Society is an interesting creature. It changes constantly, evolving its components in order to move toward some invisible goal; a day when people will love one another, and differences will be celebrated rather than feared. A day of peace, celebration, and happiness, a milestone of the evolution of man.
That day is never coming.
Because every time differences are resolved, and apologies are made, and acceptance finally rules, a new minority comes into focus. Because that’s how society wants it. And when the world eventually works its way through the natural supply of people to oppress, society will create a new minority.
Because some things never change.
The face staring back at me is not my own. I bring a hand up and brush my fingers across my cheek absentmindedly, mildly surprised to see the action mimicked. My fingers trace the lines and creases that usually come with age, the hollow cheekbones that typically come with great hunger. The expression I see is one of utter misery, creating the illusion of some invisible force weighing down on the flesh. The eyes are dull, lacking the glimmer of recognition that should spark at seeing their own reflection.
The face I see isn’t the one I’m used to, though it’s been this way to some degree for at least ten years. It could have been twenty, but it would make no difference. I will never get used to this face.
I allow the pattering of the rain to fill my mind, if only because it’s something other than doubt. Doubt, which so often infects my mind like a disease. The corners of my mouth twitch at that bit of irony. The ghost of a smile quickly falls away, however, when I realize how foreign it looks on my face. Unhappiness suits me. And it helps to further my cause.
I’m brought back to reality by a knock on the door. “Come in,” says a parched, strung out voice. When the knocking continues, I swallow a few times and try again. “Come in,” I repeat a little louder, and the door opens.
The man that enters wears a similar expression to mine, and like me, his face has aged prematurely. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that he’d been in the adjacent room, going through the same ritual as me.
He examines the dimly lit room, taking in the poorly crafted wooden furniture and the paint chipping on the walls. His gaze finds me, seated in front of a battered vanity mirror, watching him through the reflection; however, his eyes pass over all of this in favor of a small object on the floor. It’s an orange container with a white cap, the adhesive seal unbroken. If the man is at all surprised by this, he does a good job of hiding it; his expression never once changes.
“Marvin,” I say, without taking my eyes off the face in the mirror. He withdraws an old, tarnished pocket watch from the depths of his suit coat. He glances at the hands ticking under the scratched glass surface, then at me.
“It’s time to go.” His voice, like his expression, is somber. Between that and our formal dress, we could easily be attending a funeral.
Slowly, I stand, bracing my arms against my knees. I finally tear my eyes off of the mirror and nod toward Marvin. “Good luck,” he says quietly. I try for a real smile, but since I can’t get the muscles to move properly, it comes off as a kind of strange grimace.
Marvin and I cross the room without another word. I steal another glance at the mirror before I close the door, committing to memory the image of that miserable face. I half wonder if it will look familiar next time I see it, but I know the answer.
The dreary, grey light shines through a window and washes over me as I cross the short hallway. Even this dim illumination is unpleasant, and I squint slightly in a fruitless attempt to alleviate the discomfort.
Marvin claps me on the shoulder as we reach the door, but I don’t acknowledge it. My attention is completely focused on my hand, which is now resting on the doorknob. I swallow once more as my fingers tighten around the worn brass surface. I close my eyes, and open the door.
The soft grey light now envelopes my entire body and I’m greeted by the sudden desire to retreat back into my dark room. I shake it off, however, and open my eyes.
Hundreds of figures come into focus before me, forming a massive crescent shape around the small raised platform upon which I stand. Not a single one of them seems to notice the rain drizzling onto their heads. They have eyes only for me.
This weighs on me as I move slowly toward the lectern placed on the edge of the platform, well aware of how I must look in my ill-fitting suit. Not that they care. None of them look much better; most of them are like me, bearing the same look of misery, the same apparent discomfort at being out in the open.
As I reach the lectern, I clear my throat and hope against hope that my weak voice will hold in the minutes to come. I lean hesitantly toward the microphone and open my mouth.
“Hello.” The coarse, strained voice rings out across the open space. I glance around. I have everyone’s attention.
“Many of you,” I say. “Have been wronged.” There are nods of agreement. “Many of you are like me.” I take a deep breath, and begin to speak in earnest, allowing the words to flow. This is the only time when I don’t have trouble getting my thoughts out.
“Twelve years ago, the world changed forever. Not through war.” I gaze solemnly at the crowd. “Not through politics.” I shake my head. “Not through natural disaster.”
“No, twelve years ago, the world changed through a cure.
“How lucky we were, to have discovered the way to defeat the most infamous disease in history, the bane of humankind. That day was one of celebration, and relief. Our problems were over.
“But for how long?” The voice grows stronger, echoing clearly throughout the crowd. My lips form a smirk around the words exiting from them.
“How long?” I gaze at the crowd. “How long before we realized that the cure was more deadly than the disease?
“Months, mere months, after that day of relief and celebration, a new disease was born from the remains of the ‘Ëœcured’.” I make no attempt disguise the bitterness in my voice.
“A disease that put the old one to shame.”
“But we all know this,” The voice has become quiet, soft. “We all know the history of our plague, our misery. We know how it started, and we know how it ended.
“But that’s just it; No matter what they’ve put in my body,” I jam my thumb toward my chest, then gesture outward. “Or yours..” I shake my head. “We will never be cured.
“We can never undo the things that have happened to us or the things that happened at our hands. I cannot say which is worse, only that I am truly sorry for everything.
“You’re not sorry! You’re a monster!” The comment, shouted hatefully from some unknown person, is met by cries of displeasure from the rest of the crowd. I scan the sea of figures, mostly to make sure that no one has retaliated with violence.
“And we must let them know,” I continue loudly. “That we are truly sorry. We cannot give them a reason to hate us, to fear us. Because we are not monsters.” There are general cries of agreement. I decide that this is as good a place as any to end.
“I am case 32,” the voice reverberates across the crowd. “And I am not a monster.”
“Really, I can’t thank you enough.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
“There should be more like you, fighting so hard for our cause.”
“You’re too kind.”
I move slowly through the crowd, my progress halted by the figures stepping in front of me; commending me for my bravery, my determination. I try to receive these remarks as graciously as I can, but my patience is wearing thin. These words of congratulations fail to register in my brain, as if they’re not directed at me. They shouldn’t be, certainly.
I’m relieved to see Marvin waiting for me across the sea of admirers. I push my way through the rest of them, no longer stopping to acknowledge the words I know I don’t deserve. When I finally reach Marvin, he simply nods. After all of the exaggerated compliments thrown my way, Marvin’s response is all too refreshing. The subtle movement seems to acknowledge that there was a speech made; nothing more, nothing less.
“How do you feel?” he asks.
“Like I just gave my last speech,” I say. He shrugs. “We’ll see,” he says.
“I don’t know, Marvin.” I say, shaking my head. “I think I’ve done enough.”
He glances at the mass of figures behind me. “They don’t seem to think so.”
“But that’s just it!” I look him in the eye. “What have I done for them, really? What do they owe me?”
“You give them hope.” He says quietly.
I sigh. “Hope has no value today.”
I suspect he has a response, but I never hear it. A voice, different from all the others I’ve heard today, issues directly behind me.
I close my eyes for a moment, thinking. My instincts tell me to run, as fast as I can. My ears are ringing, drowning out everything around me. The sound of the crowd is lost on me, along with the sound of the rain, and that voice; that voice, which is so different from all the others ‘” it lacks that dejected nature that is so characteristic of those like me. It is a strong, confident voice; the voice of someone who has not known true misery.
The ringing sound has now deafened me even against my own body ‘” I cannot hear myself breathing, or my heart beating, but I know that both have sped up exponentially. Far past what might be considered normal.
I struggle to stay grounded, forcing myself to take deep breaths. Slowly ‘” it feels slow to me, though it’s probably only been about thirty seconds ‘” I bring myself back to reality. I force myself to open my eyes, and turn around. Marvin has disappeared into the crowd, probably wanting to avoid the imminent conversation.
“John.” I try to sound cold, but instead the name sounds as if it’s being uttered by someone who’s being strangled. I clear my throat self consciously.
“How have you been, Ed?”
“I think you know,” I say, trying now just to sound collected.
“Well, now, whose fault is that?” I think I see a hint of a smile creeping onto his face, but it’s gone before I can be sure, replaced by a look of concern that’s not particularly convincing.
When I don’t answer, he looks around, saying “That was quite a speech you gave, Ed. I didn’t know you could be so — .charismatic. You should be pleased with yourself. Maybe you’ll even get them to organize.”
“Maybe.” I say quietly. He looks me in the eye, any amusement in his voice completely gone.
“You know I can’t let you do that, Ed.” His voice is soft, dangerous. “You see, if you all – ” He gestures at the crowd. “- manage to organize, well, that would make some people very unhappy. And I’d be out of a job.”
“Yeah, that’s the plan,” I say, growing bolder.
“You, more than anyone,” he says. “should be fighting to keep me where I am. I gave you an identity.”
“You stuck me with a label.”
“You have to admit, you helped.” He chuckles. “Although,” he adds. “I suppose if it wasn’t you, it’d have been someone else. Wouldn’t have made much of a difference.”
“People like you,” I say, my voice shaking. “are the worst thing that have happened to the world in a very long time. You are a monster.”
He smiles, and I recognize something melancholy, like regret, in it; but it vanishes almost immediately. “No, Ed.” He says. “You’re the monster. You’re just too stubborn to admit it.”
Without another word, he turns to leave. I open my mouth, hoping to have the last word, but nothing comes out. I close my eyes again, taking deep breaths to combat the ringing that has returned to my ears.
I depart from the spot, not really sure where I’m headed. I decide on the dark room, hoping I’ll return to a familiar face. I know, however, that all I will see is the same stranger I left earlier.
On my way back I find Marvin. He is waiting a short distance away, removed from the bustling crowd. He stands, motionless, with his attention focused on the pocket watch in his hand. He does not look up as I approach, and doesn’t even seem to be aware of my presence until I say “Hey.”
He simply glances up and nods. “Any idea why he was here?” I ask, referring to the unnerving conversation that just took place.
“Probably just checking up,” says Marvin quietly. I scoff.
“Just checking up. That’s not really his style, is it?” I say. “No, he has an agenda, I’m sure.”
“Then he probably wants to scare you.” Marvin replies absentmindedly, without looking up.
“Well he didn’t make me feel any better, I can tell you th…”
“Hey.” I’m interrupted for the second time today, by a voice less familiar than the first, but not exactly foreign either. It’s aggressive, but something more complex than that too. Then it dawns on me that this is the voice responsible for the outburst during my speech. Slowly, I turn around.
The man in front of me looks as if he’s in his early forties, and is dressed more casually than most here. He is not like me, or Marvin, or anyone else here, in that he appears relatively healthy. His muscular build contrasts the emaciated frames I’ve been seeing today, and his hair is brown and full rather than grey and thinning. His skin is not pale to the point of translucence and when he moves it’s with a fluidity I can normally only dream about. He looks far more alive than we do.
What surprises me, though, is what he does share in common with us. His face, though handsome, is weighed down with grief. This is a face that has known true misery.
“Yes?” I say.
“Not you,” he snaps. “You.” He looks past me, at Marvin.
Though I don’t recognize this man, it’s clear by Marvin’s expression that he does. The despondency typically displayed on his face has turned to fear. I look at him quizzically, but I’m ignored.
“You,” repeats the man. Marvin shakes his head fearfully. The man starts toward my friend, but I step between them. “Who are you?” I demand, hoping I sound authoritative.
“Why don’t you ask him?” says the man, jerking his head toward Marvin. When Marvin just shakes his head again, the man addresses me.
“All right,” he says. “You wanna know who I am?”
When I don’t say anything, he continues, his tone unmistakably hateful.
“My name is Adam Wright.” His voice is starting to shake. “And my little girl is dead because of your friend.”
All I can do is stare. I’d always known that Marvin was one of the ones brought up on charges, but he had never gone into detail. I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, what the nature of his crime was, because it wasn’t all that uncommon. I also knew that whatever he had done had scarred him permanently. I finally understood.
“I-” I begin to say, but I’m cut off by Wright.
“Don’t,” he spits. “Don’t try to defend him.”
I shrug helplessly. “I’m sorry.” I say earnestly. I see immediately that I’ve made a mistake.
“Don’t!” He snaps, his face contorted with rage and grief. “Don’t apologize! You can’t apologize!”
I struggle to find words, which is hard enough for me anyway. None come, so I stutter instead.
“I..I — I don’t want to-“
“Nothing you can say will bring her back, either of you.” Despair has overtaken his anger now. “Nothing — ” He shakes his head, apparently lost in thought for a moment.
“And you,” he rounds on Marvin, who is rooted to the spot, looking absolutely terrified. “You won’t say anything.” Marvin opens his mouth, but like me, no words come out.
“You won’t even try!” screams Wright. Moving faster than either Marvin or I could ever hope to, he shoves me out of the way. I lose my balance, and fall back onto the uneven ground. The breath is knocked completely out of me, and every bone in my body jars painfully. As my vision swims in front of my eyes and the ringing in my ears returns, I see Wright seize Marvin by the front of the shirt.
I try my very best to call out for someone, anyone. I try my best to get up, to do something. Anything. But my best is not enough. I watch helplessly as Marvin is thrown to the ground beside me. I see Wright’s foot before he does, and I can’t warn Marvin before it makes contact. I watch Wright kick him, over and over; in the sides, in the stomach, the back of the head, the face.
Marvin takes this beating silently, and as the ringing in my ears grows stronger and my vision starts to grey, I see the agony displayed clearly on his face. The ringing deafens everything as he begins to cough up blood, and I can do nothing to stop it. Slowly, I slip into the black abyss.
My senses quickly return, however and I realize that the world is shifting right side up. I wonder briefly who is helping me; I want to tell them to stop, to help my friend instead. Then it dawns on me that no one is helping me; that I am getting to my feet of my own accord, and dread fills my body.
Because I know what is coming next.
Rage takes over, destroying any conscious thought. I watch, more of a spectator than anything else, as I lunge forward with an agility that is usually beyond me. I see my hands come forward, and watch as they make contact with the man beating Marvin. I’m rushing toward the ground and Wright is coming with me, unable to free himself from my grip.
He lands, hard, on his back. Before he can raise a hand to defend himself, I’m beating him as mercilessly as he beat Marvin. My fingers tear at the fabric of his clothing, scratching the flesh underneath. My fists strike him repeatedly in the face. One hand is starting to close around his throat when another hand that is not my own seizes the back of my jacket and pulls me off of Wright. The ringing in my ears is fading as I am hoisted onto my knees. I turn to see Marvin, his face and shirt crimson and his breath ragged.
“Don’t give them a reason.” He rasps, and I feel flecks of blood hit my face.
“Thank you.” Is all I can manage.
Marvin and I sit on the ground next to Wright, who is conscious but too weak to do anything, and wait for the police. We know they will come, and that it would be foolish for us to run. Nothing good can happen to us now, but running would be so much worse.
Sure enough, two squad cars arrive about three minutes later, their sirens squawking abrasively. We allow them to arrest us without a word, even submitting the blows from their nightsticks that neither of us is particularly surprised to receive. We’ve both been arrested before. We know how it works.
Wright is taken away in ambulance that arrived shortly after the squad cars, but the officers deem Marvin and I fit to be taken to jail. I’m hauled into one car, but Marvin is led to another. I suppose they don’t want us working together to overwhelm the officers in the car, or trying to escape. I watch from the back of my car as Marvin’s pulls away. Sighing, I rest my head on the window. My day is made worse by the fact that the face I see in the reflection is just as unfamiliar as ever.
“Self-defense.” I say. The officer in front of me leans back in his chair, smirking.
“Self-defense.” he repeats in amusement. “Sounds to me like you weren’t defending yourself.” Both of us glance at Marvin, seated next to me. In the painfully harsh light I can see the full extent of his injuries. One eye is swollen and black, and his paper thin skin is lacerated in several different places. His lips, one of which is also swollen, remain tightly pressed against each other; but I guess from the way that he holds his jaw that a few teeth are missing. Based on his posture, I’d also say he probably has at least one broken rib.
“I think it’s the same idea.” I say, looking back at the officer. He continues to stare at Marvin.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” He asks. When Marvin doesn’t answer I say “No, he doesn’t talk much.”
The officer returns his attention to me. “And yet he managed to start a brawl.”
“It wasn’t a brawl,” I say, irritated. “It was assault.” The man raises his eyebrows.
“Assault.” He chuckles. “You sure you wanna go accusing people of assault? Mr. Wright may be filing charges based on the same grounds.”
I stare at the officer.
“Do you see him?” I gesture angrily towards Marvin. “I was defending him. I should’ve stepped in earlier.”
“Stepped in.” repeats the man. “I heard you tackled him.”
I say nothing.
“How — ” he hesitates. “In control, were you, son?”
“What are you saying?” I ask through gritted teeth.
“You zombies are a violent bunch-“
“Don’t-” I begin, but think better of it. I take a deep breath, and try again.
“Not if it’s true.”
“That’s racism.” My patience is wearing thin.
He ignores my glare as he speaks. “Now, the fact is that your friend has a — .history with Mr. Wright-“
“Which was settled in court,” I interrupt. I immediately regret it, because I’ve given him further reason to dislike me.
“Don’t interrupt me,” he says slowly. “It’s disrespectful.” I nod, wanting only to avoid further trouble at this point. “Of course,” he adds. “I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about respect. Your kind isn’t civilized.”
I’m a little shocked by how blatantly he says this, now making no attempt to pretend he doesn’t hate what I am.
He stands up, making it clear that the conversation ‘” though it could hardly be called a conversation ‘” is over. Marvin and I are escorted to our cell, which they’ve allowed us to share. Evidently they don’t think us smart enough, or dangerous enough, to escape or harm someone from behind bars.
I take a seat on the bed, and bury my face in my hands.
“Is it true?” The voice issuing from me takes me by surprise'” partly because it still sounds unfamiliarly hoarse, but partly because I wasn’t expecting it.
Marvin, who has been sitting on the floor with his back propped up against the corner of the wall, looks up; prior to my interruption, he had been examining his battered pocket watch, one of a few possessions that weren’t taken. I had been watching as he turned it over with his fingers. Every few minutes, he would stare intently at the hands, as if trying to determine whether or not he was late for something.
“Is it true?” I repeat, staring at him. The tone of my voice is surprisingly harsh.
Marvin sighs. “Yes,” he says, speaking for the first time since he pulled me off Wright. “And no.”
When I continue to stare, he sighs and returns his attention to his watch.
“Not long after I got sick,” I’m surprised at his voice, having been under the impression that he was not in the mood for conversation. “Before I knew I could be..”
“Dangerous.” I supply. He nods.
“I was out in the city, I was feeling good. I felt like maybe I was getting better.” I nod. I know exactly what he’s talking about.
“Her name was Emily. I remember that. I can never forget.” He swallows. “Most people avoided me, because they knew what I was. They knew that others like me were dangerous, had killed people. I thought they were ignorant. I thought I was one of the ones that were harmless.”
Again I nod. It was true that some of us were completely harmless. There was really no way to tell at that point, when people had just started making correlations between those of us that resembled walking corpses, and the violent outbursts.
“Emily didn’t stay away. She came up to me, asked me why people were avoiding me.” His voice is shaking now. “Her father grabbed her, told her to stay away. Then a man, I don’t know who, steps in front of me. Says he should teach me a lesson for talking to that little girl.
“He calls me a zombie, and shoves me hard. I don’t know what to do, so I shove him back. It was like I couldn’t control myself.” Marvin still refuses to look at me. I realize that this is the most I’ve ever heard him speak at one time.
“I didn’t know how hard I shoved him. I had no idea.” He shakes his head absentmindedly. “Anyway, he got mad, and came back at me. He started hitting me, and I started hitting him back. I wasn’t just going to let him — it wouldn’t be fair.” He says, looking up at me now. His eyes are pleading, as if he’s asking me to understand.
“Emily — ran back up the sidewalk. She tried to pull him away. Her father came running, tried to grab her. But it was too late.” If he was capable of it, I’m positive Marvin would be crying by now.
“She was only six.” His voice is shaking. “She was so little — the driver of the car didn’t even see her get knocked into the street.”
“By you?” I ask. He shakes his head helplessly and shrugs. “Maybe..” he says.
“You don’t know?” I ask incredulously.
“I had a hand in it, regardless of whether I pushed her or not.”
I shake my head. “That’s not fair,” I say.
“It doesn’t matter.” He says quietly.
What bothers me is that he’s right. As zombies ‘” that what most call us, with no thought to how it makes us feel ‘” it really doesn’t matter whether or not our lives are fair. People hate us, even fear us; because in their eyes, we are monsters. I lie back on the bed, and close my eyes.
“The holes in the brain — “
“He shouldn’t be able to function like this.”
I stare at the smooth white surface above me, periodically broken by blue light. I’m struck by how much the machine I’m occupying feels like a coffin. I lift my head up ever so slightly, trying to get a look at the owners of the voices, though I’ve seen them before. They’ve been doing things to me for a few days now. Tests, I think.
“Try not to move your head.”
I put my head down. Why am I here? Who are these people?
I look around, trying to remember where I am.
“Try not to move your head.” The voice is a little more firm this time. Why can’t I move? What are they doing to me? I shouldn’t be here.
I attempt to slide out of the machine.
“Uh-” says the voice. “You really need to stay still. You’re disrupting the test. If you don’t stop we’ll have to start it over.” I stop moving again.
“He doesn’t understand.” says another voice.
Where am I? Maybe these people know.
“Where am I?” says a new voice. I realize with a start that it’s mine.
“We’ve been through this, Ed.”
“You’re in a hospital. We’re trying to treat you.”
“For what?” Says the voice. It’s hoarse and strained, like the voice of someone who’s been screaming. I try to move again.
“This isn’t working.” Another voice, slightly familiar, issues from somewhere outside the machine.
“Maybe we could secure him?” The first voice, a woman, is speaking.
“No,” says the newest person, a man. “You saw what he did before. You really think those straps can hold him?”
“No,” he continues. “The problem is largely psychological. There are holes in his brain, yes, but he’s functioning miraculously. But he doesn’t know who he is. He has no identity. The paranoia, the violence, they stem from that.”
“Can you be sure?” asks the second person, another man.
“There’s only one way to find out. I’d like to run my own set of tests.”
“John-” starts the woman, but she is interrupted. “It’s the only way to know for sure.”
Where am I? Maybe these people know.
“Where am I?” Says a voice, but it’s not my own. I struggle to get out of this coffin.
The man named John sighs. “Trust me,” he says. “This could get us one step closer to finding a cure.”
“Okay.” Says the man.
“Ed.” I look up.
“Good,” says the man in front of me. He writes something in a notebook.
“Who is Ed?” asks a voice that seems to be coming from me, though it is not my own.
The man sighs, and erases whatever he’s just written down.
“You’re Ed,” he says, pointing at me.
“And who are you?” asks the voice.
“My name is John Kipling,” he says. “I’d like to do some tests.”
I look around. I’m sitting in a comfortable chair, in a dimly lit room. There’s a painting of a boat on the wall.
“Why is it so dark in here?” asks the voice. It has a rattling quality, and I wheeze heavily as it issues from me. Without a word, John reaches for the shade on the wall and pulls it up.
Pain, blinding pain, erupts in my body as the sunlight streams through the window. I hear a blood curdling scream as I squirm in the chair, but it is drowned out by an intense ringing in my ears. The world around me is drained of its color, and I shut my eyes tight against the blinding white light.
Kipling yanks the shade down, but I keep my eyes closed for a few minutes anyway, waiting for the pain to subside. It doesn’t however, so I allow the ringing sound to wash over me, succumbing to the darkness now enveloping me.
The room around me has been ransacked, by who I don’t know. Perhaps it was the man in front of me, scribbling furiously in a notebook. I realize that I’m lying on the floor.
“Who are you?” rasps a voice, and it sounds like the voice of someone on their death bed. I realize with a start that it’s coming from me. The man in front of me scribbles some more at these words.
“Fascinating — .” He murmurs.
Without another words, he seizes the lamp sitting on his desk and turns it on. It has a flexible neck, which he bends upwards so that it points at me.
Pain takes hold of my body, horrible pain. My ears begin to ring, and I black out.
I wake with a start. The first thing I’m aware of is the rain pattering on the rooftop. My head is pounding. I don’t remember what I was dreaming about, but my mind is already racing and I can feel my blood coursing through my veins.
“Marvin,” I say. “You awake?”
I sit up, looking around. Other than me, the cell is empty.
“Your friend is gone.”
I recognize the voice instantly.
“What have you done with him?” I demand.
“Me? Nothing.” Says Kipling. “The officers removed him about an hour ago.”
“Where did they take him?” I ask, my head spinning.
“Away,” says Kipling simply. I can make out his shape outlined against the bars of my cell in the dark. He’s standing with his hands folded in front of him, staring at me. I feel like he’s examining me, or observing. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he’s been taking notes while I slept.
“So why are you here?” I ask. He sighs.
“Where to begin — .” he says. “Mr. Wright has been attempting to find Marvin for years, after what happened.” He examines his fingernails. “Unsuccessfully, until he contacted me.” I get the feeling that he’s taking credit for what’s happened, and it sets me on edge.
“I have been monitoring you, naturally,” he continues. “So that I could observe anything….unfortunate that happened.” He looks at me again. I can’t tell in the low light, but I could swear he’s smiling.
“But you did well.” There’s irritation in his voice. “You kept your head, and you became the face of your cause, for zombies.” He spits the words with surprising harshness.
“Until today.” He begins to pace back and forth. “Today, you showed your true colors, and you proved to the world that your kind can never be cured.” I’m dismayed to hear my own words thrown back at me.
“Wright attacked my friend. What was I supposed to do?” I say, trying to subdue the ringing in my ears.
“Let it happen,” he says softly. “Submit, as you should.”
Rage is creeping up through my body, threatening to take over. I push it down.
“I noticed,” says Kipling. “That you have chosen to stop your treatment?” Anger is replaced with dread.
“I don’t need it, I had it under control-“
“Until today.” He interrupts. “But it seems that you’ve gained some control over it. That’s — .very interesting.”
Headlights pass through the only window, illuminating the man in front of me. He is dressed smartly, in khaki pants and a sweater vest. His glasses shine opaque in the brief light, so that his eyes are obscured. His face is cold and emotionless.
I realize that the vehicle the headlights belong to has stopped outside, and my dread increases, turning my insides cold.
“Where are you taking me?” I ask.
“Away,” he says again. “To run some tests.”
“You’re a monster.” I say, shaking with fear and anger. He laughs.
“Now, Ed,” he says. “We’ve been over this.” He tilts his head to the side. “Or is your memory starting to go again?”
Pure, absolute hatred seizes my brain as I stare at him. He stares calmly back, refusing to be frightened by me. I allow the hatred to flow through me as several men come into the building, and open my cell. I don’t even resist as they grab hold of me, dragging me into the black, empty night.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
I sit on my cot and listen to the pounding on my door. I don’t make a sound to reply, instead allowing the man on the other side to fumble with his keys and unlock the door. When his head pokes through the door, I raise a hand in greeting.
“I’m fine,” I say. He gazes around the room, his eyes narrow.
“What are you up to?” He asks. His voice is deep and throaty.
“Nothing.” I say.
“I heard a lot of noise.” He says suspiciously.
I shake my head. “Lost control.”
He spits on the cracked cement. “Zombie.” He withdraws his large head from the crack in the door, shutting it behind him. I hear the jingle of the keys, and the click of the locking mechanism.
I lay back on my cot, sighing. It’s been at least a week since I last saw Marvin, and I’m starting to worry. I know that I would have heard if something had happened to him.
I hear footsteps echoing outside my room, followed by the sound of the key once again turning in the lock. I don’t sit up as Kipling enters the room, looking around at the mess I’ve made.
“Quite impressive, Ed.”
I don’t respond, and I’m irritated to hear the unmistakable sound of him scribbling in his notebook; No doubt he’s putting a spin on my silence, finding a way to use it as ammunition to prove that I’m a dangerous animal.
“So, would you care to tell me what caused this one?” he asks.
“Ah, well, that tends to happen when you spend twenty hours of the day in a ten-by-twelve foot room.”
I remain silent, staring up at the ceiling. More scribbling.
“Well, Ed, would you care to get out of here for a bit, stretch your legs?”
I stare at him; then, slowly, I get off the bed. Though he’s phrased it as a question, I know that Kipling isn’t giving me a choice. I glance briefly at the souvenir that taught me this lesson; a large purple bruise on my forearm.
Kipling leads me out of the room and into a dark corridor. I’m flanked by the man who was guarding my door and another. Both of them have at least two hundred pounds on me, most of it muscle. As we walk, Kipling turns to the man farthest from me and murmurs “Let’s secure him in his bed from now on, okay? I don’t want him loose.”
We pass four or five doors before we reach our destination. I’m ushered into a room about twice the size of the one I’ve just left, with whitewashed walls and halogen lights. I’ve built up something of a tolerance for harsh light in the past week, and though it still causes me pain, I no longer have what Kipling refers to as an “episode” because of it.
The room is populated by sinister-looking machines, a few of which I’ve become familiar with recently. This is the room I’ve been taken to almost every day, and it’s where Kipling administers his tests.
I’m led forward to a corner of the room in which I’ve spent very little time. One of the large men pushes me toward what appears to been an ordinary treadmill. I look at Kipling, confused.
“This test is designed to test both your speed and your endurance during an episode,” Kipling explains. “I want to see, as usual, just exactly what you’re capable of.” He flashes me a malicious grin.
I’m lifted up onto the treadmill. Straps, which I hadn’t noticed before, secure my wrists the railing on either side of me. I realize where this is going.
“Shock him.” Says Kipling, and one of the men produces a cattle prod. He jams it into my side, and I spasm for a moment. When I recover, I spit at Kipling’s feet.
He remains as expressionless as ever as he says “Again.”
My body locks up for a second time as I receive the shock. I recover, though, swearing at Kipling.
I grunt in pain.
I shut my eyes, trying to block out the sensation.
I slump in the treadmill, my chest heaving. The all-too-familiar ringing is sounding in my ears, and I make no attempt to suppress it. Instead, I focus on keeping my mind present.
“Again.” The pain no longer seems so bad, and the world is fading around me. Under the ringing, I can hear the muffled voice of Kipling, commanding his guard to shock me one more time. I hear the discharge of electricity from far away, but no pain comes. The room goes black.
Like when I attacked Wright, the world soon returns, lacking color but present nonetheless. The ringing no longer deafens me, instead staying at a manageable volume. And I’m watching my feet move rapidly over the track with surprising agility. I think, I make a conscious decision, to try and move my feet myself. I concentrate all of my energy on my legs; I quickly find that, though I haven’t broken pace, I am now doing the running myself. I move each leg forward and back with fantastic rhythm, marveling at my own capabilities. Amazement is quickly replaced with a sense of satisfaction. I am no longer a spectator in my own body. I am finally in control.
Kipling has evidently not noticed any change in my behavior, because he continues the test without a word, occasionally upping the speed and incline of the treadmill. I never falter, maintaining the same pace with virtually no effort.
I run for twenty minutes, basking in the exhilaration and euphoria of being in this state. However, it is taking more and more effort to stay conscious, and my vision is starting to flicker. Satisfied with my accomplishment, I allow the darkness to take me once more.
A hand seizes one of the thicker patches of hair on the back of my head, using it to pry first my face from the mattress, and then my entire upper body. The only thing keeping me down is the straps on my forearms. I shriek in pain, and for this near-involuntary response I receive a shock from the now very popular cattle prod. My body jerks, hard, yanking itself away from the hand but also the fistful of hair. I fall back into the mattress. I feel saliva, warm and wet, collide with my now mostly bare head.
The straps are unfastened and I’m rolled over onto my back, allowing me to see the man responsible for the abuse. It’s Wayne, one of two guards in the building. He is the less cruel of the two.
“I have a surprise for you today, Ed.”
I’m dismayed to hear the voice I’ve now come to associate with everything that’s wrong with the world. I stare at a spot on the ceiling until Kipling puts his face into my line of vision.
“Don’t you want to know what it is?”
I refuse to respond, and he pulls away, allowing Wayne to administer another shock. I jerk again, unable to keep my body still.
“You’d think at some point you learn some manners, Ed.” He sighs over the sound of his pen scratching in his notebook. “I guess that’s the one thing I can’t get you to do.”
“But that’s beside the point. I have a surprise, and I want you to see it now.” It’s more of a command than a request. “Get him up,” He says to Wayne.
Wayne grabs me by the shoulders and hoists me onto my feet. My hands are cuffed and my feet shackled; it gives me some satisfaction to know that Kipling doesn’t trust me, maybe even fears me.
I’m led, as usual, through the hallway. Today, however, I’m ushered through a new door. As I cross the threshold I glance around. The first thing that I notice is the light, or lack of it. Most of the rooms are harshly lit, in part to keep me off my balance. I know that Kipling has started occasionally adjusts the brightness, in order to keep me from ever getting too used to it.
The room is sparsely furnished, with only a few folding chairs. In the middle is a projector. I can’t of any reason for it, which makes me even more uneasy.
“Today, Ed,” Says Kipling as he approaches the projector. “We are going to watch a film. I believe you’re familiar with it, though I don’t think you’ve ever seen it.”
I’m pushed roughly into a folding chair by Wayne, nearly losing my balance in the process. It doesn’t help that I can barely move my hands or feet.
The projector begins to whir, and the screen in front of me bursts to life. After a moment of flickering, an image appears on the screen. I recognize it immediately.
I am sitting in a chair, with my arms and legs strapped down. I’m looking around, seemingly confused.
“Gaps in memory are common at this stage,” Says Kipling’s voice in the film. “Note the expression. He doesn’t know where he is.”
I confirm this only moments later by saying “Where am I?” My eyes are unfocused, and my voice is unsure.
“Note the reaction,” says Kipling. “to a strong stimulant ‘” in this case, light.”
Someone offscreen hands Kipling a heavy duty flood light. Without a word, he point it at me and turns it on.
The effect is immediately apparent. I shriek in pain, cowering against the floodlight’s rays. Then, when I can’t escape from them, I begin to change. My muscles contract violently, my eyes bulge out of their sockets, and eventually roll up into my head. I begin to spasm, the straps straining against my body’s violent episode. After about thirty seconds, I go limp. For moments, mere moments, I am still, almost peaceful. Then my eyes move back into position. But there is something different about them now. They are empty, dead. Like the eyes of a shark. I take a rattling breath and look around.
“What’s really interesting is that most of his bodily functions seem to have shut down,” says Kipling. “He’s breathing, and pumping blood to a few areas of the brain. Not much else.”
My head snaps toward Kipling at the sound of his voice. I strain against the straps, in a futile attempt to break loose. I can only assume that my goal ‘” if it can be called that ‘” is to kill the man holding me captive, for the simple reason that he is there.
“Fascinating,” says Kipling. “There’s something very animal in him.”
“Animal.” Kipling’s voice now issues from behind me as the screen goes dark. “Rather fitting, don’t you think?”
I just stare at the screen. I want more than anything for it to switch back on, for my film self to smile and take a bow, and say that it was all an act. I want, more than anything, for it not to have been real.
I allow Wayne to pull me up onto my feet, no longer resisting in any way. I walk submissively through the doorway, back through the hall, and into my room. I don’t protest as Wayne straps me onto the railings of my bed, this time face up. I want to say something to Kipling, I want to prove him wrong, but the words fizzle in my handicapped brain before they can even really form. Because it’s becoming increasingly difficult, the longer it dwells in my mind, to deny that what I saw wasn’t real. I can only tell myself for so long that Kipling wasn’t right.
“It’s funny, Ed,” says the voice I’ve come to despise. Dr. Kipling has stepped into the room, scribbling in his notebook. “This whole time I’ve been trying to break you, and all I had to do was hold up a mirror.”
“You did quite well, Ed.” Kipling is scribbling, yet again, in his notebook. “Quite well indeed.”
I lay on my cot, gently examining with my hands the fresh electrical burns covering my side; this is made incredibly difficult by the straps on my forearms. I wince as my fingers prod a particularly sensitive spot. The worst part of the cattle prod is that I can never quite get used to it.
“You may want to leave those alone,” Kipling is smirking. “though I wouldn’t expect the pain to stop you.”
“Are you calling me stupid?” I rasp dully.
“You’re a zombie. I can’t say much else about you.”
“No, Ed,” Kipling is still wearing an infuriating smirk. “That’s medical fact. You have holes in your brain.”
I don’t respond, deciding instead to stare at the ceiling.
“Although I must say,” he mutters more himself than to me. “Even in your current — .limited — .mental state, you’ve retained a much more consistent presence of mind since you stopped your treatment.”
“That drug,” I say, lacking any hint of sincerity or defiance in my voice. “did nothing good for me.”
He chuckles. “Well, it kept you civilized. That may not have done much for you, but I can assure you that the rest of the world was thankful.”
“But now that you’ve stopped,” he continues softly. “You’ve become so much more useful. To think that I medicated you, all of you, when all I really needed was to let you be. You see, you’ve shown that you really are a monster.” The cold smirk is replaced by that ghost of a smile. “You’ve shown that some things never change.”
“You can’t use me like this.” I say rather weakly.
“Oh, but I can,” he says coldly. “You’re mine, Ed. You were mine before and I used you then. I can do it again.”
“You demonized me, and my people. You made the world fear us.”
“Your people?” He says, chuckling. “Good God, you really should stop talking. If you’re delusional I’ll have to look into it, and I really don’t want to go to the trouble.”
“They listen to me. They’re faithful to me.”
“Oh, I wasn’t talking about that, Ed,” says Kipling, casually examining his fingernails. “I’m referring to your implication that they’re people.”
This is the kind of comment that used to set me on edge. Any more, though, it just doesn’t register.
“But the fact that I own you isn’t why I can use you, Ed.” He continues. “No, even then, people would object to that. But the sad truth is that no one cares. It’s been a year, Ed,” He chuckles. “Do you really think anyone still remembers your name?”
“Marvin.” I say. “Where is he?” I’m not really expecting a definitive answer to this. I’ve probably asked the question thousands of times since I got here, with no real answer. It’s the only thing I’ve never given up on.
“Oh, yes, your friend.” Kipling sighs. “I might as well tell you now.”
I sit up as quickly as I can, though the straps keep me from doing it properly. “Tell me what?” I demand.
“Well, it’s quite a shame, really.” The hint of a smile I’ve come to know appears on his face.”
“A few weeks back he became — .exceedingly violent.”
My blood runs cold. I shake my head ever so slightly, as if trying to deny to myself that what’s coming next is real.
“I’m afraid we had to put him down.”
The floor drops from underneath me, and I’m falling; down, down, down I go, with no sense of direction, no sense of what’s real.
“No.” I say, shaking my head in earnest now. “No.”
“It was the only way. I really am very sorry,” says Kipling, sounding anything but. “I had to wait to tell you, however, because I knew you’d be upset. And I didn’t want to risk that ruining my tests.” He looks me in the eye. “But my tests are over now. And I’m afraid that you, like your friend, became violent.”
I realize with horror what he’s implying.
“Well, Ed, there was just nothing we could do to stop you. You were like an animal. Just like your friend.” He says softly, leaning in. “He was just like an animal, right before we killed- “
And then Kipling is hurtling backward; he hits the wall with an unpleasant thud. After a year of holding me down, the straps have finally broken.
I stand, welcoming the ringing, because I have come to associate it with power. It requires no effort on my part to stay conscious now.
I beat Kipling mercilessly, striking him repeatedly in the face and head; grim satisfaction fills me as blood runs from his mouth and nose, filling his throat and choking him. The whitewashed cement wall behind him is spattered with it.
I seize him by the throat; leaning in close, I say “Call the guard.”
It brings me immense satisfaction to see Kipling’s expression now, as I look him in the eyes. His usually cold demeanor has been replaced by shock and fear; he clearly has no idea what’s going on, and why I’m able to do more than yell and break things.
“I-I — .” is all he can manage, weakly gesturing at the hand I have wrapped around his throat. Loosening my grip, I repeat myself.
Gurgling, he spits up a substantial amount of blood before yelling “Wayne!”
I knock his head against the wall, and he loses consciousness. Then I wait, listening, until I hear footsteps echoing on the cement. As usual, it’s followed by the jingling of keys. The door opens, and the man named Wayne pokes his head through. Before he can react to the scene, I grab the door and slam it against his head. It bounces off rather forcefully, and Wayne crumples to the ground.
Seizing Kipling by the collar, I drag him out the door, stepping over Wayne as I do so. I hear the other guarding thundering down a flight of stairs, having been alerted by the commotion. Allowing my instinct to take over, I drop Kipling and wait in front of the stairs. As the man reaches the bottom set, I hide behind the wall. I hear him yell in alarm as he catches sight of Kipling, and I use this as my cue. With one swift movement I grab him by the neck and use his forward momentum to slam him, face first, into the cement floor. He cries out in pain as his nose shatters, but I silence it with a kick to the head.
The act of violence should have left me horrified with myself, but it didn’t. On the contrary; I feel good, better than good. I feel unstoppable, and it’s exhilarating.
I drag Kipling up the flight of stairs, which leads to another hallway, much nicer than the one in what must have been the basement. I move down the hallway until I find a door marked KIPLING. I kick it open, not even bothering to check if it’s locked. Slamming it behind me, I take in the view.
I’m in a well furnished, but dimly lit room. There’s a desk on one side and comfortable-looking chair on the other. A picture of a sailboat hangs on the wall. Briefly, I wonder if I’ve been here before; but the thought is quieted pushed out of my head as the ringing in my ears wanes, replaced by another noise. I hear the muffled sound of voices, maybe hundreds of them. I move toward the window and pull up the shade.
Figures, hundreds or maybe thousands, stand before the building. Many of them are holding signs of one kind or another, and all are like me; bearing the same permanent expression of unhappiness and the same sickly frames.
I search around the room for something, anything, to magnify my voice, but something else catches my eye.
A pocket watch, old and tarnished, lies on the polished wooden desk. The glass front is cracked, and the cover is bent off of its hinges. Gently, I pick it up and stow it away in my pants pocket. The sound of the protestors fades away, leaving me with cold, empty silence. I close my eyes for a moment, swallowing hard.
The cacophony of the crowd eventually brings me back to reality, and I approach the window. Someone points and hundreds, maybe thousands of faces follow the hand to me. Angry protests turn to cheers as I slide open the window, and lean out.
I welcome the fresh air after the stale, recycled oxygen that I’ve grown accustomed to. I allow it to wash over me, noticing nothing else for the moment. Then it hits me that the people below are, all of them, here for me.
So I begin to speak. I know now that I will need nothing to amplify my voice, because the crowd has fallen completely silent.
“Hello.” My voice rings out loud and clear.
“Many of you,” I say. “Are like me. Many of you have been wronged.” There are nods of agreement.
“For ten years, I have been the face of our cause. This was not my choice, but it was my burden. And I have not done it justice.” I pause, gazing at the crowd.
“I moved about the country, giving speeches. But my words were empty. I lamented at our situation, but did nothing to change it. I was a perpetuator, not an instigator.
“Because I was not in control. They were.” I say. “The rest of the world feared me, and so they tried to manipulate me. And I let them.” I don’t hide the bitterness in my voice.
“And I let them tell me who I was, because I didn’t know. I wandered around, with no real identity. I let them tell me who I was.”
“A zombie.” There are boos from the crowd.
“And I’m here to tell you today,” I continue, ignoring the response. “That they were right.” The crowd has fallen silent again.
“I am a zombie. This is what I’ve become.” My voice is quiet, but it still manages to carry to the back of the crowd.
“But that is my choice. Rather than reject it, I’ve chosen to embrace the identity they’ve cast upon me. Because it is what they fear most.” I look around at the sea of faces, rapt with attention.
“And they will fear me. They will fear what I’ve become. Because I have control.”
“And they will fear you too, if you choose to embrace who you really are.” My voice grows loud, echoing across the crowd.
“And we will fill the streets, and they will understand what we’re capable of.”
“Today, the world changes forever.”
“I am case 32,” I shout. “And today I fight back!”
I shut the window on the cheering crowd. Because of the noise, I didn’t hear Kipling stir. I see, in the reflection of the window, that he is propped up against his desk and staring at me, too weak to do anything.
“You should be proud of yourself, John.” I say quietly. “You’ve started a revolution.”
He shakes his head. “You’re not a revolutionary,” he says, his voice shaking with disgust and fear. “You’re a monster.”
I stare at my reflection in the mirror, and I realize that I can no longer remember how it used to be. The ghost of a smile appears on my face now as I speak.
“Some things never change.”