I was thirteen the first time I saw someone glitch out and die.
The man barged in the dining room as I stood there, not setting the table, and mentally cussing the stupid dress my mom had forced me to wear. He pushed past me, close enough to knock the cups from my hand. They shattered as they crashed to the hardwood floor. My silent curses shifted to him.
He clawed behind his ear like a beast. My mouth opened to ask what he was doing when I caught a whiff of his burning flesh. It sizzled, calling to mind a juicy steak, but quickly turned foul. I huffed hard out of my nose as a dog would to push the stench from my head.
Tears and spit ran down the man’s face as he fell to his knees. And that face! Agony masked his features so much that I feared him as I would a monster. My heart thudded and begged my lungs for oxygen.
Both of the man’s hands covered his ears and a low growl erupted from his contorted lips. I watched, frozen, as he dragged himself to a small wooden table in the corner. The world around me went black except for the scene of him crawling across our dining room floor. A discolored patch of skin peeled from behind his ear. Blood matted dark brown hair to light brown neck. His shirt tag, untouched by the carnage, stuck straight up and white as ever.
The fingers of his left hand dug into the bare floor. I heard nails crunch. The one arm dragged his entire body as his right hand scraped at the back of his ear. I grabbed the wall beside me to stop the world from spinning and steady my legs.
As his fingers found the table leg he pulled himself upright. The growls turned to pitiful moans which tore at my heart. The man hunched over as if to vomit. Before I could wonder why he crawled all the way there to puke, he bashed his head on the table.
If you’ve never heard a human skull smack against a wooden table — the dull thud of a splitting watermelon — I suggest you keep it that way. Every thwump sent shivers down my spine and bile to my throat.
His legs buckled and threatened to drop him to the floor. Yet he persevered. Charred sizzling chunks of skin slid down his neck onto the doilies. My breakfast burned its way back up my throat.
Between thuds, his bloodied hands still tore at the flesh behind his ear. His finger disappeared knuckle-deep as he rooted around in the hole he’d made.
Heavy seconds trudged along as he retrieved his prize. The chip was larger than most at half an inch square. Upon seeing it, relief softened the inhuman mask of his face.
Congealed blood hung from the corner, ready to drop in the already darkening puddle of him on the table. The chip hung out of his head by a slimy tendon, exposed but still connected to his auricular vein.
I heard a low moan, then recognized it as my own, as air found its way out of my lungs.
A hollow sigh escaped the man’s lips as he flopped to the floor and twitched. The table teetered and dishes rained down on top of him.
Glass shattered in the distance and my mom screamed. The commotion snapped me out of my daze as she rushed to his side. Mom cradled his mutilated head in her arms and kissed him, chanting his name.
“Kerning… Kern… Kern…” Mom’s tears poured over the carnage on my dad’s face as she synced with him. Her mournful wails harmonized with his last gurgles, creating the most gut-wrenching song. She took the chip from his fingers and tried to shove it back in the open wound behind his ear. Her head flung back. Dark locks of wavy hair dragged the floor and soaked up my dad’s coagulated blood.
My legs turned to jelly and I leaned hard against the wall. Through my fingers I stared at the chip-to-chip mind meld between my parents. I knew my mom was going through every excruciating moment of my dad’s death with him. And I was powerless to help. Fear strangled me. The air stuck in my throat.
Breathing ragged and shallow with him — as one — my mom escorted my dad on his journey out of this world. Only the whites of her eyes were visible as they rolled into her head. Her grief song died as his chest heaved.
Never did I run to help my dad or cry out for my mom. I just held my breath and the silverware and watched. In my defense, I was a kid. But still, to stand idly by and allow your flesh and blood to be reduced to a pile of, well, flesh and blood. Disgraceful.
Silence blared as my dad’s body expelled the last of itself onto our dining room floor. The floor that a week ago he’d sworn to finally get around to polishing. The floor where that morning my mom had yelled at me for leaving my holopad. This was the floor where my dad glitched and died, taking the innocent little girl inside me with him.
Electric charged air stung my chest as my body forced me to breathe again. My ears and skin buzzed.
After my dad’s last twitches, my mom’s cheeks returned to near pink. It struck me how that was the first time I’d ever seen them any other color. Her usual light oaken skin always had that mischievous tinge of pink that dad said meant she was up to something.
Her eyes, black and barely open, settled back into their normal positions. She straightened herself, smoothing long matted hair down her blood-stained apron. Turning those empty eyes toward me she whispered, “Synta, go find your brother.”
I got as far as the bottom of the stairs before my feet stopped cold. The screech of my sneakers on hardwood echoed through the quiet house. I crumpled in on myself, shaking and heaving. My stomach turned. My mouth watered. Every muscle in my body seized. The morning’s breakfast found its escape onto a large bamboo plant beside the banister, leaving me no time to hold back my halo of dark curls. Soon they were soaked in vomit, hanging limply down my dress, a perfect mirror of Mom’s.
She’s gonna be so mad, was the only coherent thought I could manage. I’d witnessed something too big, too heavy to comprehend. Instead my mind latched onto something it could handle. Something immediate.
I had puked in the last present my dad had gotten my mom.
Tension released its grip on my head and gut, now purged. As the physical pain subsided it left a void for the mental anguish to fill. My mind picked at the fortress it tried to build around the memory of my dad’s death. I saw it again, darkness falling away. My mind’s eye focused on the blood-soaked chip hanging from his neck. He almost got it out.
Would that have made a difference? What if I’d helped? Run to him and yanked it out for him? Called for my mom? Would he still be alive? If I had set the table like Mom told me to the dishes wouldn’t have fallen on him. Did I kill him? I killed him. I killed Daddy!
“Synta, I’m hungy,” came a shrill voice bounding down the stairs. My wet face snapped up in what must have looked like a snarl because Brooks screwed his tiny face up, ready to cry.
Unsure if my legs would hold, I eased myself up and wiped the vomit from my bottom lip onto the dress. I couldn’t stop the momentary tinge of satisfaction at ruining the stupid thing. Still heaving, I swallowed the last lump of stomach contents that hadn’t made it out and exhaled. “I’ll make you a sandwich. Go back upstairs.”
Two tan little bare feet dropped one step lower.
“I mean it, Bit. Mommy told me to feed you upstairs.” I attempted a stern tone.
“I heard stuff.” A grubby finger tapped at the chip behind his ear, disappearing behind his thick curls, lighter and thicker than my own. His eyes begged me to tell him it was alright.
My heart jumped, then stopped. “It’s fine, Bit. Daddy just fell and got an owie. Mommy’s fixing it now. But we have to stay upstairs.” I motioned toward the playroom and gave my best imitation of Mom’s ‘now’ face.
//Now!// I yelled at him through our chips. The transmission made fresh images of my dad’s bloody chip fly through my mind. I struggled to keep them from broadcasting to my little brother along with the command.
Brooks’s eyes widened.
Since the removal order many years ago, we weren’t supposed to chip back and forth, not even inside the house. If anyone found out we still had chips, or that our parents had illegally chipped Brooks…
I smiled and shooed him on. “Everything’s fine, Bit. Please do what I said. And wash your hands for Stone’s sake.”
Brooks scrunched his nose. “You go wash yours.” The little boy screeched with laughter and ran up the stairs, straight to the playroom. I looked down at my hands. Spittle had mixed with days of grime to form a gooey layer of slick mud which I promptly wiped down the stupid dress.