Stef stared as the Agency melted away.
She took one last breath of safe air as reality slipped away.
The edges of her office became a window, a corner of desk, a pile of garbage.
She rolled onto her left side, arms wrapped around a pillow, and stared at the huge clock on the bedside table. Date, day, time. Friday. A huge piece of paper tapped to it informed her that she’d been properly lucid on Wednesday. Not a bad lapse. Not long enough of a lapse for anything detrimental to happen.
She sat up, swung her legs off the edge of the bed, and massaged them before trying to move further. They cramped and complained as she worked them, then gave up, and let her stand.
A group of tech recruits walked past her bedroom door.
She leaned against the metalwork at the foot of the bed, and let her mind drift, seeing if she could get back to the Agency, but the the recruits disappeared like spectres.
She massaged her eyes, and made her way to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet, and slowly stripped her clothes away, and let herself smile as she saw the diaper was unsoiled. Agents didn’t need to pee, which was cool, but crazy girls did, and the two ideas clashed sometimes.
She dutifully popped the diaper into a baggie anyway, and threw it into the small bathroom bin, and stepped in for a shower.
Agent Stef didn’t need to shower either. Another aspect that made the real, real, real reality so much cooler than boring reality. She spun the taps, keeping the water just a little too cold, and pressed herself against the tiles.
She slowly took stock of herself. No weird bruises of cuts. Nothing to indicate she’d walked anywhere but the usual half-lucid paths between her bed, her computer and the bathroom.
As was usual, she started to cry.
She sank down onto the floor of the shower, the cold water covering her body, washing away the stink and sweat of spending the majority of two days in bed.
It had only been two days.
It was never going to be long enough.
Two days surrounded by people who loved her. Two days surrounded by people who needed. Where she was more okay than she could ever really be. Where she had a life, not just an existence.
She felt really awake. It was going to be a long lucid period.
Her hands shook as she undid the cap on the store-brand shampoo and washed her hair. She hadn’t washed it on Wednesday. She didn’t remember Wednesday. She remembered partying with tech recruits. She remembered eating someone’s birthday cake. She remembered Curt trying on cosplay costumes. She remembered her homework for her Academy class.
She didn’t remember Wednesday.
She winced as soap got into her eyes. She grabbed for a wash cloth and scrubbed at her eyes, not really surprised to feel a cockroach slide out from it and run onto her hand. She flicked the bug away, disdainfully washed the rest of the soap from her hair, and stepped out of the shower, stepping onto a bathroom mat that was slowly disintegrating, or becoming part of the tiles.
‘I fucking know, okay?’
She half-closed the bathroom and grabbed one of the plastic shopping bags she’d organised on hooks there – only four of sixteen remained – something that she needed to rectify.
‘Remember that for me?’
I’ll try, Spyder.
She spun at the sound of the recruit’s voice, about to admonish them for walking in on her, but saw no one.
She dressed – simple clothes – decent enough if she had to go outside; simple colours, that would hide stains.
She moved from the bathroom to the kitchen, pausing briefly to look at the notes she had taped to the walls – each were marked with various dates, and she took down all the ones that weren’t marked with “Wednesday” – even if they were the wrong Wednesday.
There was a huge poster on the fridge, and smaller clones on all of the cupboards, reminding her to check supplies.
She opened the fridge, and saw, as expected, three shelves of long-life milk, some chilling chocolate, butter, and several bottles of Vegemite. The freezer contained an ice build-up, boxes of ice cream that she couldn’t remember buying, and a bag of peas for medical emergencies.
She made noodles and coffee – the cupboards for both containing at least a year’s supply, then moved to the living room. She made a face at the cheap, bland ramen, added a few drops of soy sauce from the bottle on the table, and nodded to herself – anything covered in enough soy was usually okay.
She ate slowly, trying not to slop any of it onto herself, and managed quite well – eating, at least, was one life skill that Agent Stef practised. Requirements made everything so easy – any meal with a thought, compared to what was going to be a lifetime of eating the cheapest crap possible to extend the longevity of her savings.
Store-brand soaps, ten-for-a-dollar ramen, and everything else bought in bulk when it was on special. Agent Stef got the exciting things in life, moments outside of the Agency was just like waiting in the lobby for a new game to start – it was limbo time, it meant nothing, comfort was unimportant.
She leant her head back on the couch she’d bought on Craigslist, which still faintly smelled of cigarette smoke, despite how many times she’d doused it with cleaner, looked at the leaning bookcase that contained the few knick-knacks from life with her family, and finally settled on the TV.
The TV and the game consoles were the one luxury she allowed herself – some lucid periods lasted nearly a week, after all, and she had to have something to fill her time other than internet.
The game consoles were also frustrating as fuck and a huge source of dissociation. Start a game in the lobby, that was fine, but if Agent Stef continued it, it would always be different, because even Agent Stef with her bigbig brain couldn’t predict everything, couldn’t-
Playing old games was much better anyway. Playing old games created no dissociation. Playing old games let her go for completionist trophies, and new game pluses.
Stef sighed, finished off the noodles, than slowly began to move about the apartment, reading the notes that still had to be dealt with.
It only took two hours to pack twelve bags of clothing for the back of the bathroom door.
Achievements deserved rewards.
She went to the fridge, and broke a row from the cooking chocolate in the fridge, then took a four-hour internet break.
Hunger growled again, and she made more noodles.
‘What time is it?’
She looked to the large clock on the wall, then swore.
‘How the fuck is it only eleven? I got up at four!’
‘You got up at four. In the morning.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Do we have to go through this again?
She stared up at the ceiling. ‘Guess not.’
If you run through your checks, I think you could go outside.
‘But…But you don’t…’
You always feel better when you go visit the Agency. And it’s good for you to go outside.
Her mouth twitched into a smile. ‘Okies.’
The check-list was exhaustive. It needed to be. Crazy girls and the outside weren’t a natural mix. It had been refined over time as periods of lucidity got less frequent, after she’d been allowed to just give up instead of pretending that she could be a real person.
The first section was appearance – that was easy, her outfit was less than twelve hours old, that got an automatic pass. Her hair always looked the same, no matter what she did, so that was another check.
Her bag took longer – programming reminders into her phone, wallet, back up money in three different sections of her bag, and extra-emergency twenties in her pockets – which were zipped, of course, and in in her shoe, in case all else failed. There was very little possibility she’d lose her bag, her pants and her boots. Hopefully.
She retreated into her wardrobe, sliding the door closed against the world.
The glow-in-the-dark stars were the only light in the small world.
Going outside was always scary. It was necessary. Sometimes it was necessary. Going downstairs to check the mail was one thing – that had a much smaller check-list, and could be done in the dead of night if necessary – the Field rating of going to check the mail was much lower than actually leaving the building.
There were so many things that could go wrong – so many things that could happen because of a drop in lucidity, or because people were stupid, or cruel, or too willing to take advantage.
It was so easy to snatch the bag from a crazy girl too busy zoning out staring at a building that wasn’t there. Too easy to cop a feel on a crowded bus. There was the danger of going back to the Agency while going outside. There was the danger of crossing into a busy street. Clicking your heels three times didn’t get you home when you were scared.
Things had to be carefully managed – go out when there would be plenty of people about, but not when public transport would be overly crowded – taxis were an ever-present option, but a taxi ride represented soooo much ramen that it had to be always kept as a backup plan.
She hugged Alexandria to her, gathered her courage, and stepped out of the wardrobe.
She gathered her things, found her keys, and checked herself in the full-length mirror before leaving the bedroom.
The walk down the hall was a long one.
Things were so much easier in the Agency.
She slapped her cheeks, then walked out of the apartment. She locked the door, then leant against it, slapped it. ‘Friday. Friday. Friday.’
Walking down the stairs took an age of man.
She walked out of the building, and into the…rather dull and overcast day. She mentally gave the outside world a big green tick – overcast days were so much easier to handle than bright and sunny days.
The walk to the bus was slow, despite the music blasting in her ears. She managed to block out all of the people as she waited at the stop.
She checked the time on her phone eight times in the ten minutes it took the bus to arrive, her go card digging into the skin of her palm as she held it in a death grip.
The trip into the city was short, uneventful, and thankfully lucid.
She walked by where the Agency was in reality, stood for a moment, looking at the wrong buildings, the wrong configuration, and the lack of people in the right kind of suits.
She turned up the street and headed for Post Office Square – it was close enough to the Agency that a lot of recruits went there for lunch when they felt like imitating civilians. It was a place that existed in the real world, and in this pale shadow of the real world.
The Agency was real. The Agency was the only thing that mattered.
You need to stay lucid.
‘Not gonna be a problem,’ she muttered.
She bought an ice-cream from the Hungry Jack’s beneath the square – fifty cents was an outlay that her budget could manage – and found a place to sit on the edge of the green space.
For a moment, everything was normal.
For a moment, she was herself.
She was eating ice-cream, a block away from home, where her dad was, where her boy was, where her friends were, where her life was.
The moment faded, and once again, she was nothing but a crazy girl loving the people in her head.
Stef stared as the Agency melted away.