Calm down. My inner ear buzzed, a low hum catalyzed by the ear phones shoved in my head. The world wouldn’t stop spinning.
Half a Xanax pulsed through my body, my insides the only thing that actually seemed to be mine at that point. Kyle had only been able to push a fraction of his prescription my way each month, even though I’d been the one to hand feed him prepared answers to the prying minds of the local head shrink. He didn’t look at me that morning when he threw a sweaty handful from his bottle into my own yellow plastic container, secured with my new name and birthday in official black print. I’d pissed him off a little too much lately for him to want to deal with me. Probably worse that I ended up ditching him for the day to wreak havoc instead. I giggled to myself. Bobby Carr — 15 year old skater dude, at your service.
I opened my heavy, oily lids. The calm triggered deep in my nerves, massaging clenched muscles, glazing over my eyes — I’m the only one who really existed there. Mac Miller in the background, dramatizing each moment with extra glowing cynicism. Everything stolen, nothing really my own. Welcome to the new world.
The signs on the 51B were frayed and stained, strangely the same since I took the bus downtown past campus five years before. The people were just as grungy, the godawful smell of male body odor and vomit rising up from the seats. The gray sky spat at me from outside, its harsh white light glaring in my face. I shifted my legs, my ankle resting on my knee. I ran my fingers over fuzzy buzzed hair beneath my thick hood, feeling the blood still caked and gnarled where my hair met my wrinkled forehead. I tried to shut out the image of the bathroom mirror I caught a glance in this morning — dark circles hanging like bruises beneath my eyes, lips chapped and eyes flat, the yellowish sucker-punch on my temple that Matt had copped me with a few days before.
I watched the world outside flicker across my blank stare. LIQUOR, thrift store, smoke shop; Berkeley. Still Berkeley. Store signs flickered and trash was scattered in the gutters. Men on the sidewalk, men on the buses, men in the grocery stores. Men holding giant ass machine guns, prowling the street corners.
Mama held me tight one night to the sound of those guns. There were the runaways that got shot on sight, the traitors that were put on display for everyone else to learn the lesson. This time, it was my neighbors. I watched them from my childhood bedroom window, as I was home from college for a break. I saw the man, Steve, holding his wife’s hand — they snuck out soft and fast, but didn’t make it far enough. Not even down the goddam street.
My bedroom door creaked open. It was Mama. Her face was numb and frozen. The skin beneath her eyes sagged so heavy that her eyes looked like they were bulging out of their sockets. “Honey, close your blinds,” she whispered.
I kept my head low, tugging at my hood. The yellow lines on the road passed by — slower when I watched. Like a lecture hall clock. My heart beat calmed as each line came and went. Tick, tick, tick.
A murmur bubbled up from the passengers and I focused my gaze. A middle-aged man was turned around in the front seat, body contorted, these gnarly angry eyes popping out at all of us. I took my ear phones out slowly. He was incoherently mumbling loud enough to make the other passengers start to shift in their seats. His voice rasped and shrieked. The man jerked around towards the driver and started screaming about his wife.
“She’s gone left and gone with that group of goddam women sent to the goddam camps —”
My eyes shifted from from passenger to driver to man. I stiffened, breath shallow as I watched this man in the midst of a psychotic breakdown. I felt my head numbing and my arms grew heavy. I didn’t have enough Xanax stocked up for this bullshit.
Pissed, confused, conflicted, nervous. The men on the bus didn’t know what to do.
The driver pulled over. I understood — he had to do it. He kept muttering into his radio, occasionally glancing back ash the man with wide eyes.
“Get him off the bus!”
I turned around, head still low but curiosity getting the best of me. A guy was sitting behind me with a little kid who looked completely freaked. The kid was pulling on the guy’s stained blue t-shirt — “Daaaaaaaad?”
“It’s gonna be okay, lil dude.”
Sirens crept up, a glowing blare in the back of our minds. I itched to get out but knew they’d take one look at me and know. I slowed my breathing to stop my hands from shaking. The weed — the Xanax — it was as if I hadn’t drugged myself up this morning.
I met the eye of a twenty-something boy passing by on the street, his face growing more and more focused.
His gaze was focused, mine sunken. He cocked his head and stopped. I couldn’t look away and the sirens were almost here like counting the moments between thunder and lightning — how close were they?
What’s going on? Sam mouthed at me.
I didn’t respond. I was frozen in place — I needed help and didn’t know what to do —
In high school, God used to speak to me in my dreams. I used to buy into all that religious shit back then. Kami, my old Bible study leader, watched us all with these huge amber eyes and the widest white grin and told us about Him. I don’t think she realized what the world really looked like behind the facade of her religion. What the hell was I thinking?
— something caught me in that moment and told me to go. To run like hell. I met Sam outside the bus and we fell into the same footsteps, one after the other, in tandem. I pulled up my jeans, barely hanging on to my skinny hips with a shoestring. I looped my fingers into the straps of my backpack and hung my head so all I could see were the black splotches of old gum spotting the concrete.
“Haven’t seen you in a quick minute, love. What’s going on here?”
I pulled the hood of my jacket over my had and watched him, cautious. My heart pumped heavy inside my little chest. I felt for the pill bottle inside my pocket, fingering shredded receipts and a couple loose grits Kyle gave me that morning.
“Nothing.” I exhaled sharply. “Nothing happened. Just another man being idiotic. Speaking of — don’t be an idiot calling me ‘love’ and shit in public.” My high had worn off and I was back to my dangerously snappy state of PMS. Exactly where I shouldn’t be.
He raised his eyebrows. “My apologies. You used to not mind that.” We turned down the next street. The sirens were farther and farther behind us. He pulled out a pack of grits and offered me one. I snatched one from him and he lit it for me. “Nice.”
“Thanks,” I grunted, looking Sam over. His clothes were clean, simple. He was ridiculously normal, as if nothing had ever happened. I closed my eyes. Small fuzzy stars grew and died beneath my eyelids, the web of anxiety curling down my heavy arms and meeting my fingertips. Hold it together. I had to stop and take a deep breath. It rasped in my throat, cutting sharply from the cigarette. I let it out in a jagged exhale. “If you want to talk, let’s talk low.”
“Got it. Can I walk you home?”
I shrugged, my pace quickening. “Keep up.”
Sam laughed and lengthened his strides. I tried to keep him from distracting me. Watching the passerby was important. You never knew who was watching you back. Tugging on the strings of my hood, I lowered my voice. “What’s going on?”
“That’s my question for you. Permanently Bobby now, huh? Still living in the old house?”
“Can’t take any chances, Sam. And yeah —” I took a drag, pausing “— Kyle’s old house.”
“I’m sure the guys take good care of you. How many of you they have holed up there?”
“Five. Me included,” I whispered, breath catching. I would have said six last week, eight a month ago.
“Jesus. And you really think you’re heavy targets?”
“We’re exactly what they want. Either mentally unstable, gay, or fertile. We each got flagged when they started going through the female students.” I looked up beneath my hood, watching Sam. I wanted to show him my tag, a dark blue number on the inside of my right ankle. I wanted to show him everything. Scars inside and out. Oh, the desperation that comes from meeting people from before. His dark eyes hung heavy. I remembered holding that scruffy face in my hands, pressing lips wet from tears against his, holding hands and touching each other and that soft look he used to have when his eyes met mine. I tried to catch his eye but he was looking away, off towards the end of the street. Zoned out.
We had finally hit the university — the black splotch at the end of the street. The eucalyptus, the redwoods, and the grass were still damp from the morning rain. It felt like an eternity ago when I was rushing along the asphalt paths from lecture to seminar, walking around with hot pink hair piled in a bun on my head, clinging to my backpack with my head down and eyes up. My mind had flourished there, ideas fluttering in my mind as much as the butterflies in my stomach now — excitement rather than fear. A time I used to spend with Sam. My stomach lurched. It’s weird to be back, isn’t it?
“Watch it!” Sam warned, pulling my arm. I stepped in the puddle anyway, my socks squishing against the insides of my sneakers.
My old terror flooded back to me and I felt shock, my eyes darting around to catch glimpses — blue leather seats, long enough to comfortably fit two per, a shiny white ceiling and black rubber floors — deep purple skies, blue mountains miles out from the road on either side — messy black hair, flat lips, and a gun slung over the shoulder — girls passed out on all sides, real girls, some I recognized and some I didn’t — Paulie and Ryan asleep on each other, unnatural drool spilling down their chins —
I slowed my breath, calming my heart. I bit down hard on my lip in a reminder that I was still human. I could still feel things. “I want to get home.”
“We’ll get you home,” Sam responded. We made our way through Sproul Plaza, the dimly lit haunting expanse at dusk. It was where the homeless spread their camps, where debris fluttered free.
“Lo—” he started, grabbing my wrist.
“What the fuck, Sam?” I jerked my arm away. “Don’t touch me like that.”
“Give me a chance, dude.”
“Soon. Just shut up for now.” I felt blood flush up my face. Not now.
Sam and I were silent for the rest of the walk. We reached the house out of breath. The sun had begun to set without a sign of color in the sky. The clouds loomed over us, steadily darkening.
We felt as if we had been hit by a train.
We vomited in the toilets, some from withdrawal, some from pure exhaustion. We had cuts on our legs from shaving in the dark — shaving was mandatory — because the idiots that ran the place constantly found us in power outages. We picked blisters off our toes and popped pimples on our bodies. They didn’t have the right supplies to take care of this many women.
We were sick. We needed help.
And those godawful videos, talking about sex in some formulaic way where the female orgasm was revolting and the male had every right to the being he implanted inside of her. They made those of us who were on medication — antidepressants, birth control, seizure medication, insulin — and cut us off cold turkey because medication took you away from your natural state. After the first few weeks, our numbers dwindled. Something we would get used to, in the end.
There were even women that prowled the corridors of those underground dungeons, ready to attack any of us that resisted. They believed all of that bullshit. They were the ones who tested our fertility and genetics, touching sensitive places that should be left to our own devices. If we acted out or misbehaved, they sent us into “time-out” like children, into solitary confinement for days where we were left to the hysterics of our own minds. All we wanted was a hug, some sort of touch to remind us that we were still human and we still had some sort of control.
The people there didn’t even give us an end date — we didn’t even know if there was one. There hadn’t been women on the streets or even in the grocery stores, coffee shops, or restaurants when we all had been trying desperately to escape the new system. Where did they all go?
Where do we all go?
And after all that, all night of each night that I spent alone, huddled inside an overheated sleeping bag, I felt our terrors coursing through my body all over again. Once the nightmares began to repeat, my body would shock awake and the day would begin from there. Even if it was three in the morning.
My eyes squinted open, the nighttime world in a soft glow. Kyle had left the window cracked. I could make out the few girls spread in various positions across the floor — in sleeping bags, on mattress pads. Paulie, Ryan, and Smith had escaped with me. They had my back. Matt, the new one, had her own issues. She was curled up in the corner under a big quilt, twitching in her dreams. I hated being awake alone in the middle of the night. It was like being lonely in a crowded room. Everyone else was off in their frantic escapes to dreamworld while I was left behind in reality. Sometimes when I was really desperate, I would curl up in fetal position and pretend that there was someone behind me, holding me. It was like when I used to sleep my cat when I was home for summer break. Even though she wasn’t quite human, her warm fur next to my naked skin was such a comforting, innocent touch.
The slight bit of air that crept through the open window nipped at my flushed face as I sat up. I squirmed out of my sleeping bag and tip-toed across the room, careful not to step on anyone. Creeping out of the room, I was met by the unnatural harsh lighting of the hallway. I hugged myself in the chill, my old black hoodie and ratty sweats not enough for my emaciated body. I surveyed the situation. Careful. Anyone could be watching. Even here.
My heart jumped and I spun around. “What the hell?”
Sam was there right behind me, watching me. “Sorry, love. I didn’t realize you’re that jumpy.”
“Sure as hell I’m that jumpy. For a good reason, too.” I glared, sizing him up. “Why are you still here?”
“Kyle and I have been talking.”
“You, dipshit.” Laughing, Sam spread out his arms, inviting me in for a hug.
“Again, dude. Not here,” I whispered.
He shrugged, walking past me. “You coming?”
I paused. The lights were so damn bright. My voice started shaking. “I’m sorry, Sam. I can’t.” He gave me a squeeze on the wrist and walked down the hallway, turning the corner without glancing back.
With my heart beating too fast for me to shove it back down my throat, I slipped into Kyle’s open doorway, knocking softly on the door. “Hello?”
He looked up at me from his couch, his face glowing from the television screen. A monotonous voice drawled, “—the Bay Area, women seen on the streets are subject to search and potential arrest if necessary by law enforcement. The draft of female-identifying individuals filtering in and out of their designated camps is still—” The television went blank.
“Hey, Bobby girl.” Kyle smiled sadly. His eyes were electric in the low lighting.
I stupidly stood there in the doorway, dejected. “I’m sorry I left earlier. I was being a complete idiot.”
“It’s alright, girl. It’s gonna be okay.”
I fell down into the couch beside him, cowering under his arm. “I’ve lost myself.”
“You haven’t lost anything. You’re right here in front of me.”
As Kyle held me then, void of everything but a friendly love, I was reminded of being held by Sam during my panic attacks about school. I wish I could have considered how small those problems were, the ones that had expanded so enormously in my mind’s eye.
Somehow, in some alternate universe, the old me thrived and learned to become a new me, completely separate from Bobby, the me that I had once meant to become.
I pinched myself to feel something. Anything.
Human. I’m still human.