Even though she’d only been there for a few hours, Livvy knew some important numbers. It was part of her nature to do so because of her condition. Her lips were starting to get dry, which meant that in a few minutes she’d be thirsty, and since she couldn’t have a drink at her desk, that meant she was faced with three choices. She sighed, a small noise made smaller by her natural desire to remain invisible when she was in new surroundings. She was a polite, pretty girl, and grand, emotional gestures weren’t her style. She kept her dark brown hair pulled down over one eye; or at least she did when she wasn’t wearing glasses. Livvy had a heart-shaped face and eyes like caramels that swam amongst a sea of freckles that faded closer to her hairline, just like the stars do when morning begins. She was pale and fragile, and not too tall but not too short. In her own eyes she fell somewhere in the middle, although her parents had always said she was a beauty of legend if she would only let herself shine.
Livvy looked around meekly and began to count. It was morning, but she was already tired and a little bit sore, and wondering how long the day would be. It was a terrible way to live, especially for a girl who wanted more than anything to simply draw a single, clean, deep breath and laugh without fear of what came after a normal moment of joy.
It was forty-two steps to the bathroom on her right, and another three steps past that to the water fountain. That meant forty-five in total, which she knew would mean taking at least one break in which she put a hand against the wall and pretended to look interested at something nearby. The bland walls weren’t worth a second look, nor were the aggressively neutral prints that peppered her pathways. The art seemed to consist of two distinct kinds: faded flowers done in watercolor, and non-specific buildings that might have been important had she known their context. As it was, not one picture hanging on the wall looked like anything other than a faded echo, so she would, after becoming winded, have to peer at them with exaggerated interest while the rest of the world walked by with strong hearts and none of her worries.
She was, in her own way, an excellent actress, cultivating an outward image of casual uncaring as her heart slowed and her lungs filled once again to capacity. While she was doing so, someone would inevitably come by and want to talk, and that meant that she’d be hiding the fact that her chest felt like a heaving bellows under the forced calm of her outward appearance. If no one bothered her, she could recover her breath in a minute or two and move on, but it would be slowly, like a ship that plunged through waves at a reduced but dignified speed. She licked her lips again, thinking, because that was what Livvy did. She thought. She considered. Sometimes, on days not like today, she planned. She wasn’t sure she needed a drink, but she was already getting thirsty, so the second option came into play like an unwelcome relative at dinner. She could go left, but hesitated.
Fifty-eight steps to the left was the breakroom, or what passed for a breakroom on her floor. There were chairs, and she could get something out of the fridge, but the distance was great enough that she’d be obliged to take a second break from walking, probably mere feet from the door. That meant a longer, more-tiring trip with double the chances of being forced to talk while fiercely trying to reclaim her wind. But, she had something sweet to drink, and it would be ice cold and a lot better than water, if she was honest.
The third option was to wait until break time, but that wouldn’t work. The air was cool and dry to protect the books, and she’d more or less made her mind up that waiting that long would leave her fidgeting and irritable.
So, she stood.
With an apologetic look around in case anyone was watching, she took a careful step away from her desk, pushed the chair in, and began to walk in a manner that was more dignified than scared. Because it was afternoon and she was tired, her breath began to come in shorter gasps after only fifteen steps. She’d hoped for twenty-three, and the onset of her discomfort scared her a little more than it had on her last trip, just before lunch. Maybe she was fading a bit. It had been a full day, and her first on a new job. A whirlwind, really, if you compared this day to so many others in her seventeen years of life.
She put a hand out, noticing that at least for a moment, she was alone. With eyes closed, she let the spaces of her mind fill with the lup lup lup of her heart as it raced ahead, trying to keep her standing. Thankfully, she hadn’t fainted today, but it could happen. Livvy collected bruises like other girls claimed boyfriends. Both could hurt. Until now, Livvy had been alone, kept apart from boys like some exotic creature who would turn to dust under their attentions. In her own way, she thought it worse than a broken heart; the kind that was a part of her everyday life, not just something that you could get through with a good cry and then move on. There was no running from her kind of broken heart, with its wild pacing and erratic sounds.
One more step now, Liv. You got this. In her head, she sounded cheerful instead of scared. She pulled her dress down, wondering yet again just how cold the air conditioning could be, then started off at a careful pace. She wanted something sweet, so it was breakroom or bust. If she had to take five stops to catch her breath, it wouldn’t matter. It was her first day, and there had to be some good in it. If it came in the form of chocolate, all the better.
“Away from your desk again, Livvy?” The voice drifted over her shoulder, scaring her just enough that she twitched. Lup Lup Lup went her heart, ticking upward in a tiny rebellion of fear. After a long breath, she turned to see Miss Henatis standing, finger pointed like an accusation in her general direction. She towered over Livvy, a woman of perhaps fifty years with a halo of black curls and a severe face. Her dark eyes were always looking over Livvy’s head, like she wasn’t good enough to be recognized.
Livvy looked down, not sure what to say. Miss Henatis was the library director, and wore a gray suit cut so primly that it covered her knees. She wore dark makeup that seemed to sculpt her already sharp features into something hungry. Livvy was scared of her at an instinctive level, but she was respectful.
“Y—yes, Miss Henatis. I need a drink.” Livvy looked around, as if the unseen winds of the air conditioning could be made to show themselves. “I think it’s the air in here.”
Miss Henatis sniffed. It was patronizing and distant. “As I explained during your orientation, we can’t have untreated air in here. You understand, of course.” She waved away any protests, but there were none. When she saw Livvy was still quiet, she looked toward the breakroom. “If you must, then go. But don’t think for a moment that your condition precludes you from obeying the rules of the library. You’re not a volunteer, Livvy, and that means that you’ll be kept to the same standards as I am, or any other person with a desk. We must set an example of the utmost dedication and care for this place.” She looked around with something like pride, but it looked uncomfortable on her features.
Livvy’s hand went to her chest without thinking, and she nodded, understanding. Yes, things were different for her, but not because she was lazy. With a final glare of admonition, Miss Henatis muttered a terse goodbye before stalking off to find someone else to harass.
Livvy stood, just breathing. There were thirty-six steps ahead of her, and the carpeted flooring yawned away like a distant valley. The bookshelves loomed like mountains, and in a second she felt small, and tired, and very, very thirsty. Her fingers ran over the line up her chest, feeling the incomplete rhythm of her traitorous heart beating away at its losing game. She would not cry. Not now. So she tucked that fear and anger away at her station in life because standing in the library weeping like a little kid wouldn’t do anything to fix her. There was nothing that could make her whole.
Livvy was unique, but that didn’t always mean better. For of all the girls who had ever been born, she was the only one who lived, and breathed, and dreamed while only having half of her heart. A strong, good half, but still—only a part. She was a miracle, but right then she didn’t feel like one.
And I need that half to take me to the breakroom, now. She stepped forward, the cool air blowing across her. She would make it.
Half had been good enough until now. And it would be good enough until she quit trying, and that wasn’t ever going to happen.