“Where is your child?”
“Where is your child, Lady Banton?”
She smiled contentedly.
“Lady Banton, did you kill your husband? Where have you hidden your child? Is the child alive? Help me. Make me understand what has happened. I can’t defend you if you don’t.”
Her smile collapses into a grimace, and then curls back into a resolute smirk. “You can’t understand, and there’s no point in trying to defend me.”
“But I can try. Will you let me try, at the very least?”
Her eyes are bloodshot, her skin puffy and soiled. The bareness of her feet makes me uncomfortable.
“Fine,” she whispers, as if I’m inconveniencing her with my persistence. “Actually, perhaps you can offer me some clarity, make sense of what I haven’t been able to.”
“Of course,” I say in as even a tone as I can muster, readying my quill. “Please, start at the beginning and describe everything.”
“The beginning?” She laughs. “Oh, Lord.”
Well, I first discovered what I can do when I was five years old. My mother had taken me for sweets on Philomena Road. That was the first time I had been in a dispensary and seen one of the massive machines that create our goods, the lockhatch attached to its base.
I remember the lockhatch looking profane to me, the glowing monitor displaying INSERT KEY though I couldn’t read this at the time. It had the round brass keyhole under it, and the silver door under that. My mother inserted her key and, being Class Prime, the monitor displayed CLASS PRIME: DISPENSING 10 RATIONS. The silver door opened, and, like magic, out slid ten pieces of licorice.
How is this related to—
It turned out I had forgotten my key at home. Mother said going home with no candy would be a lesson unto me: “One’s key should be on one’s person at all times.”
Looking back, it was a good lesson. But, oh, you can’t imagine my rage at the time. When my mother’s back was turned, I waddled up the lockhatch and placed my little chubby hands on its brass keyhole. I felt as though I could infuse the machine with my anger. I imagined the insides of the lock, hard metal intestines. In my mind I twisted them, made them rupture and implode. I began hearing small clicking sounds. TINK TINK TINK. I imagined gears shifting, springs releasing, small pins falling into place, and then–CLASS PRIME: DISPENSING 10 RATIONS, and out of the silver door shot ten whole pieces of beautiful licorice.
You manipulated the lockhatch, unlocked it without your key?
Yes. Do you believe me?
It is far-fetched, but I’ll reserve my judgment. How did you feel about having this power?
Honestly, even as a young person I realized that the—”talent,” I would call it–was wasted on me. My family is Class Prime. If I weren’t incarcerated, I could walk to Philomena right now and dispense ten pieces of licorice, then ten of butterscotch drops, and ten of cotton candy tufts, and return there tomorrow and do it all again. I’ve never really wanted for anything. What class are you? What can your key unlock?
It is extremely impolite to ask me that. I take offense.
Humor a poor criminal.
I’m . . . Class Tert. I can unlock basic necessities like meat, water, and cloth once a week, five dispenses per unlock. Every other week I can unlock luxuries like candy.
I could have sworn Class Tert could unlock twice a week. Regardless, do you see? You have much more use of this ability than I do. And poor Class Qua, they can only unlock basic necessities once a month, with no luxuries to speak of. [Have you ever been to the ghettos of the Dome? Aberdeen or Landsdowne?
Class Qua is constantly on the verge of starvation. The ones who work for higher classes as servants and laborers are paid with those classes’ excess dispenses, but those who can’t secure such jobs usually don’t live very long. They end up working the machines within Dome walls for petty government handouts. And in order to operate the machinery in those walls, they must amputate their arms from the elbows down, so that necessary tools can be attached. Some of Class Qua even become part of . . . my point is,] my ability should have been granted to a lesser class. That would have been fair. But I’ve learned that fate doesn’t tend toward such fairness. It prefers to shake our lives and watch us rattle.
Fine. Because I didn’t really need my ability, I hardly ever put it to use. Every once in a while I would unlock a scarf or some new shoes without my key, for a lark, but it didn’t impact my life much. In fact, other than my family’s authority in the Dome, my life was mostly boring until I turned sixteen and was married to Ambrose–
You are ready to discuss your husband?
I suppose so. As you know, my family, the Burresses, own nearly a fifth of the Dome. The Banton’s own about a third. It was decided that, in order to solidify the Banton’s influence in the Dome, our families would be joined, and Ambrose would be the figurehead of that influence. I was offered as the most eligible bride in my family. It was hilarious when my mother sat me down to discuss a woman’s “duties” to her husband. Pressing palms together, rubbing my undone hair across his bare chest, touching each other’s faces.
She even took me to witness a conception at a procreation facility. I saw the husband and wife each insert their key into the massive procreational lockhatch’s double-keyhole, I heard the unearthly moan of birth from the machine, and I saw the infant, smothered in green lather, slide out of the silver door and onto the tray, the same way our food and clothing is dispensed.
The lockhatch’s monitor read CLASS PRIME: DISPENSING EQUIVOLENT CHILD. Clenched in the infant’s delicate fist was his class key, and glowing faintly under the skin of his heaving chest was the metallic chip that would synchronize him with his key so that only he could use it. My mother’s talk of married bedtime activities was ridiculous, but witnessing birth actually made me excited for marriage and the mystery and grandness of creating new life.
Given the state of your husband, I take it the marriage itself did not meet expectations?
Honestly, for the first few years it was boring. I hardly ever saw him. He spent every day out with men whom he referred to as business colleagues. We dined in the evenings and made small-talk, touched palms at night–
Madame, please refrain from vulgarity, I beg of you.
I’m a dead woman, solicitor. The dead are incapable of vulgarity.
Don’t be pessimistic. Depending on the information you give me, I may be able to argue imprisonment over death.
We’re digressing. I’d like to discuss my husband’s business dealings now, and how I discovered them.
The Bantons are in the business of maintaining inter-dome zeppelin travel are they not?
They’re in the business of murder.
I need a rest from the woman’s voice and excuse myself. After leaving her cell, I walk to the coroner’s lab downstairs, dabbing sweat from my brow. I dislike perspiration.
“What was the cause of the husband’s death?” I ask the coroner.
The man sinks his teeth into his lower lip. “Nothing I’m familiar with. His heart tissue is shredded, but there are no external wounds or bruising and, so far, no signs of poisoning. It’s as though he was damaged from the inside. If I were a less practical man, I’d suspect some sort of witchcraft.”
“Be serious, doctor.”
“Then, in all seriousness, you may have a decent defense. It will be hard for the prosecution to prove foul play.”
I return to the woman’s cell and sit next to her on her cot.
“Lady Banton, I need to know if you killed your husband.”
“Shall I continue, then?”
This is taking much longer than I anticipated. “Yes, by all means.”
Because married life was less exciting than I had hoped, I became terribly, horribly restless. I began wandering away from home during the afternoons, frequenting Philomena Road for sweets. Looking back, I suppose that traveling to the same locations every day made me a prime target for kidnapping, which is exactly what happened.
I was taking a shortcut between the butterscotch and toffee dispensories when I was hit over the head, I think, and lost consciousness. I woke in a cell, not unlike this one, a group of men standing on the other side of the bars.
They explained that they were Class Quas, disgruntled laborers who intended to destroy the Banton family. They were going to use me as a tool to gain the attention of Ambrose, a sort of bargaining chip. When I asked them why they wanted the Bantons destroyed, an elderly man explained what Ambrose and his “business colleagues” were really involved in.
As you know, a child’s class is determined when they are born.
Yes, they inherit the class of their parents.
Not always. Sometimes the class assigned is random. No one discusses this openly, so it never comes to light, but every once in a while a Class Prime couple will dispense a Class Duece, Tert, or Quas child. The child is always killed so that the family’s class purity will remain.
And the same occurs among the lower classes. Sometimes a Class Quas couple will dispense a Class Prime child.
That would be an excellent boon for their family.
Yes it would be, if not for the Bantons. As the most powerful family in the Dome, they are bent on maintaining the current status quo. Therefore, they install spies among the lower classes to monitor when a child is to be dispensed. If the child’s class is higher than it should be, the spy kills the child and its parents as well.
You are telling me they murder families?
Technically, no, they don’t kill the families themselves. The spies they employ are from the lower classes. They choose candidates at random and steal their keys so that they cannot dispense food or goods for themselves or their families. Then they coerce the poor fools into spying and killing in return for sustenance. Hunger is a powerful motivator.
If what they told you is true, I would not blame you for hating your husband and his family.
I didn’t believe them then, though I pretended that I did and waited for them to leave me alone. Then I used my talent at unlocking to undo the lock on the bars and escape. I’m not entirely sure how I managed, but I did. Once outside I realized that their makeshift base was not more than a few buildings away from Philomena Road, and so I was able to make my way back with relative ease.
Did you confront your husband?
Not at first, I was so shaken. But after a week or so, I began having nightmares about dead infants, bloody hands, and the Class Quas coming to kill me. It drove me mad, so after a few more weeks, I summoned the courage to ask him for the truth.
How did he react?
He yelled, denied, hit me. And then–he did something to me. He tore my clothes from my body and did something. I don’t have the words to describe what he did, and I still don’t.
It was a terror, how he overpowered and humiliated me. And the worst part was that, like scratching a terrible itch, it felt somehow pleasant, but that sensation offered no relief and even added to the pain.
I became sick shortly after, and the sickness carried on for months on end. I feared he had infected me with some horrific disease. I was quarantined to my bedroom and didn’t leave. I spoke to no one, wondered about the dead families, dreamt of them. My organs inflamed and my stomach engorged. Then . . .
Well, I’ll spare you the details, squeamish as you are. I will say that I did recover, and soon after we . . . dispensed our son.
But how he violated me, and the mysteries of that sickness and how my recovery came about, and the oddness of our son, who had been, unfortunately, born without a key, all pressed on me. It drove me off the edge of whatever precipice I had been balancing on until then.
And so, one morning, in a fit of rage and confusion, an idea dawned on me. After a few hours of contemplating it, I went into Ambrose’s bedroom, placed my hand on his chest, as though I were showing affection, and imagined the chip under the skin of his chest. I imagined it moving, navigating the soft flesh of his organs, wandering his heart. Tissue tearing, humour violating new spaces, his heart unlocking for me. And like a silver door, his mouth dispensed blood, my prize. Like a lockhatch in a dispensary.
So, you are admitting guilt, Lady Banton?
“It doesn’t matter if I am. Arraignment for execution, murder: one way or another, you’re going to see me dead. Isn’t that what you were sent here for?”
I stare into her knowing eyes, reflective eyes which contain me on their surfaces, distorting my face and body.
“Lady Banton, in my professional opinion–”
“Don’t talk law if you’re not qualified to do so. You’re no solicitor, though you’re a talented imposter.”
Her smug face.
“Really?” I ask. (Perhaps show some movement or action here. Is the “solicitor” agitated or nervous? It will set up how the reader interprets his words to Lady Banton in the argument below.)
“You’re not Class Tert. You would have known the exact amount you can dispense per day and week off the top of your head. You were wrong: it’s twice a week for basic necessities and once every three months for luxuries. Tell me, are you Deuce or Quas? How old were you when they stole your key? You seem so stuffy and particular–do they spoil you with special treatment because you kill the most families?”
“Why humor me with your story if you knew?”
“I didn’t at first, and when I did, well, unlike you all, I need time to brace myself for something as horrible as murder, justify it in my mind. I’m ready now.”
I draw my knife, but it flies out of my hand.
“It’s the metal that I manipulate,” she says. “I’m surprised you didn’t glean that.”
I am about to die.
“Where is the child?” I ask. (Why does he care? What is his goal? He works for the Banton’s but what is he trying to accomplish for him?)
A tear rolls down her cheek. “I couldn’t bear to raise the son of that man, but a nice Quas family is more than happy to.”
She places her hand on my chest.