A/N: First and foremost! Spoilers. If you haven't read the Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood), this piece will probably make little sense. Pick up the book if you can, preferably before you read this. It's worth the read. Now. Two semesters ago, a professor charged the class with continuing or amending Atwood's novel as we saw fit, only requiring that we meet a certain length and maintain the Atwood-esque style in the writing. Since that roughly translates to 'write fanfiction and get a grade for it,' I figured there was no better place for this piece than here. For a bit of context, the events that Offred details in this occur immediately after the novel. The 'historical notes' at the end of the book detail how scholars scrapped together the Handmaid's Tale via a collection of tapes that were found in a house somewhere. This is supposed to be the origin of those tapes. Hope you enjoy.
She was staring up at me, eyes wide and flushed with pain as well as another sensation or emotion that I couldn't place, that I never could place for that matter—something coy and elusive. This wasn't the first time she'd given me that look. Her head lay limp against my thigh, the rest of her unevenly distributed between my lap and the floor. Dead weight. There was blood everywhere. She wasn't breathing anymore. I thought I was going to vomit.
The cassette player beside us clicked abruptly to a stop, willing my attention. The tape had finished rewinding. At that point I wasn't sure if I even wanted to hear it anymore. Did I deserve this gift? Was it a gift? Was it a curse? After what I did, did she want me, of all people, to hear? My gaze sought hers again, begging for a response to my unvoiced questions all while expecting none. It didn't matter, I decided, one way or the other. Her expression hadn't changed. It wouldn't change. I pressed play.
I'm sorry. I don't like starting this story with a disclaimer anymore than I like telling it, but I'm starting it with a disclaimer nonetheless: there isn't much time. There never was much time to begin with. I don't know how long we have, not exactly, but it can't be very long—at least, not as long as I'd like. Time is cruel that way, when it wants to be cruel and has to be quick about it. Otherwise it can be agonizingly slow, stagnant even, a sloth collecting moss. But when time has to be quick, it doesn't disappoint by disappointing, which can be just as bad, if not more so, as having too much.
You never truly know how much time you have left until it's gone, or almost gone, like when that sinking feeling hits after you realize you missed the news three minutes before the end, although in the time before people could afford to miss such things. They could also trust what they heard when they didn't.
They put the Commander on the Wall, Nick said. This, too, is questionable news, granted not unlikely; on the contrary, it's probable. It caught me off guard regardless.
How? I asked in return, quiet. I needed to know. How did they find him out? How is important.
He shrugged, disinterested about it, as if talking about a coworker that was let go. Doesn't matter, he said. He didn't know.
I have two theories. The first is that he cracked and tried to run, still under the impression that I gave him up – which I no doubt would have at the mercy of the Eyes. They'd know about Jezebel's, the black market goods, what words he used during Scrabble, all of it. Anything to spare me a little pain. Moira would cringe.
So he tried to run, was caught and shot. That's one theory, and honestly the more favorable of the two. The second is that Serena Joy took the implications of lipstick on her cloak to heart, then took a butcher knife from the kitchen or shears from her garden. I guess anything sharp would do. Both scenarios leave me at fault. I hope it's the first.
I climb the old ladder, pull it up behind me and into the attic as per instructions. I'm still not used to doing it. There I sit on my cot in the darkness, with my shoulders slumped and wrapped in a blanket that says U.S. I'm freezing. It's not cold. The blanket is useless.
How is important. Substance, encased in a reel of film, the happenings of a story brought to life. Even artificial explanations are better than none. This movie is based on a true story. False but imaginative, each detail vivid, the shock of an eye raise, the rapidness of a blink, the dryness of a scratch, alive. I don't even have that much.
But I have romance. I know this is romance because of how much it hurts. There is a hero. There is a damsel. There is an irrevocable and unmistakable something between the two. No romance, alright? I know that's what we agreed on, but it was wishful thinking, at best. Romance is what this is.
Nick is dead.
This isn't news. This isn't based on a true story. It is a true story. Nonfiction. Cold, hard, unbearable. Fact. More facts: he made it from the Commander's house to here; he was shot; his cover was, as they say, blown. Maybe not in that order. Coming here at all was a high risk, the highest, one that a rational Nick would have never made, I'd like to think. In his defense, however, and to a degree in mine, it's hard to think rationally with something so deadly embedded in your chest – or with a bullet in your back. Either way, rational or irrational, romance or none, the Eyes are thorough. Hours, days, a week; they'll track him here eventually, and they'll find us instead.
There isn't much time.
The van's rear interior is made of frosted metal. There are no windows in back with me – with us; the two men from before are with me still – and the front is sectioned off entirely with more metal. The only inconsistency in this wall is a small oval viewing hole, about the size of a fist, near the top. Like an eye.
I sit just below it, rigid, facing the double doors. What I am sitting on is a bench, not a seat, the kind in prison transports, also metal. It borders all of the walls that don't open. The two men are sitting perpendicular to me on either side, facing each other. The driver is, naturally, in front. No passenger that I'm aware of. Since we left the Commander's, not I nor they have said a word.
I want to. More than anything, I want to. I want to probe, beg, scream, anything to get a response from the guards. Desperation sinks in. Hysteria. Nick threw me the tiniest thread of hope and seizing it has unraveled me at the seams. Before, there was nothing, not even a glimmer. Condemnation was a given; the only question was how severe. Now everything is a question. Should I expect oblivion, sooner or later, at the end of this ride? Or am I getting out? I need to know if Nick was telling the truth. Otherwise, I'm suspended in animation, a state of not knowing, fate undetermined.
I open my mouth to speak, and nothing comes out. I'm afraid of the answers. Paradox. I might go insane.
The van finally comes to a stop. I don't know how long it's been. I figure a while. One in front, one in back, the men usher me out. Every action – the opening of the double doors, the fall of their boots – seems abnormally shrill. The silence has extended into the night.
The only illumination in the area comes from the vehicle itself, the head and taillights, although even those soon fade; the driver pulls off the second the doors are closed again, forward and away down the road. The last I see of the van is its phosphorescent eye rounding the corner.
I'm allowed only a glimpse of my surroundings before I'm submerged in almost utter darkness. We stand just short of an elevated curb. A path lies directly ahead, branching off from the sidewalk. Unkempt and uneven turf encloses it on either side. What this path leads to is a house, rather the porch of a house, with two stories and glossy square windows. It's probably longer than it is wide, I think. During the day, it might look nice. Homey, even. Right now, it's just ominous.
They escort me to the front door, and I hold my breath the whole way. My hopes are rising. There are no checkpoints, no men with machine guns in towers, no fear of being shot, not anymore. This is dangerous. My guard is down. That may be the point.
The one in front opens the threshold. He uses a key. Ownership. He steps in, me behind him, the other one behind me. More darkness. I hear the door close and they lead me blindly through the house: a hall; a room; a door; another hall. They must be moving solely on memory.
I'm stopped at another door. I know it's a door because I can see the light inside from beneath. There is also noise within, condensed and palpable in the narrow space of the hall. It takes me a moment to register what I'm hearing, and I have to force myself to suspend my disbelief when I do. Music.
The guard – if that even applies – opens the door and steps aside. Stairs. They lead down. "Go on," he says.
I start off.
"Wait," he amends, and I stop mid-descent, but don't turn around. "What's your name? Your real one?"
I tell him. He doesn't offer his in return. The door closes behind me.
I stop just beyond the base of the stairs, taking in what I see. Open space filled with black market goods and boxes. Racks stuffed with the clothing of a time before.
At least a dozen of them, moving here or there or dancing – how long had it been since I'd seen dancing – to the music. They don't acknowledge my presence. None of them are wearing red.
"Blessed be the fruit." It comes from my left, the voice familiar but the tone foreign, forgotten, sarcastic. I turn to it, to her. She's not in her dress, her face isn't covered; I have to blink to recognize who she is.
The first one.
"May the lord open," I say after a beat, the words forced. It's a stab, this exchange, an indicator of what is now the past, satire in its finest, purest form. I identify it as such immediately. Yet my heart isn't in it, in the here, the now. It's too soon.
"Lighten up," says Ofglen, obviously detecting my unease. She addresses me by name. I hadn't told her it before. "You're out." She grabs my shoulder. "You're out."
"They told me you hanged yourself," I say. By now I've been settled in for the night.
"They?" questions Ofglen. She does her best to mask her suspicion, but it's not enough.
"She," I correct. "The new one."
"Politics," is her only response.
Of course. This must happen all the time, these cover-ups. Examples made of examples, of the ones that make it. They'll probably say I hanged myself, too. They'll also neglect to mention how.
Truth on the inside is impossible; likewise it's a luxury to those on the out. But it's also a burden, a heavy one, one that I'm not sure I can
Small bursts of automatic gunfire, loud and muted, interrupts the voice on the tape. Screams, just as muted, follow immediately. The women on the floor below the attic. Then, silence, save for breathing. It stays that way for at least ten minutes.
"Nolite te bastardes carborundorum."
A whisper, then shuffling, the pat of bare feet against hardwood. A creak, something opening, then a thud.
"Don't move." A male's voice, clear and concise. Mine.
More pats, then more gunfire, this batch impossibly loud. Another thud, this one dull and heavy. Silence again.
"Oh, god." The sound of something plastic and heavy slamming against the floor and rolling along. A helmet. Also mine. "No. No, no, no." More shuffling, boots on wood.
The female voice again, the one from the tape. It's strained, stifled. Choked.