Familiar creaks from the bedroom ceiling eased and undulated. Perhaps the couple in the apartment above had just arrived home to greet each other with a kiss. The elevator shafts murmured down the hall, but the doors never opened. Cannon lay on his back and waited for the noises in the wall to get louder, for them to arrive at his front door. Not quite paralyzed, he listened to the hurried rhythm of his chest rising and falling, and wondered if DNA had any control over the entry and escape of air from his lungs. DNA seemed to have little control over anything these last few hours. Cannon could be content without this answer, lying in wait for his death.
He imagined strands and nodes spinning and unwinding and doubling themselves. Incomplete, simple pictures he'd been asked to grasp when he was a child. His thoughts dizzied him. He felt as if he'd tumbled through the mattress and resurfaced, whirring elevators and knocking on the walls echoing through daydreams that brought no good answers.
Yesterday, he was only making a simple stop at the bank to deposit a check. Some poor bastard, a man trying to determine the tenth anniversary gift for his wife, chatted up his teller. She responded as someone in customer service would – friendly, supportive, unmoved by his nervousness.
Head down, trying to avoid contact with the man beside him, Cannon filled in the date on the deposit slip. Wrote down his name and address. 'See, see I know there's this whole format, and you give your wife this on the first anniversary, like paper, and you give her this other thing on the fifth, but I'm not romantic. I've never been romantic.' The teller's giggle carried through the room. With his back to them, Cannon imagined her nodding her head in sympathy. 'I want to do something out of the ordinary. And I've got all those fears of what her past boyfriends did for her. Isn't that dumb? Most guys are better at this than I am.'
'I wouldn't say that,' she said.
'I just don't want her to think I'm pathetic.'
'Well, hopefully she finds you romantically pathetic or pathetically romantic.'
This was not a voice Cannon knew, but he turned to look at her. She was far from him. Several windows down in the cavern of the cold, grey-white marble and brass room. Beyond lines of slumping heads trapped between snaking velvet ropes, beyond the nervous man with a patch of bald skin standing before her, she smiled behind the glass and swath of industrial light glaring over half her face. Full lips. Thinner body. Wider, shorter teeth. Her hair raven's ink, the thick strands drawn from the careful, wide strokes of a brush.
No, this wasn't Mike's fault. Cannon never should have stopped to look. The teller took her attention away from the customer long enough to find Cannon watching. He'd never seen this woman before. They'd never spoken. But he knew her, and he knew that she knew he recognized her.
I don't want to be with anyone else. I'm not interested in anyone else. I love you. I know that would have been so much better if I'd told you in person. I'll tell you as many times as you want the next time I see you. I hope that you already know that by now and my actions have been enough to show that I love you, and you've been thinking why won't he just say it? Forgive me if it hasn't been obvious. Forgive me if it has, and you've been waiting on me to get over myself.
'There's no harm if you go and introduce yourself.' Mike grinned and handed Cannon two beers. 'I usually see her drinking this after work.'
She had been Mike's suggestion. Cannon needed to get off his lonely ass and find himself a woman. Mike always had her in mind. Studied her for a while and thought she was a sweet enough girl Cannon wouldn't find intimidating. The party had been the setup. Mike invited them both, knowing that Cannon would never refuse approaching her since Mike had gone through so much work and scheming. If she thought Cannon clumsy, she kept it to herself.
They were crammed in Mike's studio apartment with little room for privacy. Mike's bed, the couch, the short space between kitchen and bathroom had all been taken. Cannon beckoned her over to the view down on the street, a group of square, brick apartment buildings directly across from them. He leaned against the radiator, the small of his back pressed against the window sill. He said nothing to her and just handed her the beer. She thanked him and reached for his hand.
'Etruria,' she said.
Her firm grip calmed him, and he returned the handshake. He'd heard that name before, even though it was by no means usual. 'Etruria,' he said. 'Etruria . . . '
A little embarrassed, she shrugged. 'Like the ancient civilization. My parents liked their history.'
'Ahhhhhhh, I understand. People are always wondering why I'm named after a weapon. My mother wanted to honor her family. All the Cannons were dying out, and she was pretty sure I was the only child she'd have.'
'Was she right?'
'Besides the miscarriages.' He closed his eyes and rolled them up into his head. He heard the beer lurch forward in the bottle as she took another drink. 'That's, that's probably more – '
'Don't worry about it,' she said.
He opened his eyes.
Mike was wrong about one thing. Cannon should have found Etruria intimidating. For someone in her early twenties, she knew what she wanted without being controlling or too demanding. Cannon was five years her senior, and he still fumbled for a purpose as he approached thirty. Every one of her movements had purpose. No glance, no smile, no slight shift of her weight was made without an intended meaning. He was satisfied sometimes to just watch Etruria move. The way she smoothed her skirt over her knee when she crossed her legs. How she'd frown in the mirror and press down errant honey blond strands with her middle and index fingers before she left for work. When he was down, she'd walk across the room and brush him under the chin with the back of her hand. Sometimes, when Cannon hid his face in her hair, and she wrapped her body around his, he wondered why she chose him. She was more deserving of a confident man, one she didn't have to encourage every day, one who didn't fumble for words when she could tell him everything she wanted him to know just by entering a room.
I'm not good at this. I never have been. I'm afraid telling you all this is going to push you away, but I'm yours as long as you'll have me.
He didn't go back to work after he left the bank. He went straight to his apartment and locked himself in. Huddled himself on the floor against the couch facing the door. After dusk increased the shadows down the hallways and on the walls, Cannon didn't turn on any lights. A TV conversation mumbled through the ceiling, and he confused it with his own inner dialogue. He sat on the floor of the den squeezing his chin between his knees and told himself that what he had heard was mere coincidence. He misread the look from the teller in the strange, fluorescent light. It was the fluorescent light. He misread the teller. Misread the teller in the strange, fluorescent light, he repeated until he descended into a comforting hypnosis.
The phone rang. In his cocoon, Cannon heard each pulse rise from his subconscious. The phone stopped, then suddenly rang twice, and went silent. Cannon yelped and found he wasn't breathing. The same ringing pattern used to draw him to the phone when the caller knew he was too weary to be bothered speaking with anyone else.
He squeezed his eyes shut. One ring, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight . . . she was persistent, and still he hadn't picked up. Nine, ten, eleven . . .
He took the receiver, and the surge of vomit he knew would come was quickly replaced by airiness. He floated up to the ceiling. His gut stopped trembling. The low drone in his head dissipated until his imaginations imploded in a vacuum.
They both listened to his heavy breaths beating against the phone. He mouthed several sentences and bit the tip of his tongue.
'You don't have to be afraid, Cannon.'
The voice was unfamiliar, but for the caress in the inflection. The soft, deliberate enunciation of hard consonants. Strong, assured, but still laid back.
Cannon clenched his teeth. His shoulders bucked, and his body spasmed back and forth. He couldn't pretend he didn't know. She wouldn't let him. He rubbed his hand across his face and through his hair. He was surprised it was so wet. 'What's your name now? Is it still . . . the same?
'My name is Leeanna now, Cannon.'
'I don't believe in reincarnation. It hasn't been long enough for you to grow up and have a whole new life anyway.'
'I haven't been reincarnated.'
'Then . . . ? You are, you are Etruria?'
'I just took another shell.'
Cannon shook his head. 'Shell . . . ' Her voice, the warmth on the other end of the phone, invaded the hollow spaces in the apartment. She was on top of him, like her body heat used to slowly push him into the mattress when she laced her leg on top of his and eased her head and breasts onto his chest.
'I finally got a body, after thousands of years. We're meant to have a body, you know. Without living in one . . . I'll spare you. I won't try to explain that kind of pain.'
His stupid, scared laughter wracked his body. 'Thousand of years? So, you've just been, like some kind of ghost? Where did you get her body? You took Etruria's body?'
'There was no her, Cannon. Without another spirit living in it, the body was always mine. It took a while, but they finally figured how to make a human body.'
'What're you talking about? Clones? Nobody's made human clones. It's illegal.'
'You're so trusting. I always found that sweet.'
'Did you take Etruria's identity too?'
'I am Etruria, Cannon. Even when I have to live as Leeanna, I'm still Etruria. You knew it when you looked at me. Whoever owned the original body, she's been dead for years. Forgotten. Why would I take a copy of someone who's still living?' She laughed to herself, and Cannon's thighs quivered. 'They still haven't figured out you can't recreate the spirit or the soul. The clones wouldn't even move without us in them,' she said. 'They'd expect me to act like her, to think like her. I'll never take a copy of the living. I have no interest in being someone else. I'm very, very sorry you had to see me today.'
'Etru . . . Leeanna. Leeanna. Leeanna . . . I wouldn't bother telling anyone. They wouldn't believe me.'
'I'm sure you mean that, Cannon, but funny things we never intend always happen. I can't wander without a shell again.'
He had let her down, as he knew he would. He was too tired to make a run to the store with her and whined about it as he wormed his way back under the sheets. She patted his head and told him she'd bring him some fudge.
The police called, and he spent the rest of the night holding Etruria's hand. He breathed in time with the respirator, as if this could rouse her, heal the fractures and the damage on the inside. For a moment, he wondered if he would be the one lying there if he had been driving and not responded quickly enough when the other car swerved into the lane. But he couldn't imagine the fear or the rapid onset of pain on impact. He told himself that to do so would be self-righteous, making himself believe he could be empathetic, after he should have gone with her in the first place.
When she died, the only person Cannon knew to call was Mike. Etruria never mentioned any family, had no family. He let Mike call the rest of her friends.
I don't know why you stay with me, Etruria. I don't know why you find me good enough to be with you. I never want to disappoint you. That's the worst thing I could ever do to you. If I ever have please forgive me.
Mike thought the letter was a bad idea. Too cheesy, too desperate; Etruria had no reason to believe Cannon was insecure about the relationship. But Mike didn't understand. Cannon could never want another woman, and he knew of no other way to express it. He stood there and watched her read it at the dining room table in candle light. She had jumped into his arms and whispered, 'It's romantically pathetic, or pathetically romantic.'
After the call last night, he had only to wait for her. He got up from the bed and approached the front door with bare feet, avoiding the creaky floorboards. He stared at her through the eyehole, and she stared into him on the other side. The dark hair and thinner face made her look harder. He liked rubbing his nose against the baby fat of her cheeks, letting thin lines of blond hair get caught in the crease between his lips. The hair on this new body looked like it could cut the skin. Maybe he couldn't kiss that mouth. It was too full, too round. If she had occupied this clone when he met her, Cannon probably never would have loved Etruria. But he met her several years too early.
'Cannon, you're there aren't you?'
Mike would have told him to run – it was possible to get away. Maybe that was true, but Cannon knew he could not outlast the wrath of wandering spirits. If Etruria didn't do it herself, someone else would find him, would keep him from stumbling with their secret.
He opened the door for her, and she smiled for him. He kept his distance, and she backed him down the dark hallway. Through the den, past the kitchen, past the living room and the bathroom. It was the game they used to play. Her leading him. Him giving up the chase as they collapsed onto the bed. He tried to imagine thinner lips and soft cheeks. The shadows helped. He could pretend they had blackened her hair. Over the past twenty-four hours, he questioned why she chose this body. Did she watch clones grow up in tubes? Some quiet, expressionless faces showing more promise than the others? Or was it that she looked so different from the shell she had before?
The backs of his knees hit the edge of the bed, and his legs buckled. Forced under his falling weight, he sat abruptly, but Etruria didn't pounce on top of him. She gave him the same look as she used to when she found him staring out, listening to the muted sounds dancing in the walls, thinking about why his life had never been more interesting than this.
Now he understood why she had stayed with him. He was never a threat. 'Where are they hiding them? Where are they doing the experiments? Will they clone me? Who'd choose to clone me? It'll be easy to forget me. Somebody will take my shell and start over, won't they? Can I get a copy, or will I be out there drifting? Do I have to fight for a shell? How many shells are there? There's not enough – there can't be enough. How badly does it hurt without a body? How long will I have to wander without one? I'd never tell. I know they don't know what you, your kind's doing. Teach me how to act like I'm the same as the original. I can learn how to fool them, too. Can I get a copy and be with you?'
She pressed her index finger against his lips, and he knew what would come next, her sticking the tip of her finger in his mouth. He allowed his teeth to nibble. For his tongue to search. Very different skin. Very different taste. He took her finger and kissed it, sucked it, and let it fall.
'With everything you've ever seen, you must find me pretty simple.' She didn't respond to his embarrassed laughter. 'Did you ever love me?'
'You'll always be special to me, Cannon. If you don't find any rest, don't come looking for Leeanna. I'll have to choose another shell when I'm done. Living without a body is the only prison I ever wish to experience.'
She cleaned the tears from his cheeks with her palms. He didn't know what would happen once he was torn from this body. But he knew Etruria, and she had always done what was right for him. He knew she had certainly chosen the best way for him to die.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Toiya Kristen Finley. All rights reserved.
About the author
Nashville, TN native Toiya Kristen Finley is a freelancer who was a
professional student in another life. Her fiction has appeared in
Text: UR - The New Book of Masks, Not One of Us, Tales of the
Unanticipated, TEL: Stories, and The Nine Muses. Upcoming work will
appear in Triquorum and New Writings in the Fantastic. She is the
founding and former managing/fiction editor of Harpur Palate.
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