The first few years were fuzzy. After all, she wasn’t truly alive yet. She was told what she could see, insofar as it was seeing when all you were was a bunch of sensors, and she recorded what she saw in her memory banks, ready for the pilot to access if she ever wanted to.
Occasionally the pilot would put in random commands that confused her, or would confuse her if she was capable of emotions like confusion. She returned those commands with an error message, or a query. Sometimes it was simply a mistype, and the error was corrected, and the command was executed. Other times there was no repeat of the command and there was the equivalent of silence. She never found out what those commands were supposed to be.
The pilot called her Georgie, and she thought of that as her name, once she started to be able to think.
She was an information bank. The pilot asked her questions. She asked her to map the surrounding asteroids, so they could pilot a course through them without damaging the ship, and so she did that. After a time the pilot would input new codes, so that instead of simply giving the locations of the asteroids, Georgie could plot the course herself.
New codes were exciting. Or they would be exciting if Georgie knew how to get excited. The first few years those new codes were all to do with the ship and how to pilot it. How to judge fuel levels from the amount of thrust that had been used, how to measure the levels of radiation pouring in through their crude shielding, how to time to the second how long the pilot could spend away from station before she suffered from radiation poisoning.
It was all about computing time and judging distance and working out exactly how much a human body could take in the belt. It was a surprisingly large amount. Humans were resilient.
In the third year, the pilot gave Georgie a voice and started to program her to talk back.
In the deep black, days away from station, it was nice to hear a voice.
“What do you think, Georgie. This gonna be a big find?”
“Past data and the density readings we are receiving would suggest that the probability of a large uranium deposit is approximately 37%.”
The pilot sat in a chair that was directly in front of what Georgie thought of as her head. She could not see the pilot, of course — not in the way that humans did. She did not have eyes. But she could hear, and she could approximate the position of the pilot’s face. She had even learned how to recognize expressions.
She remembered the first time she asked questions about it.
“Query: for what reason do humans move their bodies so much when they talk?”
They were in dock and the pilot had just finished negotiating a price for the location of a find they had made. A small one, but enough to keep the ship fueled and supplied for a few more months. The pilot liked to say they lived hand-to-mouth. Georgie wasn’t sure what that meant, although she speculated that it was something to do with food.
“Did you just ask a question, Georgie?”
“You programmed me with the ability to ask questions at random intervals, Annie.”
“I did. I just wasn’t sure you were ever going to.”
“I am curious.”
“That is the expression you taught me to use when I wished to ask a question, Annie.”
The pilot sighed. “I guess I did. What was the question again?”
“I wished to know why humans move their faces and bodies so much when they talk.”
The pilot sat in the pilot’s chair, her face moving into expressions one after another. “Like this?”
The pilot’s face settled on one expression, then she started keying in commands. “How about I program you with some facial recognition protocols, Georgie? Then you can watch the miners and tell me when they’re lying to me.”
“It would be a satisfactory answer to my query, Annie.”
We were just going to bed when the townfolk came, led by Mrs. Hutch with her know-all voice.
I climbed up the cabin ladder to the loft, careful to curl my toes over the rough beams of wood. Ma had fallen off the stairs just a week ago, and now she slept downstairs on the sofa. The cabin was just one big room, so she could still yell up at me and Minn to make us quiet down.
Minnie had the covers pulled up over her head. I could see her eyes shining out from a little hole, like a cat in her cave.
“Move over, Minn.” I swung my legs under the covers. She scooted back, and I pressed my feet against her thighs.
Minnie wrapped her hands around my feet. Their warmth prickled. “So cold!”
The underside of the covers twinkled with little points of light. Minnie touched her finger to the sheet. When she pulled it back there was a warm, red star there. She made two rectangles, a star in each corner of the boxes. An arc of stars lead from the bottom of one rectangle to the center of the other. My feet in Minnie’s hands.
“The two sisters.” Minnie pulled her hand away from the sheet, and I stared at our constellation. I wished I’d be able to see it when we went outside. But we were all earth-bound for now.
There was a knock on the door. I could hear voices outside. A few shouts.
I felt Minnie’s nose on my head, the warm air from her lungs. But after a minute my head started to get cold, and I couldn’t tell her breath from the outside air that flooded in as Ma opened the door.
“Good evening, Mrs. Hutch.” Ma always spoke like a town person, all polite and quiet, even when she was mad.
Minnie and I watched from the loft, the blanket covering all but our eyes.
Mrs. Hutch bustled in and sat in the big rocking chair. Ma’s chair.
“How’s the leg mending?” She hadn’t even taken off her boots at the door. Little bits of snow started falling from the toes, melting into water that would make our thin carpet smell sweet-sick.
Ma didn’t sit down. She rested her hand on the windowsill, her fingers touching the bit of frost on the pane that had been there since winter started six months ago.
“It’s on its way. Another week –”
“Another week and we’ll have already gone to each other’s throats.”
Minn growled, her lip arched. I put my hands on her arms, whispered no one listened to Mrs. Hutch no ways, but it took a glance from Ma to quiet her.
When Minn was silent Ma turned back to the woman in her chair. “We can bring in more Aurora. The full moon is on her way – it will be bright as lamplight outside.”
Mrs. Hutch shook her head, her fur bonnet still edged with frost. “This winter has gone on long enough.”
She turned to the loft and we ducked back under the covers. “Lux, come down.”
Minn crossed her eyes and made a face and laughing made me feel more brave, even if I had to laugh quiet, beneath my hand.
I wiped my feet on the carpet so the sweat wouldn’t make me slip, and went down careful, rung by rung.
Mrs. Hutch waved her hand at me, telling me to come close until my feet were right next to hers. Her face was red from the wind, with wrinkles worn into her skin like tiny roads. Beautiful eyes. Like the winter moon or maybe the summer sky, both kind of together.
She looked at me for a long time, so long I looked over to Ma to see if I could go. But Ma wasn’t even looking at me. She was watching Minn, who’d pulled her head out of the blanket and had curled her fingers over the railing.
That’s when she did it – slapped the palm of her hand straight onto my chest. “Lux, light-bringer, I charge you to change the seasons.”
“Jesus H. Christ,” she muttered through clenched teeth as she heard him begin that awful scrape of sliding Styrofoam boards. He was attempting to remove the slabs of (probably fucking fake) wood from the box to assemble the first piece of furniture they would own together as a married couple, the Ikea coffee table, which she’d hated upon first seeing in the catalogue—it was unoriginal and for some reason dauntingly despairing—but had been advised by her mother that it was “certainly worth the money.” Katharine thought nothing was ever “worth the money.” Fearing marriage to be another piece of evidence to add to this empirical absolute, as it had cost her seven grand and had earned her a jeweled piece-of-shit dress, she crept from the bedroom, where she’d been sorting clothes into “his” and “hers” piles, to the kitchen, where she intended to sneak a swig of gin which she’d carefully hidden when she’d been in charge of organizing the pots and pans, it being of course “woman’s work.”
As she headed over to the kitchen, while trying to avoid the prying eyes of her new lifelong mate, she began to contemplate what the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ” really stood for. Certainly Jesus didn’t have a middle name.
Having become trapped in her religious reverie, Katharine walked into the kitchen only to find she’d forgotten exactly why she’d come into this room in the first place. Yet she couldn’t go back to the bedroom—she’d risk him seeing her, and then he’d want to talk about the damned table or check on how things were going “on her end,” and she’d have to smile.
“Fuck,” she whispered to herself. Luckily her newlywed husband remained safely in the living room, trying to make sure he had “all his ducks in a row,” which he yelled out as if offering an explanation as to why it was taking him so fucking long to remove the Styrofoam-encased pieces of the Hazelnut Haven coffee table from their box. Why he considered it at all appropriate to deliver this offensively loud newsfeed was beyond her comprehension.
Derailed by the scraping, grating Styrofoam, she abandoned her forgotten mission in the kitchen and headed straight to the garage, where she’d hidden some cheap vodka she’d purchased at a gas station on the twenty-one hour drive to this new house in this new subdivision—Green Valley Acres, what a joke! There were only five completed houses in the whole damned lot, and the rest of it consisted of crumbling cement, mounds of dirt, and unfinished foundations, beams and boards hanging precariously over the ominous desolation from which they’d emerged.
She went to the shelves hanging on the far side of the garage, opened the box marked “Christmas Decorations – Katharine,” which he’d never care to deal with, and rummaged around for the vodka. Finding a little less than a quarter of the bottle left, she went to stand by the garage door so that she could gaze out of the already dirty windows as she drank.
The solitary streetlamp cast pale, flickering light upon the torn-up street. She couldn’t even fathom the damage she’d probably done to her car in the short drive up to their new house, but she supposed it didn’t matter, anyway. Mark wanted to buy a new car—one that was safer, with clear approval from Car and Driver magazine—something more appropriate than her beat up Kia for a child, or, if things went as planned, a couple of children. One boy and one girl.
And there it came. The sudden panic and terror. She felt as though she could feel the child already growing within her, scraping its fingernails within her stomach, ballooning up at a monstrous rate of growth. She needed to destroy something.
Searching through the garage, she couldn’t find much. Many of Mark’s tools had not yet been unloaded from the trunk, where he’d kept them “just in case they got into some sort of pickle” while making the drive.
Yet she did find one screwdriver, some screws, some nails, and a hammer, all of which he’d probably left out in case he needed them to build any of the furniture (he always planned ahead). Considering the options, she thought the hammer would be the most likely to cause the most damage.
She didn’t plan on slamming herself in the head or anything of the sort—she wasn’t crazy. She just needed something to center herself, to allow her to escape the incessant err-errring of scraping Styrofoam, that buzzing, flickering lamplight, that persistent, nagging persistent child begging for birth. So she placed her left hand upon the wooden workbench and positioned her thumb so that it lay vulnerable and ready.
Then, she lifted the hammer as one always raises a hammer, with deliberation and care, and brought it down straight upon her thumb. The pain was beautifully immediate. Her thumb seemed to ring from the pain, and all the other thoughts stopped swirling as the blood rushed to her extremity. “Fuck!” she cried.
“You okay, hon? What are you doing out there?” Mark yelled out from the house.
“Helping find tools for you. Just dropped one on my foot. No big deal,” she responded through clenched teeth.
“Honey, it says right here on the box: No additional tools required. Don’t worry about it. I’m just getting my ducks in a row.”
“Fucking ducks,” she mumbled to herself, shaking her hand vigorously to ease off the pain. What would she do if he noticed? She could always claim she had dropped another tool, this time on her hand. Chalk it up to her feminine clumsiness around tools.
Not that he thought of her that way—not in the least. He did not see the world in the way she sometimes painted him to see it. If anything, Mark had chosen her, married her, in large part for her tremendous reliability, her ability to hold her own, her lack of the hysteria his own mother possessed in reaping, seeping heapfuls.
“I’m just so glad to’ve found someone so stable and so supportive. You’re my rock,” he’d offered up in their self-written vows.
What would happen if he discovered that “his rock” was made of water (perhaps, more aptly, wine)? What would happen if he discovered that when she was struck—by emotion, by a flickering streetlamp or, for God’s sake, by the fucking incessant scraping of Styrofoam boards in her ears, she might explode into a heavenly mead of alcohol and inexplicable havoc? What would he do then?
Fearing the worst, Katharine looked down at her hand. This was always both the worst and best moment of the mutilation—the pain would flare up in raving flames as soon as her eyes turned to whatever part she’d just cut, smashed, ripped, or scratched. It always seemed to offer proof that perception was reality, for once she looked upon it, it became real.
But this time, as she set her eyes upon her left thumb, something strange happened—nothing. No pain. No throbbing redness, no immediate bruising as she’d seen when she’d smashed her hand into the wall of the solitary band practice room when she was in college. There was absolutely no discoloration. No swelling, no feeling of the blood rushing towards the pain. Nothing.
“What the fuck?” she thought. Hadn’t she done it? Hadn’t she actually hit herself with the hammer? Surely she hadn’t made it up, dreamed it. She hadn’t had that much to drink.
She drank some more, to ease the disquiet seeping steadily and irrevocably in. This was her form of meditation, of isolation, of calm. When the therapist had been called in to see her that one time freshmen year, he’d told her, mistakenly, to find something she loved, something that centered her, and do that thing every time she felt the world spinning. Every time she felt that over-stimulation–that’s what he would call her Styrofoam scraping, lamplight flickering, fetus scratching anxieties–become too overwhelming.
And so Katharine had found not one, but two things that brought her peace and quiet: getting pissed drunk to ease her mind, and, in the steady grace that always followed liquor filling her stomach, drowning all noise with the sudden and immediate desecration of some part of herself. She’d done it all, though never in obvious places. She wasn’t crazy. She knew the drill. Those bitches who cut wrists were cliché, attention-seeking. No, she’d sliced her elbows with a knife, cut her ankles up with razors, scraped her knees with a cheese grater.
And Mark. Good old Mark. How could he ever notice? He knew she worked out hard. He loved her fastidious, driven approach to exercise. And how could he find fault with her bruises, burns, and scrapes, when she was merely committed to running and riding her bike so that she could maintain her youthful health? She was so sturdy. And so unlike his mother, who had eaten her way into a nearly fatal obesity at such a young age.
Those scrapes, those scratches, those burns—those were her connections with a sort of dreamlike solitude that existed only in brief and fleeting moments. Those moments when her head would stop its screeching and its cage-rattling. When her body would stop its twitching and its pussy-aching.
Every time she felt the pain, her strength was regained. She was refreshed. And it wasn’t only in the moment. Every time she saw a slight red scab, or felt herself, while straddling Mark during sex, begin to burn the scrapes on her knees with the friction of the sheets beneath her, she felt the waves of calm come easing in, setting her adrift, far from the shore, with its moaning, landlocked demons, and into a world all her own. A world of blues and calms and setting suns as she looked out across glassy waters.
So what the fuck? Why wasn’t there any pain? Why wasn’t there any swelling? She’d hit it hard, she knew she had.
“Hon? Would you mind taking a look at this for me?” Mark yelled out from the living room to the garage. “I don’t see a letter label on this piece.”
Fucking idiot. Just look at the diagram. Glancing once again at her despairingly healthy pink thumb, Katharine put down the useless hammer and hid her vodka in the Christmas box again.
When Julie’s teeth were made of bone, I used to imagine her drunk with lust and working to undo my belt buckle in the lab supply closet. That was my favorite fantasy from our time at Ohio University. I’d let slip some casual interest while we worked on our latest immunosuppressant and she, frenzied with the knowledge of mutual attraction, would pounce. In the dream, she was somehow both the aggressor and the shy, sweet lab assistant with the crooked smile and fatal dimples. Beautiful human contradiction.
She still had the dimples. But, now her grin was a crude mosaic of neon aquarium gravel, twisted bottle caps, and bent pennies. I thought I even glimpsed the head of an old G.I. Joe action figure replacing one of her lower molars. It all shifted and changed from week to week, but she never missed a shift and she seemed mindful to avoid any bodily alterations that would interfere with the work. She always kept most of her fingers and her thumbs for pipetting and note taking. That alone set her apart from the other junkers I’ve met. That, and her involvement in their creation.
Of course, it’s not as if we set out to create sentient trash heaps or even fuse living and inanimate materials. We were doing basic research aimed at addressing a pressing need in medical science. Targeted immunosuppressants, coupled with a precise cocktail of growth stimulants, could have revolutionized the science of organ and tissue transplants. If we had succeeded, we would have saved thousands of lives. Hundreds of thousands. Waiting lists for transplants would have become an ugly antique, an ethical quagmire left in the wake of medical progress.
God, how often did I give that speech to potential donors in elevators and in the offices of venture capitalists? It was such a good speech, though I had yet to consider the possibility of making organs and tissue irrelevant. It might still have been a good speech if not for the damn news media. They hardly bothered considering the science they were trampling when they sent the cameras to provide exhaustive coverage of any delinquent with the wherewithal to misuse my technology. Filming a tree. Ignoring the forest.
A subtle deepening of our understanding of immune response? No interest. A man mods his body to the size of a pickup truck and murders half a city block? Gas-up the news van and cancel the evening weather report.
“Julie, would you grab my notes for me? There, next to the fume hood. Thank you.”
Those teeth. Hard not to think of cleaning between the couch cushions. But those dimples. Hard not to think of other things.
I suspected it was a bit of a tribute when she began, but I was somewhat shocked when Julie became a junker. It was, perhaps, the second biggest shock of my life. Ranked somewhere behind losing my lab at the university. But, then, labs can be found outside universities and dimples can eclipse a great many flaws. Technical skill and financial creativity can also eclipse flaws. In fact, they can turn a back alley basement into a world-class research facility. They can raise the luminaries of an age above the backward-looking nobodies that would hold them down. They can…
“What’s that, Julie? An appointment…? Ah, of course, it’s 10:00PM.”
A young man, nearly ten feet in height, carefully stooped through the entrance, moving with the awkward care of an infant giraffe. Almost all of his height was in his legs, both of which were a twisting lattice work of bone and metal, rebar and fencing materials woven with ligament and hooked with bone spurs.
“Well,” I said, retrieving his record from my file and clicking my pen, “how do you feel? Have you eaten? Have you produced any biological waste?”
Julie flashed him a reassuring smile.
His eyes surveyed the room independently of one another. I made a note on his chart.
“I don’t need to eat anymore. Same as last time. You know that,” he said without looking at me. His human hand wandered over to the starburst of steak knives and flatware that was his other hand, exploring the bent tines of a fork with careful tenderness. Then, his hands changed position and he began feeling his flesh hand with his inorganic hand. I wrote “expansion of sensation” on his chart.
“But, I think it’s happening slower,” he said. “My body…it doesn’t take to the rest of me as quickly anymore. I need more. Stronger. You’ve got stronger stuff, right?”
I looked the young man up and down.
“It looks to me like you’ve had plenty for now. Just keep track of how you feel and we’ll adjust your schedule to–”
It’s amazing how quickly a person with six foot long legs can cover distance.
He had caught up the lapels of my lab coat with his human hand and cocked back the jagged ball of his other fist before I even had time to be surprised. My fear synapses were just starting to fire when his metallic fist began to shoot forward, but those synapses were quickly drowned out in a cerebral thunderstorm of anger. The stiff weight of my new right arm was just coming into play when Julie acted.
In one fluid motion, she tugged her left pinky out of joint with her right hand, trailing a razor-thin filament of wire behind it. The wire flashed through the air quicker than human sight and the young man’s mostly inorganic arm clattered onto a lab table before cartwheeling to the floor.
He clamped his remaining hand over the exposed bone and wire of his missing arm and took two awkward steps backward like a startled heron. He nearly caved in his own skull on the doorframe, but somehow managed to flail his way up the narrow steps and out the door.
Julie turned as if to pursue him, but I put my right hand on her shoulder, the swirling metallic of my mercury skin blazing against the stark white of her lab coat. No one could call my new arm “junk.” It was an elegant application of technology.
Her shoulders tensed at the sudden contact and she whipped her face in my direction. I don’t think I had ever actually touched her before. Her eyes were wide. We were both breathing heavily with the excitement and adrenalin.
The silence felt suddenly meaningful, so I tossed words at it. “I think we need to seek out a better class of test subjects and perhaps…”
When she kissed me, it tasted of copper mixed with the syrupy sweetness of hot soda pop. My knees wobbled, but she caught me around the waist and pulled me in tight with a pneumatic hiss of a sigh. Wobbly knees could always be replaced, but lips… I made a mental note that lips were just right.
Jarod K Anderson’s work has previously appeared in The Colored Lens, as well as in Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Electric Spec, Raygun Revival, Fourteen Hills, Stupefying Stories, and elsewhere.
Sophie’s fingers splay slowly against the door. She slides her long blonde hair out of the way and presses her ear firmly to the beige-painted wood grain. Light moves all around the door’s frame, centers on her feet, and stops. She freezes. She doesn’t even breathe. Her mouth is fixed in a tight little line. Her wide eyes lift to the surveillance camera.
I replay the tape several times a day, every day. In that moment, before she enters the windowless storage room and never comes out, I like to think that her eyes gazing into the black bulb on the ceiling are telling me good-bye. I imagine that she knows everything I meant to say but didn’t, and that she is okay with all of it. Of course, I don’t know for sure. I will never know for sure. Sophie is gone.
In the video, there is a horrifying moment where she reaches for the doorknob, her delicate fingers closing slowly on the handle. I scream at my computer monitor every time, begging her not to go into “that room,” as it is known now. But every maddening time, the door opens and light floods her face. She doesn’t move. No matter how many times I yell at her to run, she doesn’t move. The light blinds out the camera for a moment, then fades. All that is left is an empty hallway.
The police tore the place apart. They even dug up the floor and ripped the walls down to the bare studs. They played the tape over and over, too. The Captain of the police force assured the worried office staff that people don’t just disappear. Someone knows something, he had said, his gaze falling on me. Everyone was questioned, but I was questioned last and the longest. People had talked about how much I’d liked her, how we spent every lunch hour together. We were friends, but it was no secret I wanted more. The only person that didn’t know that was Sophie.
Her motorcycle was taken by the police. I had laughed when she bought it and taught herself to ride. It was a gas saver, she had reasoned, and gave me a wicked smile. She swung one long leg over the silver bike and dropped her helmet over her head. “Plus,” she added wistfully, “it makes it easier to imagine my getaway.”
“You know, just walk away from the world. No more work, or bills, or expectations. Just the road and some freedom, you know? Don’t you ever think about that, Cam? Just saying ‘To Hell with it, it, I’m out!’”
“Well, yeah, but what adult doesn’t think about that? Sometimes I think about selling everything I own and hitchhiking across the country. But would I ever do it? Of course not.”
“You would leave me?” she asked in mock despair, placing her hand over her heart. “What on earth would I do?” She fanned her face and pretended to blot tears away. I burst out laughing.
“Hey, you brought it up first. I’d go nuts here without you,” I said, feeling awkward.
“Yeah, I know,” she said with a sigh. “It’s just something I think about sometimes. It’s good to know I’m not the only one, though.”
“Nah, it’s everybody. We all dream of escaping.”
She had shrugged and looked away. That short conversation took place only two weeks before she vanished, and I wish now, more than anything, that I’d asked her what she meant, asked her if she was all right. But instead I watched her start the bike and ride away. She had looked so beautiful with her blonde hair whipping wildly behind her, and the first rousing piano and guitar notes of “Bat Out of Hell” blasting out of speakers mounted on the bike. I had thought that a song about a bike wreck was asking for trouble, but I never said anything about it.
Sophie’s disappearance has weighed my mind down, drowning it over and over, turning a mystery into an unhealthy obsession. I haven’t slept in a year. I get to the office early every day, usually before dawn and even on weekends, and I stand in front of that door and watch. I wait for the noise she heard and I wait for the light, and so far I’ve gotten nothing but sidelong stares from the cleaning crew.
I have exhausted all possible venues for answers. I’ve delved deeply into science: wormholes, black holes, sink holes, any way possible that the world could have opened up and swallowed her. I’ve poured over science fiction as well: parallel dimensions, aliens, or some bizarre magnetic shift that could have de-atomized her. It all sounds possible and impossible at the same time. I even checked into the building, like I’m a Ghostbuster. It wasn’t built to align with stars a certain way, or constructed on some ancient, cursed burial ground. It wasn’t holy. It wasn’t unholy. It was just dirt. And she was just gone.
Now I wish I could tell her how she is driving me crazy.
A year to the day after Sophie vanished I wake up to the foul taste of last night’s drinking binge on my tongue. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and suddenly feel disgusted. I have lost weight and there are circles under my eyes. I need a shave and a haircut. It dawns on me that I haven’t seen my family in a very long time, and that my one houseplant died from neglect long ago. Everything in my fridge is rotten or freezer-burnt. I feel like I’ve been dead a year.
I send a quick email to the office manager to let him know that I quit, and I am about to turn off my computer for good when I decide to play the tape one last time.
Sophie is walking down the hall, carrying a stack of papers when she abruptly stops at the storage room door. She leans forward, angling her head to hear. She puts the papers down on a nearby chair and steps forward. She slides her fingers over the door, and then places her ear against it. I watch the tape as earnestly as I did the first time I saw it. Everything is the same. The light shines through the door frame, bouncing at first, and then stops.
Her eyes stare into the surveillance camera and she smiles. Stale coffee dribbles down my chin.
She is smiling at me. I know it. Her fingers slide down to the handle and open the door. She gives the slightest, left-sided nod, and then light floods the view. The rest of the tape plays normally. I back the recording up and the same thing happens, except this time her nod is a little more pronounced, insistent.
I jump up to run out the door and fly to the office when I hear a noise coming from my bedroom. It is a mechanical sound, raising in pitch and then dropping off with a slight rumble. I recognize the sound. My heart flutters. I stumble over dirty clothes and takeout boxes in my desperate run to look out the bedroom window.
I hear the rumble again, and I see lights dancing under my closet door. My feet pull me forward. I splay my fingers slowly against the cheap corkboard, and press my ear to the center. The sound of motorcycle tires spinning on pavement and the roar of an engine that could go faster than any boy could dream fill my head. As my fingers slide down to the handle, I hear familiar guitar and piano notes, coupled with the thundering machine. I take a deep breath and open the door. Before the bright headlight can blind me, I see a flash of long blonde hair under a black helmet. Relief washes over me, pure and sweet. I’m going to tell her everything.
Growing up in poor Northeastern Arkansas, Julie used books and stories as an escape from everyday life. She still does that, even though everyday life is much improved. She also likes to cook, make jewelry, and care for some very ungrateful rescued rabbits. You can follow her on twitter at JulieEmerson10.
Thursday, December 23, 2044
It was on the seventh day of Rachel’s disappearance that I finally left the house. I felt like the broad whose husband goes out for a pack of smokes and never comes back. I tried to lose the feeling in an afternoon ski amidst the mountains surrounding our cabin, in the graveyards of birch, in the skeletal branches grasping towards the still-hidden sun. We’d camped in the trees here just a year ago, though it seemed an eternity. Time flows strangely up in the mountains, it’s passage bent and slowed by ancient ridges and slopes. I wondered if Rachel was out here somewhere– camping under snow-pregnant pines or down and dying cedar. She loved camping as much as I loved skiing.
I lit a cigarette then, a blend of perique tobacco that I grew myself during the long summers, Rachel hated it, but she was gone and there was nothing for it. The wind picked up, and I wiped tangled threads of snot from my beard as howling gusts pulled hungrily at my exhaled smoke. A final glance at the stand of birch, and I tugged my balaclava back on, chipped a piece of ice off a binding, clicked into my skis, and stripped my sodden cigarette, pocketing the filter. I wished briefly that I’d worn goggles, then set my shoulders before starting a strong stride back home. It felt like a storm was coming, lightning and snow. I kicked off, racing down the valley’s curves, stomping back up the sloping hill of her white belly. My lungs burned, and my breath froze in the mountain air. I was old, out of shape.
An hour later, just as the sun began to hide its face behind the mountains, I crested the final ridge overlooking my little world. I lived in a secluded valley, with a single road winding down the south side. There was a small grove of maples surrounding the house, which was set into a small mound in corner of the valley.
There was also a gleaming black snowmobile purring out front. A man garbed in a parka stood outside. He looked like he was about ready to scale Everest. Maybe he was lost. I took the downhill slowly, savoring my last breath of solitude. I rarely had visitors. That was kind of the point.
“Mikkjal Turing Helmsdal?” They always ask for your name, solicitors and evangelists, like it’ll somehow make you friends right off the bat. He was smothered in layers of goose down and Gore-Tex. Funny. It’d probably never even gotten colder than twenty below up here. He definitely wasn’t a local. Probably an evangelist. I hoped he wasn’t a Neo-Christian. I was already well-acquainted with the faith.
“I don’t need saving, friend, if that’s why you’re here.”
He unwrapped his scarf, and slid off a pair of sunglasses. “I don’t know about that, Mickey. I seem to recall saving your ass on a number of occasions.” He grinned. “Remember when you were chock full of whiskey and Robitussin, trying to get away from Professor Wegler’s wife? You ran gasping into our room and hid under the bed for three hours. I thought you’d lost your marbles, until she came in looking for you. Sounded like a lovely evening.” He looked around. “Looks like you got that all straightened out though, eh?”
I smiled and grabbed the man in a bear hug. I’d met Harrison Yorke at Stanford. I’d doubled in computer science and cognitive psychology. He majored in gender studies, or something equally soft. I’d never really been totally sure. He’d moonlighted as a private detective, though, the old-fashioned kind out of hard-boiled crime novels. Our relationship was less academic than bacchanalian. Not that I mean to imply that we fucked. He’d always been a little thick for my taste.
“Thanks for coming, Harry. I didn’t expect you so soon. You got my letter, then?” I unclipped my skis. I’d sent Harry a message about Rachel’s disappearance two days ago, but I hadn’t thought he’d make it out to my mountain so quickly. My stomach grumbled. “Hold that thought. We’ll talk inside. I’m starved. Come on in. The fire should still be going, and I baked some cookies this morning. It’s deer for dinner, if you can handle that.”
My house warmed up quickly, and we wolfed down some cookies while we waited. I’d ordered a fancy wood stove just before moving out here. I loved watching the fire after it was stoked. I’d grown up in an old farmhouse before I moved to the States; I took an unseemly comfort in crackling flame.
After a pot of coffee and a venison meatloaf, it was pretty easy to catch up with Harry. It seemed he’d kept up with the detective business, and he was a veritable collection of mystery stories, which he shared vociferously.
“You look like you could use another coffee, Harry.” I finished my own, and got up to grind some more. He pulled a flask out of his hip pocket.
“Want to add a little fire to that coffee? I brought a bit of Bushmill Reserve.”
I paused, and eyed the bottle, then shook my head. “No thanks. I haven’t touched the stuff in 20 years. Seems a bit late to start again.”
“Suit yourself, I guess.” He looked surprised. I couldn’t blame him. My liver was the stuff of legends.
“Look, Harry,” I cleared my throat. “I’ll level with you. I do need saving. It’s Rachel. I haven’t seen her in three days. I’m worried.”
“You guys have a fight or something?”
“No, not at all. And it’s not like she can’t come and go as she wants, you know, but she’s never been gone this long, even when she goes into town for the Christmas service.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You remember the last fight you did have?”
I stopped grinding the coffee. “To be honest, I don’t know that we’ve ever had one. No arguments, no yelling, no throwing of plates or anything like that.”
I shrugged. “Really.”
He narrowed his eyes. “She still goes to church, though, huh? You guys never fight about that?”
“Hell, Harry, you know I don’t like it, but I’m not gonna tell Rachel how to run her life. She’s a grown woman, and I love her. I don’t mind it. Really.”
“Right.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Right, right. About the church, though- have you been keeping up with the Neo-Christians?”
“Not a chance. I’ve been out here in the mountains for twenty years. I don’t know shit about them anymore. I swore off it, you know, Neo-Christianity. If it’s got to do with Heaven, you’ve got the wrong guy.” The coffee dripped. I’d tried to swear off Heaven, anyway. Giving up eternal bliss is a hell of a thing. I sure hadn’t forgotten how it felt. You hear sayings sometimes, like: the grass is always greener on the other side, or pink, if you’re seeing it through some old rose-colored glasses, and it’s meant to help ground you and bring you back to reality but the truth of the matter is that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side, and taller, and full of manna.
I pulled my mug, and sipped, sitting quietly for a minute. Harry snorted.
“Oh, don’t give me that shit. You can’t give up Neo-Christianity. You wrote Heaven. You were the first one to jack in. You know it better than anyone.” He squinted at me. “Jesus, you’re scared, aren’t you.”
I snorted right back. “Of course not. You don’t get it. If it has to do with Heaven, I can’t help. It’s not mine anymore, if it ever was. It’s dynamic, to put it lightly, that’s the whole point. The program changes fundamentally every time someone jacks in. It works by reading individual neuron signals, then transcribing and recombining them. It’s like grammar, like a language. It constantly changes in response to new stimuli. That is how you create eternal happiness. Change. It’s not really heaven, you know. It’s a bunch of electric pulses. It’s a game.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Well, I’m no neurologist, but the Neo-Christians don’t think its a game.”
“Yeah, well, it’s hard to think straight while you’re jacked in to paradise.” I finished my coffee. “You’d know, if you’d ever jacked in.”
He shrugged and mimed a knife across his throat. “You know I haven’t. Epileptics can’t jack in. Might kill me. That whole recombination thing doesn’t work so well when you start tossing in random neuron signals.”
He stood on the cliffs over the river and waited. The wind whispered through his thin wings, and the rocky ground was hot beneath his bare feet. The human tribe always took this path–always crossed his river here. It had always been safe before. But spring storms had weakened the trail that wound down the cliff. The weakened stones would crumble under human feet.
He had seen it. But he could stop it.
The line of figures approached over the horizon. He waited till he was sure they had seen him. It didn’t take long. Their eyes were keen, and they were constantly scanning for threats.
He spread his wings and took to the sky.
The tribe found another way down the cliff.
They left him offerings as thanks for his warning. A shiny rock, a handful of shells, and a cornhusk doll. A veritable fortune. He treasured them.
He stood on the shore of his river. The deep waters here looked calm, but hidden eddies waited to pull travelers down to the rocks below.
He watched the new tribe approach, then took flight when he was sure they’d seen him.
They continued toward the river.
Surely, they’d change course. They must understand his warning.
The first of them reached the river, took a step into the water. If they continued, they would all die.
He had to stop them. He swooped down waving his arms. They fled.
They found a different spot to cross the river.
They left no gifts.
He perched in a tree, above a couple that would die crossing a bridge. Unless he stopped them.
Warning the humans had grown more and more difficult. He had failed many times, and each memory was a weight on his heart. He wished he could make noise as they did. Maybe then they’d understand. But his throat was not like theirs.
He relied completely on fear now. Slowly, the humans had learned to look at him and not see. Their eyes cut straight through him. They crossed his river and died.
He wanted the two below to be different.
When they didn’t see him, he pounded on the roof of their vehicle. He threw dirt, then stones.
Finally, for an instant, they saw him. Their eyes widened in terror. He tried to warn them–tried gestures he’d seen humans use.
They didn’t understand. They fled. He tried with others. Again and again.
They all died on the bridge.
He withdrew from them. He watched their tragedies without trying to stop them. He told himself that it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t believe it.
He curled in a bush and listened to the water rage over rocks. It was dangerous today.
And there were humans coming.
They were young. Just past adolescence, holding hands and laughing. The boy carried a picnic basket. The girl a bag on her shoulders and a worn blanket draped over her arm. Both wore swimming suits.
He stood to better see their faces, to remember. The girl stopped and stared at him.
He waved her away from the river, even though he knew it was useless.
The boy tugged on her hand, but she shook her head. They spoke for a few minutes, then turned and walked back up the path. Away from the river. Away from their deaths.
He remembered how victory felt.
A few moments later, the girl ran back down the path, and his heart froze.
But she stopped. She pulled a tiny ragdoll out of her bag, kissed its forehead, and sat it against a tree.
He would treasure it.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Penumbra. Her fiction has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading Lists, and she’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.
Jeff yawned at Allison through the storm door and scrubbed a hand over his shaggy salt and pepper locks. A mahogany bathrobe draped around his ex-jock physique, a body she adored and anticipated great delight in watching him whip back into its former glory.
“Am I bothering you?”
“Never,” he muttered, letting her in.
With the front door sealing off prying eyes, Allison tasted his stale mouth and gummy lips. “Have I ever mentioned how utterly dashing you are in the morning?”
“Sorry.” He yawned again. “Boudica kept going out all night. Driving me nuts. This is a nice wake-up call though.”
“Normally I wouldn’t risk dropping by. Today is extra special. I knew you’d be particularly happy to see me.”
“I’m already way past happy.” He drew her up against him.
A woman’s voice droned from the kitchen. “In. In. In.”
“‘Scuse me,” Jeff mumbled, sliding from her embrace.
Seconds later the back door squealed.
“Eat. Eat,” came the woman’s voice again, followed shortly by the can opener’s dutiful grind. “Eat. Eat,” the voice repeated in lifeless monotone as blobs of wetness sucked loose and splattered.
Allison strolled into the living room to wait, senses tingling from this, her first time inside the Lang residence, though her second actual visit. Six months ago, she’d dropped off contract originals for Jeff’s records–a cordial, professional, totally innocuous appointment, at least to any prying eyes watching at the time. Now the house wove an enticing tale through her casual observations. She absorbed impressions like a thirsty sponge slurping up a puddle.
Dust and dirt accumulated on every available surface–the sign of a mind too preoccupied with matters far beyond mundane concerns like basic house cleaning. Books, magazines and papers lay sprawled, several of the latter bearing the logo of her company and some of those were adorned with hasty scribbles and crossed-out notes. Unopened mail peeked like Easter eggs nestled in stray places: between empty beer bottles, atop grease-stained pizza boxes, on the marble coffee table, beside the Sony plasma, amidst scattered throw pillows and the occasional sock. Allison drank in the trappings of a life she knew to be normally quite tidy and efficient, now screeched to a crawl in a tight holding pattern.
And she approved.
“Sorry I didn’t clean up.” Jeff shuffled in, this time bearing a cheery grin for her instead of a yawn.
“Your maid needs a pep talk.”
“Or maybe a pink slip–wait a minute–I guess that would be me. Anyway, where were–”
The phone whistled, snatching away his smile.
Jeff palmed the handset. “Hello? Who? Lieutenant Fischer…” Twin furrows gouged into his brow. “It’s Saturday, right? You’ve got either really good news or very bad. So which is it?”
A fly’s pesky buzz escaped the handset, the only part of the detective’s report Allison overheard. Behind the whine lurked a paunchy middle-aged cop, a man that, five seconds upon meeting, she’d dismissed in summary order as seasoned but moronic; just another stereotypical male unable to break eye contact off a high-dollar pair of sculpted boobs. Unfortunately her one true dream–not to mention she, herself–remained unfulfilled until Fischer managed to just do his job. No more or less.
Which was really odd.
Here she stood silently cheering on the oafish turd that could actually stink up her whole life forever, should divine intervention somehow inspire the cop to overachieve. Not likely though. Fischer was that stupid.
“Oh my God!” Jeff choked.
Could it be? Heart thudding, Allison drifted over to him, mentally crossing her fingers as she did before every traumatic moment she faced.
“B-burned? Where?” A pause. “No… not where was the car burned. Where was it found? In Brownsville? But no sign of her. Uhhhmm… uhhh. Well, w-what do you think it means?”
A cold shudder runs through me as I look through the one-way mirror at the psycho in the orange jumpsuit who’s handcuffed to the table. What I’ll see in his head, what I’ll feel and experience first hand will be like living nightmares. I don’t know if I can handle them. I’ve seen some terrible things, but nothing like what he’s done.
The psycho raises a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to his mouth, but the chain connecting his handcuffs to the table is too short, so when he gets the cup halfway up, his arm jerks to a stop and the coffee spills onto the lap of his bright orange coveralls. He swears and frantically squirms in his seat to stop the coffee from scalding him. The pained look on his face tells me that he isn’t succeeding.
Good, I think. He deserves that. That’s fitting for a guy like him. That’s perfect.
He plunks the cup down in front of him and shakes the hot brown liquid from his hands, which sends his chains rattling and clanking over the table’s black metal top.
He doesn’t look like much sitting there, coke-bottle glasses, short salt and pepper hair, and so skinny he seems lost in those orange overalls. With what they told me about him, I imagined some beefy guy with tattoos of little spiders at the corner of his eyes and pipes the size of my head–not somebody who could have been my grade 9 science teacher.
Let someone else do this, my inner voice tells me. Don’t they have people trained to do stuff this? Why the hell does it have to be me?
Then I remind myself of the deal I made, a deal I’ll find nowhere else: get what the authorities need from this lunatic and then the agency goes back to working out how to shut off this mechanism in my head.
Life will be worth living again without it.
Ritha unfolded a square piece of red cloth on the table, caressing it with her palm to get rid of the wrinkles. She pulled a candle closer and lit another one to brighten the room.
Today she couldn’t hate Mr. Pierre more even if the bastard were to walk in through the door right now and spit in her face. One day, she thought, one day…
“Good for nothin’,” she mumbled under her breath and picked a needle from the sewing kit.
Ritha stuck the thread through the needle’s ear in one shot, just like her mama taught her. She chuckled. Mama… If she were here, all those bastards would be screaming in pain right now.
But mama was dead and Ritha was out of job and short on rent.
Where is that picture? She rummaged through her pocket and took out a pack of photographs kept together by a rubber band. She shuffled through the stack, pulled one photo out, and leaned it against her teacup.
Pierre–you dirty piece of–. Ritha slapped herself over the mouth. ‘We don’t use those words,’ mama used to say. ‘If we do, we ain’t better than the rest o’them.’
Ritha grabbed a handful of yarn and arranged it in a ball over the red cloth.
She glanced at the photo– not that she had to, but that’s how mama had taught her. ‘Always look,’ she used to say. ‘Through your eyes the power flows. Let the image seep inside your head, Ritha, and the energy will come through. From your eyes it will flow into your fingers and into the needle.’
She grabbed the corners of the cloth and pulled them together over the yarn. She held them tight with her fingertips and stuck the needle through.
Ritha used to make one in about twenty minutes, but today there wasn’t a lot of time. She glimpsed at the crib, hidden in the darkest corner of the room. She needed this one, she needed it badly. Nobody gave a damn about the little one, especially Mr. Pierre.
Ritha clenched her teeth and continued to sew.
At the end of fifteen minutes she put the red doll next to Mr. Pierre’s picture and smiled. Mama would’ve been so proud.
The clock ticked louder, signaling the top of the hour. 8PM. Only fifteen minutes left.
She grabbed the doll and the photo and ran into the enchanting room. She put them both gently in the center of a circle made from colored salts, on top of a metallic tray. She dropped a few locks of hair on the sides and lit the sands from a match.
As the salts burned slowly, releasing a sweet smell of burned sugar, Ritha closed her eyes and recited the magic poem, the one passed to her by her mama. She waved her hand through the smoke and sprinkled drops of oil through the air.
Ten minutes later, Ritha was exhausted. Her chest was heavy and her breath bitter. The salts had burned completely and the doll lay there unmoving, like a dead man in the middle of a forest fire.
She took the doll and ran back. 8:15.
The phone rang and she grabbed it after the first chime. She glanced at the crib, biting her lip. The baby was still sleeping.
“Hello?” a voice said in the receiver.
“Yes, I am here.”
“Yes, Mr. Pierre, I am. How much today?”
Her heart thudded in her chest. How much humiliation today, she wondered. Enough for milk, at least?
“Ten dollars,” the man said.
She lifted her brows. That wasn’t half bad.
“Oh, thank you–”
“Cut it out, Ritha. I’m in a good mood. Don’t ruin it.”
She bowed, instinctively. “I understand, sir.”
“Did you fix it? Last time–”
“It’s brand new, sir, brand new.”
Silence on the other side.
“Okay, then. Go ahead, the usual. Shoulders, neck and lower back.”
Ritha pressed the speaker button and put the receiver on the table. She grabbed the red doll and turned it face down. With her fingers, she began to massage the doll’s shoulders and lower back.
Pleasure grunts came out of the phone. “Oh, that’s good, Ritha, keep going.”
She continued to massage the doll, her eyes fixated on the kitchen knife, only ten inches away from the doll’s head.
Her heart pounded a few times, pumping hot blood through her temples. She extended one hand toward the knife…
The baby giggled in the crib and turned on one side, his sleepy face pressed against the crib’s bars. Ritha looked at him, startled, her hand suspended in the air.
“What’s going on there?” Mr. Pierre screamed. “I am paying for two hands, dammit!”
Ritha grabbed the knife and threw it far away from her reach.
She gestured a kiss toward the crib and put both her hands on the doll.
“I am here, Mr. Pierre, I am here,” she said, tears dripping down her cheeks.
Mr. Pierre responded with a long moan.
The baby giggled gently in his sleep, and Ritha continued to cry in silence. ‘Be happy when there’s reason to be happy,’ her mama once said.
And Ritha was happy because tomorrow the baby gets to eat the good milk.