Monster, monster

The wealthiest man in America has my blood on his hands. 

I think I might die. 

“Congratulations,” the announcer’s voice booms through the loud-speakers. He looks at me pointedly from his place behind the podium. I’ve already spent far too long onstage. 

Jack Right stands with his fingers still extended, as if trying to create distance between himself and the specks of my blood on his skin. 

“I’m sorry,” I stutter again. My mind seizes on the first solution— “you can wipe them on my dress.” 

My god. 

Out of all the things to have come out of my mouth, I chose the single worst thing. Who did I think I was? Who did I think he was? As if a multi-billionaire would reach out and gather my skirt in his hand, to use it like a dirty napkin. 

In an instant, my face blooms with heat. I try not to let my legs move instinctively, and instead smile at him, turn my back, and walk briskly across the stage at what I hope is a refined and professional pace. The moment I descend from the stage’s staircase, I break out into a run. The heavy metal brooch, only half-fastened, flaps against my chest. Dear god, don’t let it fall off of me while I’m running to the bathroom. 

There’s no lock on the bathroom door. At least all the stalls are empty. I grip the edges of the sink and look at myself level in the mirror. “Stupid,” I say to my reflection. My face stares back at me, frustratingly vacant. “Stupid.” My hands are sticky, and shaking. The smallest bit of red has made it from my lapel to the middle of my bust. And it stings, where the pin dug into me. I pry the sharp metal end out of my flesh with ginger fingers. It throbs.

So this is what triumph feels like. 

“Angela?” Chrissy bangs through the bathroom door. 

“Chrissy! Jesus, you scared me.” 

“What the hell happened to you? You acted all weird onstage. What, did you get too starstruck? Start fantasizing about making Jack your sugar daddy?” 

“Don’t be disgusting,” I snipe. “He stuck me with the pin. I started bleeding— a lot.” 

Chrissy sighs and smiles, putting her hands on either side of my face. “Hey. Calm down. Don’t look so embarrassed. We’re here to celebrate. We’re the Chosen Ones.”

I laugh. I like when she describes it like that; like we’ve been selected to form some ridiculous mystical tribe. We worked hard to get here, that’s it. And she’s right. This is our moment of glory. 

“Our coronation,” I say out loud. 

Chrissy raises her eyebrow. “Exactly. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be the kings of Right Labs. We’ll be making monsters all day for the best company in the country.” 

I can’t help but grin. Every year of school; every honors luncheon, every networking ball has led up to this point. 

“I know you already have drafts,” I say to her, prying just a little. 

“Of course. And you do too. I saw some of your drawings.” 

I let go of the small hint of annoyance I feel knowing that she’s been prying. But at the same time, I feel pride. If she’s flipped through my draft notebook, she’s seen my best, most recent work. 

I see them in my mind now, just waiting to be Fleshed and animated. The monster with the steel teeth down its back and the overactive saliva glands. The creature with the perpetually raised heckles, a cross between a werewolf and a rat. And the most exciting— an oozing, molting snake I engineered to open its mouth the width of a small child. 

“I wonder where we’ll be Dropped,” Chrissy muses, reapplying her lipstick. “I hope I get the 34th ward. Their lore about monsters is so deeply rooted already. It would be fun to give them something fresh.” 

I feel secret satisfaction at Chrissy’s predictability. Everyone wants the 34th— and they can rationalize it however they want, but it’s because it’s the easiest ward. The people there have been scared into line for generations already. And the more subservient the population measures up to be, the better the bonuses for the engineers. 

I have more of a challenge in mind. 

“I’m thinking about the 12th,” I say casually. 

Chrissy stares at me. “Oh, really?” 

“Yes. They were just recently put on the list for a drop. There’s been more political activism lately.” 

“But they’ve never had monsters, at all?” 

“Never. I think that’s what makes them interesting.” 

Chrissy shook her head. “Right, and they’ll go through their phases of resistance before you could ever start earning good results. Everyone knows that the first reaction to monsters is disbelief. The fear has to be built, has to have longevity. Choice people have to die—” she holds out her palm as if reading her class notes from it, “not all at once. You’ll be 30 by the time they’re using monster lore to justify the State.” 

“We’ll see,” I say with quiet surety. There are the ways we were taught in class, and then there are the new methods— methods I’ve studied and curated— tactics to take our lab-grown horrors and truly put them to use. For me, it’s not about earning bonuses. I’d like to see fear wielded for homeland security better than ever before. I’d like the be the best. 

I look down at the pin by the sink, still tinged red, and go back to scrubbing my skin. The goal that I’ve been dreaming of since primary school, I suppose, is a simple one: to have the most blood on my hands. 

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Sub-dermal

In the back of the store there was a jumble of personal affects: a few coolers and thermoses filled up with now-cold soup, tangled lanyards with keys on them. The break room was little more than a corner cubicle, its walls made up of squat metal lockers. A woman leaned up against one of these and smoked her medicine. 

From the front where the two sliding glass doors opened up to a vacuum sealed chamber came a small dribble of smog. Emma was annoyed- there wouldn’t be the smog if one thoughtless woman hadn’t lingered in the entry; half in and half out of the vacuum chamber, tripping every motion sensor while chatting on her Tech. Now Emma had to fire up the handheld sucking machine and go catch the bits of smoke from the air, until it materialized into a sort of sludgy silt she’d have to empty into the dumpster at the end of the night. All this, of course, in between every customer. Never mind that she looked ridiculous chasing whips of smoke and then dashing back behind the counter every third pace. 

For instance, now- there was another one. And their impatience was implacable. 

“I’ll be right up,” Emma said, shoving the Handheld down on the counter and appearing behind the register. The customer, of course, didn’t answer. Her eyes were cast down towards her Tech and she was frowning. They always frowned. What, exactly, did they have to frown about? 

“Do you have a Platinum Card?” Emma asked in her practiced drawl. 

“No thank you,” the customer said sourly, as if she had just had a salesman bust into her shower, shoving flyers in her face. 

I didn’t ask if you wanted one, Emma thought. The counter registered the item’s weight and shape. 

“I heard this one was nice,” she smiled dutifully. The canister was full of something Emma would never get to try herself. 

“Is this working yet?” the customer asked, and she gestured with her Tech towards the terminal incredulously. 

“Yes ma’am, you just have to wait for the chirp.”

“I have been,” the woman said. For the first time, her eyes rose to meet Emma’s straight-on. “I have to say, you people are getting ruder and ruder. If I had any time, I’d speak with your manager.” She snapped her Breather out of her purse and began fixing it on dismissively. 

Emma pursed her lips. Big talk. What opulent event was she rushing off to tonight?

“Enjoy your evening,” Emma said, and she placed the item on the right conveyer to be sent to the woman’s home. 

“Hmm,” the woman said, her mouth muffled by the Breather. She swished out of the store. 

Emma exhaled a painful breath. She hadn’t even thought she’d lost control of her tone. If that woman was surveyed on her kitchen-table-Tech in the morning, it’d be another long week of extra training from Emma’s manager. “Training,” of course, being unpaid. She ran her hand through her hair compulsively. 

“Damn it,” Emma shuddered. A strand of hair had pulled away from her scalp and now dangled from her fingertips. It shone blonde in the filtery light. Well, not blonde-blonde. Not the platinum, shining color some of her customers sported from their fancy heat-protect, smog-protect treatments. Emma could still remember being a true blonde like that. Her mother had called her “Toadstool” as a child. 

Thinking about her mother made a hard lump rise up in Emma’s chest, so she busied herself with the Handheld yet again, chasing the leftover smoke bit by bit. 

That was the way of her life: she got through it, bit by bit by bit. 

————————————————-

The end of the night had brought no less than four customers crashing through the vacuum chamber three minutes before closing, but at long last, their items had been registered, their Techs read, the counters wiped and the carpet sprayed. Emma straightened the canisters of clean air in the Platinum section; letting her fingers linger on the glossy nature pictures that set each flavor apart from the other. On this one, a jagged mountain range in icy blue colors. On another, a wide-open field. There was one scene she recognized as belonging to a Russian island, but she could never remember its name. 

Emma gathered her things and stood patiently at the door, waiting for her manager to lock the back bays first. In the reflection of the double doors’ glass, she studied the image of her face. Lines, etched in her forehead and all around her eyes. Rough, red patches which couldn’t be hidden by the company-provided cosmetics. The company liked to keep up appearances; as an upper-end provider of Breath; no one liked to buy pure air while looking straight in the face of smog poisoning. Not because it made them feel guilty, or empathetic. No. Focus groups had been conducted for the products, and the customers ticked all sorts of negative boxes when their salespeople had boils or burns. 

Emma was lucky, in a way. She got to spend all day in a sealed chamber where the environment was largely regulated. She’d had friends from high school who got jobs in Foundation or Waste, and had to work outside for long hours in unwieldy suits. They looked to Emma like the stiff domed suits of America’s ancient space program. Of course, the suits weren’t necessary to be outside. And Emma questioned their effectiveness ever since Ned, an older cousin, had died on the job at an outdoor road-laying company. All one really needed to move comfortably through the outdoor world was a host of special creams (for exposed skin), and a Breather- the sleek metal mouth attachment which replaced all incoming air with pure, flavored Breath. 

Emma’s breather was already a hand-me-down when she got it. The seal wasn’t perfect and every now and then she caught a lungful of smog. In the attachable canister usually reserved for Breath, Emma placed a sample of the air from her store. It was better than outdoor air, and free. 

She took the Breather out of her bag now and held it loosely against her mouth, considering it. She hated the feel of the metal bit pushing past her lips. And the optional nose tubes; which her mother always insisted she use, sprung up from the curved piece like insect eyes. It was painful to wear- not customized to the curves of her mouth, or fitted with soft rubber gum pads. Sometimes Emma even thought she’d prefer its alternative- a short five year prognosis. 

Emma held the Breather in place over her mouth; hovering it there, eyeing the effect in the mirror. In this version of her dress-up game, her face seemed gaunt and ugly. The Breather made her look like some sort of cyborg. And with the Breather dropped away from her face, Emma could see her eyes emerging bright from their sockets. She could focus on the rounded shape of her cheeks, or the delicate way her nose turned up on just the right sort of slope. 

Behind the image of her nose came another nose, wavy and far away. Emma stared at the features of her face so closely that she didn’t notice the boy’s face through the glass until behind her eyes came a second pair of eyes, peering in from the outside. 

“Ma’am?” he called through the doors. 

Emma started and jolted away from her reflection guiltily. “Hello?”

“Hello, are you open? Well, I know you’re not open, but, could you help me?” 

Her instant emotion was resentment. He had the smooth voice of an educated man and his clothes were tailored and clean. A rich boy. A typical rich boy, here after closing, asking for favors. 

Well, Emma was off the clock now. 

“No,” she said, trying to make the word as blunt as possible- a wall slammed in his face. She swiveled on her heel for dramatic effect and began to walk away. 

“No?” He asked. “No one’s ever said no to me before.” 

This made her pause. Her blood was starting to rise; from the bottoms of her tired feet (cashiers weren’t allowed to sit during their shift) to the core of her labored chest. This was a rich boy she could really rip into. 

“While obviously you’re unaccustomed to not getting your way, let me explain something to you,” Emma began, laying her palms against the inner glass door vehemently. 

“Wait, wait! I’m just kidding,” he smirked. 

He smirked. Emma’s anger was far from dissipated. 

“If you’re aware that we’re closed, sir, then I suggest you go home.” 

“Please, wait,” he shrugged, raising his hands in a sort of surrender. Emma had more time to see his face now; a very handsome face. The kind of good skin money could buy. Typical. 

“I’m sorry. It was an awful joke. I know that you’re busy in there—” he glanced towards the back, where her manager was taking an unusually long time to lock the product cases and the loading doors. Undoubtedly she had stopped to smoke more medicine, rubbing her sweaty palms against her legs, breathing deeply and expecting this little break to be on company time. “—I know that it’s the end of your night. But I’m desperate.” 

The way he said the word desperate was somehow quiet and pronounced at the same time. Emma swallowed. 

“What could you possibly be desperate for?” 

He raised one suggestive eyebrow. “I could give you the list… tonight, it’s Levon.” 

Emma wasn’t surprised in the slightest. The birth control chemical. The one they kept behind their counter and sold like hotcakes each day. He was an attractive boy; he probably had dalliances nearly every night. Why would it occur to him to be responsible?

“I’m sure someone like you could have thought to order some on the Belts.”

He shifted in place and looked down. “Ours is… broken, right now. They have maintenance coming in the morning. But the morning is too late. You know, you’re a pharmacist.”

She wasn’t a pharmacist, but she did know; she was a girl. Emma thought about his thin, beautiful girl, laid out at home on a settee, waiting. A girl who really was desperate. So she caved. 

“Hold on,” she said, casting a glance around the store. Her manager wouldn’t mind the extra sale. 

Emma reached up and flipped the lock back on the door, allowing the motion sensor to be triggered again. She stepped into the vacuum vestibule and reached up to do the same with the outer door. 

Now they were nearly face to face. He wore a small smile as he stood with his hands in his pockets. Had there been no glass, this distance would be almost unnerving. Like the distance between two lovers who, after a fight, stand nose to nose breathing angrily- just before they kiss. 

The switch was flipped and the door rushed open, and, there they were, exactly in that stance. Emma should have moved, but her heart was thudding strangely. It was the shock of the automated door— too quick. 

“The air,” the boy pointed, and he was right. Tendrils of opaque fog were seeping into the chamber and filling the space between them. She coughed painfully, then realized- “Where’s your Breather?”

He shrugged, stepping around Emma so that the doors could swish shut in the spot he’d been standing. He took her hand. Emma let him. He guided her fingers to his nose where there was a bump the size of a lima bean. He traced with her finger a small raised line all the way from his nose to the back of his ear. 

“What is that?” Emma asked. 

“A type of oxygen cannula,” he replied. “Implanted. My whole family has one. The Breath is inserted into a well near my lungs,” he tapped there, “where the lungs are cleaned with each exhale. And somehow it’s self sufficient. Self-purifying.” 

Freedom- Emma saw it for what it was. Not only was it discreet, and impervious to malfunction or leakage- but it protected the lungs. The very organ which was the most fragile; and the most lethal. The organ that killed her mother. The organ that was killing Emma now. 

The birth control chemical was the furthest thing from Emma’s mind, but the boy forged ahead into the store and stood at the counter expectantly. She wanted to prolong her time with him. She felt like if she watched the flaring of his nostrils or the rising of his chest for long enough, she would glean a bit of information about what his implant was- and how she could attain it. This is what desperation was. 

Her hands fumbled on the Levon, packaged tightly in a bright pink tin. The boy brought out a Platinum Card. “Can I use this?”
“Of course.” She scanned it. A name appeared in bright letters across the top: Fulton Abram. Abram, a name she might have heard before on the Tech-casts at home. 

“Now I owe you a favor,” Fulton said as he took the tin in his hand. His eyes fixed on her sincerely, studying her. 

“I did it for your girlfriend, not for you,” Emma said bravely. 

Fulton widened his eyes. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend. This is for someone… in the family.”

Emma nodded silently, unsure of why he had specified. 

From the back of the store ambled her manager, resting her hands in her pockets and with red rimmed eyes. 

“Emma,” she said. The name in her mouth was like an accusation. “I thought we were closed. I tallied the registers.”

“I know, I’m sorry. This customer was still in the store. I… missed him.” She looked at Fulton’s face. He smiled the barest smile, like they shared the most delicious secret between them. 

“We’ll have to add it to your training,” the manager said. 

“I’ll make it up to you,” Fulton promised. He took in her name tag. “Emma. I’ll see you soon.” 

And he left, without taking out any mask or metal, without a single skip in the smooth rise and fall of his pumping lungs. Emma watched his body working until he was fully out of sight. 

————————————————-

Fulton kept his word. Their first date was expensive, the same as the outing after that. He treated her to delicate foods as he courted her and movies at the causeway. He seemed to think she was beautiful, despite her thinning hair and her damaged skin. He promised to deliver a pot of protective cream to her house. When it arrived on the Community Belt, it smelled like lavender and seemed to contain little flecks of shimmer. 

When they first kissed, Emma thought to be careful of his implant. She traced its sub-dermal lines with reverence, pressing her lips faintly against his, until he took her hand and pressed it firmly on his chin, asking her to pull him closer, kiss him harder. 

Fulton promised her she wouldn’t have to work at that lousy job anymore. And she didn’t— he took care of that. She became a hostess at a restaurant in the causeway closest to her home. It tipped well and the men who walked in were often respectful. 

She began to wonder if she was in love. 

It certainly felt like love— her days were all work, walking, eating three ice creams in one day, hearing stories, taking him in. She was always taking him in, a sponge— and her love was like a dust which she breathed irregardless of machinery. That feeling, love, she thought of as a light, a shimmering cloud of spores or particles. It felt different in her body than her dying lungs. It started somewhere near her ribcage and proceeded to fill her whole chest like a vessel. And then it collected, until it formed its own vortex, as in a wind tunnel, which gripped her heart and pulled it straight towards Fulton.

More importantly, he seemed to love her too. He made love to her on the small folding bed in her bedroom, always gentle. He could last longer than she could; the heaving would set in, and she’d have to catch her breath in a small ball on the bed. He often told her he wished he could give her his cannula. 

As the months went by this dream became something like a promise. Emma felt Fulton’s ribcage with a fervid desire, feeling his body as she kissed him as if she could reach through the bones and extract the lungs he carried so thoughtlessly every day. She tried not to obsess about it. But her mother was in her mind— coughing. 

Five months since she’d become Fulton’s lover, Emma began coughing too. More than usual. More than ever. Bad news. 

The doctor Fulton had ordered to examine her was tight-lipped and dour. He told them, “the damage must stop compounding.” 

But how could the damage stop compounding, when the whole world got worse each day, bit by bit by bit? 

“I need the implant,” Emma told him. They were naked in her bed. She’d never gotten to see his home. 

“I wish you could,” he responded. 

Emma’s heart boiled and jumped. She felt jagged. 

“Why can’t I? You said your whole family got them. I know they’re too much, too much for you or me to pay for on our own, but if we ask your parents— if we pool our resources—” 

“What resources?” Fulton snapped. “You have nothing to pool.” 

Emma shuddered. Tears began to run in rivulets down her cheeks. 

“When we met, you promised you’d help me. You knew where I came from.” 

Fulton nodded, rolling to guard his body from her on the bed. “My parents don’t have money anymore.” 

“What do you mean?”

“They’re poor.” 

Emma felt like laughing. Poor. Poor was a joke to Fulton. Fulton didn’t know what that word meant.

“I love you,” she said. She meant it deeply. She meant it with the deep strong hope she’d had when her mother was in the death ward, and Emma bargained with her to hold on. 

“I love you,” Fulton said softly, and Emma’s heart rose. This was the moment. He’d understand. He’d get over his guilt or shame at asking his parents for help, and he’d see the necessity of it all. They had to get Emma into surgery. They had to, or there would be no Emma left. 

“So?” she said hopefully. 

Fulton turned to stare at her. 

“What do you mean? I love you, so? So what? I love you!”

“I love you too,” she encouraged. Her eyes were wide and manic. “I love you so much.

You were the answer I needed. You can finally save me, Fulton!”

He began to cry. She’d never seen him cry like this. 

“I can’t. Emma, I want to, but I can’t. We haven’t been making money for months. They’re going to be pushed out of the neighborhood soon. There are signs on the doors.” 

“That can’t happen. It can’t happen overnight. Your family is made of money.” 

“Dad made a bad investment. They’re in denial, but Emma, I knew you’d understand! Out of all of the people in my life you’re the only one who wouldn’t hate me for this.” 

But he was wrong. She did hate him. And her hate drew on the same strangling roots which had sought to cling to her mother, which had sought to cling to Fulton’s medicine. She felt acute loss in equal parts to her acute wanting. 

She stood up from the bed and pulled a dress on. She attempted to stop shivering. 

“I don’t understand why you’d do this,” Emma said. Her voice was low. The vessel in her chest that was made for him felt very, very empty. 

“Emma?” Fulton looked up at her with big doe eyes. Lying eyes. They’d been feeding her promises for months. In fact, they’d given her false hope on that very first night— when he let her feel his life-giver, and then forced her fingers away. 

“I love you,” Fulton said again. His chest was moving quickly. Well-oiled, ill used. 

Emma shook her head and stared at the long bump where she knew her answer lived, somewhere tempting— just beneath his skin. 

Run, Wabbit, Run

“Gee, I hope it didn’t hurt too much when I killed you, Mister Wabbit.” 

The voice ripples through the empty apartment; filling the space as an alarm would, each following silence feeling like it rings. There are few other sounds to compete. The sound of a clock with a decaying battery: more like a tut… tut… than a tick, tick. The slightest rubbing sound as the curtains inch against the wall. The window is cracked open a thumb’s length.

“I hope you can hewp me mister game warden,” the television says, and the shadows on the walls move like swimmers.

In the kitchen are bare countertops with no crumbs or dirty dishes. On the fridge, nothing of personal note. A newspaper clipping fixed with yellowing tape advertises a sale on sofas. A printed notice warns of preventative maintenance, scheduled for December 9th, 2063.

And in the next room, a portion of a sofa can be seen. Not the same sofa in the advertisement, mind you, but a comfortable and weathered one. No one is sitting on the sofa. There are no cups on the table. Only the items which would have proven most cumbersome to move have been allowed to stay. Important items; still, like the lamp with the hand-painted shade, but in a rush even these must be sacrificed.

The television with its garish colors is a forgotten detail. It has been playing old cartoons for a number of days. The cartoon imagines and re-imagines a caricature of a chase: the stumpy old hunter with the little legs, and the quick-witted rabbit who outsmarts him. And in this moment; we see that the rabbit has not been killed at all- it is bounding away from the useless instrument which is the old man’s musket.

Retreating from the living room brings one towards the doorway. There are no shoes lined up on the mat, although a hint of muddy bootprints remains; hastily scrubbed.

It’s funny, the preparation which a man can put into his own departure.

Knowing that you were to die; why wipe the countertops? Why clear the dishes from the TV room, wash them, and place them back onto shelves? Knowing that no one in particular will care to inherit it, why pack the silver bowl into papers and carry it away? And why, during a quick but thorough exit, would the television have been left on? 

These details fall upon an array of curious eyes, which peer from a spot just past the doorframe, swiveling about but never daring to venture inside. No one has thought to find the remote and silence the parade of re-runs. Perhaps they can’t be blamed for being a little afraid, considering the circumstances of his death.

The thought is enough to make the blood run cold, although no one could ever admit it. All it takes is three nominations, and then the laborious process can begin.

There are reviews, and letters, and juries. There is an entire period of observation which is broadcast to the parties involved. There are random checks and independent verifications, and finally, many forms which require many notarized signatures. Perhaps they make the process so drawn out because they hope the applicants will lose heart. But it’s been rare to start this without finishing.

Most commonly it happens to abusive fathers. When he has three children or more, it’s easy. The siblings weigh the pros and cons as a united front: debating the morality, the costliness, the logistics. And should they decide to nominate their father for death, they have each other to lean on during the process. One feels bad for the girls who nominate their rapists. There have been cases where a disgruntled roommate had to be found, or a bitter ex lover, or the cop who originally booked him. To sign these papers in the company of strangers must be burdensome.

And at the end of the day, it’s not their immortal souls which the applicants are concerned with. It’s not murder, after all. There are no electrical chairs or needles full of slow-acting compounds. There could never be a firing squad, no, the law is not meant to be regressive. Once the deceased is notified, they have twelve hours to pack, and arrive at the government to be handled.

It’s commonly believed that while death is the name it’s been given, the result is more of a relocation. It is known, quantitatively, that the deceased’s absence will be better for everyone.   Children can begin to forget the guilt and shame involved in ignoring their long-condemned parents, and victims can live without the fear of meeting their abusers around every corner. It’s been guessed that the government owns an island in the far east that’s been remodeled for this purpose. Of course, the mechanics are not the public’s business. But why else would the deceased be allowed to bring along their belongings? Regardless, the process is thorough. There are no tricks or illusions, no way to evade the result. No one has ever been reported to be seen again, after.

Soon this man’s assets will be liquified and donated to the charity of the applicants’ choice. But knowing nothing about him, it is fun to peer into his doorway, trying to pick apart the reason why he was not wanted. There are more than one set of eyes. Word has spread and the neighbors have been offering coffee. It’s a bit tasteless- one of them tried to charge.

The people at the doorway look at his sofa, his refrigerator, his hand-painted lampshade. They try not to find anything to which they relate. They watch the rabbit running, and think of cartoons with disdain.

Two Strings

B: “We’d have to drill holes through the ceiling.”

A: “Well, that does it then.”

B: “Don’t be like that.”

A: “No, holes in the ceiling!

B: “Darling. Imagine.”

A: “I do imagine. A bit of sawdust, an easy patch-job. Unless you’d rather fly to Mexico. Their ceilings must already have the holes.”

B: “Nonsense. You think they walk around all day skipping over holes? They drill them, once the woman is pregnant.”

A: “What’s wrong with two little holes?”

B: “Imagine, if your toe slips inside!”

A: “A broken toe! Think of my vagina.”

B: “It won’t be broken, darling.”

A: “You ask the doctor, then. She said it may be torn all the way to my asshole.”

B: “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

A: “I want a little empathy.”

B: “This goes beyond empathy. It’s not about empathy. It’s about revenge.”

A: “I think it’s a beautiful custom. And the men in Mexico never think of it as punitive.”

B: “Of course they don’t. I wouldn’t say a bad word about anyone if I had my balls in a noose!”

A: “That’s ridiculous. It’s voluntary. They agree, and then they place their balls in the noose.”

B: “My brother thinks you’re crazy. He thinks I should leave you.”

A: “Ah, yes. The endlessly wise Mitchell. Leave your wife at nine months pregnant over a ceremonial practice.”

B: “I almost cried when I described it to him. I couldn’t get the words out. I felt ashamed, Astrid.”

A: “Let me hear what you told him.”

B: “What?”

A: “I want to hear how you put it to him. You didn’t even give it a chance, did you?”

B: “It’s quite straightforward, isn’t it? You want to rip my balls off every time you have a contraction.”

A: “I knew it.”

B: “What?”

A: “If that’s what you said to him, of course he hates it.”

B: “What’s to love, where’s the—”

A: “—if you only took care when you told people, explained the history. Women and men have been choosing this custom since before the Aztecs built their golden temples, when births were natural and the sky was clean and all around the couple were trees and…”

B: “We can have a natural birth. Darling, let’s have a natural birth. We can plop you right down in a meadow and make sure there’s lots of soft ferns and, I don’t know, let’s cut the umbilical cord with an arrowhead.”

A: “Don’t patronize me.”

B: “I’m sorry. Baby, I didn’t mean that. But let’s… let’s have that natural birth you want. Whatever you want. Did you think about water?”

A: “Yes, and have my baby’s first sensation be drowning.”

B: “Our baby.”

A: “I know. But that’s the whole point. The Huichol people use this as a way to acknowledge and honor paternal responsibility. It’s stopped infidelity, it’s reduced teenage pregnancy—”

B: “You don’t trust me.”

A: “Why would you say that?”

B: “You said it first. It’s about infidelity, is it?”

A: “No, don’t get defensive. I hate it when you—”

B: “I’m not. I’m not defensive. I’m scared for us. Do you think I’ll leave you?”

A: “Of course not.”

B: “Okay.”

A: “But you might.”

B: “Baby?”

A: “Once we have our kid. I mean, we don’t know what will happen.”

B: “Yes I do.”

A: “We can’t know.”

B: “I do. We’re going to be parents. We’re going to love each other. That’s it.”

A: “And what if… we don’t?”

B: “Don’t… have our kid?”

A: “Don’t love each other.”

B: “Do you—”

A: “Of course I love you. I’m not saying that. I just mean that everything will be different. Our lives will be upside down and we’ll be tired all the time, and we’ll fight, and we won’t have sex again. All of my friends have been telling me. And my mother, she’s like a direct dial line to my dismal future. When she had my sister, her vagina actually ripped—”

B: “Don’t tell me that. Astrid. You need to stop.”

A: “I- I mean, it’s true, we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought—”

B: “Darling. Wait. You’re spiraling. You need to stop letting them get to you.”

A: “It’s not all in my head, if that’s what you think.”

B: “That’s not what I’m saying. I just know that you’re so afraid, when you don’t need to be. You can’t think about those things. This is going to be the most wonderful—”

A: “Well it’s not happening to you, is it? It’s not happening to your body.” Her hands were on her chest. There was plaintive silence.

B: “Astrid.”

A: “I can’t recover from this. I will never be the same.”

B: “I know.”

A: “But you… you could walk away.”

B: “I couldn’t.”

A: “You wouldn’t. Because I know you. Because you’re a good man. But you could. And if you wanted to, you could start a new life, as if none of it had ever happened. You wouldn’t have the scars. Your penis would work just as well. You wouldn’t risk the depression or the psychosis…”

B: “That’s very rare. Darling. That’s not gonna happen to you.”

A: “Alright.”

B: “You’re right. It’s not fair. You’re right.”

A: “I’m just… afraid.”

B: “Come here.”

They whispered.

B: “You know that pulling on my balls isn’t going to make me stay with our family. It won’t be the thing that makes me a father. That’s… that’s going to be me. And trust.”

A: “I trust you. I trust you, but I can still have fear, can’t I?”

B: “Yes.”

A: “I love you.”

B: “Would the… would the ceremony make you feel better?”

A: “I’m not sure. I just like it.”

B: “We’ll do it. Then we’ll both be afraid together.”

A: “But I know that’s awful. I don’t want to make you feel pain, when you don’t have to.”

B: “You have to.”

A: “Yes, I do.”

B: “So we’ll do it together.”

A: “What if I… ruin you?”

B: “I don’t know. You won’t, will you?”

A: “I hope not. I don’t know exactly what’s safe.”

B: “Oh, god.”

A: “I mean, we’ll find out! I promise, we’ll be careful about it.”

B: “What have I done?”

A: “If only you knew, that day you kissed me…”

B: “I think it would still be worth it.”

A: “Do you mean it? We’re really doing this?”

B: “I mean it. Don’t let me change my mind.”

A: “Trust me, I won’t.”

B: “How kind of you.”

A: “My love. I can’t believe this is happening.”

B: “We need to stop talking about it, before I think it all through.”

A: “No, not that.”

B: “What then?”

A: “The kid.”

B: “The kid.”

A: “Ours.”

They looked at each other in contented disbelief. They laced their fingers together.

Best Mai Tai in L.A.

The bell on the front door chimed and a man walked in- he didn’t belong there. It was a nice lobby, temperature regulated by soft swirls of conditioned air. Everything smelled a little like chamomile. There were no cracks between its windows or doors- inside there was only silence, and a measured darkness which provided respite from the flashing fly reels swarming incessantly outside.

The man had fat shoulders and a big neck. Despite his brutish appearance, an expression of unsettling pleasantness was plastered across his face. It was difficult to trust that this sweating man with hands quite capable of delivering a fatal blow could indeed be a paying customer.

But, as the young man behind the counter reasoned, trust was a prerequisite for any business transaction. So he slid his thumb off of the button which would summon two guards through the sliding door.

“Beautiful place,” the customer said with a great grin on his face. He strode right up to the counter and placed his meaty hands on top of it.

The young man took it as an insult. “Can I help you?”

“You own the place?”

“No. Imagination Incorporation is an international company. But I’m one of the designers.”

“Designer, huh?” The thick man stopped fiddling with the complimentary Endispenser on the counter and looked up. “You’re one of the engineers.”

The clerk nodded, nervous. “We have more endorphins in the back if you want,” he said, and put his hand possessively over the little tin machine. “This is out.”

The customer grinned again. “Nah. I’m not here to get happy.”

——————————————————————————————————————————

These things just got nastier and nastier.

The customers came with ideas- bare bones fantasies that Rand was supposed to write out. They wanted to fuck everything. They wanted to reinvent slavery. They wanted to heft a machine gun in a room full of their old friends and bullies. They came with ideas so specific and deranged that it took months of research to even understand what they might look like.

Rand understood, he did. In fact, he liked the challenge. But not today- not when his head was pounding with this Synth shit someone pawned off on him the night before.

Today, Rand was simply tired. He longed for the old clients, back at the beginning of I.I., who’d come in and request a beach. A nice, easy beach vacation with a topless swim instructor and a couple dozen swaying palm trees. Everything about it was so classic- the individually rendered granules of sand, the tang of the tropical Mai Tai- (better liked than any real one; they never knew which drink they actually wanted to order). He knew the point was for I.I. to imagine things for them, but, come on. A whole world of digital hedonism at their fingertips and they kept on picking the beach.

His disdain made it easier for Rand to keep scrolling through the intake form in front of him. Based on the image enclosed, he’d assumed something brutish alright. The guy was big and ugly and dressed like a Shafter from the UnderLA. He thought, okay, incest. Little girl kidnapping. Maybe, on the other hand, some sort of romance with a thin and pretty reel star- the kind of soft, sweet girl he’d never get in real life. But raping was old hat by then, more unoriginal than the Bahamas. This was some other thing.

Rand pulled up his canvas and slapped a little flier together.

FEMALE SURVIVOR? SPEAK YOUR TRUTH TO HELP US MAKE YOUR SISTERS MORE SAFE.”  

    He pasted the I.I. logo to the top and regarded it, satisfied. He thought it was a nice way to put it.

He sent the flier out through his corporate channel and it got greenlit immediately- another perk of seniority. That night his ad was plastered across the sky, the ground, the buildings. He gleefully anticipated how many responses he’d get from the UnderLA- the women there were guaranteed to be qualified- and better yet, their entire bodies doubled as adspace.

——————————————————————————————————————————

It had been exactly three years. Exactly, she knew, because it was an easy day to remember. Minutes after it had finished she had staggered towards the nearest store, desperate to get her hands on any sort of hurt spray. Her biometrics were read by the automatic trigger at the door. Two tinny voices were still telling her “Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday!” as she paid.

She thought perhaps that it would be too soon to tell someone else- after all, her rapist was still living in that same sector, her sector. In fact, she thought their buildings might have affronted the same street. That was the disturbing part about it- it hadn’t even happened in one of the Unders. Not that the things which happened down there were any less wrong.

She introduced herself at their front desk as Paige Strafe and was given a little name tag to affix to her blouse. She felt nervous, but there was a reason she had come.

The ad she had read in a supermarket had somehow given her hope. It was like she would have a place in deciding what happened to other women, later. Like she could protect them somehow. She had no delusions about being able to go back in time and protect herself. But there was also the money to be had.

“Paige.” A man in a smart shirt and faded jeans greeted her. “I’m Rand. I’m the one in charge of this project. I’d like to start by getting you wired. What do you say?”

    Wired. That was a bit more than she had bargained for. “What is that for?”

“The cameras are for creating a living record of survivor’s experiences, like yours. We need to be able to feel the experience viscerally so that we can make people understand what happened to you. It’s the only way we might prevent people from acting out like this in the future.”

He hadn’t answered her question. The electrodes were being stuck to her head, and a wire got wrapped around her ear. It felt cool, and she might have imagined it, but she felt the subtle thrill of electricity.

“Will I be able to see it, after it’s finished?”

“You might,” Rand murmured. “Sometimes these things get stuck in production.”

Her heart halted a little, but they were having her lean back in a chair, and she had already signed a mountain of paperwork.

——————————————————————————————————————————

He wasn’t lying to her. Some subscribed to the theory that allowing people to live out their violent fantasies in simulation would prevent them from committing those acts in real life. For the old ladies, the Imaginings were escapes. For the rapists (and everybody had a little bit of rapist in them), Imaginings were outlets. Preventative measures. Therapy, you could say.

That was the stance I.I. always took when it came to the legal proceedings. The opposition said that these fantasies only conditioned violent people to become more violent. And Rand could see that too- that after experiencing a taste of what some horrible thing could be, Joe Customer would want it even more. He’d feel validated in his sick desire. It could go either way, truly. And the tech hadn’t been around long enough for there to be any serious studies on it. That was to be expected. There were never any studies until after the damage had already been done.

But this wasn’t Rand’s concern. A job was a job, wasn’t it? The women who sold their stomachs and thighs as uplinked adspace, or traded their sex for money and credits, they were just doing their job. The doctors who turned away cash strapped customers knowing full well they’d die- they were just doing their job. And the lawyers who took bribe money to keep the Unders the Unders and the rest the rest- they had jobs to do themselves. They worked long and hard at it, the same way Rand did. He put in the hours to make the best product he could make.

That was the whole purpose of this macabre interview. Rand widened his legs around his stool. That was the reason Paige was here today. In the interest of being thorough. In the pursuit of his flawless record- the highest satisfaction rate for authentic Imaginings I.I. had ever seen. It took hours, it took work. Rand was proud of himself.

“Now try to remember what it felt like in the moment he took off his pants,” Rand said. Paige had been forthcoming with the setting. She had described her clothes (“not for the purpose of judgement, but to give merit to the whole truth”), the weather, her thoughts as she walked through her neighborhood that day. Her fear as she felt she was being followed, by someone she couldn’t identify. Her eyes being covered as she was pushed against a wall- and the rest- the best- they were almost to it. She’d been distressed, even outlining this. Deliciously distressed. The wires fed panic straight from her brain through his console and into his delicate rendering. This would be a challenge, for sure, but a masterpiece.

Paige opened her eyes. “It wasn’t a man,” she told him.

Rand stopped. He looked at her cute lips, he’d been staring at them, and he stared now as if he’d seen a glitch.

“Say that again,” Rand said.

“It wasn’t a man. My attacker. She was a woman. The woman from my neighborhood.”

“What do you mean, a fucking woman?” Rand cried. He ran his hands through his hair. A woman?? He was wracking his brain. The whole point of this digitized mindfuck was to get his customer off. The man was a violent criminal in real life- he’d admitted so in his intake form.  He appreciated seeing his victims’ pain. And what he wanted most now- what he was willing to pay forty years in cash and credits for- was to understand how he’d made those women feel. It was his new dream. To feel their mounting terror beat by beat. And to pat himself on the back, after, for being the one to impose it.

“I don’t understand,” Paige said, sitting up. “Why is that a problem?”

“I guess I should’ve been more specific. I guess I should have specified on the goddamn flier. But it’s not like I could spring for that many characters, is it?”

“Give me back those papers,” Paige narrowed her eyes. “I want to look at what I signed.”

“You signed, I pay you, you fuck off, I come back tomorrow and do it all again,” Rand snarled. “Whatever. Go home now.”

“Why are you doing this?” She demanded. He hadn’t noticed when she’d snatched the electrodes off from her hair. There were wires dangling and pieces ripping. The bitch. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted I.I. to do some charitable project. You people are nothing but criminal enablers, aren’t you? Jerking off and working ‘round the clock to push us all back towards lawlessness!”

“Yes, well, I’m sorry you feel that way,” Rand barely looked at her. He was busy folding up components, hard drives, his canvas and stylus and notes.

“You will be sorry,” she huffed, and thank god, went back out the door she came in.

——————————————————————————————————————————

Corporate was demanding damage control.

The way Rand saw it, it wasn’t a big deal.

That girl Paige Strafe had leaked her “traumatic experience” to the press, and the bot streams were crowded with images of I.I.’s tightly shuttered downtown office. But they hadn’t gotten anything. There was no traction, no real story, and the whole thing would fizzle out before Rand’s high even wore off.

Yes, it was despicable. But there were things more despicable than soliciting rape survivors to relive their assaults under false pretense. There were, and Rand knew them intimately. One only had to look at his vault of Imaginings.

The power has gone out in my Spanish apartment

The power has gone out in my Spanish apartment. The lights are off, the cords are not charging anything, the elevator has stalled, and inside the fridge, the strawberries are molding faster by small increments, waiting for small wisps of room-temperature air to seep in.

In the hallways I hear the echoing clangs of dissatisfied Spaniards, opening their doors, stepping into the hallway and finding that there is no one there, who would, perhaps, attend to the problem, and, satisfied in their dissatisfaction, going back inside. I hear them clang again every few minutes. But perhaps they are only looking for neighbors to lament with, as it is our common experience. I admit that I myself voyaged out, barefooted, to stubbornly press the elevator button again and again and see that it did not light up.

Outside it has started raining.

I wonder how many of my neighbors are also awake at almost-midnight, how many besides the dissatisfied Clangers. How many are shocked at the timing of the weather.

When the lights come on, maybe 40 minutes later, it scares me more than the first time.

I tuck myself out of bed and go to check on the ice cream.

Shudder

When he died, it was on a corner near a dozing shopping mall, half-shelled and hulled of its meat, its people, filled only with caged storefronts and empty vats for melting cheese. The lights on the street-side had been dim for years but in morning they were nearly transparent. That morning he stood, and waited, with the lights to his back. He wanted someone to get there.

The whole thing had happened so early that it seemed it was the earliest it ever would be. I mean, it seemed like that hour had been specifically set aside for his death. Nothing else breathed or moved in the world at that time. There was only Andrew, and the car.

I don’t waste spare moments contemplating the mode, the method, operandi, operatory. It is easy enough to assume. Yes, there was alcohol. Yes, there was sidewalk. Yes there was blood on sidewalk yes there was.

That’s not what’s important here.

Okay?

I know what important things are.

For instance, I loved him- you could call that “important.” I loved him in a way that made my life different; and changed the shape of my body. I could feel the cavernous hole in my chest getting bigger to take in more love for him. I could feel it getting bigger and bigger, sucking my blood vessels into a whirlpool with a big wet smacking POP.

My love wasn’t a bad thing, though. It just took a lot,

and was very large.

Alright?

 

Andrew was known for his stories.

He was a writer in a way I never could be, always twisting and yarning and crafting his words. He loved to say we were different people, like the two scientists who were responsible for learning how to grow lima beans in space. Don’t ask me how he came up with this stuff.

One moment, it would just occur to him.

“Casp!” he’d say, “We’re inventors. We invented the first bendable stovepipe and now we’re millionaires!”

I’d laugh, and kiss his forehead, and speak with a fancy rich accent for the rest of the day. Our imaginations were the best part of us; they took us through a lot. I liked that he could always be in love with me, no matter what we did or where we lived or which millionaires we were that day. There was something comforting about pretending to be someone else. Maybe it was like falling in love with him all over again, each time.

Our sex became stories, too. The dueling warlords who fought with their cocks, the professor and the schoolboy. There were times when I missed the two of us, but it was almost easier that way. Our stories were exciting. Our lives could sometimes be plain.

What struck me through all this, though, was the time Andrew talked about his grave.

“I’m not shuddering, Casper, I’m shivering. I just get that sometimes.”

“You don’t have to have a seizure every time. You freak me out when you do that.”

“You know how they say when you shiver, it’s someone walking on your grave?”

“I guess.”

Andrew’s eyes started to sparkle, his writerly hands on my shoulders, he said “I think I’m going to have a very popular grave.”

He meant that he was going to be famous, of course. He saw hordes of pilgrims winding up a mountain road, bringing well-loved copies of his books and leaving tokens by his headstone. He saw generations of readers and literature-lovers kneeling in the soft dirt of his burial mound until it was reduced to sand and then dust. He thought maybe his place of death would be a point of interest, someday. I loved the way he could think.

It didn’t turn out that way, obviously. He was cremated, so I guess you could say his grave was where he died: where the wooden roadside cross sat spiked into the grass for exactly 27 days before it broke apart or disappeared. It was that corner, where he waited for a friend, where a friend just up and killed him. It got built over.

The drowsy mall became a vacant lot and the vacant lot became condos, and when the condos went decrepit they put trees and a park there instead. The park was slowly invaded by biking paths that became road crossings and a new mall was built around them, this time with elevators like drive-through bank tubes and shiny stainless counters over which passed melted cheese. It’s a busy place, a popular place, that brings new money into the neighborhood. There is no grass to spike in American flags, wreaths, or photos.

I miss him all the time so I go there, anyway. I buy the soft pretzel with a lemonade and cross the street to sit on a bench. The people passing are reading trashy novels and probably only smoke out of rigid pipes; they traipse back and forth all day and into the early morning. They stream into the mall and out again, and in, and out.

I wish it didn’t turn out this way. I am reminded that it’s really hard to love someone.

Andrew’s grave, it turns out, is a crosswalk.