On the way to my first day at my new job in Edmonton, it finally happened: I found my soulmate. Thick brown hair, oystershell ears, baby blues that laserbeamed out from under a fringe of butterfly lashes. Shoulders wide as the Milky Way. Hands that could palm the moon. I was in love but he wouldn’t look at me, no matter how delicately I traced my fingers over my clavicle. Plus there was this service dog, a big lump of shepherd vigilant at his feet, eyeballing me like I was last night’s leftovers and it was time for breakfast.
My commute to Edmonton was 15 minutes shorter by Hypervac than to my old job in Vancouver, 50 minutes door-to-door from my Toronto apartment. The pods were less busy too, which meant instead of the usual throbbing earthly crush of bodies grinding you like diamonds into dust there were entire universes of space between me and him, gaping black holes of distance. It was kind of disappointing; if I had to be pressed up against anything I’d want it to be that galactic back of his, mapping out constellations with my cheek between the interstellar poles of his scapulae.
So I just read my book and shot sideways glances at him across the pod, planning my next move. From the look of him, I knew he had been in The War. I thought that could be my icebreaker since I had been too, but the moment I opened my mouth the shepherd bared his teeth and I shut it again. The War already took the top of my left ear and my right leg below the knee, and I didn’t think I could spare any more body parts, even if it meant missing out on true love. Between the dog and the silence I figured he must have the Saskatchewan Flu, from those bio bombs dropped on the Regina camps filled with toxins that shut down parts of your temporal lobe. Those BBs made it impossible for you to talk to other people. If you were lucky, when you got back you got a dog like this snaggletoothed German who kept everyone a football field away, a growl and a snap at anyone who tried a “Nice day we’re having” or a “How about them Leafs?” If you weren’t lucky, well. You ended up like those guys in the park near my apartment, picking bugs off tree trunks just to get a meal.
“Have you ever tried to talk to someone with Sask Flu?” I asked my roommate Angie, that night when I got home. She was making dinner, something she’d only started doing since she got pregnant. Maternal instincts, she said, even though the way she cooked wasn’t even close to maternal—attacking the food as if she was back at the Battle of Moose Jaw and dinner was enemy forces advancing down the Qu’Appelle River. Angie had been a dentist before The War. Now, she never even brushed her teeth.
“You can’t talk to someone with Sask Flu, Jordan,” Angie said, stirring the spaghetti sauce so violently I could almost hear it squealing in pain. “It’s right there in the name.”
“No it’s not.”
“Well, it’s implied.” She went in on a hunk of parmesan cheese, raking it across the grater like she was keelhauling a mutinous deckhand. “Why can’t you find a nice, well-adjusted guy who hasn’t been rendered non-verbal by biological warfare?”
I sat down at the table and pulled off my prosthesis, letting it fall to the floor with a loud clatter. It’s always my very favourite part of the day, separating that thing from my body and dropping it, hearing it holler. “How do you know it’s about a guy?”
“Come on, Jord,” she said. “With you, it’s always about a guy.”
I booted my prosthesis off into the corner. I liked the way it looked over there, like it was trying to climb the wall. An invisible person with a fake leg instead of a real person with an invisible leg. “He’s got a dog,” I said.
“So give it up. You hate animals.” She grabbed my hand, pressing it against her stomach. “Feel. She’s kicking.”
I humoured her and spread my fingers out over the bump, even though whenever she did that I could never actually feel anything. I just liked it that she wanted me that close. Angie went back to putting the thumbscrews to a pan of meatballs, my hand still on her stomach, my arm stretched across the space in our tiny kitchen. I kept my hand there for a long time, waiting, but I didn’t feel anything move.
When I was a kid, I wanted to get married so bad. There was just something about having to make someone love you forever, no takebacks. I was a Robin’s Egg baby, from the days before people started going back to having kids the old fashioned way, and both my parents died in the Parkdale Floods before I was born. I cracked out of that shell to a bunch of government workers with scanners taking inventory of my features and DNA for my potential adoptive family to evaluate. I don’t remember this, of course, but Jean and Donald told me about it. Jean and Donald thought our head sizes and skin tones would be a good match. Jean and Donald calculated that my bones had the required density. Jean and Donald liked the way my medulla oblongata looked on an MRI. Not exactly the stuff that fairy tales are made of.
It’s not that I hate animals. It’s just… Well, okay. Jean and Donald had this pet bird named Larry. Larry had all these messy green and orange feathers and would talk to you if he liked you, even though all he knew how to say was quotes from famous philosophers. His previous owner had been a professor at a university before they were all shut down, and Larry had picked up a few things. If Larry didn’t like you, you just got this kind of condescending whistle, a high pitched breath of putrid bird air between the icepicks of his beak, a sound that meant nothing, a sound that meant you were nothing. I guess he took a liking to me, though, maybe because I came from an egg too. He would sit on my shoulder and tell me “God is dead” and “Acting is happy agony” and “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is,” and I would think about the poor philosophy professor and how unhappy his life must have been with a bunch of old dead guys telling him how he should feel about everything.
Anyway, some days I would put a white sock on Larry’s head and pretend it was a veil and we would get married, walk down the aisle and everything, and when the imaginary judge would say “You may kiss the bride” Larry would bow his head and press the top of his beak against my lips, where it was all cool and smooth, tucking away his jagged edges so he wouldn’t hurt me. Larry was always very careful with me. He loved me forever, no takebacks. When I left for The War Larry went berserk, tearing all around the house with those janky orange and green feathers flying everywhere trying to get out and follow me down to the Hypervac station. But of course instead he just brained himself a bunch of times against the front window, and ever since then his little bird head kind of falls a little to the side, like he’s looking at you through a keyhole.
“I love you, Larry,” I’d say after we kissed.
“Man is condemned to be free,” Larry would respond.
It’s not that I hate animals, okay? But when I got home from The War the first thing I did was go to Jean and Donald’s to see Larry, and that dumb bird took one lopsided look at my new leg and flew back into his cage like he didn’t even know me. “Larry,” I said. “It’s me, Jordan. It’s still me.” It’s still mostly me. I puckered my lips. I even took the leg off. But he just turned his scraggly feathered back to me, whistling a little tune under his breath like I was the mailman or something, whistling at me like I was just one of Jean’s old lady friends coming over for tea.
“Larry, it’s still me,” I said, again and again, but all I got was that back. That whistle.
But, you know, whatever. At the time I was really torn up about it, because he was supposed to love me forever. It was supposed to be no takebacks. But after a while it just made me angry. I mean, who was he, with his floppy head, to judge me? Who was he to pretend I was just some blank-eyed stranger come to fix the dishwasher, that I was just some kid at the door delivering pizza? I let him sit on my shoulder. I let him put his beak on my lips. I let him tell me that an unexamined life is not worth living.
You’re broken and I still recognize you, Larry. You’re broken and I still know who you are.
Two weeks went by and I didn’t see that guy again, so I decided to stick a pin in the whole soulmate thing and tried to fall in love with someone else. I tested different pods at different times but the closest I got was an angel-faced Hypervac operator with blonde curls and a long swandive neck who winked at me as I flashed him my VacPass. Then just when I was starting to think I needed a new plan, I got in the pod one morning and there he was, my soulmate, his perfect, mountain-peak knees jutting out into the aisle from his seat. I felt my heart tripping across the xylophone bones of my ribcage until I saw that damn shepherd, standing with his head resting on the rolling foothills of my soulmate’s thigh. As I moved down the aisle our eyes met and he raised his head and growled at me, all deep and feral, a thin line of drool unspooling over his jowls and down to the floor.
He began slinking across the pod towards me, all low and slow, and my first thought, God help me, was to kick him. Square my boot off right under his chin and pow. I’m not proud of it, but that dog really made my skin crawl, with his wet eyes and pulpy gums, ears like batwings on alert for too-close voices. But as I revved up I remembered something that happened when I first got home from camp and moved in with Angie, back when I still had hearing loss and my leg was newly gone and I was having all these nightmares and I thought my life was screwed up for good. An invisible person with a fake leg instead of a real person with an invisible leg. One day I just fell apart, sobbing I’m broken, no one will ever love me, over and over again until one time Angie finally just hauled off and punched me right in the gut.
“We’re all broken, Jordan,” she said. “What makes you think you’re so special?”
The shepherd was really onto me now, head bowed, muscles all tense and twitching beneath bristly black fur. He stopped a few feet away from me, and neither of us moved. From where I stood I could hear him breathing, a gnashing rasp in his trachea, the air squeezing through the concrete walls of his lungs. His whole body taut with the biological imperative of a soldier: execute the training or become valueless. Kill or be killed. It was a feeling I knew pretty well, to tell you the truth. It was a feeling we all came to know whether we wanted to or not.
But as I watched the shepherd, I wasn’t thinking about The War. I was thinking about the old days when it used to take four hours to get from Toronto to Edmonton on one of those old fashioned airplanes, and how back then my soulmate and I would’ve had so much more time together. I was thinking about how much closer everyone is to each other now, space-wise, how the distance between places keeps getting smaller but the distance between people keeps getting larger. I was thinking about how the world is shrinking so fast that we can’t keep up.
But I was also thinking: we have to try, don’t we? To keep up? Otherwise we’re not even really human. Otherwise we’re nothing but these separate broken bodies flailing against each other, otherwise we’re all just busted parts tossed together in one great big trash heap.
Otherwise, we actually lost The War.
“If we’re all broken, Jordan, do you know what that means?” Angie asked me that day, nudging me with her toe as I lay on the ground, gasping for breath. “It means that none of us actually are.”
So I didn’t kick the shepherd. I didn’t. Instead I reached out and held my hand right in front of that cold, wet nose. I could feel his steam room breath on my palm and I spread my fingers wide, waiting to see what would happen. If he was going to chomp down on my arm, he might as well chomp down on my arm. I just wanted him to get it over with. I didn’t want to wait anymore. I was tired of waiting. I was tired of all this space. But most of all, I was tired of being invisible. At least this shepherd saw me. At least this shepherd thought of me as a threat rather than nothing at all.
We locked eyes for a moment, that shepherd and me. Then he sort of turned his head to the side and whimpered softly, a baby’s breath of a movement, barely a whisper. And suddenly he was licking my wrist, his tongue all soft and spongy on my skin. I moved my hand to the top of the shepherd’s head. “Good boy,” I said, scratching his ear. “You’re a very good boy.”
When I looked up my soulmate was staring right at me, his cherrybomb lips parted, and I swear he was getting ready to speak.
Amy Jones is the author of What Boys Like and Other Stories (Bibiloasis, 2009), and We’re All in This Together (M&S, 2016). Her work has appeared in several publications, and has been anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories. Originally from Halifax, Amy now resides in Toronto, where she is working on her second novel.