Chapter One

After the fog

I admit it. I have a thing about counting. Calms me down, counting.

Which is why this has been so fucked up. Because you can’t count without a starting point, right? If you don’t have one, how the hell do you trust two or three, much less something like P = F × d / t?

But fuck me. I lost way more than an equation about power, force, distance, and time.

I really did lose one. I even lost before.

Yeah, well, fuck them. I’m slowly stumbling back again through the leftover fog of their pharma, back to remembering before, back to understanding that I need to count.

Which is a good sign. Maybe if I can keep my head together and count, I can find one. And if I can find one, I can find before, and then I can find my way home.

So okay. I declare this AF1—the starting point, the first day After the Fog, made possible by the woman who once occupied the cell next to mine.

As I listened to her scream and bang out there in the corridor when they dragged her away, a most astonishing thing happened, which I attribute to her, though I don’t actually know if she had anything to do with it. What I do know is that while she was shrieking, an old audiostick came whizzing under the door with such force that it zinged all the way across the outer cell and the inner cell, coming to rest against a tubercle of rust along the back wall next to the toilet.

And neither cameras nor robots noticed.

Maybe they decided it was one of the monster cockroaches always scooting around in here—the audiostick’s black like the cockroaches, almost as large, and it moved just as fast.

Took a while to finagle it off the floor. In here, nothing’s easy. A multi-lens camera dome has replaced the inner cell ceiling light, and to block the cameras’ view, I faked slipping as I got up from the toilet, which turned into a real fall. Couple bruises later, here I am curled on the bunk facing the wall, my hands hidden by the heat-glare of my back so the thermal infrared cam can’t detect what I’m doing. Good thing, cuz my hands won’t stop trembling.

Could be they’re trying to trick me, but why would they? Not like anyone wants anything from me except conspicuous conformity. And sure as hell, there’s nothing subtle about them. They pounce immediately when something’s perceived amiss. So far, though, nobody’s here except me and the cockroaches.

And the audiostick.

The logo on it hints at its corporate party favor origins. Top of the line in its day. Only the very best for MetraGlobal Bank.

So okay. Took a deep breath, pressed on—and it worked!

Even has a tiny speaker. Soon as I found the playback button, I pressed it and shoved the audiostick’s speaker nearly into my ear. At first I thought nothing had been recorded. All I heard was static. Then, spoken in an urgent whisper, this:

“My name is Philippa Flynn. I am—I was—senior assistant vice president of investment risk management at MetraGlobal Bank in New York. I’ve been abducted and I believe I’m going to be killed because I’ve seen a face I recognize. Robert Strauss—I met him recently at a Georgica Corporation audit board meeting. He was with one of the directors, and he’s seen me, too. In this horrible place. But he wasn’t a prisoner like me. Dear god, I understand now. It’s about—”

And there she stops. That’s all she said.

Don’t know if this little black stick, Philippa’s gift to me, will matter. But at least it works. Has loads of storage left. It’ll take a kinetic recharge, too, which means if I’m careful I can keep it functioning in here indefinitely.

So okay. My name is Jamie Gwynmorgan and this is AF1.

Whenever the hell that is. Wherever the hell this is.

 

v

 

Still AF1.

Can’t sleep.

Been counting circles—the small hand-and-finger twirls that recharge Audy the audiostick. Also making sure I stay curled toward the wall, back to the cams, so they can’t see what I’m doing. Count just hit a thousand.

Heh. My count. My thousand.

I wish I could tell you I’d been tough enough to count for myself right from the start. Truth is, I don’t dare stop obeying their counts. I’ve been lost in their counts for so long that whole stretches of my life before have faded into their fog, and I’m left with just my blurry, disoriented WHY?

In my defense, counting’s hard and memories ebb when you’re locked down twenty-four seven in a pair of adjoined galvannealed steel boxes, those prefab things loaded six to a truck and sent off unnoticed for quick installation in obscure abandoned warehouses.

The one that’s the inner cell is older, about five feet by ten feet, hot as hell, rusting gray walls perpetually wet with condensing humidity. They run a buzzy hissing sound constantly, too dissonant to harbor figments of voices or melodies. No window in here, either—only a caged air vent above a solid steel door still implacably sturdy despite its rust. An exceedingly slimy shower occupies a back corner.

The attached outer cell—same width, some six feet long—is also windowless. Here resides the elliptical exercise machine on which I’m forced to slog. A small pipe runs from the elliptical’s drive housing to the outer cell’s side wall. Contains a power line, probably, linked to an inverter somewhere nearby, which means they’re forcing me to generate electricity. And, of course, they’re forcing me to wear myself out.

The outer cell has a second door with a peephole, always blocked, and a food port autohatch. The entire world lies on the other side of that door, but all I see, blink-of-an-eye-briefly twice a day, is a sliver of the wide gray corridor where those screams, I believe Philippa Flynn’s screams, reverberated.

An always-on ceiling light circles the outer cell camera dome and an air vent runs high across most of the wall above the door—larger than the vent in the inner cell, with a fan inside it that puffs weakly at my back when I step onto the elliptical. Despite the louder hissing sound, this little bit of extra light and air in the outer cell makes working the elliptical almost appealing.

In here, the suffocating inner cell, the only air and light come through that undersized vent over the door and the inch-high space underneath. Even so, some things are obvious. Such as, I’m not the cell’s first occupant. The scratches on the wall tell me that, though I can’t decipher anything in them but misery. Or maybe madness.

Once or twice, I’ve pick up faint whiffs of something industrial. Diesel maybe. More often I smell salt marsh, which helps account for the corrosion. Add in steel that was never properly galvannealed and certainly hasn’t been maintained, sloppy welding practices, poor choice of filler metal, relentless heat—and no wonder the seams of this shithole bubble with pits and rust.

For a few seconds in what I assume is the mornings, I’ve taken to staring at the cankered weld seam next to the toilet, black in the dimness as it turns and snakes upward to fuse the cell’s shower unit to the rear wall, and, in what passes for hope, I succumb to a fantasy about leg-pressing my way out of here.

I imagine my back against the bottom of the steel bunk frame, my legs pushing. I imagine the power I have is power enough and the steel wall bends and I squeeze through into the chase behind the cell—a chase I damn well know is back there; I can tell from how the plumbing’s laid out.

Then reality bites. The steel’s gotta be twelve-gauge, for chrissake, structurally braced every foot or so, and behind it probably an inch of polyiso bonded to corrugated steel facing. And I’m trying to deform this with my body alone?

I’m reasonably robust—got the long, strong muscles that come with height, plus a decade of using them in rabid daily workouts that’ve kept me even-keeled first in school and then doing what’s mostly a desk job. But even if I managed to kick loose four feet of weld seam, how in this lifetime do I produce the roughly twelve tons of force I’d need to put a forty-five-degree displacement across three feet of carbon steel? Answer: I don’t. Not without some sort of additional power which…I…do…not…have.

Anyway, that’s all moot, because somebody or something watches and listens all the time. Every minute. Can’t tell whether it’s bioware or software, but they notice. Which I’ve found out the hard way. As in don’t exhibit curiosity about anything.

Curiosity will get you zapped with an electric shock delivered remotely to a small plate on the choke collar around your neck—just like a dog’s—that’s too snug to pull off. And since once they zap you they have to replace the used-up battery by temporarily removing the collar, they toss in a pummeling for the disruptive behavior of having forced them to interact with you.

And god help you if you then dare to screech what’s really on what’s left of your mind—like WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE AND WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT WITH ME? That’s when they follow up your collar-zap by shocking you with a handheld electrolaser till you’re lost in tonic spasms and soaked in your own piss. Then a custodian robot hauls you off—the custodians do almost all the heavy lifting—and you get a lengthy, uncomfortable lesson about their rules.

Definitely not worth it, especially since after all that you can’t see anything much from under the hood over your head, only a flash or two of custodian appendages. Actual human beings remain hidden in unmarked black uniforms and surgical masks and wraparound eyewear and boonie hats.

Nor will anyone respond to anything you ask them. Regardless of how much you apologize for losing your cool. Regardless of how pathetically you beg. Only the lesson matters:

Do what you are told when you are told

DO NOT SPEAK unless spoken to

And then they shoot you up with some kind of pharma. Maybe just so you lose time, who the hell ever knows how much time. Or maybe, if you’ve really irritated them, they’ll get you addicted to something long enough that when they take it away you’re sick as shit for who the hell ever knows how much time.

Makes the guards pretty much just another species of machine, irretrievably indifferent like the custodians and the square, squat meals-on-wheels contraptions that deliver what passes for food.

Haven’t seen a guard’s face yet. At least not that I can remember.

I want to see people, hear people, talk to people.

And god oh god, I want this awful, ugly noise to stop.

It never fucking stops. Philippa Flynn’s clamorous exit was a rare rupture in the ceaseless buzzy hissing, though occasionally I pick up “natural” sounds—vague rumbles of thunder, rain drumming on a distant metal roof. And a faraway, low thumping—almost an infrasound—that suggests a helicopter. Sometimes I think I hear a guard’s passing footfalls while I’m “working” on their goddamn elliptical, but maybe I’m imagining that.

I crave a real live human voice. I crave real live human laughter.

Though I don’t lack for the spoken word. A computer-generated voice—almost male-sounding—commands me awake every morning. “Detainee, you have ten seconds to stand and state your identification number—nine, eight…”

Since I’ve learned too well that they’re not fucking around, when the cell voice intones “zero,” my feet are standing precisely on the worn red footprints long ago stenciled onto the floor.

A few minutes later, the inner cell door clanks open as the food port autohatch swings down and the meals-on-wheels machine rolls up to the outer cell door with the day’s first meal-ready-to-eat, invariably one of the cold entrées. (And hey, just so you know, if I ever get the fuck out of here, I will never eat alt-tuna again.)

Too soon after that, it’s “Detainee, you have ten seconds to place your meal packaging on the outer cell door food port and assume your work position—nine, eight…”

And onto the elliptical I step. Whenever I’m too slow, I’m threatened. Beeping first—two short, one long, two short. This sequence repeats three times with maybe a five-second delay between each repetition. If I haven’t speeded up by the third round, it’s “Detainee, you have ten seconds to accelerate your pace—nine, eight…”

I have no actual memory of the consequences of failing to move the pedals fast enough, but the few times I’ve heard those words, I react instantly, involuntarily. An electric claw grabs my crotch and I’m impaled, fire tentacling into my gut, down my legs, though my chest, my arms, tightening around my throat.

All in my head, entirely prompted by the cell voice, but I’m sweating, shivering, on the precipice of panic. And I fucking crank those pedals faster, faster, until the fire ebbs and the claw lets me go.

I get a break after, well, I’m guessing more than two hours, less than three. Just enough time to pee, rest briefly on the cell bunk, and refill the water bottle the cell voice commands me to carry to “work” on the elliptical.

Then another shift, another break, another shift, followed by the day’s only other MRE, which precedes another three shifts. I’m shut away in the inner cell after that, ordered to return the water bottle to its slot in the back wall’s dispensing unit, then brush my teeth with toothbrush and paste from another slot, returning the toothbrush in “…nine, eight…” By the time it’s over, all I care about is sleep.

Periodically, the pattern alters with an announcement: “Detainee, you will shower in ten seconds—nine, eight…”

This means tug off the bobos and the yellow spandex top and bottom that are the only clothes I have, scoop up the glop of liquid soap oozing out of yet another slot, and wash and rinse everything, including the spandex, in a few minutes under tepid, sulfurous water gurgling pathetically from a rusting fixture.

Or it’s “Detainee, you will wipe down your cell in ten seconds—nine, eight…” So I scoop up a glop of ineffectual cleanser and a sponge from, yep, another slot, and get it done aysap before returning the sponge.

I have the strange yellow spandex clothes and slip-on shoes. I have the collar around my neck. During my time on the elliptical, I have a plastic water bottle. And that’s all. The rest, such as it is, gets dispensed to me for as little time as possible and all utensils must be returned to whichever hole in the back wall they came from.

The worst part of this remorseless goosestep of demand and threat is that I’m clueless about when—no sense of day or night, nothing about the date or the day of the week or, god help me, even what year I’m in.

I have no doubt that’s on purpose. They want me disoriented. Best way to turn a brain to mush. So they’ve made sure I have precious little to go by.

Although there’s no mirror in here, I can feel how my hair is shorter than before. Yet that knowledge is worthless. For all I know, they slipped me a roofie three days ago, cut my hair then, and I just don’t remember.

Nor can I get hints from my menstrual cycle, since I lost it years ago and its replacement, a Purple Heart, is less than helpful.

Only option I can think of: count. I’ve tried counting sleep and MREs. Two MREs, each preceding three shifts on the elliptical, equal one day, which is followed by a chance to sleep. After a few rounds of frenetic paranoia too extravagant even for me, I now choose not to ponder the possibility that they’re bothering to dick with the lengths of my shifts.

I’ve lacked an implement to scratch a count of MRE pairs on the wall, so I’ve attempted it with my fingernails along the edge of the bed frame. Trouble is, chunks of time are missing—lost to beatings and pharma. And after their lessons about the rules, I’ve ended up in different cells. I can tell by the disparate rust patterns on the walls.

But this audiostick changes everything. I can keep a reliable count with Audy. Just curl up like always when it’s time to sleep, my back to the cams—only now I whisper, a scant whisper low in my throat, as much vibration as sound and hidden from their microphone by their own damn buzzy hissing noise.

And I say the day, starting with AF1. Plus maybe I can record what I manage to remember of before and listen to it later…

 

v

 

Am I crazy to be thinking so much about my last day of before?

I remember kissing Del like always and leaving the house that November morning. I remember where they grabbed me, about halfway between the house and the train station. Lots of bushes along the street—a good place for whisking someone away unseen.

Remembering, I get fucking angry at myself because I damn well should’ve respected my instincts about that van coming up too slowly behind me. But I’d spent years teaching myself to disregard those old impulses, no longer relevant in the ninety percent safe world where I’d gotten too comfortable.

Even when the van didn’t roll on by like it should have, I told myself, “Relax, they’re just gonna ask for directions,” although I did open the little hatch on my wristcom that protects the panic button from inadvertently transmitting false alarms.

Thank god. Because once they attacked, they moved with stunning speed, and suddenly I was off-balance, barely able to press the damn button before I was shut down by three, maybe four dudes wearing black balaclavas.

Del knew what was happening, more or less, because my panic button raises holy hell all over the place all at once, automatically transmitting and remote-storing everything recorded by every device in my possession. Altogether a paltry trail to follow, but it was the best I could do.

Del’s voice—shouting at me to tell her what’s wrong—was the last thing I heard. At least, I remind myself over and over and over, I had a chance to warn her.

I know that up to my final instant of consciousness anyway, Del was safe.

I have faith—I must keep faith—that when she realized I was in trouble, Del followed the protocol we’d long ago agreed on: secure the house, call in backup, punch an ammo clip into the pistol I keep in a drawer next to our bed so she can defend herself.

And I know the entire clan went into emergency mode to protect her and themselves and to find me.

No luck, though, on that last score. Oh god, how long have I been in this nightmare that won’t let me wake up? A month? A year?

 

v

 

AF2.

When I finally fell asleep last night, I dreamed about Del. First time I’ve remembered a dream since—don’t know when. Seemed like a protracted dream, but all I recollect is what Del said right before the cell voice bullied me awake: “Hide it! Hide it well!”

I had tears in my eyes when I opened them because the life that had been real to me for more than ten years is only a dream now.

Then my stomach corkscrewed. Hide it where?

Damn. Finding a secret place for Audy should’ve been my first priority as soon as I got near enough to understand what it was. But I was too busy talking to it. Clutched it in my hand next to my mouth like a kid sucking her thumb and whispered till I faded out. Twice.

Had no chance through this morning’s countdowns to locate a better alternative, so I tucked Audy under the skinny foam mattress I sleep on. Out of camera sight, sure, but right the fuck there for them to find just by flipping over the fucking mattress. Spent my shifts today making sure I pedaled fast enough, studiously servile.

But shit—what if this choke collar has more built into it than a zapper? What if it or maybe this spandex crap they’ve got me wearing does biomonitoring—heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature? How about detecting stress or tension or fear?

I got through today without incident. But what if they’ve spotted something? What if they’re watching more closely now?

So here I am, curled fetal on the bunk facing the wall, whispering to Audy while I scout the weld seam where bunk and wall attach with my right hand. I can feel the grit of rusting steel on my fingers. Think, dammit! Somewhere in here there’s gotta be a space just big enough, just invisible enough, just accessible enough, just camera-foolable enough for Audy.

Gotta be.

I guess I must be praying. Don’t know what else to call this unutterable please please please that won’t stop sniveling in my head.


Chapter Two

please please please

AF8.

Finally, I remembered a little crevice I’d spotted some time before Audy arrived—a couple of corrosion-gutted inches along the weld seam on the far side of the sink. Best I can tell, the sink blocks the cameras’ view of it.

Blew it off back when I first saw it since it was on the side wall and could never aid my delusion of escape into the chase behind the cell’s rear wall. Took me the whole morning of AF3 to recall it was even there. During the MRE break, I checked it out—room enough, not too gritty inside, small entry point, so reasonably disguised. During the following break, I managed to slip Audy into it.

Sounds straightforward enough, but not in this pisshole.

Not if you fuck up like I did and fail to realize that Audy would slip too deep into the crevice and getting her out again would risk everything.

Because they don’t watch just me, they watch my patterns. And they forecast my patterns, too.

Nothing else explains the interventions—“Detainee, you have ten seconds to…”—every time I do anything for too long or that’s even slightly atypical. Like check out a lock mechanism. Or the camera dome in the ceiling. Or the elliptical drive wheel. Or the outer cell door autohatch.

No question they’ve deployed predictive analytics to sift through detainee video feeds for behavioral patterns. Easy enough to pop an alert at any deviation from whatever parameters they’ve selected. Hell, the software probably sends alerts directly to the custodian robots, always the first to show up when shit goes down.

Means Audy’s gotta be retrievable within the parameters they’ve set for me. Which translates to sleight of hand, quick and easy.

I knew that.

Knew if I focused too much, too long on that space alongside the sink where Audy’s hidden, in mere minutes I’d have a custodian robot in my damn face.

Did I mention how much I despise custodian robots?

Only three feet high when one rolls in—a flat, gray body bristling with cameras and sensors, weapons tucked away, looking like a really big, headless western deer tick atop six legs tightly folded and refolded.

Then it rises up freaky fast, usually on three of its solenoid-driven appendages, while the other three instantly extend into impossibly long, strong, hex-articulated arms with impossibly long, strong weaponized claws ready to deliver an electrolaser shock or pepper gas—or a bullet. Or pin me to the wall. Or fist up to pound me to the floor and then deftly apply shackles that come out of nowhere. When a custodian does three-and-three like that, its “arms” can easily reach higher than the cell’s seven-foot ceiling.

Which is the good news. If a human guard shows up, the “incident” has “escalated” into another brutal lesson about the rules, another dose of their pharma. And then I’m lost for god knows how long and have to somehow find AF1 all over again.

To avoid that, at the end of AF3 I crawled onto the bunk without Audy—because I’d begun to appreciate how important avoiding that really is. Thanks to Philippa Flynn, I now grasp what the humans here really mean when they’re teaching one of their lessons: if you identify anything about us—the way Philippa Flynn identified Robert Strauss—we will kill you to protect ourselves.

Shit.

Years ago, back when Audy was new and leading edge, I was hell-bent, feral almost. I attacked hopelessness locked and loaded—a frontal assault. Because if it’s hopeless what’ve I got to lose, right? So of course I should be dead. And I was, briefly, right around the time that Audy was new and leading edge. But I ended up staying—

And I ended up with a very great deal to lose. I ended up with love. With a family—more than a decade with Del and Lynn and their extraordinarily generous, embracing family.

And I have no idea why that was taken from me. Or by whom. Or why I’ve end up in this black hole.

But I can tell you it’s the sort of black hole that requires capital investment.

Corporate? I imagine Philippa would say so.

Or maybe a government. Maybe a rogue operation or some secret agency enforcing laws nobody’s ever heard of.

Whoever they are, they have hierarchy, bureaucracy, robots and surveillance and behavioral analysis apps, guards in uniforms. They have deep pockets.

Maybe they have deep purposes, too, because I’m not the only one here—as Philippa’s frantic screams and recorded whispers testify. But I have no doubt whoever, whatever is doing this wants me and anybody else locked away here to feel profoundly isolated.

I’d also bet my life Audy’s against their rules.

And there’s the rub. I am betting my life.

Five days ago, back on AF3 (yeah, I’ve managed to count that much), I realized I’d bumbled into an opportunity to unbet my life when I couldn’t retrieve Audy from her crevice.

What the hell, I thought. Maybe some part of me knew to pick that crevice on purpose so I’d lose Audy in there and not have to risk getting caught disobeying their rules.

Just leave her, hope she’s never discovered, play dumb if she is. Del and Lynn will find me. They will. They will. Thinking that gave me relief. I felt the muscles in my neck, my shoulders relax a little.

Okay. I leave her there.

Whereupon, on AF3, I should’ve fallen asleep.

But I didn’t.

Fifteen or whatever fucking hours trudging on the damn elliptical and the respite of risk reduced, but I couldn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t breathe. And some other me just would not shut the fuck up.

C’mon, what if I lose my count without Audy?

C’mon, what if talking to Audy, being able to listen to my own words, is the only reason I’m almost capable again of rational thought?

C’mon, what if obeying their fucking rules makes no difference because they’re going to kill me anyway, like Philippa Flynn?

C’mon, what if the words Audy records are the sum of my whole existence from here on in?

Prior to Audy, while I lay on the bunk at the end of my shifts, I’d squint at the wall a few inches from my nose and try to find “my” splotch of rust among all the other splotches. Mostly I couldn’t see shit, but I’d make a mark anyway with my fingernail in what seemed like the right place—my meager attempt at a count, an orderly scratch, dammit, amidst the insane chaos of scratches and scrapes put there by untold others.

Never mind that my scratches are, so far anyway, inscrutable even to me. Which ones are mine? In how many cells have I done this? And what’s the total count, huh? How fucking long have I fucking been here?

At the end of AF3, I ripped at the wall same as the others had—to squelch the please please please that refused to stop trumpeting in my head.

I’ll cop to praying before Audy arrived—if that’s what the please please please ought to be called. And yeah, sometimes it got out of hand, escalated into furious rage or hysterical self-pity, and, inevitably, a custodian robot check. That last time, somewhere back there in the fog, also attracted a Homo sapiens guard, followed by yet another ruthless lesson about the rules.

I remember it better than the other times earlier because this last time was when I caught on to her—to Caprice, Queen of Vagary, blowing in to remind me of my place. She gave it away when I heard human laughter, a sound I so, so yearned for, while a pair of guards experimented with how high they’d have the custodian hitch up the chain tethering my shackled wrists to the ceiling.

After that I banished please please please. But five nights ago when I knew I had to hide Audy, there it was again. I could almost hear Caprice’s mockery. Nah, she sneers with backhanded disinterest, you want more than your share. Fortune finds the way to fifty-fifty, fool, and you know neither what nor how to count.

Five nights ago, when I couldn’t retrieve Audy, I got exactly what I fucking wished for. Too bad I wished wrong.

At least I managed not to attract them by wailing in a demented frenzy. But, jeezus, at times I came close, digging along the weld seam in the small area blocked by my back from the camera lenses, a desperate perversion of counting that ceased only when I eventually fell asleep.

This became my nightly ritual. The watchers must have noticed my bloody fingertips, but I suppose they didn’t care. And then, on what I believe was AF6, there it was, not part of the corroded area at all, but a couple inches beyond it, still in the area shielded from the cams by my back, still within easy reach of my hand: another crevice.

I lay there, my hand statue-still, in a kind of mental paralysis for, well, who knows how long? I thought I must be hallucinating.

But it was real. A fluke born of happenstance and hornswoggle. And I’m not the first person to find it, either.

Both the cell wall and the inner edge of the steel bunk frame welded to it have very slight deformations that, by chance, more or less align to create a skinny, slightly skewed vesica piscis-shaped gap that the cell manufacturer’s robo-welder missed. Instead of rewelding, the manufacturer covered over this gap, my precious Vesica the Gap, with caulk. No doubt the caulk was supposed to be tamper-proof.

I suspect the previous tenant, like me, discovered Vesica because the caulk covering her is not remotely tamper-proof. It’s supple, its layer of original gray paint intact, and like my predecessor, I’ve figured out how to tuck it over Vesica so arcanely that even a guard’s finger swipe will very likely miss it. You have to know just where to look, just how to poke and dig to open this secret chamber.

Goddamn, Caprice. Goddamn.

On AF6, thanks to Vesica the Gap, I decided to retrieve Audy. Took me five tries over two days—sometimes girls play hard to get. But now, on AF8, she’s here, about to be snugged into her new home.

 

v

 

AF11.

Zero dark thirty—that’s all I can tell you. The day’s countdowns will start soon. I can feel it. So I gotta hurry.

I’ve just dreamed about Del again. Or maybe I woke into, well, into the memory. Because, dream or awake, I’ve remembered a crisp, colorful, tactile swath of before.

I was home with her, in bed with her in our first-floor part of the two-family she and her sister Lily own at the end of Birch Lane. The display on the far wall read 23:14 hours.

“Where’d you drift off to?” Del demanded, and oh god, I remember her bottomless dark eyes narrowing the intensity of her into a beam. Directed at me.

“Sorry…” I’d missed most of what had led up to her unusually soaring And guess what!”

Depending on context, I can see the and-guess-what glow before Del speaks—sometimes well before, sometimes only seconds before. And sometimes, like this time, when I see that glow I space out. We both know it’s because I want her to come get me.

And that generally happens when Del pushes it. Thing is, Del pushes it a lot.

She relishes her work as an environmental engineer who restores messed-up waterways and wetlands, but her heart lies in a much broader vision: the Wilderness Web Coalition. She even wrangled an environmental economics PhD to help her hone that vision and insulate herself from certain classes of ad hominem attack. “I might be the bitch they say I am,” she likes to quip, “but when it comes to the Wilderness Web, they can’t call me ignorant or ill-informed.”

The Wilderness Web is Del’s baby, no question. Its politicking and strategizing consumes much of her time, but it also energizes her.

And I gotta say, Del’s energy is a thing of beauty. As well as contagious. You think you’re sitting back watching her, enjoying her, and the next thing you know you’ve volunteered to help her change the world.

After living with her for ten years, I’ve seen this happen to a fair number of people. How it happens depends entirely on the individual. In my case—and mine is the most impossibly lucky case because she married me—it happened, continues to happen, with her luminous “And guess what!”

“Okay, what?” I asked a bit too reluctantly.

“Monday, Monday,” she singsonged as she rolled lightly on top of me, eyes flaring, all her convexes tantalizing mine. “I haven’t even gotten to the punch line, Ms. Gwynmorgan.”

Del kissed me then and I melted into it, wide-awake at last and defying earth’s gravity for hers. “My…apologies…Doctor…Sabellius.”

“Mmm hmm.” Another kiss, deeper this time.

“You already know…unhh…I’ll say yes.”

“I want you to want to say yes.”

I remember caressing the firm curves of her abdominals, richly caramel in the soft bedroom light, then her hips as she pressed against me, pledging a galvanic journey to eruption. “I love when you want me to want to say yes.”

She circled, centered, then stilled. “But?”

I closed my eyes. How does she always know?

She kissed me again. “Out with it.”

Sigh. And then my truth. “I love that your work is getting the respect it deserves, Del. About fucking time. I know how important it is. And I certainly don’t mind playing your butch-tinted eye candy. With the right crowd it’s a gas. But god, I have Hazelton project deadlines up the wazoo, and for the last six months these events of yours—” I admit to indulging in a melodramatic groan. “The politicking, especially with the professionals, has been—”

“The price of coalition, my sweet.” Her finger traced a delicate path down the center of my chest…down…down. “But I’m keeping my promise not to join any more boards—”

I groaned again, anticipating the worst. “You do get that Lynn Hillinger is the only politician I can stomach, right?”

“Of course. Lesbian version of a bromance.” Del laughed. I love the sound of her laugh, how it lights her face and sparks her eyes and rolls into her words. “Anyway, Lynn’s not really a politician. The senator thing is a disguise—” She put up a hand to keep me from interrupting. “If it’s any consolation, everyone will be there, including Lynn. Plus it’s not till January. Three months should be plenty of time to work out any conflicts with your Hazelton project. And if you’re feeling particularly dour and hermitudinous, we can make it a day trip.”

“Everyone” meant the family, so certainly I’d go. “Okay, which night in January?”

“Nope, afternoon.” Del straightened up, straddling my hips. “This one’s a speech. By me. To the United Nations General Assembly. They want to hear about why a Wilderness Web matters.”

“The UN?” I felt my eyes widen along with my grin. “Our very own Adele Sabellius? All by her lonesome?”

“Yep. I’ll have twenty minutes to explain why we risk the survival of the planet as we know it without a Wilderness Web. I figure six minutes for that, fourteen to tell the buggers how to finance it on a global scale.”

“Wow,” I remember saying as I lifted upward to kiss her. “The UN. And the shortest synopsis of your dissertation ever, I presume.”

“Yes, ma’am. Wilderness Web for Dummies.”

“My god, you won’t be able to keep me away.” I meant it; watching Adele Sabellius when she’s on—and, oh man, will she be on for this one—is a transcendent experience. Every time. Plus she’s drop-dead fucking gorgeous; no one on earth is more fun to look at.

“I love you, Jamie Gwynmorgan.” Del pressed close to me again, but her words were slipping away. I tried, oh god how I tried to answer her, hold on to her.

Then my eyes opened to claustral, rusting swelter—the cell. And the realization that it was all only a dream of a memory. No matter how real it felt, the most it can be is a memory. I wanted to scream. And cry. Because it was so real. Del was so real.

Somehow, though, I’ve held it all in—the grief, the pain, the outrage—and here I am telling my dream of a memory to Audy. Because if I have a recording of how I remember it, immediate and so vivid, that’s almost like being home again, like touching Del again.


Chapter Three

two…zero…seven…six

AF20.

The day following my dream of Del, I passed out. That was AF11.

On AF18, my world turned over. Literally. But in the churn I found a trace of hope. So I’m making sure Audy has a record of the how and why of AF18—a chronology. And that chronology began on AF11.

One instant I’m lumbering along on the elliptical, the next I’m flat on my back blinking at a nausea-inducing dazzle.

Might’ve been the swelter—the cell’s hotter than I can ever recall. Or maybe it was the MRE I’d eaten an hour earlier, which tasted odd. Also—and I don’t like to admit this, it’s fucking scary—I’d been losing weight, approaching physical exhaustion.

Splatted on the floor, I never even registered the cell’s warning beeps and failed to obey the order to resume work on the elliptical. All I could do was roll over, puke, and pass out again.

A custodian’s jabs brought me back to full consciousness, but when it demanded “Detainee, state your identification number,” I vomited on one of its wheel-foot-claw thingies. Kept my eyes closed, too, hoping to spare myself another lesson, another round of pharma.

Little bit later I hear “Shit” from a distinctly human male voice.

Told myself, No, don’t look.

When I smelled bourbon-breath, I realized he’d leaned down. Felt his hand grab my jaw, so I played dead and didn’t resist as he shimmied my head, which felt like it had been sledgehammered.

“Infirmary?” he asked, jittery. Then, “Roger, on our way.”

Did I know already that this joint has an infirmary?

The robot lifted me, dry heaving all the way, and I wanted to resist—my eyes opened, my mouth opened, but my NO! evaporated as I caught sight of a military stretcher basket right before I landed in it. Soon the custodian had me strapped in from shoulders to ankles. Scary how agile custodian claws can be.

God, my head hurt, but I knew enough to mostly keep my eyes closed. Nausea notwithstanding, the basket’s movement helped me reboot mentally. A stretcher in motion meant they were taking me out of that fiendish cell into the corridor I’d glimpsed so often through the food hatch. A rush of almost fresh air tempted my eyes open—to a ferocious blaze of lights zooming by overhead. I was in the corridor unhooded and almost fully conscious.

You know how you can see things slitty-eyed, from behind your eyelashes? That’s how I counted something like a dozen cell doors as the custodian carried me through what I realized is a huge space plenty wide enough for a row of prefab cells on either side of a center corridor.

Overall, I heard more than I saw. Doors clattered open and slammed shut a moment later, then more smooth motion, more cell doors, more slam and lock. When my head angled higher than my feet, I peeked again. The ever-versatile custodian had tilted the basket to carry me quite smoothly down a flight of brick-and-concrete stairs.

And I thought, Hey, this stairway’s supposed to be open-air, because, damn, I recognized its red brick and concrete. In that moment, I believed unreservedly I’d been on that very spot before. A back-in-the-day before.

At the bottom of the stairs, amid more slam-and-lock racket, the tang of salt marsh suppressed all other scent, and an actual breeze skimmed my face. Low tide, and close by, too. A raw ravening broiled my chest, scorched my throat. I gulped back a kind of delirium as the please please please screamed, screamed in my head to go home.

“Got one for ya,” I heard the guard say from far away.

Then I heard a female human. “Null Custodian Seven, prepare detainee in bed one.”

Soon the robot had me out of the stretcher basket, onto a hospital bed, stripped naked. A shackle clamped around my left wrist, another took my right ankle. I’d gone very still, concerned that they’d picked up on my lemme-go-home freakout and might bring on their pharma. I slit one eye open to see the robot wheel away, leaving me uncovered.

Both the guard and the woman he spoke to followed the custodian out of the room, which gave me a little time to bree-ee-eathe and dare a surreptitious glance around. Medical gear, cabinets, several other beds, all empty. So much for making contact with another prisoner. Next to my bed stood one of those emergency room multi-scanners, the one-stop shop used by medical people to determine what’s broken, bleeding, bursting, blighted. On the ceiling, a camera dome kept watch.

Partly because I was still nauseous, partly because I was shit-scared, I mostly kept my eyes shut after that first quick lookabout. Better they assume I’m more out of it than I am.

But I briefly peeked again when I heard someone return—a sound easy to detect without the cell’s interminable buzzy-hissy noise. Anonymous behind surgical mask and darkened eyewraps like all the other Homo sapiens, the infirmary woman strode over to me and, without a word, initiated the scanner.

She worked deliberately, thoroughly. She didn’t have to touch me, but to my surprise, her fingers lingered almost gently at the old through-and-through puncture scars on my hands as she scanned. When she finished, she removed the shackle on my left wrist and cleaned the area. A quick sting came next, followed by cold liquid invading my forearm, then she inserted a catheter. I glimpsed her adjust the bed herself so my head and knees were slightly raised and, finally, cover me with a sheet.

Carefully, I dared another peek of her departing back before looking at what I feared most—the IV line invading my wrist. I contemplated ripping it out, an old instinct because I simply do not have normal responses to pharma—especially not the pharma these people mess with. Even at low doses, I typically hallucinate.

But I’d pay a horrific price for even touching that needle.

Had to start talking to myself almost out loud. C’mon, the bag looks like nothing more than water, saline, and glucose, probably really is just for hydration. Hell, if the stuff was gonna make me crazy, it was already too late. And I’d know one way or the other pretty damn quick.

Do a ten-count and bree-ee-eathe… And, oh god, the last time I felt that comfortable was at home in bed with Del. I fell asleep before my count reached five.

The final fragments of a real live conversation between two real live human beings woke me.

“…Concussion…weight loss…nutritional deficits…” The woman’s voice epitomized medical neutrality. Then I heard a man—not the guard who’d escorted me to the infirmary, someone else—say, “…not on the helo list and, according to this, two zero seven six should have been moved to a full sustain protocol more than two months ago…”

Goddamn.

That means something.

I know damn well what—who—two zero seven six is, and I soon learned firsthand that “full sustain protocol” means marginally better treatment, more food.

As for “the helo list,” well, given the echoes of military cadence and discipline exhibited by the cell voice, not to mention the godawful MREs, I’m betting “helo” means helicopter. Haven’t figured out what “on the helo list” means, but the words make my teeth grind.

I admit I hoped for a conversation with Infirmary Woman. Yet in the seven days they kept me in a cell next to the infirmary, I never exchanged a single word with another human being. Infirmary Woman checked me out daily, but the cell voice always prepped me with strict instructions, one of which was to keep my gaze down and do not speak.

I resisted almighty temptation and followed those orders scrupulously when Infirmary Woman entered to conduct her daily checkup.

At least the infirmary cell, constructed of concrete block, was comparatively clean, cool, and dry. No buzzy-hissy sound at all. Brighter, too. One wall even had a window, though the glass was heavily frosted.

I also got clean spandex to wear, which beats being naked in a climate rife with mosquitoes and midges. Also three decent-sized meals a day—one of them hot, of more or less real food. Lots of alt fare, like you’d expect in an institutional chow line, but way better than any MRE. And the cell had, essentially, no regimen other than the lights going on in the morning, off at night. They left me to sleep until I woke up on my own. The cell’s shower not only had genuine hot water, I was able to use it once a day.

I took every shower I could.

And did lots of cogitating.

When a power immensely greater than you whisks you out of everything that makes sense and throws you into such disorienting strangeness that only uncertainty is certain, it takes a while to comprehend what a pattern is. That’s especially true if the strangeness is stressful and cruel.

But I recognized one pattern. The quiet, cool infirmary cell would be no more than a temporary interlude. Only issue was whether they’d put me back in the cell where I’d stashed Audy or put me somewhere else.

I tried to bracket that worry and mull broader questions—chiefly, where am I and what’ll it take to get the hell out of here even if I’ve lost Audy forever?

Frosted or not, it helped to have a window. I mean, outdoors and real daylight just on the other side of glass I could touch! Spent most of my time in the infirmary cell with my hand on that window. Based on the way the light shifted and the intensity of the heat on the glass, I concluded the window faced south.

Useless knowledge perhaps, but knowing anything at all of the world beyond the rusting steel box was so intoxicating that I made myself memorize a list of what else I’ve learned.

One: I’m treated better if I act broken. Not merely a little broken, thoroughly broken. They relent some when they believe I’ve surrendered to their absolute dominance. Upside: with the extra food and rest resulting from my collapse, I’ve had a chance to get stronger; exhaustion no longer completely fuddles my brain.

Two: this place has hardly any guards. They dutifully deploy multiple layers of security, but rely too much on surveillance machinery and automation. Potential upside: automation ain’t anywhere near perfect, yet it breeds human complacency anyway.

Three: they’re already complacent. For instance, they don’t care about the condition of their physical infrastructure. Cuz what the hell, their analytic software will snap an alert way before a detainee can pop a lock or diddle a camera dome, right? So, another potential upside: automation requires electricity; electricity can be cut off. Or short-circuited.

Four: I’m in a coastal location. Maybe a barrier island? Would explain the rust, the mold, the smell of salt marsh. Upside: I have a small clue about where I am.

Five: they’re using helicopters. That sound I’d notice through the hissing noise really was helos. Heard it quite clearly in the infirmary cell. And those whiffs of diesel could be the helos’ fuel. Upside: maybe I can catch a ride back to civilization someday soon.

Six: they have a helo list that apparently I’m not on. Whatever the hell that means.

Seven: Philippa saw someone in this vile place who’s not a prisoner—Robert Strauss, who’s thus an abductor, a bad guy, yes? And who’s connected somehow to Georgica Corporation, the largest agricultural resources company in the world and no friend of the Wilderness Web Coalition. Don’t know about the upside (or downside) of this, but it damn well means something.

Eight: takes big bucks to run an operation like this one that’s large enough, sophisticated enough to have helos and infirmaries with multi-scanners. Operations like that leave a sizable wake. Upside: sizable wakes can be hard to hide.

Nine: I know Del and Lynn are turning over every rock and racket they can think of to find me. Which is saying something. Between them, their connections range from plutocrats to social justice activists to prostitutes and gangbangers, and Lynn’s chief of staff, Springer Knox, is a fucking blond barracuda. Upside: sooner or later, they’ll spot the sizable wake of this place. I hope. I gotta hope.

 

v

 

On AF18, I heard human voices in the hushed infirmary cell area, which I recognized: Infirmary Woman and the same guard who brought me to the infirmary on AF11. I’ve nicknamed him New South.

Pretty quickly, I grasped that New South had shown up with a custodian robot to transport me somewhere else and that protocol required me to be hooded, but New South hadn’t brought one with him.

Oh so politely, Infirmary Woman made clear who was responsible for providing the hood—New South, not her.

“Nobody’s even told me where the hell to find ’em,” he groused.

Next, I heard Infirmary Woman speak to the robot. “Null Custodian Seven, locate a detainee hood.”

New South didn’t like the robot’s response and swore colorfully. “Yeah. Great. Hoods in Block A. So, how many sally port unlocks? Six? Eight? Been doin’ this long enough to know that’ll clusterfuck me right past end of shift,” he crabbed. “For a frackin’ hood.”

Infirmary Woman said, “Your call.”

New South griped some more. “Shift’s over in ten minutes. Ten or fifteen after that, I get my last shot at some Texas Hold ’em before we cycle out tomorrow.”

Infirmary Woman sounded almost resentful when she replied. “Lucky you. You’ll be home for Easter.”

“Yeah, guess so,” New South muttered. A brief silence ensued between them until New South asked, “When’s Easter again?”

“Just a week from today. March twenty-ninth. Early this year.”

Aaand pop!

I realized Infirmary Woman had just revealed what day it was and I immediately succumbed to a brainscream—TODAY IS MARCH TWENTY-SECOND! SUNDAY, MARCH TWENTY-SECOND!—so I missed some of New South’s reply.

“Hell’s bells,” he was bragging when I managed to tune back in. “I got serious plans for all the cheddar I’ll be takin’ off Kenny tonight.”

I split in two; one of me mutely hollered SUNDAY, MARCH TWENTY-SECOND! while the other listened intently to New South and Infirmary Woman.

“You mean Mr. Bouchard?” She offered a skittish laugh. “I guess you like to live dangerously.”

“Ooh, Mister Bouchard,” New South teased her, then diddy-bopped back to his brag. “Ah hell, me an’ Kenny, we served together. Hoo-rah an’ all that. I give him a good run, f’sure. But I whup his poker ass pretty regular, cuz the guy’s got a appetite, y’know? ’Tween you ’n’ me, ’s how I grabbed this gig. ’Sides, he can afford it.”

“Well,” Infirmary Woman said, sticking to her neutrality, “it’s your call about the hood.”

“Great,” New South proclaimed. “My call is never the fuck mind, custodian.”

Seconds passed, more seconds. By this time I’ve got a mental chant going: AF Eighteen is Sunday, March twenty-second, AF Eighteen is Sunday, March twenty-second

“Uh-oh. You’ve confused it,” Infirmary Woman said.

“Day-yam,” New South whined. “That means a whole reboot.”

Infirmary Woman said not necessarily and described a workaround that avoids flipping the kill switch. I couldn’t see what she showed him, but I heard her say it isn’t a full reboot, instead it clears the robot’s cache and resets to pause mode until there’s a new command.

“Sometimes I think they don’t like profanity,” Infirmary Woman said, sounding solemn. “Anyway, the trick is to stick with their limited vocabulary. Stuff like ‘Halt,’ ‘Enter sleep mode.’ Anything that’s on your custodian command card.”

And then she warned New South about something she called slump and lump, in which a custodian’s appendages slowly droop into stillness. “Stan over in tech calls it ‘controlled upright descent mode.’ So they don’t, like, drop stuff on the stairs,” said Infirmary Woman. “If it happens, call tech. Stan gets them back up pretty quick.”

“You sayin’ they just quit?” New South asked.

“Oh, it used to be much worse,” Infirmary Woman told him. “Usually in summer.” She described how the custodians would stop recognizing IDs and treat everyone as a detainee, aggressing if they perceived unwillingness to comply with their command. “A couple people got electrolasered bad once trying to flip a custodian’s kill switch,” she said. “Had to shoot it.”

Something New South said that I couldn’t quite hear prompted Infirmary Woman’s reassurance. “The humidity, according to Stan. Too much moisture glitching their authentication firmware,” she said. “Seems they’re not as water resistant as advertised. Took tech a while to figure it out, but after inserting desiccant packs and a new program module, it hasn’t happened in, like, a year.”

Another silence.

“So, uh,” New South finally asked, “how do I wake up this one?”

“Any old command’ll do,” she said. “I mostly use ‘Stand by’ or ‘Resume prior protocol.’ Just make sure you start with its full name so it knows it’s being commanded. Otherwise it can get stuck all over again.”

They finished up with niceties, then New South got his command voice on and intoned, “Null Custodian Seven, resume prior protocol.”

Two minutes later, the robot had me shackled and New South ordered me to keep my eyes glued to the ground in front of my feet, on pain of “or I’ll personally beat the livin’ shit outta you.” He also called me a cunt and clamped his hand hard onto the back of my neck, bending me double as I scuttled along in ankle chains, my hands fettered behind my back.

Several hurried rounds of slam-and-lock later, I was outside. In real, live fresh air. Breathe it, I commanded myself. Bree-ee-eathe

Couldn’t see much, but I tried to pay attention, tried to count my steps. I smelled lemon citronella. At the very edge of my peripheral vision I noticed the shade of a few trees dapple what seemed like an old parking lot where straggles of grass claimed cracks in the concrete. I saw security fences, layers of them, cutting through a large courtyard, maybe fifty by a hundred yards, with two-story buildings stretching along three sides, all connected by covered walkways—

And god, even though I saw it all either sideways or upside down, I’d swear I recognized those buildings. Upside down or not, they looked exactly like squadbays. Would’ve sworn the one dead behind me, just visible between my legs as New South marched me eastward, is the very building where years ago I spent three endless months as a Marine Corps recruit.

I shifted my head slightly leftward to see what I could of the fourth side of the courtyard, hoping to figure out if I’d lost my mind or not.

Which is when it happened, in the nanosecond before New South shoved my head farther down and yanked me forward. In that nanosecond, I glimpsed—or hallucinated—the upper floor of the old red brick recruit depot headquarters building, columns and dormers and all, right where it should be.

Some structures were no longer there, and my hallucination included new features, too: an earthwork that blocked my view of the headquarters building’s first floor, a wind turbine rising next to it. Tried for another look behind me at Second Recruit Training Battalion’s Echo Company squadbay, “my” squadbay, but that Homo sapienshit New South punched me hard in the gut and shoved me forward again.

Probably because he could get the job done quicker than a custodian, he berated me up a flight of red brick and concrete stairs much like the one I saw from the stretcher basket when I was taken to the infirmary—except this stairwell is open to the outside. Like it should be, I thought as I understood he was returning me to the same building I’d come from. I began to hope he might be returning me to “my” cell, to Audy.

And, after a couple more gut punches, he did.

Soon as the outer door slammed shut, cell voice took over. “Detainee, you have ten seconds to enter the inner cell and state your identification number—nine, eight…”

As I stood on the red footprints and waited until the countdown reached zero—for one never interrupts the countdown—I remembered. Lemony scent means southern magnolias in bloom. Spring. Makes sense. After all, it’s Sunday, March 22.

More than four months since I last saw Del—146 days, actually. Sixty-one days since Del’s UN speech. I think. I hope. Because for all I really know, it could be that long plus a year, two years, ten—

But shit, to know whether it’s been months or, god help me, years, I need to remember. What day of the week was that November sixth, the November sixth when they grabbed me? A Thursday, right?

Jamie Gwynmorgan abducted near her home on Thursday, November six.

Right?

Or Wednesday. Maybe it was Wednesday, November six…

Detainee! State your identification number immediately!

I jumped, startled, and answered loudly in the cadence they demand.

Yet suddenly, inexplicably, that’s not what my body wanted me to say. I had an almost irresistible urge to tuck my chin, square my shoulders, align my thumbs with nonexistent pant seams, stare dead-eyed straight ahead, and bellow, “Sir! This recruit’s identification number is two…zero…seven…six. SIR!”

Now, no matter how often I tell myself this is confirmation bias gone mad, I keep wondering if I’m back on Parris Island.

But hell, how can I trust that? Dicey combination, tired instinct and faded memory and gnawing fear that solitary confinement and very possibly execution have become my inescapable fate.

Bree-ee-eathe

You see, the thing is, when I was in the infirmary somebody cleaned in here. It’s still the same old rust bucket, of course. But the vomit is gone from the outer cell, the floor isn’t so slippery, and the shower looks significantly less slime-green. Plus they’ve replaced the mattress with one that doesn’t stink nearly as much.

So once I roiled through Oh-my-god-I’ve-been-gone-over-four months-or-maybe-more-how-much-more? and Oh-my-god-what-if-I’m-on-Parris-Island?, I arrived at Oh-my-god-they-must’ve-found-Audy.

Yet I hadn’t been dragged off, beaten, drugged. A good sign, definitely. So I curled up on the bunk, stroked the weld seam and the scratches on the wall. Stuck to my pattern, what they’ve come to expect from me, and waited for them.

I waited two whole days.

On AF20, Tuesday, March 24, I gradually permitted my fingers to explore the caulk covering Vesica. It seemed intact. I opened her slowly, carefully. Very carefully.

Dry inside. And yes, yes, Audy was still in there.

And nobody’s dragged me off.

So I hold on to what I now know, hold on for dear fucking life. Today, AF20, has been Tuesday, March 24. And goddamn, what if this is Parris Island, South Carolina?


Chapter Four

Why does this keep happening to me?

AF22.

Thursday, March 26.

Been thinking since last Sunday—ha! love being able to say that, since last Sunday. This really could be Parris Island.

When I was barely seventeen, I did boot camp at Parris Island. And, hell, it was waterlogged then. So I wasn’t surprised to read somewhere about how the long parade of storms and hurricanes screwed up so many recruit training cycles that about seven years after my time there, which was seven years before I was snatched, the Marine Corps finally decamped.

Last I heard, Parris Island goes mostly underwater during high tides and, as a longtime Superfund site, is off-limits to all except the environmental engineers cleaning up a lengthy list of contaminants. One thing’s for sure: the federal government still owns what’s left of Parris Island. Which makes it quite viable for the right someone’s below-the-radar detention facility.

And while I have to question the reliability of my nanosecond glances, it’s curiously consistent with other perceptions.

Notably the heat.

No question it’s warmer now. This cell’s become a fucking oven. I can scarcely move on the elliptical. Just like an early spring heat wave in South Carolina.

Then there’s what I can smell—salt marsh and magnolias. Parris Island’s surrounded by salt marsh and in the heart of magnolia country.

So if—if if if—this is Parris Island, at least I know where I am.

And if this is Parris Island, I’ve been imprisoned by an outfit allowed to use government property for their deep purposes, which is unnerving. Because what’s going on here is either illegal or damn well should be.

Sure as hell explains the people hiding their faces. They’re operating a hush-hush detention center imprisoning at least one person who wasn’t arrested, wasn’t charged, has never been permitted to talk to anyone, much less a lawyer, since getting whisked off a Massachusetts street.

But I still don’t know why.

Which likely accounts for my dream last night of going to Great Hill with Del.

We did that a couple of times a month, on weekends not otherwise occupied with Wilderness Web Coalition events or scrambles to meet work deadlines or the occasional dinner party thrown by one of Del’s friends. I love those weekends, which I think of as our weekends. Friday night out dancing at Demeter, Boston’s only true lesbian club, and then we take the car up to Manchester on Saturday morning, returning to Belmont either Sunday or Monday or even Tuesday, depending on our schedules.

Besides Del, everyone I love in this world calls Great Hill home. I can see it now as I lie here: more than a hundred acres of oak and pine forest north of the city high on a granite hill a mile from the sea, surrounded by nearly another 500 acres of conservation land.

And the house sprawled above the clearing, the entire clan inside. I can see Lynn and Rebecca, happy to be out of DC for a few days. And Rebecca’s daughter Dana, who married Del’s sister Lily, and their girls. And Rebecca’s mother Mary, physically frail but sharp as ever. And Lynn’s daughter Robin, too, briefly not at work in one of the ERs that Rebecca loves to tell old stories about.

In my dream, we arrived as usual bearing a large box of pastries from the “good” bakery and were greeted in the driveway first by Lily and Dana’s youngest, eight-year-old identical twins, who bounded squealing out of the house—“They’re heeere! They’re heeere!”—to hug us, followed a few seconds later by eleven-year-old Evvie waving freshly picked lilac blossoms.

As had become their custom, the twins were dressed exactly alike, and they immediately challenged us to play their favorite game, “Bet You Can’t Tell Us Apart.”

Turns out I can tell them apart, which delights the twins—and me—but not their big sister.

“How do you do that?” Evvie demanded in my dream.

“Alexa has a tell that Remy doesn’t,” I whispered. When I promised I’d show her, she rewarded me with a lilac sprig.

And then I dreamed the rest of the greetings, hugging Lily and Dana and Rebecca and Robin and Mary while Lynn held back and waited till the others were done so she could take an extra moment to look at me, and me at her. And, like always, she delicately stroked my face, her eyes studying mine, her “How are you really?” unspoken. And always, my eyes welled just a little with tears held back—because I am so deeply fortunate that this remarkable woman loves me. And I nestled my nodding face into her lingering hand, grateful, elated.

My recollection of the dream jumbles for a while after that. Fragments of horsing around outside with the kids, of listening mesmerized to Del playing Chopin and Bach and Pachelbel on Mary’s superb baby grand, of animated banter while everyone did their part preparing dinner and cleaning up afterward, of helping get the kids to bed with the promise that, oh yes, we’ll be here in the morning, of the quieter, more serious conversations later in the family room, part catch-up, part philosophical exploration.

And then, in the dream, I was talking with Mary, just the two of us, up in her bedroom. Although the fragrance of lilac cuttings filled the room, the light had changed.

It was almost like a different dream in a different time. Mary was in bed, pillows propping up her back, a shawl around her small, thin shoulders. She seemed especially pale and tired, yet almost relieved to see me, eager to engage.

And I wanted, needed to ask her, “Why does this keep happening to me? It’s five times now—five. The first time, yeah, okay. I asked for it, really. Fifteen-year-old kid who ends up in the county jail for thirteen days…”

“Right after your mother died, wasn’t it?” Mary patted a spot next to her on the bed, inviting me to sit, which I did. “Nicked a car, case continued, got your act together, your record was expunged, and you joined the Marine Corps, yes?”

I nodded, surprised that she knew such detail about a period before she ever met me. “Since then it’s happened four more times. Like I set something off.”

“All while you were a marine.”

“All but one. The next time was brief, part of scout / sniper training. But it was real. That was the first time I was outright—” I couldn’t finish; saying the word aloud might jinx me forever.

“Tortured.”

I nodded, trying not to wince. “And then Saint Eh Mo’s—”

Mary knew to take my hand. “The POW camp, you mean.”

“It was bad.” I had to clear my throat. “But I survived it. And once Lynn came and we got out of there and she brought me here, well, you saw how I was. Took me a while to unkink my head, but I was getting there, mostly. The plan was for a final boring, go-through-the-motions inspector general gig and I’m out, done with the Corps. But…”

“Mmm, the debrief.” Mary gave my hand a squeeze. “Politicians and generals trying to save their wretched little careers. I thought isolating you for four months like that was downright criminal.”

She gazed at me, and I knew from her expression that she saw how more than a decade later, a few parts of me are still lost in those four months. But all she said was, “And now?”

“Now—” I felt tears slide down my cheeks. “Now this. On the anniversary of when I was taken prisoner of war. November sixth—twelve years to the day.”

“Ah,” Mary said, and I knew she understood. Dreams can be like that.

“For so many years it’s all been fine, normal,” I told her. I remember realizing then, right then, how good it felt to be listened to by Mary. “I did school. My master’s thesis design won a competition, remember that? Did my apprenticeship, got my professional license. I’m on my way to a partnership at work, just living my innocuous little structural engineering life. I do pro bono stuff, support Del’s Wilderness Web passion, work on Lynn’s reelection campaigns, pay my taxes. I’m nice to the neighbors. Nobody’s accused me of anything. I just don’t get it.”

Mary sat quietly for a bit, holding my hand. “Well,” she said, then stopped herself, her flagging eyes focusing on my hand in hers. Another long moment passed.

“Well,” she repeated, her voice soft, thin. She spoke slowly. “I don’t know what it means, either. But I find I want to tell you about something that happened to me. It’s not anything like what you’re experiencing—except perhaps it is.” She looked up at me. “That’ll be for you to decide.”

“Okay.”

“I had two sisters,” Mary said, “one of whom was diagnosed with what was then called petit mal epilepsy. She was about eight years old and I was ten at the time—back when epilepsy still carried stigma. So my mother made a point of explaining the condition to me and handed me a leaflet from the doctor’s office.

“After poring over that leaflet, I felt extremely grateful that my sister’s seizures were comparatively minor. Because in the corner of my mind’s eye I kept conjuring images of a person in the throes of a full-blown tonic-clonic seizure: going down in rigid convulsions, head slamming against the floor over and over.

“I read about the first aid interventions, too. Stop her head from crashing against the floor, roll her on her side if possible, and so on.

“I managed fairly well to keep these images way in the back of my mind—after all, my sister’s seizures weren’t convulsive and I wasn’t afraid of them. Then, one day in my junior year of high school, I came upon a boy already in the clonic stage of an epileptic seizure, his head pounding the floor like a hammer.

“I saw this from a distance, and, good citizen that I was, I ran to him to help. But when I got to about four feet away, I froze. I could not move another inch; certainly I did not—could not—help him. Fortunately, a few seconds later, another girl rushed in and kept his head from hitting the floor again, and soon others arrived. I slinked away in shame.

“I spent a lot of time after that—especially right after—in a state of crushing regret. I came to realize the only way I could regain any self-respect was to vow to never again let my fear rule me.

“That’s the thing about regret, Jamie.” Mary offered me a ghost of a smile. “If you’re not a sociopath and you bother to look, you can often see it on the road up ahead. All you have to do is take a breath and ask yourself, ‘What, really, will happen if I do or don’t do X? Will I regret it? And what is that regret going to feel like in a week, a year, a decade?’

“Of course, as part of my vow I told myself that if I ever again encountered someone having a seizure, I would help. I would not freeze. Then, as time went on and the sting of my shame passed, I thought about it less and less.

“Until one day during graduate school. I was in the old Kenmore Street subway station, waiting in a small crowd for a trolley. Suddenly, about fifteen feet from me a scruffy street kid started hopping erratically backward on one foot while his arms and torso went into an odd twist. He bumped into a businessman type who immediately darted away muttering something about drugs.

“But I thought—” Here Mary sighed, smile strengthening. “Something about the way the kid moved made me think he might be having an epileptic seizure. I was dumbfounded, in shock, I suppose. I thought, ‘How can this be happening again?’

“As I thought this, the kid fell down convulsing and his head hit the concrete platform. But I was still in denial. I turned to look up the track tunnel into the dark and said to myself, ‘If he’s on the ground when you turn back around, you move as fast as you can to get your hands under his head so that doesn’t happen again.’ Which is what I ended up doing. As I held him, I found the medical alert necklace he wore that indicated he was epileptic.

“About ten years later, I had another encounter—near my house, where someone had gone into a non-convulsive seizure in a car while stopped at an intersection. His passenger waved me down and had me go for help, which I did. But I had to pick up Rebecca and her brother from school, and I didn’t return to find out how things resolved.

“It happened one last time after that. I was in my forties, visiting my mother, who lived then in the white cape down the road from here.

“I heard the sound of car wheels spinning in a frenzy and looked out to see a sedan in the neighbor’s yard. It had very slowly rolled off the street right over a thick hedge of branch cuttings and jammed into a stand of young pines. Engine screaming, wheels churning up enormous amounts of pine needles, oak leaves, dust, dirt. And I could see quite clearly that the driver had passed out. I knew his foot had gone rigid and floored the gas pedal.” Mary smiled again. “You know, gas pedals, way, way back in the day.

“I thought, ‘If someone doesn’t turn that engine off pretty damn quick, that car is going to catch fire and I’m going to see that man burn to death right in front of me.’

“I knew I had very little time. I ran full-bore through the house, out the door, and across the yard, thinking three steps ahead the whole way. Given how tightly the car doors were wedged against the trees, it took quite an effort, but I did it. The EMTs tending to the driver, who I never saw conscious, said it looked like he’d had a heart attack, but six months later, I learned it had been an epileptic seizure.”

Mary exhaled. Relating the story had depleted her. “So, that’s it. After the man who drove into the trees, I never saw an epileptic seizure again. Make of it what you will.”

“Yeah.” A low-grade current, like an itch I couldn’t scratch, quivered deep in my gut—her story’s strange frequency. I sensed it wouldn’t abate anytime soon, and I squirmed some, but I wanted to feel it, hold on to it, contemplate it. “Thank you. I-I can’t explain exactly, but I get why you told me. Thank you.”

Mary motioned for both my hands, which she clasped in hers before looking up at me. “I’ll be leaving soon.”

I understood instantly. Tears filled my eyes again, and I leaned closer to her. “Oh, Mary…” For a long moment I couldn’t speak; I watched a tear, then another slip off my face onto her hand. “Oh, Mary, I’m going to miss you so, so much.”

Mary smiled a so-it-goes shrug, as peaceful as it was wistful, then lay back into her pillows. “Be kind to yourself, Jamie.”