But I don’t want to be.
Not like this.
Every inhale. Every exhale. The sound persists. It’s stained on my mind, never relenting. The cruel brain that operated on me should listen. He should be tortured by the vibration that dominates me now. But he won’t know. He’s long since dead, leaving his punishment to sweet Dorin.
Just stop breathing. My lips clamp together.
Dorin’s voice is the only thing that keeps me here. I strain to see him, my body stiff, broken, planted. As he enters my room, I reach a trembling arm for him. He’s red, dusted. The desert hasn’t been kind to him. It never is. He lowers the fabric at his mouth, raises the goggles from his eyes. The smile sewn on his face is strained, the fading glint in his eyes almost dim. But his hand still clasps into mine, a perfect fit since the day we met.
Our pattern is set. For years he wanders the desert, only to return to my side empty-handed. Not once has he complained, and not once will I.
“You didn’t sleep?” he wonders. His fingers break from my grasp, drawing along my brow. “Did it keep you up again?” The whir. It doesn’t have to be spoken. We both know it haunts me. My everlasting defect.
With deft movements, he hides the blood in his palm. But I don’t have to see it to know. Lately, the sandstorms have been worse. They’re not just wearing down the exterior, his interior is suffering. The opposite of me.
I’m a partial machine.
He’ll eventually die without me.
And I won’t be able to lift an arm to do myself in. So as he fades away physically, I do so mentally. Each day is more difficult. And each day he prepares me to live alone, the way I once did. The way I never wanted to.
“I’ve been called,” he explains. Wiping his bloody palm on the inside of his jacket, he then replaces it on my forehead. “It’s a short job this time. I’ll be back in no time.”
But it isn’t a short job.
The winds wake me. Each rattle of the windows, the door, startle me. He’s not walking back in. I’ve long since resigned myself to that fact–and yet, hope persists. Time is a construct I no longer follow. But the length of my hair is all I need. From where it tickled my chin, it now curls at my breast. In my experience, that means years.
And I still lay here.
My eyes flit from the door to the ceiling. Peeling back my lips, I prepare to scream.
The air departs, then reverts. My mechanical throat devours the sand-ridden air, cleansing it–the waste is expunged. Just let me scream. Let me. It’s all I’ve wanted to do since the day I was reborn a monster, after the accident. From human to hybrid.
Closing my eyes, I inhale through my nose. It’s the last sense that’s my own.
The door whips itself open. And the smell consumes me. Sand, blood, wet sage.
“She needs consistent care.” A deep voice, my creator.
“But she’ll live.” Dorin’s words, so confident.
“Yes, she’ll live,” my creator agreed. He was a disconnect, a darkness in the distance. Even Dorin was just a figure, but I knew his silhouette. It was distinct, familiar. But I’d only just met him.
“Then I’ll help her.” His fingers stroked down my arm. “She’ll be herself in no time.” He lifted me into his arms, carried me to the door, and walked me down the hallway. It was an eternity. The length of that hallway gave me nightmares.
And then the white door.
He shoved it open with his shoulder. It was clad in the same white. When the white clashed, I felt the first pang of fear. A box. Four walls. It was big enough for us, but nothing else. Though the floor was cushioned, it was no bed. And he left me there.
I’ll help her.
My mind never let go of those words. As I lay on the floor, nothing more than a ragdoll, that phrase repeated. I made myself sick thinking it’d bring his care. I hurt myself in the only way I could, begging his attention to return. Nights of gulping blood. Scars lining the inside of my cheeks. All to be enveloped in unloving arms.
He came. It took every waking moment, but he finally came. In a whirlwind of sand and wet sage, he brought a fury-infused fist down on my caretakers.
I’ll help her. She’ll be herself in no time.
When would I be myself?
I don’t want to be alone. Not anymore. Please come back soon, Dorin.
The door claps against its frame.
“Hold her!” Dorin commanded, stepping into my room. I wouldn’t fight. I couldn’t fight. But the men drug me from the cushions, pressing me to the back wall.
I hated him.
“This is for your own good,” he promised. And then he jammed his thumbs through my lips, parting my jaws. The agony was unbearable. He didn’t care. The bars he inserted between my teeth kept my mouth from closing. It was enough for my lips to drop together, but my teeth never met one another again.
I couldn’t bite my cheeks. I couldn’t cry for attention in the only way I knew how.
And I wanted him to die.
His eyes swallowed me as the men released me. My body drooped, a marionette whose puppeteer resented it. But he held my gaze. Those stern eyes didn’t leave me until the door blocked them. I pretended it meant he felt guilty. If he was guilty, then there was still a chance the words were true.
I’ll help her.
Just so long as he erased me from existence, I considered that helping me. If only he had.
The days persisted, the pain numbed. I learned to breathe through the fan, through the bars, against my instincts. And because I couldn’t harm myself, no one came. I was a machine, a machine that didn’t need sustenance, defecation, and therefore: care.
But the emotions in me never left.
I’ve never liked the darkness. The sand’s flooding through, finding a home in my box. And with it, the light dims. It flickers with every stroke of the wind. But I won’t suffocate.
“Can’t we quiet that blasted noise?” Dorin stood over me, but he was speaking to another. All of them hovered above me. I was laid out on a table or a bench. The metal was cold on my skin.
“We’ve tried.” A sheepish voice. My eyes slid to him. He was more bone than I was. I was almost jealous. It meant he was human, starved, but human. My legs were imitations. Porcelain silicone hid the truth. It didn’t match the skin tone of my arms, which had seen the sun for twenty years.
“Earplugs,” Dorin held out an impatient hand. His eyes never met mine, although I awaited them. I even prepared the expression I would return. But he never gave me the chance.
To mask his guilt, to assuage his own heart, he wore those earplugs. And ignored my pleading gaze.
But I continued to hear it.
Even as the men around me checked my legs. I listened to it. It was louder than anything they whispered to one another. Drowned, desperate, hurt, I remained still.
While they peeled the silicone from the wires of my calf, I stared. I thought how nice it would be to speak my objections. The few women I met were strong-willed, mouthy. They didn’t worry about the men’s feelings as they warned them off.
I thought how nice it would be to shove Dorin away. And then I’d scoff at him.
I’d help myself.
I lift my arm, protecting my eyes. The sand burns. And as it whips, I feel it sear. Two arms aren’t enough to leave.
Just a doll. A living doll. It beats a machine. At least it implies human-like qualities.
Of those, I wish I had more.
I moved my fingers.
It was the first time.
The pride I felt welled in my chest until Dorin crushed it. He wasn’t impressed. He expected more.
“It’s been a year,” he explained. The earplugs, I could see them hidden in the depths of his ears. With a clipboard in hand, he walked closer to me. “Fingers. Your fingers. That’s it?” Dropping to a squat before me, he grabbed my arm. “It’s your own!”
Without words, I couldn’t stand my ground. But I had something better. No movement could explain my disbelief as well as my finger did. One pointed, hateful middle finger was all it took. I expected his rage. It was normal.
But he laughed.
“I deserve that.”
He dropped to a seat across from me. For a long moment, our eyes held. I wanted him to know I hated him. I wanted to express the shame and belittlement he caused me. But he just kept smiling. So I lifted my finger again.
His smile fell, replaced by fury.
“We saved you!” he screamed the words into my face, which was followed by the clipboard. It was the first time I felt my head turn like that.
And I couldn’t reposition it on my own.
He might actually cry this time. He holds it in so well. But I’ve been waiting for the dam to break. It’s wishful thinking. For, even buried in sand, I still live. I persist. Like a roach, a disease, a stain.
He’ll know I’m not dead. If he ever does cry, it’ll be for himself: when he rots.
The box was quiet. But the surrounding cacophony had my heart in tatters. Fires, screaming, fear. The world crumbled around me.
That’s what they called them, what they called me. Unlike me, they exacted their revenge. Their hatred and power were unmatched. The men died. The mouthy women melted to their knees or dissolved into human slaves. And I remained in my box.
Dorin invaded it.
“Please,” he begged. “Hide me. Help me.”
I’ll help her.
There were a thousand replies I wanted to counter with. But I was exhausted. I couldn’t even use my one voice. So he stayed. He sat on the opposite side of my box until he was thin. I think he finally learned fear, true fear. The attack was over, the damage done, but he was still hesitant to leave.
“Do you need anything?” he whispered one day. I just wanted him to leave. The white he always wore shed to the floor behind him as he stood. “You don’t sleep well, do you?” With every ounce of energy I had left in me, I lifted my one, blessed finger.
Leave me alone.
He did. For a time. I took great happiness in my solace. For so long I’d begged for attention, but no more. I was finally helping myself.
Me. Not them.
Then he returned. Upon seeing him, I expected to hold the hatred I always had. But he was different. The glow of sunlight flooded in behind him, illuminating his figure.
And my heart seized.
Sand, blood, wet sage.
It’s really him.
My arms lift, drawing the sand away. He’s emaciated. The remnants of the man he used to be must’ve finally fallen away. It fell much slower than the tears dripping down his cheeks. He’s practically blubbering.
“Lea,” the relief in his voice is short-lived. He digs his way to me, shoveling sand aside with his hands. “I’m sorry.” From relief to sorrow. My eyes swivel, glancing past him. The sun is rising over the hills. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a proper sunrise. I gasp.
I gurgle, surprised. My eyes return to his.
“I’m sorry,” he repeats. “I’m so sorry.” The knife sinks deeper into my chest with a sickening sound of flesh. It sounds wet, feels wet. “This is killing me.” Is it? I finally relented to my feelings for him. I finally stopped hating him.
I lift my hand over his, shoving him back.
“I’m doing what’s best for you,” he whispers. For a long time I hated him, and then I’d changed my mind. I went from hating him to hating myself. But for what? What made me love him: his kind words, him returning to my side, those eyes?
He smells like tea brewed by the hand of death.
I’m a fool.
I return to my cushion, my head resting on my casket pillow. And he leaves, clasping the door shut behind him. From end to beginning. I return to the life I hated. The man I hated.
I hate him for leaving me in here, a tall grave lost to the desert.