In her human body, Madison sits.
In her new, alien body, Mia dances.
Mia had always lived in her human body in ways that Madison couldn’t: she’d run marathons, she’d eaten grasshoppers and snakes, and she never had half-finished Chardonnay bottles clanking in her fridge door. And the men. And the stories she’d told. All while Madison sat and watched.
Madison, Mia’s twin. Fraternal twin.
And here in her new, alien body, Mia dances.
Another guest arrives. Goodbye, 2038. Hello, 2039.
Really, Mia shouldn’t be here. Not in this form. Not that anyone who knew her before the transformation would see anything different. Madison wasn’t quite sure how Mia had left the facility, only that she had knocked on Madison’s apartment door dressed for the party. “It’s New Year’s Eve,” Mia said. “Get dressed.”
So she dressed.
Madison hadn’t expected her sister’s new body to be so expressive. Not after wrapping Nick’s car around the tree, not after the burns. For days, Mia lay so still in the hospital bed at the facility, the morphine drip keeping her from screaming and thrashing as she’d done in the ER. As she’d done when the doctors told her about Nick. As she’d done when she’d seen herself, all burns and no skin. As she’d done when they’d backed her off the morphine. Mia needed a clear head when she pushed the button to start the process that allowed her to become this.
Not dead. The techs at the facility never used the word “dead.” Is there a word for this kind of death in the aliens’ language? Their language, their technology, their request to meet humans who’d seen earth first-hand, who knew it intimately.
Of course, they wouldn’t want the dead, dead.
Not after coming all that way. Which is what Uncle Oliver had told them. It was his company that had found the alien’s probe around the asteroid. Her parents had met K. Oliver Hall back before Bayou City Oil and Mining International had even proposed mining whatever it was they mined out there. Uncle Oliver told them that what the aliens wanted was simple. Human minds in indestructible bodies. Humans to visit them. Not the dead, the living. The vital. Mia, vital and alive.
Mia had a funeral though. A private ceremony. Could she feel her brain being liquefied? Madison didn’t want to ask. She didn’t want to ask Mia if she had seen her old body after her brain had been recreated in the newly-generated one. She did know that Mia wanted her earthly remains buried next to her husband’s, who will trade his broken human body for a new artificial one tomorrow.
The obituary—or the news of the transformation—will come later, after Bayou City Oil announces the launch of the transformed out to the asteroid where they’ll board the alien ship. Uncle Oliver had taken care of whatever needed to be done to get Nick and Mia from the public ER to the privacy of the facility before anyone found out about it.
Uncle Oliver had always taken care of whatever needed to be done for Mia.
Mia. Will anyone here know that they celebrated the dying year with a dead woman? Madison will. And Owen.
Goodbye, 2038. Hello, 2039. Across the room, Mia dances with Owen. Someone had pointed him out to her at Mia and Nick’s wedding weeks ago as the one who’d started the pools: who’d wind up taking home the bouquet, the garter, the awkward bridesmaid. Madison knew that must have been her. She hadn’t known most of the wedding guests, and she doesn’t know most of the guests here at this iteration of Nick and Owen’s infamous New Year’s Eve parties. These are Nick’s friends, coworkers, poker buddies. Were.
Next week, Nick will be dead, Mia will still be dead, and their new bodies will be hurtling into nothingness. Madison pats the gray-muzzled dog that pushes its way into the chair with her. She opens one of the champagne bottles. Too much champagne for the people here. More like a wake than a New Year’s Eve party.
Across the room, Mia laughs. Madison pours herself another flute of champagne. Cheap, too sweet. She already spilled a bit on her dress, the same black dress she’d worn to the funeral. Long lacy sleeves, pleated skirt. “That thing?” Mia said both times when she saw what Madison wore. Madison’s ex had thought it had a vintage charm. Her ex, who’s dancing with someone else across town now.
Dancing, laughing. Madison looks up. One of the strangers is looking at her. Probably pitying her. He looks away, then back at Mia. Not pity for her? Or pity for her for having the dead sister who pretends to be alive? Mia is worse than a ghost. People don’t believe in ghosts—there isn’t anything there when you look closely in the light. But when you look closely at her, Mia, this Mia, remains.
Goodbye, 2038. Hello, 2039.
Tomorrow, Madison will help Mia sort through her things in the apartment she shared for a few weeks with Nick. They’ll go through his things, too. Then Mia and Nick will be off, together. Outer space. And that will be that. This is the pitiable thing: that Mia died, that she came back and can pretend to be Mia for a while before she’s gone again. A second death.
Madison empties the flute and refills it. Mia will ask Madison what she wants from her things: dresses, jewelry, the exquisite small objets you get when you get married. Madison will ask for her running shoes instead. She won’t be able to ask for the one thing she wants, which is for her sister to stay on, haunting her, keeping her from letting herself slip more and more towards nothingness.
Mia should sit with Madison, getting drunk on Nick’s champagne, but she is here, warm, dancing. Dancing. Using the dance lessons Nick surprised her with for their wedding, though she’d learned the steps years before. The movements came back to her at the lessons. Movement always comes back to her, even now, even in this body. Mia and Nick danced once after classes, at their reception; they planned on making nights of it later. Except.
The strangest part about her new body so far is that she can’t remember having the burns on her old one. She remembers headaches, hangovers, the time she fell from that window, even if she can’t feel the pain. She wonders if this is what Nick feels, trapped inside his body, his spinal cord no longer talking to that complicated brain of his. “Are you in pain?” she asked him after she got her new body and went to see him. He blinked twice quickly: no. “I’m not either,” she said. “Not now, anyway.”
If she admits to herself that she can’t remember the accident, that would be stranger still.
Uncle Ollie said not to worry about it. She won’t worry about it.
She shouldn’t be here. She decides not to worry about that, either.
Mia held Nick’s hand in the facility. She imagined that it would be the reverse of what she actually felt: her hand, so warm, so lifelike, holding his toneless hand in hers. No response from his, as if this part of him were dead already.
No, they aren’t dead. Nick wants to stay in his body until the morning after the year changes. Something about finishing out the year, which had been, up until the accident, one of the best of his life, he said on their wedding day. Mia wanted out as soon as she could. Hard for him to say more than yes or no without the optical scanner and the alphabet screen thingy, though. Mia was never patient enough for anything but yes or no even before all this.
They will give Nick a device he can operate with his eyes—he’ll have to look at a series of shapes in a certain pattern to get the process started. They gave Mia a button, which she smashed with her fist. Then she woke up in her new body. Then she realized that she smelled of gravel and metal, something plastic and new.
“You’re okay with me going tonight?” Three quick blinks: yes. She kissed him.
Yes, he said it. Maybe Nick didn’t want her to go, still doesn’t. And Owen. Uncle Ollie could fix that. Who here would believe it about the aliens, anyway? Nick would tell her that she’s careless, going to the party. But how were they going to argue about it? They argue too much. No more, Mia decides. They argued about the party days before the accident. Mia didn’t want to invite Madison, who’d mope, but Nick said her sister should be sad about her ex dumping her just before Nick and Mia’s wedding. Mia didn’t want to invite Owen, but Nick pointed out that he and Owen were throwing the party at the house he and Owen used to share, so that was that. He and Owen. Her Nick. So Mia would suffer Madison and Owen sulking as their friends drank themselves out of 2038.
Suffer—what a strange word. She can’t remember the accident. That, along with whatever happened after she pushed the button, is thankfully gone from her mind. She won’t ask Nick about it. She knows they argued about something—this?—and that they were driving. Who was driving? Then she woke up in the hospital, hearing herself scream before she knew why she was screaming.
She should sit with Madison. The guy Owen said he’d invite to introduce to Madison will be here soon. Ted? Tom? She hadn’t told Madison about him. Just in case. Just in case she needed to prove to herself that this new body was as capable as her old one had been.
She should sit with Madison, but here she is, doing this awkward cha-cha with Owen. He’s too tall. She presses her face—her new familiar face—into his chest. He smells like whiskey, like barbecue, like aftershave. Nick’s brand. He smells so human after the hospital. Tomorrow, she’ll be in the hospital again, waiting for Nick to wake up in his new body. The day after, she’ll be aboard a ship hurtling away from earth.
Human, but only just. This will be her last night among people, just as a person. She feels Owen drawing her closer. He won’t kiss her. Not in front of everyone. But there’s midnight. That excuse.
She will kiss him. Two hours before midnight. Keep dancing. Then she’ll tilt her head up and kiss him. Owen knows Nick in a way that no one else but Mia does—she wants her new body to know old Nick the same way. Mia will kiss Owen, kiss his memories of Nick as he was, kiss his memories of who Nick was when he and Owen shared the house, the way Owen watched Mia and Nick kissing in the almost-darkness of the hallway.
She will kiss him before they all have to die once again.
One of them is Nick’s late wife. The other one is her surviving sister.
Tim settles onto a bar stool and starts on the bottle of whiskey. Not traditional for New Year’s Eve, but it’s what he managed to lift from his ex-father-in-law’s unlocked wet bar last time he was there to pick up the kids. It’s vile. Not that his ex-father-in-law would leave the good stuff out, but this is worse than usual. Not his doing then. His ex-wife’s. He raises his glass to his ex-wife and swallows the shot while trying not to taste it. He looks at the one in the chair.
He tries to get Owen’s attention, but Owen only sees the one he’s dancing with. Tim wasn’t sure why Owen had been so insistent that he come. But there was so much Tim wasn’t sure of. He wasn’t sure why he’d been invited to join Owen’s weekly poker game. He wasn’t sure why Owen had let him go on about his ex-wife as long as he had after their last game.
And he wasn’t sure why he believed what Owen said about Nick. Sure, Nick had been in an accident. But the aliens? And the new body? Something about the way Owen said what he’d said made Tim feel certain that Nick and his wife were in a secret facility somewhere, getting body-swapped with alien technology so that they could go into outer space. Owen had made Tim swear not to tell anyone else. Owen wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. But Owen had told him.
The one sitting and the one dancing must be the sisters. Not a strong resemblance. Just that unmistakable judging smirk siblings reserve for one another. The one in the chair aims it at the dancing one.
The sitting one must be the dead one, jealous of the living one dancing. Perhaps her new body isn’t capable of dancing? Alien technology, who knows.
Owen told him that the dead one and Nick will sail off into space together, happily ever after, in their alien bodies with their minds intact. Tim drinks his whiskey. Nick is young, his wife had been young before she changed bodies. When Tim and his ex had first married, he’d have signed up to spend eternity with her. It wouldn’t have taken long, though, for him to see his mistake. Is this why the dead one is so sad in her chair? Regret is a strange thing.
But then there’s the living one. Dancing. Laughing.
Surely, the dead one can still do that. There’s a loveliness about her, the dead one, sitting in her chair. All emotion, like some bronze of a woman caught in the moment of—what is that expression? Tim wants her. Tim wants to ask her to dance. Tim wants to ask her what it’s like to die and to come back and was she always this beautiful? The dead one can’t dance—she’d be dancing otherwise, right? And she’ll go off with Nick soon. And the whiskey, his ex’s vile whiskey, is making him confident and sick.
A half-hour before midnight, Tim leaves the almost-empty bottle on the bar. Owen hasn’t looked away from the dancing one. Tim mumbles his thanks to Owen from across the room, grabs his coat, and heads toward the door. Before he opens it, he stops and looks at the dead one again. He watches her hand stroking Owen’s old dog, her hand so alive, so sensitive. He can’t change that he’d let another year slip by, that it will be 2039 tomorrow. Nothing to be done about that. And nothing to be done about the fact that soon, the dead one will be gone, floating out there into nothingness, and he’ll never see her again.
Because Mia asks him to dance with her.
Because Mia presses herself—her new artificial body—against his while they are dancing.
Because Nick isn’t here. Because Nick can’t be here.
Because human Nick will die tomorrow and artificial Nick with human Nick’s mind will go to meet the aliens. Because he’ll be going with Mia.
Because he took to calling her The Hungry One after Nick announced over carbo-loading with her at their house—Nick and Owen’s—the night before Nick’s first marathon that he’d be moving in with her. Because she took the last of the linguine with clams after Owen had raised a toast to them. Because Owen can’t remember Nick running errands much less marathons before Mia claimed him.
Because Mia must be hungry again.
Because Owen took to calling her “boyish” to tease Nick. Because Nick asked him to stop. Because she is boyish and sporty and compact and hungry. Because she is beautiful.
Because Nick hadn’t really left Owen for Mia.
Because Owen never committed to Nick. Because Owen never admitted to himself or anyone else that those afternoons holding Nick while they looked out over the lake behind their house made him wonder if this is what his—Owen’s—marriage should have been like. Because Owen had been married to his college sweetheart. Because Owen and his husband grew up and apart and angry at each other for doing so.
Because if Mia, the human Mia, died, then she and Nick are no longer married.
Because the human Mia is dead.
Because Owen had been divorced for five years now.
Because he and Nick never were. Because Owen couldn’t take that risk again.
Because in the hospital, when he asked Nick if he’d miss him, the nurse laughed. Because she asked Owen why Nick would miss him when he’d get to see all those stars and the aliens and this wonderful afterlife after the pain and the paralysis and the closeness of death. Because Nick blinked three times in reply.
Because Owen couldn’t remember if three blinks meant yes or no.
Because next week, Nick and Mia will be gone. Because that will be their nothingness to face, not his.
Because Owen will be here alone in the house, looking at the lake, the moon blinking twice, three times at him when the wind catches the water. Because this will be his nothingness to face alone.
Because Owen knows this look, Mia’s hunger. Because it might be for him—for Owen—or for what she knows he and Nick had shared. Because he isn’t sure. Because she interrupted it.
Because Mia’s hunger is aimed at him.
Because if he says yes, it will be an intractable, horrible “yes” to the world.
Because she looks up at him.
Because the music pauses for the countdown to midnight. Because they all stop drinking and dancing and laughing and patting the dog who likes Nick more than he ever liked Owen. Because they all stop.
Because he doesn’t know whose world he’ll say “yes” to.