The towering giant is the first to fall. She isn't there when it happens, but she gathers a trembling May into her arms, presses her lips to her temple and tries to convince them both that there is nothing to fear. He stirs and wakes when three more succumb after him. Then it is Caitlin who is left shaking, watching after a team of nurses as the two she cares about most are rushed to safety. She pretends to doze, ears prickling at the hushed words spoken between perplexed professionals. The victims exhibit no outward signs. Their vitals are stable. There is nothing out of the ordinary to account for illness, nothing save for the sleep state. It isn't reassuring.*
The doctors fuss over the hulking figure that sits silently at the foot of May's bed, resting his face in his hands. They wonder if he is the exception or the rule. They wonder if the others will wake at all. She sits in the opposite corner and chews hard on her lip until it bleeds. Her nerves are tightly bound, not strung, but coiled. Pulling. Pulling. Pulling. A knot growing tighter, woven over again and again and again. Dread. It is the same, constant feeling, brewing from beneath as she edges her chair closer to the foot of the other hospital bed.
She is unsure if it even matters now, if he can even hear her, wherever he's disappeared to. Her plea is silent, so no one else will hear, taking his hand in hers. It is different from the one she uttered over the tiny, sleeping woman and her pensive guardian. Her thumb brushes over an elevated vein, over a cluster of soft freckles and she leans over to press her blistered mouth against his knuckles. Imploring him. Reminding him of his promise of stars. It seems to be the same way for her every time. When she falters, when she pulls away. Things go wrong.
They return here every day. They move like tired cattle. Heavy-limbed. Heavy-hearted. Four days and four remain awake. Unaffected. The fifth says nothing of what he saw as he slept, as he dreamt. She doesn't press him when they are left alone together. She doesn't want to know what it is that makes this man weep when she pretends to rest her eyes. The coffee is the only reprieve. There are post-cards in the hospital gift shop, paper vistas boasting vast hues of blue and green and the golden ebb of a sunset, heralding a throwaway "wish that you were here". The colours seem to dim. To fade. A paradise. An escape. An empty promise. A pretty lie.
Her brow is knotted, slowly spinning a display of souvenir keychains with an outstretched arm, scanning through A-B-C, looking for her name. The space is empty where Caitlin should be. She spins the display again, but doesn’t linger long enough to see where it stops to land. There is a hand on her shoulder, squeezing softly. A gentle reminder to return to the silent room of sleeping friends. Her arms are laden with vending machine spoils for those awake at the hour when it all turns. It happens suddenly. There is no time to rejoice the waking of the others. No time for panic. She is cut down quickly at the knees and collapses to the ground. There is a loud shout that sounds like her name. And then, a vast nothing. She is the last to fall.
It is small. Timid. The voice of a child in her ear that rouses her. A sing-song in her native Russian. A game. She hears it again, but cannot piece the words together. Her hands reach out for purchase and find only darkness. There is a blindfold covering her eyes. The fear has travelled with her. "Don't be afraid," she hears, then feels small hands on her shoulders, a warmth pressed up behind her back, knobbly knees flush against her shoulder blades, then grimy hands in her hair, gathering it up. It is longer than she remembers. Slowly, the hands begin to braid the thick strands from crown to neck, then they let it fall. "Lovely," the voice says, and there is something there that unnerves her. Envy.
"Where is your ribbon?" the voice asks. She shakes her head, pulling against the tension at her nape, trying to wriggle free, deciding that she does not like this game. She cannot remember how she got here. Then the panic returns when she tries to speak. She has never learned how. The hands tug angrily at the gathered hair. "Where is your ribbon?! Tell me where you've hidden it!" Another hard tug and then, a startling pain, a wild howl escaping her throat, as she is pushed forward. In the darkness, time is lost. The soles of her feet hurt, as though she has fallen from a great height. Her hand reaches up shakily, brushing over the back of her head. Her hand returns wet and warm, and she knows it is blood. They have taken her hair. Her long, beautiful hair.
Her eyes strain to see in the darkness. Her mouth moves to speak. But there is nothing there and all she does is gape. All she does is make garbled noises from somewhere deep in her throat. Her tongue is swollen and she does not understand why. "You're a fish!" comes the voice again, taunting now, she hears it all around, but cannot find its source. The whirring in her head makes her dizzy. Makes her sick. She rises to her feet and when she takes a step, there is water all around her. Water around her ankles. Another step. Water around her knees.
A light appears above and almost blinds her. "Try to speak, little fish!" the voice returns and cackles. "Try to speak and I won't catch you in my net!" A high-pitched squeal of delight rattles her and she stumbles backward, colliding with an oily wall. She hears a rattling chain, and water rushes in with more laughter from above. The water is ice-cold and it burns against her bleeding scalp. She doesn't remember falling. But the realisation dawns as she cranes her neck up toward the light, sees the figures passing overhead before the cover is replaced. Howling. Wailing. Crying as she claws her fingernails into the grooves between the dutch bricks and tries to hoist herself up. Out of the well. No mortal ears hear her cries for aid. Eventually, she tires.
When they come for her, she is huddled in a corner and shivering. They untie the blindfold, soothe her aching head and tug on the front of her torn dress, pulling her to her frozen feet. "Come," says a little buzzing orb of light, at the corner of her eye, as more join in, surrounding her, lighting the way out. "Come with us, Котенок,"