“We’re just too different,” I say, and shoot him. Point blank. One to the head. Bang.
He collapses in on himself, folding and contorting into a crumpled heap of offal, leaching his blood onto the thirsty ground.
I toss the gun on the grass beside him and jog through the summer flowers towards the trail down to the beach.
And here I am. Choking in the city. Assaulted by the cacophony of nighttime suburbia, scuttling through the light, creeping through the darkness. Staggering towards the sanctuary of the lab.
Across the road, a red dress flaps, pegged on a clothesline, the ruffled sleeves catching the wind and snapping out a lilting tattoo. I glance over my shoulder and strip off my gown, leaving the carcass of my metamorphosis on the road, white and abandoned.
The streetlights blast my bare flesh and my skin prickles, sensing unseen eyes watching. But I am brave. And strong.
I tumble into the blackness, darting across the grass and kneeling before the dress. I tug it from the clothesline, and slip it on, the fabric whispering to my skin.
A police car stampedes along the road, its sirens slicing through the night. I cower behind the fence. And I know it. They’ve found him. The man different to me.
Grey slithers of feeble sun peek over the horizon, and I open my eyes. It’s morning. I’m wedged between a fence and a snarled mess of garden, with a breeze whispering across my cheeks. An empty clothesline catches the wind, and it creaks, turning in an idle circle. For a delicious minute, I wonder where I am, and then I remember.
Point blank. One to the head. Bang.
I roll over and vomit. Partly from the guilt. Partly from the withdrawal. The drugs are leaving my system and my head is clearing, but it’s still an effort to piece together a viable timeline.
Two sunsets since I last plucked the red pills from the small plastic cup and swallowed them. One, since I shot him.
A white plastic band with a bar code hugs my wrist. Ally Smith, the name declares. But I’m not Ally Smith. That’s just a lie.
One of his lies.
I tear at the band, and it bites into my wrist, the skin bulging at the sides, porcelain white framed with lines of red. It snaps and I am Ally Smith no longer.
I’m not sure who I am anymore. But I’m on a journey of self-discovery. I vault over the fence and stride along the verge. A car approaches. I stick out my thumb, the hem of my dress snapping at my calves in the wind. The car slows. I smile. The journey has just begun.
“There is no lab on Gutman Street,” the man says, resting a pale hand on the steering wheel. He frowns, his eyebrows pinching together like hairy orange caterpillars caught in a Mexican standoff.
I run my fingertip along the dash, casting a trail in the dust and grime. I close my eyes and focus, picturing the lab, dredging up a fractured memory.
A man sits at his desk by a window, a crooked Pohutukawa stands guard beside the gates. He hands me a plastic pill cup and whispers about creating a better future, how we’re just the same and other such lies.
I grip the dash, my breath catching, and steal a glance at the driver, but he's not the man from my memory.
“Number sixty-eight,” I say.
He stiffens, his cheeks colouring from the mental slap of my words. When he meets my gaze, he coughs and doubt creeps around his eyes.
“That’s not a lab,” he says.
I shrug, casually, but an uncomfortable thought chases my attempt at nonchalance. “How do you know?”
“I’m Ben,” he says, turning the key, coaxing the car into life.
We pull onto the road, and the silence stretches between us. I wonder if in my past life I’d be afraid, alone, in the countryside with a man I don’t know. But I shot a man yesterday. I’m not afraid.
“It’s not a lab,” he says again, his voice husky with emotion.
I shift in my seat and wipe my sweaty palms on my dress. “What would you call it, then?”
“Hell,” he replies.
I nod. That’s not a lie.
He adjusts his grip on the steering wheel, his hands so white I wonder if they’ve ever seen the sun.
“It’s a secure psychiatric facility, Ally,” he says.
And my world collapses, spinning and crumpling, folding and contorting, until I am reduced to a single thought. Ben, his pale hands, hairy orange eyebrows, he’s also different to me.
The car swings round a corner and I slam against the door, my fingers brushing the cool metal of the doorhandle. At the end of the road an old Pohutukawa bathed in red flowers guards a wrought-iron gate.
“I never said my name was Ally,” I whisper.
He glances at me, his face devoid of emotion, body unnaturally still. “No,” he says, “I guess you didn’t.”
I yank open the door and hurl myself onto the road, trying desperately to tuck into a ball, but the impact still takes the breath right out of me. His fingers brush my arm as I exit, but I’m too quick. I’m out and free. I stagger to my feet. The car brakes, its red taillights blinking.
I run. Through the gates, sprinting under the crimson bloom, towards the place where I am different.
Because I’m on a journey of self-discovery.
My lungs burn and sweat stings as it runs into my eyes, but I’m nearly there. I force myself forward, inching through the air vent, towards the square grill that leads into the office. I prize it off and lower myself down.
My bare feet touch the carpet and a flood of memories slams into me so hard that I stagger, collapsing against the window. We spent hours here, this man and I. Plastic cups, red pills. “We’re doing important work,” he’d say. “We’re just the same, you and I.” Point blank. One to the head. Bang.
A video camera sits in the corner, and beside the window is a grey filling cabinet. I inch the top drawer open, searching for the holy grail of my self-discovery.
Inside are three neat rows of colour coded tapes, the type that fit into old film video cameras. I lift out the red tape with trembling fingers and turn it over. A. Smith is printed on the front and a sob escapes.
I slot the tape into the camera and press play, tendrils of dread creeping around my throat. The tiny screen flickers and hisses into life with a spray of static. And then there I am. Sitting in the office, my hospital gown wrapped around me, clutching a little cup of pills like my life depends on it.
I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding and lean against his desk, settling in to watch the grainy image of my self-discovery.
“You can call me Rhetor,” a man says. He’s sitting opposite me, pinstripe suit, shined shoes, greying hair neatly combed.
“Thank you for being part of our study, Ally. Your contribution to our research is greatly important.”
I shake my head. “My name’s Ca—”
He holds out his hand. “Ally is your name now.”
I shift in my chair and pick at a bit of imaginary fluff on my hospital gown.
“Say, ‘Yes rhetor.’”
My gaze darts around the room, and I rest my hands on my knees, making to stand. I glance at the camera. “Yes, rhetor,” I say, finally.
“Swallow the pills, Ally.”
I look at the cup, shaking it and then tipping the pills into my hand. I’m clearly stalling. My eyes are wide and brimming with uncertainty when I look at him.
“You signed the waiver, Ally. You knew this research would involve a lengthy stay and medication.” He leans forward in his chair and holds my gaze. “You’re being paid for this.”
I tip the pills into my mouth and swallow. The rhetor nods. For a moment nothing happens and with each passing second the rhetor’s face grows darker.
Then I fall back in my chair, floppy, and the rhetor springs to his feet, pressing his fingertips to his lips.
“Outstanding,” he says. “Ally, Ally, can you hear me?”
“I’ve been searching for someone like you.” He smiles and walks across the plush carpet. His knees creak as he leans close to my ear, lips brushing my skin and he whispers. And whispers. And whispers.
He clicks his fingers.
And I sit. He raises his hand and I raise mine. I’m a mirror image of him. He touches his ear and I touch mine. Hands on head. Touch your toes. Over and over and over, I copy his actions. He makes an imaginary gun with his fingers, and so do I.
Point blank. One to the head. Bang.
He clicks his fingers again and I jerk, then shake my head, gazing around the room.
“Welcome back Ally, let me explain something. Your reaction to these pills, it’s very special. We’re the same, you and I. Together, we’re going to do great things.”
He turns and picks up a—
I lean closer to the camera, desperate to understand what the hell I’m seeing. Behind me, something creaks, and I spin, my body electric with adrenaline. Ben’s standing behind me, his eyes wide. I’m not sure how long he’s been watching.
“Ally, we need to go,” he says.
His voice jolts me into action, and I shoot away from him, pressing against the window.
“Ally, you’ve seen what they do here. We have to go.” He steps forward, holding out a pale hand.
Behind my back, I fumble with the latch on the window, guiding it open. It’s a substantial fall, but I’m out of options.
"My tape is orange," he says, nodding at the filing cabinet.
There’s a vulnerability about him, a terrified childlike innocence in his pale eyes. I know that look, I feel the same. I keep my gaze fixed on him as I slide out the orange tape; B. Smith is printed on the front.
He inches closer, his fingers reaching for mine and I don’t pull away.
“What is this place?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I don’t really know. What do you remember?”
“Nothing.” It’s not quite the truth. But it’s the best I can offer. A flash of sadness, tinged with desperation, crosses his face. “I don’t think I was a patient here,” I say. “I’m not crazy.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think there are any patients here. Just subjects.”
“What do you know?” I ask.
“From what I can piece together, it’s some sort of experiment,” he says, fingers reaching, nearly touching. “Something to do with drugs and brainwashing.” He sucks in a breath and looks so vulnerable I want to wipe his tears and tell him everything will be okay. “I think it’s only early days and they’re looking for something special. I think they’re trying to weaponise people.”
A shockwave of guilt slams into my stomach, and I stagger against the windowsill. Ben grips my elbow, steadying me.
“Easy,” he says, his voice soft, full of concern.
I was brainwashed. Point blank. One to the head. Bang. To kill.
“I killed him,” I say. “I killed the rhetor.”
His fingertips brush against mine, his skin smooth. “I'm guessing that’s what he wanted to test.”
“Test?” The word is unexpected, and it pings in my mind. “What do you mean?”
A black Mercedes pulls into the drive, and Ben recoils, grabbing my hand, pulling me away from the window. “We have to go Ally, now.” He tugs, hard. “He’s here.”
He’s pulling, but my feet won’t move.
“I shot him,” I say. "He's dead."
"He's not dead." He shakes his head. “It was a test, Ally. Do you really think he’d go out into the field alone, unarmed, accompanied by a trained killer with a loaded gun?”
The car parks at the front of the facility. I’m frozen, rooted in the ground. Waiting to see who gets out of the car.
“We have to go,” Ben says. He half drags, half carries me across the office, and boosts me into the air vent.
“Move, Ally,” he says, climbing up after me and shoving me forward. “He’s coming for us. We have to get out. So, we can come back for the others.”
His words jolt me into action. The others. I wriggle and writhe through the vent, lungs burning, sweat stinging my eyes. I’m done with my journey of self-discovery. I’m not Ally, but I’m not Ca— anymore either. I’m moving forward, into the new me.
We come to a junction. There’s more space here, and Ben crawls up next to me. We’re both breathing heavily. Somewhere we’ve taken a wrong turn. This isn’t the way I came in.
“Ben,” I say. “How do you know all this? That he isn’t dead?”
He shrugs. “From my test, I guess.”
“Did you shoot him, too?”
He pauses, only for a fraction, but I see it. “No,” he says. “He tested me on something different.”
He looks over his shoulder and casts a thin smile.
“Deception," he says. And he crawls forward, disappearing into the darkness.