The scalpel drew a cold line down Michel’s arm. Gloved fingers prodded at his flesh, pulling and stretching. Where the slice had failed to elicit pain, the harsh motions sent fire through his exposed nerves. He screamed, twisting and writhing against the shackles of the metal table. Pain was something a person could become used to—and, as much as anyone could, Michel had—but the sensation of fingers probing deep beneath flesh raised bile into his throat. No matter how many years passed, no matter how often he was subjected to such treatment, it still brought images of snakes burrowing, ceaselessly, into the soft tissue. The thought alone was nauseating. The exploring digits retreated, replaced soon after by something larger, thicker. Michel resisted the urge to look. Sating his curiosity would do him no good. He’d made that mistake more than once before, and paid the price in months of nightmares each time. Prick after prick ran up the length of the wound, each one sending a new wave of agony. The thrashing and fighting only served to prolong the process—and to exacerbate the pain—but somehow fighting still seemed the better option. The doctor took his time in sewing the new slab of flesh into place, unbothered by the fitful flopping about his patient insisted on doing.
“I have a good feeling about this one, Michel,” the doctor said, striking up conversation, “I think this might be the one that does it.”
Michel grit his teeth. They both knew what was to come next, and he wanted no part in it. As it had always been, however, he was not given a choice in the matter. Sutures satisfactorily in place, the doctor moved away, brushing gray hair from his face as he searched his trays. Head and limbs secured against the frigid table, Michel tracked the old man’s movements as best he could. Still, it was only a matter of time until the doctor disappeared behind him and out of sight.
When the doctor returned, he carried with him a box that he quickly emptied. Dozens of electrode patches, cold and gooey, were placed upon Michel’s exposed skin until both his arms and chest looked not unlike a macabre swath of polka dot fabric. Then came the familiar tingle of low-voltages. Michel hated that feeling perhaps more than the burrowing snakes, for it served as a warning signal for things to come; the stuff of waking terrors. Slowly, yet altogether far too quickly, the tingling became white-hot stabs, his muscles contracting upon each pulse. He clenched his fists, nails digging into his palms. The noises he made no longer seemed to have come from his own throat—maybe they hadn’t, he couldn’t be sure anymore. The doctor stood over him, wearing an expression of excited hopefulness. Fear ran through Michel’s veins, hot and cold in fast succession. Fear of death was not a specifically human emotion. Every living creature feared the moment it ceased to be a living creature. The heavy metal shackles strained, creaking against the force of Michel’s frenzied attempts to escape. Something more than fear was creeping upon him, seizing control of every last cell it came across. It ran like a shiver through his body, prickling at his skin, raising the fine hairs. It came again, sharper, more persistent, and again. It pierced his pale skin, marring the unmarked surface with an unsettling amalgam of coarse, dark fur and feathers. His consciousness was lost to a haze of frightened rage, lashing and ripping at whatever his bound hands could reach. One shackle gave way and the doctor’s hopeful features turned to startled worry. Moving as quickly as his old joints would carry him, he fled to his trays, searching frantically. Michel gouged deep scores into the shackle against his throat until it, too, fell away. He was half-way through the shackle restraining his left arm when he caught sight of the doctor’s approach. He growled, lips curling up into a warning snarl. The doctor did not stop his advance, earning him a swipe from a clawed hand that Michel no longer recognized as his own. The pair struggled with each other, the doctor less equipped to handle his patient than he had assumed, and Michel unused to the body he had been so cruelly forced into. Wisely, the doctor opted to wait out the beast, staying out of reach of Michel’s claws until he had worn himself down enough in his hatred that a sedative could be safely administered. At first, the needle only served to further enrage him. He pulled his bound arm free, and, forgetting his legs were still fastened down, lunged toward his tormentor. Falling flat against the hard cement, table clattering down on top of him, he tried to pull himself upright, only to find his strength mostly gone. The doctor’s voice seemed far away, and Michel’s ears were filled instead with the static of a TV tuned to a dead channel. Mere seconds later, there was nothing left but quiet darkness.
Michel squeezed his eyes shut, trying to will himself back to sleep. He didn’t know how many hours he’d been unconscious, but he was more than willing to surrender himself back to the void. His whole body ached, and each muscle and tendon seemed as though it had been replaced with a bag of wet sand. Once it became obvious that there would be no returning to the arms of the void, he begrudgingly sat up. The small, white room reminded him of the hospital wards he’d read about in books. Stark, sterile, blindingly bright and deeply depressing in its lack of personality. He folded back the scratchy sheets, climbing slowly out of bed and testing his balance. The warm wood under his bare feet was a welcome feeling, and he wiggled his toes against the boards to ground himself back into reality. He knew all too well that what he had been through had not been a figment of his imagination, yet there was some comfort to be had in filing it away as ‘the past’. He stood still and listened, but even holding his breath did not reward him with so much as a footstep. He crept out into the hall and toward the front of the house, peeking around doorways and watching for the shadow that would give away the doctor’s presence. All was still and silent. Michel lifted the blinds in the kitchen window just far enough to see out into the driveway. The van was gone. Doctor Morney was no longer in the house. Michel breathed a sigh of relief; there would be no further experiments for at least a few hours.
As was his habit, Michel entertained the idea of retiring to the doctor’s library to lose himself in a book—to remove himself entirely from his current universe for a small, precious while. A nagging voice, quiet but insistent, kept his feet firmly planted in the middle of the kitchen. There had been too many close-calls as of late. Neither Michel nor Doctor Morney could control the creature the doctor had brought out in him. Eventually, either the doctor’s experimentation would kill him, or Michel would rip Doctor Morney to shreds. He shuddered at the idea now, of course, but none of that ever seemed to matter to the beast. It knew only that the doctor brought pain, and kept it restrained, and thus, as with all wild animals, it would fight him to the death in order to escape. If things were allowed to stay as they were, it would end in death. There was no other option, no other possible outcome.
Over the years, Doctor Morney had gotten into the habit of leaving Michel alone. Admittedly, he had always been too scared to try to run away. For seventeen years, he had lived in the same house. For seventeen years, he had never so much as ventured into the backyard. At first, he had wanted to, but was lectured time and time again that he must never set foot out of doors. To his younger self, they had seemed like dire warnings given by a man who only meant to protect him. Now, Michel scoffed at the very notion. He knew nothing of the world except for what he had read in books. Though that number itself was vast, he imagined such knowledge would do little to help him. He rummaged around the house until he found a bag he deemed big enough for his needs. Throwing a few changes of clothes into it, and what he figured had to be ample amounts of food and water, he did what he had always maintained he was too cowardly to do. The bright sunlight hurt his eyes as it streamed in from the open door. Once his vision had adjusted, he took the first few, tentative steps out onto the porch. Birds held conversation amongst each other in the trees, and somewhere across the street a dog barked. Noises he’d always heard through the muting effects of walls and windows now seemed almost unbearably loud, in a way that was somehow gratifying. Emboldened by the fact he hadn’t burst into flames or been immediately shoved back into the house by forces unseen or unknown, Michel shouldered his bag and ran as far as his legs would carry him. He knew not where he was headed, or what he intended to do when he got to wherever he deemed to be his destination. Had he, in his hours spent reading, happened across a map of the area? He didn’t remember, and for the moment, he didn’t care. As long as he could put distance between himself and the old doctor’s house, he would consider himself to have succeeded.