Yvette and I were in bed, watching through a gap in the curtains as my neighbor, Lou Spellman, stood at his mailbox and cried. The corner of the box was pressing into his gut, and he took a handkerchief from his pocket and swiped at his nose.
“What do you think happened?” I said to Yvette.
“Draft card. Obviously. What’re you, stupid?”
A woman came out of one of the houses across the street and went to stand with Lou. I’d seen her before, always thought she was pretty, but had never gotten around to talking to her. Now she was rubbing Lou’s shoulder while he kept right on crying. I turned away from the window.
“If I was stupid would you be here right now?” I slid my palm across the sheets, over Yvette’s stomach and her breasts. She’d recently gotten her own draft card giving her two weeks’ notice, and decided to make the most of things while she still could. Most people only got a day’s notice, but neither of us was complaining about the extra time—we’d spent the past week holding our own personal Olympics of Sex. Before that I hadn’t seen her in a good ten years.
“I’d still be here if you were stupid and ugly,” she said. “Don’t think you’re the first person I called.”
I stopped touching her and got out of bed. Yvette was meaner than I remembered her, but maybe I was, too. She’d been an art student back when we were dating, the only black girlfriend I’d ever had. In her second year of grad school she’d developed a raging social conscience that meant her apartment was always filled with anti-sweatshop protestors and militant vegans, but before that Yvette and I had spent most of a year holed up in her studio, surrounded by canvases covered in angry swirls of color, getting high and eating junk food and laughing ourselves dizzy. In those days her body was always flecked with paint, conté crayon caked under her fingernails. At the time I’d told myself it was just meaningless fun, but it looked like a kind of paradise now.
“Hey,” she said, coming up behind me and wrapping her arms around my waist, “Don’t be so sensitive.”
“I have to get ready for work,” I said.
The architecture firm I worked for had gotten the contract to design the supplementary housing for the Masters’ new American headquarters in Washington, which meant extra hours at the office. A lot of plans were getting scrapped and having to be redrawn, because after seven years we were still learning about the Masters. They had an absolute loathing of physical contact, even with each other, so all the hallways had to be three times as wide as we would have made them for people. They hated rough surfaces, so where we would have liked to put carpeting there had to be acrylic tile instead. They didn’t need bathrooms. As soon as you thought you’d sorted things out they would pass down a new mandate: no incandescent lighting, no windows, as few corners as possible. I was glad we didn’t have to figure out the headquarters building itself—another, bigger firm in New York was designing that, although the construction couldn’t be started until a third company finished hauling away the remains of the Pentagon.
My coworker, Beatrice, called Masters “the snots,” because that was pretty much what they looked like—giant globs of snot. Every time she said it I got the same thrill I had in elementary school when one of the older kids did something illicit at the back of the bus. Back then I knew that I would never be the one to light up a stolen Newport or put my hand up Patricia Rikers’ skirt, but that didn’t cut the vicarious thrill I got from watching other people do it. Beatrice’s desk faced the hallway, so I guess there wasn’t much chance that any Masters could get in hearing range without her noticing, but I still felt a buzz of adrenaline every time she said, “Oh goody, another visit from the snots,” or “Guess we’d better add some more troughs to this building so the snots will have somewhere to eat.” She was an older woman, plump, always wearing frilled blouses—she looked like she ought to be at home watching Family Feud, which just made her defiance more entertaining. Sometimes when the Masters were standing right by her chair she’d pluck a tissue from the box on her desk and blow her nose for no reason at all, winking at me from behind her Kleenex.
Bea and I spent most of the morning playing online Scrabble at our desks and sending each other links to hilarious or disgusting internet videos, but around eleven a Master slithered into the doorway and said, “Hey, anyone who don’t have upgrades needs ta go to tha conference room.” The Masters all had the exact same voice when they spoke English, a high-pitched, androgynous blend of Long Island nasal tones and fat midwestern vowels. It was indescribably irritating, and no one could figure out why or how they had chosen it as the one über-voice that all of them would use to communicate with Americans. Word was that their versions of Danish and Swahili and every other language were equally grating. I waited until the Master left and rolled my eyes at Bea.
“Have fun, sucker,” she said.
“You can’t be thinking of words the whole time I’m gone.”
I went into the hall and followed a stream of people down to the conference room. It was a much smaller group than it had been the last time we went through this ridiculous exercise several months earlier. Once we were all seated, Peggie from HR clicked on the projector, and someone turned out the lights.
The blue screen gave way to the words, “Official Re-Handing Procedures,” and I probably would have dozed off right then if the video hadn’t immediately switched from the title screen to a close up of Daniella Cortège. Which I guess was the point of her—flawless face of the Re-Handing Procedures Initiative. I had seen this same footage at least a hundred times, like everyone else in the world, but I still did a double-take when she came on the screen.
The familiar images continued. Daniella—French, nineteen years old, hot as a cast-iron skillet in a white angora blouse and tight gray skirt—walks down the hallway of an Exchange Center. She is followed by two Masters, their gelatinous yellow bodies gliding along the floor tiles, two undifferentiated masses indistinguishable from one another. Smiling, Daniella walks into the exchange room and approaches the blank, buffed zinc face of the “Exchange Apparatus,” known to everyone with legs as the Forker. Here was where I always started to think that maybe the Masters were just playing dumb when they said they didn’t understand why people complained so much about the re-handing, that in fact they had a very good grasp of human aesthetics, because when Daniella holds her hands out to insert them into the Forker they are ugly: mannish, calloused, the fingernails chewed down to warped little buttons. A blemish on an otherwise breathtaking girl. Without hesitation she puts her hands into the two dark slots in the face of the Forker, and the pneumatic cuffs hiss shut around her wrists.
Daniella stands for a moment with her hands inside the machine, where they are invisible to the viewer, and to her. She looks relaxed and contemplative, as though she’s reflecting on the progress of her life to date, or maybe just on what she should eat for dinner that night. Then the cuffs hiss open again, and she withdraws from the Forker and holds up her arms. Where her hands used to be are five metal fingers, each one fully articulated and as thin as a pencil, connected to a spherical metal base where her palm should be. “Titanium Alloy Hand Upgrades” in Masters’ parlance, “forks” to everyone else, because that’s what they most resemble. She flexes the tines twice, bends a couple of them at strange angles you could never get with real fingers. Then she opens the little leather purse that’s hanging at her side, extracts a compact and a tube of lipstick, and deftly applies her makeup. She nods cordially at the two Masters and walks back down the hall.
Next a Master comes on the screen and starts describing the draft process, “randomly selected” blah blah blah “everyone will get a card” blah blah. They would go on to say that about ten times before the end of the video, “Everyone will get a card soonah or latah,” but by then I was zoned out, wondering what Yvette was up to and whether I was going to get laid this consistently ever again. When everyone around me stood up, I did too, and went back to my desk.
“Pugnacious,” Bea said, looking smug as all hell and cocking her thumb and pointer tines at the Scrabble board like a gun. “Sixty-six points. I guess your little ‘pug’ was worth something after all.”
When I got home Yvette was already there, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, which was full of delicious steam. I wondered whether she’d ever left that morning but didn’t ask. She handed me a broccoli floret. “Feel that,” she said.
I pinched the crown of the floret. “Feels like broccoli,” I said, and popped it into my mouth.
“No, seriously.” She handed me another one. “It’s soft, but you can feel all the little buds too, right? Like taste buds, or goose bumps or something.”
“Goose bumps made of broccoli,” I said. I ate that one too.
“You’re hopeless.” She picked up the chopping board and dumped the vegetables into a frying pan, but when I leaned in to kiss her she set the board down and put her hands on my face, running her fingers through my hair and down the back of my neck. “I always did like your hair,” she said. “I knew there was some reason I kept you around.”
That night I woke up to a tapping sound echoing through my bedroom. A moment later I realized it was coming from the window. I wrapped the sheet around my waist, crossed the room, and pulled the curtains back. Lou was pressing his face against the window, rapping the glass with his fingernails.
“What?” I said. Yvette had gone home earlier, saying she needed a night in her own place, and I was having trouble pulling myself out of the depths of sleep.
“I can’t hear you,” Lou said, loud as anything, and I pulled the curtains shut and put a robe on and went around to the back door to let him in.
“What the hell, Lou,” I said.
“Listen, I want to talk to you about something.”
I sat down in my TV chair and waved him toward the couch.
“Got any beer?” he said.
“In the fridge.”
He brought two bottles from the kitchen, handed me one, and sat down again. After he twisted the cap off his beer he just sat there, looking at the crimps the cap had made in the meat of his palm.
“So what’s up?” I said.
“I got my draft card today.”
“Really? I’m sorry to hear that.”
He shook his head. “Me too. I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t think about it more before it happened. I guess I wanted to believe I might get lucky. And now it’s too late to do anything about it.”
“What could you have done anyway?”
“I coulda gone to one of those places. Those surgeries.”
“That’s an urban legend. Those places don’t even exist.”
“They exist,” he said. “I don’t know where yet, but I could find out. I been thinking about it all night.”
“Well I kinda doubt you’re going to figure it out between now and tomorrow morning.”
“Not for me,” he said. “For you. I could find a surgery and if you wanted to do it, I could be your host.”
“My what? No,” I said. “What would be the point? Nobody likes this, Lou, but you have to man up.”
I could see that he wanted to get angry, but he held himself back. “You just think about it,” he said.
We drank the rest of our beers in silence, and then Lou let himself out.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I clicked on the TV. The only thing that wasn’t an infomercial or an old game show was a documentary about President Bolagno, who as far as I was concerned had been a total asshole. Everyone would have remembered him that way, too, if he hadn’t died in office; being the final US President had done wonders for his approval ratings.
As much as I hated him, I couldn’t stop watching once they started the footage of the first official meeting with the Masters. My thumb twitched against the channel button a few times but didn’t quite exert enough force to accomplish anything before morbid fascination won out. It was all completely familiar—the flags flapping, the confetti, Kinshasa O’Brian belting out the national anthem—but I couldn’t help getting a little choked up. When Bolagno stepped onto the dais and approached the Master who’d been sent to meet him, when the Master formed a little portion of his glutinous body into an appendage and Bolagno reached out to shake it, I started talking to the TV. It was like watching a horror movie that way, or a rerun of an old football game—I was saying, “No, no” to someone who couldn’t even hear me, who’d been dead for years and wouldn’t have listened to me even if I had been there. Bolagno let go of the Master’s appendage and I knew that already, fungus from the Master’s body slime was working its way into his bloodstream, reproducing at an insane rate, that in five minutes I’d be able to see the first black tinge in his skin, and fifteen minutes after that he’d be dead. And yet there he was, smiling like a rock star, hogging up as much time as he could while the All-Father of China and the German Chancellor and the Indian Prime Minister all stood there looking pissed, waiting for their turn to die. I hadn’t had any particular love for any of them, either, but I wanted to thank them for throwing themselves on that grenade; it gave the rest of us fair warning.
Eventually the documentary moved on to Bolagno’s childhood in Arizona, and at some point after that I fell asleep, because the next thing I knew it was morning and I was waking up with a stale mouth and a sore back. Half an hour later I watched through the window as an Exchange Center van pulled into Lou’s driveway. Two Masters got out of the van and mushed along up his front walk like two huge balls of Play-Doh. One of them formed part of its mass into a stubby appendage and rang the doorbell, and then they started whistling back and forth at each other, carrying on a conversation in their own ridiculous language that I could only guess at. For a minute I thought Lou’d decided to make a run for it, but a few seconds later he came to the door, dressed in a suit and tie, and got in the back of the van. The Masters whistled some more and then they got into the van too and drove away.
Lou wasn’t back yet when I got home from work, and neither was Yvette, but she showed up at eight with a bottle of Scotch. She asked me for a tumbler of ice, but within an hour we were doing shots and making out in the dark when Lou’s living room suddenly lit up—his bay window faced mine and was only about twenty feet away. Lou was still wearing his suit, and he sat down on his couch and rested his elbows on his knees and held up what would have been his hands the night before. He touched the tip of each new metal finger to the metal thumb, and I could just imagine the sound: click, click, click, click, repeat.
“Oh, Jesus,” Yvette said.
I closed the curtains and we started kissing again, but I could tell she was rattled. Eventually she just stood up and went into the bedroom. I carried the dishes to the kitchen and, before I went after her, took one more peek out the window. Lou was still at it.
The next day was chilly but bright, and Beatrice and I ate lunch outside, at the Chinese restaurant across the street from our office, to try to get a little sunshine before we spent another five hours staring at computer screens.
“Hasn’t anyone ever taught you how to use chopsticks?” Bea said. “You look like you’re spear fishing.” She used her tines to twirl one of her chopsticks like a miniature baton.
Bea had been re-handed at the very beginning of the Exchange, about three years ago, and I couldn’t remember anymore whether she had always been this snarky or whether it was something the forking did to her. I was trying to think of a good comeback when I heard someone shouting, and we both looked up.
A van was parked across the square and people were jumping out of it, all wearing rubber suits and gas masks. Another van pulled up behind the first. I grabbed Bea’s purse and my jacket, and we ran for the door of our building.
We could hear the gunfire start as soon as we got inside, which meant that the rebels had guns, which meant they were probably not very smart. We took the elevator upstairs to our office and went to the window.
“Those scuba suits were a good idea,” Bea said. “And the gas masks. Those cover their whole heads. It looks like they have oxygen tanks too.” She was tapping her forks against the glass with a little tink tink tink sound.
“Let’s just sit down, Bea,” I said. “Please.”
“I’m just saying, they look pretty good.”
There were maybe 200 resistance fighters now, more than I’d seen gathered in years. In addition to the guns they had grenades, which would buy them a little time. They were shooting at the buildings, chipping off bits of stone and breaking the first-floor windows with their bullets. Bea looked at her watch.
Masters started to emerge from the buildings facing the square, sliding through doorways by the dozens, moving the way they always did during these occurrences: slowly, apparently bored. One took several bullets as it slithered to the head of the pack, the ammunition disappearing into its mucous body without ever slowing it. One of the masked fighters threw a grenade, which splattered the closest Master and momentarily flattened the rest of them like squashed caterpillars, while the rebels hunkered down. But a few seconds later the exploded Master collected its mass back into a single ball and started moving again, and so did the others.
The rebels had grouped themselves around some sort of apparatus in the center of the square, and now they took out what looked like cattle prods, long rods crackling with electricity. They plunged them into the Masters’ bodies and someone threw a switch, and for a few seconds you could feel the rebels’ anticipation, their hope, even from five stories up. Then each Master belched a little cloud of smoke, and they all surged forward again. This time they engulfed the rebels. For maybe thirty seconds there was a heaving mass of people and Masters, and then slowly the Masters reversed direction and began to depart, being shot at and pelted with bricks the whole time, ignoring it. It was the most successful riot I had ever personally witnessed, from a human perspective. Bea looked at her watch again.
“Did they break ten minutes?” I said.
“Eight and a half.”
The rebels were still running after the Masters, hacking at them with machetes and gun butts, but they were crying, too, because they knew what we knew: if the Masters had turned around it was already over. The Masters had torn or punched or somehow found miniscule holes in all those bodysuits. They had momentarily pressed tendrils of their slimy bulk against the skin of the protestors, enough to let the fungus take hold. And now they would just let the rotting progress, the way it always did, while they returned to the comfort of their offices.
“Come on, Bea,” I said.
“No,” she said. “When I die I hope someone has the decency to watch.”
The Masters disappeared back into the buildings, and the rebels stood in the square, hugging each other and sobbing, looking up at all of us watching in the offices. I went back to my desk, and twenty minutes later Bea turned away from the window and walked back to her own cubicle, bright-eyed and grim. Only then did I notice that a Master had entered the room at some point and pressed itself against a far window, taking in the scene below. “Buncha loons,” it said.
The rebels’ bodies were blocking the entrance to the garage where I had parked for work, so I caught a bus home. I took a hot shower and put on jeans and a sweatshirt, heated up a tray of meatloaf and settled onto the couch. I tried not to think about the protestors, but I must have been thinking about something, because I didn’t remember until the doorbell rang that Yvette was coming over. When I opened the door she plucked at my sweatshirt with her fingernails, which she’d had done the day before. Now they were long and blue, with little rhinestone stars on them.
“You wear this just for me?” she said. “Wow.” I gave her a hug, and she said, “Sorry. I need a drink.”
“How about pot instead?”
“I don’t really smoke anymore.”
“Neither do I. But it’ll be like the good old days.”
“These are so clearly not the good old days,” she said, but she followed me inside and took the baggie of marijuana I handed her, then sat down to pack a bowl while I heated up a second tray of food.
We ate on my couch, passing the pipe back and forth between bites. As I watched her cut her meatloaf into fastidious cubes and then gobble them like a rabid animal, I wondered whether I hadn’t been a little more in love with her than I’d ever been willing to admit to myself, back in our younger days. Yvette sparked up the lighter again and stopped to look at it. “Am I even going to be able to do this?”
“You will. I’ve seen lots of people do it.”
She took a hit and handed the pipe to me, leaned back against the opposite end of the couch, kicked off her shoes and curled and uncurled her toes. “My feet stink,” she said.
I laughed, coughing on the lungful of smoke I’d been trying to hold in.
“You stink,” she said, “stop laughing at me,” but she started laughing too. Soon she was leaning against me, her forehead touching mine. She pressed one finger to my lips, pushed it into my mouth and wriggled it there like a worm, around my tongue, across my teeth.
“Wait a minute,” I said, and I moved out from under her and went to the window to close the curtains. Lou was sitting across the way in his living room, staring at his television with an intensity that confirmed my suspicion that he’d been watching us.
I went back to Yvette and kissed her lips and neck, her wrists, her fingers, all those pulse points, all those tens of thousands of nerve endings. She laced her fingers against the back of my neck and kissed me on the mouth.
“Did you know,” she said, “that the Romans used to have prostitutes they sent to prisoners who were about to be executed? I always thought it would be a really sad job, to be one of those girls. Do you feel sad?” She started running her fingers along the waistband of my pants, then unzipped my fly, and slipped her hand inside. “Well?”
“What? No, no, of course not. Could you just . . . yes, thank you, that,” I said. “Just watch your nails.”
“You should be glad I still have nails. One day the sight of someone with fingernails is going to be enough to make you stop dead in the street.”
“Mmmhmm,” I said. “You’re so right about that.”
“Of course I’m right,” she said.
I woke up in the middle of the night still on the couch, Yvette’s body wedged between my legs with her head against my chest. I thought she was asleep, but as soon as I tried to shift a little to get more comfortable she opened her eyes and looked at me.
“Help me,” she said, “please. Let me hide here. Don’t make me go home.”
“You know they always catch people who try to run. They’ll find you eventually whether you go home or not.”
“But please don’t make me,” she said.
When I met Yvette she’d been cussing out some complete stranger she’d caught dumping his used motor oil into the sewer system on a Tuesday evening—“poisoning the rest of us,” as she’d repeatedly shrieked. The guy was probably twice her size and was looking pretty pissed off when I stepped in to help her, only to find out that she didn’t need my help. After five minutes of her lecturing about the importance of public waterways, the guy mumbled an apology and fled. That kind of indomitability was what had drawn me to Yvette, and what drove us apart in the end. She could never just let things be—she had to control them, fix them, whether that was a casual polluter or the world or me. But now, for a moment, that was gone, and she was all bare sweetness and trust, looking at me as if I was the one who could fix everything.
“Poor honey,” I said, and kissed her forehead.
She pressed her cheek tighter against my chest, but a minute later she pulled herself up and got off the couch.
“Did I do something?”
“No,” she said. “Nothing.” She went to the window seat, pulled open the curtains, and sat looking out. I knew that in the darkness she was invisible even if anyone happened to be watching, but the ease with which she sat there naked still surprised me. I remembered, now, that she had always been like that, effortlessly nude; in art school she’d painted most of her canvasses naked, mixing colors right on the skin of her forearm or her hand, and once we’d started having sex she stopped closing the door when she used the bathroom. “You don’t mind fucking me but you think it’s weird to see me pee?” she’d said, when I mentioned it. “Boy, you are twisted.”
Now she reached out and flipped the latches that locked the windows, turned the little crank that set them reeling open, leaned out into the cool night air.
“You know all those rumors you hear?” she said. “That they want to replace our hands so they can program the forks to turn against us, or so we can’t use weapons, or because hands remind them of something scary from their home planet? That’s all bullshit. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just something they do to show us they can. And it won’t stop with hands.”
“What do you think is next, then?”
“Your dick, probably.”
I laughed, but she said, “I’m not kidding. If they control reproduction, they control the whole population. Not to mention what it’ll do to morale. You know what a hand job goes for on Birmingham Avenue these days?”
“Of course not,” I said, “Do you?”
“More than sex,” she said. “I know that much.”
“Come back over here. It’s getting cold.”
She reached her hands out the windows and waved them slowly back and forth. “I’m leaving,” she said, “just give me a minute.”
“I don’t want you to leave.”
She shrugged, as if to say that what I wanted didn’t matter much. I walked over and stood behind her with my hands on her shoulders, and she kissed my thumb and got up to start collecting her clothes.
“Why don’t you just spend the day here tomorrow,” I said. “I’ll call off work. We can go to a movie or something.”
She finished dressing and stood in front of me, her high heels clutched in one hand. The top of her head only came up to my chin. She took hold of my hair, not all that gently, and pulled my face toward hers for another kiss. “You’re exactly the same as you ever were,” she said, when we separated again.
“Thank God for small favors, huh?”
She looked at me very seriously for a moment, but all she said was, “Goodnight, Aaron.” I wrapped myself in a blanket and walked her to her car, and watched her taillights until she turned onto Parkvale and disappeared.
The next day I kept checking my phone, hoping she’d text me and say she wanted to spend the night. Around eight o’clock I gave her a call, but she didn’t answer, and she didn’t show. I knew she was due at the Exchange Center the following day and wouldn’t come to see me after she’d been forked. And I didn’t really want her to. More than anyone else I could think of, Yvette would be diminished by the forking, subdued in a way that was antithetical to her nature and that I didn’t want to witness.
The next week brought the first really warm days of the year. I got home from work on Wednesday and found Lou in his back yard loading his grill up with charcoal. He winced a little every time his metal fingers scraped on the metal of the grill. That was one way you could tell people who had just gotten their forks—that sound still bothered them. From what I heard you got used to it soon enough. He disappeared inside again, and came back a while later with a whole plate of hamburgers. He made great burgers, with diced onions and garlic mixed right into the meat. They smelled incredible while they were cooking, and I knew all I had in the house was a bag of frozen corn and some ramen; I couldn’t help glancing over now and then. When the burgers were half-cooked Lou flipped a few of them with tongs. But then he reached out and grabbed one with the tips of his metal fingers and turned it over just like that. He did the rest of them that way, and when they were finished he picked them up and put them on a clean plate and wiped the grease off his tines with a paper towel. Then he knocked on his window, and a minute later a woman came out carrying a plate of buns, with a bottle of ketchup pinned under one arm. She looked way too hot to be hanging out with Lou, and I realized that she lived across the street, that she was the woman I had seen consoling Lou on the day he got his draft card.
She went back into the house for a blanket, and they both settled down on the grass to eat.
“Like a burger?” Lou called to me.
“Sure would.” I hauled my chair over to his side of the lawn, and Lou put his fork gently on the woman’s shoulder.
“This is Mary Ellen,” Lou said. “She’s our neighbor.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Hi.”
She smiled, a nervous little smile, and handed me a burger. I hunched forward as I bit into it so the juice would drip into the grass. When I straightened up again Lou and Mary Ellen seemed to be in the middle of a pantomime, which they quickly dropped. Mary Ellen shot Lou a look, and he cleared his throat.
“We’re going out on Saturday night,” Lou said. “Maybe you wanna join us?”
“I don’t want to be a third wheel, Lou. Thanks anyway.”
“It’s not really a date,” he said.
Mary Ellen leaned forward and put both her hands on my knee. Her fingers were trembling. “It would be nice if you’d come along,” she said. She had a quiet soprano voice as sweet and grainy as a sugar cube.
I knew that if I didn’t go I’d spend the whole weekend at home with nothing to do, meditating on the feel of Yvette’s tongue against mine, slightly dry from the pot, remembering the way she had stared at me before she left.
“Sure,” I said.
I woke up at six in the morning to the doorbell ringing incessantly and rushed to answer it, wading through a half-dream of Yvette standing there, hands and all, smiling wryly at me. Instead I opened the door and found myself standing in my boxers with my belly dangerously close to the viscous surface of two Masters. They both slid back a few inches.
“Howyadooin’,” the one closest to me said, not as an actual question, just as preamble. They tended to start conversations that way. “We’re lookin’ for this woman. You seen her?”
The other Master extended an appendage that was looped loosely around a small pixel frame showing a headshot of Yvette. It was an old picture, from about the time when I’d first known her. She looked like she was considering biting the cameraman, whoever that had been.
“Yes,” I said.
“Where’s she at?”
“I don’t know. At home, I guess. The last time I saw her was days ago.”
“Ya haven’t seen this woman since then?”
“No,” I said. “No, and I haven’t talked to her either.”
The Masters whistled back and forth a bit, and the one with the pixel frame said, “This woman is wanted for re-handing evasion. If ya see her, ya must report it immediately.”
“She has failed to show up for her appointment. This is her last known location. Ya sure she ain’t here?”
“No,” I said, “I mean yes, I’m sure.”
The Masters talked to each other again, and then the nearer one said, “Seeing as how we’re already here, ya might as well come wid us.”
“Come with you where?”
“To the centah,” said the Master, producing an appendage and extending it toward the car they had both driven up in. “We don’t have no more evasion appointments today, so we might as well take you for re-handing.”
I stood with my hand on the doorframe and didn’t say anything. A cold wash of adrenaline hit me and my brain was ticking so fast I thought I might pass out. I wanted an excuse, any excuse, even if it would only buy me one more day.
“I haven’t had a draft card,” I said. “It’s not my turn yet.”
“Nah, it don’t matter,” said the Master holding the pixel frame, retracting the tendril-like appendage back into himself, so that his body swallowed up Yvette’s picture, frame and all. “Everyone will get a card soonah or latah. We can enter it inta the computa when we get there. It won’t be no problem.”
“But I’m supposed to be meeting someone,” I said. “I have an important meeting, and then I’m going to visit a friend in the hospital. He’s very sick. And anyway, I’m not even dressed.”
“Yeah,” said the Master, moving toward the car. “It won’t take that long. We’ll tell them to put you first.” The other one advanced toward me, closer by inches until I took a step away from the door, toward their car. The Master flattened himself until he was almost a plane and slid behind me so that I had to either step forward again or touch him, and began shepherding me toward the car.
“I just don’t think this is a good idea, doing this out of order,” I said.
“Yeah, okay, it’ll work out just fine,” said the Master behind me, and he manifested an appendage and opened the car door for me.
When I got to work the next day Bea was sitting at her desk, with her nose practically pressed to her computer screen.
“What’re you watching, Bea?”
“Shhh,” she hissed at me, and motioned me over without taking her eyes from the monitor. I stood behind her and watched a group of surgeons gather around a shrouded table.
“What is it?” I said.
“That is the new revolution, if you ask me,” she said. “Pretty wild stuff. And this video has about a billion hits already. It keeps getting taken down and then someone else reposts it, and then people post responses, and it’s all over Chatterbox and VolkBytes. There have been riots, even. There’s this woman, right, and this team of surgeons is operating on her—”
“Maybe another day, Bea,” I said, and she immediately turned around in her swivel chair, looked me up and down, and pulled my arms from behind my back. Beatrice doesn’t miss anything.
She stood up and folded me into a hug. “I’m sorry, I really am,” she said, at which point I started to cry, something I’d had no inkling of doing before that moment. I had spent the previous night watching TV and trying not to look at my forks, drinking whiskey from a paper cup because the sound of the tines on a beer bottle irritated me, eating pizza with my eyes closed so I wouldn’t have to see them. I had told myself several hundred times that it was normal and that in fact the forks worked fine and it was happening to everyone and it was no big deal, and Beatrice made it impossible to believe any of that. She turned off her computer monitor and grabbed her box of Kleenex, and shuffled me into the supply closet where, as I leaned my head against a ream of copy paper and cried, she pulled out a step ladder, climbed it, and popped the battery out of the smoke detector. When she climbed back down she fished a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and jammed two of them into her mouth side by side so she could start them both before handing one to me. I accepted it and took a movie-style drag that left me hacking and gasping for breath.
“Such a Boy Scout,” Beatrice said.
I held up one fork with the three middle tines raised. “Thrifty, loyal, clean, kind, and obedient, ma’am.”
“Those bastards,” she said. “We should soak them all in napalm and toss them a match.”
We stayed in the closet until she had finished her cigarette and mine had burned down to the filter, and then she straightened my suit jacket and swung open the door and we went back to our desks and got to work.
The next night my phone rang three times in an hour, and eventually Mary Ellen came over and knocked on my door. When she saw my forks her whole face scrunched up like she was going to cry, but a moment later she got hold of herself and said, “Come on along anyway,” and led me over to Lou’s house.
“Forked,” she said, and Lou looked down at my would-be hands and sighed.
“Let’s get going,” he said.
We got in Lou’s car and he started driving, out past the suburbs, into the exurbs. He turned onto a small street and then down an alley. On either side of us were huge warehouses, most of which looked like they’d been empty for years.
“What is this?” I said.
“Just wait.” We were pulling up in front of a warehouse with a blue light shining from one wall. Two huge doors were open ahead, and when Lou drove through them we were suddenly inside a cavernous dark room where lanes had been marked out using flares. He found a parking space and led me to a door that took us into another alley, where we entered another huge warehouse.
The second building had been set up like a school cafeteria—row after row of folding lunch tables with people standing on top of them, small spotlights at their feet. All the people standing on the tables were what Lou would have called hosts—they had forks like anyone else who’d been “upgraded,” but they also had at least one pair of human hands attached somewhere on their bodies. There was one woman with a half-dozen pairs down her back, another with several pairs clustered on her hips like frills. One man was so covered in hands that he looked like a giant coral colonized by anemones, all those fingers waving in a current only he could feel. Some of the hands had the nails carefully shaped and painted, but there were workmen’s hands too, large-knuckled and calloused, with grease and dirt ground into the skin. The whole place had the feel of a third-world street market, vendors crowded together and people wandering through testing the wares, eating snacks from the concession stands that had been set up here and there between tables, haggling, carrying gossip back and forth across the aisles.
Now and then you’d see someone step up onto one of the seats attached to the tables—those orange plastic seats where I had eaten years of tuna sandwiches in my youth—and touch the symbiont hands, feel the texture of the skin and the strength of the fingers. Sometimes the person touching and the host would go off together toward the back of the building, which Lou told me was where they had set up a surgery for hand transfer.
“An hour and you’re done,” he said. “Most of the procedure’s automated at this point.”
“But what do people do without hands?”
“You can go to an Exchange Center the next day and claim that you had them removed yourself because you couldn’t stand them anymore. You get forks just like anyone else, and the Masters eat that shit up, like ‘Oh, finally, this one has seen the light.’ They don’t get what we’re doing here.”
“I can’t say I entirely get it either. How the hell did you even find this place, Lou?”
He shrugged. “I know some people. Check this out.” He pulled me over to a table where a tall redheaded woman stood, wearing nothing but high heels and a black velvet choker. Her skin was so pale you could see her veins, and she had four pairs of hands—a chocolate brown pair blooming between her breasts like dark flowers, and another three pairs in varying shades that wrapped around her calves, all of them men’s hands from the look of them. Her forks were so covered in sparkling rings that you could hardly see the metal, but the fingers of all the human hands were bare.
The woman next to her had creamy brown skin and wore a yellow knit dress that hung low on her shoulders; around her neck a pair of ivory-white hands were clasped like a necklace. The two women on the table were talking to each other, not even paying attention to us. I knew I was staring, but so was Lou, and neither of us seemed to be able to stop.
“Can I touch them?” said Mary Ellen. She was so quiet it was easy to forget she was there, but now her rusty little voice cut through the din.
The two women stopped talking, and the black woman looked down at her. “First time here?”
“Hold up your arms,” the host said, and when Mary Ellen showed her hands the woman said, “All right. I think they like a little touch now and then, anyway.”
While Lou and I watched, Mary Ellen stepped onto the chair and up to the table. The host touched the hands that were growing around her neck, caressed the white fingers with her tines, so that they separated and stretched. They were delicate hands, the fingers tapered and graceful, the knuckles compact. I could easily imagine them playing the violin, or shaping clay into pots.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” the redheaded woman said. “They’re from a woman we used to work with at the Department of Public Health.”
“Where is she now?” Lou said.
The woman laughed. “Still there, I guess.”
The other woman nodded to Mary Ellen. “Go ahead.”
Mary Ellen touched one of the pale fingers tentatively with one of her own. Then she pressed her palm against the other hand’s palm, and the fingers meshed together and gripped.
“They feel just like real fingers,” Mary Ellen said.
“They are real fingers,” the redheaded woman said.
Mary Ellen stroked the backs of the symbiont fingers with her free hand, and the black woman closed her eyes and sighed.
“You have a nice touch. Warm,” she said.
I wanted to climb up on the table and join them, but I knew I couldn’t, and I felt the same tightness in my chest that had ambushed me at the office with Bea. When Mary Ellen pulled her hand free, the fingers seemed to be clinging to her, as if they wanted to hold on a little longer. She turned to look at Lou.
“Well?” he said.
Mary Ellen nodded. “Yes.”
“Yes,” she said.
The black woman hugged Mary Ellen, and the redhead pulled a ring off one of her tines. “Here you go, girlfriend. For good luck,” she said.
Mary Ellen climbed down off the table and took hold of Lou’s left fork, and they talked for a moment with their heads close together, glancing toward the back of the warehouse. Lou took his car keys out of his pocket and gave them to me.
“Here,” he said. “We won’t be able to drive afterward anyway, not for a few hours at least while the anesthesia wears off.”
“Where should I meet you?”
“Go home when you’re ready,” he said. “Someone’ll give us a ride.”
I watched them leave, and when I turned around the two women were climbing down from the tables. I noticed several of the other hosts doing the same. From the center of the room I could hear a swell in the general clamor of the crowd. The women headed toward the noise, and I followed them.
A long stage had been set up, a proper stage, not just another lunch table, with pink lights and a sound system. People were queuing up at one end of it, and then music came blaring out of the speakers and people began to walk across the stage.
The man next to me explained that they were all the new hosts who had accepted hands since the last meeting. Some strutted like they were born to be on a catwalk, and others were shy, blushing. I imagined Lou up there at the next gathering, Mary Ellen’s dainty transplanted hands cradling his gut. The audience applauded continuously, a mix of flesh slapping flesh and the tang of metal on metal.
At the very end of the line was a group of people wearing loose blue robes—choir robes, I realized. There were a lot of them, maybe twenty, and as they crowded together at the end of the stage an announcer finally appeared from somewhere to proclaim in a tinny voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, our special guest of the evening.”
The music kept playing and the din from people in other parts of the building rumbled on, but everyone around me stopped talking. The people with the choir robes climbed up onstage and disrobed all at once, and immediately I could see what had everyone so intrigued. These people had gone beyond hands; what they were hosting was an entire human being, carved into pieces and distributed among them. The symbiont body—dark-skinned, female—surfaced and submerged across their bodies like the coils of a sea serpent breaking the skin of the ocean. Here a breast, there a set of toes, here a swell of flesh that could have been a calf or a forearm or the skin that wrapped the ribs. As I watched they began to form clusters, to display whole sections of the woman they were hosting—a woman whose body, with each passing second, looked increasingly familiar. The hands had gone to a man who was standing near the middle of the stage, and when I looked more closely I saw that they had long, shaped fingernails, painted a color that in the rosy light could have been blue or could just as easily have been green or lavender. One of the fingers curled and I swore I saw the twinkle of a rhinestone. The crowd around me began to stamp their feet and roar.
I turned away from the stage. Standing next to me were two girls who looked about sixteen. One wore a green tube dress that was too tight for her and was bouncing on her toes with excitement, screaming and stomping. The other was chewing a piece of her hair, winding another piece around her finger. I wondered when teenage girls would stop winding hair around their fingers. When the Masters would start forking children at birth, so that they’d never even know what it was like to have real hands, so that whole portions of their brains would remain dark and unused.
The girl in the tube dress noticed me looking at her and smiled. “Isn’t this just blazing? I can’t believe we’re here for this,” she said.
“I think I know that woman,” I said, even though saying it out loud kicked a wave of queasiness into my stomach.
“That one.” I gestured at the lineup of hosts, still refusing to look. “The one that’s all of them. I think she’s my old girlfriend.”
The girl’s eyes got big. “No way,” she said. “Yvette Raymond was your girlfriend?”
The nausea settled deeper, but I just nodded. “Do you know her?”
“Well, I mean not personally, but she’s the reason we came tonight. I mean her video is just incredible, and when she’s like, ‘We can’t submit, we have to do something’ and she lets those doctors just start cutting her up? I mean, my head pretty much exploded,” the girl said. “And she’s totally right, we outnumber those nasty slugs by about a thousand to one and we’re just sitting here?” She pulled her phone out of her purse and started recording the people posing onstage.
“They’ll never get her now,” the other girl said. “We can’t let them get any more of us.” She spoke quietly, without her friend’s percolating enthusiasm, but I could see in her face the kind of passion that made people lie down in front of tanks and smuggle refugees over borders in car trunks, that made them burn bras and flags and draft cards.
It was a passion I couldn’t share, as much as I knew Yvette would have wanted me to. Instead I felt a completely unrevolutionary longing for the woman these girls would never know, the one who examined vegetables as if life depended on it and mixed blue into green in the palm of her hand. If I turned back to that stage, if her rebellion ignited a mutiny that saved us all and her face covered every billboard on the planet, still I would never really see her again. No one would, not even the hosts who carried her defiance in a moving mosaic, who pumped the blood through her body and shared the sparks in her nerves.
Anjali Sachdeva’s short story collection, All the Names They Used for God, is the winner of the 2019 Chautauqua Prize. It was named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, Refinery 29, and BookRiot, longlisted for the Story Prize, and chosen as the 2018 Fiction Book of the Year by the Reading Women podcast. She lives in Pittsburgh.
“Manus” first appeared in TLR: John Le Carrè (Winter 2015)