Wednesday, December 27, 2006


She's afraid of the homeless, so she hunkers into her oversized coat and peers out at the approaching buses through a deep hood, sprouting wisps of perfect blond hair like some kind of mutant street anemone. Her fears of the homeless aren't based on the usual complaints - contamination, the stench, an exaggerated sense of danger. If asked, she would claim that it's the sudden outbursts she objects to. The unaccountable fits of muttering, shouting, and cursing.

But the truth is, she's afraid of being engaged. Afraid that some manic stranger will confront her, back her against a wall with oblivious insistence, and demand answers she can't possibly provide. She's afraid to look on the weathered face, with its odd, oily sheen and singular fixed expression; afraid she'll recognize the look in those eyes and lose herself for good, as if madness were a virus caught with simple sincerity.

On the bus, she spreads out and pretends to sleep. If the bus is full, someone inevitably forces into the space next to her, but tonight she gets away with it. Eyes closed, she listens to the engine whine, the other passengers talk, fidget, rustle their newspapers. The ambient chittering of the urban understory.

Once home, she sheds the coat and then her work uniform, showers, and dresses for tonight's party. She selects the classic little-black-cocktail dress. It's not a new dress, so she doesn't even bother to check herself in the mirror. She doesn't have to. She's unchanging. She knows exactly what she looks like, down to the last hair and pore. Knows the effect she has on people. Especially men.

Truth is, she enjoys the effect more than the men. The sex, but not the attachment. Even desire leaves her cold. She cares only for the act, itself, and then only with the most casual, disinterested partners. The kind of men who hit on her almost out of habit and invariably flee in the aftermath. Saving her the trouble.

She calls a cab.

Her birthday, though a milestone, means nothing to her. She celebrates only out of courtesy to the girls at work. Mindy from Accounting, in particular, thinks of her as a friend, which she finds vaguely depressing. Mindy is young and fatuous, and earnestly interested in all the usual subjects. Cars. Boyfriends. The job. The lottery. All things trite and popular.

She joins in the conversations only reluctantly, but gains a stiff satisfaction when no one quite understands her contributions. Cars? Too expensive. Too much trouble. They break down when you really need them, and replacing them's a pain. Men? Same answer. The initial laughter tapers off as the girls decide she's serious. A job's a job's a job, she says. The lottery? She supposes she'd plant a garden. No – she guesses you don't actually need to win the lottery to plant a garden.

At the restaurant, they drink heavily and have the waiters sing a generic birthday song. They bring out a store-bought cake, and everyone helps to blow out the candles. Blowing out 150 candles requires a bit of a group effort.

There are the usual cards and presents. Mindy gives her an assortment of seeds and some small gardening implements wrapped in a clay pot. Gloves. A mini rake. A hand trowel. Thoughtful gifts.

They've learned better than to ask her about the past. Others from that initial wave of medical immortals have become celebrities, making good livings out of their personal histories. As if each year that passes somehow bestows their memories with more relevance. Opinions made sacrosanct through the simple expedient of failure to rot, they dole out anecdotal wisdom like communion wafers. She never talks about the past.

She arrives home late and promptly disposes of the cards and gifts in the trash and recycling bins. There is no room in her tiny, spare apartment for 150 years' worth of accumulated possessions.

She undresses, changing into oversized, gray, flannel pajamas.

She makes a cup of weak tea and logs onto the Net. Her avatar is an amorphous blob with the alias Methuselah[Bot]. She dances through random games, newsgroups, communities, chat room conversations posting inane non-sequiturs. No one pays her much attention. The occasional exchanges are belligerent or playful, but never personal. Her cover holds. She is a rogue program, a shadow cast from lines of code. Voice without mind.

She floats like this through the immaterial world until, nodding off repeatedly, she finally stumbles off to bed, falling instantly into an anonymous, dreamless, bottomless sleep.


Wendell said...

Dammit, Flo, that's good. You really snuck up on me with Ms. Methuselah[Bot]. Considering how few SciFi writers ever bother to give their characters any ... character, I gotta say... wow.

IRFH said...

Thanks! I've always prefered stories that at least try to make it personal.