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The waiting room was cold and, unsurprisingly, full of people. Most were teen boys sitting in sterile white chairs; arms set out before them as nurses moved through the crowd, taking blood and testing temperatures, heartbeats, etc.
It was all so loud, but that was to be expected from all those boys cobbled together.
I anxiously rubbed my hands on my thighs, waiting my turn. The boy beside me, small, slight, and fair-skinned, was getting his blood drawn by a male nurse who looked like he was exhausted.
Most of the nurses looked that way; they had been here all night, and the center was obviously understaffed.
They probably didn’t expect such a turnout, but I knew my town. People were starving, freezing, and dying of diseases no one had cures for. The clinical trial, offering twenty thousand dollars per every teen who volunteered, was like a beacon of hope. With that money, my family could eat for a few months, maybe even years. And the flier had said that every teen who “accepted the medicine and was able to fight off any complications would be awarded triple the sum each year.”
So I had disregarded all the people who said they entered the trial only to lose their children in the process and came here.
The male nurse sighed at the boy, “You don’t qualify. I’m sorry.”
The boy scoffed, “What do you mean? Why not? I’m healthy.”
The nurse just shook his head and moved on to me. Without being prompted, I held out my skinny arms crisscrossed in varying tattoos and watched as he pressed a hand-sized device to my wrist. I felt a prick, and then the machine beeped. The boy stayed a few minutes longer, then got up and left, hands folded into fists.
The nurse read the yellow words on the screen, took my temperature, measured my pulse, and listened to my heart.
Once he was done, he looked me over, “Girls don’t usually qualify.”
I nodded, gritting my teeth. I knew that. The trial had been going on in a different state before coming here, and people had whispered about how only boys usually survived. A girl was lucky even to qualify.
“But it looks like you do.”
I frowned, staring at him, “So… I can take the meds? Get the money?”
“We have to run a few more tests, but you seem like the perfect candidate,” he looked around and then bent toward me until we were at eye level. “But I want to tell you; you probably won’t survive. We had one girl a few days ago; she was perfect, but one dose of the medicine and she started convulsing.” I shivered, watching his eyes shift over my face, “she was dead before she hit the floor.”
I looked away, rubbing my thighs again and thinking. My family would still get the money even if I did die; they could make a plan with it. Ration the food they bought. My brothers would help my mom with that, and my sisters knew not to ask for seconds. They were waiting outside for me; sure I would be coming back out. I would.
It would be fine.
“I want to do it,” I said, not meeting his gaze.
I might find disappointment and pity there.
He sighed, “All right. Come with me.”
I stood up quickly, wanting to leave the waiting room with its gray walls, loud voices, and oppressive feel. Several people watched me as I followed the nurse to a door in the back, their eyes full of envy as they waited.
I squirmed uncomfortably as the nurse input a code; then we were in a hallway that branched into several different rooms. Medical personnel milled about, but that isn’t what caught my attention.
It was the far-off screams of pain.
I tensed instantly and didn’t move as the nurse started down the hall. He looked back at me, brows raised. He looked so strange with a medical mask covering half his face, almost expressionless save for those eyebrows.
“Everything all right?”
I pursed my lips and then started following him. The screams grew as we walked down the hall until my bones shook from the noise. I was eighteen, a certified adult, but I suddenly felt five years old.
“W-Where are we going?”
The nurse just took my arm and pulled me into a room. It looked like a standard hospital room, but there was a flat disk on the floor in the corner that the nurse told me to stand on. As I did, it beeped, and a blue wall rose around me, closing in until it conformed to my body. I didn’t struggle because the nurse gave me a look that said not to.
The disk made a whirring sound, and then the blue light receded, and I could breathe again.
“What was that?”
“It was just measuring your vitals,” he said, gesturing to the hospital bed. “You can take a seat.”
I nodded but didn’t move. Not until he had left and I was alone, then I paced, fiddling with my brown hair and thinking over what was happening.
The screams didn’t help to soothe my nerves.
What would happen to me? Would I die like that girl the nurse told me about? Would they actually give my family the money, or would they withhold it?
My breaths started getting heavy, and I was about ready to bolt when the door beeped, and a tall woman wearing a doctor’s coat walked in.
She smiled thinly at me, and her whole appearance reminded me of the hospital chairs in the waiting room; sterile, white, and stiff.
“Hello, Miss Case. My name is Dr. Gray. And how are you feeling?” I opened my mouth, but she cut me off, “great. Before we get started, I need you to sign this.”
She held out a white form, and I felt my cheeks flush. I couldn’t read. Half of our town couldn’t, and I think she knew that judging by the glint in her eyes. I couldn’t even read the flier; a neighbor had read it to me.
“No need to read it, Miss Case. It’s simply a statement that you volunteered for the trial and that if something were to happen to you during the trial, we are not to blame.”
I rubbed my thighs again, staring at the pen she held, “And the money? My family gets the money?”
Another thin smile, “Of course.”
With shaky hands, I signed the contract on the hospital bed, feeling like I had sold my soul to the Devil.
“Perfect,” she purred, setting the contract on a side table. “Now, the medicine we are administering is not like the medicine you’re used to. It isn’t to cure any diseases or lessen any symptoms.”
I frowned, “Then what is it?”
“That’s something I can’t disclose at this time.”
I almost laughed, “But… Isn’t this stuff going into my body? Shouldn’t I know what it is?”
Dr. Gray tapped the contract, “You already signed; there’s no going back now, Miss Case.”
“We have to inject you with the second strand two hours after the first. The last strand we administer a few months later. That’s three strands. The first will most likely kill you, Miss Case. All the girls we’ve tested haven’t survived it.”
No sugar-coating it, then.
“And t-the boys?” I asked, voice timid and shaky.
She didn’t say anything; just tapped the contract again. There must have been a lot more information in it than she had disclosed.
“We can give you the medicine two ways; via pill or injection. I’ll have you know, the pill has more side effects, and taking it will bring your trial payment down to ten thousand.”
I blanched; that hadn’t been in the flier, “You’re joking, right?”
She shook her head, “No.”
I started pacing again. It’s not like I was afraid, but she was purposefully removing my options and coercing me into one decision.
I felt sick.
“Fine,” I hissed, stopping before her, “I’ll take the injection.”
“Great,” she walked over to the door and clicked a red button. Moments later, a female nurse pushed a cart full of medicine bottles through it.
I winced at the sight of the syringe.
“Can you please lay down, Miss Case?” Dr. Gray gave me an expectant look.
I gritted my teeth and did as she asked, laying on the bed and trying not to squirm as the nurse started tying my hands to the railings on either side with a blue cord.
“What’s this for?” I asked, glad my voice was level and calm.
The nurse didn’t look at me, “Sometimes the medicine has side effects. It’s nothing to worry about.”
It wasn’t a lie but a misdirection. She hadn’t really answered my question, just stated what I already knew. They all seemed to like to do that.
I suddenly wondered if I would soon join the cacophony of screaming voices.
“Here we go,” Dr. Gray held up a full syringe to the light, tapping it a few times. The liquid inside was a murky blue-green.
“Should I gag her?” The nurse asked quietly, seeming to hope I wouldn’t hear.
Unfortunately, I did.
Dr. Gray shrugged, “No. We haven’t been gagging them for a while. It’s a waste of time; you can still hear them either way.”
I cursed under my breath, panic suddenly taking over. I started to struggle against my bonds, my heart racing. They were so tight that they dug into my wrists, cutting off circulation.
Both the nurse and Dr. Gray ignored my struggle.
“Make sure you prepare a place for her after this,” Dr. Gray said, walking over to swab a spot on my arm. No matter how hard I struggled, she still ignored me.
“In the morgue?” The nurse had stopped trying to whisper at this point, and her words made me still.
They really thought I was going to die.
Dr. Gray shrugged, “Sure.”
The nurse hurried out of the room, leaving me alone with the doctor, who looked me over, “Try not to struggle.”
With a pinch, the medicine was administered, and I winced, expecting to feel some sort of excruciating pain, but there was only a slight burn.
Dr. Gray seemed to sense my surprise, “Just give it a moment.” She said, putting the syringe on the table and checking her watch.
I waited, but I still felt nothing.
Until I did.
It started as a slight intensifying of that burn in my veins; then it grew until I felt like I was on fire.
I arched my back and, sure enough, my screams joined the others as pain lanced up and down my body. I started to convulse moments later, my body not entirely my own.
Dr. Gray just watched, eyes unfeeling, until I finally blacked out.
I woke up in a bed.
Not the hospital bed from before, but a plusher bed that curved around my aching body. I groaned and forced my eyes open; I was staring at a white ceiling.
“Hello?” My voice was hoarse.
“Morning,” a lazy voice said. “You slept like the dead.”
I blinked, turning my head to the side, until I saw a young man staring at me from a chair. He was dark-skinned and blue-eyed, someone you would expect to find in a magazine.
“Um… What’s going on?” I asked, trying to turn my body to the side, but it was just too heavy.
He smirked, “You’re one of the lucky ones.”
Oh my gosh. Was I dead? I couldn’t be dead; my body ached too much for that.
“Yeah. You survived, Shortie.”
I didn’t even bat an eye at the nickname, too busy mulling over what he was saying.
He smirked again, “Slow, aren’t you? Listen, you survived two of the doses. Are you following? Two doses.”
I was now, “But… Dr. Gray… She said I wouldn’t survive.”
He shrugged, “Well, you did. Lucky you.”
“Who are you?”
His smirk fell away until he was frowning, “This is actually not a great position to be in, Shortie.”
I tried to roll over again but could only make my fingers and toes twitch, “I don’t understand.”
“Two doses are like a piece of cake compared to the third,” his eye twitched as if thinking about it caused him pain. “Not to mention the Forming will be just as bad.”
“Forming?” I turned my head to look at the ceiling again. He wasn’t making any sense, and my head was pounding in time with my heart. It almost hurt to look into his kaleidoscopic eyes.
“When you start to develop your powers,” I pursed my lips until he started up again. “That’s what the ‘medicine’ is for. We’re practically superheroes now. Well, you will be once the Forming happens.”
I didn’t say anything because I was sure this was all some joke. Medicine was medicine. But hadn’t Dr. Gray said it was different? And, from what I’d heard, medicinal trials aren’t supposed to kill only girls.
“This is crazy,” I muttered, “what’s happening? Who are you?”
“My name is Nicholas, but I prefer Nic,” he said, drawing my gaze back to him. “And this is the part where I tell you what’s going to happen; remember that contract you signed? Did you read it?”
My cheeks flushed, and I shook my head.
“Ah,” he nodded, “well, you should have. Because hidden somewhere in that contract are details about this place.” His hand gesture encompassed the room, “it’s basically a training facility for all of us who survived the trials, and it’s state of the art, yadda, yadda, yadda.”
I almost smiled at his facial expression. It was full of disdain and annoyance but also a bit of hostility.
Nic got to his feet and started pacing, eyes down. That’s when I noticed his outfit; it was white and fit like a jumpsuit with a silver lining. On the lapels were circles with one triangle in the middle. He almost looked like an alien.
“But, I’ve got to say, Shortie, I don’t think the third dose and Forming are what’s going to make this a bad situation. Nor is the homesickness and the ridiculous punishments they dole out,” he stopped to stare at me, expectant.
I fought against the pain in my body and managed to scoot up on my pillows so I could see him better, “What do you mean? Who’s ‘they?’”
He sighed as if I was the stupidest person he had met, “Shortie𑁋.”
“Fiona,” I interjected, holding out my hand for him to shake.
“As I was saying, Shortie, the thing you’ve got to worry about is the ratio.”
“Ratio?” This boy seemed to like to confuse me.
He grimaced and shook his head, “The ratio of boys to girls.”
What was he talking about? Why was everyone so cryptic?
“Can you be a little bit clearer?” I snapped, rubbing my thighs anxiously and wincing at the pain. All I wanted to do was go home, but it seemed like I had to wait for this Forming and third dose. But, if the medicine was working, then that meant my family might get more money. That alone kept me steady.
“Do you know what happens when a group of boys are isolated together for months?” I grimaced and looked away. There was a window on my other side, but the scene depicted was fake. Animated birds sat on a tree while the sun, wearing a smiley face, grinned down at a group of children ice-skating. “Because I do. They go stir crazy.”
“You’re acting like you haven’t seen a girl before,” I hissed, “and do you have to be so cryptic?”
Nic seemed to count to ten before beginning again, “There are eighty boys here, Shortie.”
“And one girl.”
I almost sighed in relief, “Did she have the third dose yet? If she did, and she’s still alive, then maybe there’s hope for me.”
Nic sighed, “You’re the one girl, Fiona.”
My body froze, “That can’t be true.”
Because if it was…
“It’s true. You’re the only girl these boys will have seen in months.”
I cursed, “You expect them to hurt me?”
“No. I expect them to like you.”
And that was worse?
“I don’t get it.”
Nic smiled, and it reminded me of Dr. Gray’s thin, almost-smirk, “Shortie, if they like you, things might get difficult. Because when a group of boys, who happen to practically hate each other every other day, decide they want something, they fight for it.”
Uh, oh. I had a feeling I knew where this was going.
His smile fell back into a smirk, “I’m expecting infighting, silly pranks, and one girl in the middle of it all.”
Great. I might become a thing to possess to about eighty boys.
“So, Shortie, welcome. And enjoy this time with one of the more subdued members of this facility because after today?” He chuckled and turned to the door, “you’re going to really miss it.”
“How long do I have to stay here?” I asked, trying to sit up farther but failing.
He paused, “Listen, Shortie. No one leaves. I’ve been here three years.”
I felt my heart begin to pick up speed. Three years.
“What do I-I do?” I asked, “I can’t stay here.”
“I’ll be the only girl.”
He looked over his shoulder, wearing a faux serious expression, “Hey, we’re cleaner than people assume.”
“That’s not the problem,” I hissed, “the third dose, Nic. The third dose. Do you think I’ll survive it?”
His lips twisted into a grimace, “You want the truth?”
“No, I don’t.”
Before I could say anything else, he was gone.
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