It takes guts to deliberately mutilate your hand while operating a blister-pack sealing machine, but all I had going for me was guts. It seemed like a fair trade: lose maybe a week’s wages and possibly the tip of my right middle finger, and in exchange Poppu would get to hold his great-granddaughter before he died.
I wasn’t into babies, but Poppu’s unseeing eyes filled to spilling when he spoke of Ciel’s daughter, and that was more than I could bear. It was absurd to me that the dying should grieve the living when the living in this case was only ten kilometers away. Poppu needed to hold that baby, and I was going to bring her to him, even if Ciel wouldn’t.
The machine was programmed to drop daily doses of CircaDiem and vitamin D into the thirty slots of a blister tray. My job was mind-numbingly boring, and I’d done it maybe a hundred thousand times before without messing up: align a perforated prescription card on the conveyor, slip the PVC blister tray into the card, slide the conveyor to the right under the pill dispenser, inspect the pills after the tray has been filled, fold the foil half of the card over, and slide the conveyor to the left under the heat-sealing plate. Over and over I’d gone through these motions for hours after school, with the rhythmic swooshing, whirring, and stamping of the factory’s powder compresses, laser inscribers, and motors penetrating my wax earplugs no matter how well I molded them to my ear canal.
I should have had a concrete plan for stealing my brother’s baby, with backups and contingencies, but that’s not how my brain works. I only knew for sure how I was going to get into the hospital. There were possible complications that I pushed to the periphery of my mind because they were too overwhelming to think about: I didn’t know how I’d return my niece when I was done with her; I’d be navigating the city during the day with only a Smudge ID; if I was detained by an Hour Guard, there was a chance I’d never see Poppu again.
I thought Poppu was asleep as I kissed him goodbye that night. His skin was cool crepe paper draped over sharp cheekbones. I whispered, “Je t’aime,” and he surprised me by croaking, “Je t’adore, Soleil,” as if he sensed the weight of this departure over all the others.
I slogged through school; I dragged myself to work. An hour before my shift ended, I allowed a prescription card to go askew in the tray, and I poked my right middle finger in to straighten it before the hot plate lowered to seal the foil backing to the card. I closed my eyes as the press came down.
Even though I had only mangled one centimeter of a single finger, my whole body felt like it had been turned inside out and I’d been punched in the heart for good measure. My fingernail had split in two, blood was pooling through the crack, and I smelled burned flesh. It turns out the nerves in your fingertip are ridiculously sensitive, and all at once I realized mine might be screaming for days. Had I thought through this step at all? Would I even be able to hold a baby?
I collapsed, and I might have fainted if the new girl at the machine next to mine hadn’t run to the first-aid station for a blanket, a gauze tourniquet strip, and an ice pack. She used the gauze to wrap the bleeding fingertip tightly—I think I may have punched her with my left fist—eased me onto my back, and covered me with a blanket. I stopped hyperventilating. I let tears stream down the sides of my cheeks onto the cement floor. But I did not cry out loud.
“I’m not calling an ambulance,” the jerk supervisor said, when my finger was numb from the cold and I was able to sit up again. “That would make it a Code Three on the accident report, and this is a Code One at best. We’re seven and a half blocks from the hospital, and you’ve got an hour before curfew. You could crawl and you’d make it before sunrise.”
So I walked to the emergency room. I held my right arm above my head the whole way, to keep the pounding heartbeat in my finger from making my entire hand feel like it would explode. And I thought about how before he turned his back on us, Ciel used to brag that I could think on my feet better than anyone he knew.
Screw you, Ciel.
Text copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Fama Elizabeth Fama is the author of Monstrous Beauty, which was a 2013 Odyssey Honor Audiobook. She lives with her family in Chicago, Illinois.