The body had been dumped in a ravine overgrown with clover just as the pink blossoms opened to face the sky. He was naked beneath the black haori in which he had been wrapped. His left leg was buried in the earth, both arms were lacerated, opened like fish before frying, and a hole cut in his head was a window to the intricacy of his circuited interior. Red cable spilled from the wound, coiling like a snake in the clover. His face, turned off, was tilted toward the man watching from the south bank of the ravine.
And he looked away, as if from a mirror.
“People fetishize anything these days,” Annette said. “Even individual people. You have a secret admirer. Someone at work? They could be watching us right now.” She glanced over her shoulder.
“Stop,” Rafael said, remembering the early days of her teasing laughter, before he had known the sting of her mockery. He pushed the thought away until it was again silent in the darkness, as silent as the others, as mute as the thought of a watcher disguised in plain sight memorizing the planes of his face.
“What if it wasn’t an erotic death, just cold murder?”
“Who wants to kill me? I barely exist.” Annette pretended not to hear that. She is still beautiful sometimes, Rafael thought, but she has lost too much weight; the passion has leaked from her eyes; her lips are pale and as soft as caterpillars. “Aren’t there laws? I’ve never seen any Beddies that look like actual people.”
“You can find anything on the black market,” Annette said. She lifted a small stemless wine glass to her lips and sipped. The name of the vineyard stamped on the outside was fading. “And don’t call them that for God’s sake.”
“What? It’s just a word.” Rafael took a drink from his own cup. The cabernet tasted like vanilla and wood. He thought of oak chopped on a hill up north where they could sit and watch the gulls climb the air. Before, she might have said something, inviting him to argument, to conversation, but she was silent now. Doors shut. Gates were no longer left unlocked. One of his cats scratched at the bathroom door. They were kept out because they peed on the shower curtain as if it were the boundary between their territory and a tiger’s. He had peed on his Beddy once, just to see, though he knew they couldn’t return the favor, not the government Beddies (custom models could, jailbroken AIs on that invisible market he childishly imagined somehow actually shrouded in darkness). He felt nothing afterward, or perhaps a little more than that: a little foolishness, just short of shame. He wiped the drops of urine from her lips, his first Intimacy Companion, a model no longer manufactured, though some had kept them all this time. They refused to upgrade. They grew attached.
Annette started to speak again, but Rafael was thinking of his current Beddy, sitting in the vertical darkness of the hallway closet, dormant now for eight months. Annette thought it was eleven months. She had caught him on the high-pile rug in the bedroom. He had chosen a male model, he thought it would somehow make it easier for her. A desire she couldn’t possibly fulfill: was that not less threatening? It’s no different from masturbation, he had said. You think I’m cheating on you? He rapped the doll’s forehead. It’s a piece of furniture, Annette. There’s no mind here. It smiles with its mouth, not its eyes.
“Were the police there?” she was asking.
“No. I don’t want to know. I really don’t. They wouldn’t tell me anyway. They won’t be called. People chop up their Beddies all the time.” He found one in a pile of discarded tires, both legs missing. He saw one dumped in a gravel pit up north, its throat choked with stones. Once, walking away from the house, across the unused farms that now called only to dandelions and the wild geese that fed on them, he encountered a Beddy hung in a tree by a rotting rope. A sky burial. Rafael stood in the honeysuckle and imagined how its owner must have stood in that same place, fondling himself as the doll twitched under the white oak’s heavy leaves.
Annette excused herself and left on some unknown errand. Silence had come between them. Rafael drank another glass of cabernet and checked his Sky. Talking heads debated the legal rights of Intimacy Companions, as they had for months. Government officials were “adapting to emergent opportunities” and “adjusting to novel circumstances.” A Beddy had as many rights as a computer, any piece of property, a machine, a chicken. Slightly more rights than a chicken, actually, as one commentator enjoyed pointing out. Tonight they debated whether the age of assignment should not in fact be decreased to 18. After all, if you could own a personal soldier drone, then logic dictated you should have your own Beddy for God’s sake. Rafael paced the hallway, looking for a door that didn’t lead to the closet. He didn’t find one.
His Intimacy Companion seemed to glow softly. One hand fell forward, unsettled by the opening of the door. Its palm opened.
“What now?” Rafael said.
“This is the last time I tell you,” Annette said. “I don’t want him in this house.”
“It’s not a him,” Rafael said, but he smelled water on the air coming in through the open window, lifted from a pond nearby, and it was becoming more difficult to focus on Annette and the words coming out of her mouth. He saw a child sitting on the bottom of a body of water like an action figure, holding his breath against pain and time. Rafael had the impression he was hiding. He had the impression he knew the child. Water pushed its way into the boy’s mouth, or he swallowed it.
“Hey! Rafael! Are you listening to me?”
“What? Yes. Yes, I’m listening.” The child was gone. Rafael felt a headache coming on.
“He—or it, whatever, I don’t want to play that game—is taking you away from me. Do you understand?”
“It’s really no different from you sitting at your computer all day. Ignoring me.”
Annette opened her mouth and closed it again. “What even?” She walked toward the picture window from which you could see the green fields of abandoned farms growing madly as spring incited riots among the weeds. The farmers had grown too poor to work their own fields. They had retired to apartments in the suburbs, or refused to leave their holy ground, harvest or no harvest. They would keep watch over their ancestors’ ghosts. “I don’t know how to deal with this. With you.” She looked at Rafael. “I mean, seriously, again? Can you help me here? Help me help us?”
He looked down at his phone and clicked on Sky. The home screen was full of stories and images of the new planet. He tapped on a few grainy indigo landscapes full of ambiguous, haunted shapes. He couldn’t name the state of matter of the planet’s surface. They called the planet Xenia, and he didn’t understand much of the science, he hadn’t gone to college, his parents couldn’t afford it, and he certainly couldn’t either. It seemed inconceivable that there had been a time when he didn’t know he was missing something almost everyone took for granted. It was a well kept secret to this day, though Annette knew. She knew too much. She pried. She pried open the bedroom door and found them in a position impossible between a man and woman. Rafael found the image everyone had been talking about. He thought there was no doubt about the veracity of the claims. He was looking into space, and the open labia of the planet Xenia were staring back in perfect relief. They were even colored differently than the land around it, closer to purple. Someone had carved into those indigo cliffs. Someone was alive on Xenia.
“I have to go to work,” he said. Annette was silent as he gathered his keys and wallet from the nook near the front door. His keychain, a rubber mushroom, fell to the floor where he left it.
The Varela Institute’s salaried parking lot was situated along the river, a short walk to the entrance. Rafael parked in D Lot, where you couldn’t hear the water passing over stone and sand, a half-mile from the entrance. The cool interior beckoned from afar. In late summer, when the heat hung like a wool blanket over the earth, he began to rage against those sliding doors, those gleaming windows. They formed a face, which was something he could hate. That insolent mouth, those mocking eyes. One day, he would drive his car straight through them, if he didn’t plunge into the river first. He dreamed of it. He dreamed of drifting away.
Rafael took the elevator to the cramped second floor, home of the HR Department. They were a small team, and he was a small part of that team, but he was grateful to have the job at all. When strangers asked him what he did for a living, he could say he worked at the Varela Institute and change the subject before they asked him what precisely he did there.
“Still thinking about your double?” Brenda asked. She had been hired around the same time as Rafael, and they bonded early on, Rafael amused by her dry, sometimes subversive humor, and Brenda drawn to Rafael’s stillness in an otherwise loud and gossipy office. She was big, muscular, with flawless skin that made it difficult to determine her age. Rafael had never asked.
“No,” Rafael said. “Maybe a little. But shouldn’t I be thinking about it? Isn’t it strange?”
“I didn’t see it myself, so I don’t know.” They were taking an illicit lunch in the riverside park, one of Brenda’s small vengeances against a company that, in her words, exterminated will and representation.
“It was a dead ringer.”
“Maybe you should get a new IC. Maybe your subconscious is telling you something. You’re bored.”
“Yeah, fuck Annette.” Brenda gathered her hair in her hand and tied it in a loose bun on top of her head. She had a white patch in her hair above her ear. Rafael asked about it once, and Brenda said it was from the time she was touched by the ghost of her first husband. “I’m sorry, but she’s holding you back. No. That’s not helpful. I know. I like Annette.”
Had they ever even met? Rafael wondered, eating the corner off his sandwich. He had forgotten what he put on it, but it was tasteless, the bread damp.
“Shit, I don’t know,” Brenda said. “You should go back and see it again, maybe it was a sort of mirage. If you go back, you’ll see it doesn’t look anything like you.”
“Maybe,” Rafael said, knowing he wouldn’t take the advice. No one ever wanted advice that contradicted the path of fate they had paradoxically chosen in secret. In a way, he wanted it to be true, and if he returned to the spot and found another body lying there, a stranger’s, he would be disappointed. The spell broken. He looked out over the park beneath the hill where they picnicked. Grackles teased carp landlocked by the flooding river. Every spring the river shed its skin and the carp, wiggling with lust, took the wrong path and wallowed in the shallows, thrashing in the drowned grass, schooling here and there until finally one of them shook himself over the little hump of land and returned to the hurried river. A man with his pantlegs hiked up to his knees tried to catch them with a laundry basket, but the fish were afraid of being caught. As they ought to be, Rafael thought. In the end, they saved themselves.
“But you might be right.”
Rafael wrapped his sandwich back up. It was tuna salad. His appetite was gone. “That there’s something more to this. Why I can’t let it go. But not boredom. I think I’m missing something.”
“I don’t know. I would caution against making too much of a story about it if I were you. There are patterns, and then there’s nonsense.”
“You’re probably right,” Rafael said. “How’s Flippy?”
“Swell. Though I think one of his fins is broken. You know how much those bastards charge for maintenance? Let alone full fin repair.” Her Intimacy Companion was a dolphinkin, a humanoid dolphin that looked as if it had come straight from the ocean. Rafael had seen it once, but Brenda swore no dolphins were harmed in its making. He wasn’t sure he believed her.
The government would never shut down every unauthorized Intimacy Companion dealer and manufacturer. They couldn’t; they were legion. The first had appeared seemingly in tandem with the IC assignment legislation, leading some to believe they worked for the government, or that there had long ago been some kind of leak, but it was likely just a coincidence of technology developed in parallel. Then again, security breaches were common in those days, and the legality of custom models was unclear, unwritten, the government using their resources on only the most heinous models: pre-adolescent dolls, hyperrealistic animals, those with weaponized genitals. But if you had the capital, you could create an Intimacy Companion to fulfill any fetish. Men with immense or multiple penises, women with immense breasts, women with penises, beings with a multiplicity of genitals, women with mouths at the tips of their breasts, men who spilled milk from their navels, and people who were now dead, along with a growing inventory of optional accessories like vocoders, scent implants, and flogging mechanisms. And of course, less human models: lizardfolk, centaurs, aliens, angels, demons, tentacled old gods, Ganesh and Oshun and Jesus Christ crucified on a real wooden cross. Rafael saw few of these in the country, but Brenda lived in the city where these things were more acceptable. Indeed, in some circles, people attached social prestige to one’s choice of IC. They were fashionable, a new conduit for the avant garde. They had created a new form of art, and a temporary exhibit of designer IC’s was on display in the city’s art museum.
“You can’t go back to the way things were before,” Brenda said suddenly.
Rafael looked her in the eyes. They had something of the riverbed in them, a quiet riverbed on a bright day, translucent and brown suggesting umber or ochre. An imperfection in the iris might have been a footprint in the mud. “You know, I don’t think nice things about Annette anymore.”
“Do you think them when you’re with your Beddy?”
Annette and her friends had all refused Intimacy Companions. They forged a cult around that purity. All cults had as their central fetish a sense of purity, real or perceived, even if they smeared that purity with mud or dung as disguise or adornment. Annette’s cult made a certain sense, Rafael thought, it was a consistent moralism at least. He was meant to question his own perspective, his self, turn out the black boxes of his mind and search for artifacts of evil, but if he had been innocent before, he was now merely confused. And in unraveling this new knot, he would undoubtedly commit some sin.
He had almost refused to join them that day. They had been sitting in Gloriana’s spotless Scandanavian style apartment for three hours now. The film they had intended to watch had been put off again and again by their ruminations. They had not yet made it past the second round of hors d’oeuvre. Rafael wasn’t even sure what he was eating, though it felt and tasted like the skin of an ocean fish. Annette drew breath, it was her turn to speak, adding echoes to the chamber.
“It’s elitism,” Rafael said suddenly. “You’re creating a new caste. It’s opinionism. You want a new -ism, you can have one. You can take it. You’re all guilty of it.” He was standing, cracker crumbs falling from his lap, aware of an increasing lightness in the top half of his body. The top of his head would soon brush the ceiling. His lip quivered. “You create a new victim and attack everyone on the outside. There is no pre-situated position, Darlene. Annette, you’re too smart for these people. How can you claim to care about the disenfranchised when you’re so busy creating them?”
They stared at him as if he were a piece of furniture, and Rafael walked out alone under the shadow of a moth beating its wings against the porchlight.
The last night he spent with Annette, Rafael dreamed of a woman that was and was not his mother, and then his sister as he had seen her before the flight that led to her death in the winter of 2028. And then she was a matron in the cleft of a church glowing with halos of candlelight. Roses wreathed her breasts and opened on her palms and the tops of her naked feet. They glistened and dripped, these vaginas, and he opened his mouth beneath the stream of red petals. He took them on his tongue and swallowed, and they became the blistering fingertips of the rivergod, whose face looked like another’s. It drew his foot into its lips like a swollen grape from the vine and he awakened with his hand twitching in the crease of his ass. Peeling his sweating body from the sheets, he shook off the dream and tried to find some humor in it, but it was a gray morning and Annette was gone.
“You’re not the same person you were when I met you,” she had said.
“You don’t even know half of it,” he had said. “What it’s like being me. My life.”
“Because you don’t tell me anything. At all. Your silence is abusive,” she had said.
He wanted to say it wasn’t that simple, that he wasn’t always in control of what he knew and didn’t know about himself and that that was the nature of memory, but he told her she could fuck off instead and that his Beddy would give him everything he needed now. He regretted at least a little of that now.
Dividing the objects in the house between his and hers, Rafael didn’t feel empty or unempty. He felt closer to reality than he had in a long time. He still had his Intimacy Companion’s original packaging. Maybe it would be worth something someday. He collapsed the box, and the air caught inside had captured that new doll smell he used to love, and he felt with a small folding of the rhythms of his heart a little collapse, little because he was not a sentimental man, little because it had never been a very deep relationship, and the harsh light of his love for Annette went out. He hated this smell now, a mix of freshly cut grass, tomato leaf, and burned circuit board. The cardboard sliced his palm open in a line from thumb to little finger.
He rented an apartment closer to work, closer to the city, reducing his commute to just twenty minutes. The apartment was smaller than the one he viewed beside the polluted lake, but also cleaner and cheaper. From his kitchen window he could see the abandoned gas station where conspiracy theorists dumped their Intimacy Companions to prevent the government from tracking them through their dead eyes. Rafael paused in the emptiness of the apartment complex parking lot. A car alarm cried in the night as a cold front blew in from the northeast, shaking the trees’ new leaves. He saw a brown leg underneath the warped lid of the green dumpster. He left the cats in the car for a moment. He wanted to step into his new home for the first time by himself. He wanted to be completely alone. He stepped inside, closing the door on the night. The empty apartment smelled like freshly applied paint and new carpet. Everything was brand new, nearly sparkling, untextured, unused, free of fingerprints and footsteps. The slate had been wiped clean. Memories deleted. The apartment might have been built the day before.
Rafael wondered, then, why it felt as if someone were already living there.
As intended, sex crimes had decreased by 68% since the institution of Intimacy Companions and the computer model projections insisted the trend would continue, but the country’s population had effectively doubled. Not psychologically, but corporeally, though the effects could be felt in the minds of everyone who had a brain of blood and tissue. As the IC distribution neared 100%, Rafael began to feel pressed in, as if he were standing in a forest and the trees suddenly doubled. He stood in a forest that had not, thankfully, doubled. An unusually warm season had paled the green. The maple leaves were struck through with yellow. They looked tired. One day the forest really would double if it didn’t vanish entirely, each tree giving rise, on average, only to one more with the strength and power to reach old age and add its flesh to the canopy. Rafael felt for a moment that he could feel the trees waiting beneath his feet, and then a bird flew overhead, white spots on black wings, and a voice parted his thoughts.
Noah’s booming voice narrating every place they ever walked: museum, slum, meadow: and this is the street corner where the alleged soldier from the lost battalion of Nanking reappeared one sunny day in September, 2022. His stream of the past overlapped that of the present, chased it through the thickets of time, in fact, bore down upon it, hunted, shot, bagged it while his bellowing voice frightened away the surrounding details of the moment. Later, he dressed the corpse and cooked the meat. Noah came into view before Rafael could turn back or hide. Noah’s Intimacy Companion hung on his arm, a garish custom model with wheels instead of feet. The tires were tangled with broken raspberry canes.
“Ho there! I do spy a familiar eye. You really get around now don’t you?” Noah said, coming closer. Sweat ran off his bulk. “I was going to flag you down at Cassy’s, but I got distracted by an Oriental in a loose kimono. She had the biggest plate of nigiri I’ve ever seen. Who could resist?”
Rafael cringed and spat in the weeds. “I’ve been home all day.”
“What news do you bring from the south?” Noah chuckled. “Have you met Candy?” He motioned toward his Beddy. “Oh yes, you have. I remember now, at the company dinner, two years ago? Maybe three. We were all younger then.” He laughed again; Rafael didn’t. “You know we’re really close to the exact spot where Councilor Bhandari was caught giving fellatio to three Beddies at once. The case was never closed. We were made to wonder if Uncle Sam issues multiple Beddies if you work your way up that high in the government, or if he had simply stolen the other two.”
Noah followed Rafael down the path he had just walked. Turning the conversation toward himself, Rafael told Noah everything that had happened. He couldn’t stand the man, but he needed information, and Noah was well informed. But Noah listened distractedly, stopping once to study a cottonwood tree, claiming to have seen a rare bird high in the branches. “This is serious,” Rafael said.
“All right, all right, I’m listening. And then what happened?”
Rafael’s story unspooled as Candy’s wheels gathered more dirt and verdure. Noah seemed not to notice. When Rafael was finished, Noah seemed to think for a moment and then said, “A coincidence.”
“Consider the number of possible human faces and the statistics that the non-infinite number of individual features would one day produce two humans who look nearly identical. And for your purposes, they don’t have to be identical. You saw the Beddy from afar, in the vegetation, partially covered.”
“But I know myself.”
“I’m sure no one knows you better. But when you start creating human faces artificially, the same principles apply. It’s a coincidence, and you should forget it before it gets to your head.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Rafael said. “But.”
“Maybe you should stay away from your Beddy for a while. You know, back when this all began, they considered VR as an option. It was certainly cheaper, but in the models they worked through, it didn’t decrease ‘deviant and malicious desires.’ In fact, in some cases, it seemed to inflame them. Perhaps one day the technology will be more… immersive, but until then you’re stuck with me, Candy.” He squeezed her arm and chuckled.
“I think it’s because other people can’t interact with a VR companion.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s why it wouldn’t work. We need our lovers to be experienced by others, to take up space, not just physically, but mentally, in the minds of others. We’re never alone. You can’t have sex unless everyone’s watching.”
“Huh,” Noah said, and turned aside to look for another rare bird.
When he came home, Rafael’s two hairless cats lay curled on his Beddy’s lap. Sometimes Rafael forgot to turn it off, and the bland warmth of its thighs called to the cats. Their ears watched him enter the apartment. He let them sleep and walked quietly to the bedroom, closing the door behind himself. Stretched out on the bed, he sank into one of the many streams of his imagination. The waters were crowded with garbage, the bottom clogged with green weeds like the endless hair of sirens. His feet were caught, rooted. A floating finger touched the back of his knee.
And somewhere above the stream, his hand moved toward his crotch.
Xenia had swallowed a US probe, cutting off communications between the two planets. Sky was now aflame with a presidential scandal. The United Sex-Workers’ League demanded reparations. Protests against the use of xenobots had broken out in Los Angeles. Rafael tried to find Annette’s account, but she had blocked him or he had blocked her, he couldn’t remember. He threw down his phone and hours later found himself at the ravine.
The body was gone.
Slowly, he removed his shoes and climbed into the clover, making his way down to the place where he thought he could still see the imprint of a human form. Yes, the stems were broken here. He stretched out in the clover, its flowers now drained of nectar, and sunk his fingers into the soil. Did he think nice things about his Beddy? He couldn’t even remember what its eyes looked like. He remembered the mole on the back of its neck, how he tried to hide it with a flesh colored bandage. He had never taken it for a walk, he had never slept with it at night. Sometimes he wondered if he had come to hate it.
Intimacy Companions had only a rudimentary intelligence, and most experts refused to use the term when speaking to the public for fear of misunderstanding. Yes, they technically housed AIs, but an IC was really no more intelligent than a computer. They could adapt to their user’s proclivities, and Rafael knew many single people who slept with them nightly. They could fold their arms around you and embrace. But an IC had nothing approaching emotion or sensation, for that would defeat its purpose, which was to be the whipping body for humanity’s repressed desires and elemental fetishes. What you did with your IC was always clean, a gift free of sin. Rafael saw himself sitting at his computer, one hand on his penis, one hand on the mouse, his eyes linked to the screen. He drew a line from his glans to the CPU. He drew a circle, a revolution between the center of creation and an electric womb of invisible seeds.
A bumblebee whined over his head. He wondered how long he had been making love to infertile objects. He didn’t know if it mattered.
His hand wandered into the clover and jumped when he touched warm metal. He sat up and pulled the fragment of a Beddy’s skull plate from the clover. A shard from the broken vase of night, he thought. He wiped it clean and held it to his mouth, turning the surface milky with his breath. His mind was already leaping ahead.
Noah had introduced Rafael to Leos at one of the company dinners long ago. Rafael found the scientist intimidating, and not only because he didn’t know what Leos did at the Institute. He was afraid to ask because he was sure he wouldn’t understand. Leos worked on the eighth floor where vials of blue butterflies lined the counter, their wings folded tightly along the bullets of their bodies. They were suspended in liquid. One of them sat drying on a cream colored tray like an oil-painted icon. Rafael looked away.
“Could you tell me who manufactured a Beddy from just a piece of its skull plate? I mean, I don’t know if it’s probable. Possible. But.” He found it difficult to make eye contact with the slender, intense scientist. Dark-eyed, tanned, his face heavily creased, Leos looked as if he had seen battle, genocide, the birth of a prophet. Rafael was unsure if he was American, and he was afraid to ask, but he seemed to come from afar, from a place where crocodiles controlled the swamps and police in green uniforms hunted villagers into the jungle. Rafael knew only about his small scrap of countryside tucked away at the bottom of the state. He knew nothing.
“Depends if there are any maker’s marks on it,” Leos said.
Rafael felt his stomach drop; the fragment was smooth.
“Sometimes they’re microscopic. Depending on the material, I can trace the supplier too. There aren’t many dealers locally. I can get you a list of possible markets. They’ll have records, but you’ll have to contact them yourself. What’s this about anyway? I thought Diane took the IC cases.” Diane was one of Rafael’s teammates, and Leos was right. “Remember when, who was it? Ethan I think. He reported being sexually harassed by Antonne’s IC, and further claimed Antonne had programmed it to do so. Turned out it grabbed him because of a bug that caused its limbs to flail and seize. The whole firmware update had to be recalled. Everyone panicked. What a nightmare.”
“Yeah, uh, I’m just helping Diane. It was my idea to come see you.”
“And the evidence?” Leos’ voice was penetrative; like water it could shift to fill any space. Rafael watched his lips, momentarily hypnotized by their movement and the liquid tone of his voice. And the rivergod pried open his lips, or the boy opened them.
“Rafael? I’ll have to take it from you for a while. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back.”
Rafael was still holding on to the skull plate, though Leos had it in his hand. When he finally let go, he felt a wash of relief.
“Just wait until they start repairing themselves,” Leos said. Rafael tried to smile.
He was listless and distracted the following day. He ate, worked, and slept, walking what seemed to be a track from which he couldn’t diverge. And then three days later, Leos sent him a list and returned the skull plate to Rafael’s employee mailbox. Leos had narrowed it down to two dealers and an independent Beddy artist. Rafael worked up his courage to drive into the crowded city, where he imagined bad streets disguised as good ones, and you only found out which was which after your legs were already being chewed up in the city’s engine of misery. He knew he was being ridiculous. The city turned him into a child again. He was learning to like it. He watched an old woman feed pigeons with her Beddy, the birds settling on its shoulders and thighs as if it were a telephone pole. At each place on the list, Rafael asked, a little proud of the simplicity of his scheme, “Have you seen me before?” but no one understood. The flash of recognition never came, and Rafael felt deflated and empty. The city began to frighten him again. It was too crowded, twice as crowded as before. He wondered why he hadn’t called or connected with them on Sky.
“Do you ever make a Beddy that looks exactly like a living person?”
The purple-haired woman, looking like a lapidary in her goggles, bent over a prepubescent girl, attaching leaves of skin to her unfinished stomach. “No,” she said, without looking up, “that would be illegal.”
Rafael blew up his inflatable kayak by the riverside. He had taken a couple of days off work at Brenda’s recommendation to recalibrate and “think about anything but yourself.” He put his lips to the nozzle of the kayak seat. The atmosphere was excited with thoughts of a coming storm. Rafael knew he sacrificed control of his kayak to the wind the moment he filled it with air, but he had hardly taken it out since Annette refused to go with him. He was a poor kayaker, he admitted, always flinging weeds like cold spiders onto her bare shoulders. She was much better, but she had never offered to teach him. He wanted to steer his tiny ship toward the bridge where boys fished. He would drag it onto the small island there, anchor it to the rocks, and sit on the bridge, waiting for a damselfly to rest on his knee.
Sitting on a cushion of air, he pushed off from the dock and immediately began to spin out of control. This would be an exorcising of the kayak. His oars sprinkled the kayak with water, and he pumped his arms, fought currents of wind and water, felt Annette’s presence in front of him, a phantom oar teetering. I could fall in love with you again, but I do not love you. Sweat blinded him. Gnats agitated by the falling air pressure attacked the soft flesh behind his ears. Submerged logs groped at the sides of the kayak, he cursed and spat and wept, and by the time he approached the bridge, the kayak wore a gown of weeds and lily pads. A golden dragonfly sat on the prow. He would anchor on the far side of the bridge. Sunlight beat on him from between two clouds gathering power. A white swan beat its wings. A bell rang from a playground nearby. The bridge wasn’t empty.
He was already there, dangling his legs over the open water, a damselfly on his knee. It was the same Beddy Rafael had seen lying in the clover, repaired and nearly whole except for a missing skull plate. Rafael took the plate from his shirt pocket and held it up: it would fit like the last piece of a puzzle. Who was chasing who? he thought, trying to slow down, but the wind had taken him into its mercy. He tried to remember why he had chosen this river, on this day, and couldn’t. The wind pushed the kayak under the bridge where Rafael’s reflection faded into shadow. A bass dove between the legs of a boy at the bottom of the river. His legs grew into the mud, his toes touched the hot blue anus of the rivergod, whose face looked like another’s. It drew his foot into its lips like a swollen grape from the vine. The rivergod laughed in bubbles that broke from the surface as happy swallows. Nymphs of insects from the rivercrypts wallowed in the feast. Only unlight reached the riverbed. Fooled by the incomprehensibility of time, the boy left his sacred fruit unguarded. The long arm of the rivergod threaded itself between the boy’s marmoreal legs and searched for the glory of his form as the boy watched himself separate and stratify like a pillar of stone: toys fell to the bottom with the scent of his mother’s perfume, the goat he raped settled near the middle beside the hand of his first girlfriend, farther up reams of paperwork, the jeweled frog, the book of symbols, and at the top unknown shapes halted and froze. Water pushed its way into the boy’s mouth, or he swallowed it; the rivergod pried open his lips, or the boy opened them. He didn’t know if the god was evil. He didn’t know if he was evil.
Sunlight struck Rafael like a branch, and he could see his reflection again on the other side of the bridge. He couldn’t see straight, as if a portion of his brain had been left behind without his knowing it. Who were these people, he wondered, and why were they inside of him? If only he could just-
He looked behind him. The bridge was empty.
He had to move quickly. He docked the kayak at one foot of the bridge and followed a clean, familiar scent across the sidewalk and into the woods. He spotted the retreating heel of his own foot, doubled. “Wait,” he called to himself. He followed footprints down the track of a white-tailed deer who watched nearby, crushed leaves spilling from her mouth. He followed a whisper back into the open. A crane took flight. The storm clouds above looked like a horse thundering down from heaven.
Rafael lunged and caught him by the wrist. His other hand reached up to fit the skull plate back in place. He pressed his mouth against his mouth.