When I hold your hand I feel
S: Hey are we hanging out after work?
M: Yeah… just..uh… merrily-unswerving.
S: Okay well let me know when you’re on your way over.
M: I’m on my way over now.
“Oh shit,” I say, and swipe Morgan’s text into the corner of my eye – I’m not even close to closing up. There are two couples still sitting at either end of my bar, one of them regulars, the other not so much. I watch them all sip at almost empty pints with eyes that could laser cut skin, and then I start to laugh because I’ve just had a thought – if she wanted to, Morgan could cut them all to pieces with a blink of her laser eyes. But then my laugh turns quickly to a dredging cough, a sound that makes the closer couple – the non regulars – pull up their homemade face masks. The other two keep on going with a loud conversation about last weeks earthquake – it just feels like everything’s getting pushed closer and closer together, you know? I saw a photo on the news, the ground looked like wet bread. My lungs feel like wet bread, but I’m not contagious, at least not in that way. “I’ve just been off with pneumonia for the past two weeks.”
When Morgan walks in we all catch our breath, me in my wet bread lungs, the others still with mouthfuls of beer. She pauses in the doorway for a second before stepping into the pub.
“Hey,” she says, and then “oh, sorry. I thought you’d be closed by now.”
“No no,” I say, “it’s okay. I shouldn’t be too much longer. You can have a seat, or you can come back in like” – I try to look at the regular earthquake couple without actually looking at them – “twenty minutes/half an hour?”
“It’s cool,” she says, “I’ll wait.”
“Ok, sorry,” I say to Morgan, as the other couple pass behind her – one of them glares at me, or her, or maybe both of us on their way out – “have a good night!”
Morgan smiles. “I thought you were getting better?” she says. She takes a seat at the bar, lets the full weight of her body fall into the low backed stool. It’s the metal/metal sound that makes earthquake couple stop talking about the earthquake.
“I am,” I say, “I sound way worse than I feel, I’m actually feeling pretty good today.” They’re both watching us now – watching Morgan, really.
“Are you still up for walking? It’s pretty cold tonight.” I have been looking forward to going on this walk with Morgan the whole day – I’m not going to tell her that, but I’m not going to let her get out of it that easy, either.
“I’ll be fine. The doctor said it’s good for me to get fresh air.” A lie. I look over at Morgan again and in the headlights of a passing truck I see her how the earthquake couple might see her – seven and a half feet tall, crossed arms and thick legs with pieces of skin cut away in on purpose shapes, like reverse tattoos. They might’ve even caught the edge of a large piece of skin missing from the small of her back – the part that made the metal/metal sound. It doesn’t look like she got that one done on purpose, though. I want to know, but I’m not going to ask. Instead I say “you repotted your plants!” and Morgan grins. She touches her fingers to the greenery growing out of her scalp. The last time I saw her they were short blades of grass. Now her head is covered with a cap of soft, feathery looking moss.
“They’re cool hey!” she says, “they remind me of the plants I grew up with – small and elegant, but growing more powerful over time. Can you believe I found it on someone’s front step?”
“‘Found’?” I say, and Morgan says “yes, that’s what I said. There was a note that said “please take some, I have too much – Rowan.”
While we talk, the regular earthquake couple – I remember now, their names are Silvy and Dan – must take the hint, because they drain their pints and come up to pay with a $50 dollar note. I say, “thanks!” and they smile and when I go to give them change they’re already on their way out.
“I think that couple was breaking up,” Morgan says.
“Which one?” I ask, “the couple who left first?”
“Who, Silvy and Dan? Nah, they’re in here all the time, I’m pretty sure they’re married or something.”
“I don’t know. They wouldn’t stop talking about the goddamn earthquake.” I feel a pulsing in the corner of my eye.
“Did you feel it? The earthquake.” I try to imagine the earth being able to move someone like Morgan even a little.
“Yeah, a little. It was weird. Like very similar to the sensation I get when I cry. Did you?”
“Yeah,” I say, “I was here. Smashed a whole bunch of our glasses. Pain in the ass to clean up.” I turn the lights up so I can see where I need to wipe down the bar, and my eye pulses again, this time with a soft green light at the edge. I check the time on the POS, and wipe my finger across my closed eyelid, like I’m putting on soft green eyeshadow.
N: Hey mate
N: You wouldn’t be free to do my shift tonight would you?
I sigh, and press the heel of my palm against the bar to activate the reply function – it takes me a few tries to get the position and pressure right, but after a few tries the green light changes to blue. It’s been almost two months since I signed up to trial this new technology, I feel like I should’ve got the hang of it by now. I think my reply and it appears as text in front of my eyes.
S: No can do, I’m going on a date tonight.
N: Oh damn. That’s okay.
N: Is it with Morgan?
S: Yes, it’s with Morgan.
N: Ok well maybe text me when you get home, yeah?
S: Dude u don’t need to worry so much. I am nowhere near important enough to be assassinated.
“Is Nina asking you to cover the graveyard shift again?” Morgan asks.
“What? Oh, yeah.” I smile shyly and press my palm with my thumb until the text disappears and the blue light leaks away. I thought I was being subtle. “It’s okay, she’ll probably just end up switching it to the AI,” I say.
“Why doesn’t she just switch it to the AI whenever she needs a cover?”
‘“I think she’s afraid that if she keeps switching to the AI they’ll realise that they can just use the AI all the time and they won’t need her anymore.”
“I think if they wanted to replace her they would’ve tried to by now. She works for a community radio station right?”
“Volunteers,” I say. I reach under the bar and pull out a small metal flask.
“Like you volunteered for those retinals?” Morgan says.
“Mmm. Not really,” I say. I want to, but I’m not quite sure how to explain to her that there’s no way I’d sign up for a trial like this if I wasn’t getting paid for it. Instead I point to the flask and ask, “do you want anything to take with you? For the walk.”
“Oh yeah,” Morgan says, “maybe some club soda?”
“Really?” I laugh. Morgan shrugs.
“What? I like the feeling of bubbles on my tongue. And how the air feels like it comes from a glass. Plus it’s good for my hair.” She laughs, and the sound is like breaking water. I clear my throat, and pull a bottle of our cheapest vodka down from the bar behind me.
“We don’t have club soda, but we have soda water?”
“I thought they were the same thing,” Morgan says. She leans back and pulls her legs up under her chin, and in light I can see the skin on her knees is starting to wear away a little. I pour the vodka into the small mouth of the flask, and get out our old fashioned soda gun to top it up.
“Soda water for you, vodka for me. Wait, is vodka bad for your hair?”
“I don’t know,” she says, “I think it’ll be fine.”
I line the nose of the hose up and push the soda water button as lightly as I can – water bursts out, catching the sides and spraying all different directions.
Morgan laughs, and I feel like the biggest dickhead, but I commit until the flask is almost full.
“Shut up. Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah yeah I’m ready.”
like a big house with no clothes
I live and work in the model city part of town. The remaining houses and shops and pubs are scattered in between the multi-story apartment buildings, like so many random piles, or pieces of food between teeth. I haven’t lived around here for all that long, but I’ve heard our regulars talk about it so much I can picture it – they just shot up so quickly, like great big trees in one of them Attenborough documentaries. “When they first went up they trained all kinds of plants to climb beside the windows,” I say as I arm the pub doors “but of course they turned out to be too hard to keep alive, so they gave up on that.”
“Yeah,” Morgan says, and runs a hand over her scalp, “I get that.”
“You know, these new retinals have a feature that can show you what your surroundings used to look like. It doesn’t go all that far back though, just to the late 2000s.” I say, and then “wait, don’t give up on your plants! I mean, do, if you want to. But I don’t think you should.” A few sips and the vodka is running my mouth already. Morgan laughs.
“No not just yet,” she says. “We’ll have to see how long I can keep these alive though. Do you use it?”
“That ‘seeing what things used to look like’ feature.”
“Nah, not really. I mean, I tried it out when they were first installed, but it was pretty glitchy. I think it’s just kind of a gimmick feature, you know?”
“Mmhmm,” Morgan says as we cross the street.
We walk in silence for a little while, and as we do I think about what it might be like to wrap an arm around her waist, and how the exposed metal could be cold against my skin, but maybe it would actually probably be warm because of all that’s going on beneath her. I am thinking about what might be going on beneath her when Morgan takes my hand, and my vision goes bright pink.
“Oh shit,” I say, and pull away.
“Are you okay?” Morgan asks, checks her hand.
“Yeah,” I say, “yeah, sorry.” I can feel my face changing colour to match the corners of my eyes. “You just set off the stream of consciousness function.”
N: ummmm I’m guessing you didn’t mean to send me that
I take Morgan’s hand back and squeeze it, hard, until the pink fades.
S: Omg no I did not and if you ever bring it up again I will assassinate you.
“Oh look,” I say, “we’re near Nina’s house.” I point up to one of the concrete trees. “I think her apartment is in that one.” Morgan follows my hand and my distraction. “She says that it’s nice, super modern. But I don’t know. It’s like a big house with no clothes, really.” Morgan nods, and reaches out for the flask of vodka soda. We pass under a streetlight, and the orange hits the silver of her exposed shoulder, turning the patterns carved into it a bright, stream of consciousness pink. I feel small, but like I could grow more powerful the more time I spend with her.
“How come you don’t live in one of those too?” Morgan asks. I pause, trying to think of an answer to give her that makes me sound like I’ve really thought about it. In the end I go with the truth. “I can’t afford to. Nina says that I should move in with her, that she’d even cover some of the rent but …” I take another sip. “I don’t know if living with her would be such a good idea. She’s one of those people who I love to pieces, but would never live with, you know?” Morgan nods. “Nina sounds like the kind of person who organises her love letters by day and food inside her lunch box by night,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say, “I guess. She’s my oldest friend.”
“How long have you known her?”
“Since we were thirteen. We weren’t friends until after highschool, though.” Morgan nods.
“I had a friend like that. Back from when I worked for the government.” I’m about to say something about the bridge we’re passing under but I stop – what if this is the moment she decides to tell me about what she used to do before she went freelance? I don’t want to spook her.
“You know what,” Morgan says. “I think vodka might be good for my hair. It restricts plant growth, and I want to keep it short.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I say, and I try my best to keep my voice even. I wait for her to go back to her friend who used to work with her for the government, but she doesn’t – the moment has passed, or there never was one to begin with. We get to the foot of another bridge, my second favourite of the walk. I panic, and say “I’ve always liked bridges – they’re easy to take in, you know? They can’t be broken, they go up without anyone noticing.” I finish talking and feel like throwing myself off this bridge we’re crossing, but then Morgan says,
“Yeah, I’ve always liked bridges too. There’s a sense of freedom and risk in them. They’re like two opposing forces keeping an opponent at bay.” A feeling slugs through me like vodka, a feeling so warm that I almost don’t feel the texts coming in. I see the green, though.
N: hey sorry i know u r on ur hot date but remember how I told u that I thought the station building might be haunted?
N: That sound is back again.
I sigh, and press my hand hard against my thigh.
S: You’re sure it’s not just a feedback thing?
N: No I made Jen check all of the equipment. It’s got nothing to do with our tech.
S: Maybe I’ll ask Morgan about it – it could be an AI thing?
N: No don’t do that! I don’t want her to think I’m weird.
S: Why do you care? I thought you didn’t want me to date her
N: I never said I didn’t want you to date her. I asked u what u liked about her. And then u got mad and didn’t reply to me.
I swat the messages away, feel more come in a couple more times as Morgan and I take the side streets through the tall naked houses. By the time we get down to the river I am wishing that I hadn’t sold my physical phone so I could pitch it into the water.
like my favourite book on fire
We get down to the river and it’s flowing so slowly it barely looks like water at all, just a long flat ribbon reflecting some moonlight. This is the seventh date and the sixth night walk that Morgan and I have been on since we met. But I realise that I’ve been saving this walk up, like a precious sticker or a favourite childhood stone. I used to come here all the time before I started working days at the supermarket as well as nights at the pub.
“I love walking down here,” I say. “It makes me feel so alive. It’s like my favourite book on fire.”
I think I see Morgan smile, but it’s hard to tell at this low light, even with this very basic night vision I’m having trouble seeing the slighter expressions of her face. I search it side long, with no luck. All I see are the edges of Nina’s unread text messages.
“Oooh,” Morgan says, “look at this plant!” She bends down to look at something but I can’t see it. “That’s a real plant. It has legs.” I bend down to her level and she’s got her fingers down in the dirt, both hands like she’s holding a bowl of something. I’m not sure what kind of plant it is, I know there’s a feature in these retinals that will tell me but I still don’t know how to activate it.
“Can you reach into my bag and get me my water bottle?”
“Sure,” I say. I unzip the backpack she’s put down at her feet, feel through objects until I find the two litre tall metal drink bottle. “I like the broad leaves.”
“Thanks,” she says. She unscrews the cap and takes a drink before popping the plant, legs and all into the head of the bottle.
“This should hold it until I get home,” she says.
“How do you store them at home?” I ask. “Like plants or like hair?”
“Like plants,” she says. “Or sometimes like jewelry, hanging up. How would I store them like hair?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “maybe like how people store wigs – on those heads? But with holes for the roots to grow into.”
“Hmmm,” Morgan says. She stands up, holding the water bottle in front of her kind of like a candle. “That’s not a bad idea, actually.” I smile, and start drafting a reply in my head.
S: I like her because she’s really cute, and being around her makes me feel safe. And I know you don’t like her or trust her or whatever, because she’s a seven foot tall ex-government soldier AI who could take me out in like two seconds if she wanted to. But I’m pretty sure she just wants to take me out on dates. That was a joke, I’m very sure. Anyway, I’m not even sure if this is any of your business, so
The message is there but I do not press to send it. I let it hover for just a second, and then swipe it away.
Soon we reach my favourite bridge of the walk. This bridge is definitely risky and free, the two opposing forces are decorated with lichen and fading graffiti. It i;s just over two Morgans high.
“My favourite bridge!” I say, pretty much skipping over to the nearest concrete pylon. “Now this bridge, this bridge has legs. Legs for days.” I look up to the underarch, trying to take it all in, trying to make a moment out of it here, with Morgan, who has come to stand behind me. But it’s not working. Not with all this green fluttering in the corners of my eyes.
N: Seriously dude I’m pretty sure this place is haunted, and I’m the only one here because it’s nearly three in the fucking morning and I am freaking out
S: N, there are no such thing as ghosts, ok?
S: ghosts are just stories that keep your soul in check.
I place my hand over a wide crack in the concrete layered in spikey tags, and feel something so similar to the sensation I get when I cry. “Maybe the earthquake did this?”
N: You know you are starting to sound like her.
S: Like who?
N: Like Morgan
S: What? No I’m not.
N: Yes you are. You’re doing that thing that couples do when they spend so much time together they end up sounding like each other when they talk.
S: Morgan and I aren’t a couple! Like not a couple couple, jesus. I’ve only been seeing her for a few weeks.
N: Ok well you sure sound like one that’s all.
Morgan is looking at me like I’m supposed to be responding to something she’s said. “Sorry? Sorry.” I say, swatting text from my eyes like moths crowding streetlights. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘can I ask you something?’” She’s got a look on her face that I’m having trouble reading, and not just because of the low light.
“Oh sure, of course,” I start to say, “anything you li – oh shit!” I turn to keep walking and my sneakers catch the concrete. I overbalance and drop my flask, soda water and vodka spilling a river onto the ground. I reach for Morgan and grab hold of her wrist to steady myself, completely unswereved. My vision goes blurry, not with colours but with something else. There are two people standing right in front of me.
“Shit sorry, didn’t see you.” They are both taller than me, but not as tall as Morgan, the tallest one only reaching her shoulder. They’re both wearing old style baggy jeans and tshirts, and one of them is carrying a skateboard under their arm. My wet bread fear solidifies into concrete anger.
“What the fuck are you doing? Don’t just stand around under bridges, it’s three in the bloody morning.” I’m so angry so quickly that I start coughing.
“I’m not sneaking” Morgan says, coming up to stand beside me. “I’m right here.”
“What?” No, not you,” I say. I take a step left so that I’m standing in the shadow of the bridge, “them.” I point to the two people standing in front of me, who haven’t moved or said a word, and who are, now that I think of it, strangely well illuminated. I can see the fades in their t shirts and the bits of paint missing from their skateboards.
“Simone,” Morgan says, and I don’t like the way she says it, “there’s no one there.”
“That’s not funny.” I reach out to touch the tip of the skateboard, and Morgan reaches down to pick up the flask I dropped.
“Ohhhh shit,” she says, “I’ve heard of this.”
“Heard of…” I start. My fingers almost touch the skateboard, but then I start coughing again … “what?”
“There’s this thing that happens sometimes, with this new version,” Morgan says. “They get people trapped in them.”
“What are you talking about?” I bang on my chest but it does nothing, just echoes like an empty, naked house. Morgan hands me the flask I dropped but I push it away. She takes the plant out of her metal water bottle and hands me that instead. The water tastes like dirt, but it doesn’t taste bad.
“Not real people … pictures of people,” she explains while I’m drinking, “you know that function you mentioned, where you can set it to see what things looked like five or ten or however many years ago?”
I nod as water spills out the side of my mouth and down my chin. I feel small, and clumsy, power leaking out of me like blue light.
“You know they build that from photographs right? Like how they used to do with those maps. And a lot of those photographs have people in them, at least to begin with. They’re supposed to edit them all out, but every now and then one will slip through.”
“Ohhh” I say. I come up for air. “Maybe I turned that feature on by accident.” I close my eyes for a few moments, putting both hands to my temples to initiate a hard reset. When I open them again, the two skaters are gone. Everything else looks pretty much the same, though. The crack in the bridge is still there.
“Are you alright?” Morgan asks.
“Yeah,” I say, “just a little spooked. These fucking things have been glitching out all day.” I hand her back her bottle, and she tucks her plant back in.
N: wait, is that what u really think? I squeeze the bridge of my nose and see blue.
S: sorry what?
I scroll back – oh fuck. My drafted message is now sitting in my Nina thread, I must’ve sent it when I grabbed Morgan’s arm to stop myself from falling.
N: do u actually think that I think that? Wtf Simone!
N: all I wanted to know was if u actually liked her, or if u are just going on dates with her because you miss going for walks at night
“You want to keep going?” Morgan asks. I look around, and everything feels thick and slow as a ribbon of river. I’m not sure if it’s because of the hard reset but the bridge, the trees, even Morgan seems to be casting a longer shadow. I shake my head.
“Nah,” I say, “it looks like the sky might break water. I mean, I think it might rain. Maybe we should head back?”
“Ok,” she says, and her voice is a long shadow, long enough to make me think that I’ve messed things up. As we start to walk back to the road I ask “can I hold your hand?” Morgan nods, and I take her hand, hesitant. It’s warm all over, but warmest where the skin has worn away. I press my finger into a small, smooth groove in her palm, the way I do to my own hands when I’m feeling this way.
“Oh shit,” she says, pulls her hand out of mine and starts to shake it.
“What?” I ask.
“Oh it’s nothing,” she says, but then she starts laughing. “You just almost set off my laser eyes.”
“It’s fine! There are a couple more steps to follow before you actually activate them.”
“Okay…” I say. But I don’t feel all that okay, all of a sudden. The long shadows get longer and I feel like I might be earthquaking. I put my hands in my pockets.
“Hey, so what was it that you were wanting to ask me before?” I ask.
“What? Oh. It’s nothing.” Morgan stops laughing, and runs a hand through her plants. “They’re getting a bit dry. Would be good if it rained, actually.”
“Go on,” I say. “What were you going to ask?” Morgan frowns.
“I was just going to ask,” she starts. “I was going to ask if maybe, instead of me meeting you after you finish work, maybe our next date could be on your night off?”
“Oh, yeah.” I say. “That would be nice. I don’t know when my next day off will be though. I’ve had to pick up a whole lot of shifts because I’ve been sick.”
“Ok right,” Morgan says, “you need time to organise your lunch box.” The way she says this makes me worry that my earthquake has cracked something. In my pocket I press my finger into a small, smooth palm groove, and the last text I received from Nina pops up.
“And I guess I’ll be away for work too, from next week. And I’m not sure when I’ll be back, depending on how long this job takes.”
“Okay well, maybe we could go to the movies or something?” I say, “when you get back?”
“Yeah, maybe” Morgan says. She stops to inspect another plant with small, yellow flowers, bending down so I can’t see her face. “Actually, yeah. I think I would like that.”