“Writing is collaborative. You’re not just perfectly rendering a world. You’re making a pact with the reader, and it’s a new agreement, every time the book is read, even with the same person. Also…If you’re still worried about your personal safety, IMHO it’s better that you don’t do it, since the readers’ image of you is always fuzzy and changes all the time.”
I stare at the words for a long while. I wonder if I can agree.
I often wonder this. Every time I confront an opinion on the internet with which I strenuously disagree — modern political discourse comes to mind — I stare at it and project forward several decades. I contemplate the world, still carrying on, after the offending individual is little more than a pile of dust. And I like Kali-ma am treading the bones on the battlefield and smiling that somewhere among all the putrid rubble of humanity, my editor is being crushed underfoot.
Chef glances at my stern face and lowers his ordering paperwork. “What’s she nit-picking now?”
“How can she do that from two states away? She’s never even seen you! You haven’t started putting up photos have you?”
I would never do something so rash. He knows my fears about facial recognition software, databases, and meta-data. He knows I value his privacy as much as my own, and while he will sometimes steal my phone and annoy the readers who converse with me, he prefers to keep his distance. This is my experiment or personal search, and while he respects it, he is only a tertiary part of it.
“I have considered commissioning a portrait.”
“Why the hell would you do that?”
I stare at him narrowly as I swivel my chair. “People continue to ask for pictures of me.”
While succinct, his criticisms are not quite perspicacious. “Kristina’s argument is a trifle less derisive of my fans. But I disagree with it similarly.”
His mouth falls open and he regards me blankly. “You’re still pissed about all those big words she made you change, aren’t you? Whiny Emo kid.”
Stretching as I rise, I surreptitiously roll my eyes upward. “You only say that because you have no idea what those big words mean.”
“Like trying to suck face with a god damn thesaurus,” he mumbles. “Mouth full of paper cuts.”
“Self-inflicted, you overgrown infant.”
I wander into the bathroom and stare into the mirror. I glance over my features, those odd things I cannot seem to capture when I attempt a self-portrait. I stare into my dark eyes and let the white light sculpt my cheeks and chin.
“Would it augment their experience, or detract from it, I wonder?”
He appears behind me, arms crossed. I know the look on his face; he worries any time I change the rules. He treats it as if he will be one of the things excised by the press of time as I squeak through.
“You don’t owe them anything. They paid for the book, that’s all. Next thing I know, you’re going to be making an appointment on some national television show to have your guts exposed.”
He is adorable in his distress, his eyes shimmering and his face like alabaster, but he needn’t be so concerned. I have no intention of being the first to step forward. It would be betrayal to my cousins, who choose to live in anonymity. It would make their masquerade impossible, our disagreements notwithstanding.
“Even if I did, it would be considered a massive hoax, or did you not hear of the Alien Autopsy debauchal?”
“Yeah, but with inconclusive non-human DNA and an X-ray of your weird ass organs?”
“David Blaine can fly, and before him, Dan Brown could read minds, and oh, yes, there was Houdini and his water tank. I doubt anyone would even take my call.”
I open the plastic case for my eyebrows and lashes. They are handcrafted of mink and cost as much as a new laptop. Their application would be daunting if I had not done it a thousand times. The glue becomes tacky as he stares at me with those uncannily penetrative eyes.
“Where are you going?”
“For a drive.” But that is a half-truth. He follows me down to the car. As I extricate myself from the eager mutt, and slip into my seat, he scrutinizes me. After I have driven away, I receive a text. In my car’s female voice, it sounds strange.
“I love it when you lie to me.”
I shake my head. I know what the next message will be. Chef enjoys being lascivious whenever the opportunity presents itself. You might be tempted to think this is because he cannot accept me and is overtly compensating for my dearth of emotion, but I know that this is not true. I think perhaps, foremost on this earth, he is a person who truly understands me.
“When you come back I’ll be waiting for my apology.”
I park in front of the bank and fish the tiny key from among its many fellows. The manager jumps as I knock on his door jamb. Whether or not he realizes it, I have been a customer of this bank since its founding. I have funneled my assets from place to place for centuries, turning them over like one tills a field, rotating stock and bonds, planting wealth in fertile soil. I am here often, and the entire staff knows me by name.
“Mr. Alkenmayer! Do we have an appointment?”
“No, forgive me. Today I’d like to visit.”
He sees the key in my hand and raises his own in salute.
I almost never come to my safety deposit box. Most of my belongings are more secure in a safe in my own home. Only a few get shoved away, put in the hands of mortals. Only a few things would ever mean anything if they were found to be in my possession, but if hunters ever do come to my door, they will miss me. I will be here, collecting these few things, readying myself to move along.
I follow behind him, my mind tracking his peculiar lumbering gait. I knew his grandfather. The man was stocky, built like a lion, but with the most graceful sea legs. He could run across a heaving deck in the slick of a storm and pull a full net better than a pack mule. That his lineage have become skip-stepping bankers is an interesting development.
“Your diet is doing you good.”
“Thirty pounds!” He looks back at me. “I’ve started jogging!”
He removes my box from its sconce and gives it to me with a curious and eager smile.
“Please tell me you’re about to pull out another ancient promissory and make my week.”
He can count the number of times this has happened upon one hand, and finds my constant, dragon-like obsession with my wealth to be amusing. That is because he has no idea I have witnessed the rise of banks and still find them terribly bizarre and untrustworthy. I haunt them lest the numbers dwindle, a kind of fiduciary phantasm.
“I’m afraid not.”
With a shrug, he vanishes, but I know he will be hovering right outside.
I open the lid. The book is on top, tightly wrapped in gauze. The leather binding is nearly a century old, and the paper is yellowed with age. I crack the spine and leaf through the pages, falling through time.
My fascination with technology is as old as the subject. From the tinder box to the electric coil, from the fire iron to the washing machine, from the telegraph to the internet — I have tinkered with them all. Photography has not escaped my notice.
I stare down at the turn of the century hat, the unused side arm, the beaded ballgown I wore to a local charity event in the mid thirties. Me after me, in many forms, all assiduously collected and curated, for no one other than myself.
In the Old Age, certainty was easy. I could control exactly how and when I was seen. Now it is almost impossible, and I have given up the fight, or rather, taken it to a different front. Now I cheat time with makeup and prosthetics, human assumptions and easy gender transformations, such that even should I walk right into the manager’s grandfather, the salty dog would never know me.
The photograph I seek is on the last page. I remove it carefully and tuck it away.