Blood drips down her open, screaming mouth, the agonizing sounds punctured only by the heaving sobs that pull ragged, aching breaths from her body. Her eyes are half open, delirious, and I watch as she’s unstrapped from a chair and dragged onto a stretcher. Her body spasms, her arms and legs jerking uncontrollably. She’s in a white hospital gown, the insubstantial ties coming undone, the thin fabric damp with her own blood.
My hands shake uncontrollably as I watch, her head whipping back and forth, her body straining against her restraints. She screams again and a bolt of pain shoots through me, so excruciating it nearly bends me in half. And then, quickly, as if out of nowhere, someone steps forward and stabs a needle in her neck.
Ella goes still.
Her body is frozen, her face captured in a single moment of agony before the drug kicks in, collapsing her. Her screams dissolve into smaller, steadier whimpers. She cries, even as her eyes close.
I feel violently ill.
My hands are shaking so hard I can no longer form a fist, and I watch, as if from afar, as the letter opener falls to the floor. I hold still, forcing back the urge to vomit, but the action provokes a shudder so disorienting I almost lose my balance. Slowly, I turn to face my father, whose eyes are inscrutable.
It takes two tries before I’m able to form a single, whispered word:
He shakes his head, the picture of false sympathy. “I’m trying to get you to understand. This,” he says, nodding at the screen, “this is what she’s destined for. Forever. Stop imagining your life with her. Stop thinking of her as a person—”
“This can’t be real,” I say, cutting him off. I feel wild. Unhinged. “This— Tell me this isn’t real. What are you doing to me? Is this—”
“Of course it’s real,” he says. “Juliette is gone. Ella is gone. She’s as good as dead. She had her mind wiped weeks ago. But you,” he says, “you still have a life to live. Are you listening to me? You have to pull yourself together.”
But I can’t hear him over the sound of Ella sobbing.
She’s still weeping—the sounds softer, sadder, more desperate. She looks terrified. Small and helpless as foreign hands bandage the open wounds on her arms, the backs of her legs. I watch as glowing metal cuffs are shackled to her wrists and ankles. She whimpers once more.
And I feel insane.
I must be. Listening to her scream—watching her fight for her life, watching her choke on her own blood while I stand here, powerless to help her—
I’ll never be able to forget the sound.
No matter what happens, no matter where I run, these screams—her screams—will haunt me forever.
“You wanted me to watch this?” I’m whispering now; I can hardly speak. “Why would you want me to watch this?”
He says something to me. Shouts something at me. But I feel suddenly deaf.
The sounds of the world seem warped, faraway, like my head has been submerged underwater. The fire in my brain has been snuffed out, replaced by a sudden, absolute calm. A sense of certainty. I know what I need to do now. And I know that there’s nothing—nothing I won’t do to get to her.
I feel it, feel my thin morals dissolving. I feel my flimsy, moth-eaten skin of humanity begin to come apart, and with it, the veil keeping me from complete darkness. There are no lines I won’t cross. No illusions of mercy.
I wanted to be better for her. For her happiness. For her future.
But if she’s gone, what good is goodness?
I take a deep, steadying breath. I feel oddly liberated, no longer shackled by an obligation to decency. And in one simple move, I pick up the letter opener I dropped on the floor.
“Aaron,” he says, a warning in his voice.
“I don’t want to hear you speak,” I say. “I don’t want you to talk to me ever again.”
I throw the knife even before the words have left my mouth. It flies hard and fast, and I enjoy the second it soars through the air. I enjoy the way the second expands, exploding in the strangeness of time. It all feels like slow motion. My father’s eyes widen in a rare display of unmasked shock, and I smile at the sound of his gasp when the weapon finds its mark. I was aiming for his jugular, and it looks like my aim was true. He chokes, his eyes bulging as his hands move, shakily, to yank the letter opener from its home in his neck.
He coughs, suddenly, blood spattering everywhere, and with some effort, he’s able to pull the thing free. Fresh blood gushes down his shirt, seeps from his mouth. He can’t speak; the blade has penetrated his larynx. Instead, he gasps, still choking, his mouth opening and closing like a dying fish.
He falls to his knees.
His hands grasp at air, his veins jumping under his skin, and I step toward him. I watch him as he begs, silently, for something, and then I pat him down, pocketing the two guns I find concealed on his person.
“Enjoy hell,” I whisper, before walking away.
Nothing matters anymore.
I have to find her.
The commands keep my feet moving safely down the hall. This compound is vast. Enormous. My bedroom was so ordinary that the truth of this facility is jarring. An open framework reveals many dozens of floors, hallways and staircases intertwining like overpasses and freeways. The ceiling seems miles away, high and arched and intricate. Exposed steel beams meet clean white walkways centered around an open, interior courtyard. I had no idea I was so high up. And, somehow, for such a huge building, I haven’t yet been spotted.
Things are growing more eerie by the minute.
I encounter no one as I go; I’m ordered to run, detour, or hide just in time to avoid passersby. It’s uncanny. Still, I’ve been walking for at least twenty minutes, and I don’t seem to be getting closer to anything. I have no idea where I am in the scheme of things, and there are no windows nearby. The whole facility feels like a gilded prison.
A long stretch of silence between myself and my imaginary friend starts making me nervous. I think this voice might be Emmaline’s, but she still hasn’t confirmed it. And though I want to say something, I feel silly speaking out loud. So I speak only inside my mind when I say:
Emmaline? Are you there?
My nervousness reaches its peak and I stop walking.
Where are you taking me?
This time, the answer comes quickly:
Are we getting closer? I ask.
I take a deep breath and forge ahead, but I feel a creeping dread infiltrate my senses. The longer I walk—down hallways and infinite staircases—the closer I seem to be getting to something—something that fills me with fear. I can’t explain it.
It’s clear I’m going underground.
The lights are growing dimmer as I go. The halls are beginning to narrow. The windows and staircases are beginning to disappear. And I know I’m only getting closer to the bowels of the building when the walls change. Gone are the smooth, finished white walls of the upper floors. Here, everything is unfinished cement. It smells cold and wet. Earthy. The lights buzz and hum, occasionally snapping.
Fear continues to pulse up my spine.
I shuffle down a slight slope, my shoes slipping a little as I go. My lungs squeeze. My heartbeat feels loud, too loud, and a strange sensation begins to fill my arms and legs. Feeling. Too much feeling. It makes my skin crawl, makes my bones itch. I feel suddenly restless and anxious. And just as I’m about to lose hope in this crazy, meandering escape route—