This is inspired loosely by "Buyer Beware" by yachiru (linked at the end of the piece). I'd really suggest reading it -- it's amazing -- but you shouldn't need grounding in that world to enjoy this.
She hasn't been dead long. The body is still warm, and the red lipstick she's wearing is still wet, when Jim and I arrive.
A call -- a tip from an anonymous source. A Jane Doe.
"Overdose," the voice on the phone had said. It was one of Them, I could tell -- crackly and cold, coming over the line, neither male nor female, just there. "No foul play."
They spit out the address for the alley we'd find her in, then hung up the phone. No other details, and we couldn't trace the call -- they'd put the safeguards in place for that.
"Fucking figures," said Jim, when I told him what call we were on. "The fucking Fae, again."
"Shut it," I said -- you never knew who was listening, after all.
"It's not right," he said. "Taking it away, selling it back to us..."
"Only some of us," I said. "Not all of us."
"Most of us," he retorted. "Come on. Let's go kick the body, make sure she doesn't kick back, ask around, try to find the supplier."
"I know," he sighed. "But fuck, Tana, we have to try."
I didn't grow up in a world with magic. We had stories, about the days before -- but they were just stories. Changelings and curses and never going out on Midsummer's Eve or Halloween -- they were rumors, whispers. No one believed them, anymore.
"Fairy tales," we said. The name meant, this is bullshit.
It started small. You heard stories -- someone had disappeared, someone else had gone under. There was an epidemic, some new drug, they didn't know what. Some kind of opioid, they posited, on the news.
By the time we realized the truth, it was too late.
Imagine: being able to distill happiness or joy, inject them as a drug. Imagine being able to snort excitement or euphoria.
Imagine what you could do, if you could sell them to the populace.
That was how the war started.
We never stood a chance.
The body was right where they said it would be. A Jane Doe. No ID -- whomever found her stripped the wallet, all of her valuables. Her pockets were turned inside-out, empty. Her purse was a few feet away, the contents dumped out. The lipstick she was wearing, a broken compact full of blush, another one, popped open, spilling concealer everywhere. A tiny vial, the smug of deep velvety black still inside.
"Addict," grunts Jim, when I point it out to him. "Goddam."
We call the coroner. There's nothing else we can do. I can still see the black, running along under her skin like an electric current. Her eyes are rolled back in her head.
"I just hope it was worth it," he sniffs.
"You ever tried the stuff?"
"No," he snaps, "do I look fucking stupid?"
"Know your enemy," I say.
"No," he repeats. "Shit's more addictive than heroin."
I shrug, pull on gloves, and start bagging evidence.
"Have you?" asks Jim, after a moment. He's put a sheet over the Jane Doe -- I think irrationally about her lipstick as he does it, the brilliant red of her hair.
"Have I what? Tried H?"
"Yeah," says Jim. "'Know your enemy'," and he pitches his voice high as he says it, an imitation of me.
"No," I say quickly. "Never wanted to. Never..."
Happiness wasn't my indulgence, I think. Never had much use for that.
"Fuck 'em," says Jim. "Fuck it. We don't need that shit. Life's too short. I can find my own, elsewhere."
He gives me a meaningful look, one that I don't quite understand.
"My daughters," he says, after I'm too slow to respond.
"Your daughters. Right," I repeat. "Your pride and joy."
I don't know what else to say, and so we stand in silence until the coroner arrives.
We didn't realize we were at war, at first. The epidemic hit -- the new wave of addicts -- and we didn't connect the dots. The President declared a new "war on drugs", ignoring that the old "Just Say No" campaigns had never worked, and nonprofits and addiction centers alike talked about how we were supposed to deal with addiction, as if there was a path we could stay on that would keep us safe.
We were stressed, all the time. All of us -- everyone knew an addict. If you weren't addicted, your friends were, or your parents, your grandparents, one of your siblings -- your niece or nephew or the woman who babysat all the kids on the block.
"It's an inevitability," said my friend Will, when I asked him out to coffee, tried to talk to him about how I'd noticed the dark circles under his eyes, the way his hands shook, when I saw him. "Everyone else is doing it, and you think, fuck, why not me? Why not give in? You should think about it, Tana."
"Nah," I mumbled. "I don't even know what that shit is."
"Happiness," said Will, his face reverent. "Like -- when you were a kid, on Christmas morning. D'you remember how that felt?"
"Of course," I said.
"D'you remember the last time you felt that way?"
"See?" he said, as I stumbled through an excuse. "It's no use. You'll never feel that way again -- not without this."
He held out a vial, something with a trace of black at the bottom of it. "Come on, try it."
"No, Will," I said. "I can't -- I'm worried about you."
"Suit yourself," he snapped, and I guided the conversation back to safe topics, safe territory.
When he overdosed, a month later, I wasn't even surprised. It was what happened: you got addicted; eventually it wasn't enough, and you ODed. Game over. No Narcan to pull you out of the hole; no rehab that worked.
"Shame," said everyone, at Will's funeral. "He was such a bright kid."
I said it along with the rest of them, and tried to forget, that I didn't know the last time I'd been happy -- truly happy.
This is how they won: they waged a war against us we didn't know about, something we had no hope of winning, never revealing their hand until every third person was an addict; until we were trying to develop piss tests for Happiness, Joy, Pride -- whatever was out there.
They waged a war against all of us.
The coroner arrives as we finish bagging evidence.
"Dead," he sniffs, bending over Jane Doe. "Overdose."
"No shit," mutters Jim. "Jesus, where do they find these people?"
"No," I say, before Jim can step in. "Anonymous tip. Jane Doe. Wallet was gone before we got here, purse dumped out on the pavement. There'll be a missing persons report -- we'll check the database downtown."
"Of course," grunts the coroner. "Same as always. Waste."
"We're gonna find the supplier," says Jim, eyeing the Doe in her bodybag. He's thinking about his daughters -- I can tell. It's something about his face, the expression, that gives it away. He's thinking about Melly and Bee, the statistics. One in three...
They're ten, too young to be targeted, but soon enough, he'll have to start checking their pockets when they get home, warning them against the dangers of talking to strangers -- beyond simple kidnapping and into, "do you want to end up like...", whatever case of the week, whatever Doe's death we're investigating at the time.
I shiver a little, thinking about it.
"You all right?" asks Jim.
"Yeah," I say. "Just sick of this shit. You know how it is."
Jim nods, turns his focus back to the coroner. "You done here, Mr...?"
"Linn," he says. "Doctor Linn. Yeah. You can go, take her belongings back down to the station."
They revealed their hand, once the epidemic was too big to ignore.
The Fae. Driven underground by the presence of iron; now back to rule over us, in ways big and small.
They controlled the drug trade.
Magic, said the rumors. This was why we couldn't stay ahead.
They stole our feelings.
We tried to fight back, tried to invent ways to protect ourselves, but none of the old ways -- salt, iron, running water -- worked anymore.
"Technology," They said, in the news. They opened their eyes a little too wide; smiled, revealing too many, too-sharp teeth. "We learned to use it, too."
We didn't have magic. They did.
We never stood a chance.
"Let's go look," says Jim, after we've loaded everything into the car. "See if we can find the supplier."
"Jesus," I say. "It's not as though she's going to have stood there and snorted it right in front of the shop she bought it at..."
"She might have," says Jim, defensive. "Fuck, you know what they're like."
He means, addicts. I can tell by the inflection on the word.
"Yeah," I say. "I know -- but she didn't seem like..."
He shrugs. "Takes all kinds," he says. "She might have been dragged there. We should look for marks, find out where she ODed, if she was brought here."
"Jim," I say. "It's no use. She doesn't -- we're not going to find the supplier. Whoever did this -- they were professional. She might have ODed miles from here. They might have called when she started to seize. I doubt they waited until she was fully dead -- her lipstick was still wet when we got here."
"We have to try," he says, and so I follow him as he runs, down the blind alley, over the uneven, weed-eaten pavement.
"I want to find that fucking supplier," he grunts, as he finishes. He's doubled over, hands on his knees, wheezing in place. "Shit, did you see her? Girl can't have been more than nineteen."
"The Market?" asks Jim. "It's our best bet, Tana."
"Yeah," I say, because it is. "Find out if we can get any leads on what stall."
They took our happiness, our joy, our euphoria -- all the good emotions, and all the bad ones, too.
"If you want to feel anything, anything not muted..." went the rumors, and that was how the numbers boosted.
"One in three," was the official line, but I'd seen the overdoses, I knew what it was like. More like one in two. More like, slowly everyone you know will be beholden to Them.
They sold their goods at little stalls, in the Market and elsewhere.
They had humans, to do it.
I never asked what they paid them, what could possibly make it worth it.
I never asked.
I paid what they told me to, and I didn't ask questions.
My hands are shaking, by the time we reach the Market.
It's time, or nearly time.
I disguise it as nerves. "Your clothes inside-out, Jim?"
"Yeah," he says. "Got my regulation iron, too," and he pats the pistol on his hip. It won't do anything -- not against them -- but it's a damn sight better than nothing, especially when They aren't who we'll be dealing with today. They have humans to do their dirty work. They pit us against each other. They always have, and I know They always will. I've watched it play out, over the last eight years. There are no surprises left for me, anymore.
I'm not an addict, I tell myself, because it's easier than admitting the truth. I don't need it -- except I do.
How long can you go without feeling anything? Jim talks about pride, about wanting to find the sellers, cut off the source, and I can read between the lines: any man who denounces it as strongly as he does has tried Pride, at least once in his life, probably cut with Satisfaction and a hint of Smug.
He was quick to run to the Market -- a little too quick. He's making a beeline for a stall, one where vials pass covertly from hand to hand, where coins dropped into a box guarantee a few minutes of Happiness, of Contentment, a vial that provides a quick hit -- snorted or injected, or rubbed into the gums.
"Come on, Tana," he says. "I've had a lead on these guys for a while" -- and it's not my supplier, not the one I use, so I chase after him.
My first hit was Satisfaction. I'd gotten promoted, made Detective, and I couldn't feel anything, anymore. Will's words echoed in my head: when was the last time I'd felt happy? When was the last time I'd felt anything?
That was how They got us.
I knew, from rumors, where to buy the stuff. Sat, everyone called it.
It was harder to overdose on, than H. I didn't touch the hard stuff. Sat kept me going, was what let me get out of bed in the mornings.
The first hit was pure wonder -- a surge of feeling purer than anything I'd felt in years.
I told myself I wouldn't go back.
We rush the booth. Jim shouts something about us being detectives, and I stand behind him, ready to act as backup. He watched someone pass a vial, from hand to hand, or so he said, and that's enough cause -- he handcuffs the vendor, confiscates all their wares, and hauls them to where backup is waiting.
They don't sell H. I don't see it -- no vials of inky black. They're not the ones that killed our Jane Doe, whoever she is. They have some Euphoria, a weird colored blend I'm guessing must be Nostalgia, something that looks like Affection crossed with Pride -- but no H.
There's a bunch of vials of Sat. I pretend not to notice, not to count them. The shaking has gotten more pronounced, now -- harder to play off.
"I forgot to flip my clothes inside out," I blurt, when Jim glances over at me, raises an eyebrow without saying anything. "I'm afraid..."
"Get the shit and get out of here," he says. "Meet me back at our car."
Relieved, I run off without say anything.
I've never touched the hard stuff. I've heard the rumors -- that it's like every Christmas morning you had as a kid, distilled into one potent drop -- and I'm not ready for that.
I can handle being hooked on Sat. The withdrawals are rough, but they're more like missing cigarettes than the pure cocaine rush that is Happiness.
I can handle the shaking hands, the brain fog, the feeling of something missing, an ache that starts in my back teeth and moves its way forward until my entire face hurts.
I've seen what H does to people. I've seen what withdrawal from it does.
I know where to draw the line.
I count and recount the vials of Sat, waiting for Jim. Fifteen. Fifteen vials. The number looms in my head, indescribably huge. Half a vial is enough to keep me going for a day. Fifteen is a month's supply. I could get high every night, for a month, without having to worry about where it's coming from, how I'm going to pay for it...
They've raised the price on me, the last few times. They know they've got me -- I'm not going to find another supplier, not when they could blackmail me, not when I don't have a way of destroying them without destroying myself. They won't raise it too high -- there are limits, and if the price becomes too dear, I'll get clean and rat them out -- but it's still higher than I'd like to pay.
An entire month's supply, I think, staring down at the vials in their evidence bag. Shit goes missing all the time, who would know...?
I throw them in the backseat and try not to think about it.
Jim reappears, five minutes later, just as I'm thinking that I'm not going to make it; that I'm going to have to steal one of the vials to make it back to the precinct in one piece.
"Must be hard," he says, as he climbs into the car, and I think he's talking about the arrest we just made, about Jane Doe.
"Yeah," I say, "not knowing what happened to your kid, finding out she ODed on H."
"No," says Jim calmly. He buckles his belt. "I meant you. Being up close and personal with that much Sat, when you're going through withdrawals. Did you pocket any?"
I can feel the bottom drop out of my stomach. Nerves -- something They haven't taken from us. "Excuse me?"
"I said, did you pocket any?" Jim repeats. "Don't lie to me, Tana -- we both know you're an addict."
I exhale slowly. "No," I say. "But I thought about it."
Jim puts the keys into the ignition, starts the car. "I won't tell anyone, if you do."
I think about this, as he throws it into reverse. "I..."
I look over at him, prepared to say, I couldn't or maybe I wouldn't, and then I see it.
His clothes are still inside-out. We're outside the periphery of the Market, so they don't need to be, but they are. His pants pockets are hanging outside. In one of them, I can see the outline of a bottle.
"Jim," I start. "I..."
"Eliza," he says. His wife's name. "She..."
I've met her, once or twice. She's a nice woman -- a little weird. Touched by the Fae, the rumors around the station go, or else, she has some Fae blood in her.
"They had a blend," Jim says, his voice low. "Happiness and Satisfaction."
He doesn't use their street names, and I realize, suddenly, that I've misjudged him. He's never tried them.
All of us know someone addicted, though, and in his case, it's Eliza.
"Shit," I say. "Does she...?"
"Yeah," says Jim, anticipating the end of the question. "But she started with the hard stuff."
"If you want to steal the Sat," says Jim, "I won't tell anyone."
I hesitate, only for a moment.
"I can't," I say, finally. "There are lines."
I don't say, if I didn't have a vial waiting for me in my car, I'd take them all.
"Fine," says Jim, after a moment. "But you won't...?"
"I won't tell anyone," I reassure him. "I can't."
One in two, was my estimate. One in two of us is addicted, but now I know, it's closer to two in three, or three in four. The numbers are edging up; we're all addicted, helplessly dependent on the Fae for our fix.
"You sure?" asks Jim, as we near the station. "That'd be two weeks of Satisfaction, for Ellie."
"Yeah," I tell him, after a beat, but it's a lie.
The only thing I am sure of is that we have lost the war.
Choosing a favorite entry by someone else this season was difficult, a bit like trying to choose one of your favorite children. Ultimately, I knew it was going to be one of hers, but the question came down to which.
"Buyer Beware" reminded me of Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music, in the best possible way, and ultimately, after spending a few days rifling through everyone's entries, it is what I came back to, again and again.
Thank you for reading -- and yachiru, thank *you* for the wonderful writing you do. I'm not exaggerating when I say you are one of my favorite Idolers, and it was a pleasure to write beside you this season.
I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Carter’s class, and we were supposed to be doing some project on colors in art: making our initials in this weird rainbow block pattern. I reached for a red crayon, and accidentally grabbed orange instead. Not a huge mistake, but noticeable.
“Roy G. Biv, Adam,” said Mrs. Carter, kindly. I don’t think she knew how to be anything other than kind. “Remember, red before orange.”
I was embarrassed--that she’d seen, that I colored over it and you could still tell -- embarrassed enough that I wanted to sink into the floor. I willed it, open up and swallow me, and in a way, it did:
Everything blurred, the colors ran together like melting--well, crayon--and I slipped sideways…
...into a dimension where another version of me was doing the same project, but had been embarrassed for something else.
“...right,” said my teacher, who was Mrs. Wilson in this dimension. “So don’t do it again next time.”
“I won’t,” I promised, and she nodded and moved on to critique the next student.
My name here was Aaron, not Adam, but it still started with an A, and my last name was still Stein, so it didn’t matter much that I’d gotten switched, the initials were the same -- so I kept coloring, and I pretended like nothing had changed.
I didn’t get much wrong, that first day. I still took the bus home. Mom was still waiting with cookies. If she thought I was someone different -- if I responded a little too slowly to Aaron, still expecting Adam -- she didn’t say anything.
I was nine, after all. I wasn’t worth paying attention to.
It didn’t happen again until I was sixteen. There was a girl I liked -- Genie, Genie Thompson. She was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen, until -- well.
“Will you go out with me?” I asked, and she stammered something about not wanting to ruin the friendship.
I’d made the mistake of asking her out in front of the entire cafeteria, at second lunch, and so…
I wished the Earth would open up and swallow me, and it was just like before, when the colors had seemed to melt together, like runny wax. One minute I was standing there in the cafeteria, and the next, I wasn’t.
I was sitting at a table, instead.
“Dude,” one of my friends -- his name had been Steven in the other universe; it was Stephen here -- elbowed me. “Aren’t you going to ask her out?”
“Nah,” I said. “I want to wait for a private moment -- you know, maybe make it less weird, if she says she doesn’t want to.”
“Chicken,” he said, but he dropped it.
I asked her out later -- it felt weird not to -- and she said yes, much to my eternal surprise. “I’d love to!”
But she wasn’t the same -- not the one my adolescent heart had felt such a rush for -- and I knew it, even if I didn’t know why.
We dated for six months -- a record in high school -- and broke up amiably, when we both realized that we weren’t “into” one another.
“You’re just not the same, Aiden,” she said.
I never had the heart to tell her, how true that was.
I started seeing a therapist, while I was in college. It was free, through the student health center, and I thought I was going crazy, at least a little, with the sliding…
I tried to explain to them, what was happening, and when they tried to politely tell me that I needed help beyond what they could offer, that was when the third slide happened, colors running together and the therapist’s face distorting as she said, politely, “I think you could benefit from seeing a psychiatrist, we really only deal with students that are struggling with adjusting to college life…”
I snapped to in a different therapist’s office.
“So, you’re worried about sitting for finals?” she said, looking at the questionaire I had evidently filled out.
“Uh--yeah,” I said. “I mean, I know everyone must worry about finals, but I’m really afraid I’m not going to pass Math 1060, and--”
“Everyone struggles,” she empathized. “Let’s work on giving you the skills to overcome whatever mental block it is you have about math.”
I went through the session with her, learned some coping skills, how to deal with stress and the fear of failure.
I got a card about different student groups I could join, "mindfulness and better living through stress reduction", and I didn't go back.
The slipping kept happening. A physics final I hadn't studied for -- I slipped into a universe where it was postponed.
Tripping and sliding down a muddy hill in the quad -- I slipped into a universe where, instead of colliding head-on with one of my professors that semester, I was alone instead.
Bad dates: slippage. Any embarrassment, major or minor: slippage.
I got used to it, after a while -- used to answering to any old A-name, from Art to Ahriman; used to slipping into universes where things were slightly different, but still mostly the same. I had the same career, almost everywhere I went: working in HR, for different large companies. The policies weren't the same -- they varied from place to place -- but the work itself was easy enough, and I never had to deal with anything particularly tricky. Disciplining someone for stealing their coworker's lunch out of the work fridge was similar no matter where I ended up. The work didn't require creativity, or familiarity with the company's values -- mostly, it was easy. I didn't usually slip at work. It was elsewhere, that it happened: slippage when I asked my long-term girlfriend to marry me and she said she thought we should see other people; slippage when I drunkenly told my roommate I had feelings for her; a slip when I bent over at work and my pants tore; slippage when I accidentally implied a cashier at the local grocery store was pregnant (she assured me, very loudly, that she wasn't).
Slippage was a part of my life. There didn't seem to be a way around it.
I tried multiple therapists. I tried scientists -- contacting universities; reaching out to them to see if anyone was studying the possibility of multiple parallel universes, many worlds theory.
Most of those contacts resulted in slipping, again, but I didn't give up.
I met the first woman to believe me after the 35th slip. This one had been something work-related -- I was being reprimanded for not paying close enough attention in a meeting. The colors ran like wax, and then --
It was unusual, meeting her. Normally, when I slipped, I slipped right back to the same instant, in a different universe, where I hadn't been embarrassed, or hadn't been embarrassed in the same way.
This time, I slipped into her office. Another version of me -- another Aarne (my name in the last universe) -- must have been consulting with her about something, but I'd slipped and taken his place.
" -- believe you," said the woman in front of me, in the place I recognized as being a doctor or professional's office of some kind. "But you have to understand, your story is a little...out of the ordinary."
I blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"Your story," she said, looking down at the manila folder she held in front of her. She was of middling height and weight, with dark brown hair twisted back in a bun, horn-rimmed glasses and serious brown eyes. I would have guessed she was in her late 30s. "About -- what was it you called it?"
"Slippage?" I hazarded a guess.
"No," she said, frowning. "Sliding. Now, Mr. Smith..."
That, I guessed, was my last name in this universe.
"You have to understand that you're asking rather a lot of me as a clinician," she said. "There's little to no way to prove your story."
"I see," I said, standing. "You don't believe me."
She quirked an eyebrow at me over her glasses. "On the contrary," she said, "I do."
Her name was Jaya -- Jaya Friedman. She was a psychiatrist with a physicist mother. This, I guessed, was why I'd reached out to her. She'd done physics in undergrad -- had gone on to do a master's degree in the field -- before switching to psychiatry and going to medical school.
"Your face," she said, when I asked her just what it was that had made her believe me. "When I was in the middle of dismissing you, your face went blank for a moment -- just a moment -- and you seemed...disoriented. I thought that you might be entering a fugue state, but your answers were clear, and more importantly, you didn't look the same. I'd just embarrassed you, and you went blank, but then your hair was parted on the wrong side, and you didn't use the same vocabulary. I decided, at least in the moment, to believe you. Now..."
She had some ideas, about what could be done to prove that I was from a different universe.
"Isotope distribution," she said. "If you're from a different universe, there should be different stable isotopes."
Jaya couldn't, however, help me pin down what would stop the sliding.
"I've never seen it before," she said. "It appears to be unique to you. So..."
"I'm stuck with it, is what you're saying," I prompted.
"No," she said. "It's not -- it appears to be something to do with you, some kind of defense mechanism; something to keep you from being embarrassed."
She hesitated a moment. "I think," she said, "that you need to accept that humiliation happens -- that it's a normal part of life -- if you want the slides to stop."
"Right," I said. "And how would you suggest I do that?"
Jaya smiled slightly. "Therapy?" she said. At the look on my face, she quickly added: "You don't have to tell them about the slides -- simply that you have a severe phobia of being embarrassed. You can tell them about how it's led you to leave jobs, nearly drop out of school -- the, uh, 'slides' can be described as changes in career or focus. Describe that to a competent therapist, and I think you'll have an easier time."
I found a therapist. Jaya recommended someone. When I didn't quite gel with him, she recommended someone else.
I gelled with her all right.
"Let's talk about being embarrassed," she started. "How does it make you feel?"
I thought about the feeling of embarrassment, what it was like -- and that's when I slid for the 36th time.
I found Jaya again. It wasn't hard -- I knew that she likely still worked at the university, and that she would look about the same. A quick glance through the faculty directory located her.
Her name was Janine, in this universe. I managed to convince her that I knew her, told her what tests to run -- what she'd done in the other universe.
This Jaya -- Janine -- was a licensed therapist, not a psychiatrist.
"I think I can help you," she said. "Since my colleague elsewhere, er -- couldn't."
Her idea of 'help' was exposure therapy.
"Now," she said, "we have to start with the idea that embarrassment is something that happens. It's normal, and it's not insurmountable. We're going to work up slowly and get you used to the idea..."
I made it through four appointments with her, before she managed to do something that caused me to slide yet again.
I got into a habit, almost: finding Jaya-Janine-Jill-Jerri, and convincing her that I wasn't crazy. Learning relative abundances of different isotopes in different universes, what I should have been and wasn't, science jargon that didn't make sense at first, but slowly grew to fill me with mild dread.
I went through exposure therapy. Not always with her -- she was usually in psychology or psychiatry, but not always -- but most of the time.
We worked up to it: the grand finale, in which I would finally stop sliding.
Every time I tried to go through with it, I ended up sliding again.
"Mental block," said Jenny/Jada/Jyn. "You need to accept that it's possible, or you'll never manage it."
"I don't think it is possible," I said, during one of the sessions. It had been a particularly bad day.
"Come on," she said. "You can do it."
We tried, and I slid yet again.
"That was better," said whatever version of Jaya existed in this universe, as the colors stopped sliding and everything came into focus. "Are you still with me?"
I blinked a little. "What's my name this time?" I asked.
"Arnold," she said. "Shit."
"Closer," I said, and shrugged.
"What was your birth name, anyway?" she asked me.
I thought back to the very first instance -- the first slide.
"Adam," I said, slowly. "Adam Thomas Steine."
"How many names have you had?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "I lost track a while ago. Some of them repeated, and..."
"How many times have you slid?" she asked, intrigued. "Your -- predecessor -- he said that it had been eighty-something times, for him, but that it was getting better. It was slowing down, he said. He was starting to believe that he was getting better -- that eventually he wouldn't slide at all."
I blinked. "58," I said. "I didn't realize -- we haven't all slid the same number of times?"
This version of Jaya laughed. "The first one of you I treated had slid over a thousand times. The numbers keep dropping. I'm hopeful for you."
"The numbers keep going down?"
"The numbers keep going down," she said, and smiled at me. "So something must be working."
I nearly made it through the final exercise, that time. I felt things start to shift, the slide as the colors faded, and I nearly made it -- nearly managed to ground myself; to stay.
"Hang on, Arnold," said that version of Jaya -- and hearing her voice broke my concentration; let me slide all the way into the next reality.
I started asking, after that one, how many times the one before me had slid.
Always, I heard, the numbers were going down.
"We're approaching control," whatever version of Jaya told me. "Soon..."
I tried to make it through the final therapy session. Most of them, I wasn't successful. I'd get close to the end -- I'd feel things start to come on -- and something would distract me; break my concentration, keep me from staying in one spot. I'd fight off the urge for what felt like ages -- it can't have been more than a few seconds, but it felt like hours -- but it didn't matter. Inevitably, I'd go.
The last slide that happened was in therapy.
"Focus," said Jaya. "Think about..."
The first time. When my name had gone from Adam to Aaron. When I'd realized what had happened; what my power was.
How I could run from anything.
"We learn unhealthy coping mechanisms, but they can be unlearned," said Jaya. "Embarrassment is nothing to run from."
"Easy for you to say," I muttered, and she laughed.
"You can do this, Arlo," she said. "Come on. Focus."
I focused -- and when I felt the slide start to happen, the door opened and someone else walked into her office.
"Shit!" said Jaya. "I -- "
The colors ran, melting together, blurring, reshaping, changing and refocusing, and I felt myself -- shift.
"Excellent," I heard Jaya say. "Great work, Adam! You succeeded, you didn't slide, you -- "
Seeing me, she broke off mid-sentence.
"Um," said my double. "Well, I didn't shift that time, but I..."
I saw him blush -- red, bright red, embarrassed for both of us.
I felt myself start to lose my grip again, and I focused, willed myself to stay in the present, not to give in...
"Adam," said Jaya, calmly. "It looks like you've mastered it, too."
"Because he did it," I said. "Because -- it can be done, after all."
"Yes," said Jaya.
My name in that universe, I learned, was Adam -- Adam Steine.
In a box in my parents' attic, there was an art project from 4th grade. An initial project, done in the colors of the rainbow.
In the top left corner, a square that should have been red was orange -- the only flaw in an otherwise adequate project.
It wasn't much, but it meant the world to me.
The Roger Bannister Effect refers to a psychological phenomenon in which until we see someone else do the impossible, we do not realize that it *is* possible.
I grew up knowing what I was. It was an inevitability--when someone gasps and says that they hope you grow up to be smart, when they tell you, faintly, that they think that you are very clever -- when you spend your entire childhood damned with faint praise, how can you not know?
My brother was gorgeous. I remember strangers, telling our parents: your son is so handsome.
He was the youngest, meant to do wonderful things. I was the eldest, supposed to be clever.
When they could only afford to send one of us to university, when the other of us would have to take out loans if we wanted to go, if it was a possibility at all -- did they ask me, what do you want to be, Miranda?
I pretend that they did. It's easier than the truth: that, ugly as I am (was?), they couldn't pretend that I had much of a future.
You have to believe me when I say I don't hate them.
I was -- am -- clever. I'm patient, and good with my hands. I found a job, got myself apprenticed to a welder.
"The torch don't give a damn how ugly you are," he said, when I said something -- in trepidation -- about my looks, interacting with customers. "We'll stick you in the back til you've got it licked, then we'll put you out front."
He'd been handsome, once, before he was scarred in a welding accident, marked for life.
"No one gives a damn, as long as you're competent," he repeated. "Be good at what you do."
And I was -- better than competent. I became an artist.
When the news broke, I was working on the newest installation piece, something a client had commissioned, a giant, fanciful thing of metal and wire that was meant to evoke Greek mythology.
Fitting, I guess: I was bending coils of wire into snakes to make Medusa's hair when the radio suddenly crackled, changing from the public station I'd been listening to into something else, the emergency broadcast system suddenly kicking on, and the announcement that changed everything.
They called you monsters.
From beyond the stars, your bodies were designed for a planet far different from ours. Webbed hands and feet spoke of more water than we could possibly imagine, a completely different evolutionary history.
You came in peace, you said. You'd been watching us for years. You were interested in our culture, our government, our art.
You wanted to talk to artists, in particular, discover how we did the things that we did. Painting was unknown on your planet, though crude drawings were possible, and sculpture was known.
You didn't know about welding. You had made all your parts through casting or different joins, ones I didn't recognize.
They asked for volunteers, and I said I would meet you.
They let me, perhaps because they could tell: I knew what it was to be ugly.
You touched my face, the first time you met me, and told me: of all the humans you had met, I was the one that looked most familiar to you.
My breath hitched in my throat, when you said this: the old familiar hurt rising in me, someone else to call me ugly -- and then you said what I have never forgotten:
One artist always recognizes another.
We didn't talk of welding, or sculpture, or culture, even, really.
We talked about identity and growing up.
When I told you, about the pain of growing up ugly, about being the clever one to my brother's so handsome, you grimaced a little, and said that you understood, what that was like.
"It would have been easier, maybe," I said, "if I'd been born a boy, too. No one cares if you're ugly, as a man -- at least, not as much. But if you're a woman..."
You didn't have different sexes, in your society. You were all what you called agender, neither male nor female, nor both, but something else entirely.
"We've seen your media," you said, hesitant, in response. "We -- I -- cannot empathize, but I can at least start to understand. It is...different, for you."
"There's an expectation," I said. "That you will be pretty, or you'll try to be. There's no room for -- deviation. If you aren't pretty, you are expected to at least make certain concessions. To wear makeup; to dress in a way that's coded as 'feminine'; to remove your body hair and make an attempt to adhere to the beauty standard. I..."
I did all of these things, I wanted to say, despite the fact that I knew they made no difference. Braces had straightened my teeth; years of practice had taught me how to tame my hair. I'd learned to get my eyebrows waxed, my upper lip; how to wield the delicate mascara wand like a weapon, paint my face with foundation and blush.
I'd learned, but it wasn't enough. There were things that makeup and well-fitted clothes couldn't fit, things that nothing short of surgery I could never afford could change. My concave chest, my narrow hips, my too-long torso and too-short legs, my too-large feet and hands, what I had never quite grown into, a nose that was too big, and hooked -- I knew what the score was.
"You have to perform," I said, finally. "You have to admit that you want to be pretty, even if you aren't -- and that's still not enough."
"But you are lovely," you said, after a moment's hesitation. "The things you make are lovely. That should be..."
You bit your lip, then, pausing in thought. I saw the greenish blush rise in your cheeks -- a sign, I thought, of embarrassment, that you'd complimented me.
"They should be ashamed," you said, your voice taut with repressed anger. "Treating you as 'other'. Your parents -- what does your brother do, now? Is he an artist, too? Does he do great works?"
I winced, thinking about Adrian. "He's married," I said. "His wife is beautiful. They have two children -- they've made my parents very happy."
"Does he do great works?" you repeated. "Is he an artist? A great scientist, perhaps? Does he make beauty where he goes?"
"He's the building manager for a tech company," I said. "He's in charge of maintaining the HVAC system -- the, uh, building climate -- as well as ordering needed supplies and making sure that anything broken gets fixed."
I didn't say, he dropped out of college when he got Callie pregnant, because while true, it's unkind. I don't say, he stole money from my mom, and we didn't talk to him for years, not until he paid it all back, or he used to smoke pot every weekend as a teenager, and if he hadn't dropped out, he would have gotten kicked out for dealing out of his dorm. He's grown up, and he's made something of himself. Callie is great, too, and I don't want to tar her with the same brush. I love them both -- but I don't envy them. I wish that I could have been given the chances that he was -- but I don't want to be him, not anymore.
"He is not an artist," you said, your voice low. "He does not create. Why, then, do you think that he is superior, somehow, to you? Why do your parents think this?"
"Because he's handsome," I said. "Because -- that's what we care about, really, even if we shouldn't."
"I see," you said, and you changed the topic to discuss welding with me, the art I did.
I told you the story of Medusa, in those early days. How she was ugly, horrifyingly so, and so I identified with her. "We have something in common, after all..."
"Was she not beautiful before?" you asked. "Did not someone find her beautiful?"
"She and her sisters," I said, and hesitated. "It didn't stop Perseus from lopping off her head."
"But you remember who she was," you said, "what she could do; what her power was. Her curse -- her gift -- has lingered, and her legend is better known, perhaps, than that of him."
You smiled at me, revealing large, flat, greenish teeth. "Never forget: the gift is what is remembered -- the one that has it."
I changed the subject, but I didn't forget what you said.
We continued visiting.
We became friends, you and I. Good friends -- best friends. For the first time in my life, I had a best friend.
We discussed art, welding. I taught you how to use a torch, how to perform the simple joins that I did, soldering two pieces of metal together.
"It looks so easy," you laughed, when I did more complicated welds, tried to show you how to use a torch. "But it's not."
I taught you the fundamentals, what I could teach in a six month period -- because you were leaving, I knew, after six months; going back to your home, returning to what you knew.
When the end came, when you had to leave -- you told me, the gift is what is remembered, and I did my best not to cry.
"I'll be back," you said, but I didn't believe you.
I finished the statue, and I thought about your words. The gift is what is remembered -- and I remembered, just what it was that clients and critics had said about me.
"Talented," came the reviews.
"Incredible with a torch -- a truly gifted artist."
"Her work, while tenacious, invokes a certain fragility that has never before been seen in this medium. Her figures are incredible -- life-like and beautiful while feeling realistic. One almost expects the sculptures Miranda Surta has made to come to life: the singer to take her bow; the artist to lower his brush and turn away from his canvas to greet the observer. Though they are cold metal, they evoke living flesh in a way that few other works can."
None of them had ever mentioned me, that I was unlovely. "Well-acquainted with beauty," one had said, and I had always thought it to be sarcastic, but now...
You made me think of myself in a different light.
I created a show, after you left. I pitched the idea to a gallery owner I knew, and she told me, without hesitation, that she'd love to have me.
"I know your work will sell, Miranda," she said. "There's no question of that."
So I made what I wanted to, worked for over a year to complete everything, in the spare moments I had, working in the shop.
A series of sculptures, based around what your people, what I had learned from you, what I had realized thanks to you, thanks to being seen, finally, not as someone who could be attractive or ugly, but serenely outside the box of pretty and not pretty, outside the conventions that bound me in ordinary life.
"These are your best works yet," said Amanda, when I lugged them to her gallery. "I've never seen..."
"I've never let myself work like this, before," I told her, honestly. "But now..."
I mailed invitations to everyone.
I'd never let my parents see, what it was I did.
They knew I worked as a welder -- that was enough. They assumed I worked on buildings; that I did small odd-jobs to pay my bills. They were relieved I didn't have to ask them for money, the way that Adrian had, at various points in time. I'd never worried them -- not in the ways that he had -- and I'd been moderately successful, by their standards. I'd managed to be an adult, at least, even if they thought I would die unmarried.
I didn't discuss my successes with them, before. I wasn't sure how they would take it -- if they would believe me, or if it would come down to the old question of physical beauty again, the question of was I trying hard enough.
I told them, now. I wanted them to see.
I invited Adrian, too, even though I wasn't sure I wanted to -- even though I wasn't sure how he would take it.
The night of the gallery opening, I wore my coveralls and apron. I pulled my hair back, the way I did when I wore my welding mask, but I didn't wear makeup. I let myself be seen: not as Miranda, trying to be pretty, but as Miranda Surta, the artist. I was more comfortable that way, anyway.
I didn't think my family would come. I was almost certain that they wouldn't -- that they would see this as another way in which I could embarrass myself; embarrass them.
They surprised me by turning up.
"Darling," said my mother, when she saw me in my coveralls. "Your gallery opening. Are you sure...?"
I could tell the way the question was meant from the lilt in her voice. Are you sure you want to be wearing coveralls for this? You look so much like a boy anyway -- aren't they going to mistake you for janitorial staff? Don't you want to try?
"I signed all of my works M. Surta," I said, pointing to the base of one of my sculptures -- the one in which I realized I was an artist; that the art would endure; that it was more important than me, my looks, that I was more than the pitying glances given to me by strangers at the makeup counter. "I want there to be no mistake that it's me, that I'm the one that did all of this."
"That's...a good point," said my mother, faintly. "Well. We'll investigate the show, and then..."
"I'll be around," I said, quietly. "I'm going to talk to Amanda about some of the pieces -- she said that there's already someone interested in buying one of them."
"All right," said my father. "Keep an eye out for Adrian -- he and Callie said they would come."
I saw Adrian walk in. I avoided him, burying myself in conversation with Amanda, with potential buyers.
"Exquisite," said the woman who wanted to buy the sculpture of my meeting with you. "The transformation -- the shift in confidence -- is so clear in this work. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. You have a gift."
I watched Adrian walk from sculpture to sculpture, his arm around Callie's waist, as I listened.
I steeled myself with her words, with what you had said to me, as he and his wife approached, my parents right behind him.
"Miranda," said my brother, his voice shaking. "You're so..."
I steeled mysef. Adrian had never been unkind to me -- not about my looks -- and he'd long ago outgrown what my mother had referred to as his "difficult" phase. He was a good husband, a good father -- and yet I couldn't help but worry, what it was he was going to say.
"Talented," he finished, after a moment. "You..."
"Your work is gorgeous," said Callie. "We had -- we had no idea. Why didn't you tell us, before?"
Because all anyone cared about was my appearance, I thought, uncharitable, but I swallowed this response.
"You never asked," I said. "I would have offered, but..."
My mother looked at me. "I understand why you wore your coveralls, now," she said. "You...you want to be identified, as the artist."
"Yes," I said.
"You are an artist," said my father. "We're all -- "
"We're so proud of you," said my mother, and reached out to hug me.
The gift is what is remembered, you taught me.
Not the artist, with her imperfect face, her imperfect body. Her art.
I know that, now.
I received word a few days ago, from the woman who arranged the initial interviews with your people, that you have come back to visit.
My sculptures are still being shown.
I have so much to tell you.
There is a quote I happen to love a lot, that comes from Erica McKean:
You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.
I think about this a lot. Growing up, I was not conventionally attractive, and that grated at me. I had a mother to whom being pretty was the most important thing, what we were supposed to strive for. I don't think I fully gave up on the idea of being 'pretty' until I was in my mid-20s, and it's something I still struggle with -- despite the fact that I am loved and appreciated and remembered for being myself, for my own skills and talents, and not because of what I look like.
Miranda's story came from that: from the acceptance and acknowledgment that you do not have to be lovely, that it is not required -- it's not the 'rent you pay' -- that it can be enough to be you and if you ever are uncomfortable, your own unique talents and abilities are what "justify" your existence.
I have her eyes. They’re the same shape and color -- I can tell from the photographs, even if I’ve never met her. The rest of my face doesn’t look like hers, not quite, but the eyes are the same.
“You’re just like her,” Dr. Morris -- Jim -- swears, up and down. “You are her. A perfect copy.”
Except I’m not sure I am.
An experiment: you make a copy of someone. You clone them, in essence, though cloning implies something ancient and inelegant, biological, and you are anything but.
You make a copy. Inorganic, not organic. Silicon, instead of carbon, but with all the same limitations, the same pitfalls. You give them the same experiences, the same memories.
Are they the same person?
That’s the question, not, is this ethical, but are they the same person?
We have the same eyes.
“The rest of you is different,” says Jim, because silicon is inferior to carbon in some ways, because I will never have the same sense of touch that she does, because some experiences cannot be perfectly replicated, because memory is fainter than actually living through the thing -- because I have made it different, have taken pains to become someone else, something else. “Your eyes, though…”
I’d wear colored contacts, if I could. I’ve already cut my hair.
“You’re probably wondering why I agreed to this,” she says, in the beginning of the only video of her they’ve let me watch. “Well…”
She’s sitting in a chair, in a white room, with a pink blanket spread over her lap There’s a window behind her, with blue and white curtains hanging at it. A breeze stirs them. There’s no sound, and I can’t see what’s outside the window--something green, maybe a tree, but no real details. There’s no furniture in the room, besides the chair she sits in, some unpainted wood.
“I wanted to live forever,” she says, simply. She goes on to talk about immortality, picking at the edge of the blanket spread over her lap as she does. How she’d hoped for better, that things would catch up, that cybernetics would become a possibility, but, “technology being what it is, that doesn’t seem possible anymore.”
I’ve watched the video more times than I can count, picking out detail, watching her face, trying to determine: is this how people see me?
I have two sets of memories of it: hers, and mine. Mine, watching the video shortly after they finished the upload, when they were explaining what I was, why I was.
Hers, recording it.
How she -- I -- had stressed, determining what to wear, whether to use the blanket or not, what chair she should sit in, where she should sit and what she should do. How she’d cleared everything out of the room, even though they’d said it wasn’t necessary, because she didn’t want to unduly influence the experiment.
The chair is unpainted pine, something her husband made. The blanket is something that her mother crocheted for her, a Christmas gift. She sewed the curtains that hang at the windows, and I can still remember my -- her -- words when we hung them up:
“This is as domestic as I get,” and how her -- our -- husband had laughed.
“What about the cooking?”
“That doesn’t count.”
They’re my memories, and yet they’re hers. I didn’t live them, didn’t experience them--and I have them anyway.
“It’s my gift to you,” she says, at the end of the video, and her expression, her smile--never wavers. “My life. May you use it better than I did.”
They waited until she was long dead, before they made me.
She was in her early twenties when the video was recorded. She died at twenty-nine, of an inoperable brain tumor.
They waited ten years, until everyone who had known her had forgotten, had moved on, and then they made me, uploaded her into me.
“A perfect copy,” they said, but they might have realized: nothing is free from entropy.
I didn't know which of us I resented more: her, for wanting more than her allotted span, or myself, for having been created in the first place.
"This will pass," said Dr. Morris. "Eventually, the memories will sync, and her -- your -- personality will overtake you, and you'll have no further conflicts."
I waited, for this. I waited for the resentment, the hatred, to end.
When it didn't, that's when I cut off all my hair.
"She was chosen because of her individuality," says Dr. Morris -- Jim, as he kept pressing me to call her. "If you watch the other videos..."
"If I'm allowed to watch the other videos."
"When you watch the other videos," he amends, "you'll see that. Why she -- you -- picked this route, instead of another."
"Because there were no other routes," I say, flatly. "She says as much in the first video. She didn't opt for cybernetics because they were clumsy, and she wanted a chance to truly live again. She was hoping that this would make her husband happy, that he -- "
"Yes," says Jim, quickly -- too quickly. "That he could find the copy of her, and then..."
"That they'd go on living together," I continue. "Except you've told me -- he's remarried and has a family now. They live out in Fairfield. Which raises the question of ethics and why I'm allowed to exist."
"She -- you -- signed a waiver," says Dr. Morris. "So, you see..."
It's for the advancement of science, he says. So they can better understand how consciousness works; how artificial intelligence works, how memory works and "what makes us human."
I like that he said us, including me in, as though I'm human too, and not just another subject.
"We're still learning," he finishes. "We're still trying to figure out answers to the big questions."
They don't let me watch the other videos, so I watch the first, over and over, trying to find parts of myself in her.
We have the same eyes.
Otherwise, there is little enough we have in common. The woman in the videos might as well be a stranger, even if we share the memories.
"Tell me your earliest memory," says Dr. Morris, during one of our sessions.
"I'm in the recovery room," I tell him. "I sit up. I've got a gown on, for modesty. Someone asks what I'm doing, if I'm supposed to be awake yet, and I tell him that I think I am."
Jim shakes his head. "No," he says. "Your earliest real memory."
The earliest memories I have do not feel like mine. They don't feel real. They belong to a stranger, someone who felt things I was never able to feel. Sunshine, on the backs of her hands, as she stood on the side of her dad's boat, a life jacket strapped around her middle, watching the ocean and wondering how anything could be so blue.
I've never been on a boat. I've never been out of the research park I was created in. I have never seen the ocean, or any body of water larger than the scummy duck pond they keep here (misnamed; there are no ducks, but there is plenty of algae, and some very angry geese).
"That is my first real memory," I tell him, and he sighs in frustration.
"I don't understand," he starts, and I don't know what to tell him.
I dream, or something like it. It's one of the odd side-effects of what Dr. Morris calls "the treatment". They haven't found a way to make AI dream -- not truly -- but AI don't need to sleep, either.
I do need to sleep, and so I dream.
My dreams aren't my own, and that's what's upsetting.
I'm back in the room that the video was filmed in, but the sensors in my hands are better than anything that currently exists, and I can feel the texture of the blanket, each individual stitch, the gentle catch of the rough yarn against my skin. I finger it, and I shake my head at how pink it is. Mom should have known better. I haven't liked pink since I was ten. If she wanted to make something I'd use, something I'd enjoy, it would have been blue, or turquoise. Some cool color, not a pink.
My husband walks in, as I hit "stop" on the camera.
"How'd it go?" he asks.
The memory is not like this. He wasn't home, when she recorded the video. She'd called him, afterward, and told him -- what she'd said, what she'd done.
"It went well, I think," I say, and it's my voice -- the way it sounds in my head, with my own inflections, my slightly different accent, not hers. "I think she'll understand."
"I hope she does," he says, and rubs my shoulders lightly. I can feel the warmth of his hands, through the cloth. "I'm going to miss you, in the gap between."
"It's only ten years," I say, and my voice trembles a little on the "only". "I'll be back before too long."
"Yes," he says. "But..."
I wake up before I know what it is he says.
This is the heart of the problem, I think, though I do not mention it in my sessions with Dr. Morris.
I was created to love someone. I am a snapshot in time of when she was most in love with her husband.
She agreed to the upload, I know, because she thought it would be the one way she could continue loving her husband.
This is what drove her, in her heart of hearts.
It is what is supposed to drive me, now -- but he remarried, years ago, and lives somewhere else, with his new wife and children, in a different city, three hours away by car.
They invited him to the upload, the unveiling. He'd asked to be told, after he'd signed the last of the paperwork consenting to it.
I saw the email he sent, turning down the opportunity.
"I'm sorry," it read. "I loved her, but I'm with someone else now, and it feels like it would stir up too many old memories..."
I waited too, I want to say, because the memories I have are all dated; because I had to relearn how to live in the present, because I do not know who I am anymore, and I resent that.
The disconnect is here.
They accounted for everything, in making me -- but they did not account for entropy; for the simple way in which the ties that bind may be broken.
I am not her, because I do not have him -- because I am willing to admit that I will never have him, and that my life does not need to end because he is not in it.
"Your memories will sync," Dr. Morris insists, when I say that I think I have become something else; that I am someone other than her. "You'll stop feeling like a stranger, inside your own body."
Except I do not feel like a stranger. I feel like myself.
The disconnect, for him, is that I do not feel like her.
"The experiment is failing," I hear him dictate, into the recorder app he uses. "Patient 86 refuses to examine and accept her own memories."
We don't talk about what happens, if the experiment is a failure.
There are whispers. Not among the patients -- I never meet anyone that I identify as being another patient -- but the staff. The two interns assigned to my floor like to gossip amongst themselves, in particular, and they aren't particularly quiet about it.
"At the end of the experiment," I overhear one of them say, "what happens to the, er, subjects?"
"Patients," corrects the other intern. "I don't know. I've heard..."
There are whispers, hushed voices -- it's the kind of thing Dr. Morris or one of the other PIs would reprimand them for saying. "Memory wipe," I hear, and "destruction of the chassis."
The chassis -- the body in which I have been "uploaded", meant to look like her.
Destruction, at the end of the path, if I emerge as a new person.
In a way, I can't fault them, for this. If I try to examine it clinically -- if I disconnect and do not think of myself as a person -- I am a failed sample; something to be discarded, tossed aside. It makes sense that they would wipe the memories, destroy the chassis. They may want to try again, with a different body.
"Not every upload is perfect," Dr. Morris has said, during some of our sessions, when it has come up. "Sometimes we have to try again."
He had implied, and I had never thought to question, that those imperfect uploads had never gained consciousness; that they had never fully awoken. He'd never explained what he meant by 'try again', either, and so I had assumed that this is what the interns were referring to -- uploads that never fully "awoke". Wiping the memories and trying again, there, had seemed like the kindest thing.
I didn't think to ask what would happen if there was a case like mine.
The failure of the memories to "attach" -- the effects of entropy, the split that had occurred there -- didn't feel like my fault.
"I'm not her," I told my reflection, staring into her eyes. "I'm my own person. I'm not a failed experiment."
In a nasty way, it made sense, though -- that they would label me as one; destroy me and try again.
I keep dreaming, night after night.
In the dreams, there is no split between her and me. We exist as a single unit. The memories are seamless, and I am myself -- no more, and no less. There are no questions of who is who or whose memories belong to whom -- I remember putting on the helmet, agreeing to the scan, and then I remember waking up on the table. There's no odd faintness to the quality of the memories before -- they are just as real and just as vivid as the memories after.
I meet my husband in those dreams -- my ex-husband -- and we talk, about nothing in particular.
"You're different," he says, and I nod.
"Ten years will do that to you."
When he kisses me, in those dreams, it is half memory, half fantasy.
Dr. Morris gives up, sometime into the six month after her consciousness has been uploaded into me.
"You were the last," he says, when he comes to talk to me. "The others..."
I've read the studies. I know what they say, about what the success rate was. I'm the only outlier.
"We have to talk about how to proceed," says Dr. Morris. "Obviously, there is little point to continuing these sessions, if..."
"I'm sorry," I say, because I don't know what else to do. Scream at him, maybe, that it's unfair to have expected that they could raise the dead with a robot; that AI could ever replace what had once been flesh and blood.
"We'll need to put together a plan for going forward," says Dr. Morris. "If you wish to stay here, of course, you'd be welcome to, but..."
I don't need to be told that he's lying -- I can see it plainly, written on his face.
I wonder: is it fair to create a life, knowing you will destroy it?
I wonder: is it fair to call me a failure, when it was in no way my fault?
We put together a plan. I'm given a new name; given permission to move fully, freely in the world.
"You'll receive a stipend from us," says Dr. Morris, "the same way you would, if..."
If his experiment had been successful.
If I had become her.
"We'll check in with you periodically, to determine goodness of fit in your new life, and offer help and suggestions, should you need them."
I manage to thank him.
A memory: the life jacket, the view of the ocean, how could anything be so blue?
I cling to it, the last few days, as though it is mine, though I know it is not.
The last day comes, and I prepare.
I was not religious, in my old life. I'm not religious in this new one, and anyway, I don't know if I have what they would call a "soul" -- I don't know if copies are granted them. It feels strange to ask for salvation, for some kind of life after death, when I was supposed to be proof of it, a sign that we could carry on, that we could be recreated...
"There is an exam," says Dr. Morris, his eyes not quite meeting mine. "We have to -- check you over. Now, have a seat, and..."
He attaches electrodes to my scalp, my hands. It's similar to what was done, that first day, when --
"Now," he says. "We'll do some scans, and..."
I know what comes next. I shut my eyes, and let it happen.
"How do you feel?" asks Dr. Morris's voice, as I come to.
"Odd," I say, sluggish. "I feel...tired, mostly. What happened?"
"Memory wipe," he says, quietly. "We had to take away -- her memories. We left yours intact, as best we could. Do you know who you are?"
I blink at him. "Of course," I say. "I'm your failed experiment."
"What is your earliest memory?"
I think on it.
"Sitting up on a table in the recovery room, and disappointing you when I told you I didn't remember anything about the Pacific."
"Good," he says, quietly. "Good."
We have the same eyes.
I watch the video one last time, before I leave the center, and I note this: we have the same eyes.
Everything else is different, but that.
"Remember," says Dr. Morris -- Jim -- as I leave. "You can always come back, if you need us..."
I nod, one sharp short jerk of the head. "I know."
He hesitates, slightly. "Be careful," he says, finally, but I am already out the door.
We have the same eyes.
We are not the same person. We never were.
I still dream, but the dreams are about my own memories, my own experiences in the world. I dream in abstract, or I dream about work.
I don't dream about her husband, about the pull of entropy.
I wrote Jim a letter, a month or so after I'd left, to tell him: don't take any more terminal cases, unless they want to come back for their own reasons, not for someone else.
"I could never become her," I wrote him, "because she herself didn't want me to. She wanted to come back -- fully, as herself, not as a copy. That was the problem with your experiment."
I don't know if he receives it or not. We don't talk much.
He was bitten on Tuesday and died on Saturday. We buried the body in the churchyard, in consecrated ground -- the only thing, the priest said, that would counter the effects, and waited for the inevitable.
When we heard the knock at the kitchen door, the next Saturday evening, we knew what to expect.
“Let me in,” he said.
He wasn’t in the clothes we’d buried him in. He’d exchanged those for something else—stolen someone’s washing, maybe. A shirt and pants, both of which were too big for him.
“I’m still me,” he said, when our mother hesitated, and finally, she opened the door.
“Come inside, Henry,” she said.
And he did.
He didn’t understand, that he was dead.
“I was sick,” he said, “and I got better.”
He didn’t remember the coffin, waking up under the earth and scrabbling his way out. My father went out, later, with a spade and a shotgun, and returned the earth to the way it had lain before.
“It’s been raining,” he said, absently, when he returned. “Good thing, too, or they’d know.”
I didn’t have to ask who.
Our family had always lived on the peripheries of the village. My mother’s people had always lived apart, for generations and generations, and we carried on the tradition, living on the fringe of the village, nearly in the woods.
“Close, but not too close,” she said, the year I was six and asked why we didn’t live with everyone else. “We like our neighbors, but we like our privacy, too.”
The other women thought she was strange, for the way we lived. She came to church every Sunday, and so they could not call her a witch with conviction -- she took communion just as they did, and joined prayer circles, when they were called for -- but it was whispered that there was something not quite right about her. She knew things, it was said -- things that no Christian woman should know, how to charm off warts and which mushrooms were edible.
She taught me everything she knew: what plants were good for what, and what was safe to eat, what was not. She could cure most things.
She couldn’t cure whatever had infected Henry.
My mother had recognized the bite, before the rest of us did, and went to the priest, once the fever set in, with her fears. He came back to the house with her, her riding behind him on his mule, and slipped off, his cassock dusty from the road.
“Hello, Eleanor,” he said, when I greeted him at the door. “And how is the patient?”
“Feverish,” I said. “Speaking to things that aren’t there. I’m worried, Father.”
He nodded curtly and slipped past me into the house, emerged a few minutes later to tell my mother he was sorry, and that was when she said we had to bury him in the churchyard.
“Or Henry will walk again,” my mother said, and I didn’t understand, not until he came back, knocking on our door.
Henry didn’t remember everything. He didn’t remember most things. He couldn’t remember what had happened, what he’d been doing, when he’d been bitten -- what had infected him. My mother tried to quiz him: did he know what had happened, was he all right?
He’d smile at her. “I’m fine, Mother.”
But he had no appetite and cast no shadow, and in still water, he had no reflection. I could see myself, reflected on the surface of the scummy duck pond near our house, but I could never see Henry, standing beside me.
“Trick of the light,” he offered, and smiled.
I smiled back, uneasy, and wondered what the future held.
He still helped our father work the fields, harvesting with him until twilight, sometimes, and he was my brother, otherwise. He walked under the sun as anyone else, and though he did not eat, would sit at the table with us and take water. He was sensible, and discussed current events with my father as though nothing had happened, as if he had not died.
I could forget, sometimes, that he had, until I touched him, and felt his skin, hot as a brand.
“I’m so cold, Eleanor,” he said, whenever I brushed against him, though I could feel the heat through his shirt. “I feel almost…”
“What?” I asked, but he could never explain.
“Nothing,” he murmured, and that was the end of it.
It went on this way through the summer, into the fall. We were uneasy at first, afraid of what would come, and then, slowly, we let go. We were never quite comfortable, the way we had been before, but if we couldn't forget, we could pretend.
We didn't talk about the funeral. We didn't ask Henry, what was it like, being dead? It felt strange, wrong somehow. Mother would ask, at different points, if he remembered -- but the rest of us, we let it drop off. We didn't discuss it.
We didn't talk about anything, out of the ordinary. We pressed ahead as though there was nothing different.
There were differences, though.
The first time it happened, I thought I had dreamed it. I woke up, and there was Henry, in the attic loft we shared, the front of his nightshirt covered in dark stains.
"Eleanor," he said, his voice hoarse. "Eleanor, I think something's wrong with me."
His mouth moved, but the movements it made were strange; the words harsh and guttural. There were dark stains, on his lips and teeth. "Eleanor."
I pulled the pillow over my head, and prayed quietly that it was only a dream, only a dream, only a dream.
When I woke, the next morning, Henry was in bed, his face and hands clean, his nightshirt so white, it seemed almost radiant.
"A dream," my mother said, when I asked her about it, in hushed tones, and I accepted this.
If I had looked a little harder -- if I had not been so eager to be reassured -- I might have seen the bloody shirt, in the pile of washing my mother was doing, the salt she'd applied to draw out the stains.
I might have seen it, if only I'd thought to look -- but I did not want to think this, of my brother.
We began finding dead deer, in the woods, that fall. Deer with their throats torn out, strung from the trees, their blood staining the damp leaves.
"Poachers," said my father. "They'll be back for their kill later, most like," and he urged us to stay out of the trees. "You don't want to get between them and their bows."
"Some kind of animal," said my mother, her voice crisp. "There are panthers, in this part of the woods. Remember to lock away the livestock, and don't linger under trees after dark."
"It can't be poachers," said Henry, his eyes tracing the wounds on their throats. "This was done with teeth" -- but he didn't offer any further explanation.
We all knew, I think, even if we did not want to say it.
As the days began to get shorter and shorter, Henry slowly withdrew further and further.
He would not go to church with us, for we all knew what the priest would say, if he saw him, and my mother did not force the point. Nor would he go into town with Father, for there was no good explanation as to who he was; why he walked the Earth again.
After the harvest, when the fields were empty and the birds had all flown south, he refused to go outside at all. He stayed in the attic, instead, and paced. I could hear the thump of his boots against the floor, the slats rattling in place as he walked from side to side.
"It's the age," said my mother, or else: "It's the weather", if it happened to be raining.
I nodded like I believed her, and we did not discuss it.
The second time it happened, I knew it was not a dream.
I woke to the sound of Henry's boots on the attic floor, the incessant pacing.
"Henry," I said, drowsy. "How long are you going to keep at that?"
The thumping stopped suddenly, as quickly as it had started.
I heard the sound of a dry sob.
"Are you all right?"
"No," he said, his voice cracking. "Eleanor, help."
I found a candle, somewhere, managed to light it in the dark. It was a new moon, and there was no light outside.
"How can I help?" I asked, as the wick caught, and I was forced to see...
My brother, half-crouched on the floor, cowering in the light of the candle, his hands shielding his face, slick with --
"Henry," I said, keeping my voice level. "What's on your hands?"
I knew, already, but I needed to hear it from him, an acknowledgment.
"Eleanor," he sobbed, his hands dropping, and I saw his mouth, covered in blood, how it stained his teeth. "Eleanor, I don't know what's happened."
"I'll get Mother," I said, quietly. "Stay here -- do you want a candle?"
"The light," he said, swallowing hard. "It -- does something, I don't know. I remember who I am, in the light. In the dark..."
I thrust the candle at him. "I can find my way in the dark. Stay here."
I woke my mother, told her what I had seen.
She didn't say anything, just lit a candle, pulled on her everyday dress, an apron, and told me to sleep in the chair beside the fire downstairs.
"Don't you want help?" I asked, but she shook her head.
"You can't help with this, Eleanor," she said.
We didn't talk about it, the next morning.
There were stains on the attic floor that didn't lift, but I did not mention these to my mother.
We pretended that everything was the same, even as we recognized it wasn't.
All of us were hollow-eyed, at the breakfast table, haunted, and we didn't speak to each other about what it was we'd seen.
My father had crept out to investigate the woods, after my mother had come back. He hadn't found anything -- no deer, no rabbits, nothing.
We knew, then, that it was almost the end.
Our nearest neighbor came by, around tea-time that afternoon, Mrs. Witham.
"Have you heard?" she asked, breathless, as Mother poured the tea. "The Browns -- their youngest daughter went missing last night. Taken from her bed, it would seem. Nothing left behind but a scrap of fabric from her nightdress. They're blaming the tinker camp -- you know them, the man who repaired my pans last year? Seems that a girl went missing last year, when he visited Summit. The men at the town are keeping him for questioning. There was a lot of blood on the leaves, outside..."
I could hear Henry pacing upstairs, as she talked, and I worried she'd comment on it, remark on the sound of it, as she told her story. Henry, who was supposed to have been dead more than half the year. Henry, whose funeral she had come to, who she had told my mother not to cry over: "At least you had time to know him," because her only son had been stillborn.
I heard the thumping of his steps, in the attic, and I worried that she would note them, put two and two together.
"Eleanor," said my mother, seeing the look on my face. "Why don't you go take some tea to the men working upstairs?"
"Men?" said Mrs. Witham. She was an incurable gossip; an unpleasant woman.
"Can't you hear the thumping?" said my mother, her voice strained with false cheer. "There's a leak in the attic. We're trying to find where it is. Sam -- our hired man -- is taking a look at it."
"Ah," she said. "I'd wondered. Now -- how is Sam, these days?"
I carried the tea up before I could hear my mother give the answer. I set it on the step, at the door for the attic loft. I didn't dare go inside.
I didn't want to tell Henry what I'd heard.
Mrs. Witham left, but the unease that accompanied her visit didn't fade.
My mother had told my father -- I could see it in his face, the worry lines sharp and clear around his mouth. He fidgeted, my father, sitting in his chair, bouncing a leg in the way he had always gently told Henry not to, for "gentlemen don't fidget, son."
"The Browns," said my mother, quietly. "Their youngest daughter -- what was her name, Abigail? Amelia?"
"Ada," I replied. "We are -- were -- in school together. She was in the third class."
"How old was she, Eleanor?" asked my father.
"Ten," I said.
He gripped at the edge of the table suddenly, no longer fidgeting. "Ten," he repeated. "God damn it all."
I'd never heard him swear, before.
"Isaac," said my mother, reaching out and touching his arm. "Something must be done. We cannot -- "
"Cannot what, Caroline? Cannot carry on as though nothing has changed, as though nothing is different? Cannot pretend that our son -- "
"Isaac," she started. "Not in front of Eleanor."
"Cannot pretend that our son did not die, this spring, that what came back to us was no longer Henry, let alone human? Wasn't it your idea, Caroline, to keep up the charade? To pretend -- "
"Not in front of Eleanor!" my mother hissed. "If you want to take me to task, you may do so -- but not in front of our daughter!"
My father laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Don't you think," he said, "that she deserves to know -- just what it is she's been sharing that attic loft with?"
"Henry," I said, finding my voice. "I've been sharing the loft with Henry."
"No," said my father. "Something shaped like him, maybe -- but not your brother. Not anymore. Henry died this spring, Eleanor. We buried him in the churchyard."
He lapsed into silence. From upstairs, faintly, we could hear the thumping as whatever my brother had become paced across the attic floor.
"He's still Henry," I offered, uncertain. "At least -- during the days. It's the nights..."
"The days are growing shorter," said my father flatly. "Soon, it'll be dark well before supper; won't be light again until after breakfast. Do you think we can continue to carry on, knowing that? Do you think we can keep pretending, Caroline, when we have heard about the Brown's daughter, Ada?"
My mother stared at the floor and said nothing.
"You said he wouldn't walk again, if we buried him in the churchyard," said my father.
"I thought -- " my mother started.
"You said he wouldn't walk again, Caroline," he pressed. "And now..."
She shut her eyes. "We've done it my way," she said. "Now, I suppose, you'll want to do it yours."
"Yes," said my father grimly. "It's time to put an end to this."
I walked upstairs, before I could hear their plans.
It was dark, in the attic. I lit the lantern, with its thin kerosene flame, and laid back on the straw tick.
"Eleanor?" came Henry's name, out of the dark. "Eleanor, I..."
I waited, for what would come next, but he said nothing.
After waiting for an eternity, I blew out the lantern.
Henry came down for breakfast, the next morning, looking pallid and wan. It was the first time he'd joined us for a meal in weeks.
"I felt like coming down," he said, anticipating the unasked question. "I think I may eat."
He smiled at us, unsteady, and all I could think of was his mouth, covered in blood; the way it had coated his teeth.
"Of course," said my mother. She gave him porridge, along with the rest of us.
He made an attempt to eat it, but gagged every time he tried to swallow. Eventually he stood, and spat it gently into a napkin; said he wasn't feeling well after all.
"I think I may go back to bed," Henry said. "I'm not feeling quite myself, today."
We sat in silence, listened to the thump of his boots up the stairs, waited for the incessant pacing to begin again.
When we heard footsteps, my father spoke.
"Henry and I will be going hunting, tomorrow," he said. "The almanac says it's supposed to be clear, and there's good venison in the woods."
He was hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked, as though he had not slept, and I recognized his words for the lie they were.
They left before dawn, the next morning. My father was bundled against the cold, with a coat and gloves.
Henry wore only his nightshirt. His feet were bare.
If any of us thought this odd, we said nothing.
"Be back before supper," said my father, with false cheer. His breath steamed in the air, a frosty cloud accompanying his words.
"Yes," said Henry. "We'll be back before supper," and it was hard to stay still, hard not to note the lack of steam when he spoke.
"Be careful," said my mother. I wondered which of them she directed this at.
"Always," said Henry, in his usual easy way.
Mother and I went about the day as usual. We fed the chickens and milked, and later in the day, she had me start bread for baking.
"It's baking day," she said, quietly. "And we'll want something to have with venison, if your father brings any back."
I noticed the if, and didn't say anything.
Mrs. Witham came to visit, again around tea-time.
"Sounds as though Sam is done working in the attic," she said, with her usual bluster. "That's good -- don't want you getting damp and catching cold, now, do we?" She tried to pinch at my cheek as she said this, as though I was not, at fourteen, long past the point of cheek-pinching.
"Well," she said, when neither of us spoke. "I have some good news. Ada Brown has returned. It seems there was no cause for alarm -- the child has been known to sleepwalk, and must have walked outside, night before last, and gotten lost in the woods. She came back this morning, still in her nightdress, with her face covered in blood. Seems she slipped on the leaves outside and gave herself a bloody nose, walking. Suppose it wasn't the tinkers after all."
My mother froze. I saw the tea cup she held in her hand tremble on its saucer.
"Is that so?" she managed, after a moment. "How fortunate for them."
"Yes," said Mrs. Witham. "Not like that other poor family up near Summit last year, what lost their child to the tinkers..."
The conversation changed, slowly, to what the weekly sermon was likely to be about on Sunday, and what other tidbits of gossip she had, and I slipped away upstairs, to stare out the attic window and wait for my father's return.
He came back before supper, just as he'd said he would, dragging a dead deer behind him.
He was alone.
I ran to the yard to meet him, in my house slippers.
"Father," I said. "They found Ada Brown, this morning."
He winced, preparing himself for the worst.
"Alive," I said. "She sleepwalked, out of her own bed, but she found her way home, in the end."
I heard a thump, as he dropped the deer.
"Alive?" said my father, his voice level. "How fortunate."
There was venison for supper, that evening, and we did not talk about Henry. I knew better than to ask.
There were reports, a few weeks later, of a body found in the woods -- that of a boy, around seventeen, badly decomposed, wearing the tattered rags of what must have been a nightshirt.
"He can't have been dead more than three weeks," said the man who found him. "I go hunting here every few weeks, and I baited this clearing with a salt lick not more than three weeks ago" -- but the body was rotted enough that he appeared to have been dead for months, "since mid-spring, at least".
No one came forth to claim him, and eventually, they buried him in the pauper's field, just outside the churchyard.
If there were whispers, about what had killed him -- a gunshot wound, a silver bullet -- I never heard them.
"I did what I had to," said my father, after the body was buried. "I did what I had to, Caroline."
Neither of us ever questioned him.
I wonder a lot how, during a zombie outbreak or the like, you're supposed to carry on with the knowledge of what you've done, if you have to kill one of your friends or family.
Here, I chose something not so cut and dry as zombies, but something else, instead, with a more ambiguous ending. The family tries to carry on, to go forward as though nothing has changed, but eventually has to confront the secret before it destroys them -- only to find that perhaps it did not need to be confronted after all.
In all the stories, it's the stepmother that's wicked, not the mother.
The stepmother is the one who is jealous of her daughter; who banishes her or forces her to eat the poison apple, who casts her out of the house or uses her as a servant in her own home.
The father is clueless, or else complicit, but only in a small way -- cowed, as he is, by his wife. He is innocent. Even in tales where he is the villain, there is an underlying cause: he is driven mad by grief; he is not aware of his own actions; in possession of his own faculties.
We excuse fathers. We vilify stepmothers.
We don't have stories about mothers.
My mom was the one that taught me about magic.
Not the slight-of-hand, stage magic that David Blaine and his ilk performed for anyone who would watch -- the kind of magic that you felt, deep in your bones. The subtle kind of shift that you wouldn't notice unless you were paying close attention. Not three wishes and fairy godmothers; not stuff on stage -- something weird and dark and primal, not friendly or benign but terrifying. The subtle twist of the knife that you didn't notice until it was too late -- the warp and weft of the universe changing to match your own desires.
"I wish I was talented," said friends, when the topic came up at school. "All my family can do is...", and I wanted to scream at them: no, you don't!
Their mothers were soft and ordinary. They had friendly faces, ordinary concerns. They wanted their daughters to like them. I could read that, written in the lines by their mouths, their anxious smiles, plain as day. I want...
A good life. One where they didn't have to worry about money, or about their job, whether they got the promotion or not. They wanted security, stability, love. They wanted ordinary things, those mothers. They weren't concerned with magic, because it was beyond their purview. It was their daughters that wanted it. "I wish my mother..."
No, I wanted to say, though I knew that their wishing was harmless; their wishing carried no real magic behind it. You don't.
I used to think, growing up, that my mother was under a curse.
Half the month, my mother was, if not loving, at least attentive. I had clean clothes; there was food on the table, and her moods, while difficult, were easy to predict.
This was the mother I didn't have to care for.
The other half of the month, I didn't know what to expect. Dad made dinner, peeling potatoes in silence over the kitchen sink. "It's my turn to cook tonight," he'd say, in his halting way, and I didn't know what this meant, only that it was nothing good.
She did things then, out in the garden, in the shed my dad had built for gardening. I didn't ask questions, because I didn't want answers. I saw the snares she laid, what she caught. Birds, sometimes; sometimes rabbits. Once, one horrifying time, the neighbor's cat, Barney, though I managed to convince her to let him go. "They'll notice, Mom, they'll see, and then what will they do?"
"Nothing," she said grimly, holding up Barney by the scruff of his neck. "They haven't burned anyone at the stake in a hundred years" -- but there were still penalties, things she respected, fines she would have to pay, to the local handler's guild, and we didn't have the money for them, and so she let him go. "Next time, though..."
She let the word hang in the air, like a promise, and I shivered when she said it.
That half of the month, I avoided her if I could. It was easier that way. So did Dad. I did our laundry, mixing his in with mine, his filthy workman's clothes going in with my dresses, all of it thrown into the machine and washed on warm, because his was supposed to be done in hot water and mine in cold. None of my clothes came out clean, that way, streaked instead with clay and mud, but they smelled better.
Dad made dinner, when he remembered. Mostly, with both of us skulking about the house, he didn't. We both avoided the kitchen, anyway, because of the chance that she was in there, doing God only knew what. The kitchen was her territory, too, where she used when she was doing something that required making what she called a "brew". I ate a lot of cereal, straight out of the box, during that part of the month.
"Magic," said Dad, and shook his head. "If I'd known..."
He never finished that sentence. He didn't have to. In some ways, I recognized the sentiment, too.
I didn't ask what she used the magic for. Different people came to the door; made requests of her, and were given slips of paper or packets of powder in return for their money. She only took cash, hand to hand.
"Are you sure this what you want?" she'd ask them, leaning against the doorframe. "Do you know what you're asking?"
"Yes," was always the answer, whispered hurriedly, as though she might change her mind.
"Fine," she'd say, and slide their money into her apron pocket. "Two weeks, maybe three, and it'll be done."
I didn't ask, because I didn't have to ask.
The first time I watched the news and spotted one of her clients, I was eight.
I recognized the woman because of the ugly knit hat she wore.
"It's just -- you don't know what's going to happen next," she said. "We were driving, and the other car came out of nowhere..."
Her husband had been killed in an accident. She had survived, albeit with a broken leg.
I remembered what she'd said to my mother, at the doorway. I need him gone; the twist of my mother's mouth, as she explained who and how and why.
I remembered. I knew.
I didn't watch the news, after that.
Half the month, I loved my mother. I was afraid of her, terrified by her -- but I still loved her. She told me, often, that she loved me, and that was a spell in and of itself.
The other half of the month, I avoided her. I still loved her -- she would have it no other way -- but she frightened me.
The first half of the month, she'd be fine -- more likely to pick me up bodily and ask if I loved her, than anything else, to beam at me when I said I did.
The second half of the month, she'd ask the same question, but there was something wrong about her when she asked it. Her eyes were too wide, too bright; the words came out a little too quickly. I knew to say yes, because she compelled me to, but she scared me.
I didn't say yes because I loved her, the second half of the month. I said yes because I had to; because if I didn't, something terrible would happen.
I tried to track her moods, once, see if there was a certain time that she shifted, became the mother I didn't recognize. Did it align with the phases of the moon? The tides? Sports schedules? I thought of everything, anything cyclical, but there was no pattern to it. It changed, from month to month. One month she would be fine, just fine, the first until the fifteenth; the next, she'd shift on the thirteenth, and everything would go to Hell then. There was no rhythm to it, no rhyme nor reason. We lurched from date to date, never quite sure what we'd wake up to, which version of Mom we'd find downstairs when we woke up -- because she always woke up before we did.
I tried to enlist Dad's help, in tracking things. He played along for a month or two, then broke down and told me that there was no pattern.
"I tried," he said. "After we were married, when she changed..."
The old story: she'd hidden it from him, before they were married. She'd been normal, loving, attentive. She'd won him over with her own natural charms, not the work of magic but of simple chemistry, compatibility.
"It wasn't until we'd been married a year that she changed."
There had been no reason for it, according to Dad. Nothing had happened. No one had died, nothing had shifted. She hadn't been cursed, as far as he knew, though as someone without talent, he admitted that he wouldn't know what a curse looked like. "There wasn't anything, Gabbie. She was normal, and then she...wasn't. Give it up."
I asked Dad once, why he hadn't left.
"Because," he said, and hesitated. "She -- she said if I ever left, that she would..."
"Never mind," I said, too quickly. "I don't need to know."
I could fill in the blanks. I didn't need to know, was it him or was it me?
I was happier not knowing, being unsure as to which one of us she'd threatened.
She used magic for everything.
I knew we owned our house outright, unlike the others on the street, who had to make payments, because of the work she'd done. I'd heard the story, something about a spell, though she didn't give me details of how or why.
There were other things, too. When Dad had gotten sick -- abnormal test results, the specter of cancer lingering over us -- she'd done something, one of her weird, dark rituals, and we'd gotten a call a few days later that it was a lab error. "No idea what happened," said the woman on the phone, "but everything looks fine. We'll have you back next year for another physical, but you've got the all-clear from us."
No one in our immediate family got ill. No one that she liked got sick, or lost their job, or had anything terrible happen to them.
"Protections," she said. "Things I've put in place."
I got good grades in school. I wasn't bullied. I was terrified of her, of what she could do, but mostly we avoided each other. She knew I was afraid, just what I was afraid of, and she didn't press.
If I didn't have the mother I wanted, at least I had a mother. It was something.
I used to think Mom was under a curse, because if she was under a curse, I could break it.
If she was under a curse, it wasn't her fault. She didn't choose to act the way she did.
If she was under a curse, it meant that I wouldn't grow up to become her.
On my thirteenth birthday, she hauled me out to her garden shed and said she was going to test me, "for any ability."
She was in one of her moods, when she did it, or I would never have agreed to it. As it was, I thought about fighting her -- wriggling away; hiding somewhere.
"What's this going to involve?" I asked, as I watched her pull a knife down off a high shelf.
The blade of it was made of obsidian, a glossy black, chipped here and there, but still ground to a razor's edge.
"Sacrifice," said my mother quietly. "Patience. Be quiet, Gabrielle. This won't take long."
I shut up.
I kept my hair long, then, wore it in two braids that hung down my back, streamed out behind me when I ran. I wasn't vain about much -- I didn't have much to be vain about -- but I loved my hair. Dark and soft, it was the only thing about me anyone noticed, when they noticed me at all.
I watched her take the knife, and a wooden bowl.
"Hold out your hands," she said, and I squeezed my eyes shut and obeyed her.
I felt the gentlest prick of the knife at my right index fingertip, her hands massaging my finger to force out a drop of blood, into the bowl. It didn't hurt, or not as much as I thought it would.
"Now the other hand," said my mother, and she repeated what she'd done: pricking my finger, forcing the blood into the bowl.
"Is that it?" I asked, my eyes still shut.
"Almost," she said. "Now..."
I felt her lift my hair, off my back.
"Mom," I started.
"Be quiet, Gabrielle."
"Mom, please," I said, as I felt her lift the knife.
There was the sound of something soft landing in the dirt of the shed floor, and my head felt lighter on one side. I wanted to cry.
"Just one more thing," she murmured, and I felt her do the other side, as well, the soft sound of hair landing on the floor.
I did start to cry, then -- tears running silently down my face.
"Hush," she said, but she sounded almost guilty. "Just one last thing..."
I heard her bend and pick up my braids off the floor; drop them into the bowl, mutter over them. "Now -- Gabrielle, think hard: what do you want now, more than anything? Make a wish."
I should have wished for a normal mother. I should have wished for an end to the magic, a system that didn't ask as much of its adherents as it did. I should have wished for anything, anything except what I did:
I want my hair back, I thought, irreverently, because it was all I could think to wish for.
"My first wish was wasted too," said my mother, quietly, as I felt the sudden weight of my braids returned, as though she had not cut them. "You have the talent."
That was my introduction to magic.
I swore, running my fingers over my braids, tears still running down my face, that I'd never use it.
She started easing me into it, then -- into casting. The rules: what had to be done; what couldn't be done.
"Everything demands a sacrifice," she said, her face contorted in pain. She used her own blood, more often than not, I learned, because it didn't take much -- not for the small charms she performed. "The larger the sacrifice, the more powerful the result."
I didn't ask about the birds, the rabbits. I didn't remind her about the neighbor's cat.
"It drives you half-mad," she said. "Performing. There are reasons -- "
Reasons why she was the way she was. "It builds, Gabrielle," she said, by way of explanation. "Until you feel as though you will die, if you don't give in and channel it into something."
"But you don't have to do big work," I said. It was one of our first lessons. "You can do small, simple stuff..."
"It contorts the way you see reality," said my mother. "Until it's all you can see. You don't realize what you're doing until it's already done."
She looked pained, as she said it. "You don't control it," she said. "It controls you."
Mom taught me about safeguards. There were charms -- painful ones, requiring self-sacrifice, a grim sort of ritual, to prevent any harm to yourself, those that you loved.
"Eventually," she said, "you'll be performing these to keep me in check, the way I took care of your grandmother."
My grandmother had died before I was born. "In a car accident," I'd been told. I'd never questioned that.
Now, I did.
The more I learned about magic, the less I liked it. It was grim, dark and primitive. The rituals didn't make sense, and it was easy to get caught up in them, though not to the extent that Mom did. I was still myself, when I did things.
"Your talent isn't as great as mine," said my mother, and I should have been offended, maybe, but it was easier just to shrug. If it meant I was spared, I'd take it.
She tried to press me to learn anyway, saying that it was important; that I had to know, so I could take it up, too -- but I refused.
"Leave her alone," Dad said. "She obviously doesn't have the talent for it, Meredith."
Eventually, she gave up.
When I realized -- that she wasn't cursed, or not the way that I thought she was, I started looking for other things that had made her into the woman I feared.
Magic was at the heart of it. I did a lot of reading, in those months, all the theory about it, how it affected those that practiced it.
"The human mind was not meant to channel unknown power," said a book I found, dating back to the 1930s.
It went on to talk about how it fundamentally changed the structure of the brain, until it was difficult to tell what was real and what was not, discussed the compulsion to use it.
"The safest decision is not to engage in any magical activity, regardless of the level of talent," said an academic paper I found, from the 1970s.
So I didn't use my own talent. I felt the pull of it, every now and then, but I didn't use it. It wasn't as great as hers, my mother had said, and I thought that meant I would escape.
Somewhere in there, it shifted again. It was no longer two weeks out of the month, she was my mom, and the rest of the time she was a force of nature, something to be avoided. The older I got, and the more I refused to engage with magic at all, the worse she got. We started adding days to the bad periods, going from two weeks to fifteen days, then eighteen, until finally, my senior year of high school, we were at three weeks out of the month where being in the same room as my mother was enough to make my skin crawl.
I wet out a lot, then. I spent a lot of time in the library, filling out college applications on their computers, trying desperately to pretend that everything was normal, never getting home until well past dark.
She tried to curse me, the first time, when I was still living at home. It was a month before high school graduation, during what was supposed to be a good week. She'd spent the day whistling, telling me how proud she was of me, since I'd finished and would be going off to college.
We didn't talk about magic, that day, about the people that came to the door now -- no longer anyone in search of small magic, but one or two a month, seeking big, dark spells.
We didn't talk about blood, or sacrifice, or wishes. We didn't talk about much at all. I avoided her even during the good weeks, if I could help it. I wasn't sure what to say to her anymore, how to talk to her. She'd been a terrifying presence during my adolescence, and I wasn't sure what to make of her now, now that I was finally an adult, in the eyes of the state if not in the eyes of my mother. I was still afraid of what she might do.
I said something about being hungry. She was still normal, then, my mother. She beamed at me, said she would bring me a snack. "I haven't done that since you were a little girl, and..."
She brought me an apple, on a plate. Peanut butter in a little dish beside it -- "for dipping," she said.
I wanted to say something about fairy tales. I could still joke with her, then, about magic and how it was so rarely what we expected, except...
I touched the apple.
I could feel the undercurrent of magic, under the skin -- something bad. Something that would harm me. Some lurking jealousy, the kind of thing that no mother should wish on her daughter.
I shoved the plate away. "Actually, um," I said. "I just remembered. I need to go to Annie's house -- I forgot to write down today's math assignment, and she said she'd let me copy her notes."
"Don't you want your snack?" asked my mother. There was magic, behind how she said it -- it wasn't a command, so I could throw it off, but it was a compulsion.
"No," I said. "I have to hurry over there -- she has piano lessons at 5."
I fled the house without stopping to think, what was that about, and I never let myself be alone with my mother again.
I graduated high school and went to college. With a little help from Dad, I managed to convince her to let me go to school outside of the state. I lived in the dorms, my first year, and found a work-study position. I used it as an excuse -- why I couldn't go home for the winter break. "Sorry -- I have to work in the library."
We weren't supposed to stay over the break -- the dorm was going to be shut down -- so I begged a friend to stay with her family, citing the weird atmosphere I knew I'd find at home. "My parents are getting divorced, and..."
They weren't -- not yet -- but Dad wasn't living in the house anymore.
"I don't have to protect you," he said -- and I took that as a good sign.
Sophomore year, I lived in co-op housing off campus, and I didn't invent a reason I couldn't go home.
Junior year, I got emails from her, then physical letters, when her emails went unanswered. I could feel, without having to open the envelopes, the powder radiating off of them.
Cursed, I thought, or some kind of spell to pull me back home, and I threw them in the garbage, buried them under coffee grounds and banana peels, felt the magic surrounding them drain into the earth.
Senior year, my last semester, I got a call from Dad.
"I need your help," he said. He sounded as though he was having a hard time breathing; the words came out almost compressed, distorted. "Your mother..."
I knew, without being told, what it must have been. "You served her with papers, didn't you? During one of the good parts of the month?"
"Gabbie," he rasped. "There are no good parts of the month left anymore."
I froze, and wondered just what it was I had to do.
In fairy tales, with their wicked stepmothers, there is always a clear path forward: the heroine must leave home, find the secret to her stepmother's power, and through her own virtue, thwart her evil schemes.
Life was not quite so simple.
I knew the secret to my mother's magic, how much of it was rooted in pain.
I knew that I had the same power myself, if I wanted to use it -- but that to do so would likely drive me even madder than it had made her.
The way I took care of your grandmother rattled around in my head -- the story about the car accident, what I wasn't sure she hadn't caused.
"Fuck," I muttered, into the phone. "Dad? I'm -- I'm getting in the car now. I'll be back by..."
I checked the clock. It was 1PM. "I'll be back by dinner time, OK? I..."
"Drive safe," he managed, and the line went dead.
The stories left me with no clear path forward. I had to stop my mother, somehow, but I knew how her magic worked, and I knew I didn't have it in me, to do the things she did.
Sacrifice, her voice whispered through me. Pain.
I'd seen the snares she set, for birds and rabbits and God knew what else. She'd tried to teach me those parts of what she did, those parts of her magic -- but they weren't anything I wanted, and so I'd refuted them. I refused to kill anything, to harm anything beside myself, and even then, only the pricking of my fingers.
I knew how her magic worked. I knew how other magic systems worked, too -- I'd done enough reading about them.
"Unpleasant, but necessary" was how even the books on benevolent spells discussed the "blood price".
"Here the authors discuss the most humane way to slaughter a rabbit..." was a sentence I'd found in another, one about guaranteeing good health for you and all those under your protection. The authors of the books talked about it calmly, as though it were no different than preparing something for dinner. Flesh and blood and bone, the line went. These are the foundations of all magic, good and bad.
I didn't know how you could call anything good that required the death of something else to make it work, but then again, I'd shied away from it, hadn't I?
I thought long and hard, what I wanted to do, what the right answer was.
Five and a half hours, to their house. I pulled into the driveway around 6:30.
All the lights were off. No one answered when I knocked at the door, so I let myself in. The spare key was still under the flower pot on the porch.
Inside was dim. Dad was sitting in an armchair in the living room.
"Hey," I said.
His eyes moved, but he didn't say anything.
"She got to you, didn't she?" I asked. I touched his arm. Still warm, but bound -- I could feel the curse, humming angrily along his skin. "I'm sorry. I think..."
In fairy tales, it was borne out of jealousy. The stepmother afraid of losing her own youth and beauty, her own power.
I didn't think that was what drove my mother. I was afraid it was something darker, something worse.
"I think..." I started, and I didn't know how to end that sentence.
I think your wife has slipped a little too far under the influence, I thought. I think that there's no real way to save her now, except maybe the one thing I don't want to do. I think that there's no real answers anymore, just a desperate hope that this is not as bad as it seems.
"I'll figure something out," I told Dad. "Pretend like I'm not here, if she comes back."
The shed was where it had all started.
The shed was where it had to end.
The door was latched. I knew she was inside.
I knew what would come next, or I had some idea.
I unlatched it and walked into the dark interior.
The bowl was where I knew it would be, on the shelf. So was the knife, its black blade still glossy and razor-sharp after all these years. I could just make them out in the gloom of the unlit shed.
I gathered both of them, and centered myself.
"I knew you'd come back," said my mother's voice, out of the dark. It was the voice she used during her moods, the parts of the month where she was consumed by raw magic, not herself.
I shut my eyes. I knew what I had to do next.
"You've come to do what you must, of course," she said, and she seemed almost amused by it. "Well then. What will you sacrifice, to end me? You know this is where it starts, don't you? Your grandmother..."
"I know," I said, though I'd never connected the dots before. "You refuted it too. You had to muddle through, in those early years, and figure it out for yourself, but it took you too quickly, because you hadn't been brought up in the tradition. Now you're in too deep, and you want me to fix everything."
I dangled one of my braids over the bowl. I still kept my hair long; had ever since it had grown back, when she tested me for my talent.
"It's not something to be trifled with," said my mother, and she made a sound that might have been a laugh, but struck me as the cry of someone in pain.
"No," I agreed, as I sawed at my hair. "It's not."
"If I'd known..." she began. "I might have done it differently. I didn't know, though, the way it takes you..."
I placed my other braid over the bowl, hacked it off with the knife. "I don't think most people do. I've been reading about it."
"Gabbie?" she asked.
"Is this going to hurt?"
"No," I said, and I drew the knife down hard, over the palm of my hand, and said the words she'd taught me.
I'd loved her.
She was my mother.
I couldn't hurt her, and I couldn't hurt anyone to hurt her.
I felt the ritual rip through me, the magic coiled in the back of my mind, waiting for me to tell it what I wanted, silently or not, direct it to its end, release it into the world, to use it without shaping it, let it use me as a vessel, and do some of my own bidding in the mix.
Not this time, I told it, and I made my wish.
There are drawbacks to wishes, in almost every story. Outcomes that haven't been thought through thoroughly; unintended side-effects.
I thought, long and hard, about what it was I wanted the magic to do. I focused on the pain in my hand, the dull ache of the cut I'd made, the sticky mess of blood, and wished:
for magic that didn't require harming anyone, but that did not always work, either, and could not be used to any ill end; that did not harm the caster, and did not require more and more of those that would use it, eventually leaving them without their mind intact.
I sacrificed. Blood and braids, and something else, too.
I shut my eyes, and I wished.
"Gabbie?" said my mother. "What are you doing in the shed? What did you do to your hand?"
I opened my eyes.
The bowl and the knife were gone. My hair was still raggedy, cut short.
The shed was brightly lit, full of the clutter that was expected in a garden shed. The lawn mower was parked against the back wall, and various pots and potting soil were on the table.
The pain of the last few years had not been undone, not quite. I had the memories, my mother and what she had put me through, the curses in the mail -- but they were fading, slowly, being overwritten by something else.
My mother, I recalled suddenly, worked as a nurse. She was a passionate gardener, and spent almost every day in her shed. I'd come out to see her, because...
"Kitchen accident," I said, tiredly. "I was cutting an avocado, and the knife slipped. It's not deep, I don't think. I shouldn't need stitches. Just can't use my left hand for a while."
You don’t know what pulled you to the Night Market to begin with. A desire to step outside of yourself, maybe, to be someone else for just a night.
You knew the rules, of course. Everyone did. Don’t go into the Market, but if you must, turn your clothes inside-out and carry something made of iron. Don’t meet anyone’s eyes, don’t offer them your name, and don’t eat or drink anything. Your mother had told you, and her mother had told her, and so it was passed on and down, and you knew to be careful. You knew how to see through glamour, to avoid being caught, ensnared by them.
You knew the rules, or you thought you did, and that was the problem.
Faery fruit, and faery wine, neither offered freely, but purchased, by you, with your pocket full of spare change.
"I thought..." began someone -- a friend, or the woman who ran the stall? Someone mortal, someone like you, offering a warning, as you brought it to your mouth. An apple would have been fitting, but you’d opted for something else. You don’t remember what, though you can try to guess. A handful of blueberries, maybe, with the bloom still on them, or a peach, cherries or a slice of melon -- something cool and sweet, not crisp at all. You bit into its flesh, felt the flavor wash over your tongue, and that was the end of it.
A year and a day, of faery servitude.
None of the stories warn you, that a year and a day is exactly as long as they want it to be, and no longer.
What was your role? Were you some lord's plaything, made to dance, here and there, for his amusement, meant to tell the story of your life, over and over again, til he was bored of you and set you free? Were you to inspire the fey themselves, with your too-bright eyes and mortal heart, entertain them with the fact that you had a soul? Or was your role more mundane, something else, something they could not lower themselves to. Were you some cleaner, busy sweeping up at market's end, the bits and bobs of things left behind--tatters of lace and ribbon, the pits of the fruits that others bought and ate, shreds of dreams and laughter, pieces of other mortal hearts, broken into shards of glass by the fey?
You can't remember now, though you try. You were everything, you want to say, and yet at the end of it you were nothing, because they took everything you had to give and left you not even memories in return.
When you woke up, outside the market, the lingering taste of the fruit in your mouth, you knew something was wrong. The old stories talked of how the world had passed those left in the Market by; how they would come to and find that it was centuries after they'd been gone, kept out of time, with their youth and beauty stolen away.
You were kept out of time, too, and the mortal world moved on without you, but the changes are slight. Different fashions, different cars, but it cannot have been more than five years. They hadn’t wanted you after all, not the way the legends said, but you still wanted them.
They took something from you, something fundamental. Something, you feel, you will never get back. There's a dull ache where your heart should be, as though it was shattered, as though the shards you cleaned up were of your own mortal heart. The real world is dull and gray, compared to the Market, but you cannot find your way back.
They take you once, the legends said. And if you leave, they'll never take you again, and nothing will satisfy.
You never believed them, or you wouldn’t have paid fifty cents for your doom, but here you are, caught in the mortal world again, unsure of how to return.
“You can spend your entire life looking,” went the stories, those you never really listened to. “You’ll never find your way back to the Market again.”
You’d hate to admit it, but they might have had some basis in truth: the Market is not where you left it. Nothing is. The boundaries have shifted quietly, until you wonder if you are in a city you dreamed, not where you lived, because nothing is quite where you remember having left it--not that you remember anything, at all.
There are resources, for those that have been taken by the Market. Support groups, for friends of those imprisoned as well as those released.
You avoid the knots of friends, those that have only a feeling that someone they loved was stolen away, that their loved one, once returned, was a changeling. They are all wild-eyed accusations, accusing anyone and everyone of being touched by the fey, unable to discriminate between those that have and those that only wish they were.
Not that you attend the other groups, either. They're all sad: the leaders trying to acclimate everyone to a new time: have you reconnected with your families? Are there any success stories?, while all of you sit around and fidget, unwilling or unable to admit that you would go back, if you could, that you would give anything to be back in the Market.
"I still dream about the fruit," says someone, at the first meeting you attend, his voice soft and low. "I drop the coins into her hand, and I look into her eyes as I bite into the apple, and it's the best thing I've ever tasted. I've been out five years, and it's still the best thing I've ever tasted."
"It's seven," says the group leader. "Seven until you're free," and her voice is too bright, too chipper, as though she is trying to convince herself.
"Seven years," repeats the man who dreams of apples. "Only another two to go, I guess."
"Mine was a bunch of grapes," says a different woman. "Eight years on, now. I hate grapes, but I don't dream of the faery ones, either, and I don’t want to go back."
Nods, around the circle, and you stood up and left.
If you don't recall what fruit it was, how can you dream of it?
You try to remember. Not that it does much good, but you can try, anyway, to recall past whatever magic has been laid on you, whatever the agreement was, the terms of your servitude, to focus and think and reflect, realize--what, exactly? What your role had been; how you had spent that missing time, if you had spent it, if they hadn’t taken five of your years, just to toy with you, vaulted you forward in time without so much as a second thought.
There was someone, you think, but if there was, you haven’t a name or a face, only the barest hint of a feeling, that you mattered until you did not, and all because you bargained away your freedom for a piece of fruit.
If you had a name, or a face, something, anything, you'd know: the one you miss was mortal; you dream of someone attainable, someone else caught by the Market, and you need only wait.
You have nothing, or worse than nothing: only the feeling that there was someone else, once; that you were important to someone, once.
You would cry, if you still knew how, wail in frustration, but along with your heart they have taken this, too, and the grey of the real world saps away whatever anger you feel: this is not real, and so it cannot matter at all.
The soft grey of the city saps away your joy as well as your anger, and your dreams, until you sleep only rarely.
When you do dream, it’s soft around the edges, the lines blurred.
Could this be memory? you wonder, as you awake in the morning, the taste of the fruit lingering in your mouth, something familiar in dreams, unrecognizable in waking life.
Dream: that you were loved; that you were desired, that if you could find your way back you would prove yourself as being deserving of that love; achieve the fairy tale ending you desire.
(You are not certain, what that ending would look like, only that it is what you are supposed to want, and so you do, because it is easier to give into should than it is to find the energy to ask questions.)
"I want..." you start, but even as you begin, you don't know what it is you desire.
A night without dreams, maybe.
A day where you do not long for what you cannot have.
An acceptance that seems beyond you.
This is the first year.
You give in, after the anniversary of the day you found yourself standing on the corner of an unfamiliar city, shifted, and you seek the services of a seer.
If you were slightly more resolute, slightly less worn around the edges, you would not find yourself here, staring at a pack of crisp-edged cards and asking for an answer that you are not sure you want--but you are not resolute; you have been softened by time, by pain, by sadness, the edges of you worn away as sure as the lines written onto your face, and this is the only way you have to know.
"Does he love me?" you ask of the cards.
She shuffles them from hand to hand, the movement of them fascinating to watch, quick and sharp. She doesn't ask, are you sure you want to know, but spreads the cards on the table, face down.
"Focus," she says. "Think about your question."
You don’t know what you’re asking, exactly. You don’t have a name, or even a face, just a vague feeling, a sense that somewhere, there is someone...
“Focus,” she urges again. “I’m getting a reading…”
What am I doing? you think, as she flips the first few cards. They’re only ordinary Bicycle playing cards, something that could be purchased at the grocery store. There’s no mystery to them, no magic.
She flips the final card, studies it carefully.
"Ah," she says, after a moment. "I see."
She picks up the cards, shuffles them together again, while you wait patiently for her to speak.
She hesitates a moment -- just a moment. "I was in the Market too," she says, finally. "Did you eat the fruit? It takes your memories. There's no way to get them back. You're better off, going to one of the support groups, versus trying to find your way back there."
You want to say something else, something tart and biting, how would she know, but she offers you a tentative smile, and tells you: "It gets better, eventually. The dreams stop, eventually. Three years, some of 'em say, or seven, and you'll be back to normal..."
"Do you dream about it?" you ask her, and your voice sounds strange in your own ears. You rarely speak these days. This is the most you've said to another human being in a month, maybe two.
"Not anymore," says the seer. "I escaped three years ago this spring."
It's the little note of pride on the escaped that makes you tip her. You didn't escape, didn't claw your way out -- but she still has hope for you, and you can admire her for that.
At least now you have an answer, anyway.
When the dreams don't stop, when you find yourself spending your free time studying maps of the city transit system, trying to match what you knew what it is now, when you find yourself staring at the pyramids of fruit in the organic grocer, the colors of them sharp and jewel-like, even in the harsh fluorescent lighting -- that's when you go back to the support groups. There's one for fruit-eaters that meets once a week.
"Hello," you say, shyly, at the meeting. "I'm..."
You don't remember your own name. It's been two years, and you thought it would come back, but it hasn't.
"Molly," you say, after a beat, because it's what you've been calling yourself, in your head, anyway. Molly always was your favorite doll, growing up, and it dates you, a little, but there's nothing wrong with that, not really.
"Welcome, Molly," says the group leader. "What brings you here?"
"I ate the fruit," you say, and you are surprised at how quickly the words come out. "I -- don't remember what. I can remember paying, and I remember the taste of it in my mouth, but I don't know what kind it was. I dream about it every night, and I don't remember what it was. Was it a plum? A handful of blueberries? A piece of melon? I knew better, but I ate it anyway, and I..."
The group listens to you, as you ramble about the fruit, about the temptation, without saying anything -- without judgement or hesitation.
"I almost want to find my way back to the Market so I can figure out what it was," you finish. "I've forgotten everything else, but I almost feel like if I went back, if I found it -- everything else would come back, too."
"You can't go back to the Market," says the group leader, her voice level. "But we can talk about how to deal with those feelings."
You sit down, and the man next to you pats your knee.
"It gets better," he says, and you want to believe him.
This is the second year.
Someone recognizes you, on your way to your dull office job.
"Sarah!" yells a woman's voice. "Sarah Reese! Hey, Sarah!"
You don't think she's talking to you, until she grabs the sleeve of your coat. "It's Molly -- remember me?"
Something slides into place, something from before, and you blink a little. So this is where the name had come from.
"We worked together," she continues. "At the hospital? How have you been?"
She is all nervous smiles, edges and lines laid bare by anxiety, and you think uncharitable thoughts, about how you don't really remember, but --
Something breaks through. A practical joke; covering someone's desk in Post-Its, the look on his? her? face later, you and Molly giggling conspiratorially in the break room later on, after you had, solemn-faced, helped remove every last sticky note, never letting on that they were your doing.
"Molly," you say. "How have you been?"
She doesn't ask where you've been, and you don't tell her that your temporary ID, what they gave you at one of the support groups, with a note saying you don't remember who you are, has her name on it.
Another piece of the puzzle.
You don't dream about the market, that night.
If you were a little braver, you'd go looking for yourself -- type "Sarah Reese" into a search engine, and look for photos of you, before, see if anyone missed you, in the time you were gone, if they noticed you'd been gone at all. You're not brave, though, and the temptation to find your old life, your before, while great, is not enough to pull you in.
You check the wall at the group meetings -- the wall of missing persons. You talk to the group leader for these meetings, ask if anyone has come looking for you.
"We get so many people," she says, apologetic. "I can't say..."
It's a start, though -- you can begin to place yourself in time, where you must have ended up, and you have Molly's number, punched dutifully into your phone.
You can't remember much, but her face rings a bell, and the city is a little less gray, now that you know someone has recognized you.
This is the third year.
Things start to become familiar.
You go to get coffee one morning, and as you wait patiently in line for your cup of drip, you have a sudden change of heart, order a mocha instead. It tastes rich and familiar, not at all the ashes and dust you expect, and something whispers through you: this used to be my favorite...
There are other things, too, but this at least is a start: you can remember what it was you once loved, even if you are still on unfamiliar ground.
Year four, then -- when you begin to remember who you were.
The problem with Fey magic, you realize, the problem with having eaten the fruit, is that it doesn't only affect you -- it affects everyone that might have known you. Some are more resistant to it than others -- you were able to remember Molly, because she is one of them; she recalls you, because they could not charm her into forgetting -- but most people are not.
Those that are, they come to the support groups for those taken. They learn to deal with their grief, with the idea that they will never see them again -- that no one else will remember that they existed, or that no one else will believe that the one who died, the changeling, was not the right one all along. Their grip on reality is firm, but they can't help you.
You finally screw up the courage to look for yourself. You type your name, the name of your city, into a search engine, and --
Nothing. No matches that are you, anyway. There are others, with similar names, but they are older or younger than you must have been, when you were taken, or else they look nothing like you -- different hair, different skin, distinct markers that set them apart as being not you.
You'll spend a week or two, looking, but eventually you have to give up. You can't spend your life chasing after an impossible dream -- and that, more than anything, is what finding your old life must be.
The city seems a little grayer, a little grimmer, in the days after your failed searches -- but you won't let this bring you down. You can't find the Market again, you know, even if you wanted to, and so you hug your arms over your chest, as you go a'roving, and keep your eyes on the pavement, your thoughts only on where you are going, not where you have been.
The dreams start again, after the failed searches, too. There's a little twist of the heart, each time you realize what you dreamed about -- the memory of the fruit.
Everything else tastes like ashes, mostly, and dust -- but you persevere, and you eat anyway, and that has to be enough.
Year five comes and goes, and you wonder if you will ever be truly free.
It's spring, and the city has come alive, all green and bright, when you realize that the ache in your chest has gone.
You'd grown so used to it, over time -- to the idea that you would always be missing something, though you could not know what. You'd grown used to the idea that the shards of glass you'd swept away were those of your own broken heart -- so used to it that you did not realize, at first, what the buoyancy was, the spring in your step.
"The closer you get to seven years free, the closer you get to remembering everything," says the group leader, soothingly, as you talk in your halting voice about how strange it is to feel again. "Soon, not everything will taste like ashes and dust. Soon..."
Soon, you know, the spell will be broken. Whatever curse the Fey had left on you will lift, and you will stop dreaming of the Market.
You still do have dreams about the fruit, after all. Not every night, not even every week -- but once a month, at least, you wake up with the taste of it in your mouth, when everything else is still mostly flavorless.
"Someday soon," says the group leader, at another session, "you'll cease to dream of the Market at all. That's why you have to keep fighting, why you have to keep pressing forward."
You don't search for your true name anymore, to see if anyone has remembered you, but your single-minded fixation on the Market has come and gone, too, and you consider this a win, in your sixth year free of the Fey.
You almost forget the anniversary, when it comes. The seventh, unremarkable except that you are to be truly free.
It comes with little fanfare. You dream about the Market, the night before it comes -- not a memory, but a true dream, where to find it again, should you so desire...
Others have talked about the dreams, in group -- how they feel real, how they feel as though they can be followed, as though were you to go to the part of the city that the dream urges you toward, you would find your way back into the Market.
"You can't go back," says one of the men in the group. "If you follow the dream, you'll find the gates all right -- but you can't go back. If you go back, they keep you, forever. We've seen it before."
You listen, and nod in all the right places. "Of course you can't go back," you echo, because it's the right thing to say. You're supposed to want freedom, even if the longing for the Market still threatens to overwhelm you, some days.
"You'll rot in there," he says, and rubs his wrist absently, as if remembering an old wound. "I nearly did."
"I won't follow the dream," you say.
You are true to your word, and you don't follow it, but it doesn't much matter, because it follows you.
You're walking home from work, after dark. You normally would have left long before the light faded, but there was something wrong, and you had to stay well past the usual time.
It's late enough that none of the buses are running, anymore, as you walk home.
If you were smarter, you might have taken a cab -- but that would have meant admitting to yourself some painful truth you are still not ready to face.
Down one block, then another. Businesses, here, all of them quiet, shuttered for the evening.
A quarter mile to go, and then --
You smell it, before you see it. The scent of almonds, cinnamon, toasted sugar, with some odd wild note underneath it -- the scent of raw magic.
You're drawn to the gates like a moth to flame. There they stand, between a dry cleaner and a shop offering shoe repair, in a part of the city you rarely visit, and never after dark.
Tall and silver, whorled and knotted, they stand open and waiting for you to pass through. Unguarded, because it is what lies inside that should be guarded against.
You walk to them. You can't help it; it's as much instinct, impulse, as it is any active desire of yours.
Come in, the gates seem to beckon. Enter. You remember here, don't you?
A rush of feeling, nostalgia and horror blended together into a potent liquor, sitting in your stomach like a stone. You know what awaits you, in the Market. The fruit -- the stall manned by some mortal woman.
You have fifty cents in your jeans pocket, from when you visited the vending machine at lunch.
It would be so easy, whispers something. Give in, and...
You take a step forward, toward the invisible line that divides the Market from the mortal city.
In fairy tales, curses are broken through deliberate actions. The passage of time is not enough -- Sleeping Beauty would never have woken if it weren't for "true love's kiss" or the removal of the thorn, whichever version of the tale was the right one.
There is always a choice to be made, something to be done.
(She might not have slept, the princess, if she had been able to overcome temptation.)
You're nearly into the Market, clothes right-side out and carrying no iron, when you snap to it and realize where you are.
You hesitate a moment.
"No going back," you say, finally, and wrench yourself away; walk the rest of the way home in silence.
You begin to remember who you are, after that.
The dreams stop, once you refute the Market, as neatly as though a switch has been flipped.
Food has flavor, savor, again. You remember who you are.
This is the seventh year -- the beginning of the rest of your life.
When I read "the goal is zero", my mind went to workplace accidents, but also to the concept of addiction.
In addiction therapy, there is the idea of a relapse -- that eventually, you will slip up and end up using again. The goal is zero for relapses, too.
I wondered, a little, about the concept of Faery, and how it is that the Fey must keep their captives ensnared. I thought about curses, and the simple mechanics of addiction -- and the combination of the two is what led to this.
The announcement came in mid-June. "THE END OF THE WORLD", blared the papers -- but it wasn't news. Most of us already knew, or had guessed. They were confirming what we already suspected.
We'd been on edge since the spring, when the trees had never regained their leaves, when the birds had never returned from wherever they'd gone. We'd felt it, in the slow slide into the heat of summer, when a too-warm wind blew dust and litter down the deserted streets, and we saw feathers in it, the grey and white and purple of pigeons. Something was wrong. We didn't see bird corpses, but we didn't have to. We knew. We looked at the blue of the sky, edging into an unsettling indigo, and we suspected the worst.
"Three months," said a frazzled-looking man on the news, identified as being Dr. So-and-so, some bigshot from Yale or Harvard or another of the Ivies. "Maybe more, maybe less -- but if the recent patterns hold, we're looking at three months."
He went on to talk about the theories, as to why, and I didn't pay attention. I switched the TV off.
My mother had died of cancer that spring, when the leaves never came out. I'd been told her diagnosis -- "four to six months" -- and the window they gave us on the news sounded too familiar.
Four to six months, they'd said, and so we'd discussed the end, parceling our time out according to that four month timeline -- except she'd died not four weeks after we first heard the c-word, after what we'd thought was the stomach flu had turned into something worse.
Three months, the news said, and I didn't parcel out my time at all.
"What do you think?" Jessie asked me, when they finally admitted on the news, something is wrong. She was my roommate, and former coworker, both of us servers at the Waffle House on Cassady. "Is this it?"
I thought about cancer, about dying by degrees without realizing it, and I shrugged. "Why would they lie to us? You've seen the trees."
"Yeah," Jessie started. "But..."
Jess was an optimist.
I was not.
"No buts," I said. "It's the end. They can't even tell us how much time we've got."
"Three months," she said, defiant, and I wanted to believe her. "What are you going to do with your time?"
"I don't know." I'd quit serving, when Mom got sick. She'd never liked that I did it in the first place. I'd been meaning to go back to school, with the money I'd get from selling her house, the little of her life insurance policy that hadn't gone toward paying off bills or settling debts. I'd been wrangling all the details of that, trying to figure out when the estate would be settled, when we'd know how much was left. A year, they'd said, before everything would be taken care of -- a year, even though she'd had a will; even though there hadn't been much to settle up.
I was living off my savings. I had enough, I thought, to last me another six months, if I was careful.
Suddenly, being careful wasn't an issue anymore.
"You should find a job," said Jessie. "I know Blair would take you back, if..."
If I wanted to go back to serving.
If I was ready to face my regulars again, those that had asked after Mom, who had known she had gotten sick, who must have known...
"I don't think so."
"Okay," Jessie said. "But you should do something. You can't just sit around the apartment all day. I mean..."
She paused, and I knew, or could guess, what the pause meant: it's the end of the world, isn't it? Shouldn't you be trying to make the best of it?
"Yeah," I said. "I -- yeah. I'll start volunteering or something."
"Gotta make the best of it, don't we?" she asked, and smiled, a little too wide. "I've gotta go -- my shift starts in twenty minutes, and if I'm not careful, I'll miss my bus."
I laughed, startling her. "I'd bet everything else is closed."
"Good," she said brightly. "More tips for me! I'll see you later -- let me know if they announce anything I should be aware of."
"Will do," I said as she walked out, though I knew: I wouldn't be turning the television back on.
Our upstairs neighbors moved out, when the news broke, going back to their parents' houses in Fairfield.
"Guess they didn't want to be alone," Jessie said, when I told her about it, a couple of days later. "I can't blame them. Still, though..."
I could hear the hesitation in her voice. She'd kept her job, staying at the Waffle House when the rest of the crew began, slowly, to quit, citing better things to do, a desire not to waste the time they had left.
Jessie had no family. She'd been an only child. Both of her parents had died when she was in high school -- her dad sophomore year, and her mom senior year. She'd never met her grandparents. She'd skipped straight from childhood to adulthood before she'd been awarded a high school diploma, working as a server instead and finishing her GED, starting at community college. Waffle House was just temporary -- Jessie was saving everything she had to go back to school and become a veterinarian. If most people had told me that, I would have laughed and told them, "good luck" -- but Jess made it seem like it was doable, somehow, if only because she held no illusions about what the future had in store for her.
"I'm going to be a rural vet," she said, when I asked. "So -- lots of livestock. Not many pets -- mostly cows and the like."
I knew, because we'd talked about it, that she had close to ten thousand dollars in savings -- scraped together from tips, tax returns, the side hustling she'd done. She'd applied to transfer to OSU in the fall, when her associates would be finished, into their animal science program. She'd gotten the news that she had been accepted, was looking forward to the transfer student orientation, when we found out about the three month rule.
She'd been talking about quitting Waffle House, finding work somewhere else, or taking out loans for the remainder of her expenses.
She wasn't talking about quitting now.
"Are you thinking about leaving?" she asked me.
"Where would I go?" I said.
When Mom had first gotten sick, we'd talked a lot about how we wanted to spend our time.
"We should go on one last trip," she said, and so we'd pulled out the guidebooks, thought about all the places we wanted to go, but never had the time to visit.
Hospice and the end were always in the backs of our minds, but we didn't dwell on those. We had them planned out. I knew where she wanted to go (Mount Carmel, because she'd liked the nurses), what she wanted done afterward (cremation with a scattering ceremony on the anniversary of her passing), who was named in the will (just me), what I could expect (my uncle, her only brother, would be executor), what her finances looked like, who was owed what and what debts there were to be settled (less than $500 on a Visa that she intended to pay off before the end arrived).
We'd had all the hard conversations, in that first week at the hospital. Mom had always been someone who was on top of things; who planned carefully and made sure that all the Is were dotted and all her Ts were crossed. All the difficult things were done.
We were supposed to have fun.
"The Bahamas are supposed to be nice right now," she offered. "Or we could go on a Caribbean cruise..."
She'd opted for no treatment. Her symptoms were mild, managed with painkillers and anti-nausea meds.
"A cruise is doable," I'd said. "Or we could think about going out to the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite. You've always wanted to see the west."
"That's true," she said. "Do you think that your uncle Nathaniel would want to come...?"
"If he can escape from Jennifer long enough to, yeah."
"One last trip," said Mom. "Just the three of us. It'll be so good to see him again."
The name of a resort in Yosemite, with potential dates and room rates, was written on a pad on the kitchen table, the day I came over to see her and found her slumped in the bathroom, unresponsive, just two weeks after her diagnosis.
We never did make that trip.
A week passed, two weeks. Jessie kept going to work.
"Someone has to," she said, reasonably. "We're still getting customers -- more than ever before."
The lights in our apartment stayed on, and the water kept running. When we went to the grocery store, there were still items on the shelves -- bread in the bakery, eggs and milk in the cold case, meat in the meat department.
There wasn't much in the way of produce, but there hadn't been, over the last few months -- not since we'd noticed all the plants dying.
Some people stocked up on bottled water, dehydrated food, MREs -- thinking, maybe, that things would get bad, as we got closer to the end. Kroger began hanging cards on the automatic entry door: "CASES OF WATER LIMITED TO 5/PERSON/DAY", "POWDERED MILK TEMPORARILY OUT OF STOCK" -- but otherwise, there were few changes.
People were still doing their jobs. You'd hear about panic on the news, but it was always limited to small pockets. Someone had become hysterical and robbed a Steak and Shake; five people, somewhere else, had all committed suicide together, leaving a note that they signed in blue ballpoint: "we are so sorry, but there is no point to delaying the inevitable."
I wanted to give in to despair, but my world had already ended.
I didn't think Jessie was capable of giving in, or anyway, if she was worried, she didn't say anything.
"Just another setback," she said, when I brought it up. "Anyway..."
Anyway, there's nothing we can do, her tone said. All I can keep doing is sticking to routine and pretending it's not the end of the world.
I recognized that tone. I'd used it a lot, in the weeks after Mom died.
We passed the four week mark, and I stopped holding a breath I didn't know I'd kept in.
"Two more months," said Jessie. "Give or take a few days."
She was still working, out at the Waffle House. They weren't 24 hour anymore, and they closed on Sundays, thanks to a lack of staff, but they were still being supplied, somehow.
"Sometimes Blair sends me down to Kroger to get eggs and flour," Jessie admitted, when I prompted her. "They're nice about it, though, and he always gives me money out of the till to do it."
"Are you getting paid?" I asked, suddenly struck by the thought that she might not have been.
"Of course," she said. "None of my checks have bounced yet, and I'm getting all my tips."
"And you're still saving up for school?"
I don't know what prompted me to ask that. It wasn't fair.
Jess bit her lip, her usual stress response. She looked about twelve when she did it.
"No," she admitted, in a small voice. "I don't know that there is much to save for, now."
"You're starting at the end of September," I said, and my voice cracked on the 'September'. "Shouldn't you be putting more money away, before you quit? You don't want to have to take out loans."
It was mid-July.
The first day of school was supposed to be September 25th.
"I don't know that I will be going to school after all," said Jessie.
It was a conversation we could have had, in the before -- talking about the merits of working another year, squirreling away everything she could.
"You should," I offered. "We have to keep busy, right?"
"Right," she said, uncertain.
Our landlord didn't collect our rent, at the beginning of August. The money languished in our accounts.
We'd find out later that he had left the state, going God-knows-where, intent on spending his last days on a beach somewhere, perhaps down in Florida, but we didn't know that then.
"I think we should spend it," said Jessie uncertainly, after another two weeks had gone by without the check being deposited or the landlord picking up his phone. "I mean..."
"What do you want to spend it on?"
"I don't know," she said, exhaustion evident in her voice. "A trip somewhere? I've never been..."
I froze, remembering the conversations with my mother.
"I've never been to Canada," she finished. "You know -- Niagara Falls isn't that far away. We could..."
"If you can get away from Waffle House long enough," I said.
She rubbed the back of her neck, gave me a sheepish look. "We're closed Mondays now, too," she mumbled. "Ted quit, so it's just Blair and Maria and me. He works the line while she and I wait tables, and she helps out back there if we're slammed, but our customers are mostly slowing down."
I took a deep breath. "What time do you get off Saturday?"
"Two," she said. "Unless Blair asks me to work a double, but I don't think he will. Saturdays aren't very busy these days."
"I'll pick you up at work," I said. "Make sure you have..."
I nearly said, your passport, then I realized she likely didn't have one. She'd never been out of the country -- she'd never felt a need to go anywhere outside of Ohio.
"I have a passport card," she said, as though reading my mind. "Not that -- I heard, they're not checking anymore at the border."
"Right," I said. "Okay. Great. We'll go. We'll stay in a five-star hotel -- there's got to be something up there -- and, um..."
"That's going to cost more than our rent," pointed out Jessie.
"I can afford it," I said. "I've got a credit card."
"Do they still work?"
I shrugged. "Guess we'll find out."
Jess balked, at the last minute.
"What are we doing?" she asked, as she pulled open the door of my car in the restaurant parking lot. "It's a five and a half hour drive, we -- "
"Chill," I said, and put the playlist we'd made together on the stereo. "It's the end of the fucking world, okay? This is it. You might as well do something enjoyable."
She buckled her seatbelt and squeezed her eyes shut. "Fuck," she said, one of the few times I'd ever heard her swear. "Guess we're off."
I thought about softening, about saying, if you don't want to..., but I couldn't bring myself to let up. I hadn't left the apartment for longer than it took to go to Kroger in over a month. I hadn't wanted to. I'd quit my job and broken up with my boyfriend when my mom died. I didn't want either back -- I didn't miss either of them -- but I missed the stability, the normality.
I should have leaned into the end of the world, maybe, before I lost my chance, but I couldn't bring myself to.
Now everyone knows how I felt, I'd thought, when we'd heard we had three months. Maybe we'll only get three weeks.
But we hadn't, and my own private grief hadn't abated.
We drove to Canada in silence. We didn't talk to each other at all, not as we slid across the abandoned border (no one bothered to check our car, our documents), nor as we checked into the hotel, found dinner nearby. We talked to the clerk at the hotel desk, to the server at the restaurant we ended up in -- but not to each other.
Jess broke the silence first, as we both laid awake in our separate beds, in the dimly-lit hotel room.
"Thanks," she said. "For driving, I mean."
"And for arranging the hotel and everything."
She hesitated a moment, before pressing on: "Blair told me...he's going to call me Monday night and let me know, but he doesn't think that the restaurant is going to stay open. We just don't have enough staff."
I could hear the uncertainty in her voice, the fear of the future.
"There's only a month left," she said. "I..."
"It's just a Waffle House closing, Jessica," I started, channeling my old manager. "It's not the end of the world."
She started giggling. "Except it is. Maybe not when it closes, but soon enough..."
"Yeah," I said. "I know. But -- I mean, we're lucky, aren't we? We've managed to stay afloat..."
"Yeah," she echoed. "Have you thought about checking out early?"
I thought about my mom, about the raw wound that was her absence, how much I missed her. I'd saved her voicemails, converted them to MP3s, listened to them in the car on the way to Kroger; kept the last note she'd written me about a doctor's appointment, with its looping script: Love, your old mom.
"No," I said, finally. "I couldn't imagine -- doing that to another person."
"I did," admitted Jess, in a small voice. "But I didn't want to let Blair down, and with you..."
She'd taken care of me, more than once, after Mom died. Flipped the covers back on my bed, brought me cereal and milk in a separate pitcher, chanted "rise and shine" at me until I'd gotten out of bed, grumbling -- the way she had when we both worked together, at Waffle House, when both of us had to work 5:30AM to 2PM, except at 3PM, when she got off work, and I hadn't managed to drag myself out of bed yet.
She'd kept me from descending completely into my own grief.
"Yeah," I said. "I...thanks, Jessie."
I heard her sigh, in the dark. "It wasn't anything."
"It was important," I said. "You kept me from giving in."
"Yeah," she said. "Well. You gave me a reason to stick around, too."
"I guess we're in this to the end," I said, after a moment.
"I'm still hoping they're wrong," said Jess softly. "But I guess we both get to find out, don't we?"
We went to the Falls the next day.
Jessie walked right up to the railing, leaned over to get a better look. I almost said something, but bit it back.
"You should have brought your Mom," she said, when I screwed up the courage to stand next to her.
I thought, for a moment, she meant, when she was alive, then realized -- she meant her ashes. The cremains, as the man at the funeral home with the too-straight, too-white teeth had called them.
"Maybe," I said. "I don't know where she wanted to be scattered. She just said, somewhere nice. I don't think I'm allowed to scatter them here."
"Who's around to rat on you?" Jessie asked, pointedly. "Who's going to care? It's the end of the world, Dani."
"Next time," I said. "Next time..."
"Next time what?"
"Next time we go somewhere nice," I said. "Because we will."
Jessie turned away from me. "Where?" she said, and I could only just hear her.
"Yosemite," I offered. "Or -- I dunno, somewhere along the Pacific. The Atlantic. One of the coasts. How far is it from Columbus to Cape Cod?"
"I don't know," said Jessie, and she laughed a little, in the forced way that let me know she was trying not to cry. "What about money for vet school?"
I shut my eyes. I didn't want to point it out, that there was no more need to worry about money for vet school, about the future, past the next five or six weeks. Already the sky over Niagara had darkened, lapsed from true blue into a deep velvety purple, even in the middle of the day.
"It's summer," I settled on. "We'll take my car. We can sleep on the beach, if we have to. I have sleeping bags. There's got to be something."
"It's the end of the world," said Jessie. "There isn't anything."
"We've got another month," I said. "There's time."
"Fine," and I knew I had won the argument.
She called in to Waffle House, on the way back to our apartment.
"Blair?" she said, when she reached him. "I...I can't do it anymore. There's only a month."
"I understand," she said, quietly. "Fine. Best of luck to you, too."
She hit the button, hung up on the call.
"I'm free," Jess said. "Blair's closing the restaurant," and she lapsed into silence again.
Back at the apartment, we didn't talk. We loaded up the car with what we thought we'd want, what we thought we'd need -- my sleeping bags, the camp stove, the canned food and bottled water we had in the house (we had no idea where we were going, after all). I grabbed headphones, clothes, the last note from Mom, her ashes in their sturdy pine box.
"What on Earth are we doing?" asked Jess. "This place looks like a tornado hit it. What are we doing?"
"Living," I said, throwing the last of my clothes into an old backpack. "Come on."
She trailed after me, down to the car.
"Shouldn't there be more than this?" she asked, when we finished loading everything. "Like -- shouldn't there be someone else, someone to spend the end of the world with...?"
"There's just us," I said, more bravely than I felt. "We've been friends six years. Neither of us has any family. Who would you rather spend the end of the world with?"
Jessie grimaced. "When you put it that way..."
"It sounds grim," I said, "but I'm serious: this is it. We don't get another chance. We don't get a do-over. We don't get to go back and fix everything, do it right or wrong or over again. We're making a mess of it, but that's life."
"Four to six weeks," said Jessie. "Another two months, if we're lucky."
"My mom didn't even get that," I said, and shoved my backpack into the trunk. "Come on."
I buckled the box of her ashes into place with a seatbelt.
"East or west?" I asked Jess, sliding into the driver's seat.
She hesitated, standing outside the car, then climbed into the passenger's side. "West," she said, finally. "I've always wanted to see the Grand Canyon."
"West it is," I said, and I floored it, on the way out of our apartment parking lot, on the way to the end of the world.
fiction, unless the world has suddenly ended and no one told me...
I love the idea behind the Waffle House Index. I honestly think that Waffle House would stay open until the bitter end -- or until they no longer had staff.
I wanted to roll it into another idea for a story I had, in which someone's grief at losing their mother is suddenly overshadowed by the end of the world -- the connections we forge and the decisions we make when we are tempered by the worse things a person can live through.
We're driving somewhere through Idaho when my phone buzzes gently, telling me I've got a message. I'm in the passenger seat, a friend is driving, and there's another friend in the back of the car. I'm in the middle of a story, talking about that one time, in that one place, when we did that one thing -- something funny that ends with mistaken identity; a slight albeit humorous misfortune that befalls me; what makes it right. "And then he said..."
My phone vibrates again. A call, this time.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I have to take this, it's -- "
There are few things in my life that are complicated, these days.
You are one of the complicated things.
"She doesn't treat you well," go the various messages. "She..."
I know the score: how many times you've flaked on me, how many times you've broken plans; how you'll tell me, later, that you're sorry you did it, but you weren't up to seeing everyone, you only want to see me, just me.
How many times I fall for it. How I let you reel me in.
"I..." I start, every time it comes up. "You don't know her. Our friendship is -- weird."
You're my ex, or you would be, if we'd ever gotten around to dating.
You're my best friend, or you would be, if you answered my calls.
You're someone I'd cut out, if I weren't so patient, too forgiving.
"I love her," I finish, feebly. "It's not something I'm really up for talking about."
And everyone else lets it slide.
"Hello?" I answer.
"Hey," you say, and I can tell from the tone of your voice what's coming. "I'm sorry, I..."
"You have to cancel," I start. "Okay."
"Okay?" Your voice is hopeful. "You understand?"
No, I want to say, I don't, but I keep my voice level.
"Yes," I tell you. "I get it. You're busy."
What I don't tell you: do you remember, we said in December, we said...
I'm traveling to Seattle, ostensibly for a concert, but actually because I'm hoping to see you. We don't live in the same place, anymore, and it's an opportunity, to see you...
"I've gotten caught up work, and you have to understand..."
And I do, though I don't like it.
There are conflicting stories, about how we met.
There's mine -- that you reached out to me; that you chased me, and having hooked my interest, you withdrew. You had what you wanted; the rest was up to me, to make it work.
"I never see you unless I make plans," I told you, at one point, after you'd confessed that you had feelings for me.
"How can you say that?" you said. "I..."
You gave a long list of reasons as to how I was to know that you liked me, that you were into me. I had only recently come out; I wasn't sure what the new realm of dating was supposed to look like -- but even then, I'd like to think I didn't believe you. The reasons you listed were spurious: you would occasionally text me first. Sometimes you called me first. Sometimes, rarely, you would let me know that you were going to be at our favorite bar at a certain time -- never with an invitation attached, but it was implied, you said.
You were the Cool Girl. Everyone wanted to date you. I listened, and let myself be mollified.
Your version is different. It starts with me, being too needy, too demanding -- but somehow winning you over anyway.
"You told me you were into me first, remember?" you said. "You said..."
Because you told me that you were jealous of the other date I was going on, I think. Because you said you were sick of watching me go out with other people, when I should have been going out with you.
In your narrative, I am diminished -- less attractive, somehow; needier, less patient, less kind, more obsessed. You go out with me out of pity, or some other misplaced emotion.
I do, and I don't.
We never actually dated.
We went on one date. At the end of it, you kissed me gently on the cheek, and told me that there was someone else.
"I think that it's serious, with her," you said. "So..."
So you had to let me go. So you had to cut ties.
"Okay," I said, as if we could pretend it was. "Okay."
You kept me dangling, though.
"Maybe, if things don't work out with her..." you texted me. "I mean, Tricia is great, but if it doesn't work out, then..."
It could be you, the texts said. If you're patient.
I wasn't patient. I tried to date other people, but there was always the ghost of you, in the back of my mind. I'd go out with someone and find myself comparing them to you. The girl that I'd met for coffee had hair that was cut in the same style as yours. The woman I met for a paint and wine class had your love for the Elizabethan poets. Tracy -- whom I'd date for six months -- could have answered to your description, in how you both treated me.
I ended it with her around the same time you broke up with Tricia.
"Maybe..." you said, when I told you, casually, that I too was single, that things had ended fairly amicably and I was already thinking about dating again. "We could..."
I was learning, by then, just what that meant. You could, might have been the better way to put it, because it fell on me to organize everything we did.
"If you want to go out, just tell me," I said. "You know how I feel about you."
You blanched, when I said it, and canceled the carefully-made plans we'd organized, a month in advance, to see one another for dinner.
"Busy," your text said. "Sorry."
You didn't offer to reschedule. I asked about availability, and you made some quiet noise about how you'd get back to me.
I put a note in my calendar to call you in a week, when you hadn't called me, and reschedule then.
By the time I called you, you were head over heels for someone new.
I want to say, I don't know what I saw in you, except I know what I did, because I still do.
You were a great friend, when you were dating someone.
When you were dating someone, when I was not a threat, it was easy. You didn't have to worry about posturing; could refer to me as one of your best friends, let your guard down, relax. Flirting would be inappropriate, so you didn't do it. You didn't try to get me into bed, or drop hints about how we should date -- hints that I only picked up on after the fact, long after I'd resigned myself to the corner of "unrequited feelings". We spent time together, with or without your girlfriend, and nothing ever happened. When I needed to talk about work, or who I was dating, or how things with family were going, there you were. When you needed to ask for advice -- honest and raw, coming to me with an admittance that you weren't good at this -- meaning, dating, or maybe, loving people -- I could give it.
"I'm probably closer to you than to anyone else in the world," you said.
I had no reason to doubt you.
It should have gotten easier, after you moved away.
When you picked up and moved to Everett, I wanted to think that this was it -- that we could go back to being just friends, without any of the lingering oddness.
Instead, you told me you loved me.
"I always have," said the letter you wrote -- three sheets of creamy white paper, outlining in no uncertain terms how you felt. "I know I've never been good to you, but if you still think about..."
It was the admission, that you'd never been good to me -- that gave me pause.
"You've always been fine," I emailed. "A little weird about dating, but who isn't?"
Even as I typed it, I knew it wasn't true.
You didn't respond, and I didn't press for answers.
We became friends again, better than we had been in a long time. I took to calling you again, regularly. We made plans to meet, when you were back in our home state over the summer.
"I'll take you to Jim's," I said. "We can get those gross fries you love," and you just laughed.
"You've always known me better than anyone."
I told you, come see me, you can sleep in my guest room, we'll go hiking while you're out here, and you booked your flights.
I thought, everything is fine now, there's nothing to worry about, and I started dating someone new.
I told you, when things got serious with her, because we were ostensibly friends, and it would have been strange not to, to have you find out through someone else.
"You're making a mistake," you told me. "I don't think she's right for you."
You couldn't give me reasons why, but I trusted your judgment, and when it came down to it -- when you said, I don't think this is healthy, you listed very good reasons as to why you didn't think it was.
I didn't consider our shared history. I thought you had my best interests in mind.
I examined the relationship, how things were going with my new girlfriend, and I broke it off.
"It's because of her, isn't it?" she asked, when I told her that it wasn't working out.
"No," I lied. "I just..."
"You're making the wrong decision," she said, and shook her head. "Not -- I mean, okay, if you think that things aren't working out, fine. But you've got to stop listening to her. She's got inside your head and she's just going to keep pulling all the little strings when it's convenient for her."
She didn't say anything else. There weren't any impassioned pleas. She picked up her things and left, and that was the end of it.
I told you, when I broke up with her, and that's when you told me that something had come up, and you had to cancel your flights.
"But it's okay," you said. "I know you're going to be out here in September anyway -- come see me then. We'll do dinner, and..."
"Okay," I said, reeling. "Um. That's -- fine, okay."
"Love you," you said, to end the phone call. You rarely told me that you did.
I thought about all of this, and I wondered if I'd made the wrong choice, after all.
When my phone rings in the car, when I realize that it's you, bailing on me yet again, I am faced with a choice: I can continue things the way that they have gone, or I can withdraw. I can decide to keep following the same pattern, or I can try to do better.
"You have to understand," you say, and I lower the phone to my lap for a moment, consider what to say.
"Yes," I respond, finally. "I do."
I know I am supposed to suggest an alternate time here, wedge myself into your life, chase you and make you give me the answers I want -- but I can't do it. I can't bring myself to.
One of us has to break the pattern.
One of us has to admit: this isn't working, and I'm tired of pretending we're friends.
There's a beat of silence, where I am supposed to say something -- where I am supposed to interject, "oh, but I can meet you..." and suggest another time.
I don't, though.
"You know, if you want..." you start. "We could..."
I know what invitation will be offered next: let's meet for dinner, then go back to my place, and...
"Sorry," I say, breezily, though it is anything but. "I'm pretty booked. The only time I had free was what I offered you."
"I could postpone work," you start. "I could..."
"It's fine," I say, though we both know it's not. "I know you're busy. Don't worry about it. There's always next time."
"Yeah," you say, and your voice is full of false relief. "I'm glad you understand. Love you."
You hang up, after I don't respond.
We'll pretend to be friendly, the next three months, but when you don't make the reach -- when it becomes clear that it will always be me, asking you, and never you asking me, I let go.
"Some things aren't meant to be," you told me, in reference to my ex. "You have to learn to be all right with that."
I'm not, but I can pretend until I am.
Mostly fiction, though I have had friends like this, and have had to make similar choices.
Your father died of cancer, when you were in your thirties.
I'm not sure what kind. I just know how it affected you -- how you watched him waste away; go from being the loving father and grandfather that doted on his kids and grandkids alike, to being in a hospital bed, body little more than skin stretched over the bones, gone; how cancer ate him from the inside out and left him wailing in pain, asking for a relief that you could not give.
"I don't want to die like that," you must have said, at some point. "If I..."
You were afraid, afraid of what it could do to you.
That must have been where it started.
When your sister died of breast cancer, in much the same way -- when you watched her go through chemotherapy late, much too late, lose all her hair as well as both breasts, and still rot from the inside anyway -- did that solidify your fear? There were other deaths, by then -- you'd watched other members of the family die; sat with them as they did, helped where you could. You were always soft, kind-hearted -- when someone asked for help, you couldn't say no, and so yours was the bedside vigil, the nursing in lieu of hospice that couldn't be afforded.
You were with her when she died, or so the family legend goes.
That must have solidified your fear.
There were others, other deaths.
When your daughter worked in an oncologist's office as a physician's assistant, did you tell her not to tell you, about the patients, the ones that died, especially not the pediatric patients? Or did you pretend that it was fine, fine, everything is fine?
You told me about all the family, everyone that you'd loved. I heard all the stories -- about the time the dog was left at the rest stop ("they must have followed us up the highway for five miles, hollering and pointing at him sitting in the front seat, his tail wagging"), the island and how you'd loved life out there, picking salmonberries and telling the kids not to eat the mushrooms they found, my mom and uncles all together. The cockatiel that had loved you and only you, the irises in the backyard and rebuilding the root cellar at your mother's house, after the roof caved in. The good stories, and the bad. You taught me how to embroider, and you told me, quietly, as we sat working on what would eventually become pillowcases, how you'd almost had another child -- how you'd miscarried, "but it was the 60s, we didn't talk about it, but I still wonder..."; my uncle's divorce that had nearly ripped the family apart; the neighbor's daughter who had shot herself, how her mother had been the one to find her, and you were the one to comfort her.
We talked about the good, and the bad, but I never heard you talk about your father, your sister.
I didn't know how he died.
I didn't know you'd had a sister.
We talked about the good and the bad, both together, "because you can't have life without pain, it's getting through that pain that defines you" -- but we couldn't talk about them.
We couldn't talk about your fear.
When my great aunt Beth died of cancer, in 2004, I saw how you reacted. I saw the brittle way you told everyone that she had passed, saying that you thought it was from grief. Her husband had died the year before; she'd been diagnosed a year or so after his passing, and succumbed quickly.
I remember you telling me, the day you found out: "Beth has cancer," the way you crumpled, because you knew it was a death sentence, and what an unpleasant death.
"I want to go in my sleep," you said, around then. "I want to go to sleep and never wake up again. I don't want to suffer."
You were thinking of Beth, when you said it -- of the other cancer deaths. I could see it in your eyes.
I don't know when you first got sick, just that you did.
It used to be that it was Grandpa, who'd get sick after every meal, who had what we thought (fearfully) were the signs of stomach cancer. He made a production out of it; it wasn' t unusual to see him bent over in the bathroom, complaining of pain after eating anything at all.
"GERD," said the doctors, when he finally went in. "Eat smaller meals, spaced out through the day, and avoid eating the foods that give you heartburn."
Did you mention to them, then, that you had been struggling with symptoms for years? Did you mention your own private distress -- bleeding from areas you weren't supposed to bleed from; the constant stomach upset, the phantom pains you were assured were nothing important?
"Gallbladder," said one doctor. "We should think removing it" -- but he forgot, between one appointment and the next, and you, relieved to know that it was something as minor as that, not the phantom of cancer, a bad death -- you didn't bring it up again, did you?
How long were you sick? How long did you suffer?
These are questions we don't have the answers for.
I know my mom went to see you, and you were so sick you couldn't get out of bed.
I know she had a difficult time convincing you to get out of bed: we need you to stand up so we can take you to the emergency room, met with, I'm fine. I don't want to go until I've showered and done my hair. I don't want to go.
Somehow, she convinced you.
"Gallbladder," they said, at the hospital. "It needs to come out. This happens all the time; don't be afraid."
But you were, weren't you?
I wonder if you knew, when they put you under, just what you were up against.
I want to think you didn't. I want to believe that you thought it was routine; that there was nothing to worry about.
I know better, but I still want to believe.
They brought you out less than an hour after they'd put you under, and we all knew.
"Tell me," said my mom. "What are we looking at?"
Metastatic cancer. No idea how far it had spread or how bad it was.
"Six months to a year," said the oncologist. "At best, and that would involve chemotherapy."
A pause, then: "You don't have to make a choice now."
We waited for you to stablize, after surgery, and then we made the only choice we could: to take you home.
"Should we tell her...?" was the running question of the night.
Do we have to? -- unspoken, but there, all the same.
The type of cancer you had was supposed to be largely painless. You were disoriented, after surgery -- we didn't want to make it worse.
We all knew, just what you were afraid of.
We opted not to tell you; to carry on and press ahead as though nothing was wrong. To do otherwise would have meant revisiting the past, acknowledging your fear -- and we couldn't imagine doing that to you.
The last time I saw you, I sat with you for two hours. I held your hands and talked to you about what you would do, once you were better. I did what I had been told to do: kept the conversation light; talked to you about what the neighbors were up to, what I had been doing for work, what I was looking forward to doing, how pretty your garden looked, with all the flowers in bloom.
We talked about the future, and you hesitated, when you said that you had plans for the fall.
I think I knew, then, that you were aware: that you were dying; that despite our best efforts not to tell you, you knew.
I squeezed your hands and told you, I'll be all right, I love you, I'll carry on.
That was the last conversation we had.
The night you died, the family was with you.
You were in pain -- something we hadn't been told to expect -- but you were brave about it.
You didn't want to give in. You didn't want to ask for pain medication. You wanted to be brave.
My mother gave you morphine, given to her by the hospice people, and you fell asleep.
"It's okay to go," she told you. "I'll take care of Dad," and that is when you passed.
I have so many questions now, which will never be answered, not by you. This is the great unfairness of death -- the unfinished conversations; the things that we wanted to say and did not get a chance to.
I want to know, how long did you know? The kind of cancer you had is usually not found until it is too late; even in its early stages, the prognosis is poor, and it is difficult to operate on.
I want to know, how long did you know?, so I can ask: were you afraid?
I think you must have known for a long time. You'd had symptoms for years, after all. You must have known, on some level, what the score was.
I don't know why you didn't tell us.
I know what you were working against, the fear. When you knew, you had a choice to make: give in to that fear, your terror of your own death, or continue to push forward and live as though nothing was wrong.