The guard squashes Tarrare’s face to the vent letting air out of the kitchen, all hot metal against his cheek, and food smells and oil smells, and he can’t help it—he drools, actually drools, a little slug of saliva inching over his lip to roll down his chin.
The guard laughs and grinds his sweaty palm into the back of Tarrare’s neck. “Pathological,” he says.
With his hands cuffed short, Tarrare can’t even reach up to wipe his mouth. The spit starts to dry on his face. It’s not that the vent air smells good—it’s prison air, prison food. But he’s just so fucking hungry.
“Better enjoy it now,” the guard says. “You won’t be eating like you used to, in here.” There’s a note of disgust in his voice, and Tarrare thinks about saying that his appetite wasn’t so unnatural, he didn’t eat like that all the time—but he doesn’t. It isn’t really true.
Finally the hand on his neck lets up. Tarrare straightens, but keeps his head bowed. He likes to avoid trouble, when he can.
The guard prods him, and they walk on. This hallway is as long and empty as the one before it, all blank walls and closed doors without numbers or windows or knobs. The guard’s footsteps sound hollow on the concrete, but Tarrare is wearing soft-soled slip-ons and he walks silently.
At the end of the hall, a door slides open, gaping into the black hole of another room. A noise spills from it—a crackle and buzz, a soft sound like industrial lights or a TV set to an empty station.
They step into a little space with a door on either side, about the size of the walk-in closet at his house. His old house. The guard uncuffs him and the other door opens.
For a moment, Tarrare just stands dumb.
“Go through, asshole,” the guard says.
So he does. As the door’s sliding shut, he turns and catches a last glimpse of the guard’s face—round and pink and a little shiny, a skinned chicken breast sort of face. He’s saying clearly: “You’re going to rot in this place.”
And then the door is closed. No latch, no knob, no lock. Just closed. Yellow painted brick around it and no way out.
“This isn’t right,” Tarrare says. “It’s not supposed to be like this.”
Someone says, “Well, sure, it’s not the Four Seasons.”
He turns and looks. They’re all there, standing staggered around a room that looks like his high-school gymnasium. Lines on the floor and everything—things fluttering from the ceiling that could be state championship pennants.
A dozen people in pea-green jumpsuits and slip-on shoes, all staring like they’re waiting for him to do something interesting. Their faces carefully still. There’s a hierarchy here, a pecking order—he sees it, how they look at him like judges on some contest show, and maybe he doesn’t have a good swimsuit body but he’s sure as hell got something for the talent portion.
So he says, “Someone want to tell me when there’s meals around this place? If I don’t get fed pretty quick, I’m gonna eat my own shoes.”
“I’d like to see a man eat rubber,” says the man who’d spoken before. He’s tall and bald with a tattoo of the globe stretched across his skull. Here there be monsters is written just under his ear.
It’s just what Tarrare had hoped he would say. He starts to smile and then thinks better of it, because his smile has never suited him. It’s narrow and far too kind. “It’s nothing special,” he says, and stands on one foot. The shoe pops off in his hands and everyone’s still staring at him.
He grips the rim of the sole in his teeth, pausing to take in the smell of his own feet and the faint resin tang of the gym floor. Rubber squeaks in his teeth—he really doesn’t like the taste, but it’ll do, it’ll do right now. He’s so hungry. His belly is empty.
Nobody moves. He rips off the sole and tastes glue in his mouth. He tears the thing to shreds with his teeth and his fingers, making small pieces that he can swallow without chewing.
“What an animal,” somebody says, and he’s heard things like that before—but never in a tone so reverent.
The shoe travels down his gullet in a clotted lump of fabric and chemicals. His muscles work, pushing it down. It might quiet the bleat of his hunger, just for a minute.
When he’s done, Tarrare says, “Nice to meet you all.”
The globe-headed man steps up and holds out his hand. Tarrare hesitates for a moment and then takes it. The man’s skin is cool—a thin barrier for all that blood and meat.
“Welcome to P.E.,” the man says.
* * *
A woman named Priya is in P.E. for turning her daughters into trees. She says they have a better life now, so it’s all right. No one will touch them or hurt them—only admire their leaves and appreciate their shade. Tarrare thinks it’s both beautiful and naive. After all, there are some real sickos in this world.
They sit on the floor with their backs to the wall and watch the man with the globe on his skull—Jacob—dribbling an imaginary basketball up the court. Tarrare says, “So what is this place? Are they trying to rehabilitate us, or what?”
Priya laughs. “Do you think any of us could be rehabilitated? They just want to forget us. It’s a drawer for faulty parts.”
Tarrare works his fingers into the painted brick behind his back. His nails chip away at it, catching on little pits and imperfections. He wants to dig into the mortar, cart away stone by the handful. “Have you ever tried to escape?”
“Yes,” she says. “But now I don’t know if I remember how.”
P.E.’s an easy joke—because of the way the room looks, because they like to say that it stands for Prison Empire or Paying Extra or Perfectly Egalitarian.
“Potatoes and Eggs,” Tarrare says.
Priya snorts and asks him if he ever had an imagination, or if they took it from him when they took his clothes and his driver’s license and his real shoes. He tells her he’s a simple creature.
He likes Priya. When meals come—always appearing just inside the door, which no one ever seems to notice opening—she shares with him. Puts aside some of her canned corn or cold soup. She says she’s small, and she doesn’t need that much, and it makes his heart swell with something like love. The feeling’s usually gone in a couple hours, though, when he burps up the last bubble of gas and his stomach settles back to a sunken pouch under his ribs.
“I suppose I just wanted too much,” Priya says. “Our expectations were too high.”
“All I want is to be full,” Tarrare says.
She nods, and she leaves. She spends a lot of time alone in the corner of the gym, singing quietly, braiding and rebraiding her hair until it looks like rope. Sometimes he watches her, the line of her throat as she sings and the quickness of her fingers. But always he remembers her daughters and looks away.
Of course, Tarrare’s not the only one there with insatiable hungers. Eventually Jacob sidles over, sometime after a meal of nutraloaf and instant potatoes. He sits down and scratches his head, his nails making weird white lines along the coast of Argentina.
“What did you eat to get sent here?” Jacob says.
Tarrare is careful about what he says next. He tries to think these things through. “I’ve tried everything once.”
Jacob bobs his head rapidly, a nod on repeat. He’s not really listening—his eyes are in the past. “I had a friend who was going to die,” he says. ” She was sick—you know? And I just couldn’t think about losing her. I didn’t want to be alone. You know how it is. It used to be so fucking lonely out there.”
“I know,” Tarrare says. His fingers scrabble at the wall. He’s chipped away a little hole there, and his hands come away coated in grit and dust.
As a kid, he’d had one of those betta fishes—the kind that they sell in tiny little five-dollar jars because they’re too violent to live among other fish. It wasn’t really a pet, not something that could fetch or play dead. But all the same it had been alive and it depended on him, and it had been hungry the way he was hungry—had dashed itself against the glass for a few dry worms. Its bones had cracked in his teeth with the most unsettling noise.
“I asked her—she was cool with it,” Jacob says. “It’s almost a little romantic, right? She’s part of me forever. They took everything from me, but they couldn’t take her. She’s part of me now.”
Tarrare licks his fingers slowly. The brick dust soft and heavy on his tongue. “Most of her, you shat out again.”
“What the hell, man, you’ve got no right to say that.” Jacob looks for a moment like he might strike out, throw a punch—but he doesn’t. Instead, his shoulders hunch and he draws his hands in close to his belly. “But I can feel her there, you know? With me. And so that makes the rest of this okay, because we’re together.”
It is a little romantic, Tarrare thinks, and he takes a pinch of crushed brick and swishes it around his mouth. It doesn’t taste like much. Just crunchy and bland, like some trendy ancient grain.
“That’s just the way it is,” Jacob says. “Some people just need to be kept inside. They need to be protected.”
“From people like us,” Tarrare says, and crushes rock between his teeth.
* * *
And the others: a murderer, a traitor, an identity thief. A psychic who sold secrets to tabloids; a man who stalled traffic on the interstate. There’s no real order to it, no class they all fit into. There’s a man who claims he did no wrong at all.
They’re all easy to talk to. Everyone knows they’re here for life, and there’s no escape or hope of parole. But it’s not so bad, right? They’re fed, watered, left alone.
“Animals in a zoo,” the identity thief says. “Only, no one’s watching.”
“That we know of,” Tarrare says. He knows. There’s cameras everywhere these days—on every street corner, at every gas station and greasy, out of the way hole where a man might go to find a little privacy. There’s a camera in those places, too.
“The greatest social experiment yet,” the identity thief says, and she cracks a smile.
They sit and eat their nutraloaf. Tarrare savors the six limp baby carrots that Priya set aside for him. They’d be better, maybe, with a little brick dust sprinkled on top. Just for texture.
Priya had smiled when she handed him the carrots. She’d folded her fingers around his hand and said, eat these—I don’t need them. She was so beautiful at that moment. Her hair braided in loops and knots and her fingerpads cool over his knuckles. Other people don’t like to touch him much. Maybe they’re afraid of what he might do.
The thief frowns and says, “You’re not looking so good, buddy.”
“Really?” Tarrare stretches out his hands for a moment, looks at his skin lying over his bones. It’s as it’s always been. Waxy, pale, a little bit slick like the skin of a fish. He sweats a lot; it’s probably genetic.
“Yeah. Your face, it’s all—and your teeth are all messed up.” The thief motions in a circle around her own face, which is childlike and sweet.
“I don’t know,” Tarrare says. “Maybe it’s all the artificial light.”
He knows, though: it’s his own stomach, hollowing him out from the inside.
“You want me to show you?” the thief offers. “I could change into you. Just for a minute, so you could see.”
She looks as sharp as Tarrare feels in the instant when they collect the food trays from their place by the door but before they’re put down to eat. That moment of anticipation. “Would I change into you, while you were being me?”
The thief shakes her head. Tarrare shrugs and says that he’s all right, for now. What a useful thing, though. To be able to slip a skin like that.
“Changing was always the best part, when I was outside,” the thief says. She picks up some nutraloaf and eats it with her fingers. “What came after, what I did with them—that was boring. No matter what, it was boring. But becoming someone. It’s really something.”
“They change again, I guess,” the thief says. “Into someone who’s been stolen by me.”
It’s not what Tarrare meant, but he lets it lie. “What would you do if they let you free?”
The thief drops the rest of the nutraloaf back to the tray and the plastic rattles on the gym floor. Tarrare has to stop himself from lunging forward to take it, to catch it in his teeth. “The same shit all over again, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Tarrare says. They sit in silence for the rest of the meal, watching each other eat. He thinks they’re probably both reliving it, that deep shameful thing that brought them to this place chained like beasts. For Tarrare, it’s the rush of blood in his teeth, the visceral god, that’s good, that really hit the spot—and then later, only later, the knowledge that he had done something unforgivable and needed to hide himself. He’d licked the blood up off the linoleum.
For the thief, he doesn’t know. Doesn’t want to know. How different can it be, really—just the same old song, transposed to another key. Boring as hell.
“I don’t want to go outside again,” the thief says, her voice rough. “I really don’t.”
Tarrare nods, but he doesn’t know. He often doesn’t know how he feels until afterward, looking back on events—and then he will think, oh, there’s a word for that, and it explains so much. They’d labeled him at trial, called him monster and maniac. And he’d thought: well, all right. Maybe. He eats the last of Priya’s baby carrots, and that warm feeling—love—puddles in his gut like an extra helping. He considers eating the tray.
* * *
“They could be gone now,” he says, because he’s hotcold with fever and so empty and the next meal is hours away yet. “You don’t know. Someone could have cut them down and turned them into pencils.”
“I didn’t turn my girls into cedars,” Priya says. She is lying back on the floor near the bleachers with her eyes closed, the harsh white light making hollows in her cheeks.
“Cedars,” she says. “It’s what they make pencils out of.”
“Oh,” he says, and he’d meant to say something else, had meant to carry that conversation to a point, but somehow this little thing stops him. He’d never even thought about the kind of wood they use to make pencils. “Do you miss them?” he says instead.
“Of course,” Priya says. “But I miss the sun more.”
Tarrare says nothing, because he’s never loved the sun. He brings his hand to his mouth and presses back, presses his lips until they go white and numb. He pushes a knuckle into the sharp points of his teeth.
* * *
And then Priya disappears one day, just like that. Tarrare goes to find her at mealtime, but she’s not there. The guards don’t even send in a tray for her. She’s just gone—no one saw her leave. Tarrare tries to think of when he last heard her singing.
Jacob shrugs. “People come and people go. There’s a lot of turnover. It’s not worth worrying about.”
“Maybe she got out,” offers the identity thief.
But when Tarrare finishes his tray—only his own food, nothing extra—he feels nothing but hunger. The meal didn’t even take the edge off. Like if he curls over too quickly, he’ll collapse into the vacuum of his own hollow, devouring stomach.
“I miss her,” he says.
“Sorry, man,” Jacob says. He pats his gut and smiles a small, private smile. Of course—Jacob’s loved ones are with him forever.
Tarrare can’t help but think he’s failed in some way.
* * *
The hunger doesn’t abate. No goddamned nutraloaf can fill it. He eats his other shoe, and it doesn’t help. Instead, he fills himself with stone. Crumbled brick and dust. He rips a pennant from the wall and tears it into shreds and devours it. The words printed there swim in front of his eyes—it’s a cross-country state title from 1997, but then it’s not, it’s a list of names under the heading YOU’RE GOING TO ROT IN THIS PLACE. Priya’s name is there.
He loses a tooth, and then he swallows it. His stomach bulges with the weight of the brick; he’s so full he would burst if pricked and spew half-digested rock like thin concrete over the gym floor. His hand shakes, now, when he digs in the wall. But he won’t run out of bricks. They’ve taken Priya; he’s lost his clothes and his house and his fucking shoes. But in a prison, he should never run out of walls.
He thinks that. But twenty-three meal trays after Priya’s disappearance, he breaks through.
The last thin shards of brick give under his fingers with a little snap, and he goes perfectly still, his hand stuck through the hole. On the other side—another one of the hundred rooms? He wiggles his fingers, and can’t tell. He doesn’t know if the outside feels different than P.E. He can’t remember it anymore.
Carefully, Tarrare stoops to look at what he has made. He moves his fingers and sunlight spills in around them. He doesn’t say anything. The words rise and he closes his mouth around them, swallows them down. This is not a thing he can share, not yet.
Across the gym, Jacob looks up at him once, on one of his turns across the court. He doesn’t stop, though—they’re all used to Tarrare by now, and they know his habits.
When nobody’s near, Tarrare lowers his face to the hole and squints. Only a spot of light the size of a cocktail olive. He can see a tree, leafed-out and green. A beautiful tree.
“Priya?” he says, careful and quiet. “Priya, did you get out?”
Nothing. Not a leaf on the tree stirs.
“Priya,” he says again.
Maybe the patterns of the tree’s bark look a little like Priya’s braids. Maybe the whisper of the breeze through the leaves is a little like her voice, saying, take this—I don’t need it.
He takes his hand out of the brick. It’s easy work to take a handful of pebbles and dust and spit in it, mix it up a little. Patch up the gap—give him time to think things through. After all, a prison break isn’t the kind of thing to do in haste.
People laugh across the court. He catches the tail end of a tasteless joke. It’s funny, though. Really funny. He laughs a little himself and someone in the crowd says, “Why’re you laughing over there by yourself—come on, you asshole, got to contribute to a conversation to get laughing privileges.”
They motion him over, and he goes. No one looks at his hole or its flimsy patch. Priya does not call through the gap. He misses her so fiercely, but how could he follow? Back outside, where no one understands him and no one gives a shit about him. And if he’s ever not hungry, it’s because there’s blood on his hands, not love in his gut. There’s a hot rush of saliva in his mouth, and he rolls it over his tongue and through the gaps in his teeth.
“I wonder when we’ll get a new fish,” the identity thief says. “It’s gotta be about time.”
Everyone agrees with this. About time—past time. “I hope it’s someone interesting,” somebody says. “Like, we’ve never had a grave robber before.”
Jacob hears this and tells them about this guy he knew outside who used to sneak into morgues at night and snip the toes off the corpses.
“Fucking awesome,” they say. “I hope we get that guy.”
Tarrare doesn’t care what they’ve done. He wants someone who could patch the hole in the wall; he wants someone who is not hollow. He wants somebody small who won’t need much food, someone with a beautiful singing voice. Somebody like that could fit into the gaps and settle in the empty pit at the heart of him. He wouldn’t let them go. And then he, like Jacob, could lay his hand over the place in his stomach where all that love rests and think: I am complete. At last, I am full.