by Rae Cod
Millie followed the path around the trees as she had done every morning for the last six days. Six days surrounded by people but totally alone. She’d expected the silence to be heaven, but her own mind seemed determined to create torment. Six days down, four to go.
First, she convinced herself she’d left the iron on at home. By the time she got to day five she was pretty certain the whole of the outside world had been annihilated by a zombie apocalypse, but she couldn’t know for certain because she didn’t have her phone, though her hand kept going to her pocket anyway, she could almost feel it, like a phantom limb.
Why had she signed up for this course? The flyer said it would connect you with your true self.
If that’s what I’m experiencing, then my true self is more neurotic than a cat in a Turkish bathhouse. Oh yeah, that’s why.
She sighed, a leaden exhaling of air impregnated with all the frustrations she wished she could spill out to one of the other women shuffling along the same forest path, their heads down. She was sure they all hated her, even though she hadn’t spoken to most of them.
Why hadn’t she prepped one of her friends to stage an emergency phone call with a code word in case she needed to get out of here? Because you’re an idiot, that’s why, she told herself, an idiot who thought that silence would give you the answer to a question you haven’t been able to solve your whole life.
She willed her chattering mind to be quiet and focused on her shuffling feet, one step in front of the other, as she repeated her emergency mantra in a mind-loop she found sadly unconvincing: I am safe, I am happy, I am well.
At four am on day seven, the wake-up gong still reverberating around her skull (she’d found it peaceful on day one, but now she jumped so high every time they rang she suspected she had gong PTSD) she made a decision. She couldn’t take this lunacy anymore. She was abandoning the ship. She rose and dressed quickly, slung her backpack over her shoulder and made her way to the woods. She’d escape through the tree boundary.
As she moved into the forest the light from the living compound faded. She looked up into a cloud-filled sky, the path ahead of her as black as ink. She rummaged in her backpack for her torch before she remembered she’d left it on the bedside table. Too late to go back for it now. She’d remember the path, she’d walked it enough times and she knew there was a gap in the fence at the top corner of the trees.
Hesitantly, arms outstretched, she began to move forwards, feeling her way. After a few minutes she caught a glimpse of light up ahead, it must be the streetlight on the road beyond the boundary, freedom! She started walking faster, before breaking into a run, guided by the soft glow that was expanding as she approached. One minute she was gliding towards the light and the next she was hurtling towards the ground, a searing pain shot through her ankle as she landed heavily on her side with a shriek.
She must have blacked out for a second, but those seconds turned out to be some of the most important of her life; she heard her own voice, but it didn’t sound like her. It was calm, confident, and full of love, don’t worry, she told herself, I’ve got you, you can trust me. She was enveloped in warmth as she felt love radiate through every corner of her body, banishing the heavy shroud she hadn’t realised she was wrapped in, replacing it with a soft blanket of acceptance and contentment.
A hand on her shoulder and a soothing voice brought her back to the forest,
‘Millie, are you ok? I saw you head down this way and I just had a feeling…’
Millie opened her eyes to see her roommate, Shanthi, crouching beside her.
‘So are you’, replied Shanthi with a smile, ‘well, screaming more like! Can you move?’
Shanthi’s voice was deep and melodious and had a playful edge to it that Millie hadn’t expected. Millie rotated her ankle and found that apart from a small twinge it felt miraculously fine.
With Shanthi’s help, she got to her feet. Millie noticed she’d been organised enough to bring a torch, but she hadn’t been the one trying to escape in a hurry, so she’d probably had more time to think. Look at that, she told herself, you gave yourself a break.
‘Come on,’ said Shanthi, ‘let’s get back up there before anyone misses us…unless you want to carry on with the Great Escape?’
Millie laughed and found that all the negativity and resentments that had been churning around inside her so intensely for the past few days had gone.
‘I think I’ve escaped from something Shanthi, but I won’t be leaving here until they open the gates on Sunday.’
‘Well then, let’s keep this between us, we can’t be discovered breaking the virtuous silence this late in the game, but I’m looking forward to hearing the full story over a coffee on Sunday, okay?’
‘Okay,’ agreed Millie, ‘I’d like that,’ and found, wonderfully, that she meant it.