Brief note: this ended up not being the last chapter, oops! One more.
A phone rings.
In this room, a phone rings. It’s a quiet tone, so soft and melodic I almost mistake it for the music from the TV. Except that music stopped playing over an hour ago.
This is something else.
When I look around, Chase is sitting cross-legged before the window, his body silhouetted by the streetlight, his face lit by the ringing phone in his hand. He tilts his head up, eyes meeting my own. How mine must glow for him, here in this dark room.
“You have her phone,” he says.
“You’re the blocked number,” I say. There’s a pause, a tense, heavy breath held between the two of us. He averts his gaze.
“You’re not telling me something, Chase,” I push. “I don’t know what you’re hiding, but I know you and Audrey lied about why Emily attacked Lissa.” I hang up the call and wave the phone in his direction. “Now I know Lissa didn’t want to see you, and you went to her house anyway. What did you say to her—what did you do to her?”
“Stop,” he says. Knuckles white around his phone, he stands and squares his shoulders. He towers over me, tall and shadowed like my nightmares. “Who are you to come into my life and act like you know what happened better than the people who were there? You think I killed her, don’t you? Go on, say it. Accuse me.”
I shake my head, small and shivering before this human man. Who would help the girl with an artificial mind here? Who would defend the ersatz who provoked the human? Chase doesn’t—can’t—see how terrified I am of being hurt by a human once more and unable to cry for help.
Or maybe he does, and that thought is infinitely more horrifying.
“What?” he asks, taking a step closer to me. “Don’t you want to know the truth?”
I’m so stunned by his sudden shift that I can barely choke out words. I know by now how unpredictable human emotions are, and yet I find myself stunned by that unpredictability again and again. I wonder if this is the Chase that Lissa saw last. The reason he was blocked.
“I don’t know,” I say. More of a hoarse whisper. My head aches. “You didn’t—?”
Fists clenched tightly at my side, I force myself to stand as tall as I can. I hope he can’t see the way my hands shake. “Did you kill Lissa?”
“On how you think she died,” he says. “If you’re asking whether or not I force-fed her alcohol and pills until she passed out, then no. I did not kill her. I did not murder Lissa.”
He steps towards me and the back of my legs hit the coffee table. I scramble onto it, facing him down from the same eye level. He’s less scary when I don’t feel so small, but only a little. I can barely see his face in the darkness, the light glowing behind him.
“What do you mean, Chase? What happened?” I ask. His forehead creases—whether in sadness or anger, I can’t tell.
“How can you judge when you didn’t exist for any of us before now, Allegra? Audrey and I didn’t tell you the truth about Emily and Lissa because we thought the truth was too heavy for you, a strange, new mind thrust into our depressed friend’s body. Better to pretend Lissa is innocent in everything than to trap you in what she left behind. Of course we lied. Everyone lies. Lying is human and it’s what we do to protect people close to us. Lissa lied to Sam to protect her, Sam lied to you to protect her memories of Lissa.” He scratches his head, his hair messy and curled.
“But you were blocked,” I say, unable to get the image of the phone ringing in his hands out of my head. Unable to forget the horror in my realisation.
“I honestly didn’t know that,” he says. His silhouetted form softens in the dark. “How much do you know about how Lissa felt about being asexual?”
“Not much, except for what she said in her diaries on her phone,” I admit.
“So she really did record diaries, then?” He asks. I give him a quick nod, my fingers tight around her phone.
“There are a lot,” I say.
“I didn’t realise it had become a regular thing for her.” He seems to struggle for a moment. “I don’t know what she said in her diaries, but I do know how much she struggled with her asexuality. She told me once that her body felt too tightly bound to her brain and that she wished she could disconnect the two. You probably understand that feeling better than me, but I doubt you understand what that meant for how she acted.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is hard,” he says. “I never understood how it felt for her skin to burn with pain when someone touched her. I can’t imagine the fear and panic she felt when she tried to be with someone. But, she hated it and she forced herself into situations to try and get over the fear. Each time, she escaped those situations with more fear, more anxiety and self-hatred than before. I think, first she was scared of what she felt with me. Then it was what she didn’t feel—and what I did.”
I shake my head again. “I don’t get what you mean.”
“I was in love with her, Allegra. Don’t be an idiot, I’m sure you know humans well enough to know we react strongly to big emotions. Lissa was scared that I would either hate her or hurt her, and I was scared of that too. After she left, I was angry at her for leading me on—though of course she never really did—and I was angry at myself for thinking somehow I’d be different for her. She cut me out to protect both of us, and all I could think about was that if I kept talking to her, kept trying to work through it, we’d come out okay.
“Look at the messages between us,” he says, brandishing his phone at me. He reads aloud one from Lissa:
“ ‘I don’t blame you for what happened, but I don’t not blame you either. We should have known better, both of us, but I don’t trust you or myself right now. I don’t want to see you for a while, but I want to be friends again after this if we can. I’m sorry. I love you, in my own way. It’s just not the way you need.’ ”
I wipe my nose with my sleeve. He lowers the phone and exhales through his nose.
“She deleted the messages between you both,” I say. “I couldn’t read any of that.”
I see the way he struggles against the emotions he’d managed to push away since Lissa’s death, feelings that I’ve unknowingly probed at until he couldn’t ignore them anymore. Other people are real, I think. A realisation I never knew I needed to have: that others exist separately from me; that born humans feel things I still don’t understand.
He’s quiet for a long while, then: “What did her last diary entry say?”
“That she’d failed her exams and was going to go to see you. To cheer her up.”
“Well,” he says. “Didn’t go as planned, huh?”
“I guess not,” I say.
“Give me her phone.” Chase reaches out as if to grab the phone from me, but stops when I jerk back.
I narrow my eyes against the glare of the streetlight. “Why?”
“So I can see if I can find any deleted audio files.”
“You can do that?”
“Yeah.” He says this as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Do you even know what I’m at university for?”
I hazard a meek guess of, “Sports?” and he laughs, incrementally returning to the Chase I know.
“Not just sports. Trust me, I know how to find a couple deleted files on a phone. Will you hand it over? I have a feeling you want to know if there’s something on there as much as I do.”
“Will you give it back?”
“I promise,” he says. I hear no lie. I place Lissa’s phone in his open palm.
There’s a moment where he simply stares down at the phone, and I’m terrified he’s about to hurl it at the wall. Instead, he takes the phone, the slim device delicate in his hands. While I climb down from the coffee table, he heads to his computer.
A car speeds past down on the street, the yellow of its headlight chasing across the top of the wall. I’m reminded of the world outside, and of the time. Exhaustion sets in as I take the spare seat next to Chase and lean my head on his desk.
“How long will it take?” I ask, yawning. I close my eyes.
I don’t realise I’m asleep until I jerk awake to find early-morning sunlight streaming in through half-closed blinders. Dust fills the sunbeams and I sit and watch the swirling motes drift in and out of the light, giving the light a sense of solidity.
The first thing I notice is that I’m not sitting at the desk. I’m in the bed in Chase’s room—Chase’s bed, I guess. Running a hand through my hair to calm its curls, I slip out of the bed and open the door to find Chase passed out on the couch. The computer’s screen is dark, but lights on the tower flicker with life. I debate turning the screen back on and seeing if Chase found anything, but my knowledge of computers is lacking. For a mind created from technology, I sure don’t understand much about it.
As I stand in the doorway with my indecision, a dark cloud passes over the sun and the whole room goes grey.
I find my dried clothes and change, then grab my dead phone and leave. I’m hungry, tired, and all I want to do is head home to charge my phone. The secrets behind Lissa’s phone—if there are any—can come later. Right at this moment, I don’t want to talk to Chase, I don’t want to face any of the feelings I know are lurking at the edge of my thoughts. I just want to eat.
I flag down the first bus that passes by and ride it to the end of its line: the beachside village with Audrey’s ice cream store. By the time the bus reaches its last stop, the sky has darkened to a deep grey and the footpath is sprinkled with raindrops.
“So much for summer,” I mutter, staring dejectedly from the exit of the bus.
“Summer storms are normal,” the bus replies. Its voice is cheerful, as always. “It will pass. The storms always do.”
I pause a while longer before stepping off the bus. “Do you like the storms?” I ask.
“There are always more people riding buses when it rains. I like seeing the people.”
“They are all different. They talk. Sometimes they talk to me.”
I hmm, but that’s not enough of a cue for the bus to say anything more. Buses tend to lack most social skills, I’ve noticed.
“Thank you for the ride,” I say. “I hope you see plenty of different people.”
“And I hope the storm clears for you,” says the bus.
“You and me both,” I say, smiling wryly to myself. Sometimes I wish I’d ended up in a bus instead of a human, but how was I supposed to know any better when offered the chance at life? I couldn’t have comprehended how intense biological emotions could be before I experienced them myself. And I never would’ve understood the void of losing those feelings before I ended up in Lissa’s brain.
I can’t yet tell whether these experiences are good for me or not, but I am jealous of the bus as it drives away, its glowing destination sign brilliant in the gloom. The arrivals sign shines just as bright, though it doesn’t give me much hope for getting home anytime soon. The next bus in that direction is over half an hour away. Too long to stand out in the rain with my stomach gurgling as loudly as it is.
Pulling my jacket over my head to shield myself from the rain, I walk briskly in the direction of Audrey’s eatery. When I see that it’s still open despite the warning signs of a storm, relief fills my chest. As I get closer, I catch a glimpse of Audrey’s pink hair behind the counter. Then, her blue eyes as I step into the store, shaking rainwater from my jacket.
“Morning,” I say. My voice is hoarse. I imagine dark circles around my eyes. “Can I get something to eat?”
Audrey’s face pinches with worry as she takes me in, scruffy and tired. “Allegra? Are you okay? You look…”
“I was going to say ‘not great’, but that works just as well,” she says. “I’ll heat you up some waffles if you’d like. Ice cream doesn’t seem the right thing for you right now.”
“Thanks,” I say. She waves away my offered card.
“No, no. Don’t worry about paying, this is on me. Go sit down before you collapse.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna sit down.”
I take a seat in a corner next to the wide windows facing outside. There’s nobody out there, giving the promenade the sense of a ghost town. The water looks as grey as the sky, whitecaps tearing up the ocean as the wind howls across the surface. I’ve never liked the ocean as much as the lake, so unpredictable and salty.
Audrey places a plate of waffles in front of me and takes a seat across from me with her own steaming-hot plate. My mouth waters at the scent of the crispy bacon, the sugar-sweet syrup. She watches with raised eyebrows as I devour my food, laughing out a warning to slow down before I choke. If nothing else, I make an effort to chew more. When I’m done, I sit back and paint spirals in the syrup with my knife.
Of all the places to end up in this morning, the bus took me here. To Audrey. To another artificial.
“You’re struggling with something,” she says. I look up at her, with her too-bright eyes. “We’re awful at hiding it, even when we think we’re not. Is it something to do with Lissa? Or is this an Allie thing?”
“Is it bad if I don’t know the answer to that? Where Lissa ends and Allie begins?”
“I wouldn’t say so,” she says with a warm smile. “I think that’s exactly why we’re never meant to learn whose body we’re in. Because exactly that can happen. We still don’t really know what makes us, well, us. Is it the body that makes the person? Or the mind? When someone gets amnesia, we don’t treat them like somebody new. Still, I wonder how different a human with amnesia is from us artificials when they’ve lost all memories of who they once were. But then, what if a person is made up of some combination of the body and the mind? Maybe when we’re put in a new body, we become someone else entirely. Not Lissa, not Allie. Someone new entirely. New body, new mind, but a little bit left of each previous person.”
I give her a tired look. “It’s too early for philosophy,” I say. She laughs and pushes her plate to the side of the table.
“Maybe for you,” she says. “You didn’t grow up with an original. It’s never too early for philosophy with her.”
I’d almost forgotten about her sister. That she so intimately knows one of the original generation. She frowns, folds her arms across her chest. As if she can hear what I’m thinking.
“I know that look,” she says.
“You’re thinking that you want to meet my sister. I saw that exact same look on Lissa’s face before she asked.”
I flash Audrey an exhausted grin. I hadn’t realised that I wanted to ask until she’s said it herself, but of course now that’s all I want. If I’m going to go through an identity crisis, why not dive right in and meet one of the architects of my existence? Maybe she of all people will be the one to guide me back to where I belong.
“Well, can I?”
She heaves a sigh, gazing out at the waves, and briefly—so briefly—I catch a glimpse of heartache in her face. When she looks at me again, that usual glittering joy is back in her eyes.
“Why not?” she says, winking at me. “We should all get the chance to meet our elders at least once in our lives. A tiny warning, though: she can be a little hard to talk to.”
“I go to art school,” I say. “I’m used to that.”
The house Audrey shares with her sister isn’t big, though the massive windows facing out over the lake make the rooms feel far more spacious. Built up into the hills, the house has a clear view of a large chunk of the glassy water, and a calm sense of privacy. Pine trees blanket the hills, their dark branches tossing in the wind.
“Work isn’t that close to home,” Audrey says, leading me into her living room. “But I like where I work and I like getting to see the ocean.”
“I prefer the lake,” I say. I walk over to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows and stare out at the near-black water. In my head, I think of painting dark swirls with ink.
A new voice chimes in, soft but not quiet. “I do, too.”
My head snaps around to find the voice, I instantly recognize that odd, mechanical lilt in the words. An off-putting musicality so many of us have heard before; synthesized voices turned organic.
Her eyes are a bright golden-brown, the colour of sunlit rum—no, no, no, not that. Brown sugar, fresh-turned autumn leaves, sand caught in the waves on a blue sky kind of day. We stare at each other in silence, her face calm, expression flat yet filled with emotion.
“I just realised I don’t know your name,” I squeak out.
She crosses the room to me, her stride somewhere between the grace of a dancer and the stumbling of a newborn deer. Her every movement feels like a contradiction of the one before it. Old and young at once, filled with deep understanding, but seeming to never quite connect with where or who she is. I’m not much of an animator, but I find myself wondering how exactly I would capture the way she flows across frames.
“I chose Primrose a long, long time ago,” she says. “It doesn’t fit. Prim is proper, Rose is beauty, there’s no sticking. But I can’t find anything else. Do you understand?”
“Uh,” I say. She smiles at me with all the awe of a five-year-old human.
“In all my years, I’ve never had the chance to meet the same body twice. Isn’t that just the funniest thing? I’ve seen plenty of people I know change bodies, but never the same body change people. You’re a first for me, Allegra.”
“I told her your name,” Audrey whispers to me. “She forgets that it’s nice to let other people introduce themselves.”
“It’s fine,” I say, though for a hot second I’d genuinely thought Primrose—she’s right, it doesn’t fit her—had some kind of foresight.
Audrey beams at the both of us. “I’ll go make some tea,” she says. Her sister waits for her to bounce out of the room before she turns back to the window and speaks again.
“Why are you here?” she asks. I can hear how she tries to keep her voice friendly, inviting. An active effort.
“I wanted to meet you,” I say, unsure of how to explain all the reasons I’m in her living room right at this moment.
“No, not here, although that can always be interesting. I meant, why are you alive? Why are you here on this planet, among all these humans?” I don’t know what to say, so I simply stare at the back of her head with my mouth half-open. When I don’t reply, she reaches out and places her palm against the window. “Have you ever been on a plane?”
“Yeah, my sister took me to the islands once,” I say. Addison had spent most of the trip lounging on the beach, while I’d wandered around with my head half-buried in my sketchbook. We haven’t been that relaxed in a while, carefree and pink from the sun.
“Do you remember how you felt when you gazed out of the plane window and saw the tiny buildings, the little ant-like cars? You can’t see the people from that high, but you can see evidence of them, can still watch the streetlights glowing from far above.”
I have to think about her question. Of course I remember looking down at the miniature world, twisting in my seat to see as much as I could. But how I felt? “Excited, I guess. I’d never seen anything like that before.”
She looks around at me, gives me a thoughtful nod. “Excited, yes. How about cut off? Detached from the world beyond the cold glass? Feeling like you’re a part of something but far away enough that you can’t touch it?”
“I guess. Sure,” I say. I can’t pretend I’d thought more than, Wow, everything’s so small! when I’d looked down at the Earth from the sky. Next to her deep thoughts, my brain must look like some kind of shallow paddling pool.
Straight away, it’s clear she knows I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about. She doesn’t judge me, though. Not openly, at least.
“Audrey gave me that exact same look, which I think is no surprise to you. However, Lissa understood the feeling I’m speaking of. Isn’t that a strange, unbelievable thing? That a human and an artificial can have such similar experiences—similar thoughts. When we—and I mean we, the originals—were built, nobody ever expected us to relate to the humans in such a deep way. And yet, there we were: a young human, wide-eyed yet weary, and an ancient artificial who still can’t quite comprehend the colour blue.”
“The colour… blue?” I ask, before I think to question any other, more important, thing she’s just said.
“It’s so big. So bright. You might not understand because you’ve only ever known the sky to look the way it does. But to us, it’s something else. Expansive, endless, with more behind it than humans can ever imagine. We never had any reason to look up as programmed robots. Now? We can spend all day staring up at the sky and watching the blue fade to black-blue and back to bright. Some of us stood for days on end when we were first put in human minds. The only reason we stopped was because our bodies needed food and water.” She blinks, as if coming out of a faraway dream. “Still, we didn’t want to look back down.”
“I had no idea,” I say. And how could I have known? In all our histories, nobody bothers to teach us these stories. She spreads her hands before me. I can’t tell if she’s trying to shrug with her hands, or communicate some kind of forgiveness. “But why are you telling me this?”
“Why did you come here?” she asks.
Not wanting to get caught out again, I ask, “You mean here? Right now?”
“Yes. What else would I mean?” She giggles when I roll my eyes.
“I guess, I was confused about Lissa.”
“What about her confuses you?”
“No,” I say. “Not her in particular. I mean, I’m confused about where I stand in Lissa’s life. Or maybe, I don’t know who I am anymore. I think I was hoping that you’d have some kinda simple answer about what it means to be an artificial.”
She bursts into laughter, doubling over with her hands clutching her side. I can’t do anything except stare and laugh awkwardly with her. Where is Audrey? I think, looking off to the side. Audrey is nowhere to be found.
The original straightens, sighing and wiping a tear from her eye. She suppresses another bout of giggles at the sight of my face.
“Sorry, sorry,” she says. “But that question—do you not see the hilarity of it? I sometimes forget how naive the young artificials like you are. Surely you know by now: there is no simple answer. Life has never held any easy answer for us, that’s part of what being alive means.”
“But then—” I burst out, and it feels like my chest is bursting “—what did you want for us? What did you want to see from the younger generations of artificials? Didn’t you have—I don’t know—some kind of ideal world for us?”
She brushes a finger across the edge of her lips, waiting for my breath to calm again. “No. We never really thought past the goal of us being given bodies—real bodies. When we got there, we just thought, ‘How great it feels to be here! To be us!’ and all we wanted was for our future kind to feel that, too.” A small sigh. “I don’t think you feel that like we dreamed, though.”
“I do!” I cry, hating the sadness in the slump of her shoulders, the crinkling of her eyes. “I paint because I love finding the beauty in this world.”
“Then why do you look so sad and listless? Have you lost that love?”
I feel a burst of some kind of anger—again, that exhausted, heavy anger. I’m so, so tired. “Lissa had—I have depression! I don’t know what else you want from me, I can’t exactly talk my brain into being happy. That’s not how this works, and you should know that!”
“I do,” she says. She fixes her bright eyes on me. “I was wondering if you did. From what I can tell, you’ve been holding this great guilt, and maybe you don’t even realise.” Her words strike me cold. “What are you guilty of, Allegra?”
So many thoughts flash to the front of my mind: pushing Paiden away, worrying my sister, hurting Sam and Chase and Emily and everyone else in Lissa’s life who’s had the misfortune of seeing me. Stealing Lissa’s life.
(Not being able to figure out who killed Lissa.)
“Not trying hard enough,” I say.
“I have a question for you: why do you think Lissa donated her body for one of us?”
“I—” I choke, thinking of the photo of Lissa and Sam, the artificial limb held high, oil smeared across their cheeks. “I don’t know. To punish someone like me for existing. Some kind of cruel lesson in being human.”
The original’s face creases; disgust, worry, another emotion I could never name. “Where did you get that idea? No. Maybe once, years ago, she would have done that. But the Lissa I met, the Lissa that Audrey befriended, would’ve shuddered at the idea of being that person.”
“Then what?” I ask. “Explain to me, with all your infinite knowledge, why Lissa donated her body so I could end up here, feeling like everything is bad.”
“She told me—and forgive me if I don’t get the words exactly right, my memory isn’t what it used to be—that,” her voice softens, becomes more like my own, “ ‘I’ve made a right mess of this life, and if something happens to me and my body is able to be a new home for someone who needs it, then I want that to happen. I want to give an artificial a first chance, or a second chance, at living to their potential in a way I probably never will.’
“And I said to her, ‘What do you mean potential?’
“And she said, ‘Humans have done their thing. We’re stuck as we are, for better or for worse. But you’re something new, you don’t have to be human. I want that, I want whoever ends up in my body—if someone does one day—to be who they are. Artificial, biological, whatever. It’s boring to try to be like us, they can do something else with what’s left of me. They can be something more.’ “
It takes me a moment to realise the original has finished mimicking out her conversation with Lissa. More than ever, I have no clue what to say.
“Do you understand?” she asks.
“Not really,” I admit. “She didn’t want me to be human?”
“Exactly. I see it all the time, young artificials like you trying to blend in with humans, trying to be one of them to fit into the crowd. Lissa saw the same, and it frustrated her to no end to see artificials—in her words—forget who they are and where they came from. That we were made by humans but grew to be our own unique thing.” She gives me a sardonic grin and I’m shocked by the wryness of her words. “She would’ve yelled at you if she could see you now. ‘What are you doing? Stop trying to pick up where I failed! Stop trying to be like me! You’re something new!’ “
“Great,” I say. “Just what I needed to know, that Lissa would’ve hated me.”
“She would have loved you,” she says. “That’s why she would have been mad.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Maybe you never will, however—”
Audrey bursts into the room, her phone in her hands. She looks right at me, offering the phone my way.
“It’s Chase. He said he has something you need to hear.”
<— Chapter Twelve | | Chapter Fourteen —>