Thin Red Jellies

by

Lina Rather

When Jess died, Amy gave over her body without a second thought.

They were lucky, the doctor said. He showed Amy how close the steering wheel had come to denting Jess’s cranium, shattering the bridge of her nose, pushing bone fragments into her fragile frontal lobe, bruising the precious neural tissue that let Jess talk and think and be saved. Three inches, the length of a person’s thumb, the diameter of the blueberry muffin Amy was eating when she got the phone call. The taste lingered sour on her tongue and she wondered if she would ever be able to eat one again.

“In fact—” She forced herself to listen. “You’re lucky it was bad enough. Impact a little lower, and she’d be looking at spinal damage and long-term rehab instead of an upload. This is the best case scenario.”

He walked her to another ward two floors away from where Jess’s body lay. Fewer nurses up here. They weren’t necessary. This hall was server farm-cold with fans whirring behind closed doors.

The doctor brought her to a small room just like the one where they had left Jess’s body. It was painted the same shade of soothing sage green with the same easy-clean armchair and the same call button affixed to the wall. Instead of a bed, it had a white metal table, and instead of a body, the table had a black machine like a wi-fi router. A barcode sticker on the side had Jess’s name and hospital ID number.

Amy ran her hand over the box. It was the same temperature as a person.

“It’s like sleep,” the doctor said. “We’ve found that state of consciousness best preserves brain patterns, but they will start to degrade around the forty-eight hour mark.”

Until that moment, she’d been on the edge of saying no. Six months was too short a relationship by anyone’s estimation to make this commitment. Jess had an aunt in Pittsburgh who could fly in, though it’d take time. But then she held the box and thought of Jess inside of it, dreaming, her self slowly degrading as patterns meant for flesh spun into nothingness inside the circuits, and she said yes.

~

When she woke up she felt no different at first. She had a round scab on her head the size of a pencil eraser. As the anesthesia wore off she felt a pressure in the back of her skull. Not pain. Just a presence. Like someone uncurling themselves inside her brain.

Her mouth moved without her. “Where am I?”

Amy let go of control like the doctor had taught her. She felt Jess move forward, stretch out her/their hands.

The nurse taking their vitals smiled. “You’ve had an accident.” The IV in their arm contained something that made Amy feel warm inside, even though she knew that their heart should be racing, panic-sweat breaking out across their hands.

“I remember,” Jess said. Amy’s mouth rounded unfamiliar pronunciations.

Their hands pressed against her face. Amy let them touch her body like a stranger’s. She was aware, academically, of her muscles stretching and contracting, her nerves sensing touch and transmitting it up her spine. It was, she thought, just like being really, really stoned. Everything felt theoretical.

She took back control for a moment, easing Jess’s consciousness to the side. “I’m here. You’re in my body, for now.”

She stepped back again and Jess giggled. Amy couldn’t hear her thoughts, but she knew exactly what dirty joke Jess would have made. Then their body shivered.

“I died,” Jess said.

“No, no!” The nurse jumped in before she was even done. This must be part of their training, Amy thought. “Only your body was damaged. That’s replaceable! You are just fine.”

Jess vanished and sensation flooded back. Before Amy went under she’d laid in the hospital bed reading about the procedure on her phone, scrolling through as many firsthand accounts as she could find. Some sharers could talk inside their minds, sensing each other’s emotions and sending messages across the bifurcated neurons. She reached out for Jess, and found only a smooth wall.

~

That Monday they had their appointment at the replacement fitting. Amy drove out to an anonymous office building in an industrial park. The office was tucked in between an accounting firm and an auto insurer full of people in identical khaki pants typing away. The sign read Dr. Phillip Nareem, Ph.D. Tranzior Medical Services. An electronic bell jangled happily when she pushed the door open. It did nothing to put her at ease. Jess had stayed away from the front of their mind but Amy could sense her watching.

Dr. Nareem introduced himself as Phil with the same trained joviality as the nurse in the hospital. He had Amy put her head into a machine that looked like one of those devices at the ophthalmologist that measured corneal pressure by puffing air into your eye.

“Everything’s working fine!” he said. “Proof of insurance?”

She handed over her and Jess’s insurance cards. Jess bought her healthcare on the marketplace at a king’s ransom. The downside of being a freelancer. Amy worked for a chain of women’s clothing stores, so her premiums were lower, but her benefits had shrunk over the past few years as the retail market continued its death spiral. Last night she’d stayed up reading policies, but she knew fuck-all about insurance and couldn’t tell what, exactly, Catastrophic Physical Failure coverage entitled them to.

She studied Phil’s face as he read the screen. Was that a frown? She couldn’t tell. This office was painted the same sage as the hospital rooms and the shade made her nauseous. That was coloring her perceptions, she told herself. Bad associations.

Jess? She thought, as hard as she could. Then she wrote A-R-E Y-O-U T-H-E-R-E on her palm with her thumbnail.

Her hand moved. Y-E-S. A long pause. Phil hmm’d at the screen. N-E-R-V-O-U-S.

Phil switched off the tablet and stood up, shoving his hands in the pockets of his unnecessary white coat with the fake nonchalance of a used car salesman. “Let me take you back to our showroom and we’ll discuss what insurance will cover.”

Someone had tried very hard to design the showroom to look like an Apple store instead of a mad scientist’s lab, but they had failed. Body parts in default-Caucasian skin hung in lit display cases. One wall had sets of skeletal armatures in titanium and resin and aeronautics-grade plastics. Another had disembodied eyes in every color a human iris had ever held and some more besides. Top of the line eyes, the display said, could be programmed to see ultraviolet light and infrared. Great for engineers!

Amy picked up what looked like a wallpaper samples book and flipped it open. It held skin samples in every tone from sub-Saharan blue-black to Scandinavian translucent-pale. The cheapest samples were just vinyl. The most expensive had actual hairs in actual pores, the patterns swirling over the four-by-four square of skin the way they did on a body. She touched one of the samples (“tanned Nordic” according to the label).

The hairs stood up.

Amy dropped the book and squeaked. It fell open on the table and she watched the hairs slowly lay back down.

Phil chuckled. “Takes a bit to get used to, doesn’t it? We used to use donor skin on the high-end models, but these days all of the skin on our premium line is lab grown just for you.”

Neither Amy nor Jess could think of what to say to that.

Phil guided them over to a small display in the darkest corner of the room. “With your insurance, you’d be covered for the Essentials Model.”

The Essentials Model came in four body types, Male 1 and 2 and Female 1 and 2. None of them looked much like Jess. Both female models had lithe, muscular legs and hard-molded breasts. The skin felt like an American Girl doll’s and titanium showed behind the knees and the elbows and the knuckles. It only came in five skin tones, though the advertisement said a custom color could be mixed for an extra charge.

Phil reached behind the head of the Female 2 model and flipped a switch. The featureless white head—like an egg, Amy thought—lit up. A face appeared. The bottom layer of the head was a screen. On top of it a layer of clear plastic warped the projection into an approximation of human proportions. The face ran through its demo mode, displaying smiles and frowns and laughter and tears.

Her hands buzzed. Jess filling up space next to her. Amy retreated and let Jess bend the body’s fingers and run through the demo again.

“Can these type?” Jess asked. She curled the plastic fingers around their hand. “How many words per minute?”

“Are you a writer?”

“I do ad copy.”

“Cool, cool, cool. You know, I’m something of a writer. I’ve had this idea for a historical epic about Napoleon for years.”

“Huh,” Jess said. For the first time, Amy felt a shiver of feeling that wasn’t hers—the slick squeeze of annoyance. “The typing?”

“The Essentials line preserves all the work functionality of your original body. You may experience some joint stiffness, but this model can cook, clean, type—it even has the fine motor skills to file paperwork! Its recreational functionality is more limited.” Phil rapped on the vacuum-molded torso. Clang, clang! “With the titanium skeleton, you won’t want to take this swimming. And the joint pressure cannot be adjusted for running, unlike our Everyday model.”

Amy took control and opened the replacement’s hand again. She tried to imagine what it would be like holding hands with this. The exposed metal joints would pinch, and she couldn’t get the fingers to spread wide enough to accommodate hers intertwined with them.

“I’ll go crunch the numbers on a couple different models for you,” Phil said. Clearly he worked on commission. He left them alone in the room full of dissected bodies.

“Doesn’t look much like me,” Jess said.

“No.” Jess had first caught Amy’s eye in one of the stores she worked for. A stocky, small-chested woman wearing cuffed men’s jeans and an oversized white t-shirt over no bra. She had that swagger, that swung-hipped don’t-give-a-fuck walk that had always revved Amy’s engine like no other key.

Jess pointed their hand at the white cotton boyshorts covering the replacement’s crotch. “Think it has a nice vagina?”

“Jess!” Amy hissed, and covered her mouth before she giggled loud enough for Phil to hear in the next room.

“What? I still want to have sex.” Jess’s voice was light, but Amy felt something quiver. Their heartbeat quickened. “You heard him. These models have limited recreational functionality. ” She stopped. Amy made them take a deep breath. Their hands stopped trembling. “How do robots get off, anyway?”

The replacement’s pants parts were indeed functional, albeit clearly designed by someone whose knowledge of female anatomy came from high school health class and German porn rather than any lived experience. Jess had two choices of genital configurations. No custom mods or intersex options, unless you had a pretty penny to spend.

The replacement also didn’t have a single hair anywhere on its body save for the eyebrows. Even wigs had to be custom-ordered. Jess had a choice of three standard hairstyles—long and wavy, a blunt bob, or a straight person’s idea of an undercut.

The door clicked. Phil, returning with their pricing options. The Essentials model cost ten thousand dollars.

“There must be some mistake,” Amy said. Jess was always the one who argued with customer service reps, but she’d relinquished control of their body and Amy couldn’t sense her anywhere. “Jess’s deductible is only five thousand.”

“I can understand how that would be confusing!” Phil smiled again and Amy thought about putting her fist into his straight white teeth. She’d never punched anyone in her life, but Jess had, so she was sure they could figure it out. “This type of care is considered joint care between your and Jess’s insurance. So you will need to reach both your deductibles before insurance kicks in.”

Amy ran her finger down the page to the next model. The one that could run and came with covered joints and a molded face. The number was so high that she couldn’t even comprehend it. Her brain kept pretending that there was an extra zero, that someone had surely made a mistake.

They could pay the ten thousand. They’d both been saving up to move in together. That was kind of pointless now, right? They were as close as they could possibly be.

“I’ll be waiting out front,” Phil said, and made his exit.

Amy made herself look at the replacement body hanging on the wall. “Do you think you could live like this?” she asked.

Jess took control of their hands and caressed the replacement’s smooth mouthless face.

~

They went home without a replacement. That night they did the math. Nine months paying only one studio rent, eating for one stomach, working both their jobs, and they would probably scrape together enough for a livable model. It would be a lot of tofu and rice and beans and no nights at the movies, but it was doable. Amy kept thinking how many months’ rent a body cost. When she was at work she looked at a pallet of t-shirts or a warehouse full of dresses and thought, that could buy Jess a body. Six hundred Lauren Conrad dresses at wholesale prices. One hundred and thirty-two pairs of Calvin Klein jeans.

During the day Amy went to her job and Jess worked through her assignments in their head. Sometimes Amy was having a conversation with a coworker and what came out would be The Reise campaign still needs a slogan instead of Has the Posen line shipped. When they got home Amy retreated to the back of their brain to rest while Jess typed up what she had thought about during the day. After a couple of weeks, Amy could turn off the part of her awareness that needed to see through eyes and feel through fingers, and she learned to float in the greyspace inside her head. After a few more weeks, she learned how to sleep while Jess was in control.

They still couldn’t figure out how to talk to each other nonverbally. Sometimes Amy could sense Jess’s raw feelings. Sometimes she could guess based on their body’s heart rate or perspiration or indigestion. Mostly it was as if Jess was still a separate body, but one whose face Amy couldn’t even read.

“I love you,” she said to the ceiling, when she lay down in bed each night. Then Jess said back, “I love you, too.”

As the days wore on, Jess was starting to learn how to make her Jersey-accent come out of Amy’s mouth, but it still sounded almost like she was talking to herself.

The eighth Saturday, Amy made pancakes.

It had been a weekend ritual. Jess would arrive early in the morning still in pajama pants with pancake mix and orange juice and Amy would uncork champagne for mimosas. She mixed, Jess flipped, both of them still half-asleep especially on dark winter mornings like this one when the pinkish sun didn’t emerge until nine.

The process was slower with just two hands. They’d forgotten the orange juice and by the time the skillet was hot they were too tipsy off straight champagne to make blueberry smiley faces.

Amy grabbed a spatula. Jess could flip pancakes one handed right from the skillet, three feet in the air like a diner line cook. Amy never had the knack.

“Here,” Jess said. Amy’s hands went numb to her. “Let me show you.”

Their hands ladled a saucer-sized dollop of batter into the pan. The edges turned matte and the surface bubbled. The kitchen smelled like vanilla and lemon and better mornings. Jess grabbed the handle and Amy felt her hesitate. Then she snapped their wrist and their breath caught. The pancake soared and Amy thought, this is going to end terribly. And then it flipped over and landed back in the pan with the lightest sound.

“A few more weeks and you’ll have muscle memory like six years of fast food breakfast service.”

Jess let go and Amy slid the pancake onto a plate and covered it with a dishtowel. “Let me try.”

Her first one ended up splattered across the back burner, but Jess showed her again and the fourth pancake ended up mostly in the pan. They made enough pancakes for months of Saturday brunch, but by the time the sun came up Amy had almost learned the trick of it.

~

They cut out the small things first. The Colombian coffee Amy liked that tasted like chocolate and cost twenty dollars a pound from the small-batch local roaster. Jess’s traditional Monday night curry. Books the library didn’t have. A new lightbulb for the oven. They applied for a grant from a charity that provided custom hair for those who had lost their bodies. When they were denied because the charity had run out of funding for the year, Jess found another and another.

And Amy sold her beat-up Jetta, because when she drove their heart seized in their chest and they sweat through her clothes. She ignored it for weeks until one day at a red light another car blew right on through the yellow just before she was about to put her foot on the gas. She stopped breathing. Panic that wasn’t hers seized her lungs and she clawed at her chest and surely this was a heart attack, this felt like a heart attack: like an icepick between her ribs and out her back. She couldn’t see. Horns blared. And she felt Jess screaming inside their head, the pressure behind her eyes like her skull was going to crack.

That night when she was sure Jess was asleep she sold the Jetta and bought a bus pass. They never spoke of it again.

~

Amy woke up sore. Her eyes felt as chapped as her lips and she had to shake out her hands because her fingers were too stiff to work. She was wearing Jess’s sweatpants and her own tanktop. She’d have thought it was a hangover, but she didn’t have a headache even though her head wobbled heavy on her neck.

“Sorry,” Jess said. “After you went to sleep I got back up to do some work.”

“It’s fine.” She had shin splints like when she pulled all-nighters in college. Two hours sleep, felt like.

At work she was supposed to spend the day reconciling shipping accounts but the rows on the spreadsheets swam together and by ten a.m. she’d put in eyedrops three times. The warm spring sunlight coming through the window over her cubicle made her want to put her head down on the keyboard and take a nap. She went to the breakroom and filled her mug with coffee that tasted like burnt water. Two coworkers shot her sympathy smiles when she walked in and left the room before continuing their conversation. She hadn’t been forthcoming about her and Jess’s situation, but she knew everyone had heard the two of them talking in her cubicle. Conversations dropped to whispers when they walked by, and the office manager kept asking her about her complications.

“I wish you’d gone to bed,” she said. She dumped the coffee out. Too bitter for human consumption.

“Last minute assignment.” Amy’s hands shook, because Jess was trying to clench them. Amy fought it off. It was her body after all. She had better control. As soon as she thought it, she felt guilty right down to the pit of her stomach and she crushed the feeling before—she hoped—it bled over to Jess. They’d made a conscious effort to talk about “our body” and “ourself” and “our hands” as instructed by the hospital pamphlets, for all it did. “Double fee for a rush.”

“That’s good.”

“You don’t sound like it’s good.”

“Of course it’s good. I said it’s good.” Screw it. She needed caffeine. She got another cup of coffee and it was just as bad as the first, but she drank.

“You’re doing that thing with your jaw you do when you’re mad.”

Amy was indeed grinding her molars together, but it didn’t help to have Jess point that out. She made herself stretch out her jaw. It did not calm her down. “Don’t tell me what I’m feeling.”

“I’m sorry—” Amy’s hands slipped on the cup when Jess tried to do something else with them.

“I said it’s fine.”

“I can tell—”

Amy ignored her and started walking back towards the cubicle. Her legs shuddered. Jess trying to get her to stop. Screw that. She had work to do and only a fifteen-minute break and everyone gossiped enough already. She grabbed back the reins and jerked their feet across the floor. Her front teeth clicked together like Jess’s did when she was concentrating, but Amy ignored the waves of anger and hurt and sadness crashing in.

She got halfway to the door before their body froze. Every muscle spasming like a seizure. Their hand locked open and the mug shattered on the linoleum. Hot coffee across the floor, Amy’s shoes, splattered up their bare legs. It hurt enough for two people.

Too many signals sent at once. Her teeth squeaked against each other until her ears rang. She couldn’t take back control. Or relinquish it. For what felt like hours—thirty seconds, she discovered afterward, impossible—neither of them could make this body obey.

Finally her jaw muscles popped like a fuse going and she collapsed against the breakroom table, gasping. Her legs burned like they’d just run a marathon.

She couldn’t feel Jess at all and she didn’t try.

~

They decided they could use some time apart.

The logistics of this proved tricky. One of Jess’s college friends was a biomechanic specializing in consciousness maintenance. He thought they could upload one of their minds into the AI teakettle that Amy’s mom had bought her for high school graduation.

The friend, David, dressed more like a hipster barista than a serious engineer, which did nothing to assuage Amy’s fears about stuffing her mind inside a kettle.

“This should be big enough,” David said. He hooked the kettle into his laptop and started stripping out the baby AI. “Seriously not hospital-grade though. You can spend, like, two hours in this thing. You got that? I don’t want to be responsible for making somebody a vegetable.”

Amy felt bad about deleting kettle’s AI, who was always so cheerful when it asked her what she’d like to drink. It only had the intellectual capacity of a chinchilla, but she still patted it on the lid while David finished erasing it. It had been a good little kettle.

David left them with a headband with electrodes attached to it, a homemade control panel he said was cannibalized from a thrift store mixing board, and a reminder about the time limit.

They flipped a coin for first dibs. Amy won. She spent her two hours at a café, sipping an iced coffee. Four dollars and fifty cents, and her stomach churned over spending the money and for going first her own body. Every sensation was razor sharp with no one else sharing her nerves. The condensation on the cup froze her hand and her fingers picked out every single scratch on the table.

With ten minutes left she came home and attached the electrodes under her hairline.

Being inside a teakettle was not at all like a body. She’d forgotten to ask how it would feel. A kettle had no dream cycle. Her brain imagined breath and a heartbeat to keep her sane but it was like sleep paralysis. The kettle had a clock, so she could sense the passage of time, and a motion detector, so she knew she was alone.

Returning felt like she was swelling, getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Like water turning to steam. Just when she thought she might blow away she blinked and found herself with eyes again. Jess took off the headband and set it next to the cannibalized kettle.

“How was it?” Amy asked.

“Weird.” Uncertainty trickled through along with just a taste of disappointment. “Felt like learning to walk again, without you there. But the first time’s never as good as you think it’ll be, right?”

The third time she got her body to herself, Amy couldn’t summon up guilt anymore.  She and Jess had a stupid argument about lunch. Jess hated avocados, but Amy had already given them up for five months. Jess had said can we eat literally anything but guacamole. Amy had said you can suck it up for once. When Jess went into the kettle she felt twenty pounds lighter.

She got a strawberry milkshake and sat in the park and read Vogue. When she’d first moved to the city, this was her favorite thing in the world. Just sitting on the grass in the sun with a drink that cost a whole hour’s pay, dreaming of cowl necklines and shirred cotton, and not a person in the world waiting on her.

It felt so good to be in her head by herself, like taking a great big stretch in the morning so your body fills all the space it can. She let herself think all the small dark thoughts she’d been holding back for months. The little muscles in her jaw relaxed one by one.

When she opened her eyes, she saw the billboard. A smiling woman in a replacement body—one of the good replacements, with custom pigments, a molded face, real hair—dancing with a fistful of wildflowers. Having trouble affording your or a loved one’s medical costs? CareSure can help. Call today.

Amy dropped her milkshake and called the number. After three numbered menus and fifteen minutes listening to Johnny Cash hold music, she got a nice woman named Charlene who asked about her financials and then crushed her hopes as soon as they had come.

“Sorry, honey,” Charlene said. “You have to be twenty-five percent below the poverty line before you even qualify. This is a government-required program. They make us put up the billboards. Insurance companies aren’t charities, much as we all hope they were. I could send you some information on different nonprofits that assist with re-bodying if you give me your mailing address.”

“We’ve tried them. They don’t have any money.”

“Was she injured in a workplace accident?”

“A car accident.”

“Too bad. They have to pay worker’s comp then, you know. My cousin, she lost her body in an industrial accident. Her company bought her a new one—custom face sculpt and everything. Of course, since they paid for it they got to pick some of the features. She ended up with a welding torch for a right hand, and let me tell you, that took some getting used to. She burned my mom accidentally before we all figured out to stay clear of that hand. But she says it made her way faster on the line.”

Amy was having trouble breathing. The phone slipped in her sweating hands. A man walking his Pekingese by the playground stared at her. All she could think about was a woman with a welding torch for a hand, her body molded forever to the factory floor, who couldn’t touch anyone without so much care, who could never fling her arms around her lover again without burning.

“Are you there?” Charlene asked.

The alarm on Amy’s phone buzzed, saving her from saying something she’d be ashamed of later. Five minutes.

She only made it back with a minute to spare. She stood outside the apartment door with her keys in her hand. The timer on her phone counted down the seconds to two hours. Forty, thirty-nine, thirty-eight…She could just stay gone. Wait out here until Jess’s patterning degraded. It was such a dark thought it made her shiver. Fifteen seconds…fourteen…thirteen. The milkshake curdled in her stomach and she tasted strawberries and bile.

The timer went off. She hit it with her thumb but she stayed waiting outside the door. Her hands shook. She watched the clock on her phone tick away and she couldn’t make herself move.

The hand on the clock clicked over another minute and she burst through the door and shoved the band onto her head. Her ears popped when Jess reuploaded into her head.

“I’m sorry I’m so late,” she babbled. “I lost track of time, and then this jackass cut me off crossing the street, and it was a whole thing—”

“I didn’t even notice,” Jess said. Nothing bled through between them.

Jess waited three days to ask for her turn. Inside the kettle, Amy tried to learn how to meditate, even though she never could, even with a body and a breath. It was impossible with her brain wound in with the kettle’s timer. Each second stretched out and out like bubblegum on a baking July afternoon. Amy wondered if with enough practice she could turn the kettle on and off from the inside. It would be nice to have tea ready when she got out.

After two hours, she waited for the great expanding feeling. It didn’t come. Instead—she shuddered. She felt like she had the spins. Everything went fuzzy at the edges. After two more minutes, it got very hard to think. The illusions her mind produced to keep her believing in her corporeality—lungs, heart, the sensation that this fear was making her sweat through nonexistent pores—began to fade.

She choked. There was no air but she gasped. She felt bits of herself disappearing. Degradation. Would she be able to feel it when she vanished?

She couldn’t even scream inside the kettle. No one on the outside had any idea she was trapped in here, fading to strings of nonsense code…

Just when she believed Jess was never coming back, everything turned sharply cold and she rushed back into her body.

“Sorry,” Jess said, flatly. “I was late.”

Amy wanted to scream. She leaned over the teakettle and thought about knocking it right off the table. Her head buzzed. But she felt the silent, chilly anger roiling off Jess and bit her tongue. Turnabout.

Later she realized she couldn’t remember the recipe for her grandmother’s chocolate cake. She’d known it by heart just a few hours ago. She could remember remembering, but the memory itself was a ragged hole. Lost to entropy. She wondered what Jess had forgotten, to be turned so small and cruel. But she couldn’t ask.

~

That night long after they both should have been asleep, Jess said into the pillow, “I think the nurse was wrong.”

Amy tried to sense what she was feeling, but it was like Jess was a polished rock, perceptible but impenetrable. She still hadn’t gotten used to this synesthesia, to Jess’s self as an almost-physical object inside her. When Jess was open to her, she felt like a puff of cotton candy. When she was holding herself small and secret, she felt like a popcorn kernel or a rock or a penny. Amy reached out and held her own hand. With her arm pinned under her it had fallen asleep and felt nearly like another person’s.

“I think I died,” Jess said.

Amy knew she should say that’s not true or its natural to be scared. Instead she said “Why do you say that?” She curled their arms around them for the warmth and the pressure. The back of their throat burned and she couldn’t tell if it was her or Jess swallowing tears.

“This isn’t me.” Jess’s voice was so quiet that Amy could only understand her by the shapes their lips were making. She wanted to lift their hands and press them over their mouth to smother the rest. Outside a police siren wailed down Fifth.  A robbery, a mugging. Something important to be making so much noise this late. It had long faded into the distance when Jess spoke again. “I know I am not my body, I know, but I look in the mirror and this is not my face. This is not my voice. Colors are different. I don’t think I think the same as I did. I am not my body but I am not this body and this is not my life.”

Their hands twisted in the sheets.

“It’ll be over soon,” Amy said. “We’re so close.” It was only half a lie. They had a little over two-thirds of the money, assuming nothing went wrong and the price of a replacement didn’t go up and they forwent any customization.

“Remember our third date?” Jess asked. “You said you wouldn’t marry anyone before you’d dated them two years. But you let me into your head after six months and I didn’t even get you a ring.” She laughed and it scraped up Amy’s throat. It didn’t sound like her at all. Before the accident Jess had a laugh like whiskey, tenor-low.

“I love you. I knew the minute I saw you that I would.” Amy said. “Let’s start back where we were when this is done. Go on dates. Go dancing again.”

Jess ran one of their hands across Amy’s face, her touch as light as a silk sheet. Over Amy’s cheeks and the slope of her nose. Like the first time they’d slept together, lying in Jess’s double bed, foreheads touching for lack of room and Jess had slipped her foot between Amy’s knees and then her hands under Amy’s shirt, up her stomach and her ribs, slow as could be. She hadn’t realized how much she missed being touched like this, by another person, like she was a fragile and beautiful and unknown thing.

She turned her head and kissed the fingers Jess controlled. How close this was. If the room were darker, she could have believed. “It’s all right.”

“I don’t remember anything.” Jess whispered it to the empty side of the bed like there was someone else to hear. “I remember metal and glass and heat. It should have hurt. I think this would be easier if it had hurt. You’re supposed to know you’ve died.”

Amy couldn’t sense Jess’s feelings at all. She reached out but all she felt was stillness. Lately she’d been wishing for her body back, for privacy inside her own skin. But right now she longed to be one of those joined couples who could open themselves completely to each other and know every complicated emotion, every bitter and idiosyncratic mixed-up desire. She wanted to say I never wanted this but I want you but it would sound wrong in words. She was no poet. She didn’t have the vocabulary to say what she meant.

“I want you to be happy.” She tried anyway, clumsily.

“I know.” Their heart rate slowed. Jess uncurled them and stretched onto their back the way Amy liked to sleep. “I shouldn’t have said that. I get too wound up in the dark.”

“Just a little longer. It’ll be like it was.” Amy had meant it as comfort but Jess withdrew into herself and this was not the kind of alone she had wanted to feel.

 

 

___

Copyright 2020 Lina Rather

Lina Rather is an author from Washington, D.C. Her debut novella Sisters of the Vast Black was released in 2019 by Tor.Com Publishing and her stories have appeared in Shimmer, Flash Fiction Online, and Lightspeed. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, embroidering, and collecting terrible 90s comic books.