A Drop of Ink Preserved In Amber, by Marina J. Lostetter

Amber knew normal girls didn’t have drawers in their chests. Or in their stomachs, or backs, or thighs. She knew her parents had had her specially designed by a geneticist in Pakistan, where the international genome-manipulation laws were more difficult to enforce than in the U.S. In the history of the world, there had never been another human like her. And she was human, even if she didn’t look it on an X-ray.

ink1And her parents had made it quite clear that X-rays were to be avoided at all costs.

“You are too special,” they told Amber when she was little. “There are some things other people were simply never meant to know.”

At six, she rode her first airplane. She loved it — the roar of the engines, the rush as the aircraft took off and she was thrust back into her seat. It was her favorite part of their family trip.

Her least favorite part was airport security. That first time falling in love with flight was also the first time she was embarrassed about her body. Her parents asked for a private screening, and she didn’t understand why. The TSA agents ushered them behind an opaque barrier, still within earshot of the bustling and beeping of normal security. The area smelled strangely sterile, like a hospital, but the lady who approached Amber didn’t look anything like a doctor. The pat-down she received wasn’t especially intrusive — the woman was polite and explained everything she was doing and why. But it still made Amber feel terrible. Not because the lady was poking and prodding her, but because Amber lied when the TSA agent asked if she’d emptied all her pockets.

Mama had instructed her to say yes–had told her ahead of time that her drawers weren’t pockets and no one would ask her about her drawers.

After, they got on the plane. Amber rode the whole way with her hands over her heart, protecting the secret Mama had stashed there.

They flew from New York to LA. Mama called it a “test flight.” Daddy said her drawers were big enough to use now, but they had to be sure. Neither of those things made much sense to Amber, but, they were her parents, and she wanted to do them proud.

Six long hours later, they landed and retrieved their bags. Emerging from the terminal into the hot California sun, her parents gleefully loaded her into a rental car, laughing. Daddy drove, and Mama sat with her in the backseat.

“You can open them up now,” Mama said with a smile. “You did a very good job. You’re a very good girl.”

Amber didn’t feel like a good girl. She didn’t know why, but hiding her drawers from the lady in New York felt wrong.

She took off her shirt anyway — the one with the cartoon dinosaur with googly eyes — and pressed the center of what should have been her breast bone.

When closed, the drawers were invisible; she looked like any other pudgy child, with uninterrupted contours, a round belly, and tiny limbs. But when she pressed just right, large sphincters unfurled like flowers, letting the bony drawers slide out.

Supple skin covered in fine, velvety hair encased the calcium structures. The drawers were well-padded with cartilage and thick skin, protecting whatever she — or her parents — chose to hide in them.

Mama kissed her forehead and gently plucked a piece of cut amber from her daughter’s chest. It was set in a roughly worked bronze brooch, with small accent rubies encircling the main stone.

“Look,” Mama pointed to the center of the honey-colored gem. “There’s a spider in the amber, perfectly preserved.”

Breaking News: In light of the twelve genetically-modified babies born at UK Centurion Labs — all exhibiting signs of what some are calling transmorphic-posthumanism — members of Congress have pushed forward consideration of a bill that would regulate modifications and define what changes are acceptable here in the U.S. Modifications of intelligence and basic human anatomy are thought by many to be clear violations of ethical reproduction by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Amber’s parents told people they were archaeologists. It wasn’t until long after that first flight that she learned “archaeologist” did not mean “smuggler” or “black-market dealer.”

“Is it because of what we do?” Amber asked when she was eight. “I can’t tell them about my drawers or else they’ll find out about the pretty jewelry and stuff?” She sat at the kitchen table, swinging her little legs while munching on dry cereal.

“The average person doesn’t want to know that people like you exist,” her mama said. “It makes them angry that you’re different. It makes some of them violent.” She brought her tablet over to Amber and pulled up a news article.

“Six Dead at Mod Clinic, Suicide Bomber Suspected,” read the headline.

“So you can’t tell people, understand?” Mama said. “It’s to protect you, to keep you safe. Daddy and I don’t want anything to happen to you. There are people who would want to hurt you. People who would want to study you. The government might want to take you away from us because of how extensively we modified you. We just couldn’t take it if something…”

Her lip trembled and she took a deep breath — at which point she devolved into tears.

Even at eight, Amber had the wherewithal to think, If you wanted to protect me so much, why did you modify me?

Update: The federal government has now outlawed human genetic modification. A doctor caught modifying an embryo will have their license to practice permanently revoked, and may spend up to ten years in prison. If a woman is discovered carrying a genetically modified fetus in the first term, the overseeing medical professional is responsible for ensuring the pregnancy is terminated, under threat of similar penalties.

In grade school, Amber didn’t tell anyone about her drawers, but she used them to do magic tricks. Because her parents often took her to foreign countries for weeks at a time, Amber missed many of the social crucibles of youth. Birthday parties and sleepovers were held without her, as were dances and soccer games. She did her best to capture the attention of other children when she could.

When springtime came, she did a special trick. She would invite a handful of kids down to the river and show them how she could make birds and frogs disappear. First she had to catch them, which was a special trick on its own and led to many bruised knees and bum lips. But when she had her prize, her audience would watch, enrapt, as she moved her hands swiftly behind her back or under her shirt before revealing them to be empty.

ink2“You just dropped it,” a boy inevitably accused, and she always took it as her cue to bring the creature back again.

Once, when she caught a young songbird, it started singing inside her chest. The chirping had a hollow, far-away quality to it, ghostly and reverent. Amber opened her mouth to make a joke, and the song sprang past her lips as surely as if she’d sung it herself.

It took the trick too far. That particular set of classmates wouldn’t speak to her after that. One of the boys threw rocks at her every chance he got.

Play magic is one thing, he said. Real magic is another.

It was the first time she understood how the headline about the suicide bombings applied to her. In sharing some of her secret, she’d scared the other kids.

Mama hated it when Amber did tricks with animals. The frogs made her drawers slimy, and the birds left welts and scratches. “And, you smell like a pond,” she said. “Plus, it’s cruel to use a living thing like that. Now be a good girl and hide this ring for me. Your aunt is coming over and I don’t want her to realize I took it.”

Update: The United States is the fourteenth country to pass a federal law that not only prohibits the creation of genetically modified humans of any kind, but details the legal methods of post-delivery disposal. Should one of these, quote, ‘abominations,’ be discovered, the law describes the threshold for corrective surgery versus euthanization. Any modification of the brain is automatic grounds for extermination.

When Amber didn’t get her period like other girls, her mama explained that it was because she didn’t have a uterus. They’d had to shift a lot of her organs around to accommodate the drawers, and something had to go for them all to fit.

“It’s okay,” Mama assured her. “A uterus and company are nothing but problems anyway. Cramps, cancer, cysts. Be thankful we spared you all that.”

At thirteen, Amber was too young to really care that they’d also ‘spared’ her the problem of pregnancy. Well, at least I’ll never have to worry about ruining my jeans like Aki did.

When she reached high school, Amber realized secrets were currency. Gossip was good, sharing secrets with other girls was good. But, keeping secrets from adults was better.

When the head cheerleader offered her a cigarette behind the gym, she said no. Her dad smoked the occasional cigar and it turned her stomach every time. That stuff stank. But as she was waving the offer away, Coach Green came around the corner. The other girl looked so distraught, Amber had to do something. She took the smoldering cig and stuck it in her thigh drawer. It burned, but she did not cry out.

The blisters stung for days. She had the cheerleader’s admiration for months. She bore the scars for years.

It wasn’t just her parents’ gratitude and love she could earn with her drawers, she noted. If she let other people use them, perhaps they would grow to love her, too.

But, she had to be careful.

The boy who had thrown rocks at her in elementary school did his high-school senior project on “The Ethics and Morality of the Disposal of Human Experiments.” His thesis was not that such experiments were cruel to the subjects, but that they were cruel to the people who had to interact with those subjects. What might these man-made monsters do to “true” humans? How might they oppress them or violate them?

Throughout his presentation, Amber could have sworn that he was staring straight at her.

“In conclusion,” he said, “all modified ‘people’ should be institutionalized. For their own safety, and ours.”

Roaring applause followed.

If he’d known for sure about her drawers, what might he have done? Who might he have called?

In college, she majored in archaeology. Real archaeology. She built up enough courage to tell a few people about her drawers, but only her closest friends. She didn’t want to hide forever, but the recent abolishment of all mods made her wary. Sick-to-her-stomach wary. What if her friends rejected her? None of them had ever expressed anti-mod sentiment, but one never knew.

Maybe they would throw stones at her, too.

She cried when she told Aki. Amber had known her the longest, so it was only fitting she came first.

“It’s okay,” Aki said, hugging her close. “I know it’s not the same, but my eyes are mods. Near-sightedness runs in the family, so… I kind of get it.”

Yeah, she kind of did. But only kind of.

Afterward, they went out and got matching tattoos on their wrists. Two little gold keys each.

ink3Thankfully, all of Amber’s friends took it in stride. No one was horrified, no one threatened to turn her over to the law, and a lot of them seemed pleased. After that, her drawers were never empty. Charlotte hid her pregnancy test in Amber’s stomach when her dad barged in on them. Raj dropped his bag of weed in her shoulder when a cop pulled him over for speeding. Quinn wrote a long, angry letter to her step-mom and asked if Amber could keep it in her chest until she felt ready to confront the woman who had abused her.

Eventually, Amber allowed herself a lover. She’d always been afraid of being intimate with a boy — once, during a hasty make-out session in high school, one of her drawers had popped open, and she’d fled the scene before anyone had a chance to find out. But, in college, she let herself be seen. A few potential lovers left once she’d shown them her body. Enough of them stayed. One even hung around, and he hid secrets in her drawers as well.

Amber’s own secrets never went in her drawers. They couldn’t fit; they were big and balloon-like and made her head swell as though it were filled with steam.

Update: During her upcoming address this evening, the President will remark on the topic of genetic modification — specifically whether or not all adult cases have been corrected. Our White House correspondent believes the President will say the brief era of modification is over, and that we as a nation — and perhaps even the world–can forget about this terrible period of human experimentation and return to the unified forward-stride of mankind.

Even after earning her doctorate, Amber still traveled with her parents; to Turkey, to Belize, to anywhere with antiquities worth stealing. It was the only way she could spend time with them; her parents were only ever home long enough to offload their loot. They filled her up like a treasure chest, muttering as they went — talking to their plunder more than to her.

Unfortunately, Amber’s profession lent an air of legitimacy to their black-market comings and goings. An air they wallowed in.

“One of these days they’re going to start weighing passengers when they fly, and I’ll have a hell of a time explaining how I gained thirty-five pounds in a week,” Amber joked as her mother stuffed a small gold censer between her shoulder blades.

They were in a dingy hotel room in Greece, the walls sported peeling wallpaper. The carpet had a bug problem, and the torn curtains were drawn tightly over the small, open window so that no one could see what they were doing. The room had no air conditioning, though the Mediterranean humidity made the room feel like ninety degrees when it was seventy-five.

Soft snatches of Greek wafted in from the fruit stand on the street below. Amber understood little bits of it, and the swift glimpses into local lives made her smile to herself.

Amber stood in the center of the room, mostly naked, which made it easy for her mother to access whichever drawer she needed.

“It’s called tourism, dear,” her mom said absently. “People tend to eat themselves to death when they travel. But you’ll never have to worry about that. Weighing passengers is too insulting, however practical.”

After her mother finished, Amber pulled on her robe and belted it tight. All of her drawers were heavy with relics from a vandalized fifteenth-century Roman-Catholic cathedral. The metal pieces in her hips poked at her, and she clinked when she shifted. The section of split tapestry in her side was rough — sure to leave a carpet burn. The most gruesome treasure, a mummified tongue — supposedly that of a saint — jumped slightly with every beat of her heart.

Secrets bled out of the brain, through the tongue. Keeping it in the drawer in her chest, the drawer she considered the most important, felt…fitting.

Amber stood full of history. She could feel them — all of the human fingers that had touched all of the human things in such human ways.

History was beautiful, and terrible, and full of secrets that need not be forgotten. Secrets that were all the more important now that their creators were gone. Secrets she was tired of stealing.

“Mom,” she said.

“What, dear? You need to hurry up and get dressed if we’re going to be on time.”

“I think this is going to be my last trip. This kind of trip, I mean.”

“Why?”

Because stealing is wrong? Because my drawers sport enough scars as is? Because I’m tired of you seeing me as a pack animal instead of a person?

“Because history shouldn’t be hidden,” she said. Amber pressed on her breastbone and her chest opened. She plucked out the tissue-wrapped tongue. “This isn’t just a thing you can attach a price tag to. It belonged to someone, saint or not. Someone spoke with this, kissed with it, ate with it.”

“It’s a tongue,” her mother said flatly. “We all have them, but very few are worth a villa.”

“That’s not… What I mean is… What about my drawers? What if, centuries from now, someone digs me up and sells off my pieces? What if I’m all that’s left of modified humans, and someone sticks me in their personal vault, and the world never knows.”

“Most people stay in the ground, dear. The world never knows about them anyway.”

Amber pursed her lips. “I’m trying to say that one person doesn’t own history, and shouldn’t hide history. If people dig me up in the future, I don’t want to stay a secret.” I don’t want to be a secret now. I want people to accept that I’m part of this world, too.

“You’d rather be put on display, like a relic, is that what you’re saying? You think this man wanted his tongue set under glass for people to ogle?”

“If the ogling means they try to understand him, that they acknowledge him, acknowledge the part of history he represents…maybe. I don’t know. I can’t speak for him, I can only speak for me.”

“And speaking for yourself, you’re too good to help your father and me? You’re standing on awfully shaky moral high ground. Selling these treasures has kept you in good clothes, fed with good food — you’ve seen the world. And if you think ‘legitimate’ archaeologists like yourself don’t shove history away, you’re wrong. For every artifact you see in a museum, how many hundreds — thousands — are stuffed away in warehouses? We’re doing exactly what you want: this way, someone gets to appreciate the past. We save history from the dead-depths of university collections and government vaults.”

Amber waved the tongue pointedly. “This was in a damn church.”

Her mother shrugged. “A church where mods like yours are considered a deadly sin. Nobody’s perfect. Now, get dressed.” She slammed the door on her way out.

We save history,” Amber chuckled mirthlessly. She carefully placed the tongue back in her drawer. “Well, who’s going to save me?”

Her entire life, Amber had watched the news. They were always talking about her, even if they didn’t know it.

But in the last several years they’d stopped talking about her. No news updates, no new editorials or information spots. Nothing but the occasional rhetorical nod in a ‘somebody’s wrong on the Internet’ spew-fest.

She knew she should be pleased. She’d gotten away with it–she still had her drawers, and no one was suggesting they euthanize modified humans anymore. She was safe.

But safety meant disappearing. Being forgotten — like a dead language or a small tribe.

Modification is important. It happened. Its destruction happened. Why is everyone so eager to forget?

She’d drafted several letters to news stations, a few to her department head at the university, and a handful of blog articles she could post anonymously. She was just waiting for the day she’d be brave enough to break her silence and submit one of them.

But the truth was, she wasn’t brave. She’d never been brave. She didn’t know how to stand up to her parents — she was a grown woman, a professional, and still she helped them smuggle. She didn’t know how to tell her friends that, just because she’d told them about her drawers, it didn’t mean they were free to use them. These days her drawers concealed proof of her friends’ affairs, secret credit cards, and past-due statements.

She knew now that sharing her drawers didn’t equate love, but it was a difficult habit to grow past. Just like she knew hiding her drawers from the general public didn’t equate with normalcy.

How could she stand up to the world if she couldn’t stand up to the people she loved? How could she be sure that she wasn’t expunged from history if history was intent on forgetting her?

When Amber turned thirty-five, she gave herself a present. It was a painful present, a permanent present.

She took all her secrets and poured them into her drawers: her desire to know another modified human; her fear of being forgotten; her perpetual grief over her sterilization; her anger at her parents and her friends; her anger at herself; her anger at the world.

ink4And her deep love of the ancient, of the past.

And her love for her parents. Her love for herself.

Her love for the world.

Amber covered every inch of her drawers with beautiful, broken secrets. Secrets that she would ensure could not remain hidden forever.

In the years that followed, she tracked down the brooch she’d first carried–the one with the spider suspended in amber. The man who owned it became a good friend, and never asked to put anything in her drawers.

Ten years after that, Amber began to make funeral plans. Not for her parents, but for herself. She knew she still had long years ahead of her, but there were a lot of pieces to put into place if she was going to get the postmortem treatment she wanted.

Her death was important because her life was important.

She told her elderly parents about her plan, and they didn’t hate it. She showed them what she’d done to her drawers, and they cried.

They cried because, for the first time, they understood what they’d done to their daughter.

“We defaced you, we…” Her mother couldn’t get the words out. She dabbed at her weak, watery eyes with thin, shaking hands. “We were selfish.”

Amber took her mother’s hand. “Selfishness is very human.”

She told her colleagues at the university about her drawers. They wanted to tell the news, to let the public know that mods were still around.

But Amber knew it would mean little. The people of today wanted to forget mods. It was the people of tomorrow Amber needed to tell.

No one was sure what they’d find when they opened the Tomb of the Unknown Doctor.

Three centuries previous, a Brown University professor had been buried underneath Rhode Island Hall, home to the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology at the time. The individual’s name had been purposefully expunged from the record, though innumerable campus legends swirled around the possibilities. Instructions for the tomb’s opening were left at the university, carved in the stone of the tomb’s outermost wall. On the three-hundredth anniversary of its closing, the tomb was to be opened by three archaeology graduate students specializing in, of all things, ancient ink and tattooing.

One of the selected grad students went by Melissa, though Melissa wasn’t her real name. Her given name was attached to a rap sheet filled with ridiculous charges of self-mutilation, and she preferred to keep such absurdities to herself.

Ink was her life — was a part of her very soul–and though she was allowed to study it, her culture forbade her from using it to express herself the way she wanted. Tattooing was a nasty, backwards habit, they said. Only a barbarian would want to mark themselves for life.

Melissa wore long sleeves in public, even in the dead heat of mid-August. Whenever a cuff rode up she quickly tugged it back down, afraid the black spirals of her first self-applied tattoos might show. Friends and would-be-boyfriends who had accidentally seen her markings had all urged her to get help. They thought the artwork covering her body indicated mental illness.

What the ink represented was her lust for life, for memory. When Melissa looked in the mirror, all she saw was beauty. A beauty that connected her to thousands of years of history.

Now, Melissa sat in a darkened university lab over her lightbox — well after the building had officially closed for the evening — studying captures from the CT scan taken of the mummified body they’d found in the Tomb.

She and her team had expected tattoos, of course. Why else would the instructions call for such specific grad students? But this —

This was glorious.

The whole team had been present for the scanning, which had revealed rectangular, calcified structures within the corpse. That in itself was a major discovery. How could someone filled with compartments — moving compartments, like drawers — have survived? The organ displacement alone should have led to a stillbirth if the drawers were natural. The team suspected they weren’t, but until now, such extreme modifications were thought to have been a myth.

During the scan, Melissa had seen something unusual and kept it to herself. There were patterns on the inside of the drawers — the internal skin was almost black with it. The others thought the variations just the natural texture of the skin, but Melissa had her doubts.

Yes, the body had external tattoos, but nothing extensive or unusual for her time. Nothing that would have warranted the grad-student request.

So, what if the patterns weren’t natural?

Maybe she’d been selfish to keep the notion to herself. It didn’t matter now.

Holding a magnifying glass over the first cellulose slide, Melissa squinted. There — was that swooping line a letter? Could it be script?

She could have turned on a holo-table to take her notes digitally, but instead she grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil.

She sketched the lines without looking, hoping they’d appear more familiar in her own hand. Yes, yes — that was an S — not just an S, a whole word. Yes, yes!

Frantically, she transcribed all she could make out. Some of it appeared to be garbled nonsense; they’d need better images to decipher it. But some she could clearly read.

It’s a memoir, she realized. This woman, this unknown professor, had tattooed her life story on the inside of her drawers.

Melissa worked all night, giddy with the discovery.

“But, what’s your name?” Melissa asked the cellulose.

After a long while, the mummy divulged the secret.

As the sun’s rays slipped in through the lab windows, Melissa’s inhibitions dissolved away. This woman was as marked on the inside as Melissa was on the outside. They were two sides of the same skin; sisters-in-spirit separated by centuries.

Slowly, Melissa stood and strode away from the lightbox, toward the morning glow. With each step she shed an article of clothing, leaving fabric scattered across the floor like flower petals. When she reached the windowpane, she looked down at herself. A myriad of black marks — depicting everything from her mother’s smiling face, to a silhouetted flock of starlings, to the Chinese character for eternal — stared back.

This body is for all the people who have been used, then forgotten, stated a portion of the memoir she’d transcribed. For all of those history overlooks or chooses not to remember. It is a symbol of every inconvenient historical fact, every dirty secret and every ‘dangerous’ life.

“Thank you, Amber,” Melissa whispered.

It were as though the long-dead professor had given Melissa her blessing–as though somehow she’d known that the future would continue to forge secret-people who lived secret lives.

“Rest easy,” Melissa said. “We will not be forgotten.”

end-of-story-nov

marinaMarina J. Lostetter’s original short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Flash Fiction Online.  Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex.  Marina enjoys globetrotting, board games, and all things art-related.  She tweets as @MarinaLostetter, and her official website can be found at www.lostetter.net.  She’d like to give a special thank you to SB Divya for providing the prompt that became this story’s title.

 

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