“Shall I throw it down?” asked a monotone drone above us.
“Go ahead,” shouted Mr. Monofilio into the dark gape. Metal scraped against metal and a heap of rubbish crashed at the base of the furnace. Someone had hung a cardboard sign reading “toasty fireplace” next to a large white button with a faded “ignite” printed on it. The sign must have been a sort of in-joke between the last person to work here and his imaginary friend. The rubbish contained loose needles, bags of blood, and jars of who-knows-what organs. There were stained scrubs, bandages, and a hospital gown holding the mass together like a ribbon on a present.
“After you check to make sure everything is in order, you press the big button,” Mr. Monofilio explained, “and whoosh!” A white fire engulfed the medical waste. The syringes melted, the bags of blood popped and red liquid boiled. The cloth disappeared almost instantly. I turned away, afraid to damage my eyes. When I looked back, there were only ashes and small scraps of charred metal in the fireplace.
“Check to make sure everything’s good and burned, and then wait for our electronic friend…”
“Shall I throw it down?” the voice from above us asked, indifferently.
“Go ahead, then!” Mr. Monofilio called. A second pile of medical waste, smaller than the first, landed in the fireplace. Again, Mr. Monofilio pressed a button and the white light bathed the trash.
“If the computer doesn’t call out to you, there’s no trash, and you can read a book, or take a snooze—or fiddle with your little John. Haha!” Mr. Monofilio was disgusting like that. A fifty-year-old man who never outgrew the pubescent thrill of discussing masturbation. I wonder what he would have said if I had told him that my “little John” was, at that moment, retracted fully into my abdomen along with my balls and secured there with tape so that it would not make an unseemly bulge against my lacy pink panties. I like to imagine it would permanently scar him, but more likely he would have called me a “faggot” and fired me on the spot.
“This seems like a job a robot could do,” I said. If computers can cook our food, entertain us, arrest, try, and imprison us, it seemed unlikely that they couldn’t push a button after voicing, “Go ahead.” It’s only possible to get one of the aforementioned jobs if you’re a celebrity chef, a movie star, a cop or judge with a television show… I guess there aren’t celebrity prison guards, so the androids have a monopoly on imprisonment.
But boy, with more than half our population behind bars, we were certainly crushing the robots at the jobs still open to us: thief, drug addict, “schizophrenic,” and debtor.
Monofilio explained that, for archaic legal reasons, almost all hospital jobs require human oversight. I nodded. I had heard that becoming a doctor was one of the few professions left that did not require fame. You only needed to study medicine for four years and then robotics for another five before, if you were one of the lucky few, you received the redundant job of ensuring that a flawless android technician didn’t kill any patients. Ten years later you’d pay off your student debts.
“What do you want this job for?” asked the old man, sneering.
“Oh, you know, a little extra scratch,” I said. He didn’t buy it, and only jutted out his belly at me in response. Welfare and food stamps were enough to buy crappy fast food, the occasional cheap thrill, and an early death from chronic stress. Hardly a bad deal compared with making a starving by pressing a button all day. “I… have a habit,” I lied. Drugs are about the only reason a curb-side rat-born like me should want money. And I couldn’t exactly tell Monofilio the truth of what I was saving up for.
“It’s technically a cushy job,” he said. “Although quite boring, and slightly radioactive.”
“Why was there a vacancy?” I asked. “What happened to the last employee?” It had taken three years to get this job, practically begging on the phone weekly at every company I could think of. I rarely got a response, because all a company is these days is the face of a celebrity CEO printed in The Wall Street Journal and a complex series of automations beneath him.
“The last guy?” He snorted. “I’ll introduce you when I teach you to clean out the ashes this evening.” He pointed to the fireplace. The florescent light above cast a pale circular shadow at my feet. A shudder ran down my spine, the only warning I had that I was about to experience one of my fleeting hallucinations: I distinctly saw a man run out of my shadow and leap into the inferno. I heard his screams in my head as the white heat blistered his skin. The room felt hot, and what scared me is that the oven looked inviting.
I would ask a psychiatrist about these waking nightmares, but you can’t consult a psychiatrist through the emergency room. I just have a vivid imagination, perhaps.
But what could have caused my predecessor to fling himself into the furnace of hell?
Monofilio turned on the television as he left. “This should help,” he said. “But you can’t have any sound. It might interfere with your work.”
So I sat and watched television for two hours. I made mental calculations, twirling my finger in the air to form numbers. In the first two hours I would break even for the three buses I had to take to get to work. The next two hours would cover my trip home. It would take an hour to pay the extra taxes I would incur as a newly employed and contributing member of society. Three and a half more hours would make up for lost government benefits, assuming I spent ten dollars a day on groceries and my parents didn’t charge me rent now that I had a job.
That meant I’d earn an hour and a half of pure profit at minimum wage.
If I could double that halfway through my life, I might reach my goal in eighty years. Subtract the seven hundred dollars stashed away in my piggy bank, and I could accomplish it in seventy nine and three quarter years. I’d be as old as Sishette.
“Shall I throw it down?” the computer voice boomed.
“Go ahead!” I walked over to the incinerator and watched the trash fall from the ceiling. There were vials full of fluids and plastic bags, wet at the side with pus and blood. I tried not to look too hard at the waste before incinerating it. Just glance to see if anything wouldn’t burn, then back to the television.
It was a documentary on Sishette. She had started her career as a musician, historically the first profession to require fame to succeed, and because of that the most intense, the most systematized star system of any sector. Sishette was selected from thousands of applicants brought before the public eye on a now-canceled television show, but she was different from other celebrities. She had a real soul behind her music, a kind of melancholy in her voice. I was hypnotized by watching her silent lips move—now earnestly, now cheerfully, now sensually. The small kisses, pinches and hugs she gave her costars were performance art in themselves. There were advertisements on bus stops of her, often cuddling with someone almost as beautiful as her, but never as perfect. I never knew what they were selling, but I was buying Sishette. I purchased all of her songs, sometimes forgoing meals for an album. Occasionally the machine of capitalism creates something of true value.
Sishette looked like she was my age—like we could have gone to high school together. If we had, she would have been that lovely girl in the class whom all the boys wanted, and all the girls wanted to be.
I, unfortunately, was in the latter camp. That’s why I was desperate for work, why I felt so uncomfortable in my khaki pants and collared, button-down, checkered shirt. The only part of me that felt like myself were my feet and calves, in thigh-high stockings under the pants, and my posterior, which was nestled in women’s underwear.
I had no ambition, very little of the universal imperative to seek fame, but I had an aching desire to be recognized as a girl. It was like waking up every day with a broken heart. It was a shadow that I had never been able to escape—and I hadn’t noticed it was there until I looked. I wanted to wear dresses as a toddler. I liked to spend recess with the girls in school, rather than the boys. I slowly started to hate my “little John,” as Mr. Monofilio might call it, when I realized that it would never leave: I was stuck with it permanently. I like little Johns fine on other people; if it’s the right person, I like them a lot. But it was not part of my body any more than my hairy chest was. Part of the world was missing where my two breasts should be. I felt off balance wherever I walked—dragged backward as if there were a heavy weight on my back.
There was never a good time in history to be a poor and under-nourished eighteen-year-old transgender girl, but for me, “now” was always an exceedingly inopportune moment. I had learned a couple of tricks for using my welfare money to buy women’s clothing from unfeeling robots: as a man you can buy a dress or two a year for a nonexistent girlfriend, and a trip to Victoria’s Secret will always appear legitimate, even “cocky.” (Of course if you shop there too often, the purchasing systems will flag you as a pervert.)
I have chatted online with other transgender kids who grew up in accepting communities, where they could walk the streets without fearing the roaming gangs of teenagers with no job prospects and nothing better to do than assault a “dude in a dress,” or a “dyke-ass girl.” Aside from Daniel, my boyfriend, these online confidants were my only friends. They gave me advice, encouragement, and a sympathetic ear. As the children or cousins of celebrities, they had enough money to live a transgender life without threats to their person, and yet it was nearly impossible for any of them to receive hormone treatment. The android doctors and their human overseers listened to their explanation and very decidedly diagnosed that they did not really have a desire to become the other gender; they were suffering from body dysmorphia caused by celebrity culture. Inundated with the image of wealth and happiness personified by beautiful pop stars, it is only natural to want to become them. “You don’t want to be a woman,” the doctors told one friend. “You want to become Sishette, and for that you need therapy, not hormone treatment or dangerous surgeries. You won’t be happy after you transition, because you will still be poor and anonymous.” And could my friend argue when five different android-doctor pairs said this? The only argument she had was her pathetic cry, “But I’m a girl!”
And what girl wouldn’t want to be Sishette?
Her athletic body danced to the muted music, occupying me for hours. I checked the clock to see that I was finally at the point in my schedule where I was making money instead of losing it. Mr. Monofilio dropped by to say that he would be leaving early, and would show me how to clean the incinerator tomorrow.
I cannot explain why there is no record of a man named Monofilio working for that hospital. I assumed that his primary job was to assist a medical android. Either he gave me a fake name or I misremembered it.
I tried to nap after his visit, but the chorus of, “Shall I throw it down?” always seemed to catch me just as I dozed off.
“Shall I throw it down?”
“Go ahead,” I said at 8:10. My fingers danced, bored, on the desk. I could see why you might throw yourself into flames if you had this job and no patience—no life-long goal.
My plan was to squirrel away as much money as I could. Then when I was old and wrinkled, I would pretend to be the daughter—sorry, the son—of some B-rank celebrity. I would ask for a new, younger body, and incidentally, could I please be a girl this time? They would do that for aged celebrities. With enough money or fame, you could buy anything.
“SHALL I THROW IT DOWN?”
It was 8:46 when the call came again, and unless I imagined it, the robot’s voice sounded impatient.
“Go ahead,” I said, and walked to the fireplace.
My glazed eyes almost overlooked it. I almost burned it! But some angel (or devil) allowed my eyes—heavy-lidded, brown, and the only attractive thing about my body—to drift to that precise spot in the pile of waste. It was nestled between biohazard bags and empty catheters. It was deformed, folded, but it was unmistakably Sishette’s face.
I scrambled into the furnace. I thought about the person who had done that before, while it was aflame. I rescued Sishette’s face and then exited the fireplace and burned the rest. The television was silently playing one of her concerts, and yet here she was, in my hands, staring back at me. Her face was floppy and there were dark shadows where her eyes should have been, but it was unmistakably her. Another person might have caressed its lips, or brought it home as a souvenir. I turned her face inside out.
The inside seemed to be teeming with black maggots. Tiny black threads writhed, catching the light and glimmering as if wet.
This was nanotechnology. It probably cost as much as a small country, and there were only a handful of celebrities who could afford it. Sishette had been in the public eye for nearly ninety years; it was only natural that a person of that cultural importance should change her face every so often. Whenever she needed to reboot her image and appeal to a younger generation, Sishette underwent intensive plastic surgery and, it was rumored, even altered her personality using drugs. It was the price of prolonged fame, or perhaps the reward.
I considered selling the mask on the black market and using the proceeds to purchase hormone therapy. But I was worried about being caught by the police. As soon as I posted a price, some suit would confiscate it and throw me in jail for violating my work contract. I might as well put it back in the fireplace and pretend I never found it.
So, as I looked into those wriggling worms, I made an uncharacteristically impulsive decision.
I lifted it to my face.
It felt like someone had lit fire to my cheeks, nose, eyelids, and forehead. The pain only got worse as they burrowed past my skin into my bone. In a spasm of a waking nightmare, I thought I saw Sishette in front of me, dressed in a flared skirt and a shirt exposing her midriff.
She mouthed something, a mockery I didn’t understand in another language, then she was gone.
I screamed, howling like an animal in my agony.
“Please only reply with ‘go ahead,’ or ‘wait,’ in response to the question,” the robotic voice said.
After what felt like days rolling on the floor, my suffering ended. I touched my face. It felt swollen, and tender, like an exposed wound. I stumbled to the bathroom, grasped at the light switch and looked in the mirror.
Full, but narrow lips, deeply lashed eyes, high cheek bones and a calculated blush looked back at me. Gone was the shadow of hair follicles under my lips. Gone was my dimpled chin. I pulled off the elastic that held back my hair and long black strands framed the beautiful face in front of me. Sishette’s face. My face?
If my online friends were like me, the doctors they had spoken to were wrong. Standing in that narrow bathroom, I was still poor, useless, and anonymous, yet I felt more like myself than I ever had in my life. Sishette’s face happened to be lovely, but the face I wore could be bony, plain, double-chinned, black, white, wrinkled, young, square, or flat, as long as it was a girl’s.
“Shall I throw it down?” I heard the monotone echo into the bathroom.
“Go ahead,” my pretty face called. With Monofilio gone, I sang it high and clear, the way I only spoke when I was alone with my boyfriend, and the glamour was complete. I was really me.
I jumped as the waste fell, as loud as if the roof had collapsed. I left the bathroom to continue my job.
An arm was sticking out of the medical waste, a single finger of the hand outstretched, as if it were beckoning me. As I approached I saw there were two hands, both decorated with bright purple nail polish—Sishette’s favorite color. These were her hands. They were the hands that had plucked such mournful notes from a guitar onstage that I wept in my living room. They were the hands that brushed aside her hair as she looked up at the sky every morning. They were the hands that had grasped desperately at so many of her lovers, a long cast starting with her roommate from college and leading up to the current supporting actor, her on-again, off-again boyfriend Agnor. They were small, pale, and dainty—nothing like my tanned, veiny cudgels.
I couldn’t just burn them. I grabbed the palm of each hand (they seemed to grasp back!) and pulled them out of the heap. I emptied a trash bag from the same pile of waste and put them in.
Sishette wasn’t just getting her face changed this time. She was replacing her whole body. It was well known that she had taken on cyborg parts fifty years ago, but I had no idea it had gone this far.
“Shall I throw it down?” the robot asked, and my heart raced.
“Wait!” I needed to burn the last batch, to make a clean landing in case more of Sishette landed.
Her legs fell down alongside yards of used medical tape. They were long, perfectly toned legs, sticking out of the white hill like a flag. I was afraid for a second—only a second—that that the rest of Sishette was buried under the tape, but when I pulled them out the legs were disembodied, with nano-worms writhing from the severed thighs. I put her legs in the bag, burned the trash, and waited, gazing eagerly at the empty abyss that was delivering me a new body.
“Shall I throw it down?”
“By all means!”
“Please only reply with ‘go ahead,’ or ‘wait,’ in response to the question.”
I saw it fall, upside down from hell, her angel’s torso. Her slim waist, so perfect it didn’t even have a navel. Her perky breasts and lovely round nipples. Her hips and her narrow shoulders. Her arched collar bones and her long throat. There were no more mushy garbage bags, only the torso. I embraced it.
“Sishette, Sishette, thank you,” I said, crouched, feeling her curves against my body. And as I hugged her in that incinerator, a flash of yellow caught my eye. The torso did not fall alone: with it came three golden teeth. I put them in my pocket.
I distinctly heard Sishette’s voice say, “One girl’s trash is another girl’s treasure.”
I finished my shift as if nothing had happened. A surgical mask had fallen with the last round of trash, and I stole it to hide my face—and my smile. At home I would change my hair, and with a little makeup I could make myself look similar to Sishette, instead of identical.
I called Daniel and told him to that we were taking an emergency trip to the woods. His uncle’s friend was as a celebrity professor, and it was easy to borrow it in the snowy off-season.
It’s hard to express the euphoria I felt on that commute. I passed a homeless man on the street and gave him one of those golden teeth. A priest of some sort was begging for contributions to his church, and I gave him the second. I was impressed that there were still devout worshippers in the city, but on reflection I suspected he was a con artist. The third tooth I kept for myself. It’s probably impossible to find the friar and the pauper to confirm this story.
I felt like Santa Claus, though my sleigh was a crowded, grimy bus and my bag of toys was full of body parts. But I was jolly, and the frigid air conditioning felt like a cold winter wind. I saw my neighborhood blur past through the bus window. My parents did not know about my true gender yet. I would have to tell them eventually, as I could never afford to live on my own. But nothing would dissuade me from claiming the body in my bag, and a small vacation with Daniel.
I had dated several boys and girls, and one thing I knew was that you could not expect someone to love you for your flaws. You could expect them to love you despite your flaws, and encourage you to overcome them, but it was unhealthy to want someone to adore you for being selfish or jealous or anxious or depressed. No one would believe in you for you. No one could replace your self-love.
I had learned this truth so well that I was surprised when I discovered that Daniel loved me for my flaws. He loved that I regretted my assigned sex. He loved that I found many of our high school classes boring and useless before we graduated. He asserted that my body was beautiful as it was, and he loved it more than just as a vessel that contained me, but he fully supported my obsession with changing it. He said that same determination is what led me to berate robotic grocery store managers into accepting food stamps for fruit, and would one day allow me to worm my way into a rent-controlled apartment, or even a career if I were lucky. He admitted, with a blush, that he liked it when that obsessive personality was focused on him.
And I loved him because he was anxious and poor, and because he was loyal and slightly simple. I liked that I could boss him around without his finding me bossy, and that he bossed me around under sheets.
I pressed the buzzer next to 4F, his parents’ apartment number.
He peered out of his fourth story apartment window and recognized me, for the last time, by the silhouette of my old body.
“I’m coming down!” he called. “Get the car started!”
“I don’t have the keys,” I said.
“I’ll throw them down!” He replied, and with a giggle I responded, “Go ahead!” There was a faint clinking sound and the glitter of keys flying toward me. I caught them, not caring that they gave me a small cut on my ring finger. Daniel’s parents’ ancient car wheezed and groaned when I started it up, sputtered and coughed. After I begged it to turn over, the engine rumbled to life.
Daniel raised an eyebrow as he climbed into the car.
“Jane?” he asked, and I felt a flood of relief to be with someone who thought of me as a girl, who used the name I’d chosen instead of the one I was born with.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said, wheeling the car into the intersection. He looked at me sideways, like an animal ready to flee from its predator.
“It’s me, I swear.” He looked nervously at the body-sized trash bag in the back seat. “Hey, remember? We tried to watch a shooting star on the roof of this apartment last week, but all we saw was the orange haze of light pollution.”
He cautiously removed the surgical mask from my face.
“Jane!” His face softened. “What did you—?
“I’ve had a heck of a day.” I turned my windshield wipers on to clear off dead leaves and told him the story from the beginning, watching as his rich brown brow, the very same color as my eyes, grew wrinkled with worry. He leaned his seat back and closed his eyes. I know that if it were him in that cellar he would have burned the body parts. If he were wearing a stranger’s face, he would call the police and turn himself in for theft.
“You’re something, Jane. You’re…”
“Brave? Courageous? Bold? Fearless? Intrepid? Dauntless? Audacious?”
“You’re so stupid,” he said, lacing the insult with earnest affection. “But maybe it’s better than waiting seventy years to be comfortable in your body,” he admitted. “And these nanobots really just latched onto your face?”
“Like a hundred leeches,” I said, nodding. He reached into the back seat and untied the top of my garbage bag. He took out one of my arms and examined the worms, purple-black with only streetlights illuminating them. They seemed to be wiggling less quickly, as if they were losing life. I touched the palm. It had lost much of its warmth.
“And how do you expect to…”
“There’s no way around it,” I said. “You’ll have to cut my head off. Please.” He turned away, tears in his eyes.
“Daniel,” I said, taking his hand. “You said it yourself. Seventy years is too long.”
He murmured something that I didn’t catch. He hated it when I made him repeat himself.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.”
“I said a lifetime without you is too long!”
“Daniel,” I said, trying to comfort him. “We don’t live in a world where a person can be happy without accepting risk.”
He choked on a sob and said, “What’s your plan?” I explained it to him.
It was after midnight when we made it to the highway, and three hours later we crunched along the gravel driveway of a cabin in the woods. Even though it was only one day past the full moon, the woods were nearly pitch black. The night before the moon had hung low on the horizon, brimming with the fairy-tale promise of malice and murder.
We entered the cozy cabin bedroom. The smell of mold and dust filled me with peace. Daniel had brought me here the first chance he could when we began dating. The moments we had shared in that twin-sized bed, below the window, breathing in the clear night air—those moments were the only things we had taken for ourselves, the only things that had not been allotted to us.
We laid Sishette’s body on the bed and reattached her limbs. They fused onto her torso within minutes. Even the seams disappeared. I climbed onto the bed next to her body and put my hand to her chest. There was a faint heartbeat within her ribs, and the maggot-like tendrils on her neck danced at my touch.
Daniel fetched extra trash bags and two flashlights from below his sink while I washed the body with a damp sponge.
We ripped trash bags and taped them together near the woodshed until we had a tarp. It was hard to see, working by flashlight. The beams darted this way and that. There was an ax in the shed. It was sharp, and heavy. I ran my palm lightly on to its edge and blood dotted out. When I returned, Daniel was clutching his belly, staring at the ground.
“Do you want me to write a letter explaining that this isn’t murder? Just in case?” I asked. He shook his head quickly, “no.”
He stared through me, despondent.
“We’re risking more than your life,” he said.
I knelt onto the tarp, matted roughly over twigs and pebbles.
“Seven seconds,” he said, more to himself than me. I put my forehead to the ground and twisted my head so that I was looking at the feet of Sishette. They were so smooth—no blisters or callouses.
Daniel dropped his flashlight to the ground beside me, bathing my head in white light. He grunted as he lifted the ax in the air.
As I remember it, the ax did not kill me. I remember seeing the shadow of my head in front of me, cast by the flashlight. A great fear seized me, a final impulse to cling to life and to dodge the ax-fall. It was replaced by an even greater terror as I saw the shadow roll away, well before the blow. The hallucination seemed to stop my heart in my chest, to paralyze my body, and yet I was sure I heard Daniel say, “I’ll drop it down quickly,” to which my mind replied, “Go ahead.”
“Goodbye,” my shadow said. “I’ll find another boy to follow.”
Daniel later told me he cut through my neck in two strokes, but I remembered only the first. I’d never known humans could feel pain like that. Perhaps only executed prisoners know. The searing flame of Sishette’s face melding onto mine did not compare. Take all that pain, magnify it, and compress it into the three seconds between the fall of the ax and my brain losing enough blood to black out.
I blinked awake to the sound of Daniel howling like a wolf in grief and cradling my head.
“It worked, Daniel,” I said, but my lips moved without any air coming out. I tried again: only a whisper. On the third time I managed the sound. “It worked.” Sishette’s voice came out.
There was blood everywhere. My old body, flaccid now, was still bleeding when I came to—a waterfall of blood onto the tarp. A lake was inching toward us.
Dawn broke slowly through the trees. My body felt wired, young, and new, but my mind was exhausted. It demanded sleep. Still, we couldn’t leave a body in the woods overnight.
Daniel fetched two shovels from the shed and we began to dig. My new body proved weak, and halfway through I knelt down in the dirt and said, “You do it.” He laughed, I don’t know why, and I sat down to watch him bend his back and shovel dirt. We began to wrap the body in the tarp, trying to capture the blood in the middle. My skin grew clammy and I became lightheaded, so I dropped my end and said, “You do it.” He obliged, lowering the body in the hole and replacing the dirt on top of it.
“You need rest,” he said, offering me a hand in the dark. “Can you walk?”
“You do it,” I said. He laughed again, warm and unashamed. He picked me up as if I weighed nothing at all. He kissed me as he crossed the threshold, lighter and quicker than he usually did. His lips felt different, until I realized that it was mine that had changed. They were narrower, but plumper, and seemed more sensitive. We crawled into bed. My last thought before sleep flooded over me was that I was finally smaller than Daniel, and I fit so well against him.
But it was morning already, and the sunlight streaming in the windows kept my mind at the very edge of sleep and wake. I opened my eyes and felt my old body, soft and male. I screamed in horror, my head splitting in pain. I woke up again, in my new body, firm and female, but I was hugging Sishette instead of Daniel. I woke up a third time in a large cockroach’s body, lying prone on my back, alone, but I knew that one was a dream, waited patiently for it to end.
I’d rather not recount what happened next in detail. Suffice it to say I woke up with a wildness and a hunger.
When both were sated, we heard the crunch of wheels pulling into the driveway.
“Could that be your uncle’s friend?” I asked in a panic.
“I don’t know who it is,” Daniel said. “You’d better get dressed.”
“Tell them you’re alone, and that you have guns.”
I threw on my old T-shirt and it barely reached down past my butt, allowing my lithe legs to poke out. It made me feel fuzzy, like I was wearing Daniel’s clothes.
A rapping knock sounded at the door, and I heard Daniel open it.
“Who are you?” the man demanded of Daniel. “Where’s Sishette?”
“There’s no one here but me and my guns,” Daniel lied.
“Why is a nobody blocking my entry?” the man said in a genuinely perplexed voice.
“Jane, you’d better get out here.”
He was a little man, in a suit, with rodent features: beady black eyes, large cheeks and a permanent sneer wrinkling his nose, like his upper lip smelled ghastly. He was anxious, jangling the keys in his pocket with one hand, again and again. But it was by his ugly toupee that I recognized him. This was Harold Dollarhide, one of perhaps five lawyers in the country famous enough to still have a practice. He represented the most elite celebrities, and occasionally took on a pro bono case: an ordinary criminal who would become a household name through his intervention.
The little man began talking, unstoppable, like a jackhammer pounding words into the room: “Sishette, darling, I was afraid you’d do something stupid. My clients—the ones who are as rich as you, at least—their managers often tell them to run from justice. I was afraid, when you disappeared, that someone had convinced you to get intensive surgery and flee the country. And then what, I wonder? Live on whatever money you managed to shuffle out of your bank account before it was frozen? Live an anonymous life of abject poverty? You look confused. Yes, this is going to trial. You’re in a lot of trouble. But there are people who care about you—a lot of people. That’s all that matters in this world; that’s the only currency left. If you run away and change your face, no one will try to punish you, but no one will try to help you either. Really, if you’re still entertaining any notion of going on the lam, I suggest you discard it. Please tell your male escort to back off, he’s crowding my personal space. I might as well be frank, you’re going to prison. But it’s not going to be a long time—too many people make a healthy living off of you. And I’ve got big plans for your prison sentence. The scene starts with you crying on the stand, but it ends big. Listen, Sishette, darling, it’s time we brought television and celebrity to the prison system. It’s the last arena of American life not dramatized for viewing pleasure. And get this, we can’t have androids abusing Sishette in jail, can we? The public won’t stand for it! We need to hire human prison wardens! The first celebrity guards! And from there we’ll do a spinoff show where famous boxers face off against hardened street criminals, so that street thugs can finally join the ranks of notoriety outside of their ghettos… am I going too fast? Get in my car and I’ll explain on the way. But believe me, this will all go better if you turn yourself in.”
Daniel tried to interrupt, but I was faster. “What am I accused of?”
“Sorry? Murder, of course.”
“I’m innocent,” I responded, immediately.
“Innocent? Darling, not only are you guilty, they have video footage of you killing him. There is no mistaking your face or your paramour Agnor’s in the clip. And you know the rule: everything on television is true.”
“She’s not Sishette!” shouted Daniel. God, I loved him so much, but he’d just blown our position.
“You’re not…” I could see Dollarhide’s lawyer brain revving like an engine, processing new data.
“She found Sishette’s body in medical waste! We put her brain in it,” said Daniel with tears in his eyes. And then fiercely: “I won’t let you take her.”
That one night spooning wasn’t enough, could never be enough. I wanted to hold him for the rest of my days.
Dollarhide examined Daniel. He turned to me, his eyes taking in the baggy T-shirt. Eventually, his verbosity caught back up with him. “There’s no television in this house, and thus no way to get the news, so it’s likely you haven’t heard about what Sishette did last night.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “You said, ‘What am I accused of,’ and then you said, ‘I’m innocent.’ Neither of those statements revealed that you weren’t Sishette, and both caused me to give you information about the crime. More importantly, you did not technically lie as you gathered data. That was very, very,” he nodded at me, stroking a non-existent beard in approval, “lawyerly. I like you, Sishette 3.0. You’ve got what it takes. We’ll have to change your eye color slightly and replace three of your molars with golden duplicates. Sishette has three gold teeth—not widely known information. You’ll have to study her life so that there aren’t any holes in your memory, but you seem clever enough for the job.”
It’s silly to say, but I worried that Daniel would doubt it was me inside this body if he saw me battling wits with another celebrity. Nevertheless, it had to be done: “If you’ll allow me to continue gathering information,” I said, “I’d like to know how you found this cabin.”
“Oh heavens, how could I forget. There’s a GPS chip in your body, implanted by Sishette’s security team. I had access to your location because I’m your lawyer. The police will be here as soon as the warrant goes through.”
I should have burned the body.
“When should we expect them?” I said, barely able to breathe.
“An hour?” he guessed.
I ran my hand nervously through my hair. It was the only part of my old body that was left. The familiarity was oddly comforting. Daniel watched me, saw that old tic, and I knew that he knew me.
And then I heard the sound of a helicopter.
“Or sooner,” said Harold.
The door to our cabin burst open and five robots entered, fluid on their praying-mantis legs, pointing guns at our faces.
“Hands up!” They boomed. It was in the same monotone voice as “Shall I throw it down?” but so loud it rattled my skull and kindled the flames of a dormant headache.
Daniel and I both raised our arms, quivering with fear. The synthetic adrenaline made me so dizzy that I felt like my head was floating off my body.
Harold screamed at the robots, “Where’s your damn facial-recognition software? Look at this mug of mine!”
The helicopter had landed in a small meadow at the end of the dirt road. The wind from its blades blew into the little cabin and rattled the pans against the wall.
Major Henry entered the room. He looked so much larger than he did on television, hunting down terrorists and interrogating criminals. The only human officer who can keep pace with police androids. That was the tagline of his show, wasn’t it? Was his last name really Henry, or was there some sort of reference to John Henry in there?
A robot with wheels for feet and a camera for a head followed Major Henry.
“Shall I turn it on?”
“Wait!” He barked. “I’m not ready for you to film us just yet.” He turned his famous yellow eyes on me. “Sishette,” he said with certainty. “Harold Dollarhide,” he continued, looking at the lawyer who stood with his arms crossed defiantly while ours were draining of blood in the air.
He glanced with a small huff of disgust at Daniel, asked, “Who the hell are you?” and then shot him in the throat. Something deep inside of me that I didn’t know was breakable, broke.
There was a woman shrieking in pain in a crowded cabin, and that woman was me. I could bear the pain of an ax severing the tender nerves of my neck, but I couldn’t withstand this.
By the time I could make sense of what I was saying, I heard myself shouting “The ax! The ax! Quickly! He’s drowning!” His neck was bubbling and gurgling, draining out, and I couldn’t save him because two insectoid robots had locked my arms in place. Daniel was grasping hopelessly at his neck.
“There’s an ax buried with a body out by the shed.” I tried to control my voice even though I was hyperventilating. “If we put Daniel’s head on my body right now we can save him.”
One of the police-bots dropped a gun out of its proboscis. The major pulled a pair of latex gloves out of his pocket and stretched them over his hands. He bent down, and forced Daniel’s fingerprints onto the gun. Then, peeling off the gloves, he said to me with a laugh, “What the hell are you on about, Sishette?” He turned to his entourage. “Start the camera up. I’m ready to make my arrest.
“Shall I turn it on?”
“Go ahead! Bloody hell, what did I just say?”
And the camera wasn’t pointed at the floor, so it didn’t see Daniel’s eyes roll into the back of his head as the last bit of life ebbed from his body. It didn’t record his blood flooding the little cabin where we were happy and complete for just a few hours.
I continued my raving. I thought, in desperation, that if I could explain the whole story, Henry would let me save Daniel. I had lasted a few seconds without a body, but Daniel was stronger than me. I was sure he could make it longer. I watched the minutes pass on a clock over the sink, and my story grew more confused as despair clouded the events.
“Go back. Where did you allegedly find this body?”
“Shut up! Shut up! Never talk to the cops!” (Dollarhide.)
“Why would you put on someone else’s face?”
“Transgender woman? What kind of genitals did you have before all of this started?”
“I’m sorry, you cut your head off? And lived?”
“P27, go check the woods. I want to find this decapitated body buried in a tarp.”
With each passing second, Daniel’s body was undergoing irreparable brain damage, and after ten minutes of trying to get my story out I gave up and crumpled to the floor, an empty Sishette husk.
“‘Someone stole my cyborg body,’” Henry mocked as he manacled me. He shoved me into the back seat of the helicopter. “What excuse will you stupid artist celebs come up with next?”
And that is the story I told Major Henry. My legal defense has advised me that I should write an accurate version for the record, since I was caught making mad claims about brain transplants in front of Major Henry’s cameras. This document serves as the coherent version of my first story.
Dollarhide has also made me realize the potential harm that this ludicrous story could have caused so many people. I admit that when I sat down in this interrogation room I fully believed my own hallucinations. The act of writing has been therapeutic, however, and I have achieved some clarity regarding my situation. I am ready to confess my crimes.
The truth is that I am Sishette, and I have always been Sishette. And yes, I murdered Agnor, but it was an act of self-defense. Like so many celebrities before him, Agnor had become impotent, depraved, and drug-addled. He abused me physically and emotionally. I do not want to detail his crimes against me; that’s Mr. Dollarhide’s job during the trial. My trauma will be well documented on Macster McKinnon, MD, in a three-hour special episode.
Agnor had an accomplice—a man he called The Pharmacist, who became a constant co-tormenter in my life. After weathering years of Agnor’s abuse in silence, I snapped and stabbed him with his own knife. My devoted fan, a man whose name I can’t recall but who had access to a private cabin in the woods, helped me lure The Pharmacist to the country, decapitate him, and bury him. Neither Agnor nor The Pharmacist can harm another woman.
And if you happen to find a golden tooth in The Pharmacist’s pocket, well, I’m sure Mr. Dollarhide and I can spin you a tale of how it got there.
The gruesome nature of my crime and recent trauma in my life caused me to retreat to a fantasy world in which I was innocent. I don’t know when or how I invented the personality of the transgender girl and her tragic true love, but Dr. McKinnon assures me it was a subconscious coping device. The delusion only broke when it became easier to be Sishette, slaughterer of two swine, than Jane, murderess of the only man she loved.