These Unseen Tears
I could only remember the darkness. I didn’t know how long it had been, or how long it was going to be, but I knew that it could last forever. My eyes were closed and had been for so long now that I wasn’t sure I could see anymore even if I opened them. My hands had been resting on the arms of a metal chair for so long that I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to move them again. In a state of half sleep and half delirium, this single, dark existence had been my home. There were no birthdays to count the years, only a shaken sense of time – eternity and shadow. The ones who keep me speak to me on occasion, and their voices come through what I think are speakers in the ceiling. I have been blinded for so long that I have long forgotten what the room looked like when I first arrived.
I would like to believe that I once had my own life. I was somebody’s daughter, with a name instead of a number. I wanted to believe that I, too, had shared the sun and sky with other people. Perhaps they were different people, perhaps they were the same. Now, if given the chance, I would give anything to see the sky once more, but I had nothing left to give short of my very life. In the past years, for years they must have been, I had not walked, I had not seen, I had not heard but for the questions that repeated themselves daily. Sometimes, and I could not tell how often, I would hear the door open from somewhere to my right, and then I would hear whispered unintelligible words of comfort.
I could barely hear them because of the visor I wore obscuring my sight, which wrapped around both sides of my head to attach to the chair back that held me straight like a second spine. There was a time when I had looked forward to the words of comfort, but now I dreaded them. Every time I heard those words, I would feel a warm hand on my arm and then I would feel cold in the crease of my elbow. Without fail, the heat that followed the ice would race like flames under my skin. I did not cry out. I never did. Even the memory of pain had disappeared a long time ago.
I welcomed what little feeling I had the chance to reach in such emptiness, even discomfort so long as it was unfamiliar to me, new, intriguing. I would welcome even death in the endless monotone that was my life, like a flat-lining heart monitor that was left on long after its patient had died, being used though serving no apparent purpose. I wasn’t sure why I was here anymore, if I had ever known, although I must have known once upon a time. However much time I had actually spent, it feels like a million and one lifetimes. Certainly if I could see myself I would laugh aloud at my appearance. Skin and bones sustained by machines and medicines, barely even human. Even if my wrists were not trapped, my arm would not rise with my own strength.
The only words I hear are the questions they ask. I remember thinking at some point that it was nice to answer them, because I would be talking with another person. I wonder sometimes when my thoughts had changed, but I now I only know that I’ve grown to hate that voice with a vengeance. Sometimes I whisper words to myself only to hear a new voice, only hearing a soft buzz that barely made it past my ancient tongue to my dusty ears. Even my name, except for the number by which they call me, is still lost in the fog of my memories. I remember hearing my name spoken by someone a long time ago, knowing that it was my name though I could not hear the word. It was such an old memory, but still a blur of such beautiful color that I find comfort in remembering the state of having that name at all, that small shred of hope.
My thoughts are muddled. Sooner or later I go back to thinking about my uncertainty surrounding the strange ice-fire pain is that they give me those three times a day. I have more than enough time to think. I remember hesitantly that the first time it had burned agonizingly for hours, how now I barely feel it. I remember the most recent time, which feels like months ago although it could not have been more than a few hours, I had clenched my hand and felt my nails brush against my palm. My nails were long from so many years, but I remember the feel of my skin on the tips of my fingers. It was cool, lifeless; feeling as I imagined the color gray would look.
It was frightening to me. I wondered if I was already dead, but I prayed that it was not so. If in death this same fate awaited me, then there was no way to escape from the nothing. If death was the only escape, as long as there was one, I could be in peace.
I heard a sudden click that echoed soft and unassuming in my ears, carrying a meaning that I knew well. I was so inured to the click by now, for it was the click that told me His voice was coming, that I barely reacted at all when I heard it now. When I heard him taking a breath and clearing his throat as he began to speak just as always, I still couldn’t bear to ignore him. Every word I heard was precious to me, even if it was him. I paused, my breath halting, to hear.
“1677-192,” he said, speaking the name they gave me. There was no warmth in his voice, no more than a lazy drawl as if this was what he did every day. Perhaps it was. When I had first heard his voice, it had been beautiful, since it was the voice of another human, but now I wasn’t sure. Was uncertainty all I knew now? Every time I heard his voice, it became a deeper and deeper part of the monotone, the everlasting shadow of gray that haunted my every moment. His voice came unsurprisingly now, something I was so used to. “Are you listening?” the man asked. There was no rush in his voice, no haste, just reading the line as though an answer was unnecessary. He asked this every time. I was sure he was wondering whether I was awake or not, because even I couldn’t tell. I had not the strength even to nod my head. My lips parted.
“Yes,” I whispered, in a voice as soft as how I imagine a spider’s web to be, soft and easily broken. I could barely speak at all, but I knew I needed the practice. I couldn’t forget these dear words. The voice waited a moment in silence before he spoke again, as he usually did. I think he had some sort of card or paper telling him what to say. I imagined the look he gave me through the two-way mirror I imagined before me, and I always felt a feeling like I wanted to hide from him. I could not see his eyes, but my imagination haunted me with them every night.
“Good,” he said. I heard the shuffling of paper, as usual. I had guessed that it was a script of sorts, a script that must have turned yellow with age by now. “I want you to answer my questions truthfully to the best of your ability. How do you feel?”
He always asked the same questions. It was strange as though he expected me to answer differently every time. With my firm answer, I must have disappointed him every time he asked. Even though he asked for a truthful answer, I never answered truthfully. I thought it better to let him think everything was fine and dandy, since I didn’t even know how I felt, and if I did know, this voice would not be the first one I told. I spoke as always, my passing thoughts doubly invisible behind my hidden eyes. “I’m fine.” Of course I was. I think.
He cleared his throat. I knew he didn’t believe me, but he did this every time I answered. I was still, since all I could do was wait for the next question just as all he could do was wait for my slow reply, dragging my feet to the destination called an ‘answer.’ He then spoke, as I expected him to.
“I’m glad to hear it. Tell me, 1677-192…” he said this every time, too. He waited, as if expecting me to grow impatient and try to finish his sentence. I never did. Impatience was something I had not had the liberty to be in this place, and with all the time I had spent here, I had learned the ways of this life long ago. “Do you have any memories of your past life?” he finished carelessly, the very words a sigh from his lips.
“No,” I answered. My equally as careless tone could tell him how meaningless this was, but he pretended not to notice. He did that every time too.
“Do you remember a large glass building?” It was almost like a game we played, just the two of us.
“Do you remember a woman, perhaps?”
“Do you remember the sky?”
I was startled by this and I could not help but jerk slightly in visible interest. This question was new. For some reason I couldn’t explain, I felt a surge of pleasure. A new question! Something different for me to think of an answer to! No one could understand the strange moment of pleasure I got from that one strange question, even though my answer would be the same as always.
“No.” There may have been a little more life in the word. For a moment following my answer, the voice was silent. Perhaps he had been expecting that, too.
“Can you tell me…” there was another lengthy pause, “why you are here?”
Was he giving up on the game already? More than one new question in a day made me think, yes, but I thought about him, not about the question. Why would he ask new questions? Why would he care if my answers were always the same? My tongue made an effort to move, if only for the sake of the new question that hung in the air unanswered.
I heard an audible sigh, like he had really been hoping to hear a different answer. What did he expect? Had he not been the one doing this to me? The darkness was enough, but his voice was the one that should have given me something to hope for, and instead it just added to my suffering. There was another click, signaling the end of his questions. Any minute now the door would open and the words of comfort would come, and then more fire in my arm. I stood still, waiting in the blackness as I always had and, no doubt, always would.
But, much to my surprise, it didn’t come. I waited minutes. Though my pulse did not quicken, I was shocked, perhaps even concerned at this new turn of events.
It was another difference. The differences unnerved me. In all my time here, for as long as I could remember, every day had been the same, like clockwork, one thing coming after another until I was so immersed in the regime that I would notice the slightest difference. That was how it had always been, and I had assumed that was how it would always be. But now, though difference was what I craved, I was afraid of it. What had they been doing to me? What would they do to me? Did they want me to think, to worry? Did they think my answers would be different if given extra time? My voice had grown as steady and emotionless as his was every time he asked me questions. It had become a routine for the both of us, I was sure. Perhaps they were bored of this game?
I wasn’t sure how long the difference lasted. All I knew was that with every passing second, I grew more silent, more still. I believed in the difference more and more. Strangely optimistically, I no longer expected the fire, not today. It felt like days passed. Perhaps it was a matter of minutes, or perhaps it was a matter of hours. I could not tell. All I knew then was that, in the darkness, the silence, and the cold, I heard a soft sound that I had never heard before. I had heard it only once before during my stay here, and it had been a long time ago. Or it could have been no more than a week ago. I had no notion of time in the stillness of this prison.
It was the sound of something tapping against glass in my imaginary window. It could have been real, or it could have been an old memory of when I had first entered this room, or a dream. Since I did not know, I could not say without the possibility of being wrong, but I was sure I had heard that sound. I savored that sound, something new, something different. Today was a good day, I thought bleakly. It was better, at least, better by far.
I heard the familiar click once more. Had that voice come back, remembering something he had forgotten, perhaps? What questions had he forgotten?
“Drat,” swore the voice I heard. From behind the blackness of the visor across my face, my eyes snapped open. I could not describe the feeling I felt, the first emotions that made me feel truly alive since I had arrived. It was comforting warmth, not like the ice fire, that spread through my skin. I seemed to tingle with excitement. The voice was different, and this difference was more than simply ‘better’. The voice was young, and instead of the monotone I spoke with and the monotone I heard, emotion sang in that voice. The optimistic churn of pleasure I felt at hearing it made an old hope rise once more somewhere in my heart. Maybe it would get better. Maybe I had not been forsaken after all. The new voice gave me indescribable hope.
“I’m sure that was supposed to bend,” I heard the new voice murmur worriedly over the microphone. The emotion of worry seeping like honey into my ears, the tone and depth of his voice, made me fill with pleasure once more. My eyes became wet, although I did not know why. It was wondrous, so wondrous. I was sure this was what it felt like to see the sky. My ears strained to hear for the first time in so long, something I wanted to hear, something I wanted with all my heart just to hear. “No one’ll notice,” the voice continued hopefully. There was a moment of silence and then the sound of objects being moved.
Then I heard what I think is called whistling. It was so beautiful, so happy. The wet sensation I had felt in my eyes spilled over my lids and ran down my cold cheeks, bringing a slight comfort to me. I felt them in surprise, something I had not remembered feeling before. How wonderful were these things I thought must have been called tears. In truth, there was no word beautiful enough to describe this wet warmth that dripped down my face. I was sure that if I could see myself, in my mind’s eye for the first time I was actually beautiful. I heard a squeaking sound above the whistling, but luckily I could still hear the tune. I was for the first time in four years completely, willingly relaxed, my attention focused entirely on listening to that delightful sound. The whistling was suddenly cut off as there was a loud crashing noise and the voice filled with emotion gave an exclamation of surprise. There was another moment of silence.
“Er… let’s see,” I heard. I wanted to speak up. Yes, I thought. I want to see. Please, help me to see. “This went here… this was over here… no, wait, that’s upside down… gosh, Doc is going to kill me when he finds out I tipped his shelf of yucky body parts. What is that? I swear half of these must be from some Martians. What person in their right mind would collect something like this, and then put it where it can easily be knocked over? …Oh, that is just nasty.”
He was talking to himself. I felt giddy pleasure at listening, like it was something forbidden. I knew now what must have happened. Someone else had entered the room, to tidy up or perhaps put something away, and had accidentally hit the button turning on my speaker. This accident on his part had caused me to shed tears of joy. Even now, they kept coming. No accident this beautiful could possibly be dismissed as a simple accident.
“Wait, is that…?” the voice teetered off in horror. “Oh, my… I mean, it’s a body! Like, of a person! They keep cadavers here? Oh, that is just… wow. Gross was just… outsourced! That is… that’s like super really, really gross. It’s, like, a person. Is it a zombie? They don’t, like, experiment on zombies, do they? I knew it was some sort of lab, but this…”
I heard more tapping on the glass. Could he be talking about me? Was he thinking about me? Somebody was thinking about me? This feeling was something else I had never felt. He was tapping on the glass, so was he trying to get my attention? Why didn’t he just ask?
Somehow, I was able to shift my head just slightly. I opened my mouth quickly to attempt a reply to his words, moving forward what little space I could with eagerness, but I was interrupted by a sudden exclamation of shock from the voice.
“HOLY SH—” I heard a crashing sound, and I dropped my head quickly.
“Are you hurt?” I called worriedly into the stillness I know with as much strength as I could muster. My voice is stronger than it had been for a while. Perhaps this new burst of hope is lending me strength. I heard the tapping over the microphone. Someone is tapping against the microphone. The voice is checking the microphone? Making sure I can hear, perhaps, before he starts speaking? I feel a swell of gratitude. Never before had anyone given me something like this before. Nobody has cared, even the slightest bit.
“You’re alive!” I heard the wonder in his voice, but his words trouble me.
“Oh,” I said. I supposed I should be relieved.
“You don’t look too good,” the voice continued. “I mean, not at all good.”
“Oh,” I say again. Is that the only word I can say? Even in my joy, to forget my precious words? “It’s to be expected, I think.” I was silent for a moment, deep in thought as usual. Maybe he felt discomfort in the silence, but it was what I was used to. It did not trouble me, so I waited in the silence for another, drawn out moment. Finally he spoke, shattering the silence around me.
“How are you?” he asked. My heart sank. He was asking the same questions, though in different words. Was he one of them? Was he here to ask me questions I did not know the answers to with fake emotion, acting to give me hope and then to bash my hope upon the rocks?
“Truthfully?” I ventured. I think perhaps that he did not seem like the others. The emotions in his voice were so… real, so material. They couldn’t be faked, I was sure of it. I loved everything about his voice, the way it quavered or the way it raised in surprise. His emotions were so audible and so alive that I could almost see wonder on his face, if I could imagine a look of wonder correctly. I did not remember what it looked like.
“Sure,” the voice suggested plainly, as though it was obvious.
I felt he deserved the truth. It was something I had not told the others. I licked my lips.
“I want to die,” I said simply. The silence that stretched out after that… well, I could almost feel his sympathy. I think it was sympathy, some form of compassion. I think he could have been horrified, but since I couldn’t see his face, I couldn’t tell. If he was one of them, he could be triumphant. He could be angry, or sad, or happy. Emotions are endless, so where could I begin?
“Oh,” his voice said. I think he was sad, in a way mournful. “That’s too bad.”
“Not really,” I replied. I didn’t want him to be sad. I wanted him to go on whistling again. “That’s life, I suppose. I haven’t seen much of it, but I don’t think it’s really worth living. Not anymore.” I think my voice broke. I fell silent before I would say anything else.
“Oh, but there are lots of great things,” his voice continued. He sounded eager. “There’s ice cream, and soda, and there’s pizza and all kinds of sweets. Chocolate! You must have had chocolate before? Chocolate is totally worth living for! I mean, you’re a girl, so you should just love chocolate. My mom has a secret stash—”
I needed to stop him there. So many questions welled up in my mind. Just from what he had said, already I wished to hear more, and yet also wanted to stop him to savor the words I had already heard. Curiosity was dominant, but perhaps I was also a little jealous. “Could… could you tell me about them?” I asked shyly, stopping the eager voice in its tracks. He was stunned at my question. I almost didn’t care if he was pretending, if he was one of them; I didn’t have much of anything anymore. Even a small comfort, if only for a moment…
“What, chocolate?” I could almost hear the furrow in his eyebrows. “You don’t know what chocolate is? How long have you been here?”
My voice was mournful. “For as long as I can remember.”
“That can’t…” I could hear rising anger. It was a red haze, indescribably beautiful.
“But please,” I begged quietly. I had no time for anger. I was sure they would be back soon with more fire. I wanted to hear it all before it faded. “Please tell me about them? And the sky, too. Tell me about stars, and sunsets. If you don’t mind, tell me about your mother, too. Do you have a large family? Siblings and cousins? Do you have lots of friends? What color are your eyes? What color clothes are you wearing?”
For the first time in such a long time, time passed quickly for me. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but in a good way. It could have been hours, but it felt like minutes. He told me all about chocolate, the way it’s sweet and melts on your tongue, triggering your body to release harmless chemicals that make you happy. He told me about the blue sky and the white, fluffy clouds and the sunsets and sunrises in gold, red, and brilliant orange. He told me about the warmth the sun gives and the radiant color that shines through glass in rays. He told me about rainbows stretching across the sky, and the legend of Leprechaun gold associated with it. He told me about his mother and his father, his little sister, and his best friend Mickey. He told me that his eyes were a sort of murky brown with little flecks of gold, and I laughed at the description. He said they were plain, but at that moment, I would have given everything I had to see his eyes.
He said he was wearing an apron that was a faded purple and had some old bleach spots on it, but he hastily complained about it, saying that it was what he had been given for his cleaning duties. He had been hired part-time as a janitor. He told me his name was Jeffrey, but that I could call him Jeff. “Jeffrey,” I whispered, softly enough that he couldn’t hear. “Jeff…” his name was almost as sweet as chocolate, I imagined. I knew I was smiling. My mouth hurt.
“What’s your name?” Jeff’s voice continued eagerly. Here, my smile dropped. He must have noticed, because he went silent for a moment. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
“1677-192,” I said.
“What?” I could almost imagine his frown. I repeated my name.
“That can’t be your name.” I heard the disbelief in his voice, and I wanted to say ‘I know. I don’t like it either’. I had no other name, though. It was what I had been called for so long. I no longer cared about being called anything else. That was fine. It made me think, though… Did I really want Jeff calling me by my number, too? No. I wanted him to call me a name that had emotions in it. He could say my numbers, but he would not think of me. I had no other name.
I could tell he was about to speak, but then I could hear them: slight rattling of wheels and some soft footsteps, gently echoing through the ground under my feet. I knew they were coming. I wanted Jeff to leave. If they caught him…
“You should go now,” I said, my voice thick.
“What—why?” Jeffrey asked. I heard confusion. It hurt me so much to tell him to leave. If he left, I might never hear that voice again. For another four years, I could live in the silence. I didn’t want to go back to the silence, but I had no other choice. It was certain to be the end if they found that someone else was talking to me.
“The fire is coming,” I said. Jeffrey couldn’t understand me. “Go, or they’ll find you. I don’t want them to do it to you.” I realized the truth of my words before they came from my lips. I thought immediately of my life. Were there others like me? “Can you… do me one last favor?” I asked softly. The footsteps were so close now. With no time to spare, I asked him to find out if there were others like me. He agreed reluctantly, and the hasty click that followed signaled the microphone turning off, giving way to utter silence. Moments later I heard a distant door shutting even as the one to my room opened. The words of comfort came as though the moment of difference was simply teetering back into the usual.
But all I could think about was how much I wanted that voice’s hand holding mine.
For some reason, the fire hurt more than usual.
I was hopeless by now. More times, the cold voice had come and went. The same questions were asked, the same answers were given. I had not heard Jeffrey’s voice, and I was saddened. I only hoped he wasn’t found out, though. I hoped someday he would return and tell me that everyone was fine, that there was no one else like me. I hoped no one would suffer as I had, but if I could send Jeffrey’s voice to them in comfort, then I knew they must be happy too, maybe even as happy as I had been to hear his voice for the first time.
But I still felt pain. This time the fire seemed to come more often, subdued slightly but not accompanied by the kind words and the numb pain in the crease of my elbow. It was as if it was spreading along with the new emotions that caused my sluggish blood to run. Every time I touched my palm with my long nails, I couldn’t help but think how wrong it felt. I was sure that skin was soft. I had felt it before, with the fire and the fake words. I always felt a light touch, and that touch had been soft and warm. I could only think that there was something wrong with me, but I couldn’t see myself to know. I wondered if Jeffrey would know. How did I look to Jeffrey? Was I revolting? He had thought me dead at first. Was it my cold gray skin?
My thoughts swirled more than they had sluggishly came before. I could not remember my name, I could not remember my past, but I could remember Jeffrey’s voice. Even if I died, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to anymore, I would remember his voice. I wanted to die, but I also wanted to taste chocolate, and see a sunrise, and see Jeffrey’s eyes. I wanted to hold Jeffrey’s hand and feel the soft warmth of real skin. For some reason, I had not remembered eating. Somehow I survived. Was the fire preventing me from dying? Was I truly one of the living dead?
I remembered the cold voice. Can you tell me why you are here? He had asked.
Why did he want to know? Was that important? If I found out why I was here, would I be able to leave? I had never thought of leaving before. All I had ever thought about was being released from the pain, but now there was so much more that I wanted. Would I ever see the sky? Had I ever seen it before? Jeffrey had said it was blue. I was sure that blue must be a color unmatched by any other. A blue sky… yes, I wanted to see it. I wanted to see the sky.
I heard the click of the microphone. For a moment I was breathless with hope.
“1677-192, are you listening?”
My eyes shut. I almost cried.
“Yes,” I replied quietly.
“Good.” The shuffling of paper. “I want you to answer my questions truthfully to the best of your ability. How do you feel?”
“I’m…” my voice failed me. A tremor ran through my body. Was I angry? Angry at this man? He may not have been the one doing this to me, but I was still angry. Every day it was the same. He asked how I was, and he didn’t care for my answer.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he answered without missing a beat. It proved it. No matter what I answered, the questions would be the same. He just didn’t care. Here I was, answering these questions for his benefit, because he asked me to answer, and he didn’t care if I even answered at all. “Tell me, 1677-192…” the pause came next. “Do you have any memories of your past life?”
“No.” My teeth were firm against each other. Why?
“Do you remember a large glass building?”
“No.” It was the game, I reminded myself quickly, firmly. Just a game.
“Do you remember a woman, perhaps?”
“No.” Why should I? And why would I tell you? You wouldn’t deserve to know.
“Do you remember the color of your hair?” That voice… if only that voice would go away…
“Go to hell.”
My answer came too quickly. For some reason, I felt my imagination had been stretched to a new level. I imagined seeing his face through the mirror, an expression of surprise. I imagined my hair, which was a shade of gray, loose to curl around my jaws. It was surprisingly short, but then again, there had been no chance for it to grow. There was no sheen to it; dead like my pale, gray-feeling skin. I imagined his face as I stared up from under my visor. I was angry. Angry…
I felt another set of footsteps. Why more footsteps? These were heavy, marching and… somehow sounded different from footsteps. This new sound rumbled and thrummed under my fingers as if it were alive, or as if the very earth were rebelling under my chair. It hummed throughout my body like an echo that bounced back and forth. I was confused as I heard the microphone shut off hurriedly, and the door faintly opening and closing.
Then there was silence. The strange sound like footsteps faded and the quaking stopped.
I was alone once more.
The warm tears came again. This time they might never stop.