I do not have an identity, nor do I possess my own form. Instead, I’ve built a human-shaped shell out of pieces picked up from others; and sometimes I worry that when I meet them--real people--they’ll realize that there’s nothing there.
Theodore Nazari adjusted his tie, then neatly checked the cuffs of his shirt, ensuring they were exactly one centimeter past the sleeves of his jacket. He straightened up and smoothed the lapels of his coat, lifting his prosthetic hand to nudge his glasses slightly higher on his nose. He studied himself in the mirror for a moment, then gave a practiced, cool smile. It was even, pleasant, and generally polite. It had taken him years to hone it, to ensure it did not look forced, fake, or even a bit disinterested. But it was simply a thin coating of paint, carefully and delicately applied to a shell, a husk. There was nothing behind it, no feeling, no emotion, no desire. Theodore blinked at himself for a second, then turned from the mirror and exited his bathroom, hand coming up to click the light off as he went. He walked past his bed; with sheets and covers so smooth they could pass a military inspection. In a few more minutes he was out of the house, fingers clasped loosely around his briefcase as he stepped into his garage and got in his car. He glanced at the time as the engine purred to life. 7:15. Spotless, flawless, immaculate. Like a machine in constant motion was his life. Never faltering, never stopping, never worrying. There was nothing, absolutely nothing that could bring him to a halt, nothing that could give him pause.
He pulled into the parking lot of his workplace exactly fifteen minutes later. 7:30. Spotless, flawless, immaculate. The gears of his brain turned without issue, well oiled and smooth. He was composer, conductor, and orchestra of his life, a single man symphony of endless paperwork, boring meetings, and hollow words. To call it a symphony was perhaps an overstatement, it was more of a lone chord, striking out with no intention to reverberate or be heard. A manuscript cobbled together by some coffee high author, long abandoned when they realized their creation was nothing more than odds and ends. He was entirely synthetic, only given form by the people around him; the laugh of his secretary, the frown of his coworker, the verbal cadence of his long forgotten therapist. Meticulously catalogued and absorbed by his mind, stored in neat, alphabetical compartments to be pulled up at a later date and used.
Theodore stepped from his car and crossed the lot to the next door cafe. He entered the building--7:35--and took note of the people in line before him. He recognized one of them, another cafe regular, a human like him. Martin was his name, double espresso was his order. Theodore had never spoken to him, never considered him worth knowing, and yet he knew. Spotless, flawless, immaculate. The drawer that stored Martin’s information peeked open, but it was unneeded, and so Theodore shifted his eyes, glancing at his watch. The line moved, and he stepped forward. Two more people now. 7:37. Ideally, he would have been out of the cafe by 7:45, and he had every intention to be, even if it meant skimping on his morning coffee. Routine and order were important, imperative even. Without them, people were little more than beasts, and he would never permit himself to fall to such levels. 7:38. Another person down, another step forward. When he was younger he had wondered what was wrong with him, if there were others like him. Unlovable, unloving, unfeeling, unreal. He’d questioned it once and after years of therapy had simply resolved to keep his mouth shut. It frightened people. He frightened people. And so they never saw him, never knew that the person they were speaking to was not there, a Frankenstein’s monster of all the people before them. He would be them tomorrow as well. 7:40. The line moved once more, he was at the front now. He looked up, prepared to order.
The symphony of his life, the single, hollow note that had sustained since his birth, crashed. It didn’t stutter or falter, instead it burst like the falling wreckage of a long exploded aircraft, a travesty in the night that had been seen by few and mourned by none.
“Good morning, Sir,” the young elf before him chirped, voice light and friendly. “What can I get for you?”
Theodore swallowed thickly, the cogs of his brain stuttering and grinding. What did he want?
The elf’s brow furrowed slightly and his smile faltered just a tad, a barely perceptible reaction that most would not notice. But Theodore did.
“My apologies,” Theodore said, voice smooth and even. It had been so long since he’d heard his own voice, he wasn’t even sure what it sounded like anymore. This was the voice of his old boss, a charismatic and charming fellow, he’d never figured out that Theodore was simply mimicking him. “Early mornings, you know?”
The elf relaxed and laughed, nodding. “I sure do. Were it not for the fact that I work in a coffee shop, I certainly couldn’t stay awake.”
The elf’s laugh was the most beautiful sound Theodore had ever heard. His eyes flicked down to the nametag he wore, declaring him ‘Passeri’. Within milliseconds the expression of his joy was catalogued. However, it was not simply slipped in with all the other ‘P’ names. No, he brought it to the forefront, placed it gently and carefully on a pedestal in the very center of the hollow, echoing chamber of his consciousness.
“I’d like a large drip coffee. Name for the order is Theodore,” he said after a moment, realizing he had once more lapsed into silence. He chanced a glance at his watch. 7:43. Three minutes. How had he possibly been standing there for three minutes? The gears of his mind ground and caught once more, screeching like the stuck transmission of an old, dry car. He needed to leave, he needed to get away from Passeri.
“Coming right up, Sir!” Passeri smiled, briefly closing his eyes as he did.
Theodore tore his gaze from him and moved, steps even and mechanical. He paid and then settled himself against the wall, not wanting to look at his watch but finding himself unable to prevent the action. 7:44. He had but seconds to spare. His jaw clenched tightly, a slight swell of anger rising within him. It was a strange emotion, hot and sticky, one he hadn’t felt in years, and years, and years. He didn’t like it.
“Large drip coffee for Theodore!” Passeri called, and Theodore snapped to attention, body stiffening like he’d been nudged by an electric prod. His name. The elf had said his name. He moved forward and took the coffee, dropping a tip in the jar and giving Passeri a nod.
“Have a nice day, Sir! Come back soon!”
Theodore pushed out the door and darted his eyes to his watch. 7:45. 30 seconds past, but still on schedule. A slow, shaky exhale left him and he began to walk back to his work building, thoughts lingering on what had just happened. What had just happened? Anyone else would have stopped, perhaps furrowed their brow or looked confused. But he did not. He kept moving, a steady, calculated gait that never wavered or faltered. His face was blank and calm, not a single twitch or crease. But there was a shift, a change to the droning, hollow chord of his life; an addition. He placed it instantly, of course, as there was no mistaking it. The laugh of the elf. He’d captured it, trapped it within the empty, sterile rooms of his mind and now it echoed throughout, filling everything with a soft, twinkling light. He knew he could not replicate the sound, not in a million years, so genuine and true it was. But he did not want to. He did not want to cheaply imitate it, nor share it with others. No. It was his. It belonged singularly to him. He would ensure that. By any, and all means necessary.
Theodore had easily settled into the flow of the day, hands and mind moving through the steady, monotonous stream of his life. While he kept himself occupied, remaining productive and constant, the larger part of his mind wandered back to the elf. To Passeri. Passeri: the clade of perching birds known as ‘songbirds’. Often described as having a cheerful and uplifting call. It was funny how things worked out, surely his parents could not have known the weight of their child’s name, how he would live up to it. Theodore shifted slightly in his seat, scooting closer to his desk and lifting his head to glance out the window. It was a grey, dreary day, the sun covered by clouds despite the fast approaching middle hour. He’d never much paid attention to the weather. It was a constant, no matter how it shifted, and it didn’t bother or excite him one way or the other. He blinked, then looked back down to his work, fingers moving swiftly over his keyboard while his eyes flitted over the screen. There came a knock, and he paused in his typing, gaze shifting to the doorway where a coworker leaned.
“Theodore,” the man said with a slight smile. “We’re going out for lunch, would you care to join us?” The man’s name was Kai. He had always been friendly to Theodore and enjoyed his sense of humor, entirely oblivious to the fact it was simply a hollow reflection of his own. He would typically invite Theodore out once a week, sometimes more, making his interest more than apparent. Theodore had taken note of Kai’s behaviors, the way his eyes would linger on Theodore’s lips when he spoke, how he would unconsciously shift to mirror Theodore’s own posture and movements, the way he seemed to preen and fidget whenever they were in each other’s presence…. Theodore had filed these behaviors away, of course, as he did everything, but made absolutely no attempt to reciprocate. And yet Kai still persisted. It was true that Theodore had recently taken to joining him for lunch when invited, but he remained polite and cool through their interactions, rarely divulging information about himself or his home life. And really, there was nothing to tell, no special moments or funny stories. His days moved like clockwork, never shifting, never faltering, a routine that lasted, unshakable, unhindered by any inconvenience or circumstance.
“No, thank you,” Theodore replied. “I have a fair bit of work today.” This was a different voice than the one he’d used in the coffee shop, not his old boss, but one he’d grafted into himself from a particularly ineffectual therapist. It was pleasant and even, but there was no familiarity or warmth in it. To the original owner of the voice, and to those who heard it, it simply sounded like a friendly, but reserved tone. But Theodore had known the truth when he’d first encountered it, and he knew it now when he used it. It was cold and disingenuous, lacking in any of the kindness the owner had attempted to put into it, coated in a layer of sugar that comforted the anxious and despairing like lollipops given to crying children.
Kai’s smile faltered and he lightly tapped his fingers on the doorframe. “Oh...you sure? Breaks are good for you, you know! Don’t want to overwork yourself.”
“It’s quite alright.” Theodore gave him a smile, perfectly even and balanced, the same one he’d practiced in the mirror that morning and every morning prior. “I’ll take a short break soon enough, but I haven’t the time for a full lunch.” His voice had shifted, no longer the lacking therapist, it was now the slightly remorseful tone of his mother. This was a voice it had taken him some time to perfect. Not for lack of hearing it, but for the crackled, tinny quality it had, always coming through the damaged phone his father never saw fit to replace. ‘Next time, Theodore’, she would always say, with a hint of sadness, ‘I promise I’ll see you next time.’ If he stopped to think about it, perhaps he would wonder why he felt no sorrow in those memories, why he was not upset then or now. But he didn’t stop, and so he didn’t think, and so he did not feel or care.
Kai nodded, shuffling his feet for a moment and then smoothing his hair. “Next time, maybe?”
Theodore gave a slight, even incline of his head, which caused Kai to smile broadly, a breath of relief escaping him.
“Great! Hope work goes well!” With this, Kai lifted a hand to wave, lingered for a moment, then left.
Once he was alone again, Theodore’s eyes flicked to bottom right of his computer screen. 12:00 PM. He looked back to the document he’d been typing, saved it, and then put his computer into sleep mode. Theodore stood from his desk and used a hand to tuck his chair beneath it, stepping from his office and flipping the light off as he went. He paused, turned, and locked the door behind him, then tucked his keys into his pocket and headed for the elevator. His workload was rather light that day, despite what he’d told Kai, and he was going to the cafe for lunch. This was nothing out of the usual, as he typically would go there for another coffee and a sandwich. The elevator arrived and he stepped in, nodding politely at the faerie inside. She was a tenth floor worker, three above Theodore, and her name was Senna. She was the manager for an outreach program that the engineering firm had with a nearby public school, helping to educate and scout promising students. They had never spoken and it was unlikely she even knew Theodore’s name, but she smiled broadly before looking down at her phone once more. Theodore lightly pressed the button for the ground floor, then neatly folded his hands behind his back.
Theodore knew that when most people stood still, they were not truly still. There was typically some aspect of fidgeting, some slight shift or motion that kept their bodies fluid and occupied. But he was not most people, and try as he might, he had not perfected this particular form of camouflage yet. His posture was tall and poised, eyes focused blankly on the metal doors before him. Were it not for the slight rise and fall of his chest, it would have been entirely possible to mistake him for a statue. Perhaps some sculpture come to life, on the run from its creators and attempting to hide within humanity; a twisted gargoyle that had pushed erect and slipped a mask over its grimace. The woman glanced at Theodore, and he could see her slight shift of concern. His stillness had made her nervous. He relaxed his shoulders and began to tap his fingers against his lower back, a steady, measured action, with each thump coming in even, 1.5 second intervals. The woman calmed, let out a small sigh of relief, and resumed looking at her phone. The doors dinged open on the third floor, and the woman gave Theodore a smile before stepping out. He returned it, of course, honed and perfect, and for a moment she seemed flustered, a slight pink coming to her cheeks. But then the doors slid shut once more, and their interaction was immediately stored inside her folder, brushed away by the gentle, musical laugh of the elf.
As he stepped out on the ground floor, Theodore tilted his head to check his watch. 12:03. On schedule as always. He was a well oiled set of gears that would simply mince any sort of cog. He walked from the office building and into the cafe, settling himself in line. 12:05. Perfectly on time. He leaned slightly to the right, eyes briefly flicking over the people in front of him. Three of them, the same number as that morning, the same amount of time to wait through. He continued to return to this cafe for its efficiency. They had never put him behind schedule in all the time he’d been a patron, and if he were capable of feeling gratitude or fondness for that, it is likely he would have. His reactions that morning had simply been an anomaly, an unexpected change to his routine that had left him scattered, had brushed just a smidgen of dust onto the otherwise perfect machinery of his life. But it was gone, and he was immaculate once more. He moved forward as the line shifted, lifting his gaze to study the menu above him. The cafe’s specials and sandwiches changed daily, and it would not do to be one of those fools that stood and stared and held up the line. No, just as he chose this place for its efficiency, he dealt it the same respect it did him. A brief, downward flick of his eyes. 12:08. Another step, another customer gone. The person before him stood still, a low, droning noise coming from their lips. Theodore blinked. Once, twice, again.
“Uhhh…” the man sustained the sound, tilting his head back to study the menu.
12:09. He felt a brief swell of annoyance, similar to the anger he’d felt earlier that day, but this was more dry and acrid, a bitter soot that clumped in the back of his mouth and caked his throat.
“Uhhh...I’ll just get a cranberry muffin and a kale smoothie,” the man finally said.
“Coming right up, Sir!” The barista chirped, and Theodore once more experienced the oddity of his brain’s transmission stalling. It was the elf from that morning, the new worker. There was absolutely no mistaking his voice, and though this was only his second encounter with him, Theodore knew he could pick the sound from a buzzing crowd if need be. The man moved, and finally Theodore was at the front.
“Oh! Good afternoon, Sir!” The elf, Passeri, smiled. “Welcome back!”
Theodore paused for a moment. The machinery of his brain screeched across an overlooked speck of dust, momentarily halted by the unexpected and tenacious grain of change.
“Thank you,” Theodore finally said. “How has your day been?”
“Busy!” Passeri laughed. “First days, you know?”
He nodded. He had absolutely no idea to what the elf was referring, had never found any sort of difficulty in firsts as opposed to hundredths, but it was an expected social grace to agree, and one he was not at all bothered to give. “I hope your day improves,” he remarked with a smile. This was not the polite, smooth expression he practiced every day, his most worn and fitted mask, but one he’d stolen from an old acquaintance, a halfling who spent most of his time flattering. The elf’s cheeks flushed slightly, clearly noticing the gentle charm in Theodore’s facial shift.
“Th-thank you, Sir!” He stammered out, another laugh escaping him, though this one was softer, the nervous flutter of a bird’s wings. “Oh, uhm, what can I get for you?”
“A large drip coffee and the spinach and artichoke sandwich, please.”
Passeri nodded. “Coming right up! Name for the order is...Theodore?”
Theodore returned the nod and moved to pay, acquaintance's smile still on his face. He ignored the sparks that sizzled within him, leaving small scorch marks of obsession along the otherwise smooth, white walls of his mind. The elf had remembered him, remembered his name. 12:13. Still on schedule despite his brief chat. A moment later, his name was called, unfortunately not by Passeri, but by another worker. His face had since slipped back to its usual blank, emotionless slate, and as he stepped up to the counter to get his food, he quickly donned the carefully painted mask of his most courteous smile. Theodore glanced at Passeri as he moved to leave, noting that the elf was currently making a coffee. However, a second later, he lifted his head and their eyes met. Passeri blinked for a moment, then smiled and raised his hand in a slight wave.
“Have a good day, Sir!” He called. “Come back soon!”
Theodore gave him a brief, friendly nod, then stepped from the cafe. 12:15. He began the walk back to his office and it was at this point, midstep, that he had his first realization of two. Namely, that he had not the slightest clue which voice he’d used when speaking to Passeri just moments prior. He could place the smiles, the posture of his body, and the motion of his hands. He could bring up each folder they belonged to, pinpoint exactly where they were stored, and who he had stolen them from. But the voice he could not. It had seemed to come from somewhere else, some long abandoned, cobweb ridden corner closet of his being that had not seen light in many, many years. It was not catalogued or numbered and did not belong to anyone he’d ever met, but it was familiar, if difficult to place. It was not the reverberation of some past figure, nor the imprint a real human had left on his sterile, mechanical mind. No, it was something else entirely. It was the shift of gears and the twist of machinery that had given way to the dark, grating sound of a chisel cracking too deep within the earth and releasing a frenzied, desperate torrent of magma. It was his own voice, the single note symphony of his life. Thrown out of harmony with his own apathy, it had burst forth in an attempt to blend with the brilliant, blinding orchestra of the elf; rising and falling, until the pieces had become intertwined and united.
The second realization Theodore had as he stepped into his office building and headed for the elevator. This one, while equally as strange as the use of his own voice, proved to be far less confounding. Perhaps he had suspected it, if not consciously. He pressed the elevator button and lifted his eyes to the dial above the doors, keeping track of the lift’s location as it slowly descended to meet him. This realization came with a flush of warmth, building in his core and settling over his entire being. Not in the way his masks did, small and well painted, easily covering the blank, expressionless face that belied no life or familiarity. No, this was different. This was hot and messy; unpracticed, unrefined; a hoarse, shuddering staccato that beat a non-rhythm against the walls of his mind and threatened to shatter the sturdy glass that had long comprised his being. It was a fire that blazed through him, melting the sterile white paint and curling the precise, straight beams of detachment he’d spent years tempering. Ruinous and unforgiving, it burned him; and were he a weaker man, one with less refinement or grace, likely he would have gasped or trembled. Instead, he stood stock still as the meticulously constructed asylum of his person was damaged, the climbing heat leaving only one thing untouched in its otherwise impartial wave of destruction. The pedestal of the elf. It sat, pure and whole, not a single speck of soot upon its flawless, white surface. As the doors of the elevator opened with a soft ‘bing!’ Theodore stepped in and turned, hands neatly and loosely holding his lunch. The inferno within him would go unnoticed by all, his poise all too perfected to belie the catastrophe that had boiled his insides and left him consumed. But he knew. He knew and he accepted it all too graciously. He was in love. And there was not a single thing that could even hope to stand in the wake of his flames.