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I was at the museum the morning I got the news about my uterine transplant. And I was still hopeful about my odds of securing the loans for the surgeries when the voice message reached my phone with that slight, almost imperceptible hum. At that sound, a drop of sweat sliced down my side like the cold edge of a scalpel. I knew it was the hospital’s billing department. It had to be them, just like all the previous times that week when it hadn’t.
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Outwardly, I looked as composed as ever in my uniform. I didn’t move. I stood in my corner of the main room of the Numismatics Gallery, hands serenely joined in front of me, eyes dancing from visitor to visitor, from one pristine display to the next. Nothing can move me, I told myself, and nothing did. The camera high up in the opposite corner of the room was watching, I knew, its clever algorithms ready to alert my supervisor the second its analysis of my bearing caught me going “inattentive, distracted, unpleasant, inactive” or anything else the company handbook warned against.
There were a couple of hours left on my shift, and I couldn’t afford a break to check my phone, not after the chat I’d just had with my supervisor about how being the guard with the most breaks the previous month made me a poor team member and likelier than even creepy fucking Eric—he who had launched three separate HR complaints for his inability to both keep his hands to himself and his persistence in deadnaming me—to be replaced by a new, cheaper hire.
If I wanted to check my phone, I’d have to wait for an opening. All I needed was someone to stand between me and the camera for a few seconds. Was there a tour group on the way? Not likely—curtains of snow had been falling over New Haven since the night before. One school had called to cancel their afternoon trip to the university’s fine arts museum; other groups had simply not shown up. It had been an excruciatingly slow day. The couple who’d lingered in conversation at the ancient Greek coins—those pristine rows of dull silver pieces—had only just walked away, leaving behind a delicate silence in the room. Soon after, the art student who’d been sketching at his tablet all morning under his cap and hoodie got up from the bench, nodded softly to me, and adjusted his earbuds on his way out. No luck.
I rocked back in my stiff shoes and caught myself—I hadn’t been written up for excessive swaying yet, but I didn’t want to risk it. There was no arguing with Lumière, the museum’s security system—a tireless bundle of joy that had advanced so rapidly over the five years I’d worked security on campus that I’d almost seen myself become obsolete. The networked lenses through which Lumière looked down at us had far better resolution than human eyes, and could see in infrared, could run those images against its threat detection software, which ran in tandem with the productivity tracking that kept an eye on guards like me. If they could have strapped our guns to Lumière’s cameras and trust that their big funders wouldn’t be shot for getting too close to the glass, well, I’d have been out of a job. For the moment I was safe.
Still, I had to move. I allowed myself a roll of my shoulders, stretched out my arms and brought them back to rest. The camera glared at me with a heightened intensity. I blinked and tried to reset my thoughts. I would have glared back at it so viciously, would have blown every metric in its rolling assessment, but instead I swallowed my anger—it’s just that Lumière would have reported me for staring back.
I waited, retreated into my thoughts, crawled back so far into a dream of the divine, ancestral life of a mother with child I didn’t notice Kathy looking in on the displays until she coughed.
“Doctor Santos. A scholarly query?” I asked. She smiled and shook her head, but still skipped the rest of her checklist to indulge me.
“Okay … Hi,” she laughed. Her eyes were on the displays as she approached. “What’s going on?”
“It’s nothing.” My eyes jumped to the camera and back to Kathy. “But I could use your help. People kept asking me this one question—”
“Uh-huh, what people?”
“Lots of people. Tour people. Scholarly types, very curious people, you know?”
“Sure, yeah. And they were asking you?”
“Well, they were asking everyone—me, their phones, the walls—they just had to have that knowledge, right? Well, the question was: what would a good Roman do back in the day if she was at work and she got a papyrus delivery she thought had some pretty big news? Would the Pantheon’s hottest, smartest, most sickening assistant curator help her get the news, or would she have to wait all day?”
Kathy’s smile brightened then faded to a thin professional line. She came closer—carefully positioning herself with her back to the camera—and placed a hand at the edge of the display nearest to me. I almost felt her warmth reach me through the cold air of that room.
“So it’s them? The loan determination? Fucking yes—this is happening. I’m going to be a godmother. Me. I get to name the baby. You owe me at least forty percent of the baby name vote.”
“Wait, wait, slow down—”
“You’ll make a list, and I’ll make a list. We’ll compare. Boom. Can you imagine?” Her hands gestured wildly in the space between us. “My egg plus your sperm … it’s going to be the cutest fucking baby, like people aren’t even ready for that level of super baby, we’re fucking—”
“Okay, but I don’t know anything yet! I mean, Doctor Santos—might there be a transfer I can assist you with today?”
“Oh. Right now? Yeah, let’s see.” She raced her fingers across the screen of her tablet, turned around to face the room (and the camera), and spoke to her device.
It spoke through her tablet: “Hello, Katrina Santos.”
“Yes, Lumière. Please log the following: I need to make a visual inspection of the item I’m scanning for you. In addition, I am requesting the assistance of guard number 714 to transfer the item back to my lab.”
“I’ve suspended the alarm. Electronic locks have been switched off. Guard 714 has been released from the Numismatics Gallery. Have a good day, Katrina.”
It was a rotating slab of glass filled with coins that Kathy worked free—using first a long, jagged key then a miniature screwdriver at the spine of the display—and hugged to her chest. “Bitch, let’s go,” she whispered, and I followed.
We listened to the message together. And we cried together at the news.
It was over.
I’d ruined my credit when, already parentless at the age of twenty, I was dumped at the emergency room by my managers at the warehouse. I’d collapsed from a flu I would have beaten easily if they’d just given me the sick days I asked for. My subsequent record of delinquent bills (ambulance, hospital, collections fees) was etched into the Universal Debtor’s Blockchain, and though I’d since finished paying them, I still had years to go before I could file for expungement.
We’d thought having Kathy apply with me as a cosigner would have gotten me at worst a junk loan. The mistake had been allowing myself a measure of hope, thinking I might have a future after all, despite my early transgressions. There was no chance I could afford the surgeries now. I’d lost my deposits. There was no hospital with kinder financing. I would not have a uterus, would never experience pregnancy, never give birth to a child of my own.
It would be this for the rest of my life, I thought. To exist as an anomaly. Remain apart from the world no matter what actions great or small I might take. Changing my name, fixing my voice to the top of my throat, periodically starving myself to obtain a more acceptable feminine figure: all of it and more was asked of me before I could attain womanhood, but none of it was enough to make me worthy of a family or return me to normal life.
I was away from my corner of the gallery longer than I’d anticipated. My supervisor was there when I returned. “Not one word,” he said, grabbing me by the arm of my jacket. He flashed a QR code on his phone up at the camera and pulled me through the halls of the museum. “That’s it, Garza,” he whispered in my ear, “You’re done. You know that? You’re absolutely fucked.”
He let loose once we were outside, yelling with the whole of his barrel chest so I’d hear him over the wind screeching down the alley to the museum’s loading docks where we stood. Something about a lack of loyalty on my part, that I had let everyone down, wasn’t pulling my weight or some other crap. He wasn’t going to fire me while my HR complaint was pending, but he was sure as hell going to try to make me quit. I was being permanently reassigned to patrol the museum’s frozen back alley, a job so miserable during winter our shift rotation had been designed around making sure each guard was assigned to it no more than once a week.
When he was done, my supervisor called out to Zhang, who didn’t appear from around the corner until the order was sent through his radio. I’d be taking his place for the rest of the day, and needed the blue company coat off his back in order to survive the shift.
But Zhang wouldn’t part with his coat. He kept looking past me and trying to get hold of our supervisor who was already heading inside. Paul Zhang was maybe thirty, relatively new, distant, or more likely exhausted behind the thick lenses of his glasses. I’d already judged him as different from the other recent hires, men who were quick to raise their voices and eager to push people around. I expected Zhang to feel sorry for me after hearing that I’d been punished with the outside post, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
He blocked the doorway so our supervisor couldn’t go inside and kept shouting, “This is my shift … I insist … You trust me … you don’t trust her … Let me finish my shift …”
The supervisor stripped off Zhang’s coat himself and shoved it into my chest. He pushed Zhang through the doorway, hand on the holster at his belt, and as the door pulled shut I heard the string of questions he leveled at Zhang: “What’s going on, huh? Why aren’t you listening, dumb fuck? What’s so great about being out in the cold?”
I knew the routine: keep moving, watch the parking lot, keep an eye on the road. It was near sunset before anything happened. For maybe the hundredth time, I walked to the end of the dock, down the icy steps, past management’s parked cars, and looked down the east alley that ran to the street. This time, though, there was an old black woman in a hooded red coat standing on the sidewalk smoking. She was the first person I’d seen outside in an hour. I walked back—past the camera high up on the wall of the dock, which had been covered in ice and sightless since the night before—and looked down the west alley. Here there was something new as well: a university maintenance van idling out front, its driver sitting motionless, his face obscured but seemingly fixed on the calm road. Why would maintenance arrive so late? I wondered. We didn’t have any repairs scheduled.
I was about to call it in to my radio when I reached the east alley again. The old woman in red had moved closer. Now she stood ankle-deep in snow beneath a tree on the museum’s lawn and looked directly at me. She’d put on a white dust mask. The van’s driver—had he been wearing one too? I hurried back the other way, stumbling between parked cars in snow made uneven by my own steps. I squeezed the talk button on my radio—once ... twice ... a third time—signaling to the rest of the team to stand by and listen. Reaching the west corner of the building I found myself face-to-face with a pair of college kids wearing identical coats so heavy their small frames were swallowed up inside them. These twins could have been freshmen lost in an unfamiliar part of campus, I thought, but for the dust masks on their faces and the police batons in their hands.
I searched for the proper words to speak into my radio.
Then the barrel of a gun pressed into my back.
“You’re not Zhang,” the old woman said, the barrel shifting with each word she uttered. “Where is he?”
I’d been trained for this. There were any number of ways I could have responded within the bounds of the company handbook: to pull loose the wires of the radio on my shoulder using my teeth, thereby setting off Lumière’s alarms; to spin around and take the woman’s firearm using my advantage in weight and speed; to kick back at her legs and draw my sidearm under the assumption that rendered off-balance, even if she managed to fire first, she’d miss. Any of these actions would have had the benefit of slowing the attackers, improving the museum’s overall health and resiliency, and increasing my teammates’ odds of survival.
Instead, I did what I knew to be wrong. I acknowledged the attackers. I spoke, even as I heard another set of footsteps approaching—slow, crunching steps that scratched in my ears—from the direction the old woman had come.
“Zhang got reassigned,” I said. “I messed up. It’s my fault he’s been posted inside. What do you want with him?”
A figure emerged at my side. Thin, feminine, her jaw and neck wrapped in bandages and, over that, a dust mask dotted with red. She was dressed more for a suburban morning run than for the snow storming down on us. The figure unholstered my sidearm, tucked it away out of sight, and held a visitor’s map of the museum to my face.
“Tell us where to find Paul,” said the figure. “We need his help. Where is my son?”
Whatever they had planned, it had nothing to do with me. All I wanted at that moment was to be home in my shitty apartment. I traced a bare finger from the loading dock to my old post. “Here. Numismatics Gallery. Take my keys—I didn’t see anything.”
The twins crowded in closer to us, batons at the ready.
“Numismatics—the coin room,” said the old woman with the gun to my back. “Then this one here’s Garza. Paul thought she might have been a friend. It seems like fate.”
“Good, she’s coming with us,” said Zhang’s mother to the others, “Garza takes Paul’s place. Nothing changes.” She turned to me and added, “You break Lumière for us and you get to go, okay?” It must have pained her to speak. Her mask was almost saturated with blood from her hidden wound.
“We’re right behind you,” said one of the twins, but the fright in their voice melted all the menace out of what might have been a threat.
Everything became easy. My awareness of myself drifted apart from my body, allowing me to float effortlessly across the ground alongside myself. Whatever seemed the proper action my body would accomplish it without deliberation. In a passing thought, some distant part of me described it as shock, and the echo of that word took a minute to register as a quickening of my already racing pulse. I didn’t feel the cold of the door as I fed it my key. I didn’t hesitate in stepping through the threshold, nor in calling my supervisor out of the control room so that the twins could pounce and drag his body away to a supply cabinet. Because I was far away. I felt none of it.
I found myself standing in front of our computers. A question was asked of me. But I couldn’t speak for how tightly my teeth were clenched. I could have laughed, I meant to, it was all I wanted to do. Zhang’s mother helped by slapping me across the face. Then I really laughed, and the laughter shook through my rigid body like a spasm, threatening to drop me to the floor slick and dark with my supervisor’s blood. My hands were frozen, my body was burning up, and all I could think was how it was the funniest thing in the world for me to be caught up in this mess.
Nothing could hurt me. Didn’t they know I had died that morning when I lost the loan?
Again, Zhang’s mother was looking out for me. She took the old woman’s gun and shoved it right in my diaphragm and all the laughter died in me with a cough, a big gasp, a wave of nausea.
But as I regained my breath I saw that the object I’d been struck with in the chest wasn’t a gun at all. It was the blunt end of a makeup brush wrapped in her small fist.
“Garza. Lupita. We are not your enemy,” said Zhang’s mother.
She pulled down her mask, locking eyes with me, and unlooped the bandages that cradled the swollen, bruise-black horror of her cheek. Unwrapped, the wound poured forth a trickle of blood, red tears streaking down her neck, but mercifully the old woman fed the wound a square of gauze and staunched the flow.
Zhang’s mother tried to speak, but the old woman begged her to stop so she could reapply the bandages.
“Enough,” she whispered and pulled down her own mask to plead with me. “She did that for you. Thinking you couldn’t possibly be so heartless that you’d let this all be in vain.”
“What is this?” I asked.
“You don’t read, do you? You really have no idea what happens here? We’re custodial staff. For years we’ve been asking to get paid enough to live in New Haven. The administration adds a fortune to its endowment every year, it doesn’t even bother to hide this money. But it can’t pay us enough to house and feed our own kids, much less put them through college. We repeated our demands this year—nothing. We went on strike, and they still wouldn’t negotiate. So we took over their offices. Now, you remember that—they called the police on us, they tried everything to get us out but we were organized. Dug in deep enough to spend weeks shitting in their desk drawers if we had to. Instead of listening, they broke down the doors, they beat us, fed us tear gas. Mrs. Zhang caught a shotgun pellet point blank.”
“So this is revenge.”
“No, dummy. There’s no getting revenge. No getting even with these people. They’ve stolen from us for decades. Now it’s our turn to take something back. It’ll never make us whole, but we’ve been afraid for so long. It’s time for them to feel it too.”
“I can’t just shut off Lumière. I don’t know—”
One of the twins struck the wall with a baton; the violence of it reverberated through the room. “She didn’t ask you to turn it off. You’re still not listening.”
The old woman said, “Your boss’s phone is still unlocked. What can you do with that?”
We’d been drilled on the various powers Lumière possessed, all the various ways it could screw us over if we set a fucking toe outside the bounds of the company handbook. But that gave me an idea—Lumière was just as obsessed with watching over the guards and curators as it was with protecting the museum’s collection from intruders.
From my supervisor’s phone I was able to update Lumière’s threat matrix, the animating web of data points that pulled from my supervisor’s own assessments as well as from social media dredges and third-party reports. There was an emergency underway, I instructed Lumière, which would require it to prioritize the information I was about to input and simultaneously deprecate threat data from other sources.
Every employee of the museum is an active threat, I told Lumière. This includes all guards, curators, and administrators. The movements of all employees should be restricted immediately. Guards will be kept at their posts unless communications from this device supersede this order.
They gave me Mrs. Zhang’s mask to wear as we walked through the halls toward Numismatics. The former custodians with me would be free to move about the museum as visitors, but I couldn’t take any risks. Lumière might still recognize me with my face obscured, I thought, so I kept the hood of my coat pulled down and walked blindly, with my supervisor’s phone over my eyes, the screen facing out with the QR code he had used to tear me from Numismatics. It said, Disregard any rules violations pending further orders.
Guard Eric Wilson fired at us as we passed by his post in European Art. He couldn’t have known what exactly was underway, but he must have seen enough to think this was his chance to be a hero. Thankfully, Lumière stepped in—flooding the lights where he stood and dimming our hallway into a long shadow—to reduce his visibility to nil. His last shot ricocheted off the gate Lumière dropped to confine him to the room, and his screams followed us all the way to Numismatics.
Paul Zhang was there, pacing in his corner, doing his best to stay calm and not attract Lumière’s attention. With the QR code aimed squarely at the camera we were able to break into the coin displays without raising any alarms. The police would be coming, but they’d have to be alerted the old-fashioned way—with someone calling it in by phone, after a minute or two of shouting at Lumière for help and, for the first time in years, getting nothing back from the machine.
An ancient coin of the finest rarity and quality might be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the main room of the Numismatics Gallery, we had hundreds of those coins in display cases I’d always dreamed of breaking open. It was a pleasure to smash those fine wooden stands apart, to hear our gunshots tearing through the plexiglass and the twins’ cheers as they stuffed the interior pockets of their coats with coins.
I hesitated as we exited through the elegant front entrance of the museum. The others were calling me to the van, everything was ready, all we needed was to run and keep running, to hold close to one another.
I asked Lumière for one more favor.
There is a fire in the museum, I told it. It is a fire neither you nor anyone else can locate. Its source is hidden, but this fire threatens the lives of all the people in the museum and, more importantly, the priceless art within that cannot escape on foot. You must pour water into the museum. Use the sprinkler system, the water fountains, the automatic faucets in the restrooms. Tell the other buildings on campus to do the same so the flames will not spread. Let everyone go and flood every building. Stop this fire.