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Alisha Mughal

Things Past

What was in the vial Jessie had given her was meant to jog her memory of her childhood, facilitate her capture of her own runaway past.

She sat in her low red armchair — low because old and therefore sagging — looking at the small trinket-like vial, round like a Christmas tree ornament, clear glass not hiding the clear liquid within — because it wasn’t anything mysterious, Jessie had said. The vial impracticable, impossible to place safely on a level surface without surrounding it with something to serve as a brace or bracket, something to contain it. And this made her wonder how a scientist could have thought this bauble-shaped flask a good idea; and this made her wonder why she hadn’t just asked Jessie about this earlier.

She sat in her low, sagging red armchair, the clear vial in her hand — clear save for the fine silver gritty dregs loitering at the bottom, moving slowly, begrudgingly at the base, out of step with the liquid that moved freely as the vial moved, as she held it up to the yellow light of the lone lamp in the corner of the room, moving it around and watching it play with the light, throw it once here once there, split and splinter the dull sullied amber glow into little twinkling rainbows. Sometimes it picked up and metamorphosed the garish light — a dismal, murky mix of technicolor reds and greens and blues — from across the street, filtering churlishly out past the smeared, greasy panes of the diner, which some peripheral part of her mind often took up worrying for because it boasted no customers but somehow remained through time to stay, as if its only function was stock, to complete the grim noir landscape, or to prop up the snow, give it a place other than the ground to hang out.

“Take it sitting down, in some secure place,” Jessie had said, her eyes hidden behind the black lenses of those white-rimmed, bug-eyed goggles, her body drowned within that one-size-fits-all pristine white lab coat. Her copper wire curls pulled up in a bun on top of her head, glinting blue and orange in that white clinical light of the lab. “We don’t want you wandering around the city after you’ve taken this.”

“Why not?” she had asked dumbly.

Jessie had looked at her worriedly, her lips pressed together in a rather parental way, her eyebrows come together and up. She’d already been over this. “It will put you in a trance, of sorts,” Jessie had said after some time, nodding her head, trying to get her words into her listener’s, friend’s, head. “This mixture will give you access to your memories that you can’t, through your own will, grasp, but that have always been with you. And when it does this, you won’t be aware of your present, your surroundings. It …” and then she sighed. “In simple terms, this mixture will pluck you out of the present and place you into your past, where you’ll be able to move around like a ghost.” Jessie then raised her eyebrows, expectant.

She nodded. “Oh, right. You told me that.”

“Yes, I did.”

Yes, Jessie had.

She sat in her red armchair and thought about unscrewing the cap, of drinking the clear liquid whose ingredients she didn't know, or knew but couldn’t remember.

“Just pour out one capful and drink it,” Jessie had instructed. “Remember that — just one capful.”

She remembered. She poured out one capful.

“The transition might not take place immediately after you take it the first time. Just wait for it. When it comes, it’ll come abruptly, but it won’t be uncomfortable or anything. It’ll come on you like a dream, and you’ll slip out of it as you would a dress.” She remembered smiling when Jessie had so waxed poetic at the end of her explanation, remembering her friend’s adolescent dream of becoming a writer.

She shot the capful down. It tasted like water — like nothing — and for a moment she wondered whether Jessie wasn’t just playing some trick on her; whether Jessie wasn’t sat, at this very moment, with her scientist friends around nachos and beer and laughing at her gullibility. She screwed the cap back onto the vial and leaned forward to place it down on the carpet, to the side of the leg of her armchair. It didn’t seem as though it would roll anywhere from there — it seemed safe there.

She straightened back up in her red armchair and found herself no longer sat in it in her apartment. She instead found herself looking through a green haze at a bulky video camera — the kind they don’t make anymore — stood high upon a tripod in front of drywall, pointed at her, at what was supposed to be behind her. Behind the camera and to the right stood a three-paned mirror in front of which lazed a motley crew of sewing mannequins, each showing off an elaborate patchwork of a costume.

She turned around and through the green haze saw that the room was messy, amassed with all manner of things, mostly sewing materials. Through the vaguely familiar green haze she saw a room that was eerily familiar to her. A buzz of panic and suspense and expectancy simmered in her chest — she didn’t know why.

Loud, frantic breathing laboured its way to her ears — someone was coming. She turned around toward the doorway to the room, in the direction the camera was pointed, and heard a slight catch in that ragged breathing and a scraping — the breather tripped at the threshold. It was a woman with shoulder-length dark hair, holding a gun ahead of her with one hand as if it were a cross and using the other to feel her way about, to navigate her way through the green haze, as if she couldn’t see.

It was Silence of the Lambs. It was Clarice Starling, her revolver brandished before her, ready to shoot Buffalo Bill, who was right behind her, watching her every move, but she couldn’t see him or feel him, not yet. Clarice moved into the room, she watched her, moved out of her way, fearful — even though Jessie had said she’d move as a ghost — of having her presence felt by Clarice but also curious, in some peripheral part of her mind, to know if Clarice would feel what it had not been scripted for her to feel. It was Clarice, who continued her panicked breathing, a tuft of her hair caught onto the moisture on her lips and its dry strands jerking forward with every one of her breaths.

Clarice made her way blindly into the room, toward the three-paned mirror, and Buffalo Bill came in right behind her with his night-vision goggles, up close. She wondered how Clarice couldn't feel his presence so near to her, why it had been so scripted. Clarice groped through the green air, her fingers working in the haze to find anything — a wall, the villain. And all the while Buffalo Bill was right there. He reached forward his hand, up close to Clarice’s hair.

And then she heard, muffled as if from somewhere far away, as if through water, the ghoulish sound of a man’s voice screaming words, words she couldn’t make out, words unscripted that neither Clarice nor Buffalo Bill heard. And then it happened — Buffalo Bill raised and cocked his gun, and Clarice heard him, finally felt him, and killed him.

Clarice’s first shot in the dark penetrated through the green haze, banished it away, and every subsequent one lit up the scene, brought light to the darkness, until finally she was swallowed by a white light that came upon her like smoke and carried her back to her red armchair.

She sat in her red armchair, breathing heavily, as Clarice Starling had done, her sweatshirt soaked through with sweat. Her hair matted to her forehead. Convinced that Jessie had, with her drug — whatever psychedelic concoction it was — played the cruelest of tricks on her.


• • •


Walking to the hospital the next day she kicked herself for ever having told Jessie about her inability to remember much of her childhood. Jessie worked in the same hospital her father’s giant body lay inert in, and she decided to confront her after work — she couldn’t squeeze her in in the morning.

“I’ve been trying to remember what it was like,” she’d confessed to Jessie over spaghetti and meatballs one night. “Ever since, you know, the doctors said that there wasn’t anything they could do anymore.”

“That’s normal,” Jessie had said. “Your father’s about to die and you’re trying to remember the good old days. Also, I bet some of those anecdotes will come in handy at the funeral,” she’d said with a wink, forgetting to be sensitive.

She didn’t mind. “But the thing is,” she went on, “I can’t seem to remember anything specific. I mean, I remember some things like being dropped off to school, going to some kids’ birthday parties. That stupid stuff comes to me just fine. But when I try to remember something substantial, like what my parents were like, or what my sister was like when we were kids, I just seem to come up against a wall. I feel something there, but it’s fuzzy and I just can’t make it out. It’s so irritating, like an itch you can’t scratch or a name you know but just can’t remember. I know I wasn’t very close to my dad, or my sister — you know how I got out of his house as soon as I could — but isn’t it just a little strange that I can’t remember anything from childhood?”

“Wow, wow, wow!” Jessie had exclaimed, her lips parted wide in a mischievous grin. “How coincidental!” The light danced in her eyes. “Don’t tell anybody this, but I and a few friends of mine from the university have been working on this thing, a side project type of a thing. It’s still in its trial stage, but it might be able to help you.”

She kept on kicking herself as she took the elevator up to the floor where they kept her father tethered to beeping and swooshing and sighing machines. He was a big man, still big at sixty-five, so much so that his feet threatened to spill over the footboard of the hospital bed. Big and stalwart, only now beginning to show certain signs of aging: sagging in the neck, cheeks, a drooping of the nose.

She’d felt guilty when she had heard that he was in hospital — pneumonia, they’d told her. And when they had told her the day she first came down to visit that he wouldn’t be waking up again, that he was as close to being gone as possible, she felt guiltier — for not visiting more. So she had made it a routine of hers to visit every morning, before going into work, at the library.

She sat down next to his bed and watched his stoic profile that still resembled something that might be found emblazoned on ancient Greek coins. She again tried to think of the past, but came up against that unsurmountable bleak brick wall. She decided not to try to overcome it, for her failure to do so always made her feel claustrophobic and crawling with ants.

She thought instead of Silence of the Lambs and what had been bothering her about that vision or dream or hallucination that Jessie’s drug made her have — that is, what had been bothering her other than the fact that Jessie had told her that she ought to have seen her own past. She wondered why, if she was in a scene from the film, she still saw through the green haze of the night-vision goggles, for these were worn only by Buffalo Bill. But, in thinking the scene through, she realized that she only knew the scene as shown through the green haze — it’s how the movie plays out and therefore it’s how she knows the scene. It made sense then that the vision should comply with her knowledge of the movie. The vision — whatever it was — simply replicated the events of the film, eliminating only the exteriority of her as viewer.

But not everything had complied with the script as she knew it. The muffled screaming still echoed through her mind. The terrifying yelling of a man that she had heard, that had never been a part of the movie. The only sound in the scene was supposed to be Clarice Starling’s breathing, and eventually the film’s score, trembling and taut under the suspense. Still chewing over her thoughts, her brows furrowed, her day’s duty fulfilled, she left her father’s room.

Walking to the library from the hospital it hit her. The memory. The screaming and yelling, it was there, the first time she’d ever watched the movie as a kid, when she was nine years old. It had been in the house, it had been in the living room, right above where she sat huddled in front of the TV set in the basement. She stopped in her tracks as her mind flew into the past, to that night when her father, that giant of a man, screamed and yelled at her sister to eat her dinner. Her sister who had cut back on food, who would skip meals because she felt she needed to lose weight. She remembered the thundering overhead of his footsteps, carrying food to her, the scraping and screeching of a chair’s legs as he sat down next to her and made sure that she ate. The level, constrained voice of her mother, murmuring words to calm him down, farcical in their attempt at levity, at reason, floated to her amongst his vociferating like a silk ribbon labouring through steel wool.

She remembered that he was doing this because he was in “one of his moods” — because he was drunk.

She had stopped in her tracks like a person entranced, and when she came back to herself she noticed people giving her strange looks as they walked by around her. She was late getting to work.


• • •


She sat in her red armchair looking at the small, trinket-like vial. She had wanted to remember, and she had got what she wanted — a memory. A lone terrifying memory. She hadn’t gone to see Jessie after work as she had planned. She hadn’t called Jessie, hadn’t let her know that she had taken her concoction, that it had worked, albeit in a roundabout way. The vial felt heftier than it had the previous day. Weighted down with the gravity of its capabilities.

The memory that she had recovered, that had uncovered itself, seemed to knock a brick loose from that wall in her mind that barred her from her childhood, and the sound it made as it thunked down onto the floor of her mind gave her some satisfaction and a lot of fear. She wanted and she didn’t to get beyond the wall — she was curious to see what else was there in her past and she was scared that it would all be terrifying.

She unscrewed the cap of the vial and measured out a capful. She stared at the clear liquid, twinkling like a tiny clear and calm lake in a valley under the quicksilver moonlight. She shot it back, screwed the cap onto the vial, placed it down on the carpet, and looked up to find herself standing in the rain.

Standing across the street from a townhouse, in whose doorway stood a couple — a girl in a yellow raincoat, a man in a grey suit and holding an umbrella above both their heads. At the curb stood waiting a black 1920s cab. The man and woman were kissing. Then they shared some words as the woman drew up the man’s collar snug against his neck, against the cold and rain. They kissed again and all the while he smiled an eye-crinkling smile, and then the woman went into the house. The man threw his arm, the one not carrying the umbrella, out wide into the rain and his head back and up toward the sky, into the downpour, relishing in it. He then gestured for the cab driver to go on without him, and waived at him as he left, and then he, still smiling that eye-crinkling smile, began “Singin’ in the Rain.”

She followed him dance and sing down the street, remaining across from him, all smiles and gaiety. The only aberration, the moment she had been on watch for, came as he traipsed down the street twirling his umbrella by its curved handle. It was a muffled scream followed immediately by a heavy knocking and thudding that grew in intensity, as if drawing nearer, and then a stomping in a similar fashion, as of heavy steps descending stairs, and then the rattling slam of a door being shut. A tiny sonal tragedy unfurled as Gene Kelly sang and danced in the rain, unabashed in his physicality in his unconstrained display of happiness.

When Gene Kelly began walking away down the street, she too went away from the scene — a white light like a cloud carried her back to her red armchair. In which she found herself sat drenched — her first instinct being in rain, but she soon learned it was just sweat.

She showered and went to bed.

At three in the morning she was awakened by a jolt, the kind that jerks an anxious dreamer out of a free-falling dream, free-falling off some sinister but meaningful edge. She settled back down, her mind still dull with sleep, and the memory washed over her and lapped her up like the whipped waves of a stormy sea.

She had come home from school to find the note, the note from her sister that she sat with until her mother came home from work. The note that both of them sat with until he came home. The note from her sister that said she’d never be coming back.

He was in one of his moods when he got back home late after drinking after work. Seeing the note he thundered up the stairs to her sister’s room, to find it devoid of her things, of her. Her mother followed him up, and she went downstairs to the TV — to Singin’ in the Rain. They argued, or he did, yelling monstrous words at her. She knew that her mother tried with all her might to calm him down, because this is what her mother had been doing since, it seemed to her, time immemorial. But it didn’t work — did it ever? Her mother wasn’t successful and was very much in his way, so he pushed her down the stairs, like so much dirt swept over a porch’s edge, on his way down and out.

The uncarpeted stairs. The uncarpeted, hardwood stairs. And then he left. She didn’t know where he went. But when she ran up from the basement she found her mother unconscious, her face covered in more blood than she thought possible in a human being. So she called 9-1-1, because this is what she had been taught to do — this was an emergency.

They took her to the hospital with her mother, where her mother died, and the next day her father came to pick her up, the hospital having gotten hold of him somehow, she didn’t know how. He took her back to the house and he told her to clean the mess, her mother’s blood, up and she didn’t speak for a long time after that.

She lay in bed, writhing under the weight of this memory she decided now that she didn’t want near her. Kicking herself for ever wishing to remember. Trying to breathe through the tears and convulsions she had given up fighting against.

She didn’t sleep for a long time after that. She didn’t go to the hospital in the morning. She didn’t go into work in the morning. She didn’t even call in sick.

Two days later, two days of lying in bed, unable to move under the weight of other memories that came crashing down on top of her, crashing uninhibited. As if the brick wall had finally been torn down, exposing in the aftermath nothing but a vast badness — all that sadness of her childhood, the loud terrifying sounds, tears, her own silence as she tried to move around her father in a way as to never bother him, to provoke him — exposing nothing but nothing that anymore mattered.

Two days of being drenched in her own tears, of trying to breathe under the crushing weight of her own past, of contemplating the sinister and meaningless expanse before her, she got up. She was sore. Where her stomach ought to have been she felt a void, and found it difficult to sit up straight — her spine threatened with every strained breath to collapse over the nothingness that gaped where her stomach ought to have been. When she stood up she found her legs didn’t want to work and she fell to the ground. She crawled to the bathroom.

It hurt to look, her brain was so sore, it was a pulsating gash behind her eyes. Pulling herself up to the sink with her arms, she drank enough water to drown a small village, and then regretted it when she felt the swooshing ache in her belly.

She sat down on the ground and called Jessie.

“Your potion works,” she said as soon as she heard Jessie’s voice, she said in a raspy, sandpaper voice.

“Jesus Christ, where have you been? I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for days. Your dad died.”


“He passed last night. I think they’ve been trying to get hold of you all morning, but could only get your voicemail.”

She didn’t say anything, she just sat there, sprawled on the ground, her head throbbing, her vision blurring at the edges.

“I’m so sorry, Kate. You want me to come over right now? I’ll drop everything and be there in ten minutes,” Jessie said, her voice the epitome of sympathy.

“No it — it’s okay. Right now.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, hesitant and surprised.

“Hey, Jessie? What would happen if someone drank all that potion in the vial you gave me?”

She paused a second, not expecting this topic, as if it were the last thing on her mind. “Well, we’re still tweaking the recipe at the moment, but one of the side effects should, I mean could be paralysis, or, of course, worst-case scenario, death,” Jessie said glibly. Then, after a moment of silence, as if something dawned on her, she said, “Why? Kate, what have you done?”

She didn’t know what she had done. All she knew was that she wanted to turn her brain off, to keep it from playing the memories. She hung up and crawled to her red armchair. But before she flung herself into it her gaze fell upon the window, onto the diner across the street. A man had walked up to it and was pulling at the door handle, wanting to go in. But then he stopped, his sight apparently having fallen upon the sign in the pane next to the door, the sign that said that they were going out of business.

She sat in her low red armchair, labouring to breathe.

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