“Let’s play hooky.”
Jessie’s fingers tiptoe down my chest, sending tremors across my naked body. Her heart pumps hard against my side.
I grab her hand and bring it to my lips. “Wish I could.”
She juts out her lower lip. The morning sunlight filters through the blinds, casting patterns across her skin. A Stellar’s jay whines from the oak tree.
“If you drop Cat off at school,” she says. “I promise I’ll still be in bed when you get back.”
I scratch my head. “Big day at the office, today. The neural processors are ready. Another week and we’ll be cleared for our first human subject.”
Jessie rolls her eyes, then drops into a radio announcer drawl. “Topping the charts of inappropriate pillow talk for twelve consecutive months: brain transplants.”
I start to laugh, when a rumble shakes the room. The window goes dark. A knot forms in my stomach.
A voice, throaty and thick, rolls in. “Resuming cerebral scans.”
I blink. The darkness evaporates. Jessie’s looking at me, expectant.
“You’re not even listening,” she says. “Your head’s already at the lab.”
I shoot a suspicious glance at the window. Sunlight floods in. The Stellar’s jay whines.
Jessie stuffs a pillow on my face. I flail my arms around like I’m suffocating, then go limp. She prods my side with a finger, but I don’t move.
“Oh my god, are you ok?”
I hold my breath. She can be so gullible.
After a pause, she prods a bit lower. I flinch, and she cackles. I toss the pillow aside and draw her body to my own. I can afford to be a little late.
Downstairs, Cat’s shoveling giant spoonfuls of granola into her mouth, sloshing milk everywhere.
“Easy,” I say. “Remember to breathe.”
She pauses between bites to push her glasses up her nose. The frames are black with tiny skulls. She says they’re “counter culture,” one of the many phrases I never expected to hear from an eight-year-old.
Cat scrutinizes me as I pack up my briefcase. “Aliya gets Fruit Loops every day.”
“Well then, Aliya will be learning about diabetes very soon.”
“Hey,” Jessie says on the way to the table. “Aliya’s a good kid.”
Jessie’s eyes close as she savors her first sip of coffee. Her hair’s pulled back into a ponytail, and she’s wearing her red shirt that plunges tantalizingly deep. Tight pinstripe slacks. A hint of perfume drifting in her wake, as if whispering: “Should’ve played hooky.”
I look away. “You about ready, Kiddo?”
Cat drops her bowl into the sink. “Born ready, Daddo.”
Outside, Cat hops into the backseat. Jessie slides in at my side. My phone buzzes as I’m backing out of the driveway. It’s work. At this hour, that’s either very good news or very bad news.
Cat’s messing around with her seatbelt. “Can we go swimming this weekend?”
I fumble with my phone, manage to get the speaker engaged.
Rustling on the other end.
“Sure, kiddo,” Jessie says. “As long as–”
Brakes scream against asphalt. I look over in time to see the grill of the truck. Both side windows explode. I can’t hear my own yelling over the crunching of metal and glass. Ribbons of blood stream through the air, and–
The glass freezes. The blood lifts up, like rain moving in reverse. Metal and flesh fade into blurred patterns, then into distinct shapes. Faces. Dr. Roberts, from the lab. Dr. Stephens, behind her. The intern, Harry.
“Did you see that?” Stephens’ big gray mustache bobs up and down as he talks. “The neural activity.”
They’re poring over machines. My machines.
“He’s accessing episodic memories.” Roberts chews on her pencil. “But his cognitive functions are all over the charts.”
Then I see it. Past the doctors and the machines and the blinding fluorescent lights. Against the far wall, a mirror. In the mirror, myself. Or the thing that stands where I should be. I’m strapped to an upright medical bed, facing forward. I’m wearing another man’s body. Hairier, thinner. Knobby knees. Small, sagging gut. My head’s shaved, and framed with surgical scars. My eyes are brown, instead of blue.
I try to move, but only my eyes respond. I can’t speak.
“The neural processor isn’t reacting properly,” Roberts says. “It’s having trouble bridging the gap between perceptual awareness and residual memory.”
“Could be a result of the trauma.” Stephens drops his voice and leans closer to Roberts. “Emotional, I mean. Do you think he was conscious, when his family died? It took the EMTs twenty minutes to get there.”
A coldness slips across my new skin. I want to close my ears, forget what I’ve heard, what I’ve done. I need to get out of this place. My heart beats faster, and my fingers twitch.
“Look.” Roberts walks closer. “We’ve got progress.”
I want to tell Roberts that she’s wrong. This isn’t progress. But my lips won’t move.
The weight of the neural processor presses against my skull. Having trouble bridging the gap, they said. I focus on my reflection, the false brown eyes and the hairy chest. I know this technology. It has flaws. I can exploit them.
“Something’s happening.” Stephens’ voice edges up a notch. “He’s slipping back into episodic memory.”
“Keep monitoring,” Roberts says, but her voice comes from underwater. Their faces, the machines, the room all fade to white.
I blink through the sunlight. My heartbeat slows.
“Let’s play hooky.”
Jessie’s fingers are like tiny ballerinas against my skin. Outside, a Stellar’s Jay sings a quiet song. I grab Jessie’s hand and hold it against my face, soak in her warmth and her strength. Her aliveness.
I open my mouth to respond, when the room trembles. A fissure forms across the ceiling, revealing an impenetrable abyss.
“Resuming cerebral scans,” a voice says. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
I blink. The fissure is gone. I look back at Jessie, draw her body closer.
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s play hooky.”
Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up writing to kick the habit.