Desa had never felt so alone.
It was the strangest feeling, being surrounded by people yet somehow completely set apart. Though she could hardly call the bedraggled crowd shuffling down the street people. The numb looks they wore, the doped-up grins etched wearily into lined faces--their very statures were wobbly, depressing, every person an empty shell skulking silently towards the Pharmacy Center. The only sound came from the incessant commercials on the skyscraper TVs, the droning voices mandating Vitamins, the glorious painkillers produced by the FDC. Displayed across their screens was a too-cheery yellow chart, showing a steep decline in the depression epidemic.
Out of the blue, a deafening buzzer rang out. Desa froze, placing her hand stiffly over her heart. In a second, the crowd too had come to a stop, monotonous voices joined in a dead chorus.
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Freno Drug Company, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under Doctors, indivisible, with painlessness and healing for all."
After a pause, Desa lowered her hand, continuing behind a ghostly pair of young boys. As she walked, she felt the two unopened bottles of pills clinking in her pocket, felt them jumping up and down with her every movement as if trying to grasp her attention. Her hands darted to her pocket, a tiny part of her longing for the painkillers, the rest itching to toss them off a cliff. But just as quickly, she dropped her hands.
Even if their senses were dimmed, someone could still notice, still report her. And then they’d just reaffirm their fake diagnosis of her. Up the dosage. Imprison her in the Care Center until she was an empty shell like the rest of them.
That was just what doctors did.
It had started way back in the ‘90s, doctors racing to cure the countless illnesses decimating the nation. But all people had felt was more and more pain, in what came to be known as the depression epidemic.
That was when the FDC had the realization: why suffer? As the Vitamins rolled into existence, doctors all over the country had scrapped everything. Here was the perfect solution to all of their problems: eradicating pain itself.
Over the next fifty years, the Vitamins had become a massive hit. Soon enough, it was law to take them. The depression rates dropped, and the Freno Drug Company became a hero, its invention laying the foundation for the perfect country they now lived in.
A country so perfect that no one was able to rebel.
Too late, Desa realized that the boys in front of her had stopped. She barreled into them, and all three tumbled to the cement, effectively pulling her from her thoughts.
As one boy blearily clambered to his feet, Desa’s heart wanted to weep. Her little brother stood before her. She hadn’t even recognized him with his shuffling gait, with the way his face looked a hundred years old. His brown eyes were leached of light, his face drooping and blank save the stupid grin the painkillers gave every taker.
Stooping down, Desa took his hand. It felt like a slippery fish. “Quebrado?”
His eyes fixated unblinkingly on a point somewhere behind her. Though his eyebrows twitched, his expression remained immovable. “Who are you?”
“Your sister. Desanima. Remember me?”
He shook his head faintly.
Desa didn’t blame him.
She remembered how she’d felt when she took the Vitamins. Everything cloudy. Dim. She’d craved some kind of feeling, anything to fill the cavity in her mind. Only a few remnants of coherence had clung to existence, scattering like ants every time Desa tried to pinpoint one.
“What a nightmare,” she muttered to no one in particular.
An ill feeling swept over her, and Desa began to shiver as she turned around. It had been a long time since she’d felt human eyes. The only alert people she could remember were the doctors, a hazy recollection of white-coated men probing her for any pain to exploit. The memory made her hand curl into a fist.
But the gaze belonged to a young man who didn’t seem like a doctor. He leaned casually, almost mockingly, against a flagpole with the letters “FDC” emboldened across its flag, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He made no move to greet her, only stared at her piercingly in the way only someone with their wits about them could.
Someone needed to hear the thoughts gnawing on Desa’s insides before they devoured her whole--someone who, preferably, could think.
She strode toward the man.
When she got within earshot, she spoke.
“Stopped taking your Vitamins?”
He blinked. “Never took them in the first place.”
Desa’s eyes widened. “So you’ve seen. You’ve seen how bad the pills make everyone.”
“Bad?” The young man raised his eyebrows. “I wouldn’t say that.”
She crossed her arms. “Really. And what wouldyou say?”
The man quirked a smile, a sardonic gleam in his cat-eyes. “They appear to be taking away pain.”
“They do not just take away pain. No one can feel anything. The pills strip people of what makes them human.” “Isn’t that the point?” He appeared amused. “Humanity. That’s what causespain. Without Vitamins, we’d be a mess. The depression epidemic, you know.”
“There’s no such thing as a ‘depression epidemic,’ and you know it,” she hissed. “Everyone feels pain. They need to. Getting rid of that part of a person is like reducing them to a machine.”
The man’s eyes narrowed, lips still curved into an obnoxious smirk. “What, so you want to get hurt?”
“No. I want to feel.”
In a flash, a syringe was in the young man’s hand, a syringe full of some bright liquid that cast a sinister light over his face. “With pain comes dissent, and with dissent comes chaos. Why do you think we made the pills in the first place?”
The blood drained from Desa’s face, and she began to back away. “So I was right.”
The man laughed, but it was devoid of mirth, a hollow, dead sound. “So you were.” With a swipe of his hand, he grabbed Desa’s wrist.
The young doctor plunged the syringe into Desa’s arm, and she tugged herself away. She felt the cold liquid seeping through her veins, overtaking everything it touched. As the clouds began to rush into her vision, the fuzz creeping into her thoughts, for a brief moment her eyes latched onto his.
There was pain written in his eyes. Self-loathing flooded his downcast gaze, something even the clouds couldn’t quite obscure.
And then her mind was a miserable fog. She felt numb. Empty.
Desa turned, head bowed, and silently joined the shuffling crowd.