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Fiction: A Small Triumph

Ela poured herself coffee and started recording the jumbled, unformed ideas twirling in her head before they dissipated. Her hands moved fast. Her mind moved
science fiction on mental health
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A meek sun dispersed the scud of clouds stretched across the horizon as the stoic neighborhood woke up to a dull dawn. The gray silhouette of the neat row houses was turning a lighter shade every passing minute. Tucked into one of the upper floors of a row house was Ela, sitting at the kitchen island staring at the screen. 

She had cranked up the coffeemaker. Dark roast trickled into the pot filling the kitchen with a nutty waft. The soundbar emitted a tranquil Buddhist chant, the repetitive loop taking the edge off Ela’s overstrung nerves. She had been trying to finish her first draft for months now. Her laptop sat patiently waiting to catch her words. All she needed was the will to form them now. 

The thin thread of inspiration, like a choppy wifi connection, slipped in and out, refusing to settle on her but Ela was determined to noose it this morning. An idea floated forward, its murmur gently widening its circle through the recurring chant but just as it was about to latch on, her watch chimed, slicing through her thoughts. It was time to use her mood wand. She held the metal wand up to her ear. It glowed orange. 

Uh oh! 

Just when her once familiar creativity was about to take over for the first time in months, did this have to happen? Or was that precisely why it was that color? So, it was true what they said. Writing did drag in a bout of melancholy that could not be tamed by mind-numbing medication. 

She reasoned with herself for a moment. The orange pill prescribed would soothe her but would make her ruminations disappear. She couldn’t allow that. 

Ela poured herself coffee and started recording the jumbled, unformed ideas twirling in her head before they dissipated. Her hands moved fast. Her mind moved faster. The brainwave became stronger with every passing minute. She wrote for a good hour and was about to put on another pot of coffee when her phone chimed a message. 

“Did you check your color?” 

She chose to ignore it. 

In a few minutes, another message reached her. 

“Did you have your orange pill?” 

As if on cue her cranium felt the first rumbles of a headache. Her body, used to the daily diet of nerve soothers and relaxants, yearned for a blanket of softness like a chain smoker yearned for the next cigarette. 

mindscape brainwave abstract
She reasoned with herself for a moment.

Her fingers reached out for the orange pillbox reflexively. And then she pulled back. 

What if she doesn’t follow the rules? 

The hospital would know. The mood wands were connected to the hospital server and a group of observers hidden behind glass screens there would notice all the little changes. Then she remembered. She had trekked up to her attic a few weeks ago to fetch her mother’s journal. She found it after rummaging around for an hour in a bulky suitcase, the one that had one of its wheels broken. It turned out to be quite a treasure trove, full of memories that her mind had involuntarily filed away. She had managed to scoot it down little by little to her bedroom but it had taken all her pilates strength. 

Ela had retrieved the fancy leather-bound chronicle, her mother’s cashmere sweater, and her wristwatch. She had also dug out her father’s Littmann stethoscope, the one that he had ordered after carrying out an extensive internet search. The frayed flannel shirt that he had refused to throw away despite his family’s loud complaint lay limp, clinging to it. Also, his album of family pictures from their last vacation. He insisted on printing out the pictures instead of keeping them digitally trapped. She leafed through it with sighs. He had booked them a last-minute trip to Honolulu the winter before the first pandemic. Together they had soaked up the sun and the island humidity. They had eaten fresh pineapples and enjoyed the beachside hula dance by a group of gold-skinned Hawaiian girls. It was from a different lifetime, from a different world, a world that people took for granted. 

She had a meltdown that afternoon that overwhelmed her as she sat surrounded by the keepsakes. She had no shield to protect her heart with so she draped her mother’s sweater over her shoulder, tied her father’s shirt around her waist, and let the tears flow. She fell asleep rolled up in a ball and when she had woken up, long after the sun had set, she had felt inexplicably decluttered, as a heavyweight had lifted from her shoulders. She had made a startling discovery. The mood wand had read green though she had felt rather disconsolate and limp.

beach sea and sun
Together they had soaked up the sun

Ela ran to her room and fished out her mother’s sweater from the closet. She slipped it over her head. So many years trapped in a suitcase should have made it smell musty but Ela thought that it still held a whiff of her mother’s Skylar Isle perfume. She closed her eyes and managed to conjure up the exact shade of mauve her mother loved. Her favorite lipstick. Mac. Plum. She took a few deep breaths and her head stopped buzzing. She had won again for the time being. 

It was 2035. The World has seen two pandemics in the last fifteen years. When it all began in 2020 people had thought that it would end in six months. Instead, the pandemic continued for more than two years. It could only be defeated after a battery of vaccines were hurriedly uncovered. But vaccinating 7.9 Billion people took time. And just when everyone was letting out a sigh of relief there arrived a second pandemic, more virulent than the first. It was accompanied by a tremendous sense of loss and grief that became bigger than the pandemic itself. It was like everyone had lost the will to live. Ela still shuddered to think how many more died of depression than the pandemic. High-rise buildings, the ultimate celebration of modern living, became a curse to mankind. They became death towers. No wonder those still alive chose to give up city living and moved to the suburbs. The city with its sky-scrapers became a reminder of a time when people did not want to live anymore. 

Ela had lost her parents to the second wave. She had become a ward of the state and grew up in a hostel along with other children who had lost their families. The shock of losing her parents had emotionally paralyzed her. It was only when one of the hostel counselors had slipped her a journal to note down her thoughts and insisted that she started attending a writing workshop that she could unchoke herself again. She filled her journals up with unspoken words and grew up into a reserved adult, keeping to herself. It honed her writing skill which later became her vocation. 

As the content editor of Mediworld’s lifestyle magazine, she penned and curated articles on a healthy lifestyle. Her friends teased her when they called her a part of Mediworld’s propaganda squad. She acted appropriately offended but deep down she knew her friends were right. The hybrid work style has now replaced the once conventional nine to five work hours. Once a month Ela spent a day in the Mediworld office to meet her supervisor and colleagues, for team building, schmoozing and back-patting. 

She had just wrapped up her monthly one-on-one with her chief editor, but there was another meeting set up with the wellness team. Ela wondered why. She was up to date with her vaccines, and her diet was healthy. She had also not had any neurotic episodes lately. So, why the meeting? 

“Take a seat,” Martha, Mediworld’s wellness manager, appraised Ela from head to toe as she sat herself down on a chair. Her brown curls bounced on her cheeks framing her dimpled face with a childlike halo. She appeared in the pink of health. 

“How have you been feeling lately?”

“Good.” Ela’s smile widened into a grin. 

“Have you been using the wand?” 

“Yes, as prescribed.” 

“Have you been taking your medication?”

“Of course.”

Martha tapped her pen on the table. 

“We caught some irregularities on your chart.”

“I…I suddenly felt better. And the manual says that if I take a reading again and the color changes back, I should not proceed with the medication.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Martha with a small smile after observing her for a few extra seconds. There was no way to gauge what she was leading to. The uncertainty showed on Ela’s face.

“No really. It’s good that you didn’t need it…but I wanted to understand what happened. How did the color change back? Can you bring in your wand? We have to see if it is glitching.” 

Martha handed Ela a package.

“And in the meantime, you can use this one. We have programmed it to match you.” 

“Thank you.” Ela offered Martha a watery smile as she took the new wand. 

Ela had a secret. A small triumph that she kept hidden from Mediworld. A little shiver rode up her spine and a giggle spilled out of her as she left the office. It was a quiet one but more than just a smile. She startled herself for she didn’t remember the last time she had chuckled. 

She had done it, recovered herself from the cesspool of medicated stupor. 

Images courtesy: Pixabay

Sreya Sarkar is a freelance writer based out of Massachusetts, with her fingers dipped in multiple writing projects. A public policy professional by training, she writes socio-political columns for Indian news magazines like The Quint and Dainik Bhaskar. She also pens short stories for literary magazines.

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