“Oh,” whispered Noelle, her eyes going wide as she set the container down on the conveyor belt. She didn’t say anything else, but it was obvious she knew whose heart I’d just handled.
The edges of my vision went dark, and in that moment, something inside me shut down. Together we watched the container roll away, and it wasn’t until I felt something warm disappear behind my mask that I realized I was crying.
Noelle didn’t say a word for the next hour, and I kept my mouth shut. There was nothing I could say to make any of this easier for her, and there was nothing Noelle could say to me to make me feel like any of this was okay.
Only once did Teddy open his mouth like he was trying to say something, and he slapped his hand to his thigh, his whole body squirming. This must have been the signal Noelle had been waiting for, because she immediately handed the heart back to the man on the other side of the plastic barrier.
“Defective,” she said. The man didn’t say a word; instead he took the heart back, and the plastic door shut, leaving us once again in silence. Teddy calmed down after that.
I wanted to ask what they did with that human heart—if it was tested to make sure Teddy was right, or if they simply threw it away on his word. The loss of life was hard enough to take, but not even being able to provide a viable heart that could help someone else live—somehow that made the whole miserable situation even more hopeless than it already was.
After that, I was sure things couldn’t get worse. But this was hell, and of course they did, when a woman on the other side of the wall handed me a tiny heart that belonged to a little girl born that day. I consoled myself by rationalizing that the baby must have died at birth from an unrelated condition, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this heart had been requested from a VI with their own dying baby.
An hour later, a crackle from the communication device strapped to the guard’s shoulder interrupted the silence. We’d packaged eleven hearts by then, and I couldn’t make out the garbled speech, but the guard seemed to understand it clearly enough. “Hart,” he barked. “You’ve been requested.”
“By who?” I said, startled, but he didn’t elaborate. Instead, Noelle shot me a frightened look, and I swallowed the lump in my throat.
It would be fine. If Knox had wanted to hunt me, he would have picked me before breakfast. But even the most airtight logic couldn’t calm the fear churning within me, and I mumbled my goodbyes to Noelle and Teddy, who seemed as oblivious to me as ever, before heading back through the plastic walls.
By the time I reached the locker room, I was naked and shivering despite the blast of warm air coming from somewhere above me. I opened my locker and discovered a fresh set of clothes, and I’d managed to put on my underthings before a guard opened the door.
“Miss Hart?” he said. A rifle was strapped to his back.
I nodded, resisting the urge to shy away and insist he come back when I was fully dressed. “A moment, if you would,” I said in the most Lila-like tone I could muster. I must have still had it, because the guard nodded, and though he didn’t close the door, he didn’t hurry me, either.
A minute later, I emerged in a clean jumpsuit, dry boots, and a heavy winter coat that actually had a prayer of keeping me warm now that it wasn’t soaked through. The guard wasn’t alone—another stood beside him, also holding a weapon, and I took a deep breath. Everything was okay. If they were going to kill me, they would have done it already.
Unless they were waiting for me to get outside, where they wouldn’t have to sanitize the area.
“Miss Hart, if you’d follow me,” said the first guard with an air of politeness I hoped no one intent on murdering me would bother using. He led me back down the brightly lit hallway toward the entrance, even opening the door for me to step through, but I stopped suddenly when I saw who was waiting for me on the other side.
Half a dozen guards stood in a semicircle, including one with an all-too-familiar pair of blue eyes—Rivers.
But he wasn’t what caught my attention. Instead it was the woman in the center, hands on her hips and a scowl on her face, who made me wish I was still in that room handling warm human hearts.
Hannah’s dislike hadn’t dissipated in the eighteen-odd hours since we’d been introduced. She eyed me like a cat sizing up a mouse, and for the first time since Knox had spared me that morning, I let myself acknowledge the fact that I was terrified.
“Heard you had a bad night,” she said. “Still want to refuse my husband’s offer?”
Mercer’s offer, not hers. The significance wasn’t lost on me. “I’m happy here,” I said stiffly.
She snorted. “Happy? Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” She jerked her head and started toward the door, indicating I should follow. I hesitated, but the guards on either side of me left me with no real choice.
It wasn’t until we were both outside and walking through the cold that she spoke. “Jonathan also heard what happened, and he’s insisting you remain with us for your own safety. The girls in this section can be dangerous, and he has no desire for anyone to hurt you.”
“But he’s fine sending three other girls off to be hunted like wild animals,” I said before I could stop myself. To my right, I sensed Rivers stiffen, but Hannah barely glanced at me.
“Consider yourself lucky. Every single one of these girls would kill to be you.”