Around when the time when cicadas started to sing and when children were let out of junior-high for the last time, I was hospitalized. Friends came to visit often at first, but as time went on, I faded into the background. In our school for the gifted and talented of the province, many had bright futures to pursue: Some travelled to other Areas and accepted honorary programs, and others knighted by the government as peacekeepers. There was no time for mercy to even those you once called 'friends'.
Sometimes, I wondered what would have happened had I not fallen ill.
Or perhaps... It had always been my destiny never to succeed.
July came. When I failed to get better and be released, I came to a dull realization that the hospital would be the only place I knew. The white, sterile walls of Area 19 where I grew up would be my one and only home, and the utopian sanctuary would be my eternal nursery. It was analogous to a child holding on to eternal innocence, confined to a dreamland which existed only in fantasy.
Soon, my parents, too, deserted me. The loneliness made something move in my stone heart shaped by the government of 19.
Perhaps it was far too depressing to watch their one and only son fall from a prodigal perch in a G&T academy; the hospital fees were draining away the family's income too, I'm sure. When I was younger the benevolent government paid for all my education and everything – But I supposed that things were different once you proved to be of little use to society.
From the third-floor private hospital ward I watched the streets day after day, listening to the singing cicadas so close yet far away. Beyond the window was the border between Area 19 and 18, a run-down place where not even a single street light could be found along the cracked roads. The buildings were abandoned and unmaintained, and according to children's textbooks, vampiric cats lurked by night in search of any wayward child who strayed past the borders. To be so close to Area 18 itself would have been seen as a curse. A taboo. A contamination to any elitist society where only perfection was acceptable.
Only, the day I saw a boy lingering the borders was the day I realized the truth. The way he had glared up into my window with a bright cyan gaze so hard yet so intense, brimming with what could only be described as unadulterated hatred. His dark hair needed an obvious trimming, for the long locks slanted slightly over his eyes. His lips parted as I caught my gaze, and later that day, I came to two conclusions:
One, the barriers weren't there to keep the monsters out. They were there to keep the monsters in.
And two, I decided that if I were to die anyway, I should at least ensure that it wasn't a hospital room where I would bid farewell with the world.
The pendulum swaying on the grandfather clock was all that moved in the cell. Lost in a see of semi-consciousness, I was overwhelmed by the raw emotion that flooded my mind; emotion that I had failed to acknowledge for so long.
Somewhere beneath the competition with all the other kids, I felt pain.
The girl called Arianne was gone, and so was a little part of my soul. It was like I was being hollowed piece by piece, stripped of anything that made me human. And it was the government who had done it.
Sitting up in the cold cell, I opened my eyes, sighing at the thought of the little, trapped bird that was me.
The bird with clipped wings who longed only for freedom so close yet so far, only to be transferred from one cage to another and fed nothing but beautiful lies.
Was what I desired... Truth? If so, what were I to do with it? I pondered these questions as I sat, my back against the stone wall. Where was I? It didn't seem like Area 19 anymore, not that they would keep outlaws like me in a perfectionist society. It seemed like...
Area 18? It was an old jail-complex, I remembered, since it was one of the Areas that managed to savage enough remains from the ruins. So...
Was this a punishment for my childhood dreams? Or perhaps it was a gift. A gift of awakening from what was perhaps an over-run delusion.
Footsteps echoed across the empty hallways. A man in a uniform with the K.NIGHTs' insignia stood before me, jingling the keys in his hand. His royal blue cap cast a long shadow on his face, but even then I could tell he was wearing a frown. He unlocked the door to my cell, and left the door slightly ajar. It was as if he were daring me to step forward.
But... Was there any point?
My yearning for the outside world had gotten me here and gotten someone killed. Maybe it wasn't something to look forward to, anymore.
“Arianne – The girl...” I stuttered, holding onto a tiny shard of hope that they had managed to save her. Is she alright? Where is she now? Those were the words that bubbled at the back of my mind, but never left my lips.
The man in the uniform didn't reply. He only gave a flick of his wrist, and beckoned me forwards.
“Come,” he said in a monotonous voice. “It's time.”
“Time for what?” I asked daringly, finding nothing to lose anymore. He eyed me suspiciously in return.
“For you to go. No questions now, boy.”
I stood up, finding my ankles shackled to each other by a long, heavy chain. It bit into my skin and drew blood, aggravating the scratches with every slight movement. I was still clad in my school uniform, though, and a new bracelet hung around my wrist. I stole a glance at the grandfather clock and wondered briefly how long I had been unconscious in that cell.
The man guided me across the unlit hallways and out of the jail complex, onto the cracked streets lined with worn-down asphalt. Standing me on what would have been a sidewalk, the man pointed to a dilapidated road sign. On it was spray painted the figures AREA 18.
“You're from the Academy for the Gifted and Talented, aren't you?” The man asked, his lifeless gaze piercing into mine. Gingerly, I nodded. My uniform would have given it away, in any case. The man continued after a small scoff to himself. “You have one chance. You become a guard. You fight apparitions in the name of service to humanity. You survive the night out here and prove yourself and what you've learnt in school all these years, then you get probation and a job. If not...” He raised an eyebrow, certain that I understood full well the terms.
“I understand,” I mumbled, my head lowered and my chin against my chest. Deep down, I kicked myself for my ambivalence. What did I want? Why was I so undecided? If this was what I've always wanted... Then why are my legs trembling as I stand?
I didn't fear death.
I didn't fear a lack of luxury.
I realized that what I feared the most...
When I looked up again, the man had left. Not even his silhouette remained in the smoke and dust of Area 18, and neither did a single drop of color. The setting sun had faded completely, as if mourning my predicament, and all that loomed over me was the distant, silver moon.
An inhuman howl sounded in the distance, followed by someone's screaming. I whirled around and my eyes flew wide open, my fingers intertwining with the end of my school-jacket. I was unarmed. I was alone; trapped in unfamiliar territory with only years of filtered knowledge and my ENIGMA to cling onto. In a moment of determination, I evoked the power, condensing it and unleashing all my pent-up frustration by shattering a piece of rock. Calming myself and my uncontrolled breathing, I took a step forward, mentally counting down the time until the end of this long, dark night. What would I do after this? Would I regret not venturing further? Or maybe I'd come to regret going too far with my stupid ideas, all over again.
No, no – That wouldn't be it. I had already came to terms with my certain demise, and decided that I'd walk into the less-orderly areas with open arms.
I'd come to terms with the fact that we in Area 19 were the only monsters, and this was retribution.
I remember once in fourth grade, a teacher had called on me to read out a passage from the textbook in school. I had been zoning out as she recited words regarding the history of all 20 Areas, hailing the organization known publicly as K.NIGHTs. It was another one of those lectures which drifted from the nature of psychokinesis dubbed ENIGMA to a guided worship session of formidable figures at the top of the food chain, and naturally, I lost interest.
“Luka, do you mind reading the next paragraph?” The woman in her mid fifties towered over me as I spun the biro in my hand, my gaze angled towards the window. Her lips were pulled into a perpetual thin line, and the glassy look in her dark eyes always seemed to stare right through me. Arianne, my classmate, had even once convinced the rest of us that our lecturer was a vampiric cat in disguise.
“Yes, madam.” I stood up, racking my brains and praying to every deity I knew of that I'd be at the right place. And then, like a trained nightingale with clipped wings, I began to repeat the words that were drilled into all of our heads. “K.NIGHT is essential for order in society. They establish rules and boundaries which ensure the safety of both ENIGMA users and civilians, forming a basis for trust and co-operation.
"About ten years ago, a young boy chose to ignore the words of the K.NIGHTs and was punished gravely by fate. He was well-loved by everyone and intelligent, but that too became his greatest flaw. He grew arrogant. He rebelled against the words of elders despite wearing a humble smile, and he only cared for the strengthening of his own ENIGMA.
"He left the Area's sanctuary in search of a legendary man they called the Battle Dancer who lived by the creek, and ultimately became his heir. But it was not at a small price, for with every reaction there is an opposing reaction. That is the basic law of the universe. And so, the boy was eventually consumed by his own power, and caused the annihilation of entire cities before eventually destroying his own body. To this day, the neighboring Areas remain obliterated and haunted by the boy's wandering soul, infested with vampiric cats and other apparitions that had spawned from the immense magical index. They linger, sure to punish any passerby in vengeance.”
A lone period of silence had followed, and a few of the girls had cowered together in fear. Eventually, a student at the back of the room raised her hand, asking whether it was the K.NIGHTs who caused the catastrophe as a punishment to mankind. The teacher frowned sternly at her, then gave a firm no.
I never saw the girl at school again after that.
I moved slowly down the staircase, one hand pressed against the silver railings that lined the walls of glass. They gleamed in the sunlight, and the mosaic which punctuated its flawless reflected off broken rays. One foot went in front of the other, and the other followed. God knows why they kept me in the little 3rd-floor cell, I felt fine. The glass walls always made things a bit surreal, and a bit sickeningly extravagant. Fear of heights weren't even worth mentioning in this picture. Clad in my school uniform as the sole alternative to the freakishly pristine hospital gowns, I made my way to the bottom of the stairwell, and the transparent doors slid open before me.
The scent of fresh air wafted in from afar.
Slowly, like a puppet in a trance, I allowed my feet to guide me towards the creek where Arianne and I used to play as children, messing around a nearby Rockpile and making up stories about the infamous Battle Dancer.
And then I saw her.
Standing on the tips of her toes with her arms by her side and clad in a sailor-styled uniform, Arianne was peering over the border which glowed faintly lilac, fading into amber in the sunlight. Her hair was loose and cascaded past her shoulder in dark locks, a mischievous smile plastered to her face. She turned around.
“Yo, Luka. What are you doing in that atrocious get-up?” She leaned forward slightly, shifting her hands to her hips as she hopped across the shining rocks that protruded from the creek. “Never mind that, it took you long enough to get your ass over here.”
I regarded her with a tentative smile of my own. “I just thought...” I trailed off, lost for words. What was I thinking? To this day I still don't know. “Well, enough about me; what are you doing here?”
She responded without skipping a beat.
“Lying in wait, of course. For you, and...” She raised a palm over her eyes, as if trying to see into the distance. Then, her voice grew serious. “The boy with no face.”
I gave a small chuckle, convinced that it was just another one of Arianne's fancy vampire stories. Only, she narrowed her eyes at me, her brow furrowed in a torrent of emotion.
“We used to hang out here together,” she said. “You and me and someone else, at the spring break of our freshman year. Back then when the stories of the Battle Dancer was the thing... I always thought it was just the two of us, but now I remember.”
“What are you talking about, Arianne?” I asked, twirling around a toe on a rock. I searched my memories for the happier times, where she and I would stand and banter over what we'd do with our ENIGMA once we grew up. Sail kayaks? Pick up rocks without touching them? Or maybe bow up the God damn border, too.
The words we'd exchanged were clear as if it were only yesterday, though not a single other person could be conjured into my mind.
“There was another guy,” Arianne confirmed. “A transfer student who only stayed for a month or so, who disappeared without a trace. I kept thinking that it was just the two of us, but something didn't quite fit...”
“Arianne, there was never anyone else. This was our secret place, remember? Even now, you know they'll put you in detention if anyone finds you so close to the border.”
“Don't tell me that!” Her hands curled into fists, and she evidently ground her teeth. “You don't remember, and neither did I. Our memories... Someone tampered with it, and I spend nights trying to remember something that was already erased from existence. It's like broken glass, you know? You try to piece it all back together, and you end up cutting yourself. Someone comes along in attempt to help, but in the end... Everyone only gets hurt.”
Through the fierce frustration, I saw tears in her eyes.
“That's why, I come here everyday and hope that they would somehow come back.”
“It was worth the wait if I'm here now, wasn't it?”
She paused for a moment in her outburst, then smiled again. “I went to visit you everyday until they officially banned me, you know. And even then I tried to sneak in and then they put me in detention.” She then hurriedly changed the subject, turning around and pointing at the Rockpile. “Look, the place where you had your first kiss. It was up there and it wasn't me, so that's why I know that there was someone else back then.”
I turned to look, though it was more for the sake of hiding the blush that had risen to my cheeks. A faint and all-too-realistic imagination of the experience began to form in my mind, as if to haul me into a debate about whether it was something dubbed memory or a pure figment of imagination.
Either way, it would have been nothing more than a spur of the moment, surely...
After all, they had taught us that forms of intimacy were merely tools for conflict resolution – it was a kind of social engineering, apparently. The ancestors of 19 had somehow mimicked the behavior of bonobos, which was essentially based around the idea that fear and anxiety were channeled through as sexual desire.
“The boy who transferred away... I think he was spirited away by the vampiric cats.” Arianne concluded, snapping me back into reality. “I mean, it's not like I saw their shadows outside my bedroom one night or anything, but...”
“You what, Arianne?” I demanded, unsure whether she was messing around or not anymore.
She didn't answer me.
“Say, Luka,” she said instead as she skipped over and onto my rock. She took my wrist, and dangled it by the white vinyl bracelet that hung around it.
Oh right, I'd grown so accustomed to its existence that I'd forgotten all about it.
“In case my parents ship me over to another Area and we never see each other again, can I keep this and think of it as you?”
“Huh?” I frowned, not liking where our conversation was going. “Ah – sure. I mean, it's just a hospital bracelet but if you like...”
Arianne gave a gentle laugh, craftily sliding the bracelet off my wrist and putting it onto her own.
“So, Luka...” She began to speak, only to be cut off by a hail of footsteps.
She pulled me over onto the water bank, hurrying towards the Rockpile and crawling into a gap. Surprised to say the least, my thoughts raced at a hundred miles per hour, trying to tune back into the world beyond the small, isolated hospital room.
For the first time in a long while, the taste of fear, thrill and life hit my tongue, all mixed into one.
The footsteps drew closer, and Arianne clung onto me.
“We'll be fine here,” she whispered. Was it for her own comfort, or for mine? She'd always been the daring one who treated me as a high-maintenance little brother. “Besides, my ENIGMA can take care of this.”
A wry smile graced her lips.
“You've checked everywhere?” A brusque voice asked, too close to us for comfort.
“Yes, sir. The hospital, the parks, the apartment and the school. This is the only other place in close proximity – “
“Right.” The man cut him off with authority, and a bout of static came through the radio transmitter. “Check the Rockpile.”
The footsteps got even closer with each passing second. I let out a breath that I didn't realize I had been holding. Shots from machine guns were fired as they stepped before us, blocking out the rays of setting sunlight.
The bullets stopped in midair, before dropping to the ground like droplets of rain. And then a rock tumbled towards the gathering group of people. It was followed by a few yelps of surprise. Arianne's fingernails dug into my skin, and I turned to see that her eyes were glowing red.
“I told you my ENIGMA will handle this,” she said, though her voice quivered.
“Two of them escaped the ward?” The man in command cursed, his eyes rife with venom. He eyed the medical bracelet around Arianne's wrist, and a half-crushed gasp escaped through my clenched teeth. “Vermin,” he cursed. “Get them dead or alive, even if it costs your arms and legs!”
“Yes sir!” The response echoed in unison, and Arianne let out a low growl.
“Fuckers,” she muttered under her breath. I allowed my eyes to fall shut, and I attempted to draw out my ENIGMA. How long had I used my psychokinesis? I didn't know anymore. But like a wave inside of me threatening to burst free...
It rushed forward, and knocked me to the ground.
Only, I realized that it was another force that had fueled my momentum: Arianne had harshly thrown me to the side and against the Rockpile.
Then, my mind registered the gunshot that had sounded in the distance. A lone bang that broke the momentary silence. I turned to look at Arianne in horror, and noticed the growing crimson stain across her chest as she lay on the ground, morbidly still.
Right then when I began to find my purpose again, they'd taken everything away from me.
My only friend...
My only family...
“She was innocent!” I screamed in desperation, hot liquid welling up in my eyes and blurring my vision. They spilled down my face like the water that flowed along the creek. “She had my bracelet, that's all...”
I cradled her body in my arms, searching frantically for a pulse. Or maybe a sign of breathing. But through my own shaking, I hardly managed to register anything. Stifling sobs, I cursed myself again for my weakness and incapability to protect those who meant the world to me.
“You...” The single syllable was all I managed to choke out.
“You...” The man at the front echoed, his eyes narrowed in ferocity. “If you come with us, I'll save the girl. If not...”
Gingerly, I nodded.
The guards came and took me under the arms, stabbing a needle into my back that rapidly brought me closer to the warm arms of unconsciousness.
My last thought was the question of whether living itself was a sin.