Have you ever wanted to be someone else so desperately that you wished for it with everything you had? Closed your eyes at night and prayed you would wake up as someone else? Would sacrifice anything to just not be you for another day? That’s how I used to feel when I first came here, fourteen years ago a screaming child of four, crying as my parents walked out of this place without me.
I stayed like that for a long time, too, a black hole of emotion. I’d destroy any light that came too close. I cursed the world and everyone that dwelled upon it.
It was six years ago that I was lying in my private cell in The Holy Sanctuary for the Criminally Insane—or the Cement Giant as me and the other inmates called it—and had one of those moments, the kind where I could see beyond the confines I’d erected in my mind. The bars that had kept my mind in this dark place, as surely as the cement walls kept my body, weakened and rusted away.
I don’t know why it happened. Maybe it was simply age or maturity, but the anger that had been pouring out of me like a spigot on full blast started to slow. I realized that this was it, the only life I was going to get. I could either let myself rot here in misery or I could find a way out. I’d already gotten one second chance. I’d survived when so many others hadn’t. Was I really going to waste it here?
See the thing is, I’m a Plaguer, one who’s had the Bloody Death and lived. That’s not something many can say. When the Bloody Death hit the world a hundred and fifty years ago, it had a zero percent rate of survival. From what I’ve heard and read, one day no one had ever heard of the Bloody Death, and the next it ripped through the human population like a forest fire after a six-month drought. And just like a fire, it killed fast and painfully. People would be up walking around fine, only to fall bleeding on the street one moment, and gripped in agony and dead the next.
From the records left behind of that time, ninety-five percent of the population contracted the Bloody Death and all of them died during the initial outbreak. Not to mention that it didn’t spring up and then disappear. No, it’s been coming back every ten or twenty years. You don’t have to be a math genius to know those odds suck. I guess it’s a good thing there were so many humans to start with or we might have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
Everyone is fearful of when the next wave might hit. Maybe that outbreak will be the one to end us all. It’s not like anyone knew where the Bloody Death came from, or why it still mysteriously showed back up from time to time, which added to the fear. The unknown and all that? Some people have a real hang-up about not knowing things. I don’t understand that fear, but maybe it was because as a Plaguer, I’ve always known more than I wanted.
When rumors started creeping up about how a teeny tiny percent of the population, something like less than .001%, was surviving, most people thought it was a lie. Plaguers are so rare you can go your whole life never meeting one, but I’m living proof they exist.
The first couple of days after I’d survived the Bloody Death, I’d thought I was the luckiest girl to walk the Earth. I was young when it happened, only four and so full of childish delusions. Children can be like that before life teaches them better.
I still regard myself as lucky, but now I know survival comes at a cost. The Bloody Death changes you, makes you see things. They say these things aren’t true, but I know better. They say all Plaguers are psychotic, contaminated and ruined, need to be locked away to protect society from the evil they spew about monsters.
I say they’re blind. But maybe willfully so. I know what the Plaguers before me have said. I’ve seen the things they’ve seen. There’s a reason no one wanted to believe them. I understand why they hide us in places like this.
The people here, they tell me that this is the only safe place for me. That I would be killed if I’d been born somewhere else, like the Wilds, which encompasses the vast majority of what used to be the United States now except for the small slivers pieced out to form the few smaller countries that exist.
I’d prefer to take my chances. I didn’t survive the Bloody Death to only go on and live as if I were truly dead. If I was meant to be alive, I didn’t want to walk this Earth—I wanted to truly live it, dance and revel in everything it had to offer, feel every sensation and emotion open to the human psyche. I would. Even if it took me until I was a hundred and I only had one single day of freedom, I would not die here; I would die living.
The door to my cell opened and startled me. It wasn’t time for the daily release yet. I looked up from my bed, already dressed for the day in the simple white dresses we were given, to the guard.
“You’re getting a visitor.”
I let out a sigh. It was going to be one of those days.
I sat on a metal folding chair in the bleak visiting room of painted cement, among a handful of other “patients” sitting with their parents or other family members who hadn’t given up on their kin yet. It was only a matter of time. They all threw in the towel eventually.
It was almost understandable. I had a pretty thick callous built up over my heart from hearing the crying and pleading all the time, and it still clawed at me. Seeing it once a month or so when you had that fresh heart meat all tender like? Brutal.
Plus, no one ever got out. Once you were here, there was no release. You died here. But not me. That wouldn’t be my end.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the woman across the room watching me. She was one of the nurses, or at least that’s what she pretended to be. Like the Plaguers before me, I knew better. A dark haze clung to her like a storm cloud she couldn’t shake or maybe didn’t want to. There was a name for them. Dark Walkers, the Plaguers had called them. Even before I’d come here, before I’d gotten sick, I remembered the tales spread by the Plaguers. I’d thought they were ghost stories. My mother had told me Dark Walkers didn’t exist. Of course I believed her. My parents had been my entire world—until they weren’t.
As the Dark Walker stared at me, I worried another knot in a head already full of red ones, never breaking from the act that helped keep me alive. Once upon a time, behaving as crazy as they said I was had been an act. I’d watched some of the other inhabitants of the Cement Giant and learned it all from them, the actions that would deem me mentally unstable. I’d embraced the facade because it was better to have your enemy think you were crazy and weak than having them know you were just waiting for your moment.
The nurse’s attention was fine-tuned on me worse than normal today, but I was always on their radar. The Dark Walkers knew, or at least suspected, that I could see them for what they were. They ran test after test, each more painful than the last, but I never gave them what they wanted. It was ironic that my hunters were the only ones that wanted the truth and the last ones I’d ever tell it to.
I switched gears from forming knots to chewing on the stub of a thumbnail worn down to almost nothing, while I wondered who was going to walk through that door, the one that led out of this place.
At exactly nine, my visitor made his entrance. He had to be here for me, as I was the only one left sitting alone across from an empty seat. But even though it had to be him, I doubted what my eyes were seeing. He looked nothing like the others the Dark Walkers had sent, trying to trick me in to divulging my secrets in the past.
He was late twenties or maybe a very well aged early thirties. Even dressed up in his suit, he didn’t look like a pencil pusher or a government worker. There was an edge to him that had nothing to do with his dark coloring or deep-set eyes. He scanned the room, like I did when I was sizing up which guards were on duty.
I’d thought I was going to sit here, spew the normal bullshit about how everything was just grand while the Dark Walker’s spy tried to find a way to trip me up. After the first ten or twenty of these visits, I’d gotten the role I was playing down to the point I could nap through it, but this visit had just become interesting.
He handed his badge over to a nurse of the normal human variety. She made a show of flipping it over like she had some clue, clearly not viewing him as the threat I saw him to be. Sometimes I found it shocking how easily people believed what they were told. I wanted to shake her and tell her to wake the hell up. I’d tried doing that in my younger years. It never worked. People believed what they wanted. Most of the time it’s the things they find most beneficial to their situation, and they do all sorts of mental gymnastics to make it fit neatly into their reality.
I never understood that. The truth was so much easier to deal with, no mental backflips or cartwheels required.
The Dark Walker in the room with us noticed, though. They didn’t miss much and didn’t seem to have the same aversion to reality that humans sometimes had. This one had been here for a few years and she was even savvier than most of the ones I’d met. I watched her watching him. She seemed to be at full alert, as if she was viewing him as a threat.
She didn’t wait long before she turned and left the room, probably to get reinforcements. This morning might turn out to be the most action I’d seen in years, or at least since Piggy Iggy, one of the other inmates, had gone nuclear all over the cafeteria after eating bad food out of the garbage.
The stupid human nurse handed him back his ID. She pulled out something for him to sign, but his attention had already settled on me.
I didn’t break eye contact. After all, I could only play meek so much, and I didn’t see a reason here for the charade. This wasn’t a Dark Walker or one of their spies that I needed to hide my true self from. I shot him my what the hell do you want stare. It was a particular favorite of mine and handled quite a versatile amount of situations with little effort. It was also something that flew under the radar if a guard wasn’t looking at your face at the time. It ranked even higher than my you’ve got to be fucking kidding me with this shit stare, which usually needed more information about what was happening before it could be used.
There was a subtle movement of his head that may or may not have been a nod, a picking up of the gauntlet—challenge accepted? I’d like to think I was right, but every so often I did wonder if perhaps I was as crazy as they said. How the hell would I know, anyway? It’s hard to be objective about one’s own sanity. What if the guy just had a crick in his neck?
He turned away to sign the paper and then the nurse pointed him in my direction, even though it was clear he knew exactly where to go. He wasn’t getting any credit for knowing. I was the only person sitting alone. He could have the IQ of a rock and have figured that out.
He walked over toward the table in a sluggish manner, completely at odds with the physique his ill-fitting suit tried to hide. He pulled out the chair and sat down across from me, again with the stilted movements of someone fifty years older and horribly out of shape. I couldn’t believe this act actually worked on some people.
There was something hard about his pale eyes but I wasn’t afraid of him. Most people probably were when he wasn’t playing dress-up. I should’ve been too, but it was difficult to dredge up fear for a human when you lived your life next to monsters.
Now that he was in range, generally within five feet of me, I waited for some of my “Plaguer Delusions” to hit. The information I got from people was never delivered in the same way but there were usually certain similarities. Sometimes the memories hit hard and fast and other times they leaked out in a small trickle.
I waited for something to come to me, a snippet of history so traumatic that it was burned into their mind, just waiting to be seen and heard, relived. Occasionally they didn’t come at all, which was looking like it would be the case with him as he bent over paperwork that I suspected was nothing more than a prop.
It wasn’t like I’d never drawn a blank before; it just wasn’t often. Figured it would be him who would leave a big fat blank. Most of the time, I didn’t want to see the things people shared. The flashes of a person’s history, the stuff from the darkest corners of their mind, no matter how short, told me a lot. It always seemed to be the bad stuff too, never the good, only experiences so bad they cut out their own niche in the human psyche.
With a Plaguer, it was almost impossible to put your best foot forward. A good first impression meant that you didn’t kill your brother last week or rape the neighbor’s daughter. Because the truth of it is, in times like these, there wasn’t anyone who was squeaky clean. I judged people on a sliding scale and a body count. I usually gave them the first murder for free and didn’t knock serious points off until the third.
Still, I didn’t need a red flag in my face to know this guy was on the hunt right now; maybe he always was. I hadn’t survived this long without learning how to identify the threats. But what would he want with me? I had nothing to take.
“Your name is Dahlia Franks?” he asked, finally looking up from his notepad.
I didn’t bother answering, just continued to sit and play the crazy part. This was one of the perks of being nuts. No one expected you to behave in accordance to the general population’s playbook, and I enjoyed being a nonconformist.
He already knew who I was anyway. It made me wonder why people asked unnecessary questions.
He continued on, not missing a beat. “I’m here on behalf of our government of Newco. My name is Samuel Right. I’m doing randomized interviews to assess the living conditions in the Newco’s various government-run facilities. Quality control, you could say.”
I nodded as I swapped my thumbnail out for the pinky. It was my least favorite nail and, as such, had a decent stub left on it. In the last fourteen years I’d been here, not once had I ever heard of quality control interviews. No, this guy was a spy of some sort, but for who? For what? Not the Dark Walkers.
The Dark Walkers had sent in plenty of spies over the years, trying to trick me into telling them I knew they were different. They always posed as visiting experts that might be able to help me. They’d even sent in a supposed aunt I didn’t know of, who could take me home with her if I just told her the truth. That one had almost gotten me snagged. It had mentally fucked me for weeks, too. But I never did tell, and I had a feeling that was why I was the only Plaguer left standing in this compound.
I didn’t know how, even then at the young age of four, I knew instinctively to hide my knowledge of them, but I had. Just shows self-preservation is hard-wired into us. After all, I’d never seen a mouse sit back and wait for the cat to eat it, no matter how tiny and young it was.
“May I ask you some questions?” he asked, and I thought I caught a glimpse of something in those light eyes before they shuttered closed. It wasn’t from fear. No, this guy didn’t seem timid, and he certainly wasn’t worried about me. He was hiding something, and if I had to guess, he’d heard enough about Plaguers to know something about what we could do but not enough to be accurate or to know how much.
He was playing a part but not well enough, and yet I still didn’t think he was working for the Dark Walkers. That didn’t mean he could be trusted.
“Just to get some background, you were brought here at age four after you killed your teacher. Is that correct?”
I leaned back in my chair and dropped the nervous nail-chewing act. I set my gaze on him, barely blinking. I said, “That is what the records say.”
One of the things I hated most was thinking of the past, in particular that time after I’d gotten sick. My parents had told me I’d never had the Bloody Death. I’d just had a bad flu.
They sent me to school like nothing had changed, warning me to say nothing of any sickness. It might have worked if there hadn’t been monsters there, just like they were here. This Dark Walker had been pretending to be a teacher.
I’d told my parents but they’d said monsters didn’t exist. That I shouldn’t speak of such things and that I was bad.
I’d gone back to school the next day and I saw the monster watching my friend. He was going to do something to him. I just knew it. Even then, I’d known that just because the people around me were stupid, didn’t mean they should die.
So I lay in wait at recess. While the monster was eating his sandwich, I snuck up behind him and stabbed the monster in the neck repeatedly with my pencil until there was nothing but gurgling noises. The monster was defeated. They should’ve thanked me. They didn’t.
There was a lot of chaos after that. They talked to my parents. I don’t know what was said but I’d like to think they’d fought for me, that they hadn’t had a choice. The next day I’d thought we were going to the beach. They drove me here instead.
That was when I’d become the hunted. There were monsters here as well but I never got the opportunity to kill another. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t in the future.
As if he sensed my agitation with the subject, he switched gears. “Do you like your accommodations here?” he asked, pencil poised over paper.
Now this was the perfect opportunity to use my you’ve got to be fucking kidding me with this shit stare.
No reaction from him. He shot off more questions. “And the food? Would you say the meals are acceptable?”
It was hard not to laugh in his face. I was a walking stick figure of almost comical proportions. We were all thin here, but not like me. My friends called me Olive Oyl after some cartoon they’d found a while back.
The powers that be said I needed to be on a restricted diet, that the plague would return if I were at full strength. I couldn’t say whether they were right or wrong. It wasn’t my choice and I hadn’t been given the opportunity to test the theory. I’d like to think that there were easier ways to kill me if that was what they were after. “I eat like a queen,” I replied. “Can’t you tell?”
I waited to see how he’d take that answer. He didn’t even blink. “You are a Plaguer? Is that correct?”
I fisted my right hand where it was resting on my lap underneath the table. “Isn’t that in your records, too?”
I watched his expression close enough that I could see his pupils dilate against the light background of his irises. Why would this be good news to him when most were disgusted by this fact and almost all were frightened that contact with me was lethal?
I wondered what any of this had to do with quality control. Did he not realize he’d gone way off script, or did he not care?
“And you’re prone to delusions?” he asked.
Why was he asking this? It was common knowledge that Plaguers had them. We were insane. We spread lies and talked of monsters. Everyone knew it.
“Delusions?” I asked, pretending to have no idea what he was saying. Maybe he was with the Dark Walkers. This was more in line with what they would send people out to ask. Normal humans didn’t like to hear what Plaguers said, let alone give it any merit. There was a reason lines like don’t shoot the messenger came about. People didn’t like to hear bad things. If they could deny them, more than nine out of ten people would. I know, the math is a little funny there because what’s more than nine out of ten? Yeah, you got it. Pretty much everybody.
He leaned across the expanse of metal table. “Yes. Do you see things like most Plaguers?”
“I don’t know any other Plaguers—anymore. I can’t answer what most see,” I said. My calm was starting to be rattled. I wanted to know who this guy was. Government worker? That was total bull. Spy for the Dark Walkers? No, I still didn’t think so.
His eyes were still dead set on me. “Do you see delusions?”
For some reason I thought he wanted me to say yes. Like it meant a great deal to him. That this was what he had been hunting down. Part of me wanted to speak the truth to him that I denied so often. It wasn’t about making him happy or not. I was tired of pretending. Eighteen years old but I felt like I was a hundred.
We openly stared at each other, sizing the other up. He finally broke the standoff by the slightest softening of his tone as he said, “You want to answer this.”
It felt like something was left hanging off the end of that sentence. I didn’t know what I saw in him, why I felt like he wanted this or why his slight softening undid me, but for some reason, I spoke and gave him what I knew he wanted. “Yes. I see things.”
He leaned back in his chair, and for the first time since he’d walked in the door, he openly showed me a tiny glimpse of who he really was as he smiled like he’d just had a bloody meal of raw meat. There was someone brutal hiding behind this act. Whoever he really was, he was happy that I was a Plaguer who “had delusions.” Who the hell was this?
I wouldn’t get to find out, though. The door to the visiting room opened and I knew who it was immediately. Not only did the Dark Walkers have a cloud that clung to them, but they also had a smell. It was like a sickly sweet perfume that repelled instead of attracted. The woman who just walked in was the worst and also the one in charge.
Ms. Edith, as we were told to address her, walked over to our table. Black suit, white shirt and hair pulled back without a single stray in sight. She was one of them, the dark haze clinging to her. I forced myself to sit still even though my body tensed. I hated being near them, couldn’t breathe through the smell. Luckily there weren’t too many that I came in close contact with. There were others here, but only her and the other nurse came within a few feet of me.
“How are things going over here, Mr. Right? We hadn’t expected a visit,” she said, looking at him and then me. My fingers started knotting into my hair, reflexively going into the crazy act. I hadn’t even thought of the action until Mr. Right’s eyes flickered to my hand in my hair and then back to her.
“Last minute. Sorry for the abrupt arrival.”
Her smell was stronger than normal, and I’d been around her enough times to know it happened when she was irritated. So he wasn’t working for them? I looked up through lowered lashes to watch the interaction now that I knew for sure she hadn’t been aware of this visit. His eyes darted to me a few times and I had the strangest feeling he sensed how much I hated to be around her.
He stood and smiled. “We’re just finishing up.”
“And how did things go?” she asked, her normally shrill voice sweetened unnaturally.
“Splendid. I’ll send this report back to headquarters and I’m sure everyone will be very pleased.”
Boy, this guy was just oozing with lies today. He looked down at his notebook and then back to her and that was when the fun really started. He softened his smile, leaned in closer to her and then offered up his arm to her. He was dialing up the sex appeal until even my inexperienced little heart was doing flip-flops, and I wasn’t even the target. Nothing of the raw brutality I sensed was showing through now, or the earlier awkward act. Seemed my visitor was quite the chameleon.
“If I could get a quick tour, I’ll be out of your hair.”
Whatever Dark Walkers were, which I’d bet my ass wasn’t human, they apparently still liked human men. She smiled back and locked her hand down on him in a way that made me imagine claws hidden under that flesh. “I have a free moment. I can show you around.”
They walked off and he didn’t even glance back at me. I wasn’t sure where I’d gotten the crazy feeling that being truthful with him was going to set something in motion, but I had. Watching him disappear with one of the monsters made me feel a little heavier in my chair, and the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins while I’d been squaring off with him was now receding.
This was turning into one really strange day.