Community Stories. Get Inspired, Get Underlined

The Artist

By @ElectricUniverse

Chapter 1



  I hear whispers. So low, so gentle, so marvelous that I can’t help but be entranced by the voices. They are like the song of a summer breeze, the promise of cool air against hot skin. The kiss of a snowflake on flushed cheeks. A howl from a lonely wolf on a clear night.

  Yet, despite the melodious sound, I snarl, glaring at the human being just outside the metal bars trapping me in this forsaken, untouched place. Eyes as black as coals stare back, and the music in my mind intensifies. I continue to attempt to block out the noise, to barricade the walls of thought, but their own mind easily penetrates, effortlessly bringing it down with a sweep, crossing the rubble into mine. I drop to the floor, covering my ears.

  My legs give out as the pulsing breath of song chokes me. Another whisper, then a screech. A woman, far and close, shrieking in pain, in fear, in fury; who am I to tell? The noise bounces off the wall and is shoved down my throat, a reminder to the torture she is enduring. A slow suffering, and she welcomes death with silence.

  But they aren’t done. Another round of screams and blares and wails, and I am now standing, no longer trying to drown out the sound. The cell doors open, but I don’t run. I don’t even move as zip ties are secured around my wrists. The collar around my neck rubs against the already tender skin, and the bindings around my hands open an old wound. The capsule on the collar glows, and another pressure, more intense than even the noise in my brain, sinks into my chest, snuffing out whatever energy I had saved to try to escape.

  The warden furrows his brows, dark eyes following me as the melodies intensify, and I am escorted out of the cell. The rest of my squadron is ahead, being led to the place each and every one of us dread with every nerve inside of us. I say us, but I am the longest lasting in my group, Northeastern Wing of the 537 squadron. I am hardly eighteen, but most of the people with me are sixteen or younger. Why?

  To enlighten anyone who is willing to listen, I, Avenue, am a freak, a toy, a weapon. Blessed with unnatural power, cursed with unnatural abilities. Unique. Not necessarily in a good way. Animation is my power, but it is weak and impossible to practice with if this collar remains around my neck.

  I am waiting for a time when a notorious group of people like me come to my aid. On the limited times we are allowed to watch television—the news channel—I have heard stories of them infiltrating special prisons made for my kind and breaking everyone out. The Deviant League, they call themselves, superhero related names, the public calls them. To my dismay, ordinary people vote for nicknames.

  A siren, wailing and crying, echoes in my mind. I cringe, momentarily able to snap out of the mental grasp of the warden. He is using his control over sound to alter my brain nerves and be able to control me. It is a sickening thought, but more so of the idea that he even considered to join the monsters against people like us. People like himself. He is about thirty or so, from what I’ve guessed. Always calculating and observing. It reminds me of the time I whispered filthy things about him, earning a gut-wrenching blow to the face. Super hearing as well, I’d assume.

  More howls of wind, and I’m temporarily released. Along with the rest of my squadron, I cower in the corner, hiding among the others.

  It doesn’t last long. A sharp whistle resounds in the air, and we fall in line, single-file. I am a few leagues from the front, nervously glancing ahead at two young boys whispering to each other. The escort sentries leave the room, and mine gives me a huff and sneer before exiting. The stench of bleach coats the arena as I crinkle my nose.

  Something in the center catches my eye, and I gaze at the mosaic masterpiece, shaped like the flag of the doomed country, America, ruled by someone who does nothing about his hypocrisy and focuses on cleansing the nation of people like me. President Johnathan B. Adam called us rats once on the news. That television never saw the light of day again.

  I almost smile at the thought of that kid’s fists coming down on the electronic screen. With bloody hands and a proud smile, he was swept away to be dealt with in the jailor’s private quarters, a barbarous man named Colonel Wesley Jackson, Keeper of our prison. Sometimes addressed as Operator, but Murderer fits him better. Long story short, the kid never came back.

  Where he went, nobody knew. Rumors suggest that he was killed on the spot, but most likely, he was sent onto the battlefield to fight power-hungry terrorists. Where squadrons like mine are taken when their “training” is complete. When they are ready to survive a few days before being killed in battle.

  My gaze flicks back to the two boys, who are no older than ten. They’ve faced the front again, their collars a stark contrast against their pale skin. As if on cue, the skin on my neck tingles at the pressure of the black material against my skin. An even heavier weight nestles deeper into my bones.

  A colonel steps forward, beckoning the first person to come onto the center of the mosaic. What maddening, barbaric thing will he make the first person do? Sometimes two children— children—must battle to the death. The victor will be protected while the loser is tossed into an icy river. From my observations of the land beyond my window, it snows often. Where could we possibly be?

  A little girl shuffles into the center, and from my place underneath an overhead balcony, I spy a group of watchful eyes from the other side. One of them, a middle-aged man, glances in my direction, as if sensing my gaze. I look away, fixing my eyes instead on the girl.

  The colonel comes to her, whispering something in her ear that earns a nod. Is he promising the child a life of freedom? One that he cannot give? Promising her better food and cleaner water? Juice for a week?

  I fight a sneer when he steps away again, reaching up to scratch an itch with my bound hands.

  Sparks fly from her hands, quickly dissipating as they hit the floor. Her face is drawn in fierce concentration, her dark skin reflecting the light. I can smell the heat, the fireless smoke. Coughs erupt from a few of the staff members, but the colonel’s face remains impassive, one of boredom and mock disappointment. The woman beside him furiously writes something on her notepad.

  But something’s wrong. The atmosphere . . . She hasn’t been able to practice her power enough to conjure a flame. I can almost taste her frustration and the colonel’s carefully hidden anger, rolled into a bitter crumb. I can only pray he doesn’t toss her away.

  Wesley Jackson’s nostrils flare, noting the girl’s inability to properly demonstrate her power and the horror on our faces. It is enough to make me feel nauseous.

  Wesley nods to the guard beside him, who draws a whip from his belt. His face says it all: curled into a hideous, teeth-filled smile that promises pain. Tears, hot, sorrowful tears drip from my eyes. My chest knots, and with the invisible pressure, it curls in on itself, tearing.

  With a flick of his wrist, the unsuspecting girl crumples to the floor with a scream. The noise slices through my mind, my heart, my soul, but I don’t dare flinch. Neither do the others in my squadron. We’ve seen this happen a dozen times. It’s the same every time. The failures and weaklings are separated from the stronger, while the ones capable of commanding their power in a controlled manner are sent to die. In the end, it doesn’t matter, we’re all dead anyway.

  The girl is curled on the floor, sobbing, and when she turns her back on us, everyone around me, including myself, do flinch. Long, jagged lines streak across her back, blood pouring from her wounds. The whip ceases in the man’s hand when she begs, her palms pressed together in an earnest plea. Her limbs start to glow.

  Instead of showing a sliver of mercy, he shoves her over with an iron boot, cackling as the leather cord comes crashing down on her back. The heat in the room increases, suffocating from the might of it. A trickle of sweat slides down my spine underneath my orange jumpsuit. Others in my squadron have beads of sweat dotting their foreheads.

  In a blast of heat and a scream, the girl throws out her arm, and a wave of flames spin and dance in a torrent of death. I hold up my bound hands in an attempt to shield my eyes from the light. More sweat trickles down my face.

  Disbelief is etched on every inch of the girl’s face as she stares at the pile of ashes that used to be the whipping guard. My own eyes are wide at the sight, but the surprise quickly fades into horror when a few more guards seize her and drag her from the room. My eyes find the man from earlier, and I don’t see a speck of emotion or pity in his face. Disgust pools my stomach at the inhumanity.

  What will they do to her? I can only imagine.

  Wesley calls the next forward, and one of the two boys from earlier emerges from our corner. His face is twitching with a steady anger, but I know better. His wrath will be spent, and he will die for it.

  At the sight of his face, a few guards hoist their guns higher in warning, but he doesn’t care. None of us do. Every single prisoner here would gladly take the bullet for him if it meant freedom. Death or not.

  With a wicked smile, ice forms in his palm, and a snowy gust tears through the room. The sweat on my skin freezes, and my fingers become numb. Our squadron huddles closer for warmth.

  There’s a noise, one like horrible screaming, that slams into the room. My boots dig into the tile to keep from being torn off the ground from the wind. I can’t see. Blue and white and flakes of frozen water flash across my vision.

  It’s a bold attempt, but rebellion comes with consequences. I’ve seen hundreds go down fighting. It’s a shame the rest of us care too much for our lives to do something.

  In an instant, everything stops. Snow collects in small piles in the corners, and ice cracks against the grated pillars. And on the floor, on the mosaic flag, lies the boy, bleeding. Shot, of course. At least he gets his freedom.

  A few more people ahead are examined and tested until I am next.

  “Avenue Melinda North, please step forward for your examining issued by Congress and approved by President Johnathan B. Adam.”

  With a click, pressurized air leaks out of the collar’s capsule and I feel my power rushing back in a breathless rush. My breathing increases as I gulp in air, relishing the thought of exercising it.

  What fun this will be.

  Colonel Wesley doesn’t come and make empty promises, he only nods, emotionless.

  I brace myself. A guard steps forward, but not carrying a whip, I realize with a sigh of relief. A glass of water is placed on the ground in front of me. I can feel every movement the water makes, feel every place to crack the glass. And I do, a spiderweb of cracks slithering up the cup. The water pulses and floats out of the glass, thrashing and coming to life.

  The glass shards swirl on their own accord, twisting and turning around the stream of water, which has now taken the shape of an arctic fox. The shards shatter even further, until they become the claws and teeth of the watery beast, which is hardly the size of a fist. I don’t need to control it. It is a remnant of my power: animation.

  The fox flies around the air, trilling and chirping with glee, unaware of the death that was present hardly moments before. A few government officials squeal in delight, to my dismay, when it zooms past them, its tail slapping their damp cheeks. How do they find such joy in such a simple thing? Especially when the boy of ice died just minutes before?

  I remind myself that sometimes it is okay to find happiness in times that are not, but in this case . . . I would be hypocritical to say different.

  I fully release my grip on the fox, and it comes to a standstill on one of the rails on the balcony, its glass talons clicking against each other. It peers down at all of us before floating back down to me, settling on my shoulder. I flick my hand, and with great effort, construct it back to its original form.

  I slump to the ground, my vision blurring from the exertion, panting, crying. I don’t even know why. Each of my limbs are on fire, my jumpsuit is stained with sweat, and I can feel my head start to become light.

  I hadn’t even noticed the red flashes. My hands are still bound, but I don’t have the strength to break the bonds. I can’t even see straight.

  “Shackle the children,” Wesley bellows, the noise a distant roar in my ears. “Lead them to their cells.”

  I brace my palms against the floor, but recoil, seeing my reflection for the first time in months.

  People are rushing around, and as more file in, I snarl, recognizing my warden’s dark curly hair amongst the crowd. The sirens around me intensify, until I realize it’s his power that has grasped my mind and brought me to my feet. My legs begin to carry me to the door, when he convulses, collapsing to the ground. I realize he’s been hit over the head, but with what, I wouldn’t know.

  Invisible hands drag me in the opposite direction. I can only glimpse my guard one last time before my reeling head can process that we’re outside.

  Outside. For the first time in years. The sun feels like it’s peeling off my skin from how fast it’s burning, despite the cold air. My boots feel heavy all of a sudden as more tears slide down my face. Fresh air, snow, sky, light. It’s all here, all . . . wonderful.

  But I don’t have time to relish my senses experiencing new sights and textures and warmth. The same invisible hands push me toward a helicopter, its blades rotating as fast as my spinning head. The image is fuzzy as I try to process my body being thrown into the metal machine.

  Before I can see the pilot, my eyes close, and the world fades away.

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