A harsh buzzing sound fills my cell. I hear a smooth click in the heavy metal door. I jump to my feet.
The door swings open.
I feel my way down the dripping corridor, the dim, pulsing light of my cuffs doing little to guide my way.
The shower is quick and cold. Awful in every way. There are no towels in this shithole, so I’m always freezing until I can get back to my room and wrap myself in the threadbare blanket. I’m thinking about that blanket now, trying to keep my thoughts focused and my teeth from chattering as I wend my way down the dark tunnels.
I don’t see what happens next.
Someone comes up on me from behind and puts me in a choke hold, suffocating me with a technique so perfect I don’t even know if it’s worth a struggle. I’m definitely about to die.
Super weird way to go, but this is it. I’m done.
Mr. Anderson says I can have lunch at his house before I meet my new family. It wasn’t his idea, but when Aaron, his son—that was the boy’s name—suggested it, Mr. Anderson seemed okay with it.
I’m not ready to go live with a bunch of strangers yet. I’m scared and nervous and worried about so many things, I don’t even know where to start. Mostly, I feel angry. I’m angry with my parents for dying. Angry with them for leaving me behind.
I’m an orphan now.
But maybe I have a new friend. Aaron said that he was eight years old—about two years older than me—so there isn’t any chance we’d be in the same grade, but when I said that we’d probably be going to the same school anyway, he said no, we wouldn’t. He said he didn’t go to public school. He said his father was very particular about these kinds of things and that he’d been homeschooled by private tutors his whole life.
We’re sitting next to each other in the car ride back to his house when he says, quietly, “My dad never lets me invite people over to our house. He must like you.”
I smile, secretly relieved. I really hope that this means I’ll have a new friend. I’d been so scared to move here, so scared to be somewhere new and to be all alone, but now, sitting next to this strange blond boy with the light green eyes, I’m beginning to feel like things might be okay.
At least now, even if I don’t like my new parents, I’ll know I’m not completely alone. The thought makes me both happy and sad.
I look over at Aaron and smile. He smiles back.
When we get to his house, I take a moment to admire it from the outside. It’s a big, beautiful old house painted the prettiest blue. It has big white shutters on the windows and a white fence around the front yard. Pink roses are growing around the edges, peeking through the wooden slats of the fence, and the whole thing looks so peaceful and lovely that I feel immediately at home.
My worries vanish.
I’m so grateful for Mr. Anderson’s help. So grateful to have met his son. I realize, then, that Mr. Anderson might’ve brought his son to my meeting today just to introduce me to someone my own age. Maybe he was trying to make me feel at home.
A beautiful blond lady answers the front door. She smiles at me, bright and kind, and doesn’t even say hello to me before she pulls me into her arms. She hugs me like she’s known me forever, and there’s something so comfortable about her arms around me that I embarrass everyone by bursting into tears.
I can’t even look at anyone after I pull away from her—she told me her name was Mrs. Anderson, but that I could call her Leila, if I wanted—and I wipe at my tears, ashamed of my overreaction.
Mrs. Anderson tells Aaron to take me upstairs to his room while she makes us some snacks before lunch.
Still sniffling, I follow him up the stairs.
His room is nice. I sit on his bed and look at his things. Mostly it’s pretty clean except that there’s a baseball mitt on his nightstand and there are two dirty baseballs on the floor. Aaron catches me staring and scoops them up right away. He seems embarrassed as he tucks them in his closet, and I don’t understand why. I was never very tidy. My room was always—
I try to remember what my old bedroom looked like but, for some reason, I can’t. I frown. Try again.
And then I realize I can’t remember my parents’ faces.
Terror barrels through me.
Aaron’s voice is so sharp—so intense—that I look up, startled. He’s staring at me from across the room, the fear on his face reflected in the mirrors on his closet doors.
“What’s wrong?” he says again. “Are you okay?”
“I— I don’t—” I falter, feeling my eyes refill with tears. I hate that I keep crying. Hate that I can’t stop crying. “I can’t remember my parents,” I say. “Is that normal?”
Aaron walks over, sits next to me on his bed. “I don’t know,” he says.
We’re both quiet for a while. Somehow, it helps. Somehow, just sitting next to him makes me feel less alone. Less terrified.
Eventually, my heart stops racing.
After I’ve wiped away my tears, I say, “Don’t you get lonely, being homeschooled all the time?”
“Why won’t your dad let you go to a normal school?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about birthday parties?” I ask. “Who do you invite to your birthday parties?”
Aaron shrugs. He’s staring into his hands when he says, “I’ve never had a birthday party.”
“What? Really?” I turn to face him more fully. “But birthday parties are so fun. I used to—” I blink, cutting myself off.
I can’t remember what I was about to say.
I frown, trying to remember something, something about my old life, but when the memories don’t materialize, I shake my head to clear it. Maybe I’ll remember later.
“Anyway,” I say, taking a quick breath, “you have to have a birthday party. Everyone has birthday parties. When is your birthday?”
Slowly, Aaron looks up at me. His face is blank even as he says, “April twenty-fourth.”
“April twenty-fourth,” I say, smiling. “That’s great. We can have cake.”
The days pass in a stifled panic, an excruciating crescendo toward madness. The hands of the clock seem to close around my throat and still, I say nothing, do nothing.
I’ve been paralyzed here for two weeks, stuck in the prison of this ruse, this compound. Evie doesn’t know that her plot to bleach my mind failed. She treats me like a foreign object, distant but not unkind. She instructed me to call her Evie, told me she was my doctor, and then proceeded to lie, in great detail, about how I’d been in a terrible accident, that I’m suffering from amnesia, that I need to stay in bed in order to recover.
She doesn’t know that my body won’t stop shaking, that my skin is slick with sweat every morning, that my throat burns from the constant return of bile. She doesn’t know what’s happening to me. She could never understand the sickness plaguing my heart. She couldn’t possibly understand this agony.
The attacks are relentless.
Memories assault me while I sleep, jolting me upright, my chest seizing in panic over and over and over until, finally, I meet dawn on the bathroom floor, the smell of vomit clinging to my hair, the inside of my mouth. I can only drag myself back to bed every morning and force my face to smile when Evie checks on me at sunrise.
Everything feels wrong.
The world feels strange. Smells confuse me. Words don’t feel right in my mouth anymore. The sound of my own name feels at once familiar and foreign. My memories of people and places seem warped, fraying threads coming together to form a ragged tapestry.
But Evie. My mother.
I remember her.
I pop my head out of the bathroom, clutching a robe to my wet body. I search my room for her face. “Evie, are you there?”
“Yes?” I hear her voice just seconds before she’s suddenly standing before me, holding a set of fresh sheets in her hands. She’s stripping my bed again. “Did you need something?”
“We’re out of towels.”
“Oh—easily rectified,” she says, and hurries out the door. Not seconds later she’s back, pressing a warm, fresh towel into my hands. She smiles faintly.
“Thanks,” I say, forcing my own smile to stretch, to spark life in my eyes. And then I disappear into the bathroom.
The room is steaming; the mirrors fogged, perspiring. I grip the towel with one hand, watching as beads of water race down my bare skin. Condensation wears me like a suit; I wipe at the damp metal cuffs locked around my wrists and ankles, their glowing blue light my constant reminder that I am in hell.
I collapse, with a heavy breath, onto the floor.
I’m too hot to put on clothes, but I’m not ready to leave the privacy of the bathroom yet, so I sit here, wearing nothing but these manacles, and drop my head into my hands.
My hair is long again.
I discovered it like this—long, heavy, dark—one morning, and when I asked her about it, I nearly ruined everything.
“What do you mean?” Evie said, narrowing her eyes at me. “Your hair has always been long.”