An engaging work of fiction where two eccentrics find catharsis in each other’s uniqueness, all the while coming to appreciate their own individualism…
by: Logan Thrasher Collins
Jennie saw the boy with the robot arm on her way home from her after school music practice. She had nearly finished seventh-grade and the moist heat of the Louisiana spring was already bleeding into the summer. Wispy cirrus clouds streaked across the sky. She congratulated herself on recognizing the type of clouds, ones she had just learned about earlier in the week. Practice had run quite late that day and, far beyond the atmosphere of Earth, Jennie could also see the glimmer of the first evening stars.
Jennie spotted the boy standing about a block away. As she approached, she saw his prosthetic hand glinting in the dusky light. For a moment, she felt a wave of horror. But Jennie told herself that this reaction was quite mean, especially since she had her own differences. Guilty at her initial reaction, she resolved to make up for it and put on her most charming smile and strode confidently up to the boy.
“Hi!” She exclaimed a bit too loudly. The boy startled and turned around. He had been staring intently at the chromium spaghetti of the petrochemical plant across the lake. He wore a buttercup-colored shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck.
“Um…what’s your name?” he asked. “I’m new here so…I don’t know people.”
“I’m Jennie. Nice to meet you!”
“My name’s Jon.” There was a long pause as both of them tried to figure out what to say next.
“Y’know, I’m one of the gene babies,” Jennie blurted out. “Sorry. Not sure why I said that, she said while blushing.
“I know why. You were lookin at this.” Jon held up his shiny robot hand and pulled back his yellow shirtsleeve to display the artificial wrist and forearm. He smiled wryly. “I guess you wanted to…I dunno, share something along those lines.” His smile faded as he looked back at her.
“My deepest apologies if I offended you.”
“No no…don’t worry about it.” Jon looked down. “If you don’t mind talking about it, what’d they do? With your genes I mean. I wanna be a doctor when I grow up, so I’m always looking to learn about this stuff.”
“They made it so that I can survive better in outer space. Better bones, radiation won’t hurt me as much, stuff like that. In case I want to go up there someday.” Jennie looked up at the sky. The scattering of stars pierced the haze of the humid sky, twinkling as though making some kind of invitation. She smiled, lost for a moment in thoughts of eternity. “My parents are always tryin to tell me there’s no pressure to be an astronaut. Y’know, they just wanted to give me the option to live that kinda life, not force me into it or anything.”
“So…do you want to go to space?” Jon asked.
“Absolutely.” Jennie turned back and fixed him with a gaze so intense that he almost stepped backwards. He felt caught off guard by her glittering blue eyes and how they reflected the light of the rising stars. “I’ll see you tomorrow I guess!” Jennie exclaimed. She spun around gracefully and continued walking home, leaving a bewildered Jon to stare after her.
Jon glanced down at the mechanical hand that had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. People had always thought he was weird. Sometimes other kids were cruel, hurling insults and even trying to test his robotic appendage by hitting it with rocks. Back when he had lived in the city, he had kept to himself mostly. He could not remember the last time he had talked for so long with someone his own age. He wondered how many people knew about Jennie’s genetic alterations. He understood that people like her were scattered across the world, yet most parents in the South eschewed the treatment, so people like Jennie were very rare here. Though he did not know whether she did so often or not, he felt special to have had Jennie tell him something so personal so soon after meeting him. Even if she had told him out of an impulse to relate to his robotic hand.
The next Monday, Jennie had to walk through the rain on her way to school. Though she had brought an umbrella, her shoes and jeans were drenched by the time she arrived at first period. Her spirits brightened when she saw Jon sitting at the back of the classroom. His hair was soaked and plastered over his forehead. She waved and he smiled back weakly. He kept his hands under the table and his back hunched. Jennie was initially irked by his apparent reticence. But she soon realized that he was probably nervous about what might happen when the other students saw his mechanical arm. Jenny wished for Jon to not have to feel so afraid.
“Morning announcements,” Mr. Beauchamp began, sounding bored and tired. “Alexander won the hunting competition at the lodge last week, so let’s applaud him.” Everyone clapped mildly. One girl chewed her bubble gum loudly. Alexander grinned widely despite the class’s obvious lack of enthusiasm. “Okay,” Mr. Beauchamp sighed. “Hana, spit your gum in the trash. Next announcement. We’ve got a new student today. Jon, can you stand up and say something about yourself?”
“Umm…sure,” Jon began without standing. “My name’s Jon and I’m from Shreveport. My family moved though, so…now I’m here.”
“Stand on up. It’s polite,” Mr. Beauchamp interrupted. Jon grimaced and stood. All eyes were drawn to his robotic hand. Even Mr. Beauchamp looked surprised, though he quickly reasserted his businesslike demeanor. Several of the girls looked away primly.
“Get a load of that!” Alexander stated loudly.
“Shut up Al,” Jennie snapped. She knew he hated to be called Al.
“Go fuch yourself.” Alexander replied darkly.
“Language!” Mr. Beauchamp shouted angrily.
“Terribly sorry sir,” Alexander said with a look of wide-eyed innocence. After that, everyone sobered and class went on, though Alexander and Jennie shot each other a number of dirty looks. Eventually, Jennie became absorbed in learning geometry and temporarily forgot about the unpleasant exchange.
Jennie gazed intently at the shimmering floor-to-ceiling touchscreen as Mr. Beauchamp dragged various polygons around its surface. She had a sense that this kind of mathematics could be applied to calculating the trajectories of rocket ships, so she kept envisioning shuttles traversing the lines on the screen. Jennie looked up at the skylight and imagined stars and planets beyond the dark rain clouds. This sort of reverie was not an uncommon occurrence for her. Sometimes other kids made fun of her tendency to drift off into wonderment. She had learned long ago to not talk about outer space with her peers. Except for Jon.
For his own part, Jon felt nauseous for most of the class period. Though he appreciated Jennie standing up for him, he knew from experience that trying to fight back would only lead to more pain. He hung his head, unable to focus on the lesson. It seemed that not a lot would change. His peers would always revile him. Jon looked up for a moment at Jennie, her dark hair tied in a shiny ponytail. She was staring at the triangles which rotated on the dirty touchscreen display. Jon let himself smile briefly. At least he had one friend here.
Because of the rain, everyone had to eat lunch indoors and the cafeteria was packed with rambunctious middle schoolers. Jon sat down at one of the few empty tables and opened his plastic lunchbox. His dad had packed a tangerine and a container of rice and beans. He started to peel the tangerine, his familiar prosthetic hand shimmering under the cafeteria’s fluorescent lights. He looked around, wondering where Jennie was sitting. He saw her with a group of girls.
Jennie knew she had to sit with Emily, Emma, Hana, and Francesca. Once last year, she tried to join some of the boys. Emily and Emma had cornered her and given a prissy lecture about decorum and how the boys and girls had to sit separately now that they had all come of age, whatever that was supposed to mean. But today, Jennie had a hard time keeping herself at the table.
“I don’t like it.” Hana muttered.
“Well, I know it’s a…condition. But I agree, the thing creeps me out. It’s not just that though. He acts all weird. Like he thinks he’s better than us,” Emma added.
“Oh no. He’s coming over here,” Francesca exclaimed. Jennie turned to see Jon walking up to the table. For his sake, she found herself desperately praying that he would turn away.
After taking a few bites of the sweet tangerine, Jon had decided that he was tired of letting fear dominate his actions. He wanted to eat with Jennie and he was going to do just that. He moved towards Jennie, trying to ignore the gaping stares of the other girls. He felt like a car hurtling out of control, skidding off the road towards some lake of indeterminate depth. Despite this, he had to do something brave for once. Maybe things would be different this time.
“Hey Jennie, he mumbled. “Hey Jennie!” he said more loudly. Too loudly. “Wanna take a walk?” Jon immediately realized that his request would come across as odd. The girl named Hana grimaced and looked away.
“I don’t know what you want with her, but you won’t get it.” One of the girls snarled.
“Look…I’m sorry. I just wanted to eat lunch with her. We’re friends.” All eyes turned to Jennie, who blushed fiercely. She forced herself not to look down. Several random onlookers had begun to meander onto the scene. The fluorescent lights of the cafeteria flickered ominously while thunder boomed outside.
“Is this true?” Emma demanded.
“Well, I mean, we talked a little the other day.” Jennie stated haltingly. She could feel the eyes of the cafeteria on her. “Nothing too personal. We’re not exactly friends.” Jon’s face took on a look of shock and panic at her betrayal. He felt tears in his eyes.
“What do you mean?” he managed. “We talked a lot. You told me that you’re a gene baby.” It was Jennie’s turn to look shocked and panicked. The expression of fear quickly turned to anger, but then Jennie stood up and bolted out of the room, leaving her turquoise lunch box behind. Now there were tears on Jon’s cheeks and the world seemed to blur. He began to run as well, crashing through the door to the playground outside.
Rain poured down and saturated Jon’s clothes as he ran. Dark clouds shrouded the sky and the cypress trees at the playground’s edge swayed in the wind. Some old tires swung from the trees. Jon jumped as lightning briefly lit up the world. He wished that he had a real arm. The silvery cladding of his prosthesis gleamed as rainwater washed over the surface of his hand and wrist. He looked down and hated it. But he really hated himself for hurting Jennie, the one person who had been kind to him.
Jon climbed onto the play structure and went to the highest platform. He looked up at the darkness of the tumbling clouds and let the rain hit his face. He now knew that he would always be the outcast, the weirdo, the oddball. Tears mixed with rainwater. Lightning flashed again. He closed his eyes.
Jon felt someone grab his prosthetic arm. He turned to see Jennie’s pale face staring at him, her hair and clothes dripping in the rain.
“We’ve gotta get down from here!” she shouted over the storm. “It’s not safe with the storm.” She pulled him along and they jogged to the front doors of the school and into the main hallway. Once inside, they stopped and stared at each other, unsure of what to say.
“Jennie…I’m…I’m really really sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I said,” Jon blurted out. Jennie knew that she had probably lost a lot of friends today. But seeing Jon’s expression of desperate remorse, his shirt dripping, she experienced a rush of tenderness. Jennie hugged him impulsively.
“Look, I’ve always been weird too.” Jennie said. “I’ve pretended not to be for a long time. Maybe today is, I dunno, some kinda sign from the stars. I can’t keep hiding forever.”
“They’re gonna be mean to us for a long time.” Jon said softly. Jennie looked down the hallway, wondering how she was going to handle the inevitable cruelty of the other girls.
“There’s a charging station on Marmaduke street. It’ll shelter us from the rain. Meet me there after school.” Jennie said.
Even though the rest of the school day did not go as disastrously as either Jennie or Jon expected, a clear tension had spread across the student population. Jennie’s friends did not speak to her during the passing period. They even went as far as to move away from her rusty blue locker when she arrived to retrieve her books and backpack. Jennie ignored them as she pressed her thumb to the fingerprint sensor that had been recently grafted onto the locker’s door. She sighed as she watched her friends whisper conspiratorially across the hall. Rain continued to pour down outside.
For Jon’s part, he was used to his peers treating him with suspicion. Yet he could feel people staring at him all day, he knew that they were thinking nasty things, and he hated to be the center of so much attention. To his surprise, he only encountered outright hostility once that afternoon. While Jon was walking to his seventh period history class, Alexander shoved him randomly in the hall. Jon and Alexander exchanged stares of mutual loathing before moving on.
As Jennie trotted towards the charging station after school, pink umbrella in hand, she felt herself looking forward to speaking with Jon again. Even though they had met just a few days ago, Jennie had an uncanny sense that she had already known Jon for years. The lightning had abated, but a heavy drizzle of rain persisted. Cypress trees and long grass and clusters of magnolias drooped with the weight of the rain trickling over their leaves.
With its milky lights and glossy white columns, the charging station stood out in the pastoral landscape. The station consisted of an overhang supported by columns with ports for plugging in electric cars and bikes. Contrasting brilliantly against the dark of the rainy afternoon, the glow of the station made Jennie think of the pictures of angels that she had seen on the video screen in church. For Jon too, the charging station seemed like a beacon in the gloomy weather. He walked into the station and looked around, marveling at the shiny material of the floor and ceiling and the multilingual instructions next to the charging ports. He waved when Jennie came under the overhang and closed her pink umbrella.
“So…” Jon started.
“Let’s make a promise,” Jennie began. She felt a fluttery urgency in her chest. “We’ve gotta look out for each other. Until you came along, I never really understood how alone I was.” Jon looked hurt. “No, that’s a good thing,” Jennie said quickly. “I mean, I feel like I’m learning something about myself. Getting closer to who I really am. Maybe it’s even a good thing that you accidentally told my friends about me being a gene baby.”
“Even though the rest of the school is just like the people back in Shreveport…you’re different. I’m really glad I met you.” Jon blushed. “Um, can we stay here a little longer?” Jennie smiled at him and took his hand. They went and sat down on some nearby plastic chairs which faced towards the forested path beyond. After some time, Jennie laid her head on Jon’s shoulder.
“Yeah. We’ll look out for each other,” Jon stated softly. “We’re the oddballs.” They continued to watch the rain and the swaying cypresses together for almost an hour before going home.
Logan Thrasher Collins is a synthetic biologist, futurist, and author. He is also a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis and is the CTO at Conduit Computing. Logan’s sci-fi poetry and science fiction have been published in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Abyss & Apex Magazine, Mithila Review, The Centropic Oracle, After Dinner Conversation, and elsewhere. You can learn more about Logan on his website: https://logancollinsblog.com/.