Sol lay on his back, staring at the blank ceiling. Its blankness was soothing. He didn’t want to feel. Thankfully, he had the medpatch meds in his system. They kept his mind dulled, his feelings wrapped in cotton. Those feelings, images, were still there, but he could avoid them easily.
Maybe the good feelings were dulled too, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing but avoiding the pain.
He closed his eyes, filled with a bland contentedness, and drifted off into a gray indeterminate world.
Vague nightmares gripped him, and he tried to scream, but he had no voice —
He gasped awake. His grandparents’ faces appeared, hovering above him, their expressions full of concern. He felt apprehension, though he was unsure why….
They were here and they loved him and he was safe.
His mom’s voice, off to the indistinct left. Her voice was muffled.
“How are you feeling?” his grandmother asked, her deep blue eyes concerned.
“Mmm….” Sol tried to answer, but the words couldn’t form.
His grandfather nudged her. “Can’t you see he’s out of it? Good thing too.” He turned toward his daughter. “How’s his medpatch supply?”
“What do you mean? Won’t they… I mean — it’s serious.”
“That has nothing to do with it. Some of the Resistors died in here because of lack of medical attention. They have no obligation to you. The Powers think of medpatches as a privilege — and if the supply gets cut off, oh well, it’s what you deserved.”
“I didn’t consider they’d….”
“You can’t expect human decency of these people. Most of them aren’t human anyway, they’re just Ms following their cold algorithms. We’re on our own in here, and we have to make sure we take care of ourselves. If his supply gets cut off, there are ways to get more. We have some things we can trade.”
“Thank you, Papa. I don’t have much….”
“The problem is, medpatches are mostly monopolized by the mafia. They know that’s what’s needed most, and so they get their hands on as many as they can. The prices can get steep.”
“Papa, I don’t want you to get tangled with the mafia!”
“Don’t worry, I dealt with them before.”
“He’s got the scars to prove it,” said grandmama, darkly. “I don’t like it either, but we can’t let Sol go without the meds he needs.”
“Too bad you don’t know anyone in the mafia…. Sometimes they’re lenient with the ones they know personally.”
“Isn’t there any other way?”
“We’ll try the bazaars first. I doubt they have any, at least, any that aren’t half-used, but… it’s worth a try.” He headed out the door.
Grandmama brushed Sol’s cheek with her fingers, tears in her eyes. Sol couldn’t help but flinch. Touch was like an electric shock. Even from those he loved.
Grandmama withdrew her hand. “Oh — I’m so sorry! I never think.”
Infinite sorrow pierced Sol’s heart. He couldn’t bear the fact that he’d hurt grandmama. She couldn’t even touch him! She’d never in a million years hurt him. What had they done? Would he be forever afraid? Unable to touch? How could he be so afraid?
He felt like the weakest, most debased thing on the planet. How could someone like this ever help anyone? He was human, crushed inside, all spark of divinity drowned out by darkness, smothered by evil.
Pain smoldered across his ribs, yanking him from his thoughts. Part of him welcomed the distraction from the endless torture.
His head throbbed, especially the back of it, as if a dull knife were embedded in it. Burns pulsed over his arms, his legs.
Worst was inside of him, a deep stabbing fire. There was only one way he could’ve gotten such pain….
He couldn’t help but scream.
His mother’s cool fingers on his forehead. Her green eyes, as turbulent as a stormy sea. A kiss that didn’t make him shudder with fear, that assuaged his pain for a millisecond before it swept over him again with a vengeance. He trembled uncontrollably. “Mama…” he cried, tears rolling hot down his cheeks.
“It’s okay, I’m here.”
“I’ll get the medM,” said grandmama, and footsteps clicked away.
Pain seized him, and he thrashed on the bed, trying to escape it, but there was no escape. Please, God, don’t leave me… don’t abandon me to this agony….
Another scream ripped from his throat. He couldn’t help it.
The inferno consumed him, flames licking over his body —
Something cool pressed to his neck.
He gasped as fog spread over his mind, swathing his body in gentle vagueness again….
The void consumed his mind, and his last thought was a prayer: thank you for blessed nothingness
He slowly became aware of firmness beneath him. A ray of sunlight poured through the window, illuminating dust in the air. Above, the ceiling was blue, with faux clouds floating across it… A smell of cinnamon wafted on the air…. Humming drifted through the half-open door. Mama. Warmth flooded his heart, and he longed to see her.
Pain smoldered across his chest, and fear seized him. He gasped, then told himself to breathe. Don’t panic. He caught sight of something on the bed stand, and he risked turning to look at it. His shoulder ached, but the inferno didn’t burst over him. There was a pile of medpatches on the bed stand. He managed to grab one. His hands shook, but not too much to function, and he carefully tore it open and pressed it to his neck. A moment later, oblivion claimed him.
The next thing he knew, his mother was beside him, and she held a tray of food. “Would you like something to eat? You need to get your strength back.”
He nodded. He felt vaguely hungry…. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. He didn’t want to remember anything. Nothing but the present. Here, safe, with Mama.
“Do you think you can sit up?”
He nodded, and she helped prop him up on a pile of pillows. She sat beside him and held her arm against his back and he was grateful for the support.
His hands shook so she helped him eat the toast and soup, feeding him as if he were a child. A small bit of strength flowed back into him. She stroked his hair and sang soft, joyful ballads of their people that somehow made his heart ache. He held tight to her, and never wanted to let her go.
But drowsiness swept over him, and he slid down into the pillows to sleep.
The little girl, standing in the alley in her red dress, humming to herself. Rocking a holodoll in her arms.
Shadows crept up from the darkness. Sol tried to scream, but his voice was only a rasping whisper. He tried to move, but his feet were rooted in place. The shadows converged behind the girl. Sol screamed, but the girl didn’t hear.
The shadows materialized into cruel faces with twisted smiles, stabbing eyes. They surrounded her like a pack of wolves, then leaped on her, ripping her apart —
He felt her pain as she shrieked in agony, lightning lancing into her small body —
He gasped awake. Evening shadows danced on the walls. He was in his room. The girl was safe.
Pain snapped across his chest. A stabbing burn cut through him.
Their hands on his arms —
Their lips on his skin —
Lightning tearing into him —
He grabbed for a medpatch and slapped it to his neck, then waited for the numbness to overtake him. But it only dulled the pain. His mind was agonizingly sharp.
He thrashed away from the horror of his memories, but they still writhed at the edge of his consciousness.
Something — anything — for a distraction.
Voices drifted in from the living room. Mama. And Hale, her fiancé.
He slipped to the edge of the bed and started to step off, but his head whirled, and nausea clutched him. He leaned over, his head in his hand, until it subsided.
I guess I’m not getting up any time soon.
He lay back on the bed and listened.
“It’s just that… I don’t want my dad to owe the mafia,” said Mama.
“Of course I can get you some medpatches. Leave it to me.”
Footsteps, and the sound of the door sliding open and shut. Then his mother came into his room.
“Are you okay?” she said, a worried furrow in her brow.
“We’re switching to regular medpatches now, since you’re mostly healed. We don’t want you to get addicted to the strong kind. These still dull your pain — but they don’t need to be so powerful. And you won’t be so sleepy. You’ll be able to get back to normal.”
He flinched inwardly at the word “normal.” He knew full well it was going to take much longer for his mind to heal than his body.
He couldn’t help but wish he could be knocked out…. the stronger meds had even dulled the nightmares…. Now…. he didn’t know if he could cope with the horrors behind the wall of his consciousness.
“Papa got us some from the bazaar at first. But then he had to trade some from the mafia. He sold the last nugget of gold he had to get your medpatches — and we’re running out again.” She gestured to the last patch on the nightstand. “Hale offered to get us some. He’s so sweet!”
Sol hesitated. Hale was pleasant and charming, but he had an angry streak. And when he was angry, sometimes he lashed out at others. Sol had felt a strong current of darkness in him. Perhaps Hale could reform. But Sol didn’t like the idea of his mother being with someone, much less being married to someone, who could hurt her….
“I’ll thank him the next time I see him,” said Sol, the only thing he could say and mean. Perhaps he should have a conversation with his mother about it. But she was so enamored, so… in love… that Sol wasn’t sure how to begin. And he couldn’t force her to break it off…. Maybe he could talk to Hale…. Though Hale didn’t seem to pay much attention to him either way.
His mother brought in supper, a cheese sandwich and mushroom broth. Sol began eating on his own, but then he had to stop and let his mother feed him again. He didn’t mind, except he wanted to become self-sufficient again, and didn’t want his mother to have to do everything for him.
“Thank you, Mama,” he said. “For everything.”
She pressed her hand to his cheek, leaned her forehead on his. “You are everything to me. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you — whatever I can do is never enough.”
“It’s always enough.”
She smiled, tears slipping down her cheeks, and squeezed his hand. “My beautiful boy. You…were so….” She shook her head. “I thought I lost you. You were covered in blood…. I could do nothing. I felt so helpless…. I couldn’t help you. Only watch as the medMs worked over you…. I’d give everything for you. But it won’t always be enough. I’d exchange my life for yours — I’d take your place — you know that.” Her earnest deep green eyes blazed into his. So full of love it was like looking into the sun. He forced himself to meet her gaze…. To be vulnerable, at least for her. And send his love through his own eyes.
The full import of what she’d said slammed into him, and his heart broke. He couldn’t imagine — “No. Don’t ever say that. I know you would…sacrifice yourself for me, but I never want you to. Don’t ever — even think of it. As…” he swallowed, fear racing through him, “horrible as it was, I would bear it a thousand times rather than let you….” Tears burst from his eyes and a sob wracked him. She pulled him close and kissed his temple and he was grateful — that he was here, in the present, with his mother, and that she would never have to go through what he had.