At a deep, confusing point in the night, I’ve had enough to drink to start feeling comfortable around my friends. But I intend to keep going, regardless. I know for sure that I’m in a good place emotionally when Lisa follows me onto the patio and I don’t tunnel into the pile of snow behind it to escape, carving out continuous space in front of me with raw, stinging hands until I can’t feel anymore and I find a new party somewhere else with a different set of people who look oddly familiar.
“Judy!” She digs her fingers into my shoulder. “C’mere.”
We’re the only two people outside in the cold. I notice a huge icicle hanging from the roof near Lisa’s head, illuminated by the string of white lights frozen beneath it. The tip looks sharp enough to be lethal, and I can’t stop staring at it.
“He mentioned you the last time I was over there. I think he wants to hook up.”
“What?” I wasn’t listening at all.
Her eyes wide, fruity vodka on her breath. “He’s interested in you.”
“He’s interested in everybody.”
She laughs. “Yeah. He’s like, collecting us.”
“So tempting, I should really complete that set,” I mock her, and she can’t even tell. That’s how great these drinks are.
“You’ve gotta go over there,” she says, slipping on a spot of black ice in the corner. “Seriously. It’s a wild experience.” Her eyes settle on the empty glass in her hand.
“Watch your step,” I say.
Twenty minutes later, in the kitchen, our mutual something Annabelle has me cornered between the fridge and the table.
“Did Lisa mention Mark?” she asks.
“You need to go over there. Go right now.”
“Judy, come on.”
I can feel the collective eyes of various partygoers moving over me when I’m not looking, like a bunch of fake haunted paintings in old movies.
“I don’t need to be part of your weird ‘been there, done that’ club,” I say, enunciating hard so as not to slur any words. Not entirely a success.
Annabelle leans in closer. “He can show you what you’re really capable of.”
I don’t respond.
“That’s why we’ve all gone over there. He’s so worth it. You won’t even be the same afterwords.”
“You have lipstick on your teeth,” I say.
“What?” She covers her mouth and abandons me. The lie worked.
She left her drink on the counter. I take a sip and whatever it is burns from the back of my throat all the way to the pit of my stomach. It’s nice.
I have no idea what time it is, but it’s late, when I attempt to chat up some guy in the living room as he’s observing the vinyl collection. With each album he touches I mention a factoid that relates the band to my life in some way, but he ignores me. I’m at the level of drunk now that I wonder for a second if he can’t see me at all; maybe I’m a ghost and don’t realize it. The lamest afterlife of all time.
The music feels a little too somber and relatable now and I take that as my cue to begin the long stumble home. Lisa appears to have magically sobered up some and Annabelle is passed out in her lap. They’re blocking my exit.
“Let me call you a cab,” Lisa says.
I wait for it outside. It’s snowing again. I’m alternately sweating from the alcohol and numb from the cold, but my mind is indifferent. Lisa’s house is the only one on the street with the lights still on, and the neighborhood looks like an empty shell in the darkness.
When the cab arrives, the heater is blasting inside because it always is. I give the driver my address and zone out. Something about sitting in the back of a moving sauna that smells like leather, it puts me to sleep.
“Your friend took care of the fare,” the guy says, and I’m startled awake.
“How did she know how much it would cost?”
“She just knew. I guess she’s taken the ride before.”
I’m on the curb before I realize my mistake: trusting Lisa to get me home safely. The buildings around me aren’t familiar, but I know where I am. Mark’s house is concrete and looks more like an office than a dwelling. The walkway has been shoveled and freshly salted. Visitors expected.
He opens the door and I’m reminded why everyone wants to be around him. This is still the same guy that hung out with us at the dorm freshman year of college, putting everyone at ease with his charm before dropping out to do better things. At the same time, though, my buzz is wearing off and I miss the feeling of fire in my chest.
“Judy’s finally here,” he says, grinning.
“Shut up. It’s cold.” I notice how expensive looking all his stuff is. We walk down a hallway to a room full of computer equipment, easing into the catch-up small talk that’s excruciating during the day and nearly impossible to pull off in the middle of the night.
“I know you and I are tight, but I need you to sign a waiver. Everyone does it.”
“Okay.” I’m too distracted by the fact that he considers us close to worry about signing a document. But I glance over it and scratch out my name.
Then I write the check. It’s a lot for me.
“You’ve gotta swear to me that this shit is worth it,” I say, before I hand it over.
“Do my clients not speak for themselves?” He smirks.
I hate him. Except, not really.
“They speak a little too much,” I reply. “They never shut up.”
“When was the last time a really large mental file was extracted from your port?” He asks.
“Oh. Sophomore year of High School, I think. It was a medical procedure.”
I can practically hear my parents complaining, giving me the speech yet again about how in “their day” human beings and technology were still completely separated. I never heard the end of it the day I came home newly ported. Then I showed my dad how I could hook myself up directly to the sound system and he thought it was cool, because it was.
Mark feels around below my left ear, pressing gently with a warm fingertip, until he finds the tiny round hole.
“It’s gonna feel weird for a few minutes, while your consciousness downloads.”
“Wait.” I stop his hand. “You aren’t permanently removing anything, right?”
“No. I’m making a full copy.”
“Here we go!” He pushes the end of the cable into my skull and I feel it connect to something. What, I don’t know. And there’s a loud CLICK inside my head. Colors spread out across my eyes and they’re all I see for a few seconds. Then my brain vibrates and clicks repeatedly. It’s not painful, just strange. And really unnerving.
“It’s a fucking trip, right?” He asks.
“Yeah,” I speak slowly, carefully, not sure at first if I even can.
“Tell me this. Are your teeth hot?”
I touch them with the tip of my tongue and nod.
“Is this normal?” I ask.
“None of this is normal.” He laughs.
He checks some numbers on a computer screen, turns around and kisses me gently. Not unwelcome, but startling.
“A faster heart rate speeds up the download,” he says casually. The next couple of minutes are silent. What an asshole.
The sensations in my skull stop all at once. A harsh halt, like the electricity shutting off in a large house.
“Done. Give me ten minutes.”
“That’s all it takes?” I shudder as he pulls the cord from my port.
“I knew you were coming by,” he says. “Most of the prep work is done.” He points to my neck. “Put a little ointment on that for a couple of days.”
He stops in the doorway long enough to ask if I want anything. I shake my head and he disappears for what feels like a long time. I sit in silence as my teeth cool down and my pulse slows until he returns and leads me down another hallway to a closed door.
“Scream if you need me,” he says, and I can’t tell if he’s joking.
I go in alone and she’s standing there waiting, as awkward as I would expect her to be. Because she’s me. But she’s not me. Except, she is. An exact copy. Me, squared.
Our eyes meet and there is a moment of recognition. We know each other. We’re both completely aware of what this is. But she’s only existed for the last few minutes. Is she afraid? I can’t figure out for sure if she’s prettier than I am.
“Hey,” she says. “Super weird, right?”
I can’t respond. My eyes fill up and spill a tear down my cheek and onto the hardwood floor.
“What’s your deal?” She’s uncomfortable. We hate it when anyone shows emotion in front of us like this. Even more so, we hate showing our own emotion in front of someone else. Thus, this must be the ultimate definition of embarrassment.
There are so many questions I want to ask. But I know she won’t have the answers. She knows exactly what I know. Nothing more. I touch her face and it feels like real skin. She probably hates this. She pushes my hand away and laughs nervously.
Now, I grab her throat and squeeze. We’re surprised. This was unexpected. I’ve never seen my own eyes up close before, so wide, emoting something outside of a mirror. They have a nice green hue close to the pupil. I squeeze harder. As hard as I can. She gasps for breath and we sink to the floor.
She’s thrashing, but not fighting it. This is happening more quietly than I would have thought. Why don’t I try harder to stop myself? Her face twisting to one side, it registers that there is one difference: no port behind her ear.
My fingers poke through the surface of her throat to the inside. She sputters and coughs and a silvery warm liquid oozes down my wrists instead of blood. There are wires in her neck, glowing like LED Christmas lights as I rip them out. They fade and go dark. She eventually stops moving.
“Thank you,” she whispers to me, eyes closing.
The room is silent until Mark opens the door to find me sitting on the floor next to myself, motionless in a puddle of viscous fluid. My hands stained silver.
“That’s new,” he says.
I don’t exactly blackout, but my consciousness drifts. Like being asleep and awake at the same time. I’m next aware of sitting on a white sofa in a blue tinted room with a bar area. Not sure how much time has passed. But Mark sits next to me and lights a cigarette.
“Sorry I made a mess.” My own voice sounds like a stranger.
“It’s cool,” he says. “That one friend of yours? The one with the hair? She did some pretty crazy stuff when she was in there.”
“Not what you did, though.” He offers me the cigarette. I take it.
“There’s a discount the next time,” he continues.
“You won’t see me here again.” I say.
He smiles like he doesn’t believe me and leans against the back of the couch, reclining in the soft, blue light. I kiss him. He seems okay with it. My fingers wander up the side of his face, behind his ear, and stop. He doesn’t have a port.
Out of curiosity, I put the cigarette out on the exposed flesh of his arm. He winces, as if the pain registers.
I must have felt it all.
Across the room, through the doorway, I see Mark walk down the hall, followed by Lisa and Annabelle. Dresses I’ve never seen before, different hairstyles. It’s them but it’s not them.
I kiss the Mark on the couch again, finally understanding.
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