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Her hair brittle and tossed into a twisted bun, Mrs. Proctor sat in the furthest corner of the nursing room on a rickety metal chair. Her hands rested on her powdered pink suit—something traditionally worn among hospital attendants and paired with soundless, white leather slippers—with a knowing calmness, which provided her with an air of wisdom often found amongst the elderly. She held a constant, watching stare over the nursery, like that of an animal observing its prey from a comfortable distance. And yet her skin was so white and smooth that it appeared fragile, the delicate skin of an egg. Her posture was erect.
The squeak of the thick, rubbery soles of Charlie’s military boots split the silence of the hallway outside at lazy intervals. Mrs. Proctor liked the regular, thumping scuffle that those boots made between squeaks, as the heavy heel hit the linoleum floor. It was soothing, and she often felt sleepy listening to it. Not tired, sleepy. There was this incredible earthiness about that thump and bomp and tha, something that was otherwise amiss in the nursing room of Production Wing 17—a sensation she often felt but never voiced or consciously noticed. She knew better. Still, gently closing her eyes, Mrs. Proctor listened and felt amongst the rows of fresh, sleeping babes, whom she had just recently laid to sleep in their matching cradles of white.
The clock ticked along above the door.
“Miss?” The voice was timid.
“Yes, Eyeball,” responded Mrs. Proctor. She did not open her eyes, for she was all too familiar with the humped, little man, his woolen vest, and, most obviously, his balding head. She could feel his nervous presence, often seemingly embodied in his large, anxious eyes, which constantly moved in tune to his stutter as if performing some odd little dance. Also a result of his blatant anxiety, Eyeball rubbed his small hands with a vengeance, turning them pink and chafed. Almost distastefully, Mrs. Proctor imagined that his trousers would be a few inches too short. Eyeball was like a disheveled, fumbling child, guilty of some embarrassing flop and awaiting the slap of his father’s belt.
“Please, Miss. I believe one of ‘em has gone—limp.”
Mrs. Proctor still did not rise. Her eyes remained closed. “Well, have you told Mr. Thompson then, Eyeball?”
“Not yet, Miss.”
Mrs. Proctor nodded her head slowly. “Where is he?”
“No, no—the babe.” She said this calmly.
“I b’lieve—it’s a girl, Miss.”
Mrs. Proctor opened her eyes. “A girl, you say? But we haven’t had one of those in years…” She paused, pursing her lips. Then, with a sigh: “Take me to her. Will you, dear?”
Eyeball nodded hastily and scuffled down the row directly in front of Mrs. Proctor’s chair. Finally, he stopped, resting his hand on the plastic handle of a nearby cradle.
The clock ticked along.
The babe was abnormally small and bundled tightly in a woven, white blanket. A white cap had been pulled well over its head, contributing to the babe’s tiny appearance. From what could be seen, its face was incredibly pink, practically red.
After a few beats, Mrs. Proctor lifted the name card tacked to the front of the babe’s cradle. “Bird?” she said, still inspecting the name card. “And what district birthed her?”
“A woman of the Northeastern Quarter, I—b’lieve,” Eyeball said earnestly.
Mrs. Proctor considered this. “And—what does she measure?”
“Seven—seven pounds, six ounces, Miss,” he replied.
Mrs. Proctor’s gaze durned dazed. She looked down at the babe, taking it in her arms and removing the white cap. “She’s terribly small.” Her voice was soft. She ran her nimble fingers under Bird’s jawline, resting her thumb behind the babe’s ear. With a sharp breath, she pushed Bird back into Eyeball’s chest. “Alive. She’s—alive. Just weak, so terribly weak, Eye.” For the first time that day, and perhaps ever, Mrs. Proctor appealed to Eyeball, searching his round face hopefully as if it beheld an answer to some problem. Her heartbeat grew more rapid.
Upon seeing this, Eyeball immediately began to shake, his shoulders shuddering and convulsing against the pressure of Mrs. Proctor’s stare. He looked down at his shoes. “I think I’ll—see to Mr. Thompson now—Miss. Yes, I think I will do that…” His hands rubbed together, wide eyes dancing. Tucking his chin into his chest, he finally shuffled off down the isle, out the grand, open door.
The clock ticked along.
Suddenly, the square, chrome plaque next to the clock began to vibrate. “This batch has almost matured,” it sounded. “This batch has almost matured. Supervisor located.” The woman’s mechanical voice continued on, repeating the same message again and again. Her voice slid up sweetly yet tauntingly on the “almost.”
Mrs. Proctor looked to the clock desperately, and, seeing how little time she had to… she didn’t know what… she felt her insides flutter and the back of her neck burn with a prickly anxiety that she simply couldn’t control but could completely control her.
There had to be something that she could do for the babe.
Mrs. Proctor couldn’t explain this desire, this impulse to protect Bird. She couldn’t explain the earnest tugging in her stomach. All she knew was that something had to be done. She wanted to weep but found herself too nervous to immerse herself in such a time-consuming activity. And yet, the more she thought about time and her lack of it, her vision grew more distant and her thoughts more flustered.
“Batch forty-three has almost matured.”
Mr. Thompson would saunter in at any moment now, she figured. Eyeball would be trailing behind, pant legs too short and hands too pink. A miserable flop, he was, yet so good at what he did. He was a perfect bolt in the grand machine of Unknown. While terribly unconscious, Mrs. Proctor couldn’t decide whether she fit quite as well in the design.
“Batch forty-three has almost—”
Without thinking, Mrs. Proctor grabbed Bird, hugging the babe against her breast and making for the door. She tried desperately to think—what exactly was she planning on doing? Would she actually commit a felony? Would she dare oppose the machine?—but her head felt like the thick skin of a pumpkin, its mushed matter hollowed-out at Halloween (a holiday that was, in fact, no longer practiced as it provoked children to develop the most wandering of imaginations).
But what exactly did it mean to revolt against the government? The citizens of Unknown had, for as long as anyone could remember, had one purpose: they were to be able, obedient, and loyal participants in the military effort. For Mrs. Proctor, that meant dealing with newborns after they had been produced—weeding out the weak and sending the healthy to a second nursing room, where they would do the majority of their growing and memorize countless military tactics. Then, the strongest would be dropped on a burning battlefield somewhere, surrounded by gaunt faces and tough, ashen corpses. Others, like Eyeball and Mrs. Proctor, would be sent back to nursing rooms.
There was no room for weakness in the world of Unknown—especially weak children. Weakness was fed to the hungry, snarling fire of Production Wing furnaces. Weakness was tossed in rivers. Weakness was an itch that should be scratched out. Weakness was exterminated. Luckily, the citizens of Unknown almost always birthed useful, healthy babes, seeing as they were useful and healthy themselves—at least temporarily.
In the hallway, Mrs. Proctor could still make out the sugary cadence of the chrome plaque. But she couldn’t focus. Her vision was a hectic blur of bruising blacks and watery rainbows, twisting and slithering down her eyelids and settling like a lens over her pupils. Faintly, she could hear the constant, warm whisperings of Charlie’s military boots against cold linoleum.
Bird felt warm against her breast. She was breathing lightly, calmly, submissively, accepting Mrs. Proctor’s hurried movements and throbbing chest. She accepted her protector. She accepted Fate. She accepted all.
Muted shouting clouded Mrs. Proctor’s thoughts. The steady shuffle of Charlie’s military boots grew louder, more violent. They slapped the floor. They had lied to her. They were the machine. A shining, leather toe collided with Mrs. Proctor’s calf.
Mrs. Proctor collapsed, gathering her breath and closing her eyes. Her calf stung. Then, she heard herself shriek: “Charlie—Charlie, please! They can’t! Please—Charlie!” Why was Charlie doing this? She knew him. She had known him for so long—didn’t he remember? Didn’t he—
A sharp blow to the head.
Mrs. Proctor’s body grew numb. Her thoughts faded to black. Her hold on Bird relaxed. All was done.
It was all just snapping wings.