It was only when we were sleep-deprived that we journeyed to Carson’s meadow.
We were five: myself, Angelita, Attila, Maciek, and Julie. Claude joined us several months later, his own peculiarities rife. Originally these trips were made under the cover of darkness, when the wardens were absent, but they bore night’s disadvantages: we couldn’t see. Not that there was anything to see. But stumbling, falling; those bruises had to be explained come morning.
When we did venture out during the day we tried to convince ourselves that our heightened states led to greater freedoms, but in hindsight I feel the wardens had become disinterested. Technologies overran their minds. There were far too many distractions for them to get involved. So long as we ate, drank, shat properly, and remained presentable to our families, then they were content to leave us alone. Those same technologies truncated our families’ visits, glazed their expressions when looking at our bruises, and eventually transposed us in their attention altogether.
Life had been different when I was a child. Those glory days of the factories, where product was made by hand, or at the most, with robotic assistance. When product was indeed something you could touch.
That first journey to Carson’s meadow came about by accident. Attila had gone wandering. When he returned, two days later, he entered the dining hall puzzled; as though he had only been away for five minutes and found all the salt shakers replaced. I remember him shuffling over, his hands deep in his cotton jacket pockets. When he sat, an earthy smell replaced the tomato pungency of my soup. He nudged my elbow, removed one of his hands and opened it. On the palm: a tiny piece of brick.
He closed his fist, quickly.
Later, he mouthed.
That night we gathered in Attila’s room. Angelita sat on the windowsill, her back against the glass, her legs dangling inches from the floor as though she had kicked away a chair. Maciek was slumped on a sofa, his fingers twitching an imaginary guitar. Julie was at the table, a pen in her hand and a blank piece of paper in front of her, creased, like a map. I stood blocking the doorway, my ears attuned to corridor sounds. None of our rooms had doors. They were afraid we might lock ourselves in. We were afraid they might lock themselves out.
Attila removed the brick, passed it around. It wasn’t more than an inch in width, under two in length. It had a damp consistency. If you rubbed it gently in your fingers then dust—a fine paste—stained them. Two sides were reddened, the other two grey, as though it was hewn from a larger piece. We all wondered what that piece might be. Touching my fingers with the tip of my tongue, the resultant grittiness surprised me. I swallowed, carefully.
“There’s more out there,” he said. “I know it.”
Angelita nodded her head backwards, “Out there?”
“Across the meadow.”
We had known it. Of course we had. Each of us had lived our lives within sight of the factory. At least two of us had worked there. But memory is an eraser the older it gets. And we were approaching ancient.
I found my way to Angelita’s room. She was suppler than the rest of us, but she still had the accoutrements of old age. A couple of walking sticks lay at angles to the radiator, their stems parallel to each other, at tangents to the groove. In her en suite a toilet frame assisted with her mobility, and she had a four-wheeled walker with a tray so she could transport her meals to the living room from the small kitchen.
My lips were dry. “What do you think of it?” I said.
She wheezed. “It could be possible. The truth is: he has it.”
I nodded. There was no doubting the physicality of the brick, unlike the walls enclosing us that quivered jelly-like when you got too close.
“When was the last time you were out?” I said.
“Time?” She let the word hang in the air. She was right. There was no need for expansion.
“Attila is talking of this evening.”
“Let him talk. Whatever he does, you and I will go.”
“And Maciek, Julie?”
“I think they will also come.”
“You know they would never come. They are not like us.”
That was true. I wondered why I had considered it. The home held sixty people. It was easy to count when so few of us moved. We were hardly a flock of birds.
We thought for a moment, our minds working through the mechanics of what we were going to do. For some time, only our rasped breathing broke the silence.
“It won’t be the same,” I said, finally.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Angelita answered. “What matters is that it is there.”
That first expedition proved inconclusive. The moon illustrated the ground. On the face of it Carson’s meadow was an unbroken expanse of grass, but whilst there was uniformity across the tip of each blade, the roots dug into the earth unevenly. Maciek was the first to drop. For a moment, in the dull light, he couldn’t find himself. Attila swished ahead with his stick. “It was here,” he kept saying, “I was sure it was here.”
What was clear was that the meadow wasn’t always as it seemed to be. On our second journey Julie claimed to have found something that none of us could see. It was only when we returned to the home that it became clear—or rather, opaque. A four-inch shard of glass, green-stained and sharp. “I told you,” she said excited. “I told you it was there.”
We took turns describing what we had seen. All our descriptions matched, other than Julie’s. But this was merely in the details. Her deviation was finding the glass.
So we examined the facts, took the investigation beyond the external and towards the internal. It was then that we discovered Julie’s medication had ceased two days beforehand and she was finding it difficult to sleep. She was self-medicating, she said, but kept forgetting to inform the staff that she was low.
Maciek nodded his head, thoughtfully. “Chronic sleep-restricted states cause tiredness, clumsiness, a discordance between speech and action; but perversely there are also some cases where sleep deprivation leads to increased energy, alertness and enhanced moods. Sleep deprivation has been used as a treatment for depression.”
Attila nodded. “I had been experimenting, too.”
It was difficult to argue the point, but nevertheless that piece of glass joined the artefact of brick which—for safety’s sake—we kept balled in the foot of one of Attila’s surgical stockings.
And we tried again, a few evenings later. The medication we had been given to sleep, to ensure our nights were trouble free, that our days were spent awake and active, we palmed and put to one side. We fought against natural tiredness, relocated ourselves to Angelita’s room once lights were out, and jostled, sometimes even kicked each other when in the combined darkness we felt one of us slip away.
Only then did we feel capable of revisiting Carson’s meadow.
That night—the night of our revelation—we huddled together as a group, hoping should the wardens glimpse us we would appear as one mass of shadow rather than five separate escapees. Carson’s meadow was vibrant in the moonlight—although it was impossible to determine if we were seeing it with our re-wired brains or if the circumstances were simply favourable. Maciek had suggested one of us continue with medication, so the journey could be considered a controlled experiment. But he didn’t volunteer for that, and neither did the rest of us.
This time, treasures were in abundance. Not only was the surface uneven, it was stumbling ground. And with the accumulation of objects, with the sensory perception our feet pulled from the walk of the earth, I began to see the factory build itself before us.
I remember reaching out for Angelita’s arm, almost toppling her in my suddenness.
“I know,” she said. “I see it too.”
We hit peaks and troughs. Some days we had to sleep. Just at the point that the factory seemed complete it would crumble and turn to rubble before our eyes. For a month we couldn’t synchronise our conditions. Maciek developed a urinary tract infection which—he claimed—caused the building to be plugged with electricity; that lights illuminated each of us in our own separate rectangles on the grass of the meadow, replaced our yellow wan faces with those of youth. He could speak of nothing else for days, then became a silent member of the group, his expectations no longer matched in whichever reality he resided.
That moment when we understood the wardens would not prevent us venturing outside during the day was the closest we came to Maciek’s revelation. Of course, we were not confined indoors. The ceilings would roll back in good weather, although were not always as fast to replace when it rained, and there was a communal garden where residents might throw bread to ducks or bake in deckchairs until they were remembered. I recall the five of us, with our various contraptions, shuffling out of the home—all our infirmities evident under the senseless sun. We were a pathetic bunch. Even Angelita, in this light, could not be saved from her years. My eyes ached with looking at her.
Sleep-deprivation confused my memory. That was my catalyst. I would develop a headache at the base of my skull, a gentle pressure. My eyes could not focus. My brain less so. But it was easier to collect rubble during daylight.
Instead of falling over it, instead of running the risk of twisted ankles, painful insteps, you just looked down and saw it within the grass. Later, Julie brought her hand-grabber along with us. By flexing her fingers she was able to prevent us from bending down. I would have gladly made use of it myself, if it wasn’t for the arthritis which stiffened my bones. The most I could do was crouch and struggle.
We were running out of places to put it all.
One day I entered Attila’s room to discover our finds were spread out across his floor. He sat, cross-legged, building a structure. It was rudimentary, incomplete, but I knew it was coming along. When he looked up I saw him smile as if for the first time.
It was then that I realised this wasn’t because he had created some form of art, but because of his posture. He was pain free.
Over a year into our discovery, Claude arrived.
He was gaunt. Had once been over six foot tall. Even in his current state he dwarfed Angelita. A shock of white hair gave him a permanently reanimated look. He always wore a yellow handkerchief in his jacket pocket. A square which was never unpleated.
Perhaps, even despite his striking appearance, he would have faded into nothingness if Claude hadn’t been assigned the room next to Attila’s. We passed it one evening, Claude standing against the window. We halted, somehow entranced. I hadn’t slept more than six hours in three days and my mind was bobbing like a balloon a couple of inches above the top of my head.
Claude picked up on this. He turned and snarled.
I stood, faced him off. Then he crumpled and we abandoned our mission. Attila stayed with him whilst the warden arrived.
Later, Attila said, “He suffers from double vision and progressive memory loss. He becomes easily disorientated, overly paranoid and confused. I overheard a conversation with his family. He has fatal familial insomnia. We should ask him to join us. He lives in the moment. That’s what his daughter said, as though it were an aberration.”
We weren’t immediately convinced. Attila—who coveted the objects—was too enthusiastic. We wanted reason. Julie wanted to remain as she was; the increase in the dimensions of the factory had started to disturb her. Maciek also was seeking something none of us had ever seen.
But it was Angelita who put her finger on it. “None of us are getting any younger. We have to consider both the fragility of our bodies and that of our minds. Something is happening to us; we can’t go back. But if we delay too long then one member of this group will be lost, then another, then another. I don’t want to be left with only memories of us.”
I nodded. I made a speech about not wishing to wade through fields of grass, bending for femurs, molars, strips of flower-patterned dresses, or the frayed shoelaces which Attila always wore. We needed to enter the factory before death entered us.
I was to be their spokesman.
I chose what I considered to be the best indicator of our finds: a metal cog, coin-size. Not that I had seen a coin for some years. The outside edges were double-serrated: a row of teeth behind a row of teeth. None of it could have been recently fabricated. I hoped Claude would appreciate that fact.
I sat on a wooden chair, my elbow resting on his table where the remains of vegetable soup resettled after his meal like the layers of a river after a particularly intrusive storm. “Well?”
He turned it in his fingertips. “It’s authentic.”
There was a pause, as if he were conjuring what I might know with what he wanted to say.
“Did you find it on the meadow?”
He muttered something indistinct. I caught the words man and forest. Then he rose from his sitting position to full-height. “I could be your guide.”
Given Claude’s health, our first journey as six was under cover of darkness. Claude’s mobility was exceptional compared to ours; however, his mental state had deteriorated even in the few months since his first appearance. Day time hallucinations and panic attacks had become noticeable. Oftentimes his doorway could not be breached. However, as night fell he seemed soothed by its closeness. His concentration of wardens lapsed.
He led us towards Carson’s meadow as if he already knew the way. We stood still in a gentle breeze. Together we had already created the foundations, our collective unconscious made visible. Within seconds Claude added windows, a roof. He confirmed his visions verbally, then they appeared like the lines on an Etch-A-Sketch. I heard Attila gasp. The others were silent. To see a useful building; Angelita came close to tears.
We spent four months improving the detail. Julie chose a wall to add decals, conservative graffiti. Maciek concentrated on the upper floors, their windows billowing light and shadow. Angelita contributed noise, action. I built the chimneys: tall, white structures, like a pair of opposing brackets, or the figures of shapely maidens.
Claude was the cipher through which this was possible. His insomnia was inherent—a disease—unlike ours, which we affected through passion and a lack of medication. He rapidly lost weight, and on some days was unresponsive and mute. On those days we could do nothing at all, and I became terrified that he would slip into the final stages of his disease, not unlike dementia, and die.
Yet it was not Claude who almost jeopardised the project just as he enhanced it, but Julie.
I saw the bottle-end first, a trapped piece of history in her grandson’s grasp.
The smile on Julie’s face was fake, drawn by a child. It had no bearing to her mental state, or rather her mental state had no bearing to her.
I watched as the child turned it over in his hand, curious about the physicality. His parents sat side by side in the common room, their eyes darting towards Julie then sliding away. Mouths half-opening, then closing. After a few minutes they became engrossed in their own technologies, their heads in their laps, as if they had nodded off mid-afternoon after a meal of meat and gravy.
“What have you got there, son?”
I placed my stick at an angle, blocking the child’s circular route. He held the glass aloft. I remembered airplanes. But he knew it was wrong. Something pretty, he finally said.
“May I see it?”
My heart was scrabbling in my chest, my breathing restricted. I would fall, I knew, if he didn’t give it to me quickly.
He was a bright boy. I couldn’t reveal my desperation. I saw one of the wardens glance across. It was too dangerous. I ruffled the boy’s hair. “It doesn’t matter,” I said.
Before I could move he slipped it into my pocket.
For the remainder of the afternoon he stole me glances, on those few occasions that he looked up from his technology. I wondered if I had turned a key. If there was a way out from what humanity had created. I wondered if I really knew anything at all.
Attila checked Claude’s pupils.
“They’re like pinpoints,” he said. He looked at his hands. They had come away from Claude slicked with sweat.
Claude had spent the previous evening doubled up with the pain of constipation. I could tell our days were numbered. Attila shuddered in his room next door as Claude’s bowels were manually excavated. The following night he said, “It’s now or never.”
Claude appeared stuck in a state of pre-limbo sleep. Whilst awake his limbs moved repeatedly, as if he were dreaming.
Maciek became impatient. He paced. “Let’s get him out of here.”
Julie had no memory of passing the bottle-end. Her time was close.
Angelita and Attila were the most lucid. I could feel my own edges blurring, as if the descent into the abyss were being prepared for my fall like coastal erosion.
Then, as though pulling myself out of sleep, I woke.
We entered Carson’s meadow in various states of mind. Summer was leaving. The breeze had an edge to it. The ground was harder, pitted. Angelita fell heavily. I watched Attila help her rise with no trace of bitterness. The factory dominated the skyline. It commanded my view. I tried to imagine the time I believed I had spent inside, when the meadow was tarmac and white lines delineated the rectangular positions of parking spaces. Where the foyer was corporate and the interior working class. I could smell the grease they used on the cogs: a rich memory, a sensory awakening.
We stood in a line, aligned. I looked across to my colleagues. I remembered that tiny piece of brick crumbling in my hands. Self-consciously I put my fingers to my tongue.
Our walking aids fell to the grass. Our bodies, I am not so sure.
Andrew Hook has published over 120 short stories, in a variety of genres, most recently in Black Static, Strange Tales V, and Best British Horror 2015. His latest book is a neo-noir crime novel, Church Of Wire (Telos Publishing), and he is also co-editor at Salò Press. Further information about his work can be found at www.andrew-hook.com