I woke in a hospital bed with my arms and legs constrained. My first instinct was to break free of the cuffs and run. Still running through the streets of Paris. Running from danger with the world crumbling down around me. Except the ringing in my ears wasn’t exploding bombs anymore. It was silence. Cavernous, hollow silence.
The room was empty of other people. Sun streamed in through the blinds of a window to the left of the bed, the sky a mystifying indigo hue. Unreal. I blinked and the color shifted, growing paler. I blinked again and shook my head. The color shifted a third time. I closed my eyes. I just wanted to sleep again. To stop waking up.
My brain caught on the last sentence. When had I woken up?
I didn’t remember waking up before this. Just the bombs and the black.
A tinny, hissing sound to my right startled my eyes open again.
There would be no more sleeping.
An attractive white doctor in his early 30s with a whisker free face and glasses entered the room, carrying a tablet. He met my eyes, averted his, and walked over to the right side of the bed. He set the tablet down on the mattress, close to my feet. Upside down I read the word “Prothero” on the screen saver. I looked back over at him.
“Where am I? Where are my parents?” I asked this as calmly as possible, though hysteria threatened to surface at any moment. The voice leaving my throat sounded abnormal and tinny.
“Do you know who you are?” The doctor requested, his words echoing through a tunnel made of soup cans. I nodded my head, half in response to his question, and half to pinpoint the cause of the noise distortion.
“My name is Eleni Garza. Where are my parents?” I repeated, sternly. Less hysteria, more indignation.
“My name is Arthur Dawson, I’m your principal Doctor. I’m sorry Eleni, but your parents are dead.”
“What?” I asked, pulling against the restraints with a knee-jerk reaction.
My agitation didn’t alarm him. He moved in closer and set a comforting hand on the railing of the bed, making a seemingly deliberate decision not to touch me.
“Your parents are dead Eleni. I’m sorry to tell you this. They died in the Paris bombing. You were critically injured. A team of doctors repaired your heart, many internal organs, as well your ear and the left side of your face. I’m afraid you were in a coma for-”
“My parents are dead.”
It was important to say it out loud. The words hanging in the air made it real. My parents are dead. They died in an explosion. Dr. Dawson moved the conversation along brusquely, anticipating my next series of questions.
“Yes. You were brought to this facility for rehabilitation four months ago. You endured massive trauma and have operated in a state of amnesia synched with your sleep cycles. You can’t retain new memories past the explosion that killed your parents. I’m afraid all the events since that tragedy are completely wiped from your memory.”
I swallowed hard. His monologue continued to wash over me for another minute or so with a patient steady purring sound, blurring at the edges. I wanted to cry but no tears came. I wanted to scream but my throat burned and constricted. The left side of my face felt stiff. I tried to reach up and touch it, but the handcuffs prevented me. They clanked sharply against the iron railings on the bed. My left arm registered a numb tingling sensation, as if I’d fallen asleep on it. The fingers on my left hand curled and flexed, but they didn’t look or feel like mine. I balled these phantom digits into a fist and slammed it down on the railing as hard as I could, with as much force as the cuffs allowed.
The pain produced from this action wasn’t like pain at all. It was like the memory of pain, with all the sensations dulled. Anxiety flickered through me.
Dr. Dawson stopped talking. At first he had comforted with an air of perfunctory to his inquiries and gestures. He must have noticed a difference in my body language.
“How long?” I asked.
“The bombing was a little over eight months ago. I’m so sorry. A memorial service was held for your parents. You did attend, but I’m not sure you would remember.”
“I don’t,” I responded.
He offered a conciliatory nod.
“I understand. Please - the ceremony was for your relatives. We have your parents personal belongings here if you’d like to see them,” He gestured towards a smooth white closet on the left side of the bed.
I turned to look, aware of a quiet whirring emanating from my left eye-socket as my vision adjusted. I blinked and the sensation felt wrong. My lid was heavy on the left side, as if the muscles strained to perform this basic function.
“Did I do something wrong? Am I in trouble?” I asked, indicating the cuffs.
As my vision tracked down to my left arm, I again noticed the subdued whirring sound, a startled shifting of focus, my left eye operating like a zoom lens.
“No, Eleni. We regret using these measures, but at times your reactions to certain discoveries have been quite... violent.”
I worked to suppress the panic swelling like a balloon in my stomach. “Certain discoveries” sounded ominous. The way he shifted guiltily on his feet. The dizziness from my poorly focused pupils. Taking a deep breath, pushing air in and out of my tight lungs, willing the panic balloon to deflate and order to be restored to my senses.
“Can-can you tell me? I want to know what’s going on,” I requested, exuding a calm demeanor in direct contrast to my internal turmoil.
“Yes. There’s no easy way to tell you any of this, I’m afraid. About your parents or about what happened to you following their death. You were severely burned across the left side of your body. Your left arm did not survive. We had to amputate and later replaced it with a mechanical prosthetic limb. Your heart was impaled by a bone fragment from your arm but nominally functional when you were brought to the medical facilities in Paris. We stabilized your condition with an unconventional heart transplant. You have an artificial organ made of plastic and metal material with an organic exterior. Nanos are twice daily injected into your blood stream and work with your bodies other vital organs to help ease acceptance of this foreign object.”
“My heart?” I tried to reach up to touch my chest.
The handcuffs prevented me again. I stared hard at Dr. Dawson, my left lid aching with the pressure.
“The scarring is a cosmetic issue to be dealt with at a later time. A hearing aid implanted inside your inner ear replaced your damaged cochlea and we provided a synthetic lobe to... keep your facial balance. The volume can be increased. It might be turned down right now, my apologies if it’s difficult to hear. We’ll explain more about that later. You adjusted quite well to the use of the prosthetic arm, but we hope to further hone your fine motor skills with physical therapy. What we are most concerned with at the moment is your heart and how well you accept your ocular implant.”
“My oc-” I tried to get the whole word out but my throat collapsed around it.
“Yes. For the most part, the areas of your brain sensitive to eyesight and depth perception accepted the artificial oculus we developed. It’s remarkable how coordinated your prosthetic and ocular implants are with one another. Aside from your body rejecting the heart implant, this was our primary area of concern. Well, the lung and hearing aid too, I suppose. But you’ve absorbed these elements better than we hoped, better than we initially projected. Your recovery is nothing short of remarkable. Perhaps it’s because you are so young, the elasticity of youth, the flexibility of your not-quite-settled skeletal structure. There are so many conjectures-”
His running monologue ceased as my eyelids drooped with the weight of his speech. I wasn’t sure how much more medical jargon I could stomach. Nausea knocked into my guts like a fist and I closed my eyes to ward away the swooning gesture passing over me.
Dawson paused, continuing with a less enthused and more sympathetic inflection, “Due to the severe trauma to the left side of your skull, we rebuilt portions of the cheek and eye socket bone structure. No need to be alarmed, but electrodes run from your new implant into the parts of your brain operating the visual cortex.”
I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek and a metallic flavor flooded my tastebuds. I winced in pain and sucked in a deep breath.
“No need to be alarmed?” I asked, bewildered by the statement.
Everything he said was a reason to be alarmed. Half my body, the majority of my major organs, skeleton, nervous and cardiovascular system - were disrupted. I was only half a person now. Half a person and half a machine.
“This is a lot of information to absorb all at once, but it’s important for you to understand what’s happening with your body,” Dr. Dawson patted the mattress of the bed reassuringly, as if he were touching me.
“Could you-could you take these off?” I held up my arms to him as far as they would reach.
He gave me a long stare, finally picking the tablet off the bed and tapping buttons on the display. A single click released the handcuffs. I rolled my wrists around and touched the side of my chest covering the metal heart. I wore a grey cotton shirt with the Prothero symbol on the right side. The symbol consists of dark blue, snake-like arrows chasing each-other in an infinity loop, with a Vitruvian man entangled in their coils. I shuddered while looking at it, recalling the last time I was clothed in a similar uniform. The scar on my chest from the heart surgery was thin but raised beneath the cloth, a rolling ridge of puckered flesh dividing me in half. Smaller and cleaner than I expected but there nonetheless.
“We couldn’t heal the incision scar as perfectly as we’d hoped. Amazing advances have been made in regenerative tissue, but considering the state-” He pauses. “We considered this scar a much better alternative to the original appearance. Just think - we cracked your ribs to get the implants installed correctly. That used to leave patients with horrific wounds to heal. One tiny scar is nothing compared to a new heart and lung, right?”
I blinked up at him, my head tilted like a confused dog. Satisfied he would not utter anymore terrible explanations for a moment, I let my fingers move up to my face, exploring reluctantly. Starting at my neck, which felt like rumpled, wrinkled laundry.
“Again, we can push forward with removing the scar tissue there. We can grow you an entirely new epidermal layer, if you’d like. It would be cosmetic and the cost could be-” He stopped himself short once more. “Ahem. There are more important issues to concern ourselves with first. Beautification surgeries can be performed at a later date.”
My fingers traveled towards my smoother but still mottled cheek and landed on my eyelid. It was normal. It was skin. An audible sigh escaped me. My fingertips bumped over non-organic material, wires and circuits, running up along the left side of my forehead and into my hair-line.
Another sound passed my lips. Not a sigh of relief, a gasp of disgust. And then a long, troubled silence as I took this new information in.
“Am I - am I a robot?” Was the first question to escape me.
“No,” Dr. Dawson answered quickly. “Parts of you were replaced with replicated tissue, wires, and circuitry, but you are a large percentage flesh and blood human. You are yourself, Eleni.”
“Can I- can I be alone for a minute?” I asked.
“I can’t allow it when you’re unrestrained.”
“Why?” I demanded. It seemed like a reasonable request.
“Well... you previously attempted to remove the device. This caused extensive damage to yourself and the kinetics. They were much more... modest... before, and sub-dermal. However, you tried to cut them out,” He said.
I have no memories of cutting myself with a sharp object. The idea is nauseating.
“If you like, I can help you into the bathroom. You can see the implant for yourself. The surgical work and technology is quite extraordinary. You, Eleni, are quite extraordinary,” He beamed, pride leeching into his voice.
The next moments were a daze. My newly repaired brain tried desperately to align with the tech-eye but my sight blurred and I felt dizzy on the walk to the bathroom, even with Dr. Dawson’s assisting me.
“Once your ocular implants adjust, you will find the dizziness passes quickly. You’ve been in rehabilitation for four months. Aside from a limited measure of mental adjusting every morning, you’re healthy and strong. You are healing at an impressive rate.”
This time I couldn’t muster the energy for a response. My cries all died away in this abhorrent new reality. Where my parents were dead. Where I was part machine, part 15 year old girl.
In the bathroom, with the door propped open and the Doctor peering in, I relieved my bladder. Dr. Dawson tapped on his tablet, periodically glancing up to give me a reassuring smile. After flushing the toilet with gray water, I moved over to the sink. Gripping the sides of the porcelain, I steeled myself and looked in the mirror.
My own face stared back at me, marred with burns. My amber, troubled eyes, the mole dotting my right cheek, near my lip. The wide, flat nose and fuller lips no one could ever mistake for caucasian. My cheekbones were more apparent, not hidden under a layer of mushy baby fat any longer, they were gaunt and sharp. I looked older. But more importantly my left iris was not a red robotic orb as I’d imagined. Not a mechanical lid. It looked identical to my real one. Aside from the burn scars, the only difference was a patch of small, sturdy looking wires and green tinted circuitry embedded on my forehead and left temple. These ran up into my shaved, fuzzy hairline and into my short, wavy chocolate brown hair, down through my skull. I shuddered.
“What is this?” I asked with a quiet, childlike tenor, experiencing a mixture of awe and horror.
I was beginning to register what happened to my body and my life. Dr. Dawson moved closer to the bathroom, maintaining a respectful distance, not attempting to touch me.
“The circuitry you see there is the charging system for your vision. There are wires inside you, attaching the implanted organ to your brain, at least, the portion of your brain controlling your vision. This system on the outside operates on solar and kinetic energy. The sun and your bodies own natural functions keep your implants and prosthetics operational. It’s all water proof. It’s completely safe.”
“It’s safe,” I echoed.
How could this look like a real part of me? How could it operate like my eye? I felt all the tension, panic and distress of the morning dump into my stomach at once. Frantically, I lurched from the sink to the toilet, in time to vomit up an orange, acidy stew of bile. I flushed and sat down heavily on the toilet seat. I massaged my temples where the wires and circuits bent and flexed along with the pressure point sensation of my false fingertips.
“This is difficult for you.”
“Yes. Can I, can you-” I stuttered, trying to form a cohesive thought.
“No, I can’t leave you alone,” His statement was remorseful but insistent.
I nodded and leaned back against the wall, covering my head. The room spun around me in lazy, nauseating circles. My skull ached but I couldn’t cry.
“I can’t cry,” I said.
“You are able to cry out of your right tear duct. But the left...”
“Can I bleed?” I asked.
“Yes. But please don’t-”
“I’m not going to,” I assured him.
Dr. Dawson visibly relaxed, believing the encouraging information that I wasn’t intending any self sabotage. He approached the bathroom cautiously and took a paper cup from the sink lip, poured water in it and extended it to me. I accepted it. Swished the liquid around in my mouth. Spit it in the toilet. He filled it up again, and this time I drank the contents, staring at him with a mixture of trepidation and sadness. He backed up into the hospital room and I stood.
“Are you hungry?”
“Am I hungry?” This was the first time I’d felt truly indignant. Am I hungry? How could I possibly be hungry at a time like this?
Fantastically enough, my stomach rumbled in response to his words.
“Yes, I am.”
“I’ll order you up some food,” He tapped a button on the tablet.
I walked back to the bed without assistance. Already my brain, the artificial eye, the hearing aid and the prosthetic arm were better communicating. The tinny sound in my ears was drifting into the background. The whirring still set my teeth on edge. Not sure how I would get used to the sound.
“How many times have I done this?” I asked.
Dawson looked up from his tablet, surprised.
“I’m sorry. This feels very familiar. I can’t really describe-” I started to say.
“Close to 90 days,” He interrupted me to reply.
And that’s how it went, the first morning I woke up and retained new memories. The muscle memories of the physical therapy came back much faster than I would have guessed. By the time I finished breakfast, both eyes were operating mostly in synch with one another, and the hazy motion sickness passed. The fake arm and attached hand respond with eerie accuracy to the mental signals and muscle memory left in the remaining stump. Tiny wires and microscopic banks connect my nervous system to the machine. I am united with technology, dependent on it for every breath.
In the rush to explain all the other organs - the ear, eye, arm and heart, Dr. Dawson failed to initially inform me of my left lung implant as well. Out of all these synthetic parts, the lung gave me the least trouble. I mean, what could be more natural than breathing? Your lungs want to breathe, heart wants to beat, eye wants to see, arm wants to touch. Your body is a machine. I am a machine.
The physical therapy session was arduous, running on a treadmill with a tight thin metal band attached around my wrist to read all my vitals. This was new Prothero tech, modeled after an older generation band I wore in Paris. After the incident in Mexico City, before the bombing in Paris. It’s easy to confuse the sequence of events. One incident was far worse than the other. Both had far reaching repercussions.
Once the band was clamped closed, I couldn’t fathom how to remove it. When I asked Dr. Dawson, who was by my side the entire day, how it would be removed, he shook his head and didn’t answer.
I didn’t ask again.
Since he felt confident in my mental health and physical abilities, I was not further restrained by the handcuffs and leg shackles threatening in every room. The band had to be scanned at all the entrances and exits, like checking out groceries or swiping a credit card. I was a walking, talking commodity. A Prothero product. Eleni, new and improved.
The rooms were all the same, white, muted hues spilling out into clinically sterile hallways. No bad elevator muzak or bad hotel paintings to liven up the scenes. The only distinguishing elements were different furniture or equipment in various shades of white or gray. More windows or less windows dotting the walls. It was hard to imagine a person who would purposefully design a building to be so boring and functional. I didn’t see anyone else but nurses and other Doctors. They all communicated in whispers. The environment felt designed to minimize my stress and discomfort. It would be wrong to say I didn’t appreciate this. I felt sure any loud noises or sudden movements or harsh vocalizations would probably send me into a low-level panic attack. I might chew my fingers off or leap through the windows. Impossible scenarios either way.
The windows were unbreakable. Not because of any iron bars. The glass was the kind you couldn’t shatter and leap through. It wasn’t penetrable by a bullet or a chair or a fist. I’m not sure what it was, but I knew without having to be told, this was not a viable way out. I knew without having to be told the best way to obtain freedom was by calm and quiet cooperation. But when I stared at those bleak, ivory walls and out those impenetrable hospital windows into the radiant blue sky, I felt more broken than healed. More weak than strong. Even if my body was better than ever.
Despite my new-found clarity, they didn’t believe I was completely out of the black hole of my mind.
The next morning, I was shackled again. Dr. Dawson appeared shortly after I awoke, carrying the tablet, offering a placating smile, bordering on smug. I watched him silently, curious as to how this scenario would play out. He clearly thought we were back to square one, but there was hope in his gaze as well. A desire to draw out his suspense overtook me.
He set the tablet down on the bed and began the morning ritual of question and answer. He gave no indication yesterday had occurred. Neither did I.
“Do you know who I am?” He asked.
“Do you know where you are?”
“Do you know who you are?”
“Do you know what happened?”
“A bomb exploded in France. My parents died. I’m part robot. THIS, “I pointed in the direction of my left eye, constrained by the cuffs, “isn’t a real eye. This isn’t a real arm. I have a metal heart.” I pointed at each piece of anatomy and concluded my speech by staring blankly at Dr. Dawson.
“Oh, come now Eleni, your heart is real enough.”
Dr. Dawson’s comforting smile spread until he nearly beamed. He was quite attractive, if icy and distant. At the end of the demonstration of my newly retained memories, he stepped forward and placed a hand on the railing again, close to my shoulder but not touching it. Avoiding re-assuring human touch at all costs. It wasn’t clear if this behavior was his preferred bedside manner, a Prothero insistence, or the result of a bad altercation between us. Whatever the case, I loathed it. The alienating lack of human contact was the opposite of what I desired.
“Trust me when I say, this is wonderful news Eleni. This is the breakthrough we’ve waited for. Now we can progress forward with cognitive therapy and new elements of testing. I’ll get you breakfast and we can begin.”
He turned on his feet, moving to exit the room.
“Dr. Dawson?” I inquired.
He swiveled again. I held up my arms as far as they could move, the cuffs binding me.
“Oh right. Sorry. Old habits,” He explained.
The cuffs clicked off to reveal the band beneath it, attached to my left wrist. I studied it for a moment. There was no clasp. There was no tie, only an endless loop of cool silver metal, betraying nothing. No indication of what actually operated it. A shiver ran down my spine. So much of my body was no longer my own. None of the surgeries or implants were conducted at my request. I had been manipulated, broken and healed without my consent. Without the permission of my parents or loved ones. It was eerie to realize so much of my life now belonged to these people. How was this possible? Where were the people who loved and cared about me?
The remainder of my prison sentence involved the internal desperation to answer those questions. On the outside, I was docile and firmly committed to eating, drinking, and healing. Weekly tests were conducted to be sure I had a firm grasp of how to manage my auditory implant. Daily vision tests occured until I didn’t wake up with a jarring incongruity of vision. These were coupled with exercise routines testing the endurance of my new heart and lung, where I would run treadmills and row machines until it felt like I might pass out. Only then was I given reprieve. Sinewy muscles formed in my arm and legs. My doughy jawline hardened. The swell of my breasts faded away, my hips stayed thin and shapeless. My menstrual cycle lapsed into every two months. This was fine, they said. This was normal. Prothero didn’t seem too concerned with these symptoms, so neither was I. As opposed to my flabby, widening frame from a year ago, this muscled, athletic version of myself felt right. I felt strong and healthy, like Dr. Dawson said. For the most part, I enjoyed these exercises.
The chemical treatments however, were my least favorite part. Daily doses of silvery gray substances supposedly required to assist with my body accepting the organs and nanos. Those injections caused my jaw and teeth to ache like I’d bitten down on a fork. An object made of tin or metal. I tasted copper and wires all day long. The doctors charted my progress, with Dr. Dawson in the lead. His well-groomed countenance was the first I saw in the morning and the last in the evening.
We would perform perplexing mental acuity puzzles and fine motor skill demonstrations. Most of them related to creating pictures in my mind and touching or drawing objects related to them. I’d never spent a lot of time drawing before, and discovered not only did I like it, but I was also quite good at it. The tests were bizarre and nonsensical to me. I assumed they were related to the eye-brain connection they were attempting to strengthen. I didn’t know any better. For all intents and purposes, Dr. Dawson appeared to possess no other life but patiently coaxing me back into a more humane version of myself.
There was the day when we first visited the closet containing all my worldly possessions. I didn’t own much, considering I’d spent most of my life traveling the world and had paired these objects down considerably. The experience was unpleasant. Not as bad as blacking out, but I do remember dizziness and headaches, moments of panic and disorientation. There were family pictures. News stories. Interviews. A 30 minute documentary. There were communications from people I’d never met. Gifts of money or items I did not need. It was overwhelming.
I was a well known entity in the world. After the image of my parents dying in the bombing hit the waves, America watched my story unfold with interest. There were images of me in hospital beds, reports on surgeries and progress, and recorded statements I don’t remember making. A memorial service I don’t recall attending. These were absorbed more or less with the studied calm overlaying a deep sense of disconnect I developed the first morning of waking. When I’d looked down at my wrists on the bed and then up at the patient, closed features of Dr. Dawson. It was extremely important not to struggle. Even if I don’t remember trying to.
Some of my questions, I couldn’t contain. Especially when we looked at photos of me interacting with extended family members.
“Where are my relatives?” I asked Dr. Dawson, as we flipped through pictures of them.
“At home. Your mother’s family is primarily on the West Coast. Your father’s in the South. We’ve already covered this material,” He replied, a bit too perfunctorily. This was a subject he clearly didn’t want to linger on.
“Yes but, why aren’t they here?” I insisted, fearing his answer.
“They agreed it was best if custody were remanded to Prothero, during your rehabilitation. None of them are able to care for you in the state you are in. It is the best thing for you to be here, I promise,” He reassured me.
“Why - why haven’t they come to visit me?”
“They did, at first. But the results proved disastrous for your healing. Your amnesia was a symptom of a heightened emotional state. Seeing your friends and family reversed your progress. A few times you slipped into coma like conditions. Gradual integration back into your life is the best solution we can come up with,” He said.
“Oh. OK. But I will get to see them? Soon? I mean, I’m doing so much better,” I reminded him with my best, healthiest flash of teeth.
“Yes, you are. Perhaps once we finish all the testing, we can talk about arranging a visitation. Would you like that?”
“Of course. Of course I would,” I contained my excitement at the prospect.
“I will make sure it happens. We are only looking out for your best interests, right Eleni?” Dr. Dawson insisted.
“Yeah. It’s just sometimes I get a little lo-”
“Lonely. Let’s keep making progress and I’ll get things in motion for you to be with other people. How does that sound?”
“Great. It sounds...great. Thanks Dr. Dawson,” I said, an immense wave of gratitude washing over me.
I didn’t notice at the time he never explicitly agreed to visitations. He simply waved it off as a reward I could look forward to when I finished the tasks on the schedule. He used his brilliant composure and sensitive tone to obscure his intentions. Or rather, Prothero’s intentions. Though I’m not quite sure if those were two separate things. Dawson and Prothero are too muddled in my memory and at times I think he is genuine. Those are rare moments, few and far between. All his other platitudes are an act.
Our attention always came back to the closet, because they used this instrument to help piece me back together again. Mental reconstruction to accompany the physical alterations. The closet, aside from holding the clues to the last 8 months, also contained my parents valuables. As well as my own, mostly jewelry and clothing and knick-knacks. Then, pushed to the back of the closet, an ornate tin box. No bigger than a short loaf of bread. This was the last trinket Dr. Dawson asked me to emotionally process during our sessions.
We were sitting in the hospital room with two chairs set up around a table. Our sessions consisted of him bringing out a personal item from the closet and me talking about the memories and importance. He would catalogue what I remembered, my reactions. Every day since I woke up, a new object would appear.
Sometimes he would ask me questions about my parents. Not just about fond memories, but questions that stirred something ugly in my gut. Though I didn’t let him know that. He would ask me if they ever talked about the work they did. He would ask me if they ever invited me into their labs. If I ever touched any of their samples. If I ever interacted with their patients. He asked me what I knew about the nano virus. About the cure. I told him what I could. I told him what I thought he needed to hear. But it was never enough.
He knew it wasn’t enough. I knew it wasn’t enough.
But it was all he was going to get out of me. And truly… what did I know about my parents? My parents who had forced me to travel the globe in six month spurts, ripping me from one hotzone to the next with no compassion for my stability and seemingly little care for my safety. My parents who spent more time fighting some stupid disease than raising their daughter. My parents who never seemed to have a moment to ask about my day, but never hesitated to roll up the sleeve of my jacket and stab me with a needle if it suited their ends.
Those were my parents.
And then sometimes… I remember they were warm. I remember laughing with them over a steaming plate of nasty army food. I remember riding on my dad’s shoulders as we strode along the shoreline of a beach. I remember my mother sneaking me an extra piece of goat cheese from the makeshift kitchen. I remember my father taking me to a huge open air market in Afghanistan and buying me a special tin to keep all my travel souvenirs.
There were some good memories but they were more like photographic impressions. I couldn’t recall words we spoke or how their skin felt next to mine or the scent of their clothes or the taste of the air we breathed. It was just like flipping through a mental photobook.
Then there was the last day we had to revisit that book. We were wrapping up the physical therapy and the mental calisthenics were just for show, anyway. Dawson was no psychologist and he didn’t really seem to care about most of my answers. Except for the very specific ones I didn’t intend to give him.
Dr. Dawson placed the tin on the table. The thud sounded ominous, weighed down with foreboding. Guilt and fear rushed over me, increasing my heartbeat. Blood rushed to my cheek and pushed against the drum of my right ear. It took me a few seconds to meet his gaze.
“Can you tell me what this is?” He inquired casually, his pacifying, detached smile resurfacing.
I leaned over to further inspect it, my hands hovering above the tin surface. I surveyed my hands, the right and the fake left, two halves of the same coin. Each representing my life, before and now. The contents of the tin could put a quick end to the doctor’s mollifying smirk. They could change the course of my life, the course of other lives.
I allowed the tips of my right fingers to touch first. I slid them over the dimpled, thin metal. The lid is decorated with intricate middle eastern loops and designs. This box is from Afghanistan. A gift from my father for my 11th birthday. On the underside of the lid, inside the tin itself, a label tells you this. The inside is lined and padded with cotton and red silk. Red silk. Red like a warning. Like a stop sign. Like danger. Red like a beating human heart.
“It’s a box,” I responded, being deliberately obtuse.
“Yes. This tin box was found in your barrack after the bombing. When you were in the hospital, soldiers were assigned to pack up your belongings and ship them here. This was underneath your bed. Pushed far to the back, nearly unreachable by a full grown man because the mattress was so low to the ground. This tin was only accessible to a young girl, like yourself.”
I nodded, hoping for nonchalance, but my neck felt stiff and my head weighed too much to make the effort seamless. My fingers pulled away from the tin, curling into involuntary fists, knuckles going white.
“Did you open it?” I inquired, trying to keep my question trivial and almost disinterested.
Dr. Dawson chuckled, quietly. His reactions and movements muted.
“We couldn’t. There seems to be a special key or magic trick to opening this particular lock. We wanted to be sure it wasn’t a bomb, you see. We submitted it to an X-Ray scan. What do you think we found?”
I nodded again. Perspiration bloomed in my underarms. My fingernails dug small holes into my palms. I was quickly losing what little composure remained.
He beamed. It looked like an easy, natural thing. His pretty, evenly spaced teeth gaped at me. Very white. His dazzling blue eyes sparkled with trust and compassion. He looked like an All-American white boy from the mid-west. Not really a boy, more of a man. His mollifying smile betrayed nothing beyond it.
“What did we find?” He questioned.
“Letters,” I replied, my heart hammering loudly in my chest, the noise ringing in my ears.
“Yes, the box contains what looks like letters. What are those letters filled with Eleni?”
“They’re personal. They’re mine,” I fired these statements off too quickly. I was losing it.
His peaceful expression shrank a little, and his gaze diverted to the tin, coming back to fix on me.
“Do you remember what we talked about Eleni?” He asked gently.
More nodding, my head bobbing up and down in submission.
“Nothing is personal anymore. The whole world heard your story. All aspects of your life, all knowledge about you is available for public consumption. Your life changed. You are a completely different person. You need to move on and start your new life. You need to talk to me about those letters.”
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell him. Everything would fall apart. I’d spent the last eight months piecing my life together after losing the two most important people in my world. I couldn’t experience the pain again. It was the last straw. I gave them everything. They’d taken everything. My parents. My heart and ear and eye. My memories. I hadn’t seen anyone who loved or cared about me in almost a year and I wanted the contents of the tin exempt from their clinical observations. Their poking and prodding. I needed to keep my secrets, and the lives of the people in those letters, safe.
Also, I was scared.
“Dr. Dawson,” I said it with heavy emotion. He must have heard it. He must have known what was coming because he reached out and touched me, breaking the rules. In defiance of his own previous practices, maybe in defiance of Prothero itself.
He touched the fake hand, punctuated with the Prothero band I could never remove. His skin was warm, like I’d often imagined it might be. It was so shocking, the sympathetic human touch. I darted from the chair and slammed myself up against his chest like a frightened animal. I clung to his neck, a drowning person trying to escape the freezing waters around her. My whole body ached as I sobbed. I could cry. I wasn’t a robot after-all. I was a real person.
Dawson sat there, bewildered, his glasses slightly askew on his nose. Sluggishly, he wrapped his arms around me and lifted me. The tin box was swept from the table by this action and knocked to the floor. But its contents were forgotten for a moment. It was simply me and Dr. Dawson there, in the room with cameras recording our every move. 20 stories above the ground in a high rise Prothero hospital in Washington DC.
He set me down on the bed and tucked me into the covers, like my father used to do when I was young. Depressing waves of gratitude washed over me. I was a girl. A young girl. All alone in a scary new world coping with extreme circumstances. What I needed was a hug, an authority figure to tuck me in and tell me everything was going to be alright. The only person left to do it was Dr. Dawson, with the loving guidance of Prothero behind him.
“I think that’s enough Eleni. You’ve endured enough. You’re right. I’m sorry. Why don’t you rest? We’ll talk later. OK?”
I dipped my head in agreement, wiping at the tears and snot covering my cheeks.
He stayed next to the bed, muttering soothing phrases. Brushing hair off my forehead with a paternal, concerned countenance. I was drifting off to sleep, relieved and sated by the non-clinical human contact.
It was probably my imagination, probably the depression and anxiety and sadness distorting my reality, but I recall hearing him say, “You’re just a girl. Just a young girl.”
As if reminding himself. As if it wasn’t obvious enough. At the time, I remember thinking, you’re right. It’s true. I am. Alone and horribly disfigured. I’m a young girl who needs a friend.
I would never be a young girl again. No one would treat me that way for the rest of my life. I was nobody’s child, I was simply a piece of machinery. The ghost of who I’d been, trapped in the flesh and tech form of Eleni Garza. Reshaped into this new thing, into whatever Prothero needed me to be. They needed me to be whole again. So I made myself into a box, constructed of tin and cotton and silk, with all the personal, dangerous letters trapped and locked inside. I would be a box and I would never open up again.
Dr. Dawson probably thought I was asleep. When he turned to leave, I reached out and clutched desperately at the bottom corner of his crisp, white jacket.
“I want to go home,” I whispered.
I opened my left eye to him. It looked organic upon first sight, but distorted if you stared at it too long. I stared in the mirror at this new eye on some nights meditating on how stony it could be. How callous the ocular implant could look if leveled properly. How dangerous a weapon I could be, if wielded correctly. In the dark it never occurred to me to question where these thoughts came from. They felt like mine and came from me, but in truth, they were the thoughts of a stranger. A newer, uglier Eleni Garza.
Dr. Dawson stopped in his tracks and stared at me, a little shaken. Our whole encounter this evening troubled him. He was confused and disoriented by my sudden need for physical contact. By the eerie stare of an artificial eye viewing him as clinically as he viewed me.
“We-we’ll talk about it later. Get some rest, Eleni.”
“Alright,” I closed my lids and rolled my face into the pillow.
He walked swiftly to the door, and I heard it click gently shut behind him. Heard the locking gear grind into place. Trapped. He was out of the room, no doubt relieved to be far from me.
I couldn’t sleep yet. I pushed up from the bed and hopped down onto the tile floor. Padded across to the bathroom. Took the usual place in front of the mirror, staring at my own likeness. Trying to make sense of these changes. Attempting to recognize myself in the reflection. And today for the first time, a smile appeared.
I was going home.
The next morning Dr. Dawson entered the room and announced the good news. I was being transferred to a new facility, with young people my own age. A transitional, group therapy home for wards of the state. And then after that, a combination school and hospital all rolled into one, to re-integrate me back into the world following successful physical therapy.
It turns out Prothero’s version of home was another prison with windows equally as unbreakable and no chance to escape.
Prothero’s version of home, a military base in the Pacific Northwest, is where my story really begins.