Cary has his doubts, but he takes the bus and then walks the rest of the way, his work bag slung over his shoulder, chatting to Kerry about this and that. Oliver Bird lives at a horse ranch in the middle of nowhere. Not the kind of place Cary expected to go to fix a computer.
He realizes, belatedly, that Oliver never actually told him what was wrong with it. But by then he's already knocking on the door.
"Ah, wonderful!" Oliver says, all smiles, then turns and calls: "Melanie! Our guest is here."
"Come in, come in," says a blonde woman as she approaches them. "You're here to help Oliver?"
"Yes ma’am," Cary says.
"Oh, there's no need for that," Melanie says. "Call me Melanie, please."
Cary hesitates, but doesn't feel he can say no. "Melanie," he tries, and she's pleased.
"We have plenty of work to do," Oliver says. "But we can't start on an empty stomach."
"Oh, that's very generous, but—" Cary starts.
"My husband is an excellent cook," Melanie assures him. "He loves feeding people and it's just the two of us here for now." She looks him up and down, notices the dirt on his shoes. "Did you walk all this way?"
"I took the bus," Cary says.
"You should have said, we would have picked you up," Melanie says. "Now you have to sit down and rest."
"Thank you," Cary says, because what else can he say?
'These people are weird,' Kerry thinks. 'Weird and creepy.'
Cary bites back a reply. "Can I use your washroom to clean up?" he asks.
"Of course," Oliver says, and points the way.
Once Cary is safely inside, he turns on the tap as a noise screen and faces the mirror. Somehow it makes him feel a little less crazy to have a face to talk to, even if it's just his own. "Kerry, that was rude."
'Who cares?' Kerry thinks. 'They can't hear me. And they are weird. What're they even doing out here? Why did they hire us?'
"Are you going to come out and help?" Cary asks, somewhere between a joke and a challenge.
'Whatever,' Kerry thinks. 'We should leave before they trap us in their basement and try to sacrifice us.'
"I knew those comic books were a mistake," Cary sighs. They gave Kerry far too many odd ideas. It would matter more if she was ever going to have to survive on her own, but— He was just happy to have her actually engaged enough with the world to find something she likes. "The world is not full of— Devil worshippers and aliens."
'That's how they operate,' Kerry thinks, dramatically. 'They pretend to be nice so you're lured into their lair and then bam! They get you! You gotta karate chop them and run!'
"Hmm," Cary returns, unimpressed. "Let's just get through the evening. We don't know how long this will take and it's a long walk back to the bus stop."
He washes up and walks back out again, and finds Melanie and Oliver in the kitchen. It's rustic but welcoming, decorated with items from all over the world and photos of Oliver and Melanie together, looking utterly in love. Cary finds himself relaxing. Devil worshippers indeed.
"Have you ever had an Indian curry before?" Oliver asks, as he carries over a pot from the stove.
"No, but if that's what that is, it smells amazing," Cary says. "What's in it?"
"A good stew's the same the world over," Oliver declares. "Tough cuts simmered soft, hearty vegetables. The joy of the world is in the spice."
Not the most helpful ingredient list, but Cary decides not to press. He copies them, taking scoops of rice and curry, and digs in. "This is delicious!" he declares, the strange flavors lighting him up. There's a bit of a burn, but it's pleasant.
'Ugh, food,' Kerry complains. 'I don't know how you can do that. It's so gross.'
Cary can't chide her in front of the Birds and she knows it. He takes another bite in retaliation, and because he enjoys it. No matter how hard he's tried, Kerry has always refused to eat. She doesn't seem to need food, since she gets everything she needs from him, assuming she even needs caloric energy in the first place. If she's a delusion it's hardly relevant.
"Not a delusion," Oliver says, casually. "Kerry’s far too headstrong for that."
Cary’s spoon drops from his nerveless fingers and clatters against the plate before falling to the floor. Did he just— No, that's— What? What?
'Did he just—' Kerry thinks, alarmed. 'Cary, what's going on?'
"I don't know," Cary says, staring at Oliver. Has it finally happened? Has his disease progressed enough to make him truly lose his mind?
"Oliver," Melanie chides, fondly. She turns to Cary. "I apologize for my husband. Oliver has a flair for the dramatic. Please, don't be afraid, either of you."
Cary stares at her. What is happening?
"We just want to help you," Melanie soothes. "Oliver is a mutant like you. A mind reader."
"A— A mutant?" Cary asks, confused.
'A mind reader?' Kerry thinks, excited like she gets when she reads her pulpy comic books. 'They're aliens!'
"Not aliens," Oliver says. "Though I think I'd look dashing with a pair of antennae." He brings his hands up next to his head, raises his index fingers and waggles them. Inside Cary's head, Kerry laughs.
"Mutants are people with unusual powers," Melanie explains. "Oliver can sense them. There are mutants all over the world, every one of them unique." She holds out her hand to Oliver, and Oliver takes it. "It's our dream to help them. To show them they're not alone."
"You're not alone," Oliver tells them.
"Cary, I'm sure that— Your whole life, people told you you were sick," Melanie says. "But what if they were wrong? What if this— Mental illness you believe you suffer from is actually your power? We want to give you the chance to rewrite the story of your life."
"I'm sorry," Cary says, deeply confused. "I think you must— This is obviously all a mistake. I don't know who you think I am, but— I have schizophrenia, split mind, or— Multiple personalities. Maybe both."
"Do you?" Oliver challenges. "Or are you two people who have the power to share a body?"
"No, that's—" Cary starts. "We're not two people."
"That's not what I hear," Oliver says. "Kerry, you're a person, aren't you?"
'Of course,' Kerry thinks.
"Well there you have it," Oliver declares. "Why don't you come out? We'd love to see you."
'No,' Kerry thinks, firmly. 'I only come out for Cary.'
"You must love him very much," Oliver says.
'Of course I love him, he's Cary,' Kerry thinks.
Cary just stares at Oliver, astonished. No one's ever talked to Kerry, much less while she's still inside him! Was there something in the curry? This is all too much for him.
"Cary, are you all right?" Melanie asks, concerned.
Cary wipes his brow. He feels a little faint. He takes a sip of his water but it doesn't help. "Mutants, you said?" he asks, weakly.
"Yes," Melanie says. "Humanity seems to be changing, undergoing— Some kind of evolutionary leap. There aren't many mutants yet, but we've found them all over the world, and there are more born every day."
"Are you—" Cary asks.
"No," Melanie admits, somewhat regretful. "I'm just a perfectly ordinary human. But I want to do everything I can to help my husband with his dream of— A safe place for mutants. That's what we're going to build here. And we'd like you to join us, to help us. To be part of Oliver's dream."
"This is—" Cary stands up, paces away and then back. "You don't know that's what I am, this— This mutant thing, I— I'm sick, I—" He doesn't know why he's insisting on this now, when he's spent his whole life trying to reject it.
"Would you like more proof?" Oliver asks. He picks up his fork and stares at it, and then— It lifts into the air, floats there completely suspended.
Cary walks up to the fork and waves his hand around it. No strings, nothing. He takes it and examines it. It's just a fork.
'This is so much better than demon worshippers,' Kerry thinks.
"Is there even a computer here?" Cary asks, feeling a lot of things but also— Deceived.
"Oh, absolutely," Oliver says. "But I don't want your help fixing it. I want your help building it."
Cary itches to say yes just on that alone. The challenge, the opportunity— The chance to help people again, to really help them. If this is what he's been all this time, a mutant— No, two mutants who share a body? Is that what they are? The doctors only saw a girl when they were in the womb, but it was Cary who came out of it.
"Perhaps you're mutant twins," Oliver suggests. "There are all kinds of mutant powers, and all of them defy our conventional understanding of reality. But then the world is a much stranger place than people like to pretend. Consider the atom. Something so impossibly small, mostly empty space, and yet—" He raps the table with his knuckles. "It defines our reality. And to split it releases a force of incredible power."
"And one reason for the increase in mutants might be the use of nuclear power," Melanie offers. "Mutants may in some sense be— Children of the atomic age. There's so much we don't yet understand. We need someone who can help us figure all of this out. We know you want to do more than just fix gadgets in some tiny repair shop. Oliver's heard your thoughts, that's how he found you. We know you dream of something more than what the world has allowed you."
'They spied on us,' Kerry thinks, displeased.
"You know so much about us," Cary says. "How long have you been watching?"
"Telepathy is— Somewhat involuntary," Oliver admits. "And mutant minds are louder, more distinct. Beacons, like stars flickering in the night sky. I didn't seek you out. You two came to me."
"I see," Cary says, even though— He doesn't, really. "Even if— If everything you're saying is true, why have I never heard anything about mutants before?"
Oliver and Melanie both sober. "Because there are forces trying to erase us, to wipe us out," Oliver admits. "Governments across the world see us as a threat. Because we are a threat— To their cruelty, their old-fashioned thinking, their greed for power. Mutant powers can't be bought and sold. They're a gift, they're who we are. If we can bring enough mutants together, they'll have to listen to us. We'll have the chance to make the whole world a better place."
"Mutants will be accepted," Melanie says. "They won't be punished for their differences, and neither will anyone else. We can make a utopia, but it has to start here, with us."
"This is— It's a lot," Cary says. "I just came here to fix things."
"Then stay to fix them," Melanie implores. "So many mutants we find— They've been told they're sick or crazy, or they're imprisoned because people think they're too dangerous to be free. We know that's what happened to you. You can help us stop it, and make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else ever again."
Cary rests his hands on the back of his chair. He's a very practical person, and none of this sounds remotely practical. He's heard of utopian communes before, read about their ideals and promises, but he never imagined himself joining one. "Do you have any proof that I'm truly a mutant?"
"You have another person inside you," Oliver points out. "Surely that's enough?"
It's hard to deny that. And yet— "She could be a— A hallucination," Cary argues. "No one else has ever seen her."
'Hey, I'm not a hallucination,' Kerry thinks, offended.
"Until today, no one heard her," Oliver counters. "But as Kerry just said, she's not a hallucination. She's a full person in her own right."
"It's time she came out," Melanie urges. "Let us help. You don't have to hide anymore, either of you."
Cary tries to take that in.
"Please, sit back down," Oliver says. "When we finish eating, I can show you my computers."
"You have more than one?" Cary asks, surprised.
"Oh yes," Oliver says, a dreamy look in his eyes. "All sorts."
Oliver sits down. He looks at the curry on his plate, the rice. He feels— A lot of things. Too many. But what they're offering him — a chance to make a difference, to use his skills to the fullest, to realize his own dreams. And they won't be alone. He's struggled so much with Kerry. To finally have someone who can help—
And to not be sick. To belong somewhere and not be sick.
How could he possibly say no?
He picks up his fork and eats. The next day, he quits his job at the repair shop, packs their belongings. He starts his new life and never looks back.
Cary opens his eyes. He's back in the glass room, the forest stretching out in all directions.
"See?" Ptonomy says. "You remembered that just fine."
"You were wrong," Cary says, and turns to Melanie. She's old again, like him. So much time has passed since that night. "You told me I wasn't sick."
"You're not," Melanie insists. "You and Kerry are twins. You each have your own consciousness, your own memories, your own DNA. Your mutant power is to hide one inside the other."
"You're wrong," David tells her. "He's a system. He's sick. His mind shattered like mine. Nothing can ever put it back together. What you told us was wrong. You made us worse."
"Then what's his power?" Melanie challenges.
"Two minds in one body," David says. "But what does that mean when there's a second body?"
"Either both were real from the start, or only one," Ptonomy declares. "So one of you isn't real."
"I'm the real one," Cary insists.
"How can you be?" Ptonomy counters. "You're on the inside now. You're the delusion, the hallucination. When your body dies, and it's going to die, you'll be trapped forever."
"I don't want that," Cary says, pleading. "Please, it can't be true."
"Four hours was enough for her," Ptonomy says, unmoved. "It should be more than enough for you. You stole her life. That was her in your mother's womb. You should have been her. Everything bad that happened was because of you. It's all your fault."
"No," Cary says, looking to David and Melanie for help. "Please, I don't— I was just a baby. It wasn't my choice!"
"Tell me about it," David sighs. "Why would you want someone else's soul inside you? Look what happened to me! You need to accept what you are, what you've always been."
"You're a mutant," Melanie insists. "Your trauma doesn't matter, it's not who you are. Those bad things only happened because the world didn't accept your gift. The only thing that matters is what you do now, the good you put into the world. Let the past go."
"I can't," Cary admits. "I've tried so hard. I did what you told me to. I did the work and I helped so many people— But I don't know how to help myself. I don't know how to know who I am. I don't know if what he did broke us or fixed us."
"Don't be grateful to him," Ptonomy warns. "He's going to use you. You're just another part of the cow to him."
"It wasn't supposed to be this way," Cary says. "I just wanted to help David. He was in so much pain."
The open air, the glass walls, the table— It all fades away. Cary's in a dark room, a Division 3 prison cell. He's sitting on a bed wearing all white, tears in his eyes, his chest heaving with pain.
Kerry's there. She sits down on the bed.
"There's no me," Cary tells her, trembling, barely able to speak through the tightness in his throat.
"Of course there's a you," Kerry says, so gently.
"No," Cary sobs. It's all he can say.
"Is that what you think?" Kerry asks. "That you're gone?"
Cary lifts his head, even though he can't stop the tears pouring out of his eyes and there's snot in his nose and he can't stop shaking and he can't breathe. Kerry hugs him. She wraps her arms around him and holds him tight.
"Sometimes it can take a while to figure everything out," Kerry soothes. "You survived so much. But being inside of me doesn't mean you're not there. You just have to let me help you."
"I'm the one who helps you," Cary says, mournful.
"Everything's reversed now," Kerry tells him. "You've helped so many people. Do you think they're weak because you helped them? Do you think I'm weak?"
"Of course not," Cary says. "But—" He swallows, remembers. He blinks and he's sitting on his bed in the asylum, groggy from shock treatment and anesthesia, listening to someone crying down the hall. And then he's sitting in his dorm room staring at a bottle of pills. And then he's sitting in his childhood bedroom and Mom is pounding on the door, drunk and furious and swearing she'll knock the white boy out of him.
He hugs his knees and curls up tight. He's sorry, he's so sorry. How can he fix them if he doesn't know what they're supposed to be?
The pounding stops, and the doorknob rattles, turns. Cary takes a sharp, scared breath in, bracing himself for the worst. But there's no smell of alcohol, no angry grab to his arm. It's Kerry, all grown up even though he's a little boy.
"You've been asleep for a really long time," Kerry tells him. She sits down with him again. "But it's time to wake up, okay?"
"No," Cary says, refusing. "I'm not ready."
"I wasn't either," Kerry admits. "But it's not up to us. We were changed. I can't hide anymore and I'm not gonna let you start. You've always been so brave for me. Let me be brave for you, and— Help you be brave for yourself. But I can't do that until you wake up. You have to wake up."
"No," Cary cries, but it's too late. She hugs him and he falls into her, and—
Darkness. Warm and tight, holding him from all around. He hears sounds but he doesn't know what they are. Some of the sounds never stop, like the thump thump thump thump.
It's a heartbeat, Kerry's heartbeat. It's so loud from inside her, impossibly loud. The breath in her lungs, too, steady and even. The rush of blood in her veins.
Everything feels wrong. He doesn't fit inside her the way he has to. His body was never meant to fit inside her. Or maybe it was, but— After all this time, whatever should have been simply isn't anymore.
'Help me,' he thinks, desperate. 'Kerry? Oliver? Someone please help me! Please!'
He feels her stir, her body shifting in their bed. Their body? Their heart, their lungs, their veins? He tries to get out of her on his own but he can't. He's stuck again, like before. Trapped. What if he never gets free?
'Kerry, wake up,' Cary begs. 'Please wake up!'
"Cary?" Kerry murmurs. Her eyes flutter open and he sees the ceiling of the lab. Kerry sits up and looks down at herself, and he sees the swell of her breasts, her belly, the blanket draped over her legs. She looks around and they see everyone's still asleep. It's dark, not yet morning. "Finally," she says, and stretches. "You were asleep forever!"
'It hurts,' Cary groans. 'I'm stuck again.'
"Okay, hold on," Kerry says. She squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, lets it out. "Reach out and I'll take your hand."
Cary reaches, pushing against the tightness. Through Kerry's eyes, he sees her reaching into herself. Her hand searches, and then— Her fingertips brush his. He cries out in relief as her hand clasps his own.
"It's gonna be okay," Kerry tells him. "Just like last time. I've got you."
He stops seeing through her eyes as she pulls him free, inch by inch. His connection with her body fades and vanishes, until— There's only his body again. He falls the last distance out of her and collapses on the floor, gasping.
"Cary?" Kerry says, leaning over him, worried. It reminds him of something— Something he was dreaming? But the last wisps of the dream float out of reach, and then they're gone.
He can't remember. But it was just a dream.