By: Ryann Kerekes

He reaches for my wrist and turns it over, then runs his fingers along the tattoo there, almost as if he knows his cooling touch will soothe the raised, pink skin. I watch him silently, and my chest gets tight.

I blink up at him and – just as suddenly as he appeared – he’s gone.

The next morning, I’m convinced I dreamed the whole thing, but there’s a thin layer of greasy balm smeared across my tattoo, making me wonder if he really was here. I bring my wrist to my nose and inhale. It smells like mint. I breathe it in again and again until I can no longer smell it.

Chapter 3

“They can’t hurt you unless you let them.”

– Unknown

As the days go by, I begin to grieve the life I’ve left behind: simple days with my mom in the garden; riding my bike to the market; skipping down my tree-lined street with my best friend, Cassidy. The city was utterly safe, and growing up there had been easy. It was divided into many different sectors – each with neat rows of houses, tidy office complexes, shopping centers and of course, happy, normal people. Sleepers. I had never spoken the word aloud before, but the term referred to people who had gotten their mindscan. I always thought I would be one, too. But for some reason, I am different. The feeling is unsettling.

Now that I’m here, I have no choice but to catch onto the routine. It’s mostly forced sleep, with occasional tests, but they’ve adjusted my dosage and now in addition to sleeping, I alternate between foggy periods where I just zone out, staring at a wall for the better part of an afternoon.

The nurse from my first day, Dorie, returns and my conversation with Willow stops abruptly. She closes her eyes and lets her mouth fall open and slack. Without thinking, I do the same.

Dorie goes from bed to bed administering more injections to those who are beginning to stir, but when she reaches my bed, she passes by. I peek an eye open and see she does the same for Willow. Once we hear the door click again, Willow peeks one eye open at me and offers a lopsided smile.

“I always skip the afternoon dose,” she whispers, like it’s a secret.

I nod my understanding. It’s her silent defiance at what they are doing to us. It seems impossible to close my eyes and turn my head from the abuse here, but at the same time, a tiny bit of hope stirs inside, like maybe, if I had to, I could figure out a way to survive here, too. With the help from my new friend, Willow.

Willow says once they begin to trust me, I’ll be unshackled a few hours a day. After a few days, I see that she’s right. I must have slept through it before, but my days take on a new routine. At midday, we eat our one solid meal in a guarded cafeteria, and then get some time in a common room down the hall from the dormitory. Most of the others are too strung out to know what’s going on, and they sit slack-jawed on the plastic chairs staring off into space. Willow and I sit on the floor under the one window to feel the warmth of the sunshine, even if we’re not directly in its path.

I need to know more about what it means to be a Defect. I always had such confidence in the mindscan. I knew I wasn’t a criminal; I’d never had a corrupt thought in my life. But what I never considered was that I could end up a Defect. “What happened for you to end up here?” I ask, staring straight ahead.

“Same as you. My future was spotted with holes, and they couldn’t say with certainty that I was cleared.”

I hesitate, wringing my hands. That wasn’t exactly the way it was explained to me.

“Same for you?” she asks.

“I don’t think so. They said I failed it – they did it twice and …”

She clamps a hand over my lips and looks around us. Her eyes are serious, more alive than I’ve seen them. “You failed it?” she whispers once she’s sure no one’s listening.

I nod. “What does it mean?” I don’t want to tell her that there was some strange connection to my mother, too, that they seemed to know about.

“Failing it means they couldn’t read what was in your mind at all – that your future was completely blank to them. That’s not possible.”

I register what this means. Their technology didn’t work on me – I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t a criminal – but rather than admit that I’d somehow outsmarted them, they chose to lock me up and throw away the key. It fills me with rage.

Guard your mind. My mother’s words echo in my head the first time since the mindscan. Why would she tell me that if it meant getting locked up? Did she know what would happen if they actually saw into my mind? Whatever they found couldn’t be worse than them finding nothing at all. But that seems odd. Certainly there’s no way to keep them out of your mind, despite my mother’s warnings. It’s not something I did – it was just some strange effect.