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the cage it called

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The house is different than she remembers it being--softer, somehow. Could a year of separation really have washed out twenty years worth of resentment, of rage?  Memories that once crept down the hallway, sucking blood through their teeth, now feel dull and colorless. Instead, a warm haze surrounds her mind.

Siobhan, too, has changed since she last visited. The brown sweater she wears envelops all those sharp, jagged angles of the young rebel who took her in; too severe for motherhood but too stubborn to abort the challenge, she’d accepted Sarah under her wing.

 

"Well, if we’re finished catching up, I’d like to see my daughter,” she said, folding her arms over her chest, “You gonna let me see her before the year ends?”  

 

Bitterness always rose to her tongue like bile when she was around Siobhan. It was a reflex by now. Siobhan gives a smile, letting the question hang in the air a moment longer than was comfortable (just enough for her gut to twist with fear), and then widens the door.

Kira stands off to the side, tearing at her nails, and gives a slight smile. She looks exactly the same, Sarah thinks, releasing a breath of relief. Before anyone can shut her out, she lunges toward her daughter and grips her tight, pulling her into a hug. Shh, shh. You're alright , you’re alright. In the flurry of movement and rushing breath, she can’t tell who’s speaking, so she just mirrors the promises with wordless crooning sounds.

When Kira speaks, her mouth is up against Sarah’s ear and sends warm puffs of air.

 

“Don’t send me back,” she says. “Please.”

 

The voice sends a wave of gooseflesh over her shoulders and down her neck, threatening a shudder. With her arms wrapped around her daughter, she gives a reassuring squeeze and pulls back, placing her hands on her small, knobbed elbows instead. Kira’s expression hasn’t changed, with a jutting lower lip and puffing ruddy cheeks, she looks at her mother with a mellow pout.

 

“What did you say, monkey?” She breathes, feeling as the smile on her lips begins to ache.

 

“Don’t send me back,” Kira says again, “I miss you.”

 

Her voice is wrong, it’s all wrong. It sounds metallic and flat, but lilts with the attempt of an accent she couldn’t possibly have learned from Siobhan.

 

“I’m not going to leave you, Kira,” she says and hopes that her voice sounds reassuring, rather than scared. “I promise.”

 

Kira grabs her face, then, and digs those small fingers deep into her fleshy cheeks, forcing Sarah’s eyes to lock with her own. Her eyes are wild with fear, and something else--anger? Unsure of what to touch or who to scold, Sarah’s hands flit like white moths between Kira’s wiry hair and those clamped hands before settling on her daughter’s shoulders, squeezing uselessly.

 

The last thing her daughter says is no more than a whisper: “Sister. . .

 

Sarah jolted awake with her bedsheets knotted inside her clammy fists and a pulse throbbing in her teeth. She must have been gritting her teeth the whole time. For a few moments, she patted the bedsheets in search of the wet rag she’d been sleeping with the past few days, then slapped it over her forehead with a sigh, feeling as the water bled into her hair.

She kept her eyes closed, knowing better than to let her eyes wander in the dark, and felt as she twitched like a mangy dog. She could imagine it now--the dog--lying in the dark, snapping at its own mottled flesh. After weeks of neglect, its coat was no more than a shivering husk, and it’s bark, a choked cough. Someone might have helped it once, had they taken their head out of their ass for one moment. If only to have lessened the pain.

 

"No, no, no more of this,” she whispered to herself. "Stop thinking about it for christ's sake."

 

Directing the heel of her palms over the wet cloth, she pressed until she could feel the pressure dampening the back of her eyes. She held them there, mid-gouge, and waited for distractions to appear.

After a moment, the skeleton of abuse was sluiced out with a power hose of frenetic light; then replaced with a show of fireworks bursting beneath the lids of her eyes. Once her mind felt empty enough, she let her hands fall to her sides and waited for sleep to claim her again.  

 


 

Her new home was dark, nearly devoid of light. Not at all like the unblinking eyes of DYAD, with their dangling crystal chandeliers and linoleum floors; she remembered the way her reflection glittered on the walls like disturbed water. Maggie had enjoyed that.

 

"Interesting that you remember DYAD being wholly made of light, and yet, reflecting your image darkly--like disturbed water, as you said."

 

She had a way of catching certain words and using them to tease out more. By the end of their first "official meeting," Helena had regurgitated the few memories that remained of DYAD in a single string of words. Pulled out like a scarf from her throat.

According to Maggie, they had met twice before. Although Helena had been unconscious each time: the first was in her creation, among the flurry of white coats and machinery, she'd caught a glimpse of her on the table. Her eyelids had looked as though an insect pulsed beneath the skin with the way they’d programmed her REM cycles. And the second...

Their second meeting was by the shoulder of a highway. Helena had been staring at nothing, bowlegged, like a toy doll flung from the open window of a car.The panel in her back had been sealed shut, but it was apparent that she’d pried it open during the madness of her fallow state.

 

"I don’t remember falling asleep," Helena had whispered, tucking her hands under her chin like a child listening to a scary story. Her last memory before waking up in Maggie’s cellar had been that jumbled exchange with Sarah on the way out from her apartment. Bye-bye Sarah.

 

Not asleep, dear,” Maggie had crooned, “Empty.”

 

Androids don’t sleep,” Tomas had echoed gruffly. He would recite the rest of his sermon under his breath.

 

Helena doesn’t remember how long she’d been sitting here, the gears in her head whirring dutifully as her unseeing eyes stared into dark space.

For all she knew, she could have been laying there for months, years (although remnants of that day in Sarah’s apartment still rattled around in her brain like loose gravel, so it couldn’t have been too long).

Then, hours before her official meeting with Maggie, she had noticed that the jettison darkness changed with time; it was not death’s darkness, but a breathing thing. The color would wash out into a mottled gray, smooth out like a raven’s feather, and then whittle into a ruddy-brown before returning to the start.

 She had blinked and waved her fingers a few inches in front of her face, watching their dancing shadows. Then she had touched a hand to her mouth and tapped each finger against her lip, surprised each time at the tingles she felt with each touch. Only then had her body began stirring awake, convinced at last that her life was still ongoing.

 

After that, Maggie began visiting regularly (or maybe she always had) and committed their time together to personal maintenance and the Bible.

She would wait until Helena had slumped against her--hands clamped securely between her knees, head nestled on her lap, feet dangling off the edge of the mattress--and then she’d sing. Her voice would smooth over the jagged images of her bible psalms like running water, turning each phrase into a lullaby.

Psalm 23:

“I will fear no evil,
   for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
   they comfort me.”

The psalms would circulate in her mind for hours afterward and carve into the soft tissue of a previous memory. Careful what you say around her, she learns from you!

 

Still, the room was too dark. The darkness dizzied her, disarmed her with its constancy. Forced her mind to wander. . .

She would search the darkness until her vision danced with geometric patterns from the biophotonic light within her eyes; phosphenes, they're called; tricks of light.

They would change with every blink, shifting from a rolling wave to fat blots of color, looking like dollops of paint on a dark canvas. Almost like the paintings she’d found in Sarah’s apartment that final day-- they had hung on the walls and on pedestals, colored in lurid dollops and streaks of paint.

She had swiped a fingertip across the canvas and came away with a coating of paint. The paintings themselves have since escaped her mind, having already bloomed and wilted in the weeks she blundered away under The Big Cloud, but she could still remember the canvases’ texture beneath her finger and the sound of Sarah’s cotton-mouth breath decorating her ears.

She remembered rubbing the smear of paint between her fingers--hoping, somehow, that Sarah’s life would mark her just as easily.

Instead, she was marked with the disease of a positronic brain: The Big Cloud. Maggie called it her “fallow state,” and had tried to explain the entire extent of it: without DYAD to give them purpose, androids often became despondent and self-destructive (she had pointed to the scar along Helena’s shoulder blade, then, tracing it with a fingertip).

  

"And that is a fate we are working very hard to save you from," Maggie had whispered, leaning in front of Tomas, cutting him from earshot.

 

Secretly, Helena disagreed. She hadn’t felt “fallow” or empty in its grip, although there had been plenty of that in the times when she was lucid. It had felt like a cloud that blanketed her mind, sometimes blotting out everything--her thoughts, memories, feelings-- and other times merely scattering them.

The Big Cloud. That’s what she would call it in the back of her mind, would mumble in the palm of her hand, whenever Maggie called it by the other name. But still, in that moment, she had found herself smiling at the woman, who had leaned close to her face as though they were a pair of conspirators, and smiled as Tomas stared after them, humiliated.

 

The name had come to her on the northbound train to Sarah’s apartment that day she’d ventured to see her, just a few hours before her mind would finally snap apart. She’d felt excited at the time, undeterred by the fact that it had practically taken her two weeks to reach this point (buying the train ticket, sitting on the train, and soon to be wading through the streets to the right complex) despite having found her address in the first couple of days.

She’d slumped against the passenger window and breathed heavily through her nose, fogging up the glass; meanwhile, outside, the elements clamored for dominance.

The sky had been dark and heavy that day, threatening to blot out the sun with billowing clouds, whose swollen bellies bowed over the horizon like blood-gluttoned lions. The sun was all but a gray luminescence, smothered beneath the cover. That is, until a brisk wind had broken the clouds apart and freed the sun’s golden rays. She’d watched as four beams of light had stretched toward the horizon like fingers, covering the pasture in a dazzling yellow.

The clouds had sulked in the background for the remainder of the ride, pocked with light. Smiling faintly, she’d taken it as a sign. An omen from the natural world that all would be well. Just a few hours before it would bring her to her knees, she'd found a name for it: The Big Cloud. ‘Shh, shh, you’re alright.’ She’d imagined Sarah’s voice (then still as much a mystery as the rest of her) to be a mixture of her caregivers. ‘You’re home now,’ Sarah would say, stroking her hair.

 

Thwap! The dull crack of the hatch door opening pierced her memory and returned her to the surface. Taking a deep breath, she squinted against the slab of light across the room. The shadow of a person knelt by the entryway, their arms outstretched to each door, calling out for Helena.

 

“I’m here,” She said. Skimming along her skin, Pupok hissed: “Where else would we be?”  

 

The darkness unsettled Pupok, Helena guessed. It acted more aggressive than she remembered it being.  The drag of Pupok’s pacing legs burned an agitation into her arms and threatened a fresh wave of gooseflesh. Whenever Pupok got keyed up, she could feel its anger wiring her nerves like electrical cords.

While her eyes adjusted, she could begin to see the silhouette of a woman cut-out from the blank sheet of light around her. White moths flitted out from the darkness and swooped over Maggie’s head like bats before dissolving into the bright world around them.

 

“I have something for you,” Maggie said, “I’m coming in now.”

 

Helena adjusted her position on the bed to accommodate another person, watching as Maggie descended the stairs and sat beside her. The bed groaned under their collective weight, exhaling a single breath of dust.

 

“Is it a mirror?” she asked.

 

Maggie gave no reply and rested a hand on Helena’s shoulder instead, tracing the barbed ridge where she had pried her back open that night before losing consciousness.

Although they had folded the jagged lip back to its original place, it had remained an open wound. Cool to the touch, it curved around her shoulder blade in the shape of a fish hook; the absence of skin just as fake as the rest of her.

Like sheet metal, they had explained. The skin could be bent and melded with blazing sticks of iron, but they would never heal on their own. "Imagine," Maggie had said, placing a hand on her shoulder with a gentle but commanding squeeze. "If no one had found you and fixed you up as we had. Where would you be right now?"

 

"Helena? I asked you a question,” Maggie said, drawing her from her thoughts. She undercut the irritation in her voice with a warm smile. “Where’s your head gone?”

 

Quietly, Helena slumped into her usual position. Curled a knobbed wrist beneath her chin and stared at the darkness.

 

“I was dreaming,” she murmured.

 

“Really?” She said dryly, “Which one was it this time, hm, the belly-aching clouds from the train or those faded paintings you’d found--where? In Sarah's apartment?”

 

After a moment of silence, Maggie spoke again, softer this time: “Those aren’t dreams, Helena. They’re memories. Remember?”

 

Helena turned away, craning her neck as far as she could get from Maggie, agitated at having her own thoughts thrown back at her to prove a point. While Helena glared at the floor, Pupok alighted on the hairs of her arm, electric with anger, “Stupid cow. What does she know?’

 

“You know how much I encourage self-reflection,” She said, “That’s why you’re here in the first place. I just don’t want you getting too lost in your own head--these roundabout memories about Sarah are doing nothing to help you forget her.”

 

A couple dreams aren't worth the scrapyard, kiddo.

But I don’t want to forget.

 

After another bout of silence, Maggie settled her hands on Helena's shoulder and kneaded rough circles with her thumbs. With long and nimble fingers and delicate palms, her hands looked like they belonged to the soap-carved cherubs shown to her in their earlier days together.

Meanwhile, blue veins pressed up against her tissue-paper flesh--characteristic of a mother’s gentle touch. Or so she'd thought. But despite their appearance, Maggie’s hands were anything but gentle--their grip always felt brusque, insensitive, and rough. They were glass-hands with a serrated edge.

Helena swatted them away and crawled to the other side of the bed, tucking her knees under her chin. Her luminescent eyes watched Maggie with a silent, catlike stare. They stared at each other for a long moment, neither blinking.

 

“Would you like to see what I brought you?” Maggie asked finally. Her voice was unreadable: soft, but with an edge.

 

Helena gave a slight nod, but watched cautiously as she plucked the Holy Bible from inside her over-sized parka. Its starch binding was broken so the whole thing was held together by rubber bands.

She leafed through a couple of pages, which gleamed translucently from finger oil, and landed on the Book of Genesis.  

 

“You read that to me already. Twice,” Helena mumbled, eyeing the bible glumly.

 

She had hoped for a mirror. Had been hoping for three weeks now.

Ignoring her, Maggie recited a passage from 1:3, the Fall:

 

 “...The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever...

 

When she had finished the chapter, she closed the book with a sigh and stared at nothing for a minute.

Then she turned her head to Helena, and leaned in as she had done that first day.

Two conspirators whispering in the darkness:

 

“Tomas has told me his beliefs on androids--animatronics in general--and there is logic to it, in a way. ‘Our Creator made Man in His perfect image, and still he became stained with darkness and sin. Now man has created monsters in his likeness. Could you imagine the horrors they are capable of achieving?’”

 

Maggie paused for a moment, listening to the orchestra of machinery inside Helena, and then leaned in closer: "But do you wanna know what I think?"

They locked eyes. Their faces were close enough now to smell the other’s sour mouth: coffee and metal. All but her teeth and the whites of her eyes were visible, standing stark against the darkness with the silvery glimmer of a razor blade.

 

"Androids are just like children. ‘Though they may look the age of their donors, they’re hardly two years old when they expire. Some are already out-of-date the moment they exit the womb." saying this, she brushed a lock of hair out of Helena's face. "Abandoned or lost, the surviving few must be guided--or else they will suffer."

 

Wrapping the bible in elastic bands, she fits the book on Helena’s lap and placed her hand over the wrinkled pages.  

 

"I want you to have this,” she said, “No matter the challenges you may face, this will be your guide. For it cannot be tainted like memory, and though the pages are worn, the words are clear."

 

"You're not leaving," she whispered, feeling as Maggie leaned away. The mattress springs whined as she moved

 

“I’ll come back,” Maggie replied. A breath hitched in her chest as Maggie stood up.

 

While Maggie climbed up the stairs up into the bright world, she saw herself leaving Sarah’s apartment. Bye-Bye. The drag of her feet across carpet reverberated through her head, pulling her further from the image of Maggie exiting from the cellar…

 

The glass had felt cool against her fingertips--that was the last thing she remembered from that day: the frosted glass.

The horizon looked like a porcelain plate in the distance, slated clean by the sterile touch of snow. On the other side of the glass, the storm let out a bestial howl, clawing in through the cracks and faults of every surface, charging passerby; a body of sleet and socking gusts, mindless rage.

Pupok had been nothing but a glint of light on her fingertips, hissing commands in a single stream of static (gobackgobacksarahalonealone). Then: darkness.

 

She dredged her memory for Sarah’s face-- the curl of her lips, a swatch of color, anything--but found only an expressionless blur. She had leaned against the door frame, lit darkly by the bulbous lights above, hands twitching at her side. Why could she remember her body--their body--but not their face? It was blank. A white cloud tethered to their body by the sinew of their neck. But I don’t want to forget.

 

She heard the crisp click of teeth and refocused her attention in front of her. Raising her head from the mattress, she scanned the darkness-swollen room.

 

“Maggie?” She called out.

 

A hand brushed her hair lightly, following the curve of her head, and scratched at the part where the head adjoined with her neck. Patted her like a dog.

 

“Shh, shh,” they said lowly, “you’re alright.”

 

“...Sarah?” She said, blinking hard in the darkness. She caught a pair of brown eyes gleaming down at her and a plastic jug gripped by a broad, callused hand.

 

Dread hardened in her gut, “Tomas.”

 

“You’re with me now,” Tomas said, balancing the white container on his thigh, “And I won’t have an android in my house--in my own church--without it knowing its place.”

He unscrewed the cap and scrunched his nose at a sterile odor like embalming fluid that wafted from the jug.

He told her to sit up, take off her shirt, lean her head back, and then wait--all of which she did with horrifying compliance. (Run, you idiot, Pupok hissed, scampering across her deadened limbs. But her body only listened to the command pealing in her ears: Obey.)

Throwing the bottle cap on the floor, he hovered the spout over her head and told her to close her eyes. Her heart felt like it was trying to escape her chest.

 

His voice, although no more than a whisper, ricocheted off the walls and boomed in her ears.  “Stay still,” He said. “You’re no use to me blind.”

 


 

This was the place. A rotten two-bedroom shack decorated with cobwebs and the brittle carcasses of abandoned beehives, also known as The Church; the end-all-be-all safe haven for carbon-based-human life, whose existence had felt threatened by animatronics.

Nestled behind the sun-spoiled husks of a corn field, Prolethean life festered like maggots.

Crumpling the flyer she’d found in the metro station earlier that week, she felt a scowl beginning to gnaw at her lips.

 

“Fuck you,” she muttered under her breath, staring out at the dilapidated shack. “Hiding out in the middle of nowhere...,” she mumbled the rest between her teeth.

 

After the release of DYAD’s advertisement six weeks ago, she’d been scrounging the scrapyard for a glimpse of her own gnarled hand, a swatch of flesh or muscle, an, unblinking brown eye--something to settle her mind.

A piece of evidence was all she needed to expel Helena from her memory. But every night, she came back empty, wondering instead the different experiments the poor thing endured.

 

Don’t send me back.

 

Kira’s words would push to the front of her mind every night like clockwork. Words that had haunted her dreams for nearly a year--ever since she’d felt them press hotly against the lip of her ear: Can’t I go with you this time? I miss you. Don’t send me back! But ever since that day she’d wandered too long in metro station, bore witness to DYAD’s fresh attempt at human plagiarism, it had been Helena’s voice whispering in her ear.

It was the principal of the thing that bothered her. Helena had already begun to unwind from whatever “maintenance procedures” DYAD had done to her, or so Felix said. Then she had come to Sarah like a dog with a shattered snout: starved and deranged, frothing pink from the mix of blood and spit.

She wasn’t a prolethean--she didn’t hate the poor creature. Not like those lunatics did.

The least she could have done is put her down with dignity and some peace of mind. Or whatever peace could be salvaged from a broken mind. Instead she had sent her away-- she might as well have handed her to DYAD personally.

 Pulling a gun from the glove box, she placed it on her lap and returned her eyes to the shack.

 

What are you gonna do--fake it to death? You don’t even know how to use that thing,” Felix had snapped, eyeing her as she fit the gun in the front of her jeans (like she’d seen people do in the movies).

 

I’ll figure something out.”

 

Despite there being a group of people on the brochure, the church appeared to only be housing the older man from the front page. He wore a white cloth and Rabat as though he were preparing for a sermon, but instead perched on the edge of his chair and flipped the pages of what she guessed was the bible with a tongue-wetted finger.

A yard beside the house, half-covered by patches of overgrown grass and the bopping heads of perennial wildflowers, two wooden doors lay embedded in the earth.

 Her heart pricked at the sight, knowing immediately: that was it. That’s where they were keeping Helena.

 

Twelve weeks since Helena had left DYAD and the streets were scrubbed clean of her wan smile, her half-lidded eyes. In her place, a mixture of BraveWorld products and updates about DYAD’s new toy, Rachel, decorated the grungy streets.

While passerby leaped over the seams of cracked cement like chunks of polar ice, they craned their necks to the sky, staring up at the blaze of possibilities.

 

Our past usage of metal had created androids with eyesight only slightly better than our own. Rachel will be able to see a spectrum of color beyond human comprehension!”

 

Words like “beyond human” were quickly becoming DYAD’s motto of the year, freshly amended to their robotic revolution as though they hadn’t just created Helena for the polar opposite effect. Installing her “ever-learning mind” had been a feeble excuse for devolving her memory capacity to that of a child. DYAD's ethics were as salacious as her cons. Business as usual.

 

Sarah had just left the subway, eyes trained to the floor, when she caught the movement of a paper skimming the floor, unusual in itself; paper was hard to come by these days. Lunging, she had shouldered past a woman walking in the opposite direction and managed to catch the paper mid-flight.

 

Excuse me,” the woman had said, flustered. Touching a gloved hand to her chest, she'd looked over Sarah with a pursed look.

 

Sorry,” she’d mumbled, smoothing the edges of the paper with both hands. It was a yellow brochure with an image on the first page that showed ten gawky people gathered behind a broad-faced man.

His eyes had looked pitted by the shadow of his jutting forehead and his smile was no more than a pale line. It read: Bleeding hearts, welcome! Come to Church. Followed by more common phrases in all caps along the lines of “SAVE YOUR SOUL.”

 

You’re not one of them, are you?” The woman had asked, peeking over her shoulder. Sarah had subconsciously leaned away, balking at the sudden proximity.

 

What?” she’d asked.

 

A Prolethean. Religious extremists, radicals, anti-robotics,” the woman had replied. “Are you one?”

 

She’d eyed Sarah, then, with a look that said she already knew--she had pegged her the moment she’d lunged for a piece of paper. Sarah had hummed, already irritated by the woman’s continued presence, and shoved the brochure in her jacket pocket.

 

I’m not much of anything,” she’d replied.

 

The woman had begun pinching the fingertips of her leather gloves, removing it one finger at a time.

She’d continued like this, smiling at her hands, preparing for an introduction: “You know, I hear they have one at their ‘church’-- or whatever they call it.”

 

Have what?

 

The woman had smiled, tentatively--the corners of her mouth twitching as she waited, it seemed, for the punch line. After a moment, she’d let her smile fall.

 

Well, an android of course.

 

When she had finally freed her hand, she’d thrust it in front of Sarah with a crooked smile. Her hands looked like frosted glass. “Margaret Chen,” she’d said. Sarah had let Maggie’s hand hang in the air until her cheeks tinted rose-pink, then she had slipped her own gloved hand in for a shake. “Manning.”

 

The car door slammed behind her and she winced at the sound, sending a glance at the man in the house--half expecting to meet the muzzle of a gun as she turned. 

But the man remained slumped over his bible--his back facing the window as he massaged his temples with both hands. She pushed through briers and thistles, feeling as their nestles dragged at her jeans like pulling fingers, and moved towards the shack’s unprotected flank.

The hatch doors were bound with a rusty padlock, which she kicked open in a matter of minutes. Gripping the iron handles, she heaved one door open, frowning as putrid air lifted from the opening, and then opened the other. Flies buzzed around her head where she stood and dive-bombed at her lips and eyes--hurry up, hurry up! They seemed to say.

Swatting them away, she crouched toward the door and peeked her head in, but found nothing but darkness.

 

Maybe she was wrong--maybe Helena had died that night she left and DYAD had simply been diligent in her disposal--then--

 

Then a hoarse voice rose above the insect whine of the flies: “Maggie?”

At the voice, her hands flitted to her gun handle. What was it about Helena’s voice that made her shed all thought and clamor for a weapon? Was it the way it creaked woodenly around human words? Or was it the girlish undertone, beneath the sound of grinding metal, that ghosted the one inside her head?

Gripping the gun in her right hand, she descended the earth-carved steps, catching one last glance at the daylight before jumping onto the floor. Helena’s eyes glimmered from the corner of the room, neither welcoming her presence nor rejecting it.

 

“You’re not Maggie,” she croaked. “Who are you?”

 

What’s the matter? Sarah thought: Don’t know your own face?

 

“I’m a friend,” she said, walking nearer. Doesn’t matter. Helena wouldn’t need to know who she was so long as she was fast.

 

With her left hand, she fumbled for the flashlight she’d shoved in her jacket before leaving her apartment. “Hey, Buffy, don’t forget your stake on the way out!” Felix had quipped, throwing his car keys and the flashlight. With it firmly in hand, she shook its batteries to life and fumbled for the power button.

 

“A friend...,” Helena echoed. “Are you like me?”

 

Her voice sounded clear and shockingly lucid, but lacked something from before-- a sort of buoyancy. Like the life had been sucked out of her, and it was no wonder why in this coffin. Black mold infiltrated her mouth and eyes with spores like specks of dust. Although the urge to turn back flirted with her mind, she pushed through the deadened air like waist-length water and stood at the frame of the corner mattress where Helena perched.

 

“You look like me,” she said finally, more to herself than anyone. “According to the rest of the world, that’s close enough.”

 

Helena lost eye contact, quieting down, and turning her eyes to her fidgeting hands instead. After thumbing the power button, a weak film of light filtered from the flashlight. Sarah punched the battery pack until a firmer beam brightened the space--which she then directed on Helena...

 

"Jesus," Sarah whispered. First in shock, and then again in fear:"Jesus Bloody Christ!"

 

She flicked off the light at once, but the image remained, burning in her retinas: a negative-image. A pale ghost.

 

Helena had squinted at her from the black-spotted mattress, sitting so that the ankle of one leg was hooked beneath her while the other swung free, kicking up a cloud of dust.

A tangled mop of blonde coils enveloped her scalp everywhere but along the top of her head, where a dark crease of undamaged hair appeared to rupture her head into halves. But the horror was in the skin along her neck, down her shoulders, and, most prominently, all across her back--it was corrugated. Scarred. Chemicals had gnawed at her plastic flesh and wormed across her body in long strips, creating grooved scars everywhere. Her body had been whittled away like a plank of wood.

From the darkness, Helena continued, unconcerned.

 

""I've been reading just like she asked me too. I have to read aloud--it’s hard to understand, sometimes." She fidgeted noisily and asked: “Would you like me to read it to you?"

 

“No--,” She fought to keep the tears from her voice. “I won’t stay long.”

 

Did it hurt? She felt the question boiling her tongue, but couldn’t bring herself to ask it. Of course it did. She remembered the low groan of pain Helena had made that night--with the flick of a knife in her side. Even if she bought DYAD’s bullshit excuse of “dulled receptors,” the pain experienced here ran deeper than the jolt of knife against skin. Hatred carved these scars.

 

With trembling hands, she put the flashlight away and fixed both hands on her gun. Her heart still pounded with the same fear that forced her breath high up in her chest. Could Helena see the gun? Did she know what was about to happen? She sat on the bed, hiding the gun behind her, and listened as the bedsprings groaned beneath her weight.

 

Suddenly, as though commanded by some silent call, Helena slumped against Sarah--laying like this, with her head on Sarah’s lap and her hands locked between her knees, she looked like Kira.

 

I miss you.

 

Before she could think to stop herself, she trailed a hand down the curved side of Helena’s back, grazing damaged and undamaged skin alike. Helena’s clothes were moth-eaten and so starched by her own sweat and blood that they crumbled under her hand like the sweetly rotted leaves of Fall.

 

She stopped at the jagged corner of a ridge along her shoulder blade where Helena had pried herself open in desperate attempt to stop the pendulum of her mind. Someone had helped her close it, but never melded it together. A corner flap of skin had been bent back from the rest of the scar--Helena had been picking at it. What were you trying to do?

 

“Do you remember making this, Helena?” She asked, tracing the scar. Her finger pushed the flap back to its original place.

 

Helena remained silent, breathing slowly, so Sarah continued: “Do you remember what’s behind it? A panel full of dials and--and wires, I couldn’t believe all those wires; how compact everything was,”  she paused. No response. “I was there the day you made this scar, remember? You were trying to fix something.”

 

It was stupid to keep reminiscing about that day and the utter failure it had been--especially since Helena seemed unresponsive to it all-- but she couldn’t stop. She talked about how dark everything had been that night, smiling despite herself, while the darkness before her now moved in indecipherable patterns. That’s when Helena interrupted her, softly.

 

“Your hands are gentle,” she said, “I didn’t expect that.”

 

A beat passed before Sarah understood what Helena had meant.

 

“Do you know who I am?”

 

Helena giggled at the question, then hid her face with her hands, gave a gentle slap.

 

“Sorry,” she muttered. “You’re Sarah.”

 

Sarah frowned, shaking her head. It didn’t make sense. How could Helena remember her name but not recognize her face? How did she not recognize her voice--her own voice? But she knows the name. Helena hitched her breath, suddenly excited. She fought to stay seated, knocking her knees like a grounded child.

 

“You’re in my book,” she said, failing at last to remain calm. Then she leaned over and patted a hand across dusty ground until she found her book. She returned with an elastic-bound wreck of loose pages--and ripped off the bands with such energy that Sarah nearly jumped. Then she leafed through the pages until finding the correct passage.

 

“The Book of John,” Helena began, “The Word Became Flesh” :

 

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. Sarah was in the world, and though the world was made through Sarah, the world did not recognize Sarah. Sarah came to that which was Sarah’s own, but Sarah’s own did not receive Sarah. Yet to all who did receive Sarah, to those who believed in Sarah’s name, he gave the right to become children of Sarah— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of Sarah.

 

By the time Helena had finished, Sarah’s heart was pounding so wildly she felt light-headed. She grabbed the book from Helena’s hands and skimmed each page, mumbling the name she found on each and every page: Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.

Someone--a person of faith--had blotted out the very name they worshiped and replaced it with her own. But for what purpose? Her heart felt like it might burst, or otherwise stop right there. Why?

For a full minute, they sat in dumbfounded silence, equally stunned by the other. Apparently Helena believed herself to be in the presence of her god. Sarah was just trying to remember what she’d come here for. The gun lay forgotten behind them, perspiring with the sweat of Sarah’s palm.  

Later, she’ll drag Helena from the bed and to the hatch steps, pulling her up from beneath the ground. Cursing under her breath, she’ll force the car into gear and punch the gas until wind lashes at both of their eyes.

The car will speed past the shriveled cornfields, out of the sun-dappled hills of wildflowers and black bees, and toward the rim of grime and exhaust along the horizon, which marked the city. Towards the world of halves--of crystal-spire chandeliers along glass ceilings, spinning colorful threads of refracted light; of coal-smeared streets spattered with urine and blood. The world where everywhere you went, no matter where you looked, Rachel flourished.


But just then, Sarah could only trace a finger over the scar on Helena’s shoulder and wonder, vaguely, if things would have turned out differently had she allowed Helena to stay, had helped her, cleaned her, and fixed that pendulum of shifting personality on something soft and moderate. Something told her: No. This happened not because of the abuse, the darkness, and isolation, but despite it. Even without the manipulation--that twisted trick of blotted words and tarnished paper-- it would have happened, or something like it. Something hopefully less twisted.

 

This was it: this was Helena. Because there was no calibration or simulation for something as complicated as faith, or religion--or love.