Every day, as the New York City black market would draw to a close, its wares gone through and either bought or rejected, the scum there—sellers, buyers, and hangers-on—would always linger to talk about hearts. How rare they were. How powerful. How expensive. And how stupid anyone would be to buy one. That day was almost no different.
Since it was the end of December, it turned dark early, and the moment it did, the temperature all at once plummeted from somewhere in the fifties to below freezing. Flurries of icy snow chased each other in the alley behind an out-of-business toy store in Brooklyn, where the road smelled of trash and the subway trains that ran high above the street rattled the loudest. That was the place of the market today. Clustering for warmth, several men and women hastily peddled news, drugs, organs, and children to one another, everything at a five-percent surcharge for the bitter cold.
“There’s been a dance kid born in Queens this morning.”
“Hell, who needs a child gifted in dancing?”
“But it’s right around the corner. And the parents haven’t hired any security.”
Dollars fluttered in the wind as they changed hands.
But as busy as everyone was, all of them kept an eye on two bulky men who stood aside and had not bought or sold anything yet. The slightly shorter man of the duo held a large four-wheel suitcase, and the slightly taller one, in a trench coat and a black fedora hat, gripped a gun. They did not talk. They had the letters D and H tattooed on their right cheekbones.
As cars honked in the street, and a police siren howled in the distance, a woman hastened into the alley. Neither tall nor short, but somewhere right in the middle of the average height for women, she wore a pixie-cut blond wig like a ski hat: pulled down over her ears and forehead. Her shoulders wrapped in an oversized faux fur coat made it impossible to guess her real proportions, and her eyes along with a half of her face were hidden behind a pair of gigantic dark sunglasses.
The men with the DH tattoos looked up at her simultaneously. They didn’t say anything, but the woman answered them nonetheless, “Yes, it’s here, the child.” She nodded at a rather small purse in her hand. “And the money?”
The entire black market stopped whatever they were doing and strained to hear every word of this one transaction over the whistling of the wind. All of them had wondered if the suitcase held money, but it was such a big suitcase. No child was worth that much unless…unless it was a very special kind of child.
The man with the suitcase swung his burden. “Yeah. Ten mil. Wanna count?”
The fedora hat man puffed. “Wait, bro. I don’t think…you know what.”
The bro clearly knew. “Lay off it, man. We talked enough about it.”
“Oh, yeah?” The hat man jabbed his gun in the direction of the woman’s purse, a fake brown leather affair with an ugly brass zipper. “This kid…how do you know it’s gifted in what this gal says it’s gifted? Yeah, sure, two dream guys told us it’s legit, but what if they are in on it? Ten mil is good money even split three ways.”
The bro shook his head. “I said. Lay. Off. It.”
The hat man didn’t. “And where did she even get that kid? Sure, Bones…I mean, not Bones…I mean, I never said your name, okay? Anyways, we bought time kids, nightmare kids—pricey kids, yes, but those gifts can be priced in. But this…a kid with this gift…who would sell it? It’s like selling the Almighty!”
The people in the alley inhaled sharply. A heart child had been born on earth? No, really, a heart? That was some news to sell.
The woman in the fur coat stepped away from the two men. “Fine. The deal is off.”
Bones shoved the suitcase after her. “No, no, take it. Give us the kid.”
The woman grabbed the handle of the suitcase, then handed him the purse.
“Are you at least going to check if it’s actually a kid and not a pile of rags?” the hat man asked his partner.
Bones unzipped the purse, and there, swaddled in several disposable diapers, lay a newborn, its face tiny and pink and its delicate white hairs tangled. It slept.
The woman suddenly, as if in a paroxysm of a strong feeling, clasped the hat man’s arm. “It’s a girl,” she said. “A girl.”
The hat man, unsure what to do with this information, scratched his temple. “And? You want to give us a discount for that or what?”
The woman spun around and walked away, wheeling the suitcase along the cracked, rot-smelling road.
The hat man followed her with his gaze. “If this kid is really a heart, I’ll eat my damn fedora.”
The hat remained uneaten for the next fifteen years.
I was sitting up on my bed after yet another sleepless night when Peter came into the room and put a flower in my lap. Since I’d been tossing and turning a lot in these last few hours, my long, white hair had twisted all around me, and I had to free my arms first. Then, because one silly strand had somehow wrapped itself around my waist, I had to untangle that too, and finally, not to bother with my mane again, I wrangled it into a ponytail.
Only then did I touch the flower.
It was a dandelion. As long as my hand, it had a smooth, dark-green stem and a head full of white fluffy parachutes. Not daring to pick it up, I only slid my fingers gently down the stem, and it felt glassy and a little sticky. It was also warm against my skin as if Peter had been holding the flower for a long time before he’d come to me.
“It’s for you, Ever-Jezebel,” Peter whispered.
I smiled. “Thanks.”
Since I wanted to save the best for last, I reached out to the dandelion’s white fluffy head only after I’d run my fingertips a few times along the stem. But the white puffs proved to be a disappointment, their fibers rigid and scratchy and covered with dust. A scent of mold bloomed up in the air the moment my hand connected with the flower head.
“Do you like it?” Peter asked.
As he was talking, the dandelion’s stem grew warmer—now I could sense its heat even through my skirt. Then it wiggled.
“Crap,” Peter whispered. “I’m sorry.”
I shook my head to tell him it wasn’t a big deal. I’d known this dandelion wasn’t real right from the moment Peter had brought it to me because we didn’t have flowers here, in a mall bookstore converted into a prison cell by the scumbags who’d bought us on the black market for our gifts. We hadn’t even seen real flowers, all of our knowledge about their appearance coming from books and magazines. I wished we could have at least smelled them in a breeze coming from outside, but no, our guards had filled our windows with bricks, even the one that had looked into the mall. Or rather, I should say, “…the window that had looked into what used to be a mall,” because it wasn’t a working shopping center anymore. On the inside, it was a prison, and on the outside? I wasn’t sure. Maybe our guards had put up a sign saying it was an infectious disease research center so that New Yorkers living around here wouldn’t come asking questions or try to save us. Because nobody had ever come.
The dandelion squirmed more actively in my lap, and I thought it was panicking, the way it shivered. I carefully lifted it with both of my hands to give it back to Peter, but he didn’t take it—he simply flicked his wrist, and the flower dispersed into thin air because it was just an illusion, or rather a nightmare. Making them was Peter’s gift, but he’d come into it only last week, and I guess that’s why the flower had wiggled. Really skillful nightmare-makers—nightmares as everyone called them—could conjure things, people, and even entire landscapes indistinguishable from reality. But a flower was a good beginning for Peter. Okay, perhaps a squirming flower was not quite so good, but still, it was a beginning.
I smiled at Peter again and whispered, “It was nice. Thank you.”
He sighed loudly, then glanced around to make sure everyone in our vicinity was still asleep. This was the back room of the store, and just like the showroom, it was all gangrene-colored cement and dust and piles and piles of books, magazines, newspapers, and blank notepads. There were three other kids who slept here besides me. My boyfriend, Fox Adams, gifted in time-twisting, slept on his back on a bed-sized mound of books just a step away from me. Along the other wall, squeezed together on one pile of books, slept Demi, a tall girl gifted in death-giving, and her boyfriend, Sinna, who was a nightmare, just like Peter. The two of them slept while holding hands, Sinna’s black fingers entwined with Demi’s white ones.
How any of them could sleep, I didn’t know. Today—I mean I couldn’t be sure of the hour because our guards kept our lights on at all times and we had no clocks, but I think I’d been awake and tossing long enough since we had all gone to bed for this to be the next day, that is today—which was Fox’s sixteenth birthday. At this thought my heartbeat quickened because if Fox didn’t come into his gift by tonight, he’d be killed tomorrow. I didn’t know how our guards had come up with this time limit, but there it was—once a kid hit sixteen and displayed no talent, they’d take him away and he wouldn’t be coming back.
The rest of us—Sin, Demi, and I—hadn’t come into our gifts either, but we still had some time before our birthdays while Fox had not. Was he a dud? Technically, there were not supposed to be any duds. That’s what the science said. As long as you had human DNA, there would be a gift encoded in it, and yet, out of the thirty kids in this bookstore, the four of us remained washouts. And we weren’t alone. There were kids imprisoned in other shops of the mall, and since our guards had sometimes talked about them in our earshot, I was pretty sure there were at least two more failed kids in a clothing place on the first floor.
Peter touched my hand, and I startled because I’d forgotten all about him. He pointed at my lap just as another flower materialized on my dress—another dandelion—although this one looked smaller and less scratchy. It didn’t smell of mold either. It just didn’t smell of anything. But it started crawling along my skirt right away and with such speed I had to put up my hands so it wouldn’t fall down onto the hard cement floor.
When Peter saw this, he cursed again and poked the dandelion in its fluffy head. Then, since he must have given up on trying for a better result this morning with his illusory flowers, he moved aside the book Fox and I had been reading last night and sat down next to me.
The flower struggled to climb over my hand.
“Ever—” Peter cleared his throat. “I—well, you know Fox is as good as dead. He isn’t going to come into his gift. He’s a dud.”
I frowned, but Peter ignored my scowl.
“Ev, I know you’re planning some kind of escape tonight, but the guards will catch you. They always caught us, didn’t they? So don’t do it.”
He put his hand on my thigh. “Be my girlfriend, okay?”
I leaned away from him in surprise. I mean I had been puzzled by his appearance this morning with that flower, but I’d thought he’d simply wanted to show off his shiny new gift to someone, and everyone else besides me had been asleep. I hadn’t known he’d liked me. No, not like that. Let me rephrase myself. I’d been dead certain Peter Eckert had disliked me, he and everyone else in this bookstore apart from Fox and Sinna, because for as long as I could remember, Fox had been the uncrowned king of our store, and I’d always been with him, first as a friend, then as a girlfriend, and all the other kids had for some reason imagined that with Fox’s affections, I’d somehow gotten a better deal out of being locked up in a bookstore compared to them. Not that they’d ever confronted me about it. No, they’d just grumbled behind my back, and okay, once in a while, they’d also made some silly jokes, like for example, “Oh, is Ever shrinking or what?” Yes, they’d thought it was intensely hilarious I’d never grown taller than five feet. And okay, a couple of times, they’d also whispered in my direction, “Oh, look what a freak she is,” on the account of my paper-white hair and severely mismatched eyes, the right one light blue and the left one indigo. So where had Peter’s sudden attraction come from?
The boy kneaded my thigh. “You’re so pretty, Ev. Like a doll. Just unreal.”
I removed his hand from my leg. “Thank you, Peter, but I’m not interested.”
“Come on, Ev.” He put his hand back on the spot where it had been before. “And besides, it’s not like you’ll have a choice after Fox is gone.”
He squeezed me hard while the flower, most likely frustrated by its inability to escape me, bit the edge of my palm.
And Fox sat up even as he was waking. “Honey?”
When he saw Peter, he jumped to his feet and grabbed the front of Peter’s shirt. “You asshat! Didn’t I tell you and the other idiots that you can grope me, I’ll only break your fingers, but if you touch Ever, you’ll die?”
Peter grunted and gurgled, choking in a tight noose that Fox’s hand had made out of his collar.
“How shocking—you don’t like people grabbing you!” Fox pulled Peter’s shirt upward, making the kid almost lose his footing.
“Fox,” I said, and since we’d been together for so long, I could just inflect my voice in a certain way, and Fox would know I didn’t want him to hurt Peter.
Fox harrumphed, meaning he wasn’t going to kill the idiot. Then harrumphed again: but he probably should.
“Fox,” I repeated.
“Okay, okay, I’ll restrain myself. He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
The spot on my palm where the dandelion had bitten me was bleeding, but it was a tiny cut, and the flower had long vanished from my lap. I turned my hand so that Fox wouldn’t see the blood. “No, I’m fine.”
“Thank goodness!” Fox leaned over me and kissed the top of my head. Then he dragged Peter out, into the bookstore’s showroom where the rest of the kids slept.
Demi, who along with Sinna had awoken when the scuffle started, bounded to her feet and followed Fox. Maybe she wanted to hear what Fox would tell Peter out there or maybe she was simply stretching her legs—I didn’t know, and I couldn’t really care as my fears for Fox’s life engulfed me once more.
My heart pounding in my chest like a fist banging on a door, I paced around our dusty room, sat down on my bed again, then moved to sort of a couch we’d built out of books. Since not all of the books in this couch’s backrest were the same size, their spines were shaping mine into a zigzag, which slightly hurt. I fidgeted. As I reached to rub my shoulder blade, I realized I was holding the tome Fox and I had been reading yesterday and couldn’t remember when I’d picked it up. It was a bright, glossy paperback called Blood and Kisses, and it was the most important book we had in our bookstore. It had to be because otherwise, why would we have twenty-six copies of it compared to a measly one or at most two copies of other books? I had accidentally closed the volume, but I could remember the page we’d stopped on: 167. The second paragraph. The line that said, “She obeyed him and called him her master.”
Sinna got off his bed and came to sit next to me.
“Morning,” I said, not trying to hide that my voice was trembling. Sin would know I was upset anyway.
He took my hand and spoke, sounding like the Collegiate Thesaurus he’d used for a pillow for the last several years, “Ever-Jezebel, please do not resign yourself to desperation.”
I shrugged. How could I not despair? I mean, in theory, yes, I should be able to because the gift I’d been born with was heart-bending, which meant—
“Ever,” Sinna said.
But he stayed silent, and somehow the atmosphere between us seemed to have changed. If earlier he’d been simply holding my fingers, then now he was pulling them toward him. His breathing sped up, and his face got so close to mine, a lock of his straight, black hair brushed my cheek.
“Sin, you okay?” I asked.
Instead of an answer, Sinna leaned in and pressed his mouth to my half-opened one. I couldn’t understand a thing. Had he quarreled with Demi? But no, they’d slept holding hands, and straying was so out of Sinna’s character. Well, whatever had prompted this kiss, I didn’t intend to continue it. I began pushing Sin away and was close to succeeding when I realized that his mouth had a sweet, honeyed taste, and his lips were fuller than Fox’s, and softer, and not as hot. And come to think of it, I’d never kissed anyone but Fox in my life. I started mapping Sinna’s mouth with my tongue.
And that’s when a voice boomed above my head, Fox’s voice, “Ever, what the hell are you doing?”