There isn’t much difference between night and day in this city, but we know it must be night when the train comes. It stops in the centre of the city inside its glass tube, the passengers standing shoulder to shoulder with their faces at the window: The Rat, The Flamingo, The Impala, several more, all of them watching us. After an hour or so the train moves on, out through the wall that encircles the city. In through one wall and out the other, like one of those underwater tunnels in aquariums.
When the train disappears, I’m left as always with the afterimage of The Donkey. Most of the figures on the train don’t bother me, but when I look through The Donkey’s mask I can see something of the lights in her eyes. I feel the weight of her gaze in my every movement, see flashes in the black recesses of my mind, like the blink of a lighthouse seen from way out at sea.
Yu-na and I stand outside the mess hall and wait for the siren. Yu-na’s chewing absently on the silky black hair that falls past her cheeks; a habit I’ve tried endlessly to get her to break. I run a hand across her cheek and gently pluck the hair from her lips, and she fixes me with a stare that’s devoid of emotion. Every time I look at her, I wonder how two young women could look more different. Yu-na’s skin is pale and translucent, her nose petite and perfectly formed, her curves womanly and in proportion. I stand opposite her with my shaved head, my boyish limbs that look too long for my body, the holes in my ears and nose, the ones I presume were left by piercings in my old life.
Yu-na’s hand is cold within mine, but her grip is firm, as though she fears she might float away if she let go. With this thought, I instinctively look towards the metal ceiling of the city, and remember there’s nowhere to float away to.
Yu-na closes her eyes and tears form on the tips of her lashes; I know what’s going to happen but there’s nothing I can do about it. She drops suddenly to her knees, drops her chin onto her chest, and her whole body starts to shake. I wrap an arm around her shoulders, try to calm her. It doesn’t help, but it’s all I can think to do. The panic attacks have been getting worse for weeks but the medic only tells us there’s nothing wrong; whatever it is, it’s all in her head. When the shaking stops, I cradle Yu-na in my arms.
The siren doesn’t come. “No one’s being taken tonight,” I say into her ear.
I slide one finger across Yu-na’s cheeks to wipe away the worst of the tears, pull her to her feet. All I want now is a drink, but first I have to get Yu-na back to the residences. We head east and are swallowed by the backstreets of The Web, a network of labyrinthine alleyways. All of them are glazed in blinking neon, as though a giant cat with fluorescent nails has claimed the walls as scratching posts. Smoke spills out of the back windows, the red lights of cameras flash on the cracked-mortar walls, the gutters exude the sour stench of human waste. None of us remember where we lived before; we remember the reunification, the wars, the names of cities – Seoul, Busan, Daegu – but that’s all they are: names. For all of us, though, there’s something familiar about these alleys, these neon signs. Just like we know that there were cars, jobs, families somewhere in our past lives, we know that these neon-lit arteries are a piece of home.
A couple of red-faced young women are on their haunches outside the back door of one of the kitchens; they eyeball us silently as we make for the underpass beneath the train tracks. We hold our breaths to block out the smell of piss and pass a drunk leaning up against one wall. He detaches himself from the brown brick and stumbles our way, his red-veined eyes trained on both of us. Yu-na scrunches her eyes shut; another one of her attacks is coming. I position myself between her and him.
“Another step and I’ll spread your nose all over your face,” I tell him.
He just laughs and hiccups. I shove him backwards against the wall and shepherd Yu-na quickly through to the other side of the underpass.
We’re halfway across the square when the siren sounds. I swear under my breath. A late siren: it’s rare, but it happens. Yu-na and I stand stock still, looking up at the ceiling high above, waiting. Yu-na takes my hand again.
“One minute,” the voice says. It’s always the same voice that comes from the speakers around the city walls: a man’s voice, disjointed and off-key, as though it’s been put through a computer. The one minute warning is how it always starts. We all wait for the name.
“Hwang Yu-na,” the voice says.
My heart drops into my stomach. Yu-na looks at me, the fear suddenly emptying her black eyes, like a pool of ink being sucked away down a drain.
“No,” she whispers, and even though her voice is so quiet I can hear the way it breaks as she utters that one syllable.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” is all I can say, over and over again in Yu-na’s ear. I just want to hold her and keep her with me. I’m certain that whatever life Yu-na had before, she’s better off here with me, with her simple chores and her quiet hours alone in the library.
The second siren sounds, and that’s the cue for the ceiling to open. Yu-na buries her face into my shoulder and I look up. The metal plates separate like a giant mechanical beetle opening its wings; the echoing sound is of rusted iron teeth grinding together.
The bystanders in the square form a circle a safe distance around us; we’ve all been told what happens when someone tries to interfere with the mosquitoes. The metal half-moons continue to slide apart, and soon enough we can see the night sky beyond them. It’s black and there are no stars tonight. Yu-na is shaking in my arms. Then we see the silhouettes of the mosquitoes.
They descend slowly through the hole in the ceiling. It’s a few seconds before we can make them out properly: their arms and legs and tight black clothes, the packs on their backs which drone like motorcycle engines, their masks with white eyes and elongated noses like enormous flies. There are three as always, circling downwards, ever closer.
“Don’t let them take me,” Yu-na whispers into my ear; her breath is like a butterfly fluttering through the air with a torn wing. The words break my heart, but I can’t do anything. The mosquitoes pause just a few feet above us; they’re waiting for me to move, to make their target clear. They won’t wait for long.
“I won’t let them touch you,” I promise.
I hear something of the murmurs of the crowd around us, the restlessness of the mosquitoes above our heads. I try to block them out.
“Go,” Yu-na whispers, letting me go.
I don’t move. It goes against everything we’ve ever been taught; everyone knows what happens when you don’t follow the rules, but I have no past, and Yu-na’s the only thing I have in my life worth holding onto.
The mosquitoes descend and plant their feet on the ground, forming a circle around us. I hear the crowd calling for me to move, but I stand my ground as the first mosquito approaches, balling my hands into fists. He pulls out a metal stick from his belt and brandishes it in front of me. I ignore the protests and screams of the crowd and try to make a grab for it, but the shock passes up my arm on impact, electricity coursing through my very bones. I fall backwards on the floor and hold my arm until the pain ceases, and I open my eyes just in time to see the mosquitoes closing in on Yu-na, standing defenceless with her hands at her sides.
“I’ll find you on the outside!” I call to her.
Then one of them makes the injection, the bite, and Yu-na falls limp into their arms. A second later they’re off the ground, leaning into the sky like helicopters, Yu-na held between them.
We all watch the sky until the silhouettes are beyond the open ceiling, disappearing into the black abyss. A few moments later the giant metal plates begin to slide shut again. The light hardly changes; we’re still in darkness, the only patches of light coming from the artificial green glow of the mercury-vapour lamps. Gradually the square empties and I am alone, a defeated heap on the floor, looking up at the ceiling.
The next day goes by like any other. I spend the hours between eight and two with Sung-sook, a weathered fifty-something woman with a stout body and a brown, leathery face, punctured with deep-set eyes and square, yellow teeth. She’s one of the Originals: here from the start, whenever that was, and never been taken. They each have their own area of expertise: fishing, carpentry, medicine, cooking, textiles, electronics. I’ve been with Sung-sook for two weeks already and she seems to think less of me with each passing day.
Each morning we unfurl the nets and take out one of the wooden fishing dories that we leave each night on the beach. Sung-sook and I sit on the boat half-way between the beach and the iron wall, waiting for the fish to come.
“You were a fool to interfere,” she says to me, breaking our unspoken pact of silence. “They’ll take you for sure tomorrow. And then there’s no coming back.”
I keep my eyes on the water, remembering the first time I saw it six months ago, waking up face-down in the sand with my name tag tied around my wrist. Very few stay in the city longer than I have.
At Sung-sook’s command, we pull in the nets and separate the fish. The smaller ones are thrown back into the water; we take the others into one of the shacks at the top of the beach, smash their heads against the wooden table and gut them. Sung-sook criticises my technique, tells me I’m too impatient, her nostrils flaring and contracting like a racehorse before the starting gate. I bite my tongue and wait for her to dismiss me, and I go back to the residences to shower and scrub my hands to try to lose the smell of fish guts. I still have some of Yu-na’s alcohol vouchers from last week. Tonight I’m going to use them all.
I’ve already used up my restaurant passes for the month, so once again I’ve got the basic dinner – rice with a few side dishes: kimchi, bean sprouts, spinach; whatever gets delivered each week from the sky. I’m filing out of the mess hall with a few others when the train arrives. It comes with no sound, as usual; it just rolls slowly into the city and stops just beyond the square. Usually I try to avoid looking at the masked figures inside, but I see the train windows in my peripheral vision, and I know straight away that something’s not right.
I walk over towards the glass tube, scanning the windows of the three carriages. I’m not the only one to have noticed; others nearby are also making their way to the train for a closer look. The windows are empty; the masked figures are gone. Sung-sook is behind me, breathing heavily through her nose like a bull.
“Stay back,” she barks at the approaching crowd, but no one listens.
I’m only a few feet away when I see that the train isn’t empty at all. I see the masked figures through the glass doors, lying on the carriage floors in pools of red.
Some onlookers put their hands over their mouths. Others are looking up to the ceiling as though waiting for it to open, for the mosquitoes to come down and offer an explanation.
Then the doors begin to open. First the doors to the glass tunnel, then the doors to the train itself. For the first time ever.
We all instinctively look to the Originals in the crowd, but they seem as clueless as the rest of us. This has never happened before; we weren’t given guidelines on this. The doors aren’t supposed to open.
Then a voice.
“Doors closing. Five.”
We all look at each other, wondering if we should let this one chance slip away from us. If the doors close, the train will pass on through the city like it always does, and we might never see it again.
Perhaps if the masked figures are dead, the people who give us our supplies are dead, too. Perhaps we’ll be left here forever; no mosquitoes, no supplies, left to rot beneath the iron ceiling above us.
Perhaps if we get on the train we’ll be taken directly to whoever killed these people. We could be going right into the hands of death.
But this might be my only chance to find Yu-na. To hold her, tell her everything will be all right. I promised her, and I never thought I’d actually have the chance to keep it. I know it probably won’t come again.
No one’s moving. Only me.
Sung-sook sees what I’m about to do before anyone else, but she’s too slow. Her stout fingers clutch at my shirt, but I shake myself free and squeeze through the doors just as they’re closing. I’m aboard, standing between the fallen bodies, and the glass tunnel doors close behind me. Sung-sook watches me with her big cow eyes, and for the first time I see something like concern in them. The train begins to move.
The eyes in the masks are empty and black. The Impala’s body is twisted awkwardly; it looks like her neck has been broken. The Owl has three bullet holes in his chest. The others are all splayed out in different positions, like an exhibit of the various shapes of death. I drop to my haunches and reach for the mask of The Flamingo. The face beneath is human; a young man, his eyes closed, his tongue hanging grotesquely out of his mouth. I check his pulse, examine the wounds on his body. He’s dead, unmistakably. They’re all dead. The only one I can’t see is The Donkey.
The train is almost at the city limits. For the first time, at least for the first time that I can remember, I’m going to see what’s outside this city. When it reaches the rusting iron wall, the carriage plunges into darkness. For several seconds, that’s all there is. Then the train stops.
The doors open, and silver light spills into the carriage. I step off the train onto a platform and find myself inside an empty station no bigger than one of the residences. There’s nothing apart from four grey walls, a ceiling punctuated by fluorescent lamps, and a metal door across from the tracks. I stand in front of it for a few seconds. Then I push it open, and just like that I’m free.
I’m under the open sky. It’s a sky full of stars with just a few patches of cloud. The smell of the open air fills my nostrils and in that split second I’m sure I can remember everything about my past life. But as quickly as the memory came, it disappears, like a candle that’s snuffed out before the flame has had a chance to breathe and take form.
I’m in a valley surrounded by high blue mountains. There’s grass under my feet; fields spread out before me, and a dark, still lake. There’s no one else here. There’s no one to tell me where to go, what to do. I could run for the mountains and see where they take me. But I can’t. I think of all the people still trapped in the city. More importantly, I can’t just leave without finding the answers. Where Yu-na was taken. Who took her. Who did this to us.
To my right is the city and the train station. It only occurs to me now that the tracks go no further; the train simply shuttles in and out of the city, like a toy engine being rolled back and forth along the carpet by a child. A giant, translucent dome stands about two hundred yards to my left, resembling a giant greenhouse. The only other building in the valley is smaller; it’s one-storey, made of concrete, with an aluminium roof and a steel door.
I push it open. The corridor in front of me is dark and has a distinctive chemical smell. Naked light bulbs illuminate the hallway and its doors from the ceiling, but many of them are flashing wildly as if they’re about to pop, and I’m forced to shield my eyes and squint.
I try the first doors on either side; an empty boardroom, then an office, full of computers and screens; everything is switched off. Then a store room, stocked with bags of rice, boxes of other supplies. Along the back wall are the animal masks, hanging up like a hunter’s trophies. Next to them are the rubber gas masks of the mosquitoes; the metal tanks of their jet-packs are in a pile in the corner.
The next door along has a sign on it: Records. The room is filled with cabinets, drawers, the names on their labels organised in alphabetical order: Kang Jong-woo, Kang Hye-jin, Ko Jae-kwon. I pull open a couple; they’re full of folders, documents. I follow the line, reading every name, some of which I recognise from the city. I skip ahead through the Kims and Moons and Parks until I find myself: Yoo Min-soo.
I pull out one of my folders with my hands shaking. I find photos of myself; photos of others with dates and fact files and paragraphs detailing their relationships with me. Distant relatives, friends, ex-boyfriends. I look into each of their faces but they mean nothing to me. If these people were ever a part of my life, I don’t remember them.
Then I see a man and a woman in their forties, with plain faces and neutral expressions. I recognise my likeness in each of them; I have my mother’s wide nose and my father’s thick eyebrows, but I remember nothing about them. I stare at the photos, I don’t know for how long, wondering if these people know where I am right now, whether they lay awake at night unable to sleep, wondering what happened to their daughter.
The next folder is marked ‘Criminal Activity and Sentencing’. I read the first page with my heart throbbing so hard I can barely hear myself think.
Yoo Min-soo, 18, was arrested on the 3rd September 2036 for the murder of her father, Yoo Jong-min. The victim was found dead on his donkey farm just outside of Busan with fourteen stab wounds. Yoo Min-soo later came forward and confessed to her father’s murder. She claimed that the attack was retribution for her father’s attack on his wife, Seo Hyeon-mi, which left her in a coma.
Yoo Min-soo had previously shown no prior tendency for violence. She has been described by classmates and teachers as an aloof but normal teenager. All of the character witnesses described the murder as being out of character.
Yoo Min-soo was initially sentenced to twenty years in prison. Having served four months of her prison term, Min-soo was selected for the Future Justice Project after careful consideration by the board of trustees. She accepted the offer on 7th January 2037 and was transported to the company’s headquarters the next morning. Her statement before entering the facility, included in full on the following page, cites the condition of her mother, who remains comatose, and the traumatic memories of the murder of her father as being the main incentives for accepting the invitation to the project.
I drop the folder. I feel dizzy and sick. For a few moments I’m sure that I’m going to vomit. I double up and lean against the cabinets, trying to control my breathing. I don’t remember any of it. I don’t remember my father, I don’t remember killing him. That was all someone else. But whatever the city and the Future Justice Project are all about, it looks like my past self agreed to it.
I leave the drawer open and the papers on the floor and stumble outside the room. Back out in the corridor, the lights are still flickering above me, but there’s no other movement. The door at the end of the corridor is ajar, and the lights are on inside. I head straight for it and push the door open, finding myself in a room that resembles a small hospital ward. The first thing I see is Yu-na, lying on a bed with white sheets tucked tightly around her, her eyes closed.
“Yu-na!” I call, shaking her. “Wake up!”
She doesn’t move.
“She might not wake up for a little while.”
The voice makes me jump. There’s a tall woman in a white coat standing behind me. She’s in her thirties, her black hair tied back in a ponytail. Her face has a grey pallor and her eyes are glassy.
“Min-soo,” she says. There’s no hint of surprise in her voice. “Did anyone else get on the train?”
I shake my head.
The woman’s eyes are unfocused, wide; they move slowly, taking in nothing. She steps past me like a ghost and lowers herself heavily into the chair next to Yu-na’s bed.
“What happened in there?” I ask. “The people on the train.”
“They were the scientists,” she says, staring at a spot on the floor.
I look around the room. There are three other beds, all empty, surrounded by monitors and medical equipment on trays.
“What happened to them?”
The woman doesn’t answer.
“I read my file,” I say. The woman nods. I want her to tell me that none of it is true, that it’s a mistake, but she says nothing. “Where are we?” I ask. “That big dome out there…”
The woman slowly looks up at me, with more clarity this time. “That was Site 1. From the project’s early days. It was thriving then, or at least that’s what we all believed.”
The woman takes a breath. “One of the criminals re-offended a couple of years after his release. Of course, many people wanted to shut the project down after that. But three years later the government decided to give it one more chance, with new conditions, of course. That’s when they moved to Site 2, the one you’ve been living in this past six months. No sky, no fresh air, the intimidating figures on the train. And the mosquitoes, of course, as you call them. It was thought that these elements would stimulate your aggressive natures, provide a better platform for the tests.”
“The tests. What are they?”
“Nothing new,” the woman says dismissively. “Psychological questions, behavioural tests. Workplaces have been using them for years to identify potentially dangerous individuals. Really, those tests are just a formality. Your real test is what happens in the compound. They watch and analyse everything, monitor every discussion, every drunken argument. They wanted to see what would happen when you were relieved of your traumatic memories. To see if you posed any threat to society without them.”
I look at Yu-na’s face, peaceful in sleep. “Did she pass?”
“She did; her original sentence has been revoked. Of course, they always expected her to. Yu-na’s exactly the kind of person the project was created for: victims of unfavourable upbringings, violent acts. That’s what the Future Justice Project was all about: seeking out criminals who were victims themselves; people who were traumatized, who would have lived normal lives if it weren’t for another person’s evil.”
“What happened to her?”
The woman looks at me as though to judge whether I can take it. She takes another deep, shaking breath before answering.
“A man tried to force himself on her one night in Seoul. Forced her into an alleyway, put his hand over her mouth.”
I look at my friend again. I think about her panic attacks.
“Yu-na killed him,” I say.
The woman nods. “She tracked him down a few nights after the attack. Stabbed him. She’s recovering now from her memory wipe. She was due to leave tomorrow morning, to re-enter society with a clean slate, start her new life.”
I look at the woman.
“Why do you keep saying ‘they’?” I ask. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? The ones who were watching us? The scientists?”
She stares at the floor again. “I really expected more than one person to get on the train,” she says, almost to herself. “Thought that I could blame it on all of you, escaping, taking your revenge.” She smiles ruefully. “I couldn’t even get that part right.”
Her eyes are changing again. They lose their focus, flitting around the room until eventually settling on Yu-na’s sleeping face.
“Yu-na and I have a lot in common, you know,” she says, putting a hand on Yu-na’s pale cheek. “Although Yu-na fought her attacker off, so I suppose you could say she was luckier than I was.”
I notice the way her hands shake, the nervous countenance of her eyes, and I start to take stock of the room. There’s nothing close at hand; only the tray of instruments next to Yu-na’s bed.
“The criminal who was released from Site 1,” she continues, looking at Yu-na’s closed eyes as though reading a bedtime story to a sleeping child. “He went to a small village near Gyeongju to start his new life. It was there that he assaulted a young woman who worked for the government.”
“So you’re not a scientist,” I say, edging slowly towards the tray. If only I can grab one of the needles. “You work for the government.”
“We’re rather far from civilisation out here,” the woman goes on. “Someone had to stay here and make sure the government’s guidelines were being followed, report on developments. Who better to judge the project than the victim of one of its failures? I suppose they thought I might provide a contrasting viewpoint.”
She sighs and appeals to Yu-na with a weak smile. I’m at the foot of the bed now. Just a little further.
“The oldest debate in the book, isn’t it?” she says, still looking into Yu-na’s face. “Nature versus nurture. But who are therapists and psychologists to say whether prison is deserved or not? Can we really just let criminals waltz back into cities as if they’ve done nothing wrong?”
She looks up at me now as though imploring me to find an answer. I stop inching forwards but say nothing.
“I haven’t felt safe since the night it happened all those years ago,” the woman goes on. “I’ll probably never feel safe. Do you understand that?”
“You killed them,” I say, looking directly into her eyes. “A dozen at least. You’re as bad as every single person living in that city. Probably even worse.”
Her eyes are shining now; tears are collecting on her lashes.
“I thought it was the only way to end it,” she says, shaking her head as the tears trickle down her cheeks. “I thought their deaths would save so many more in the long run.”
She puts her head in her hands and sits there, shaking, tears dribbling through her fingers and down her wrists. I take my chance, reaching for the closest needle; I hold it in one hand, raise it aloft.
She looks up and sees what I’m about to do. There’s no fear in her eyes, only regret and resignation.
“Let me just ask you one thing, Min-soo.” She stands up. “Do you really think you would have passed your test?”
I hold the needle in position.
“I saw the drone footage from that day. On your father’s farm, when you found your mother lying there unconscious. You ran out from the kitchen and attacked him, right there in the middle of one of the animal enclosures. I’ll never forget that look in your eyes; it was barely human. And the sound of the beasts, that was almost worse than the sight of the blood. Even they recognised the horror of what you were doing. I never thought for a minute that I could do something like that. But I did.”
Now I know for sure that it’s her. I remember the shape of her body, the look in her eyes. The Donkey, standing right in front of me.
“The mask,” I say.
She nods, but her eyes have glassed over again. “We thought it might stir something, somewhere in the depths of your mind. Bring about a reaction in one way or another. We did it with several others, too, of course. The scientists were always against it, but the government felt that after Site 1 failed, any extra intimidation would be useful.”
At that moment Yu-na’s eyes open. She blinks slowly, trying to bring the room into focus.
The Donkey hardly reacts; she seems only half-present, as though part of her soul has absconded to another room. I drop the needle, spring to Yu-na’s side and take her hand. She pulls herself up on the bed, but it’s clear that she has no idea who I am. She’s starting all over again.
“Headquarters,” The Donkey says, again almost to herself. “In Seoul. They’ll be in contact soon.”
She’s pulling something slowly out of the back of her trousers. Yu-na screams at the sight of the gun and scrambles off the bed onto the floor, backing away behind me on her hands and knees. I hold my hands up and step around the bed towards The Donkey.
“You don’t have to do this,” I say. “You can let us go. No one has to know.”
The Donkey just stares at the gun, as though seeing it for the first time.
I don’t know what to say to stop her. Part of me thinks that it doesn’t matter whether I live or die anyway. I have no memory; no friends, no family, no place to call a home. I’m an empty shell, but I’m still a murderer. Maybe this woman’s right to get rid of me.
But then I look at Yu-na, now cowering at my back. She doesn’t know who I am, or what promise I made to her, but I know her. I know what she did and why, and for all I know she’s the only person I’ve ever truly cared about. Even if I don’t deserve to go on living, she does.
I turn back to The Donkey.
“We’re all tested,” I say to her. “And you’re right, I don’t know if I would’ve passed mine. There’s something in me that I might not be able to control. They might not have seen it on those cameras, but I feel it sometimes. And you know what, if I had the chance to kill my father again, if he did what the file says, I’d probably do it. Maybe I’d fail my test, but you don’t have to fail yours. We can fix this. You can do the right thing.”
The Donkey might be listening, but she’s not looking at me. She’s looking over my shoulder at Yu-na.
“You don’t remember it, do you?” she asks Yu-na.
Behind me, Yu-na buries her face in my shoulder.
“You don’t remember how it feels, but I do.” She looks up at the ceiling, blinking away tears. “I’ll live with that memory forever. And now I’ll live with their deaths, too. You’re right, Min-soo,” she adds, looking at me. “I’m worse than all of you. This is my test.”
She looks back to the gun, shaking in her hands.
“This is my test,” The Donkey says again, more quietly, her face distorted. “And I’ve failed it.”
She moves the gun slowly towards her temple, but I spring forward and wrestle it from her before she can pull the trigger. I pin her to the ground.
“No,” I tell her. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Show me how to do the memory wipe. Show me, and you can be rid of it all.”
“You can leave if you want,” I tell the crowded square. I’m standing in front of all of them beneath the metal ceiling of the city, Yu-na and The Donkey at my side, looking passively over the crowd. “But we’re staying. Outside these walls is another site where we can grow our own food. Between this city and Site 1 and the resources in the valley, we can make a new life, be self-sufficient.”
I look at the faces in front of me. Sung-sook is there at the front, her jaw grinding as she listens, like a cow chewing on the cud of my words.
“It might be weeks before they come, but they’ll come eventually, and I don’t know what will happen when they do. Maybe they’ll put an end to the project altogether, put us back in prison. Maybe they’ll let us return to the outside world. Or maybe they’ll see that we can live in peace if we’re left alone.
“I say we burn the files; those lives are over, and no one here needs to know what they’ve done. It won’t help, it won’t make you remember. It will only make things worse.
“You’re free to make your own choice, but all I can tell you for certain is that the world out there won’t be any kinder to you than the one we can create here. We agreed to this; all of us did. There’s not a person here who can go back to a loving family; there’s not a person here who wasn’t wronged, who wasn’t traumatized.
“We’ve been given a second chance, and now we can take it. This is our test.”
I look at the faces in the crowd again; a few heads are nodding. None of them know what crimes they’ve committed; none of them know their pasts. I’m the only one. I’m the only one who knows the monster lurking within myself. Even as I speak, I can hear the braying of the donkeys on the farm. I imagine a dead-eyed version of myself stabbing my own father, again and again.
I feel the weight of the gun that’s tucked into the back of my jeans. Even after everything I’ve said, I can’t help wondering if The Donkey was right all along. Who’s to say that we deserve forgiveness? Who’s to say that we shouldn’t be punished for what we’ve done? Are the faces in front of me truly empty shells, as mindless and grotesque as the animal masks hanging up on the wall? Are those monsters within us extracted with the memories, or are they lurking there, biding their time, waiting for the right moment to burst forth?
I finger the photograph in my pocket, the one of my mother. All I know about her is that she’s lying in a hospital bed somewhere, as empty as I am. But I chose to leave her; to forget, so that I could have a fresh start. That’s who I am. That’s who I am beneath the mask.
Yu-na takes my hand. She doesn’t smile, but I’m used to that. Her memories have been wiped, but nothing about her seems to have changed. She’s still the girl I’d do anything to keep from being parted from. I won’t make the same mistake again; I won’t let go of someone I love. A few strands of silky hair pass across her cheek and she pulls them into her mouth with her tongue, like a frog casually catching a passing fly. She chews on her hair, just as she’s done every day since I’ve known her.