Little opened their eyes. The sub, in this place, was gentle and far away, which made the colours of the things close to Little clear and strong. The stalk of the plant they slept under was pale green, the colour of honeydew (if Little had ever seen a honeydew). Little thought they remembered that at one itme, the stalk had supported a burst of golden flowers, but this wold have been when Little was must littler, and when they told Ma about memories from then, she often told them they were wrong, that they were imagining and not remembering. For the time that Little was sure of, the stalk had ended in a globe of white webbing. On this morning, Little opened their eyes and watched in astonishmnet as a particle of the web detached itseld, wobbled under the weight of a seed half its size and, finally finding its balance, danced away into an empty sky.
* * *
Andromeda (“but my friends call me Andi”) knew that she was going to fall in love with Zach before she ever saw him. The day they met, she was on a Greyhound bus. When it stopped in a nowehere, roadside town, she joined the fold of people blinking in the light and stretching their legs, but when they got back on, she stayed. To an observer, this might have seemed boldly, even dangerously spontaneous, but it wasn’t, and there was no one observing.
She soon realized that the backpack holding all of her worldly possessions was heavy and its straps cut into her shoulders. She was also overdressed for the early fall weather; she became sweaty and out of breath and it was hard to feel as fanciful as she was supposed to be. She went into a coffee shop to set her bag down and regroup. That’s when she saw him.
Zach was sitting at the same table as always, in the town he’d been born in and never left, where nothing ever happened (except the customary births and deaths, illnesses, fallings in love, learning from books, becoming an adult and then old, etc.) until Andi arrived. He was trying to write a novel. He was tugging at his lip. Every few minutes, he leaned forward and stared into his laptop screen as if it held in its depths the answers to all the great questions of his life. Andi saw that he had hazel eyes that tended toward green, that his dark hair, almost black, fell into his face and that he brushed it back often with hands whose delicate thumbs curved away from strong, square palms. She consulted her instructions. He was the one.
* * *
“I don’t understand how this happened,” Andi’s case worker said. She looked so anxious that it almost made Andi feel better, either because she felt she should be calm for her case worker’s sake or because the magnitude of this distress made the problem itself seem laughable.
“Every Manic Pixie Dream Girl is implanted with an IUD upon issue. It’s regulation. It always happens.”
“Someone messed up, I guess.” Andi crossed her hands over her belly, which seemed to be growing defiantly even as they spoke.
“And you didn’t use con- doms?” The case worker looked up hopefully for a second and then, resuming the frantic tapping of her pen on the edge of her desk, answered her own question, “Of course not. What MPDG would use a condom? It just doesn’t happen. And here we are, so…you didn’t.”
“A defective issuance hasn’t occurred in decades. There is a protocol, but…” The case worker put her pen down and stared at Andi with something, regret or pity, in her dark eyes. “I suppose it can’t be helped.”
“We can’t send you out again like this. You’ll have to be discontinued.”
Andi started to say, “What does that mean?” but before she could finish, she was enveloped in total, impenetrable darkness.
* * *
Andi’s instructions told her that Zach was the man she was looking for. From there, instinct set in. She laughed right, dressed right, moved her hands perfectly when she spoke. It wasn’t so much shrewdness as an effort of will — she imagined his ideal woman and became her. And the questions she asked him, in their all-night talks, were always the right ones to uncover the tiny, septic wounds he’d never spoken about. One day, he looked at her and said, “Andi, I don’t know what I was before I met you. I was…going nowhere. All of this is because of you.” (He’d finished his novel; it was surprisingly good and set to be published.) “I love you.”
* * *
Little had lived all of their life in a kind of blissful state of boredom. Each day was filled with examining one’s own whims, determining from moment to moment what pleasure was most compelling. Luckily, the place where they and Ma lived was full of potential enjoyment, of plants and wild waters and small animals. Little picked berries and ate them or played with what we would call rabbits, except they had many more legs, or chased birds with scales and peacock’s tails through the wood that surrounded the open field where they and Ma slept. Nothing was dangerous. Nothing was ugly.
Little’s day usually started with finding Ma. If Ma was in a good mood, she would be a companion in Little’s meander- ing adventures, but more frequently as of late, she was sad, quiet, and better left alone. When she could be convinced, Little’s favourite pastime was to make an animal with Ma. Today, she was smiling, eating breakfast, so Little felt brave enough to ask and she agreed.
Holding hands, they walked out to the far end of the field. As was their custom, Ma sat cross-legged and Little sat in the bucket formed by her folded legs. Little would say something — “fur” or “claws”, for example — and Ma would make it appear. Today, Little wanted something bird-ish, so they started with feathers and an almond-shaped body.
“Big tail,” Little said, and Ma stared at the creature, pressing her chin upwards slightly as she always did, and they both watched as great, colourful feathers sprouted and grew from its rear.
“Six wings!” Little exclaimed, but nothing happened. They stood and whirled around, ready to complain, but Ma wasn’t looking at them. She was making tiny, faint coughing noises, bent over her own lap. Little cried out and dropped to their knees beside her. “Ma!”
Slowly, she started to regain her breath. She still didn’t seem able to speak, but Little could see that she was staring over their shoulder. Her eyes were wide open in fear. Little turned.
The bird had stopped growing. It had laid its head down and was making coughing noises just like the ones Ma had been making, but louder. Its feathers were falling out, leaving raw pink patches on a body that had otherwise turned entirely grey.
* * *
Andi was a novice. When he told her he loved her, she said it back. She meant it. Sometimes the MPDGs with more complex missions said it and didn’t mean it, or didn’t say it at all, but they would be equipped with things like logic defying bangs/ headband combos, eyes that took up improbable territory on their faces, threatened indie bakeries. By comparison, Andi’s task was straightforward and she had been left more or less to her own devices. Now that the novel was done, Zach’s life turned around, she was supposed to make her exit quietly, leaving him with a scar that would make him better rather than ruin him.
She could see that he was a good man. There was some- thing oddly noble about him, a trait that seemed not only out of place in his person — buried in his softness, the apathy that pulled at him too easily — but also anachronistic in his strange world. She realized that she was pregnant a few months after they said they loved each other. She hadn’t been taught much about pregnancy — it not being something that was supposed to happen to MPDGs — but she’d absorbed enough of the TV shows Zach watched and the books he read to recognize what was happening to her.
The evening she took the test, she went for a walk by herself. She liked Earth, not that she knew any other real place — the sterile lab that served as a womb, a series of training courses — but there were elements of it she found jarring. She’d found a walking route that took her away from streets with cars, McDonaldses, bars spitting their smokers out. It led down lonely streets to a little park. It was almost dark and the trees were black outlines of grey leaves, but even in monochrome, the park was beautiful. She’d taken this walk many times when Zach was writing, not having much else to do with herself.
It might have made sense to sit on a bench and contemplate, but she found herself so paralyzed by thought that she just stood in the middle of the park. It would have looked strange to someone walking by, but no one walked by. She didn’t know what to do next. Her ideas danced around an impossible pearl of a dream, one that was too painful to think about directly but that gleamed in the shadows of every other option. (She could stay here, with Zach. They could have a life. They could have a baby.)
In the end, she’d gone to her case worker. She didn’t know, in retrospect, why she’d done it. It was easiest or she was too trusting or when you want something that can never happen, it doesn’t matter what you get instead.
* * *
Little woke up and stayed a moment on their back, staring upwards. The globe, once bursting with fluffs, was now dented on one side; a quarter of its offspring had departed.
Unusually, Ma was still asleep, lying on her side beside Little. She was drooling a bit. Her upper arm was flung out toward Little as if she had been trying to hold them.
“Ma?” Little shook her. She opened her eyes blearily.
Little knew they shouldn’t, but they asked anyway, something desperate in their chest pushing the question out: “Can we make an animal today, Ma?”
“No. Don’t ask me to do that.”
“Don’t ask again.”
She rolled over, away from them, curled the outstretched arm back into her own body.
* * *
Suddenly, she was in complete darkness. The last thing she remembered was that word her case worker had said, “discontinue,” but it seemed very far away. Other things seemed closer: the flecks of colour in Zach’s irises; the memory of the white moon of his naked ass, which always made her wonder how she could have so much repulsion and love for the same thing; his breath on her neck when he fell asleep on her pillow.
Complete darkness had the texture of felt but was elastic. When she pushed against it, trying to see if she could — what? Swim away? — it resisted her limbs. She pushed harder. She gasped as her arm broke through. Beyond, there was nothing. Nothing against her skin, no resistance to her body. Her arm slid through the air like it would keep going forever, tear itself from her torso and fly into the void. She pulled it back into her chest, shivering.
She didn’t know what to do next. She curled into a ball and wept. When she couldn’t cry anymore, she closed her eyes and let the dark cradle her. She turned herself inward and set herself to forgetting.
* * *
Little had a creature that liked to live near the stream that ran through the woods around the perimeter of Ma and Little’s place. It played in the stream, slick like an otter, and ate the tiny fish that lived there. When it was tired or afraid, it became a ball of fur, unrecognizable as a living thing, but when Little would pet it, it would feel safe and let eyes, mouth, nose out like a turtle would its head. Little had a shimmering, flat flying creature that looked like a silk scarf twisting itself into knots in the air. They had a snail whose shell was so large and roomy that one could walk in and visit the snail in its own home and comment on the good taste of the furnishings. Ma had made it very slow to prevent the complete destruc- tion of the forest, so that it took many months for Little to notice that the snail had made it half or a quarter of the way around the place in its constant orbit. Little got to name these creatures. When they couldn’t think of a name, they would ask Ma — although many of the animals remained nameless, because after all, they were so rarely spoken of.
Little had an entire forest where they could explore, watching to see which animals got along with each other and which ones quarreled and wondering whether they were actually talking to each other with those sounds they made.
One day, just once, there was a person standing in the trees in the woods. Seeing this person, Little realized that Ma looked different now — she had looked like this once, fresh, with smooth skin and dark hair. The stranger had greenish eyes, like Little’s, not like Ma’s. They were staring straight at Little. Little called out, just a sound because they didn’t know what to say. The person looked for a second more, really looking, and then, abruptly, turned and walked off between the trees and vanished, leaving Little with a vast aching feeling. In that moment, they realized that a quieter version of this ache was always with them. Little knew that they could never tell Ma about this.
* * *
She must be dying. The creatures she’d made were limping. Reptilian things were in an unending shedding; fowl were dropping bloody feathers. She’d spent an entire day staring at the gargantuan snail, trying to see whether it was still moving. It was impossible to tell. The dandelion had a last few seeds hanging from its pockmarked face.
She felt an immense sadness for Little. She hadn’t thought this far ahead.
* * *
She gave birth there, in the darkness, the pain waking her up as it ripped through her.
And then she was holding a little, naked baby in her arms, and she loved it, and she could not pretend anymore that she wasn’t.
She knew what to do as she had known what to do to for Zach.
She closed her eyes and imagined, a forest, a stream, a field where a child could play.
She willed it to be.
Charlotte Joyce Kidd thinks that showing someone else what happens in your singular, freaky imagination is the scariest thing a person can do, and she does it constantly to prove to herself that she can. She’s close with her grandpar- ents, all four of whom are living and know how to use the internet. Because of their deep love for her, they never mention her writing. *If she’s figured out social media by the time this is published, she’ll let you know.