The Thistle's Thorns

We were in a dimly lit warehouse, but definitely not the empty one I had been flying to. It was warm here, too warm. They had kindly unzipped my coat and, beneath that, my sweater. I lay tangled in the net, where Mr. Just held me down. The translucent wrungs of the net were twisted around my legs and right arm like a giant spiderweb.

"I am not your enemy," said Mr. Stutterheim, from a makeshift desk. "Neither is this needle or the man holding you down."

The Canadian laughed.

I didn't believe a word of it. It wasn't so much Mr. Stutterheim's slick tenor voice, nor the disdainful look on his face that suggested time was passing much too quickly, and that this was my fault. Rather, it was his striped black suit and ear piece that were almost as dark as his gel-coated spiked hair. He was clearly some kind of agent, political or corporate, and that spelled trouble and money to me.

"I need a second sample," he said, taking another empty needle and coming back toward my arm. His hair, even his eyebrows, seemed dyed. This man appeared deeply fabricated to me.

I raised the padded ski goggles off from upon my eyes and onto my forehead. Without the orange tint, everything seemed blue until my eyes adjusted. I met his blue eyes with a fierce glare, "Go forth and multiply, you son of a-"

Mr. Just's right hand clamped thickly over my mouth. My teeth failed to bite into his calloused fingers. His left arm grabbed both of my wrists securely in a firm grip, as a smiling Mr. Stutterheim rolled up the sleeve of my coat, and the sweater I wore beneath it.

It pierced the skin, easily finding a vein.

My face reddened. I seethed.

Mr. Just smelled like he wasn't well acquainted with his shower. And from his accent, I was sure he wasn't from the city. I had relatives in Canadian cities, north of the border. They spoke English as plainly as most common Americans. This man must surely be from the boonies.

Past his hairy forearm, there was a tattoo on his bicep. It was a heart, like polished stone, with an arrow piercing it. It looked like it said 'MAUREEN', or some similar name, along the shaft in gold script, cut off in the middle of the first E where the heart was penetrated. This symbol of affection seemed out of place on a man so gruff. It distracted me, this piece of romantic beauty in the midst of harsh circumstances.

"Now, I need a tissue sample... but not from you."

I wasn't listening. With all my anger, I was focusing on the heart-shaped tattoo. I wanted to by elsewhere. So, I was caught unaware when the scalpel cut my navel. I yelled into Mr. Just's dampening palm. Well, perhaps it wasn't my navel. They weren't even my nerves, really, that were feeling the pain.

"I am awfully sorry," said Mr. Stutterheim as he dropped the leafy green skin into a petri dish. "I didn't suspect you had bonded so strongly with it."

I glared at him. It felt as if I had a nipple down there and he'd just clipped it. At least it wouldn't bleed. Heck, maybe it would make me more human again. And for a second, I wished he could have taken a pair of pliers and wrenched it out from between my abdomen. But I knew that wasn't a viable alternative, not anymore. It went to my spine and from there, up to my brain. Uprooting a tree inevitably takes land with it.

The desk was strewn with scientific equipment and an old computer. It was turned off. Mr. Stutterheim was looking at it a smaller piece of it under a slide beneath a microscope. He pursed his lips.

"Y'know, it could'a chosen ay worse place to merge,  eh?" the Canadian man tried to console me. "I had m'back turned when it got me."

I didn't like the picture that put in my head. I really wished I could fly with the weight of this large man holding me down. But even then, I would only get so far, while tangled in the net.

"Mick," Mr. Stutterheim said to his companion, "she really doesn't need to know that you've got hypersensitive symbiotic tissue up your --"

"Damn things should'a stayed beneath the ocean!" said Mr. Just.

"Can you do anything other than fly yet?" asked Mr. Stutterheim.

Mr. Just removed his hand from my mouth, which I got the feeling he'd been expected to do much sooner.

I just stared at Mr. Stutterheim with a blank expression on my face. The redness must have faded now.

"Look, we're not the bad guys. And trust me, there are bad guys."

I folded one leg onto the other, pulling netting with it. The pantleg of my jeans was singed black.

"Yes, of course," he said. "You must know that already, quite well."

I looked away, still inexpressive. There were boxes and shelves. Whatever this place was storing, it was boring.

"Cynthia," said Mr. Stutterheim, surprising me that he knew my name, "you have to trust us."

I made eye contact for a moment, and then yawned. And as if that fatigue had briefly pulled me into a dreamstate, a sense of déjà vu hit me. "I've seen you before," I told him. "With a slender, red-haired woman in another striped black suit."

Mr. Stutterheim raised his eyebrows. "Impossible. We have been in Iowa, two states away, doing an investigation. How do you know what my partner looks like?"

"I don't know," I told him. And that was the truth. "James."

"Did you tell her my name, Mick?" asked Mr. Stutterheim.

"I ain't said a word!" said Mr. Just.

"Tell me, Cindy... can I call you Cindy?"

I wanted to shake my head, but I had resolved to be frustratingly inexpressive. The last person to call me Cindy had proposed to me, had told me he loved me, and then abandoned me like some kind of freak. Freak. The word surfaced in my mind like bile in my throat. And then I remembered the nausea, how many times I had wretched, after I'd been plugged.

That's what we called it. Plugged.

"Can you tell me what I'm thinking right now?" asked Mr. Stutterheim, leaning closer to me.

Mr. Just tightened his grip on me, holding my arms behind my back.

He thinks I'm a mind-reader, I realized. Knitting my brow together, I tried to focus on what little I could remember of my most recent nightmare. What does he say next in my dream? What might be on his mind? But in my dream, I was never asked this question, because I had never known his name without being told. Instead, I remembered a handshake and an introduction.

And then, it all seemed to fast forward. I saw his face again, in my head. Three of them, unconscious, faces florid. The darts stuck out of their necks like thorns on a flower. Her read hair in straight sheets, like petals. And each spike of his hair like that of a thistle.

Then I heard a woman's voice yell as it approached us, "Get down! Snipers!"

And when I saw the sedative hit her neck, a silent curse on her lips, I knew I had been seeing glimpses of the future. That future was about to hit a break. But it didn't, because at that same moment when I had woken up with a startle from my dream, I ducked with all my might.

It hit Mick Just instead. He'd been hit twice, I could tell, because his grip on me had already begun to loosen. I fell to the floor, pretending to have been sedated. And where the desk obscured their view, I kicked my legs free of the net.

A pair of suits showed up, from a doorway behind us, carrying a stretcher between them. They had the same haircut, and the same cold look in their eyes that made it clear that, while they were doing their jobs, they weren't even people. Mere operatives, who performed precisely what was demanded of them. Their suits weren't like Stutterheim's or his partner's. They were dull, all business. They lacked vibrancy and individuality.

I watched carefully as they carried the woman's body away without saying a word to each other. Then I counted the seconds it took for them to return. Then they took Mr. Stutterheim away. They carried him on the stretcher effortlessly. When they reached the door, I knew it was now or never.

I put on my goggles and gloves, fastened my scarf around my face, trying to cover as much as possible. Then I leaped into the air and flew feet first toward one of the big glass windows. My boots hit the window with a crash, and I withdrew as glass fell about my legs, cutting my jeans in places. Then I soared right on through, into the cloudy winter sky.

I was free!

Something small whizzed past me.

I spun around and tried to figure out which direction it had come from.

Again, I heard the same sound and saw nothing.

I flew higher, trying to be evasive.

Brushing a hand against my thigh, I felt it. Unfortunately, it wasn't a shard of glass. My flight began to droop. My eyes wanted to close. I felt like a balloon running out of helium.

Looking down, I became dizzy. I saw shiny metal, gray concrete and the white of snow. Hazed thinking, I tried to direct my slow and unwilling descent as it grew into a fall.

And I dropped into the snowbank of a warehouse parking lot as my eyes closed. It was like a giant, cold pillow. My saving grace was not where I had chosen to land, but rather, that I dreamed there of the strange and surreal facility in which I'd soon awaken.

The End

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