One number flashed in Arianna’s mind: 464. She didn’t have much time.
Dr. Arianna Drake stepped into the deserted hallway, listening.
It was 7:30 A.M.—still too early for the man to arrive. No matter her dread, their appointment could not be adjusted or canceled, even if a patient went into labor before her eyes.
In the silence, Arianna could hear her own pulse drumming in her ears. She hurried toward the locked door at the opposite end of the hall, her heels clicking across the linoleum floor. The corridor was narrow and painted an antiseptic white, made starker by the fluorescent lights overhead. Nothing about the place stood out from any other private clinic in Manhattan; Arianna had made sure of it.
She stopped at the end of the hall, thumbed through her keys, and inserted one into the lock. Pushing the handle down, she leaned into the door and slipped inside.
The lab was neither hot nor cold, and breathing suddenly seemed easier, like stepping into an oxygen tank. On the left side of the room, a black floor-to-ceiling freezer spanned about ten feet wide, with multiple doors opening to different compartments inside. A green digital display across the front read -78°C. It hummed quietly next to a liquid nitrogen supply tank. Along the back of the room was a row of electron microscopes hooked up to computer monitors. Facing the freezer, on the right side of the room, was an incubator set at 37 degrees Celsius.
She yanked one of the freezer doors open. Cool air billowed out. Inside, several hundred slender glass tubes lined the shelves in rows, appearing to contain a hardened red liquid. Murmuring numbers under her breath, Arianna shivered as she counted the tubes, her finger hopping up and down the rows.
A pins-and-needles sensation suddenly surged in her right ankle. The tingling slid into her foot, tickling her veins from the inside out. Afraid of losing count, Arianna pressed on, stressing every fifth number aloud like a musician keeping time. When she at last reached the final tube—number 464—she shut the freezer door and sat down in place, breathing hot air onto her frozen hand. For a moment, she closed her eyes, appreciating her aloneness in the lab and the way everything in it functioned. But her foot was waking from slumber, twitching with little stabs of pain. She pointed her toes and traced a few circles in the air, wincing as the pain dispersed. Was the numbness starting to last longer, she wondered, or was she just more aware of it?
It was quiet enough to hear the seconds tick on her watch: 7:50 A.M. Ten minutes to showtime. She swallowed uneasily, considering whether she had time to count the tubes once more, just in case. But there was no need; she had counted them last night, after hours, and arrived at the same magic number. Better to be sitting at her desk, composed and ready. She breathed in and stood up slowly, avoiding a rush of blood to her head. Before letting herself out, she threw a loving glance at the incubator. Sometimes she wondered if she was capable of forgetting what preciousness lay inside—or whether that knowledge stood like a pillar in her mind, with every other thought swerving around it just to get by.
The hallway was still empty, but she heard the low rumble of Dr. Gavin Ericson’s voice in the office next to hers. It was a comforting sound, the reminder of an ally. She paused at his door and knocked.
“Arianna?” he called.
She opened his door a crack and peered inside, seeing he was on the phone. Gavin and his wife, Emily, who together constituted the rest of the clinic’s staff, were among her closest friends, dating to medical school a decade back.
Everything okay? he mouthed, one hand cupping the phone.
She smiled and nodded. “Good to go,” she whispered, and pulled the door closed.
Inside her own office, she sat down at her desk, straining to hear any sounds from the clinic’s front door. Nothing. She turned to her computer and pressed her index finger to the middle of the screen. After two seconds, the screen lit up and unlocked. A floating message in a box read, WELCOME, ARIANNA. NOVEMBER 1, 2027. 7:57 A.M.
It was impossible to concentrate on real work, and Arianna knew better than to try. She wondered who the man would be this month—but there was no way to know ahead of time. She looked up at her wall, which was covered with pictures of newborns swathed in blue and pink, next to a bulletin board of cards from grateful parents. In the middle of all the pictures hung a flat screen that streamed live video of the entrance to her clinic. Now it showed an empty sidewalk, occasionally a passerby, and a tree-lined street littered with yellow leaves.
For a few tense minutes, she watched—and then, just as she turned back to her computer, she heard it: the creak of the front door. She felt her body stiffen.
Neon red light burst from the screen on the wall, followed by an earsplitting whistle. She swiveled fast to face the screen. Between flashes of red, she could make out a man in a suit. Shielding her eyes, she grabbed a remote from her desk drawer. As she clicked off the alarm, the high-pitched whistle faded, leaving a ringing in her ears.
She stared at the screen, which preserved a snapshot of the intruder. This one was a stout older man with a raised knee, captured the moment he entered the clinic’s waiting room. He wore a black suit and a stern expression, also a gun at his waist. Arianna’s stomach clenched as she recognized him. He was the most senior inspector at the New York Department of Embryo Preservation.
Even though each month it happened the same way—the creak, the alarm, the snapshot—Arianna still felt jolted. She felt even worse for patients who happened to be in the waiting room when a man with a gun swaggered in. But DEP inspectors, as Arianna would explain, had magnetic passes that let them swipe into any fertility clinic whenever they wanted, which set the alarm off every time.
With a sigh, Arianna walked to the waiting room to greet the man. He was standing in the center of the room, looking starkly out of place next to the bright yellow couches and Babytalk magazines. His gaze steadied on Arianna, revealing no emotion as she stepped forward to shake his hand. Pinned to the lapel of his suit was a thin gold cross.
She forced a cheerful smile. “Good morning, Inspector Banks.”
He shook her hand firmly, saying nothing. The man was a professional judger, she thought: too shrewd to show his contempt. So they had one thing in common.
“Follow me,” she said, turning on her heel back to the hallway.
In the narrow corridor, they walked uncomfortably close to each other. His breathing was slightly strained, as if the bulk of his extra weight sat on his lungs. She slowed down so as not to outpace him, keeping her arms crossed over her chest. They passed the five examining rooms that made up her modest clinic, along with the three offices that belonged to her, Dr. Ericson, and Emily, the clinic’s embryologist and nurse. At the end of the hallway, they stopped at the locked white door. Banks still had not said a word.
He took a printed form from his briefcase.
“It was a busy month here for in vitro, wasn’t it,” Arianna said as she put a key into the lock.
“Yes, it was,” he responded, clearing his throat and looking down at the sheet. “Unusually busy. According to the department’s tally, you should have four hundred sixty-four unused embryos this month from thirty-one couples.”
“That’s exactly right,” she said. The state-run Department of Embryo Preservation mandated that all fertility clinics “preserve the soul of every embryo.” In keeping with the law, the department required that clinics report, once a month, the number of embryos left over from every patient’s attempt at in vitro fertilization—a number the inspectors verified with their visits. To ensure accurate reporting, the department periodically conducted random audits, during which it obtained access to a year of the clinic’s original records, complete with all patients’ contact information. Women could always be counted on to remember exactly how many eggs were taken out of their bodies, and how many embryos were later put back in—so their memories often proved to be the department’s greatest resource in corroborating a clinic’s reporting. If even a single unaccounted embryo came to light, it meant serious consequences for the clinic: probation and heavy fines.
But if a destroyed embryo were discovered, then the clinic would be shut down and the doctor charged with first-degree murder.
Six weeks prior, the department had questioned dozens of her own patients in a random audit, but all the women had reported the correct numbers. The clinic passed easily, as Arianna had known it would; her real patients knew nothing.
“Something about fall this year,” she said as she swung open the door to the lab. “It feels like spring, so everybody wants to have babies.” She laughed shrilly. Don’t make small talk, she thought. You don’t know how.
The inspector grunted as he stepped past her into the lab. She followed and closed the door, leaning against it. The oxygenated air filled her lungs like a calming agent as the inspector pulled on a pair of gloves.
“Let’s see here,” he said, opening one of the freezer doors labeled OCTOBER 2027. After the whoosh of cold air dissipated, Banks surveyed the rows of tubes inside and looked over his shoulder at Arianna. “That’s quite a lot you got here.”
Arianna felt her heartbeat do a drum roll. “I know, right?”
Banks turned back to the tubes and painstakingly lifted each one, examining its label as he counted. The label on each tube disclosed several facts: the names of the couple whose egg and sperm had joined in a dish; the date that embryo had been frozen; and its place in the couple’s leftover batch, such as ANNE AND MIKE SMITH, OCT. 10, NUMBER 5/16.
For the in vitro procedure, Arianna would surgically remove about eighteen eggs from a woman’s lifetime supply of three hundred thousand. Then Emily would mix the extracted eggs with sperm, and after five days of growth in the incubator, Arianna would implant only two or three of the strongest embryos back into the woman’s uterus, to lower the chance of multiple births. This routinely left about fifteen excess embryos per couple to be frozen, suspended in the first stages of growth forever.
Arianna waited as Banks counted the October flasks; he paused after each one to mark another tally on his sheet. The minutes dragged on. When he finally reached number 464, she had to keep herself from noticeably exhaling.
“Perfect,” she said, gripping the door’s handle behind her.
“Let me count those one more time to make sure.”
Her stomach dropped; she didn’t know how much longer she could stand to be trapped there, watching him.
“Of course,” she managed. “Take your time.”
Monotonous counting ensued. She stood by, willing herself not to fiddle or twitch. At least his rounded back was turned. What was he thinking, she wondered, when he cradled the flasks in his hands? As the embryos’ legal guardian, was he overcome with a desire to protect them? Or did he enjoy the power he held over helpless lives, including her own?
“And that, again, makes four sixty-four,” he said at last, turning around to face her. “Now let’s make sure you’re preserving them properly.”
She smiled. “Which ones would you like to see?”
“I would like to see all of them. But unfortunately, I only have time for a sample. Let’s see these.”
He turned to the flasks and randomly pointed to several dozen of them. Arianna placed each one carefully on a tray and carried it to the electron microscopes in the back of the room. One by one, she put the flasks under a microscope, and a camera underneath captured and transferred the images to the adjacent computer screen. Almost immediately, pictures showed up of circles with vague clumps of cells inside. The inspector squinted at the images, nodding after each one.
“Fine,” he announced after scrutinizing all the images. “You can put them back now.”
He scribbled his signature on the form as she eagerly replaced all the tubes in the freezer. Sweat dribbled onto her upper lip, salty and warm. She licked it away before he could notice any sign of nervousness.
She thought he was walking back to the door when he paused next to the incubator, grabbed the chrome handle, and pulled it open. Arianna sucked in a silent breath; that wasn’t part of the protocol.
Banks peered at tiny petri dishes carefully spaced on the shelves under heat lamps. On the bottom shelf, a cluster of dishes was pushed to one side, under a label marked only with a sad face.
“How are they doing so far?” he asked with a general wave toward the dishes.
“It varies,” she said. “They’re still less than four days old. We don’t know which of them we’ll use yet.”
“Then what about those?” He frowned, pointing to the cluster of dishes under the sad face.
“Oh, those.” She winced. “Those just aren’t doing well. They’ll likely be frozen. We need to differentiate the strong ones from the weak.”
Banks nodded. “I assume those will count for November’s EUEs, then.”
Extra-uterine embryos—the politically correct term for “leftovers.”
“Yes.” Don’t flinch, she willed herself.
He eyed her for a moment. Indifference glazed across her face.
He looked down at his form. “Well, none are missing. They look to be properly preserved. Sign here.”
She took the paper from him that was headed in bold, NEW YORK DEPARTMENT OF EMBRYO PRESERVATION, and signed under her clinic’s name—WASHINGTON SQUARE CENTER FOR REPRODUCTIVE MEDICINE—next to the number 464.
“Good, so we’ll see you next month,” she said, turning to open the door. She stepped out into the hallway and exhaled shakily, as if she had just stumbled off a carnival ride.
“Me or one of my colleagues,” he replied.
“I’ll show you out,” she said, not wanting to leave him alone in her clinic for a second. She walked briskly back to the waiting room as he trailed a step behind. Saying good-bye always felt like an awkward moment to her. Was she supposed to thank him? Act gracious for the interruption that threatened to undermine her life’s biggest project?
In the waiting room, a slender woman with auburn curls was sitting on the couch, drumming her fingers on her lap. She grew still when she saw the inspector enter the room with Arianna.
“Hello!” Arianna exclaimed, and then, remembering, evened her tone. “I’ll be with you in a moment, ma’am.”
Turning back to the inspector, she nodded and casually extended her arm toward the front door. “Have a good day,” she said.
He muttered, “Same to you,” striding to the door. She watched it swing open and slam. And just like that, she thought, they were safe for another month.
With a giant grin, she turned to the woman on the couch, who sprang up and embraced her.
Arianna hugged her tightly. “Thank you so much, Meg.”
“Of course,” Megan said, stepping back. “But first I want to know: How the hell do you stand that guy?”
Arianna shook her head. “It’s easier if I pretend he’s just a handyman coming around for a checkup.”
“With a gun?”
“So how are the good souls doing?”
“Pretty nippy,” Arianna said with a smile. “But they’re not lonely, that’s for sure.”
Back in her office with the door shut, Arianna thought how much they resembled each other. Both were tall, thin, and pale, thanks to their grandfather’s side of the family. They shared thick hair, though Arianna’s was nearly black. And unusual dark blue eyes. As kids, they used to pretend to be sisters—each wanting a sibling that never came. But it didn’t matter: to be cousins, growing up side by side, was enough to give each the companionship she craved, without the rivalry. Still, being part of a small family had its downsides: With Arianna’s parents dead, Megan’s living far away, and neither woman yet married, they were each other’s Thanksgiving gatherings, Christmas mornings, and faithful standbys through every difficult time when family was indispensable—like now.
As soon as they sat down, Megan’s face contorted with worry, as if she suddenly remembered why she was there. She stared at Arianna with the same determined hope as any other woman about to undergo ovary stimulation. “I want to think my eggs will help.”
Arianna reached across the desk and took her hand. “They will.”
“But what if they don’t? What if they just turn into more failed attempts?”
Arianna shook her head. “Whatever happens, it won’t be a complete failure. The whole thing is trial and error, so we need all those errors to get us closer to the answer.”
Megan sat back with a frown. “Do you—do you think they’re getting closer?”
Arianna looked away. “You know I would tell you.”
“And there’s nothing else I can do?”
“Meg, you’re doing plenty. More than I could ever ask for.” Arianna picked up a chart that lay next to her computer, feeling the steeliness of her professional training cut through her own fear. “All your vitals look good. We can get started if you’re ready.”
Megan grimaced, running her hands through her hair the way she often did when she was nervous. “You know how I get around needles. It’s so embarrassing.”
An injection of follicle-stimulating hormone into Megan’s rear once a day for ten days would make her ovaries produce about eighteen eggs for the month, instead of the usual one. Then Arianna planned to surgically remove all those eggs, as she did for any patient undergoing in vitro. Except this one had no child in mind.
Arianna smiled. “It will barely even sting, you big baby. Just think about me doing C-sections all day long.”
“But a shot every day for ten days?” A sobering thought must have entered Megan’s mind then, because her expression changed. “It’s fine. I can do this.”
“I know you can, sweetie. You’ll do great. Just imagine how you’re going to spend the five grand.”
Megan glared at her. “It’s insulting that you’re paying me.”
“That’s ridiculous. I’d pay more if I could.”
“And you promise no one’s going to arrest me, right?”
Arianna flashed her a conspiratorial grin. “What for? You’re just a bighearted egg donor.”
“What about—?” Megan’s voice lowered. “What about all the other donors? You trust them all right?”
“Completely. I handpicked every single one of them. No woman who puts her body on the line for science has any interest in destroying it.”
Megan nodded and then sighed. “Let’s get the damn shot over with already. I can’t stand the anticipation.”
Arianna smiled, thinking of the childhood nicknames their family had fondly given them: the worrier and the warrior. The irony struck her that their old roles still had not changed. Yet something between them had evaporated over the last few months, something precious, and just when they needed it most: lightness.
“First things first,” Arianna said as she stood up.
Megan groaned. “What?”
“You have to pick out the father,” she deadpanned.
“We have a wide collection of donated sperm on hand from every race, age, creed, you name it. Widens the gene pool for the research. You can flip through the book and decide who you think your eggs would like best.”
Megan laughed in spite of herself. “If I didn’t know you that well, Arianna, I’d think you might be having fun with this.”
Arianna grinned. She was about to respond, determined to regain the tone of their old banter, when she felt herself inadvertently sway. Her office walls rolled into one another with quickening momentum as the pictures of newborns blurred around her, a spinning spread of faces and colors. Shutting her eyes, she sank to her knees in front of her desk and thrust one palm onto the ground. Her forehead dropped to the floor, sweat against cold. She was anchored. With her eyes closed and her body still, the spinning room began to slow down.
“Oh, Christ.” Megan’s voice hovered somewhere above her head. “Perfect timing. Do you need anything?”
Arianna didn’t dare shake her head, just as the world was coming to a halt around her. “Time,” she murmured into the floor.
She felt Megan’s hand stroking her hair. “Okay. Take your time. You know I’m in no rush.”
Arianna pressed her forehead harder into the ground, as if to prove the stability her senses refused to accept. She heard Megan stand up next to her.
“I’ll just go out and run an errand. Call me when you’re ready.”
“’Kay,” Arianna muttered. Around anyone else, she would have been mortified. At least, she thought, Megan knew enough not to make a fuss. Her footsteps fell away, and then the door opened and shut. Arianna breathed in, grateful to suffer alone.
* * *
Megan stepped outside onto Washington Square South. In her mind, she replayed the frightening way Arianna had just sunk to the floor like a dummy. What if she were really in trouble?
But she did what Arianna had long ago instructed: walked away. “Just let me be,” Arianna told her sternly the first time it happened in her presence. “I don’t need any help.”
Megan marveled at her bravery: How could she handle so much, so well? It just reminded her why she had looked up to her fearless cousin since childhood, when Arianna had ridden her bicycle without hands, approached popular boys she liked, dragged Megan onto her first upside-down roller coaster. Nothing ever seemed to faze her, while even as an adult, Megan panicked over the slightest medical problem. And now—
“Excuse me,” came a man’s voice behind her.
Megan turned around, holding her purse close to her body. The man looked a little older than she, in his mid-thirties. He wore faded jeans and a button-down white shirt and held a small notepad. A Yankees baseball cap covered his face in shadow, and when she looked at him, she understood why he wore it. Orange and brown freckles dotted his face with the frequency of pores; they lent him a juvenile quality that made him seem harmless.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I hope so,” he said with a tentative smile. “I’m actually a reporter on the health beat. My name’s Jed. I noticed you walk out of the fertility clinic right there, and I was wondering if I could ask you about it for a minute.”
Megan’s brow knotted. “Ask me about what?”
“Well, for starters, are you a patient at the clinic?”
“I am.” And how is that your business? she almost snapped, but didn’t.
“What made you choose to go there, out of all the clinics in the city?”
She stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“Sorry to be nosy,” he said, but his tone was urgent.
“Are you doing a survey or something?” she asked. I’m a patient, she thought. I’m supposed to want a baby.
“A survey? Kind of. You could say that. I’m trying to figure something out.”
“Well,” she said, “I decided to go there because I got a great recommendation about the doctor. What are you trying to figure out exactly?”
“I’ll tell you,” he said, stepping closer. “See, I got this tip that a bunch more women than usual are going to this one clinic all of a sudden. It’s such a small clinic, too. Maybe my mind’s overactive, but I thought it sounded like there might be a story there. See if the patients know something I don’t.”
“I see. Where’d you hear that?”
He shrugged with polished nonchalance. “A tip from a source. So, have you noticed anything? Off the record.”
Megan shook her head and tried to look puzzled. “I don’t know anything about that. But I will tell you that the doctors there are really top-notch, even though the clinic’s small. I’ve already recommended them to a lot of friends, and I’m sure others are doing the same. What kind of story are you doing?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
“Who do you write for?”
“I’m a freelancer. Got to depend on my own instincts to find stories. What do you do?”
“I’m in real estate. And I’m sure there’s lots more interesting things happening in New York City,” she said, and then added, “Good luck,” for fear of seeming rude.
She started to fish her sunglasses out of her purse. When she found them, he was still standing there.
“You couldn’t even point me in the right direction, at least?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Sorry, I don’t have a clue what you mean,” she replied, and crossed the street toward Washington Square Park. Don’t run, she thought. Don’t look back, and don’t touch your phone yet. She ambled through the park, forcing herself to concentrate on the sunset-orange trees, the park’s glorious fountain, and a nearby acrobat who had drawn an impressive crowd. She eased among the chanting people, pretending to watch the man doing backflips over a row of tin cans. When she had inched into the first layer of people, she knew the reporter could no longer see her, so she withdrew her cell phone from her purse and called Arianna.
It rang twice before she picked up. “Hey, I’m okay now—”
“Arianna, I think somebody might know something.”
Copyright © 2012 by Kira Peikoff