There is a boy sat in the cell next to mine. As I study his face eagerly, I find it unusual how calm he stays. It’s not often that people like us look as relaxed as people like him, and that’s what tells me that he’s different from the rest. His head hangs low between his legs, and his hands trace swirly patterns on the floor. I am quite sure that his hands are tracing vines; his fingers twirl around elegantly like a paintbrush. What is a paintbrush?
It is going to be cold today. I can only tell this, because mist curls around the cell bars, being whipped around by a draft that is probably coming from one of the windows. The warm autumn days are drawing to a close, and already the cold has chilled many to the bone. It is not the cold that bothers me though; I can deal with the cold. I pull my jacket tight around my angular body, but there is only one thing that can warm me, and it is far out of my grasp. I think. The mist twists further and further up the bars as if they are vines. The boy draws vines. What are vines? I want to ask him what they are, because if the mist looks like vines, then I think that I like vines, but I don’t want to disturb him.
The mist starts to crawl over to where I am perched in the corner of my cell. Sometimes I am convinced that my cell is smaller than all of the others, but not today. Today, it feels like the biggest cell in the block. Soft tendrils of mist touch my fingers delicately, like a soft feathery pillow, the kind that I used to sleep on at night. That kind of feeling lightens my mood.
The boy’s fingers pause. His head rises from its position between his legs, and after a short while his eyes focus in on the mist that continues to climb up the bars. The look in them is chilling - half determined, and half agitated. Yes, those eyes are just perfect. Rising up to his raised and angled eyebrows, only inches away from a short lock of ebony hair. Why has he stopped? The mist reaches to the top of the rusted bars, and it starts to consume the ceiling. The boy’s eyes are still fixed onto the bars, his expression has changed, and he suddenly looks afraid. It’s as if he knows what is going to happen. I know what being afraid is.
“Do you ever want to see what’s outside?” he mumbles.
My eyes widen with shock. Nobody ever speaks. I don’t think that I have ever spoken. Even if I have, then I certainly can’t remember.
“No,” My voice is a stranger to me.
“Not even for a second?”
The boy turns his head. His hazy eyes cut right through me like a knife on bare flesh. Never before have I seen such beautiful eyes. At least I don’t think that I have. That’s the problem with having a minimal amount of memories.
“Why not? Is it because you don’t remember?” he assumes. Maybe it is because I don’t remember, or maybe because I don’t want to remember.
“What is your name?” he asks. His questions are making my ears pound. I don’t have a name. He should know that. I turn my head away from the boy to the cage on my right hand side. Or maybe it is my left. There is a girl sat in the far corner of the cage. She rocks back and forth whilst hugging her small legs; her orange hair sways from side to side like a curtain blowing in the breeze. We have curtains in our block. I think that she is talking, but if she is, then her words are muffled by her legs. Her feet are dirty, but peeping through the gaps in the dirt are flaming red marks. I know what marks are. I switch my attention to my own feet; they are covered in a thick layer of grime. Or maybe its water, but it’s so hard to see in this dim light. The boys glare feels like a heavy weight on my back, I flick my head back towards him.
“I don’t have a name either,” he says. He turns his glare back to the bars as if nothing happened. Nothing did happen. A shaft of light filters in through the small window above my head, I have never looked out of that window, it is too high for me to reach. I think I know what a window is. I like the sound of Outside, but if I get caught trying to look; I don’t want to think about what they will do to me. I remember the last person that looked out of their window, and since then nobody else has looked. Would they dare tell on me if I looked? I look at the boy, and then at the girl. Both of them have shifted their glances elsewhere.
I place my hands either side of my body and haul myself up, rising to a symphony of loud cracks and clicks, I can’t remember how long it has been since I have stood, but probably a week. I remember that a week is seven days, that is how I have been counting the time. I tilt my head up towards the shaft of light and shield my eyes, there is a small circular window fitted just above my head, and my eyes aren’t used to the light. I fit my hands onto the windowsill and a thick layer of dust forms on my fingers. The floor is covered in dust like this. My arms feel weak, as if they might snap if I try to jump up to look outside. But I want to know what the Outside looks like. I tighten my grip with my hands, and I slowly, slowly, pull upwards, so that my feet lift off the ground.
Nothing. That is the only way that I can describe my surroundings. Everything is black. Black like the boys’ hair. It doesn’t take me long to realise that there is a curtain covering the view of whatever Outside looks like. Cautious of who might be watching me, I lower myself down and slump back into the corner in disappointment. What had I been expecting? They’re not stupid enough to leave the windows uncovered. I look over at the girl, she has stopped rocking back and forth, but she still clings to her knees. I then look at the boy; his head has turned away from the bars and is now looking at me with sadness. Maybe he already knows what is Outside.
“What were you doing?” he questions.
I shrug a shoulder. Before he can reply – which I am pretty sure he would have - a loud clang echoes through the cages. I have never heard a sound so loud, but I’m guessing that the others have. Everyone straightens up from where they are sat, even the girl now sits with a straight back and her legs crossed in front of her. My instinct is screaming at me to do the same, but I am too curious.
“So there are twenty five?” says a low voice. Female. Followed by the voice are loud footsteps, another loud noise, and more footsteps. I don’t like the noise, but I listen.
“Yes, and all in good condition,” replies a male voice.
“That makes a change,” says the woman again. What are these voices? Are they in my head? I look at the boy, but I can tell that he hears the voices as well.
“That is true,” the male sounds defeated. The footsteps become nearer. My heart feels like it is going to pound out of my chest. They’ve checked on us before, but this time it feels different. This isn’t a normal check-up.
After a short while, the woman says “Can I see them?”
“Of course,” the footsteps quicken. Sweat tickles the crane of my neck; maybe they have come for me. Maybe they saw me try to look out of the window. How could they have seen? Questions buzz around in my head. What’s going to happen to me? Two dark figures emerge from what I think is my left hand side, the taller of the two straightens and starts to talk.
“These are some of the most recent ones,” a male voice grumbles. The figures stop at the boy’s cage, the smaller figure presses her angular face against the metal bars.
“He’s different,” she says.
“Like I said...” the male voice trails off. The smaller figure moves towards my cage, her eyes are steel grey. Steel? Her bony fingers wrap around the bars like the mist, only less elegant.
“Her,” she says, “she’s different too. I thought you said they were all in good shape?” Even I can hear the impatience dancing in her voice.
“She was found on the Border, the ones that are found on the Border are all different,” explains the man. What is the Border? I open my mouth as if to speak, but then close it when the taller figure joins her up against the bars of my cell.
“Pretty...isn’t she?” he says with a smirk.
“Yes, it is a shame that she ended up like this.” Ended up like what? Sometimes I hear whispers about the ‘Border’, but people don’t talk much. I want to know what the Border is.
“Excuse me,” I say, clearing my throat. The woman looks shocked that I have spoken, but I keep my facial expression neutral and calm. Just like the boy.
To my surprise she smiles, “yes?”
“Um, what is the Border?” Already I can tell that I’ve made a mistake asking such an unasked question. The woman whispers to the man, who nods obediently and unlocks my cell door, sliding it open with an awful creak followed by a bang. I slide back until my back hits the cold stone wall, sending shivers down my spine. Asking wasn’t a good idea.
“Stand,” orders the man. I scramble to my feet and look up, realising how small I am compared to the bulky figure that stands in front of me. I glance at the boy, who is looking at me with a sense of recognition, like he knows what is going to happen to me. Maybe he does.
“Come with us,” the man says. I look back and forth from the man to the boy, both of which are staring at me. The boy nods his head forward, a signal that I should follow them, I think. I tap my pocket to make sure that the little blade I found on the floor is still tucked away. Just in case. With caution, I follow the man and the woman out of my cell, looking back at the boy.
The man and the woman aren’t as smart as they seem. There are a lot of long corridors that we walk through, the woman walking in front of me, and the man behind me. I’ve noticed how they are trying to stop me from memorising the corridors in case I try to escape. Even if I did try to escape, I wouldn’t get very far without knowing what’s Outside. I’m pretty sure that they have looped back around to a corridor that we walked down about three minutes ago to keep me on my toes, trying to be smart. It isn’t much longer until we end up in an office like room. Office?
“Sit,” says the man, and I do, grateful to sit on something other than the floor of my cell. It is eerily quiet until the woman speaks.
“Why do you think you are here, Esther?” My eyes fix on hers. Esther? I don’t have a name, at least, not that I know of. Does she have a name? Clearly seeing the surprise on my face the woman chuckles to herself, amused.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “I forgot that you don’t know your name. My name is Alyn, and that is Pat,” Alyn points to the man stood by the heavy metal door.
Alyn clicks her fingers to get my attention back to her and smiles softly, “why do you think that you want to know what is Outside?”
Before answering, I think carefully about my options. These people don’t take kindly to people asking the sorts of questions that shouldn’t be asked in the cells, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody asks another question. Maybe they would ask where I’ve been taken. Maybe that’s what the boy will ask. “I don’t know.”
“You know, for somebody that’s had the majority of their memories taken away, you seem awfully curious,” Alyn states. I agree, but I don’t show it. I know that she knows what’s Outside, but she’s playing a hard game, and at the moment, I’m not the one who’s going to be winning.
I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself from asking another question, “why are my memories gone?”
“One question at a time Esther,” says Alyn, “I’m afraid I can’t answer any of these, but I can take you to somebody that can.” Did she just offer to take me to somebody who will answer my questions? My jaw drops, and a little voice inside of me speaks.
Don’t do it.
I need to do this.
It’s not real.
I don’t care.
“Okay,” I stand and Alyn slides the door open, gesturing me to follow her out into another long corridor.
Don’t do it.
It’s too late.