The pain arrives just seconds later.
It begins at my feet, blooms up my legs, unfurls in my stomach and works its way up my throat only to explode behind my eyes, inside my brain, and I cry out, but only in my mind, my useless hands still limp on the armrests, and I’m so certain he’s going to kill me—
but then he smiles.
And then he’s gone.
I lie in agony for what feels like hours.
I watch, through a delirious fog, as blood drips off my fingertips, each drop feeding the crimson pools growing in the folds of my pants. Visions assault me, memories of a girl I might’ve been, scenes with people I might’ve known. I want to believe they’re hallucinations, but I can’t be certain of anything anymore. I don’t know if Max and Evie are planting things in my mind. I don’t know that I can trust anything I might’ve once believed about myself.
I can’t stop thinking about Emmaline.
I’m adrift, suspended in a pool of senselessness, but something about her keeps tugging, sparking my nerves, errant currents pushing me to the surface of something—an emotional revelation—that trembles into existence only to evaporate, seconds later, as if it might be terrified to exist.
This goes on and on and on and on and on
whispers of clarity
g a s p s o f o x y g e n
and I’m tossed back out to sea.
Bright, white lights flicker above my head, buzzing in unison with the low, steady hum of engines and cooling units. Everything smells sharp, like antiseptic. Nausea makes my head swim. I squeeze my eyes shut, the only command my body will obey.
Me and Emmaline at the zoo
Me and Emmaline, first trip on a plane
Me and Emmaline, learning to swim
Me and Emmaline, getting our hair cut
Images of Emmaline fill my mind, moments from the first years of our lives, details of her face I never knew I could conjure. I don’t understand it. I don’t know where they’re coming from. I can only imagine that Evie put these images here, but why Evie would want me to see this, I don’t understand. Scenes play through my head like I might be flipping through a photo album, and they make me miss my sister. They make me remember Evie as my mother. Make me remember I had a family.
Maybe Evie wants me to reminisce.
My blood has hit the floor. I hear it, the familiar drip, the sound like a broken faucet, the slow
of tepid fluid on tile.
Emmaline and I held hands everywhere we went, often wearing matching outfits. We had the same long brown hair, but her eyes were pure blue, and she was a few inches taller than me. We were only a year apart, but she looked so much older. Even then, there was something in her eyes that looked hard. Serious. She held my hand like she was trying to protect me. Like maybe she knew more than I did.
Where are you? I wonder. What did they do to you?
I have no idea where I am. No idea what they’ve done to me. No idea of the hour or the day, and pain blisters everywhere. I feel like a live wire, like my nerves have been stapled to the outside of my body, sensitive to every minute change in environment. I exhale and it hurts. Twitch and it takes my breath away.
And then, in a flash of movement, my mother returns.
The door opens and the motion forces a gentle rush of air into the room, a whisper of a breeze, gentle even as it grazes my skin, and somehow the sensation is so unbearable I’m certain I’ll scream.
“Feeling better?” she says.
Evie is holding a silver box. I try to look more closely but the pain is in my eyes now. Searing.
“You must be wondering why you’re here,” she says softly. I hear her working on something, glass and metal touching together, coming apart, touching together, coming apart. “But you must be patient, little bird. You might not even get to stay.”
I close my eyes.
I feel her cold, slender fingers on my face just seconds before she yanks my eyelids back. Swiftly, she replaces her fingers with sharp, steel clamps, and I muster only a low, guttural sound of agony.
“Keep your eyes open, Ella. Now’s not the time to fall asleep.”
Even then, in that painful, terrifying moment, the words sound familiar. Strange and familiar. I can’t figure out why.
“Before we make any concrete plans to keep you here, I need to make sure”—she tugs on a pair of latex gloves—“that you’re still viable. See how you’ve held up after all these years.”
Her words send waves of dread coursing through me.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
I’m still no more than a receptacle. My body exchanges hands exchanges hands in exchange for what
My mother has no love for me.
What has she done to my sister.
“Where is Emmaline?” I try to scream, but the words don’t leave my mouth. They expand in my head, explosive and angry, pressing against the ridges of my mind even as my lips refuse to obey me.
The word occurs to me suddenly, as if it were something I’ve just remembered, the answer to a question I forgot existed.
I don’t comprehend it.
Evie is standing in front of me again.
She touches my hair, sifts through the short, coarse strands like she might be panning for gold. The physical contact is excruciating.
“Unacceptable,” she says. “This is unacceptable.”
She turns away, makes notes in a tablet she pulls out of her lab coat. Roughly, she takes my chin in her hand, lifts my face toward hers.
Evie counts my teeth. Runs the tip of one finger along my gums. She examines the insides of my cheeks, the underside of my tongue. Satisfied, she rips off the gloves, the latex making harsh snapping sounds that collide and echo, shattering the air around me.
A mechanical purr fills my ears and I realize Evie is adjusting my chair. I was previously in a reclining position, now I’m flat on my back. She takes a pair of shears to my clothes, cutting straight through my pants, my shirt, my sleeves.
Fear threatens to rip my chest open, but I only lie there, a perfect vegetable, as she strips me down.
Finally, Evie steps back.
I can’t see what’s happening. The hum of an engine builds into a roar. Sounds like scissors, slicing the air. And then: Sheets of glass materialize at the edges of my vision, move toward me from all sides. They lock into place easily, seams sealing shut with a cool click sound.
I’m being burned alive.
Heat like I’ve never known it, fire I can’t see or stop. I don’t know how it’s happening but I feel it. I smell it. The scent of charred flesh fills my nose, threatens to upend the contents of my stomach. The top layer of skin is being slowly singed off my body. Blood beads along my body like morning dew, and a fine mist follows the heat, cleansing and cooling. Steam fogs up the glass around me and then, just when I think I might die from the pain, the glass fissures open with a sudden gasp.
I wish she would just kill me.
Instead, Evie is meticulous. She catalogs my every physical detail, making notes, constantly, in her pocket tablet. For the most part, she seems frustrated with her assessment. My arms and legs are too weak, she says. My shoulders too tense, my hair too short, my hands too scarred, my nails too chipped, my lips too chapped, my torso too long.