The Dark Side of Ur (Nanowrimo Story)

By request: My nanowrimo story --- the protagonist is my character in-game, Miso George. He's been kidnapped, and has to find his way back through Ur, and then rescue some people and stuff happens and he falls in love along the way and then --??? What will happen??? ^_^*
I woke up shivering. The lights were bright and harsh and my first impression as I looked around was just white - blank white on every surface except the metal table next to the bed. I sat up and immediately felt dizzy and fell backward, back onto the cold pillow. My skin felt hot.
I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d been taken but it felt like it had been a long time.
When I sat up again I fought the dizziness and looked around. Two doors were set into the walls; one was open to a dark room. The other, I assumed was locked. I half-fell half-climbed out of the bed and my bare feet hit the cold floor. I could tell I had a fever but had no way of telling how high it was. I made my way to the closed door and tried the handle; yeah, locked. Great.
Through the open door, I could see a toilet and what looked like a sink and a tub. I walked in and lights automatically turned on -- the same blue-white glare as was lighting the rest of the room. My eyes squinted in the harsh light. There was indeed a tub, inset into the wall and raised a few feet. It would be awkward to bathe in. The sink and toilet were metal and the light shined in waves off of it. I walked to the sink and stared into it, trying to figure out how to work it. My head was pounding. Finally I noticed a little black dot and waved my hands in front of it. The sink turned itself on. Wherever I was, it was high-tech. It had the feel of a hospital with none of the equipment. I dipped my head and splashed water on my face. I was so cold, but my skin felt hot at the same time. Definitely a fever.
On the tank of the toilet were two folded white towels and a bar of soap was on the edge of the tub. I walked back into the room and went to the other door. I pounded on it and yelled but nobody came. Another dizzy spell hit me and I rested my forehead against the freezing cold metal of the door. After a few moments, I gave up trying to get anyone’s attention and went back into the bathroom. My mom used to make me take a bath when I had a fever, so I closed the drain and ran a bath.
Climbing into the tub was difficult; there were no steps or anything so I had to scoot onto the side of the tub and then over and into it. It felt strange, being so high up and yet in water. I marveled at it as I watched the water level rise around me. I ran my hands through the water and thought. How long had I been unconscious? I had a feeling like I’d been drugged; what had they given me? Why was I here, and where was “here”? So many questions and nobody I could ask.
I turned off the water and laid back in the tub. It was small enough that I couldn’t stretch my legs out, but I relaxed backward anyway and used my cupped hands to pour water over my face. My eyes felt hot and I closed them and let the water run over me.
After some time, I opened the drain and climbed carefully out. As I toweled off, I realised that there were cameras inset into the ceiling of the room. Even the bathroom had one. Someone outside of this room was watching my every move. I shivered, and this time not from the fever. My head was still pounding but ever so slightly less, and I went back to main door and rammed my fists against it. I yelled and then screamed and still, nothing.
I went back to bed.

My fever must have gotten worse because the next thing I remember, there were people in my room, around my bed, talking about me as though I wasn’t there. An IV line was slid into my arm and something was given to me. I fought against the hands on my body, and then slipped once again into darkness.
When I woke again, I felt better, and when I sat up I saw that someone had brought food. It was sitting on the table next to the bed. I got up and checked the door: still locked.
The tray shone in the bright lights and tempted me over. My stomach was growling. How long had it been since I’d last eaten?
I poked at the food and smelled it. There was a bowl of chili, some cornbread, and a cup of milk. Beside it was a little plastic medicine cup with two pills inside it and a note scribbled in pen. I picked up the note and squinted at it.
“Take this and eat.”
Well, screw them. Whoever they were. If they wanted me to take some kind of drugs and eat, I would do the opposite. How dare they kidnap me and then assume I’d go along with whatever they wanted.
I pushed the tray away and sat back on the bed, twisting the sheets in my fingers. I was so hungry.


  • There wasn’t a clock -- or anything else -- on the walls, so to pass the time I started counting the seconds. “One One-Thousand,” I said in a whisper, “Two One-Thousand” Up to sixty, and then started over again, counting the minutes, and then the hours. Four hours and thirteen minutes and thirty three seconds later, the door lock clicked and someone walked in.
    Without thinking, I jumped out of the bed and grabbed the metal tray of food, whipping it into the air, accidentally flinging the food to the floor as I did so. I ran toward the man who had entered, yelling.
    Equally fast, the man dropped the large bag he was holding and put his hands up to shield his face. “Please don’t!” he cried, cowering behind his hands.
    He was a big fellow -- tall, and muscular -- but as I hesitated, I saw the left side of his face had been beaten up. He had a black eye and a small cut, and bruising all down his cheek.
    I raised the tray in what I hoped was a menacing way and glared at him. “Who hit you,” were the first words out of my mouth, although I didn’t mean for them to be.
    “You did,” he said, still hiding behind his hands.
    What? “I don’t remember doing that,” I said dumbly, lowering the tray a little.
    “You had a fever,” he said. He looked at me from behind his hands. “You were delirious. I was trying to give you medicine for your fever. You .. didn’t want me to do that.”
    Yeah, okay, that sounded like something I’d do. “I’m sorry,” I said, before I’d thought about how ridiculous it was to apologise to someone who’d kidnapped me. After a second I realised it and raised the tray again. “Where am I,” I demanded. “Who are you?”
    He ducked behind his large hands again and furrowed his brow. “My name is Nick,” he said, then added, “I’m just a nurse.”
    “Where am I?” I asked again.
    “You’re at an offshore testing facility,” he explained, lowering his hands, apparently accepting the risk that entailed.
    “Testing for what?” I lowered the tray, bewildered. The name “plum island” came into my head but I couldn’t remember from where.
    “Pharmaceutical trials,” he said. “I don’t know the details. They needed human volunteers.”
    “I’m not a volunteer,” I said. “I was kidnapped.” How did he not know this?
    “... I know.” His voice sounded apologetic.
    “Can I leave?” It was the only thing I could think about, leaving.
    “No.” He reached down and picked up the bag he had dropped. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment.
    I shook my head at him. “I want to go home.”
    “I know.”
    They probably all do, these ‘volunteers’.
    “Listen,” he said, gesturing with one hand, “I’m sorry you’re here and that I can’t let you leave but I need to take your vitals. Can I do that please?”
    He was (probably wisely) ignoring the food I’d splattered across the floor, and he seemed to no longer fear the tray in my hands. I couldn’t see a way out of this situation, so I shrugged and walked over to the bed. I sat down on it and motioned him over.
    He set the bag down on the table next to the bed, the one that had had the food on it, and zippered it open, pulling out a blood pressure cuff, a thermometer, and a small pad of paper. “First,” he asked, “What’s your name?”
    I glared at him again, suddenly angry. “Why should I tell you?”
    “I mean, you don’t have to, but you know my name, and it might be nice to have something to call you. You know, other than Patient 71.”
    “There are 70 other patients here?” My mind reeled at this information.
    There was a pause, and in the silence I realised he probably hadn’t meant to give me that information.
    I shook my head, dismissing the question I’d asked him, and he looked relieved. I sighed. “My name is George,” I said, “but everyone calls me Miso.”
    Nick looked at me a little strangely but only for a second, and then he nodded and made a note on the paper. I felt the wash of relief come over me as it always did in these situations and had to fight the instant feeling of camaraderie.
    Next was the blood pressure and the temperature, and then from the bag he pulled out a pair of calipers. I think that’s what they’re called. They were these pincher things to measure body fat. He pulled at my arm and I lifted it, and he made some notes about the measurements.
    When he was done, he looked at me. “Listen, I’m sorry for the kidnapping and all,” he said, “but thank you for not hitting me again.”
    I didn’t have anything I could say to that, so I just nodded and watched him leave. As the door was shutting, I caught a glimpse of a keycard sticking out of his left pocket. Just the tip of it, but I stored that information in the back of my brain for later.

  • When nobody came to clean up the mess I’d made, I got one of the towels I’d used for my bath and mopped up the floor. I picked up all of the dishes and set them on the metal tray, onto the metal rolling table, and then rolled the table to the locked door. I thought about barring the entrance but I couldn’t see the use in that so I just set the table next to the door and went back to bed. My fever might be gone but my whole body ached. I felt like I’d just spent a day shoveling mud and then run a marathon. I was so tired, and so hungry. I’d never been that hungry before, ever.
    I laid down on my left side and started counting the seconds again.

    Another four hours went by, and then the lock clicked and Nick walked in carrying another tray of food. He swapped the tray on the table for the one he was carrying and then set the empty one on the floor and rolled the table up to the bed. “Here,” he said, “Breakfast.”
    “I want to go home,” I said. Also how was it breakfast time? How long had I been here? How long had I been unconscious? How far away was home?
    “You know I can’t do that,” he said, “but I can get you whatever you want.” He paused. “Please eat,” he said after a moment. “It’s important.”
    I sighed. “Alright,” I said, and as he turned toward the door I caught a glimpse of the keycard again, sticking out of the same pocket. What would it take to knock him out, I wondered.
    Breakfast was scrambled eggs, two sausages, two pieces of toast, a bowl of fruit, and a glass of milk. My stomach growled painfully.
    I took a long look at the food and almost cried. If they wouldn’t let me go, I would simply starve until they gave in, I thought. It was the best plan I had other than stealing they key card from Nick. Even if I did steal his card, how would I know where to run to escape?

    I pushed the tray away from the bed and laid back down, my whole body hurting and the lights making my head ache.
    I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

  • Maybe just one slice of toast, my brain kept telling me. Maybe just one bite of eggs. But no. I needed to be strong and send a message and that was exactly what I was going to do.
    When Nick came in again, he frowned at the tray and then looked at me. “Why aren’t you eating?”
    “I’m not going to eat until you agree to let me go,” I said stubbornly.
    He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “That makes no sense, first of all,” he said, “and second, even if I wanted to I couldn’t. Listen, I just couldn’t. I can’t do it. Tell me something else you want and I’ll get it for you, anything.”
    I glared at him for as long as I could but finally rubbed my hands over my face and massaged my forehead. I couldn’t keep this up. “I need a smoke,” I mumbled.
    “I can arrange that,” he said, nodding and taking the tray. “Give me a little while.”
    Wait, that actually worked?

    Two hours later, he came back. “I can take you outside for a smoke but you have to promise to eat, whatever we give you.” His voice held trepidation.
    I pursed my lips and then nodded. “Alright,” I said. The headache was probably from nicotine withdrawal anyway and I’d feel better after I’d had a smoke and then ate. I could work on escaping later, after I’d seen more of the facility, and I could do that if he let me outside. That was the plan anyway.
    He opened the door and stood aside to let me through. I ran my hands over the hospital gown type of clothes I was in, suddenly self conscious. “Lead the way,” I said, trying to sound confident. Outside of the room was a pair of doors and he motioned for me to stay where I was. “Hang on,” he said, “You’re going to want this.” He opened up one of the doors and I could see that it was a linen closet. Nick took out a blanket. He held it out to me and I took it, confused.
    “Just put it around yourself,” he said, “it’s cold outside.”
    I did what I was told, and then followed him as he led me through a maze of corridors and doors and smaller hallways, then finally up an elevator, four stories up, and then the doors opened and we stepped out onto a grassy patch overlooking the ocean.
    The smell of the salt water hit me in the face and my heart stung; it smelled like where I’d grown up, near the beach, always near the water. I felt profoundly homesick.
    “Where are we?” I asked as he held out a pack of smokes toward me, and I wrapped the blanket around my shoulders. He’d been right: the wind coming off the ocean was freezing. The bright blue grass shimmered in the light as the wind hit it.
    “I can’t tell you that,” he said, “but we’re on an island. We’re the only ones here. This facility, I mean.”
    I glanced over at him and he shrugged.
    “I’m sorry.”
    I shrugged back at him and then stared out across the ocean. “I understand,” I said. From the pictures I’d seen in books, it looked like Uralia -- a small island off the coast of the Groddle Isles.
    We were silent for a few minutes as I worked my way through the cigarette.
    “Why do they call you Miso?” he asked.
    “I like miso soup,” I said.
    He laughed. “Really? That’s it?”
    He had an infectious laugh and he had such a friendly face, I had to remind myself that he was the enemy. I wanted to smile at him, to tell him about the times I’d gone out for sushi with my friends. All the times in college that people had made loving fun of me for my containers of miso stacked in the fridge. Instead of telling him my stories I sighed, still staring at the ocean. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s it.”
    We were silent again and he walked me back to my room. I had a feeling there was a more direct route back but they didn’t want me knowing how to escape. I would do the same, if I were crazy lunatic pharmaceutical manufacturers who kidnapped people and held them hostage to experiment on them.

  • The next meal was lunch, and as promised I ate it: an egg salad sandwich, which I hated -- I never could stand that squeaky feeling that boiled eggs had to them -- and a cup of crisps, and a cup of milk. On the side there was a tiny cake the size of a cupcake, with a rosette of whipped cream on top. I ate everything, and then laid down because I had nothing else to do but count the hours until Nick came back.

    When he came back with a tray of dinner, he brought the large bag with the stuff for my vitals in it with him, and a second, smaller bag slung over it. With his size, I shouldn’t have been surprised he could carry that much but I was anyway. He swapped out the trays and then set the bags down on the bed next to where I was sitting cross-legged. My whole body was hurting but I tried not to show it.
    “How are you doing tonight?” he asked as he unzipped the large bag.
    I stared at him. “I’m a prisoner still,” I said.
    “Yeah well.” He took out the blood pressure cuff and I held my arm out. “I can’t do anything about that. How are you otherwise?”
    “Hungry,” I said. I hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
    He took my blood pressure and nodded to himself, making a note on his pad of paper. “How are you feeling though?” he asked, this time making a gesture toward my body. “Any aches or pains or anything out of the ordinary?”
    “Yeah actually. My whole body hurts like I’ve got the flu. Other than that?” I paused, wondering if I should tell him, and then went for it: “I really want some tacos.”
    He wrote everything down as I was talking, nodding along as I spoke, and then took my temperature and measurements. “I’ll see what I can do about the tacos,” he said, “do you want to go out for a smoke before bed?”
    “Yeah, and I’m bored. And I want regular clothes.” I wondered if I should use the ‘I won’t eat until you do what I want’ card again. But as it happened, I didn’t need to.
    “I can get you something to do, but unfortunately the clothes are all we’ve got for you right now.” He sounded sorry about it.
    I climbed off the bed and stretched. “Alright.”
    We walked through the long winding set of corridors again and up the elevator and out. The ground was hard and cold beneath my feet and the wind stung. I wrapped the blanket more tightly around my shoulders, as much as I could, and took a cigarette from Nick.
    The sun was still up but getting low in the sky and in the distance, as far as I could see, was only water. It glittered. The sky was clear and I wondered how the stars would look from here. I turned around and looked back at the elevator and realised that it was just a box set into the ground; the entire rest of the building must be underground. Around it were trees and tall grass. The wind blew my hair around my face and I turned around again. “We should walk down to the beach,” I said, even though I couldn’t see a beach.
    Nick shook his head. “No beach,” he said, “it’s just cliffs out here.”
    I frowned at the ocean. I would have to jump. But not right now, at this moment. Later. “There has to be a beach somewhere around here,” I prodded.
    “There isn’t.”
    “Then how did everyone get here?”
    He made a noise through his nose like a snort. “Alright, you got me,” he said after a minute. “There’s a beach north of here and to the east a little. But if you run, I will catch you,” he warned, looking at me with a stare that told me I didn’t want to test him.
    I looked back out over the ocean. “Alright.”
    Nick turned from me to face the ocean again, and in the late afternoon light I could see that his long black locs were streaked through with gold. His eyes, too, caught the sun and I could see they weren’t just dark brown, as they’d seemed inside, but were flecked with hazel.
  • When we went back in, the warm air in the facility enveloped me and my instant comfort was unsettling. I shouldn’t be happy to be going back inside, I chided myself, it’s not my choice to be here. They’re holding me prisoner. And what about my family? They’re probably really worried.
    Still, the warm air felt nice.
    Nick let me back into my room and then turned to the closet and took out a fresh hospital gown, some clean towels, and an extra blanket. “Here,” he said, “go take a bath and get cleaned up. I’ll bring you something to pass the time in a little while.”
    “Thanks,” I said, taking the things from him and then getting angry at myself for thanking him.
    But it wasn’t his fault, not really, a little voice in the back of my head told me, it’s not his fault you’re stuck here. He just seems like a nurse. It’s his job, whatever he’s doing, and maybe he was kept prisoner too. I walked into the bathroom and undressed self-consciously, wishing I could cover the cameras in the room. As I slipped the gown over my head I realised someone had been in my room -- next to the sink was a toothbrush, toothpaste, a new bar of soap, and what looked like a small bottle of lotion next to the smallest container of lip balm I’d ever seen in my life. It was the length of a thumbnail. I picked it up and rolled it between my fingers. “Green tea flavour,” the label said. “Okay,” I muttered to myself. “Green tea lip balm.” I looked intentionally into the camera lens set in the ceiling and flipped it the middle finger, then turned around and ran myself a bath.
    After I’d gotten out and dried off and changed into the fresh gown, I was laying out the blanket onto the bed when Nick came back. “I forgot to give this to you earlier,” he said, holding out the smaller bag. “I put some other things in it too.”
    Confused, I took the bag from him and set it down on the bed. I unzippered it carefully. Inside was a small stack of colouring books -- cats, foxes, fairies -- and a box of coloured pencils, and a small paper bag. The smell coming from the bag was indescribable. I grabbed it and looked inside: tacos. “Seriously? You brought me tacos?!”
    “Yeah,” Nick said, smiling. “Happy?”
    “Yeah,” I said, genuinely feeling happy, but angry at myself for feeling that way. “What else is in here?” I asked as I laid everything out on the bed. Nick didn’t answer but just let me go through the bag’s contents. There was a deck of cards, an old-looking paperback book, and a slinky. “Thanks.”
    “No problem,” he said. “I’ll see you in the morning. Try to get some sleep.”
    He left and I sat down next to the stuff on the bed and ate the tacos. They were small but delicious. I picked up the slinky and ran it absent-mindedly back and forth in my hands for awhile. I was still hungry.
    The tray next to the bed still had my dinner on it -- some kind of meat, some vegetables, a piece of bread, and a cup of milk -- and I ate it without really thinking about it and then smoothed out the blankets and set out the art supplies. I stared at the art supplies for a few moments. Even though I wasn’t really tired, I felt like sleeping just to pass the time. I put everything back in the bag without using any of it, other than running my fingers back and forth over the slinky, and set the bag down on the floor next to the bed, and then brushed my teeth and tucked myself in. I stared at the ceiling for a long time before I fell asleep.

  • I woke up to Nick opening the door. “Breakfast,” he said, smiling.
    I rubbed my face and sat up.
    “How are you feeling today, Miso?” He swapped out the trays and stood there, holding the tray from my dinner.
    “Hurting worse,” I answered honestly. Every muscle and joint in my body felt like it was on fire. Even my skin hurt, which was something I’d never felt before.
    “I can bring you something for the pain,” he said, frowning. “I’ll be right back.”
    I pulled the table closer to the bed without getting up and took the tray, setting it in my lap. Two slices of French toast, some fruit, sausages, a cup of milk and a cup of coffee. The pain was bad enough that I didn’t really feel like eating but I was grateful for the coffee. I poured some milk into it and sipped it.
    Nick came back and handed me a tiny pill cup. There were two large white round pills in it and I looked at them warily. “What are they?” I asked.
    “Painkillers,” he said. “Make sure you eat something with them, even if it’s just a slice of the bread okay? They can be a little hard on the stomach.”
    I nodded and swallowed them with some milk. “Thanks,” I said, and then had to remind myself yet again that I shouldn’t be thanking him. At the same time, he seemed like a good guy, a nice fellow, someone that I shouldn’t really be mean to if I didn’t have a reason. And I’d already beat him up once that I knew of. “How long have I been here?” I asked as he was turning to leave. It was a question that had been bothering me for awhile.
    “About a week,” he said. I was shocked. He went on, “You were down with a fever for a few days.”
    “A week.”
    “Yeah.” He turned to leave again but then turned back to me. His large brown eyes said everything but he said it out loud anyway, “I’m sorry you’re here,” he said, “I’d let you go home if I could.”
    There was really nothing I could say to that, so I was silent, and after a moment he looked down at the ground and left.
    I stared down at my coffee.

  • [NOTE - I'm not sure if I'm going to keep the colouring books in but I couldn't think of anything else brainless for Miso to be doing to keep him occupied in his free time, feel free to leave a comment and suggest something else for him to do or something else for Nick to bring!]
    The colouring books looked enticing. The cats and foxes were covered in intricate designs begging for colours. I opened the box of coloured pencils and ran my fingers over them. They were smooth and cool to touch and looked like there were every colour I could imagine. I pulled one out at random and tucked it behind my ear before flipping through the fox book, idly looking for something to pass the time. I picked out a few pictures that I thought might be fun and then set the pencil inside the book and closed it and put it aside, picking up the slinky. I ran it back and forth in my hands, thinking.
    We were on an island. We were facing west, judging from where the sun had been when I was out in the evening, but Nick had said that to the northeast was a beach. I guessed that was where I’d find a boat.
    The slinky felt, well, slinky, in my palms and I poked my fingers in between the wires as I sprung it around in my hands. I ran my fingers over the wires as I swirled it around. It was a pleasing texture, smooth and cold like the pencils, slowly warming as I played with it.
    I didn’t end up colouring but just sat there awhile, playing gently with the slinky and staring at the art supplies.
    Nick came back with lunch and another dose of painkillers, and an extra cup of coffee. “Here,” he said. “Liking the slinky?”
    “Yeah,” I said, “thanks.”
    “Want to go up for a smoke?” He set the tray down and handed me the coffee.
    “Always,” I said, half-smiling. What was he trying to do, get on my good side? He was already there, as much as I hated admitting it to myself. I couldn’t even explain why exactly; he just seemed genuinely kind. Other than, of course, working for whoever it was who had kidnapped me.
    We walked together and halfway there I realised I was still holding the slinky. I looked down at it stupidly. “Oops,” I muttered.
    Nick smiled down at it. “I like slinkies too,” he said, “they always feel so calming to play with. If you want, on the way back, I can take you to a stairwell and we can try to make it climb down the stairs. I always did that when I was a kid.”
    “That .. actually sounds really fun,” I said.
    We walked outside and made small talk about kids toys, and when we went back in I ate everything, and that was how my routine really began.
    Over the next few days, the routine solidified; Nick would wake me up and bring me food, then I’d have a smoke, then more food, another smoke, and dinner, vitals, and yes, another smoke. On the way back inside, more often than not, he would walk me to a stairwell and let me run the slinky down the stairs. We talked a lot during those times, mostly just small talk but it was nice having company for a few minutes out of the day.
    I got to know Nick more. He had been growing out his dreadlocks for three years. He’d had his hair streaked with gold after losing a bet with a friend. He liked fireplaces, hiking in summer, and art -- the colouring books had been his idea.

  • A week later, in the dead middle of the night, I awoke to the sound of the door lock clicking open. I sat up, heart pounding, staring at it. Nick walked in.
    “Good, you’re awake,” he said quietly, and then glanced up at the camera set into the ceiling. “We don’t have much time. I want to show you something.”
    I got out of bed and walked over, eyeing the camera with trepidation. Equalling his quiet tone, I asked him what we were doing.
    “Come on,” he said, and opened the door for me. “Just put these on and follow me.” He handed me a pair of slippers and I slid them onto my feet.
    He walked with me a different way than usual, and as I had first thought, the route to the outside was indeed much shorter than our other walks had made it seem. Down two corridors, turn right, and up a service elevator. We popped up outside in a slightly different location than usual, and I stepped out onto a patch of bare dirt.
    The sky overhead was clear and speckled with stars all the way to the horizon in every direction except south, where there was a very dim blue glow The moon was half-full and lit up the patch outside the elevator with silver light. I turned around slowly in a circle, taking it in, but Nick stopped me.
    “Come on,” he repeated, and started walking into the tall grass beside the elevator and up the small hill behind it. I followed him up the hill.
    We walked quickly, and my legs screamed with appreciation after having been kept in isolation for the last two weeks. I struggled to keep up with his long strides, but loved the feeling of the ocean breeze on the back of my neck and my cheeks and arms. We reached a patch of rocks and in one motion, before I could protest, he wrapped an arm around me and lifted me easily onto them.
    I climbed with him and then suddenly, stretching out below us, I could see a beach lit up in the moonlight. There were three boats there, rocking gently in the waves. My mouth hung open as I stared.
    “Alright,” he whispered, “remember this okay? The boat on the far right always has a case in it with camping supplies, food, and water. The boat next to it -- see it on the left there? In the back, there’s some fishing supplies.” He looked at me to make sure I understood.
    I nodded at him and we walked quickly back to the elevator. He handed me a cigarette and flicked open a lighter. In a normal voice, he said, “Another one huh?”
    I lit the cigarette and drew in a breath. “Yeah, sometimes I just need double the fun,” I said, trying to pick up on what he was doing. What was he doing in fact? I wondered.
    After a few more minutes, the elevator door slid open. A man in a lab coat stepped out. “What are you doing out here?” he asked.
    “Sorry Doctor Jameson,” Nick said, putting on an apologetic sheepish expression. “George wanted another smoke. I figured I’d let him have it.”
    “In the middle of the night?” the doctor looked skeptical.
    “I had a headache,” I lied, “I thought nicotine would help.”
    “We can give you something more for the pain,” the man said. “Smoking is bad for you. We don’t want you doing it this much.”
    I had so many questions. And I wanted to tell this doctor that being kidnapped was bad for me, too. Worse than smoking, I’d reckon. That’s what I wanted to say, but I didn’t. Instead I apologised with as straight a face as I could muster. Being rude or sassy wouldn’t help me, I imagined, and in any case I didn’t want this guy getting suspicious.
    “Finish up and come back inside,” the man said, and then scratched at his white beard and looked sternly at Nick. “And don’t do this again.”
    “I won’t sir, I’m sorry,” Nick said, and watched the doctor get back in the elevator and the doors slid shut and he disappeared. “Giants that was close,” he whispered.
    “Thanks,” I whispered back. In a more normal voice I asked him, “Who was that guy anyway?”
    “Doctor Jameson, Alexander.” I could see Nick’s eyes narrowing in the dark. “He’s kind of a dick,” he said quietly. I felt like there was way more to that than he was letting on but I let it go.
    Finishing my cigarette, I turned back to Nick. I was shivering from the cold and from some nameless sense of fear that I couldn’t quite place -- other than of course having been kidnapped, taken to a strange place, being locked in a room by myself for two weeks, and now having met some scary, intimidating old man… et cetera.
    As we walked back to my room, I rubbed my hands together to warm them up and glanced at Nick. “Hey can I have a snack before I go back to sleep?”
    He laughed a little, but nodded. “Sure, I’ll bring you something.”
    I wasn’t used to eating so much, but food just seemed so important lately. Maybe it was the result of not having much else to do besides look forward to eat, sleep, and then wait for more food to arrive. I counted the hours by my mealtimes. It was obsessive and unhealthy, like everything else here.
    Nick came back with a small plate of crisps and a soda, and then wished me goodnight and left.
    While I ate, I thought about the strange trip he’d taken me on, out to see the boats. I had a feeling he wanted me to escape -- but why? How would that benefit him? What would he get out of any of this? And why was he being, overall, so nice?
    So many questions.
  • The next morning, Nick brought in something surprising: a pair of pants and a shirt. They looked like scrubs, but were made out of a very thin, lightweight material. “Here,” he said, laying them on the foot of the bed as I sat up. “They’re a large.”
    “I wear an extra-large,” I corrected him.
    He smiled strangely at me. “Just try them on.”
    As he set out my breakfast tray and laid a fresh blanket on my bed, I went into the bathroom and changed. Sure enough, they fit, and loosely. I smoothed the fabric down, feeling awkward in my own body and trying to ignore it, and wondered if I’d somehow lost weight. Yeah right, I said to my inner voice, because laying in bed and eating all day long will make you lose weight.
    When I came out of the bathroom, Nick was gone and my bed looked nice and breakfast smelled good. I sat down and ate and then went back to colouring. I’d already finished five pages in the fox book -- my favourite of the three books -- and was working on a sixth. The coloured pencils were smooth and bright and the colours blended better than any I’d used before. I tried not to focus on how little else there was to do besides colour and just appreciate that Nick had brought me something to do. I suppose they could have kept me locked up with nothing, like an experimental rat, but honestly this wasn’t bad. It could have been worse.
    I wanted to go home.

    Another week passed, and Nick and I grew closer. Then one night, he brought in a magazine for me. “You should Read This,” he said weirdly, handing it to me.
    I looked at him questioningly. “Um, okay,” I said, “thanks.”
    “Mmhmm.” He held my gaze for much longer than was necessary and finally I looked down at the magazine cover, more to avoid the awkwardness that was passing between us than to actually see what he’d brought me.
    It was a bird magazine. The cover showed some kind of red and blue and yellow bird looking quite pleased with itself in a tree. I flipped it open and Nick cleared his throat. “Thanks,” I said again.
    “Yeah,” Nick said, and when I looked up he was giving me that look still. Then his face cleared and he asked, “Hey can I ask you something?”
    “What’s your real name?”
    “What do you mean?” I felt a familiar anger surge inside my stomach but didn’t want to start anything.
    He must have seen my insta-frown and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry but.. You’re transgender right?”
    “Yeah what of it?” I demanded.
    “That’s cool,” he shrugged, “I was just curious. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
    “Just call me Miso and we’re cool.” I tried to let my face relax a little.
    “Alright, Miso.” He smiled at me and then before I knew what was happening, he had ruffled my hair and turned to leave. “See you later, kid.”
    I guess ‘kid’ was better than him misgendering me, so I let him off the hook with that one and went back to flipping through the magazine.
    And then something caught my eye. I turned the page back and skimmed it. Inserted into the magazine, very carefully so the pages matched in size and colour scheme and were glued into the binding, was a sheet printed in tiny letters with some diagrams: how to drive a boat. My mouth dropped open and I slammed the magazine shut. He was giving me a way to escape. I just had to wait and figure out a plan, and then … then.. I could go home.
    My heart was racing, and I gulped down my dinner to distract myself.
  • The ugly old white man Doctor Jameson came to visit me the next day. My heart started pounding painfully in my chest as soon as I saw that it was him and not Nick walking through my door. Did he know? Did he know that Nick was helping me?
    He walked over to the foot of my bed, where I’d been sitting cross-legged, nibbling on a piece of bread with butter in one hand and playing with the slinky with the other.
    “How are we today George?” He was carrying a clipboard and a pen, and looked ready to write down everything I said down to the letter. His giant eyebrows were still, but I expected them at any moment to start wriggling, like one giant grey caterpillar writhing in pain on his face.
    “Why am I here?” I demanded. I put my bread back on the tray and set the slinky down in my lap. “Why are you holding me hostage like this? I want to go home!”
    “Sorry Georgey-porgey, I can’t let you do that. Not yet.” He made a note on his clipboard. It made me nervous, not being able to see what he was writing.
    “Don’t call me Georgey-porgey. My name is George.” I glared at him.
    “Right. ‘George’. How are you?”
    He barely looked at me as I answered. “I’m still hurting,” I said, “but it’s not as bad as being kidnapped and held against my will.”
    “We have to monitor the tests,” he said absently.
    “What tests?” My heart was still racing but now I felt a flush of anger rising up. Everything about this man set me on edge.
    “Pharmaceutical trials,” he said, still writing on the clipboard.
    “For what exactly?” I began to wonder how much information I could squeeze out of him just by asking.
    “Weight loss,” he said. “It’s a growing market. You were the perfect test subject.”
    Wow, not even treating me like a human, just a ‘test subject’. “Is it dangerous?” My voice squeaked without my permission and I hated myself for it.
    “Yes,” he said, “that’s why we can’t do it on the mainland.”
    Sorry not sorry, I thought angrily at him, but said “And when can I go home?”
    He was silent for a moment, finally looking up from the clipboard, and stared at me. His expression said the exact opposite of the words he spoke -- “In a month,” he said, but I knew he meant “not ever,” or maybe more accurately, and even more terrifying, ‘You aren’t going to live that long’.
    “I’ll have Nick bring you in a snack,” he said, ignoring the fact I still had food on my tray, “You seem a little grumpy.” He smirked as he turned to leave. I wanted to kick him.
    Nick came in a little while after the doctor had left. He was carrying a small tray with some crisps, a glass bottle of fizzy drink, and an apple. He set it on the foot of the bed next to my colouring book and eyed the tray of food I still had left from lunch. “Hungry?” he asked.
    “The doctor said I was ‘grumpy’,” I complained.
    “He gets on my nerves too,” Nick said quietly. “I’m really sorry.” He paused, then added, “I’m sorry about all of this. Just a little while longer, okay?”
    I nodded at him. The words ‘melancholy’ and ‘forlorn’ came to mind and I realised they applied to myself.
    More loudly, Nick said “Can I get you anything else?”
    I shook my head, not really wanting to have a conversation. I just wanted to be left alone to plan my daring escape.
    “I can bring you tacos if you want, later tonight? With dinner?” I could tell that he was trying very hard to cheer me up. It wasn’t working, but I appreciated the effort.
    “Sure,” I said, just to make him stop looking so upset, “yeah that would be nice. Thanks.”
    I wondered where there was a place to get tacos on what seemed like an island, with a secret underground testing lab.
    “Hey,” I said, just as Nick was turning to leave, “question.”
    “If I’m supposed to be losing weight here, why do you guys keep feeding me all this food?” I didn’t want to complain but -- “I don’t mean to complain or anything, it’s all delicious, and there’s not much else here to look forward to but eating, but…” I trailed off, not knowing how to finish the sentence.
    Nick glanced at the door, then back at me. “I think,” he started, quietly, “they want to test it under ‘real-world conditions’. Meaning, they assume that people who are fat are fat because they eat too much. So they feed you an increasing amount and see if you’ll still lose weight.”
    “What is it? The chemical or whatever that they’re testing.” I felt more scared about being given mystery drugs with unknown side effects than I was about almost anything else here.
    “I don’t know what it’s called,” he answered, “I’m sorry.”
    I looked down at the crisps and then over at my bread and shook my head. “It’s alright,” I said. “Thanks for the snacks.”
    “It’s why you need to eat everything,” he continued, which I wasn’t expecting. He whispered, “If they think you’re a bad test subject…” There was a crease in his forehead and it deepened as he talked, his voice lowering, “there were other test subjects besides you. They’re.. Not around anymore.”
    I swallowed hard. “Okay,” I said after a moment. “Alright, I’ll be good.”
    Nick bent over as though to get a closer look at my food, and whispered even more quietly, “I’ll get you out of here kid, don’t worry.” Then he picked up the crisps and said, in a normal voice, “You sure you don’t want these?”
    “On second thought, sure,” I said, “go ahead and leave them.” I forced a smile and he forced one back, and left.
    My mind was racing as fast as my heart. There was much more going on here than I’d assumed, and all of it was terrifying. I couldn’t wait to get back outside, and make my way home.
  • ‘Home’ for me was a small apartment in the Firebogs, near Shimla Mirch. The walls were rich brown wood, and I had herbs and root vegetables drying there, hung from nails in the walls. I didn’t have any windows, but I had a nice basement with my Egg Tree and the bright blue butterflies I was raising -- they liked to sleep flat against the walls like tiny pieces of art.
    Outside the apartment were the busy roads leading to Jethimadh and Chakra Phool. The sky here was always a deep green or blue because of the minerals in the ‘bogs, and in the streets underground people had hung the tree roots with beautiful lanterns and in some places, prayer flags. What could I say, other than it was my home? It was always warm and comfortable. The streets smelled like spices and rich fertile soil and burning leaves. I wasn’t far from the Herb Gardens and I often went there just to sit and think and write poetry.
    This prison I was being held in was the farthest thing from home I could imagine. Everything was the sterile blank white of a hospital. And no matter how nice Nick was to me, it didn’t change the fact that I couldn’t leave.
    I thought about the boats Nick had shown me, and the path to them. I went over it again and again in my mind, tracing out the route I’d take, starting with the maze through the facility and up the service elevator. Then I’d run, straight north-northeast, up the rocky hill and then down to the beach. What time would it be when I left? Would I have enough light to make my way over the rocks? These are questions I wouldn’t be able to answer until I actually got there, and that made me nervous. I wanted to have a solid plan, one that couldn’t go wrong. I wanted to know exactly how I would escape, and then, how I would make my way home.
    I assumed this was Uralia. Which meant if I took the boat east I would end up in Groddle. I’d been to the forests in Groddle a few times, hiking with friends, and felt sure I could make my way south from there back to Shimla Mirch. I’d worry about things like food and water later.
    Reaching over, I pulled the special magazine that Nick had given me over and flipped it open at random, then lifted it up so I could read it without whoever was behind those cameras seeing what I was reading. I tried to make it look like I was flipping through it idly, while finding my way to the page with the boat instructions. I read it over and over, staring for minutes at the diagrams and trying to memorise them.

    Nick brought tacos with my tray of dinner -- mashed potatoes, meatloaf, vegetables, milk -- and took my vitals. “How are you feeling?”
    I was amped up and wanted to leave right then that second, but knew I needed to play it cool and wait for the right time. How could I tell him that, with someone possibly listening in? “I’m still sore, all over,” I answered honestly, “and it’s getting worse.”
    He frowned. “I can bring you in more painkillers, but I think the doctor will want to run tests on you at this point.”
    “What’s happening to me?” In addition to everything else, I had to consider that I’d been given some kind of new drug, one that had never been through human trials, one that I didn’t even know the name of. It was, right this minute, coursing through my veins, stinging the fat cells in my body or devouring my muscle and bone -- either way I could feel it working -- and who knew what the long-term effects were? There was a very real possibility that I could die from this, and nobody would ever know what had happened to me. All my family would know is that I had disappeared. My mind kept going: what would I have left behind? What was my legacy? Why hadn’t I done more with my life? And --
    “If it’s what I’ve overheard the doctors talking about,” Nick interrupted my train of thought, “then your body is destroying your fat cells as though they were a virus. I’m not sure I understand the science of it, but it has something to do with re-writing your genetics.”
    Oh lovely, because that has always worked out so well in the past. “Great,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
    For the millionth time, Nick apologised. “I’m sorry,” he said, and I really believed that he was, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”
    “Is that why I’m hurting?” I asked.
    He nodded. “I’m guessing.” Then: “Do you need anything else?”
    To be let out and allowed to go home, I thought angrily. But it wasn’t Nick’s fault, and I was beginning to suspect there was more going on with him than just a job. “No, thank you. But maybe after I eat we should go outside for a little bit? I could use some fresh air,” I said.
    “Alright,” he said. “I’ll take you up in a bit.” He reached over and ruffled my hair with his hand and smiled at me, then left.
    I was alone, again. I sighed and pushed a curl out of my face.
    That night, Nick didn’t come back, and I fell asleep angry and lonely and needing a smoke and hurting. On top of everything, I had a headache too, and all I wanted to do was complain to somebody -- but there was nobody there to listen.
    I flipped off the camera as I fell asleep.

  • The next morning, Nick came in with a tray of more food than I’d seen since I’d been there. There weren’t just sausage and eggs and toast but also four pancakes and extra fruit in addition to a larger cup of coffee and milk. I felt a little sick looking at it. On the side of the tray was a medicine cup with more of the large white pills.
    “Good morning little friend,” Nick said by way of greeting. “Sorry I didn’t make it back last night, some.. things.. came up.” He was smiling but his forehead was wrinkled with stress.
    It seemed stupid to ask, but I asked anyway, “Is everything okay?”
    “No,” he said quietly. “But .. it will be..” Even more quietly, he added, “I hope.”
    “What’s going on?” I whispered.
    But he didn’t answer. Instead, he replied in a normal voice, “I know this is a lot of food but please try to eat it all. We want to make sure you’re--” (overeating? I thought) “-- properly nourished.”
    “Okay.” I reached over and pulled the tray onto the bed. “Can I go for a walk?”
    “A horse ride?” Now I was just joking.
    He half-smiled at me. “Sorry my dude. No can do.”
    “A smoke?” I wasn’t joking anymore.
    “Yeah, do you want to go before or after you eat?”
    “Right now. Can I?”
    “Sure, put your slippers on.”
    I put the tray back on the table, quickly took the meds, and slipped on the slippers. We walked in silence to the outside.
    The sun was bright. There was only a slight breeze, and it rustled through the tall grass. I started noticing everything I hadn’t really thought about before: the bright colours of the grass and flowers, the smooth lichen growing in bright colourful patches over the rounded rocks, the way the light played across the ocean’s waves. The salty smell in the air was refreshing and I could almost feel the mist from the waves tickling my cheeks. It was cold, but not terribly so. “How are we going to do this?” I asked Nick.
    “Do what?” We were both whispering.
    “You know what.”
    The silence that fell between us was long enough to become awkward. “It’s up to you,” he said finally. “Do you feel ready?”
    “... no.”
    “Then not today.”
    We were both facing the ocean, not looking at each other as we spoke, and if there was a camera behind us on the elevator, nobody would be able to tell we were talking. I had no idea if there were microphones out here, but even if they were, I assumed the constant sound of the wind would drown out our voices. I hoped.
    “I don’t know if I can knock you out,” I said bluntly. “How am I going to steal your keycard?”
    He laughed at that, and I glanced at him questioningly.
    “I’ll give you the keycard,” he said. “But you’re right,” he added, “probably we’ll need to make it look like you attacked me. Which you already did once, so it’s not unfathomable that you’d do it again.”
    “Mm.” I thought for a moment. “I could kick you.”
    “Please don’t kick me.”
    “You’d rather be punched?”
    “...” He didn’t seem to have an answer to that.
    “I can hit you with a tray.”
    “Yeah, I guess that’s the best bet,” he said.
    We looked out over the ocean in silence for a few minutes. “Listen, thanks for everything Nick,” I said, still whispering. “I don’t really want to hit you. You seem really nice.”
    “Yeah, thanks,” he said. “I like you,” he blurted out.
    His words startled me enough that I looked up at him, my mouth open slightly. “... What?”
    “I mean, you’re a great guy,” he said. “I liked you from the moment you punched me in the face.”
    I kept staring at him.
    He went on: “I mean, I didn’t like that you punched me in the face. That would be weird I guess. I just mean that you have a spark to you. You’re full of fire, but at the same time you can be patient enough to wait for what you want before you go and get it. But when you go and get it…” He trailed off, looking into my eyes like he was searching for something there. “Listen, all I mean is that, you’re awesome and I like you. I wish we could have become friends outside of here.”
    “We still can,” I said, before I’d thought about what I was saying. Then I thought about it and went on anyway, “You should find me, after. You know. We should get together some time, chill, have a couple beers or something.” I didn’t even drink beer. What was I doing? My inner voice was giving me a right proper scolding the more I talked. I needed to learn to keep my mouth shut sometimes. Or all the time.
    “Yeah, I’d like that,” he said.
    I finished the cigarette and we went back inside. “What else can we do with a slinky?” I asked him as we walked. I wanted to change the subject but also I wanted to have some time to just hang out with someone. Being kept in a locked room by myself was slowly driving me mad.
    “We can take it to the stairs again,” he said, a smile lighting up his face. “You want to?”
    “Eat your breakfast first and I’ll come back and get you, kay?”
    “Yeah, sounds good man.”

  • Three more days passed. Then, in the middle of the night, my door clicked open. I sat up, expecting Nick, but someone else walked in. It wasn’t Dr. Jameson. She was a tall, lean woman, dressed in a lab coat and jeans. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was carrying a large bag like the one Nick always brought in for my vitals. I swallowed hard and smoothed out my nightgown.
    “Don’t worry,” she said. “My name is Melanie. I’m here to check your vitals.”
    “In the middle of the night?” I tried not to let my hands ball up in fear.
    “The cameras take temperature scans,” she explained, “they show if you have a fever. And your temperature spiked just now while you were sleeping. I want to make sure you’re okay.”
    “Where’s Nick?”
    “Nick’s sleeping. It’s the middle of the night.” She smiled at me, and I wanted to warm to her but was also simultaneously terrified.
    Melanie set the large bag on the table next to my bed and opened it, pulling out a thermometer and clicking it on. “Here,” she said, and ran it across my forehead and down. It beeped. “I’d like to check your pulse and blood pressure too, if you don’t mind,” she said.
    “Alright.” I held out an arm.
    She took my wrist first and held it while she stared at her watch, then dropped my arm gently back onto the bed and took out a blood pressure cuff. It wasn’t the manual thing that Nick usually used; Melanie’s was a small electronic thing -- a boxy unit attached to a wrist strap. She fastened it around my wrist and then put my arm across my chest. “Just hold your arm like that please.” She pressed a button on the unit and after a moment, it beeped and she made a note, then took it off and dropped it back in the bag.
    “Everything okay, doc?” I asked. I was afraid that my voice betrayed how nervous I was.
    “I’m going to bring you in some medicine for your fever,” she said.
    “How high is it?” I didn’t feel feverish at all, just achy.
    “High enough that you need some meds,” she said, and left.
    Something didn’t seem right about this entire situation, but I didn’t know what to do besides go along with it.
    When she came back she handed me one of those tiny medicine cups and a small cup of ice water. “Here,” she said.
    There were four pills in the med cup -- two of the large white ones I’d been taking for pain, one long almost rectangular-looking white one, and a tiny blue one with a picture stamped onto it that I couldn’t quite make out. “What are these?” I asked.
    “Pain pills and medicine for your fever. Take them.”
    “What else?” The other two pills couldn’t both be for a fever.
    “Stop asking questions and take them so you can go back to sleep.”
    Right. I swallowed them all and handed the cups back to her. She nodded and before she turned to leave, said, “Thank you. Get some rest and I hope you feel better in the morning.”
    I laid down and watched her leave, fully intending to go throw up the pills -- I didn’t trust them -- but she was slow and by the time she made her way out, something was happening. I sat up and was so dizzy I had to lay back down. She had drugged me into sleeping. At least that was my best guess. I tried to sit up again but my body wouldn’t let me.
    I slept.

  • When Nick came in the next morning, my head was pounding and I was covered in sweat. “What’s going on?” I asked groggily.
    “You have another fever,” he said. He set down my breakfast tray and then put the back of his hand against my forehead, the way my mother had always done when I was sick as a child. He frowned, also what my mother used to do. “Lay down,” he said, but I was already laying down. “I’m going to take your vitals.”
    I laid there, limp, as he took my temperature and blood pressure and pulse. He measured my fat with the calipers while I was laying there, and I had started to drift off back to sleep when he spoke up. “You look miserable. I’m going to bring you more medicine for your fever.”
    “No,” I mumbled, “I don’t trust your medicine.”
    “What?” He was packing up the supplies into his bag.
    “Last night. The lady drugged me.” I couldn’t remember her name.
    “Melanie? You met Melanie?”
    Yeah, Melanie, that’s who it was. “Yeah. She drugged me.”
    “She gave me medicine ‘for my fever’ but it made me sleep.”
    Nick shook his head, still frowning. “You need to take something for the fever. I promise I won’t drug you.”
    I let my eyes close and could feel myself slipping backwards into sleep. “Alright,” I mumbled.
    “I’ll be right back,” he said, and left. I didn’t watch him but I heard the door lock click on his way out.
    I was still drifting somewhere between awake and asleep when he came back. I opened my eyes only long enough to take the medicine, and then let myself fall into the darkness.
    That scene repeated throughout that day and the next. At one point I awoke dizzy and disoriented and stumbled my way into the bathroom. I used the toilet and took a bath and then got back in bed and immediately fell back asleep. I couldn’t remember feeling this bad before I’d been brought to this facility; since I’d been here, I didn’t even know for sure how many times this had happened.
    Whatever they had given me was doing terrible things to my body. I had to get out of here and find help at a real hospital.
    I slept.

  • Finally, I woke up covered in sweat. The sheets were soaked with it. I sat up and found that I had an IV line in my arm. I stared up at the bag of fluids connected to it. I didn’t remember anyone coming in to do this, but I hoped that I hadn’t punched Nick again.
    Pulling the line out seemed like a bad idea, so I left it in and carried the IV bag into the bathroom with me so I could brush my teeth and hair. My nightgown was even wetter than the sheets had been. I tried to wring it out but had no success. I wondered, vaguely, if someone -- maybe Nick -- had changed my clothes while I slept, but I couldn’t remember if I had changed out of the scrubs-like outfit myself. Everything was a blur.
    I went back into the bedroom and hooked the IV bag back onto it’s stand, then sat at the end of the bed holding the slinky. I wondered what time it was.
    Not long after, the door clicked open and Nick came in carrying a tray of food. “You’re awake!” he almost shouted.
    “How long was I down this time?” I asked.
    “Two and a half days,” he said, “this is lunch. Are you hungry?” He set the tray down on the table near my bed and rolled it closer to me.
    “Not really. I guess.” I reached over and took the coffee off the tray. “Can I get some clean dry sheets and things please?”
    “Yeah, I’ll make your bed. If you’re not hungry yet why don’t you go take a bath? I’ll make up your bed for you. Here, I’ll take out the IV.” I held out my arm to him, and he quickly removed the IV line. “I think you can drink enough fluids now to keep hydrated,” he said. “For awhile there it was touch and go. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
    “Thanks,” I said, and took my coffee with me into the bathroom.
    “Just toss your clothes out here,” he called in to me, “I’ll bring you some new ones and leave them on the bed for you.”
    “Okay,” I called back, and began running the bath while I was sipping the coffee. A cold bath would probably be healthier for me since I’d been having a fever, but what I really wanted was a scorching hot one, so I ran straight hot water into the tub and watched it steaming as the tub filled. Just as I was about to climb into the tub I realised my stomach was growling.
    It could wait, I thought. Have a bath and then eat.
    Music would be nice in here, I thought, starting to have a conversation with myself inside my head. Maybe some jazz. Something with a soft piano and light guitar. I splashed my face with water and started humming as I washed my hair. You know what else would be great, I thought, is to not be being held prisoner for some sick medical experiments.
    Yeah, that would be great.

    When I was done with the bath, I walked out to the bed wrapped in a towel and was pleasantly surprised when I saw what Nick had brought me: a pair of pyjama pants, a t-shirt, socks and proper shoes, and a hoodie sweater. They all looked much too small, but it was the thought that counted I guess. I sat on the edge of the bed and ran my hands over the pants. They were soft flannel, in a dark plaid with very masculine colours. I smiled a little. That must have been Nick’s doing, I thought. I could imagine him picking them out specially for me; I pictured him walking through the aisles at the store and passing up endless rows of pink and purple and frills and instead looking in the men’s department for something that would fit me. The thought made me happy.
    It couldn’t hurt to try them on, I thought after a while. I sighed and picked up the pants, resting them in my lap for a moment as I worked up the courage to put them on. I always hated the way clothes fit me and the way my body never matched my inner vision of myself.
    I stood up and stripped, tossing the towel on the bed and slipping on the pants. They fit perfectly. I stood there dumbly with my mouth hanging open, staring down at the pants. How was it they fit? I must have misjudged their size.
    I picked up the t-shirt and looked at it. It, too, looked to be too small, but the plaid pants had emboldened me so I threw on the shirt quickly, before I had a chance to feel bad about myself. The shirt fit, too, and it was loose enough that it didn’t accentuate my physical... flaws.
    I sat back down on the bed and pulled on the socks, then the shoes. Then I got up and did some jumping jacks just to test them out and they fit very well, though not perfectly. The pants were comfortable and warm and the t-shirt made me happy. Now that I knew it fit, I could appreciate the way it looked. It was black and in white text read “In my defense, I was left unsupervised.” It reminded me of my mom and made me smile.
    The hoodie was thick and warm, and it was a dark navy blue that matched the pyjama pants. I wasn’t particularly cold just then, but pulled it on anyway because it looked so snuggly.
    I pulled the tray over to the bed and sat back down. There was chili and cornbread again. As I adjusted my legs, I realised there was something hard in my pocket. I frowned and reached in, feeling the thing without taking it out. I was surprised to find a knife there. Carefully, I adjusted it in my pocket and then smoothed out my pants, trying to look to whoever was watching through the camera in my ceiling like I had just had an itch in a sensitive spot. I had no way of knowing if the ruse worked, but I did it anyway.
    Nick must be telling me that it was almost time to make the escape, I thought. Tonight?
    I ate the chili and cornbread and with my other hand, poked at the slinky.
    As I poked at it and then started running my fingers over the metal, a thought occurred to me: the slinky was made of wire. I could take it with me, in case I needed something sharp besides the knife, or needed to fasten something to... something else? Maybe I could use it to jump start a boat? Or I could use it to slit someone’s throat, if it came to that.
    What else did I have in the room that I might be able to use? So far all I had was the knife and the slinky. There had to be more things I could leave with; the more things I took, the more prepared I’d be.
    I sat and ate and thought and played with the slinky. Time passed.

  • Nick came back with dinner. He swapped the trays out and took my vitals. “You look like you’re feeling better,” he commented.
    “Yeah, I am,” I said.
    As he went to take my blood pressure, he dropped the cuff in such a way it landed near my pocket. “Oh, sorry,” he said, and leaned over strangely while he reached for it. I felt him slip something into my pocket as he picked it up. “I’m really clumsy today.”
    I watched him carefully. What had he just given me? “It’s alright,” I said, trying to smile, “that happens to me all the time.”
    “Did you have any dreams while you slept?” During one of my smoke breaks, I had told him that I often had vivid dreams, and that sometimes they were nightmares but more often than not they were just strange and complex.
    “Yeah, I did actually,” I said, “I dreamt I was locked in a room, like this one, only there weren’t any doors at all. It was just a box.”
    “Well that’s a pretty apt metaphor for what it must feel like to be kept here huh?”
    I nodded.
    He finished with my blood pressure and other vitals and when he was finished writing everything down he said, “Do you want to go out for a smoke?” He had that Look again and I nodded at him.
    “Yeah, a smoke would be great.” I wondered if it was now -- would I finally have my chance?
    He packed up the things into his black bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Come on then.”
    We walked together, more slowly than usual, it seemed. Nick seemed like he wanted to talk. “I had a dream last night too,” he said, “and I don’t normally dream.”
    “What was it about?” I asked.
    “I dreamt I was flying. Isn’t that weird? I’ve never dreamed that before. I didn’t have wings or anything, I just kind of floated upward and then was able to fly away.” His eyes had a sad expression to them. “I remember just going, out over the mountains and the ocean, and flying into the clouds. It was.. I was free.” He fell silent. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
    When we got outside, instead of handing me just one cigarette, he handed me the pack and the lighter. “I’m going to need you to hit me,” he said quietly. “As hard as you can. I’ll drop, and you run.”
    It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t a suggestion. “Are you sure?” I asked.
    “Yeah,” he said, and his voice was so sad I wanted to cry. “You’ll have to be quick. Run as fast as you can. Go to where I showed you that one day okay? Be careful on the rocks. I slipped you a container of medicine for your fever, and pain. The big white ones are for pain. The smaller red ones are for your fever. You should have enough to last you until you can make it to a hospital.”
    I slipped the smokes and lighter into my pocket with the knife and meds. In my other pocket, I had the slinky. “Come with me,” I said.
    “I can’t,” he said, and choked a little. “It’s my daughter,” he explained in a whisper. “They have my daughter.”
    My mouth dropped open, and then I closed it and my expression hardened. “I’ll come back for you, and her. Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll come back.”
    He nodded. He obviously didn’t believe me.
    “Goodbye, Nick,” I said, and then punched him as hard as I could, straight into his nose. He dropped, pretending to get knocked out.
    I ran.
  • My shoes hit the ground hard as I ran. My body wasn’t used to this kind of exercise, but adrenaline kept me going, all the way to the beach. Then to the boat -- first the one on the left, to steal the fishing supplies, and then I tossed it into the boat on the right and pushed the boat as hard as I could away from the shore. I didn’t know how far in to push it, but I went into the water with it and pushed and pulled until I was sure I could pilot it away.
    As I tried to climb into it, I thought I heard shouting in the distance. I gave it one more hard shove, and then grabbed onto the side of the boat and dropped into it. Should I stay, hiding in the boat, or just try to go? But even as I was considering it, my body was in motion, starting up the motor and running to the front of the boat where I could steer. The motor kicked up immediately, and I felt the boat start to move.
    I gunned the accelerator -- I didn’t know any of the terminology for a boat, or for driving one, only what Nick had shown me so I could get off the island -- and all I knew was that I wasn’t going fast enough. As I tried to make the boat go faster, I could see flashlights in the distance, flickering over the rocks and heading straight for me.
    Then the boat lunged forward, skipping a little in the water, and shot away from the shore.
    I’d done it, I thought. But it wasn’t time to congratulate myself yet. What if they had a helicopter? Or guns?
    And right as I thought it, I heard a gunshot from the shore. I’d thought they’d be more likely to just chase me, to get back their experimental guinea pig, but no … they must have only wanted to protect themselves, and keep their secret from getting out.
    I wasn’t much one for praying, but I said a quick prayer to the Giants that I reach the mainland safely.
    I wasn’t going to calm down until the strange island I’d just escaped from was far in the distance.
    As the boat surged forward through the water, I tried to aim it so that we were heading north-northeast. I had no idea how long it would take to reach the Groddle Isles, but I didn’t imagine it would take much more than a day.
    I looked behind myself and could see now the lights from the facility shining along the island. Everything was pitch black around me -- the ocean, a tireless void crashing around the boat; the stars sprinkled through the sky trying in vain to light up the night -- and a strip of lights from the facility in the distance.
    I wasn’t nearly far enough away yet.

    I stared backward at the facility, watching it get smaller and farther away, until dawn. The sun began to peek up at the horizon and I rubbed my eyes. I’d been sitting there hunched over at the wheel all night, and I was tired. As the sun rose, I could barely make out the island I’d been held on. Ahead of me was nothing -- just flat ocean as far as I could see. I watched the sun rise and adjusted my course a little to make sure I was still heading north-northeast. Then I let the boat go by itself for a bit and laid down on the seat.
    The gunshots had died down quickly the night before, or maybe I just got far enough away quickly enough that I couldn’t hear them over the sound of the ocean. I hadn’t spotted any helicopters either, so either they were waiting until daylight to come after me, or they’d given up. It felt too easy.
  • My eyes closed even as I begged them to stay open, and I fell off to sleep despite my best effort to stay awake.
    I woke up thirsty, and went to the back of the boat where Nick had told me there would be supplies. In fact there was a large bag full of things, not just water and food but rope and other supplies. I wondered how long the trip would actually take. It was late afternoon, judging by the sun, and I was covered in a painful sunburn.
    I opened up a bottle of water and drank it down quickly. There was a snack bar in there too, in addition to some meals and fruit, and I ate the bar, chewing slowly.
    Groddle shouldn’t be far from here, I thought. I sat up at the front of the boat and readjusted the course again, then stared out at the endless expanse of ocean. It was terrifying in a whole new way. I’d never experienced anything like this -- this crushing sense of being alone and wildly helpless. What if a hurricane hit? What if the boat sank? What if sharks attacked? There were a million things that could go wrong. I tried to breathe slowly and calm down. Panicking wouldn’t help anything.
    The sun set in an explosion of orange and pink, lighting up the ocean in giant streaks and glittering brightly. As it sank below the horizon I could see the first stars of the night peeking through the veil of the sky. I laid back in the seat and put my feet up next to the wheel.
    All through the night I kept watch, listening to the roar of the ocean around me and the otherwise silent night. There was no light besides the stars.
    In the middle of the night, I couldn’t stand my hunger any longer and ate one of the packets of dried food that was in the bag, using cold bottled water to rehydrate it as best I could. It was disgusting and I had to chew it more than normal food, but my stomach wasn’t hurting anymore at least.
    I went back to the front of the boat and looked around a little. There was a tarp folded up under the other seat, and I pulled it out. It would make a good shelter from the sun.
    It can’t be much farther, I thought. Just a little while longer and I’d make it back to civilisation. Just a little while longer.

    The sun rose behind some fog. Horizon to horizon was drenched in the cool grey mist. It felt like wandering through a dream, it was so surreal.
    I wondered which Giant was responsible for fog. I should have known this -- everybody knew the Giants, even if they weren’t disciples of them -- but I couldn’t remember.
    My sunburn stung every time I moved, and in places it was already starting to peel off. The mist felt nice against my skin, cooling it. I shivered a little with the cold wind and watched the fog swirl around the boat.
    I stood up and moved around a little more to keep myself awake. If I came across land while I was asleep, I reasoned to my sleepy brain, I’d crash the boat and then I’d really be in trouble.
    I walked carefully from one end of the boat to the other and then back a few times, stretching my legs and waving my arms around to shake out the cramps in my muscles.
    The fog cleared in the afternoon, when the sun was high in the sky, and I still couldn’t see land. I was beginning to worry that somehow I’d accidentally driven the boat in a circle, and that I’d never reach Groddle.
    I wrapped the tarp around myself and laid down in the driver’s seat. I fell asleep quickly despite my fear.

    When I woke up again, the sun was setting. The light looked like fire playing across the water. I watched as the stars came out, and wondered just how much longer I’d be on the ocean.
    Groddle couldn’t possibly be too much farther.
  • Near dawn, after I’d settled into a conversation with myself, I finally caught sight of a speck of light on the horizon. I jumped to my feet and leaned forward, as though that would help me get a closer look. I ran my hands through my hair and clenched my fists in it to keep myself from jumping up and down. “Land,” I said out loud, “land land land!” I felt stupid but there wasn’t anybody to hear me so I supposed it was alright.
    After a few moments in a mixture of terror and excitement and joy, I finally sat back down. I sipped at a bottle of water and watched as the light drew closer. It was slow, but I was making progress. As the sun rose, the light seemed to get dimmer, but I could see land. Fog began to roll in, and I watched as the land disappeared behind it. I knew the direction I needed to go though; I could still see the sun through the fog a bit. The land was straight north from where I was. I must have been rusty on my geography; that had to be Groddle. Didn’t it?
    I drank the rest of the water and ate one of the snack bars.
    Just a little while longer, and then I could head home.

  • It took longer than I expected to reach land. Clouds had rolled in behind the fog and it had rained awhile, and then the sun had set and I fixed my eyes on the light at the horizon. It seemed to grow brighter as the night fell around me. Progress was slow but it was still progress.
    Finally, in the middle of the night, it was close enough that if I put my hand up, it looked like I could hold the lighthouse in my hand. It was close enough I could see that it was a lighthouse, and I could make out the mass of trees around it.
    Something seemed off about it, but I couldn’t quite tell what, in the darkness. It almost looked like everything was covered in snow, but that couldn’t be right, because it never snowed on the Groddle Isles, not even in the forests of Groddle.
    I settled back into the seat and waited, thinking. I knew for sure that I’d been heading north-northeast. What was north of the Groddle Isles? Kajuu? The mines of Pollokoo? No, those were both too far inland. My geography was so rusty. I kicked myself for not remembering this. And then kicked myself again for not leaving the fire bogs often enough that I would know these things. The subway that connected all of Ur could take me anywhere. Why did I never take advantage of that?
    The lighthouse grew closer, and I let myself get lost in thought. It rained on and off through the rest of the night, and I shivered, wrapping my arms around myself and tucking my hands into the sleeves of the hoodie.
    The sun began making its first appearance and the rain turned to a thick misty fog. I was close enough to shore, though, that I could still make out the lighthouse even through the mist.
    Finally I was close enough. I drove the boat as close to shore as I could, and slung the bag on, strapping it across my chest. I jumped into the freezing water and sloshed my way onto the shore. It was much colder here than I’d expected. And indeed, it hadn’t been an illusion: there really was snow on the ground. The trees and rocks were dusted with it. There wasn’t much, but I couldn’t remember ever hearing of snow in Groddle.
    I took one last look at the boat -- it could stay there, I thought, someone might want to use it, and anyway what could I gain by trying to bring it along? It’s not like I could drag it across the beach and into the forest with me.
    I tightened the bag around myself and turned to face the forest in front of me. Wherever I was, the fire bogs had to be south, because the fire bogs were south of everywhere. I took a long look at the surroundings, and then up at the sun. To the west was the ocean; I’d have to loop to the right and head down the coast if I wanted to make my way south. As long as I kept the ocean at my right as I went, I would be fine.
    First things’s first, I thought, and took off my soaked shoes. The beach’s sand was soft enough that walking barefoot for a while wouldn’t be a problem, and the snow was only a very light dusting.
    I tightened the straps of the bag again and started walking, carrying my shoes and hoping they’d dry out before I had to walk anywhere more harsh than the beach.
    Up ahead, the beach narrowed, and I could see what looked like a wall of rocks. It wasn’t very tall, but I’d have to climb if I wanted to go straight through. Or, I thought, I could make my way east just a little bit, into the forest, and go around.
    As I walked, I looked for a good path up into the forest, but I didn’t see any so I decided to go over the rocks. The fog was already thinning by the time I got to where I’d have to climb. The tide had gone out a bit, and if I stayed right next to the ocean I would be able to climb the rocks at their lowest point.
    I tied the shoelaces of the shoes and looped them around my neck, deciding to go barefoot over the rocks. They looked smooth and in some places even mostly flat. They were higher than they had seemed as I’d approached and I felt a touch of fear hit my stomach as I began to climb. I’d never liked heights. Adrenaline had gotten me through climbing the hill back by the facility, but here, nobody was chasing me. It was light out and quiet, apart from the sound of the waves; the fog was clearing up quickly and I had no reason to be afraid. But what if I fell? My inner voice started bothering me with what-ifs-- what if They had sent a helicopter after me after all? What if there were sharks in the water and one came close enough to attack? What if I climbed the rocks and on the other side, was nothing but a steep cliff lined with sharp rocks? What if…? Shut up, I scolded myself.
    I climbed carefully, making sure I was taking the dry rocks and avoiding the ones that were slick with fog and water or snow. Here and there, poking out from between them, growing out of some of the tiniest cracks, were small plants and flowers. In a few places there were strands of tall grass; in others, leaves that looked like succulents happily stood up, their yellow and pink blossoms facing the sun.
    When I reached the top, I stopped and sat on one of the more flat-looking rocks, resting my feet on another rock below it and looking out at the ocean and at the hill below me on the other side. It was more of the same -- exactly what I’d climbed up, only this way, I’d be going down. I was still nervous, but less so.
  • I pulled the shoes from around my neck, untied them from each other, and set them on a rock in the sunshine. Then, I opened my bag and took out some food and water. I didn’t know how much farther I’d have to walk, and decided to ration my food. Even so, I’d have to find a source of clean water somehow. Luckily there was a set of metal camping gear -- a bowl, cup, and pot -- and my friends in college had taught me how to collect water and purify it. I could make a fire and boil water, then collect the condensation from the steam. It would take awhile but I’d have clean water. There were enough trees and grass around, and I still had the lighter that Nick had given me, that I wouldn’t have to worry about how to start the fire.
    When I was done eating, I poked at the shoes -- not really dry yet, but not dripping anymore. I tied them together again and looped them around my neck, beginning the trip down.
    It was easier going down than it had been going up, not just because I was going down but also, it was less steep than the other side. Up ahead, it looked like there was some kind of cove; the beach curved inward and appeared to be more shallow than the one I’d just left. The rocky wall extended further here, curving around alongside the beach and heading up into the forest. In the distance, I could see the line of trees almost touching the edge of the water.
    About halfway to the treeline, I decided to stop and boil some water to save for later. I dropped my things in the sand and began to gather burnable items. Leaves, twigs, and grass all went into a pile on the beach. I made several trips and tried to gather things that would burn quickly, to get the fire started, and things that would take longer to burn, like larger branches. I found a few pretty shells, too, and put those in my pockets, smiling.
    After the confinement in the facility, I noticed that I was appreciating even very small things with great joy: the whisper of the wind through the trees; the crunching of my feet in the sand; the way the unmelted snow sparkled in the sunlight. All of it was beautiful.

  • After a few tries, I got the fire lit, and then made a few more trips into the forest to make sure I had enough branches. The heat from the fire felt good. I hadn’t realised how cold I’d been until the fire began to warm me. I put the shoes as close to the fire as I could, and left them to dry as I made an area to heat the water in. As the water did it’s thing, I kept going back and forth to gather more branches from the forest.
    It was a good place to rest, I thought. I could sleep here on the beach, with the fire, tonight, and then tomorrow find my way south.
    I laid down near the fire and propped my head on my hand. It reminded me of home. There was always someone burning something in the fire bogs. I could always count on bonfires being lit around the small towns, people standing outside with giant pots of stew and cauldrons full of rice or meat, and the green-blue sky making all the fires stand out like little beacons. There was nowhere in Ur that was as beautiful as Shimla Mirch.
    And the music. I sighed. There were always people on the streets happily playing music. It was an integral part of our culture there. Any instrument you could think of, there would be someone playing it in the fire bogs -- not for money, but just to brighten others’ day.
    My heart broke thinking about it. Home. My mother would be so worried. I wondered how she had been doing, and if they were still searching for me. I could imagine that notes and posters would be left around town, asking if anyone had seen me or knew where I’d gone.
    The people who took me were going to have to pay. I didn’t even know their names, besides Dr. Jameson and Melanie -- I wasn’t including Nick, since he’d helped me escape -- but I would find out. And somehow, I would make them get what was coming to them.
    If they didn’t capture me again, my brain supplied. The thought shook me and my heart started racing. What a terrible thought. What if They were the ones looking for me? What if They were, right now, scouring the beaches for the boat? What if They were right behind me? I sat up quickly and stared in the direction from which I’d come. I listened.
    But over the roar of the fire and with the creaking of the branches in the forest from the wind, I couldn’t hear anything. I supposed I was listening for the sound of footsteps, but they’d be impossible to hear here.
    I got up and walked a little closer to the rocks. Still nothing. I was probably overreacting, but terror can do that to a person.
    I went back over to the fire and sat back down, but couldn’t relax now. I should probably keep moving, I thought.
    I waited until the water was done boiling off, and was discouraged to see how little I’d been able to collect. There wasn’t even a whole bottle’s worth in the tin. Still, I let it cool off and then poured it into one of the used bottles I’d kept.
    Should I stay here, or keep moving I asked myself.
    Every piece of my body was hurting -- I wasn’t only sore from whatever They had done to me, but my sunburn hurt and itched too -- and my body screamed for me to rest. But I had to keep moving.
  • I dusted the sand off of myself as I stood. The fire was far enough in the hole in the sand that I wasn’t worried about it spreading; I was more worried that someone would find it and track me, or that someone from the facility would see the smoke and come looking for me. But if I headed in the opposite direction, I thought, if I went into the forest and headed east for a while before going south, maybe I could lose whoever was tracking me. If there was anybody tracking me, I thought, emphasis on the ‘if’.
    I walked over to the shoes and picked them up, turning them over in my hands and checking if they were dry; they were dry enough to wear. I put them on while staring in the direction I’d come from, then slung the bag over my shoulder and fastened the straps around my chest.
    Into the forest.
    The forest floor was littered with leaves and branches that crackled underfoot as I walked. I didn’t want to leave a trail that was easy to follow, and as I moved deeper into the forest, I realised what was bothering me: I hadn’t covered my tracks on the beach. I doubled back and dropped my bag near the tree line, walking over to the fire. I leaned over and carefully swept my tracks away with my hands, all the way back to the forest. It wasn’t great but it was better than nothing. It would have to do.
    I picked up the bag and began walking again, brushing the sand off of my hands on my pants. It was colder in here, in the shadows of the trees. The snow lay in small piles. Much of it hadn’t melted yet. Even in here where shadows cloaked everything the snow still sparkled.
    As I walked, a thought occurred to me. I could fill a bottle with snow and simply let it melt. It wouldn’t be the cleanest water perhaps but it wasn’t saltwater. It would be easily drinkable, and if I skimmed the snow off of the tops of the snow piles, it wouldn’t be muddy or dirty either.
    I dropped the bag and pulled out an empty bottle and immediately got to work packing snow into it. The tops of the snow piles had melted and refrozen at some point -- there was a surface layer of crisp ice on top, but it broke off easily in my hands.
    While I was working, my brain supplied me with stupid thoughts, like ‘this is very cold’ and ‘crispy water is delicious’. At that second one, I broke off a few little chunks of ice and popped them into my mouth. They were delicious.
    I finished and stood, strapping my bag back on and checking the position of the sun. It was ushering in late afternoon and although it was hard to see through the canopy of the trees, I could tell its position well enough to see which way was west and, consequently, which way was east. I began heading deeper into the forest.
    I could no longer see the beach through the tree line anymore. Distance seemed so relative in a forest though, and this one was dense. There was no way I was really that far from the beach already.
    Crunch, crunch. Deeper into the forest. Deeper into the shadowy expanse of trees and bushes.

  • The sun was beginning to set as I made my way into a small clearing. I hadn’t seen it until I was right up to it. There was a spot right in the middle that would be perfect for a fire. I put my bag near it and began gathering leaves and branches. The leaves here were damp from snow, but I was sure they would still burn. I wondered how close my pursuers were, or if they were even following me. I couldn’t imagine they would let someone get away so easily.
    I wondered, too, what had happened to Nick after I’d run. Would he be in trouble? What were they doing to his daughter? Were they experimenting on her the way they’d experimented on me, or were they holding her as a sort of ransom, making sure Nick did what he was told?
    So many questions. And once again, I was alone with them.
    I made a bed of leaves topped with branches, with more leaves on top, and then more branches, until it was stacked high enough that I was confident it would burn well. It took more tries to get it started than the one I’d made on the beach. The leaves here were wetter than I’d thought.
    I flicked the lighter over and over, trying to get the leaves to catch. Finally they did and I felt a wash of relief.
    Once the fire was burning well, I went back to gather more leaves and branches -- more branches than leaves, I reminded myself. The leaves would burn quickly but the branches would give off more warmth. At least that was what I remembered from school. I’d had a teacher who was into survivalist stuff and he’d always throw in random tips during class. There were more than a few times when students had purposely derailed him from the day’s lesson by asking him questions about how to survive in the wilderness. We all knew that it was one topic he’d never shy away from and, given the opportunity, would talk to us about it for hours.
    His name was Mr. Talwath. He’d grown up in Kloro, home-schooled and isolated from the rest of Ur until he was seventeen.
    I remembered him telling us about the first time he’d ridden the subway. He wanted to go to college on the Groddle Isles, near Gregarious Grange, the transit hub between all the cities. It was where anyone met anyone. None of the students could imagine living a whole life and never going to Gregarious Grange at least once. But he hadn’t been there even once, not until he left home and made the arduous trek from Kloro to Groddle.
    I thought about what that must have been like. There were others like him, tiny communities scattered throughout Kloro. Some of them even lived in Roobrik, living in treehouses they’d built themselves from found materials. Mr. Talwath had spent a week teaching us how to build shelters of various kinds for all different types of weather. I thought back to that now as I laid more branches on the fire and took in my surroundings.
    I’d brought the tarp with me from the boat, rolled into a lump and strapped on the back of my pack. After I felt I’d gathered enough branches, I set them beside the fire and took out the tarp, flicking it open and shaking it out. The wind from it hit the fire and sent a few embers into the air.
    It was dark enough here now that they glowed brightly against the deepening shadows of the forest. The darkness seemed to be closing in on me, and I shivered. I could probably make a tent here, I thought. I could lean some large branches against a tree and build a lean-to, draping the tarp over it. It should give me cover from any snow and help keep in whatever warmth I could. I didn’t have any blankets, so I would have to make do.
    I looked around for any large branches, ones that would be much too large for the fire, and made my way around the trees in the firelight, searching. The ones I found were heavier than they looked. I tried to pick them up but had to drag them. And the first few tries at propping them up against a tree didn’t work -- the tree was too straight and tall, and the branches just fell down when I tried to prop them up. After a few tries I gave up on that tree and looked around for a better one.
    There was a large rock near where I’d built the fire, and I had the idea to make the shelter against the rock. It would block more wind, I thought, and be more stable to lean things against. So I dragged the branches over there and hefted one onto the rock. It stayed, so I dragged another one over, and it stayed too. This was working out well. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, I chided myself.
    I repeated the process for the other two branches I’d found, and then stepped back to look at my work. It was too small. I went back for more branches, dragging each one separately back to the rock. Eventually I got it large enough that I could fit inside. I took the tarp and laid it over the branches. It slid off.
    I stood there looking at it, feeling tired and frustrated, my whole body hurting. I still had the medicine in my bag, along with cigarettes I’d put in a plastic bag I’d found, so at least I had those, but how was I going to make the tarp stay on the branches?
    I sighed and walked over, pulling the tarp back up and tucking it underneath the top of one of the branches. It stayed, so I did that with every branch, tucking it in and smoothing it out as I went.
    Finally, I had a usable shelter. The sun had set over an hour ago and a chill was settling in through the forest, climbing up my legs and freezing my hands. My cheeks hurt and my lips felt like they were about to crack. Pulling the hood on my sweater up, I walked over to the fire and began to get some water heating up. I had a packet of dried spaghetti in the bag, and opened it, getting it ready to “cook”. All it needed was hot water, which I was thankful for, and that I had hot water at all, which I didn’t have before, when I “cooked” it with cold water. Definitely it was going to be better than the last one I’d had.
    I sat close to the fire and warmed my hands. While I waited for the water to boil, I fished around in the bag for the painkillers. I started to panic when I didn’t find them at first, and then realised they were stuck in the very corner of the bottom of the bag. Relieved, I pulled them out and took one. They had given me two at the facility, but I wanted to be sure I’d be awake and aware of my surroundings. Especially with the fire so close.
    The water boiled and I heated up the meal. It was small, but infinitely better than not eating. I wondered how much food I’d be able to scavenge in the forest. Could I find roots and berries here? Would I find a river with clean water? All of that would have to wait until the sun was up again.
    I was crushingly tired. I ate the food slowly, chewing each bite more than I needed to, trying to trick my body into thinking I’d had more to eat. When I finished, I licked the bag. I was still so hungry.
    I wished I had made the tent closer to the fire. It was freezing cold out here, and I had nothing to wrap myself in for warmth. It occurred to me that I might die of exposure, or be struck by frostbite. My sunburn was already peeling, and I wondered how that would be affected by the cold.
    I tried not to worry so much.
    When the fire began to die down, I crawled inside the shelter and tucked my hands into the sleeves of the hoodie, pulling the ties on the hood as far as they’d go to secure it around my face. If I woke up dead… well, that was future-me’s problem.

  • I woke up in the middle of the night, too cold to sleep. I was shivering uncontrollably, and felt more tired than I’d ever felt in my life. I got up and walked outside. The night was clear and very, very cold. The fire had died down, so I took some branches - they were hard to hold, my hands were so stiff from the cold - and lit the fire again. It took even longer than last time to get it lit, and I was shaking so badly that the flame wasn’t staying in one place long enough to light.
    My throat tightened. Don’t cry, I scolded myself. Do. Not. Cry.
    I started crying, flicking the lighter open again and trying to hold it steady while tears ran down my face. It felt like they were going to freeze there. It felt like I was going to freeze there, into a block of ice. A Georgesicle.
    My nose started to run and right as it was about to drip, the fire caught and flared upward. There had been a small pile of leaves underneath some burned branches -- that was how it caught, I could see now, and also why it hadn’t been lighting: the branches were already burned, which is why they weren’t lighting.
    The glow from the fire lit up the trees around me with an eerie orange glow. Everything was as silent as death. Over the crackling of the fire, I became aware of the sound of the ocean in the distance.
    I put out my hands, warming them over the fire, and then stood and took the tarp from the shelter. I laid down on the ground right next to the fire and wrapped myself in the tarp.
    Better, my brain told me, and as I calmed down I stopped shivering so much. Of course the fire helped.
    It wasn’t long before I fell asleep.
  • I woke up to the sun shining through the trees. It was sparklingly clear. I gazed up at the light and drank some water. The fire had died down during the night and now it was nothing but ashes. I gathered my things and prepared to move on.
    As I walked, I gathered up snow to put into my water bottle so it would melt for later. I could feel a fever coming on; should I take medicine now, I thought, or wait until it was really bad? I weighed my options as I walked. I could feel the fever rushing through me quickly. If I didn’t take it now, I might be too delirious to take it later; but if I took it now and ended up not really needing it, I would have wasted some of the medicine that I would definitely need later.
    The sun felt hot even though the light was broken up by the trees. I felt like my skin wanted to sweat, but I wasn’t sweating. I felt cold and hot at the same time. I kept walking.

    Should I take it now, or wait? Should I take it now, or wait? My brain kept repeating the question, and then I vaguely remembered my mom’s advice: if you have to debate whether or not to take something for a fever, it’s probably already bad enough that you need it.
    I set my pack down and rifled through it. The medicine bottle had somehow found it’s way to the bottom of the bag again, and again I felt a strong sense of relief when I finally pulled it out. I had thought for a moment that I had somehow lost it.
    I took two tablets of the fever medicine and another 1 tablet of the painkillers, and then sat down on the forest floor to wait for them to work. I pulled out a cigarette from my pack -- I wanted to hoard them, but I was getting a headache again. Nicotine, man, I thought, it kills you. I have got to stop smoking.
    I had told myself that through the years but I always found a reason to give in to my urges. Maybe being lost in a forest would finally give me the impetus to quit smoking once and for all.
    The day was warmer than the day before. I took off my hoodie and bunched it up, then laid down on it, wiggling around to get the sticks out from underneath me. It didn’t work very well, but I didn’t want to get up and move them properly so I just laid there on top of them. I was so tired suddenly. I could barely move.
    I took a long drag off the cigarette and closed my eyes.

  • “Hamburgers.” I woke myself up with that and realised I was shivering. I felt sick to my stomach, like if I moved any muscle at all I would throw up. I laid there on the ground for a few minutes, shivering so hard it felt like my body was going to just snap itself in half. Finally I sat up and looked around. There was snow everywhere -- and not just a light dusting, but at least a foot of snow all around me. My eyes felt blurry and hot but at the same time my skin felt frozen. I had to get up out of this snow. I stood up and realised I wasn’t in the same place I had been in. The sun had set at some point and it was pitch black, with only a sprinkling of moonlight through the tree branches overhead.
    My breath started coming fast; I was panicking and I knew it and couldn’t calm down. I tried to breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth, like people had always told me to do when I was having a panic attack, but the air coming into my nose was so cold it hurt.
    To distract myself, I leaned over and grabbed some snow and rubbed it all over my face. That snapped me into the moment. I looked around again. I absolutely was not in the same place. How far from where I’d been was I? I forced myself to breathe slowly and checked for my bag. It was laying next to me in the snow.
    I couldn’t remember the moon being so bright the last couple of nights. How long had I been down with a fever? How long had I been here, wherever here was? I pulled out my water and took a sip, and then gulped down half the bottle when I realised how thirsty I was. My throat screamed from the cold and my lungs hurt.
    I couldn’t tell which direction I was even facing because I didn’t know when the moon had risen, or when the sun had set. I had never felt more lost than I did at that moment.
    Trying to calm myself down, I started absent-mindedly collecting branches and digging leaves out from underneath the snow. It would be hell to get them burning, but maybe I could use a strip of cloth as a fire starter.
    I tore off a small strip of fabric from the ankles of my pyjama pants and tied it around a couple of branches. There was a natural dip in the snow beside some trees, and I kicked at it until it was flattened out a little more. That’s where I started dumping the branches and leaves that I found. When I felt I had enough, I stuck the tied-together branches in the top and wiped the sweat from my forehead and neck. It felt like it was already freezing to my skin. This was a dangerous place to be at night, especially while sweating. I lit the fabric -- it lit immediately -- and sprinkled leaves around it. Steam started pouring off of them and floating directly upward. It caught the flecks of moonlight and I stared at it. Even though I was lost and freezing and in real danger of dying out here, it was still beautiful to watch.
    While the leaves were drying out enough to burn, I started packing snow into the water bottles -- two of them were completely empty, and I wondered when I had drunk them. I didn’t remember any of the time since I’d laid down. I didn’t even know how long I’d been in the forest. How long had it been since I’d eaten anything?
    I still felt nauseous. I leaned over and started going through my bag again. Terrified, I realised I had no food left. I swallowed hard and sipped at my water.
    I’d had at least four packets of food left.
    People could survive thirty days without food, I remembered reading somewhere years ago, but only a few days without water. I had enough to drink, so my main concern was food. There was no way I’d been out more than a day or two, so in the morning I could focus on finding food. The most important thing right now was to get warm and stay warm until I could make a shelter.
    I started packing down the snow around the fire, and made a makeshift wall out of snow that would keep in the heat from the fire around me. I wrapped my hands in the ends of my hoodie sleeves and pushed and kicked at the snow to carve out a little sleeping space.
    The moon was silent overhead, watching. It wasn’t any help to me right now. It seemed to simply be hanging there, motionless. There was no way of telling if it was rising or setting. It was just there, directly over the canopy of the trees.
    My whole body ached.
    I laid down the tarp in my sleeping space and got as close as I could safely get to the fire, and fell asleep with my head resting on the bag, my hoodie pulled tight around my face and my hands tucked into my now-wet sleeves. My shoes were soaking wet and my feet felt blistered, but I didn’t think taking them off in the snow would help anything. Probably, my wet feet would freeze. But they might freeze inside my shoes, too, I argued with myself.
    Before I could make a decision, I fell asleep.
  • [NOTE- re: Languages ... I imagined that Nottisian (spoken by people in Nottis) would be like Swedish .. so I wanted them to speak Swedish however * I * don't speak much Swedish so I ran it through Google Translate. Forgive me. If you speak Swedish and have a better interpretation than what G Translate spit out at me please post it!]

    “Vakna! Vakna!”
    I woke up to someone shaking me. I felt so tired though. All I wanted to do was sleep. I laid there, comfortable and warm, or so I thought. I tried to shake the hands off of me, pushing them away, but they were persistent.
    I heard a girl whisper somewhere above me: “Är hon död?”
    I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. The words were beautiful though, almost musical in the way they were delivered.
    “Vakna!” The voice was strong and persistent. It sounded like it belonged to a man, probably middle-aged, though with my eyes closed it was hard to tell.
    I tried to open my eyes, but they wouldn’t cooperate. Probably because I didn’t really want to. I wanted to stay where I was, and sleep, forever.
    The man’s voice: “Vi måste bära henne.”
    I felt the same strong hands that had been shaking me now pick me up carefully, gently, like a child. I couldn’t seem to move my body and lay limp in his arms.
    Then more sleep took me.

    When I awoke again, I was lying on a small cot by a roaring fire, covered in blankets. My feet were bare and my hoodie was gone. I looked around, blinking with difficulty and rubbing my head. Lately I’d been feeling bad, but now I felt ultra-bad. I felt the worst I think I’d ever felt in my entire life. My head was pounding and every part of my body ached. My skin was peeling in places, and my feet felt like they were on fire or getting stung by bees, or both. My hands stung, too, and it hurt my skin to rub my head.
    I heard the man’s voice call out. “Hon är vaken!”
    Suddenly I was surrounded by four people: a boy and a girl, they looked like twins -- both had freckles, white-blonde hair, and sparkling blue eyes -- although the girl was in a wheelchair; a heavy woman with a long white-blonde braid down her back and dressed in thick decoratively knitted dresses with an apron over them; and the largest man I’d ever seen. That must have been the man who had been trying to wake me earlier. He had close-cropped brown hair streaked with grey, and pale grey eyes. All of them were wearing large thick fur-lined boots that came up almost to their knees.
    The woman crouched down next to me. “God morgon,” she said, in that same musical language, “Vad heter du älskling?”
    I blinked at her. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know what you’re saying. Do you speak Common?”
    The people all looked at one another, and then back at me. “Var kommer du ifrån? ‘Common’?” The woman’s voice was gentle and kind but I had no idea what she was saying to me.
    I shook my head. “Common,” I repeated. All of a sudden I felt like crying.
    The man looked around the room and then pointed at himself. “Arvid,” he said slowly and clearly. “Arvid.” Then he pointed at the woman: “Agnes.” He paused. “Vad heter du?” he asked slowly.
    I pointed to myself. “George,” I said, mimicking the slow way of enunciating my words, “I’m George.” On second thought, I added, “You can call me Miso.”
    “Miso?” Arvid glanced at Agnes. “George Miso?”
    I shook my head. “Miso. George.” I pointed to myself again for emphasis.
    “Miso,” Arvid said, and nodded. “Även om jag inte har någon aning om vad du säger, är du välkommen i vårt hem.” He shrugged.
    The girl in the wheelchair rolled herself forward a little. “Mitt namn är Ludmila,” she said, smiling. “Ludmila,” she repeated and pointed at herself.
    The boy I assumed was her brother stepped closer, too, and pointed at himself. “Lucas,” he said.
    They were definitely twins; both had the exact same smile lighting up their faces.
    “Thank you for bringing me here,” I said, “I know you can’t understand me, but thanks.”
    The four of them glanced around at each other again and shrugged, gesturing with their hands and talking a little among themselves. Then Agnes stood and patted her hair.
    “Frukost,” she said to me, obviously hoping I would comprehend at least that one word. I looked at her blankly. She sighed. “Kom, Ät,” she said, “ät.” She gestured toward herself and pretended to put something in her mouth and chew. “Ät,” she repeated.
    Eat. I now knew one word in whatever language they were speaking. “Okay,” I said, and tried to smile. My face hurt.
    I stood up and nearly fell back down. Lucas immediately reached out and steadied me. “Var försiktig!” he nearly shouted. Then he, too, sighed and shook his head.
    I looked at him apologetically. “Thanks,” I said.
    “Tanks,” he repeated at me.
    Now we both knew one word in the other’s language. It was a start.
    They led me into another room, a small dining room with a sturdy-looking wooden table and mismatched wooden chairs. The whole set looked like it had been carved by hand. I imagined Arvid chiseling the wood with his bare hands, and had to smile. He could probably carve stone with his bare hands. He looked like a giant -- not a Giant, capital G, but a giant that lived in snow and.. A thought occurred to me.
    “Are we in Drifa?” I asked.
    Ludmila’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “Inte Drifa. Du är i Nottis.” She smiled brightly at me. I guess she assumed that it was good I knew where I was.
    I smiled back. I finally knew where I was. But, how did I get so far off track? There was no way I could have gone straight from.. wherever it was my boat had landed.. all the way to Nottis. That was so far north! “How..?” I started to ask, but then stopped, realising they couldn’t answer me even though they clearly would want to.
    Agnes walked over and set a bowl on the table near where I stood, and motioned for me to sit. “Frukost,” she said, “ät.” She made the eating motion again with her hands, and then set the table with food for everyone else.
    I was starving, and the food smelled delicious. It was some kind of potato and fish hash. Agnes handed me a wooden spoon and I dug into it. She started humming to herself and passed around cups of coffee with cream. Everything was perfect.
  • Some of my pain seemed to ease a little as I ate, and I was sure that at least some of the pain was due to having not eaten. Although I didn’t know how much of what I had eaten, had stayed down. And some of it, I’m sure, was the cold I’d been exposed to. After I’d eaten, I planned to take more painkillers. I felt long overdue for some. .
    “Hon är hungrig,” Arvid commented.
    “Hon dog nästan,” Agnes countered.
    I had a feeling they were talking about me. “This is delicious,” I said. “Thank you Agnes.”
    “‘Tack’,” Ludmila said and looked at me pointedly. “Säga ‘tack’.”
    “Tack?” I looked around the table. I suspected she was telling me how to thank Agnes.
    Agnes burst into a smile as bright as Ludmila and Lucas’. “Varsågod!” She nodded at me encouragingly.
    I looked around the table and returned to eating. The four of them began talking amongst themselves, and I tried to catch any snippets of anything that sounded like Common. But I couldn’t. None of it sounded familiar at all. So I ate, and simply listened to the melodic way they had of speaking.
    Lucas finished eating quickly and then left the room. I wanted to ask if they had a bathroom I could use, but didn’t know how I could communicate. I looked around, and as I was considering my options, Lucas came back. He was holding some paper and a quill. He put them down in front of me and pointed, making a gesture with his hands like writing.
    “Thank you!” I said, then remembering, “Tack!”
    I immediately drew a picture of a toilet and pointed to it, looking up at Lucas.
    “Badrum,” Lucas said, nodding and then pointed down a hall. “Vänster,” he said and pointed to the left.
    “Tack,” I said gratefully, and left my food quickly. I could hear the family talking to each other as I walked down the hall. So “vänster” was “left,” or maybe “door.” Maybe it was just another name for “bathroom”. Either way I was grateful.
    I finished and washed my hands, then ran my hands through my hair a few times, trying to make it look halfway presentable.
    As I was returning to the table, there was a knock at the door. Agnes stood up and went to it, and Arvid kept eating. I got the feeling that it was someone they were expecting.
    A young man walked into the kitchen with Agnes. He had a shovelful of bright blue hair that matched his clear blue eyes, and was wearing a giant fur coat three sizes too big. Agnes caught my eye and pointed to him. “Tick,” she said, by way of introduction.
    I waved at him, not knowing how to talk to someone whose language I didn’t understand. But it wasn’t a problem. “Hey, I’m Tick,” he said, and smiled at me as he seated himself at the table. “Agnes and Arvid called me yesterday when they found you in the snow. I came here to translate for you, and help you whatever way I can.”
    “Giants! Thank you!” I was so surprised I forgot for a moment how to speak. My spoon was caught mid-air between my plate and my mouth and it hung there expectantly. When I realised it, I set it down and nodded at Arvid and Agnes. “Tack,” I said, pointing to Tick, and then turned back to him. “My name is George but my friends call me Miso. I’m from Shimla Mirch. I was kidnapped, and escaped. I don’t know how I got all the way north from where I was. I thought I was headed to Groddle.”
  • “Huh, no,” Tick said. “You’re pretty far north of Groddle. You say you were kidnapped? Do you know the people who took you?”
    “No.” My brow creased as I thought. “I’d never seen any of them before. The last thing I remember was walking down near the college in Jethimadh. I was going to go out for coffee with my friends. Before I met them, a truck pulled up alongside me and these guys jumped out. They were all wearing masks, like ski masks. I couldn’t see their faces. Then they drugged me with something and I woke up in this big building. I think it was in Uralia.”
    “How did you escape?” Tick asked, gently.
    “I stole a boat,” I said, feeling very proud of myself. I didn’t want to implicate Nick in any of this, because I really didn’t think he was at fault, but I went on, “There was a nurse there, he helped me get to the boats. There was someone experimenting on me there. They called him Dr. Jameson. And there was a woman there too, I think she was doing the same thing. Her name was Melanie.” And then I remembered: “The nurse -- the one who helped me escape -- he told me they had his daughter. They’re holding his daughter hostage.”
    Tick frowned, and turned to Agnes and Arvid, relaying everything I’d said. Then he looked at me with concern. “We’ll figure out how to find her, after. Right now: Are you ok? You say they did experiments on you? What kind of experiments?”
    “They drugged me with something. I don’t know what. The doctor, Dr. Jameson? He said it was some kind of weight loss experiment.”
    “Well that explains why you look so deathly thin,” Tick commented, and then translated. Agnes said something in return, and Tick repeated it in Common for me: “You need to eat more. The cold could have killed you easily.”
    I looked down at myself. I’d never in my life been thin, let alone ‘deathly-thin’. Whatever their drugs were, I guess they worked. I scoffed. “Well besides that -- oh, hey I never was able to thank them for saving me.” I looked at Agnes and Arvid, “Thank you for saving me. I really would have died out there if it hadn’t been for you two.”
    The two of them looked at Tick while he translated, and then Agnes smiled and nodded her head.
    “Ät,” Agnes said to me. Eat.
    I nodded at her and started to eat the rest of my food.
    “And this nurse, did he have a name?” Tick asked.
    “Yeah,” I said, and swallowed, “Nick.”
    “Do you know his daughter’s name?”
    I shook my head. “No. He never told me. He only told me they had her the night that I ran away.”
    “Well, we’re a long way from Uralia, if that’s where you were.”
    Ludmila, through Tick, asked, “What was it like? Why do you think it was Uralia?”
    “Everything growing there was blue. Even the beach,” I said, “and the rocks were all covered with orange and purple lichen. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of Uralia.”
    “Hmm,” she said, and then left the room. “I’ll be right back,” she called over her shoulder.
    I ate the last of my breakfast and thanked Agnes.
    I’d never thought about language very much. This whole situation was showing me how important it was to be able to communicate with people. I wanted to remember to give my mom an extra-special hug, to thank her for telling me how to speak Ixian when I was little.
    Ludmila came back with a large book in her lap. She handed it to me and then returned to her spot at the table. “There’s a section about Uralia,” she said, “See if anywhere looks familiar.”
    I flipped it open and looked up the Uralia section with the table of contents, and then slowly turned the pages through the section until I found a photo that was eerily similar to what I’d seen from the facility.
    “This one,” I said, pointing. I handed her the book, open to the page I was pointing at, and she set it on the table and leaned over it.
    “That’s near Ilmenskie,” Ludmila commented. She turned a few pages backward and forward in the book. “You must have been close to the Ilmenskie Caverns.”
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