Just Us

Happy Holidays from The Dread Machine.

While Taz brings in the cranberry sauce and turkey jelly, Jane smoothes the tablecloth, straightens their place settings again, and tries not to think about the gray plastic headgear yanking her long black hair.

“The table looks fine,” Taz says. “No one will notice.”

“But they’ll see.”

“They won’t care.”

“Maybe not now. What about on playback?” Jane looks around the little studio, painfully tidy after three days of scrubbing and rearranging. “I don’t want them picking my place apart.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll only be looking at you.”

Her eyes widen, and now she starts smoothing her new dress. Taz tries not to laugh and stops her with a hug.

“And since they’ll be looking at you through my eyes,” he says, “they’ll only see how beautiful you are. I bet they yell at me for doting. It’ll be awfully embarrassing.” He kisses her forehead below the band of electrodes and puts the dishes on the table. “They’re going to love your cooking too.”

Jane forces a smile, but when she goes to kiss his cheek, the headgear bumps his chin and seems to tear out a clump of hair. She yelps and grabs the headgear. “This thing’s killing me,” she says. “The contacts are itchy. The band’s making my scalp sweat. My hair must look insane.”

He reaches up to adjust the gear. “Let me—”

“No.” She bats his hands away. “I need to do this myself.”

“But we have to do this,” he taps the table, “together. And I see the problem.” Before she can resist, he frees the strands that got twisted around the battery pack. “There. Better?”

She shakes her head, but it does feel better, so she nods. “Your family’s going to think I’m a child, wearing this.”

“Then you’ll hear them, and they’ll be embarrassed. Now sit. I’ll do the rest.”

She can’t bear the idea of sitting yet. “I’ll get the wine.”

“Perfect. That’ll ease the connection, actually.” Taz disappears into the closet kitchen.

Easy for him to say, she thinks while relieving a bottle from pulling double duty as a bookend. Connection’s second nature to him. He wore outerware like her headgear when he was a year old. He got his innerware when he was five. He’s been connected with his family nonstop ever since.

When he confessed the night they’d met that he didn’t block his connection while going to the bathroom or jerking off, she screamed and jerked up the covers.

“What about just now? When we were—?” she said.

“Of course I didn’t. It makes everyone feel good. A nice little rush out of nowhere. No one tracks who it came from. There are thousands of us.”

She slapped his wonderfully smooth chest and rolled away. He rolled after her and squeezed her shoulder. “They can only feel what I feel, though. They can’t see you. Or hear you. Or sense you. You’re a fog to them. I respect how you were brought up. Five seconds after you told me you were a noware, I blocked you from them.”

“Why did it take so long?” she said.

“I’d never met a noware, well, not knowingly, and I didn’t know what to do. So I read some literature, asked a few of my cousins for their advice, and followed the consensus.”

“In five seconds?”

“Two. Speed of thought, you know.”

“What did you do the other three seconds?”

“Looked in your eyes. Forgot time.”

“Stop it. How many cousins?”

“Um. 132.”

“Jesus! That’s ‘a few’?”

“They’re not all cousins, really. They only feel that way.”

“Why not go dark? Block everyone?”

“For the same reason we couldn’t just connect, you and me alone, for a test drive. It would be weird. We’re a package deal, my family. An alarm would go off in my father’s brain. A bomb would go off in my mom’s.”

Jane understood that. Her parents didn’t mind her bringing someone home, even someone she’d only met three hours earlier, so long as they were nice, safe, and clean. “NSC,” her mother would say. “NSC. Remember that.” But sleeping with an innerware, however cute? Jane could hear her father say, “This. Is a. Repudiation,” and her mother say she was “personally insulted.” Lying in bed, Jane was glad Taz couldn’t hear her thoughts, and she wondered how unbearable it would be to have her parents in her head all the time, not just when she triggered guilt.

She’d never seen the need for connection either. In their small community of nowares, everyone knew everyone else’s business, and if you needed help, someone was there with a ladder, a cup of rice, or simply a kind word before you thought help was needed. In the city, no one seemed to realize she was there. They weren’t even there themselves, being connected to everywhere else. Jane started avoiding innerwares entirely until she spotted Taz at a Midtown bar. They’d looked at each other, they’d looked inside each other, and that was that. “The lightning bolt,” her great-grandmother would have called it. Wasn’t that what real connection was supposed to be like?

“So a few minutes ago,” Jane said, “they thought you were jerking off…acrobatically?”

“We do have boundaries. We can ignore. We can look away. And we have privacy filters. But I can’t keep my filters on all the time. Defeats the whole foundation of connection. It wouldn’t feel natural.”

Natural. That was funny. Everything is built for people like him. Jane’s the one who grew up disconnected in a connected world. She’d been the bumpkin in the bar who’d ordered for her friends by waving her hand and calling to the bartender instead of opening a direct connect, thinking what they wanted, then getting a mental buzz when their drinks were up.

“I’ll tell them about you, though,” he said. “They’ll like you.”

Was he moving too fast? Better that, she decided, than plotting his escape. Jane wiggled back into Taz and curled a foot around his ankle. He drew a line with his fingernail from her shoulder down to her hip and around.

Now that was a real connection. As her mother also said, “You know a person by their smell. Their voice. Their touch.” Being a noware, Jane could better appreciate how open Taz was from the start. Their three hours together talking in the bar had felt like three years—and three minutes. He smelled great. His voice rumbled. And his fingers could read her mind.

For the last three months, her type of connection had been enough for him. Novel. Exciting. Illuminating. This Thanksgiving, they’d accelerate things. Jane would meet his family on their ground.

With the food on the table, the wine poured, and the candles lit, Taz closes the curtains to create a more intimate space and sits next to Jane. “Ready?”

She nods. She’s prepared a list of questions to keep herself from mind babbling.

“I’ll connect you to me like we’ve practiced, then I’ll bring in my parents.”

“No cousins.”

“No.”

They clink glasses and drink deep, then Jane flicks the switch beside the battery pack. A whirr fills her head. A breeze seems to stroke her skin. Jane takes long deep breaths. She clenches and unclenches her hands, her feet, and her butt. She closes her eyes and pushes through the darkness as if going from a small cave into a larger one, from her personal space into the connection space. To practice for Thanksgiving, she and Taz connected three previous times, and Jane’s surprised at how quickly she’s gotten used to being here. That bodes well. She whispers, “OK.”

Another whirr fills the cave. A new breeze follows. The whirrs form a perfect fifth. The breezes twine together. Jane smells Taz, then his essence fills the cave slowly, confidently.

“I’m here,” he thinks.

“I know.”

“The connection’s good,” he thinks. “I’m going to open my eyes now.” Jane nods. “Keep your head steady.” Light seeps through the darkness.

Jane sees herself, eyes closed, hands anchoring her to the table. Her hair isn’t as crazy as she imagined. Her dress fits nicely. The silver necklace Taz gave her goes perfectly with it. She wills her hands to relax, and they fall into her lap, which is weird, doing something unconscious consciously. Connection, Taz told her, requires a lot of deliberation before it becomes automatic.

Or, as her father would say, “You have to work hard to make a marriage work easily.”

“I’m going to look around,” he thinks, and Jane observes the studio as if through a mask, except she can sense the cameraman’s breathing. Her own quickly syncs with it, which is sweet, and the mask falls away, so she is one with his eyes, which is sweeter.

When his view returns to the table, he thinks, “You ate all the spiced pecans.”

“Not all,” she thinks, “You don’t like my turkey jelly!”

He shrugs, found out. “It’s not your turkey jelly. It’s all meat jellies. If we can’t eat meat, why bother? Wait, you’ve had real meat?”

“When I was tiny,” she admits, checking her embarrassment. “We had chickens.”

“What’d they taste like?”

She remembers her mother taking the roasted bird out of the oven, the smell wafting through the house, the grease on her fingers, the texture as she bit into it. “It—it tastes like chicken.”

“I’m not getting anything,” he thinks. “Maybe a slight roughness on my tongue.”

“That’s chicken, pretty much.”

Previously they stopped connecting once Jane got used to looking through his eyes so as not to overload her senses or disorient her. “Today,” Taz says, “let’s try taste.” He tosses a pecan into his mouth.

“It’s delicious!” Jane thinks. “Like kissing you and sharing a nut at the same time. You chew differently from me.”

“How do you chew?”

She’d show him, but connecting doesn’t let another control your actions. “You chew on the right. I chew on the left.”

“I wonder if people are chew-handed,” he thinks. “I’ll analyze a sample of my cousins.”

“Not now.”

“No. After dinner. Now you open your eyes. Remember: keep steady. Look at me. Like we practiced.”

This is the tricky part, getting used to sitting, essentially, in two places at once. It’s dizzying, like being inside a cubist painting. Or having bedspins.

“That’s why wine’s good for the connection. Hair of the dog.”

“I didn’t mean for you to hear that,” she thinks.

“I can’t not hear you. If you want to guard your thoughts, build a wall and hide them behind it. But the beauty of connection is pure honesty. You’ll know exactly what my family thinks of you. Exactly how they feel. Instantly.”

“It’s not just chatting about all the stuff that flashes through your mind?”

“When we’re getting to know a new family member, yes, but after a while, they become part of the same mind, walking the same road.”

That was her worst nightmare growing up. Her literal bogeyman. Her mother told her warers would burrow into her mind like badgers if she wasn’t good, steal her thoughts if she didn’t finish her soy jelly, watch everything she did if she wasted electricity. Taz, though, was her dream. She’d chance it for him.

“Won’t they be able to erect their own walls?” Jane thinks. “Turn on their own privacy filters?”

“Yes, but they won’t. They promised to be open-minded and greet you with open arms.”

“I wish they really could.”

“So do I. We don’t rely entirely on ware for connection.”

A wave of sadness comes over Jane, and she sees a tear swell along the bottom of her eye, but it’s not her sadness. “When was the last time—”

“Seven years ago. They took a cruise from China through the Northwest Passage. We spent a week together in St Johns before they sailed for New Ireland.”

“Maybe we could visit them.” Even as she thinks this, she knows what he’ll think.

“Too expensive. I’m all for clean air and slowing down climate change, but I wish they still made enough gas to keep flying economical.”

“I flew once when I was very little. To California. To see my cousins. My father’s brother’s kids. Three of them. It was awkward. My uncle hadn’t told my father that they had their innerware. They didn’t talk the entire time I was there, and I couldn’t share their new toys. I felt so left out. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop talking sometimes.”

“I’m sorry,” he thinks, and a warmth runs through her. “I couldn’t imagine such isolation until I met you—and have to be apart from you sometimes. The morning after that first night was the worst. All the voices, sensations, ideas, and wild emotions: my connection sounded like static, not warm waves of crescendos. All I wanted was to be with you again.”

“And to talk,” he continues out loud. “It’s nice to use my voice and listen to yours.”

She laughs even as she sees her tear crest, pushed by her own emotions, and start to fall. Jane realizes their whole conversation since they connected has taken only a few seconds. Were they even using words, or was she recollecting in words the thoughts and feelings they had shared a moment earlier?

“It’s a wonder,” she thinks, “that you can even put up with me. I must go so slow for you.”

“Slow is nice sometimes, like savoring a dinner.”

“Dinner!” she thinks. “We’ll be late connecting.”

“We have another few seconds. Open your eyes. It’s only fair to let them look through your eyes too. At least to let them see what I look like to you.”

Jane takes a deep breath and opens her eyes. Taz smiles at her as if through a pane of glass that’s reflecting her own face.

“That’s a good image. Steady now. Are you OK?”

Her belly lurches. “My belly—”

“I know. Look in my eyes, looking in your eyes. I’ll connect us now.”

Or maybe sharing his gaze is like looking in a mirror reflected in a mirror. Eyes through eyes through eyes, the moment they first saw each other repeated forever. The memory arouses her, which reminds her of their first time in bed, which alarms her. She doesn’t want his family’s first impression of her to be that she’s horny for their son. She needs a distraction.

“Jane, stay on me. Don’t look away.”

She already has, though, and the room slides over itself. She jerks to catch it. Two bowls of cranberry sauce dance in a swirl of four candles in a room with eight shifting walls. She jerks again to keep up, and when she can’t, she tries to meet his eyes again, but they’re just out of reach like a lifeboat pushed away by waves from a drowning girl. Taz says something she can’t hear over her thinking, “I look pale. And did it get hot in here? I’m sweating.” Taz leaps up to grab her shoulders and steady her, which only makes the room fold up, Jane feeling flung in the air and rooted to her chair at the same time. She coughs, her belly lurches more sharply, and Jane cacks a splash of wine into her mouth. Disgusted, she swallows, gags at the taste, clutches her stomach, but spews half a glass of wine and acid into her own face. Her throat and mouth catch fire, and her eyes burn even worse, except they’re actually Taz’s eyes, and he’s turning, screaming, slapping at his face, his view of the room whirling away from hers, which makes her belly completely revolt, and she vomits the other half glass of wine over his hair and her dress, ropes of white spit and dark purple sick swaying between them, stretching, sagging. Jane flails at them, tearing up, boiling with shame.

“Oh, dear,” a woman thinks. “What is that smell?”

Oh no, Jane thinks as the stink hits her and echoes through Taz’s nose. She heaves again, this time the glass of wine she snuck while Taz was in the kitchen, and again, the nuts she nibbled on while setting the table, gobs of chewed pecan splashed back into the bowl (she did eat a lot of them) the stink enveloping her. And there’s the crackers and pimento cheese she snacked on while cooking, orange and creamy and full of white chunks as if the pimento cheese hasn’t been digested yet. Taz sees it all, smells it all, and spews clementine juice over the turkey pudding. She thinks, “I knew there were more than five clementines left when I started cooking,” and Taz thinks, “I only had three,” before he throws up more juice and some plain jelly in the bowl of fresh greens from the aeroponic collective. Jane has nothing left to gag, her stomach clenching, wanting to do more, while a flaccid snot-like worm of spew kicks in her throat, its head tickling her tongue, and she hopes it’s over and that the sudden rain pounding on the studio windows will somehow leak in and wash the horror away, except it’s not rain, it’s her vomit dripping off the table onto the bare polywood floor.

A man thinks, “It’s vomit, dear. Is that Taz’s Jane?”

Jane looks through his parents’ eyes too, two mirages of another apartment cutting through the two of theirs like cards being shuffled, and that’s enough for Jane to try and expel the worm, hacking and coughing, gagging and spitting, but the bastard’s really dug in with its burning claws and gooey tail, so she tightens her grip on the table to launch it out of her mouth. Her hands slip, however, on the cascade of vomit, and she falls off her chair into a pool of it. A candle tumbles too. She, no, Taz lurches to grab it before the flame ignites her hair, and his parents lurch for it too reflexively, so all four rooms rip away from each other, and with a slurpy cack, Jane blasts the vomit worm straight up her nose. It burns so fiercely, she might as well have shoved the candle up there.

Taz’s mother coughs gently into her hand. “Oh, no,” she says, then coughs up in her mouth.

Jane tastes her vomit. Lamb jelly and cumin and cane soda, and when she swallows it—oh my god not again and is that Taz’s father vomiting in his beard or on her chin? One of his thick wiry beard hairs feels stuck to her lip with a piece of half-digested bread, and she can’t scrape it off, however hard she rubs her mouth against the floor, hoovering up her own chunks of sick in the process. The room swirls out of control as everyone grabs their faces and spits vomit over their hands, warm and slippery, searing the baby skin under their fingernails. Jane can’t tell who’s spewing at this point, bile and spitting and heaving lumped together with Taz’s father’s heavy sweat and his mother’s horribly sweet perfume, all sharing a huge ugly rush out of everywhere.

“Hello!” think more than a hundred people at once. “We simply had to hack in. Oh, Jesus!”

More than a hundred mouths fill with vicarious vomit, a world cuisine of sick, more than a hundred faces bloom cold sweat and tears, and more than a hundred cousins howl as, GLARGH, they erupt too, and vomit seems to flow thick and hot like lava over Jane’s cheeks and down her chest and arms.

Then they’re gone, the connection broken. Jane’s on her knees under the table, butt in the air, dress flopped around her waist, and the only voices left in her head are her parents’, saying, “We told you so.”

Taz squats beside her.

“I never get carsick,” she says.

“I know.”

“I didn’t get airsick either.”

“I remember,” he says and scrapes a bit of cracker off his nose. “I don’t think this is going to work.”

“There must be a pill—”

“No, Jane, that was like organ rejection. Besides, I think you’ve left a bad taste in my family’s mouth.”

She snorts, which burns her nose.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m so sorry. I,” he looks around, “I’ll help you clean up.”

“No, it’s fine,” she says. “I’ll stay here a while where no one can hear me think.”

“Jane. Let me get you cleaned up at least.”

“OK.”

Taz takes her hand and leads her to the bathroom. He carefully removes her headgear, undoes the stays on the back of her dress, and helps her out of it. Vomit webs her hair and his, it’s splattered all over his clothes, and his eyes have puffed red. The full-length mirror is so cruel. That’s not how I want to remember us, Jane thinks. With a glance at the shower, she asks him to join her. Taz sniffs, blows vomit out of his nose, and relents. “But after this—” he says while Jane fumbles with his shirt.

Once she’s removed the rest of his clothes, Taz taps his hair. “We’re going to need more than cleansing cream,” he says. “It’s starting to harden.”

“I think we’re worth the water,” Jane says, “if this is the last time.” She taps a panel beside the shower to order three minutes’ worth of water. No, five. No, ten. So what if she has to eat nutrition shakes for the rest of the week to afford it. The showerhead spits some remnant rinsing foam, then gushes hot and clear and lancing.

She runs her finger along the long scar above his left ear. There’s a whole world in there she’ll never know. A whole world that’ll never know her, either. “Are we alone?” she says.

“It’s just us,” he says and holds the glass door for her. “Let it be weird for my family.”

For a while longer, Jane thinks. Probably more of a relief.

Jane and Taz turn beneath the water, bumping wet shoulders, elbows, and hips. A clumsy little reel, Jane thinks. Their first dance. Taz rinses his hair, shakes his head, and shuffles around the stall to make room for Jane. As she strains water through her own hair, Taz fills his hands with lemony cleansing cream. He rubs it over her shoulders, along her sides, across her chest, and firmly, smoothly down.

When he’s done with her, she does him quickly, one eye on the meter, and they splash the cleansing cream off each other. She shivers despite the steam. He presses against her. Their bodies slide, frictionless, and soften.

This is what it would’ve been like, Jane thinks.

“I know,” he says. His chest pulses with little sobs.

She smiles as best she can. “At least we tried.”

“We come from different worlds,” he says. “Mine will feel a lot smaller without you.”

Mine couldn’t feel smaller, she thinks. Not in the city.

Still, they have a lifetime for recriminations, but only a minute’s worth of water left, so Jane holds him tight, and they melt together.

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Issue 1.4

These 23 works of dark speculative fiction demand readers consider the following:

Who do we become when we only have ourselves for company? What remains when we've sacrificed too much? Where do the babies really come from?

$10.00

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Issue 1.4

These 23 works of dark speculative fiction demand readers consider the following:

Who do we become when we only have ourselves for company? What remains when we've sacrificed too much? Where do the babies really come from?

$10.00

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Just Us

Happy Holidays from The Dread Machine.

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