Lu holds her breath. Eyes flick between her passport and her face. Back and forth, back and forth. It’s taking too long.
Maybe I can make it, she thinks. If I run. She knows she can’t.
Eyes narrow. ‘One moment.’ Doesn’t give back her passport.
‘There’s only a slim chance,’ James says. ‘She might’ve given – you know they might already have your name on the registry.’
‘It won’t be,’ Lu says. Can’t afford to think otherwise. ‘She wouldn’t… she’d never…’
James sighs. Looks tired. ‘You can’t know that.’
Lu lifts her chin. ‘I do.’
‘Cured? What the fuck do you mean by that?’
Fists tightly curled. Fingernails digging into skin. There’s blood, warm stickiness in her palm.
‘They fixed us. I’m better now, Lu,’ Rachel says. Eyes too bright. Smile too wide – it splits her face in half like a gash, like an open wound.
But I love you, Lu doesn’t say.
‘You should consider going to a clinic. It would be good for you, I think. You don’t know what it’s like, Lu – being normal.’
‘Fuck you,’ Lu does say. Her voice cracks in the middle, but she doesn’t have any room left in her to feel ashamed or embarrassed.
Rachel gives an apologetic smile – sincere in a way that makes Lu’s stomach clench, makes her chest feel strangely tight. ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. I really am.’
She wants to scream and claw, wants to punch Rachel in the face, wants to kiss her, wants to say, come back to me, how dare they take you from me, how dare you leave me here alone, how dare you.
Instead she turns and leaves. Walks out the door into the wintry drizzle of the evening, hears Rachel call after her, ‘I wish you’d change your mind, Lu.’
She wants to look back, wants just one glance over her shoulder – wants to see Rachel in the doorway, silhouetted by the white electric light, glowing at the edges. She wants to look.
Blinding fluorescents. Lu feels like the light is scorching right though her, right into the corners of her. She feels transparent.
The nurse shakes his head, purses his lips, radiating disapproval. ‘Family only,’ he says.
‘Please,’ Lu begs, ‘I am family, I am. Please.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. He doesn’t sound sorry. ‘Those are the rules.’
There are others like her: begging, bloodstained, crying. Some still clutch placards to their chests like shields. Packed tightly into the waiting room; wild-eyed animals, frightened lambs. To the slaughter, Lu adds, as she watches the nurse walk briskly to the front desk and whisper something to the receptionist. She makes herself small, squeezes between explosions of grief, and slips out the front before the receptionist even presses the third zero.
‘I’m a doctor! Let me through! Let me through!’
A man pushes his way through the crush of people. They part, slow to move, slow to act. The crowd is a murmur, quieted by the shot, but growing louder now and building to a roar: What’s happening? I think someone’s hurt. Shit, is he breathing? There’s blood, oh fuck, there’s so much blood. Was that a gunshot? What the fuck is happening up there? Stand back! Keep away! Is he dead? Oh God, he’s not breathing. Fuck those pigs! This was a peaceful march! He’s dead. They killed him, they fucking killed him. I’m warning you! I said stand back!
Lu can feel the air boiling around her, confusion and shock turning to anger, turning to rage. The black wall of shields shifts, trembles, steadies. The shouting grows louder.
‘We have to get out of here,’ Lu says. ‘We’ve got to go, shit’s hit the fan.’ Her placard is on the ground, trampled into the asphalt, muddy footprints stamped over the large red letters: WE ARE NOT A DISEASE.
She reaches out for Rachel’s hand. Doesn’t find it. Swivels her head, stands on her toes, frantically searches the crowd. Red hair, a fist pounding the air. Four people in front,
Lu pushes forward. The crowd pushes with her. She calls out, but can’t even hear her own voice now. Another shot, and another. The roar turns to a shriek, a scream. Pushing forward, pushing back. People running in and away, a whirlwind of rainbow and lead. Up ahead she sees red hair and a black shield.
‘Why don’t you just take the treatment, honey?’ Her mother on the phone. Voice crackling down the line. Saccharine. ‘Wouldn’t that make everything a lot easier? You and Rachel could go together – support each other. There’s no reason you can’t still be friends after.’
She hangs up. Calls her brother instead.
‘Honestly, Lu, you should just get out. I’m serious. Go to fucking, I don’t know, Sweden or something. Somewhere that’s not so fucking crazy. Take Rachel with you – just go.’
‘I can’t do that. We’ll never get equal rights if we don’t fight for it.’
‘Is that you or Rachel speaking? Jesus, can’t you just let go of the whole lesbian warrior of justice thing? This is your life we’re talking about.’
‘Yeah, James, that’s right – my life.’
‘Why did you even fucking call me then?’
He hangs up on her this time.
She cries the whole way home, feels weak and stupid. She should have fought. She’s a coward. Forgets to avoid the clinic and has to turn her head, look away. But she knows it’s still there, it’s always still there.
At home Rachel holds her head in her lap and strokes her hair. Her hands are gentle but her voice shakes with anger.
‘That’s such bullshit; they can’t fire you for that. They can’t just dangle your livelihood in front of you like a fucking carrot on a stick. Isn’t the whole catchphrase of those places that it’s supposed to be a fucking choice?’
Lu turns her face into Rachel’s thigh. ‘Can we just not talk about it right now?’
‘Yeah.’ Voice softer. ‘Yeah, of course.’ Rachel’s hands buried in Lu’s thick black hair. Rachel leaning forward, pressing her lips to Lu’s forehead. Whispered words. ‘It’s going to be okay. We’ll fight it. We’re going to fix this.’
Lu closes her eyes and lets herself be convinced by Rachel’s certainty.
A clinic opens up just around the corner from their building. Lu walks past it every day after work, its windows plastered with white posters. ‘Get Your Fresh Start: Make an Appointment Today!’ and ‘The Choice is Yours!’
Sometimes people stand out the front, wearing t-shirts saying ‘I’ve Made My Choice’, handing pamphlets out to passers-by. Sometimes people stand out the front holding signs that say ‘I Choose Freedom’ and ‘I Don’t Need Fixing!’
Once there is a young girl – fourteen or fifteen, just a kid. A man and a woman on either side of her, each holding an arm. The girl shakes violently, but goes silently with them into the clinic.
Lu takes a different route home after that.
‘It’s Christmas,’ Lu hisses. ‘You could at least try to behave yourself.’
‘Me behave? If your mother calls me your “good friend” one more time, I swear I’m going to tell your whole family we had sex on the kitchen counter.’
Lu’s face heats up. ‘That’s not even remotely true.’
‘I’ll tell them you’re really loud,’ Rachel says, then smirks. ‘That part’s true at least.’
‘Please don’t do that,’ Lu says, shakes her head but can’t help smiling. ‘She’ll come around eventually, you just have to give her some time.’
Rachel frowns. ‘You don’t have to compromise who you are just so your mum doesn’t feel uncomfortable.’
Lu shrugs, says nothing.
Rachel opens her mouth, but James bursts in, a pained expression on his face.
‘Please save me from these people – they’ve started talking politics again.’
Rachel bristles. ‘They’re not going on about that fucking treatment bullshit are they?’
He takes Lu’s hand, narrows his eyes at Rachel. ‘Actually, you stay here. You’ll just make it worse.’
For the first week the only furniture in their apartment is a mattress and a TV. Rachel insists that this is all they need. ‘It’s simple. It’s minimalist. Everything else is just junk. We don’t need to live in that capitalist delusion.’
Lu is quite happy living in a capitalist delusion if it involves owning a dining table.
‘Surely a TV is the ultimate symbol of capitalism,’ she says. Moves her hand up under Rachel’s shirt, rubs lazy circles on her stomach.
‘We need to know what’s going on out there. It’s our responsibility to keep those bastards in parliament from fucking up too badly.’
Lu pulls herself closer. ‘Maybe we can postpone saving the world until tomorrow,’ she says. Presses her lips to Rachel’s neck.
Rachel hums contentedly. ‘Hmm, you raise a strong argument.’ Mutes the TV and tosses the remote aside.
They shift so Rachel is lying on her back, red hair spilling over the pillows, bracketed on either side by Lu’s dark arms.
‘Also, James promised to go to Ikea with me on the weekend. You have until then to ideologically realign yourself with the concept of furniture.’
Rachel grins. ‘Never,’ she says, breathless.
Lu leans forward, kisses her.
The muted TV goes ignored. Flashing images of people in lab coats, a politician giving a heated speech outside a brand new building, posters in the windows. Bathing them in white light.