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Just Until We're Gone

Gary Emmette Chandler works from his apartment in Portland as a copywriter and web developer, mostly in pajamas, with a cat nibbling at his leg. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Bastion, One Throne, and Plasma Frequency, among others. You can follow his hungover ramblings on Twitter @TheWearyLuddite, if you like.

When They come and sort through us, we are meant to cheer and bobble--to dance about, offering crafts, or hastily scribbled pictures. The quiet ones--the ones like me--sit at the edge of the room, and gaze out the window, like we're waiting for someone, and we know it's not Them.
Still, over time, most of us grow tired of the walls. At some point, we change. We resign ourselves to the dance. We enter our new lives. And we are happy.
At least, this is what I'm told.
"You have to leave someday," Macie, our caretaker, tells me after another Shop Day, as I'm ambling through the rows, running a finger along the surface of each desk.
"And go with one of Them?" I ask. "Why?"
Macie watches me for a moment, silent, with those blue, blue eyes. They remind me of the ocean, though I've never been.
"It's your function," he says.
"My function," I say, repeating the word, trying to find my way around its form. It feels foreign, and cold.
Macie doesn't say anything else. He has his own function: equipment to repair; uniforms to scrub; calculations to run. He can't be bothered with me for too long. Still, he tries.
I turn away to the window, and watch the clouds drift across the velvet hills. In the distance, the bell trees wobble and bulge, where they grow thick, and become a forest. Beyond that, there's a long, wide road that stretches far into the distance. It seems to climb upward, into the clouds. I don't know where it leads.
I am older than I should be.
Still, Macie cleans and tunes me. He changes out my heart when it slows and frays, even as his own begins to wear with age. I remember when his hair was long, curling past his eyes. Now it is short and thin, like dust.
We are different. I understand that. His skin is spotted, and withered; mine is taut; cold; perfect.
I could mend his skin, but he won't let me. He tells me that it's not my place. That I wasn't made for him. That I was made for one of Them.
But Macie needs me. One day he'll understand that.
After another Shop Day, which seems to last and last, I ask Macie why I should dance. I ask him why They need me.
He looks at me for a long while before saying anything.
That is Macie's way: to watch, and wait.
"When they come," he says, "they come because they've lost something. Because they think that one of you, here, can replace what the world has taken from them. Because they think you can mend more than bones, and skin."
"Lost what?" I ask.
Macie turns away, and busies himself with the sweeping, pushing the broom across the cold floor.
"Children, mostly," he says, at last.
I look at Macie--at his old bent form, shuffling across the tiles--and try to remember him young.
"Children," I say, wrapping myself around the world. "Did you lose one? A child?"
Macie looks at me with an expression I can't place, and doesn't say anything.
He just goes back to sweeping.
Today is a Shop Day, again, and I carry out my routine: I sit by the window, and wait. They will come, and take one of the others. Perhaps two. Or they won't. In the end, though, They will leave.
"What about that one?" one of Them asks, pointing at me.
I glance up, and our gazes meet. The woman is tall, with black hair and a short nose.
She smiles at me.
I turn back to the window, and close my eyes.
"Her?" I hear Macie say. "That one, well. She's special."
"It looks like she's waiting for someone," the woman says, in a clear, high voice.
"Aye, she'll make you think that," Macie says. "But she's not taken. She's got a bit of a spark to her. Stubborn. But caring. Like I said: special."
There's a pause, which seems to last forever.
Then, another speaks. This one's voice is deep, and cold.
"Special? Defective, more like. Look at the rest: they know what they're made for--"
"Darling, hush," the other one says.
"What? You think these things care what we say? Look at them, mewling around like dogs."
"That's cruel," she says. "You're being cruel."
There is shouting, then. It seems to go on for a long time. The cold-voiced one just gets louder, and louder.
"You really think one of these things could replace what we lost? I don't know why you brought me here."
I sit at the window, eyes closed, and think of the ocean. I imagine walking down a long shore, with Macie's hand in mine, listening to the call and crash of the waves.
I imagine that I belong.
When the Shop Day ends, two more of us have been taken. Tomorrow, they will be replaced. There will be new faces, and they will be similar, but different from the last.
Macie is sitting at his desk in the corner of the room, his fingers dancing through the air, logging the day's sales.
I hop down from my perch by the window, and stroll over to him. He looks up, and then looks away.
I place his emotion: anger.
"I wasn't meant for them," I say. "It wouldn't have worked."
Macie's fingers stop, and he looks at me for a long while, like always.
"The first time anyone takes an interest in you, in--I don't know how long, even--and that's all you can say?"
"What would you like me to say?" I ask.
Macie shakes his head.
"I'd like you to say you'll stop sitting by the window. I'd like you to say you'll talk to them when they come--that you'll join the dance. How many years have I been asking you that? Twenty? Thirty? What do you think will happen to you once I'm gone?"
"Gone," I say, trying to fit along the edges of the word. It feels cold, and hollow.
His body shakes. With age? Anger? I don't know.
"If one of Them takes me, what will you do," I ask. "Who will watch out for you?"
Macie slams his hand on the desk, and winces in pain. I look at the skin of his hand, at the bones beneath: I watch them break.
I reach out, and try to take his hand. I mean to mend the bones, the bruise before it forms, but he pulls his hand away.
"Don't you get it?" he shouts. "I didn't make you. You're not my child. Is that what you think? That I want you here? You're just a thing. A device. You can be replaced."
I blink at him.
"You called me special."
Macie doesn't say anything. After a moment, I turn away.
Back to my perch. Back to the window.
One day, he'll understand.
He will. Won't he?
It's when I hear him crying that I turn back.
"She looked like you," he says. "Looked just like you. Each day, I come here and you're still here, and she's still gone."
He collapses into a chair, and hides his face in his hands.
"Do you hate me for that?" I ask.
The old man dries his eyes, and looks at me for a long while.
I try to imagine the word hate. I try to feel it. I try to picture it. I can't.
"No," he says, at last.
I take his hand. And this time, he lets me.
I look at the structure beneath, find where it's broken, mend the bones; the skin; the muscle. When I'm done, I hold on.
Just for a little while.
For as long I can. For as long as he needs me.
Just until we're gone.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Author Comments

Earlier this year, I was lamenting to one of my friends that I had spent hundreds of hours on most of my stories, editing them endlessly over the years. He responded (quite reasonably) that I was nuts, and that some people write incredible stories in one night. I was a little hurt, at first. Then I thought, "Heck, maybe he's onto something." The following weekend, I started writing the story which appears above. It didn't happen overnight, exactly, but the process also didn't take years--and that was new for me.

The story began with an image--a girl sitting at a window, while other children are at play in a classroom of sorts--and a sentence: "It's the quiet ones who never leave." That line didn't end up making it into the story, but it's where it started for me, and I'm rather pleased with the end result. Here's to taking advice from good friends, and trying new things.

- Gary Emmette Chandler
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