by E. J. Noyes
Half a million dollars will be Celeste Thorne’s reward for spending four years of her life in total isolation. No faces. No voices. No way to leave.
Since Celeste has never really worried about being alone, the generous paycheck she’ll receive for her participation in the solitary psychological experiment seems like easy money.
When she finds an injured hiker in the woods bordering her living compound, her strictly governed world is thrown into disarray. But even as she struggles with the morality of breaking the rules of the experiment, Celeste can’t deny her growing attraction to the kind and enigmatic Olivia Soldano. Still, how much can you really trust a stranger? And how much can you trust yourself when you know all the faces you’ve seen and voices you’ve heard for the past three years have only been your imagination?
But what’s real? Celeste’s reality may lie somewhere between the absolute truth and a carefully constructed deception.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Whenever I’ve talked about my newest release, Alone, I think I’ve used some variation of It’s a bit weird. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very proud writer parent who loves my weird child. But every time I tried to explain what the book is about, I failed because it’s hard to explain without giving away the entire plot. So I’ve been hand-wringingly mumbling some vague things and hoping people would indulge me and actually read it. Now, I ask for your indulgence one more time when I talk about The Weird One in a vague kind of way (for the last time, pinky promise).
I wrote Alone back to front to how I normally craft a novel. All of my novel ideas start as a random thought, which morphs into a very vague plot idea. Then that plot gets left behind in favour of more exciting things like fleshing out characters and dialogue and fun interactions until inevitably I have to come back to plot stuff. Ugh, plots are tricky when you don’t plan anything and just aren’t a lover of plots. I don’t like working out how to make one bit join to another bit, oh and remember five chapters ago when this happened and now it has to affect that thing, yeah, you messed that bit up, pal and now you gotta fix it but it can’t screw with that other Very Important Bit.
But with Alone, I (miraculously) had the plot idea from start to finish pretty much from the get-go, and all I had to do was walk it back and figure out what kind of people would be in that situation. Easy *knuckle crack* I just needed two ladies, right? And from there, I ran headfirst into my next issue—the majority of the novel had to be two characters in one location.
How do you make a book with the bare minimum amount of characters for a romance, and set mostly in one place, interesting? What do two strangers basically stuck in a house together under interesting circumstances have to talk about? And most importantly–how do you make them fall in love? Please imagine the Now Kiss meme because that was pretty much my writing process.
Doing great here, Author.
Obviously the easiest solution would have been to change the plot, but gosh darn it, I’d written myself into a hole and I didn’t care if I was tearing my hair out, I was stubbornly sticking to my ideas because I really really loved them! Welcome to Author Stubbornness 101, I’ll be your lecturer for this semester.
Eventually, as it always happens (thankfully), I wrote myself out of the hole. My characters cooperated. And suddenly I had a novel that’s kind of romance, kind of drama but not really drama drama and kind of a bit psychological but not in a thriller-ish way. What genre do you put that mouthful into? A Bit of a Weird Romance? I’m pretty sure bookstores don’t have a shelf for that one.
If you’ve read the blurb, you probably have an idea what Alone is about. And you know I can’t say too much without giving things away. You also know “it’s a bit weird, but good weird.” So, obviously, the logical thing is for you to grab a copy of Alone and read it, so you can fill in the gaps between my vague details. And then please come and chat with me about it because I’m bursting here, desperate to talk about this novel but having to be vague so I don’t blurt out everything like a kid telling their classmates that Santa isn’t real.
—E. J. Noyes
Reviewer@Large - E. J. Noyes is easily one of the most gifted writers pulling us into whatever world she creates making us live and feel every emotion with her characters. Definitely, loudly, vehemently recommended.
Tiff’s Reviews - Alone is an absolutely stunning book. This book is not a 5-star, it is well above that. You don’t see books like this one very often. Truly a treasure and one that will stay with you long after the final page.
Diane W. - Rich in good characterization and storyline, 'ALONE' is a dazzling narration that offers an insightful and some meaningful perspectives on what is false or real when showing endearment to another while being enclosed from the outside world. Overall, the writing was well written, clever, poignant and it even tried to render a significant examination about a complicated relationship. A highly recommended book!
Bethany K. - For being one of my most anticipated books to read in 2019, this one sure had a lot of expectations to live up to! I can say with full authority that it met or exceeded every single hope that I had. Noyes has done it again, cementing her place as a “must-read” author. Alone lived up to all the hype, and is easily one of the best books of 2019!
Lex Kent’s Reviews - There are only a handful of authors that I will drop everything to read as soon as a new book comes out, and Noyes is at the top of that list. It seems no matter what Noyes writes she doesn’t disappoint. I will eagerly be waiting for whatever she writes next.
Pin’s Reviews - It is a kind of psychological romance with some dark undertones, but not dark in its essence. On the contrary, it is essentially positive and motivating. It is different and weird, but in a good way. It is emotional in a big way. We can be angry, afraid, ashamed, angsty, crazy and happy along with the protagonist Celeste. We can laugh and cry with her. We can even hear voices in our head. All of that we can experience in this eccentric romantic story thanks to the great imagination and great writing skills of the author.
A woman lives alone in a remote cabin for several years as part of a psychological experiment–until one day a lost hiker blunders into her compound. How will our heroine react? Was this chance meeting really an accident? When Olivia turns up, injured and needy, Celeste falls hard for her, until she starts to suspect that all is not as it seems. It’s an unsettling scenario, and Noyes does an excellent job in creating a sinister atmosphere, establishing Celeste’s naiveté and credulity and emphasising her vulnerability.
Cathie W. - Once again this author has been able to rip apart any semblance of common or formulaic lesfic romantic themes to come up with a story entirely unique. Beyond that is the depth of emotion between Celeste and Olivia that is built masterfully through Celeste’s first person POV that is just so intensely raw and visceral. There is a pervasive heaviness throughout the book and executing the story through Celeste’s first person POV captured a deep and lush emotionality that would have been filtered and dim otherwise.
Truly an exceptional study of the human psyche and emotions, this is a book I won’t ever forget.
R. Swier - This was the type of book that you want to read as fast as possible because it is that good, yet at the same time you want to savor every moment simply because it is that good. But ultimately, this book wasn’t just good, it was great. Very highly recommended!
Heather B. - Alone is a fantastic emotional book. The writing and characters are well developed. I would love to read more from this author.
Orla S. - I can honestly say I have never read anything like this book before, in a really positive way. My mind is still slightly blown from all the thoughts and ideas firing about my brain while I was reading Alone, so I really hope I can do it justice here and not just drool all over my laptop about how much I love it!>br>
I've read and loved E.J. Noyes other four books (I highly recommend them all), so I tried to savour Alone and not finish it inside one day but in the end I just couldn't wait and I stayed up until 03.30 to finish it. I just couldn't stay away.
To sum up, this book is incredible; I was completely swept up by both Celeste and Olivia, became utterly smitten with them, giggled, cried my eyes out at one stage, the whole shebang. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, yes there's a lesfic romance element but it's also a brilliantly written novel on our human needs, strengths and weaknesses. I also love the way the author, through Celeste and Olivia explores concepts of truth vs reality.
Buy this book, you won't regret it. I got an ARC but I have already pre-ordered this book from Bella, these are not just idle words!
Oh yeah, massive thank you to E.J. Noyes for the correct use of the term "butterfly kisses"! :P
Carolyn M. - I cannot give this anything more than five stars, but damn I wish I could. I would give it 15.
Betty H. - There are only a few books out there so compelling they seem to take control of you and force you to read them as quickly as possible. You can’t put them down. You just want the world to go away and leave you alone until you can finish this story. Alone by E. J. Noyes is that book for me. This novel is absolutely wonderful.
Carol C. - All I can say is just WOW - the plot of this book is one I don't think I have come across and I have read A LOT of lesbian romances. This is not only a romance but a psychological roller-coaster ride that I want to ride again!
Kitty Kat’s Book Review Blog
…is an addictive and fascinating, romantic psychological story. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. At times the story was disturbing. But there were heart-warming moments too and an overpowering intense love that was beautiful and sexy and affirming. I couldn’t put it down. Afterwards I felt the need to sit and process what I had just read–it was very special. Highly recommended.
Joc A. - This is a superb novel, from concept to execution. I sometimes struggle with characters in a vacuum because there’s not enough interaction but Noyes counteracted that brilliantly by bringing to life the influences in Celeste’s past.
This novel elicited so many emotions and responses from me. It’s clever, beautiful, sad, romantic, imaginative, humorous, unusual and completely engrossing.
Book received from Netgalley and Bella Books for an honest review.
Karen C. - Not only is this easily one of the best books of 2019, but it has worked its way onto my personal all-time top 10 list. There is not one formulaic thing going on, and it’s “unputdownable.”
Corrie K. - Alone by E. J. Noyes is without a doubt one of my top reads for 2019. What a fabulous book! Wow, wow, wow.
I won’t do a synopsis because I don’t want to spoil anything and if you read the blurb you’ll know enough going in. Buy the book, schedule some time (because you won’t be able to put it down once you start) and just enjoy the ride. It’s all perfect. The plot, the characters, the pacing, the dialogue, the sex, the twist (although I did guess that one). Noyes is just at the top of her game here.
Celeste Thorne and Olivia Soldano will stay with me for a good long while. It’s gripping, it’s dark and unsettling and it will break your heart but at the same time it’s also full of hope and love. This book will ruin you in a good way. Buy it now.
Stephanie D. - This book was an immersive experience that had me guessing what was real and what wasn't. I love this kind of book where the writing is so good that you can get completely lost in it.
The writing was great and the book flowed effortlessly. The character development was great as well. It is a page turner that I will definitely be recommending.
My foot catches on the clothes hamper and I stumble forward, only just stopping myself before I hit the glass-enclosed shower.
The sound of my voice startles me. How long is it since I spoke aloud?
At least a few days?
Maybe a week?
I say it again, quieter this time. “Fuck.” The word tastes strange, rolling around my mouth like something foul needing to be spat out. I want to try another word, a softer one to balance the expletive, and reach deep into my brain for something to say. Nobody will hear me, so it doesn’t matter what I choose. I settle on my name. “Celeste.” My voice catches on the second syllable. I try again and add my last name. “Celeste Thorne.”
Studying my face in the bathroom mirror, I state as clearly as I can in a voice rusty with disuse, “I am twenty-nine years old. My birthday is January sixth. Today is day…” A glance at the calendar tacked up beside the mirror. “One thousand, one hundred and eighty-one. I am still a person.” I lean closer, and the features staring back don’t seem to belong to me. “I am still a person.”
The more I stare, the more I think I look like a hosed-down watercolor painting. My face seems to melt, features sliding into each other until I see Mother…then my younger sister, Riley…my foster mothers and my adoptive mother. Teachers. Lovers. Friends. I see everyone except myself.
Have I gone crazy? Just a little? Probably. Anyone would. I exist in memories, both old and new. I exist with my false things.
The false things only began a few months ago. It’s mostly voices, but sometimes I feel a phantom touch. Or I can smell Mother. My birth mother. Stale sweat, cigarette smoke, and the cloying smell of cheaply-cut meth and sour clothing that’s been left in the washer too long or put on while still damp. The arrival of her stench panics me like nothing I’ve ever known and I have to smell myself—my armpits and hair and skin. I have to do it, even though I know it’s not me because I always smell the same. Clean, like soap and shampoo and deodorant because I can’t stand the thought of being anything like her. Grabbing a double handful of my shirt and inhaling the fresh, laundered scent helps to clear my olfactory hallucinations.
But I can’t do anything to get rid of the other hallucinations.
Occasionally I have the sensation of a hand brushing lightly down my back. Other times, a bruising grip on my bicep that makes me desperate to jerk my arm away. Sometimes it’s a single spoken word, or if I’m lucky I’ll get a full sentence or two. And then they are gone. It’s not me touching myself and it’s not me talking to myself in my head. I hear them the way I hear birds outside, rain on the roof or the gurgle of coffee brewing.
Even though I know none of it’s real, it doesn’t stop it from happening. It can’t be real, can it? No. The reality is that there’s only me, and now after more than three years here, I’m not even sure I know who me is anymore.
The Controllers know. I told them right away and I dutifully record each of these “false things” in my daily logs. It’s a natural reaction, they told me. A perfectly acceptable outcome—expected actually. My request for medication to make the false things go away was denied. I could almost hear their incredulous laughter behind the screen as the cursor blinked and blinked and blinked. Eventually, I had to ask them the question.
SE9311: It’s not you, is it? You’re not here playing the voices in my ear somehow? You’re not doing something to make me think something is touching me?
Cont A: No. I assure you that nobody is there.
Nobody is there. Here. Except me.
I mark off another day on the calendar and swallow my dietary supplements with a handful of water from directly under the faucet, as I do every morning. I do everything I’m supposed to. I take my vitamins. I work out and eat a balanced diet. I don’t drink. Much. It’s important that my body remains strong for the duration of the study. They don’t seem to care so much about my mind. But I guess that’s the whole point.
~ ~ ~
The advertisement was small and plain, taped by an unknown person to the wall of the coffee shop I was planning to quit at the end of the month. I would have missed the sheet of paper if I hadn’t been looking at the hot blonde sipping a macchiato underneath it. I set down the milk I was steaming, slipped out from behind the counter and murmuring an apology, leaned over the blonde to pull the flyer off the wall.
Subjects wanted for psychological study.
3 years minimum, 4 years maximum.
“Who put this there?” I asked Brett, my slimy and overly-handsy boss. I could tell by the sound of the milk frothing that he was fucking up the latte I’d abandoned.
Brett shrugged and started pouring. “Some guy in a suit, this morning. Paid me fifty bucks. Did you restock the sugar like I asked?”
I shot a withering glance at his foam art. Even after eight years owning a café, he still couldn’t make a damned foam fern. “Yes, all the dispensers. I’m taking a break. Right now.”
“Jeee-sus, Thorne. Get your ass back here.”
But I was already out the rear door, phone in hand. Standing against the wall near the dumpsters, shivering without my coat, I dialed. A professional voice answered almost immediately with a simple, “Hello, how may I assist you?” Nothing more, nothing to tell me who I’d called.
My words floated into cold air on visible breath. “Um, hi. I’m calling about an ad I saw? The psychological study?”
“Can you quote the reference for me please?”
“At the bottom of the page, ma’am, there will be a reference code.” Patient, encouraging.
I lifted the paper, skimming over it. On closer look I saw it in small lettering, plain as anything—Quote this reference. Heat warmed my cheeks. “Uh, S-E-forward slash-eight-three.”
“Transferring you now.”
Once I’d been assured that it wasn’t a joke, and had answered a few basic questions, I was invited to come in for a proper interview the next day. Brett told me if I skipped work I shouldn’t bother coming back. I handed over my apron, told him I’d come by Friday to pick up my paycheck, and walked out.
Now, years later, I can’t remember what they asked at the interview. All I remember is an older guy in an expensive-looking suit telling me the study would require me to live in total isolation, secluded on a small compound in a remote place. I was to be without human contact and they would study the effects. Something about colonization of other planets—seeing how regular people cope on their own should something untoward happen to their fellow space travelers, and if they’re able to maintain a fragment of sanity and self-awareness to stay alive. Sanctioned by the government. Full ethics approval according to the code. One hundred percent legal and above board.
I would also be responsible for maintaining the food and energy systems that they would be testing concurrently with the psychological study. Gotta make sure you can eat, drink, and stay warm on Venus while you’re trying not to go crazy from loneliness, I guess. Or is that…stay cool on Venus?
I also clearly heard him say that the pay was one hundred thousand dollars per year for the three years minimum I would be required to complete. Once I made it to three years, I would then receive five hundred dollars for each additional day I stayed. If I made it the full four years I’d also earn a bonus, leaving me richer by the lovely round figure of half a million dollars. Even after setting aside almost a third of my payment for tax, it would leave me enough to buy a house, a car and get me set up to go back to college if I wanted. I’d leaned forward eagerly and asked where to sign.
The Suit had laughed and ushered me into another room for compatibility testing, followed by swaths of psychological assessments, personality mapping, physicals, and endless multiple-choice quizzes. I still don’t know who is responsible for the experiment—the identity of the research institution was hidden behind layers of names and subterfuge, and in the documents I signed they are simply called, for all legal intents and purposes, “The Organization.” While reading my contract, I learned an unnamed agency contracted The Organization to conduct the studies on their behalf. It has to be NASA. Maybe they’ll let me be an astronaut when I’m done in here.
Being a test subject seemed simple enough, even enticing. I have no family, few friends, no girlfriend. The only women I slept with were the friends of friends or those I picked up in bars. Nobody would miss me. Except maybe my good friend, Heather. And Allison.
Allison. Sweet and kind, but fierce and opinionated. A casual but generous lover. My face in the mirror turns into hers. Why am I thinking of Allison now? On the morning I flew out to start this life, she left me a drunk voice mail, sent just after two a.m. Though I know there’s no way the Controllers would let me listen to it, even if the message wasn’t long gone, I’m suddenly desperate to hear the voice mail again. Screwing my eyes closed, I travel back through memories until I find it.
“A text? Celeste, you fucking bitch. Have some balls.” A long, silent pause. “Call me.” Then a sigh, and in her sigh, I hear everything. It’s a weary exhalation as though she is having an epiphany in those few seconds. “Actually…don’t.”
Years ago, before I surrendered my phone to The Organization, I listened to the message over and over again. I memorized every rise and fall in the rhythm of those thirteen words. Unlucky thirteen. I became addicted to the sound of defeat in Alli’s voice, as if she’d only just then realized that I wasn’t really worth it. She wasn’t the first person to reach that conclusion.
The face in the mirror becomes my own again.
I pull my long hair into a messy ponytail, dress and rush outside into the cold air for my morning jog. Three loops around the compound will take just over forty minutes, hopping over fallen logs and bounding across the creek. I keep my eyes on the ground, wary of things that want to trip me. A sprained or broken limb could be disastrous.
One hundred and eighty-one days ago when I chipped the corner of a tooth on a sneaky olive pit, Controller C instructed me to take a sleeping pill at a specified time. I woke up with a cotton ball taped to the crook of my elbow, a repaired tooth and no idea who fixed it. When I run my tongue over my molar, I feel the slightly rough edge of the filling. Must be hard to get a dentist and all the equipment needed for perfect dental work to wherever the hell I am. I imagine X-ray machines and the like for broken bones would be nearly impossible. I’ve lasted this long, and there’s no way I’m leaving and missing out on that extra money and my bonus payment because of my own carelessness.
I slow to a walk. The inch of snow crunches underfoot and reminds me of winters when I lived in Wyoming, Illinois, Michigan, Washington, New York, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Vermont, and countless other places that have faded from my brain. Wrapping my arms tightly around my midsection, I walk to the far northern edge of my fenceless cage. The compound is unfenced for normality, they told me, because for some reason it’s important that I feel I’m living a regular life. Regular. It’s a laughable description.
But I don’t laugh.
I stop and lean back against one of the poles topped by a security camera and can feel the cold hard stripe of the metal against my back, even through my hoodie. The cameras mounted on these poles around the compound face out, not in. I think it’s for my security. Not my surveillance. If they wanted to, I’m sure they could swivel the cameras to watch me. Watch me running, collecting my monthly supply drop, polishing the solar panels or tending my garden in the greenhouse. Watch me losing my sanity a little bit at a time.
I brace my back and push away from the pole to cool off with one more lap at a walk. The compound is an uneven shape with zones that follow the dips and curves of the landscape rather than being perfect concentric circles. I follow the line of the green zone which starts where the trees grow denser into a real forest. The zone is clearly marked with metal signs every thirty feet or so, and I’m careful to stay a few feet away and in the white zone where it’s safe.
Despite being told very clearly what would happen if I stepped past the invisible border into the green zone or beyond into the yellow and red, the first week I was here I tried it out. Why wouldn’t I? There was nothing better to do. Whenever I think of crossing that line, my limbs tremble with the memory of the moment I went from white to green.
The hard pulse from the implant embedded in my left bicep was instantaneous. Sharp current through my muscles made them seize immediately and I fell to my hands and knees. Twitching, trying to crawl back to the white, I was too slow and the implant shocked me again. I lay groaning into the dirt, finally managing to drag myself to safety where I stayed for what felt like hours, unable to make myself move. I thought I’d peed myself but it was only the wet ground seeping through my jeans.
Since then I keep a respectful distance from the invisible barrier, not wanting to find out what would happen were I to go into the yellow. Green is not overly painful—sort of what I imagine being tasered would feel like—but it’s not a sensation I want to inflict voluntarily on myself again.
Rubbing gloved hands over my face, I stroll toward Hug Tree and wrap my arms around its trunk. My hands meet my arms midway between wrist and elbow on the other side, and I cling to the smooth bark, pressing myself into it. The tree can’t hug me but it relieves the tension in my muscles. It gives me pressure back against a body that has forgotten how to be held. If I close my eyes and try really hard, I can almost imagine I’m anywhere but here. I can pretend I’m in a nice home, being hugged by someone who really loves me.
“Nobody loves you, nobody wants to hug you, you’re pathetic,” Mother tells me. Her voice has a familiar biting sneer to it. “You’re too fuckin’ needy. Remember rule number one?”
I do, and I recite it in my head. Never let you see how much I needed you and never let you see how much you could hurt me.
Freshly showered and with a mug of sweet black tea in hand, I sign in to the computer system and send my logs from yesterday so they’ll be ready for review before my daily session. There are still thirty minutes before one of the Controllers will come online for my check-in, plenty of time to eat before my “human” contact. I make and eat a simple breakfast of frozen hash browns and powdered scrambled eggs in the clean modern kitchen and waste time wandering aimlessly around the clean modern house.
Everything here is better than what I’ve left behind. The food is good and usually what I ask for. The dwelling is comfortable and well thought out—a hall connects my bedroom to an open plan living space and kitchen, with bathroom, computer room, and stairs down to the basement branching off along the long hallway. The house is full of high-tech appointments and appliances, and when I first arrived it still smelled of new construction and fresh paint.
I don’t pay rent, I have no bills and my time is mostly my own. Most people would say that I want for nothing. Except the one thing I cannot have. No human contact, at all. No faces or voices, which means no voice or video calls. No movies. No television. No music with vocals. No books with author pictures on the back page.
A few months into my stay, I used the colored pencils and paper supplied by the Controllers to draw faces. Happy faces, sad faces, angry faces. I stuck them around the habitat and gave each one of them names and exciting backgrounds. We had conversations and shared our hopes and dreams and stories about our lives, until one night getting up to pee after too much beer, I caught sight of my mass of floating heads. In the dim moonlight they looked like the faces from that movie about that village of creepy demon kids. I flicked all the lights on as quickly as I could and threw my friends in the trash.
Yankee Doodle went to—stop. Day two of this repeat. Not so bad really. The repetitions started early on, like a radio constantly tuned to the most annoying station. My life is a series of uber-persistent earworms. I’ve had song lyrics, lines from books and movies, and things people said to me stuck in my head for hours, days, a week sometimes. Four or five months ago, I was stalled on two lines from a Twilight movie for eighteen days straight and contemplated running into the red zone to knock myself out, just for some reprieve.
I settle in the computer room with my second mug—coffee this time—and navigate to the logging interface to start my daily report by documenting what I’ve done so far this morning. How I feel. What I think. I’ll come back and forth during the day to add things, but I never edit what I’ve already written. I don’t like to look back.
The Organization’s contact requirements aren’t arduous. Every morning I must engage in an instant messaging “conversation” with a Controller. I have to give them daily text logs, something more than Today I inflated the tires on the ATV and planted potatoes. And once a week I’m obliged to record a video log—minimum and maximum time not specified—they just want to see me talking, probably so they can gauge something from my speech patterns and expressions.
Within today’s text log, I begin a list of stuff that I miss, something I started early in my stay.
Things I miss:
-Lou’s deep-dish pizza.
-Long flights of stairs, walking up and jogging down.
-Walking down the street holding hands with someone.
The messaging system overrides what I’m working on, sliding down like a window shade, forcing me to interact. Stuck a feather in his—stop.
Today it’s Controller B. Even after years of messaging with the four people behind the screen, I have no idea of who they are. Male. Female. Super sophisticated AI. They are nothing more than text on a monitor. They know everything about me but I know hardly anything about them except the little I’ve gleaned from those words. In the beginning I was afraid and obsequious. Now I’m casual and indifferent.
Cont B: Good morning. How are you feeling?
SE9311: Fine, thanks.
Cont B: You have a supply drop scheduled for tonight.
SE9311: Great, thanks. Did you get me new sunglasses?
Cont B: Three pairs. Try not to lose these.
I grin. Sometimes I order supplies just for the hell of it, but this time, I really did lose my sunglasses. It’s completely ridiculous, because obviously there are only so many places they could be but despite a week of looking, I still can’t find them.
SE9311: I’ll try.
Cont B: Why haven’t you recorded a video log this week?
SE9311: I have a pimple.
Cont B: No you don’t. Nice try.
Of course they know I don’t. There’s a single camera in the corner of the computer room that they probably use to record me while I’m in here, but nowhere else inside, because they think being constantly watched would change my normal behavior. What’s normal? I do yoga and dance and perform elaborate, silent sock-puppet theater. I walk around naked when I feel like it, which is quite frequently. I sing loudly and off-key. Looking up at the camera, I flash them an apologetic smile followed by a facetious salute.
SE9311: Caught me.
Cont B: It’s been 6 days since your last video log. Please submit one by the end of tomorrow. Do you have anything else to report?
It doesn’t seem like six days have passed since I last recorded myself talking about random things.
SE9311: Nothing to report, but one question - is Venus the planet hot or cold?
Cont B: Hot. Closer to the sun than Earth. Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars…
Derp, of course.
SE9311: Thanks. Astronomy always confuses me.
Cont B: No problem. I’ll talk to you on my next shift.
Talk is a relative term. I haven’t talked to anyone since day zero, unless I count conversations with myself and the false things. And I don’t. I stare at the list I started working on before Controller B arrived, pause and add three letters.
The cursor blinks…blinks…blinks, waiting for me to elaborate. After all these months this is the first time I’ve listed sex and I’m not entirely sure why I just typed that word. It’s always surprised me but until this moment, I think I’ve missed the idea of sex rather than the actual act. But right now, I’m aware of a desperate ache, a longing so deep that I wonder if it’ll ever go away. I blame thinking about Allison. Seeing those three letters unleashes something and I type frantically.
I miss fucking. I miss my mouth on breasts, teeth on nipples, fingers inside me stroking and pushing me over the edge. I miss waking up with a lover beside me. I miss the way women smell. I miss whispered confessions and desperate directives. I miss hair trailing over my skin. I miss the taste as she comes in my mouth, thick and hot.
Someone’s going to have an interesting time reading over my logs from today. The words stir me further, building to a throb that threatens to grow and smother me. I can’t write anything else because I’m suddenly overwhelmed with need. I leave without saving my log, and rush into my bedroom where I strip off my clothes. I’m already wet.
My gratification is fast and hard, nipple held tightly between thumb and forefinger for exquisite pain. I think of nothing but a faceless, voiceless woman straddling my face with her sex in my mouth and a hand grasping my hair. Middle finger stroking, stroking, sliding hard and fast until I climax in a sweaty, shivering mess. Coming down, softly playing that bundle of nerves, I feel the burn again and I push another climax through on the back of the first. The second is bigger, harder, yanking the cords of my muscles and lifting me from the bed, back arched, my cry loud and hoarse. I lie sweaty and trembling for a while and wait for my body to solidify.
“You always love it when I do that,” Allison says in her bedroom voice.
I ignore her and put tentative fingers in my mouth, tasting what remains of my arousal. It’s bitter, unsatisfying and nothing like the taste of a woman who has just come in my mouth.
* * *
Whenever we play games, Celeste One is hard to predict, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Celeste Two is a sneaky, underhanded bitch. Celeste Three just isn’t very smart. I slide the tiles around the holder, rearrange my D and E, and glare at the empty seat opposite me. “I can’t believe you took my spot, Two. I had the best word lined up.” I stare at the board for a minute then align tiles in a subpar spot. DRESS. Double letter on the S. Eight. I add it to Celeste One’s score and update the tally. A quick rummage in the bag for fresh tiles, set them in the holder without looking at them. Stand up, move to my left.
I talk to the empty seat on my right. “Don’t let her get to you, One. That was still a great move you made.” Three looks at her tiles, arranged in no real order, and sets CAT down on the board. Five points, no bonuses. Poor Three, she’s almost twenty points behind One and fifty behind Two. Replacement tiles. The bag is nearly empty.
I move again to the seat on my left, staring across the table. “You snooze, you lose, One. And seriously, Three, that’s the best you could do? Hopeless.” Two’s grin is sadistic, she loves to watch the others fail. Her tiles are lined up alphabetically and it takes her a while to form words, but when she does they are laid out for maximum effect.
The move comes to Two quickly and with perfect clarity. I lay an O next to the S that One set down and run the word OPENING down the board. Triple word on the O. I wrinkle my nose and count Two’s score. Thirty for OPENING and six for SO. Not bad. After Two’s move, One is sulking and doesn’t want to play anymore. Three doesn’t understand why One is upset.
I stand up and push all three chairs back under the table. Time to do some work. For the rest of the day, in preparation for my supply drop, I clean the fridge and deep freeze, rearrange my pantry stores and start transferring all my waste from the shed. It takes me an hour to line up everything I want taken away, recyclables mostly and stuff that doesn’t burn well.
The rest of my waste goes to the pit where I throw a bonfire every few weeks, dutifully inviting everyone I know. Nobody ever attends. So rude. While my rubbish burns I sit on a log with a glass of wine or a beer and watch the flames. I pretend I’m at a party talking to girls and try to ignore the noxious fumes from burning the by-products of my sad existence.
Wind cuts through my jacket, and spits light snow onto me. The snow’s been steady this season, nearly every day. I’ve always assumed I’m somewhere in the northeast quarter of the USA but I don’t know enough about star-mapping to figure it out. I could be anywhere really. It’s cold and snowy in winter, rains a little during mild springs and the summers are hot and wonderfully stormy. Flakes in my eyelashes blur my vision and with my head down, I push into the heated greenhouse. Yankee Doodle—stop. On my knees, I check what I’ve grown. Snip off unhealthy pieces of plants. Fertilize and water. My chard looks great, the leaves dark green and silky under my fingers. I’ll have some for dinner.
Growing my own vegetables is part of my routine, along with tending to the as-yet-unproductive fruit trees, getting them established for the next candidates. The thought of another candidate moving in once I’m gone makes me feel strange. I’m the first person to live here, and I have a possessive attachment to this place that takes so much from me and gives nothing in return. It’s very confusing.
“Celestial Celeste,” Mother slurs in my ear.
“Digging in the dirt. Filthy little bitch. Why you doin’ that?” The words sting as much as if she were actually standing beside me speaking them.
The muscles in my jaw tighten, making my teeth clench. “I need fresh food. I’m being paid to test their systems.”
Mother snorts derisively.
The sound triggers a memory, and I can’t help myself. I have to respond. “Remember when you threw away that box of crackers after you made me steal them and we didn’t get to eat any? And then you slapped me for complaining that I was hungry? Do you remember that? I do.”
I wait for her to retaliate, but she doesn’t. Dredging up something she’s done and throwing it in her face usually gets rid of her. As I tend to my plants, I imagine the way Mother looks, or rather the way I remember her. She might have been pretty once, I think. Some of my memories have warped over time.
Riley got all Mother’s physical attributes, or those Mother had before meth and whatever else ruined them. Short with full breasts, curvy hips, straight blond hair. Typical feminine perfection. Even her nose was cute, like a little ski jump. My little sister also got Mother’s predisposition to addiction. Physically—and I like to think mentally and emotionally too—I’m nothing like either of them. Except the color of my eyes, which are a blue so bright and intense I always think they look unnatural.
I’ve had four lovers tell me I look like an artist, whatever that means. Strong jaw, straight nose. Nondescript brunette hair that curls when there’s moisture in the air. I’m tallish and lanky, small-breasted and wiry. Almost androgynous. I’d be more so if I could bear to cut my hair short, but I can’t. Not since Mother hacked it off when I was five, and five and a half, and seven, and eight and three-quarters, because I had head lice. Lice treatments cost money. For Mother, it was a no-brainer.
After sparing me from the horror of physically resembling Mother, the universe still saw fit to give me some sort of fuck you and made me sound exactly like her. My voice is deep and gravelly, like I’m a lifelong three-pack-a-day smoker. Talking through closed doors to dealers and addicts, I was mistaken for her over and over again. Even sometimes now when I hear myself, I want to cringe.
The first few times she spoke to me here I thought it was me, speaking without realizing. So strange, because I haven’t seen or heard her since I was twelve, but I carry her with me in a place I thought inaccessible. The voices trigger unwanted thoughts and feelings. In all my time here, I’ve managed to avoid becoming depressed or at least I think I have. I try not to be self-pitying because while the loneliness is hard it’s also bearable.
The fact I’d remained fairly stable made me proud, like a warped sort of accomplishment. But the false things flipped everything on its head and now it’s harder to suppress my distress. I can’t pretend I’m not alone because the hallucinations are forcing me to acknowledge and participate in this sad version of my life, Clockwork Orange style.
My hand is still shaking from Mother’s visit and when I cut the stems of chard, I accidentally nick the side of my forefinger. It’s not deep but it bleeds freely from the straight-edged slice. I stick my finger in my mouth. It tastes like blood and dirt. Earthy and metallic. Not unpleasant.
My first aid is quick and perfunctory. I hold my clumsily dressed finger up to the webcam while I’m recording my weekly video log, as ordered by Controller B this morning. “I cut myself accidentally because Mother was talking to me.” Even after my quick bouts of speaking aloud earlier, my voice still sounds odd, grating and harsh. I drop my hand to the desk, thumb playing over the rough bandage on my finger. I look around the room then back at the webcam.
“They’re starting to bother me. I’m scared it’s going to happen more and more often and I’m going to crack. They won’t even have a fucking conversation with me. Just talk at me and leave. I’m still a little…not paranoid but…no, actually yeah I guess I’m paranoid that it’s you guys somehow doing it. I know it can’t be. I know it’s not rational but I still feel like I want to look around for a speaker or something when I hear them.” Because the reality that I have actually lost my mind is harder to accept than the Controllers playing a cruel trick on me.
For the first time ever, the intense scrutiny of the webcam makes me feel like I’m being judged. Interrogated. I look down at the keyboard. “I’ve been thinking about what’s going to happen when I leave here. How I’m going to talk to people. Little things like that. Taking lovers and being around my friends. I’m worried I’ve forgotten how to be with people.” Tears prickle. I rub the heel of my hands against my eyes. “Other than that, I’ve got nothing else to say. Situation normal.” I stop the recording, send it through without watching it, and leave the computer room.
My bedroom is sparse but comfortable. Queen bed with a perfect mattress. Dark mahogany furniture to hold books and clothing. They allowed one personal item that wasn’t a forbidden item. I chose a lambskin rug that was given to me by my maternal grandma the day I was born, just a few months before she died. It’s been toted back and forth across the country and set on the bed or couch or floor space of every place I’ve ever slept. Every foster house, each shitty apartment I stayed in, I’d accidentally leave something behind—a toy, a piece of clothing, a piece of myself—but the lambskin somehow made it through. Here it sits atop the neatly made bed, the worn white wool contrasting with the navy blue comforter.
Navy blue. Riley’s favorite color. Chewing the skin at the corner of my thumbnail, I leave my room and walk back to the computer. I open next month’s requisition form and with one finger, type: New sheets and comforter, not navy blue please.