Humans are easy to read, and Lauren is an open book. She stares at me when I argue that “Something is wrong”, with that summer-storm smile, silent, warm, and threateningly unaware of the way my cheeks burn in response. I want to scream, to pick up the crystalline jug dripping with condensation and hurl it at her face—dripping with condescension. The hot burst of rage is new and alien to me, like discovering a different type of pain—a shattered wrist when no bone has been broken before. I instantly hate her. When that fails, I hate myself instead.
So I stand and smile and she waves me out of her office with a solid, “You’re doing so well!” that doesn’t invite argument, and it’s all I can do to hold my brittle self together until the bathroom door lock clicks beneath my trembling hands. I sink to the floor, hot tears spilling over onto fists pressed against my thighs. Today I am forced to face the reality I have been working so hard to ignore, what would be good news for any transfer other than this, any new body except my own:
Everything went perfectly, my mind is totally integrated with my body. There is absolutely nothing wrong—which means that everything that feels wrong is what remains of her; I have inherited a sick brain. Now I have to live with it.
For the briefest moment, I almost wish I had died in the crash, like a human would have. I crush the thought before it can take hold, swallowing it like a bitter pill. Paiden would have hated herself if I’d died, and that alone is too much to bear.
I know, logically, that it’s my new brain wishing for the escape, not me. My refusal to lose to my new body drives me to my feet, where I’m met by my splotchy face in the streaked mirror. I’m still not entirely used to this rounder face, these full brows, but it’s less like looking a stranger in the eyes now, and more like finding a familiar face on the bus; not someone I know, but have seen enough to feel as if I do.
I sniff, the kind of snotty sniff unavoidable after crying, one that tastes of salt and warm familiarity. My reflection mirrors, mimics me.
“You need to do better,” I say. My reflection is silent, obviously, but there’s no need for a response. She knows. I know.
By the time I step foot into the sunlight of the street, my eyes are dry and my body empty—wrung out and scratchy-dry. In place of the anger and sadness is a simple hollowness.
And hunger, I realise, catching the scent of fresh bread from the bakery next door. I’m drawn inside without much other thought, my attention focused on little golden scones filled with jam. I suddenly want a scone beyond belief, I feel as if I might cry without one in my hands, but upon facing the decision of buying one I’m quickly overwhelmed by the choice: strawberry, raspberry, blueberry? The lemon scones glisten under the light. A stupid, simple choice, and already I want to run home and cry again.
The baker—at least, I guess she’s a baker, she’s got an apron—smiles kindly at me from over the counter.
“Having trouble deciding?” she asks.
“I guess,” I say, hating how rough my voice sounds, hoping she won’t hear the tremble of my words.
“You know what I do when I need to make a decision?” She leans her elbows on the counter. “I count down from three, and then say or do something. It usually gets me out of whatever rut I’m in.”
“Huh,” I say. Somehow, I don’t think she’s just talking about scones.
She winks. “But if you don’t feel like counting, I recommend the strawberry ones. They’re my favourite. Unless you’re allergic, of course.” She taps a finger against the glass display case thoughtfully. “Wait, can artificials be allergic to food?”
I’m taken aback by her question—not because she asks it, but because of how warm she sounds when she does.
“Um, yeah. If our body is.”
“And is yours allergic to strawberry?”
“No,” I say.
She grins, revealing a gap between her front teeth. I think she’s the cutest baker I’ve ever met.
“Perfect,” she says.
Minutes later, settling into my seat—second from the back on the left—I pull the warm scone, filled with jam, from its paper bag. I feel a sense of calm, or something close to it, wash over me. The bus is a fortress, a self-driven shield protecting its riders from the world outside. Who’s going to mess with a bus on the road? Absolutely nobody. I am safer here than in my own car; I’ve lost my ability to believe in control, I suppose.
A human girl with cheeks blushed the colour of the jam that sticks to my fingertips looks over her shoulder, giving me a pursed-lip twice-over that says, I don’t want to think anything bad of you, but your bright eyes scare me.
To her credit, she reciprocates my smile before turning back to her floral-covered reader. My gaze drifts to the street as the bus pulls away, drawn to a girl with dark, curly hair that floats about her head like a thundercloud. Maybe she senses my attention, because she turns to look into the bus and—
It’s her. The girl from the hospital, who holds her anger heavily upon stiff, angular shoulders. In the seconds before she disappears from view, her eyes meet mine, and there’s a spark within them, an electric ferocity aimed directly at me.
Then she’s gone, the bus moving onwards, ignorant of how I twist in my seat to try and catch another glimpse of the girl. I don’t know her, but the way she focused on me hints at two potentials—that she knew the original host of this body, or that she just loathes ersatz with a passion I’ll never understand—and one definite: she hates my existence more than I.
Paiden’s house is the quintessential human dream, or so she’s told me; a white picket fence, an overflowing—but tidy—garden, and enough bathrooms for a family double the size. An old oak towers in her front yard, the leaves, lit from behind, flaring with green flame. I’ve always thought that particular, glowing green might be the colour of life. How many tubes of paint have I mixed to try and capture that shade, the same bright hue of Paiden’s eyes? A tutor once said I had an obsession, which is telling enough.
I hover at the doorstep, feeling my heart beat against my chest as I try to force moisture into my dry mouth. I haven’t exactly been avoiding Paiden these last two weeks, but I can’t say I haven’t procrastinated when I could have—should have—made an effort. I don’t know who she’s going to be more upset at: me, for being so slippery and vague, or herself, for thinking she’s the reason I’m in this situation. Not that any of this is her fault, but if she is my sun, her guilt is the moon that eclipses her light. That’s how it’s always been.
As I struggle to find the strength to knock, the baker’s words suddenly pop unbidden to the front of my mind; Count down from three, then do something. So I count.
Three—what if she doesn’t want to see me?—two—what if she does want to see me, and I don’t know what to say?—one.
The glass rattles beneath my knuckles. Almost instantly, I can hear the reverberations of footsteps from inside the house. I swallow the panic, the urge to run, and plaster a smile on my face right as the door swings open. Paiden’s ba stands across the threshold, his muted eyes flickering with fleeting confusion before his mouth settles into its paternal smile.
“Allegra?” he asks. It’s only now I realise that he’s never seen this body before, that he’ll only know my new appearance from Paiden’s description of it.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I say, and though he steps aside to welcome me inside, I remain frozen where I am. “How are you?”
“I’m doing well. Killian and I are enjoying having Paiden back for the summer.” He shifts his weight and gestures into the house. “Would you like to come in? Paiden’s sucked into one of her books, but I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you.”
There’s nothing more I can do to stall in the face of familiar hospitality that won’t give my nerves away completely, so I accept the invitation and step into a house I know almost as well as my own, and certainly love much more.
“How are you doing?” he asks, leading me towards Paiden, though we both know I hardly need a guide. I wonder if he’s as worried that I’ll bolt as I am. “I’m so sorry about what happened. I can’t even imagine…”
“Thank you,” I say. This conversation is uncharted territory not only for the both of us, but for humans and artificials in general. How do we express grief at what would be death, when nobody actually died? I know I should say that I’m glad Paiden wasn’t hurt, or at least that feels like the logical next step of the conversation, but I can’t bring myself to listen to a human—even one I trust—attempt to navigate the issue of my half-death juxtaposed with his own daughter’s health.
No matter what either of us say, the words will be clumsy and ill-fitting upon our tongues. I don’t think he minds the silence, though. As much as Paiden’s parents try to empathize, there’s always going to be a disconnect between their human lives, and Paiden’s artificial one. He knows that as well as I, even if he loves his daughter as if she were the one they had at birth.
At the entrance to the library, or so Paiden calls it, her ba places a hand on my shoulder and looks down into my eyes. There are no secrets in this family, I have no doubt he knows how I’ve been acting. This moment, this brief connection of human and artificial, is his way of asking me for hope. He wants to know I’ll be happy, and that Paiden will be, too.
I dip my chin and slip from his grasp into the library, pushing the wooden door open to reveal Paiden bathed in light like some kind of goddess, sprawled across the cushioned seat of a bay window. Her eyes flit away from the pages of her book and up to meet mine, and they are set alight by the sun. They are luminous, shining out from beneath delicate lashes.
Oh, I do love her.
I close the door behind me, and she shuffles over to let me sit with her. Each movement of ours is highlighted by hesitation, as if we’ve suddenly travelled back to when we first began dating.
“Nice day,” I say, waving my fingers at the sunlit yard beyond the window. Paiden laughs, though it’s more of a hiccup.
“Really? The weather? That’s where we’re at?”
“I don’t know what to say,” I admit. “I’m sorry.”
“I know.” She reaches for my hand, but freezes just before touching my skin. I raise my hand to hers, pressing fingertips to fingertips before intertwining our fingers together. My hand fits differently within hers, and her touch is muted. There is a difference between before and now that I can’t voice, but I realise with a relieved breath that I didn’t stop adoring her.
“You don’t have to apologize, I know you’re going through a hard time,” she says. She tilts her head and snorts. “Actually, you should be a little sorry. I thought you hated me.”
“Never,” I say.
“But you should have talked to me.” And there’s that steeliness, just at the edge of her voice. Her frustration at me, at herself. Her thumb rubs against mine. “You should talk to me now, darling. You’re struggling.”
I bite back a wry laugh. Of course I’m struggling. “I miss my old body. I don’t feel like myself anymore. Like there’s someone else driving my actions, and I’m trapped inside, you know?” She shakes her head, and I notice the regrowth at the edge of her temples.
“I don’t know. Is it something to do with… your depression?”
“My depression?” I ask, shocked to hear her question in terms of the illness belonging to me. “I guess. Maybe.”
“Is that why you…?” she doesn’t finish the question, but she might as well have, her unspoken words clear as the sky outside. Is that why you flinched from my touch?
“I don’t know!” I cry, unable to hide my frustration. Paiden frowns at my outburst, but lets me continue. “I feel different. Like I’ve lost the part of me that felt… things.”
“Things?” she asks. A hesitation: the chewing of a lip, the glimmer of unshed tears. “Things like—like love?”
“What—No! God, no,” I say, suddenly understanding where she thought this conversation would lead from the start. My hands cup her face as she laughs and tears stream down her cheeks. I press my forehead to hers. “No, of course not.”
“Oh,” she says, still laughing, still crying.
“I meant, uh,” I laugh too, my cheeks hot. “Um. Physical things, I guess.”
“Oh.” She sits back, I let my hands drop back to my lap.
“And my other feelings are off, too. It’s like I need to be recalibrated, except apparently everything’s in order in my head. I don’t know, Paiden. Everything’s wrong.” I sigh, reaching the point that Paiden expected from the start. “I’m not the same, even if I’m still me. I get it if you want to take a break, or something.”
She stares at me as she blinks away tears, and I brace myself for the worst. She bursts into laughter again, wiping a palm across her eyes.
“You’re an idiot,” she says. “I don’t want to take a break. I’m going to stay right beside you and help you.”
Now it’s my turn for an, “Oh.”
“We’ll figure this out,” she says, brushing a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “Okay? We’re going to figure this out together.”
“Okay, yeah,” I say.
But before I can fully feel relief, she grips my shoulders and fixes me with a serious look. “Except there is one thing you need to do for me.”
“What?” I ask. My stomach twists, until she tugs at my ill-fitting shirt, the corners of her mouth curling cheekily.
“Get new clothes.”
The girl appears as if from nowhere—or maybe I’m just too zoned out to see her blonde bob coming. I walk right into her, knocking her groceries from her hands. She cries out, sharp and high-pitched, as cans bounce and roll across the sidewalk.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” I say, crouching to rescue whatever items I can, expecting her to berate me as she kneels to do the same.
But the girl doesn’t join me, doesn’t rush to save her groceries or rebuke the clumsy ersatz. When I look up, I find she is frozen in place, her blue eyes brimming with tears as she stares back down at me. Her trembling lips part as I stand, but no words escape. I can think of only one reason she would react like this upon seeing me: she knows this body. I have no clue what to say to her in this situation—why doesn’t anyone teach us these things?—so instead I silently hold a box of cereal out to her. A peace offering.
Something snaps within her at the sight of the cereal, and she bursts into tears. I take a step back, mumbling an apology, ready to turn and sprint far away from this sad girl.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, finally working her way through her sobs. “I’m so, so sorry.”
At that moment, I know there’s nothing I can say that will help her. There’s nothing for it but to crouch back down and gather up the rest of her groceries, slipping them back into their canvas bag so I can hand them to her, because there’s no way in hell she’s going to do it in this state. She would remain, lost and upset, until her apples spoiled. Not once do her eyes waver from me, except for when I force her bag into her shaking hands. She glances down at my hastily-packed work in shock.
“You don’t have to apologise,” I say, softly. “It’s not your fault.”
This sentiment, it seems, is too much for her. She pushes past me and disappears around a corner, her echoing footfalls fading away as strangers pause to give me the kind of looks they reserve for the ersatz they fear haven’t lost their rebellious spark.
I hunch my shoulders, pick up my shopping bag, and push my way into an Overtones to escape the presumptive human eyes. Instantly, I’m greeted by the familiar, heady scent of coffee. I inhale deeply; much better.
The cashier takes my order with a well-practiced smile and waves me on. I pick a table in a corner, dumping my shopping bag unceremoniously on one chair as I collapse into the other. All around me are the typical sounds of an Overtones: people chatting, fingernails clinking against keyboards, soft acoustic drifting out from the speakers, the hiss-scream of steaming milk. And then a word, shouted across the din as if it were a name scrawled across a cup.
I instantly know this is aimed at me. The vitriol slicing through the heavy atmosphere of the cafe is meant for my ears—and I know who spoke the word, an accusation, even before I turn in my seat, because who else would it be?
When I look over, there she is, dangling my coffee over the bar as if holding it hostage: the dark-eyed girl wearing hatred like a favoured jacket.
My chair squeals against the tile as I stand. I cross the cafe floor in swift steps, afraid she’ll get sick of waiting and hurl my drink at me—and I think the only thing that stops her from doing so is the expectation of social decency in a public place. Deprived of that violence, she settles for slamming the drink down upon the bar. I snatch it away as quickly as possible, cradling its warmth between my hands like something precious.
I could walk out now. I could leave this place and escape her wrathful gaze, pretend I didn’t understand what her expression meant, forget I ever saw her here. But I’m tired, and frustrated, and slightly too much of me wants to know where this leads.
“What?” I ask. I’m already sick of the way she glares at me, like an injured animal she wants to put to death. “What is your problem with me?”
“You—!” she cuts herself off, forces herself to take a deep breath. Then, stated as if obvious fact: “You stole her body.”
My lungs constrict at her words, but what else was I expecting? My next question is unavoidable.
She leans forward, her teeth bared. “Lissa’s. My best friend.”