Content warning: mentions of suicide, domestic abuse, sexual abuse.
The steaming mug of tea is hot in my hands, near scalding. I cradle it close to my chest, inhaling the sweet steam with every breath. My eyes are focused entirely on the drink, watching as the pale milk twists and curls around the dark tea, forming curious whirling patterns at the surface. Strange, that I’ve never noticed this before, not once thought to look closer at the visual nuances of tea.
Across the table, Lissa’s mother sniffs lightly. Not in disgust, simply trying to clear what remains of her earlier tears. The silence between us is taut with her sorrow, my guilt, and neither of us knowing what the other is thinking right now. To her, my face is as familiar as her own, but my expressions are as alien as a stranger’s.
To me, she is nothing, except a human who didn’t harm me when she had every right to. Instead, she invited me down to her kitchen for tea with the words, “You can’t stay long, I don’t know what Gray would do if he saw you.”
I assume Gray is Lissa’s father, and the tone in her mother’s voice makes me wonder exactly what she fears he’d do to me. I decide it’s better not to ask that question, simply to nod silently and follow her down the stairs through Lissa’s old home. Compared to the starkness of my own home, this house is messy, cosy. Addison would throw a fit at the haphazard, random order of the books on their shelves.
So here I am, somehow not dead, instead being treated as a guest in a human’s home. I don’t know what to say, because how can I? This is something many of us are missing as artificials: the ability to understand human improvisation in new situations. Sure, we can improvise in our own way, but given my relative youth, there’s no way I could have experienced half of what a born human might. They adapt to other humans because they themselves change so quickly; ersatz are predictable, for the most part. I’m predictable, I think.
“Do you remember anything?” the mother asks.
I shake my head. “No, I don’t.”
Her lower lip trembles for a moment, she takes a deep breath and exhales. “I thought not. I don’t know much about your kind, I’m sorry.”
“Not many do, it’s no reason to apologize.” Actually, I think, maybe it is.
Now it’s her turn to shake her head. “No, I should. I hated ersa—uh, artificials for so long, I think I still do. But you’ve brought Lissa back in some way. How can I hate that?”
“Many people think we’re making a mockery of the dead,” I say wryly, unsure of why I’m trying to antagonize a mourning woman. She doesn’t respond, her expression gives away how unsure she is of her thoughts. “Can I ask your name?”
She looks shocked for a moment, lips parting in surprise. “You don’t—Of course you don’t, you just told me you don’t remember anything. I’m Julia.”
“Julia,” I echo, and she flinches.
“No. That sounds wrong in her voice. She called me Jules, maybe that gives you the right to, also.” I’m unsure of how to respond to this, I didn’t think being in another person’s body gave me the right to anything, and I thought every human agreed with that sentiment.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
She smiles. “Allegra, that’s a nice name.” Relaxing a little more into her seat, she takes a sip of her tea. Lowering her mug to the table, she fixes me with a more serious, more adult expression. “Why were you in Lissa’s room?”
I know I need to step carefully here; I can’t tell her what Sam has told me, that her daughter may have been killed. If it turns out to be untrue, there’s no point putting Lissa’s mother through extra unnecessary grief; if it’s true, how can I know if she didn’t have some part in it?
“I… wanted to know more about Lissa,” I say, which isn’t entirely a lie. There’s enough truth there at least, that she seems to accept it. “I know I shouldn’t, but I did.”
“I can’t fault you,” she sighs. “I thought maybe she was trying to find her way home.”
My words are barely above a whisper; “I’m sorry.”
What else can I say? I’ve intruded on this woman’s home, on a very personal grief I may never understand. I have nobody I can lose, not in the same way Lissa has left her mother’s life.
“She was such a happy girl,” Jules says, her unfocused eyes staring out of the wide kitchen window. “Always smiling, always out with her friends. She was studying to become a doctor, did you know? She wanted so much to help other people. Her death…” her words falter, voice cracking. “It was a surprise. She was so happy.”
I remember Lissa’s wide grin in the torn photo, the whites of her teeth showing in a smile so unlike my own. That happiness is easy to believe from the outside—but if her death is as they say, if her depression was like mine, how could she ever have been so filled with light? She must have been exhausted, because I’m already so, so tired.
“Did she have a best friend?” I ask. Jules’ face contorts; pain, anger, sorrow, something else I can’t place.
“There was Sam,” she says. “But I don’t know.” Something about the way she says this makes me think she does know, that she feels more about Sam than she’s willing to say. But she’s visibly upset at the thought of the angry girl. It’s clear she doesn’t want to speak more about this, so I don’t ask.
I hesitate before my next question, but some part of me needs to know.
“Was there a note?” I ask. I’ve already learned the reality of this, that over half of those that kill themselves don’t leave a message behind for their loved ones. But if Lissa said something, anything that could give Sam—give me—closure on Lissa’s death, maybe it could be that.
“No,” Jules says softly, and my heart sinks. “I thought they’d have told you at least that.”
“They don’t tell us anything about our bodies. Better to avoid us getting attached to something that isn’t ours.”
“How could this not be yours?” Jules’ tone is strained, her eyes glimmering with unshed tears. “I wanted to burn her body so you couldn’t have it, I hated her donating it so much I wanted to die as well. But here you are, and you…”
Lowering my gaze, I try to swallow the lump in my throat. There’s so much hatred in what she’s saying—but, I realise, most of it is aimed not at me, but at herself.
“I have her phone.” Jules says, suddenly veering topics. I’m thankful for it. “We couldn’t unlock it, since we needed her fingerprint.”
“You could hack it,” I suggest. Her curls bob as she shakes her head, a sad smile upon her lips.
“No. Gray wanted to, but I couldn’t bear invading her privacy like that, even when she’s gone.” She’s about to say something more when a sharp knock rattles through the house. Her eyes fly wide open, her head snapping around to look at a screen mounted upon the wall.
There’s someone at the door, we can see on the screen. A woman with dark hair braided back into many strands, and thick glasses.
“Quick,” she hisses, ushering me out of my seat and back to the stairwell. To the person at the door, she yells, “Give me a moment, Anya!”
Jules halts me at the bottom of the stairs and whispers for me to wait, then disappears upstairs while I stand still, my heart thudding quick as a baby bird’s.
When she returns, she’s got the floral jacket hung over one of her arms. She holds it out to me, her brows drawn together painfully. “Take it,” she says. “It was her favourite.”
I don’t have time to say anything before she shoves the jacket into my hands and pushes me through the house to the backdoor, and then outside into the dappled shade of the massive tree.
“Jules—” I start, turning back to her.
“Live a good life, Allegra,” she whispers, and the door shuts in my face. I understand her rush, being found with her dead daughter’s body in her kitchen breaks all kinds of unspoken rules.
Besides, I get the feeling this neighbourhood isn’t exactly fond of ersatz.
So I wrap the scarf back around my head and push my sunglasses over my eyes, shrugging Lissa’s jacket over my shoulders despite the heat. Stepping through the backyard, I glance up at the huge tree again, and this time notice a small, unfinished treehouse in the boughs curving away from the house. It could fit two sitting children, maybe, with three walls and what I guess could be considered a roof. Must have been Lissa’s place when she was young.
I tear my eyes away from the twisted structure and dart to the hole in the hedge, ducking through into the shade of the tree-covered alley.
Right into Sam.
She swears and stumbles back, clearly surprised to find me tumbling out from the scratching branches. I have to admit, I’d kind of forgotten Sam might still be around. I’d assumed she’d run off the moment she smelled trouble.
And yet, here she is, having waited this whole time for me. Or at least, for Lissa’s body.
“What happened?” she asks, voice grating. Not, Are you okay? I notice the difference.
“Her mother caught me,” I say, carefully avoiding the use of Jules’ name. “She wanted to have tea.”
Sam groans, smacking a hand to her forehead. “You should be glad it wasn’t Gray who found you.”
“That’s what her mother said,” I say drily. “Is he really that bad?”
“Yes.” Sam grimaces, her eyes darting away from my face. “He hit Lissa once. Once that I know of.”
“Oh,” I breathe.
“Yeah.” Rubbing her arms, Sam turns away to the sun-bright exit of the alley. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
As I follow her out into the street and back towards the park, I notice that the stormcloud over her head seems to have gotten darker, heavier. Her shoulders are squared, her hands thrust angrily into her pockets.
“You’re wearing her jacket,” she says darkly. Well, that explains it.
“Her mother gave it to me.”
“It’s not yours.”
“It’s not yours, either,” I spit back, tired of her endless jabs at something I can’t help. She seethes, lips pulled back in a snarl. But she’s tired, too, the dark shadows around her eyes echoing my own. Her jutting shoulders slump.
“Did Jules mention me?” she asks. She sounds so young in this moment, a child lost in a terrifying world.
“Yes, but not much,” I reply. I don’t know if I should tell her of how upset Jules was when she spoke Sam’s name, that I know there’s something neither of them will tell me. I am so curious, but I know this isn’t the time. So I say nothing else.
“That’s the best I could expect, I guess,” Sam says with a sigh, after waiting for me to continue. “What did you find, then? Anything?”
She’s mostly silent as I tell her of the alcohol in Lissa’s room, of the lack of a suicide note—which she seems shocked by, perhaps nobody bothered to tell her—and, I suddenly remember, the photo.
“What?” she asks.
I dig the insta-photo out of my pocket and hold it up to her, unwilling to relinquish my only visible connection to Lissa to her grabbing fingers. Sam scowls again, nose crinkling. She recognizes both people in the picture, then.
“Who is it?” I ask.
“Some asshole,” she replies. The fire in her eyes tells me that she’d do more than rip the picture in half, she’d burn his face into ash if she could. “Chase. One of those jock-types. I don’t know why she thought he cared about her.”
“They were friends?”
“She thought they were,” she snaps. “He—he—” she’s overcome by her anger, her words morphing into a half-scream of rage. I’m beginning to get the feeling the men in Lissa’s life were not always kind to her.
“What did he do?” I ask, my insides writhing.
Sam doesn’t seem ready to speak the words. She exhales harshly through her nose and crosses her arms, digging her heels in and stopping in her tracks. I stop beside her, my expressions shaped by anxiety. I don’t want to know what she’s struggling to voice.
(But I think I already do.)
She whispers it. “He hurt her. Took advantage of her when she was drunk.” From the tremble of her voice, I gather she’s not able to say anything more, so I nod slowly in a way that lets her know I understand.
I shove the photo pieces back into my pocket and wait for her to breathe out the worst of her emotions, both of us shivering despite the scorching heat.
“I don’t know why she wouldn’t listen to me,” Sam says, eventually. “About him. I told her, but she didn’t listen.”
I don’t say what I’m thinking, that humans don’t make sense, that their choices aren’t always what they should be. Because she knows that already, doesn’t she?
“Him and Emily and all the rest. She should have known better. She should have listened to me.”
“Do you think he…?” I hesitate before finishing the sentence, unsure of what I’m asking. It’s a ridiculous question: did a boy who once looked so happy to be beside Lissa eventually kill her?
“Maybe,” Sam says, her gaze sharp, her eyes narrowed.
I suddenly hope that I never meet this Chase.
I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am when I get home to find Addison pulling a roast chicken out of the oven, and yet.
“You made dinner,” I say, leaning against the doorframe of the kitchen. Addison seems just as bashfully confused as I, bright pink oven mitts covering her delicate human hands.
“Yes,” she replies, her cheeks flushed from the oven’s heat. “I’m not sure it’s good, though.”
“It smells good.” And it really does, all crispy meat and glazed carrots. She smiles her tight-lipped smile, the corners of her mouth so flawlessly symmetrical it’d be easy to believe her body is as synthetic as her mind.
She carves up the bird and we take awkward seats opposite each other at our small, practical dining table. New stacks of binders and folders pile up neatly against the wall, placed at perfect right-angles by Addison’s careful hands. Each document within details our kind’s history, where we came from, how we got to be here. I wonder how much of the information is already safely stored within Addison’s mind already.
There’s something else though, a book placed on top of one of the piles almost as if an afterthought. Understanding Depression, reads the title. Some kind of self-help book, I can tell by the design of the cover. Why in the world has she been reading that?
Addison’s cutlery clinks against her plate as she sets her knife and fork down, snatching my attention away from the folders and the book. Her hair is drawn back into her usual utilitarian bun, though a strand or two have come free while she cooked.
“It’s been a while since we talked properly,” she says. “How are you doing?”
I shrug, and catch her jaw flexing instinctively. She’s never been fond of my adoption of human gestures, though she’s never actually said as much out loud.
“I’m fine,” I say, pushing a carrot around my plate with my fork.
“Have you been running since the accident? Or swimming? Exercise is good for you,” she says.
“No,” I admit, thinking of my exercise gear hung in my closet for the first time in weeks. “Haven’t felt like it.”
“You should try to get back into it,” she urges. “It’s good for you.”
I want to tell her that I already know it’s good for me, she’s already said that, and then I notice the book again in the corner of my vision. Oh. Oh.
“I’ll try,” I say slowly, understanding her suggestion now. And maybe I will try. I was so excited about swimming in the lake again at the start of summer—it’s hard to believe how much Lissa’s depression has taken from me already. How could I have forgotten this?
“Good,” Allegra smiles. I think she’s about to pick up her utensils and get back to her dinner when she slips a piece of paper from her handbag placed beside her chair and places it on the table with a soft slap. At the top of the paper is the logo of an art gallery in the city, Redistance, a place I’ve visited more times than I can count.
“They have a grant open for a new artist to display an exhibition in their gallery,” Addison explains before I have time to read beyond the logo. “You just need to supply a pitch, and an example piece of your exhibition.”
“What?” I ask. I heard what she said, but I’m struggling to read the page and understand her words at the same time. A grant? An exhibition?
“You should apply for this,” Addison says, tapping a finger on the paper with—excitement? There’s an energy in her eyes that I’ve only ever seen when she’s been buried in her own work.
“I don’t know,” I say, withdrawing into myself. I don’t know how I’m supposed to get accepted into a gallery, not with the common understanding that ersatz art isn’t real art, only a faked approximation, just like our lives. I’m not sure why Addison has even brought this up, my art isn’t something she’s ever considered worthy of my time before, let alone worthy of humans’ time.
But, “If you’re going to be a painter, I want you to succeed as best you can,” she says. “This is a great opportunity for you.”
I look her in the eyes, then back down at the paper on the table. Could I do it? I can’t even begin to think of a series of work to pitch, let alone create. Addison watches me fiercely, and for the first time in a long time, I feel that she really does view me as a little sister.
It’s with her in mind that I say, once more, that I’ll try. With my acceptance, I know that she’ll hound me every day until the due date—late January—to make sure I’m working on something, but maybe it’ll be good to give myself something to work on that isn’t related to Lissa.
After dinner, I take the paper into my room and look at the requirements for the pitch. I’m doodling ideas in a sketchpad when my phone vibrates with a message. It’s from Paiden, asking why I’ve been so quiet all day.
Why have I been so quiet? I don’t even know where to begin to explain what I’ve been doing, how I’m still trying to process my conversation with Lissa’s mother, a human who somehow didn’t see me as a mistake even as I sat before her wearing Lissa’s body.
All at once, I find myself overwhelmed by Paiden, by Addison, by Sam and Jules and the men in Lissa’s life that I’ve never even met. I throw my sketchpad onto my desk, throw my phone at my bed, and change into running clothes.
Before I pull my shirt down over my stomach, I run a finger along the pale scar that cuts my body in two, wondering at the silvery skin. Then I’m out the door and down the road before my dark, heavy exhaustion can catch up with me.
I have to give Lissa credit for how long her body can run before I begin to struggle, but it’s nowhere near what my original body could do. Gasping for air, I feel the palpable pain of longing for my old self within my chest. It’s a sharp, sour pain that only makes the metallic ache of my lungs burn more fiercely as my feet pound the sidewalk.
Still, I run, pushing through the pain. It’s cathartic; as my body screams from exercise, all other thoughts are washed from my mind. There’s only time for the present, for each shuddering exhale of the now.
I make it to the lake before the sun sets, the glassy surface stained by the deepening golden-orange glow of the sky, the mountain on the other shore set aflame with the light. Panting, I collapse on the grass beneath an old pine and wait for my body to recover. The view is breathtaking, and I wish I’d brought my sketchpad with me.
Already I’m feeling better, more like the me from before the crash. The endorphins running through my veins are seeing to that, in their own way. The fog that usually rests upon my shoulders seems to have lifted for now; I can feel the cool evening air kissing my bare shoulders, the itch of the grass beneath my fingers. I didn’t realise how much I felt as if I was experiencing the world through an invisible barrier until right now, when the barrier has faded, and the warming light of the sun has rushed in to fill its absence.
The run home is harder, more of a half-walk through lengthening shadows, and then twilight. By the time I get back to my house, the stars are sparkling to life in the purple-grey sky above. Addison nods her head at my presence when I walk past her, and I can see her facial features relax ever-so-slightly at my sweaty exhaustion. She’s glad I took her advice, I guess.
Back in my room, I dig through the pile of clothes on my floor to find my pyjamas to change into after I shower. I’m pulling my pants out from the heap, thinking that I really need to clean my room, when the thump of something hitting the floor makes me jump.
A phone. Not my phone, it’s one I’ve never seen before. One that’s just fallen out of the pocket of Lissa’s floral jacket.
Lissa’s phone. Jules must have hidden it in the pocket before she gave me the jacket, wanting me to have it for reasons I can’t even begin to understand.
I pick it up and stare at its shining, black glass.
Then, I hold my thumb over the sensor and watch as the screen bursts to life.