Chapter Eight – How Deeply Loss Does Cut
It was the dead of the night when Endan awoke, an oily sweat drenching his brow and forehead. He had no way of knowing what the true temperature was; the artificial cooling system seemed to create as much heat as it forced from the building. Not that he understood this, of course. Nor could he even imagine that it was because the building ran on technology so outdated that its inefficiency outdid its worth.
Scarcely able to straighten his thoughts through the befuddling staleness of the air, he knew only two things: he couldn’t remember anything from before that moment, and something was missing. His attempts to place what was gone were all in vain; he had only the horrible sense that it was something dear to him, a tragic thing to lose. Whether it was that loss or the exceptionally bright lights above him, along with the sense that he had no idea where he was, that made his eyes swell with tears, the man could not have said.
Once his eyes adjusted to the light, Endan took in his surroundings. The white bulbs that lit the quarters where he found himself gave it an eerie, unnatural glow. Much of it he preferred not to look at; plain gray-white walls in obvious need of cleaning, a square dresser adorned with too many layers of paint, each one a different shade of tan, and his own bed were the sum of what he found. Those, and the piles of plain boxes that lined one wall, scribbled with writing that he couldn’t focus his mind enough to read. Endan got the feeling that this room was makeshift, and that it had been hastily assembled.
With a sigh, he shifted and set his feet on the floor. When had he last felt so thoroughly exhausted? Every last one of his muscles complained with soreness when he moved, and he hardly found the strength to do so. He had not even the beginnings of an explanation to this. Not sure how long the sleep from which he’d just awoken had lasted, Endan assumed that it had been for a long time. He groaned as he forced himself to his feet. Hearing the creaking of the bed below him, he suddenly became aware of the horrible aching in his back. Endan sighed wearily.
Looking down at his body, he found it clothed in worn blue pants, the material thin yet sturdy, like a blend of cotton and wool, which were loose around his legs and waist. Realizing that he didn’t know whether he should be wearing anything more, he grumbled. This confusion was beginning to make his head ache. He decided to leave his room in hopes of finding someone with whom he could at least communicate. When he approached the door, it slid open, and Endan stepped into a hallway filled with glaring white light.
“What hazy light for something so bright,” he muttered to himself. The youthfulness that he heard in his own voice caught him off guard. He’d felt older, being so sore and tired. The voice was not so young, however, as to be without a smooth depth that he quite liked. “What kind of facility is this?”
As he arbitrarily chose a direction in which to walk, Endan shook off his inability to recall his age, and instead focused on what he’d said. His choice of words struck him as odd and out of place. He understood himself, surely, but the language seemed alien to him. This was becoming far too much for his brain to bear, and he began hoping that he would soon find some food to help take his mind off of the confusion.
Further along the hall, he heard muffled voices locked in conversation. Endan hurried along, his hopes high, his bare feet moving easily across the sleek yet cold floor. An arching doorway opened onto the voices he heard, and he slowed as he approached it. Thin lines of smoke curled out from the room beyond, and the smell of something perhaps appealing enough to be food. Laughter carried along the smoke, making Endan feel safe enough to venture in.
“Well, good evening to you, Endan!” a woman greeted him. She sat on the edge of a work table, wearing a tunic in a pale shade of yellow and a layered skirt in more vibrant shades. The mug in her hand accompanied her pleasant smile.
Endan offered only a slight one in return.
The man, putting aside the ill-suited oddity of the sound of his own name, glanced from the first figure to the other, an older man whom he had the feeling was very much in charge of where he was. The man, quite advanced in his years, wore a white coat and held in his hand a wooden pipe that was perhaps as old as he himself was. Smoke swirled around him as he puffed from it, looking over the younger man.
“So the k’zshyrk has finally worn off, has it?” he asked in a very elderly tone. As Endan looked over him, he saw that the man’s eyes were cobalt blue, but that what should have been the whites of his eyes were actually black. His skin looked gray, his wispy hair a faded shade of green. Aside from his generally humanoid form, Endan could see that he was not the same species as himself.
“What?” Endan asked. He had no idea what the old man was talking about.
“Never mind that,” he replied. “The important thing is that you are awake. Why didn’t you put on more clothes? I didn’t fill that dresser with human vestments for you to go around in pants alone.”
“Relax, grandfather,” the woman cut in. “Perhaps none of them fit him.”
The old man scoffed and grumbled to himself.
The woman slid off the table with as much agility as a ballerina and walked up to Endan. She was tall and lean, her peony skin striped with lines of red, not unlike a tiger. When Endan looked into her sparkling pink eyes, it occurred to him that she looked nothing like whatever species the old man was.
“Is he really your grandfather?” Endan asked, not even stopping to think whether asking such a question might be considered rude.
The woman shrugged. “He is more of a grandfather than anyone else has ever been to me. But let’s not talk about me. Did you try on the clothes in your dresser?”
Endan blinked as though he had no idea what she was talking about. “I…. I didn’t know…”
“Bah, I should have known,” the old man grumbled. “Too much k’zshyrk. No wonder he was so cheap.”
“Cheap?!” Endan repeated, giving the old man an appalled look. After a moment, he realized that he had no explanation as to why he should be upset – none that he could have explained, at least – and he felt even more confused.
The woman eyed her grandfather sternly and told him, “Really, grandfather. Give it more time to wear off. All k’zshyrk wears off eventually.”
“Could take years,” the old man retorted, and he took a puff of his pipe. “What good is he like this, Callina?”
“What is k’zshyrk?” Endan wanted to know.
The young woman ran a hand through her hair, a faint shade of pink nearly as long as she was tall, and sighed. “It’s a poison – a venom, really – that the K’zzyrch use to subdue their more… difficult captives. Do you understand?”
“I was poisoned?” he asked, scratching his head in puzzlement.
Callina nodded. Then, hoping he was ready, she explained to him, “We only know what the slave trader was able to tell us. He said that the K’zzyrch had captured you and given you your first dose of the k’zshyrk venom, and then a second when you were wrecking havoc on the shuttle. They gave up on trying to get you to do any work in the mines when you needed a third shot to stop you from sabotaging everything. After that, you were sold from one slaver to the next. None of them would ever say whether or not you’d been given a fourth dose of the poison, but either way, you were lucky enough to be bought by my grandfather.”
“I…” The human hesitated, sighed, and tried to think of what to say. The words, however, did not come to him easily. He looked to the old man. “You bought me?”
The elderly alien took another puff of his pipe and nodded. “Lucky for you. For me… that remains to be seen. Do you know anything about yourself?”
Endan looked down at his body, examining himself even with the haze floating through his mind, then looked back up. “I am a man,” was all that he could get through his lips, but he’d wanted to say so much more; he simply had no idea how.
The old man shook his head hopelessly.
Callina, on the other hand, gave him a worried look. “Is there anything else? Did you know that your name was Endan? Do you know your clan name?”
“I…” Although it was only three questions, it seemed to him like a barrage, a deluge, too much to ever answer. And he felt hopelessly at a loss for a good and proper answer. “When you said ‘Endan’… that seems right. I don’t know anything else. If you hadn’t told me what my name was…”
“I’m not going to be able to use him for very much,” the old man grumbled. He turned around, puffing on his pipe, and walked to a different part of the room. “I daresay, we’re lucky he still knows how to talk.”
“Grandfather, really!” Callina chided him. She shook her head and took Endan’s hand, looking directly into his eyes. “Don’t mind him. His research is all that drives him these days. Come with me and I’ll help you get dressed.”
Seeing no reason to protest, Endan followed the pink-skinned woman out of the room. She led him down the hall from which he’ god just come, and back to his room. The door slid open for them, and he stepped inside. Something at the back of his mind – or was it at the bottom? – was warning him to be careful with a woman in his room, but he could not have explained why. He considered sitting down on the bed, but thought against it. Perhaps he’d had enough rest, he thought to himself… but then why was his mind so blurry?
Callina opened one drawer after the next, taking an article of clothing from each one. She tried handing them to Endan, but he just stood there staring at her, doing nothing. He could not even take the hint when she held them closer to him.
“Endan, pay attention,” she urged him, hoping that she sounded patient. “Here is what you can put on for now.”
He still did not take the clothes from her, unsure whether he was allowed to take the risk of touching her. She sighed and set them on the bed.
“Go on,” she told him, “get changed.”
“Mm….” he hesitated, looking between her and the pile of clothes.
“Do you remember how?” she asked him, trying to hide her irritation but having little success.
“I do,” he insisted, nodding emphatically. “That much I do remember. It’s just that…” He furrowed his brow as he looked at her, unsure how to ask for privacy without being rude to her. She had been trying so hard to be nice to him.
Callina seemed to understand. She also did not seem happy about it. “Endan, I have seen humans naked before. In fact, grandfather even had me change you when we brought you here. You were a mess! Do you have any idea how those slavers treat the life-forms they are selling?”
“Well… I guess I really don’t remember… Listen, ummm… Callina, it was nice of you to, ah…” He stopped talking when he saw the look on her face. He rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at his bare feet.
“You’ve had a rough few weeks,” Callina sighed after a few moments, her tone gentler. “Whatever it is you do and don’t remember… well, you’ll learn how to deal with it. In time, your head should start to clear. Once it does, you can explain to me what it is you have going on in your mind about females. Until then…” She winked at him and turned towards the door. “I will wait for you in the hall.”
Before Endan could wrap his tongue around any more words, Callina was walking through the door. She stopped at the threshold and turned to look at him. That was when he noticed a long tail of fluffy fur, pink and red striped just like her skin, the tip white like a fox’s in the way that it capped off the color and came to a point. It twitched a few times, and then she stepped out into the hall and let the door close.
Alone at last, Endan sat down on the edge of the bed. He rubbed his hands over his face, then through his hair, sighing heavily. Whatever was going on, he was in no condition to understand it. He wanted to go back to sleep and wake up knowing how to live in the world again, but he didn’t feel at all tired.
Confused. He was, wholly and totally, down to the core of himself, confused. And why in the world – whatever world he was on – did he feel so terribly lonely?
After a few minutes of sitting there, racking his brain for answers that were completely absent, he heard a knocking on the door.
“Endan? Are you okay?”
“Y-yes!” he called back to Callina’s query. “I’ll be ready soon.”
I’d better get changed, he thought to himself. He stood up, though reluctantly, and slid his pants off. They were not the nicest pants (though what nice clothing was he could not have described), and they were slightly too big for him. As they slid to the ground, he saw that he had not been wearing anything else, though he was sure that he ought to have been. Another thing occurred to him, and he called through the door.
“Is… is there a way for me to…”
“To what?” Callina asked him.
“How do I say it,” he asked himself, and then called to her, “I need… water.”
“You want to wash?” she asked, sliding the door open slightly to peer in. Endan grabbed his blanket as fast as he could to cover himself, letting his clothes spill onto the floor. “Relax, I have already seen it. You were filthy when we brought you down here, so I gave you a sponge bath while you were asleep.”
Endan gave her an incredulous look, which Callina chose to not take personally.
“I suppose you could do a better job washing yourself. Come with me,” she said, letting the door open all the way, “and bring your clothes with you.”
He gathered his things up hurriedly – he dropped several of the pieces while trying to do so, hating the awkward way that she made him feel – and, clutching the blanket tightly around his waste like a topless toga, followed her out into the hall. She led him a few doors down the walkway, to a door with several water droplets painted on it (most of which were chipped and faded from age). She pressed a blue button on the side panel, and the doors slid open so that she could lead him inside.
The room was wide, and the same grayish white as the room where he’d been sleeping. There was a sink, some contraption that looked like it might have served as a toilet, and an area walled off by panels of glass that looked like it might serve as a place where he could wash. Callina walked past him, opened a door in the tall glass, and demonstrated for him how to work the handles. She helped him get the water to a temperature that he said he liked, then stepped away from him.
“Do not get that blanket wet,” she warned him as she headed for the door. “We do not have much down here that is warm and dry, and grandfather is stingy with the laundry facilities.”
“Of course,” Endan replied with a nod. And then he added, “Thank you, by the way. I did not mean to seem ungrateful. It’s just…”
“I know,” she told him. “Even if you don’t understand, I do. I’ll meet you back in grandfather’s lab when you’re done here.” She walked out the door, and it slid shut after her.
Endan walked up to the panel on the side of the door and inspected each button. He could not read the lettering beside each one, but he figured if the blue one opened the door, then perhaps the yellow one would lock it. He pressed the yellow button, and heard a mechanism in the door click as the light came on. Satisfied that he would have some privacy, he found a counter to set his clothes on, then released the blanket from his hips and folded it carefully before setting it somewhere safe.
Next, he stepped onto the tiled section of floor that the shower splashed onto and closed the glass door behind him. He stood under the downpour of hot water and closed his eyes as he let it soak into his skin. How long had it been since he’d done this? It felt so incredibly good, as though he’d once been used to it, but had recently been deprived of the luxury.
He began to lift his arms to let the water wash over the underside of them, and then turned to let the water flow down his back. That part stung, and he winced and turned back around. He would have to check on his back in the mirror later. For now, he was too focused on enjoying the shower. He managed to find a bar of soap and soaked it under the falling water until it was warm and sudsy, then proceeded to rub it across his body. He worked his way down his arms and under them, across his chest, and further and further downwards.
Once he got to scrubbing between his legs, memories started to fill his mind. Images of cinnamon skin, warm and smooth, flashed before him, and he remembered the sensation of someone else washing him. It was someone whose touch had felt perfect and heavenly, and his breathing grew ragged and heavy as he found a deep, unfathomable longing well up in his heart. It was a need and a loss, the feeling of terrible tragedy, and – once again, just like in the bedroom – a sense of utter loneliness. It was so deep, so demanding, that he could not help but give in to it.
The soap slipped out of his hand, denting on one side as it hit the blue mosaic of floor tiles, and his breathing grew more irregular. What was he missing? What were those fleeting images? All he’d glimpsed were arms and hands, and as much as he searched his mind for more – more desperately than an animal about to be pounced by a lion – he could find nothing.
It was like a dense fog in there, and he could see nothing. But it also seemed as though there was nothing to find in the first place, like walking through an even, empty plain during a fog.
He felt the sobs long before he understood that he was crying. They wracked his ribs, and his breathing became difficult. Endan leaned against the tile wall and let his tears flood out. The shower beat down on his right shoulder as well as his back, and this time he didn’t care how much it stung. Physical pain be damned! The gaping hole in his heart felt so much worse, and he could not even explain it.
Why did it hurt so badly? What was he missing that was so painfully important to him?
By the time he started wailing, the idea that Callina or the old man might hear him was the last thing on his mind. Endan beat his fist against the wall and let out his anguish until he could hardly breathe. Then, when he was too weak to stand anymore and his legs were about to buckle, he slid down to kneel on the tiles. The water beat down on his back, but he was too numb from heartache to feel any more pain.