The Dome

fiction by

Jenny Darmody

The Dome

          It wasn’t until Athena’s feet started to cramp that she knew her “day” was coming to a merciful end. She was on the swing when it happened, but it never seemed to matter what piece of equipment she was using at the time. Like clockwork, the arches of her feet would always cramp up as the crowd outside the dome started to thin. She couldn’t falter though. She had to keep performing for the onlookers that stood outside the dome. She propelled her body forward, arching her back and pointing her long, shiny legs out straight. Beyond the glass, she could only see shadows of bobbing heads. The air was too smoky to make out their faces, but Athena knew there were only men looking in at her.

          The cramp in her foot sent shockwaves of pain up her legs, but she kept swinging like a pendulum until the last of the punters trickled out, heading into the various corridors that led them elsewhere. Maybe to the exit, but Athena wasn’t quite sure. Finally, the red lights went out and were replaced by a single blue light in the corner. It cast frightening shadows over the paraphernalia within the dome, but Athena didn’t care. She was used to it and, more importantly, she knew she was finally off the clock. 

          A few minutes later, the usual basket was lowered into the dome offering the same dinner and water flask as always. Athena couldn’t remember much from her past, but she knew without a doubt that the sloppy mixture in the basket tasted like porridge. Accompanying the food this time was a fresh outfit. Athena gingerly squeezed out of her own barely-there costume, peeled off her fishnets and swapped them for the new clothing. Tucked underneath the food, there was also a new instruction on a small piece of paper.

          ‘Less time on the swing. Use the hula-hoop.

          She returned the note to the basket and ate quickly before the basket was lifted out again. Finally, the blue light shut off, leaving her in total darkness.

          Athena never got used to the pitch black when the lights went out completely. It unnerved her to be unable to figure out the passage of time. There were no windows in the dome, no glimpse of natural light. Everything inside was tinged with red and gold from the hot, filtered lights above. Athena had no idea how long she’d been in there. It certainly felt like years to her, but every time she tried to count the days (or was it nights?) that came and went, her head hurt.

          With nothing else to do, she fumbled her way to her bed of soft furnishings inside a small Arabian-style tent within the dome and began her ritual of trying to recall her old name. She stared into the blackness, concentrating hard, clenching her jaw, trying to will the memory of her name back to life.

          She used to want to remember more than just that. In the early “days” of the dome, she couldn’t comprehend how muddled her brain was already. She had only been there a day, a week, a month…had it been a month? How could she forget so much of her life already? She used to scream and kick the objects in the dark and sob uncontrollably until she passed out with exhaustion, straining to remember something as simple as her address, her job, her boyfriend. Did she even have a boyfriend? What about a sister? Or even parents? But it had been a long time since she wore herself out from sobbing and screaming, trying to recall big, important details. She knew they were long gone from her clouded mind. Unattainable behind some locked door, crushed to death in some box. But her name. Her name before her name was Athena. If she could just summon her former name, her true name from the depths of her mind, that would be something.

          So, she seized up every muscle in her body, just as she had done the “night” before, and the “night” before that, begging her mind to go back in time to bring her name back to her. But, as a tension headache formed behind her skull, silent tears trickled from her exhausted eyes until she eventually gave into the knowledge that tonight would not be the “night” it would come to her. Defeated, she rolled over and waited for sleep to come.

*

          The next “day”, she obediently picked up the hula-hoop as the punters returned. She rolled it around her hips as seductively as she could, recalling the first and only time she ever disobeyed one of those notes.

          It was a long time ago, at least it felt like it to Athena. The “day” wasn’t as busy as usual, she could see gaps in the crowd of onlookers and the ones that were there didn’t stay as long. She spent all “day” switching between the bike and swing. The “evening” seemed to come quicker. When the lights went blue and the basket came down, a note was attached.

          No more bike for a while. Lots more showing of legs and cleavage.’

          It was the ‘legs and cleavage’ part that annoyed her. She scrunched it up and ate her food. The next “day” she rode around the dome for hours on the bike in defiance. Once again, the punters that came to see her didn’t stay long. When the basket came down that “evening” there was no note and she ate her food smugly. When the lights went out, she lay on her “bed”. But after a few moments, she felt a sudden shock course through her back and she fell to the floor, scrambling to her feet as quickly as she could. She stared at the dark shape of the “bed” for a few minutes, waiting for something to happen. When it didn’t, she tried lying back down. It shocked her again. Tears welled up in her eyes and she resigned herself to lying down on the floor. Another jolt sent her back to her feet. Every surface she attempted to lie or even sit down on sent a mild electrical shock to her body. She stood for the “night” and when the lights came on she knew she had to go to work without sleep. 

          The sleepless “nights” came two more times, before it was agreed that lessons were learned, and Athena was allowed to sleep again. She never disobeyed another note and now, she rolled the hula-hoop around her hips, exaggerating her body movements to show her compliance.

          When the arches of her feet started to scream at her again, she breathed a small sigh of relief that her performance would be over soon. When the basket arrived that night, it contained another note, one that made all the organs in her body scrunch up with horror.

          Congratulations. You have been purchased for €20,000. You will be taken in three days.’

          In her mind, Athena crumbled into a heap. Her nerve-endings felt like spikes digging into her body and her bones were tight beneath her skin. But on the outside, she remained still, calm and composed. She knew they were always watching. She couldn’t react. Instead, she ate quickly as normal, let the basket disappear and when the lights went out, she crawled back to her “bed”. That night, she swapped her usual attempts to remember her name with something much more recent. A memory that might help her escape the dome before it was too late.

          She remembered being sick once. She was pulled onto a stretcher and brought to a different room. She had passed out at the time, so her groggy memory only contained flashes of what happened. But she vividly remembered a bright, rectangular glow of white light off in the distance. It could have easily been a hallucination or just a room lit with white lights instead of red or blue. But she believed it was daylight. All the times when she tried to think of her name and failed, a vague memory of that glance of daylight was enough to quell her tears. It was real. She had seen it. She needed to get to it. She could only plan so much beyond faking sick to get as far as that door. Everything else would need to be figured out on a whim. The plan was destined for failure. And yet somehow, she knew the alternative would be worse.

*

          On her final “night” in the dome, she played with her food, feigning a sick stomach to those who were watching. When the lights went out, she walked unsteadily to her tent, swaying this way and that as best she could without going overboard. She couldn’t risk it coming across as acting. To the watchers, it looked like she suddenly realised she forgot her flask on the other side of the dome and staggered back to get it. She only made it halfway before she collapsed. She managed to swallow her scream of pain as she hit the hard floor. Resisting the urge to break her own fall was tougher than she thought. The side of her face felt warm and wet. She was probably bleeding, but she kept her eyes shut and her body still. 

          Eventually, she heard movement. They were coming. The sounds were heightened as she resisted all temptation to open her eyes. Loud zips, straightening of sheets, rustling plastic. It sounded close, but Athena didn’t wince. Hands put her on a soft hammock and her body swayed as it was lifted out by a rope, the same way the basket travelled to her every “night”. Not opening her eyes made it harder for her to differentiate the direction she was travelling until a sudden jolt put her on a stretcher, which wheeled her off.

          When it finally came to a halt, Athena’s heart skipped a beat, and she peaked just enough to find what she was looking for. The white rectangle of light was unmistakable and it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. 

          She held her breath to listen as carefully as she could for the perfect opportunity. She knew she’d make it if she timed it just right. The white light wasn’t far. She gripped the sides of the stretcher firmly, readied her agile body, and sprung off the side, breaking into a run towards the light. She counted a full three seconds before she heard the shouts behind her.

          Her bare feet slapped against the smooth, cold floors and she was surprised how soothing it felt to run in her bare feet. She hadn’t spent much time out of her heels in the dome and the floor was bitty and uncomfortable to walk on anyway. Not like this. She was a terrified gazelle, gliding through the long corridor. Tears stung her eyes as she realised that she was going to make it, until she happened upon a misty version of herself running towards her.

          Athena had to swerve to the side to make sure she didn’t crash head first into her own reflection trapped in the glass. Her legs gave way beneath her as she stared back at her own horrified face. Her agonised screams bounced against the new dome as she felt rough, gloved hands pick her ragdoll body up by the arms. Through her cries of agony, a gravelly voice pierced her ears like a poisonous dart.

          “Do you think you’re the first one to try it?”

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Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody is a content editor based in Dublin, Ireland. She has previously been published in The Incubator Journal, Brave Voices Magazine and The Galway Review and Vamp Cat Magazine.