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Authors: Rebecca Lim

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Exile

BOOK: Exile
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EXILE

REBECCA LIM

To my father, Yean Kai, and my mother, Susan, and to Ruth and Eugenia, with love.
And if I die before I learn to speak Can money pay for all the days I lived awake But half asleep?
Primitive Radio Gods
(1996)

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Epigraph

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Acknowledgments

Also by Rebecca Lim

Copyright

About the Publisher

Chapter 1

I’m alone in the infinite darkness, the endless vacuum of space. There’s nothing to give form to the place I occupy — no up, no down, no sense of distance — nothing except the bright, white light coming off my skin.

I am weightless. My feet don’t touch the ground. There
is
no ground. Just a breathless, waiting void.

Then, as I watch, I see another light — like me? — wink into being. And another, and another, until all around there are hundreds of lights — no, upwards of a thousand — scattered across the abyss. Like fireflies, like diamonds. All waiting.

And then a giant breath sweeps through us, past us, lifting my hair, ruffling the edges of my drifting garments.

Be
, it seems to say.
Live
. And, as I watch, planets, stars, suns, moons explode into being, in every colour, in every shade, as if rendered by a painter’s hand. Greater and lesser bodies fly by; comets, black holes, supernovae, strange fissures in time and space, twist and curl overhead like a painted, yet living, ever-changing dome.

And I know where I am, and my shining form seems to grow brighter, as do all the others like me out there. Our hearts swelling.

We’re home.

Home.

It must be over, over at last.

No more fear, no more uncertainty.

I’m free.

And my sudden joy is so fierce that it seems more than I can contain. I lift my hands to my face in awe, in praise, and feel tears spring to my eyes, feel them course freely down my cheeks.

And that’s when I realise that something is wrong.

Because I cannot cry. Was not formed to cry tears.

Only humans cry tears, and I’m not human, am I?

This is a dream.

Instantly, everything vanishes and it’s dark again, bitterly dark. But I’m not alone this time.

‘Hello, my love,’ he says, the two of us soaring towards each other, ghostly, in the void.

Luc.

My beloved.

The most beautiful being in creation. Golden- skinned, golden-haired, broad-shouldered, snake- hipped, long and lean. With eyes as pale as living ice, like broken water. He’s heart-stopping.

Even now, in my dream, when I look at him and then look at me, I can’t understand how we were together, what he saw in me in the first place.

Luc places his hands around my waist and turns me about in the weightless dark, the better to see me, to see my face.

As I cry, ‘Where have you been? Why won’t you save me? I’ve been so lost,’ I am disgusted at myself for saying the words, for acting like a clingy girlfriend when I never was before.

In answer, he laughs and pulls me close and rests his chin atop my hair, the gesture so familiar, so longed for, that I close my eyes and let the tears fall and keep falling.

‘Don’t do this to me,’ I sob. ‘Don’t show me the things I can’t have. I want to go home. I want things to be the way they used to be.’

‘I can’t save you,’ he answers gently, cupping my face with his hands. ‘Only you can do that. And I can’t restart the clock — that time is over and everything has changed and cannot be remade. But I can help you. This time I know I can help you. But you have to do one thing for me.’

I’m instantly still in his arms, listening.

His voice is low and urgent, as if he fears being overheard. ‘The Eight have made it impossible for me to find you. They shift you again and again, into an unbroken chain of strangers — geography, culture, language, all of it random, without pattern. Many times I’ve almost caught up with you but then They’ve cast you into some new form amongst the billions that teem upon the earth — and so the chase begins again. It’s why I am only ever able to reach you in your sleep, in your dreams — where I beg for you to find
me
. But you never have.’

He laughs, but I feel his towering frustration.

‘It’s not your fault,’ he says. ‘I don’t blame you. They’ve corrupted you, made you less than you are. But now you need to try to remember something — do you think you can do that?’

His arms tighten around me and it feels as if I am touching eternity, touching absolute power. Though what is truly at the heart of Luc is walled off from me, as it ever was. He’s beautiful, yes. Dearer to me than life itself, undoubtedly. But he’s always been unknowable. A mystery.

He puts a finger to my lips before I can say anything.

‘I almost caught up with you the last time, did you know that? When you were Carmen Zappacosta.’

When he says the name, the blank void around us lights up for an instant with a blinding flash

brighter than magnesium when it burns, than lightning come down to earth

and I cringe.

Then the dark surrounds us once more and he whispers, ‘I was so close that I almost placed my hands on you through that girl’s skin. We were almost together again. In the same place. After all this time.’

I shiver at the implication.

‘I don’t remember being . . . her,’ I whisper, fearful of the heavens bursting into flame around us again if I utter the girl’s name.

‘They won’t want you to remember,’ he replies, tightening his arms around me. ‘That’s why I’m here. Before They shifted you out of her body, I saw a way for us to be together again. I saw the boy’s eyes when he looked at Carmen

it was love for
you
in them. He knows you and loves you for yourself, and that is something we may use to our advantage. I have found a way to free you at last, for us to be together again.’

I stare at Luc, confusion on my face. Someone else loves . . .
me
?

‘Remember this,’ Luc urges. ‘Just this thought. When you wake, I want you to find Ryan Daley and return to Paradise, the place where he lives, and wait for me there. Do you think you can do that?’

‘Ryan Daley?’ I repeat, relieved when the universe does not burn at the mention of the name.

Luc nods. ‘I may be prevented from finding you, but you’re strong, you’re resourceful — you’ve survived this long without losing your mind. Find the boy, escape the Eight and return to the godforsaken place he calls home. There we shall be reunited at last. When you are under my protection once more, the Eight shall never touch you again.’

I stare up at Luc’s incomparable profile, wondering why he is asking me to find some human boy that I can’t even remember.

‘Who is he?’ I ask. ‘How will I know him?’

Something flares in Luc’s pale eyes for a split second as he gazes at me, his fingers tightening on my waist like talons. For a moment, I’m almost afraid. When he looks like that, he’s capable of . . . anything.

Then he laughs and this time there’s genuine amusement there. ‘As to who he is? I will leave it up to you to find out. You’re a smart girl, you’ll manage it. As to what he looks like . . .’

Luc propels himself away from me, up into the airless void, turning and turning with his arms outstretched until he is a shining blur, then a pinpoint of light that suddenly vanishes from view. And before me stands his human double, wearing a beat-up leather jacket, faded navy tee, blue jeans and scuffed boots. Physically he’s everything Luc is: tall, lean, beautiful, strong. But dark-haired, dark-eyed, fair- skinned, as night is to day. And mortal.

There’s something vulnerable in his expression, something Luc has never been and never will be. And then I see it, too. There’s love in the boy’s eyes.
For me
.

I shift closer to the tall, achingly familiar young man, incredulous that I could have forgotten someone so beautiful; someone who so obviously adores me even though he can’t ever have actually seen me, the real me.

Ryan moves closer, too, our fingertips meeting between us.

Something feels as if it is giving way inside me. As if buried memories are struggling to the surface; as if the ground is shifting beneath my feet.

Except there
is
no ground, no up, no down.ight, save for the illumination that’s burning off my skin, that’s bleeding from me in little drifts, in errant curls of pure energy.

And suddenly I’m alone again, except for Luc’s voice, which seems to be coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

‘Find him.’ The words reverberate in the impenetrable dark. ‘Find him and wait for my return.’

Chapter 2

‘Lela? Lela, darling? You’ve fallen asleep in the chair again, honey. If you don’t hurry, you’re going to be late for work.’

I frown, and the last remnants of my dream — vivid, hyper-real — flee and do not return, although I try to hold on to them.

Even before I open my eyes, I can smell eucalyptus oil and sandalwood incense, but the intense aroma is unable to mask the smell of sickness in the overheated room: the odour of charred flesh; a chemical residue that is offensive to my senses. There’s the whirr of a machine, also; some kind of medicated inhalant in the air.

Even before I open my eyes, it’s obvious to me that some kind of alchemy has taken place again. I’ve been pulled out of wherever I was before, the life I was living before, the body I was in before, and dumped into . . . Lela’s.
Finnegan, begin again
, chants that little voice inside my head. Though even it has begun to sound kind of weary.

Because my real name’s not Lela.

It’s not even Mercy, which is the name I’ve given myself in the absence of the real thing. I have no name and no memory, you see. Or rather, there are holes in my memory you could sail a cruise ship through. But if I think hard about myself, really hard, I get that one word. Mercy. So it’s what I call myself these days, for want of something better. Because if you have a name, you must exist, right? It’s something I tell myself a lot. And it sure beats,
Hey, you
.

I open my eyes and see a woman lying in the double bed in front of my armchair. She has sallow, shiny skin, deep lines running between her mouth and nose, dark circles beneath her dark blue eyes, the whites of which are the palest yellow in colour, and a cheerful scarf tied tightly around her bald head.

Cancer
, whispers my inner voice immediately.
Chemotherapy
.
Radiotherapy.

I look across the room at the tri-fold mirror on top of the battered dressing table and see three reflections staring back, though there are only two people physically in the room. I’m unable to suppress the chill flash that races across my skin as I take stock of the third face I see there — which has no connection to Lela, or to the woman in the bed.

It’s
my
face. Oval in shape, with brown eyes, pale skin, a mouth with lips that are neither too thin nor too wide, a long, straight nose. It’s a ghost’s face, a palimps>
Cheof a face, framed by shoulder-length brown hair, each strand straight, even and perfectly the same, without flaws, without highlights.

I’m taller than she is, than Lela. Broad through the shoulders. Long-limbed. Stern-faced.

Lela is almost the physical opposite of me: petite, but with a womanly figure, curves where there should be curves. Her baggy red plaid pyjamas can’t hide that. Her thick, red-brown hair is clean and unruly and cut in a choppy bob. She has navy blue eyes and fine, Irish skin, snaggly teeth, elegant ankles, trim wrists, tiny hands and feet. A friendly face, I decide. A friendly-looking person. Pleasant; no great beauty.

‘I’m sorry I woke you,’ the woman says, and sighs against her pillows. ‘But you said you can’t afford to upset Mr Dymovsky again, and if you don’t get the 7.08 bus you’re not going to make it. That’s what you told me.’

‘It’s all right, Mum,’ I say without hesitation. If the woman beneath the bed covers were not so thin and ill, prematurely aged and drawn, she and Lela would be the image of each other, save thirty years apart.

I stand and bend over her, give her the briefest of kisses on her paper-dry cheek, wrinkling my nose at the burnt-flesh-chemical smell of her. I twitch straight her garishly bright headscarf, pull the bedclothes back up over her brittle collarbones. All these actions are Lela’s impulses, done before I realise I’m doing them. Lela loves her mother, and some things, I’ve found, the body simply remembers.

‘Thank you, sweetheart,’ the woman whispers. ‘Now go. Remember to eat. I’ll be fine. Georgia will be here for her usual shift and the council carer is coming in the afternoon to do some cleaning and help bathe me. I’ve got the pump, and I’m as comfortable as can be expected. Father Davey rang to say he’ll pop in, though goodness knows why. I’m not at death’s door.’ She gives me the ghost of a smile.

She is, though. Both she and I know it.

She closes her pain-shadowed eyes. ‘I’ll see you after five, darling bud. Love my girl.’

I pause, sorry to draw her back to me, but I have no idea where to start living Lela’s life, how to walk purposefully out into Lela’s day.

‘If I wanted to call him, Mum,’ I say, shaking her gently by the shoulder, ‘where would I find his card?’

She frowns weakly, no energy left even to open her eyes. ‘Card?’ she murmurs. ‘What card?’

‘Mr Dymovsky’s card,’ I reply, the syllables awkward on my tongue. ‘I should call ahead. He won’t be so angry if I call ahead.’

She’s silent for so long I wonder if she’s fallen asleep. Perhaps I’ll have to get the answer I want some other way. I glance out the door into the dim hallway of this stranger’s house and wonder how many rooms there are, and whether the information would even be here in physical form. Maybe it’s just inside Lela’s head. Things are stacked everying here’s dust on almost every surface, and I sense that the older woman’s illness has stopped time in this place. Nothing is more important than making sure she is comfortable; keeping vigil over her life.

I know the woman’s dying, that the treatments have failed. Not only can I detect the sickness in her, I smell the medication seeping out of the pores of her skin. There’s no part of her body that does not carry the taint of both, co-mingled.

I wonder if Lela knows how serious it is. If she truly understands.

When the woman at last replies, her voice is very quiet. ‘I don’t know about any card, love, but it’s in the book.’

She coughs and keeps coughing for several minutes.

Once she’s still again, I say with genuine puzzlement, ‘What book?’

A tiny crease appears between her closed eyes. ‘The phone book, Lela. The Green Lantern’s in the phone book, isn’t it? And it’s in the kitchen where it’s always been, unless you’ve gone and moved it. Tell Reggie to tell Mr Dymovsky if you don’t want to speak to him yourself. You’ve stood up for
her
often enough, Lord knows why . . .’

For a while, I watch the shallow rise and fall of the woman’s chest as her breathing evens out into sleep.

Time to get this show on the road
, I tell myself grimly, wishing I, too, was still asleep, wishing that the dream I can no longer recall would go on forever, taking me with it.

Lela’s eyes meet mine in the dresser mirror as I place her feet into the worn scuffs beside the armchair.

It’s 7.27 am by the time I leave the house with Lela’s backpack over one shoulder, her annual bus pass clutched in one hand. The bus stop is less than one hundred metres from the house; I see a bus pulling away as I walk up to it.

There are two other people standing there, both isolated from me by their audio equipment. One is a tall, broad-shouldered, heavy-eyed woman in tracksuit bottoms and a loose white blouse, her mass of wavy dark brown hair caught up in a tight, messy ponytail, her feet in a pair of cheap slides, a black leather handbag slung over one shoulder. She’s young, and her face is free of make-up, but there’s an expression on it that’s hard or wary and makes her look far older than she really is. Inside her strangely shapeless get-up, she’s practically slouching to make herself seem even more shapeless. What’s that word men use both to praise and to objectify? That’s right,
hourglass
. She has an hourglass figure, killer curves, under there.

The other is a male — late teens? early twenties? — with sandy dreadlocks pulled back into a thick ponytail. He’s wearing a washed-out band tee and long shorts, a stained messenger bag slung across his body, the reflector strip across the bottom grimy in the daylight; one hand on the edge of a skateboard. He checks me out quite openly as I walk towards him, only looking away hastily when he appears to recognise who I am. It’s clear he’s seen Lela before; I can tell from the complicated expression on his face/p>

I guess I move differently from the way Lela usually does. And I’m dressed like a car crash — in a bright green tank top with diamantés spelling out the word
Starlet
and a floral skirt scattered with big, red, splashy blooms, red flat shoes. It was the only vaguely matching full outfit I could pull together quickly in Lela’s messy bedroom. Clothing was literally spilling out of her battered, old, two- door wardrobe, most of it too heavy for a day like today. It looked to me like she’s been sleeping in that armchair next to her mother’s bed, rather than in her own room. There was a mummified apple core on her paper-strewn desk that had to be at least a month old.

I take a deep breath and look up, revelling in the sun on my face. The quality of the light here is different from anything I’ve seen before; it seems harsher, at once translucent and yet intense. The smell of the air is like burnt butter, already hot in the back of the throat, in the lungs. It’s going to be a warm day. No, a searing one. The sky seems wide and endless, with barely a cloud. And I realise that wherever I am now, it’s summer.

It was winter, where I was . . . before.

My eyelid begins to twitch as I struggle to put some definition around the word. It’s as if I’m carrying a cloud around inside me where my memories should be; my mind feels like a dull knife blade.

The strange thing is, I may only have been Lela for an hour or so but I’m moving easily. And I know that’s something new. My heart isn’t racing out of control, I’m not in pain or seeing things, hearing voices, falling over things that aren’t even there because my arms and legs won’t do what I tell them to. That’s the usual scenario when I ‘wake’ as someone else. Physically, I’ve never felt better; it’s almost as if, finally, I’ve begun to adapt. Lela and I seem to be functioning as a single organism and I know, without knowing how, that it’s never, ever been this . . . simple. If you can use a word like that in the context of soul-jacking a living body that doesn’t actually belong to you.

Soul-jacking — that’s my shorthand for this situation, which has happened before, and keeps on happening. The people I have . . . been — I don’t like the word
possessed
, it has such an unwholesome ring — stretch back in an unbroken chain farther than I can remember, although I’ve deleted the specifics, or maybe they’ve been reprogrammed out of me.
Where
they go, these souls I temporarily send into exile inside their own skins, is a mystery I’m still working on.

And before you ask, I don’t know what I did to deserve this. Why I pay and must keep on paying. You know almost as much about me as I do, and that’s the sad truth. I’m like a body-snatcher, an evil spirit, a ghoul, literally clothed in a stranger’s flesh. I try not to think about it too much because it gives even me the creeps.

Those people who say there is nothing new under the sun? They don’t know what they’re talking about.

I stare hard at that bleached-out, blinding sky and then it hits me, finally. That I’m in another country.

Where?

On the other side of the world,
answers my inner demon, always one beat ahead of my waking self.

As if to drive the words home, there is a sudden explosion of carolling birdsong from the powerlines above: drawn out, impossible for a human throat to replicate, beautiful, wholly unique. I’ve never heard its like, though it seems at once necessary to this sky, these strange and straggly trees with their gloriously scented leaves, this streetscape of single- storey bungalows in muted, pastel colours, with wire fences, cement driveways and handkerchiefsized front lawns. A street of living relics from the last century. I study the black and white bird perched high overhead. I don’t recall ever seeing one before, although that’s no proof of anything. It’s the size of a crow, and looks down at me below it on the street with a sharp, beady eye before it suddenly takes wing and flies away.

I know there’s something I’m forgetting — something important — and I feel the beginnings of a headache, a dull thump starting up inside my borrowed skull, as I try to mine my faulty memory for traces of that glittering, elusive dream. Perhaps it’s a migraine, like the ones I had when I was . . . Lucy.

The name causes a little catch in my breathing.

I worry away at the edges of that thought and get a string of fragments — recovering drug addict, sick baby, skipped town — which lead to another name:
Susannah
.

That yields up a new set of unrelated words and pictures — rich girl, hypochondriac mother, college far, far away — which leads to . . . Carmen Zappacosta.

With
that
name comes a searing moment of white noise and red-hot neural overload: whining in my ears, darkness in my eyes, a pervasive sense of nausea, landmines going off in my cerebral cortex. No words, no images, just a piercing sensation of
rage, pain, blood
, and that’s it. It’s as if there’s some kind of tripwire in my head. When I cease trying to pry loose any memory associated with Carmen Zappacosta, the edges of the world take on colour again, normal sounds and vistas resume around me, the thumping in my skull fades away.

And I know that the ground rules have somehow changed again. My time as Carmen is off limits and I don’t know why.

My breathing slows and the fingers of my hands uncurl. I look sharply at the woman and the skater boy flanking me; judging by her closed-off expression and his enthusiastic air guitar solo, neither noticed my little mental episode.

Eyes still watering from the lightshow in my head, I balance Lela’s backpack on my knee and rifle through it with shaking hands for clues as to what I’m supposed to be doing here. I can’t help it, can’t keep still. Can’t just go with the flow, let shit happen. It’s not my way. I need to have a purpose for being, even if I have to make it up as I go along.

Inside the body of the rucksack, my fingers find the hard edges of a leather wallet, a box of mints, a small bunch of keys, a ball of crumpled tissues, a ragged paperback novel, a small mobile phone, an empty drink bottle; dird those and settle on a . . . notebook.

BOOK: Exile
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