Chapter 1: Empathy
“Tell me about your parents.”
The young girl, Alice, seemed to be caught off guard by the request. She was a small thing, about eighteen years of age, with strawberry-blonde hair and freckles. Her head lolled back against the armchair momentarily, her hands gripping the rests hard enough that the leather creaked.
“Hmm ...” she hummed, her eyes flitting this way and that. It was one of her most common responses, one barely ever followed up by an actual answer. “Hmmmm …”
Melanie tried again.
“Do you remember your mother?”
That seemed to evoke a response, if but small. Alice's eyes suddenly swivelled back to fix upon the older woman sat before her, but then she looked away again as if disappointed by what she found. Restraining a sigh, Melanie watched as the girl slowly stood up and became fixated on one of the lamps on the wall, her small hands rising to touch the warm, round casing. The bulb was prone to flicker, and it did so quite suddenly, flashing white hues across Alice's face.
The only reason Melanie didn't have the bulb changed was because her patient seemed to find comfort in the way it sometimes flickered on and off. Now, oddly, the therapist found some comfort in it, too, and it took her a moment to pull her gaze away from the hypnotising flashing.
The silence stretched on. The session was due to be concluded, and once again, no information of use had been gained and no progress achieved. It felt like walking into a wall over and over again with no way up or around it; it was just a thick, brick wall that stretched on and on with no end in sight, no cracks to push through.
Rising, the therapist placed her clipboard down onto her desk and moved to spray her pot plants with some water after realising she had forgotten to do it in the morning. Once they had been carefully tended to, she turned and was surprised to find the girl watching her curiously, momentarily distracted away from the flickering bulb.
With a small smile, Melanie offered her the spray bottle.
“Would you like to water them?”
Pleased when Alice tentatively accepted the water, the therapist leant back against her desk and watched the girl spray the brightly coloured petals. It was done with apparently joy, and it was the first time Melanie had actually seen any of her patients smile. Usually, they were far too out of it to consider the things that would bring them some happiness, but rules were rules, and they had to take their medication when specified.
It must have been getting close to the time Alice took her pills.
“Do you remember your mother?” Melanie asked again, picking up her clipboard to hastily write some notes.
“I don't need to remember,” came the quiet response. “I see her.”
“Where do you see her?”
There was a pause, during which Alice very carefully felt one of the moist petals with the tip of her finger. Then, she leaned in to softly inhale the scent of the plant, her eyes fluttering shut.
“I see her when I dream, but I'm not really dreaming. The light takes me. She gardens a lot, plants flowers. I used to look after the garden.”
The lamp flickered again.
“We often dream of the people we long to see, Miss Stone.”
When Alice turned, she didn't have her own face.
Instead, she looked like an eighteen year old Melanie, down to the sharp nose and light, clever eyes. Instead of being frightened by the sight, Melanie felt oddly comforted by it, because suddenly she could see everything that Alice had seen in her dreams: the light, a soft voice calling her, a garden – and there was her mother, sadly pruning a rose. Then, there was the ocean, glittering with white light and blessed with pure silence.
Melanie opened her eyes. She was stood now where Alice had been stood moments before, spray bottle in hand. Turning to the flowers, she began to water them again, intrigued by the presence that she could feel behind her but too distracted to actually turn around and acknowledge it.
Water them too much and you'll drown them, the presence said.
“I won't,” she replied absent-mindedly.
“I love them.”
I don't think this is the place for you.
Melanie turned abruptly, facing the flickering lamp against the wall. The bulb resumed its steady glow upon receiving her fierce gaze, but she knew that the light was still watching her because she could feel it deep in her chest. Alice's gift, after all, was to feel the emotions of others within her own heart to the extent she cried their tears and loved their kin. She could even invite others to feel her own pain.
“This isn't the place for anybody,” Melanie insisted. “For example: I was just having a session with a patient but now she's gone and I can see her memories.”
Oh, sorry. Things are a bit jumbled up on my end.
“They're jumbled up on this end, too.”
Yes, because they're jumbled up on my end. The part where she had your face was kind of cool, though, wasn't it? I hope you'll forgive me for completely interrupting one of your … hm, riveting dreams, but …
Melanie found herself smiling. Turning back to the flowers, she began carefully arranging them.
“What could a talking lamp possibly want from me?”
I might be a talking lamp but it's a bit rude to just point it out like that, you know. Well, if you're going to nurture those flowers until they're dead, maybe you can do a mere lamp a favour.
Melanie woke up before she could find out what came next.
When they had told her 'special cases', Melanie thought she knew what she was to expect.
Troubled people. Violent. Her speciality, young as she was, was to deal with the people deemed special cases in a range of approaches with the intention on easing them into a calmer behavioural pattern. As such, she rarely remained in one institution for long, instead imparting her techniques on patient and therapist alike before moving on to the next job. This time, she had been informed that her position was to be rather more permanent.
The special cases of the special cases then, she assumed, and perhaps that assumption had been correct in its own way.
The facility was stooped in secrecy. She had been blindfolded before being driven to her new location of work, and with her new paycheck, she was certain not to question it, believing that the patients had been deemed such a threat to society that even the facility workers weren't allowed to know the location of the place in case it was discovered by untrained personnel. She didn't question the coded metal doors that were twice as thick as herself, though her resilience faltered a little upon being told that there were several areas of the facility that even she didn't have clearance for.
Clearance? They were a team of therapists, psychologists, nurses, and directors. They all strove for the recovery and well-being of their patients, and achieving that required a great deal of teamwork. At least, that's how it had been in her previous locations of work. Here, she and her colleagues apparently possessed various levels of rank, and one's rank would often determine whether their swipe card would grant them access to the mysterious rooms beyond. People of different rank didn't often communicate.
As it was, Melanie seemed to have come in at the bottom of the ladder. Already suspect regarding the facility's manner of operation, she was told more than once on her first day to keep her head down. Talk to the patients, accumulate records, then go back to the small staff quarters to sleep. If there was any true intention of actually helping the patients, Melanie was yet to see any evidence of it.
The patients were troubled, certainly, but they weren't violent. In fact, they didn't seem much different to the men and women she had dealt with in the past. The biggest issue was that none of them seemed to know where they were or even knew their own names, but that wasn't due to their condition. It was because they were so drugged up that Melanie couldn't gather any kind of useful information from them, and she certainly couldn't help them. They all stared at her blankly, fell asleep, or asked her where they were.
Her resolve faltered more and more as the days went on. Government officials visited frequently, but she was never told why.
Sometimes, patients were taken away and they never came back. Recovery, they called it, but Melanie suspected otherwise. She knew the proper protocol to introduce a patient back to the outside world, and this institution was taking no notice of it. In addition, with no progress to her name since her employment, she began to wonder just what her role actually was in the scheme of things. Was her job really to provide therapy or was it to provide an image of a functioning facility?
One morning, she was sat at her desk between sessions, mindlessly gazing out of her window at the spruce trees beyond. On the sill sat pots of various sizes, but none of the flowers within had flowered yet due to the cold. Indeed, they seemed to be struggling to keep from wilting, so Melanie sprayed them with water every day to keep them alive. It was the most that she could do.
Somewhat forlornly, the woman flipped slowly through the files of patients that had since been removed from the facility. Their photographs were attached with paper clips, but Melanie didn't look upon them for too long, for it conjured a rather harrowing sensation within her chest. That dull, blank look that all of them possessed inspired feelings of guilt within Melanie that she couldn't quite explain.
Most of the patients were young adults, around the same age as her. Others were barely old enough to be considered adults. Those who had been taken away were, oddly enough, those who had achieved the age of twenty-seven, as their release dates matched with their birthdays.
Sophia. Bronwyn. Milo. Stanley. All of them had been removed, and none of them had ever shown signs of improvement. All of them had been predisposed to delusion, so their files said, the belief that they were capable of things greater than what any human could reasonably achieve. It was a symptom typical of schizophrenia and other mental disorders, but their files were so absolutely identical that it was almost as if somebody had printed off the same information for all of them. Disorders of the mind could be similar, yes, but they were also characterised by individuality, which made them sometimes difficult to diagnose.
She was supposed to be archiving the files, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. It felt like she was giving up on the four she had lost, even if there was nothing that she could do to help them without earning the suspicion of her superiors.
With a sigh, she opened her top drawer to stash them away, though paused when it proved too small to contain them. She pulled open the bottom one with the tip of her shoe, instead, only to find that there was a file already inside. Had she put it there? Or had the therapist that once occupied her position left it there without archiving it?
This one had a dusty 'CLASSIFIED' stamped on the front.
Placing the others back down, she retrieved the new file and wiped the dust off the cover before gently prying it open. It was stacked to the brim with untidily organised papers indicating some sort of test results, but Melanie couldn't make head nor tail of what the information was supposed to be showing. Underneath the pile was a small bit of information and a single photograph.
She wasn't supposed to be reading classified information. She didn't have clearance for the higher-level patients yet. She wasn't even allowed into the wards that contained them. Regardless, she read on, fuelled by frustration and a willingness to be of some use.
Oliver Anthony Bird. Glancing at the photograph, she saw a young man with olive skin and pitch-black hair.
This individual is BOTHERSOME and should be contained at all times. Access restricted to higher-level personnel. BOTHERSOME patients should be kept heavily sedated until requested otherwise by authorised DOCTORS. If consciousness is required, have a nurse on standby armed with sedation, and have the patient linked to a MAGIC MACHINE in case of defiance.
BOTHERSOME patients are a threat to society and must not be allowed outside of the premises by order of DOCTORS.
Going by the man's date of birth, he was due to be removed from the facility in little under a month.
There was nothing she could do about it.
Melanie felt highly uncomfortable from then onwards. It wasn't just because she had no idea where the patients were being carted off to when they were taken away, though that was a decent portion of it. No, she just couldn't shake the feeling that she was being watched by somebody. She had no doubt that she was being observed from a distance by a number of her colleagues, those likely assigned to protecting the secrecy of the place, but that thought didn't discomfort her like it did now. Perhaps it was because she knew she had read too much, censored as the information was. She was in good mind to take the file of this Oliver Bird and burn it.
She wasn't allowed matches, though, or anything that could potentially start a fire. She dreaded the thought of even tearing the file up. What if somebody found it and reported her? Would she be taken away like the others?
Melanie simply resorted to doing what the others did. She kept her head down and carried out the pointless conversations with her patients, her heart beating fast with anxiety whenever somebody knocked on her door. Sometimes, she thought she was being completely idiotic and almost delusional, but she was right, wasn't she? The institution wasn't normal and she often got the feeling that the patients weren't there to be helped at all. Rather, they seemed to be waiting for something, but none of them actually knew what it was.
It wasn't any of her business.
It was two weeks into her employment. Nothing had changed.
Lingering at the reception (a fake one, if anything, because the patients didn't have visitors), Melanie was gathering up some paperwork when she spotted movement in the corner of her eye. Beneath one of the white-blue lamps that lined the smooth, flawless walls, stood Alice, her eyes wide as she stared towards the therapist. Melanie dropped her paperwork and cautiously approached the corridor the girl was hiding in.
Alice smiled suddenly, then turned and ran away.
“Wait!” Melanie called. Startled, she headed off after the girl, wondering how she possibly could have escaped from her room seeing as the patients spent most of their time behind a locked door. Following Alice along various identical corridors and up a flight of stairs, she suddenly found herself face to face with a round, metal door guarded by two men and a lock only an authorised swipe card could open.
The two men, both wearing armoured black suits, immediately halted her.
“Do you have clearance?” one asked, immediately reaching for the swipe card hanging around Melanie's neck.
She instantly took a step back, turning this way and that in search of the girl she was certain she had just seen racing down towards the door.
“Did you see Alice pass here? She's escaped her room. I need to take her back before she hurts herself.”
The two men glanced at each other warily.
“There aren't any patients called Alice,” the other said, eyes narrowing. “Are you all right, lady?”
“No, no, Alice is the name of that ghost, remember?” the first man chortled idiotically. “The rumour the patients started. Beware corridor B-12 'n all that, remember? Very funny, lady.”
Melanie felt a horrid chill race up her spine. Confused, she watched the two guards in silence, mouth open in surprise.
“No, no, there was a patient called Alice, but she recovered years ago,” the second man reminded them. “Apparently, she never left! Are you sure you didn't just read an old file, ma'am?”
“A girl ran this way. I saw her,” Melanie insisted. “She was blonde with freckles -”
She stopped, but not because either of the men had indicated for her to do so. In actuality, it was because she had just spotted something even more unusual than a patient out of their room. A white rabbit was hopping along by her feet without a care in the world, and it was at that point she was certain that somebody was messing with her. Alice? White rabbits? Somebody with a wicked sense of humour was trying to get her attention and it was certainly working.
Alice in Wonderland was her favourite childhood book.
The rabbit sniffed at the air a few times before darting off towards the metal door. It melted into it like a ghost, inviting her to follow, but she couldn't. Not only did she not have clearance, she was also terrified by what she had just seen, as one might expect. This place, this monstrous facility was beginning to drive her mad, she was sure of it.
“I just saw -” she began, then stopped to swallow thickly. What was the use? Neither of the two guards were going to believe her, and she didn't particularly want to be locked up as a patient in this certified hell-hole.
Strangely enough, the guards sobered at her obvious distress. The first turned to the second and offered a short nod.
“Get in there and sort it out.”
Melanie vacated before she could be accused of attempting to breach a classified location. Shaken by what she had seen, she strode as quickly as her heels would allow back to the lower levels and headed straight for the archiving rooms under the pretence that she was going to stash away the files of the 'recovered' patients at long last.
The room was small, dingy, and smelt of moist paper. Seizing box after box from the racking, Melanie searched frantically for a patient that went by the name of Alice, but the files were archived by surnames which made everything all the more difficult. Venturing to those that had been stored away a few years previously, she eventually stumbled across a girl of the specified name and pulled the file out, flipping it open to gaze upon the photograph inside.
Blonde hair, freckles, doe-like eyes. It was the Alice she was certain she had been talking to in sessions, but according to the sheet in front of her, the girl had been taken away from the institution several years ago to meet a fate unknown.
The dim light over her head started flickering.
Struck with a sudden terror, Melanie threw the file down and swiftly exited the room, only to find that all of the lights in the facility were flashing as if there had been a sudden burst of electricity. Disorientated and confused, the therapist ran back to the reception and was somewhat relieved to find that she wasn't alone in this nightmare, that other people could actually see what was going on. Nurses stopped what they were doing and looked up at the lights, completely bewildered, the blue-white glow flashing on and off in their eyes as they stared.
The sprinkler system switched on. Alarms started sounding. The screen the receptionist stared at all day was flickering. Before anybody could make sense of anything, men in armoured black suits charged in perfect formation into the facility and towards where Alice and the white rabbit had led Melanie.
“It's a false alarm!” one of them insisted as they went. “Go and make sure the patients are all kept calm or sedated!”
So, that's what they did. No questions asked.
Melanie lingered back and rubbed anxiously on her lower lip as she watched nurses scrambling this way and that, their manner as unprofessional as it was suspicious.
“Are you enjoying your stay here?”
The lamp sat opposite Melanie in the squeaky leather armchair buzzed thoughtfully. It was an extravagant thing, covered in decorative gold and purple swirls, and the shade was patterned with glittery embroidery. A blue-white light shone cleanly from the small ornament, even though its plug wasn't actually connected to any sort of mains. It was pretty to look at, but it proved trickier than her other patients, and she couldn't quite put her finger on why.
Oh, am I really a lamp again? This is humiliating.
Melanie sighed and began doodling a flower on the corner of the clipboard on her lap.
“Are you comfortable here?”
A pause. The brief silence was stolen by the grandfather clock, which chimed a number of chimes indicating that it was morning. It was odd because this particular session always took place at night, and yet the sun was shining outside, birds were singing, so she was forced to assume she had simply made some alterations and forgotten them.
“We're not here to talk about me, Mister Bird.”
Au contraire, Miss Stone. I have a lot to tell you. Now, I'd offer you a drink, but I've found myself in a rather unfortunate circumstance – Well, a few, actually, but the one that springs to mind as of this moment is that I currently don't possess any number of hands. I don't possess much of anything right now, actually.
Melanie began shading in the petals of her little masterpiece, pulling a slight face of concentration as she did.
“A temporary hurdle, Oliver. You know as well as I that you can overcome it.”
With your help, maybe. There's a boy at the end of corridor 12-A. God, what's his name? Autonomy? Lobotomy? Ugh, whatever, just give him the file you found in your desk and he can show you something, but you'll need to make sure he skips his meds. I'd show you myself, but right now I'm, uh … a broken lamp.
Wait! Before you go …
Did I ever tell you the tale of the Four Dragons?
Melanie woke up before she could hear it.
Chapter 2: Fear
Featuring lines from Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' and Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer's 'Moon River'.
Please take note of the tags for this chapter.
The blades of grass felt soft beneath Melanie's fingers as she ran them over the earth. Lying on her front, the young woman smiled slightly and rested her face on her elbow.
There, in the middle of nowhere, she basked in the warmth the sun offered, blissfully inhaling the sweet scent of distant flowers. She couldn't remember the last time she had felt so at peace, and nothing could take it from her. No men in black suits, no ominous vision, nothing. She even laughed softly and then rolled onto her back, her long, blonde hair splayed beneath her as she turned her gaze to the sky.
Beside her, there was an old-fashioned FM radio stationed on a tartan patterned blanket. Somebody had tuned it in to a jazz station, faint and somewhat distorted as it was, and in the cacophony of barely-tuned trumpets and improvisation, Melanie found an odd sense of comfort. She wasn't alone, she knew. The presence was there again, she could feel it, surrounding her in the air and in the endless stretches of grass and rolling hills. She could feel it inside her, igniting a warmth in her chest that melted away the coldness of worry.
The jazz music slowly faded away.
Oh, it's you, the radio said.
The voice was new, but familiar at the same time. It was lovely and mellow, and there was a certain charm in the way it greeted her: a mock-surprised kind of inflection in its address of her. Melanie found her smile broadening in response.
“This is an unconventional setting for a session, Mister Bird, but as it's such a lovely day … I suppose – yes, you could do with some sunlight, couldn't you? It's good for the body and the mind. A kind of relief, if you will.”
Please, call me Oliver. Can I call you … Melanie? Oh, such a dulcet name, and it rolls off the tongue magnificently. It's Greek in origin, did you know? Where were we when we parted? Ah – I was going to tell you a story.
“The Four Dragons,” Melanie recalled.
Oh! Yeah, that was the one. Imagine this: four dragons of enormous power. Long, Yellow, Black, and Pearl, all subject to the will of the Jade Emperor, master of the earth and the sea. The Jade Emperor was a careless ruler, ignoring the prayers of mankind in favour of his pretty distractions, and even when the people began to starve, he refused to send them any rain for their crops.
“Then he was a terrible ruler.”
Certainly, but he was undisputed. He had no care for those he considered lesser. The four dragons begged and begged him to help mankind, but every time, he refused. So, they were forced to take matters into their own hands. Two took water from the sea into their mouths and sprayed it into the sky. Two flew around and around in the heavens to create a mighty storm, and rain poured, saving the people from their misery.
For their insolence, the Jade Emperor pinned them to the earth with mountains, and they became the four great rivers of China. They became the foundations of a new civilisation. Melanie, powerful people can hold immense capacity for good, but they are often betrayed by those with unfavourable intentions. The people who call themselves leaders are …
The voice trailed off thoughtfully. With curiosity in her eyes, Melanie sat up and drew her knees up to her chest. Though in this dream-state she didn't have perfect control over what she was saying, she could at least begin to question the validity of the dreams and the odd character that had been appearing within them as of late. There was nothing to the imaginary, was there? And yet she had a hundred questions to ask, all of which she could narrow down to just one for the time-being, because she knew that she could wake up at any moment.
“This might be an inane thing to ask in a dream, but … are you real?”
She was met with a brief silence.
Did you find Lobotomy yet? Oh, damn it, that isn't even a real name, is it?
Oh, all right. I'm real, but I've seen in your mind that I'm running out of time. You're confused and overwhelmed, but if you find the boy, he can show you everything.
The woman reluctantly shifted so that her back was to the radio, allowing her head to rest against the soft blanket beneath her. She closed her eyes to the endless stretch of sunlit grass around her, squeezing them in an attempt to either wake herself up or blind herself to the imaginary world. Had she truly conjured up this madness within her own dreams?
Why can't I show you myself? My sense of reality is somewhat distorted, presently. I'm certain that if the most I can manage right now is appearing as various useless objects, my recount of the past will be unreliable. All the more, if you don't really believe that I'm real, you're absolutely not going to believe the truth.
The radio crackled suddenly with white noise, almost drowning out the end of Oliver's sentence. Unhappy with the prospect of losing his company, Melanie quickly sat up and watched the old FM radio with an expression of concern.
FZZZZT … they're ... SSSZZZTTTT I've forgotten, something about … BZZZTTTT Melanie? WRRRRRR ugh WIIRRRZZZT oh, it's all kicking in again SZZZZZTTT c-could you do something for me, Melanie? SSSSS could you jusSSSSSSSt ….it's been a long time since …. TTZZZZZZ
When her patients were visibly distressed, Melanie would often reach over and place her hand over theirs. It was a reminder that she understood how alone they felt and that she understood their pain, and even when she didn't understand, she wanted them to know that somebody was there. Unless they disliked physical contact, it was often something that many of them missed.
And sometimes she missed it, too.
Fingers curled tentatively, she reached over and placed her hand over the gently vibrating speaker. The white noise quietened, and as it did, she could feel the presence around her fading, surges of power turning into mere static in her heart. Desperate, she pulled the radio into her lap and stroked it, stared at it like it was a long-lost lover, and she couldn't understand why she felt more and more vacuous as the mysterious entity abandoned her to the world of dreams.
“Where are you going?” she dared ask. “I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing, Oliver. Won't you tell me another story before you go?”
Dreams were fleeting, but she had never felt so devastated about it until now. It felt like she was waking up but she was waking up alone, because the person beside her was just falling deeper and deeper into sleep, their mind being pulled away across the ocean surface like a tow-boat. What made things worse was that she could observe every single detail of these dreams as if she was really there within them, like the idyllic grassy planes and the blue sky really were melting away like wax around her to leave nothing but … darkness and a million lights dancing about like fireflies.
Melanie … If you drink much from a bottle marked “poison”, it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.
When she woke, her eyes were moist with tears.
The knock on her door caught her by surprise. She wasn't due a session for another half an hour, and the patients very rarely came to her for anything else.
With a nervous swallow, Melanie composed herself and opened the door to her office, greeting the man behind it with a cool smile. It was Mister Greyson, one of the imperceptible directors that ran the facility, supposedly, and he certainly lived up to his name. He was far too tall, lanky, and he lacked any colour in his overall appearance, his suit, eyes, and hair all a very desaturated kind of grey.
Beside him was a man who appeared a little younger than Melanie, thin and boasting round glasses that made his eyes appear far too big. There was a nervousness in the way he peered over Mister Greyson's shoulder, his sharp features touched with uncertainty. Melanie didn't recognise him, but he was wearing the same white coat that she was, perhaps indicating that he was a new therapist on a tour of the place.
“Miss Stone, I heard about your incident yesterday,” Mister Greyson said flatly.
“We can't have patients getting excited or confused regarding these supposed visions, can we? No doubt the stress of the role has been getting to you. You had a dream and it frightened you.”
Though highly concerned that the odd occurrence had actually been reported to one of the directors, Melanie found herself more infuriated at his tone than anything else. Greyson was a man whose mind was apparently still set somewhere in the forties, and he often spoke to his female staff as if they were children, not professionals. Her lips pressed together firmly in an awkward kind of smile.
“You needn't concern yourself about it,” she replied quickly, making little attempt to smother the derision arising in her own tone. Glancing at the nervous young man stood behind the vulture of a director, her smile became rather more friendly, and she bypassed Greyson in order to hold out her had. “Good morning. My name is Melanie Stone. Are you new?”
“Cary Loudermilk,” the man replied, meeting her hand with a very quick shake. “I-I've heard of you, actually -”
Greyson rudely interrupted by clearing his throat in that way humourless old men did. He eyed Melanie a moment longer, then made to carry on down the corridor, gesturing for Mister Loudermilk to follow him.
“Oh, I, uh -” Cary began, suddenly staring at Melanie urgently. “I need – I need to talk to you, I think -”
“Later,” the crotchety old director barked back, and he was met with a brief look of affront from the new guy before eventually being followed.
She would have been confused by the encounter if stranger things had not happened lately. She did question, though briefly, how a Cary Loudermilk could have possibly heard of her when she hadn't really made a name of herself in her field yet, especially in a part of the country that stood in the middle of nowhere and when nobody actually knew that she worked in the damn place.
There was only one person who seemed to know much about her at all, and that person only existed in her dreams.
After the brief meeting with the new colleague, Melanie didn't see him again for several days. The time passed without much event, thankfully: there were no white rabbits, no doe-eyed ghosts, and no mischievous goings on with the lights or alarms. She didn't dream again, either, and while she should have been glad to sleep undisturbed, she found that she missed the oddness and calming quality of the voice that spoke to her when she slept. It was absurd, wasn't it? It was strange to miss something that was a figment of her imagination, and yet she missed it regardless, even finding herself concerned for the voice's welfare, sometimes, before shaking herself out of such stupidity.
Gradually, she thought less and less of the dreams, falling back into the dullness of routine. It was only when a name caught her eye that she recalled them.
It was a document left on her desk, one to be entered into a new file concerning a patient that had been admitted during the night.
The photo attached showed a mere boy. He couldn't have been older than ten. Well, that alone had to be some sort of mistake, as the facility wasn't equipped to home children as well as adults, but that wasn't the only source of Melanie's confusion.
His name was Ptonomy Wallace.
It was just a coincidence, wasn't it?
A lamp on the wall flickered.
There was no truth in dreams, including those oddly prophetic in nature, but when she fought the battle to secure herself as the boy's therapist, something about it felt right. Was it that she was on the path to discovering a secret of some kind, or was it that she knew it wasn't right a child was here, of all places? Not only was she the best for the role, she had found herself more determined as of late not to lie back and ignore the strange goings on within the facility.
That didn't include the visions, nor the dreams. In fact, nonsense had begun helping her see sense in reality.
There was a darkness within the institution. It wasn't like her to simply ignore it, even if a small voice in her mind had been begging her to ever since arriving. What kind of therapist would that make her if she ignored the people who so clearly needed her help?
She felt bolder, more resolute, and part of the reason was because she felt a little less alone, even if it was ridiculous to find comfort in a person that didn't exist. It was easier to break down walls while holding hands, wasn't it?
Under the pretence that she was helping Ptonomy by overseeing the collection of his medication, she ensured that he didn't swallow a single pill for the first two days of his stay. To her utmost horror, it did him the world of good, granting him clarity and a kind of liveliness that he hadn't been exhibiting before. While the child was grieving the recent passing of his mother, to be sure, he no longer sat with his head hanging and looking for all the world like he wanted to just give up.
The point of medication wasn't to destroy a person's personality. It was supposed to stabilise the chemicals in their brain so that they could function. Already, then, Melanie had solid evidence that something was afoot, and if the institution was feeding a child drugs that would ensure his complete complacency, she would have no part in it. The boy needed sedation as much as a harmless puppy, and she was becoming more and more certain that if she were to deprive the other patients of their sedatives, she would discover men and women in no need of it.
She knew mental illness. It was her job to recognise it and talk to those afflicted. This place, this institution, was only beginning to feel more and more like a prison. What had these people done to deserve entrapment? And who was behind the steadily crumbling illusion?
What of the poor people trapped behind the coded, metal doors – the ones she didn't have the clearance to access? What was happening to them?
Ptonomy was a clever child, and at Melanie's request, he adopted the behaviours of the other patients in order to appear sedated and none-the-wiser. In reality, his sessions with the therapist involved talking fervently about his mother and that after she had died, a group of mysterious men had collected him from his home without explanation. He was certain that he had never seen any of them before in his life, and had thought, initially, that they were taking him to an orphanage, or one of those horrible places like in Oliver Twist.
During their sixth session, Melanie cautiously withdrew the classified file from her desk and moved to kneel in front of Ptonomy, opening it up to show him the photograph of the man inside.
“Do you know this man?” she asked softly, inwardly kicking herself. It had all just been a dream! There was no chance that the boy knew who the man was, because the man was currently locked away somewhere in the facility without access to any of them.
Ptonomy's brow furrowed.
“No,” he said with such absolute certainty that Melanie was caught off-guard by his confidence. “Why?”
The woman smiled slightly and shook her head, both pleased and somehow disappointed that nothing of what she had seen had been real.
“Somebody told me you might know something about him.”
Ptonomy fidgeted, staring down at the photograph as if it was suddenly something highly concerning. His hands wrung, and he bit his lower lip in that manner children do, for something was clearly on his mind that he didn't particularly want to relinquish. Melanie wasn't trained to deal with children (just like all her colleagues), but she could tell that much.
“I can show you if you promise not to tell,” the child blurted out, eyes wide. “If they know I've been doing stuff … They'll take me away again.”
“Why did they take you away?” Melanie pressed, placing her hand over the boy's.
He hesitated, then curled his small fingers into hers before taking hold of the file in her hand.
Melanie blinked once, and when she opened her eyes, they weren't in the same room anymore.
Ptonomy was stood, now, as there was no squeaky leather armchair anymore. Rather, in the corner of the small room there was a single, metal chair that was unoccupied. Still kneeling, the young woman tentatively glanced around the new space, dumbstruck by the sudden change in environment. Had she been in another dream all along? It couldn't be that, could it? The child's hand felt so real clasped in her own, so much so that she gripped it more tightly, silently beseeching him for some kind of answer.
“Look,” he said, pointing. “There's your man.”
Melanie turned again, this time with the sense to properly take in what she was seeing.
A man was lying on a hospital bed, his wrists and ankles strapped down, and some sort of electrical device had been placed around his head to serve an unknown purpose. Though his eyes were covered by a blindfold, Melanie could see that it was the mysterious Oliver Bird. Stranger, however, was that she could see herself in the room, too, tampering with the various bits of equipment beside the bed.
Her blonde hair was pulled back into an uncharacteristic tight bun. Her expression was that of somebody thoroughly displeased and older than their years. Melanie watched herself move from beside the bed and towards a computer built into the wall nearby, where she pulled up a document and began typing.
“Your memories aren't gone, but hidden,” Ptonomy exclaimed. “Just within reach, like he said.”
Melanie covered her mouth with her hand for a moment, doing her best to come to terms with what she was seeing.
“Have you been hearing his voice, too?” she asked.
“I started dreaming when they brought me here.”
“Is this a dream?”
“No,” the boy murmured, using Melanie's hand to guide her over to where the other her was apparently trying to think of something to type onto the screen. “It's my gift, and your past.”
This individual is
Melanie watched herself cringe when the man on the bed suddenly started talking.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix -” Oliver recited with dramatic flair, as if his heart was wound with the words that he spoke.
“That's enough,” the past her snapped. “You know what they'll do if they hear your prattling.”
“Correct me if I'm wrong, as I'm currently blinded, but none of them are here to hear it.”
This individual is telepathic and should be contained at all times
No, no, Melanie found herself thinking. Sensitive information had to remain censored, coded. The cursor blinked a couple of times before deleting the sentence that had just been typed onto the screen.
“... and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong and amnesia -”
The past Melanie's lips pursed. In a manner almost aggressive, she began retyping her record of the patient, censored and coded as required.
This individual is BOTHERSOME and should be contained at all times
“What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”
Her fingers continued tapping until the file was complete.
Feeling sick to her stomach, Melanie kept hold of Ptonomy's hand and watched as her former self moved back to the bed and began placing electrodes on her patient's head, adjusting the strange device that was already there. She saw poor Oliver's breathing quicken, and she witnessed him attempting to reach for her, but his hands were bound and could barely move.
“Melanie, was it?” he said quickly, adopting a nervous smile – quite a thing to witness, despite its nature, for it displayed a notably endearing gap between his two front teeth. “Other mutants might be safe to control this way, but might I remind you that you put this silly device on my head for a reason?”
There was no indication that past Melanie was listening. She turned her back to the man, flipping switches on the old-fashioned machine stationed beside the bed.
“Not a poetry fan? None of the Divisions seem to be, actually. Why is that? Well, maybe you'd care to join me for dinner, one day, instead? I already know your favourite meal, and I'll add that I'm a dab hand in the kitchen, too. I'll sing you your favourite song for as long as you want -”
“You don't know my favourite song.”
“I do. It's becoming one of my favourites, too, actually.”
Past Melanie flipped a large lever on the machine. Oliver silenced, and then the few lights in the room began violently flashing, dazzling the observers until they were forced to look away and cover their eyes. The white-blue light was blinding, and even when it was gone, Melanie could still see it flashing from beneath her eyelids for several seconds.
Gasping, she sought hold of Ptonomy's hand again before opening her eyes.
It was the same room, but things were different. The metal chair in the corner was turned against the wall. The lights were dully flickering. Her past self was sat on the side of the bed, hair dishevelled, and she was gazing tearfully upon Oliver. The man seemed smaller, somehow; certainly thinner, and a dark, scruffy beard was occupying his gaunt face.
“How did she sing it?” he uttered, focusing blearily on the woman.
Past Melanie began unstrapping the bonds keeping mysterious Oliver bound to the bed. She sniffed thickly once she was done, then wiped her eyes.
“Softly,” she reminisced. “Sometimes, on the nights I couldn't sleep, she'd dance with me. I'd stand on her feet and she'd lead me around the room.”
Now freed, the man weakly pushed himself up, and despite being in no state to be awake, let alone moving, he pushed his feet off the side of the bed and took a moment to balance himself until stood. Shuffling around the bed, he took Melanie's hand and gently brought her upwards and into the small, clear space of the room.
His hands slowly slid to her waist. The woman made no complaint, and even welcomed the intimate contact, gazing up as she touched his shoulders and allowed a slight rocking motion to take them both. It was perfectly quiet for a time as they looked over each other's faces, transfixed, dancing to music that didn't exist. It was like everything else could just cease to be, melt away, forgotten – and for a time, that's what happened, for Melanie raised her hands and removed the device from Oliver's head.
They were swallowed by darkness.
Moon River, wider than a mile
I'm crossin' you in style some day
He sang, just like he had promised, and as he did, a world was built around them. A world touched by blue-white light, the light of the Moon, and there was endless ocean as far as the eye could see. They were stood upon the waves, still holding each other and swaying to the sound of roiling water.
Wherever you're goin', I'm goin' your way
It was strange how the words and music seemed to become entities of their own, pieces of a puzzle that constructed the Moon and the stars and the water at their feet. If that was how Oliver visualised his world, then maybe she had been wrong about him and his kind. Maybe the Divisions had been wrong about everything all along.
Two drifters off to see the world
There's such a lot of world to see
We're after the same rainbow's end …
They were freaks of nature, she was told. Including her own mother, Alice Stone, who could see into the hearts of others.
Waitin' 'round the bend …
Including Oliver Bird, who could see into the minds of others.
My huckleberry friend …
Ptonomy Wallace, who could see into their pasts.
Moon River and me …
The Divisions couldn't see the beauty in it like she could. Their job was to divide and conquer those they deemed normal and those they deemed different, but this world was a shared one, and to take away all that was beautiful about it like they had once taken away her own mother. Well, Melanie Stone wasn't one for suffering injustices, and if they tried to eradicate her for aiding those who were different, then so be it.
It was her job, and her duty on this earth.
Chapter 3: X-Position
She must have placed the device back onto Oliver's head, because when the scene changed again, they were in the same room, and the man was once again strapped to the bed. There were several new machines beside the bed, each one as equally terrifying looking as the next, and the poor man was wired up to every one of them, the majority connected to the mechanical device on his head.
If he was frightened, he certainly had long mastered the art of hiding it. Now more unkempt and gaunt in appearance than ever, he really did look almost bored more than anything else, tapping his fingers rhythmically on the bed sheets.
Also in the room were two nurses stood by the door, the young man she recognised to be Cary Loudermilk manning the machines, herself, and a dapper looking gentleman wearing a fez occupying the metal seat in the corner. The latter seemed reluctant to be in proximity with the patient, not even looking at him when he spoke to him, though he seemed more than content to force an unnecessary derision in his tone whenever he spoke, his smile melting into his many chins.
“Ah, Oliver,” the man said thoughtfully, tapping a pencil on his clipboard. Glancing at the lanyard around his neck, Melanie ascertained that he identified as Doctor Farouk. “I've flown many miles for the chance to meet you. I specialise in parapsychology, you see, but rare butterflies like you are notoriously difficult to catch.”
“I believe we've met once or twice,” Oliver replied musically, and Melanie caught sight of her past self and Cary Loudermilk glance at each other in confusion. The past Melanie, like Farouk, was stood well away from the bed, her hands permanently attached to the keyboard in the wall as she recorded the session occurring.
“Not in person,” Farouk muttered, and his dark gaze raised to look at the prone man on the bed in a manner disturbingly hungry in nature, as if all he wanted was to devour him whole. “It seems you've been reluctant to share your powers with the Divisions, so I've organised a little stress test in order to get a better idea of your strengths. We've already established the psychic shields -”
“You'd know them better than anyone -”
“ - and the telepathy, but what else?”
“There's nothing else. Can I get a drink or some sort? Maybe a splash of vodka to help me along?”
Farouk stood, then, his thick brow furrowing with displeasure. Regardless, he smiled toothily again, looking every bit like a shark on the hunt, and moved lithely over to the crass bed, small eyes set so intently on his prey that Melanie was sure he didn't blink the entire time. His small, wide hands gripped onto one of the metal bars tightly after setting the clipboard down to the side.
“You will let me in,” he said with a slight growl, reaching forwards to affectionately adjust the device on Oliver's head. “Let's break down those shields, hm? If you're lucky, you might even forget all those years it took you to learn how to keep others out, but then he came along and made it look so easy. Ah!” Farouk straightened and pressed a finger onto a monitor attached to one of the machines. The lines being digitally drawn across it every second had spiked momentarily. “Was that anger, Oliver? Isn't it beautiful to see it? Isn't it better to feel it? Don't worry, I'll be sure to find him once I've gotten through to you, if only you'd tell me where he is.”
Apparently unimpressed, Oliver looked at Cary and Melanie and pulled a slight face, seemingly more incredulous than anything else.
“Damn it, Jim, I'm a scientist, not a psychic,” he quoted, clearly ignoring the thinly veiled threats spared him by the doctor.
Farouk scratched at his bald head. “What?”
“You don't know Star Trek? Ugh, and you call yourself a timeless concept. Can I get that drink now?”
The older man just laughed, holding onto his great belly as he did.
“Mister Bird, you seem to be mistaken. I work for Division Three! Loudermilk, start the device – and why don't you explain it to our comedian of a friend here? It's sure to thrill him.”
Cary turned and began fumbling with various buttons and switches on the smallest of the machines. The horrible thing looked more like a torture device from the thirties, and it began whirring loudly once switched on and charged.
“It's a modified ECT machine, designed to r-recognise certain patterns and waves in the mind. We've identified the … the part of your brain that activates when defending itself. It's the best way to dismantle a telepath's shields, but also the most risky. I've explained that to Doctor Farouk.”
“Ah!” Oliver exclaimed. “I like it! Very clever, Mister Loudermilk. I'll buy you a drink every day for the rest of your life if you don't use this marvellous machine on me. I'm sure you've considered that the mutant gene has designed itself to activate in periods of extreme stress, even performing beyond what a person is usually capable of.”
“Yes. That's why it's risky,” Cary explained nervously, pushing his glasses back up his nose. “Especially with the telepathically-inclined.”
Melanie suspected what was to come next. Tugging at Ptonomy's hand, she guided his face into her belly so that he wouldn't have to watch it and have the memory etched into his mind forever. Whereas before the vision had melted into the next, Melanie was forced to watch helplessly as Oliver's head snapped back and his body stiffened, and then after several long seconds of whatever torture they were inflicting upon his brain, he gradually collapsed back down and coughed a mouthful of blood over the pillow.
“My thongue!” he slurred accusingly at Cary, who appeared suitably fretful.
“S-sorry,” the young scientist stuttered, before turning his gaze back to Farouk. “Anything?”
“No. Don't stop, you idiot.”
This time, Melanie darted forwards and tried to touch the machines to turn them off, but her hands vanished straight through what should have been cold, hard metal. She tried to grab Cary Loudermilk as he initiated the procedure again, but he was oblivious to her presence and as immune to her touch as everything else within this nightmare. Horrified by what she was seeing, she returned to Ptonomy and once again pulled him close to her, panic building as the minutes passed.
Then, she heard her own voice.
“You're killing him,” past Melanie proclaimed firmly, approaching the bed. “He'll be of no use to anyone dead.”
Loudermilk just looked at her fearfully. Doctor Farouk hadn't seemed to hear her. In fact, the gargantuan man seemed well and truly entranced by the vision of suffering, staring so intently at Oliver's face that he didn't seem to be altogether present. Whatever was going through his mind just then was clearly thoroughly unpleasant in nature, but nobody could really know the true extent of it, save for putting two and two together.
Amahl Farouk was a haunted man, but even ghosts had to move on, sometimes.
One of the machines started beeping aggressively. The one measuring brainwaves began flashing red, soon to be followed by the room's lights, which flickered heavily to the extent that Melanie was near enough disorientated. Seconds later, some sort of alarm in the room began blaring, only adding to the rapidly building chaos.
Oliver began shuddering violently and the skin of his face became redder and redder until blood began to pour from both nostrils, staining the white of his gown, and it was then Cary Loudermilk turned and pushed the lever on the machine back into the 'off' position. To his evident horror, some sort of malfunction in the machine prevented the end of its cruel purpose, no matter how many times he slammed the lever back against the metal.
Screens began flickering. Broken code replaced the nonsensical images upon them. Though Melanie had no idea what Farouk had meant by breaking down psychic walls, she could tell by the apparent glee on his face that his plan was working, and he was getting too close to achieving whatever his foul goal was. Far, far too close.
Thankfully, her past self had the sense to act.
She watched herself run and grab the metal chair in the corner. In a stupendous show of rebellion, the seat of the chair was brought down so hard on Farouk's head that the man was actually sent flying down onto his side. Once the chair was firmly discarded on top of him, Melanie seized the inhibiting device on Oliver's head and yanked it off.
And then she remembered.
In that moment, she was no longer watching the memory as an outsider but actually remembering. She remembered with such clarity that it took her breath away.
She had seen into Oliver's eyes. The Inhibitor being removed allowed his power to break free, and she had actually felt it wash over her like a sheet of freezing water, unable to tear her gaze away from him because his gaze was glowing that familiar white-blue and she could see everything within it. She could see her own reflection, only she seemed happier than she truly felt because she was watching herself in a different time.
Was that … her mother? Why was it that she hadn't actually been able to remember anything about her own mother until now? Why hadn't she been able to remember anything about Oliver? She knew him.
Or, she knew of him, at least, because she had done her research beforehand. Newspapers, mostly.
Oliver was once an angry young man. Frustratingly brilliant, there shouldn't have been anything holding him back, but there was always that furious spark in his otherwise gentle, clever eyes, something that wasn't entirely him but was at the same time. He went missing, eventually, and he seemed to do that rather often.
He had been arrested several times at protests. He burnt anti-mutant propaganda in the streets, performed loud and abrasive poetry in broad daylight, but by the time he had really gained a voice, the world had been convinced that mutants didn't really exist. They were just a conspiracy theory, and to them, Oliver was a scientist who had gone completely mad. Delusions, depression, breakdowns, or so they said. The scientific community shunned his research on the future of human evolution.
He was a mutant, without a doubt. A freak of nature. It wasn't until she met him that she realised what he really was.
Polite, eccentric, and disarmingly charming. Even when strapped down and facing the true wrath of the government.
Melanie had been keen to turn a blind eye to his work, but she was also one of the few reluctantly attracted to it. Her mother had possessed certain gifts deemed suitably supernatural in nature, but those gifts had also seen her taken away to a mental institution when Melanie was young. She died there, and Melanie's father told her it had been heartbreak that killed her. She didn't understand until she was older, because she was scared of understanding, scared of mutants and their terrifying prowess.
It wasn't heartbreak. It was injustice.
It was murder.
It was the same injustice afflicting every mutant locked up within this institution. It was the reason she had gone there in the first place, but something had caused her to forget.
She knew who she was, now. Regardless of whether the people were mutants or genuine patients, they deserved the same right to freedom as she, the same respect, the same opportunities. This place was no institution at all, but an elaborate waiting room. They were being groomed to be obedient weapons, but if they didn't reach their potential by a certain age, they were taken away to be exterminated.
The white light enveloped her, much like it had all that time ago. Unleashing Oliver's power had obliterated her memories, scattered them but never too far beyond reach, because now they were slowly being pieced back together like a jigsaw puzzle. As the seconds passed, she found herself crying, then laughing, and then crying again, because she hadn't thought it strange that her memory of life before the institution had been completely blank.
It hadn't been blank. It had been beautiful.
It's me. Your mind is looking more radiant than ever, you know.
Choking on her next words, she reached out, but she couldn't see anything. Nothing but light. Ptonomy's trip into Melanie's mind had been hijacked, or so it seemed, but all the presence could conjure now was empty space – nothing like the beautiful meadows and oceans from before. Even her own body didn't seem to exist, save for her mind floating in whatever this place was. The thought made her highly uncomfortable, to which Oliver responded:
Oh, this? I know, it's a bit boring, isn't it? I'm not really in the right headspace for creating. This might be the last time I can talk to you, actually.
He said it so nonchalantly, but Melanie knew what he meant. His time was running out.
Can I just clear things up a bit? Ptonomy is in the process of restoring your memories. You saved my life by taking the Inhibitor off, but exposed yourself to, well … Fortunately for us all, you were only left with amnesia.
“That man - “
Don't worry about him. I know you're about to apologise, but don't. The Divisions taught you to fear people like me, and they know how to manipulate that fear, too.
“I saw you as an experiment.”
“It's unforgivable, Oliver.”
It's forgiven! You're already thinking of ways to get me out. It'll be easier for you to focus on the lower-level mutants around you. Some is better than none, after all. When you get out, have a drink for me, will you?
“No,” Melanie replied brazenly, and if she could see the man, she would fix a stern glare upon him. “Actually, it would be better if you joined me. That seems fairer, doesn't it? We could get to know each other in a place that actually exists, as beautiful as the dreams have been.”
Are you asking me out? Man, of all the times to be locked in a dingy little cell. Maybe you'd like to go for dinner and a dance?
“You'll need to tell me how to help you, first.”
There was a slight pause.
You know that feeling when, uh … Well, like when you've locked your keys inside your house and all the windows are closed? And you just kind of wander around a bit, hoping a way in will magically open up? That's kind of how I'm feeling at the moment.
Another pause, during which Melanie offered her sympathy through thought, even if not completely aware of what Oliver meant.
I knew I could bring together the best minds to save the lower-level patients, but the rest of the facility is impenetrable. The Four Dragons must become three. I feel like … I'm disappointed I won't see you again, Melanie. If it weren't for this nonsense mind of mine, you and I would already be free as birds.
Melanie suddenly felt a great sadness, but she also felt incredibly resolute. Confident, even, now that her memories were falling into place and she remembered who she was. If he were there with her, she wouldn't have dropped her gaze for a second. She would have simply raised her head with boldness.
“The impossible is never out of the question, Oliver. If it were, you wouldn't be talking to me in my mind, would you?” She paused for effect. “The world needs minds like yours.”
“Don't do what they want by giving up.”
How she wished she could see him, reassure him with a kind smile, but she reminded herself that her job wasn't to rely on smiles alone, but on words. She was a therapist, and maybe that was why Oliver had sought her mind again regardless of her former opinions concerning mutants; she was good at what she did. She knew it, and she knew that she could save the poor people being experimented on by the mysterious Divisions.
Melanie did, however, yearn to see him again. The more she remembered, the more she realised how much time she had spent in that horrible little room.
I want to see you, too. I've brought you to where I am but you're nowhere in sight.
“I'm here,” she reassured him, wistfulness in her tone.
I think my mind has literally scattered. Fascinating, isn't it? Maybe that's why I can't get back in. It'll take me some time to sort of … rearrange myself. You might be waiting a while for that date you mentioned, but I'm still holding you to it.
“And it'll be worth the wait, I'm sure.”
Ah, Melanie …
He said her name like it was poetry.
Where the hell was she supposed to start?
Falling back into routine proved painful, but it was an opportunity to find time to think knowing full well that her work with the patients wasn't actually doing any good, because that was what the Divisions wanted. They had reassigned her, in a sense, likely not wanting to release her back into the public just in case her amnesia lifted and she told the world of the cruel institution in the wilderness.
Ptonomy had been oddly silent since their encounter. Melanie wasn't entirely sure what had happened to him when Oliver had pulled her from her memories and into the dream-world beyond, but the boy seemed deeply contemplative and far too eager to resume taking the sedatives that kept his powers under control. The therapist sometimes watched him as he slept, and often she whispered comfort, assuring him that there would be a time he'd be free.
It didn't take long for answers to find her. They came in the form of an old colleague, a man who she had failed to recognise but a few days past. She had, in fact, worked with him for about a year or so. He had handled the physical aspect of the job: the machines, measuring brain-waves, inventing devices to keep mutants controlled, whereas she had dealt with the talking and the secret database only she and a few select others had held access too.
She recognised the knock on her office door immediately. Dropping Mister Bird's file back into the drawer, she jogged over and opened it to all but pull the poor man inside, barely allowing him the opportunity to greet her.
“Do you remember?” she asked immediately, closing the door to grant them privacy.
Cary awkwardly adjusted his glasses and glanced quickly about the spacious room, looking at one of the lamps on the wall for a few seconds as if unnerved by it.
“Well – It all just, uh … One moment I was looking through files, the next I was seeing another place and time entirely, except it was through your eyes, not mine. He must've … Oh, I don't know, it doesn't matter. My memories all came flooding back once it was over.” Briefly pausing, Cary gnawed anxiously on his lower lip, gazing intently at Melanie with a furrowed brow. “Before that, uh, I dreamt of a talking lamp and it asked me to talk to you once things started making some sense. Weird, right? Now it does make sense. You're one of us, now.”
“One of you?” Melanie dared ask, raising an eyebrow.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, Miss Stone. I wanted to help these people. My devices were meant to help them, but they were used … used incorrectly, modified, used to gain information or suppress a person. Doctor Farouk made it clear that if I turned against him, he'd start experimenting on me. I just had to … uh, wait. I knew there was a way I could get them out, I just didn't know what it was yet.”
With a sigh, Melanie turned towards her window and rubbed her forehead, trying to get her head around it all. Somewhat absent-mindedly, she reached out and touched one of the flowers lined up on the sill. They were finally starting to open up to the sunlight, just about displaying their impressive array of colours.
“The higher-level mutants,” she began, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried to call the memory back to her. “They were all ...”
“Telepaths in one way or another. Doctor Farouk was hunting them. Why? I really have no idea, but I get the impression he was … Oh, I don't know! I think the Divisions hoped that Oliver would be their answer to Professor Xavier.”
Xavier. Melanie could remember that name. Amongst the Divisions, Xavier was the name of their greatest enemy, a mutant of such formidable power that he could force entire crowds to their knees if he wanted to.
But he didn't want to, and that's why he was such a threat.
“Was he?” she asked quietly, turning back to the young scientist. Cary looked away for a moment, apparently finding it as difficult to remember the final details as she.
“No. He was d-difficult, in more ways than one. I'd take the Inhibitor off for two seconds and everybody would be singing Frank Sinatra! Not taking his situation seriously was his way of keeping us out, and he was very good at that. Nobody had a clue whether he was as powerful as Xavier or not.”
Melanie suddenly heard girlish laughter coming from the corner of the room. Unnerved, she turned her head to see that nobody was there.
“Do you ...” she said, somewhat unnerved. “Have you been seeing or hearing things that aren't there?”
Cary followed her gaze, and then he shifted rather uncomfortably, rubbing one of his arms.
“If that isn't normal for you, then I'd put it down to the five telepaths beneath us who are suffering. They're all wearing Inhibitors, but suppressing the subconscious proves more difficult. You're just good at perceiving and piecing together what you see. Are … Oh! You must be a telepath, too! Of course!”
Alarmed by Cary's bold assumption, Melanie reluctantly looked away from the spot she could have sworn she heard familiar laughter.
“I'm not a mutant,” she responded uneasily. “The gene wasn't passed to me.”
“Oh, then -”
“My mother was an empath. Oliver must find it easier to walk well-used roads in his current state.”
The laughter came again.
Melanie knew her mother's laughter. It was one of those overly-loud, tinkling laughs, and always kind. This noise, however, seemed to be making a mockery of it, as if the memory of her own mother was laughing at her, distorted or even twisted beyond normality.
Trying to ignore it, she abruptly picked up the file from her desk and held it in Cary's face, shaking it a little to signify its importance. The scientist reluctantly pried it from her fingers and began reading through it.
“I found this in my desk a while back. I know I didn't put it there, Mister Loudermilk. It's classified information! I know that you couldn't have done it, either, having been exposed to the same amnesia. Is there somebody else on our side?”
Cary thoughtfully flipped through the pages before closing the file. The information within was near enough useless, because they hadn't actually ever been able to glean anything of use from the jewel in their collection of telepaths. His mind – that wonderful, expressive place – had been as difficult to crack as a diamond, and even when shattered whole, the pieces were still finding their way back together.
“We never found the one that escaped,” Cary reminded her, visibly struck by the idea.
One had escaped, hadn't they? Melanie did her best to remember the incident, but it proved difficult. All she could recall that the least powerful mutant they had imprisoned within the hidden Institute of Parapsychology had also been the only one to actually escape. The man hadn't been a true telepath, nowhere near the level of the others, but he had remarkable gifts in other areas. His true talent was that of deceiving the senses.
The entire facility had been put into lockdown. There was a small chance he could have escaped, but there was also the possibility that he had stayed. Hidden, of course, and watching from the unknown, but undoubtedly on their side. Had Oliver convinced him to help with the escape, too?
“Walter?” she attempted. “Was that his name?”
“Yes, that's the one. He hasn't been seen since.”
“Then there are at least three of us, not including Oliver.”
“Four,” Cary corrected eagerly, warranting Melanie's immediate curiosity. “My younger sister. She was there when Oliver lost control, too, only the memory surge has made her feel a bit sick, actually. C'mon, Kerry, we're all on the same team, here!”
Now completely confused, the therapist gaped at the man questioningly.
At least until one side of Cary's body glowed white and somebody else walked straight out of him.
It was far too easy to remember just why she had feared mutants. A new feeling, however, was a sense of awe, or even admiration upon witnessing the impossible, which oddly complimented her doubt regarding the human phenomena.
So, Mister Loudermilk was a mutant, too. Or was it 'mutants'? Melanie wasn't exactly sure how the gene had affected them, and she was momentarily too awestruck to try and figure it out. Eyes wide, she gazed upon the young lady who Cary called his sister.
The girl was no more than fourteen years old, at least in appearance. She was wearing a spiked leather jacket, an intense amount of eyeliner, and a forced expression of severe nonchalance. She immediately made her way to Melanie's large desk and sat on it to swing her legs back and forth, greeting the therapist with a slight hand gesture.
“We're, like, twins. Or something,” Kerry said flatly as a form of explanation. “Hey, I've been really bored the past few weeks. Can we go fight some evil government guys yet?”
Melanie really was seeing the impossible. Nonsense, she thought, but the nonsense was proving preferable to the false reality she had been living for however long.
It was harder to consider that soon they would all be in a fight for their lives.
Chapter 4: Locomotive Sunflower
Melanie awoke to a loud thudding.
It was still dark, too early to be awake. Rising slowly out of bed, she picked up the closest heavy object – her lamp – and crept slowly across her tiny bedroom, prising the door open with a single finger. Across the small space of her quarters, she saw a dark shape had manifested on the floor in front of the entrance door. Somebody had posted something through her letter box.
Strange, she thought. She hadn't received any mail since coming to this place, because once the Divisions had laid claim to her, she stopped existing in the outside world.
Heart thudding with anxiety, Melanie put the lamp down and reluctantly switched on the light to get a better look at the object. It was a video tape, plain and unassuming, and though she wanted nothing more than to open the door and go searching for whoever had posted it, she felt far too fearful to do so. While there was little chance of the Divisions finding out about her future treachery yet, the thought remained at the back of her mind: what happens to them if I get caught?
Picking up the tape, the therapist turned it about a bit in her hands. One of the sides had a label, and that was marked with a single 'O'.
Her heart leapt up into her throat. Quickly dropping down in front of her small TV, she pushed the tape into the player and made sure it was rewound before playing it, folding her knees up to her chest as her eyes fixed on the static that fuzzed across the square screen. Through the static came shapes, and slowly but surely, a scene unfolded before her. There were no dates, no context, but it had found its way to her for a reason, undoubtedly.
Oliver was stood in front of a small audience. His mop of black hair was arranged as tidily as possible, and he wore a smart but perhaps gaudy mint-green suit with flared bottoms. Though the image was somewhat fuzzy and darker than it should have been, Melanie recognised his features and the way he talked with graceful hands, and not least of all, the crooked smile he offered the camera when he realised he was being filmed. In his hand was what looked suspiciously like a martini.
“... come to be known as the X-gene, though widely disputed. The protein triggers other genes to mutate and thus the apparition can be random in nature, anything from a simple change in physiology to the ability to manipulate forces, temperature, or even one's own form. A child born with the gene can go their entire life without ever knowing they have it, though this is a rare outcome, for the gene tends to activate during puberty or times of great physical or emotional stress. More rarely, children are born with their gifts already in tow. Ah, and it's common for a mutant to produce a child with gifts similar to their own, though this isn't always the case -”
“Uh, professor?” one of the students interjected, holding up a hand. “Isn't this all just, well ... a theory? There aren't really any mutants out there.”
“Just as evolution is still considered just a theory. However, our pasts are the key to our future. Where will humans be in a hundred years? Two-hundred? A thousand? The X-gene has already seen evolution jump forwards at unnatural speeds, aided by solar radiation, stress … It's integral that humans understand this process. World-breakers will be born, and if humans and mutants can't learn to cooperate, then we'll see ourselves become extinct before we even reach our true potential.”
Another student held up a hand.
“If mutants are real then they should be sterilised,” they offered, and there came a general murmur of assent from the others. “There's no way people like that should be allowed to reproduce.”
Oliver's lip twitched. He took a calming sip of alcohol.
“They're people, like you, and none of them asked to be born the way they were. The majority don't pose a threat to humanity, and when they do, it's likely because they spent their lives being treated as something to be feared.” The man paused, surveying his small collection of students with his dark eyebrows raised. If anything, he seemed disappointed. “Our only enemy is ignorance. Ignorance is violence.”
“Our enemy is accidents,” the same student piped up again. “What about the ones who can't control their abilities? Other people don't deserve to be hurt because of their mistakes.”
Oliver's face fell. Though he quickly collected himself, the professor was clearly on edge, now, one of his legs jittering, though it was unclear why. Was he impatient? Angry? Scared?
“The solution to that is research. Teaching. The sooner mutants understand themselves, the sooner they can learn to control their maladies. All the more, kids, homo sapiens have caused more deaths in the past sixty years than homo superior have since their emergence, and yet I have seen few outcries for the mass sterilisation of humanity.”
He was rubbing his forehead, now, eyes tightly shut.
Melanie picked up on a sudden tension gripping those present in the scene. Students looked amongst each other as if gripped with a sudden unease, and whoever was behind the camera seemed to pick up that something wasn't quite right. Confused, Melanie pulled herself closer to the television screen to try and spot the problem, but whatever it was could not be seen.
“Shit,” the cameraman suddenly gasped. The camera was picked up and all Melanie could see was chairs, tables, corridors as the man sprang up and ran out of the lecture hall. The image began to fuzz over again with static, and through the white noise that slowly arose out of the panicked silence, she could hear a steadily approaching conglomerate of speaking voices. Though she couldn't make out what they were saying, they became louder and louder, expressing fear and confusion until in an instant, they were cut off.
The scene changed. Again, there was no date. The image was clearer, this time, perhaps thanks to the lighting of the small room, which was stark white. Oliver, now dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and dark jeans, was sat at a rounded table with his face in his hands. Opposite him was a Division Three agent. The camera was placed so that both of them could be seen either side of the screen.
“Can you hear me, Oliver?” the agent asked calmly. Her eyes were anything but calm, however. They were stormy grey like a raging sea.
“No, it's too bright,” the man responded in a small voice.
“That doesn't mean you can't hear. Your mind is playing tricks on you again. Stop panicking, or we'll be forced to sedate you.”
Oliver very slowly removed his shaking hands from his face and clasped them on the table in front of him. His eyes were rimmed red, and he closed them to shield them from the intense light of the interrogation room, head bowing. After a minute of silence, the agent continued:
“Can you see me, Oliver?”
“Your eyes are shut.”
“I can see your voice. It's angry red lines spiking at every word. And … locusts, an endless shadow swarming.”
The woman took a moment to jot something down on the pad placed before her. She leaned back in her seat and took a moment to appraise her visitor, eyes so grey that they were almost yellow, the disarming stare flitting over the man's face as if she was memorising it. It was a lovely kind of face, unconventionally attractive even when gripped with turmoil, but the agent didn't seem to be interested for that reason. The intensity of her gaze bespoke a different kind of want.
“Let's talk about what happened, shall we?” she murmured, flipping through the pages of her pad. There was nothing written there, but she pretended to read from it regardless in a tone that was thoroughly mocking in nature. “Five of them, with no history of seizures at all, collapsed in convulsions. Three forgot their own identities. Oh, and before I forget, one is still in a coma, Mister Bird. And you insist your kind are not dangers to society! Let's just talk about you, though, because you're one of the few I find remotely interesting.”
Oliver wasn't a small man. He was six feet tall and stocky in frame, but the more the agent spoke, the smaller he seemed to become, shrinking in on himself until it seemed like a single breeze would knock him to the ground. He winced as if physically struck and then ran a hand through his mess of hair, allowing the single tear trailing down his cheek to remain until it dripped off the end of his chin.
“Let's start with your parents. Your father was Anthony William Bird, a scientist hailing from the United Kingdom. He could inspire dreams and nightmares in sleeping people. How marvellous!” the agent commended. “Your mother was Maia Whanaupunga, a historian from the Pacific Islands. She could create little pockets of reality, free to alter as she pleased. Strange, though, that neither of them remember they had a son. Neither of them remember much at all, actually, kid.”
The prisoner tried to keep it together, but then his shoulders began to shake, and his face once again disappeared into his hands. He made several heart-wrenching sounds of torment, fingers gripping into his skull as if he wanted nothing more than for it to shatter beneath them. His cheeks and hands became moist with his misery, and not once did he look at the woman in front of him, eventually concealing his face in folded arms as agonised sobs continued to wrack his body.
Unseen to Oliver, the woman reached out her hand and held it over his head, her fingers bending until they were like claws. It was like she was trying to feel for something, caress it, and she became visually frustrated when she couldn't find whatever it was she was looking for.
“Fighting for mutantkind isn't enough reason for you to go on, Oliver. What's the point? You'll always be outnumbered, and they'll never accept you. I mean, jeez, what was the point of you even being born, right? You can't put your gifts to good use because you don't know what the hell you're doing. You're useless.” The woman lowered her hand as if to touch the man's head, but she resisted, pulling it back with a foul kind of lust in her unearthly stare. “But, it's okay, Mister Bird. Division Three has the technology to help you. Instead of fighting us with fire and poetry, why don't you let us muffle your mind? We can put an end to the voices.”
No sooner as she said it, Oliver's head snapped up and his features were besieged with desperation. His hands once again landed on his temples, fingernails digging in so hard that he was sure to make himself bleed. He breathed as if he was drowning, taking noisy, violent gulps of air, and his eyes widened as they suddenly began searching the room for something that wasn't there.
“Something's following me,” he croaked, more tears spilling over his cheeks. “Something won't leave me alone!”
The agent tilted her head. Melanie could have sworn that she smiled for a split second.
“You have a wild imagination, Mister Bird. We'll put it to rest, you just have to let us. Otherwise, everything you fear could come true.”
The lights in the interrogation room began flickering.
The agent snapped her fingers. Oliver immediately fell unconscious, dropping heavily onto the table but finally in relative peace. The yellow-eyed woman then blew the tip of her finger like one might blow the end of a gun, and turned her gaze directly towards the camera for several chilling seconds.
The screen fuzzed with static, then went black.
Melanie stared forlornly down at the magpie.
She was just old enough to understand death, and she was beginning to understand responsibility, too. The creature had flown into a window and perished soon afterwards, much to her misery. Stooping down, she curiously held out one of the bird's wings, admiring the gorgeous array of colours to be found on the feathers there. She hadn't thought of the things as being pretty before, and now this pretty thing was dead because their house was in the way.
Gently lowering the magpie back down into an old shoebox, she covered it with the lid and then placed it into the hole her mother had dug in their garden. It was a space between the pond and the lilies, one of Melanie's favourite spots because it was peaceful and private, but now she would share it with the bird. It was only right to give something back.
Her mother began covering it over with soil. Once the deed was done, Melanie tugged her down and clambered into her lap with tears in her eyes. She tried to hide her tears, but her mother always knew when she was sad, even when the little girl did her very utmost to conceal it.
“Is he happy now?” Melanie asked with a pout, wiping her swollen eyes. She sat back against her mother's chest and stared at the lump of soil, biting worriedly at a bit of loose skin beside her thumbnail.
“Hm. It's hard to tell, my darling, but I think so. We did our best, didn't we? Most people would have left it alone.”
“Why?” the child asked, a trace of anger in her tone.
Alice sighed and adjusted the child in her lap, watching the flowers around them bend gently in the breeze.
“It's hard to understand suffering until you see it for yourself, and many people don't understand the pain of creatures they consider lesser. When you can put yourself in another person's shoes and sympathise with them, it's called empathy.”
“Empathy,” Melanie repeated, mentally storing the word away for later use. She turned her head upwards to look at her mother, admiring the lady's large, blue eyes, and her shiny blonde hair. She was beautiful, she had soft skin, and Melanie knew she could grow up to be just as clever and wonderful as Alice Stone.
“Will I ever feel it like you do?”
“I don't know, sweetheart.”
Melanie was frightened of her mother's gift, as much as she admired it. It was a fear that had remained dormant for many years, rearing its head every now and then whenever she felt extremely uncomfortable with how much she could be read by a single glance.
She liked the spot between the pond and the lilies because nobody could see her there. Nobody could see into her heart and tell her what she was feeling or what she was supposed to be feeling.
In the end, fear had won.
She showed the tape to Cary, and it was quickly established that neither him or Kerry had been the ones to post it through Melanie's door. They came to the conclusion that it was their mysterious comrade, the mutant who had escaped the Institute of Parapsychology, but they couldn't quite come to a conclusion as to why Walter would want to show them the secret records of Oliver Bird. Was he trying to help them understand the plight of those trapped underground? If so, he had succeeded, and though Melanie was horrified by what she had seen, she felt better knowing just what she had to be wary of once they were saved.
For a number of hours, the two discussed possible escapes whilst Kerry paced impatiently back and forth in the background. In the end, it was her who came up with the most plausible solution.
“Look!” she burst out suddenly, interrupting Melanie and Cary as their conversation began to border on arguing. “We're surrounded by mutants! Division Three are scared of these guys, right? Otherwise they wouldn't be all doped up all the time. Stop their medication and they're gonna want to get out of this hell hole. I know I do!”
It seemed obvious, really. Worse was that it had taken a child to point it out.
“And the telepaths?” Cary asked Kerry, the utmost amount of respect in his voice as he addressed his unruly sibling.
“We have our memories back. We have the knowledge of the highly ranked dudes who run this place. We just need to remember a way past those metal doors. Is there some kind of master code? Y'know, just in case someone lost their swipe card or something?”
Melanie searched her mind for some sort of answer. There was still a bit of fog and mental dust holding her back, meaning she couldn't quite recall what any of the codes actually were. With a sigh, she shook her head, knowing it would take a miracle for her to remember a long string of numbers.
Before Kerry could come up with anything else, the door to Melanie's shook with a hard knock. The three acted quickly to appear as unsuspicious as possible: Kerry disappeared into Cary, and Cary assumed a seat on the patient's side of Melanie's desk. The woman darted towards the door, arranged her white coat neatly, and then opened it with a forced smile.
It was Mister Greyson. Plain face, plain eyes, plain mind.
He walked straight past Melanie and into her office, hands in his pockets, briefly staring at Cary before turning his gaze around the rest of the room. The older man then made his way toward the flowers on the windowsill and handled them far too roughly for the therapist's liking, inspecting the colourful heads of the plants until satisfied with whatever he was doing.
“You've woken up,” he observed, his voice oddly hollow. “Are you ready?”
Utterly clueless, Melanie remained well away from the man due to the somewhat threatening vibe he gave off. Instead, she held onto the door handle and kept it open, hoping that the director would simply leave them alone, but it seemed it was too late for that. Had they been caught out before they'd even had a chance to act out their escape plan?
His words didn't quite match up with that idea. Melanie slowly closed the door again, brow furrowed suspiciously. After a second of thought, she picked up the video tape from her desk and held it up.
“Did you post me this?”
“Yeah. I could've shown you it before, but he would've just been a stranger to you. You wouldn't have cared nor believed it. I left the file in your desk so that the kid could show you your past.”
In apparent disbelief, Cary stood up and squinted through his glasses at the other man.
“Walter? You – You look -”
Melanie blinked, and Mister Greyson was gone. In his place was a tall, lithe fellow with a gingery mass of permed hair and an unsettling stare. The man must've been about the same age as them, though it was somewhat difficult to tell given his emotionless expression.
Of course, he had looked like that the entire time. It was just that Walter possessed the remarkable ability to manipulate how people perceived the world, including his own appearance. Had he been Mister Greyson all this time, or had he removed him from the equation and taken his place? Whatever the case, they had another person on their team and a swipe card that would grant them access into the hidden Institute.
“I had the feeling it was time to come to you. Oliver must be listening,” Walter muttered, leaning back against the windowsill and folding his arms. “Nice to meet you, or whatever, even though we've met before. You were both different then.”
Still uneasy, Melanie shook the tape slightly.
“Why did you give me this?”
Walter chewed on his tongue for far too long.
“I knew Oliver before all this. I was the one that filmed the lecture. They took my camera from me after he went missing. I thought it was to get an idea of his behaviour before it happened, but I guess the Divisions wanted it as evidence of his telepathy.” He chewed on his tongue again, poking it into the side of his mouth for a moment. “I wanted you to see the danger you'll be in if you get him out.”
“We'll take his Inhibitor with us,” Cary said quickly. Nervously adjusting his glasses, he turned his eyes to the opposite wall, away from Walter. “It's why I made them: to help telepaths while they learn to control themselves without them. We can't just leave them in there!”
Walter grunted. “Fine, but consider the failsafes around the Institute. When I escaped, they almost killed the others, thinking we were working in tandem. If they realise the psychics have a chance of escaping, they'll put them down.”
“Then you'll just have to go back in disguised as Greyson and think of a way to get them out,” Cary shot back.
The two men glared at each other momentarily. Melanie, not caring for wasting more time, stepped forwards to gain their attention.
“No. I'll go. Once the mutants are no longer sedated, we'll trigger an evacuation. The guards outside the metal door will be distracted. I'll use Greyson's swipe card to get inside and trigger the alarm within the underground Institute. It's on a separate system as the place is near enough indestructible.”
“It'll be impossible for you to get five bodies out of there, even if somebody went with you,” Walter dully reminded her. “None of them will be in a state to just walk out. Unless -”
“Five telepaths without their Inhibitors will be a force to be reckoned with Walter,” Melanie reminded the man in turn.
“And if there's an accident? You could lose your mind.”
The woman raised her head, assuming a resolute expression.
“So be it. To make up for the things I've done, I'll give them the chance to walk free. You three will help the other mutants utilise their powers and escape. Are we in agreement?”
The two men nodded, instantly adhering to her authority. Kerry didn't show herself, but Melanie knew if the teenager had any issues with the plan, she already would have spoken her dissent. Nerves arose the more she thought about her plan, but with it came a confidence born from both a will to help and guilt, because she knew that sometimes, going against the wishes of the government and whoever else controlled these cruel operations was absolutely the right thing to do.
She would do it for Oliver, and the others.
She would do it for her mother, who never saw the same justice.
Whilst lying in bed the following night, Melanie awoke to a cool, blue light.
She saw the reflections of waves on the walls, like sunlight was shining upon a pool of water that didn't exist. Any other person would have been both mystified and terrified by the strange manifestation, but the woman simply looked upwards with a smile, feeling the familiar presence gently calming her mind as she awoke.
Her heart thrummed with warmth, affection, admiration, and she knew without even asking that he felt the same way about her, because she was feeling everything that he could feel, too. Their minds were temporarily joined and it was the most beautiful sensation Melanie had ever felt in her entire life, like fireflies had filled her body and mind, invigorating every nerve in her body until she tingled pleasantly all over. She gasped when he left her, already missing the mental contact, but when she opened her eyes, she was surrounded by white-blue light again. He had pulled her back into his world and as before, she could feel him there with her.
“I thought you said that before was the last time, Oliver,” she breathed. She felt the phantom movement of her feet treading water.
I was there, earlier, existing on another plane, but I could hear you forming your plan. I realised something impossible, and now I'm on the verge of finding my way back in. You've made me stronger.
They're always telling me that time's a healer, but, man, I haven't got time to waste. I think it's something more like that feeling one gets when they hear another lambasting their foes. And - holy shit - when they realise they're not alone.
Being vivisected, villainised, victimised, I never thought there'd be a day a voice would conjure pictures of sunflowers and sunlight. They weren't right! If anything's a healer, it's the way I feel when I see you plan to fuck over the Man.
Melanie felt solid earth beneath her feet. The bluish light cleared and what she saw took her breath away.
Fields upon fields of sunflowers. All of them open, vibrant, tall, and beautiful. The warm breeze rocked the legion of sweet, yellow heads, causing waves of movement along the petal ocean blooming before Melanie's very eyes. Finding herself caught amongst the plants, she eagerly reached out and felt the coarse, rubbery stalks beneath her fingertips. The place granted the temporary but welcome illusion of absolute freedom, and she wished that her mother could have known such peace again before she was taken from her family into the unknown.
The trill of a classical guitar sounded through the soft wind. Turning, Melanie followed the sweet music until she came across a circular clearing in the flowers. It was private, peaceful, and the only person who knew she was there was Oliver. The man watched her from his spot on the ground, his soft eyes following her as she treaded a slight arc to admire him from afar.
He had tried to do something with his hair but failed miserably, even in this dream-world. Still, he cut a fine figure in a rather bright Hawaiian shirt and tightly fitted jeans, gracefully fondling the neck of his guitar as he played her a strong, pretty tune. It was the first time she had ever seen him as he should have been, and it was the first time he had seen her as she should have been.
Her pale pink summer dress made her feel herself again. She was barefoot, and a spotty scarf kept her blonde hair back off her face. With a smile, she danced in time with the music, twirling about and feeling the warm air brush past her fingers, laughter filling her lungs and soul. The soft grass beneath her feet was as soft to the touch as feathers as she spun across it, skirts billowing out around her.
White, glowing musical notes floated from Oliver's guitar as he played it. The notes became the birds, the bees, and the sunlight. Melanie stopped dancing to watch the beauty of it, her eyes tearing up as she became overwhelmed by all that she was seeing.
You're amazing, she thought.
“Ooh. Well, then,” Oliver replied, suitably flustered, his voice as deep and mellow as she remembered. “Let's talk about you, Melanie. What a vision you are! And you are absolutely, mind-bogglingly … the best person I have ever met.”
The woman laughed with disbelief, approaching the man. He changed the tune he was playing to match the rhythm of her footsteps.
“I'm just a human,” Melanie reminded him, approaching until she was stood directly above him. Oliver moved into a kneeling position, continuing to serenade her with the guitar.
“Change begins with humans,” he responded. “Change begins with amazing humans like you.”
“Enough of that. You don't want me getting ill, now, do you?”
It was the first time she had properly heard him laugh.
Raising one bare foot, Melanie nudged the guitar aside until the man got the message and placed it down beside him. With the same foot, she pressed her toes into his chest until he was flat on his back and she was free to seat herself upon his waist. Once comfortable, she leaned over him with one hand beside his chest and the other moving to gently trace the shape of his face. She observed his adam's apple bob with a hard swallow.
“How do you feel?” she asked quietly, her finger travelling over the shell of her companion's ear.
“G-good,” Oliver stuttered. “Yeah, actually. You've caught hold of my helium balloon of a mind. It was about to float away, up out of the atmosphere and into whatever waits beyond.”
“I'll protect you, my love,” she whispered back. Giving in to temptation, she leaned down and tasted his lips, holding his cheek in her hand. “I always will.”
The pair allowed themselves a date while they had the time. Dinner was strawberries, and the dance was silent save for Melanie's humming. The tune she chose was You Are My Sunshine, not only because it was the first thing that came to mind, but because the words spoke the utmost truth. To the soft tune, they slowly danced until the sky became dark and millions upon millions of stars shone over their heads.
With her head resting on Oliver's chest, she began to hear sounds of the ocean, small waves breaking softly against an unseen shore. Something within her knew that their personal little paradise was coming away at the seams, the mental code (or whatever it was her companion used to create his worlds) was crumbling into pieces.
Melanie, I'll be beside you every step of the way. I promise.
Chapter 5: The First Time
My name is Doctor Melanie Stone.
We are all aware that the Government keeps secrets from its people and sometimes, yes, that is for the greater good. I'm ashamed to admit that I was one of those who guarded a secret that never should have remained hidden.
I work in a facility called 'Waves', a faux mental institution that makes prisoners out of mutants brainwashed to believe that they are ill. These people are kept in a constant state of sedation to keep their powers at bay. I find it remarkable that the government has the funds to pretend that these boys and girls are sick when there are patients with true mental illnesses out there who cannot find the love and support that they need.
'Waves' is just the tip of the iceberg. It provides a gateway to an underground facility called the 'Institute of Parapsychology', and there they are keeping five telepathic mutants under close observation. They are little more than lab rats, exposed to horrendous experiments to test their capabilities. If it weren't for a back passage in their Inhibitors allowing their subconscious to seep through, I never would have regained the memories that were taken from me in an accident involving one of these psychics.
To make up for my part in the subduing and suffering of these people, it has become my intention to help them escape. I feel that it is the right thing to do, but it's going to be dangerous and I may end up losing my own life. If such is the case, I'll leave this letter to one who will expose the heavily guarded secret I spent years of my life protecting.
My only hope is that these people will walk free in the sunlight again.
It took some time to figure out the finer details of their plan. Kerry was notably absent the whole time, and Cary didn't attempt to engage in conversation with her, which led Melanie to believe that the young lady wasn't actually present at all. When Cary later produced various items from the outside world, it swiftly became apparent that the girl had snuck cleanly out of the facility and to wherever the closest town or city was.
These items were pills.
Melanie closely studied the way her colleagues worked. They were alarmingly efficient in some ways, performing all of their tasks perfectly on time with those same, robotic stares. She began to wonder whether they were actually taking any notice of what they were doing, or if they were questioning the morality of their actions. They had all become as silent as the grave, allowing the various mistreatments occurring around them to simply pass by unnoticed. Perhaps it was that Melanie wasn't the only one who had fallen asleep.
In the dead of night, Cary managed to bypass the lock on the dispensing unit. The pills handed out to the patients on a daily basis (Melanie now recognised that they did not resemble any genuine medication whatsoever) were disposed of and swapped out for what essentially amounted to blanks, courtesy of Kerry, some of them even suspiciously resembling sweets of some kind. They resembled the sedatives well enough that Melanie was sure that the absent-minded nurses who dispensed them wouldn't actually notice, because as she had observed, none of them seemed to be fully aware of what they were doing.
The likelihood was that the nurses weren't actually nurses, but former government personnel who had, for whatever reason, had their previous identities taken from them and replaced with something new. Much like what had happened to her. Was she to sympathise with them, then? Or had all of them once worked to study and experiment on mutants on the behalf of faceless men and women?
They were in their own dream-world, now.
Melanie, Cary, and Walter stopped and waited. It was only a matter of time until the patients began to wake up. They waited for that golden moment when they were still subdued enough not to arouse suspicion but likely able to reach in and utilise their powers, whatever they were, much as Ptonomy had done before.
The silence was easier to tolerate now that Melanie had people around her who were on her side. It was easier to tolerate now that she knew the truth, even if she didn't like the truth about herself. However, that didn't stop the silence from making her more uncomfortable than it ever had, because now more so than ever, she was highly conscious of being watched. She could feel eyes upon her, though she couldn't see them, despite the fact the nurses and therapists kept their heads down most of the time. Was it because Oliver was there in another world, standing beside her? Was it because of the shadows she saw in the very outskirts of her vision, even in the waking world?
She heard laughter, sometimes. It was a decidedly malicious sound. Other times, she heard crying with no discernible source. She knew it wasn't Oliver, because she was familiar with how his presence manifested itself as a cool, calming force, as beautiful to see as it was to feel. She could only assume it was the shadows of another mind trapped below.
It's only real if you make it real, Oliver assured her. He seemed to be assuring himself, too.
There was no sunlight, no flowers. Not this time. The dream – if that was what it even was – resembled the stark white corridors of Waves. Melanie felt a bracing chill raise the hairs on her arms as she walked them, moving tentatively past the many closed doors that she knew she didn't want to open because there was no way of knowing what dangers inhabited the rooms beyond. One of them, however – the one at the very end of the long, flickering corridor – was illuminated by Oliver's light. It broke through the seams and pulsed like a heartbeat. With no hesitation, Melanie darted forwards and pulled the door open.
“When did I start dreaming?” she asked the room, dazed with confusion. She had been walking the corridors, preparing to send the building into an evacuation, and then …
The room was empty, save for a bed, one table, and a body-length mirror on one of the white walls. The lamps on the walls flashed on and off, casting the place into moments of pitch blackness. Every time the lights came back on, something about the room was different.
They flickered. The table was wonky.
They flickered again. An open bottle of pills spilled across the white sheets of the bed.
Joints and LSD pills flashed in and out of existence. The sheets became more and more messy, the tiled floor became stained with splashes of blood, and then Melanie could hear the whispers, screams, cries of a thousand voices, all of them expressing their dissent for something but none of them knew what, thudding at non-existent walls like they were trapped.
She panicked, frightened by the assault on her senses – at least until she saw a reflection in the long mirror opposite. It wasn't actually her own reflection, but that of Oliver, whose hands were on the other side of the glass as if looking into another plane of existence. To see his face brought her enough joy that for a moment, the voices and the flickering lights stopped.
Only to resume again a moment later.
Moving to the mirror, Melanie placed her palms flat against the glass where Oliver's hands were.
“What's happening? I wasn't asleep, Oliver -”
The man mouthed something, but all Melanie could hear was a slight bubbling, as if he was trapped underwater.
“I can't – I can't hear you,” she quickly added, feeling around the edge of the mirror to try and find a way to get him out.
To her horror, Oliver slammed on the glass in a panicked manner, his eyes wide and desperate. His bare feet lifted off the ground, and his hair swam about his face as if he had suddenly been submerged in cold water. The table and bed behind him began floating, too, but Melanie's own version of the place remained unscathed, save for the occasional manipulations on behalf of whatever was haunting the darkness that existed when the lights went out.
He was going to drown.
Melanie did everything she could think of. She slammed the edge of the table against the mirror, but the glass was unbreakable. She tried to pull the mirror off the wall but it was stuck. As a last resort, she put her hands back onto the glass and gestured for Oliver to do the same.
With her lips, she formed the word focus.
Then, I'm here.
In that moment, Melanie understood. The voices she could hear, the whispers, the screams, they were all he could hear within her mind, and if she was to reach him, she had to learn how to properly communicate before he lost whatever battle he was fighting. Adrenaline told her to put all of her focus on the words she wanted him to hear and to turn the volume down on the other nonsense that threatened to drown her out.
It's not real, my darling, she thought, doing her utmost to keep her mental voice calm and level. She mirrored her words with her eyes, beseeching him to see the truth. You're lying on a bed and your lungs are clear. I'm coming to find you. Can you hear me, Oliver?
When the lights once again switched back on, the water on the other side of the mirror was an inky black.
Before she could shout Oliver's name, Melanie watched as something in the darkness of the water began to take shape, pushing out of the mirror as a black, solid mass. The shape formed sinewy muscles, stretched and grotesque, and then claw-like fingers began to grow out of it, reaching further and further into the dream-world and attempting to grasp something, anything. The clawed hand swiped and thrashed and Melanie was sure she could hear an inhuman shrieking somewhere in the back of her mind.
Do you remember yet, Melanie?
The woman retreated into a corner of the room, terrified that the monster was going to find its way in.
Do you remember the hazy nights? The stars in the sky? Do you remember how far we came before we were doomed to live out the worst again and again? My mind's a fickle disease and it ruined you like it ruined me, and now black mirrors rise up and black out the stars -
The monster's hand flinched, as if burnt by something.
We were travellers, deep sea divers, we found tarnished pearls and loved them and gave them a place they could call home. I love you, Melanie Stone.
There came a demonic screeching. The hand began to melt away, shedding its skin of inky mucus until nothing but bones remained. The shards sank back into the mirror and the lights in the room changed colour to a furious red, flashing aggressively over and over until all of a sudden, they stopped, returning to that gorgeous pale blue as if nothing had happened.
Everything was back to normal. The bed was made, the furniture was tidy, and Melanie could see no monsters in the mirror. Only herself, and her bleak, terrified features, eyes desperately searching for the beat poet who had chosen to occupy her dreams.
“Show me,” she whispered.
In the outside world, Melanie's hand broke a manual call point. Even the alarms and panic weren't enough to rouse her from her waking dream. Eyes glazed and fists clenched, she calmly followed the vision of a white rabbit back to corridor B-12, passing the guards as she went. The place now vacated, she swiped Greyson's card through the scanner and pulled open the circular, metal door that led into a dark abyss: the unknown.
When she met him for the first time, he was reciting poetry of his own concoction on stage. He was dressed in black from his shoulders down to his toes and he spoke aggressively with his hands, summoning cheers and applause from his peers. As for herself, she was on a date with a man who had swiftly become annoyed when he realised the jazz club hosted poetry slams on Tuesday nights. Melanie suspected that, although her date fit in with the men and women dressed in turtle-neck jumpers or stripy shirts, he wasn't quite as angry or as lucid or as bold as the others.
Not like the man on the stage, who eloquently urged those who were different to fight for their lives if they had to. He spoke like he had long since mastered the arts of charm and persuasion, the velvet of his voice as pleasurable as it was riveting, and even if Melanie couldn't properly relate to the things he rhymed about, she felt a small stirring in her heart. For a small time, through language alone, she could see the way he saw the world.
Her date abandoned her to the night.
She couldn't see the poet's face; he was wearing sunglasses despite the low-lit, underground room. Perhaps she had thought it had made him seem less genuine, because no sooner had he finished, she stood up (emboldened by one too many gin and tonics), made her way to the front of the small crowd, and raised her nose at his impassioned speech.
“Poetry can only go so far,” she pointed out loudly, silencing the polite applause emitting from the other darkly clad patrons.
The man acted like he had been expecting her feedback, barely raising an eyebrow at her words. The cheap spotlight placed upon him dimmed, and he took that as his cue to vacate the stage, approaching Melanie with a nod of greeting.
“Poetry serves to entertain and educate those who will listen,” the man argued smoothly, ignoring the fact both himself and Melanie still had the eyes of the crowd upon them. “That's what I do – or, at least, I try.”
The lighting in the small, hazy club dimmed to a pale blue. Somebody put a coin in the jukebox in the corner to eradicate the silence.
“Literature?” Melanie asked.
“Biology, actually. Oh, I like this song!”
Melanie liked it, too. Reaching upwards, she slowly removed the sunglasses from the man's face and placed them upon her own head, pushing them up into her hair.
“Shall we dance and talk?”
Oliver, despite all the bold impetuousness he had shown whist reciting his passage, appeared nervous, though still he took Melanie's hand and led her to a near enough empty space on the rickety wooden floor. He seemed to know exactly what she had in mind, placing a hand on her waist as he led her into a slow, rhythmic pace.
She treaded cool, metal stairs downwards. Red lamps lined the spiralling walls, illuminating the weighty darkness, but her white rabbit was brighter than they were as it hopped down each step, its light beating away any trace of fear. Every so often, it turned around and sniffed at the air as if to make sure Melanie was still following – but of course she was! There was nothing that could have caused her to turn away and escape back into the safety of familiarity.
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, she found a chamber closed off from the rest of the Institute. Hung on the walls were thick, full bodied suits with masks. Melanie suddenly remembered their purpose, and it was something of a grim reality: in the event of a rebellion, the manner of execution the Divisions would use to exterminate the dangerous mutants required the staff to don hazmat suits so that they weren't affected by whatever materials would be threaded through the air conditioning system.
Other personnel had worn them, sometimes, regardless. Melanie suspected they had feared for their own safety around the mutants and thought that plastic and rubber would be enough to save them. Her eyes moist yet unseeing, she donned one of the suits and concealed her face with the mask.
The second time they met for the first time, he was a client.
The man seemed lost more than anything, as if he wasn't entirely sure just how he had found his way into a session. At his heels was a young, black service dog, a Labrador by the looks of it, which sat obediently when its owner finally decided to indulge Melanie and sit down. For the majority of the time, he had been pacing relentlessly, unable to look the therapist in the eyes, but that was a common occurrence.
“I met a girl,” he admitted, hands tightly gripping his knees. “Woman,” he then corrected himself. “You know – my mum and dad never married. I don't think they even liked each other very much. They were two forces of nature that couldn't coexist. They'd call that sort of thing free love these days, and I believed in it until now.”
Melanie smiled encouragingly.
“Well, what's she like?”
“Oh, er ...” Oliver paused, and for a moment, his solemn eyes lit up. He smiled in turn, scratching awkwardly at his neatly groomed beard. “She's … bold. Yeah, speaks her mind. She's compassionate. Genuine. When I hear her voice or see her face, everything becomes the Summer: the flowery scent, the cut grass, the warmth … She's a walking dream. And, man, she's so beautiful.”
“Oh? Have you told her?”
“Only a hundred times. I should have told her more. I should've ...” Oliver averted his gaze again, his smile falling. “She's the Beatrice to my Dante, now. It's my fault. I thought we actually had a chance of settling down and having a family, but who am I kidding? I'm just that dark cloud that floats along and blocks out the light. What's more, I don't think I could have kids. What if they just turned out like me?” The man faltered. An olive hand threaded through dark hair momentarily, fingertips bordering on raking his scalp. “I like creating things. Good things! Others are so set on breaking stuff apart that I just want to put the pieces back together. The best thing I could create, though, I can't do it. Just ...” he shook his head, exhaling frustratedly. “Bloody typical.”
They had been talking for a couple of hours at most, and yet Melanie had already learned that the best way to keep this particular patient calm was to briefly distract him before returning to the conversation. Retrieving a small packet from her pocket, she leaned forwards and offered the man some mints. To her surprise, Oliver swiftly indulged her.
“Ooh! They're my favourites! Oh, wait – eurgh, spearmint! D'you know what I hear when I taste this? Beatles music.”
Melanie laughed, suddenly alight with mirth.
“That's terrible, Mister Bird! What isn't terrible, however, is you. You're going to find another place of learning that accepts your work, and if you want to, you could have some beautiful children, too. Passing on what makes you different to others is not a given. It could be that they're every bit as creative and imaginative as you are. Did your girlfriend want a family before things turned sour?”
Oliver shuffled a bit, his flighty gaze turning to the ceiling.
“Uncertain, like me. I think she was … Oh, I don't know, I couldn't quite place it … Her mother was like me, you see, but knew nothing about her own … abilities, shall we say? She couldn't control it, and she was blind to what it was doing to her family. It's down to a lack of education and research in this particular area. My lady friend lost her mother, in the end, and so I think she became frightened of people like her.”
Melanie was lost, now, though she tried to keep up as best she could.
“People fear mental illnesses,” she said slowly, attempting to put two and two together. “It's true. With more awareness and education, they'll learn they're not something to be afraid of. They're a natural part of our biology. They need to be taken seriously and treated with love. You are not something to be afraid of, Mister Bird, and if she didn't want to attempt to make it work -”
“She did,” Oliver murmured, and he swallowed thickly. “She made it work, but then the clouds drifted over the Sun. That's why I … That's why this dog's here. Her name is Norma and she tells me when my brain's about to go all funky freestyle.” He reached down and lightly scratched behind one of Norma's floppy ears.
Melanie had a sudden and overwhelming feeling of déjà vu.
“Living with this biology of mine,” Oliver continued remorsefully, “is easier said than done.”
There was a red lever on the wall marked 'EMERGENCIES ONLY'.
Melanie hesitated just once, and then she pulled it down.
The lamps lighting the dark, narrow Institute turned red. Instead of an alarm, a pre-recorded message boomed through the hall over and over and over.
“Five minutes remaining until purge. Please locate your nearest elevator. Five minutes remaining until purge. Please locate your nearest elevator. Five minutes remaining until ...”
Various staff members trickled from the various coded doors in states of panic. Men and women in lab coats or armoured bodysuits pushed past Melanie and ran to wherever the escape routes were, their conduct poor because no evacuation training had ever actually been issued. It seemed, however, that all of them were more than willing to leave behind the supposed patients trapped within any five of cells lining the walls.
The rabbit led her to the first cell. Oliver had been Melanie's only charge, and she had never been allowed to see the other telepaths or even know where they were located, and so with caution did she swipe Greyson's card through the slot and allow the metal door to hiss open.
The room was white and padded. The girl within, no more than seven years of age, slowly raised her glum, defeated eyes up to Melanie, barely reacting to the intimidating hazmat suit the woman wore. Pulling the mask off, Melanie approached with her hands raised to show that she held no instruments or weapons.
The girl's cheeks were wet with tears when the therapist gently enclosed her skinny face into her hands. Those tears were wiped away, and then she untied the girl's hands from the bed railings.
Once the Inhibitor upon her dark head was removed, the young prisoner stared up at her rescuer with the largest pair of brown eyes that Melanie had ever seen.
The third time they met for the first time, it was in a stranger's apartment.
A party, she had been told. Her kind of parties involved bright music, punch, and a crowd, but this party, courtesy of a friend of a friend from work, was something of a con in that music had been replaced with some kind of jazz emitting quietly from a record player in the corner. Punch had been replaced with beer, joints, and a bong. There was no crowd, just a sorry bunch of individuals who were guffawing over poetry books and gathering around the bong as if it was feeding them some sort of life energy.
By this point, Melanie was deeply unhappy. Not just with her present situation, but with her life generally. The only time she felt some sort of comfort was when she slept and dreamed of things that made her happy, only to be followed by a deep and hollow sensation of discontent every time she woke to the morning.
So, she let the smoky air feed her, too. She drank from their bottles and read their books, bare legs slowly shifting side to side in time with the music, and once she was done giggling her way through a series of Irish limericks, she crawled over to the man sat in the corner who appeared just as unhappy as she.
Minutes later, they were kissing fervently in the pokey little bedroom they had found halfway down the hall. Everybody else had fallen asleep by then, drawn to exhaustion by alcohol and warmth, but Melanie felt strangely alive as she pulled her new companion onto the single bed and sat across his waist.
“Do I know you?” she slurred breathlessly, running her hands through her partner's hair in order to pull him into another kiss. The man eagerly responded, hands tasting the curves of her body, but then all of a sudden – and quite rudely – he stopped, rolling so that they were both forced onto their sides and facing each other.
“You're drunk,” the man commented lightly, offering a somewhat sheepish kind of smile. He was decidedly handsome enough to forgive for the interruption.
“Aren't you?” she shot back in turn, smiling back at him. She gently traced a finger down his forehead and nose, then the strong shape of his jaw, feeling an odd sort of connection to his looks, as if she had admired him once as he was clearly admiring her, sharing in her wistfulness. “We can forget this in the morning, if you want. Isn't it the era of liberation or something?”
“Something like that,” the man agreed, sighing wantonly. “Comfortably numb is about as drunk as I'm allowed to get, unfortunately,” He paused to retrieve Melanie's hand, which had since begun wandering appreciatively to his rear. “Oh, not there! That's for sober girls, so you'll have to wait until the morning, at least.”
Both frustrated and grateful for the distance afforded by him, Melanie ceased her attempts to lure the man and instead fitted herself against the side of his body, using his shoulder as a pillow. Even when she closed her eyes, she could feel the world spinning beneath her and see rainbows in the movements. It was both a marvellous and sickening sensation all at once, and both that and the warm company beneath her succeeded in distracting her from whatever had drawn her to the party in the first place.
“Are you all right?” the man asked moments later. Melanie could feel his fingers gently brushing through her hair.
“I don't think so, but I'm not sure why.”
“Your mind is roiling,” he murmured, and Melanie was too tired to question the odd observation. “Did I ever tell you the story of the bundle of sticks?”
The woman smiled slightly. “No, because we've just met, but you can tell it anyway.”
“Ah, right. Well … There was an elderly lady who lived on a vast, fertile farm. She grew all kinds of things: potatoes, carrots – probably marijuana, too, because all the cool old ladies were doing it. Anyway, she had lots of kids, too, and they were all very talented in their own way, but they were constantly arguing and warring with each other because each one thought they were the best and they should be the one to inherit the farm when their mother died. She told them all to bring her two sticks from the farm, then asked each of them to break one. They all could break one, of course, but then she took the extra sticks, bound them together, and asked the kids to try and break the bundle. None of them could break it. They realised her lesson: that the sticks were stronger together. Unbreakable. The woman died happy knowing that she had done some good and encouraged her children to work together. The farm thrived long after she was gone.” He paused for dramatic effect. “What do you think?”
“It's lovely, I suppose, but I'm not sure why you told it to me,” Melanie said, her voice muffling as her face partly turned into her new friend's chest. She sighed with contentment and curled up, pulling what she could of the bedsheets up and over them both.
“I'm not sure why, either, but I think it's important.”
The second telepath was a small lady in her early forties. Her featured remained twisted with rage, even as she was freed, but she said nothing, nor did she try to fight Melanie off. They could all see her thoughts to some degree, of course, and the therapist had since remembered how to speak with the voice that they could hear more clearly than anything else.
I'm here to help you.
The third was a man unable to speak English and by far the most cooperative. The child was too young and weak, and so trailed behind, even when Melanie held her hand to help her along. The small woman refused to make contact with any of them. The third telepath, however, swiftly led the way to the fourth.
The fourth was dead. After ushering the child back out of the cell, Melanie determined that the individual was a man in his seventies, at the very least. Horrified by the sight and state of the poor man's body, the therapist barely managed to swallow back her outrage and grief as she covered him over with his bed-sheet. By the looks of things, he had only been deceased for a matter of hours. If she had come to her senses sooner, she might have been able to save his life.
The man had been pushed and pushed until he his body began failing to withstand whatever torture the Divisions had inflicted upon him. Though she hadn't partaken in researching that particular prisoner, she had still been a part of this horrific scheme. It easily could have been any of them lying there, lifeless, their faces etched with the pain of their last moments. It could have been Oliver, her own prisoner. Her own experiment.
Closing the cell behind her, Melanie turned to face the end of the tall corridor. The red lights were flashing, now, and the door at the end of the hall was alight. Somebody else was already inside.
They were driving along a long, winding road, flanked by trees for miles and miles on end. Sunlight flickered vibrantly as they passed under the reaching branches, and Melanie could see it even when her eyes were closed, preventing her from succumbing to her tiredness. On the radio, Pink Floyd fuzzed in and out of existence.
“I can't wait to see what it looks like,” Melanie mused, breaking the comfortable silence. With a smile, she reached over and affectionately placed a hand on Oliver's knee, giving it a small squeeze. “Are they there yet, do you know?”
“I can see Cary and Kerry,” her partner returned, brow furrowing as he focused his power on achieving whatever form of projection allowed him to see other places. “I can see Summerland. It looks near enough finished. It's -”
“Oh, don't tell me. I'll see it for myself. They're all safe, at least?”
“Yeah, all seventeen. I hope you know how remarkable you've been this past month, Melanie. I'm afraid orchestrating infiltrations of these Division Institutions isn't quite my cup of tea. I think I prefer it when we can quietly convince these poor mutants to abandon whatever abuse they've grown up with and come with us.”
Melanie kicked her bare feet up onto the dashboard and wound down the window. Unfolding her arm, she felt the wind brush heavily past her fingers as the smell of Summer filled the car, inspiring within her a true joy as she thought ahead to all of the great things she could achieve with the young mutants they had adopted into their new home.
They would educate and train this first generation, and then they in turn would train and educate the next. Summerland's size and research would grow and it would become a beacon, a mutant haven, a place that would welcome and love those who had never known such things. Melanie, Oliver, and Cary had tirelessly searched and fought for people to bring home, but with the mysterious government task force on Oliver's tail, it had proven more difficult than anticipated.
“Something's wrong,” Oliver muttered suddenly.
Melanie sat bolt upright and took hold of the steering wheel to allow her partner to focus on whatever he was seeing.
“Stay calm, my love. What's happening?”
“I think – ah, shit. Shit. Something noticed I was there.”
Quickly returning to a state of alertness, Oliver sped up the car somewhat and checked the rear view mirror every now and again, clearly on edge. With no idea of what was happening, Melanie moved back to her seat and anxiously looked between the view ahead and the man beside her. In an attempt to calm him, she offered him the voice of her consciousness, her hand returning to his knee.
Oliver appeared uncomfortable, his hands squeezing the steering wheel so hard that the leather creaked.
“Sometimes, when I'm in the Astral Plane, I'll get a feeling like I'm being watched. It's been like that since I started going. I started to learn how to hide from whatever it was, so I'm not sure how, but … Somehow, one of the Divisions has found Summerland. There's a small group infiltrating it. It's as if -”
“- somebody told them,” Melanie finished, her heart beginning to race.
There was little time to contemplate it. No sooner had the car sped up, Oliver was forced to slow it down again, because a tall figure had stepped out from the trees and into the road. The figure was immediately recognisable because of his gingery perm and expressionless countenance. It was Walter, a man Oliver had known on and off for a number of years and eventually retrieved to join them in their efforts to re-home mutants.
His mind was a blank slate, or so Oliver said. Impossible to read, even for a high-level telepath, which was why he fascinated the absent-minded scientist so. Melanie had never liked the man, mostly because of the way he was quick to make cutting remarks and the way he sometimes stared at her. In addition, while his motives were unclear, he had never seemed to help the others out of a genuine desire to do good.
Melanie knew that Walter had been a late bloomer. Ridiculed often in his youth, he had grown to be something of a poisonous entity himself, likely jealous of Oliver and his massive mental prowess. Though Oliver had come to dislike him through Melanie, even he hadn't suspected treachery – but, of course, telepaths didn't often have to rely on intuition.
The car rolled to a stop when it became obvious that Walter wasn't going to move out of the way. Struck by a sudden sense of unease, Melanie seized Oliver's arm, clutching the material of his bright blue suit in an attempt to stop him from leaving the car.
“What the bloody hell is he up to?” her partner muttered. He gently removed her hand from his arm and pressed several kisses to her fingers, wooing her even in the midst of danger. “Mel, I'll sort this fellow out and then we'll go home. I'll cook you lunch. How about poached eggs?”
Melanie remained silent, retrieving a gun from the dashboard as her boyfriend left the vehicle to address the situation. Keeping the window wound down, she listened in on their conversation and kept her gaze fixed on Walter, daring him to attempt to harm either of them, because she would unleash her wrath if he so much as touched a hair on Oliver's head.
“Oh, fancy seeing you here in the middle of, er, nowhere,” Oliver greeted his supposed friend, stepping in front of the car to shield Melanie from view. “How're things?”
There was something wrong with this memory in particular. The forest, though lit with sunlight, was silent, void of birdsong or the calling of stags. The wind barely rustled the leaves of the trees. The Melanie within the memory had no idea of it, but the one witnessing it all play out within her mind realised that it was an ill omen. Her mind didn't want to be playing back this one, did it?
Ahead of them, Walter retrieved his carving knife from his pocket. He stared at his friend unblinkingly, chewing on his tongue.
“I came to a realisation,” he said at last, flipping the knife over and over in his hand. Idly, he began strolling over to his fellow founder, considering him with that same, blank stare he always wore. “This community idolises you, Bird. They follow you like you're some sort of Jesus, but if anybody can see through illusions, it's me. You always got the girls and the credit for everything, but how many times has this one had to fall in love with you?” Walter offered a small, uncharacteristic smile. “Your mind is a weapon. You're a danger to yourself and everybody who follows you. I know, Bird, because I've seen what you do when you lose it.”
“Then you know what might happen if you come one step closer to my car,” Oliver retorted pleasantly. “Stop waving that little knife around like a lunatic and put it down.”
“What're you without your abilities?” Walter questioned, ignoring the other man's threat. “Just a bumbling idiot. Oh, and before you go travelling to find a way to stop me, I wouldn't recommend it. There's something there waiting for you. I can see it, now, looking over your shoulder, waiting for its chance to take over.”
Oliver didn't respond. He glanced slowly over his shoulder before turning back to one who had betrayed them.
“I suppose you don't need to go travelling to know that you've already lost. Can you hear them? The twenty or so minds closing in? At my request, they're all fully armed. I recommend that you hand yourself in to Division Three if you want to avoid any bloodshed. It would be a shame if that pretty girlfriend of yours was left to die on the road side.”
A low rumble sounded behind the car. Melanie turned to see that a black van was closing in, and it pulled up beside her on the road.
The sunlight was fading.
Distracted by the van and the armed men manifesting from the shadows between the trees, Melanie then screamed when one of them shot at her lover with an oddly shaped weapon. A metal contraption landed hard on Oliver's arm, and moments later, the poor man was collapsing onto the road, the device shocking him with enough power that he was rendered immobile. Without hesitation, she vacated the vehicle and aimed her gun straight at Walter.
She was heavily outnumbered. Beside her, Oliver shuddered and twitched, and when she glanced down, she could see that familiar blue light building in his eyes. From the back seat of their car, Norma began barking desperately.
“You shouldn't have come here today,” Melanie said, lowering her weapon. She knew well enough what was coming, though it broke her heart and she hated the Divisions more than anything for tearing them both apart. Would there ever come a day that the two of them could live together in peace without fear of having to find each other and fall in love all over again?
It was only the searching that proved the difficult part. Falling in love, well, that came easily. It was the safest way of doing things, for Oliver was convinced that if he forced unfamiliar memories into her mind, it would only succeed in damaging her. So, he had to wait for her mind to be open and receiving, for her to believe in his gifts and to want to remember everything they had been through together.
The clouds drifted over the Sun, pitching the world into a dull darkness. She expected her lover's unfortunate defence mechanisms to shatter her memories into shards so small that she wouldn't be able to pick up the pieces alone.
What she didn't expect was for Division Three to piece those shards back together into a cruel untruth.
Not long after, they met for the first time yet again.
“Two minutes remaining until purge. Please locate your nearest elevator.”
Melanie pulled a wheelchair from a booth to the side of the cell. She took a breath and held it for a short time, calming her nerves, because she could hear somebody shouting furiously from the inside of the locked room. It was Farouk, no doubt, infuriated that his plans for the telepaths had failed, and endangering his own life in a last ditch attempt to see his nefarious plot unfold.
The telepaths, though weak and in pain, stood fast, waiting for the woman to lead the way in. They had seen enough torment to willingly prolong it a little further, and why should they desert an attempt to harm the evil individual who had stolen them from their lives and subjected them to endless pain?
“I'm here, my darling,” Melanie murmured under her breath. With that, she swiped the card through the slot and pushed her way through the doors once they slid open.
The cell was as mangy and poorly kept as she remembered, but there was little time to pick up on the details.
Farouk was there, shaking the man on the bed violently and screaming down at him, even slapping him repeatedly across the cheeks with his inflated little hands. Struck with fear, all the therapist could do was watch as the telepaths approached and raised their hands to their heads, directing a combined power towards Doctor Farouk until the man was forced to acknowledge their presence.
The enormous man screamed again, this time not out of fury but pain, instead, gripping his temples and slamming his palms against his skull. He produced the most unearthly sounds, screeching until he toppled over to the grotty floor, his fez rolling off underneath the bed.
Melanie took the opportunity to wheel the chair over to the bed. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn't have been able to lift her lover at all due to her much slighter frame, but panic and adrenaline supplied her with the sudden burst of strength she needed to pull him into the wheelchair once his bindings and wires had been detached. He flopped lifelessly into the seat, head lolling backwards, but he was just as present as the others in his own way, watching over them from afar.
“One minute remaining until purge. Please locate your nearest elevator.”
“Leave him,” Melanie commanded, wheeling Oliver out of the cell. Once the mutants had abandoned Farouk to his misery and followed her, she locked the door behind her and ran as quickly as her partner's weight would allow, searching for whatever elevators the alarm system was referring to. After some searching, the group discovered a room marked 'EMERGENCY', and inside was a large lift surrounded by a metal grate.
“Ten seconds remaining until purge.”
The group clambered onto the lift. Melanie pulled up the lever as quickly as she could. Would the poisoned air reach them before they had even left the underbelly of the Institute? She couldn't bear the thought of her work being all for naught, having to hold her beloved's hand as they perished together. Regardless, she retrieved the hazmat suit's mask and placed it securely over the face of the young child present with them, ensuring the little one's survival at least.
The elevator moved swiftly upwards through a hastily built tunnel. All they could see was what the whirling red lights settled upon. Once Melanie counted down ten seconds in her head, she turned to the others.
“Hold your breath for as long as you can,” she ordered. Taking and holding a deep breath of her own, she raised the collar of Oliver's bloodstained gown over his mouth and nose in an attempt to keep him safe from the possibly noxious air. It was a noble attempt to save their lives, but needless, in actuality, for the white rabbit idly cleaning itself in the corner eventually lopped forwards and then popped in a small explosion of white-blue, forming a protective bubble around the elevator, composed of swarming letters and musical notes.
Breathe, said the voice in Melanie's mind. She wished she could have seen whatever long, intricate process Oliver had had to perform in order to achieve such a feat.
You need to wake up, she told him, moving a hand to briefly caress the side of his face.
I'm trying. I fought so hard to keep him out that I can't get back in. How ridiculous is that?
It was a comment likely meant to amuse her, but all Melanie could consider was all the telepaths had endured. She could see it in their gaunt faces. None of them would forget the suffering forced upon them, and she would never forget the part she had played, unwittingly or not, in the breaking down of their minds, the mistreatment she had never thought herself capable of until twisted to the whims of Division Three.
A lump forming in her throat, Melanie closed her eyes and finally allowed the tears to fall. How many more mutants had to suffer until the government realised just what they were doing?
“I'm so sorry,” she said out loud, her voice thick with regret. “I'm sorry, I truly am.”
The telepaths just stared at her. She couldn't know what they were thinking, and she didn't want to know. She could only hope that by saving them she had made up, in part, for what she had done. How could she ever truly make it up to Oliver, however, the man she loved more than anything else?
She would wait. It was the most she could do. Just as he had always waited for her to awaken, she would wait for as long as it took for him to wake up.
Chapter 6: Brain Damage
Now, Melanie, I don't want you to panic, but everything outside kind of got a bit out of hand.
That was an understatement, at least.
Waves was on fire. The armed guards were chasing mutants across the grass, firing at those who dared use their powers to fight back. That was what Melanie could make of the scene, however, because somehow everything was moving in slow-motion. The colours of the environment were oddly drained, touched with blue rather than the yellow of sunlight.
Turning, she saw that the elevator had protruded up above the grass and that her physical body was still holding onto the back of Oliver's wheelchair. The protective forcefield around them still persisted, glowing brighter than ever in its true home – the Astral Plane.
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of her situation was the absolute silence. There were no gunfires, no screams, no thudding of feet on the grass, no crackling of flames. She couldn't smell the smoke that poured extremely slowly from the top of the building beyond. What she could hear, however, was a rhythmic breathing, something almost mechanical in nature.
Turning towards the source of it, she saw an apparition of a man in an old-fashioned deep sea diving suit, the sort one might see in a maritime museum. She couldn't see the individual's face, but she had no doubt as to who it was, and so she approached wordlessly, hands extended in an attempt to touch him.
What, this? It's brilliant, isn't it? A flash of genius! It was my idea, right?
“I ...” Melanie attempted, disappointed when she found her hand sifted straight through the incorporeal form.
Everything can see me if I'm existing above the waves, but if I go underneath them? Well … It's dangerous, I suppose, but it means I won't be seen by all the eyes that keep opening up all over the place.
Astounded by all that was going on, the woman stuttered something and then fell into silence, turning about to take in the horrible scene slowly unfolding.
Melanie, you remember everything, don't you? You and me?
She turned back to the diver and managed a smile, confirming that she was well aware of their history and that her feelings, despite all that had happened, had not changed in the slightest. If anything, she felt more for him now than she ever had since first meeting him that lonely night at the poetry slam.
The man's figure eventually solidified. With a sigh, he removed his heavy helmet and then the rest of the diving suit, stepping out into the Astral Plane to take a good look at the fire and gun fights. Placing his hands on his hips, he took a deep breath and hummed thoughtfully.
“Well, well, what do I do to sort this out? Dammit, if only I had Farouk's fez! I feel like wearing it would make me smarter, somehow.” He paused, rolling his eyes. “Oh, that's nonsense. I've spent far too long in this place.” With another sigh, Oliver strolled back to where Melanie's physical body was attempting to push his own off the lift and onto the grass. He surveyed the scene a moment longer, walking between the other telepaths, peering into their eyes and whatever else he deemed useful. “My god. Even when escaping an evil Institution, you're gorgeous. Why did you ever consider this useless, drooling lump, here?” he asked, gesturing defeatedly at his unconscious form (which was indeed drooling by that point).
Terrified, Melanie darted over to him and gripped him by the shoulders.
“Oliver, the mutants! We have to get them to Summerland before they're killed!”
He watched her, then looked back at the chaos blooming at every turn. If he had truly awoken to the severity of the situation, he didn't show it, but Melanie knew well enough that it wasn't reason to trust him. It was simply his way, and she suspected a lifetime of having to keep himself composed for the sake of others contributed to his somewhat odd behaviour.
She felt the reassuring pressure of his hands upon her own shoulders, then. Meeting his eyes, she was suddenly flooded with warm affection, and she wasn't entirely sure just which of them it was coming from. Both, perhaps, as she remembered spending hours attached to his mind, feeling his feelings, his thoughts, and even the sound of his heartbeat. By the look on his face, she could tell that he was feeling it, too: the thing that had connected the two of them for four years.
Love. There it was, in its purest form, feeding Oliver the strength that he needed.
“I've got it,” he said at last. “I mean, I think I can wake up, now. You've blown me away with all you've done, but I need you to do one last thing if we're all going to escape.”
A bullet moving at a snail's pace passed their heads. Bits of shrapnel and whatever else floated by, too, visibly cutting through the air. Melanie narrowly avoided the projectiles, and then she moved Oliver in turn, her intention only to help him avoid being injured, but her partner swiftly turned the movements into a dance. She shouldn't have expected anything else, should she?
Oliver grinned as he swung the woman into a slow dance, bending her over his arm before retrieving her back into his chest.
“I need you to take off my Inhibitor,” he continued, the casual tone of his voice not entirely reflecting the severity of what he was asking.
Stunned, Melanie ceased indulging him and pulled away from his embrace, gaping up as if he had lost his mind. He probably had, at some point, and that was hardly his fault, but he had to be aware of how dangerous all that pent up psychic energy was. She had seen it for herself more times than she cared to count. If the Inhibitor was removed, there was every chance that Oliver's lack of control could ultimately lead to their doom.
“It'll be all right, Melanie,” Oliver added, his voice softening. “I've communicated with those two telepaths behind us. They're strong enough to help direct my energy to where it needs to go. As we speak, I'm finding my way into the minds of these mutants and directing them on how to use their powers to help us. I also need to flag down an old comrade of mine, but I can't signal them with that thing on my head.”
Before Melanie could even react, she was being ushered back to where their true bodies were.
“Remember: take off the Inhibitor, then do your best to stay alive. Now, we're both going to wake up. Are you ready, my sunflower? I'm not, but there's no time like the present. Three, two, one – and action!”
Oliver snapped his fingers.
It didn't quite work the first time. It was only on the fifth awkward snap that colour began to flood the world around them. Bullets began to crawl backwards through the air, seemingly absorbing the energy they had only just given off. People began running backwards. It was like watching a recording being played in reverse, and it might have been amusing if the situation weren't so dire, for people were picking themselves up off the ground, shrapnel and whatever else unburying itself from their flesh. Rampant clouds of smoke were devoured by the flames building the facility.
Melanie blinked, and she was back in her body. Time had adjusted her back several steps. With a frown, she turned to meet the eyes of the telepaths she had recovered, focusing on the two adults in particular. She then reached for the Inhibitor sat upon Oliver's head, gripping it tightly and feeling it vibrate excitedly beneath her hands. It was becoming hotter and hotter against her skin for it was working with all its might to contain the boundless energy beneath it.
She didn't want to do it. There was a chance the sudden release of massive energy would kill him. If he lived, there was every chance too that he would accidentally strike her with amnesia and she would forget everything about him and Summerland. Neither did she want any of the mutants around them to be hurt, and if she waited any longer, they certainly would be. She had to stop being afraid and trust that he had everything figured out.
Melanie removed the Inhibitor.
The air pulsed threateningly, almost knocking her straight off her feet.
Then, out of nowhere, music started playing. There was no discernible source, and Melanie wasn't entirely sure whether Oliver was doing it on purpose, but when she realised just what song it was, she found herself laughing.
That's Life by Frank Sinatra. Melanie was struck by a sudden vision – no, a memory – of a bar in the middle of nowhere. Oliver was in a cream suit, his bow-tie loose and shirt unbuttoned a third of the way down, and he was alone as he danced around to the melodic old song. He was so into it that his eyes remained closed as he smoothly paraded around the small dance floor, his dark hair flicking about with his movements, smartly dressed feet turning this way and that.
Her mind torn between the past and the present, she watched as Oliver rose from his wheelchair, fingers on his temples. Some kind of white force – whatever it was – was pinging between the armed guards and the facility staff as they chased the mutants, forcing them to drop in time with the song.
In her mind, she watched her lover mouth along with the lyrics, eventually sidling on over to a neatly dressed Cary and tugging him over to join him. Cary stood there awkwardly for a moment, pushing his glasses up his nose, at least until Kerry (looking lovely in a yellow dress) rolled her eyes and moved over to her brother to seize his hand and bring him into an almost aggressive spin, much to the amusement of those watching.
Melanie herself was stood by the bar, wearing a white cocktail dress. Placing down her martini, she accepted Oliver's hand when he sauntered his way over and offered it to her, and when the two danced together to the lively tones of Sinatra, a stranger might have thought that they were professional in their gait and movements. The reality was that they danced together so often that they knew each other's habits off by heart.
The mutants surrounding them gradually joined in the dance. Melanie struggled to remember what they were celebrating, but when her left hand raised to Oliver's shoulder, the tell-tale glint of an engagement ring told her all she needed to know.
As the telepaths disabled the guards, the former patients awake enough to use their gifts were doing all they could to save the lives of their fellow mutants. One young lady was running through the air as if expelling some kind of force from her feet, two younger patients draped over her shoulders. Another was manipulating the water of the muddy lake beside the facility, both keeping the fire back and trapping guards feet in the bog that formed around them. A third helped her kin along by blowing enormous gusts of wind from her lungs.
Melanie spotted Cary collecting unconscious mutants and bringing them towards safety – the white bubble that had once protected Melanie and her companions from poisonous air had since expanded to encompass a large circle wherein they were safe from smoke and shrapnel alike.
The song was reaching its climax. The therapist tried to make sense of what was going on around her, but memories slipped into reality and suddenly she was being pushed over by dancing apparitions. The music got louder and began loudly fuzzing as if it were playing on a radio. Regardless of the fact reality was literally bending to the memory forced to repeat in her mind, Melanie pulled herself to her feet and pushed her way through to Oliver, who now looked terrified beyond comprehension as his eyes slowly met hers.
He made a sound of pain, hands gripping at his head. In a last ditch attempt to warn her, he pointed with a shaky finger towards the burning facility.
There, strolling amidst the chaos, was Amahl Farouk. He too was dancing in time to the music, gleefully clapping his hands as he approached. The man spread open his arms and sang boisterously the final lyric to the song, catching the rapidly souring aspect of Oliver's psychic power after it downed the last guard.
“I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball and DIE!”
Closing his hands together, he crushed the ball of energy until it was forced to dissipate entirely. Panicked, Melanie spun back to Oliver, who had apparently been pulled into some kind of trance, eyes blank as he stared off into space. She knew that look. It meant he was in the Astral Plane for whatever reason, though given the way his features twitched and his body began to convulse, he hadn't entered it by choice.
The various apparitions he had conjured vanished into thin air, but he did have one last vision to share with her as his knees buckled from underneath him. Their dance was over, and she could only watch as their former selves kissed and let go of each other's hands. With that, the memory eased away, allowing Melanie clarity and a clear vision, but it meant that the protective shield surrounding them crumbled into tiny blue pieces.
With his powers alone, Farouk pulled all of the mutants to their knees, forcing them into the muddy clearing that Waves had been built upon. Melanie held tightly onto her partner as he writhed in silent agony, his hands holding onto his head as if trying to protect it from something. The other telepaths were similarly afflicted, even the child, their faces scrunched up with both pain and focus as they did their utmost to protect their mental being from the shadows threatening to overwhelm them.
All Melanie could hear was screams. If Farouk was alive, then they had failed.
It came as a surprise, then, when the man was hit by a bus so hard that he was thrown face down into the mud.
Was she dreaming? She wasn't in a position to be able to say for sure.
The yellow bus had barged through the trees, and it certainly looked as if the driver had been forcing it through undergrowth for a good while. Windows were broken, and branches were caught in the glass and the grills. Whoever it was, they had aimed the vehicle directly at Doctor Farouk with the intention of killing him, braking immediately after the hit.
Melanie uncovered her eyes. When the door to the bus slid open, she was stunned to see Kerry stood on the steps.
“Oh, my god,” was all she could manage, staring up at the girl with both fear and awe. “You ...”
“Whatever!” was Kerry's humble response. She flicked back her long, dark hair and smiled. “Hey, get on, losers! This is our way out of here. Looks like I missed a hell of a fight, though.”
Gobsmacked, Melanie rolled the now unconscious Oliver onto his side and slowly rose to greet the teenager, going as far as to hug her. Once Cary could make his way over, he did the same, much to Kerry's visible annoyance.
Stranger still, she wasn't alone. Behind her was a young man who was sporting twigs and whatever else in his tousled brown hair. He was an individual that nobody seemed to recognise as he politely moved his way past Kerry and vacated the bus, taking in the scene around him.
“Well, isn't this a pickle?” he said, scratching his chin. “I was promised mutants, I suppose. Well, which of you is Oliver Bird?”
Nearby, the facility crackled loudly as the flames grew higher and higher. The patients who had once occupied the place were all numb with shock, slowly gathering around the individuals who had saved them. Some of them were quietly crying, others remained somewhat vacant. Melanie and Cary, too, were speechless, as was Walter, who had been silently watching everything unfold from the safety of the trees.
The stranger finally seemed to acknowledge that none of them were entirely in the right head-space for introductions. He approached Melanie and Cary and offered them the most friendly look that he could muster.
“I'm sorry,” he said sincerely in his pleasant, English accent. “I've been communicating with a fellow via a prototype machine of mine since long before he went missing. He would share information regarding these facilities with me. I run a school for mutants, like you, so I wouldn't mind taking some of these fine people with me. What about this one?” he asked, gesturing towards Kerry.
“No,” Melanie quickly responded. “I mean – They're not up for negotiation. How do we know your school isn't just a place like this?”
“He's the real deal,” Kerry answered in his stead, rolling her eyes yet again in that dramatic fashion of hers. “Oliver told me to go pick him up from the train station.”
“Yes,” the man said, his eyes flitting down to the unconscious telepaths on the grass. “I wasn't quite expecting a bus, but ...” With an expression of curiosity, the young man stepped forwards and knelt beside Oliver, placing a gentle hand upon his head. He closed his eyes and took a bracing inhale of air. “Oh, dear god. This is going to take some work.”
“Will they be okay?” Cary asked nervously. “I think Farouk did a number on them just now.”
“Ah, yes. Farouk,” the mysterious stranger muttered. “As his body lays dying, he's ensuring that his essence lives on. I recommend that we dispose of his body so that he can't possibly return to it.”
The mutants were more than happy to oblige. The one with power over water summoned the waves from the lake to come forwards and claim Farouk's body into its dark depths. His limbs became ensnared in sticky black mud, like tar, as his form drifted down, down into the darkness, his watery grave. The lake soon returned to its former home and remained silent.
And so it was that the body of Amahl Farouk would no longer return to torment those he wanted to latch himself onto. His mind, however, was a different story.
“I recommend that all of you leave,” the young man said brightly. “Don't worry, I'll be able to fetch a lift home. I have a few agents milling about. I need to head into the Astral Plane and engage in some fisticuffs with our drowned friend before he finds his own way out. I'll be in contact with you, Summerland.”
Melanie certainly didn't want to hang around the cursed place for much longer. Concerned for the well-being of the mutants, she immediately set about hoarding them onto the bus, thankful to find that Kerry and her comrade had prepared blankets and soup for them all. Though it was a bit of a tight fit in the end, the patients were soon wrapped up and comfortable, coming to terms with all they had endured for however long.
At the back of the bus, Melanie kept Oliver's head safely contained in her lap. She ran her fingers through his wet hair as she drifted into sleep. Her rest was unfortunately silent, as were whatever dreams she conjured and then forgot, void of the white-blue light that had helped form and shape them for so long. Reality had been restored.
This is going to take some work, the man had said. She knew it would, but she would continue, regardless.
If she looked back, she might have seen a freckle-faced, doe-eyed girl stood in front of a burning building.
She knew when he was close to rising because the walls began to shake with his dreams.
It had been an entire week. They had come back to find Summerland in shambles, and so they had spent the best part of their time tidying up and looking after the mutants they had saved. Cary and Melanie had wasted no time in contacting the other mutant havens in order to have fresh supplies and medical staff sent over.
Most of the mutants had bounced back within a few days. Now well fed and free from any sedatives, they were free to peruse and learn as they pleased, some of them choosing to teach others and some of them choosing to listen. The telepaths had woken up, eventually, sporting enormous migraines and bad memories, but they were set well on the path to recovery. All save for Oliver, who remained stubbornly within the realms of his own mind.
On the day he woke up, Melanie quickly made her way over to the infirmary, her mood brightening when she heard Oliver's voice from one of the rooms.
“- if it's not me then it'll be someone else,” she heard him say, his tone low with doubt. “I keep having visions of a child. What if -”
“What're you scared of, Oliver?” came Cary's voice. “He isn't coming back.”
“What am I scared of? Where do I begin? An eclipse, more than anything else. That's a crown I won't wear.”
Melanie brushed past the beaded curtain with a tray of warm porridge in her hands. Casting a concerned gaze over her fiancé, she approached and offered a small smile when she saw the man's face light up. The melancholy was banished from his countenance almost instantaneously. He looked a little healthier, too, with some colour to his cheeks and some weight to his bones, and he had since been groomed back to his usual self.
“Melanie! I'm sorry, I didn't sense you coming. My brain is all over the place. I keep asking Cary to cut the dratted thing out, but he refuses me every time.” Taking her hand, Oliver kissed her knuckles reverently. “I hope you're feeling better after that fiasco.”
Cary was quick to vacate the room, sparing the pair some privacy. Once they were alone, Melanie sat down on the side of the bed and kept the tray in her lap, leaning down to kiss her partner several times.
“I'm better,” she murmured. “I missed you. I assume Cary's filled you in on Summerland's business?”
“Yeah. In typical Loudermilk fashion, it was the first thing he started talking about when he bustled in.”
After moving the tray onto the man's lap, she joined him on the bed as he ate, resting her head on his shoulder and relishing the contact.
“What happened?” she asked once he was done. It didn't take a telepath to know what she was talking about. No doubt the incident was as fresh in his mind as it was in hers.
Oliver moved the tray to one side and appeared slightly troubled for a moment.
“Farouk was a psychic. Stronger than me, without a doubt, only I was better at building walls. I believe he was trained in the art of assaulting other minds with his own.”
“You said you saw a child?”
It took the man some time to answer. Odd, for he was usually quick on his feet, whether it be with verse or wit. When she looked up at him, his face had fallen blank and his eyes stared unblinkingly up at the ceiling.
Whatever he was seeing, Melanie wasn't sure she wanted to know. What she was certain of was that she didn't want to go into the Astral Plane again. Knowing now just how dangerous the place was, the thought of her feet being anywhere but on the ground made her highly uncomfortable, and Oliver seemed to know it, for he didn't try to bring her consciousness with him to wherever he was.
I don't think we can … I mean, I believe that the risks are too great. Do you remember that story I told you about Frizzy Top the rabbit?
She fell into silence, but gave a small mental indication that she understood. He was right, wasn't he? The risks were too great. In a way, they had already found a family of their own: Cary, Kerry, and the mutants at Summerland. Even Walter, despite his former betrayal, the one now forgotten to him and everybody else save Melanie.
She couldn't remember the story about Frizzy Top. Maybe he just hadn't told it to her, yet, but she knew he would.
As soon as they were able to, they were married in a small ceremony on the side of a lake. Melanie kept the picture on her bedside table – herself in a simple, white dress and flowers woven into her hair, and Oliver in a white suit with a Kaitaka cloak slung over his shoulders. The picture wasn't particularly sharp, but she could remember the day with clarity, all the colours and the flowers and the fresh, summer wind.
The picture was the most she had, sometimes.
Together, they ran Summerland for fifteen years. Time had a terribly annoying habit of just flying by, and before she knew it, they had lost Walter but gained Ptonomy, and they had already been through multiple generations of mutants. She specialised in the talking and the planning and Oliver and Cary did the teaching and inventing.
It should have been harmonious, especially when Oliver came back from a short stint in Thailand claiming that meditation helped him control his powers. It certainly seemed to be that way, only Melanie began to see the difference between meditation and travelling into worlds beyond the physical. He could remain in one spot for hours if he wanted to, and there were frightening times when he wouldn't wake up for days on end.
He would come out of his trances with no idea how long he had been gone. Though he had been eccentric to start with, he became even more so as the years passed, sometimes speaking entire conversations in verse or inventing novelty things that had no use in the real world. All too frequently, Melanie had to remind him of the year, his location, and even his own name on one occasion.
In the Astral Plane, Oliver had all the control that he could want. Control wasn't something anything else could give him, including Melanie, the woman he loved. She suspected that there was another reason he insisted on venturing there, sometimes, for his dreams and nightmares often woke her from her own sleep, and she would have temporary memories of people that she didn't know, like she was watching them on a film reel.
Farouk had changed him, without a doubt. All the detrimental things Oliver had suffered on behalf of the evil mutant were clear for all to see, but it was often that Oliver couldn't place the source of his occasional discomfort and paranoia. He spent so long running away and not turning back that the shadows of his past no longer had faces.
It was one night in the summer that Melanie awoke to a whisper of her name. The walls of their bedroom were alight with a soft, blue glow, the rippling of non-existent waves reflecting on the ceiling. She could feel something tugging gently at her, urging her onwards and out of the physical plane, but she resisted, forcing herself awake.
Oliver had been oddly quiet that night. He had cooked for her, danced with her, all the while wearing a smile. He had charmed her with poetry and stories, and then he had taken her to bed and loved her until she was trembling. Melanie was caught so deeply in her love for her husband that she pushed all the warning signs to the back of her mind until it was too late.
When she peeled back the covers, the light and the softly churning waves vanished. Her husband looked for all the world like he was asleep, but in her heart she knew that he had just issued his farewell (or was it a plea for help?) and that he was gone. He had informed her, in his own way, that his mind had finally detached from his body and he was lost in the deep darkness of the ocean.
She told Cary that he was going to wake up, but she knew she wasn't speaking the truth. She ignored the fact that this was different from all the other times, wherein her husband could have been roused with a small shake, where his body was still conscious, in part. Now, however, Oliver was relying on machines to keep his body alive.
She did what she always did. She waited.
Years passed, and her eyes became sadder and sadder until one who didn't know her might have thought she had recently lost somebody she loved very much, but she didn't like to think that her darling Oliver was gone. He still existed in some form, in Summerland's dulcet-toned operating system, in the coffee machine, where she found comfort in the stories it told. He existed in the flowers she watered every day. He existed in the beyond, wherever that was, somewhere over the rainbow like that song said, the one they played when they got married.
Putting him in the diver's suit seemed fitting. He appeared as if he could just wake up at any moment, but Melanie knew that she would feel his mind, first. She felt nothing, nothing as she dressed him in his best, nothing as she sealed the helmet over his head. The suit had saved him, once, and maybe it would protect him from whatever else was out there with him.
Summerland may as well have been empty without him. Despite it all, the therapist continued with her work, finding mutants and bringing them back to a place they could find their identities.
Though she had lost some along the way, there were others out there who needed her help.
Years later, Melanie and Cary stood on the balcony that overlooked the forest. The woman was lost in thought, sorrowful eyes cast out to the horizon.
“Hey do you think, uh ...” the scientist said, alerting her to his presence. She quickly turned to look at him, drawn out of her reverie. “Do you think he knew about David? Oliver, that is.”
“I don't know,” Melanie answered quickly, placing her hands on the balcony ledge. “He never talked about a child. What matters is that we heal David's mind as soon as we can, otherwise everything we've built ...”
She stopped, disarmed by the pang of grief in her chest. Her pain was apparently obvious, for Cary made to leave her in peace. He paused just before entering the building and shoved his hands into his jacket pockets.
“Melanie, you should be proud of yourself, you know. You've changed lives. Saved them. Can you see that? We're going to save David from this monster, too.”
She had nothing to say in return. Her mind was lost again, because David and Syd reminded her so much of times long past.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix ...
Chapter 7: Epilogue: Eclipse
This chapter contains suggestions of overdose.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Hey, hey. It's Lenny, remember? Len-ny. Jeez!”
“Melanie,” Oliver repeated back, nodding resolutely. “Me-lenny? Melanie.”
It was a conversation occurring far away from home. They were in a diner in the middle of nowhere, sharing poached eggs and bacon – or at least, they were supposed to be sharing. Lenny wasn't touching her food because she wasn't actually there to eat any of it, but Oliver didn't know that. In his mind, something was the matter with his wife and it was up to him to get to the bottom of it.
“Look, I know I've been a bit … well, distant, lately ...” he managed, clasping his hands in his lap. “We should take this somewhere more private. People are starting to look at me funny. Have I got bacon stuck in my teeth?”
“Nah,” Lenny sighed, grinning wickedly from ear to ear. Shifting her bare legs down from the other half of her booth seat, she began rubbing the length of one up against Oliver's calf. “You be as distant as you want. Hey, maybe you can hurry up and down those pills there, too.”
The man glanced down at the small box placed beside his tea.
“What do they do, again?”
Somebody giggled behind him.
Why's he talking to himself? Has he got some kinda brain disease or what?
He was used to hearing unwelcome thoughts.
“Ugh!” Lenny exclaimed, then resumed her sweet, persuasive smile, now biting on the end of one of her fingers in a seductive manner. “If you take them – all of 'em at once – they'll stop the voices. They'll stop everything that's bugging you. Don't you wanna be stronger, big guy? 'Cause they'll do it. You can start rebuilding everything you've lost.”
Oliver stared uncomfortably down at his tea.
“Er, I'm not sure if I've lost anything, particularly.”
“Your mind, for one. How could you just let all your defences down like that? Being stuck in the Astral Plane for all that time, it made you weak. I know that feeling! Hey, you need to buckle up, buttercup, 'cause you're gonna be the man about town if you swallow them all up like a good boy.”
Who the hell is he talking to? His dead wife?
After a moment's consideration, he pushed the small box back towards his wife, wagging a finger at her.
“I know you're mad at me, but that's no reason to stoop to this level.”
“Damn, fine, whatever,” Lenny drawled, rolling her pretty brown eyes. “Just carry on being useless, then, you forgetful old fuck. Look, me and you ain't gonna work out unless we just … become a whole. Do you know what I mean?”
Oliver remembered the time they smoked a boat load of marijuana, too.
“I know exactly what you mean,” he replied, winking at her. “Look, Melanie, I'm not entirely sure how I'm supposed to make you happy anymore, at least ways that don't involve me expiring, so the most I can do is just carry on and figure it out. We're both going to be happy again, one day, I promise you that. I honestly don't know why you're encouraging me to just give up and become whatever it is you want.”
Oh, right, he's fuckin' crazy. Who the hell lets these people out on their own?
“You're not going to win this argument,” he continued, raising his eyebrows in a manner that suggested the end of the conversation.
Lenny allowed her head to fall back against her seat. She groaned with exasperation.
“I can't wait until this freakin' trip is over.”
Follow me at thornvale.tumblr.com. :)
Check out my music playlist for this fic on YouTube here!