I now choose to sleep in the cold, away from the comforts of home? I wipe my chin, my lips failing to keep the saliva in my mouth. I realise I have been apologising for ruining the trip - I ask again and again how everybody is feeling. The only word I can reliably interpret is “tired”. The apology is false: I know I need not apologise for what happened. I only wish to signal to the others that I am aware of the distress my distress likely caused them. I try to tell Chrome what I have experienced - long to desperately - but he tells me to wait until I have calmed down, as to speak about the consciousness doubling, tripling, memories all-at-once effects of the cultivated spores threatens to bring it all painfully back. I yearn to be understood, but cannot communicate. I feel a rush of anger at myself - if only I could form the proper words before the revealed knowledge has been forgotten. “How long has it been?” asks Onyx. Chrome checks his multi-comm: “About fifty five minutes.” “Since what?” I ask. The two look at each other but do not explain. Onyx asks if me and Chrome are to share a (my) tent once he departs, that he hopes “nothing will happen?” and I blush, sure he means that he knows I will certainly tonight try to have sex with his boyfriend, cannot be trusted, am messy and dangerous, and the shame momentarily sends me reeling - but of course he is referring to the seizure, concerned for my wellbeing, the after-effects of the trip which now seem to be rapidly and disappointingly fading. Sulyen - dressed all in pink - is stretching their body in strange and new ways, which I watch with fascination - they ask if we don’t mind the stretching, and I say “please, carry on.” (I think this is what I am saying, but cannot be sure). Their limbs are incredibly long. Tezore cooks their instant noodles, noisily, the gas burning to boil the water, they ask if me or Chrome would like to eat any of the noodles, we say no. I eat the nutrition bar Chrome has placed in front of me - I ask if he really doesn’t mind me eating it, and he just laughs, telling me he’s eaten three of them in a row without tasting anything from stress. He is shaking slightly and has an uncomfortable expression on his face. He leaves to have a cigarette, while I confer with Onyx in hushed voices about his studies. He shows me the kanji, explaining what the phrase he is translating means, but both are incomprehensible to me. I just smile, knowing it is the proper reaction. Those vivid lines and structures, boxes waiting to be filled if I can only take the proper actions, are incredibly clear to me when I close my eyes. I want so desperately to explain how this all functions, yet I know by the time proper speech has returned to me, I will be unable to remember or describe any of it. Noodles eaten, Tezore packs their over-shoulder bag and stands with Gratitude and Sulyen, deep in discussion. My head is buzzing, I have so much energy. After clearing my throat, embarrassed, but knowing it is what I must do, I apologise to Gratitude, who, officiously, tells me I was reasonable and very vocal. After all, we had only just met. It made a lot of sense that I wouldn’t recognise her (them?). This second group agrees to see me again in the morning. I can feel a smile form on my face, despite my eyebrows’ insistence on being locked into a puzzled expression. We sit an hour or two, just Chrome and myself, in the hikers’ lodge. We speak, but of what, I am unsure. I plead with him to stay awake with me, despite his tiredness. He rolls a joint and we have a good laugh about me certainly not having any of it. I stand outside with him while he smokes. I so desperately do not want to be alone. One of the semi-permanent tents roars as it is unzipped from the inside. We fall quiet. The laminated poster inside the hikers’ lodge had warned us to make as little noise as possible after eleven PM. It was surely after eleven PM, and here we were, outside, speaking. A figure in a plush gown walks from the opening of the semi-permanent tent past us, not making eye contact, not saying hello (so unusual for this area), into the toilet block that connects to the lodge. We quickly finish our smoking and return indoors. I am glad to not have had to interact with yet another stranger. I find myself again in your tent, the bad rotten fish smell of spice mixed with your sweat, the grime smell I am addicted to, which makes me horny. That one time we were horny together, you told me it’d be best if we didn’t act on it. I hate to not act on it. The smoke from my tobacco sticks on both our skins. Ash falls from your joint and burns a small hole in your sleeping bag. You chuckle and don’t (or can’t) move, while I stamp it out with the heel of my hand. I lay my head on your left foot, wrapped by your sleeping bag. We laugh, cuddle, talk nonsense. You trusted me, you loved me. You told me many times. Where are you now? I had heard you were imprisoned. I am in another tent, in another country, Chrome’s adrenaline-soaked body wrapped in a different sleeping bag, no longer touching mine. I shiver and lay on my front. He pulls up the zip for me after witnessing my struggle. Headphones are placed in my hand and Chrome suggests I listen to music. It is difficult to make the right choice when so many options are available. I eventually settle on something to listen to and it calms me. Time passes, I hear his breathing begin to go shallow. Once, he places a hand upon my back, and asks if I am alright. Do I detect panic in that voice? I briefly wonder if I am actually alright, but detecting no problems within myself, or from a desire to be polite, to cause no further fuss, I say yes. Drifting into and out of sleep, my breath coldly catching now and again in my throat, I feel no regret. I am excited to share my experience, filled with wonder and sadness at what I have learned, embarrassed for the anguish I have caused, incredulous at my journey through time and dimensions.
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