the cruelest prison

another old prompt from the same novel idea. Sarai and Shai belong to a race discovered on the island that have no discernible sexual dimorphism, so no concept of ‘gender’

The guilt caged her. It’d been something she’d done, she felt certain. Maybe the opium. She hadn’t told anyone, when it’d happened—not even Mr. Lindsey. He’d noticed her scrubbing blood off of the floor in the wash room and hadn’t said anything.

She hadn’t wanted it, at all. Children disrupted things. Made life complicated when Lindsey wanted everything in order. But since, she’d woken up in the middle of the night choking on loneliness. Afraid to go anywhere. Do anything. This expedition had been a reprieve—a way out of the bars that didn’t cage her. It felt wasted, now. She sat in the wan light of her lantern as the rain thundered against the heavy sailcloth tent over her.

Sarai ducked through the entrance, crouched there, blinking their enormous black eyes at her.

“Something’s up,” they said. “The angry one sent me to fetch you.”

Brendan. Always ordering her research assistant around. ‘Research assistant.’ Hah. Prisoner. Saboteur. Minor annoyance. Useful, though. Taller than Lindsey. Able to navigate the living swamp with relative ease. Lindsey stood up and followed Sarai out of the tent, eyes trained on the tall, slender, iridescent shape as they moved through the rain.

“Do you sleep?” Sarai said, pausing to allow her to catch up. Black eyes fixed on her and Lindsey looked away.

“No,” she said.

“I thought humans needed to sleep.”

“Research has shown it to be helpful for—thinking,” she mumbled, shaking her head and continuing on past Sarai.

“I believe that was a joke, Dr. Lindsey,” Sarai said. “But your speech patterns are not as evident as Connor’s.”

“Nobody’s speech patterns are as evident as Connor’s,” Lindsey said to herself, pushing through the brush toward where she saw a couple of lanterns glowing feebly through the black.

“Doctor,” Brendan said, waving her over. She frowned and ducked beneath a palm frond to reach him. The frond deposited a load of rainwater over her head for her trouble.

“Our scout came back like this,” Brendan said. He pointed downward. “Can you fix her? She’s distressed. We need to know what she found.”

Brendan, throwing around his false pronouns as usual. Lindsey scowled but she looked down and her breath caught in her throat. The creature—like Sarai and Shai—sat against a tree with a gash across their stomach. Blood, diluted by the rain, poured down their abdomen and legs. The skin had peeled back from the wound and decayed, and the rest of the creature’s flesh had begun to slough away. Like it did when a human touched them. Sheets of it sliding off. Coated the ground and the tree where the creature sat.

Lindsey tried to breathe but she couldn’t. She clenched her fists and they stayed like that, her throat tightening as she swallowed and then tried to speak and then swallowed again. The scent of it—their blood smelled like a rotting tree after a warm summer’s rain. It filled her nose, filled her senses, that putrid but warm and earthy smell. Different from hers. Different from the wash room and the smell of blood like wet copper, the feel of it warm on her fingers and legs. Chunks of—it—floating from her in the basin. Sobbing. Saying the names she’d chosen without telling Mr. Lindsey. Thomas for a boy. Sarah for a girl.

“Dr. Lindsey,” Sarai said. They touched her and she felt their skin peel off and adhere to her own.

“Nothing I can do,” she said, snapping her gaze back up to Brendan. “If I attempt to treat, will cause further damage to the skin. Can provide opium for comfort. Might become lucid if pain is lessened.”

Brendan stared at her. If he’d been Connor he would’ve asked about her clenched fists and tight, careful breathing. Brendan didn’t care. Lindsey liked him more because of it, even if he insisted on assigning genders to creatures that didn’t have them.

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