How To Say Goodbye

How To Say Goodbye

I wrote this short story last year and published it on gumroad with the caveat that I would put it on my blog around six months later. Here it is, for everyone to read, though if you want to support me/have it in epub form, feel free to buy it at itch.io.


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There’s someone new at the swimming hole, the secret place we escape to every summer afternoon when the bell rings. Spring from our seats, dash into sunlight, pile into cars that are more rust than vehicle. It’s a half hour drive through dusty rural roads, and we blast music the entire way. Soon, we know, we’ll be free from this school forever. If only these trips could last as long.

We figure something is up when we see the new car parked by the hidden hole in the bush, the gateway to the track. Who else knows about our place? Surely nobody. I turn to my best friend, whose forehead is already creasing with bafflement beneath her dark fringe.

El, upon falling out of the single left door of another car in our entourage, smacks a hand against her face and groans. Someone asks for clarity, El mutters and pushes ahead, sweeping blond hair back. She’s not one to explain when she’s angry, and she sure looks pissed.

We follow the tangled path down and around through still-blooming gorse until it opens up on a wide, layered plateau of stone and the river beyond. Afternoon sun ripples across the glassy swimming hole, the water clear enough to see the bottom of the opposite shore, but so deep the water nearest our jutting stone platform turns a deep blue-black.

Standing at the edge of the rock is a guy, his dark hair ruffled from the trek through the bush. He watches us emerge with a wide-eyed humour, and El blows a harsh breath from her nose.

“Parents wanted to give me a babysitter,” she huffs. “Someone to keep me ‘in line.’ He’s my end-of-school gift. Ugh.”

He’s a bot. Even without El’s words, we can see it in the way he moves, as if he’s an alien in human skin trying to pass as one of us. Still, he must be a pricey one: dark hair on his arms dances with the summer breeze, emotions flicker across his face almost naturally. One of those companion bots designed to change and grow, updated each year to keep up with their owners.

There are moments in life where a person meets someone new and their world changes perceptibly. Twine tightens around their heart, drawing them to this person. From the way my lungs fail as our eyes meet, his sparkling with unexplained joy, I know this is one of those moments. It’s unreasonable, right? No person can possibly predict that anyone is destined to be in their lives.

And yet, I know he is. A bot, bought and given to my friend. Impossible, ridiculous, unbelievable.

But, my world has already shifted to make space for him to occupy. My heart is tangled up, invisible lines weaving our futures together.

I take a breath, and even the air tastes different.

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Mountain Sound | Ten

Mountain Sound | Ten

Blinded by her anger, Harper fights to escape Efa’s tight hold on her. All she can feel is the burning desire to grab the soldier hurting the dog by their collar and—

Efa lets out a mechanical scream. She shudders, then crumples, her arms dropping from Harper’s waist. The girl, driven by her own momentum, propels herself forward. Ears ringing, she falls to her hands and knees—except her right hand isn’t there to catch her like her brain expects. She slams into her arm’s stump and keeps going, her head cracking against the floor.

Sharp pain bursts across her entire skull like fireworks, stars filling her vision. She tries to rise, but the world tilts dangerously as a loud whooshing drowns out all other sounds.

“Efa,” she says, more whimper than word. “Help me.”

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Mountain Sound | Nine

Mountain Sound | Nine

Frosted grass crunches beneath Efa’s feet as she flies across the paddocks. Dead to the world but still living, Harper sleeps, safely held in the droid’s arms. For Efa, there’s the niggling worry of concussion, wondering if they should take a break so she can check the girl over.

But the thought of the soldiers coming to and making chase with their ship and their guns wins out.

And so Efa runs.

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Mountain Sound | Eight

Mountain Sound | Eight

“When are we leaving?”

The moment the words leave her mouth Harper feels Efa stiffen around her, the droid freezing so completely she may as well be sculpted stone. Efa’s silence descends upon Harper’s skin like a cool mist.

“We are leaving, right?” she asks. “We can’t stay here.”

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Mountain Sound | Seven

Mountain Sound | Seven

Efa spears the shovel into the soft ground, taking in her finished work. Four graves, two smaller than the others, rest beneath an old oak the Farmer’s wife once admired aloud on a golden spring day. The physical labour of digging and burying at least granted her a few good hours of work to distract herself, but now Efa finds herself alone with her own thoughts. Not feelings, she knows, because she can’t be feeling. But the thoughts are there, and they are not kind ones.

Nearby, the sheep drift around the small meadow as they graze, though many of them wandered over earlier to sniff what she thinks may have been goodbyes to Cinna’s small body.

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Mountain Sound | Six

Mountain Sound | Six

All at once Efa’s body goes limp, slouching forward over the dying sheep. Though she has no breath to silence, there’s a sudden, deathly stillness about the droid that fills Harper’s veins with a cold fire.

“Efa,” she says, hesitantly at first, then again, louder: “Efa. Efa, wake up.”

The sheep have returned by now, crowding around with low bleats that remind Harper of her brother’s somber humming. They seem to look to her for answers, because Efa is quiet and cold in a way so like Harper’s mother, her sister, and—

and—

her.

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Mountain Sound | Five

Mountain Sound | Five

The morning begins with a scream. Piercing the still morning air, Harper’s voice echoes across the frosted landscape just as the sun’s soft light touches the mountains.

Head snapping around to look at the cabin, Efa rises from her crouched position and grabs her staff from where it rests.

“Harper?” she calls, tingling fingers tightening around the staff. Silence is her only reply.

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Mountain Sound | Four

Mountain Sound | Four

Efa stands still and silent as Harper wipes away the grime smearing her ceramic skin. She could be powered off, nothing more than a statue, but for the soft whirr within her. Her chest doesn’t rise and fall with the breath of the living; she has no twitching muscles, no fluttering eyelashes to betray her feelings.

Harper had thought cleaning Efa would have been like cleaning machinery, like washing her mother’s car. Instead, she finds herself hesitant to touch Efa’s body, as if she were a real human woman. There’s a strange quiver in her chest, something intimate, delicate and, yes, afraid.

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Mountain Sound | Three

Mountain Sound | Three

Fair hair splayed around her head like a storm, the human girl—Harper, Efa reminds herself—seems so oddly at peace when she sleeps, so unlike her conscious self. Awake, she is angry, near-feral like the weasels and wildcats that terrorize the chickens. Efa has never met anyone like her, though she can’t say she’s met many people beyond this farm’s borders before now. Perhaps the war the Farmer has mentioned has turned Harper into this wild animal, but Efa can’t picture her any other way.

War brings out the monsters in people,” he’d said, his eyes focused on a horizon darkening with smoke. “Some days I can’t help but wonder if your kind might be better at humanity than us.

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Mountain Sound | Two

Mountain Sound | Two

A chill breeze brushes her skin, icy fingers prying her from a slow, fever-blurred death. Her eyes are sticky, covered in a film that glues her eyelids together like a thick ointment. With the breeze comes scents from a childhood long gone; animal musk, pine and grass and earth. Above all, there’s the clear freshness of land untarnished by city smog.

She is sick, she is delirious, and none of this can be real. In her final, aching moments in this forsaken world, her brain has constructed a story of fresh air and itching grass, of blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds that come into sharper focus as she blinks away the fog. Too real, she thinks dimly, watching the clouds meander across their candy-blue field.

There is the sound of small feet rustling grass, then a creature’s velvet snout is suddenly snuffling at her face, little huffs of air tickling her heated skin. The dark eyes and animal sounds are so new and surprising, the girl has to suppress a scream as she raises her hands to push the sheep away.

Only one hand meets the creature’s face, startling the sheep away with a small, twisting leap. The other hand—her damaged arm, she recalls vaguely—will not move no matter how much she wills it.

Something is wrong.

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