The Will To Live
It happens by accident.
Long before the day’s meant to begin I find myself wide-awake, the claws of my nightmare still gripping my heart as I rise out of the sea of my dreams in favour of that of reality. There’s a bit of light that filters in through the barred window of the door, the source of which is the emergency lights in the cell block. I can’t see much, but it’s enough to remind me that I’m not in Solitary anymore and it helps me push aside my growing panic and breathe again.
My thoughts have drifted to the time I got taken in for my first testing, where I got injected with SC36, and after making a quick trip to the washroom I quietly walk, barefoot, to the door to look out the window. I’m not longer tired, but then again I imagine my sleeping pattern was a bit weird down there since I had no daylight to cycle my sleep schedule with. There’s not enough light to read or anything, so I kind of just wander a bit in the cell.
Stretching my legs is nice. The warm metal beneath my feet is welcome and the warm air even more so. Solitary was so dank and humid that it actually felt cold most times, which is one of the reasons why moving around a lot was good at taking my mind off it.
I can’t help but wonder about what Abel mentioned yesterday: pointing my attention to whatever I was thinking at the time. I honestly wish I could sit him down and ask him what he knows about the serum, but the proxy isn’t the kind of person who sits down and has a conversation. From what I’ve gathered, he lets his fists do all the talking.
I should know.
Figuring out what that was is a bit hard, since there were a lot of things I was worried about at the time. Most of which had to do with whether not I would survive (unlikely) and how I wished the myth of ghosts existing was real so that maybe I could disappear.
Then again, it’s a thought I had often before – not so much after, since I didn’t have much time to think of that between picking fights with Abel and running away from his thugs.
Honestly, it would probably be cool to be able to disappear like that – it could be quite useful.
Running with that train of thought – the kind of things you think about in the middle of the night, really – I sit down on the floor with my back to the scratched wall so I can look to the ceiling, my forearms resting on my propped-up knees.
If I was a ghost, I could go through walls and pretty much anything else, right? I could hunt down the guards and make them pay and even get away with it, and then maybe even manage to escape the facility with that. What would even stop me from doing that? The barren land for miles all around is a pretty big deterrent, but anything out there beats this place tenfold.
But if I ever did get out, where would I go? There’s nothing for someone like me, and no matter where I’d go I would always run the risk of being caught and probably executed on the spot. The bar code on my hand is more of a beacon than anything, letting anyone who sees it knows that I’ve had everything that made me Casper stripped away from me. It yells out that the world abandoned me.
I don’t think it’s abandoned me, though. I think it’s all just a test, and the catch is to see what you’re going to make of it.
So, humouring the pyromaniac, I put myself back in the shoes of that day.
Closing my eyes, I sigh until I can sense that creeping fear that’s lingered at the back of my mind at the prospect of being tested on again is called upon, bringing it back to the forefront. It’s easy to call that feeling back – I’ve lived with that fear of not having my fate in my own hands for a long time.
Then, when I open my eyes again, it’s easy for me to believe that everything that happened after that day never really happened. So when I think what I think next, I mean it.
I want to disappear.
It takes me a moment to see it.
Well, it actually takes me until I reach my hand up to see that something’s wrong – and that it has nothing to do with the lighting. More specifically, my hand is simply gone – save for a faint disturbance in the air when I move it.
The same can be said for the rest of me: where I sit, there’s a weird distortion of the air that would be indistinct with less or more light, and it shocks me so much that as soon as my mind registers it everything snaps back into place. It happens so quickly that the headache that comes with it steals my breath away.
I get to my feet, my mind reeling from the shock as I stare outright at my hands while I stand with my back to the wall. They’re fine now, or at least they seem to be, and I stretch them out to stare at the backs of my hands as if doing that will reveal to me the anomaly in its entirety. The code on my hand yells at me to be acknowledged, but I ignore it.
I’m not going to lie: it’s terrifying me. My heart’s beating a staccato in my chest and it isn’t showing signs of stopping, but at the same time a kind of thrill courses through me. Maybe it’s my time spent in Solitary speaking, but I only have one thought right now and it’s not something I would’ve had before – I wasn’t desperate enough for that yet.
There’s something about getting tortured and left alone for over a month that changes a person. If I thought my demons were terrifying before I came here, then the ones that have emerged since will shake me to my core.
My thoughts are whispering they will pay for what they have done to me.
And it makes me smile.
I hunt Abel down during the break after work, ignoring everyone who yells a question at me as I hunt down the only one here who is pretty damn good at making me want to commit murder a second time in my life. At least I know no one would miss him, but that’s hardly a comforting thought. For obvious reasons.
He’s near his cell in the hub, talking with some of the guys that are a part of his gang – wow, that sounds stupid – and he doesn’t notice I’ve walked up to him until one of the others looks up at me and leers. Instead of trying to pick a fight, I grab the most insufferable asshole I know by the back of his green jacket and drag him back the way I’ve come, earning a yell on his part. It elicits a bit of attention while his thugs yell at me and tell Abel to beat me to a pulp.
“What the hell?” Abel shouts, stumbling backwards after me. Those around us watch me practically kidnap Abel with wide eyes, probably thinking that I’m dragging him off somewhere to pick a fight – but they couldn’t be further from the truth.
Well, I suppose that it might fall to fists if he doesn’t give me what I want, but I’m not in the mood to fight. My head’s too full right now for that.
I ignore his protests until I get to my cell, where I push him in and walk in after him as he stumbles and almost falls into the dresser. The door slams shut behind me, giving us as much of a sense of privacy as this place will allow.
The proxy turns to look at me, glaring venomous hatred, and outside the door I can hear yelling as they tell him to make me pay.
“You’re going to make one thing fucking clear to me,” I begin lowly, frowning; he arches an eyebrow.
“Please don’t tell me you dragged me here to interrogate me. Shit, they must’ve really hit you in the head if you think I’m going to say jack shit to you.”
Ignoring the bait, I fist my hand at my side and speak through my teeth – as my pride won’t let me say what I’m trying to say next. But it’s my only chance, as Abel seems to know a lot more than a prisoner should.
“I’m not going to die in this place,” I tell him, lowering my voice. “I’d much rather die in the desert out there. I’ll help you escape, as long as you guarantee I’ve got a spot in there somewhere.”
Abel’s eyebrows shoot up as his eyes widen, and then a grin plasters itself on his face and he leans against the dresser, his hands on the top. Just like that, the confidant asshole that sets my teeth on edge is back, looking at me as if he’s already won and is simply waiting for the prize.
“That’s a pretty significant thing you’re promising, you know,” he says, looking at me from the bottom of his eyes with a smug smile. I sigh in irritation and lean against the wall, crossing my arms. “There are terms to this – I’m not an idiot. We’ll probably both die.”
I look at him as if asking your point? Shrugging a shoulder, his grin falls a bit at last as he gets more serious.
“There’s nothing for us out there. Wherever we run to, we’re criminals – all because of this bar code. Our best options will be to become hermits, or beggars, and stay away from society.”
“That’s still better than letting them inject anything else in me like I’m not a human that was born with free will and the right to question their laws,” I shoot back, earning another shrug.
Abel takes a moment to sit on the dresser, hands still on its wooden surface as he stares at me, more serious than I thought he could ever be. It almost looks unnatural on his face, but at the same time it looks as if that expression is a welcome friend.
“The first term is that you have to tell me whether not you actually have powers,” he says, making me sigh again. I uncross one of my hands and look at it, stretching my fingers before curling them into my palm.
“I disappeared last night,” I tell him, and for the first time I manage to surprise him – his eyes widen remarkably and all the smugness is wiped clean from his posture as he leans towards me a bit. “Completely, for a second. I shocked myself right out of it when I realised, though.”
Abel gets down from the dresser and actually begins to pace in my cell, looking as if he’s seriously thinking about something – and getting excited for it.
“I want you to tell me about SC36,” I state, and he looks at me momentarily as if he’d forgotten for a second that I was even here. I cross my arms again and frown at him. “You know a lot more than you should, for a prisoner.”
“That’s why you brought me here?” he questions, and when I nod he rolls his eyes with a sigh, pausing in the middle of his pacing. “Christ almighty, I hope you realise everyone out there thinks you brought me here to beat me up – or are probably thinking of something even more disgusting.”
My eyes widen at the insinuation and I make a face, flinching away from him a bit, and he spreads out his hands and looks at me as if it should’ve been obvious.
“I’d rather give myself up for testing, thanks,” I say.
“The sentiment’s mutual, trust me.”
Glad to know that there’s no love lost between us, Abel returns to the dresser and sits back on it while I settle back as I was. I don’t doubt that there might be a few people trying to eavesdrop on what’s going on, so we try to keep our voices down. I stand about two feet away from him just to be safe, and although I’m not comfortable at the proximity it allows us to talk more quietly.
“SC36 is an experimental serum they’re researching in hopes of eventually using it on the military to enhance their skills,” he begins, and there’s no small surprise on my part at the fact that he’s actually telling me what I want to know. Then again, I suppose we’re technically partners in crime now. “Right now they’re testing its effects on the immune system and what happens if you inject too much of it. Your friend there was only the first to be subjected to that. You’re the reason why everyone is pretty much having their immune systems suppressed now, as it’s the only way for them to successfully make it work.”
My eyebrows shoot up, and he nods sideways a bit, pressing his lips together tightly.
“The thing is, the serum is only as strong as the immune system allows it to be. The less of a system you have, the stronger it becomes – and suppressing the system substantially weakens whatever powers that arise.” Sighing heavily, he frowns at me. “That’s why I was interested in how it would manifest itself in you. It’s a natural phenomenon in you, and the scientists are anxious to see what’ll happen. You can’t let them see it act up in front of them.”
Tapping his fingers on the surface of the dresser, he looks towards the wall on his left as he thinks.
“I don’t know the science behind it. I just know it works.”
I stare at him a second before looking away, his words echoing in my head.
“I want you to keep testing the limits of those abilities,” Abel says, and I look back at him. That serious expression is back on his face. “See if you can go through things, how long you can keep it up for, and so on. You should have two abilities – one mental and one physical. I think the one you experienced was physical.”
“Two?” I parrot, and he nods.
“The fires are a physical power for me,” he states, lifting a hand and lighting a spark on his fingertip to demonstrate. I flinch in surprise, not quite used to that yet; he plays with it as he continues. “I’ve found I can manipulate someone’s emotions, too, if they’re receptive enough.”
When I frown at him, his grin returns a moment and he catches my gaze.
Then, without warning, anger zips through my veins for the fraction of a second before disappearing, leaving me a bit light-headed. I stare at him, leaning away from him a bit and feeling strangely violated.
“The serum has a sense of irony,” Abel tells me, shrugging a shoulder and putting his hand back on the top of the dresser. “Remember that as you try to figure it out. I’ll start thinking of ways we can make good use of our separate talents. Just keep me informed of what you find.”
The proxy gets to his feet and glances at me a moment before walking towards the door. I stop him before he opens it by saying his name, and he turns his head to look my way.
“So, wait, does this mean we’re allies or something now?” I ask, and his eyebrows shoot up, amused. “Or will you still try to give me a nose job whenever we cross paths?”
“Like I said, you’re my bitch,” he replies, smirking. “That means you do what I tell you to and I keep your secret and don’t let my sources know that the serum’s working on you. I know a few that would love to take you apart to see what makes you tick. It’s going to look weird if we stop fighting, which is going to raise a lot of questions.”
I nod – good point.
My pride is a bit offended at being called his bitch and it burns with the thought that that’s exactly what I’ve become, in one sense of the word, but I console myself by telling myself it’s strictly for the sake of survival. Hell, at this point I’d do anything to stay alive, even if it means siding with my enemy.
“One last thing.” I look back at him when he speaks, and for that I get a fist to my jaw for my troubles. It makes me stagger, almost biting my tongue, and the taste of copper immediately invades my mouth. “That’s for dragging me here.”
I glare at him for that, frowning, and rub my jaw as he opens the door and leaves my cell without looking back, cracking his knuckles. Those who were nearest to it (obviously eavesdropping) scramble back to get out of range of Abel as he walks by them, a scowl firmly planted on his face as he walks off.
The thought that I’m going to be working with him now is going to take some getting used to. I ignore all the stares I’m getting and close the door, rolling my shoulders to try and get rid of the pain in my back as the ghost wounds of the scars throb idly, making me wince. Then, with a sigh, I climb up to the top bunk and lie down, deciding I’d rather sleep off everything I’ve been through in the last few hours, my body screaming at the pain of the labour I put it through today.
I didn’t expect to get interrupted halfway through my nap.
The door of my cell opening is what wakes me up, and with an irate protest about to leave my lips I sit up to glare at the offender, only to realise that I have no fucking clue who the person standing in the cell as if he’s lost even is. Hell, the guy looks like a refugee from Iraq – not many places let people like my father or this kid come into the country, and Turkey is both the closest and one of the only places that promises asylum. The civil war being waged there is quickly degrading the country into anarchy, and no one’s doing a thing about it.
Anyways, he has long brown hair with a bright red streak in the fringe and his eyes seem to be brown from what I can tell. He’s wearing a dark blue button-up shirt that falls to about his thighs – a size too big – and black pants that get tighter on his legs as they go down to his feet. Wearing a pair of plain black sneakers, there’s hardly anything else to make him stand out aside from his skin colour – dark brown, about the same as Day. I guess his age at about sixteen.
“Who the hell are you?” I ask, and it makes him look up at me in surprise and flinch. I arch an eyebrow – I’ve never seen him before.
He looks overwhelmed, his eyes wide and a step shy of beginning to hyperventilate.
“Um, before or after I became a proxy?” he asks after a second, tapping his fingers on his thighs in agitation. My eyes widen remarkably at that information, and I’m quick to get down from the top bunk, jumping from the edge.
“Shit, if you know what’s best for you I suggest you don’t let that information be known,” I tell him, reaching for him and gesturing to come here with my head as I grab his wrist and pull him away from the sight of the window in the door. I force him to sit there, and he looks at me as if he thinks I’m about to beat him. “Anyone outside this room won’t hesitate to gut you if they find out.”
The guy wraps his arms around his chest, kind of like what I do when I try to keep myself together, and breathes out shakily.
I sit down beside him, sighing heavily and looking up to the bunk above us as I lean back against my hands, shaking my head. He’s looking at me.
“Why don’t you give me both names? I can tell you who to avoid like the plague,” I say, half-joking, and it earns a nervous laugh from the guy beside me as he pulls his legs up to hug them to his chest.
“My name was Alistair before I fled my home,” he says quietly, and his Arabic has a distinct accent to it that tells me that he has a very good grasp on the language. Definitely native to it. “I became a proxy about half a year ago now for a guy named Casper.”
My breath halts in my chest so suddenly I choke on it. He flinches as I start to cough, curling towards my knees while I try to get my lungs to get back to their primary function. Then, when I have some control back, I stare at him with my eyes as wide as they can go without saying a word – until he begins to fidget under my stare.
“What?” he asks nervously. “Do you know him?”
He stares at me for a second before it sinks in, and then I swear he almost falls off the edge of the cot in his quest to lean away from me. In turn I groan painfully and drop my head into my hands, my elbows on my thighs as I shake my head.
“Goddamn idiots probably think this is funny,” I hiss, dropping a hand and using the other to rub my forehead. “God, I have the shittiest luck in the world. My own fucking proxy.”
Alistair just keeps his distance, letting me do whatever it is I’m doing in peace and trying not to do anything that might make me angry. I don’t blame him.
Everyone knows there’s animosity between Proxies and Anonymous. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out – the Anonymous are pissed off because they got replaced, and the Proxies are pissed because they’re only good as replacements.
God, this system is fucked up.
“Jesus tap-dancing Christ, I’m not going to bite you,” I say with a sigh, running my fingers through my slightly overgrown hair – I’m going to have to find a way to cut it. It’s getting way too long; the last time I did it Day was around.
“Yeah, but you killed someone,” he protests, and I glare at him from where I sit, never lifting my head up to do so. He flinches.
“It was self-defence, jackass, and no one’s bothered listening to my side of the story,” I hiss. He holds his hands up in surrender. “Besides, if you’re here you’re no better off than I am. What did you do?”
Alistair looks away, bringing his arms back around his chest as he stares at the wall with all the gouge marks, biting his lower lip. A kind of sadness settles on his face, reminiscent to the kind I remember feeling when that guilt would settle in. The one I stopped feeling for myself a long time ago.
This place changes you, and not for the better.
“I got into a fight,” he begins quietly, and I sit up a little to listen, my arms resting on my thighs as I watch him with my head turned a bit towards him. “He kept calling me this weird nickname, little wraith, ever since I’d gotten there and… um, replaced you.”
Wincing as if he expects an outburst, he continues when he realises I’m not moving.
“It was in reference to a name he called you, apparently.”
“Little ghost,” I supply, hearing the exasperated bitterness in my voice. The Iraqi nods, and as he continues I pull my right leg up and prop it on the cot, leaning my right forearm on my knee.
“Right. He also told me I was no better than a killer, a murderer all the same. One day he cornered me, and he started beating me up – and I fought back, punching and kicking him as much as he was me. Somehow I won and he went down, a lucky strike I’d made to his temple that knocked him out, but I kept beating him. I was scared.”
I look away, hearing a quiet desperation in his voice I’m too familiar with – it brings back a pang of pain in my chest, making it hard to breathe for a moment. Alistair keeps talking, his voice quiet.
“I guess I just wanted to make sure he wouldn’t hurt me again,” he says with a sigh, and I smile a small, bittersweet smile in response.
“You wanted to win the fights that were to come,” I add, and he looks at me. I glance at him. “To prove that he would never be able to hurt you anymore.”
Understanding seems to dawn on him, and he nods. We share a smile before he looks back to the ground, and I divert my gaze to the wall. He and I are one and the same, and I think we both understand that; we know what the other has had to face and gone through, and it’s changed us both in ways that we’ll never be able to find who we were ever again.
“I killed him, but I just knelt there until we were found. I didn’t really fight them when they took me away – I knew I was guilty.”
We’re quiet then, simply sitting there in each-other’s company as we’re lost in our own thoughts. How there’s someone else in the world that understands what this feels like, in a world that doesn’t seem to grasp the concept that this isn’t the crime it’s painted out to be.
Because we’re all more than our crimes. I want to keep believing that.
We don’t deserve to die for stealing, for arson, for vandalism, or for attempting suicide. The moment children fall out of line, their parents abandon them – even if the only reason they do so is because they can’t take it anymore. The knowledge that you’re going to get watched like a hawk for the rest of your days, the world making sure you don’t break a single law, is a frightening concept. Those who don’t manage to kill themselves get sent here for it.
After all, it’s a crime to try and kill someone, right? As soon as the shortages started and the world became overpopulated, the practise of psychology and trauma centres was abandoned – because this genocide has forsaken us.
“Call me Cas,” I say gently, getting his attention again and shooting him a smile.
I don’t want to watch it happen to someone else – the way the memories haunted me until I had to bury them just so I could stay sane, but the thing about suppressing pain is that, one day, it comes back up to haunt you and it’s had time to sit there and let its roots grow until it has you trapped in its web. You can’t escape it then, and you try to get back to the life that left you but you can’t get there, so you’re stuck with this new identity you don’t recognise.
And all you want is to go back and chase the past you, the real you.
Filling the position Day once had for me is weird and it feels as if I’m spitting on his memory, but I’d rather that than let Alistair deal with this on his own. So I tell him how this place works much the same way he did.
I get stopped a lot as we walk to and from the cafeteria, people asking me how it is I’ve survived Solitary, and by the sixth guy I start getting a bit irritated and snap at whoever stops me. I’d almost forgotten about that, but they brought it all back.
Alistair is nice company, though. He tells me about the things that have happened since he became my proxy, and although it’s weird to hear him describe a life that used to be mine I’m happy to listen and hear about how things have changed.
My parents took to him well, and I imagine it would’ve hurt more to hear if I would’ve heard it a few weeks after first coming here. I can’t even remember what they look like, much less what the rest of the world was like. My memories of the days out there are getting fuzzy, almost dreamlike.
I don’t know how to tell the difference between a dream and a memory anymore.
They’re implementing new laws into the facilities, last he heard, and now all workers must live in the facilities all year round, except for a few weeks of the year when they get their paid leave. Too many had been leaking information to the resistance. I ask him about that, and he’s happy to tell me about it.
Alistair tells me that it seems to have begun when an armoured van carrying inmates to the all-women’s facility in south-eastern Turkey was rammed by a semi and the prisoners freed, who then fled into No Man’s Land that runs along the borders of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Since then, they’ve apparently enlisted the help of many refugees fleeing from the Anonymous-Proxy Program (usually called APP for short by those who mock it) and have raided towns throughout the Middle-East and are actively fighting against the law. Lately, their campaign has grown – some believe they’re a part of the cause of the civil war in Iraq, but I find that hard to believe.
It’s been going on for thirty years. While APP is over fifty years old, it wasn’t generally seen as an outcry. People knew better than to defy a worldwide law.
He also tells me that they’re starting to say that we’re expendable – there are too many of us and too little food. They’re advocating genocide for genocide’s sake.
So that means they’re going to start getting reckless. Many of us are about to die.
That knowledge keeps me up after light’s out, lying in the darkness that’s far kinder than Solitary as I keep one hand on my stomach and hold the other up to stare at it. The fact that we’re test subjects isn’t enough anymore – now we’re worse than cattle, simply nameless criminals who have been erased from the records.
And now we’re running out of time.
In the darkness I work at trying to replicate what happened last night, eventually managing to get my forearm to disappear – without really using the thought to trigger it and simply remembering how I felt instead. I imagine that doing it at will is going to take a while, but I know it exists now.If I can learn to control it, I can make it work in my favour – and I know exactly how I’m going to use it.