Bright, bright, bright. It was always too bright, always bright, always grating, grating at the back of his eyes, in the back of his mind. Peter no longer squinted. The lights that lined the room bored into his brain, boring and drilling, but Peter no longer squinted.
The window, the singular window, told him it wasn’t food-time yet, but he couldn’t help but wait, shivering, by the door slot. She would come soon—or maybe not. Time didn’t exist in his blinding cell, not until the sky outside the window slit turned dark. When he stood, he could reach it, peering outside at the endless sky.
Peter shivered, sitting on the damn floor. The room had begun to stink again, but he didn’t mind. It meant she would be arriving soon, to clean. Peter loved it when she came. She didn’t look like him, with her stomping boots and her black-eyed mask—Peter often wondered if they were of the same kind—but when he could see her hair, he felt at peace. They had the same brown hair, hair that trickled over her shoulders and cascaded down his back. Sometimes she let him touch it, gently and softly.
On very special days, she would stay longer, and run her careful hands down the ridge of his backbone. She would help him to his feet, ever gentle, ever soft, and stretch out his arms and legs so she can run a bit of cold metal down them, bumping into his skin every so slightly, ever so often. He no longer made a sound when she did—she didn’t seem to like his sounds much anyway. He liked hers, though. Peter loved to hear the sounds she made when she came to see him. There was one she made, that she said so gently, with so much devotion. He longed to hear it. He practiced making her noises, so maybe she would stay longer, but she never stayed. Peter bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, both excited and cold. A very special day would be coming soon.
Most days, all he could hear was the buzzing of the lights, but sometimes, if Peter huddled by the edge of his cell, he could hear muddled sounds. He thought they might be from others like him, but he’d never seen anybody but her. Maybe there were others out there, others like him. Peter longed to see them. Their sounds surrounded his dreams. He practiced making her sounds a couple times more—she would be so surprised to hear her sounds. Maybe then she’d stay.
Food plopped through the food slot, and Peter rushed over, grabbing it as soon as he could so it wouldn’t lay for long on the damn, cold floor. It wasn’t bad—it wasn’t sweet today, but it was food, and he had been so hungry. At this point, Peter knew the routine well. After food came the darkness outside the slit of a window, and sometimes, if it was a very special day, she would come. Surely a very special day was coming soon, Peter thought. He had been waiting for a while now.
It was! It was a very special day! Peter leapt to his feet, walking up to the door. She pushed him back as he walked in, which was normal—Peter knew by now that he was not supposed to see whatever was behind his door. She had less brown hair now, and she let him run the tips of his fingers over the feathery ends. He watched her adoringly while she did her measurements. She used the special sound, the one that Peter knew, only once. Peter waited patiently while she tested his memory, his reflexes, using a small shock to let him know what he would done wrong and something small and sweet when he did something right. This was all typical; Peter barely needed to think about it anymore. He made sure not to relieve himself while she was there; she didn’t like it when he did that in front of her, and it always made her leave sooner.
Finally, she turned to leave, and Peter made his move. “Peter,” he sounded, and she turned with a start. Peter bounced up and down. He surprised her! Maybe she’d stay. “Peter,” he sounded again, and to his delight, she started making sounds of her own. “Peter.”
She made more noises, wiggling her finger back and forth on the little item she always brought with her. Then she said something else to him, but that sound he didn’t recognize.
“Peter,” he tried again, but she didn’t seem as surprised this time. He was far taller than her now, but she could still put one hand on his head. He closed his eyes. Maybe this time she’d stay.
But she didn’t. She left, leaving Peter in the cold, bright room alone. It was okay. That was okay. He would practice her sounds and maybe next time she’d stay longer. Peter settled on the floor and put his arms over his head, ready to sleep. Next time, he would be better at her sounds.
A muffled thump against his window startled him out of his rest. Something must have smacked against it. It wasn’t the first time that had happened, but as he trotted over to the window, he found it was different now, for the first time in eighteen years. There was a crack, splicing down the middle. Peter pressed on the window gingerly, and the freezing glass shifted under his fingertips. A cold stream of air swirled in, and with it, a tiny speck of something wet that settled and melted on Peter’s skin. He pressed harder, and harder, and harder and suddenly it snapped, and the glass under his fingertips was suddenly gone and his arm was out, out in an environment that was much colder than his own.
Peter pressed on the other side, and this one cracked too, but this crack stung his skin, as if she was still there, shocking him for being wrong. Peter pulled his hand back in shock—it was wet now, and vividly red with blood. It was colder in the room now, with the frigid air flurrying in. Part of Peter wanted to stay behind, to huddle in the corner. He doubted this is what she wanted him to do. But part of him felt exhilarated.
Peter propped himself up on one elbow, standing on his tippy-toes and ignoring the biting sting in his arm when it pressed against the jagged edge of where the window had been, and what he saw amazed him; there was so much outside his room, so many more colors, so many more shapes. Entranced, he stuck his other arm through, ignoring the cold, ignoring the stinging of his arm. Suddenly, wildly, taken by this other world, Peter launched himself through it, bits of where the window used to be piercing and tearing at this stomach and the paper-thin skin of his thighs until he was falling, and then he landed in something cold, something wet, knocking this wind out of his lungs.
And when Peter stood up again, he wept.
The world outside his room was so much bigger than he’d known. Something alive, something he’d never seen, fluttered over his head, making a sound he’d never heard. The wind blew over his naked body, making the thin hairs that covered his body bristle, before the wind swept past him, rustling a huge, spindling something farther down the path. Peter took a few steps toward it, his feet sinking into the white wet something that covered the ground. He took a few more steps, more than he’d ever taken in his room before, and soon he was running, speeding, faster than he thought he would ever move, and out of his mouth came a sound he’d never heard, and it filled his heart.
He reached the spindling something, touched the rough covering, felt pieces break off and crumble in his hands. The fluttering thing, the one that had flown over his head, lighted on the spindling something, looking down at him, and making a sound that was high and piercing and startling and Peter couldn’t help but shriek after it in delight. It flew away from him, and he followed it, running faster than anything Peter had ever seen.
He followed it a ways, until the white wet powder that coated his bare skin began to make his feet numb until they wouldn’t move. Peter was surprised—his feet pierced, like the cuts on his arms and stomach, but when he sat to look at them, he couldn’t see any holes or any blood.
His arms started to feel sluggish too, Peter noticed, and when he looked at them, he saw them change color from pink to blue to grey. They were hurting too, and Peter started to feel less sure of himself. He took to his feet again, plodding after the little fluttering thing, but it didn’t last. His feet, his legs were too tired.
It was okay, though, Peter thought, falling to his knees. He didn’t mind. He was starting to feel quite warm, actually, which was nice. He couldn’t help but wonder if he’d made a mistake though; he knew she wouldn’t like him being out here, and he hated to let her down. His stomach and thighs were sticky with blood now, seeping and dying the fresh soft powdered ground.
Peter lay down. The ground beneath him was soft, at least—he liked it more than lying on the cold tile of his room. And the sky—oh! —the sky was so much richer now that he was outside, and speckled with the little fluttering things, calling to each other as they traversed the sky. Peter loved it all, as much as he loved her, and he wished he could show her all of this wonder that had been outside his room the entire time. Most of all, he just wished she was there. Peter couldn’t move his arms or legs anymore, but it didn’t matter. It was okay, just to look up, look to the sky.
He had hardly closed his eyes when he heard her voice. She sounded so far away from him—he tried to sit up, to see her, and he found he couldn’t. That was okay.
“Peter,” she called, and he sounded back.
Peter was happy, as the strength left his chest. She had gotten to see the outside world with him after all.