By: Kaitlyn Reese
saw the word “unique” when I was ten. It was hidden in an ancient book in my grandmother’s office, covered by a pile of tousled blue shirts, the same we’d all wear on Monday. I confided in the Council the subsequent day, etching the letters out in black ink on a perfectly white sheet of paper.
“And who may I asked showed you this book?” I remember a Councilwoman asking with a sweet sedative voice, cooing like trained cats. She was a tall dark woman of age much older than I. And with such power she spoke over me, wearing it like jewels on her the tips of her fingers.
“My Grandma.” This was the last sliver of innocence I had left after Grans and I were quarantined a day later. No reason. No warning. We just picked up a few items and left. As if staining a paper with a word that simply wasn’t comprehensible for the human brain was a felony. I was completely oblivious to the secret door hidden in what I’d found, maybe Grans had more of a clue than me. Either way, I’d never know. She was mute and the Council didn’t like questions.
We were like clockwork ants, minuscule people with exact same faces, bored or wrinkled from labor working under the influence of the Council. Quarantine was no different than our houses, a facsimile of each other, duplicating until occasionally, you’d lose your way. Two years later, my bed greeted me, hugging my insides until they burst. I knew this cushioned cot as the location where a sterilized needle tipped with an iridescent blue point met my skin. I remembered my shots like they were as important as drinking sips of bottled life. One at two til three in the afternoon, right after Gran’s shot at two fifty. Then another at ten thirty at night. I was patient number 347. She was 345. Right between us sat Phoebe Winter, patient 346 quarantined for dying her hair blonde against the regulations of the Council. We weren’t allowed to communicate so I knew her name by sticky as gum nametag that rested just below her right shoulder. Phoebe Winters, it said clear as glass in the exact same printing as mine. I knew her story by her canary blonde tips, making her hair look like a mossy brown river. I figured she was blind when I first was captivated by the nurse’s attempts to clean it brown, striking me with the question of why she was so oblivious to the rules of appearance. The Council stated it clearly that altering the genetic color of hair was a felony. But after a few solitary hours in isolation, I began to admire her pluck. After all, my question was just as much of a crime as hers. She probably thought I was just as much of a fool. Most of the day I lounged around, waiting to hear the nurse’s frivolous voice pound in my eardrums. Patient 135 was Finished yesterday along with the beckoning of Patient 789 an hour ago. But as I heard the receiver beep, allowing the nurse to speak, I began to grow weary.
“346 REPORT TO THE MASTER’S OFFICE NOW! I REPEAT PATIENT NUMBER 346 REPORT TO-” The loudspeaker began to go static and the panicked breath from the neighboring room was setting my ears on fire. The walls were like paper glass, thin as a branch, hard as a stone. I could feel Phoebe Winter’s emotion like it was my own, pulsing its own radio waves into my head, lashing out in fear. Quarantined patients knew the Master’s room was never the place for a picnic. The only straw wicker baskets there were contained bodies of lawbreakers. Watching their cheeks glisten an unholy blue was rumored to be a favorite pastime of the council’s tyrant leader. Saying we all felt bad for her was a fact. But deep down inside each quarantined patient’s souls, we were slowing our hearts that it wasn’t our number on the loudspeaker. The most relieving aspect was that he was one number away from calling mine. But that also fueled my nightmares, praying that he didn’t know how to count to 347.
I paused for a moment, checking my pulse and stealing a glance at the banal clock, vibrating on the wall. Twenty minutes till two. Nowhere near my scheduled injection time.
I slowly stood, wondering if I was indeed going insane half expecting that I’d swing open the door to see nothing but a trail of wind.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The pounding on the door was getting urgent, slamming, making the walls suck the life out of me. While shutting my eyes, the door whipped open, landing me face to face with Phoebe Winter.
mouth.” She muttered under her breath, sweeping her braid across
her shoulders. Her hand rested on mine so I froze up, praying that
she wouldn’t feel my weakness trembling in my shoulder blades.
Phoebe was at least four years old than me. And if she had harmed me
this far into being quarantined, I’d know it was her time to go.
“I-I-I-I…” The first sound in years was emitted from my lips, crackling like spitting fire I withdrew. “Phoebe, what-” The ups and downs of my voice continued to shock me, looking like an oaf, acting afraid of such a rudimentary sound. Something I should know so well.
“Keep this a secret or you’ll go too.” She rasped, completely collected with her voice. Under the wing of her arms, she displayed a large object. With a flourish of her hand, Phoebe deftly transferred it to mine. It was a heavy bronze plated book winking at me, like greeting an old friend. I didn’t bother to read it. The words were jumbled in impossible runes of a language I didn’t know. But I knew one thing as a fact: The Council would pounce if the brazen book was found in my polished hands. It more of a crime than hovering over a victim with blood coating your hands. This was the reason I was quarantined in the first place. And 347 comes next. I was perceived sick for reading a book that wasn’t meant to be read… And 347 comes next. This would be recorded in bold black print. And 347 comes next.
“I don’t have much time left….” When she saw that I wasn’t paying an ounce of attention, she touched my bare skin. “Child, you’re turning into a council’s marionette.” Phoebe’s hand met my face, patting my cheeks until they were a shade of violet. But what did I care? This was illegal. “I was handed this book when I was about your age and I’m going soon. What you should care is not when your next injection is coming but when your last one is… Now I ask you out of pure urgency to read the book. Figure out the code at the back of-”
“346 REPORT TO MASTER GREGORICH CLYMER NOW! I REPEAT PATIENT NUMBER 346 REPORT TO MASTER GREGORICH CLYMER NOW!”
buzzed through my ears and there was no trembling next store
protecting them from bursting. It scared me the way Phoebe was
staring at me. Tenacious. Like she was going to sacrifice herself in
front of my eyes, joining the martyrdom wherever they’d go. Her
eyes were bloodshot with animosity towards the Council.
“Please Phoebe..” I gulped, ignoring my voice. “Just stay under the radar and you’ll be OK. Take your book and go to the Mast-”
“I’ll be Finished.” She muttered, catching her breath. “Now just keep the book under your Tuesday shirts already, I don’t want you to be next. You’re too young. You have your golden years to live, sights of splendor to see…”
Phoebe’s fingers reached for the doorknob as the loudspeaker blared her name again. The third time was nearly always the charm as I heard the whirring of carts and the din of jumbled speaking. Nurses had been reported to room 346. Each came in a synchronic motion but I was too fixed on Phoebe to notice their mechanic eyes, only able to move the ways of a compass.
I watched as she nodded and left the room, hoping that she wasn’t the last of those who were real.
“347 how has your
day been going?” A wet cloth met my skin giving off a pungent
alcoholic odor. But I was too weak to wince like usual. The past few
days Phoebe hadn’t returned to her room next to mine so I didn’t
sleep a wink. Her muffled snores were my lullaby music and besides,
fear ravaged my body so great I felt like I’d burst. The book was
still hidden beneath my Tuesday shirts. It hadn’t been discovered
nor had I bothered to open it.
“Like clockwork…” I kept my arm straight until the bright blue needle met my skin. I watched the blood meet the green slime, rivaling in the middle of the compartment until it once again was concealed beneath my skin.
I smuggled the book out after my second injection of the day. I wondered if I was going insane, breaking the rules so nonchalantly. I was planning to hand it into Grans, hoping she was astute enough to make the right decision. While holding my breath, I watched Grans as she sat cross-legged on the undignified tiled floors, her hands on her hips. Her eyes were peacefully closed looking like she was in a place of serenity. Like she had escaped the hospital and through her own eyelids, she’d been seeing the sights I’d never get to see. The sickening aroma of jasmine snogged my nose until I had to hold it shut. A bottle of essential oils rested on her nightstand along with a tasseled bookmark and a pair of glasses. It was strange to see the bookmark resting so happily without being sandwiched between pages. I was tempted to steal it. I had it’s home after all. And Grans didn’t.
“Grans-” I began, watching her begrudgingly grunt at me. My armpits began to sweat like pigs. My tongue began to recoil. Phoebe’s face beckoned me towards the chair, holding a replicated print of the metal book. Snap out of it. I couldn’t be hallucinating in a time like this. The chair cushioned my bottom, giving me the most respite in hours. With the book on my lap and my fingers nipping at the pages, I began to crack it open. The ostensible fluttering of pages wasn’t there. Under the bronze cover, my hands explored the empty space, almost like a secret compartment. A pocket-watch, a broken needle, a black marker, and a lock of Phoebe’s blonde hair were all that appeared to be in the compartment the size of a shoebox. While pocketing the black marker, I left the three relics for the interpretation of Grans. I had run out of ideas.
“Why hide such meaningless objects in such a forbidden compartment?” I thought aloud making my grandmother’s head cock. My voice was no longer a stranger to me. The past few days I’d been practicing letter sounds in locker room mirrors. There were no cameras in there. I knew they meant something if Phoebe had put her life on the line to protect them. But thoughts weren’t priceless anymore. It costed a mere fortune in order to buy time back. Now that I was in possession of these relics there was no telling how long I was going to live. Phoebe survived for four years. Who knew if I’d fail her.
I heard the breaking static of the loudspeaker, this time quieter from room 345. I was patient number 347. And 347 comes next. “347 REPORT TO MASTER GREGORICH CLYMER NOW! I REPEAT PATIENT NUMBER 347 REPORT TO MASTER GREGORICH CLYMER NOW!”
That was me. That was my number. This was no illusion. There was no Phoebe to tell me otherwise. And the Council never made mistakes. Walking through the halls felt like a thousand weights on my shoulders were about to be liberated. The relics were left in room 345 with Grans. She was mute and I wouldn’t get to live to see her talk. I anticipated my engraved wicker basket in the Master’s office just as I anticipated my everyday shots. I released puffs of air realizing it would be just like quarantine and even back home. Each basket a facsimile of each other, duplicating until occasionally, one more replicated than the next. With my number 347 which would soon be given to another clone-of-a-patient.
I finally realized what the relics had meant as quick as I knocked on the Master’s door. Like two heartbeats I instilled courage in myself knowing how foolish I was to be so oblivious. Hoping that the new 347 would be far smarter than I.
My hand no longer shook as I scribbled the word “unique” on the Master’s walls. In permanent black ink. The word was the start of my discovery and I had ended it just there. I hoped to be placed in a wicker basket next to Phoebe’s. Maybe she was wearing a smile just for me.