Intangible Things, an Excerpt
By Amelia Harrington
Sybil was waiting on the train platform absentmindedly during her morning commute. Then she fell onto the tracks. When she awakens alone in the hospital, she finds her injured body and soul split apart.
The roar of the train collapsed into stillness, the cool blackness of her mind without sight. Gradually, sound began to emerge. A persistent, agitating beeping sound, quite close to her ears. It was infuriatingly constant. She thought it was a metronome at first, with its electronic tone. With the lingering fog over her mind, she hardly considered why she had left a metronome on her bedside. She was lying down, after all—she could feel that much—and nestled into soft bedding. As the metronome went on, she wondered how dumb with sleep she had been to not turn the thing off before she stopped her practice the night before.
But hadn’t she already woken up and walked to the train station? She had probably just been dreaming. She tried to flail her arm out from the blanket and blindly search for the metronome and the coveted off button. She did so, but as soon as she moved her joints, there was a strange, hollowing sensation. Not pain or muscle soreness, just a strange feeling of lightness. Taking it as the product of an unfortunate sleeping position, she continued to search around with her open hand, clawing for that obnoxious metronome.
Her fingers kept brushing something, but it wasn’t her metronome, the soft mahogany of her night stand, or the neck of her reclining guitar. It seemed, rather, to be a thick bundle of cords that hummed with their own internal life, as if hooked up to some larger rumbling machine. That deep mechanical growling triggered something in her mind.
The train. The last thing she had seen had been its screeching metal wheels and its dark underbelly, approaching to consume her. She had been carrying her guitar on her back, headphones in her ears. She was late for school, but her mother was working, as she always was, and so wouldn’t care or know either way. The thick silence here was characteristic of her home.
Her eyes forced themselves open. The blaring light of a ceiling lamp was there to meet her, embedded in an unfamiliar gray ceiling. Her bedroom at home was painted light blue.
Her breath beginning to quicken, she forced herself up, glancing frantically around the room. There was no metronome. Only the calmly rising and falling line of the heart monitor, letting out a soft beep every other second. The cords she had touched were indeed hooked up to monstrous machines she did not recognize, all of them whirring busily to themselves. The sterile light reflected off of the polished tiled floors of a hospital and two empty visiting chairs.
Trying to stop herself from total panic, she quickly looked down at her own arms. She was relieved to see that she was still in the clothes she remembered putting on, and that there were no IV tubes or plugs in her skin. She touched her head and found no bandages. She was even still wearing her shoes. There was a white laminated hospital band around her wrist, but what truly scared her was that there was no black guitar case left beside her bed.
After standing up and searching around, she discovered it wasn’t anywhere else in the room, either. She felt inclined to open the door and call out, but she was scared of what she would find. She was finding it hard to breathe at all now, her heart accelerating till she heard it in her ears and felt it in her veins. No. No, this wasn’t right. That train, the fall, the whole thing was so sudden and random. How could she have even fallen? She hadn’t felt anyone push her, she hadn’t even seen what had happened. All she knew was that there had been a slight ripple in the crowd and some cries, and then she was off the edge and on the tracks.
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She touched her head again on the exact spot she remembered, but her hands came away with no blood. Yet even as she did, she finally had the clarity to realize that something had changed in the room. The heart monitor, the only noise to be heard in the eeriness, had quickened its rhythm. The sounds became more erratic and uneven, following what she felt in her own body.
But how could that be?
She wasn’t connected to the machine. She turned to watch the monitor and nearly let out a scream. On the bed, her bed, was another body. A girl, clothed in a hospital gown and smothered with medical contraptions, was laying in her place. Completely limp, she lay asleep with a peaceful, blank expression. Her hands, lying flat beside her, were covered with scrapes and bits of grime, and remaining stains of blood showed through the gauze on her face. Her frizzed, deep brown hair was sectioned off awkwardly to make way for a large bandage around the side of her head.
She was staring down at herself.
This excerpt is part of a larger magical realism novel focusing on a girl who, after being involved in a serious train accident, wakes up to a body and mind that are split into two. Able to move around outside of her own body as an invisible version of herself, she soon learns that she is in the hospital, her body in a deep coma. And she is not the only one; she meets a mysterious young boy who is similarly invisible. Befriending him, she finds herself in a ghostly purgatory-world within the hospital, one that truly comes alive at night.
Much of the magical realism elements I have included are influenced by my favorite childhood films such as Spirited Away and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Sybil is not invisible to every living person either. Patients in the hospital’s psychiatric ward, including one of her childhood friends, can see her as well as those otherwise close to death or in altered states of consciousness. I was very committed to adding this element of the plot in order to highlight mentally ill characters and the slippery concept of perception in relation to that. The concept of existing just beyond the veil of “normal” human perception represents, to me, the experience of being an institutionalized individual with a mental disorder or condition.
The setting of a hospital is very significant to me personally, and I wanted to explore how such an insular setting can host a fantastical plot. Writing this book has required me to do more research into disorders of consciousness, both for greater accuracy and a desire to be educated. I also learned more about writing thriller narratives, which is outside of my normal comfort zone grounded in fantasy fiction and free form poetry.
Amelia Harrington is a high school senior in Queens, New York, with a passion for anthropology and languages. She also writes short stories, poetry and longer novel projects. Her writing highlights identities and corresponding struggles that represent her and her peers. She focuses on LGBTQ+ and mental health issues in order to mitigate stigma. In sharing her own experiences, she hopes to find an outlet for expression, connection and starting meaningful discussions. She hopes to raise awareness towards the treatment of mentally ill youth historically and currently, highlighting the extent of the issue and what we can do to change.