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Chapter 16: Screw Pretty

The city shows me a new skin every time I see it. This one is decorated in spools of blinking lights, circles of evergreen, and packages wrapped in shiny paper. A giant Picea abies, Norway spruce in first draft speak, looks down on the square, where children with hover skates strapped to their feet glide in circles around the plaza.

The first drafts just finished their month-long shopping festival, during which they spend all the surplus money they earned during the year, to avoid paying taxes on it, I believe. Then they leave the purchases beneath an ornamental tree and convince their young ones it was the work of a big red clown who snuck into their house while they were in the realm of dream. It’s a strange rite, I must say, then again, the last ceremony the Tearcatchers held ended with my brother calling me out as a whore and ordering my execution in front of the whole family, so who am I to judge what’s normal?

The warm cup thaws my hands a little. It’s a delightfully simple concoction of shaved chocolate, cocoa powder, heated milk, and sugar. A woman dressed in pointy green shoes handed me one on the street and said there was no cost. I wish I had shoes, even silly ones like hers. Mine are still sitting on that staircase.

The cold air narrows my blood vessels, redirecting the blood from my limbs to all the critical organs. Already, I can feel ice crystals carving up the cells in my feet, and I’ve only been out here an hour. I finish the drinking chocolate and drop the empty cup in a trash bin. A pair of black leather boots with 20 rows of skip rope laces stare back at me through the window of a storefront.

I push open the door and creep inside. The bins of old records and racks of vintage t-shirts remind me of Greymore’s apartment. A shopkeeper with a metal ring slicing through his lower lip raps on his legs with drum sticks. He stops, twirls one of them between his fingers, and salutes me with it. The Sex Pistols is scrawled across his shirt and wild black hair grows from his head like hungry weeds. I believe his battered facade to be an intentional one, unlike mine.

“How much for the boots?” I ask him.

“Those boots there?” The shopkeeper glances down at my torn white dress and pulls the red-striped candy from his mouth. It’s shaped like a hook, but without the pointy tip. “Go back to your cotillion, sweetheart, there’s nothing here for you. You’re too pretty for those boots.”

“Kiss my pretty ass,” I say, sweeping my hand over a shelf, spilling a stack of old comic books across the floor. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it was for Desiree, who was given every pretty gene in the Tearcatcher bank, and she would’ve just as well scrubbed it away in a tub of acid. Whatever the reason, the shopkeeper’s words stung me.

He drops his drumsticks over the counter and struts across the store, stopping a few breaths from me and resting his chin on a display rack. “What did you say?”

“Screw pretty,” I say, ceding him no ground. “Pretty is a slow, lovely death. Pretty is a straightjacket. I want to take pretty and run it through a subatomic vaporizer.”

A smile broadens the shopkeeper’s face. “Well, well, looks like the Duchess has some punk in her after all.” He pushes himself off the display, plucks the boots from the window, and offers them to me.

“I want these, too,” I tell him, pointing to a pair of narrow pants shredded at the knees. “What do you call them?”

“Blue jeans, baby queen,” he says, flipping through the labels sown into the back of each pair until he finds one that satisfies him.

“And this.” I pick up a shirt that says Violent Femmes. I don’t know who these chicks were, or what exactly made them violent, but the words inscribed on the back make me smile: Share a smoke, make a joke. Grasp and reach for a leg of hope. “Have you a changing room?”

The shopkeeper stares blankly at me and says, “Nope.”

I hesitate for a moment, before peeling off the frilly dress and letting it fall to the floor. The shopkeeper’s eyes wander up and down my body, as if burning the image of me in my underwear into his hippocampus. It feels like the sort of moment when I should be blushing or fidgeting, arms folded strategically in front of me, but I just stand there, my sympathetic nervous system switched off for now, and let him see me.

He tosses me the blue jeans and I wiggle my way inside them, the course fabric pinching every nerve in my legs. I have to tug and jump up and down to get them on, and even then, the button refuses to fasten until I draw in my breath. As soon as I exhale, my stomach hangs over the waist in a way this Levi person probably never intended. I want to ask the shopkeeper if they are meant to fit so precariously low on the hips, but that wouldn’t be very punk, I’m guessing. I slide the t-shirt over my bra and pull on the boots.

When I ask him what I owe, he picks up my dress off the floor and tells me he can sell it for enough credits to buy a new anti-gravity van. I thank him and ply the striped candy from his hand, popping it in my mouth as I go. It tastes of peppermint oil. I zip my hoodie and wander on down the street.

I stop and examine the results of my anti-makeover in a dark storefront. The Duchess has been knocked off her pedestal, but she still needs to get a little dirty. I bite my lip, sapping all the bio-manufactured tint from the blood vessels, and tousle my hair. Tonight marks the end of the calendar for the first drafts. Greymore once told me a celebration like no other is held to commemorate the event, and that he never misses it. I don’t know if he’ll show up tonight, but if he does, I know just where to find him.

So much blood has traded between the Tearcatchers and the Rivegans. I wonder if Greymore still wants to see me. Will I still hear a sweet melody when he speaks, or will it just come out a sad requiem now?

A light inside the store snaps on, replacing my reflection with a new face, framed by honey blond hair and sprayed with freckles. The woman on the other side of the window knocks on the glass and waves me inside. The letters on the door spell out Praia’s Salon. There’s no problem a new hair cut won’t fix, Praia tells me, pressing my shoulders down into a big squishy chair. What am I in the mood for, she asks. I cringe as she scrolls through the holograms, one after the next, showing me, adorned with different hair styles. Sheered in pixie cuts, tied in top knots, braided in waterfalls, and swollen into fluffy curls.

“This one,” I finally say. “And I want to change my color.”

“But why?” Praia asks. “The red suits you so perfectly.”

She makes her argument, but in the end, I insist on the new color. Praia washes my hair with a nozzle attached to a metal hose, her delicate fingers rubbing my scalp in tiny circles. My heart rate spikes for a moment, the red hot memory of Conrad dragging me by my hair still embedded in my sebaeceous glands. Everything will be okay, Praia says, squeezing my shoulder. For some reason, I actually believe her. It feels like my brain is getting a warm hug. The blood rushes back to my skin, breaking down the scar tissue and carrying away the toxic memories. I close my eyes and wiggle my toes, my body buzzing with breezy smiley endorphins.

Next, she sits me in front of a mirror and drapes me in a smock. I was about to tell her I’d rather not look at myself in the mirror while the metamorphosis unfolds, but weirdly enough, the mirror doesn’t bother me so much tonight. Snippets of hair fall away as Praia draws a new silhouette around my face with her scissors. I watch one float through the air, arranging itself in a Fibonacci spiral over the tile. Precious Tearcatcher DNA, just sitting on the floor of a beauty parlor, waiting to be pressed into the souls of a hundred different shoes and carried out into the world. Atherton would throw a fit if he knew. The thought of it makes me giggle. Sit still, Praia says, furrowing her brow. She makes a few more cuts, then evaporates the water from my hair with a hot fan.

“All done,” Praia says, spinning the chair so I can see the new Tessa. Her hair now falls above her shoulders in asymmetric waves. The layers curled inward, brushing against her cheeks. The whole thing has a sort of a patchwork I just tumbled out of bed, deal with it vibe, but in a calculated manner.

“What about the color?” I ask.

Praia’s mouth sags into a down-open parabola. She scoops her color wand from the table top and waves it back and forth over my hair, activating the eumelanin boosters she just washed me with. Darker, I instruct her. It’s time to settle things with my faulty MC1R receptor and do something about this red hair mutation once and for all.

“That’s as deep as I can get it, sweetheart,” she says, dropping the wand and teasing out my hair with a comb. “Don’t expect to be a wallflower looking like this. They’ll see you coming from three blocks away tonight.”

“It’s perfect,” I say, running my fingers through my new bright red vines. “What do you call this shade?”

“Scarlett revenge.” Praia smiles, bumping the chair with her hips. “Hope their neurons don’t pop when your family sees you.”

“Oh, I’m not worried about them anymore.” I send her the credits from my neural account, adding a generous tip, before sweeping out the door.

I fall into a crowd of first drafts gravitating towards Time Square. They all stare at me, the XYs and the XXs alike. Maybe it’s the hair, or maybe the way I’m walking. The heels of these boots are higher off the ground than I’m used to, forcing the weight in my hips to switch from side to side as I go.

I don’t mean to do it. The body is a symmetrical machine biomechanically designed to distribute weight in the most efficient way possible. We make all sorts of unintended motions to regulate balance when we walk – swinging our arms, rolling our shoulders. Desiree once told me how she was taught to walk the runway in a perfectly straight fashion, as if an imaginary axis were drawn in front of her. It’s supposed to make you look more appealing, but I feel like a big old jungle cat sneaking up on its prey.

Why shouldn’t I carry myself like a jungle cat, or however I please? I’m not representing the Tearcatcher genes anymore, just Levi’s. I feel light as a snowflake. Maybe all that hair was weighing down my shoulders, and now that it’s gone, I can turn my head and see what’s behind me from an entirely new angle. I don’t have to be the older girl from the DNA lab who walks in a manner that draws no attention. Like all matter, I exist not as a solid state, but as a wave of possibilities. Tonight, there’s only one possibility I want to make real. Every moment Greymore’s not by my side is a wasted heartbeat.

The crowd of first drafts crashes to a stop on Seventh Avenue. On a billboard across the square, I see her again. That same fickle babe, severing her puppet strings, and using the ropes that once controlled her to climb to freedom through the skylight. Maybe I had the girl all wrong. Maybe she’s just like Desiree, a sad princess shackled by gold chains, glittering gowns, and unwanted affection. Climb that rope, honey, and don’t look down.

I jump onto a bench, my boot heels nearly toppling me, and peek over the wall of first drafts blocking my entry to the square. The roadblocks ahead warn Do Not Cross Barrier. When given orders, I typically follow them, but tonight has been anything but typical, and besides, that fancy girl in the perfume ad didn’t let those puppet strings keep her from where she was going. I don’t know how things turned out for her, because they never show you what happens post-epiphany, but I’d like to think it was the start of a lovely journey.

I nudge through the crowd and step around the barriers. A laser diode flash lights up my eyes. All the muscles in my body lock up and the crowd in front of me turns a hazy green. I stand there for a moment, stunned, until a peace keeper in riot gear walks over to me.

“Didn’t you see the sign?” he asks, grabbing my arms to steady me. “You just walked through a directed radiation field.”

“I have to get to the other side of the square.”

“This square right here?” He tilts his baton over his shoulder, laughing. “We reached capacity three hours ago. No one else gets through tonight.”

“Please, it must be tonight, or I may never find him again,” I plead, my arteries fluttering, my head spinning. “I had to watch my sister’s brains leak out her ear, I filled five bottles of tears, I got humiliated in front of the whole council and dragged down the stairs. And now the person I love more than anything in this world could be waiting for me. He doesn’t know if I’m alive or dead, or if I blame him for all of it, but I don’t. We’re just two innocent people who met at a really awful time.”

“Sorry, kiddo,” the peace keeper says, leading me away from the barrier. “It’s for your own safety.”

I push myself off the ground with my toes, plant my hands over his shoulders, and, imagining Greymore under the helmet, smother his visor in a slow wet kiss. Hairline cracks branch across his face, like he’s trying his best not to smile. Behind us, I hear a whistle and a few pockets of applause.

“That’s what I need to tell him.” I plant my heels back over the ground and wipe the smudge from his helmet with my sleeve. “And if I don’t tell him tonight, I may never get another chance.”

“Alright, kill the dazzler,” the peace keeper shouts, motioning to someone I can’t see, because everything’s all blurry now. He puts his hand on my back and guides me through the barrier. “There you go, kid. Happy New Year.”

Happy New Year, it’s a tingly blue fifteen sort of sentiment. If I can find Greymore, it may be happy indeed. If he still wants to go away with me, and if we can somehow replace the voices in our heads telling us we can never escape the world of coders with the sound of loving words.

I navigate my way across the square, but it’s a crush of elbows jamming my side, warm breath scraping my neck, foul odors, and synthed out party boys whooping in my ears. Every time I see the fancy perfume girl get closer, I get washed back to where I started by an overlapping tide of revelers. I’m no certain which, but I think someone just spilled drinking chocolate on the back of my leg, or peed on me. Hopefully, the former. They’re all just fuzzy green shapes to me now. That radiation emitter took a real toll on my retinas.

Believing anyone could hear me negates logic, but all I can think to do is call out for Greymore. My boot gets stepped on, throwing off my equilibrium and sending me to the pavement, my palms sheathed in glitter. Someone calls back to me, I think, but a performer hovering on the stage above steers the music from one dreamlike beat to the next with her piercing vocals, washing out the sound. I reach out, dragging myself up by a wall of pant legs and coat sleeves and shoulder straps.

I hear it again, Greymore’s voice, I’m certain of it this time, but the lights that might guide me there are nothing but vague splashes. The party host announces the name of the next vocalist, sending the crowd into a fevered swarm. I don’t know whether they’re pushing me off course or not; the perfume chick has dissolved among a cluster of watery circles dancing around me.

Suddenly, a hand sweeps across my cheek. It feels like the number five. Although I’d like to see Greymore’s face again, I don’t need to, the energy pulsing through his fingertips tells me it’s him. The scent of epigenetic pheromones drifts through the air. The kind that get passed from one mouth to the next. The kind that alters your chemistry and keeps you thirsty for the same pair of lips over and over again, even when others around you may seem tempting. The kind I know all about, but don’t really know anything about.

The scent multiplies, the partygoers all around us trading skin lipids. Why aren’t me and Greymore? I’m at the peak of my kissable years. The melting point of the secretions collecting on the skin of my nineteen-year-old face is at its lowest level. Stereochemically speaking, I should taste sweeter than I ever have. Even better than Darien, her pheromones still spoiled by the whiff of adolescence.

Maybe he read it on my swollen lips, or maybe whatever contagion is floating through the air has finally reached him, but Greymore’s hand slides around the back of my neck, pressing my mouth to his.

Curious things, lips are. Stuffed with nerve endings, even the slightest pressure touches off a chain reaction of neural impulses ricocheting between the brain and the skin. A chemical cocktail of dizzy love joy feelings fills my head. It’s a warm buttery April sort of moment. Like Greymore is reading my biochemical signature, applying less pressure when the feeling becomes too intense, and dialing it up when I crave more. Either he’s picking up the receptor proteins from the tears rolling down my cheek, or he’s just a really good kisser.

Greymore wipes the tears from my face, and I whisper in his ear a question I’ve wanted to ask since I saw the painting of that elm tree in his apartment. He gives me his answer, and I smile at the ground. A giant sphere is launching into orbit behind us, Greymore tells me, symbolizing the sun rising on a new calendar.

“The sun has set,” Greymore says. “The fires of the year past have all been extinguished.”

“Not without consequence. Both our houses lie in ruin.”

“Then let us build our own, and fill it with fresh memories.” Greymore slips his arms around me, his hands meeting at my stomach. He rests his chin on my shoulder and points me in the direction everyone else is looking. All I see is a rising burst of light, and confetti raining from the rooftops. A closeness of this sort lights up the same pathways in the brain that synth does. Now I know why.

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