Lila

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Lila
Shadows of the Mind Collection
by Mandi Jourdan

The following takes place after the events of Broken and before Fated.

 

“Hey, watch it! What do you think you’re doing?”

“Sorry.” The young woman averted her eyes from the man she had inadvertently run into on the crowded New York street. She hadn’t been paying attention to where she was walking, and she knew the scuffle was her fault.

That was the only thing she knew.

She looked up at the pastel clouds as the sun fell over the skyline, and she let out a long sigh. The emptiness bothered her the most. The space in her mind where her memories should be, which was now an endless blank canvas protected by an impenetrable wall. The more she focused on remembering, the greater the strain became. It was as though something was deliberately keeping her out of her own past, which infuriated her. Before walking through downtown Manhattan in the early hours of that July morning, she had no idea what she had done or who she was, apart from what she had learned from the silver bracelet dangling from her right wrist.

The engraved plate between the bracelet’s small central links read “LILA.”

Apart from what must be her name, she had only one clue to the truth about her life: a deep, unshakable need to leave New York. Lila couldn’t explain why she felt so strongly that she had to get out of the city–she only knew that the thought of staying longer than necessary chilled her on some deep, fundamental level.

“Hey, sweetheart.”

The voice had come from her right, from down an alleyway shadowed by towering buildings and untouched by street lamps. Lila didn’t look for the speaker, nor did she react. She continued to walk. After several seconds, it became obvious that she was being followed. She felt a presence close enough behind her to be unsettling but not enough to draw the attention of passersby.

“Where are you headed?”

“That’s none of your concern. I’m going there alone.”

Lila tuned in to the people around her, and she felt that more than one of them was on her trail. Still, she didn’t look at them. Her heart rate and pace remained even, and she wasn’t the least bit afraid, though rationally she believed she should be. Whoever she really was, she realized that she had, at least, not been a coward.

Someone laughed; the voice was different, this time. “Alone? Why would a pretty girl like you be all alone on a night like this?”

She tensed instinctively as a hand grabbed her shoulder, and at this, she stopped walking.

“Don’t touch me.”

There was another laugh from behind her. “Why not? Gonna do something about it? You look like you’ve got money, sweetheart. Let’s have a look at you.”

A second hand grabbed her, followed by a third. The first still had a tight grip on her shoulder, and the others restrained her arms. As one, they pulled her roughly backward.

Lila reacted on reflex.

She pulled her right arm free and, in one fluid motion, formed a fist and sank it into the gut of the man restraining her left arm. In the same movement, she kicked back with her left leg, knocking someone else’s feet out from under him. She grabbed the arm of another, holding it with one hand and bringing the other down on it swiftly. Beneath her hands, she heard a sickening snap. The man cried out in pain. He exchanged an incredulous glance with another from his group.

Someone grabbed her left arm again. She reached behind her without looking to see which of the men it was and pulled him forward, ducking as he flew over her head and landed on the street, his arm bending unnaturally beneath him.

Now, terror was etched into each of their faces. Two of them bent down to help their fallen counterpart stand, pulling him to his feet and supporting him. Then they all ran, scattering like roaches as they fled. She counted them in their retreat, and she saw that she had fought off five assailants. She turned away and continued walking.

They were terrified of me, Lila thought. She bit her lip and replayed the scene in her mind, and she realized just how unlikely it was for her to have been able to defend herself so skillfully against so many people. I think I’m terrified of myself.

She shook her head, positively clueless about what to do next. More than anything else, she needed privacy and a place to think, to collect herself and evaluate her predicament. She looked up and scanned the street, and her eyes fell on a large hotel a few buildings away. If nothing else, she could find a place to sit in the lobby until she had made a greater decision on what to do with herself.

Lila reached the building and passed through the sliding glass doors that automatically allowed her entrance. Her eyes adjusted rapidly to the artificial lights, and she took in her surroundings. Pristine white chairs and chaises lined the walls, and three silver chandeliers hung from the arched ceiling. A receptionist with her hair pulled back into a tight bun smiled and waved to Lila from the desk at the opposite end of the long room.

This place felt startlingly familiar.

Lila looked down into the marble floor, and she saw her reflection. Her roadside brawl had left no evidence; her blond hair had fallen perfectly around her face once more–her face, which had not flushed a bit from the effort.

She started for one of the chaises, planning to rest for a few minutes and devise a plan, but the receptionist beckoned to her. Confused, she crossed the lobby to the desk where the woman sat, still smiling.

“Welcome back, ma’am. We have your room ready.”

Lila blinked. Maybe if I just play along, she thought, I’ll figure it out.

“Yes, thank you,” she said, forcing herself to return the receptionist’s smile with one she hoped was convincing enough.

The woman nodded. “I’ll show you to it, myself. Right this way, please.” She removed a key card from behind the desk, stood, and motioned for Lila to follow her as she walked toward a door behind her and to the left.

Thoroughly lost but feigning control of the situation, Lila followed as the receptionist led her down a spotless white hallway and to an elevator at the other end. The ride was a silent one. A million questions buzzed through Lila’s mind, but something within her stopped her from asking them. She had a strange feeling that it was not the right time, and when she had so little else at her disposal, she believed she should trust her intuition.

The pair left the elevator on the fifteenth floor, and Lila followed the receptionist to a door on the opposite side of the hallway. The receptionist swiped the key card she held, and when the lock clicked, she motioned to the door and smiled brightly. Lila found the other woman’s perpetually-sunny demeanor a bit grating, but she said nothing. Frowning slightly, Lila turned the glass doorknob and stepped into the room.

Her jaw dropped. She stood at the entrance to a suite, and the furniture was extravagant and made of white, polished wood. On the opposite wall, the fading sunlight of dusk streamed in the glass balcony door. In the muted reddish light, the golden satin bedclothes shimmered.

Lila stood perfectly still, astounded.

“Will that be all, ma’am?”

Lila nodded. “Yes, thank you very much.” The receptionist–Lila noticed for the first time that the woman was wearing a nametag that identified her as Danielle–turned and walked back down the hall. Lila entered the room, closing the door behind her. She crept toward the bed, incredibly uneasy, and sat on the edge.

Okay, she knew me, she thought. That’s several steps ahead of where I am, right now. But why did I get the vibe that I can’t trust her? It’s so strange.

Lila shook her head, leaning backward. She would have time to think when she woke. She hadn’t slept in… frankly, she had no idea how long. The first thing she remembered was walking the city’s streets before dawn had broken. How she had ended up there remained unclear, as did why, and in the intervening hours, she’d been unable to learn anything apart from what was probably her name.

Sleep did not elude her, as she had feared it would. In a matter of moments, her mind had drifted far away from the hotel and into comfortable blackness.

***

Lila jumped, startled by the abrupt change of scenery. She was no longer in her hotel room; instead, she stood in a lab plated in chrome panels. Though she could not recall ever being here before, the room felt glaringly familiar.

She wasn’t alone. On her left stood a man with his back to her. The more she tried to concentrate on what he looked like, the more her head ached. He was an indistinct blur, his true nature indiscernible.

Lila abandoned the pursuit of the man’s identity and directed her attention instead to the one standing to her right. Unlike the first, he was incredibly clear to her. His hair was light brown, and his blue eyes were locked on hers. He was speaking to her–pleading with her. She shook her head. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, couldn’t hear anything at all. Her ears were filled with deafening silence.

Suddenly, the scene changed. Lila stood now in a lobby very slightly reminiscent of the hotel’s. It had a high ceiling and a chrome desk, but this room was far more business-like than the one several floors below where she slept. She stood about ten feet from a row of glass doors, looking down at a figure that was slouched against the one farthest to her left.

It was the man from the lab; the one who had stood on her right, begging her for something, to do–or not to do–something. But what?

For the first time, she looked down at her own hand. She was holding a plasma gun.

Why? Where had she found it? She hadn’t been holding it in the lab. Or had she? How had she gotten here, to the lobby?

Only a second had passed.

The man spoke. This time, all she could hear was his voice–no background noise or abrasive silence.

“You don’t have to do this, Lila,” he said. “You don’t have to–” He glanced over her shoulder, seeming to rethink the statement he had been about to make. “Just remember who you are. Remember who I–”

 And she was in her hotel room, her head spinning with the sound that had launched her out of the dream as abruptly as she had entered it.

A gunshot.

***

Lila stared into the bathroom mirror at her tearstained face. Her eyes stung, and her hair stuck out at odd angles.

She didn’t care. She had no self-pity. Though she was alone in a hotel in a city she couldn’t remember after dreaming about someone she didn’t know, it wasn’t herself she cried for. It was the man from her dream.

He had seemed so real to her, as had the pain in his eyes as he implored her not to… but she couldn’t have really done it. There was no way she could have killed someone. After all, not all dreams held significance. She could’ve seen a story on the news the day before that had disturbed her or paid too much attention at the press conference she had stumbled upon as she’d tried to leave Manhattan, and the dream could’ve been her coping mechanism.

What was that robotics engineer’s name who was killed? Lawrence?

But she knew she was deluding herself. The images had been far too clear to have been concocted by her weary mind. She had known this man. What remained to be seen was how, and what had happened to him.

She slid open a drawer beneath the sink and withdrew a silver hairbrush. She ran it distractedly through her golden locks as she tried to remember.

You don’t have to do this, Lila,” the man in her dream had said.

He’d known her name. That was something, at least. The way he’d spoken to her… they had been more than acquaintances. But something he’d said continued to trouble her.

Just remember who you are. Remember who I–

Who he what? Lila sighed. I need answers.

She left the brush on the sink and stepped back into her room. She hadn’t needed to make the bed; she hadn’t pulled back the covers the previous night, nor had she displaced them while she slept. Though she had expected such a disturbing dream to cause her to toss and turn, it hadn’t. The projection emitted by the clock on her nightstand told her it was 4:37 in the afternoon, and she couldn’t imagine how she had been exhausted enough to sleep for so long.

Lila moved to the door. She took a deep breath and turned the glass knob, stepping into the hall. Retracing the steps she had taken upon her arrival, she found the elevator and rode it to the lobby. Danielle the receptionist waved as she passed, and Lila returned the wave with a forced smile.

As Lila moved through the lobby, her shoes clicked on the floor. The other guests, most of them loitering near the walls with no apparent purpose, watched her as she passed. She kept her eyes fixed ahead of her, and soon she was pushing open the large double-doors at the head of the room. She stepped out into the summer heat, wishing for a change of clothing, or at least for some small amount of money. She had not yet been asked to pay for her room, and she was yet to understand why.

She wasn’t entirely certain where she was headed, now. Her restlessness demanded she leave the hotel, but her lack of money limited her options. She caught sight of a restaurant down the street and started toward it through the mid-afternoon throng, thinking that even if she couldn’t order, she could hide indoors from the heat until she could form a better plan.

Lila let out a sharp breath as a dark-haired woman bumped hard into her shoulder. The woman muttered an apology, which Lila returned on reflex, glancing toward her.

An image shot through Lila’s mind of someone with the same pale face, the same brown eyes and dark hair as the woman beside her, though in that image, she was several years younger.

Startled by this flash of memory, Lila hurried onward, closing the distance rapidly between herself and the restaurant. She’d made it a few yards when a whistle demanded her attention. Her mind screamed at her to keep walking, to get away. However, the idea that she’d actually recognized that woman was more than she’d had moments ago, and it was enough to convince her to turn around.

As she’d expected, the brunette was watching her from where she now stood on the other side of the street, lips curled into a smirk.

Lila,” she mouthed.

At the same moment the woman started forward, pushing her way through a crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk, Lila turned back in the direction of her hotel and moved toward it at a run.

Something whispered from the back of Lila’s mind that she could outrun the other woman easily–that if she ran far enough and fast enough, she would lose her pursuer. She could escape. But only for now. As strange as this feeling was, even stranger was the certainty with which she knew that the victory of escape would be fleeting. That she would not be free for long. That the woman she’d seen would never stop hunting her.

Perhaps Lila was beginning to remember. She knew enough, she reasoned, to protect herself, but not enough to understand why this person posed such a threat to her in the first place.

Lila flew into the hotel and moved as quickly as she could to her room. She swiped her card and wrenched back the door, slamming and locking it behind her after she entered. She proceeded to her bathroom, shutting and locking this second door for good measure.

Her breathing quick and shallow, Lila threw her back against the wall, closing her eyes through the pain as she sank to the floor. She pulled her knees up and rested her head on them, biting her lip.

What am I going to do? I have to find out what happened to me. I need to know who that man was in my dream. I need to know why this woman is following me. What did I do to her? What did I do to–to him?

She ordered herself to hold still and bring her emotions into check. She forced one deep breath after the other into her lungs and out again, and soon, she lost track of how long she had been sitting still. With a sigh, she forced a blend of anger, despair, and frustration from her lips and pushed herself to her feet. She unlocked and opened the door, beginning to cross her room to the pair made of sliding glass that let out onto the balcony.

Suddenly, she heard movement outside in the corridor, and she froze. A shadow played on the carpet beneath the door, accompanied by the pressing of buttons on a keypad. If someone knew the code to Lila’s room, she knew, they could have entered at any time without the use of her card–not only while she was outside, but while she slept. She would’ve never been safe.

As her heart pounded, Lila crossed the room to the back door, turning off the lights at the switch near the exit. Lila opened the door onto the balcony and slipped outside as it closed automatically behind her.

She surveyed her surroundings. She’d spent longer than she’d realized in the bathroom; night had fallen. There was no easy way to the ground. She leaned over the railing, searching manically for options. The highway below was backed up with traffic. HoverCars, HoverCycles, and pedestrians stretched as far as the eye could see.

She heard the scanner beep somewhere behind her. Her breath caught in her throat as she realized how little time she had. Concealed by the wall separating the balcony from the connected room, Lila was invisible to whoever was inside. But how long that would remain true was in question. The balcony, formerly shrouded in darkness, was now bathed in light. Lila’s eyes widened in horror. No

Footsteps signaled someone’s approach. She couldn’t allow herself to be captured. She had to be the one to discover what had happened to her. No one else would understand. Whatever she had done, she was sorry. Beyond all words, she was sorry. But she couldn’t expect everyone to be so forgiving. Would they really believe her? She doubted it.

Jump. Jump, you’ll be fine.

Lila edged to the side of the balcony farthest from the door.

That’s insane. So why does it feel like the safest option?

Once more, she looked down. And, taking a deep, shaky breath, she threw herself over the edge.

As she hurtled downward, the world whipped around her, flying upward faster than Lila could blink. Falling end over end, she attempted to regain her composure well enough at least to see which way was down. The layers upon layers of HoverCars rushed ominously ever nearer, and she knew it was only a matter of time before she made impact. Eventually, she managed to right herself, if only momentarily. She looked down and instinctively decided on a course of action. A dark green HoverCar was approaching her at roughly the right speed to catch her.

Lila turned her body down once more and made a futile attempt to guide her flight pattern. She held her breath as the roar of the air rushing past her became nearly unbearable, counting down the seconds until her estimated contact. Not long now… five. Four. Three…

At the last possible second, Lila turned to face the sky once more.

She landed with a crash on the roof of the car. As it sped on its course, Lila was thrown back, sliding the few feet to the car’s rear, frantically searching for a place to grab on and finding nothing.

Her scream was lost in the night air as she flew off the back of the car.

The familiar sensation of being drowned in air overwhelmed her as she rushed downward for the second time. This had been a terrible decision. No, she corrected herself as she plummeted downward. The worse choice would’ve been allowing myself to be captured.

Regardless, there was no turning back, now.

A surge of pain spread through her as she collided with something. This time, the car stopped.   Lila’s back ached and her eyes closed as her head swam in the aftershock.

She barely registered the sound of a door opening.

“Are you okay, lady?” someone asked her.

“Hm…?” She found her focus slipping away.

The man who had spoken to her sighed in what sounded like frustration.

“You fell from the sky and landed on my car. Are you all right?”

Lila felt the shock of her impact wear off somewhat, and she forced her eyes open to find the man watching her closely. He was also standing on the ground, which meant Lila was done falling. Oh, thank God.

“I… yes, thank you.” She attempted a feeble smile and pushed herself up onto her elbows.

“Are you sure you should be trying to get up? I mean, which floor did you fall from?” He looked up at the hotel’s gleaming exterior. By this time, others had stopped their cars and were beginning to gather around Lila and the man.

She nodded feebly. “I’m fine, really.” With a gulp, she pushed herself off the roof of the car. There was a general intake of breath around her as she rolled onto the pavement of the road below.   The world seemed to spin again as she stood, and a relieved sigh spread through the gathered crowd.

“Hey!” called someone from her left. “I know you!”

Lila tensed. “I… I don’t really re–”

Someone else gasped.

“That’s–she’s–Lila! Someone call the police!”

A murmur spread through the crowd, rapidly growing into a din.

No… Not now. Not… everyone!

She turned and ran, without another word, for the sidewalk on the opposite side of street from the hotel. They were shouting, now, calling incomprehensible things after her as she pushed her way out of the cloud of people. Her breathing quick and shallow, she flew down the street and around the corner.

As she ran, the pieces began to click into place in her distraught mind. She was running at much too rapid a pace to be considered normal, and not a bead of sweat had begun to form anywhere on her body. She was disoriented from her fall, but should she not be dead?

“What am I?” she breathed.   

***

After what felt like hours of searching, she’d found a window small enough to slip into that led into the basement of an old, abandoned brick building. The darkness in which she now sat in the back corner was a considerable departure from the grandeur of her hotel room, but after the crowd’s reaction to the sight of her, she didn’t believe the public was the best place to be, at the moment.

She’d been sitting in silence for quite a while apart from her own ragged breath and the pounding of her heart in her ears when a voice reached her from up the ramp leading to the main level.

“Hello?”

Lila’s eyes widened in terror. Was nowhere safe? She scooted backward, her back pressing hard against the wall as she willed herself to become invisible in the near-perfect darkness of the basement. A few moments later, a shape came into view: the figure of a man descending the ramp, holding what looked like a plasma gun, from what Lila could discern of the outline in the faint illumination that reached the man from the street lamps outside the windows.

“Hello?” the man asked again. Lila held perfectly still. “If you come out now, I promise I won’t hurt you.”

For an instant, she weighed her options. His words sounded sincere enough, but he was holding a gun, and she had no idea who he was or whether he was trustworthy. Still, he didn’t appear to be leaving, and perhaps he would be less inclined to use force if she didn’t provoke him. She pushed herself to her feet.

“Lila?” asked the man.

“Who–who are you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who are you?” she repeated. She’d had enough of people knowing her while she knew nothing. She’d had enough of running without knowing why and questions without answers.

She watched the man’s outline as he moved along the wall on the other side of the room, and then all at once, the basement was bathed in light. Aside from a few scattered boxes and stains along the concrete floor, Lila was alone with the newcomer. His features were sharp, his hair a sandy blond and his eyes blue. He was almost painfully familiar, his name on the tip of Lila’s tongue, but she could not find it.

She took a step backward, the cool wall meeting her back as she glanced from the man’s face to his gun and back.

“Lila? What are you doing down here?”

She briefly contemplated fabricating some sort of story to tell him, but she knew this would be futile. There was no use in lying when she had no idea what the truth was.

“I don’t know where else to go,” she said. “Who are you?”

He stared at her for a long moment, frowning, and she believed he was trying to determine whether she was serious.

“How can you not know me?” he asked, taking a step toward her. “It’s me! It’s Derek!”

“Derek who?” Lila’s voice became more desperate with each word she spoke, and she felt as though she was losing her mind, reaching for memories that slipped through her fingers like water no matter how she struggled to pull them back.

“Derek Lawrence!” His voice was exasperated, and though she couldn’t blame him, his agitation served only to heighten hers. She shifted backward, pressing tighter against the wall behind her. He sighed and spoke again, his tone considerably softer, this time. “Don’t you know me?”

She shook her head. “No. I–I don’t remember anything before yesterday. The first thing I remember, I was walking around New York, seeing something about a murder at a press conference!” She froze as something clicked into place in her mind. “I think his name was Lawrence, too.”

Derek flinched. “Damian?” he asked, his tone so flat she knew he must’ve been fighting to keep it that way.

Lila nodded. “I think so. And the hotel receptionist knew me–she said I had a room, but she didn’t ask me to pay, and–” She struggled to sift through the mess of thoughts assaulting her mind with no idea where to begin. “–why do people know me while I have no idea who I am? Why do you know me? What about the woman with the dark hair, the one who looked at me like she wanted me dead? What about the people on the street?”

Her voice broke, and her eyes fell to the floor.

“I’ve known you all your life,” said Derek after a moment. “The receptionist knew you because you live there, and if what you say about your memory is true, it’s a miracle you ended up there to start with. The hotel called me after you got back today to let me know you were there before the police found you, and I’ve been looking for you. I want to give you a chance to prove you didn’t do this, because I really don’t want to believe you did.”

The police? thought Lila. Maybe things are as bad as I thought.

“Why are the police looking for me?” she asked quietly.

“They think you killed Damian.” Derek sighed, and there was a sadness in his eyes that pained Lila to watch. “My brother.”

Lila felt as though the wind had been knocked from her lungs by force, and she struggled fruitlessly for her voice for several moments. Eventually, Derek spoke again.

“We have a security video that places you there, when it happened. I wanted to find you before we told anyone, but my business partner decided to tell the media, which is why everyone seems to know. And if someone was looking at you like she wanted you dead, I would imagine that’s the assassin my sister hired, who is probably looking for you right now. Come on.” He lowered the gun, and some of her tension vanished. An instant passed, and he extended his hand toward her.

If it’s even a possibility that I was involved in his brother’s death, thought Lila, he has every reason to want to harm me, but he isn’t. For some reason, he said he wants to believe I didn’t do it. And I don’t feel like I should be afraid of him. Honestly, what do I have to lose? What other option do I have?

She took his hand, and he led her up the ramp and toward the building’s exit. Lila followed Derek out onto the street and to his car, where he opened the passenger door for her. She climbed into the seat, and when he closed the door behind her, she caught sight of a few papers lying beside her feet. Upon closer inspection, she realized the paper on top was a blueprint. The image the paper bore was that of a woman–of her.

Her eyes widening, she shifted her focus to the text at the top of the page.

“Property of Lawrence-Dodson Enterprises. L.I.L.A.: Lawrences’ Intelligent Living Android.”

The driver’s side door opened and Derek climbed into the car, shutting the door before starting the vehicle and spurring it forward.

“You don’t have to be so tense, you know,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I… really don’t think you could’ve done this. Not to Damian.”

Lila barely heard his words. Her head was spinning as she understood why her fall from the fifteenth floor had left her without a scratch. Derek had known her for her entire life because he’d created her–he and his brother, presumably. The brother everyone but Derek believed Lila had murdered.

Perhaps, she surmised, her creators were exceptionally gifted. Perhaps they had made her intentionally as close to human as possible, to the point of fooling even herself. If so, she thought bitterly, they had certainly succeeded. Despite the strength she knew coursed through her with each movement she made, she felt less like an unstoppable force of mechanical genius and closer to a young woman stranded in a foreign place with no way to return home.

As she looked toward the man beside her, however, she thought that at least she now had someone on her side, someone who could help her begin to understand. For now, that was enough.

 

 

About the Author

Mandi Jourdan studies Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her prose has appeared in four anthologies by Sinister Saints Press, Coming Around Again by the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers Group, Quickfic, Beyond Science Fiction Digital Magazine, 9Tales from Elsewhere, Theme of Absence, the 2015 and 2016 editions of Grassroots Literary Magazine, and the Kaskaskia College Scroll. She has stories forthcoming in 9Tales, Digital Science Fiction, and the 2017 edition of Grassroots Literary Magazine. She can be found on Amazon and on Twitter (@MandiJourdan), or at Whatever Our Souls (whateveroursouls.com), the literary magazine she co-edits.

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