By A. Katherine Black

From the June 2021 issue of CHM

I stole that sweater from you on our last morning together. The one with the right cuff frayed to nearly nothing because you chewed on it when you were tense, when you were tired. When you were you. I’ve always wanted to be someone who didn’t steal, who didn’t lie to their love, but I am me.

I stuffed the sweater in a sock drawer when you were in the bathroom, distracted you with a kiss when you started to search for it. Because I knew. I knew it would be the last time I’d see you. That’s what I messaged you an hour after you left. An hour after I changed the key codes on the house doors.

Decades, we were supposed to be together. You were supposed to ride that elevator with me, to be that voice I’d never been able to muster, until the day our child inherited the unspeakable job.

Forgive me.

*~*~*

June’s body lifted in opposition as the elevator plunged into the earth, toward the place her grandmother had once foolishly thought she could keep secret. The woman standing next to her looked as if she’d put herself through some sort of ritual devised to mark this event. Head shaven, body draped in a white robe. Her shoulder bag was covered in pictures of people who claimed to be loved ones in exchange for the inheritance they hoped to receive, later that day. June wore the first thing she’d found in the closet, after receiving the call. Days like this didn’t deserve a ceremony.

Head bowed, the woman’s eyes were averted from the pictures June and Lydia had hung all over the elevator in ornate frames, like so many bloody Picassos. The long ride into the depths already half over, and June had said nothing.

Lydia would have laid out at least four solid arguments by now, no matter how resolute this woman might seem. Swears, insults, Lydia would’ve said anything to get the woman to look up. To look at her, to look at the pictures. Before it was too late.

June suspected that when Lydia looked at these plaintiffs, she saw her own grandfather. Watching Lydia in action, fighting to save a life. June could see the nine-year-old girl who’d been robbed of the chance to say good-bye, who thought chronic illness was no excuse to step into that machine.

Plaintiffs came in two varieties: the kind who believed they might actually survive the trip, maybe even find a cure on the other side, and the kind who expected a quick death, but preferred to exit life with a flourish of expensive courtroom drama, as opposed to a painful, drawn out struggle promised by their particular incurable disease. Add to that the satisfaction some plaintiffs no doubt enjoyed in setting their descendants on perpetual edge, aware their elder might suddenly show up at some future, undisclosed date and resume ordering everybody around.

The pressure of June’s feet against the elevator floor told her the car was slowing. They were almost there. She had to say something, Lydia or no Lydia. “There’s time.” She couldn’t bring herself to look the woman in the face. “You can still change your mind.”

“I’m well aware of the risks, dear.” The woman’s words pushed forth with the same air of confidence June had met in so many of the wealthy and powerful who’d won their court battle, won the right to ride in a time machine that didn’t work. These people were used to getting what they wanted. But this machine wasn’t impressed with wealth, wasn’t intimidated by success or breeding. It did what it did, no matter who stepped into its belly.

Bile flooded June’s throat. Doc had offered drugs to help June deal with the acid and stress of these court-ordered trips, but June didn’t want to feel comfortable. The elevator hit bottom, doors opening to a waiting Katie. The friendly crinkle around her eyes clashed with the gun holstered under her arm.

Despite the pictures in the elevator, despite the passionate pleas from Lydia along the three-minute ride to the machine, no plaintiff had ever changed their mind. Not since June had assumed the job of activating her grandmother’s machine. Had anyone ever changed their mind? June had wondered, especially when she was alone with a bottle.

She wondered about the last time her mother stood at the console and punched in the family access code, just hours before she’d ended her own life in the bathroom at home.

The body of that plaintiff, the one who’d taken a ride on the machine the night June’s mother had died, she’d shown up so soon. Too soon. Only two years later. Mangled and steaming, half melded with a tree in a rural national park, the woman had been discovered by some poor jogger. The press had a field day, speculating about the point of that trip, given that a cure for the plaintiff’s disease would not likely have been discovered yet only two years in the future.

June had hoped the horrific discovery would complicate future court battles, force plaintiffs to prove they weren’t just looking for a new type of suicide, to prove they truly wanted to take a trip in the machine to search for a cure.

It wasn’t long after that discovery that June had shown Lydia the photos. Posting them in the elevator had been Lydia’s idea.

*~*~*

Your message woke me from a useless sleep, inviting me to the bar where we’d had our first date. I was just getting the hang of your disappearances, just starting to believe they had nothing to do with me, that your weeks in remote spas and months spent at new monasteries were simply necessary for your own well-being. The only medicine strong enough to battle your demons.

Every time you slipped away, though, leaving me with nothing but a note, you scooped away a piece of my own sanity. Took it to a place I couldn’t reach. Over time, the extremes of having you and not having you, they stretched, sharpened.

I waited at a corner table in the bar, having not seen you, not held you, for months, gripping the stem of my glass to hide the tremor in my hand. You breezed in with that same glow that always followed your trips, catching my breath in your wake, fortifying my uncertainty with a hand laid soft against the back of my neck. Your lips pressed my cheek, diffusing my anger, my frustration.

The bitter sting of another one of your absences was not altogether gone, though, and it grew with the news you spilled, before your drink order had even arrived. You told me who you were, who your grandfather was. Why you’d come on to me at that party. You asked for my forgiveness.

I’d always known I was too plain to catch an eye like yours. It was my legacy that drew you in. Like a fly to a fluorescent light.

*~*~*

June had understood even at a young age that her inheritance was nothing to celebrate. A tense hush forever strangled the house. Staff would leave in the middle of the night, never to return. No one explained why June couldn’t attend a school with other kids. But the horror had been vague when she was young. Undefined. Until the day she’d discovered the pictures, while searching her grandmother’s desk for chocolate.

She’d run from the room, ruining the hallway rugs with her vomit before hiding in her closet, but it was no use. The images had been forever branded across the surface of her mind. It was that day when she felt the full weight of her grandmother’s legacy.

Most of the animals in the pictures June had found that day, the pictures now blanketing the elevator walls, couldn’t be identified without the nameplates on the bottom of the frames. Turtles, lizards, cats, monkeys, orangutans. After a trip in her grandmother’s machine, few of them looked anything like the creatures June had seen in documentaries. These poor things weren’t just killed in the experiments. Life had been torn from them in the worst way.

They looked like a small child’s drawings, transcribed into flesh. The animals were contorted, parts of them turned inside out, as if a toddler had been handed a pile of creature parts and assembled them without knowledge or direction. Turtles were wrapped around their shells, lizard guts trailed bloody down cement city steps somewhere, wherever the creatures had been sent. Wherever they’d been found.

Unlike the lizards and turtles, there had been a few survivors in the groups of larger animals. Those survivors were the basis of all hope behind the Right to Access Act.

A cat’s eyes bulged, its fur was dark, as if singed, but it was alive. It looked up at the camera as it cowered next to the other two subjects, lifeless piles of organs laced with skin. It was the outcome of the orangutan experiment that had sealed the coffin of so many wealthy litigants.

The more massive the delivery—June could hear her grandmother’s scratchy voice. The better chance creatures have of surviving the trip. Two orangutans sat in the picture, the shocked stillness palpable in their eyes, in the way their hands rested limp on their knees, as they regarded their mutilated companion.

Lydia had been so hopeful, on her good days anyway, that the shock of seeing the mangled lab animals might be enough to deter plaintiffs from stepping off the elevator. From going through with it. Word had somehow gotten out about the photos, though, and it only added to the excitement, to the drama of the event. Riding an elevator surrounded by pictures of the machine’s work gone bad, of those who’d lost a forced bet, it was just another stage in the gauntlet the ultrawealthy community had embraced.

Scaled Everest? Sailed the world? Crossed Antarctica, and with only three servants? Whatever. I won a huge court battle with my enormous legal team and rode an elevator decorated in disgusting death images before gambling with the last shred of my life.

*~*~*

The lawyers called, right before dinner. That’s how I heard about your grandfather. From fucking lawyers. I didn’t look at the pictures. I wondered where you were. I turned off all social media, but I unblocked you. Disabled notifications, cleared my schedule. Sat next to the window with a bottle.

Holy shit. Your grandfather, who’d taught you cribbage and taken you on road trips and introduced you to old fashioned root beer floats. The first to sue my grandmother, his former friend. The first human to ride the machine. Twenty-four years in a blink. No chance to say good-bye.

You never messaged. I would have messaged you, but what could I say? That I wish my grandmother hadn’t existed, hadn’t invented this infernal machine that didn’t work?  Forgive me. Forgive us.

*~*~*

June hadn’t taken a solitary elevator ride to the lab in years. Not since Smith v. Anderson, the first suit aimed not at June’s family estate, but at June herself, after an idiot friend of a friend suggested on social media that June “simply adjust” the calibration of her grandmother’s machine, in a way that would render it more useless and even more destructive than it already was.

One of the few wins June’s grandmother had secured, back in the beginning, in her court battle with Lydia’s grandfather, was the elevator ride. It was her chance to plead, to reason with the plaintiff. The other win had been the secret code that ensured only June’s family could activate the machine.

After that social media circus a few years ago, Smith had won the right to ride alone. The first time June saw Smith was when he was already on the other side of the window, inside the belly of the machine. She’d never even heard his voice, before sending him to what was most likely a horrible death. As far as June knew, no one else had ever made the same request, to ride the elevator alone, until now.

June stepped off the elevator and nodded to Katie, who was waiting as always in her black suit and surveillance glasses, with a pistol under her arm.

“Everyone in there already?”

Katie’s console key, connected by a chain to the metal cuff around her wrist, was already in hand. “You’re late to the party, Boss, as usual.” She wouldn’t meet June’s eyes.

They both knew the government was boss. The government that had seized the lab decades ago, before June’s grandmother could destroy the machine, with a court injunction declaring the technology was too important to humanity to be lost, despite its poor results.

Familiar smells, dust and oil, invaded June’s senses as she headed down the hall to the lab. Katie followed, reaching from behind June to open the lab door for her.

“Glad you could make it.” The court-appointed witness’ smile raised the hairs on June’s neck. June had often wondered if Katie talked to the witnesses as they rode together down the elevator, if either of them ever looked at the pictures, ever wondered about the fate of the other plaintiffs.

June muttered a greeting as she pulled the family code book from her pocket. Approaching the console, she looked through the window, glimpsing the plaintiff on the other side. The world stopped.

Lydia’s hair was longer. It nearly reached the curve of her hip, where her satchel rested, holding what she’d need in the future she’d chosen. Certificates of stock, jewelry, whatever might buy a cure she hoped existed, with enough left to live a long life after. But she didn’t have cancer. No genetic disease, no drug-resistant infection. What kind of a cure she was expecting?

*~*~*

We didn’t have many good days, did we? But there were a few, tucked in here and there among the weeks between your absences. Days when the fears and irritations of life subsided just enough, enough that we could relax into each other.

We stretched out on the grass that one day, in the park down the way from your apartment, angled on the side of a hill so we could see the little league game below. Close enough to hear bats tinking and kids yelping.

My hand wrapped around yours, held it fast to my belly as I laughed at your endless stories from the office. You rolled onto your side to face me, to rest your cheek on my shoulder.

Your freckles glinted in the light of that day.

Why hadn’t those days been enough?

*~*~*

“June?” Katie’s voice was distant.

She used her key to unlock the cover of two switches on the control panel. She flipped the first. A low hum filled the room as the enormous machine kicked into gear under their feet. This was not happening.

“Ready for the code, June.”

The world dropped into slow motion as June looked at the book in her hand. The machine awaited June’s secret family code, along with her DNA print. After she did her part, it was the government representative, Katie, who flipped the final switch and activated the machine. So June’s family could feel less responsible.

This was not happening.

A privacy screen raised out of the console. June opened the book and lifted her shaking fingers to the keypad. Instead of typing in the code, she looked through the window at Lydia, who hadn’t moved. June had to see her face.

She reached over and flicked on the com. “Lyd?” June’s voice broke.

Lydia jerked, but didn’t turn.

Katie touched her arm. “June,” she said. “She’s made her choice.”

June gripped the console. Her body crumpled, as if she’d just been pounded by a giant fist. Lydia had a court order. Katie had gun. There was no way to stop this. They’d force her to do her part. To send Lydia to a near certain death. She’d end up like her grandfather.

June gagged, coughed, fell away from the console, hands on her knees. The girl who’d run from that study all those years ago merged with the thirty-seven year-old in the control room. The picture of the mangled orangutan became Lydia. June became the sad orangutan at her side.

“Can’t.”

“Junie.” June straightened to see Lydia facing her from the other side of the window, from inside the machine. Her smile was sad, apologetic. “Let me do this.”

“No. Lydia, no. What are you doing?”

Lydia’s face gradually distorted as the field began building inside the machine. Lydia stepped toward the window. “June,” this time it was her voice that broke. “I have to.”

Katie slipped her arms under June’s and walked her, like a child, back to the console. June tried to push back against Katie, but Katie was so strong, like a rock. She told June to finish inputting the code. June could barely breathe as she looked at Lydia, whose nod reached through the field that separated them.

June shook Katie away. Blinking several times before she could read the book, she tapped in the code. The machine jolted under their feet as it stepped into its next phase.

Powerlessness, total and complete, crashed over June with the weight of generations as Katie took her arm, slid her hand into the metal glove on the console. Her fingers were pricked, and the machine took a sample of her blood, proof of lineage matching its creator.

June staggered back and fell against the wall.

Katie stepped up to the console as Lydia gave a small, sad smile, before turning her back on June again. Katie flicked the second switch.

Mass is the key. June heard Grandmother’s voice stretch across decades, as if she were standing right there, in the lab. She could smell the whisky wafting from Grandmother’s breath as she spoke. Mass. Numbers.

June’s breath caught.

Katie stood at the control panel, looking through the window. The machine’s hum quickly built to a howl as the field thickened around Lydia. June still had a full minute before the machine sent Lydia away. She tucked the codebook into her pocket.

She stayed against the wall and waited, counted, listened to the climbing whir of her grandmother’s machine underfoot. Looking through the window at Lydia was like looking through a kaleidoscope.

The government rep stood several feet away, captivated by the spectacle.

With only seconds left, June bolted past Katie and slid the booth door open, stepping through the field and closing the door behind her. A million prickles waved across her body and gripped at her skin. Pulled at her guts. The sensation would have been relaxing, if it had only been lighter, but this bordered on agony.

Lydia hadn’t heard June come in. She put a hand on Lydia’s shoulder, and she jumped. June expected to see Lydia broken, crying. But she was calm, her expression serene. She said something June couldn’t hear above the roar of the machine. Maybe it was her name.

Lydia scooped June’s hand into hers. Her eyes went wide as she nodded to the door. Maybe she was telling June to leave. June only squeezed her hand back. Shook her head. “I’m going with you.” Lydia couldn’t hear, but she seemed to understand. She held June’s gaze as the field engulfing them shifted until it became nearly solid. Smooth, like a pearl. Colorless and multicolored at once.

Millions of tentacles gripped, pulled at every piece of June’s body. They multiplied, merged, pushed in on her until taking even a shallow breath became impossible. Straining to remain conscious against the strange force gripping her, gripping Lydia, June realized she had no idea of the where, the when that Lydia had selected for this trip. For their trip. But it didn’t matter.

Searing light built beyond impossibility, swallowing them. June focused on Lydia’s face. Her freckles glowed.

End.

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