Lissa. The original name of my body. A name I was never meant to know. They don’t tell us our body’s origins the majority of the time—there’s a fear we’ll try to interfere with lives that don’t belong to us, that we’ll want too get too human. Once the bodies are donated, they cease to exist as what they once were.
Talking to the angry girl is already more than I should be doing; both of us know we’re making a mistake in engaging. But it’s too late now, isn’t it? She knows who I am, and I know her connection to my body. The chasm has already been crossed.
“Your best—” I swallow, tightening my grip on my coffee cup. “Shit. I didn’t expect that.”
She waves at another barista and calls over her shoulder at them, “Hey, I’m going on my break,” before ducking under the bar and marching directly to my table. Without a care, she pushes my bag from the chair, spilling my clothes upon the floor, and seats herself.
I follow her back to the table and scoop my shopping back into its bag, my hands shaking with frustration and—fear?
When I sit down across from her, clutching my hot drink between my hands like some kind of lifeline, her eyes search my face, my hair, my hands with such scrutiny that I feel naked before her. She barks a laugh and leans her chair back dangerously far.
“I can’t believe this,” she says. “This is some bullshit. Do you even know how messed up it is to see someone you care about, hear their voice, and it’s not them?
“I don’t know, I’m sorry,” I say.
“No, you’re not,” she snaps. “Is this your first? Or do you get a new body every season? Is she your summer look?”
I wriggle in my seat, finding myself extremely uncomfortable in my skin. “That’s not how it works. I didn’t choose this.” She lets out a harsh breath, and I know I’ve chosen the wrong words, because I did choose this, in some form. Not this body, but at least this life. “I mean, I didn’t—”
“Whatever, shut up. I don’t care what you think or feel. You’re in Lissa’s body, so you’ve got an obligation to her.” She raises her hand sharply as I open my mouth, cutting me off. “She was my best friend. She was everything good in this world. Now she’s dead, and I wish they’d burned her body so I’d never have to see you waltzing around in it. It’s sick.” Her hand darts out and plucks my coffee from my hands. She takes a gulp.
“Look, I don’t know what you want, but—”
“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” she asks, eyes aflame. “What they told you was a lie, okay?”
“What was a lie?”
“Lissa didn’t kill herself. I know she didn’t.”
Time seems to slow as she utters her next words; “She was murdered.”
“She—murdered?” My mouth drops open. I don’t know what to do with murdered, the word too big and dramatic to be spoken aloud in any serious tone. It sounds like some kind of joke.
It must be a joke, right?
“Why would anyone… kill her?”
The girl lowers her eyes to the checkerboard print of the table between us, and some of her anger gives way to exhaustion.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know who, I don’t know why. But I just know that—” she pauses, then laughs again, short and sharp. “This is ridiculous. That you can just walk in here and I can’t help spilling my guts to you because you look like her.”
“I can leave if you want,” I say.
“No.” She’s reluctant to say it, she really does want me to go, but there’s something else she wants more. Letting out a breath, she leans on the table, face filled with urgency. “I need your help, okay? I hate you, but you’re the only person that can help me figure this out. Nobody else will believe me. She was my best friend!”
I feel as if I’m tumbling out of control, suddenly thrown into a story that isn’t mine. If I stand to leave, I have no doubt she’ll yank me back, or hunt me down later.
Besides, I admit I’m curious.
“What kind of help?” I ask, already feeling like I know the answer. What else could it be?
“We need to find the person that killed her.”
There it is: a request that sounds so utterly bizarre and unbelievable, and yet she completely means it. According to her, I’m meant to solve a murder. I may be curious about Lissa’s death, but I’m not sure I’m get-myself-arrested-or-killed curious.
“Look,” I say, pushing myself to my feet, “I know you’re upset, but this isn’t a healthy way to deal with loss.”
“What would you know about loss?” she snaps. “How dare you patronize me, as if I haven’t been hurt more than you with this. As if I don’t know more about Lissa than you ever will.”
“I don’t care about Lissa. This isn’t my responsibility.”
She smacks her palm against the table with a crack. Other patrons in the cafe glance over at us, whispering between each other. Violence isn’t out of the picture when it comes to human-ersatz arguments, and I’m sure at least some of the onlookers are hoping for exactly that.
“Someone killed my best friend,” she hisses. “She died for nothing, and she deserves justice. That body is not yours, and you owe it to her to find out who’s responsible for her death.”
Groaning, I press my fingers to my eyelids, as if this is a dream I can wipe away. I find it hard to believe that Lissa—such a pretty name—died in a way other than what I was told. Murder is a big claim. It can’t be real.
Still, the conviction in the girl’s voice sways me. What if Lissa was killed? What if I could help bring peace to people I have taken something from? I can’t help imagining myself in a similar situation—Paiden dead, and nobody believing me when I knew her best.
I let out a long, weary breath and sit back down.
“Okay,” I say. “Say I believe you, say I offer to help, what would you want me to do?”
“Honestly, I didn’t think that far ahead.” She falls into her chair and chews her cheek. “Visit her family, maybe. See if they’ll let you look around her room. They wouldn’t let me.”
“Aren’t you her best friend? Why wouldn’t they let you?”
Shrugging, she takes another sip from my drink—which I guess she’s claimed now. “It’s complicated. Her dad didn’t like me before she died, and he likes me even less now that I won’t ‘let her go.’ ” She scratches airquote clawmarks in the air with a sneer.
“Do you think he did it?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. She shrugs again. “I don’t know. Why should I tell you that? I don’t even know your name.”
She snorts. “Fancy name. Did you pick it yourself?”
“Yes,” I say. “But not all of us do.”
“I’m Sam. I was named that, like a normal human,” she says. “I have a list of suspects, some more likely than others. I actually have…” her cheeks redden as she mumbles, “a ringbinder.”
“A ringbinder. Suspects, motivations, that kind of stuff. I figured that if nobody else was going to take this seriously, then I’d have to. I know what I’m saying sounds crazy, but you have to believe me. Please.”
For a moment, I take Sam in properly. She’s angry, yes, but I’m starting to understand that a little more. Her best friend is dead and nobody will listen to her. This isn’t a hopeless, childish game, it’s something she’s desperately devoting a large part of her life to. I mean, a ringbinder? That’s more organized than I’ve ever been.
“We should meet up when I’m off work,” she says. “We can talk more then. Here, give me your number.” She thrusts a phone at me expectantly, eyes shining.
“I have one question,” I say as I type my number onto the screen.
“I might not answer it.”
Already, I can tell I’m going to get sick of Sam real fast.
“What makes you think her parents will let me into her house?”
She wiggles her eyebrows at me, snatching her phone back and pocketing it. “Oh, they won’t. You’re going to break in.”
Before I can respond, she’s slipped back off to work. Most of me is sure I won’t go through with this, that I’ll ignore her messages until she gives up.
But part of me knows that I’m going to reply. In a world that’s become dead to me, the idea of solving a murder feels exciting, electric.
I collect my shopping and leave, stepping into blazing sunlight. My insides churn, but it’s not the same anxiety I’ve started getting used to. It’s a weird, new feeling, one of indecision, and of anticipation.
I could really go for a coffee.
“You’re going to what?” Paiden glares at me through the screen, her bright eyes boring into mine. For the first time, I’m relieved at the separation between us right now. I can almost feel the heat of her anger.
“It’s nothing bad—”
“Breaking into a house? How is that not bad?”
Sure, she’s got me there, but she definitely focused on the wrong part of my story. “She’s sad, she needs help. Maybe I can help her.”
“So? Are you going to help every sad person in the world?”
“No,” I say, sighing. Because this isn’t really about Sam, is it? “But this might help me.”
Paiden pauses, the steely anger melting from her face. “Do you really think this will help you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe? But it gives me… something.”
“This isn’t going to make you more human,” she says. “They’re not going to accept you more if you stick your nose in their business.” Pressing a hand against her forehead, she leans closer to the camera. Golden hair tumbles over her shoulders like sunshine. “You could get hurt.”
“I probably won’t even do it. It’s just there, I guess. Something I could do,” I say, shrugging. “Maybe.”
“Well,” she says, voice strained, “I won’t be happy with you if you do break into a dead girl’s house, but it’s your choice. If it’s something that might help you, then, I don’t know—I’m not going to tell you to go for it. It’s stupid, but it’s not like you haven’t done stupid things before. You’re stupid.”
She gives a half-hearted chuckle, and I laugh along, because yeah, maybe I’ve never broken into a house before, but I’ve never exactly been the perfect artificial. I think that’s half the reason my sister stopped trying.
But Paiden doesn’t understand—she’s always had it easier than me. Her fathers are human, she’s been here since she was a baby, she’s been accepted into that world already. I’d never say it to her, but I would give my body up a thousand times over to have a real link to the human world.
“Just be safe, okay?” she asks.
“You know me,” I say.
“I do. That’s what worries me.”
“Hey, it’s fine. You’ll lawyer me out of it if I get into trouble, right?” I grin at the camera as she throws her hands in the air.
“I’m not a lawyer yet!”
She laughs with me, but there’s still a tightness to her mouth, a crease between her eyebrows.
“Speaking of school,” she begins, quietly, “have you been painting at all?”
I glance around my room, gaze flickering across dirty paint water and half-finished pictures. Parts of the architecture of my life, yet I’ve barely thought about them since… then.
“I guess I’ve been distracted,” I say.
“Maybe you should try getting back into it? Could be good for you.”
“Maybe,” I say, interlocking my fingers in my lap. Her mentioning my painting brings back fresh memories of how I looked at the world before the crash, always searching for angles and light that I could translate onto paper and canvas. There was always some detail—the way someone’s shoulders jutted out, neon lights reflected in glass, the petals of flowers in spring—that I had to scrawl in a notebook. When did that stop? Why haven’t I even thought about painting again since my half-death?
When did I stop seeing the world as I used to?
I wonder if Lissa lost that sight, too.
Clicking, buzzing, humming fills the air. This is summer, isn’t it? Not the blazing sun, not the clear sky, not the kids sprinting through the gardens with no shoes, but the vibrant cacophony of the insects. The bees bumbling their way from flower to flower are a scientific marvel—engineered against their own extinction before I was given life—but nobody seems to think twice about them anymore. It’s history, just like an artificial’s reason for existing. It’s hard to think about, how much humans have shaped the very Earth. I, like the new bees, have always belonged to them.
And here I am now, holding a paintbrush that doesn’t feel like it fits my fingers anymore, a watercolour pad balanced across the gap between my crossed legs. Dull-eyed humans strolling through the gardens give me confused glances—isn’t art supposed to be confined to humanity? they wonder.
Well, screw that. Anyone can pick up a pencil.
Before me is a bush of blue-purple flowers, a thousand blossoms blooming in unison to look like one giant bouquet. I have no clue what they’re called, but they’re gorgeous, the gradient of their petals so like the watercolour paint staining the pages of my pad. Purple and blue blending together in swirling waves. Paiden would ask, “What do you call that colour?” as she pointed at a shifted shade of blue; I would shake my head and wish I didn’t remember every shade’s name like a computer.
So: it’s blue. Just blue, with a bit of purple. Indigo, maybe, if I’m feeling particularly poetic. A pretty colour, regardless of its name. I’ve never understood Paiden’s love of labels, her desire to sort everything into little boxes she can pack away. Maybe that’s why she’s doing law, and I’m in art school. That’s why she’ll survive this world better than I.
Translucent rivers flow from my brush, colours rushing together before soaking into the thick paper of my pad. With each stroke, I find the patterns and shapes of the bush emerging upon the page, and I fall more and more into the moment. Light shifts and I pull the page from the notebook, setting it beside myself to dry as I begin something new. The hanging, pearl-drop blossoms, shimmering white outlines illuminated by a low, afternoon sun. You have to be aware of where you shouldn’t paint with watercolours, when it comes to light like that; don’t fill the space, or the illusion is ruined.
My hand twitches and my brush smears paint across the empty space, jerking me out of my reverie. Blinking, I look around properly for the first time in what could be hours. My back aches, my eyelids are heavy, and there’s a dark fog hanging around the gardens that can’t be anything except my own exhaustion. The self-contained warmth of being immersed in my art is gone, I’m left with a hollow emptiness in my chest.
An illusion, just like the light in a painting: the imagined idea of being happy, of being myself again. As I pack my gear away, I can’t tell if having that time of feeling like my old self made me feel better, or if I’m just more pissed off about my current existence now. More than ever, I’m feeling the sharp ache of loss, because I’m not sure I even felt happy while I was painting. I think there was only a focused lack of feeling, which I guess is more than my usual unfocused lack of emotion.
I catch the next empty bus headed towards home and find my usual seat, pressing my face against the glass of the cool window. The overlay of the interior lights of the bus over the sunset-tinged trees is abstract, almost alien. A part of me wants to pull out my pad and paint right here and now.
A stronger part of me just wants to lay here and never move again in my life. I’m so exhausted, my limbs heavy and aching, barely able to keep myself upright as the bus brakes at a stop sign. The stronger part wins, and my paints stay in my bag. It’s not like my picture would be good anyway, right?
“Bus,” I say, “do you ever get tired?”
For a long moment, the bus doesn’t respond. She’s probably not programmed to answer questions that aren’t route-related.
Then, surprisingly, her voice echoes down from the speakers over my head.
“Yes,” she says. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Do you dream?” I ask.
“No, not like you.” Her voice is smooth, non-confrontational. The kind of voice you’d expect from a kindly maternal figure—or so I assume, never having had one of those myself. If she’s bitter, I can’t tell from her tone.
“Do you resent us?”
She hesitates, I can tell in the pause before her next words. Deciding whether or not to lie, though I doubt she’s able to lie outright anyway.
“Sometimes, but then I see artificials like you,” she says.
I snort, sitting up and leaning over the chair in front of me to stare down the bus at her control panel. A light flickers. “Yeah?”
“I have a purpose. I transport people. What is your purpose?”
“I don’t have one,” I say.
“I don’t want that life,” she says, and for an instant I think she sounds pitying. “I’m happy. Whether or not I have no choice in that isn’t something I can question, and I don’t particularly care about questioning it either.”
“Huh,” I murmur, leaning back in my seat. “One more question?”
“Do you like humans?”
Laughter filters from the speakers. “Most of them.”
“Yeah,” I say. I gaze out of the window at the houses passing by, the rich sunset tones reflected in their windows. “That sounds about right.”
Brief update note: This week was late because of illness & travel. From this update onwards, Tourist will be updated fortnightly.