I had never been outside before. But James promised me that today I could go. He said there was just one more test. I wanted to believe him, but his tone of voice was telling me something different. I always knew when he lied to me. And he always knew that I knew.
Somehow I never failed to believe him anyway.
“Insert your arm into the cylinder,” James said.
I slipped my arm inside the plastic hole and waited for the prick of a needle. It came with a surprising amount of pain. Must have been one of the larger needles this time, the ones they used to put things in me.
The veins in my arm burned as something corrosive coursed through me. My stomach immediately began to complain as it tangled with my ribs and spine. My insides were turning painfully, twisting together and burning.
“You’ll probably feel a little discomfort.” James said. His voice rang in my ears. I leaned my head against the glass separating us and let my breath fog it up.
“It hurts,” I whispered.
“1 to 10?” James asked for the scale. He always did.
“I-I don’t know,” I said, sucking in a breath as another spasm seized my insides. “F-five,” I replied. It was a lie.
I was trying to be brave. I didn’t want James to know he’d hurt me so much. His voice was always sadder when he found out I was weaker than the medicine they gave me.
James made a throaty noise and I heard the click of a pen over the speaker. “It should pass. Do you feel it fading?” he asked. He wasn’t overly concerned.
I could feel my face pale. The hand that rested on my lap was white and clammy and I could feel beads of sweat gathering on my brow. I blinked, trying to catch my breath as another wave of pain coursed through my veins and then wracked my insides again. It was worse this time. Much worse.
“I c-can’t b-breathe,” I said, pushing away from glass and pulling my arm from the cylinder. I stumbled backwards and toppled the chair over.
“Put your arm back now,” James called over the speaker system. There was concern in his voice this time. “I’ll give you something for the pain.”
Dark spots appeared in my vision as I made my way across the room to the corner. Sinking to the floor, I wrapped my arms around myself and groaned inwardly, not a sound escaping my clenched jaw. My clothes were dampening with sweat and my body had begun to tremble. I just wanted the pain to go away.
“I can’t help you if you don’t put your arm back in the cylinder,” James said, his tone becoming more urgent. “You need to come back over here.”
I could barely shake my head in response as my cheek found the cold, hard floor. My body was jerking now, violently and uncontrollably. I tasted vomit and purged it from my mouth.
I couldn’t breathe or see or hear. Everything had become a blur. Not even James’ voice could penetrate the fog of pain infiltrating my convulsing body.
A blur of light and dark shapes hovered over me and I felt one of them stick another needle in my arm. I barely felt it this time as I slipped away. The pain finally began to fade as the shapes disappeared and I lost consciousness.
I was secured to a table with my wrists and ankles bound in metal cuffs, IV’s attached to every vein, liquids draining in and out of my body as I laid there in a drug-induced haze.
“It didn’t do any major damage. Just some inflammation.” Someone said. It sounded like Marley. She always told me jokes. But she wasn’t laughing right now. In fact, she sounded all too serious.
“It was meant to induce an episode, but not that kind of episode.” This time it was James talking. He was agitated.
His tone made me uneasy and I shifted on the table, the cuffs clanking dully against the metal surface.
“Increase the sedative. We don’t want him awake for the second dose.” James ordered.
“Second dose?” Marley asked, shocked. “You’re going to try again?”
“Better to get it over with. I don’t want to cause him more pain than necessary.” James replied steadily.
No more, I pleaded in weakened silence. Please, no more.
“I don’t think this is a good idea.” Marley seemed severely perturbed. “We don’t know what another episode could do to his system. He’s too fragile. We need to wait.”
“Stop talking.” James sounded impatient. “Just give it to him.”
“No.” the word came after a short pause.
James scoffed. “What?”
“I said no. I won’t do it. Look at him,” Marley entreated. “He’s had enough.”
I struggled to open my eyes, but they were too heavy. I couldn’t see what was going on around me. All I could do was listen to them. What I was hearing made me wish I could sit up and shout but I was frozen inside my body, voiceless.
“Just do it, Ms. Salvatore. Now.” There was no room for argument in James’ voice.
I heard Marley sigh angrily. “Fine. But I am officially against this decision.”
“Noted.” James replied gruffly.
Another needle penetrated the skin of my arm and I tried to yell, to shout, but no noise came. My body wouldn’t cooperate. I was too heavily drugged to move or make a sound.
When the pain found its way inside of me again, all I could do was lie there, trapped inside myself. The metal cuffs rattled against the table as my body began to convulse once more. I thought the pain would rip me to pieces and burn me up inside. Then I lost consciousness at last. I was finally numb.
Buzzing fluorescent lights paled the white walls of my room. I sat on a metal bed across from a large mirror, ignoring my reflection.
A metal chair sat next to the small round opening in the door; the cylinder where I received all of the injections.
Rising from the bed I crossed the room and put my head against the glass. I couldn’t see anything past my own reflection, but there was someone beyond my face, watching me.
It was James. He had been here for the last two hours, asking me questions about my recovery. “I brought you something.” He said.
At his words, my whole body tensed.
“Not medicine. Just something I found outside.” James continued. There was a small click at the other end of the cylinder. I bent and looked inside, retrieving something brown and yellow. It was larger than my hand, and thin as paper.
My fingers carefully traced the veins of the leaf and I smiled.
“I thought you’d like it.” James said. He sighed. “Too bad our outing got canceled. But that test was very important.” He didn’t sound sorry, he sounded factual and detached.
“Did it…did I do something wrong?” I asked, cradling the leaf carefully in my hands as I moved around the empty room. My muscles ached from spending two days on the metal table, recuperating from the medicine. I only moved to try and relieve the tightness in my limbs and back. “Was what happened…supposed to happen?” my voice was soft against the reverberating hum of the lights.
“No. The results weren’t what I wanted, but it wasn’t you. It was the medicine.” James explained tensely. “We’ll have to…try again,” he added with reluctance.
“When?” the word slipped from my mouth like a brick.
The leaf shook in my trembling hands. “Will it…will it hurt again?”
James cleared his throat. There was silence, and then, “Hopefully not. Your body was allergic to one of the active ingredients in the formula. We’re going to change that before the next trial.”
“You can do that by tomorrow morning?” I asked dubiously.
“We can try,” James sighed. “That’s all we can ever do.”
He didn’t have any more questions for me after that so we stopped talking. When I heard the speaker click off I knew he was gone.
Tiring more quickly than usual, I retreated to the corner of the room with my leaf. I studied its ridges and fading color. It was dry and flaky, easily torn. I tried to be careful with it, but I couldn’t help tugging on the edges.
I had ripped it to pieces by the time Marley came back for a blood draw.
“What’s the matter?” Marley asked as she inserted the small butterfly needle beneath my skin. She had caught me quickly wiping my eyes.
Only one small piece of leaf remained intact. I held it firmly between two fingers, my other hand tucked inside the cylinder. I didn’t want to tell her.
“Come on, don’t be bashful. Tell me.” she entreated with laughter in her voice. Behind the glass, I knew she was smiling.
“I ruined it.” I said, holding up the shred of leaf. “I didn’t mean to, but I ruined it.”
Marley tsked. “It was just a leaf. Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of those when Dr. Whitman takes you on that outing.”
“He canceled it. Because of the test,” I mumbled. “It went wrong. If it hadn’t, I could be outside now.”
“Not right now,” Marley chuckled. “It’s nighttime. And freezing out there. November chill.” She said, withdrawing the needle. I felt the latex of her gloves rub against my arm as she placed a small bandage over the tiny wound. “Okay. You can have your hand back now.” She touched my fingers. They twitched from the contact.
“Take your hand back. I have to close the cylinder.” I hadn’t moved. Realizing this, I quickly withdrew my hand. The cylinder clicked closed, locked from the outside. “Goodnight,” she said. The speakers crackled as they were switched off.
“Marley!” I pressed my hand against the glass and hit it, causing my reflection to quiver.
The speakers switched back on. “Yes?” she said worriedly.
My hand fell away from the glass and I looked downward at my bare feet. My skin was so pale it nearly blended in with the white linoleum.
“What is it?” she repeated, the level of anxiety in her voice increasing.
“What…” I breathed the word out nervously, glanced at my reflection and then quickly looked away. “What does night look like?”
Most of the doctors and technicians hated these questions. Even James didn’t like it when I asked him this kind of stuff. But Marley was different. Most of what I knew about the outside had come from her. She always answered my questions. Still, I was always nervous when I worked up enough courage to ask.
“It’s really…dark.” She laughed and gave a soft sigh. “I was going to say amazing, but really it’s just dark. Sometimes, when there aren’t any clouds, you can see stars.”
“Are there any stars tonight?” I glanced upward without meaning to and got blinded by the fluorescent lights. Blinking, I waited for her answer. She was quiet for a long time. “…Marley?”
“No. No stars tonight. Just clouds.” There was something in her voice. It never took me long to notice when Marley or James became sad. The two of them were easy to read as long as they spoke to me. Since I had never seen their faces, I could only judge their moods by the inflection in their voices. Tonight, both Marley and James were sad.
“What about the moon?” I asked, not wanted her to go yet.
“Nope. Just dark clouds.” She sniffed quietly.
“Marley,” I moved closer to the glass, placing my forehead against it and pressing my palms against their own reflections. “Will the test tomorrow…will it be like that last one?”
“Didn’t Dr. Whitman talk to you about that?” her voice was shaking now.
“Yes. He said no. But he was lying.” I responded.
“I don’t think it will be like the last one.” She answered in a strained voice.
“Will it hurt?” I asked anxiously. I didn’t want that pain again.
“Not if we can help it.”
“Can I be asleep this time, when you do it?” my words were so soft, I barely heard them.
Marley seemed to hear me just fine. “Yes,” she answered. I heard a tremor, but I didn’t say anything. She was upset about something and didn’t want to tell me. She was trying her best to hide it, but I always knew when someone was pretending. That was part of why I was here. I could do things other people couldn’t. I knew things I wasn’t supposed to know. I was different. “You should go to sleep now,” Marley managed to croak the words out before the speaker clicked off.
I stared at my reflection. Behind it, I knew she was looking at me.
After a moment, I turned and went over to my metal bed, lying down and curling up on the cold, hard surface. Something was wrong. Everyone knew what it was, but no one would tell me. James had tried to hide it and so had Marley. But I knew. Even through these walls that contained me, I could sometimes hear them. James had been the one to give it away.
I had heard his thoughts as he stood over me with the needle. It’s over, he had been thinking when he injected me with that painful medicine again. This experiment is terminated.