He had never seen the girl in room 201. He knew it was a girl because of the long, blonde hairs he vacuumed up and the trace of lavender he scrubbed off the shower.

They moved her twice a week to clean her room. Where they put her while he cleaned he didn’t know. Maybe in the lab on the first floor, filled with dark red vials. Blood. Her blood, he guessed.

There was hardly anything in her room. Bare cinderblock walls. No windows, of course. A metal frame bed with industrial bedding. That was it. The door to the room was a foot of steel with a small opening that could only be accessed from the outside. He cleaned quickly – changed the thin sheets, swept the floor, and escaped as soon as possible.

He couldn’t imagine living a whole life in a six by six room.

The girl was special. Very special, judging by the tight security. There were always guards posted in the security room, patrolling every hour. And that door was as thick as a bank vault.

He kept his head down, intimidated by the men in white coats with alphabet soups at the end of their names, intimidated by the ex-special forces security director, a burly man in a dark suit.

He wasn’t special. He was the janitor. He just did his job.

The first few weeks were uneventful. Then he was asked to clean her room on a Wednesday. He never cleaned her cell on Wednesday.

There was a rusty stain on one of the cinderblock walls. He scrubbed the dried blood away and thought about how badly they must have hurt her. Was she dead?

But the routine continued, and he still found blonde hairs, and the ghost of lavender still haunted the sterile bathroom with its rows of showers and sinks, all for one girl. She was still alive. Still special.

One day he found vomit under the bed. The next day, more in the shower. He wondered if the special girl was sick. When he mopped up the vomit he found a small blue pill, partially dissolved. When he asked one of the men in white coats if the girl was ill, the man said nothing but looked worried.

Then nothing much happened until he found the pills.

He was changing the sheets when his hip collided with the bed. With a groan, the metal frame moved and he saw a cascade of blue. There were blue pills tucked into the hollow metal leg of the bed frame. He picked one up. It was a small, hexagonal pill with an N carved into it. He had seen those pills in the lab. He didn’t know what they did.

He knew he should tell someone. He meant to, really. But somehow, after he had gathered up the blue pills, his hand dropped them into the rolling wastebasket as if on its own.

And that was his routine now. When he went into her room to clean on Mondays and Thursdays, he made sure to throw away the hidden pills. He told himself it was just cleaning, but he knew it wasn’t. It was something else, an act of sedition.

One night, a little after 11:00 p.m., he was vacuuming the hallway and heard a deep echoing sound. He turned off the vacuum and listened. It came again.


It was coming from behind the steel door. She was knocking.

He tried to ignore it, to focus on his cleaning. This was different from the pills; he had been instructed not to have any contact with her, not to touch the slot in the vault-like door to her room, but his curiosity won out.

The access slot made a terrible sound of metal on metal as he pulled it open.

A blue eye stared out at him. It caught him off guard, she had her face pressed against the opening. He could see pale freckled skin and a blue eye.

The eye disappeared, replaced by pink lips that opened when she spoke to reveal neat white teeth, “Are you the one who cleans my room on Mondays and Thursdays?”

He nodded, then realized she couldn’t see the motion so he said, “Yes.”

“Thanks,” she said. The lips disappeared and the blue eye appeared again, looking out at him through a small rectangle of metal. The blue eye winked.

He slid the slot in her door closed.

That night, he finished his routine, put away his cleaning supplies and drove his old Volvo home to his one-bedroom apartment above a liquor store.

For a janitor, his apartment was surprisingly dirty. Empty pizza boxes formed a small mountain range near the overflowing trash can. Old receipts and random garbage covered the shag-carpeted floor. He cleaned all day, so when he came home, it was the last thing he wanted to do.

Making room on the couch between the stacks of clothes, he sat down heavily, and opened a beer. He turned on the tv but his mind wandered.

He thought about the girl. She sounded young. Sixteen or so, though he couldn’t be sure. Pretty too, though he couldn’t be sure of that either. He had seen most of her face but only a piece at a time—he didn’t have the jigsaw finished in his head. He shouldn’t have talked to her. He knew that. It would make everything harder now that he had seen her. It was none of his business why she was there or what they were doing to her. It was all classified stuff, way over his head. There was nothing he could do.

The only illumination in the room came from a crime drama on TV, sexualized images of body parts in a dumpster. The room was stale, save a daddy longlegs picking its way across the dirty carpet. As a child, he pulled off their legs one at a time, leaving nothing but a twitching, bead-like body.

Finishing his beer, he crumpled the can in his hand and chucked it towards the spider. The daddy longlegs skittered away behind a shoe.

He sighed and stared up at the ceiling and thought about the blonde girl.

He was going to save her. He had decided that sometime around his fifth beer the night before. He was mopping the floor of the lab and, still slightly hung-over, blinking under the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights.

Of course, he didn’t know exactly how he would save her. That part was a bit fuzzy, like his head. But he knew that they would run away together, not to his crappy, one-bedroom apartment, someplace exotic, always on the move, always being hunted. It was as clear as a movie in his head.

Getting her out of her room would be difficult, but not impossible. Getting her out of the building would be harder. All the stairwells had cameras, and they were guarded by burly men who carried guns. His plan, if it could be called that, was to run by them, or make a diversion so she could slip past.

It might have all stayed a fantasy, except a week later, as he entered the lab to clean, he saw that the lights had been left on. One of the computers was still on, a white lab coat hung over the empty chair in front of it. One of the scientists was working late, most likely in the bathroom. Then he noticed the id badge—the pass that accessed the magnetic locks in the facility was still clipped to the abandoned lab coat. He looked around, and seeing no one, wheeled his mop and bucket closer.

The monitor on the desk showed strange letters running across the screen. He didn’t understand it, so he ignored it and carefully unclipped the badge, trying to rearrange the coat so that its absence was less conspicuous.

Abandoning his mop and bucket, he moved quickly, purposefully towards room 201. There was a security guard walking the corridor, so he waited around a corner, pulse racing, palms sweating, until the guard moved on. He waited several long minutes so the man would be out of earshot before he approached the vault-like door.

It was not too late to turn back. Not really. He could go back to his mop, leave Ahmed (he could read the name now on the pilfered badge) his id and get back to his work. His life could continue in a straight line. He could do the responsible thing.

But really, his life was pretty shitty anyway. With a loud beep, the magnetic lock disengaged and he pulled open the door.

She was sitting on the bed, her body twisted violently at the sound of the door opening. The girl was wearing a white paper-like garment, reminiscent of a hospital gown. She was pretty, even prettier than he thought. She stood, as the door opened and he realized he had said nothing, only stared at her.

“I’m here to um… save you,” he said. She didn’t react. She looked calm, bored even. Perhaps she thought it was a test, or a trick.

“Come on, we have to get out.” He darted forward, grabbing her wrist.

Pain exploded in his hand like he had grabbed a grenade. A scream tore itself from his throat. He staggered backwards out the cell into the corridor, cradling his hand. His fingers were mangled, blood and bone erupting from the skin.

“Don’t touch me,” said the blonde-haired girl evenly. She stretched, balancing on bare toes and shook out her shoulders. Then she moved towards him. She looked down at his ruined hand.

“Not bad, let’s see…,” and she winked at him.

His chest was caught in a vise, invisible and unrelenting. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Pressure crushed against his chest and arms. Blood pounded in his ears and a groaning sound came from his torso like the rigging of a sailing ship. The sound of his ribs. Tighter, and tighter the pressure grew until he felt he would burst.

Then wetness, and a great weight fell away from him. The pressure was gone but he still could not breathe. He didn’t realize he was falling until he felt the ground against his temple. It was cold, and he felt cold, terribly cold.

He was looking at an arm, torn sleeve of blue coveralls stained red, black hairs up to the wrist, short trimmed nails. It looked familiar and it took him a moment to realize it was his arm, lying on the ground about six feet from the rest of him—familiar and yet unfamiliar.

There was something wrong with his chest, when he tried to breathe there was a frothing sound. Looking down, he saw he had been torn apart in the middle, split open to reveal slick innards and dark blood. His mind, like the rest of him, was slowly turning cold and attaining a certain clarity.

He was dying. Perhaps dying always came with a certain clarity. He couldn’t be sure, this was the first time he’d done it.

The blonde-haired girl was moving, he could see vaguely although the edges of his vision were beginning to grow curiously black. She moved around him and headed down the corridor. She wasn’t moving towards the exit, he realized, but towards the security room. She was strolling leisurely. As she went, she left neat little bloodstained footprints. He felt a stab of concern—was she hurt? But, of course it wasn’t her blood. She had stepped in the pool of blood coursing out of him like a river.

He supposed he should feel angry, but he didn’t. He didn’t feel much of anything other than a creeping coldness. He thought he understood why she had done it—she was special. Her life was more important than his. Killing him was nothing to her, just pulling the legs off a spider. That was the real horror of being special. No one else is.

His vision was fading faster now, the coldness spreading downward. The last thing he heard, faintly, was the sound of men screaming down the hall.