The ceiling glowed crimson as I sprinted down the hall. A high-pitched alarm pierced my ears, sending panic through my body. I skidded around the corner, breaths caught in my lungs.
Shouts echoed from behind me. A barrier lowered from the ceiling, rapidly choking off my path. I pushed my legs to go faster as I honed in on the narrow gap. I dropped to my side to slide feet first. My ribs burned against the concrete. Thuds of incoming footfalls bounced off the walls. I slammed my palm on the ground, begging for the barrier to drop.
Come on, come on.
My gaze shot up. The barrier had disappeared. I stumbled onto my feet, perplexed.
I glanced down the adjacent hallways, unsure which led to the exit. Michael was meeting me at the rendezvous point at twenty-one hundred hours. I checked the time, but my watch was gone. Was I wearing it?
The voices grew louder. I spun around. Three men turned the corner, halting at the sight of me. It was the man with glasses flanked by guards in combat gear.
The man with the glasses raised his hands, took two cautious steps as if approaching a wild horse. As if I was the real threat.
I felt for the vial tucked in my breast pocket, then slid my fingers over my belt loop, gripping the hilt of a knife.
Just as he opened his mouth to speak, I threw the weapon, aiming for his skull. He caught the knife like a baseball, unharmed.
“Olivia,” the man said, gripping the knife by the blade. Why wasn’t he bleeding? He wore a lab coat, his hair the color of ash. “Give me the vial.”
I spat on the floor. Michael needed that vial. He was waiting for me, though I couldn’t remember where.
One guard whipped out a jeweled necklace.
I shook my head, refocused on the object. He was holding zip tie handcuffs. I balled my fists and raised them to my face.
“Olivia,” the man warned. “Behave.”
If I was going to make it out of here, I had to go through them. But it was three against one.
Reality closed in; my chance for escape had vanished. How would I get the substance to Michael now?
“Turn around,” the guard said. He wore a t-shirt and surfer shorts.
I blinked, and his outfit switched back to tactical gear. Another blink. Another change of clothes.
I stumbled back, massaging the pulse in my head. My vision swirled to the overhead strobe of neon lights until all went dark.
I startled awake, the motion rocking my brain like a boat. I shuffled upright in bed, gripping my forehead. A tray with juice and a banana sat on the nightstand. I chugged the OJ, though my throat was still parched.
Something about this room felt familiar: the vanity pushed against the buttery walls, the painting of the beach hanging by the window, the light dangling from the ceiling shaped like a globe, the soft mattress and its crisp cotton sheets.
This was my bedroom.
But how did I get here? Did I escape with the vial?
I heard footsteps from the hallway. Michael. I couldn’t help but smile.
The man with the glasses walked through the door.
I scrambled backwards, slamming against the tufted headboard.
“Are you feeling better?” He grabbed a chair from the vanity and placed it beside the bed.
I threw off the sheet and snatched the gun from the nightstand. “Where’s Michael?”
He didn’t flinch when he sat. “Why did you run?”
I checked my breast pocket. The vial was gone.
“Looking for this?” He placed the empty vial on the nightstand.
That was for Michael. “Where’s the substance?”
“You took it.”
No, I stole the vial for Michael. Though why he needed it, I couldn’t recall.
My breathing quickened. “Stop fucking with me.”
“No one is fucking with you, Olivia.”
With my finger steady on the trigger, I slowly stood and headed for the door. I jiggled the doorknob. Locked. “Open it.”
“Have a seat.” He tipped his head toward the bed.
I rushed to the window and reached for the latch. My nails scraped the wall. Wallpaper. Fuck.
He patted the mattress. Even if I shot the man, how the hell was I going to escape this room? How did I do it last time?
“Do you know who I am?” he asked when I sat on the edge of the bed.
“You’re the asshole who’s holding me hostage.” I stared into his green eyes with the gun firm in my hands. “What is this place?”
He ran a hand through his black hair. Was it always that color? “You said there would be side effects. Having familiar things would ease your transition back.”
I blinked and his glasses disappeared. What the hell was going on? I slid further back.
“Is this supposed to be a gun?” He reached for the weapon and I pulled the trigger on instinct.
But nothing happened.
I tugged the trigger over and over. The empty clicking sound scraped against my eardrums like static.
He held my wrist so gently that my breath hitched. His other hand pried each of my fingers from the weapon. His dark brown eyes flicked to meet mine. Dark brown. Not green.
“You going to eat this?” He held the gun by the barrel.
My eyes widened as he peeled the gun and took a bite.
It couldn’t be. My gaze flashed to the nightstand.
The banana was missing.
He discarded the peel on the tray, then moved to sit beside me, taking my hand in his. I yanked it back. He tried again, his skin soft and warm. For some reason, I didn’t pull away. He smiled, drawing circles on my palm with his thumb. “Do you remember? The experiments?”
My mind went blank. I couldn’t remember why I was here.
Glimpses of myself swirling test tubes trespassed my mind. My life’s work, my research, was located just beyond these walls. This was a laboratory, I think. But then why was I plotting my escape?
I glanced down at our joined hands, scrolling up to the grey knit sweater peeking through his lab coat.
He slid a hand down his chest. “You gave this to me.”
I pulled my back straight. “No, I gave that to Michael.”
“Yes, Liv.” he said, surprised. “To Michael.”
He called me Liv. Only one person called me that.
My mind spun like it was made of liquid. The bedroom began to shrink. I gasped for oxygen, feeling my pulse flutter all over my body.
He cupped a palm over my jaw, his eyes bright and sincere.
Then it came to me, almost like a dream. “Michael?” I hooked my arms around him, my heart full.
Michael laughed to himself. “You broke out of here like it was jail. You threw a hairbrush at me in the hall.”
A hairbrush, not a knife. The substance altered my reality, but also my internal wiring.
Or had it?
No, it had.
Michael wasn’t sick. If I consumed the substance, was I terminally ill?
“You punched Jerry,” Michael said.
Our lab assistant. I thought he was a guard. I massaged a temple, recalling the way Jerry’s hand tightened around my wrist as my focus drifted back to the substance. I gripped Michael’s shoulders. “But did it work?”
I palmed my cheeks, excitement bubbling up my chest, though I wasn’t sure why. I was about to ask Michael the intent of our research when I caught him sliding eyeglasses up his nose. The rich brown color drained from his eyes. His hair lost its midnight hue.
I cocked my head.
Something blue glowed behind the thin fabric of the man’s lab coat pocket, taking the shape of a tube.
The purpose of my mission struck me like lightning.
Michael needed that vial.
He was meeting me at the rendezvous point at twenty-one hundred hours. I glanced at the knife sitting on the vanity. My lips formed a mirthless curve as I clenched my fist.
This story previously appeared in Roi Fainéant Press, 2023.
Edited by Marie Ginga