By Anna Garner
She sits on the gray chair in the gray room, nodding drowsily. Her eyes are open but her mind is not present; she is accompanied yet alone.
Around her sit others but she does not acknowledge them in this setting. Perhaps if they were alone, out of the presence of adults, she might converse with them—if she was alert enough to do so. But not here, not now. Not while they are being watched.
The woman is standing before the group of children holding a paper. Many papers. The woman has a whole stack sitting on the chair next to her, and it leans towards her at a lopsided angle.
The woman is wearing the same thing the woman always wears and asks the things the woman always asks.
“Which shape should follow this sequence?”
Jackson answers with the same thing he always answers, but offers nothing more.
“What is two times two?”
No one answers.
She closes her eyes. She’s too sleepy. She wants to answer, but she can’t; she’s too exhausted. She hasn’t slept in a long time...in so long of a time...she can’t even remember when she last slept. She doesn’t think she’s ever slept. She thinks of sleep instead of listening.
“Which shape goes with this color?”
Marigold stands up and answers. Marigold is the opposite of her. Marigold talks a lot, and wants to answer the questions.
The woman likes Marigold’s answer and Marigold likes the woman’s praise. Marigold sits down smiling as the woman continues asking questions.
She listens to the rustle of the cards as they’re lifted from the stack. She likes the way they sound, the way their plastic coating slides smoothly across the top of the stack. It’s like a clock counting down the shrinking minutes.
Eventually the asking ends. Her eyes are closed now, but sleep is nowhere near her. The assistants come in, one for each child, five total. She likes the assistants. Not the woman. It is good that they are here.
Jackson and Marigold rise to greet their assistants.
Lavender gets up next, afraid to disobey.
Adam, the one she’s sitting next to, waits for his assistant to come get him.
She doesn’t notice her assistant until her arms are being gently shaken. She opens her eyes, gives her assistant a sorry glance, and stands up.
The children are led down a colorful hallway that’s very different from the dim grayness of the learning room. Here, the floors are white and shiny, and the lights are bright. The walls are painted with winding plants and flowers. She likes the designs. She wants to be one.
Since it is past lunch time and learning time is over, it is time to go back to the playroom. On the way, the assistants offer them all snacks. Only Jackson and Marigold ask for one. She can tell that Lavender wants one too, but does not plan to request one.
Presently they are arriving in the children’s quarters, the side of the building where the door handles are low and the floors are carpet. Here, toys can be found, and neglected screens sit at small colorful desks with little plastic chairs.
In the children’s quarters, there’s another learning room. There’s a place to eat and a place to sleep. There’s also the playroom. The best room.
When they get to the playroom, the assistants leave the children alone inside. They understand that the children like to be left this way.
The five of them sit down in a circle on the floor.
Marigold traces the designs on the thin carpet. Marigold has long thin hair that is a mix between blonde and orange. It reminds her of tomato sauce from a can. Marigold’s frame is thin and lanky, because she is always hungry and can never sit still.
She likes Marigold. She loves all her siblings. And they love her too. They watch out for her, and understand that she watches out for them. They know all of the things hiding inside her mind. But they do not speak of these things to the adults--none of the adults know the things hiding in any of their minds. That is why the children like to be alone.
“Hm. I wonder which snack I’ll be getting today,” says Jackson. He can always correctly guess which one, even though there is no pattern to the snacks the assistants retrieve. And although he never says his guess aloud, his four siblings know that he’s thinking of chicken nuggets.
“Which one do you think I’ll get?” Marigold asks Jackson, who has dark eyes and thick brown hair which contrasts against his pale skin.
“A granola bar,” he says aloud.
“Why didn’t you get a snack, Lavender?” Marigold asks, twisting around. “You wanted one.”
“I always want a snack,” Lavender tells them softly. “But I don’t like how the snacks make me feel.” Lavender is short, and also skinny. Her gray hair goes down to her shoulders but it hasn’t grown in years.
She looks at Lavender in alarm. Lavender understands and replies.
“In the last three days and four minutes, whenever I eat it makes me feel even hungrier. I don’t like it.”
“Food is supposed to fill you up,” Adam points out. He’s quiet. His hair is even darker than the pattern boy’s, but Adam has a dark tan despite rarely going outside.
“I know,” Lavender says. “But nothing happens like it’s supposed to.”
And with that, the assistants arrive with the snacks.
“Would you like to go outside and eat?” they ask.
Lavender doesn’t want to, but again says nothing. The assistants are oblivious to her reluctance. Lavender hides many things.
All the others want to go outside. She’s really excited; the sunlight wakes her up. She feels like if she could stay outside for a long time then she could fall asleep. It would feel so good...but there is only an hour of outside time each day. Not enough.
The children are escorted down the hall and to the small playground outside. It’s afternoon, precisely one forty-seven, and the sun is still warming up the air. Since it is summer it will get very hot. The assistants will probably not let them stay out for very long.
She heads for her favorite spot, right next to the fence, where there’s a bench. She sits down and closes her eyes, already invigorated from the fresh air. Her senses, however, do not relax. She hears Jackson and Marigold playing on the slides after finishing their chicken nuggets and granola bars. The sun warms the back of her arms and neck. She hears Lavender conversing with Lavender’s assistant somewhere in the shade. She seems to slip deeper into her mind as the sun beats down harder. A cool sweat emerges from her skin. Then, she feels Adam slide onto the bench next to her.
She opens one eye expectantly.
“It feels good outside today,” Adam says.
“What do you bet I could fly today?”
She makes it clear that he most definitely could not fly today. Nothing has changed since yesterday.
“I’m still going to try.”
Adam is quiet inside the building. But outside, he turns into a daredevil.
She watches Adam climb to the top of the playground.
“Jump!” Jackson shouts from the second level.
“I will!” Adam shouts back.
Marigold shrieks happily. “Fly like a dragon!”
Adam howls and jumps off the top of the playground. He lands with a thud on his feet and goes back to try it again and again.
She closes her eyes and continues to rest, imagining what sleeping would feel like.
Only twelve minutes after they arrive at the playground, their assistants call for them to come back. It’s time to go in again. They’ll have an hour of free time in the playroom. An hour by themselves.
At free time, Marigold continues her drawings. Every day she uses her crayons to scribble out shapes on white paper. Each paper has its own shape, and every shape is different but they all connect somehow. Marigold adds them to the box she was given by her assistant, but the box will overflow soon. It sits under her desk, carefully guarded.
Marigold doesn’t like it when someone tries to take her box. The assistants want to look at the pictures, but she always tells them, “It isn’t done yet. You can look when I’m done.”
Marigold will be done in a couple of days. The pictures haven’t even been seen by the other children.
She’s excited to see Marigold’s pictures. She just isn’t sure if she’ll be able to make sense of them. Marigold has hinted that they’re a puzzle, to Jackson’s excitement, but she’s no good at puzzles.
During free time, Marigold’s assistant comes in. Marigold’s assistant is sweet and kind and thoughtful, seeming to always know what they need. She comes in with waters now and a green wicker basket that hides something else.
“You brought juice?” Jackson asks, looking at the basket.
“Yes; good job,” Marigold’s assistant says with a smile. Jackson likes to guess what she brings. He’s always right. “But you have to drink your waters first.”
The assistant hands the water glasses out, and when those have been consumed, she gives each child a juice bottle. The bottles are clear, and the liquid inside is the color of apple juice. It’s just like the juice they got a month ago.
“After this will be lessons,” Marigold’s assistant informs them. “So drink up!”
The children sip their juices quietly. Hers tastes tangy and sweet...it’s very good. It makes her tongue feel awake. This juice has a different flavor from last month’s juice.
When she’s done, she gives Marigold’s assistant the empty bottle. Marigold’s assistant smiles and accepts it, placing it back into the basket. The other children have already done the same.
“Well, how did you like it?”
“It was good,” Marigold replies, rising from her table of drawings.
“It was sweet,” Lavender adds.
“Are you feeling pepped for lessons?”
“What does pepped mean?” Adam wonders.
“It means excited and energized.”
“No,” Adam says, on that note.
“Yes!” Marigold contradicts. “I’m like a fire!”
“Me too,” Lavender observes.
She blinks, and the room seems to dim. The world inside and outside her head grows blurry.
“Well, let’s hurry onwards. The sooner we get done the sooner you can come back and play.”
Marigold’s assistant follows the children out of the playroom. They know the way to the lesson room. It’s down the hall and to the left, first classroom on the right.
Inside is the woman with different paper cards. She draws things on the white board and today, Jackson and Marigold and Lavender are quick to answer. Quicker than they were yesterday. Louder, and more...pepped.
She listens to their answers but doesn’t come up with her own. She is too tired to think of what the woman is asking. She closes her eyes and tunes everything out. She waits until the lessons are over, then goes back to the playroom.
Later in the day comes assistant time. Her assistant takes her outside for a while and she begins to feel better.
Then is dinner. She gets more tired after dinner, for some reason.
The next day is different but the same. She is tired for breakfast, tired all day, the same as she’s always been since never sleeping. Since it’s the day after yesterday, the schedule is different. There is more one-on-one time with the assistants.
She gets to wear a hat and listen to the woman ask her questions. Some of them are problems, like two-plus-two that none of the children understand. Some of them are questions about her, like what color are her eyes and her hair. What is her name.
She doesn’t know many of these answers. She can solve the problems but doesn’t remember her eye color or her name. Just like always.
At free time Marigold begins to use the black crayon. Marigold has never touched it until now because Marigold hates black.
When she wonders to Marigold about the black crayon, Marigold tells her, “I’m getting close to the ending. Just wait and see.”
* * *
The woman sits in the office, staring wordlessly at the digital clock on the left side of her desk. The red glow of the letters are made brighter in the otherwise lightless room; it’s almost five and most of the faculty is leaving.
The woman sighs; she doesn’t get to leave at five. She doesn’t get to leave until the weekend, and it’s only Thursday.
One more day, she thinks with a resigned sigh. I can handle one more day. Then comes the weekend.
The clock changes to read 5:00 pm. Its red lights shift, reworking the blurry shadows on her untidy writing surface. Her favorite pen sits atop a hefty stack of yet-unfinished paperwork, and in the shallow light, the pile seems to glare at the woman ominously.
The woman sighs and decides it’s too dark in the office. As she rises to turn the lights back on, the door opens, and a man enters.
“Oof. It’s dark in here. Anybody home?” His voice has a humorous edge.
“It’s Sandra,” the woman replies. “I thought my head would be clearer in the dark, but I was wrong. That you, Dr. Peterson?”
“Yep, it’s me.”
The lights flash on, and the office becomes cheerful once more.
“Are the results in yet?” Sandra wonders to the doctor.
Peterson seems caught off guard by the question.“Oh—Not sure. I haven’t checked yet. I wanted to ask if you knew if Marigold ‘finished it’ yet?”
Sandra purses her lips. “Oh. Not yet. But we heard her say the pictures were almost done...”
“Hm. Okay.” Peterson’s words hang in the air for a few moments.
Sandra shrugs. “Yeah. I should probably get back to my work now.”
“Ah. I’ll leave you to it, then.”
* * *
The next day for lunch she has eggs, fruit, water, and some chocolate for desesrt. An hour later, after outside time, the juice is delivered again, but it tastes different. She things it is like medicine.
It makes her even more sleepy than it did yesterday. She wonders if she drank enough if she could fall asleep.
The day passes in a blur. Then it’s night.
Her bedroom is separate. So is everyone else’s. They sleep in separate rooms with separate bathrooms and separate decorations. Sometimes her siblings come visit her bedroom, but not much. She doesn’t visit theirs often either. She would not mind a visitor, but the bedroom is her space.
Her bedroom is dark indigo blue with a dimming light on the ceiling. The ceiling is a deep dark color, bluish black, with white spots meant to be stars.
The wall has some stars too, and the floor is soft carpet that feels good to lay on. Her bed is cozy and blue as well, a comfortable place to rest, but not to sleep.
Something about the room disturbs her, but she doesn’t know what. She only wishes her assistant would turn the light on brighter.
Her assistant helps her get ready for bed. They brush teeth and get on pajamas, and read a story. Then, her assistant turns off the lights and leaves, closing the door.
The night lasts a long time. It feels even longer when she pretends to sleep. So she watches the ceiling, paralyzed.
She’s grateful when morning is here. Her assistant comes to get her up, get dressed, brush teeth, and get ready for breakfast. But at breakfast, something is wrong. Lavender won’t eat.
“Why won’t you eat?” Marigold asks Lavender.
“I don’t want to,” Lavender replies in sorrow.
“But you’re hungry,” Jackson says.
“You should eat. You need the energy,” Lavender’s assistant insists. She is worried.
“I can’t,” Lavender says anxiously, refusing to look at her assistant.
“Why?” her assistant asks.
Lavender doesn’t answer. She hunches over her food and frowns.
Later at free time the children want to know why Lavender won’t eat. Alone, they know Lavender will open up. Some things can’t be trusted to the adults.
“Something wants me to eat,” Lavender tells them.
Why won’t Lavender listen to it?
“I don’t like it,” Lavender confesses. “I feel like it will change me if I feed it.”
“That’s called growing,” Marigold tells Lavender. Marigold is still scribbling with the black crayon. It’s almost all gone. “You’ll get big and tall like Mr. Doctor Peterson.”
“I don’t want to be tall,” Lavender sighs.
“I’ll be tall one day,” Jackson declares.
“Yes you will,” Marigold agrees. She tosses the black crayon aside and goes for the white one. “Almost done!” she exclaims.
But then it’s learning time. Then it’s outside time.
* * *
“Adam has a fever,” says Adam’s caregiver, whose name is Mira.
Dr. Peterson glances up from his work, where a doodle is coming into existence. “Does he? When did it pop up?”
“After they went outside. I think he overheated.”
“How about giving the kids some ice cream? That may help.”
“Okay, I’ll do that. Just thought I’d let you know.”
* * *
They get extra free time later, though. That’s when Marigold finishes her last picture.
“The puzzle is done!” she declares dramatically, putting the last paper on the giant stack.
“Put it together!” Jackson exclaims.
“I need more room. Let’s move the tables.”
The others help clear the tables out of the way. They slide them all the way to the edge of the room, and Marigold even pushes her red desk out of its place.
Now that the room is clear Marigold can assemble her puzzle. She selects each piece with care. Starting at the top of her stack and the edge of the room, she puts the papers in a spiral. Each design connects to the other. The colors blend flawlessly. Each paper adds a new block to the picture. Soon, she can make out feathers, and legs, and a beak. It’s like the birds they see in learning time.
Marigold puts the last piece down. Together, the pictures make a red bird outlined in black. It is very realistic. Almost like Marigold took a picture.
“Wow. I thought you might be making a bird,” Jackson says.
“It’s a vermillion bird,” Marigold tells him. “Vermillion like the color of fire. Like dragon fire!” She turns to Adam with a grin.
“I like it,” Adam says. “It reminds me of the sun.”
She nods. It reminds her of the sun, too, bright red and orange..
In two and a half minutes, the door opens and Marigold’s assistant walks in. She sees the picture on the floor and says immediately, “Wow! That’s a beautiful bird, Marigold!”
“Yes,” Marigold agrees. “It’s a vermillion bird.”
“What’s a vermillion bird?”
“A bird that’s red,” Marigold explains. “Vermillion is red. Like fire. It’s a fiery bird.”
Marigold’s assistant asks if she can take a picture of it.
“Yes. Only one,” Marigold answers.
Marigold’s assistant does, then leaves.
They get extra free time today. When free time is over things seem busy. And rushed. There are less assistants than usual. Adam’s is missing. So is Jackson’s.
But then at dinner they are back and every thing is okay again.
Then the week goes on. With her picture done and still laid out on the floor, Marigold works at her desk against the wall to draw mountains, trees, and a rainforest. The bird becomes like a symbol of home. It is all their own.
She watches for more strange things. All she can do is watch. And she does see strange things, but she cannot seem to find out why they are happening. Maybe they have to do with Marigold’s picture. Maybe the grownups want to take it.
She won’t let them. She loves it.
Eight days, thirteen hours, twenty minutes, and six seconds after Marigold finishes putting her puzzle together, Jackson’s assistant comes in right after breakfast. There are no other assistants with her. This is not normal. She blinks in alarm.
Jackson also seems surprised.
His assistant takes him from the eating room. This is not normal.
Marigold and Adam get up to follow, but are told to wait.
“Jackson will be back quickly,” his assistant assures them.
Worried, she does not enjoy learning time. They are all doing reading, but do not comprehend very well.
Soon Marigold’s assistant comes. Jackson is not back yet, but Marigold is taken from learning time early.
She and her siblings are more worried now.
The day continues. She wishes she weren’t so tired. She wishes she could ask where Jackson and Marigold are, since Adam and Lavender are too shy to.
Soon it is lunch. Jackson has been gone all day. She feels uneasy. Very uneasy.
Then Lavender goes after lunch. She and Adam are all who’s left.
Asking time happens. Then free time and snack time. Then outside time. But she can’t enjoy the sunlight, because the sun is behind the clouds. So she feels more sleepy. So sleepy.
Adam goes in the afternoon and she’s left all alone. Her assistant spends time with her, telling her it’s a special day with special surprises. Her surprise will come soon.
She doesn’t like not being near her siblings. She feels cold and alone. She can’t confide in anyone because the grownups can’t understand her.
But soon her surprise does come.
“It’s time for your surprise!” says her assistant, urging her to stand up.
She doesn’t feel like standing, so she’s carried out of the Activity Room and out of the children’s quarters.
Her assistant takes her down the long hall to a place where she’s never been. It’s the Door that Only Grownups Go Through.
She tries to resist but her assistant tells her it will be okay. They go through the door and she feels her heart beat faster. Faster than normal.
The place beyond the door for grownups is dimly lit. It’s not colorful. They go down the gray hallway and turn left. Then they go into a place with big plastic chairs and a desk.
“Are you ready? This is what all your learning time has been leading up to! I don’t want you to be worried. I’ll be here waiting if you need anything.”
Her assistant puts her in one of the plastic chairs. It’s cold, chilling her through her skirt. Her feet don’t touch the floor. She swings them nervously.
The teaching woman comes into the room.
“Hello,” the woman says with a smile.
The woman turns to her assistant and hands her a cup of juice, and then leaves.
“Here you go,” says her assistant, bending down with the cup. “This is for you before you go to your activity.”
She stares at the juice. It will make her sleepy. Then she won’t be able to solve the problems.
Her assistant smiles. “It’ll be okay. Sometimes being tired helps us think on what’s really important.”
She accepts the juice reluctantly. She doesn’t know what’s going on. She can’t figure it out. But she can only trust her assistant.
“There’s nothing to be nervous about. There’s no wrong way to do the problems. I just want you to be yourself.”
She takes a sip of the juice. Then she resigns and drinks the whole thing.
She can feel it taking its effect. It’s small at first but she knows with so much juice it will only get worse.
She is not ready, but her assistant takes her to the door at the other side of the room anyway.
She takes her inside the room, which is lit by quiet white lights.
“I’ll be just outside the door,” says her assistant again before leaving.
The door closes. And she’s all alone.
The solitude feels good. Like at night.
She looks around. The room is a small square. The walls are made of a strange material and the lights are on the bottom of the room instead of the top. It’s kind of dark because the lights are dim.
She doesn’t like this type of darkness.
Then she hears something. It’s a sound, a low sound; it’s music. The music is soft and persistent. There are strings in it.
Her attention is drawn away from the music as the lights begin to brighten. She notices a screen in front of her. It fades into brightness.
The music gets a little louder.
The lights make her a little sleepier.
Pictures appear on the screen and a voice comes from nowhere. Is it the woman? She frowns.
“Which picture completes the puzzle?”
The pictures flash by very fast, very very fast. She can see them all, though. They aren’t in order.
More pictures come on the screen…
She knows it’s the one on the right. She wants to go press it...but the juice has made her too tired.
She’s so tired she can’t move. She’s never been so tired before. She feels like laying down right here.
More pictures come.
They get fast
she can only notice
and the thoughts leave her mind
and the last thing she remembers
is sinking into that long-sought oblivion known as sleep.
* * * *
* * * *
* * * *
* * * *
Bright lights shine from a powerful outside source. Could it be a window? A lamp? A flashlight?
My eyes open slowly—one at a time, and each is caked shut with crumbly sleep—and I see that I am in a pristine white room. The walls are clean, and there are many windows with blinds drawn, letting morning light shine in. The floor is tile, and to my left is a white curtain hanging from the ceiling, separating this side of the room from the other.
This side of the room is small—cozy—and has four small beds, with white blankets freshly made. I’m in the last bed, and my sheets are entangled with my legs. I must’ve been sleeping wildly.
The word thunders through my body like a bolt of electricity. With realization dawning on me like a beautiful spring dew, I sit up and discover that for the first time in my life, I can think clearly. For the first time in my life, I have slept.
Words come into my mind at the will of my brain. It feels so wonderful, like taking a cold shower.
For a moment I just sit there, reveling in the freedom of my newly empowered mind. Then, the curtain to my left begins to shudder, disturbing the serenity, and the nurse enters.
I know I’ve seen her before, but I don’t remember her name. She remembers mine, though, and then I remember it too.
“Celeste? How are you feeling?”
Celeste. Yes, that is what I am called.
“Fine,” I answer. “Good. Wonderful. Refreshed.”
The nurse stops halfway to my bed, mouth agape. “You’re...feeling better now? More awake?”
A thrill runs down my spine. Finally, I am liberated! Won’t my siblings be so excited! I can think of words and say them!
“I finally fell asleep.”
The nurse lets out a grin. “Yes, you did. You slept for five days straight.”
I smile as my mental clock begins to correct itself. Life is so much sweeter, so much more full of color now.
“I bet I could solve the problems now.”
The nurse tends to me, checks a screen, and helps me out of bed. I’m much more steady on my feet than I was before.
My assistant comes to greet me and she is so excited. I feel sad that I can’t remember her name. Most of the things in my memory clear up and come back to me, but names aren’t among them.
“Are you feeling better?” she asks me on the way down the hall. I think we’re going to the playroom. I hope we are.
“Yes,” I reply. The word is tasteful.
“We were all very surprised and happy when you fell asleep.”
So was I.
My assistant seems careful with her words. I think she and the nurse are afraid that if they say something wrong I’ll lose them again.
“Don’t worry, they won’t go away until I’m tired again,” I say, trying to comfort her.
She looks at me sideways. “Okay. Is that why you wouldn’t talk before? You were...just too tired?”
I nod. “Couldn’t.” Couldn’t talk. Not wouldn’t.
I think over what happened exactly five days two hours ago. All my siblings were taken.
“Where are they?” I ask.
I guess words don’t work like my other language. I have to explain myself. “Adam, Lavender, Marigold, and Jackson.”
“Adam and Lavender are waiting for you in the playroom.”
Ah. So we are going to the playroom.
When we get there I see that my assistant is right. Adam and Lavender are sitting on the left side of the room at Marigold’s desk—and when they see me, they turn from quiet to happy.
“I’ll leave you three alone for a little while,” says my assistant with a wink. She makes her exit, and we are alone again.
“Celeste!” Lavender says excitedly. “We were scared for you!”
I rush to the table. “I’m okay now! And I can talk!”
Adam gasps. “Really!”
“Yes. I feel so much better now that I’ve gotten some rest.”
“You fell asleep?” Lavender asks.
I nod. “Thanks to the juice.”
“The juice makes me tired too,” Adam tells me. “I had to have it before the activity in the room. It made me tired. Is that what happened to you?”
I look at Lavender. Something about her is different. She’s a little taller, a little stronger.
The test with the juice is when everything changed. I wonder if it changed her, too.
“It did,” Lavender answers. “They didn’t give me juice. They gave me chicken.”
“Yes, but everything here is strange.”
Then I wonder about Jackson and Marigold. “What about Jackson and Marigold? Have you seen them?”
“No,” Lavender says. “They’re gone. So are their assistants.”
“But they’re still here,” Adam says. “Just not in this part of the building.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
We talk a little more. We have a wonderful time, but then free time is over.
I don’t really know what is free time and what’s not anymore. My life has been upturned. Everything is out of the ordinary. Why can’t we continue with our normal schedule? I like how things were before. Although, I love my words. They are a good change.
And I enjoy being awake. My mind feels so much more powerful.
It is: At asking time, I can answer the questions.
“What is two times two?”
“Four,” I answer, triumphant.
The woman is proud of me. Later, Adam and Lavender want to know how I did it.
“They tell us it all the time in learning. It’s a memory game, like a code.”
But my heart isn’t in our learning anymore. I don’t know what is wrong with Jackson and Marigold, and I want to be sure they’re okay.
So, when it’s outside time, and Lavender is hiding in the shade, I come to her and Adam with my plan.
I suggest it to them using my silent language. Whispered, they reply.
“Away from our assistants? But we shouldn’t do that!” Lavender says. “They’d be disappointed.”
What if Jackson and Marigold are in trouble? What if they’re lost?
“They might be,” Adam whispers.
“That’s why I think we should go find them next free time.”
We can’t leave our siblings alone and abandoned. So we agree to wait until free time…
Marigold’s picture is gone from the playroom, just as gone as she is. The desks have been sorted back to their original places, and everything has been freshly cleaned. The playroom is the same as it has been for years, but it’s nothing without those who belong in it.
Adam knows Marigold and Jackson are somewhere in the building, so he will lead the way to find them.
Adam’s assistant...Mira...stays with us for longer than we wish. I think she guesses we’re feeling lonely, and we are, but we can only be satisfied by a reunion with our siblings. When she finally leaves, our escape can begin.
We approach the door with caution. None of us have ever attempted to leave a room without being told to. In the past, we did what our assistants ordered. But everything changed with the juice, and now we are going to change things even more.
I reach for the handle. It’s high up, and I have to reach to wrap my hands around its cool plastic surface. I attempt to spin it, like the adults do when they come in and out, but the plastic seems to be nothing but a shell, and it rattles fruitlessly. We’re still trapped.
“It won’t open,” I whisper.
“You have to pinch it,” Adam tells me.
“Like this.” Lavender steps up. She doesn’t have to reach as far for it since she’s taller now. When she clasps the plastic guard, I see her fingers squeeze inwards...Her muscles contract, and then there’s a loud SNAP.
The plastic pops and springs away from the door with a crack. Lavender jerks back, surprised at her own strength.
“I broke it,” she declares, fearful.
“Now we can open it,” I point out. Lavender is too stricken to finish the job, so Adam opens the door instead.
The hallway is empty. This is the first time we’ve traveled alone.
Adam leads the way and Lavender brings up the rear; I’m in the middle. We follow him as he tries to find out which door to go through, but we only make it as far as the end of he hall before my assistant appears.
“What are you three doing out?” she asks. Lavender shrinks back, but my assistant is not angry.
“Looking,” I reply.
“For Jackson and Marigold?”
Her eyebrows lower. “Aw. Well, Jackson and Marigold are busy right now. You’ll be able to see them, you just have to wait. They’ve been asking for you. They can’t wait to see you.”
We uncomfortably accept her explanation and let her take us back to the room.
When night comes that day I am still left with an uneasy feeling, like things are changing and can’t go back. But I’m part of the change. Does that make it better?
I get ready for bed expecting to not get any rest, feeling that familiar exhaustion returning. But my assistant lets me drink some juice before bed, and I fall asleep before I even know what’s going on.
Sleeping in my bed feels good. I even have a dream…
* * *
“Did you see Lavender break the child lock on the door today?” Maria asks.
“Peterson showed me,” Sandra replies. “It was impressive.”
“They’ve become little troublemakers lately, ever since Celeste got good sleep.”
“And the next test is when…?” Mira interjects.
“Five days. They want to look a little more into Celeste’s speech before she takes it again.”
Celeste’s caregiver, Lillian, speaks. “I’m just so glad she’s sleeping now. I never knew how alive she could be.” She breaks off. “She has a beautiful voice.”
“I bet she’ll pass with flying colors,” Mira says.
“I know she will,” Lillian replies.
Sandra arches her eyebrows and takes a bite of her doughnut. “I hope it’s nothing like Marigold’s performance.”
Everyone laughs quietly. Sandra stands and crumples up her napkin. “Well, speaking of which, I have more results to go over.”
As Sandra leaves, the door pops back open and Sofia enters.
“Sofi! How’s Marigold?”
* * *
There’s one-on-one time the next day. I get to wear the hat again, and the woman is there asking questions.
“What’s your name?”
“What color are your eyes?”
“What color is your hair?”
“Good. What kind of animal is this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is this?”
“What animal is this?”
“Goldfish. And the one on the back is a dog.”
One-on-one time is longer than usual today...They wish for me to paint in the Activity Room, while I listen to songs they play. Then they want me to do number questions, and a bunch of other problems.
The days go on, the same but different. Lavender and Adam and I keep waiting to see Jackson and Marigold again. We never do...
Two days, three hours, and seven minutes after we are caught in the halls, Lavender’s assistant, Maria, comes to get Lavender.
We don’t see her for the rest of the day.
Or the next day.
Mira and Lillian stay with Adam and I for most of the other days. We don’t get alone time anymore.
“Something will happen tomorrow,” Adam tells me.
“I know, I think so too,” I reply.
It’s this knowledge that keeps us in patient waiting for the morrow. And we are right...something does happen.
The test happens again. Adam goes in first and I have to take a nap. When I wake up Lillian tells me it’s my turn to go in, into the square room again, and take the test.
I stand there in the darkness, waiting. The screen comes to life, along with the music. I go up to it, answering its questions. They’re easy, like the ones we do in learning time.
Then the music changes, taking on a faster, louder tempo.
The lights get brighter. Noises play, and colors come before me on the screen. I speak my answers aloud, and more screens appear that were previously hidden against the wall. I turn round in circles.
“Red square and blue star. This song is a triangle. The room is the bubble.”
Things start coming so quickly that I’m answering off some instinct buried within me, my impulses to answer growing stronger and faster.
I’m spinning faster now, almost dancing, as the music gets louder. The questions aren’t even spoken anymore but suggested, by the music, and the room gets brighter, and the brighter it gets the faster I go, and now I’m not even thinking but the answers are pouring out of me, and they’re nothing I’ve ever heard before, nothing I’ve learned before but things I know, things that have always been inside me. Things I didn’t know I knew.
The screens go black, long gone, but I’m still seeing colors. They pour into the room and spiral around me, and they’re like Marigold’s puzzle. It’s up to me to put them together, this three-dimensional song turned to a picture.
I grab the ribbons and weave them into something bright and golden. They glow and feel warm upon my skin, and I’m no longer sure if they’re only in my imagination.
Now the music is off, and I’m making my own to replace it. Each strand of golden fiber becomes a sound, and I weave them together around me, faster, faster, my own music…
I find that I can control them without touching them, and then the puzzle is complete.
I have formed a weaving, a glowing, pulsating fabric of energy and sound, something I’ve never seen before but always known.
And then to the surface of my mind comes something I have always known but haven’t been aware of until now. Things that happen in my home, things the assistants say, things my siblings and I do that they react strangely to.
I know why I’m here. This is why I’m here.
The weaving, a piece of me, begins to dissipate. I feel it rush into my body, and then, in a powerful expulsion of energy, it rushes out, out, beyond me and beyond the gray walls.
Something in me has changed, and I fall, unconscious.
* * *
“Adam’s fever is explained,” Mira says.
Sandra walks in. “Hey, what’s the word on Lavender?”
Lillian shakes her head. “Didn’t pass, didn’t need to. Maria’s with her right now.”
“What about Celeste?”
* * *
When I wake up I’m in a bed, but no bed I’ve ever seen before. My sheets and blankets are the same ones from my own bed, but the mattress is different. It’s a bigger, sturdier one that doesn’t sag very much with my weight.
My room is larger too. It even has a window to allow sunlight in, and thanks to this I can relish the nice wooden floors and soft lavender walls around me. There’s a door to the left and a door to the right, next to the window, which has white lace curtains drawn on it.
I peel the covers off hesitantly, watching my hands. It feels like just moments ago they were weaving golden light in the air.
I slide out of the bed gracefully and drop to the floor, glancing from one door to the other. It seems as though the one to the right leads outside, since it’s next to a window.
I inhale deeply through my nose. The air is fresh here. Yes, I was right; the outside is near.
Our days to follow are filled with fun and discovery. We can do what we like now, and go inside and outside our rooms as we wish. We still have mealtimes, but there’s no more learning and asking time.
Our assistants visit us often. I get to know Lillian more, and learn that she loves me very much. I learn that I love her too.
I also love the sun. I don’t sleep anymore now that I spend all day outside in the sunlight. Each day it changes me more, and each day my siblings change more too.
Things aren’t confusing anymore: Our magic is awakened.