So I compile data.
I spent my whole life preparing for moments like these by people like this and they will take full advantage of that knowledge. I know they’ll expect me to prove that I deserve to survive, and—unexpectedly—knowing this brings me a much-needed sense of calm. I feel none of my usual anxiety here, being carefully poisoned to death.
Instead, I feel at home. Familiar.
Fortified by adrenaline.
Under any other circumstances I’d assume my meals were offered once in the morning and once at night—but I know better than to assume anything anymore. I’ve been charting the shadows long enough to know that I’m never fed at regular hours, and that the erratic schedule is intentional. There must be a message here: a sequence of numbers, a pattern of information, something I’m not grasping—because I know that this, like everything else, is a test.
I am in the custody of a supreme commander.
There can be no accidents.
I force myself to eat the warm, flavorless bun, hating the way the gummy, overly processed bread sticks to the roof of my mouth. It makes me wish for a toothbrush. They’ve given me my own sink and toilet, but I have little else to keep my standards of hygiene intact, which is possibly the greatest indignity here. I fight a wave of nausea as I swallow the last bite of bread and a sudden, prickling heat floods my body. Beads of sweat roll down my back and I clench my fists to keep from succumbing too quickly to the drugs.
I need a little more time.
There’s a message here, somewhere, but I haven’t yet decided where. Maybe it’s in the movements of the shadows. Or in the number of times the slot opens and closes. It might be in the names of the foods I’m forced to eat, or in the exact number of footsteps I hear every day—or perhaps it’s in the occasional, jarring knock at my door that accompanies silence.
There’s something here, something they’re trying to tell me, something I’m supposed to decipher—I gasp, reach out blindly as a shock of pain shoots through my gut—
I can figure this out, I think, even as the drug drags me down. I fall backward, onto my elbows. My eyes flutter open and closed and my mind drowns even as I count the sounds outside my door—
one hard step
two dragging steps
one hard step
—and there’s something there, something deliberate in the movement that speaks to me. I know this. I know this language, I know its name, it’s right there at the tip of my tongue but I can’t seem to grasp it.
I’ve already forgotten what I was trying to do.
My arms give out. My head hits the floor with a dull thud. My thoughts melt into darkness.
The nightmares take me by the throat.
I thought I’d spent time in some pretty rough places in my life, but this shit is like nothing else. Perfect darkness. No sounds but the distant, tortured screams of other prisoners. Food is disgusting slop shoved through a slot in the door. No bathrooms except that they open the doors once a day, just long enough for you to kill yourself trying to find the disgusting showers and toilets. I know what this is. I remember when Juliette—
Ella used to tell me about this place.
Some nights we’d stay up for hours talking about it. I wanted to know. I wanted to know everything. And those conversations are the only reason I knew what the open door means.
I don’t really know how long I’ve been here—a week? Maybe two? I don’t understand why they won’t just kill me. I try to tell myself, every minute of every damn day, that they’re just doing this to mess with our heads, that the tortured mind is a worse fate than a bullet in the brain, but I can’t lie. This place is starting to get to me.
I feel myself starting to go weird.
I’m starting to hear things. See things. I’m beginning to freak myself out about what might’ve happened to my friends or whether I’ll ever get out of here.
I try not to think about Nazeera.
When I think about Nazeera I want to punch myself in the face. I want to shoot myself in the throat.
When I think about Nazeera I feel a rage so acute I’m actually convinced, for a minute, that I might be able to break out of these neon handcuffs with nothing but brute force. But it never happens. These things are unbreakable, even as they strip me of my powers. And they emit a soft, pulsing blue glow, the only light I ever see.
J told me her cell had a window. Mine doesn’t.
A harsh buzzing sound fills my cell. I hear a smooth click in the heavy metal door. I jump to my feet.
The door swings open.
I feel my way down the dripping corridor, the dim, pulsing light of my cuffs doing little to guide my way.
The shower is quick and cold. Awful in every way. There are no towels in this shithole, so I’m always freezing until I can get back to my room and wrap myself in the threadbare blanket. I’m thinking about that blanket now, trying to keep my thoughts focused and my teeth from chattering as I wend my way down the dark tunnels.
I don’t see what happens next.
Someone comes up on me from behind and puts me in a choke hold, suffocating me with a technique so perfect I don’t even know if it’s worth a struggle. I’m definitely about to die.
Super weird way to go, but this is it. I’m done.
Mr. Anderson says I can have lunch at his house before I meet my new family. It wasn’t his idea, but when Aaron, his son—that was the boy’s name—suggested it, Mr. Anderson seemed okay with it.
I’m not ready to go live with a bunch of strangers yet. I’m scared and nervous and worried about so many things, I don’t even know where to start. Mostly, I feel angry. I’m angry with my parents for dying. Angry with them for leaving me behind.
I’m an orphan now.
But maybe I have a new friend. Aaron said that he was eight years old—about two years older than me—so there isn’t any chance we’d be in the same grade, but when I said that we’d probably be going to the same school anyway, he said no, we wouldn’t. He said he didn’t go to public school. He said his father was very particular about these kinds of things and that he’d been homeschooled by private tutors his whole life.
We’re sitting next to each other in the car ride back to his house when he says, quietly, “My dad never lets me invite people over to our house. He must like you.”
I smile, secretly relieved. I really hope that this means I’ll have a new friend. I’d been so scared to move here, so scared to be somewhere new and to be all alone, but now, sitting next to this strange blond boy with the light green eyes, I’m beginning to feel like things might be okay.
At least now, even if I don’t like my new parents, I’ll know I’m not completely alone. The thought makes me both happy and sad.
I look over at Aaron and smile. He smiles back.
When we get to his house, I take a moment to admire it from the outside. It’s a big, beautiful old house painted the prettiest blue. It has big white shutters on the windows and a white fence around the front yard. Pink roses are growing around the edges, peeking through the wooden slats of the fence, and the whole thing looks so peaceful and lovely that I feel immediately at home.