“A Slip in the Slice” by Heather Morris
I open my eyes to a ghost.
In the fuddly space between light hitting my visual cortex and my consciousness beginning to whir I am unable to scream, or yelp, or even whimper. I blink instead, and let out a sigh.
It’s only my roommate, Paul.
Except, as the relief warms me through, I realize the wrongness all over again. Paul and I are supposed to be on different timeslices. He’s not supposed to be now.
Paul’s eyes are wide. One half of his face—the half pressed into a pillow that is still then, not now—is flushed red. His mouth is opening and closing, opening and closing, maybe saying Gwen, Gwen, or maybe just breathing in a strange way.
He’s creeping me out. Also, I really have to pee.
When I get back from the bathroom Paul has disappeared. Properly back to his timeslice, I hope. But suddenly it feels odd to be standing here in my pajamas, like I am a stranger, an alien crash-landed on Earth.
I hug my arms around my ribcage, and then I decide to go to Stacy’s.
It’s disorienting stepping out into a twilight world when in my apartment it is daybreak. Timeslicing is something that you never quite get used to, mentally. Most of the time it doesn’t matter because I’m ensconced in the basement of the university library day or night, but today I can’t seem to shake the wrong feeling. I try to concentrate on inanities. Bus routes sometimes give me trouble, so I turn my brain to thinking intently of timetables. But it is like there is a cloud of smoke following me, smoothing out the wrinkles in my brain.
Maybe Paul needed help. Maybe he’s having a heart attack or a stroke, right now, upstairs.
Rules for that kind of situation really should be covered in the lease.
Stacy’s boy-of-the-week opens her door, wallet in hand, clearly expecting Seamless. I suppose I shouldn’t call them boy anymore. We’re getting up there in age, Stace and I, and the one in front of me is at least thirty-five.
His rugged brodude face goes blank for just a second. I see Stacy hasn’t gotten to family history and revise my estimate down from boy-of-the-week to boy-of-the-hour. Though who knows. There are a lot of skeletons in our closet; maybe she never tells them about me at all.
“Twin,” I say, rudely pushing my way past him through the door.
“Wait, what?” he sputters in confusion, as Stacy appears wearing some godawful ensemble calculated to highlight her rather remarkable cleavage. Her shoulders fall.
“Hell, Gwen, you could have called.”
I shrug off my coat, remember to correct my posture. “Coulda.”
Boy turns to her and she sighs and waves a hand between us. “Gwen, Alex. Alex, this is my sister, Gwen.”
He is blank for a second more and then—hell, there it is, he’s a nerd at heart. He starts to giggle, honest-to-god giggle. A bundle of unexpected contradictions, this one. I bet he was the fat kid in school. (I can say that, because I was, too. Also because my internal monologue is an unrepentant bitch and anyway I’d never say it to his face.)
I’m sure it was cute for about three minutes when we were born. Gwen and Stacy, that is. Dad had a thing for Silver Age comics; they were how he learned English. There’s meaning there, there’s history. And it’s better than most twin names I’ve come across in my time. We could have rhymed, or alliterated.
But sweet Jesus, how I hate nerds.
Stace and I grit our back teeth identically, but the doorbell rings again with the delivery and we are spared the rest of the potential scene. I sit at Stace’s kitchen table, and she sits across from me, while secret nerd deals with the door.
“What are you doing here?”
“There’s something wrong with my apartment.”
“And you’re here instead of at the manager’s office because…?”
“What, suddenly I’m not allowed to visit?”
“Just…just call first, Gwen. Jesus, you’re the one always going on and on about privacy.”
“Fine. I’ll hit the library instead.”
Her gaze slides to nerd boy and then back to me, apologetically. “No, stay. He’s probably a bust, anyway.”
“Oh, I dunno. He seems fairly conventionally attractive.”
“Then you can have him. Merry Christmas.”
She sounds so tired. But I’m used to Stacy sounding that way around me.
A bit later, while nerd boy pours an extra glass of wine and Stacy is concentrating on splitting her pad thai into two portions (one for me, though she already knows I won’t eat it), she asks, “So what’s wrong with your apartment, anyway?”
She’s expecting to hear about a leak, an invasion of ants, a broken lightbulb.
“There’s a man in my bed,” I say.
Nerd boy chokes on something, stammers indelicately. Stacy glares at me, questioning.
“It’s Paul,” I explain. “Some kink in the slicing, I guess, but it really freaked me out. I had to get away for a while.”
“But, he’s always in your bed,” Stacy says, swigging some of the wine. “I mean, when he’s asleep, anyway. Isn’t that how it works?”
“Sure, but we’re not supposed to see each other. And it’s his own bed.”
Stacy claims that she doesn’t understand why I would choose to live the way I do, cramming into a tiny one-bedroom full of stuff that isn’t mine (but it is mine), with a total stranger (but he’s not), compressed into twelve-hour increments of time (not at all how it works), when she has a perfectly serviceable two-bedroom apartment and wouldn’t even ask for help on the rent, just splitting utilities. I used to try to explain, but I’m tired of beating up this particular equine corpse. We were forced to spend eighteen years together (eighteen years and about eight months, if you want to get technical), and I made my play for freedom at literally the first opportunity I had. It’s both more than that and less.
Her expression says something like serves you right, like I deserve whatever discomfort or inconvenience this causes me.
Nerd boy asks, “Was it normal fade or a collision? Did you check the readings on your chronometer?”
Stacy and I blink at him in tandem.
“Chronowhatsits?” I say.
He frowns down a mouthful of food. “You live sliced and you don’t know how to read your chronometer? Didn’t you have any training?”
I shrug. “Maintenance is supposed to take care of that kind of stuff. How do you know about it?”
“What, basic slicing?”
The way he says it implies a whole host of inadequacies on my part.
I know the theory, of course. What timeslicing does, at least in its most common application, is allow for high-capacity use of limited resources. Why build a second apartment complex when your first can hold twice as many tenants? Why pay for two shifts of factory workers going night and day when you can overlap slices and have everyone work at the same time?
Supposedly, the advocates say, this technology will help to save an overcrowded world.
I like it because it gives me a place to be alone. There aren’t many of those left, at least not for people living off of student loans and miniscule university stipends.
“Well, what’s the difference between fading and colliding, then? How do I know which is which?”
“Fades are gradual, and fairly common because often you don’t notice them right away. The most obvious way to tell is the slice-time clock speeding up or slowing down out of sync with the real-time clock, but you’ll also see it in the light shifting from morning to afternoon in the wrong sequence. Collisions are much more dramatic. Objects falling through the slice, distorted perspective. When it happened, did you feel like vomiting, or have any heart palpitations?”
“Gwen has a schedule for vomiting, so she probably wouldn’t even notice,” Stacy bites out, swirling the wine in her glass.
I don’t know why she’s being vicious.
Or, well, I do know. Maybe. I interrupted a date. I have lost three pounds since I last saw her, which somehow she can always tell right down to the ounce. I didn’t call before coming. I haven’t called in weeks, really.
Nerd boy looks awkwardly between us. He didn’t intend to ask such a loaded question, I know. Still I feel the burn in my throat, the buzz my nerve endings make under threat.
“It was a collision,” I say, refusing to look at my sister. “Can you help?”
He makes a small, nervous noise. I don’t wait for him to say yes or no, just grab my coat and head for the door.
Forty-five seconds later, two pairs of footsteps follow.
I first met Paul at the library. That’s how most of my contact with other human beings begins, and how I prefer things. If I can observe someone’s research habits, observe how they treat their books, then I know how to approach them.
Paul’s study carrel was messy, but he had nothing on me. I liked his handwriting, small and evenly spaced letters lined up like tiny children’s teeth, liked that he still wrote instead of typing everything. He had an indent in his fourth finger, ballpoint ink stains scattered randomly across his hands.
I notice these things.
I’d been trying to get into a sliced place for three semesters. I’d been living in an attic above some undergrads, but even though they were the quiet kind, a passel of socially inept scholarship kids, there was still too much interference. They kept inviting me to things. Movie nights, with hot buttered popcorn. Backyard barbecues. Christmas cookie swaps. Obviously I never went, but even the smells of that house were enough to drive me to distraction.
So when Paul mentioned that he was looking for a place closer to campus, I pounced. But it wasn’t just convenience. I like Paul. I don’t like very many people.
The arrangement works. Or it has until now.
The apartment feels damp when we get in. Like someone left open windows during a rainstorm. It hasn’t rained in weeks.
“These places always give me the creeps,” Stacy mutters, loudly, checking her phone for the time. It’s currently 7:15 pm outside, 7:15 am inside, and I get it, I do, morning and evening can feel different, even when there’s no outside stimulus to give you a clue as to when you are. But she’s just trying to goad me into an argument, and I don’t want to start.
Alex—I’m making an effort to think of him by his name, since he’s agreed to come across town just to help me—goes to a meter on the wall next to the thermostat. I’ve seen the thing a hundred times and never paid it the slightest bit of attention.
He presses some buttons with the flat of his thumb. “Looks like a slip got in between the slices. Just needs a manual reset. You’re on twelve hour cycles, right?”
I nod, wondering what a slip is. The meter beeps with each press of his thumb. “I’m gonna shift over to the other slice for a moment, just to check everything’s fine on both ends. Can you text him to warn that we’re coming?”
I shrug. “I…may not have his number.”
Stacy rolls her eyes, “Jesus, Gwen.”
But Alex just give a reassuring smile and says, “Well, I hope he doesn’t startle easily.”
But he’s not even there. My stomach rolls as the slice settles in place—7:16 pm. The apartment is dark. I smell old food coming from the kitchen—rotting fruit, left on the counter too long.
My voice quavers like an old lady or an ingénue.
Paul is missing.
“Maybe he went out,” Stacy suggests. And it’s true. He could have gone down to the corner bodega for dinner, or for a walk in the park. But somehow that just feels untrue. It feels like this apartment has been empty for days upon days.
So how did I see him this morning? Or rather—line up the slices, Gwen—two hours ago?
Paul is not in the living room. He’s not in the bathroom. He’s not in the bedroom. His keys are on the hook by the front door.
Still the three of us stumble around looking, as if there are a million places for him to hide.
“Um,” Alex says, and that syllable has a lot of weight. Stacy and I follow the sound of his voice, find him in the bathroom again, staring at the cheap mirror.
“What is it?”
“I don’t want to say we’ve just walked into a horror movie, but…” He flicks off the light. The mirror glows.
Help Gwen Help Gwen Help Gwen Help Gwen
Or: Gwen Help Gwen Help Gwen Help Gwen Help. It’s hard to see where the message begins and ends.
How do the letters glow like that? It’s more than fingerprint smudges on glass. I can’t understand where this has come from, how it has come to be.
“Okay,” Stacy says, shaken. “Enough Scooby Dooing. We need to get the apartment manager. And the police.”
“When was the last time you saw your roommate?” Alex asks, then amends it. “I mean, actually saw him, when you were both at the same time.”
I can’t remember. We don’t bother each other. Sometimes we run across each other on campus, but I’ve been busy lately, lost in literature, not paying attention to much in the real world.
“Gwen,” Stacy snaps. “Earth to Gwen. Come on, you have to help us out here.”
And I realize I’ve been standing there, staring blankly at the message on the mirror, for a long, long time.
People don’t just disappear. Sometimes it seems that way, that they have walked off the Earth, but there is always an explanation, though it may not ever be found.
Our dad, Stacy’s and mine, walked off the Earth sometime in September. We had just started school, came home every afternoon crowing about learning the alphabet and how to make a dollar out of different coins and what the big and little arms on the clock meant, and I know, in the back corner of my mind where I’ve analyzed myself since I refuse to get another therapist because they never fulfill their promises, that part of the reason I stay in academia, that I’m still technically a student after all these years, is that a long-ago little version of me thinks that if she stays in school and studies hard, her dad will come back.
As far as I can know he is gone, excised from the world as cleanly and quietly as if he never existed in it. But somewhere, he still is. With amnesia. With another family. Or, more probably, as moldering bones scattered by animals in some forest. There are still places in this overcrowded world where bodies can hide, and our mom was never overly interested in looking for him, once he was gone. Stacy and I don’t talk about it, but we both think she might have gotten rid of him in the first place. Or at least know who did.
We don’t speak to her anymore.
Anyway, this is all to say that while I know Paul must be somewhere, some when, I am panicking, quietly and demure, like one of the pallid, consumptive heroines I spend my life writing about. Because people don’t just disappear, but that doesn’t mean that you will always find them.
Alex calls the apartment manager for me, and she comes up along with a maintenance man. Stace sits me on the couch and rubs distracted circles on my back, her touch light so as not to not leave bruises. I am not so delicate, I want to scream at her, but all she can see are my bones and my paper-thin skin.
They go over our search for the second time. They fiddle with the chronowhatsis. The couch goes from my ratty plaid pattern to Paul’s sober blue, and back again. The interlopers hum and haw.
An officer comes to take a missing persons report. I thought you had to make those down at the station, but I’m glad enough to do it here, rooted in place. It’s clear enough to me that the officer thinks I’m somehow responsible. He assumes a sexual relationship with Paul despite my denial of one because, of course, there’s no way a man and woman can share the same space, even sliced, without fucking; there’s no way that a woman my age and a man Paul’s could possibly lead sexless lives; even if we are both a little weird and not conventionally attractive, hey, there’s a lid for every trashcan, and since there’s no evidence Paul is having sex with anyone else, then it has to be me. The officer keeps his suppositions to himself, for now, but I can see them simmering beneath the surface. If Paul is not found intact, and soon, I will probably be questioned a lot harder than this.
Adults have a right to disappear if they want to. That’s another thing the officer says to me, and I’ve heard it before. If you are an adult, there’s nothing illegal in your just walking away from your life.
But because Paul, apparently, has not shown up to class for three days, because there is food rotting on the counter, because his keys are on the hook, because of that message on the mirror, signs are suspicious enough to warrant investigation. The officer sounds ominous, like he’s trying to guilt me into confessing something.
Stacy hears it and gives him a piece of her mind. She always was the mouthpiece for both of us, the one who spoke.
Alex explains for the third time that he’s just an acquaintance, that he only met me a few hours ago. I feel bad for bringing him into this.
My only anchor, the only thing I can seem to concentrate on, is my hunger. In such a state as this, I could devour anything.
By this point, my tiny apartment is crowded beyond belief. A slicing engineer has been called in, the architect who planned the building has sent out her attorney to assess her liability, a local TV news crew has gotten wind of the possibility of a freak slicing accident and shown up with cameras rolling, and my neighbors, who I barely know by sight, are crowding around the door, faces torn between anxiety and voyeuristic pleasure.
“He must have fallen into the slip when the slices collided,” the engineer says. I still don’t know what a slip is.
“If that happened, he would have become corporeal on this slice,” someone else argues.
“What if he got shuffled somewhen else?” the investigative reporter asks.
The engineer scoffs. “Somewhen else, this place doesn’t even exist. He would have fallen three stories through the air.”
With renewed vigor, half of the crowd runs off to check the basement for Paul’s body. But he’s not there. He’s still missing.
I regret waking up today. I regret thinking my vision of Paul was anything other than a dream.
As things linger without a satisfying conclusion, the crowd starts to disperse. My neighbors leave first, grumbling about unwarned-of dangers, the possibility of suing the complex for damages, though of course they are not the ones who have been damaged. The news crew packs up. The officers leave, promising to continue the investigation tomorrow. And maybe I could schedule a time to come down to the station? If it’s not inconvenient, you understand.
I have only been awake a few hours, but already I am bone-tired, could sleep for a hundred thousand years.
“Come home with me,” Stacy says when all the rest are gone. “I don’t want you staying here tonight.”
I shrug her off. “I should be here. In case he comes back.”
“We could stay,” Alex says. We, presumably, because it’s weird to invite yourself into the home of someone you just met, even if you are doing it to be chivalrous. “I can sleep on the floor, fix the slices if they get wonky.”
I try to smile, know it looks forced. “I’ll be fine. Sorry I ruined your date.”
Stace protests some more, but I practically push the two of them out the door. Maybe, just maybe, they will be able to look at this incident as an adventure. A date more exciting than take-out Thai. Maybe, just maybe, I haven’t poisoned another piece of Stacy’s life.
Either way, now I am alone.
I have always been alone here; that was by design. But I’ve never felt it. I knew that Paul was right there, a ghost standing beside me. If I wanted, at any time I could have reached out to him, if only to say hello.
I only want to now that he is gone.
With the lights on, I can no longer see the message on the mirror. Only myself. Not an image I care to study very often.
I don’t pretend to know how, but even with identical twins, there’s always a hot one. And in my family that crown goes to Stacy. Would even if we still physically matched.
It’s an attitude thing. Like, those Sweet Valley books? Everyone knows Jessica was the sexpot, and Elizabeth the dowdy one, even though they looked exactly the same, down to the dimples in their cheeks.
Even after Dad disappeared, Stace was always a little ray of sunshine and hope. She was the vivacious half of the pair we made. Energetic, carefree, pretty. I was always destined to be the Liz, and mirrors make that abundantly clear.
I run my finger across the mirror, now, looking for the ghost of those letters that make no sense. “Paul,” I say, to the empty room. It feels stupid, but I still have to do it. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry that I didn’t notice you were gone. I get lost in myself, a lot of the time. It’s not an excuse, just…an apology.”
My pointer finger sweats against the glass. Suddenly, it feels more than warm.
You know, something I have always, always wanted to do is smash a mirror.
I was always too cautious, too hampered by being the good twin, the Elizabeth. I weigh consequences constantly, and have never been particularly impulsive because of it. The most daring thing I have ever done was move out of home on my eighteenth birthday, an intricately plotted escape that still I worry used up all my capacity for impulse in one large gulp.
But I have always wanted to smash a mirror.
Mirrors lie, you see. I can look at Stacy and see what I am, or, rather, what I am supposed to be. Once, we were identical, and she is still the ideal version of me. But when I look into a mirror all I see is that the control I wrest out of life, the order I try to impose, the discipline and the scheduling and the regimentation, is all for nothing. A body is monstrous. A body is animal. A body cannot be controlled.
If this doesn’t work, the police are going to flag it as a sign of my unstable mental state. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to have to try to explain why I thought it would. And I’m not sure that the cause and effect are all that clear in my mind.
So be it. Because I’ve always wanted to smash a mirror, and I have this feeling that Paul just might be on the other side of this one.
There’s a hammer buried in my junk drawer. I heft it a few times, waiting for some signal I cannot name. And then I bring it down.
|Heather Morris is a cyborg librarian living in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. You can find her on Twitter @NotThatHeatherM.|