The Assignment

This face. There’s a resemblance, a vague recognition of my identity. Bleary from sleep, the reflective steel plate on the wall warps my face into peaks. A flickering memory of the excitement I felt in the beginning. I was going to be like an an explorer.

A genuine modern day explorer, that’s how it was pitched to us. I had studied for decades just to qualify for an entry into the program. Being selected was a lottery as so many of us were in competition for an assignment. Why was I chosen? What gave me the edge? Brimming with excitement and already internally boasting, I wanted to ask the question but I didn’t want to give them a chance to change their minds. I imagined the fame in returning. They would seek me out just for 5 minutes of my time. I would be rich, in demand. Now the word “assignment” just makes my breakfast water sink into my bowels. I’ve no energy to stand.

They’ve packed me up, and they’re shipping me home. We should arrive this time tomorrow. Back to reality, my family full of questions. Back to my enviable career, my bank balance and properties. I don’t want any of it.

It’s 7:00 am and I should be meeting Mandy for coffee.

Apart from two mornings in a twelve month span, this had become our daily ritual. Sat at our kitchen tables at 7:00 am, miles apart, separated by five hours of water. It was the best part of my day. I wanted to make her happy, the best I could do was make her laugh for a few minutes over coffee before our days began. Her eyes looked into mine through a tiny camera on the top of her device, and I felt like I’d never been seen before. I wanted her to look at me and for me to look at her until we died. I was in love with her before we’d even touched.

For the second time since waking, my body succumbs to shock as I relive the last minutes.

An unknown number flashing up on my screen. The automated voice that sped through a series of words and numbers too fast to decipher, triggering spontaneous movement. I was no longer in control. My phone falls, and my fingers pushed into the soft skin around my throat, forcing themselves tight around an embedded metal stem. No time to take a breath. My fingers gripped like pliers, and twisted sharply breaking the tissue. My fist whipped away from my body and a wire attached to the stem sliced a clean line. My old life rushed from the recesses of my brain, filling up the empty spaces, and I was unzipped from neck to groin.

There was no pain as the blood jettisoned and pooled, redecorating my bathroom like a horror set. Then it stopped. No more left in me. I say Me, but that’s not right. I stood there feeling the thickness of the tissue around me grow cold and heavy. Trapped by its deadness. The sound of my juddering breath and slow dripping. I could feel gravity working. My head spins and the floor comes up to meet me. The sound of feet pounding up the stairs to my flat…

I vomit for a second time.

The conditioning for the assignment worked so perfectly that my given persona and body was all I knew. Explorers, they said, but we few that were chosen were merely “acceptable blenders”, white male worker bees, nothing powerful, no leaders, just suit clad yes men. We were there to document. Recording 24/7. Parents, schooling, friendships, are all staged. Born at 35 with a backstory that covered any conversation that could take place, an an imagination just wide enough to fill in any gaps. That holiday in Fiji never happened. My dog never existed, but I remember how I cried when I lost her, too heartbroken to ever think of replacing her. The tiny scar under my eye was not from a tree climbing accident, it was put there by a writer. In fact, every imperfection was its own story. My mother. My soul is in agony; how can she not be real? I can hear her singing. I can smell her shampoo and feel the noise of the house inside me, clattering plates, radios tuning in, the washing machine on spin. The focal point of my childhood, my development, my benchmark for love and kindness. My mother. She never even took a breath.

Memories from our real lives are shelved in a part of the consciousness we are unable to access during an assignment. Accessing them now feels bland. I feel nothing, like I was a cameo in my own life story. The people I am related to… I don’t care. I feel nothing but indifference.

We are never supposed to unzip here. Is this why? It risks exposing who we are, and the psychological dangers could only be estimated. For a second I consider that my feelings could change and my old life might hold some attraction in the future. Amidst this confusion my intuition tell me I know the answer already. I still don’t know why I was triggered. They are treating me like a specimen, securely stowed away from contamination. Even when they collected me they didn’t say a word, just worked silently to extract me. Why was I switched back on? No one will answer my questions. The short bursts of interactions I have with them are perfunctory. I search their faces looking for clues but they are expressionless. Are they switched off? I’m scrabbling around inside my head and nothing makes sense. Is this grief? My beautiful life…

In 24 hours I’ll be back in a place that no longer my home, and I will never be me again.

Mandy will be worried. I can’t breathe. I can’t cope with the thought of her being upset. She will be at her desk now, staring at her phone. I sat on that desk like an awkward gift two Fridays ago. I only knew her work address so I surprised her there. For two whole days we were inseparable. We didn’t sleep. There was too much to talk about, and we couldn’t stop touching each other. Right now, eyes closed, I could trace her outline with my fingers tips. My beautiful, funny girl.

Switch me back off. I want to be loved.

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