We return again, with the fourth part of my serial short story, Eyes. The first three parts can be found under the “My Words” label, and I recommend them before you read this one. Spoilers and all that.
Anyway, I don’t have much to say before I give you this one…
Eyes, Part Four
I tried to end the world.
Three simple words were all I had to speak to do it.
Nothing is real.
I almost did it. They let me get so, so close. Just one little word and they couldn’t have held me any longer. Nothing could hold me, because nothing would be real.
A tiny little word that saved the universe from me.
A laugh heaves my chest, forces its way out of my throat in a hoarse sob. Real. There aren’t many real things left to me. Reality is… nothing. In my mind, I said those words. Nothing is real. And then there was blackness, for the longest time. Longer than I’d ever imagined. And I’d been free. Blessedly free.
Now my reality is simple. Pain is real. The throb of my dry eyes staring up at a pulsing white light. That is real. Limp arms and legs bound so tight my fingers and toes tingle. That is real. Machines roughly probing my naked body. That is real.
My tongue is so swollen I can’t speak a word. If they’d let me; a metal muzzle covers my cracked lips and envelopes my jaw. Little lights flash along it, blink in my peripheral. The new doctor claimed it would stay with me if I ever closed my eyes.
I’ll never speak again.
That laugh tries again, wracking my body, but fails to penetrate the muzzle. Movements blur in the corners of my eyes and I turn my head just a fraction. Every sensor in the room buzzes at me. The movement freezes, but then it continues. Not a machine, then.
“Good evening, Vivian.”
I strain to blink, just to feel that little bit of pain. Remind myself that this is real, that I didn’t say all three words.
The doctor leans her head over me and smiles. Grace looks like a dentist, with those pearly teeth and the rubber gloves. Flawless skin, sculpted face, tied-back hair. A perfect picture of beauty. My opposite, I guess.
“Do you know what day it is, Vivian?”
Silence. I can’t speak, and I refuse to acknowledge Dr. Palding’s little chats. We have one every night when she comes.
“It’s your birthday today. You’re eighteen, now.” She smiles again and strokes my cheek. The rubber feels harsh against my skin. “Happy birthday, dear.”
I look away from her, unable to do much else. She sighs and moves away.
“You know,” she says, “I thought we’d do something special, since it’s your birthday. A treat, you might call it. Vivian, how would you like to blink, today?”
Blink. Oh, to blink! I turn my head – ignoring the beeping of the sensors – and stare at her. My ears ring from the beeping, but all I can process is that word. Blink.
She glances over at me, presses a button. “I thought as much. Now, this will let you close your eyes for two seconds at a time. Does that make sense?”
Of course it does. They want to control even my blinking. Mustn’t let Vivian destroy the world. But I don’t care, this time. I get to blink. I nod my head, wince at the beeping of the sensors. Grace presses a few more buttons, taps her computer screen.
“Any time, dear.”
I take a deep breath, listen to the monitor that beeps in time to my heart. It’s racing along at a clipping beat much faster than usual.
Then I blink.
Blessed dimness surrounds me, silence. I move my mouth, open it a bit. Metal, hard and cold. The muzzle came with me. How did they do that?
And then my eyes pop open again. My vision is blurred as tears attempt to do their job. I heave in a breath and blink again. It hurts terribly, with the tears running across my dry eyes, but it’s wonderful at the same time. Once again, my eyes are forced open. I wonder how they do that.
I turn my head toward Grace. She smiles and nods. “You can do it some more, if you like. I’ve got all evening to do whatever else needs doing.”
Underneath the muzzle, I grimace. All evening. But I force the thought aside and blink again. A moment of dim red, then light again. Over and over I blink, closing my eyes as soon as the machines force them open again. Blink, blink, blink.
Then I can’t. Pain returns when I try to blink. Cramps the muscles around my eyes.
“That’s all we have time for, I’m afraid,” Grace says, walking over and leaning over me. “Time waits for no one, after all.”
Except me. Time stops for me, when I close my eyes. How long did all those blinks take? A minute, two?
“You’re doing excellent, dear.” Grace stands by one of the monitors, reading my diagnostics. “Very well indeed.”
Of course I’m doing well. The machines won’t let me do any less well. They feed me, tend me, scrutinize me. They know every part of my body better than I do. The thought makes me squirm a little. The sensors beep at me.
“Oh!” Grace turns and holds up a tiny screen. Like a phone, but thicker and with two antennae. “We’ve developed a way for you to speak without talking.” She giggles. “Sounds funny, doesn’t it? But, we give you this:” she holds up a microchip that’s coated in something blue, “and then you can think words onto this screen. Here:” she leans over and presses a button on my muzzle. A tiny crack opens in it and she slips the chip in.
I swallow it. To do less would result in pain.
“Now, we just do this, and this and… there!” She holds the screen toward my face. “Think of something, pretend you’re speaking it.”
So I do.
A cursor blinks onto the white screen, flashes at me. I think words at it, will it to say the only thing I want to say. My only words let.
It blinks, then begins to print the words out.
“Nothing is real.”
I look away from it, to Grace’s face. She smiles and turns the screen around so she can see. Her smile fades. She purses her lips and stands, looks down at me.
“I know you’re not happy, dear, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Yes there is, I think, make it appear on the screen.
Grace bites her lower lip and turns away. “If all you’re going to do is try and convince me to remove your muzzle then you may as well not talk. I was trying to help you.”
This doesn’t help me.
“Only because you refuse to be helped!”
This doesn’t help me.
I want to be free. To close my eyes, to stop all this pain.
Grace turns around and stares down at me. “What are you doing?”
Nothing, I’m doing nothing. I frown, shake my head.
“Look:” she turns the screen toward me. It’s covered in letters, no spaces between them. They’re all lowercased, covering the whole screen except where a tiny bar sits on the side.
The tiny bar on the side grows smaller and smaller and smaller.
“Stop,” Grace orders.
I can’t stop it, the word just keeps repeating itself over and over and over. Pain, pain, pain. Grace sets the screen down and takes her gloves off.
“If you won’t stop, I’ll sedate you,” she says, picking up the little plastic pad. I wince, but can’t stop.
She sighs. “So be it.” She presses the pad against my bare stomach and the room fades.
The machines are gone. At long last, they are gone. I wear a filmy white robe that clings to my skin. It feels strange, to wear clothes again, even if it’s just a robe. Nothing of the clinic remains, except for my mask. That’s what they call it, at least. A mask.
I smile at that. A bitter smile. No one likes to admit that it’s a muzzle meant to keep me from talking. I look down at the screen in my hand. It’s a bigger one than the first, with more buttons and a touchscreen. The cursor blinks at me. Sometimes I like to pretend that it’s blinking for me. Because, of course, the mask doesn’t let me blink, either.
Well, that’s not true. I get to blink three times a day. A peace offering, they said.
And I hate them for it. That blinking, it gives me hope.
I didn’t ask for hope, I didn’t want it.
I wanted nothing.
Not that anyone cares what I want.
The door in front of my opens, revealing a tiny white room just as empty as the one I stand in. I step through and the door closes with a whisper. My stomach lurches as the room rises into the air, taking me to another floor. I always hated elevators, and this one is even worse than normal ones. All white, all glowing softly.
Soon. The word prints itself out onto the screen.
I know, I think back at it. At myself, really. A couple weeks ago I started doing that. Talking to myself through the screen. Nothing important, nothing personal. Just little snippets of conversation. I can clear the screen whenever I want, but the doctors can see every word I think onto it. So I say nothing worthwhile.
I am relaxed.
Are not, idiot. You’re about to get to pick out CLOTHING.
I don’t remember when I learned to think words in all capitals, but it’s a nice touch, I think.
Fine. I’m excited.
The door opens and I stop thinking. No thoughts now.
A young man in a dark blue coat and stiff white trousers stands inside, watching me. Heat creeps up my neck, darkens my cheeks.
“Come on, this way,” he says, turning away.
Well, if he doesn’t care, neither do I. I follow him down the hall and into a large room. A closet, full of clothes.
“Take your pick.” He steps aside, lets me enter, then leaves and closes the door.
Privacy. I haven’t had privacy in years.
Well, close to privacy. I see three cameras winking red lights at me and there’s a camera attached to my mask. Close enough, though. What are the chances anyone is actually watching me? I pick out a blue shirt that feels nice and soft, jeans, and a pair of socks. Oh, and shoes, too. As I change into them, I try not to look down at myself. Back when I lived on the streets, I was skinny. Then imprisonment and testing turned me emaciated. But now… now I’m healthy-looking, thanks to the machines.
It’s weird to feel like a real person.
I’m not a real person. I stop, look down at myself as I pull on the shoes. So long ago, I almost wasn’t real. Close enough that it hardly matters. One word. I look down at the speech-screen.
Nothing is real. Nothing is real. Nothing is real.
I frown. That’s strange, I thought they removed that word from the vocabulary of the machine. Part of me smiles, behind the mask. It’s good to see it again, that word. Like an old friend who’s just returned from a very long trip. My best friend, that word.
The door opens. It’s that boy in the blue coat. He grins at me.
“You look like a real person, now, instead of a patient,” he says. Very energetically.
I hold the screen out toward him.
I was never a patient.
He blinks and the grin fades. He licks his lips, his Adam’s apple bobs, and then he gestures to the door. “Er… this way.”
Mentally, I wipe the screen of the words and leave the room.
“You’re free to go,” the boy tells me. “We’ll be giving you some money and a place to sleep. Shouldn’t be too hard to find a job, if you want one.”
I nod, but stop paying attention. Free to go. A tear slips free from my unblinking eyes and slides under the muzzle. Strange how it can escape, but sound cannot. I can’t speak. Ever. The tear tastes salty on my lips.
What about food? I ask on the screen.
He shrugs. “The mask will provide.”
I turn away and walk down the hall, toward the red EXIT sign. My heart pounds and it’s hard to breathe. EXIT. EXIT. EXIT. Part of me wants to run, to flee from this place. Free. EXIT. So close. My steps quicken until I’m jogging. The crash bar on the door blinks a little green light.
I slam the bar with my hands and the door swings open. Fresh air hits my, caresses me, cradles me. Cars sweep by the building, dozens of them. Black, blue, white, red. All colors and shapes blurring and honking. Noise surrounds me and deafens me.
I think the word, think it in all capital letters and look down at my screen. The cursor blinks up at me.
Free. I want it to print the word FREE.
Nothing is real.