2021 Fabulism and Speculative Fiction Contest Winners

“In Zoë Ballering’s ‘Double or Nothing,’ you will find elegant and precise prose, a strange and compelling magical concept that unfolds and unfolds throughout the story in unexpected ways, and a conclusion that is both satisfying and gasp-worthy. I was amazed by the fullness in this story, despite its almost minimalist style and the absences left in the narrative for the reader to contemplate long after the story is over.”

 – Christopher Barzak, author of One for Sorrow

Rougarou 2021 Fabulism & Speculative Fiction Contest Winner

Double or Nothing

by Zoë Ballering

On our first date he pretended to be Orson Welles in The Third Man as we sat in the Ferris wheel gazing out across the bay. He delivered the lines with the pleasure of a ham, waving his arms so that the pod swung back and forth. I felt an extra thrill of terror. Something about that feeling of suspension, hanging above the unimaginable vastness of the water and the unimaginable profusion of the people, made me remember that moment long after all the other details of my first and lonely life had faded back to sepia.

“Tell me,” he cried, eyes bulging, “if I had the power to touch a dot down there and simply wipe it out, would you really feel any pity? Would you really try to stop me?”

“It’s a weird line for a first date,” I said. I had swiped right on Tinder because I liked the oddness of his profile pic—two snarling cats with identical markings, one in each of his gloved hands.

“It’s the only Ferris wheel scene I know.”

Never Been Kissed,” I countered. I had a thing for Drew Barrymore—her broad cheeks and her blunt nose, like she’d been cast in wax from an inexact but beautiful mold. I liked her wild child persona, flashing David Letterman as she danced atop his desk, and the fact that under it all you could tell that she was scared and confused, a wound more than a person, and that that wound, which seemed irreparable, had somehow healed with age.

“I’ve never seen it.”

“A journalist goes undercover as a high school student and falls in love with her English teacher. They ride the Ferris wheel together.”

“Sounds kinda creepy.”

“In retrospect, yeah.”

“Ever bring your students up here?”

“They’re kindergarteners,” I answered. “They’re three-foot-something. It’s a height issue—they couldn’t get on. Also, like, a liability issue. But in the context of the movie, it was sweet.”

“That makes sense,” he said, even though nothing made sense—not the premise of the movie nor the fact that he was wearing gloves. They were the same pair I’d noticed in his profile pic, and he wore them despite the fact that it was sixty-eight degrees and halfway sunny. Still, I found him strangely endearing. Earlier, pondering a pipefish at the aquarium, he’d bent down and gazed with the same intensity that he later paid to the showier exhibits. He seemed to make no distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary—as if being mottled and grey were the same as being mottled and yellow or fringed and speckled with gold. I liked that. His face announced at every moment that it was worth looking closely at the world.

We’d been paused at the top, but now the wheel turned again and our pod left the hordes on the boardwalk and glided out above the dirty water of the bay. I found myself trapped in that trough of awkwardness that I often fell into on first dates—those moments after I’d exhausted all the superficial get-to-know-yous and I didn’t know what to say. It was our final revolution. The couple in the pod ahead of us sucked face with impressive dedication, as if they’d be parted forever when their feet returned to the earth.

“It’s nice to have someone to talk to,” I murmured. “That’s what Drew Barrymore says when she’s on the Ferris wheel with her English teacher. It’s a better line than homicidal Orson Welles.”

“That’s true,” he said.

And then he shifted and our shoulders touched as if by accident. I let my arm fall loose so that it leaned against his. I imagined our bodies zipping together down the seam of our sides. We tore our eyes away from the face suckers in front of us and looked down through the transparent floor at the people-dots on the promenade, the parents pushing thousand dollar strollers and the baseball hats hiding faces and the headphones hiding ears and the scraps of summer clothing hiding nothing—so many limbs, slender, stocky, sun-kissed, light, and dark. No single person looked any bigger than my big toe. I can still see the polish on it, so vividly do I remember, a coating of pearlescent pink that sparkled with the same sheen as the water.

*

He always wore a pair of grey nylon gloves with a fold-back tip on the index finger that he never folded back. We’d been sleeping together since the second week, and I had seen the rest of him, especially the bareness of his back as he got out of bed to use the bathroom. Still, I had never seen his hands. He caressed me with the gloves; he slept beside me, gloved; and when he clasped me after showering, the gloves were wet.

“Can you tell me?” I would ask. I assumed some unspeakable disfigurement. When he swapped his wet gloves for a dry pair, he changed in the corner with his back to me. His studio had the blandness I had come to expect from the men I met on Tinder: a bed, a desk-cum-kitchen-table, a bureau that seemed to have the power to draw clothes close but not contain them—he kept his clothes in a laundry basket that brushed the bureau’s side. Gloves were the only evidence of plenitude. They spilled out from his closet when I opened the door.

“I find it difficult to talk about,” he would answer, wearing such a hangdog look that he put me off from asking till another interval of tenderness had passed. In the beginning, our attachment seemed to double every week. I referred to this doubling as an interval of tenderness, though later I learned that it was not a stable measure—that the longer we knew each other, the longer it took for our closeness to double again. But when we started dating, that newness swept me up. I loved to stretch out next to him, propped up on my elbows as I drew hieroglyphics on his back. I could spend entire mornings that way, the lazy Sundays of our first summer. He would lie on his stomach with his face to one side and look so calm and satisfied that I felt like I could drug him with my fingertips.

*

During the eighth interval of tenderness, I had a habit of leaving his apartment and going straight to work. Sometimes I looked so disheveled that the children glanced at me with nervous sympathy. It was finally Sheila who spoke.

“Ms. Emily,” she said. “Did your mommy stop fixing your hair?” It was Sheila who came back from Tijuana with one half of her head covered in cornrows and the other half a frizzy mess, her mother having given up midway through the process of unbraiding. Having witnessed other parents struggle with the task, I could have told her—it was best to snip the tips.

The pace of doubling had slowed by then. It took four weeks for us to know each other twice as well, though it still felt like a headlong rush. There was so much to do, so much to know, so much to touch. We’d been dating officially for four months. And it was at some point during this period, the eighth interval of tenderness, that I taught the children how to estimate.

As part of the lesson, I wove through the tables and the knee-high chairs carrying a tray of rubber bands. The construction paper letters in the window threw shadows on the floor. I stepped through a W and avoided a toy car that had escaped from one of the storage bins. It smelled like graham crackers and the peculiar miasma that comes from seventeen five-year-old bodies in a poorly ventilated room.

“Guess how many rubber bands,” I said. I had counted out twenty-six. They lay in a pile like pink snakes. My students stayed in their seats because I told them to, but their whole bodies strained with the performance of that novel act.

“There are forty, Ms. Emily,” said Sheila, who was testing at a second-grade level. “One hundred,” said Skylar, who looked like a mini-copy of my mother, fat red cheeks and hair so blonde it seemed to have no color.

“Twenty,” said Aden, not because he was a gifted estimator but because he didn’t yet grasp the existence of a higher number.

But the boy who sat beside them, he guessed none.

“Lloyd,” I said in my sweetest teacher voice. “Can’t you see that there is something on the tray?”

*

On that night in my apartment, after ten intervals of tenderness, he held up his hand and folded back the tip of the glove. His finger poked out like any other finger, no burns or warts or swelling or discoloration. I felt that I’d been tricked.

“Wait,” he said, and he touched the cinnamon-scented candle on my coffee table. There was no pop or flash of lightning. It was all very ordinary. It was like I’d blinked my eyes without blinking and suddenly there were two candles side by side.

“Were there always two?” I asked. “No.”

“Do it again.” I felt as greedy as my students.

“I can’t. I can only double twice a day. Three times and I’m nearly comatose.”

“You’ve only done it once.”

“Twice,” he said, folding the flap over his index finger so that another pair of grey nylon gloves appeared on my carpeted floor. He was panting slightly, leaning back into the plushness of the couch.

Later I insisted that we burn the second candle to verify that he had replicated the essence of the thing. I could no longer remember which was the original and which was the copy, so we burned them both, one after the other, while binging episodes of Law and Order. And it was true—they each smelled exactly like cinnamon.

*

My students made inkblot art in preparation for the Spring Open House. They took pieces of construction paper, added dabs of red, blue, and yellow paint, and then folded their papers and pressed. We talked about primary colors and secondary colors. We talked about symmetry. We unfolded their papers and pretended we were daydreaming outside.

“Imagine that you’re searching for a shape in the clouds,” I said. “What do you see?” “I see a chicken in my paint,” said Skylar, and one of the parent volunteers wrote “Chicken” on her paper.

“I see a rainbow rose,” said Aden.

“An artichoke,” said Sheila, who always had such sophisticated tastes. “A car.”

“A boot.”

“I see brown,” said Lloyd.

He had mashed his paper after adding too much paint. I pondered what I saw: “The holding pond for a waste treatment facility” or “The ground beneath a leaky sewer line” or “A dog turd after a deluge.”

“Wow, Lloyd,” I said. “That is a very original inkblot.”

*

My boyfriend’s parents called him Midas Midas, because if he touched Midas, Midas wouldn’t turn gold, he would be two. He developed his powers at age thirteen, at a time when other boys were developing acne. He told me that the first thing he ever doubled was Goo, the family cat. The power struck at the same moment that he was stroking Goo’s back—a feline miracle that quickly devolved into a catfight, because cats, unlike humans, cannot recognize themselves.

It was lucky, though, that the power struck at home, before he could go out and make a spectacle and get the government and the scientists involved. The first thing his parents did was glove him. Then his mother, a tax attorney with a congenital devotion to knowing every law and loophole, ran a series of experiments in the basement of their house. This was how they learned the rules.

He could only duplicate items that weighed less than two hundred pounds. Touch the page of a book and he got a second book; the petal of a flower yielded a second flower; the bead on a necklace and a whole necklace hung from his hands. His mother deduced that he never doubled partially, and that his power, therefore, could be used to identify the minimum units that made up the world. She also determined that copies contained the same imperfections as originals. Consequently, he recreated Goo with a notched ear and a crooked tail. For the rest of their lives, the two Goos hissed when they passed each other in the hall.

Only his initial touch held the power of duplication. If, say, he were to spend an hour strumming a guitar, never lifting his fingers from the strings, this act would result in a single extra copy. It was for this reason that each act of doubling ended with another pair of gloves. When he replaced the flap and the fabric touched his finger, The Law of Minimum Units decreed that he did not produce a flap, or a single glove, but an entire second pair. And although he kept his home austere—an act of protest against the reckless abundance of his body—he had an ever-replenishing supply of gloves. Every few months I would take another batch to the Salvation Army so that the boy in charge of accepting donations took to greeting me as Madame Glove.

In the fifteen years that followed the discovery, Midas Midas had shielded his hands— only his index finger touched things without the mediation of the glove. In certain spaces he would remove the flap and revel in the joy of not creating. He hated knickknacks and loved rooms full of heavy furniture. He sought out trees, buildings, large works of public art. He adored English mastiffs, though once at the dog park he misjudged a female mastiff who turned out to be less than two hundred pounds, and we had to hustle away before the owner noticed that he now had two identical and mammoth dogs.

*

I drew on his back with the tip of my finger. One cat, another. The circle of the Ferris wheel going round and round and round.

“When I was a kid, I wanted everything,” he said. “Two skateboards, two Slurpees, double my weekly allowance. That was my material phase, followed by my practical phase—I spent a year doubling a ten-ounce bar of gold. I wanted to be sure that me and my family would always have enough. I got sick of it, eventually—doubling felt like just another chore. And it wasn’t like I could surprise myself. If you have one thing, you can imagine having two.”

“You make it sound so ordinary,” I said, “but it isn’t ordinary to me.”

And so together we discovered the third evolution of Midas Midas’s power. First there was the Material Phase followed by the Practical Phase, and then, enmeshed in tenderness, the Age of Play. We had no reason for the things we did—it was simply pleasant, sometimes, to change one tube of chapstick into two, or to have two lemons in the fruit bowl with the same dimples on their peel, or two identical daffodils even though the world was full of flowers in the spring. We devoted an entire week to multiplying the spoons in my silverware drawer because I never had enough. Single socks, single earrings—but touching singletons yielded a pair, and so we ended up with three of each. He got a ring from a vending machine and doubled that, but it turned my finger green. He doubled pastries for me, a favorite pair of jeans, my car keys thrice over, and so many bras because bra shopping crushed my soul. Instead of pouring two glasses of wine, he poured one and doubled it. He filled my cupboards with wine glasses and crowded my closet with gloves. It was wasteful, I suppose, but it was also a form of welcome, a way of saying, “It is effortless to share with you.”

*

I used instructional dominoes to teach the concept of doubling—large pieces of white cardboard that I folded down the center so that the kids could only see one side.

“Kids,” I said. They were gathered on the carpet, gazing up. “If we took these three dots and doubled them, what would we have?”

“Six,” said Sheila.

“Hurray,” I said. I unfolded the domino and we counted together as a class. I held up the blank domino, one half of it.

“If I doubled this,” I said, “what would we have?”

“More of nothing,”answered Skylar.

“Hurray,” I said, unfolding the domino to prove that she was right. Lloyd stared suspiciously. He mistrusted every fundamental law.

*

When we returned to the Ferris wheel for our first anniversary, Midas Midas resumed his role as Orson Welles. This time, he pulled off the flap of his glove. Fourteen intervals of tenderness had passed—now it took two months for our closeness to double again.

“Tell me,” he cried, pointing at the crowds, “if I had the power to touch a dot down there and simply wipe it out, would you really feel any pity? Would you really try to stop me?”

“That’s not how it works,” I said. Carefully, so as not to brush his finger, I reached out and gripped his elbow. He lowered his hand and replaced the flap. We sat together in silence, looking down upon the people, the additional gloves lying at our feet. I imagined we were thinking the same thing—people-dots doubling and doubling till the promenade became a work of pointillism. But I wasn’t sure it would feel any different than erasing them. They seemed so small, so far away. We were all that mattered, two dots swinging high above the world.

“It’s nice to have someone to talk to,” I said.

“Still true,” he answered, and he clasped my hand.

*

We dedicated our second summer to determining the minimum units that made up the world. If he touched the bun of a hamburger, he got a second hamburger. If he touched a plain bun, he got a second bun. Touching a dictionary on my bookshelf reproduced the dictionary but not the shelf, nor the daisies—tissue paper thin—that I had pressed between the pages and forgotten. A kettle of boiling water resulted in a second kettle of boiling water, whereas room temperature water remained incidental to the kettle and was not reproduced. We’d bought our TV and remote as a set, and once, after a month of fruitless searching for the lost remote, he simply touched the TV and doubled both.

I got an IUD and we spent a month debating: Was the copper T inside my uterus incorporated within the unit of myself, or was it separate? Sometimes I imagined him touching me without the gloves. Just once—pressing his hands against my body and not letting go. He had never doubled a human, though in theory it would be no different than Goo, or the bevy of mice that he had multiplied in the basement, or the fly that blundered into his bare finger and buzzed away as two. He was willing to ponder many different doubling scenarios, including ones that I deemed cruel—doubling my Siamese fighting fish Clancy, for example, so that we could watch Clancy fight himself. But Midas Midas shut down any talk of replicating people.

“I’m not God,” he said. “And besides, it would blow my cover.”

According to Midas Midas, two identical English mastiffs meant the owner had a great story for a cocktail party. But two people, two whole human beings, aware of their sameness— that was a secret that was very hard to keep.

*

We scoured the shore for the perfect stone. Instead we found round-bellied agates and lumps of granite veined with quartz. Midas Midas handed me a black pebble with a red band and I stuck it in my pocket. There were even golf balls sunk in the mud from some hotshot practicing his golf swing on the bluff. Finally I reached down and picked up a stone that was dull and gray and thin as a wafer. I thought that if I bit it, I could break it with my teeth.

“It’s perfect,” he said, and we slogged out to meet the water. We had to cross a mudflat, a vast expanse of brown that reminded me of Lloyd.

“We should take off our shoes and leave them,” said Midas Midas when we’d made it halfway across. The mud had grown acquisitive. It sucked at our heels when we lifted our feet.

“We won’t be able to find them on our way back,” I protested. There was too much brown. We were stuck somewhere in the fifteenth interval of tenderness. Lloyd was a first grader by then—he was Mr. Deegan’s cross to bear—but when I closed my eyes, I could still picture his inkblot. The other children had been content to declare what they saw, but of course Lloyd had to hold up his paper and show me. Some of the paint had dripped down and spattered the table. Now I understood what he had made: “The way low tide bares the beach.” And it was beautiful.

“Relax, Emily,” said Midas Midas, a formula that always surprised him when it did not work. “If we can’t find them, I’ll just double you a pair.”

“You can’t double what isn’t there,” I pointed out. Eventually we settled on a landmark, one of the leftover pilings from a long abandoned, mostly missing dock. We left our shoes beside it, laces dragging in the mud, a pair of pairs.

It smelled like sulfur, like the living soup of the bay, full of silt and fish and giant squid with eyes the size of basketballs. I knew that they were down there, deep below, living secret lives. Clouds ridged the sky like the roof of a cat’s mouth. It was one of those sacred autumn days when the rain paused for long enough to confirm that the sun still existed. I could see the Olympic Mountains in the distance, impossibly tall and blue.

“Are you happy?” I asked. I loved how it felt when the mud squished up between my toes. But Midas Midas did not answer right away. He was staring at his gloves. I’d seen this mood before—sometimes, in the midst of playing with his power, he would grow morose.

“Even being out here on a beautiful day, I get sick of it,” he said.

We had reached the water. The bay, smooth as glass, barely seemed to lap the shore. “Don’t worry about that right now,” I said. “We have a bet to settle.” Wavelets nipped at my ankles. I offered him the stone that I had found. He doubled it, then folded the flap over his finger and paused to catch his breath. A second pair of gloves floated by our feet like dead gray fish.

“Give me a second,” he said. I twisted my feet back and forth to sink them deeper in the mud and pondered if the black dot bobbing in the distance was a harbor seal or a hunk of wood.

Once on a sailing trip I’d heard a seal breathing off the side of the boat in the middle of the night, stertorous and yet serene. It was a memory I cherished.

“Better now?” I asked.

“Better,” he said.

“Ready to cry like a baby when I kick your ass?”

“You wish.”

I gripped my stone and spun it from my hand. Somehow, miraculously, it barely seemed to touch the water as it hooked across the bay. Mine skipped eight times. His skipped four. It was, I proclaimed, a natural act of doubling. None of this supernatural bullshit—I just happened to be twice as good.

“The stone,” he muttered. We were heading back to the rotted piling that marked where we had stowed our shoes.

“The stone?”

“Yours must have been flatter, or something. Better for skipping.”

“Nice try,” I said.

“Or the gloves messed me up. I couldn’t get a good grip through the gloves.”

“Mmm hmm.”

I reached out and stroked the back of his neck. Our shoes were sitting where we’d left them.

“See?” he said, even though I was the one who suggested that we use a landmark.

*

My house was full of knickknacks. I had three silver coins from Alaska, an iron hand that held a card declaring LOVE, salt and pepper shakers shaped like birds, a green Buddha, a collection of exceptional stones, and two carved wooden bears that nestled together on my coffee table. They were subtly different, which was why they fit together so well.

Sometimes, after a long day at work, I came home and noticed that the bears had moved apart. What made that happen? A mini-earthquake? A government agent tracking Midas Midas who broke into my house to search for further clues? Or Midas Midas himself, who’d touched my key to make a copy? Maybe he pushed them apart with his ungloved finger when I wasn’t home. I looked in the trash to see if I could find another bear.

*

We attended the Picasso exhibit on a rainy afternoon in February. Sixteen intervals had passed, but I’d finally come to understand that now we halved the tenderness instead of doubling. I knew if we kept going, we would zero out.

Midas Midas stood before “The Race” and drummed his fingers on his leg. It was a painting of two women running. Their hands were clasped and raised above their heads and their shifts had fallen from their shoulders so that each woman bared a single breast. Everywhere along the walls, plaques forbade the act of touching.

“I want to touch it,” he whispered, fiddling with the flap on his glove.

“Don’t be silly,” I hissed. I thought he was joking, but I wasn’t sure. “The guards are watching. Everyone would know. And besides, we could never find a way to sell it.”

“Not for the money.”

“Then why?”

“Because if I doubled it, it would be less.”

It was perhaps the most expensive item we had ever seen. There were, of course, the necessary acts of doubling: a diamond ring, a hundred-dollar bill, the many gold bars of his adolescence. He doubled money joylessly or not at all. But the painting piqued his interest. Two women running, four women running, eight women running—it was one of a kind. It was a riddle that Lloyd would like when he grew older: “Can doubling be the same thing as diminishment?”

*

“Could you double this for me?” I asked, holding out half a roll of toilet paper. “It’s the last one left.”

“I can’t,” he said. He was sitting on my couch and scrolling through his phone. “I already doubled today.”

“You did?”

“A bag of chips.”

“I thought we always doubled together.”

“You mean you thought I always doubled when you were in the room.”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant.”

“Because I’m the one who doubles. You watch.”

“Right,” I said. “And I’m the one who works. You sit at home.”

“I was hungry.”

“Yeah, okay.”

*

During recess I walked the perimeter of the playground ensuring that the children did not kill each other. That was how I still kept tabs on Lloyd. He liked to occupy the center of the tire swing for the entire thirty minutes.

“It isn’t fair, Ms. Emily,” pouted Skylar. “He hogs the tire swing and he doesn’t even use it.”

Lloyd did not spin or let the black rubber touch his body, he just stood. He treated the tire swing like the portal to another world. Maybe it was. Maybe his mind was elsewhere, in a place where all the rules made sense. I imagined him learning about fractions in Mrs. Herb’s fifth grade class. If you doubled the numerator, the fraction doubled. If you doubled the denominator, the fraction halved. His vocabulary would have improved by then. “Mrs. Herb,” I could hear him saying, “surely you can see this is preposterous.”

*

I called my mom to tell her that I was planning to break up with Midas Midas.

“I support you, honey,” she said. I was drinking a beer. I had poured the contents of the can into a wine glass, the only type of glass I seemed to own. I fiddled with the bears on my coffee table, pressing them together, moving them apart.

I wanted to tell her about the time that Midas Midas and I debated the nature of the IUD. It had been my opinion that a copy of me would contain the copper T, but I had also believed something more important—that touching me would double him. Now, looking back, that second summer struck me as the apex of our tenderness. We had made ourselves into a minimum unit, and then we had fallen apart.

“But who will I talk to?” I wept into the phone. “Who will know me? How can I start again?”

“You’ll be okay,” she said. She was a psychologist, and whenever she gave advice her voice took on a calming throatiness. “You had a whole life before him. You’ll have a whole life after, even though you feel so lonely now. Learn to take pleasure in yourself.”

*

On the final interval of everything, we sat together in the Ferris wheel. He was holding a pink cloud of cotton candy anchored to a paper cone.

“Tell me,” he began, “if I had the power—”

“Why do you do that?” I asked.

“I thought it cracked you up.”

“I don’t like it anymore.”

“Okay.”

“I want some cotton candy.”

“Grab a piece.”

“I want my own.”

“I’ve got plenty for the two of us.”

“My own,” I insisted.

“Fine,” he said. He pulled back the flap of his glove and like a flash of lightning, I reached out and clasped his hand.

Then there I was across from me looking at myself. I reached into my bag and pulled out the extra clothes that I had packed.

“Emily,” said Midas Midas. Frantically, he tucked his finger back into the glove.

“Emily Emily,” I corrected.

We had the same gap between our front teeth. We had the same green eyes, the same birthmark on our collar bones, the same IUD in our uteri that prevented other forms of reproduction. I was doubled, not diminished. We had been poised at the top of the Ferris wheel, but now we spun and spun and spun. I imagined rolling out across the bay, magically afloat. My body balanced us. We neutralized each other—it was Midas Midas who caused the pod to tilt.

“Why did you do that?” he demanded. “We could have found a way to make it work.”

“No,” I said. “This is the better way of ending.”

“This? This is your solution? Going rogue and making a whole other human?” He was crying. I grabbed a piece of cotton candy and swabbed at the tears in his eyes. I meant it tenderly, but the sugar melted in my hands.

“It’s nice to have someone to talk to,” I said.

We glided to a stop. One of the operators opened the door and I informed Midas Midas that it was time for us to go. We walked in opposite directions. Me and me away from him. We lost ourselves among the people-dots. Then we heard footsteps pounding behind us and we steeled ourselves to turn around and tell him off.

“Go away,” we planned to say. “We’ll tell your secret if you don’t leave us alone.” But it was only the operator from the Ferris wheel, breathless and red.

“Ma’am,” he said.

We met his eyes.

“Ma’am,” he said again, confusedly. “You left a pair of gloves behind.”

Zoë Ballering writes radio ads and lives in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Hobart and Gold Man Review.

Eracist

by Nina Semczuk

Tanna stepped on the bus. As she walked down the aisle, she tucked a caffeine packet under her tongue. The four on, four off schedule was making it hard to see the point of going home on off hours. The commute vacuumed up the scant time available for sleep. But she had wanted a night in her own bed.

A hand broke through the crowd of downturned faces. A woman was waving from a pair of seats in the middle. She wore a quarter-zip fleece with ERAscist’s brown and black checkerboard logo. Tanna sported the same one. She smiled broadly at her coworker, Lor and then looked around, willing the other passengers to notice that she—a white woman in her early twenties—had a Black friend. Tanna unstrapped her bag from her shoulders and sat down.

“Don’t usually see you on here,” said Lor. She jerked her chin, indicating the public bus.

Tanna widened her eyes. “Oh, you know,” she said. “Didn’t want to fight for parking today with everyone coming in for the triple A’s meeting.”

Lor shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.” She removed her screenPad from a bag. Tanna watched as she logged into her company account and pulled up a slide deck. A small shock zipped into Tanna’s thigh. She removed her phone from her pocket. A banner zoomed across her screen.

Unconscious Privilege it flashed. Tanna tapped the banner and the screen opened ReparaApp, ERAscist’s proprietary—and most lucrative—product: a revolutionary reparation application. Her name, age, sexual orientation, and racial profile took up the top third of the screen. The middle showed a half-circle dial meter with an arrow that moved from red to green; the bottom, a leaderboard with names and numbers. Tanna’s name was in the number two slot. As Tanna watched, her score decreased five points. She dropped to tie for third.

The question mark icon flashed. Tanna touched it. An explanation unfurled: You assumed a Black person had access to a car and driving privileges; two things you have because your father is a lawyer and has friends in the Exceptions Department of the Climate Change Task Force. Tanna’s face prickled with heat. All of her friends drove. She hadn’t realized Lor didn’t have a waiver. They were simple enough to get, if you had the money and access. Tanna hit the dimmer light on the side of the phone and angled it away from Lor. She opened her MeStory and clicked the front camera button. She framed her face with bus seats, shifting so that Lor would be visible. The screen blinked and created a new story. She wrote a caption: Heading to work, saving the environment AND catching up with coworker pals. Who said I couldn’t multitask? She tagged Lor’s social handle.

A shimmering alert appeared. It was an invitation from her brother to join his team for the Trail of Tears fun-run. She touched accept. She could earn one thousand reparation points from the event. Tanna’s heart lifted at the thought of her name at the top of the reparation leaderboard, with an unbeatable score. Her friends and family would be so proud. The more points, the more social repair; that was an ERAscist motto. It was unfortunate that the race entry fee was so steep; the money was needed to pay for permits to run through federally protected lands and to upkeep the historical markers, which were repainted and optimized for trail selfies. She would need to crowdfund to pay her share. Tanna reposted the invite and wrote: For my birthday this year, please help me raise awareness. Donate so I can run the Trail of Tears Ultra-Ultra Marathon: Social Activism through Personal Motivation. She sighed. It wasn’t enough; the event was five months away. She needed points now.

The bus slowed to a stop. Lor slid her screenPad into her bag and stood up.

“This is us,” said Lor.

Tanna stayed sitting. “I need to earn some more points.”

“You’re cutting it close,” said Lor. “The meeting’s in an hour.”

“I want the prize. I need it.”

“Don’t we all.” Lor shook her head and stepped around Tanna. “Too bad I can’t compete for it.” Tanna grimaced; people of color could earn money, but not points on the app.

Lor sighed. “Domin doesn’t like late.” She waited until Tanna acknowledged the comment with a nod. Their CEO found a particular pleasure in humiliating anyone who made the unfortunate mistake of walking into a meeting past the start time. A few months ago, he had an intern parade up and down the aisle holding a clock above their head. Every fifteen minutes, the intern would kneel and sing the current hour, minute, and second to hundreds of assembled employees.

“Don’t worry about me,” Tanna said. She forced herself to form a smile. Lor lifted her eyebrows, and then disembarked. The bus doors whooshed shut behind her. Tanna lifted her phone and opened ReparaApp again. She pressed the icon for open assignments. All that were left were Lashings. The less painful tasks were snapped up by a minute after nine, the hour the tasks were released. The engineering team at ERAscist suspected that virtual assistants were behind the issue, but the company hadn’t wanted to waste man-hours on patching that hole. Besides, it looked good for them that user engagement was so high, even if the engagement were bots used by those who could afford them.

Tanna looked at her dial. Lashings would put her back in the green zone. She was so close to winning the company prize this quarter. She still had one hour before the meeting and final tally. She steeled herself and hit the book time button. The app chimed. An address showed on the screen. She pressed navigate. One more stop.

The bus doors opened and a large, brown-skinned woman angled herself through the space. Tanna placed her bag on the open seat next to her. Her hand jerked. The phone had shocked her again. This time the banner said You’re taking up more than your share of space. Tanna removed her bag from the seat and stood up. The woman rolled her eyes and took a strap by the doors to hold on. Tanna gestured to the open seats. Giving up your seat earned only ten points, but she needed each and every one today, before the final tally. The woman shook her head. “No thanks. I’m getting off at the next stop,” she said. Tanna felt her shoulders sag slightly with disappointment.

A few minutes later, the bus maneuvered to the side of the street pulling up to a broken bench. Tanna’s phone dinged a reminder. This was her stop. She moved with the surge of people exiting the bus; she noticed with a start she was the only white person. Outside, cold air streamed against her nose. The wind carried the scent of fetid sewage. Heaps of soiled plastic waste waited on the curb for pickup. She saw the pile move. She looked closer. A pair of rats chased each other up the rubbish mountain. Tanna had only seen a rat in science class years ago. Unmitigated pestilence animals in broad daylight were surprising, but then again, the Edges node was known for its city services riots. Something about unequal funding and no access to the sector’s main refuse transfer station. This was the first time Tanna had visited this node. The people who exited with her scattered in different directions and faded away.

The phone throbbed in her hand. A countdown blazed across the screen. She had five minutes before the app would boot her session, assigning her penalty points. The timer was a recent update to discourage canceled Lashings and no-shows, an unfortunately common user behavior.

Tanna started running. On the streets, she noticed broken glass and vacant storefronts. Gray buildings, ruptured sidewalks, and dried leaves blurred by as she ran. It was an odd sight to Tanna. The disrepair and stark cement husks felt vaguely institutional to her. Most nodes had cleaned up derelict buildings decades ago and had redesigned their public spaces.

Tanna took a left turn, then a right, and arrived at a small house. A yellow door broke the monotony of grays that permeated the node. She knocked. A few moments later, it swung inward. A tall Black man stood in the threshold. Tanna thrust her phone in front of her, toward the man.

“Hi. You must be Tanna,” he said. He waited until she met his eyes. Tanna caught a glimpse of brown and nodded. She looked toward her phone, still in her hand stretching toward the man and waved it at him. Forty minutes remained for completing the session and returning to work; delays would cost her more than the prize.

“Come in,” he said. “I’m Eril.”

“I’m in a bit of a rush,” said Tanna. She stepped inside, eyes flicking to the corners of the room. The inside glowed with warm tones, and the floor was covered in a soft, woven carpet. “Do you mind if we get started?”

Without letting him answer, Tanna pulled off her fleece. She started unbuttoning the shirt underneath.

“You don’t have to take it all off,” Eril said.

Tanna paused. “Yes, I do.” She continued unbuttoning. “The parameters are leather on bare skin, like the old days. That’s part of the process.”

Eril watched her. “What process?”

“The healing process, of course,” replied Tanna.

“Keep it on. I’ll still mark you complete,” he said.

Tanna looked at Eril. Her eyes connected with his.

“And you’ll give me a hundred percent rating?”

“Of course.”

Tanna considered for a moment. Then she removed her blouse and got on all fours.

“I’ll do it my way, thank you,” she said. She needed to lock those points in. She would follow protocol. Besides, he could be lying.

“Fine,” said Eril. He walked over to a console table. He opened the wooden drawer and removed a plastic packet. Scissors flashed as he cut open the protective cover. A leather switch emerged from the packaging. Eril wrapped his hand around the grip.

“Wait,” said Tanna. She looked up at him from the floor. “You have to scan us to start.” She lifted her phone up. Eril removed his phone from his pocket and pressed the ReparaApp icon. He held his above hers. The phones chimed, creating a chord as they synched.

“Go ahead,” Tanna prompted. She looked at the carpet below her hands, feeling the texture imprint on her palms. Suddenly the air moved and a brush of leather feathered across her skin.

“Not hard enough,” she said. “You have to leave marks.”

“This is,” started Eril. He stared down at her. Tanna sat back on her heels.

“What?” She crossed her arms over her erect nipples that tented her bra. She felt goosebumps on the skin; she was cold despite the warmth of the house. “We’re atoning for past sins,” she said. “ERAscist’s goal is to eradicate past injustice.”

“You sound like an ad.”

“I work there.”

He nodded. “You’re here for the points.”

“And you’re here for the money.”

Eril huffed an exhale. “True. That’s the only reason I downloaded this thing.” Tanna internally annotated that comment. User research had indicated a particular amount of money was required per user to use as incentive to reach critical user mass; the company’s investors demanded “hockey stick growth.” They enjoyed making an upward swoop with their arms as they uttered the phrase to punctuate their intent. More users, week over week—no excuses. The company had secured the government contract for ReparaApp, once the executive order was enacted that social justice and other reparative efforts could be privatized.

“Well, we can’t complete the session until the photo is approved,” she said. “I have to get to work.”

Eril stared at her. “I won’t do it.”

“Then why’d you confirm the appointment?” asked Tanna. “You’re wasting both of our time.”

Eril shrugged. He turned his head toward the back of the house. “I thought it would be easier.”

“You have to practice,” she said. “Once you hit five, you’ll be a pro-user.” That’s what their research had showed them. Five was the critical marker where a casual user usually became latched to Lashings as their reparation of choice, both receiver and user. Rumors had circulated that it was sadists who flocked to those types of reparation tasks, but after their latest messaging campaign, ERAscist had scrubbed themselves clean.

“Give me it,” Tanna ordered. Eril didn’t move.

Tanna lunged and snagged the switch from him. She lifted an arm and flung the leather over her shoulder. Lancing stings created a network of fire on her back.

Eril walked away, toward the rear of the house. Tanna hit herself again and again. She tried to remember the mental mantras her company promoted for Lashings. Social justice is better with blood. Pain is performance. Do your part. She repeated them to herself with every hit. After some time, Tanna felt a warm trickle slide toward her waist.

“Eril?” Tanna stood up and walked farther into the house.  “Take the picture please and I can get on my way.” She found Eril in the rear of the house in a small galley kitchen. He had two cups of tea in his hands.

She upturned her hand in a halt motion. “No, thanks, I have a caffeine packet in.” She opened her mouth to show him.

The corners of Eril’s mouth deepened. “It’s not for you.”

“Oh.” She closed her mouth. Tanna felt embarrassment graze her insides. She swept it aside and pointed to Eril’s phone. Tanna turned around and looked over her shoulder.

Eril put down a mug and lifted his phone. The app clicked with the photo. Tanna’s phone made whirring noise, the sound of a digital abacus sliding in hyper motion. She checked her account. Two hundred additional points. The leaderboard would be officially updated at the meeting—their CEO liked drama—but this should place her in first place. While the app was for the public good, ERAscist employees were expected to set the example, keep the bar high, and stay in the top ten percent of users. Domin reminded them they had to eat their own dog food; make the sausage and eat the sausage, that sort of thing. Employees who dipped below power-user status were ejected from their positions and were not allowed to provide ERAscist as a reference for future employment.

“All set,” said Tanna.

“Great,” replied Eril. His tone was flat. “I have to bring this to my wife now.” He stepped around her and walked to a room opposite the kitchen. The door opened and Tanna saw a thin woman wrapped in a sun-colored comforter, her face gray under brown tones and stretched tight.

Tanna turned and left the house. A thought bubbled up in her. It was too bad Eril was married. Dating a Black person added perpetual points to your account; it was one of the best ways to keep your dial in the green zone. She wondered what was wrong with his wife. Her eyes caught the time on her phone. Her stomach jumped toward her ribs; she would be cutting the meeting time so close.

On the sidewalk now, Tanna searched the street for the bus stop. She felt something patter across her foot. Instinctively, she kicked. A rat thudded and ran away from her. A bus wouldn’t be quick enough. Tanna pulled up a transpo app on her phone. She keyed in ERAscist’s company code, the one that allowed its employees to get out of perceived dangerous situations. The company had donated millions to the Climate Department, which allowed them unlimited hours of road time, but it had to be justified as per emission and energy guidelines. Two minutes later, a driverless car arrived in front of her. Tanna got in. The car sped off.

Twenty minutes later, she saw the trees that heralded the Center nodes. A few minutes later, the car slowed as it approached ERAscist’s headquarters. In front, a clump of people milled behind a barrier. They waved signs. A uniformed guard stood watching them. Tanna got out of the car. She walked toward the building.

“What’s going on?” she asked the guard once she reached earshot.

He rolled his eyes. “It’s the antis again.”

“Anti what this time?”

The guard laughed. “Progress. What else.”

Tanna walked closer to see what was on the signs. As she walked forward, a woman opened the temporary metal barriers and walked toward Tanna.

“Hey! Watch it,” warned the guard.

“Don’t worry,” she said. She held a small paper card out to Tanna.

“We work for true change,” she said. Tanna rolled her eyes. ERAscist had been plagued by picketers ever since the company’s address became public with the announcement of the government contract.

“Profit and progress go hand in hand,” Tanna said. The company required each employee to memorize lines as part of media and publicity training.

“If you can point to any true progress your company made, I’ll eat my phone,” the woman said. She laughed. “You company drones don’t ever think beyond the slideshow talking points, eh?”

Tanna felt her face twitch as she stared at the woman.

“If you change your mind,” the woman began. She walked closer and placed the card in her hand, “That is, if you have one.”

Tanna’s phone buzzed. A reminder that the meeting was about to begin flashed. Tanna’s irritation flared. The card waved in front of her face. She grabbed it from the woman and thrust the paper into her pocket. Tanna jogged until she was inside the doors, and then strode to the conference hall. The last of the stragglers were filing through the glass doors. She looked for a seat. All were filled. Only standing spots were left against the walls. She looked for an ally to stand next to. The meetings sometimes ran all the way through lunch, snack, and dinner. Tanna frowned. Only admins and interns lined the wall. It was a sea of brown faces with hers the only white along the rim. She had never noticed that before. This was the first time she didn’t have a seat.

The lights dimmed and the first slide bloomed on the slick, black wall. Six-foot letters spelled out “All Hands, All Bodies, All Minds Meeting.” Beneath, in italics was “ERAscist. Your Calling, Your Family, Your Life. Leader of Social Repair.”

Domin, the CEO, rose from his ergonomic kneeling chair and jogged to the front of the room. He adjusted his headset microphone. “Let’s kickoff with a quick boogie.” Tanna strained to look for her cubemate Marish. She needed to roll her eyes with someone. Marish was seated near the front, her back turned. Music blared and Domin pumped his fist and spun around. Then the sales team burst into what was clearly a choreographed routine. The sales team never hid their passion to impress Domin. The rest of the room wagged their heads side to side, exuding the least amount of effort to show participation. Tanna saw Lor smirk at the woman next to her.

“Alright, community development, you’re up,” Domin said. He loped back into his ergonomic sitting implement.

Marcy, the director of community, walked up to the podium, a screenPad in her hand.

“With style,” Domin shouted. Marcy added a sluggish skip to her walk. After making it to the front, she turned to face the company.

“I’ll start us off with the good news,” she said. “Our footage and image review switch was a success.” She waited for the crowd to cheer. “Thank you, interns,” she added. “Give yourself a round of applause.”

The interns clapped for themselves. Tanna leaned over to the one closest to her. “What’s she talking about?”

The girl turned to Tanna. “We off-shored all photo review. It saved us millions,” she said.

“But isn’t that your job?” asked Tanna. An army of interns was the backbone of the company. They allowed ReparaApp to stay within federal guidelines by having actual humans of color review each act of reparation. The interns spent their days processing thousands of reparation proof photos, verifying that the white person had completed their reparation task and could be awarded points. The girl shrugged. “We’ve switched to helping user engagement now.”

“How?”

The intern held a finger to her lips and shifted her eyes toward the screen. Tanna looked.

Marcy was now showing a slide that depicted user engagement growth, which the company defined as comments and social shares. The bar chart was also hockey stick shaped. “This quarter we had a record number of comments. Our users engage with each other an average of seven point three times an hour, which is three x what we did last month.”

Tanna frowned. She leaned over to the intern again.

The intern looked at her. “Yeah. We’ve switched to commenting now.”

“So those engagement numbers include…” Tanna gestured to the gaggle of interns. The girl nodded a staccato burst, then moved away from Tanna. With each new app ERAscist developed, company employees were part of the seeding. They helped build the community of users and keep the conversation going—they made multiple user accounts and sparked fake debates, too—but they were far past their beginning days now. Well, they had to show growth to their investors, Tanna told herself. The interns would stay employed this way, but with fewer hours to bill the company.

For the rest of the meeting, Tanna alternated between listening and mulling over what to add to her lunch and dinner smoothie. She was sick of her usual protein and avocado. Hours passed. Finally, a slide emblazoned with “Leaderboard Results” showed on the wall.

Domin bounced back to the front of the room. “It was a close one this quarter. So close, in fact, we had to re-certify the results.”

Tanna felt her back prickle with pain as perspiration crossed her wounds. She hoped she passed the new certifiers’ muster. Before, she could look over the shoulder as the interns certified and tallied results.

Domin watched his audience, waiting for anticipation to rise. Chairs squeaked. A stomach growled. The staff was past enthusiasm, numbed from hours of people reading their slides verbatim. The usual result of a triple A’s meeting.

He looked around at those in seats. He scanned the perimeter. His eyes found what they sought. “Congrats, Tanna. You can claim your prize with HR.” Tanna felt her face move in a grin. The meeting concluded with the traditional ERAscist group cheer: “Repair the world. Erase racism!” The sound faded and the room erupted as people stood up and started leaving in clumps.

Tanna started walking to the HR cube. Marish caught up to her.

“Congrats!” she gave her a hug. “You’re my repara-rockstar!”

“Thanks,” said Tanna. Marish walked away with a wave.

The relief that came from having won felt slippery to Tanna. She continued down the hall toward HR. She found the manager behind her desk. When she saw Tanna, she opened a drawer and removed a stack of small plastic discs.

“Don’t use them all at once,” teased the HR manager. She pushed the stack off-time chips toward Tanna. The prize was one hundred and twenty hours. It would be the most non-work time since she was sixteen and still in school. Tanna grinned.

“That’s exactly what I was planning to do.” She handed the stack of chips back to the manager. The manager looked displeased, but she handed over the clipboard. Tanna signed the log indicating her anticipated time away from the office and walked toward the exit.

She summoned a car as she walked out of the headquarters. The woman still stood apart from the picketers. She watched as Tanna packed herself into the vehicle. Tanna caught her eyes. She mouthed something. Tanna turned her head.

Tanna leaned back in the car and closed her eyes. She returned to the meeting, and then Eril, the events of the day repeating themselves. After a few minutes, the colors started to fade, and the internal images became fuzzy, as if her mind was filled with static. With her tongue, Tanna scooped the depleted caffeine packet from under her tongue and placed it in the trash receptacle in the car. The vehicle slowed and deposited Tanna in front of her apartment pod. She walked inside, punched her floor button on the lift, and began a countdown in her head. Seven seconds and she’d reach her floor. The elevator stopped and let her out. She strode to her door, opened it, and crossed the room to her bed. Using her toes as leverage on her heels, she shucked off her shoes and crawled into bed, fully clothed. She pressed a button and shades lowered, enveloping the room in soft darkness. Her weighted, heated, self-cooling and humidifying blanket wrapped itself around her. She fell asleep.

*

A chime cleaved the air. Then another. Beeping and buzzing next. The cacophony shook the nightstand the phone sat on. Tanna’s arm snaked out from under her blankets; her hand groped. She grabbed the now hysterical device and brought it closer. She thrashed her blanket off of her. With a heavy thud, it crumpled to the floor, where it molded itself to her usual sleep position. With no body to hold, it looked like an abandoned eggshell.

Red light poured from the phone, illuminating Tanna’s sleep startled face. She sat up. A banner message scrolled across the front screen. What are you doing to help? 11 hours, 11 minutes, 57 seconds have passed since you last logged in. Tanna felt anxiety swarm into her lower abdomen. Every hour away from the app lowered your rankings. Tanna bobbed the phone to clear the notification. Another hurried to take its place. Don’t Be a Privilege Prioritizer. She dipped her phone again. She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept more than three hours in a row. It must be what happened after withdrawing from caffeine packets. They worked best when used consistently; one packet in, one out.

Tanna cleared the app shaming prompts. The missed call icon flashed. Six missed calls, and thirteen text messages. Tanna clicked the message icon.

This is Helyn. Your off-time is revoked. Please review details in the attached document. 

Tanna allowed herself a second to speculate about the HR manager’s message—maybe her team needed all hands on deck for a new project—before opening the document. A picture of her flayed back took up three quarters of the page. Someone had drawn circles around the marks with arrows. She followed the arrows to the bottom of the document.

Marks are consistent with self-inflicted damage. Reparation image proof for task number: 82101AT1 is revoked.

Tanna’s insides felt shot through with spikes. This would destroy her career. If only Eril had just done the task. She was trying to help him, after all. If she could get him to send her a testimonial, some sort of proof that would say that he had completed the task. But no, he didn’t seem the type who would do something like that. Tanna felt squeamish even imagining that conversation.

No, the only way to mitigate the damage would be to grovel to Domin, before he decided to make an example of her. For once she was happy he had an open door policy. He always encouraged them to seek him out for counsel. She hadn’t had any reason to in the past. Tanna opened the office messaging system and clicked on his name.

Do you have time to chat today?

Tanna’s phone started buzzing. I suppose that’s a yes, she thought. She answered.

“Hi Domin, sorry to bother you, but I received a note from HR and—”

Domin broke in, “Tanna, how has your time off treated you?”

“Fine, but Domin, I received a note about how my Lashing task was de-certified. I know that’s an offense that would boot a user from the app, but let me explain—”

Again, Domin broke in. “Tanna, you’re fine. Just come back to work.”

“Fine? What does that mean? I know it’s not in the spirit of ERAscist, but the reparation receiver was shy, and—”

“Tanna, I don’t care. Our new off-shore certifiers are still learning what we need them to do. Your care just happened to fall in the crack between new onboarding docs. This won’t happen again.”

“No, of course not, Domin. I promise you it won’t.”

“I meant overzealous certifying. If you want to whip yourself, that’s fine with me. Keep up the good work on the leaderboard. Now, I expect you in the office within the hour.”

“But I signed out for the week,” Tanna started.

“Don’t push it.” Domin laughed. “We need you at the office. Changing the world is a full-time effort, not a part-time one. Besides, you wouldn’t want the rest of the office to know about what happened.”

Tanna opened her mouth, then closed it.

Domin continued, “I have to hop on my next call.” The phone fell silent. Tanna looked down. She reached over to the wall and pushed the button that opened the shade. Sunshine illuminated her room. She swung her legs over and stepped around her blanket to the window. Outside, she saw some of her nodemates walking children, pets, or in the backseats of cars. She made herself deliberately count how many neighbors she had that were people of color. Only two came to mind.

A chill emanated from the panes. Tanna placed her hands in her pockets and felt something poke into her fingernail. Her fingertips discovered the outline of a rectangle. She removed the paper card from her pocket. It was the picketer woman’s card. She stared down at it, reading the lines of the card. She let it fall to the ground from her hand. A few moments later, she bent down and retrieved it, and took a seat.


Nina Semczuk is an MFA student at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. Her work (and forthcoming work) can be found in The Line Literary Review, Too Well Away Literary Journal, The War Horse, MONEY, Tasting Table, and elsewhere. Before moving to New York, she served in the U.S. Army for five years.

Essential Work

 

by Laura Picklesimer 

My shift starts in less than an hour, and I’m still in the bathroom, staring at the rust-colored stain of saliva circling the sink drain. I should inspect my gums, pinpoint the source of the bleeding. Instead, I dab lotion around my eyes, careful around the thinning folds under my eyelids. I comb my hair into a tight bun and leave my studio.

Work is ten miles away, but I have to take the public transport, well over an hour’s trip. The pod kicks up dust at each stop as the bus winds past stacked rows of apartments, which give way to precarious sheds and shanties. The landscape looks like a scorched potato, the same I’ll be serving soon: tough, flaked and brown. We get more rain now in the winter, but it washes away so quickly that it never seems to matter.

Every woman who boards looks like me: uniformed, silent, eyes straight ahead, tired already. The city looms in the distance, an afterthought most of the time. The skyline is tinged in orange haze, the sharp lines of skyscrapers softened by smog.

Near the end of my commute, I have to change lines, switch directions and pivot away from the city. The wait for the connection is long today and the heat burning. I finally board the tiny local line. It’s full, and I have to stand. I sway with the vehicle as it turns, struggling to maintain balance. I look down at the faded blue of my dress, the apron tied around my waist.

It’s desolate for a mile stretch of dirt road until the small roadside diner beams ahead in bright neon pink: “Lucy’s.” I enter through the double doors and stomp the dust from my shoes.

BETTIE, you are late: 7 minutes, 45 seconds. The monitor casts the message in large green lettering when I swipe in at the counter. I’ll have an hour’s work docked from my pay. The supervisor is a remote, faceless entity somewhere in the city. I have no one to tell the truth to, that most mornings I ache, and I’m in a paralysis at what new surprises might erupt.

I try to approach waiting tables like a dance, an exhausting, thankless one where I’m never in the lead, always following one step behind. Lucy’s is one of the retro diners that still has paper. Instead of using machines, the others write orders and checks on tiny slips of biodegradable sheets. We’re waitresses—never servers—and every woman dons a frilled skirt and paper hat. We offer comfort food, unlimited instant coffee served in clay cups.

The tourists from the city enter loud and already impatient, ignore the “Wait to Be Seated” signs, claiming entire booths when there are only two of them. They want their photos taken in front of the old cash register. They ask me to tear off slips of paper from my pad, so they can write on them and pose, even though every sheet we’re given is counted at the end of the day. I always obey. It makes everything easier. I never use the paper anyway. I can still memorize my orders, every single one.

The food at Lucy’s is plated in huge, heaping servings, all in bland colors, so unlike the perfectly portioned boxes of colorful gourmet specialties popular in the city. The tourists never eat any of it. I don’t blame them. They pose, take pictures, and leave it on the table. I slip the best bits into a box that I bring home at the end of the night. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though. I have to fight for it among the other crew, the bussers, the cooks, all of whom have their own families back home.

It’s well past dark by the time I finish my 16-hour shift. I board the bus back and stare out the window at the lights in the distance, the city a distant satellite fading away. It might as well be the moon.

Rhonda is already home when I swipe into our studio. She leaves for work long before daybreak. She also works on the outskirts of the city, at a construction site, her labor cheaper than the large machines that take so much energy to operate. She hasn’t changed out of her coveralls, the navy enveloping her small frame. They didn’t carry her size when she got the job; she told me they almost laughed her out of the hiring queue until she lifted a cement block cleanly over her head.

I show her what I was able to box up and bring home, always a side of potatoes in some form. We eat every bite and pick at the corners of the box, each tiny deposit of spare cheese.

“There was another layoff at the site,” she says.

I swallow. This is the third one that Rhonda has reported back.

“Who?”

“Tracy. I don’t think you ever met her.”

A layoff at our level wouldn’t come with many alternatives. I change the subject.

“Tomorrow is Turkey Roast Thursday. I’ll try to snag some,” I say. I strain to remember when our last conversation circled outside of the essentials: food, rent, utilities, work.

The joint connecting my pelvis and thigh throbs suddenly. I look down at my leg, so pale it’s almost translucent. I massage it slowly. Rhonda doesn’t have these physical problems. She’s healthy, strong. I watch the way her forearm tenses, the taut veins running along her dark arms.

The pain recedes when I’m working, distracted. But when I’m home, every discomfort intensifies. And my mind wanders. That’s the most dangerous thing. I run my tongue along my mouth, feel the bulge of infection, a ticking bomb.

I log into my tablet and count my tips for the day. I’m making less and less. We could save money if we downgraded. But our studio is the last luxury we have. Rhonda and I felt so lucky when we found it, not having to take one of the aluminum sheds that collapses every winter rainstorm. We’d save a lot of money each month if we gave this place up, settled in along the shanty village that flanks the bus route.

I take out the after-dinner mints, our dessert, lifted from the counter at Lucy’s. Spearmint, my favorite. I crunch into mine, feel a crack and realize my molar has split in two. Rhonda hears the sound, notices the blood as I spit out a large chunk of my back tooth.

“I’ll get a towel,” she says.

The blood dissipates quickly. I rip the tooth out before Rhonda has even come back. I drop it into my water glass and stare at its size, how small it looks once it’s out, so seemingly inconsequential, and yet the hole it has left in my mouth will be the only thing I’ll notice for weeks.

“I told you to stop biting into those things. They’re pure sugar anyway,” Rhonda says.

I glare at her, but she’s stroking my leg as she says it. I let out a sound, half sob, half scream.

“It’s going to be okay, Bettie,” she says.

“I’m falling apart. Just wait until it happens to you.”

I shouldn’t have said it; I immediately regret the words, but I’m too tired, too stubborn to apologize.

“I’m going to bed,” I say.

“Go ahead. I’m right behind you.” Rhonda says this every time but never follows. It’s a nightly game we play. She stays on the folding couch across the room and waits until I’m sleeping to come to bed.

I check my tablet. It has noted the missing tooth, provided a cost estimate that’s more than I can ever afford. I swipe it away. I click “ignore” to the daily updates that tell me to go in for repairs. I see Ronda’s tablet by the bed and want to look but stop myself.

I set my alarm, making sure I’ll be on time for work tomorrow. I find the power adapter and plug it into the small slit in my wrist, wait for the faint glow under the skin of my forearm, lighting up the blue of my veins. I settle into bed. I tap the password for sleep mode at the base of my neck and disappear for the next five hours.

I’m on time to work the next day, but the check-in scanner detects a small stain on my apron, and I lose another hour’s pay.

I’m stiffed all morning. My first table is a family with three children who take photos of me without asking, make faces when their parents are turned away. The eldest is fixated on his tablet until he notices the slit in my wrist. It’s slightly bulged. He touches me, and I flinch.

“What’s wrong with her plug-in?”

“Jake, that’s rude,” the mother says, never moving her eyes from the menu.

“Is she like the ones I saw in the Arena? Does she do anything cool?”

The mother looks me over quickly.

“No, those are different.”

The conversation ends when the youngest shatters a bowl of ice cream, a careless accident that will be deducted from my paycheck.

The next table leaves a note. A line cuts through the tip amount on the check, and a message is scrawled across the bottom:

YOU ARE NOT HUMAN.

Getting stiffed is common enough. It’s been decades since we joined the workforce, but many still believe we’ve taken all the jobs.

I can’t age, but the body still goes. I worry about the chairs. It should be no problem, stacking them at the end of the night, but the socket on my right arm is coming loose. I can feel a pop every time I raise my arm too high, a looseness, a warning. I’m terrified it might come off with the wrong movement while carrying a tray of stacked plates. Sometimes, on my darker days, I almost think it will be a relief when it happens, when the anxiety hanging in a heavy cloud around me finally releases.

I try not to think about the fact that I could be repaired, that it would probably only take five minutes for an install update, maybe a few hours for replacement body parts. But the maintenance visit would cost more than Rhonda and I make in five years’ salary.

I get back to work. My arm is hurting more than ever, matching the throbbing pulse of my missing molar. I’m delivering a BLT and side of fries when a customer, a man in a business suit, grabs my arm.

“I wanted a side of onion rings, not fries. I told you to write it down.”

“I’m so sorry,” I say, a sinking dread bottoming out in my stomach. “I’ll be back with the order right away.”

That can’t be an error, I think, as I head back to the kitchen. Because if it is a mistake… I don’t let myself finish the thought.

I get home late again. All I manage to bring back are two chicken thighs and a dinner roll. Rhonda is so hungry that before I can say anything, she has eaten both thighs. I try not to resent her splurge. I know she doesn’t realize she’s eaten my share, but it rubs me.

I get ready to go to bed and this time, Rhonda is with me. She takes a seat in the metal chair next to the bed. She’ll be there all night.

Rhonda’s sleep function broke three years ago. She can plug in and recharge, but she can’t sleep, at least not in the normal sense. She tries to avoid me seeing her sitting there, eyes open, still as glassy water, silently waiting out the night. She hasn’t been updated in twenty years, just like me. We’re luckier than the oldest models, the ones they used to trash automatically on their expiration date. They’d burn them in the compost outside the city in giant waves so vast black clouds rose for miles. Now that forced deactivations have been outlawed, we’re allowed to expire naturally, like a human. Almost.

I’m ready to sleep, to dissolve into oblivion for a few hours. I lie on my side, away from Rhonda, so I don’t have to see her plug in. We don’t even say good night.

The next morning, I’m groggy, more tired than usual. Rhonda has already left, but not very long ago. There’s still a muggy moisture to the air when I walk across our studio and enter the bathroom. The floor is slick as I look in the mirror, open my mouth and inspect the missing molar. I’d almost forgotten.

I’m stepping over the lip of our tiny tub when my heel glides over porcelain, so easily and fluid that I’m flying for a second, before I slam across the side of the bath. Pain erupts, a searing heat.

I look down. The metal skeleton of my quadricep has burst out of my skin. The blood isn’t as bad as I’d expect, but it’s completely ripped open my leg. I see the skin split apart, every thinning layer that went into my leg, the circuitry of my body wired together so precariously.

All this worrying of what might happen on the job, and it happens here, in my tub. I hear my tablet beeping from my bed. An accident of this magnitude has probably been sent back to the city, to my work. I’ve probably already lost my job.

I pull myself out of the tub, crash on the tile and drag myself to my tablet to message Rhonda. She doesn’t have access to her tablet for most of the day, but I hope that she will have a break soon. I’m not calling the emergency repair team. They might decommission me on the spot if they find I can’t pay.

I start to hear a low hum coming from my chest, and then a spreading warmth washes over me. I realize I’m sweating; my skin has turned a dull yellow. I lie back on the floor, unable to move.

It’s another three hours before Rhonda replies. She tells me she’s on her way.

When she sees me, naked on the floor, she startles before quickly composing herself and putting on a weak smile. She pulls a robe over me and rubs my back.

“You can’t walk?”

“I can’t feel anything in my legs,” I say. “Both of them.”

“At least you’re not in pain.”

“What am I going to do?”

“Just give me a second.”

Rhonda disappears into the closet, and when she comes out, she’s dressed in her regular clothes, a pair of jeans and a white hoodie, a baseball hat pulled over her tight curls.

“We’re going into the city,” she announces.

“No. That’s ridiculous.”

“We have to.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“We don’t have a choice.”

“You can’t leave your job.”

She’s silent. “I was already fired. When I left in the middle of my shift to see you.”

“What will we even do there? You can’t take me to any repairers. Not if they know we can’t pay.”

“I have a plan.”

Rhonda is set on it. She dresses me as best as she can. My arms are starting to numb over. I am overheating; I can feel the plastic of my skin starting to melt.

Rhonda bundles a blanket around my legs and lifts me over her shoulder. She carries me the half mile from our studio to the metro station. The odd angle reawakens the pain in my mangled leg.

We spend an entire week’s worth of both our wages to get a one-way ticket downtown. Then we’ll be in the city, with no plan, no chance.

But first we must take the pod to the train station. The compartment is full when we board. I don’t know how Rhonda will stand holding me up the whole time, but the riders immediately move aside. We find a spot near the front, and Rhonda settles me into a window seat. A woman in scrubs comes up to Rhonda and slips her a pill.

“It will help her with the fever,” she says. So many people whose faces I’ve memorized on these routes, who kept to themselves, now give up the little they have left.

“Rhonda.” I want to feel for her hand, but I can’t lift my own.

The city’s skyscrapers loom closer, materializing out of the smog. It has been decades since I last entered the city’s bounds. When I once lived here.

I worked in a skyrise on the 31st floor. A nice building, sleek, clean. I crunched numbers, handled the intricacies of financial accounts. The staff knew me by name, even invited me for drinks after work, to office parties. I loved the routine celebrations they had, the baby showers and birthday surprises. Then one day I stared at the algorithms, and they didn’t make sense. They no longer instantaneously ordered themselves and screamed out an immediate answer. The equations were blurry. I was becoming old, outdated. It started as little mistakes, the type that would easily trip up a human on a good day.

It was a very simple formula when my repair costs exceeded my weekly net revenue. I was called in by HR one day, told to pack. I filled a box at my cubicle and circled to say goodbye to my coworkers, but they wouldn’t look at me. They stared at the screens in front of them as the HR liaison led me out.

The company helped me find the studio, well outside the city bounds, sent me a caseworker for new work that would align with my changed capabilities. Within days, they had me assigned to Lucy’s.

“Bettie, are you okay?”

I come to with a start. Grey concrete surrounds us. We’re underground. We’ve reached our destination. The pain has returned with a sudden flare, but I’m no longer burning up. The pills I took are working, for now.

“Where are we going?” I ask Rhonda.

“We need to find the Arena.”

I knew this was where Rhonda was headed, her plan this whole time. And I can foresee the coming disappointment, the futility of it all.

“How is this going to work, Rhonda? You’re going to audition? Do a song-and-dance number? We don’t even know if they’re taking contestants right now.”

She ignores me. “I’m going to need to pay to get a digital map. I don’t have directions.”

I relent.

“There’s no need. I know how to get there. It’s not far.”

The Arena sits in the city’s center, only a couple miles from the train station.

It’s not easy, me directing Rhonda while thrown over her slight shoulder, navigating the crowded streets. The passersby move aside, annoyed.

We find our way to the Arena. It’s even larger than I remembered, its circular dome rivaling the heights of nearby skyscrapers. Makeshift tents line the borders of the stadium, just outside the stand-by line. Rhonda signs in at a digital station. She places me on the ground since there are no chairs.

“Now what?” I ask.

“I put down my specs. It said someone will see me if they’re interested.”

A flashing light near the ticketing booth runs on a loop. I watch it roll through 176 times.

THE ARENA REVAMPED! It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Experience the phenomenon that has gripped the nation. Each night: new performers, new surprises. Photobooths and family-centered activities in the daytime, followed by an adults-only after hours spectacular. 

Rhonda’s tablet beeps. We can finally go in. There’s a lobby area with no seating and one long, narrow hall emerging from the center. They make us wait again, even though I’m swung over Rhonda’s shoulder. She sets me down on concrete in front of a gift shop. The names of different sports teams, their cities and mascots, are lit up over the entrance. It used to be human men who played in the Arena. They broke themselves against one another before it became too dangerous. Their sport was banned, and the Arena was shut down for decades until they began filling it with us.

Another hour passes, and we are finally ushered to an indoor booth off the hallway. A worker glances at me with distaste as Rhonda sets me in a folding chair. They wanted her to leave me behind, but Rhonda wouldn’t do it.

The worker poses a series of questions for Rhonda, starting with her age and model. He ends with her measurements.

“Height?”

“5’ 2’’.”

“Weight?”

“220 pounds.”

He looks up. “We’ll take you in for a physical. It will only be a few minutes.”

They go into one of the rooms off the hallway, and when he comes back, there’s a different look across his face. There are two medical technicians in lab coats behind him. Rhonda’s more confident. She points to me, directs the two technicians over.

“Bettie needs a medical examination, immediately. Medication. And a wheelchair.”

They listen, bring me into another room, look over my tablet, take my vitals and scan my leg. They wrap up my thigh and hand me an entire bottle of pills.

“Your partner, she must have a real talent,” one of them says, a short man in a coat two sizes too large. “Even so, the operation you’re looking at to remedy this will cost more than you’ve probably ever made.”

When I come out of the medical room, there is a motorized wheelchair waiting. They tell me it’s only a loaner, due back tomorrow.

“Are you ready to sign off?” the man who first checked us in asks Rhonda. She initials a series of screens on his tablet. “You go on tomorrow. Check in is 10 AM.”

“What did they have you do?” I ask Rhonda as soon as we’ve left the Arena.

She waves her hand. “Just a health exam. We have a hotel for tonight. The address is-” She trails off. I check her pockets as I often do when she forgets.

“The Regency,” she says, reading the tiny keychain they provided. “The place looks nice.”

It’s a five-minute walk. It’s evening by the time we’re out on the city streets again, the layered pollution casting the sun a blood-red.

I’m worried about how much we stand out, Rhonda walking so small but strong, and me motoring along in my new wheelchair. I grimace, waiting for some sort of interception, but no one bothers us.

We check in at the hotel, a modern, mostly glass skyrise, and the attendant directs us to our suite, only five floors below roof level. I immediately gravitate toward the expanse of windows overlooking the entire city, from the train station to the compost heaps. It’s thrilling to be in the middle of so much luxury, but it scares me, too. What will Rhonda need to do tomorrow to earn this?

“Let’s order something. Whatever you want,” Rhonda says, picking up a menu off a dining table that can seat ten.

Rhonda orders a bottle of champagne and steak, scallops, no potatoes. The food rolls in on a neat silver tray, flanked by edible flowers with tropical, unreal colors. The champagne sits in a deep bucket of ice. We eat every bite, and we polish off the bottle, heady from the bubbled crispness. When we’re done, Rhonda plucks out the last fragments of ice and devours them, too. I can’t risk it with my teeth.

I look out over the city, where both of us once lived so many decades before. I’ve never known what Rhonda did before me, before we met.

I’m full, satisfied, and I know I should probably just let this moment cement itself into my memory. But I say it: “Remember when we used to talk about other things—not work or food or how we’d get the next bill?”

Rhonda is silent; she’s staring down at the tiny park below us, the only sliver of wild still left in the city. I continue.

“I’d stop at this tiny bakery every morning for a coffee and pastry. It was simple yet somehow, even then, I knew it was special. The owners were this wife and husband. Middle-aged. Worn down. They opened every morning together. I think that was the real reason I stopped in every day. Just to see them.”

Rhonda reaches for my hand.

“I’d go into work, look at my coworkers, notice their aging faces, track each new line and feel such gratitude. They seemed to age more each morning.” I laugh. “I used to feel so lucky. I was too young to realize. But I also felt so alone. Until I met you.”

I follow Rhonda’s gaze and look out over the city. I spot the building I worked at, still standing with its marbled emerald roof.

“Remember that day? The office holiday party? I remember spotting you from the upper level. You were all I could see. It sounds sappy, but it was true. Everyone was talking, looking at us, but I didn’t care.”

Rhonda finally turns away from the window, and I see she’s crying.

“I can’t remember,” she says.

I feel bad for bringing her back with me to the past.  “It’s okay. I’m sorry I brought it up.”

“No, I really can’t. I can’t remember how we met. It’s gone.”

I feel sick suddenly.

“It’s been getting worse every day. I’ve just become good at hiding it.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, although I understand exactly what Rhonda has just said.

“It’s like a blanket, soft, hardly noticeable, almost welcoming. But it’s swallowing me. I keep losing all these details from the past. I spend my nights trying to work things out, repeating events over and over, but there’s less and less to go through each night. It’s all slipping away.”

I’ve been so worried about my own health, I never realized the truth: Rhonda is entering the Arena not just for my sake, but for herself, too.

Rhonda’s hand is still in mine, and I pull her close. We share one kiss, gentle and chaste. I want it to go back to the way it had once been, when she wasn’t afraid I’d break. She pulls away, and I ask it, the question that has been running in circles around my head since we left the Arena.

“Why did they select you?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” she says. “It comes back sometimes while you’re sleeping, and I’m up alone. Snatches of something in the middle of the night.”

Rhonda won’t say any more. She’s clearly done talking because she turns and helps lift me into bed. She takes a seat back by the window, is staring out at the rooftops when I plug myself in for the night.

The morning is overcast and cold, a rarity. We’re almost late. Even with the wheelchair, it takes me so long to get dressed and take the elevator downstairs. We arrive at the same check-in station as yesterday, but this time we’re taken through the front doors. There are already people outside in the standby line.

Rhonda is quickly led down another one of the halls, and she’s disappeared before I have a chance to say goodbye. It’s so sudden and swift. The goodbye I had prepared is gone.

“You’ll wait in the Arena,” an attendant tells me. “We need you seated before the audience fills in. It can get quite chaotic once it starts.”

We enter the stadium from the third level. There are at least a hundred rows ahead. I turn and look behind me. There are several hundred more rows behind, seats filled up to the rafters.

They place me near the middle of the auditorium, the best place for a wheelchair, they tell me. There is no good spot for me, though. My wheelchair caps off the end of a long row, and I instantly feel disconnected, in the way. I sit there in silence while a sound check is performed on the stage, while technicians run back and forth with equipment. I catch other strange props, rows of glass and chains. There are multiple levels to the stage, ramps hidden below.

I watch the Arena fill up as people start to shuffle past me to their seats, casting strange glances when they notice me in the crowd.

It’s early afternoon when the first acts start up. I spot mostly families, the children wearing merchandised hats, sporting giant soft pretzels and pastel-colored ice cream cones. Some of the families will likely end up at Lucy’s later in the day, splurging on comfort food.

The lights dim over the crowd, and the show begins. It starts with the expected: fire dancers, acrobatics, orchestrated dance numbers. I knew I wouldn’t see Rhonda among them. They wouldn’t put us in a posh hotel for mere circus theatrics. The acts continue; some of the performers are recognized regulars, eliciting sing-alongs and silly antics from the kids. There’s a longer break between acts, and the mood shifts. I recognize some of the songs played. Some of the acts in between sets are a little more risqué.

There’s an intermission before the first headliner of the night will appear, a familiar-looking singer advertised on the overhead monitor. I’m hit multiple times by attendants rushing past to fulfill food orders. I suddenly notice that some of them are like me, and I’m emboldened.

I grab one of the workers as she passes by with a tub of popcorn the color of confetti.

“Do you know when Rhonda is on the stage?”

“Who?”

“Rhonda.”

She shrugs. “They don’t pay me enough to know that. Sorry.”

The lights finally dim, and the performance begins. The singer is good; I recognize the very first song, played sometimes in the background of the pod on my trips to and from work. It’s a hit, a simple pop song, but when it comes from her, it feels special, real. She’s a big name, I realize, with her huge blond hair and flowing train. Her voice rings out as she sings a song about wildness, a song about feeling raw and exposed. Her voice stretches past normal human notes, ventures into that special space that only some of us can reach. I’m crying before I’ve realized her performance has ended.

And then streaks of red suddenly flash across the stage. A giant X fills every overhead screen. The audience begins moving, almost as one in a rushing wave seemingly unmoved by the previous performance.

“Is it over?” I ask of random people brushing past. They ignore me. The families are packing up their goody bags, grabbing at sticky-handed children. They’re all gone in the next twenty minutes. I’m alone again in my aisle. The Arena hasn’t completely emptied, though. Some adults are still spattered among the audience.

Then two words flash on the home stage: ADULTS ONLY.

I soon hear a roaring outside, and a new wave of people fills the Arena. An hour later, and the Arena is packed to the house, no children in sight.

The noise dies down, and the audience seems to know what to expect. A jazz number begins, and a dozen women come out. They might have been dancers from earlier sets. I recognize at least two, but they’re dressed in sheer lingerie now, their fingers tracing across their body in between their dance steps. They glide in and soon are pounding against the floor in rhythm, a wild, hungry dance as beads bounce off their bodies. And then the stage is black.

A different woman comes out. Then another joins her from across the stage. They are both dressed in scarlet, and when they begin to kiss, I have to look away.

I am feeling claustrophobic from the heat of everyone, the smell of greasy food and alcohol. I want to leave, but I know I’m stuck. My eyes settle to the ceiling, to the galactic pattern of stars across the dome. I wait for the women to finish.

I prepare for the blinking lights, another wave of red to light the stage and another pair to emerge. I’m trying to decide if I’ll look away if Rhonda appears on the stage, or if it is my duty to watch, to see what I’ve put her through to help save me.

When the stage resets, there’s an obstacle course of metal and concrete. A disembodied, booming male voice explains the rules of this new competition. There are ten contestants, ten challenges. I expect Rhonda to be among them, but she’s not there. Each player must clear the course, one at a time. The obstacles look dangerous: punching through concrete walls, dodging knived drones, scaling a precarious cliff of glass.

The players make it all look so effortless. One by one, they clear each hurdle safely.

The audience is energized, not quite cheering yet, but there is a charge running electric through the stadium. The last player takes the starting line. She’s tall, lanky, a little unsure of her body. I can already see that these obstacles will be challenging for her. Sure enough, she doesn’t rip through the concrete wall on the first attempt. She trips later while clearing the hurdles. She regains her balance but doesn’t see the drone headed for her. It rips off most of her face, followed quickly by a second one that explodes into her stomach. She’s on the floor, convulsing for a solid minute before she’s still, and the stage lights dim.

The audience lets out a round of applause, a deafening, deep roar, and I look around me, realizing it’s all men in my row. I’m sick.

“Was that one of your friends?” a man near me asks. He is looking at me for the first time since he arrived. I can smell mustard and meat on him, and again, I think I’m going to be sick. I can’t answer.

“You deaf, too?” he asks.

“No,” I say. “No, that wasn’t a friend. My,” I choose my words carefully, “roommate hasn’t come out yet.”

“Ah, she’ll be out next, then. Only one show left. The finale. When they bring in the big guns.” He shoots me a look of near sympathy. Then he flags down more beer from an attendant.

The stage relights, and it’s bare, save for two hatchets crossed over one another in the center. Rhonda comes out first, in a smooth, liquid-tight black catsuit. She gleams under the lights. Her hair is slicked back on the sides and piled high on top, her curls ironed straight. Heavy cat eyes are sculpted black across her eyelids. I can barely recognize her. My heart drops.

There’s a large outpouring of boos. A light opens on the other end, and a blonde dressed in white walks out. She’s small, as small as Rhonda, and I realize they’ve been matched. The crowd cheers.

“Is she the black or white one?” The man next to me has leaned over again.

I want this intruder to go away. I despise him.

“Black,” I say when I see he’s about to ask again. He shakes his head. “You all volunteered for this, though,” he says and shrugs. I dig my nails into the arm rests of my wheelchair. Many of the audience members are no longer in the seats, and they lean forward across the railing. Beer spills down my back from a man above me.

Rhonda and the other woman face each other on opposite ends of the stage. The floor suddenly cuts away, leaving only a slim walkway between the two of them. They both stay where they are, resolute, proud, and I feel a sense of awe toward Rhonda. They received their directions, but they are not following them. They stand still as the boos bounce off the stage. And then the walkway begins breaking away, forcing them both toward the center of the stage, toward the weapons waiting.

They approach each other until only the circular platform in the dead center of the stage remains. They pause, face each other, I catch the tiniest of nods between the two as they each take a hatchet, and then it begins.

Rhonda weaves and dodges, strikes lethal blows that are blocked with equal power from her adversary. I’ve never seen anything like this from Rhonda, never had the slightest guess. I had lived with someone for decades and had never known.

A switch has turned on, for both of them, muscle memory, and it becomes clear they’re both committed to taking this to the end and giving the audience what they so violently want.

There are no rounds for this fight, no timer. It’s a primal showdown of sheer will and power. The crowd delights. I feel their electric energy perversely mix with my fear for Rhonda, the fact that this clearly can only end when one of them is dead.

Rhonda is nimble and strong, but so is her opponent. Their fight becomes a dance, more and more out of control. And then it happens: the woman in white lands a slicing blow into Rhonda’s arm. I see the socket disconnect as the hatchet is lodged into her shoulder. I don’t know if she screams, the audience is so loud at that moment. Rhonda falls squarely on her back, her own hatchet knocked out of her hand and over the ledge.

“Get up,” I whisper. The woman in white is on her quickly, attempting to wrench her weapon out of Rhonda’s arm. But it’s embedded there, stuck, and Rhonda is struggling through the pain, refocusing. Even as far away as I am, I can recognize that look. She pivots quickly and has the woman in white suddenly pinned on her back. Rhonda ignores the weapon jutting out of her arm, all the pain she must be feeling, and with her good hand reaches across the woman’s face and twists it so quickly, there’s almost nothing to see. But the audience can hear the snap as Rhonda breaks her neck. The woman is limp as a rag doll, dead.

The show is over.

The stands start to clear out, and I’m forgotten for a while before an attendant wheels me to an elevator, has me wait in the hall on the ground floor for what seems like hours. Then Rhonda emerges, her arm, what’s left of it, wrapped in a tourniquet. She’s limping, dressed back in her jeans and hoodie. She still has her stage hair and makeup, and I take in the strange mashup of familiar and foreign. I don’t know who she is.

Rhonda holds an envelope.

“I received a bonus stipend. The full payment for the match, plus the standard cost to fix this.” She motions to her arm.

“I’m so sorry.” I’m finally able to get the words out. I know they are not enough, but it’s all I can manage.

“Of course, the payment will cover both our surgeries. We’ll each get new hard drives, replacement parts.”

“Rhonda-”

“We can stay here in the city while we recover. You can go back to accounting. And I’ll—I’ll find something around here.”

I don’t tell her that I won’t ever get that job back. I’m three generations older than the latest model. But I’ll be able to take something other than serving, some entry-level clerical job, where I won’t be on my feet as much, where I can sit each day and not deteriorate as quickly.

“Rhonda, are you okay?” I realize as soon as I’ve said it what a stupid question that is. “You never know, they could rebuild her, put her in another fight.” I trail off.

We both understand that won’t happen, that the woman in white is already headed to the nearest compost. She was in the Arena for the same reason as Rhonda: that had been her one last, desperate hope.

I know Rhonda and I will never talk about the Arena again, the sound of the woman’s neck breaking, the electrical snap that will haunt my dreams. Our dreams, since Rhonda will be able to sleep again after the operation. We’ll sleep in the same bed again soon, side by side, and leave each other each night. And sometimes we will dream, and sometimes we will have our separate nightmares. But there will be a morning, and we’ll survive. Sometimes that’s the best we have.

We leave the Arena, and it’s raining, a relentless rain that spells both disaster and life for this desert city. We no longer have a hotel room, but we have a new address: to a repair facility. It opens in five hours. We’ll be ready. We arrive at the front door, stand under an awning and watch the rain pour over, the drains already overflowed, the rot and decay sweeping away in one fragrant bow.

I have to say something. I can’t let Rhonda stand in silence anymore, replay what she had done to save us one more time.

“We met here in the city on a scorching December day. It was almost Christmas; you’d been looking at the plastic office tree when I first spotted you.”

“Bettie, I told you I can’t remember any of that.”

“That’s why I’m telling you. You were wearing purple, this royal shade of purple, so beautiful against your skin. When you appeared, I couldn’t see anything but you.”

I ask Rhonda to hold my hand, and we hold on, through the wait, until the facility opens, even through the check-in process. We hold hands in the waiting room as they prep for our repair surgeries. Her hand is still in mine when a technician emerges from the back.

“We’re ready for you both.”


Laura Picklesimer’s writing has been featured in Riprap, Bookwoman, the Santa Ana River Review, and the California Current Writers Series, among other publications. She was a grand prize winner of Book Pipeline’s 2020 Unpublished Contest, Enizagam Journal’s 2018 Fiction Contest and received third place in the Women’s National Book Association’s 2018 YA Fiction Contest. She earned her MFA from Cal State Long Beach and teaches English at Chaffey College.