I enter the reeducation center early, as I always do, to walk the hallways and check in on all my patients before my real work begins. It's not my job to get attached to my patients, the higher-ups would tell me if they knew, but I do it anyway, because if you're going to be that deeply involved in the re-forging of a person's soul, I think you should at least have the decency to get to know them as human beings. Then again, maybe they do know; the place is ringed with sensors and cameras. Perhaps they just don't care.
I look in on each patient as I pass the heavy doors, sometimes drifting into their spare, empty rooms to say good morning if they're up, other times just going by if they're still curled beneath the plain white sheets. In the last room on the end Lara is at it again, staring unfocusedly at the blank white wall before her and moving her lips slightly. I pity her sometimes, envy her at others. The others are different—schizophrenics, manic depressives, thought-dissidents, but Lara… Her crime, her illness, is not thinking the wrong thoughts so much as it is thinking too many of them at once.
"Hello, Tom," she says as I open the door, greeting me with a small smile.
"Hello. How are you doing today?"
"Same as always, Tom."
"Can I get you anything?"
"Something to read," she tells me, eyes flickering to the only Book she's permitted. "Or music. Music would be a godsend."
I shrug helplessly at the sad, earnest look in her eyes, but she smiles as she always does, as if to say that she knows it isn't my doing. She lies back on the bed and refocuses her gaze on the ceiling this time. Right now, I pity her. She is inefficient, they say, and in a way I understand what they mean. How many more people could she serve, and better, if her mind was focused on the task before rather than on some flighty existential dream? Our new nation is a place for hard workers, they say; this world has no place in it for people who see poetry and symbolism in everyday occurrences, who look out the window and see soft, vibrant forms dancing ballet to the bad techno music from the latest propaganda movie on a polluted river that nonetheless seems as clear and blue as the streams of Eden.
I've seen the tapes of her thoughts, seen the things she sees and the things she imagines, heard the mental commentary overlaying all of it like James Joyce high on ecstasy and marveled and despaired at it all. I've seen the way she takes the bitter reality of the world and superimposes it with her little fantasies like a film of colored plastic over a report, the way she stares out the window and sees herself taking flight, or gives life and feeling to the faceless names in the papers she shuffles, fills in their stories and their hopes and dreams and emotions. Mr. J. Henderson becomes James, a young man with a charming southern accent—the file says he's from Georgia—and blue eyes and corn-blond hair, a grizzled old dog and a young wife, heavily pregnant. He's requesting larger accommodations because the doctors say it's twins, and Lara can see them twisting in their mother's belly, sees the cardboard box with the plastic build-it-yourself crib upstairs in a tiny room hardly big enough to be a closet, even though the papers tell her that James and Annie are only poor farmers, that they're not important enough and don't produce enough to have their request granted.
Yes, I pity her, alone in her empty room until she learns to think less and work more, but at the same time I envy her imagination, and think that perhaps they—I—will never be able to break her. It's standard policy, but somehow I don't think that walling her off with nothing to read or write or play or even work at will help the situation any; won't she just have to fill up the emptiness with her mind? Or perhaps they do know what they're doing, perhaps they think that as the weeks go by she will give more and more of herself to the empty white room until she has nothing left to give and becomes the perfect, soulless drone. But Lara has the soul of an artist, hears music when there is only the sound of a breakfast tray rattling down the hallway and mental patients moaning softly in the dark, sees things too beautiful for words, and for people like that, I think, these white walls are nothing more than huge blank pages waiting to be filled in.
And perhaps that it why I'm not surprised when I return hours later to find that she's somehow gotten her hands on a pen, and that the walls are slowly turning black under the soft, graceful curves of her writing as she carves some fantasy across her cell. I take the pen from her and have the nurses move her to a new, blank room, but before I call the janitors in to repaint the walls and bury her words forever, I lean in to read the text. The Bible, the only Book allowed her, ragged and dog-eared from her repeated trips through it, lies open on a chair beside where she left off, and as I begin to read I see why.
Did I request thee, Maker from my clay, to mould me man? it begins. Did I solicit thee, from darkness to promote me? "Paradise Lost," I know, though Milton has been banned for years now. Adam is talking back, but as I read the words that follow, her words, I realize that this is not Adam's rant but rather Eve's. Everyone knows the story of man's fall from grace do to the curiosity and original sin of woman, but I have never known anyone who truly cared what the original sinner was thinking as she was cast down. But Lara, Lara always cares what everyone is thinking; her own thoughts are filled with the thoughts she imagines others to have, the thoughts that they might have if it was allowed. And she's channeling Eve now, writing the woman's fury at being cast down by a one-man judge and jury, about how unfair it is to dangle something bright and sweet and beautiful and unknown in front of someone and say, "see this mysterious object, now don't touch," and truly believe that no one will be brazen enough, curious enough, intelligent enough to question but will instead sit back like some mindless automaton, though she doesn't use as many words because Eve doesn't know what judges and juries and automatons are. Don't think, Eve pouts, just obey without cause to, without being told why, because if He bothered to explain it He would realize that His reason is a selfish one.
Don't think. Don't think, don't feel, don't care, just sit back and sit still and work without question, stare at the bright prize before you but don't reach out and touch it, because knowledge is power and power is something you can't have. And I know it's too late for her now, because even if I painted it all over myself, the cameras are everywhere and see everything, and now her simple daydreams are thought-crimes and her thought-crimes have evolved into real, written rebellion on these white walls, every inch and every word recorded for the director and his director all the way up to the men in expensive black suits who will send other men to come and take her away.
It is only a few hours before they arrive, cuffing her arms behind her and half-dragging her down the hall though she offers no resistance. And they slow as they pass me, so one of them can swipe his card at the glass doors, and Lara looks at me with eyes that see everything real and imagined. I want to apologize, to say that I'm sorry I didn't try to save her like the rebels in some Handmaid's Tale, that I didn't tear this fucking world apart raging against our oppressors so that beautiful young women will be free to dream, but I'm just one man, and a cowardly one at that. They used to say that say the greatest injustices arise from good men doing nothing, and perhaps that's true, but the agents are armed and the cameras are everywhere, and I can't even bring myself to speak to her for fear that I'll be next. I used to argue in literature class that it's a fundamental requirement of being human, to stand up and say something, do something, but in reality I guess I'm no more a hero than the people in Hitler's Germany who followed their orders and did their dirty jobs because, well, what difference could they make anyway? My stomach burns with shame just thinking about it, but I push the thought away and pray no one was listening, because if they were, I'm just as doomed as she is.
"Goodbye, Tom," she says softly, just like she does every night as I make my circuit of the rooms before I leave, smiling just a little so that I won't break down and cry. It's my fault, I know, my fault that instead of rising up to support the oppressed I work for the oppressors, but she smiles at me anyway as the glass doors slide open with a beep and a soft hiss and she is carried away.
Later, on the way home, I imagine her ashes being sifted down through the incinerators to lie with those of hundreds of other poor souls until they are interned in some unmarked pit, and the thought of her being put down beneath the cold, dead earth is a difficult one for me to stomach. So when I get back I pick a few white daisies from the tiny garden plot behind my house and hold them loosely in my hands, wishing I had lilies or something equally symbolic but thinking, I guess, that Lara could always find inspiration in anything, traditionally symbolic or not. I scuff a hole in the damp spring earth and drop them down, smoothing black soil over them, hoping they find her somehow and give her some comfort wherever it is that kind young dissidents go, and smiling faintly as I think about her, filling in the white petals like white walls and blank pages with her writing.