by Cheryl S. Ntumy
The fear that she will leave sits and festers in the bottom of my stomach, wearing a hole right through me. It wakes me in the night.
I sit up, gasping, hand over my mouth so she doesn’t stir beside me. I climb out of bed. I know I mustn’t. I know I’m meant to be getting better. Not Nonchalant, no, never, but better. Sane, sort of. Saner than before.
But my illness owns me in the darkness. It runs me ragged and I can’t fight, can’t think about fighting, forget what fighting even is. Yes, I know. I’m weak. I’m selfish. After all she has done to help me heal, all she has given… I am the worst sort of coward. But it owns me, and I get up despite the mantras, despite the drugs in my blood, despite the patches adhering to the delicate skin on the inside of my thighs.
My feet touch the cold floor. I creep to the bathroom like vermin, dodging the light. I close the door as slowly as I dare and stand before the mirror. It senses me and darkens, programmed to counter my temptation, but I have had years of experience in making out my features in the dullest reflection. I can see enough to still my demons.
My face has an ashiness to it that I can’t place. The skin is smooth, creased by sleep but otherwise flawless. No spots. Not even one. Pride surges within, muffled only a little by the weakening drugs in my system. I’ll be taking another dose in a few hours and the next time I look in a mirror I’ll feel nothing. I relish this moment of dampened emotion and the flicker of anxiety that comes with it, and then the guilt sneaks in.
I’m rotten. How does she stand me, useless as I am? I can’t stay one night without a fix. I have to look, I have to make sure my profile is perfect, my hair sits just so, my nightdress skims my thighs at the most flattering angle.
Satisfied that I am still beautiful, I open the door and creep back to bed. It’s this furtive behaviour that will chase her away. Not the illness itself, but my inability to fight it. Inability, or perhaps unwillingness. She’ll leave because I promised to get better, to try, and I didn’t. She’ll leave because she thinks I love my demons more than I love her, and who will fault her? No one. Not even me.
I draw close to her beneath the covers and mould my form to hers. She murmurs in her sleep but doesn’t wake.
In the daylight she is everything. In the daylight, I love her more than life, and my demons cannot hope to compete. But in the darkness, my illness is all there is.
“You’re looking better! Your shirt isn’t ironed. Deliberate?”
I nod at the doctor.
“Good girl.” She leans in to smell my hair. “Unwashed. Nice. How long?”
“A week and a half.” A year ago the words would have choked me, but now I’m too medicated to care.
“Wonderful, wonderful. Any anxiety? Any urge to deviate?”
I shake my head. No urge to change my clothes, do my hair, clip and clean and paint my nails. No urges at all.
The doctor is pleased with me. A natural Nonchalant, her lab coat is creased, her hair dreadlocked the only way that counts, by time, life and the lack of a comb. The first time we met I longed to take a knife to her hair and hack it off, start afresh, lock it the old way, the bad way, with careful tending and first grade wax.
She chews the end of her pen as she makes notes in my file. Her grin is lazy, her speech a slow drawl. She has the inherent mellowness of her kind, as though life was designed to make her comfortable. I lie still while she removes the patches.
“Let’s try something a little stronger, okay? Just to be on the safe side.”
I barely feel the prick of the needle, and then my muscles loosen and my head lolls.
“That’s it. Good girl. Feels good, doesn’t it? This is how life is supposed to be. Easy.”
I nod and close my eyes.
“You’re making good progress. Well on the road to recovery. Just stay out of trouble and you’ll be fine.”
Yes, Doctor. Whatever you say, Doctor.
“Sweetie, can I move you to the lounge? I have another patient. I’m only twenty minutes late for him but he’s a Processor, so he’s having a little bit of an episode.” A throaty chuckle sounds near my ear as she helps me up. “There you go. Good girl.”
I make my way to a sofa, or maybe a bed. There’s someone else on it.
“You mind?” I murmur.
“No sweat,” he replies.
I curl up on his lap and feel him stroke my hair. Familiarity comes naturally in the first few hours after a dose. How well we’re doing, I think, before sleep claims me.
I step out of the clinic and onto the street. The city runs on a strange sort of order – every so often someone decides to clean up. Before treatment, I’d spend hours walking around, picking up litter, and then go home and take three showers.
A bus pulls up as I’m walking.
“Hop in,” the driver says, and I oblige.
He picks up three others and begins a leisurely drive through the city, taking people where they want to go by whatever route appeals to him. It takes me twice as long to get home as it would have if I’d walked.
An ad for Exhibition Week flashes along the back window of the bus. The Execs put on at least one exhibit a year. The last one was themed “Floods: How Feelings Make it Rain Blood” and throughout the city, sprinklers were set up to shower us with red liquid.
“Geez,” my partner said when she came home dripping. “Execs are intense. I’m grateful they’re willing to feel so much to protect us, but it’s a terrible shame for them.”
“They’re creepy,” I said, and she laughed.
Execs are Deviant, their doses spread out so they have deliberate relapses. To keep order, one must care. Oh, the irony.
My partner’s home when I arrive. She peels her body off the sofa and enfolds me in her long limbs.
“Babe. What did Doc say?”
She sits me down. I’m not allowed to work (it triggers my condition) and she only works when she feels like it, so often our days are spent lying on the carpet, watching old films and making lazy love until my drugs wear off and I get too excited. Sex is supposed to be relaxing. Orgasms are taboo, an excess of pleasure discouraged.
When things get too hot she stops and brings me ice cream to calm me down. She says to me, in the sort of tone that might be disappointed if she was invested enough to feel disappointment, “Babe, just, like….chill out, you know?”
I apologize and eat my ice cream, my body fierce with thwarted longing.
Natural Nonchalants are rare. Most are bioengineered in-utero. It no longer pays to be smarter or stronger or better-looking, yet every day Deviant children are born. Processors, obsessed with mental precision; Externas, obsessed with physical perfection; Feelers, obsessed with emotional connection; and Moralists, obsessed with propriety. Some of us are a combination. I’m Externa with Feeler tendencies. We’re all reviled, drugged and patched and counselled until we care as little as possible.
As part of my treatment, I was enrolled in a support group, the only Externa among Moralists. We sit in a rainbow-coloured room in rainbow-coloured chairs, trying not to pick the same spot each session and reveal our weakness.
Our supervisor is not natural nor bred but medicated from infancy. The result is a laissez-faire demeanour with occasional bursts of cheer. Calm, calm, calm, HAPPY, calm, calm, calm. We’re all a little frightened of her.
She leads us in reciting the mantras. “What you feel is false. What you think is false. Nonchalance is truth.”
I glance at the others. Doses up to date, faces pleasant, feathers unruffled. I wear four patches under my clothes, but my fellow Deviants wear so many they seem to cover every limb.
“Did anyone slip this week? This is a safe space, you can confess.”
No one ever does. If it was a safe space, the doctors wouldn’t let us come.
Afterwards, there are refreshments, a combination of healthy snacks and junk food. We’re supposed to eat a little of everything, to counter our aversions. The supervisor checks our plates and cups, and before we leave our blood is tested to make sure we’re still taking our meds. Every session is monitored, the footage diverted to the relevant Execs. Yes, I feel very supported. Very safe.
I attend the sessions wearing old clothes from the pile my partner keeps on the bedroom floor. Laundry is rarely done, and when my drugs are wearing off I ache to rip the clothes off and plunge them in disinfectant. There are trousers that don’t fit, will never fit, and a grey shirt with unidentifiable stains on it. I wear them as often as I can get away with. It’s a crutch, my way of exerting some control. I know it’s wrong. But they’re the least hideous things in the pile and for goodness sake, haven’t I given up enough?
I’m home alone. My partner is late. She said she’d be back around seven and my illness clung to that number and built a castle on it, and now it’s nine-fifteen and my castle is crumbling.
I shouldn’t care. I should watch TV. I am watching, but I’m watching with the tense self-righteousness of the aggrieved, watching without seeing, waiting for the door to open so she comes in and sees me watching and feels bad for being late.
My thoughts will land me in trouble. I get to my feet and make my way to the bedroom to get my next dose. And then I stop. What would happen if I missed a dose? Just one? All this business of taking pills at the same time like a slave – isn’t that exactly what the pills are meant to prevent? To be Nonchalant I should relax my rules. Right? It’s just one dose. Who cares?
I sink back into the sofa and let the cushions swallow me. I’m doing the right thing, what they have always said I should do. Letting go. Easy.
“Next,” I tell the TV, and the channel changes. “Next. Next.”
Faces and scenes and colours and none of it means anything beyond the fact that I’m watching TV alone and how can she leave me like this? Has she forgotten how sick I am, how much looking after I need? What if something happens? What if I don’t take my pills, and she’s not here to remind me, and all her hard work unravels? Which is exactly what is happening, what will happen, because she’s late. Because she said seven and it’s almost fucking ten.
I wait and I watch and I seethe. Next, next, next, until I’ve seen all the channels several times over, and then I get up and go to the bedroom and push the bed aside, and remove the credit card I was supposed to have thrown out from the slit between the wall and the wooden panel. And I switch the TV settings and log on the web and I can’t believe I still remember how to do this. It comes back like it never went away, the places I would go to get shampoo, silk shirts, and hand sanitizer. I order a whole box of toiletries. They arrive within the hour, delivered by a food truck and disguised in a box of bananas. I rip the box apart, dig under the fruit and retrieve the slender tubes of heaven, then I wrap them in a pair of old socks and hide them under the bed.
When the door finally opens it’s past midnight and I’m dozing, worn out with resentment.
“Aw, look at you, curled up like a kitten.” She kisses my forehead. “Bedtime, babe.”
I barely sleep. She’s up early, in the mood to work after a few days of leisure, and leaves before it’s properly light. I didn’t ask her why she was late. I rehearsed the question in my mind a thousand times but couldn’t find the right tone, the right amount of idle curiosity.
I was appeased for a while as we lay together, but then she decided to be productive today and I felt the hurt coming up in waves, and the insecurity, and the panic, and the spiralling thoughts of what would happen if she left me, if she didn’t love me anymore, stupid, pointless thoughts because she doesn’t love me as it is, she’s a Nonchalant, she’s not capable of any feeling deeper than mild appreciation so why do I even bother?
Could have taken the pills this morning and last night would have been a small hiccup. Could’ve, but I was too upset to force that clinical blankness down my throat so I didn’t, and now I’m in the shower scrubbing two days’ worth of dirt off my skin and washing my hair and oh my God it feels so good and I watch the dirt run down the drain and afterwards I lather my body with gorgeous illegal scented lotion.
I feel human now, alive with thoughts and feelings and I love it, I love it, I love it. Yes, I love it more than her. Why not? Why not more, when she is so little and this is so much, when this is everything? Maybe I never loved her. Maybe it was only the drugs that made me think I did. How does one love one’s jailer?
The demons are out. I let them roam. I am human, I was born to feel things and think things. I was not born to have lacklustre sex and put ugly itchy fabric on my body and eat poison that makes me break out. My body is a temple and damn it, I will treat it like one.
And I think – oh, maybe I’m free. Maybe I can go away, somewhere far from all these Nonchalants, somewhere with rebels who also want to be human and messy and alive, consequences be damned. But of course, there is no such place.
The door opens and she comes in and sees me cleaning grime off the kitchen counter in a beautiful dress and she doesn’t scream because she’s too Nonchalant to scream but she shakes her head and says, “Babe, no,” and I laugh.
And then she reaches into the drawer and pulls out something that looks like a gun but can’t be, because to shoot someone you have to feel something, surely, and then I tumble and fall and the world is all darkness.
There are doctors. Needles. Bright lights in my eyes. I feel, and then I don’t anymore.
I sit up, gasping, hand over my mouth so she doesn’t stir beside me.
It’s the first time she has ever woken like this. My body tenses.
“Let me get you another dose.”
“It’s okay, I’m fine…”
But she’s already up, long legs reaching the wardrobe, a syringe materializing. Wait, a syringe? Where are the pills?
“I’m fine. Really.” I keep my voice even.
She smiles, puts the syringe down on the bedside table. “Okay.”
She comes back to bed, pulls me close. Kisses me. My heart starts to race. I wrap my arms around her. I should see it coming because it feels too good and I know it shouldn’t.
She pulls away, gives me that I-would-be-disappointed-if-I-had-a-soul look. “Babe, really?” She reaches for the syringe.
I don’t think. I leap across the bed, snatch the syringe and slam it into her chest, right between her ribs. Her smile falters. I press down, emptying the drugs into her body. Let her be the calm one if she loves calm so much. She goes limp in no time at all. I feel for a pulse and don’t find one.
For a moment I’m confused. Then I realize something remarkable – I’m not sad. I’m not scared. She’s dead, I killed her, my last dose should be wearing off and yet I feel…numb.
I look at the lifeless body in the bed. Is this the secret? Giving in to my demons all the way, pushing my illness to the limit? Is this the solution our Execs have been searching for, a way to banish the deviance for good?
I lie down next to her, so still, so quiet, and put my arm around her. I hear sirens, but it doesn’t matter if they come for me. It doesn’t matter if they punish me. Nothing matters anymore. They’ve won. After all the fighting and trying and treatments and relapses, I am Nonchalant at last.
Cheryl S. Ntumy
Cheryl S. Ntumy is a writer from Ghana and currently living in Botswana. Her work has most recently appeared in Botswana Women Write (2019), We Will Lead Africa Volume 2: Women (2019) and the 2017 Caine Prize anthology The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories. She was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2018 for her story "Empathy". She has also been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship for 2019.