It was but a single pair of eyes, burning embers glinting in the darkness, spheres of fire in the ink of the air. Bright orange, like burning wood, like the eyes of an animal, sensing fear and absorbing it, feeding off of it, leaving those near drained into shells of life, beyond feeling terror, by the time they were released. Only holding tanks for what emptiness lay waiting for them beyond the darkness, in a world where there would no longer be fear and terror, for they had experienced the worst.
Cyrus shifted on the hard plastic bench, barely daring to move. It wasn't even his fear that kept him still; it was how accustomed he had become to the stillness, he had risen beyond his fear in the past fifteen, uneventful moments, and was now filled only with an insurmountable dread. He was sure it was the first of several stages that would drive him directly into madness. He began asking himself why he had decided to take this offer in the first place. He could have turned it down. He had wanted so badly to gain some experience and knowledge that could prove invaluable to him in the future, and being a young man, his curiosity had gotten the best of him. He had wanted to see if the rumors were true, if those dark, haunting tales that had spun to him through the smoky air of the café so many evenings had a shred of reality attached to them.
Those many nights when he should have been studying, aiming to please professors rather than make them despise him, he had spent in the café not far from his apartment (he hated the mere thought of staying in the college dorms), in front of the large fireplace, sipping a cappuccino not because he liked the taste but because e had wanted to blend in. Those days in class when he was completely clueless were easily paid for by simply spending those evenings before the fire. Because it was here that they spun their latest fantasies, some taken from old myths and garnished in their favorite way, some pure fiction, all so very intriguing. These were the people Cyrus aspired so desperately to be like, these great writers, pulling stories out of nowhere and everywhere, towering over him even if he was three feet taller than they. He loved to sit and listen to them compare bits and pieces of their latest novels, short stories, and even news articles, pulling out bits and reciting them like music, straight from some reservoir of inspiration somewhere deep within.
It was on many occasions in the café that he heard the stories. These stories were the only ones that the young writers were not using as inspiration for their plots. These were the legends to be admired from a distance, rather than to be tackled head-on with an iron fist and a pen in hand. And so they treated them accordingly, talking of fierce, glowing eyes, of a creature neither human nor beast, of prophecy and destiny and timeless pieces torn straight from the pages of a book of myths, but with a strange kind of eerie, truthful buzz about it all, believable though hard as it was to grasp. Stories of this…creature who was watched and studied and allowed no freedom, this creature that Cyrus had become almost close to merely from these stories of madness and pain. This creature treated like a zoo exhibit, this terrible creature of legend and books but so concrete in its existence that Cyrus could not pass up an opportunity to believe in something so fantastic. And it had become a mad obsession for Cyrus, hearing of this creature, fantasizing over its existence.
And so of course when Reuben, one of the young writers Cyrus admired so much, had approached him in the hall, Cyrus was intrigued. He had been on the way to a History of Literature class, textbook in hand, pouring over notes he had not even glanced at the night before, when he had seen a flash of blond hair and a wave of a hand before his face. Cyrus had looked up, puzzled, as though he had forgotten that there were people in his little world.
"Hey, you're the kid from the coffee shop, right? The one who listens…" Reuben said it as though it was a great feat to accomplish, as though Cyrus had done some noteworthy deed.
"Yes. Cyrus," he had replied, extending a hand, which Reuben had shaken hastily before pushing the pair of glasses that reminded Cyrus of some hip radio DJ up onto his nose.
"I see you watching when we talk about…you know…the creature. I can see it in you…you believe. I do too…I've seen it. With my own eyes." he paused, looking a bit melodramatic and waiting for his bombastic words to take effect. "And I can take you to see it."
Cyrus had looked at him incredulously for a moment, peering out from under his overly long bangs before even chancing an answer. "You're shitting me," he had replied, finally. "Knock it off." up until now his belief in this…creature had been only on the edge of real belief, more of a shadow, a delight in the idea of belief. And now he wasn't exactly sure what to think.
Reuben shook his head, looking very serious. "They have it here…it's close…" Reuben paused. "It's very, very close to campus." something about his voice made Cyrus shake with those words. "My uncle works with the director of the project-" project, such a sick word for something of this kind. Cyrus was jarred from this brief moment of thought by Reuben's voice continuing. "He knows how to get people in…so I know how to get people in."
The prospect of 'getting in' was chilling, but even more chilling to Cyrus was the thought of passing up the opportunity, the thought of lying awake at night, wondering and hoping that it was real, wondering and hoping that it was all pretend. Being driven to slow madness by the memory of missed dreams, unfed ambitions, and denial of childlike excitement at the thought of discovering something so sensational. And so the more scandalous side of him won over and Cyrus gave a nod.
"Alright," he said, nodding, decided. "But if you're shitting me, just tell me now."
There was a trace of annoyance on Reuben's not-quite-clean-shaven face. "I'm not shitting you, okay? If I was, don't you think I'd be laughing at you by now? Meet me down at the coffee house tomorrow at seven, don't be late or you won't be going."
And so the two had met at seven in the café at seven the next evening and started off. Their destination turned out to be a large, fairly normal-looking building that was indeed not far off campus. Reuben's method of 'getting in' had turned out to consist of pretending to belong there. Acting nonchalant, loping down hallways like they owned the place, which was hard for Cyrus. So many months of being a Freshman had made him once again accustomed to that lack of confidence he had found so overwhelming his first years of high school, and it took a while to get into a casual stride alongside Reuben, who walked with ease. They traipsed down long, identical hallways before they reached one that was different. There was an entirely different feel to the air, something strange and unexplainable. Cyrus shuddered as Reuben strolled a little ways further and then stopped before a door, and Cyrus followed suit. On the door was a single, simple plaque:
"Well, this is where I leave you," Reuben had said. Cyrus's eyes had widened in shock, and he had tried not show that he had already begun to depend on Reuben to take him wherever it happened to be that they were going. He was a very dependant person, though admitting it would be fatal to his pride.
"Look, it's right behind that door. It's going to be dark, it likes dark, but don't worry. It won't attack or anything. It's harmless. People just get terrified sitting and thinking of what could happen. Stay as long as you like, just say Reuben Paulsen escorted you if anyone gives you any trouble." and then he had left Cyrus standing there awkward in the hallway, alone. And so he had nervously entered the room, which was dark as Reuben had promised, and found a bench to sit on in the dark, heart pounding a million beats a second in his throat. The darkness had been what had really unnerved him, and the pair of glowing orange eyes off somewhere, and he had pressed himself against the wall that the bench sat up against, watching the eyes in terror until terror gave way to dread.
And now here he still sat, dread beginning to give way to an ill kind of feeling and a yearning to have some sort of change in the bleak passage of time. He sat, watching the eyes that still glowed like bright orange gems, glowing with a hot intensity that did not seem to be of this earth. He was torn two ways, not wanting to have come here just to stare at a pair of eyes for an hour, and not wanting to see what the eyes might belong to. He did want to see this mysterious creature, but he was still slightly afraid of what he might see, what horrible being the light might uncover that the darkness had hidden so expertly.
"Oh for God's sake, just stop being such a pansy and turn the damn light on. It's getting creepy with you just sitting there staring at my goddamned eyes for an hour," said a voice suddenly in the tranquil darkness. Cyrus jumped several feet into the air, looking around for the source of the brazen female voice that had cut through the thick silence so suddenly. He sat still. There was in irritated sigh and the glowing eyes came closer. Cyrus scrunched himself down as small as he could go on the bench, eyes widening in fear as those piercing orange eyes approached. No matter what Reuben said, no matter that Reuben had said this thing was harmless, Cyrus was still terrified, instinct taking over and telling him to be afraid. He had no choice but to cower like a child on the hard bench and wait for whatever was happening to be over.
And then the light snapped on. Cyrus's eyes shot up from his knees where they had been staring and he looked around diligently. Standing before him with one pale hand on the light switch stood a girl. She was no older than Cyrus, with a curtain of disheveled ebony hair that reached just past her shoulders, and a pair of eyes that were a soft orange in the light. Cyrus breathed a sigh of relief, relaxation flooding through him. She was no monster. She was a bit eerie, nonetheless. She was wearing a floor-length white smock made of some papery, hospital-use material. Her skin was pale, ghostly, the skin of someone who goes through abnormal amounts of time in the dark. Her eyes were different, without that normal human sparkle, as though she had not smiled in a considerably long time. The straight line of her lips expressed nothing, her features betrayed no ghost of emotion or any trace of anything beneath the surface. She was a closed book, a mystery concealed behind a locked door. She was strange, indeed, but she was no monster. Cyrus found himself staring around the room for the subject of all the stories, but found no other living creature in sight.
"What, looking for 'the creature'?" the girl asked, shaking her head. "It's funny, the things they say. Makes me sound like some kind of beast."
Cyrus just stared. His own wide blue eyes stared into the expressionless orange ones, eyes that held a bit more of the wild feeling of animal eyes, wolf's eyes, than the polished feel of dignified 'human' eyes. "You mean…the thing they all talk about…it's you?" a bit dumbfounded, a tad disappointed, and was it relieved? He stared into that relatively normal face and shook his head.
"Yes," the girl answered with a nod.
"But you're…" Cyrus struggled with his words for a moment, disbelief still running rampant through the plains of his mind. "…human."
The girl gave what was almost a laugh…more of a yelp, really, and shook her head. "If you even knew…" she began, but apparently chose not to finish, instead pulling her words back into an internal chamber of thought and leaving him with nothing but the reverberations of her previous words. She turned her back on him, surveying the wall across the room. "Look, I'd love to chat, but I really hate light, so make this fast, will you?"
"I can turn it off," Cyrus pointed out, jabbing a finger in the direction of the light switch. The girl turned to him briefly, orange eyes seeming to glow with a bit more intensity.
"What, so you're not here to stare at me like a drooling monkey for an hour?" she seemed to feel the need to gather herself, for she paused, orange eyes seeming to shoot sparks in his direction. "So you're not just another tourist that someone let in just for kicks. You're one of them. I see. Here to do your little tests…." her voice trailed away, an edge of madness setting into her words. For the first time, Cyrus noticed the pockmark-like scars in her arms…the work of needles and wires…the stories of the terrible tests were indeed true. He could feel a sudden wave of molten nausea working its way up into his throat, and he nearly stumbled.
"I'm not…" he managed to choke.
"Not what? Not here to skewer me with wires!?" she snarled maliciously. Cyrus winced, holding up his hands in a hopeless gesture of self-defense.
"I'm not! I'm not here to…do anything like that to you! I…I can help you!"
The girl gave a bark-like laugh. "Help me," she said it like it was poison burning a hole through her tongue. "Sure. You want to help me. Just do yourself a favor and get out now."
"But I want to h-" was all Cyrus was able to get out before she whirled on him, eyes really glowing this time, and he knew it hadn't been his imagination before.
"Just get out!" she snapped, on the verge of rage but still within the reasonable bounds of hostility. Cyrus stood on his bench, edging sideways until he felt the cold metal of the door handle leap out against his palm. She turned it and opened the door enough to slide out sideways through, a violent fear at her anger shaking his body and making it seem to compress onto itself. The door shut with a heavier thud than he would have imagined behind him, and he turned and faced the solid slab of windowless steel.
And it was then that he knew.
All traces of belief in the general good of humankind were gone…all ghosts of his childlike innocence swept away by this single experience. These people…these scientists…they took a human being, one who was different, but a human being all the same, and treated her horribly. Treated her with no more common respect than they would treat a rat…and thought nothing of it, hid it from the world.
He had come here looking for a creature, a beast, but now the truth was beginning to manifest itself right before his eyes. He had found what he was looking for.
Humans were the real monsters.