Edition 9: Better Than Everything by Malon Edwards
The technology of the future can realize the dreams of today, but we have to be careful that we don’t mistake them for nightmares. In this story Malon Edwards paints a vivid future where a form of immortality has been achieved, but it comes at a terrible price in the face of one of humanity’s most fundamental emotions, love. GH
“So, I’ve been thinking,” I start, and then stop because this is the conversation we’ve been avoiding most of her life.
But Jae Lyn doesn’t miss a beat. “You keep doing that, and you’re going to break something.”
She smiles and that dimple at the left corner of her mouth on her chin peeks out at me. More than anything, I’ll miss kissing it.
No. I can’t think like that.
I take a carton of apple-cranberry juice out of the refrigerator, pour us both a glass, and proceed to wipe that smile right off her face.
“You can’t die.”
“We have to talk about this.”
“No. We have to go to prom.”
“You won’t make it to prom.” I look at my watch. It’s just after five-thirty in the afternoon. “Prom starts at nine. How much time do you have left? Three hours?”
“I’m the gynoid,” Jae Lyn says. “I should know.”
She looks up at me. I’ve never seen this Jae Lyn cry in the eleven months I’ve known her, but I swear she’s about to right now. She turns around, though. Probably to hide her tears.
I lift her black bebe tee shirt to her shoulder blades and press my index finger at the base of her neck. Digital numbers glow red on the middle of her back beneath her smooth, golden brown skin: 02:56:47. And counting.
Jae Lyn was fourteen when she died from brain cancer. Nobody saw it coming. She’d been healthy that Christmas, just months before.
She got sick fast. I couldn’t deal with her pain. She was my first love. My only love. But I just couldn’t go visit her in the hospital.
We’d been going together for about a year when she was diagnosed. Mainly just holding hands and kissing. Nobody knew, except for Matty. He helped me and Jae Lyn live our lie. For her parents. For my mama.
But we helped him out, too. Highland Park’s most gifted football player ever is supposed to have a girlfriend, not a boyfriend.
Me and Matty were the perfect power-athlete couple. We still are. Matty and Zakiya. Star quarterback and state champion high jumper. Should have been Jae Lyn and Zakiya.
Jae Lyn had been strong. Beautiful. A kick ass athlete. ESPN had projected her to finish her debut year ranked 87th by the Women’s Tennis Association, the highest ranked Filipina in the world. I was so proud of her. But I just could not bring myself to see her wasting away like that.
I wanted to remember her as I’d always known her. As the phenom who was about to make some serious noise on the pro tennis circuit. As the girl who loved me for me. Despite my name. Despite my dark skin. Despite my lean height.
And yet, I wasn’t there for her.
That’s my biggest regret. Making it all about me and not about Jae Lyn. I told myself she’d get better. That I’d be there for her after she got out of the hospital. That I’d help her get sexy-strong again. Work out with her. Like we used to.
We never did. Valentine’s Day she was dead.
“Naomi Nakamura gives each of you a bio-electric battery with a calendar life of about a year, right?” I pull Jae Lyn’s shirt back down and slip my arms around her waist. She leans her head back against my chest. “I figure it runs on the keratin in your synth hair and the collagen in your synth skin.”
“How do you figure that?”
She half laughs, half sobs. “I don’t have a chance.”
I hug her tight. “Listen. In about two hours, your skin is going to wrinkle up and dry out. Your hair is going to get brittle and break off.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“It happened to a gynoid in Sweden. I saw it on YouTube.”
Jae Lyn takes my arms from around her and places my hands over where her heart should be. “You sound like you have a plan.”
“I do.” I put my face in her neck and take in her wonderful sweet pea scent. “There’s this rumor going around the internet that Naomi Nakamura’s brother, Jun Nakamura, put an Easter Egg in the software for your battery to make it last longer.”
She turns to face me again. “I hear a ‘but’ coming.” Her eyes shimmer. Two big fat tears plop onto the tile floor. I don’t care what Mama says. Jae Lyn is a seventeen-year-old girl through and through.
“But—” My face goes hot. I reach up and play with my newly done up Bantu knots. “Supposedly, the Easter Egg is splooge.”
I talk fast, afraid Jae Lyn might interrupt me. Or worse, fall out on the floor laughing.
“Some people think energy from the fructose, lipids and proteolytic enzymes in it can power your battery. Make it go further. I don’t know how much more time it would give you. No one has figured that out yet. But it’s better than nothing.”
I’ve known Matty Acevedo since seventh grade. We met at a summer program for smart kids.
I remember it like it was yesterday. He’d asked me about Azure Yeast. I asked him if that was a new ice cream flavor. He just grinned at me and started singing one of their songs. It sounded familiar. I’d heard it on the radio.
We gravitated toward one another, confused by our feelings. Over the years, it’s been easy to let people think we like each other. That he was my first crush. That we’re high school sweethearts. That he’s hittin’ this, anytime he wants.
We became fast best friends back then. We still are. We know each other’s hopes. Each other’s fears. Each other’s misery.
But knowing all that about him didn’t make it any easier—or less awkward—when I asked him for some of his splooge earlier today.
You should’ve seen his face. For a split second, it was all pure little boy terror. He looked cute. And then he just bust out laughing. For a good minute or two. That hurt my feelings. I was being serious. I told him so.
He stopped rolling around on the floor when he thought I was going to cry. I wasn’t. Or maybe I was. But that was because I knew Jae Lyn only had a few more hours to live, and he was wasting time.
When I told Matty what I needed his splooge for and how many hours I thought Jae Lyn had left, he moved with the quickness. As long as I’ve known him, I could always count on Matty Ace.
But still, even though we’ve been best friends since before my boobs grew in, I was grossed out when Matty came out of the bathroom with that sterile container. It was warm. Even through my plastic gloves. I almost dropped it when he gave it back to me.
Didn’t take him long, though. All he had to do was think of Pres Santana’s dark curls in Jump City he said. I kissed him on the cheek, anyway. Gagging and all. Told him I owed him as I ran out the door. Promised to be a surrogate whenever he and his future partner needed one.
How could I not? Back when me and Matty were missing curfew left, right and center, Mama used to say I had trouble in one back pocket and Matty in the other.
Truth is, she ain’t never lied.
Jae Lyn is quiet and still for so long I think her bio clock was wrong and she’s already wound down for good. But finally she whispers, “I’m ready to die.”
I act like I don’t hear her. “Some people also think Naomi Nakamura did this on purpose. That she gave you a short battery life and no self-preservation program because she knows wealthy, grieving parents will just order another daughter.”
I grab her tight again and mumble into her cool-as-hell, dark pixie hair.
“Parents are forever sad, Naomi Nakamura is forever rich, and people like me are forever forgotten.”
“Age progression and memory upgrades are free,” she says. “I’ll remember you.”
She didn’t before. Not at first. I was lucky Jae Lyn had some residual memories of me tucked away with our workouts.
The worst thing that has ever happened to me was when Jae Lyn came back from the dead in our sophomore year. I’d found her alone outside the girls’ locker room after tennis practice. Gave her the sexiest kiss I could muster. And she pushed me away. Hard. Because she didn’t know me.
Jae Lyn and I figure her parents finally got a clue two versions ago, so they told Naomi Nakamura to remove all her memories of me. Especially of us together.
That must have cost them crazy money. Probably took Naomi Nakamura’s coders until the cows came home, as Mama would say. But they’d done a half-assed job of it.
The phone rings. It’s Jae Lyn’s parents. They’ve found us. Again.
I can tell they’ve been crying, even though the holo-screen over the kitchen island is dim with don’t-answer mode. I reach to activate it.
“Don’t.” Jae Lyn squeezes me tight. “I want to spend my last few hours with you. Not them.”
She stands on her tiptoes and kisses me in that special way of hers. All fluttery. My lips tingle. She’s always liked my full lips.
My face gets hot again. “We should try.”
“My parents have already filled out the paperwork. Don’t worry. I’ll be back next week.”
I take her by the hand and lead her out of the kitchen, headed to my bedroom. “What if they order brand new memory specs? Or tell Naomi Nakamura to find the rest of me and rip that out of you?”
Jae Lyn shakes her head. “They won’t.”
“I can’t go through this again.” I try to keep the desperation out of my voice. And fail. “We really need to do this now.” I unzip my backpack and show her a blue insemination syringe and Matty’s sperm container in a freezer bag. “Who knows how much more time this would give you?”
She stops at the bottom of the stairs. “Who knows what it would do to me? I mean, this is just some crazy internet bio-hack, right?”
“I can’t believe you don’t want to save yourself.”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” Jae Lyn places her palms flat against my back and lays her head on my chest. “I just want to listen to your heartbeat.”
This is the third time in three years I’ve heard a version of her say that to me. And the third time I wait for one of her to die in my arms. Lately, I’ve been a sucker for her dying requests.
But not anymore.
My vision blurs with tears. I can’t do this again. I won’t do this again.
I grab Jae Lyn by the arm and yank her upstairs. Hard. But my voice is a whisper. “Come on.”
I refuse to serve continued penance for my past mistakes. I refuse to hold her again as she winds down for good.
I refuse to hope against hope for at least one more year with another one of her. For a Jae Lyn who remembers me. For a Jae Lyn who loves me. For a Jae Lyn who doesn’t push me away.
Not this time. Not a year from now. Not ever again.
We don’t speak as we get undressed. Our eyes look everywhere but at each other. I move fast, and not just because Jae Lyn has less than three hours of life. I have that tight, fluttery feeling inside.
It’s not often I get to have my first time with my girlfriend again.
Goosebumps make me feel even tighter, so I run to the bed, throw the covers over my head, and curl up into a ball. My teeth won’t stop chattering. I want Jae Lyn to spoon me. I want time to stop. I want to stay like that forever.
And then she does.
“I remember this.” Her breath is warm on my shoulder.
I don’t want Jae Lyn to see my smile. I don’t want her to like this, as much as it feels so right. I’m all long angles and elbows, and she’s all tight and curvy, but we’d always fit so well together. It’s good to see we still do.
But this could be our last time.
I turn toward her. She takes off her panties. They’re sky blue, like her fingernails. She still knows that’s my favorite color. Her parents couldn’t take that memory from us.
Jae Lyn puts a pillow behind the small of her back, tilts her hips up, and bends her knees.
“I’m ready,” she whispers.
I get the Blue Fairy off the bedside table. That’s what I call the insemination syringe. It’s small, just ten milliliters.
It doesn’t take long. When I push the Blue Fairy’s plunger, Jae Lyn flinches, once.
“Did I hurt you?” I ask her.
She shakes her head. “It’s just cold.”
I don’t know why I’m apologizing. But I don’t know what else to say. Or do. Neither does Jae Lyn.
So we wait.
And fall asleep.
When I open my eyes, six zeroes glow red beneath Jae Lyn’s left clavicle. Her eyes are closed. She’s still. Quiet. Cool. Stiff.
I shake her. She doesn’t move.
Funny how things work out the way they do. Karma is a bitch, sometimes.
But I’m fine with this. Everything happens for a reason.
I kiss Jae Lyn behind her ear, in the spot that used to make her pull me closer, before I lay my head on her chest. Listening for I don’t know what. We stay this way long past the start and end of prom.
And then, well after my tears have dried, I feel her fingertips at the small of my back. Stroking. Hesitant. Exploratory.
I shiver. My heart knocks. My hips flatten against the bed.
I don’t look at her clock. I don’t look at my clock. I just hold her tight.
Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area with his wife, daughter and son. Many of his short stories are set in a near future or alternate Chicago, and feature characters he wishes he knew in real life.