It was the dead man’s expression that drew me. The depth of feeling on it, bare and exposed and unashamed. Horror? Terror? Longing? Anguish? It called to me.
That’s a lie.
It was his stillness, the blue-grey cast of his skin, exposed where his mask had slipped in the night.
That’s also a lie.
It was the distorted blur of my own face, modestly covered despite the cloaking darkness, a smudgy shadow reflected in the haze of his blown-wide pupils.
That might be the closest to the truth.
It might have been why I reached out to touch his cool, heavy skin with gloved fingers, forgetting the danger. It might be what draws me back, over and over again, to seek out the dead. It might be what starts the tingling at the base of my skull that spreads and prickles across my scalp when I think of them, the fluttering itch in my fingers that sets them tapping and twisting.
But it’s not the truth.
I don’t know what possessed me to get out of bed that night. To slip my feet out from under the covers and pad across the cold, echoey concrete floor among the rows of cots. To peer across the rows of swaddled failures under the low blue sleep lighting and catch on the inert form of the dead man. To thrill with the knowledge that one of us had been taken, just like we’d been warned, punished for failing to conform, to obey.
And then to approach, ignoring his perimeter, failing to observe proper separation of forms, refusing to turn away from his shameful nakedness, the line of his jaw and the ridge of his nose uncovered. To, having invaded his space, further violate Tower Regulation by reaching out to touch the stiffened roughness of his night-stubbled face. To surrender so completely to the sparkling, tingling fascination of it that the Floor 6 Supervisor caught me like that the next morning, one hand pressed to the dead man’s twisted face as if, touching him, I could know what he knew, feel what he felt.
The truth is, I don’t know why I broke the rules so spectacularly. I knew better, but I did it anyways.
He was the first to die. Later, I learned to hide my reaction. Instead of reaching out to them, I’d clamp my hands together in my lap, or under my arms, rocking to keep the energy in. It took much longer to train myself not to look.
But I learned. I controlled my reactions. Suppressed the wanting, denied it, obedient. I learned to picture them in my mind while facing forward, focusing like I was supposed to, stilling the twisting, reaching dance of my fingers by pinching them bloodless into submission.
They weren’t all like that first corpse, warped and twisted in torment. Some went quietly, slipping from life to death as we stood and recited Regulation in chorus or sat and studied for the futures we were never likely to achieve. The peaceful faces drew me just as much as the anguished. It was the depth of feeling, the calm, accepting stillness, just as dramatic in its own way as faces distorted by agony, just as foreign to me. I wondered what they saw, what they felt in those final moments before death took them for their sins.
They said it was my youth that brought me through. So few trainees get sent to Floor 6. They said it was because I was young enough to learn, to change, that I made it. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I was able to push my failures so far inside because I didn’t have as far to push.
But here’s what I know: I can’t ever mess up again. As an obedient worker, the Tower protects me. All I have to do is keep making the smart choice, keep obeying, pass probation and stop thinking about the dead.
Which would be a lot easier if I wasn’t haunted.
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For longer-running fans, the full first beta readers edition can be read on Wattpad as BTE Beta1