Friday, October 19, 2012

Red Memory [part 2 of 2]

The other side, the side I was trained to kill, found me. I was half-dead, wandering aimlessly, incoherent. That’s the only reason they didn’t shoot me on sight. I don’t know why they didn’t execute me after I failed an interrogation. Maybe it’s pity, pity for “the crazy girl”, or maybe they are hoping that someday I’ll answer their litany of questions. They’ve fed me, clothed me, and are attempting to “help” me. But they keep me locked up, like an animal.
            My half-hearted suicide attempts probably haven’t helped my case. It’s no wonder they think I am insane. Some days, I think I am. Insane from the memories, the bloody red ghosts that won’t leave my mind, the memories that remind me that I am nothing more than a machine, a broken machine. And also, a monster.
            I don’t want to be a monster. I want to be that little girl again, the one from the few happy memories I’ve managed to retain. It may sound funny, but I swear the other images and sounds in my mind are trying to drown out the happy ones. Hell tearing down heaven. Dark swallowing light.
            Every week they try to talk to me. They call it helping. Every week I don’t know what to say. I don’t know where to start. How can I begin to tell them what I’ve seen, what I’ve done, and what I’ve become? They would have me executed if they knew. That thought doesn’t bother me. I would tell them, just to get a death sentence. But I don’t know how. I am trapped inside my own head, held into a vortex, a black hole, by the force of a different kind of gravity.
I am imploding upon myself.
            I’ve been killed and left alive.
            My clothes are left damp with sweat and I’m left trembling as my vision returns to normal, as my memories leave my physical sight alone. A thin line of grey light on the dusty floor tells me it’s almost time for someone to open my door, and, depending on the day, give me a meal or steer me down the long, narrow hall for my weekly talk where I don’t talk.
            The thin shaft of moonlight shows me exactly what I needed to find out: I’m not alone. There is an enemy in this cave, and he is staring directly at me. He reaches for his handgun, but I’m quicker. I lunge forward and stab him. He struggles. I use the force of his struggle to make his end come sooner, twisting the blade deeper into his chest. He cries out in a strangled, gurgling voice. His blue eyes go blank, his full weight slumps against me, his blood is hot on my hands. I kick him off, wipe my knife and hands clean on my pants, and stride further into the cavern.
            Metal grates upon metal. I look up from behind my black hair, forcing myself to unclench my fists and to not begin hyperventilating. It’s a male assistant in baby blue scrubs.
            He smiles. “’76, it’s time for your counseling session.”
            Without a word I get up and follow him out. My palms sting. I glance down and realize I was clenching my fists so tightly that my nails drew blood. Oh. Great. One more thing for the people here to see. What will they do to “protect me from myself” now? Remove my fingernails? I shove my hands into my pockets. Maybe they won’t notice. I stare at the floor, stare my way down the hall, watch the flooring change from cement to dark green carpet, and continue staring at the floor even after the assistant gives me a gentle push into a chair. The door closes a moment later.
            “’76,” the counselor, Aimi, says, her voice smooth like water. “How are you this week? Any changes?”
            I shrug, all of my hopelessness and dead confusion wrapped up in that one little movement.
            “Look at my eyes.” She prods, with that voice. Not in a nasty way—though her insistence annoys me—but in a way that makes me think she might actually care.
            Aimi asks for eye contact every time. And every time, like the fool I am, I give it to her. I slowly lift my gaze until it meets hers. Gold-green meets brown.
            “This week is worse.” Her voice holds no question. Just a statement.
            I shrug again and look away. A flash of red catches my attention and I jerk my gaze back up, then curse myself—I moved too fast, was too noticeable. She will see, and question.
            Red flowers, in a vase on her desk. They weren’t there last week.
“See?” Mommy says, handing me a tiny red flower. “You are like a flower. Flowers grow out of the muck and the dirt and make the world beautiful.”
Where did that come from, that memory? I haven’t seen that one before. A new one that is good? It’s hard to believe.
A flower. Me, like a flower, making the world beautiful. No. I’ve only made it darker.
“’76? You like my flowers, hm? Would you like to take one with you when you go back to your room?” Aimi sounds interested.
I start to shake my head, but then hesitate. Confusion swirls. I like the flowers—they gave me something good to think about. Maybe they would help. But the words in the memory are a lie.
Or are they? Could I do something to make the world beautiful? Even just a little bit? The thought is too good to be true.
“I don’t…I don’t know,” I mumble.  
“What does it make you think of?” She whispers. Fabric swishes against leather; she leans forward.
“I…a red flower.”
“That’s it?”
            “Yeah.” I suppress a sigh. “That’s it.”
“Does it make you feel anything?”
I shrug and try not to stare at the flower.
The door is shoved open, making me jump as it bangs into the doorframe with a crack. Aimi jerks to her feet and I whirl around.
A white-faced man is standing in the doorway. “There’s been a raid,” he puffs, “by the guerrillas. They’ve taken children. Including your son.”
Aimi shrieks, covers her mouth with her hands, sinks into her chair. “Collin,” she whimpers. “My baby.”
Searing pain, like the twisting of a knife, stabs through my chest, almost making me gasp. Another memory written into my mind.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but—”
“No…no…thank you.” Aimi’s voice is strangled, full of tears and shock.
My vision starts to fade out. I grip the edges of my chair. No, not now, not now…
“See?” Mommy says, handing me a tiny red flower. “You are like a flower. Flowers grow out of the muck and the dirt and make the world beautiful.”
“I am?” I stroke the petals of the flower, dividing my attention between its softness and Mommy’s face.
“Yes, you are. Flowers are strong and beautiful. They are beaten by rain, whipped by the wind, burned by the sun, and chilled by the frost. But they thrive.”
I smile at Mommy and tickle her neck with the flower. She laughs and smiles back.
My muscles spasm and I jerk back to reality. Aimi is staring at me through glassy eyes. Beaten, whipped, burned, chilled…tortured. But they survive—they thrive. Thrive and make the world better.
I take a deep breath, reach up, brush my hair back. When I draw my fingers away, they are wet. I was crying?
“Aimi,” I manage to eke out. My voice is hoarse and quavering. My throat tightens and my stomach flutters. “I can get your little boy back.”
Tomb-like silence.
Thirty heartbeats.
Then, “You can? How? Who are you?”
I look down, twisting my fingers together, around and around. “I was a child-soldier. I know the ways of the guerillas better than I know myself. I can get him back. You fight fire with fire. You fight a kidnapper with…a kidnapper.”
“’76,” she struggles to stay calm, but she can’t hide her hope. Her excitement. Her apprehension. “Who are you?”
“I don’t know. They took away my name. Call me…” I pause. “Call me Memory.” 


The cool, moist air feels good against my face and fresh in my lungs. The darkness, void of even moonlight, is peaceful. Soft. It makes the lines of the building ahead more gentle, maybe a tiny bit friendly. But no, that’s taking it too far.
I creep closer, timing each step to avoid detection by the motion-sensor that sweeps the perimeter. They actually let me out, decided to trust me. Why, I don’t know, unless it was Aimi’s tearful pleading.  But no army commander would let that override logic. So they must have had a logical reason. Either way, I’m here now.
Each foot of ground covered brings back a flood of memories, and not the good type. Fighting them is sapping my strength, but giving into them would overwhelm me and leave me useless, curled up on the grass. So, I fight.
I feel oddly free. My heart is beating fast but steady, pulsing blood through my veins in an even rhythm. My muscles feel light and ready to spring into action, like coiled springs. I feel alive, even though I am fighting my own mind with each second.
Is this what flowers feel like? Alive, even though they are fighting against the elements for their life? Is this what it feels like to be doing something worthwhile for a change? To bring life instead of death?
Upon reaching the building, I slink over to the nearest window. All is quiet. The single sentry is at the other end, and won’t make it to this corner for at least two minutes. Pull out my laser-cutter. Slide it along the sash of the window. Edge the window up, up, up a bit more, just enough that I can slip through. I climb up, and drop down to the other side, my feet making no sound when I land on the bare concrete floor of the hallway. Calfskin boots help with that.
I pause, but only for a second. Left, I remind myself. All is silent, almost too silent. It sets me on edge. I would much rather have noise, so I know what places to avoid. But whatever. Collin is waiting. With my back to the wall, I make my way to the new-child room. Outside of the door, a guard is sleeping.
Taking a deep breath, I clamp my hand over his mouth and slit his throat. The darkness hides the blood, for which I’m glad. With the way my memories have been acting up, I don’t know how I would handle seeing it. Even killing him about did me in. But it had to be done. Hooking my arms under his arms, I drag him out of the way, leaving the corpse in the nearest closet.
The sun makes the bodies stink. But I can’t leave. None of us can. We were told to wait. Wait without moving. The dried blood on my shirt smells metallic. I’m scared. What if they don’t come, and we are left with these bodies forever? Eight is too young to die.
I shake my head, try to clear it, try to send the memories scattering.
Now it’s on to finding Collin. There are only a dozen children in the room, only twelve tiny mats lined up in a row, with twelve lumps under twelve blankets. My throat tightens. I wish I could take all of them with me. How can I leave the eleven to these monsters?
Maybe I can come back. Until they are all out.
Satisfied with that thought, I search for Collin. Aimi showed me his picture before I left. He’s tiny, she said. I find the smallest lump and lean down, peering at the child. No. It’s a girl. I move my way along the rows, finally locating him at the very back. His little face is pale, etched with fear even in his sleep.
I crouch down next to him and place my hand over his mouth. “Collin,” I whisper right next to his hear. “Don’t move. I am going to take you to mommy, okay?”
He stiffens and his eyes spring open. He starts to wiggle.
“No,” I murmur, placing my free hand against his bony chest. “Don’t move. I am going to pick you up and take you home to mommy, but you have to be quiet, because it’s a secret, okay?”
Collin nods, wide-eyed. I scoop him up and hold him tight. He wraps his arms around my neck and buries his head in my shoulder. I like it, and that surprises me. It’s as if…he trusts me.
I wrap my arms around Mommy’s neck. I can feel her smile. It’s funny how I can feel Mommy smiling. Her face moves against my hair. That’s how I know.
Another good memory, a new one? I blink, then refocus and take a step forward.
We make it outside without a problem. This is too easy, I decide, frowning. A definite feel of uneasiness settles over me.
Then it happens. Floodlights chase away every streak of darkness within nine hundred feet. Collin screams. People start shouting, at me, at each other, threatening, commanding, demanding.
I ignore them and run. Collin bounces against me with each stride. I hug him closer, shift his weight to my right hip, and plunge ahead. I can’t die. He can’t die.
I can’t fail.
Gunfire rips through the night. I swear to the mother I can barely remember that I will make her proud. Somehow I will make it through this, like her red flowers, I will be strong.
Chink. Zing. Swoosh. Bullets make divots in the ground around me and whiz past my head. I zig zag. Erratic targets aren’t good targets. Five hundred more feet, if I can just make it five hundred more feet past these floodlights and into the darkness…in the darkness hides backup, a team sent to watch what goes down, to cover me if necessary.
Why, I don’t know.
Return fire blazes out of the woods toward the building. Somehow I’m still not hit. One hundred feet left to go—
White-hot pain tears through my back and chest. I fall forward, choking on a scream. No, no, I can’t be shot. I have to keep going. Collin cries out in fear as I almost drop him. Stretching out my hand I catch myself as I go down on one knee. I can’t breathe. I can barely think. Another streak of fire, through my ribcage. An agonized cry rips itself from my throat and I feel shame.
Is this what it feels like, what it feels like to die a failure? A monster? A broken machine?
Red flashes before my eyes. Wet heat spreads across my chest, down my back. My lungs are heaving.
No. I have to keep going. I stagger to my feet, only to collapse.
“Run,” I tell Collin, releasing him and shoving him toward the darkness, towards the tree line. “Run! Mommy wants you!”
He stares at me. “What about—”
Collin runs, his short, choppy little stride surprisingly fast. I hope he’s fast enough. Black mixes with red along the edges of my vision. It’s getting harder to breathe. A bullet lands in the grass next to my head.
Mommy falls like my tower of blocks. My hands are covered in hot blood and I smile. She smiles back. The bodies stink. I hate myself, I hate everything. It’s funny how I can feel Mommy smiling. Officer Morill strokes my cheek and I want to gut him. Don’t see me, bad man—
Hands grasp my arms and pull. I cry out. They caught me.
I’m going to die.
But I was going to die anyway.
“Hold still!” A voice shouts. “We’ve got you. You’ll be okay. Don’t panic.”
I can feel urgency in the hands, hear it in the voice. I’m being picked up, carried, am I being rescued? The sounds of gunfire lessen. Pain jolts through me with every movement. I’m losing more blood, feeling faint, feeling like I will die.
“Is he safe?” I choke. “Collin?”
“Yes, yes, he’s safe. Don’t speak.” The voice, a man’s voice, is soothing.
I relax. I didn’t fail. Maybe I am good for something after all.
Several moments later I am lowered to the ground. Lights shine all around me, and I shut my eyes against the harshness of the light. Hands poke and prod their way across my body. I have to clench my teeth to keep from screaming. A needle pricks my arm. The whole time a soft, feminine voice talks me through it, tells me what’s coming next, tells me to relax, to stay calm, that the bullets missed any important organs but that one severed an artery, but not to worry—I should survive, provided I remain calm.
“Is she okay?” It’s Aimi.
I open my eyes.
“She should be. She needs to stay calm.” The soft voice replies. I find the owner of the voice—she’s poised over my arm with a bag of blood replacer.
Aimi mouths something that looks like thank-you, then turns to me. “Memory, I am so sorry…”
“No…” I whisper. “Don’t be.”
“Thank you.” She smiles, her eyes full of tears. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. What changed you?”
What changed me? “Your red flowers.”
Aimi blinks, clearly confused. “My red flowers?”
“Yeah. They gave me back a memory.”
“See?” Mommy says, handing me a tiny red flower. “You are like a flower. Flowers grow out of the muck and the dirt and make the world beautiful.”
“I am?” I stroke the petals of the flower, dividing my attention between its softness and Mommy’s face.
“Yes, you are. Flowers are strong and beautiful. They are beaten by rain, whipped by the wind, burned by the sun, and chilled by the frost. But they thrive.”
I smile at Mommy and tickle her neck with the flower. She laughs and smiles back.
“Spin me, Mommy!”
Mommy giggles, stands up, and spins me around until my tummy hurts from laughing.
I am Mommy’s flower. For always and forever. It makes me happy.

Red Memory, copyright (c) Hannah Mills 2012

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