Time had become a loop. Hours. Days. Weeks. I had no idea how long it had been since I’d come here. They kept careful not to give me a pattern to count by. Time just existed, just passed me by as I stood still.
Even sleep was never given regularly. The only constant I had was Sonya, probing, interrogating. There was no rhyme or reason for what she asked, but if I didn’t answer the way she liked, life was painful. She pumped me full of drugs that burned my blood so bad I wanted to scratch open my skin to get it out, or made my vision waver like I was drunk, or muddled all my senses so I didn’t know which way was up.
She wanted me to give in, to ask her for the answers. She wanted my compliance. I wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t going to let her win, not when I’d lost everything. They’d told me there were worse things than death if I didn’t toe their line.
My chance would come soon enough. I just needed to be patient. I’d fight them every chance I’d get, but I would wait.
Soon. They would make a mistake. A costly one. I’d stand strong until then. Frustration made people make mistakes, and I knew Sonya was getting frustrated that she couldn’t break me.
“Take her back to her room,” I heard in the distance. Maybe it wasn’t that far away, but it sounded like it with the loud ringing in my head. People like Sonya weren’t happy unless they were causing pain. I think she liked hurting me more than she wanted me to comply.
Pain throbbed from every orifice I had when I was with her. Time blurred and all I could feel was the pain. Day in. Day out. Over and over. And over.
But my identity, who I was, that was all I had left now. They’d taken my life, my home, and forced me to live in this place. But my identity was mine. And I would fight to keep it until I took my last breath.
I cried out in pain as the guards took hold of my arms and hoisted me out of the chair. Normally, I’d fight, but this session had been hours longer than the others. My arms and legs felt worse than wet noodles. They felt like wet noodles on fire.
I existed in a haze, still trying to shake off the drugs that Sonya had fed me. It was so hard to remember what happened these days. I’d try anyway, because that was how I kept myself in check. As long as I remembered what she did to me, I could remember who I was, and what I did. It would have been so easy to forget it all except for the vibrant light of pain.
I wouldn’t let myself sleep until I’d recounted everything, until I’d said my name, my birthday, and my favorite things to myself. It kept me grounded.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been in my cell before I heard the door open again. Fearful that Sonya had come to check on me, I unsteadily got to my feet, using the wall as support.
But it wasn’t Sonya.
“Daniel?” I whispered.
He stopped three feet into the room and glared back at the guards. “Wait outside.”
“Sir, we were told—”
“Does this face look like I give a fuck what you were told?”
I wished I could see clearly because I would have loved to see their faces as they backed out of the room and slammed the door shut behind them. I liked it when Daniel got commanding with the guards. I liked his visits too, though they were rare. Daniel called them “an assessment” of my well-being as a recruit, but I liked to think that maybe he actually liked talking to me.
Of course, the more realistic answer was probably that he was playing the good cop to Sonya’s bad cop, trying to gain my trust. But really, with his strikingly black hair cut short against his scalp in a military style, and the muscles I knew lived beneath his suit, he didn’t look or act like a good cop usually. But he did make this nightmare bearable, in a weird, somewhat scary way.
He smoothed his jacket down as he entered and the door shut behind him. He walked toward the center of the room. The cameras didn’t move, but they were already set on us both, I was sure. Everything done to me was recorded. That, too, would backfire on them as well. I would make sure of it.
These people could force me to live here, force me into their treatments and force me into this life they’d built for me. But it didn’t mean I would make things easy on them.
Anger bubbled inside, even though I didn’t have the energy to show it.
“Hello, Naomi,” he said, evenly. A chill slithered down my back as he moved toward me like a silent tiger looking for prey. He always intimidated the hell out of me, so much more than Sonya. At least I knew Sonya wanted to break me down. I didn’t know what Daniel wanted.
The bad guy was much easier to spot when you were strapped down to a chair and injected with drugs and tortured for hours.
Daniel was a different matter entirely. His blue eyes speared right through me, his face still twisted into an angry sneer at the guards. He was a scary man, but I never forgot what he’d said to me my first week here. I wasn’t sure if he remembered it, but I did… When he’d brushed my sweaty hair from my eyes and told me that everything would be fine. I clung to those words, that indeed everything would be fine someday soon.
“Hello, Daniel,” I replied, trying to mimic his even tone, but my voice came out strained and tired. A side effect of constant screaming for hours.
Daniel had probably been lying to soothe a scared girl in those first days. The thing that made me wonder if he had been was his perplexed look when he asked me what made me special.
I didn’t know what the answer was that he’d wanted that day, and maybe I never would, but in that first moment, I’d seen a different side to him, a side of humanity he never showed anyone. In all the times I’d seen him since, I hadn’t seen it again.
“I’m glad to see you calm today.”
Calm? I didn’t feel calm. It felt like there was a tornado inside my chest. Daniel was my focal point, keeping me settled in a crazy way. If I was appearing calm, it was because of his presence. Or maybe it was because I was completely exhausted and it was taking all my energy to stay standing against the wall.
“I’m trying.” I swallowed. The truth was I hadn’t had what they termed an “episode” in some time. It didn’t take me long to notice that I spent more time in a drugged stupor if I misbehaved. I had to play nice, because if I was going to escape, I would need to be in good shape.
“You’ve done well, lately.”
Had I? What was “doing well” in their book?
“Having a goal helped.”
“You said I could go outside if I didn’t cause any more trouble.”
Daniel shoved his hands in his pockets. “I did say that, yes. I don’t think you’re ready though. I think you’d still try to run away.”
I jutted my chin out in defiance. “Where would I go? You’ve deleted my whole life.”
“That’s another thing. This is your life now. And until you realize that, I don’t think you’re ready to be taken outside. It would be a step backward.”
Anger flashed to the surface of my body, quick and unbidden. I’d been counting on getting outside. I wanted to run. I wanted to disappear. But of course he would know that’s what I would do. He had shut me down. I tamped the anger away. I had nothing to gain by losing my shit here.
I did miss the sun, though. Growing up in California, the sun had been part of my life every day of the year. I could barely remember the last walk on the beach now.
“I do think you’re ready to join the other recruits, though.”
“Should I be thankful that you’re going to be moving me in with the rest of the prisoners?” I snapped out the words before I could stop them. Internally, I cursed. Displays of anger could set me back. I had to stay calm, relaxed. Like Daniel was.
“Perhaps,” he replied, completely unfazed by my words. “You could be dead.”
“I already am,” I said, the words rushing out in a hushed whisper.
“I mean it literally,” he replied. I wished him to come closer, to give me some kind of human contact, but he never did. In all our talks, he never sat near me. If he did sit, he brought a chair in. But never sat close enough for me to touch. And yet, somehow I felt so much better when he was here. “You’ve improved remarkably, though. I recommended termination for you when you first arrived.”
Obviously someone did not agree with him, since I was still here. In some ways, I wished they had terminated me, but I didn’t want to let them win, and I thought maybe if I died, then in a way, they would.
“You were too wild, too defiant.”
“I want death.” I slid my tired body along the wall as he stepped closer to me. He’d never approached me like that. No one approached the crazy girl who bit the shit out of a guard on her first day. But he seemed unfazed. With lightning fast movements, he matched my movements one for one until he had me pinned with my back against the wall.
I yelped as he wrapped his long fingers around my throat and held me still. I gripped his strong arm as he leaned in close, almost using him as a support as well. The day’s session in Sonya’s office was still fresh on my mind, the pain still throbbing through my body. His hot breath fanned my face as he spoke. “There are far worse things than death in this world.”
“I’m living it,” I coughed. He wasn’t squeezing tight, just enough to keep me from moving away from him. As long as I stayed still, it wasn’t uncomfortable to be there. His fingers tightened just a tiny bit, and relaxed, letting me know he had control.
“Is that what you think? This…” he glanced around us. “This is nothing. Nothing compared to what’s really out there. You have seen nothing.”
Tears came up unbidden. Maybe because I was tired, or stressed from the session. I didn’t know. As my eyes watered and my vision began to blur, I fought them back. I didn’t want to cry in front of him. I’d done enough of that to last a lifetime. I’d always had a rule that I didn’t let anyone bigger than me get a grip on me like this. And Daniel was certainly much bigger than I was. But I didn’t think he really meant to kill me. Just scare me. To make me understand.
I wanted him to kill me. So bad. I wanted him to end it all. He was right. Death would be way better than experiencing any more of what Section Five had to offer. I didn’t want to see any more.
“Go on. Do it.” The encouragement was met with conflict. He wanted to. His eyes twisted and swirled with blood lust. The eyes of a real killer. The ache in my heart intensified as I tightened my fingers around his wrist and pulled his hand against my throat.
Just as the air cut off, he wrenched his hand loose and stepped backward. I slumped against the wall, breathing hard. I couldn’t stop the tears this time, all of them sliding down my face. I had almost had him. I could have been free.
“Unfortunately…” His voice was hoarse, unsteady as he spoke. His eyes turned sad, like the end of a thunderstorm. “Death doesn’t get you free of this place.”
“I want to die. I hate this place.”
“We all do,” he said, quietly. What had just happened had rocked us both hard, and I wasn’t sure why. Even Daniel, the guy that was so good at covering his emotions. He didn’t feel like everyone else did. It was in the way he spoke to others. Many probably didn’t even think he had a heart anymore. But I saw it, maybe I saw it too well for his liking.
I’d forgotten one thing these last few weeks, something this encounter had reminded me of. And God, I so needed to remember this one very well: Daniel was the enemy.
He was the facilitator of this process. He was there when I was taken. He was there when I woke up. And he was there after every session with Sonya.
Was this how they changed me? I was horribly aware of the change in myself since I’d arrived. I’d gone from busting up the entire room to sitting in quiet defiance. Now, I simply straightened my own two feet and stood toe to toe with my captor. Maybe he wasn’t exactly my captor, but he was their representative. Seeing his conflict bolstered me, knowing that I’d affected him as much as he’d affected me.
“Do you enjoy your job, Daniel? Taking helpless people and sending them through torture for God knows what reason? Do you get off on it?”
His lips tightened, and that was the only visual response he gave me. The wall he built closed down between us, blocking me from seeing anything inside. Again, the humanity inside him vanished, tucked so deep no one could see it. But it was too late. I knew it was there.
“Things will change in the recruit population. Any escape attempts, suicide attempts, or further actions against the guards will be dealt with severely. We expect you to conduct yourself as a professional now.”
“A professional?” I laughed. “What do they have on you, Daniel?”
“What?” His brow furrowed in a confused frown.
“No one does what you do for nothing. What did they get on you to make you such a good soldier?”
The frown vanished and he continued on his speech. “No more acting like a teen meth whore, especially when we are both aware that that’s not who you really are.”
I glared at him. Maybe I did overdo it sometimes, but strong reactions was the only way to get anything through to these people that I would not tolerate what they were doing to me. I sighed. “I want to go home, Daniel.”
Of everything I’d lost, I missed my stupid apartment. It was just a stupid little studio apartment, but I had millions of dollars worth of tech in there, overlaid with traps and alarms if anyone even tried to get in it. They could erase me, but they couldn’t erase my work. If only I’d been able to get home before they’d taken me. The outcome would have been way different.
“Home?” Daniel finally cracked the smile I’d been dying to see. It transformed his entire face, but it wasn’t a happy smile. I wasn’t sure he was ever happy. Wryness and irony weighted it down. “Where exactly is home, Naomi? Cell Block D? Because that was the path you were on.”
“No. I stole shit for years. Expensive shit. No one could ever catch me.”
“We did,” he replied. I fell silent. I couldn’t debate that. They had caught me, when I least expected it and easily. He sighed, heavy and weighted. “You need to realize very soon that you’re getting a second chance at life here. Section Five is about rehabilitating those with no hope and no future. All you have to do is accept what we’re offering you and you’ll be fine.”
Angry heat rose through my face. Accepting wasn’t in my plans. “Do you really believe that shit?”
Daniel didn’t answer.
“What if I don’t want a new life? What if I fight it?”
Daniel’s face hardened, and the rare emotions I had seen flittered away into the darkness. “Then you will disappear. The world already thinks you’re dead.”
Laughter erupted from me at the same old rhetoric he’d told me a hundred times already, both rueful and sad. I shook my head and leaned toward him. The smell of his aftershave wafted up and around me, surrounding me, embracing me. Heat flushed my cheeks, thinking of how close we had just been. “They must have something amazing on you.”
“Why would you say that?” His face didn’t give anything away, but I knew I was on the right track. The question wasn’t a denial. It wasn’t confirmation either, but in Daniel’s guarded way, he had let me see just a little glimpse of him.
“Because you’re a good soul, Daniel. I see that in you.”
His hand fisted in my hair and he yanked back, exposing my neck and forcing my head back. I yelped at the sudden pain, but I didn’t fight it. He wasn’t going to hurt me any more than anyone else here did. I’d take whatever punishment he wanted to dole out. “You don’t know me at all, Naomi. You know only what I’ve let you see.”
He pulled me closer until my chest bumped against his, but did not release his hold on my hair. “I am not a good man.”
I had something there. The way he fought what I said… Something was touching a nerve. “I don’t believe that.” I whispered the words, wincing at the pain of his hold on me, but still I didn’t fight him. “You wouldn’t do anything to harm another unless you didn’t have a choice.”
“There is always a choice,” he whispered. His eyes slid down to my mouth, a new hunger rising inside them. I shuddered when he leaned down, so close I wasn’t sure we were separate anymore. “A choice to surrender. A choice to fight.” The smile he gave was full of anger and malice. If I’d been smart, it would have frightened me into silence. “What would be your choice, Naomi? Surrender or fight?”