The Marked are people without souls, devoid of emotion, but one discovers feeling.
What Your Mother Can't Teach You
By Kayla Schoen
One blink, I open my eyes a little. Light came later in the day this time of year, the snowfall replacing it in the sky. Two blinks, a little more, the alarm clock starts blaring but it's function moot when I wake up at five on the dot every morning before it can digitally yell at me. I rubbed the leftover eyeliner off the corner of my eye, smudging it into my skin. Before I could process the motions, muscle memory dragged my legs off the side of the bed and I began to walk towards the dim lit bathroom, clicking off the crescent moon nightlight as I dredged past. The motion detector lights filled the room with pale white fluorescent, and I switched on the sink. Washing the rest of yesterday's gunk off my face, I noted a new freckle on the side of my chin, something my mother would have called a "beauty mark". Beauty did not have any specific qualities to me, it felt more of an expectation than something I wished for myself. I prefered the bareness of my face out of convenience, the ability to rub my eyes freely seemed more enjoyable than a sharp outline of my deep brown eyes. The mirror fogged from the steam of the scalding water of the faucet and I turned it off, watching the mist fall and condense in droplets on the cold surface of the counter. My morning routine only took so long to compensate for the immense time I spent here each morning, applying black liquid to the edges of my eyelids and putting my hair in place for the day, left alone with my thoughts or lack of them as it happens sometimes on these early mornings. Picking clothes did not consume half as much time, the hospital's required white coat covering whatever mismatched outfit I pulled together, but mostly I stick to a unicolor dress for simplicity. Most of my choices are for sake of simplicity, simplicity in social situations sometimes requires more rigorous rituals. The mirror had cleared, and I unscrewed the top of the small black bottle. I applied the smooth line with a quick precision, a skill I had cultivated over years of practice, and screwed the bottle tightly back into place. It seemed illogical to spend so much time on something so impractical, so surrounded by societal grandeur and hype.
The door shut easy behind me and the mechanism clicked in place. I pulled the silver plated key from my pocket, turning it in the lock and back when it could not go further right, indicating it snapped in place. I replaced the key, adjusting the strap of my messenger bag, and heard the familiar jingling of bracelets.
"Oh, dear, you've grown so tall! How old are you now?" An old woman, my neighbor, walked over and pinched my cheeks. It stung for a moment, not nearly as bad as it could have though,
"I'm still thirty two, Martha, same as yesterday." She dropped her hands to her hips, holding them there defiantly.
"Now that can't be right, you were just a little girl not too long ago."
"I was eighteen when I moved in here, it's been quite some time." She sighed, quickly picking up her expression again into a sweet grandmotherly smile,
"Well you must have gotten your mark by now? The late bloomer you are, I bet it's even better than my old one." She raised up her sleeve to reveal a rounded line bridging her wrinkled bicep. Yes, that thing. I hadn't forgotten.
"No, still don't," I fidgeted with my keys, "but you probably won't remember by the time I get home so I'll just explain it again later." I forced a smile, stretching the muscles in my face. "Have a good day, Martha."
"Have fun at school dear," she stayed at the entrance of her door as she waved me off, her cat caressing the edge of calf and nearly making a break for it down the hallway. Even people with souls have trouble with manners, it seems, especially being too nosy.My mark never appeared and my body is fundamentally different for it, but I simply do not really know what I am missing. The mark, a soul as humanity now as come to understand it, is what identifies us. Without it, you simply remain a human husk. An animal running on instincts. I do not consider myself, Josephine Mendoza, a husk. I have accomplished a lot in my time, attending the highly prestigious medical school down the street and taking up my residency at the local hospital. I am renowned in my surgical field, not a mindless beast. What I do not have, I can forge, like a human signature. Emotions and social etiquette, easily mimicked, like how children mirror their parents and form themselves into human beings, molded by their experiences. It does not take a soul to learn, only to feel, which is unnecessary. Perhaps my knowledge could be boosted by the enhanced senses that came with a soul, and my people skills would definitely improve, but many people like myself do without. I have watched things I could not mimic, like jealousy and love, happiness and rage, but they do not often come alone, rather in pairs. I have lived, and lived in comfort, without need of any of those.
The automatic doors ushered me in as I walked past clouds of cigarette smoke, the nurses surrounding the door staring blankly out to the skyscraper horizon as they inhaled and exhaled through the filter. I clocked in, tapping my name on the computer screen and typing my social security number, another form of identification, but based on numbers and digits rather than souls, something more familiar.
"Doctor Mendoza, a minute?" A young man in scrubs walked up to me, never raising his eyes from the clipboard in his hands. In my heels I hovered an inch over him,
"I'm early today, I have five minutes to spare." He blinked in response, motioning for me to follow behind him. As I walked I tried to pace my footsteps with his, matching the squeaks of the rubber sole of his shoes to the tapping of my heels. I checked my wrist for the time, the clock hands had only moved a few tick marks. "Three minutes," he stopped, and I rocked forward on the toe of my shoes, catching my balance before he turned back.
"I have three more minutes before I am late." His face scrunched into an expression of what I believed to be displeased, "I apologize, I do not wish to be late." I had no desire one way or the other, but lateness brought unpleasant consequences.
"Whatever," he swiped his card to open the door in front of him, "I did my job. They want you in there." He flipped through the papers on his clipboard, cringing when he reached the last page. "That'll probably take more than three minutes." Much of humanity seems unable to control even the most disagreeable emotions,and it is meaningless to them if doing so keeps the peace.I rapped my knuckles against the wood of the door, awaiting a response.
"Come in," I turned the knob. Two more minutes.
"You wanted to see me?"
"Yes, Doctor Mendoza," he turned through multicolored papers, landing on a bright yellow sheet. "My charts say you haven't come in for your monthly tests." Tests do not do the things they do justice, the doctors here do experiments on the unmarked. Perhaps if I could feel the pricks of needles and felt the exhaustion of sleepless nights the tests would be an atrocity, but with numbed senses the sensations remain small, like scrapings at the tip of the iceberg.
"Is that my reason for being here then? I'm already late for work, perhaps it can wait," I moved for the door but the man caught my arm. He smiled cynically, pulling me into the seat before his desk in the small office.
"I'm afraid it must be today, the collective efforts of the tests must be analyzed at once and the deadline is tomorrow." A lie. I may not understand social cues, but my mother did not raise an idiot. I keep track of the dates in a separate planner, unless the deadlines changed while I slept, it almost always ended on the first of the month. Nearly a week before then, today did not seem reasonable for the testing to be forced upon me.
"Alright. If you would be so kind as to inform my employer as to the cause of my absence, I will go with you." Objection by the unmarked caused a stir in the social hierarchy, similar to a dog disobeying it's master. If my chain pulled at my neck and I did not follow, I could be ripped from where I stood and man handled. Instances like these were not entirely legal, but the laws of "hear no evil, see no evil, report no evil" applied throughout places where the unmarked mingled with mortal souls. If a marked man pushed his unmarked cousin to the ground in a fit of rage, the woman across the street simply looks the away and goes about her business. Not that the smashing of his skull against the curb would especially hurt, nor would the man on the cement necessarily mind. The principles were warped, broken by centuries or barbaric and superstitious behavior. Though some governments and their enforcers attempted to provide some safe haven, the common consensus spoken through actions said the unmarked are not people. Dolls that grow their own hair and feed themselves, pets that do your taxes, but never a person. I sat swiftly on the edge of the firm cot, no one had changed the sheets in a while and I found little hairs on the pillow. Dark and tightly curled, blowing off the pillow as she adjusted her coat. The man tapped the end of a needle,
"Now this won't hurt a bit, doctor Mendoza," he chuckled to himself. "It's easy sticking it to you unmarked folks, none of you squirm and I don't have to tell you to count the monkeys on the wall." He pushed the needle into my bicep, slowly replacing my blood with the liquid in the small container.
"Ow." He stopped,
"What did you say?" I squeezed my right hand into a ball, feeling my nails dig into the palm. The muscles tensed in my arm and lightning shot through the fibers. It... hurt?
"Ow!" I gritted my teeth, pushing back the sounds attempting to fight their way up through my vocal chords. He pushed in deeper, delighting in the noises. The serum had emptied into the flesh of my arm, and he removed the needle. I held the wound like a rabid animal, rearing back to the other side of the bed, ready to defend myself from more pricks. The light slowly expanded in the room, pushing into every corner of my retinas, and I screamed in fear it would consume my eyes. I tried to shield them, removing my hand for a second from the tiniest trickle of blood on my arm.
"This is amazing, tell me what you're feeling!" I felt his fingers wrap around my wrist, and as he neared his voice boomed. Help me. Stop it. Stop-
I remember dreaming. Something completely new to me, unimaginable. Recalling any details a gamble, but the basic concept seemed to remain with me as I returned to reality. I heard the rhythmic beeping of a machine, it just slightly slower than that of an average heart beat. I made an effort to peer over and watch the numbers dance on the screen, but my neck felt as if it detached from my body with the quick motion.
"Ow." A curtain brushed open, quickly shutting again. A nurse shuffled in. She set a tray down next to the bed, guarded on both sides by rails, and turned to where I lay in a fearful, fixed position. I attempted to move my mouth to speak but found myself inept. As she moved, curls cascading from her hair and catching the fluorescent light. At the time I did not know the name of the color, but it elicited feelings of warmth within me that I had never known before. The rest of the room still seemed empty, white sheets and white walls, but she filled the space with vibrance.
"So your first experience with pain didn't go so well, doctor?" No, it hurt.
"I'm fine, nurse...?"
"Gwendolyn, but you can call me Gwen." The sides of my mouth twitched, before I could tell them to do so my lips were turned up in a smile. It felt natural, like I wanted to smile, not like etiquette compelled me to grin in response.
"Nurse Abigail. How would you describe your hair?" She raised one eyebrow, but quickly widening her eyes in surprise.
"Oh! You can see color! That's wonderful, I must tell the man who treated you." As she began to disappear behind the curtain I instinctively shouted,
"No!" she stopped short, placing her feet back within the room. "No... please." She sighed, her face mirroring my fear. I could not tell if she truly felt empathetic or if like me she simply understood the rules of the game, mimic back what someone shows you. She shuffled through some papers on the desk, tapping them together on the hard surface to straighten them out. Stuffing them in the pockets of her scrubs she turned to me and put a single finger in front of her lips. She brushed past the curtains, leaving me in silent anxiety, and returned in a moment with a wheelchair.
I tried not to stare at the people she ushered me past, but it was like I had never seen any other living soul before. I noticed colors of their eyes; every speck of brown in the greens, the various shades of blues, and browns from the darkest black to light chestnut. While hair did not vary as much, I still found myself peering back at Abigail's when ever I had the chance. Red, she told me, or orange. She had it was not her natural hair color, but she had kept it this way so long anything else would be untrue to her. The idea seems entirely silly to me, how could a person be untrue by being nothing but purely the way their genes manifest through the features? I stopped watching the people go by as she pushed me through a broad arch, thin stroked letters spelling Florence Nightingale Museum. Inside, several tiny lamps flooded the room with ambient lightning. Soon every inch of wall I could see had been covered in paintings and plaques, all painted different hues of greens and blues.
"Here we are," she parked the chair before a statue at the end of the room, it stood before an open window that led to a garden outside. The breeze brought the slight aroma of flowers in, seeming to swirl around the statue of the woman. "With your new emotional capacity, I figured you could use a lesson in compassion." I looked up to her face, the white marble statue detailed with even strands of hair surrounding her face. She looked old, not conventionally beautiful, but almost seemed to exhume radiance regardless. "Florence Nightingale, in my nurse's opinion, was the kindest person ever to live." She paused, waiting for my full attention, "Regardless of their economic status, gender, or ethnic identity, she worked to save the lives of countless individuals." Looking at the statue she became incredibly saintly, as if it would rise from the pedestal and ascend to heaven. "Even prostitutes in Victorian England were valuable lives in her mind, an opinion most of society did not share, and sadly so. I guess if anything, I want you to know kindness can mean the world to someone." The corners of my eyes dripped with tears, another new sensation. It did not have the same context as I had seen most tears shed. I felt happy, inspired by the marble woman before me. Her perfection immortalized by stone, and I wished for the same longevity of my soulfulness.
The hospital let me out on temporary leave to collect my things, they wanted me to remain on grounds for study on my brain. A mark never appeared on my skin, but it seemed real enough. Upon entering my apartment I realized how bland my life had been until now, the white walls bleeding into the white tile flooring. The minimal furnishings, covered in beige fabrics, made me feel lonely. The last item to be shoved into my large duffel bag halted the process. A picture in a sleek black frame, a picture of my mother. She had taken me to her home in Mexico City, where she once had lived with her parents before moving to the U.S. on a scholarship to one of the most prestigious schools in the country. The trip was a last effort to bring some "life into me," and now in the image of her and I against a multicolor background, dancers and musicians, beautiful flowing dresses and masks; I understood why she wanted this for me. As I stared the colors began to fade, the light in the room dimming dramatically. I pulled my phone from my pocket and looked at the time, 3:45. Panic began bubbling in me, how could it be dark already? I dropped the box and went to the window, seeing the outline of the sun shine against a nearby building. The darkness had not come slithering from the outside, but rather it bursted from within. I frantically looked for my keys, fumbling to open the door. I need to get to the hospital. I bolted through the door, leaving it wide open. I don't want to be like that again. I pushed my legs to go as fast as they could, the burning sensation insignificant compared the thumping of fear in my chest. Slowly, I came to a stop, standing before the elevator with my hands on my knees. I breathed raggedly, sweat droplets beginning to form on the back of my neck. The door opened and Martha smiled sweetly before exiting to stand beside me.
"You look exhausted dear, where are you headed in such a hurry?"
"I don't really know." I straightened, and she handed me some of her groceries. The muscles in my face strained into a smile again with less tension than normal. As I adjusted the bags in my arms my heart rate returned to it's usual beating, and I walked along beside her down to her apartment, right next to mine.