A/N: A couple notes on this chapter. (1) Credit for “Fish Duke” goes to A.B. up in Vancouver. Stealing your cousin’s echolalia is kosher, right? (2) The poem Clara quotes is “Space Shuttle” by Diane Ackerman, and you can read the full text here.
CP and high heels don't mix. This is the second-greatest tragedy of my life; second only to, you know, the profound incongruity of self and body. But we don't talk about that.
In sophomore year I used to obsessively watch Clara Delgado and envy her feet. She almost always walks on her toes, which is a common autistic trait; but I wonder (read: I have a burning desire to know) if this makes it easier to walk in heels. I bet she'd have an impressive gait in a pair of basic pumps. See, there I go Jame Gumb-ing again. Potential fraudulence, send the police!
I have this funny need to compare 504s with Clara someday. I just remember once I was in the main office and she was filling out a form and I saw her write Autism on a blank line, in miniscule perfect handwriting. The big A was hardly taller than the other letters. It made me want to Jewish-mother her, with all the false exuberance of a popup ad. Boost your confidence – increase your capital A size with these 5 simple tips! Here, eat this chicken soup, for starters.
Of course, at this rate I'm unlikely to ever be a mother. Step it up, Lee.
I do like those capital letters. I've considered taking on Spaz as a formal title, as one does Colonel or Doctor. But the general population would fail to understand. Furthermore, my opinion is typically controversial even among theoretical comrades. Once I tried to talk to Mac Khoury about getting him into some disability activism and he pitched a fucking fit. By which I mean, he did that passive-aggressive straight-boy routine where they look uncomfortable and bored and dismiss you with a few ignorant pejoratives. “Nah, dude, sorry, but that sounds pretty lame,” he said, and instead of pointing out the hilarity of his usage of “lame” in that context – yes I did find it funny, I'm permitted – I screeched in my ridiculous high-pitched slurry CP voice that if he ever called me “dude” again I would break both his legs. He raised his eyebrows, said “Sorry, didn't catch that,” and slouched off down the hall. You win some, you lose some.
So Mac remains quite the enigma. He's cute, though, to an obnoxious degree if you're into that type. Which I'm not. Some men are so goddamn laconic. (It has nothing to do with Deafness, I've met plenty of Deaf people who never shut up.)
I get the e-mail from Susan at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, and have to rouse myself deep from a fanfiction-induced haze to process it. It's addressed to the same people who were at the Event. I feel like a chord of Fate has been struck deep in my marrow. Once I wake up from half-sleep, my thoughts start buzzing frenetically and I'm just so excited for tomorrow. Which doesn't make any sense, because the Event itself was ambiguous if not negative, and we'll be discussing rather weighty matters such as alien invasion. I'm a bit drunk on hours of internet use and the aftereffects of the Event itself. I didn't realize it would echo in my muscles for hours, for days.
The Magpie's image has stuck in my mind. Perfectly preserved and perfectly unreachable. Her pretty face drills fine holes in my consciousness, like pores opening, like my brain is made of spongy bone growing osteoporotic. Her holographic presence has the power to replace all extraneous data. It makes me want to cry. My moods are rotating far more quickly than is normal, and I curl up beneath my covers helplessly. Mother would never understand this. I think tomorrow I'll get on the wrong bus and eat an entire bag of Zabar's rugelach.
I am sniffling into my pillow. How pathetic.
I decide that if the participants in the Event continue to interact and make joint plans – if this becomes a Thing, and I suspect it will – I need to tell them. About the number one tragedy. But I don't know how to explain, since it seems utterly evident to me and yet no one else sees it. Maybe they think it is a function of being a spaz. Maybe I am not a person at all. I'm floating away I am dreaming and there is a man who stands in my room, next to the window. He is suited and dark-haired and he smiles with a cruel benevolence and says, “Hey there.” I am terrified.
Hey there, Liam Feldman. Nobody knows. Nobody knows who you are.
I ran into Lee at Zabar's the next morning. It was the most depressing occurrence since the event itself. I was skiving off first period (fuck you, I'll know calculus whether I go to class or not), totally out of my way – I won't specify the location of school, but home's the Lincoln Center area – okay, twentyish blocks out of my way. Lee had a free first and was inexplicably buying twelve rugelach. They're delicious, but somehow it ruined my ninety-cent coffee for me. I'd gone out of my way not because the coffee was ninety cents but because I needed to walk. My head still felt subtly altered, and walking is the best way to right yourself. I wandered aimlessly and then decided coffee was a good idea. I sat in the little approximation of a café, or maybe it was more of a deli-approximant. Next to me were a white lady in an obvious Orthodox wig and her kids, two little black boys with yarmulkes. One of them had a Nintendo DS. I wondered if the dad had converted, or if he was actually black and Jewish. Sometimes I think about converting to Judaism. Don't fucking tell anyone, since my parents are both hardcore atheists.
Anyhow Lee came over (because his boundless extroversion lacks an off button) and said, the words punctuated by spittle: “I'm so excited for our meeting at lunch today!”
I said, more crossly than perhaps was called for, “Why are you buying twelve rugelach?”
“Because I'm depressed,” Lee replied cheerfully, wrestling himself into the high stool adjacent to mine. I instinctively put a hand beneath his elbow to steady him. His crutches leaned precariously against the table. “I like to perform the standard breakup protocol whenever my moods fluctuate. You know, sugary food and romantic comedies. I only like the sci-fi kind of romcom, though. I'll probably watch The Search for Spock tonight.”
“That's the standard breakup protocol for girls,” I said, wondering what the kids next to us thought of Lee. He's not disabled enough to get constant stares, but he does get reactions from children who see something wrong and have to be shushed. “Besides, you don't seem depressed.”
“I don't know what I'm feeling!” Lee exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air haphazardly. One of his wrists crashed into the table's edge and he cringed, face contorting in pain. “G – Gosh darn it.” He glanced guiltily in the Jewish lady's direction. “That was close, I was about to take the name in vain.”
“Is your wrist okay?” I asked. I was thinking, This kid is a mess.
“It's fine!” he slurred. His jaw was going a little spastic. “But, I mean, it's meant to be the girl protocol. That was intentional.”
I had no idea where this conversation was going and it made me nervous. We had better be on time to second period.
“I mean, I'm a girl,” he said, as though this were common knowledge, and then promptly blushed to a degree that embarrassed me by association.
“I have to go!” he said, and sort of twisted in a desperate attempt to get off the stool without breaking all his bones. I held out an arm to him; he gripped it so tight I lost circulation, and hopped down. I helped him get arranged on his crutches. “Goodbye, Adam,” he squeaked, and began to transport himself toward the door. “I'll see you at 11:15. I'm excited. I believe that destiny is involved, perhaps tikkun olam.”
I ended up cutting second too and searching the phrase on a school computer. (Skipping class in the library: how to know you're a dork 101.) It was Hebrew, a precept of Judaism that meant “repairing the world”. Or “healing the world”. It was the most poetic idea I'd encountered in, like, years. I sat there totally devoid of speech or thought until I realized it was five minutes till third period and I had to go before I cemented my status as a senior-year burnout.
Our meeting was set for shortly after fourth period. I got out of class on time, but in a fit of procrastination went up to the computer lab. I dawdled there for a while, like the internet could be a prophylactic for impending doom. I did not expect to get an e-mail from Lee. He must have sent it during the break between second and third – either that, or he’d cut class, too. It was frantic in nature, and lacked the extravagant verbosity I’d come to expect from him. It went as follows:
I meant what I said this morning about being a girl. I didn't mean to spill it right then but it is the truth. :) :) :) If you want me to use the word “transgender” I will, but I don't like that word because it implies there was a time when I wasn't a girl in the first place. (Trans means “across”. You know that since you take Latin.) I've always been a girl. I told only you so far. I value your acquaintance and would much appreciate if you took this new knowledge in stride. You need not do anything except refer to me by female pronouns. But not in front of my mother!!! Never. Thank you for your consideration.
Love, as in cousinly love,
p.s. THIS IS NOT A PATHOLOGICAL THING RELATED TO MY SISTER. !!!!!!!!! IF YOU THINK THAT I WILL GET MY AIDE TO KICK YOU IN THE BALLS.
At first I was like, your sister, what? Lee doesn't have a sister. And then I remembered: tomorrow was the anniversary of Tasha Feldman's death.
Then I felt justifiably terrible.
Tasha was born about five years before Lee and died when she was only four, of Tay-Sachs. This is a genetic disease common to Ashkenazi Jews which is, forgive me for saying, unbelievably stupid. I'm serious. It's a protein deficiency that causes plaques to build up in the brain, such that your mental and physical faculties deteriorate until you die as a toddler. I've never heard of anything so pointless. It made me want to wreak havoc on Lee's parents' DNA, and I'd never even met the dead sister.
Tasha’s death was hard on the Feldmans, particularly Miriam. If I'd been incredibly coarse and insensitive, I might have drawn the conclusion that Lee’s gender identity was him trying to replace the daughter they'd lost.
But if you thought about that for more than two seconds, it was total idiocy. I was mildly offended that Lee had such a low opinion of my critical thinking skills.
The “cousinly love” part got to me. It was true: Lee, Susan and I had known each other since early childhood, and that relationship bespoke a certain level of loyalty and kinship. I wasn't going to reject Lee's assertions or refuse his – her – requests. The very least I could do was respect her, as she was. (I know, after-school special. I grew up on Mister Rogers; sue me.)
I was just surprised. I'd always assumed Lee was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of person. It was one quality I admired in him. This new development indicated that he – she – was in fact a master of artifice.
That shook me significantly more than the gender switch did. I'd unconsciously considered Lee a bastion of innocent honesty in a dishonest world. In retrospect, that was almost as dumb of me as the “replacing your dead sister” theory would have been.
But I understood the kid like a thousand times better now. If only it weren't such a pain to adjust. Pronouns are so frequently used, they’re harder to change than a name or something.
I had to go and meet the others in the courtyard. I had a sickening suspicion I would end up the leader by default, because nobody else was willing. That’s what tends to happen to me in group projects, and it’s a hard habit to break.
Well, I had no idea what was going on.
It was 11:14, and I was on time purely because I didn't want to do my math homework. Much as it pained me to admit, I was more interested in Adam's craziness than I was in differential equations.
Lee showed up a few minutes later, on crutches today, and greeted me with his wide lopsided smile. It was borderline grotesque, what a smile did to Lee's face. In an adorable way. Sometimes I wonder if I patronize the rest of the world too much, but in Lee's case, it's difficult not to. I respect the kid, but... but.
He had this mass of wild curly dark hair, more ringlets than Jewfro, and the wind of the courtyard caused it to spill over his face from all sides. It was a haircut more appropriate for a three-year-old girl. Of course he was clad in standard Lee attire, the ironed khakis and the tucked-in Oxford shirt. However, today there was a pale pink bow tie affixed to his collar.
This was new. I was alarmed.
“Susan!” he said. His voice was messier than his hair, squeaky and drooly and slurred by the motor difficulties inherent in CP. “And how are you this fine day?”
“Okay,” I said, crossing my arms. “How's it hanging?”
I think he winced, but it may have been an involuntary twitch. “I don't like that phrase,” he said. “Um, do you think Mac will have trouble understanding my voice? I brought my keyboard, since it can talk, but then I remembered it doesn't have lips. So, like, what should we do? Is anybody like an ASL prodigy here?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Oh, my god. Why was this such a production? What the hell was wrong with Adam Walcott?
Speak of the devil: the man himself was loping toward us. He wore a pained expression. “Sorry,” he said stiffly, sliding to a halt at the foot of the courtyard steps. “I was held up talking to Mrs. Tallis.”
“Teacher's pet?” It came out meaner than I intended.
Adam ran a hand through his burgeoning Afro, the corners of his mouth turning down. “I don't know,” he said sourly. “Lee, you need a haircut.”
“No I don't,” Lee snapped, lowering himself gingerly onto the steps and pulling his little notetaking keyboard out of his bag. He's allowed to have it in class because he can't properly hold a pen. It's also got this function that will say aloud whatever you type, in case he gets too spastic to talk. But he doesn't use the speech app much, even when I can see his jaw struggling. Yet another unsolved mystery that Susan Cheng is too lazy to solve.
Adam tapped his fingers nervously on his thigh. “We're waiting for Mac and Clara and Zellie, I suppose,” he said. “I mean. They all ought to be here.”
“What is this combination of people?” I asked. “I don't see the logic. I mean, I agreed to your terms last night because you seemed pretty disturbed, but what is – this?” I waved my hand loosely around the air between the three of us.
Adam gave me a puzzled look. “The – thing,” he said unhelpfully. “I mean. It doesn't exactly lend itself to concrete description, but, you know – there was a woman giving us instructions...”
He was just getting more and more cryptic. Differentials were beginning to hold a certain appeal.
“The event!” said Lee, and tossed his arms up in the air as though they were independent of his body. Which wasn't far from accurate. He looked drunk.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” I said flatly.
They both seemed about to respond but at that moment, our three remaining delegates appeared. Clara Delgado's hands were doing something vaguely extraterrestrial and Mac Khoury wore what he probably didn't know was a smirk and Zellie looked like she was being led to her own execution. Just another day in the life.
“Hello,” said Clara, her voice far too loud.
“Hey,” said Adam, his mouth tight.
“I'm here,” said Clara. “We are all here, sorry. AP Bio ran late.”
“That's right,” said Mac. He kept shifting from one foot to the other, his eyes flitting over our respective mouths. “I'm assuming this is about the, you know, um. That creepy shimmery lady.”
“Oh thank god,” said Adam, and moved toward Mac as if by instinct – as if to hug him, or clap him on the shoulder – but then stopped short. “Dude,” he said, with evident relief. “So you saw her too, right? I'm not making this up.”
Mac shrugged. “Far as I know.”
“Okay. Okay.” Adam began to pace back and forth in a tight pattern: two steps forward, two steps back, hands lodged in the thicket of his hair. “So how about we, um, compare notes here. By a show of hands. Who saw the woman? Or, well, it's possible she was some variety of cyborg.”
“She was holographic!” said Lee, who remained irritatingly chirpy. “Didn't you notice how she glowed all over. Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's 3D Photoshop!”
“3D Photoshop,” said Clara, and giggled. She bounced up and down a few times. “Oh, that's funny.”
“Show of hands,” Adam repeated impatiently. “Who saw the woman. Come on.” He raised his own hand.
Slowly, all the others followed suit. Mac, Lee, Clara, and finally Zellie – her fingers curled inward and her face unsure. Everyone but me. The others gave me these unpleasant wary looks.
Adam acknowledged my dissent with a nod. “Okay. For whom did the woman deliver a sort of prepared speech? She spoke aloud for a significant interval.”
Adam's diction really grinds my gears sometimes. Like, honestly, I get that you read the dictionary when you were six or whatever, but you should be smart enough to put a cap on it. Some of us are not here for that shit.
Once again, all hands but mine. This was beginning to bother me deeply. Either five people had lost their minds within the same 24 hours, or it was Opposite Day and Adam Walcott was the paragon of reason.
For petty reasons, I didn't want it to be the latter.
“Wait, wait a second,” said Mac. “Repeat that last one again? I didn't get it. I know I raised my hand, like, I just want to be sure. Sorry.”
Adam spoke slower, enunciating. “Did she speak to you? Give you a message of some kind?”
“Well, see!” said Mac. “That's the thing. She did make a speech, like, it was pretty long and stuff. But she didn't talk aloud, man. She signed. Her ASL was fluent.”
“I didn't see her signing,” Lee said nervously. “Maybe there were two of her.”
Her. Her who. This was like fucking charades at this point. Two words! Then inexplicable motions, which all of them could interpret but me. I wasn't used to it.
I looked over at Zellie, who hadn't yet spoken. She stood with her fists clenched at her sides and eyes on the ground. Her jeans and T-shirt both hung awkwardly loose on her thin frame. The shirt was from the Bronx Zoo and had a very faded graphic of gorillas. Somehow it endeared me to her.
“Zellie, hey.” I spoke as kindly as I could manage. Her chin jerked up and she stared at me, her eyes murky green behind those owlish glasses. “Hi,” she said. “Susan C., right? I know you from AP Lit. I mean, that's silly. Of course I know you. I don't know why I said that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you know what the fuck Adam's been going on about?”
Skeptical glances all around. Adam opened his mouth and shut it again.
“Um,” she said, seeming at a loss for words. “I – I. You were there? Like, we were in a hospital room I think, and there was this woman who said we'd been selected, and – I'm sorry, I assumed it was a hallucination but then I got the e-mail. So maybe it was a mass hallucination. You know.”
I sat down. I put my head in my hands. “I have no fucking clue,” I said, “what anyone is talking about.”
I could feel their eyes on me. “You don't remember?” said Mac, and after that they stayed silent. I guess they took my posture as their answer.
“Well,” said Lee. “This is an unexpected snag.”
I heard them moving around. “Don't narrate, man,” Adam said – presumably to Lee, and strangely colloquial, for him. “Hang on. Susan, it's fine, okay? We're not, like, accusing you of anything, we just –”
Oh, for fuck's sake. Adam’s been taking that tone with me since we were three years old. I lifted my head and rolled my eyes at him. “Don't fucking condescend to me,” I spat. “I get that something happened, okay? I gathered that. But it didn't happen to me, no matter what you guys think. I wasn't there. Could I maybe get some background, at least?”
“I wrote it down,” Clara piped up.
Adam swiveled to face her. “Wrote what down?”
“The entire speech,” said Clara matter-of-factly. “I mean, the message from the Magpie. I haven't typed it yet, but I could certainly do that tonight, and then send you all copies. Would that be a useful contribution?”
She spoke like she'd been mentally rehearsing for the past fifteen minutes. Knowing Clara, that probably wasn't far from true.
“I mean – yes,” said Adam, evidently bowled over. “Yes, that would be very useful. I paid pretty close attention, but I'd like to look over the full text.”
“Okay!” said Clara brightly. “I'll do that. I have to get to class now.” She hoisted her backpack more firmly on her shoulders, gave a very awkward and forced smile, and strode off in the direction of the lobby doors.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Finally Zellie tapped my arm and said, “Susan.”
“What,” I said.
“I'll send you an email,” she said. “Um, if Clara's account turns out to be insufficient. Like, I can describe the – the hallucination, I guess, and what you've missed. I have your school email address, so, you know. I could.”
Her voice was soft and quavery. I knew Zellie had trouble with anxiety, particularly about social stuff, and felt instantly bad for being so abrasive. It's my natural default, I guess. “Okay, sure,” I told her. “I'd appreciate that.”
She nodded – it was a more of a rapid head-jerk – then grabbed her bag from where she'd set it and hurried off. “Bye!” she called as an afterthought, waving a hand back at us.
The rest of us mumbled goodbyes and gradually split apart. There were still a few minutes before class. I went into the bathroom, splashed water on my face, and looked at myself in the mirror. Uncombed hair, dark eyes in a fat moon face, crinkled brow. Lips set in an emotionless drooping pout. Acne scarring on the forehead. It was all totally normal, unchanged.
I hated these people and what they'd gotten me into.
You don't understand: as soon as I got the email, I wanted to believe. Partly due to my desire not to be nuts, and partly – well, don't tell anyone, but the hallucination itself held a certain allure. The woman we'd seen was so compelling, so... sparkly. Which sounds ridiculous, oh god, but she legit sparkled around her edges. The hologram explanation made a lot of sense.
(No, I promise, I'm facepalming hard at myself. Sparkly. It sounds as dumb to me as it must to you. Thank you, I'll be starring in the lesbian version of Twilight shortly.)
But anyway. As Lee had said, we'd hit a snag.
It seemed like Susan had no recollection of the incident, thus proving the rest of us probably insane. Majority doesn't matter in these situations. I would absolutely believe that Susan was the single rational member of the group, given my various afflictions and Adam's rather high-strung temperament and Lee being, you know, Lee. Mac and Clara were more difficult to dismiss, but they had been in the subway accident together and traumatic situations can induce that kind of neurological event. Besides, Clara is notoriously susceptible to suggestion by others. I was in her English class last year when Gabe Santos told her “gullible” was written on the ceiling. She looked straight up. “Really?” she said, without a trace of sarcasm or suspicion. She was sixteen at the time.
It was painful to watch.
I'd elected to email Susan in the hopes I could provide a better account of the Event – a clear-eyed, rational retelling, to balance out the others' haphazard references. But walking home from the bus, on the last leg of my commute, I increasingly regretted speaking up. The idea of myself as an objective witness was ludicrous, and the more I reworked the memories in my mind, the more I doubted their veracity.
This was my train of thought when I saw the package in my front yard.
First you have to understand where I live. Imagine Queens. Imagine how fucking giant Queens is. Now imagine a neighborhood of Queens so far out, so inaccessible, so un-New-York-like that no one would ever live there unless they were weirdly isolationist and couldn't afford anywhere else. That's where my family lives.
(I mentioned my neighborhood to Susan once, in AP Lit, because she lives in Flushing and thus has an intimate knowledge of Queens and the travails of its inhabitants. Her eyebrows went way up. “Damn,” she said. “Your commute must be like, two and a half hours.” Yes, it is. Yet another reason for me to hate my life.)
So yes, I have a house, and it has a front yard, albeit an extremely unkempt one. I was depressive and the sky was overcast and at first I thought the package was only a lump of yard debris. Leaves and miscellaneous trash. As I got closer, however, it took on a more definite shape, and when I crouched down to examine it I realized it was a padded mailing envelope. But wrapped in an excess of duct tape, and rather grimy overall. I decided it had to be someone's mislaid mail.
Or something related to the Event. No, Zellie.
I stuck it in the crook of my arm while I unlocked the door. The entryway was dark, but light spilled from the direction of the kitchen. No telling who was here: my mother and siblings have erratic schedules. I set my bag on the floor with a thunk and hollered experimentally, “I'm home!”
“Oh, hey!” It was my sister Annabelle's voice, followed by her heavy footsteps and her physical presence in the hall. “Zellie, hon! I feel like it's been ages.” She opened her arms wide, flashing a toothy smile. “Hugs?”
“Hang on.” I put the package down on the hall table and reached back to wrestle my keys out of the lock. “You've been at Jacob's though, right?” I slammed the door shut, grateful to escape the bluster outside. “I don't think you've slept here for almost a week.”
“Well, yeah,” my sister said, and reached forward to enfold me in a soft, shampoo-perfumed hug. “It's because I've had crazy work these past few days. We had like, ten papers and projects due all at once.” She released me and stepped back, her face still warm and delighted, glowing despite the topic. “Oh, and a couple extra shifts at work. It was hellish. There was no way I could've taken the time to commute. I wanted to, I promise.”
“That's okay,” I said. I dropped my keys on the table and did my best to return her smile. My sister is 23 and works retail part-time while she studies psychology at CUNY. Jacob, her boyfriend, has an apartment in lower Manhattan which provides a more convenient home base. Besides, he probably had the heat on by now. His parents cover like half his expenses.
“Where's Josh?” I asked, following Annabelle into the kitchen. (That's our nine-year-old brother.)
“Oh, he's staying over at Arnold's. Mom said he could.” Annabelle frowned at the sink, which was full of dirty dishes. “I know it's a school night, but like, he does his homework there and Mrs. Weber doesn't mind. And Mom is spending the night with –”
“Rick,” I finished for her, and we mirrored each other's grimaces. Rick is my mother's boyfriend of the past six months, and he's – well. There's nothing wrong with him per se. He's just a man, and loud, and typically insensitive.
“Right,” said Annabelle. “So I guess it's just you and me tonight, kiddo! Whaddaya want to do? Sky's the limit.”
I flopped down on the stool by the kitchen counter and sighed. “I don't know. Do you have any money?”
“Ooh, good joke,” said Annabelle, opening the fridge to scrutinize its contents. She laughed at herself. “No, actually, I do have some. Do you want a pizza?”
I rested my elbows on the counter, letting my muscles relax, drooping sideways like a very sad flower. “I don't feel like pizza.” I felt bad for being so listless, but hey, that's depression for you. “Sorry.”
“Aww, come on!” Annabelle pulled the other stool around and sat across from me, leaning on her elbows in an unconscious echo of my posture. “C’mon, we've got sister time. There must be something we can do to cheer you up. So, what's the hot gossip?” She paused. “Any cute girls?”
The phrase came out of her mouth wrong, like she'd swallowed it down her windpipe and subsequently had to cough it up. My sister is the only person I'm out to – it was an accident, don't ask – and she doesn't really get it. Not my self-hatred, not the societal implications, not what 'liking girls' even entails on an emotional level. But she tries, and I give her so, so much credit for trying.
It doesn’t help, exactly, but it hurts less than everything else.
Now, I chuckled and tried to brush the question off. “It's high school,” I said. “Nobody's cute yet.”
“Aw, but you are!” said Annabelle, and reached out to pat my cheek. Yes, she's that kind of supportive older sister.
“Maybe,” I conceded. “But it makes no difference when I'm so shy. Besides, everyone knows that if you're hot at this age you get ugly by the time you're twenty-six. It's an undisputed fact.”
She cracked up, covering her face with her hands. Her laugh is full and round and infectious; it coaxed a weak grin out of me even in my present gloom. My sister and I are nothing alike, starting with our appearances. Annabelle is tall, chubby and wide-hipped, and she moves with a fluid grace in stark contrast to my own klutziness. She has bright dark eyes and a curtain of glossy chestnut hair, which she wears down. Her face is open and guileless; words roll easily off her tongue. About the only thing we have in common is our mother.
A loud meow interrupted my thoughts. I looked down to see the family tabby cat winding around my ankles. “Oh, did you feed Tab?”
“Yeah, about two hours ago,” said Annabelle. “He's a little glutton, that's all. Aren't you, baby?” she cooed at the cat.
Everyone thinks 'Tab' is short for 'Tabby', but he's actually named after the diet soda. It's sort of an in-joke. My mother thinks it's hilarious.
I could barely focus on Annabelle when the package still sat in the hall. It weighed on my mind like a psychological hangnail. I resolved to investigate before the thought drove me to obsessive freakout mode. “Okay,” I said, “I'm going to my room. You can order a pizza if you want, I'll have some later.”
“Okay!” said Annabelle. She looked disappointed, but there was nothing I could do. I didn't have it in me to do sisterly chatter tonight.
I grabbed my shit from the hall and slipped upstairs. A closer inspection revealed that the package was not, in fact, a regular piece of mail. For one thing, it was simply addressed to “New York 1131”. (Our house number is 647.) For another, in the return address spot, there was a printed sticker that said only “CASIMIR CH. LTD.” I had not heard of any such company.
Not to mention there was no postage whatsoever.
For some reason I thought of anthrax. It's no longer the terrorist weapon du jour, but in elementary school we'd learned – and I'd memorized, in my little OCD brain – that mysterious packages may contain anthrax. Or explosive devices.
If it was a bomb, I'd at least hear it ticking, right?
I went onto the landing, which serves as a study space, and googled “casimir ch limited”. Nothing too notable appeared: a Polish credit union, then the wiki entry for something called the Casimir effect. Physics, but not an organization. No dice.
I reflexively cleared the history – that's a habit you acquire when you check Autostraddle on the family computer – and returned to my room. The package sat there on my desk, menacing. Waiting. Casimir Ch. Ltd. Okay.
If it was a bomb, I reasoned, at least I'd hear it ticking.
I already said that. Repetition begets comfort, in theory. There are silent bombs, aren't there? If I were a terrorist I'd have invented one by now.
I dug some gloves out of my drawer and put them on. Then – despite the gust of cold air that instantly rushed in – I opened the window. I got a pair of scissors, picked up the package between index finger and thumb, leaned half my body out the window and started to saw it open.
The strip of packaging I'd cut off fluttered to the ground below. Nothing explosive so far. I pulled myself back inside, shivering, and wrenched the window shut. Inside the package, smothered in bubble wrap, was a smooth metal square.
I set it on my desk. It was dull silver, an inch or so thick, with rounded edges. About the size of a CD player – or two adjacent smartphones, if that's no longer a viable comparison. The only visible break in the metal was a red rubber button in the upper left corner.
I may be crazy, but I am nowhere near stupid enough to press an unmarked red button.
“Zellie!” Annabelle called from downstairs. “Pizza's here. Come on, just eat dinner with me, okay? Then you can go back up.”
I sent the metal device a nervous backward glance, shucked off my gloves, and hurried downstairs. The kitchen smelled like a brick oven. My sister, who was transferring slices of pizza onto paper plates, met my eyes with a perplexed look. “You okay, hon? You're all white and shaky.”
Oh, god, that was understandable. I'd failed to notice. “Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just a little – sick. Nauseous, you know.”
Nauseous was my standard code for 'anxiety so severe it's become psychosomatic'.
“Aww, poor baby.” Annabelle frowned, then wrinkled her brow thoughtfully. “You want some weed? I heard it has anxiolytic properties.”
I laughed. “No, thanks, but thanks for the offer.” It was funny, hearing a word like anxiolytic from Annabelle's mouth. She must've recently learned it in class. The thing about my sister: she's smart, powerfully so, but you can't hear it in her words. She's good with people. She knows how to fix a clogged sink, and soothe a crying baby. I've got a giant vocabulary but I can't do any of that stuff for crap.
After dinner my sister put Billy Joel in the ancient boombox and made me dance around with her to “Uptown Girl”. It's hard to escape her relentless cheer-up tactics, and eventually I gave up trying. It was about 8 PM before I could escape back upstairs and return to the device.
Which was now on the floor.
God damn it, Tab.
He'd knocked it off the desk somehow and was batting it around, as cats are wont to do. I stared from the doorway, suddenly paralyzed. I stood inert as the cat gazed up at me, said “Mrow?” and pressed the red button with his paw.
“Greetings,” said a pleasant, smooth voice, fuzzed around the edges by the crackle of white noise. “This is the pocket version of Magpie, how may I help you?”
Tab had recoiled, and now stood a few feet back from the device, presumably as astonished as I was. A small round depression had opened in the center of the square, and out of it rose a tiny and blurred holographic figure.
Who was unmistakably the Magpie.
“How may I help you?” she repeated, and tilted her head quizzically.
I was too stunned to respond. The sound shifted and crackled. It was more than white noise – I could hear background interference, waxing and waning like the hum of a radio turned too low. Snatches of speech in languages I couldn't name. That was Russian, maybe – or Arabic? Then bleeps and an interval of English. “Fish Duke. I repeat, Fish Duke Station, all passengers off. Last stop. This is the Casimir Channel Limited, thank you for –”
The rest of the words were lost in fuzz. The Magpie twisted uneasily, glancing back over her shoulder. “Malfunction,” she said. “We do apologize for any trouble this may have caused...”
Too much. It was too much to process. My muscles, unbidden, jerked back to life; I sprang forward and jammed down the button with my finger. The Magpie disappeared with a blip. Her little concave arena whirred seamlessly out of sight. I stood in the middle of my room, alone, shaking so violently that I could no longer trust my legs. I crumpled to the floor, where the cat approached me and nestled, purring, against my head.
Two hours later I woke up with an ache in my neck and remembered I was supposed to email Susan.
I can't explain the appeal of my home life to my friends, and not for the reasons you think. I mean, they're New Yorkers; they know what Pakistani food is and they like it. They can appreciate that my mom teaches high-school history, because they go to our school and know what it means to have a really good teacher, and they can appreciate that my dad runs a deli because in all likelihood they think of delis as this second oxygen that keeps them alive. (Seriously, if you've never been to a really good deli, I pity you.) They even get that we're all the way up in Washington Heights and that sometimes I can lipread Spanish just due to osmosis.
What they can't understand is what it's like to sign math problems.
See, Parveen is really good at math. Like, scary good for a kid her age, and so quick to pick up new concepts that I can see her surpassing me in a couple of years. So when she finishes her dumb sixth-grade math homework and turns to me with that smug grin on her face, like she's about to kick my ass at a sport I've never played – well, I can't deny her math, of all things. I'm pretty good at it myself, and it'd be a shame, to not do the one activity that turns her into a bearable sibling.
I've been teaching her quadratic equations, and you don't know what it's like. Sitting at the kitchen table with her dumb sparkly binders and a sheaf of looseleaf in between you, shooting problems and solutions back and forth, your hands flying. I can't explain it, but it's the most peaceful I've ever felt. Not happy, because nothing unusual ever happens; not even content, but peaceful. It's just math and ASL and my little sister whom I otherwise hate.
So you can imagine how much it fucked with my head when I forgot a sign.
I was there with Parveen, the evening after our meeting – which had been weird, right, it was a very inconvenient combination of people – and I could not remember how to sign factor. Which is simple, right? If you're going to do like any math, you need this word. But it wasn't in my mind. It was just gone. Which was especially disturbing because as much as I try to prevent it, I think in ASL maybe half the time.
I got up from the table and shoved my head in my hands and signed quickly that I had to check my email. I went in my room and shut the door and sat on my bed and tried to think. I could not remember. I fought the urge to scream. I really wanted to bang my head against a wall but stopped myself because I knew the danger of brain damage. So I pulled my knees up to my chest, locked my arms around them, and lowered my head so I was almost this fetal ball. Then – it sounds incredibly stupid, but – I started rocking back and forth rhythmically. It was only because I once saw Clara Delgado do that, in an empty side hallway, and before she started she was like flailing all over the hallway, like her entire body was out of control, and then once she stopped rocking she got up normally and went to her next class. So logic would dictate that the rocking calmed her down. It was pretty impressive, the transformation. She had no idea I was watching her.
So I rocked and rocked and mentally flipped through all the signs I knew, beginning with the ones I learned when I was barely three years old. I could not find factor. I tried to pretend I wasn't scared to death and that Parveen wasn't probably gearing up to tell our parents I had gone nuts. I gripped a fistful of my hair in each hand. I realize I sound like a total idiot.
I sped up the rocking until it felt like I could just exit the world this way, forget I had ever forgotten, and then flashbacks to the weird vision started parading through my mind. That empty room, the woman whose edges shimmered like she was about to fade into the air. There was something fake about her – like a mirage. But I wasn't even curious. I just wanted her to go away so I could remember how to solve a quadratic.
Eventually I got up and made myself chai and told Parveen I had like a spontaneous bout of flu and got my breathing back down to normal. Around 10 PM, I finally remembered the sign for “factor”. By that point I felt like going to sleep for fifteen hours.
Of course, right then Parveen poked her head into my room. Typical. I nodded, giving her permission to enter, and she sashayed in with the home phone crammed between her ear and shoulder. “Your lab partner’s calling,” she signed.
It took me a second to figure out she meant Zellie. True, we’re lab partners in AP Bio, but I’d already started thinking of her in a different context. As one of the Event people. It was weird how fast that happened.
“What’s she want?” I asked.
“Go on the internet,” said Parveen. “She doesn’t like phones. She has to talk to you. About a lab report.”
There wasn’t anything due till next Monday. I was pretty sure this was Zellie’s code for “something else important happened”. She doesn’t normally contact me outside school. We're sort of friends, I guess, but in an academic way.
Parveen marched forward and stood over me impatiently. “Okay?” she signed. Right up in my face. Nice.
“Okay,” I said, “sure. Wait. Where on the internet?”
Parveen spoke into the phone and listened. “Facebook,” she reported. “Go on facebook chat. Is that all?”
I nodded and let her go. Then I peeled myself reluctantly off my bed to boot up the ancient family computer. Zellie was, as promised, online.
Zellie: MAC HELP
It’s always funny when someone opens a conversation with all caps. The only feasible response, I’ve decided, is to shout right back at them.
Zellie: MAC I GOT A FUCKING PACKAGE AND IT HAD THE FUCKING MAGPIE IN IT
IM SCARED TO DEATH PLEASE HELP
wait slow down
you got a package with a whole woman??
was she like a stripper in a cake?
I don't know why I made that joke. Zellie didn’t respond at first, and I hoped I hadn't offended her. Whether you allow humor in times of stress, that's a very personal thing. I didn't know her well enough to gauge it.
Now the chat log said she was typing.
Zellie: OMG FCUK
i just laughed so hard i almost died
no she wasnt in a cake
i mean i wish
… that was a joke
Haha. So, not offended then. Good. I hesitated with my fingers above the keyboard. Here's a question: how do you comfort girls? We absorb from movies that at some point, the heroine will break down in the hero's arms and he will assuage her pain. But that's very different from your almost-friend freaking out at you over facebook chat.
Still, I felt an automatic manly impulse. Not romantic – I don't really think of Zellie that way – but more an older-brother thing. Like, it was my responsibility to protect her. Which was really dumb and maybe chauvinistic but Adam would make some point about social conditioning here, and honestly, I'm not that up on the relevant lingo.
Zellie: it was like a mini magpie
the package i mean
it was a device that emitted a teeny tiny hologram
thats pretty strange.
so what do u want me to do
are you still anxiety?
I was concerned for her. I was also worried because the Magpie had appeared twice now, and she seemed to want something from us. What if she kept showing up everywhere? How were we supposed to handle that? I like to think I'm pretty calm, but on the whole we weren't an emotionally stable bunch.
Zellie: i'm not 100 percent freaking out
it's better now, i just need to hash it out w/ someone
do you want to meet up before first tmrw?
Zellie: omfg no
my commute is like forever, its 2 trains and a bus, its a miracle i ever get there on time let alone early
me: ok then, how about just at lunch? after bio? you can bring the device
we can show it to clara too
mac i gotta tell you something
me: sure, go ahead
see you tomorrow. gnight.
She went offline. I blinked at the facebook homepage for a while, then decided it wasn't worth further worries, and went to bed.
Before I fell asleep, I heard this whirring noise. That was confusing in itself. The sounds I can hear, they're very big and loud and deep. Never little whirs and clicks. But this was like the hum of a household machine – a refrigerator, or maybe a printer. I wouldn't know. I might have felt its vibrations before, but never heard it.
I chalked it up to tiredness and didn't think much of it at the time.
In the World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, there exists a poem about astronauts. That's one of the optional textbooks at Renata's school. Not required, but recommended; a sort of introductory mood-setter before they tackle the hard sciences. Renata's read it cover to cover. There's an entire poetry section, an inclusion she finds whimsical, but appropriate given the anthology's aspirations to well-roundedness.
It plays round and round and round in her head, verbatim.
By all-star orchestra, they dine in space
in a long steel muscle so fast it floats,
Renata's muscles are cranked up tight as they'll go, but she's not floating. She's sitting in AP Bio, fuzzy with hunger and sleep deprivation. This is the period right before lunch. Coffee, got to have coffee. You can borrow a dollar from Adam, maybe. Find him in the library, he never goes out to lunch.
in a light waltz they lie still as amber
watching Earth stir in her sleep beneath them.
You know you're not truly in space. You're not that dumb, no matter what they think – you're the girl who once pressed her ear to the wall of her math classroom and said she was listening for starship engines, but it was pretend. You do these things to get yourself through the day. Oh, these normals – can't they take a little bending of reality? Can't they see you're able to tweak spacetime without ever losing sight of its proper shape?
In zero gravity, their hearts will be light,
not three pounds of blood, dream and gristle.
Sure, pull out the heart imagery. She hates how well it gets her, every time – romantic metaphors are overused for a reason. Slight pain in the chest at those two lines. How nice: the heart should always be hurting. You're copying down notes about endoplasmic reticulum, so fast there's a cramp in your hand, and your own heart is overtaxed by the opposing concerns of accurate notes and readable handwriting. Renata is mildly frustrated, but this is school. School demands sacrifices.
They are good providers. Their eyes do not wander.
Their fingers do not pause at the prick
of a switch.
O how perfectly you understand that way of being. Constant vigilance, as Mad-Eye Moody would shout.
At the end of class you set down your pen and breathe. Kids trip over each other to rush out of the room. You wait until only the slower ones remain, carefully packing up their books and writing implements. You close your notebook with a sigh. Coffee, that's the next step. Except there’s one intrusion on your start-of-lunch routine: Zellie Maddox and Mac Khoury have stopped in front of you, obviously intending to speak.
Now, this is just bad news bears. El miedo no es tonto. People don’t approach Clara Delgado, not voluntarily – and there’s no academic reason here that you can divine.
Okay; sit up. Not red alert but orange. On edge. It’s Zellie and Mac, you know them. They’re lab partners, they work across the room from you and Sunita. Pretend we’re talking science.
All systems go.
“Clara,” Zellie says. “We’ve got to show you something. Like, it’s a piece of evidence I found, related to the Event. Um, is that okay?”
Mac is following the movements of her lips. You wonder how much he understands. They’re both leaning forward with their hands on the edge of your desk, and you’re caught there like a dead fish, still in your chair. Mac wears some kind of boy perfume. Zellie’s scent is mostly laundry detergent.
The normals always smell so clean.
“Sure,” Renata replies, cautious but ever-ready. “It's fine. Where should we go, then?”
Mac and Zellie exchange glances. Zellie says, “Right here is cool, if it’s only for a minute. I mean, the teacher’s left.”
So she has. You’re alone in the bio room. It’s comfortable, as classrooms go: a bit overheated, with a residue of chalk in the air. “Okay,” Renata says. “What is it?”
Zellie twists around to rummage in her bookbag. She pulls out a Ziploc, which contains the item in question. It’s small and metallic, matte finish, looks kind of like an external hard drive. There’s nothing immediately disturbing about it. Mac says, “Dude, you sure this thing is alien?”
“It has the Magpie!” Zellie hisses. She opens the Ziploc and deposits the item on your desk. There is a red button in one of its corners, protruding from the metal. Hmm. Could be dangerous, could be revolutionary. No telling what’s out there in space.
Zellie presses the button while Mac watches silently, crossing his arms, and the Magpie whirs out and in an instant you are gone. Transported from your ordinary realm to a universe with narrative force. Oh my god, it’s like Renata’s real, like she’s crystallized around you. The holographic woman is speaking. You perceive everything with a devastating clarity. Sounds are sharp and images even more so. Mac's arms fold over his stomach as if to shield himself; his brow is crinkled and his eyes are squinty. Thick black hair sticks up from his forehead. Zellie has a mole on her inner right elbow. Her hands are clasped together nervously, skinny fingers interlaced, the knuckles fading fast to white. While the Magpie talks, you can see them as they are: you are real and you can see all their components at once. Sensory integration, perhaps. Renata has a superpower.
You're hypnotized and when Zellie turns the hologram off, you almost fall out of your chair. That’s no surprise. Got to fulfill the humiliation quota. You can’t be real for more than a few minutes – that’d upset the balance of this universe, for sure.
Renata remains in her astronaut box. What is the meaning of life? 42.
— Answer the question
put at half-garble. Say again
how the cramped world turns, say again.