Imagine Me – Tahereh Mafi

In the dead of night, I hear birds. I hear them, I see them, I close my eyes and feel them, feathers shuddering in the air, bending the wind, wings grazing my shoulders when they ascend, when they alight. Discordant shrieks ring and echo, ring and echo— How many? Hundreds. White birds, white with streaks of gold, like crowns atop their heads. They fly. They soar through the sky with strong, steady wings, masters of their destinies. They used to make me hope. Never again. I turn my face into the pillow, digging fingers into cotton flesh as the memories crash into me. “Do you like them?ˮ she says. We’re in a big, wide room that smells like dirt. There are trees everywhere, so tall they nearly touch the pipes and beams of the open ceiling. Birds, dozens of them, screech as they stretch their wings. Their calls are loud. A little scary.

I try not to flinch as one of the large white birds swoops past me. It wears a bright, neon-green bracelet around one leg. They all do. This doesn’t make sense. I remind myself that we’re indoors—the white walls, the concrete floor under my feet—and I look up at my mother, confused. I’ve never seen Mum smile so much. Mostly she smiles when Dad is around, or when she and Dad are of in the corner, whispering together, but right now it’s just me and Mum and a bunch of birds and she’s so happy I decide to ignore the funny feeling in my stomach. Things are better when Mum is in a good mood. “Yes,” I lie. “I like them a lot.

” Her eyes brighten. “I knew you would. Emmaline didn’t care for them, but you—you’ve always been a bit too fond of things, haven’t you, darling? Not at all like your sister.” Somehow, her words come out mean. They don’t seem mean, but they sound mean. I frown. I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening when she says— “I had one as a pet when I was about your age. Back then, they were so common we could never be rid of them.” She laughs, and I watch her as she watches a bird, midflight. “One of them lived in a tree near my house, and it called my name whenever I walked past.

Can you imagine?” Her smile fades as she asks the question. Finally, she turns to look at me. “They’re very nearly extinct now. You understand why I couldn’t let that happen.” “Of course,” I say, but I’m lying again. There is little I understand about Mum. She nods. “These are a special sort of creature. Intelligent. They can speak, dance.

And each of them wears a crown.” She turns away again, staring at the birds the way she stares at all the things she makes for work: with joy. “The sulphur-crested cockatoo mates for life,” she says. “Just like me and your father.” The sulphur-crested cockatoo. I shiver, suddenly, at the unexpected sensation of a warm hand on my back, fingers trailing lightly along my spine. “Love,” he says, “are you all right?” When I say nothing he shifts, the sheets rustling, and he tucks me into his hollows, his body curving around mine. He’s warm and strong and as his hand slides down my torso I cant my head toward him, finding peace in his presence, in the safety of his arms. His lips touch my skin, a graze against my neck so subtle it sparks, hot and cold, right down to my toes. “Is it happening again?” he whispers.

My mother was born in Australia. I know this because she once told me so, and because now, despite my desperation to resist many of the memories now returned to me, I can’t forget. She once told me that the sulphur-crested cockatoo was native to Australia. It was introduced to New Zealand in the nineteenth century, but Evie, my mother, didn’t discover them there. She fell in love with the birds back home, as a child, when one of them, she claims, saved her life. These were the birds that once haunted my dreams. These birds, kept and bred by a crazy woman. I feel embarrassed to realize I’d held fast to nonsense, to the faded, disfigured impressions of old memories poorly discarded. I’d hoped for more. Dreamed of more.

Disappointment lodges in my throat, a cold stone I’m unable to swallow. And then again I feel it I stiffen against the nausea that precedes a vision, the sudden punch to the gut that means there’s more, there’s more, there’s always more. Aaron pulls me closer, holds me tighter against his chest. “Breathe,” he whispers. “I’m right here, love. I’ll be right here.” I cling to him, squeezing my eyes shut as my head swims. These memories were a gift from my sister, Emmaline. The sister I only just discovered, only just recovered. And only because she fought to find me.

Despite my parents’ relentless efforts to rid our minds of the lingering proof of their atrocities, Emmaline prevailed. She used her psychokinetic powers to return to me what was stolen from my memories. She gave me this gift—this gift of remembering—to help me save myself. To save her. To stop our parents. To fix the world. But now, in the wake of a narrow escape, this gift has become a curse. Every hour my mind is reborn. Altered. The memories keep coming.

And my dead mother refuses to be silenced. “Little bird,” she whispers, tucking a stray hair behind my ear. “It’s time for you to fly away now.” “But I don’t want to go,” I say, fear making my voice shake. “I want to stay here, with you and Dad and Emmaline. I still don’t understand why I have to leave.” “You don’t have to understand,” she says gently. I go uncomfortably still. Mum doesn’t yell. She’s never yelled.

My whole life, she’s never raised a hand to me, never shouted or called me names. Not like Aaron’s dad. But Mum doesn’t need to yell. Sometimes she just says things, things like you don’t have to understand and there’s a warning there, a finality in her words that’s always scared me. I feel tears forming, burning the whites of my eyes, and— “No crying,” she says. “You’re far too old for that now.” I snif , hard, fighting back the tears. But my hands won’t stop shaking. Mum looks up, nods at someone behind me. I turn around just in time to spot Paris, Mr.

Anderson, waiting with my suitcase. There’s no kindness in his eyes. No warmth at all. He turns away from me, looks at Mum. He doesn’t say hello. He says: “Has Max settled in yet?” “Oh, he’s been ready for days.” Mum glances at her watch, distracted. “You know Max,” she says, smiling faintly. “Always a perfectionist.” “Only when it comes to your wishes,” says Mr.

Anderson. “I’ve never seen a grown man so besotted with his wife.” Mum smiles wider. She seems about to say something, but I cut her of . “Are you talking about Dad?” I ask, my heart racing. “Will Dad be there?” My mother turns to me, surprised, like she’d forgotten I was there. She turns back to Mr. Anderson. “How’s Leila doing, by the way?” “Fine,” he says. But he sounds irritated.

“Mum?” Tears threaten again. “Am I going to stay with Dad?” But Mum doesn’t seem to hear me. She’s talking to Mr. Anderson when she says, “Max will walk you through everything when you arrive, and he’ll be able to answer most of your questions. If there’s something he can’t answer, it’s likely beyond your clearance.” Mr. Anderson looks suddenly annoyed, but he says nothing. Mum says nothing. I can’t stand it. Tears are spilling down my face now, my body shaking so hard it makes my breaths rattle.

“Mum?” I whisper. “Mum, please a-answer me—” Mum clamps a cold, hard hand around my shoulder and I go instantly still. Quiet. She’s not looking at me. She won’t look at me. “You’ll handle this, too,” she says. “Won’t you, Paris?” Mr. Anderson meets my eyes then. So blue. So cold.

“Of course.” A flash of heat courses through me. A rage so sudden it briefly replaces my terror. I hate him. I hate him so much that it does something to me when I look at him—and the abrupt surge of emotion makes me feel brave. I turn back to Mum. Try again. “Why does Emmaline get to stay?” I ask, wiping angrily at my wet cheeks. “If I have to go, can’t we at least go toge—” I cut myself of when I spot her. My sister, Emmaline, is peeking out at me from behind the mostly closed door.

She’s not supposed to be here. Mum said so. Emmaline is supposed to be doing her swimming lessons. But she’s here, her wet hair dripping on the floor, and she’s staring at me, eyes wide as plates. She’s trying to say something, but her lips move too fast for me to follow. And then, out of nowhere, a bolt of electricity runs up my spine and I hear her voice, sharp and strange— Liars. LIARS. KILL THEM ALL My eyes fly open and I can’t catch my breath, my chest heaving, heart pounding. Warner holds me, making soothing sounds as he runs a reassuring hand up and down my arm. Tears spill down my face and I swipe at them, hands shaking.

“I hate this,” I whisper, horrified at the tremble in my voice. “I hate this so much. I hate that it keeps happening. I hate what it does to me,” I say. “I hate it.” Warner Aaron presses his cheek against my shoulder with a sigh, his breath teasing my skin. “I hate it, too,” he says softly. I turn, carefully, in the cradle of his arms, and press my forehead to his bare chest. It’s been less than two days since we escaped Oceania. Two days since I killed my own mother.

Two days since I met the residue of my sister, Emmaline. Only two days since my entire life was upended yet again, which feels impossible. Two days and already things are on fire around us. This is our second night here, at the Sanctuary, the locus of the rebel group run by Nouria— Castle’s daughter—and her wife, Sam. We’re supposed to be safe here. We’re supposed to be able to breathe and regroup after the hell of the last few weeks, but my body refuses to settle. My mind is overrun, under attack. I thought the rush of new memories would eventually gutter out, but these last twenty-four hours have been an unusually brutal assault, and I seem to be the only one struggling. Emmaline gifted all of us—all the children of the supreme commanders—with memories stolen by our parents. One by one we were awoken to the truths our parents had buried, and one by one we were returned to normal lives.

All but me. The others have since moved on, reconciled their timelines, made sense of the betrayal. My mind, on the other hand, continues to falter. Spin. But then, none of the others lost as much as I did; they don’t have as much to remember. Even Warner—Aaron—isn’t experiencing so thorough a reimagining of his life. It’s beginning to scare me. I feel as though my history is being rewritten, infinite paragraphs scratched out and hastily revised. Old and new images—memories—layer atop each other until the ink runs, rupturing the scenes into something new, something incomprehensible. Occasionally my thoughts feel like disturbing hallucinations, and the onslaught is so invasive I fear it’s doing irreparable damage.

Because something is changing. Every new memory is delivered with an emotional violence that drives into me, reorders my mind. I’d been feeling this pain in flickers—the sickness, the nausea, the disorientation—but I haven’t wanted to question it too deeply. I haven’t wanted to look too closely. The truth is, I didn’t want to believe my own fears. But the truth is: I am a punctured tire. Every injection of air leaves me both fuller and flatter. I am forgetting. “Ella?” Terror bubbles up inside of me, bleeds through my open eyes. It takes me a moment to remember that I am Juliette Ella.

Each time, it takes me a moment longer. Hysteria threatens— I force it down. “Yes,” I say, forcing air into my lungs. “Yes.” Warner Aaron stiffens. “Love, what’s wrong?” “Nothing,” I lie. My heart is pounding fast, too fast. I don’t know why I’m lying. It’s a fruitless effort; he can sense everything I’m feeling. I should just tell him.

I don’t know why I’m not telling him. I know why I’m not telling him. I’m waiting. I’m waiting to see if this will pass, if the lapses in my memory are only glitches waiting to be repaired. Saying it out loud makes it too real, and it’s too soon to say these thoughts aloud, to give in to the fear. After all, it’s only been a day since it started. It only occurred to me yesterday that something was truly wrong. It occurred to me because I made a mistake. Mistakes. We were sitting outside, staring at the stars.

I couldn’t remember ever seeing the stars like that— sharp, clear. It was late, so late it wasn’t night but infant morning, and the view was dizzying. I was freezing. A brave wind stole through a copse nearby, filling the air with steady sound. I was full of cake. Warner smelled like sugar, like decadence. I felt drunk on joy. I don’t want to wait, he said, taking my hand. Squeezing it. Let’s not wait.

I blinked up at him. For what? For what? For what? How did I forget what had happened just hours earlier? How did I forget the moment he asked me to marry him? It was a glitch. It felt like a glitch. Where there was once a memory was suddenly a vacancy, a cavity held empty only until nudged into realignment. I recovered, remembered. Warner laughed. I did not. I forgot the name of Castle’s daughter. I forgot how we landed at the Sanctuary. I forgot, for a full two minutes, how I ever escaped Oceania.

But my errors were temporary; they seemed like natural delays. I experienced only confusion as my mind buffered, hesitation as the memories resurfaced, waterlogged and vague. I thought maybe I was tired. Overwhelmed. I took none of it seriously, not until I was sitting under the stars and couldn’t remember promising to spend the rest of my life with someone. Mortification. Mortification so acute I thought I’d expire from the full force of it. Even now fresh heat floods my face, and I find I’m relieved Warner can’t see in the dark. Aaron, not Warner. Aaron.

“I can’t tell just now whether you’re afraid or embarrassed,” he says, and exhales softly. It sounds almost like a laugh. “Are you worried about Kenji? About the others?” I grab on to this half-truth with my whole heart. “Yes,” I say. “Kenji. James. Adam.” Kenji has been sick in bed since very early this morning. I squint at the slant of moon through our window and remember that it’s long past midnight, which would mean that, technically, Kenji got sick yesterday morning. Regardless, it was terrifying for all of us.

The drugs Nazeera forced into Kenji on their international flight from Sector 45 to Oceania were a dose too strong, and he’s been reeling ever since. He finally collapsed—the twins, Sonya and Sara, have checked in on him and say he’s going to be just fine—but not before we learned that Anderson has been rounding up the children of the supreme commanders. Adam and James and Lena and Valentina and Nicolás are all in Anderson’s custody. James is in his custody. It’s been a devastating, awful couple of days. It’s been a devastating, awful couple of weeks. Months, really. Years. Some days, no matter how far back I go, I can’t seem to find the good times. Some days, the occasional happiness I’ve known feels like a bizarre dream.

An error. Hyperreal and unfocused, the colors too bright and the sounds too strong. Figments of my imagination. It was just days ago that clarity came to me, bearing gifts. Just days ago that the worst seemed behind me, that the world seemed full of potential, that my body was stronger than ever, my mind fuller, sharper, more capable than I’d ever known it. But now But now But now I feel like I’m clinging to the blurring edges of sanity, that elusive, fair-weather friend always breaking my heart. Aaron pulls me close and I melt into him, grateful for his warmth, for the steadiness of his arms around me. I take a deep, shuddering breath and let it all go, exhaling against him. I inhale the rich, heady scent of his skin, the faint aroma of gardenias he somehow carries with him always. Seconds pass in perfect silence and we listen to each other breathe.

Slowly, my heart rate steadies. The tears dry up. The fears take five. Terror is distracted by a passing butterfly and sadness takes a nap. For a little while it’s just me and him and us and everything is untarnished, untouched by darkness. I knew I loved Warner Aaron before all this—before we were captured by The Reestablishment, before we were ripped apart, before we learned of our shared history—but that love was new, green, its depths uncharted, untested. In that brief, glimmering window during which the gaping holes in my memory felt fully accounted for, things between us changed. Everything between us changed. Even now, even with the noise in my head, I feel it. Here.

This. My bones against his bones. This is my home. I feel him suddenly stiffen and I pull back, concerned. I can’t see much of him in this perfect darkness, but I feel the delicate rise of goose bumps along his arms when he says, “What are you thinking about?” My eyes widen, comprehension dethroning concern. “I was thinking about you.” “Me?” I close the gap between us again. Nod against his chest. He says nothing, but I can hear his heart, racing in the quiet, and eventually I hear him exhale. It’s a heavy, uneven sound, like he might’ve been holding his breath for too long.

I wish I could see his face. No matter how much time we spend together, I still forget how much he can feel my emotions, especially at times like this, when our bodies are pressed together. Gently, I run my hand down his back. “I was thinking about how much I love you,” I say. He goes uncommonly still, but only for a moment. And then he touches my hair, his fingers slowly combing the strands. “Did you feel it?” I ask. When he doesn’t answer, I pull back again. I blink against the black until I’m able to make out the glint of his eyes, the shadow of his mouth. “Aaron?” “Yes,” he says, but he sounds a little breathless.


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