FIRST PRIZE
Becoming Anna

by Rowan Evans
 

“Looking back at the events that led me here, I can see with clarity how particular incidents and notions converged to create a perfect storm that buffeted me from my usually rational self, setting me adrift upon waves of hysteria. However, I now fully understand what caused this episode of misalignment and I am here today, fully restored to my former self. I am, finally, whole again.”

     “Forgive me, Miss Lebanna, could I cut in for a moment?”

     “It would appear, Dr. Franklin, you already have.”

     “It’s Mr. Franklin, Miss Lebanna, and yes, I have. For that I apologise. But there are a couple of things I’d like to ask before you continue, if I may?”

     I regard the man sitting opposite me with suspicion. I had believed that I would be discussing my psychological complexities with a professional doctor. However, I seem to have been fobbed off with a fake; he isn’t even qualified. Furthermore, he requires a shave and has a paunch. I can tell he has no intention of analysing the entire tapestry of my life. He is going to unpick the last couple of weeks and then knot together the loose strands, where I appear to have unravelled. Folding my arms in a gesture that I am fully aware means my defences are up, I look away. He takes that as a signal to continue.

     “As this is our first session, can I verify that you are twenty-two-years-old?”

     “Correct,” I reply, turning back to him and hoping he will have the courtesy to allow me to continue with my narrative.

     “Splendid.” He pauses to look at my notes as if they are a manual giving instructions on how I work. “And your first name is Annabel. Annabel Lebanna, that reads the same forwards and backwards.”

     “Yes, my parents were obsessed by palindromes. Unfortunately for me, that meant I was inevitably going to be named Annabel. But I am just Anna now. You may call me Anna as your mispronunciation of my surname is irritating.” 

     “Thank you, Anna,” he replies with a smirk. “Ah, another palindrome, how funny.” He makes some amendments to my notes with a cheap biro. “You may call me Jonathan. Am I correct in assuming that the hallucinations began when you were working at the library?” He looks up from my notes. “It says here that you saw a ghost?”

     “Yes, that is correct.”

     “So, up until that point in your life, you would say that you had never suffered any delusions or visions of any kind?”

     “Certainly not. I have always prided myself on being sensible and rational.”

     “And yet, Anna, when the ambulance was called on…” he looks back down and thumbs forward two pages on my notes, “…the 24th November, you were in such a distressed state the paramedics were unable to calm you without a sedative.”

     A clock is ticking in this shabby little room that I had not noticed before. Perhaps I am unwittingly being put into some sort of hypnotic state. I close my eyes in an attempt to resume my narrative, which I had carefully prepared for today’s meeting. I had laid the facts out in my mind like a concrete path, upon which I could walk my way safely through the events that had led me here. For, on either side of that solid ground, there are marshes into which I could sink if my mind should stray. Now, with each tick and each tock I am shaken from my course and my mind wanders into unstable territory. And it is so dark out there, the mists are rising and she is waiting just on the edge of my peripheral vision.

     “Anna? Are you alright? Would you like some water before we continue?”

     I open my eyes to brightness. Jonathan is leaning towards me. I look for the first time at his eyes, which are a strange colour, almost amber and warm like embers. Amber embers, the words repeat over and over in my mind like a mantra, they are strangely soothing. I like words, they made sense of everything. He is probably only in his fifties but his grey hair and stubble make him look older. I find my former frostiness thawed by his look of concern.

     “No, thank you.” I remove my glasses and fog the lenses with my breath before cleaning them with the hem of my cardigan. I doubt they had even the slightest smudge on them but the ritual is comforting and gives me an excuse to break eye contact with him.

     “Ok, Anna. What I suggest is that you begin when you started working at the library. If, at any point, you feel you cannot continue, we’ll stop for today. Is that alright?” He sits back in his chair and places his fingertips together as I replace my glasses and nod my acquiescence.

     “I began working at the library on November 15th. I had difficulty finding employment so was delighted to successfully procure a position as assistant librarian, which suited my orderly nature and love of literature. I think, to be frank, I have always been something of a square peg in a round world, so being in an environment of shelves and quiet corners suited me very well.

     “The head librarian was a kindly man by the name of Bernard Hillier. I am not a ‘people person’, but have to say that I found Bernard to be a most agreeable work colleague and we would often enthuse about the libraries impressive collection of reference books and classical fiction.

     “Everything was going very well. I truly believed I had found my vocation and could see myself happily growing old in the company of Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters. That is, until the evening of November 18th, when Bernard asked me to work late and help him unpack several boxes of books that had arrived earlier that day.

     “It is strange how the atmosphere of a building changes after dark. One moment it’s alive with readers, then, suddenly, it is empty. As the light fades, the walls seem to hold their breath. Book shelves become shadowy eye sockets, hollow, but somehow watching your every movement. Sounds are magnified, which is why I paid little heed to the echo that my footsteps made on the parquet floor. That is, until the dual footsteps stopped, turned, and then walked away in the opposite direction.

     “Naturally I put the phenomenon down to fatigue, or even some sort of acoustical trickery. I decided to put the oddity from my mind and continued restocking the shelves. The monotony of the task was not displeasing as it allowed my mind to wander. I found myself recalling an incident from my childhood, one of the few happy memories I have. My parents had had me rather late in life and lacked the energy and creativity to make my childhood very stimulating. However, when I was five-years-old, Mother took me to a pantomime during the Christmas holidays. I remember a spine-tingling scene where the wolf was creeping up on some poor unsuspecting heroine and the audience started shouting, “It’s behind you.” Incredibly, they all seemed to know what to say at the same time. It was thrilling to be collectively part of the story and I found myself shouting along with them, trying to warn the girl of the fate that was about to befall her.  

     “Suddenly I realised, to my absolute horror, that the books in front of me were the audience, I was the girl, and what my subconscious was screaming at me was, indeed, it is behind you.

     “Would you mind, very much, Jonathan, if I now accept that glass?”

     “Take your time, Anna. If this is becoming difficult, we can leave it for today.” He smiles and sits back down. I notice that there is a pad on his desk and it looks as though he has been making notes whilst I was talking. 

     “No, no, I will continue,” I reply, encouraged by the notion that he is making sense of my strange story. I take a couple of sips of water and put it on my side of his desk. With a deep breath, I continue.

     “I cannot tell you exactly how I knew it was behind me. I heard nothing. But, somehow, the air pressure in the room changed, intensified, I felt I was being pushed out of shape. Something was invading my space, without touching me. Just then, the lights went out and I was plunged into a thick, oppressive blackness. Coldness seeped into my spine. I had the terrifying sensation that I was standing on a cliff edge, with my back to the chasm. The only thing stopping me from plummeting into the freezing abyss behind, was the bookshelf in front of me. I clung to it for dear life.

     “From the void came a voice, but it wasn’t speaking, as such. It was the sound of air escaping from something hollow and empty, like the wind blowing through a decaying tree. It was near my left ear and so close that it gave rise to goose pimples up that side of my neck and face. It whispered “Aaaannnn.” Then it was behind me, but more forceful, and it snarled, “Naaaaa.” Then it was at my right ear and it roared, so loudly that I jumped, “Bel!”

     “Then the lights came back on, lightening everything, even the air. It was as though a door had slammed behind me and shut out a raging tempest. And there was Bernard, looking a bit bewildered, with our coats. I must have looked quite deranged, clinging to that bookshelf. I honestly cannot remember what I said to him as he helped me put my coat on. I mumbled some excuses about feeling unwell. I could not tell him what had happened; it would have made me sound insane.

     “I took a couple of days off after that, claiming to have a stomach upset. Indeed, I did feel decidedly churned up after what had happened. However, being an analytical and logical person, it did not take me long to formulate a theory. I was, to put it mildly, a rather fanciful child. What I lacked in the attributes so highly prized in femininity, I more than made up for in imagination, intellect and wit. I could conjure stories from thin air and began to build, brick by imaginative brick, a fortress that would protect me from my spiteful, brainless peers and the dried-out, unloving husks masquerading as my parents.

     “However, the figurative fortress started to feel like a prison. I found it increasingly difficult to connect with the real world. By the time I reached puberty, the only friend I had was an imaginary one whom I had allowed to occupy, what I suppose would now be referred to as, my virtual world. Her name was, Lebanna, which, as you know is my other name. She was my exact likeness, but also my exact opposite; my mirror image. She was my shadow and without her I felt incomplete.

     “I was thirteen when I was forced to turn my back on her following a particularly unpleasant incident with the family dog. She had become dangerous and cruel. Under her influence, I found myself doing wicked things that were out of character. The onset of adolescence exasperated her behaviour. I learned to escape her malicious influence by putting her in a dark room inside my mind and locking the door.

      “Was it possible, I wondered, that now I had reached a happier time in my life, the `door’ I had shut her behind, had opened up? Had my contentment let my guard down and allowed Lebanna to escaped her prison? If I ignored her, would she crawl back from wherever she had come? I was encouraged by this perfectly logical explanation, so returned to work the following day.

     “November the 21st was an exceptionally mild, cloudless day and the late Autumn sun was low and filtered into the library. I was cautious at first, but with Bernard’s cheery demeanour my spirits were lifted. I found myself at peace being surrounded by quiet, studious people. As the day wore on, I hoped that my apprehensions were entirely unfounded and whatever had frightened me two nights previously would threaten me no more.

     “I was wrong to be so complacent, for the spectre returned as I began to tidy the books away. It had its back to me, facing the wall. I will try to describe what I saw.”

     I take a sip of water. Jonathan is paused over his notes and politely waits for me to continue.

     “Ghosts are always described as faded or semi-transparent, only partly occupying this world. This is not what I perceived. This entity was as solid as a tree or rock. There was a density to its darkness, but its edges were blurred like a smudged charcoal drawing. It had a human shape, with a head, shoulders and body, but it looked like black wax, melting into the floor.

     “Then its head began to turn, very slowly. I wanted to cry out, to move away before it saw me, but could not. The rotation of its head continued to a point impossible for a human neck to contort, until it was almost completely back to front. But just as its face would have been revealed, it collapsed into a pool of shadow on the floor and vanished.

     “Once it departed, I was released from my petrified state. I ran, without my coat or a word to Bernard. When I got home, I locked the door and spent the evening in a fevered state of terror, my eyes fixed on the door in case it had followed me back.

     “I had two very clear choices now. Either I resigned from the job that I adored and left this mystery unsolved, or I stuck at it and tried to find the courage to oppose the thing that haunted me. I chose the latter; if it was Lebanna, broken free from her prison, I surely had control over her and could return her there.

     “Three days passed and nothing happened. I was twitchy and nervous, afraid to walk into any part of the building alone. Then, gradually, hope began to push through like a spring bulb from the darkness. I tried to encourage its growth by opening my heart to it. However, she returned on the third day and brutally crushed the life out of it.

     “We had just closed on the 24th November. Bernard had left early for a doctor’s appointment, entrusting me to lock up. I closed the door on the small kitchen in the staff area and flicked off all the lights in the main building, leaving only the one nearest the main entrance on. I only had to cross the reference reading room and the front door was ahead of me. But I knew instinctively that she was waiting for me. In the semi-darkness, my bottom lip started to tremble and my eyes fogged with tears. My escape was barred by her toxic presence, which I could not yet see, but could feel drifting ever closer. I spun around, trying to locate her whereabouts. A whimper sounded from my throat and, as I opened my mouth, it formed words that I screamed into the silence, “What do you want from me?”

     “Then I saw her. Again, she was facing the wall like a naughty child. In response to my words, her head turned, fractionally. I could tell she was watching me from the shadows. Neither of us moved. In those torturous moments I knew, without a doubt, that it was her. She wanted revenge for being incarcerated and I had neither the courage nor power to contain her anymore. She had become rotten and unhinged.

     “I forced myself to move. I was maybe twenty paces from the front door, but I had to walk past her to get there. I was breathing heavily, my breath fogged in front of me as the temperature in the room dropped drastically. Ice needles pricked at my skin. My nape tingled as the hairs rose and I blinked to clear my vision. The door was within sight.

     “Just as I drew level with her, she giggled. But no, a giggle sounds like a charming little titter that an infant would make; this was edged with a cruelty. It was a lifeless parody of a child’s laugh. A poor imitation of something heard long ago and only half remembered.

     “Ten paces to go. I tried shutting out the unearthly noise but it increased in volume and surrounded me. Five paces to go. I reached out with my hand, ready to grasp the door as soon as it was near enough. At only two paces away, a column of shadow arose from the ground and blocked my escape. 

     “Never have I experienced anything so dark. It dripped blackness like a fountain of tar. There was a putrid smell. I can still smell it now, because it travelled so deep into my lungs and is still circulating within me. Her head rotated slowly. I was powerless to prevent her from revealing herself fully to me.

     “She only had half a face. Most of it was missing or caved in, either from an horrific trauma, or from decay. What remained was like a melted death mask. Her expression was preserved in a malevolent grin and the one remaining eye was a blind, white orb that twisted madly inside the socket.

     “Nausea flooded my body and my knees buckled. Then two human hands tore through the apparition and grabbed my shoulders as I was about to fall. The last thing I remember was dear Bernard’s face pushing through the entity towards me and, as he did so, Lebanna was torn apart.”

     I reach for my cup of water and hold it for a moment. I cannot swallow until my pounding heart has resumed a steadier beat.

     “I cannot remember anything else until I woke up in hospital the next morning. I believe it was Bernard who called the ambulance. Luckily for me, his appointment had been cancelled and he had decided to help me lock up. He, by the way, did not see her. He said I was alone.”

     “Wow, ok Anna, let’s just give you a minute before we carry on.” Jonathan is watching me with serious concern. Amber embers warm, glowing.

     “No, let’s finish the story now,” I insist. “We are so near the end. You see I need to know whether I am deluded or whether I am being haunted by my own personal ghost. Has my mad woman escaped from the attic?” I put my water down and lean in, studying his reaction.

     “Have you seen the ghost since that day at the library?” he asks.

     “Yes.”

     “When was the last time you saw it?”

      “It is here now. It is waking up.”

       I admire Jonathan for not looking around the room, but the slightest change in his expression tells me that he is unnerved, as well he should be.

     “It infected me; of that I am certain. I can smell its putrescence in every breath I take. I believe that she has become a parasite and latched herself onto me. She could not be seen by Bernard because she did not have a host then. She has one now. I am curious whether you can see her in me.”

     “Anna, I’m not sure what you mean. I think you need to try and separate the nervous illness you suffered from the story you have created to justify it.” He is speaking fast now and we can smell his fear. “You are an imaginative young woman, who reads a great deal of fiction and I believe the things you have read and invented have punched a hole in your reality. Your apparition is just a corrupted version of your imaginary friend, not the ghost of her. You conjured her up. She is your Jungian ‘shadow’. The darker side of your personality which you have created in order to sabotage your own happiness. Perhaps you have a fundamental belief that you do not deserve to be happy.”

     I watch him for a moment, saddened by what will happen next. I had started to like him. Amber embers. But I can feel the coldness spreading from my toes to my scalp. The hem of my cardigan is melting into cold treacle. Now she is part of me, I fear her less. The end of me is the beginning of her, my palindromic parasite, my palindromic twin.

We are just Anna now.

Just one name. Just one person. The same forwards and backwards.

What are we capable of, with her malign spirit and the strength of my imagination compelling her?

Look at his eyes Anna, like amber embers. Shall we put them out?

I lean forwards, “Jonathan, can we borrow your biro?”