“Thought-provoking writing to evoke questions about control, life and death. Clever use of narration that really makes you feel like you’re there, observing its scenes from different view points.” – Marianna Spring, Disinformation and Social Media Correspondent at the BBC and Orwell Youth Prize judge 2023
The Girl lies in the tub. The water has cooled to become uncomfortable. She does not move except to flick her cigarette lighter off and on. She is deathly still, staring through the persistent little flame. It’s mesmerising to watch. And someone is.
The Girl knows this and continues to ignite the flame, toying with her voyeur. Or voyeurs really. There’s more than just one, but their reflections are hard to make out as they flash in and out of her world.
At first the Girl had been afraid of them. She had screamed so loudly that the neighbours had come running with their guns, thinking a disgruntled revolutionary had tracked her location. When the neighbours found no one, they muttered under their breath and left.
After her release from the re-education facility, she felt like an outsider and had decided to go back to her childhood home. She was desperate to feel in control of her life. Returning might give her a chance to start over. Or so she thought. The girl proceeded to melt into the sheets and stare at the ceiling, afraid of everything except the blank white canvas above her, the lighter still gripped in her hand.
I hadn’t been back since my mother’s death. I never stopped being homesick. The farm had grown more derelict in my absence. The paint had surrendered to the elements, the rot had taken root, and the house was lost to the wilderness surrounding it.
When I drove up, I knew exactly where I was going first: my mother’s bedroom. It was a still-life of cancer. Expired bottles of painkillers were sitting patiently on the bedside table. The oxygen tank was covered in a thick layer of dust. Yellow stained sheets still covered the bed. Mum had moved into the room when she started hospice – it was downstairs and closer to the bathroom. Somehow, seeing it again gave me comfort, as if everything that remained was waiting for her return.
My mother had always been in control, a leader of a failed revolution against the Junta. After her capture, instead of a firing squad, the military court placed her under indefinite house arrest. Five weeks later the lumps started to appear under her armpits. Their inevitable retribution for the insurrection.
My eyes wandered the dimly lit space when I noticed something. It was between the bedside table and the wall, a rectangle of metal. It was my mother’s lighter. The corners were rounded but it was otherwise unremarkable: silver with a military issued serial number embossed on the base.
It felt cool in her fist, but she was uneasy. She assumed that it was a rekindling of grief: being in the house where it all happened made her nostalgic. She reached for a pack of Camels. Clumsily she tapped one out and positioned the lighter under the end. She never got the relief of nicotine because as soon as her finger hit the ignition and the flame appeared, so did a figure. She screamed. The flame went out and the shadow vanished.
The neighbours came. We don’t like the neighbours. They’re loud. It gets obnoxious, and they’re nosey. Before Beatrix came back they would sneak into the house and poke around. At least we think it’s Beatrix. We could be wrong because she was still young when she was taken. She has the same dimples and the not-quite-red hair. She’s even grown up to sound like Leonora.
We are the occupants of the Collective, trapped between the human world and the afterworld. The Junta was fixated on maintaining order and conducted dozens of mind control experiments using captured revolutionaries. The Collective is the unintended consequence of these failed experiments.
I didn’t pick up the lighter for days after the incident, willing myself into denial about what I had seen. But I couldn’t brush it off. The figure was an unnatural colour. I remember seeing a flash of yellow on its shirt. But I wasn’t sure of anything. I’d certainly never believed in ghosts, but now…
That’s when she resolved to trigger the flame again. She recovered the lighter, took deep breaths, but her nerves could not be extinguished. With a sharp flick, the flame reappeared, and so did they.
We were surprised she tried again. She bit her lip trying to subdue her fear. It started to bleed. We argued over what to do. We always try communicating, but it rarely works.
I could feel blood drip onto my chin. I let the drops stain the floor. I was transfixed by the figures. Or figure. No, there was more than one, but the others flashed in and out of focus. The Main Figure was standing about five feet in front of me, motionless. Then all of a sudden, they waved. It looked like a wall of mirrors had been shattered.
Their palms faced me, some too quick, almost frantic, some so slowly, it seemed to be in time lapse. But the Main Figure, a man I think, waved normally. At that moment, I realised they no longer scared me. I waved back.
We were delighted when she mirrored us. But worried about what would happen next without proper communication and disciplined use of the lighter.
It’s not our fault when they lose control. The ones that make the choice to come back and see us, they become consumed.
The lighter was uncooperative at times, and she would have to turn the ignition wheel with such force that her index finger bled. Only a full flame would make them appear. It was a rush each time she saw them. It was comforting; she was not alone. She wondered if her mother was hiding in the shadows of the figures that flashed in and out of her world.
The lighter fluid never runs out. When I snap the wheel into obedience and the flame flashes before me, there is a second when my entire body is frozen. Cold rushes over me in a wave. I feel alive. Nothing is important anymore. I like to use it in the tub because the water reflects the figures in sharper detail.
Drugs and alcohol had only been occasional vices.
This feeling beats them both. I am transported to another world. One of silence, the figures flickering, moving but peaceful.
Now I have experienced its power. I submit completely.
After three weeks, she had learned to pick out the figures’ faces and body language. She began to notice they looked upset. The Main Figure had remained stoic, but today even he looked concerned. No one waved. There was no acknowledgement when she flicked on the lighter.
We had never seen anyone succumb that quickly. Most resist the lighter’s controlling effect, at least at first. Once in the Collective we forget what it feels like to use the lighter, the intoxicating rush.
We decided to ignore her. Each time she moved her finger to the lighter we sighed. No one likes to watch another slip under. Today the flame took a suspiciously long time to light. We knew what comes next.
I notice the flame falter. Unusual. It must be the wind. The figures are growing more intense in the sporadic glow of the lighter and appear desperate. They scare me. Then the lighter goes out.
Thunderous and horrific, a chorus of voices filled with sadness and disappointment surrounds her.
Bea’s confused and disoriented. The figures are so vivid now; she doesn’t understand what’s happening. The lighter tumbles.
She tries to pick it up, but her hand passes right through it.
She starts to panic. To scream. To cry.
Then someone, the Main Figure, his shirt now bright yellow, touches her shoulder. His hand feels warm: alive.
I can’t process anything. His mouth starts to move. And I realise. I can hear him commanding everyone: QUIET! She’s scared. Let her breathe.
My mind has caught up to my senses.
I am in their world.
And it’s just like mine… LOUD.
Full of thought and chaos.
We tried to warn you. We did.
We watch Bea slump into a foetal position. Only faintly asking for her mother. We stare blankly. She is part of the Collective now.
Rosetta Millar is a senior runner up in The Orwell Youth Prize 2023