Throwback Thursday: The Pit of My Mind

Originally posted at The Bipolar Writer Collaborative Mental Health Blog in April of 2018. If you think it’s depressive; yes, it is.

A spotlight coming from a hole in a dark underground cave in Minorca

“Chelsea? Chelsea?” I don’t look up.

Wendy the counselor waits; I assume she waits patiently. She’s going to have to wait for a while, if she thinks waiting will get a response from me. I may be as mentally distant from her, the room, and life as possible; but, I smugly acknowledge, I still have my stubbornness.

“Chelsea?” She tries again, though not pleading or cajoling. The woman is too good at her job. Her paid job. The one I’m paying her to do. “I can come in there after you, if you need me to, but I want you to find a way out on your own.”

Fat. Chance.

I’m ugly. No one actually cares about me, least of all her. I’m paying her; she’s a paid friend. She doesn’t want to to see my face; my red, splotchy, tear-stained face, with stringy, greasy hair and imperfect, crooked teeth…

“Whatever you’re telling yourself right now is not true.” I hear, from a distance. “You need to stop listening to that voice, and meet each untruth with the more positive truth.”

Whatever. I’ve heard aphorisms before. know that my “voice” is the truth: the UGLY truth, yes; but the HONEST one. No one really cares. No one really cares. No one. People standing outside my pit, calling to me, don’t really want to be there. And, they are ignorant twits.

Whenever someone leans over the edge of The Pit I wait. “You don’t actually care!” I yell, from somewhere near the bottom, out of sight of any penetrating light. Occasionally, they take the bait; they lean closer. Grabbing them like a mud-pit crocodile, I drag them down with me to their doom.

“Wha-?” They manage, before getting a faceful of mud, moss, roots, overplayed apps, and wrappers from an entire package of Fun Size Snickers.

Believe me, that size of chocolates was not as “fun” as they said.

Soon enough, I have amassed a small pile of hapless prey. Almost all of them are not strangers; they’re me: Optimistic Me, Tried That Day Me, Motivated Me, lots of Medicated Me’s, Broke the Habit Me, and even Did Something Worthwhile Me. They’re not as big or strong as Me in The Pit, of course, which is why they’re lying, broken, at the bottom.

Balancing carefully, I decide to climb atop the living pile of bodies. They moan slightly, too down-trodden and depressed to fight back.

Knowing me, I’d probably kick them if they did fight. It’s easier to kick another down than help myself up.

Slowly, precariously, my head reaches sunlight. I climb higher, ignoring the complaints below. Helpful Me, the poor sucker, proffers a handy boost with her unbroken leg. Soon I see the top of the hole; I’m looking at ground level.

“Wow,” I breathe.

A slight, sweet-tasting breeze tickles my exposed face. A completely careless birdsong whistles down from a nearby tree. I see light, clear skies, beautiful landscapes. I can almost touch rough twigs and mossy ground. Almost.

A low shot of green underbrush in a forest under a bright sun

It’s not real, someone I know, inside, tells me.

“Come out,” my counselor requests. Still waiting. Perhaps she’s eyeing Medicated Me, just beneath a dirty sneaker, when she adds, “Medication is never meant to be taken on its own. Studies are clear that any treatment must include therapy.”

The breeze tastes of rain, as well. Storms will come, maybe soon. That whistling bird is a sitting duck for a hawk or fox, singing so anything can hear it. The impending storms will mar the sky -look! See? A cloud is already blocking the sun. The twigs and moss are not actually there. I’m sure they’re just fake craft-store props.

It’s too much.

I climb or stumble or intentionally fall back to the dark comforts beneath me. We all roll or crawl or drag ourselves to muddy positions as I select the easiest numbing solution nearby.

“Don’t do this,” I think I hear, from far away. Wendysomething?

You didn’t, Depressed Me says.

“Let’s play Fallout,” Addicted to Apps Me suggests. A few others perk up a bit in agreement. I acquiesce, and we all wait for it to load. We really ought to fix the WiFi in The Pit, but Motivated Me is still recovering from a concussion.

“Can I have a Snickers?” Pig Me asks. I hand her the bag. Thank goodness for home delivery, otherwise we might starve.

 

Photo Credits:
unsplash-logoJez Timms
unsplash-logoDeva Darshan
unsplash-logoIan Chen
unsplash-logoJanus Clemmensen

 

©2019 Chelsea Owens

Skinwalkers, XLV

The workers maintained their precise, quick pace through the remaining steps of membrane construction. Nearly a half-workcycle passed before the room’s red light illuminated a 10 centimeter square strip of perfect, useable synthdermal material at each station.

Nathan continued his roving inspections throughout, beginning them as a vulture and ending as an eagle. The team’s satisfaction was palpable. The judging executives’ surprised pleasure and respect was apparent in Stone‘s occasional nodding, Pul’s outright grin, and Caill’s pursed-lip jealousy. Nathan, himself, felt proud enough to burst through his Fantastique-owned skin.

He had passed the inpracticum, the second interview stage. He had to be the top pick; no other applicant would possibly think to change the program nor to watch for tricks.

“Set the bar so high, no one has a chance to even think to get a step stool,” his lab leader in Advancement Studies had told them all. Good old J. Wilson, onetime founder of the now-controversial Skinwalkers Corporation. “Never trust the skin you see,” was another of his. Nathan frowned, remembering the brilliant man. Too bad J. Wilson hadn’t applied his own advice about trust when public opinion went South, and Skinwalkers’ Heads needed a man to blame.

“Set your samples in suspension,” Nathan announced. The six workers complied, storing their scientific art in the appropriate bay beneath six desks. He watched and heard six pairs of hands disinfect just below the work surface, then clasp expectantly atop the same surface.

Almost in unison, they and Nathan turned to Stone, Pul, and Caill. There was a pause as the three in charge held a silent conversation. Stone nodded, and spoke aloud, “You may return to your normal cycle duties.”

Nathan felt a slight drop in the room’s happy environment as his temporary team accepted their perfunctory instruction and rose to comply. On impulse, he said, “Excellent work, everyone.”

The backward glances and pleased, hidden smiles of the workers touched him, even while the confused and shocked (in the case of Caill) expressions of the executives brushed against his conscience at the same time. Their preoccupation with his audacity served to distract from a final, grateful look Quý sent to Nathan just before exiting.

He morphed a potentially-sappy smile into a more grim model as he turned to his three judges. He strode forward and was pleased to see them recoil somewhat at his approach. “Your tablet,” he said, offering it to Stone. Stone took it; an automatic gesture. Nathan worried the man might forget to keep his hold upon it, as Stone swung it back to his side while keeping his attention on Nathan.

Nathan returned their stares; allowed their confusion. As usual, Caill recovered first. He could watch her thoughts push across her face as her furrowed brow, eerie in the room’s dimness, cleared to realization then drew together in determination.

“I trust,” he said, beating her to vocalization, “This means we are finished.”

“Oh!” Pul responded. “O-of, of course.” Caill shot him a poisonous look. “Erm, are we done?”

Stone moved his head downward in affirmation; he was obviously fond of expressing himself that way, Nathan thought.

“Yes, of course,” Caill said, as if they had not all been delaying. “Pul, guide N. Reed to departure.”

Nathan hid his amusement from all but his eyes, trusting in the poor lighting to shield his feelings from Caill. At Pul’s guiding gesture, he stepped past her and Stone and out into the much brighter corridors of Carapace.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVI.

Skinwalkers, XLIV

Six workers stood; six red-shadowed forms walked quickly to where Nathan had directed. Once seated, the six hurried to retrieve necessary intra-dermal materials from their new stations’ storage bays.

Nathan walked round them in a pattern designed to appear even and fair, yet focused his attentions on the worker named E. She had exhibited the most hesitancy and the longest working time, not to mention the most attention from Caill -as unobtrusive as Caill thought she was being in paying those attentions.

Despite those concerns and observations, Nathan saw no negative reaction from D, the young man who stepped up to work with E’s matrix. Considering, Nathan cleared his throat. “Due to the more intricate nature of this step, you will have a full tick’s time to complete it.” He continued walking as he spoke. “Subdermal construction is a specialty of mine, and I will be closely monitoring each worker’s efforts.”

E’s left hand twitched away from her task and she stole a glance at Caill. Nathan saw this but pretended he had not. He circled the redlit, wedge-shaped amphitheater in measured steps. His slipshods made little sound in the soft flooring but he knew that even the three executives felt and dreaded his approach.

Each of the six workers responded with a tensing of shoulders or arms, a rush to pull the material he or she needed, or a quick turn of head toward his bent scrutiny.

Each of the three persons monitoring the proceedings, meanwhile, responded according to personality. Stone did not change expression; Nathan’s more shocking announcements caused the stoic man to move his hand-clasping from behind his back to his front, or the reverse if he found them already before him. Pul, for his part, took to bouncing on the balls of his feet and a twitching of head and facial features into exactly what feeling struck him. Caill’s reactions were the most interesting for Nathan to observe, since the woman persisted in both shielding her emotions and being ignorant to how obvious that shielding was.

Her hands would jerk forward to wring around each other until she realized what they were doing and desisted. Sometimes, she caught them before contact; other times, not till a full jiff or two later. Their progress depended on the severity of her reaction. When hand-wringing was not enough, she paced a step or two -the distance, again, depending on severity.

Nathan made up his mind. After looping near D and stopping to admire his handiwork, Nathan strolled to E’s station. The woman grew more intent upon her model. He leaned down quite near her to watch.

In a voice just beneath a whisper, he said, “Whatever you have been told, I assure you: completely destroying your assigned step will ruin the materials for not just one, but six dermal samples.” Her hands shook and her eyes darted to his hovering face. “Do not look to Caill for approval,” he added, before she could. “You and I both know that she will discard you faster than a defective membrane if outed.” E snorted a silent, somber laugh but pretended to keep her focus on the task at hand.

“You also know the Heads at Carapace will not appreciate such an expensive waste of materials,” he continued, raising a hand to point at her sample. To any visually eavesdropping, he ensured their exchange had the appearance of casual instruction or curious query. “If they do not terminate this entire team, they will assuredly ask for the one responsible, and Caill is not the sort to volunteer for termination.”

“Now,” he moved his finger to a more specific location, “Let’s remove this ‘vessel’ and choose a more lively one.”

E jumped a bit. “Of course,” she said, barely audibly but with more composure than her previous actions had indicated. Picking up a pair of tiny tweezers, she extracted the plastic tubing she had inserted in place of an actual vessel.

“Thank you,” Nathan whispered. Without changing expression, he gestured to another area and asked, “What is your name?” He saw Caill pacing. Toward them.

“Quý,” E breathed.

“Thank you,” he said again. He rose and straightened his suit. In a normal tone, he said, “Excellent layering. Your placement will ensure a seamless tissue integration.” Caill paused and feigned an interest in C’s progress, to her side. She then turned and paced back the other direction.

Nathan smiled, the sort he saved for victory.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLV.

Skinwalkers, XLIII

Crude as Nathan’s rented outfit might have been compared to the skins used by Caill, Stone, and Pul, it served its masking purposes well. More than once, he felt enough of a burning stare from the three executives to elicit a rise in body temperature. Nathan’s normal epidermis, he was certain, was flushing and sweating. Not that he’d rented the cheapest skin possible, of course. Otherwise, the sweating alone would have ruined any adhesion and left him looking like a melted candle.

Nathan couldn’t help but picture such an image under the red glow of the inpracticum lab lights, the tenaciously trusting glances of the workers, and the ever-present scrutiny of the three in charge.

Still, the group assigned beneath him was skilled. He felt grateful to the state of the current job market for that, although not for much else. Once equipped with new supplies for the task, Workers A-F crafted with a rushed efficiency that surprised and pleased him. He felt his natural intellect and past education surfacing from a half planetcycle’s disuse, barely keeping up with the flying fingers, tools, and computer-generated figures before him.

A lesser man might have recoiled from the challenge. A lesser man might have considered leaving the room at the first sign of a dark, enclosed space and the expectation of impossibility. Nathan Reed was never a lesser man.

“Set your matrix, and prepare to relocate,” he announced after a half-tick. All but E were finished; E close enough to move within a jiff. Five expectant, redlit faces lifted to his, joined by the sixth after a pause. “You will move across and up, with the exception of the back position,” he said. Raising his voice for the benefit of his judges, he continued, “When directed, A will move to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, E to F, and F down to A. The success of your creation will be judged by the one who comes after you.”

He stopped to allow them to think on this. Not wishing to obliterate a necessary amount of teamwork, he added, “The ease and exactness with which you craft your portion will result in six working samples within the same space that mediocre teams make only one.”

The rotating model of a dermal matrix floated above the front of the room. Nathan stepped below it. Still holding the tablet Stone had given him at Caill’s direction, Nathan swiped the display to show the next step. Colored demonstrations of cell and vessel integration replaced the first step over his head. “Are there any unfamiliar with this process?”

His gaze locked briefly with each worker. Each face returned a similar expression of cool experience, though A and E also glanced at the large display or at Caill. He made a mental note to watch D’s reaction to E’s work after the switch. One faulty cog would make for complete failure, but he knew no better way to expose a trap set for new applicants.

“If your current matrix is set, rise and move to where you were directed.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLIV.

Skinwalkers, XXXIV

The next workcycle proved as hellish as any other Nathan had endured, with the added benefit of Shin’s absence. Not only was his friend not there to take the edge off Choms and the remaining grunt work at the Carapace job, his replacement was Lizard.

Lizard and Tod had wriggled out of their halfway-completed Fantastique assignment. This didn’t surprise Nathan since underhanded deals, blackmail, and outright threats were more frequent than employee turnover. Rather, he felt wary and confused that Lizard would want to work with him. The scowling bully of a man didn’t appear very bright, but Nathan knew better than to take people at face value.

Lizard had not spoken beyond a loud, “Looks like me and you, Nathaniel!” after Choms paired them, a, “Schweet!” when they entered Carapace, and a loud-whispered, “It don’t talk much, do it?” when their grumpy guide led them down the service elevator and hallway. But perhaps he was a better actor than his comments demonstrated.

As the pair returned to Ware Tech later in the dusky premeal light, Nathan tried to study his partner without drawing too much attention to his actions. He also ensured Lizard walked closest to the buildings and right in the path of the autoads.

With the exception of the female Sultronous video, at which he let out a catcall, Lizard seemed unaffected. Another mystery, Nathan thought.

He felt edgy. Besides worry over Lizard’s motives, he had not heard anything from Shin. Guilt or conscience or curiosity had prompted Nathan to message his friend before work. Similar motives had found him pressing his ear to the shared wall a few times before workcycle more than he would admit to anyone. Still, nothing.

No one at work seemed to care. This was also not surprising, yet Nathan felt the sting of Shin’s absence more acutely because of it. Loud sounds of postcycle relief and jocular teasing surrounded him as he deposited his gear in the locker and slammed the door closed. He was about to sprint back to the slums for an imperative rest when something clapped him on the shoulder.

“Nathaniel,” Lizard said.

Nathan looked up from his thoughts to discover a half-circle of workmates penning him. He and they were the only men in the locker room. His eyes flicked to the three possible gaps through which he might escape, his adrenaline suggested panic. His mind and training, however, overrode his other instincts.

Leaning against the lockers and smiling with a pleasant expression, he faced the group. “‘Sup, guys?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXV.

Secret Mission

The lights were finally out, and the moon had gone behind a cloud. Finnegan knew what he had to do. Pulling his ridiculous green hat more tightly over his red curls, he tiptoed up to the silently swaying dog door.

Nothing seemed to move but the wind. He checked the surveillance unit on his wrist, just in case. All clear. Swallowing nervously at the thought of who the flap was built for, he pushed through it and into the sleeping house.

The plastic barely shushed, but it was a shout to his keenly-tuned ears. A clock’s second hand banged around the face. Whooshing hurricane gales sprouted from a metal floor vent near his entry. And, above it all, he could hear the annoying clink, clink of the useless brass buckles atop his manmade-materials shoes.

Fortunately, he hadn’t far to go. In the glaring light of streetlamps barely shining through the windows, he could see his goal. From here, in shadows, it had the very appearance of a hangman’s noose. Leave it to man’s imagination to force his children to construct such a thing, Finnegan mused. But he was a professional; a child’s invention couldn’t scare him.

Carefully, he drew close to the table upon which the trap rested. Equally carefully, he withdrew a jar from inside his scratchy felt overcoat. The silly coat was cut in the ugliest style, barely covered his midsection, and hardly had space for the job’s necessary pockets.

Mostly by feel, he removed the jar’s lid. Bending, he applied its contents to his right foot’s sole. He repeated the process with the left foot, though he made certain to place his feet apart from each other once they touched the ground. It wouldn’t do to have the painted prints right together, after all.

Finnegan straightened. He replaced the lid, then returned the container to its pocket. Pulling within for a bit o’ magic, he took off -straight up the table leg. Once at the top, he slowed to a light jog. Each bouncing step drew the trap nearer, more menacing.

It wouldn’t have killed them to line the thing with glow sticks, he thought, pausing. These sorts of setups always had gold coin lures or other sparkly objects, but never something illuminating them.

A small yarn ladder hung haphazardly from the side. It looked to be held on with transparent tape; hardly up to building code. In fact, the entire contraption had to be supported by a child’s faith alone. Given its instability, Finnegan decided to make a quick run for the sake of prints, but return and use his equipment for the rest of the job.

Again, he ran vertically -up the yarn and the side of the tube. It was a pit trap design, with the added element of a coin hanging from an extended fishing-pole toilet paper roll. He wasn’t sure why its designer had attached the pole to the side of the pit, but was fairly certain that inexperience had something to do with it.

Once at the shaky zenith, he chanced to flash his finger-torch inside the pit. Sure enough, a myriad of stick-on jewels, plastic coins, and one or two dirty pennies could be seen. He swiftly removed his shoes to his left hand, and ran back down in striped green stockings.

Finnegan paused to wipe the remaining green paint from the shoe soles against the cardboard sides of the trap. He bent and re-shod his feet. Then, he raised both hands over his head and focused on the memory of fake treasure. He lifted it all in his mind, and saw it rise from the trap’s hole in real life.

A few years ago, he remembered, they’d been told it was regulation to actually enter the pits to retrieve the children’s lures. A few months of glue-covered or pin-stabbed employees changed the policy quickly. Finnegan felt fortunate that the worst he’d suffered was falling ill from child-infected loose change.

He drew his hands toward his body now. The “treasure” followed the gesture. In this fashion, he soon had it all before him on the table. Drawing a gadget from the other felt pocket of the ugly overcoat, he pointed it at the pile and pushed a button. ZapThe useless junk disintegrated.

Turning a dial atop the same gadget, he pointed it above the hole from which the junk had been extracted. He pushed the button again. A man’s handful of chocolate coins fell out of the air and into the pit. Finnegan smiled; he’d always been a good aim.

Pocketing his tool, he turned and ran back across the tabletop. He skipped down the table leg. As he sprinted to the dog door, he heard a dreadful noise above the cacophony of night sounds: the click, click, click of canine toenails on kitchen tile.

Fortunately, no animal had ever caught Finnegan O’Boyle. He wasn’t about to change his untarnished record tonight. Night and grass and blessed shadows were already enveloping his retreating form when the dog’s curious nose was just poking through the swinging flap.