I sit impatiently on the bench outside of the courtroom with my heart pounding louder in my chest than I thought was possible. Apart from the handcuffs, I look like the perfect good girl I was raised to be: hair pinned neatly out of my face, dyed blonde and ironed curls bouncing at my shoulders; powder- blue bandage dress that covers my collarbone and falls right above my knees; black blazer with matching flats.
This is my first offense. I’m an upper-class citizen and nonviolent with a perfect GPA. They have to set my pardon fee at a reasonable level. My parents will be able to pay it in two hours, and I’ll be home tonight in my bed in my parents’ house, with my cat and some hot cocoa, and I’ll have a normal birthday, like I was supposed to have today. We will go to the lake house for the long weekend, and set off fireworks on Monday in honor of Robert E. Lee Day, just like we’ve done the past eighteen years. Everything will go back to normal and I will continue my nineteenth year just the same as always. I will return to my college in Houston and continue my fourth semester as an architecture major, and I will start working on my semester project next week. Everything will return to normal in just a few hours; that’s what I need to keep telling myself.
I know that what I did was wrong, but why don't I feel badly about it? I only feel a pang of guilt about the cost of the pardon fee my parents will have to pay. They were going to spend that money on my tuition for next semester, and now they'll have to waste it on my dumb mistake.
Inside the courtroom, they are almost done questioning all the girls from the attack, and then the other officers who participated, and some other witnesses from the club. Then I will be called in to hear the price of the pardon fee.
There are only two choices for those who commit crimes: pay an expensive pardon fee and have it exonerated from their public record forever, or be executed if the pardon fee cannot be paid. This law makes for a more peaceful lower class. It also makes for some nasty people in the upper class because it gives real criminals a chance to walk away, and just continue the cycle.
But we don't talk about that. No one does. It’s not polite to talk about such things. When my father was arrested for a bar fight when I was ten, and came back five hours later like nothing had happened, my mother slapped me for asking why he didn't get in trouble for being bad. That’s when I started to realize that I might be a bad person, because I kept getting scolded for going against the grain and asking questions instead of just accepting things as they happened, like everyone else in the world. I learned to shut up, eventually.
I am a very impatient person, I’ve decided. I didn't used to think so, that I was just determined and energetic, using the skills I was taught to be a productive young lady at the finishing school where I lived for four years. Now, however, as I’m sitting here waiting, I see that it is impatience. Impatience and anxiety and the inability to sit with my own thoughts. I wait outside the courtroom, handcuffed to the bench, alone except for the passersby. I watch their reflections in the white marble floors and walls, the lights of the airlift meeting and then falling away from each other in the reflection. It is mid-January, and even though it doesn't usually get very cold in Houston in the winter, the wind blowing in from the front door as it opens and closes makes me shiver and shake uncontrollably.
The electric whoosh of the courtroom doors sliding open makes me look up, and I see one of the girls that was attacked being escorted out of the courtroom. I perk up a bit and try to listen to the clamor inside, but the doors shut quickly behind her. I think I remember hearing that her name is Mary. She is tall and skinny with long brown hair, and she looks much older than she is. She looks more like sixteen, not twelve, and the pang of sympathy goes through my chest again as I think about what happened to her, maybe because of how old she looks, knowing that she’ll be blamed for what happened to her simply because she looks a certain way. As she enters the airlift and the glass doors slide closed in front of her, she looks at me with teary eyes. It is a look I have never seen before, and it sends chills through my entire core. It is not a sad look or a happy look, or even angry. She looks at me with a certain kind of fright, and admiration.
Maybe I’m just trying to justify what I did, by making it a right act and not a wrong one. That makes me an even worse person than I am. I watch as she rises through the glass tube to the floors above, and I see her smile at me. It sends another shiver down my spine.
All five of the girls leave the courtroom within the hour, and they all give me strange looks that I’m not quite sure how to interpret, just as Mary did. Some of the girls have been crying and it is hard for me to look at that, knowing the fear they felt, seeing it, hearing it, being inside of it. My emotions are all over the place and I feel like my body is being torn in half from the guilt of my crime and the justification I can’t help but think to myself when the heat rises in my cheeks.
Just when I think time will never pass and I will be stuck in this white hallway for all eternity, the doors open again and I am being escorted in. I stand in front of the judge again and await my fate. He is old and fat and ugly and I hate him because he is judging me. The room is silent aside from the judge flipping through pages on his computer in front of him, humming to himself. A few minutes pass and I roll back and forth from my heels to the balls of my feet and back.
The judge clears his throat and looks hard at me over his thin glasses. “Miss Montgomery,” he starts, “we’ve been in this courtroom for a long time discussing your case. It has been perplexing to us why a young woman of your upbringing and values would act in such a violent way against a respected member of authority in our community. However,” he takes off his glasses and sighs deeply before he continues, “I do find you guilty for the attempted murder of Officer Kinney, and there will be no pardon fee.”
My throat closes and I feel cold. I will be executed, probably within the hour. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’ve never heard of someone being denied a pardon fee before.
“But I do have a proposal for you,” the judge continues, “because you do not fit the typical characteristics of a person who would commit this offense, you have caught the attention of some very important people. They would like to offer you a chance at redemption for your crime by participating in the Studies of Criminal Behavior in Upper Class Adolescents at the Penal Research Facility in California. It does require a small fee, but your family will be able to pay it with the money they have already put down for your pardon.”
Someone else besides the judge and jury has already looked at my case? I didn’t know that things like this ever went beyond a courtroom.
“So, I will give you the freedom of choice right now,” the judge continues. “You can choose to be executed tonight, saving your family the trouble of the fee and embarrassment, or you can serve your country with the last remaining dignity you have, and participate in this study.”
I have never been to California, and I didn't even know that anything still existed there. It is no longer a state. It became a territory of the United States as part of a treaty to end the Civil War in the 21st century. From what I’ve learned in school, they couldn't sustain themselves for more than a few years and everyone either died out or pleaded to become citizens again. California is dead and toxic now.
The thought of an entire research facility being run by the United States in a broken territory seems humorous; I just thought that it would be full of crazy people who were the product of those who fled there during the War. I gulp down the bile that rises in my throat as I think about being anywhere other than the clean metropolitan area of Houston that I love more than anything. I also don't want to die, obviously, so it’s not like I have a choice.
I nod my head slowly, not looking up at the judge. “Okay,” I say, “I want to participate.”
“That’s a wise choice, Miss Montgomery. It would have been a pity to waste such a pretty girl.” The judge says it as if being pretty is what saved me. Being pretty isn't what saved me, and being pretty didn't save those girls from being attacked. I hold back a snarl and glare at him. Being crazy enough to grab the attention of some research facility is what saved me. “Your train will leave in the morning. I suggest you use this second chance to reflect on your wrong- doings and figure out a way to atone. May God be with you.”
It is very early in the morning, and it has begun raining. I am standing on the train platform under the awning, still handcuffed and in my blue dress. I had to sleep in it, in a cell along with three other young people in handcuffs wearing suits and dresses. A girl with short brown hair turns around and wrinkles her nose slightly at me, and furrows her thin eyebrows. I’m not sure why she is being so hostile towards me, but I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to serve my time and survive. Next to her is a very short girl with pale, freckled skin and stick straight ashy brown hair cut in a perfect line just below her shoulders. She wears a thick black headband that pushes her hair out of her face, making her look younger than she probably is, most likely to get the judge to take it easy on her— I still can’t tell if what he did for us was a favor or not.
The only boy is standing next to me and smiling. He has darker skin and curly hair cut neatly and wears thick frame glasses and a very well-fitting suit. He notices me looking at him and he smiles wider. I turn and look forward, biting my cheeks. His cheeriness is unsettling, but it has been the first smile I’ve seen in days.
We have one guard each standing with us, all yawning. Some of them talk about their plans for the long weekend, or what sporting event was last playing. Time seems to be passing slowly, mostly because it’s cold outside and the wind is sending the rain into the protection of the awning, and I want to be inside where it’s warm.
The train comes winding around the corner of my vision, rising a foot above the magnetic track. It approaches at such a velocity I’m not sure if it’s going to stop, but sure enough the metallic blur stops so gently and suddenly I’m surprised how anyone couldn't be thrown from their seats. It must be one of those new high speed bullet trains, the ones that only politicians and celebrities can afford to ride on. My parents couldn't even afford a ticket from Houston to New York for Fashion Week this year.
My heart starts racing a bit, as the reality of my choice finally settles in. I’m not sure when I’ll ever see my friends and family again. I wasn't even allowed to see them after my arrest, nor did I see them in the courtroom, but I know that they paid the fee for me for me to be a participant in the study. The fourth car stops in front of us and the doors slide open silently. Two women stand at the entrance of the car, not stepping out. The first woman smiles widely with her lips pressed closed as she looks over us. She has yellow blonde hair that is cut below her ears and is tucked behind them. Her white dress is so immaculate it is too bright against the gloomy morning sky and metallic train.
“Hello,” she says in a warm voice. “My name is Dr. Packer. You may call me Esther, if you'd like, or Dr. Packer, whichever you are more comfortable with. I am one of the researchers at the Penal Research Facility. You unfortunately will have to remain in your handcuffs for the majority of the ride, but they can be taken off for a rest time in your own secure cabin. We will be taking some detours in order to pick up other participants, which will delay our arrival to later this evening, rather than this afternoon.”
I twist my wrists around in the soft metal, my anxiety is rising slightly.
The other woman is older with dark skin that is very glossy and bright on her face but dry on her knuckles. She wrings her fingers and rubs her palms like a nervous habit and I can see why her hands look worn. Her thin glasses rest on the end of her nose and she looks over them pensively.
She clears her throat before she speaks. “I am Dr. Davies, I am also one of the researchers you will be dealing with,” she says. She sounds impatient or tired, but I can tell she is going to keep reminding me of what I am: a criminal. “If you will, please, line up so I can check you into our system.”
We reluctantly line up in front of the doors in the rain and Dr. Davies scans our IDs into an attachment on her glass tablet, which shows our detainment picture. She then presses and holds our file until it gives a happy little beep tone. One by one we step up into the train car. I am amazed at the luxury. I will need to continue reminding myself that this is not a vacation; I am a prisoner who committed a heinous crime.
The car is designed in what must be pre-war fashion, but probably much older, including dark carpets and mahogany furnishings. It looks like a little living room, much like the one my parents have in our city apartment, and makes me ache with longing. There are rows of plush single seats lining the windows facing inward, along with two sets of couches in the middle with a coffee table between them.
“This looks old,” the girl with the short hair says under her breath, with a hint of judgement or disgust.
Dr. Davies looks at her like she could light her on fire. “My late husband designed this train, specifically for the Facility, thirty years ago. He had a love of history and designed this car much like the cars you would find in the very first steam engine trains.” The girl with the short hair lowers her head.
“Was your husband a researcher, too?” asks the shorter girl.
“No dear, but he was an engineer and architect, and helped found the Facility by being one of the main patrons,” Dr. Davies responds, smiling and beaming with pride. I didn't know the research center was that old, I had never even heard of it before last night. I didn't know that human research was still a thing, even. But maybe I just don't know enough to pay attention to that sort of thing, since I learned to stopped questioning things when I was thirteen.
“Follow me,” she says and leads us to the car behind, which looks very similar to the first but with a different color scheme. We walk through it into another car behind it, which is a narrow hallway with two doors on either side. We continue through two more similar cars and stop in the fourth. “These are your private cabins, you can choose to spend your time in here or roam the train as you please.”
“Have you eaten breakfast yet?” she asks. We all shake our heads, we haven't been fed anything satisfactory in a while, and the question makes all our stomachs groan in unison. She clicks her tongue against her teeth and shakes her head vigorously as she opens the door into another cabin car, and says “absolutely unacceptable.”
The smell of eggs and bread waft over me and I salivate.
“This is the dining car; breakfast hour is until 7:30, so hurry and grab something before the others eat it all.”
There are others here already? I look past the three kids and Dr. Davies at the far corner where four boys are sitting eating platefuls of eggs and muffins. They look up at us momentarily, then return to their food.
“Lunch is served at 1pm and we will have tea in the first two cars you saw at 5:30pm, before we arrive at the Facility. Please, enjoy your breakfast and don't hesitate to come to me or Dr. Packer if you have any questions. We will be in the front of the train.” She moves around us and exits, leaving us standing there awkwardly.
The boy that came here with us is the first to move toward the food. He grabs a plate and holds it out to me, because I am the closest. I stare at the plate for a moment and he nudges it a little closer to me, raising his eyebrows. I grab the plate and smile at him. “Thank you.” I stand next to him in line, where he piles scrambled eggs onto half of his plate. I’m about to grab the next spoon to put some on mine when he puts a big spoonful onto my plate for me.
He smiles and says, “you look like you could use some protein.”
I laugh a little. “Yeah after the three stale rolls a day they gave us, I could eat a pound of bacon.”
He’s the first person to be friendly with me or show me any kindness since my arrest, so I don't question it. There is, in fact, bacon on the table and my heart jumps for joy.
I walk my plate over to one of the tables by the window and start shoveling food into my mouth, with difficulty because of the handcuffs. I almost forget I have them on at first and fling my other wrist into my face as I lift the fork to my mouth. I experiment, and discover it’s easiest to fold my fingers into the other palm and find a rhythm of devouring.
The boy comes over and asks if he can sit with me, to which I say “of course!”
“My name is Bert.” He sits and extends his hand across the table.
I take it and swallow the food in my mouth. Bert sounds like a nickname, and it reminds me of how the headmistress at the finishing school refused to call us by our nicknames because they were considered to be of low class.
“Evelyn,” I reply. “Is that short for Albert?”
“Humbert, actually,” he says with a sigh. I wrinkle my nose and stifle a giggle. He laughs and nods his head. “I know, I know. Totally lame. My parents are literary fanatics—professors at the college, and all of my siblings also possess outdated pre-war character names. I was born during their Nabokov stage.”
“Wasn’t Humbert the villain?” I ask with another mouthful of food, remembering the storyline of Lolita clearly. I think I read it recently. Bert swallows and shrugs.
“Yeah, but I was a boy so they couldn't name me Dolores.”
“They could’ve just gone with Vladimir,” I counter. “But Bert is good. It suits you.” I smile and he smiles back while chewing. We sit in silence for a while, unsure of what else to talk about or if it’s even appropriate to talk about the elephant in the room: the reason we are here. Maybe I shouldn't be so friendly with a criminal, even though I am one too. I don't know what his crime is, if it’s worse than mine or if he's violent. I start to regret accepting the invitation for conversation.
Two of the four boys sitting in the corner walk over and sit in the seats right next to me and Bert.
I scoot farther away from them and give Bert an inquisitive look. He returns it and looks at the two boys. “Um, hi.”
They are both older than us, maybe in their early twenties with light but tanned skin, like they spend a lot of time outside. They ignore him and look at me instead.
“Why aren't you sitting with the other girls?” the one next to me asks and gestures to the table behind us.
“Why do you care?” I spit back. I am already annoyed by him for some reason, maybe his arrogance is seeping through his skin and puts me off. He raises his eyebrows in surprise at my sharpness and laughs a bit, turning toward the other boy across from him.
“No need to get hostile, doll, we just came over here to introduce ourselves.” He smiles widely at me. I can’t tell if it’s a genuine smile or if he has some sort of ulterior motive, but maybe my paranoia is just at an all-time high, being around a bunch of fellow criminals and all.
“I’m Ethan, and this is my brother David,” Ethan says.
They don't look much like brothers, except for the brown hair and pinkish complexion. Ethan looks much sharper, with a narrow face and a square nose, whereas David has softer features like a rounder face and longer eyelashes. Genetics are strange, I think to myself.
“We're from Atlanta.” Ethan extends his cuffed hand out to me and I unenthusiastically take it.
“I’m Evelyn, and this is Bert. We’re from Houston,” I say. I widen my eyes as I turn away from them, almost like I’m trying to roll my eyes without seeming rude. Bert catches it and bites his full lips to suppress a smile.
Ethan scoffs or chuckles a bit and rises from the chair, but leans in close to my ear and says, “Catch you at lunch, doll.”
This time I really do roll my eyes. His act gives me the creeps.
David stays in his seat and watches as his brother walks away. “Sorry about my brother, he’s a bit much to most people. He’s honestly a bit much for me most days.” He smiles at me and turns to Bert, offering a hand. “Nice to meet you Bert, Evelyn.” Bert takes his hand, and then David offers his to me. We shake and I feel more at ease. David seems nice and genuine; I can tell he's someone I would want to be friends with. If I should even be making friends.
After I’m done eating I tell Bert that I need to lie down and make my way to the cabin car. I tap my ID against the scanner on the door that says my name and it beeps, a green light flashes, and it slides open. The door closes once I’m inside and an automated female voice tells me “please insert hands into magnetized area for un-cuffing.” There is a rectangular box on the wall next to the door that is lit with bright white light. I place my hands inside. The box makes a low buzzing sound for a few seconds and then removes the magnetic handcuffs from my wrists, locking the door audibly with a click at the same time.
I rub my wrists feeling overwhelming relief to have a moment of freedom, in a locked room. The cabin is plain, with only a wide red seat that could act as a bed, a stack of blankets and pillows, and a small cupboard containing a toilet and a sink with a small mirror. I slip my shoes off and wrap myself in a scratchy blanket on the seat, staring out the window. The rain has stopped and the skies are bluer with only a few fluffy clouds but I’m not sure where we are. The mountains are for the most part bare with no trees, just dirt, and a few small houses. I blink a few times and somehow fall asleep with my head pressed against the window.
I’m awoken by the surge of the train moving forward again. We must have just picked up some new people. I look out the window and see a city with tall chrome buildings surrounding the train station, a typical bustling Thursday in any metropolitan area. I consider going out to see who the new people are, but I’ve barely met the people who were already on the train. I think it’s best to try and remember that I am not here to make friends, I am here to pay my dues.
About an hour later a soft bell rings. I look at the clock above the door and remember that lunch is being served. I’m surprised that I’m already hungry again. I slip on my shoes and put my hands back in the magnetized box where the handcuffs still rest inside. There is a buzzing sound as the cuffs click back together and become magnetized to one another again. The door lock clicks.
I make my way out to the dining car again and the line is long for food. Bert is at the front of the line, again, piling food onto his plate and laughing with David. The youngest girl with the headband is the last in line. She smiles at me when I get in line behind her. I decide she's probably more scared than I am and that she could probably use a friend. “Hi,” I say. “My name’s Evelyn.”
“I’m Susan,” she says in a light, singing voice. Her two front teeth are a little crooked and slightly bigger than the rest of her teeth, making her look very young. Puberty is the worst, and having to go through it whilst incarcerated must be terrifying.
I make a bold move and ask her how she's feeling. “Oh, I’m fine!” she says cheerfully. “My father told me once when I was little that I have family in California, so I’m hoping to see them while we’re there. I’m also happy to, you know, not be dead.”
She makes a good point. Maybe I should be happier like everyone seems to be.
“Yeah, of course,” I say. I’m thinking about another bold move and my lack of impulse control takes over and I ask her, “Um, how old are you exactly?”
“I’m turning fifteen next week. I was supposed to go to the ballet that night, oh well.”
I must be giving Susan a bewildered look at the mention of how old she is, because her confidence seems to dwindle. She clears her throat and looks down at her shoes. I feel bad that I reacted so negatively.
“Well, if we’re able to interact with each other or if we have any downtime that day, I’ll be happy to hang out with you on your birthday,” I tell her. I know how disappointing birthdays can be. “It was my nineteenth birthday yesterday… the day I got sentenced.” I consider how I felt like that was the worst thing to ever happen on a birthday, but how everyone seems so relieved to be alive instead of executed. “Being given another chance was probably the best birthday gift I could have received.”
“I agree,” Susan says with a large smile, showing her cute crooked teeth. “I would love to spend that day with you, thanks.” Despite how young she looks, she has an air of maturity and experience to her voice and posture, and it makes me curious about her charges.
Susan goes to sit with Ethan and another boy, who I assume she must have made acquaintances with while I was hiding out in my cabin. I decide to sit with Bert and David and start cutting a piece of chicken parmesan into small pieces. “Oh look, there’s that girl that just got on an hour ago.” Bert points to a tiny and slender girl with cool russet skin, and iron pressed hair dyed bright red. She looks nervous and the sympathy inside of me pangs against my heart. I get up and go over to the red-haired girl.
“Hi,” I say. “Would you like to come sit with us? I’m Evelyn.” I speak softly; there are a few beads of sweat on her temple, even though it’s cold outside. She seems unsure but nods and follows me back to the table and sits next to David. We all introduce ourselves to her and she tells us her name is Crystal. I am unsure of how old she is, even through I’m pretty good at guessing most of the time.
After a few moments of silence created by our eating, Crystal clears her throat and says “So, what’s everyone in for?”
We all look up, surprised. We glance at one another, unsure if we want to shatter the illusion of friendship we’ve created.
“What?” she says when no one answers.
“I’m not sure if we’re allowed to talk about that with each other, right?” David answers.
“They didn't say anything about not talking about it,” Crystal retorts.
I’m still feeling wary about it, and I can tell from their silence that David and Bert share my feelings.
“Fine, I’ll go first then. Breaking and entering.” She says it so matter of factly and casually, like we’re talking about homework.
David perks up a little hearing this. “Oh, me too.”
Crystal raises her eyebrows and gives a little smirk. David blushes and looks back at his plate, moving food around with his fork.
Crystal looks between Bert and me, patiently waiting for us to answer.
“Come on!” she says. “It’s okay, I’m not going to judge you.” She smiles sweetly at Bert. I can tell she's a flirt and I like that about her. I bet she would have been a fun friend before.
“If you must know, aggravated assault,” Bert says. A burn of surprise and caution rises in my chest. He seems so nice, like someone I could really be friends with, but I cannot stand angry men. I vow to myself right then and there to not talk to him after this.
Ethan comes up to our table. “Oh nice, you guys are sharing your charges over here too? I left the two drug lords sharing war stories with one another.” He points to the table where Susan is sitting.
“Who? Susan?” I blurt out.
“Yeah,” Ethan says with an impressed look on his face. I want to smack it off of him. “She and Kristof there have had some crazy lives.” I cannot believe for one second that a sweet looking almost fifteen-year-old could possibly be a dealer.
I look over and see her speaking animatedly. She must be telling some story to Kristof, a big bulky guy with sandy blonde hair slicked back.
“Guess you've heard about me and David’s story of breaking into the governor’s mansion then?” Ethan asks.
David sighs and ducks his head.
“No? Oh man you gotta hear this.” Ethan starts his story but I’m barely listening from the blood pulsing in my ears. All my life I was told that people who do these kinds of crimes are lowlifes, poorly educated, lower class citizens, people desperate for money and drugs. But these are all just kids, like me, who made a mistake or just got caught doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“What about you, doll?” Ethan says. “What'd you do? Wear summer colors to the winter dance?” He laughs, and the sound of his staccato brays aggravates me like no other.
“Attempted murder,” I blurt. I wasn't really planning on sharing but I feel the need to show Ethan that I’m not someone he can make fun of or call ‘doll’ whenever he feels like it.
“No shit? Wow,” he returns.
I was hoping I proved my point and got him to shut up, but I realize most everyone in the dining car had gathered around to hear Ethan's story, and now they’re looking at me, waiting for mine. I search their faces, and I don't like what I see. I just wanted to blend in and serve my time, not stand out, but now everyone sees me as vicious and dangerous, something I’ve never been.
I glance at Bert sitting next to me and his face is blank, maybe thinking the same thing I was about him. I feel guilty. And sick. I really don't know how to act in this situation. All of the normal morals I had before don't apply to anything I’m experiencing now. These people are not beneath me, they are my equals. Was I higher than them and lowered to their level? Or have we always been on the same level? Have I always been a killer waiting to explode?
I don't know anything anymore and I suddenly feel dizzy from the bumping and curving of the train. I get up abruptly, and leave the dining car and all those staring eyes behind. As soon as the door to my cabin locks and my cuffs are off, I feel the tightness in my chest start to bubble upwards to my constricted throat. The roaring in my ears is pulsating in my eyes and I sink to the floor against the door. I cry and have the worst panic attack of my life. This is exactly why I don't like being left with my thoughts, because I feel like I don't know who I really am. I feel like a tornado when I don't follow the guidelines of my life that were set up for me. I’m not crashing into other people’s lives and destroying everything they've known… except for my parents, I now realize… but it’s my own life that I have ruined by acting out. I have no idea who Evelyn even is anymore, if I ever did.