‘You again! How many times have I told you not to leave the vaults?’
There had been another breakout. It was Niall. Again. He had escaped from the Memory Vaults in Sophia’s brain earlier that evening, and had been roaming the corridors of her mind ever since. It had taken Lily hours to track him down. By the time she found him she was tired, hungry and in no mood for games.
Niall was one of Sophia’s old flames. He was also a former housemate, which had made for some very interesting house dynamics back in the day. Their six-month-long dalliance had come to an end when he began a relationship with his current partner, Hayley-a development he neglected to mention to Sophia. That was nearly five years ago. Sophia had long since moved on. And yet he lingered here in her memory, like perfume on an unwashed garment. And he wasn’t the only one. They were all there: the ex-boyfriends and former love interests. They lived in the Memory Vaults, located beneath the Conscience Centre in Sophia’s brain, and that was where they remained. Most of the time.
Every so often, one of them would escape and go wandering the labyrinthine passages of Sophia’s mind. Lily and her colleagues would spend days, sometimes weeks, chasing them down and coaxing them back to where they should be. How long they remained there depended on two things: how often Sophia’s thoughts strayed to the old flame in question, and the reason they strayed in the first place.
All sorts of things could trigger a breakout. Birthdays were a common cause, as were anniversaries-both the good ones and the bad. Sometimes, just a certain time of year was enough to dredge up Sophia’s memories of a former partner. Her most recent ex, Dylan, often went roaming in early autumn. Their relationship may have been forged in the fires of summer, but it was in the autumn that it solidified into something deeper and more meaningful than mere infatuation. All it took was a certain kind of grey sky, and the door to the Memory Vaults would burst open, allowing Dylan to go wandering once more. Lily could remember a time a couple of years back when he’d eluded them for almost a month. It had taken the promise of strong coffee and Diddy Kong Racing to coax him back.
‘God, that was hard work,’ Lily remarked to her boss, Gemma, once Dylan was safely back inside the vaults. ‘Was he always that stubborn?’
Gemma, who had more experience of Dylan’s stubbornness than any of them, merely sighed and said, ‘You have no idea.’
Nowadays, most breakouts were triggered by a specific event. Engagements, weddings, pregnancy announcements. Whenever an old flame reached one of these milestones, a bell would sound in Sophia’s brain, and Lily and her colleagues would spring into action. Wherever they were, whatever they were doing, they immediately abandoned it and sprinted down to the Memory Vaults. Their aim was always to prevent the man in question from escaping, although the vast majority of the time they were already too late. Usually, but not always.
Once they got there just as Joe, Sophia’s waste-of-space ex, was about to escape. They saw him poke his mop of brown curls through the door and look around hopefully. But before he could cross the threshold, Gemma seized him roughly by the shoulders, spun him around and shoved him back through the door, which she slammed behind him with an echoing bang. Turning to face her stunned team, she slapped her hands together as if dislodging dust, and said with a wicked smile, ‘I’ve wanted to do that for years.’
Of course, it wasn’t really Joe. It was merely a projection of a memory, no more real than a hologram. The versions of the men that resided in the Memory Vaults were just that-versions, neither fully fleshed nor true to life. If Sophia was feeling nostalgic, they manifested as idealised versions of their real-life counterparts. If she was annoyed, they exhibited all of their worst traits, only amplified. This curious duality had led to Lily and her colleague Danielle devising a game called Dickhead or Dreamboat. Whenever there was a breakout, the two of them would place bets as to which form the ex in question would take. Lily being the more pessimistic of the two, she usually opted for the dickhead option, and she was usually right.
This particular breakout, like so many before it, had been triggered by a Facebook status. It was a picture of a save the date card, announcing that Niall and Hayley would be getting married in August of next year. And as always with such announcements, it had thrown Sophia headlong into a small-scale existential crisis.
At twenty-eight, Sophia was very conscious of feeling like she was lagging behind. She was at the age when it seemed everyone she knew was getting engaged, getting married, buying houses and having babies. Everyone except her. Barely a day went by without some big announcement appearing in her newsfeed. Most of the time she just scrolled on by, although she might stop to nose through wedding photos or congratulate a new parent. But when it was an ex-boyfriend or an old flame, that was a different matter entirely.
Niall stood before Lily now, in a green T-shirt and beige cargo shorts that came to just above his knees. The Irrationalists had been right-he did have good calves.
‘That’s not very friendly,’ he said, his voice light and teasing.
He was no taller than Lily, with close-cropped brown hair and a slightly aquiline nose.
‘We need to get you back,’ Lily said firmly.
Niall responded by cocking one eyebrow and treating her to one of his disarming smiles, his blue eyes glinting like sunlight on the surface of the sea.
‘Oh,’ he said, feigning disappointment. ‘You see, the thing is, I was planning on going for a run.’
And before Lily could say anything, he turned on his heel and sprinted away down the corridor. She thought about following him, but like her host, Lily hated running. So instead she headed back to the Conscience Centre, where Gemma was waiting for her.
‘What the-? When did all this appear?’
‘About ten minutes after you left to try and find Niall,’ Gemma said without looking up.
The Head Rationalist was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Conscience Centre, surrounded by huge jumbles of what looked like electrical wire. But they weren’t wires-they were physical representations of the tangled emotions Sophia was feeling in the wake of the wedding date announcement, and every colour signified something different.
‘At least there’s been some improvement,’ Lily said, surveying the horribly twisted wires with her hands on her hips.
‘True. There’s not much red this time. That’s good. And there’s more yellow than before.’
Gemma indicated a small pile of red wires she had successfully extricated from the others. Red meant anger, so Lily was pleased that there were only a few of them this time round. In the past there had been thousands. Next to them was a slightly larger pile of buttercup yellow wires. These denoted happiness-another good sign. Whatever else Sophia may be feeling, she was genuinely happy for Niall.
‘There’s still an awful lot of bitterness though,’ Gemma said, picking up a particularly dense tangle of muddy brown wires. She dangled them before her own eyes for a few seconds like some bizarre puppet, before letting them fall back to earth with a dull thunk.
Bitterness wasn’t the only emotion still present in large amounts. Lily’s eyes roved over the tangles, noting both the colours and the quantities. Green for envy, blue for self-pity, and a curious beige colour that signified feelings of injustice. But by far the most prevalent colour was grey, and that meant insecurity.
‘Here, let me help you.’
Lily sat down on the floor next to Gemma and began disentangling a knot of brown and grey wires.
‘Did you find him?’ Gemma asked.
‘Did you manage to get him back?’
‘No. He ran off.’
‘Oh, that boy.’
Gemma ran a hand across her forehead and heaved an exasperated sigh. Niall was a keen runner. Of course he would want to capitalise on his newfound freedom by going for a jog.
‘I’m sorry,’ Lily said, ‘I should have gone after him.’
‘Don’t be sorry. You wouldn’t have caught him anyway. He’ll turn up at some point. He can’t run forever.’
‘I don’t suppose there’s any sign of the other lot?’
‘Don’t be daft,’ Gemma scoffed. ‘Every time there’s a breakout, they’re nowhere to be seen.’
There were two control rooms in the Conscience Centre. The one in Sophia’s right hemisphere was manned by the Rationalists. They were a team of six, with Gemma at the helm, and it was their job to help Sophia unscramble her own thoughts by imposing order and logic. A hard job at the best of times, it was made even harder by the existence of the Irrationalists. They were also a team of six, led my Maria, and they worked in the control room opposite. They dealt not with logic, but with emotions, particularly those of the negative variety.
‘Think how much easier all this would be if they actually showed up and helped every once in a while,’ said Lily, shooting a disapproving look at the empty control room.
‘Yes, well, until that happens, I’m afraid we’re on our own.’
They were silent for a few moments, both lost in their own thoughts. Lily’s fingers worked deftly to unpick the wires in her lap. Already she had managed to separate the brown ones from the grey.
‘How long do you think it will be before it stops bothering her?’ she asked Gemma. ‘Before he stops bothering her?’
‘It’s impossible to say.’
‘It’s been almost five years.’
‘Yes, but you know what she’s like. She takes rejection very badly, and the never forgets anything. Ever.’
‘She barely thinks about James and Joe nowadays,’ Lily pointed out.
James was Sophia’s first boyfriend back when she was fifteen. They were only together a month, but Sophia had carried a torch for him well into her early twenties. Over the course of six years, he had broken out multiple times, but being a perfect gent, he was always incredibly polite about it.
‘I really am terribly sorry about this,’ he said the last time Lily tracked him down. ‘I didn’t mean to escape. The door just opened and then I found myself out here. It’s like I was on autopilot.’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Lily told him, unable to hide a smile. ‘Let’s get you back, shall we?’
‘Yes, of course. Although before I go, can I just say you’re looking very lovely today.’
Lily would have given anything to be chasing James instead of Niall. But as Niall was the one currently occupying Sophia’s thoughts, it was he who was on the loose.
‘True,’ said Gemma, ‘but it took years and years for her to get to that point, if you remember. As far as Dylan and Niall are concerned, I just don’t think she’s had enough time yet.’
As much as it pained her, Lily knew Gemma was right. Gemma was always right. As Head Rationalist, she knew Sophia better than any of them. When things went wrong, and Sophia lay awake at night berating herself, it was Gemma who stayed up with her. It was Gemma who pressed her forehead and palms against the one-way glass behind Sophia’s eyes and softly whispered, ‘Oh Soph, why do you do this to yourself?’
That wasn’t strictly true though, was it? Sophia didn’t inflict those emotions on herself. Other people did. Other people like Niall and his predecessors.
‘It doesn’t seem fair!’ Lily exploded all of a sudden. She threw down the tangle of wires she was unpicking and glared at them. ‘Niall was the one who hurt her, and yet he’s the one getting married! To Hayley, no less!’
‘I know. It’s completely unjust. But that’s life unfortunately.’
‘I just feel like there should be some kind of cosmic mechanism in place to ensure that the people who cause pain don’t get to be happy before the people they hurt.’
‘Like what exactly?’
But before Lily could expound on her ideas for dolling out cosmic justice, the door to the Conscience Centre burst open and her colleague, Danielle, appeared. She was breathing heavily, her jaw clenched and expression thunderous. Something long and green was clutched in her right hand. She threw it down on the floor in front of them, and Lily saw that it was a cucumber.
‘I just found this near the Knowledge Archives,’ Danielle fumed, jabbing her index finger towards the offending object.
‘You know what this means, don’t you?’
Lily and Gemma did indeed know what it meant. It was a story they knew all too well.
Less than twenty-four hours after Sophia discovered that her suspicions were correct and Niall and Hayley were indeed an item, Niall had, for some unfathomable reason, seen fit to bring Hayley to the house. Sophia was in her room when she heard the two of them coming up the stairs, talking and laughing like there was nothing amiss. She froze, staring at her computer screen as her brain screamed that surely-surely this could not be happening. In actual fact it was the Rationalists screaming. All six of them were assembled behind the glass, hurling expletives and yelling about this staggering lack of consideration.
But it was happening. Absolutely and undeniably. It was happening.
The moment Niall’s bedroom door closed, Sophia slammed the laptop shut and yanked her own door open. Hellbent on putting as much distance between them as possible, she pelted down two flights of stairs to the kitchen. There she proceeded to pace back and forth, her breath coming in jagged little gulps as her mind grappled to make sense of what was happening. That was when she saw it.
Resting on one of the dining chairs was a handbag which could only belong to Hayley. It was open, and sticking out the top of it was a whole cucumber wrapped in cling film. Sophia stared at it, and in that moment, an innocuous vegetable became the lightning rod for all the rage and sadness she felt at this latest rejection.
After that, Sophia couldn’t bear to look at cucumbers for quite some time. When her best friend came to visit, Sophia made her pick all the cucumber out of a jug of Pimm’s they were sharing before she would touch it. She knew her reaction was ridiculous, but that didn’t change how she felt.
On seeing the cucumber, all the colour drained from Lily and Gemma’s faces. They stared at the vegetable as if it was a venomous snake about to rear up and bite them. There was no need to ask who she was. It could only be Hayley.
It wasn’t just Sophia’s old flames who lived down in the vaults. Their current partners were there too. Well, sort of. Out of the five women, Sophia had only met two of them in real life. The other three were rough approximations, based on nothing more than Facebook photos and her own assumptions of what they must be like. But Sophia had met Hayley, and the effects had been long-lasting.
‘She needs to be quiet,’ Gemma warned, ‘or she’ll wake the Inferiority Complex.’
A collective shudder passed through the three Rationalists. The Inferiority Complex was a huge prowling beast that stalked Sophia’s brain from time to time. It usually lay dormant, slumbering away in some dark corner on the edges of her mind, but it was always there. Every so often it awoke, and when it did, all hell broke loose.
Lily remembered all too clearly the last time the beast had awoken. It was after Niall and Hayley got engaged, and it had taken them weeks to catch it. It rampaged around Sophia’s brain, wreaking havoc with its snarling fangs and booming voice. For days the corridors had echoed with its cruel words.
She is better than you. She always was.
Did you really think he’d want you?
You were just a stopgap. Someone he amused himself with while he waited for someone better to come along.
When is it going to be your turn?
Silencing the Inferiority Complex was the hardest part of the Rationalists’ job. First they had to catch and subdue it, then they had to reason with it. It took days, and more often than not, required outside help in the form of Sophia’s friends.
‘Spread out,’ Gemma ordered, getting to her feet. ‘Find her. This lot can wait.’
But there was no need. Gemma had barely finished speaking when the door opened again and Holly, another Rationalist, shuffled into the room.
‘Erm…Gem?’ she said tentatively.
It was clear from the way she wrung her hands together that her news was not going to be good.
‘Yes? What is it?’
‘I er…I think I might have found them. Niall and Hayley I mean.’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘I was just passing the shower block and I er…I heard giggling coming from one of the cubicles.’
It shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. They knew the kind of blind selfishness Niall was capable of exhibiting. They had known it for years. And yet his behaviour never ceased to astound and enrage them, just as it had half a decade ago.
All eyes now turned to Gemma. The Head Rationalist was standing very still, her whole spine rigid, fists clenched at her sides. Like Lily, she seemed to have temporarily forgotten how to blink. When she spoke, her voice was silky and deceptively soft.
‘Did you now?’
Holly nodded, looking apologetic.
Jarred out of her stillness, Gemma marched over to the door and wrenched it open.
‘Lily, find me a hairdryer!’ she barked over her shoulder. ‘Danielle, get some talcum powder! Holly, bring me the clingfilm!’
As her footsteps receded down the corridor, Holly glanced at the others and whispered, ‘Has she gone completely mad?’
Gemma had not gone mad. She had merely had enough of Niall and his antics. As the Rationalists went off in search of the requisite items, Lily couldn’t help but grin to herself. She knew what was coming, and it was going to be spectacular.
They rejoined Gemma ten minutes later outside the shower block. Lily’s stomach was aflutter as she plugged the hairdryer into an empty socket next to the door. From inside came the sound of running water, accompanied by low murmurs and occasional giggling. Holly was right. It was them. The sound triggered a fresh wave of fury among the Rationalists, and chased away any misgivings they had regarding what they were about to do.
‘Right ladies, this is it.’
Gemma turned to face her team, hands on her hips and her eyes flashing fire.
‘You know the drill. We’re going to do exactly what Jasmine suggested Sophia do all those years ago. It’s bad enough that he pulled this stunt in real life. He is not getting away with it in here. This is our domain. Is that clear?’
Lily nodded along with the others. The hairdryer was braced in her right hand, finger hovering over the switch. While Holly got to work clingfilming the lower part of the door, Danielle poured talcum powder into the nozzle of the hairdryer.
Once everything was in place, and Gemma had signalled her approval with a nod, the four of them turned their attention to the door. The shower was off now, but the giggling had intensified. Lily’s grip tightened on the hairdryer. The moment was almost upon them. All they had to do was hold their nerve and wait.
‘I heard about your little stunt with the hairdryer and the clingfilm.’
Lily jumped. It was late, and the Conscience Centre was dark. The only lights came from the dials on the back wall and the laptop Sophia was currently watching in bed. Looking to her left, she saw Maria, the Head Irrationalist, walking slowly towards her with a glass of wine in each hand.
‘It was Gemma’s idea,’ Lily said stiffly. She usually avoided speaking to Maria unless it was absolutely necessary.
‘See, that surprises me.’
‘Because it sounds more like the kind of thing we’d do. Wine?’
‘No, thank you. I don’t drink when I’m working.’
Maria raised one eyebrow as she looked around the darkened Conscience Centre.
‘No one else is working,’ she remarked, ‘and besides, Sophia’s nearly asleep.’
Lily wanted to refuse on principle, but to do so would have been petty. Besides, after their earlier antics, a glass of wine was a tempting offer indeed.
‘Oh go on then, just this once.’
‘Good girl,’ Maria beamed, handing Lily the untouched glass. ‘I take it they’re back in the vaults now?’
‘Yep. That’s the thing about clingfilming doors. It makes it difficult to get out.’
Lily took a sip of wine and felt herself uncoil ever so slightly. Maria, already halfway through her glass, threw her head back and cackled.
‘I hope you let them wash the talcum powder off first.’
‘Of course, we’re not complete monsters.’
Another sip, another knot coming undone. Lily grinned into her wineglass as she recalled their earlier stunt. The shock on Niall’s face when he walked into the clingfilm. The way Hayley’s laughter sputtered and died when she saw the hairdryer. The two of them tripping over each other as they staggered backwards, their hair and faces coated in chalky white powder. It was cruel. It was puerile. It was absolutely hilarious.
‘God I wish I’d been there to see it.’
‘Maybe next time.’
There was silence for a few moments as the two of them sipped their wine, then Maria asked, ‘How is Sophia bearing up?’
‘Not too bad actually. She’s much better than she was after they got engaged.’
‘Good, I’m glad.’
‘I mean, she’s a bit put out, but she’s not beating herself up the way she usually does.’
‘And the Inferiority Complex?’
‘Stirred a few times but didn’t wake up.’
‘All in all, a good day’s work then.’
Maria smiled, and there was nothing remotely sarcastic or condescending about it. She drained her glass, looked Lily straight in the eyes and said, ‘We do care about her, you know.’
Once upon a time, Lily would have dismissed this claim out of hand. But something had shifted during the course of her conversation with the Head Irrationalist.
‘I know,’ she said, and she meant it.
‘She wouldn’t be Sophia without us. Or you.’
‘Anyway, I best be off. It’s been nice talking to you, Lily. We should do this more often.’
‘Yeah, we should.’
Maria was halfway to the control room when she seemed to remember something and doubled back.
‘When is the wedding? I meant to ask.’
‘The sixteenth of August next year. It’s a Sunday.’
‘I’ll put it in the diary. That way I can make sure we’re all free should you need us to lend a hand. Only if you want us to, that is.’
Lily couldn’t believe it-the Head Irrationalist offering assistance and cooperation. It was unprecedented. Mistaking her surprise for unwillingness, Maria said, ‘Of course, I understand if you don’t want us around. I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye before now-’
‘No,’ Lily interjected. ‘We’d really appreciate that. Thank you.’
The Head Irrationalist beamed.
‘Not at all. All hands on deck, as they say.’
The light was fading fast now. Sophia was falling asleep. Lily bid Maria goodbye and they retreated to their respective control rooms. She was dreading the wedding day. They all were. Niall and Hayley were sure to break free again, which would no doubt rouse the Inferiority Complex. But if the Irrationalists were willing to lend a hand, then maybe-just maybe-they could contain the situation. Then again, maybe not. Only one thing was certain: it was going to be a big day, and not just for the newlyweds.