If you’ve ever listened to the podcast Within the Wires, by Night Vale Presents, then you might find some of today’s story a little familiar. But it’s my own twist on the genre.
Waiting for the Night Shift,
by Alexander Paul Willging
Word Count: 1,642
Every night, about two hours after dinner, you get excited. You can’t move around because of the restraints, so you display your enthusiasm by humming jaunty melodies to yourself. All that waiting pays off when Rose, the night shift nurse, enters your room. She wears blue scrubs with a floral print, just like Eduardo the day nurse does. Just like all the other personnel you’ve seen, except for that one guard in body armor.
You never think to ask what he’s guarding. You’re too busy dealing with your routine.
Ever since that first morning you woke up in the Program, you don’t remember what life was like before. At least, you’re pretty sure that there was more to your life before this place, but you can’t tell. This charcoal gray fog swells up inside your head if you think about it too hard. But for as long as you can remember, you’ve always been here, always secured to your bed.
The nurses have you dressed in a t-shirt, a diaper, sweat pants, heavy socks, and a straitjacket. They feed you some kind of formula from a bottle and give you a few tablets that they claim is some kind of super-processed food. Your stomach gets full when they feed you like this, so you can’t really complain. When Eduardo begins his day shift, he always inspects your restraints. Then he runs some scanner over your body, which tickles wherever the light from the device hits your skin. At some point before lunch, he’ll loosen your restraints long enough to work your limbs in a few exercise poses, and then clean you off with a sponge. After lunch, you get put in a clean diaper and told to take a nap. When you wake up, you’re hungry again, and dinner is served. Eduardo will leave, and Rose will take over.
Rose is your one true source of delight in this place. She’s so sweet and gentle with you, in a way that Eduardo isn’t, though he tries to be friendly. But Rose is like your big sister. And it’s not like you remember if you even have any real siblings. Rose will test out your restraints at the start of her shift. Then she brushes your hair and dabs a bit of lavender oil over your face and neck. You can’t begin to describe how heavenly it smells. Your whole body melts into your bed when she does this, and her smile almost makes you want to cry.
Unlike Eduardo, Rose makes conversation with you. She sits in a chair by your bed and will talk to you about the Program, or about what her life outside these walls is like.
Some things she can’t talk about, and when you ask her, she gets this distant look in her eyes before shaking her head and putting a finger to her lips. You nod, as if you understand what that means, and you don’t press the issue.
You love Rose, as much as you think you’ve ever loved anyone. She reads to you from her books in a low, soothing voice. On a few special nights, she sets up an electronic tablet and streams videos for you to watch. A lot of them are silly cartoons and old sitcoms, but a few are quiet, romantic movies or dramatic TV shows. And Rose never minds it when you ask her to pause so you can discuss something you saw but didn’t quite understand. And her tone never changes from that soft, loving sister’s voice.
When it’s time to sleep, Rose changes you one last time and double-checks your restraints. Every night, as you close your eyes, Rose does the same little routine. She makes the Sign of the Cross on your head, chest, and shoulders. Then she bends over and kisses you on the cheek. You giggle and try to nuzzle her face when she does this, and she giggles, too.
Some nights, though, she says something to you. Rose will stand over you, her hands touching the sides of your face. And she’ll say something like, “One day, sweetie. One day, you’ll know why we did this.” And one time, she added, “I’m so sorry. They never gave you a choice.”
You think you know what she means by that. Whenever she or Eduardo bathe you, you can see the scars and burn marks along your naked torso. One cut runs across your left breast, and there’s this little emerald piercing in the nipple there. It’s a gem that flashes on and off, on and off, never stopping. You’ve asked Rose what that means, but all you got in reply was that little headshake and a reminder to be quiet.
Every so often, you’ll look over when the door to your room opens and see your attending nurse typing something into a small handheld device. They look so serious when they’re typing away, like they’re worried. But then they smile when they see you, and you forget to ask them about it.
You forget everything except the daily routine. When the lights in your room flash on every morning and fade out every night, you know exactly what to expect.
But at night, you have these strange dreams. Little fragments come and go. A bright light overhead, gleaming off silver needles and men’s faces covered by surgical masks. Flashes of sirens in the distance, smoke in your eyes, blood staining your hands and your face, and something soft and meaty in your teeth. You imagine that you were in pain all the time, and that you were told this was a good thing, and that what you did was for someone called “The Master.” But then you imagine that you did a bad thing, and the Master went away, and then you wound up in the Program, where you were safe and happy.
You think that maybe Rose knows this when she talks to you. You think that, someday, the routine will change and she’ll tell you the whole story. You’d like to hear it. You’d like to go with her someday, when it’s time to change shifts, and see what life is like outside the Program.
One day, however, something does change.
Eduardo doesn’t show up on time. You squirm around in your restraints, wishing that your undergarment could be changed soon, and that you could be fed already. Then, when you start thinking about calling out for him, you hear a thud in the hallway outside your room.
You go still and keep quiet.
A moment later, the door opens, and Rose is back. But she’s not wearing her scrubs anymore. Today, she’s wearing a cool black jacket and blue jeans, like she’s one of the heroes from your cartoons. She’s holding a long black rod in one hand and she has a brown bag slung over her shoulder. Rose doesn’t look happy either. She walks up to you and takes a deep breath.
“Come on, sweetie,” Rose whispers. She touches your face. “It’s time to go.”
“Go?” you ask. “Go where? And where’s Eduardo?”
“Never mind about him,” Rose adds, putting the black club away. “It’s time you knew.”
She checks your restraints like she always does. But this time, she doesn’t keep you bound to the bed. This time, she snaps them open. Pop-pop go the straps. Zip-zip goes the straitjacket. You can barely move, but that doesn’t matter. Rose manages to carry you in her arms like a baby. Your heart is racing, and you can hardly breathe, but that doesn’t matter. This is different. This is new and exciting.
This is wonderful.
Soon, Rose is running with you in her arms. You’re laughing as she vaults through open doors that are about to slide shut. You’re ecstatic when she kicks that mean-looking guard in the face and kicks him again in the jaw, knocking him out cold. Who knew she was ever this strong? Who knew life could be this much fun?
But then come more guards. More nurses in blue scrubs. And now there are other people you’ve never seen before. Men and women in long white coats, holding scanners and other devices out like weapons as they cautiously approach you and Rose.
“Patient Seven-Seven-Four-Two is off-limits,” one of the people in white says to Rose. “Put her down now, Cisneros!”
Rose sighs, and she turns to you with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry to have to do this.” Then, as she kneels to the floor, she moves one arm through your shirt and touches the emerald piercing on your nipple.
Her fingers twist it, and then something happens.
You remember everything.
You remember how to fight again. How it felt to be a Valkyrie charging through the air, with electricity crackling at your fingertips and fire burning in your veins. How your enemy’s blood tasted like copper and yet was so delicious whenever you bit into their flesh. How the screams and the terror in their eyes was all the joy you could ever want in life, because you’d been made perfect. The living instrument of the Master’s will.
With Rose Cisneros by your side, you decide that the Master deserves a little payback.
You start with the guards. You continue with the scientists. It’s only at Rose’s urging that you spare the nurses, who pathetically tried to claw and scramble their way to safety. It’s Rose who brings you down from the blood rage. Brings you back with that big sister’s voice and loving touch to your shoulder that you always enjoyed.
You will remember everything from now on. You will remember that you are loved, and that you will love her back. You will remember that you were hurt once before, and you will hurt them back before all this is over.
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