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vol vii, issue 5 < ToC
Addison Smith
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SistersOnce in a
Addison Smith



Once in a
Addison Smith

Once in a
previous next

Sisters Once in a



Once in a

Once in a
 by Addison Smith
 by Addison Smith
“Sightless are a strange thing,” Charlie said, smoke curling from his mouth. “They can’t think, see? The thoughts are in there, doing their work, the guy just isn’t aware of it.” He knocked a ringed knuckle against the top of his head, “No one home. You get it?”

Mike nodded and set his drink back on the wet ring on the table. “It’s a consciousness disconnect.”

“Yeah, that’s the thing. Sounds kind of nice, too. They process all this stuff in the background, absorbing it all like a freaking sponge. Then one day, they just wake up. Everything they learned, it’s all in there, ready to be used. I had one working my docks, you know, just like the rest. Worked with people from so many countries, when he woke up he spoke six languages. Went on to be some sort of ambassador or something.” He puffed the cigarette and waved it in a gesture of regret. “Shame, you know? He was a good worker. Long hours, no breaks. Can’t get much better.”

“You can stop them from waking up.” Mike watched the greasy man’s reaction. There was surprise there, and nervousness.

“You’ve been reading too many tabloids, kid. I’m not saying it’s not possible. Who am I to know, right? But who would do it? Have to be a monster.”

Yeah, Mike thought. You would.

"They say you can reverse it, too, once they’ve woken up. Trigger an epileptic seizure, and it flips the switch back.”

“Listen, buddy, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t do that.” He scraped the cherry off his cigarette, into the plastic ashtray. “My guys are born that way. When they wake up, they’re free to go, and with a nice bit of cash to get them started.” He stood from his chair and took his leather coat from the orange vinyl back. “I worry about you, kid. Got bad ideas in your head. You got any legitimate business to discuss, I’m all ears. Otherwise, don’t waste my time.”

Mike stood and their eyes met. He saw fear in them--probably afraid he was some sort of cop or investigator. That fear might be enough to keep him from breaking Mike’s kneecaps in the alley.

There was fear, and something else. Too many glances at his feet.

“I’ll be in touch,” Mike said and grabbed his own coat. The barfront picture window dripped with rain, so he slipped the coat on and tipped an imaginary hat at the men who watched him from the corner. “You have a nice day,” he said, then walked through the door, out into the street.

The rain had been muted in the bar, even without the murmur of other patrons. It roared outside. He made his way around the block, avoiding any alleys on the chance fear wasn’t enough to save his knees, and got in his car.

Claire sat at the wheel, brown hair over soft shoulders. As the car shifted under his weight she asked, “You still sure you want to do this?”

“Yeah. Someone’s gotta teach him.”

She nodded and put the car in drive. As they pulled out into the street, she said, “Did he recognize you?”

“No. Not at all.” That still rankled him. There wasn’t a hint of recognition in the man’s eyes. They passed the docks and he stared at them, remembering twenty-four years of mindless work.

He’d been forgotten.

*     *     *
Mike stared up at the ceiling of their apartment, his breath returning to normal. “Have I ever told you about my first thought?”

Claire turned to face him, and he glanced over. The sheets draped over her bare shoulder, showing collarbone and smooth skin beneath. “Mhmm,” she said, “but tell me again. I like to hear it.”

He tried to match her smile, but knew his fell short. He put his hand behind her shoulder and pulled her close. “I was loading mystery boxes onto a ship, oblivious to the world. Just another one of Charlie’s tools. I saw you across the dock. I think I had been watching you for a while, even if I didn’t know why. You remember the seaweed we raked off the bottom? Well, my eyes lingered a little longer than they should have. Walked right into a pile of it. I had already snapped, I guess. A Sightless wouldn’t have done something like that. When I got up, I remember thinking--thinking for the very first time—‘I hope she didn’t see that.’

“Of course, everything changed then. I knew what I was, and what that single thought meant for me.”

Claire ran her finger over his chest. It was still rough from the docks, even two years later, but he shivered at the touch. “I’d heard stories, I guess, in the way Sightless hear anything. Heard about the room with the flashing lights, and seen people snap, then come right back to work, zombies again.” He kissed her forehead and covered his fear with a smile. “You saved me from that.”

He didn’t know how close it had been, but the thought of returning to that mindless place filled his heart with ice. At the time it wouldn’t have meant as much. He would have been denied something he’d never experienced. Now, though, looking into Claire’s eyes, he had too much to lose.

He hooked his foot around her heel. “What about you?” he asked. “What was your first thought?”

“Someone called my name. I liked the sound of it.” She grinned. “That seems silly, but you understand. It’s a thing of identity. Recognizing my name made me a real person.” She slipped her bare leg between his. “Then I was terrified. I’d heard the stories. I knew what would be taken from me. Life was a fruit I had never tasted, so what should it matter? But it did. I wanted to taste it. I wanted to experience everything there was to feel. So I pretended nothing had changed. I went on working, and watching the fool who had woken up and didn’t do the same.”

They shared a grin. “It was close, you know,” Mike said. “If you hadn’t gotten me out of there--”

“Don’t think about it.” She raised up to her knees, one on either side of his leg. The sheet fell from her back.

She caught his eyes and smiled. “Don’t get any ideas. You’ve got work to do.” She rose from the bed, made her way across the room to the dresser, and tied her hair up in the back. Mike tried not to stare, but wasn’t very good at it.

Soon they were dressed, and the truth of their lives returned.

“Today?” she asked.

He didn’t have to ask what she meant. He’d been laid off due to lack of work, and unemployment was about to run out. It was the perfect time to start working on Charlie.

“Yeah,” he said, “I’ll talk to him today. Maybe I’ll come home with a job.”

She didn’t smile at that. That was the plan, but it wasn’t an appealing one. His stomach twisted at the thought of working for the man that would have seen him Sightless again, but it would be worth it.

If they could save a single person, it would be worth it.

*     *     *
The dockyard was familiar under Mike’s feet. He’d walked this slab of concrete so many times it was burned into his memory. He navigated by rote, and felt eyes on him the whole time. A couple of Charlie’s thugs were at the gate when he came through--the same ones from the bar. He couldn’t hear their footsteps behind him, but they were there.

That also meant they had probably called ahead, so Charlie would be expecting him. That’s good. He didn’t want to unnerve the man too much when he showed up. The play at the bar was too dramatic. He needed to earn his trust, not scare him.

Not yet.

The main office was a repurposed warehouse. After so many years, it would have made sense to build a real office there, instead of the steel building with cubicle-like partitions, but that was the way it had always been. It had been there when he had been sold to his first owner, and when they had turned over the business to another man. The place had changed hands six times in twenty-four years--some only holding onto it for a year or two at a time. Then it was sold to Charlie.

Speak of the devil, the man stood at the front of the building, watching Mike approach with his beady eyes under slicked-back hair. Mike made his gait more casual, with a hint of business.

“Mikey boy!” Charlie called, and reached out to take his hand. Mike put his arm out and Charlie pulled him into a hug. There were cameras.

“What brings you to my part of town, eh, Mikey? Got some shipping to do?”

His grin was painted by a hack artist, laid on thick and phony. Definitely cameras.

“Oh, you know,” Mike said, “just in the neighborhood. Thought we could talk business.”

“Sure, Mikey, sure. Come on in. I’ve got coffee on.”

He led him through the big garage-style door. There wouldn’t be any cameras in the building. Outside they were an asset to him. He could show the tapes to anyone and say, “Yeah, he was here,” then show himself treating Mike like a friend. Inside, they would be less convenient.

They were barely in the door when Charlie said over his shoulder, “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but it won’t end well for you. You a cop or something?”

Mike smiled, “Not a cop.”

“So, what, a detective? PI?”

“Nope. Just a guy looking for work.”

He could hear the grin on Charlie’s face, “Yeah, sure you are. And I’m hiring, too. What a coincidence.”

He led him to a room toward the back. At some point the steel wall had been painted beige, but the paint was mostly flaked off now. The concrete floor had a crack running the length of the windowless room, and the light cast a pure-white glow. It was like the room had been designed to be intimidating.

They sat at a table in the middle of the room--an old particle board piece with the rubber pulling from the edges--and Charlie leaned back on two legs. His guards followed them in.

“So, you want a job,” Charlie said. “I’ll humor you. What makes you think you’d fit in here?”

“I know docks,” Mike said. He knew it wouldn’t be enough, but he would start small.

“Docks don’t take long to learn, kid. What else you got?” Charlie pivoted on the back legs of the folding chair.

“Not much.” Mike raised his hands to his side, “I know these docks.”

“Congrats.” He continued rocking back, just on the verge of falling over, looking up at the ceiling.

“I’m a hard worker, and I don’t ask questions. I’ll do what you ask with little to no information.” The man still rocked back, not paying him any attention. “And I can run ol’ Betty.”

Charlie’s chair fell forward. He stared Mike in the eyes. “You say you know these docks? How so?”

Mike kept himself from smiling as the man ran the name ol’ Betty through his head. “Worked here for a bit before you bought the place.”

“For Jack Collins?”

“Before Jack,” Mike said, passing the test. Jack didn’t use Betty. He locked her away the day he bought the place. “Rick Hodges. The place technically belonged to his dad, but he ran the operation.” Charlie might have to check the paperwork, but the records would back him up.

“Give me a few minutes,” Charlie said, then walked out. The guards stayed, and for a minute Mike wondered if the words were a cue for them to break a few bones. They stayed where they were, though.

He’d played it right, he thought. The ol’ Betty thing might have shaken him a bit, but it was necessary. He’d find the Hodges’ names in the records and see that everything had been signed by the son. That was a point in his favor. Maybe it was enough.

When Charlie came back, he didn’t look very assured. He reached a hand out and Mike shook it.

“Welcome aboard,” he said. He held Mike’s hand a few extra seconds. “I’m not saying I trust you. Consider yourself on permanent probation.”

“Works for me,” Mike said.

He had wondered what it would feel like to work for the man. To work under the very person who wouldn’t have let him go had he had the chance.

His stomach twisted.

*     *     *
It was two weeks before Mike got a look at ol’ Betty. Two weeks of hauling mystery boxes to and from ships, working alongside others, both Sightless and not. Charlie called him on the radio one day and asked him to meet him in the back of the warehouse.

It seemed different now. The place already had the familiarity of memory, but now it had a different kind. The familiarity of something he’d obsessed over for two full weeks.

“There’s something I want to show you,” Charlie said. He didn’t have his trademark smile anymore. His jaw was set in a sort of grim determination. Mike knew where they were going. He’d seen the room before, but never been inside. The door was slate black, and a red sign was taped on the front. “Do Not Enter.”

Reading that sign, he considered obeying it. He could turn around now. He could walk away from his plans. But no. He couldn’t let Charlie get away with it. He couldn’t let that scum continue what he’d been doing for years.

Charlie pushed a key into the lock and opened the door. The room was dark, except for a light in the middle. It looked like it was shining down from a thick, black lampshade, but he knew what it must be.

It was a chair, like you would find at a dentist. It was raised upright, and a man sat in it, head inside the lampshade-like helmet from where the light shone.

Ol’ Betty.

One of the thugs stood beside the chair, and where the light shone on his face, his features were blank.

The man sat still in the device, lured there by some lie or another. He wasn’t Sightless. Not anymore. He was just like Mike. Just like Claire.

Now was his chance. He could stop them. He could save this man, and--

The room flooded with flickering light, and Mike shielded his eyes. He screamed inside his head, impotent to do anything to save the man in the chair. He held his hands over his eyes, blocking out the light that could render him a mindless zombie.

“Yeah,” Charlie said. His voice was a shade of its usual self. “It’s hard to watch.”

Mike opened his eyes under his cupped hands. Steady light shone between his fingers, so he put his hands down. He tried to control his breathing and slow his heart, but the blood rushed in his brain, fueling his rapid thought. I could have saved him. I could have done something. There was another thought in there as well. That could have been me.

The man lay back in the chair. His body would have been tense just a moment ago, nails scratching at the leather arms. Now he just sat there, a patch of saliva on his dirty gray shirt. If Mike hadn’t covered his eyes, he might have been the same.

The thug who flipped the switch lifted the bucket off the man’s head, the light showing tears in his own eyes.

“Mitch doesn’t like to do it. I can’t really blame him. It’s business though, right? I’m barely staying afloat. You do what you have to do.”

The words echoed in Mike’s head.

“This is where you’ll be,” Charlie said. “Whenever it comes up. We have a couple hundred workers here. The problem comes up about once a week. You still in?”

Mike watched the man--the Sightless--as he was led out of the chair. He would be absorbing everything in the room with his almost mechanical mind. Somewhere in his head, he knew exactly what had happened. He knew that he would never again have the freedom he had experienced for such a short time. The freedom Charlie had stolen away.

Mike nodded. “Yeah, I’m in.”

He would never flip that switch. He would end this--end Charlie--before the next Sightless snapped.

He would do what he had to do.

*     *     *
“Was it a man or a woman?” Claire asked. She held Mike’s head in her lap, and her voice echoed with hollowness.

"Man. Not very old. Maybe twenty. I never saw his eyes. Not before it happened.”

Claire breathed out. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have done anything to stop it.”

“But I could have. I could have run across the room. I could have knocked out the guard, or broken the machine.”

“You could have gotten yourself killed.”

“I could have helped.” He tightened his hand into a fist, remembering the man’s dead eyes. “It’s not happening again. I’m taking him down, Claire. Charlie’s done.”

She stroked his hair, and he stared off into space. He saw Charlie in his mind. The man that ordered it to be done. The man who was responsible for what had happened. He saw his face, and his thoughts turned. He had gone into this to save someone--just a single person. In that moment, with Charlie’s face hovering in his mind, his motives shifted. He wanted revenge.

*     *     *
Another Sightless snapped the next day. It was a woman this time, maybe thirty years old. Her eyes were a mess of confusion and fear when she looked at him, standing by the chair.

She tried to speak to him, but it came out garbled. She knew the words, but had never used her voice. It was something that took time.

“Don’t worry,” Mike said, quiet enough that Charlie and his thugs couldn’t hear him from across the room. “I’ll get you out.” He tasted the lie on his lips, and it made him sick. He couldn’t free her. Not with the others looking on, waiting for him to make a mistake. Waiting for his cracking plan to crumble under the pressure.

She stared into his eyes, and he stared back into hers. All the stories she had heard lurked behind her pupils.

He met Charlie’s eyes, and there was no insistence in them. No hurry, or even demand that he do it. He could take his time. He could walk away. He could tell him he didn’t want the job and walk out of here. Mitch would throw the switch, and no lives would be saved, but he could escape this place.

But he couldn’t. In the taciturn glaze of Charlie’s eyes, he saw the man that let this happen. He saw the man who was responsible for maybe hundreds of unrealized lives.

He saw evil in him, and he knew that he had no choice.

He closed his eyes, bit his lip, and flipped the switch.

The chair shook beneath his hand as the woman convulsed, her mind being sent back to that subconscious place of emptiness.

Tears leaked from his clenched eyelids, running down his face.

In a moment, it was over. The woman had stopped shaking. Her nails relaxed on the leather arm of the chair, where her white-lined scratches mingled with the rest.

Mike looked up toward the door, ready to stare hatred into Charlie’s eyes, but Charlie was gone. Mitch stood there, the man whose job he had taken over. His eyes were distant. Even being in the same room as the machine seemed too much for him.

Mike lifted the bucket from the woman’s head and led her toward the door.

Mitch caught him by the shoulder. “I heard what you said to her. About saving her from this place.” He looked down at his shoes, not meeting Mike’s eyes. “That’s what I tell them, too.”

He opened the door for Mike, and they led the woman back to the docks, where she would work for the rest of her life, or until she became too old to use. Where she would live for years to come, with the memory of this moment locked away where she couldn’t even see it.

*     *     *
Claire backed away from him, holding her hands in front of her. “No.”

“I didn’t have a choice. If I hadn’t done it, Charlie would have fired me. I’d never have been able to save anyone. I couldn’t have brought him down.”

Claire stared into his eyes, and through him, lost in some other place.

“Claire, I--”

Her eyes focused on his, and what he saw turned his sweat cold. Her lip raised, lips parted, eyes on the verge of tears and filled with disgust.

“Claire,” he said, and she backed away.

“No,” she said, putting her arms up again. She looked into his eyes, and he felt like a stranger in them.

“It was just one person, Claire. I can save hundreds of people. I just have to take Charlie down. What’s one person compared to hundreds?”

She laughed, but it was hollow, her eyes on the floor. “You’re one person, Mike. I’m one person.” The last words were barely a whisper.

“But Charlie--”

“Charlie? Charlie didn’t do this, Mike. No matter what he told you to do, you flipped that switch. You stole her life.”

The room grew cold in the silence that followed. Mike stepped toward her again, but she backed away. He sighed and walked toward the door. Claire didn’t follow.

As he stepped over the threshold he heard her voice, distant, from her room. “Don’t come back, Mike. Please.”

He closed the door behind him and sunk onto the floor beside it. Shock and grief twisted in his stomach. It didn’t matter what Charlie told him to do. He flipped the switch.

But Charlie hadn’t told him to do anything. He’d offered escape. He would have let him leave.

He flipped the switch himself.

Mike held his head in his hands, thinking about Claire, and about the woman in the chair.

He sat there in the hall and wept.

*     *     *
White light shone all around Mike’s head. It was his fault Claire was gone. It was his fault that woman was back on the docks after a chance to live her life. He’d become so obsessed with revenge on Charlie--with ending him--that he hadn’t seen what he was doing.

She was gone.

The person he had known longer than any other. The person who had saved him and shared her life with him.

Loss and guilt tore at him, and he wanted it to end. He wanted to stop seeing their faces. He wanted to stop hearing Claire’s voice. He wanted everything to go away. His fingers flexed at the side of ol’ Betty. One flip of a switch. That’s all it would take. One flip of that switch, and everything would be gone.

Tears streamed down his cheeks, and he reached for the switch. His fingers touched empty air and fell back to his side. It was too far.

Footsteps echoed through the otherwise silent room, sounding Charlie’s gait. Mike clung to the hatred he had for the man, grasping for any reason to continue.

“Hey, Mike,” Charlie said. His voice was softer than Mike had ever heard it. He reached for the switch again, but fell short. “You don’t want to do that, Mike.”

He let his hand fall limp at his side and closed his eyes. The light burned red through his eyelids. He thought back to the days before he could read his own thoughts. Before he had known worry, hate or loss. “You know, I used to work here, Charlie. For you.”

“I know, Mike.”

“Claire too. We got away.” Mike laughed. “You remember us.”

“I remember all of you. Every one that got away.”

He saw the woman he had turned back. She had trusted him. He had told her he would set her free.

The world was a terrible place, full of terrible people. And now it was a place without Claire.

“I want to forget!” Mike yelled into the bucket. “I want to forget her!”

The metal feet of a chair scraped the floor as Charlie sat down. “It’s not always that easy, Mike.”

Mike reached for the switch again, straining his arm to flip it and become numb to the world, and to forget everything that had happened. The chair scraped the floor again, and Charlie’s hand rested on his arm.

“You could do it,” Mike said, pleading. “You could make it all go away.” Tears ran down his cheeks as he begged his enemy for help. “Please, Charlie.”

Charlie squeezed his shoulder. “You know, Mike. I’ve tried. I really have.” His hand left his shoulder. “I could never flip that switch.”

The door opened and closed across the room, and Mike stared into the light, thinking about Claire. Thinking about Charlie, and what he had become.

He stared into the light and wanted it all to go away.