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Chapter 17: Fight or Flight

Do you want to have sex? That’s what I asked Greymore in the square. More than anything, he said. He took my hand and told me he knew a place we could go. Ever since Greymore’s apartment burned down, Violette’s been renting a room above The Sonic Tonic. Tonight will be a busy one for Violette, Greymore assures me, and she won’t be back till dawn. Candles worn down to uneven clumps of wax stare down at me from the dresser. The effects of the dazzler have worn off, and I can see them now just fine. A grim centerpiece of withered flowers sits on the table in front of me. Did Violette forget to water them, or does she just wait for them to die and be replaced with a new bouquet from the next eager client?

Me and Greymore sit on the couch with our hands folded between our knees. Both of us sitting perfectly straight, like two buildings with an uncomfortable lot of empty space between us. Things would be easier if we were wild boars. The androstenone in Greymore’s saliva would fill my nose. I’d present my hind to him, and a union would be made without a word spoken. Perhaps affection is so difficult for coders because our lips never knew the comfort of being nursed by our mothers, or even a bottle. The neural pathways in first drafts that connect their lips with feelings of love never formed in our infant brains.

“Maybe we should dress up,” I suggest, glancing at costumes of all different fabrics and shapes lining Violette’s closet. “Pretend we’re two different people.”

“I think it’s best if we just be ourselves,” Greymore replies, nervously drumming his fingers along the cushion beneath him. Who knows how many times Violette made these cushions shake? The fitful energy still lingers. But all those men had Violette’s expert body to guide them as they went. All Greymore has is me. The sound of laughter and hollering from the bar below our feet breaks up the silence.

Greymore scoots across the couch and tilts his head, lips parted. My cheeks burn and my pupils shoot open. Is this why the actresses in all those old films Greymore showed me close their eyes when they kiss? It makes good sense, I decide, because a girl with two moon eyes would certainly be a turnoff. I close them and tilt my head. It was a mistake, as it happens, because I tilted right, and Greymore to his left, causing our heads to bump.

Why did he go left? He should’ve tilted right, the way I did, so he could look at me with his left eye as we kissed, and filter me through the right hemisphere of his brain, where emotions are sorted. Instead, he’s filtering me through the rational side. Am I just some fleshy puzzle to him? Maybe Greymore’s just calculating the mechanics of it all. He’s overthinking this, and now I am, too.

We need to find another way to decode each other, and our hands are the most logical means. The chunk of our brains linked to the sensations on our fingertips is massively disproportionate to the rest of our bodies. I run my hands along his body, and he along mine, the heat dancing between us. Family. Logic. Guilt. It feels good to let go of it all, and negotiate the world with just the skin we were given.

With my hands planted on his cheeks, I set Greymore in the proper direction and we have another go at that kiss. I fall onto my back, pulling him on top of me. I had often thought about a moment like this when I was working in the lab, fusing two cells together. A pulsed electric field heats the walls of each, the gaps in one slowly getting filled by the shapes of the other, until the membranes that divide the two solitary worlds of a mononuclear cell disappear and a blissful multinuclear world emerges, bound by atomic energy. Of course, more currents need to be applied to stabilize the merge.

“It will be easier if our clothes are removed,” I tell him. Greymore draws back and studies me a moment, his head again tilted to the left. It must have been his fetal orientation in the womb. He strips off his t-shirt and unbuckles his trousers. And now I’m wishing I had used some of that time I spent in the beauty salon shopping for fancier underwear. “I have to pee.”

“Now?” Greymore asks, glancing down at his shorts.

I jump off the couch and race to the bathroom, closing the door behind me. Violette’s cabinets are filled with lotions and oil bottles. There must be a birth control solution somewhere in here. The drawer crashes to the ground. The sound pulses through my epithalamus in sharp waves, accelerating my pulse.

Sweating and shaking, I back into the corner, letting my spine slide along the wall, until I’m hugging my knees on the floor. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. My heart beats at the tempo of trance music. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Splashes of light spin through the air, drawing a chandelier above me, and I realize it’s not my heartbeat, but the sound of my head striking the treads of the grand double staircase as Conrad drags me by the hair into the ballroom. Darien is there, too, all the pretty colors sapped from her face. She draws in a breath, as if to speak, but Atherton steps between us. This is what becomes of whores, he says.

The memory is broken by two loud pops, jolting me back to Violette’s bathroom. Tears of red fall from the top of her cabinet, writing a message over the mirror below, as if drawn by an invisible finger dipped in blood: “Tessa is a whore,” the O in whore dotted with a frowny face. I look away from the mirror and rub my eyes, smearing my palms and cheek with black tears.

“This what you’re looking for?” I raise my head and see Desiree standing over me, looking as real and as lovely as when last I saw her. Only now she’s wearing a baby doll dress that’s way too small, the tips of her mammary glands poking through the lace in a manner that’s anything but doll-like. She kneels beside me and waves a contraceptive bottle in front of my face. “Go on, take it.”

“No, I don’t want it anymore.”

“Why do you think of yourself as a whore?”

“What? I don’t… I mean, I didn’t write that.”

“Of course you did,” she says, dampening a tissue and wiping away the message scrawled across the mirror. “What are you still doing in here? That cute eighth gen is out there, waiting for the services of Venus. I would go myself, I’m just a little decomposition-y right now.”

“I’m sorry this happened to you.”

“Don’t be. It isn’t your fault. None of it is. If you’re waiting for me to absolve you of guilt, then bam, pow, presto, change-o.” She straightens the poke-a-dot bow in her hair. “There, you’re absolved. I’m not haunting you, Tessa, I’m just your imaginary doll. The only ghost here is you.”

“How do you mean?”

“You’ve spent your whole life with your nose pressed against the window, watching the rest of us. This family treated you like a retrovirus. You owe them nothing. It doesn’t matter what’s written on your chromosomes anymore. All you have to do is open that door and do what I never had a chance to. Ugh, why’d your brain dress me in this stupid thing?” Desiree asks, tugging at her bodice. “You’re in the world of first drafts now. You have to follow your instincts.”

“I’m not like the first drafts. I’ll never be one of them.”

“What are you worried about? Everyone thinks you already did it.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“Stop with the drama speak. Look, don’t do it because you want to be all grown up like the firsts drafts, or to get back at Atherton, or because that boy out there is hard as pyroclastic rock, do it because you want to. You’ve crawled through fire to get here, why stop now? Look at you, all knotted up in the corner. I can smell the desire on both of you. It’s practically spilling out of your pores. It’s like you’re both walking around with teacups on your heads filled to the brim. Wouldn’t stand up too quickly if I were you.”

“Didn’t you once tell me sex was to be wielded like a weapon?”

“I was sixteen. What did I know?” She stares at her clean reflection in the mirror, twirling her fingers through her hair. “Oh, and do one more thing for me. I know you don’t want to, but before you walk back out there and tune that boy’s guitar, I need you to leave those hideous clothes in here. Undies, too.”

“What? No, I can’t. I mean, just… No!” I cover my chest with my arms, fists clenched around my shirt sleeves.

“Come on, Tessa, do I have to hold your hand while you two go at it? You’re the one who brought me here.” Desiree says, prying my arms away from my body and holding them over my head. “I’m only here to tell your brain what your body’s known all along.”

Desiree strips off my t-shirt and tosses it over her shoulder. I can feel my fight-or-flight switch flipping on as she smooths out my hair. Moment of truth, Tessa. Which will it be? Fight or flight?

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