“Who is Chase, really? When I knew him in high school, he didn’t seem like a nice guy—Sam told me he wasn’t, and that was enough for me back then.
But now, I’m not so sure. I’ve talked to him a few times, because he runs laps around the park, and his route intersects where I like to sit and read. He used to just wave and smile, but the last couple weeks he’s stopped to chat, asking me how my study is going, admitting he wouldn’t stand a chance in med. I guess he and I have at least one thing in common, then.
Today, he asked if I wanted to grab coffee. Not in a date way—I’m pretty sure he and that girl Emily are a thing, if they weren’t already one back in high school. He offered in a way that said, ‘I want to be your friend.’
It’s strange, I’m so unused to having friends. Friends other than Sam, I mean. But she’s at work and I’m at uni, and when do we ever really get the chance to talk anymore? I didn’t realise how lonely I was until he asked, how utterly empty I’ve felt from barely speaking a word to anyone every day.
I admit, I was very anxious. Like I was heading into an exam, all cold and shaky and a little sweaty. He either didn’t notice, or he pretended not to, just kept talking and listening with this open, warm friendliness. So many people must exist in his life, he draws you in with those big, blue eyes.
Upon closer inspection over coffee, I noticed the way his eyes would avoid mine when he lost his focus. As if he had to force himself look directly at me. I wonder if he doesn’t like my face, or if he struggles with eye contact in general. And yes, I know, I shouldn’t analyse people like that, but sometimes I can’t help it. It’s my anxiety: I need proof that people don’t just hate me, that there are other reasons for their actions.
He wouldn’t have wanted coffee with me if he hated me, right? I have to keep telling myself that, or else I’ll turn and run and never speak to him again. Chase is someone I can go see movies with, grab lunch with between lectures, someone who will invite me to parties to help me make more friends.
I like him. He makes me laugh, and that’s something I really need these days.”
Lissa’s phone goes silent as the track ends. I’m left with only the sound of the shower water ssshhhhing against the tile and glass, staring up at the square of blue that is the skylight. Lukewarm water runs over my shoulders, easing my aching muscles.
This body is broken, I think, my head filled with dark fog, but it fights so hard to keep going. Despite the pain and the fatigue, I’m still living, still struggling to make it through the week. That, in itself, is a triumph. I’m here, I’m alive, I’m breathing. (For Lissa.)
Addison has left for work by the time I make my way into the kitchen to grab breakfast. The house is empty, quiet except for the running dishwasher, and soft birdsong that echoes through the windows.
Doodling on a scrap of paper as I eat, I consider what I need to find out about Lissa’s death. How do I prove who killed her? A confession would be ideal, but probably impossible—and besides, I’d need to know who did it before trying to get the truth out of them. The most obvious solution is the one I like the least: I have to talk to Chase. He seems to have known her best before her death. If anyone can help, it’s him.
Finding him will be a problem, though. I don’t have his number, and Lissa’s phone has most of her contacts listed under nicknames like Walrus-man and The Void. Except Sam, who is simply, ‘Sam’. Asking Sam for his number would just get me laughed at, and trying to track down Emily at her exhibition would most likely just make me panic again.
I think of Lissa’s recording, of how she and Chase used to meet in the park. Likely the park near her university, Lakeview, an aptly named school that has no view of the lake. Whether or not he runs there during the break, especially when it’s still raining so heavily, is another issue, and something I refuse to think about. I need to be doing something, and if that something is catching a bus to a university I don’t go to, then that’s what I’ll do. Folding the scrap paper up and shoving it in my pocket, I grab my bag and umbrella and run out to catch the next bus heading Lakeview-way.
My phone vibrates with a message from Paiden as I take my seat: What did you get up to last night?
I don’t want to keep dodging the truth, so I message back honestly: I went for a run and met Chase.
You mean that guy from the gallery?
Yeah, that Chase.
I got caught out in the storm and he gave me a ride home.
Are you okay??
I’m fine. I’m going to Lakeview to track him down if I can.
I know. Just let me do this.
She says nothing else for a long while, and I stare at the screen as it dims, feeling resigned. Then, another message: Be safe. I put on my headphones and close my eyes, letting the rhythm of the bus lull me to half-sleep as I listen to Lissa’s voice.
“I stayed up till three last night watching the moon with Chase. Three! Can you believe it? I’m exhausted today, but I think it was worth it. I haven’t felt so at peace before in my life. We talked about everything: life, friends, school, what we want for our futures. We even talked about artificials, inspired by this cute ice cream girl we met, and he doesn’t like calling them ersatz either.
Lying in the grass beside Chase, listening to the breeze and the little splashes of life in the lake, I felt safe and cared for. Here was a friend who would listen, who wouldn’t dismiss my fears and anxieties. Slowly, I opened up. I told him about my depression, about what it makes me think. He sat up, his eyes reflecting the moonlight, and said nothing as I struggled to figure out the words.
When I had run out of things to say, he took my hand and squeezed it, the heat of his skin warming my fingers. I couldn’t remember the last time someone held my hand, or even touched me in a way that said they cared about me. There was nothing romantic, nothing sexual about it, and because of that I felt… not happy, but content. I didn’t want to recoil for once, didn’t want to tear out my lungs and scream with no air.
‘Lissa,’ he’d said, his eyes looking directly at me, ‘you’re not alone.’
I stared past him at the starlit sky, and for the first time in my life, I believed it.”
I snap awake as someone sits next to me, yanking my bag close to me to make space. Curling around my bag, I look outside to orient myself.
“I’ve never seen you on this bus before,” Chase says from beside me. He only barely smothers a chuckle at my shock as I pull my headphones from my ears and whip my head around to look at him.
“I thought you had a car,” I say. It’s all I can think to say as my post-nap thoughts organize themselves.
“Well yeah, I do,” he says. “But sometimes the bus is plain cheaper. You have to charge cars, you know.”
“Of course I know that, I have a car.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You do? Why are you on a bus, then?”
“My sister’s using it,” I say, avoiding the real reason I’ve been catching buses the last few weeks. He doesn’t need to know about that. “And how do you know you’ve never seen me on this bus before? You don’t know what I used to look like.”
“Hmm.” He grins. “You’ve got a good point. I’ve got a good eye for faces, but that doesn’t really work when you change your face. That face you’ve got now though, that’s one I could never miss.” He runs a hand through his cloud of blond hair. “So, Allegra, where are you off to?”
“Uh.” I gulp, cheeks flushing. “I was trying to find you.”
“What?” He laughs, and other passengers look around to glare at him. “Well, you sure did find me. How did you know I’d be on this bus?”
“I had no clue about the bus, I was going to the university,” I admit. “I thought maybe you’d be running at the park.
“Ah,” he says, fidgeting with his jacket zip. “You’re lucky then. I’m not heading to uni, since, you know, it’s summer break, and I don’t tend to run in storms unlike some people.” Grinning, he taps my shoulder lightly with a fist. “I’m actually going to a cafe not too far from uni to meet a friend. Since you came all this way to find me, why not join us for a drink? I’m sure she’d be excited to meet you, she’s an artificial, too.”
“Is it Audrey?” I ask. The excitement dims somewhat from his eyes.
“Oh man, you two met already? So you know Sam and Emily already as well, who haven’t you met?”
With a small shrug, I say, “Her father, Gray.”
Chase’s face pales, his mouth tightening. “I’d say that’s a good thing. Stay away from him, meeting him wouldn’t be good for either of you.”
“Why?” I ask, leaning closer to Chase. Does he know something I don’t? “Why would it be bad?”
“Because he’s been charged with assaulting artificials before,” Chase says, lowering his voice. “I doubt he’d react well to seeing you in his daughter’s body, and I don’t really want to see you get hurt by a man like him.”
“He gave me a black eye at Lissa’s funeral. Granted, I wasn’t supposed to be there, but… still. Damn well hurt.”
“Do you know if he ever hurt Lissa?” I ask. His forehead creases.
“What are you, the police? You ask a lot of questions,,” he says.
I snort. “Yeah, I get told that a lot. Sorry, I just—” I sigh.
“Hey,” he says softly, “I get it. You want to know about her. But you need to remember that it’s not easy for those of us who knew her to open up about her. A lot of us feel guilty that we couldn’t stop her, there’s a lot of anger and regret being stirred up by you existing, Allegra.”
“I know,” I say.
“Good,” he says, brightening. “Coffee, then? It’s this stop.”
At the next stop I follow him out of the bus, the two of us ducking under one umbrella to avoid the rain. I call out a thanks to the bus before the doors close. Chase laughs at the novelty of it and does the same. The doors close, the bus speeds off, Chase watches it go.
Audrey is already at the cafe by the time we reach it, our clothes damp despite our best efforts. She lights up at the sight of me, her hands dropping from where they were rearranging her hair piled upon her head.
“Chase! You brought company,” she says, standing to give him a quick hug. “Where’d you find her?”
“She was on the bus trying to find me,” he says, taking a seat and gesturing for me to do the same.
“Trying to find you?” Audrey asks, her eyes flitting over to me. “You are a strange one, Allegra. How do you keep tracking us down?”
“It’s mostly an accident,” I say honestly.
“Chase did tell me how he saw you at Emily’s exhibit,” Audrey says, resting her chin on her hands. Her face contorts with disgust. “I dislike that woman.”
“Dislike is a strong word,” Chase warns, smirking at her. “I can’t say I’m fond of her anymore either, not after everything she’s pulled. She’s still trying to play the victim about it all.”
A hundred questions swirl around my mind, and it takes me a dizzying moment to pick one: “Why were you at the gallery, Chase?”
“I was, stupidly, trying to get her to pull her work. Not only is it offensive, it’s disrespectful of Lissa’s memory, and her choice to donate her body. I thought maybe she’d listen to me of all people, but after getting chewed out by your friend—” he grins at the memory of Paiden’s anger “—she wasn’t interested in listening to me. If looks could kill, I’d have been very dead that day.”
Audrey leans closer to me, rolling her eyes. “Emily thinks I stole Chase from her. Because I guess Chase is her property.” She huffs. “Humans sure are weird, aren’t they? I’m not into men, Chase isn’t into me—”
“And I’m sure as hell not into Emily,” he cuts in gruffly. “Fuckin’ bi—”
“Chase,” Audrey snaps. Chase’s ears go red, his mouth slamming closed mid-word. “Behave yourself, will you? You’ll give Allegra a bad impression of us.”
“I don’t think you could make a worse impression than Emily,” I say with a laugh. Watching Audrey and Chase talk together, I feel like I’m starting to understand what Lissa was looking for when she first agreed to get coffee with Chase.
“Okay,” Audrey says, waving down a server, “here’s a suggestion. We don’t talk about Lissa anymore today. Let’s learn about you, Allegra, and you can learn about us. Lissa can wait for another day, agreed?”
“Fine by me,” Chase says, fiddling with the teaspoon in the sugar jar. He flashes me a smile, warmth flares in my chest.
I’m disappointed, but at the same time not. This is a chance for me to be friends with these two in my own right, not because of Lissa. I think that’s what Audrey wants; she’s an artificial like me, and making new friends once we’ve left school isn’t easy for us. Whatever Chase wants is a mystery to me, but I realise that I want to find out.
“Sounds good,” I say, my heart fluttering at the way Audrey smiles.
“I was wrong: I think he loves me. What do I do about it? I don’t know if I have the ability to love anyone, but isn’t the idea nice? It’s not that I don’t have feelings for people, but the thought of being with someone, actually dating them and having them touch me and kiss me and—
No, I can’t do it. The thought of it makes me sick, winds my stomach up in all kinds of knots. I’m happy being friends with people, I’m happy being single, as long as I’m not alone.
Sometimes when I’m on the bus and drifting off, I dream of what it must be like to want to be touched, to be held by someone I love. There are days I wonder if I could get drunk enough to enjoy it, and then I think of how I would feel the next day and I get scared.
I feel like a robot, with no heart. Maybe I would’ve been better off as an artificial.”