Please enjoy Eyes:
I whimper when I hear the door slam. Daddy’s home. I creep out of my room, not daring to even turn on the nightlight right outside my bedroom door. The carpet muffles my footsteps, but I tread as quietly as I can. My breaths come fast, my heart pounds. Daddy curses and kicks something – a chair or wall, maybe. I shudder. Momma screams something back at him. The blood pounding in my ears sounds like a thousand marching feet – Momma just says it’s blood, but I know it’s really feet – coming to get me. The dark hall stretches on forever, with the light from the stairwell at the end far, far away. I’m not afraid of the dark. Darkness is my friend. Daddy can’t find me in the dark. The kids at school are afraid of the dark. They don’t like me, either.
For a moment I close my eyes and the sounds seem to grow dim, far off. If only I could close my eyes forever and no one would ever see me again. Max, my black kitty, comes prancing down the hall, purring despite the ruckus downstairs. I shoo at him. Daddy might hear him. I reach the stairs and look down. All the lights are on in the living room, but the kitchen – where the shouts are coming from – is dark. The front door is open.
Something shatters and my mother screams. She runs out of the kitchen, shouting.
“Com’mere, you-!” Daddy shouts, spitting out a curse. Momma says I shouldn’t ever say that word; that only bad people use those words. He comes stumbling out of the kitchen, drunk again. I shudder and back away a little, hoping he doesn’t see me. I can’t run, he’ll see me for sure. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. For a moment the sounds fade again, like it’s just me. I open my eyes; Max rubs against my bare leg, purring. I give him a little shove down the hall. Momma screams again. She runs back toward the kitchen, Daddy is close behind her. There’s a cigarette in his mouth –there always is. He has a lighter in one hand, and a piece of pipe. Where did Daddy get the pipe? There’s more crashing and banging from in the kitchen, more shouting. I cringe each time Momma screams, whimper when something breaks or falls.
Momma runs out of the kitchen, bruises already forming on her face and arms. She doesn’t seem to see me as she dashes up the stairs and runs by me, huddled in the corner. She’s got her phone out. Is she going to call the police? Will they take Daddy away?
Daddy stumbles out of the kitchen, and totters toward the stairs, mumbling curses I’ve heard him use before. He starts to climb up toward me, but slips on the carpet and falls back down. Another shouted curse, and more muttering. He crawls up the stairs, grasping at the carpet with his fingers while still holding the lighter and the pipe. I press myself against the wall – maybe he won’t see me. Sure enough, he staggers right by me, although I’m sure he must be able to hear my heart beating like a drum.
When he vanishes into the darkness down the hall, I scoot forward and run down the stairs to find a better place to hide. There’s little pieces of glass all over the kitchen floor, glittering in the darkness. The light above the sink is broken, and the fan is on. I reach up and switch the fan off, shivering a little. The living room is all messed up – Daddy’s chair knocked over and the pictures from the mantle lie on the floor. More thumping and screaming upstairs. I whimper a little and huddle in a corner of the kitchen.
A moment later momma comes running back into the kitchen, phone clutched in one hand. Her hair is all messed up, and there’s a bobby pin hanging loose on one side. She glances at me, but doesn’t really see me for a minute.
“Vivian!” she hisses, “what are you doing here?”
“Daddy’s scary, momma,” I say, scooting farther into the corner.
Daddy barges into the room, holding the lighter and pipe loosely. Somewhere, he lost the cigarette, from all the yelling I think. He yells another curse – I haven’t heard that one before, but by the way momma cringes I know it’s one – and slams the door shut. The only light now is from the window. With a staggering lurch, he lunges at momma. She slips to the side, away from me, and slams her back into one of the cupboards. She lets out a soft moan.
“You’re a worthless little-“ he trails off in a string of curses again.
Momma shouts right back at him, using the same words. That makes him angry and he hits her with the pipe. I can’t hold back a scream as momma collapses. It’s then that Daddy notices me. He tries to get his cigarette lighter to come up, little sparks shooting out the end, but it’s dead or something. With another curse, he tosses it aside, and it clatters to the floor.
“You!” he shouts, the word slurring, “you did this to us!”
I cover my eyes with my hands. “It isn’t real,” I whisper. The faint darkness I can see grows black, and everything is quiet. I lower my hands and open my eyes, only to see father raising the pipe, still cursing.
I cover my face again. “Father isn’t real.” Again, the shouts vanish. This time, however, when I open my eyes, the pipe clatters to the floor. Father is gone, but his clothes lay in a pile on the floor, next to the pipe.
My hands shake as I reach out and touch the pipe. It’s still warm where he held it. I shiver and back into the corner, rocking myself and humming a little tune momma taught me. I’m still there when the sirens and lights come barreling down the street, and men flood into the room.
I brush my tangled hair out of my eyes and peer out the alleyway. A jeep trundles past, the men standing in the back swing their flashlights across the street. With a muttered curse I duck back behind the dumpster and hold my breath as one of the lights sweeps down the alley. They don’t stop, thank goodness, and the light vanishes.
Seven years. They’ve been looking for me long enough that I’m changed. I’m not a little girl anymore. Of course, they still call me one. I clutch the frayed hem of my dress as I stand. It’s way too small for me, the skirt ends halfway up my thigh and it’s too tight. Besides, the thing is more holes than anything else. I need to find a department store with a dumpster.
“Hey you,” someone whispers behind me.
I spin around, pulling out the jagged piece of scrap metal I like to use as a knife. Not that I really need a weapon. However, stab wounds are easier to explain then piles of clothing, for the police. Disappearances help them find me.
The speaker is an old man, with hardly any hair left, and the fringe of it he does have is white. His hands and face are wrinkled, but the way he holds himself upright proves he’s not as old as he looks.
“What do you want?” I ask.
He smiles, and it reminds me of grandpa. “Nothing, nothing. Just wondering why you’re hiding from those men.”
“None of your business,” I mutter, turning away.
“And if you’re the one they’re looking for?” He steps closer, scuffed-up boots crunching on old glass.
“Then you’d better run.”
The man frowns. I smirk and close my eyes. The sounds of the city grow dim and faraway, as if they’re not really there. “This man isn’t real,” I whisper, and I hear a faint scream. When I open my eyes his clothes flutter to the ground. A knife drops with them, clattering onto the pavement. I wince. Of course he had a weapon. He’d be a fool not to have one.
“Sorry,” I whisper. I pick up his clothes, stuff them in the dumpster, and dash out of the alley. The streetlights flicker and dance on the sidewalk as I cross the street and plunge into another narrow street between two apartment complexes. Most of the doors have a sign that say ‘beware of dog’, and all of them have one that quite rudely says ‘no soliciting’. Some of the windows are boarded up, and there’s still glass on the pavement from when they got busted open. From the inside or outside, sometimes both. A feral cat spits and hisses as I pass its garbage can, its mangy fur gathering into clumps that stand straight up.
I hiss right back at it, and it dives into its can, growling. As I cross streets and slink between alleys the city becomes less apartments and more rundown shops. The buildings are all locked up tight, but I find a department store with a big dumpster in the back. About time, I think, opening the lid. Most of them have these dumped every day, as if they know I’m coming and don’t want to have their refuse. But this one is full of junk: papers and leftovers from employees’ lunches, shredded documents, lightbulbs and hangers and tags and, best of all, clothing.
Ruined stuff, clothing with defects, returned items with rips in them. Men’s, women’s, even some children’s stuff. I clamber up and settle down on top of the pile, rummaging through it for anything that might fit. I find a pair of socks without holes – pure gold, these – and replace them with my own tattered pair with the heels missing. There aren’t any shoes, but mine are still a size too big, from the last time I found a dumpster with clothes in it.
There’s a pair of women’s jeans, but they’re ten sizes too big, and I toss them away. Shirts and pants and skirts and a few dresses, all too big or small. I mutter to myself and glance up at the moon. Close to midnight.
At last I find a dress – a little worse for wear, with one of the short sleeves missing and a tear in the back – that is a close enough fit. I pull my own ragged one off and slip the other one over my head. It’s still a little big, the knee-length skirt reach halfway down my calves and the neckline is ridiculously low on me, but I pull the neck back and keep it in place by tightening a belt around my waist.
Not very fashionable, but good enough. I grab a winter coat from the dumpster – it’s missing most of the stuffing – and slip away. A few other homeless people slip through the alley, each one eying me and my new outfit before slipping past into the darkness. One man leers at me. I feel heat creeping up my neck – the stupid neckline is still lower than anyone in their right mind wears.
I find a deserted alley crammed between a post office and an abandoned library and climb into one of the empty garbage cans. It smells of dead fish and cat, but it’s as safe as I’ll find. I pull the coat over me as a blanket. Gripping my piece of scrap metal, I fall into a fitful sleep.
When I wake it’s still close to midnight. As usual, time didn’t move. Yet, I’m still perfectly rested, and I climb out of the garbage can. I still don’t know why, but I can sleep forever and it’s still the same time I went to bed. But I don’t complain, everyone else has to sleep while I get a head start in running from them.
A jeep rolls by the alleyway and one of the lights strikes me. The light blinds me for a moment as the jeep squeals to a stop and someone shouts. Great. I spin and run, blinking rapidly to get rid of the afterimage. My new dress catches on something and I have to rip the one good sleeve to get away. One of the soldiers blows a whistle and another one shouts. I duck down another alley and slip between two doorways, a crevice in the wall. It’s a maze, here in the lower city, and they’ll never find me.
Two men rush past me, waving flashlights and gripping automatic rifles. Those make me shiver. Can I stop a bullet quick enough? Or a tranquilizer? Those might move faster. And with the silencers, I might never even hear it coming.
The thought ripples through my mind in a second, and is gone. My heart pounds, I’m sure they’ll hear it if they stop and listen. It can’t really be just me. The feet march through my ears again, the blood pounding like an army. I wait for a count of thirty before slipping out of the crevice and heading away from the soldiers.
I curse myself and turn down an alleyway. Should have waited for the third one. It’s always the third one. He blows his whistle. A bright light shines down the alley ahead of me and I duck down another one. The windows in the buildings are dark despite the noise, no one wants to know what’s going on when men shout and whistles blow. Anyone who peeks their head out might get arrested.
No escape here. So I jump, grab a fire-escape ladder. The metal screeches at me and pierces the darkness. Stupid noise. Shouts come from below as I rush up the steps. A weight shakes the ladder as I reach the first landing. Then I squeeze my eyes shut.
Everything goes silent.
They can’t get me, now. I’m safe with my eyes closed. I bite my lower lip and decide.
“The ladder doesn’t exist,” I whisper. Then I open my eyes. Below, the ladder vanishes. A man shouts and crashes back to the ground. I smile and turn away. Steps lead to the next landing. And the next. And the next.
I reach the last one and look up. There, six feet away, is the roof. My freedom. Rough bricks meet my fingertips, scrape my skin. No awful smells up here, it’s almost… fresh. Well, except for me. I reek from that garbage can. And the one before it.
My fingers find holds and I climb. Using the windowsill, I heave myself up and over the last bit. Then I tumble onto the flat roof of the apartment building and roll over on my back. The winter coat is warm despite lacking its stuffing, surrounds me in blessed warmth. My knees quake under the thin dress.
Need to find a better one. Maybe even steal one out of a store. After all, I can close my eyes and sneak right in. No one will ever know.
So blinding I can’t even close my eyes. It blinds me and tears spill over my eyelids. Then I squeeze my eyes shut. Still bright. So much light. Too much.
“The light doesn’t exist,” I whisper.
My eyelids look red, with the light shining on them.
It didn’t vanish.
The light didn’t go away.
I open my eyes, wince at the harsh light. Someone shouts and rough hands heave me up. My heart pounds and I scream. The sound thunders through my ears and I cut it off. Can’t breathe. Can’t… I can’t… At last, the light moves away, passes by me. I can see again, see through the darkness of the rooftop.
The hands holding me whirl me around and something dark – as dark as the blackness behind my eyes – presses against my face. I shout, resist, scream. Close my eyes.
But they don’t.
My eyes won’t close. They won’t… pain. I cry out and collapse onto the rough cement of the roof. So much pain.
“Relax,” a voice says. Distant, high-pitched. “Fight it, and you will be hurt. Relax, and we can help you. Can we help you?”
Something pricks my arm. A needle. My hand goes numb, then my arm. Fingers twitch uselessly. I still can’t breathe. And the pain. It courses down my spine. But then it, too, vanishes in the numbness.
I think I go unconscious. It’s hard to tell, my eyes are still open. But I can’t move, can’t speak, can’t feel. Nothing. No movement and no freedom. The sky above me shifts and swirls.
I can move again. A little. Something binds my hands together, but my fingers move. They twitch against soft.
That’s me. I twitch my fingers again. They feel something soft, but I feel them twitch. I frown, bite my lower lip. I’m not soft.
I try to blink.
I wake, jerking against the cold metal. My eyes burn at the movement. The stark white walls blind me. The dial and knobs and levers on the panels around me are bright colors, made even brighter by the harsh light emanating from the ceiling. Everything is so vivid, more real than it was three years ago. An eternity.
A door opens, a single panel of the smooth walls. It whispers to me as it slides out of the way. Dr. Sandy walks in the door, holding his titanium briefcase to his chest. Official-looking men in brown suits follow him, their hard eyes staring at me. I cringe, and try to look away. Yet, that hurts, too. One of them grins; I want to scream at him. They took everything from me, why do they smile?
“Good morning, Vivian. You slept nearly two hours this time. A record.” Dr. Sandy smiles at me and scribbles in his notebook. “Very good.” He murmurs. “Ah, Vivian, these men are the council, and Mr. Samson. He is the Director of the board.” He points to the one that grinned at me. I scowl.
“Vivian, is it?” he speaks, and when he does, I flinch. His voice is so soft, yet it is the softness of a knife pressed against your throat. “You are the Eyes, eh?” He frowns. “I thought the Eyes would be a monster, not a young girl.
“She is sixteen, Mr. Samson.” Dr. Sandy fusses with his controls, turning dials and lever like a madman. Maybe his is a madman. Maybe they all are. After all, if I close my eyes, they don’t exist. I wonder how that makes them feel.
“Vivian, this started two years ago, didn’t it?”
“Do you remember when it happened? Can you tell me about it?”
I say nothing, only stare at him with eyes that will not close because of the machines.
His soft brown eyes harden. “If you do not tell me, Dr. Sandy will have to force it out of you. I don’t want that to happen, but if it must, it must. Will you tell me?”
“It wasn’t my fault!” I try to shout, but it hurts my eyes and throat. “He made me do it! I’m sorry,” I sob, “It’s not my fault. I’m sorry, I’m so…” My voice trails off, and I sob again.
“I understand,” he says. But I know he doesn’t. No one does. “Who made you do it?”
“My father.” Air comes slowly, as if the room is full of water, and the air is forcing its way through.
“What did he do?”
Everything is painted so vividly, I feel as if I am there. His dark eyes glittering with the drunken rage he always had, the CVP pipe hanging loosely in one hand, the cigarette lighter in the other. Mother backed against the wall, screaming at him.
“What did he do, Vivian?” Mr. Samson turns away from me, looking toward one of the monitors on the wall. I stare at it, knowing the scene would come. The dark screen flashes to life, a thousand pixels exploding with color. They hurt my eyes, more than the white light from the ceiling. The colors form the image in my mind, a movie played out by my thoughts. A tear falls from my eye, traces a familiar track down my cheek, and falls into the sensor-beam. It evaporates in an instant, I stare at the wisp of steam The image on the screen begins to move. My father shouts at mother, curses and insults. She screams back, and he hits her with the pipe. My father turns to me clutching the pipe and the lighter. The sparks click as he stares at it, trying to get it to light. After a long moment, he tosses it aside, a string of curses following it. I curl into a ball on the screen, but the real me stares at the steam curling up from the sensor.
The men stare the screen as my father lifts the pipe and I cover my eyes with my hands. I whisper a few words. “It’s not real.” And the darkness behind my hands becomes black. The curses are cut off, and everything disappears. A moment later my hands move away, and there is my father, still lifting the pipe. I cover my face again, the screen goes black. “Father is not real,” I whisper. Again the shouts vanish. This time, when I remove my hands, father is gone. All that remains is his clothing, the pipe, and the lighter in the corner. The screen goes black, and the real me collapses against the metal holding me up.
“She is weak,” I hear Dr. Sandy speak. “You should let her rest.”
“Not until I have answers.” Mr. Samson is standing close. “How can she do it? She made a man cease to exist, just by closing her eyes and saying he doesn’t.”
“I do not know, sir.” Dr. Sandy’s southern accent becomes stronger as he speaks. “It defies every theory I come up with.”
“Run the test.”
“Sir! She is too weak!” Dr. Sandy babbles.
“Run it!” Mr. Samson lifts my chin with a finger. I stare at him. But what else can I do? They won’t let me blink. “She looks fine to me.”
Dr. Sandy gives me a sympathetic look, but he walks to the wall and presses a panel. It slides away, revealing the syringe and the blue vial. I cringe; the movement makes the sensors beep at me. He pours a tiny bit of the fluid into the syringe, and set it on the metal table below me. Dr. Sandy picks up the wires and begins to press them against my arms, the tiny pads buzzing faintly as they stick. He misjudges the placement of one, and it shocks us both. He yelps, I whimper. It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.
When he finishes with the wires on my arms and legs, he sticks the needle carefully into my shoulder. The pain is worse this time, because I am weak. He winces when I sob, but he does not stop until the liquid is all in my body. He presses the tiny chip into my mouth, and pours water in after. I swallow, because what choice do I have? Mr. Samson grins at me again. I glare at him, a trickle of water running down my chin. The room begins to darken. Dr. Sandy flips a switch, and I can close my eyes. It feels so wonderful. They don’t hurt anymore. The liquid begins to take hold, a jet of fire shooting down my veins. The fire turns to ice, all at once, and I shiver. The darkness fades, and I can see. My eyes are still closed, yet I can see through them. The room is light, but it is faint. The men are not there, the screens are lifeless and the humming of the lights above me fades to nothing. Everything looks transparent. I reach out to touch the metal bonds that held me, and my hand goes right through them. I step down from the machine, and look around. It wouldn’t last much longer, and Dr. Sandy would put me back up in the machine, and I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes till the next test.
“This isn’t real.” I say. “The machine isn’t real.” It fades completely away, as if it never were. The wires on my arms and legs buzz and hiss, I yank them off. “Mr. Samson is not real.” There is a faint scream, so faint I almost think I imagine it. “The Council is not real.” More screams. I ponder the last name. Dr. Sandy has been kind to me. I do not speak his name. The white panel that is the door does not stop me as I half-walk half-float through it into the empty hall outside. I stare at the lights and buttons covering the walls, wondering what they do. The ice in my heart fades, the test is fading. My sight fades, and I open my eyes.
The hall looks more alive when there are people in it. They stare at me, wide eyed. One of the men shouts at me, I close my eyes and whisper. “They are not real.” The screams echo more loudly than before, but the hall is empty when I open my eyes, save for the piles of clothes. I stumble to the closest pile and put on the white lab coat. The panel hisses as it opens behind me, I turn.
“Vivian!” Dr. Sandy shouts. “What have you done?”
“You locked me up in there!” I scream back. “It’s not my fault! Just… just leave me be!” I look away.
“Vivian… you can’t run from this. They will find you.” He points to a monitor next to, a black and white camera screen. Dozens of men rush past it, loading shock guns.
“I don’t care. Let them kill me!” I back away from him. “Just let me die.”
“You have a gift, Vivian, and all they want-“
“All they want is to control me.” I interrupt, “All they want is to find out what is wrong with me. But nothing is wrong! I am me, I’ve just been me!”
“Vivian, it’s a gift.”
“A gift?” I frown. “Why doctor?”
“I don’t know! The tests show nothing! I can’t figure it out. Nothing makes sense!”
“Then let me die. Please.” I fall to my knees. “Just let me die.”
“No doctor.” I close my eyes. “He does not exist,” I whisper. His scream lasts longer than the others. When I open my eyes, he is gone. A moment later the men appear around the bend. I stay kneeling on the floor, facing them. One shouts something to me, they all lift their weapons when I do not respond. I stare at them, and frown. What do they want? Something hits me in the stomach, a tiny dart. I whimper and fall back. They rush forward, and I stare up at them. My eyes close, and I whisper. “Nothing… nothing is.. is…”
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.
I live in a tiny apartment on the third floor of an apartment building in a small town in North Dakota. No one knows my name, no one speaks to me. The government gives me money, I spend it on things. Clothes, decorations for my house. Art. Even a cat. But the cat ran away last week. I never have to buy food, the mask sustains me. When the government worker stops by to giving me cash, she fills the feeder in the mask.
I am free, but in chains.
The neighbor boy likes to help me carry my shopping bags up the stairs. He’s nice, I guess. Three years older than me, ugly. His nose is too big and he’s got a lopsided grin. Too many freckles, dull colored eyes. Calloused hands, dirty-colored hair. And he always forgets to shave during the week, so scraggly little hairs blend in with the freckles.
I sit in my apartment most of the day and watch the television. Or my screen. I talk to myself all the time now.
Get up and do the dishes.
I don’t HAVE any dishes.
A pause, a moment of real silence.
Get up and do SOMETHING.
There’s nothing to do, here. Just flat fields of grain or grass or sunflowers. Nothing worth seeing, not even the ruins of Mount Rushmore. I live hours from those and they’re not even in my state. Maybe I’ll hitchhike over there, someday. I fiddle with the strings on my hoodie and shrug my shoulders. This hoodie is my favorite, my only one. I wear it with a pair of shorts most days, wash it on the weekends when I stay in bed all day and don’t bother getting dressed.
It’s your birthday in two days.
Well that’s a boring attempt at conversation. Usually I’m better at it than that. Months ago I stopped caring if some scientist saw what I was thinking. Or anyone else, for that matter. Haven’t clear the screen in days.
I’m going to be really old.
Twenty-two. You can drink now, you know.
I can’t drink ANYTHING.
Whoops. I stumped myself. There went the only reason to party on my birthday. My hands stray to the muzzle, feel the smooth metal. Each time the government worker drops by, she makes empty promises, saying that the mask might come off someday.
They’ll never let me speak. Ever.
I stand and shut the television off. Nothing on, anyway.
That screen is decidedly sarcastic. Sometimes I forget it’s me thinking both sides of that conversation. I walk into the bedroom and poke around through my closet. Clothes, clothes, a long-empty cat bed.
My life is boring, now. No chases, no starvation, no machines. Nothing. My heart flutters at the thought. A real life, that was. Always on the run, always watching over my shoulder.
Then the pain stabs me right in the stomach. They caught me. They chained me up and tested on me. Locked me up in a lab, tried to pick me apart. No, that wasn’t a real life. A farce, a play that felt real until the curtains closed and left me with this.
The clock by the door chimes two. I smile and sit down on the bed. My favorite time of day. Then, my eyes blink. Dimness surrounds me, near black. Countless seconds of swirling emptiness. I almost imagine that I said that final word. But then my eyes open again, the tears swirl back and away. Moistened eyes, back to unblinking.
I sigh, let the happiness dissipate to nothing. Five hours till the next time I can blink. That government lady also promises I’ll get to blink more often someday.
The doorbell rings.
Oh. Him again. I stand and wander to the front door and open it. Arnold stands there, smiling.
“Did you blink?” he asks.
I nod. He’s the only person in this town who knows I can only blink three times a day. Everyone else probably assume I just stare a lot because of my mask.
“Can I come in?”
I shrug, let him brush past me. Arnold. He’s got an ugly name, too.
“There’s a football game tonight,” he says as I close the door, “you coming?”
No. I hold the screen out so he can see the word.
He frowns. “You can’t drink anything? Really?”
Oh. I turn the screen away and sit down on the couch next to him. Then, I clear the screen and hold it back out to him.
“Oh. I thought maybe you took the mask off, sometimes.”
I shake my head.
They won’t let me take it off, ever.
“Who are they?”
They see what I write on this thing.
He fidgets and looks around. We go through this most of the times he comes to say hi. He’s got a short memory to go with his short stature.
“Can they hear me?”
I shake my head. Of course not. Idiot. But Arnold sighs like I told him new information.
“That’s good. Let’s see… is it the government?”
This again. He never can guess it quite right. I nod. He’ll get close, then give up. Always does. But at least he talks to me.
“Hmm… The Pentagon?”
I shake my head.
He blinks at the screen. “I thought-“
Not an important word.
“Oooooh. Right. Uhm… Top Secret?”
“Department of Human Secrets?”
I stare. He… he got it right.
He laughs, shouts, stands up. “I got it!” he shouts.
I take a deep breath, look around. It’s strange, now that he knows. Maybe they’ll look me up again. Wipe his memory, punish me for letting him guess. Don’t tell anyone, I write on the screen.
Arnold cuts off mid-laugh and his face turns very serious. “I won’t say a word. Are you sure they didn’t hear or see?”
I nod. They took the camera off my mask when I moved here. Said they did it because I was so obedient.
“What now?” he asks.
I shrug. Who cares, he guessed it.
What about that football game? I write.
“You really want to go?” He smiles, skewing up his ugly face even further.
Sure. But… I don’t know how to get there…
“I’ll take you!” He stands and looks around. “It starts at… uh… seven. I think Maybe six-thirty. We should leave at like… six. Or something.” He stuffs his hands into his pockets and looks down at me. “You really want to go?”
If it makes him happy, I guess. Besides, it’s a celebration. He finally got it right. Only took him two months of visiting and guessing. I’d go to half a dozen football games if he wanted me to.
The football game was pretty exciting. I don’t know what really went on, but everyone was cheering and shouting and our team won, I think. It was hard to tell. Either way, no one around me seemed to care for more than a second that I was wearing the muzzle. Besides, it was cold and I had a scarf covering most of it anyway. Arnold tried to explain everything, but it was hard to hear him above all the shouting people.
Best night ever.
Maybe I’ll go to the next one, too. After learning more about football.
I stop outside my door and glance over at Arnold. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, then clears his throat.
“Well, goodnight,” he says. Then he turns and walks down the hall to his apartment.
I stare after him. The cursor on my screen blinks rapidly.
The door to my bedroom creaks open.
I’m awake, staring up at the ceiling. Long ago I learned to sleep with my eyes forced open, it’s second nature. But it keeps me alert.
And my door shouldn’t be opening.
Light streams in, falls on the foot of my bed. Footsteps, creaking floorboards, the sound of the cabinets opening. I smell strong cologne, a heady scent like a dead skunk crossed with lilacs. The average cologne, then. All those footsteps, creaking, creaking. Lots of people.
My breaths come in short gasps, stifled by my blankets. Who is here?
Not burglars, not here. Everyone knows everyone and everything around here. Even I know who everyone is. No one breaks into places and steals things in this town.
Maybe they saw me at the game last week, saw me and wanted to convince me to never show my face in public again. Locals teaching that freak girl a lesson for coming to their football game. Tears trickle down my cheeks. I won’t do it again, if it is them. I’ll learn. Maybe they’ll leave me alone, just trash the kitchen and living room, leave warning messages.
Footsteps approach my bed.
The light on my screen goes on, a terrible white light on my nightstand. Inside, I scream. It wakes up when it thinks I want to speak.
No, no, no! Go back to sleep!
“I know you’re awake.”
A rough voice, old. I freeze, unable to even breathe, now. My heart thuds slower than it should. Time seems to creep along, yet not creep at all. Race.
“We’re not here to hurt you or your things. Just to check up on you.”
The government. I relax, inhale deeply.
In the middle of the night? I think the thought onto the screen.
“Yes. We’ll be gone in a minute.”
I shift under the blankets and hug my sides.
Do you need anything from me? I hope not. I’m wearing a long T-shirt and nothing else, besides the muzzle.
“No, you stay in bed. I’ve just got check one thing…” a shadowy figure steps close, leans down, presses the side of my muzzle. It beeps once, twice, thrice. “There. Go back to sleep, we’ll be gone in forty-five seconds, all right?”
All right. What did he do with my mask? And what about the bumping and shifting in the other room? Were they searching my things? Anger burns in the pit of my stomach, hardens to a rocky lump that shifts when I swallow. They can’t read emotions off of me, can they?
Sure enough, the noise in the other rooms fades in less than a minute. The door clicks shut. I count to ten, waiting, then throw the blankets off and creep into the other room. Everything is dark again, shadows against darker shadows. Lights move across the walls, reflections of headlights through the windows. Then darkness. I play with the hem of my shirt and reach over to flick the light.
My eyes complain at the sudden brightness, but I can’t even squint. That’s all right, I’m pretty used to pain in my eyes. Everything in my apartment looks the same, tidy and neat as before. I shrug. Weirder things have happened. I shut the light off and stumble back to bed.
Sleep. Dreams of before the nightmares, back when I could blink. Ages and ages ago, back when my parents still pretended to love each other.
Waking brings groggy thoughts, bleary eyes, stuffed nose. I wander into the bathroom, rub my paralyzed eyes, shower, and brush my teeth. Then I meander back to my bedroom, pull a pair of pants on, a clean shirt.
A red light blinks in the corner of the living room. Just a tiny red flicker, then gone. I tilt my head, walk over to it. There, up in the very corner, sits a tiny, tiny camera. The side of my thumb and the same color as the walls. That red light blinks again as I stare at it, so quick and small I almost miss it. That anger from last night returns, harder, hotter. They’re spying on me, now. That camera wasn’t there before.
I glower up at it, clench my fists. Before I can think about it further, I jump up and grab it. The camera snaps off the wall mount and I land back on the floor with a thud. It beeps at me, like a car alarm. I open the window and throw it out, listen to it crash against the dumpster below.
My screen lights up.
I’m an idiot.
Yeah, the screen is right. I am an idiot. Now they’ll come back and tell me not to break the camera anymore. Claim it’s for my protection, that’s all. If I’m good, they’ll take it down someday. The anger smolders, though, and I can’t say I’m sorry.
I sit on the couch and read until noon – a new book I found in the library about a girl who meets the perfect guy and they fall in love or something. It’s the most boring and unrealistic thing I’ve ever read, but at least it’s something to do.
The girl hurts the guy’s feelings, they make up. For some reason he apologizes more than she does… what’d he do wrong again? I can’t remember. Probably something trivial, since the rest of the book paints him as perfect for her.
I glance at the other corners of the room. No blinking light there. Frowning, I put the book down and walk into the kitchen. There, just out of sight above one of the cupboards, a light blinks. Might as well do the job right: I pull a chair over and yank that camera down, too. Toss it on top of the dumpster.
Then I glance down at my screen. They can read everything I think onto it.
I don’t like being spied on. I think onto it. Not that they care, but maybe they’ll take me into consideration when they come to install new ones.
The clock rings two. I blink, enjoy the blissful dimness, and wait for the doorbell. Five minutes after two, as always, the doorbell rings. I smile behind the mask and answer it, it’s Arnold.
“Did you blink?”
“Good.” He shifts on his feet. “You want to go to the football game again tonight? We’re facing a real good team, but I think we can beat ‘em.”
I’d love to!
And that… that was the happiest thing I’d ever thought onto my screen. Even if it was an exaggeration. Love is a strong word. A stupid word, in some ways.
“Great! Hm. We’ll leave a little earlier so we can get better seats. Sound good to you?”
Sure, whenever. Whoops, there the screen goes again, being all distant and passive. I’m good at that. We walk into the living room and sit down.
“So. Now that I know where your mask comes from, I don’t even know what to talk about.” Arnold laughs a little. I try to act amused; it’s hard with the muzzle covering my grin.
He folds his hands. “Er… can I ask why you have it on?”
My heart stops and skips a pair of beats. Then I can breathe again, deeply. He… he wants to know. Not that he can guess. If I tell him… the scientists told me not to tell anyone in this town why I have the muzzle. They’ll take me away, keep everyone I tell silent. By force.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me,” he says, fingering the inside hem of his jeans. “I just… was curious. You… Nevermind.” Arnold looks away from me, his cheeks reddening.
When I close my eyes, time stops.
I take a deep, shuddering breath, and hold the screen toward him. His eyes widen when he reads the sentence.
Yes. And… and when I speak, things stop existing. All I have to do is close my eyes, say something doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t.
He stares at me. His hands tremble in his lap. “And… they… don’t want you to speak?”
“Why? Did you…” he grips the armrest of the couch.
Yes, I did bad things. Killed people. It’s… it’s a long story. They chased me, when I was a little girl. I couldn’t get away. So I made them not exist. In the end, the caught me, experimented on me. Then put this mask on me, set me free. I… I shouldn’t have told you. They’ll come, now. Take me away. Make sure you tell no one my secret. They…
Arnold reaches out, touches the mask. “How does it come off?” he asks.
His big, calloused hands take hold of the sides of the mask. He flexes his muscles, pulls. Metal snaps, creaks, then breaks. The muzzle cracks and falls off my face. I suck in a deep breath, my first breath of free air in… forever.
Arnold holds the mangled pieces of the mask in his hands, stares down at it.
“I…” he glances at me, then back down at the muzzle. “I…”
My heart thuds, so loud it overwhelms everything else. Blood pulses through my ears, pounds through my skull. Slowly, slowly, I reach up and touch my cheeks, lips, nose. I stand and turn, toward the mirror hanging above the table by the door.
Pale, tender skin surrounds my mouth, covers my cheeks and the tip of my nose. My lips are pale and narrow, pressed together tightly.
“I…” Arnold stands, the pieces of the mask falling to the floor. I turn to him, smile tremulously.
My lips part. “Th… thank you,” I say. Then I blink. It happens so fast, and then is gone.
I stare at Arnold, he stares at me. I blinked!
“You talked!” Arnold said, mouth hanging open.
I laugh. “Yes, I can talk… that’s…” I glance at the pieces of the muzzle. “That’s why I wore that thing. Why they made me wear it.”
Arnold nods solemnly. “What now? Will they arrest me?”
“They’ll probably kill you.” The words sound harsh and I wince. He does, too, but then he frowns.
“Not if they can’t find us.”
He shrugs. “We could leave, I’ve got my car. We can be far away from here, where they’ll never find us.”
My laugh is bitter, this time. “I ran from them for years. They always find you. Always.”
“What’s your name?”
I blink. “What?” Oh, it feels so good to speak.
Arnold’s deep, serious eyes stare at me, don’t blink. Mine do. Oh, mine blink.
“I don’t know your name.”
“It’s…” it feels like a secret, like a special part of me no one gets to know. “Vivian.”
He smiles. “Vivian. It’s nice to meet you.”
Then the door opens. It shatters, the hinges squeal and disintegrate. Men step through, men in red bulletproof vests, holding long rifles and aiming them everywhere.
“Step away from the girl.” The harsh voice from last night.
I look at Arnold. He trembles, stares wide-eyed at all the soldiers. “I’m sorry,” I whisper to him. Then I close my eyes.
Noises vanish. Taste, smell, touch, they all vanish. I float in nothingness. The words roll around in my mind, taunting me. So simple to say, to end all of it.
No more pain, no more hiding. No more secrets or darkness or me. Nothingness.
No more football games, either. And that’s what makes me pause. I’ll sacrifice the football games, the time where no one thinks I’m different or evil, to be free.
I take a deep breath, though there’s no air or breathing here. There is nothing but me.
“Nothing…” I search the darkness for the words. “Nothing is real.”
Screams. Terrible, terrible screams. Over and over and over, resounding in my head. Everything screams as it vanishes from existence. The soldiers, the people of the town, the buildings, the earth itself. Arnold.
Then silence. Vast, vast silence surrounds me as I float in true nothingness. I can’t open my eyes, for I haven’t got any now.
I am free.
The last scream echoes in my mind, though all is silent. Though I don’t have a mind anymore. I am nothing. But that last scream…
It forms words.
Words I know, words that don’t exist anymore because of me.
I love you.
The darkness trembles.
The last scream repeats those words over and over and over into the nothingness I created.
I love you.
I love you.
My non-existent heart flutters. My mind races, trembles, quakes.
No, I can’t do this.
“It’s real,” I say with a mouth I do not have. “It’s all real.”
The darkness refuses.
“It is all real!”
Flashing light, shouts, screams, pain. I scream, curl into a ball, squeeze my eyes shut.
A hand touches my back. Soft, large, gentle. It caresses my neck, pets my hair. My eyes are shut, but I can hear distant sounds: the ticking of a clock, shuffling feet, humming. Voices whisper. I smell metal and blood and worn carpet. The sharp metallic taste of blood fills my mouth, I stop biting my tongue. That hand strokes my hair over and over.
It’s not real. I made it not real.
Then I open my eyes. My hands cover my face, press against the carpeted floor. I sit up, blink. The soldiers stare at me, at themselves, all around. None of them point their weapons. Arnold sits on the floor next to me, watching me. He really is ugly, the ugliest person I’ve ever seen.
Too big a nose, too wide of lips. Not enough hair, or the right color. Dull eyes, clumsy hands. A little slow when it comes to thinking.
He smiles at me.
Well, he’s got one thing going for him; he has a pretty nice smile.
I look down at myself, my disheveled clothes. I blink.
I can do that now; blink. Nothing stops, time keeps going.
Did Arnold do that, or did I?
Who cares. It’s fixed. All if it is fixed.
Even me. Well, sort of. I’m still broken, very broken. I feel sad, sitting there on my floor and thinking. Lonely, dark, afraid. Sad.
But I don’t kill things anymore. I don’t stop time, I don’t control the existence of others.
At last, I am free.