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The cold wind blew over the bowed backs of the willows, so that they creaked again and again. Heavy snow, ice, freezing rain, and frigid wind battered about two-thirds of the United States, making it a winter storm of historic proportions.
This kind of strong, icy wind had blasted the new spring growth, which led to the bleak and arid landscape of our school——If it can be called a “school”.
I wrapped my sole jacket more closely around myself and quickened my steps in the endless-blowing wind. Then I saw Mrs. Manager walking towards me, in her red velvet cloak as usual. She seemed to have a decent dinner, so a faint smile fluttered over her face when she saw me.
“Good evening, Miss.Warder. What are you doing here?” Her arms spread wide and a tender smile lit her eyes.
I tried to evade her embarrassing hug with a same smile: “I just came back from the library.”
“Oh, that would be great! I am so proud of your diligence!” She laughed loudly and walked away.
I snorted. She was such an experienced actress. There was no LIBRARY in this deserted place at all.
All other students had already fallen asleep when I got back to the dormitory. Our dorm was actually a big lobby inside one of the few buildings of the school. There are more than 500 people sleeping together in this shabby lobby, including all the students and staff of school. So the relationship between students and teachers were quite close, indeed, knowing the ridiculous sleeping position of each other. But some thin-skinned guys might feel awkward recalling the loud snore emitted from this well-dressed man, who was analyzing a famous poem.
When I finally succeeded in reaching my bed after tiptoeing through hundreds of scattering human bodies, Alex Regal approached me. His face and hands were brown in the dark of night, like the color of copper. To prevent the guards from spotting us, I shared my quilt with him. He stared deeply into my eyes and put his face inches from mine.
“Where did you go? I’ve been looking for you for the whole night.” He whispered to my ear.
“The library.” I winked.
He twinkled back and said: “I don’t think it is a good idea to call the back mountain road “library”. What if Mrs. Manager is a bookworm?” He hissed a chuckle as if he had told something really funny.
“I met her on the way back to dorm, actually. And she kind of like my imaginary library.” I thought about Mrs. Manager’s exaggerated smile and felt sarcastic.
“That stupid b****.” Alex shook his head and leaned on my pillow.
“What do you want me for?”
Alex lowered his voice and spoke close to my ear: “Have you ever seen Howard since last Friday?”
I thought back the days past by and suddenly realized that I didn’t see Howard showing up in class for a rather long time. Then I started feeling curious towards Alex’s furtive manner.
“No one saw him, just like he disappeared forever.”
“Maybe you are over-reacting. Howard might be sick and stayed in home.” No sooner had I finished my sentence that I realized the horrible fact——All of us, who were staying in this place, didn’t have a home.
We were homeless, which made this school seem more like an orphanage.
I still couldn’t get out of the memories of the good old days. Whenever I allowed myself to immerse in those past moments, I felt like I returned to my home, which had become a very remote place for me. The faces of my parents became so blurry that I was afraid one day I would forget even a bit of warmness from their hugs or smiles. All the explicit information they left to me was a picture of their wedding night, on which Baba dashing in his black suit and my mother a smiling young princess in white. I received the package containing this photo from Mrs. Manager and the black words written on the surface of the package were more striking than the photo itself.
“Relics of the martyrs Mr. Warder and Mrs. Warder”
My parents. They had already become martyrs, but I didn’t even know when they went to war.
“Elaine? Did you hear what I said?” Alex called my name for a couple of times and I recovered from my memory. These days I easily zoned out and indulged in nostalgia. This was not a good symptom.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said.” I said.
At this moment, the wind was still blowing up outside the window. The wind was cutting through my thin jacket like a knife.
Alex’s face faded away into grey and he said in a low voice: “ I guess I had found a secret.”
When the first light in morning shone into the lobby, Mrs. Manager’s shouted at the full height of her voice so as to let us rise from our beds. Students started to make out a two-thirds wave of moaning, like the murmur of a congregation at litany in church. This kind of moaning had been accepted by Mrs. Manager as a commonplace, so she didn’t say a word about it.
She only expressed her annoyance in action.
I put on my clothes as quickly as possible, listening quietly to the painful howling made by a student who snoozed in bed for a little while longer. A guard blacked his eye with one powerful punch.
All other students acted as indifferently as I did, being afraid to get involved in this daily bullying. These armed guards routinely subjected students who “behaved inappropriately” to abuses including physical violence, threats, intimidation, and deprivation of food. So we never interfered with other one’s business, realizing each one of us would possibly be the next victim. This had already become a principle——Let everything alone.
At about six o’clock, floods of students poured out of the lobby and stormed into the dining hall. I followed the flow of people. Alex’s words at last night still echoed in my mind and I couldn’t help thinking about them over and over again.
“I am the only one in this school who knows the reason of Howard’s disappearance. I witnessed the school leaders took him away. I don’t know where they were taking him to, but I am sure it definitely isn’t some vacation place like Hawaii.” Alex’s face was hidden in the darkness so I couldn’t see his facial expression. But the tremble in his voice was enough for me to catch.
“Are you kidding? What the hell are they up to?” I regarded this whole thing as an absurd joke, despite Alex’s serious look.
He turned his face to me, shrugged and looked away.
Breakfast-time came at last, and this morning the porridge was not burnt; the quality was eatable, the quantity small. I wished it had been doubled.
While thinking about Alex’s words, I looked up and tried searching for Howard. He was still absent. Then the scene of students sipping their porridge quietly struck me with a strange feeling——as if they were all robots instead of living humans. Their black uniforms, their reticent faces, and their identical movements of spooning the porridge into their mouths…
“Jesus! What the hell are you idiot thinking about!” I murmured to myself.
“Miss. Warder, keep quiet while having breakfast.” Mrs. Manager’s voice rang suddenly.
I lowed my head quickly and continued eating my valuable portion of breakfast.
I slipped out of my mind every five minutes of class. I was coped with some scenarios from the old days. I thought about the white moonlight shining upon the corner of my bed, not the one in the lobby, but a much more elegant-designed and more comfortable, my own bed in my own bedroom. I thought about the days when many people, as my parents’ friends, visited my home to see me. I thought about their compliments for my flushed cheeks……
My attention was called off by Miss.Chaff, who was looking for someone to analyze the historical material. Then she said: “Mr.Jones, could you help me analyze this paragraph?”
I sighed with relief.
It was History class. At the commencement of the lesson, Nicholas Jones’s place had been at the top of all the 100 students in this fixed class, but for some error of pronunciation, or some inattention to stops, he was sent to the very bottom last week. Even in that obscure position, Miss.Chaff continued to make him an object of constant notice; she was continually commenting on his subtle behaviors, “Mr.Jones, you are standing on the side of your shoe; turn your toes out immediately.” “Mr.Jones, I insist on your holding your head up; I will not have you before me in that attitude,” etc.
Still, every little difficulty in this esoteric paragraph was solved instantly when it reached Nicholas: his memory seemed to have retained the substance of the whole lesson, and he was ready with answers on every point. I kept expecting that Miss Chaff would praise his extraordinary answers; but, instead of that, she suddenly cried out “You dirty, disagreeable boy, you have never cleaned your nails this morning!”
Nicholas made no answer: I wondered at his silence.
“Why,” thought I, “Didn’t he explain that he could neither clean his nails nor wash his face, as the water was frozen?”
Miss. Chaff asked Nicholas to go out of the classroom after class and sternly admonished him for another ten minutes. I saw him dropping his head so low that it nearly touched his knees. When he walked back to the classroom, his head was still hanging low.
I approached him, but he didn’t seem to notice my existence.
“Nicholas, did Miss. Chaff have something against you?” I asked.
He didn’t have a look at me, just staring at his hands——or rather, his nails.
I knew I had violated the basic rule in our school: Let everything alone. But I couldn’t help it. As expected, he didn’t reply me. I waited with a little bit of hope.
As soon as I finally gave up and was about to leave, he suddenly blurted, “ I refused her confessions of love.”
Jesus. That. Was. Unexpected.
He finally turned his face to me, “She is insane, but she is my teacher. I don’t want to fail in my History tests.”
“That’s why you repeatedly have to endure such reproach?”
“This scares you, right?” he said with a smirk, “Actually, I could understand her love.”
Paused for a little while, he continued, “ People like us always desired for love. Because our bodies are vacant without memories.”
The color of the evening sky slowly merged into grey. I could see nothing but barren fields, overrun with weeds and biers, on the back mountain road. I had an instinct that a winter of want and distress was before me, though winter was the only season on this land.
Maybe what Mrs. Manager said was right: the most dreadful emotion was nostalgia. Everyone living here had already got rid of this illness and became healthy people, except for me. Wait, I still had a companion.
Alex finally chased me down, gasping for breath. He was still complaining through panting:
“Jesus, I just don’t understand what’s the good of seeing desert everywhere?”
I smiled and turned to him, “You know what, sometimes you are quite cute.”
He silenced and turned aside to hide his blushes.
“What’s new about your ‘secret’ hypothesis?” I stretched and yawned.
“There’s nothing to tell. After all, I am just a student under their control and I don’t have the ability to investigate on stuff like this.”
“Thank gods. Alexander Regal’s humility is gold worth!”
“I am not joking. I really think so. Look at those other students. Don’t you think they behave like robots? ” He kicked small pebbles with his tiptoes, here and there.
I stared at him in surprise: Why he could have the same feeling as me?
However, I decided to leave my true opinion only to myself.
“That’s weird,” I said.
He didn’t respond. Instead, he stopped and looked at the hazy sky.
As usual, I went directly to my bed after entering the lobby. But I forgot there was another guy with me this time. Alex called my name so loudly that I was sure the guards were on the way to arrest us.
“What the—What are you doing there?” I turned around and saw him standing in the doorway quietly.
“Come and look at this.” He pointed to a calendar on the wall above.
The year 2084 was printed in bold letters in the large square. It seemed to remind me of something. Wait, what was the year I arrived here? I should have remembered it. It was a crucial turning point in my life, but it just wouldn’t come to me.
“I have already forgotten when I was sent to here. Frankly speaking, it has been a long time since I lost the awareness of time. However, when I am looking at this calendar tonight, some strange feelings suddenly flash upon my mind.” He seemed to be considering how to explain.
I said, “No need to continue your profound theory, philosopher. Time for bed.”
Then I went directly to my bed, as usual. He was still standing there, alone.
I didn’t mean to be cold towards him. I was just afraid of the words he was going to say.
Let secrets still be secrets.
The next morning Miss.Chaff reprimanded Nicholas again. She asked him to stand at the end of the classroom and he obeyed. Then he stood there for a whole class. At before I would sympathize with Nicholas, but now I was just wondering what Miss.Chaff feel when she was humiliating Nicholas. Would she gain satisfaction by seeing the quiet toughness on his face? Or maybe that kind of prudential personality was exactly the reason she had a crush on him.
Thanks to Nicholas’s confession, now all my history classes had become “Romeo and Juliet” plays.
However, I seemed to be the only audience of this daily drama. No one else in this classroom paid even a little bit of attention to the obviously unusual relationship between the History teacher and her doormat. Yet this indifference didn’t mean that they didn’t pay attention to the class. On the contrary, they were so absorbed in History class that they could keep still for a continuous hour, soaking every bit of knowledge they could capture from Miss. Chaff’s tedious lectures. I once peeked at the boy sitting next to me; He was taking notes at a fantastic speed and every page of his notebook was filled with his handwriting.
Then I looked at mine. Okay, that was kind of embarrassing. I didn’t even have a notebook. I wrote down every piece of tiny knowledge I could gain from class on my textbook, on the blank space between lines. This was why my textbook was always in a mess.
And my classmates were always in a tidy manner. This applied to all of them and all the stuff accompanied them.
They followed the rule of “Let everything alone” so strictly that sometimes I couldn’t feel they were alive.
The odor which now filled the cafeteria was scarcely more appetizing than that which had regaled our nostrils at breakfast: the dinner was served in two huge tin-plated vessels, whence rose a strong steam redolent of rancid fat. I found the mess to consist of indifferent potatoes and strange shreds of rusty meat, mixed and cooked together. Of this preparation, a tolerably abundant plateful was apportioned to each pupil.
I sat down next to Nicholas. He was picking up a potato piece from the chowder.
“Do you know when we were sent to here?” I asked as I was chewing meat.
He ignored me and continued his dinner.
I decided to keep pursuing this conversation: “ I think it’s kind of weird, you know. We ought to remember that special year. I just, don’t know for how many years we have been staying here.”
Still no response from him.
Fine, I had to admit that I was wrong. He was literally one of them. I shouldn’t have abandoned Alex to try making another conversation with this nerd. I had a special feeling towards him though, after he frankly telling me his secret story. And his words about love and memory still echoed in my mind. But now, I was wrong.
I picked up my things and left the table. He still remained silent.
Who created this school?
Why were we brought here?
The armed guards abused another student during breakfast. This poor one accidentally drank soup from the bowl of the boy sitting next to him. He cried as those huge guys started kicking him from all directions:
“I am really sorry! I don’t know…that was his bowl…I was considering a geometric problem at that time! Give me a break! I swear…”
As soon as the bell rang, all the other students, whether finished their breakfast or not, stood up immediately and poured out of the dining hall.
In the sea of people, I suddenly saw Alex. He was very conspicuous because he was rushing against the flow of the crowd. Then he stopped in front of the armed guards who were still surrounding the boy and punched one of them in the face.
The other guards hurtled forward in outrage. I saw Alex falling onto the ground. His slight form was soon drowned in the crowd.
He was trying to protect the errant boy.
I got a rude shock on what I had seen and I found myself unable to move my foot even a bit. I just stuck there stupidly, watching my best friend being knocked out by men three heads taller than him. They surrounded him and beat him as hard as they could, then used a razor blade to slit the sides of his uniform up to his hip. They dirtily smiled and pinched his thigh. Alex seemed like an emaciated child among these obscene guys. He kept screaming and tried to kick their faces until they stunned him with a hit on the head.
Then I realized if I didn’t do anything, Alex would certainly be beaten to death. So I tried to pass through the huge crowd. A hand caught me.
“Don’t be stupid.” Said a voice behind me. I looked back and found it was Nicholas.
I shook his hand off hard, but he caught me again. Then he dragged me to go outside the hall, without saying a word.
“What the f*** are you doing? Alex was going to die!” I roared at him and headed back to the hall as soon as he let go of me.
“They won’t kill him. Hitting a student to death is beyond their duty.”
“Who the f*** knows what will those beasts do to him? Why should I believe you?”
“I know for sure. I have done the same thing before.” He turned his face away.
I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. Who the hell was this legendary boy?
“They kicked me, hit me, and knocked my teeth out. Then I was taken to Mrs. Manager. She sentenced me to confinement in a small, dark room. I stayed for weeks, or months, I don’t remember, and was set free.”
“Was that all? Then you came back to school as usual?” I suspected the validity of his story.
“They didn’t provide me with food or water. I was survived those dark days?” He replied me with a sneer.
I felt uncomfortable with his crooked smile. I could barely imagine what kind of life he had experienced in that dark room, cold and hungry.
The whole day’s of classes was like a nightmare. I could hardly hear what teachers were talking about. I just sat there with my mind flying to the dark room in which Alex was staying. When I thought that no one would ever notice he was gone, I felt more anxious for him. I could understand the environment of this school, but these days, in all the gloom and doom of the thoughts spinning around in my head, I felt uncertain about my own living situation. My life was like an ongoing nightmare, without an exit for me to wake up.
The most terrible thing was, I didn’t know how many years I had been in this situation.
Maybe it all started since the day I entered this school. But I didn’t remember when I arrived here.
After dinner, I went back to the dorm. I stopped in the doorway, looking at the calendar hanging on the same position of the wall. The number 2084 came into my view. I stared at it for a long time and figured out what Alex was trying to tell me at that night.
They never changed this calendar, which was the only resource for us to be aware of time. Therefore, every year was the same. Every year was 2084.
Time was the key to the secret.
When I realized this, a shiver traveled down my spine.
The next day, I managed to have the first conversation with my desk mate, the boy who was crazy about taking notes.
“How many notebooks do you have? You seem to be taking notes all the time.” I approached him while he was still writing in his notebook.
“I don’t know.” He answered.
“You must have thousands of them.”
He didn’t reply. Then I was struck by a weird idea.
As soon as he left the classroom to go to the restroom, I leaned my body and looked inside his bookcase——At least dozens of notebooks. Jesus. Being sure that he didn’t come back, I took out one of them and read the content. Each page was like a hive of some insect, with a network of variously slanting lines and the thick and thin strokes of letters. I hated class notes.
I glanced at the notebook on which he was writing just now and realized something strange. Then I compared both two notebooks. Even though the handwriting was slightly different, but the content was exactly the same.
It was quite weird. I took out another notebook and found the same thing. All these dozens of notebooks contained the same content.
Spending so much time on copying down identical notes over and over again? What the hell was he thinking about?
The next class was Mathematics. I couldn’t help glancing at my desk mate’s notebook. As usual, he turned to the blank part reserved for Math and immersed himself into writing. I recognized the things he wrote down because I intentionally inspected the content in the same place of another notebook.
I suddenly realized the key point of this weird phenomenon.
It was not my desk mate’s notes were repeating, but it was our lessons. What we learned every day, every week, even every year was repetitious. But none of us had ever realized this. It was impossible not to find out that we had already studied the knowledge.
I looked at my textbook. There were some notes scattered here and there on the page. I turned to the previous pages, nothing unusual. Then I looked at the cover, still the familiar title “Mathematics”.
They always handed out new textbooks on the day of first snow. We always took them for granted and thrown our old textbooks. They said there wouldn’t be any exams, so we didn’t need to keep them, as long as we had absorbed the knowledge.
But they didn’t know my desk mate’s abnormal habit of having his own notebooks and never throwing them away. They didn’t know there still remained one proof of repetitious time.
I bounced out of my seat. I had to find Alex.
According to Nicholas, the house with the dark room was at the end of the back mountain road. Jesus. I’ve never realized there was such a dreadful place at the end of it.
I stepped onto the familiar deserted road; I felt like a solitary soldier who went to his death unflinchingly, worthy of the title of heroes. In the dim light of night, I saw the sinuous road stretching into the starry sky. The beauty of this road was very subtle; I always had an inclination for subtle things. Careless guys like Alexander would never find out such tender beauty.
But now I was going to save him, given up all the beauty of my life. Or found them. I was not sure.
The house was actually an elegant-look mansion. It must be the only modern building in this district, which made it incompatible with the desolate surroundings. It was designed in art nouveau style, with two layered roofs and a curve at each corner. It was painted red outside and had quite a few wooden pillars holding it up at all sides. Usually, this mansion was hidden behind the hill, so I never imagined such an edifice existing here.
Cold, strong winds blew constantly on my back. I took a deep breath and approached this mansion quietly. Since the room was very small and dark, it might be located in the basement. I hid behind a clump of bushes and tried to figure out a way to get in.
Winds riddled through the window and the curtain was floating. I crawled to the window and observed the inside through the curtain. It seemed like a meeting room with several desks and chairs. I slipped over the windowsill.
There was no one there. Actually, the whole mansion seemed to be empty. Yet I should never lower my guard. I sneaked deeper into the room and saw the stairwell. Downstairs was total blackness and I couldn’t tell if there was anything waiting for me there. I gritted my teeth and walked down slowly.
A door appeared. I tried to push it, unlock. Then I entered the room; it was a cluttered basement, a cluttered room, with no free space and no place to move. I saw the small door at the end of the room. I walked past the rubbish scattering around me and opened it.
I should have realized there was something wrong with my rescue plan. It proceeded too successfully.
Alex was not there.
A hand reached out and seized my arm with strong force.
“Gotcha!” Nicholas giggled.
“Damn it! You scared the s*** out of me!” I roared at him, hiding my sweating hand.
“You deserve it. I told you this was not something that you should involve in.”
“Alex is my best friend.” I thought and reversed my statement, “Actually, my only friend here.”
He looked somewhat disappointed, but didn’t say anything.
“Why you are here?” I asked.
After a while, he spoke, “ It seems that he is not here.”
“Obviously. You didn’t answer my question.”
“Then the thing turned serious.” He turned back and stepped onto the stairs. I saw that he was half smirking, as if he was on a joke.
“What do you mean?” I followed him.
“I will first show you something. Then you can understand it yourself.” He looked at me again. It was a strange expression, with pity and frustration.
We ascended to the raised walkway under the eaves, and wooden doors were slid open to reveal an elevator. The rusty hinge on it manifested the many decades it had gone through.
Nicholas suddenly turned to me. His face became solemn and melancholy. He stared at me; the gaze seemed as if he would never see me again.
“As soon as you asked me about the address of this house, I knew your plan. So I followed you here. I just…didn’t want to see another person falling into the same tragedy as I did.” He said, in a low and gruff voice.
“What tragedy?” I felt like he was telling a riddle.
“Now, I need to confirm again. Do you really want to be a stupid explorer? Do you really want to throw yourself away at eighteen?”
“What the hell is wrong with you? You look exactly like a f***ing witch!” I got fed up with his tone of speaking and pushed him away, “ I think I have made myself clear. I want to save Alex, and also save myself. It is going back to the f***ing monastery that will kill me.”
He didn’t say anything, but pressed the button on the hinge and pulled the handler. The elevator door opened. I was kind of confused, but still walked inside. When I looked back at Nicholas, he seemed to be hesitating.
“Well, you know what, you really don’t need to go with me. I can handle this by myself. Thank you for…” Before I could finish my sentence, he rushed in the elevator.
The beaten-up elevator crunched down and came to a halt finally. There was another basement and an iron door stood at the end. A password-protected door.
We glanced questioningly at each other. He seemed to be as confused as I was.
“You must know the password. You had been here before, hadn’t you? Otherwise, you would know neither the existence of the elevator nor this basement.” I suspected his confusion.
“Last time, I was carried here by those guards. An officer-like man opened this door and I saw the things behind it…” His eyes bleak down.
I stared back at the 9-palace password and searched in my memories. Number. Special number. A number that can indicate…time. Wait. My mind went back to our dorm, to the doorway outside the dorm, and finally to the calendar.
“I might know the password.” Then I went one step closer and typed in 2084.
The door unlocked. Before I could have time to feel a sense of achievement, the scene behind the door stunned me at once.
It was a laboratory. All kinds of reagent bottles scattered around on the immense table in the center of the lab. There was an operating bed beside it, which seemed out of place. But then I saw exam lights, scalpels and other basic necessities for the hospital. There were many bottles of anesthetics on the bed. When I walked pass the bed, the familiar chills came back to me, not caused by the cold weather this time. I saw heavy iron chains fixed on a metal bar on each end of the bed.
Before I touched them subconsciously, Nicholas dragged me away. He didn’t look well. The complexity of his facial expression made him seem to be painful and sarcastic simultaneously.
We opened another door. This time it was an archive. A dim light was cast from the depth of the dark room. Nicholas motioned me to look at one of the preserved files. I took the one on the top of a few mildewed books piled up next to the door. The pages had curled up from and the paper was yellow and coarse. It was a photocopy of a contract, which was signed in 2075. The handwriting was faint but I could read the last several lines:
“We are willing to present this organization with the eligibility to preserve our sample product Alexander Regal 2. Before it is utilized for any accident happened to our children, this contract will always be in effect.”
Sign: Williams Regal
“Why Alex’s name would appear on this contract? What the hell do they mean by “sample product”?” I waved this file towards Nicholas, who didn’t talk for a long time. He just shook his head and said I should try to read the first line.
I looked back on the page and tried my best to discern the first line:
“We are very honored to be given the opportunity to collaborate with National Genomics Institution. What we are doing will definitely create history. If this program can keep going on, our world will totally change. We won’t have any death, disease or poverty. We, human beings, will all live in equality and peace. We will be truly fearless. Because we bear in mind that there’s always a chance for us to start over.”
“What f***ing is this bullshit talking about?”
“Do not stop! Continue!”
“ We also appreciate all the patrons who give us countless help on developing the cloning project…”
Wait. What did I just see?
The moon's round orb would shine high in the sky, casting its velvety light at the head of my bed. My room was also painted white with moonshine; I was about to fall asleep, with my teddy bear by my side; the soundlessness of late night impressed me as a positive entity rather than as the mere negation of noise. Life was always smooth and easy when your head was on the pillow. I dreamt the green palm trees, the seagulls, and the cerulean sky; I dreamt baby blue waves and bright yellow sun; I dreamt empty colors and heavy poems.
How could I ever wake up? Leave my sunshine, my seashore, and my rosy room behind me, to set off to an unknown future.
Why do I have to wake up? Find myself in a bleak, frozen desert world and gray sky and no sunshine, to beg for a little piece left from the dream.
“F*** off!” I screamed when Nicholas tried to take hold of my arm. I made the small archive in a total mess. After 30 minutes of sifting through the mountain of old files, I finally saw the name that I was only too familiar with: Elaine Warder 2. It was right under Alex’s file, but I neglected it at first.
But when I was grabbing it in my hand, a cold fear thrilled through my veins and stopped my movement. I didn’t dare to open it; I was afraid to reveal the secret. It was my trembling fingers that reminded me of the rule that was left behind by me for a long time.
Let everything alone.
“Should I open it?” I asked Nicholas, who didn’t say a word during my search process. Now I was desperate to find someone, to tell me that I was still alive, that I was a human being instead of a creepy replica.
A replica. A substitute. A curse.
He said, “I think it’s time to go.”
“Damn it! I have just found this f***ing bullshit…”
“You don’t need to open it. They all say the same thing. You are a clone. Alex is a clone. We are all clones.” His mouth grew stiff with pain and distress.
The house was suddenly filled up with the dusty feeling of impending abandonment. No, not impending. We had already been abandoned, in this forlorn land. The chilling facts behind this veil of deafening silence were slow to emerge.
Who created this school?
Why were we brought here?
Time stopped fleeting. The awareness of time was also forbidden. We were always living in 2084, studying the same courses again and again.
What matters is using all means to imprison us here. We were the same, having a chronic suicide, waiting for the day of death to come. The only value of us was the spirit of self-sacrifice. The only goal of us was to save our counterparts in this world whenever they encountered accidents.
F*** this world.
“Elaine, do you still want to save Alex?” Nicholas’s voice was as gravelly as a highway shoulder.
“You’ve known this for a quite long time, haven’t you? They took you here and showed you this bullshit. I must look like a huge idiot in your eyes, right?” Tears streamed down my cheeks.
“ I did know this. But hold on a second before you slap me.” He caught my fist in the air, “I had another thing to tell you.”
“I don’t want to hear!”
“Have you ever noticed that we were different from other students?” a mixture of emotions spread over his face.
It struck me deep. The images of my classmates floated before my eyes: their pale and apathetic countenances, their dull and numbing movements, their blind and foolish eyes… Then I remembered Nicholas had told me that they didn’t have memories.
But I did. Scenes of childhood memory surfaced in front of me, blurry though, but did exist.
“So what?” I cried, my eyes sparkling with hope.
All of sudden, despair overclouded his face. I turned around, had a look along his eyesight and found Mrs. Manager standing at the door.
Mrs. Manager was still dressed in her red velvet, wearing a tender smile on her face. The same smile when she saw me coming back from the “library”. This faculty of remaining hypocrisy was one of her most useful attributes. I finally realized that her acting skill was even better than I previously thought. She always knew that there was no such “library” in our school. She always knew that I was lingering around on the top-secret place in this school. That was why I could get in here so easily.
“Good evening, Miss. Warder. What are you doing here?” Same lines.
“Good evening, old b****. Where is Alex?” I was not surprised that her smile didn’t change a bit.
“Miss. Warder, you shouldn’t talk in this manner to your elder.”
“Cut the crap. Look, I have already known everything. Now let me see Alex and you can kill me right away.” I felt her eyes narrowly upon me.
“No, you are wrong, Miss. Warder. There are a lot of things that you don’t know. For example, I heard that you were discussing about your difference from other students.” Her smile turned into a smirk, “Memory. Very interesting.”
My heart sank and I kept on trembling, saying nothing for quite a moment.
“Do you know why?” She continued.
I was suddenly afraid of the answer.
“Shut up!” I screamed.
“Because you are failures.” She then started laughing. A thin, shrill yet cataclysmic laughter.
“You are all failed experiments. Aberrations. You have always been considered as lesser, degenerate products destined for obscurity. Your memories were only removed partly, unlike your fellow students, who had all their past memories deleted.”
The air in this room became tense. I felt smothered. Those memories were true! Instead of some hilarious imaginations, they were true experiences belonged to me……
“We did have our home?” I asked, carefully.
“ This means, you have some remaining memories of the time when you were staying in the lab. But only you four have this drawback. So it is easy for us to deal with.” Her smile indicated her triumph against my meaningless resistance.
The lab. The white moonlight! How ridiculous I was! It was only artificial, incandescent light! And my cozy bed was nothing but some kind of operating bed! My parents, or rather my producers, who sent me here as a backup for their real children, were the chief culprits of what I experienced today.
“You two, Alex, and Howard.”
Mrs. Manager turned from me to Nicholas, who was standing behind me. She wore her mask of smile again.
“Mr. Jone, fancy meeting you here, again.” She tapped him on the shoulder, which made him go back a step immediately. He was also trembling. From his mournful eyes, I realized that fears had been growing upon him ever since he came into this building for the first time.
“I am so sorry that you violated our school rules so many times. But I decide to forgive you for one last time. Don’t let me see you again. Go.”
Nicholas looked confused. Then he suddenly began to run; he rushed outside the room without looking back at me.
“Now you see, Miss. Warder. People are always like this. Follow their instincts more often than their emotions.” Her eyes twinkled at me.
“Take me to see Alex.”
“Then you won’t be able to come back. Are you sure you still want to see him?”
“You will deal with me sooner or later, won’t you?” I asked back.
She led me to the same basement before I went inside the elevator. There was another door hidden behind the debris pile in the corner.
Alex was lying there in shabby clothes covered with dirt, eyes closed. I approached him and saw scars all over his body.
“Alex? Alex? Wake up, Alex! ” I whispered beside his ear, just as he had done to me many times before.
He had no response.
Bursting into tears, I hugged him tightly, as if the world was depriving me of the last thing I owned.
The round golden moon was brighter than ever before. It sprinkled generously on our cuddling figures, and on every corner of this world.