by Shaliz Bazldjoo
It’s 2032 and Daddy tells his men to open fire on the crowd in our driveway. I watch from behind a bulletproof window as muzzle flashes light up our quiet neighborhood like stars in a downturned sky. They illuminate bodies pressing between one another, bloody hands over faces, posters torn and sticking to the ground. The windowpane is cold on my fingertips.
Why do I love you? I can still picture you biting your thumb between candy-pink lips as you filled out a petition handed to you through a mass of limbs. The smile on your blushing cheeks even as the crowd squished your shoulders and mussed up your hair. The boy next to you handing you a poster with a fist on it, and you helping him hold it high, waving back and forth, your collective spirit rising towards the sky like a fire.
After the massacre, it flutters through the street, footprint-dented. I don’t know where you went—up or away. All martyrs go to heaven, after all.
* * *
It’s 2035. Daddy stays home with the chauffeur because it’s safer. He urges me to stay as well, but I’m two months from college and out of his control and want to enjoy life while it’s still shaking on its foundations. The gala should be nice, an escapade from the growing tensions biting at everyone’s heels.
Wrong, they tell me when I get there and open the glossy car door. The building’s on fire. Black limousines and cop cars make a necklace of jewels around the mansion. I feel myself mirror a dozen other white dresses standing to get a better look at things, mouths open and empty, makeup crystallizing in the chill of the night. Firefighters are spouting hoses at orange tongues.
I recognize you simply from your silhouette. Your hair flows like its own dark flame against the bright ones. That’s the first difference; it’s not the last.
There’s metal welded to your face, but it’s an angry, melting red metal since you’re encased in fire. Maybe you were shot there at the protest—survived on a miracle, bullet hole to cheekbone. It’s amazing what technology can do.
Your eyes, one cloudy and blind, find mine through railings and tendrils of burning debris. The officers must not see you yet, that’s why you’re alive. The fire is creeping up to your neck, that’s why you’re dying. Your left eye is blue and clear, that’s why you see me.
I wished for something more, ever since I first glimpsed you, expecting something to implode upon your gaze. I hoped for vibrance, maybe even wit, daring me to slip away from the safety of my Porsche and embrace the burning too. Instead I feel nothing. Your gaze is vacant. Purposeful, but I am not the target of your passions, and the blind eye seems to notice me more than the blue one does. A rivulet of molten metal runs down your cheek like a tear.
Suffice to say, the gala’s canceled. They find ashes in your place, but I know it’s not you. Ghosts don’t die.
* * *
It’s still 2035. Daddy’s writing a condolence letter to the family friend whose mansion was burned. I catch indents from his pen on the stationary below. Soft engravings of martial law hidden by paisley trim and gold borders.
He asks me if I’m okay, setting an unfamiliar hand on my shoulder. I smell like the cigarette he crumples into his ashtray. He’ll send a bodyguard with me to college, and I don’t have the heart to refuse, even if I want to see the flutter of your beautiful hair again.
* * *
It’s 2039. Daddy says a hundred years ago was the worst war humanity ever knew. He mutters this to me under the applause of my graduation ceremony. Right after my cap has flown, he says to pat my hair down so it doesn’t stand wild.
He wants me home right after. Home is safe, with mom’s latest cat and a guard for each of the thousand corners of the house. He turns the radio off, tints the windows, barely lets me say goodbye to friends. He’s a decade older than I remember.
“Something’s going on,” I say. The radio looks like a gagged mouth, writhing to be free. He waves his hand and tells me I don’t need to worry about it.
I find you on my phone anyways—the emergency alert is right there, silenced during commencement. Red banners, broken news, robot skin plating your once-pink lips. The insurgent or revolutionary or traitor who keeps dying and clawing her way out of the grave. You’ve done something again. I can already smell the smoke, but it’s worse this time, civilization-tearing.
A hundred years ago, Daddy keeps saying, as if he is trying to push time away with the air in his throat.
* * *
It’s 2040. Daddy tells me to get used to the lockdowns, to make peace with the militias patrolling the neighborhoods. He says I can’t move out until I get married, until I have a husband to protect me when violence kicks open my door. I don’t tell him that my last memory of love is your cloudy eye staring straight through me.
I sneak out to neon clubs where everyone paints their faces unrecognizable, where clothes are scant but the lights are dim enough to make up for it. Even you with your iron skin could hide here. I imagine you among the bodies as I buy a drink, lighter in your left hand, flammable liquor in your right. No more petitions. You still paint your lips, though, a lovely cherry pink like you’re sixteen and alive and not twenty-four and a zombie. I trace the rim of my shot glass thinking of you.
It keeps happening. When I hear the next round of sirens, see the police shields on TV, you must be there, in the background somewhere, the sort of fighter I could never be. My parents say I should ditch applying for an MBA and sleep in a cryogenic tube until tensions die down. I might have taken them up on the offer—it’s not like I have a passion to fulfill, with a bland education turning my interests to static—but I don’t. Guess why.
You’re at the club one day, just as I hoped. Glossy black bangs mask your face and a red stripe against your silver cheek protects you from facial recognition—the other cheek is silver too, now. I’m stunned by the humanness of your body, when I know your veins must be wires, your arms and legs replaced by prosthetics after the inferno. Even in the cold blues and violets of the underground, you look warm to the touch.
My seat is already abandoned. I know I should be tactful like you, but slowness and sureness could let you slip away, and I can’t have that. I don’t need to win any stealth competition. I don’t even need to survive.
People step on my dress while I weave through them, tearing it—I do the same, tripping over myself. Daddy might be mad, but I can make up a convincing lie for where I was. He’s too important and I’m too important for either of us to fathom being in this place.
But I don’t want to think about him now. You’re wearing black, carrying a purse with a string of beads dangling off it. I don’t see any gadgets on you, no watches or wrist-chips or earbuds or iPhone 30s, and I don’t expect to; radical as you are, the smell of your age-old smoke is tradition. You’re not here to kill and you’re not here to die and you’re not here to get caught.
I wonder what you’ve been cooking up. Maybe if I get close to you, smell your perfume, I can read your mind. Maybe if I kiss your rose-lips you’ll speak all your traitorous secrets into my mouth. I’m still this country’s daughter, after all, and I should convince myself I’m doing this for someone else’s good. For the nation’s good, for what the nation was before you ripped it apart.
You stop at an electrical door in the back. The crowd has thinned here, though it hasn’t disappeared—the underground’s always busy these days—and I’m scared you’ll know me on sight. But what better chance do I have?
I take three long steps forward and you turn around just in time for me to wrap my arms around you. The motion is a gunshot in its own right, my heels tilting off balance, and my world with it. Here you will strike a match off my forehead. Here I die. Maybe they’ll bring me back with a blind eye, too.
Music drowns out whatever you do next. Your fingers trace down my shoulder blades in time with the synth beats. For a moment, I scrunch closer. Then your hands are on my collar shoving me away.
The shock has pushed your bangs to the side. Both eyes are blue, now. They’re wide and bewildered. I try to unearth the mechanics of the prosthetic one, letting them pierce through me like quick bursts of a rifle. Your banner’s sticking to the ground. Should I tell you that?
You’ve said something, loud enough for me to hear, but I didn’t. “I’m a friend,” I say, because if you knew my name you would kill me. And then again, stepping closer. I want to pay you back and trace your spine and fund your next terrorist surgery. Every flash of light makes your face a little more confused and a little more scared.
“I’m a friend,” I repeat. The distance between us closes. “I’m—”
The knife is out before I can see it, shinier than your metal cheeks, pressing into my stomach, right below the dress’s waist of jewels. Its blade is as warm as you are, as if you sweat straight into it, pinning it nervously between your thumb and forefinger.
“Stay back,” you say, voice coarser than I thought, lacking the bubblegum. You’re not the girl biting her lip and singing peace on Earth. We killed you after all. “I know exactly who you are.”
Unlearn it. Please. I’m not that woman. But your knife is digging deeper and warmer. I may not trust you with my life, but I trust you with my death.
I kiss you on the lips, fleeting like the brush of a butterfly’s wings. You did paint them pink again. Your knife opens me up, one quick twist, turning warmth to blistering heat, turning my white dress red with blood.
I meet your eyes. Wide as saucers, veins bulging out of the left one, nothing from the right. There’s the fake.
It makes me laugh. You make me laugh, dribbling red drool. I’ll go happy.
* * *
It’s still 2040. Daddy isn’t there when I wake up in the ER, but I do see him on its small, grainy TV, news cameras spotlighting his podium as he vows swift vengeance. I’m sure one of the dozen gifts by my bedside is his. I’m glad he’s unable to lecture me, to wave around my bloodstained dress of irresponsibility.
I don’t regret it.
The hospital was cleared out for my treatment and a soldier waits outside.
I shocked you. Maybe nothing has shocked you since the first massacre—you looked so calm, burning in those flames. Maybe you weren’t even shocked when Daddy frowned and turned away and ordered his men to open fire.
He tells me you’ve been captured and put in prison, and my reaction rocks the car like an explosive—at least, in my head it does. My protests filter from a storm to a drizzle when I speak.
“May I see her?”
“No, you may not.” He has a hired driver, and is sitting free in the passenger’s seat, but won’t look at me. There’s a faint reflection of his face in the windshield, only the gray hairs and the wrinkles.
He inhales. Exhales. We’re passing a blockade on the road, where a mob has chained themselves across the highway, roaring. He flicks his hand and the driver turns us down another street. I don’t have a chance to make out the words on their posters.
“We’re going to freeze you until this blows over,” he says.
“I don’t want that.”
“Well, you’re going to have to brave it. I can’t have you getting hurt anymore.”
I fumble for protests. Don’t freeze me. I have a life. I have passions. Duties. But I don’t. I’m empty space in the shape of a daughter. I’ll follow in my father’s footsteps one day, and become a politician, pass laws, die. My only passion is unattainable. I have no reason to stay awake.
“It’s just safer this way. We’ll drive to the clinic tomorrow. The doctors will wake you up in no time.”
No time for me. I would go under, then resurface from dreamless sleep. It could be years or centuries. Daddy would quash the rebellion. He always does. You would be executed, stamped out so thoroughly that you wouldn’t come back to life this time. Maybe they’d repurpose your robotic parts and sell them to the highest bidder. Your real eye, blue and veined, floating in a jar, would be a footnote in history.
“Let me see her, then,” I say. “Since it doesn’t matter anymore. My last wish.”
“You’re not dying.”
I might as well.
* * *
It’s 2040 one last time. Daddy relents, and the prison doors open one by one, electric gates powering off, fingerprints scanned, security cameras rotating. My heart is in my chest, excited and fearful, like I’m going on a first date. Last date. Last wish.
They say love is blind, and that must be why I recognize you even when you come back in different forms; slivers of you escape whatever body you take. It’s why we keep catching you, why you keep dying. You change only a little every time.
Now they’ve stripped you of prosthetics. Your limbs you got to keep, but with the wires gutted, hanging out of your arms like copper branches, uprooted from their tree. Your head is shaved, and your cheeks are sunken, scarred and red with the metal plates taken off. Most visibly, the fake eye is gone—if you could call it fake—and the one remaining is red-rimmed, stoicism dropped.
Now it all falls to me. There’s a beating in my throat that gets louder and louder and mutes when the cell door shuts. Guards and security cameras seem to stick to my skin. I breathe them in, taste the bleach-scent of the walls and sterilized wires. I breathe them out. I check if the door is locked.
I’m lying on the cold ground next to you. You’d move away, I’m sure, if there was anywhere to go. The veins in your eye are angry.
“Who am I?” I ask. I’d cup your cheek if I wasn’t afraid of hurting you. I have stitches of my own to nurse, besides.
“The president’s daughter.”
“Who am I, really?”
Your nostrils flare. You say, “A friend.”
I smile. It’s like a drug, those words, but a weak one. The wall behind my head feels so cold. I think it might collapse and flatten me.
“A friend,” I agree. I pull Daddy’s key card out and place it between your teeth. It unlocks everything, even cell doors. I know your arms are paralyzed, but there’s still hope for your legs, isn’t there? You’ve survived worse. You’ve escaped on thinner miracles. You can do it again. You’ve got at least another couple lives and deaths in you.
Your blue eye is almost pulsing as I lean back. If the door wasn’t so soundproof, maybe I could hear the steps of the security guard making their way over, slowly, to tell me my time is up. Something—whatever it is—is still waiting for me on the other side of a long sleep.
I stand to face it. I pray you’ll make this story happy.
* * *
I don’t know what year it is. When the glass breaks and the cold of the capsule starts fading, I think, Daddy’s going to be mad it didn’t work. But I’m being revived with steel hands and that’s not familiar. The ceiling flashes red and white, that’s not familiar. The only familiar thing is the pink lips leaning over my face to watch my eyes cross and uncross.
Coarse as always comes your voice. “Friend?”
I smile as I melt. “Tell me what the world is like out there.”
“You won’t like it.”
“You don’t know me.”
I expect you to disagree, but you say nothing. You flop down next to me instead. The ringing of alarms falls on my waterlogged ears and your deaf ones. There are still glass shards in my clothes. The ground is so warm, as if beneath the armored layers of the Earth’s synthesis, its core is alive and blooming.
You press your hand to mine as the world rages on. No matter how hard I press back, your fingertips never dent, never so much as twitch; the last of your blood was torn out of you ten or a million years ago.
Love makes that transformation strange. Or maybe it’s just madness. The two are so alike, after all.
Shaliz Bazldjoo is a high school junior living in Cleveland, Ohio. She edits for several magazines, and work of hers can be found in Nightjar Magazine and an anthology by Lost Boys Press.