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Hi, my name is Katlyn Hallengren and I am a senior at Michigan State. I am majoring in English with a creative writing concentration and a minor in Graphic Design. This piece I wrote for my fiction class. It is a short story in which I plan to make into a long piece for my senior thesis.

People have always told me to follow my heart and it will guide me in the right direction, however, they never told me what to do if I didn’t have one. My story starts twenty-one years earlier when I was four. I grew up in an orphanage, the one down along the street that has the mechanic shop. The two sat on the outskirts of the city by the docks where city natives came to feel cultured amongst the oriental restaurants and antique shops. Commonly, strays would be seen because of the fish markets along the pier and Jo, an elderly fish merchant, likes to feed them. The mechanic shop that neighbors the orphanage, made the whole place smell like oil. I didn’t mind it though because Liv, our caretaker, would let me help the mechanics with tightening bolts in the new arms and sometimes they would let me replace the old aluminum plates on the biceps for new fiber glass ones. I never found it odd that an orphanage would be so close in proximity to a mechanics shop, it seemed… normal.

You might be asking why I ended up in an orphanage and the reason was the same for all of us: our parents were too busy with their jobs, meetings, world-wide traveling to secure new business deals, that they simply had no time to raise a child. I never knew my parents and hardly thought of them because I looked up to Liv as a big sister. She was my family along with the rest of us kids. That’s where I met my best friend Velia, she was too like a sister to me. People told us we looked enough alike to be twins. I never believed them though, the only thing alike was our birthdays.

No one left the orphanage, that’s why we call it a family. Once you are here, you stay until you are eighteen until the government comes and personally kicks you out into the grime-filled alleyways. I read once in a book that adoption used to be a popular outcome for couples who couldn’t conceive, and that people would fly across the world to pick their perfect baby. I ended up throwing the book in the ocean the next morning because it gave me false hope.

Today, children are brought into this world for experimental purposes. Since animal testing was abolished fifty years ago, companies had to come up with new solutions for testing their products. It first started as chemical testing and skin graphing, then after time they grew more curious and started experimenting with robotics to prolong life.

As the world started evolving towards booming businesses and working longer hours, the children of middle and lower-class families were left out on the streets. Only the wealthiest families could hire nannies to parent their kids; it kept their kids out of testing and continued the cycle of social hierarchy, the rich reign and the poor parish.

With the mass number of homeless children, orphanages started popping up in every city. Every orphanage has a mark. The mark distinguishes us from the rest of society. It lets others know to stay away as if we were tainted blood, not human. Mine tattooed three blue dots under our left eye, we were stained forever. My orphanage, however, was special, at least that’s what Liv always said. Even though every orphanage was on contract with a local business for testing, our business seemed to still consist of flesh and blood.

The CEO of our company, Gabriele Prosper, is a young man, late twenties. All the girls giggled whenever he visited. One time I over-heard them fantasizing about running their fingers through his hair, it made me queasy. I always saw Gabriele as a big brother because we grew up together.  When his father, the late CEO, would make his routine rounds to every orphanage he contracted with, Gabriele would stay and play with me. We’d run down to the beach and collect shells, play soccer in the alley, and pet the strays that frequently hung out around the mechanic shop. Once Gabriele turned twenty-five, he stepped up to the position after his father died of a heart attack. It was a shock to the world because only a few people had their original hearts. The doctors said if he chose to replace his heart with a bionic one would he have lived, however, he said he rather die with his own heart than a cold metal shell of one. With his father’s wishes, Gabriele decided to keep his own as well. Therefore, our orphanage is where every kid wants to be. Gabriele insisted on keeping our testing to a minimum and the pain tolerable. If it was his way, he would abolish testing on children but, it’s business.

It’s my fault the world is developing into a machine. I was the first, at age four, to have a heart transplant completely replaced with the engineer’s bionic sample. This sample they told me could change the world, I could change the world. The reason engineers created this sample was due to the atmosphere’s pollution levels. Earlier generations made the air so toxic that a rapid increase in heart failure plagued the globe. I remember the surgeons handed me a pamphlet, but I was four and couldn’t understand Coronary Artery Disease. After that, they knocked me out. My surgery was five hours long, and at hour three I woke up. I opened my eyes to see a beam of light centered on my chest and three beings clothed in blue linen with masks covering their faces. The fear of looking down consumed me, but I did. My ribcage was spread open, all ribs broken, blood and flesh poured out of the cavity and I remember thinking to myself how cool this was. Within a few seconds I went cold.

I remember I woke a few hours later to doctors, engineers, and my CEO huddled at the end of my bed, and amongst the crowd, leaning against the wall, was Gabriele. If I was right, I saw a tear escape him, and then he exited the room. After a few days of recovery, I asked the doctor if I could see my heart, he stood laughing at the end of my bed like he thought I was joking, but all I pictured was my heart floating around in a glass bottle. I looked up at him with a scowl on my face and he walked around to my bed side and placed his hands on my shoulders. He said, “Do you know why you have this heart Piera? You have it because you are special. You have this heart because you are meant to do great things for this world. Your heart is biologically indestructible, you cannot experience heart failure, heart attacks, blockages, weakness because everything in your heart is programmed specifically for you. With this heart you can experience a better version of yourself, your heart will beat forever.”

“Forever?” I said. He nodded his head.

Today I turn twenty-five. I left the orphanage seven years ago, right after I turned eighteen. Liv told me no rush, but the authorities came and kicked me out that morning. They told me I needed to make room for another child. I felt sad at the thought of leaving, not for the child. If I felt sad for every child in a place like that, I would already be dead from grief. After a while, my emotions faded into numbness because we all had to endure the pain.

I left that day with Velia. We had no home to go to, and now we take up shelter under the pier. Our home is small, but it keeps the ocean from swallowing us. Velia found these lanterns we’ve hung up inside. She said she saw them being hung outside the Chinese restaurant, and when the man wasn’t looking, she took them and ran. For our beds we dug out indentations in the sand and laid blankets down that we’ve found left on the beach. During the day we lock our door that’s made from old drift wood, a rusty lock and a few hinges we found in an alley. We have nothing to steal, besides the lanterns, but we try to make our house feel legitimate; it helps to know we have something to call our own. I always wondered why the girl who saved man-kind must now live in a make-shift shack come night is infested with Fiddler Crabs while normal men and women are living in high-rise condos with posh champagne and regularly fluffed pillows.

This morning was calm. The waves broke on the sand seamlessly and there was no noise from the typical morning beach-goers. “Piera are you up?” a voice whispered.

I cracked my eyes and squinted from the sun peering in from the crevices in our walls. “Yes, one moment,” I made haste and threw on a sweatshirt. I unlocked the door to see Felix, a brown-haired, hazel-eyed man.

Felix didn’t grow up in an orphanage like most of the child population. His family hired a nanny so he wouldn’t end up living like us. He ran away from home two years ago, he doesn’t like to talk about it, all I know is he disagreed with living in luxury when so many of us live on the streets. He moved into the apartment above Jo’s fish shop, Jo hired him, and he hasn’t left since.

“Can I come in?” Felix asked.

“Of course, put the fish there,” I point to an area on Velia’s side of the room.

Velia squealed. “Don’t bring that dead thing over by me.”

I shrug, “fine just place it on my bed, it’s wrapped up anyways.” Velia pulls her blanket over her heard which means, leave if you’re going to talk because I’m going back to sleep. Felix follows me out and wraps his arms around me. I reciprocate the hug and bury my face into his shoulder.

“Thanks for the fish, I’ll have to stop by and thank Jo.”

Felix laughs and pulls out of the embrace. Even though he supplies our food every day, I feel guilty not to thank him. “What are you doing today?”

“I think Velia wants to look for a cat,” he looked confused “you know, to kill the crabs that visit.” We both laughed but knew behind the laughter was the sad truth.

From within the shack, ruffling blankets and an awoke Velia stirred and the door swung open. There was Velia readily clothed in her usual grey sweatshirt and shorts. Her blonde hair fell over her shoulder cascading into a messy braid, the perfect bedhead any girl would be jealous of.

It’s not common for people to stare when they see Velia. It could be her beauty, or the fact her right leg is metal.

“You ready to go cat hunting?” Velia’s smile created two deep dimples in her cheeks.

I looked at Felix and he knew our time together was up. People like Velia and I aren’t supposed to have any type of relationship with the normal folk and so every morning we say our goodbyes and he returns to the fish market just in time for the afternoon crowd.

“Alright where do you want to start, up Bleaker or Villa?” I said as I locked our door with a two old bobby pins. The lock was a special find but finding the key to match is impossible.

She paused to think. I could see the gears turning in her mind. “Probably Bleaker, there’s the Chinese restaurant they like to hang around.”

When we reach Bleaker, Velia pulled out two small dead fish from her sweatshirt pocket. She handed one to me with disgust written all over her face. With how queasy she is around fish I could imagine she was on the verge of puking.

I take the fish by the tail, “You must me desperate.” She rolled her eyes trying to keep a straight face but gags from the stench of the fish.

She laughed and managed to say, “I’m sick of waking up to crabs trying to rob us.”

We walked down Bleaker until we hit the Chinese restaurant. I could smell the chicken and Rangoons and my mouth started to water.

“What if we made our invaders into Rangoons?” Velia raised her right eyebrow at me and smiled. I was proud of that joke.

The Chinese restaurant was painted red with two giant windows that sported advertisements for Mongolian Beef and Egg Drop Soup. In the upper corner of the window, an open sign flashed red and the lanterns that match the ones in our shack were thumbtacked to the wooden overhang of the restaurant, they swung in the breeze and I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of Velia stealing two.

We walked around back into the small alleyway where the back entrance to the restaurant’s kitchen hung wide open and there on a crate labeled, Authentic Rice, sat a grey and white cat licking its paw that I imagined was covered in dirt and grease from an unknown substance.

I squatted to the ground and dangled the fish in front of me. When it spotted me, the cat had the urge to run but Velia and I knew strays will do anything for food in this city. We both stood still while the cat inched closer. I held my breath in concentration and in a split second the cat scurried off. I sighed in annoyance.

“We need one that doesn’t scare easily,” Velia said as she scouted for the next victim. As she started to climb the rice crates to achieve a better view point a meow stirred from behind me. A thin black cat emerged from a trash pile. Its spine was visible, and its hipbones protruded from its sides. It wasn’t afraid of my presence because it circled my legs, rubbing its head onto my shins and it pawed at my feet in the hope of obtaining the food in my hand. I bent down and picked the scrawny feline up, it felt like I was carrying a bag of bones. When I dangled the fish in front of the cats face it took the fish into its jaws ripping the flesh and as the bones crunched in its mouth, I felt a purr vibrate from the cat’s chest.

Velia jumped down from her perch onto the pavement. Her metal leg created a loud thud when it made contact and she huffed in disappointment, “I thought this was going to be a days work, not thirty minutes.” She held out her arms to indicate she wanted to hold the cat. I handed her the feline and she held it above her head.

“What are you doing?” I said.

As she studied the cats underbelly she explained, “I’m seeing if it’s a boy or girl and it’s a girl. What are we going to name her?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Appa?”

She looked at me hesitantly and then nodded. “I like it.”

            We left the alley and made it to the pier where we spotted Felix looking out over the water, I looked at Velia and she knew to take her leave. The cat laid comfortably in her arms and she planted a kiss on top of her fuzzy head. When Velia turned to take our new family member home, I walked to the end of the pier where Felix stood slumped over the edge. The pier was empty except for two fishermen. When I approached him, I placed my hand on his back and he jumped, he must have been in deep thought. “What’s the matter?” I said as I joined him resting my arms on the banister.

            “I was just thinking. Hey, did you find a cat?” His eyes lit up at the thought of it.

            I felt like something was wrong, but to avoid confrontation I simply replied, “we did, Velia brought her home.” His gaze wandered away from me and he returned to his former position.

            With curiosity burning inside me, I asked him, “can you please tell me what you are thinking?”

            With his head still resting on his hands he finally spoke. “I’m thinking of us.”

            My stomach seized and I held my breath in anticipation of the worst. “What about us?”

            Felix sighed and I felt my cold heart beat faster. I knew he was going to end things, why would he not? We can’t be together; we can’t be seen together. Our relationship would never be public, but I thought he accepted that. He turned toward me. “We should run away from the city.”

            My fear came true. I knew what we had wasn’t good enough, but leaving the city? This was my home, my only home and how could I leave? Every where is plagued with police waiting to capture people like me. I could cover my mark and slip past security, but my mark is apart of me, apart of who I am. I put my frustrations to rest. “I can’t leave. What about Velia, and Appa? They are my family and I can’t abandon them.” I searched his face for a glimpse of understanding, but nothing revealed itself but his disappointment. “I’m sorry.”

            I felt angry. Angry that he would even mention the thought of leaving, angry that he would be willing to risk the exposure of us. “If someone finds out, I’ll end up back in testing. Do you want that to happen?”

            He scowled at me, his eyes were sharp and stern. “Of course not, but do you want to live in hiding all your life?” His voice started to raise, and I couldn’t risk the peering eyes of curious beachgoers, so I left. I walked away from him and his problems.

Velia and I sat up in bed that night watching the lanterns above us glow orange and yellow. “Why don’t you move out with Felix? I’ll be fine here.”

“You know why, I don’t want to take the chance.” Velia stood up and frowned. In a swift motion she kicked sand at me, and she fell back into her indentation laughing. Between spitting the sand out of my mouth, I get out the words, “no, they’ll catch us.”

“They?” Velia asked.

“You know who, the authorities. If they kicked us out six hours after it turned our birthday, what makes you think they won’t catch to lovers on the run?” I turned over in my hole and pulled the blankets over my head. I didn’t want to hear the truth anymore. It was like a dagger between my ribs, trying to pry my cold heart out. “I can’t leave you here alone Velia” I said muffled.

“Yes, you can, you’re twenty-five. Run away from this place, get married, have kids. I’ll still be here when you visit and Appa will be fat.” She looked down at her leg and laughed. “I’ll still be here.” A tear trickled down her cheek and into the corner of her mouth.

“Don’t talk like that, you are perfect no matter the leg.” Velia smiled at me and turned over to face the wall, Appa snuggled in her arms. I could hear the quiet whimpers escaping her mouth, I put my head under the covers and fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks. 

The next morning was the same routine, Felix would come down and give us a fish and then we’d step outside to talk, hidden from peering eyes.

He looked up at me. I knew something was off. It was probably our conversation from yesterday still playing in his head. “I can’t keep doing this Piera.” I felt my whole world shift. “What do you mean, I know I was angry yesterday but—”

“I do like you Piera, but, the constant hiding…” His voice faded away and he looked down the beach. There were couples and families lined up one by one enjoying each other’s company. I felt anger building up from deep within. I knew he wanted more, but I couldn’t give him that, he knew I couldn’t so why would he string me along, out of pity?

“Why now? You could have done this, months earlier, years even. I don’t understand what’s caused this.”

“Every day I watch family after family walk down this pier and beach happy to be together and—” I cut him off midsentence.

“If we make this public, my life will be over. Why would you want to risk my life?” I stare at him waiting for a good enough answer.

After a long pause he finally told me the truth. “Because I’m not happy.”

I couldn’t even look at him. I turned away and started running down the beach. Everyone I passed stared at me and backed away. No matter what we do people think my kind are up to no good. My head kept telling me to run, I tried to listen to what my heart was saying, but I couldn’t. It was gone, it was a metal shell. I put my hand to my chest, I could feel my heartbeat. I felt the tears swell in my eyes.

I stopped and turned around, there was Felix standing in the alley gasping for air. “Piera, stop.” What could he possibly want, does he want to humiliate me more?

“What?” I yelled at him and tears started streaming down my cheeks, dripping off my jaw.

“Look, I’m sorry, it’s not you—” I looked at him with piercing eyes, I wiped away my tears. “It is me! It’s always been me. I thought you were better than this. I thought you accepted me.” A crowd started gathering, eyes staring directly at me. They all knew who I was, the girl with the weird dots, the weird friend, the weird life. He rushed at me and threw his arms around me. He tilted my head up and kissed me. “I’m sorry.”

He was working for them all along. I found out they paid him enough money to move to Athens and start his own fish business. He was smart: find a girl with a mark, make her fall for you, show affection to her in public where someone is ought to catch you, turn her in. It was simple.

I sat back against the cold concrete wall, it felt good on the bruises on my back from where the needles penetrated my skin. My stomach growled from hunger, but I couldn’t eat without puking. I laid down on the floor and curled into a ball. My lips were dry from dehydration, so I licked them in attempt to bring back the moisture. The door to my room opened and in walked Gabriele. The light from the hallway blinded me and I curled tighter into my ball covering my eyes. He approached me and I tried to lift my head up, but I was too weak. He crouched down and placed his hands around me. He picked me up, and I laid lifeless in his warm arms. It was the only comfort I have felt in weeks. He carried me to his car parked in front of the facility and laid me down in the back seat where he accompanied me. As the driver pulled forward, away from the place I thought was my end, in a soft tone Gabriele said, “you’re safe Piera.”

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

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