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Inspecting the designer treats displayed in the display case, my mouth watered. There were richly decorated pastries with chocolate and cream accents. The many treats were spread across a reflective metal surface. “My, she seems happier today.” Said the woman behind the commissary.
“Yes, she is.” Vanity said, standing behind me.
In delight, I replied, “I get to go to the beach today.”
“Oh my, wow, well, you’re a lucky girl!” she said as she wrapped the fudge Vanity had bought for me.
So far, my hospital experience has been most pleasant. As I explored the tunnels and gardens, I felt as though I were in a dream. I found the enclosure to be quite expansive as a whole. The days when I could leave the facilities and travel outside were my favorites. My home country, Krasimer, is an ocean away from Luxmeer, on the other side of the world.
However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was being hidden from me. My “disease” never had an exact definition. The only thing I knew was that whatever “it” was deadly and destroying me. Besides those vague terms, nobody answered my questions. Nevertheless, I learned people discussed it among themselves. Despite my efforts to incorporate the subject into conversations, I failed.
In my prints, puddles were left by cold rivers rolling down my bare legs. There are various critters scurrying about inside them that swirl around in the pools. Walking along the soggy shoreline, I enjoyed feeling the sand between my toes. There was a gentle wind blowing that day, catching the streams of my locks. While the incoming tide rolled in, I danced to avoid its stretching wake. I screamed gleefully, “This is great!”. On the beach, Vanity sat atop a clean towel. As Cody sat beside her, he sat next to one of his recent friends, Azamoth. Despite our small group’s unfamiliarity, the other beachgoers paid hardly any attention to us. Almost as if they weren’t there; shadows that wandered and faded.
In contrast to the dreary days indoors, swimming was a welcome respite. Once I had enough shore time, I made my way back to the group and joined their conversation. “So, Primina, how was it?” Vanity asked chipperly.
In the midst of my excitement, I said, “Wonderful!”
Every time Cody smiled, I was struck by his beautiful teeth. His proud glint in his eyes made me even more envious. As if he was pleased with my performance. “You are moving much better than last week. It is very encouraging to see the therapy has been working for you.” My own eyes sparkled as I nodded, delighted with the results. For the first few days, I thought I would never be able to walk without pain. Gladly, though, the pain faded. Now I can mostly ignore it, for the most part.
There are isolated fragments of beaches buried in the mind, like whispers of history lost to childhood. Despite what was missing, there were still faces there, hollow architecture from the past.
It is only a matter of time until Azamoth’s characteristic wolfish grin shows through his thin lips. “The beach is nice, but nothing seems to be enough to keep this dreaded boredom from consuming everything.”
With the help of Azamoth’s little quip, Vanity lets out a chuckle that lasted for several seconds. She curtsied, “Azamoth. How can you be so negative? We just had the most interesting thing happen in years.” I was very fond of Vanity, and she had proven to be a loyal friend. I found myself developing a deep trust in Vanity, despite my ignorance about their origins.
For Cody, too often he tagged along, and I suspected he was observing me for no apparent reason. Even so, I considered him kind.
Among the trio, Azamoth wore suits and acted more nonchalantly than the others. I thought he was one of the few genuine people around because, by some unspoken law, he had to keep his thoughts to himself. It was at least the impression I got. People at the hospital were generally friendly and playful. The realization that I was the only person my age soon dawned on me. Fortunately, the others helped make it easy to forget.
“What was that interesting thing?” I dared to ask.
While Vanity and Cody were looking at each other, Azamoth was staring right at me. “You.”
The first thing Cody did was raise an eyebrow, covering the glare he threw at Azamoth. “Funny Azamoth. Way to make someone feel uncomfortable.” At this, Azamoth gave a quick wink, followed by a loud cackle. “Saying things like that with a straight face and she may think you are being serious.”
It didn’t bother me at all. On the other hand, I didn’t think he was joking either. I felt as though he was being honest in his statement.
“You two stop it. We are here to relax, not have some petty squabble.” Vanity chimed. I do my best to pretend that I have not noticed that all eyes are shifting onto me. During these moments, I feel like a sheep among wolves. The uncomfortable suggestions they made from their expressions always frightened me. I could not bear to look away from the unwelcome face that repeatedly appeared.
In addition, no one gave me an explanation as to how long I had been in “stasis.” So far, I have applied the tactic of asking small, innocent, and sometimes even nave questions to gather information. Taking advantage of this brief moment of levity would be a fitting time to ask one of my silly questions. “Azamoth, how old are you?” The question is subtle enough for me to deduce when he was born. He, however, laughed. That surprised me. A smile spread across Cody’s face as he sat upright. A smile behind me crossed Vanity’s face, artificial as can be but nonetheless painted on as her impenetrable garment. A mask that has become familiar. “Well, I don’t think it is a funny question?” I pout.
“Well then, my dear? How old are you?” Azamoth asked.
As I mouthed back the question, my face fell. “How old am I?” And yet my mind gave no reply. It is hard to believe I forgot something so personal, something so simple as my age. Stasis had scrambled most of my memories, but this is the first time I didn’t remember my age. Only fragments of a forgotten history remained; narratives in someone else’s words. It troubled me, especially when tangible details, so important to me, simply disappeared into thin air. “I don‘t know? How old am I?” I begrudgingly replied.
“Well, when the youngest among us is the eldest, who’s to say?” I will never forget Azamoth’s stare toward Cody. It was as if they were stabbing knives at each other. “Well, why not tell her how old she is?”
“I don’t know.” Cody grimaced. “It, it is not important.”
“Well, how old does she look?”
In response to Azamoth’s glare, Cody furrowed his brow. Whatever Azamoth was poking at, Cody didn’t want me to hear. “What does it matter?”
“Come on, look at her. What is she, a teenager? Pre-teen? Huh? How old?” Cody’s face straightened out, his composure returning. “Judging by her body, I will guess maybe twelve, but you could be as old as fifteen.”
“But how old am I really?” Silence returned among the group. “You guys know, but you won’t tell me. I get it. You don’t want me to know how long I have been in stasis.” The sadness in my voice made me pout, hoping to elicit some pity. “I don’t know why you don’t want me to know.”
“We don’t know how long you have been in stasis.” Vanity assures. “To be honest, no one in the hospital knows exactly how long you were in stasis.”
There it was, the big secret was revealed. “So what else won’t you tell me?” But how was that possible? Surely my records show it.
A sigh escaped Cody’s lips. “A lot. It is for your own good not to question it. Just know that we are protecting you, Primina. A kid doesn’t need to know the weight of the world’s problems. You should just be happy you are out of stasis and safe. Just accept things for what they are.” Those words penetrated my heart; my eyes were glassy as I stared at Cody’s firm face. Eventually, his lips softened into a pout. “It is not my choice. Just as they do not allow you to know, I may not tell you. Trust me, it is hard.”
It was a bright, blinding light when I opened my eyes. Looking to my side, I saw cables and cords hanging across my skin as I sat in a chair. Screams of horror escape my mouth as people in the room look at me with wide eyes. Glossy plastic face masks masked their expressions. A rubber glove, which silences me, quickly covered my mouth. They gripped my legs as a foul taste crept into my mouth, and I went limp into that familiar darkness.
It was sometime later that I woke up in my bed. Vanity was sitting at the foot of my bed with a concerned look on her face. “You’re awake.” Still, my lids were heavy, and it felt as though my body was weak. After sitting up, Vanity’s hand reached for my chest. “Don’t get up, you had a seizure.”
I didn’t have a seizure. “I was at the beach and I woke up in a room. I didn’t have a seizure, Vanity.”
“You did. You woke up when they were treating you.” But Vanity lied. “It is ok, it happens.” I was unsure of why she would lie to me, but there must be a reason, which I pondered. My memories of what happened are fuzzy. The only thing I recall was being at the beach one moment and surrounded by doctors the next. Then again, perhaps she wasn’t lying after all…
Inside the sterile doctor’s office, mechanical servos creaked as metal arms adjusted themselves and occasionally sparked as they assembled a glass tube. Hellibor’s steps moved behind me, out of sight. With my feet dangling off the footrest, I watched the chair adjust itself to make it as comfortable as possible. A needle was inserted into my forearm and a steady stream of red fluid was pumped. As a steady beat was played through the background, a heart monitor’s beeps could be heard.
“I already have had blood taken twice this month,” I complained, laying my head on the rest. Hellibor’s footsteps slowed down. “The rules are twice a month. It is for my own good. Right, well, why again so soon?” After the beach incident, I began giving blood monthly. I found it difficult to accept at first. It was no longer painful to have needles inserted into my arm. By now, I was too accustomed to it. Although Hellibor was kind to me. He never missed a vein. There was no doubt that he was well-practiced.
After a brief titter, Hellibor composed himself. “My, you do know the rules rather well, don’t you?” As he stepped forward, he was wearing a warm smile on his face. Seeing him with that look made me uncomfortable. His smile is never contagious, especially when he is questioned. Essentially, it’s like a piece of clothing in the wrong style and color. There was just something utterly out of place about it on him. I held the armrests tightly. “Well, you are always such a smart girl. There has been a complication in your treatment. We have lost some of our window of opportunity. We are not getting the results we need out of you. What I mean to say is we have less time. I want to make sure you are healthy, but we need to take a little extra blood from you. Just to make sure everything works out.”
I pondered my response. Those rules, those iron-clad laws that constantly change to suit some unknown agenda. Rather than being a means of controlled behavior, the rules themselves seemed to be nothing more than rules that applied to me only. The constant shifting didn’t sit well with me. “I didn’t agree to this.”
Standing to his full height, Hellibor patted the back of my leg and laughed heartily. “I don‘t believe you did in the first place. In fact, if I remember correctly, you used to fight tooth and nail against it. I remember you hiding in those vents.” The man chided, turning away. “Always hiding and trying to miss your appointment, but I always knew you had to eat so I would wait until you got hungry. Primina, I cherish you. You are a treasure among treasures, a real fountain of miracles.”
As I sank back into Hellibor’s chair, I was suddenly reminded of that fact. “I noticed a guy I used to see by the river has not been there in a while. Also, that lady who runs the commissary, she’s also missing. Where is everyone?”
Hellibor placed his hand on the thick glass bottle containing the crimson liquid as he examined it. Until now, I was unaware he had removed the sample. A clear voice rose from his throat, his graying blue eyes locked on mine. “Well, I don’t know where they got to. I tell you what? How about after you rest we try to look for them?” We never looked for them. We never look for them.
It felt nice to have grass against my legs. Just enough springy sensation is created to not irritate the skin. The enticing smells of roasted onions and steak marinated in creamy red pepper cheese sauce from the plate on my lap wafted. Dark leafy greens were on the side, with cherries for dessert. A hidden spring of juice was released when I dipped my fork into the steak. Suddenly, I feel an unusual sensation on my back. “Vanity? How come you never have dinner with me?” Tender hands encompassed themselves onto me. There is nothing entirely unwelcome about the contact. Sincerely, I craved her touch. At arm’s length, every day can become quite exhausting and lonely. Even so, I knew it was a bad idea.
“Silly, you already know that.” the woman chuckled. “I don’t eat until later, after my shift.”
“Yeah, but I am eating now. So why don‘t you just grab a bite with me sometime? Or maybe I could eat later.” I picked up a fork full of greens and gazed at Vanity. Her uniform is always proper, as it should be. Similar to mine, but mostly white except for the blue hemlines.
There was a soft smile on her face today. The one she usually uses is different. “You have a special eating schedule to ensure you have the energy you need. After all, you are having a lot of blood draws, and it seems like Hellibor wants to increase that schedule. It is important you get the right nutrition or else you may get sick.”
“If it can make me sick, why are you doing it?” A tingling yet comforting sensation crawled through my hair. The tips of Vanity’s fingers untangled my hair as they made their way across my scalp. It’s too much. Totally dangerous. The outcome could be disastrous if she pulled out my hair. “You’re touching me.“ My mouth erupted. “Vanity, that is not allowed.” She hummed while running her fingers through. “Vanity?” I called again.
“O’ Prina, stop. Don’t worry about things so much.” I allowed myself to accept the unusual behavior, gazing out over the open park. There is moss on the ground as well as stone floors and a wooden path. The sky was a glassy reflection of the ground, almost as though looking out of water.
Unfortunately, my fears got the best of me and I could no longer stand it. “But we could hurt each other.” I groaned with discomfort.
“Prina, does it hurt?” Admittedly it did not. I shook my head in muted response. “So, it can’t be bad, can it?” I couldn’t help but have visions of Vanity latching onto my locks from behind and ripping my hair all out in one fell swoop. Removed the uppermost layer of skin from my skull as well. Exposing my brain to the open air, leaving me screaming in agony. Such vile thoughts…
With another forkful of greens, I chewed slowly and deliberately for a longer period than usual, allowing myself more time to think. The truth is, it didn’t hurt. It never made sense to me why touching was so bad. In a sense, these new fears of morbid crippling developed like cautionary tales. Swallowing, I gulped. “But we could get into trouble.”
My nose was tickled by a curtain of black hairs falling onto my face. The nighty screen slid off my head as I brushed it away. “Stop it, Vanity.” I chirped as I began to laugh at the sensation. As Vanity’s fingers twitched and wriggled, my ribs jumped. As I toppled onto the ground, I tore through the tickling sensation running down my spine. “Stop Vanity! I am going to pee!” Vanity lay next to me on her back, letting out a little huff of her own.
“That was fun.” she said.
In an instant, Hellibor’s face creased into a demonic mask of rage as a pair of legs approached fast. “Vanity!” he boomed. “What in the world are you doing?” With wide eyes, Vanity raised to her feet. I’d never seen anyone move that quickly before. He pointed his finger at the gates that led to the small garden enclosure. “Out!” Vanity lowered her head and left without saying a word. While still on my knees, his venomous gaze locked onto me.
“What did I tell you Primina? You could have damaged her! You are never to touch others, ever.” Hellibor waved his shaking finger. “In the old days!” he roared as I cowered beneath his wrathful thunder. “I would have strangled you dead for this! Watched the life crawl from your bloody tears.” My eyes streamed with tears; all joy had fled the room, replaced by a tense sense of foreboding. “From now on, the both of you will be separated!”
“No.” My heart cried. That I wouldn’t have been able to survive that. I considered her to be my only true friend. I needed Vanity! “Hellibor, it was my fault.” I cried. “I should not have touched her. I am so sorry!” The words flew with little thought. “Please, I won’t do it again.” I cracked.
With his emotionless, frozen expression, his head only shook. “Fine, but for right now, you eat your food. I will decide what to do later. After you are to report back to your quarters until I tell you to leave. Do I make myself clear?” It terrified me. The rest of me could only nod in response to his curse. As Hellibore marched from the room, I was left alone in the garden with my mandatory meal on my plate.
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