I am running.
I am running down a hallway.
I am running down a hallway and they are chasing me, but they won’t catch me.
I don’t know what I am, but all of a sudden, I know I’m fast.
The doctor was in on it the whole time. He pretended to be interested, maybe concerned. But not scared. Not worried. He talked about bioluminescence, about algae that makes whole stretches of coastline glow in the dark. He said “perfectly rational explanation” several times.
Then he told me to relax. He told me I could lie down. He even adjusted the bed for me. “I thought only nurses do that,” I told him. I don’t know if he even heard what I said; the tissue against my nose muffled my words.
He smiled absently, said, “I’m gonna switch out the light so you can rest,” and left the room.
An hour before, I thought I’d never sleep again. But it’s amazing what a dim room and cool air can do.
In the dream I am in an elevator. It’s huge, as big as a ballroom in a palace in a fairy tale. It’s dim and cool, like the hospital room.
I’m not alone in here. There are hundreds of us. We are standing in rows. The rows are even and uniform. We all face the doors, but they are far away from me.
I feel us descending. It’s a mild, pleasant sensation. I feel a hum. We are all quiet, still, waiting.
Soon the doors will open. I am afraid.
I look at the backs of hundreds of heads, and I realize something: we all have the same hair. Not the same length or the same cut, but the same exact hair. It is the same color brown. The same exact color brown. The same barely wavy texture, with the same dusky gloss.
I glow with affection for every head I see.
Then the doors open. The light comes in. My hair moves on my head, on hundreds of heads, in a slight breeze.
The light is the brightest thing I’ve ever seen. I want to flinch, but my eyes don’t close. I roll forward. The light is getting closer. I see it illuminating my hair, over and over.
Then I’m inside the light. Everything is bright and new. And a terror comes screeching up inside me.
I wake up.
I wake up screaming.
There’s a woman. She’s standing just inside the door to the hospital room, which is closed. So are the blinds. I can no longer see into the hallway. The hallway can no longer see me.
The woman has two men with her. All three of them wear dark blue suits. The men wear sunglasses.
The woman is very tall. Her skin is white and her eyes are pale green. I think of the green color of the forms we used to take tests on in school, before everything was done on computers. They were called Scantrons.
“Eye rest green,” says the woman. Her voice is deep and luxe, like a European supermodel who smokes cigarettes.
“Pardon?” I say. I am vaguely embarrassed. A few seconds ago I was screaming.
“Green is used on Scantron forms and graphing paper because it is the color most restful to the eye. It’s right in the middle of the visible light spectrum.”
While she’s saying this, she is rolling one of those little padded stools over to me, the kind doctors roll around the room on while they examine you. She manages to lean over and roll this stool around while still looking elegant. Expensive. Her legs are long and white.
She doesn’t sit on the stool. She just leaves it there and walks back over to the end of the hospital bed. She looks down at me and smiles. Her canine teeth are markedly pointed, lending a predatory cast to her face, which I’m just now noticing is beautiful.
When she smiles her cheekbones make gorgeous mounds under her slanted green eyes.
“Green,” says the woman, and it’s like she read my mind again – but no – maybe she’s still just talking about Scantron forms, “is associated by most of us in this country with youth, fertility, money, envy, and hope.” I realize she has a slight accent, but I can’t place it. “It is also the color of safety and permission.”
She turns and looks at one of the men in sunglasses. I had forgotten they were there.
One of the men starts moving. He moves to the stool. He turns to the other man. They are both so tall. In fact, so is the woman. She must be six feet tall, and the men well over.
One man is holding the stool now, and the other is standing on it. I open my mouth to ask what they’re doing, but I’m interrupted.
“Green eyes,” says the woman, and my head turns to her like it’s on a swivel as she slowly walks over to my bedside, towards my head, “contain no green pigment.” I hear the soft clicks of her heels on the linoleum. She is right above me, looking down at me. I can see the fine, downy texture of the pale skin of her face. I notice suddenly that her hair is an enchanting blonde color. You can’t quite call it strawberry blonde. It’s the color of a white peach.
“The green color is an optical illusion.” She’s almost whispering. “Its appearance is caused by a combination of two things: one, a little bit of melanin pigmenting the stroma light brown or amber. And two, the scattering of reflected light creating a blue tone.”
Her eyes flick up and I follow them.
The two men are back where they started, standing motionless on either side of the door. They look like they never moved. In fact, everything looks the same.
Except a ceiling tile is missing.
A ceiling tile is missing and the pipes in the ceiling are exposed.
A ceiling tile is missing and the pipes in the ceiling are exposed and there’s a noose hanging from one of them.
I woke up today and it was just like any other day, except worse. It would have been our three year anniversary, except I got dumped two weeks ago.
I woke up late because I fell asleep with my phone under me and didn’t hear the alarm. Didn’t have time to shower. The sink was full of dishes and the fridge had nothing in it but expired condiments and the rest of a Jell-O mold I brought home from Thanksgiving dinner two weeks ago and never ate.
That was the morning I got dumped. When I look at the Jell-O mold that’s all I can think of.
My mom always gives me the Jell-O leftovers because I liked them so much when I was a kid. But I’m not a kid anymore.
As I stood staring at the contents of my fridge, I had the sudden urge to set fire to my crappy apartment. In fact, the entire crappy apartment complex. And my piece of shit car. And my cubicle. And my micro-managing piss-ant of a boss. And my uncertain future full of student loan debt and mediocrity and steadily dwindling options. All of it. Just torch it and walk away into oblivion like a character in a Jim Morrison song.
Instead I grabbed a semi-shriveled apple out of the crisper and left for work.
A few minutes later, I was feeling simultaneously good because my car didn’t overheat today, and bad because I was almost at the office, when I felt my nose running.
I reached up and wiped it.
I reached up and wiped it and glanced down at my hand.
I reached up and wiped it and glanced down at my hand and saw something I wasn’t expecting.
It wasn’t the semi-transparent milk white or green of human snot.
It was purple.
Bright, neon violet.
And it was glowing.
In the bathroom at work, I stared at myself in the mirror. More of the purple stuff was coming out of my nose. My heart was pounding. My face was sweating. I could feel my hair sticking to my skull.
I looked at myself in the mirror. It is just me. Just me, I told myself.
I soaked a paper towel in cold water and put it on my neck.
Am I dying?
I felt my pulse. It was fast, but strong. I didn’t feel dizzy. I was hot and sweaty, but that’s because I was panicking. Because a glowing purple fluid just ran out of my nose.
I made myself breathe more slowly. I focused all my attention on the cool sensation of the wet towel on my neck. I closed my eyes.
I’m okay, I said to myself. I repeated a mantra I learned a long time ago when the panic attacks were bad: I am safe no matter what I’m feeling.
I opened my eyes and looked in the mirror. I looked like I always looked: brown hair, green eyes, slightly wide mouth with the remains of a zit below my bottom lip, slightly pointed chin. It’s just me.
My right hand was holding the wet paper towel against the back of my neck.
As I was looking at myself, I felt a sneeze coming.
It came fast. I barely had time to yank the wet towel off my neck so I would have something to sneeze into.
But it wasn’t a sneeze. Not really. It felt truncated, odd. And a sensation–not painful, but hot and strange – shot from my sinus cavity up into the top of my head. It was gone in an instant.
I looked down at the towel. There was a gob of the stuff. The glowing purple stuff. And in the midst of it, what looked like a small, transparent marble.
My heart was running away without me.
Slowly, with a shaking finger, I touched the marble. It felt hard. Like a marble.
When I touched it, it began to turn purple. And glow.
I looked up, into the mirror.
My nose was dripping now, dripping glowing violet purple, just dripping, dripping dripping dripping from my nose like a faucet.
I was in my car in seconds.
I was on the freeway in less than a minute.
I was at the nearest hospital in less time than it takes to microwave a chicken pot pie.
The wait wasn’t long. There was hardly anyone in the lobby. The triage nurse gasped when I pulled the tissue away. I was placed in an exam room almost immediately.
For some reason I still couldn’t tell you, I didn’t show her the marble.
Then the doctor came. He was soothing and reassuring. My pulse returned to normal.
I bet I could even sleep, I said to myself.
And then I woke up and the woman was there with the two men and all hell broke loose.
I’m looking up at the noose. It’s not really a noose. Not like in the movies. It’s just a loop of rope tied with the kind of knot that slides, so the noose can get tighter.
I can feel my pulse in my throat for a few seconds while I lie there, feeling nothing but dumb animal fear.
Then a stinging sensation shoots into my right arm. A warm buzzing pain flows through the muscle.
I look down. I see the woman’s perfect white hand holding a syringe.
“What the fuck?” I say. It’s the first thing I’ve said, besides “pardon?”, since these people walked into the room.
Then everything begins to fade. Everything matters less, instantly. I feel mildly nauseated, but it’s no big deal. I decide to sit up, but when I try to use my arms to lift myself, all they do is flop around at my sides.
“Sometimes,” the woman is saying, somewhere off to my right, several miles away, “green is associated with illness, death, or the devil.”
My eyes are closed. I feel my heartbeat. It is slow and peaceful. I could listen to it forever.
I open my eyes.
My feet are on something. I’m higher off the ground than I should be. Something rough and scratchy is falling around my ears, landing on my shoulders. It gets tighter. It scratches my neck. It’s so hard to care. I try to say I need to take a nap. I try to ask them to stop. This formulates in my brain as “Come back later.” I decide to speak the words, “Come back later.” But they come out, “Ssnnn.”
“The ancient Egyptians called the sea the Very Green.” Her eyes gleam.
This is the last thing she says to me.
This is the last thing she says to me before they roll the little stool out from under me.
This is the last thing she says to me before they hang me.
Because they drugged me with something, I lose consciousness almost immediately. Which is nice. I wasn’t looking forward to asphyxiation.
Instead I’m floating. And dreaming.
I’m under a green tree on a green hill.
The sky is blue and cloudless. A gentle wind blows. It is warm and cool at the same time. I hear birds. I see the grass blowing in the breeze.
I am facing the tree trunk. I have my hands on it, and I’m feeling it. I love the feel of it. It feels miraculous. But it’s time to turn around.
I turn around, and a line of people stretches in front of me, as far as I can see, down the hill and far away. I recognize them immediately. We were in the elevator together. They all have my hair. But I’m finally seeing their faces. They are infinitely various and totally familiar. I’ve never seen them before, but I’d know them anywhere.
They come to me one by one.
The first is a woman. She has dark skin and brown eyes. She holds out her hand and gives me a small, transparent marble. When she puts it in my hand, it turns violet and glows. She goes away.
Then the next one. A man. He has lines around his eyes. He gives me a marble. It glows violet. He goes away.
They keep coming and coming. They smile and nod. They seem very pleased to see me. They say nothing.
I know they will keep coming for a long time, but I’m not tired. I am strong. I am strong enough for anything.
But this one in front of me now. She is younger than the rest, by a little. Her hair–my hair–is bobbed and blows right into her freckled face. She isn’t smiling like the rest. Her face is fierce. Her eyes are bright blue and determined. With an angry hand she swipes the hair from her face. The wind is stronger now.
She speaks to me.
She says, “Fight them.”
She grabs me by the shoulders and yells in my face, “Wake the fuck up and fight them!”
Above her the sky has dimmed. Behind her the line of people stands waiting. They aren’t smiling anymore.
The girl with the blue eyes slaps my face, hard. It stings. A warm bloom spreads across my cheek.
Her face is an inch from mine. She is screaming.
“Now! Now! Fight them! You can! You can beat them! Fight them now or you’re going to die!”
The first thing I see when I open my eyes is my foot smashing the nose of the woman with the green eyes.
I know the men are coming towards me before they move. I smash one of their noses with the same foot. I get the other around the throat with my thighs.
I push up on his shoulders until the rope is slack and use my hands to pull the noose from around my neck. He is trying to free himself but his hands are dough and my legs are steel.
Once my head is free, I reach down with my right hand and pull the man’s trachea out of his neck with my fingers. It isn’t difficult at all. It’s like reaching into a Jell-O mold and pulling out a chunk of fruit.
He drops, so I drop.
I land on my feet.
Now the other man is pointing a gun at me, and the woman is holding a hand to her nose. She is standing against the counter with the sink and tongue depressors and cotton balls.
I am breathing normally. I feel absolutely fine. I don’t feel at all like I almost died just now. Blood drips from my right hand.
There is a gun pointing at me, but I feel fine about it. Also, there is a man I just killed lying at my feet. I’m not concerned.
“It must be the drugs.” I say this out loud.
The woman shakes her head. Her voice comes out muffled because her nose is busted. She moves her hands away. There is blood everywhere. Her eyes are glazed with pain.
“It’s not the drugs,” she says. She looks at the man with the gun and he pulls the trigger.
Right before he shoots me, I have time to register that it’s not a real gun. Or not a regular gun. Something. Something’s not right about it.
Then there is a feeling like being punched and cut at the same time. I look down at my solar plexus and there is a silver tube sticking out of me. I pull it and it comes out in my hand. Another syringe.
Then the floor is at the end of a long, long tunnel, and I’m hurtling down it.
No dreams this time.
I wake up and everything in front of me is gray. Something is covering my face. And I’m moving, but I’m not moving.
It takes less than a second for me to puzzle out that I am on a gurney, under a white sheet.
I decide not to breathe too deeply, not to move or make a sound.
I can hear footsteps. One pair behind my head, one pair to the right. The woman. The clicks of her heels.
Then she speaks, her voice thickened by her ruined nose.
“I don’t care what generation it is; it won’t wake up for at least an hour.”
Is she talking about me?
Then we stop. And another set of footsteps comes towards us.
The woman speaks again, but her voice is different. Warm. Reassuring.
“Doctor Bennett,” she says.
“Is everything alright?” The doctor. The one who told me everything would be okay. Bioluminescence. “Your face–”
“Everything’s fine. You did the right thing.”
“I hope so. Boy, I tell you”–his voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper–“some of these top secret memos from the CDC are really weird, but I never thought I’d actually see–”
“These things do happen, Doctor, and we’re only glad we were in the area and able to respond so quickly.”
“Listen, is there any threat of contagion? I mean, I assumed–”
“None whatsoever,” says the woman. “You have absolutely nothing to worry about.”
“Good,” says the Doctor. “My goodness, your nose. I should take a look at–”
“Doctor,” says the woman, “I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you the importance of keeping this absolutely confidential.”
“Of course! I wouldn’t–Hey!”
The last word sounds shocked and hurt, is barely preceded by a sharp little intake of breath.
“What did you…” A sigh. A squeak of shoes moving sideways on the linoleum. Then a series of gentle thuds. Then silence.
We are moving again.
I am not thinking what I should be thinking. I am not thinking Dear God what am I going to do? I am not wondering how on earth I just ripped a man’s windpipe out of his neck with my bare hands. I am not puzzling out how I managed to rescue myself from a noose, when last week I could barely do ten push-ups.
I don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t have any answers. All I know is I am calm.
You can beat them, she said. The girl with my hair and blue eyes.
Suddenly I remember the tiny marble that came out of my head is still in my front pants pocket.
We’re in an elevator. I can feel us going down. The doors open. The air that comes in is cold.
An hour ago, it would have scared me to walk into the morgue under my own power. Now, lying under a sheet, guarded by people who want me dead, I feel no fear.
Which makes me wonder: What is happening to me? What am I? This question is the only thing that scares me now. I send it away.
I hear doors opening, another rush of cold air hits me, and the woman says, “In here. Lock it. I’m calling in.”
A few seconds go by. She speaks again.
“Twenty-two alpha x-ray,” she says. A slight pause. “We need immediate extraction. Two of us plus one subject.” A pause. “Yes, two. We had a situation in the emergency department and it will require cleanup.” Pause. “Immediately, of course.” Another pause. This time her voice quavers, rushes. “For the time being, but it’s fourth generation.”
A longer pause.
“Unfortunately, it seems to have acquired some awareness. We need immediate extraction. West side loading dock.” A few seconds, then she sighs. “Fine.” She hangs up.
I just learned three things:
One: More of them are on their way.
Two: I am an it.
Three: They are afraid of me.
Now’s as good a time as any.
I am on my feet.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, earlier today, I would have pushed myself up to a sitting position, then pulled the sheet off my face, then swung my legs over the side, then gingerly slipped to the floor.
Everything is different now.
I suggest to myself, briefly, that I need to be standing, and then I am. In one fluid movement, I am standing up on the gurney.
I am in a storage room of some kind. It’s about the size of my crappy apartment. It’s dim and cold. The walls are a dull gray, and half the room is crammed with gleaming silver gurneys, outdated and stripped of their mattresses, jostled against each other and the gray walls like a school of fish suspended in ice.
On the back wall, to my right, is a cluster of old, pale green filing cabinets.
The rest of the room is empty.
Except for them. And me.
I see all of this in an instant. By the time I am on my feet–a mere fraction of a second–I have seen all of this.
The woman is two feet away, directly in front me, standing at the foot of my gurney. She is backing away now. Her nose is a ragged mess.
To my left, the man is reaching into his jacket.
I land on my feet, behind the woman.
Something inside me, something that is rapidly losing its voice, says You jumped over her!
I turn her to face the man, putting her body between him and me, as I clamp my arm around her ribcage. It’s the strangest thing: I half feel and half hear a whirring in my right arm. The woman screams. I feel one of her bones crack.
“Stop,” I say to the man.
He stops, hand in his jacket.
“Put your weapons on the ground.”
“You know how this works,” I say. “Haven’t you ever seen a movie? You put your weapons on the ground and kick them towards me, or I kill her.”
He still doesn’t move. I apply the tiniest bit of pressure to the vice that is my right arm. The woman shrieks, “Do it!” She’s taller than me, so her hair is in my face and I can smell her sweat, the lemony floral scent of her shampoo. I can feel her breathing, shallow and fast.
The man puts his weird gun–the one that shot a syringe at me–on the ground and shoves it in my direction. And only because I’ve seen lots of movies, I say:
“All your weapons.”
He pauses, then pulls a regular old pocket pistol–a Kel-Tec P3AT, I suddenly know–out of an ankle holster.
I give him a look. He produces a Glock 26 from the small of his back.
I push the woman away from me, toward her useless henchman. They stand there, breathing hard, sweating, backed up against a sea of broken gurneys, nowhere to go, looking at me.
How was I ever afraid of them? I could kill them without breaking a sweat. I know this now. They’ve known this all along.
“Aren’t you going to say something weird about the color green?” I say to the woman. Her coolly elegant exterior has crumbled. A sheen of sweat covers her swollen, bloody face, her hair is damp, her lips are clamped shut on the pain. “Aren’t you going to read my mind?”
Her voice is still composed but it is tiny, a whisper. “I can’t anymore.”
“Hurry up,” says someone. My head jerks towards the door.
She is standing there.
The girl from my dream.
The girl with the freckles, with my hair cut into a bob, with piercing blue eyes.
She is standing there in pale green hospital scrubs–eye rest green–and sneakers, looking at me. She raises her eyebrows as if to say, “Well?”
I smile. And I go to her.
She’s sighing and shaking her head. “I know this is all new to you”–her voice is raspy and sweet–“but they are bad guys. Really bad guys. Letting them live is a terrible idea.”
I turn and look at them, standing there, defenseless, broken.
“It’s been a weird day,” I say to the girl. “I don’t think I feel like killing anyone else.”
“Alright,” she sighs. “But we can slow them down.”
As I watch she goes to the cringing woman, takes the cell phone from her jacket pocket, and crushes it with her bare right hand.
She sees the little pile of weapons. She picks up the syringe gun.
“I hate these things,” she says, and breaks it in half. It’s as easy for her as snapping a tongue depressor in two.
She picks up the Glock, presses the release button, and the magazine drops to the floor with a clatter. She looks at the man and smiles, and without breaking eye contact with him, she disassembles the Glock and drops it in pieces to the floor. It takes about half a second. I watch the useless black barrel roll back and forth on the floor and think, I could do that if I wanted to.
Now it’s my turn to smile.
The girl picks up the little Kel-Tec and examines it. “This is cute,” she says. “I think I’ll keep it.” She tucks it into the waistband of her scrubs as she turns to me.
“Let’s skedaddle,” she says.
I remember puffing around the track at the gym, forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other.
Could I have run like this anytime I wanted? All this time?
It is like flying.
The gray hospital is behind us: the woman and the man cowering in the cold basement; the hapless doctor slumped (dead? alive?) on a cold floor; the dead man, sans throat, in the emergency department.
In my pocket there is a tiny transparent marble. If I touch it, it will turn purple and glow.
My job is behind us. My crappy apartment. My life.
Ahead of me, her brown hair blows in the wind.
Racing through the halls in the belly of the hospital, I got snippets of information from her (“When the orbs come out, we wake up.”) but none of it makes much sense.
Nothing is dripping out of my nose.
I have so many questions. But when she smiled and told me I would understand soon, I believed her like I’ve never believed anything.
And we ran.
We saw the black van pull up by the loading dock. We saw the men in blue suits get out. Did they see us? I don’t know. But they’ll be looking.
We are running on the roof of a train.
The wind rips the laughter out of my mouth. It’s like something in a movie. The kind of thing you see on the screen and think, Please. Impossible. But you go on watching. Because it’s wonderful to watch.
It’s wonderful to do.
The wind is so strong it should send me flying backwards to my death. But I am stronger than any wind, and I pierce through it like cannon fire.
I am running.
I am running towards the future.
I am running towards a future I never imagined, and they are chasing me, but they won’t catch me.
I don’t know what I am, but all of a sudden, I know I’m fast.
Kristen Hatten has been writing stories for as long as she can remember, but only recently began submitting them for publication. Her story “San Francisco” can be seen in the June 2014 issue of Jersey Devil Press.
I hadn’t planned on reading the entire story but I couldn’t help it. I had to find out what happened next, and then next . . .
Very well done.