Emily watched the strobe-like pulse of the ceiling fan as she lay on the mattress—the only motion in the room.
An image of a needle appeared on the back of her eyelids while she slept, as if to remind her of the inevitable: every day she traveled up and down the concrete floors would culminate in a single point that plunged into her flesh.
Another night of evading death, she thought, turning her head to look out the window at the sea. Even now, she wasn’t sure if it were folly, fortune, or something else.
Up on the wall, the hands of the clock pointed at five minutes to noon. She stood and found the energy to clamber down to the cafeteria, where her cohort was seated at one of the tables with a plate of institutional food.
Rumorg watched her move through the line, piling her tray with napkins, ketchup, and mustard packets (though she never used them, it gave her comfort to see the dispenser always stocked with the condiments) and carrying it to the table, where she dropped it on the mica-flecked surface.
“Bloody chicken,” he said, staring at the contents of his plate in disgust after taking several, quick bites of breast. His eyes darted between her and it, as if trying to draw a connection. Beneath the cafeteria’s fluorescent lighting, his fair hair, transparent skin, and pink-rimmed eyes stood out: Rumorg was an albino.
“It’s really something,” Emily said as she chewed on a leg, which was also riddled with purple-red veins. Why was the food here like this? Didn’t the people who ran the place know how to prepare it properly?
She paused, taking another bite and chewing thoroughly. “That you could be joking when you look entirely serious.”
His cheeks reddened, adding a tinge of color to his complexion.
It had taken her a while to get Rumorg’s deadpan sense of humor. After meeting some of the other residents who knew him, Emily learned how easily his mock horror could be mistaken for the real thing.
At first, she was sure their personalities would clash. But as the days blurred into months and they kept meeting in the commons, she noticed subtle changes in his behavior. Gone were his days of carrying loose papers and skulking down halls and sidewalks, throwing covert glances every which way.
His life had direction now. He was going somewhere, even if he had to get out of here first. It helped when she brought him some of her folders to keep his assignments.
Glancing across the table at each other, they exchanged unspoken hope that the soul of the chicken they ate was squawking mirthfully in the avian afterlife with wings that enabled it to fly. She’d always wondered if Rumorg were someone whose insides and outsides never fully matched, making him destined to life in a shell.
“How’s the paper going?” he asked.
“I’m worried about the endnotes.”
How many hours had they pored over their rough drafts just to get the author’s name, book title, copyright, and page numbers in the correct order and typeface at the bottom of each page and in the bibliography? Who knew what curveballs the master would throw at them in the meantime, or if the deadlines would be moved to an earlier date?
“We should be good for Monday, as long as we get them done this weekend,” he said. “Want to meet later at the library?”
A familiar routine unfolded as they left the cafeteria and headed back to their blocks. Rumorg stopped at the benches and removed a pack of imaginary cigarettes from his pocket. He took one out, pretending to light it and take a pull, his eyes narrowing to slits as he glanced around. Then, he offered Emily the fake cigarette.
“Take a hit off this.”
She held it to her lips with two fingers and inhaled, simulating a cough. Rumorg flashed her a split-second grin as she handed it back, watching him finish it in a few puffs before tossing it into the grass.
“See you tonight,” he said.
He checked his watch. “How about six?”
“Alright. Six it is.”
Her figure cast a shadow on the endless slatted walls as she made the long walk back to her room, stopping outside the door at the end of the hall. She paused for a moment, studying the rivets bolted to the exterior, before opening and closing it behind her. She wished there were a lock to secure it shut. There were no locks. Nor were there cigarettes, or anything that wasn’t approved by the masters.
They were on their own, using every means to survive.
She’d seen and heard others die behind these walls—not the gory deaths of slain animals that left the steel-gray floors and walls splattered with blood, but violently soft ones that seemed to hang in the air like a ghost.
By staying, residents accepted food, water, and shelter in exchange for knowledge that the injection might come at any time—more likely during peaceful slumber.
She’d smiled through that awareness, learning to embrace it like a surrogate child. In time, Emily adjusted to the alternate course her life took upon evading death.
Once inside the room, she sat in the desk chair, turned on a reading lamp, and pulled out her notes.
She tried to concentrate, but her mind began to drift, eyes wandering out the window to the downs that lay by the sea.
Emily imagined their chalky outcrops rising above the shore as she walked in the sand. Finding a gleaming shell in a shallow embayment. Watching it grow to the size of a house, its spire whirling into a staircase and outer lip widening to windows that gave a great view beyond the front steps.
This was the sort of house where she and Rumorg would someday live and raise children, taking them for walks in the salty, sea air to watch the gulls and terns dive into the surf.
While examining the spongy organism fastened to the inside, she saw a pair of beady eyes peering back with an alertness that reminded her of him.
Suddenly, he emerged, slinking out of the whelk’s smooth, hard contours and rising up on two legs.
Reaching forward, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close so their skin touched.
They stood on the beach and kissed, their tongues slipping over the foreign landscape of each other’s mouths. Rumorg reached up and undid her bra.
Sprawling in the sand next to him, she threw her head back, pitching the landscape upside-down. The tide curled in, pulling them deeper into the sand. Moisture rose off her arms and mixed with the seaweed smell as his body molded to her belly and breasts.
Now, he was thrusting into her, and it was sweet and good and everything she’d learned to forget. She gazed up at the shifting clouds. Sea merged with sky, tossing them into a vertiginous state of bliss as Rumorg held her close and whispered in her ear, his words floating above the sound of the surf:
“I don’t know if this can save us, but it’s worth a shot…”
Emily returned from the reverie, staring down at the array of notes on her desk. The clock on the wall read ten minutes to six. Time to meet Rumorg.
She gathered up the papers, stuffing them into her bag and scurrying out the door.
He waited outside the library with a cigarette dangling from his fingers as she cut a rough path across the grass. They entered the building’s lobby and found a computer in one of the smooth, glass corridors.
Half an hour into their work, she glanced up to see him watching her with eyes like slits. She’d been searching for a loophole to skirt death in this mad continuum since she got here. Was this it—the look that simmered between them?
She returned his gaze, enjoying the fleeting moment. Soon, they’d be finished and hand in their papers. They’d continue to be wary of the future, acutely aware that each day spent in this world of flat, geometrical lines hoisted up on the green-brown world seemed to narrow their chances of ever getting out.
But it also meant their survival, and that was something.