6430 words, short story
The ThoughtBox sits planted to the wall next to the distribution box. It’s a slim, expensive hand-sized model that you brought home (stolen) for our anniversary. I heave out a breath. Relief. You step into the kitchen beaming. You’re happy. Happy is good. You have a gorgeous smile; I don’t want to turn it into a sulk. You’ve just had a fresh cut, what some people call a fuck-boy cut. You’re experimenting. Your eyes aren’t their typical lazy, half-lidded and red-eyed gaze, which means at least today you didn’t come home high. At least tonight, you’ll stay awake. As usual, you offer your hand to the ThoughtBox first. I glare at it as if it were your mistress.
I remember the first time you brought it home, pushed it onto our living room floor like it was a pet: “Now we get to hear each other’s thoughts. Good for our relationship, don’t you think?” You smiled so widely, I was afraid to say no. “Remember that night you were crying? I couldn’t understand what you were saying. You wanted so badly for me to understand what you’re going through. Remember, love?”
I remember. That night, lightning stroked the clouds, sunset-tinged. I’d picked you from the airport, our aircar rattling, chugging on low fuel through a chockful of air-traffic. I stared at the fuel meter, biting my lip, needing you to assist financially in fueling the car, but our journey home was overwhelmed with your incessant ringing cochlear phone: troubled clients, work issues—your earlobes burned the entire ride. Tomorrow, I thought. Tomorrow I’ll ask. You’d returned from your two week long work trip strained and morose. When we got into the house, you dumped your bags on the floor, threw your clothes aside and sank into a warm bath. I cleaned up after you, pushing time, waiting. Then I heard you yell out, “Where’s my towel?” in a grumpy tone, which I handed to you like a hotel room attendant.
You’d trained me well. By the time you strapped your gown on, your plate of paleche and oxtail stew was waiting for you by your laptop tube, which you unrolled into A1 size verifying the drawings for your family’s design firm. It reminded me of our varsity days, of the traditional black-and-red storage tubes every artist student carried everywhere and where we’d keep all our drawings during our studio days.
You were sitting at your desk when I approached you, trying to ease into the conversation because every breath in this relationship escalates into an argument, and I don’t know how to maneuver breathing anymore. “How was the trip?” I asked.
On our wide desk, you stared at your hologram screen, tweaking through the formidable and anachronistic archibus software, hunchbacked, eyes tense. I once asked you why you always kept quiet when I talked to you or asked you questions, you’d said you were still thinking of a response until, after a forever-wait, I requested your response. It turned out you weren’t listening at all. It’s that passive expression you have. That doesn’t reveal anything, not even to me. I just don’t want my emotions all over my face, love, you once said. For people to read me. Because that’s how they destroyed me to begin with.
And people reveal secrets about themselves by what they say, don’t they? Because my emotions are always wet across my face, and you snort them, getting high off them. So I sat at the edge of the table and refilled your glass. “How was your trip?” I repeated softly. Silence. Waiting, I stared out our window: no trees, no expansive land, just a boundary wall. A rabbit warren, this place was.
That pensive stare. The glass on the table, I could slog you with it, break that skull and perhaps see your emotions bleed all over our floor. Taste your blood, see if it’s human. I pinched the skin between my eyes. Something was terribly wrong with me. How could I think like that about you?
You reached for the glass and took a deep swig. “It was fine. Boring. Just training how to operate this new software for the clinics.”
I leaned forward. “This it?” It looked like the old, way-back-when 3-D software that designers used to draw up mansions, strip malls, prison facilities. A mall. “When was the last time we went on a date? Did something nice?”
“I don’t get to be like you, sitting around at home all day.”
Your body was a state of calm, which is always the case when you dismember me and minimize what I do. But a chord snapped in me, sirens of pain flared up. I didn’t want to shout, no, because you find it disrespectful when I raise my voice. A woman shouldn’t do that. Shouldn’t talk back to her boyfriend. I get it that things are done differently in your family, but do you know how disrespectful it is the way you talk to me? you’d warned me once. Where I come from, we value family, and when we are married, you must be up before my grandmother wakes, make sure the house is clean, and you must cook for my grandfather, you’d continued.
I keep doing things for you, how are you taking care of my heart or my family? I replied weakly. And you just walked off. Is that really a future I want? I know I was having this argument alone in my head, recalling things. This is the way things work, I need to grow up and accept that’s what marriage will be. I can’t marry into families and just shit on tradition. It’s fine, I thought, I’m sure I can manage.
“I don’t just sit at home,” I said, quietly. “It’s actually hard work being self-employed, wondering where my next salary is coming from.”
Your fingers scrolled through the hologram screen, and after a few minutes I asked if you heard me. “Ja,” you said. “There’s nothing I can say that won’t make you angry.”
I stared at the boundary wall, a bird sitting on its top.
“Did you get my messages?” I asked.
“What messages?” You always do that. I’ll call or send a message, but you’ll claim you’ve never seen them, which is ironic given the endless business calls you rarely leave unanswered. You have this upgraded cochlear phone your boss has implanted into your ear so you’re always wired, on the ready for 24/7 business calls. You made me get it once. I hated that thing, used to burn up my ear, disrupted my sleeping patterns. It makes you snore so relentlessly that I just want to snip your lungs off. I had the manufacturer take mine out, and sometimes I can barely hear out of my left ear. And I caught you once, in the mall, when you sent me to get your order papers in the aircar, I buzzed and buzzed your cochlear phone and you just let the vibrations continue in your skull endlessly without answering. I found you standing in an aisle, watching the shop consultants cut a five-meter cord for you, the tinny red light blinking in your earlobe.
I’m not crazy, but I knew it then that you actually ignore my calls. You have two of them, these little slim expensive devices implanted in both ears. And if I scrolled through their call records, I’d find my missed calls. My ignored messages. And I wonder, if you just watch the ID caller fill your vision, see my name, cringe, and swipe it aside. But I don’t want to believe that, I don’t want to believe that you’ll ignore me during our difficult time, during a time you’ve put me in debt. I’ve never been in debt before until we moved in together.
I refilled your glass again and said, “The messages I sent you about—”
Your ears pinged red. A call. Your reflexes snapped; your eyes turned foggy. “Hello?” you answered so obediently, like a dog, leashed to the system. The conversation turned into you scanning through your laptop to remedy the problem that was being reported by the client on the other side. Sometimes I wished I was as important as your job. I felt terrible because I know you’re busy and overwhelmed with work. I wouldn’t function as a human if I were in your shoes. I just felt too lonely.
That night, I’d said to you, “You’re too busy to be in a relationship. You don’t hear me, understand me, or have time for me anymore.” I wished you’d let me go, it’d be easier, but it’d kill me.
And that’s why you brought that cackling ThoughtBox. Into our house.
“Now we get to hear each other’s thoughts,” you said, smiling. “I will be able to understand you now, love.” You held me tightly, kissed me on my forehead, and murmured, “I love you, Ogone.”
Snatches of advertising intermission woke me up that midafternoon. The Internet is part of our inhales and exhales, it’s dissolved into the air like fine dust. The internet is everywhere, in the air we breathe, in the food we grow. Sometimes I wish I could disconnect from it, but I’m still updating my mental mail and apps. I sit up, tilt the orange juice box into my mouth, and finish the last drop of our food.
It’s best for relationships to be transparent, you’d said. This thing you got as a gift from a client, but it’s a lie I try to believe, because these things aren’t supposed to be consumed by the public. It’s a prototype restrained to office buildings of detectives and forensic anthropologists. The LED light is amber, which means it’s updating or something, but it’s still recording every thought in my mind regardless of proximity. Bluetooth, wireless, all the works, given the feed you made us consume on our bed that became mechanical nanobots circulating my nervous system connecting me to this ThoughtBox. I sigh. The steam of my coffee rises into the air and I blow on it before taking a sip. I look out the picture window of our two-bedroomed apartment and nature looks deadpan and beat.
“Ogone, he should have just gotten you flowers or a trip to the Maldives not a fucking AI snitch,” my friend, Keaboka, says. Her hologram-narrow body sits on the edge of the kitchen counter during our call. I can make out the features of her open-plan office in the background, a traffic of white-collar employees moving about like uniformed buzzing sheep behind her gray cubicle. “ThoughtBoxes are used for forensic investigations and insurance companies to sniff out duplicity, not to hand out to your girlfriend so you can stalk her mind. How the fuck did he even get one?”
“He says a client gave it to him.”
“He just gets worried about me, all the way out here alone and—”
“Brah, you’re not in the fucking bundus or in the middle of the desert. You live in a gated estate. What the fuck? Is he afraid the neighbor’s daughter is going to steal into your house with a chainsaw and hack you to death?” She giggles, amused by her joke.
“I also get to read his thoughts.”
“Oh?” She props up onto her elbows, her bob-shaped braids shake as her brown eyes brighten with excitement. “So, anything juicy?”
“He’s stressed about work, his work trip up north, the incessantly irritating client, and his boss. This morning, he had a sweet thought. He was watching me sleep and he thought of how much he loves me, how he’s planning to marry me—”
She jerks her head back. “Sounds scripted.”
“Why would you say that?”
“It’s just . . . too perfect. His thoughts could literally win an acting award.” She chews on her lower lip and I know she’s hesitating to ask me something. “So how do you read each other’s thoughts?”
“The ThoughtBox prints them out. I can opt for a mental listen or read them through a hologram screen. Of course, his thoughts sound like his voice.”
She blows out her lips. “Ag, creepy. My boyfriend and I have a very organized relationship, thank you. He can have his side dish, I can have my own side dish as long as we respect each other.”
I lean back on the stool laughing. “Now that’s creepy.”
“Can you . . . can you delete or edit thoughts before you listen or read them?”
My eyes flick away from her. “Ja, but that would appear as a deletion in the logbook. I deleted something once and he gave me the moody silent treatment for a week.”
“Has he deleted something?”
I look down. “Ja. When I asked him about it, he was honest. He’d signed a nondisclosure agreement for a project his company started working on. And well, his thought revealed too much detail that would compromise his job.”
“Brah, you’re his girlfriend, not a fucking AI snitch.” She shakes her head, rattling the beaded braids. “You really love this guy, huh?” She doesn’t say it with envy or joy, she says it with pity, like I’m being naïve, so I quickly add, “I am living with him.”
She taps her manicured nail on her table absentmindedly. “That’s not what I asked. I just wish you hadn’t moved in with him. No wonder why he’s so chilled with shit. Other guys, sure, they’d get more serious, but he’s . . . I don’t know, taking advantage of you. You know you can be open with me, right?” She chews on her thumb’s nail and adds, “Don’t worry, we’re not on loudspeaker, my colleagues can’t hear what I’m saying except you.” The hands-free hologram calls were recently upgraded in such a way that only the caller and respondent could see each other and hear each other’s voices. The sounds are muted to every party. My hologram form that appears in her office is invisible to her colleagues.
I quickly add, “Our company could be in competition with that client’s project, and I could subconsciously end up using the idea . . . unaware.”
“Eish, ja-nee. Well if you trust him. But, tsalu, it looks like there’s more bothering you.”
I turn the mug in my hands and stare at the ripples in my tea. How can I deliver this in such a way that makes me less stupid? Keaboka has been my best friend since childhood, but she just has this way of making me feel like I’m naïve and in need of hand-holding in making smart decisions.
I take a deep breath and blow it out. “He says he didn’t get paid this month. So I’ve used the last remaining of my savings to pay the rent and this month’s costs. I’m just trying to figure out how to make money.”
Her eyes widen. “Hold up. Doesn’t he already owe you money?”
I heave in a breath. “Ja, since last year.”
“I know, I know what you’re going to say. Listen, I don’t mind my boyfriend borrowing money from me, especially if he’s stuck, you know.”
“We’re four months into the new year.” She claps her hands the way only a Motswana can do in shock. “This guy though. He owes you money, and then he doesn’t contribute to your ‘cohabiting’ expenses. Yet he’s sleeping in your bed, eating the food you cook, walking through the house you clean, wearing the clothes you wash for him, hammering your vagina whenever he wants, and then showing all of this off to his relatives and friends because you’re a ‘kept’ woman. Brah, you’re enabling this asshole.”
That’s my blunt, no-filter best friend.
I place my mug down, hoping the air will hold me.
“You’re investing your time and money into a guy who’s just taking and taking,” she continues. “He hardly gives you the time, he hardly helps you with anything. He doesn’t pay for shit, then he makes you feel guilty for all these things—he’s the only one gaining from this relationship.”
“No, come on. His work-and-family situation is very unstable and . . . abnormal, but it won’t be forever. Things will work out eventually. We’re just waiting for things to tide over. He’s overworking and he doesn’t really have time, and the company he’s working for hasn’t paid him this year. He doesn’t even have time to look for another job, it’s not like it’s easy—many of our friends are unemployed!”
“You always have excuses for him,” she says. “If he’s not getting paid then why stay? Why can’t he just stay at home with you and hustle to make your own money? I swear he’s just lying to you, but you, just—God, why do you always believe him? He probably knows he can get away with anything when it comes to you. I mean, what if he’s actually getting paid and hiding the money from you?”
“No, no, no. He’s not like that. These are facts we can’t change. Things will look up at his job. They’ll pay him, then I can recoup my costs.”
“We gave him three chances.” She lifts three fingers to count off. “One: he said things will be better if he moved out so you could spend time together. Two: when you tried breaking up with him a million times because it didn’t work out, he promised he would make things better. Three: he promised things would be way better if you two moved in together. You’re not living with a man, you’re living with a devil baby who’s so comfortable that his needs are met and not yours. He is not your child. You are not his parent. You need to start living for yourself.”
My body turns cold, the whole world shakes, ripples. I’m cold. I’m feverish. It’s not true. I am both the girlfriend and boyfriend in this relationship. No, but he loves me. He can’t be that cruel.
“And last thing, I don’t trust him,” she says. “He’s hiding or manipulating his thoughts somehow, so you don’t see Satan laughing behind his face.”
“I feel sick,” I say. “He wouldn’t do this to me. He loves me.”
She turns her head quickly as if something caught her attention, though I can’t see. She cranes her neck. “Or shit, the boss is hobbling his fat ass over. Gotta go. Chat later. Please take care, choms!” She reaches out to the screen to end our call.
Her hologram figure fizzles like white noise, and soon all I see is the kitchen counter, dryer, and washing machine no longer obscured by her opaque hologram. The silence is ostentatious, it has a deafening voice clearly telling me how alone I am. I hate being this lonely, it itches all over me like an allergy.
I jump when an echo sounds: “Call ended,” a neutral, bodiless voice responds. Our home system. He has our home calibrated to our minds. The heating and air-conditioning system. The coffee maker. The door automaton system. And right now, my design work, which I’ve mentally projected out from my computer as a 3-D object which has taken up the entire space of my home office. I walk through one of the bedroom designs of a multi-residential project I’m working on for my company. I am an architect and property developer. I started this company with my boyfriend hoping it would sustain us in the future. Except, because of his overworked job, I’m doing all the work, reading through the contracts, vetting all sellers, analyzing market trends of plots and property markets, and injecting all funds from my savings. You’re his golden goose, you’ve sure made it too comfortable for him that he would never leave, Keaboka had said. I laughed it off. But I’m now sitting here in the 3-D design, knowing that whatever decision I have over the interior décor, I still must run it past him, and how his hard criticism will chide me. I pinch my wrist. I hate the way he always looks at my creative work with a serious bored face and picks the one thing he hates. Always. Never mentions something good and something bad. Only bad. I do all the work and all he gets to do is decline or offer a signature after much begging to read through the contents.
Then I’m blamed for the decision-making.
“You make the decisions, it’s not like you’re interested in my input or my ideas,” he once revealed during an argument, “you made sure you had a higher number of shares, but anyway you put in the money, so my thoughts aren’t important.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to make you feel this way. It’s just that . . . ” and I was too afraid to say it: that you’re always too busy to spare a second to go over things. I knew it would lead to another sulky and moody event. Lately, even when I call him for his input, he’s too busy. When I send him an alarm message, he hardly responds.
So I wait for him.
I wait for him.
God, I wait for him.
So he doesn’t feel small,
I slump against the wall and I want to sob. I want to destroy everything that closes me in, including myself. I throw the cup of coffee against the visualization of my design. The cup just waddles through the hologram projection,
fibrillating the walls it skims through
until it hits a
Who are you?
I knew it. You’re deleting your thoughts. I know it’s not just work-related ones, but you’re hiding something from me.
When I extracted the morning logbook after my workout, with a steaming cup of coffee now in hand, I coughed out the hot beverage onto the digital printout. The hologram reported a night’s worth of deleted thoughts. Every single one. You were sleeping for fuck’s sake. What was so revealing about work that you had to get up and delete them? This was becoming ridiculous. If it was me, you’d be despondent and moody for a month. But that’s not it. The time stamps remained, showing that you were up at 2:33 AM, a couple of hours after I went to bed. Your mind was overworking like a seething laptop processing heavy software until 4:17 AM, which explains your sharp, moody behavior that morning. Snapping at me because you didn’t get much sleep.
Well, I bought a File Recovery, installed it into my mind depository, despite how expensive it was, to recover mind files “that are accidentally deleted” goes the description. And, well, our thoughts are files. If you are telling the truth, that your thoughts are in fact work-related, I’ll dump the file recover and I’ll never go behind your back again. It’s the least I can do for doubting you.
Twenty-four hours it has been since I mentally linked the recovery app to the ThoughtBox. I logged you out from the ThoughtBox as soon as you left for work, but there’s not much I can do for the thought-reporting chip you shot into my neck. The requested files have been recovered. If you catch me going behind your back like this and I’m wrong, I’ll manage your moods for at least a month; they can’t last longer than that, right?
I’ve been sitting in a locked bathroom in case you come home. Using the hologram screen, a message floats before me: Read through the terms and conditions and press accept to obtain the recovered files. I’m on my knees now, leaning against the bathroom cabinet, and I’m too afraid to accept, too afraid to read the truth. What will I find? Will you still be the same man I fell in love with? I don’t even read the T&C’s, couldn’t be bothered really. I close my eyes and jab my finger against the “accept” icon. A window in gray shades comes up with an .exe file that I must install, which a program in my mind depository can read. Once I run the .exe file, I flip the hologram window with my right hand, and it opens an MTM (mind text messaging) app that allows for free international conversations and shows a list of dated backup files, which are basically thoughts you deleted.
I hold my breath as the chat opens, obscuring the shower behind it. Fear trickles into my chest when a series of images and texts fill the empty space of the hologram. The first thing I see is a snapshot of someone’s breasts, their thighs, and their insides, like I’m watching a medical procedure through a laparoscope that tunnels its way through them. I clasp my hand to my mouth. My whole world turns black as I try to slap away the images. Is this a joke? The conversations span back one year. I scroll through the messages between you and your correspondent Boothang69, who’s in Shenzhen, China.
Her profile picture is a photograph of my face, intensely photoshopped. Except, it’s a mask she’s wearing. What sick-minded game is this? Why would another woman want to wear the face of the girlfriend? The masked girl is staring up at the camera, smiling, large eyes, a weave on. She’s squeezing into her breasts, so they appear bigger, the cleavage showing.
I zoom into the photograph. Before proceeding, I grab her picture with my hand and throw it into the web on another window, hoping the scan will reveal her online identity. I watch the loading icon, a silver light zipping around a circle, and finally a picture comes up. Her name is Gorata Tau. She’s studying for an MBA in China. I flip through her photographs. She’s on the metro. She’s in front of a street with fairy lights. She’s smiling at the camera, and behind her is Canton Complex in Guangzhou with steely skyscrapers. I feel faint, my armpits sticky with sweat. I switch to the other hologram window to read the chats:
Boothang69: I love you, boo. Couldn’t stop thinking about you. 2:44 AM
You: Send me a picture. I miss her, the warmth between your legs. 2:45 AM
Boothang69: How about a hologram connection like last time? 2:45 AM
You: Babe, you got me going crazy. If only I could feel your body. I miss you so badly. I need you back home. 2:45 AM
Boothang69: Ya know, soon I’ll be there. Isn’t she taking care of you? 2:46 AM
You: She’s so stiff. She’s not like you. 2:46 AM
Boothang69: You won’t have to wait so long. One more year left. 2:46 AM
. . .
You’re really cheating on me. I don’t believe in a fight that some women get into with other women because the guy wronged you. Your partner is the one who committed adultery. What is the point of fighting someone outside the relationship, as if he can’t find another one? Am I then going to hunt down every single woman you cheat on me with? No. This war is between you and I. I scroll down to last night’s messages, which only confuse me more.
Boothang69: Babe. You up? 2:34 AM
You: Ja, aren’t you in class? 2:39 AM
Boothang69: It’s 8:40, the lecturer’s running late. 2:40 AM
You: You feeling better this morning? 2:41 AM
Boothang69: Fuck, no! 2:41 AM
Boothang69: Where is she? 2:41 AM
You: Hibernating. Jesus, she’s a lot of work. She’s not acting according to our plans. 2:42 AM
Boothang69: WHAT?? 2:42 AM
Boothang69: Did you find out why she logged you out from the ThoughtBox? 2:43 AM
Boothang69: Hello? 2:46 AM
Boothang69: Where are you??? This is bugging me. 2:49 AM
You: Sorry. It’s almost 3 AM. She was just up for a glass of water. I was still talking to her. 2:50 AM
Boothang69: What? She can eat now??? Isn’t that dangerous? 2:50 AM
You: No. The glass was empty. She sees it as filled with water. She “thinks” she can eat and drink, but her plate is always empty. 2:51 AM
Boothang69: Oh, that’s a relief. 2:52 AM
You: I didn’t want to tell you this because ur stressed with classes, but the monitoring-and-remote-controlling chip is not working . . . I can’t hear her thoughts. 2:55 AM
Boothang69: What the fuck! 2:55 AM
Boothang69: Since when? 2:55 AM
Boothang69: Why are you only telling me this now????? 2:56 AM
Boothang69: Oh, modimo. We’re fucked. We’re seriously fucked. We can’t have her running around unsupervised. Do you understand how in serious shit we’ll be??????? 2:57 AM
Boothang69: Why are you taking forever to respond? This is FUCKING important! 3:07 AM
You: I’m sorry, babe, I was on a call with a client. 3:13 AM
Boothang69: Jesus, we need to bury her. 3:13 AM
You: People around here know her. If she disappears again, I’ll be their first suspect. I’d hate it if you got punished too. 3:14 AM
Boothang69: My aunt was taken in, incarcerated. She hung herself in a fucking toilet. I can’t go to prison. I won’t survive. 3:14 AM
You: I won’t let it come to that. I’d rather take the fall than have you suffer. I love you, s’thandwa same. 3:16 AM
Boothang69: I told you we should’ve never given her an identity. Never. We should’ve hidden her, tied her in a basement or something. 3:16 AM
Boothang69: I don’t trust her. What the fuck was she doing yesterday? 02:40 AM
You: She says she was working from home. The gardener said a professional-looking woman visited her. 3:19 AM
Boothang69: Why the hell are you so calm? I did this for you. 3:19 AM
You: I know, and I appreciate you for that. Babe, you need to relax. I have her under control. 3:23 AM
Boothang69: We can’t get caught, ja. 3:23 AM
Boothang69: This shit is stressing me the fuck out. 3:25 AM
Boothang69: I can’t sleep. 3:25 AM
Boothang69: If they find out who she is—Jesus, I keep seeing her face on the news. It’s driving me mad. 3:25 AM
Boothang69: Where the hell are you? 3:28 AM
Boothang69: You’re not taking this seriously. 3:35 AM
You: I’m sorry, babe, I was on another call. Just why does she have to be goddamn difficult? 3:38 AM
Boothang69: You and that fucking job. You’re always busy! 3:39 AM
Boothang69: Fuck this. I’m getting on a flight tonight. 3:39 AM
You: Wait. What?! 3:40 AM
You: What about your dissertation? Your studies? 3:40 AM
Boothang69: Are you kidding me? There’ll be no future with this bitch acting out. We need to sort her out. Clearly, you need manpower. 3:41 AM
You: I’m really sorry. I hate disappointing you. 3:41 AM
You: You still there? 3:47 AM
You: Babe, she’s made a lot of money for us in the past year, which paid for your studies. Let’s just run her for another year. Just be patient. 3:52 AM
Boothang69: No. I am coming home, finish and klaar. Get everything ready. 3:52 AM
You: Ok. 3:53 AM
You: What should I prepare? 3:59 AM
You: Hello? 4:07 AM
You: Um, have a safe flight. I love you. 4:17 AM
. . .
The floor is cold under my feet. The knobs of the cabinets have eaten into my back and my spinal cord hurts. I stretch out my legs, refusing to face what I’ve just read. The hologram glows in front of me and the bathroom darkens, clouds overshadowing the sun. These messages are from last night, which means she’ll be arriving tonight at the latest. Why are they so concerned about me and my diet? What identity did they give me? Who is this woman? Why do they need me under their control? What the hell is going on? They want me to disappear. No. No. You wouldn’t do that. I stare at myself in the mirror, your words with your mistress running through my mind:
I told you we should’ve never given her an identity.
She’s not acting according to our plans.
We’re seriously fucked. We can’t have her running around unsupervised.
She can eat now??? Isn’t that dangerous?
I keep seeing her face on the news.
If they find out who she is . . .
If she disappears again.
Let’s just run her for another year.
Who are they referring to that they’re so afraid will find me? You keep seeing my face on the news, and it makes your mistress sick, but how come I haven’t seen my face on the news? If I disappear again? Am I a missing person? Did you take me in?
I press my hand against the mirror and I feel like a stranger. “Who are you? What have you become? What has he done to me?” I ask, staring at my reflection. I draw my arm back, strike it into the mirror. A sharp sound; glass cascades into the porcelain sink. “Who are you!” I shout at the mirror. I bang my arm again. “Who are you?” My face distorts into anger and confusion.
When I look down, night-like liquid spills down the white of the sink. I do not bleed like other people. My blood is not red. I have no menstrual cycles. I do not consume food nor liquids. Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? I look at my arm. A shard of glass has sliced it open. The skin is folded back, like an orange peel. I pull it further back, inspecting what lies beneath my skin:
In my arm, there are fiber cords and not veins.
There are tubes and steel but no bone.
So what is in the rest of my body?
in my limbs are responsible for my tactile reception
that my brain-search can identify.
I inspect the flap of skin:
this is lab-harvested biological tissue and muscles,
fused with technology,
with a venous network of nano-sized sensor-wires
meshed onto my endoskeleton
inside me, there are nanobots used for cell regeneration.
Aluminum alloy lies beneath this skin like bone.
I fold into myself on the floor. “Who are you?” I cry to the cloud-eclipsed sun.
I drag your tongue
You didn’t come home.
You stayed at work. Showered at work. Slept at your desk.
Twenty-four hours I’ve sat here waiting for you. You tell me you’ll be home tonight.
For one year, you continued this other life, sending each other nude snapshots. I remember our friends during our game nights, lightly telling me over shots how I’m obsessed with you, that I have the peculiar OCD to tend to your every need. Maybe I crave pain. Maybe sadness feels like home. Maybe it’s nice to blame you for something. It feels safer to be in your realm than outside. It’s the only environment I know, from childhood to adulthood. I keep choosing people like you, as if you are all twins in love with your dominant role. Your wrongs make mine feel lesser, make me feel like the perfect human being. Hey, you abuse people. At least I’m better. I may flirt with a guy, keep him wrapped around my finger, but I’d never do anything as bad as that.
But this. The thing I learn about you. You have crossed the line and that is bullshit. Here’s the thing that no one knows about your charm and your pull-the-crowd humor: you’re the obsessed freak. Obsessed with pussies and demands. Mollycoddled by mummy issues. The sexting. The pictures. Naked bodies. Exchanging these illicit texts. The lies—the damning lies about who I really am. I unpack the ThoughtBox, I autopsy it and rummage through the deleted thoughts. The bare truth in postmortem form lies on my living room floor. You’re a bastard. And I need answers:
Who am I?
Who is that woman?
What is wrong with my body?
After everything I have done for you. You do this to me? I stare at it, the evidence of you begging her to send you a picture of her vagina, whilst telling me you love me. Not only me. But you’re begging them. Many girls. Girls who want you to stop asking, who tell you to think about me. But you’re persistent. Our neighbors—God, you begged her, wanting to kiss it. Even our friends. Bloody bliksem, no wonder they gave me strange stares when we were together. This is not only embarrassing. You’ve torn the dignity off my body. You’ve left me naked. And everyone knew. Everyone. Except me.
I search every nook and cranny of news reports online and offline just to find something, something that connects me to something honest and real. And there it is, a hidden report you’ve confiscated from our viewing; it’s a nineteen-year-old woman who disappeared on her walk home from work. Three years ago. Three! When I enlarge the missing-person picture, it is me, except the name is different: Olerato Mosime.
Who are you? What is beneath that skin of yours? Can I flay you like I did the cats in my old neighborhood? See if you have bone or blood.
I don’t want any explanations.
I don’t want your voice and your lies.
I want you dead.
When you enter through the door, I’m not your shitty little submissive girlfriend. I knock you out with a fucking pan. The fucking pan you chided me for misusing. I want the pain in my heart to be a bomb in your body. But what is my plan? To kill you and then what? To kill you because you cheated? Because you two kidnapped me? Because you’re planning to do far worse to me? Because you’re both screwing around with me, trying to control me? And what have you done to my body? Why is my blood black?
I take your life because you took mine. No, you took three years of my life, wasted them, you fucker. And what about my family? My poor family who’ve suffered so many years. Anger, I’ve never felt anger like this. What have I become? I crumble onto my knees. Ashamed of myself. Embarrassed. This is not me. I am not cruel. How can I let this relationship turn me into this ugly thing? You customized me like a sex doll, only I had a mind of my own.
Lies or not, I dial.
The operator answers. “999, what is your emergency?”
“Hello,” I wail, swiping blood and tears from my face. “Please, I need help. I was kidnapped three years ago. I just killed my kidnapper in self-defense. I need help, please.”
Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and architectural articles. Her work has appeared in Terraform, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Wasafiri, and other publications. Her poem "I Will Be Your Grave" was a 2017 Rhysling Award nominee. Her short story, "Virtual Snapshots" was longlisted for the 2017 Nommo Awards. Her novella The Silence of the Wilting Skin is forthcoming from Pink Narcisuss Press in 2020. You can find her on Twitter at @tlotlotsamaase and on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/tlotlotsamaase.