At fifteen, her heart got tired of wanting things. At least if you asked her to pinpoint when it all went down, that’s what she’d say. That year, Tad Gardner, Chance Philmont, and James Adams had dumped her, launching her into a string of hours spent locking the bathroom door and turning the sink up full-blast—tricks she’d inherited from ballet class. She’d snapped the curdled-milk pearl necklace her mother gave her and thrown the rocks so hard they’d plunked against the pink pastoral wallpaper in her living room like firing bullets. She’d glued her lips together with Elmer’s No Mess before school each morning and painted them jet. She’d shaved the thinning hair patches from her head and declared juvenile emancipation and tattooed two crooked lines above each knuckle of her right hand. Why two? Why lines? Why the right hand? Well, why the hell not. She’d blab about them representing something—siblings, boyfriends, spiritual conversions—later in life, as all good citizens with tattoos do, but, really, a crooked line is a crooked line. They didn’t mean anything.
But to say three middle-school boys stopped a beating heart seems irrational. Impossible, even, considering only ten percent know how to zip their flies and the other ninety percent equate their waists with their knees—pull up your pants, kid, please. In reality though, hope and wanting had begun to feel as dirty as kitchen sink water after a meat spaghetti dinner long before age fifteen. When did hoping, wanting ever do any good, really? As a child she’d wanted a lot of little things—soft caramel-chocolate bars suited in purple foil; the silver unicorn stuffed animal at that carnival; a ride on the cheetah at the zoo carousel. As she grew up she’d wanted a lot of big things, abstract things like love and beauty and friendship and even book smarts from time to time. But she never got anything. Three boys dumped her in a year. Some brat in a beret cried until she gave up her seat on the cheetah.
So when the doctor offered to remove her heart at age sixteen for a wad of cash, she said yeah, go for it. They took the bloody mass out and replaced it with some sort of metal cog thing—she couldn’t remember what it was called. And she hadn’t wanted anything since. Until now, that is. Now, she wanted something. She wanted out of this damn shit-pot of a circular prison.
She looked at her pointer finger, bitten to chunks of skin and blood. She pressed it against the stone and slid down, almost missing the scrap of long French-tipped nails. Nine hundred slashes of red caked the wall. One hundred more remained to be drawn. Then she would leave this place.
A guard stalked past, and the slat in the glass door grated open. A bowl clambered toward her, bouncing when it smacked the cracks in the cement. She scrambled forward, scooped it into her lap, and dipped her finger into the grey puddle. The blood on her finger salted the mush, and for a minute she could almost force herself to think it tasted good, a kind of low-quality good, you know, like canned sardines or cheap dried kale. Her butterfly lungs beat and fluttered. She choked out a cough.
She stared out the windowed wall at the watchtower that grew from the center of the panopticon. They were watching; she was sure of it, even though she couldn’t see them. God, they were always watching. They had probably watched her draw her mark on the wall and written it down—silent notes kept in a little book of her behaviors. You couldn’t get away with anything here. Her eyes glazed, blurring black rock and brown and windowpane, and she shoveled the grainy goop into her mouth, letting the liquid dribbles sting her chapped lips. When she got out of here, she was jetting to Paris and going to that pastry shop, that one in Marais with the lemon madeleines, warm as sunset and honey-buttered, and the mille feuilles that exploded chocolate and custard with each forkful—if you had the patience and politeness to use a fork, that is. She couldn’t remember the name of the place, but she’d find it. And then she’d sit at some restaurant, the priciest one around, and she’d eat mutton so soaked in cream it melted at the touch of your tongue like a sixteen-year old school boy.
Her teeth sank down into a phantom mutton morsel, accidentally clamping onto her finger instead. She wrenched it out, coughed, and spat pink-tinted spit.
She shouldn’t have killed him, she supposed. Then she wouldn’t be trapped suffocating in a two by four half-glass box. But she’d spent her life suffocated. She’d gotten tired of that doctor stalking after her for the past ten years. He’d taken out her heart, sure, but that didn’t give him the right to monitor her every action. Lord, she couldn’t even eat a jam sandwich without him noting her heart palpitations down in that damn yellow, blue-lined notepad. Pity he didn’t note the speed of her heart when she imagined smashing his glasses into his face every night as he watched her sleeping. Maybe then that frown of surprise wouldn’t have flashed on his face when she’d finally lost it. And now, they—the other doctors, the government, someone—had thrown her in here as punishment. Because there’s no better way to monitor your pet project than by throwing it in jail.
They were watching her now; she could feel the eyes piercing from the watchtower into her cell, into her body. She shook her head, crusted hair scratching her cheeks, and crawled into the corner as far from the tower as she could get. It didn’t matter how she got into this place. It was just another mistake, just a mangled body. All that mattered was one hundred more days. She leaned her head back to rest against the wall as the dank air crept into her lungs. Her throat throttled out another cough.
Her eyes fell shut; her mind unleashed itself to indulge in imaginings. In one hundred days she’d have a washing machine and a dryer and a queen-sized mattress and a toaster. In one hundred days she’d lie in the sun and feel its heat bite into her translucent skin while she poured strawberry margaritas down her throat. In one hundred days she’d walk into a fluorescent white-lit supermarket at midnight and she’d buy a bag of cheese-coated corn chips and a bottle of diet cola. And some cough medicine. The thought tickled at the metal, machine-filled cavity in her chest. If she had a heart, it’d be bloated with rushing blood and heat—hope, if you’d like to assign a word to the feeling.
She didn’t have the strength to smash the feeling down, to wrap her fingers around it and squeeze until it smothered down into the usual dull emptiness, angst, and overall eye-rolling boredom. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling a leg span from her head, and she thought about calling to whatever deity sat around up there. Maybe if she said thanks for putting me in here, it’d find a way to reduce her sentence. Maybe it’d sweep down and gather her up and take her to the clouds. She laughed. She coughed.
A scream raked her ears, sending prickling hot shivers down her arms. She crawled to the door and pressed her ear against the glass. Booted feet slapped against the floor outside on level two, the level below her cell. She couldn’t see them. They could see her from their tower, but she couldn’t see them. She could never see them. But she heard the scratch of coarse, swishing fabric—guards, off to regulate the cause of the shout. The feet stopped.
“Oh my god.”
“Do you . . . do you think? No, that’s not possible. Nah. It couldn’t be.”
“I don’t know. Looks like it to me.”
The voices dropped to a murmur, low and deep as a heartbeat. She pushed her cheek against the door and closed her eyes as if cutting off that worthless sense would improve her hearing. It didn’t. But her ears snagged one word—doctor. And then the boots shuffled away to some other side of the circle. A door slammed.
She slunk back into the shadowed corner. She’d known her fair share of doctors. When she was ten, she jumped from the top of the school monkey bars and crushed the edge of her foot. A doctor gave her crutches. When she was twelve, she danced on the top of a counter, slipped, and slit her jaw a pinkie fingertip deep. A doctor gave her stitches. And when she was sixteen, of course, a doctor cut out her heart. They’d called it a miracle. Somebody could live with a machine for a heart, yet remain human in most of the other ways—blood, nerves, broken bones. And maybe it was a miracle, though she hadn’t done it to be called miraculous; she did it for the thousand-dollar cash reward advertised by a monotone-voiced man on the radio. They’d wanted to manufacture more like her. Apparently machines last—live—longer than regular humans, and what’s a successful society if not a close to immortal one? God was immortal. We should be too. They’d failed though. She’d heard that people had died seizuring during the operation—the doctors couldn’t figure out what it was about her metal heart that made it stick, that made it compatible with all the rest of her humanness.
A door slammed. Feet shuffled. A cough. She crawled to the window-door. A silence thick as rye bread flooded the air.
“Well, is it?” a voice, a guard, asked.
She waited for the response, but heard nothing. The doctor was nodding, perhaps, or shaking his head.
The doctor had nodded, then. But about what?
“Oh god, oh god. This, no, but, but, I thought? What’s going to happen to us? What can we do about it?”
“Nothing. We can’t do anything about it,” the doctor said.
She ripped her head from the door and punched her knuckles into its surface. “What the hell is going on out there? What can’t we do anything about?”
No response. So they didn’t think she deserved to know? Like hell was she going to accept silence. She kept punching, wrists crunching, popping with each hit. The glass shook, but held firm. The hall vibrated with echoes deep as tribal war drums as the other inmates, each trapped in their hovel windowed hells, joined her song.
A guard rounded the corner. She stood, meeting his heavy-lidded eyes.
“Shut the hell up,” he said, “You’re causing problems. They saw you start this from the watchtower.”
“You shut the hell up. I wouldn’t have yelled if I hadn’t heard the panic below us. What’s going on down there?”
“An inmate died, that’s all.”
“You seriously expect me to believe that shit? One of you guards was having a panic attack, and somebody went for a doctor. What was all that for?”
“I told you. An inmate died.” The guard coughed. “That’s all.”
“Died of what?”
“People die here, that’s the nature of the institution. I would’ve thought you’d been in that box long enough to figure that out by now.”
“Yeah, I have been in this box long enough to figure that out. And I’m getting out soon enough, too.”
His chin tipped up as he laughed. He laughed and laughed and then coughed.
“I can tell you one thing: you’re not leaving.”
“You’re not leaving.”
“But my sentence is up in one hundred days! You can’t keep me here. By law you can’t make me stay here.”
He shook his head. “You’re not leaving. I’m not leaving. And we’ll be long dried up dead by one hundred days.”
He nodded. “Long dried up dead, I tell you. You think you’re so invincible, so much better than the rest of us with that little machine heart, but in a few days that machine heart will be the only thing left of you. The cough’s the beginning.”
“I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about,” she said. “Is this about the inmate that died downstairs?”
A pit knotted in her stomach, she tried coughing it out like a hairball, but nothing could dislodge the squeezing sensation. “What did he die of? Are you going to tell me?”
“That blood coughing disease that all those artists died from? They have medicine for that these days.”
“Not for this strain. It broke out last week in a village thirty miles north of here, the one where we get our milk. It wiped away the place in three days. Drugs did nothing.”
“And now it’s here,” she said, her mouth dry as honey oat granola.
“They’re putting the whole prison under quarantine. Nobody leaves or more of the world gets infected.”
“So we’re all just going to die here? You can’t do that! You can’t make me stay longer than one hundred days!”
“I already told you that you’ll be dead by then. You’re infected already. I can hear it in your breath.”
She swallowed gulps of air, fighting the pulsing cough creeping into her lungs. “No. I’m getting out. I’m getting out and going to Paris and eating pastries.”
“How do you think you’re getting out?”
“I’ll kill myself.”
“And we’ll stop you. We’ll see you.” He pointed to the watchtower. “You never know when they’re watching you, and so they’re always watching you.”
She stared at his steel grey eyes. “Don’t you want to get out? Don’t you have a family to go home to? You’ll never see them again.”
He blinked. “Sometimes we must lose the weak to become strong.”
She’d never been the weak one before. Never. She’d cut her heart out so that she would never be the weak one. Yet, here she was, stuck in a glass jail box. She looked up. “At least we’ll die together, the jailed and the jailor. Sounds like karma to me. You’ve heard the phrase. What goes around comes around.”
“Maybe. But at least I get a bed and three bowls of soup for dinner.”
He turned and walked away, disappearing down the circle’s edge. She coughed, and her hand swept to cover her mouth. She pulled her fingers away, staring at the bloodstained skeins of mucus coating her palm. And she knew that no amount of hope and wanting Parisian pastries could save her.
Two men stepped over a body.
“God, it’s creepy in here. There are skeletons everywhere. Are you sure it’s safe? We’re not going to catch anything?”
“It’s safe, I’m sure.”
The man looked at the watchtower. “I feel like someone’s watching us.”
“They’re all dead.”
“Fine. But let’s get out of here as soon as we can. Where was her cell?”
The two men stopped. The stale air stank of mold and death. They listened. And then they heard it, the tick clink of a cog, a beating mechanical heart.
They walked up the stairs and entered one of the glass boxes. A skeleton rotted into the floor, a metal box wrapped in its ribcage. One of the men reached down and picked the contraption up.
“Here it is. It’s still good. We’ll try putting it in someone else.”