"We had fed the heart on fantasies; the heart's grown brutal from the fare.
More substance in our enmities, than in our love"
For the first time in my life, I have slept soundly.
No nightmares, no bad dreams, no illusions. I don't even remember dreaming anything. I guess I just drifted into a painless sleep and my system shut down for that precious time.
"Katherine," I hear a soft voice call through the silence of my mind. It calls again and I feel my shoulders being shaken gently.
When I peel open my eyes, I find James inches away from my face and this takes me by surprise. I gasp, as the memories of this morning come flooding into my thoughts, threatening to drown me over like a wave. My back takes instant revenge on me when I try to sit up, but I only fall back down, withering in pain. I suck in air, trying to stop the tears from coming and scrunch up the pillow.
James clams me down and sits quietly at the foot of the bed, cross-legged, "How long have I been sleeping?" I croak, rubbing my eyes. It feels like I slept for an eternity. I know that's a lie, though.
"Only half an hour. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that," he mumbles under his breath and looks to the floor, rubbing his hand together.
"It's okay. You don't really have a choice," I point out, "We have to be there for Inspection," then noticing that his face is bloody and still dirty, I chew on my lip and sigh, "Was it really that hard to wash your face?"
"I...fell asleep as well. I didn't want to leave you, Katherine," he looks up with his clear eyes. his dark hair is wet and plastered in blood and I can see something vaguely peeking out from his collar. Something black...he sees me staring and pulls up his shirt. I look away, embarrassed.
"Thanks for your concern, James," I say sourly, "But I'm not as fragile as you seem to think I am," he doesn't reply right away, but a smile creeps slowly to his face, sort of like the sun rising slowly and then all at once.
"I like how you say my name," he grins, a twinkling look appears in his eyes. I groan and turn my head away. He is not paying attention and I don't need this right now. I clench my eyes tightly and grip to the pillow, pushing it against my chest, to hide my half-naked body.
James sees me struggling, but I shake my head vigorously and put out a hand to stop him. Gasping from the unbearable pain, I manage somehow to get into a sitting position.
"Do you mind if I change?" I ask, a bit too forcefully. His eyes widen in realisation and he gets up, brushing down his uniform. His muscles flex and stretch, as he yawns and ruffles his hair.
"I'll just be ah...outside,"
"Are you blushing, Redwood?" I snigger, but he briskly shuffles over to the door and nearly falls over his own feet. I smile. It's cute when he's shy...wait, what?! Come on Kathy! Don't be an idiot! He's still dangerous!
I unfold the cloth and miraculously stand up, although I hunch over like an old woman and walk ever so slowly to the bathroom, hoping no one would venture in and see me half-naked. Then again, what do I care? They can't talk to me or touch me for fourteen days.
The cool air attacks my bare back, but this time, it has a positive effect. The cold soothes my lashes and I let out a sigh of relief. Then I rinse the bloody cloth and squeeze the water out as much as I can in order to dry it. It's not much, but I need something to cover the wounds.
Wrapping the cloth around my torso, I notice how skeletal I am. I can count my ribs, without having to pull my stomach in and my arms have more bone than muscle. But there's nothing I can really do about it. School rules. No extra portions.
Getting a new blouse onto me is torture. The pain comes quickly and mercilessly. I scream out and stifle myself by biting down on my clenched fist. My eyes water, but I blink the tears away. I am done with crying. No more.
I have a mission today. I won't wash my face or re-do my hair. But I will walk with my back straight, no matter how much it hurts. I want to show them that they did not get to me, that I am still fighting and that I have not lost.
I think I see the reason why James doesn't want to clean out his wounds.
I fix up my bed and make for the double doors. James leans against the window pane with his back hunched over. His blue gaze is distantly staring outside, but also vacantly. He doesn't seem to notice that I am here and when I tap on his back, he jumps up from surprise.
I giggle and dig my nails into my palms, hiding how much it hurts to stand straight and smile.
"Hey there, green eyes," he winks, "How are you feeling?"
"Never better," I say, my voice dripping in sarcasm. He chuckle sunder his breath and rubs his ear. Is he nervous? I only remember now that it must be his first Inspection, but it's not like they cut you open or anything...
"Ready?" I ask.
"Always," he replies and leads the way down the corridors and up the stairs. There aren't many people around the halls, but when we do meet them, they give us long stares that contain fear, anger, disbelief, hatred or pity. I long learned how to block the voices out and how to ignore this, but this is new for James, because I can see his discomfort.
His jaw tightens, his hands are in fists, he walks stiffly and shoots the passing students long killer glares.
"Hey, clam down. Just don't think about them and keep walking. They can't hurt you," I say, placing an arm on his stiff shoulder. He stops in his tracks when he feels my touch and I immediately regret it, when I blush at the sight of his wide eyes.
"I know. It's just so disgusting that they watched you get beaten up to a pulp today and no one tried to stop it. They are all cowards. I hate them," his voice is lethal. I gulp and give him a wobbly smile.
"You tried," I barely whisper. All of his anger seems to disappear when he looks at me and the corners of his mouth quiver.
"I didn't just try," he says, "I stopped it, Katherine,"
"Why do you keep calling me that?" I can't help it and irritation creeps into my voice. He smiles this time and shoves his hands into his pockets, rocking on his heels.
"Isn't that your name?"
"It is, but the way you say it...can't you just call me Kathy?"
He hoots and comes closer to me, "I thought that it was only for your friends to call you that,"
"Well...you're currently the only person I can talk to for the next two weeks and since you stood up for me today, I can't deny the fact that we could be friends," I try it and look to the floor. He laughs heartily, a kind of laugh that makes me want to laugh as well, and then he looks at me for a few long seconds.
"Okay," is all that he says and we continue to the laboratories. We walk through the looming corridors and I try to keep up, as much as it hurts, but James seems to notice that I am struggling and he slows down the pace.
When we come to the designated corridor, the atmosphere unnerving. Everyone lines up against the wall and no one talks. The faces are staring blankly at the linoleum floor and each student tries to hide what they are feeling, but I can read each one like an open book.
Those that are nervous, fiddle too much with the hems of their skirts of jumpers. Those that are frightened sweat and stand so still they could be frozen in time. Their eyes are narrow and they breathe heavily. And then those that have done this before and don't mind it, simply relax and lean against the wall.
We stand at the back of the long row of students, waiting for their Inspection. There is one doctor in each lab and we are supposed to strip naked in front of them and they scan us through. It's not a comfortable thing, but the faster you do as you are told, the faster you get out and have the rest of the day off.
James is in front of me and now that I realise it, he is so tall. I am practically up to his chest. His shirt is crumpled up and has a few blood smears; probably mine. He stands nervously and I can see his foot taping the floor in distraction.
While I wait, I try to spot Poppy and Meg. There are a few of us left and everyone looks like a senior. I doubt she's here, but I can't stop worrying about her. She must be so frightened and I am glad that Meg is there to take care of her.
The line seems to get shorter and shorter by the minute. Very soon, James is the first person in line and I can see how uneasy he is about this. When our names are called by an assistant with round glasses and a small figure, he make a deep noise in his throat.
Without thinking, I reach for his hand and gently squeeze it. I would do this to Poppy normally and I guess I acted out of habit. He freezes and looks back at me. I smile in encouragement and let go quickly, blushing a bright carmine.
I rush ahead of him, not daring to look back. The girls are on the right and the boys are on the left. I walk through the first door and enter a room full of bright lights and the stench of medicine kills my nose. I try to stifle my gasp, as a young woman comes up to me.
She seems friendly, because her eyes are full of kindness and softness. She has blonde hair that is in a pixie cut and an oval face. She grins widely at me and winks, clutching to her paper and pen.
"How are you," she looks down at the papers and crinkles her nose up, "Katherine?" she asks, looking up and smiling brightly. She is short and petite, like me. We are almost the same height.
I don't know why, but she makes me feel so relaxed, which never happened before during Inspection, "I'm fine, thank you," I manage to smile too.
"Well then, lets get cracking. I will wait here and you go take your clothes off in there," she points to the screen behind me and walks over to a computer.
I shuffle over, uneasily, because the lashes still hurt and I think I could cry when I realise that I have to put the blouse back on. Swiftly, I take off my clothes and remove the cloth, ever so gently, letting it drop to the floor.
I walk out, cocooned in a white this sheet that hung over the screen and she smiles brightly when she sees me, "Okay then. Lie down over here," she points to the metal table and the image of me when I first woke up flies through my head. I feel a lump in my throat and blink to stop the room from spinning.
"Don't worry," the woman says, "I don't bite. I wish I could tell you my name, but what with the rules and all..." she tries to soothe me.
I walk carefully, so as not to cause me anymore pain, and stare at the table. She waits for me to lie down, but I only realise that I can't, because I would scream. Having no choice, I bite down on my lip and lie on my front.
"Sweetie, on your back," she points out and sweat begins to roll down my palms. I clench my jaw and roll over, stifling my screams with my palm. She ogles at me, but I don't care. I let a few tears slip and breathe heavily. I can feel the wounds re-opening and the blood rolls down my skin.
She looks at me worriedly and sucks in a breath, "Oh, boy. It must be bad," I don't know how she knows what is wrong with me, but I think she must have figured that I was punished from my cut and bruised face. I bite on my lip and nod slowly.
"Hold on," she throws the papers onto a metal table and rummages in the pockets of a black handbag. I stare at her wide eyed when she turns around, holding a small tub. It's probably a salve or something and I shake my head vigorously, trying to tell her that I won't accept it, because not only will I be punished again, but she is risking losing her job too.
"It's okay, Katherine," she soothes, as she walks up to me and makes me sit up, "It can be our little secret,"
I gulp, not knowing whether this is a trap or is she genuinely trying to help me. I don't know if I should trust her or not. My instincts tell me to trust her, but my mind is waging a serious war against it. In the end, I decide to let her heal me. What's the worst that can happen? Another few lashes?
I nod and she opens up the lid with a pop and massages the cool salve gently into my back. I exhale in relief and I can feel it taking its full effect. It's like my wounds sow back up and heal within minutes.
''Thank you," I whisper through my cracked lips and she smiles brightly.
"I'm so sorry. I wish you didn't have to be here, but if it was up to me...I'd shut these schools down. More kids die in here than out there," she seems to realise what she just said and jolts up, clearing her throat.
She looks around uncomfortably and then back at me, her eyes full of fear, "Forget I told you that," she almost pleads in an urgent voice, as if I am about to go running out of the room to tell everyone what she said.
"It can be our little secret," I try to smile at her and she closes her eyes, relieved that I understand.
"Thank you so much. Me and my big mouth," she scorns herself, "I offer you a deal,"
"A deal? What do you mean?" my voice shakes, mainly due to the cool air in the room.
"I report your results to be excellent, because as far as I can see you have no major problems, you're fit and healthy, no illnesses or deformities, only a bit underfed," she pauses and plunges her hand into the pockets of her white coat, "And you can put your clothes back on and go enjoy your day off"
I don't see how this is a deal and the fact that she is putting herself in risk again, seems to unnerve me. Why would she do this? No person in their right mind would help a skinny, little girl.
I frown, "Why are you being so kind to me?" I ask nervously and her eyebrows knit in concentration. It takes a moment for her to reply.
"Katherine, you have been brought up in here and treated worse than I could imagine, but that doesn't mean that there are no kind people left in the world. I'm helping you, because I can make a difference, however small it may be. That way, I don't feel guilty about this wretched world," she says softly and her eyes are full of melancholy grey.
I didn't expect her response to be like that and it's the first time that I have met a person who criticised the system. She seems uneasy in the silence, so I decide to break it, "Okay. Thank you,"
I get up and shuffle back around the screen. I try to change quickly, which works, because surprisingly the pain is diminished and I feel great, well...physically. I walk out to see her scribbling something down and tapping on the computer screen. Her blond hair falls sleekly down her shoulders and her sun-kissed skin shines in the bight light.
"You're finished?" she looks up, "Well, then. It was nice meeting you. Have a good day, Miss Baywell and never loose faith. It'll soon be over," she gives me the thumbs up and I smile wobbly at her, as I walk out of the door.
I pause, remembering something, "Don't I need my medicine?" she looks around and her smiled drops.
"How about we skip it this week?" she bites on her lip, "It's...better not to take it,"
I decide to leave, because this only gets even more confusing by everything she says. Why is it better not to take the medicine? What does it do?
On the one hand, she made me feel like I was not alone. But on the other, she made me wonder. What will be over? The school? The torture? Will we finally be set free and given the right to live as we want?
Then something else comes to my mind. Out there? Did she mean the city or the world where there are more children like me, suffering? The point is that we are killed off in here, like pigs at slaughter. We are killed faster and for no reason at all.
That means that I could be killed too.