My life is this.
Waking up in a white room filled with light. Helquest’s head floats above me, talking about how I’ll cooperate now. Like hell I will. My mouth moves. I say the words aloud. The room goes black again. Every time I wake, he’s there, but I have no control over my limbs in order to strangle the life from his eyes. The fog they filled me with clings to my mind.
Days, maybe weeks pass, before I come fully awake. I’m back in my quarters… I think. The treadmill is still in place, but maybe there’s one in every room. Does it really matter, Payton? I blink. Reach over to pinch my arm.
“Ouch,” I say aloud.
“Yes, you are really awake this time.” The voice I loathe, the one that haunts my sleep, fills the room.
I sit up, spinning to find him standing by the door. The entire room sways, my skull splitting open. I grip the edge of the bed to keep from toppling.
“You should move slowly,” Helquest implores, but remains by the door. “The dregs of the anesthesia have yet to wear off. It may take a few hours, yet.”
I only half catch what he says, distracted by the fresh red line along my wrist. I run my finger along the puckered mark where they had my health tracker before. They must have replaced it. Before, it was only a small bump where they injected the health tracker with an enormous needle, but now it’s a vicious red scar. My stomach rolls.
“What did you do to me?” I glare at him, but my voice sounds awful.
“Consider it an insurance policy.” He smirks, clasping his hands in front of his waist. “Your fresh clothes are by your sink. Breakfast is in twenty minutes. You will be there, and then you will attend the lessons.” A long pause, accompanied by raised eyebrows. “And you will participate.”
“I already told you I wouldn’t,” I growl, my overgrown nails digging into the mattress.
“And I’m suggesting you change your mind. We don’t have to be enemies, Payton, as I said at the very beginning. If you cooperate, things will go very well for you here. But if you fight us, if you continue to refuse, things will become even more uncomfortable than they already are, understand?”
“What happened to the agent?” I ask after a moment of consideration.
“He was… let go for his incompetence.”
We both know what he’s saying. But why would they kill him and not me?
“Why are my sisters here? Is Scarlet here, too?”
He squints before crossing his arms, his pristine suit crinkling. “Enough questions. Get dressed and to breakfast. Make this day easier on both of us.” He nods toward my wrist, making my skin crawl. Then he leaves the room with a good amount of abruptness.
I glance at the scar, wanting to claw it open to discover whatever horror they put in me now. But I’m not brave enough to go through with it. Besides, what if messing with it releases some chemical into my body that puts me back to sleep? I don’t need any more drugs. I’m tired of being messed with.
My choices are this:
Be killed and tortured here for refusing to cooperate.
Do as I’m told for the time being, until I can figure out a way to escape.
Shut off my emotions and work for them, since I’m stuck here anyway and no one knows I’m here.
The last option will be my go-to when all others have failed. I’m not ready to be a puppet just yet.
Once dressed, I go to the door and it slides open. My original hencher stands guard across the hall. “Ms. Morros.” He nods.
We’re on a last-name basis now?
“Henchman.” I nod back, but don’t get a reaction. The robot could have at least smirked at my joke.
He turns, walking toward the dining hall. I follow with a good amount of reluctance. I wonder how much this guy hates his job, forced to babysit a rebellious teen. Maybe he disobeyed on a mission and this is his punishment.
“Will they kill you like they did Agent Sharp if you skip walking me to breakfast tomorrow?” I ponder aloud.
His lip curls seconds before an excruciating shock moves up my scarred arm and through my chest. I double over, yelling out while fighting back vomit. It only lasts a few seconds, but my entire body is covered in sweat by the time it subsides. When I’m upright, he begins walking again, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. As if I wasn’t just tortured in front of him. My limbs vibrate when I continue following him. No coherent thoughts enter my mind.
At the door to the dining hall, he stops and turns to face me. “You should watch what you say,” he says so quietly, his mouth moving so little, that I’m certain I imagined it. “Ms. Morros.” He nods again before departing.
I nod after him with a shaky breath. They implanted a torture device in me. Awesome.
I find my original table, ignoring the prying eyes. I’ve got to be naked. There’s no other explanation for all the staring.
Within minutes of sitting down and having a tray of food set before me, Jaxson is there, staring down at me. His eyes are blue steel while he studies every inch of my face. His knuckles turn white as he grips the chair he’s standing behind. I have no idea what my mangled face looks like, but don’t care even a little. I lift my chin. I’ll wear my battle wounds with pride.
I look back up at him to find him staring at my wrist. “That’s a new addition,” he states, pulling the chair out and claiming the seat without an invitation.
My gut clenches, preparing for another shock. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I digress, gazing anywhere his blue eyes aren’t, stopping for a millisecond on my sisters, who seem surprisingly unfazed by my presence.
“You’ve been gone a while.” Jaxson’s voice intrudes on my thoughts, my curiosity forcing me to look back at him. He’s still glaring at my wrist.
I cross my arms to discourage the gawking. His gaze meets mine. “How long?” I ask, a cold sweat breaking out over my entire body.
“Two weeks,” he states, tilting his head.
I swallow three times and fight the sudden urge to throw myself in this stranger’s arms to weep on his shoulder. What were they doing to me during those two weeks?
My hands fist and I close my eyes, clenching my jaw. I can’t lose my cool over a measly two weeks. It could have been longer… could have been worse. When I open my eyes, he’s looking at my wrist again, even though the scar is hidden.
“Do you want to talk about it?” He nods toward my arm.
I shake my head from side to side with wide eyes, in a Looney Toons fashion. Anything could make them shock me again, or worse, and I’m in no hurry for that to happen again.
He crosses his arms. Nods.
“I’m going to eat,” I tell him.
“I’ll wait,” he responds, looking over my shoulder at something that makes his jaw clench, but I refuse to see what it is.
I decide against telling him to leave me alone. His presence is comforting after two weeks of hell. Ten minutes later, I’ve only been able to finish a couple bites of oatmeal that tasted more like cement. I thought I would’ve been hungrier, but my appetite is nonexistent.
“You should try to eat more before we have to go,” Jaxson says. “You look like you need it,” he adds when I ignore his advice.
I couldn’t care less what I look like.
Exactly like the last time, everyone gets up and moves for the exit as if cued by a silent bell. I get up and follow the rest of them without checking to see if Jaxson is coming. His hand grips my arm and remains there while we exit the cafeteria. I don’t ask him to let go or move away from him. The warmth of his hand seeps through my bones, making me feel the most alive I have in two weeks, as if pushing away the last bits of my drugging.
“We finished training with firearms yesterday,” he whispers in my ear.
All I can do is nod. My insides clench while I ponder what other horrors could await us in the classroom. The strong, familiar scent of damp soil and vegetation hit me when we round the corner in to the classroom. My body seizes up at the threshold, causing Jaxson to plow into my back.
Every table has four of the same plants on them, all of which I am intimately familiar with. Jaxson drags my reluctant body to the table at the far side of the room before my reaction is noticed by anyone else. The female agent, with dark brown hair and broad shoulders, demands attention and is immediately obeyed.
“Today we will be going over the properties of each of these plants,” she informs us, gazing over the crowded room. “By the end of the lesson you will be able to identify which one is the most lethal simply by looking at its leaves.” She pauses, moving toward our table. My heart pounds in my chest. I don’t want to believe what my mind is telling me is to come. It can’t be true. Everyone’s gaze lands on me, making my palms sweat. “Today’s lesson will be taught by Ms. Morros,” she tells the class. Some of them gasp, a couple snicker, and a few whisper. I don’t look to see who they are, and her cold glare shuts them up anyway.
Shaking my head is my automatic response. There’s no way I can do this. I thought the last two weeks were hell, but no. This is my personal hell. I instantly regret refusing, the shock hitting me like a freight train. I can’t help doubling over again, can’t help the scream that rips from my throat. My fingers dig into the edge of our table until the pain subsides. I swallow six times to keep from vomiting. This time was a million times worse than the first, as if that one was a joke.
Time stands still. Everyone stops moving, stops breathing, while I try putting myself back together. Then Jaxson’s hands are on my shoulders, grasping my clammy skin while he yells something at the agent, but I can’t make it out over the ringing in my ears. When it finally subsides, I meet the agent’s gaze, panting for breath.
“As I said, Ms. Morros will lead today’s lesson,” she states.
“She won’t do a damn thing for you psychos,” Jaxson growls, gripping my shoulders a little too tight.
“Stop! Stop.” I pull away from him before the agent can reprimand him. I meet his gaze, begging him to stop, but he looks at me as if I slapped him, so I turn back to the agent. “I’ll do it, just… give me a minute… please.”
She smirks. “You have thirty seconds.”
“No. I really need a few minutes,” I plead.
She squints, considering me. “Fine. You have two minutes.”
I nod, taking a deep breath before moving to the front of the class on wobbly legs. If they keep doing that to me, I’m afraid I’ll lose all muscle function. Keeping my back to the classroom when I reach the front table, I close my eyes and do as Cadmar trained me. Taking several deep breaths, I imagine the door in my mind and carefully put a new thick steel vault door in place, closing it on all my emotions, on the people I care about, on Conner, Reiley, Cadmar, and now Jaxson. This may not be the ideal place to meditate, to find that space in my head to retreat into, and it may not have worked out so well the last few times I tried to do it, but I have to try. If I’m going to get through this, I can’t care about any of them.
“Time’s up,” the agent barks.
How does such a manly sound come from a woman?
The vault door slams shut, my eyes snap open. I turn to the class of teens, who look as if they’ve never seen someone be tortured into submission before. Even Bryn and Eva, who beat our own sister into compliance, stare at me with wide, terrified eyes. That tidbit of valuable information is stored away to be pondered in a different setting.
“Let’s begin,” I say, sounding very much like a robot.
“What the hell was that?” Jaxson growls in my ear after we’ve left the classroom.
“That was a damn good lesson,” I state, giving him a dead stare.
His eyes become thin slits before he drags me to the side of the hall, letting the onlookers pass by. He leans so close his frantic breathing brushes my face. “I’ve never seen someone do that before. I saw you when we entered the room. You looked like you wanted to die, and even more so when she said you were leading the lesson, and then I thought you were dying. But when you went to the front of the room, you seemed… unfazed.” He pauses, taking a deep breath but gripping my arm tighter. “What did they do to you?” His crystal blue gaze searches mine.
“They had nothing to do with what you just saw.” I jerk my arm from his grip. “I’ve been doing that for years.”
I turn for the dining hall, my appetite seeming to have found its way back. Jaxson follows but doesn’t bother me any further regarding my indifference. The thought of feeling anymore, being haunted by the faces behind the vault door, while I’m here gives me plenty of reason to not switch back. All my loved ones may as well be dead anyway, since I won’t ever see them again.
Jaxson continues staring while I devour my salad and salmon and he picks at his sandwich. “It’s like you’re a different person,” he states, but his concern doesn’t reach me.
“I really don’t need your opinion,” I point out, jabbing my fork at him. And I really don’t. We aren’t friends, we don’t really know each other, so why should I care what he thinks?
“Maybe you do.” He glares but goes silent for a minute, making me think he dropped it. “Don’t you think it’s a bit cowardly to turn it all off like that? To forget the things that really matter only so you can survive in here?” he adds, making my gut clench.
“You want to talk to me about cowardice?” I snarl, getting in his face. “How about standing by and watching when they dragged me off after that gun incident. We may not know each other, but any caring human being with a pair of balls would have stood up if they knew what was coming my way.” My temper boils, making my control slip, the image of Reiley’s smile getting through the crack in the door. Clenching my eyes shut, I shove the door closed with all the mental force I can muster.
“I didn’t know exactly what would happen.” His eyes flash to my scar for the millionth time. I refrain from slapping him. “I didn’t know….”
“Then don’t you dare lecture me on cowardice when you could be the president of the coward’s club.” I shove away from the table, making a beeline for the door.
“Going somewhere?” a familiar, particularly annoying voice asks behind me. The image of Reiley slips through again, but this time covered in bruises and blood.
“Matter of fact, I am.” I turn to glare at Bryn, unsurprised that Eva is at her side. It takes more effort than I’d like to admit getting the vault to shut again. A confrontation will only make my control slide even more. Talking about plants and how they kill people was easy, clinical; dealing with real-life emotions is next to impossible.
“That was a great lesson you taught,” Eva says in a too-sweet tone, making me cringe. “I especially enjoyed seeing you be forced to do it.”
I smirk. “You know, it seems they’ve been putting a lot of effort into getting me to help them. It makes you wonder who they would be more okay with losing.” The stricken look they both give me is priceless. “Yeah, I’d watch my back if I were you two.”
I leave them behind, looking after me as if I smacked them, and head for the rec room, since I have nothing better to do. A few guys I recognize from the class earlier are grappling on the springboard and a couple girls are doing laps in the pool. I’m here for the track, which is fortunately unoccupied. I get started at a slow pace, letting my muscles remember what to do. The stretch and strain of my limbs is exhilarating.
The moment sweat beads on my forehead, Jaxson joins me on the track, earning a groan from me. Running with only the sounds of my feet hitting the ground, my own breath coming in and out, is my preferred method. The only person I ever enjoyed running with is on my “do not think about” list.
He falls in beside me, keeping pace with me. We breathe in unison. “You’re right,” he says on a huffed breath. “I am a coward, but I don’t know you well enough to risk my life when I already warned you to comply.”
“Well, unlike you, I don’t just do as I’m told when I’m being forced against my will. It takes some coercion.”
“When there’s no other option, you do what you can to survive.” He shrugs, making me eye the thin scar that runs along the side of his face, wondering if he earned that here. “We all have people. We all have things to fight for, but you should keep fighting. Don’t let them hurt you to the point of giving up and forgetting the ones who matter most to you.”
“If I’m going to be stuck here, if there’s no way out, then I choose not to feel. Not to fight for a lost cause. The people I don’t want to think about are safe and away from here, so why should I keep torturing myself with thoughts of them? Why should I keep fighting if I’ll never see them again anyway?”
“Touché.” He nods after considering me for a long minute.
We stop dead when two male agents, both with buzzed heads and broad shoulders, enter the room, coming straight for us. My heart pounds, my palms instantly perspiring. I did what they asked, followed their instructions, so why are they coming for me now? A hand grasps my sweaty one, squeezing hard. I look up into Jaxson’s hard gaze. “Don’t say anything. Just stay out of it,” he tells me, but whatever he means by it goes right over my head.
I’m the one they keep pestering, the one they keep torturing. Before I’m able to state as much, they’re in front of us. “Come with us, Jaxson Marks,” the one on the right demands.
My heart pounds faster. Of course, how could I be so stupid? They’re going to reprimand him for interfering earlier. He squeezes my hand harder before letting go.
“What for?” He tilts his head, but his throat bobs.
“Come with us, Mr. Marks,” the agent repeats, holding a hand out in the direction of the exit. “Don’t make this difficult.”
I realize I’m vibrating when the entire room appears to be shaking. They can’t take him. The thoughts of what they might do to him just for sticking up for me make my stomach roll. This is entirely my fault. He told me to comply, to listen, but I refused. Now he’s going to be punished.
The agents move for him, but I’m in front of him before they can grab him, and he’s yelling for me to stay back. The agents tell me to move. I refuse. When they try to move me out of the way, I elbow agent one in the ribs, making him grunt in pain, and punch agent two in the throat before Jaxson can get past me. Then I drop to the ground like a sack of potatoes, writhing on the rough track while they drag a now-unconscious Jaxson away. The pain is so overwhelming my mouth opens on a silent scream while every muscle in my body convulses eternally. Even after the torture wanes, I stay lying on the floor for several minutes, trying to catch my breath while the other teens in the room continue their activities as if nothing happened.
I finally gain enough strength to prop myself up, sitting on my knees to stare at the door. Jaxson, my one ally in this building, who I really know nothing about, is gone, and I have no idea if I’ll ever see him again.