The Imitation Sea, by Lora Gray

You find the dead Angel at five a.m. in the slurry of broken bottles and rotting fish on the Lake Erie shore. It almost looks human in the morning light, a ten-year-old, maybe eleven, boyish, face bloated, limp and blue and doughy.

You can smell the rot, sour-sweet like flowers left too long in vases and chemical-sharp like gasoline. It reminds you of that abandoned gas station you and Jack first fucked in, the one with the chains looped over the doors and the gaping, fractured windows. The one with a musty stock room and flattened cardboard boxes that greased your shirt with motor oil. You still have that shirt, unwashed and stained, in a shoebox under your bed.

You know that smell.

It takes you ten minutes to wrestle the Angel out of the cold sand. It’s heavier than you anticipated. Maybe it’s the soggy wings. Maybe it’s the waterlogged tubing buried beneath its skin. In any case, the weight resigns you to dragging, and you shuffle backward past galleries of picnic tables stacked and upended for the off-season, the Angel’s feet snaking through the late autumn scrub.

Its legs kick out at inconvenient angles as you wedge it into the trunk of your Dodge, but eventually the Angel fits, its face slumped against the wheel well, lips shucked away from pale and unnervingly even teeth. You almost expect it to speak. To sing.

Of course, it’s silent. It’s dead. But you still roll down the window and strain to hear it over the road noise and shush-shush of Lake Erie waves.

You never told Jack, but when you were a little boy, you thought Lake Erie was an ocean, a long blue-black tongue lapping its way into Canada. You were convinced there were sharks in that water. Whales. Jellyfish. Sunken pirate ships. Lost cities. Mermaids. Squid the size of buses. Sea monsters the length of football fields. Underwater kingdoms five fathoms deep.

In second grade you learned real oceans didn’t stink like melted rubber and rotting fish. Oceans weren’t peppered with warning signs about toxic algae and unsafe levels of bacteria. They didn’t have that conspicuous line of land squatting on the horizon if you squinted your eyes just so.

Lake Erie was just a lake.

That summer, when July settled its fat green heat over Cleveland, you watched the freshwater waves suck at your toes and imagined the lake devouring you. Jack was on vacation with his dad in Saint Martin. Your mom had abandoned you for the afternoon (this time for a lifeguard named Todd), and it wasn’t as if she could afford an Angel to watch over you. You were all alone. Nothing could stop Lake Erie from swallowing you if it really wanted to.

It would lick the meat from your legs, slurp your bones away, and you’d march home on the stumps of your thighs, a victim of an imitation sea. Later, you’d find the remains your dismembered shins, next to the ‘sea’ shells and ‘sea’ glass, picked clean by ‘sea’ gulls. You’d sell your toes to tourists and hawk tickets to the spot where the tragedy occurred. You’d use the money to fly to Saint Martin and spend the rest of the summer with Jack.

As smaller, richer kids tottered past you, carrying half-melted popsicles and buckets of pebbles, Angels floating dutifully behind them, you closed your eyes. Under the water, your legs grew cold. Weightless. Numb. When Mom finally reappeared and called for you, you cracked open one eye and carefully, carefully, you looked down.

Your legs were still there.

You shuffled, sunburned and silent, back to the car and wondered how you would tell Jack about it when he finally returned. You tried to pull comfort from the fact that the rocky sand left toothy dimples in your thighs. You rubbed at them the whole ride home as if you could press them into your bones as evidence.

You remember the day Jack told you about selling dead Angels. You were fifteen and huddled under his back porch, pot smoke in your hair and eyes, the afternoon light spilling golden through the tight, even slats. You remember how he plucked the joint from your fingers, his lips plump and flushed around it. His Angel hadn’t found you yet. You managed to ditch it for thirty minutes. It was a record.

“There are these scrap dealers that buy dead Angels for parts,” Jack said. “And these upcycle sites that make clocks out of their guts. Tables out of their faces. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. All that shit. You remember my cousin in Utah?” You nodded and nestled your head against Jack’s shoulder. He fed you a drag. “He collects them. He’s got this walk-in freezer with rows of them tacked behind glass like fucking butterflies. He wants to buy mine off my mom when it dies.”

Jack wrapped one arm around your shoulders then, the other around your waist, like he was clinging to a buoy, like he was afraid he’d drown in porch dust and flaking paint. His eyes darted toward the crooked opening beneath the steps. Every passing car could be his Angel’s wings. Every flying bird, his Angel’s shadow. His parents had put him on house arrest the last time he’d ditched it and then they had taken him to a doctor because they thought he was ‘exhibiting alarming behavior patterns.’ Jack had just wanted twenty minutes alone with you.

“I don’t want them making money off any of it,” Jack whispered.

“So what do you want to do with your Angel, then?” you asked.

Jack tightened his arms. “Burn it,” he said.

On the drive home, you think about how you want to tell Jack that there’s a market for that too now. There’s the Angel Memorial Crematorium on Sixth Street. And there are megachurches that will pay to burn them on their live streams. You’ve seen the popup ads, the preachers with oily hair and slick designer suits shouting about sacrilege while heaps of feathers and flesh stamped with “Heaven’s Helpers INC” smoke in the background. Cash for unwanted Angels! Save the children! Save your soul! Subscribe subscribe subscribe!

You could use the money, but you won’t sell the Angel you found in the lake. As you pull your Dodge into the long, uneven driveway of your apartment, you already know what you’re going to do with it.

You heft the Angel out of the trunk and into your arms. You aren’t going to scrap it. You drag the Angel through the back door. You aren’t going to sell it. You lay the Angel on the kitchen floor in the nook where a refrigerator once lived and you watch sunlight spill onto the ruined cherubic face.

You’re going to resurrect it.

Angels were still toys when Jack moved to town. You were only seven, but you remember the commercials, the jingle, the bright white boxes plastered with cartoon halos and broad, smiling faces. They had feather wings. Or fairy wings or bat wings or airplane wings that dusted glitter onto sidewalks and kitchen tables. They were customizable. Some of them had fiberoptic hair or bellies that doubled as nightlights. They sang lullabies and pop songs and came preprogramed with Angel Apps and links to the official Angel Accessories site.

Jack was the first kid you knew who had one.

He walked into your classroom like a whisper, spindly arms crossed behind his back as if he were trying to fold himself inside out. His Angel floated behind him like a balloon child on an invisible string, round face beaming, pale eyes fixed solely and forever on Jack.

After the teacher had introduced him to the class, she told Jack to leave his ‘doll’ in his cubby until the end of the day. Jack’s cheeks flushed as he grabbed his Angel by one fat ankle and tugged it to the back of the room, wrestling it into the narrow space between parkas and muddy yellow boots. The class giggled. One of the back-row boys threw an eraser at him when he took his seat.

Jack was ‘the kid with a doll’ after that. He sat alone at lunch and spent recess huddled against the side of the building, staring at faraway places nobody else could see. You wondered what he was looking at, if he came from a school where all the kids had Angels. If he had any friends there. If he was lonely like you.

When the art teacher sat you next to each other, you asked if Jack wanted to borrow your scissors. He looked at you like he wasn’t sure if it was a gift or a trick, so you smiled. He smiled back. Together, you ripped pages out of old magazines, the real paper kind, splashed with jewelry ads and bright toothpaste smiles. A closeup of a gecko’s eye. Two men on a sailboat, leaning together as if they were about to share a secret. You cut them into pieces, giggling as you pasted them back together, upside down and inside out, hilariously monstrous and perfect.

Two years later, when the Angels became ‘tools not toys,’ Jack’s parents were the first to buy a safety camera attachment. Retina recognition. Imprint technology. Jack’s Angel became his babysitter and tutor. It recorded his sleep patterns and monitored his cognitive development and growth percentiles, his caloric intake and expenditure. His play. But even when half the kids at school had Angels hovering over their shoulders and you didn’t have one of your own, you were still the only one who played with Jack. You were the only one who knew how many times Jack tried to drown his Angel in the bathtub or trick it into flying into traffic. You were the only one who went to the lake with him in fifth grade when he hacked his Angel’s GPS and ordered it to fly to the moon.

You sat beside him on the cold, November sand, his hand brushing against yours as you passed a bag of stale corn chips between you and watched his Angel ascend. You craned your neck, hand shielding your eyes, watching as it went higher and higher until it became a slowly circling dot, a speck, and then, gradually, nothing at all.

You held your breath, wondering if the Angel would break apart because of the altitude or just keep going up and up forever.

“Bet it can see Canada from there,” Jack said, his hand poised at the lip of the chip bag even though there was nothing left. His profile was still, his head tipped back, his eyes fixed on an empty, blue sky.

When the Angel descended ten minutes later, mission aborted but intact, ticking off facts about Apollo 11 and the 1969 moon landing, you were the only one who saw Jack cry.

You tell yourself you are doing this because your therapist says new hobbies are normal and healthy. Don’t you want to be healthy again? Don’t you want to be normal?

You don’t mention the dead Angel in your therapy sessions, though.

Instead, you dismantle the Angel’s arms in secret, peeling away synthetic skin and tugging out wires like worms onto the kitchen floor. Then it’s the chest, flayed into wide sections, white and gelatinous, heart a fist of tubes and pumps, lungs like purple sponges. The brain spills over the linoleum like soup. The eyes are delicate as uncooked eggs. The wings are so rotten that, when you finally pull them out to clean them, the stench drags your breakfast out of your gut in one startling heave. It takes you an hour to clean up the mess.

The Angel is a collage of circuitry and organic layers that you don’t really understand, so you begin reading tutorials. Angels 101: A Complete Guide. The Heavenly Phenomenon. Angels for Dummies. Gradually, you lose yourself in textbooks about bioengineering and computer programming. Robotics. Design. Anatomy. Alchemy. Religion. You begin surfing the deep web for secrets. You plot how you might trick dormant organic tissue into repair and regeneration mode without original purchase codes. You learn how to substitute plastic bags for air bladders, fan blades for propellers, a marble for one hopeless eye.

For months, the Angel consumes you.

Some nights, you fall asleep beside it, slumped against the kitchen cabinets, a dislocated hand nestled in your arms. Sometimes you don’t sleep at all and you are never quite sure if the memory of soft whispers is a dream or if you somehow miraculously teased the Angel to life in the middle of the night only to have it die again before sunrise.

You work on it through your morning coffee, cup in one hand, wrench in the other. You turn its half-formed head toward the kitchen door when you leave and you imagine what its voice will sound like.

“Goodbye.”

“Have a nice day.”

“Stay. Just a little longer. Please. Please, stay.”

When you were fourteen, you became fascinated by Jack’s voice. It tripped over itself when he laughed. It broke toward something deeper and dangerously adult when he whispered and everything inside you curled. You couldn’t stop thinking about the veins emerging on the backs of his hands, winding like secret rivers toward his fingers. You wanted him to touch you. You dreamed about him touching you. And you couldn’t look directly at him when you wrestled anymore because he was breathless and flushed and on top of you and awkwardly, impossibly beautiful.

When Jack first kissed you, under a Lake Erie dock where his ditched Angel hadn’t found you yet, he told you he was going to leave his eyes open because he’d never kissed another boy before and he wanted to see if it was more or less real than kissing girls.

You kept your eyes closed.

You knew how real it was.

As he leaned in close, the world inside you capsized and you were certain your heart was going to beat out of your chest, tumble end over end past the orange safety net and empty vodka bottles at your feet and down into the hungry water. You imagined it breaking into a thousand digestible pieces. How would you ever be able to survive without it? When your chapped lips collided, the entirety of you shattered like a ship against a breaker wall. You became flotsam. Jetsam. Lagan. Derelict. The pieces of you scattered so deep you knew you’d never be able to recover them all.

You weren’t sure you wanted to.

It’s an April afternoon when you finally begin stitching your dead Angel together again. Torso propped between your legs, you tenderly tuck the restored parts back into its skin, the plastic gears and motors and layers of wet muscle. You reposition regenerated organs. You reunite wires. You secure delicate bolts. When the Angel is nearly whole, you deposit the voice box deep in its narrow throat, a waxy pearl swaddled in meat and electrical tethers. You key in the final, pirated code and murmur “please work, please work, please work” like a mantra.

There is a rattle and the Angel begins to hum fitfully against you. You stroke its hair, try to imagine the hacked nanites diving into the Angel’s veins and cavities, connecting organic tissue to inorganic armatures, weaving one world into another and bridging the gaps your hands could never hope to mend.

Jack died three days before his seventeenth birthday. You told yourself then that it wasn’t real. You didn’t see it happen. He hadn’t taken you with him when he went to the beach this time. He only took his Angel. And a can of lighter fluid. And book of matches and a bottle of pills and his dad’s handgun. You didn’t see him burn his Angel, torching it so it couldn’t save him. You didn’t see him take pill after pill after pill. You didn’t see him panic. You didn’t see him pull the trigger.

It couldn’t be real.

Reality wasn’t Jack laughing sadly against your shoulder one day and dead before breakfast the next. Reality wasn’t a closed casket because Jack had blown half his jaw away. Reality wasn’t a funeral with Jack’s uncle lamenting a dead Angel instead of a dead nephew.

Reality was a dirty lake pretending to be an ocean.

Reality was six months of Xanax and broken dishes and flunking out of math because you threw up the day the teacher called you Jack’s name by mistake. Reality was sneaking into an abandoned gas station to mourn, and crying and jerking off instead and hating yourself for it. Reality was a dock with vodka bottles and an orange safety net lodged so deep in the sand the waves couldn’t dig it out. Beached fish tangled in it instead. Every day you watched their slow dissolve into silence.

And as six months became a year, became three, and your loneliness never healed, you began to believe that your reality, too, must be silence.

It’s after midnight when the Angel begins to sing.

You’d fallen asleep with its body cradled in your arms, its forehead pressed against yours, the smell of ozone and plastic and regenerated flesh all around you. It’s the sudden intake of air that wakes you, the thin, reedy inhalation buzzing through a reconstructed throat. Your head is on the linoleum, your neck is cramped, but you don’t move. You are terrified that this isn’t real, that the sound will dissipate like smoke or sea foam if you jostle it. So you lie there, barely breathing, anticipation trembling through you. You watch as the Angel’s throat quivers. It swallows. It smiles.

It sings.

It’s a tuneless sound, broad and soft as whale song, static fizzing distantly behind it like an incoming tide. The Angel’s lips are slightly out of sync, forming O’s and A’s a beat too late, and there are no consonants, only round noises swelling through the moonlit kitchen like slow, summer air.

When you were kids, Jack brought you back a conch shell from Saint Martin. It came wrapped in bright paper, a sailboat and a sunrise repeating forever around the uneven shape. You sat together on his bed, shoulder to shoulder, and he showed you how to hold the shell against your ear, how if you listened carefully, you could hear the sea roaring toward you. You passed the shell back and forth, waves flowing between you, deep and steady and real as a pulse.

Now, when you finally gather the courage to move, you press your ear to the Angel’s lips. You close your eyes. You listen to it sing until the sun comes up, willing the sound of the ocean into you until all you hear is the rush of salt waves and the truth of deep sea water.

Lora Gray’s writing has appeared in various publications including The Dark, Flash Fiction Online, Liminal Stories and Strange Horizons. A graduate of Clarion West, Lora currently lives in Northeast Ohio with a handsome husband and a freakishly smart cat named Cecil. When they aren’t writing, Lora also works as an illustrator, dance instructor and occasionally moonlights as a voice over artist and musician. You can find them online at www.loragray.weebly.com or on twitter @LoraJGray.

Other Angels:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

 

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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