Reason is Treason

— Kate St. Clair

We get cake today. Icing and everything. It’s either so we don’t think about the girl who’s missing, or so they don’t have to feel guilty about it. They took the chairs, though, so we sit in a circle on the floor.

I don’t eat because I still think they might poison us. None of us have given them what they want yet. Eventually it will be too much trouble to feed us, clean up after us, do our laundry. It’s probably not something you think about when you take people. After you snatch them from their beds. When you’re dragging them through the street because you kicked out their knee. When they’re screaming and you don’t understand what they’re saying, but you know they’re screaming because of you. You probably don’t think, hey, for the next three months, I have to wash the sweat stains and blood out of their clothes.

Ryn is shoveling her cake into her mouth with her hand, the icing coating her fingers like wax. They’ll be greasy later. I hope she doesn’t try to braid my hair again tonight. She slants her catlike gaze my way.

“Why aren’t you eating, Bree?”

I sink my pinkie into the cake’s downy underbelly. It closes around me like a comforter. I’d had one in my dorm room, before. The one I used to wrap myself in, with the self-heaters veining through it.

Sheya snatches my cake, taking the warmth with it.

Don’t waste it, Bree; they never give us good stuff. Her voice in my mind is exactly the way it sounds aloud; jumpy and sharp, unstable like a child’s.

The tiny sprinkles crack between her teeth as she chews. I can almost see the pressure strains ribbing through the enamel.

“Geez, Sheya,” Ryn snorts like a piglet. “Don’t cover for her. She’s going ’rexi.”

She means anorexic, I think. One of the things she’d poured tears over the third night we were here, after she’d spent hours detailing for Candiss and me the exact art that was “the messy bun.”

Did anyone else talk to the bearded guy today? McKy asks. I wish he’d speak out loud, but he hardly ever does. His voice always rumbles, gentle thunder. He didn’t eat the cake either. He tore his up into tiny pieces and arranged them in four piles.

The Randoms wanted to know about his family, Ryn says.

They want him to think they have his wife, Sheya says.

They still don’t think we can get the formula, Ryn says. They want us to get small things because they think it’s easier.

As long as we don’t know it, they’ll keep us here, Sheya says.

Did you find out what they’re going to do with it? McKy prompts.

“I don’t listen to the Randoms,”Sheya sniffs aloud. “It’s all in Jap-German anyway.”

“Bree?”

McKy snares me with his eyes. I used to think they were green like snakes, but now I think they’re more like grass. Every time he does this, stares at me, I think of that saying, “The grass is green where you water it,” and I imagine what it would be like to stand outside surrounded by that color. To stand in those eyes.

I don’t say anything. I wedge my tooth beneath my thumbnail, to fill my mouth with something other than words.

“Bree?” he says again.

“She’s fine,” Sheya says. “She misses Candiss.”

I don’t miss Candiss. I see her every night. She shares the cell with me and Ryn.

I saw Candiss last night, I say.

No one speaks after that.

 

We get longer than usual for cake. Longer than we need. Those who ate it have headaches from the sugar. They’re happy when the Randoms come to get us. They still bother with guns, though we’ve proven that pain is an adequate motivator. The two that come to get us shuffle us out in a herd, down the hallways, threading us into cells.

Before we get to his, McKy touches my arm. His fingers drag like feathers across my skin.

What are you thinking?

“I’m not thinking anything,” I answer aloud.

I don’t buy that for a second, he says. Not with those eyes.

The Randoms edge him into his cell.

 

The white walls of our cell are wet. Every night, they start to sweat. I’ve tried to find where the water comes from, but there are no holes in the painted cement. No gaps, no pores. The whole complex is like this: sweaty white walls. There were walls like this at my old school, before the Academy.

Ryn doesn’t try to braid my hair. She settles into her blanket in the corner. Our blankets had once been on airplanes, I know because of the collectively average color and the cheap microfiber blend. If I roll mine just right, I can stuff it under my head so it blocks my ear. I sleep with my finger in the other ear. It filters out some of the noise. We all had trouble sleeping without our meds at first. The trick, I’ve learned, is to think about nothing. Think about black. It makes it just quiet enough.

Candiss comes in late. I feel her sleeping next to me later, her back molded to mine.

 

Candiss is screaming. She’s screaming her head off, and I yell for her to be quiet. She’s screaming so loud I can’t even hear myself. The cell is full of the wailing; it bounces across again and again, trapping us in a web.

“Stop!” Ryn cries, jamming her ears shut. “Stop it!”

Candiss doesn’t stop in time. A Random types in the code for our cell, 5-6-2-3-5, and the bars roll back. I’m trying to shake Candiss to get her to be quiet.

“Shut up!” the Random shouts in chopped English. They know “shut up,” “come,” and “formula.”

My lip breaks open against his knuckles and the screaming stops. I squeeze my eyes closed, willing him to get the hell out, away from me. When the bars close, he’s gone, and so is Candiss.

“Where’d they take her?” I ask. My chin is sticky.

“Who?” Ryn says.

“Candiss!”

Ryn looks at me like she might have at Academy. Like a bug trying to speak. She buries her head in the airplane blanket.

 

In two days, I can smile again. It happens when we get our showers, in pairs. They tie my wrist to Shea’s and take our uniforms, mine fluorescent pink and Shea’s highlighter yellow. We get clean ones after, but they can never seem to wash the bright out so it isn’t blinding at first.

Sheya dances in the shower, twirling so I have to lift my arm for her to go under. When I smile, my lip pangs, but it’s a healing pang.

I figured out these, she says, wiggling the white plastic cuff on her wrist. “The stupid one, the Random with the fake eye, it’s all he thinks about. Us doing this.”

She inserts her fingernail into the slotted circle on the top. She twists, slowly, painfully, and I’m afraid her nail is going to splinter. Then, it turns. The tiny circle falls into her waiting palm, and the lights along the cuff die.

Sheya laughs maniacally, and I cover her mouth because my cuff is still working. Her grin presses against my hand.

Did you get the codes for the cell doors?

Yes, but I can’t remember them for long. I can’t hold on to anything anymore. Everything slips like eels through my fingers, wriggling and slippery. Fighting all the time.

 

The Randoms slide me a pill. It’s white and oblong, like the ones they gave us at Academy. The ones that tell the other parts of your brain to wait in the background while you listen. I don’t know where they could have gotten it.

The Random with the fake eye pushes a glass at me. His lips twitch as the water tips from side to side. He remembers the water shifting the same way after the girl went still under it, after she wouldn’t answer the question. I hate his mind. It’s tight and suffocating, but I always listen anyway. Even before they held her under too long, he thought about Candiss.

The bearded man trembles at the end of the table. He doesn’t look at me, as if it might shield him. As if he’s imagining a wall between us, fellow prisoners. He was here before us, long before.

Fake Eye grunts a few words in Jap-German. I still can’t figure out what the Randoms are. They have Polish noses and German mouths, but Japanese foreheads, unmoving. He jabs his finger over a woman’s face in the photograph.

“Yes, that’s his wife,” I say. The Randoms stare anxiously at the translator screen.

They hack and cough another sentence, and I see an image of broken formula. I wish I could stop seeing this freaking formula. The bearded man constantly loops it around in his head because he’s trying not to think about it. It’s the one Candiss screamed over and over in my mind, even after she’d stopped making splashes. I hate her for choosing me to burn it into.

I stare blankly at the Randoms. Sometimes I make a show of pressing my fingers to my temples, like I’m concentrating, then shrugging. Things they expect of us.

Today, I throw them a bone, though. Because I’m glad about the cake. I’m glad they felt bad enough to make it. I’m glad they felt bad enough to drain the tub so we don’t have to look at it.

“He knows his wife is dead.”

They take out a sock filled with coins. While they beat the bearded man, I sit and watch with Fake Eye. I don’t know why they make me watch this every time. Maybe they’re hoping the prisoner will blurt out the formula to me, drop his guard.

Fake Eye has a song stuck in his head. It’s old. I stifle a smile because my mother used to think of it a lot.

Here come the morning that I say goodbye to ya. Here come the morning, but I don’t turn around…

“Because reason is treason,” I finish for him. Fake Eye jumps, and reopens my lip.

 

We’re back to bags of chips for dinner. At least I can eat with a clear conscience. Something’s wrong with the lights; all we have is an electric candle to circle around. The Random on food duty walks with the weight of something on his mind. He’s picking through the grocery bag of chips, handing each of us the flavor we always choose. His eyes dart to mine. His face closes up like an anemone, sucking its body back inside. He throws a bag of Cheddar Bftest at me and drops the sack in the circle, knocking over the candle. McKy rights it, and swaps his Wasabi Seaweeds with my bag. His gaze is like a gentle antennae searching my face.

They don’t like me, I say to him.

You need to be better at hiding it when you think, he answers.

My mind flashes to the interrogation room. Did I look like I knew a secret? They’re waiting for the tiniest chink, the smallest suggestion that I know. I’m the only one besides the bearded man who knows it now, and once they figure it out they’ll pry it from my mouth somehow.

It was stupid of me to engage Fake Eye. He’ll know I’m listening from now on.

I hear a chuckle. McKy is shaking his head.

“Bree,” he says. Always thinking.

I’m not, I say.

You think too obviously.

 

The tub is filled again today. The Randoms flanking me push me past it, the edge scraping my knee. They shovel me into the chair. Bearded guy has had a work over already. He’s resting his head on the table, rusty flakes drying in his facial hair. Before I even touch the seat, he’s gushing the formula in its entirety, over and over. He’s given up. He wants it to be over. He wants to give it to someone else, so he doesn’t have to carry it anymore.

I glare at him, willing him to stop. I can’t tell if he sees me through the swollen plums that are his eyes.

Fake Eye sits across from me. Something about him smirks; I can’t put my finger on it. He chatters with the other Randoms, but his half stare stays on me, the crystal eye steady.

I’m curious. I just want a taste, a brush of what’s making him so smug.

I get it. I get it all. The purpose of the formula, what it makes, what they want it for. Why bearded man looks so familiar. The ground littered with hundreds of thousands of bodies in the formula’s wake.

Too late, I understand the trap they’ve laid for me.

Fake Eye sneers. Like McKy said, I think too obviously.

He lunges across the table, his hands twisting into my uniform.

“I don’t know it!” I blurt stupidly. They haven’t even asked me yet. Fingers clasp around my ankles and I’m lifted off the chair.

“Formula!” Fake Eye insists.

Water seeps into the back of my uniform. It closes over my face, filling my eyes. My shoulders press against the tub. When they pull me out again, I try to cough, but I only gush liquid.

“Formula!”

“I don’t know!”

This time it’s longer. The cold slides into my nose, oozes down my throat. Lights burst in front of my eyes. A burning starts in my chest, as if I breathed in fire. I don’t realize they’ve pulled me out, only that I’m not heavy anymore. They dump me in a pile on the floor. The water I hack out is warm.

The Randoms bicker. When one scoops me off the ground, his hand shudders. I get an image of something with electricity, something complicated. I guess they decided the tub isn’t working. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll make another mistake and lose their chance for the formula again.

Shudders helps me trip back to my cell. I can’t seem to get my feet underneath me. McKy punches the bars as we pass him. I see his anguished face through my dripping hair, his white knuckles grasping the bars. Shudders drops me next to Ryn, who won’t look at me.

“I got a bath,” I say to her. I want the tension to ebb.

Did you get it? She asks.

I sit up, wringing my hair out over my shoulder. Don’t worry about it, I say. I’m not going to be Candiss. I won’t put this on someone else.

The Randoms work all day setting up their big surprise in the interrogation room. My big present. They’re zipping back and forth in front of our cells every hour, darting glances at me. One pauses to slip me an apple, a real, rose-colored orb of a delicacy.

“Formula,” he says softly, pressing it into my palm.

“So you’re the good cop, then?” I say, and hurl it against the wall.

 

At dinnertime, the Randoms close themselves off in their private area. Ryn deactivates my cuff for me. Somewhere in the space of time between the tub and now, I’ve bitten all my fingernails off. We hide the batteries under our blankets.

I force my hand through the bars and type the code, just as the Random remembers it. 5-6-2-3-5, like a song. The bars don’t slide silently, but the Randoms are eating, not close enough to care. Shea’s goes 7-5-2-8-5-6. I stumble on McKee’s, because it’s so much to hold all at once. Excitement makes my head spin, jumping from one image to the next. I wish I had one of the oblong pills to make everything be quiet. I press the last number, and the bars jump back a few inches.

I sigh, relieved my part is done. McKy has the door codes, and Sheya knows the way through the complex. We keep swinging through doorways, feverish and shaky, putting distance between the cells and us.

The air is so cold outside I forget how to breathe for a moment. I stand there, gulping like a goldfish, staring at the broken slabs of shale that surround the complex. Sheya grabs my hand, and I stumble a bit because my knee is still not right. The fence is high and looped with barbed wire, but McKy came prepared with blankets. We press them over the tines and slide over.

We’re out. We all have to pause for a moment, because for all their slip-ups, the Randoms never let us see an image of the outside. Everything is snow. It’s like the top of the cake they gave us, thick with white peaks and troughs.

We take off running. Our breaths curl into clouds behind us. It’s so cold. I curse myself for not bringing the crappy airplane blankets. McKy is thinking the same thing about the ones we left hanging on the fence.

Sheya slides to a stop when we hear the Snow Runners. We all cast around for a hiding place, but there’s nothing. It’s just white.

A chuckle creeps from Sheya.

McKy rounds on her. “What?”

“It’s a joke,” Sheya says.

“What is, Sheya?” I shake her. “Where do we go?”

“The uniforms,” she says, grasping the neon hem of hers. “They know we can get out. They just know we can’t hide.”

We all pause, listening to the Snow Runners. Ryn sits. Sheya keeps laughing to herself, kicking up showers of snow. The flecks drift lazily down, settling on my arms in silence.

McKy is taking it the hardest. He takes a few steps, lilting sideways. He catches himself on his knee. He’d planned the hardest, believed the most. He’d cozied up to Randoms, smiled and made nice so they sneaked him a hoodie and extra blankets. He’d saved bags of chips for weeks now, stuffing them in his pockets.

I sink down next to him. His hand is cold when I wrap my fingers around it. He reaches out with his other hand, catching one of Sheya’s snowflakes. When I brush his mind, he’s thinking about a snow globe he had at Academy, from his mother. It was made from real glass, with a perfect tiny copy of Seattle inside. I remember seeing it the one night I’d been in his room. The first night of school. He had stolen the banner that said, “Welcome to the Academy for Psychically Gifted Children.” We used it to put our cups on.

He pulls my hand to his chest. “Tell them the formula. Don’t let them hurt you.”

The formula again. I guess it’s mine to carry now, this poisonous, corrosive formula. It will dissolve us all, one way or another. I’d rather carry the Random’s revenge in my head, like a fox in a cage, than give them the step they need to make it real. It’s me, just me, that stands between them and piles of bodies. I wonder if the last time, the last attack, there’d been someone like me. A last barrier between the Randoms and their hate for us all. Someone who’d failed.

The Randoms. Not so random after all.

I can’t tell them, I say to McKy. You don’t know what it’s for.

The hum of the Runners is getting closer. I feel the cold now, but somehow it’s good. I let myself tip backward, let the snow cradle me. After a moment, McKy joins me, his eyes closing. Sheya’s head settles next to mine, her right hand creeping into my left. Ryn closes the circle. We wait like a string of neon Christmas lights for our ride back.

 


 

Kate St. Clair is the author of The Sayers Witch Series of novels, which includes Spelled and Cursed. She is from a small town outside of Austin, TX, and attended St. Stephen’s Boarding School. Growing up, Kate was accepted to the prestigious Oxbridge Program, which allows aspiring writers to spend the summer at Oxford and Cambridge University learning from college professors. She was awarded Next Generation’s Young Author Award, and Spelled has won three independent publishing awards. Kate hopes to inspire young adults to seek the magic and beauty in their own lives with her books.