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First published in the print anthology Futuristica Vol. II (Metasagas Press, 2017).
Doctor Stephenson leaned forward and smiled reassuringly. “Tell me, Mandy, what do you experience when you switch between your implants?”
The girl across the table remained silent.
“Your parents are worried about you.”
She was usually difficult to get to talk and would just sit silently crouched in her chair like some frightened little animal – but there was something different about her now. Doctor Stephenson started being suspicious about its reason.
“Am I talking to Mandy?” he asked, suddenly with a very stern expression.
“No,” the girl said defiantly.
“I want to hear her opinion now.”
“Why? It’s my damned life too! Who ever cares about my opinion? Nobody!”
“I will hear you out, I promise. But I need to talk to Mandy first.”
After a short pause, she spoke: “Fine.”
The girl changed in front of his own eyes. It wasn’t dramatic, one might not even notice it at first sight, but he knew the signs. Her look changed. She lowered her shoulders and stooped a little. Her muscle tone rose up as if she was nearly in a spasm. She seemed a little nervous but also distant.
“Now, Mandy,” he said softly, “you do remember my question. Please, tell me.”
Starling snuggles deeper into her tangle of sheets, yawning as rain spatters and pings against the porch’s old wooden steps. The shutters will totally need painting after the storm. From her room, a tiny space just off the north side of the parlor, Starling can see almost all the way down Ocean Avenue to the sea. She reaches over to her nightstand, an old chipped wooden cabinet resurrected from the basement, and grabs the wire-wrapped pendant.
Even in the dark room, the quartz winks. The purple wire had been her special request. She turns the pendant in her hands, studying the tiny chips of garnet and aquamarine, peridot and labradorite laced across the face of the frosted quartz wand. Time to try again. Juniper said to keep trying, that crystals, especially Record Keepers, don’t give up their secrets easily. Too bad most of the girls in her class weren’t more like that.
Secrets of the Ancients, answers to the Universe’s mysteries, maybe even a prophesy? Starling drops the heavy pendant over her head, the waxy black cord soft against her neck. Ok, count to ten, breathe deeply…
Colin said to pay attention to how I coped out here. He said the wilderness was an Earth-sized mirror. Motherfucker sounded like a bumper sticker.
Fifteen days deep into a wilderness program for troubled teens, I just put one foot in front of the other, hiking until one of the guides said we’d reached our campsite for the night. I swallowed spoonfuls of under-seasoned grits and lentils until my stomach went from feeling empty to feeling nothing. I recited clichés around the campfire, droning mindlessly until the next kid took the talking stick and carried on the group therapy session.
Coping implied some sort of success – a problem solved. I didn’t cope. I barely existed. It’s not like I refused the program. Not doing anything was too obvious a choice. I’d watched other kids try that, declaring hunger strikes or going mute, and it always became fodder for therapy. I did just enough to stay under the radar.
“This is bullshit,” Dylan complained, right on cue, snapping branches with his forearm as he chased a water bottle cascading down the side of the trail.
Marco looked over at me and rolled his eyes. Dylan’s tantrums could be amusing, but they often led to power struggles with the staff, which meant we could end up stuck on the same part of the trail all day.
Lenny rubbed his salt and pepper stubble with his shoulder as he tightened the coupling. He tried to remember what was wrong with the college kid working with him. You have to explain things carefully, Lenny remembered Stanfield telling him. And you will take it easy on the young man.
"You're denser than a damn fence post,” he told the kid.
Alexander raised an eyebrow. "Ah, I am not. My body is made up of approximately 62 percent water while a fence post is composed of wood or even metal."
Lenny raised his own furry eyebrow back at the lanky kid with large brown eyes and straight teeth. He figured the kid could do well with the girls if he wasn’t such a moron. “I’m telling you, you’re dumb.”
“Urr,” Alexander said. “I graduated from high school at the top of my class.”
The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal, and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.
~Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, “On Grief and Grieving”
Part 1 – Denial and Dollhouses
Wren. She fit her name perfectly. Small. Shy. Quiet. Quick-witted. Mousy-brown hair and sharp, dark eyes completed her almost anthropomorphic quality – as though she were an animal trapped in a human body and perpetually perplexed by her state of affairs. She melted into the background if you weren’t looking for her. She was my best friend.
It’s still hard for me to talk about what happened. I’m still not sure I really understand anything about the events of last year. I still have trouble believing it. I keep expecting her to walk through my bedroom door, smile in her shy but confident way, and ask me if I want to go for a run. I thought I was the only one who really knew Wren. Maybe not. But this isn’t about me. It’s about her. And I think people need to know who she was.
Wren was well-liked by most people, though hard to get to know and slow to let people in. Generally, people admired her brilliance. Or were jealous of it. She didn’t have movie star good looks, but she had her own quiet charm. And she was always happy when she ran.
She was an amazing runner – star of the school’s cross country and track team and never-ending source of pride for Mr. and Mrs. Rabast, the husband and wife dynamic duo who had coached our school team from nothing to provincial champions three years in a row. Wren was their biggest success and they talked about her incessantly, in and out of training.
The evening sun glinted off Johnny’s coppered skin and the flask in his hand. His effortless cool poured from him in the way he held his cigarette and the way he drank from the flask.
He had tucked his shirt into his back pocket the way I’d asked him to, and his dark hair was styled so he looked like Marlon Brando, although much younger. He sat on the fence flawlessly: legs apart and feet hooked under the second cross bar. He stared eastward over his shoulder through his dark Ray Bans.
I loved that he needed so little direction to capture a mood.
I lined up the shot in my Vito B and clicked off three successive shots.
“Great! Keep doing what you’re doing!” I called to Johnny. “Your turn, Dean!”
Right on cue, Dean biked over from his waiting spot. I followed him with the lens, clicking off three more pictures. When he reached Johnny, he took the flask from him. Click. Then the cigarette, resting it casually between his lips. Click. Then he pulled back for the punch. Click. When he made contact, Johnny’s nose broke. I heard it over the click of my camera. The blood sprayed up into the air in a perfect arc. It would make for a glorious picture. My project was to show how hyper-masculinity was destroying manhood as part of my submissions portfolio for the fall.
When I said it, it was just a passing thought, something not to be taken seriously. It was a hot summer day, and I was hanging out in Nico’s room, cooling under his air conditioner. Nico, or as he was more widely known, Captain, was one of my best friends. He was sitting on his twin bed, and I was lounging in the beat up black bean bag chair in front of it. We were watching some crappy Lifetime movie on his small flat screen when he brought up the anniversary of my brother’s death which happened to be in a few days.
“Are your parents doing another memorial barbecue for Henry?”
Paying attention to the TV, I shrugged my shoulders. “I think so, but they never really decide on anything until the day before. Whatever they do, I don’t want to participate in it this year. Henry’s death isn’t something to be celebrated.”
“I don’t think they’re celebrating it, they’re just honoring his memory.”
“Henry wasn’t all that fond of barbeques,” I said, running a hand through my light brown hair. “If they want to honor him, they should at least do something he liked.”
“What did he like?” he asked, shifting on his bed.
It happened so quickly, I don’t remember saying it.
But when you’re the catcher squatting in front of the ump, and he hears every word you say, it’s hard to argue his call.
He pointed at me and threw his arm toward our bench. I was out of the lineup.
The biggest away game of the year.
“What for?” I shouted, pulling off my mask. “I didn’t do nothing.”
“You used the N-word son, you can’t do that in this league,” he said, dusting off the plate, “You’re gone.”
I knew I was dead.
The longer I argued, the louder the crowd booed. Three of our assistant coaches pulled me from the field.
“Calm down, Blaine, you hear me,” our head coach yelled, waving for a replacement, “and maybe we can save your season.”
Leaving the field, I looked back at the player I insulted. His team surrounded him as they walked to their dugout.
I stood alone.
“What’s wrong with him,” I heard the other player yell.
“He was out,” I said, gripping coach’s uniform shirt.
Maddie punches in the codes for what she wants and the display on the printer comes to life. It’s a pair of jeans so dark that they look almost black, a blue sweater, and white sneakers. The outfit looks vaguely familiar. Didn’t she print one just like it a few weeks ago? Maddie shrugs. Doesn’t matter. It’s not like it’s still “hanging in her closet,” if that’s the expression. It disintegrated by the end of the day. As does everything the printer prints.
The printer itself is tall and narrow, like a one-person metal scanner at the airport. Enough room for Maddie to lift her folded arms, elbows bent, in front of her face. But that’s about it.
Maddie slips into a thin, off-white body suit that serves as the base, and steps inside. It’s a routine she could do in her sleep. Legs slightly apart, hands on the handles in front of her, her arms slightly raised. Back straight. Chin up.
She yawns. She stayed up way too late last night. But quickly catches herself. You must hold very, very still.
Maddie can hardly remember the last item of clothing that did not come from the printer. It may have been a red dress with a white collar, when she was about five years old. She remembers twirling and giggling, the skirt ballooning around her, her arms outstretched and her head thrown back. And her parents both looking at her, really looking at her, and laughing.
I’m lying on my side, staring absently at the swarm of black-legging-clad legs tracing slow, deliberate, synchronized circles in the mirrored wall in Nia’s tiny studio. My thighs are burning, my stomach hurts, and even though Pilates is supposed to help me learn to focus better, my mind feels as fuzzy as a kitten. I need a break, and Nia always tells me to take one if I need it. I stop circling--but, oddly, bizarrely, my leg in the mirror doesn’t. I know this makes no sense, but that mirror-leg? It just keeps twirling around with the others, as if it somehow missed the memo that my real leg isn’t moving anymore.
Am I missing something here? This is nuts. I feel like--well, like I’m seeing a ghost, and if you were me you’d know just how freaky that is. But as I look more carefully into the mirrors, I finally pick out my unmoving leg in the midst of all the looping and swooping ones. It’s sticking stupidly out to the side at an awkward angle, stone still, almost hidden behind the girl whose leg I was mistakenly following and thinking was mine.
There’s no mystery here. No woo-woo long-dead twin coming back to haunt me.
There’s just spacey, ditzy, me, who can’t even identify her own leg in a line-up.
After class, Nia calls me over.
“Alice, are you feeling okay?” she asks, forehead creased. “You look a little pale.” Nia is a friend of my mom’s, which is kind of annoying, although it’s also part of why I get to take Pilates and yoga instead of some dorky modified P.E. class at school. I like it, so I’m still coming even though it’s summer and I don’t have to.