Chapter 1: 1996
On January 2nd, 1996, the first and only child of Anton and Katrin Muller was born.
He was a healthy boy, with good lungs and excellent reflexes, not a single physical problem in sight, but it seemed as though he simply couldn’t cry. The boy, even when stuck with needles and moved from room to room, remained nearly silent, letting out no more than an occasional gurgle.
There was something else that caused his mother to gasp when she saw it, too, one other strange thing about this child. When she saw them, she realized that his irises were bright red, and try as the obstetrician might to see why, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with his vision.
More than anything else, the boy seemed to be curious, following everything that moved with his gaze, as if he had been born a thousand times over already. The obstetrician eventually gave up trying to get him to cry, shrugging and mumbling an at least your son’s breathing properly, then handing Katrin the birth certificate to sign.
This is to certify that Erhard Adalrik Muller, weighing 7 pounds and 12 ounces, was born on the second of January...
“[What do you think?]”
“[What do you mean, Katrin?]”
“[I don’t know. I just think...there is something strange about him, isn’t there?]”
“[You’ve said that six times. That may be, I don’t know. All I can say now is that I hope God blesses us with many happy years together.]” Anton slung his arm over his wife’s shoulder, feeling her soft black hair fall over his skin. She was anxious and he knew it, always an insecure and panic-stricken woman. “[That which we don’t know will become clear soon enough. Everything happens for a reason.]”
“[I suppose you’re right. You always are, Anton.]” Katrin smiled, nuzzling into his chest gently. “[We came to America for this child. He will make us proud, I’m sure of it.]”
“[He’ll certainly speak English better than either of us, won’t he?]” Anton chuckled, before reaching over and flicking off the light. “[Perhaps he’ll even help us with it. We certainly will need the assistance.]”
“Yes...this is right. Even to try to do it now, it is a little bad,” Katrin tried, breaking into a fit of laughter before she was done. “[That sounded terrible, I know.]”
“[We have all the time in the world to learn, meine Liebe.]”
As days, weeks, months passed, Erhard steadily grew, his temperament as quiet and gentle as ever. He didn’t seem to like most of the toys he was given, instead opting for spoons and a pen that his father had forgotten in his crib one night. Anton had no idea until he’d heard Katrin yell for him to come into the nursery.
It took several hours to wash the ink off his skin.
The redness of his eyes hadn’t faded, as Katrin had hoped it would eventually, and she began to feel more and more uneasy every time she looked straight at him. Despite the fact that Erhard could barely sit up by himself, his gaze was piercing, and his mother began to wonder what exactly went through this boy’s brain.
Was it something she wanted to know?
When Katrin opened the front door one day, she immediately knew that something was wrong. A strong, acrid scent wafted towards her from the direction of the kitchen. The smell of alcohol, and lots of it.
Thick, brown shards of broken glass littered the hallway, and Katrin nearly stepped on them, her eyes wide with fear, forcing herself to round the corner.
Anton sat, slumped over the kitchen table, with his eyes empty and blank. At least five or six empty beer bottles lay scattered across the table, with several more unopened ones sitting on the counter.
“[Anton, what-?!]” Katrin’s hands instinctively went to her mouth. “[What happened?! Where is Erhard? Anton, you need to watch him-]”
“[I don’t need to do any such thing,]” Anton slurred, hiccuping intermittently. “[I know what’s happening, Kat. I understand. That boy...]” He leaned over, his head falling into his hands, causing his current bottle to be knocked off the table, spilling all over the floor.
“[The floor! Anton, be careful, you’ll end up hurting someone…]”
“[I don’t care. That boy, that child...there’s something wrong with him. He’s not normal.]” With that, Anton threw his head into the table, slamming against it with a sickening cracking noise. “[He’s not of God, he’s not my son!!]”
“[Stop! Stop it!]” Katrin nearly flew over to his side, grabbing onto his shoulders and forcing him to sit up. “[Don’t do this, don’t hurt yourself like this! Please, stop.]”
The only sound in the room for a very long time was Anton’s shaky, ragged breaths. If not for that and the shaking of his shoulders, it would not be difficult to assume that he was dead. Eventually, after what seemed like forever, Anton looked up, pale as a ghost.
“[The boy is a sin. I see it, in his eyes, in his soul. He never laughs, he never smiles, he never plays. He simply stares and touches things...I can see that he is not a natural child.]”
“[How...what happened? This is so sudden, I just-]” One of Katrin’s hands moved to her breastbone, clenching into a fist before she even realized it was happening. Her heart began to beat so hard that she could feel it, adrenaline forcing its way into her veins, her body.
As much as she didn’t want to believe it, some part of Katrin knew that there was something wrong with her child. Perhaps it was the fact that he was her flesh and blood that distorted her view, made her irrational.
“[I saw him, Kat. I really, truly saw him for the first time. The devil was in him. Is in him.]” Anton chuckled, the same as he had those months ago, although there was something far darker, something sardonic behind it. “[I know how this sounds, but I finally realized it today. His face is so blank, he has no expressions. He is a child that God abandoned.]”
Erhard lay back in his crib, letting out a tiny hiccup. He simply stayed there, perfectly content to do just that. There were things happening outside the room that he didn’t understand, he was completely incapable of understanding.
At the age of four months, when his thoughts were still unclear and garbled, his actions without intention or care, his entire life was rapidly changing around him.
Chapter 2: 2001
cw: child abuse
like seriously it gets *bad*
Small fingers searched for corners, flipped pages one by one. The book was large and heavy, almost comically so, but that didn’t seem to be able to stop the small boy who studied on the words as if his life depended on it.
The lungs are covered by a layer of tissue called the pleura. This pleura also lines the inside of the chest cavity, and a thin layer of pleural fluid allows the lungs to move smoothly as they expand and contract with each breath. One of the most common conditions affecting the pleura is pleural effusion, where excess fluid builds up between the lung and the wall of the chest-
Erhard was abruptly forced out of his reading by a loud noise, like something banging against the wall. Whispers of mixed voices with indistinct words soon followed, and he realized that he only had a few seconds.
Shutting his book as quietly as possible, Erhard leaned towards a tile on the floor, three from the door and six from the window set in the wall, then tugged it upwards and slid the volume inside.
The door opened, just as the tile dropped back to the floor. Erhard tried his hardest to act as though nothing had happened, simply sitting up straight and looking at whoever had come into his room.
His mother stood on the other side of the door, her face drawn and tired, which was how she had been for as long as he could remember. She often looked as though she were somewhere else entirely, her pale blue eyes glassy and distant, and today was no exception.
“[Your father needs you. Stand up.]”
“[Yes.]” That was always the best way to avoid any sort of confrontation. It wasn’t as though it often worked, but it was the only strategy Erhard could think of, staying silent aside from simple responses.
He got to his feet, gripping the hem of his shirt when he felt the sting of the day-old bruises on his legs. It was easy to forget about those when he was staying still.
Katrin turned, her face blank, then stepped down the stairs without another word. Quickly, Erhard caught up with her, forcing himself to keep just close enough to not be left behind. He’d tried getting closer before, but that hadn’t ended well.
“[I brought him, Anton. Please calm down.]” With a heavy sigh, Katrin stepped to the side. “[You’ll strain yourself.]” Without another word, she turned and climbed up the stairs, disappearing around a corner.
“[Come here,]” Anton said, a muscle working in his jaw as he reached his hand out towards Erhard. “[There is something that we have to discuss. Now .]”
“[Yes,]” Erhard said again, staring resolutely at the floor.
“[One of my hunting knives has gone missing. I know you took it, boy.]”
Erhard hadn’t, but it wasn’t as though that fact would do him any good. Anton’s eyes were dangerously narrowed, little more than slits. His fists clenched at his sides, the familiar gesture that would often end up leaving marks.
“[Well? Have you cut your tongue out?! Speak! ]” Suddenly, Anton was shouting, flecks of spit flying from his mouth as he leaned over his son. “[I know what you’re plotting here, Teufelkind. I see the way you look at us, as if we’re simply in the way.]”
“[Don’t lie to me!]” Cutting Erhard off before he could manage more than a few syllables, Anton’s left hand cracked across his face, the force of the blow causing the small boy to stumble backwards onto the floor. “[You utter monster. I know what you are.]”
Erhard forced himself to get up, his legs shaking underneath him. The entire side of his head hurt, a hot, stinging welt on the surface causing everything under it to ache.
He looked up again, flinching internally when Anton’s eyes met his, shifting his gaze to the space just above his right ear. This was a strategy that Erhard had figured out recently: to look as though he was listening intently as he recited something in his head.
“[You think we don’t know what you’re-]”
The aorta is the largest artery in the body. Aortic dissection occurs when the inner layer of the artery tears. This injury allows blood to flow between the layers of the aortic wall, forcing them apart. Aortic dissection is a life-threatening condition, and surgical treatment involves resecting the torn area and replacing it with a Dacron graft, like so…
“[-the way you just take things apart , as if you’re practicing for-]”
A Dacron graft can be used as a stent for repair of a blood vessel or other hollow structure in the body, able to hold it open. It can also be used for many other conditions, such as an aortic aneurysm-
“[-disgusting, tainted creature that can’t even pretend to be a normal child for five seconds of its life-]”
“[Excuse me.]” Suddenly, Katrin cut in, stepping in front of Erhard, who hadn’t even realized that she was back downstairs. “[Anton, we need to talk immediately. Bring the child, too.]”
It felt as though Erhard had swallowed an ice cube. A powerful, cold pit of fear began to form in his stomach, as if someone was ripping a hole in the tissue. His parents had a lot of “talks”, but almost never involving him.
Unless, of course, that talk was going to end in punishment.
Anton looked over at Erhard with an expression that could scorch metal, then nodded at his wife. He grabbed his son roughly by the forearm, looking at everything in the room that wasn’t him, then started off following Katrin.
Erhard struggled to keep up, Anton’s wide, fast strides almost impossible for his short legs to manage. Falling behind might make the end result worse, though, so he didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Confusion began to replace some of his anxiety, the farther they went, especially when he realized that they were headed to his tiny room. Why? His parents rarely went in there, usually avoiding the place like the plague. It was more or less the only place in the world that felt even slightly safe, but it seemed that even that wasn’t true now.
Katrin pushed the door open, sitting down on the thin mattress and sighing loudly, Anton and Erhard following her inside. She suddenly looked twenty years older, the lines and shadows on her face becoming far more defined as she picked something up from the corner of the bed.
Something inside of Erhard stopped as he realized what it was, the shiny hard cover seemingly mocking him under the dim light of the room.
Johnstone’s Textbook of General Surgery, Basic Medical Care, and Operative Techniques.
No. Not that.
Please, not that.
“[I was cleaning.]” Katrin’s tone of voice was icy, dangerous. “[One of the floor tiles was loose, and I saw this underneath. I don’t know where he got it, but that hardly matters.]”
It was in a cardboard box in someone’s driveway, that night they shut him out, although Erhard didn’t think that either of them would want to hear that.
“[It’s my book.]” Erhard looked up, his hands shaking slightly as he did so. “[I...I like to read it.]”
Suddenly, Anton started laughing. There was absolutely nothing happy or comforting about it. It was quiet, breathy, without a single hint of humor. It seemed more like a reflex than anything genuine.
“[I knew it. I knew it! I was right, wasn’t I?]” His chest and shoulders quivered with a strange, dangerous energy. “[Look at that, acting like it’s some kind of genius prodigy for reading books about organs and bodies! As though it’s not going to kill us someday. As though it’s not going to destroy everything around it.]”
Erhard didn’t even get a chance to react before he landed hard on the ground, almost thrown with every ounce of strength that his father had within him. The back of his head collided with the hard floor, and black dots popped up behind his eyes as he let out a small cry of pain.
“[You shouldn’t have been born, Teufelkind. You should have died long before then.]” Anton loomed over him, his eyes wide, bloodshot, almost manic. “[Is that what I should do? Fix everything that our sinful, cursed genes broke? I can tell, now. You’re a sign from God that we never should have had a child.]”
A heavy, solid shoe pinned Erhard’s chest to the ground, and his survival instincts kicked in, causing him to struggle against the weight with the tiny amount of strength that he had.
“[Stop that!]” Another smack across the face, this one far harder and more vicious than the last. “[Don’t you dare act like you deserve to stay alive. You’ve ruined us. Completely.]”
Erhard couldn’t even form another sound. The only thing he felt was complete, abject terror.
“[Pathetic,]” was the last word that Anton said before he almost stomped on Erhard’s chest, not hard enough to break bones but close to it. He gasped, his lungs trying and failing to get enough oxygen, feeling yet another punch to the jaw send his head to the side.
How many times had his father even hit him? How long did this go on for?
Erhard had no idea.
At some point, the beating stopped, and his parents left. Time passed after that, with the sky outside of the window gradually getting darker and darker and the ambiance from downstairs growing quieter.
And a single, tiny, lonely boy lay on the floor of his bedroom, a bloody and bruised mess.
His book was gone. The only thing that made sense was gone.
He needed it back.
Erhard somehow got to his feet. Every single part of his body hurt. His nose was bleeding heavily, tiny drops of red splashing on the floor as he moved. He probably needed to keep it from doing that.
Stopping bleeding was basic, though. That was one of the first skills in his book, after all.
Erhard padded lightly down the hallway, taking slow, small steps in order to avoid making too much noise. He pushed the door to the hallway bathroom open, climbing up on the sink in order to use the mirror, then closed the door behind him.
The first thing he noticed was a massive welt on the side of his face, probably from his father’s wedding ring. It made something turn in Erhard’s stomach.
He grabbed a towel from the nearby rack anyway, pinching the soft part of his nose and tilting his head forward, just like he had seen in illustrations. The pressure on his nose caused him to flinch, the technique forcing him to squeeze bruised skin, but he didn’t know any other way of staunching a nosebleed.
Minutes passed one by one, almost agonizingly slow. The blood eventually stopped, soaking the towel with puddles of red, but that was certainly better than the alternative.
Footsteps echoed through the hall, and Erhard realized that he had been just in time. He grabbed his towel, hopping off the counter, then slid into the bathtub and closed the shower curtain.
With a rather noisy creak, the door opened, and there were several seconds of long, drawn-out silence. Erhard heard nothing but his own breath, quiet and slow, before the door shut again. He hadn’t been caught this time.
Keeping his footsteps careful, he nudged open the door, then climbed downstairs towards the laundry room. He needed some way to dispose of the blood-covered towel before he got his book back.
The black plastic laundry basket was up against the washing machine, fortunately very easy to access. Erhard dug inside with one hand, pushing shirts and underwear aside, then slipped the evidence underneath. The laundry basket wasn’t all that full, so it was unlikely that they’d discover his towel until a few more days passed. He’d be relatively healed by then, he could take it by that point.
Now Erhard had to figure out the next step, and he had no idea what that would be. He knew that he needed the book back, somehow, but that was about it in terms of ideas.
Where could it be? He glanced around the laundry room, deciding that he’d look for it first. It could be anywhere, so searching the whole house seemed to be a good idea.
There was every chance that he could be caught, but that thought didn’t even enter his mind. Erhard was focused, and he was going to get this done. He just had to.
It took almost a half-hour of furtive glances and stopping at every single noise, but all of that stopped mattering when Erhard spotted something flat and reflective buried in the kitchen garbage.
He almost ran over to it, grabbing at the plastic-coated cover and tugging it out of a mess of disposable packaging and coffee grounds. And there it was, still intact and shining, in almost the same pristine condition that it had been before.
Erhard gripped it as if it were a teddy bear, holding it to his chest and just relishing in the weight for a few moments. There was some residue still left on it, but that could be cleaned off. All that mattered was that he had it back.
Then something else began to dawn on him. His parents would notice, the next time they opened the trash. They’d naturally assume that he took it back, they were adults, and adults could figure these things out faster than he could. But the thought of putting the book back in the trash made Erhard feel like he was abandoning a part of himself. It physically hurt him just to think about it.
What could he do?
There were more garbage bags underneath the sink, and the bag that he’d just messed with was nearly full. The men always came to pick up the trash on a Tuesday, and it was Monday night...that coincidence would have to do.
Erhard’s small hands fumbled with the opening of the bag, trying their best to tie a knot in it, although the end result was as sloppy as one would expect a five-year-old to make. He pulled it out of the can, struggling against the weight, then resorted to dragging the bag across the floor.
The garbage bins for collection were just outside, although it took several minutes for a boy this small to make his way over to them. One last burst of exertion went into shoving the trash bag in the bin, then he walked back light and free.
The next few minutes consisted of replacing the bag, then moving his mother’s wallet over to the countertop in order to make it seem like she had been there. She was so tired and forgetful, she could easily take the trash out without remembering.
And then it was done.
Even as he climbed up the stairs silently, book in his arms, a strange feeling of adrenaline and...happiness? Filled his chest, his very soul.
As small as this victory was, it was still a victory. Still a tiny spot of hope. Still a reassuring voice that maybe, no matter how terrible things got, Erhard Muller would still have something in his life that made sense.
He hadn’t felt this excited in weeks.
Shutting his bedroom door behind him, Erhard scanned the room for a new hiding place. He would end up doing this several times in the next few years, but that was a small price to pay for the most precious thing he would ever own.
He did it.
Chapter 3: 2005
Several sharp, loud knocks on the door were always enough to wake him up. Erhard had never been a particularly heavy sleeper, although he didn’t know if that was due to his own internal clock or conditioned behavior.
None of the other boys ever seemed to share his alertness, because as Erhard sat up in bed, he was met with a chorus of groans and one or two swear words (quiet enough that the staff couldn’t hear them).
Erhard kept to himself as he got to his feet and pulled a shirt out of his cabinet. They’d get up in their own time, they always did.
“Hey, boys! Breakfast is nearly on the table, come on!” That was Tamara outside the door, one of the workers who always exuded a cheerful, childlike energy, despite the fact that she was probably in her forties. She was easily one of the better people who came knocking on doors. “Come on down before the other kids snatch all of it up, okay?”
“Man, they always act like we’re gonna freakin’ die if we don’t eat,” said the boy to Erhard’s left, named José. “Hey Denny, you thinkin’ of skipping today?”
Technically, they would die if they stopped eating, but Erhard decided not to voice this.
“Yeah, sure. Wonder if any of the girls are gonna come with,” Denny replied, kicking his legs against his bedsheets and fighting his way up. “‘S always so damn early.”
Chatter started to fill the room, the other six or seven kids talking amongst each other as they got dressed for the day. This was another routine, everyone else largely ignoring Erhard and tending to their social lives instead. He didn’t actually mind all that much, as depressing as it might have sounded.
After slipping his shoes on, Erhard opened the lower drawer of his cabinet, picking up the perpetually shiny and pristine tome, then held it to his chest and followed the others out of the room and into the hallway. It was the only thing he really owned, since the majority of his clothes and other essential items were given to him by staff, which made it all the more important to keep close by.
The cafeteria was filled with even more noise and chatter, of several tables’ worth of kids all shouting and laughing and high-fiving each other. Erhard spooned some eggs onto his plate, before picking it up and slipping over to the table in the back. It was rather nice having a whole table to himself, especially considering the fact that he had his book with him. Every glance in his direction, every millisecond of eye contact felt almost physically painful, but his reading always made everything feel better. He propped it open with one hand as he used the other to spear a big glob of yolk.
It took Erhard several seconds to realize that the voice was directed at him. He hesitated for another several, feeling something in his chest freeze at the thought of talking to someone else. Maybe if he refused to look at them long enough, they’d go away and-
A plate was placed next to his. A boy sat down right next to him.
Erhard almost jumped, stuttering for a second before hurriedly shutting his textbook and holding it to his chest in a death grip. His heart hammered against his ribs, every single fiber of his being wondering what this other kid wanted with him.
“Uh, are you okay, guy?” The boy moved, leaning over Erhard with a slight pout on his face. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
“I...n-no. I didn’t...why are you-” Trying to will his mouth to connect properly to his brain, Erhard’s eyes flickered up to the other boy’s face. He was one that Erhard didn’t recognize, with mousy brown hair and freckles dotting his nose and cheeks, probably around his age too.
“You’re weird,” the boy snickered. “My name’s Cary. I just got here, and you look really lonely, so I wanted to be lonely buddies!” He laughed again, kicking his legs against the table, but Erhard couldn’t exactly see what was humorous.
“Are you...sure?” Erhard looked down, clutching his book tighter. “Nobody should...I mean...”
“Yeah, sure I’m sure! Plus, you’re probably super smart, and I really need a buddy who can help me with my homework. I’m super awful at-”
“Hey, new guy!” Suddenly, a third voice joined the conversation. It was shouted from across the room, but its owner quickly came running towards the back table, revealing themself to be one of the long-time boys, Darryl. “Why’re you over here?”
“Huh?” Cary canted his head to the side.
Darryl gestured over to Erhard, then set his hands in his pockets. “This’s just that retarded kid. Don’t bother, he don’t do anything ‘cept read that book.” He reached out over to Cary, gripping him by the wrist. “C’mon, dude, we wanna meetcha! There’s a whole bunch of us over at table four, an’ we love meeting the new guys! I can ditch class and show you around, although this place is kinda shitty…”
And just like that, they were both gone, Cary dragged along towards Darryl’s group.
Erhard didn’t know why this was bothering him so much. Just a few minutes ago, he was perfectly content with the idea of being by himself. It didn’t make sense.
Not much made sense, anyway. Erhard gave up trying to figure out his emotions, placing his book back on the table and flipping over to the chapter on the liver. Was there anything he missed about liver resection the third time he read through?
Classes were never particularly interesting. Erhard knew that they were intended for the good kids and not him, although some part of him still wondered why the teachers bothered to try and teach him too.
He was different from everyone else. Why was he being treated as though he wasn’t?
Usually, Erhard snuck glances at his book when the teachers weren’t watching, using loose sheets of paper to scribble down notes and messy drawings. The teachers rarely interfered, often using words like “gifted” and “remarkable”, although many of them had given up trying to force him to speak in class.
At first, he’d liked having a window seat, but the same scenery day after day quickly got stale, and that too stopped being a big deal.
But something about today was different, when Erhard glanced over at the tree-lined path leading away from the orphanage. He stopped, turning his head slightly to get a better look at what exactly he’d glimpsed-
There was someone outside. Not a groundskeeper, as there sometimes was, but a person in a black hoodie. The hood covered their face and hair, and they were too far away to discern any other notable features, even the person’s gender, but they looked too short to be an adult. But what was a kid doing outside during class?
Even as Erhard watched them, they turned their back to the building, stuffed their hands in their pockets, and quickly ran off. They disappeared around a corner, and then they were gone.
What had just happened? Erhard knew that this shouldn’t be intriguing him so much, but some part of his brain refused to let it go. Who was that person, and why did they run away? Why were they skipping class, where were they going?
Erhard gave a small start as he realized that he was staring. He quickly turned back towards the teacher, trying his hardest to arrange his face into a more interested expression, although judging by the exasperated look on the woman’s face, he hadn’t been too successful.
“Glad you decided to join us. Now, can you tell me if 28 divided by 4, or half of 14 is greater?” She tapped her ruler against the book in her hand.
Erhard looked down, shaking his head for a second before he spoke. “Neither. They’re the same...ma’am.”
“Good. Now maybe you can put that effort into paying attention,” she said, before turning and grabbing a marker for the whiteboard. “Hutchins, you’re up next. What is 58 times 46?”
More classes came and went, and by the time Erhard looked at the clock again, it was almost time to leave. It felt as though time had simply slipped through his fingers, time that could have been used on something actually interesting.
It was his own fault that he was strange enough to find it this easy, though, so maybe the wasted time was his punishment. That made sense.
The bell rang, and students started to get up out of their seats, milling around the room with cheerful voices. The teacher stepped out of the way of the horde of kids pouring out the door, all desperate to escape the classroom, and Erhard quickly got to his feet, picked up his things, and joined them.
Now it was time for a break before dinner, and most of the kids headed straight for the common room, Erhard included. A few were allowed to go off to the neighboring town, but he wasn’t old enough for that yet.
The common room was small but quite cosy, and Erhard took his familiar place next to the couch. He needed to review what he’d read on intestinal blockage, and this was the perfect opportunity. Flipping open his book, Erhard settled into his spot on the floor, immediately before the second odd thing happened that day.
The voices started out quiet, faint enough that it was difficult to discern them from the background noise. A minute passed, and they gradually grew louder and louder, until some of the other students stopped their activities and began to mutter quietly amongst themselves instead. Both voices were female, although one seemed younger and more aggressive than the other. Erhard tilted his head towards what he thought was the source, straining to try and make out the words that were being said.
“-as though no one would catch you, what were you thinking?!”
“Shut the hell up, grandma! Why do you care so much what I do? It’s not like I’m hurting anybody, so why the fuck d-”
“Language! Do you know just how loud you’re being right now? Everyone in the whole orphanage is going to hear you!”
Suddenly, the door to the common room opened, and several students scattered in order to make way. There was one of the workers, Pam, standing behind it, her arms tightly holding a struggling girl to her side. The girl was one of the older kids, probably in her tweens or teens, with messy brown hair and a black hoodie-
The pieces clicked into place. That person that Erhard had seen outside had been this girl. Even though many of the other kids clearly seemed to know her, judging by their expressions and hushed whispers, Erhard didn’t recognize her.
“You’re staying here until I get the Director.” Pam narrowed her eyes at the girl. “Maria, we don’t tolerate truancy here. Understood?”
“Yeah, ‘cause me leaving this shithole is such a big deal,” said the girl whose name was apparently Maria. “What’s your freakin’ problem, anyway?! I just went to get candy for some kids, how is that a bad thing?!”
“Enough. You’re out of line.” Pam released Maria, steering her over to one of the chairs. “If you’re out of this chair by the time I get back, I’ll see to it that whatever detention you earn gets doubled-”
Suddenly, Maria lunged at Pam, kicking her hard in the shins with an audible crack. Pam gasped, doubling over, and Maria took the opportunity to bolt. Students jumped out of her way as she dashed towards the door and slammed it behind her.
The room was absolutely silent for several minutes. No one dared to make a single sound. Most of the students simply looked at each other, avoiding Pam to try and avoid angering her. Erhard himself had no idea how that girl had done that, especially without any kind of fear. There was something strangely fascinating about it.
“Argh! That girl...I swear, she’s going to end up knocked up and miserable,” Pam grumbled, rubbing at the mark on her shin. She looked up, at the multitude of kids staring at her, then snapped out a “What are you looking at?! Get back to your activities!”
Everyone quickly turned around, shuffling away from Pam. The irate woman got to her feet, storming off through the door with a stony glower on her face, and then she was gone. The tension left behind in her wake could be cut with a knife.
Slowly, eventually, the aftereffects of Pam’s presence began to fade, with kids starting to talk amongst themselves again, although in a much more hushed way. Erhard found it strangely hard to focus on his book after what had just happened, especially because some part of him was still intrigued by that girl. Try as he might, his mind refused to cooperate.
It couldn’t hurt to hold off on his reading for just one night.
But the night wasn’t quite over yet.
After dinner, Erhard intended to go straight back to his room, like always, but he got up from the table to find Tamara blocking his path.
“Hi, Erhard.” She looked quite calm, her voice gentle, but Erhard found himself unnerved anyway. “There’s something I want to talk about with you. Can you come with me, please?”
He nodded, crossing his arms over his chest protectively, before following her through the cafeteria. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed some of the others looking at him, murmuring to each other in hushed voices. Erhard wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but it likely wasn’t anything he wanted to know.
They went through the cafeteria doors, then made their way into the hall. Tamara gestured towards a chair, patting the seat for Erhard to sit down. He did as he was told, climbing up into it and hugging his knees to his chest.
“Did...did I do something?” He mumbled, barely audible. Tamara looked at him, then guffawed, throwing her head back for a few seconds.
“No, of course not! You’re easily one of the most well-behaved kids I’ve ever seen!” She put a hand on her hip, then smiled warmly. “Actually, there’s a man who’s come here a couple times. He’s a professor, very experienced and well-known. We told him about you, since you’re basically a little professor yourself, and...well, he’s interested in adopting you.”
Erhard’s heart leapt into his throat.
“Me? H-he wants...me?”
“Yes, he’s made that very clear.”
Tamara paused, her smile melting away. “What do you mean, why? He’s always talking about how much he wants to raise a child, but he’s never married or even dated, so he’s never had them biologically. And he’s interested in helping teach you, and trying to pull you out of your shell a little bit. That’s why.”
“Oh.” That was all Erhard could think of to say. He hadn’t expected an answer like that.
“He’s here right now. Would you like to meet him?” Tamara reached out, gently placing a hand on Erhard’s shoulder. “If you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to. We can do this another time-”
“No. I’ll go.” He wasn’t particularly sure why, but his mouth was moving before he realized it. “I’ll come see him.”
“Thank you, Erhard. I’m sure he’ll really appreciate it.”
The walk to the office was in near-complete silence. Erhard had no idea why he’d agreed, especially considering the fact that he had no idea who the person he was about to meet was. He couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and the thought terrified him.
The upstairs offices were usually off-limits to kids, so the area was completely unfamiliar, too. Both of these changes to routine made Erhard’s heart hammer in his chest, his hands tremble as much as he tried to suppress it.
Tamara stopped in front of a door, knocked a few times, then opened it slowly.
“I’m back! I brought him, too.” She looked down, gesturing for Erhard to come into the room. He hesitated, and she responded by gently pushing him through the door.
The office was more stylish and modern than expected, with cubic shelves and a large, flat desk. Sitting behind the desk was a man, somewhat older than Erhard had thought he would be, with somewhat messy black hair and a slightly ashy complexion.
“Ah, there you are! I’ve been waiting.” He chuckled quietly. “Come, sit down. I’m certainly looking forward to meeting you.”
Erhard did so, setting himself gingerly down into the chair on the opposite side of the desk, which was tall enough that his feet couldn’t touch the ground. He held his book closely to his lap, but the strange man noticed it.
“What’s that you have there? I won’t take it, I promise.”
Erhard stared at the floor, his arms shaking as he picked it up off his lap and set it gently on the desk in front of him. The man picked it up, scanning the cover, then his eyebrows shot up as he opened the book and skimmed through it.
“Do you read this?”
“Yes…” Erhard gripped his hands together, feeling sweat start to bead on the back of his neck.
“Impressive. You’re nine years old, correct?” He looked up to see Erhard nod. “Truly remarkable. You’re even more intelligent than I thought.”
“Are you going to hit me?” It just came out, before Erhard could stop it. The man looked over at him, blinking a few times before setting the book down and shaking his head.
“Why would I do that? You’ve done nothing-”
“It’s bad. My book and...my life. They’re both bad.” He deliberately avoided the man’s gaze, terrified of what he would see if he made eye contact. “I need to be punished for it.”
“That’s not true. You are different, yes, but that doesn’t mean that you are any more flawed than the rest of us.” He reached out, grasping Erhard’s small hand and covering it with his. “You’re a wonderful boy, and I’m very interested in getting to know you more. My name is Albert Sartre, and I want to become your father.”
Slowly but surely, the definition of “normal” changed. It took a long time; the first year and a half were filled with night terrors and flinching at every sound, but eventually the frequency lessened. Sartre proved his patience, never complaining or becoming frustrated with Erhard, and it slowly began to dawn on the boy that he wasn’t going to get beaten again.
He was voraciously hungry for information, finishing whole novels in the span of a few hours and always, always asking for the next thing. It didn’t seem like there was any end to the capacity of Erhard’s brain, and he absorbed everything he came across in meticulous detail. It seemed like regular elementary and middle schools just wouldn’t keep pace with him, so Sartre decided to teach him himself.
Despite his increasing levels of comfort, Erhard was still afraid to go outside most days, and he practically had to be dragged along to even the most mundane of errands. Every single new person seemed to reset his mental state, making him skittish and fearful of any kind of conflict. There was one exception, however, and when Sartre realized what it was, he began to take advantage of it.
At twelve years old, college was a routine part of Erhard’s life, as strange as that might have sounded. He left home at the same time Sartre did, with a backpack and lunch, and tended to sit in on his father’s classes.
It seemed like some kind of fate that the man who had adopted him happened to teach virology, something that wouldn’t be out of place in his special interests. He always listened with rapt attention, often drawing looks and snickers his way, but those barely even reached him. It seemed as though whenever he was surrounded by medicine, Erhard tuned everything else out.
That wasn’t to say that college didn’t pull him out of his shell at least a little bit, though. Sartre made an agreement with him early on, that if he was to sit in on classes, he had to participate as if he were a regular student sometimes. The concept scared Erhard at first, but he agreed anyway.
But now that he had gotten used to it, basic interactions with his fellow students had grown far more...comfortable? Normal? His heart didn’t palpitate nearly as much, so it had to be something like that.
Emotions were still something he struggled to fully understand.
“Man. Just when you think it’s over, there’s another paper to write,” said the student who sat directly in front of Erhard as he packed up his things to leave. He turned towards a girl sitting next to him, then grinned sheepishly and pointed behind him. “Then I start feeling stupid because this kid exists.”
“Scared he’s going to completely one-up you despite being, like, a decade younger?” She smirked, then turned her head and waved at Erhard. “Hey, kid! I wouldn’t mind if you kicked his ass, honestly.”
“Oh my God, Miranda. Do you have to rub it in?!” The male student gave an over-exaggerated groan, then stood up from his seat. “I don’t know how the hell he even does it. That guy is a freaking god, I swear.”
“I...don’t think I am.” Erhard tried joining in, lacing his fingers together on top of his desk. “If I was, I think a lot of stuff would be different.”
“Damn!” Miranda almost smacked her friend on the shoulder, snorting with laughter. “Dee- nied! How does it feel to be taken down a peg by a twelve-year-old?”
“Jesus Christ, shut up!”
“How is everything going?”
The second Erhard sat down for dinner, Sartre greeted him with a question. This in and of itself wasn’t unusual, but there was something different about his voice today. Erhard couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was, but he knew it was there.
“Okay, I guess.”
“Is that so? Well, that’s certainly better than the alternative.” Sartre picked up his glass, taking a quick sip before setting it down again. “I’ve noticed something. You are acting much differently than you really ever have before. Almost every day, you talk much more, and when we come home, your face is lit up. Cumberland really is making you happy, isn’t it?”
“Happy?” Erhard looked down, tapping his finger against the table a few times. He didn’t have very much personal experience of the word “happy”. The concept was slightly strange to him, as if he struggled to comprehend a world that wasn’t fearful.
“Yes. I see it. You look so different than you used to. It’s not easy to describe, but...there’s a feeling of belonging, isn’t there? Or am I wrong?”
“I...don’t actually know,” Erhard admitted after several seconds, stirring his soup carefully. “I don’t know what I’m feeling.”
“Well, maybe this is an opportunity for you to start learning. I know how much you love to learn, so just think of this as another piece of information.” He smiled warmly, sprinkling a bit of salt onto his food. “Try to look at yourself, learn what you feel right now. Just for a minute.”
“I can’t do that.” Erhard responded almost instantly. “My own thoughts...are they really that important?”
“I think so. Do you disagree with me?”
“I don’t know that, either. I just...do I really matter?”
Sartre blinked. “Where is this coming from? Of course you matter. You are a human being, and humans deserve respect. No matter what they have been told in the past.” He set his spoon down, then looked straight at Erhard with a strangely intense look in his eyes. “All people matter. Everyone deserves life, and that is why I devoted myself to virology. You see that, too, don’t you? Why else would you be reading and writing such advanced medical reports at such a young age?”
“I’m rambling. I apologize,” Sartre said, shaking his head. “Just please try and remember that you are only human too. For me, if nothing else.”
It wasn’t a request.
“Who’s ready for the exam today?”
“Not fuckin’ me,” groaned a student behind Erhard, his voice slurring slightly. “I swear, these exams can go to hell.”
“I didn’t ask you.” A girl stepped up from the front of the room, walking over towards her classmate. “Don’t be obnoxious just because you didn’t study.”
Erhard glanced over towards the pair of them, feeling something in his chest jump when he realized who that girl was. Cassidy was one of the honors students, a young woman with a fiercely intelligent and studious reputation. Few people dared to cross her.
“Damnit, Cass, sorry. You act like I spit on your mom or something.”
“Excuse me for getting offended that you’d come to this class completely shitfaced. This is why humans have inhibitions, dude. They’re not obstacles to be conquered.” Cassidy crossed her arms, then turned and stalked away, her red hair catching the light as it-
Wait, why was that what Erhard was thinking about? He needed to focus on the class. His heart still wasn’t calming down, something in the very pit of his stomach fluttering as though an entire bird had been dropped inside. What was happening? Was he getting sick?
Cassidy sat back down, then flipped open her notes. Then, a big grin on her face, she looked behind her, noticing Erhard’s gaze in her direction. She waved, giving a quick thumbs-up, then turned back to her notes and began to highlight.
It became even worse. Erhard swallowed, then forced himself to sit up straight. He hadn’t read about any symptoms like this before. Well, technically he had, but not in conjunction, and he didn’t have the faintest idea what could be wrong with him. And, to put a cherry on top of this confusion sundae, something inside of him felt almost...happy?
He’d get back to this later. He forced himself to push all of these strange thoughts from his mind, instead focusing back on what he had to do. Although he wouldn’t be graded, he still took every exam to the best of his abilities, and this one was no different.
In a few months time, this seemingly inconsequential fact would come back and change Erhard’s life yet again. Because even though he pretended not to look at his son’s exams, Sartre was the type of man to take initiative. And he had an idea.
this one's at least a bit lighter in tone! some welcome respite, indeed.
Chapter 5: 2010
a little bit of injury in this one, but it's not severe.
“Heyyy, big brother!”
Erhard’s door was almost thrown open, and he jumped, his pen making a jagged line across the paper he was working on. He quickly turned in his chair, seeing Rosalia on the other side of the doorway.
“Rose. Please, please don’t do that again.”
“Aww, sorry.” Rosalia folded her hands. “But you’re not too busy, right?”
Erhard didn’t say anything, instead holding up a half-finished report, with the rather ugly line across a chunk of it. “Actually, I am. And this is quite important, since it’s regarding the dosage of Ropinirole that’s needed for th-”
“Could you...do that later?” Rosalia looked down, fidgeting with her skirt’s hem. “You still have a few days before that’s due, right?”
“Oh, good! That means you can come help me tonight!”
Erhard was completely lost. He set his papers down on the desk, then looked at her with his head cocked to the side. “With what? I didn’t realize you needed help.”
“Well, actually-” She moved over to Erhard’s bed, dropping down onto it. “-I really want to surprise Dad tonight. He’s been teaching me to cook, and I want to make something for him. And I found the best recipe, too!”
“So you want me to help you cook dinner?”
“No, no, I can do that myself,” Rosalia said, shaking her head. “The thing is, I don’t have all the ingredients I need...so I want you to help me find them.”
“The nearest store is a two-mile walk,” said Erhard. “I don’t think that will be very enjoyable.”
“No, silly. Not the store.” She smiled, that thing that melted even the strongest person’s heart. “We have a whole forest outside! I bet we can find it somewhere. And I have everything else, so that’s all we need to get.”
Erhard opened his mouth to say something, but was quickly tugged to his feet. Rosalia gripped his wrist and gave him a quick nudge in the ribs before she eased him towards the doorway.
It didn’t seem like he had any choice in the matter, and Erhard gave up trying to protest. He kept pace with Rosalia, treading down the stairs and out through the kitchen door. Sartre wasn’t anywhere to be found, and a small cloud of doubt began to form in Erhard’s mind.
“Rose, you...did tell him that we’d be leaving, right?”
“We won’t be too long,” Rosalia assured him. “I’ve seen basil growing in the forest before, so we’re probably gonna be home in an hour.”
Erhard’s feeling of uneasiness didn’t go away, but he tried his best to forget it and concentrate on the task at hand. He followed Rosalia, treading through dewy grass and mud, as their house grew smaller and smaller behind them. He didn’t know much about plants, but Rosalia was an avid enough gardener that identifying basil wouldn’t be too difficult.
The air was slightly crisp, with a small breeze rustling the trees’ branches and leaves. Rosalia hummed quietly to herself, a small spring in her step, and Erhard found himself wondering how she could be this cheerful. She always had this strange zest for life, for every single second that passed, and Erhard would be lying if he said that he wasn’t at least a little bit jealous. The most he felt was contentment, and even that was occasional.
He looked back over his shoulder, and the house had disappeared.
“I know it’s somewhere around here,” Rosalia murmured to herself, half an hour and a massive amount of walking later. She stopped in her tracks, sighing and crossing her arms over her chest. “I saw it, I know I did.” The tone of her voice was quiet, clearly asking for reassurance.
Erhard narrowly avoided running into her, managing to stop himself just in time. He slipped his hands into his pockets, surveying their surroundings as best he could. It was a small clearing that they’d found themselves in, surrounded by thick trees on all sides. The leaves blocked out a lot of the light, with only a small stream of sun breaking through and illuminating the center of the clearing. The tree pattern couldn’t possibly be natural, but there were no other signs that anyone had ever been there.
He didn’t recognize it, and Rosalia didn’t seem to, either, but...
“We’ll keep looking. I trust you,” Erhard decided after a minute or so. “You know this place a lot more than I do.”
“I bet it’s because you’re always inside.” Rosalia’s head snapped up, and a small smile immediately formed on her face. “You’re always so busy reading and doing your work. I know that medical school is hard and stuff, but...I’m really glad you came with me.”
“Of course.” Erhard smiled, a small, rather awkward thing. He still wasn’t the best at it, but it was far easier than it had ever been before. “I’m sorry for not making more time to see you.”
Rosalia blushed slightly before she spoke again. “Th-thank you...Okay, so we should keep heading north. I remember seeing it in another clearing, when I was out taking a walk. I think it’s that way.” She didn’t outright say it, but Erhard could see how much brighter her spirits were. He’d done it, he’d managed to make her feel better.
And that was all the motivation he needed to keep going.
Hours went by, and there was still no basil to be found. By the time they’d passed several nearly identical clearings in the forest, Erhard was starting to feel worn out, his chest aching with every breath and his legs silently protesting underneath him. Even Rosalia looked like she was starting to regret her decision. She was panting quietly, her face slightly flushed with exertion.
“Rose, should we sit down?” Erhard tapped her on the shoulder, gesturing towards a grassy hill to their immediate right. “You’re tired.”
“No...I’m not,” Rosalia panted entirely unconvincingly. “I’m okay, it’s just a little bit of exercise.”
What they were doing had passed “a little bit of exercise” a long time ago. Erhard shook his head, reaching over to her and grasping her wrist, much like she’d done to him earlier. He gestured again to the hill, and Rosalia looked up at him and slowly nodded.
The soil underneath their feet grew progressively softer and moister as they stepped up, until they were at the very top, about four feet off the ground. Both of them sat down, legs nearly giving out underneath them.
Rosalia let out a long, tired breath, before leaning over onto Erhard’s shoulder. He leaned back, giving her more room. Carefully, Erhard moved over, wrapping an arm around his sister.
She returned the favor, nuzzling further into his chest as she did so.
Nothing was said. They just stayed silent for a while, but neither of them minded. The other person was there, and that was all that mattered. Something about the concept of physical intimacy was strange to Erhard, but it certainly wasn’t strange in a bad way. Some time passed.
Eventually, he felt his arms beginning to fall asleep, so he forced himself to get to his feet, perhaps more shakily than he would have liked. Rosalia whined, but followed her brother after a few seconds.
The sun was starting to set, and they still had no idea where they were. As nice as that had been, it definitely had to be put on hold. There weren’t very many paths that could be taken from this hill, unless they went back the way they’d come. The path that went the opposite side was covered in trees, thick enough that they’d be borderline impassible, and the only other way away from the hill was a small ledge that sat just underneath it. But the ledge was about eight feet below, and there wasn’t any easy way to climb down there. Erhard was just about to turn back, when-
He suddenly heard a noise like the growling of a bear behind him, making him turn sharply. It was only Rosalia back there, looking at him with a quietly anxious expression on her face, but the sound had hardly sounded like one she could have made.
Then he heard it again, and realized what it was. It was bound to happen, neither of them had eaten anything for hours. Poor Rosalia was clearly starving.
Erhard stepped over to her, carefully leaning down and, before she could ask what he was doing, lifted her up. She let out a small breath, before wrapping her arm around his neck and adjusting her position to be more comfortable.
He moved back over to the side of the hill, towards the way they’d come, but with one particular step, there was another, sudden noise. A very different one.
Not a stomach growling, but something...cracking.
Erhard’s eyes widened slightly as he felt the ground lurch underneath them. Rosalia gasped, yelping a quick “Move!” just as he lunged forward, trying to get off the unstable ground.
And then the earth gave way under his feet.
Rosalia opened her eyes, sitting up slowly. She looked up above her, seeing the hilltop that they’d fallen from. It was just out of their reach, as if it was silently mocking them. Rosalia had mercifully landed on something soft, though, and she thanked whatever gods existed that she wasn’t injured. It hurt a little bit, but it probably wouldn’t do much more than bruise.
Then she heard a pained groan from underneath her, and realized exactly what had cushioned her fall. Or rather, who.
“A-ah! I’m sorry!” Rosalia almost jumped off of Erhard, who was flat on his back on the ground. He clearly hadn’t been as lucky, judging by both his expression and the fact that one hand was clutching his side.
“No, it’s-hngh-” Erhard let out another sound, screwing his eyes shut on an outbreath. “It’s nothing. I’m fine,” he gasped out after a few more seconds.
“What’s wrong with your side?” She reached out, brushing her fingertips underneath his hand, immediately before he pushed it away. “Are you really okay? I’m so, so sorry for falling on you like-”
Erhard mumbled something before gingerly sitting up. “Rose. Don’t tell the professor,” and upon a nod from Rosalia, he ran his fingers carefully along the area. “But I...think I might have-hgh-fractured a rib. Possibly...possibly two.”
“What? Wh-why don’t you want me to-”
“He would worry, and then-ghh-then he might...stop us from doing this again.”
Rosalia suddenly hiccuped, tears starting to bead at the corners of her eyes. “But! Y-you’re getting hurt because of me! The stupid forest doesn’t matter to me if you’re hurt!”
“It’s not your fault.” Erhard took several seconds to stand up, and his legs shook under him when he finally managed it. He still held onto his side, and it seemed as though every single breath was painful. “I don’t feel any dislocation, either, so...they’re probably just cracked.”
“That doesn’t make it any better!” It looked like it was taking everything Rosalia had to keep her from full-out sobbing. “I h-hate seeing you hurt...You’re my brother, and I love you!”
I love you.
Those words caught him entirely off guard. He racked his brain for a few seconds, desperately trying to find another instance where he’d heard them directed at him, but he came up blank. It was strange, the way his heart started pounding when Rose had said them to him. They were only three words. Three words that suddenly had a very profound impact on this one boy.
“What?” That was the only response his brain could form. He looked over at Rosalia again, sucking a breath of air through his teeth as his chest throbbed with the stabbing pain. She was still on the ground, looking up at him with tears silently running down her cheeks, her eyes glassy and red.
And then she stood up, her lips quivering, and pulled Erhard into a hug. She was clearly trying her hardest to be gentle, only barely touching him, but she still held him as closely as she could. Her chest was heaving against his, and he could feel her tears making hot, wet patches on the collar of his shirt. She was there for, with him, not just physically but in every other way that counted.
He hugged her back.
Rosalia refused to let Erhard walk on his own after that incident, instead slinging his arm over her shoulders and acting as a sort of crutch. Erhard almost pointed out that it wouldn’t really do him any good, (since his legs weren’t injured at all beyond a bit of bruising) but he decided that it would probably be better to go along with it.
Fortunately, there was a small path that lead down from the ledge they’d ended up on, so they weren’t completely stuck. Unfortunately, by taking it, they were probably going even further into the woods, although they were already hopelessly lost to begin with.
Erhard forced himself to take shallow breaths, thinking of the pain medication that awaited him back home. It was a surprisingly good motivator, and he was able to suppress at least some of it just by thinking about being back home.
But that wasn’t much help, considering that they were both absolutely exhausted, hungry, and in the middle of nowhere as the sun began to set. Even without the trouble of the injuries, every single step felt like it was sapping their strength. They had passed so many lines of identical trees that Erhard began to wonder if they were simply going in circles, although he didn’t voice this.
It didn’t seem like he even had the energy to speak, anyway.
A pace like a dripping tap. Step, step, step, step. Keep moving forward. Keep pressing on. It would end eventually, it just had to.
Erhard was vaguely aware of a ray of orange light in front of his eyes, but he kept moving, only stopping when Rosalia did, rather abruptly. It took him several seconds to snap out of focus mode and fully process what was actually happening around him, tilting his head up to look closer at his surroundings.
Most of the dense, thickly-clustered foliage surrounding the two of them was gone, behind them, replaced instead with a large, grassy hill without a single obstruction in sight.
That hardly mattered once it became apparent what the hill overlooked, though. Lush, green trees and plants stretched out for acres until they disappeared over the horizon, with clear blue rivers visible through the greenery. Birds sang quietly from afar, coming together to form a quiet ambiance that sounded rather like a symphony of some kind. The sky had been dyed a rich orange by the sun, rays of its light cutting through whatever fog might have existed, and Erhard suddenly felt as though he hadn’t been this present in years.
But in that moment, he was right there, with one arm slung over his sister’s shoulder and an absolute painting of a sunset directly in front of his eyes. There was nothing else to think about. Even the pain, the sharp, stabbing ache in his chest that came from breathing too hard, ceased to be anything negative in that moment. It was simply a reminder, a reminder that he was alive.
They were alive.
Then Rosalia gasped quietly, tugging on the sleeve of Erhard’s shirt, and he turned to see that she was pointing at something. He narrowed his eyes and leaned towards the forest underneath them, making out a small smudge of brown that cut through the nearly unbroken patch of green.
A moderately-sized cottage in the middle of a clearing. It was their house.
“Don’t tell me,” Erhard said. “We just went in a giant loop.”
“And the house is down there, and...if we take the path through the gardens, then…” Rosalia traced a path in the air with her finger, then turned around towards Erhard, her eyes wide and filled with newfound energy. “We can go home! Come on, let’s go!”
He nodded, a tiny smile making its way onto his face. “Lead the way.”
“Hey, Dad, we’re home...”
Rosalia was the first to enter the house, cautiously nudging the door open, then disappeared inside. This was mainly because she had been the one to get the two of them into this mess in the first place. Erhard hadn’t said it, but she’d probably arrived at the same conclusion that he did. He lagged behind her, standing awkwardly outside in the now almost pitch-black. They’d gotten home just in time, it seemed.
After a minute or so, Erhard didn’t hear anything from inside. He felt something leap anxiously inside his chest, but forced himself to make his way inside and take the consequences of their actions like an adult.
The living room was completely empty. Erhard reached over, shutting and locking the door, before he walked slowly towards the kitchen. There were indistinct voices drifting through the doorway, which sounded rather tense, and Erhard prepared himself to join the conversation as he drew closer.
“-why didn’t it even cross your mind to leave a note? I’ve been beside myself with worry all day, you can’t just run off like-”
“Professor Sartre.” His voice hushed, Erhard stepped through the doorway. Sartre stopped midway through his sentence, looking up at Erhard with an expression that he wasn’t sure how to interpret. Rosalia sat directly across from Sartre, with her gaze focused more or less entirely on her own lap.
“Ah, I was wondering where you were.” There didn’t seem to be anything particularly happy or comforting in the look on Sartre’s face. “Sit, please.”
Erhard did as he was told, sliding onto the couch next to Rosalia. He winced internally, feeling his broken ribs protest, but he tried his best to conceal it.
“Where were the both of you? I can’t believe either of you would do something like this. You are both so much more mature than this, and I’m honestly highly disheartened.” Sartre started talking again the second that Erhard sat down, his tone almost painfully blunt. He paused for several seconds before looking directly at Erhard, causing him to flinch. “I’m especially disappointed in you. I expected better.”
“I know,” Erhard muttered to the table in front of him. “There’s no excuse.”
“I’m not going to punish you, but I want you to know that this is unacceptable.”
“You’re to go to your room immediately. You’ve proven that I can’t trust you as much as I thought I could, and-”
“E-excuse me…” It took them both a moment to realize that Rosalia had said something. She looked very much like she was about to cry, but she sat up straight and firm. “It’s my fault, Dad. He didn’t do anything wrong. I dragged him along with me, and I’m the one who you should be disappointed in.”
“Big brother, it’s okay,” she said, sliding her hand over on top of his. “You kept me from getting hurt, and I’m not going to let you get in trouble because of me.”
“Is this true?” Sartre interjected, looking back at Erhard.
“It is. I helped her.” He decided to conveniently leave out the detail about the fact that helping her involved breaking bones. “Rosalia wouldn’t lie.”
There was a very long pause before Sartre spoke again.
“...Very well. I’ll believe you. Rose, please go to your room. I’ll be in to talk with you in a little while.” Rosalia nodded in response, then got to her feet and slipped up the stairs. “And as for you-” He motioned for Erhard to stand up. “You’ve been so much more social as of late. While I certainly don’t agree with your sneaking off, the fact that you’ve been spending so much time with Rose really shows just how much you’ve improved. Does it not?”
“I suppose.” Erhard hadn’t even thought of that. Being with Rosalia somehow came...naturally to him.
“Hmm. I wouldn’t take that answer normally, but I’ll accept it this time. More conviction, son. More confidence.” And with that, Sartre was gone, treading slowly up the stairs. Erhard sat back down, not knowing quite what he was supposed to do. He folded his hands across his lap, but suddenly something caught his attention.
There was a flash of bright green, visible through the kitchen doorframe. He quickly got up again, walking over to the countertop where he’d seen it, nudging a couple books aside to uncover-
Chapter 6: 2012
cw: more slurs and violence
we're back to the bad! haha
His life should have ended right then and there, with the crack of the gavel and the nearly unanimous verdict.
But it didn’t end. There were still things to be done, paperwork and transportation and strip searches. None of it made any difference, because his mind remained in the courtroom even as his body’s location changed.
There had been no one there. No one had appeared to watch that wasn’t absolutely convinced that he was the culprit, that hadn’t lost family members and friends in the bio-attack. He wondered if he even had those things. It seemed unlikely that he’d even find out, considering the fact that he couldn’t even remember his own name.
It was fortunate, in some aspects, that prison had no place for names. He had been assigned a number in his first hours of memory, and it had stuck. He was CR-S01. Nothing else.
CR-S01 only became fully aware of his circumstances when they escorted him to a cell. His cell. Up until that point, most of the world around him was a hazy void, but the reality finally became cemented in his mind.
A tiny room, with a cot, desk, toilet and sink. This was where he would spend the rest of his life. Not that he knew how long that would be, but it would likely be a while. CR-S01 didn’t even know his own age, but something inside of him said that he was quite young. If he was lucky, he’d have a good 75 years of 250 knocked out by the time he died.
He looked up when a guard came down the hallway, knocking against the bars of his door.
“Good to see you’re alive there.” The guard hadn’t even looked up, instead focusing on a clipboard in front of him. “We neglected to mention this earlier, but this is only your temporary cell. The FBI has decided, as a matter of national security, to keep you in a specialized cell to inhibit bacterial growth. Unfortunately, that takes time to prepare, so you’re stuck here for now. Understand?”
CR-S01 had no idea what the guard had mentioned earlier in the first place, but he quickly nodded. That seemed to be all the confirmation the other man needed, as he scribbled something on his clipboard immediately before walking away.
And then CR-S01 was alone again.
“As though it’s not going to kill us someday. As though it’s not going to destroy everything around it.”
He woke up to the feeling of pain in his stomach and sweat coating his skin. It took him almost a minute to remember that he’d eaten nothing the previous night, and his stomach was rather loudly reminding him of that fact.
After that guard, no one else had stopped by, and he’d been given no food. He’d eventually fallen asleep, not even bothering to change clothes, but that fact hardly made a difference. He’d be wearing this uniform for a very long time, anyway, so it was probably better if he got used to it.
It was still nighttime, judging by the lack of background noise. CR-S01 wondered if it was his hunger or something else that had woken him up. He had vague memories of a dream, but he had no recollection of what, exactly, it had been about.
His amnesia was certainly persistent, but that fact didn’t even bother him. He was a killer, anyway. Killers like him didn’t deserve lives, families, happy memories. This would be his life, and CR-S01 was surprisingly calm about the concept. It seemed like, with nothing to compare it to, life in a small cell wouldn’t be too bad. And again, it was what he deserved.
There was a strange, newfound sense of peace that washed over him as he shifted in his cot. As odd as it was, CR-S01 felt...content.
“S01! Roll call!”
He stepped out into the hallway as the guard opened his cell door, suddenly surrounded by a variety of other inmates. They enclosed CR-S01 on both sides, a massive group of men of all builds and complexions, although most of them mercifully seemed to be ignoring him. It was just another day to them, and they hardly paid any mind to their new member.
So began CR-S01’s first day of prison.
The shower room in Portland Prison had a surprising amount of privacy, and he managed to get himself clean without much fuss. The inmates talked among themselves, even laughing and throwing pieces of soap over the partitions, although at one point someone began pounding on the partition to CR-S01’s right. They slurred something about owing money, which was incentive enough to CR-S01 to speed up his shower.
He was following the rest of the prisoners to the cafeteria when someone stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see a guard behind him, one he didn’t recognize. This guard looked more tired than anything else, with bags under his eyes and a rather ashen complexion.
“S01, come with me. There’s someone who wants to talk to you.” The guard tugged CR-S01 over to the wall, then slipped cuffs onto his wrists. CR-S01 looked back as they started off, towards the continually-moving-forward line of prisoners on track to get fed. His stomach suddenly protested again, and he briefly wondered when he’d get to eat.
They walked in silence, the guard leading him down hallways and through cell blocks. There were already prisoners hard at work, being monitored by other guards as they cleaned sheets and fixed bed frames. CR-S01 began to wonder how he’d end up occupying his time. Eventually, the guard stopped before a door, swiping a keycard through the slot next to it and pushing it open. He motioned for CR-S01 to enter, which he did.
The room was quite modern, with a small table bisected by a glass partition. On the other side of the partition sat a woman, her hands neatly folded on her stretch of desk and her suit pressed. She was probably in her sixties, her hair a closely cropped steel-grey and her face almost hawklike.
“Sit down.” The woman lifted a red-taloned hand, gesturing towards the chair on the opposite side of the table. CR-S01 obeyed, his cuffed hands slipping into his lap. She blinked in response, but didn’t react any more strongly. “Good morning, S01.”
He stayed silent, growing more uncomfortable as seconds passed and the woman gazed at him expectantly. She drummed her fingers on the table in front of her, and several seconds passed before she sighed loudly.
“It’s polite to respond. I have a very strict schedule, and I’d prefer it if you didn’t waste my time.”
“I’m sorry.” CR-S01 wasn’t sure exactly why he was apologizing, but he was nevertheless. He couldn’t look directly at this woman. Something about her was just wrong. She had this strange air about her, an air that said she was to be obeyed.
“I’m glad. Now, we have some things to talk about. I have several questions about the Cumberland College incident, and I would appreciate concise answers.” She pulled a piece of paper from below the desk, then placed it in front of her with a pen. “But first, I’d like to play a little game with you. I’m going to ask you a few questions, and you are to respond in two seconds or less. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes.” He focused his gaze at a point somewhere to the left of her head.
“Alright. What color is my hair?”
“Grey.” The question made little sense, but she was asking the next one before he had time to think about it.
“Where are we right now?”
“Portland Prison. A visitor’s room...I assume.”
“How old are you?”
“I don’t know.” He saw the woman raise a penciled eyebrow at this, but she didn’t voice whatever was on her mind.
“What is your opinion on law enforcement?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“Are you currently protecting anyone?”
“How did you kill the victims at Cumberland College?”
“What?” CR-S01’s head snapped up.
“You heard me. Answer the question.” The woman’s eyes narrowed, and a powerful chill began to run down the prisoner’s spine. She had a small smile on her face, but it didn’t extend to her eyes, which were as cold as chips of ice.
“I...I don’t know. I don’t remember. I-I don’t remember anything.” He stared down at the desk in front of him, feeling the woman’s eyes bore into his soul.
“Come now. There’s no need to be difficult, just answer the question.” The woman sounded as though she was explaining something to a very young child. “It’s just one question, S01. One question, and this will be over.”
“I can’t answer it. I just don’t remember!” Something in CR-S01’s throat cracked as he spoke, and he felt the tips of his fingers tremble as he willed himself to stay calm. It seemed as though the empty void that had been his emotions earlier was filling up rapidly now, making up for lost time.
The woman sighed, shaking her head. “So melodramatic. You really don’t need to be like this. Look at me.” She rapped sharply on the glass, forcing CR-S01 to meet her eyes. There was still a smile on her face, her tone almost mocking. “Do you honestly think this is unjust? That this is as bad as it gets? Because, let me tell you something right now.” Then she leaned in, staring directly into his eyes to a degree that was almost physically painful. “This is as good as it gets for you from now on. Do you understand?”
“Look. Over sixty people died, child. Over sixty people have ended, left their families behind because of what you did. You’re damned lucky we haven’t just shot you dead.” She sounded as if she was doing nothing more exciting than reciting a particularly dull business proposal. “You don’t have rights anymore. You are not a human being anymore. And there are deep, dark holes that we could put you in. We put you in there, you never come out.” And with that, she leaned back into her chair, tapping her nails against the desk. “You should be grateful.”
“I should be grateful,” CR-S01 repeated almost inaudibly. His entire being suddenly felt numb, the numbness working inexorably inward.
“I’m glad we finally got through to you. I suppose I’ll give them permission to start feeding you now.” The woman scribbled a few more notes down on her clipboard, before abruptly standing up. “Just remember, you’re being watched. Any step out of line, and you will suffer consequences.”
And with that, she was gone, her gait nonchalant.
True to her word, CR-S01 was fed almost immediately after leaving the room. The breakfast was quite simple, with two pieces of toast and a little bit of egg and milk, but nearly anything tasted good on an empty stomach.
The next several days were spent in an almost dreamlike state, with barely anything from the world around him registering. He would go to sleep with no memories of what had happened the previous day, every single second blurring together imperceptibly.
His new routine had become little more than unconscious habit. CR-S01 didn’t do much aside from go through the motions of his new life.
But sometimes, when he was drifting off to sleep, he saw faces. They were indistinct, filled with static, but he saw them. There were a lot of different faces, but a few of them were recurring. Something about them made CR-S01 feel warm inside.
They were the only thing that did.
The second that CR-S01 stepped through the door of the cafeteria, he knew that something was wrong. The odd sense of wrongness was vague, and he couldn’t quite place what it came from, but it refused to let up despite the logical part of his mind trying to dismiss it.
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, CR-S01 felt awake. It wasn’t due to his own free will or energy, but the crushing sense of dread, that something was going to happen. He tried his best to force it to the back of his mind as he continued shuffling forward, getting his breakfast for the day.
Most of the other prisoners steered clear of CR-S01 wherever he went, which suited him just fine. Bioterrorism clearly wasn’t a common charge, and it created a multitude of hushed whispers and suspicious glances, but nothing more. The odd inmate would approach him from time to time, but they hardly did more than that.
CR-S01 secluded himself in a corner of the room, picking at his food with the cheap plastic silverware he’d been given. The taste hardly registered in his mouth, but the blood sugar was the important part anyway. He was barely paying attention to what he ate in the first place.
There was a rather loud, dull sound, a strange sort of clunk noise. It took a few seconds to fully process, but CR-S01 looked up from his tray when the sound reached his brain.
Several white-clad people were crowded in one spot in the corner of the room, and the background noise, of voices and silverware clinking, suddenly grew quieter. CR-S01 squinted, craning his neck to try and see what exactly was going on. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, it mattered to him, but his interest was suddenly piqued.
Another clunk reverberated throughout the room, and the crowd of people seemed to be growing larger. The voices from the tables around CR-S01 had grown far more hushed, but new voices started to blossom, loud, vocal ones.
“Fuckin’ cunts out there skimpin’ on our money!” The tone was booming, as though it had come from a massive speaker at the center of the room. Its actual source was rather difficult to locate, although it had clearly come from the crowd. “Them blue-suits with they big-ass egos scammin’ everyone!” Someone on CR-S01’s left snickered.
“Yeah! Yeah!” And then there were a chorus of voices from the rest of the cluster, people throwing their hands up, and the guard that came running up to them only moments later didn’t stand a chance. He was thrown to the floor, the impact making a noise that couldn’t possibly bode well for his health. The entire cafeteria went quiet for several seconds, quiet enough that CR-S01 could hear his heartbeat in his ears.
That was when the vocal cluster of people became a full-blown riot. Within seconds, the shouting had come back at full force, inmates bolting up and down the rows of tables, lightweight furniture being thrown against the walls, the stomping of feet and loud, repeated chanting.
“Give us our money! Give us our money! Give us our money!”
“Disperse immediately.” Another voice joined the fray, amidst the chaos that was happening all around CR-S01, this voice sounding as though it was coming from the heavens themselves. “This is a criminal gathering. Disperse immediately.” It took everyone a second to identify it as coming from the loudspeaker on the ceiling, but it mattered not.
“Give us our money!”
Voices meshed together, the screaming and shouting and chanting grew in intensity as more guards ran in to replace the one that had fallen, with rubber bullets and canisters of pepper spray. Inmates convulsed as they were tazed, gasping and choking, but it seemed as though nothing could dampen the fervor of those who were still standing. Violence blazed on both sides, from both prisoner and guard, a vivid canvas of noise and vibration and movement.
Then CR-S01 noticed him. He wasn’t sure what had drawn him to see this person in particular, but once his eyes caught onto a young man, huddled in a corner, they refused to leave. The man was probably in his teens or early 20s, his face pale and eyes wide. He lay slumped against the wall, clutching the side of his face, and CR-S01 realized after a second that there was blood seeping from between his fingertips.
He was moving before he knew what was happening. There were people all around him, shouting and clawing at their faces as they were maced, shattering chairs against the hard concrete floor, but suddenly, all of that stopped mattering. CR-S01 dashed over to the man on the floor, darting around an indignant and rather portly guard. He stopped just short of the man, kneeling down next to him, and didn’t even hesitate before tearing off a strip of his collar.
“Wh-what are-” The stranger spoke in a shaky, weak sort of voice, which didn’t stop CR-S01 from forcing his blood-covered hand away from his cheek and pressing his strip of cloth against the wound. It didn’t seem particularly severe, (although CR-S01 wasn’t quite sure how he knew that), but a wound on the face was always cause for concern. For now, all that needed to be done was to stop the blood loss.
For a moment, that was the extent of what existed in CR-S01’s world. He folded up his strip, keeping an eye on the blood slowly soaking through the layers, his consciousness trained on nothing except the person that was in front of him right now. The background noise was completely muted.
But that state only lasted for a moment. CR-S01 was suddenly grabbed from behind, forced to his feet before he had time to react. Someone was pinning his arms to his sides, their large and heavy arm constricted his midsection.
“What are you doin’?” A low, gravelly voice drifted into his right ear, reminiscent of a bear. “You ain’t helpin’ that son of a bitch, are ya? He sold us out, y’know.”
“He’s injured,” CR-S01 managed to gasp out. “He needs help.”
“The fuck? Some little bitch talkin’ back to me? Look at this shit,” the voice from behind him said. “You think you’re so high an’ mighty, don’t ya? Tiny fuckin’ faggot?”
CR-S01 didn’t respond, closing his eyes and taking slow breaths. He hadn’t finished helping the other man, and he needed some way to get back over there and make sure that he was safe. He felt a strange sort of obligation, although, like many other things, he wasn’t exactly sure why. But regardless, he had to-
“I asked you a goddamned question!”
In a flash, CR-S01 was on the floor, landing hard on his knees. His head swam as he tried to get up, but his muscles refused to work. He tried again, but something had completely given out in his legs. His neck felt strangely hot, as if there was a line across it, a line drawn with a pen using magma as ink.
The hand that touched it came back up covered in red. And then the pain hit him. Not just pain, but extreme heat, spreading through his neck as his own blood dribbled on the floor underneath him. He tried to make a sound, but his voice wouldn’t work. He was paralyzed, incapable of doing anything except watching.
A white fuzz began to hiss at the edges of CR-S01’s mind. It started working its way inward, slowly drowning everything it covered. Everything around him was dull, muffled.
He passed out.
It took several minutes for CR-S01 to open his eyes, even after he’d regained consciousness. His head felt fuzzy, as though it had been filled with cotton, but his thoughts were otherwise clear. There were stiff, thick gauze bandages wrapped around his neck, almost holding it in place, and an IV was taped into the crook of his left arm.
He was clearly in an infirmary of some sort, the surface pressing against his back turning out to be a rather thin mattress atop a metal frame. CR-S01 forced his head to move, to examine his surroundings, the bandages adding an extra layer of difficulty for his exhausted body. The door was clearly locked and latched, which explained the conspicuous lack of any sort of guards. Most of the beds next to his were empty, although a tall partition separating some of the rows made it difficult to know for certain. Most of them.
He looked to his right, and there was a man in the bed next to his. The man was staring directly at him, with a grin that was brilliant against his dark skin. CR-S01 almost choked.
“What are you doing?” His voice was slightly hoarse from lack of use, which made the man chuckle into his pillow. The strange man didn’t say anything else after that, simply deciding to resume staring at CR-S01, which made a slight twinge of annoyance pass through him. “Stop.”
“Stop what?” The man threw a hand out, shrugging comically.
“You’re staring at me.”
“No, I’m not.” The grin hadn’t left his face. “I ain’t staring at anything.”
“Then why are you-” CR-S01 narrowed his eyes, noticing for the first time that the other man’s eyes had an odd glassy quality, looking slightly frosted over. “What do you mean by that?”
“I meant what I said. I ain’t staring at anything. Honestly, you gotta get with the game. Life’s gonna pass you by.” His eyes didn’t move, remaining unfocused even as the man emoted. The pieces clicked into place.
“You’re blind,” CR-S01 concluded. “I’m...sorry. It was rude of me to-”
“Nah, it’s fine. I’m used to it.” It seemed as though the smile simply couldn’t leave that man’s face, despite the rather weak and shaky appearance of his body that CR-S01 was beginning to notice. “It’s you I feel sorry for, man. If the whitecoats hadn’t had any type A blood on hand, you’da been dead a while ago. An’ honestly, you sound like shit.”
“How do you know that?”
“Pretended to be asleep. It’s all I can do to not go insane in this hellhole, an’ you really end up hearing some crazy stuff from time to time. I swear to God that one of the nurses here is on cocaine or somethin’, judging by how she talks.” He laughed again, boisterous and energetic. “Nah, but seriously, I’m glad I got some new company. I don’t think I ever heard you before. Name’s Enrico Freeman, but guess my real name is NT-6T2 now.” Enrico held out a hand, over the gap between beds, which CR-S01 took after a second. It was callused, and there was something strangely cold about his skin too.
“Excuse me, but what...actually happened?” CR-S01 waited almost a minute before he spoke again, having mulled the question over in his mind some and debated whether or not he should actually ask. “I’m actually new here. Was that...a common occurrence?”
“Not that common. Apparently, some of the workers, you know, makin’ license plates and shit? They were making really bad ones on purpose, so a few other prisoners ratted ‘em out, and they got their pay revoked.”
“Is that why they held that riot?”
“Probably. Guess they were just fed up with not getting money or something.” Enrico sighed, leaning back into his pillow. “And lucky you, you decided to go out there and almost kill yourself for one of the rats. Not sayin’ you did a bad thing or anything, but that was really stupid.”
“No.” CR-S01 was surprised at his own tone of voice. It was far more forceful than he had intended.
“No?” Enrico turned back towards the younger man, mildly amused, one eyebrow raised.
“It wasn’t stupid. He needed help.” CR-S01 made himself breathe, slowly but surely. “I wouldn’t leave someone injured or hurting. Life is valuable, no matter whose it is.”
“That’s how you feel, huh?” For a second, Enrico looked like he was going to say something else, but changed his mind. He turned back towards the ceiling, his sightless eyes focused intently on a tile that hung above the two.
For some reason, CR-S01 felt a sudden sense of familiarity. The smell of chemicals and disinfectant, which probably should have been abrasive or acrid, had the opposite effect. They smelled...nice.
And although he had tried to make himself forget about it, CR-S01 began to wonder who he was again.
CR-S01 woke up to the sound of breathing. It was heavy, labored, and a quick glance to his right revealed that it wasn’t coming from Enrico.
He hadn’t even remembered dozing off, but it must have happened. CR-S01 groaned, forcing himself to his feet, then grabbed the IV pole for support as he stepped through the rows of beds. Past the partition, CR-S01’s earlier suspicions about another person in the room were confirmed.
There he was, the prisoner who CR-S01 had helped, the one that had snitched on the workers. His face was heavily bandaged, with small, wild tufts of his hair managing to escape between the bandages, and he jumped as CR-S01 came into view from where he was lying.
“Are you alright? Is your injury causing any pain?”
The man didn’t respond, looking very much like he was about to choke. His eyes were almost frantic, darting from side to side, and sweat was beading on whatever skin was exposed.
“Can you talk? Is there something-” CR-S01 slowly, carefully reached a hand out to him, only for the other man to smack it away hard enough to bruise.
“C-Cumberland!” The prisoner spat, his face contorted into a rather ugly grimace. “You...you, Cumberland…Stay away from me!” He held his hands out in front of him, as if brandishing a weapon.
CR-S01 stood there, feeling a strange kind of ache across his whole body as he took in the man’s tone. After a few seconds, he did what he’d been told, backing up until he was out of sight. The wound on his neck began to sting again, pulsing with a sharp, consuming pain, but that wasn’t the part that mattered.
The look of utter revulsion, of hatred on that man’s face was burned into his mind’s eye. It would stay with him for a very long time.
Chapter 7: 2012 - part 2
just gonna warn you, this is the worst chapter of the bunch.
cw: violence, torture, suicidal ideation
It took about a week and a half for CR-S01 to heal enough to be discharged. He’d been lucky, as the knife’s blade managed to miss his carotid artery by a few millimeters, and nothing else important had been damaged. Still, it would likely leave a rather nasty scar, no matter how much time passed. Again, CR-S01 knew these things, seemingly on instinct.
A few guards and a rather apathetic doctor came in from time to time, either examining and redressing his wound or giving him food. But most of his time was spent alone in his bed, especially after Enrico had left the infirmary on his third day.
Some part of him rather enjoyed the solitude. The warm, comforting scents of disinfectant and coffee from the room next door were enough to keep that part content. Besides, it was better than getting caught up in another confrontation, and CR-S01 began to feel uneasy at the prospect of going back to his regular routine with the other prisoners as time passed. The fact remained that one of the inmates had almost killed him with a handmade blade, and that would irreparably change the way he interacted with the rest of them.
But thinking about it would do nothing to change the fact that he’d be thrown back into the ring eventually. As much as he tried not to think about it, he knew it.
The flesh around his cut was still half-healed, pink-tinted and scabbed over when CR-S01 was released. He was provided with little more than a few bandages and some antibacterial medication before being thrust back into the rest of the prison’s world.
He’d almost forgotten about the chaotic nature of it all, but that state didn’t last for long as everything came back in full force. CR-S01 was surrounded by people and noise and light and movement again, and all of it came together to form one giant wave of overwhelming sensation.
If there was one thing to be grateful for, though, it was that absolutely no one seemed to want to mess with him. They’d seen what had happened. They’d seen him survive a serious injury, possibly one of the most serious that could be caused by a homemade shiv. CR-S01 was a bioterrorist who could tank his way through having his neck slit, and so there was no point in trying to start anything. (Or, at least, that was what CR-S01 thought.)
So he walked alone, ate alone, exercised alone, slept alone. There was something familiar about this profound feeling of being entirely alone in the world, something that tugged at CR-S01’s heart in a way that he had no idea how to begin to describe. As he lay in his cot one night, he had felt a sudden pain in his chest, not physical but emotional. It drowned out everything it covered.
He clutched the center of his chest with one hand, nausea beginning to turn his stomach, and gasped for breath as he felt his heart pound harder and harder. There was no reason. There was no logical explanation. It was just happening. Suddenly, it felt as though everything was collapsing around him.
CR-S01 heard his heart’s erratic, frantic rhythm in his ears; expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting, expandi
The prison yard wasn’t so much a yard as it was a flat, walled-in slab of concrete. Still, there was something to be said for fresh air and sun, and his time outside was the only time that CR-S01 genuinely felt at ease, a stark contrast to the night before. He didn’t mind the mandatory laps. They gave him something to do while he thought.
He thought about a lot of things during this time. Simple things like food and rest sometimes, but mostly the people around him. Why was that one laughing? What are those two over there saying to each other? How do they smuggle cigarettes in here like that? The nature of emotions was strangely fascinating.
CR-S01 almost never thought about himself. It didn’t even cross his mind to do so. Not that there was much of a “self” to think about in the first place, considering his circumstances, but most people in his situation would likely have a few thoughts about their own appearance or social standing or something like that.
He took a breath. The cool, unfiltered air of the outside world filled his lungs. A few birds sang from somewhere far away, somewhere free and unfettered by stones and metal walls.
Someone blew a whistle, and the inmates slowly shuffled into something resembling a line, to reenter the building. CR-S01 slipped towards the back of the line, intending to savor these last few moments of freedom and clear air. The queue made its way through the doors, CR-S01 following at a lingering pace.
But before he could join the rest of the group, a guard pulled him over to the side, over by one of the prison walls.
“No, not you. You have somewhere else to be.” Without another word, the guard slapped an all-too-familiar pair of cuffs onto CR-S01’s wrists, then started to steer him towards a different pair of doors, set in the opposite end of the yard. If CR-S01 wasn’t mistaken, those doors led towards a block of offices and interrogation rooms. He hadn’t been down that way in a while, but when a guard said you were going somewhere, you were going somewhere.
“Have I done something?” He wasn’t exactly sure why he spoke up, considering the reputation he seemed to have around most of the prison, but the guard’s lack of response made it clear that it wouldn’t have made a difference either way. They were going down a hallway now, with a freshly-cleaned tile floor that squeaked with every footstep. Otherwise, the hall was completely silent. The air felt strangely tense.
The guard stopped at a metal door, without any form of plaque or identification, then pulled out his keyring and unlocked it. It opened with a loud, heavy groan, and CR-S01 was quickly ushered inside.
The room was nearly empty, with no furniture aside from a large table in the center and a few chairs scattered around its circumference. On the table sat a large, full cloth bag, its contents impossible to discern from the angle CR-S01 was at. The room was almost comically dim, with only a single lightbulb providing any form of light, especially after the door was shut behind the two of them. The atmosphere caused by the low light was probably intentional.
“What are we doing here?” CR-S01 couldn’t contain the question after surveying the room’s contents. He couldn’t figure out what this room’s purpose was. An interrogation room was the most likely explanation, but the fact that there were no cameras or glass partitions made the whole thing feel like a pathetic excuse for a conference room instead.
“Sit,” the guard said, pointing his thumb towards one of the chairs. He moved over towards the other end of the table, sitting down and picking up the bag. The guard didn’t open it, though, instead holding it with both hands as though it were a lifeline. After a few seconds, he seemed to notice CR-S01, who was both looking at him in confusion and not sitting down. “I told you to sit.”
“R-right away.” CR-S01 couldn’t stop himself from eyeing that bag even as he obeyed, wondering just what was inside it. Something inside of him was starting to churn violently.
“Okay.” The guard looked up, crossing his legs casually, although there was something very strained about the tone of his voice. It sounded like he was picking every word carefully. “Look. You’re just a kid. You don’t look a day older than my son. So, honestly, what the hell is wrong with you?”
CR-S01 was completely lost. He blinked a few times, then, realizing that he was expected to respond to the guard’s question, looked down at the floor and mumbled an “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, come on. Are you stupid or something?” Suddenly, he was on his feet. “I know everyone keeps going on and on about amnesia, but I don’t buy that bullshit for one second. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who kills as many people as you did shouldn’t get to live anymore. So, I’d say that it’s in your best interests to start cooperating with us.”
“I really don’t remember anything. I...I don’t know why I did it, or-”
“Fine. Whatever.” The guard bent down, unzipping the bag and producing its contents. Three large, unopened bottles of water. Probably from a vending machine of some kind, so his having them wasn’t unusual, but what were they doing here?
“What are you-” CR-S01 was cut off again by a sudden bellow.
“Shut up! You and your fucking questions, acting as though you deserve an answer!” The guard slammed his fist into the table, then grabbed one of the bottles like a club. “You’d better shut the hell up and listen very closely, for your sake. So tell me, S01...are you feeling thirsty?”
CR-S01 didn’t even get a chance to respond. He was shoved up against the wall in a flash, the guard almost effortlessly picking him up. CR-S01 was tossed to the ground like a piece of trash only seconds after, right before the bag was thrown over his head.
Something big and heavy was pinning his legs down to the edge of the chair, and combined with his still-cuffed hands, CR-S01 couldn’t move. He struggled against the weight, hearing nothing but his own heartbeat echoing in his ears. What was going on? He could vaguely hear the sound of something crackling after a few seconds, but as soon as it had started, it was over. The darkness of the bag enveloped him, making it impossible to tell if it was even real, or just something that CR-S01 had imagined.
The guard wasn’t really going to kill him, was he? The logical part of his brain sincerely doubted it. That would go against so many rules and restrictions, so-
Suddenly, CR-S01’s head was jerked back, the water coming a split-second later. It caught him entirely off-guard, and a cold, stinging flood forced its way into his throat before he could stop it. It burned, invading his nose and mouth, and the thoughts that they wouldn’t kill him had been completely wiped from existence.
He gagged, feeling the freezing cold hand of death fill his head, his own survival reflexes forcing him to take more water in with every passing second. CR-S01 was completely blinded, blind and drowning and dying and thrashing against the weight that was holding him to the floor.
And then the bottle was empty, the stream of water and fire had run dry, and CR-S01 choked, his lungs aching as he coughed up water and phlegm. The soaked bag clung to his face, even as he gasped for air. He tried to pull away, but a hard slam to his chest kept him still.
“I’ll ask you again. Why did you do it?” The guard’s voice was low, dangerous. He sounded as though he were one second away from losing it completely.
“C-can’t...remember…” CR-S01 managed to choke out. That clearly wasn’t what the guard wanted to hear.
“FUCK YOU!” He growled, dragging CR-S01 across the room and slamming his head into the wall. “You worthless shitbag, you killed my son!” The pained yelp that came out of him seemed to please the guard in a subtle, macabre way, and he dropped the prisoner back down onto the floor, uncapping the second bottle with a crack.
“No!” All of CR-S01’s inhibitions were completely gone, replaced by nothing but the powerful need to survive. He heard himself begging, his hands coming up in a sort of guarding gesture. “No, no-”
His protests fell on deaf ears, and the water started again. No matter what he did, it kept coming, searing his throat like an iron, and holding his breath did nothing against it.
He was going to die. CR-S01 was going to die, right here, on the floor of this room.
CR-S01 hadn’t noticed it at the time, but there were footsteps coming down the hall at that very moment, squeaking quickly against the floor.
The door was thrown open, and the guard gave an indignant yell, but was quickly silenced.
“What was that noise, I can’t focus on- Jensen, what in the hell are you doing?!” There were more footsteps, quicker this time. “Why would you do this?!”
CR-S01 was lifted up before he was aware of what was going on, or even how much time had passed. The bag was peeled off of him, and someone helped him to his feet. His soaked hair clung to his face, and his eyes seemingly couldn’t focus on anything in front of him.
“Hey. Can you talk to me?” It was a woman’s voice, and a rather soft one at that. “Are you injured anywhere?”
He stayed silent, shaking his head. His mouth refused to work. His eyes were working a bit better now, and he could see a young woman in front of him, clearly another guard, judging by her uniform. Dimly, he also registered the guard that had brought him here, up against the wall with a rather scared look on his face.
“We’re going to take you to the infirmary. It seems that parts of your wound were reopened, and you need to be examined for any other injuries. Nod if you understand, okay?”
He did just so, but a sudden wave of nausea passed over him almost immediately afterwards. Bile began to rise up in his throat, and he couldn’t even take another step before he collapsed to his knees and vomited. Water and stomach acid and the remains of his lunch all splattered onto the floor, and even after everything had come out, he heaved some more.
CR-S01 still felt the water, lashing at the back of his throat. He hacked and coughed, trying to force it out. Needing to force it out.
Aside from a few bruises here and there and a small laceration on the back of his head, CR-S01 fortunately hadn’t been seriously injured. The cut on his neck was stitched back up and rebandaged, and that was that for injuries.
But it seemed that CR-S01 just couldn’t stay out of the hospital regardless, because on the day after his admittance, he wound up developing a rather nasty case of pneumonia. Much of the next several days was spent in a febrile state, drifting in and out of consciousness as an oppressive heat bore down on him.
Every second, CR-S01 wanted nothing more than to sleep. It wasn’t even exhaustion that drove this half the time, but rather a wish to not be awake. To not be there.
It took about a day after his fever had gone down for him to realize it. He didn’t want to be alive anymore. It was a clear, robot-calm revelation, which came to CR-S01 as though it were merely simple fact. Everything would be so much better if he ceased to exist. There was no reason for him to live in the first place. He was nothing but a criminal, a killer, who would spend the rest of his life incarcerated. Here he was, alone in a prison clinic like a caged rat.
Everything around him seemed hazy. He dimly registered guards, nurses at his side, medication, words, but it mattered not. Nothing mattered. No one even seemed to notice that he wasn’t processing a single word they said, which just cemented that fact further.
The nurse nodded to herself, scribbling something down. She stood up and walked off, the door creaking shut behind her, and CR-S01 just sat there, feeling something inside of him that he’d never really felt before. He had nothing inside. No fear or sadness or even apathy, just an empty void.
And then, in a sudden moment of clarity, he saw them. They glinted under the infirmary’s fluorescent lights, resting on the edge of a desk against the wall. Something small, shining, metallic.
CR-S01 stood up. He was drawn towards whatever it was, although the reason was a mystery to him. He drew near to the desk, reaching out and picking up the object. A small keyring, with two simple silver keys, probably left behind by one of the people who had passed through the room. He turned them over in his hand, another strange sense of familiarity forming in the depths of his mind. Something thin, silver, sharp, metal...the memory was inches from his grasp, but it refused to move any further.
But as he looked at the keys, another idea floated to the surface of his brain. He was entirely unsupervised in this room; the door was locked, but that hardly mattered. The keys were sharp. The cut on his neck, precariously close to his carotid, was still healing, fragile.
It would take a little bit of effort, but...he could…
His hands shook slightly as he lifted the serrated edge of one key to the area directly underneath his wound. The first layers of skin, then the subcutaneous layer, then he could sever the artery. The plan was so clear, so calm, monotonous, even. It made perfect logical sense in that moment, and he likely would have punctured the first layer of skin if not for the abrupt sound of footsteps from across the hall.
CR-S01 let out a single, sharp breath, quickly dropping the keys back onto the desk with a clatter and slipping back into his bed. It hadn’t been a moment too soon, as the door was unlocked and pushed open the second he’d gotten the blanket over himself.
Standing on the other side of the door was Enrico, flanked by a pair of guards who bore matching tense expressions. Enrico looked even worse than CR-S01 remembered him, his skin pale and his entire body quietly trembling.
“6T2, get in.” One of the guards spoke after a few seconds, with an expression that suggested that he didn’t really want to be there. “They’ll bring your medication out in a bit.”
“Heh, you boys always know how to treat a guest.” Enrico grinned, shuffling over to a vacant bed. “Best seat in the house over here. Gotta thank ya.”
“Uh, you’re welcome?” The second guard, who couldn’t be much older than CR-S01, cocked his head to the side in confusion. “Have a good day, I guess.”
“You too, kid. Stay outta trouble,” Enrico said, waving to the guards as they left the room. He stopped soon after, turning over towards CR-S01 instead. “Guess I’m not alone this time, huh? I can hear your breathing, an’ you sound like you just ran a marathon.”
“It’s me...ah-” CR-S01 wasn’t quite sure how he should address Enrico. His prison number just felt brusque, and he knew that they weren’t nearly close enough to be on a first name basis. But it wasn’t as though any of that mattered, because he was interrupted shortly thereafter.
“Oh, damn! You again, too?” Enrico started laughing, throwing his head back into his pillow with tears starting to bead at the corners of his eyes. “This mean we’re soulmates or somethin’? I do got a wife, just so you know.”
“A wife?” CR-S01 looked back at Enrico, a strange sense of curiosity getting the better of him. “What is she like? I didn’t expect you to be married.”
“I dunno anymore. Haven’t seen her since I got in here.” His tone was casual, but there was a very deep sadness that permeated Enrico’s voice. “My daughter writes to me sometimes, but I haven’t seen her in person either. She’d be...what, 19 now?”
“Why don’t you see them? Surely you have visitation privileges-”
“Mutual agreement. She didn’t want to see me no more, and I just wanted to be left alone. It was stupid of me, going and followin’ that martyr fantasy, that I would make everything better by isolatin’ myself.” He sighed, then, and CR-S01 realized just how old he was. His face had lines, his eyes had bags, and the few-day-old stubble on his face suddenly stuck out like a beacon. “Too late to take it back. ‘S always too late, man.”
CR-S01 stayed silent. He started to feel as though he’d been punched, a strange ache making its way from the pit of his stomach to the very top of his chest. It took a few quiet moments of deliberation before he spoke again, a hushed “Why are you here?”
“Yeah, I figured this question was coming up eventually.” The older man shrugged, his face twitching into something that resembled a smile, if you squinted. “Fine, guess I’ll tell, since everyone already knows your deal.”
“They do? How fast does information spread he-”
“Hey, hey, do you want me to tell the story or not?”
“Anyway,” Enrico cleared his throat. “Believe it or not, I used to be a cop. Pretty bad idea to make me one of them, I know, but that’s what happened. I usually had my gun on me, even when I was off-duty, ‘cause I realized early on that you should always be prepared. You followin’ so far?”
CR-S01 nodded, and Enrico quickly continued.
“So I was at home one day. I was waiting for my daughter to come back from her friend’s house. She’d be about 11 here. We were all gonna go get ice cream when she came back, ‘cause she’d gotten straight A’s. Suddenly, I heard a scream, an’ I ran outside and off my porch. I keep runnin’, and then I see it.” There was a very dark look in his face as he continued. “Some piece of shit was tryin’ to pull my little girl into his car. Shot the fucker three times. Died instantly.”
CR-S01 realized that his mouth was slightly open, and quickly shut it. He felt a drop of sweat slide down his back. “What...did you feel? You killed someone.”
“I don’t regret killing the piece of shit. I regret havin’ my girl see it.”
Was this how a killer really felt? CR-S01 wracked his brain, searching for feelings like that, but that was put on pause when something clicked in his mind. “Hold on. How could you see what was going on? You can’t see.”
“You’re just full of questions, ain’t ya?” Enrico reached his hand out, pulling his sleeve up and revealing an arm covered in small wounds, from injections, IVs, punctures. “My immune system’s always been bad. I got real sick in my first year of this place, fell asleep, and when I woke up, everything was dark. Since then, I’ve kinda been in and out of here. You could say I’m a regular customer.” He moved over, giving CR-S01 a quick pat on the shoulder. “Guess you’re on track to join me, huh, dude?”
“I...would rather not be.” CR-S01 looked away, thinking to himself for what felt like several minutes before he spoke again. “I think I have some kind of connection to this place. The hospital, I mean. I don’t know yet, but I think...I might be a nurse, or a doctor.”
Enrico snorted. “You, a doctor? Kid, you sound like you’d pass out if you even saw blood.”
“That’s why I said I don’t know.” CR-S01 tilted his head back against his pillow, staring at the ceiling. It felt as though he were a piece closer to solving the puzzle, although what, exactly, that puzzle was was still a complete mystery.
What was he? Who was he?
Upon CR-S01’s second discharge, he was escorted back to his cell only to find a few more guards waiting for him. His cell had been completely emptied; everything that wasn’t bolted down had been removed.
“S01, come with us.” A female guard stepped forward, grasping the prisoner’s arm. “It took longer than we expected, but your specialty cell’s been prepared. You’re being moved.”
The second group of guards took him from there, as though he were simply property trading hands, leading him down new corridors and cell blocks until they reached a row of heavy, steel doors.
The female guard broke away from the group, swiping a keycard through a slot and keying in some kind of code. Then, with a puff of frigid air, the doors slid open, revealing a vast, metal room. The walls were thickly-plated steel, with little sources of light.
“You’ll only be allowed out of here during meals and exercise. There have been a few...altercations recently, and so the warden’s decided that near-solitary is best for your own safety.” She reached out, nudging CR-S01 into his new home. “Dinner is at the usual time.”
The room was freezing cold, worsened by the door shutting behind him with a final loud groan, like a hungry mouth swallowing its meal. It was even more empty than the cell before, with only a bed, toilet, and small, neat pile of his clothes occupying it.
CR-S01 sat down on the bed (that wasn’t quite the right word, it was more like a bench). It was unfamiliar, frightening even, but he would get used to it, eventually.
He had to get used to it.
Chapter 8: 2016
cw: mentions of suicide
A memo was dropped on Officer Henry Braun’s desk before he even realized that someone else was in the room. He whipped around in his seat, only to come face-to-face with a man in a neatly-pressed black suit and sunglasses.
“Cute. How did you get in here?” Braun didn’t recognize the man at all, and few people were foppish enough to wear their best clothes in the middle of a prison, where literally everyone could be your enemy. “If this is a prank from Shelley, I’m calling security.” Not to mention ratting his ass out for the booze he’d smuggled into his office.
“Special orders, sir. FBI sent me.” Suit man nodded towards the memo, his posture otherwise remaining perfectly still. “Agent Holden’s expressed some interest in a prisoner here.”
“Seriously?” Braun groaned. He was already exhausted, running on less than two hours of sleep and five cups of coffee, and he had half a mind to tell Holden, whoever he was, to shove his interest...somewhere that Braun wouldn’t have to see it.
“It’s regarding the bioterrorist, sir. With the 250...I suppose it’s now a 246-year sentence, actually.” The suit looked up at the ceiling, tapping his fingers against his arm.
“Huh.” Braun picked up the sheet of paper in front of him, giving it a quick once-over. There wasn’t too much out of the ordinary; a letter of clearance, a short note directed towards the warden. Still, Braun had to admit that his interest had become piqued upon hearing who the agents had directed their attention towards. “I’m listening. Go on.”
“Well, actually, I’m not at liberty to reveal any more, sir.” The suit nodded apologetically. “Agent Holden has already arrived. I simply came to deliver the message to you.”
Braun raised an eyebrow. “Me, specifically? He wants me?” Then he snorted, slapping his desk in a sarcastic, exaggerated display of laughter. “Nah, I’d rather not. Got some actually important things to do, and they’re gonna keep me here until way past your little talk session.”
“Glad you could make it. I’m told you’re the head officer of this particular wing.”
The first thing Braun noticed when he looked at Holden was the lines on his face. Something told him that the good agent couldn’t be any older than his 40s, but there were a few deep wrinkles that suggested otherwise. There was something very austere about the way he looked, and Braun felt a small drop of sweat trickle down his back as he shook the man’s hand.
“So why did you want to see me? I’m a busy man, Agent.” Still, Braun put on his best professional-yet-constantly-irritated voice, which tended to work around most of his coworkers. They had met in an otherwise empty corridor, which was not something Braun would have normally chosen. But he knew that Holden was to be respected, and he knew better than to complain.
“You should know that this prisoner is a very special case.” Holden quickly produced a small stack of documents from the inside of his coat. “He remembers nothing. We had, and still have, no evidence from the suspect himself, whether it be confession or denial. It took a very long time for us to find this information, and we’d like cooperation from someone who knows this place.”
Braun took the first document from the stack, glancing at it only to look back up at Holden in confusion. “I don’t get it. There are so many blanks on here.” Indeed, it was true. About every third line of information, under such simple things as “Place of birth” and “Known relatives”, there was nothing.
Holden nodded, turning his head towards the opposite wall slightly. “That’s right. We may have spent over two years gathering this information, but there are still a lot of pieces missing.” Then he handed Braun a second document, this one far more polished-looking. “That last document was for your reference. This one is what the prisoner needs to know.”
It was a small bullet list, with a few sentences per point. The sentences were very matter-of fact, making clear and simple statements. There was very little basic information, such as name and birth date, but rather a description of the Cumberland College incident...and one more interesting thing.
- Upon searching the Cumberland College records, it has been determined that you have a medical doctorate and are qualified to practice trauma surgery. You attained this degree approximately three months before your arrest, but demonstrated exceeding skill during your time in medical school.
“Wait, what?” Braun’s head snapped up, back towards Holden. He couldn’t keep the baffled expression off his face as he kept speaking. “Are you serious? Dude doesn’t look any older than-”
“According to our information, he’s twenty. Keep in mind that the incident was four years ago.” Holden paused for a moment, taking in the other man’s look of bewilderment. “Now do you see why we’re interested in him? Somehow, the Cumberland bioterrorist achieved in four years what it normally takes twelve, and at such a young age. I almost didn’t believe it myself, but the records have been verified.”
Braun realized that his mouth was open, and promptly shut it. He ran his fingers through his hair, thoroughly messing it up, then sighed loudly, remembering what he was taught about remaining impartial. “So, uh...what do you want me to do?” He tried to hand Holden the documents, but was stopped by the other man holding a hand out.
“Simple. We want you to talk to him. There’s a favor that we’ve been meaning to ask, and someone familiar with the prison, not to mention the prisoner, would be the best one to propose it.” Holden pushed the documents back towards Braun’s chest. “You’ll need those. The bullet list is for the prisoner. How about it, then?”
“What’s the favor? I think I’m gonna need to know that first.” Braun decided not to mention that he hardly knew a thing about S01. Hell, he’d only seen the guy about three times in the four years he’d been incarcerated, and they hadn’t even interacted.
“One of our best men has developed cholecystitis. While it’s a fairly common condition, his curiosity has gotten the better of him.” Holden let out a short, derisive snort. “He wants CR-S01 to operate on him. He wants to see if the prisoner is really as good as the reports say.”
“So he’s just gonna trust a death-row inmate to cut him open, huh?” Braun shook his head, with the air of a concerned parent. “Fucking suicidal.”
“That may be, but it was his wish. Most of us owe that man, and we wouldn’t think to deny his request no matter what it was.” The agent stepped out of Braun’s way, gesturing towards the end of the hall. “You know the way, Officer.”
Braun swiped his card, punched in the code, then stood back as the escaping wave of cold air washed over him. He squinted, hardly able to discern anything in the darkness of the cell. After a few seconds of trying and failing to make out where the prisoner was, he decided to go full why-the-hell-not mode, stepping carefully into the room and waiting for the doors to close.
They shut after a moment, accompanied by a great, metallic groan. Braun made a note to himself that the doors probably needed to be oiled. He held his stack of documents closely under his arm, as if the cold would blow them away, then turned towards the bench set in the opposite wall.
CR-S01 hadn’t even responded to Braun’s arrival. He simply sat there, staring straight ahead, and if it wasn’t for the small puffs of condensation coming out of his mouth, Braun would have considered double-checking that he was breathing. A small, colorful cube was visible on the edge of the bench, sitting atop a small stack of three or four books, which seemed out of place among the surrounding steel walls and frigid atmosphere.
“Uh, hello?” Braun slowly approached CR-S01, holding his hand out, which the other man didn’t so much as look at. “You awake there, S01? Got a proposal for you.”
“Go away.” The prisoner’s tone of voice was almost silent, but there was something very forceful about it. His expression hadn’t changed, remaining stony.
“Wow. Tough crowd, okay…” Braun rifled through the stack he held, pulling out the bullet list and placing it on CR-S01’s lap. “Just read this. I’m not leaving until you do.”
A few seconds passed, of CR-S01 seemingly deciding whether or not to listen, but he eventually picked up the paper, reading it through silently. After a minute or so, he placed it back on top of the stack, his face still unchanging. Silence rang through the room once more, and Braun realized that they wouldn’t get anywhere if he didn’t speak up.
“So, uh, you’re a surgeon? That’s a thing.” There was another long pause. “...Look, I know you don’t remember anything, and you’re just taking our word for it, but believe us. There’s a favor that they-uh, I wanted to ask, and-”
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.” The only good way to describe the way CR-S01 looked was defeated . He seemed completely demoralized, devoid of any kind of hope, or really anything at all that wasn’t apathy. “I can’t help you. Or anyone.”
“You sound so goddamn matter-of-fact. It’s depressing.” Braun leaned against the wall, sighing deeply. His exhaustion from lack of sleep suddenly seemed to have caught up to him. “I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard you’re a prodigy. A genius, even.” There was another stretch of silence, and Braun crossed that strategy off his to-do list. He’d have to try something else. “What’s that on your bed?”
CR-S01 blinked a few times, before shifting over towards the cube and picking it up. It was one of those little plastic puzzle cubes, probably bought at a discount store.
“Someone gave it to me. For good behavior.” He ran his fingertip along the grooves. “I finished it in about two days.”
“Good behavior, huh? Well, at least we don’t have to worry about your bedside manner.”
“I...had it confiscated briefly.” CR-S01 looked off to the side, letting out a tense exhale. “They had to confiscate everything when I was moved to suicide watch. The fourth time in the past few months.”
Braun raised an eyebrow, deciding not to comment on that. “At least that wasn’t a behavioral problem. Be kind of a shame if you killed the patient because he pissed you off.”
“The patient?” For the first time, CR-S01’s voice was tinged with something other than boredom. If anything, he sounded completely lost. “What patient?”
“Oh, yeah. I didn’t actually get around to telling you what the favor was. Some guy needs his gallbladder removed, and he wants you to do it.” He shrugged, twitching his head to the side noncommittally. “It’s not for me. I’m just the messenger here.”
Braun blinked, narrowing his eyes after a few seconds. “What do you mean, no?”
“I’m not going to do it.”
“Why the hell not?” He took a few steps closer, and he could have sworn that he saw the prisoner flinch. “From here, it kinda looks like you got nothing to lose. Like, if it was me, I’d jump at the chance to get out of my cell for a few hours. So why aren’t you-?”
“I don’t know why you’re assuming I can do that.” CR-S01 leaned forward, staring at the floor in front of him. “I’m a killer. I don’t save people. I already said that I can’t help anyone, and that includes operating on them.”
“You’re a surgeon!”
“I didn’t realize your M.D. isn’t valid anymore.”
“...why would anyone trust me to operate on them?” CR-S01 lifted his head again, his eyes empty. “I deserve this, because of what I did. To be left alone.”
Something inside of Braun snapped. He found himself talking before he was fully aware of what was going on.
“So you’re just gonna keep saying that bullshit over and over again, huh? Why, you like thinking of yourself as a martyr who needs to push everyone away? Shut everything out?” His voice was far louder than intended, echoing against the cell walls, but that didn’t matter. “Maybe you don’t even want to get out. Maybe you’d just rather die alone, all because you’re a coward who doesn’t want to deal with his own problems. Or maybe you just like jacking off to that stupid fantasy every night, that you’re some great, misunderstood hero. You know what, fine. You’re right, there’s no point in talking to you.” Braun grabbed his papers, turning on his heel and shoving his keycard into the door’s slot. “Enjoy your fucking sentence.”
The doors opened, and he stepped through without another word. At the last second, he had the strange urge to look back, and glanced behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, Braun could have sworn that he saw CR-S01 shaking.
But then the doors closed, and he had rejoined the rest of the world.
The brightness made him squint, and it took him a few seconds for his eyes to readjust to a normal level of light. The cell had been its own little section of the universe, cordoned off from everything else, completely different even in the level of light. A section with only one occupant, and very little else.
“You’re lucky, you know.”
Braun turned his head towards the source of the voice. Another guard had joined him next to the cell door, with a bit of a sardonic smile on his face and his hands stuffed into his pockets. Braun almost immediately found himself annoyed, although he wasn’t quite sure why.
“Lucky? You sure you’re talking to the right guy?”
“I heard what was going on, and it’s kind of amazing that S01 actually talked. He usually doesn’t.” Pocket-hands shrugged, shaking his head. “Just kinda sits there catatonic most of the time. Doesn’t even move unless we make him. So you’re just kinda lucky, that’s all.” The smile hadn’t left his face, even as he walked off down the hallway, and Braun began to feel an odd, uneasy feeling work its way through his stomach.
It dawned on him that in some ways, CR-S01 was simply an object set in motion. It was nothing but inertia that carried him forward, that kept him existing in the first place. And with that realization, an intense feeling of guilt followed closely behind.
Why had he said those things? That hadn’t been any way to talk to another person, much less someone he barely even knew. A pit formed in his stomach, slowly but surely twisting his guts like a knife.
Braun almost threw himself backwards into the wall, groaning loudly. Not only was he sleep-deprived and absolutely hating himself at the moment, but he was starting to get lightheaded too. He honestly didn’t get paid enough for this.
But Henry Braun prided himself on being a decent human being at the very least, and that fact was what forced him back up onto his feet. He needed to apologize, or at least not leave CR-S01 with that as his last memory of him. The guy might have been a death-row inmate, but needlessly yelling at him wouldn’t get anyone anywhere.
He gripped his stack, which he had been holding onto hard enough to leave crumpling on the papers’ edges, and stepped back towards the door, hand diving into his pocket for his keycard.
Then a different voice broke the silence, for the second time in the past few minutes.
“I trust you’ve finished. How did it go?” It was Holden, and Braun internally cursed. He turned back around, letting out a heavy breath, then shook his head slowly.
“He doesn’t want to. Something about not being able to help anyone,” Braun said, handing the documents back. There was still a small tornado brewing in the very pit of his stomach, but he tried his hardest to not let it show. “I tried to negotiate, but it was like trying to herd cats. He was so adamant, so...guess it wouldn’t be a good idea to force a scalpel in his hand, huh?”
“I see.” Holden slid the papers back into one of the pockets of his coat, then turned to stare at the cell door (or, at least, Braun thought he was staring. Sunglasses make telling those things hard). “I can’t say it was entirely unexpected. He still has no memory.”
Braun furrowed his eyebrows. “So, is this a bad thing, or-”
“Not especially. It’s easy enough to find another surgeon,” Holden said matter-of-factly. “This whole thing was just one man’s whim. Prisoner CR-S01 has piqued our interest, but he is in no way a top priority.”
“Guess I won’t be seeing you around any more, then.” Braun stuck out his hand, which Holden shook after a few seconds. “Pity. I was starting to like you.”
“We are planning to keep an eye on S01.” After a rather long pause, Holden spoke again. “Don’t count on being able to avoid me. You might see me sooner than you expect.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Braun made it back to his desk soon after, pulling out his chair and dropping himself into it. He sighed again, as though he were trying to make his fatigue known to the whole room, then decided to take the rest of the day off.
Nothing that had happened should be affecting him as much as it was. This was his job, and he knew, almost by rote, that he needed to remain impartial. And yet, try as he might to stop it, something inside of him hurt. Sleeping it off would probably be his best bet.
Braun slipped a few sheets of paperwork into his briefcase, picking it up and reaching for his coat on the coat rack behind him. Something came fluttering down before he realized what it was, and he quickly reached down to pick it up instead.
A piece of paper, probably trapped under his arm without him realizing. One he recognized, too. It was the sheet with the ridiculous number of blank spaces, full of information about CR-S01. He was intending to put it back down, possibly recycle it, but something about the sheet caught his eye.
Date of Birth: Jan 2, 1996
Braun’s eyes widened. He quickly looked to the wall to his right, in order to double-check, but there was no mistake. The brand new wall-mounted calendar had “January 2016” printed on it in big fat letters, and the box for the first was crossed off in neat red pen.
The feeling of tension and a knifelike guilt came back at full force before Braun could quell it. He almost doubled over from the sudden wrenching, visceral pain in his gut, but managed to force himself to stay upright. It was CR-S01’s birthday.
He was turning twenty, and he didn’t even know.
Braun swallowed. There was so much he’d gotten used to, working in a prison, and yet some things still rattled him.
He turned and walked out of his office, reminding himself over and over again of objectivity. Impartiality.
This job was going to be the death of him.
Chapter 9: 2020
Everything began with a single man, a politician. Dilated cardiomyopathy. He was important enough to warrant them coming to see him again.
He’d accepted, this time. He wasn’t sure why. Perhaps he’d realized that he had nothing to lose.
After that acceptance, the division between realities, he gradually gained four things.
First, a place.
Resurgam First Care was full of people. Light, sound, activity, emotions. Everything was mashed together, creating an overwhelming tidal wave of presence. Strangely enough, he was welcomed to blend into that wave too. He was accommodated, given niches and tasks of his own, not simply shoved to the side and ignored. It was foreign to him.
Second, a reason to live.
It had been there from the beginning, lurking silently behind him as he went about his business, although he hadn’t noticed it. It was the little girl, Alyssa, who had brought it out of him, front and center, and even when his stay was over, everything felt a little bit brighter. He was capable of changing lives. Saving them.
Third was hope.
This one came not far behind, a quiet thrum that seemed to resonate through everything around him. The way he was treated, the smiles of his coworkers and patients, the genuine apologies for mistaken first impressions. Being cast aside was almost a given, but strangely enough, it hadn’t happened.
And then came the fourth.
It had been collecting for a while, gathering at the edges of his mind with every passing day. He sometimes became aware of it, with a sudden lurching sensation in the pit of his stomach and a sharp pain in his forehead, but they hadn’t yielded anything.
But it was a veritable flood. The dam holding it back was flimsy, and it would crack eventually.
That crack came in the form of bruises.
And all at once, the dam shattered, and everything came pouring out.
Memories. Feelings. Past.
Erhard really should have been used to life-altering changes at this point. Now that he thought about it, his whole life seemed rather like a series of loosely-connected incidences of the tables being turned. Not only that, but as he interacted with people more and more frequently, they became easier to read. It wasn’t difficult to predict the actions of the people he knew well.
But despite all of these facts, he had no way of knowing what would happen on the twenty-third of September, 2020. That date had become ingrained in him ever since, almost like a second birthday. In a way, that was exactly what it was.
It had been a normal day up until around noon. He’d done a hernia surgery the day before, and was lying in wait in his cell. After the pandemic, his operations had grown more and more frequent, and he’d end up leaving the prison at least three days a week. Guards were far more lenient in general, too, which he began to suspect that someone was behind. They tended to look the other way when he brought things back with him, which resulted in Erhard amassing a decently-sized collection of trinkets and small gifts.
Pressed flowers from Hank. A pig charm that Maria had won in a claw machine. A finely-fashioned steel pendant from Tomoe. They all sat neatly organized in a corner of the room, and sometimes, when Erhard had nothing to do, he would pick one of them up and just hold it, probably to remind himself that it was real.
At the bottom of the stack sat a piece of paper, which had almost been shoved in his hands by a pediatrician when he was about to leave a month ago. It had a messy, simplistic crayon drawing of a smiling sun and what was probably supposed to be him, with a small sentence on the bottom in bright purple.
Thank you, Mr. Doctor. From Alyssa.
He’d kept it folded up in his pocket every time they took him out. They may have only been six words, but they were important ones.
Now that he thought about it, he was still the only one who knew his own name. It had come to him soon after the virus, but the circumstances made mentioning it rather inopportune. His identity simply hadn’t come up after that. He was mainly referred to as “kid”, or “Doctor”, or sometimes “moron”, and he’d grown rather fond of those endearments. His name was something that was entirely his, confined within his own head.
In some ways, his circumstances were the same, but in others, they were very different.
Erhard lifted his head as he heard the doors open and a guard’s approaching footsteps. The growing number of operation requests meant constantly staying alert, as they often came without any kind of warning. He sat up, prepared to be handed another clipboard with some new patient’s information, only to have an envelope dropped unceremoniously on his chest instead.
“That’s for you. We checked it, and it seems harmless.” The guard didn’t say anything else, instead turning and walking back out of the room. Erhard was slightly confused at the abruptness of it all, but decided to open the envelope instead of focusing on that. Inside was a single sheet of paper, with a handwritten note and nothing else.
You already know me. You may not know who I am right now, but that does not matter. Let’s just be frank here: I owe you. I am indebted to an extent that I doubt I could ever repay. You’ve given me things that I had long since given up on, and I believe it’s about time I do the same. My payment will come in about a week, if my sources are reliable.
See you on the other side.
There was no signature.
Erhard reread the letter several times. The words themselves made sense, but he could barely comprehend what its reasoning had been. He didn’t recognize the handwriting, although there was an inkling of an idea forming in his mind as to who the sender might be.
A strange kind of excitement (or was it apprehension?) began to bubble up in his chest. What exactly was this payment? “Payback” could mean anything, and some forms of the word were quite unpleasant to think about.
He let out a loud, long breath, setting the letter down on the floor. He supposed he’d worry about it when the time actually came. There was no sense in dwelling on something that wasn’t due to happen for another week, and with that declaration, he lay back down and closed his eyes.
He was satisfied with that plan, although it wouldn’t last very much longer.
Some time passed before he became aware of a strange sound. That time might have been a few minutes, or it might have been a few hours. Everything sort of blended together when he was in his cell, a space that was beyond normal perception of time.
The noise from outside disturbed that peaceful static, muffled shouting and footsteps and a little bit of cursing. Erhard craned his head to the side, trying to make out what was being said.
“-are you kidding me? They tell us this NOW?!”
“Somebody musta pulled some strings or something. Doesn’t it normally take, like, months for them to process these?”
“Shut the hell up and keep moving, they’re gonna be on our ass about this!”
Something about this seemed oddly familiar. Erhard opened an eye, turning his head towards the voices’ direction. Coming from just outside his cell doors.
He had no time to react. With a familiar soft, pneumatic hiss, the doors slid open, revealing an exhausted, panting pair of guards.
“Holy shit,” one of them groaned, leaning against the wall. His breath was loud, coming out in large, fluffy clouds of condensation. “Can’t feel my legs…”
“J-Jenkins, you’re...useless.” The other seemed as though he was trying to calm his breathing down, although he was still clearly having difficulty speaking. “S01. They’ve opened...an investigation. Reopened.”
“What does that-” Erhard was almost immediately cut off by the guard, who was apparently named Jenkins.
“Yours! Somebody from the FBI pushed it through.” He looked up, letting out a very loud breath before he spoke again. “Said they had some important evidence, said your conviction was a mistrial, all that. Told us , what, five minutes ago?”
“Six.” The other guard glanced at his watch before responding. “Told you you were useless.”
“Okay, okay, whatever.” Jenkins rolled his eyes, then looked back at Erhard. “Anyway. They told us to tell you something, and made us run through the whole damn building to get here.” He looked expectantly over at his colleague. “Maybe you can tell him, cause you’re so freakin’ perfect.”
The other guard shot him a glare that could melt steel, but spoke, simply and concisely.
“Your retrial’s been scheduled for next week.”
A week passed by in the blink of an eye. The date grew closer and closer, and with it came a strange sense of uneasiness. Erhard wasn’t exactly sure why. He’d given up trying to figure out what he was feeling a long time ago, but this time, there was something that pressed at the back of his mind and refused to let up.
His case was being dragged up again. He currently had 186 years left to serve, but there was the very real possibility that even that would be reduced to zero. He would be free.
It made no sense, but some part of him dreaded that concept. He’d fallen into quite a simple routine over the past eight years, with relatively minor modifications, but to toss it all out felt...wrong, somehow. What would it be like to actually rejoin society, completely? The world had gone on without him for nearly a decade, and he sincerely wondered whether or not it would actually need him in the first place.
But the letter made sense. This was his payment: a second chance. He thought he’d figured out who the sender was, but surprisingly, that fact made almost no difference. These circumstances had been given to him, and he would take them no matter the source. And once he’d reached that conclusion, it was as if a gentle voice had whispered in his ear, causing much of the previous anxiety to fade.
By the time he woke up on the morning of, Erhard had accepted it completely.
That morning started out ordinary as ever. Hours passed, and he waited. He hadn’t even touched his breakfast, food being the last thing on his mind.
He didn’t do much besides a quick run-through of his cell, placing his small pile of belongings on the bench beside him. Whatever the outcome, he’d have them, and that thought was as comforting and filling as the best home-cooked meal.
Erhard was ready when they came in to take him. He took a quiet inhale as he was cuffed again, considering the possibility that this would be the last time.
“It’s time,” The guard to his left said, simply. Erhard nodded. He knew.
“Good luck, man.” The other guard spoke up after a few seconds, reaching his hand out. Erhard’s attempt at shaking it was barely passable, considering the cuffs, but he tried anyway. The guard looked towards the opposite wall as he slid his hand awkwardly back into his pocket, quickly mumbling, “I never thought it was you.”
“To be honest, whole thing was just...wrong.” Left gave a deep sigh. “Always kinda doubted it.” It took him several seconds to collect himself enough to regain his serious voice. “We should get going. You ready there, S01?”
“Yeah.” There was no hesitation.
He was as ready as he ever would be.
And they started off, through the iron gates and into the light.
This court hereby finds the accused, Mr. Erhard Muller, not guilty of the bioterrorist incident of Cumberland College.
It didn’t feel real.
There were a few people cheering in the gallery and the public defender was grinning and it didn’t feel real.
He sat there in the defendant’s seat, suddenly becoming aware of everything that was around him. The chair pressed into his back. There was chattering all around him. The lawyers were packing up their paperwork into briefcases. He was still cuffed, but that fact was the farthest thing from his mind.
The trial had been fast, with rapid-fire presentation of all of the evidence gathered over the course of the pandemic. Erhard, now more than ever, began to think that he was the one who owed a debt instead of the other way around.
Despite the prosecution’s best efforts, there was a quick and unanimous verdict. And just like that, he was innocent. Just like that, he had gone from an irredeemable killer to a sympathetic victim.
Of course, he didn’t just get to walk right out of the courtroom afterwards. There was still release paperwork that needed to be filled out, which would take a few hours at best, but once they lead him down a hall and into a conference room of sorts, it became clear that that fact wouldn’t be so bad.
They uncuffed him, and a bailiff handed him a tray with half a sandwich and a glass of water.
“Eat up, Muller. You can’t just skip meals like that.”
The tone of the man’s voice was nonchalant, but a sudden wrenching in his chest made Erhard realize that he hadn’t heard his name spoken aloud in years. He took the tray, setting it down on the table, and once they’d left, he rubbed at the red marks on his wrists for a minute or two.
They were uncomfortable, but he’d never have to deal with them again.
He’d sat down in one of the chairs when the door creaked open again. Erhard looked up to see Holden on the other side, striding slowly towards him.
Erhard was about to say something, but he was silenced by the agent holding out a large plastic bag. Inside, a wallet, neatly folded clothes, and an ancient flip phone. He took the bag, recognizing its contents as what he’d had on him at the time of his arrest.
He’d completely forgotten. It was almost like getting gifts, even though everything belonged to him regardless. Did those clothes even fit anymore?
Then another agent came around from behind Holden, setting a stack of his cell’s contents on the table, which was covered in things for Erhard at this point. That fact made him feel slightly overwhelmed.
“I noticed you haven’t touched your lunch,” Holden said matter-of-factly, after a long stretch of silence. “I can’t figure out what you’re waiting for. You’re a free man.”
Erhard blinked, giving a quick nod, then picked up his sandwich and took a bite. It was simple ham-and-cheese, and yet it tasted amazing. There was a sort of simple, uncomplicated joy that resonated through his surroundings, making everything feel a little brighter. Whatever worries he might have had faded, and Erhard felt far more fortunate than he had in a long time.
Holden was right. He was free.
Despite his newfound optimism, Erhard was practically thrown into the wilderness when they ushered him out of the courthouse. He’d been given a plain white T-shirt, pants, and shoes, and that, coupled with a small amount of cash, was the only support he had.
The other main problem was that he had no idea what to do. His release was a good thing, ultimately, but Erhard was still suddenly homeless and unemployed, not to mention completely unaccustomed to choosing how to spend his time. The first few hours after his departure consisted mainly of wandering around town, carrying bags of things he had no idea what to do with. He could tell that he was drawing more than a few stares wherever he went, but at least that fact wasn’t especially difficult to ignore.
He eventually stopped at a park bench, taking a quick breather while he counted the money he had. The cash already in his wallet, combined with what they’d given him, made a total of just under 150 dollars. For the first time in his life, the prospect of financial obligation began to weigh on him. He had absolutely no plans, and this money wouldn’t last long. Like any other person, he needed to eat.
Erhard slipped his wallet back into his pocket, then got up. He wasn’t exactly sure what the time was, but it was starting to get a little darker, and he decided that the first order of business was to find somewhere to stay for the night. He would figure the rest out later.
By the time he actually found a motel, close to an hour later, the sun had mostly set. A sharp, chilly breeze ran through the air, causing Erhard to shiver every few steps, but he kept moving forward, the tantalizing prospect of a warm, comfortable environment egging him on.
After what had seemed like a very long time (but was, in reality, only a few minutes of treading through a few rows of buildings), he reached what looked like the front offices. There was a simple glass door set in the wall, with a brightly-lit, almost barren room behind it. The glass itself was undetailed, only sporting a rather garish paint job with the motel’s logo and the much-less-visible hours.
It was better than nothing. Erhard grasped the metal handle, which was downright freezing, then pulled the door open and stepped inside. The room he’d found himself in was an empty one, with nothing but a pair of chairs, a table with some tabloid on it, and a large, polished desk with a bell. The desk had another door behind it, probably an area that was off-limits to the general public. Despite the heavily sanitized atmosphere, the room smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke.
Erhard set his bags down on the floor, then edged towards the desk and, after a moment’s hesitation, pressed on the bell. It took several seconds, during which Erhard could have sworn that he heard a sudden bout of arguing from behind the door, but eventually it creaked open and a woman stepped out. She strutted over towards the other end of the desk, pulling a pad and pen out from somewhere, her face completely and utterly uninterested.
“You want something?”
“I was wondering...ah, if there were any-”
“Speak up, don’t like it when weirdos come in here and waste my time. You from out of town or something?” The woman smacked a piece of chewing gum with her lips as she spoke, gazing at her nails as if they were the most interesting thing in the world.
“...Something like that.” Erhard took another breath, then willed himself to continue. “Are there any vacancies?”
“105’s open.” She hadn’t even looked up. “That’s 50 dollars upfront.”
“I can pay that.” He fumbled with his wallet for a bit, digging out a few bills and placing them on the counter. The woman stared at the money for a few seconds, seemingly in disbelief, then shrugged and slid it behind the counter. A cheap plastic room key was almost thrown at Erhard a few seconds later, and with that, the clerk disappeared back through the door.
It was confusing, but he decided that questioning the events that had just transpired wouldn’t help much. He had a place to sleep for the night, and that was all that mattered. Erhard pocketed the key, then picked up his bags and pushed the door open to find where his room was.
Fortunately, that last step didn’t take very much time at all. 105 was on the ground floor, close to the central building, and the key had the door unlocked in no time. There really wasn’t much to say about the room; it wasn’t large or even particularly clean, but it was a place to sleep. Practically a palace, compared to a freezing steel prison cell. He shut the door behind him, then placed the key on a table and moved to sit down on the bed.
The second his body touched the mattress, Erhard became aware of how tired he really was. He suddenly felt exhaustion weighing on every inch of his body; not just from the day’s events, but a cumulative sort of fatigue. Every single night he’d spent sleeping on a steel bench without any kind of bedding came crashing back at full force, and Erhard realized, rather painfully, just how much he’d missed while he was shut away.
Then he passed out into the sheets.
He knew exactly what Resurgam First Care and the surrounding area looked like, since he’d practically memorized the place months ago, but actually getting there turned out to be harder than he thought. Most of his transport there and back occurred in a windowless van, so there wasn’t any chance for him to remember streets or landmarks that lead there.
It took over three hours to find his way there. The possibility of giving up had entered his head when he happened to glance at a clock for the first time, but it was easy to ignore. This was his only option, and if he had to spend hours searching, so be it.
He’d tried to make himself presentable before leaving the motel room, even with the limited amount of clothes he had. The things he’d had on when he was sixteen still fit decently well, and a collared shirt and slacks were probably appropriate attire anyway. He washed up with some of the free soaps, then tried his best to tamp down some of the more unruly strands of hair.
It was hard to think of himself as a doctor in these circumstances, he had to admit. But that was exactly what he was, and that was also the one thing that he could fall back on.
Once Erhard caught sight of the building, he felt something in his heart jump. He was really coming back. For the first time, he wasn’t handcuffed or surrounded by guards or being delivered like a package.
Erhard strode across the grounds, setting his hands in his pockets and taking in the sight of the freshly planted flowers. They were probably changed out seasonally, as he didn’t recognize any of the new lavender and pink blossoms. His mind drifted to the time Hank had taken a detour after surgery to tend to the previous ones, and he’d been invited to come along. He still knew absolutely nothing about plants, but it was an interesting experience.
He was stalling. He knew that much. There wasn’t any rational reason why, but Erhard was apprehensive of actually going inside. He had no idea who would be there to greet him, or even what they would think. He’d been trained well, trained to be paranoid. Trained to be afraid of abandonment, that no matter how good he thought his circumstances were, they could be destroyed in an instant.
But...the people here helped him trust for the first time in what felt like an eternity. It would be wrong of him to not at least give them some chance. He took a minute to breathe, centering himself in the world, and then he started forward again.
He pushed the doors open, setting foot on polished linoleum tile. They shut quietly behind him, and he looked up, scanning the lobby for anyone that he actually knew. The woman at the reception desk glanced at him, then turned back towards her crossword puzzle, and the few other people who were waiting in chairs were more preoccupied with their magazines or cell phones to pay him any attention.
Erhard took a few steps forward, trying his hardest not to draw unnecessary attention to himself. He kept casual, walking past reception and through the doorway ahead as though it was everyday routine. He wasn’t quite sure where he was going, but he was bound to run into someone else eventually, and that thought occurred only seconds before it happened.
Someone squealed from behind him, and the next thing he knew, he was being crushed in a hug by the voice’s source. He looked down to see Emma, her face only inches from his own and a wide, gleeful smile on it.
“Emma! Hey, don’t harass him!” Darnell ran over, fumbling with his clipboard as he tried to pull her off, succeeding after a few seconds. “I’m really sorry, Doctor, I’m sure she didn’t mean to-”
“I can’t believe you’re back!” Emma piped up, cutting the other nurse off. “You look like...like a regular person now! I missed you, you can’t just keep it to yourself that you got out!”
“It was on the news,” Darnell explained, lightly restraining Emma with his arms. “I wasn’t expecting you to come back immediately, but apparently she was…”
“The news? That quickly?” Erhard managed to speak with a minimum of gasping, considering the fact that Emma had more or less squeezed the breath out of him.
“Well, it was a pretty big deal, especially after the Rosalia Virus.” Darnell nudged the still-bouncy girl to the side, then pointed to a sign on the wall. “If you want to talk to Chief Patel, I think she’s in her office now. It’s right by room 210, follow the signs and you’ll get there.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Erhard nodded, then turned to keep going down the hall. Darnell had almost read his mind.
True to his word, Esha was at her desk when Erhard pushed the door open. She was sorting through an enormous stack of papers, but stopped when she heard the slight creak of the hinges.
“Excuse me...I hope I’m not intruding-” Erhard took a step back when he registered how busy she looked, but stopped when she shook her head.
“Of course not. I can’t say I wasn’t wondering when you’d come back, kiddo.” Esha grinned, gesturing to a chair on the opposite side of her desk. “Sit down, I can get you some coffee if you want.”
“That’s alright.” He shut the door behind him, then set himself in the chair he’d been offered. It was confusing, figuring out the right words to say. He’d always known what to say when he was in the operating room, how to make a fast and accurate call to action, but casual conversation was...hard. It took Esha looking at him expectantly to make Erhard realize that he needed to keep talking. “I suppose you know why I’m here, right?”
“I have an idea.” Esha scribbled something down on one of her sheets, flipping it over. “But I don’t like to make assumptions, so wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me?”
She really did just want to cut to the heart of the matter. Erhard swallowed before he responded, mentally preparing himself to ask the question.
“Can I...work here?”
Seconds passed, and he couldn’t read Esha’s expression. Some part of him began to shrink away, preparing a retraction or even an apology. Had that been too forward of him? There was no doubt in his mind that that was what he wanted, but was it selfish to ask on that basis? Was it presumptuous to assume that anyone would want him in this place?
“Are you kidding me?” It had taken nearly a minute for the chief to respond, and she started chuckling uncontrollably once she’d gotten the first few syllables out. “To be perfectly honest, I think I’d have to be out of my mind not to hire you!”
“R-really?” Erhard didn’t even realize he was speaking until it was too late, to which Esha shook her head, still trying to stifle laughter.
“Of course! I’ve seen you in the O.R.! You’re easily one of the best surgeons I’ve ever seen, and that’s high praise coming from someone who oversees them as a career.” She scooted her chair over towards a file cabinet, then pulled a drawer open and began rifling through it, eventually extracting a small, neatly stapled packet.
The packet was placed in front of Erhard, and he picked it up, giving it a cursory run-through. It appeared to be an application form.
“It’s not like you really need this, since I’ve already made up my mind, but it helps to make things official.” Esha slid him a pen, then gestured towards her door. “There’s a vacant conference room across the hall. Come back when you fill this out, and we’ll take it from there.”
He was back much sooner than he thought he would be, considering the fact that most of his personal information hadn’t even crossed his mind until just then. But once he started writing, the details came easily, and the packet was filled out within ten minutes.
Esha took a few minutes to look through it, nodded, then pulled a crumpled notepad out from beneath her desk and skimmed the pages.
“Looks like you can officially start the day after tomorrow. There’s some stomach operation that needs a lead surgeon.” She looked over at him, taking in the look on his face, which was almost silently pleading, then looked back at the notepad. “But...if you need something to do today, they’re remodeling the old ward. Turns out the electrical problems are worse than we thought. You can help with that. I’ll even pay you.”
“You really don’t have to-”
“Oh, shut up. Go help out.” She waved her hand towards the door. “They certainly need it.”
“Hey, did these things have to weigh two hundred damn pounds?!”
As Erhard approached the entrance to the old ward, he heard a familiar voice drift up from ahead. He couldn’t say it was entirely unexpected.
“Uh, excuse me?” He crept through the door, taking in the sight of some paramedics picking up loose supplies and tables, moving things from room to room. Scanning the crowd for a few seconds, he finally spotted her stacking crates onto a large, metal dolly. Stubborn as ever, it looked as though she was refusing every single offer of help. She hadn’t changed at all, and something about that fact was oddly charming.
A few of the paramedics stopped chatting to look at him, but then quickly resumed their conversations. She hadn’t even noticed, instead grabbing for another box and hoisting it up, and Erhard realized that he was going to have to come to her. He stepped into the room, slipping past clusters of people too engaged to notice him, then reached over to her and tapped her on the shoulder.
Maria let out a sort of yelp, the crate slipping from her grasp, but managed to put it down before it dropped. She looked over at him, fully prepared to give him a piece of her mind, but her expression softened when she recognized him.
“Oy, I know you’re excited to see me, but don’t ever do that again.” She let out a strained breath as she lifted another crate, her arms shaking slightly as she made her way back over to the stack. “Swear to God, I’m gonna have fucking back problems by 35-”
“The chief told me I could help here,” Erhard explained, stepping over to another crate and grasping the edges. “I hope you don’t mind if I join you?”
“Nah, ‘s fine.” She rubbed at her shoulders, stretching, and Erhard was surprised at how easy that had been. Much of the tension in her posture was suddenly gone, and he began to wonder if that was his doing. “So, heard you got out.”
“That’s right,” he gasped as he picked it up, coming to the realization that Maria really wasn’t kidding about the weight.
“Yeah, obviously. You’re right here.” She grabbed the other end of the crate, relieving a great deal of the weight, then helped it onto the dolly along with him. “So, since you’ve got your memories back and everything, can you tell me who the hell you are? I don’t like referring to people as numbers in my head.”
“Who I am?”
“Like...name, age, that kinda junk. The stuff you normally tell people.” They picked up another crate together.
“Well, my name is Erhard Muller, and I’m-” He thought for a second. “Twenty-four.”
“Dude, are you serious?” Maria snorted. “Shit, I thought you were older than me! Gabe’s right, you are a kid!”
“You calling Dr. Cunningham right is making me question if I’m talking to the right person.”
“Oh my God, shut the hell up! You’re the worst!” Maria set the crate down, then gave Erhard a playful punch in the shoulder. “I’m twenty-eight, so I guess we’re even.”
“I’m only four years younger than you. How does that make me a kid?”
“It just does.” She shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”
“ Who does?”
“Life.” Maria moved over towards the wall, sitting down on the floor, then gestured to the empty space where the crates used to be. “So I guess we’re done. I’m not moving that dolly, that’s someone else’s problem.”
Erhard raised an eyebrow, but moved to sit next to her anyway, hugging one of his knees to his chest. A few minutes passed, in which neither of them spoke, the ambient buzzing of things moving and small talk providing all of the noise. Eventually, Erhard saw Maria turn towards him out of the corner of his eye. She bit her lip, looking as though she was debating something with herself, before she spoke.
“Hey, so I know this sounds dumb, but...you wanna go out for drinks or something?” She leaned back against the wall. “I know a really good place down the street. It’ll even be my treat.”
“Maria, you don’t have to do that,” Erhard mumbled. “Really.”
“I know. I want to.” She moved over, setting her hand on his arm, which made him feel strangely warm inside. “Celebratory thing, you know? For the justice system finally pulling its head out of its ass. You can be boring and not go if you want, though, I’m not stopping you.”
“If you want to, then I suppose. When are we going?”
“I dunno. Now. Tonight. Whenever.” She stretched her other arm out, tracing patterns in the air. For some reason, it made Erhard so happy just to watch.
He felt a tiny, subtle smile make its way onto his face. “I’d like that.”
yes, that note absolutely was from naomi.
Chapter 11: 2021
When he first steps into the theater, he’s on guard. By the time he sits down, he’s subconsciously jotted down every potential weapon and escape route.
He wonders when he’ll stop doing that.
He wonders if he’ll ever stop doing that.
But that wondering doesn’t last long, because he hears a giggle from beside him, feels a hand digging into his popcorn, and the anxiety melts away. The lights dim, and the movie starts, and he finds himself mesmerized not long after.
There are so many things he used to dismiss without a second thought, but they’re disappearing one by one.
“So, how was that?” Maria tosses her container of popcorn over her shoulder, making the garbage can effortlessly. “You have fun?”
“Yeah!” Alyssa grins, throwing her small fist into the air. “Thank you so, so much for taking me! It was so cool, with all the fighting and the robots and stuff!”
“Right?” Maria’s face lights up as she zips her jacket. “That one was even better than the last, seriously! And the last was good.” She notices Erhard looking off to the side and elbows him, moving so that he can’t not look at her. “How ‘bout you? You’ve been really quiet.”
He takes a long time to respond. It’s only when they’ve exited the building and are making the journey through the chilly parking lot that he speaks up.
“It was interesting.” He really doesn’t know how else to describe it. It was strange, but managed to capture his interest the whole way through, so that’s probably the best word choice.
“Such high praise.” Maria rolls her eyes before grabbing for the car keys in her pocket. Her annoyance isn’t sincere; after a year, he’s become better at telling these things. “I think I looked over at you at one point, and you looked like you were about to ascend.”
He has no idea what that means, but he takes it in stride. The three of them pile into the car (rented, since Maria’s kind of adamant about her motorcycle), Alyssa still sipping on the last droplets of soda.
“Do you think Dr. Kimishima will be home when we drop her off?” Erhard tilts his head slightly towards the girl in the back seat. “I understand how inconsistent our schedules might be.”
“No idea. But if she’s not, Alyssa’s gonna be fine.” Maria shrugs, starting up the car. “You know firsthand, dude. She survived that bomb, she’s tough.”
He does know firsthand. Sometimes he sees her accompanying Naomi, and vivid memories float up to the surface of his mind. The strange feeling of sadness and terror that tore through him when he heard her EKG flatline, that which had awakened him. He knows he’s supposed to remain impartial as a doctor, but then again, doctors are only human too.
The car is quiet as they travel down the road. Maria’s tapping her foot impatiently, despite the fact that it’s past 11 and the traffic is sparse, and Erhard wonders if the only reason she’s keeping quiet is because there’s a child in the car. Knowing her, that’s probably it.
Maria Torres is a lot of things to him. He doesn’t have a singular word, since she encapsulates pretty much everything that’s become important in his life, but “partner” is probably the closest. He still remembers when she punched him over the Cumberland incident, as well as when she kissed him a month and a half after his release. When they’d first met at Resurgam and she didn’t even want to speak to him, paired with the first night that he went to her apartment and didn’t leave until the next morning. So much has changed, but he isn’t complaining.
Alyssa’s asleep by the time they arrive at Naomi’s place, but she looks cute enough that they carry her inside instead of waking her up. Naomi’s there to tuck her in, thanking the two of them for babysitting again, and Maria gives an enthusiastic declaration that she loves helping out. Erhard doesn’t have the same level of vigor in the tone of his voice as he agrees, but it’s in his heart.
He’ll do whatever it takes for the people who gave him his life.
Vera’s awake when he nudges the door open, clipboard in hand. She looks fine, a gentle smile on her face and a pile of knitting in her hands, and she looks up soon after she hears the door’s creak.
“Oh, I’m sorry for the clutter, Doctor,” she says, nudging her yarn to the side. Erhard shakes his head, closing the door behind him and pulling up a chair at her bedside.
“No, I’m the one who came unannounced.” He sets the clipboard down on a nearby table. “I just need to check on your progress.”
Vera reaches down to undo the front of her hospital gown. The four-day-old incision that bisects her chest is a slight shade of red, although that’s not really that out of the ordinary. Erhard can’t discern any signs of infection, so he nods after a few seconds, letting her close her top back up.
“When will I be able to leave?” She cuts right to the chase once she’s decent again. “My sister called me earlier, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m missing anything.”
“Within the next few days-” He flips open her charts. “Since your heart hasn’t shown any problems thus far, you’re most likely alright. Just...avoid strenuous exercise, keep an eye out for signs of infection. I’ve probably already said that multiple times before.”
“Of course.” Vera hums to herself for a second, then turns back towards him with a faraway look on her face. “Say, Doctor, do you believe in angels?”
Erhard blinks. “Angels?”
“Yes. I know it sounds silly, but my family has always told me that I could see spirits. Angels. And…” She pauses, looking as though she doesn’t really know whether or not she should continue, but does anyway. “When you visit me, I sometimes see an angel.”
“What...do you mean?”
“A white angel. She smiles sometimes, with a beautiful flower in her hands.” Vera picks up her knitting again. “It sounds like a lie, but I really do see her. Only with you, too.”
He suddenly believes her. It’s strange, but once he hears her say that, he feels a subtle kind of warmth begin to spread through his being. He doesn’t say anything, and he’s not sure if he can. Vera clearly notices, and she giggles softly, her hand coming up to meet her mouth.
“You look so intense, hearing my silly little story. Truth be told, it’s a little embarrassing to be sitting here like this with you…”
“Embarrassing?” Her statement forces him out of it. “What about?”
“Well,” Vera replies, blushing slightly, “You are the first man who has looked into my heart.”
He steps out of the room to see Hank walking down the hall. He’s greeted with a familiar warm smile and wave once the other doctor notices him, which he tries his best to return.
“It’s good to see you, Dr. Muller.” Hank has a plain straw basket in his hand, which is delicately woven and clashes strongly with the man carrying it. He’d probably come from the courtyard, judging by the stray flower petals that had landed on his hair and clothes. “How’s your patient doing?”
“She’s alright. Recovering quickly.” Erhard moves to get out of Hank’s way, but the other doctor has already drawn nearer. He spends another few seconds trying to think of something to say, since the conversation apparently isn’t done, settling on, “Thank you for the help with that operation.”
“Of course. I’m always happy to assist,” Hank says good-naturedly. “I’m noticing how much easier all of this is for you, too. Talking with the patients really is a wonderful part of the job, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know if it’s getting easier, but…” Erhard jerks his head to the side in a mild display of indifference. He’s not entirely sure, Hank might be right; it doesn’t make much of a difference, though. He’ll be here regardless. “I guess I agree.”
“I’m glad.” And Hank shows it, with a wonderfully warm expression and a little ring to his voice. “You’ll always be a welcome part of this place, don’t ever worry about that.”
“I won’t.” Strangely enough, Erhard is telling the truth.
He’s not really sure what gave him the impulse in the first place. But once it settles itself on his shoulders, there isn’t any way to get it off, and it seems as though it just appeared overnight.
There’s a loose end, a glaring one, that’s wrapped itself around his finger.
It takes a few weeks for him to bring it up. He tries his best to push it to the back of his mind, and it works for a while, but slowly, surely, the idea begins to slide inexorably back to where it came from. He gives up on trying to forget about it, instead deciding to wait until the right moment. If it’s rejected, it’s rejected, although he can’t be faulted for a lack of trying.
It’s when he’s on Maria’s couch that he puts words to what’s been in his brain. (Well, perhaps the phrase “Maria’s couch” hasn’t been accurate since he moved in, but it’s still how he thinks of it.)
“I’ve actually been thinking about this for a while,” Erhard starts, trying his best to stay tactful. “It’s not urgent, but there’s someone I want to see.”
Maria’s leaning against the table as she looks up, tilting her head to the side and cocking a brow. “Huh? Like what, a performance or something?”
He has no idea where she got that impression, considering how little he tends to leave the house of his own volition, but he just shakes his head instead of voicing this.
“I mean...you know, someone you’d visit. Like a...friend?” It’s much harder than he thought it would be to put that idea into words, and he gives up after a few seconds of awkward silence. “No, never mind. It’s not important, really-”
“Nope, shut up.” She leans in his direction, setting one hand on her hip. “First off, stop that self-doubt shit. Second, you have really got me curious now. Do I already know this person?”
“The chances of that are astronomically low.”
“Okay, so it’s someone I don’t know.” Maria grins, putting a hand to her face. “This is pretty fun, actually. So, like, someone from college? Or some kid I never met?”
“No, I...didn’t have friends then.” And the amount of time it took him to realize that that isn’t normal was far longer than it should have been, but that’s another thought to tuck away.
The smile on Maria’s face vanishes. “I’m stumped, then. I almost never see you going off on your own, so I don’t think it’s someone you met recently, and-”
“And, the only other option is - Oh. Oh.” Her eyes widen, and she looks at him in disbelief. “Wait, you don’t mean that this friend…”
It’s surreal, being back here. Portland Prison is as cement-coated and dingy as ever, and Erhard feels a very strange kind of homesickness when he steps through the visitor’s entrance. He can feel the guards’ eyes on him, boring holes into his very being, but the fact that he’s not alone this time is an effective mitigator.
There’s a bit of paperwork and security to go through, although all of it is child’s play compared to his experience of the inside, so it’s not much of an obstacle. They’re both quiet throughout, not speaking a word to each other as the prerequisites are completed, but once an officer comes to lead them down a hallway, towards the visitation rooms, Maria speaks up.
“You know,” She pauses, her lips pursed, “I keep thinking about the fact that you used to live here. Before now, I guess it was just...some abstract concept, but it’s right in front of me now.”
“Not here, specifically. I’ve only been down this way once.” Although with the number of nights that woman’s piercing gaze kept him awake, it might as well be more. “I can’t say I’m much more familiar with this area than you are.”
“I know that. It’s just...being surrounded by armed guards? All the time? Every single second of your life being regimented and shoved into schedules?” Maria groans, shaking her head. “I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t last a week, and I can’t believe I’m admitting that.”
“I don’t know. You really are strong, Maria. Stronger than I am.”
“That is bullshit and you know it. You broke through so many layers of garbage and bad luck to be here right now, saved more lives than I can count, and the most I’ve done is buy time for people. You. Are. A. Badass.”
“I suppose arguing wouldn’t do any good.” He disagrees with a good deal of what she said, but the overall sentiment is far too nice to pass up.
She elbows him, shooting him a little smirk. “Exactly. You can’t argue with me.” Then she smiles far more softly, whispering, “You’ll be fine.”
Erhard doesn’t know how she realized it, that he’s feeling anxious. Perhaps it’s irrational, considering that he was the one to ask, but there’s something oddly terrifying about going back to see someone that he hadn’t seen in over nine years. He’d suppressed it until now, compartmentalized it along with the rest of his baggage, but here it is, front and center.
He breathes. Oxygen and clarity make their way into him, and he tries to hold onto them.
The room they end up being ushered into is far different from what Erhard remembers. Most of his memories involve dark spaces with single panels of glass and the constant feeling of being scrutinized, but this room is more like a hospital’s waiting room than anything else. The lighting is bright, there are multiple glass panels separated by partitions, each with its own chair, and the quiet chats of the room’s few other occupants are the only source of noise.
“Get comfortable. 6T2’ll be out shortly,” the officer says, pulling a second chair from an unoccupied panel. He walks off before either of them get the chance to respond.
“Oh, real comfortable.” Maria pats the cheap plastic chair with an expression of disdain before plunking down into it. “This is just the lap of luxury, isn’t it?”
Erhard follows suit, but not without a quizzical glance in her direction. “Why do you always have to be difficult?”
“Because it’s fun.”
He’s not sure what he was expecting.
The conversation is cut short when a door behind their panel opens, and someone is ushered in by a pair of guards. Someone who hasn’t fully left a certain corner of Erhard’s mind, no matter how much time has passed.
Enrico looks terrible. It’s good to see that he’s alive (which Erhard had wondered to himself before he made up his mind), but the sheer paleness of his skin is harrowing. It takes almost half a minute for him to set himself down on the chair, and the crook of his left arm is so heavily bandaged that Erhard questions just how many things were injected into him.
But once he’s settled in, Enrico flashes a familiar lazy grin, his eyes strangely happy despite the clouds in them.
“This is new.” He chuckles to himself. “When they were sayin’ I had a visitor, I just about died. So, ‘s the Reaper finally here for me? Sorry I can’t be lookin’ my best.”
Erhard inhales before he responds. “No, it’s...that kid from the infirmary.”
The other man’s eyebrows shoot up. He opens his mouth for a few seconds, seemingly trying to figure out what to say, finally settling on a very eloquent “Holy shit.”
“Yeah. I’m here,” Erhard says, looking away as he tries to figure out how best to phrase what he wants to say. “It’s been so long, and...I didn’t know if you would still recognize me.”
“‘Course I do. Who’d forget somebody like you, a kid who kept getting fucked by his own luck?” Erhard hears Maria snicker behind him. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Enrico, who turns his head in her general direction and raises an eyebrow. “You spying?”
“No, no, she’s with me-”
“Oh. I see .” Enrico nods knowingly. “You need a best man or something?”
Erhard almost jumps to a reflexive “it’s not like that”, but at this point it would be a massive lie. Thankfully, Maria cuts in before he has to respond.
“Why, you interested?”
“I wouldn’t say no.” Enrico shrugs. “Glad to see somebody’s takin’ care of the dude, at the very least.” Then he sighs, turning his face down towards the floor. “It’s good to think about. I know I probably ain’t ever leaving this place, so seein’ someone like you living your life and being happy...it makes me happy too.”
“You aren’t leaving?” Erhard furrows his brows. “It was voluntary manslaughter. Surely you’ll be eligible for parole at some point.”
“Not the issue.” Enrico lets out a strained, heavy breath. “I’m gonna be honest with ya, I don’t got that much time left. Stage four lymphoma.”
That sentence hits the two of them like a sledgehammer. Maria lets out an odd sort of gasp, then looks away with an expression that plainly states that she has no idea what to say, and Erhard just sits there, feeling a painful lurch in his chest. It’s the type of news that he’s heard before, true, but he was never the one directly affected. Tumors can be removed without thinking too hard about the person they grow inside.
“Man.” Enrico leans against the back of the chair. “I hate that I had to tell ya that. ‘S not exactly the sort of small talk you’d have over drinks, is it?”
“God…” Maria groans, her eyes focused entirely on the floor. She pauses for several seconds, then mutters, “I can’t even respond to that.”
“I’m a doctor.” Erhard, on the other hand, manages to keep his voice calm. “If we get you transferred to Resurgam, your condition is entirely treatable. I’ll extract any tumors once they’ve shrunk, and-”
Enrico holds up his hand, and Erhard falls silent.
“I can’t tell ya how much I appreciate that, but I gotta decline.” His enduring grin has turned sardonic, and there’s suddenly something very sad in his posture. “The Reaper’s been at my door for years, and he ain’t stoppin’ anytime soon. You can’t save me. It’s that simple.”
“Your wife and daughter, they-”
“Cut off all contact. I doubt they’d get torn up over it.”
“But-” Erhard protests, cut off by Maria squeezing his shoulder hard enough to hurt. He turns to look at her, the grave expression on her face fully sinking in.
“Stop.” She shakes her head, her eyes slightly watery. “I know you want to help, I do, and it’s amazing, but...people die. And not everybody can be saved.”
Not everybody can be saved.
rosalia’s body on an evidence table the blood dried just looks like she’s sleeping but she’s not and the last time he saw her she was talking about some movie she wanted to watch but he never came home and she never saw him again and sartre sticking a needle into his neck and walking away and it’s eight years later he’s nothing but bones eaten alive by tragedy slowly consuming everything it touches and
And Maria’s there. She knows. She’s eased her hand onto his leg, murmuring something to him that he doesn’t hear. She cried when they held Rosalia’s two-years-late funeral, she helped him through every single panic attack and nightmare, she pokes fun at him but counters it with endless bear hugs and affectionate gestures. She is undoubtedly there.
Erhard takes a few seconds to center himself. He eases himself back into the world, back into the odd comfort of a dingy visitation room.
“Alright.” He can’t speak any louder than a semi-whisper. The tightness in his throat won’t allow it. “If...if there’s anything you want me to do for you, I can…”
“Just one favor.” Enrico closes his eyes, tilting his head back. “Live. ‘S all I want.”
Erhard nods, swallowing hard to try and clear the ever-growing knot. It doesn’t feel like he can say anything else.
“Shouldn’t be that hard,” Maria interjects, giving him a quick poke in the side. “I’m gonna make damn sure of it.”
Enrico opens his mouth to say something else, but a voice booms from somewhere behind him.
“Time’s up, 6T2.”
“Shit, alright.” He throws his hands up, briefly imitating the stiff posture of one of the prison guards. Then he drops his shoulders down, letting out a weak laugh. “Just...stay safe, okay? Don’t get hurt again, and don’t get caught up thinkin’ about me. I’m gonna be fine.”
Erhard suddenly remembers the conversation with his patient. Angels . Even after death, people remain. It flies in the face of every biological fact, but at the same time...that’s not an absolute.
The guards come and take Enrico, and as he’s lead back to the abyss, Erhard can swear he sees a genuine smile on the other man’s face.
They both get up not long after, Maria fidgeting with the sleeves of her jacket. It’s the thousandth time today that neither of them know what exactly to say, but Erhard doesn’t even care at this point. She’s still here. Despite every scar (including the physical one), she’s here.
And when they make their way back through the hallways and a guard they pass lets out an audible hiss, he turns around instead of walking past.
“You,” The guard growls. It’s the man with the bottles and an expression of loathing on his face, but it matters not. “Go to hell.”
Erhard looks him straight in the eye. “Sorry. I’ve already been there.”
And he walks off with Maria right behind him, an expression of sheer amazement on her face.
“I still can’t believe you said that.” Maria grabs for another few chips out of her bag, tilted over onto Erhard’s shoulder. They’re back on the couch, where this whole idea was proposed.
“I’m honestly not sure what came over me...I apologize,” Erhard says sheepishly, feeling his face flush. In hindsight, his response may not have been the best move.
“Are you kidding me? That was awesome! I wish I could have said something like that!” Maria certainly disagrees, though, as expected. “Seriously. I know it might be hard to tell, but I am absolutely not kidding in any way.”
“Saying something like that was still unpr-mmf.” He’s silenced by Maria pushing a chip into his mouth. Not one to reject a gift, he eats it.
“Professionalism is overrated,” she says.
“I don’t know if that’s true.”
“You want another chip?”
“Is that supposed to be a threat?”
“If you want it to be.”
“I don’t understand you.” He reaches over, running his fingers through her hair. Her skin is always so much softer than it looks.
“And I see you don’t have to.” Maria responds by sitting up further, pressing herself into his chest. “You still like my broken ass, after everything you’ve gone through. It’s amazing.”
“I’m not any less broken.” Erhard’s other hand finds its way to the small of her back. “And...what I do is much less amazing than you make it sound.”
“Lies,” she breathes, cupping his cheeks and pulling his lips into hers. It’s just that for a few moments, a wonderful soft, slow kind of warmth, a nonverbal assurance of security. Everything is right with the world.
When they break apart, Maria takes a few seconds to open her eyes again, not wanting the moment to end, but her heart jumps into her throat when she notices the silent tears in his eyes. He’s trying to blink them away, staring resolutely at the floor, but it doesn’t look like they want to leave.
“Wh-whoa, hey, are you okay?!”
“I don’t know.” He chokes on the words as they leave his mouth. “I don’t know. I don’t want anyone to die, I’ve never wanted anyone to die, and…I’m so sorry I did this to you. Made you love me like this.”
“You didn’t make me do anything.” She screws her eyes shut, letting out a sharp exhale. “God, it hurts when you say that. You’re not a burden on me. You’re a fucking saint.”
“I can’t see it. Whatever it is that you see,” Erhard manages to croak out. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”
It’s the most raw display of emotion she’s seen out of him in a long time. She knows that this conversation isn’t the catalyst; it’s several, tens, hundreds of things. They’ve probably been building up for a long time, too, suppressed under layers of stoicism and trauma.
And just for a moment, for a reason she can’t explain, she starts to cry too.
It takes a good twenty minutes for the tears to dry up completely, but the tension has evaporated completely at that point. Maria’s buried her face into the crook of his neck, and Erhard is so still underneath her that she’d probably think he’s asleep, if not for his fingers tracing gentle patterns across her back.
“Hey.” Maria’s voice is so soft that it’s almost impossible to make out. “You hungry?”
Erhard’s about to speak, but his stomach growling does it for him.
“So I just found out about this new burrito place. Apparently they’ve got a special today. I’m talking huge burritos. Burritos bigger than your head.”
“There’s no way that can be true,” Erhard mumbles.
“And that’s why we have to go there. For science, you know?”
“I see you’ve already made up your mind.”
Erhard lifts his head, letting out a tiny sigh. Maria looks back at him, the cutest of smiles on her face, her eyes bright, filled with energy. As he looks at her, something clicks into place in the back of his mind.
In that moment, he realizes that he has everything he needs. Everything up to this point was worth it, no question about it.
“That sounds perfect.”