Such a nice name. Cellmate has a nice name.
It’s a name I’ve always liked but I can’t remember why.
I waste no time climbing onto the barely concealed springs of my mattress and I’m so exhausted I can hardly feel the metal coils threatening to puncture my skin. I haven’t slept in more than 24 hours. Adam is a nice name is the only thing I can think of before exhaustion cripples my body.
I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane.
Horror rips my eyelids open.
My body is drenched in a cold sweat, my brain swimming in unforgotten waves of pain. My eyes settle on circles of black that dissolve in the darkness. I have no idea how long I’ve slept. I have no idea if I’ve scared my cellmate with my dreams. Sometimes I scream out loud.
Adam is staring at me.
I’m breathing hard and I manage to heave myself upright. I pull the blankets closer to my body only to realize I’ve stolen his only means for warmth. It never even occurred to me that he might be freezing just as much as I am. I’m shivering in place but his body is unflinching in the night, his silhouette a strong form against the backdrop of black. I have no idea what to say. There’s nothing to say.
“The screams never stop in this place, do they?”
The screams are only the beginning. “No,” I mouth almost mutely. A faint blush flushes my face and I’m happy it’s too dark for him to notice. He must have heard my cries.
Sometimes I wish I never had to sleep. Sometimes I think that if I stay very, very still, if I never move at all, things will change. I think if I freeze myself I can freeze the pain. Sometimes I won’t move for hours. I will not move an inch.
If time stands still nothing can go wrong.
“Are you okay?” Adam’s voice is concerned. I study the balled fists at his sides, the furrow buried in his brow, the tension in his jaw. This same person who stole my bed and my blanket is the same one who went without tonight. So cocky and careless so few hours ago; so careful and quiet right now. It scares me that this place could have broken him so quickly. I wonder what he heard while I was sleeping.
I wish I could save him from the horror.
Something shatters; a tortured cry sounds in the distance. These rooms are buried deep in concrete, walls thicker than the floors and ceilings combined to keep sounds from escaping too far. If I can hear the agony it must be insurmountable. Every night there are sounds I don’t hear. Every night I wonder if I’m next.
“You’re not insane.”
My eyes snap up. His head is cocked, his eyes focused and clear despite the shroud that envelops us. He takes a deep breath. “I thought everyone in here was insane,” he continues. “I thought they’d locked me up with a psycho.”
I take a sharp hit of oxygen. “Funny. So did I.”
3 seconds pass.
He cracks a grin so wide, so amused, so refreshingly sincere it’s like a clap of thunder through my body. Something pricks at my eyes and breaks my knees. I haven’t seen a smile in 265 days.
Adam is on his feet.
I offer him his blanket.
He takes it only to wrap it more tightly around my body and something is suddenly constricting in my chest. My lungs are skewered and strung together and I’ve just decided not to move for an eternity when he speaks.
My parents stopped touching me when I was old enough to crawl. Teachers made me work alone so I wouldn’t hurt the other children. I’ve never had a friend. I’ve never known the comfort of a mother’s hug. I’ve never felt the tenderness of a father’s kiss. I’m not insane. “Nothing.”
5 more seconds. “Can I sit next to you?”
That would be wonderful. “No.” I’m staring at the wall again.
He clenches and unclenches his jaw. He runs a hand through his hair and I realize for the first time that he’s not wearing a shirt. It’s so dark in this room I can only catch the curves and contours of his silhouette; the moon is allowed only a small window to light this space but I watch as the muscles in his arms tighten with every movement and I’m suddenly on fire. Flames are licking at my skin and there’s a burst of heat clawing through my stomach. Every inch of his body is raw with power, every surface somehow luminous in the darkness. In 17 years I’ve never seen anything like him. In 17 years I’ve never talked to a boy my own age. Because I’m a monster.
I close my eyes until I’ve sewn them shut.
I hear the creak of his bed, the groan of the springs as he sits down. I unstitch my eyes and study the floor. “You must be freezing.”
“No.” A strong sigh. “I’m actually burning up.”
I’m on my feet so quickly the blankets fall to the floor. “Are you sick?” My eyes scan his face for signs of a fever but I don’t dare inch closer. “Do you feel dizzy? Do your joints hurt?” I try to remember my own symptoms. I was chained to my bed by my own body for 1 week. I could do nothing more than crawl to the door and fall face-first into my food. I don’t even know how I survived.
“What’s your name?”
He’s asked the same question 3 times already. “You might be sick,” is all I can say.
“I’m not sick. I’m just hot. I don’t usually sleep with my clothes on.”
Butterflies catch fire in my stomach. An inexplicable humiliation is searing my flesh. I don’t know where to look.
A deep breath. “I was a jerk yesterday. I treated you like crap and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
I dare to meet his gaze.
His eyes are the perfect shade of cobalt, blue like a blossoming bruise, clear and deep and decided. His jaw is set and his features are carved into a careful expression. He’s been thinking about this all night.
“So why won’t you tell me your name?” He leans forward and I freeze.
I melt. “Juliette,” I whisper. “My name is Juliette.”
His lips soften into a smile that cracks apart my spine. He repeats my name like the word amuses him. Entertains him. Delights him.
In 17 years no one has said my name like that.
I don’t know when it started.
I don’t know why it started.
I don’t know anything about anything except for the screaming.
My mother screaming when she realized she could no longer touch me. My father screaming when he realized what I’d done to my mother. My parents screaming when they’d lock me in my room and tell me I should be grateful. For their food. For their humane treatment of this thing that could not possibly be their child. For the yardstick they used to measure the distance I needed to keep away.
I ruined their lives, is what they said to me.
I stole their happiness. Destroyed my mother’s hope for ever having children again.
Couldn’t I see what I’d done, is what they’d ask me. Couldn’t I see that I’d ruined everything.
I tried so hard to fix what I’d ruined. I tried every single day to be what they wanted. I tried all the time to be better but I never really knew how.
I only know now that the scientists are wrong.
The world is flat.
I know because I was tossed right off the edge and I’ve been trying to hold on for 17 years. I’ve been trying to climb back up for 17 years but it’s nearly impossible to beat gravity when no one is willing to give you a hand.
When no one wants to risk touching you.
It’s snowing today.
The concrete is icy and stiffer than usual, but I prefer these freezing temperatures to the stifling humidity of summer days. Summer is like a slow-cooker bringing everything in the world to a boil 1 degree at a time. It promises a million happy adjectives only to pour stench and sewage into your nose for dinner. I hate the heat and the sticky, sweaty mess left behind. I hate the lackadaisical ennui of a sun too preoccupied with itself to notice the infinite hours we spend in its presence. The sun is an arrogant thing, always leaving the world behind when it tires of us.
The moon is a loyal companion.
It never leaves. It’s always there, watching, steadfast, knowing us in our light and dark moments, changing forever just as we do. Every day it’s a different version of itself. Sometimes weak and wan, sometimes strong and full of light. The moon understands what it means to be human.
Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections.
I stare out the window for so long I forget myself. I hold out my hand to catch a snowflake and my fist closes around the icy air. Empty.
I want to put this fist attached to my wrist right through the window.
Just to feel something.
Just to feel human.
“What time is it?”
My eyes flutter for a moment. His voice pulls me back down to a world I keep trying to forget. “I don’t know,” I tell him. I have no idea what time it is. I have no idea which day of the week it is, what month we’re in, or even if there’s a specific season we’re supposed to be in.
We don’t really have seasons anymore.
The animals are dying, birds don’t fly, crops are hard to come by, flowers almost don’t exist. The weather is unreliable. Sometimes our winter days hit 92 degrees. Sometimes it snows for no reason at all. We can’t grow enough food anymore, we can’t sustain enough vegetation for the animals anymore, and we can’t feed the people what they need. Our population was dying off at an alarming rate before The Reestablishment took over and they promised us they had a solution. Animals were so desperate for food they were willing to eat anything and people were so desperate for food they were willing to eat poisoned animals. We were killing ourselves by trying to stay alive. The weather, the plants, the animals, and our human survival are all inextricably linked. The natural elements were at war with one another because we abused our ecosystem. Abused our atmosphere. Abused our animals. Abused our fellow man.
The Reestablishment promised they would fix things. But even though human health has found a modicum of relief under the new regime, more people have died at the end of a loaded gun than from an empty stomach. It’s progressively getting worse.