Month: November 2017

Lies About Your Better Self

I watched Amanda eat. Some celebrity chef had launched a high-end restaurant by her office, so she and some ad agency colleagues had gone to check out the opening.

Her food was amazing. She had this tic where she clenched the muscles up where her jaw met her ears. She only did that when she was eating something really good, like she was fighting to keep the flavor in her mouth.

I clicked my trackball, pausing the footage and freezing Amanda with a perfectly-balanced forkful of something green and frondy halfway to her mouth, already composing the caption in my head. People came to this job thinking they’d get a deeper appreciation of life, vicariously experiencing what they’d never have. They learned fast.

I strobed through Amanda’s afternoon. She had a campaign photoshoot, her first time at the helm of a major project. I swiped off stills and marked out clips of Amanda directing the models. She kept tucking her hair behind her ears — she did that when hiding nerves — but she looked authoritative, a natural. People would eat this up. Behind-the-scenes posts from Amanda’s job always got strong Attention Capture, especially when models were involved.

I grabbed my picks and assembled a photo collage, a few video montages for the weekly “Look Back”, and some hashtagged text-under-photo posts, then dropped them into the queue for publishing. Some clients insisted on approving everything we posted to their social feeds, but Amanda trusted us.

I was closing up when a fresh dataload hit my inbox. Every dataload was a melange of the unstructured digital detritus we crap out every day. Social posts, location data, streaming tracks, cat videos; everything we cram into our faces to make our existence a little more bearable. The YouPlus app on Amanda’s phone slurped up all of that for us. Like most YouPlus clients, she also wore a LifeCam, which grabbed stills and video at irregular intervals based on situationally-aware algorithms. A couple of times a day, I received a voyeur’s wet dream, a barely-filtered glimpse into the lives of half a dozen in-crowd clients.

At first, it was thrilling; deep access to the lives of people so far beyond me in the social pecking order –people who could afford to pay YouPlus more than my annual salary each month to optimize their online self-image.

The thrill faded fast. Seeing how the other half lived threw my life into sharper relief, and their obsession with sculpting the perfect online persona — not professionally, but to their friends — made me despair. The only thing that kept me here was Amanda.

The dataload was marked “high priority”. I was officially off the clock, but Amanda paid premium, and Zed would give me another chewing out if I sat on this until morning. I flicked through the material. It looked routine, not worth fast-tracking, until— There. Harvey, down on one knee, holding up a glittering rock big enough to brain a four-year-old. Video from Amanda’s POV, plus a side view from Harvey’s phone, carefully placed to capture the moment from a flattering angle.

I grinned. This had been a long time coming. I’d watched Harvey through Amanda’s lens long enough to have spotted the signs weeks ago, and I’d been looking forward to watching her kick the asshole to the curb. The worst of their fights, his gaslighting and psych-out manipulation never made the feeds, but, even in the narrative, their relationship had been up and down all year; it just needed a catalyst to get her to drop the bastard. I skipped over his speech, looking for the moneyshot.

She said yes.

I sat there, mouth open. Why would she say yes? She finally had the chance to be shot of him, a perfect trigger to kick out the man who made her so unhappy, and she said yes?

Amanda was the only one who still gave me hope. She was real, even through the repackaged self of the social media lens; there was a vulnerability at her heart that let me feel, deep down, that we weren’t that different. She wasn’t like the others, the Fauxialites who’d do anything for their dopamine hit of attention. They might as well have been another species. Homo Narcissus. That was why Amanda’s narrative worked so well — it had a real person at its heart. The Amanda I knew would never have said yes.

I hovered my hand over the trackball, flexing my fingers, thinking; waiting. I had more than enough material stored up. Ball and screen blurred as I pulled up half a dozen old dataloads, searching for the right pieces.

I could fix this.


At fifteen, her heart got tired of wanting things. At least if you asked her to pinpoint when it all went down, that’s what she’d say. That year, Tad Gardner, Chance Philmont, and James Adams had dumped her, launching her into a string of hours spent locking the bathroom door and turning the sink up full-blast—tricks she’d inherited from ballet class. She’d snapped the curdled-milk pearl necklace her mother gave her and thrown the rocks so hard they’d plunked against the pink pastoral wallpaper in her living room like firing bullets. She’d glued her lips together with Elmer’s No Mess before school each morning and painted them jet. She’d shaved the thinning hair patches from her head and declared juvenile emancipation and tattooed two crooked lines above each knuckle of her right hand. Why two? Why lines? Why the right hand? Well, why the hell not. She’d blab about them representing something—siblings, boyfriends, spiritual conversions—later in life, as all good citizens with tattoos do, but, really, a crooked line is a crooked line. They didn’t mean anything.

But to say three middle-school boys stopped a beating heart seems irrational. Impossible, even, considering only ten percent know how to zip their flies and the other ninety percent equate their waists with their knees—pull up your pants, kid, please. In reality though, hope and wanting had begun to feel as dirty as kitchen sink water after a meat spaghetti dinner long before age fifteen. When did hoping, wanting ever do any good, really? As a child she’d wanted a lot of little things—soft caramel-chocolate bars suited in purple foil; the silver unicorn stuffed animal at that carnival; a ride on the cheetah at the zoo carousel. As she grew up she’d wanted a lot of big things, abstract things like love and beauty and friendship and even book smarts from time to time. But she never got anything. Three boys dumped her in a year. Some brat in a beret cried until she gave up her seat on the cheetah.

So when the doctor offered to remove her heart at age sixteen for a wad of cash, she said yeah, go for it. They took the bloody mass out and replaced it with some sort of metal cog thing—she couldn’t remember what it was called. And she hadn’t wanted anything since. Until now, that is. Now, she wanted something. She wanted out of this damn shit-pot of a circular prison.

She looked at her pointer finger, bitten to chunks of skin and blood. She pressed it against the stone and slid down, almost missing the scrap of long French-tipped nails. Nine hundred slashes of red caked the wall. One hundred more remained to be drawn. Then she would leave this place.

A guard stalked past, and the slat in the glass door grated open. A bowl clambered toward her, bouncing when it smacked the cracks in the cement. She scrambled forward, scooped it into her lap, and dipped her finger into the grey puddle. The blood on her finger salted the mush, and for a minute she could almost force herself to think it tasted good, a kind of low-quality good, you know, like canned sardines or cheap dried kale. Her butterfly lungs beat and fluttered. She choked out a cough.

She stared out the windowed wall at the watchtower that grew from the center of the panopticon. They were watching; she was sure of it, even though she couldn’t see them. God, they were always watching. They had probably watched her draw her mark on the wall and written it down—silent notes kept in a little book of her behaviors. You couldn’t get away with anything here. Her eyes glazed, blurring black rock and brown and windowpane, and she shoveled the grainy goop into her mouth, letting the liquid dribbles sting her chapped lips. When she got out of here, she was jetting to Paris and going to that pastry shop, that one in Marais with the lemon madeleines, warm as sunset and honey-buttered, and the mille feuilles that exploded chocolate and custard with each forkful—if you had the patience and politeness to use a fork, that is. She couldn’t remember the name of the place, but she’d find it. And then she’d sit at some restaurant, the priciest one around, and she’d eat mutton so soaked in cream it melted at the touch of your tongue like a sixteen-year old school boy.

Her teeth sank down into a phantom mutton morsel, accidentally clamping onto her finger instead. She wrenched it out, coughed, and spat pink-tinted spit.

She shouldn’t have killed him, she supposed. Then she wouldn’t be trapped suffocating in a two by four half-glass box. But she’d spent her life suffocated. She’d gotten tired of that doctor stalking after her for the past ten years. He’d taken out her heart, sure, but that didn’t give him the right to monitor her every action. Lord, she couldn’t even eat a jam sandwich without him noting her heart palpitations down in that damn yellow, blue-lined notepad. Pity he didn’t note the speed of her heart when she imagined smashing his glasses into his face every night as he watched her sleeping. Maybe then that frown of surprise wouldn’t have flashed on his face when she’d finally lost it. And now, they—the other doctors, the government, someone—had thrown her in here as punishment. Because there’s no better way to monitor your pet project than by throwing it in jail.

They were watching her now; she could feel the eyes piercing from the watchtower into her cell, into her body. She shook her head, crusted hair scratching her cheeks, and crawled into the corner as far from the tower as she could get. It didn’t matter how she got into this place. It was just another mistake, just a mangled body. All that mattered was one hundred more days. She leaned her head back to rest against the wall as the dank air crept into her lungs. Her throat throttled out another cough.

Her eyes fell shut; her mind unleashed itself to indulge in imaginings. In one hundred days she’d have a washing machine and a dryer and a queen-sized mattress and a toaster. In one hundred days she’d lie in the sun and feel its heat bite into her translucent skin while she poured strawberry margaritas down her throat. In one hundred days she’d walk into a fluorescent white-lit supermarket at midnight and she’d buy a bag of cheese-coated corn chips and a bottle of diet cola. And some cough medicine. The thought tickled at the metal, machine-filled cavity in her chest. If she had a heart, it’d be bloated with rushing blood and heat—hope, if you’d like to assign a word to the feeling.

She didn’t have the strength to smash the feeling down, to wrap her fingers around it and squeeze until it smothered down into the usual dull emptiness, angst, and overall eye-rolling boredom. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling a leg span from her head, and she thought about calling to whatever deity sat around up there. Maybe if she said thanks for putting me in here, it’d find a way to reduce her sentence. Maybe it’d sweep down and gather her up and take her to the clouds. She laughed. She coughed.

A scream raked her ears, sending prickling hot shivers down her arms. She crawled to the door and pressed her ear against the glass. Booted feet slapped against the floor outside on level two, the level below her cell. She couldn’t see them. They could see her from their tower, but she couldn’t see them. She could never see them. But she heard the scratch of coarse, swishing fabric—guards, off to regulate the cause of the shout. The feet stopped.

“Oh my god.”

“Do you . . . do you think? No, that’s not possible. Nah. It couldn’t be.”

“I don’t know. Looks like it to me.”

The voices dropped to a murmur, low and deep as a heartbeat. She pushed her cheek against the door and closed her eyes as if cutting off that worthless sense would improve her hearing. It didn’t. But her ears snagged one word—doctor. And then the boots shuffled away to some other side of the circle. A door slammed.

She slunk back into the shadowed corner. She’d known her fair share of doctors. When she was ten, she jumped from the top of the school monkey bars and crushed the edge of her foot. A doctor gave her crutches. When she was twelve, she danced on the top of a counter, slipped, and slit her jaw a pinkie fingertip deep. A doctor gave her stitches. And when she was sixteen, of course, a doctor cut out her heart. They’d called it a miracle. Somebody could live with a machine for a heart, yet remain human in most of the other ways—blood, nerves, broken bones. And maybe it was a miracle, though she hadn’t done it to be called miraculous; she did it for the thousand-dollar cash reward advertised by a monotone-voiced man on the radio. They’d wanted to manufacture more like her. Apparently machines last—live—longer than regular humans, and what’s a successful society if not a close to immortal one? God was immortal. We should be too. They’d failed though. She’d heard that people had died seizuring during the operation—the doctors couldn’t figure out what it was about her metal heart that made it stick, that made it compatible with all the rest of her humanness.

A door slammed. Feet shuffled. A cough. She crawled to the window-door. A silence thick as rye bread flooded the air.

“Well, is it?” a voice, a guard, asked.

She waited for the response, but heard nothing. The doctor was nodding, perhaps, or shaking his head.

“Oh god.”

The doctor had nodded, then. But about what?

“Oh god, oh god. This, no, but, but, I thought? What’s going to happen to us? What can we do about it?”

“Nothing. We can’t do anything about it,” the doctor said.

She ripped her head from the door and punched her knuckles into its surface. “What the hell is going on out there? What can’t we do anything about?”

No response. So they didn’t think she deserved to know? Like hell was she going to accept silence. She kept punching, wrists crunching, popping with each hit. The glass shook, but held firm. The hall vibrated with echoes deep as tribal war drums as the other inmates, each trapped in their hovel windowed hells, joined her song.

A guard rounded the corner. She stood, meeting his heavy-lidded eyes.

“Shut the hell up,” he said, “You’re causing problems. They saw you start this from the watchtower.”

“You shut the hell up. I wouldn’t have yelled if I hadn’t heard the panic below us. What’s going on down there?”

“An inmate died, that’s all.”

“You seriously expect me to believe that shit? One of you guards was having a panic attack, and somebody went for a doctor. What was all that for?”

“I told you. An inmate died.” The guard coughed. “That’s all.”

“Died of what?”

“People die here, that’s the nature of the institution. I would’ve thought you’d been in that box long enough to figure that out by now.”

“Yeah, I have been in this box long enough to figure that out. And I’m getting out soon enough, too.”

His chin tipped up as he laughed. He laughed and laughed and then coughed.


“I can tell you one thing: you’re not leaving.”


“You’re not leaving.”

“But my sentence is up in one hundred days! You can’t keep me here. By law you can’t make me stay here.”

He shook his head. “You’re not leaving. I’m not leaving. And we’ll be long dried up dead by one hundred days.”

She coughed.

He nodded. “Long dried up dead, I tell you. You think you’re so invincible, so much better than the rest of us with that little machine heart, but in a few days that machine heart will be the only thing left of you. The cough’s the beginning.”

“I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about,” she said. “Is this about the inmate that died downstairs?”

He nodded.

A pit knotted in her stomach, she tried coughing it out like a hairball, but nothing could dislodge the squeezing sensation. “What did he die of? Are you going to tell me?”


“That blood coughing disease that all those artists died from? They have medicine for that these days.”

“Not for this strain. It broke out last week in a village thirty miles north of here, the one where we get our milk. It wiped away the place in three days. Drugs did nothing.”

“And now it’s here,” she said, her mouth dry as honey oat granola.

“They’re putting the whole prison under quarantine. Nobody leaves or more of the world gets infected.”

“So we’re all just going to die here? You can’t do that! You can’t make me stay longer than one hundred days!”

“I already told you that you’ll be dead by then. You’re infected already. I can hear it in your breath.”

She swallowed gulps of air, fighting the pulsing cough creeping into her lungs. “No. I’m getting out. I’m getting out and going to Paris and eating pastries.”

“How do you think you’re getting out?”

“I’ll kill myself.”

“And we’ll stop you. We’ll see you.” He pointed to the watchtower. “You never know when they’re watching you, and so they’re always watching you.”

She stared at his steel grey eyes. “Don’t you want to get out? Don’t you have a family to go home to? You’ll never see them again.”

He blinked. “Sometimes we must lose the weak to become strong.”

She’d never been the weak one before. Never. She’d cut her heart out so that she would never be the weak one. Yet, here she was, stuck in a glass jail box. She looked up. “At least we’ll die together, the jailed and the jailor. Sounds like karma to me. You’ve heard the phrase. What goes around comes around.”

“Maybe. But at least I get a bed and three bowls of soup for dinner.”

He turned and walked away, disappearing down the circle’s edge. She coughed, and her hand swept to cover her mouth. She pulled her fingers away, staring at the bloodstained skeins of mucus coating her palm. And she knew that no amount of hope and wanting Parisian pastries could save her.

Two men stepped over a body.

“God, it’s creepy in here. There are skeletons everywhere. Are you sure it’s safe? We’re not going to catch anything?”

“It’s safe, I’m sure.”

The man looked at the watchtower. “I feel like someone’s watching us.”

“They’re all dead.”

“Fine. But let’s get out of here as soon as we can. Where was her cell?”


The two men stopped. The stale air stank of mold and death. They listened. And then they heard it, the tick clink of a cog, a beating mechanical heart.

“Up there.”

They walked up the stairs and entered one of the glass boxes. A skeleton rotted into the floor, a metal box wrapped in its ribcage. One of the men reached down and picked the contraption up.

“Here it is. It’s still good. We’ll try putting it in someone else.”

The Train Set

He came back on the one-year anniversary of his death. Robert opened the door to his son’s untouched bedroom, preserved down to the glass of water on the corner of the nightstand, now only a film of liquid at the bottom, and there was Samuel, hunched over at the desk, his hands fiddling with the tracks of the unfinished train set, the train set that Robert had begun assembling just yesterday under the lamp’s dim beam that cut through specks of dust flaking down.

At first, Robert didn’t even start; that subconscious part of him that still reached for two dinner plates instead of one welcomed Samuel back into his life against logic. And how many times had Robert opened the door hoping that his son would be there, that the past year had been a stretched-out nightmare? Robert didn’t follow a specific creed, but believed that death was the separation of the soul from the body, which he’d read somewhere in his college days and had wrapped his fingers around the day Samuel came into life and Maribelle passed away just moments after. Still, for a reason Robert couldn’t explain, seeing the back of his dead son’s head didn’t shock him as much as it should have, sending only a current of apprehension through him. He was probably just dreaming, but if this were a dream, he didn’t want to wake up.


Robert almost didn’t want his son to turn around. Samuel’s death had not been pretty. Not at all, and Robert had felt Samuel’s cracked limbs and bones shifting beneath his flesh like a bag of rocks when he’d picked Samuel up from the street after the accident. They’d been on their way back from the toy store, that large train set box on Samuel’s lap, when the truck in the next lane began skidding in the rain.

Samuel turned around, a blank, calm look on his face like it was just another night. The moonlight through the window bounced off his round cheeks. His skin was white and without the vein-like scars that the mortician had done well to hide.

“Hey, Dad. Why did you start without me?”

“What… what do you mean?” Robert held the doorframe; his knees wobbled like Jenga towers barely balanced, a single beam pulled out and he’d collapse into pieces.

“We were supposed to make the train station together,” said his son in his sweet, six-year-old voice.

Cold tingles crawled up Robert’s arms. He blinked his eyes hard several times, then took a hesitant step inside, feeling as if the shift of his weight might make his son dissolve into the lamplight as quickly as he’d gone a year ago.


Robert had no more words. He took another step in. He was less than a few feet away from his son now. Did he dare approach him, this … what was it—this ghost? Squinting his eyes, Robert tried to see if it was an apparition. But Samuel was fully there.

“Look,” Samuel said. He turned back around, his arms and hands moving. “I’m adding a track.”

Robert’s teeth were clicking nervously. If this were the ghost of his son, then at least he had a chance to talk to him again. If this were a dream, then he’d let himself indulge in it—see what his subconscious had to say about his son’s memory. Or what if—Robert himself had died in the accident as well, and hadn’t moved on yet? He took a deep breath and took a few more steps forward until he was standing over his son’s shoulder. He gulped, running his fingers over his pants and fidgeting with the pockets.

On the desk, train tracks were spread out like puzzle pieces. The trains were lined up along the edge where Robert had left them, patiently waiting for the tracks to finish looping in concentric circles and across platforms so they could get started on their journey—journeys that would represent what Robert had promised Samuel years ago when they’d seen The Polar Express in theaters: that they’d one day trek across the country on a train in the winter, sipping hot cocoa as they pierced through the ballets of snowstorms.

Directly in front of Samuel lay all that Robert had managed—a row of four straight tracks pieced together—before breaking down, his tears falling onto the tracks like rain drops. Samuel was pushing another track into the end, but he was doing it wrong. You couldn’t just push them together; you had to set their links on top of one another, then pull to lock them. It was simple enough, yet Robert’s hands had shook the day before as he’d snapped them together.

“Samuel…” Robert said. “You—you can’t do it like that.” He reached over and guided the fifth track over the fourth, then pressed it in and pulled, locking them. His finger brushed against Samuel’s hand as he did this. Samuel really was there.

“See, like that,” Robert said.

Samuel glanced up at his dad, then back down. His eyes were the same, too. Dark forest green. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Right…” Robert said. “It’s… no problem.” He cleared his throat. “I’m… going to go make dinner now. I’ll tell you when it’s ready.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Crows and Galahs

Jake rested in the passenger seat to the purr of the car’s engine, his head gently vibrating against the window. His father held the steering wheel in one hand and hung his other arm out the window, letting a warm breeze dishevel his greying hair. An endless row of barbed wire and wooden posts separated the highway from the fields of canola, blurring past like a yellow brushstroke on blue canvass.

A kangaroo leapt in front of them. The car skidded, launching them into their seat belts. The kangaroo crossed long before they stopped. The smell of burnt rubber drifted through the car.

Images flashed through Jake’s mind.

The premonition returned.

His mother followed the chain of taillights through the city in her pink hatchback. Piano music played on the radio while rain roared outside. With a half-smile and vacant stare, she was heading home after a long day at work.

Swerving across lanes, the four-wheel drive screeched with each turn. It sped through a red light and slammed into his mother’s car in an explosion of glass and twisting steel.

Slumped through her smashed window, across the blood-smeared white hood of the four-wheel drive, his mother’s sky-blue eyes looked forever to the dark clouds.


His eyes snapped open. “Huh?”

“We missed it.” His father drove off. “It’s okay.”

Jake’s trembling fingers pulled at wisps of blonde hair on his chin. Nothing was okay anymore.

“You looked like you were lost in your own world again.”

“J—just th—thinking about Mum.” The sun flashed in his side mirror, reminding him how far their all-day drive had taken them from home – from the place they had all shared. Every day since, and every mile now driven, pulled him further from the family they once had.

“She’s always on my mind too.” His father wiped a tear from Jake’s eye. “Look at you. Ya know, your mother always said grey eyes were some special family secret.”

“Yeah, s—she always said nice things.”

“I’ve been real worried about you. Your schooling…at home…you’ve been distant.” His father reached over and rubbed his knee. “You’re meant to be upset. But…it’s like there’s more going on.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know what’s eating at ya.”

I wish I could stop these thoughts in my head coming true.

“Jake.” His father shook his leg. “I don’t know what more I can do.”

Jake clawed his seat to control his shaking. “There’s nothing.”

“You and me, we need to work through this together…ya know.”

Jake looked at his father and saw three months of worry written into his bloodshot, dark-ringed eyes. Eyes that once shined with happiness – when they were all together. He wished things had not changed. Guilt stung him inside. If only he had done something. “I just wish I could have been there.”

“I’m glad you weren’t.”

“To help her.”

“No one could have done anything.” His father sniffed. “It was over in a heartbeat for her.”

Jake shifted away. “To warn her.”

“Oh, Jake, they said she didn’t even see the other car coming.”

I saw it coming.

His father grimaced. “We’ve been over this. I love you, but this is killing me.” He sighed. “What could you have possibly done?”

He fixed his father a stare. “I kn—knew it was going to happen…b—beforehand.”

His father strangled the steering wheel. “Are you crazy?” He punched the roof. “I’m sorry…I just don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to help…and with our money situation on top of things…it’s all been too much.” He sighed. “I’m just hoping this trip to the country helps.”

A hot flush coursed through Jake’s cheeks. He folded his lanky arms and turned away. Darkness cast by trees in the setting sun blanketed their journey ahead. He wondered if his father would ever understand him. No one else did.