Some people had to know. I wasn’t one of them.
So the curious had run off to be “read.”
The procedure was simple — an EEG administered during REM sleep — obtain the bitcode, and voila — know when and how you were going to die.
So the curious had run off to be read.
This great leap had been taken, as most are, with the leg‑up of an accident. A researcher had stumbled upon a recurring binary pattern in the EEG’s of her sleep subjects. She’d translated the codes, formulated a not‑immediately‑testable hypothesis, and announced her theory.
Although science had greeted her findings with derision and skepticism, it had been forced to take a second look years later, when people began dying as if on cue — and in the ways the scientist had predicted.
So the curious had run off to be read.
For their trouble, the curious received the date and cause of their prospective deaths. Now, the cause was open to interpretation, as sometimes only one word appeared in a reading. Still, many had sought out medical help in an attempt to forestall whatever fate “heart” or “kidney” might portend.
The medical community had moved swiftly to establish the infrastructure to perform readings for the masses. They’d argued that the possibility of saving lives outweighed any ethical or religious considerations.
A few voices, however, had cried out from the wilderness. Were the bitcodes messages from God? Should the readings be used to thwart God’s will?
We received an answer of sorts.
The word “plague” began appearing not long after the start of the mass readings. Soon a mysterious viral disease was sweeping the planet. The virus attacked the brains of primates, and consumed victims’ minds and bodies within days.
Disease centers around the world had mobilized. In order to learn the potential extent of the outbreak, our government decided to require all citizens to submit to a reading.
So they ran me off to be read.
I haven’t gone home. They’re treating me well, but they won’t let me talk to anyone outside. They’ve told my friends and family I’ve been quarantined for everyone’s safety.
I’m not sick.
The researchers have been studying me, hoping to learn something that may turn this thing around. Progress is slow, as many of my doctors have fallen ill.
The waiting has given me plenty of time to think: What does it all mean? Why now?
I’m not religious, so I’ll leave the theological ruminations to someone else — whoever may be left. The view from my secular vantage point is that species come and species go. Maybe our time on this planet is just done. Period.
It’s not like my prognosis is bad — or good. My reading just said — “last.” It gave no date.
If I am to be the last, I thought I should keep some sort of record. I’m just not sure for whom.
For my rebirthday I decided to hold a concert in our private allocation. I wanted The Beatles but OpTel hadn’t acquired the copyrights or formed the appropriate corporate partnerships, so I chose the next best thing: XTC, another great late-twentieth century band.
“Who should we invite, Jules?”
My wife emerged from the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her head. She didn’t go to the toilet anymore so why did she still need to shower or bathe? It annoyed me having to pay for the extra bathroom space and the simulated water, but she is my wife and some lifelong habits are hard to kick.
“What did you say?”
“Who should we invite to the concert? XTC will be playing.”
“Can we afford this?’ Jules scanned the kitchen bench. “Where’s my coffee?”
I downloaded a cappuccino. “Of course we can afford it. We haven’t passed the quota for the month.”
A glowing red envelope hovered in the corner of the room — a message from our telecommunications provider — so we ignored it. If the message became urgent it would whistle.
“There’s not enough sugar in this,” said Jules. “And it tastes like instant.”
“You know I don’t drink. Why you insist on hanging onto these things is beyond me. You don’t need them and it costs money.”
Jules stared at me, her face expressionless. The calm before the storm.
So I pushed her. “And anyway, why can’t you make it yourself?”
“Because I want you to, Paul. It’s the little things that count.” She downloaded a flat white, sipped it and smiled. “Now. This concert. You’re planning to hold it in our house?”
Jules arched an eyebrow.
“Come on, Jules. You know I can’t afford to place it in the public domain.”
“We can’t afford it. Not I. You’re not remodelling the house for this. We can’t afford that.”
“Well, I was thinking of restructuring the section of our allocation you call the study. Modelling it on an old Roman amphitheatre and then downsizing our personas so we can fit more people into the space. I won’t touch the rest of the house.”
“Downsizing? Isn’t that risky? Didn’t that couple have problems restoring themselves? I read she got partially lost in the translation coming back.”
“That was years ago. Technology has changed since then. People are doing it all the time. Or as much as OpTel allows under the new contract. It’ll be fine.”
“I’m not sure about this. Why not just leave the study the way it is and invite less people?”
“Jules! You don’t understand! I want to see XTC perform in an amphitheatre!”
“No-one you know wants to see that. Your brother would, but he hasn’t signed up with the program yet.”
“I’m not telling them it’s XTC. I’m going to leak that I’ve acquired bootleg source code for The Beatles.”
“You heard me,” she said. A massive canvas materialised in the corner of the room. She suddenly sported a beret and wore an artist’s apron splattered with paints. A smear of burnt orange appeared on the canvas as she approached it. She was getting lazy; she hadn’t even downloaded the paintbrushes yet.
I was sure I could rearrange the study for the concert within our budget. Jules had arranged another bloody shelving façade to accommodate my books and music – another hang up of days gone – but all it did was limit the number of indexes I could store in the room.
“Just download them when you need them,” she’d say.
I hated doing that. The download took time and incurred a cost. So what if it was data redundancy? These were all mine. When I wanted. I removed the shelving and morphed the space into a rough semi-circle, using the music indexes for steps, slabbing between them with the books. A rough skin of stone would smooth it over, and then I’d apply some aging effects. This would be easy.
A scream came from the other end of the allocation.
“Paul! Come here quick!”
A small African girl huddled on the floor of the kitchen. Flies buzzed over the skin drawn tight over her thin bones. Her belly was swollen. She stretched out her palm.
“Please,” she croaked.
“How the hell did this get in?” asked Jules accusingly.
“I didn’t forget to upgrade the software filters. Have you checked the address?”
An elderly Christian-looking fellow, wearing conservative adventure clothing, crouched next to the girl, his arm placed carefully around her shoulders. “Mbome can’t get enough to eat. The village well has been poisoned. Without your help Mbome and thousands like her are dying everyday. By attaching your persona signatures to this mail and sending it to ten of your closest friends, we at WorldAid will guarantee one dollar for each persona you forward…”
“Send it to OpTel,” said Jules. “I don’t want the house full of spam like last year. We couldn’t move, download, or send. We’re not paying for the space. Make sure you get a refund on this.”
I disassembled the code and forwarded it to technical support as another red envelope appeared in the corner of the room. They actually appeared in the corner of every room: OpTel made sure you had every warning. We ignored it though — it wasn’t related to my support call and was most likely technical sales speak for things we couldn’t afford and didn’t want. It was unusual to get two messages from the provider in one day, but right now I was planning a party.
As I investigated links to subsonic frequencies for downsized personas, Giles’s head popped into the room. His eyes were blank, so Jules hadn’t let him in yet.
“You decent?” Giles said. His voice quavered.
“Yeah, connect two-way. You using a fear modulator?”
His eyes opened and I had a portal into his allocation. I noticed there were no naked women present. Strange.
“No, I’m not,” Giles continued. “I’m scared though. They’re severing the Western Victorian farm from the mainframe.”
“They’re cutting us off. What am I to do? I’m going to die! Jesus Christ, Paul, I’m really going to die!”
I hadn’t heard Giles this upset since he’d been diagnosed with cancer just before he signed with the program. “Calm down. You’re already dead.”
His persona flickered and a streak of static shot through his room. “Everyone’s trying to leave. We’ve got twenty-four hours! I’m going to die!”
“How can this be? What was that static?”
“Our part of the system is under too much load. The bandwidth’s clogged with a God-damned exodus! My world is collapsing. You’ve got to help me!”
I thought for a second. Jules came down the hall, her persona emanating worry. “Just sign up for a transfer to another server. One on the mainland.”
“My brain is here in Colac! There’s a thirty-six hour backlog for processing. The providers aren’t responding to any mail. There’s a rumour going around they’re not even going to transfer our brains.”
“Upload into public domain then. You’ve still plenty of cash, haven’t you?”
“And for how long? Public domain is expensive. I’ll lose everything. I can only afford to store myself for about three weeks realtime before it won’t be worth it.”
“What? How much have you been spending?”
He shrugged. “The women, you know…expensive…”
“Don’t worry, Giles,” said Jules, her hand on my shoulder. “Upload into our place. We’ll store you here until we get your brain transferred to another farm. You’ll owe us one.”
“Great!” He grinned and static crackled over the connection. “You’d better start now. Like I said, the bandwidth is clogged this end.”
The portal closed and I initiated transfer. “I’m not activating him when he’s here. He’ll eat up this month’s budget. He can stay in storage.”
“Stop sulking. He’s one of your best friends. He’d do the same for you.”
“I suppose. Lucky we didn’t sign up in the country, eh? I don’t know what he was thinking when he moved there. I thought it would only be a matter of time before they suspended service to the rural areas.”
“It wasn’t luck, Paul. I signed us up for our retirement in the safest possible spot. You wanted to go cheap like Giles.” She went back to her canvasses.
She was right, but I wasn’t going to admit it. I didn’t think why we hadn’t heard about the suspension of service. I had bigger problems. Giles would be a burden on both space and budget for the XTC concert. I’d have to foot his bill and I wasn’t sure I could afford it.
Waz popped in late that afternoon so we opened the connection between allocations. Sacha paced the room in the background, pretending to smoke cigarettes. As far as I knew, OpTel weren’t allowed to simulate nicotine. Too many court cases from America had stemmed that in rebirthing’s infancy.
“Uh, you haven’t had any technical problems lately, have you?” Waz asked in his soft English accent. Sacha paced and smoked.
“Some spam got through, but that’s about it. Why?”
“Something’s happened. We got a message from OpTel – it whistled right away –saying our service will be disconnected shortly. Apparently our super funds are almost gone. We’ve tried to contact Australian Sentinel Funds Management but we can’t get through.”
“But you guys are loaded.”
“Yeah, well. You haven’t seen or heard anything about any scams running at the moment?”
“There’s been nothing on the news. Jules? You haven’t heard anything, have you?”
“No. Have you tried to contact anyone else outside, Warren?” Jules asked. “See if they can get somewhere, face-to-face as it were?”
“Sacha’s tried her daughter, but we hardly ever hear from her these days — you know those neo-Juddites.”
“They’re taking us offline tomorrow,” said Sacha. She lit another cigarette and sucked it down. “If that happens we’re screwed. With both of us off, we can’t resolve our funding issue and reconnect.”
“We wouldn’t ask if we didn’t have to,” said Waz. “We already tried Giles but we can’t get hold of him either. I don’t know what this world is coming to.”
I knew what they wanted, but I was hoping someone else could help them instead. “Look, guys, I’d love to help, but…”
“Don’t worry,” Jules said. “Upload to our place. You can work it out from here, and reimburse us any costs you run up while you’re doing it. Paul’s having a party for his rebirthday soon, too.”
“Thanks, Jules,” Waz and Sacha said. “Oh, and Happy Rebirthday, Paul.”
“Yeah, thanks.” I prepared for the transfers.
“Don’t even think about it,” said Jules. “You will not put them in storage.”
“They don’t both need to be active to figure out where their money is. I could put one of them in storage.”
“Oh? And who will that be? Sacha won’t be happy if you put Warren away, and she’ll be furious if it’s her. Stop being so selfish.”
I hated it when she was right. The constraints were getting tight now. How could I afford to keep my friends here and have the concert? I was never going to be able to keep this under budget.
Another red envelope appeared.
It’s a funny thing. The brain gets tired, even without a body. I wish I could see our allocation after we’re asleep, but of course I can’t. And there’s no point recording something that’s not really there either. OpTel has assured us that our allocation is never altered unless we demand it, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that they’re using our space while we’re asleep. It’s those snatches of grey, that cold code interface between our reality and the real world you spy upon waking. Our provider termed it “lagtime”. If I proved otherwise, maybe I could stretch the super a little further from the rewards of a little litigation. (Yeah, right).
And over the years our dreams have become less physical, an abstract jumble of faces and memories yearning for the flesh. Jules paints these feelings but I prefer to bury them each morning when I wake and relish in an everlasting life devoid of arthritis and wrinkles and heart attacks and cancer. Most of us died from these things.
But not my brother Scott.
He’s refused to sign up, battling with age and its burdens like the Lord intended. He’s not religious though, he fears letting go of the flesh. My sister said he was primarily held together by machines when she had died. God knows what he’s like now. And he’s our only contact with the real world — the rest of our families have either died or signed up — though all providers limit interaction to sound channels only. Technical limitations I’m told. Sure.
“Thanks, Scott. I’m holding an XTC concert tomorrow. Want to come?”
:How much info are you receiving these days?:
“Eh?” I thought he’d jump at the chance to see XTC play. Or in his case, hear them. Something was awry. “You mean news from outside? The usual stuff. Politics, interest rates, wars, sports etc.”
:Nothing about the viruses? The stock market crash?:
“Viruses? Sure, OpTel provide upgrades all the time for that. It’s part of the contract. We’re safe as.”
:Safe is a dangerous word. There’s been a viral outbreak in several farms. Tasmania has been destroyed and they suspect contamination in most farms west of Ballarat and Bendigo:
Jules yelled from the other end of the allocation. “Paul! There’s another spam here. Some chain letter about a pyramid scheme. Did you send that last one to OpTel like I asked?”
“Yes. Just delete it. I’ll look it at later. Sorry, Scott, what were you saying? A viral outbreak? OpTel will fix that.”
:It’s not a digital virus. It’s human. Of the spongiform encephalopathy family. They suspect it’s a hybrid of kuru that once plagued ancient Papua New Guinea. It’s decimating farms on a global scale. It attacks the cerebral cortex, possibly through cerebrospinal fluid where your brain is attached to the farm:
I hadn’t been scared for a long, long time. Not since my diagnosis and the dark months that followed before accepting rebirth. “Is there a cure?”
:Not yet. They think it’s spreading through the nodes, leaping from farm to farm through cerebral contact. God knows how. Can the digital world affect the real one? I didn’t think so, but now I’m not so sure:
A red enveloped suddenly hovered in the corner of the room.
“What should we do?”
:At this stage nothing. Keep on living. If you start losing contact with people, it’s probably the provider closing down nodes to prevent infection. It doesn’t surprise me you haven’t been told:
The red envelope started whistling. All the unopened envelopes started whistling.
“Just open them, Jules!”
“The junk mail’s annoyed we haven’t read it yet.”
:I think you’d better read them. Your super’s not with Australian Sentinel Funds Management, is it?:
“No, we’re with the Mutual Society. Why?”
:Several of the larger superannuation companies have folded with the stock market crash. It’s estimated twenty-five percent of personas will go under. Do you — :
Then simply the whistling of unread mail, sharper and sharper, like the scream of steam before the kettle boiled. Waz and Sacha were with Australian Sentinel. They were down in the lounge with Jules, trying to figure out where their money had gone.
“Open the bloody messages, Paul!” Jules yelled.
That was the last time I spoke to my brother.
I decided to open the messages.
Dear Mr & Mrs HAINES,
As you may be aware, OpTel will soon be increasing the costs of all LifeStyle plans by 3%. This is in accordance with current inflation rates and as OpTel have not increased any costs for the past 10 years, it is with great reluctance that we have to at this time.
In line with the increases, a 15% surcharge will be placed on technologies deemed non-essential for digital living. This includes stimulant technology involving the following senses: smell, taste and touch. For a complete list of items to be surcharged please refer to ~2466/docs/proposals/surcharged-item-list.
You do not need to respond to this message. Your account will automatically be billed for the new amounts.
If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact your nearest service provider.
Customer Service Area #425
“Jules. I think you better have a look at this.”
Her face paled as she read the first message. Then her cheeks reddened. “What is this rubbish? We’ve signed a contract. They can’t do this to us.”
“If they do, we’re going to lose a lot of those “little things” you love. The coffee, hot water…” The reddening cheeks.
“No, we’re not. I can’t live without coffee, or tea or chocolate! I can’t believe those bastards! What’s in the other messages?”
Dear Mr & Mrs HAINES,
Due to recent customer feedback, we’re introducing four new LifeStyle plans to replace the LifeStyle: Light Warp plan you currently enjoy. You can stay on your existing plan until the end of your 50 year agreement or you can change to one of the new plans designed for those on a restricted budget. If you remain on your existing plan, it’s important you are aware of the changes outlined below:
We didn’t bother reading anymore. Jules flew into a rage, splashing paint and smashing plates, screaming obscenities through the lines. That would cost us, but it felt prudent for me to disappear into the public domain for an indeterminate time without mentioning that fact.
It wasn’t as if we could switch to another service provider either: we’d signed an exclusive contract with high penalty clauses for swapping to get a better monthly rate more suited to the Super plan we had.
I didn’t think there were any other service providers left since the last merger either.
We were screwed.
The day before the concert I decided to activate Giles. Jules wasn’t talking to me and connections to other nodes were still limited.
“Thanks, Paul, I didn’t think the transfer would be so quick. How long did it take?’ Giles accessed the system date then shot me a murderous look. “You bastard. It’s been three days. Why the hell did you store me? You know, I’ve got to get back on.”
“There’s something else. There’s a virus affecting some of the farms. Colac could be infected.”
If I hadn’t imposed limits on Giles downloaded persona, he would have paled. “Oh my God, I’ve got to move my brain.”
“You’ve got today to arrange it.”
“Today? What if that’s not enough? Why can’t you just keep me here until it’s done?”
“It’s all we can afford.”
“You’re kidding me! This is my life!”
“It’s ours too.” I told Giles about the price hikes. “Because you’re no longer connected to your brain, I’ve assigned a day-long buffer for storing new memories from this point on. If the buffer is overloaded it’ll reset your memories to where you are now.”
Giles mouth hung suspended. “But…you can’t…”
Jules stormed into the room wearing nothing but swirling torrents of hot chocolate. She drank continually as she spoke. “I’d get on with it if I were you, Giles. If it comes to you or us, it’s us. You’re gone.” Then she stormed out.
“What was that?” Giles asked.
“Something had to go. She cut fashion and clothes in favour of keeping the pleasures of hot water and chocolate. Now she eats what she wears. A strange woman my wife.”
“Strange but smart. You’d better be careful she doesn’t start eating you,” said Giles. “I’ve got some work to do.” He disappeared.
This is what I’d love to say: “The concert went off without a hitch. Everyone had a great time; XTC played with a rare gusto that converted even the faithless. It was undoubtedly the best rebirthday I’d ever had.”
But it didn’t happen that way.
I watched it alone a year later, in my Roman amphitheatre. One of the Advertisers had been here, but left when she discovered it wasn’t The Beatles. I was like Gulliver seated in a Lilliputian arena. Due to the rising costs of service provision, I hadn’t been able to afford to restructure the study into something more comfortable, and I couldn’t risk the expense of downsizing my persona for the concert and resizing afterwards. I’d also sold half our allocation to investors in the real world to cut costs and extend the budget. And to make matters worse, I couldn’t really feel the music — it cost too damn much for the extra sensory input.
I wanted to ask my friends and family what they thought of the concert but they were all in storage and it was incredibly expensive to activate anyone now. OpTel had cut back on a lot of things since the virus outbreak. People were one of them. I had managed to store a few of my friends here before the outbreak left eastern Australia isolated from most parts of the world. Still, we all have to make do with what we’ve got and I’ve got my music so I’m happy enough.
There are a couple of glitches in the system now. Every morning I find a bathroom has slipped back into the allocation. I’ve stopped removing it as it costs me a restructuring fee, and OpTel haven’t replied to my enquiry yet. And they’re charging me for the water simulation I’m not using — it’s on my monthly bill. Oh, and another thing. On Thursdays my skin tastes like hot chocolate. And Monday morning it’s a flat white. Annoys the hell out of me — they’re all Jules’s hang-ups — but I can’t reprogram them for some reason. It’s like someone else has control of my life now and then.
I do get bored from time to time though, with no-one to talk to. Some lifelong habits are hard to kick. I’m thinking of saving up for a couple of months and activating Jules. It’d be nice to see her again.
A is for Annabelle, who turned ten today. She is on a birthday picnic with her parents, wearing what her mother calls her Alice-in-Wonderland dress, and the warm air smells of summer. Annabelle hears chimes in the wind, but her parents, arguing on a blanket, don’t seem to notice. Annabelle might follow the music, later, through the yellow and blue field of wildflowers, into the woods. The chimes seem to call her name, three syllables: “Ann – a – belle.” She laughs and claps her hands. Her parents murmur.
B is for Butterflies. Annabelle sees one now, yellow wings fluttering through the long grass over the hills. She chases it until it lands, then leans over to watch it resting on a blossom. Annabelle thinks it might be looking at her, but she isn’t sure if butterflies have eyes.
Her father collects butterflies, pins them down and seals them under glass. She’s seen him in the garage, where he keeps his collection, looking at them. Sometimes, when he doesn’t know she’s there, he rips off their wings, and that frightens her.
Annabelle shivers and waves her hand at the butterfly. “Go on,” she whispers. “Fly away.” It does.
C is for Cages. Once at another girl’s birthday party Annabelle saw parakeets, yellow and blue, singing in a cage. She looked at them for a minute and decided to set them free. She tugged at the cage door, but a broad soft woman in a flowered dress stopped her. “No, dear,” she said. “Don’t let them out.”
“I want them to fly,” Annabelle said, her eyes suddenly hot and full of tears.
“No,” the woman repeated, leading Annabelle back to cake and ice cream. “Their wings are clipped. They couldn’t fly anyway.”
“Do their wings ever grow back?” Annabelle asked, but the woman didn’t answer.
D is for Dreams, of course. Annabelle dreams of green places, and she often dreams of flying, soaring over woods and water, singing as she goes. One morning, when she was five years old, she said “I flied, Mommy, last night I flied!” Her mother’s eyes went wide and she made a squeaking noise, as if choking on her eggs.
“In her dreams,” her father said sharply, looking up from his paper. “She means in her dreams. Everyone has that dream.”
Annabelle’s mother nodded and looked down at her plate.
Anabelle remembers that, even five years later. She has a very good memory, but far enough back it turns to mist and shadows and pine trees.
E is for Earthworms. Annabelle’s father is a weekend fisherman, and there’s a patch of black dirt behind the house where he digs for worms. Once, young and dirty-kneed, Annabelle watched him dig.
“Catypillars,” she said when he pulled up a long worm, wiggling, and dropped it in the bucket.
“Not caterpillars,” her father said. “Worms.”
“Worms?” Annabelle said, scrunching up her face.
“Yes. Caterpillars are fuzzy, and they turn into butterflies. Worms are slimy, and they don’t turn into anything. But.” He raised his finger in front of Annabelle’s wide gold-flecked eyes. “If you cut a worm in half, both halves go on living.” He took out his pocketknife, laid a worm on a shattered piece of cinderblock, and sliced it neatly in half. There was no blood, and both halves wriggled wildly. “See?”
Annabelle looked for a moment, solemn, and then said “Put it back together, Daddy.”
He frowned, picking up the two wiggling half-worms and dropping them in his bucket. “I can’t, Annabelle. There’s no way to put them together again.”
“Oh,” she said in a quiet voice. But she wondered.
F is for Fairies. Annabelle’s mother is religious, and there are pictures and statues of angels all over the house, with their white wings and pale, pretty faces. When Annabelle was younger, she called them fairies. “No,” her mother said sternly. “They’re angels.”
“But they got wings,” Annabelle said.
Her mother embraced her in freckled arms. “I know, darling, but they’re angels. I promise. And you’re my little angel.”
“I don’t got wings,” Annabelle said scornfully.
G is for Garden. Annabelle’s mother has one, with roses and posies and tulips and other blossoms, and in the summer they buzz with bees. Once Annabelle was sent to pull weeds, but instead she took up flowers and wove them into her red hair, and made chains for her wrists. Her mother squawked and shouted when she saw, but Annabelle was serene, sitting on the lawn with her skirts spread around her. She was a flower.
H is for Hair, sunset-red on Annabelle’s head. Her father’s hair is sandy blonde and short, her mother’s is flat brown and cut in a bob. Annabelle’s hair falls in curly waves, nearly to her knees. It has never been cut.
When Annabelle’s mother brushes her daughter’s hair, as she does every morning, it never snags or tangles. Her mother tells herself it must be the shampoo she uses, but it certainly doesn’t do that for her own hair. She chooses not to think about it. Annabelle’s mother chooses not to think about a great many things.
I is for Innocence, and today as every day Annabelle is drifting farther from that state. Her father watches her sometimes as she plays, frowning, and sometimes he grins like a jack o’ lantern, but he’s never laid a hand on her, even to punish. Sometimes he seems nervous when he hugs her, and he never touches her back for long. Annabelle’s innocence is still complete, but today she turned ten, and as she grows through double digits that innocence will disappear. For some things, some reconnections, time is growing short.
J is for Joy, and that’s what Annabelle was for her parents, or was meant to be, or could have been. “She’s a gift from God,” Annabelle’s mother said when they got their newfound daughter home, but she was hesitant, trembling. She put her hands across her belly. “We — I wanted a baby so much.”
From the kitchen she heard a rasp and her young husband said “She is. You did. There’s just something to take care of first.” Another rasp, metal on stone, and Annabelle’s mother closed her eyes. “Get it sharp,” she said. “Very sharp, so it doesn’t hurt much. I’ll boil some water.”
Somewhere in the house, far from the green places she’d known, baby Annabelle lay on her stomach and cried.
K is for Knives. Annabelle has dim memories, masquerading as nightmares. Even at ten years old, her father has to cut her food; she can’t stand to touch a knife. She doesn’t like meat anyway, because it reminds her too much of her own muscles, moving under the skin. She has muscles in her back that she can flex, but they don’t move anything at all.
She stares at the wall as her father saws away at the food on her plate. She can’t stand to look at the knife. Or at him, wielding it.
L is for Lost things. Annabelle loses things a lot, but her father almost never does; he’s only once lost anything, that she can remember. Listening from the top of the stairs, Annabelle heard him shout at her mother. “They’re gone! They were wrapped in cloth and locked in the chest and now they’re gone! What did you do with them?”
And her mother: “Nothing. I hated them, the way you… brooded over them, but I wouldn’t touch the things.”
“Well then where did they go?”
Her mother, quietly: “Maybe they flew away.”
M is for Music, and for Mystery, and this is both. Those chimes: “Ann – a – belle”, ringing over the hills from the trees. They aren’t birdsong, and they aren’t bells, and Annabelle’s parents, just a few feet away on the blanket, don’t hear a thing. It is Annabelle’s birthday, and she got a pink bike with a basket and a new kite to fly. The kite is in the grass, forgotten, and her bike is back at home.
Annabelle wonders if she’ll be getting another gift.
N is for Normal, and some things aren’t, and those things need to be cut right out. Annabelle’s father knows that, and so does her mother, though it hurts her more.
Annabelle doesn’t think about it. Normal is what things are, and only things that aren’t what they are can be wrong.
O is for Outside, and that’s Annabelle’s earliest memory, of being outside, tiny in the forest, looking up at stars and pine trees. Lost. Like the baby in the rhyme, that came tumbling down when the bough broke and the cradle fell. Then came voices, and two tall people, scooping her from the forest floor, exclaiming, turning her over. Annabelle doesn’t know what the memory means, but her mother sings lullabies and that’s one of the voices, and her father tells stories in measured tones, and that’s the other.
Sometimes Annabelle sneaks out of the house and lies down in her back yard and looks up at the sky, through the pines.
P is for Picnic, and what a wonderful idea that was. “Annabelle would love a birthday picnic,” her mother said, “and it’s such a pretty day. But where should we go?”
“There’s a field I know, by a nice stretch of woods,” her father said thoughtfully.
They packed the car and took Annabelle, and her new kite, to the field. Neither of her parents seemed to remember this place, though they’d often taken walks in the woods here, when they were younger. A strange cloud covers their memories, filling their heads. They’d last seen this field on a summer night like this one, exactly ten years before. They’d come to watch the butterflies.
This was before he started dipping the butterflies, wings and all, in chloroform. Before he locked them under glass.
Before (but only just before, a matter of minutes, perhaps) they found Annabelle.
Q is for Quiet, and Annabelle is that. Even the soughing of the wind has stopped, and her parents are murmuring, sipping lemonade. She can still hear the chimes if she holds her breath, but they’re fading. Even the beating of her heart is enough to make her miss notes: “Ann- – – belle – – -a – belle.” Yes, the chimes are fading, and if she intends to follow them, she must do so soon.
R is for Ripping, when the knife went dull, when things weren’t quite severed and man hands pulled and blood welled up, R is for the Rasp of the knife on the whetstone, but some things are too attached to be cut neatly, no matter how sharp the blade, and they tear.
S is for Scars. Annabelle has two on her back, shiny and wide, running vertically down her shoulder blades. Her mother told her that she stumbled and fell on a board with nails in it, and that’s where the scars come from. Her father told her she was scratched by a dog when she was a baby, and that’s where she got them. Sometimes her muscles spasm beneath the scars. And often in the morning, after a dream of flying, her shoulders ache.
T is for Time, and Annabelle feels it shortening and shortening as the shadows lengthen and the sun slides west.
U is for Umbilicus, the first connection between mother and daughter, which leaves its mark on the child’s belly forever. But Annabelle has no navel, her stomach is as smooth as the skin of a peach, unmarked and untouched. Annabelle’s mother thinks sometimes of umbilical cords being cut with scissors, of that fundamental severance, which she and Annabelle never had. Instead of scissors, there was a knife, and it wasn’t a cord that was cut, not the connection between mother and daughter that was severed, but a different connection altogether.
And now Annabelle is in the field on her birthday, and it seems that while some connections must remain sundered forever, others can be rejoined.
V is for Vigilant, and Annabelle’s mother is that, she always keeps an eye out for her daughter. She can’t have more children, that thought is always on top of her mind, and she rarely lets Annabelle out of her sight. But now her attention wanders, she even forgets Annabelle for a moment, the thoughts fly out of her head and she’s back in her girlhood, laughing with her new husband. Laughing, before Annabelle, and knives, and grisly silky mementos that mysteriously disappear, just as Annabelle is now disappearing over the hills toward the forest.
W is for Worried, and Annabelle knows her parents will be, but the chiming is louder now, a part of her is calling her and that’s more important than anything, and she runs across the fields into the trees, the song in her head like her own voice, her own song, calling her home, and as she runs she can almost feel herself flying.
X is for Xenophobia, the hate of the stranger, and Annabelle doesn’t know that word, and neither does her mother, and while her father does know it, he would never ascribe it to himself.
Yet his daughter is a stranger, and his wife also in many ways, and himself most of all, and he hates them all, really. When he sits in the basement tearing the wings from butterflies and remembering the night they found Annabelle, hate fills him. You can’t turn something into something it’s not, he thinks at the picnic, looking at the fat clouds float effortlessly by. Flying.
And then his wife says “Where’s Annabelle?” and things happen very fast.
Y is for Yell, which Annabelle’s mother does, she stands on the blanket and shouts her daughter’s name. Her husband stands, frowning, hands clenched on a napkin that he rips in half, and they both shout for their daughter, who is gone, gone, and they look for the flutter of a blue dress, for curly red hair, but there’s nothing, not even in the trees, there’s only
Z is for Zephyr, the gentle west wind, coming up suddenly strong over the field from the trees, blowing into the shouting faces of Annabelle’s mother and father, but only the wind answers them, blowing as though buffeted by a million wings and then, like apple blossoms blowing free, like silk streamers in the air, a hundred thousand sunset red and golden butterflies burst from the trees in the forest, flying.
And after it all Annabelle knows she is not a worm, or an angel, or a flower. She is something else, something of the green, something like a butterfly that lost its wings but, after a time, regained them.
Even though Tim Pratt’s “Annabelle’s Alphabet” has been in print several times we thought it was such an Ideomancer story we felt compelled to publish it for the first time online. It opens an issue with a distinctly Down Under flavour alongside Paul Haine’s “www.rebirth.@#$%” and a classic from Marcus Clarke, “The Haunted Author.” Karen A. Romanko rounds out the issue with “Last.”
Lee Battersby is having a well-earned sabbatical this month. Normal reviewing services will resume in September.
Oh, and we’re open to submissions again.
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue.