Happy Birthday! • It’s You, Girl
Soundtrack: “Broke Record” by Eric Church
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
She has waited weeks, expecting every day to hear the news that the terrible secrets of DimCor have at last been revealed in Worlds Two and Three.
But more than two months have passed since Virgil promised to come back for her. In that time, she has watched over one hundred people sent to their deaths in the furnaces below. Fifty-some have awakened from the potion’s enchantment and been shipped back to World Two, minds blown. The last one was today. He was walking lockstep with the others as Marissa passed, when he blinked and looked around, then stared directly into her eyes. “Who?” he croaked. “What?” She could see the panic and horror filling his eyes as he gazed up at her. “Where? Where?” he gasped. “Where?” he sobbed as the Supervisors appeared on either side of him and dragged him away to the holding area for the hyphistasis chambers, his eyes still locked on Marissa’s.
The number of slaves has doubled, and the volume of output in the mines and on the production lines has increased accordingly. The only thing that has made any of this bearable has been the hope that an end is coming, that the evil of this place will finally be exposed to the light. But every time she has signed for a delivery, none of the drivers from Darphina have given any sign they know who she is.
He isn’t coming back. She knows that now. Something happened to him. (Or maybe he just changed his mind.) But at night, his voice comes back to her, she can hear the crashing of the thunder just as he described it, she can smell the scent of his hair mixed with tobacco, cardboard, and motor oil. She can feel the tremor that raced through her when he’d leaned close and she’d felt the roughness of his tongue upon her ear.
There are new faces every day in the holding pens, coming down the chutes, and up from the mines. New faces that grow wasted with age and exhaustion before her eyes. She closes her eyes as they file past, trying to remember his voice, how it took her away from this place to a world she will never know but can see in her mind. How many times can she wonder if he is dead or alive? As many times as she can wish she’d never spoken to him.
The music overhead is interrupted by the announcement that the DimCor quarterly meeting will begin in half an hour. As one, the spellbound slaves halt their work and straighten, standing stock-still like machines that have been switched over to standby.
The welcoming of new employees takes twice as long as usual.
Kelley is in fine form at the center of the auditorium, her smile beaming out to the farthest rows, streams of twinkling stars and sparkling diamonds dazzling the air with every flourish of her wand. The big news is that over the next six months, a second and third shift are going to be added to the schedule.
At least, Marissa thinks that is the big news.
“And now we’ve arrived,” Kelley announces with a grand gesture that causes a silk-draped object to appear on one hand, “at the moment in our program that’s my absolute favorite, and in a moment I’m sure you’ll all agree! If our esteemed CFO will join me on the stage. Marissa Kelvin—where are you?—girlfriend, c’mon down here in the spotlight!”
In confusion, Marissa slowly rises, heart suddenly racing. Something’s wrong. Heads turn to watch as she walks down the center aisle. As she nears the stage, she can see the glee in Kelley’s eyes, and then they are standing side by side, bathed in light as hundreds of faces watch and wait. “Now, you’ve all noticed our monthly acquisition of Organics has gradually increased by nearly a hundred percent, and as a result we’ve enjoyed a proportional growth in production and hiring. How, you ask, were we able to double our population of bots?”
From the appearance of the object concealed in silk, a swell of whispers has been slowly growing throughout the auditorium. Now the room is rippling with excitement.
“Each year,” Kelley continues, feeding on the vibe of anticipation, “the Robadu Award for Vision and Excellence is presented to one employee. Now, you’re all to be commended for your hard work and dedication. However, when someone dares to take a risk and introduce a new idea resulting in phenomenal success for all of us, that bravery and initiative cannot go unrewarded!” As she speaks, the drumroll and dazzle of the light globes above reach a crescendo. “Without further ado, this year’s award goes to…Virgil Fiaraka!” The entire assembly hall falls silent.
Marissa has forgotten to breathe. “What?” she finally whispers.
“Yep, this year’s award is a first—being given to an individual from outside this company and indeed outside this entire kingdom. However, Mr. Fiaraka is single-handedly responsible for the near-doubling of our productivity—hence many of your jobs. Today, we recognize his contributions for outstanding strategic recruiting initiative!” As Kelley speaks, she sweeps the silk covering away with a flick of her wand, revealing the object in her hand. It is a crystal sculpture in the shape of a steering wheel, inlayed in gold.
Rock music fills the auditorium, the thump of the bass and drums vibrating the floor. The second spotlight is playing across the stage, accompanied by a screaming guitar solo, coming to rest on its target at last.
Out onto the stage strolls Virgil, his driving uniform now gleaming white and studded with rhinestones, sporting a gigantic belt buckle in the shape of the DimCor logo. On his head is a white, wide-brimmed cap, cocked jauntily over mirrored shades. His long, dark hair is now a teased-up mane of frothy highlights. As he grins up at the crowd, waving a hand, the assembly hall is filled with screams of adoration. Virgil nods, swaggering across the stage and tipping his cap, stopping now and then to wave again. “Meet our new exclusive courier of Organics, former UPS driver, Virgil Fiaraka!” Marissa barely hears any of the things Kelley is spouting. Her mind has gone numb. “No longer must we bear the time and expense of extended Bypassports and secrecy, to obtain more units. Ol’ Virg knows all the Channels backward and forward, knows how to dodge the DIR and their curmudgeonly regulations. With his cunning skills (and immunity to the curse), he’s able to get in and out fast and quiet-like, bringing back more bots than ever before!” Virgil is now strutting back and forth in time to the drumbeats, tossing and catching his hat to the oohs and ahhs of the crowd. He pauses to make a sweeping bow, and something hanging around his neck swings out, flashing under the lights.
Virgil catches the lituus and tucks it back into his shirt. Then, to Marissa’s horror, he turns around, still bowing and in the process presenting his backside to the audience. The screams filling the room are deafening.
“And now, Marissa, if you will do the honors?” Kelley elbows Marissa forward.
For the first time, Virgil sees her, and hesitates, looking stunned. He slowly removes the hat and shades, and even under all the phony hair and white leather, he is so achingly familiar Marissa is left speechless. Steeling herself, Marissa obediently lifts the trophy from Kelley’s hands, presenting it to Virgil as he crosses the stage, the spotlight following him. What else can she do? “Congratulations, Mr. Fiaraka, on a job well-done.”
The whole room waits in breathless silence. All swagger forgotten, he comes to stand before her. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am.” In his eyes she can see that for him this is their first meeting. A slow grin warms his golden face as he gently lifts her free hand, touches it with the tip of his tongue.
There are cheers, catcalls, and whistles as Kelley turns them both to face the crowd and gently prods them to bow. “I dunno what you think…” Her voice is jovial with speculation. “Could there be some chymistry between these two?”
Virgil slowly releases Marissa’s hand, donning his cap and shades once more. “Hope to see you around, Miz Marissa,” he says. “But for now, duty’s callin’.” The rock music is building again. Virgil accepts the trophy, turns to salute the crowd with it, and now everyone is on their feet cheering as he struts off the stage and disappears.
The music, the cheers, the remainder of the quarterly assembly, flow through and around her without meaning. She only notices it’s over when she is swept out of the room with the exiting rush.
In a daze, Marissa walks out a rear exit on the ground floor of the factory and into the sleepy sunshine of the Division. The sight of him, adorned in gleaming white and rhinestones and heavy-metal hair, has dulled her senses. The swelling of the numbers, in bots, in production, in the need for employees, all just seemed like a roaring recovery, until today. As CFO, how could something as enormous as Virgil’s capture have escaped her attention? The only possible answer, of course, is that it was kept from her. Where is the evidence she gave him? How much does Kelley know? If she knows about their conspiracy, then why is Marissa still walking free?
There is no more hope of redemption. The only thing left to do is get as high as possible.
At the top of the stairs in front of her own front door, she realizes she has run all the way here from the factory without realizing it.
She strides past the kitchen, where the small gas tank in her refrigerator door glows invitingly, heading for the bathroom, where the vial and syringe await her, hidden in the tank behind the toilet.
Marissa freezes halfway across her spacious living room. A slender shape is seated in the shadows at the kitchen bar, silhouetted against the tank’s soft luminescence. “Man, you oughtta see your face right now!” Kelley giggles. The lights come on, though she has not moved. “Like you were planning on cupcakes and got asparagus instead. So, how’d you like your birthday present?”
“Oh, you know, just your hot new rockstar boyfriend. C’mon, we all saw the sparks fly when he got a load of you. Caught mister UPS trying to smuggle some bot juice outta here. We tried everything in the book to find out who gave it to him—Tyler’s book, of course. I gave Tyler free rein, and he and Virgil had quite a fun day together, trying out various curses. Let’s see…” Kelley motions for Marissa to join her on the next barstool. In front of her is a blender filled with margaritas. “…there was the one that peels your skin off then puts it back on… the one that fills your brain with hungry maggots…of course the old standby, that simply sets your arsehole on fire. But through it all, Mr. Fiaraka stuck to the story that he stole it himself. What to do with him?” Kelley taps her forehead.
Marissa climbs woodenly onto the stool, accepting a frosty glass. “So, we got to thinking: what would happen if instead of killing him, we put him to good use? No one’s ever tried an identity charm on a Darphinian before. Turns out, it works like a dream. He has no idea who he is, no memory of where he came from. All he knows is, keep bringin’ us the bots!” Kelley throws back her head and laughs, raising a toast. Numbly, Marissa clinks her glass to Kelley’s, then swallows enough booze to give herself a brain-freeze. “And Tyler had the brilliant idea to call up the UPS operations center in Darphina and tell them he never showed up, so while they’re out searching for their poor, lost driver, they’ve got no clue he’s one of us now!”
“And this whole time, you never told me.”
“I wanted to surprise you. Your twenty-eighth birthday came and went, and you never even noticed! You told me yourself how you’re into delivery guys, that’s why you hang around the shipping docks after hours. So, I fixed this one up especially for you. He’s out on the road most of the time, of course. But in between deliveries, we keep him in the warehouse, alongside the bots. Then you can take him out and play with him anytime you want.” Kelley fills Marissa’s empty glass. “Just make sure you put him back in his box when you’re done with him. Happy birthday!”
Marissa’s stomach is crawling. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
Kelley places her hand on top of Marissa’s. “I have learned so much since you came into my world, girlfriend. Damn it, I never knew what it was like to love something. I just want to give you everything.”
Marissa looks steadily into the hellish depths of Kelley’s eyes. “I love you, too.”
Only a few years ago, Marissa was a runaway on a lonely highway in Kansas. Today, she is a powerful executive with a celebrity boy-toy, wholly immersed in the endless drunken carnival that is Robadu. Robadu is a place, a people, a way of life, a creed. And if you close your mind and give in to the koolaid, it is a cartwheeling fantasy of adventure and discovery. If, on the other hand, you want to keep your soul, right what is wrong, destroy the machinery feeding on the lost souls of World Two, then it is a nightmare beyond comprehension.
Marissa exists in some nether realm beyond this spectrum.
The namesake of the empire carved across the face of this dark land and deep into its bowels calls itself Kelley and wears the face of an all-American co-ed straight off the UNL campus. Its real name, if it ever had one, is Ruin.
Marissa labors to keep this fact central in her mind each time she is rewarded for improving efficiency and throughput on the assembly lines; each time she knocks off work and heads out into the dark city, where adventures await with the many coworkers who have now accepted her as one of them; with every drink they lift in merriment; every time she eagerly opens her refrigerator to retrieve her allotted dose, magically refilled with the pale vapor that numbs the horror. And when the nightmares come too near, she bypasses the gas and reaches for the needle.
Across the kingdom, plastered across every blaring globe, is the face of Virgil accepting his award, mugging for the crowd, licking her hand. Everyone seems to be holding their breath, waiting for him to return, waiting for the next phase in this great love affair. But it takes two to have one of those.
Over the past few weeks, she has heard occasional rumors of Virgil’s daring exploits as he navigates the interdimensional roadways, dodging the DIR, recruiting hordes of Organics now nameless. Despite there being no actual sun down here, many people have begun to sport mirrored shades.
She longs to see his face again, but not as some life-sized doll. Regardless, he is the one thing she cannot get out of her mind.
As it turns out, the feeling is mutual.
It’s You, Girl
The call comes mid-afternoon.
Marissa has just given a managers’ presentation on proposed cuts and expansions for the second half of the fiscal year (during which Tyler has been largely inattentive, either burying his nose in his notes or staring up at the slow progress of the ornate clock on the ceiling).
These days, she is on autopilot. Virgil is not Virgil anymore. After his failed attempt at smuggling evidence out of here, there is no chance of trying to reach out to another Darphinian—all UPS drivers, as well as the shipping docks and runways, are now closely monitored around the clock. There is nothing left to live for, except the koolaid. Lately, Klio has been hard-pressed to keep up with her demand. Marissa takes a pleasure, however small, in the fact that the girl has gotten herself out of debt, has started to save up some cash, and is largely only pretending to drink and take drugs along with the reveling hordes.
Every so often, when she dons her black mask and enters Skidmor House to meet Klio on the forty-second floor, the deep and earnest beat of the Sky Song still rings out from some unknown floor. At times, there is more than one voice. At times, there are more instruments, played by actual human beings. The lyrics become more compelling every time, speaking of hope, of unity, of something called family. This could have something to do with the fact that Marissa has been describing these concepts to Klio in the course of their drug deals. Once, there is another Security raid, but people are getting smarter about getting away unseen, and this may or may not be related to Marissa’s habitual monitoring of the Caregivers’ enforcement grid and schedule.
She is fingering the lower right drawer of her desk. A locked drawer containing a glowing vial and syringe, tucked into a small shoulder bag. She has never gotten high at work. But it has been a comfort, just knowing the emergency stash is there. Now, she looks over at her office door. She is just getting up to lock it when the phone rings.
“Yeah—Miss Kelvin, sorry to bother you,” says the voice of Stedman, the crank room manager. “We’ve got kind of a situation down here, and Tyler and Miss Robadu aren’t answering our calls.”
“What kind of situation?”
“Well, it’s kind of not very easy to explain over the phone.”
One last look at her desk drawer. “On my way.”
A few minutes later, Marissa steps off the elevator at ground level, the cavernous warehouse with its corridors of pods stretching away into the gloom.
“Hello?” Her voice echoes. There is no sign of Stedman, or anyone else, save for the slumbering faces of the new captures, wreathed in glowing vapor behind the glass. She walks all the way to the back of the warehouse, where a single dock admits only one product: Organics. “Stedman! I’ve got work to do. What the hell do you want?”
“It’s you, girl.”
Marissa whirls around. Swaggering up the aisle between the coffins is a gleaming white figure, fringes swaying from sleeves and lapels, light from the overhead globes winking off mirrored sunglasses. As Virgil nears the spot where she is rooted, he cocks the white, jeweled cap to one side, tossing his bleached locks, grinning jauntily.
“Damn, you turn me on. Haven’t thought ’bout nothin’ else since I first laid eyes on you.”
Marissa cannot move, torn between wanting to run from this aberration of the friend she knew, and wanting to grab him, shake him, scream at him to come back from wherever he has gone.
That’s when the trapdoor slides open in the floor. There is a faint ratchet of techno music as the Transducer rises on its stilt legs and steps out, turning its goggling face to zero in on them. “Shit, yeah!” Virgil grasps her hand, pulling her into a brighter patch of lighting. He slings an arm around her, hand dangling between her breasts. “Take a good look, Robadu! This here’s my woman, she’s a wild thang, she makes my heart sang, and well—dang! You’re gonna get sick of hearin’ it but I ain’t never been stuck on nobody like this before!”
Wherever she may be at the moment, Kelley Robadu will be watching this obviously staged appearance. Marissa puts her arm around Virgil and smiles up at him. Say something. She is fumbling desperately for words, anything to fill the expectant space, knowing hordes of Divine are watching, waiting for the romance to unfold before their eyes. Then, it comes to her.
“The first time I saw you, I never wanted you to change,” she tells him, and she can practically hear their audience sighing in inebriated adoration.
“And I never will.” He is leaning down, close to kissing her. She feels a stirring of desire for the traces of Virgil that still remain within this caricature. Her hand rises to his face, then slides down to his chest, partly exposed by his unbuttoned shirt collar.
His breath on her face is as sweet as ever. She draws nearer…nearer… Then she turns her head to look into the voyeuristic lenses of the Transducer. “Hey, man. How about some privacy here?” The Transducer blinks once. Then, it slowly descends back through the floor and the trapdoor slides into place again.
Both his arms are around her now. “Hell yeah, you been readin’ my mind, baby!”
Marissa places both hands on his chest. “I think we should take this slow.”
“I can give it fast, slow, sideways, whatever way you take it. My truck’s right out there.” He tilts his head at the open bay. Out past the dock sits a large, pale square—his old UPS truck, now brilliant white and emblazoned with the curving blue logo of DimCor, Inc.
“What I mean is, why don’t you come over to the Division next time you’re in town? Then we can…you know…take our time.”
“Don’t know if I can wait that long. But I see your point, it’d be way more romantic for our first time.” He sighs, looking past her shoulder. “Hey, thanks for helpin’ get her down here, Stedman.” Marissa turns to see the woman stepping sheepishly out of the shadows. “Miz Kelley says I gotta make sure all the little fillies out there know I’m spoken for!” He gives Marissa another squeeze before reluctantly letting her go. As she walks back up the aisle, Virgil stands next to Stedman, watching her leave. “Damn, I’d like to gild that lily.”
She blows him a kiss from the doorway, then exits, feeling sick to her stomach.
Marissa is beginning to feel the first tendrils of fire signaling she needs a fix. It has never come this early before. This can only mean one thing: her dependency on the koolaid is intensifying. Her mind is skipping ahead to a time, perhaps in the near future, when she will have to stay high constantly, just to cool the flames. And then even that will not be enough. And then the flames will devour her.
She bursts out of the elevator, practically sprinting by the time she reaches her office door. She is just unlocking it when a voice behind her says: “Fucking thief.”
She stands with her key in the lock, the heat beginning to ripple beneath her skin. “Whatever you think I’ve done, dickweed,” she says without turning around, “I don’t have time for it right now. Take some happy pills and call me in the morning.” She yanks the door open, stumbles inside and slams it, turning the lock.
Tyler’s voice, faint, on the other side of the heavy door: “I’m the one! I’ve already said yes!”
But she is already sitting on the floor against her desk, the shoulder bag across her lap with the precious vial inside, the syringe empty beside her, as she is transformed into a single drop of water, crystallizing in some distant troposphere, flowering out into tiny, geometric planes of intricate complexity.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.