Quarantine, 320 E.V., Cent. 40th - Four years earlier
I cannot make it stop. My blood is on fire, blistering my veins. Father cries somewhere; I hear his keens in the recesses of my bones. I cannot reach him where he is. I cannot see him. Is he in here too, where the walls push in closer ever night? Where does he keep his pain? In my mother’s stone outside our house? In a grave of his own? I keep my pain in the prick of my jagged nails against my shoulder. I cannot call the fire out of my body.
They did this to me, the men with steel hearts and hypodermic needles who go blank behind the eyes when I cry. The one with a shadowed brow who tells me nothing. And I asked him if the grey liquid would kill me, or push pain out through my pores, and he knew it would set me on fire and he did not say a word. I can trust the needle to prick but I cannot trust the man to be humane. He has no pity for me. He treats my waste pot with more care. And all the while, I am privileged to press my cheek into my metal cot until the pain resides. I sweat from the heat and the pain. My sweat does not banish the poison; it runs into my eyes and stings as the liquid comingles with angry tears.
I want to pull my skin from my bones and cleanse my marrow in cooler air. Which corner of my cell holds the remedy? The sun never touches two of the corners; surely I might be cooled against the concrete. I crawl to hope in the corner that only shadows touch, into the arms of death-like chill, but even death evades me. Will I burn until I have no skin, until my blood evaporates?
My head—everything is collapsing in on the raging fire inside, melting the grey and I am trapped. All pain, all noise, falling upwards and echoing between my ears. It is unceasing! No moisture left inside to douse the fire, all seeped out and fleeing from my skin. Whispering rage presses against my eyes... out! I would take out my eyes, if the fire demanded it.
Pounding, endless pounding. I press my forehead to the cot and the room pulsates. I howl for the antidote. Too hot—my head is too warm, everything must come off. Every hair. Eyebrows go first, encouraged by my desperate fingers until my brow is raw and bare. Then lashes, feverishly. One sneaks between my eyelids and is released again by the last drop of moisture in my body and still my fire rages. The reflection in my cot of pinkish Me calls for my forehead. Come! Collide here, where chill collects. Crack!—
Darkness. Coolness, bathed in black.
A single prick in my forearm.
Ice sliding through ashes, repairing the grey. Rebuilding.
Sticky. Down my nose and around my eye—in my mouth, copper. Blood.
Hands...gentle. Firm and strong. Tending. Cleaning. Lifting me out of the dark. Covering me with a thin blanket. A glass rim held to my lips. Drink, it urges.
My eyes remain closed to trap the cold inside, but I drink the sacred liquid in gulps. Water, cold and stripped of toxins. Pure.
“Sit up,” the cure says. I cannot. The hands urge me upwards until I am propped on a folded pillow—a coat, perhaps?
“Have you ever burned?” I breathe. My eyes beg to open. They are filmy.
“Open them, child.” A man. A man I know—nice man.
I open my eyelids as best as I can. A drop of something clears my vision immediately on the right, and though nothing much can be done for the left, at least the film has been broken. Officer Tarq kneels before me. He holds a jar of clear gel. His fingers coat my forehead in the gelatin. The slime makes my skin crawl and I itch to wipe it off.
“No,” he says, catching my wrist. “Not until your wound closes.” Tarq lowers my hand to my stomach and leaves his own there until he is sure I will not try again.
“Why did I burn?” I ask. Exhaustion creeps outward from my lungs, threatening to pull me under again. Tarq shakes his head.
“You do not know, or you cannot say?” I ask.
Officer Tarq leans in close to my face. For the first time, I realize that one of his eyes is grey. The difference is slight but now that I see it, it is all I see. Tarq is not a manufactured man—that is not what I mean. He is different. Tarq is. He looks as if he yearns to speak, but he remains silent. I want him to speak. I want him to forget his uniform and his pledge and his task and converse with me... even if he does not have much to say. But a man with one grey eye must have something more inside. He is different. Doctor Skah’s man, he is not. Does he have children? What does he care about outside of Quarantine? How old is he?
“Next time—if you get a bad dose again—open your food slot,” he says, standing. Is that a promise of assistance?
“You will help me again?” I ask.
“I will feed you,” he says, as if I ought to infer his meaning.
“Speak plainly, officer,” I say. “Or say nothing and simply nod your head.”
Tarq nods once, chin falling against his chest. The corners of his mouth turn up.
“So you will help me?” I whisper.
He nods, but averts his eyes.
“Thank you,” I say.
Tarq exits, leaving the small jar of gelatin beside the door. He points to his forehead and then to mine. I nod, and he locks the door behind him.
I trace one finger along my brow to meet the damage of my worst ever episode. No more eyebrow hairs. One tiny lash rests in the longest wrinkle in my palm. I hold my hand at the level of my mouth and close my eyes to wish on the last hair.
I wish never to burn again.
My breath sweeps the wish from my skin, off to a corner of the room, most likely, where (no matter how violently the wind should lap against the walls) it will not come true.