BY RACHEL HENG
None of the other parents seemed surprised when the first fusings occurred. Fiona next door had a ten-year-old who was one of the first, when it was still cause for mild alarm or, at the very least, surprise. Yet she showed no distress at all. What can you do and a shoulder shrug, that’s the way kids are these days and we just have to live with it. She worked around the situation, bought her daughter large mittens to replace her delicate woolen gloves, but she never wore them for some reason. The wrong color, maybe.
I shuddered each time I passed her in the hallway. Rude, I know, but whenever she chirped a polite hello, Mrs. Lee, and how is your day, as if nothing had changed, it was just too much. How to smile as if nothing had changed? And in my head all I could think was don’t look don’t look don’t look at her arm, which now ended in a sleek aluminum touch screen.
Once, though, I let my gaze drop to that small rectangle of flickering light. Her screen saver was a white kitten with bright blue eyes, a pink bow tied around its soft neck. My own daughter would never have used a screen saver like that.
My daughter had always been thin—very thin. But she was not anorexic. I knew this because if I didn’t hide the fancy almond cookies bought for guests, they would disappear overnight with a trail of crumbs leading to her bed. It had crossed my mind that she may have been bulimic, but I was told that bulimia did not typically lead to drastic thinness. And if one thing in those days was clear, it was that she suffered from drastic thinness. When I checked with the family doctor, I was reassured that it was nothing to worry about, just the efficient metabolism of a healthy teenager.
My daughter liked to wear clothes that made her look thinner. That is not to say she wore anything revealing or skintight, no, even at her tender age she had grasped that revealing and skintight served only to make you more visible. My daughter wore flowing blouses of delicate fabrics and hues, textiles more suited to a bun-wearing corporate adult. Her bony arms stuck out of the loose sleeves like dry twigs. What my daughter wanted, I believe, was to disappear.
As much as I deeply, deeply admired and respected Fiona as a mother—she of the dedicated shuttling to and fro between piano, French and abacus lessons—I could not adopt her laissez-faire approach, you understand. Measures had to be taken. I kept my measures to myself, as such strict parenting was not the fashion in those days, before people became aware of what the fusings really meant. Trying to stop what was happening was seen as being prudish, backward, authoritarian. Even the ladies at church were content to let their children conjoin with metal, as it happened so quickly and silently that it appeared quite clearly to them to be God’s will.
Plus, I should mention, around the same time the first of these events occurred, I found her Instagram feed, something I would not recommend any parent go looking for.
Not that I went looking for it. No, it was a text from Josh, saying: Hey, you might want to pay some attention to what your daughter is up to online.
I still don’t see why that tone was necessary. Why he, the brother who made a Conscious Decision to not have children for Environmental Reasons so he could volunteer on horse ranches in Argentina and write haikus, had the right to say something like you might want to as if I actually did not.
It felt wrong that I was snooping on her, but when the screen finally loaded on my phone, it felt even more wrong that he was snooping on her. Because there at the top of the feed was a picture of her bare, not-quite-flat, thirteen-year-old chest, #NSFW #freethenipple. Some research informed me that NSFW = Not Safe For Work, which made the blood rush to my face even quicker, because what did she expect? Did she expect people at work to be looking at this, working people who must be warned in case their bosses found them looking at pictures of child pornography in between “RE: Contract dated 16 July” and “Fwd: Dental Provisions for Staff Welfare Scheme”?
So the measures. Phone rights were, of course, suspended with immediate effect, the item in question locked up in my sock drawer with the key placed under the bathroom mat. There was screaming, and you don’t know me you don’t know what it’s like, but the thought of #NSFW and Fiona’s daughter’s screen saver gave me the strength to remain stern. As such I continued to calmly and consistently set boundaries. After this, I locked up my phone and the TV remote control too, which I told myself was important if I was to be a role model.
I was slowly getting used to the sight of Fiona’s daughter.
One morning I took a long, hard look at it. Her fingers had not completely disappeared, but only the section between knuckle and first joint was left (the proximal phalanx, said the doctor later, pointing to a colorful chart). Where skin met metal, no wires or veins were to be seen. I had many questions, such as how the device remained charged and were there nerves in the touch screen that had replaced the finger pads, now gone? But I did not know how to ask, for now, even though she still said, Hello, Mrs. Lee, her eyes looked right through me.
I wondered if other electronics also hankered for our flesh. The phones, remote controls and anything else handheld were safely locked away in my sock drawer, but soon I began to suspect larger appliances too. I cultivated the habit of writing very brief emails, typing as lightly as possible, just in case the keys suddenly grew sticky and my fingers could no longer pull away. In the kitchen I whipped eggs with a fork, consoling aching forearms with the thought of headlines like Woman First to Fuse with Electric Whisk. I avoided the lawn mower, and our garden grew thick and wild.
No one else seemed to have the same concerns. The world had adapted to what was happening, which I realized when Phones4U began running advertisements like: Free amputation with your next upgrade! Foot pedal–operated doors became the norm, and of course mittens were all the rage.
At night, I had nightmares of scaffolding and train tracks. They wrapped themselves around me, fluid and ice cold. Coiling like a boa constrictor from my feet up, but gently, so very gently, as if afraid to disturb me—I always awoke just as the burning metal reached my eyes.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when it happened at last. There was of course the question of where she had gotten a phone, but when I finally worked up the stomach to look closely, I noted with a pang the low-resolution screen and cheap plastic housing that had attached itself to her milky white stump of a hand. I could not help but compare it with the sleek aluminum appendage Fiona’s daughter sported.
Did they even make Nokia phones anymore? I found myself screaming at her.
My daughter was silent. With one hand, she plucked at a stray thread trailing from the hem of the peach chiffon blouse she had on now. My daughter’s other hand, if I could still call it that, broke the silence with a loud beep and vibration.
Eventually I decided to ring my brother, not because I expected him to have anything useful to say, but because I wanted to hear what he did not say. That was how I often made decisions. But then he said: There’s a doctor, I know her. She takes care of these things.
I expressed my horror at his callousness. This is your niece we’re talking about, my daughter, I said.
You asked me what to do, he said.
Yes, but not that, I said.
What I did not say was that I already knew the doctor. Fiona had, in a moment of weakness, broken her unruffled veneer and shown up crying at my doorstep a few weeks ago. I agreed to go with her for an initial consultation. I remember how the glass doors shone and how the doctor’s voice cooed, so soothing and gentle that it melted your insides, made you feel safe and warm. It’s all done under general anesthesia, she said. Your daughter won’t feel a thing. No, it won’t grow back, but at least she’ll be human again. Fiona didn’t go through with it, of course, and on the way home, in a weak voice, she made me promise not to tell anyone.
I turned to the parenting book. Apparently in times of conflict it was best to take a step back and calm down. Let them come to you, it said, and when they do, make sure you listen with an open mind. But Chapter Two also clearly stated that blatant rebellion must be met with gentle albeit firm punishment. Wasn’t I also meant to accept my daughter for who she was, regardless of the emotional and physical changes she was facing?
One Saturday I went to the department store. In the winter clothing section, a saleslady assisted me with picking the appropriate size of mitten for a Nokia S520. Convincing myself that I was imagining the judgmental undertone in her voice when I named the outdated smartphone model, I settled on the thick cashmere in black.
The day it happened, I got onto the bus at rush hour, only to find it empty. When I reached my stop, I didn’t get off, because no one had gotten on, and I didn’t want the bus driver to be alone.
I suppose what I am trying to say is there were other things that happened on that day. There were other things I remember happening, that the thing which happened later that afternoon was not what the entire day was about.
The picture was similar to the first. Again her now almost-fourteen-year-old chest, less flat than before, again tagged with the unsettling #NSFW.
Three things were different this time. The first: the frame of the photo was tilted askew, likely a result of the awkward angle of her fusing. The second: flash had been used, making her skin a glaring white against the dark sheets. And the third, which made me do the thing I did: in the picture my daughter’s eyes were closed, her blue-checked pajama top hiked up, and she was quite clearly asleep.
It’s no big deal, she said when confronted. My friends’ phones do it too. It’s like they learn what you do in the day, and then they do it while you’re sleeping. There’s a whitepaper out on it—machine learning, or something.
These were many more words than my daughter was in the habit of speaking in a row. I noticed as well she was wearing a tight wool jumper that I did not recognize. It was bright pink, the same pink of the iPhone that was locked away in my sock drawer.
What about the mitten I bought you? I asked. Don’t you wear it at night?
She shrugged. After a long pause, she said: I don’t like the color.
I cannot say what was going through my head as I picked up the phone and called my brother. All I can say is what I said before, that I hope you remember I am a person who feels sorry for bus drivers, who buys mittens that her silent daughter does not wear, who is a parent who, despite her flaws, CARES.
My brother must have run at least one or two red lights to get to our apartment in the time that he did. I was in my room, with the curtains drawn. I don’t know what he told her, but whatever it was, she got in the car and went with him to the doctor’s.
After they left, I sat alone in the apartment, listening to the buzz of silence that filled my ears. The next thing I remember is the ringing. I picked up my phone and it was my brother’s voice saying: Where are you? What are you doing? It’s done, he said. She’ll be awake soon. I thought you’d be here.
I said I would come. I would come immediately in a taxi to pick up my brave, beautiful daughter, bearing chocolates and kind words, because what else would a parent do?
But after hanging up, all I did was sit there, looking at the reflection of my face in the black, empty screen nestled in my palm.
I wondered what it would be like. Me too—my nerves solidifying into crackling wire, my flesh melting into plastic, my bone plugging into the invisible network. I wondered if she would forgive me. But my phone was silent and had no answer. As much as I willed it, there was no flash of light, no sudden unification. The shiny piece of plastic only remained inert in my palm, reflecting my face right back at me.
Rachel Heng’s debut novel Suicide Club will be published in July 2018 by Henry Holt, Macmillan (US) and Sceptre, Hachette (UK). Suicide Club will also be translated into six languages. Rachel’s short stories have appeared in The Offing, Prairie Schooner, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won Prairie Schooner’s Jane Geske Award, was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been recommended by the Huffington Post. Rachel graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Comparative Literature & Society. She is currently a James A. Michener Fellow at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, pursuing her MFA in Fiction and Screenwriting.
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