The Things I Miss the Most

The talk. The sex. Somebody to trust…

Before the Grigsby Process my life was like a series of ads being skipped. I blacked out a lot. Had lots of seizures. So many that sometimes my learning software obsolesced before I could complete a semester. At home I avoided clothes—they’d just get peed in or tangle me up and hurt me. I averaged four grand mals a month, but there were strings of lesser “events” too, which made me the perfect candidate, as the doctor explained to my moms when I reached fourteen. That and my resistance to the usual drugs, and my age.

“She’s entering her second neuroplastic peak.” Dr. Skilla had us all in his old examination room. It was stuffy and crowded.

Mammai nodded. She’s Sicilian, so that meant “No.” She didn’t want me getting the Grigsby. Mombie put it into words for her, like she does: “Another gadget? I don’t think so. How this gonna be different than VNS?”

Dr. Skilla pushed his blond bangs straight back and licked his lips. “Vagus Nerve Stimulation has a success rate of 60 percent at 36 months after implantation, and is especially effective with younger patients. Julia, though, is outside the optimal—”

“Cut to the chase.” Mombie hates every minute spent in Private Space. She wanted to get away from the office and back on the Web. “If we’d a done the VNS first off insteada fartin around with drugs you wouldn’t have to try no experiments like this Artificial Interthalamic Adhesion. Amirite?”

Skilla looked surprised. Probably that a woman fluent in AAVE and Leet could pronounce “interthalamic.” Offended, too. “Surgery’s only recommended for highly refractory cases. We had to be sure—had to exhaust all the pharmacological options prior to moving on to non-pharmacological therapies, and each formulation requires a period of several months to test its adequacy for the patient and register inconvenient side effects. There was no way to have known we’d reach this point. Fortunately, new developments make AIA a real possibility.”

“I want to do it.” I don’t know why I said that. I mean, I had no idea then about Angelique.

Mombie looked stunned. “Chile—”

Mammai jumped in. On my side. “She want it, she have it.” She shook her head yes.

And that was that. They argued, of course. Even in 2036 brain surgery was a big deal—sawing open someone’s skull is no joke. But Mombie never denies Mammai what she wants, because she loves her. A thing I finally understand.

Apparently I stayed in a hospital the night before they put in my AIA. Apparently I was in there a couple of nights afterwards, too. I don’t remember. That’s how this stuff works.

OTOH, as Mombie would say, I remember plenty of incidents that never occurred.

For instance, my first meeting with Angelique. It was snowing, very rare these days. The white crystals clung to her dark hair, stuck to her striped and spotted furs. The sky churned with weather, grey on silver on dusk. In the shelter of a pine she stood alone, a cone of pinkish light falling toward her from the lamp across the street, her huge eyes dazzlingly beautiful. “Girl, why are you crying?” she asked me. Which made me laugh in recognition of the line referenced—I wasn’t crying, actually. But Peter Pan is my favorite. It’s a play about playing—something I would have needed friends to do.

According to what I found out later Angelique wasn’t there. Oppositional personas never are, per consensus reality. My ride home picked me up, and before it came I waited for it safe inside the community center, with all the other kids whose parents sent them there in the hope they’d form relationships with one another. But what I remember—what I believed before her death and in some sense still believe—is that she was waiting out there for me after choir practice and we walked home together and I was nine. Nine years old.

Five years ante surgery.

Angelique was my age. Always. How could she not be? As I’m told, she was me—the personality generated by the brain hemisphere that was split off during my callosotomy. In preparation for implanting the AIA, the major connection between my head’s halves—the corpus callosum, it’s called—was severed, along with a couple of other connections. Then the AIA was put in place, to funnel signals between the halves through there instead and filter out anything capable of causing a seizure.

Angelique had always been around, according to my restructured memories. Our initial meeting had felt fated—well, yes. Left, meet right. But in addition to an unreliable record of that first snow-hushed encounter, I had impressions of hearing of her earlier exploits, stories like flickering shadows or nonexistent flames: she was popular with other kids. Adults, too. She was a poet, a child prodigy—I’d read her work. It was published on several pages and I’d saved some of the most interesting pieces. Mine, I’m told, though I don’t remember writing them.

Nine is too young for what we were. My retroactive recollections of the time before the operation include hand-clasps, wrestling holds, casually draped arms. Though we always seemed to be by ourselves, it wasn’t till we turned fourteen—till the Grigsby—that our intimacy became more physical.

How could it? I know. Dreams aren’t physical. And Angelique was very much like a waking dream.

Masturbation is such a sneaky-sounding word. Besides, we didn’t just manipulate our—my—genitals. The softest brush of the back of her hand against my shoulder curled my toes.

Why didn’t I notice immediately that she never operated the door controls? They opened and she came in, or more usually was already there. She left with or without me by simply being gone. She never used my setup’s touch pad, either—I did all the searches she suggested and followed the links she sent in texts, and I made and found my own threads, too. By the time I noticed what was missing from it I had come up with my own version of Angelique’s existence and believed both its contradicting sides. She was me. She was herself.

I knew I was right.

Seizureless weeks became seizureless months. The surgery’s success seemed more and more self-evident, and gradually Mammai and Mombie grew accustomed to honoring the room lock I’d configured. I put on clothes most of the time, since it no longer felt so futile. And taking them off along with Angelique’s felt so good.

I can’t stop thinking about the last day. The last twenty-four hours we were together. I was seventeen. We were “studying.” Angelique sat on my bed so lightly the covers barely wrinkled. Or maybe they didn’t wrinkle at all.

At Mammai’s ping I swiped off the lock and let her in. Her frizzy ponytail swung side to side as she scanned the room. “Where at is your Angelique?” she asked. I pointed. “Okay.” She made a show of looking in the right direction, then turned back to me. Neither of my mothers ever pretended to talk to Angelique. “I leave this informational brochure for you to see later. When you are alone.”

Which was whenever I wanted to be. Which was never.

The door opened again without me getting a ping. Mombie leaned in. “You havin problems with your studies? With that analogy question? It might make more sense if you get out an mix with real people your own age. Now you ain‘t all the time naked and you takin an interest in how you look.” Pressure to relate to my supposed peers had increased with my neurotypicalness. “You be gettin better grades when you listen to how we want you to do. Don’t hafta rely on that clunky old AIA no more, accordin to what we hear.”

If I acted nice they left faster. “Okay. I’ll watch the brochure. But first I need to see if the Miss Splooge patterns fit better than Dressy-Dress. They have wider colors.” There. Nothing monosyllabic about that answer.

Angelique sucked her puckered lips to make big fake kissing noises. I scowled at her, then grinned to show I wasn’t genuinely mad. She smiled her gorgeous smile, like a fat-bottomed cupid’s bow.

Sure enough, Mammai joined Mombie at the room’s threshold. But she wasn’t quite ready to give up the inquisition. “How much higher are their price—”

“Doesn’t matter,” I interrupted. “Thirty day approval period.” Then I went into a long-winded enough of an explanation to drive them completely off and we were by ourselves at last. I set my tablet down on my carnation-molding nightstand and reached for Angelique’s plump upper arm.

She flashed her palm at me in warning. “Stop. Are you sure they’re gone?” Impatiently I picked the tablet back up and opened a surveillance window to show Mombie’s back retreating from my door—though nearer than it should be.

“You think they don’t know we fuck?” I asked. Mombie left the window’s frame. Mammai’s head replaced her.

“I think they’d rather they didn’t have to. What’s it cost to humor them?”

Precious seconds passed. The window cleared. The hairs at my neck’s nape stirred and lifted in Angelique’s damp breath. Then her lips pressed them flat, her teeth nipped the skin beneath, and as I turned and clutched her to me her tongue slicked half a circle around my throat. Instead of completing it, she lapped the tender triangle under my jaw and chin. I tilted my head up to feed her, then down to devour her mouth.

I held her. I held the world. Now I’m empty.

Such pleasure that night. After we tired, we slept. In the morning we woke curled together. Everything as usual. I wouldn’t change that if I could.

I made tea, eggs, and toast in the kitchen and brought them in on a tray. Breakfast in bed. I can’t recall—ever—her eating or drinking anything, but we talked and eventually it was all gone.

Our top topic was music. Angelique turned me on to jazz. Not that fake-hallelujah stuff they play in churches that’s supposed to make you join in. The real thing.

She got me to buy a keyboard for my tablet. “Here and here and here.” She arched my fingers—too long, we’d decided, for a sax or guitar interface—and poised their tips on the ivory-colored oblongs.

“That’s still a C minor?”

“The F note makes it a C sus 4. Same if it was major. Now add a low A and double the F in that lower octave.”

The chord rang like sleigh bells, crisp and metallic. “What is it?”

Angelique laughed. “You want a name? Call it what you want. Murgatroyd. Throckmorton.”

Our second choice of topic was star worship. She went for old people like Gonzalez and Hudson. They made me nervous, tottering around their modified circuits, always on the verge of collapsing, it seemed, despite the guardrails and nets and cushions surrounding the seniors’ courses. I crammed them into the tablet’s smallest window and projected Audie T and Scrapple from the Apple and Martha Vineyard on the wall screen. Audie jangled when she walked or jogged or skipped or jumped over obstacles, with the musical clash of her twentieth century-style bling. Martha wore quilted skirts like ruffs, multicolored tutus that rendered her leaps for marginal targets tougher to execute but fun to watch. She twirled excitedly while waiting her turn to run the course. Scrapple painted his body with a variety of patterns and always fussed at perceived attempts to mess them up. This morning he was threatening Audie with dismemberment for allegedly smearing his leopard markings.

“You know they make that shit up,” Angelique said.

“‘That shit’?” I repeated, snarking it.

“It’s all an act to attract sponsors.”

“Works, doesn’t it?”

“So would authenticity.”

Sometimes our talks became arguments. I hated them then. Love them now. Or anyway, I long to have them back.

The third most popular topic rotated a bit, usually between my health, my moms’ increasing insistence on a non-Angelique social life, and plans for the future. All related. I had an appointment at the hospital in the afternoon, so perversely we avoided talking about anything to do with the improvement in my condition. I didn’t tell her what the brochure had shown me when I watched it in the kitchen that morning. But if she was me, she must have known. Must have.

When our argument over who in the game to cheer for turned stale, I switched to wondering out loud what my moms found deficient about her. I fixated on how even the wind pushed things around but Angelique didn’t: leaves and branches tossing in the breeze. Visible effects of things invisible to see. If we could change that, they’d cease their objections, right?

“Tilt it back,” I told her, pointing at my Eames lounger. Obligingly, she settled onto the teal mohair cushion-covers. But the seat’s incline stayed stubbornly at 40 degrees until, encouraged by Angelique’s pats, I joined her on its edge and used my long legs to push us out of true.

“It’s observer interference,” I said, letting the chair’s legs settle down again. This was the one serious thing we seriously fought over: what made her real. Sometimes we changed sides, though neither of us ever would give in.

“You mean, I’m here because you see me? Hear me?” She pinched my nose lightly. “Feel me?”

“Mmm-hmm.” I nuzzled the fold of her armpit. “Smell you. Taste you.”

“So if you were everywhere at once, I would be everywhere at once too.”

“And if I die—when I die—you’ll disappear.” The logical conclusion. The one that made me cringe and change.

“Die?” Laughing bravely, fakely, she shook an admonishing finger in my face. “No! Nononono! You’re rich—you can’t die!” She snaked one arm between me and the scoop of the seatback, wrapped the other around my sweatered curves to meet it and hold me tight. I lost sight of her face. Laughter or sobs now? “Swear you’ll never die! Swear we’ll live forever!”

I swore. According to what I’ve been told, it was a promise asked of and given to myself.

My minder chimed for school. I minimized the game’s feed and opened the latest module: historical precedents for restricting political representation. Recorded lecture, then an essay prompt, then access to a forum. Angelique helped with the essay and gave me feedback on my forum posts before I sent them in. “Too involved,” she complained when I tried arguing that nonhuman intelligences like sharks and foxes deserved a voice in government too, now the pendulum was reversing. “That’s, what, three points in one paragraph?”

“But they’re true!” I protested.

“Doesn’t matter. Copy and delete.” Trailing her smooth fingers along the part in my hair. “Send the first sentence; save the rest to use later.”

She was right. I got twelve replies, and a lively conversation in which I not only brought forth my other assertions but heard new proof of them. Who knew snails were so devious? Before we finished answering all the threads my minder chimed again. “Not another module,” I groaned. No. It was my hospital appointment already. Annual follow-up on the success of my Grigsby. And the choice the brochure presented.

Angelique and I chose my outfit: an orange-and-violet polka-dot tent dress and spangled silver tights. Kind of a circus theme. Miss Splooge’s specialty. I’ve kept it, but I don’t wear it anymore.

“Your Angelique comin along?” Mombie asked when we found her waiting out on the porch for our ride. “I booked for four, in case.” A brown Placid pulled around the cul-de-sac’s corner as she spoke.

“Yeah. Where’s Mammai?”

“Here I am.” She stepped out through the front door and we went down the steps and got in the Placid. I reminded Mammai to leave room for Angelique in the middle of the back seat. She had made a joke out of sitting on Mammai’s lap that first trip to see Dr. Skilla, but of course I wasn’t fooled.

Mombie and the contingency driver talked about the game I guess—I don’t recall. I was splicing both Angelique’s hands to mine, twisting to face her and knotting our fingers tight. Anxious.

Skilla had a new office on the sixth floor. We got out of our ride on the third. “Stairs this way,” Mombie said. “Use it or lose it. Cmon.”

Angelique passed me on the way up but waited on the last landing. Mammai opened the fire door for us. Then we had to find the elevators anyway, to check the directory.

The new examination room was part of a corner suite of epileptologists who shared a single reception desk. Seconds after sitting down in a carpeted lounge sort of area we were admitted. A nurse unnecessarily took my height, weight, temperature, pulse, and blood pressure, and used—I am not making this up—a little rubber mallet to tap my knee and test the speed of my reflexes. Then he left us to ourselves long enough that Mombie stood up and scouted the room for inactivated Web access points. Would she really dare open one? We were the only people around at the moment, but potentially exposing other patients entering what was supposed to be Private Space could mean a big fine. Angelique and I watched her anxiously.

At last Skilla showed. Mombie subsided. Paging through my file via his proprietary display, the doctor hummed a happy-sounding tune. “Excellent!” He looked away from the blank wall where he’d been projecting. “Nearly four years without an event. I think it’s safe to say you’re cured!”

Mammai smiled a small, tentative smile. But Mombie frowned. “That it? How we spozed to handle that other thing we brung up?”

“Yes, well, when we turn off the AIA the situation with the Oppositional will resolve itself.”

I edged closer to Angelique on the love seat. “What do you mean, ‘when’ we turn it off?”

“As per the brochure, removal’s unnecessary. And far too invasive. The organic adhesion that’s built up mimics the AIA’s structure fairly strictly, and in some cases the two are indistinguishable. Much easier to simply flip off the bridging current and leave the disabled hardware in place.”

“You—you already decided on doing this?” Mammai only shook her head in agreement; she didn’t talk much around strangers.

“It’s in the literature I sent Ms. Klaver.”

Mombie cut her eyes away from mine. Anger fought a thrill of uneasiness. “We ast was there a risk of your seizures startin up again. Tell her.”

“No risk. The natural adhesion has essentially taken over the AIA’s function. The Grigsby Process is a bit experimental, even today,” he admitted. “But if there’s a recurrence we can turn your AIA back on. Easily.”

A soft weight against my side: Angelique’s warm, sweet-scented flesh. I couldn’t lose her. I wouldn’t.

Nothing in the brochure had hinted at it.

Mombie, though—“That other thing we brung up”? Which the doctor blandly assured her would be resolved—which involved my Oppositional—that sounded potentially problematic. “What if you don’t turn the AIA off? If I don’t authorize it?” I asked. “What if I want to keep things how they are?”

A momentary silence. Dr. Skilla seemed puzzled. “Why?” he asked. “I’ve never had a patient refuse at this stage—wait!” He leaned toward the wall again, thumbing virtual pages. “Ms. Platto reported that you’ve become attached to your Oppositional, even named it—‘Angelique,’ right?—and that it seems to impede your social progress. Don’t let an unfortunate side effect dictate your behavior.”

Dictate? My Angelique?

“Besides,” he added, “technically, for now, you’re a minor.”

Mammai sat forward and laid a spidery hand on my sleeve. “It is for your good.” Mammai’s words were valuable in their scarcity.

Mombie faced me full on at last. “You gotta trust us. Everything gonna be all right.”

Everything would be all right. The situation would “resolve.”

I looked at Angelique. Her eyes were wide. She was scared. Like me. But according to her argument, she was real, with or without me. Which I believed when she didn’t. And the natural adhesion had already taken over from the AIA. And they could turn it back on easily. That would surely restore her. Surely.

“Okay.”

The switch was internal; they used a thing like a light-up tiara to move it. I put on the tiara. Felt nothing. I took it off and Angelique was gone.

I put the tiara back on and made them make the AIA work again. And again. And again.

She stayed gone. Gone for good.

Dr. Skilla and his techs say there’s no reason why. None they know. It’s so experimental. Give it time.

How many years.

Once in a while, yeah, I see her out of the corner of my eye, catch a glimpse of that adorable ghost. A lie.

The sex; the talk.

Somebody to trust.

(Editors’ Note: “The Things I Miss the Most” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 24B.)

Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl wrote the AfroRetroFuturist novel Everfair, a Nebula Award finalist set in an imaginary Utopia in the Congo; and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winning story collection Filter House. Recent fiction includes “Sunshine of Your Love” in the disability-themed anthology The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked, and another Steely Dan-inspired story, “The Best Friend We Never Had,” on the Apex Magazine website. She’s the co-author, with Cynthia Ward, of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. With K. Tempest Bradford she teaches courses on inclusivity expanding from this original foundation.

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