The other man notices her first–the one who isn't Dirk. He walks into the office one morning and stops, halfway through taking off his scarf, to frown at her. She looks back at him silently, and he sits down at his desk, shaking his head. When Dirk arrives, half an hour later, the blue-eyed man says to him,
"Did you move that thing?"
Dirk stops, his jacket hanging off one shoulder, a perfect mirror of the other man's earlier confusion.
"The... thing." The man nods at her. "The clown doll thing. I left it by the coffeemaker yesterday. I was the last one out. This morning it was over there."
Dirk looks over at her too.
"It is by the coffeemaker."
"No, it was closer. It's moved by a couple of feet."
The man comes over and picks her up, turning her around in his hand without squeezing. Dirk finishes taking off his jacket.
"Are you sure? Maybe you just forgot where you put it down."
"Yeah," the man says, his eyebrows slowly swooping. "Maybe."
He puts her back down.
She's never really understood the concept of age very well, since her lifespan varies so wildly and so regularly, and sometimes she is inanimate and the concept of a lifespan becomes irrelevant, or nearly so. When she is the clown she is made of rubber, and rubber takes a long time to die–it degrades more slowly than flesh. Her human flesh rots like fruit, even if she can't feel it. She can't feel it but she knows it, the same way she knows that the world is turning, even though it's too big for her to feel its revolutions.
When she met Dirk she was younger than she is now–that much she is sure of. She was smaller and smoother, the skin on her skull tight like an India rubber ball, her eyes large in her head, her feet too big for her spindly legs. When she heard the door of her room opening she curled up into a ball, and when Dirk came inside, he didn't see her.
He looked around the room, which didn't take very long. He didn't look dangerous, but then again neither did she.
"Is there someone in here?" His voice cracked slightly.
He hesitated, glancing at the mirror in the wall, and then walked to the table and sat down. He picked her up and shook her. She swirled and clacked, and settled.
"Ask again later," he muttered. "Typical."
He put her down again.
"You didn't ask a question," she said, and he yelped, scraping his chair backwards.
"Where did you come from?" he asked, eyes wide. He was gripping the edges of his plastic chair, knuckles white.
"I was here," she said. "You didn't see me. I have to talk to you like this. The other thing couldn't talk."
"The other–" his eyes flicked between her and the table. "The–the Magic 8-Ball? You were the Magic 8-Ball?"
"I can be whatever I want to be," she said, sliding off the low table and sitting in a chair facing him. "Yesterday, I was lint."
"I wanted to see what lint felt like."
He scooted his chair a little closer, watching her.
"What does lint feel like?"
"Fluffy," she said, and he laughed.
"My name is Dirk Gently," he said, extending his hand. She shook it, like the people had taught her.
"I'm Mona Wilder. You talk differently than the others."
"So do you," he said.
"Yes," he said. "Your voice is strange. Didn't you know?"
"No," she said. "Did you know yours was?"
"Yes," he said, "It's because I'm British."
"Oh!" she clapped her hands together. "I've never met a British person before. Is this what British people sound like? This is very useful for me, you know. I want to be an actress."
"Is that what you were doing before?" he asked. "Acting?"
"Yes," she said. "Acting is becoming, that's what all the greats say. I can play any role."
"But this is you? This is what you really look like?"
"This is the body I was born with," she said, "more or less. Mostly more."
"How old are you?"
"I don't know," she said. "How old are you?"
"I'm not sure." He fiddled with the cuff of his jumpsuit. "I think fourteen."
"Fourteen is good," she said. "I'll be fourteen too."
He smiled at her. "Okay. Do you want to be my assistant?"
"No, thank you," she said. "I'm very focused on my acting career."
"Okay," he said, still smiling. "Do you want to be friends, then?"
When Dirk arrives at the office the next day–earlier than the other man for once–she is on the other side of the coffeemaker. He stops, this time before he's even started taking his jacket off, and then slowly closes the door behind him and moves towards her. His eyes widen.
"Mona?" he whispers.
"Hi Dirk," she says, and he jumps back, his arms flailing. She hops down from the counter. It's not comfortable when she has this many limbs.
Dirk is clutching his chest, breathing hard.
"Mona!" he says. "What have we said about sneaking up on people in the form of inanimate objects?"
"It's bad manners," she says, "and may result in invasion of privacy, or untimely cardiac arrest."
"Yes," he says, "good, thank you."
"Can I have some tea?" she asks. "I haven't had tea for a very long time."
"Yes," he says, "of course. Sit down, or... whatever you like."
She changes her dress for some jeans and a sweater, and thick, cable-knit socks, and goes to sit on their blue couch. She breathes steadily and rubs one thumb over the seam of her jeans and one over the smooth couch cushion while Dirk makes tea.
"Nice jumper," he says, coming to sit next to her. He holds out a steaming mug. "Careful, it's hot."
"Thank you," she says, taking it carefully. She doesn't always remember hot.
"So," he says, blowing on his tea. "You were the clown doll. You were always the clown doll."
"No," she says. "You lost the first one in Barcelona. That was where I found you. You needed it back, so I gave it to you."
"I was having a panic attack," he says. He doesn't sound sad, or embarrassed when he says it, like he would have before. He just says it: I was having a panic attack, like he's saying, I had a yellow jacket. Mona thinks maybe the person Dirk is now doesn't feel sad or embarrassed as much as the person he was before.
"Are you happier now?" she asks, pressing her fingertips to the hot mug.
"Yes," he says, "I am. Why didn't you talk to me? Why didn't you let me know it was you? Barcelona was fifteen years ago."
"I was a doll," she says. "It was too long."
He nods, and takes a slow sip of tea.
"It's good to see you," he says, at last. "I mean, it's good to knowingly see you."
"It's good to see you too, Dirk," she says. Her tea is starting to cool down. She takes a sip. The bitter taste coats her tongue and fills her mouth.
"Can I stay a while?" she asks.
Dirk came to visit sometimes after that first meeting, when the people in suits let him. Sometimes he liked to talk, so Mona stayed a person so that she could talk to him. Sometimes she couldn't manage it, so she would turn into a radio, or a doll with a string in its back, or something else that could talk but couldn't die, and Dirk seemed happy with that. Sometimes she would just sit quietly near him, a pencil or stool or a toy to play with. She liked those days best.
She began to notice, at this time, that the things she changed into were imperfect. The Magic 8-Ball had a crack. The stool had a wobbly leg. When she concentrated on fixing these imperfections, another one popped up in its place, like trying to smooth out bubbles in wallpaper.
"Nothing is perfect," Dirk said, when she told him. "Perfect is a trick to get you to follow other people's rules, and they change them all the time, for no reason. I prefer to follow my own rules."
Dirk's brand of teenage bravado was soft and sweet, and made her a little sad.
"If you follow your own rules," she said, "then you still believe in perfect. It's just your perfect, instead of someone else's."
"No," Dirk said decisively. "I don't believe in perfect. I believe in good."
"Good," she said. "Good, gentle Dirk Gently."
He smiled at her, quick and quietly thrilled as he always was when she used the name he had picked out for himself.
"Do you want to rest for a while?" he asked her, his eyes dropping to her hands. She had been rubbing her fingers together restlessly, without noticing. She would have to work on that. An actress must be in control of her body language.
"Yes, please," she sang. "Are you cold, Dirk?"
He shrugged. "A little."
She made herself as soft and warm as possible, not worrying about appearance or artistry. She could be a fine cashmere scarf, or a beautiful hand-stitched quilt, if that's what she set her mind to, but she thought Dirk would like something a bit more homespun.
He made a pleased noise and pulled her on, messing up his hair. They both drifted for a while in comfortable silence, and she thought being a big red sweater was so close to being happy there was almost no difference.
"You've dropped some stitches," Dirk said, running his fingers over a lumpy sleeve. "It's okay," he added, quickly. "You're still warm."
He curled up smaller, pulling the sleeves down to cover his hands, and she wondered if Dirk ever wished he could change his body too.
Mice only live for a year. Once she was a mouse for eight months. She could feel her body aging, could feel her bones weaken and her skin loosen and sag. Her tiny heart beat madly in a race to the finish, like it was impatient with the life it was given, and wanted to hasten its end. She could feel herself fritter away her own heartbeats.
Flies are interesting as well–fruit flies only live for a couple of months, and towards the end she felt so weak. She was Mona again for a while after that one, even though in her heart she yearned to be something still, something solid. She held herself back deliberately, like a starving person who knows they shouldn't gorge themselves on food right away. The drag of mortality was still on her heels, and she needed some time to come back down, so she sat in her human body, hands cupped over her ears so that she could hear her own heartbeat.
Today, she is a banana.
Bananas are soft, and get softer still as they ripen. They change colour, and shrink away from their own skin. She wonders if she'll ever be able to explain to anyone the sensation of feeling yourself turn soft and gooey and bad, like watching a timelapse of a baby turn into an old woman before your eyes. She wonders if she is the only human being who will ever know what it feels like to rot.
She wonders if there is a planet so small she could feel it turning.
Dirk's voice sounds far away.
"Mona, can you hear me? I know it's you."
Bananas are beautiful. She should be fruit all the time. A peach, next. Like her mother always used to call her. A little peach.
"Mona! I need to talk to you!"
It takes longer than usual, swimming against a sickly swaying yellow sea, before she can reply.
"Hi Dirk," she gasps, hands sliding against the slippery surface of the table. She's wearing a yellow sweater. She didn't mean to do that.
Dirk doesn't look happy. Relieved, she thinks, but not happy. Not like before.
"I'm sorry," she says, struggling upright. She can usually steer her human body better than this. "Are you okay?"
"Yes," he says, steadying her by the shoulders, "I'm fine. Are you–is this like the mouse thing?"
"No," she says. "I don't think so? I just wanted to be a banana."
"I wanted to know what bananas felt like."
He laughs, but his voice and eyes are wet.
"What do bananas feel like?"
"Yellow," she says, and he smiles sadly at her.
"Please don't leave me," he whispers. "You're the only other one... it's not as though I can talk to the Rowdy 3. You're my only old friend."
"Old friend," she repeats. How nice. An old friend is like a big red sweater. Dirk still looks worried, so she smiles at him. "I'm not leaving, Dirk. I told you I wanted to stay a while."
"Then what were you doing? You were starting to rot, Mona. The smell was ghastly."
"I didn't mean to," she says. "I got lost. It was too long."
"So, you don't want to die," he says.
"No," she says. "Do you think I'm supposed to?"
"No," he says. His hands clench and unclench, and he rubs them on his jeans. "No, Mona, I don't. I don't think anyone is supposed to die. We all just... do, eventually."
"What about Bart?" she asks, and he wrinkles his nose in distaste.
"What about her?"
"She kills people. Are those people supposed to die?"
"I don't know," he says, after a moment. His eyes are blank. He's closed the curtains. She tries to peer through the cracks.
"What are you doing?" he asks, as she moves closer, sliding off the table. He looks bemused, but he doesn't flinch or pull away.
"Trying to see inside," she says, placing her finger gently on his forehead, between his eyebrows. "How do you know I'm not supposed to die?"
"I don't want you to," he says, his voice unsteady. "Is that enough?"
She thinks about it. He has a sad expression on his dear little face.
"Yes," she says. "Thank you."
He exhales, and hugs her, uncertainly. She squeezes hard.
"Are we really friends?"
He pulls back, tries to smile at her.
"Of course. We always were, remember?"
She studies him, and this time a chink of light peeks through his shuttered eyes.
"Did you drop some stitches?" she whispers.
"Yes." He's whispering too, even though there's no one else around.
"That's okay," she says, patting his good shoulder. "You're still warm."
When the other man–Todd Brotzman–comes in the next day, Mona is a clown again. She is perched on top of the coffeemaker. He hesitates, glances around the room, raises his hand as if to lift her and drops it again.
"Uh," he says. "Hi. I'm Todd. Is it okay if I move you to make some coffee?"
"Hi, Todd," she says, and he takes a startled step backward, his eyes wide as he looks her up and down. He doesn't yell, or clutch his chest like Dirk did. "I'm Mona."
"Nice–" he clears his throat. "Nice to meet you."
"It's nice to meet you too," she says politely, and then hops off the counter so he can make his coffee.
"Do you want some?" He holds up a coffee cup awkwardly.
"No, thank you," she says. "I'm very busy today. Perhaps some other time. If Dirk comes in, could you please tell him that barn owls are very hardy, and have a lifespan of up to twenty years?"
He stares at her.
"I–sure. I'll tell him."
"Thank you, Todd," she says, as sweetly as she can manage.
She hears him make a noise behind her as she swoops out the window, but in the space of a wingbeat she's forgotten him.