Chapters:

5:23 PM - Italy, 1943

One of the doll’s eyes wasn’t closing anymore. It hadn’t worked properly since the last time it was thrown to the ground. The doll was very plain. Only a small dress covered the grungy body. At one time, the dress would have shown a wonderfully bright-white flower, a cartoonish daisy with a silly smile across the short yellow disk florets, which had probably been a big selling point for the doll. The tattered arm of this relic dangled from the small pale hand of the young girl who was caring for it.

The girl was about nine but could have easily passed for six or seven. She looked disheveled, much like her inanimate counterpart. Her gaunt features showed signs of malnutrition. She had shoulder- length light-blonde hair. At the moment, as with most moments, her hair was a bird’s nest of tangles, and it looked as if it hadn’t been washed in more than a week. The knotted hair flowed into her face, covering the smoky blue-green eyes, which still had the innocence of youth and the curiosity of a puppy. She wore a teal hospital gown. It wasn’t tied in the rear, but the girl paid no mind to this trivial fact. She was too preoccupied with covering her ears with her tiny hands.

The girl was lying on the floor, cradled in the fetal position, screaming a hoarse, panicked shriek to drown out the bleating of the emergency alert sirens. Her attempts proved useless and ineffective. The sirens blared their piercing sounds for more than a minute. All the doctor-men, as her mother had once called them, looked frightened and began packing several documents from the many file cabinets that lined the corridor into garbage bins and tote bags. The young girl didn’t understand what was going on, and it frightened her more when the doctor-men began to ignite the paperwork that was savagely shoved into the garbage bins. She tried to keep her wits about her, even through the piercing sirens, but she realized she could not understand the words the doctor-men were using. Not because she wasn’t intelligent— she was—but the fact was, she only spoke one language, the language of her mother and her mother’s mother. The doctor-men were no longer speaking that language. Now the words they used seemed hard, dirty, and thick. The sirens continued to screech out their unyielding whine, resonating in the deepest cavities of the girl’s chest, causing her discomfort that occasionally took her breath away. Each time the girl drew in a lungful of air between her shrieks, it intensified the pain in her chest. During one of these breaths, between the guttural, harsh sounds coming from the men, a familiar word drew the girl’s attention.

“Dr. Vogel, das ist alles! Was nun mit der Alessandra? Das Mädchen, das Mädchen! Was mit dem Mädchen?” one of the doctor-men bellowed over the sirens.

Even through the nasty, difficult language, with its heavy accent, she instantly recognized her own name. The man had said “Alessandra.” They were speaking about her, perhaps deciding whether or not to help calm her as they had done in the past.

Dr. Vogel made eye contact with Alessandra, who was still in a crumpled mess on the floor. He had only three words for his fellow scientist.

“Nein, verlass’ sie.”

Even through the language barrier and the earsplitting sirens, Alessandra knew what those words meant. The cold, uncaring deadness of Dr. Vogel’s eyes gave it all away. They were going to leave her here to whatever fate came with those sirens. She closed her eyes, AGELESS 3 began to cry, and, through the sirens, listened to the footsteps of the doctor-men as they stepped over her. She clutched the doll with its grungy dress between her arms and breastbone and wept.

The concerned doctor-man looked down on the small child and considered scooping her limp body into his arms and following his superior into the unknown. She was, after all, the last and best chance that the men had—everything they had worked for during the last four years.

“Los jetzt!” Dr. Vogel barked definitively, snapping the man back into focus. He never looked at Alessandra again.

She lay cradling the ragged doll, which she simply called Bambolina, as the men stepped around and over her small frame. They moved quickly toward the large steel door. Alessandra watched through blurry tears as the last man in the small group paused, throwing one last fleeting glance back at the crying child. After a beat of indecision, he, too, left her alone.

Time stretched as she lay there listening to the sirens wind down into nothingness. The silence was a ghost lingering in the shadows, waiting to break her sanity. In reality, mere seconds had passed.

Alessandra felt a wave of relief sweep over her as she heard a new commotion come from the outer hallway. Maybe the man had stood up to Dr. Vogel and decided to come back for her! In the hallway outside the door, she heard men begin shouting at her former caretakers. This was, yet again, a language that Alessandra couldn’t understand. Although similar to the doctor-men’s language, it was different enough to tell the two languages apart from each other. Very shortly after, the shooting began. Alessandra heard no more voices from either language. She had decided that if she wanted to live to see her next birthday, she should find somewhere else to be, somewhere safe. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly and drew a slow, calming breath like the doctor-men had taught her to do in order to relax her mind. She exhaled and stood up and scanned the hallway, still shaking but determined to survive.

Alessandra only knew of one safe place here. A place that even the doctor-men didn’t know about. And why would they? So many different doctor-men had come and gone in the years since Alessandra had been brought to this small set of underground laboratories. She thought that she was five when she’d first come, but it was hard to remember. I could have been four, maybe even younger—it was so long ago. I remember they took my parents away. They told me that if I was good, then they could come to visit. I guess I haven’t been a good girl.

Alessandra pushed the thought back down to wherever it had come from as she ran lightly down the corridor between what the doctor-men had called Lab A and Lab B. She knew them as the “playroom” and the “yucky room.” In the yucky room, the doctor-men used a lot of needles and different masks that scared her. Fortunately, she was going to the playroom. In this room, the doctor-men gave her lots of things to play with, and she could do whatever she liked with these toys. The doctor-men didn’t come into this room often, and when they did, they would wear strange suits that covered their entire bodies. It always made Alessandra laugh at how silly they looked. Sometimes, the playroom would light up with funny colors while she was playing, and the toys would melt like ice cream, as if they had been put too close to a hot fire. Alessandra didn’t mind too much about that; the doctor-men would always replace the toys soon enough.

It was in the playroom that Alessandra had discovered a loose bolt in a floor panel behind the almost life-size dollhouse. It took her a lot of effort in the beginning to work the bolt loose, but when she succeeded, she found she was able to move the floor panel just enough for her to slide down inside. It was a cozy little retreat. The only issue was all the wires in the crawl space. But Alessandra had spent enough time in this place to carefully move the wires out of the way, creating a little nesting area. She mostly came here at night. Some part of her understood the doctor-men were probably watching her constantly, but she didn’t care. She needed her own place, her own space away from the needles, the scary masks, and the other children. It was here that she crept now, feeling more alone and afraid than she ever had with the doctor-men. It wasn’t great living here, but they were nice most of the time. She had made a few true friends as the other children trickled in and out of her life, but they were all gone now. As she settled into the small dark space, she began to cry again, making sure to weep silently, until sleep overtook her like darkness takes the day.