Content warnings for alcohol, suicide, allusions to sexual violence.
If there’s one person I never want to see when I wake, it’s Sam. So when I open my eyes to her sitting at an unfamiliar desk in an unfamiliar room, her back to me, my first reaction isn’t confusion. It’s a sudden exhaustion at the unfairness of the world to place me somewhere so obviously hers.
The room is a mess. Creased clothes tossed over every surface, at least three mugs on the desk, photos peeling from where they were stuck to the wall with gaps showing where pictures have already fallen into the chaos of the room. What sticks out most of all is a jar filled with half-dead flowers beside Sam. There’s enough life in them still to justify keeping them, but I can’t help but feel that the room itself is pulling the flowers closer to death. The limp, purple blossoms lean away from Sam as if trying to escape her anger—her room’s atrophying presence.
Or maybe that’s just how things are when you’re organic. Flowers die. Sam loses Lissa. I continue existing.
I shouldn’t be here. Memories blur, rise through the fog. I remember the panic, the stars at the edge of my vision, the way the stairs rushed up towards me. Rubbing the hem of a worn blanket between my fingers, I try to ground myself in this moment and not where part of me still thinks I am.
Sam must hear my movement because she turns to sit side-saddle in her chair and look at me. For a moment, we’re both frozen by the oddness of this situation. Neither of us knows the right words. She chews her cheek.
“I didn’t know what else to do with you,” she says. Blunt as ever. “I almost left you there.”
“What happened?” I ask. She shrugs, slouching against the back of the chair. Her laptop’s screen glows behind her, illuminating her hair with a faint aura. Almost angelic, if I didn’t know better. If angels even exist for artificials.
“You fainted. I looked it up and I think the artificial part of your brain and the biological part both had different panic reactions and you sorta just… shut down.” She snorts. “Maybe. I don’t know, I’m probably making that shit up.”
I’m so shocked by the fact she looked up what was wrong with me that I struggle to find anything to say in response. I choke out a “Thanks.” She snorts, rubs her shoulder.
“Yeah, whatever. Just wanted to make sure you wouldn’t die in my house. You look like shit, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I say again. My tone is dry. So is my mouth.
“Ha.” Her eyes flash. “No, I mean you look sick as all hell. Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Sick. Dying. I don’t know.” She waves a hand. “I can’t be the only person who’s noticed.”
“No,” I say. Her eyes narrow at my hesitation. “Okay, maybe. In the same way as Lissa.”
Her chair squeaks as she slumps even more over the back, her hands slapping her desk. “Yeah, okay. Okay.” A sigh. “Okay.”
“What do you care, anyway?” I ask. I push myself up and lean against the wall, hugging my knees. My body shivers with the effort. She shrugs again, her eyes hidden behind her hair.
“What the fuck am I supposed to do?” she asks, voice muffled by the chair cushion. “You look like her. You sound so much like her. You’re trying to be her, aren’t you? It’s not fair, you know.”
She tilts her head, curled hair falling away from her face. Her eyes shimmer. “You’re trying to force your way into our lives, and what else can we do? Don’t you even see how much it hurts us?”
I shake my head. “You asked me to help.”
“So much good that’s done me. We now know Gray’s got anger issues and really, no shit. I know you’re as enamoured with Chase as she was. I know you hate me. Maybe she did, too.”
There’s something in her face when she says this. She doesn’t spit the words like venom, they’re cold and sharp as ice. There’s cool, icy anger, but there’s also envy, and—
Suddenly, it clicks.
“She was more than your best friend, wasn’t she?”
Sam laughs, a mirthless, bitter bark. “I was only her friend. Her best friend until this year. But never anything more.”
“Did she know?” I ask. My voice trembles as much as my body. Because Sam, angry and jealous Sam, has suddenly become a suspect to me. If Lissa pushed her away for Chase, if Lissa abandoned her for artificials—
“You figured my crush out quick enough,” Sam snaps. “Of course she knew. And yeah, I knew with her being ace and whatever she didn’t want to be with anyone, let alone me. It doesn’t matter. She was still my best friend.”
“Yeah,” she says, cutting my words short. “I was mad. No shit, I was real mad. I don’t want to talk to you about this. You’re just going to make the same mistakes she did. You’re already a mistake.”
My vision fragments with a flare of anger. “She wanted me to be here,” I say. I know I shouldn’t bite back, but I’m too exhausted to be any better.
“She would hate you,” she says. She sits up, her eyes shadowed.
“No, she would hate you,” I snap. “You didn’t know her at all.”
Sam springs to her feet, something gripped in her hand. I press myself against the wall, muscles tensed. Her mouth twists into a bitter smile. She forces a photo into my hands, and I taste something sour as I look down at a younger Sam, a younger Lissa. They’re in a crowd, their faces bright with exhilaration. At their feet is a broken synthetic. One of the last few truly artificial bodies, phased out five years ago. Lissa’s face is smeared with oil. She holds a torn, robotic arm high like a trophy.
I see myself in the photo, standing over a destroyed sibling. My chest clenches. I fold over myself and choke, crushing the photo in my hand.
Sam doesn’t touch me, only stands and watches as I gasp for air. People change, I tell myself. People change. Lissa changed.
But I can’t stop thinking: What if she didn’t? What if this is a punishment? Lissa punishing me for my existence? Throwing an artificial into a sick, broken body like hers. It’s a perfect kind of prison.
I don’t know Lissa at all.
“By the way,” Sam says, her words somewhere between a hiss and a whisper, “I told your girlfriend to come pick you up.” She walks over to her desk and throws my phone at me. “Better go out and greet her.”
“What were you thinking?” Paiden cries, her hand slicing in the direction of Sam’s house. I reach for the car door handle, my fingers shaking, and she sighs. It’s not her giving up; it’s one of her short, pissed-off sighs. She opens the door for me and helps me climb inside. She reaches to brush hair from my cheek and her hand hesitates, hovering near my face. I wait for the painful shock of her skin against mine, dreading her touch and hating myself for it. She pulls away, the door slams shut.
I can’t stop shivering as the car backs out of the driveway, can’t stop thinking about the brief seconds of horror before another car smashed into Paiden’s at the start of summer. Can’t help the fear blocking my throat. I can see it happening again, I feel the realization that I’m going to die.
“Allegra?” Paiden asks. Her voice is soft, dangerous and caring all at once. I close my eyes and force myself to breathe.
“Yeah,” I say. My voice is strained, but so is hers. “I’m here.”
“You know I love you.”
I exhale. “I know those words never lead to anything good.” I hear the palms of her hands hit the wheel, softly. Her anger is never hard, never violent.
“You won’t talk to me, Allie. You won’t even let me touch you.” I look over at her, and she shakes her head at me. My mouth closes. “I know you’re working through things, but you’ve shut me out. You’re ignoring me, breaking into places, pushing yourself so far you’re fainting. All I’ve wanted to do is help you, but you won’t try to help yourself.”
“I don’t know how.” My voice cracks. “Don’t do this.”
She sniffs, her nose wrinkles. “I don’t want to break up with you. But we need to take some kind of break until you figure out if you’re Allegra or Lissa. I can’t support both of you.”
I should fight. I should take her hand and tell her how much I love her. She’ll be better off without me, I think.
“Okay,” I whisper. “If that’s what you think we should do.”
“I still love you,” she says, as if that makes everything hurt less.
Her hair glows with every streetlight we pass by, her eyes shine gold. Rain fills the silence between us and the wipers squeak so quietly with every sweep, squeak-squeak, squeak-squeak, like a high-pitched heartbeat. Every flash of another car’s headlights makes me flinch, and with each flinch I catch Paiden’s fingers tighten around the steering wheel.
Paiden could never quite understand my strained relationship with humanity, having grown up with two human fathers. Having been in that body since she was a baby. Her dad and ba lost their child too soon—a daughter they’d never gotten to know—and instead they brought Paiden into their family. She looks like them, as much as she can. She grew up, had a childhood unlike so many of us. From the start, she had connections to the biological world. I wonder how nice that must be, to have a real family.
To my credit, I don’t cry until I step out into the rain and see the dark windows of my house reflecting the streetlights. When I look back at Paiden, I know she can’t tell the difference between rain and tears, and maybe she thinks I’m stronger than I am. She gives me a small smile before her car pulls away down the road, the red rear lights fading into the rain.
“Okay,” I breathe. I see Lissa’s smile, the oil-bleeding arm held over her head. I see the car window shatter. I see Paiden’s fingers on my skin. I look down and see my hands. Everyone would be better off without me, I realize.
The idea of opening the door into my dark home and hearing the heavy silence of the rooms fills me with dread. Addison must still be at work, and I don’t want to be alone after today.
So, I run. My shoes slap against the wet pavement, wind whips my hair across my face. The rain isn’t so bad this time, though I’m still soaked through within minutes. By the time I reach the lake, I feel like there’s nothing left of me except water.
I slow to a walk and pick my way around the beach, my head feeling as empty as the pitch-black water. My lungs fill with the humid air. I stop and stare out at the rippling lake.
“You’ve looked better.”
I jump away from the voice, a strangled yelp caught in my throat. When I turn, I see Chase standing on the grass above, his hands in his jacket pocket. His hair drips onto his face.
“Piss off,” I say. The last thing I need tonight is him yelling at me, too. Can’t I have a single moment where Lissa’s life doesn’t shadow me? This lake used to be my place.
He jumps down the slope to the beach and wanders over to me, wet sand crunching beneath his shoes. His shoulders are sloped, his mouth a tight line.
“No offense, but I’m not sure I trust you to be fine on your own,” he says, grim.
“I’m not her.”
“Yeah, but you’ve still got her brain.” He sighs, face turned to the sky. “Last time she told me to piss off, I did. And then I never saw her again. Forgive me if I’m a little iffy on doing the same with you.”
I give up and plant my butt on the wet sand. Moments later, he sits near me. Not close enough to touch, but close enough.
“Are you angry?” I ask. “With her?”
“I don’t know. I’m angry at a lot of things. But her? I don’t know,” he says. “Are you?”
The rain lessens. I wipe my face with a wet sleeve. “I don’t know. I’m starting to think I ended up here because she wanted to teach me some kind of lesson.”
“That doesn’t sound like her,” Chase says. He chuckles. “You’ve been talking to Sam, haven’t you? Sounds more like something she’d put in your head. Yeah, Lissa used to hate artificials, but that was in the past. Just look at Audrey, those two were close as anything.”
I want to believe him, want to believe the voice on Lissa’s phone that spoke so adoringly about Audrey and her cotton candy hair. Instead, I say, “Do you think Lissa killed herself?”
Chase goes very still and my chest tightens. His eyes meet mine, dull in the moonless night. I wonder how bright mine are, how inhuman I must look to him. Have I guessed wrong? Did he actually hurt Lissa? I tense, ready to leap to my feet and run, though I know he’s much stronger than I. His muscles are taut, his fingers dig into the sand.
“What do you mean?” he asks. He’s watching me just as carefully as I’m watching him.
I’m silent for a while. Then, I say, “Do you think someone else could have killed her?” I watch for his reaction to the question. He simply sucks in a breath and nods once to himself.
“So that’s what Sam’s been up to,” he says. His gaze drifts out to the lake. “I don’t know, Allegra. She was more depressed than she’d ever say, but Audrey told me she seemed to be doing a lot better the week before she died. Who would do that to her?” I don’t reply and after a moment his eyes widen. He laughs. “What? Me? You’re kidding, right? Sam’s more likely than I am, but I don’t think she—” He goes quiet.
“What?” I ask, twisting around in the sand to face him fully.
“Sam was there the night Lissa died,” he says. His eyes meet mine again. “Did you know that?”
“Yeah, she told me. How did you know?”
“I was there, too. I saw her sneak off.” I hear the suspicion in his voice, and I don’t like it. I don’t like that I’m starting to believe it.
“Emily was there, too,” I say, maybe a little too quickly. He tilts his head at me, then smiles.
“This isn’t your fight.” Pushing his soaked hair back from his face, he continues, “Whether or not Lissa—uh, well, you know. Whether or not it’s true, it’s not up to you to find out the truth. You don’t owe her anything.”
“Don’t I?” I ask. My voice breaks. His expression softens.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” he says, getting to his feet. He brushes at the sand on jeans, but it’s wet and stuck. I shrug in reply.
“I don’t want to be alone. Nobody else is there.”
“Then, I don’t know, come back to mine with me. I’d rather that than leaving you alone here. You can borrow some of my clothes and throw yours in the dryer if you want. Besides, I think we could both do with a drink.”
I almost tell him that I don’t drink anymore, but part of me thinks of the rum in Lissa’s room and wants nothing more than that. So I stand and I let him help me back to his car. Despite the warmth in the heavy air I can’t stop shivering. He blasts the heaters and we sit in silence as he speeds through the empty streets. I don’t know if it’s my water-soaked clothes making me shake, or the anxiety in my chest.
Chase is warm and friendly, and I want to trust him. I want him to be a friend. But Sam has said things about him and I don’t actually know him, not really. How strange, to not actually be able to trust someone when you so desperately want to.
Chase’s home turns out to be an apartment on the seventh floor in a quieter neighbourhood. I’m so used to houses that it takes me a moment to adjust to the small space that makes up his home. There are a bunch of cacti and succulents on his wide desk, a small pile of controllers perched on his squat coffee table-slash-dining table, a half-emptied dishwasher hanging open in the tiny kitchen. He waves me into his bedroom, tosses me an oversized hoodie and jeans, and closes the door behind him as he leaves. It takes me way too long to strip out of my saturated clothes and for a long while I simply stand without moving, naked and staring at the scar slicing down my chest.
By the time I slip back out into the living room-slash-kitchen, Chase has set a glass of something golden and fizzing on the table, while he cradles his own in his hands, his eyes unfocused. When he looks up, there’s his typical grin on his face. He stands and takes my wet clothes and disappears into the bathroom, and after a moment I hear the tumbling rattle of his dryer.
“I hope you weren’t wearing anything delicate,” he calls out.
“Uhh,” I say, reaching down to put down Lissa’s and my phones and pick up my glass. It’s cold to the touch, refreshingly so. I can smell the dry sweetness of the ginger ale. “I don’t think so.”
“Good,” he says with a laugh, swinging the bathroom door shut behind him. He nods at the drink in my hand. “Hope you like rum, cause it’s all I’ve got.”
“Lissa had rum, too,” I blurt. I take a gulp of my drink before I can say anything else.
“That’s my fault.” He laughs, swinging himself back onto the couch. “She wouldn’t drink anything except cider before she met me. Hey, do you taste things different when you change bodies?”
“Uh, kinda,” I say. “It’s hard to explain. The connections in the new brain still exist to say what’s sweet and what’s sour, and our artificial minds sort of sync with that.” I take another sip, and wonder if this drink does really taste different now I’m in Lissa’s body. “But every body is different. Nothing’s ever really the same when you’re put in a new one.”
“Makes sense,” he says. He seems to think about this for a moment, then asks, “Do you want me to put on a movie or something?”
“Yeah,” I say. He coaxes a smile out of me with his grin. “That would be nice.”
After some deliberation, he picks something we’ve both seen before, switches off the lights, and we sit back to drink and tune out the world for a while. How long has it been since I’ve let myself zone out and enjoy something without overthinking it? The rum fills my head with a sweet fog that quiets my thoughts.
When the credits roll, I stand up to stretch my legs and the world tilts a little, my head feeling just a little too light. I rub my eyes and walk over to the curtainless window to look at the dark world outside. A bright streetlight down across the road colours a square of wall white through the window. I dizzily take in the contrast of light on shadow, and wonder idly if Chase has spare paper and pencils I could sketch on.
I turn to ask him, and almost bump into his chest. He jerks back with surprise as I squeak. We both laugh.
Then I’m reaching for him and he’s reaching for me and my head is filled with white noise. His lips press against mine, and they’re too hot, too cold. I want to cry and push back, but I want so much to be normal and myself again and to want this like he does. If I can make myself enjoy this, maybe Paiden and I can go back to normal.
I don’t know when we find our way back to the couch, but I feel him press against me and I am made of glass, frozen and brittle and cold. His hand slips under my shirt and his touch leave trails of fire—painful, burning, hot—across my stomach. I am too aware of every inch of my body, of his hand on my thigh, of the couch arm digging into my neck, of his tongue—and I don’t want it, I don’t want it, I don’t want it.
But, but, I want something here. The world spins and I feel his breath on my neck and I want to scream. He takes my face in his hands and he breathes, “Lissa.”
We both freeze. His eyes go wide, and something like laughter bubbles from me.
“Oh my god,” he says, pushing himself away from me and standing. “Oh my god. This is so stupid. This is so, so, so stupid.” He runs his hands through his messy hair and laughs. “I’m so sorry, Allegra. We can’t do this.”
I breathe a sigh of relief and laugh with him. “Good. No, I mean—I’m sorry. I don’t like you like that, and even if I did—”
“I know, Allegra. You’re just like her.” I can’t help but notice every time he says my name, as if to remind himself of who really sits in his apartment. It helps to remind me, too. “And, shit, I can’t believe I’d do this to you, too.”
Cold settles in my chest. “Do what?” He doesn’t say anything for a long moment. I have to force myself to ask the question; “Chase. What did you do to her?”
His head snaps up. “Shit, Allegra. Nothing more than we just did. We were listening to music and talking, and we’d both had too much to drink after a really bad day. Next thing I knew she was sitting in my lap and kissing me. She called it off real quick. I stepped back and slept on the couch, and the next morning she’d caught a bus before I woke up.”
I would find it harder to trust him, if I hadn’t jumped into the kiss as quickly as him. How much of that was me, and how much of that was Lissa? I feel sick to my stomach at the spinning memory of his touch and I think he can see it. He sits in front of the window and presses his head against the glass.
“I’m sorry,” he says. His breath fogs the window. I go over to him and sit beside him. Not close enough to touch, but close enough. When he glances at me from the side of his eye, I give him a wry smile.
“Same here. Let’s just forget about it if we can. I’d rather pretend I never kissed a human.”
He chokes. “What?”
“I’m kidding.” I lay back and stare at the tall window. At the edge of my vision, I notice how the raindrops blurring the window cast shadows across Chase’s face. I try to burn that image into my brain, because I don’t have my watercolours at my fingertips, but I don’t want to miss painting this moment.
“Your eyes are so bright. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it,” he says. In the background, his TV has switched to playing something soft and acoustic. Rain patters against the glass. Inside I still feel cold, but the world feels warm, cozier. Safer, somehow.
“You don’t have to,” I say, “if you don’t want to.”
“Nah.” He lies down, too. “I want to, Allegra. As a friend.”
“As a friend,” I echo. I can’t remember the last time I made a friend. I’ve been living isolated since before I wound up in Lissa’s brain, I realize. His voice echoes in my head: Allegra.
We both lie there for a long time with the music and the rain filling the silence. Eventually, Chase begins to snore lightly. I peel myself from the carpet and trace the markings it’s made on the skin of my wrists and hands. My phone is dead, but Lissa’s bursts to life when I touch the fingerprint scanner.
I glance over at Chase, then find the conversation between Lissa and the blocked number. My finger hovers over the phone icon. I press my skin to the screen, and watch as the phone dials the number.