Authors: Carly Anne West
A flutter in my stomach makes the sensors on my chest and back tingle.
The next image is a photo taken from behind, a silhouette of two girls, their hands clasped together, their little figures stepping in tandem along a tree-lined path with thick piles of orange and yellow autumn leaves piled around them.
Another tingle from the sensors.
“You’re doing great, Sophie. Just keep watching.”
The next image is of a man smiling down at a child, his hand on her pigtailed head, her upturned nose scrunched in his direction. They seem to be sharing a quiet joke.
The sensors tingle.
The next image clicks to the screen. It’s dark, and it takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the picture after such a bright one. This appears to be a room. The only light comes from around the door, like it popped open to a bright hallway on
its own. There’s nothing to the picture at all, but for some reason, I don’t like it.
The sensor tingles on my chest, and as it does, a machine on the wall that is hooked up to the sensors—to me—beeps a single beep.
“Watch the screen, Sophie. Don’t worry about anything else.”
The next image clicks forward, and it’s a girl standing alone in the same meadow as the first picture, but this time it’s covered in shadow. The little girl’s face is obscured by her hair, and her shoulders are hunched toward her ears.
Another tingle. Another beep.
The next image flicks forward, and it feels like the pictures are playing faster than before. This image is grainy and speckled like an egg, which makes it hard to see. I squint to try to pull it into focus, and when I do, I can just make out a pair of eyes and a wide, oval-shaped mouth. It’s not moving, but something tells me it should be, though I don’t want it to.
Another tingle, and this time, the monitor behind me beeps three times.
The next image is a tree in a clearing. A tall pine tree disappearing into the clouds.
More beeping from behind me.
“Can I—I need to stop.”
The next image is a hand with a ring. A tan hand with flat paddles for fingernails and a silver ring.
My palms are sweating. The tingling from the sensors on my chest and back is starting to make me nauseated. I cover my eyes. The needle in my arm tugs.
“Sophie, we need you to keep watching the screen.”
The next image is in shadows—oily hair covering a face, and long yellow teeth inside a black hole of a mouth.
“No! Stop! Let me out! Let me out of here!”
“Sophie, we’re not done with the—”
“I said let me the fuck out of here!!”
I tug at the sensors and they peel from my skin, leaving behind sticky residue. I turn from the screen and ball up on the gurney, eyeing the IV cart suspiciously. I want to bend my elbow, to wrap my arms over my body and create an exoskeleton.
I hear a series of hushed voices at the doorway, then a click.
“Doctor, she wouldn’t let us finish. She just—”
Then there’s silence. After another second, the door sighs on its delay and clicks shut. Someone else is in the room with me. I can feel it.
A hand runs gently over my hair, guiding it behind my ear to expose the side of my face that isn’t pressed into the cot. I squeeze my eyes shut. I want the numbness to come back.
“There, there, Sophie. You did really well for your first day.”
The voice is smooth like buttered maple syrup.
I open my eyes to Dr. Keller, whose gray eyes stare down at me with concern.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him without even thinking. Suddenly I’m sorry for so much. My stomach flops over when I say it, though, and an insistent voice yells at me, scolding me for something. But what?
“I know you are. You did the best you could. I know you want to make us all proud.”
He crouches to meet me at eye level.
“I know you want to make me proud.”
I nod and blink. My eyes feel dry. My mouth feels dry. I’m starting to get a headache.
“Don’t worry too much, now,” he says, squeezing my forearm tenderly. “In time, you’ll be able to show us exactly what we need to see. You do want to help us, don’t you?”
I want to say yes, to be agreeable. At least I think I want that.
He nods slowly, his mouth pinned in a soft frown. “You
have a very special gift, Sophie. You can hear what it’s saying. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
I nod. I can hear what it’s saying. Well, almost. It wants me to hear.
“Your sister, she had the gift too. But then, I’m sure you knew that.”
The tickle in my throat is gone now, and it’s been replaced by a lump I can’t swallow. My eyes tear up, spill over onto the tissue paper on the gurney beneath my cheek.
“Oh, now, why the tears? Surely you two talked about it. Nell trusted you, I know that. She told me she trusted you. Unless . . . oh dear . . . ” Dr. Keller shakes his head slowly, the lines around his mouth deepening, his chin puckering.
I’m soaking the paper under my face, but I can barely feel the tears falling. My whole face feels like it’s gone numb.
“I didn’t want to believe her,” I whisper. My body shakes. I feel like my whole body is crying.
“Of course you didn’t.” The doctor’s voice pours over me. His hand strokes my hair again. “Of course you didn’t.”
I pinch my eyes shut, my sobs coming in waves, and finally my body stops shaking. Dr. Keller’s hand never leaves my head, never stops stroking my hair. It’s the only thing that seems to keep me connected to this room. And yet, something inside of me is screaming. Part of me wants to throw his
hand off of me or take it in my own hand and break it into a thousand pieces. But why? He’s only comforting me. Isn’t that what I’ve been wanting for so long? To feel safe?
Then I hear him stand. His shoes click then squeak on the linoleum as he walks across the room. A drawer opens and closes, and his shoes click then squeak toward me again. The bag on the cart beside me rustles. I feel the gentlest tug on the needle in my arm, and then my arm and shoulder and chest and the rest of my limbs go cold. My heart races with the sensation, and when I try to open my eyes again, I can’t.
But I don’t care anymore because I’m floating into a gray nothingness.
• • •
“Nell’s sister. Wake up! Hey, wake up!”
My head is throbbing, and it takes every ounce of strength to open my eyes—not that it does much good once I do. I’m surrounded by dark and shadow. It smells like metal. Or maybe that’s the just the taste in my mouth.
“Are you awake?”
I groan in response. I don’t quite know how to articulate that I don’t know. I can’t tell if I’m asleep and having a strange dream or if I’m awake.
“I’ll take that as a yes. You’ve got to stop. You’re not doing what I told you to do.”
This voice is familiar. Have I dreamt it before?
“You’re letting him get to you. That’s exactly what I told you
to do. Are you listening to me?”
“Go away,” I grumble, wishing the voice in my head would stop. When I reach for my temple, I realize there’s no tugging. I put my fingers to the inside of my elbow, and I’m rewarded with another dull pain to match the one in my head. It feels like a bruise that reaches to my bone. My ankles and wrists feel the same way. And my shin itches, though I can’t remember why.
“Go away? Not a chance. Look, I’m going to help you whether you want me to or not, because frankly, you’re probably the last chance we’ve got.”
The voice is a little louder now, like it’s forgotten to whisper.
“What am I supposed to do?” I ask. I know it’s totally crazy. I’m now talking to some voice I’ve probably conjured myself. There’s no other explanation for it. Unless I’m dreaming again. I don’t know what’s real anymore. All I know is talking hurts more than anything else at the moment, so I’ll do whatever it takes to make it shut up.
“They’re going to take us out to the courtyard tomorrow. They want to see what happens when they put the two of us together. They want to see if we can, you know,
something happen. Like we’re goddamned wizards. We can talk more then. But
if you’re high as a kite.”
“I don’t do drugs,” I say automatically, like I’m talking to a teacher.
“Well, maybe you don’t, but that’s not really your choice anymore. Sounds like you’re coming down right now. Here’s what you’re going to do. Listen to me carefully. Are you listening?”
“Yes, yes, I’m listening.”
“Tomorrow morning, they’re going to give you two pills in a cup with your breakfast. Take the pills. They’re sugar pills; they won’t do anything. They just want to see if you’re done fighting them, which by the sound of it, you pretty much are.”
This is the first hint of real anger I’ve heard in the voice, and it gets my attention. If this voice is just my imagination, does that mean I’m mad at myself? I keep listening.
“Take the pills so they think you’re not going to give them any trouble, but
drink the juice. Got it? Take the pills; don’t touch the juice. Pour out the juice. Anywhere you can so they don’t find it. But make sure you pour it out so they think you drank it. Got it?”
“Okay,” I say. Why not? The things the voice is telling me are no crazier than the fact that I’m hearing voices in the first place. I might as well go along with it.
“I hope for both our sakes you’re not just bullshitting me,” the voice scolds, and then I’m left in silence.
“Hey, you still there?” I ask tentatively. I’m met only by the sound of my own breathing, and I feel strangely alone all of a sudden.
“Best not to get used to that,” I tell myself. It’s not a good thing to start missing the company of your own delusions.
Not in a place like this.
Y HEAD IS POUNDING BEFORE
I even open my eyes. The room is bright. I can tell by the way my eyelids feel semitranslucent. I ease them open to a squint, and when I decide my head can handle a little more, I open them to see where I am.
Another gray room. This one looks much the same as the others I remember . . . that I sort of remember . . . assuming I didn’t dream them. But in addition to the glaring fluorescent lights, this room has a window high in the wall. It’s covered by mesh and out of reach at about nine feet, just below the ceiling.
My wrist and ankle restraints are tied tight. I seem to recall being free of them, even if for a short time. I shift my gaze to
the bend in my elbow. It’s red and purple with a tiny lump and a little perforation at the top of it where a needle should be, but for once it’s not. And though my head is still thumping behind my drooping eyelids, I am glad to be free of the IV. My brain feels whole for the first time in . . . a day . . . a week? I have no idea how much time has passed.
My heart skitters in my chest as I try to fill the empty spaces in my mind.
What do they know about me? What have they been doing to me? How long do they think they can keep me here?
they keep me here at all?
The restraints on my wrists and ankles seem to answer that question for me.
Then a memory—or what I’d like to believe is a memory because I have no real basis for reality at this point—of Mom’s voice and Aunt Becca’s seeps in. They’re talking to Dr. Keller, or rather he’s talking to them, and they accept what he says like chicks eating worms from their mother’s beak. They swallow every last word. After that, the only voice I remember hearing is Dr. Keller’s.
I want to curl into the smallest human ball. I tell myself I’m fine on my own. I don’t need Mom or Aunt Becca or anyone else to rescue me. Then my mind scurries to the image of another face, and then I’m thinking about Evan,
his calloused hands gripping mine. I want to feel his hands on my wrists instead of these straps. I want him to steady me. My throat closes over fresh sobs, but if I focus on what I want rather than what’s in front of me, I really will lose my mind. I may have more questions than answers, and my brain may not be entirely whole, but at least I know that for the first time since they put me in blue scrubs, my brain is
. And I intend to keep it that way for as long as I’m here.
This is what I tell myself to keep the panic that’s begun burbling in my chest at bay. Maybe the drugs weren’t so bad. Is a Swiss-cheese memory better than this reality?
Shoes squeak outside my door. My stomach reacts with an involuntary grumble. I feel like I haven’t eaten in years.
There’s a swipe, then a click, and the Pigeon emerges from behind the door in a freshly starched uniform pushing a metal cart with a yellow plastic tray on top. Separate compartments in the tray hold scrambled eggs, a slice of slightly burnt toast, and a cup of fruit cocktail. Not typically my idea of a tasty breakfast, but I’m so hungry, I’d eat just about anything they put in front of me. And at least I know by the meal that it’s morning.
“Rise and shine,” the Pigeon sings, and I immediately know that she has never been a mother. She’s unpracticed in that brand of cheeriness.
I try to sit up, but my restrained wrists only allow me to get up on my elbows.
“Oh, dear. Let me get those for you,” she says, that mock soothing tone already grating on my nerves.
She pulls a plastic device from her pocket that looks like a pin and pushes it into a hole on one wrist restraint and then the other. She does the same for my ankles, and once I’m mobile, my limbs feel strangely light.
“Now, eat up,” she says, her singsong voice chilling me.
“And don’t forget to take your medicine,” she says, gesturing to the little paper cup in the corner of the tray with one of her talons. “That’ll help with the headache.”
I don’t like anything about this woman, least of all her ability to divine the pain that I’m in. Suddenly I feel completely naked in front of her.
She leaves me to my breakfast, shutting the door behind her. I look at the food in front of me: The eggs are underdone and runny, the fruit cocktail is heavy on syrup and light on actual fruit, and the toast isn’t just kind of burnt but practically charred. The pills in the paper cup are enormous and turquoise, and I’ve been given a giant glass of orange juice to take them. In fact, the juice is the only thing that looks semi-edible on the tray.