Gray Hearts: Chapter 6

My room for the foreseeable future was basically a windowless box with a bed and a tangle of hospital equipment with blank screens. There was a vent on a floor and one on the ceiling, a chair in one corner, and a box fan on the floor. I’m guessing they didn’t give me a window so I couldn’t escape, so I gave them points for actually thinking about that.

On the other hand, I didn’t see the necessity of taking precautions with me. I had no idea where Hudson’s room was, nor was I familiar with the layout of the building. I also had no weapons. Then again, what are the odds someone here’s gonna know hand-to-hand combat? I could beat the shit out of every doctor here and not break a sweat.

That thought brought me back to one of the first times I actually went out with the rest of RIFT 1 to a bar. I only did it just to look like I fit in, but it definitely didn’t help that I sat in a corner with Vasquez and watched Hudson, Frost, and Crowe make idiots of themselves. It didn’t help that Vasquez and I couldn’t talk like we usually do. Imagine that. Going out with your own wife and not being able to show you love each other. That alone made me hurt inside. So we were left with the entertainment that is Hudson.

I’ve mentioned before that Hudson hasn’t held a steady girlfriend in his life. He was talking with a female Marine from a different RIFT, and he was drunk out of his skull. Well, long story short, it turns out she was dating a guy in her RIFT and he was coming out of the bathroom when he saw Hudson talking with his girlfriend. Frankly, I couldn’t blame him for what he did because I would’ve done the same (even though I know full-well that Vasquez will fight people twice her size and come out victorious). He grabbed Hudson by his shoulders and threw him from the barstool. Hudson’s reactions were crap because he had already been drinking, and both Frost and Crowe weren’t much help because they were equally smashed. Frost did take a swing that missed. Now, I haven’t been on the receiving end of a Frost punch, but I do know he can knock someone out if he lands it.

Then there’s Wierzbowski. Wierzbowski usually doesn’t go out, but Apone has asked him to accompany Hudson several times in case he gets in trouble. I’ve never seen Wierzbowski drink, and even though he’s a gentle giant to the rest of the team, he doesn’t fuck around when Hudson is getting his ass kicked. Almost as soon as Hudson was on the floor, Wierzbowski got up and wasted no time in picking up the other Marine and throwing him across the bar. The other guy was dazed and gave up the fight right then and there. Wierzbowski just went back to his table to finish his tea.

Even though I can handle myself, I found myself wishing Wierzbowski or Frost was here. Why would they help me, though? I haven’t done anything for them. They have no reason to help me. None whatsoever.

I spent most of my time in bed, thinking. There was no clock in the room, I noticed, so I had no idea how long I had been in there. Even my prison cell had a small window.

The memories of lying awake at night in that dark little space hit me like a freight train. I had once counted every scratch in the metal on the bars (there were 8,462), and studied the manners in which every guard paced. I could recognize them by their gait.

Most of the time, I lay on my cot, watching the hallway. I was on the second level of the B block for males, in cell number 208. They kept the long-term prisoners there. Almost all of them were sick, twisted, and violent. Very few, like me, were granted certain privileges for good behavior, like going out in the yard with the females. Hell, that’s how Vasquez and I met.

My dreams were all the same. I dreamed of the days and nights I was on the run. The sights and sounds and smells were clear as day, and guards noticed I had a tendency to violently throw myself at the wall when I’m coming out of a nightmare. I even heard a couple of them say they felt sorry for me. Despite that, and despite help being available, I refused to take it. The last thing I wanted was for one of the other inmates to see me going to a shrink.

My thoughts then turned to Delhoun telling me that having persistent nightmares aren’t a good thing. The ones about my arrest had stopped sometime after I joined the Marines and I had hoped that would be a sign things were looking up for me. I had hoped it meant I could move on and change for the better.

Even with Vasquez, and even after being placed in a Special Forces unit, I felt undeserving. Communicating with anyone was impossible. Everyone in my unit knows I came from prison, and even though they’ve been as accepting as they can, I’m too embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it. Why should I just accept it? I killed three people. That’s not something I’m proud of.

But am I ashamed of that, or the fact that I just haven’t moved on?

The silver flower hasn’t helped. In fact, it’s made things worse. I managed to nap for a few hours (at least, I think it was a few hours) after I was put in that little room and told to stay in there until someone came to get me. I awoke for a minute or two, head heavy with sleep, and figured it would be best for me to go back to sleep. I have nothing better to do anyway. Next thing I knew, a figure in a lab coat was pulling the machine next to the bed closer, and putting random needles and sticky nodes on me before performing compressions on my chest. I could feel sharp, heavy thrusts deep in my ribcage.

I opened my mouth to scream, but the figure clamped a gloved hand over my mouth. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. My lungs tightened sharply. My heart was struggling to beat. My throat was closing fast, and I saw the faces of the doctors on Gateway. I tried to roll off the bed when I saw one of them raising a pair of defibrillator paddles and rubbing them together.

When it all vanished, I sat up on my side, gasping for breath. I looked down at the rumpled mess of sheets from my tossing and scrambling around in my sleep. There really is something wrong with me, I thought. I can’t get it out of my head. I can’t stop seeing what happened. It’s always there, and I don’t want it there! I wanted to scream, but all that came out was a sob. I hugged my knees, crying like the pathetic mess I am.

The realization hit me harder than anything I’ve ever felt in my life. I really do have post-traumatic stress. I’m a sick man and no one can help me, because if I get help and can’t get better, I’m going back to prison. I’ll rot for the rest of my life and die an unchanged, irredeemable, worthless human being.

There were a lot of things I wanted in that moment. I wanted to run away. I wanted to hold someone. I wanted to scream. I wanted a friend. I wanted Vasquez. I wanted to crawl away in a dark place and not come out for a long time. And I wanted to die. I didn’t want to think about this anymore. This isn’t a battle I can win, because I have to fight it alone. I can’t tell anyone, not unless I want to go back to prison. I know I can trust Vasquez, but she wasn’t here, and I didn’t even know if I was ever going back to my unit. A crushing hopelessness that seeped from my head to my chest was telling me I wasn’t going back. I was going to be kept here as a guinea pig.

Another thought hit me. I was in a better position than Hudson was right now. Who knows what they were doing to him right now? And here I was feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t believe how selfish I was being. Clearly, I’m not a team player, I thought. I never will be.

That was how I spent my day. Panicking over the realization that I have PTSD, wallowing in self-pity, and beating myself up over how selfish I am. All I care about is me and my problems.

I wasn’t in the room when Hudson regained consciousness, but I overheard Farlas and Hornby talking about how he was really confused and panicked. Honestly, I would be too if I woke up halfway around the world in a laboratory. What really hurt was hearing that he actually tried to escape, though he couldn’t walk or stand properly because he was in such rough shape.

I lay in my bed trying to imagine what Hudson was thinking. He’s woken up in random places after a night of drinking, but this is different. This is much worse. Instead of a girl dumb enough to sleep with him, he’s waking up with a bunch of lab coats and machinery staring down at him. Instead of a hangover, he’s almost unable to stand or walk. He probably couldn’t see, or even breathe properly. He didn’t get very far and was quickly sedated. This was going to be torture for him.

I had no idea what time it was when Farlas came into my room. He had a cup of coffee, so I assumed it was morning and asked, “What time is it?”

“It’s a little after nine AM,” Farlas replied. “I really should convince my colleagues to put clocks in these rooms, but the only reason they’re refusing is because they don’t want anything in here that could allow you to kill yourself.”

“I’d have to be pretty desperate to kill myself with a clock.”

Farlas didn’t smile. “You’d be amazed at what desperate people will do to end their own lives.” He glanced out into the hallway, then closed the door. “Alright. I volunteered to talk to you because I know how Hornby and Adril are. Adril is, in all honesty, the most emotionally stunted person I’ve ever met, and Hornby is a very anxious man who just wants to get the job done. Overall, they won’t treat you like you’re human.”

“What about Garavich?” I asked.

“There’s a joke among the hospital’s staff that he’s the ‘ethics advisor.’ I think that tells you all you need to know.”

“So, you and Garavich aren’t going to treat me like a guinea pig.”

“As best we can. I can promise you that we won’t do anything… unpleasant. I did argue against physically bringing you here because all we’re going to be doing is gathering samples-”

I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or get angry. “So you people locked me in here just so you can take samples?

“The others were worried about you not cooperating if we set you up in a hotel room.”

“Yeah, well, I won’t cooperate if you keep me in this fucking cell!” Because I know what that’s like and I don’t want to go through it again. I had to stop and think for a moment. “Tell you what; do whatever you need to do to me today, and send me to a hotel tonight.”

Farlas kept looking at me with his arms folded over his chest. Finally, he said, “Alright, but I will add one more thing-I’m trusting you, so I’d like you to show that same trust in return. If you can do that, I’ll talk to Garavich and we’ll put you up in a hotel room tonight.”

Deep down, I didn’t trust him, but I’d do anything to get out of this lab. “Deal.”

I got to see Hudson once Farlas was done collecting blood and piss and spit from me. He was being kept in a much bigger room under the watchful eyes of a couple of lab technicians and an intern. Farlas dismissed the technicians when we walked in, but the intern, a young woman with long, frizzy dark hair and big glasses, spoke up, saying, “I’m not done recording the patient’s vitals, sir.”

“This won’t take long, Miss Harrison,” Farlas explained gently.

“I need the data for my report by the end of the week. My professor will kill me if I don’t have this done.”

“If she has any complaints, I will step in for you. Besides, you need a break. You’ve been stressing out about that report for the last month and you won’t provide your best work if you can’t focus.”

The intern still looked tense. Farlas gave her shoulder a squeeze. “I was in your place once. Fretting too much about it won’t help. Go get some coffee.” Once the intern left, Farlas turned to me. “That was Miranda Harrison, one of the students from a local medical university. She’s a very bright young woman, but also easily stressed. She tends to take on much more than she can handle.”

I wanted to ask why Farlas was discussing this with me, but kept that to myself.

Hudson was lying on a bed next to an EKG monitor. He was awake, but whether or not he was conscious was another story. I was allowed to approach him, but something inside me was screaming not to.

Suddenly we were back in Australia. We had just put Hudson on the ground, and there was silver saliva running from his mouth as he thrashed around, struggling to breathe. That normally cheery spirit had been banished from his eyes and all I could see was panic and fear.

I stepped back, unable to look anymore. I couldn’t even get close to him. All I could feel was my heart pounding and my chest tightening, knowing damn well all those memories would come back with the force of a freight train.

I knew Farlas was watching me. The last thing I wanted was him suspecting there was something wrong with me.

Hudson looked at me, and reached up to take my hand. “Drake? What… What the hell happened, man? W-Where am I? All I saw were people in white coats when I woke up. Where’s the Sarge, man?”

When I couldn’t find anything helpful to say, I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to cry. Being honest wouldn’t help, even though I felt like he knew he was trapped. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say a damn word.

“Drake? Please say something, man, this feels like a bad dream.”

It felt like a bad dream to me, too. I’ve been living in a bad dream since returning to RIFT 1 after Gateway, and it’s not something I feel like I can escape. Unless I jumped out a window into traffic.

I realized what that would sound like to anyone if they could hear my thoughts. Releasing Hudson’s hand, I backed away, and struggled to not look like I was about to scream.

“Are you alright, Drake?” Farlas asked.

What does “alright” mean? I thought. “Fine. Perfectly fine,” I said. “I’m ready to go back.”

Hudson tried to sit up. “Drake, wait, man! Talk to me! You’re not fine, man, I can see the look in your eyes.”

I didn’t want to talk to anyone except for Vasquez, but she was halfway around the world and out of my reach. I was completely alone.

I didn’t want to wait for Farlas to talk to someone about getting me into a hotel. I wanted out, and I wanted out now. My hands were shaking and sweat was running off me in waves. I was going to run, get out through the vents, and I kept whispering that to myself as I knelt in by the grate in the floor, took off my ID tag on the short chain, and pulled the rubber edging off the flat piece of metal. I looked up at the little camera on the ceiling, and stopped giving a fuck. I stuck the edge of the tag into the notch of a screw and began slowly turning it. More and more, I felt like I wanted to throw up, and it came to a head when I realized this was my solution for every problem I’ve faced—running away. It’s what I did when I got sick of my home life. That’s what I wanted to do when my drill instructors berated me for my background. That’s what I wanted to do when I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to serve alongside Vasquez.

Still shaky and sweaty, I set down my tag. I can’t run every time it looks like shit’s gonna hit the fan for me. That’s something that has to change.

I sat there, breathing hard and trying not to cry, for several long minutes before the door opened, and Farlas came in. He glanced over at the camera, then at me. “You’re lucky I was the one who spotted what you were doing,” he said.

“Well, I’m not actually going to escape,” I said. “I can’t do it.”

Farlas crouched next to me. “Drake, no one can help you if you don’t tell them what’s going on.”

“Oh, fuck you! Delhoun told me the same shit in Australia!”

“And he’s right.”

“I don’t care.”

Standing, Farlas offered me his hand. “Maybe getting you out of this environment will help. Let’s go. Garavich and I got you a room over in the Marriott in Crystal City, and someone’s going to be accompanying you.”

I was about to argue, but then I saw who exactly was going with me. It wasn’t a person, but an Annexer. He wasn’t like Winnie or the Annexers on LV-400, and being around Delhoun for way too long had taught me that this guy was a Polar Annexer, a much larger and longer type with jet-black fur. They’re only called “polar” because they’ve only been found in the Arctic and subarctic regions of certain planets.

Like I said, I spent too much time around Delhoun, and it shows.

“This is Athaval. He’s one of our research assistants for this project, and, from what I understand, you have some experience with Annexers.” Farlas gestured for Athaval to enter the room.

“Experience? I wouldn’t call spending three weeks with Delhoun to be experience,” I said.

“It’s more than most people have, including myself.”

“Why work with him, then?”

“That wasn’t my decision. I have gotten to know the species since meeting Athaval, but it’s not the same as interacting with an entire tribe, like you did on LV-400.”

I shrugged, and made eye contact with Athaval. I still don’t understand why I was chosen out of every other Marine in my unit to be an “honorary Annexer.” I don’t think I ever will. “Alright, why do you want him accompanying me?” I asked.

“One, to make sure you hold up your end of the agreement and maintain cooperation, and, two, because I personally don’t think you should be alone. Not after what I watched when you visited Hudson today.”

My face flushed red. “Nothing’s wrong with me.”

Farlas didn’t respond right away. “Regardless, I was ordered to have someone go with you to the hotel, and I picked that someone before they were chosen for me.”

Knowing better than to argue, I looked down at Athaval, who hadn’t stopped staring at me since he entered the room. He smiled at me, or at least gave me what looked like a smile, but I didn’t smile back.

A part of me wanted to go see Hudson again and push past my discomfort, but much more of me was saying—no, screaming not to. We did have to go to Hornby just to tell him we were leaving to check me into the hotel, and suddenly I was having memories of when a bunch of us inmates were being driven to a hotel before flying to boot camp by an angry little sergeant who made it clear he didn’t approve of us being put in the military. He demanded no one speak in their rooms—at all. I think he would’ve killed someone if he heard so much as a peep from one of us. The silence was worse than any night I had in prison, because that was the closest I had gotten to civilization in years. I could hear cars and people, and I was consumed with fear and guilt. It made it hard to sleep.

I couldn’t exactly blame that sergeant for treating us like dirt and making it clear we were not to leave his sight. After all, we weren’t ordinary recruits. Most of us were convicted felons. I knew quite a few in that group had killed people, myself included, and I didn’t need that sergeant’s constant yelling to feel like I didn’t belong there, that I didn’t deserve a second chance at life. I was already telling myself that. I had been telling myself that since I was caught in the woods outside Pittsburgh.

“Are you ready to go, Drake?”

Farlas’s voice yanked me out of my memories, and I realized I was shaking. “Yeah… yeah, I’m ready.” I adjusted the strap of my backpack, and followed Farlas and Athaval out into the hallway.

I certainly didn’t appreciate the rushes of memories from every experience in my life that day. Again, I thought about the cool, early morning air when the Marines picked us up from the prison. Stepping beyond the walls was a strange feeling, and not something I thought I was ever going to experience. I was supposed to be in there for basically my entire life, and there I was leaving to get my life back—even though there wasn’t really anything to “get back.” It wasn’t morning when I left the lab, but I had the same feeling of… I guess relief is the right word. I didn’t think I was going to leave that lab until Hornby was done with us, and who knows how long that’ll be, and here I was, walking outside.

We traveled about a block before going down into a Metro station. A few people stared at Athaval, but most paid him no attention. Surprisingly, I found myself missing Delhoun, mainly because I wasn’t sure if I should even talk to Farlas. I knew we weren’t supposed to be talking about his work outside the lab, but I’m not an expert on small talk. Hell, I hate small talk. It’s probably the only thing I have in common with Dietrich, along with the fact that we’re both human, both from Earth (although she acts like she’s from somewhere else sometimes), and both Marines. She gives people dirty looks whenever they try to make small talk with her. An inspector tried doing that with her when he joined us for lunch, and I don’t even think she responded to him. Apone steered him away from her, so he escaped with his head still firmly on his shoulders.

Much like on Gateway, I found myself missing the rest of my unit. I just don’t understand why. Why do I care about them when I have nothing in common with them? Why do I care about them when I haven’t connected with them and vice versa? Why do I care about them when I don’t even care about myself? Maybe it was the familiarity. I know how things work there. I vaguely know everyone, and they leave me alone. I have a small sense that I’m safe with them.

Safe. Now that’s a word I don’t use often. I haven’t felt safe and secure in years. I’ve never really felt safe around others except Vasquez, and I definitely don’t feel safe with myself. I have no explanation for why I feel safe around my unit and I don’t think I ever will.

The train stopped at Crystal City and we left with a small crowd of people, all going in their own separate directions. None of them knew they just shared a ride with a fucking murderer. I saw other Marines as we made our way through the underground mall to get up to the hotel and I can’t even begin to describe how much shame I felt. They had no idea I was from the Second Chance program, not unless I said anything, and you can bet your ass I didn’t want to say anything. Still, I’ll bet everyone I saw actually worked hard and wanted to be where they are. I just thought that program was an easy way out, so I could stay closer to Vasquez.

As we walked through a tunnel to get to the hotel lobby, I noticed the mirrors that made up the wall. I wasn’t sure what I saw when I looked in my own eyes. I could see fear. Anxiety. Trauma. Shame. Every negative thing that’s happened over the course of my life was clearly visible.

You know what? You don’t even know if you actually have PTSD. Why are you letting this consume you? I briefly looked at the floor, then back at the mirrors. You’re not going to get diagnosed. Who knows what’ll happen if everyone above you thinks you can’t recover? You know you won’t recover. You’re broken beyond repair. No one’s gonna want to deal with you. You can’t even look at Hudson without falling apart. You can’t get much weaker than that, can you?

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my thoughts to just shut up. I refused to let anyone look in my eyes when we were at the front desk. Farlas handled all the payments and did all the talking, which I was grateful for, and then he turned to me, holding out a keycard. “Your room is 487. I have to get back to work now. Can we count on seeing you tomorrow morning at nine?”

I nodded. “Thanks.” Taking the card, I looked down at Athaval. “Alright, fluffy, let’s go.”

Athaval didn’t respond. He really wasn’t the talkative type, and I wasn’t sure if that was going to be a good thing or not.

Chapter 5……………………………………………………………………………………………Chapter 7

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