There was nothing but darkness. It was impossible to gauge the size of the environment she found herself in because there were no reference points by which she could determine scale or distance, which was in turn because there was absolutely nothing at all present whatsoever. She was alone in her own mind.

The darkness gradually became more defined, in a funny sort of way, although the realisation that this increasing “definition” (for lack of a better word) had cast her into a sort of hallway or corridor-esque space came quite suddenly. The very fabric of the darkness itself seemed to gain edges and corners, and the surfaces they drew seemed like a polished obsidian black, mirror-surfaced reflecting into itself recursively forever. Instinctively she began to move forward, proceeding into the endless depths although she wasn’t too sure how she was managing to go anywhere at all; rather it seemed that she was, in her mind, issuing the instruction to move and it was simply happening as if by magic.

Then, suddenly, everything went white. The shiny black walls became impossibly bright, reflecting some great light from beyond the end of the path. Then came the heat, and it was horrifically strong and utterly unbearable. She collapsed onto the floor, her perception of this bizarre world that had conjured itself into existence around her slowly fading.

Everything became tinted darker, blurrier and harder to see. The very darkness itself hung in the air, foreboding, thick and stale. That was when she remembered she had lungs: they worked with great effort to haul great loads of this thick toxic darkness out from her chest, which heaved and convulsed with every motion. She coughed and spluttered as this horrid cloud wrapped around her ever tighter. With every breath she could taste it; it was bitter and vile.

She understood that there would be no safety for her if she did not escape it, and fast: that was when she remembered she had arms and legs. She slowly began to haul herself along the floor of the terrible place, which had since developed several offshoots and branching pathways, morphing into some awful maze. She couldn’t comprehend which turns to take to leave, although it didn’t matter much since she couldn’t move much anyway. It was as if there was something more physical than this cruel gas pinning her down. If only she could tell what it was!

That’s when she remembered she had eyes. She opened them and saw fire. Everything was on fire.

She threw the blanket off from her sweltering body but as she tried to move from her bed, she was immediately over-encumbered by the indescribable heat and pulled to the floor. The tiny room was engulfed with flames spewing from what looked and felt like everything and everywhere, and a dense layer of smoke hung from the ceiling. She could just about crawl along the bottom of the room and avoid breathing it in, but it was difficult to crawl so low with any real urgency.

At some point while struggling along, getting hotter and fainter and feeling like she was getting no further than the foot of her bed, she remembered she had ears. She was deafened by the roaring of the burning building, and the wailing of her smoke alarms as they desperately tried to rouse attention, although it had quite clearly been fruitless. She was hurt, although the pain wasn’t localised to any one point. It probably meant that it wasn't important. She had to keep moving.

She made it to the door from the bedroom into the hallway before realising it was closed. The door handle was way above her, in the smoke. Survival instincts kicked in; she drew a lungful of clean(ish) air, held it with puffed cheeks, and rose into the smoke. It stung her eyes and the smut hanging in the air prickled like hot needles. With tremendous effort she managed to get the door off of its latch and opened ajar before dropping back down to the floor and catching her breath. With every moment she spent trying to recover, the smoke went lower and lower. She had to keep moving.

She pushed the door to open it, but instead it fell flat forwards, crashing into the floor with a colossal smash. Out here the fire was far worse; she could see the outsides of the door hinges had melted in the heat, while the wallpaper warped and disintegrated, trickling down in a sad spectacle. Flames licked her skin and singed her hair. The survival instincts she had relied on just a moment ago kicked in again, this time taking full control. She rose to her feet once more, clumsily stumbling through the hallway. Every footstep took extreme labour, and although everything she could feel was in so much pain she kept moving because it was the only way she would ever see the light of day again.

The floorboards were splintering in the massive heat. The frayed and split wood dug into the bottoms of her feet, drawing blood which burned in the embers settling from the fire all around, casting a deeply unpleasant smell and an extreme pain. Behind her, a roofing beam weakened by the blaze collapsed under its own weight, crashing through the ceiling behind her. The whole place was beginning to fall apart... She had to keep moving.

She knew this corridor well. Why did it suddenly seem so long? She wondered if she was back in the strange place from before. With every trembling and awful step, she drew ever closer to the end of the corridor before she eventually reached the stairs down to the shop. She took a step downwards, but the stairs collapsed under her weight, and she went down with them landing in a pile of hot rubble. She couldn't even bring herself to yelp or even so much as grunt. She was so tired.

Around her was years of work, the fruits of her endless toils turning to ash. Everything she cast her eyes on recalled a thousand memories spanning her entire career and the entire lifetime of her enterprise. She was burnt, and badly, but at that time she was far more emotionally tormented than physically. She felt like she was crying but couldn't feel any tears for they evaporated from her face before she could even sense them.

It was at this point she realised she couldn't move. The fall must have taken more of a toll on her than she had thought. All her progress and hard work to remember and regain use of her arms, legs and eyes was lost. She felt helpless.

Through the windows at the front of the shop she could see flashing red and blue from emergency vehicles, and the silhouettes of people. She tried to shout for their attention, but her lungs were full of smoke, and she could only cough, choking up great huffs of noxious fog.
This was the end. She had always secretly hoped that her demise would be a bit more interesting, perhaps surrounded by loved ones or dying in some terrible but public accident with spectators to cry. There was no shame to dying in a fire, but she was alone. So terribly alone.

As she laid down, accepting fate with an open mind and heavy heart, she could hear the smashing of glass, heavy stamping sounds almost like the boots of some ferocious deity, and muffled speech that she was surprised to be unable to discern despite it all being in her own head. Just as she had been thrust into it, she began to lose her grasp of reality. Is it worse to die confused or alone?

As she sailed away from the land of the living, she felt the curious physical sensation of being lifted up by some unseen force. She never imagined that departing from life would involve a sensation of physical motion but wasn’t surprised by it either. She wasn't surprised by anything anymore because she didn't have the energy to be. She just wanted to rest.

She drew her last breath and fell asleep. There was nothing but darkness.

It was unnaturally bright. She could hear a distant humming, almost like the drone of a computer tower or some cheap desk fan. Although she couldn't bring herself to open her eyes very much, for the brightness surrounding her felt like it might very well blind her should she face it head on, she could still sense the nature of her surroundings. She wasn't alone; silhouettes of others hugged the edges of her peripheral, some lying down in roughly the same position that she felt she was and others traipsing around, talking in hushed tones. The light was fluorescent and cast from above. There was a smell of industrial antibacterial cleaner and the occasional blip of some unknown devices that were out of immediate eyesight.

The environment was cold and artificial, like a convenience store or an airport waiting room. There was no noise, only the empty space left by polite restraint as everyone present remained quiet. In such a stringent and upright environment, she would've expected a looming sense of unease, but the sentiment in the air was actually reasonably calm. After all, this light was different to the light from before. That light was so painful, while this light was soothing by comparison. It didn't force its way through her eyelids, nor did it sting her skin. It was a pleasant reprise. Soothed by the absence of danger, she quickly and quietly slipped back into sleep.

The next time she woke it was dark again. Much like the newer light, this darkness was different from before too. Where the darkness from before was endless and eternal, this darkness did not hide the same environment she had found herself in just moments ago. There was the same room with the same people, but this time the light from above was no longer being cast, and there was no other light. Was it night-time?

She opened her eyes fully; the dark room meant it was a safe reintroduction into the world of vision after so long of straining through smoke and squinting under bright light and flame alike. She looked around, trying to determine more accurate details of her surroundings. She was in a bed, and the bed was surrounded by quite thin curtains. Through and around them she could see other people also in beds, which were in turn surrounded by more thin curtains. The curtains around each bed were in different positions, some furled up over the railing, others hanging freely, some drawn around the bed entirely. Wherever gaps might line up between her point of view and someone else's bed she could glimpse sleeping faces, hands, feet... While the faces were strangers, the shapes of limbs were familiar of course. Some details of the shapes were, however, slightly off-kilter. Some had rough edges, others had missing or obfuscated bits like toes or fingers. Some were even impossible to identify in the low light beyond probably an appendage.

Finally, she turned her attention to her own bed. It was soft but sturdy and quite high above the ground. There was a stack of boxes and tubes piled up high at the bedside, some running under her duvet and others running into the darkness. Where they ran to her, judging by the angles and positions of them, she could feel faint pinpricks and an entirely unsettling sensation almost like cold running liquid. Did the tubes run into her body?

Occasionally the machinery would hiss or chirp, not loud enough so as to disturb the tranquillity in the room but audible to anyone who was bothering to listen. It was the first time for quite a while she had any real reference for the passage of time. Beep. Then a few moments passed, before beep again. Sometimes the beeps were accented by the sound of trickling fluid or the slight ramping up or slowing down of what sounded like a small fan. The noises were irregular but consistent and, as time passed and she devoted more of her mind to listening for the next beep or drip, she was soon asleep once more.

She was startled awake by the presence of people immediately by her bedside. She couldn't bring herself to react to them, or even so much to move. All she could do was feel their hands on her: they traipsed up and down her body, groping her legs and chest. She could feel all sorts of sensations, most cold and deeply uncomfortable.

She wanted to scream, ‘Get the fuck off of me!’, but she couldn't move so much as an eyelid. She began to panic. Everything became so loud and so unbelievably painful. She wanted to writhe and punch and leave this awful place. All traces of tranquillity and calm she had found before were lost to the point at which darkness and light intersect.

They pulled and pinched her skin and pushed her various appendages around at their own leisure, violating her personal space and sending horrid pains through her whole body like molten steel was being poured over her whole body.

Then, a sharp pointed pain in her arm, stronger than all the other pains, brought about an end to the torment.

Later on she was awake again. The people around her bed were gone. It wasn't overly bright; the incandescent light from above was absent once more, but it wasn’t pitch black either. She opened her eyes to see if the people by her bedside were gone to see the room bathed in a warm orange glow. The clock on the wall which she had not seen until now read quarter past seven.

Looking around, she decided to take advantage of the warm light to observe more clues as to her whereabouts. The room was long and narrow, with a row of beds against each of the long walls, a window on the wall at the right-hand end and a set of double-doors at the left-hand end. For the first time, she could see the colours in the room: the beds were in plain white linen, and the curtains were a shade of turquoise that leant more into a minty green rather than blue. The walls were off-white, and the ceiling was a light grey. The floor was tiled, white with flecks of silver and black.

The people around her were hard to see from her current position. She could make out some of the limbs from before, but whereas previously she could only see that they were occasionally misshapen she could now see that in many cases the skin was badly damaged. Black and red patches, peeling at the surface, some bleeding slightly or oozing unpleasant pus. Many were bandaged, some had their legs hung from framework which stood over their beds, presumably to prevent the frayed and delicate skin from being damaged against the bedclothes.

She then looked to herself. Her legs and torso were beneath the blanket, but she could see her arms and her chest. Her skin was scarlet red and shone like a pool of blood. Her fingernails were gone, and the nailbeds were badly blackened, particularly concentrated at the thick cartilage around the edges. Patches of white blisters covered as much of her skin as she could see.

She wanted to see her legs but attempts to move her knee up to push the duvet aside were fruitless. It wasn't that she couldn't feel her leg, but some object was preventing her leg from bending. She leant forward and pulled the blanket aside, the rubbing of her skin against the fabric feeling egregiously unpleasant. Her right leg was in a thick cast from the foot to the thigh, while her left knee was bandaged tightly.

She then remembered the machinery by her bedside. Turning to face it, she saw some larger boxes on a trolley, with various lights and screens displaying numbers of unknown significance. Hanging above them, she recognised two IV drip bags, which appeared to be feeding into her. This, combined with her other assessments, led her to reassess the conclusions she had drawn over the past... how long had it been? She could now tell she was in fact in a hospital, but she couldn't tell how long for. Her sparse and intermittent bursts of consciousness had completely thrown off her perception of time. Days and nights and hours blurred together into one and were impossible to distinguish.

Then she remembered the fire. She had thought herself a dead woman and had embraced death. In fact, for the longest time, she had thought that this hospital room was some sort of airport or train station waiting area, some bizarre image of Purgatory, or whatever other cruel limbo might exist after death. No, her shop and her home had gone up in flames, a fire from nowhere in the middle of the night. She could remember stumbling and crawling through the blaze, the building collapsing around her. Every breath had drawn more smoke than air and she was barely awake the whole time, so deprived of oxygen that she could barely think. Even that, though, couldn't save her from not only watching but recognising her life’s work turning to ashes and cinders. Millions of yuan, thousands of memories, an entire career burnt and gone, and she didn't even know how, when, or why.

Fate is an utter bastard, she thought.

Despite it being daylight hours, everyone was unmoving, although the occasional stirring of a finger or the errant twitch of a toe showed that they were probably awake, or at the very least alive. As she pondered her situation, someone entered the room from the far end; she couldn't see the door and they were just out of earshot, but before they had even entered her periphery the stirring and mumbling of the others in the room suggested that something of significance had changed, and that instead of the eternal idling they could instead anticipate some sort of event or action to occur, and imminently. Some even sat up in their beds; she envied their mobility.

Soon, she saw that the person who entered the room was in fact two people. One of them was quite tall, around one hundred and seventy centimetres, appeared male from behind and was pushing a trolley which appeared to be filled with various trays of food. He had short jet-black hair that was closely shaven. As he folded out the tray-tables of the beds and placed the food onto them fast enough so as to be efficient without being so fast as to appear rude, she caught glimpses of his face; it was quite round, with a high mouth, short stubble and thick-rimmed glasses.

The woman he was with was quite a bit shorter, by a factor of around twenty centimetres. Her hair was a reddish brunette and hung as far as her shoulders, excess length held back by a long black clip at the back of her head. She had a long nose and a kind smile, and as her colleague prepared the meals of each patient she would exchange in brief polite conversation with each of them. They clearly cared for their work, but the haste at which they preceded suggested they didn’t quite have the resources to provide more personal support.

She watched as the two pushed the trolley across the side of the room opposite hers, engaging in this exchange with largely thesame demeanour with each of the people in the beds. Then they turned around at the window and started to do the same for people on her side. A tray table, an easy-to-digest meal, and a quick hello. Occasionally they would skip a patient; from what she could observe those who were skipped were often the worst injured, with slings and horrific burns, and all who were skipped were still unconscious.

Eventually they arrived at the foot of her own bed. The pair were ready to plod right past her, trundling trolley in tow, until the man gave an errant glimpse in her direction and noticed she was awake. Quite taken aback, he prodded his co-worker in the shoulder so as to direct their attention, and then they too took on a surprised expression.

“Oh, you’re awake!”

It was the first time she had heard someone else speak in what felt like an entire lifetime, or at least the entirety of whatever happens after your lifetime, or whatever you could be misled into thinking is what happens after your lifetime thanks to a sudden and unexpected traumatic experience that you still haven’t had time to recover from or even fully process.

The nurse turned back to the man and spoke in a hushed tone. “Can you take care of the others?”

He nodded and sounded a faint mm, before pushing the trolley away with greater haste while the nurse came and sat by her bedside, taking a quick look at the notes clipped to the foot of the bed so as to double check...

“Can you tell me your name?” She was shocked once again by hearing someone else address the mere concept of her own name. For whatever reason, recalling it in her head seemed to ground her back into reality. She was coming out of a terrible experience that would drive even the most stalwart and sound of people to at least some amount of distress. After an unknown amount of time spent inside her own mind, with limited and quite dazed exposure to the world around her, she was amazed she could still remember her name above all else.

“Luo... Ch'wentao”, she spoke. Her voice was hoarse and raspy, and her throat was so dry that the effort of pushing air through it to speak brought tears to her eyes from the discomfort, like some terrible stiffness that gripped her vocal cords and stopped them from producing any particular tones, leaving her with a broken hiss.

“You must be confused- I, uh, we weren’t expecting you to be awake this morning. It's quite a sudden step of progress in your recovery!” She elicited a brief chuckle. “How are you feeling?” The nurse spoke in soft dulcet tones the likes of which Ch'wentao would’ve been jealous of on any normal day. Now more than ever, stuck with a dull wheeze for self expression, the pangs of jealousy struck out, immediately followed by the rough ache of disappointment in herself that she would reach such a low. She faintly grunted. It was about the extent of noise that she had the strength to produce.

Truthfully, she had still been thinking of the fire even during all her other observations. She was trying to come to terms with it in her own head, trying so desperately to rationalise the events of the past... however long it had been. How long had it been? She decided to ask the question aloud, although it took several attempts, the first few interrupted by stutters or becoming overwhelmed by the croakiness of her speech, but eventually stammering out the straightforward question not consciously realising that she had inadvertently dodged the question that the nurse had asked. It wasn't that she was uncomfortable with addressing her feelings; rather, any more introspection at this point would probably drive her crazy.

The nurse quickly checked her watch to confirm the date, then glanced at the ceiling as she did quick calculations to work it out. “You were admitted just under three months ago. Eighty-eight days, to be exact.”

Up close, Ch'wentao could see the nurse’s face much better. It was young and pretty, with a nose that largely followed the shape of the face but tapered off at the bottom in an elegant way. Her eyes were small but innocent rather than beady, while her slightly bushy eyebrows were furrowed slightly in an expression of genuine concern. Pursed lips and puffed cheeks understood that Ch'wentao was probably quite disturbed to learn she had been out of commission for so long, and of course the assumption was correct. She began to panic. Between flashbacks to roaring blazes, collapsing buildings, needle pinpricks and fluorescent lights came concerns like bills, food, family...

She wanted to cry, but her face remained stoic. The wall opposite gained a formidable staring competition opponent.

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