Here it is, folks! July's story, just in the nick of time. I've been percolating on this one for a couple weeks, but with novel deadlines, I didn't get to start it until...this morning. So in the true fashion of prompt-based stories, I present you with this twisted tale, illustrated by the wonderful Jason Song Quinn.
The Patron-submitted prompts for this story were: Porcupine, Powder Puff Girls, petunias, snow in Africa, and missing lion banes.
And thanks to your support, I pledged $50 to the Austin Justice League this month in my efforts to keep engaged in the well-being of my city. Hoping to see that amount grow, so continue to spread the word! As always Black Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives, too.
Plus, now that I've written three stories, I'll be putting out an ebook, so if you're at that Patron tier, I'll be in contact soon!
Enjoy the read and spread the love.
* And sorry in advance, Jeremy. I used a very scientific method to pick out that name, and I couldn't bear to change it.*
By Nicky Drayden
I stand on the threshold of my front door, looking out upon a world that I once fit into so easily. The front lawn has been mowed, but the bushes have gone untended and unloved, and thorny vines snake through them. The hum of traffic in the distance reassures me that life has resumed and that it’s safe to venture out now. I’m ready to take the first step back into my life.
As I lift a foot, my neighbor passes by on the sidewalk. He turns and smiles, offering a quick wave. I try not to panic at the sight of a real, live actual person, but when I wave back, my sudden movement throws me off balance, nearly causing me to tumble out the door. I catch myself at the last possible moment, teetering on the soles of my feet and grabbing the door frame for support. I take a deep breath.
My neighbor’s eyebrows pitch in sympathy, but he continues past hurriedly on his morning stroll. My muscles tense, and I feel each and every one of my quills rise up in defense. I know that my neighbor isn’t a threat and he’s kept his distance, but my fear response stems from something innate that I have yet to figure out how to control. Defeated, I close the door, looking back at Jeremy, who’s staring from the couch with his hands tucked in his lap. He doesn’t move or offer me a comforting hug. He’s seen me try and fail to go outside at least a dozen times today, and I think he’s grown tired of this fruitless routine.
“What if I lose it out there?” I ask, embarrassed to show him this side of me. I’d met him after quarantine ended, after the worst of my panic attacks were over, but while everyone else was able to transition into the new normal, I’d been left behind.
“You won’t lose it. You’ve been preparing for this moment for weeks. It’s time.” Jeremy smiles, rigid and not very comforting. I worry I’ve pushed the bounds of our relationship too far, too fast. But he hasn’t left yet, so I suppose that’s something.
I stroke the quills embedded into my arms, a nervous habit I picked up after the procedure. My fingers trace their length, over and over, until the shafts relax and they’re once again lying flat against my skin. I don’t regret getting them. When I do finally manage to get back out there, their presence will assure me that people won’t be able to get too close.
Sometimes the quills can be unwieldy, but I’m getting used to them, and with each day that passes, I gain better control. Each morning I do the exercises my doctor prescribed--clenching the muscles in my back, my biceps, thighs, cheeks, over and over to refine my motor skills, quills rising and falling as I do. It was painful at first, their weight unbearable on still-raw skin, but now they’ve become a part of me. There’s no looking back.
I sit in the waiting room, paper gown draped awkwardly around me. The room is huge, seats still spaced far apart, like how they were when quarantine was still a thing. And yet of all the possible chairs, this stranger has chosen the one next to me. I flinch at the closeness, refusing to acknowledge him. Not just because I don’t want to, but also because I can’t. Something in my brain has gone soft--the part that allows me to recognize the shape next to me as a fellow human being. All those learned social cues that I never thought about are lost to me. I keep looking straight ahead.
“First treatment?” he asks. I can tell from his accent that he’s local to Morocco.
I nod, staring out of heavily tinted windows at the falling snow. I can’t believe I’d come all this way to have porcupine quills embedded into my skin. Well, they’re not really porcupine quills, just my own hairs, modified to grow longer, harder, sharper.
“It’s my third, see?” I catch him moving in my periphery, stroking his chin. I spare a quick glance over and see a patchy, golden-brown lion’s mane growing along the edges of his face and down his chest, tucking into the collar of his paper gown. “Coming in nicely.”
“Mmmm…” I mutter, beyond annoyed that he’s in my personal space. I find myself wishing for a canister of mace, or better yet, some lion’s bane to scare him off. Back before the virus hit, I had Casey to ward off creeps like this, a white bull terrier mix who was sixty pounds of pure muscle and hadn’t a single fear in the world. With her at the end of a leash, I didn’t have anything to worry about either. Nearly broke my heart when she ran away.
I’m fuming now, but I try to keep calm, knowing they’ll be taking my vitals soon, and I don’t want an elevated heart rate and high blood pressure to prevent me from getting my first treatment. Thankfully, the nurse calls me back moments later, and I leave mane-man behind without another word.
The nurse looks at her clipboard, then back up at me. “Your skin might be too dark for the procedure,” she says robotically.
“I’ve spoken with the doctor already. I know the risks and limitations.” The procedure works best on pale skin and dark hair. The results could be less than optimal with my brown skin and body hair blonde in most places. They aren’t sure the follicles could be manipulated into producing enough keratin to make the hair super hard and thick, but I have to at least try. Without the quills, I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to go back out into public.
The nurse has me lie down, the cold of the metal prep table seeping through to my bones. She examines my pores under a large magnifying glass, pinching my thighs and feeling the coarseness of my leg hair, then drawing my gown open so she can press into the flesh of my abdomen. Her hands push my breasts aside, and as she makes her observations and calculations, I can’t help but wonder if this is the last time I’ll ever be touched like this.
“We can’t guarantee full coverage,” the nurse says sharply. “But I see some follicles that will make good candidates. This won’t change the price.”
“Of course,” I agree, eager to get started. Whatever the price, I’ll pay it.
Jeremy browses the Dermis Morphology Labs, Morocco site with me, my laptop straddling our laps. We’re sitting so close on the couch that our thighs nearly touch. I scroll through the before-and-after pictures, seeing smooth, nearly hairless skin turn to fur, feathers, whiskers, and scales.
“I want quills,” I say. “Do you think they’ll do quills? It’s just modified hair, right?”
“Sounds painful,” Jeremy says, hands in his lap.
“Well, I’m sure it will be for anyone who tries to get too close, but I don’t think it’ll hurt me too much. I mean, porcupines seem perfectly happy with them, right?” I look over at Jeremy, dressed in a blue, too-tight dress shirt and chinos, like something I’d find at the back of my ex’s closet. I know we’re just friends, but it still feels odd having another man in my home while remnants of that other life are still scattered around the living room. Family portraits. Those silly Powder Puff dolls, or whatever they’re called, that Elsie had left behind. Too old for them, I guess. Too old for hugs, too, apparently. She hadn’t even looked back at me when she and her brothers had left to go live with their father.
Jeremy smiles a friendly smile. “I guess.”
I guess. Is that all I’m going to get out of him? He’s been practically a permanent fixture on my couch for months now. Don’t I deserve a more thoughtful response? I bite back my frustration and shoot him a smile--soft, eyes half-lidded. He’s never made a move, never hinted that he’s interested in me as something other than a friend, and yet he’s always here? What is he after? I just don’t know how to read him, and it’s starting to make me come undone.
“The procedure is pricey. And I’d have to fly halfway across the world to get it. What do you think? Should I do it?” I place my hand on top of his, pale and clammy. “If I had a reason not to, I wouldn’t…”
Jeremy looks down at my hand. He doesn’t flinch away, but he doesn’t move to reciprocate either. I wish he’d kiss me. Swipe back the braids hanging in my face. Caress a cheek. Something to let me know that I’m still capable of receiving human touch.
I’ve lost so many friendships since quarantine lifted. I could no longer be there for my friends, and slowly, they’d faded out of my life. Jeremy had been there to help me through the last of them. Emily was the most painful. She’d lost her sister toward the end of quarantine, and I’d tried my best to reach out and be supportive, but when you’re careening yourself, it’s hard to be of any use to anyone. It’s hard to think beyond your own couch.
And now here Jeremy and I still sit, teetering on the brink of friendship and maybe something else, if he’d just indicate that he's even remotely curious.
“I want to be a supportive friend,” he finally says. “So if you think it will be beneficial to you, you should do it.”
“Yeah, maybe I should.” I grit my teeth and slam my laptop shut. “You want something to drink?” I ask him sternly.
He shakes his head, unfazed by my reaction. “No, I’m good.”
I bristle all over, imagining how useful quills would be right now. I’m not sure this relationship will survive me either.
“Give your mother a hug,” Vic says to Elsie. Elsie opens her arms to me, but mine remain at my sides.
“Mama,” her little voice whimpers, but I can’t meet her eyes. She starts sobbing not soon after.
“Damn it, Brianne,” Vic says. “I really hope you get the help you need, because this…” He shakes his head, then gathers up each of the kids' rolling suitcases so he can make one last trip out to his car. “There’s a vaccine now. All you have to do is go to your doctor and get it. And then just get on with your life.”
He’s mad. I can’t blame him. But simply snapping out of being starved of human touch and interaction for so long isn’t a possibility for me. I can’t unfurl my mind from the endless Zoom meetings and the novelty masks and the ever-elusive Clorox wipes. It’s become a part of me, displacing who I was before. Maybe what I was before.
It’ll be lonely in this house without Vic and the kids, but I’m never really alone, right? I’ve still got my friends. Emily and Suzanne and Janice. And I’ve still got Casey. I look down at her, her tail wagging happily. She doesn’t understand that the kids won’t be back. She’ll no longer get to clean up after their spilled mac and cheese and won’t be playing in the backyard sprinklers with them next summer, nipping at their ankles. I pet her--stiff, bristly fur almost sharp against my palm. She greedily licks the tears from my cheeks, then curls awkwardly into my lap. I love how she still thinks she’s a puppy.
There’s a knock at the door three days later.
I don’t answer it. I never answer it. I think whoever it is will go away, but the knocking continues. Outside the window, a delivery person balances a huge box on a dolly. He’s not wearing a mask. No one really wears them anymore, but the sight of his full face is almost an abomination to me, almost inhuman.
I tap the window. “Leave it there,” I say through the pane.
“You’re sure? It’s heavy.”
“Leave it!” I repeat.
He nods, then leaves. I wait five minutes, then open the door. The outside world tries to seep inside my mind, but I ignore that it’s there. The box is too heavy for me to maneuver over the lip of the threshold, so I grab some scissors and unpack it right there, revealing a dozen smaller boxes that I pile up in my living room.
On the packing slip is written:
Just a little something I thought you could better relate to.
There’s no signature, but only Vic calls me Bri.
I open the first box and pull out a very pale hand. I almost scream. Clearly synthetic, but it feels so real. I dig through the boxes until I find the assembly manual packed with a remote control.
Snuggle Buddy, the title page reads in giant yellow lettering. I remember these life-sized dolls being popular a couple years into quarantine, especially among people living on their own. The dolls simulated human touch and social interactions, and while they weren’t explicitly advertised as sex toys, this box full of phallic accoutrements certainly leaves that as an option. I quickly close that box before Casey gets the wrong idea and runs off with a new chew toy.
I look up when I notice she’s not by my side. I rush to the front door and realize I’ve left it cracked open. Casey’s across the street, digging in the neighbors’ petunias.
“Casey!” I call her. She perks, looks at me--the little scoundrel--then bolts into the next yard over. She’s not far. I could go over and grab her by the collar and drag her back home, like I’ve done dozens of times over the years. But today, across-the-street might as well be another world away. I can’t get my feet to step over the threshold. I’m stuck here. So stuck, I’m worried that I’ll never get to leave.
I call her several more times, but she’s nearly to the end of the block now. Someone will find her. She’s got our address on her tag. They’ll bring her back to me. I’m sure of it. I slowly close the door and return to the pile of boxes in the living room.
Snuggle Buddy is too bulky to move alone, so I assemble him so he’s sitting comfortably on the couch. Takes nearly an hour. The flannel shirt and black jeans he came with don’t really appeal to me, so I pull a shirt and pants from the back of Vic’s closet, some work clothes he’d outgrown long ago and had left behind. Figures Vic would get the white Snuggle Buddy model. The proportions are a little off, but otherwise, he seems so lifelike. He's got dark brown hair and pale blue eyes, and I guess he’s sort of cute.
On the remote, there’s a dial with some pre-programmed functions. Snuggle Buddy’s range of motion is limited, and you have to have the remote to engage him into any action, but he can do things like drape an arm over a shoulder or caress a cheek or give a hug. There’s a make out function, too apparently, but after watching his tongue meander in and out of his mouth slowly, like a drunken slug, I decide to set the interaction mode to “Friend”. At least for now.
I hit the button that positions his hands into his lap, then activate learning mode.
“Welcome to the Snuggle Buddy initial setup!” he says, his mouth moving perfectly in sync to his voice. “What name would you like me to respond to?”
I think for a moment. “Jeremy,” I say. He looks like a Jeremy.
He cocks his head, as if he’s considering how it fits as well. “Thank you. And what would you like me to call you?”
“Bri,” I say.
“Okay, Bri. I think you and I are going to make great friends!” He smiles, and yeah, maybe he’s a little stiff, but we’ve all got our hang-ups. Jeremy’s easy to talk to and a great listener. I know Vic meant this as a final dig, but I have to admit, I’m really curious to see where this relationship leads.
I tuck the remote up in a safe place for when, and if, I’m ever ready for something of a more romantic nature. Somewhere hidden away, where Casey can't sink her teeth into it and the kids won't pop the buttons off. I definitely don’t want to lose it.