Mind Games

In a world slowly drawing to an end, a strange mutated disease manifests. Youths who suffer from heterochromia suddenly have the ability to project their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations directly into the minds of their peers. These Freaks, as they are called, as a menace to society and a danger to the populace, are sent into government controlled isolation camps, where their new powers cannot harm others. However, the government hides a horrible secret. Within these compounds, hundreds of experiments are being preformed upon the healthy, unwanted children who find themselves placed there. Because the men in power don't really want a cure. They want an army.
In the midst of their suffering, two unlucky teenagers find each other and, through their bond, stay sane in a world going mad. But can love really save a life, or is it all just a lie concocted to make them more malleable?

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2. Freak Show

            The boy was staring at me again, his amber eyes glowing in the light of the fire. I didn’t look at him, but I could feel his gaze on me, piercing into my soul, stealing the secret thoughts and desires from the inner depths of my mind. At least, that was what it felt like. I didn’t actually know what he was doing, but that presence – that foreign touch – was there. If I made eye contact with him, I’d be opening myself to whatever he wanted to do to me.

            Sometimes I wondered if maybe I really did want to look and get it over with. Even becoming another of the fawning, adoring teenage girls that shadowed his group from a safe and discreet – and allowed – distance might be better than living as I was. Sane. Or, I corrected myself, almost sane. Besides, he’s not a Freak. He can’t touch my mind.

            “793! Girl 793! Pay attention!”

            The angry yell immediately snapped me into focus. Disobedience here meant death or worse. But that stubborn part of me – the bit of my soul left untouched, that part that no one could claim – screamed for me to run or fight. Or at least to look away. But that part was almost gone now. “Even the strongest can and will be broken.” That was what they had told us, the day they took us.

            They were right.

            I gritted my teeth and turned to watch the specter.

            The young man – for I thought of him that way, even if he was legally no longer human – was bound to a chair on a platform in the center of the crowd. Men, their blank faces not revealing any of the joy or revulsion or anticipation that undoubtedly coursed through them, waited nearby. The fire burned before him, lighting his face from below. It was a strong face, a face I knew that I would remember for the rest of my life. The slight hook to the nose, the dilated pupils almost swallowing up both the green iris and the black one, and the buzzed brown hair all burned themselves into my memory.

            Then the hot iron burned into him.

            I’d heard screams before. All kinds, really, from the high shrieks of children to the deeper, more wrenching bellows of the adults. His should have been no different.

            But it was.

            In some inexplicable way, I felt like I was tied to this man. I felt the branding iron touch my chest, just above my heart. I felt the agony swell through me as I stood there, powerless. I collapsed after it was done, my heart racing, pumping life through a body that would rather die. The newly made Fleur-de-lis brand still burned me, even though they were done.

            When the hand closed around my hair, I didn’t know if it was me or the man who was grabbed. The slap the reddened my cheek felt like nothing compared to the pain still lingering in my mind. But I was suddenly freed from the bond. I was myself again, fully and completely. The man’s Freak eyes touched mine, and I felt a whisper of pain escape from him again through the thread-thin connection still between us. And I knew that, if he wanted, he could take me again.

            “Girl 793!” It was a woman’s voice – probably the owner of the hand still knotted in my hair, yanking cruelly on the mud-brown strands. She sounded furious. A bad sign. I tried to stand still and obey her, I really did. But I just couldn’t. I collapsed, my hand going to my chest and tearing at the cloth there as gasping breaths tore through me.

            Hands closed around me instantly, levering me back up and shoving me away from the others. I heard the whispered words from the girls around me and, more faintly, the boys across the room. “793 made contact,” and “contamination” were the most common.

“793 will report immediately to Testing.” It was a man’s voice, hard and unflinching. I couldn’t focus enough to look at him even now. The pain lingered still, an echo of what I’d felt.

I didn’t want to go, but I knew I had to. Any arguing, any delay, would result in punishment. And besides, I wanted to get away from the man still bound in the chair. I felt two pairs of eyes follow me as I turned and stumbled away.

            A woman escorted me, of course, turning me this way and that through the twisted maze of the compound. We passed my cabin – 4G – and the big hall we called the Trough, where two-hundred and fifty of the camp’s unfortunate inmates could eat at once. The woman walking with me didn’t talk or even look at me the entire time we walked. That was protocol. The adults weren’t safe here, not around us, especially when alone. Some kids could do things to them. Things like what that man in the chair had done to me.

            The Freaks were rare, but eye contact was still forbidden. We were allowed to go outside, but only when supervised and not for long. One of the children back at the foundation of the Peace Camp had died by walking into the direct sunlight and bursting into flames. Now we all had to be careful. We also didn’t get names anymore. We all had a number. There were 3,856 Girls at camp, 2,109 Boys, and the 23 Freaks, all living in cabin-groups of two-hundred and fifty. We almost never saw anyone outside of our cabin-group. We almost never saw the Freaks either, because all of the mutated boys and girls eat, slept, and lived together.

            Finally the woman pulled me up short in front the Testing building. Made of rotten wood logs, it looked no different than any other building in the camp, except that it was a little bigger than the cabins and smaller than the Trough. There were no windows and only one door. Over the four years I’d been at the Camp, only a few dozen had entered. None of those had ever been the same again. Whatever they did in that building, I didn’t want to know about it.

            But I didn’t have any choice.

            I refused to let myself hold back. Whatever they did to me, I wanted it done with as soon as possible. I breathed one last breath of semi-clean air, and then hurried through the door before my courage could fail completely.

            Inside it smelled of alcohol and sterilized metal. The entryway was well lit with electric lights set into the ceiling. The old woman sitting behind a large white desk smiled at me and pointed to a chair. I sat without a word. Speaking before spoken to was forbidden.

            My escort talked to the woman for a moment in a voice too low for me to hear. When she finished, she left without looking at me.

            “Darling, just wait there for a few minutes please. I’ve already called the doctors in and they will be here shortly.” The woman’s voice was coated in false sympathy. It made me nauseous. I couldn’t speak, I was too afraid I would scream, so I just nodded.

            It wasn’t even a few minutes before the team of doctors arrived. I found myself the center of a giant crowd of adults dressed in white plastic gowns and masks. They prodded me onto a rolling table and took off again, whisking me down a pristine white hallway. When they stopped, I was in the center of a small square room with light blue walls and a desk in one corner. A young man – barely an adult himself – was sitting behind the desk, typing furiously at a computer screen. He wore shapeless blue scrubs that made him look like a blue marshmallow.

            Why am I thinking of marshmallows? The thought was strange. I hadn’t seen or tasted a marshmallow in four years. Maybe it was the fire that had burned in front of the Freak. That and the word “camp” seemed to wake strange memories of things I thought I’d forgotten.

            “Name.” The man’s voice was terse and impatient.

            “Girl 793.”

            “Alright then, 793. I am going to prep you for the operation. The surgeons will be here soon, don’t worry. I just have a few tests to run first.”

            My heart jumped at the word “operation.” They were going to cut me open and take something out. I panicked, trying to back away from the man, but I was still lying on the rolling table. I only now realized that my hands and feet were tied down.

            “Please, please no. I promise, I didn’t do anything! I didn’t, I swear!” But he didn’t listen to me. His hand came down on my head, holding me still. In his other hand was a strange, metal box that made a high pitched sound. He rolled it across my head and I felt the cold metal on my scalp, an odd opposite of the burning iron brand. I strip of my hair fell to the white tile, the only dirt in the room. He was buzzing my hair.

            When he was done, he let me look at myself. I was pale and thin, as always. But, where before the long, dirty locks of my hair had hung loose, now I had none. It was cut about an inch from my head. I looked like a boy, albeit one with large eyes and delicate features.

            Next he swabbed inside my mouth and drew blood. The needle piercing into my arm hurt, but it was a small pain. I didn’t even flinch. The color of my blood was wrong. I’d always heard that blood was supposed to be red-brown. That was the color of it when the adults cut themselves accidentally, or one of the older boys was beaten. I’d never seen my own blood before. Now I wished I hadn’t.

            “Why is it so dark?” It was true: my blood was almost black. Was there something wrong with me?

            The man seemed to sense my panic. “Oh no, don’t worry. It’s just Contaminated. Don’t worry about it, we will clean it soon enough. I just have to run a few tests on it first.” He looked at me conspiratorially. “We’re trying to cleanse the Freaks, you know. Finding a cure.”

            I knew that already. That was the supposed reason behind the Peace Camp. To cure the Freaks. But they always told us that the Contamination the Freaks spread was deadly. “Why aren’t I dead, then? I’m already Contaminated, right?”

            “You are something new, 793. Your body resists it. That’s why your blood is so dark. Now we just have to figure out how to channel that resistance into the Freaks, and they will be totally healthy again!”

            Contamination resistant. But, if the Freaks’ strange disease couldn’t kill me, didn’t that mean I was a mutant too? Did my father know? Was that why he’d left me here, four years ago? In the name of a science he believed could cure my brothers?

            The man looked at his computer screen again, typed a few letters I couldn’t see, then approached me again. “Tell me if you feel any pain or nausea,” he instructed, beginning to poke and prod my stomach. When he touched the skin above my heart, I gasped a little. I may not have been the one branded, but I still felt the burn as if it was my own.

            “Strange. The connection should be broken by now,” he mused to himself. I tried to distract myself from the pain by reading the letters on his nametag. Dr. Andrews. A bright light shone in my eyes, first the left, then the right, and I squinted. “What unusual coloring!” He exclaimed to himself. I was used to that. My almost blood-red eyes were an oddity around the Camp. Vaguely I could remember having brown eyes when I was little, but something about my brothers had changed me.

Finally, after a few more random exercises I didn’t understand, he unstrapped my wrist, put a bracelet on my left hand, and instructed me to enter the third room on the left.

            Glad to be done with the tests, I hurried to follow my instructions. I entered the room to find it positively crammed with doctors. They all wore pale yellow surgical gowns and masks. I felt a moment of intense fear and tried to back away, but one seized my hand and pressed me down onto a table. The cold metal seeped into me, chilling me to the bone. A hand pressed a gas mask to my face, and as soon as I breathed, everything went fuzzy. My vision blurred, barely able to distinguish the glint of the scalpel an aging male surgeon was bringing to the left side of my head.

            I tried to scream, but as soon as I drew in another breath, my vision went black entirely.

 

            I woke up in my own bed with Girls 791, 792, and 794. They were snuggled close for warmth, hoarding the think blanket that was all we had. The other beds in the cabin were equally cramped. Girl 792 was hugging me, sharing our body heat to keep us both warm. Her blonde hair fell around her young face like a golden curtain. I envied her the trouble-less sleep she always had.

            I was the oldest in our bunk. 791, at fifteen, was only a year younger. 792 and 794 hadn’t even hit puberty yet. Even though we shared no blood and, in fact, had every reason to fear and mistrust each other, we considered ourselves sisters. We suffered together in this prison masquerading as paradise.

            I closed my eyes again, but I could still see that glinting knife, descending toward my head. My skull was wrapped firmly in bandages, as was my wrist. I felt nothing but weariness. Not even a memory of pain. My chest still ached, but that was a familiar feeling now. I would have been more worried if it hadn’t. No, whatever they did to me in Testing, I was still me.

            For now.

            I finally got to take off the bandages and survey the ruins of my hair almost a week later. It was still short, cut evenly everywhere except on one side. On the left side of my head a long red scar showed where they had cut my head open. Along the scar, no hair was growing back. I would have a permanent streak of short, fuzzy hair.

            Everyone commented on how lucky I was, of course, that the Freak hadn’t done any permanent damage. 980 was the only one who seemed to realize the true extent of what had happened. She was even gloomier than usual – a true feat, considering her normal depressed aura – and wouldn’t talk. She’d disappear for hours at a time during the night. When she was around, she’d stare at me like I was an anomaly she was determined to crack.

            A few weeks later there was another ceremony, but this time I was exempt. In light of the traumatic event I’d suffered, I wouldn’t have to watch another Freak being tortured. Lucky me. I got to sit alone in the dark of cabin 4G and try to forget. But I could still feel an echo of a presence in my mind, and when the other girls came back, they found me lying on the ground, screaming and clutching my arm. After another trip to Testing, 980 – one of the only girls willing to talk to me anymore – whispered that the camp officials had broken the Freak’s arm.

            Whatever was forcing these connections onto me, I wanted them to stop. I needed them to stop. The second time in Testing, instead of Dr. Andrews, some wrinkled up old perv doctor had examined me. Something about his touch sent shivers up my spine. He seemed to enjoy prodding me way too much.

            The third Freak Show – as the girls in my cabin liked to call it – the officials left three girls with me. They also drugged me and tied me down. I didn’t mind, especially when I felt the pain again. This time was the worst. The agony swelled through every pore of my body, sending my muscles into shaking spasms as I fought for life.

            980 was gone when I reentered my cabin the next morning. So were 791 and 825. All three of the girls who had stayed to watch me. That night, I got a new bunk-mate. 3857 was sullen and quiet – all in all, a lot like 980. 808 whispered that the Freak had died. Something about chemical injections. A lethal dose of Karma – the drug they always kept in stock at Camp and used to punish any kids who break the rules.

            It was almost a month after my latest trip to Testing when the Camp authorities finally let me back out of the cabin. I went to eat at the Trough with my cabin-mates, and as we filed in, the boys from cabin 1B were just leaving. We stood to the side to let them past, but one group stopped in front of me.

            Conscious of their eyes on me and the fat red scar across the left side of my head, I kept my eyes studiously lowered. They were all wearing standard issue camp boots, polished to perfection, but the laces were wrong. They were dyed all different colors. That was when I knew who these boys were.

            “Courage.” It was the first time the boy with the golden eyes had ever talked to me. He whispered it right next to my ear, then laughed loudly when one of his friends said something. He swatted amicably at his companion, then turned to the girl next to me and kissed her full on the lips.

            While the camp authorities were trying to part the boys from us – all they boys, suddenly exploding with hormones or something, were trying to make out with any random girl they saw – and the poor girl was practically swooning, the boy turned back to me. “Hang in there.” His strange eyes met mine, and I could have sworn that the left was a little darker.

            It was only after the boys had left that I realized something. For the first time since the Freak Show, I didn’t feel anyone but me inside my head.

            I spent the next two days trying to reason it out. My first instinct was that the boy was a Freak. But all of the incoming kids were tested for the Freak Gene. So he couldn’t be. And besides, the Freaks eyes were different colors. Although, I recalled, his left eye had seemed a little darker. But surely someone would have noticed. The color change was always drastic.

            Eventually I gave up. Some things were just not meant to be known.

            Having my mind to myself was disconcerting. I was used to that fuzzy feeling of intrusion by now. Sometimes I thought I could still feel it, but there was never any real contact. Maybe I really was safe again. I still didn’t know why I hadn’t died after the first contact, but why did it matter? I was alive.

            But that nagging thought persisted, forcing me nearer and nearer insanity. It was like driving on a freeway, speeding toward the exit sign. The analogy surprised me, mostly because I’d spent the past four years avoiding thinking about the world outside the Camp. My mind felt different now. I felt something new growing and living inside me. Sometimes, I had an almost unstoppable urge to cry, or scream, or hum, or do any of a dozen stupid things that would have gotten me a Karma injection.

            I saw the boy again a few times. We made eye contact twice. But we never spoke again. His words echoed in my head. He’d known what was wrong with me. But how?

            Then, almost a week after he’d spoken to me, I saw him outside the window of my cabin. He saw me looking and put a finger to his lips, telling me to be silent. Then he pointed to a building across the path. It was an abandoned cabin, left to rot because all of the occupants were gone. The administration had talked about converting it to a holding facility for rogue Freaks, but they never caught the Freaks, so they didn’t bother.

            He slipped around the back of it, and I followed as quietly as I could. The officials had left me alone for a while, so I wasn’t worried about being followed. They only noticed me when they almost killed me. A few of the girls saw me slipping out, but they didn’t look twice. They probably thought I was going to relieve myself before bed. I’d let them think it and try to be back quickly.

            The night was cool and dark, only lit by the electric lights around the Camp perimeter. As soon as I ducked around the corner of the building, a hand clamped down over my mouth. “Shh. It’s alright.” The boy’s golden eyes burned into mine, only a few inches away.

            For some reason, my heart went wild. I hadn’t touched a boy – besides the camp officials, most of whom were old enough to be my father – in years. His hand was smooth, the skin soft but calloused. A light bruise showed on his wrist, just barely peeking out from under his sleeve.

            All of these random details registered before the boy did. I thought of him as a hand, a pair of eyes, a bruise, because that was easiest. I didn’t want to think of what my father would have said had he known I was sneaking out at night to see a boy behind an abandoned building.

            “Who are you?” I whispered back, curious. “Why did you want me to come here? How do you know what’s wrong with me?”

            The boy took a deep breath before answering me. He seemed to be collecting his courage for something. His luminous eyes flicked over to my scar, and I looked away self-consciously. “I’m 114, if you must know. Listen, I don’t have much time.” As if to prove him right, voices sounded nearby, harsh and angry. Adults. “Damn, less than I thought. Alright, listen,” he cupped my chin and forced me to look him in the eye. “Meet me here in two days, alright? Just after sunset, inside the cabin. Please, I need your help.”

            I don’t know why. Maybe I’m I masochist, maybe suicidal. Maybe I was just curious. But I nodded.

            I could barely control my excitement and fear as I hurried back into my cabin. My bunkmates didn’t even notice, however, so I assumed I was doing a passable job of looking exhausted. In truth, deceiving two-hundred and forty-nine people who have known me for years was a lot harder than I would have thought it to be. Even 3857 seemed to know enough to worry me. But no one said anything.

            Those two days were the longest of my life. I think that part of me just wanted to see the boy to prove to myself that I was still free. That I was still alive. The rest of me was almost addicted to thinking about him. I couldn’t get his eyes out of my head. Or that bruise on his arm, the one that looked like a handprint. Or the slight imperfection in his left eye. It wasn’t noticeable, but the more I thought about it, the more sure I was that it was there. The slightest indent on the bottom edge of his left iris, with a faint darkness around it. What it meant, I had no idea.

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