Before she could finish, a buzzer went off. I jumped, but no one else batted an eye. The plastic barrier in the strange window in the wall opened, and a pair of gloved hands emerged, holding a lumpy red thing that looked like a piece of raw meat.
“What the hell—” I began, but Noelle jumped into action, delicately taking it from the gloved hands. She turned toward Teddy, whose eyes focused on the thing she was holding for a moment before unfocusing again.
“Open up that container,” said Noelle, nodding to the nearest one on the table. “Hurry!”
My fingers trembled, and it took me two tries to undo the complicated latch. At last I opened the top, and cold vapor poured out of the container while Noelle gently placed whatever it was inside.
“Secured,” she called, closing the latch. “Number?”
“M042853,” said a female voice through the half door before closing the plastic again. Noelle gestured to a blank square on the metal container.
“Can you write that down?” Her hands were covered in what looked like blood. I blinked.
“With what?” I said.
“The tip of your finger. It’ll show up, trust me.”
I couldn’t distinguish whole words, but I did know enough to be able to slowly trace out each symbol on to the square. As promised, they appeared, though in shaky, barely legible writing. Noelle sighed.
“Never mind, I’ll do it from here on out. Just let me wash my hands.”
She moved to a sink I hadn’t spotted in the corner, and using pedals on the floor, she made blue-tinted water spurt out from the faucet. I hadn’t felt so incompetent and clueless since I’d first become Lila Hart.
“What was that?” I said. The blood from her hands mixed with the blue water, turning a sickening shade of purple before running down the drain.
“A heart,” she said. My stomach contracted.
“You mean—a human heart?”
“Haven’t you ever seen one before?”
I stared at her. “What are we doing with a human heart?”
She placed the container on the conveyor belt, and within seconds, it disappeared through another layer of plastic. “That’s what we do,” she said. “Once they harvest the hearts, we package them up for shipping. The doctors on the outside give them to people who need them. They do all kinds of stuff in the dollhouse—I’ve only ever worked hearts, but the others do lungs and livers and eyes, and Scotia’s lucky enough to work hair.”
I gaped at her. I really was going to be sick. “Human—human lungs and livers and eyes and—and hair? But where do they come from? Whose heart was that?”
She shrugged. “Probably not a I. The number’s their birthday—April 28, 2053. It’s really rare a I makes it that long, so he was probably a prisoner.”
I stood rooted in place, trying to process it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d known the organs of Is were harvested. Daxton had mentioned it when he’d taken me hunting Elsewhere. But I’d never let myself think about it too hard before, preferring to pretend it was just a story Daxton had told me to scare me into going along with his plans.
Now, after what I’d just seen, there was no pretending anymore.
“And—and Teddy?” I managed, my throat tightening. “What does he do?”
“He can tell the bad ones from the good,” she said, her brow furrowing. “I’m not sure how, exactly, but they found out he could pick the hearts that would survive being transplanted from the ones that would likely fail. That’s why they let him live.”
“How is that even possible?” My voice broke, and it took everything I had not to lean up against the table of containers waiting for their inhabitants.
“Lots of Is can do stuff others can’t,” she said. “There was another one in my group that could draw anything from memory. Buildings, faces, trees down to the last leaf—it was amazing. He drew me a picture for my ninth birthday.”
“Where is he now?” I said. “Does he have a job like Teddy?”
Her expression fell, and she busied herself with the latch on another container. “No. I don’t know. Maybe. I never saw him again after graduation.”
The buzzer went off again, and this time I didn’t jump. There was no maybe about what had happened to the other boy.
“Here, you take this one,” she said as the plastic window opened again, and another pair of gloved hands held out another human heart.
I wanted to say no, but the guard in the corner leered at me, and I gently took the organ from whoever was on the other side of the wall. It was still warm and much firmer than I’d expected, and I could’ve sworn I felt it beat.
The room began to spin, but I forced myself toward Teddy, holding it up for him. “Is this—” My mouth felt like sandpaper. “Is this okay?”
Teddy focused on it for a second, then looked away. “That means it’s okay,” said Noelle. “Here, put it down gently. Make sure it doesn’t touch the edges.”
She already had a container open, and I carefully—very, very carefully—set the heart inside. As soon as Noelle closed the lid, I exhaled and swayed on the spot. “Secured,” she called, giving me a concerned look.
Whoever was on the other side either couldn’t see us or didn’t care that I was about to pass out, and a male voice called back, “F111964.”
Female. November 19, 2064.