The sounds of the playing children echo off the marble walls of the lobby. There are twenty of them, of different ages. The windows are painted over so that, Temple assumes, the slugs don’t see them in here and start congregating outside. Large yellow floodlights are set up around the perimeter of the lobby to help out the diffuse sunlight absorbing through the thin layer of streaky brown paint.
She thinks of Malcolm, picturing him here among these other children. No doubt he would have wanted to go outside—he would have scraped the paint off the windows so he could see. But that was two years ago. He would be older than a lot of them now.
How many people you got here? Temple asks.
We have seven hundred and thirteen spread out between all four neighborhoods. You make seven hundred and fourteen.
The four buildings. We like to call them neighborhoods.
Is this all the kids?
Most of them. It’s hard for people to have children here. We have a doctor, but our medical facilities are limited. But also, it’s just hard for people to be . . . optimistic.
Ruby smiles broadly at her, as though she herself is the prime emissary of optimism.
I like your hat, she says, nodding at Temple’s panama. We don’t have any hats like that here.
Thanks. I like your nail polish.
Do you? Do you want some? Most of the women here don’t bother to paint their nails, so we have a lot left.
Ruby takes her back to the department store, to the cosmetics area, and shows her a rack of dusty glass bottles with a hundred different colors and names on the bottom that describe the colors. Temple settles on a kind of pink Ruby says is called Cotton Candy, even though she has no idea what cotton candy is—but it puts her in mind of lollipops made out of T-shirts.
Then Ruby rides the elevator with Temple up to the sixteenth floor, where Temple’s room is, a little office with a mattress on the floor and a table with a lamp and an artificial plant.
The bathroom is down the hall by the elevators, Ruby says apologetically. We have to share.
Thanks, Temple says. For the soda and the nail polish and the food and everything.
You’re very welcome. I’m glad you’re here with us. We’ll take care of you, Sarah Mary.
Temple says nothing. She tries to imagine staying here, in this place, with these people, and she is surprised to find the idea is not entirely objectionable to her. She wonders if this means she is growing up.
Oh and one more thing, Ruby says. You can go pretty much anywhere here, but it might be a good idea to avoid neighborhood four. That’s where most of our men stay, our unmarried men—the ones who go out patrolling—the ones who brought you in today. They’re very nice men, most of them, very considerate and gentlemanly. But sometimes when you put them together they can get a little rough. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about us, that’s all. We’re a nice community.
Then Ruby leaves, and Temple finds herself alone. She locates the bathrooms—there’s a communal one, but she enters the single next to it, the one meant for wheelchairs. She puts her gurkha knife on the edge of the sink and strips down to nothing and has a good wash with the cloth and towel Ruby has given her. Then she puts her head in the sink, letting her hair soak in the hot soapy water for a long time. Afterward, she combs it out and looks at herself good and hard in the mirror.
Blond hair, lean face with long eyelashes framing two bright blue eyes. She could be pretty. She tries to look more like a girl, holding herself in the way she’s seen girls do, pouting out her lips and lowering her chin and raising her eyebrows. Her little br**sts aren’t much of anything, and her bottom is flat—but she has seen glamorous women in magazines with bodies like hers, so she supposes it’s all right.
She dresses again with the new underpants Ruby got for her. They are cotton with roses all over them. Ruby also got her a brassiere, but she doesn’t put that on.
Back in her room, she paints her fingers and toes cotton candy pink—but she is sloppy and doesn’t have much patience so it gets all over her skin. Then she stretches herself out to let her nails dry and looks through the window at the darkening sky. The lights of the city come on as she watches. Some of them are on automatic timers, she supposes. But a few are real people like her.
She gets right up to the window and sees her breath cloud the glass, and she says good night to the sunlit world and feels the intense gravity of sleep press down on her, so she lays down on the mattress and puts her palms together and whispers a prayer and listens to the low hum of the building until her mind goes wide and dreams take her into the vast mazy open.
THE NEXT day she walks the buildings, smiling politely at the greetings she receives from the residents. They are happy to see a new face, they are happy to have their ranks swelled by one—another brick in the bulwark against the tide crashing against them from the outside. Some of them tell her stories of where they came from, the older ones spinning yarns about the world before. She has heard many versions of this story, but mostly they involve children riding bicycles down tree-lined streets in the afternoon. Picnics in parks. Going to grocery stores and meeting friendly people. Or camping trips without a care in the world except mosquito bites.
These stories have always sounded suspect to Temple—gilt-dipped in nostalgia. In her own experience she’s learned that happiness and sadness find their own level no matter what’s biting you, mosquitoes or meatskins.
She offers to help in the kitchen, where a bunch of women are making what seems to her an elaborate meal. They tell her she can crack a bowl of eggs—they have chicken coops and gardens on the roofs—but when they see how long it takes for her to pick out all the shells from the bowl they shoo her away, telling her just to relax and get acquainted. She can help in the kitchen another time.
That night she goes to the conference room that they’ve set up as a theater, and she sits in the dark with everyone else and watches an old movie they are projecting on a big screen. It’s a movie about spaceships and planets that look like deserts, and she watches, and a girl next to her hands her a bowl of popcorn and she takes some and passes it along.
The next day, though, she gets bored and antsy. She looks out the window on the third floor and watches the patrol leave the building and wind their way down the street like a tactical serpent. She likes the way they move, those men, like one body with many parts.
She can’t sleep that night and strolls the silent corridors of the buildings feeling her insomnia like a disease.