When the girl at the bus stop died I thought it was over for us. I’d been waiting for the right moment to speak to her and it seemed then that I had missed my chance. I ran to her, hoping for some sign of life, some sign that I love you might still matter. But the eyes that had been sparkling at me only moments before were dull and drying. Her medical wristlet blinked a steady pattern: emergency, emergency.
The responders arrived in moments. A woman positioned the girl’s head while a man gently closed the silvery capture mask around it. I’d heard about these people, of course, but I’d never seen the thing done. I expected a flash of light, a noise, something, but the mask is not ostentatious. A barely-heard click marked the transferral of whatever was left of the girl’s mind to the mask, and as quickly as they had come the team were gone again.
In the days that followed I saw her everywhere. Every autumn-tinted leaf hid her image in its colours. Every pair of heels on the sidewalk clicked along to her strong, steady stride. Even the bright, rough lines of graffiti carved into desks seemed to have her initials curled within them.
I held onto the moments we’d managed to share. They seemed to grow in my memory. I thought back to the touch we’d shared as I–brave for once–had pulled her to her feet after some other girl had smashed her flat. To the bright, fleeting smile she’d given me across the park one fine day thereafter, and to the way it had made my heart race. To her hot breath dampening my neck in class one day, and to the seductive look she’d given me when I turned to find its source. My days filled up with these moments. I stopped living in the world around me and lived instead where we could be together.
One night I found myself on a rooftop overlooking most of the town. I had no clear idea how I’d gotten there nor why I’d come. I wanted to see the streets spread below me, I told myself. I stepped up onto the wall at the edge, straining to see the patterns of lights laid out in the distance, hoping, I think, to see her face in the glowing mosaic. I looked out over the city and ached for her.
As I looked at the streets far below, I knew why I’d come.
I closed my eyes and thought of her as I dropped ten stories onto pavement. My newly-purchased wristlet blinked its steady pattern as a crowd gathered and the light faded from my eyes.
I expected pain, or at least some great tsunami of sensation. But the mask is not ostentatious.
I awoke and she was with me. I peered into her eyes and then through them, down and down again.
I found myself in a warm, dim place. Light seemed to float past me in slow-moving currents. I reached one hand out into an orange stream and held it there. The colour washed past my fingers and formed small, smoky curlicues. It seemed to caress my skin, and I shuddered with pleasure. I stepped forward to immerse myself.
A man lay beside me in bed. He breathed my name–her name, I realized, the dissonance rattling through me–and reached up to caress my cheek–her cheek. As if in a dream, I leaned in and kissed him. My body flushed with a warm sensation alien to my experience, and again dissonance buzzed: not my arousal but hers. His hand dove beneath the covers and I felt it roaming lightly over my skin, exploring.
I thrashed within her. I fought to free myself. Of course she’d had lovers; it would have been foolish to expect otherwise. Still, disappointment lanced my heart. I might have endured it in the world, where it would have been some mere fact of which I was made aware. But as I felt the experience settle within me and become my own, I panicked. With a ripping sensation, I tore myself out of the memory.
Again her…memories?…swirled around me. I hesitated, torn between the hunger to know and the hurt I’d barely escaped. I reached out tentatively towards another colour, a red so dark it seemed almost black. I allowed a single finger to sink into the flow.
Pain shot through my hand and overwhelmed me. I stumbled forward into the darkness.
Across the lawn a boy stood waving at me. Behind him I saw my old self, but my contours seemed to blend into the background. The boy did not blend. He seemed, rather, to shine so that it filled up the space between us. I felt that newly-familiar warmth again and the face below my eyes stretched into a smile so wide it hurt. I raised a hand in kind as I stepped towards him.
The rumble of an engine filled my senses. Time stretched. I tried to turn, but before I could, something impossibly hard crashed against me. The world disappeared.
I wrenched myself out of the blackness, raging, needing but not wanting to learn more.
The streams around me seemed to whisper mockingly. I sampled them rapid-fire: in yellow we stood, nude, at her apartment window and watched the tall boy walk out of her building; in auburn we tossed her hair and looked back to see his reaction; in green, I caught a waft of new perfume as we pressed against him in some dim place.
The many signs I had taken to heart, I saw, were not for me. The sparkle in her eyes was no more than sunlight reflected.
I struck at the streams then, lashing out in every direction with my mind. I wanted to hurt, to destroy, to erase entirely if I could. I tore through memories and feelings like a blade through smoke.
And then came pain, and with it darkness. Whole realms of thought shut themselves away from me. The universe closed upon me. I hid from its smallness, my mind made suddenly claustrophobic by the nothingness beyond.
Trapped in this no-world, I trembled. I tried to understand what had happened, but my thoughts trailed away strangely and picked up in unfamiliar places with people I didn’t know. And everywhere a girl’s laugh came from nowhere.
I saw it, then: my violence had torn through my own mind as well as hers. Tangled up as we were, I had not been able to tell us apart.
A bubble of panic welled up within me, but before it could burst, I felt a gentle touch. This made no sense at the time. I was certain that the girl must have been as locked away as I, and I knew of no other who might find us in that place. But she lay a finger of thought upon my imagined cheek and it soothed me.
I felt her wrap around me and press her self into mine. I clung to her, fearful of the threatening void around us. She lay that cool touch against my brow once more and I could not help but press myself against it. I dissolved.
I didn’t hear the bus’s brakes blowing behind me. I was watching the guy I’d met a few days earlier play soccer. The memory of his deft, clever fingers was smashed away by pain and darkness.
I woke up and saw a strange man beside me. He lay very still. The world around us was all white and silent.
Then the man opened his eyes and stared into mine, and I went someplace new.
When I could think again I looked around me. At first I couldn’t make any sense of what I was seeing. All around me I saw these huge pillars. But then I followed one up and up and I saw wrinkles. And then fabric. And then I realized the pillars were just legs attached to statues, ones whose heads were so far above me I couldn’t see them.
Who could be so famous, I wondered, and where would they still build this kind of thing anyway? More importantly, what had brought me to this place?
I kept watching and noticed that the statues seemed to be moving ve-e-e-ry slowly, and then I understood that these weren’t statues at all.
I already knew I was dead. When I recognized the statues as people I decided that I must have somehow ended up in the mind of the strange man I’d woken up with. I studied the gigantic figures. They all seemed to be the same, and I decided, based on their clothes, that they were a woman. I wondered who could inspire that kind of idolization. I couldn’t tell who it was from where I stood, but I figured it must be someone famous.
I strained to move closer, but found I couldn’t.
One of the figures walked towards me. Something pressed against my clothes and a hard, throbbing pain filled my abdomen. I reached down and discovered the source of the sensation and I laughed. Clearly this boy was more than just worshipping his goddess!
I held my own lusty little affair with the tall boy up against what I was seeing and I felt shallow and small. Anger burned through me. I picked up a stone and I threw it at one of the giants. It tore through her. She popped, and ragged pieces drifted down like confetti.
I reached up and caught a fragment. I studied the poorly-blended eyeshadow and the irises I’d always considered to be an unremarkable green. I suddenly understood who these giants were, and who this man was.
I looked around me with newfound clarity. In one vision I saw myself leaning forward with an enticing look on my face; I thought back to the time he’d caught me cheating off of his English exam. In another I recognized the guilty look I’d given him after stealing from a friend’s purse, here transmuted into a gorgeous, beaming smile. In a third, the raw defeat on my face after losing a fight that I’d started became a glowing, innocent beauty.
I whirled around, searching, and everywhere I saw awful moments made beautiful by his framing. I burned to destroy these better versions of myself. I ripped myself from the mooring that held me and flew at the inflated visions before me. Rage burned around me, and I shot gouts of it at the giants. They burst with awful sounds. I seared long wounds into the mind beneath me. I felt the space around me begin to tremble, and I screamed my hate out at it.
Pain lanced through me and I came back to myself. I gasped at the sudden sharpness. Sharded images bled through strands of thought and rendered the world incomprehensible. Thoughts came in short, shallow gasps. I thrashed blindly, grasping, trying desperately to hold on to some part of myself.
A fragment–whether mine or his I could not have said– brushed against me. By then I could no longer form the thoughts necessary to recognize it, but it pressed against my unravelling mind and I managed to catch on it. A strand of myself curled around it. The touch became a grip, and then I pressed against its warmth, and then I became something new.
Our shredded selves caught on one another and knitted slowly together. One mended where two had broken.
When thought returned, we examined ourself and delighted. Though we had been limited things, petty and small in the way of life everywhere, we fit together. From our obsession and our fears and our anger, from our worst selves, came the seed of some new, better thing.
Now we see things in you that will fit into us, and we long for them. We see that you will be better, greater when you are us, and that we will be greater when we are you.
We know you are afraid. You think some terrible thing is about to happen. We can only kiss your brow and whisper these words of comfort: the mask is not ostentatious.
True, sometimes, as now, we must tear away a few things to make the join. Understand that we, too, know this pain, for we have felt it as many times as we have joined others to ourself. You must bear it a little while. We make sacrifices, too: even now we are tearing out the places where you will fit within us.
Know that it is not out of hate or greed that we wreak this destruction.
It is out of love.