19

Even the prison toilets were shiny. Shiny shiny shiny Acymera was, as if everything and everyone was covered with a coat of varnish. Varnished. That was a good word. Varnished. Down to their damn toilets.

She looked at hers just one moment before pulling her pants down and smothering its shininess. Peeing for all to see was just one component of the humiliation of prisoners. No innocent till proven guilty, not that she was innocent, but too bad so sad for those who were. Too bad for the teary voices two cells down from her, voices muffled as she emptied her bladder; the voices pleaded with the officer that they had done nothing wrong, nothing at all. They were lovers of Acymera. Hopelessly devoted. They would never stain her awesome majesty blah blah blah, another trial blah blah blah, another chance and more blahs that sounded like so much of what now floated in the shiny toilet.

Their sobs were drowned out by a flush.

…………

Ten days before, a Tuesday, after she had watered her ferns and perennials, she stood watering the aloe vera plant at her east window, her window facing the street. It was morning. She should have been jacketed in sunlight, but her meager apartment was only on the second floor and the high-rises outside towered and bullied away the sunlight. As she tipped her old plastic long-nosed watering can toward the dirt in the pot, she looked out the window and at the street below. It was street washing day. The varnished trucks moved smoothly down the street, humming, and shooting powerful jets of water out each side, pressure washing the exteriors of the streets and buildings. Surfaces must be clean. The state did not care about the interiors. People took care to close windows tightly and bring anything inside that couldn't withstand the pressure washing on Tuesday mornings. After the trucks rolled through, some people replaced their objects. Some didn't and the streets eventually became less and less cluttered, until the streets became more and more like a movie set with a bad prop manager. They looked artificial. Constructed. Not lived in.

Nobody opened windows after the trucks were gone, either. Allergens. Pollution. It was not uncommon for children, the elderly, and the ailing to wear medical face masks. But opening windows was out of the question. Most had air purifiers. Air purifiers which Ishah believed produced a strange, almost nauseating smell. It reminded her of that first rush of air that greeted her once she walked into her old dentist's office. It smelled too sterile and conjured up pictures of anesthetics and drills. Cleanliness is godliness, they used to say. And clichés border on blasphemy, she used to think. Old wives' tales and the-sky-is-falling shit.

Three days before, another Tuesday, Smeagol, Deagol, and Gollum were hungry. The one-eyed cat, the three-legged dog, and the crow crawled over her on her mouse-holed couch and made their own unique plaintive noises. Smeagol rubbed his cheek against Ishah's elbow, so hard and desperate that Ishah was reminded why she took him in: he could inspire such pity with these rubs. Deagol just sat there, inches away from Ishah's face, panting and making that face that always looks like he's smiling no matter what mood he's in. He was maybe a pug of some sort. She didn't know anything about dogs. But he had this wrinkled, crumpled face that made his mouth always appear as a smile. And his breath smelled terrible. So that was great motivation to get up and out. Gollum cawed authoritatively and jumped along the back of the couch, creating more holes with his claws. You have forgotten about us, he seemed to say. Don't be so lazy.

"I have not forgotten about you, Gollum," she said out loud to the crow, in a slow and careful speaking voice, as if her vocal chords were delicate strings that she feared would snap without the utmost care. "I'm just poor."

So she left the three in the entryway, staring at her as she closed the door, sitting in their own ways, and patiently awaiting her return.

She went to the big shiny market with the tall ceilings and the long aisles and made her few, small purchases. At the cash register, her already shiny coins looked electric under the harsh fluorescent lights. Kind of dangerous.

And she began her walk, her purchases in clumsy, stretching, thinning plastic bags, back to her second story apartment above the flower shop where she worked. Her apartment was not an apartment at all, just an unused store room that the owners were kind enough to rent to her. It was enough for her. And whatever stray animals wandered into her path and rubbed their cheeks on her ankles.

She had been thinking about her reflection in the shiny facades of the buildings as she walked past them. How it morphed and stretched, how sometimes her head looked like a big light bulb of flesh, how her limbs looked so detached from her body, like an added bonus or something. Like the torso was where the soul was encased and the arms and legs were just octopus legs floating around in the air, doing essentially nothing for the soul. Just carrying plastic bags about ready to break from the weight of the food. She had been lost in these odd thoughts when suddenly she was struck by the pressured jets of water.

As soon as it happened she crunched her shoulders up, dropped her bags, and made a stupid face. You know, the stupid face humans make when something unexpected and sort of painful happens. She squinted her eyes and squished her nose and mouth up as small as possible, like a little angry mouse. She clumsily pushed herself against the front of the nearby building, as if trying to protect herself from the hard, shooting water, still assaulting her. She spit it out and felt it bruising her skin, invading her nose and ears.

Then it was over. The street cleaning trucks were ahead of her. She was drenched. Her food was on the ground, most broken and spoiled. She stooped to evaluate the damage for a moment, then let a broken egg shell slip through her fingers and stood up. She looked at herself in the now spotless glass of the building. Some remaining water ran down in little streams.

…………

She smelled like lilies.

He had been walking past her, his head down, mind in some business of shooting numbers hacking soulless bodies or other, hands in his pockets, when the lilies rushed in. Stargazer lilies. Big and pink and white. And from nowhere. His head jerked up like a guard dog upon hearing a noise.

And she was already behind him. Walking, head down, feet shuffling under her brown prisoner uniform, svelte white wrists floundering in big shiny handcuffs, swan-like neck craned down perhaps looking at the shiny handcuffs but not, eyes closed, the lilies tumbling and trailing behind her, the smell already diminishing.

Lilies. Here. Amid the gray blue walls, the gray blue floors, the gray blue food, the gray blue smells and air and everything, a lily came in.

It hurt him intensely. He couldn't, or more specifically wouldn't, put his finger on why.

…………

He noticed her. No friends. No talking. No sucking up. No pleases or sirs. Just sitting. In cold prison courtyards, hands around her stomach, eyes down, weighted by heavy spidery eyelashes weighted by stoicism or apathy. No friends no talking no sucking up. A plaything of the worse criminals. Falling down stairs with frequency. Their sticky spit slipped, dripped from her nose cheekbones and chin. She was never in any hurry to rid herself of their saliva. It was cleaned off in the same casual movement of the hand bringing a cigarette to her mouth, forgotten as the cigarette was lit. The cigarette was lit. The cigarette hung, weighted by ashes, occasionally bright and glowing as she inhaled slowly, motionless since she exhaled out of the opposite side of her mouth. Lips lazily held this cigarette, losing their color so that slowly, slowly they took the color of her pale pale skin which took the color of her dull dull surroundings. She was turning the color of the prison. Dull. Gray blue. Dull. Pale. Hands around her stomach. She sat in a cold courtyard smoking.

Occasionally she moved. Occasionally the limbs bones and sinews repositioned themselves in such a way that aided movement. The legs came under her, the arms pushed her up, and she would move. To move was a special occasion. She moved as if she either carefully planned every step or the earth evened itself out below her feet. The wind stilled the dust settled and unceremoniously, a cigarette butt would be crushed under her feet and she would leave where she sat. And she would walk, like fabric moving through the breeze, a skinny skinny skeleton played with by weak air currents low temperatures and sharp sunrays. Perhaps she would starve to death. They didn't feed their prisoners much.

Other times she would pace her cell. Her fabric limbs would move, her ash weighted cigarette would glow, and the shadows from the bars would cast black lines like streamers and blankets across the caverns of her face. Her eye sockets were sinking and became lakes of black under the shadows. She would turn to pace back to the other side of her small cell, and the streamers blankets and lakes would reverse their travel across her face, crossing and crisscrossing her like a maypole. Putting her hands around her stomach, the sinews and muscles continued to move, the shadows continued to paint her, this time drawing a blindfold of black across her weighted eyes, still down. Just one more step and the shadow blindfold would be removed, revealing dull gray eyelids again.

He saw the white orbs beneath the dull gray eyelids once. She was pacing, porcelain arms curved embracing her stomach, she a moving maypole decorated by shadow ribbons, a shadow blindfold over her eyes, when just another step removed the blindfold, and the heavy spidery eyelashes lifted and revealed the eyes. Round blue big shining eyes, stoic or apathetic eyes. He had been walking past her cell when the blindfold was lifted, when her eyes caught onto his. She just looked at him. He looked back at her. But she just looked. Looked as if he were no more than a television, something to set one's eyes and think nothing of. Nothing. She looked as if he were nothing. She caught onto his eyes once, his eyes like a formulaic romantic comedy sitcom. Then, one half second later, she turned away, bored, and the shadows blindfolded her again.

The eyes turned away. There was a flash. The sea shined inside and the darkness sealed it up.

She noticed him. She saw his eyes once. Pacing under the slivers of light cut apart by her iron bars, he was walking. Walking like she believed archangels would walk. Like they have somewhere very important to be, yet move as if their feet do not touch the ground, as if walking were too mundane an activity for one so engrossed in thoughts and duties. He was walking, hands in his pockets, sharp shoulders back, shaggy hair shading his eyes, when his head swiveled toward her cell suddenly, as if his name had unexpectedly been called from that area. And his eyes caught hers like an animal in a trap. She was convinced to look him in the eyes meant death. She hoped it was true. But she found no violence in them.

…………

"State your name."

Silence.

"State your name," the voice said, more agitated this time.

More silence.

Headam relaxed on the ornate gold couch, embroidered with gold thread, in the Prison Manager's study, as much as Headam could be said to relax. He was still sitting up, but he allowed his posture to slouch and one arm to rest on the back of the couch. In his other hand, his finger ran thoughtlessly over the rubber buttons, not pushing any of them, just feeling their slight, almost sticky resistance as he ran his fingers over them. To any observer, he would look like a dead statue, though. It was late at night, very late, and all the lights were off except those from the television screen.

"Let me remind you there are consequences for not cooperating with an interrogation, ma'am," the irate voice from the television growled again.

"I don't think she's going to cooperate-" a different voice from the television came.

"It's a routine interrogation and she's a little girl," the first voice returned. The sources of both voices could not be seen on the screen, only the interviewee. It was a young girl, sixteen or seventeen, or perhaps a very skinny thirty-year-old. Her body gave conflicting messages. Seen only from her chest up, she appeared only minimally curvy, neither pre- nor post-pubescent. Her shoulders were small, but they were set easily back which gave her a confidence in the presence of these coarse, threatening voices that a young girl could not possibly have. Her head was shaved, as the hygiene of the time prescribed. But it was probably the tilt of her head that disguised her age so much. It was to the side, but also just barely up. Was it tilted in sadness? In sleepiness? In petulance? In apathy? Was she thinking what prison food would be like or was she thinking about the people she'd never see again? Did she even know where she was? She wasn't responding. Perhaps she didn't know.

He stopped moving his fingers over the remote.

"Forget her name. Her name's Ishah. Get her age," came the second, more patient, invisible voice.

"State your age." ordered the first voice.

Silence. Stillness. The same slight tilt of the head.

"State your damn age! You are talking to an Acymeran officer!"

At this, a smile actually appeared. Her blank expression reluctantly slid into a smirk, as if she were hiding laughter. She lost her head tilt and perhaps looked the speaker in the eye.

"You- you bitch! Are you laughing? Do you think that's funny?" The voice now sounded like an indignant parent.

Headam saw her shoulders lift just barely, as if a laugh had escaped, before the second voice shouted, "Sargeant –"

-and a large arm swung across the screen and knocked the little girl out of the camera's view. The camera quickly shut off.

Camera fuzz. Static. A hasty turn off and then a hasty turn on.

Headam had seen this video before. He knew what he would see next.

There was Ishah again. Same setting, only this time her elbow was on a table and that hand held a cloth to her mouth. Her mood had visibly changed. There were a few seconds of silence in which the camera adjusted itself and the two voices discussed where to start over. During these few seconds, Ishah took the cloth away from her mouth to re-fold it, and exposed a huge vertical gash in her bottom lip. Not just a cut, but an open valley, one side looking like it would peel off. Headam recognized it; it was still healing and he could see the brown jagged scab and pained pink skin around it on her face every day. She re-folded the cloth and covered the blood valley again. She could not tilt her head.

"Please state your name," came the first voice.

Silence.

The tape continued, the tape finished, the tape rewound itself, and the tape began again.

Ishah, being escorted back from a long day of labor, at that moment walked through the dark hall and past the Prison Manager's door. Those rough questions. Someone was listening to her interrogation.

She was escorted past the door but turned her head to follow the sound as she walked away. Then, a few feet past the door, she noticed the door was cracked partly open. Looking through the dark inside, she saw the outline of a shaggy head, asleep in front of a bright television screen.

"Headam," she whispered.

…………

Time passed. Elapsed. Continued as normal. Moved thoughtlessly forward, unaware or unconcerned with the gradual changes occurring. Days, weeks, what was time? Collections of seconds and months, pauses and moments. Ishah was in her cell; Ishah was not in her cell. Sometimes he saw the bald bird pacing and smoking in her cell, sometimes he did not. Sometimes she was in solitary; sometimes she was not.

Headam wandered the halls and courtyards; Headam did not. Sometimes he was executing prisoners and sometimes he was gone for days or weeks at a time. Sometimes some would speculate where he was, "dead," "on some top secret mission," "sick with a bad case of the shits," "I don't care as long as the son of a bitch isn't here," "probably assassinating so and so"… Time passed, elapsed, Ishah's vacation at the prison continued without much event. She slept a lot, was given little to eat, stared at the cracks and fissures on the walls ceiling and floor of her cell, noted the slow progress of the shadows on her walls and guessed at the time, hummed to herself, and sang aloud when the neighboring prisoners didn't mind.

They didn't stay very long, her neighboring prisoners. They were quickly killed in public daylight or in secret darkness. Or someone in a big flashy uniform with lots of buttons and badges glaring and blinding would come and offer them the chance of finishing their term out in an armed service. Most prisoners took that route. Being in the armed service meant a safe future. Any job with the state meant security. Her own parents worked for the state, at a time…

Few members of the armed service did not start out as prisoners, actually. It almost seemed as if the recruiting officers preferred these individuals. These petty thugs. These robbers, murderers, rapists… rapists… Criminals are one of our richest national resources, she thought to herself once. And then her thoughts moved on to something else.

Time moved on. Time elapsed. Life continued, unaware or unconcerned with the gradual changes occurring.

…………

Cold compassion. She had been singing a song with these lyrics in it for a while. Why. "Don't close your eyes, cold compassion…" she had been singing, as she washed her hands, her face, her head, and generally moved about her cell. She sang in Italian. She wondered if she could sing in English. Probably not. It just seemed to come out in Italian. She was used to singing in Italian. So out it came. But why cold compassion? Why was she thinking about cold compassion?

In the eyes. It was cold compassion in the eyes. It was gorgeous when she saw it. She imagined the birth of the universe looked something like it. All glorious and glowing and infinite colors and sparks and shapes. And then the eyelids closed and hid the glory. Perhaps blinking was the cooling mechanism and his eyes were the engine. The world would probably explode if he kept his eyes open too long. They were simply… too…

No way to describe it. But he kept them well hidden. Had others seen this? How could they not? It was explosive. It was quiet. It was so quiet it caused a ringing in her ears. It was striking. It was cold compassion. And it was surely pain. All the time pain. Why? What daggers clattered around inside him? It would be a shame. He must control those internal daggers. His eyes were simply too beautiful to waste.

She had seen them again, quite closely in fact. Her fellow prisoners loved her. They loved to steal from her, spit on her, trip her, and bully her. And they were all so many bald blobs of brown uniform to her, moving without sense and occasionally bouncing off of her.

The stairs in the prison were formidable. Steep and tall with one tiny landing one each floor and open to the whole prison. No walls enclosed a stair well. And the prisoners loved her. And as the bald brown blobs marched in front and behind her up these stairs, going somewhere, going nowhere, one particularly tall blob stuck out a cruel foot, gracefully, perfectly in her path.

Just a slight touch. Just a foot in the wrong place and she could no longer stand, no longer make it up the precarious steps, no longer be held upright. It was as if she had given up to smashing herself up the instant she was tripped. She made no wild swinging motions with her arms to regain her balance. She saw the futility and surrendered herself to gravity and injury. She was halfway up the shiny steep stairs and began to arc away from them, toward the ground, nothing under her feet, just varnished steel stairs flying by below her. She would hit the landing, perhaps on her head, perhaps paralyze herself, or perhaps she would land terribly twisted and break several things inside her. She fell, sped toward the ground quickly, but it seemed like forever to her. She was so high up. The stairs were so unforgiving. She had been tripped. She would soon smash her face into the landing. She would soon be unconscious.

But then – something caught her, and spun around in a circle until the momentum of her fall spent itself. She was on the landing, her knees just inches off the ground, her torso wrapped in what felt like steel casing but was actually two strong arms. Her face was in his shoulder. He'd caught her. He had caught her. Is this what ballet felt like? It could not have happened more gracefully. She had flew through the air, speedily, terrifyingly, and had been safely caught and held tightly. Did she pause because she was in shock? She paused. Didn't move. Just remained there with her face in his shoulder.

He had not choreographed it. He had caught her smell 30 feet behind her. He always knew when she was near. He always knew his surroundings and was ready for whatever they might threaten him with. He didn't see the trip. He saw the speedy path through the air, the resignation in the fall. She had closed her eyes. Not squeezed them shut. They were closed peacefully, as if she were slowly stretching.

Without a thought, he caught her. In his sense of time, he merely put his arms around her and slowed her down. To those watching, his arms shot out like a lizard's tongue or a tiger after crouching. Their aim was right on; they caught her perfectly and he spun only once because of her momentum. And then the two peacefully came to a standstill.

He felt her cheek against his shoulder. He was holding her. He was touching her. And he just paused. Didn't move. Ishah. Ishah…

She remained with her cheek against his shoulder, her arms clumsily thrown around his arms. He smelled like very clean laundry. He must have done some that day. His shirt was freshly starched. It was stiff. Perfect. She was sure she would cause no wrinkles in it. If she were to step away, he would still look impeccable.

His shoulder felt strange. Too many muscles in too lean a body. He was not flexing but his shoulder was just too tight. A person's body should not feel like that. A person's body should not feel as if it had a layer of metal underneath it. He was not a machine. He shouldn't feel like one. He was only her size, her age, wasn't he? Why had his body turned out in such a way?

There was no one around them. There was the whole prison around them. They were looking and staring, slightly unbelieving. She had been careening face first towards the landing far below and had been caught as if the whole thing had been planned. And there the two stood. Unmoving. Some bald brown blob-prisoners began their cow-like march up the stairs again. Some murmuring began again. But the two still stood, the world around them gone.

Ishah.

They were looking at each other, her face only inches from his. He realized he knew her face. Very well. He studied the rises and falls, the peaks and the valleys, the contours and shapes, and realized he knew them all. He knew her face. There was nothing in it that would surprise him.

She didn't know his face that well. She hadn't seen it as often. Things were blobs around her, just things in motion, like celestial bodies. Always moving and with little effect on her and if they did effect her, there was little she could do about it. Things moved around her. She only stopped to examine them when they were pretty. And he was not nearly so scary and strange as the blobs had murmured around her. She saw a secret in his eyes – that he was kind. Amazingly kind. And that was his greatest secret. And it scraped and carved out his insides as if it were a raving lunatic in solitary confinement. He was tortured by the kindness inside. And she saw it. He thought he could guard it. But she saw it. And it was lovely. She'd never seen such dark black and such bright white painted nearly on top of each other. There were no other eyes like his.

At long last, she was standing in front of him. The staring and studying was over. She bowed politely and walked back up the stairs. And he, as if this was as usual an occurrence as brushing his teeth, turned and continued in the direction he'd been headed.

…………

What was a woman? There was a yellow dress… no, a yellow flower…there was a smile. Bright sunlight. A face, unseen due to the bright sun behind her. Hands on her knees. Bending down. A bright smile. A laugh. An offered hand? A yellow dress or a yellow flower. Beauty. Not like a piece of art but like a feeling. A certain comfortable temperature.

A slowness of movement, so delicate one's muscles went to sleep. Languished happily as in a warm bath. A ballet, a glittering mobile.

And then distance. Quickly. A pull. Heat. Yellow disappearing. Turning to black brown gray. The smell of sulphur. A hand reaching toward him and disappearing.

It was a recurring nightmare. Headam was tying himself up in his sheets, rolling around, sweating, grunting, and finally sitting straight up in bed in his dark room.

He was six when the woman in the yellow dress with the yellow flower went away.

"Pretty lady, Doctor C's wife," Doctor A had said.

"Hmm. Yes yes. Pretty woman," Doctor B had replied.

"The project seems a little too fond of her though," Doctor A continued.

"Hm? Yes. He likes her a lot. He does."

"Too much. He's getting too attached to her."

"Wells she's his wife."

"No idiot. The project. Not Doctor C."

"Hm yes. The project. Yes he does like her."

"Yes. Too much."

"Yes. Too much."

"It would be good for him to kill her."

"Hmm. Would it?"

"Yes. The perfect solider can't have these emotional ties. It would be good for him to kill her."

"Hmm, yes. Yes it would. What about Doctor C?"

"Doctor C would be happy. He wouldn't have to make up lies about 'business trips' in order to spend more time with Doctor D. Yes. It's settled. The little project will have to kill her."

"Indeed. Tomorrow after lunch."

"What are we having?"

"Hmm, a party sub, I believe. Third floor boys are springing for it."

And the next day after the party sub, the familiar heavy metal thing was put in Headam's little hand, a hand too lean and muscular for a six year old. He was given his target. The pretty woman? Yes it was the pretty woman. Why, he wanted to ask. But he didn't. Doctor A was old, brisk, sharp, and ready with a stinging slap or an evil look of his shiny black eyes, one eye on each side of his sharp hooked nose. He was like a sinister bird. Crooked. Making quick, unpredictable movements. And Doctor A said fire. And he did. He shot. The pretty woman fell quickly. Awkwardly. They all did. He got her right in the head, as he always did, and she fell promptly. Her knees buckled instantly and she plopped to the floor as if some giant fist had knocked her straight down. The sulphur floated through the air and smoke blurred the sight of the woman.

"Did you get any of the ham section, Headam?" Doctor A asked, eyes wide and interested.

He shook his head no and politely returned the gun.

"There's a little bit left. You can get some if you hurry."