I stared down at my pale bare feet as they stood on that thick, black line. I held my hands behind my back and let my thick but short black hair fall in front of my face, while staring down. I would not make eye contact with her. Eye contact would give her hope, and hope would make her try harder. I really just wanted her to leave me alone. I kept my breath steady and stayed silent, listening to her go on in that sickly, honey-sweet voice of hers about how much better it would be if I just took one step towards her. I saw in my mind's eye the image of her long, light brown hair tied up very tightly in a bun on the back of her head as if she was afraid all of it would fall out if it didn't stay in that precise hairstyle. It looked like it hurt to have it that way. I saw her perfectly clean lab coat turned up at the collar and sweeping lightly over the concrete ground each time she moved. I saw her black half-moon glasses positioned just so at the edge of her nose. I saw her piercing green eyes. I saw all of her make-up and nail polish and the streamlined black dress she wore under her lab coat. I didn't have to look up at her to see any of it, I just remembered from the many times she had come to my home before.
"Come now, it's just a line on the ground. There's nothing wrong with crossing it. As a matter of fact, if you cross it then you'll be leaving the dull place you know behind and coming to one with more people, more places, and more things to see. Aren't you too old for make-believe? You'll be coming to a good place, I promise. I also promise that I won't let anyone hurt you. Just step over that line," She said as if I could be convinced. Every time she got to this point, without fail, she would unfold her arms and stretch them out like she was offering a hug. I didn't have to look up to know that, either, I could see it in my mind's eye. It was what she did. It was what she had always done. I heard her lab coat stretch at the arms and brush over the concrete. "Just come to me. Don't you want to live in a better place? A more interesting place?" Her voice got unbearable and I cringed a little at the sound, even as used to it as I had gotten. Then, I did what I always did when she asked that question. I took a deep breath, held my left wrist in my right hand, and looked up. I saw her exactly as I had in my mind, standing behind a dark red line and stretching her arms out towards me with a gray concrete floor beneath her and a chalkboard on wheels behind her; as well as a giant stone wall with a single small wooden door placed directly in the center of it. The door was closed, of course, and always was whenever I came by it. Hope came into those cold green eyes at the sight of my patient silver ones.
"No," I told her simply and quietly, "I don't." Then I bowed to her because I was never sure what else to do and turned around to face a better place than the one that woman was in or the vacant white space between it. I shuddered at the thought of the white space. Only once had that woman ever convinced me to cross my line, and then I had only gone a few curious steps before the air in that space left my lungs and my body began to feel crushed by an enormous pressure. I had crawled back to my side of the black line as quickly as possible, gasping for breath for several long minutes. I was determined, however, that the woman in the lab coat would not deceive me again. I would not let her.
I walked until I reached a stone wall standing proud and sturdy on my right. I turned to walk behind it because it was the only protection I had from that woman's stare for the first few minutes after I rejected her offer. It was the same every time. She would stand there for a while, speechless, just staring blankly at that black line. I brought my knees up to my chest, as always, and rested my chin on them. It was time for me to wait again. I sighed and tried to get comfortable. There was a pleasant, but somehow rather lonely silence filling the garden. I had not felt lonely there for a long time.
The place I lived in on my side of the lines was a large, lively garden. It was full of bright green plants and vibrantly colored flowers that grew all over the walls of the stone labyrinth that had stood there for as long as I could remember. They were tame, friendly plants and there were tame, friendly animals that came and talked with me… though their appearances were becoming rarer over time. It was a truly beautiful and peaceful place whether the animals were there or not, and it was rare that I ever got lonely while I was there. Somehow, though, every now and then it would feel as if the plants had fallen away and the animals had all left without a trace. These times happened when I came close to giving in to that terrible woman in the lab coat. I wondered sometimes if it was because they were disappointed in my weakness of resolve that everyone left, but I always shook the idea off.
"Oh! You're waiting… I'm sorry for disturbing your thoughts, then. I know they are important to you. They are very important to me as well. Unfortunately, I do not have much choice in the matter," I heard somewhere in front of me. I looked up to see a girl with golden blond hair put up in a practical looking ponytail and bright blue eyes that seemed to hold a very old sort of wisdom in them. She was wearing a dark green t-shirt and light brown pants with at least three very large, deep pockets on them and a black belt with several dull silver containers on it. I quickly stood up, surprised. A human girl! No human had appeared on this side of the lines! Not since… not since... I could barely even remember when the last time was.
"What… what are you doing here?" I asked, hearing the shaky, frightened defensiveness in my voice. I couldn't hide my shock and the slight fear I was feeling. Every human seemed like her to me now. I couldn't even remember what the last one had been like. I only remembered the woman with the chalk board who came every now and then to try and pull me away from my wonderful garden. It may have been lonely from time to time, but those times were few and far between. Besides, it was mine and the creatures in it were my friends. There was no way I could leave that, but the woman wanted me to. Did this girl want me to as well? I put my feet together and stood as tall as I could. Then I swiftly moved to hold my left wrist in my right hand behind my back. I was ready for anything she could do, whether it was through speech or not. I did not make eye contact with her. What if I was right and she really was like that woman?
"I'm here to ask you about the gardens. You… seem to be the only one I can ask anymore. Do you know anything about that?" She said with a sad and slightly scared tone to her voice. I wondered for a second why she would be scared. Was she scared of me? No, that didn't make any sense. Was she scared of that woman, then? I had to admit that even if I stood up to her each time, the woman in the lab coat still terrified me. I looked up and saw a kindness in the younger girl's eyes that I had not seen for a very, very long time; not since the last human had been there. I closed my eyes for several seconds to preserve that image and then took a deep breath. I did not speak out loud very often and it was a strange thing to me.
"There are more gardens than just mine? Show me where they are, human girl," I said in as calm and steady of a voice as I could manage. She blinked a few times as if surprised and then I saw a smile on her face that pulled at the edges of my own mouth. A real human smile… it was impossible to resist copying, if only a little. I stopped as quickly as I could. She didn't seem to notice. She even laughed a little and leaned on the edge of the wall to my left and a ways in front of me.
"Yes. Yes, there are more gardens. Oh, wow. You're the first to speak intelligently, or at least sanely. My name is Shelly, by the way, not 'human girl.' I'm just here to ask if you know about the gardens; yours and the others. Here, I'll do what you asked and show you where they are. I can hardly believe you've never seen them before. What's your name, anyway?" she answered me with a new question at the end. She pushed herself off of the wall, turned around, and started walking. I hesitated before following her, but only for a second. I took another deep breath to brace myself and walked after her. I did not answer her question, though. I couldn't. I had not heard my own name in a very long time… and I did not remember what it was. I did remember that I had not always been the only person in my garden, but I could remember those people and their names and faces no better than I could remember my own.
This girl was something like them. She had that spark in her features that the others had held in theirs. She seemed more comfortable once I talked, too… as they had. It was as if she thought I was fake or deceptive. I could have told her that I was not, but what good would that have done? I simply walked behind her, the sound of her large brown hiking books stomping on the ground and echoing through the stone garden. It completely covered up the soft tapping of my own feet on the cobblestone. I heard a slight nervous humming coming from her and watched her arms swing at her sides. She seemed at once completely in her element and completely out of it and she continually looked around us as if there was something to be afraid of near us. I looked around as well, but even my least tangible senses could not pick up anything more than that woman to fear and she was far gone. I took one hand away from behind my back and began to brush it along the moss lining the tops of the walls, gently grabbing vines from time to time so I could see how well they were growing. I smiled a little to myself each time I knew that one was okay. As long as they were safe, I would be too.
Then I noticed a turn in the path ahead of us. It led to an archway and a gate that was swinging open with vines covering so much of it I could barely tell it was supposed to be a gate at all. I ran up to it, feeling the vines. They were mostly safe, but a few were dying. I felt the vacant lifelessness in those brown vines, nestled in among so many green ones. My breath started to come quickly and I looked up at Shelly. Was this her doing? I glared slightly, waiting for an answer.
"Okay, I can see what you're thinking. Well, not literally, but it's pretty obvious from that expression. I didn't do this. They're dying on their own. Like everything does. Or… like everything should, at least. If you'll follow me a little farther, you'll see what I mean," she told me, not trying to fill my name in or ask what it was anymore. She knew not to go there. Did she know better than to lie to me, though? Did she know better than to hurt the plants of any garden, mine or otherwise? I ripped off the brown vines and silently piled them next to the gate, stopping to close my eyes and wish for the continued health of the surviving ones. Then I walked into the labyrinth past the gate. I had to remind myself to keep breathing. There was green everywhere! But… there was nearly as much brown and some plants were even blackened as if they had been burned. I ran from one wall to the other, trying to find the warmth of life in as many mosses and vines and bushes and trees and flowers and other plants as I could. I did not see a single animal no matter where I looked. The walls were crumbling under the weight of the vines. The spaces in the ceiling that had once opened to the sky were now covered with creeping plants that gripped onto every surface they could find. It was dark and dry and dying… maybe it was already dead. I walked through the dilapidated maze until I reached its center. There stood Shelly, looking sad and guilty. I fell to my knees, refusing to believe that such an obviously once beautiful garden could be in such a state.
"How…? How did this happen? Why is there so much strangled life and so much death? How did this come about? Was it that woman? Was it… was it you? Why is everything… in so much pain?" I asked in a choked voice, my desperation coming through in those words. They were the most important questions. What had happened to everything? Shelly looked like she was on the verge of tears now, but she wiped them away and took a long, shaky breath before she spoke.
"Nothing," She said quietly. Then she raised her voice slightly and continued, "Nothing happened at all. Not after the person living here left. They got lonely and they left their garden behind. It's been struggling against the walls ever since. It can't grow past them, it can barely grow around them, and it can't reach the things it needs. It needs light, but no-one is here to make sure it gets that. It needs water, but no-one is giving it that, either. It needs company and love as well, someone to talk to it and care for it, but there is nobody to talk to it. It's been abandoned." She would not make eye contact with me. I tried to look in her eyes, but she just faced down and held her hands together at her waist. It was as if she had abandoned the garden. I knew she wasn't from a garden like I was, though, so I knew it couldn't have been her fault. I breathed and thought, staring down at the slight blood coming from my knees because I was kneeling in a patch of half-dead thorny rose bushes. They had grown too much and suffocated themselves. Were they really so dependent on others to survive? Did they really need all that help? I could not remember doing anything more than talking with my garden and it was fine.
I looked up again, craning my neck to see the slivers of sunlight passing through the dying plants. Then I remembered the light in my own garden. What if the same thing happened to it? I jumped up, ignoring the pain in my knees and the soles of my feet, and I ran out of the labyrinth and down the path to the space I had left behind. This was a good world, the one I lived in. It was a better world than anything outside the gardens could have been. I stopped at the entrance to my own sanctuary and froze. There it was: the sound I had been hoping to hear.
"Oh! Oh! You're back! I was looking for you. The water stopped flowing through the river while you were gone, but it's back now. Oh, I'm so glad you're back!" I heard the little red bird say from on top of the wall across from me. I laughed a little, relieved.
"Yes, little bird. I'm back," I answered happily, running from one wall to the next. Now it was my feet that were echoing through the stone room, not those clunky boots. I ran my hands over each plant, feeling that warmth again. It raised my spirits and made me laugh. I was back! I was home again! I spun in place, looking up at the openings in the ceiling that let the light in. I smiled so big that my face hurt and then I fell back into the patch of grass that I had unknowingly cultivated, feeling the warmth of its life envelop me like a blanket. I sighed contentedly, staring at the sky. Then I paused and closed my eyes. What was that? There was something different about the warmth, just subtly different. What was it? There was something else there in the air around me, too. It wasn't a cloud of gnats or a coming storm… it was something else. It was something subtly different about the atmosphere itself. I slowly sat up. Something was wrong.
"I assure you, nothing is wrong. Not in the way you're thinking, at least," I heard coming towards me in Shelly's voice, "It's just the way it's always been. You've just never noticed it." There was still that sad guilt in her voice, though I couldn't place it. I looked at her and my blood turned cold. I shook my head slowly. She was wrong. This was not the way things always were. It couldn't be. She shook her head right back at me. "There's something you need to see," she said, "Something I didn't get a chance to show you in the other gardens." I stayed where I was for a moment, unwilling to follow her anymore. Then I looked into her eyes and she looked right back, though she turned her head down after a moment. It was just long enough for me to see that human kindness in her eyes. It was just long enough for me to choose to get up on my feet and see what she had to show me. We walked along the path again and came to that same gate and that same turn. I shuddered at the entrance, but Shelly gently took my hand and pulled me along through the maze.
At last, we reached the edge and I took a sharp breath at what I saw. The black line, the white space, the red line, and the door in the wall were all there. I slowly walked up to the line. I stared down at my feet, so pale against the blackness, though now a shadow covered them as well because of the dying, overgrown plants that covered the walls and blocked out the light of the sun. It was the same, but different. Then I heard it.
"Just come over the line. There's nothing wrong with crossing it. As a matter of fact, if you cross it then you'll be leaving the dull place you know behind and coming to one with more people, more places, and more things to see. Aren't you too old for make-believe? You'll be coming to a good place, I promise. I also promise that I won't let anyone hurt you. Just step over that line," the voice of a man said. I slowly looked up and saw those same piercing, evil green eyes. There was the same light brown hair and sweeping lab coat, the same attitude, but now the hair was shorter and the person was a man instead of a woman. I saw some kind of warped hope there as well. It was not the same as the woman's. It looked like he was just glad to see that I was there, regardless of whether I looked at him. His arms were stretched out in the same way, though. There was that same chalkboard on wheels behind him. It was the same. I stumbled backwards, hitting Shelly after a few steps. The man's arms lowered and he glared at me. I spun around and ran behind the wall like I always did in my own garden, ignoring the fresh wounds in my feet from the thorny plants. Shelly stepped out of my way and then came and crouched in front of me. She sighed heavily and then explained.
"Every garden has one of these. Sometimes they're male, sometimes they're female, and sometimes they're even animals or children. It's always the same, with just slight differences like that. You thought yours was the only one, didn't you? Trust me, it's far from it. There are millions of gardens and millions of white spaces and millions of people in lab coats. They were…" she paused there, a pained expression on her face, "This is always the hard part. No-one is ever prepared… better get it over with, though. They… They were designed that way.
"A long time ago, a trio of friends worked at a game design factory together. They had this vision, this plan that they'd been developing since they were teenagers, and as they climbed the ranks that plan seemed more and more possible. They thought that there was too much stress in the world. They thought that humans were inherently evil and had to be kept as far apart as physically possible… but there were too many people, it wouldn't work. Not in physical space, at least. So once they reached the top of the command chain, they realized there was only one way to pull it off. They had to make a false space, a sense that you couldn't get to the next person even if that person was only a few feet away. So they designed this. Each person got their own tranquil, perfect garden with animals and plants to keep them company but no human interaction. They would allow some people to see each other every now and again, if it was requested, but for the most part they kept everybody away from everybody else. Even children; as soon as you were born they put you here and only let you see your parents and siblings, if you had any, once when you reached a certain age so you would just vaguely remember them… and then they too would be sent to the gardens. Eventually, only the designers and a handful of others, who were capable of keeping the human species alive after everyone in solitude died, were left.
"A few of them tried to make a new program, one that would gently pull the trapped people out of their gardens. For a while, it almost worked, but the white space that took them from the false world malfunctioned and instead of gradually drawing the person out it tore them forcefully from themselves and drove any survivors who passed all the way through it to insanity when they woke up. Then the trio's descendants got their hands on the program and warped it further. They made the identical, evil looking people that everyone in the gardens feared as soon as they saw. You know the feeling, that one where your whole body rebels against doing anything the person says or even hearing their words. It made it impossible to get anyone else out. When I first heard about that from my grandfather, one of the people who first made the 'retrieval' program, I thought that was fine. I thought that some people liked to be alone, so having those gardens would be a good thing. Then my mom started training me.
"You see, when the retrieval program failed, people started learning how to infiltrate the gardens themselves. We learned that if we sneaked into their building and slept near the machines, we would find ourselves in here, but not tied here like you are. It went well for a while, but then the gardens started to die and those who were left stopped trusting us. They thought we were killing their friends. But we weren't. The gardens were just being left behind and the controllers weren't watching over them anymore. There was just no-one to care for them. It didn't just make the garden-dwellers more stubborn, but after a while the retrievers started to lose hope. Now there are just a few of us left." She sighed then and closed her eyes tightly.
I had just sat there through the entire story, staring at her. I wasn't sure whether to trust her or not. Should I believe what she said or just go back to my garden and forget she ever existed? Then, suddenly, an idea came to me. I slowly turned and looked past the wall. The man was gone and his chalkboard with him. It was just like it always was with that woman. My mind went over all the similarities and I didn't even notice as my body picked itself up and walked over to the line again. Then, looking down, I saw my feet on that black line and immediately looked up. The door opened on the other side of that far off red line and something materialized out of it. I blinked once and there they were: the man and his chalkboard were back. I felt my eyes widen and spun around fast enough that I couldn't hear anything the lab coat man had to say. No, that wasn't right; I moved too fast to hear what the retrieval program had to say. I walked back over to Shelly.
"How? How did they do it?" I asked simply and wonderingly.
"They took your dreams and twisted them to suit their own needs. They hypnotized people using gold watches and made them fall into such a deep sleep that it would take a nuclear war to wake them. Then they transported them to their building, their 'hospital,' and stuck IVs in their arms and stickers on their heads so they were hooked up to machines that planted other images into their heads. At first, a lot of it was what the subject imagined and only a little bit was simulated by the computers, but now there's nothing left that has been created by someone living here. Imagination is as dead as these plants," she answered me just as simply, "But that's why I'm here. Come on, let's go back." I blinked a few times, not really sure what I had heard. Shelly beckoned me and I followed. We walked a little farther down the path and she would point right or left to show me another dying garden or a living garden with someone curled up behind the wall that protected them from the lines. She said that either the retrieval program had scared them so badly they had gone insane or they had just been insane from the isolation in the first place. I would hold my hand to my head every time I looked at one of these people, as if I could sympathize with their pain. It took a while of that before we finally turned around and walked all of the way down to my own garden. I looked past the gate of mine and saw that the path kept on going. There really were millions of gardens, weren't there?
I walked through my gate then and a wave of comfortable relief settled over me for a moment before the buzzing of the atmosphere began to hurt my ears a little. It wasn't right. It was… breaking? Had it always been like this? I walked into the center of my labyrinth and looked up at the sky again. It was a false sky. I knew now that there was no way it could have been real. Was it my false sky, though, or was it something the controllers had made for me? I felt something cold running down my cheeks and I realized that they were tears. I quickly wiped them away at the sound of Shelly's footsteps and put my hands behind my back with my left wrist clutched loosely in my right hand. Shelly stood across from me and looked at me. I would not make eye contact with her.
She smiled in a disappointed way, as if she knew how I would respond to what she had to say next, "This is the really hard part then, isn't it? You know that the world you've grown up in isn't really the world you've physically lived in. It's a harsh truth. You also know that you were always right about the retrieval program and it isn't to be trusted. I don't know whether you think I can be trusted or not, but now there's a decision you have to make. Do you want to see the real world for the first time? It would be a bit of a shock, I'm sure, but maybe it would be worth it? Or… tell me, do you want to stay here? Do you want to keep living in this fabricated dream world?"
I raised my head and looked straight into my new friend's, my first friend's eyes. "No," I told her simply and quietly, "I don't. I would like to see the real world, please." I felt a smile on my face, the edges of my mouth touching the cold wetness of the tears I had shed over the garden I knew I would leave. Perhaps… perhaps real gardens would be even more comfortable and loving. Shelly's face lit up and she held her hand out to me. I took it, and felt a sudden lightness to my body as if I were floating over the stone. I was going to a better world. We were waking up at last.
To be continued…?