I see one of the PSFs throw an arm out, pointing to where Lucas needs to stand against the far wall. When he stares at him blankly, the black uniform lets out an explosive cuss and maneuvers him there by force. We see, at the same exact moment the PSFs do, that the Reds need to be shown exactly what to do. And somehow, this scares me more than thinking that these kids have been turned against us, that they might want to voluntarily hurt us. It means that they are nothing more than weapons. Guns. Point, ready. Point, aim. Point, fire. They are like the old metal toy soldiers Lucas was given by his grandpa. Unable to act on their own, but shaped with edges sharp enough to cut your fingers if you’re not careful.
I don’t care what he is. I don’t care what he could do to me—I care about what they’ve done to my Lucas. I’ve seen enough Red kids to know what the ability does to them, how hot they burn inside their own heads. We thought that they took these kids out to kill them, and now I see they’ve done something much worse. They’ve taken the soul out of the body.
Is this the cure? Is this what they’ve been working on?
After all these years, this is what we have to look forward to? Blank faces, blank minds. And their eyes...My stomach clenched. The Reds hadn’t particularly cared who got in the way of their abilities, but when another kid got hurt, it was more often than not an accident. With each escape attempt, each fight they sparked, we knew that when it came down to it, they would be on our side.
I move stiffly into place, fitting into my usual spot at our table. It’s only when they shut the doors that I begin to feel sensation coming back into me, and even then, it’s only because Vanessa and Ava are crammed next to me, shoulder to shoulder. Can’t talk, but at least we can share the heat that comes off our skin as we start moving.
A plastic bin on the table is filled with what looks like an assortment of old cell phones. There are no instructions given, only three separate bins in front of that one, each a different color. In the Factory, you assemble, sort, or disassemble. They want each phone broken down into three parts—I watch Vanessa take apart the first one to see if her suspicions match mine. Battery in one bin, the storage card in another one, the plastic casing in the third.
The work we do here isn’t important. They can’t give us anything sharp, or anything we may be tempted to take and use later as a weapon—against our soft skin, or theirs. No scissors, even. It’s all just work to tire us out. Make us easier to shuffle around and be prodded into our places. After standing on your feet for six hours each day for weeks on end, there’s not enough fight left in you to resist the pull of sleep at night. Not enough thoughts left in your head to wonder where the uniforms you’ve sewn or phones you’ve dismantled are going.
My fingers seem to be as jumbled and clumsy as my mind today. I can’t get it together—keep it together. I drop the phone case in my hand before I can even pop the battery out, sending it crashing against the concrete floor. Ava stiffens beside me, shrinking away so that any PSF who may be watching will know that it wasn’t her. I drop down onto my knees, quickly patting around blindly under the table until my fingers close around it.
Get it together, Sam. My head feels light enough to drift away from my neck like a balloon. I try to stand up, and my vision flashes white black white. When Vanessa takes my arm, I let her help me back onto my feet. But the grip doesn’t ease up, even after I’m steady.
I feel the approach from behind like a cold wind blowing up the back of my shirt, exposing me. This is what a bird feels like, I think, when they feel a storm coming in the distance. I know my breath is coming out in light gasps, and I hate myself for it. I hate the way I want to crawl under the table and fold myself smaller and smaller until I disappear completely.
I do not know what, in the end, makes a person who they are. If we’re all born one way, or if we only arrive there after a series of choices. The Bible claims that the wicked act on their own desires and impulses, because God is good, only good, and He would never compel a soul to wickedness. That I’m supposed to count on justice in the next life, even if I can’t have it in this one. My father would say that the Devil works us all to his own ends and that we must constantly be on guard to protect ourselves from him. It helps, sometimes, to think of the man behind me as the Devil himself; it’s easier to become the lion I need to be. I can pretend I know his tricks, that he’s not an unpredictable human with a temper he carefully cultivates like a rose with razor thorns.
It helps. Sometimes.
He doesn’t say anything at first, but his breath is hot on the back of my neck, and his smell—oil, cigarette smoke, vinegar, and sweat—wraps around me like an embrace, trapping me where I am. My movements become painfully careful. The sweat that comes to my palm makes holding on to each case a challenge, but I won’t let my hands shake. I refuse to give him the pleasure of knowing that he affects me any more than the other PSFs.
He’s one of the few that still wears a full PSF uniform; all black and menace, with the embroidered red Psi symbol over his heart under the stitched name Tildon.
I keep my eyes on the bins in front of me, but I wonder, I wonder all the time, if he or any of them would do these things if we were allowed to meet them eye to eye. Would they feel as free to hurt someone as human as they are? Maybe they just wouldn’t care.
I should know better; he’s not someone who likes to be ignored. The PSF lets out a disgruntled sound that seems to rip through my eardrums. He takes a step back and I’m just about to release the breath I’d held when I feel a hand slip under my sweatshirt. Under my shirt. A thumb rubs down my spine.