Still Living ThingsDavid Naimon
Before the white skies. Rose. Before Ismit was born, when the skies were still blue. Rose. She seemed from then. The before. From that time. Someone from the past that he wanted in his future. Before the failed aerosol injection into the stratosphere and the too-good-to-be-true solar refractors, she seemed like a time traveler to Ismit. Not from now, though she was. But from before. From before the white skies. Blue.
Both Kavic and Ismit avoided the central campus. It touted itself as a social utopia, a meeting place for those pursuing both the lowly vocations and the exalted professions, both the applied, practical sciences and the haughty pure ones. But the reality of it kind of sucked. Even if they hadn’t been alley kids, squatters, harvesters of precious metals from the innards of trashed personal electronics, even if Ismit and Kavic had been more respectable downsector shlubs they would’ve still hated the school snobbery and one-upmanship on display. But Ismit didn’t have a choice. He had a mandated class to finish if he wanted to avoid another stint in juvie.
Fortunately recent weather blunted any upsector-downsector fashion differential at the college, allowing Ismit to duck in and out without too much shame or too much gagging. The city was on double alert. UVA/UVB levels had exceeded maximum limits for nearly three months despite the newly touted solar refractor. The typical acid drizzle during the city’s winter inversions was alarmingly sulfurous this season and people were encouraged to keep thermal suits on when possible. And thankfully no matter how one accessorized a thermal suit they still looked pretty stupid on one and all, rich or poor.
It was on the Quad where he saw her. No, to be more accurate, he was on the Quad, loping a diagonal across its spongy vegetation while Rose walked unsteadily around its perimeter. He’d noticed her because, well, how couldn’t you? She stepped out of the Bio-Sci building with a stack of books in her arms. Ismit assumed this was some kind of ironic gesture, an act so not cool it was cool. As if she were anticipating the vector of cool from a future vantage point. He’d dismissed her as another too-hip upsector girl, the books a twee affectation. But then she tripped, let out a plaintive “ah-eh-uh” and alternately blanched and blushed while the books clunked around her.
As the world slowed to a stupid stare, Ismit found himself on all fours, rooting around before her piezoelectric demi-boots with their false buckles. He gathered her books, looking up into her rosy face as he lifted them to her, one clunky chunk at a time. He felt conscious of himself doing this, aware of participating in something dumbly archetypal. He knew he was reenacting a gesture, a boy-meets-girl-via-book-retrieval romantic trope, a trope he’d only seen in Introduction to Film Studies, never in real life, but a trope that nevertheless seemed terribly unoriginal to him. Thus, Ismit felt a little ridiculous that his heart fluttered so earnestly against his breastbone as he met Rose’s eyes for the first time. The power of countless boys before him, generations of boys retrieving these unwieldy
info-devices of old, had won the day, animating Ismit with a feeling he hadn’t felt before.
It soon became clear that Rose finished her work-study at the same time as Ismit raced to Remedial Thought. Ismit dreaded the court-mandated soul-numbing seminar (a consequence of taking the fall for Kavic’s hacking into the schools’ nanofossil exhibit) and was thrilled to be waylaid by a girl.
It wasn’t long before Rose and Ismit were walking the Quad’s periphery together each day.
“I’m not pro-sidewalk,” Rose said on one of these walks. “But once the sidewalk is there, I just think it’s a lesser evil to walk on it than on the grasses. On the still living things, you know?”
Perhaps Ismit should’ve taken this as a red flag. Perhaps Ismit should’ve nodded politely and hightailed it out of there, loping a defiant diagonal across the spongy green as he did. Instead Ismit nodded and smiled. And rather than allowing his foot to err from the path into the field of still living things, he leaned his shoulder into hers whenever a trolley rumbled by.
Kavic owed him. Owed him big time. He had no points to spare on his citizen chip, not with his mischief-hacks, his unpaid parking fines, his ticketless trolley-hopping. Ismit could take the hit for him and he did. Gladly. And in a weird way he had Kavic to thank because of it. If it weren’t for court, and court-mandated Remedial Thought, he’d never have met her. But Rose herself was a problem. Ismit knew it. Or rather, he knew that Rose would be a problem for Kavic. That Rose was a problem for Kavic that hadn’t happened yet. That Rose was something from the past coming fast into their future.
Ismit couldn’t hide that she was upsector but he wouldn’t mention the sidewalks, or the books, or the way she glittered the edges of her popliteal vents. Or he’d just never hear the end of it. But mostly he wanted to be a fifteen year-old man who had kissed. Not an alley kid hoping to. One who has already kissed, will kiss again soon, and who, when he does, will draw upon kissing experience, a large reservoir of kissing skills from past kisses, to be able to kiss at any moment. He didn’t want to do it wrong in other words. Or for anyone to know he might.
He thought back to Introduction to Film Studies, to the time when people watched “films.” Film seemed like such a wrong word. The filmy squeak between his body and his thermal suit, the film atop his bricks of fermented pea-protein, smelling them to make sure they were still good, the oozy gunk that filmed the gears on Rho’s prosthetic feline leg. A film just didn’t seem like the right place to look for kissing advice, to look at kissing, to look at people who have kissed so as to be a kisser and then someone who has kissed too. Plus, the skies looked fake. Colorized. Blue. Everything about it seemed unnatural.
But time, of its own accord, somehow pushed things together, even lips. The first time Ismit and Rose kissed, they stood beneath Rose’s undersized mechanical umbrella near the Quad. The books—dry, gigantic and angular—emerging this way and that from Rose’s arms, jabbed into Ismit as he pressed closer. He didn’t tell her he’d never kissed before. Even Kavic didn’t know. Especially Kavic.
Ismit closed his eyes as he leaned in and to his surprise he recalled a book-retrieval scene from a “film.” The boy in question, a teen-ish kid like Ismit, wore a black and white checkered shirt with a skinny leather tie. His greased hair swelled and crested in a perfect sine wave. He gathered the girl and lowered her, lowering himself over her with authority. It was there the logistics got a little fuzzy for Ismit. The boy seemed to gather her lips inside his mouth, the top and the bottom, the thick chewy middle of them and the thin tapered corners. They all seemed to disappear in there. Yet somehow, impossibly, he seemed to be inside her mouth too, his tongue sweeping and searching as if for a last lick at the bottom of a jar a smidgen too tall.
He moved toward Rose’s face with a mustered confidence, reached an arm around her hip and prepared to dip her downward.
Rose laughed and pushed against his chest to part their faces.
He’d been a little overzealous, Ismit thought, realizing he had captured
part of her lower nostril with his open mouth. He steeled himself for ridicule.
“You look like a turkey vulture when you make that face,” she said, tenderly.
Ismit forced a smile.
“Hold your helmet,” she continued, righting herself. “I’ve got just the thing for this.” She wiped her upper lip and nose against the angular collar of her suit and fished for something. A rivulet of winter rain titter-tattered on Ismit’s outer shoulder as she did.
“Put this on,” Rose said. Her lips pursed as she clicked opened a hinged orbinette. She ran her finger, the longest one, in tiny circles across the waxy black surface of its interior. Then the pad of that slender finger, warm and spongy, danced across Ismit’s lips, carefully tracing their shape. His lips felt tingly, swollen and large as if they floated detached before him.
“Now, try it again,” she said. “But think of it more as a search and listen than a trap and capture.” Rose closed her eyes and waited.
Ismit hesitated. He watched Rose sway, her mind in her lips.
“Imagine,” she whispered, eyes still closed. “Imagine you’re trans-ferring it carefully to my lips. That you can’t let it get on my face. Just my lips.”
Ismit searched and listened, searched and then listened. Listened somehow with his mouth as hers searched back. He wished he could distill and freeze-wrap that memory—their first successful kiss. This moment of kissing, yes. But also of just having been so. He wished he could protect it in time. Protect it from time. But it had already spoiled. Whenever he conjured it now it was inseparable from Kavic’s response to its retelling:
“What the hell, Iz?” Kavic had said “What would it take to get you to run the other way? Open, oozing sores?”
“A snaggle tooth? A wall-eye?”
Ismit regretted telling Kavic before the words had even left his mouth. But who else could he tell? And how long could anyone withstand Kavic’s and?-so?-well? barrage?
“Diaper rash on her face?”
He’d have to spin it better.
“I was the one wearing the black lip stuff,” Ismit said again, as if that were a good thing. “She’s kinky, Kav. It was a game.”
“Does she have to literally fire a flippin’ warning flare straight at your dome to make you see? To make you get the hell out of there? ‘Don’t let it get on my face? Don’t let it get on my face?’ Fuck that Iz. Like, what the Fuck?”
Ismit could see how crazy it looked—kissing with crazy rules, with any rules—but in the moment it wasn’t that way. He didn’t feel cowed or nut-cracked by her, just grateful she’d laid out a path on which, if he followed it, he could do nothing but succeed.
Succeeding wasn’t what Ismit thought it would be like. Succeeding made Ismit miserable. He’d thought kissing would be like the giant python he’d read about in The Daily Influence, the one that, after engulfing an entire adult deer, was so large, was so full, that it diverted the river it fell fully across. It lay there for days, jaws blissfully unhinged, immobilized by an oversized satisfaction. But for Ismit, the more he got—nibbles, sidelong brushes, gusts of humid respiration— the more he wanted. Years of kiss-studies within a fully kissless existence and yet before he knew it the allure of notional kissing, and the pride and satisfaction of real kissing, real kissing done well, became ‘just kissing.’ The wanting grew louder than the getting. Or maybe the wanting was always loud and the getting so wonderfully soft and quiet in return. A reward for the wanting. That is, until the day Rose said “hup” and grabbed his paw before it slipped through the zip-portal in her undershield.
“I want it too,” Rose said, pressing Ismit’s palm against the heated crotch of her shield’s front panel. And that’s when, just then, she pulled out the two tiny egg-shaped devices, the two matching TipToes, powder pink and baby blue, wobbling together in her cupped palm.
“But I want us to embed before we do, Izzie,” Rose continued. “I want us to find zero together first.” Rose bit her lower lip in that way that drove him crazy. “Will you?”
Ismit had no choice but to call in his favor with Kavic. And his ask was a big one. He couldn’t go to zero with Rose without him. He had less than a pocketful of kopçik and needed Kavic’s help to harvest enough metal for more. But he also needed him to be nice. And to Kavic’s credit he was. But the mood was quiet, thick with a somber silence as they scrabbled through the scree of discarded electronics and other trash that formed the city’s most artificial topographic feature, this mound of scrap they called The Barrow.
Kavic now knew that Ismit had embedded. Which made his niceness all the more impressive. Nevertheless, Ismit tried to hide the little limp he still had from the procedure, the ache at the egg-shaped lump in the back of his ankle. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if he was about to or just had. He looked over at Kavic, prying open the back of a perfectly
functioning first generation ScootCommute 115 motor. And at everything between them. All the trash, the mainly upsector trash. The same trash that when people like Rose wore it or drove it or viewed it, Kavic and Ismit had built a friendship out of mocking. And now one of those very things, something no alley rat would ever own, was inside his body. He looked across all of it, feeling his ankle throb as he did and wondered, is this what it means to become an adult? To lose someone you loved the most?
Everything felt over. Everything new and old sucked into the over-ness of it all. He scrunched down into a self-made nest of electronics and looked up at the next hill over, a high point in the city, the neighborhood where Rose lived. He had to admit he liked trash. He liked cracking it open and popping out the rhodium plating, swapping it for kopçik, and trading kopçik for whatever he wanted. It felt like life, that flow. A flow he felt a part of. He wasn’t like Kavic he realized. If every piece of upsector trash tossed on The Barrow lifted him that little bit higher, that little bit closer to love, to the girl he loved, that was a good thing. He needed that sense of future.
Life had seemed so wonderfully simple that day at the embedment parlor. Living that day did, but not reliving it. Lying in parallel recumbent chairs, he did think of Kavic. That what he was doing was stupid, snobbish, even a little desperate. Maybe it was, was and was. He did hate those up-sector women too, the ones who declared their embedment-status through gelatinous apertures in the heels of their eco-booties, or worse, flashed their impact scores from the fenders on their solar-powered scooters. And those hipnik district girls, the vegans and freegans who tattooed dainty birds or cute little nests across the bumps in their ankles, trumpeting their moral purity, they were no better.
But when Rose explained her desire to Ismit, in her own winsome voice, with words shaped by her unbelievably lovely mouth, it all seemed so right to him. To strive to get their ecoimpact to zero, to reach that place where nothing was harmed by their daily actions, and at the height of their shared ecological lightfootedness to then couple for reals.
Rose and Ismit were instructed to pick a person-specific species-disincentivizer, one’s most adored creature, the one you would least want to kill, as the TipToe’s barometer of one’s Personal Ecological Damage Assessment(PEDA). After a brief consideration of Tasmanian devils, Rose selected the duck-billed platypus.
“They lactate and lay eggs,” she said. “They defy categorization.”
“Yeah?” Ismit said, unsure of the significance of this but acutely aware of the baby blue egg now throbbing inside his ankle.
Rose curled her pointer fingers like claws and bared her incisors for Ismit.
“And they’ve got a venomous spur,” she said.
It about slayed him.
“That’s bad-ass,” he said.
Unavailable—Error 27: Extinct Species. Choose Again.
“Told ya,” Ismit said looking at the screen and back at his girl-platypus. “Choose something real. Something around,” Ismit said. “A crow or a squirrel or a mouse or something.”
Rose stuck out her tongue. “Just because they’re not around doesn’t mean it wouldn’t motivate me to minimize their deaths in the abstract.”
In the end, she chose the pigeon (“they deserve more respect,” Rose said), and Ismit the calico cat, in honor of his feral fur-ball, Rho.
Ismit looked now across the distance, across the arcing curve of crap that was his and Kavic’s kingdom, at his quiet friend and his already amassed trove or treasures, at this same friend who was still there with him, even knowing it all now, and Ismit knew he should’ve been thinking just how unbelievably lucky he was.
Everything about Ismit’s life was different now. He was leaping toward difference. But this was different than that. Every couple days he would walk to the lip around the central sunken greenway that separated the lumpy Barrow from the sharp terracing of The Brow. Today was the tenth time he had done so. Two squirrels scurried up the trunk of a nearby composite arboreal structure chasing each other as he walked and stopped, bent over, straightened up, and walked again. Ismit could still hear them twitter and chirp as they dashed across a lateral branch and disappeared into the dioxide trap, the thick nest of crystalline twigs above the greenway. Couples frolicked atop the vegetation below, their thermal suits only half closed. It felt like spring today, or at least the hope of it. And Ismit’s hope, to recapture that free and easy feeling of books tumbling and books retrieved, felt like a lot of hard work.
For one, he could only afford a ridiculously outdated Biotarsal, a refurbished unit that was missing its shoe-adapted pouch that its tickertape sputtered into. So every fifteen minutes or so, when it read whatever it read in his TipToe, Ismit had to stop, bend down, and tear off what it had printed out. Otherwise he’d have a trail of paper dangling behind his foot. Usually he did this, depending upon how fast he walked, two or three, or sometimes even four times, before he reached the greenway, collecting these read-outs to look over after he talked to Rose. But looking ridiculous like this, looking really stupid, something he had never cared about before, that was the least of his problems.
Shortly after they embedded Rose had handed him one of her books and said “This is for you.” She closed his eyes with her fingers, one by one. And then, before he knew it, she was searching and he was listening. He could feel the weight of the book in his hands and her hips pressing its bulk against his belly. “Keep them closed,” she said, stepping back now. “Count back from twenty before you open them. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen… That’s right.”
He did what he was told. He counted the numbers. And when he opened his eyes Rose wasn’t smiling and saying ‘ta-da!’ gesturing at the gift she had given him. She was gone. He looked down at the book. It wasn’t wrapped and it had a drab and rough blue cover for such a breathless title: Glorious Flight: The Heroic Life and Legacy of Cher Ami. A single slate gray feather stuck out from one of its first pages. As he moved in the light, it flashed here and there a pastel pink, a dusky blue, an iridescent green. He opened the book and found a note. “It’s about a pigeon!” it said simply. “Turn to page eleven.” Ismit turned to page eleven and found another note. “One plus One” it was titled. “One minus One” it was subtitled. “I know it’s going to be hard for us to be apart until we zero. Until we zero together. But I want us to talk a lot. A LOT until we do. Let’s kiosk tomorrow at 5pm. I already miss you! R”
She had said it so matter-of-factly that Ismit was sure he must’ve forgotten them talking about it, this separation. But how could he have forgotten such a thing? Such a huge thing. Or perhaps it simply was how things were done upsector. That this was so par for the course in upsector courtship rituals that she presumed he knew that embedding meant stepping back too. To be fair, Ismit was, on his own, feeling funny about showing up to hang out with Rose with his clunky Biotarsal boot spurting out data the whole time. And there was an honest-to-goodness romantic aspect to the separation and the waiting. But he also knew how this looked. How Kavic would see it.
It was under this long shadow, one that seemed both friendless and loveless, that he walked on this weirdly spring-like day for his tenth kiosk with Rose at the greenway. He found his favorite, the one with the best view of the sunken green down below and slid into the booth, pulling the console arm before him. His ankle clenched as the Biotarsal sputtered out some more data. He bent down and tore it off and held it atop the three other pieces he had accumulated since he left. His days, time itself really, were marked now by these visits, by his anticipation of them, and his thinking about them afterwards. To visit, visiting, having visited. But each visit was more and more fraught for Ismit. Rose had zeroed almost a month ago now, and each week his calico cat death eco-impact score hadn’t budged one bit. Even with the humiliation of walking (with his obsolete tech) instead of trolleying it, even with him skipping out on his commute to school altogether.
He looked down at his stack of paper, tempted to look at the current output before he talked to Rose. But he wanted to be in a good mood. Remarkably, she had been. Whatever she was feeling about having a partner who couldn’t seem to get his act together to even make the slightest progress, she didn’t show anything but joy to see him. Each and every time. Ismit synched his credentials and there she was, already there, her pigeon avatar waiting for him. Rose rustled and fluffed up her feathers at seeing him, just the way he had grown to love. He slinked past her, rubbing his sleek furry body against her downy round form, circling her with friction, and then touching her beak with the tip of his tail. She nipped. They both laughed. They found a nice spot to curl up together. Half nest, half den by a small bubbling creek.
Of course, the predator-prey relationship between their two creatures became all the more obvious and comical in visual form. They had laughed about it the first couple times they met. They had said many lively things back then, laughing, crying and sighing, during the first couple times. And then other equally lively things, funny things, deep things, heartbreaking things the third and fourth and even fifth times. The sixth and seventh were certainly good if less lively, less smooth. The eighth and ninth, well, time was doing something to their dance. But for Ismit, he wasn’t sure it was time, wasn’t sure it mattered to him if they easily had things to say or nothing at all. For Ismit, it was the not telling, the not telling her simply that he wasn’t zeroing. Letting the silence, the time speak for him. And Rose not asking. Not even once. It was the time, the accumulated time, of not saying what they both knew.
Rose, as if hearing his thoughts, held her wing over Ismit, like an asymmetrical umbrella, to shade his face from the sun. She took one of his whiskers in her beak and ever so gently pulled his face toward hers. In lieu of kissing they rubbed the sides of their faces together, the soft fur and softer feathers just below and behind each of their eyes in a slow and sweet and quiet caress.
Lots of animals had crazy long and elaborate courtships he knew. And that pigeons were unusually monogamous through it all. But as they searched and listened and searched some more, Ismit looking at his purring cat pressed up against the bird of his life, the bird of his heart, the bird of his future, he wondered if, as the aspiring man, he was supposed to assert the rules. Maybe all this searching and listening was only good for so long. Maybe his original trap and capture, maybe that wasn’t so wrong after all. Or maybe it was wrong then but not wrong anymore. Isn’t that what cats are supposed to do?
Ismit was confused. The messaging was terribly confused. Each of them getting print-outs of their own animal equivalent deaths. Trying to minimize them, but swimming among them. And yet somehow also here, on screen, loving each other in those same dying bodies. He couldn’t wait. He peeked at the top piece of torn paper. Twenty-six calico kitten deaths. The one below: thirty-two calico kitten deaths. The one below that: twenty-nine calico kitten deaths. This wasn’t working. This just wasn’t working. He put his cat on auto-pilot, took off his Biotarsal, slid out of the kiosk, and leaned over the railing. He turned toward the sound of the central solar refractor as it lifted, rotated and clicked back into place, sending a bevy of crows skyward before they settled again on the refractor’s lip. He looked down at all the people half-in and half-out of their thermal suits happily frolicking on the greenway. Laying on the grass, standing on the grass, jumping on the grass. It angered him. He imagined that giant python coming and swallowing them all, one after the next. Then the satiated snake, a giant bolus of humanity bulging its midsection, would unhinge its jaw, and sleep a glorious sleep, a sleep of a day hard earned and well spent, blocking the greenway from anyone but him and his meal. This made Ismit happy. Imagining this. But why was it so complicated? The snake too was on the grass, really crushing the grass.
Walking to Kavic’s was a walk of shame. He hadn’t been a good friend. Even though his friend had clearly muzzled himself on behalf of their friendship. Ismit had called in a big favor and figured they were now even. Even if Ismit were likely heading back to juvie for skipping Remedial Thought. But he needed Kavic again. Here in the real world. He needed Kavic’s help. He needed Kavic’s hacking. So he came bearing a gift. The hugest and smelliest Romanian salami he could find. A salami scepter. A saber of a salami. A salami staff suited for the greatest of salami wizards.
Kavic took the meat sword, nodded ceremonially and stood it against the wall behind him as they sat on the floor at his work table. And the smell seemed to work its spell. At least for this brief moment, for this time together, things seemed to be back like they were before.
“So you want me to hack your interface and change your animal?” Kavic said, confused. “That’s it? You don’t want me to change your score?”
“No not the score.” said Ismit. “I can do this Kav. I can zero. I just think the kitty death equivalents are really messing with me. I know it is a disincentivizer and all. But I keep thinking of Rho dying. Like every fifteen minutes.” Ismit unclamped the tarsal and handed it across to his friend.
“They give you that toxo plasmo brain invader bug. Cats do,” Kavic said. “That mind munching worm that makes you, well, like you are, Iz. A freakin’ cat-whisperer.”
“That’s what I’m saying. I need something else. Something that hasn’t put a love bug in me.”
“You think you can score without me changing the score?” Kavic smirked.
Ismit couldn’t bear the idea of faking his way to Rose. Not by cheating. He just needed to be motivated different. “Just give me something I’d hate. I’ll do better if I’m getting read-outs of the deaths of things I hate. If I’m trying to minimize the deaths of things I hate.” He flicked a booger at Kavic for emphasis.
“Like flying cockroaches?” Kavic pulled out his species equivalator. “Let’s see. You killed three hundred thirty-eight calico kittens this week,” he said as he turned the dial. “Good job, man. Now wait a minute, here it is: Six hundred thirty-three thousand two hundred and twenty-one flying cockroaches. You think you’re really going to score this way?”
“Reduce my score this way. And there’s no way that two thousand cockroaches are worth a calico. No way.”
“Right. Reduce your score,” Kavic pulled out his arthropod conversion calculator. “What is the thing that would most freak you the fuck out? Maggots? Blowflies? Head lice?” Kavic was getting a kick out of this. “Okay head lice. Ten million two hundred ten thousand five hundred and thirty-eight head lice! You had a great week Iz!”
Sixteen head lice equaled one cockroach. That seemed reasonable to Ismit. But no number of cockroaches could equal a cat. “Head lice it is. Just make sure I’m not going to kiosk with Rose as a louse.”
Kavic snorted. “Squirming up into her under feathers.”
“Or eating me!”
“Iz, she already has, man. She already has. Just have some love gloves ready. I’ve got you.”
“Yeah,” Ismit said, suddenly a little downhearted.
Up until now, Ismit had imagined zero as a worry-free space, a wide open prairie of happiness. When Rose and Ismit found each other there, he’d assumed they’d find freedom there too. Together, wild and wooly, they’d roam. But he’d never owned condoms, didn’t know how to put one on, didn’t want to fumble or fail in the crucial moment, didn’t want to think about anything then at all. If he had to, what was the point of all this anyways? Why was everything so complicated?
“What did you say?” Kavic responded, Ismit not realizing he was thinking out loud. “Iz, just get the lubed trainers. Then you can freak, like you’re gonna do anyways. But at least they’ll keep you from being a one pump chump.”
“What the hell Kav?” Ismit said. “I say head lice, you say one pump chump? I know what I’m doing, ass-face.”
“Just trust me on this. Use the trainers,” Kavic said. “The lube, its medicated. It downshifts frontal brain stuff. It’ll feel good to Madame Rulemeister too.
“Screw off.” Ismit wanted to strangle him, to make his eyes pulse, to rejigger his face until he stopped seeing that Ismit didn’t know what he was doing. If Kavic could see it, couldn’t Rose too?
He just wanted it to be right, good, nice. Right, good, nice, and easy. Or at least easier. Rose had never actually said she didn’t think he was trying. But Ismit could feel the words hanging in the air. She’d been waiting on the wide open prairie of happiness for weeks now, alone. That would’ve made Ismit cranky, too. Even crazy.
While Kavic dismantled the BioTarsal, Ismit remembered that one unforgettable twilight week, post-embedment, pre-separation, when everything was magical. Almost everything. It still hurt him when, in their study vestibule, he went to tickle her through her popliteal vents and she shooed him away. “You my friend are going to flunk Remedial Thought,” Rose had said, pointing at his homework. “Think about that for a minute.” Ismit had shrugged it off. “I hate that class,” he said. He tried again beneath the table to make lasting contact but Rose shifted her chair back and resumed reading her book. How life had changed, Ismit thought then. Improbably, he had a book now too, Remedial Thought in book form, to better be with Rose. Things had changed so much he hardly recognized himself sitting before a book. He couldn’t enter the words, not with the self-consciousness of it all, watching himself read as if he were an actor in a “film.” He might as well’ve had an abacus, shuttling its beads in some hidden code, while clacking his wooden teeth.
But Ismit redoubled his efforts during one of the last times Rose and him had shared a room. He squared himself to the up-lit work surface, rolled his shoulders forward and cradled the book between his outstretched elbows, in a pantomime of Rose. But as he fondled his book the paper bent and creased. The pages squeaked between his fingers or nipped at them like angry insects. And the absurd labor of flipping the pages, over and over again, made thought synthesis impossible for Ismit. Impossible even if Rose were not sitting there across from him, so close, but transported so far away.
Kavic leaned toward Ismit. “Trade secret,” he said in a half-whisper, breaking the silence between them. Ismit looked at him and away again.
“After Yous,” Kavic said.
“Get the After Yous. In the silver box. They’re basically the same as the trainers,” Kavic said. “Same lube, different packaging. No newbie stigma.”
Ismit would never forget what happened next. Not for the rest of his life. “Fuck, you suck,” he said shoving back from the table. And then, standing up in a wide stance, Ismit grabbed the salami, lifted that Samurai meat sword and swung it with all his might, all his anger, all his confusion and all of his fear, against the side of Kavic’s head. He didn’t think the salami would deliver its full force. He didn’t know that Romanian salami wouldn’t break. When Kavic toppled over, grabbed his neck and stormed out of the room, Ismit knew what he had done. When Kavic did this rather than lunging at him with his much larger frame, wrapping Ismit in a death grip bear hug, squeezing the breath out of him while his face mushed like a melon against Kavic’s smelly chest, a familiar gamy smell of wet hair, tzatziki and socks worn a week too long, the push-pull smell of friendship, when Kavic didn’t do that but did this instead, Ismit knew. The salami didn’t break. But something had.
Ismit made one more trip to the kiosk. The eleventh. At first he thought, despite the disaster his life had become, that this was auspicious. One and one, Rose’s note had said. Eleven. One minus one. Zero. For the first time, the ache in the hollows on either side of his achilles tendon felt good, the polymer TipToe a welcome presence, the pain a longing. But Ismit was in denial. His scores weren’t budging. And when he slid into the booth at the kiosk by the sunken greenway and logged himself in, to his dismay, what he saw, displayed there before him, was a grotesque wingless insect, an insect with piercing mouthparts, a biting parasitic insect with a large head and large jaws. He saw himself. A louse. He quickly logged out. And wrote Rose a message:
I need to step back. I need time. To get myself back to my self. —Iz
He hadn’t seen her since. He hadn’t left his squat, changed his liner, eaten anything but tubes of pea protein paste and ozonated gray water. He wasn’t going to see her again until he had something to show for it. Or maybe he was giving up. Yes, that’s what he was doing. He was giving up, Ismit thought, as he unzipped his left gaiter vent. He couldn’t imagine showing up again with empty hands.
Ismit pressed the outflared lip of the extractor against the bulge in his ankle and closed his eyes. Goodbye Rose, he said, as he waited for the pain. Goodbye, he repeated and bit down on his tongue in anticipation. To fight against self-doubt, he conjured his future, his ground-beef, heated-squat, lolly-gagging on the greenway, messy, outside-the-lines kisses with downsector girls future. But he felt nothing. Nothing at all. Not a pinch, not a pang, not an itch. Nothing.
Fuck my brain, Ismit mumbled. The flip. He opened his eyes to find the switch flip, but found Rho glowering a gimme-me-a-break,-bro glare at him instead. Rho lifted her osseo-integrative prothesis, the one that nearly bankrupted Ismit to acquire, without releasing Ismit from her gaze. Ismit could swear the cat was trying to communicate with him.
You have to lose something to win? Ismit said on behalf of his cat. Is that it?
Of course, Kavic always had razzed Ismit whenever Ismit had insisted that Rho, no ordinary feline, transcended all species categorization. That she was not a cat per se, just a Rho.
Ismit did speak with his cat, it’s true. But when he “spoke” with Rho, he spoke for both of them. He wasn’t crazy. Yet, on the other hand, weren’t the words Ismit chose for Rho, that came to him based on how well he knew his furry squat-mate, weren’t they coming from Rho in some way, sort of?
Obviously, Rho blinked. Then her eyes— impatient, disdainful, disgusted—deepened in their demand. Go for broke or go home.
“Seriously dude?” Ismit said. “You’re cool with a veggie-scrapple food downgrade?” Sacrificing Rho’s food quality had been a red line before. “No more vole-chickadee nuggets? Huh?” But Ismit needed her onboard now. “And plenty more of that dorky tube sweater you have to wear in here? You onboard with no heat?”
Rho slid off her perch, turned her head away from Ismit, wedged her face straight up her ass, and began a slurp-happy deep clean. But not before firing off one last volley, a don’t be a pussy scowl that split right through Ismit’s self-regard.
Back to kitty death equivalents and fully motivated, Ismit rarely ventured out now. His squat was his laboratory, his alchemical crock pot, his hermetic echo-chamber of ecoimpact mania. Ismit leapt into this experimental playpen with the renewed vigor of a squirrel in springtime. Quickly he learned that if he powered down the lights and relied solely upon algae-lanterns, he could save fifteen kittens. Six more by eating dehydrated bean flakes instead of pea paste. Twenty-five saved from a one day fast, twelve by not swapping out the filter in his thermal suit, a whopping forty-three by not flushing.
But there was a terrible flip side to this. Kittens died in Ismit’s sleep, from his sleep. Three in fact. They died, or fractions of them did, from every Ismit movement, every Ismit breath. Perhaps every Ismit thought knocked a moment off a kitten’s life. It was as if Ismit couldn’t be without a kitty-death-equivalent.
Confronted with this harrowing kitty calculus Ismit wondered how zero was possible, whether it was something about Ismit himself that caused pain to kittens or to girl-pigeon-platypuses here, there, and everywhere. Maybe there was. Maybe his very existence was a painful thing for the world.
Ismit powered down even the algae-lanterns now, and fogged the south wall’s glass apertures to let the descending gloom blur the passage of time and its little deaths. He didn’t read the ticker tape anymore. He just tore it off blindly as he puttered around in his squat or let it drag behind him until Rho mangled it apart. He found a book Rose had given him in the good ol’ days, one he hadn’t bothered to read. One that had propped up the command seat of his now unplugged game console.
Glorious Flight: The Heroic Life and Legacy of Cher Ami. it was entitled. He slid it out from under the seat now and curled up with it beneath the covers of his cot. He opened it to a page dog-eared and feathered by Rose. War-Time Hero said the header. It read:
In October of 1918, trapped behind enemy lines without food, ammunition, or hope, five hundred Allied soldiers huddled in a small depression against the side of a hill. Woefully exposed, they received fire from both the German troops that surrounded them and Allied forces who, tragically, didn’t know the location of their trapped compatriots. By the second day, only one-hundred and ninety-four soldiers still drew breath. The situation dire, a homing pigeon was dispatched for help, but it was quickly shot down.
Carrying an equally desperate message, a second homing pigeon was dispatched. It too was summarily shot from the sky. Only one homing pigeon now stood between this infantry division and certain death. Cher Ami.
A canister was quickly attached to Cher Ami’s left leg, containing a final hangman’s hope of a call for help. The lives of these one-hundred ninety-four men rested now on Cher Ami’s brave wings. As if on cue, Cher Ami burst forth from the brush, rose through the latticed sky, crisscrossed by the whiz and zip of German bullets, bullets that erred too high or too low as this feathered promise took flight. But Cher Ami, like the brave pigeons that came before, eventually took fire, and dropped from the sky like a stone.
The best of men lose hope down in the dirt. But it is there where heroes are also born. Shot through the breast, covered in blood, blinded in one eye, with a leg hanging by the mere shred of a tendon, Cher Ami somehow took flight once again, flying twenty-five miles to division headquarters in a mere sixty-five minutes, saving all one-hundred ninety-four souls in the process.
Cher Ami received the Croix de Guerre for heroic service, the attention of the best Army medics, a specially carved wooden leg, and a personal farewell from none other than General Pershing himself when Cher Ami’s boat departed for America. But it wasn’t until Cher Ami passed away, its body being stuffed and mounted for display in the Smithsonian, that it was discovered that Cher Ami, was really Chere Amie, not a he but a she, not a cock but a hen, not a hero but a heroine, that her glorious flight was that of yet another woman unheralded for her courage in this battle of men.
Ismit lifted his head from the book for a moment, disoriented. He dragged his hand delicately across the words he’d just read. He counted the pages he could not remember flipping through, laboriously or otherwise. The very bookness of the book—its heft, its bulk, its pointed angles, the absurd mechanics of its formidable but flimsy interior—had melted away. He had been with the bird. He tracked his fingers over a note Rose had written in the margins—Pigeon Hens Rule!—and smiled. But the smile fell as quickly as it rose, crashing to earth in a thud of melancholic resignation. Ismit was with the birds, down in the dirt where heroes were born. But he knew he was no Cher Ami.
When the tic-tac-toc of the knocker wakes Ismit, he realizes he has fully succeeded at destroying time. He does not know what day it is, what time of day, whether it is day at all. It’s as if life were one perpetual present tense now. Wobbling upright, he steps on the ticker tape. With his toes, he tears off the sleep-accumulated death trailing behind him before shuffling to the ingress.
“Coming,” he says, as the tic-tac-toc continues, a brief round of it, then another and another. Kavic likes to torment Ismit this way, he remembers. “Coming,” he repeats. But Ismit’s legs feel weak and he leans against the sloped wall of the atrium for a moment, overcome with a sudden deep hunger. When has he last eaten? What has he last eaten? The knocker persists. “Okay, okay,” he mumbles to himself. He rubs his face up and down with his flattened palms to warm it up, to waken his senses, before putting his weight behind the lever.
“What is it?” Ismit says. He lifts his forearm before his eyes, to shield himself against the outside world, the flare of light it produces when he lets it in.
When was the last time he’d seen Kav? Ismit wonders.
“This better be good,” he says. “I’m pretty busy grim-reaping in here.” Ismit rolls the door open further with his shoulder.
“Iz?” the voice in the light says, thin, disembodied, small. “Oh my god, Iz. You look, you look like a beast.”
Rose’s hand alights on the wisps of beard that have overtaken Ismit’s face. More like an overgrown garden, he thinks to say, but she has already pushed past him before he can gather his wits, before his eyes can adjust. Ismit turns slowly and follows her inside, touching the place on his cheek where her hand has just been.
“It looks like wild animals have tore through the place,” he hears her say from the back room as he turns. When he gets there, the algae-lanterns have already been reluminesced, the glass apertures defogged. The aerocycle is clattering back to life. But Rose is no longer there. Ismit takes in the room in the muted green glow, seeing it through her eyes—the whirlpool of sheets on the cot, the teetering stack of veggie scrapple tins, the withered tubes of this and that paste. From the bathroom he hears a gasp and then a flush. Several more flushes follow. He nudges the bed pan under his cot and gums a mint-flavored lozenge as he picks sleep from his eyes.
Rose reemerges with Rho, newly sweatered and cradled in her arms. “You two,” she says. “You’re both so…” Her voice breaks mid-sentence. She pauses as if observing it as it does. She smells Rho between her ears, searching for her next word. “So skinny,” she says. “You’re both so thin.”
Ismit doesn’t speak. He can’t. He’s remembering Rose, seeing her again, seeing her for the first time. She looks more beautiful than ever, brighter, stronger. It pains him.
“I should be mad at you,” she says.
“How’d you get here?” Ismit asks. He’s never wanted her to see his squat, even in the best of times.
She sets Rho down on the cot and sits on its edge herself. She starts to straighten the sheets, pausing by his pillow, by the open copy of Glorious Flight now under her hands. “Did you?” she asks. “Did you really read it? For reals?”
He can’t help it. He smiles. Shy, proud, confused, he doesn’t want to want.
“Kavic’s worried about you,” Rose says finally. “He found me. He says it’s your birthday.”
His birthday? “It’s not for a week yet,” Ismit says, now uncertain.
“I got you something,” Rose says, standing again, fishing in the pockets of her suit. “You ready?” She holds out her hands, one cupped over the other, as she approaches.
They stand close now. Ismit can feel his heart as if every beat is a choice. His lungs ache as if scooped out and hollow. He’s conscious of his smell now and wants to step back. Instead he nods.
She opens her hands like a hinged box. Ismit thinks of a coffin, remembers her hand touching his face. Both hands are open now, side by side, curled together into a bowl, a nest. He looks up into Rose’s eyes. He searches them, unsure what to feel. Then, he looks again at the powder pink egg nestled in her palms.
“I missed you,” she says, an answer to the question he hasn’t asked.
Ismit stares at the egg, touches it, takes it from her hands. His ankle twinges. He wonders when she removed it, how. “It’s warm,” he says.
She leans in and kisses him. Her lips and nose are cold. Her breath tastes fresh, green. He knows how to do this, he reminds himself. But her kiss is different, more open, more imprecise, more unknown than before. He feels lost in it. He wants to be. He anchors himself loosely, his hands on the flared bones of her hips as he follows her lead.
“I missed you too,” he says when they come up for air.
Rose removes her hands from his hair and unzips her cuff pocket. She slides out a small silver square. An After You.
“I…” she begins.
Ismit shakes his head no, places his hand to her mouth, smiles. He doesn’t want to know, though he does sort of suspect it’s Kavic’s doing. He’s touched, embarrassed, scared. I can’t zero, he wants to tell her. Something’s wrong with me, with the things that I touch.
But Rose begins to undress him. She opens his vents, starts to roll down his suit, peel off his liner. Goose bumps lift in the cold. He follows her to the cot. It squeaks and teeters when they sit on it, as they slide under the blankets. She’s removing her top. He looks at her collarbones, at a red birthmark like a tiny splatter of wine at the top of her left breast. He feels her chest against him, warm and spongy. They begin to move together on their sides, half-clothed.
“How’d you do it?” he whispers, hoping to slow things down. “How’d you zero, Rose?”
“It wasn’t that hard,” she says into his neck. “I took an advance on my sluice account. There’s more than I’ll need in there for college.”
Ismit shifts up onto an elbow, nods for her to continue. His eyes flit over her naked torso, hers over his.
“You know the exurb greenway they’re building?” Rose asks. “I bought some arboreal implants for it. Forty or fifty, I think. That about did it, really,” she says. “We should go, it’s going to be beautiful there.”
“Okay,” Ismit says mechanically. “That sounds fun,” he says, but he’s retreating inward. He can feel it. He waits there, waits to see what it is exactly he’s feeling. Sadness, disbelief, grief, a certain absurd hilarity? A little bit of each of these, he thinks. But mostly anger. A different anger than he’s felt before, than Kavic-anger. It’s reflexive, slow, and gentle; a slow-moving, thick-water stream, a stream spilling over, diverted from its course, a dammed-up stream folded back on itself, fed upon by and feeding his original desire for Rose. It doesn’t make sense to Ismit, he can’t picture it exactly, he doesn’t try to understand it, but the wounding he feels makes his longing stronger, not only because her hands are inside his rain pants, not only because she starts to roll the After You down over him, slowly, tenderly with her cool fingers.
He fights himself back now. It’s painful to as she touches him there, but once it’s on him, he’s more than the desire to give himself over. She pushes him back. He’s lying backwards. He’s traveling at a comfortable pace now, riding that same desire, being ridden by it still.
She moves above him, her hands flat on his chest, her incisors biting down on her lip, her eyes open but out of focus. He’s elsewhere too. He thinks of the python, jaws happily unhinged, digesting, daydreaming. He senses a field of wild grasses he can’t quite see, just over the ridge. He closes his eyes to search for it but begins to lose his sense of Rose, of himself, when he does.
“Am I hurting you?” she says, slowing down but unable to stop entirely. “You’re so quiet,” she says, worried.
She speeds up again before he answers, as if the answer isn’t the point. He looks down past her hips, past her naked calves and ankles to either side of his thighs. He smiles as Rho’s prosthetic paw swipes at the tape sputtering from his Biotarsal, cascading over the end of the cot as they move.
“Yes,” he answers, closing his eyes. “Yes, Rose, yes.”
David Naimon is a writer in Portland, Oregon and host of the literary podcast Between the Covers. He is also the co-author, with Ursula K. Le Guin, of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, a Hugo award finalist and winner of the 2019 Locus award in nonfiction. His writing can be found in Orion, AGNI, Boulevard, Black Warrior Review, and Tin House. It has received a Pushcart prize, been reprinted in The Best Small Fictions and been cited in Best American Mystery & Suspense, Best American Travel Writing and Best American Essays. He is currently finishing a genre-resistant collection of stories, essays and poems.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.