I expected a bullet as he told me to rise, barking orders to get to our feet. I knew he would shoot as we locked eyes, seeing my monstrous features. I expected a bullet, but he didn’t search underneath the lab coat, giving himself no chance to recognise someone else’s clothes that didn’t fit. I expected a bullet as footsteps built to a roar in the corridor, heavy boots running past, skittering cubes of glasses in all directions. I expected a bullet as I headed our small group through the doorway, turning right before Dan, leading the way. I expected to be shot to the ground as I forced my hand across my mouth, trying to lock out the dreamy wake of the flesh gone racing to the empty cells.
I expected a bullet after each instruction, each left turn, each wait, go right. I expected a bullet as he spoke to someone else, someone on the radio as we arrived at a braced metal door twice as wide and half as tall as those baring the cells. I expected gunfire from within as the door slid, expected the beast of a black soldier on the other side to swing his gun down from his shoulder, to smash the butt across my face and send me spiralling to the ground. I hadn’t expected him to stare wide eyed, his eyebrows twitching, mouth curling to a smile, that look of recognition I’d grown so used to, those words no one could hold back.
“Are you?” he said, stepping back to let us in the room.
I walked past, not able to talk, fearing the deep breath I couldn’t hold back. It came with a surprise, a lungful of smoke, a great blanket blocking out everything else. My nostrils filled, the buds on my tongue clogged. I took in more of the thick air and realised all around me, my vision no longer blurred with the need to fill my urge.
I saw people. Saw the small, under-lit room. An old incandescent lamp hanging bare from the ceiling. We were in a kind of strong room, dining chairs set around the edge, each alternating its space with white plastic crates stacked to the low ceiling. I saw the eyes on me. A small collection, four young women in lab coats in the dark room and a man sat on the floor with a laptop in the far corner, the cigarette dangling from his lip. I didn’t want to tear off their flesh. I wanted to know who they were. I wanted to get their story. I was me again.
Ushered to a seat in the corner, Dan joined me, sitting meek at my side, his head in his hands as I watched the soldier who’d found us, leave and his colleague push the door closed at his back. The solder came over and I smiled, pushing on my public face, surprised I could hear his words.
“Are you the woman off the tele?” he said, his accent thick with West Midlands rhythm. I shook my head, pleased my face had not turned hideous.
“I’ve just started,” I replied. “A week ago. Graduate programme.”
He smiled showing teeth as white as snow. I didn’t think he believed me, but I lived a few moments more to tell the tale.
“What’s going on?” I replied, I couldn’t help myself and watched as despite my low voice, two pairs of eyes glanced in my direction. He shook his head, turning to the rest of the group as if for show, shrugging his shoulders in an overactive move to add to his point. The cigarette smoke thinned and I watched the wisps of blue air glide up into the vents. Dan’s smell came first as he leant over still with his head in his hands. Then came new tastes. Thick and meaty, I guessed was the soldier’s, the huddle of women were delicate and gamey. I hadn’t quite got the older man’s until I stood next to him, his scent pale, aged like mutton.
“Have you got another?” I said, nodding towards the rectangular package on the floor. He smiled up showing yellow teeth, his meat strong as he breathed in my direction. I’m sure I would have found out his taste if he hadn’t flipped up the lid of the box next to him to reveal long cartons of white boxed cigarettes.
The first draw was bliss, the taste empty, saliva retreating down my throat as my vision cleared. The woman in the huddle coughed as I passed, if they’d kept that up, I might have shown the alternative. I took my time, let the smoke fill every corner of my lungs, let the thick air coat the inside of my nostrils. Dan had grown quiet and I guessed he was asleep, not even waking at the dull knock on the heavy door, not hearing the words as it opened.
“Five unaccounted for.” It was a different soldier that had escorted us. I wanted to say rescued us, but that wasn’t right. The right words tried to form in my head as I savoured my blank taste bugs, listening to the drivel. “I had to bring her here. Watch her. She’s trouble, the brig’s overrun.”
I looked up at those words. Knew before I saw her face in the orange light, knew it would be her stepping through the gap. I hadn’t guessed about the hands cuffed at her front. Hadn’t guessed at the left side of her face black and blue. Hadn’t thought I’d see her head down turned. Broken.
I stubbed the unfinished cigarette under my foot.
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Reading out of sequence, here’s the rest of Season Two.
Not read Season One? Here it is.