They never told the resident of Cell C-18 the outcome of the test, but he knew. He lost his first name the moment he entered, but now he had no name at all. His lost name wasn’t replaced with an ID number. No slur like “zombie” or “walker” came his way to suggest he lived even an inferior existence. He was not “you,” or “it,” or “that.” He knew when the test came back because the facility ceased to reference him at all. He was not human; he was not subhuman; he did not exist.
It made sense that he did not exist. He was gone the instant he sent Princess away. He talked to her when the silence of the bare cell became too much for him. When he startled awake from fitful slumber slumped against the wall, he reached out for a furry, warm head that wasn’t there.
She deserved better than what he could give her now. He just had to hope someone found her and discovered what a good dog she was before she starved herself for her high morals.
“Attention.” He got used to the ammonia smell after the first few days, but the intercom voice just grated more each time he heard it. “Phone call for Cell C-18.”
A hazmat suit lumbered to the cell door and clanged it open, gesturing with a military shotgun for Ethan to step out. Ethan had given up trying to find a face behind the polarized viewport. Here, humanity was a privilege extended to no one.
They walked through the corridor. His mother had never taught him the rules of etiquette to apply when imprisoned in a facility full of people in various states of mental and physical decay, but he managed not to stare openly and only glance into cells. “I am here,” said a man laying face up in the middle of his cell, “I am of sound mind. I am real.” The man repeated his mantra at full volume, picking with a shaking hand at a tuft of dark gray mold growing on one cheek. A white woman huddled in a corner in a white dress. Her long white hair needed to be washed, and she clutched her white legs and rocked back and forth, whispering “Here Boy, here Boy, here Boy” through cracked white lips, tears streaming from her solid black eyes.
C-18’s resident stumbled back when a bloody hand shot out of a cell. “Guaaagh,” came a moan as the hazmat suit shoved him out of the way and fired the gun. The emaciated body inside fell and gurgled on the floor as the hazmat stepped forward to deliver a final headshot.
The body lay still on the floor, flesh that once adhered together in the shape of a head spread out in a gory puddle. The hazmat pressed a button by the plaque, which lit up white. The hazmat pumped its shotgun to reload and continued forward. Ears ringing, C-18 followed behind.
The hazmat suit opened the door to the phone room. He’d been here before. He sat on a long bench and the hazmat disappeared. He waited for the buzz.
Buzz. He picked up the phone.
“Ethan, how are you doing, boy? Are you okay?”
Tears pricked his eyes. “Yeah, Dad.”
“Buddy, I want you to know that Stacy came looking for you. She’s real good, that one. You could do a lot worse.”
“Yep. I want you to know that she’s safe.”
“Stacy is safe?” Ethan wasn’t sure why Stacy would be in any danger. He really wanted to know about Princess, but he knew if Dad knew about Princess, he wouldn’t be able to say anything on the recorded line.
“I thought you’d want to know. Mom found out that you’re suspected of infecting Michael Borden. The trial is in a couple days. She’s still trying to get the video they found. We’ll keep you up to date.”
“Michael Borden?” What video could they possibly have? He never even met Michael Borden. Stacy was the one that identified him when the bear knocked him down. Would that even help him in the trial?
Did he care? Between death and getting locked away with other miserable wretches in a quarantine hotel to sit and grow moldy, he didn’t see a clear winner.
“We love you, Son. We’re doing everything we can to make sure you get the best outcome, ok?”
Another buzz indicated it was time to hang up.
“Stay strong. They can’t kill you as long as you’re human-acting.”
Ethan nodded, staring forward into nothing.
A banging on the door. Ethan put the phone on the receiver and stood. As the hazmat led him back through the corridors he glanced at the cell where some poor person had let the stress and the disease get to her and forgot to act human. The light was off again, the cell clean and ready for the next occupant. That’s what would remain of Ethan if he didn’t keep his identity here.
He was already losing it, though, he knew. Dad was surely making as many calls as they’d let him for as long as they’d let him, but it wasn’t enough. Should he start shouting “I am of sound mind” at the top of his lungs over and over again until the trial? Maybe he’d rather go out with some dignity.
Ethan reached out for comfort and pawed once more at the empty air. He had never in his life been without his dog for so long. Even when his first dog Princess Marlie Rose Stowe started to have trouble walking and had to retire they already had Princess Penelope Blackwater Stowe adopted and trained so there was no off-time in between.
A thought stabbed into Ethan’s heart. When was the last time he had thought of Marlie Rose? Back then, he was sure that nothing could replace those long floppy foxhound ears and the way she seemed gigantic even after he grew up and towered over her. He couldn’t imagine not missing the way that the white stripe in her fur looked like the letter E, like she was meant for him by a power even greater than his mother. But then Penelope Blackwater started getting his shoes for him without being asked and sitting whenever he started to think about saying “sit,” and she was “Princess.” The tree atop Marlie Rose in the backyard was still scrawny and stubby, but Ethan couldn’t remember the last time he visited her. Was that where he was headed? How long would it be before no one visited him?
“Stacy is safe,” thought Ethan as his cell door rattled closed behind him, and it made him angry. What did that mean? Surely everyone knew Stacy was in no danger, why would Dad even bother to say so? Ethan hit the wall with his fist and took a deep breath of burning ammonia-heavy air. There had to be something more. Dad wouldn’t waste the little time they had on nonsense. Ethan tried to remember the exact words, volume, tone, cadence.
Dad never said Stacy was safe. He said “I want you to know that she is safe.” Maybe that was the real message, and the context was distraction for the benefit of the hazmats. Maybe “she” was Princess. She had to be, it was the only explanation that made sense. People were still out there who cared about him, and they had saved his dog. If she was still alive, he could risk missing her. He didn’t know how, but maybe he could still hope they could be back together. He had stopped hugging dogs after Marlie Rose, since only little kids did that, but if he ever got the change, he was going to wrap his arms around Princess and bury his face in her thick brown-and-white fur.
People still loved Ethan. If anyone could save him it was Mom. He had so much more than the other denizens of this facility. He just had to hang on. His only job now was to be Ethan Stowe.
He hoped he would be up to the task.
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