Joinedby Sarah L. Byrne (Fall 2016)
When your heart broke, I felt it too. We were walking through the city park when it happened; together but apart, because that was the way we’d become by then, wasn’t it? There was an arm's-length distance and a silence as wide as a desert between us, but we were still joined, which meant we were sharing the scent of the lilac blossoms, the cool of the spring air on our skin, sharing the guarded edges of each other's feelings. Then your heart just tore itself apart.
It wasn’t exactly your heart, I know—that's poetic license I'd add in later, because you weren’t around to do it—but it was close enough. A catastrophic aortic rupture. But because we were joined, I felt the tearing pain rip through your body, and for a moment my breath choked off as the blood drained from your aorta into your chest. But only for a moment. My blood pressure fell only enough that I sank slowly to my knees on the gravel, while yours dropped to nothing as you crumpled to the ground. My heart went on beating while yours gave a last desperate flutter then just stopped.
Voices, footsteps, people rushing to surround you as you lay there on your back in the middle of the path, your skin waxy pale, your eyes open and dilated black. You were already gone. They didn’t know it, but I did. I felt it happen.
Now I feel nothing.
It was a strange experience for a while, this feeling nothing. At least, if nothing is what you can call it. Feeling only my own feelings, thinking my own thoughts; alone in my own head after so long. The nothing I’d wanted for so long.
Six years back when we got our license, getting joined had seemed like such a romantic idea: for your partner to be truly your other half, to share each other's everyday joys and sorrows, to literally feel each other's pain and pleasure, one brain to the other through a real-time upload and download. So we registered, one of the first couples to do it, along with the marriage license—I, Tracy, do take you, Alana—and received our neural implants, just a painless injection, harmless nanoparticles that targeted the nerve fibres and grew rapidly along them, twined around them like wisteria, no different from the kind they use for paralysis and prosthetics. Then in only a matter of weeks we were fully joined.
Sex was double the fun, of course. That's what everyone wanted to talk about at first, but for some of us it went further. Beyond sharing physical sensations and basic emotions, into thoughts and memories too. Even dreams, because wasn't it all the same thing really? All just neural connections, electrical impulses jumping synaptic gaps and neuropeptides docking with receptors. All of it picked up, encoded and transmitted by the implant.
It would be impossible to hurt each other, when you were joined, that's what people said. They were wrong: it wasn't just possible, it was easy. No, it was more than easy; it was inevitable. In those days we were wound so tight around each other it was hard to believe we were separate people. So you knew when things started changing between us, because I had no secrets from you—but you didn't want to know. You didn't want to know how cloying I'd begun to find your presence, pretending not to notice how my mind flinched away from yours when you reached out to me. And I pretending not to feel your hurt. It was grotesque, wasn't it? But we went on for more than a year like that, alone together, until that day your heart finally broke.
I lied when I said I felt nothing that day. What I felt was relief.
I'm trying to sleep in the attic room under the roof windows, like I usually do these nights. I like it up here under the sky, and since you've been gone, the thought of sleeping alone in the bed we used to share is unthinkable. Tonight, it's one of those clear summer nights when the temperature drops, the stars come out clear and the heat of the day fades into refreshing coolness. I’ll get to sleep eventually, even with it playing over and over in my mind like it does most nights: you falling away from me, falling out of me; the life fading out of your eyes, the blood draining out of your heart.
We were told that a weakening of the arteries was a rare risk of the implants. Your blood pressure must have been too high. You knew you were supposed to quit smoking after we were joined, but you never could. You tried—for me, mostly, because I didn't like the taste—but somehow you never quite could give it up. I still felt the desperation of your cravings too as they clawed at you over the hours and the days: so I gave in. We called it a compromise.
Now, I block out the thought of the pack of cigarettes in the drawer downstairs. Sleep comes.
It's a feeling that wakes me. Cold. I turn over in bed, tugging the sheet up around my bare shoulder. Did I leave a window open? No. I did not. But there's a coldness creeping over my skin still. It's distant and alien, still entirely familiar.
“I'm cold,” you say. Or don’t say, but you think it and my brain responds to your thought. Your feelings flood my senses, the old intensity of them, and for a moment it's like it always was.
But it's not.
“You're not real,” I say into the empty darkness.
There's a hesitation, then your thought comes at me heavy with accusation, hits me hard. There'd be that little catch in your voice now if you still had one; there’d be hurt in your blue eyes if they weren't burned to ashes and scattered on the cold earth. And I'd look away.
“How can you say that?” you demand. “Don't you understand what's happening? I've come back to you. Tracy, don't you want us to be together again?”
I do, of course I do, that part of me that's lost its other half. The part of me that wants to believe death isn't a black oblivion waiting for all of us someday, maybe sooner than we think. The part that grieves for all those years back then when we were happy, for laughter and dancing, sex and snuggling under a blanket together, or staying up half the night sharing thoughts and feelings because it was like a well of cool water, yet however deep we drank we couldn't get enough of each other. There's an ache inside me, how badly I want that again.
But it wasn't like that towards the end. It was over. I know it and you know it too. Or you would if you were really here, if there was any you anymore.
You’ve gone quiet now. I don't feel anything from you. I curl up on my side and try to sleep again. But no matter what I do now, I just can't get warm.
Everything seems better in the morning, doesn’t it always? I call the customer helpline to report the bug. My dead wife is in my head, I explain. She's talking to me. Something's gone wrong, some data cached in the system that should have been deleted; outdated settings somewhere in the cloud.
“Mmm-hmm,” the bored sounding assistant on the other end of the line says, like it's some everyday thing. “We'll look into it for you.”
Maybe this happens a lot. Maybe he doesn't believe a word of it. Most likely he's just sticking to his script and doesn't care particularly either way. Why should he, after all?
You come again that night.
“I'm cold,” you say. “I want to come back. I want us to be together again.”
“That's not possible.”
“Maybe it is. We've got to try, haven't we? We've been given a second chance, surely it's happening for a reason?”
“I was going to leave you,” I say. “It wasn't working out. We were going to separate, you knew that. We both knew.”
“No,” you say. A flood of images and feelings surge through me before I can stop you—happy times, good times, rose-tinted smiles—and I shove them back at you.
“Yes.” You never could face a truth you didn't like, could you? “Alana, listen, I didn't want it to happen like this. I wanted you to be happy. I hoped you'd meet someone else, forget about me—”
“That would never have happened.” You cut me off with a pulse of thought so sharp it hurts. “I'm not like you. I can't just switch off my feelings.”
And apparently I can't switch off your feelings either.
I turn over, bury my face in the pillow. If you were here, for real, I'd feel your touch now. Your fingers sliding down my shoulders, the warmth of your body against mine, the scent of your hair. I'd feel what you feel and know you felt it right back; I'd hate myself for it but I'd turn over and pull you down to me. But you’re not here. I don’t know why I’m even having this conversation.
It’s a while before you speak again: “Just do one thing for me.”
“I need a smoke. Just one. I'm desperate.”
I let my breath out slowly against the pillow. We both know you’ve got me.
I get out of bed, make my way downstairs and outside. I light the cigarette in the garden, awkward and clumsy despite the familiar feel of it against my fingers and lips, but when I inhale the sudden burn of the hot smoke in my lungs makes me cough it out sharply.
“Slowly,” you tell me, your mind taut with impatience, with need. I breathe the smoke in steadily, holding it inside me this time, and feel the familiar nicotine-adrenaline rush through my veins, the familiar relief that's yours, not mine.
“Don't you miss this too?” you ask.
“No,” I lie, letting the smoke out slowly. I take another drag.
If you could still smile, you would. You can't, but when you do, I feel it all the same.
It was a mistake, letting you have that one smoke. But then it was always a mistake to let you have your way, giving in to one of your `compromises'. You had a way of sensing weakness, and you'd push for more, always more, never satisfied with what I could give you.
You come to me in the daytime now, as well as at night. You're there when I wake up, craving your morning coffee; you know I hate coffee, but somehow the smell of it drifts through my kitchen every morning these days. When I'm dressing, you're there with suggestions of perfume, how you miss it. Silk camisoles like you used to wear under your shirts, the smoothness against your skin. Darling, why don't you try your hair like this?
And now here I am, huddled under a flimsy shelter outside the entrance to the hospital where I'm supposed to be at work. My coat collar turned up against the wind, hands cupped around the dwindling end of a cigarette to protect it from the driving rain.
“Hey, Tracy. I didn't know you smoked.”
I look up, startled, one of my co-workers standing there. I don't recognise him for a moment.
“I don't,” I manage to say eventually.
He quirks an eyebrow before walking on, and I drop what's left of the cigarette, without looking down to see it fizzle out on the wet tarmac. I turn and head into the building.
I know what you want, Alana. To use my body, for us to share it. We're half-way there already.
But I'm saying no to you this time. Brushing the drops of water out of my hair and pulling off my wet jacket, I walk to my lab with more purpose than I have had in the months since this all started, because now I know what I have to do.
I shrug into my lab coat, glance at the samples waiting on my bench. I've always done my job in a detached way. It's just samples to analyse; blood in a vial, cells on a plate. I've made a point of not really thinking about where they come from. But that doesn't change the facts. There are dead people in the basement.
You want a body, Alana? I'll find you one. One all of your own. I'll inject you into it, you can worm your way through its veins, animate its dead nerves.
Just stay out of mine.
It's cold down here. I feel the chill as soon as I step out of the elevator, into this underground place where the dead people are.
“Help you?” The uninterested desk clerk glances up. I don't know her, she doesn't know me, but a glimpse of my lab coat and badge is enough that she's not going to ask difficult questions.
“Some samples didn't make it upstairs this morning, I need to talk to Mark,” I lie.
It isn't difficult. If I can lie to my telepathic dead wife in my head—if I can lie so well to myself—it was never going to be hard to lie a stranger.
“He's inside.” she says.
I slide past the closed door of Mark's examination room, where he's conducting an autopsy, murmuring reports into his recording device. Down to the end of the corridor and into the storage room at the back. I pull on nitrile gloves, tug open one of the drawers, stare at the dead man, the stranger lying there. The cold body that doesn't look like anything that was ever alive, or ever will be again.
This is not going to be any use, I realise. I don't know what I was thinking, how I thought this was going to work, what I'm doing here. It never even made any sense. I push the drawer closed, start to turn away. But then I'm pulling open another drawer, and then another.
It's not me doing it. You're in my head. Suddenly, down here in the chill of this windowless cavern, you're here, guiding me, moving my hands for me. Drawing me to you.
Because when I open the third drawer, I stop, heart thudding against my ribs so hard it stops my breath.
It's you. Just like you looked lying on the gravel under the lilacs that day.
You can't be here. I said my goodbyes to you. I organised the memorial service, stood there tearless with your parents weeping and casting me haunted looks—the one who broke their daughter's heart, who sent tendrils creeping through her veins to tie her forever to me and beguiled her to her death—if only they knew how it really was. I received your ashes in a wooden urn, startlingly heavy, to scatter in the park where we walked that day under the lilacs. Joined corpses have to be cremated for fear of contamination, irrational dread of the nanothings creeping free and making their way through the earth to wreak some unknown havoc. It couldn't happen, of course, they die when we do. Except when they don't.
You touch me, your fingertip down the back of my neck.
I tear off my gloves, turn and run into the corridor, and straight into Mark. He grabs me to steady me.
“Hey, Tracy, you all right?”
I jerk away from his touch, because it feels so wrong, so alien, to have anyone touch me but you. I find my breath, my voice, and it comes out harsh and angry.
“What's Alana doing here? She's not supposed to be here.”
He's staring at me like I've gone crazy, and I can't blame him, the way I must look.
I shoulder past him and don't look back, just keep walking until I'm outside. I breathe in the air, the summer storm clearing now to leave a clean-washed blue sky and the sun breaking through the last rain drops.
I wonder if I might really be going crazy. Because the implant can do that to a person; as well as breaking your heart, it can send your mind spooling loose into free fall. There've been documented cases, and I feel myself falling now, endlessly falling, and I'd grab at anything in desperation. I wonder if that's how you feel, drifting formless in the void.
I can't blame you for grabbing onto me like you did. Can't blame you at all.
I want you, suddenly, Alana. Want to hold you close and not let go, because I'm falling. Nothing makes sense anymore and I'm just falling.
It was a mistake, it turns out. An administrative error, they say. Your body was mixed up with another woman's: someone else's daughter, someone else's wife. A body that was supposed to be donated to science, but instead ended up burnt to ashes, scattered under the lilacs and denied my tears. These things happen, they say.
And that left you still there, cold and waiting in that drawer. Your implant still functioning—perhaps—still reaching out from that dark place, still calling out to me. Although that shouldn't really be possible. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it was only ever my circuitry reaching out, trailing through the empty space inside me, twisting back on itself?
Either way, it all gets sorted out in time, as such things always do. Compensation paid and apologies made, paperwork redone. The body—your body—cremated for real this time.
Life goes on.
I don't have another memorial service. I don't scatter ashes, because I did that already. The time for that is past, drifted away with the spring blossoms, the fading, falling lilac petals. Instead, your urn sits on my bookshelf, silent.
You don't talk to me so much these days. But I like having you there. It's comforting, in a way. Funny that, I like you better dead than I did alive. Funny how things work out sometimes. I head outside, cigarette pack and lighter in hand. I never could quite kick the habit. Don't think I ever will. And honestly, I'm not sure I want to. I've gotten a taste for it lately. It might break my heart someday, but then I already know how that feels.
Out in the garden, the leaves swirl autumn brown around my feet, the year turning. I breathe in, inhaling the smoke deep along with the cool air.
Your smile touches the corners of my mouth, and I know you're here. You'll always be here.
And I'm fine with that. We're joined.
It would break my heart to lose you.
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