You think about your choice for a few moments. As much as it pains you to think about, the answer seems clear. Regardless of his reasoning, Arn put both you and Sabrina in here. If your sister doesn’t make it out of here alive, you can’t forgive him for making this her last memory.
You walk over and pull the yellow lever.
You turn and face the man, your expression cold and stoic. Yes, Arn is your brother. But this — all of this — was a betrayal. Before you can dwell too much on your thoughts, the man walks over to his desk. He returns with a small box in hand. It reminds you a bit of a jack-in-the-box, as there’s a lever on the side and what appears to be a lid on the top. But there’s also a slot cut into the middle of the lid.
“This is for the next step,” he says. “Take whatever time you need.”
“I’m good,” you say. “Just tell me what I need to do.”
“There should be a token in your back pocket.”
“Just one?” you ask.
“Just one.” he replies.
You’re grateful that there’s only one option for who to leave stuck in this hellhole. But you also realize that there’s a significant chance that the token in your pocket is going to doom either Brielle or Sabrina to be stuck in here. To have done all of this to for one of them to stay in here — especially Sabrina — would crush you.
You slowly reach into your pocket, feeling around to find the token. You close your eyes as you bring it in front of you, saying a small prayer in your head before you take a look at it.
“Oh my god,” you say. “Thank you.”
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” the man asks.
“I’m certain,” you say.
The man nods. You stick the token in the box and it disappears from view. You hear the door open behind you. Mel is waiting outside.
“You’re free to go,” the man says. “And, no offense, but I hope to never see you here again.”
“Thanks,” you say.
You follow Mel down the hall and away from the room.
“Did you make a choice you can live with?” Mel asks once you hear the door shut behind you.
“I think so,” you say. “I’m not happy about it but — ”
Mel cuts you off.
“You don’t need to be,” she says. “This isn’t a place that breeds happiness.”
You nod. You keep following Mel down the hallway, your pace enough slower than hers that you find yourself occasionally having to catch up.
“We’ll gather your stuff and get you out of here soon,” she says. “Is there anyone you want to see until then?”
“Can you take me to Brielle?” you ask. “Cruz. Whatever.”
Mel nods. She leads to further down the hallway.
“I assume you got my note?” she whispers, now staying close to you.
You wait until she looks at you, giving her a nod. A feeling of relief washes over her face.
“The fact that I’m still here means you hid it,” she continues. “Thanks. Not everyone knows what to do when help is given to them.”
You walk past a few more doors before you stop at another tall mahogany door.
“Can I speak to her alone, please?” you ask.
“Will you promise me you won’t try to kill her, maim her, or otherwise bring physical or mental harm to her while I leave you unsupervised?” Mel replies.
“That’s an oddly thorough list of requests.”
“I have an oddly thorough job.”
“Very well,” Mel says as she unlocks the door. “Knock when you’re ready to come out.”
You enter the room, the door closing behind you. Cruz stands and face you, touching everything around her repeatedly.
“It’s real,” you say. “You’re out.”
“How can I be sure?” she asks. “You could just be saying that. You could be stuck in there with me now. I’ve never seen this room before.”
“Cruz. You’re out.”
She takes a few hesitant steps forward, as if she is testing to make sure the floor won’t give way beneath her as she walks. Eventually, she’s content, a smile beaming from her face. She runs toward you and embraces you, nearly knocking you to the floor in the process.
“Oh my god,” she says, her voice filled with joy and tears. “You actually did it. I’m free.”
“You are,” you reply.
“Can you do me a favor?”
“Please don’t call me Cruz. It’s weird coming from you.”
“What should I call you?”
“Brielle is fine,” she says. “It’s who you know me as. And I kind of like it. Despite all that it was tied to.”
You hold onto her for a few minutes, letting her softly cry into your shoulder. You’re eager to go check on your sister and your fiancee, but this moment was the reason you chose to see Brielle first. She was finally out of Project Tasman.
Eventually, she releases her embrace. She motions to a chair on the far side of the room, inviting you to sit with her. You oblige, taking your place in the chair while she sits on the edge of the bed.
“How is everyone?” she asks.
“I assume fine as they can be,” you reply. “You’re the first person I came to.”
Brielle chuckles a little.
“Why?” she questions. “You have a sister in a coma somewhere in here. You have a smoking hot fiancee to go see. Your brother –”
“My brother isn’t coming out,” you say, cutting her off.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“I had to make a choice.”
The room falls silent. You stare at Brielle, the joy now gone from her face. She’s staring at the floor, her eyes intensely focused on something, though you’re unsure what.
“But you’re out!” you reiterate. “That’s what you wanted.”
“Yeah,” she replies, her voice low.
“What can I do?”
She shrugs. You leave your chair and walk over to her, wrapping your arms around her shoulders. Unlike before, she doesn’t return your embrace. She seems distant, almost as if she’s gone back in the experiment in her mind.
“Do you need some time to yourself?” you ask.
“Yeah,” Brielle replies.
She looks up at you as you let her go.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m just not alright. It’s been a long time in there.”
“I know,” you reply. “If you want to talk again before I leave, tell Mel. I’ll make sure to let her know how you can get ahold of me.”
Brielle grabs your hand and squeezes it tightly. As she loosens her grip, you start to run your thumb on the palm of her hand, just as you had done previously in the lab. She gives you a small smile, then pulls you by the arm and brings you close to her. She gives you a light kiss on the cheek, then pushs you back away.
“Thank you,” she says.
You turn and knock on the door, unsure of how else to leave the room except for silence.
You join Mel back in the hallway. She leads you to the far end of the hallway, opening the final door to your right and letting you in. Your fiancee, Natalie, is standing in the middle of the room, staring up at a lightbulb that is pink and flickering.
“Bulb’s going dead,” she says.
“We’ll fix it,” Mel replies. “I’ll leave you two be.”
Once Mel leaves the room, you walk over to Natalie. She wraps her arms around you and twists you back and forth. She’s clearly been out of the experiment longer than Brielle based on her energy. You feel your own excitement rise just from seeing her.
“Oh my fucking god,” she says as she squeezes you in a tight embrace. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
You hold Natalie tightly in silence for what feels like hours, though the presence of a ticking clock causes you to realize it’s only a few minutes. All the while, you’re staring over Natalie’s shoulder — your sight occasionally obscured by her copper hair — at the sight of the empty hospital bed that she once was in.
“I’m so happy to see you again,” you say. “You have no idea.”
“Trust me, I do,” she says.
She breaks away from you and kneels down on the floor in front of you.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Proposing,” she replies.
Her response elicits a laugh much louder than you thought you were capable of making.
“We’re already engaged,” you say. “I don’t think there’s any magical power of double engagement.”
“Not with that attitude.”
You smile and kneel down, your knees touching as your face comes to a rest inches from hers.
“I never want to go through anything like that again with you,” Natalie says.
“Not a great way to start a propo –”
“But I will. For you. For you and only you.”
“Nat, I’m not saying the things you want are off the table.”
“I know,” she replies. “But I want you there with me. Forever.”
“Forever,” you repeat.
“Besides. I know I don’t have to worry about you killing me in my sleep.”
She sticks her tongue out at you and gives you a coy smile.
“You’re lucky I love you,” you reply.
Six weeks later, you’re sitting in the living room of Natalie’s apartment, waiting for Natalie to finish getting ready so that you can leave. As you’re waiting, you hear the familiar sound of the mailman opening the mail slots in the lobby of the building.
“When’s your package supposed to get here?” you ask.
“Which one?” Natalie shouts from her bedroom.
She keeps insisting you refer to it as ‘our bedroom’, even though you won’t officially live here in until your lease runs out in two months. It’s not like you go home anyway. Everything is forwarded to Natalie’s apartment anyway. But with everything that has transpired, you can’t bring yourself to do it until you’re officially living under the same roof as your fiancee.
“Your shoes!” you yell back. “I want to see what you decided to get.”
“They’re just shoes.”
“But they’re your wedding shoes. And that’s exciting.”
Natalie walks into the room, clasping a bracelet around her wrist while she looks around intently.
“Ah yes,” she says. “I’m familiar with the old adage. Something old, something new. Show up drunk and wear some shoes.”
“I don’t think that’s how that goes,” you reply.
“And I don’t like the other way. But if you must know, I bought blue shoes. Baby blue even. For you.”
You walk over and wrap your arms around Natalie’s neck, looking up slightly as you smile at her.
“You’re sweet,” you say.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” Natalie asks.
“They said it’ll be better than last time.”
“But we don’t know by how much. And you were a sobbing mess last time. I want to make sure I pack enough tissues.”
“It’ll get better,” you reply. “That’s what I have to believe. It already has. The improvement may not be steady, but it’ll be there.”
Natalie gives you a kiss, then leads you toward the door. As the two of you leave the apartment, Natalie stays behind and locks the door, while you run ahead to get the mail. All the standard fare is in the box. Ads. Political flyer. Ads. Bill. Ads. Free credit card offer. More ads. At the bottom of the stack, you find a blue envelope with your name and address very neatly written on the front. There’s no name in the top left, merely an address you don’t recognize.
“More trash?” Natalie asks.
“Mostly,” you say. “But I think this is from Brielle.”
“I mean, I don’t know anyone in wherever Eindhoven is.”
“The Netherlands,” Natalie says.
You begin opening the letter as you walk to Natalie’s car. You tuck the envelope into your pocket and read the letter. It’s hastily scrawled on paper no bigger than an index card — a stark departure from the beautiful penmanship on the envelope itself.
I’ve thrown out 50 versions of this letter already so I need to say what I’m thinking. I’ll always be grateful that you got me out of there. But I can’t see you. Even if I want to. Even if I want a friend who knows what I went through. I’m struggling. That place fucked me. Hard. And my head’s not right. Until it is, I need to stay far away from anything to do with there.
Make sure Quinn takes good care of you. I can’t remember her real name. I’m sorry. But I hope she makes you as happy as you said she did. If I’m ever better, I’ll find you two. I’ll even bring you a wedding present.
I hope you don’t hate me, but it’s okay if you do. I just need to be okay. And I don’t know that I ever will be. But this is my best shot at it.
Take care of yourself. And thank you.
“We won’t see her again,” you say.
“I don’t blame her,” Natalie replies. “I mean, it sucks. She seemed nice enough. But when you go through two years of that, would you really want to be anywhere near anyone you met in that hellscape?”
“I guess not.”
You ride quietly in the car for during the short drive. Natalie parks the car, then the two of you take the long walk from the parking lot into the hospital. Sabrina’s room is on the third floor, just off the elevator. You walk into the room, greeted by a smiling nurse in teal scrubs.
“You’re Alana, right?” says the nurse.
“Yeah. You were the nurse we met with last week, right?”
“I am. She’s been more alert today. Like I told you last week, the speech will be slow to come back, but it’s getting there. She’s got a long road ahead, but your sister has already beaten the odds in several ways.”
You smile at the nurse before walking past her and taking a seat in a chair beside the bed. You run your hands on Sabrina’s arm to let her know you’re there. Much to your surprise, this wakes her.
“I’m sorry,” you say. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Alana?” she says.
“It’s me and Natalie.”
“Hi!” Natalie chimes in from across the room.
Sabrina looks up at the nurse, catching her attention as she finishes noting something on a clipboard.
“Water, please,” she says, her tempo slow and methodical.
The nurse nods and walks off, returning a few moments later with a bottle of water and a straw.
“I’ll be back by in a bit to get your vitals again,” she says. “You just relax.”
Sabrina slowly drinks from the straw. She sips at the water for what feels like several minutes, only for the liquid in the bottle to barely change level.
“Are you feeling better?” you ask.
“No,” she says.
“Oh. Well –”
“No,” Sabrina says again. “Talk about something else.”
“What do you want to talk about?” you ask.
You see Natalie pull up a chair to the other side of Sabrina’s bed.
“Would you like to listen to some music?” Natalie asks. “Your sister and I tried to get some music you like and some talks from that scientist you love for you to listen to.”
“Rowan,” Sabrina says. “Rowan Fallon. And she’s brilliant.”
“Would you like that?” you ask.
“Leave it for later,” Sabrina replies. She takes a moment to compose herself, then speaks again. “Tell me about your day. I’ve missed hearing about nothing at all.”
Like this piece of fiction? Please consider supporting me by buying one of my books, requesting Kotov Syndrome from your local library, or supporting me on Patreon. While you’re here, please sign up for my newsletter.