Stirring the bowl of broth balanced precariously in my lap with a spoon, I sigh and continue to watch the herbs swim about in the murky water. My appetite has fled and my head is buzzing. Billions of thoughts are crammed into every nook and cranny of my brain, triggering the onset of a migraine. One that not even the strongest of medicine can cure.
Glancing up, my eyes meet those of girl with brunette hair in two braids, one resting against each shoulder. A pair of square, black-rimmed spectacles are perched on the tip of her nose, framing two large, hazel eyes. On either side of her are two girls, exactly alike, from their shoulder-length raven hair to their navy eye colour. I smile.
"Hey, Val. Lana. Jasmine." I nod at the twins, acknowledging their presence. They both smile back at me.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
Val raises an eyebrow then nods at the broth. "You've been staring at that for the past goddamned quarter of an hour. Look at it; it's stone cold. What's up?"
"Nothing. I just have a bit of a migraine, that's all."
Val frowns. Her hand slips into the pocket of her jumpsuit and she withdraws a packet of acetaminophen. "Here, take some of these."
I shake my head, pushing them away. "It's not that kind of a migraine, Val."
"Then what sort is it?"
Sighing, I shake my head. "Forget it." Scooping up some of the broth with the spoon, I bring it to my lips and take a sip. It's cold, just like Val said. Putting the spoon back in the bowl, I carefully put it on the floor and gently push it under my bunk. "Where's Renee?"
Val turns to the side to reveal Renee standing there, grinning at us. She steps forward and sits down next to me. "What's new, guys?"
"Naomi's not telling us something."
I glare at Val. "There's nothing wrong." Glancing to Renee, she gives me a knowing look. I sigh. "Honestly, I'm fine."
"Has it got something to do with earlier?" My body tenses. Renee narrows her eyes, nodding her head slowly. "Come on. Spit it out."
Muttering quietly under my breath, I glance from side to side and check that nobody's prying in on our conversation. Deeming it safe enough, I beckon my friends closer and clear my throat.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Three swift, sharp raps at the door capture our attention. Thirty-nine heads turn in its direction. One brave girl, Natalie, stands up and picks her way down the narrow pathway between the two lines of bunks. All eyes follow her down to the doorway. Her hand makes contact with the handle. Four fingers curl around the cold metal. In one clean motion, a click clips the air and the door swings open, to reveal the matron. Miss Lee. She beams at us.
"Good evening, ladies," she chirps, bustling into the dormitory, glancing from side to side at our untidy bunks. "I see you've kept on top of your chores."
An icy silence strangles the atmosphere, squeezing it tight so the sound falls limply at our feet. Every second, like clockwork, a single footstep reverberates around the room as Miss Lee strides from one end of the room to the other. A few moments later, she stops in her tracks. She turns around. A warm smile lights up her tired, wizened face.
"How is every-?"
"What happened yesterday, Miss Lee?"
“What do you mean? Who said that?”
“Why was dinner delayed? What happened?”
Her expression turns grave. Her eyes make no effort to seek out the asker. She knows we're all thinking the same thing.
"There was an incident in the kitchen. Nothing to worry about, save your empty stomachs."
"What type of incident was it?" My voice is harsher than I imagined. Dozens of pairs of eyes turn to stare in my direction. Val frowns at me. Renee and the twins appear confused.
"I'm afraid that's classified information." Miss Lee's tone remains cool and composed. "And like I said, it's nothing for you to worry about."
"Then why can't you tell us what the incident was?" My voice grows louder with every word. "If it's nothing to worry about then why is it classified?"
Somewhere in the room, I hear a quiet murmur of agreement. A few girls near me are nodding their heads, gradually absorbing the information they've heard. Miss Lee folds her arms and frowns. Her eyes scan the room for the speaker who dares to speak up. In less than a second, they land upon me. Her frown widens.
"Classified information is classified information whether you like it or not." Her tone is more firm than stern but her words drip with warning like a leaky tap. "Now no more questions. You have free time until nine and then it's lights out."
"But Miss-" I try to stand up but Val pushes me back down, silencing me with a glare.
Miss Lee heads back across the room and opens the door. Glancing over her shoulder, she smiles at us. "Night, girls." And with that, she scurries away.
In a matter of seconds, Val, Renee and the twins turn on me.
"What was that about?" Val demands.
"She's hiding something," I murmur quietly. "Something's up." Glancing up, four blank faces stare at me.
"What's going on, Naomi?" Lana queries.
"Yeah, you're not normally like this," Jasmine adds.
I look to Renee. She raises an eyebrow. "Spill."
Sighing, I beckon them towards me for the second time this evening. "When I went to find out what happened earlier, there was a bunch of doctors crowded around the serving hatch. I only caught a glimpse but..." I trail off, glancing up at the four curious faces, their eyes fixated on me. "There was a...a died person."
"She means dead, you idiots," Val hisses. "There was a dead body. Honestly, did none of you pay attention during education?"
"None of us are swots like you, Val," I retort. "But, you're right, whatever that means. The person was...dead."
"Are you sure?" Val narrows her eyes. "Are you absolutely certain that the person you saw wasn't alive?"
"Yes. At least I think so." I sigh. "Now you're making me doubt myself. No, the person definitely wasn't alive. I'm sure of it."
"Did you see the entire body?" Lana's eyes are alive with awe.
"Well, I saw a…a hand."
"A hand?" Val slaps her forehead. "Seriously? And you expect us to believe that this hand belonged to a dead person?"
"Well...yes. It was still. Too still. And deathly pale, even for our skin. Whoever that hand belonged to, they were definitely dead."
"But what does that mean?" Renee's voice breaks through for the first time.
All eyes turn to Val. Her brow is creased with lines of concentration and her lips are pursed slightly, a sign of her thinking. Hard. No one dares to interrupt her. When Val's deep in thought, it's best to stay quiet. We all know the consequences. She remains silent for a few moments more before clearing her throat and leaning in closer.
"I have a hunch but you're not going to like it," she begins. "Therefore, none of you are to mention a word of this to anyone."
"Why not?" I counter.
"Have you ever seen something like that before?"
His lifeless body crashes against the ground, fumes of dust concealing his demise.
"Why? Why do you think nobody here has witnessed that before?"
"Exactly what, Val? What exactly are you trying to get at here?"
"Think about it. We follow the same routine, day in, day out. Then, out of the blue, you think you've seen a dead body-"
"I know what I saw."
Val grumbles. "Whatever. You see a dead body. Now does that sound normal to you? Compared with everything we've ever seen or heard or felt or experienced, does that seem like it fits in?"
"Well of course not." Renee cuts in before I get the chance to. "But what does that mean, Val? What does all of this actually mean? You're talking in riddles again and not one of us understands what the point is that you're trying to make."
Val leans in closer, her gentle breathing tickling the hairs on the back of my neck. My mind is triggered. There's a ringing in my ears. I'm suddenly someplace else. Someplace where I belong, protected by those who cherished me. Someplace safer.
Whispers infiltrate my earshot and my vision is consumed with blurry figures. Shaking my head, I blink several times, trying to regain my senses. The figures transform into girls. My friends. They all gaze at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to say something. I snap back to reality.
"What just happened?"
Glancing up, I catch sight of Jen standing nervously at the end of the bunk. Her fingers clasp a small scrap of paper, several words scrawled onto it. She offers it to me. "This came for you."
Smiling briefly at her, I take it from her grasp and unfold it. My eyes skim the words and the moment my mind has digested the instruction, a frown spreads across my face. "What the-"
"What does it say?"
I hand Renee the note. "I've got a meeting with the Chief Doctor at nine."
"But what about your injection?"
"That's the thing. It says to skip it."