Originally Published in the June 2012 Issue of Empirical
Martin was late again. The coffee she’d ordered for him was already cold. He had very few bad habits, but this was one of them. He seemed totally unable to meet any kind of deadline, even a simple one like meeting for coffee at ten. It was a wonder he hadn’t been fired long ago, Maggie thought angrily. Or maybe he was one way at work and another way with her? She would have to ask him that. She made a mental note to Molly, who was good at remembering such things. And he knew that she hated waiting. Why couldn’t he make just a little more effort to please her? Today it was adding to her tension, just when she needed to be calm and cautious.
She looked around at the kaleidoscope of morphing faces for a distraction. Everyone was having a good time talking, reading, sipping, and morphing pleasantly. The place was full of latte ladies this time of day, women with too much makeup and too much time on their hands. Even their morphs seemed phony. Maggie turned away in disgust. She must remember to tell Molly how much she appreciated her integrity and insights. So many morphs were inferior in this respect. She had been so fortunate to get Molly.
Suddenly Martin was there, flashing his crooked grin and apologizing.
“Traffic?” he offered sheepishly, as if to see if she would buy it.
“Traffic. Right,” she replied, not smiling.
The crooked grin was instantly a dazzling smile that lit up his face: Joey’s face. “I’ve missed you,” he said softly. Oh, so Joey was the peace offering. She could not resist Joey, and Martin knew it. Joey’s hand reached for hers, and she let him cup it in his own two hands, loving how it dwarfed her own, loving the sight of the blond hairs and the feel of the long fingers lacing with hers. Those fingers were born to play the piano, and indeed, Joey did play with deep passion. Such a dear, sensitive soul who could charm anyone into doing--or not doing--anything, and therein was the danger.
She abruptly pulled back her hand and quickly morphed to Molly, who asked for Martin. She needed Molly to do the talking because she felt too angry to begin the way she wanted to, and needed to gather herself back after Joey’s touch.
Martin and Molly made the usual small talk, but they both knew something was amiss. This was no ordinary social exchange. She was going to go for it. “Martin,” Maggie said, and Molly faded away.
He looked at her quizzically. “What’s up?” His face was concerned.
“Martin,” she began again. “We need to talk.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding, looking serious now.
“I can’t do this anymore. I can’t handle it.”
He waited, but she didn’t go on, so he prodded: “Can’t handle what?”
“It’s Joey,” she faltered, her courage suddenly leaving her, and then quickly blurted it out: “I’m in love with him, Martin.”
Martin was staring, clearly shocked beyond speech.
“I mean it, Martin, and I’m so sorry, so very sorry, but it’s Joey I want. I need him. And I can’t go on pretending it’s you anymore.”
The look on his face was one of pain and anger, a mix she hadn’t seen in him before. Oh, this was not going well at all. Martin was staring at her now. “But Joey’s a morph,” he said quietly.
“Yes. I know. It’s crazy. But I can’t help it, Martin.” She was hoping for the compassionate Martin, silently begging him to understand how impossibly difficult this was. He lowered his eyes and waved away the waitress, who had just arrived to take their order.
“How long?” He mumbled the question.
“Since the beginning. When we met. It’s always been Joey. I just didn’t realize it would go on this long. I thought I could sort it out, rearrange my feelings, work with Molly, you know?”
He said nothing for a long moment. Then, choosing his words very carefully, he asked, “What do you expect me to do about it, Maggie? You know you can’t have Joey. I won’t allow it.”
“I know,” she said, miserable. “I know.” It was a mistake to have told him. She was feeling the effects of the blunder traveling throughout her body. She had begun to tremble.
“Are you absolutely sure this is what you want? There’s no chance you could change your mind?”
There was no expression to read on his face now.
There was no going back. She had told him out of a need to be honest. She couldn’t backtrack now. “Yes. It’s what I want, Martin. No, I won’t change my mind.”
“Then I’m going to eject him,” he said in an even tone.
“No!” She nearly screamed it. A few people turned their heads in her direction. “No,” she said it again quietly. “Please. Joey would be miserable as a Fade, Martin. Don’t do that to him. And I couldn’t bear to be without him, and it wouldn’t change how I feel about you.” Her speech was so pressured now that it didn’t even seem like her own voice.
“How do you feel about me?” Martin asked coldly.
She thought she could detect a hint of a sneer. She felt as if she was beginning to drown in some downward spiral that she could no longer control. “I like you, Martin, of course I like you….a lot. But I’m in love
with Joey.” She felt limp, sweaty. She had said it all. She begged him silently to understand, to stop the spiral.
“Then it’s over,” said Martin. “We’re done.” His body stiffened, and there was controlled fury in his voice.
Now there was panic, a last effort to argue her case. “But what about Joey? I need him, Martin, and he needs me. Please, please don’t eject him.”
“Joey doesn’t need you, Maggie. He needs me. He could have Faded anytime he wanted, but he chose to stay with me,” Martin said coldly. “You don’t know our relationship the way you think you do. But even if you did, the bottom line is that I’m the one who decides if he stays or goes, and I’m going to eject him to Fade first thing in the morning.” He shoved his cup away and rose. There was no compassion in his face, nothing at all Maggie could recognize. He had retreated as far away from her as he could get. Worst of all, there was no hint of Joey, who was clearly going to capitulate.
“Wait. Please, Martin. We can work this out. We get along so well, all of us. We should stay together.” She was desperate, pleading. “It’s the only thing between us that we’ll ever have to deal with. Please, Martin.”
“It’s not the only thing,” Martin replied. “There’s this.” He took a shimmer from his pocket and laid it on the table between them where it cast a violet glow on their cups. “The marriage search came back today. It’s why I was late. It’s all here, Maggie, your secret ancestry. The Primitive your great-great-grandfather morphed with. It’s all laid out in shimmer, so you can’t deny it.”
The spinning stopped, and Maggie suddenly felt very faint. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Martin. I don’t know anything about any Primitive ancestry. I would have been told. I’m sure it’s a mistake. No one in their right mind would morph with a Primitive.”
“Precisely. But there’s no mistake. It’s fact. And I was going to overlook it. I even tried to get it expunged, but it can’t be done, not even with my connections, and there’s no point now anyhow.” He paused but didn’t look at her. “You’ll never be able to marry, Maggie, now that your secret is out. And it’s no wonder you could fall in love with a morph. It’s in your blood.”
Reeling, she could see that he meant every word, would never change his mind. There was nothing else she could say. Shimmers were never wrong. How could her family have kept such a shameful secret from her? Wild images flooded her mind of her great-great grandfather, someone who had died long before she was born, morphed with a hairy, ape-like creature that surely could have had nothing to offer any human. Whatever would possess someone to do that? And how could it have been allowed? What was the registry like in those days that it could let such a thing happen?
A kernel of compassion wormed its way into the turmoil of her thoughts. What kind of relationship could the two have developed in a lifetime? What did they give each other? Everything was beginning to spin again. Martin pushed the table toward her and got up abruptly, grabbing the shimmer and thrusting it into a pocket.
“Tomorrow.” he said again, loudly. “As soon as the registry opens. And I won’t be late doing it.”
Helplessly, she watched him stride out. Taking Joey with him, taking the love of her life away to oblivion, where he would become a Fade, or worse, would morph with someone on the other side of the world for all she knew. She would never know, never be allowed to know. Martin would see to that. And it was all her fault. She could have gone on pretending forever, and Martin would never have known. She should have been content with what she had, what they all had. What had she done?
How could she live with this? Instinctively, she reached for Molly’s comfort.
“What am I going to do?” she asked Molly, her voice cracking in terror.
“Do what you like,” said Molly through clenched teeth, hissing the words. “Just don’t call for me because I won’t ever come. Never again.”
“What are you saying? What do you mean? What are you going to do? Where are you going?” The questions tumbled over each other in her dazed state.
“I’m going wherever Joey ends up. I know someone who can arrange it. I’ve been in love with him, too, Maggie. You’ve just been too self-centered to notice. And do you really think I would stay with you now that your Primitive heritage is known? I’d be an outcast among Morphs and Hosts alike. Even the Fades would reject me. No, I’m leaving, Maggie.”
And then she was Fading, Fading, and gone. Molly gone, a vast, yawning emptiness deep inside where she had been, a nothingness worse than any physical pain. How could this be? They’d been bound for years. How could Molly leave her, especially now? She had lost them all, her entire family and any hope for future relationships, all in the space of an hour. It was more than she could bear.
A different Maggie left the coffee shop.
She was a Solitary now, threading her way through the crowd, and they knew it. Everyone was looking at her with all their morphs, hundreds of eyes watching, hundreds of judgments, hundreds of hateful glances piercing her. Their collective energy was suffocating.
Outside, the sun was shining. Hosts were catching taxis, walking purposefully, waiting at crosswalks, contentedly morphing. There were the usual clusters of Fades here and there, watching enviously from corners. A drunken Solitary walked into traffic, unheeding of the blaring warnings. For a nanosecond, she even thought she saw a Primitive hiding in a shadow, but of course that was impossible -- Primitives had been extinct for half a century.
Nevertheless, the world was teeming with lives she would never know, never feel. And now she was utterly alone. She stumbled under the weight of the unfamiliar freedom that was settling on her shoulders like an iron cloak. It clanged with every step.
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