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LILLY AND THE NINE-TOED WOMAN by Toom Bucksaw

Lilly brushed her teeth and saw another woman’s face in the mirror. She stared into her eyes and wished she could ask that woman where the fourth toe of her left foot had gone. Why hadn’t she taken better care of herself? Didn’t she know Lilly would need her toes someday? Lilly pulled her socks on and tried to forgive her.

In the big room Ellis was still sleeping on the floor with his head on the couch. The mechanical blinds on the window were creakily opening and shafts of sunlight were pooling on his face. Lilly didn’t let him sleep with her anymore because he came home late, but most importantly his drunken pratfalls into bed forced her to wake up and become accustomed to the weird way her sheets rested on a body that wasn’t her own once more before going back to sleep. He’d been more of a roommate than a boyfriend since the operation anyway.

Lilly crossed the big room and slid her card in her reward kiosk.

“Congratulations,” it said. “Thirty three point three repeating chips have been awarded to your account. Check back tomorrow at sunrise for fresh new chips. Tomorrow, the sun will rise at six thirty one A.M. Today’s temperature is fifty six degrees. Would you like a receipt?”

She couldn’t change the volume on this model, not that she cared to. Ellis stirred, like he did every morning; his breathing was shallower now and less rhythmic and she knew that she’d woken him up. Lilly was glad he had enough sense to play dead until she left. She allowed the kiosk printer to work loudly at a nine and a half inch receipt covered in full-color advertisements. The price of the ink was worth Ellis’s furrowed brow.

Lilly rode the mover to work and waded through that same gauntlet of obligated empathy and “if you need anything call me” eyes that had lined the path to her cubicle since the operation and showed no sign of abating. Her new photo I.D. still wasn’t scanning right at the check-in. She pulled out her old I.D. with her old face on it and the guard waved her through.

She was once the fastest typist in her department. The clacking of keys from her cubicle used to be the centerpiece of her floor; two years ago her secret santa had given her an extremely loud keyboard and when its keys rang out from her desk her coworkers were not annoyed but proud that they should share a floor with such an efficient worker. Now the nine-toed woman’s fat, dumb fingers had cost the company 1,325.638 chips in typos and clerical errors. She typed as quietly as she could so no one could hear how slowly she did it.

She typed so slowly that her mind wandered and filled the gaps between each keystroke. She thought mostly of when she was taller, thinner and whiter and of when Ellis slept beside her, and she pretended that he’d embrace her when she got home, pretended he’d be there at all.

The sun had set on the city when work got out and the mover was crammed with people. Rain pounded the street and drenched the commuters on this unenclosed section of the mover. Lilly stood under someone’s balcony out of the rain and swiped through the faces of the single men she shared this metropolis with. She’d been fielding these digital men for a little while now, about as long as Ellis had been sleeping in the big room, and to her disappointment she’d realized that as long as she shared rent with the only man she wanted and allowed him to eat from her refrigerator, she’d always want him.

Lately, there’d been one possible exception.

“You free tonight? Would love to finally meet,” Brandon messaged her. Her phone vibrated and with it her entire being. Brandon had started an acquaintance with her shortly after she’d made her profile, and he was the only one whose messages she watched for. He was everything she could have hoped for in a man she met through a chat box. He didn’t come on strong and most of all he didn’t tell her how much he “loved Mexican”. She’d been told the nine-toed woman was Bolivian, anyway.

She smiled at Brandon that night in the dim light of a mediterranean place Ellis had taken her once when he had had money. “Now that’s what I like to see,” he said. “Do it again.” She couldn’t help but smile again, and laugh as she hadn’t since the time when she’d had her own ten toes to walk on. “The way your lips curl when you smile.” He closed his eyes and did that kissing motion with his fingers she supposed French chefs did when they see a great soufflé .

She told Brandon about her job and how the nine-toed woman’s ten fat fingers had ruined her prestige. He laughed, but his laughter died quickly. He asked what else bothered her about her body. She told him about her missing fourth toe, and when he asked her what had happened to it she told him they didn’t tell her things like that. “Don’t you ever wonder?” he asked, his face wrinkling oddly in a charged confusion. The expression caught her off guard. She made an ambivalent expression that involved a shrug, raised eyebrows and a shake of the head and thought she saw some curious shade fall over him, but it was gone as soon as she noticed it.

Brandon ate and Lilly watched his jaws grind his food into paste. Handsome, handsomer than Ellis maybe. Ellis’s mind-life insurance certainly wouldn’t cover a body with such a strong chin, at least. A man could sell a chin like that and live pretty well. He was nice, perhaps overly so, but there are worse things to be, she thought, and you can’t buy nice the same way you can buy a better chin. She traced his eyes as he ate and when he went to the restroom she smiled only for herself, feeling her lips curl the way Brandon liked and for the first time finding herself liking it too.

Ellis was gone when she led Brandon through the kitchen and into the big room, the front door sliding itself shut behind her. Some mechanism misfired as it always did during the locking routine and some metal clanged inside the door. The sound was loud enough to wake her up most mornings when Ellis came stumbling through, but tonight she hardly heard it.

She could already feel his hands on her. At dinner she’d looked over each of his fingers from tip to knuckle and couldn’t help but see the monetary value inherent to their beauty. She imagined herself like a greedy cartoon character, some oil tycoon or gold prospector, archaic dollar signs flickering in her eyes, wanting to feel that monetary value inside her, as if it would somehow increase her own.

The door to her bedroom malfunctioned and beeped at her. She leaned her back against the stubborn door and smiled through a sigh. Brandon caught up with her and her body, not anyone else’s, was pinned between the heat of Brandon and the deep space chill of the metal door and it was her body, not anyone else’s, that became increasingly exposed as the clothing she concealed it under fell to the floor piece by piece.

His fingers crept along her outline and they kissed under the flickering tubes in her ceiling. His touch made her feel expensive. He caressed the curves of her “budget” 700,000 chip body the way Ellis had caressed the body of the woman she’d been before. That woman seemed alien to her now. She’d feared that using another woman’s body to have sex would feel strange, wrong, or possibly like some twisted late-capitalist form of rape, but it was just the opposite. Feeling Brandon inside her, knowing he was there only because she was exactly who she was, made that body, finally, miraculously, her own.

When they finished, they laid against the couch Lilly usually found Ellis dangling off of in the morning and stared at the soft blinking lights on the reward kiosk across the room. Brandon talked more about the place he went on holidays, out west where the mover didn’t reach and you could even see stars if the moon was new. He showed her a picture on his phone of the perfect blue water you could rent a room beside. She pinched her fingers on the screen and enlarged the image to see a fisherman on the lake.

The utter solitude of that figure stirred something in her chest; she wanted immediately for Brandon to take her there, onto the water, where they could float on the waves of that blue mirror and be near no one but themselves. How little she knew about this man meant nothing to her. She knew enough. She knew that he was Brandon, that he wanted her, and that the fisherman was calling to her from across time.

She swiped the image aside and saw another much like it. This time the focus of the picture was on the snowcapped mountains that cut across the sky. Brandon reached for the phone, but she moved it away from his grasp.

She swiped again. A picnic blanket, with sandwiches on paper plates, spread across sand.

At first she didn’t notice it, but as her eyes crawled along the pixels that made up the enchanting image of rural bliss, they tripped over an object of singular Wrongness, a chaotic thing impinging upon the scene of rustic tranquility Lilly had never known. It was her own maimed foot.

Brandon snatched at the phone and ripped it out of her hand, muttering some curse under his breath. Her flesh dragged across the screen, sliding the photo and revealing a portrait of her own pudgy, olive face, her hair lightly tossed in the lake-blown breeze. She looked happy. She did a better job with her make-up than Lilly could.

She could only confront the face of the nine-toed woman for a moment before the screen went black and Brandon thrust the phone into his pocket. He stood shirtless putting on his belt. Lilly watched him from the floor, her reclaimed sense of self nothing but a foolish sex-fueled lark now in the tightening prison of Other flesh. “What was my name?” she asked.

Brandon pulled his shirt over his head and paused, his mouth hanging open. He shook his handsome head and started across the big room toward the door.

There was a pounding on the metal. “Lilly,” Ellis slurred from beyond it, “unlock this shit.”

Brandon opened the door using the terminal and Ellis tumbled through it, immediately falling onto the kitchen floor, not taking any note of the man in his way. The door slid shut and Brandon’s footsteps faded down the hall. Lilly lay naked on the big room floor, listening to Ellis breathe against the grubby kitchen tile and felt a shred of intimacy sharing the floor with him, however far away. She thought about the lake and her hair blowing in its wind as if it were a memory and looked around at the things that didn’t belong to her, the reward kiosk ready to distribute another woman’s chips, the refrigerator stocked with another woman’s food, another woman’s ex-lover sleeping in the dirt of another woman’s sloven apartment. Some cluster of cells in her wanted to run after Brandon and tell him it didn’t matter what her name was, that she would be whoever he wanted her to be, as long as he would have her, but she couldn’t be sure if those were another woman’s desires.

She let him disappear along the mover and stayed there somewhere inside the nine-toed woman, wondering if two halves made a whole.

 

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