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Przekrój
In a distant future, Candace Laguarde has run out of the pharmaceutic Femper. If she doesn’t get some ...
2020-05-20 09:00:00
short story

The Solution

Illustration by Igor Kubik
The Solution
The Solution
Read in 20 minutes

“Frankly speaking, I don’t understand what you want me to do.”

“I’m out. Or I will be out soon. Real soon. I’m asking you for help.”

The eyes of the pharmacist were unaffected. No empathy requirement existed for his job. He wore the white coat with the Paracon logo stitched over the left breast, sported a fashionable goatee. His hair was thick and silver at the temples. His eyes were so dead they could have been synthetic. Dolls eyes. I don’t know what I was thinking when I went into the fluid shop with empty pockets, looking for a few free CCs. But what else could I do? There was no one in my life, at that stage, to help me. Why would they?

“I’m running out,” I said, trying to sound like I might cry—or maybe I was crying. “I’ve never been without it. What happens when you stop taking it?”

“I strongly suggest you consult your family physician. Perhaps you’d like to take one of these cards? The website will give you Paracon’s customer service department.”

“Will they give me more Femper?”

He coughed without covering his mouth. “I don’t know. Not for free, probably.”

I took the card.

~~~

It’s hard to say just how I put myself in this position. I couldn’t do a timeline of the screwups that ended in my complete lack of the means to maintain my personhood. What happened when you stopped taking it? I had no idea. Someone must know all these things.

At my flat, I took my last remaining bottle of Femper and held it to the light. Three or four CCs. Call it three and a half. That would last about a month at my current rate of consumption. But I was taking a lot; it’s true. How would I feel if I slowed down? Probably better than if I quit cold-turkey for want of cash.

I searched for Paracon assistance programs and got nothing. No results. There was a website devoted to volunteers working in an NGO providing logistical support for delivery drones flying Femper and Masper by the kiloliter into remote villages in far-flung nations.

I called my bank. A woman answered the phone after a series of virtual assistants gave up understanding what I was after.

“Welcome and hello,” she said. “I am CSR Monika Endlebratt. Justified dissatisfaction will be credited to your account. How may I inform you?”

I took a breath. “Can you see my account information?”

“There are some things that I can see, and some things I cannot see. Would you like to transfer some funds from one of your other accounts?”

“That’s my only account.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I only have one bank account. It’s the one you should be looking at.”

There was a pause. She said finally, “Can you give me your name?”

“Candace Laguarde.”

“Address?”

“5141 Fulsom AVE flat 12B. I already told the virtual assistant.”

“Chip?”

“Yes, I talked to Chip.”

“We love Chip around here,” the CSR said absentmindedly. “I think your account is showing some serious irregularities. Would you like to report a possible hack?”

I sucked air through my teeth. Here goes. “No. I don’t think so. I don’t have any money.”

“Why don’t you have any? Where did it all go?”

“I’m totally out. I need more to buy Femper. I’m running out of that, too.”

“This is so irregular,” CSR Monika Endlebratt said. “I’ve never encountered this. Out of money! Out of Femper! What are you going to do?”

“I was calling to see if you would give me some more.”

“Money? Or Femper?”

“Either one, really.”

“I think neither. But it’s not my department. Do you know what happens if you quit your Femper?”

“No. Do you?”

“Of course, I don’t!” CSR Endlebratt said and clucked her tongue. “I wouldn’t dream of knowing. I’ve never missed a day of mine. Not one day of my Femper. I always worried my voice would be affected. I sing in a choir.”

“That’s great,” I said, “about the choir. So impressive.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, really. Totally amateur stuff. But I’ve got excellent breath control. Strong capacity.”

“I see. So, can I get some money or...”

“I don’t know. It’s not my department.”

“Whose department is it?”

“I don’t know really. Not mine. No one’s probably. I think the best thing for me to do now is to hang up on you.”

She did, and I went into the bathroom to stare at myself. I had gone through a phase of self-judgment for taking so much Femper. I’m sure many people will fail to understand why I allowed myself to develop the habit of quintuple-dosing on such an aggressive schedule. What did it matter in the end? I wanted to accept myself.

I ran my finger along the curve of my jaw. The bones in my skull were now so delicate. I had always wanted that, a delicate jaw and a little chin—almost pointy. In the last three months my hairline had fallen almost a half-inch! Thick and gold and perfect. I was getting closer to perfect all the time. I liked the cartoonish character of my bustline. It was exaggerated, but it was interesting. I felt like this wonderfully delicate curve, like a snowy mountain road under threat of avalanche.

I thought that this moment might be the most beautiful of my entire life. If I couldn’t find more... It was unthinkable. Femper, the contents of the little yellow vial sitting in my medicine cabinet, was my womanhood. My personhood and life. I needed to slow down and conserve until I could get more money; I would become wealthy, acquire the world’s largest private supply...

I walked to the kitchen, took the Paracon injector from its little box on top of the fridge, went back into the bathroom, loaded the entire vial of Femper into the injector, thought for about thirty-five seconds, and injected every drop that I had left. I had no idea what such a large dose would do to me. In ten minutes, I became very sleepy. I lay down and took a nap.

~~~

My boyfriend, Kyle, came to me as I dreamed. His eyes were extraordinarily bright, and for some reason he had a beard. He looked like a young Santa Claus. We were seated in an outdoor cafe on the bank of a river; I’m not sure which one. The cafe was the only building I could see. The riverbank was empty concrete, otherwise. Ravens circled overhead, and an olive-skinned child walked among the tables, playing the accordion for tips.

Kyle put a giant mug of dark beer to his lips, drank slowly, and made a sound of exaggerated satisfaction. He said, “You look funny. Are you sick?”

I know that in the dream I wanted to answer him, but my mouth wouldn’t work. It was like my teeth were made of glue. I wanted to tell him that I looked normal. I tried to drink my coffee, but it wouldn’t go in my mouth. It spilled all over my neck and chest, and I was burned. His eyes bright and humorous, Kyle tried to help me by patting my chest with napkins that were too small for the job. While he did, the accordion child came to our table and began playing “Besame Mucho” at an incredibly rapid tempo. It sounded like German beer-drinking music. The feeling of burning continued. Kyle smiled at the child and handed it a bag of birdseed. The child accepted the birdseed, putting down the heavy accordion. The music and the feeling of burning continued.

Kyle said I should drink some water. He said that was the only solution. He became distracted by the child, who was being attacked by the ravens. The child, to all appearances, didn’t stand much of a chance. I could see the start of a bloody business. Kyle smiled at me while putting on a long red jacket. His teeth were brown and darker brown. But in real life his teeth are absolutely gorgeous.

~~~

The Association for Drone-Aided Fluid Dispensation (ADAFD) works to solve the logistical problems associated with getting Paracon gender fluid to remote regions, like Outer Mongolia, the Australian Outback, the Golan Heights, etc. Their website features a video of a man in a khaki shirt with pens in the breast pocket talking excitedly about the joys of helping geographically disadvantaged people. He gives his name in the beginning of the video as Kevin Vilmore. His hair is shaved all the way down to his tan skull; his eyes are crinkly and appealing.

“A lot of people don’t think about the problems we face in getting fluid to people like the Tuva.” Kevin holds up a picture of a woman in colorful ethnic garb. “But the Tuvans and the Himalayan Sherpas and Afghani goat herders and so on all have personhood supplementation needs. Just like the people in New York and Paris and what have you.”

The image shifts to a montage of people in non-Western dress holding up Paracon injectors and smiling. A twelve-year-old girl with chocolate skin and green eyes says “Paracon is great!” to the camera, smiles, and continues eating some kind of breakfast porridge. Her grinning mother drops into the frame, takes an injection of Femper, and gives one to the girl.

Back to Kevin: “There are so many obstacles in the way of these poor people spending their money and participating in the global marketplace. That’s what being geographically challenged is all about! All we at the ADAFD want to do is give these people a chance to spend their money while remaining in their distant countries and regions where they belong. You’ve already done so much by donating some of your screen time to this video. Consider sponsoring a drone today, and know that you will be helping little boys and girls and women and men spend their justly acquired earnings to maintain their persons. It feels good to help!”

By the time the video had ended, I had the plan pretty much worked out. ADAFD had a satellite location staffed with human beings doing I-don’t-know-what on the other side of town. Green Street and Jacobs. I would go there and ask for a personal donation: two or three kiloliters of Femper. If the request for a donation was denied—and I felt confident that it would be—I would ask for a job. This I would be given on account of the smooth functioning of the market. Having gained entry to the inner sanctum of Femper delivery, I would be in the perfect position to steal, a few CCs at a time, several kiloliters of Femper. Real live theft! I had never heard of someone actually committing it. The consequences for the flow of capital were difficult to predict.

I wondered how many people had thought about stealing, deep within their hearts. Was it possible that I was the only one? In any case, I had to be one of a select few; otherwise, how would the marketplace adjust to the constant distortion of thievery? My mind flooded with strange and dangerous questions.

The final part of the plan to work out was travel across town. I had already sold my peach and blue ten-speed bicycle to a greasy-haired teenage boy with a very large face. He received a fair price for the bike, given its obvious utility and factoring in its sentimental value to me. Walking would take a long time, and I would be sweaty and discouraged before I reached the ADAFD satellite office.

In the days since taking the last of my Femper in a fit of calculated hysteria, I had been vomiting approximately ten CCs of phosphorescent blue fluid every forty-five minutes without exception. Other than that, there were few adverse effects. Some breast tenderness. The vomiting was manageable: I carried a few resealable plastic bags around my flat with me. But if the walk to the ADAFD satellite office took more than, say, four hours, I would need over five resealable plastic bags for the trip—assuming, of course, that I allotted one bag per instance. By “instance” I mean involuntary ejection of vomit.

I could try to reuse the bags, but there was something deeply unsavory about the blue fluid. Until now, I had avoided getting any of it on my hands. If it sat for more than ten or twelve seconds on my chin, it tended to stain. Afterwards, the site of the staining itched for hours or days. The itching might have been to some degree psychosomatic, but it felt real enough to me.

I decided to fill my olive drab knapsack (kitschily decorated with vintage political buttons) with bananas, hummus, and twelve resealable plastic bags. I couldn’t risk a cab driver finding out that I had no intention of paying the fare and taking me to the police or murdering me. I left the apartment building, walking at an optimistic pace, dreaming of a lifetime supply of Femper.

~~~

The representatives of ADAFD, once I had arrived, were surprisingly understanding of my sweatiness and discolored chin. But no one seemed to understand my request for Femper donations. When I deftly changed the topic of conversation to employment, I was directed to an office in the rear of the building. A woman named Daphne was inside, seated at a nearly empty desk. She smiled at me as if her face knew no other attitude.

“I want to work here,” I said to her. “I’m passionate about Femper and geography.”

“That’s wonderful!” Daphne said. “Can I see your CV?”

I gave her a copy with satisfaction. “Excuse the paper. It’s 20-pound bond.”

“Please, no worries. This isn’t that kind of workplace.” She scanned the document. “Where are you working now?”

“I’m not currently working,” I mumbled.

She blinked. “Wealthy? Of course, it’s none of my business. If you have any recommendations on financial advisors, do let me know. Would you like to donate your time, or would you prefer a token salary? Please know that even if you forgo remuneration because of your fortune—new money or old—we will of course be paying you spiritually. I mean we will value your efforts, the spirit of them. Is what I’ve said okay? I often get tongue-tied around the independently rich. Wealthy. Do you have any problem with spending excessive amounts of time with persons of normal means?”

“I don’t.” I gave her a cunning look. “Where is the Femper, exactly? Is it on-site here, or in a warehouse? If it’s in a warehouse, I’d like to work in the warehouse. Otherwise not.”

“Surely I don’t...”

The answer to this urgent question was interrupted by my vomiting something like eleven CCs of shiny blue fluid on her desk. Daphne was stunned.

I began staring deeply into her eyes while slowly rotating my wrists. My fingers were splayed to their utmost. I could see that she was uncomfortable with basic aspects of the situation. The distraction afforded by the jazz hands would be short-lived. I tried to think of words to say, but none came to mind. I’ve always been the type of person to speak only when I had something interesting to offer.

She managed to ask me about the vomiting, doing it indirectly, using the word “illness.” I didn’t know how to answer her and, to be honest, had little motivation to do so. I steered the conversation toward the bright spots on my resume. I reminded her in a very loud voice that I had several years’ experience using Excel. I mentioned my work on the university debate team, that I spoke a little French.

But my verbal flow collapsed as I realized that I had been staring into the puddle as it drifted across Daphne’s desk. A subtle sizzling came from the expanding blue blob. I imagined a glued-on cherry veneer eaten through, exposing the particle-board truth beneath.

Pass de probleem, madame! I said. Voylah! Sest vray! Je parlay Fransez!!

~~~

I remember my hands trembling as I gripped the blade. The truth is that I hadn’t really planned the heist down to the minutest detail. I knew that communication would be a factor. I would need to explain to the pharmacist just what I was after and the consequences for defiance. I wore no mask. At that point in my development, it wasn’t necessary. The face I showed the world was new—and strange enough to hide itself.

He stood behind the counter, reading from a political magazine, lazily eating from a carton of yogurt, a man totally unprepared for his first hold-up. I entered the pharmacy slowly, scanning the room for customers. I was alone with him. My senses were heightened, blazing information through my body. I felt my blood pumping in a way that suggested future collapse. Focusing on my breath—keeping it slow and even—I walked up to the counter and stared the pharmacist in his cold blue eyes.

He looked at me, puzzlement on his face. “Can I help you?”

I’m not sure why I whispered. “Listen, Don, this is going to be an uncomfortable situation for both of us. Okay? I’ll call you ‘Don’ even though your name-tag says ‘Donald.’”

He pushed his lips into a point and raised an eyebrow. I could feel my hands sweating. There were no nightmares as awkward as this.

Don said, “Don’t worry, young lady. Whatever it is that you need, we can get it for you. Just show me your prescription.”

“I was here a few months ago. Do you remember me?”

“No,” he said. “No, I do not. That face I would remember. I really would. Perhaps you’re here for a skin treatment. I’ll ask you not to breathe directly on me. Don’t take offense, if you can help it.”

I took the blade from my jacket and held it at my side. The courage to put it under his chin would come soon. I knew that I was twitching strangely, that my movements as well as my appearance would be unsettling to him. Not just nerves. Recent weeks had seen my body turn disobedient in surprising ways.

I said, “This is a robbery.”

“What’s that?”

“A robbery. It’s an old word. Robbery. I am robbing you right now.”

“I’m having trouble hearing you, young lady. You want some hair dye?”

I showed him the blade, a serrated kitchen knife about five inches long. I had spent the afternoon practicing brandishing it. As I brandished it now, for real, my hands were unsteady. I feared I would drop it. If Don the pharmacist were able to understand the concept of a robbery, the shaking hands might be usefully intimidating.

“You have to give me Femper,” I said. “You give me the Femper, and I won’t kill or maim you. If you don’t give me the Femper... I’m sorry, but you will be killed or maimed. That’s a robbery. This is a robbery.”

“So instead of giving me money for the Femper, you want to give me violence?”

He was coming around to the idea. I tried to talk as slowly and distinctly as I could. “Not quite, but close. I will not give you violence if you give me the Femper. If you do nothing, you get violence. In fact, if you do anything but give me the Femper, you get violence. Is it clear?”

I watched him as the comprehension dawned. He would be afraid soon, if he understood me well enough. His eyes became little slits, and he scratched at the skin beneath his beard. He looked over my left shoulder as if distracted by something behind me. I felt it a mistake to follow his gaze. I kept my eyes trained on his; the fluid shop was silent; I conjured maximum intensity.

It was surprising that the fear that bloomed in him frightened me as well. His eyes became large and strange while his lips trembled as the lips of women in old movies sometimes do. He tried to talk, but the words didn’t fit together. I think he wanted to apologize to me, but he didn’t know what for. He couldn’t find a blame to place upon his head. Searching for courage, I gripped the knife as tightly as I could, held it close to his bobbing Adam’s apple, and barked once again for the Femper.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said slowly. “I’ve never seen this before.”

Huge parts of me wanted to comfort him. And only small pieces of me wondered if he deserved it. I told him it would be okay if he just did as instructed. I told him I was only doing this because I hurt inside. I hurt inside in a strange way. He didn’t tell me that he understood. He began talking about his family, about the kids and wife. I told him to bring me the Femper; they would see him again. He made faces that were almost smiles but in fact were not.

Again, he looked over my shoulder. Following his gaze this time, I saw the woman and the girl. Standing in the middle of the pharmacy, wearing nearly identical yellow skirts, they both stared up at us. Unable to comprehend the situation, they looked like they had just walked into a movie scripted in a language they never learned.

Turning back toward the pharmacist, I discovered he had fled. I couldn’t tell where to, or how. Only women remained. I put the knife back in my jacket pocket and looked the mother in the eye. She looked so smooth and young, smoother and younger than the little girl.

I said, “When did you start her on Femper?”

“Just last year,” she answered. “The husband and I are naturalistic people.”

The little girl began to cry, just a little.

“That’s good,” I said. “It’s best to wait until you’re sure they’re ready.”

~~~

I sleep strangely now. But that may be unclear. For the past few nights, I have found myself in unnatural positions. Sometimes I am all curled up in a complex knot... like a Klein bottle. Sometimes all my limbs run from my body and from one another. I end up stretched in a way almost horrific. Sometimes I stick out my tongue grotesquely, and my eyes bug out. My heart beats to foreign rhythms.

I haven’t heard from Kyle in weeks. I do nothing to regain his attention. I send no messages. I make no calls. He has stopped figuring in my dreams. If he saw me now, he wouldn’t understand. How could he?

I look in the mirror, and I see myself fragmenting. It’s not merely a reorganization of the body; I feel my pieces rejecting one another. The face I see inside the glass is another thing entirely, neither a regression to a former face nor a progression toward a new one. Parts of me are bleeding, but I can’t recall their names. My person is no longer a bag of words.

A strange energy grows inside me; I don’t know its name. I do not leave my flat because I can explain my face to no one. I stay; I feel a vibrating life just under my skin. I write short letters to myself that I never finish. The endings are too frightening. Intense moments of unexplained joy no longer surprise me. If I had the fluid now, I wouldn’t take it.

~~~

Here is one of the unfinished letters:

In you there is a new light forming. You can speak to them about it, but they cannot understand. I think you shouldn’t see yourself as liberated. That would be confusion. The shackles that were are still. The freedom that is also was. You should play music and dance around. You should never wear clothes again. You should, even from your own heart, make yourself a secret. Before the end, you will have gone to pieces; it’s true. Grab your teeth from the bathroom sink. Dig holes, and place a tooth in each one. What sprouts will be orchids and evergreen trees.

When you are little more than photons, go and see them. It doesn’t matter which ones. Look at them with your new eyes whose light is all-consuming...

 

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Mitchell Atkinson III

was born in Flint, Michigan, USA. In addition to writing fiction and poetry, he works on philosophy and social theory at the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFiS PAN). He lives in Warsaw, surrounded by plants and music.