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What You Deserve

by TK Hoshikuzu (TK 星屑)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/353895.html)

203X

She was proud of the faded scar beneath her navel. It was a tiny reminder of the meticulously planned trip to the clinic, which had included deceiving her mother and her job about her whereabouts. It wasn’t as though she regretting having Ashlyn, but – working through the fresh pain in her abdomen – she pumped her fist and drove back home in victory. Even after the four hours of driving back home – punctured by vomiting at the three-hour mark – after the weeks of a sensitive, indignant swelling, she felt so good.

But as she revisited the memory at that moment, she imagined it as a secret badge that showed she too had participated in rebellion in once. She imagined the scar bigger than it was. Maybe she’d casually stretch to show it for a few seconds. When tall, dark, and handsome sauntered to the cashier’s counter, Hazel hoped she’d notice and the subject would turn to tubal ligation, a topic on which she knew a lot about, please and thank you.

The customer set down a bottle of cherry-flavored seltzer and a bag of plain chips and smiled at Hazel, who rang up the items.

“$2.13,” Hazel said as she exhaled. It was hard not to be flustered, much less look so. The creature in front of her looked like she’d stepped out of someone’s television: sleek, put-together, exciting, sexy. She was everything Hazel wasn’t, everything she wasn’t. After a few seconds of an awkward exchange of smiles, the customer’s hands flew to the pockets of her black bomber jacket.

“Oh right,” she said. “I always forget.” She pulled out a flimsy, plastic wallet and withdrew crisp bills, checking the corner of each to find the right amount. At last, she set down a five dollar bill. “Everything is so cheap here. I love it.”

Hazel handed her the appropriate change of $2.87. She took the bills but waved away the coins. “Don’t worry about the pennies, I don’t need those.”

When her customer had first refused the coins, Hazel was surprised, but today was her fifth visit. They went through the same motions, like a skit they both agreed to act. Hazel always flustered and blushed, the customer always smiled with familiarity and pulled only the bills from Hazel’s hand. She would then finish with a question, and Hazel would answer with one word.

The first: Do you guys have a plug for my car? (Yeah.)

Second: Can I use the bathroom? (Sure.)

Third: You guys are cash and card only? (Sorry.)

Fourth: Are you the only one who works here? (No.)

Hazel wondered what the customer would ask today, facetiously hoping that she would ask if Hazel had any cool scars. Ms Customer crossed her arms and leaned on the counter, making a point to meet Hazel’s gaze. Her tank top was wonderfully low and complimented her full, dark breasts. Lips curved into a sly smile, she said, “I’m new here. Wanna show me around tonight?”

“Why?” Hazel immediately replied, to which the stranger coughed out a short, loud laugh. Hazel was too bewildered to be offended. First, Cliffdale had nothing of consequence to see, nor the surrounding areas, really. Hazel didn’t have to leave it to know that. Second, why did she ask her? After years and years of objectively studying Hazel Atwood in the mirror, she accepted that she would always be disheveled, frazzled, passe, and awkward.

“So where can I pick your fine self up?” she continued coyly, as if Hazel were playing hard to get.

“Why?” Hazel repeated, struggling for the right lines. Had she been getting the wrong cues? She wasn’t prepared to be wooed.

“I’m not hearing a no,” she said with a shrug and the same smile that began to disarm Hazel’s misgivings.

She bit her bottom lip and instantly regretted it, believing it made her look juvenile. Flighty teenage girl wasn’t her role anymore. She should go home, like a good mother and daughter. “I get off at seven.”

Now she grinned and her eyes slightly widened, as if Hazel had said the password and unlocked the next level. “See you then.” Satisfied, she took a step back with her purchases in tow and blinked. She turned and left the gas station.

[][][][][]

“And what was that?” Ves pointed at a decrepit church.

“Nothing special. It was abandoned not five years ago.”

Hazel was sitting in the front passenger seat of Ves’ Tesla, Model Auriga. The night fell soon after sundown, and the darkness hugged the pair, lightened by the glow of the car. Sitting on her legs, Ves was in the backseat, looking out from the rearview window. The car moved along on the road.

“There is literally nothing here,” Ves said gleefully and flopped against the backseat. Hazel gripped the armrest, certain that she was trapped with a lunatic. Night time had a funny way of sapping the courage from you.

“I have to get back by ten pm. I promised my kid,” Hazel reminded, her voice wavering. When Ves had left the gas station, Hazel had called her mother and asked her to watch Ashlyn until she came home. Her mother had hollered into the receiver, calling her irresponsible and a deadbeat mom. Thank goodness no one was in the store when Hazel had hissed that she would be back by ten and not a minute later. Now she just wanted to go home in one piece and snuggle with her baby girl in the safety of her bed.

“Don’t worry!” Ves spoke directly into her ear, and Hazel jerked backwards. “A night out doesn’t make you a bad mom.” The car accelerated and Hazel clung harder to the armrest, her eyes squinting in fear. From the corner of her eye, she could see Ves clamber into the driver’s seat. The leather seat shifted under her when Ves leaned forward.

“You never been in a self-driving car before?” The amusement in Ves’ voice was so tangible that Hazel could feel it patting her butterscotch-blonde head.

“No,” Hazel admitted. She was ready to admit a lot of things, if it got her home safely.

“It’s not gonna bite. Here, let’s put on some tunes. It’ll loosen you up.” A mellow opening gave way to a gentle, hypnotic beat. Hazel listened to distract herself while Ves bounced from seat to seat, looking at nothing.

Entre la nuit, la nuit et l’aurore / Entre les royaumes, des vivants et des morts, the stereo crooned. The rhythm of the haunting melody did help soothe Hazel’s nerves, but she noticed that the music came on without physical prompting.

“How did you do that?” Hazel asked. Her grip had loosened, but was permanently settled on the armrest. She glanced at her companion, who returned to the driver’s seat, and her jaw dropped. Ves had casually crossed her legs and was looking forward, but that wasn’t remarkable. It looked as though her mahogany-brown skin had darkened, but in the night that wasn’t exceptional either. It was the light. Her skin was quietly luminescent, or rather, it was twinkling. Light was scattered over her like freckles, but it wasn’t from any source in the car. She was the source.

Ves glanced back at her and her eyes had changed color as well. The diamond-white gaze pierced Hazel in the heart and she was too charmed to be frightened. Ves was already too beautiful to describe by Hazel’s vocabulary, but it was like everything had aligned in that moment.

The song had changed, the tempo speeding to match her heartbeat. As Ves leaned an elbow on the windowsill, the backs of her long fingers pressed against her cheek, she noticed Hazel staring. A slow smile for Hazel and her bare shoulders sparkled like stars in a constellation. Hazel didn’t want to blink for fear that she’d forget any detail. Years after, she’d remember the words:

They’re down on their knees
Begging us please
Praying that we don’t exist.

“Do what?” Ves asked, completing the spell and breaking the silence.

“All of it,” Hazel murmured.

The curve on Ves’ lips was laden with mysteries. “I told you, Hazel. It’s part of my job.”

Her eyebrows screwed in confusion. When Ves had introduced herself, she said she was here on business. Hazel understood that ‘quality assurance engineers’ assured the quality of their products, but that didn’t explain how Ves did what she did. Hazel couldn’t exactly imagine what Ves’ job entailed.

She offered a follow-up guess. “So, you test stuff?”

“A lot of that,” she answered, visibly delighted by Hazel’s perception.

Hazel breathed a nervous laugh. “I never seen an engineer like you. Usually they’re dudes and have glasses and are white and ugly. You’re like the exact opposite.”

Ves abruptly changed the subject. “Anything else worth seeing around here?”

Hazel froze, wondering if she had offended her. Oh God, she shouldn’t have mentioned her skin color. “Well, no. There’n’t much to see around these parts. At least, nothing monumental. Cliffdale’s nothing but one small town in a whole county of small towns.” She stared out of the front window and absently rubbed her thumb into the leather of the door’s armrest. “Sometimes it feels like history just passes us by, without us, like it forgot us. Why’re you interested?”

“I’m not. I just needed an excuse.”

Hazel couldn’t stop a shy smile of her own to spring up. “Excuse for what?”

“We need to get you back, mom,” Ves said, avoiding the question, but smirking. The car made a three-point turn and drove back the way it came. They sat in comfortable silence but Hazel was overwhelmed by the turn of events. Chased after at her age by a handsome stranger no less? She thought so lowly of herself that she wasn’t even bothered by the notion that Ves might be stringing her along. To be at the center of attention of such a lovely creature at all was enough for her. Another memory she could stow away in the recesses.

Just a few miles out from her home, an old townhouse at the butt end of the neighborhood, Ves spoke up again, “I don’t need another excuse to take you out tomorrow, do I?”

Hazel could feel her chest tense up. She was thrilled, but anxious. She could wrangle a night from her crotchety mother, but another would be a real struggle. But to make this last a little longer, to uncover this mystery, she’d do it.

[][][][][]

“She’s new to town and asked me to be her guide,” Hazel insisted, recycling Ves’ excuse.

Her mother scoffed so loudly that it came out as a snort. “You? What do you know about this town?” She was working her rocking chair vigorously, a comical sight if it didn’t hold such unpleasant memories for Hazel. She was like an angry little toy that was winding up for the next onslaught of vitriol.

“I know enough, I–”

“I don’t buy it,” her mother interrupted. “She’s aiming to get something from you. You’ve always been naive. Was hoping motherhood would smarten you up, but ain’t a way around that thick skull of yours.”

“I–”

“What about your girl? Wondering where her mama was last night. Poor Ashlyn, was right at my side until you come.”

“You didn’t tell her?” Hazel asked, frustrated. She should have talked to Ashlyn herself, but her daughter seemed fine when she arrived home. “Anyway, my friend’s gonna–”

“Turn right back to where she come from, wherever unholy place that is.”

A firm knock at the door made Hazel jump. “Well, you can ask her yourself,” she griped as she scrambled to answer it. She opened to a sunset and Ves, leaning against the door frame on her forearm, which was tattooed like a silvery circuit board (Was that there before? Hazel asked herself).

Over her vintage Ray-Bans, Ves looked at her and said, “Hey.”

“Come on in,” Hazel welcomed, suddenly embarrassed by her shabby home. “She’s in the drawing room.”

Ves flashed a showy grin and entered. She removed her sunglasses, tucking them in her shirt pocket. Hazel tensed, ready for her mother to complain about Ves’ tattoo. As soon as they turned into room, Ves after Hazel, her mother stiffened and said, “Good Lord, Hazel, this is worse than the time you come home pregnant.” She then shooed at Ves with a flapping hand. “I don’t know what exactly she promised you, but we don’t have anything for your kind here.”

Hazel screamed in horror, “Mom!” She held her hands up, as if there was something she could physically do to alleviate the situation. Maybe shake her mother until she could dislodge the racism from her addled brain. Why did she think this would work?

Meanwhile, Ves plopped on the ottoman opposite her mother. She hunched forward, her elbows on her knees and hands folded together. She smiled at her, but her eyes were laser focused on her. “One more time?” she enunciated.

Hazel’s mother rocked in her rocking chair, gazing suspiciously at her and trying to figure out Ves’ angle. “I’ll not be shamed in my own house for my own words,” she said instead.

“All I am asking,” Ves spoke carefully, “is that you repeat yourself, you dried-up cunt.”

Hazel gasped, offended for the both of them, but her mother halted her rocking to lean forward as well. “I said don’t touch our stuff with your filthy hands,” she barked, not backing down.

“That’s what I thought, stupid, ill-bred bitch,” Ves replied calmly, staring without a blink. Hazel wrung her hands, about to have a melt down. Her mother could barely take a slight from her own kin, much less a stranger she met seconds before. Ves continued, “Your mother has no manners, does she, Hazel?”

“None for the likes of you,” her mother spat, though her hands were shaking. Standing behind Ves, Hazel couldn’t see her expression, but she saw her mom’s blue eyes glaring daggers into Ves. Her irises quavered searchingly, and to Hazel’s surprise, her shoulders relaxed. She leaned back into her seat and waved a hand at Hazel.

“You may as well introduce your girl to the reprobate who’s come to take her mother away for – how many days are you skulking around?”

“Only four days, Granny,” Ves replied. She also sat back, but with a wry smile. To Hazel, it seemed they had reached some kind of understanding. “And I don’t plan on taking anyone away.”

As her mother and Ves spoke, Hazel had stepped into the hallway and craned her neck to look for Ashlyn. She didn’t have to see her to know that her daughter had been eavesdropping. Indeed, Hazel’s presence in the hallway had prompted a small, round-faced, round-eyed little girl to slip from her hiding spot beneath the stairs.

“Is Mommy going somewhere again?” a bubbly voice piped up, jumping up and hugging Hazel around her waist. Hazel picked up her child and smiled, even as Ashlyn wrapped her arms around her neck in a vice-like grip.

“She needs someone to show her around town,” Hazel explained as Ashlyn mooned at the dark stranger, who turned in her seat to face her properly.

“She looks like she needs help. She’s not from around here,” Ashlyn agreed. She wriggled from Hazel’s arms and shimmied down to meet their guest.

“Remember how to meet new people?” she reminded. At least one person in this house would show some manners.

Ashlyn mooned some more, but stuck out a tiny hand. “I’m-Ashlyn-n-you?” she said in one breath.

Ves grabbed her hand and gave her a firm, adult handshake. “My name is Vespera. You can call me Ves.”

“And whereabouts are you from, Ves?” Hazel’s mother piped from behind.

“Los Angeles,” Ves replied, but her eyes stayed on Ashlyn. Hazel saw that her eyes had flashed leaf green before settling back into coffee brown. She also saw that Ashlyn jerked back a smidgen, but said nothing. Hazel guessed that it had changed so fast that her girl wasn’t sure it had happened.

Hazel’s mother snorted loudly at her answer. “Of course, you’d come from that godless hellhole.” But only Hazel had heard her. Ashlyn had cupped Ves’ ear with her hands and whispered something in it, upon which Ves widened her eyes in wicked delight. Stifling laughter, she whispered an answer while Ashlyn listened patiently, staring at her grandmother.

“Grammy is angry a lot,” Ashlyn agreed thoughtfully and Ves roared with raucous laughter. A nasty look from her mother signalled that it was time to go, so Hazel put a hand on Ves’ shoulder.

“Shall we head out?” she asked as Ves put a hand on top of hers. Hazel noticed that the tattoo earlier was gone.

“Sure,” Ves replied, patting on the head Ashlyn, who had wrapped her arms around one of Ves’ knees. When Hazel insisted on leaving, her little girl chased them to the front door.

“See you tomorrow, riiight?” she called after them. “You look like you need a lot of help around here.”

“I’ll be back by ten, okay? Don’t give Grammy too much trouble,” Hazel replied, waving at her baby, who was bouncing by the door. She was beaming at her until they reached Auriga and Hazel collapsed in the passenger seat with a long groan.

“Well, that was fun,” Ves remarked, hands folded and cradling the back of her head. Auriga zoomed toward the nearest highway.

“I’m so sorry about my terrible mother. She’s completely forgotten how to act in front of people, since she’s cooped up in the house all day.” Hazel rubbed her temples.

Ves shrugged. “She’s old, ignorant, and irrelevant. She’s just doing what she knows.” Hazel gave a brief, sidelong glance. She hadn’t forgotten Ves’ own clapback. She wasn’t exactly a saint either.

“What do you want to see today?” Hazel asked, changing the subject. She wanted to put that agonizing experience behind her as soon as possible.

“We’re still using that excuse?” Ves asked, chuckling under her breath.

“Then what do you want to do? Where are we headed?”

At her question, Ves turned to face her, cross-legged. Hazel averted her gaze, not wanting to watch Ves study her. Also, seeing her obviously not driving – the steering wheel moving on its own – was a little unsettling. “What do you do in your free time?” Ves asked. “Like, what’s your day-to-day like?”

“I work. In my free time, I take care of my mom and Ashlyn.”

“What about movies? Trips? Eating out? Ooh, let’s get milkshakes.” The car suddenly, but seamlessly, changed lanes.

“We do that,” Hazel replied, clinging to the armrest and shoulders seizing up. “I just always go with them.”

“Responsible,” Ves observed aloud, stretching and getting comfortable. Music began to float from the sound system. It was a little harsh, but the singer tenderly wailed,

Hit me with your flashbulb eyes!
You know I got nothing to hide
You know I got nothing.

Hazel’s gaze wandered around the car, which Ves always referred to as ‘Auriga.’

“A ‘quality assurance engineer,’ right? Are you testing this car?”

“Among other things.”

Intrigued enough to ignore propriety, Hazel pressed on, “Like your skin and eyes? I see it change. Last night it was like stars and diamonds, and today – like that!” Hazel nearly shrieked as she pointed at the image of a sapphire snake. It poked its head out from under Ves’ collar and hissed at Hazel, then slithered out onto Ves’ right arm. “What is that? How are you doing that?” she shouted in both alarm and wonderment.

Auriga pulled into the empty drive-through at a McDonald’s and wheeled straight to the window. The blue snake dissolved back into the darkness of Ves’ flesh as she ordered a coffee milkshake. “You want something?” Ves asked.

“I’ll take one too,” Hazel mumbled, staring at Ves’ arm.

“Make that two,” Ves purred to the attendant, who was also gaping at her. Hazel first thought he had seen the tattoo as well, but noticed that he was openly staring at her ample cleavage and pretty face. After he directed her to the next window and loudly voiced his appreciation of her tits, Ves winked at him as Auriga moved forward on its own. She then sneered at him, “He didn’t even notice that my legs were still crossed. Stupid.”

“May I?” Hazel made a motion to Ves’ arm, who obliged with a nod. She lightly massaged and ran her fingers over the blank canvas of her arm. It felt warm, not too firm, and smooth, like anyone’s arm. Ves let her play with it as she grabbed the tray of shakes from the second window. Hazel let go to accept her milkshake, but examined the image of snakes, now emerald, creeping from Ves’ sleeves and collar and encircling her body.

“How are you doing that?” Hazel wracked her head for a clue. When she remembered a snippet she had heard from the gas station TV, she asked, “Are those body mods?”

“A kind of body mod. We say ‘biohacking.'” Ves adjusted the seat backwards and lounged blissfully with her treat.

Hazel leaned forward, recognizing that phrase. “Oh! I’ve heard about that on the news. People are–” She trailed off and recoiled a little. She remembered clucking at the freaks on the news who were being interviewed by the state capital’s news station. One man pulled back his fingernails one by one to show tiny, voice-controlled consoles underneath, to the anchorman’s perverse delight and horror. The underlying theme of that segment had been whether the “transhumanism” movement was going too far. Nose jobs, breast enhancements, shaving your jaw bones to achieve that perfect jaw line, and even breaking your legs to elongate your height seemed benign compared to this – or at least the anchors had led viewers to think. It was at least biological, in the sense that humans were nudging their natural functions to desired outcomes. Common folk had no business meddling at the cellular level or with mental synapses, so viewers were made to believe. In a foreboding tone, the news had concluded with an announcement that Viopics Corp, the leader in biotech enhancements, was aiming a public release of their latest project, digital tattoos, by end of the 2040s.

But the clip from the news showed a static picture that faded in and out from the skin, scrolling through pictures like a high school slideshow. Hazel stole more side glances at Ves’ figure, which normal, beyond her delightfully good looks. Maybe it was a lot more advanced in the city. In any case, what about the rest of her body? “What else can you do?” she asked.

Ves opened an eye and half-smiled at her. “I’d show you, but I’m not sure the mister would appreciate it.” She propped herself up with an elbow, eyes lowered and face tantalizingly close. “Or is there a Daddy Atwood?”

Hazel breathed a short laugh and unconsciously tucked stray hairs behind her ear. “No, there’s no mister.” She watched the way Ves’ eyes turned cerulean blue. “I…was curious, which kills the cat, doesn’t it? In my case, it gave me Ashlyn.”

“And the verdict?” Ves leaned further. A button had undone itself and Hazel swallowed.

“I wouldn’t do it again. It didn’t change anything about me.”

A warm hand settled on her knee and Ves gave a sympathetic look. The skin under her knee grew hot and for a second, Hazel thought Ves’ possibly mechanical hand was trying to burn her. She then realized it was nothing but good, old-fashioned attraction. Hazel leaned forward and watched Ves’ reaction. She didn’t shrink back.

“I am going to kiss you,” Hazel announced, more to prepare herself than to give warning. Ves didn’t smile as usual, but waited seriously with a slight sparkle in her eye. Then Hazel pecked her lips and Ves couldn’t help but beam at her shyness.

Hazel meanwhile drew back, her face turning blotchy and violently red. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I’ve never done that before. Sorry.” But oh, did she want to. Her chest tightened so much it felt like her throat had closed too. She felt like this once before, when former friend Katie Fowler had kissed her on her couch. Former because Katie denied any feelings, only admitting that she was curious.

She had pecked Ves out of curiosity. Such tumultuous things happened out of curiosity. Mulling on that uninspired thought, she leaned in again, this time because she wanted it. She kissed her and Ves responded, gentle lips with the right amount of pressure.

“Come here,” Ves encouraged, pulling on her waist until Hazel was straddling her lap. “Isn’t this nice?” Ves asked.

Hazel didn’t mind that her head pushed against the roof of Auriga. That was the last thing on her mind anyway. The air, her body, Ves’ lap was hot. It didn’t help that Ves kept watching her. Squirming wasn’t easing the discomfort either. Hazel was sharply conscious of Ves rubbing her thighs methodically, the car rumbling vibrations between them, their bellies pressed together. She then imagined her white scar under her navel and the stretch marks, like a well-tilled field, on her sides. Her expression crumpled and she plummeted back to reality.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” Ves asked soothingly, rubbing the small of Hazel’s back. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

“You’re too good for me,” Hazel said with a break in her voice, a crack which let loose the flood. “I mean, you’re so pretty and young and exotic. I’m not any of that. What am I doing here?” She slid out of her lap. Out of embarrassment she climbed into the backseat. She had buried her face into the upholstery, but after Ves had not given any response for a few minutes, she peeked up. Ves was staring at her from the driver’s seat, blinking slowly and her face propped by her elbow. She looked unimpressed.

“You done?” Ves asked.

“Do you feel sorry for my sad life?” Hazel asked, bitter about the lack of sympathy, but caught herself acting her like her mother. “Sorry. I’m just being insecure.” She rubbed her face vigorously to snap out of it.

“This is different for you, so you’re scared,” Ves said, narrating a guess of Hazel’s feelings. “You feel good and you don’t know what to do with that.”

“So, what’re you? Come to show up the naive country hick?” Hazel asked accusingly.

Ves shrugged, but had a naughty hint of a smile. “Nope!” She climbed into the backseat with Hazel. “You’re just my type.”

“I was wrong. You’re the one who makes husbands run home to their wives,” Hazel snorted in amusement and accepted Ves’ embrace.

Laying comfortably on top of Hazel, Ves waggled her eyebrows. “So you have heard of me.”

“You’re terrible!” Hazel shrieked happily, laughing into Ves’ offered kiss. They never reached a destination and Auriga drove at a steady speed circling around Cliffdale. Hazel only noticed Ves’ faintly creamy smell, her refreshingly citric taste, and the words that surrounded them from the speakers:

When you look in the sky, just try looking inside
God knows what you might find
Here comes the night time.

[][][][][]

Ves’ visit the next day went more smoothly, though Hazel’s mother insisted that Ves step inside to greet her face to face.

“My lazy excuse of a daughter is still in the shower. Don’t be such a snowflake and sit down.” Her mother spoke offhandedly, but was anticipating Ves’ response.

“How perfectly fascist of you,” Ves said as she took a seat on the couch. She was next to a napping Ashlyn, who woke up briefly to lay her head in Ves’ lap. Hazel’s mother seemed satisfied and resumed watching the TV. She loudly criticized the ‘liberal media,’ hoping to elicit another response, but was surprised to find that their guest had fallen asleep.

“You took so goddamned long that your guest passed out,” Hazel’s mother snapped when Hazel returned from her shower. She gave a quizzical look at her mother.

Ves was facing the television, away from her mother, and her head was leaning back against the couch. She was completely still, except for a finger that stroked Ashlyn’s hair. She did look asleep, were it not for that movement and her eyes. They were half-closed, but certainly open. Her eyes were darting erratically. Hazel’s instinct told her to be uneasy.

“Ves,” she called softly, placing a hand on her shoulder. When that didn’t rouse her, she repeated a little more loudly, while her mother gave another sarcastic remark. Hazel wasn’t listening, instead intently staring at Ves.

Ves’ pupils rolled back to focus from her trance and she smiled at Hazel. “I agree, Granny. She could’ve woken me up a little nicer.”

Warm relief washed over her as Hazel looked expectantly at Ves, who gently displaced Ashlyn, who whined in her sleep.

“I’ll be back at ten,” Hazel whispered, bending down and nuzzling Ashlyn’s hair.

“Wait,” her girl said sleepily, “I wanna go too. I know the best places.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’m not tired anymore.”

“Shh, not today, sweet pie.”

“When?” Ashlyn demanded, sitting up and pouting at Ves, who offered nothing but a playful smile.

“Shh, let’s talk when I come home.” Hazel pushed Ves out the door and Ashlyn scrambled after them.

“I wanna go too,” she whimpered. “I wanna hang out with Ves too.” Then she screamed in surprise and Hazel looked straight at Ves, somehow knowing she was the cause. Bubbling, coral-colored hearts washed over Ves’ skin like a flood, after which she glowed. Ves waved at Ashlyn, who was gaping at her in wonder. She ran back into the house and slammed the door, the volume of her voice audible from the car.

“We’re going to get it tomorrow,” Hazel said as she settled into the front seat. “I’m not sure that was a good idea.”

“I’ll deal with it when it comes.” Ves hopped into the front seat and let the door close on its own. Hazel had made her promise that they depart like ordinary people or else attract unnecessary attention. But as soon as they turned the corner onto the main road, Hazel pressed herself against Ves and snatched a kiss from her.

Ves licked her lips and snickered, “That was cute. Bubble gum chapstick?” She leaned forward and with her body, pushed Hazel against the back of the front seat. Hazel pulled her close and they kissed and parted a nanosecond before meeting again. It was a marvelous upwards spiral, where Hazel would moan softly and Ves would grind harder and Hazel would feel Ves’ own girlish moans against her collarbone and Ves would get hotter and Hazel would find herself braless and horizontal against a seat that had completely reclined backwards. Auriga’s interior had turned into a futon and all the other drivers would only see the occasional head bobbing up, if that. The windows tinted darker throughout.

Hazel looked up at beautiful, curvy, sexy Ves with a smirk that could lead you into trouble. In her desire to possess her, she was blindsided by worn, dark thoughts.

“You’re a little odd, your type being what it is,” Hazel began, trying to sound casual. Ves frowned but didn’t stop her advances. She pulled Hazel’s t-shirt up enough to reveal her tits, which spilled out to Ves’ obvious pleasure.

“Your insecurity is showing. You don’t understand what I could possibly be interested in,” Ves surmised, stroking and circling a peach nipple with her fingers. “You don’t see what I see.” She wrapped her lips around the other nipple and licked softly. Hazel moaned and gripped Ves’ wrist.

“You mean you don’t see my flab, sagging tits, my gross stretch marks? My stringy, dry hair?” Hazel couldn’t stop herself. She knew she was being annoying and she winced when Ves sighed.

“Let’s go somewhere more private,” she said with her eyes closed. Auriga took an exit off of a ramp and Ves pelted Hazel’s lips with more kisses. The car rumbled as it rolled over unpaved road, the jolts encouraging the women to rock and rub more against each other. When it finally stopped, the sun had set to dusk and Hazel could only see the usual scattered lights that spilt over Ves’ shoulders.

“Starting now, you’re not gonna say a word,” Ves murmured into her ear, still on top of her. “You’re gonna focus on us. You’ve been curious, right?” She guided Hazel’s hand to cup a breast under Ves’ tank top. “Don’t think about what you are, think about what you want.”

Ves’ tank top was loose enough that she could pull out and free a nipple, rolling it gently in her fingers. Her flesh felt warm, real, and heavy in her hand. Ves purred a low moan and Hazel closed her eyes. She wanted to have Ves stripped and in her hands. She wanted to explore and take every bit in her mouth. The darkness did help with her anxiety; she felt outside of her body, like a hazy, abstract consciousness that wanted to wring pleasure from the bodies in the car. She didn’t think, she just wanted.

She tugged off her shirt and massaged her nipples and mouthed at the round of her shoulder. She arched when she felt fingers tenderly slip into her pants and slip around her wet, trembling lips. She smirked at her reaction, abruptly gasped when she suckled the skin all over her tits and licked off the sweat between them. She was naked and she would be as well, her panties being slid off and thrown to the floor. The sound of fingers rubbing against her slicked pussy made her mewl into her ear. She was content to take her time though, both of hands were now playing with her, one hand rubbing and other thrusting and all getting soaked. She coaxed a leg to spread and tentatively explored her entrance, relieved to find that she was as wet as she was. With the other hand, she kneaded a breast gently and kissed her. She periodically moaned into her mouth. She arched and gasped and bucked her hips when she was close. She sat her on her mound and encouraged her to grind her clit against hers, and she was so close that she didn’t need any more direction. She rolled her hips against hers and whimpered her name. She pressed herself hard into her as she peaked. She obliged her request to keep rocking until she came too. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from her, seeing her lose control for the first time. She arched against her and cried out. When she eased off, she saw a moist strand linger between them before coyly breaking off, an image she’d fantasize and masturbate to for years.

Hazel lay with an arm over her face as Ves fished for her clothes and put them back on. She basked in the remnants of the waves of pleasure, staring into space, which made her remember what happened earlier.

“Ves, can I ask you a question?”

“You just did.”

She made a face at her smart answer. “You weren’t sleeping earlier, were you? What were you doing?”

The car floor lit up with a dim light and Ves was tossing Hazel’s clothes back to her. “I was testing.”

“Testing what?” Hazel asked, turning to her and neglecting to get dressed.

“The internet connection here.” The skylight opened and let in a cool, unexpectedly refreshing breeze.

Hazel propped herself on an elbow, ignoring that her breasts slid lazily to the side. “What? How?” She stared at Ves’ head. “Is there something in your brain?”

Ves flashed a smiled at her as a white canvas screen crawled down at the front of the car. “No.”

“I think you’re lying.” The uneasy feeling returned and she hooked her bra on.

“And?” Ves cocked her head sideways at her. “How would you prove that?” The white screen lit up and Hazel saw a strong light shine from the back window. “Wanna watch a movie?”

“Sure,” Hazel said, as other thoughts ran through her mind. What was the city like, that you could put gadgets in your head? If Ves was so different than what she saw on the news, what else was there? She remembered as a child when ink tattoos were widely accepted, such that those much older than her were sporting a few. But they were skeptical of the wide release of self-driving cars, even angry, and flat out recoiled from genetic and technological enhancements. Hazel kept staring at the side of Ves’ head.

“I bet you’re not supposed to tell me,” Hazel said, guessing in the same maddening way that Ves did when she poked holes through her insecurity.

“Probably not. Can I lay on your lap?” Ves asked, disregarding Hazel’s inquisitiveness. Now fully clothed, Hazel scooted over and folded her legs under her. Ves put her head down and cuddled against her. They were watching a classic sci-fi film. She wasn’t exactly a fan of the genre, but it always amused her when futuristic movies got it so wrong. This was set in 2019. Certainly there were towering skyscrapers now, but humans hadn’t colonized other planets yet. She was horrified by the way the main character forced the love interest to kiss him and laughed at the pseudo-technical buttons on an even older monitor. She cringed when the CEO’s eyes were gouged out, but overall was charmed by the visuals. For its time, it was quite beautiful.

Neither spoke to each other. Hazel absently stroked Ves’ hair, like Ashlyn’s, but paused when she realized that Ves was wearing a wig. She said nothing, embarrassed to have found the seam. There was absolutely nothing wrong with or silly about wearing them, she lectured herself. Ves most likely looked better than Hazel with less hair anyway. She moved her hand down and brushed the back of Ves’ neck – not unintentionally, though she’d deny it if confronted. There were no plugs or wires, just smooth skin.

She glanced down at Ves to see if she was being watched, but found that her companion was really sleeping this time. It wasn’t until she saw her like this did Hazel realize how much energy Ves carried in her stride. Here, she looked relaxed, almost limp, like a burden had been lifted from her. She was a grown woman, but seemed defenseless and small. In a bout of motherly instinct, Hazel rubbed her back and Ves leaned unconsciously into the pressure. She resumed watching the movie. Ves stirred at the movie’s final monologue, but said nothing. It finished just as it was time to leave.

Hazel shifted and Ves rose. “Thanks for the lap,” Ves smiled at her, blinking lazily.

“You mean nap?” she replied with affection.

“That too. Ready go to home?” She hopped into the driver’s seat and Hazel followed suit. The seats uprighted themselves and Hazel saw that Ves had gripped the steering wheel. She was about to say a lighthearted quip about not letting go of the past, but immediately shut up. She had caught Ves wiping tears from her eyes, so she looked away.

[][][][][]

Very unwelcome company had appeared before Ves visited the next day. Two elderly neighborhood acquaintances of her mother were in the sitting room with her. Standing against the door frame was Hazel, who was fuming with arms crossed. As far as she remembered, her mother never had visitors, so she was shocked to find two with her. Apparently, she had been talking a storm about Ves, her unusual, beautiful visitor (her visitor, Hazel grumbled). Moreover, it seemed that Ashlyn had convinced her that Ves could light up like a firework and wanted others there when Ves also demonstrated her special skills for them. Hazel was furious with her mother for being so casual about this. Ves was not a spectacle nor could be ordered to do tricks. As slow as she was, Hazel knew that Ves was discreet about her abilities. She should grab Ves’ hand and run out as soon as she arrived, but her mother would never let her hear the end of it.

“I’m so sorry,” she mouthed to Ves when she walked through the door. “Try to get in and out as fast as you can.”

Her words had only begun to register when Ves entered the sitting room. The two women tittered when Ves stepped in as usual to greet Hazel’s mother, who was sitting straighter with a proud look.

“She is a pretty thing, isn’t she?” one said. “A lot of meat on her bones though.”

“When does she light up?” the other asked.

“She’s from the city,” Hazel’s mother announced. “She’s got a smart mouth, but has some manners. See how she’s come to greet me? Her name is Vespera.”

Hazel glanced at Ves, who shot a displeased look at her. Shaking her head, she wordlessly denied blowing her secret, though she still felt guilty. Ves scrutinized the old women, who were still talking amongst themselves, commenting on Ves’ appearance and demeanor. When her silence became uncomfortable for them, her mother spoke up, “Vespera, I’ve heard from Ashlyn who’s sworn up and down that you can do incredible things. Do us a favor and give us a show?”

Ves glanced out the front window towards Auriga, her attention caught. An amused smile replaced her irritated one and she turned to the ladies. “No,” she answered politely, but firmly, and turned to leave. Hazel chased after her, before her mother could react. They slammed the front door and dashed into the car, while Hazel tried not to think about her mother or her acquaintances, who Hazel was sure didn’t even like her mother anyway.

Ves exhaled a loud groan and then announced, “I need snacks! What about you, Hazel?”

“Snacks!” Hazel did not exclaim. She turned to see a skinny pair of arms around Ves’ neck. Ves pulled the wriggling little girl from the backseat and sat her between them. “I want chips,” Ashlyn said in a singsong voice.

“Ashlyn,” Hazel scolded, but was fighting a smile. “You can come, but you’re coming right home at your bedtime,” she tried to say sternly.

She acquiesced, “Okay mommy.” She hugged Hazel, who squeezed her into her side tightly. She squirmed from her arms to clamber all over Ves.

“Ashlyn, don’t–” Hazel began, but remembered that Ves didn’t need to stay focused to drive. Ashlyn grabbed Ves’ arm tightly.

“How did you do that thing yesterday?” she squeaked.

“Magic,” Ves said in a eerie voice, to which Ashlyn frowned. Hazel noted that Ves was not annoyed with Ashlyn for giving away her secret, though she could hear the strain in her voice.

“Magic isn’t real,” she protested.

“Science,” Ves said in an ominous voice and her arm was covered in rainbow polka dots. Ashlyn giggled and admired her arm.

“How can I learn how to do that?” she asked.

Ves patted her head. “Weren’t you supposed to show me your best spots?”

“Oh yeah!” she exclaimed, bouncing in her seat. “But first snacks!”

Hazel scooped Ashlyn back into her arms and smothered her with a hug. Ashlyn was a perky, happy child wherever they went, but she loved outings. Sitting with them now, her girl had brightened in a way that Hazel hadn’t seen in a long time.

The journey to the nearest convenience store was peppered with questions about Auriga and Ves, who was adept at evading Ashlyn’s questions with gentle patience. The little ball of energy sped to the store when they arrived.

“You can pick two things,” Hazel warned.

Ashlyn grimaced at her. “Mommy never lets me get what I want.”

“But those two things can be whatever you want,” Ves added.

“Dear, you’re too lenient with her.” Hazel said jokingly, to which Ves replied with an awkward smile. Hazel coughed, embarrassed about what her comment insinuated. But when Ashlyn was rifling through packages in a different aisle, Ves leaned over and kissed her nape. Hazel jerked in pleasant surprise and looked around to see if anyone had seen it. She caught the eye of the gangly teenaged cashier, who gulped and gawked.

“Are you guys lesbians?” he asked thoughtlessly.

“I’ll be outside,” she said, Ves grinning after her fleeing form. Hazel crossed her arms and thought about the way her heart fluttered. When Ves gave her a smoldering look as they left the store, the blood pulsed in her ears.

As Ashlyn led them to esoteric, exciting places like the big hole behind her elementary school, the generations’ worth of bird nests in the tree not far from Hazel’s gas station, and the heavily graffitied wall in the local park, Hazel watched the way Ves and her girl interacted. A torrid mix of emotions flooded her and she pulled Ashlyn into another hug as they drove back home.

She wished Ves would stay, not only for her, but also for Ashlyn, who was so hungry for adventure. Ves could provide even a little piece of that. She tightened her embrace to still the sadness that mysteriously settled in her chest. Ashlyn has been so happy today.

Ves waited outside for Hazel, leaning against Auriga. Hazel had run into the house with a drowsy Ashlyn on her back. When she opened the door, dread flooded in. As expected, her mother’s voice rang through the house, screeching about how rotten Ves was. Pointedly avoiding her mother, who sounded like she was in the basement, Hazel tucked Ashlyn in and kissed her good night. She scampered down the stairs as quietly as she could, but her mother was at the top of the basement stairs with a wild look.

“If you think–”

“Ashlyn is sleeping,” Hazel hissed, but her mother didn’t care. When she opened her mouth to shout, Hazel said with such venom, “I see you care only for yourself.” The unprecedented tone had surprised her mother, whose mouth snapped shut. Hazel wasted no time in slipping out and she trotted to the car, exhilarated.

Like an errant teen, she plopped fresh eyed into the front seat. “Let’s go!” she urged. Ves had a particularly mischievous look in her eye as Auriga darted from the neighborhood. The adrenaline of standing up to her mother made Hazel feel impulsive, so she pounced on Ves, lust heavy in her eyes. She captured her lips and they made out, rolling around the front seat. She whimpered when Ves dipped a hand under her skirt and rolled fingertips over her clit.

“I see you’re not wearing any underwear,” Ves said between pants. “Let’s do something interesting today.”

The glove box popped open on its own and Ves fished out a black case. Inside was a purple vibrator. It was wrinkled in the middle, like a bendy straw.

“Bend over,” she ordered Hazel, who obeyed. She shivered and jutted out her hips. Moans spilled out when she felt Ves’ fingers play with her more, running over sensitive folds. Slick sounds soon grew louder, salacious in the silence. Then she felt a firm, plastic push against her wet lips, teasing her. Hazel whined and pleaded until Ves pushed the vibrator in. Gasping, she could feel the foreign resistance against her clenching muscles. It was a snug, but unfamiliar fit.

“Now sit up,” Ves said. “How does it feel?”

Hazel was flushed down to her shoulders and she was keenly aware of her cunt resting bare on the upholstery. Heaving, her voice was unsteady when she replied, “It feels okay.” Her hips rocked in her seat and she could feel steam wafting from her, clouding the windows.

“You’ll stay like that until you come, okay? For now, just wait.” Ves faced forward with a look of unfiltered excitement. Another song floated through the car, which began with the feedback of an electric guitar, then a drum beat. “Do you like rock and roll music? ‘Cause I don’t know if do,” Ves followed along with the singer.

Hazel tried to distract herself from the agonizing anticipation by listening to the lyrics, but every bump in the road mocked her weak fortitude.

Is anything as strange as a normal person?
Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?

She gripped the armrest, like she did when she first rode Auriga with Ves. Hazel bit her lips, since every shift rubbed the vibrator against her.

I’m so confused. Am I a normal person?
You know, I can’t tell if I’m a normal person.
It’s true, I think I’m cool enough, but am I cruel enough?

Hazel glanced at Ves, who looked calm, but upon closer examination, was completely still, save for a smirk on her face. As if someone turned up the volume, the dildo began to vibrate with increasing intensity, peaking when the chorus hit.

And they will break you down
Till everything is normal now.

She screamed and arched and bucked, grabbing anything to steady her. Her toes curled and she moaned loudly. “Oh my God, Ves, yes, yess, nnn…!”

On Ves’ left, another car had been driving next to them for a few minutes. It was a group of young men, who were leering into Auriga and at them. A look of intense hatred flickered across Ves’ face, but settled back into a smug look, even as a few boys had humped the window and looked pointedly at Hazel.

If that’s what’s normal now
I don’t want to know

Hazel wasn’t paying attention though. She was writhing because the vibrator was now thrusting into her. Tears formed and she blinked them back as she was overwhelmed with pleasure. The combination of the vibration and thrusting tapped into her basest lusts. Panting like a beast, she moaned a noise from her depths. Her thighs shook violently and she came, her head down on the dashboard and cradled by her arms.

When they get excited, they try to hide it
Look at those normals go.

Meanwhile, Ves stared at the boys and grinned like she was devil possessed. Her eyes glowed blood red and she pulled a bit of her wig back. A seam that ran from her hairline to the back of her ear revealed itself and opened up to a pulsing network of flesh, muscle, wires, blinking lights, and silicone. Her unhinged jaw lolled terrifyingly and a laser from her left eye focused on one of the boys’ foreheads.

For a few seconds they stared, then shouted inaudibly. It caught the attention of the driver, who, in his alarm, had veered left and into a tree. Ves cackled as she put her face back into place and flipped them off. She enjoyed the view of the car crash behind them. Hazel hadn’t seen or heard any of it, instead evening her breath and enjoying the afterglow.

“Good?” Ves asked, then laughed when Hazel gave a tired look. Sliding the vibrator out, Ves kissed her cheek. “Viopics Corp is gonna release these after the tattoos.”

“You can tell them it works.” Hazel felt Auriga come to a halt in a clearing just beyond the park. “What are we doing here?”

“I just feel like dancing under the moon. Dance with me?” Ves offered a hand that Hazel took, when a ringing flooded the car. The dashboard lit up with: “Caller: Orfeu.”

“Just a minute, I gotta take this.” Ves released her hand and stepped outside, but not before she played another song for Hazel. It was another dancey tune, meant to get Hazel in the mood, but Hazel stared at Ves outside and then at the caller id. She wished she knew what it was about.

When your love is right
You can’t sleep at night
You’ve been sleeping just fine.

Ves’ jaw was set as she spoke to ‘Orfeu.’ She paced a patch of grass and nodded a few times. Her hands occasionally were thrown up, but eventually the light on the dashboard went out.

When your love is bad
I don’t know why you’re so sad
But it’s time to go.

By the time Ves returned, her somber expression gradually was replaced by a mirthful grin.

“Come on!” she insisted, pulling Hazel out of the car. Auriga blinked like a disco ball, and Hazel couldn’t help but laugh at this. She giggled at the way Ves swept her off her feet, tossing her and dipping her with such strength. She wrapped her arms around Ves’ neck and hoped Ves could see the feelings in her eyes.

The next song was suitably jaunty, but left a depressing aftertaste that Hazel couldn’t shake. They embraced to regain their breaths and she finally asked about it. Resting her head against Ves’ shoulder, she asked, “Is this all the same album?”

But I’m the one that will follow you
You’re my Joan of Arc.

“It is. Do you like it?” Ves swayed with her, though the music was fast.

“I do….but it seems sad.”

“Not so sad,” Ves said thoughtfully, pulling Hazel closer to her.

“You’ll have to tell me the name later.” To remember her by, but Hazel couldn’t bring herself to say it. Ves was clear that she was leaving, but if Hazel didn’t say anything, maybe she’d forget. She closed her eyes, wishing the clock didn’t strike twelve.

“Sure,” Ves said after a pause. “Later.”

Mais ce n’est pas moi
Je ne suis pas Jeanne d’Arc.

[][][][][]

With a dry lump in her throat, Hazel prepared herself emotionally for her last night with Ves. The memories she had made with her were already becoming painful. Today, she was waiting by herself in the kitchen. Her outburst last night had turned her mother into a victim, so she had imprisoned her and Ashlyn upstairs.

“Your mother puts that nasty woman’s feelings over us both,” her mother had said. “We’d better get out of her way, or else who knows what your mother will do. Run off with the tramp, I imagine!”

Ashlyn’s round grey eyes looked at Hazel in askance when Hazel’s mother ushered her into her bedroom, but the door had shut before Hazel could retort. Nonetheless, seeing Auriga roll next to her house sent a jolt of happiness through her, though she didn’t know what to make of the several cars that followed her.

As Ves made her way to the house, a couple of men exited their cars. A few were holding shotguns. Panic took over and Hazel sprinted outside. She yanked Ves in and slammed the door, her heart beating in her throat.

“Ves,” she said with desperation, “I don’t know why they’re here, but I’m sure they’re here for you. You have to get away. They could kill you.” The doorbell rang and Hazel screwed her eyes shut. “Please, Ves, go out from the basement. I’ll stall them.”

“I know why they’re here.” At this, Hazel and Ves exchanged looks. Ves’ eyes were sparkling, though her face was stony.

“Why?” Hazel asked, shooting a crazy look at Ves, who was standing with her arms crossed.

“I’ll take care of this,” Ves assured. She nudged Hazel aside and opened the door. “Gentlemen,” she began. “What seems to be the problem this evening?” Hazel cowered behind her, ashamed that she wasn’t brave enough to protect Ves.

“That’s definitely her,” one of the group spoke out. Ves recognized him as one of the passengers in the car yesterday. “She’s a monster and ran us off the road.”

“What’d you have to say about that?” a suspicious man with a shotgun asked.

“I don’t deny it,” Ves shrugged, hands on her hips. Hazel had no idea what they were talking about, but did recall a sharp, sinister laugh last night. Someone cocked their gun and Hazel jumped.

“Will, please don’t,” Hazel pleaded. “No one needs to get hurt over this.”

“Our boys’ in the hospital ’cause of this black bitch,” another man, Dan, barked. “She’s gonna pay, one way or another.”

“What’re my options?” Ves asked in a pleasant tone. “Or better yet, let me tell you yours.” She leaned forward and with a toothy smile said, “I can pay for all of your hospital bills and buy you a brand new car of your choice. Or you bastards can damage me, an official product of Viopics Corp, and get sued for all your and your future generations’ worth.” She turned her head to show the back of her ear, which was branded with the Viopics Corp logo.

“I say we kill her right now. Show these people they can’t mess with us,” a third man, Max, blustered. “She can’t do whatever she wants and expect to pay her way of out it. We’ve got rights!” The group loudly agreed, offended by the her nonchalance and disrespect.

“I should be surprised, but I’m not,” Ves sighed. “You idiots are always acting against your best interests.” More guns cocked and she feverishly grinned as she dared them to shoot. “Say hi to decades of debt, you poor fuckers.”

Hazel grabbed Ves’ arm to pull her back in, but a shot rang out. The men jumped back and Max had found smoke emanating from the new bullet hole in his pant leg. It seemed it had just grazed his jeans.

An angry, shrill voice roared above them. “You motherfucking gorillas think you can come onto my property and threaten my family with your guns?” Hazel’s mother cocked her own rifle. “You lay a hand on a hair and I’ll blow your brains out! You’ll get the shootout you’re looking for, you Nazi bastards!” She shot at another man’s feet. “She offered compensation, and you’re gonna teach her a lesson?”

By then they both escaped back inside and heard her mother shoot more at the mob.

“They don’t make ’em like your mom anymore,” Ves said.

“No, they don’t,” Hazel agreed. “I didn’t know we had a gun.”

After a bout of silence, there was a knock at the door. Hazel opened a crack to see Will, now more humbled and weary.

“We’ll take the compensation, but tell that freak to never come back.”

“I was leaving tonight anyway,” Ves piped up behind the door.

Will nodded and took a step back to give them room to come out. The men still viewed Ves with disdain, but agreed to escort Ves to the hospital where their boys were. Hazel accompanied Ves, but not before Ashlyn had called after them from the upstairs window. “Come back soon!” she screamed and Ves blew kisses to her.

At the reception, Ves had left the men a business card, a phone number, and her full name, Vespera Alleyne. She used the reception phone and they listened as Ves spoke to accounts payable at Viopics to arrange a car purchase for them. She handed the phone to one of the men, who took it from there.

At last, Hazel and Ves departed. By then it was nearly nine at night.

“What a weird way to end, right?” Ves asked, but Hazel didn’t respond. She hated that her time with Ves was stolen from her.

“I don’t think they meant it when they said you can’t come back,” Hazel said. “Or else, I can meet you somewhere outside of Cliffdale. I’ll bring Ashlyn too.”

“I won’t come back.”

Stunned into a brief silence, Hazel continued, “I can meet you as far as the capital. It’s much nicer there, more like the city. You’ll like it.”

“Hazel, I don’t want to come back.”

Her lips trembled and she looked at Ves, who seemed unfazed. “But why? What about Ashlyn?” She stared out of the front window. “If you’re worried that she’ll be scared of you because you’re not human, don’t be.”

Ves slowly turned to her with disgust. “What makes you think I’m not human?”

“You said you’re a ‘product’, aren’t you? I’m not that stupid. I can guess what that means and I saw the brand. Just because you’re not real doesn’t mean we don’t want you.”

She gave her a hard look, then exhaled, “Shit, guess I did say that.” Ves laughed bitterly. “Not real, like a robot? So, I’m fake. Just like I’m ‘exotic’?”

Struggling with the words, knowing that she offended Ves, Hazel stuttered, “No, I didn’t mean that. But you aren’t, are you? And what do you mean ‘exotic’?”

“When you first came with me, you said I was exotic,” Ves said tiredly. Hazel didn’t recall saying such a thing and if she did, she didn’t understand why that bothered Ves. But she was already in hot water, so she said nothing. She hated the sad, slow tune that played from the speakers. She wanted to scream at it to leave them alone.

But when I say I love you
Your silence covers me
Oh, Eurydice, it’s an awful sound.

Ves curled into herself, hugging her legs and thinking. “I was born,” she began softly. “I had a mother. I was born here, just like you. I went to school, just like you. I ate ribs in the summer. I still have flesh and veins. I still bleed. I still love.” She stared into the darkness. “I don’t want to be around such ignorance anymore.”

Hazel wouldn’t let her pride stand in the way of keeping Ves in her life. “I’m sorry, okay? I know I’m ignorant and stupid and useless and old, but don’t think for a second that we, that I don’t think less of you. I care a lot about you.”

Just take all your pain
Just put it on me
So that you can breathe.

“Stop!” Ves yelled and Hazel jumped. She felt firm grips at her shoulders and Ves shook her as she continued, “Stop thinking that! Stop acting like your life is over! You’re thirty fucking years old!” Ves was insistent, trying to make her understand. “You’re so precious and smart and full of spirit.”

When she saw angry tears in Ves’ eyes, Hazel began to cry too, but she kept raising her voice, “Is this the example you want to show Ashlyn? Do you want her to give up as easily as you? Do you want her to grow old in this bumfuck nowheresville and become crazy like your mother? Didn’t you see her yesterday? She’s so ready for more, she’s waiting for more. You’re all she’s got, so don’t give up on you.”

“Of course I see it,” Hazel sobbed. “My precious baby, she deserves so much. That’s why I’m begging you to stay.”

“I can’t,” Ves shook her head. “But you can leave.”

Hazel sniffled. “If I do, if I go to Los Angeles, can we see you again?”

“You can’t.” A hardness settled in Ves’ face. “I’m leaving for good.” Her fingers were trembling and shoulders were hunched. “It’s not just you, Hazel. It’s everything. I can’t stand this anymore. Every day is such pain.”

The same uneasy feeling came back, especially as Hazel looked at Ves’ unsettled expression. “Where are you going?”

“I won’t be here anymore.” Ves laid hands on her body to indicate. “I’ll be out there.”

“What does that mean? You’re leaving your body?” It sounded crazy, but Hazel had seen a lot these past few days.

“Yes,” she admitted.

Hazel imagined Ves’ lovely, vivid self lifeless and left to decay. “You’re doing this because you want to?”

She nodded, avoiding Hazel’s gaze.

“You can’t. You can’t!” Hazel repeated, the severity of Ves’ decision dawning on her. “That’s killing yourself!”

“No, I just won’t be physically here. I’ll be free.”

“You’re worse than not human,” Hazel spat, furious at how peaceful Ves looked when she said ‘free,’ and even angrier that she didn’t understand what Ves was talking about. “You’re a hypocrite and you’re crazy. You laid into me for giving up, but you’re no better. You’re even younger than me, I bet.”

“Don’t act like you know me.” Ves tone was harsh. “Our time together was a blip in my life. You don’t know me.”

“But didn’t we…?” Hazel began, shifting to heartache. “Weren’t we good enough to make you want to stay? Or even live? What about me?” she wept, hurt by her words.

A warm hand cupped her cheek and Hazel look up into Ves’ dark brown eyes. “Hazel, I made this decision a long time ago. Now I’m making memories until it’s time for me to go.” Hazel let her kiss her forehead, then her eyelids. “I’ve made very precious memories with you. I’ll remember you forever, long after you’re gone.”

Even though she was angry with Ves, she clung to her. Despite her body heat, Hazel shivered all the way back home. Another song played softly and sadly. Hazel was so tired of music, so tired of how it amplified her grief.

The lights in the house were out except for the one on the front porch. Ves walked her to her door, holding her hand the whole time. Hazel looked forward, thought about pulling her in the house, where Ashlyn and maybe even her mother could also entreat her to stay. Maybe it would work. She walked into the flood of light and stared into the front window. She could feel the warmth of Ves’ hand and believed she was real.

It seems to important now
But you will get over
And when you get over
When you get older
Then you will remember
Why it was so important then.

She turned to confirm it and was met with the scattered stars on Ves’ face and shoulders, like when she first fell in love with her. It illuminated Ves in the darkness, while the light over Hazel accentuated her reddened eyes and her worry lines. Hazel studied her face, whose eyes glowed like moonlight under the darkness. Ves smiled at her and let go.

[][][][][]

A welt in Hazel’s forehead ached, as did her ears. Ashlyn was hyperventilating after crying so hard, so Hazel lifted the armrest between them to pull her closer.

“A-are w-we really n-never gonna see Grammy again?” Ashlyn stuttered out, burying her face in her mommy’s side.

“Of course not,” Hazel said with more certainty than she felt. The other passengers gave her skeptical glances as they boarded the bus. She winced when the welt pulsed. She should have given her mother’s arm strength more credit.

“If you wanna leave, then leave!” her mother had shrieked, throwing all manner of things at her. She was furious when Hazel had told her only two days before that she was leaving Cliffdale for good. She cursed her ungrateful daughter and swore that she’d never be welcome in the house again. Ashlyn had been sobbing nonstop since their fight, so Hazel was ready to pass out on the bus.

Ashlyn wiped her tears with her sleeve, when Hazel noticed a small box in her other hand.

“Sweet pie, what’s that?” she asked.

“G-Grammy gave it.”

“Can I?” Hazel asked and Ashlyn nodded. She recognized the box as one of the objects that her mother had thrown at her, had actually caused the welt in her head. She opened the top and found a grubby note with only her name, ‘Hazel’, written on it. Underneath were neat, tiny rolls of $100 bills. She quickly closed up the box and wiped away fat tears that sprang up soon after. They had a good cry together and then slept all the way to Los Angeles.

Settling was extremely difficult. Humans hadn’t colonized other planets yet, but LA was completely different from what Hazel was used to. There were beauty and wonder, but so many shades of pain and sorrow. Hazel saw more of the world that Ves had wanted to escape and understood her choice a little better.

She had to learn all manner of new technologies, like the hologram register. She worked longer hours to pay for the same amount of schooling, housing, food, and amenities. Ashlyn hated her ‘white girl’ name and after sixth grade, insisted that she be called ‘Ash,’ which was also the time she stopped being cute. Hazel drew the line at ‘digitats’, forbidding her girl from implanting anything until she was twenty-five. Secretly, she was frightened that Ash would follow Ves, though she never told her what happened to her.

Hazel would get funny looks for statements she previously thought innocuous and became resigned to the idea that she’d become as ignorant as her elderly mother. Not nearly as hateful or scared though, she hoped. They were eventually allowed to come visit her, though Grammy never came to live with them, instead dying peacefully in Cliffdale.

She never saw Ves again. Searches for a “Vespera Alleyne” returned nothing and she couldn’t afford to look harder. Though, once in a while, her smartphone or the stereo or the computer would abruptly begin to play a song from a familiar album. This often happened after a small catastrophe, like when the news reported the disappearance of a trillionaire’s fortune or the erased medical debts of an entire town.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to see you
I don’t know where, but you’re not with me
Heard a voice, like an echo
But it came from me.

The nostalgic music would make Hazel misty-eyed and Ash roll her eyes at her sentimental, aging mother. Often, Ash would push the newest dating trends on Hazel, but she was content to devote her life to her girl. She was pleased to see her blossom into a capable young woman.

More often than not they struggled, but they lived and loved and cried harder than before. Neither regretted leaving.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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