Alice tried not to scratch. She sat on a hard plastic seat, swallowing an artificial, sterile scent that made her stomach –whatever remained of it—clench. Alice sat alone, amongst empty chairs that lined two walls of the vacant waiting room in an "L" shape. Her chair faced the door on the opposite side of the room through which Jack, her escort, had disappeared. She waited for his return. Aside from a paper gown that covered her front and back torso, Alice's skin lay exposed to the grossly perfumed air, twitching in its discomfort. She didn't itch, but the tightness around the stitches made her uncomfortable, compelling her to scrape at them.
Swollen and pinched, the mutilated edges felt as though they were about to tear apart at the seams. The threads stretched across her abdomen. She had a long curve curled over her left arm and a few more ragged lines raking across the left side of her face. She didn't want to think about the damage to her eye –but even somewhat obscured by fuzzy, overgrown bangs, she remained all-too aware of the drooping lids falling into the socket-turned-sinkhole. She had stitches coiling down and around her thighs. Besides not scratching any of these places, Alice avoided moving. She felt as flimsy as the paper gown she wore.
Alice preferred avoiding any further aggravation to the tears in her skin. She could be terribly still, and patient to an unfathomable degree. Alice doubted she would ever feel comfortable again in her own skin, and so the chill she felt scarcely bothered her. She neither shivered nor fidgeted while she waited, as directed, with the silence around her working at numbing her sore skin. Alice and the other objects, the chairs, were left static and cold.
She didn't think she minded that Jack had left her alone in the frozen room. Jack had carried her from his residence while she had cringed and slept. That must have been sometime the day before. The place he'd taken her smelled like a hospital, Alice thought, but she had trouble making out any defined aspects of the waiting area where he had left her.
The room in which she sat was white underneath all of the black clinging to every corner of the dim space. The lights above Alice glowed red, heat lamps that radiated no heat she could feel. All of the darkness, shimmering a warning red, disguised the ice in the room. Her skin, the plastic under her thighs, the solid tile packed beneath her feet –everything was frozen. The omnipresent ice held Alice frozen to her seat.
The door at last opened, and a crack sounded in the unseen ice. First to enter was a tall man she didn't recognize. In the dim light, Alice could tell he was either a mild brown or an intense pale. The former must have been his normal complexion, before something had tainted the tone of his face. The man wore a formal business suit and strode in with an air of authority that told Alice that he wasn't meant to wait on anybody.
Another man followed the stranger into the waiting room -Jack. Her acquaintance held himself in imitation of the stranger, his chin jutting out with a smirk and his shoulders eased back in complete relaxation. He had a handsome face, Alice would admit, but she also knew the chilling gleam in his dark eyes. Those eyes appeared to her a pure dead shark black in the poor light, but she had seen too deep into them before to know otherwise. They were actually a deep, rusted brown that could have been mistaken in some lights as a red near that of the lights overhead.
The night before, she had seen the red in his eyes too late for the glare to be a warning, and like so many of his victims, she hadn't been able to look at anything else for the duration of her torture. She'd spent a lot of time in his room already, enough to make out the lumps of women's clothes, abandoned and scattered around the floor. Closest to his bedside, Alice had noticed a bright red dress, the lacy bra and stiletto heels sticking out from the pile. But the woman who had worn them and the other half of her undergarments had vanished, as if she had melted into the floor with only her panties and out of existence. And with the clothes, the floor was littered with shattered glass, pieces of bottles. She had ignored the shards, acting as though they were inconveniences rather than hazards. Whenever she had crossed the room, she stepped over the glass as if it were nothing more dangerous than sharp shards that could briefly jab her soles without any further damage.
She had thought he wouldn't have wanted anything to do with her since she was clearly only a teenager, barely over sixteen, and he must have been at least a good five or so years older. He had welcomed her once into his home before, simply because it had been windy outside. A classmate, a girl she'd barely known, had spotted her outside of Jack's home and pointed Alice out to him that night. Violet had been that girl's name, and Violet was a girl who dyed her hair, wore tons of makeup, and went to parties. Alice had never done any of those things.
Alice hadn't seen Violet since, but after waking up crusted over in her own mortal blood, her vision faltering and her skin disfigured with seething wounds, when she didn't have anywhere else to go, she had decided to go back to his place. She couldn't go home in her ruined state. As far as her father and her old classmates knew, she was dead.
Jack had never expressed any objections to her stay, and when she had been lulled into thinking that he wouldn't harm her, that her involvement with him could only be an innocent, spiteful thing, she realized too late that she had been mistaken.
She wasn't in control of any situation. She wasn't bigger than anything. She didn't know anything. And, most of all, she wasn't even in control of her own body.
He'd had her pinned against the wall, and they were both on the floor. His breath had smelled rotten, rolling out from his lips and warming her face. His face had bent in toward her head, and it didn't matter how handsome his face appeared in certain lights. She'd never seen such a red sheen to anyone's eyes before, and she looked nowhere else, once she knew that squirming made things worse for her. The way he'd curled around her, grasping her by both shoulders with fingers as thin and piercing as claws, she was forced to bend inward, closer into the bend of his body. He was taller than her by almost a full foot, and she'd had to strain to look up into his eyes. His lips, meanwhile, had strained to reach further down. While so numb before, she'd suddenly felt the tug on all of her seams. Every line etched into her skin, all of those stitches sealing her broken skin shut, leaked her anxiety in the stead of her frozen-smooth pores. That corner of Jack's room had been too dark for her to see what drained out of her. She had only seen the red in his eyes while he had become fully carnivorous and devoured her. He had shifted his position jerking her more firmly between the wall and himself, and descended upon her. The eyes looked up at her, or not at her face at all. And she had kept her gaze, one-eyed as it was, on his face as best she could. Despite what she'd thought she had known, she realized that she had never actually been shredded before. Not like that…
Afterwards, Jack had brought her to this hospital of sorts claiming the best of intentions, though she suspected something worse than what he had told her. He had told her that he knew the director of the clinic. That it was a private, special facility. Alice hadn't yet seen any other patients, or any doctors. She had no sense of what part of town they were in –she'd slept fitfully through the drive there—and Jack never told her everything.
Not that she ever asked him anything. She could have asked him which pile of clothes had once been her former classmate, an ex-girlfriend of his, she had gathered. And all along she'd been wondering how many other people lived in his building, because she knew there were others, though she'd never seen them. Jack seemed to live in a place like the hospital, full of unseen ghost inhabitants.
Alice was starting to feel unseen to everyone's gaze save for Jack's.
In the waiting room, Alice couldn't bring herself to avert her eyes from his gaze. And he had been looking right at her since following the stranger into the room. She wondered if Jack was tracing any of the stitches with his eyes, waiting for something fresh to drip out of her. She knew she had nothing left to give him, and that he wanted her fixed for that reason. He'd wasted her in a single night.
It had taken months for the other boy to ruin her… the first, before Jack. One single night, a strangely windy night in May, he'd dragged her out of Jack's apartment and events had escalated, and then became so muddy in her mind that the next thing she knew, she was in pieces. She had thought she'd loved that first boy, for about a week in genuine at least, but the condition he'd left her in made her doubt everything. He'd been wrong for her, it seemed.
He had left her decomposed from the inside out, and then she had let Jack wreak havoc on the remains. And still, she found herself unfinished, still missing pieces since her falling out with the boy she'd first loved. So she stayed with Jack.
"Ah, Alice," said the stranger, feigning warmth. Between the three of them, Alice thought, no one in the red-tinged room had a healthy pallor.
Alice blinked at him, but only one eyelid moved. Sometimes, the damaged lid at least flinched in an attempt to correspond with the other. This time, she ended up winking at the strange man.
"I am Mr. Pall," continued the stranger. "And I run things around here." She didn't see a clipboard, a badge, or technological assistant of any kind on him. Mr. Pall was above low-level management status.
Alice gave Pall the slightest of nods. It didn't matter that Jack never explained anything to her. She thought she could've asked more, but all along she'd been swallowing back her tongue and filling in her erased remarks with blank stares and shallow nods. Yet still, she'd been wondering, the unspoken questions swarming her mind…
"But you'll let me stay, right?"
"Jack, am I disgusting?"
"I don't care. I'll go anywhere," she had mumbled to him, when he mentioned the hospital to her. She hadn't been thinking about any of her uncertainty, when Jack had finished with her the previous day. Alice didn't bother to drag any questions back to the tip of her tongue with Mr. Pall there, watching her as well as Jack.
Jack had come to stand next to her. He held out his hands, offering to help her up. He maybe acted like a gentleman, but that was only part of his costume. Now, he wore his dress shirt and dress pants, his vest and his belt, the tight jacket that made his masculine shape ever more prominent –but Alice had seen him wearing less than that. When he wasn't dressed the part of gentleman, he wasn't one.
Jack had been drinking for hours, pacing around his room, ignoring Alice sitting on his bed. He didn't need to tell her anything for her to know that he was upset. She could see the anxiety hanging off his shoulders as they tensed and loosed with his irritated stride. Soon, he slowed and slumped by the bed. At Alice's feet, he let his last bottle free of his hand and the drinking turned to undressing. Alice continued to watch on, nervous giggles bubbling out of her. She didn't know what else to do, how else to react to Jack's behavior.
She had seen only one boy with his shirt off before -the boy who'd stabbed her in the heart. His eyes had been clear ice blue, the last thing she'd seen with both of her eyes intact.
Jack's breath may have tasted putrid, infiltrating her senses while he had progressed to peeling off her clothing and then sucking at her scabbing flesh, but it hadn't felt as rotten as her insides. She supposed, in comparison, he expelled relatively fresh air into her.
Mr. Pall held open the door for Alice, while Jack held out his hands. She let Jack shift her onto her swollen, bare feet, and then coax her into the black beyond the door out of the ice-cold room.
Alice doubted she could turn back, once inside the next corridor. The door shut behind her with a heavy click, and another wall had coalesced between her and the door in the form of two larger, stronger men -Jack and the mysterious Mr. Pall. They guided her forward. She could hear them muttering private matters between themselves, since they kept a mere foot behind her.
"As enjoyable as your company may be, Jack, I do not have the leisure to spend my day playing tour guide for you."
"Let's just get her to the doctors," Jack said. "Then we can move on to more pleasant things. I quite liked that vintage we had earlier."
"You never say please, Jack."
In this narrow passage, a soft light emanated to Alice's right from a pair of windows shrouded by gauzy black screens. She couldn't see anything past the screens, but the way they reflected enough light to bathe her as she passed reminded Alice of visiting the aquarium as a young girl.
Her father used to take her, about once or twice a year. They would visit the aquarium in the winter, and the zoo in the summer. Some springs, they would make an extra visit to the aquarium so they could also visit the botanical gardens. The butterfly pavilion had always amazed Alice, though she remembered nothing else about that part of Albuquerque's biopark. Besides the butterflies, which would never land on her skinny little arms, nothing about the gardens had amazed Alice as a child. They just weren't as wondrous as the glowing, surreal worlds of the ocean creatures she saw at the aquarium. She could remember her initial terror, entering the dark tunnel that led to the brightly lit tanks. Alice would clutch her dad's hand, tighter and tighter, and when they reached the bottom, she would turn to the light ahead, emanating from the tanks. In an instant, the anxiety left her, replaced by wonderment. She would relinquish her father's hand, rushing to press her face against the cool glass to stare at the various fish inside. Fish were strange things, and she had always wished she could get closer. The glass separated her from an ethereal world of strange creatures that floated in midair before her face. She knew they had scales, but across the glass and flashing through the water in front of her, they had perfectly smooth skin. The brightly colored fish glided through the slices of rainbow light. Alice had wanted to feel the light dance around her, too. She wanted to count the scales across the fishes' backs, or at least feel their sleek skin glide past her. To know that the realm on the other side of the glass was as real as her eyes suggested.
Across from each curtained window, on the other side of the corridor, Alice made out the outline of a couple of closed doors. Like the windows, Alice wouldn't know what lay on the other side, but at the end of the corridor, they reached another darkened corner. She peered ahead, with what little light ran around this corner, and noticed that one door to her left was opened a crack. Perhaps taking her escorts by surprise, Alice rushed forward to catch at least a glimpse into the wall's white crevice.
The slit in the wall widened in front of Alice's good eye. The entire chamber shined white. Not frozen, nor warm, but sharp with its brightness. Alice almost wanted to recoil from the glare alone. Alice felt like she'd been straining for years to see her way out of a dark tunnel, only to immediately blind herself with the sight of a world blanketed by snow.
The person in the room lay stretched over a slanted, but close to vertical, table underneath a thin cotton blanket. Glistening black straps emerged from beneath the cover, extending to the underside of the table. Nothing in the next room was snow, but the artificial feel of every material within was almost as cold to her. As if she were strapped to the table herself, Alice could feel the stiff and cold metal against her back. Imagined needles bit into her arms, a row of quills pinning her skin to plastic tubes.
As if she had moved closer to the bed, she saw up close the stiff face sticking out from underneath the blanket. She saw how one side was completely swathed in bandages, and how the bandages were stained black, red, brown, and finally yellowed around the edges. The stains indicated a face damaged worse than hers, but the sight invoked a sudden throbbing in her destroyed eye while she stared at the mess of cotton glued over the patient's face.
The other side of the face stared back at her. She saw a softer brown than Jack's swimming in a yellow glaze and entrenched in blazing red veins. Drowning and bloodshot at the same time, Alice doubted that she had ever seen pain so concentrated in one place.
The patient's eye was set into a sturdy face. A male face, she realized. And, once she realized this, the shape of everything else became clear to her.
On the uncovered side of his face, traces of saliva dribbled from the corner of his lip, leaving a sluggish trail down his chin and toward his chest. There, Alice noticed the grotesque bulge of his shoulder, swollen and discolored –purple, blue, red, black, and like his eyes, yellowed around the periphery. With her eyes, Alice traced his figure further down, past a bandaged arm that ended in gray-stained fingertips, to the end of his horrendous bruises.
And she stopped looking, because the bruises extended far down his side. Her gaze slid well beyond his hip, and almost all the way down to his thigh. His feet were red, battered, but she barely glimpsed so far.
Where there weren't straps cutting into his skin, she saw tubes. Plastic tubes ending in their fat, silver tips. He had a tube wedged into his mouth. He had tubes jammed into his gut. The curtain had fallen, his thin cover, and she saw all of him -but he wasn't nearly as exposed as he should have been. The tubes, some thin straws –like those poking into his arm—and others, thick pipes, such as some lodged into his gut, his mouth, were stained red. The pipes surged, pouring fluids in or sucking them out, Alice couldn't tell. They squirmed over the patient in a quiet frenzy, and somewhere in the room Alice thought she detected a repetitious beep. She saw no machines. The tangle of red, throbbing tubes and electrical cords massed around the legs of the table and disappeared into the floor below. The tubes, although shining and synthetic, could have been veins and arteries, growing overwhelmingly and surging out of him. They crawled over him, more vivacious than the patient himself. She saw all of him, and she saw that he was being consumed.
"Alice?" Mr. Pall and Jack had gone ahead. They waited for her by the door at the end of the darkened hall in which she stood. Alice couldn't look the patient in the eye again, so she stopped looking altogether.
After staring into the light, Alice was immediately blinded by the darkness in the hallway. She had to blink for a few moments to gain her sight back.
The other two watched her while she held back a sigh and shut the door behind her. It gave a soft click in the dark, not locking like the door around the corner had. It didn't matter, because the patient wasn't going anywhere.
Alice bit back her questions, the most pressing being, why? She thought, padding softly toward her escorts, that she could have done something. She should have said something, or freed the man on the table herself.
"Come along, Alice," Mr. Pall said. She heard it in his voice. He wasn't going to be patient and wait for her a moment longer. Any notion of darting forward and releasing the patient from the table, of turning back herself, escaped her.
So, maybe that was the case, that she could have helped the patient. But she had accepted her fate.
Jack had told her little about their situation, but he had made some things clear to her. Based on what Jack had claimed, she knew there was a difference between herself and the patient on that table. She was no object or experiment. Jack had insisted on that, back when he'd escorted her inside the facility, she recalled. They just needed to fix up some things -the stitched together skin, and if possible, her decayed eye. Then, she would be perfect. She would be better.
She would be just like them.
Alice followed her pair of benefactors –Jack and Mr. Pall- through the next door. They might have trusted her at that point to follow on her own. She didn't think of turning back, regardless.