We had been in the backyard too long, longer than anyone could call a break, so what perhaps had started that way, a workday paused, had now become something else, an attempt to avoid not only our deadline but also all the deaths we couldn’t make sense of, and we were drinking drinking drinking but it was like the alcohol was broken, it didn’t work, Joanna had a theory about why but I was more troubled by the garden looking odd, because I knew with confidence—knew in my bones, as Jerome used to say—that this oddness had nothing to do with the wine, that something was wrong with the plants too, now, but Joanna wouldn’t see it, didn’t want to see it, and maybe I didn’t either—I certainly hadn’t been paying attention to that sort of thing for some time, we’d decided to ignore the death epidemic for as long as we could—and then after a long silence she started talking about orgasms of all things, said That’s the one good thing about PMS, my orgasms are so strong from those hormones, said It’s not just me, is it, I think it’s women, all women, that’s what our bodies do, or maybe it’s God’s way of making it up to us for everything that sucks so bad about it all, it’s the silver lining of turning into a blood factory every month, a gift God invented so we don’t decide to give up and die. Joanna talked a lot when she felt anxious.
I said Jo, let’s go back inside. The Jacobs will give us so much shit if we’re late. The Jacobs were inflexible. If an employee mentioned a problem, they never asked questions, never made sympathetic sounds. They would look at her with low eyebrows and say When. No question mark. Meaning When will you have the order for us. They knew how to make you hear the low eyebrows if you were on the phone, and the When they said loud, like a bartender yelling Last call. You’d hear them shout and you’d know you were the patron at the back of the bar keeping them from their warm beds, their women, and you understood what this meant: there would be no more chances after this chance you are given. And so you’d make your deadline, to keep your job. There was nothing extraordinary about it, really; the Jacobs were business owners, and this was what people did when they owned a business—they developed the skills required to help their business succeed. If the Jacobs were dancers, maybe they wouldn’t know how to enter another person’s mind and apply pressure. But they were not dancers, the Jacobs. In fact, one of them—the older one, with the beard and bad posture—could hardly move. His neck was stiff. Twisting sideways caused him great pain.
Joanna knew all this but she’s had a way about her since we were little. She likes ignoring reality. She shook her head now. We’re not drunk yet, she said. Like, not at all.
I wanted to say we could get through this job sober, but that would have been a lie. Even in normal times birthday-card jobs were the worst for people like us. Every designer in the company knew it—Birthdays required happiness. Most jobs you could do in a crappy mood, in whatever mood. The Jacobs were trying to bring down Corporate America with creativity, penetrate markets that relied on mass production—a monster, they said, whose only weakness was its failure to be personal—and offer an alternative, a card or a lamp or a shoe that whispered the right words in a person’s ear. We had transcripts that told us what words certain groups and sometimes even individuals wanted whispered—transcripts that cost a fortune and weren’t exactly legally obtained—and as long as we translated them into designs that looked good, into something that wasn’t out there already, the Jacobs were pleased.
But they believed in birthdays, those annual celebrations of the self. Nothing sarcastic, nothing dark, they would say. Keep the funny for other occasions. We worked off a transcript from some hospice once, a support group for the terminally ill. It was hard to tell the laughs from the coughs, but it was clear that most people there were making fun of themselves, and making fun of death. One man said heaven was where you got to bed all the women who’d rejected you in life, so Joanna came up with a series of birthday celebrations in paradise. We didn’t see them as sad cards at all—they were funny and sexy—but the premise was that by your next birthday you’d be dead. The Jacobs rejected it. Use your judgment, they said. Sometimes the transcript is wrong. Birthdays should be happy, and no one is ever happy about death.
It’s not that we had anything against happiness per se. But Joanna and I had grown up in a family that treated sadness as a failure of character. It still infuriated my sister when people asked why she was unhappy. No one ever questions happiness in this country, she would say; no one ever asks happy people to explain the source of their happiness, even though all the studies show that unhappiness is the much more common state. Referring to studies was easier for Joanna than talking about our mother.
I never thought of my sister as less happy than other people; it was just that when she was sad, she seemed more herself. The way I thought of happiness was sometimes you needed it more than other times. For Birthday jobs you needed it, and wine was the shortcut. Back when we were working at the office, we’d sneak in the booze, drink it pressed against each other in the nook behind Jerome’s office. And now that we were working from home—we stopped going in when the deaths started—I found myself missing that small rush.
I’d quit Valentine’s in my early days with the company, and shortly after that I tried to quit Birthdays. Birthdays are for everyone, Jerome said—he was still around then. He always had a special way of saying things, a way that made you repeat his words in your head like they were a little riddle. Meaning no one can ever quit Birthdays? I asked, but instead of replying Jerome just smiled. I knew he felt guilty, though; he always did when he said no to something I wanted. He had such a sweet way about him. I took advantage.
My sister just moved to town, I said. That’s how I got Joanna the job.
Now she was blaming the vegetables again. We’d had a big salad earlier and she thought that was the problem, that we’d eaten too much for the wine to get us drunk. The stupid arugula is soaking up all our happiness, she said. Then she gave me a look. I was munching on a carrot. Happy or not, I told her, we have to hit our deadline.
She closed her eyes and for a second it looked like she was praying. How do you do it, Ave? she asked me. How do you still care?
The way I originally met the Jacobs was that I slept with Jerome. The night was ultimately a failure, and I didn’t think I would see him again; he was a broken man and I’d foolishly tried to fix him. But of course fixing a man is not something you can do in a night, not something you can do with your body. This was before the world had begun to die. Over cornflakes the next morning, he told me about the business he owned along with his brothers and cousins. Is that of interest, he asked.
He disappeared one day, shortly after the deaths started. No one knew where he was, and no one seemed to be looking—not even the other Jacobs. Whenever I asked, they’d say He’ll be back, as if he were out running an errand. I still woke up some nights when the sky had no stars and thought of him, open eyes in the dark.
Isn’t love the most private experience? I’d asked him when I quit Valentine’s. Doesn’t it reveal itself and disappear, heighten and weaken, on different days? This random February date is a celebration of money, I said, the very thing you’re trying to fight. One of the other Jacobs was around and he overheard. You have to conquer capitalism from within, he said, which was the thing they always said in these conversations. I said At the very least, let’s distribute the cards on a different day.
That’s like looking outside and saying Let’s reschedule this snow, Jerome said. So I quit Valentine’s and asked to work Apologies as often as possible; they were my favorite. The other Jacob asked what the deal was with all the women designers and the apology cards, and I said I couldn’t speak for anyone else, but I had a passion for the act of taking responsibility. The truth was I found them the easiest, but I figured the word passion sounded better than the word easy.
It was when we came home from our grandfather’s funeral that we realized people were dying; two of our three neighbors had passed away while we were in Baltimore, and minutes after walking in the door we got a call about a childhood friend of Joanna’s. No one knew the reason for these deaths; there didn’t seem to be one. We thought initially that the epidemic was specific to us, that these people’s passing was a direct result of their knowing us. We hadn’t yet noticed the global nature of the problem. But even when we did, I couldn’t let go of the thought that the whole thing might somehow be our fault. I would obsess over photos of dead strangers, convinced suddenly that this or that person had once taught a kickboxing class I took, had worked at the neighborhood Laundromat, had delivered our food. For a while, I stayed home out of fear that anyone I interacted with would later die. Joanna said I was being unreasonable, delusional. And I supposed she was right, but I asked her anyway: What if we’re somehow Patient One? Or even just otherwise complicit? And instead of investigating our part in things, instead of working toward responsibility, we’re avoiding the streets, telling ourselves Shhh, this death isn’t your fault, global death can’t possibly be your fault.
If we were Patient One we’d be dead, Joanna said. She knew what I meant, but back then she didn’t want to know.
Eventually I started leaving the house again. It seemed at once a defeat and a victory. Joanna seemed angry, though of course she had no reason to be—if anything, she should have been happy. I was engaging with life; she no longer had to run all our errands on her own. But she hadn’t looked happy at all, since I’d reemerged.
On my way to a tax seminar one day—I’d found a seminar titled Post Filing Issues: Answers and Solutions, which were precisely what I needed just then—I ran into my old therapist. She was pregnant, which shocked me. Weren’t analysts supposed to transcend the body? She said Hello, said How’ve you been, said Are you still working at that pool. I’d worked as a lifeguard before I started with the Jacobs, while I was taking design classes. I was still seeing her when I stopped guarding lives, but I guess she forgot. I said No, I’m a designer now, remember? She stared at me for a minute, then nodded. The next day she died. Joanna thought I’d start obsessing again, but I didn’t.
I couldn’t really explain it—these deaths were horrible, of course, but it no longer seemed like I had anything to do with them, or like I could make a difference. I squinted at the plants, trying to force my eyes to see. They weren’t wilting—if anything, they were stretching up a bit too much. Their color was off, a translucent kind of gray. You knew if you touched them they’d turn to nothing. I had to look away.
Back inside the house, Joanna started throwing things. She did that sometimes when she couldn’t shake her sadness any other way. I asked her to stop, which may have been a mistake; I probably should have just started the job on my own. When Joanna did stop, I saw something in her eyes, a flash of light. I want to quit, she said. Tell the Jacobs I quit. That’s unreasonable, I told her, it’s not easy finding a job in this town, what will you do for money? Maybe I’ll go back to dancing, she said, and I tried very hard to keep my face steady; dancing had always been Joanna’s dream, but she’d never gotten very far, and I didn’t see how it could be a source of income. I couldn’t imagine her swaying and jumping for a living.
I’d rather sell my body than work for the Jacobs, she said, and then added, If I can’t dance. As if that made it more reasonable. She seemed serious and it scared me. Sell your body, Jo? I said, and she said Yes, Ave, have sex. Dance. Do anything with my body. That’s the only way to be alive now.
We looked at each other, and I could tell she had something else to say, something that might hurt. I’d known that look before I knew most other things.
You’ve been different, she said. I know, I said, because it was true. Well, then, if you know, Joanna said, but she never finished the thought. Instead she said, Are you still alive, Ave?
When I’d quit Valentine’s, they hired some girl from Scandinavia. People didn’t celebrate Valentine’s there, they said, and what’s better than Valentine’s through the eyes of a foreigner? Such an opportunity, the youngest Jacob kept telling me. Such an opportunity! I felt as though I’d broken up with someone and then he’d called the next day to break up with me. I said I bet she’ll be great, Mr. Jacob. I bet she’ll design cards that will change the world.
You’re a telepathic hairstylist in a small town, and you’re the very best at what you do. See, language is not enough to describe the hairstyle one wants. Photography: almost. Not quite. But when you read the minds of your customers as they strain to explain their preferences or point clumsily at photos of movie stars (Like this but not like this and with some of this from her do you understand what I mean), you feel their desire as plainly as razored Braille against your mind. One thing you learned in beauty school is that a haircut is composed of pure desire.
You’re the best at what you do but you don’t go to New York, Paris, Milan, because those people don’t do what you do. They impose their styles on their clients and it is so egotistical and so rude, to have one’s way with someone’s hair like that—to make them say they like it. You work for your clients, and in this small town, everyone appreciates you. They adore you. They hope you’ll never leave.
But one day, you get a customer who is also telepathic. He’s a man with shoulder-length hair cut into cheesy layers and he says not one word to you as he shows you horrible pictures with his mind. He is a serial killer, and he knows what you are and knows that you know what he is. So the game changes into something you do not like at all. You are packing bags in the middle of the night, you are being chased through endless forests, you are throwing deadly sweep kicks, and all you want to do is keep cutting hair. You don’t remember how to change things back, but you’re saved when you hide out in the back of a game store in a dead mall. You get an opportunity to play another game inside the game, which is something you seriously love—the possibilities! Gratefully, you put on the proffered headset and say *::YES::*.
In this new game, you’ll be playing from the perspective of the Little Sister. Little Sister is a pinch-shouldered, rabbit-toothed girl with tiny hands that look simian when she holds them still. She lives with her parents in Spokane. One of Little Sister’s Big Sisters—the biggest one—has just died. Biggest Sister had been a therapist, and so pregnant you could see it, or no, forget that—you felt like it could see you. Biggest Sister had been so pregnant that baby was not abstract, nor was carrying. Biggest Sister was a lot older than Little Sister, like weirdly older in a way that had to be tiresomely explained in all its complexities each time it came up, even in response to questions that didn’t deserve explanations, questions like, Hey, who was that lady? She was a bit like an aunt to Little Sister, but with an overlay of sisterly embarrassment.
Before Biggest Sister died, she sent a card to Little Sister, who receives the card after Biggest Sister has passed away. It’s a birthday card, which Little Sister figures out only because inscribed on the back is a tiny model number written by hand: #HPBD00023. Little Sister turned sixteen a few months ago. The card is one long piece of ivory cardstock that has been folded many times. When she finishes unfolding it, it is so long that it reaches the floor. She doesn’t understand the message, but maybe she almost does. She re-reads it once or twice. Then backward. Still nothing. Little Sister decides that this card must have been meant for some other birthday. She would have understood it if she were seventeen, or twenty-two, or thirty-one. To you, though, this card will look irritatingly familiar. But shake it off; it’s distracting you from the game.
Little Sister had planned to visit her other sibling, Big Sister, in San Francisco that summer, and despite Biggest Sister’s death, they stick to this plan. Their parents don’t favor Big Sister much; they have lifestyle-related suspicions. But she keeps away, she keeps quiet, and she’s enormously successful in a field they don’t understand. Since Little Sister has been suffering from a malaise, the skin-picking mirror-avoiding bad-grades room-door-closed-always variety, their parents hope a summer in a big city with a successful Big Sister will be a good influence. Little Sister hasn’t seen Big Sister in two years—one Christmas she just couldn’t come home, then another she couldn’t either, until it seemed like that was how it would be for the rest of life.
When Big Sister picks her up at the airport, she says, “I have three things to tell you that you can’t tell our parents,” her voice so sharp and ostentatious that Little Sister winces. Then she says the things in a sensical order while looking straight ahead, chewing the inside of her lips in a troubling way—her mouth clamped closed with the suggestion of great activity happening within, like something fighting to get out of a sack. After a moment, Little Sister says, “Hi, good to see you, too,” and Big Sister relaxes and quits it with the mouth thing and drives on. Little Sister thinks Big Sister looks, if not prettier, better. Clearer. It’s like her features have swum up to the surface to present themselves, like curious, honest little fish, whereas they used to be sullen murk-dwellers, secret-keepers, burrowers. Probably she’s just lost weight. But Little Sister thinks, I want to be there already. I want to be done with this part.
Big Sister is a game designer. At home she teaches Little Sister a term: games contain something called monster closets. Monster closets are those small rooms or areas within the game that definitely contain monsters. Little Sister is impressed that a bunch of bits and bytes could so accurately re-create the sensation of knowing that something hideous is waiting behind a door. (Sometimes Big Sister’s bathroom is a monster closet: the mirror faces the door. She stares at the black-and-white-tiled floor, she stares at the towels, she daren’t flick her eyes up.) When her character stands in front of a monster closet, Little Sister holds her breath. The door seems to bulge and breathe. And then, and then, because you are stupid, and you love fun—you go in.
“Take the goddamn keys,” says Big Sister, about to leave for work. Little Sister refuses. Why go out into the city and have an assortment of good and bad things happen to her until, at best, she returns totally unchanged? It’s so tiring. She could be her same self without all that trouble, right here in Big Sister’s apartment, where there is everything she needs.
Big Sister frowns. She hadn’t been very concerned at first—it’s not like she was so eager to believe anything their parents said about what did or didn’t constitute normal behavior for a teenage girl—but now she’s seen Little Sister and her creepy darting look-nowhere eyes and her bathroom-in-the-dark routine. So she shows Little Sister all of her consoles and games and teaches her how to work everything. “You’d probably learn better without hearing me breathing behind you,” says Big Sister, and walks out. At work that day, Little Sister is a tiny pebble lodged in her brain. She is unable to focus.
Little Sister is terrible at playing games. For the first few hours, she can’t stop dying. The first game she plays has zombies in it, and is so terrifying that she keeps screaming and throwing the controller down each time it becomes clear that her character, a man named Leon, whose blond, streaky hair appears to have been ironed, is about to die.
But Little Sister keeps trying. She plays until her fingers, especially the thumbs, feel warped and permanently cradled around the plastic controller, which is an interesting sensation—the setting in of rigor mortis while she is still, presumably, alive. The controller is huge in her hands; whoever it was made for was someone unlike her. Little Sister gets used to dying. It no longer scares her. Soon the sky outside matches the sky inside the game, dimmed unnaturally by some sadistic designer. Big Sister never comes home. Little Sister calls and calls. Outside, in the street, she hears a thump, then a scratchy slither as something is pulled along the pavement. It’s the sound of something that shouldn’t be moving. She crawls to the window, then strains to grab the wand to close the blinds. The third or even the second thing she thinks is that this is somehow her fault.
Leon is walking down a city street. Under a streetlight, he bends and picks something up. When he holds it up, the card unfolds until it touches the ground.
Remember this even if you turn all your other life lessons to mash, ink these words on your skin where you can see, whisper them like a freak as you walk: nothing is a sign. The Universe isn’t talking to you, Jerome. The Universe—and why do we keep using the singular when anyone with half a brain knows there’s at least a few?—the Universes don’t give a fuck about you. And not only are the Universes not talking to you—no one is talking to you, these days, except yourself.
And whose fault is that? You leave a town where your brothers and cousins and former lovers live, a town where you can run into a person whose toys you used to steal (Mama, Jerome is setting my trucks on fire again!), a town where you’re considered a businessman, a businessman!, though what business have you ever been the man of, Jerome—you leave that town, your hometown, and walk into darkness, as they say, so what do you expect? Loneliness, that’s what. And if loneliness was in fact what you expected, then ka-ching, loud applause, the crowd goes wild: you guessed right!
Except, you’re a silly man, aren’t you? You didn’t think you’d be lonely. Because you’re not one to think things through. Your father always said that (That boy, he lead with his heart), and he wasn’t wrong. You are a silly man who believes in signs. Signs! The Universes, they talk to you. They send Leon to you in the night and Leon has a map, and the next day at the office that girl Avery puts a map up in her cubicle, hangs it with pins, laminated blue on plywood, and by God, it’s the same fucking map. You ask her Hey, Avery, what’s that? and she says I don’t know. The most opinionated girl you’ve ever met, and that’s what she says to you. She’s got words for everything, which is why you slept with her that first night (or tried to sleep with her, who are we kidding)—because you like that kind of confidence on a girl (you’re supposed to say woman) and because you can’t tell confidence from verbosity sometimes. You saw your mistake so clearly the next morning—no confident woman would sit in your kitchen like that, sloped and small, apologizing, blaming herself for your failure.
Why you hanging it up then, Ave, you ask her, if you don’t know what it is? And she shrugs. That’s what she does—she shrugs and walks away, goes to the bathroom or to that supply closet behind your office where she and her sister spend most of their time. So you look around. The office seems empty enough. You approach, you look up close. There are no street names on the map, and you knew there wouldn’t be, because it’s super clear by now that this is just like the dream, this is the dream, it is the dream incarnate. The tip of your index finger wants to touch the map and you let it, even though you’re thinking of the Phantom Onlooker again, your reliable buddy, the man you always imagine watching you, the man you sometimes sense is watching you, and what would he say? He’d say You look like you want to fuck a map, Jerome. You look like you want to fuck a fucking map, and you seem sad that the map isn’t returning your passion, but son, this time it truly isn’t your fault, because, you see, how to put it, this is an inanimate object.
You are still touching the map. You are enamored. Because this, to you, is Leon. Or to be exact, and this is where you get into trouble, this to you is a sign—a sign that you should follow Leon. Ever since he took off—went underground, as he put it, which seemed ridiculously, unnecessarily dramatic at the time—your brain has been a pendulum. Click, clack. Click says go after him. You a man, Jerome? Because a man doesn’t let his older brother treat him like a character in one of his fucking video games. Why are you always so scared of Grayson? Be a man, and tell him your secret to his face. Tell him you’ve loved his best friend your whole damn life. Tell him Leon loves you back—no Maybe, no We spent two beautiful nights together, none of that—and tell him you know in your bones that he got it wrong, that Leon is no traitor. Spit in his face when he calls you a faggot. Then take off.
Clack says if you go underground, you will die.
So you click clack until the click clack gets so loud that you can’t hear when people are talking to you. And at some point you stop seeing, too, because all your eyes can see is the whiteness of Leon’s apartment that last night—walls and floors and ceilings made a thousand times whiter by the absence of furniture—when you stood by his unlocked door, certain, until you heard his voice, that he was gone. (Hands in the air, he barked, and you obeyed but whispered Leon, it’s me, it’s me, it’s me.) You are now de facto deaf and blind about 70 percent of the time and Grayson corners you one day, says What the fuck is going on, Jerome? and when you don’t answer he punches you in the face. When your back meets the ground (That boy, every hit knock him out) Grayson’s voice turns soft. There’s nothing new about it—it’s a tenderness you’ve known since boyhood, a tenderness you think of as serial-killer gentle. What’s gotten into you, little brother?
What a lucky thing it was, that merely hours later you got your sign! Finally the click clack stops and you are packing bags in the night, running through endless forests even though no one is chasing you—not that you know of, not yet—because that’s how people go underground. You have no idea what to do except run, and you pray that an answer will find you before dawn. Ridiculously, your eyes keep searching for a secret staircase, a freight elevator at the end of an alley—something that would transport you underground—but of course you are in the woods and for a long time there’s nothing but trees and blackness. To calm your nerves, you tell yourself that things must eventually work out; why would you have been given such an omen, otherwise? Maybe soon you will overcome some danger; maybe swords will be involved, or a special potion—you do wish you’d paid more attention to Grayson and Leon’s video games, because this here looks an awful lot like what you’ve seen on their screens—and when you triumph your reward will be road names manifesting on the map you are clutching, a blinking arrow pointing in the right direction, leading you to your man.
It doesn’t happen quite that way. There are no conquests or magical props. But you do eventually find Leon, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he finds you.
He had heard rumors that you were here—that a manboy with fire-colored hair and round cheekbones was looking for him—but he didn’t believe it, and so when he sees you he shakes his head, astonished. Does he say What the hell? It’s possible that he says What the hell. You try to kiss him but he’s quick to block you, his fingers between your faces, nails dark with dirt. He leads and you follow, and there’s no sweetness, only urgency. You are walking-running down moonless roads and even though this is a dangerous place and you can barely see and the ground is slippery, you feel safe because that’s how you always feel with Leon. But when he finally stops he says you shouldn’t have come. We’ll both die if you stay, he says. He looks at you as if he’s trying to decide how much to say, or perhaps to gauge how much you know.
You don’t know anything. You mumble something and he interrupts, says Grayson… and pauses, so that for a second it seems like he’s called you by your brother’s name. But then he says He’s up to no good. And you want to say No shit, Leon. This is something you heard everywhere, growing up: Your brother Grayson, he’s up to no good. But of course Leon was always right there with him, and in fact often people said These boys, they’re up to no good, which always made you want to defend the one who wasn’t your brother, even back then, because although you knew these people weren’t wrong about Grayson, that there was something missing from his heart, you also knew that Leon was different.
You must know, Leon is saying, you wouldn’t come here otherwise, and it seems that he’s talking to himself. You want to share all your thoughts with him, but you are a slow thinker and a slower talker, so instead you ask Know what? and he gives you a look like this is some game you’re playing. About Grayson, he says. About the cards.
What you need right now is to stop talking. You didn’t realize that you had this need, but now you do, and it is very strong. Could you go somewhere and rest? you want to ask. Is there anywhere around here where two men can lie down and hold each other? Maybe you ask, maybe you don’t. You can’t be sure, because you’ve retreated into your mind again. But eventually Leon’s voice brings you back; the words are wrong, they must be wrong, because they are terrible, terrible words. The cards, Leon says, are killing people.
He can see in your face now that he was wrong—that there’s no game, that you know nothing about this. He touches your shoulder. Grayson finally figured it out, he says, found a way to be clean. Grayson has the word clean tattooed on the back of his neck; you ask if that’s what Leon meant. He squints at you, shocked by your ignorance. Everyone knows what clean means, he says, and for a minute it seems that this will be the end of the story. But then he says, It means killing someone without leaving a trace.
You are lost when Leon leaves you that night.
It occurs to you that this thing that’s wrong with Grayson might be genetic. Because you could have gone back aboveground, of course—gone to the police, turned Grayson in, worked to save lives. But you didn’t. What if Leon came looking for you and you were gone?
You live in a place where there’s no daylight, where you have to fight for food. You have lost a lot of weight. This is a city of strangers, and you are a lonely man.
See yourself in the office that day, a lifetime ago. Avery leaves and you walk over to the map. You touch it and you feel Leon calling for you. It’s okay to feel. But then, look here: you turn around. You walk away. You are a man who knows that signs don’t exist, a man who knows what to do when his mind gets too loud. You walk away and you call your therapist, and when she doesn’t answer, you leave a message. You say, I need help.
Patricia was telling us about some restaurant but I wasn’t listening very well because food didn’t interest me; it was such a waste of time considering what you got. Did you ever hear that thing the singer from the Sex Pistols said about love, how it was only two minutes and fifty-two seconds of squelching noises? I know: terrible. But it was that way, for me, with food. I tried those meal-replacement shakes once, but just because I didn’t particularly care about eating, it didn’t mean I thought it was okay to ingest something actively horrible-tasting. I thought I deserved a little better than that.
“You have to insert it in the bathroom, though, which is a little inconvenient,” said Patricia.
“Wait, what?” I said. “What in the bathroom?”
Patricia was the only person I had ever met who never got angry when she had to repeat herself. It was because she had low self-esteem and she loved talking and she loved me. We had been those ardent, inseparable friends-since-childhood, destined to grow apart once one of us worked at Arby’s and gave her first handjob while the other one went away to gifted summer camp and gave her first handjob or once we went to different colleges or dated men and women whom our counterpart considered drips and dictators and turkeys, except none of that came to pass. Patricia never had enough time away from me; she never developed any antibodies. I, on the other hand, had my time away from Patricia when she spent those eleven months in a coma, but all it really did was make me treasure her more; before her coma and even more so after, Patricia was that person who is so precious and yet still slightly boring to you, the Beth in Little Women. She was that person who shows you how bad you are but only makes you all the more scarlet-hued and vibrant for it. And Patricia’s goodness was earned. All those months, her eyes had been for the world after this one.
Patricia explained again about the bathroom. The restaurant offered a rare and secret tasting menu, which featured a dish that requested any who would and could do so to put a clove of garlic in their vagina. Some of us around the table had already started nodding, both the hippie-inflected and the recklessly uninsured, those of us who had tried it as a cheap cure for BV and yeast infections and found the cure to be nearly as bad as the ailment, especially when the string around the garlic came loose, freeing the clove to wander the womb like a wandering womb until it slipped out in its own time, hours later. But the creepiest thing about putting a clove of garlic in your vagina was that mere minutes after, you could taste it in your mouth. It was a taste of garlic inborn, born of nothing you ate, an amnesiac flavor. This was what flavored the dish on the rare and secret tasting menu.
“Unless you want to just stick it in at the table, you have to put the garlic in in the bathroom, which is down a hallway and a flight of stairs,” said Patricia. “But the walk gives it time to take effect.”
I said, “Is this the restaurant we’re at? Are we all about to do this together?”
“God, no,” said Patricia. “That place is very expensive.”
We had stopped by the paper-arts fair to visit Ave and give her some shit but she wasn’t at the booth, even though the whole week before she had bitched about having to work it. The fair was in a former military warehouse, the ceiling high enough to make me feel like we were sediment at the bottom of an enormous container, with all of the excitement and relevance and importance happening somewhere far, far away, up there in the distance. It made me cranky. Instead of Ave, there was a man with hair buzzed short, a fit but kind of nothing-nobody whom we weren’t surprised Ave had never mentioned. He smiled one fake, rectangular smile—too much usage of the muscles pulling his lips down from his teeth, not enough of the ones pulling his cheeks up—then dropped it. We were soothed by his disinterest and told him what we were looking for. We told him too much.
“I have just the thing,” he said. He turned and bent to open a case on the floor; on the back of his neck, a tattoo flashed once then disappeared again beneath his collar. clean. In my experience with the neck-tattooed, I had found that the overwhelming majority preferred advertising dirtiness of various kinds, and I raised my eyebrows at my friends as he straightened up. But I was the only one who had seen the word, and no one returned my look.
The man presented us with the card he’d dug up. He appeared to be using every muscle in his face and neck to keep himself from grinning now; so much energy was required that he seemed to be brimming with it, tense and unexploded. With all that life in his eyes, where before there had been none, the guy was suddenly handsome.
“This is the card,” he said. “This is Patricia’s card.”
We bought it. It really was Patricia’s card. On the front there was a small illustration, marooned-looking in that expanse of white. A group of girls were hanging out together. One of them was talking, a word bubble coming out of her mouth, and two others were chewing on it—the word bubble. There was something nasty about it, and sweet, too. It was a little hard to tell what was going on, in a way that made you want to keep staring, but that also made you worried.
“He was a creep,” said Vedhika afterward.
“He was hot,” said Cristina.
“He hated us,” said Sara.
Actually, I thought he loved us for a moment there at the end, which was the worst of all.
We shouted “Happy birthday” when Patricia opened the card. It seemed to emit radiant light, enveloping her face. “You’re the best,” she said. “The best, the best, the best!”
The big thing Patricia worried about was being lonely, not having enough friends. It didn’t make sense, because everyone loved her and she kept collecting more friends by the year, which did make sense because of the coma and her family’s accident and Kiki’s disappearance and what had happened with our friend Tomas. She was coming off of a hard year; we’d wanted to do something extra-nice for her. What we did, in the end, was take that enormous card we’d bought on a whim and spend the weeks before her birthday getting as many of her friends as we could to sign it. All her coworkers, her workout-class friends, her bar friends, the neighborhood convenience store employees, the aesthetician and the hairstylist, the far-flung people we FedExed the card to and worried wouldn’t send it back until they did. They always did.
We didn’t get everyone, of course; we didn’t even know everyone to get. But we got a lot. Ave was the only one who wouldn’t sign. She also wouldn’t tell us where she’d been when she was supposed to be working the paper fair, and we didn’t have time to question her about it, because she got wildly upset about the card we’d bought. “Please tell me you didn’t buy this from my job,” she said, though of course she would have recognized it immediately. “These stupid fucking cards,” she said, but it didn’t sound like she thought they were stupid, in fact the opposite. It sounded like she thought they were cruel and disgusting and smart, smart, smart.
“This is for Patricia,” I said. “This isn’t about you or your weird job that you hate.” Ave just shook her head, faster and faster, and stood. I remember it as something swift and dramatic, like she just sprinted out the door, but she must have made up an excuse. Anyway, I never saw Ave again.
Patricia had a rickety little end table where she put her keys and glasses and ibuprofen, things like that, and this is where the card went, balanced on its end. Not the largest thing in the room by a long shot, but—it loomed, it glowed, it drew the eye and gripped your chin and tugged you toward it until you left Patricia’s place, and you were so tired, and you didn’t know why.
A few people had disappeared by then, but Sara was the first friend of ours to actually die, as far as we knew. We stood in a huddle after her funeral, and this was a feeling that was already familiar, as if familiarity had wafted backward in time from a future full of deaths to envelop us like a sheet of cobwebs. As more people disappeared, Patricia got quieter. We saw less of her. And increasingly there were less of us, too. I had always been important to Patricia, but now I was even more so. She was often tired and never wanted to go out, so I would go to see her. I would sit at the end of her couch, talking to her until she slept, and then watch a show on my laptop as she dreamed. She was tired weirdly—she would be fine right up until the moment she fell asleep, and then she was fully and totally gone. Not even the ads, always pitched louder and more gratingly than the shows, would wake her. To sit near her as she slept gave me another familiar feeling, this one coming from the past.
It was becoming more and more unpleasant to be near the card, though. Just a birthday card, I would remind myself, just a stupid card. I was beginning to understand how Ave had meant it when she searched for every word to call it and stupid is what came out, even though it was wrong. Every time I walked by it on that table I fought the temptation to look inside, to check and see if it had consumed the signatures and made itself blank. Or maybe the signatures would still be there, and what the card had done was grown fat on them.
Then, of course, I began receiving new cards in the mail. Since I didn’t get to where I was in life by being a fucking idiot, I didn’t open them. Many came through regular delivery (the postal service worker had a stack of envelopes for me one day, all identical, and said, “Someone likes you!” and I thought yes, someone did like me, someone loved me in a way I had never been loved before); others were slipped under my door. One was handed to me by a confused, innocent-looking stranger who ran away the moment I spoke to him.
One morning I woke up from a bad dream all twitchy and flailing and threw my hand out against the comforter and that is what saved me. I felt paper before I saw it, and kept my eyes closed. I touched the bed, and knew: There were cards all around me, waiting to be read. I got up carefully and made my way to the door. Under my feet, more paper. I kept walking, eyes shut.
I am still walking. I keep my hands clamped over my eyes and I am afraid to move them, afraid that merely closing my eyes is not enough, that what is out there will easily breach the delicate barrier of my lids. I was walking, I am walking, I will be walking, I will walk until I can stop, but I can’t stop just yet. It might be leaves crunching and slithering underfoot; it might be paper. I have no way of knowing.
I only agreed to give the talk for the link. A link can be the perfect way to exit a conversation you never meant to enter. It’s like: I’m not going to respond to what you just asked, and yet I’m not an asshole because look, here’s where you can get all your questions answered! And then you give them the link.
Kiki was all whatever when the invite came—I pressed as much as I could, said Easy for you to say, Kiks, you’re dealing with the bullshit like half the time to my every single minute, but she kept silent in that way she learned to do recently where I can’t even fully locate her, and obviously that meant This one’s on you, Tomas. Now, though—now she’s into it, saying we should get business cards with the link imprinted in the center. We’re talking about color schemes. Her point is it would simplify things: a reach for the back pocket and here you go, Sir or Madam, this card’s for you, I promise it explains everything. We get tired of answering stupid questions, is the thing. Do you have two brains? Mixed memories? Who decides what to do in any given moment and so on. Authority is the average man’s obsession. Someone might appear all kinds of inquisitive, might seem genuinely curious, but I’ll tell you the one thing their little brain’s trying to figure out: if you’re two people inside one body, who’s the boss? When they ask their dumb questions, I fight hard not to yawn; Kiki fights harder not to punch them in the face. It’s like anything else, I tell them, and if we’re at a party then believe you me I’m reaching for the champagne in that moment, like any other body: the strongest urge wins.
It was different when we first got here, of course, after leaving our old Area behind—we weren’t bored or angry then, just confused, strangers inside ourself, and hurt every time all over again by people’s reactions. And yes, we chose this reality knowingly, but it’s the sort of thing you know nothing about until you live it.
Back then, most people had never run into someone like us before, so we’d actually start the conversation—otherwise people tended to think we were insane. They would see a woman’s body and hear a man talking to them from inside it, or they’d be talking to this lovely woman and all of a sudden without warning her voice would change, her entire personality would change, and what were they supposed to think? Often they’d just walk away before we could explain anything. The worst part was the little head-turns they’d do, as if to make sure we weren’t following them. So pretty quickly we learned to get ahead of all that, to explain our situation first thing. But that didn’t improve things much. Time and again we tried to connect and instead faced a kind of crudeness, an audacity that seemed entirely unaware of itself. Innocent-faced strangers would grill me about our body, our sexuality, our relationship with each other. They’d ask things like Aren’t you scared you’ll overstay your welcome? They’d laugh at their own joke and still expect me to answer.
It got better after a while, like anything does when you practice. But I’d be lying if I said it ever stopped being a nuisance—the kind that once twice three times a day made me wish I’d said no to Kiki when she showed up in that hospital room in the middle of the night.
Our talk started like this: “I’m here tonight to discuss with you the growing phenomenon known as Double Embodiment—you may be more familiar with the street term, TwoSomes. I will not be citing statistics or trying to demystify the somatic practicalities of two human beings occupying one body—I’m no man of science, and if you’ve researched this topic in any way then you know that even our best scientists have so far failed to break down this new physiological circumstance. Instead, I will share with you my own experience, my own story—mine and Kiki’s.”
Kiki and me, we’d had a crush on each other since high school, but we kept it a secret, hid it for the most part even from ourselves. It seems so dumb now, but back in that other life, in that other Area, we were part of a big group of friends, and maybe because we all grew up together, we treated each other as siblings; the idea of dating seemed like incest. When Sara and Vedhika got fucked up at this pool party and kissed, they pretended it never happened; the rest of us only heard about it from someone who saw them, and then we all ignored it, too. That’s how inappropriate we considered that sort of thing—it was too shameful even for jokes. I kept a journal in those years and even there I acted as if I only loved Kiki as a friend.
After college I moved to Baltimore—I got into this program where you renovate houses and get to live in them in the meantime, so you save loads on rent and bills. I distanced myself some from the group, then—I’d see Avery, since her grandpa lived there and she’d visit him every few weeks, but other than that I didn’t stay in touch. The thing about people we grow up with is that their eyes reflect our past back to us. I suppose I needed a break from that reflection.
But some connections are blood and bones. Minutes after I got the call about Kiki, I packed a bag and headed home. We put together a team and then made it bigger, searched every corner of every street, over time raised enough money to start a small war; Kiki was nowhere. We discovered she’d gone drinking with Ave’s boss and his brother the night before she disappeared, but she was crashing with Patricia then, and Patricia swore she’d seen Kiki come in late at night—it was a studio apartment—so the police never thought of the Jacobs as suspects. By the time Patricia woke up the next morning, Kiki was gone.
Was my accident an accident? Yes and no. I wouldn’t say I tried to kill myself per se, but those months after Kiki disappeared, especially once we all lost hope and stopped searching—I was driving like it was someone else’s job to keep me safe. And awful though it may be, I was driving that way whether I was alone or had a passenger.
At this point in the talk, the idea was that Kiki would take over. Our switches are involuntary, of course, and most attempts to control them fail, but we’ve gotten better over time at managing them to some extent—the key is to hit a note we know will invoke strong feelings in the other. So if I bring up something I know Kiki’s passionate about, what would naturally happen is that she’d take the driver’s seat—a metaphor we often use, because people intuitively understand a car to be a space two people can inhabit, intuitively understand that if you’re in a car with someone else, you don’t cease to exist when that someone else is driving. So here, Kiki would spend a few minutes describing the night of her “disappearance.” These days people here loved hearing about what you’d left behind in other Areas—the last things you saw, or did, or ran from—so she got pretty specific.
Kiki was pissed at our friend Avery—they’d been roommates, but the house was Ave’s, and when Joanna, Ave’s sister, decided to move to town, Ave asked Kiki to move out. So now, like I said, Kiki was temporarily crashing with Patricia. That night, she ran into Avery’s boss, Jerome, and she flirted with him; she imagined Ave would find out, maybe assume the worst, get upset—Ave had an intense crush on this guy. Fast-forward a little and Kiki is drinking the night away with Jerome, his brother Grayson, and their friend Leon. Jerome barely talks to her, and she wouldn’t have gone any further than flirting with him anyway—she wouldn’t do that to Avery, really. But Grayson—he and Kiki had an immediate connection. She always had a thing for bad boys.
So, it’s very late that night, and there she is at the Episode, drunk but not too drunk to notice how everything shifts once Jerome leaves—he just gets up at one point, shoots Leon a look, and turns around, heading to the door without saying goodbye. Grayson and Leon seem more themselves after that—there was a kind of cautiousness she can name only now that it’s lifted. They’re talking passionately about something she can’t quite follow, but she’s fascinated—by Grayson, by something—and she stays. At some point they’re talking about someone they know who recently disappeared. When Grayson says she went to culinary school years ago for baking, he hits his g soft as Kiki noticed he tends to do, and Leon asks There’s a culinary school devoted to bacon? Grayson yells Bakin’! Baking! Not bacon! His face reddens and he keeps yelling, says Who gives a fuck about Michele, she’s not the point, the point is more and more people are gone, the point is between the crazies who are willing to go underground and the ones figuring out how to pass to the next Area, this is becoming a problem! There’s a quality to his rage that scares Kiki, but Leon gently touches Grayson’s arm and it seems to be some code between them: he stops yelling, closes his eyes, keeps them closed for a bit while he takes deep breaths. They speak calmly after that, but Kiki’s body won’t relax. Something is wrong, she realizes, maybe even dangerous.
You might imagine, listening to Kiki tell this story, that the two men are ignoring her completely, but that’s not the case. Even though they never even look at her, Grayson’s hands are touching her the whole time. And he does this strange thing: he forces Kiki’s hand to the back of his neck, where he has a big tattoo that spells some word she can’t read from that angle. Whenever she moves her hand, he guides it back. The gesture wasn’t forceful, Kiki says, as much as it held a quiet promise of violence.
She sits there and listens—they’re talking about people dying now, not just disappearing, and at times it sounds like they are in some way responsible for these deaths, though she figures she must be misunderstanding. What she can’t ignore is that as they talk they seem inspired. But it isn’t that disturbing exuberance, or anything they’re saying, that gets her to see that she needs to leave—leave the bar, leave her life. It’s the way Grayson treats her body: not quite like he owns it but like she doesn’t, like no one does, like it doesn’t truly exist. In one moment, Kiki understands nothing and knows everything; she knows that if she doesn’t escape, she’s going to die.
She walks back to Patricia’s from the bar, lies on the couch, tries to command herself to sleep. Maybe in the morning everything will be okay. But she can’t sleep. She knows what she has to do. She heads back outside. She walks a few miles, then starts to run. She does what Grayson and Leon said those other people did—she runs as fast as she can with her eyes closed.
This is where Kiki mentions my time at the hospital, and I take over the talk again—the horror of my days there, after the car crash, the doctors telling me I might never walk again, the terrible guilt over Patricia’s coma. Then, depending on who takes over, one of us talks about how Kiki came to get me.
If you don’t figure out on your own how to escape, how to pass to another Area, your only shot is someone coming to get you. And the only way you pass with a savior, if you’re lucky enough to have one, is to let go of your own body. This is where people flip out, but yes—not only was I willing to do that, but I didn’t hesitate much either. Whether it was because I loved Kiki so much, or because I believed her that I would otherwise soon die, that the whole world was dying, that she could save only one person and we had to go now—who’s to say?
We touched each other for the first time in that hospital bed, and we knew it would be the last time, too—the last time we could love each other as two separate bodies.
On the day of our tech rehearsal, two days before the talk, I smoked a cigarette outside the auditorium with the producer, a scrawny guy named Ronan. He was a dudes’ dude, the kind who leaves Kiki cold, and she stayed silent. How long after we tape will the video be up online? I asked him. I explained our plan for the link—the business cards. I expected he’d say later that night, maybe a couple days later. Instead, his skin turned the color of bubblegum. Bro, he said, they were supposed to explain it to you?
It turned out this wasn’t quite a talk we were about to tape—not exactly. I’m happy to go over it again with you, said a woman we’d never met before, an executive whose office overlooked the ocean from the sky. Our voices, our words, our emotions would be “sourced, sampled, and later Grafted,” she explained. Had we heard of Graft, the 4-D gaming company? We had not, but apparently our hosts had recently bought them, and everyone was absolutely thrilled about the acquisition. And wasn’t it thrilling for us, too? We’d be pioneers—how else could people truly understand the TwoSome experience? Studies showed long ago that video games were the only effective way for one human being to get into the skin of another. She paused here, catching herself. No pun! she said, and tried something like a laugh. I could feel Kiki tugging on me; any moment now she could take over, and there was no telling what she’d do—Kiki can be a hothead, especially when faced with women in positions of power. I held on as tight as I could. I saw no point in trying to explain that the one thing we have is our story, that to us losing ownership of that, distributing our pain and our memories to any idiot with a headset and a controller, would be a kind of death. I appreciate the offer, I said, but I don’t think we’re interested.
The woman looked at me, perhaps confused, perhaps amused. Dear, she said, you signed a contract. I would hate to see you lose years of your lives to the hell of litigation, not to mention the costs—the horror stories I hear about people in your position who ended up in the street because of something like that, who died. Just terrible. And you have to see this from our point of view—there aren’t too many of your kind out there, and we’re already quite invested in the prototype. So it seems best to just move forward here, give the talk on Tuesday as planned. Wouldn’t you agree?
Once upon a time, everything in City X, Area 3, was extremely normal. This state of normalcy involved things like birthday parties, dragon boxes, insurance claims, domestic abuse, President Klee and Clamp and the Not-Not-Not Accords, keratin blowouts, ion masks, mental fogginess, night shifts, cheap virtual reality, cell phone chargers, and so on and so on. It wasn’t exactly what I was used to, but it was worth almost anything to feel safe again.
But then Graft released the game and that was it for normalcy; that was the end of safety. The whole entire world became obsessed with KikiMas. Cute name for a great game: looks like a holiday, sounds sort of Japanese, feels like being two people at once. You went through your day in the body of Kiki, a traveler from another world, who shared her body with a consciousness named Tomas. It sounded simple, but wow—the level of detail and invention and pure raw emotion! Everyone went wild for it. KikiMas was the kind of science fiction so completely, confidently imagined that it almost felt true, like Scientology, or Dune, or the Gospels of Litan. But unlike those other things, KikiMas seemed directly applicable to real life. It seemed to be explaining something that people had been wondering about all long.
Me, on the other hand: When KikiMas became this huge phenomenon, I was like, Shit. (Sorry. We.) We were like, Shit.
And, There goes that.
Because the thing about a hiding place is that it gets less and less good when other people try to use it. It’s like that game Sardines, where one person hides and everyone looks for them, so that they can join them in their conspiracy and hide there, too. When you play Sardines, your aim is to seek and hide at the same time. You seek the person who’s hiding, but not to pull them out into the open. No: all you want is what they have. All you want is their safety. And by grabbing hold of a piece, you make that safety less safe for all of you.
Once upon a time, I lived in another city, in another Area, where everything seemed very normal (if a little standard and usual and depressing in the way of a twenty-seventh bite of oatmeal) until it gradually became less so, and less so, and then terrifyingly not normal at all. Until I suddenly had to leave. That morning I had the bright idea of giving my little sister the game I had made, just in case. Just to begin the process, so I could take her with me if I had to. My little sister probably hated me for it, but every night I thanked all of the stars in the sky that I had thought to do it just in time.
I had had a bad feeling, although it was getting hard to trust my bad feelings when I felt bad every single day, because every day, on top of the old bad stuff, something new and bad happened, too. People were disappearing, but not in a way that brought the remaining people together. A pandemic, a bomb: things like that would be horrifying, but we would at least understand what had happened, and it would have happened to all of us.
This was something else. Our big sister died, along with her baby, late in the pregnancy. She caught an infection; it happens; it wasn’t supposed to happen to her; I did not think that only because I loved her and my love was supposed to make an exception of her in all cases; I thought that because it was a very, very, very rare infection, and on top of it all you never saw such a rosy, bountiful, healthy pregnant woman, the type to make you unavoidably imagine sheaves of wheat and baskets of apples and roasted fowl and things like that, all on a heavy wooden table somewhere warm but not hot.
She was a therapist. I know that must have been how it began. One of the ways this thing got you was through knowing people. These days, of course, everyone knew everyone, but a therapist, and a therapist who everyone loved, like our sister, she understood people so well she could imagine how they would be when they were angry, or happy, or sad, or swimming, or sleeping, and she would always be right. People were not only open to her; she was open to them. That’s how it got her.
I’m worried about Avery, she said to me on the phone, after a long day of appointments. She sounded tired, which was both to be expected and completely unlike her. This isn’t going to sound good but it was good: our sister thrived on the problems of others. Talking to her patients did not drain her but rather filled her up, filled her with plans and action items and excitement and hope and only added to the glorious sense of bounty she exuded during her pregnancy. Our sister truly was a spectacular therapist. If she treated you, you would realize that it was sick and disgusting and dangerous for most people to be therapists, and that almost no one should be a therapist except for people like her, which would have improved the overall quality of therapy immensely but I guess, also, there would be only about ten therapists for everyone in whole country.
She was worried about Avery but could say no more, never said anything again, and when I saw Avery at the funeral later on, I could not help hating her a little. There had been so many funerals. I had been to five that week. People had started clustering funerals together, like by family or friendship group or workplace. It was an abomination but a necessary one. I knew it wasn’t fair of me to hate Avery; she didn’t kill my sister. She would be horrified at the thought. But this thing took a tricky path through people, not always direct, and outside the cemetery when I saw the strange man grab Avery’s arm and whisper at her, I knew that it came from him, that he was doing it or helping it spread somehow and that it had shot through Avery and leaped onto my sister. Avery whispered back at him, then took his hand and put it back down by his side. This she did so slowly it was almost sexy. He glanced at me, shook his head, and then walked away.
Who was that man? I asked Avery in the parking lot after. My little sister had run off, was weeping by a tree somewhere. I was giving her time.
No one, Avery said. Well, Grayson, she said. He’s not in my life anymore.
Though he so clearly was.
Back in my old life, I designed games. It helped me to see what would come next. It helped me be smart, to x-ray the corners of buildings and heavy doors to perceive the monsters that lay in wait around them, behind them. I felt the change after the funeral. After Grayson glanced at me, I felt seen, too seen. This sensation persisted, especially every time I reached out to open a door, and then even when I’d walk past a door, I would feel perceived and awaited by something hungry, and I knew that, one of these days, the door I opened was going to be the wrong one.
Monster closets, I told my little sister. Watch out for them. I didn’t know how much I could tell her without freaking her out completely. She was a teenager, quiet and plain and noticed by no one, so she was free to notice everything else, but being a teenager she was also completely up herself. Could she see how bad it all was? Could she understand that this was not how things were supposed to be?
I kept my head down and worked on my game, even as coworker after coworker disappeared, first one by one and then in big clusters across the company, MRSA and rafting accidents and we don’t know what happened but they stopped picking up their phones and we didn’t know what to do, and just before it was too late for me and my little sister (I’m pretty sure), I gave her a prototype to play and in this way we found an escape. I must have not loved my world enough to stay in my Area. I didn’t love anyone else enough; I didn’t love myself. So I drew my little sister in with me, and we jumped.
Now we lived in City X, Area 3. We had to be watchful and humorless, the way you had to be while speaking a language you weren’t good at. Or, at least, the way I was—I could never do goofy. Things in this Area felt a little cheaper and jankier. I tried to be fair, but that was just true. Most of the clothes you could buy here were like those cheap kids’ Halloween costumes that were plastic smocks with a picture of the thing you were supposed to be on the front. Everyone rustled on the train (there were still trains, good ones, actually). Also, it seemed even easier to become famous in Area 3, and it lasted somewhat longer, so a man who became famous thanks to a brief video for having humorously double-jointed thumbs might still be seen starring in an ad campaign for a disposable floor scrubber two years later. It meant we had to be very careful, hiding out here.
Dede, my little sister, who deserves a name, even if I don’t, was still extremely pissed at me for what I’d done. Yes, our lives were dull. But we were safe, and we could survive: we had a job at a bakery, a big industrial one, not the cute kind, but it was the first job we found when we arrived and we were lucky to have it. Dede stayed quiet while we were there. We would be exhausted when we got home, and my feet would be damp and risen and embossed with the ribbing of my socks and I’d have tiny burns on my hands, my forearms, my shins—all the parts of your body that you have to learn not to forget about around all those ovens and hot things, like your body is a car you’re parking somewhere tight. That’s when Dede would start yelling.
She screamed so loudly that the words came out of my mouth, and I pressed a couch cushion against my face until we were both breathless and she had calmed down. I had to say the same things I had already said, because there was no new news. Only our stale old problems. She didn’t know how lucky we were, to have made it to a place where there were jobs and TVs and studio apartments and every moment of being alive wasn’t a struggle for light and food and peace. It was hard for her to understand. She had thought she would be going to college soon and her life would be improving remarkably, immeasurably.
I’m worried about my own body, she said. I’m probably just lying on the couch peeing myself and getting old, and that’s if I’m lucky, because I don’t even know where I fucking am!
I reminded her that I had friends—not here, but there. They were coming by and taking care of her, I said. They must have been, because—I knew it was a very cold, dark comfort and maybe a terrible thing to say but I was tired from work too, sick of our half-life and everything else, sick even of fresh bread, which seemed unbelievable, so I said, You’re still here, aren’t you? Saying shit, making me do and say shit I don’t want to say? So you can stop being a giant bitch to me. Because you’re obviously alive.
Dede was silent. My little sister’s most effective weapon against me was a passive one, an emotional boomerang where as soon as I lashed out I would start to feel desolate and guilty and cruel. This of course may have just been my own exceptional sense of guilt at work. But I could never shake the feeling that it was something that Dede was doing to me.
Hello? I finally said. Talk to me? But her attention was on the TV, so I focused there too. That was how we first learned about KikiMas.
And so then we were like, Shit.
Kiki and Tomas were too famous to be contacted, of course, but there were ways to go and look at them. They were headliners at a convention for stuff similar to the things there were conventions for in our old Area: movies, dragon boxes, comics, copycat TwoSome games, TV shows. Dede and I requested an unpaid day off from the bakery and went to stand in line for the KikiMas panel as many hours early as was possible, which was six.
When Kiki and Tomas were brought out and lots of people sat upright and uptight in that meerkat way that meant they were filming with their eyebrow implants, I relaxed a little. I knew that I wouldn’t get to say anything to them. There were volunteers and bodyguards with lean, expectant looks all around us, and Kiki and Tomas themselves were too gleaming, too unhappy and dutiful, to pay attention to anything other than what they were contracted to do.
Even so, once the panel ended, I immediately raised my hand. And was of course called on by the moderator, a brisk black guy in a plastic tank top patterned with the KikiMas logo who had either been incredibly nervous or immensely bored during the talk. A volunteer ran a microphone over to me, and I stood and said, What does it feel like to be in a TwoSome? The audience heaved a subcutaneous groan at such an obvious question, and Kiki and Tomas smiled politely as they prepared to answer. Then Dede piped up, Yeah, how do you get to decide who does what?
I had to hand it to them. Kiki and Tomas clocked us right away. They knew we were two. They leaned forward and stared right at us before giving us some canned, pleasant reply. The Q&A went on for a while, but we knew we had their attention. We were not surprised, afterward, when one of the volunteers came up to us and invited us to the green room.
We fucked everything up right away, or maybe it was just Dede. You have to understand that I was actually so happy to see Kiki and Tomas, because the thing was, I knew them, sort of, from the other Area, and I loved finally seeing something familiar, even in this strange situation, because Dede and I had been living for so long in this place where even bread tasted a little off. But we started out bad. One of us said, What the hell are you doing? Why did you tell everyone? You’ve ruined this place for us. Grayson will be here any day now.
Dede said, Who’s Grayson?
It doesn’t matter, said Kiki.
What matters is happening outside this Area, said Tomas. Someone from here has taken the game out.
My throat went dry. And another stress response: my sinuses suddenly became absolutely, pink-crystal expansively clear. Does Grayson know about this place? I said.
Kiki and Tomas just looked at us. We don’t know yet, they said.
So what now, I said.
We find a new place and run to that, they said. Or—
Me and Leon, we were the kind of kids that saw opportunity in shoelaces. That’s what my daddy used to say. He meant we looked at just about anything and imagined ways it could harm. My daddy used to say weird shit and people always nodded still, like it was something deep. He was a leader. Small-scale, you could say, but that’s only circumstance: we lived in a bullshit town, too many hungry mouths depended on him, etc. He had the backbone for big scale, no doubt: born a different time, born to different people, born to money? He could have been the fucking president. I got that from him—no lessons or nothing, just the way talents travel through blood. I got most my daddy’s talents; my brothers and cousins always focused on the wrong things. Damn boys is what he always called me and Leon. You damn boys. My mama heard it as discipline, and maybe others did, too; you could get confused easy because his fury followed fast—made it from throat to fists before you could dodge. But we knew better; we knew my daddy was training us for the future.
He used to drink, my daddy, and when his liver gave up his mind dimmed. It was a tragic thing to witness, so I avoided him much as I could. Leon took it just as hard—his own daddy had bailed before he could walk, and his mama went looking for the wrong things in the wrong places after that, so he’d pretty much made himself family at our house. Leon had the kind of face that broke people’s hearts: eyes showing real pain, cheekbones saying they could take anything. And they could—that man, he got bones of steel. He had that face back when we were short as knees, but he learned to work it better every passing year. Mrs. Jacob? he’d say to my mama, and she’d say Here you go, little Leon no matter what. Into our teens, into our twenties. Here you go, little Leon. That face won him whatever he wanted.
She was different with me. You get your ass in that room, Grayson, she said. Your daddy is dying and he asking for you. Why you even make him ask?
Ever lose somebody like that, Vedhika? Slow, I mean, and in front of your face? Silly to ask, I guess, given that I’ll be gone by the time you hear this question. But I’m a romantic, I suppose. I believe that if this pull between us is love, then somehow we’ll find our way back to each other. How’s that for legacy? I know that people think monster evil villain, when they think of me—in recent months I’ve learned that even smart people think simple, don’t push past their ignorance and fear. But how they gonna add this new information to the story? Grayson Jacob was a true romantic.
Beautiful Vedhika, you should know that while I may feel funny recording myself, talking to this diji, I am grateful to you. Who else would I trust with a sample of my voice? And you were right—I shouldn’t leave this Area without ensuring my legacy, and I should help survivors understand their new reality. Which starts with understanding me.
When I walked into that dark room where the air smelled of sick, I could barely see anything. I approached my father’s bed, and he grabbed my hand. Grayson, he said, but then he started talking all kinds of nonsense. His brain was gone. The man I knew would never care about the family business that way—telling me I was using it for bad? Telling me to stop? That wasn’t my daddy. My daddy always saw the big picture. My daddy taught me most of what I know.
If you’d asked him a few months earlier, a year earlier—it’s funny imagining you two meeting, but let’s say you had—Mr. Jacob, suppose you got so sick that your brain got dumb? He’d look you up and down first—my daddy loved pretty women and in this situation you’d be his captive, waiting on his answer, so no doubt he’d take advantage. But then you know what he’d say, Vedhika? He’d say A dead brain is dead weight and dead might as well be dead. He’d look at you again then, but different. You got balls, lady? he’d ask. Cos it takes balls to kill a man.
My point is I did what I had to do that day—what he’d have wanted had he still been himself. I did it and called my mama and we cried. He must have known the end was close, she said later. That’s why he asked for you. You see what I’m saying, don’t you, V? I did a good thing and I did it clean.
One of the things I love most about our new world is how special it’s become to meet another person, how precious. When we see another human body in the distance—survivors’ aura shining bright across the empty streets, across the flat land, across the waters—our heart beats faster, don’t it? Cos we’ve gone days or weeks or months without contact, sure, but why else, Vedhika? Now we getting to some truth. Why else? Because we know that person is smart, like us. We know the magic of high-capacity neurons interacting with other high-capacity neurons. We know the possibilities. Our muscles get jumpy, excited. Maybe we sweat. And we start to run. We run toward that person because we can’t wait.
My virus is like a truth serum for intelligence. It clears a path for a smarter future. I only wish survivors could be honest enough to say thank you.
Why did you run to me, you asked. Remember? This was in your bedroom, after we loved each other the first time. You looked away from me, out your window, even though you’d just asked me a question. You do that often. Who knows why you get those heaps of dead toads outside your window—I wish for your sake that it stopped because it bothers you, but to me it’s a beautiful sight. Something about animals makes everything simple: you see a dead dog anywhere? A dead monkey? A dead dolphin? No. Only damn toads and cockroaches everywhere, only beings so dumb they were burdening our world before I helped them depart. I turned your head from the frogs to me and said I ran because that’s what people did these days, and you said no, they didn’t, no one did, everyone was grieving and tired. You weren’t ready yet. So I held you and talked about your elongated bones, your skin that tastes like date palm, your dark hair falling over your shoulders like a schal. I liked surprising you with words you didn’t expect. You looked at me funny, said It’s like you’re a few different people. Your voice changes sometimes, your language. And I wanted to say so much to you in that moment—to say we all put our words on like costumes, that every moment you can choose a new look, that it means nothing because the right person sees the skin underneath all that fabric and that for me I think that person might be you... But I didn’t, V. I said none of it, probably because I was too scared. Heh! Another good line for the bio, ain’t it? Evil Grayson Jacob, the gaze of a fierce woman scared him shitless. I said none of it and instead said Vedhika, men have been running toward your kind for centuries, said it as a way of saying C’mon, you know your powers. But you gave me a look like—Not buying your bullshit. And I looked away then, looked at the toads. Because if only you knew. I been with many women, but never said such words to no one. No one, V, ever.
Truth is I ran different that day, not the way I’d run toward any shape of any human. I ran because I recognized you. Not from that paper-arts fair or wherever you believe we met once—that never happened, and who cares if it did. I recognized you the way you recognize your own body. The way you recognize your future.
I ran to you like some force took over my feet, but I kept my eyes open, of course. Not like those cowards, blind, with no direction—you know that’s the way those people escaped, don’t you? Not that we cared, me and Leon. We never cared. People talk, but talk is bullshit. We had total control from moment one—be sure to transcribe this right, V: no one would’ve gotten out if that wasn’t part of our plan anyway. See, the thing is, you let a cockroach get away, all its little friends gather in the hiding place. Then you go there and spray.
We planned well, but no plan is immune to weird shit. You know that people are now hiding inside each other? You know that your friends started that trend? They’re sharing one body, and if that’s not perverse enough, they’re trying to convince other people to do the same as them—they’ve made a video game out of it.
Two dumbs don’t make a smart, though. That kind of aberration will only trigger the virus, make it take new forms. That’s another thing people don’t understand: the virus spreads on its own, has a will of its own. Once we got the cards out into the world, we couldn’t have stopped that thing if we wanted. Not that we did, of course. The trick was staying ahead of its movement, because without our help, it could have died down or been defeated; a lot of people were trying to make sure the world remained as stupid as it had always been. People are afraid of change. But we planned well, like I said. We always knew we’d have to leave this Area once everything was on track, move to the next. We had our eyes on the big picture: the universe in all its glory, all its Areas, grounds and UNDERGROUNDS, hiding places and secret closets. And thing is, we only had ourselves, just the two of us to command this big operation. Neither of us wanted to go Underground, so we argued; it’s how we’d done things since childhood. Switching Areas is one thing, but the Underground? That place is a different kind of dark; the worst of everything found its way there. But see, my brother Jerome, he always had a thing for Leon. So finally Leon agreed to go, because he knew Jerome would follow, and do whatever he said. We got ourselves another soldier that way—he’s the one commanding the crazies in the darkness now, while Leon is already waiting for me in Area3.
It’s too bad I was cautious with you, Vedhika, whenever you asked me anything real. The space between us never seemed capable of holding my story, my truth, so I kept quiet. Now I have to say goodbye into a damn diji, clueless about what you actually know. I want you to understand me, is the thing. You know that’s the real reason I agreed to record, don’t you? For my legacy, sure, to help the people, sure, but really, V? I’d be dumb if I went along for those reasons only, and dumb ain’t around anymore. So if you thought your beauty hypnotized me into stupidity, well, that’s not what happened. What happened was I looked the risk straight up and decided you were worth it. You could hurt me with this voice sample, if you wanted, which means I’m betting on you here. I’m betting on us. I know you’ve lost a lot of people—we all have. But can you open your mind to me? Will you listen?
Stupidity is an evolutionary error. It’s a bug in the system that can bring the whole thing down. I know that’s an uncomfortable truth, Vedhika. But it’s an important one for our long-term survival.
Things are hard now, yes, but that’s temporary, transitional. Lots of bodies that worked a lot of jobs are gone. But you see, this suffering we’re going through is good. The hungrier people get, the faster they’ll figure out how to manufacture food with fewer people—it’s not about manning factories, operating machines; it’s about coming up with new models altogether, new solutions, new technologies. And who better equipped to do that than the smartest?
Think back to the time before the epidemic, Vedhika. Can you honestly tell me you weren’t disturbed by stupidity logic, by the masses always telling the masses run run run, buy buy buy, fight fight fight? By the news saying Look over here quick, a Bad Thing Happened, and then WAIT no look over there instead, Something Even Worse? The thing about dumb people, they let themselves be sheep. Or worse, they were born wanting to be sheep and so when any kind of thing comes along with the will to herd, they start running around and bleating. That’s not only a burden on the rest of us, V; it’s dangerous. The planet couldn’t survive. We couldn’t survive. And I realized I could fix it. Wouldn’t you have done the same?
Talk to the people for me, V. Tell them to look around with new eyes. Where they see desolation, I see beauty, opportunity, hope. They can breathe life into the bare land—it might appear dry on the surface, but a smart man looks deep. What’s underneath all that neglect? A soil rich with nutrients, with the blood and bones it’s absorbed. Do you understand now, Vedhika? Death isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.
Jerome lives in the Underground, which is what most people call it, which is an easy name for it, but not quite accurate. It should be called something more like the-place-that-is-between-places-therefore-it-is-not-even-an-actual-place-in-and-of-itself-rather-it-is-more-like-an-abyssal-zone-into-which-grime-and-that-which-is-forgotten-sinks.
Quite a mouthful!
So he just keeps the name in his mind, the multi-hyphenate monotone of it soothing and dependable—being in this place, it feels like his body is slowly disintegrating, with the limbs drifting off and the neck growing longer and longer until it is vanishingly fine and then with a wet POP his head careens away—but the hyphens reattach him, the hyphens remind him that, once, his life had proceeded stepwise. Once he’d had a brother named Grayson. Once he’d had Leon. Once he had been a perceiver, a point-of-view, a person who was capable of perceiving time such that it didn’t feel like everything was happening all at once.
Now it does it feel like that, sort of. It’s so dark here. Dark forests, dark streets, dark bars, dark supermarkets. (Once he found a can of green beans that didn’t look too bad, just dented from being thrown; when he bent to pick it up he found a strange, jagged piece of plastic near it, which he realized was part of a broken tooth; the story told itself; but had this person turned animal with hunger, or were they still rational when they bit into the can—were they seeking only to vent their despair by hurting themselves so futilely? But it didn’t matter; he himself did have a can opener.)
It’s a tricky place, the Underground. You’ll hear footsteps approach, get yourself ready for a fight, and then—nothing. Or you’ll be walking down the street, on your usual high alert but it’s okay because you can sense no threats and then out of fucking nowhere, a hand will reach out to grab your sleeve. Even when there are streetlamps, the streetlamps play tricks, like, three lamps away you’ll see someone in a cone of light that they walk out of and, a step later, there they are in front of you, wanting something.
Jerome senses his life dwindling very quickly. The stress of living here, the bad food, the tiny shards of sleep he finds scattered here and there—in a closet, in a barricaded bedroom above a bar, in a stockroom. He senses that if someone were to look at him they would just barely be able to see him dying right before their eyes.
He’s got a whole lot of nothing and it feels unfair. Grayson has, has always had, ideas and intentions. Leon has, has always had, the charm and the beauty and the shyness that was actually even more imposing than brashness, a languid, lovely shyness that was sneaky and that brainwashed its victims into being the better man, a.k.a. carrying out all of Leon’s plans and thinking it was all you ever wanted.
You could say Jerome is getting a little mad at Grayson and Leon, who are together forcing him to stay in this bullshit hellscape of a place, which seemingly contains the worst parts from every nightmare vision of a city and is also randomly sprinkled with creepy-ass forests.
So what if it was Jerome’s idea to go there in the first place: that’s not the important part. He only followed Leon, who he thought was scared, who he thought was running away, so that he could save him. Then Leon in the streetlights, then Leon gone.
When Leon left, Jerome returned home, or tried to. He came back to his apartment and Grayson was there. He had made spaghetti and put a six-pack on the table and was waiting right there for Jerome, whose body immediately tingled in horror. You know when you’re worried about being killed, and you get home and you think you’re safe for the time being and then right as you’re going to turn on the light a voice in the dark says Stop right there? Well, Grayson making dinner, Grayson buying you beer, Grayson standing to greet you with a big ole smile—it was like that. It’s Grayson’s version of creeping up on you in the dark. He wants to do something bad to you, or tell you to do something bad, and he wants to be able to see you when he does it.
Just one last meal, a nice meal for the two of us, Grayson had said. Don’t you think that would be nice?
Grayson told Jerome he needed to go back. I need you watching over it, Grayson said. I need a man I can trust there. You need reports from that shithole? There’s nothing there. The place is an aberration. Grayson just smiled. Don’t let me see you here again, he said. He stood. They had finished dinner, Jerome able to eat like a dumb animal with endless appetite after all. He was such an idiot. Grayson led him out of the apartment, took him down to the middle of the street, no cars seen or heard for hours, put his hands over Jerome’s eyes, and said, Now you run.
So now here Jerome is, sitting in an empty bar in the Underground, corner table, back to wall, drinking warm vodka and waiting for someone to either come fuck with him or avoid him, and in walks a woman with a dirty face and rumpled clothing. She is very pretty in a way that makes her look like a sculpture or a dirty, important statue, not a person. It’s smart to be dirty here; clean means new, and new means you get messed with. Clean: he hates that word now. The woman puts her hands up, looks at him like, Now you, so he puts his hands up and she walks toward him. She sits at the table, next to him but as far away as possible, keeping her back to the wall too.
I’ve been looking for you, she says. She is almost as beautiful as Leon and he doesn’t care.
Jerome has been seeing people a lot more often. It’s not like the Underground is getting crowded or anything, but it’s getting to the point where he has to worry about sharing space with other humans and their intentions and desires rather than just disarming them and getting the fuck away as quickly as possible. Honestly, what giant bullshit Grayson had been spouting about how they were a team, how they and Leon would wipe away the error-filled data of the old world to usher in the era of the simple, the smart, the correct, the clean.
Jerome wants to spit and cry. He knows Grayson only wanted him here to get him out of the way. Jerome is not clean.
He says to the woman slowly, You’re Ave’s friend. He passes the bottle to her and she drinks. The face she doesn’t make at the taste is still a face.
So you got away, he says.
Being here isn’t getting away, she says.
He takes the bottle back. You should get out of here, he says. It gets dangerous when there’s more than one person. She laughs like he has made a very unfunny joke and leans a little closer to him. Your brother had a major thing for me, she says. He has a major thing for me. She pulls a dinky-looking metal object from her jacket pocket. He left me a message on this, she says.
Jerome grabs for the diji and she pulls it away.
It’s barely anything about you, she snarls. Except for this army you’re building here. Some big army, right? And Jerome’s about to grab for it again when there’s a loud noise outside the door to the bar, not a voice, not a person but a stomp and a drag and a stomp and a drag and then a very strange silhouette appears in the doorway. The Underground is full of things like these—to Jerome, they are bad forms. They’re stitched-together-looking villains, they look like they’ve been made out of many creatures and almost look intelligent enough to have reasons for their villainy. But not quite. He doesn’t know what other people call them. The bad forms are drawn to groups of people. They also just generally like chasing people around and hurting and killing them, whether there’s one of you or five. That’s all Jerome knows about the bad forms, and already he and Vedhika are running for the back door.
The back door is blocked by something large. Jerome and the woman slam themselves against it a few times, then give up. She grabs his sleeve and they lock themselves in a closet-like men’s bathroom lit by one bare bulb that miraculously works.
The bad form approaches the bathroom. There’s no hiding from them, and they’re strong. Sometimes they get distracted, and sometimes they lose interest in the few seconds right before the door you’re hiding behind splinters. But when there’re two of you there, that probably won’t happen. Jerome and the woman stare at each other and as the woman begins to speak Jerome knows exactly what she is going to say.
I know how to get us out of here, she says. Two of us in one of us.
It’s the only way. Running from the Underground is one thing but they need each other in order to jump to another Area.
But whose body? Whose body? Whose body will be freed to continue to eat and jump and fuck and stub its toes and whose body will be crunched between the jaws of the bad form slamming at the door right this second, at the door and almost through the door? There’s no time to fight but Jerome and the woman are gripping each other, fighting as fast as they can inside their heads, and then the fight is over and when the bad form finally breaks in, one body is prone on the floor, sleeping brainlessly, just one body.
One thing to know about Vedhika is that she never sought revenge. Another thing to know about Vedhika is how she wants to be remembered: not as the leader of the revolution or whatever—regardless of whether the revolution ultimately succeeds or fails—but rather as a kind of peace empress. And sure, maybe that’s a little absurd, all things considered, but maybe not? Maybe it’s possible to fight in the name of peace? To be a peace warrior? If that’s a thing one could be, then that’s what Vedhika is. And if you have any doubts, consider this: she had every right to feel vindictive after the loss she suffered—but she didn’t. She chose to transcend.
All that time after she lost Jerome and before the battles began—going about the business of plotting and then launching the coup (a word she hated, because it sounded at once ridiculously grandiose and just plain ridiculous, the crying sound of a small animal), doing some pretty fucking questionable things, inflicting pain, at times applying pressure with her proverbial or physical thumb on the breathing canal of a tied-up body fighting for air, waiting for it to run out of fight—she practiced kindness twice a day. And if you asked what the hell that even meant, well, there would be Vedhika, seated on the gravel outside her hut, meditating. Inhale: I breathe in love and light, survival for all of humanity. Exhale: I release my fear, my pain, any and all vengefulness. You see, Vedhika knew that what she’d been through made her capable of nearly anything; learning to observe that pain, learning how not to let it make decisions for her, meant everything. It proved that Grayson hadn’t corrupted her, hadn’t turned her evil from the inside, as she suspected he had in her worst moments. And it proved that the wrongs she’d done had been necessary. She was simply a woman who found herself well positioned (best positioned would sound like she had some sort of complex) to lead a war that would maybe maybe maybe bring about a happier ending. A happier ending for all of civilization, that is—there was no real way to say it without sounding dramatic. And in all honesty, Vedhika flirted some with that sense of drama, of high stakes. But: she did it all for good. And as much as she could, she made sure people under her command knew that she had no revenge fantasies.
Now, look: if revenge found her, that would be a different story, wouldn’t it?
Because no doubt that monster Grayson deserves whatever he fucking gets, and the worse the better. What kind of man kills his own brother? An animal—an animal hiding inside a man. But let’s get real here, because otherwise what’s the point: an animal she fucked. Worse: once, on a moonless, starless night—they looked up and out and there was nothing, nothing but navy blue darkness for miles and miles of sky—she held him and let him whisper feelings in her ear. Even worse: she took his words into herself, let them make their way and settle. For a time after that—a time that wasn’t a time in the sense that married people talk about time, the years when both kids went to Bernsfield, but that also wasn’t minutes, or hours, a time that was too long to forget—she let herself wonder. What if. What if Grayson was right. What if the world was like an onion, what if it needed to shed some skin, what if the process irritated the eye, what if that sensation was natural and meant nothing, what if you could ignore your tears and keep going, what if the core of the onion when at last you got to it tasted sweet.
She’ll never admit this to anyone again—that everything she’s now fighting against she at one point entertained, that she actually considered joining Grayson. How horrible. The one person who heard it and held it with no judgment was now gone. Jerome wasn’t shocked when she said it—although she felt so much shame that she didn’t quite say it but rather did a thing they figured out how to do that can be described only as leaving a note in their brain for the other to find. He didn’t even flinch. Maybe because he knew his brother’s influence on people better than anyone, or maybe because this was during their early days in the Area, their early days as a TwoSome—not that they got to have any late days, really—and everything was a honeymoon. Vedhika has since met quite a few TwoSomes who didn’t get along—some even approached her cautiously, after she lost Jerome, wondering if she knew of a way to do what she’d done but safely, to separate—but back then she knew very little about it all and assumed that everyone who shared a body fell in love. Or, well—not in love in love, it was never romantic or sexual between her and Jerome, but as it turned out that made it all the more beautiful. They just… fit so well together in her body. Their messed-up minds, their impossible hopes, their dumb jokes—for the first time in her life she actually liked her body, liked being inside it, liked herself, theirself, this new self. And how fucking sentimental does she sound and how painful it is to remember but she’ll say it anyway because it needs to be said. They were happy.
She’s given herself so much shit since for not listening to Jerome when he first said he could feel Grayson coming, but in truth it was understandable; she wanted nothing to change. Jerome didn’t either, for that matter. Back then they’d see Kiki and Tomas often, and it was like a political campaign with those two, always trying to plan next steps, always Grayson this and that, virus this and that, always Here’s what we all gotta do. Tomas had this line—he’d say Grayson isn’t moving to this Area to play volleyball, you know. And they’d nod and agree, Yes, we must do something to stop him soon, but later they’d laugh so hard, why volleyball? They’d crack jokes, Vedhika and Jerome, listing all the other things Grayson didn’t move here to do. Become a florist. Win a spelling bee. Bake a pecan pie. She was happy. Wasn’t that enough?
Then one day, there he was. They were on their way to Pilates like any other Tuesday morning, and it was that fact—the fact of their routine—that convinced Jerome, once he had a moment to think, that nothing about the encounter was a coincidence. Grayson had a girl with him—redheaded and freckled, short, lost inside an oversize denim overall. She was beautiful—one of the most beautiful women Vedhika had ever seen outside of some kind of screen. And yes, no point denying it: she felt a quick sting seeing the two of them picking produce like that, going about their day. Was that all it took? Some woman to show Grayson how good life could be? Had she failed to be that woman? She actually asked herself these questions, later. Meet Margot, Grayson said, and Margot extended her hand not so much to shake Vedhika’s but more like Vedhika was meant to kiss it, like she was her suitor. Grayson knew about them, about his brother and ex-lover being one, and he didn’t pretend otherwise. It’s good to see both of you, he said. When Jerome asked about Leon, he couldn’t keep his voice steady. Grayson smiled. He’s doing good, little brother, he said. He’s been thinking about you, too. Later, trying to calm Jerome down, she argued that it’s possible, isn’t it, just possible that Grayson has changed. (No, Jerome said, that is not possible.) When they went to bed that night, Jerome was trembling. They twisted their legs in that pretzeled, heels-almost-touching way that made him feel held. Somehow they fell asleep.
She was woken before dawn by a knife in her stomach. There was no one there knifing her insides, or no one she could see, but something sharp and intent was making its way through her flesh. The pain was unlike anything she’d ever known. She screamed and screamed—screamed for the torture to stop, screamed for Jerome—and she was still screaming well past when she’d lost her voice. She was on the ground, bleeding gallons she felt but couldn’t see, a contorting body making the horrible sound of a mute cry. In the brief intervals when she could think, she tried telling herself that she’d survive, because haven’t women been surviving a similar kind of pain for centuries giving birth? Except she was giving death. And death, Vedhika saw now, was anything but clean.
For a while after that, nothing much mattered. Jerome’s death was her fault, of course; if she hadn’t tracked him down in the Underground, none of it would have happened. All she wanted to do was sleep. But not only were Kiki and Tomas constantly waking her up to “sit in on” their “strategy sessions”—in which they tried to anticipate Grayson’s next moves and plan their own—she was also supposed to be grateful; they were caring for her, after all—around the clock, that first week, when she could barely move—and making sure she was safe. What the hell are you supposed to do with that, when your best friends take over your life but it’s for your own good, when they do things like give you a map to a place in the desert where you could go if you’re in danger again? There never seemed to be a good moment to say Just let me die.
The strategy boiled down to outing Grayson. We have a platform, for fuck’s sake, Tomas yelled one day, standing over the sink in Vedhika’s kitchen that used to be Vedhika and Jerome’s kitchen, waving a spatula he was supposed to be washing. It got pretty hard for Vedhika to follow, after that—whenever he and Kiki argued it looked like a mad person having some kind of mental break, never finishing a sentence, twitching and twisting. She and Jerome never fought like that, but his presence had seemed to help her understand other TwoSomes; now that she was no longer sharing her brain, now that she couldn’t bear to play KikiMas, all she could do in such moments was look away. But an hour later, it all seemed to be settled: Kiki and Tomas would use “their platform” to inform the masses as to who Grayson was, what he’d done before, what he was undoubtedly here to do. The famous TwoSome would urge the public to protest, to demand their government allocate funds to stop the virus that must already be spreading. Vedhika said nothing, and really Kiki and Tomas didn’t seem to be asking for feedback. If they had, she might have also said He’s probably already pretty tight with the government.
Less than a day after Kiki and Tomas released their clip, they were locked up—an occurrence they’d failed to consider in all their planning and prepping. But of course Grayson tended to be a couple steps ahead of the fastest runner; he’d been in AreaX3 for a while now and wasn’t playing volleyball. The government had by then stopped acting like the government most people imagined they had and started acting like something resembling an organized-crime unit. Now, was that all Grayson’s doing, or something already in play, which he managed to use to his advantage? Vedhika didn’t know. All she knew was that she’d become famous overnight.
Kiki and Tomas had mentioned her in the clip: the first case of a TwoSome aborting, they said, was no abortion, no accident. It was murder, and one that proved exactly who we were facing: a man who’d take the life of his own brother without hesitation.
She moved fast after that: recruiting, organizing, training. If people wanted a different ending than the destruction and desolation the other Area had seen, then they’d better be willing to fight. She operated mostly from the desert, but had no qualms about coming into the city when she needed.
Her so-called fame certainly helped, because it made people follow her more easily. And Kiki and Tomas’s battle plans helped, too—Vedhika found all the documents, complete with a key to a warehouse full of weaponry, in a safe underneath their bed. When she guessed the password on her very first try (it was the name of Kiki’s old dog), she felt such a sharp pain in her lower belly—where she’d been feeling everything since Jerome—that she folded in two. But in truth, she’d have gotten her army together with or without that safe, with or without celebrity, or else fought the government troops all on her own. Vedhika had come to see herself like something of a wonderwoman.
She could have ignored Joanna’s note, as she had so many other appeals and conspiracy theories—Joanna was always just Ave’s sister to her, to all of them, and seemed a little crazy and often in a bad mood. And the longer the war went on, the more dangerous it got for her to leave the desert—the roads were in terrible shape now, worse even than the reports had been suggesting. But something about the note—perhaps its particular brand of cryptic, or the way it alluded to some crucial oversight on Vedhika’s part—made her in one fast sharp moment decide to show up.
Bodies were everywhere—there just wasn’t the infrastructure to handle it all, and that’s not where either side was investing money—and while she wasn’t delicate about that sort of thing, while one had to accept the reality of war, this was the first time she’d let herself recognize the smell of death in the air, that scent of burnt skin and charred bones she knew too well from the old Area.
They met in the back room of a defunct gaming lab—Joanna knew the old owner, said it was “completely secure”—and when Vedhika entered (black curtains, dozens of gigantic screens) her first thought was that she never would have recognized Joanna, if she’d passed her in the street. She looked years older than she should have. Vedhika asked about Ave first thing, of course; she’d heard rumors over time. She’s gone, Joanna said with hollow eyes. No one knows where she is but I know she’s never coming back. She looked straight at Vedhika then, said In a way that’s what I’m here to discuss. I think you’re making the same mistake I did.
Vedhika signaled for Joanna to go on.
Ave and I hated that job, designing cards for the Jacobs, Joanna said. Later, when I learned we’d been spreading the virus, I figured a part of us knew all along. And maybe that was true. But witnessing it all happen again now.... Do you know what I realized? Vedhika didn’t know if she was supposed to respond, and when she didn’t, Joanna continued. Those cards did a lot more than infect—they fucked with people’s heads! Did Ave tell you she made Valentine’s cards that promised people they’d never love again? Everything was always concealed, made to seem funny, but those cards made people lose hope. Which made them more susceptible to catching the virus. Joanna paused. I assume you know she and Jerome had a thing? She looked at Vedhika as if to gauge if she understood. She stopped living when she lost hope that he would ever come back. Do you see? She took Vedhika’s hands in hers. Love. Love is your answer.
What kind of naive bullshit was this? Vedhika, who’d faced more than her fair share of cruelty, who’d learned (or perhaps always knew?) how to be cruel herself, wanted to snort in Joanna’s face. But her lower belly was contracting, telling her Joanna was offering some kind of strange key.
You’re focusing on the wrong thing, Joanna said. Forget about the fighters—you have soldiers and they have soldiers and those battles will keep going on their own. Focus on the millions and millions of people at home, Vedhika, who have lost loved ones, who are alive but acting as if they’re already dead. If you give enough people enough hope, you’ll win this war.
Had Joanna known Vedhika better—had there been, say, more overlap back in the old Area, more time between when Joanna moved to town and when she and Ave started suspecting Grayson, more time, therefore, for Joanna and Vedhika to develop a real friendship—surely she’d have noticed the shift in Vedhika’s face, in her spirit. Because Joanna was talking about love, and you could never inspire that hope for love in others without connecting to your own. Joanna was being cautious, whenever she mentioned Jerome—she was such a sweet soul, Vedhika thought, and really they all kind of never gave her a chance—but that wasn’t the point right now. It would have made for a simpler, clearer story, yes, if it had all depended on him, but life wasn’t a story. Life was this messed-up thing in which Vedhika stood in a strange-looking room (did they ever really need all these screens?) listening to a woman she hadn’t seen in years, and realizing—a soft beat in her ear at first, then louder, then louder—that if Joanna was right, if Vedhika needed to reach for love in order to beat Grayson, then she needed to reach for Grayson to beat Grayson. That was the truth, wasn’t it? He was a monster, but she was the idiot who loved a monster. Now what the hell do you do with that?
Okay, so, love it is.
Let’s set the scene: A woman comes to her senses. The man believes this because he believes in the weakness of everyone other than himself, especially women. And though the woman had previously had the nerve to attempt to defeat him before changing her mind, then—well, putting aside the betrayal, the hurt she caused him, the rage he felt and still feels and will feel forever and actually enjoys feeling, especially toward a woman, this also meant that the woman might be almost as good as him. Thus, paving the way for ~REAL LOVE~ between ~NEAR-EQUALS~.
(Do we sound contemptuous? Well, it is not like we are trying not to.)
In a clean world, clean in the obvious ways but also lacking stupids and uglies and carbs and fake gold and long-haired cats and all else Grayson hates (he hates so much), Vedhika holds hands with Grayson as they walk down the street. Just hold on! we call to her from a great distance as we watch them on the screens.
Vedhika absent, Vedhika having given up the revolution and her old armies sheepishly going to jail or sheepishly trying to get their old jobs back, means that the game designer is in charge, helming this project. The game designer works constantly and barely sleeps and eats and breathes stutteringly, highly non-yogically, until the only healthy thing about her is how much she stands, swaying a little, buttressed by the tapping of her hands against various screens and keyboards. We call her Sister Sister, after the little sister also inhabiting her body, after an old TV show that some of us remember from another Area (some of us are aghast, and compelled, when we hear about it; there is no such thing as twins in this Area, although we’re learning, we’re learning). The little sister is the one who pipes up, “Time for a break! I want a futon and a pizza at least three times the size of my face!” and though Big Sister tries to fight her and keep working, Little Sister knows best, and ferries Big Sister to the rest and sustenance she won’t admit she needs.
Sister Sister’s sacrifice is necessary. She suffers and toils and we try to help her when we can, but none of us can do what she does.
She has built a new Area.
Sure, it’s tiny. Sure, Grayson’s dreamworld by nature is simpler, ~CLEANER~, than any world has a right to be. Still, it is a whole world that manages to be just real enough. Vedhika tricked him into it, is the thing—she pulled them both in. The world Sister Sister built certainly fooled Grayson at first, especially distracted as he was by Vedhika—by love and by his victory over practically everything that counted: this world and that world and this woman.
They take walks and eat salads. It’s so freaking boring. Once in a great while, they encounter another person, which Sister Sister has programmed to be tall and symmetrical and not always but usually white (“I’m not a racist,” Grayson might say if he were to care what anyone thought of him, nodding toward Vedhika, but we know all about Grayson’s standards and ideal proportions for a good clean world, don’t we). They greet each other, talk for a while, then walk on. Sometimes swimming and stretching. Then more salad.
We are agog: for this you ran riot on the world, from world to world, for this utter letdown of a despotic vision? It’d be funny if no one had died. And even so, it almost is, it almost is.
And what of Vedhika? “It’s my decision to make,” she said. “I’ll handle it,” she said. “He can’t know I’m pretending,” she said. So: I won’t be pretending, she did not say. We watch them on the screens, and we cannot do anything but love Vedhika and thank her endlessly for her sacrifice and bravery, but we see that she is letting herself love him, she is finding the real, actual love in herself for Grayson and thus we have to hate her a little bit too, even though it’s the only way this plan would have been possible. We have all lost a lot.
Here is how it happened: One day, as planned, Vedhika and Grayson found each other again and Vedhika tearfully told him she had called it all off, she didn’t know what she had been thinking because really she wanted to be with him and help him realize his dreams of a clean world. This we didn’t get to watch on the screens, so we don’t know how she played it. It must have been tricky. But it worked, because they were in love again and then at some point she pulled him into the gaming lab and after a while it was not clear if they were playing a game and where it would all end but seemingly they emerged, they returned to the Area and swept it up, pure and final.
Of course, they hadn’t really emerged. They only went deeper in. And when we followed them into the lab, after an appropriate amount of time, they were nowhere to be seen. Until you realized that it really was them, on those screens, where we could follow their progress.
We sat watching them, characters without controls. We had meals delivered and brushed the crumbs away from our laps and went into the single-person bathroom to surreptitiously wash our armpits and some of us left and went back home to rebuild, now that Grayson was gone—and if not quite gone, then “out of the picture” in a way both metaphorical and very nearly not. Some of us went to work on Kiki and Tomas’s case, though things were already looking good for them. With Grayson displaced they would be out in no time.
Sometimes, when people try to get her to rest, when her little sister tries to sit her down for a rest too early, Sister Sister mumbles, “We’re winning but haven’t won yet,” not even taking her game headset off. She tap-tap-taps and weaves an ever-denser web around Grayson and Vedhika, preparing for the moment when Vedhika escapes.
You didn’t think we’d just leave her in there, right? Sure, she may have stared at us, no expression on her finely molded face, proclaiming that she would stay in there with Grayson forever if she had to, but we were not about to allow it. We’d all said that there was a way; there was always a way. Though of course it was just something we said, then, crying our objections, and not something that we were at all sure was true. We had looked over at Sister Sister, who nodded. “We will get you out,” she said.
Sister Sister has built Vedhika many doors. It’s another tricky thing—making a door so Vedhika can see it but not Grayson—so Sister Sister keeps trying, throwing out subtle doors like playing cards as Vedhika and Grayson take their walks, eat their salads, redecorate their loft, have sex as some but not all of us avert our gaze.
Sister Sister is beginning to wonder if Vedhika just doesn’t want to leave, but over breakfast one day Grayson says, “It’s time to move on.” “Where?” says Vedhika. “There’s more out there,” he says. “The next Area. We’re finished here.” And Vedhika looks so small on the screens that although we can’t see her face very well, those of us who really know her know that she is crumbled, a ruin. It is the face of a person who thought they could go through anything if they knew it would be over and then realized this thing would never be over.
That night, as Grayson sleeps, Vedhika slips out into the hallway, running the tips of her fingers against the walls. She finds the door and walks through. The black rectangle lingers for a moment before jerkily filling in the white wall, pixel by pixel. Then it sketches upon itself an image of a woman—a perfect rendering of Vedhika frozen in Barbie pose, arms slightly bent at her sides, chest forward, body balanced on her tiptoes. The image peels itself from the wall, plumps out into three dimensions, and walks silently back into the bedroom. Next to Grayson, the copy-Vedhika closes its eyes and shams sleep.
We know it’ll take the real Vedhika a while to reach us. We feel her getting closer, her feet crunching on leaves as she walks through forests and thickets and abandoned strip malls. She’s on her way.
Grayson, we know, respects nobody really, and is technically capable of love but in such a twisted and limited way that it almost doesn’t count, but we’ll give him this: it does not take long for him to discover the ruse. We watch them through a whole day, copy-Vedhika enchanting and engaged but not too, and we think it’ll all be okay, but suddenly everything falls apart. He realizes that he is holding a very cunningly painted doll in his arms, a doll of meat and wire and bone and code and he knows it is not her. It is not his woman.
Now that the game is up, the copy-Vedhika freezes, the processing power allocated elsewhere. Grayson snarls and grabs at her but his fingers go right through her face. Nothing to touch. “I see,” he says. He leaps out of bed and puts his clothes on. He spins around the room, looking up, pointing almost at us, unable to make eye contact because it’s not like he knows where to look, but it’s still unnerving. He comes close. “I see you,” he says, chuckling. “That’s all right. That’s all right.”
With a jaunty shake of his head, Grayson says, “I’ll be there soon.”
And he runs through the house and down the stairs, past the river and the gardens and the streets that Sister Sister ploddingly typed in until her arms burned. He uses the landscape up so quickly it’s as if he’s crumpling and accordioning it beneath his feet, and before we know it he’s at the forest. We are all standing up at this point.
Eyes closed, Grayson sprints through the woods as the ground changes from dirt and leaf and branch to dirty cement and the second he feels the shift he opens his eyes and crashes into a man with long, smooth hair and cheekbones that jut like shoulders.
“Leon!” Grayson shouts. “Leon, we’ve got to make a plan, I’ve been betrayed…” He rants on, cool totally lost in the presence of the one person he trusted. Leon gently tells him to quiet down.
“You and me are gonna find her,” Leon says. “We’re gonna make this right. All is not lost.”
Grayson is soothed. In some form or another, everybody falls in love with Leon. He lets Leon lead him down the street. One of us frantically tells Sister Sister to do something. She shushes us. We see them under one streetlight, and then another, and then they disappear.
“I didn’t put Leon in there,” Sister Sister says. “I think that was him.”
We wonder if Grayson will ever wake up, if he will fight his way back out of the web, getting larger and larger and closer to reality until he emerges here again, stronger and more experienced and more hateful than ever—or perhaps our punishment will come in a different form. He’ll find a pathway around us, weave dreams to enclose us until we’re wrapped up smotheringly in ever-smaller worlds. We won’t even know it.
The screens flicker. Between moments that seem to take place in near-total darkness, with only the tremble of movement to indicate that the monitors haven’t switched off, Leon and Grayson walk through a jumble of scenes—a game convention, a bakery, a street fight—before arriving at a house. Leon takes them inside without knocking.
Two men, one ungainly and bearded, the other younger and clean-shaven, sit at a dining table piled high with cards. They greet Leon and Grayson briefly and bend back down to their work. The younger one grumbles, “Where’s the intern?”
“Give it a rest. The prototypes are the most important thing. We’re not going to trust these with the intern.”
“Yeah, fine, but I’m asking, where is he?”
The bearded man keeps folding. “He died.”
Grayson turns to look outside the kitchen window. Joanna and Ave sitting in the backyard, looking like a diorama with the lights strung above and around them. He stares and stares and we can no longer see his face but we know he must be smiling. We’re just glad he’s not trying to look at us. While Grayson’s attention is elsewhere, Leon’s gaze finds ours. He wears a caul of deep, almost saintly exhaustion. He nods at us once and goes to stand behind Grayson. Sister Sister turns the screens off.
It’s time to go home.
Clean is a unique literary experience created by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s. We commissioned writers Alice Sola Kim and Shelly Oria to collaborate on a single story, inspiring and challenging each other as they built it. One would write a chapter and send it to the other, who would take the tale off in whatever direction she felt was right. We will be delivering the chapters, two by two, over the course of five days.
Characters re-emerge and develop, ideas evolve and expand, narrative threads reappear and are reimagined. The result is a fascinating literary experiment in which you will want to immerse yourself, and come back to again and again.
WeTransfer is the simplest way to send your files around the world. We also celebrate, showcase and commission great creative work. Founded in 2009, our team is based in the Netherlands and the US.
McSweeney’s is an independent publishing company based in San Francisco. Its projects include a journal of new fiction (McSweeney’s), a magazine of essays and interviews (the Believer), an ever-growing selection of books under various imprints, and a daily humor website.
Shelly Oria’s book of short stories, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (FSG & Random House Canada, 2014) earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction among other honors. It was recently translated into Hebrew and published in Israel by Keter Books. Shelly’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and McSweeney’s among many other places, and has won a number of awards, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. A recipient of grants and fellowships from MacDowell, LMCC, and the Sozopol Seminars in Bulgaria, she co-directs the Writers’ Forum at Pratt and has a private practice as a life & creativity coach.
Alice Sola Kim, a left-handed anchor baby currently residing in New York, is a winner of the 2016 Whiting Award. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in places such as Tin House, Lenny Letter, The Village Voice, McSweeney’s, BuzzFeed Books, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. She has received grants and scholarships from the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Elizabeth George Foundation.