Audrey Ferber ~ SCAR

Before they allowed George to be tak­en to his room, they wand­ed his wrist chip to access his most recent SCAR report.

He’s nine­ty,” his wife, Lucy, protest­ed, so they wand­ed her too.

Women were less dili­gent­ly patrolled but men and boys over the age of ten had their SCARs, the Stats, Crits And Recants regard­ing their sex­u­al mis­con­duct, both actu­al and per­ceived, checked many times a day.

Lucy’s scan reg­is­tered no activ­i­ty of any type. Her vibrat­ing VagiEggs lay aban­doned in her sex draw­er, her vir­tu­al Pleasure Palace Passport showed no recent stamps, and even her fan­ta­sy pro­file remained dis­mal­ly flat. She had fired up her ancient Vibratron the night before George’s depar­ture, but his bab­bling in the next room had harshed her buzz. George’s SCAR, how­ev­er, indi­cat­ed “fleet­ing but ram­pant” sex­u­al thoughts. Vascular dif­fi­cul­ties pre­clud­ed tumes­cence, but the old goat still fan­ta­sized.

He was twen­ty years her senior, with heart and kid­ney dis­ease, hear­ing loss, frozen shoul­der, claw hands, dia­betes and demen­tia. He’d stub­born­ly held onto all his flesh parts, refused robo joints, dino discs and met­al wheel­ies, so every few months, a foot or leg infec­tion brought him to the hos­pi­tal where they carved off bits and pieces like he was the hol­i­day bird. She felt guilty about plac­ing him at the Hebrew Home for Unfortunates but he had a loud, un-adorable strain of pre-frontal demen­tia that includ­ed night-scream­ing, food snatch­ing, ask­ing strangers to suck his nip­ples, and a refusal to bathe.

Lucy start­ed to fol­low George to his room but a hir­sute man, a Surgi-mask dan­gling rak­ish­ly around his neck, inter­cept­ed.

Hi. I’m the TC guy, Arthro. Like in Arthroscop­ic.” He extend­ed a hand, his grip as warm and thick as a new risen loaf. “Do you need help with George’s bags?”

Like most peo­ple, Lucy had been mask­ing since the Conflagration, the ten years of fires and fire-nadoes that had rav­aged North and South America, but she low­ered hers now. “Hi. I’m Lucy, the wife.”

Yes, I know. I’ve read George’s admis­sions.” The Transition Counselor smiled a know­ing grin.

Arthro manned the lug­gage cart and the ele­va­tor door sealed her­met­i­cal­ly behind them. Effusive grey hair sprung from his shirt col­lar and cuffs, and stip­pled his fin­gers. George’s limbs had rubbed hair­less in old age.

Do these seals real­ly do any­thing?” Lucy thought out loud as the ele­va­tor descend­ed. Hermadoors were com­pul­so­ry, a pre­cau­tion against FLASH, the tox­ic flake and ash spewed from the fires.

Hermetics is inex­act, part engi­neer­ing, part alche­my.” Arthro’s grey eye­brows whirly­gigged above his eye-glass­es.

Lucy looked at him side­ways. George was so deaf, she was unac­cus­tomed to any­one respond­ing to her ques­tions.

While Arthro unloaded the rest of the box­es, Lucy turned her back to him and hocked del­i­cate­ly into her gob-cloth. Grey lung/amber spu­tum syn­drome; every­one had it.

Back in George’s room, she placed their wed­ding pho­to on his night-stand.

No need to unpack. Staff will attend.” Arthro insin­u­at­ed him­self between Lucy and the bed and steered her from the room.

She saw George at the end of the hall, his pow­er chair pulled close to a Jiffy dec­o­rat­ed in pink pom-poms. He seemed to be stroking some­thing in the lap of the snowy-haired woman in the cart.

George? Sweetheart?” Lucy called although he nev­er wore his ampli­fiers.  “What’s he doing?” she snapped at Arthro.

That’s Mabel and her robo-pup­py. They’re our lit­tle ‘Welcome Wagon.’ Very com­fort­ing.”

Forty years of mar­riage, almost fif­teen of them in ser­vice to his ill­ness­es, and he’d already found a girl­friend?

With the light­est pres­sure on Lucy’s elbow, Arthro led her back to the ele­va­tor and pressed the down but­ton. “Less con­tact right now will ease George’s adjust­ment. And I bet you could use some well-deserved time for your­self.” Arthro’s brown eyes glis­tened like moist pud­dings. “Take care, Lucy, and we’ll see you soon.”

As soon as the ele­va­tor door closed, Lucy opened Arthro’s SCAR on her screen. His sheet, just a few raised voice intim­i­da­tions and a cou­ple of ten­ters, was remark­ably clean.

When she got home, she climbed the stairs and slammed the door to George’s bed­room. She felt so riled up and angry, so sad and con­fused, she re-opened the door just for the plea­sure of slam­ming it again on his com­mode, his pill chop­pers, his no-slide hos­pi­tal anklets, his wound care sup­plies, his col­lec­tion of rusty old license plates, his stack of oily base­ball caps.

She nuked a galan­gal chai rice log for din­ner, then passed a rest­less night.

First, she thought she heard George moan­ing. Then, she sat straight up in bed, awak­ened by a dream thud of him falling down the stairs. Her heart pound­ed triple time and she heard scrab­bling, the click of opened larders, of George ran­sack­ing the kitchen for for­bid­den sweets. He’s not here, she remind­ed her­self. He’s not here. I’m alone. I’ll always be alone. She drank more tran­quil­ixir and fell back to sleep.

Everything seemed brighter in the morn­ing. Uninterrupted by George’s con­stant demands, she toast­ed her baguette to gold­en per­fec­tion, spread her  but­ter and rasp­ber­ry jam with sacred atten­tion. Free of his skin molts and dropped food, the floor gleamed. And with­out his dra­ma screens tuned to “Constant Activity, High Volume,” Lucy heard her­self chew. The house breathed. She closed her eyes and matched her own inhales and exhales until she hummed equi­lib­ri­um with the set­tled old wood.

Then, she con­tem­plat­ed her future: a writ­ing class, pas­try school, moon trav­el, a writ­ing class or pas­try school on the moon. Or maybe a trip to the Verona Rupes cliff on Uranus’s moon every­one was talk­ing about. As soon as she fan­ta­sized trav­el, the wall screens lit with ads: Flying While Female, Flying While Fat, Flying While Anxious, the one with relax­ants piped though the air ducts and com­pan­ion ani­mals roam­ing free. She’d got­ten used to the inva­sion, the mind-fuck of the screens. It was so com­plete­ly twen­ty years ago to rail against de-human­iz­ing BigTech blah blah blah.

She sipped a sec­ond cup of car­damom tea and won­dered if she’d ever fall in love again. A trip­tych of dat­ing sites: ABOUT TIME, for peo­ple over sev­en­ty, JUST IN TIME, for peo­ple over eighty and OVERTIME for any­one else still alive, opened full wall. She loved the dat­ing sites, found the con­tem­pla­tion of the faces and alleged qual­i­ties more stim­u­lat­ing than read­ing.

The face of a man with a close-trimmed white beard, Chuck, who liked “lib­er­ty, lib­ertines and libret­tos” filled one full wall. His SCAR report­ed drunk­en ass grabs in col­lege, boob brush inci­dents at work, anger re-pat­tern­ing, and porn hours exceed­ing stan­dard allo­ca­tion. All pret­ty stan­dard for a male who had not been chem­i­cal­ly cas­trat­ed. Even with that, he was more allur­ing than the no-chin mil­que­toast who required “Vanishing beach walks and punc­tu­al­i­ty.”

Lucy’s phone inter­rupt­ed, shiv­ered an ascend­ing game­lan, her best friend, Marlena’s, sig­na­ture ring. “Have you done the deed?” Marlena nev­er said hel­lo.

Yes. He’s ensconced. George is now a full-time res­i­dent of the Hebrew Home. I was just look­ing at the dat­ing sites.” A lit­tle gig­gle escaped Lucy’s throat.

What’s the rush? Don’t you ever just want to be alone?”

Marlena was too com­pli­cat­ed for sex­u­al rela­tion­ships. She iden­ti­fied as pan but she’d had sex­u­al rearrange­ment surgery a few years back. She hadn’t shared every detail but she had told Lucy that she’d final­ly gone bag-less and allud­ed to a pow­er stick with “lots of fun attach­ments.” But Lucy wasn’t Marlena. She didn’t have the con­fi­dence or imag­i­na­tion to change her sto­ry mid­stream. Maybe some­one had glitched her sys­tem, but she was in the habit of shar­ing her life with a man.

If she and George had actu­al­ly “shared” a life. Or had she just door-mat­ted her life around his? Technically, they were still mar­ried. Did she have to wait until he died to start her next chap­ter? What if he lived for­ev­er? Or until a hun­dred and twen­ty? That kind of over-exten­sion was hap­pen­ing more and more.

Oh, and you know we’re not going tonight, right?” Marlena asked.

What?” Lucy tried not to sound dev­as­tat­ed. They had tick­ets to a read­ing by an author whose pop­u­lar­i­ty had risen dra­mat­i­cal­ly after he’d revealed in a  mes­say, the genre that depict­ed messy lives, that he’d been plun­dered as a child. She’d been look­ing for­ward to cel­e­brat­ing her first real night of free­dom with her friend more than she could say.

Go to the Times. Go to Lit News, go to Book Schlepper.”

The accu­sa­tions against the writer splashed ugly across Lucy’s screens: “machis­mo,” “patri­ar­chal pre­scrip­tions,” “pussy pound­ing,” “dig­i­tal rape,” and “rape by dig­its.”

Shit. I thought he was the nice man in his books. I still sort of want to go.” Lucy said the last part soft­ly because she knew Marlena would dis­ap­prove.

But for the last twen­ty years, wiv­ing George through his many ill­ness­es, fan­tasies of time with Marlena had been her san­i­ty, her surest plea­sure. She’d imag­ined the meals they’d eat, the cul­ture they’d con­sume, the tat­too­ing, braid­ing, and hen­na, they’d endure.

We’ve got to take a stand,” Marlena insist­ed.

Okay, you’re right. Let’s just go out to din­ner.”

I’m not real­ly eat­ing much this week, just kom­bucha grits. And where would we go? Restaurants have the most abu­sive work envi­ron­ment on the plan­et.”

Do you want to come over and just hang out?”

Hmmm. My plug in’s bro­ken. All the ride ser­vice dri­vers are rogue vio­la­tors. And the air’s real­ly FLASHY today.”

She hat­ed that she need­ed Marlena more than Marlena need­ed her. Maybe that’s why she’d stayed with George. After a brief peri­od of resis­tance at the start of their rela­tion­ship, his fear of com­mit­ment, his need to “trounce and roam,” he’d leaned on her for every­thing.

Lucy thought of offer­ing to go over to Marlena’s immac­u­late Kondo, all books, cloth­ing and food­stuffs arranged by col­or and edit­ed by plea­sure quo­tient, but the more her friend spoke, the less Lucy believed she’d find com­fort there.

She hung up, dis­ap­point­ed almost to tears, but decid­ed to walk it off. She pulled on a pair of turquoise cling-mesh booties and trudged down the hill to the shop­ping street of her neigh­bor­hood. As soon as the Hermadoor sealed behind her, she real­ized she’d for­got­ten her gog­gles. But if she went back inside, a screen gem would grab her and she be paste-eyed all day.

She passed the Granular bak­ery, the com­mu­ni­ty meet­ing room where they held neigh­bor­hood Conflag Seminars, and the hard­ware store with the house paint, clean­ing prod­ucts and gar­den sup­plies aisles taped off for “prod­uct inves­ti­ga­tion.” She stopped in front of the ani­mal hos­pi­tal, her eyes already fire-red and drip­py, where a pho­to of a fluffy long haired white kit­ty hung in the win­dow under the head­ing: “MEOW TOO!”

Please boy­cott this busi­ness!” the poster read. “On numer­ous occa­sions, Dr. Miller has molest­ed ani­mals under anes­the­sia and engaged in inap­pro­pri­ate anal probes. He lingers unnec­es­sar­i­ly in the appli­ca­tion of mas­ti­tis oint­ment and NEEDS TO EXAMINE HIS G.D. HUMAN PRIVILEGE!!!”

Lucy walked and walked. She need­ed to hydrate but she’d also for­got­ten her flask. She thought of buy­ing bot­tled H20 but the fur­ther she got from the cen­ter of town, the few­er SCARS and the more NGFs, the sad, round, buff col­ored signs that indi­cat­ed non-gen­tri­fied food, she saw dis­played in shop win­dows. She didn’t want to risk a breast glance, or even worse, NGF con­t­a­m­i­na­tion.

Replacement joints had sup­pos­ed­ly been per­fect­ed but her top-of-the-line, “ulti­mate walk­ing machine” knees ached so she rest­ed on a met­al mush­room. The city was strewn with pub­lic art made from nails, pipes, small appli­ances and cars that had melt­ed in the fires. She coughed and watched two albi­no birds pick their way across a mucky pud­dle.

ABOUT TIME” buzzed and a man’s face appeared on her screen. She liked his full head of thick grey hair, big teeth and musky olive skin but her wrist chip throbbed a warn­ing: Caution! CULTURAL OBJECTIFICATION IN PROGRESS!!

She tried to open his SCAR any­way, just a tiny peek, but her screen issued a low-volt­age shock and screeched: “If you are not Southeast Asian, from the Indian sub­con­ti­nent, sub-Himalayan, or con­tain­ing the blood of the SAARC coun­tries, MOVE ON!!!”

She sighed, despair­ing of ever find­ing anoth­er mate, and got to her feet. She crossed one large boule­vard, then anoth­er. When she’d walked two miles, her phone show­ered her with vir­tu­al con­fet­ti and played the rous­ing “Excellence of Exercise” anthem. But the howl of SMAD horns cut the cel­e­bra­tion short.

Smoke Advisory! Smoke Advisory! Immediate SMAD Conditions!” a deep  voice rant­ed. “All per­sons, espe­cial­ly the young, old, and mid­dle-aged, and those with diag­nosed and undi­ag­nosed con­di­tions of the lungs, eyes, gonads and spleen, TAKE SHELTER. TAKE IMMEDIATE SHELTER! Those indoors, SHELTER IN PLACE!”

Lucy skit­tered across the street, zig-zag­ging between aban­doned drone –bug­gies. A show­er of fire-cocks fell from the sky and she swat­ted embers from her hair.

SHELTER IN PLACE! SHELTER IN PLACE!” the out­door warn­ing voice com­mand­ed again.

Lucy head­ed down an alley. The first open door was a restau­rant, Louisiana Sam’s, undoc­u­ment­ed, except for the solemn Non Gentrified Food cir­cle. What kind of farm life had the beef known? How had the seafood been ambushed? How many times a day and at what tem­per­a­ture were the toi­lets SaniChlored? She pushed inside with a few oth­er fire refugees. The her­ma-seal gaped worn and flab­by behind them.

Vitamin water was always safe.  Maybe, she’d risk a lit­tle juice. Then, Lucy saw the menu chalked in prim­i­tive writ­ing on the wall, “Shrimp” flour­ished in pink curlicues. Irresistible. She ordered the Bucket Dinner with a hon­ey but­ter bis­cuit, curly fries and a lurid red soda called Hawaii Pop. She alter­nat­ed sips of the sweet syrupy drink with bites of hot cayenne flecked shrimp. Butter from the bis­cuit streamed down her chin. Only the curly fries were a mis­take.

By the time she’d fin­ished her meal, the SMAD had been lift­ed When she got up, her knees cran­kled but she stum­bled out of the restau­rant fart­ing and hap­py. She walked with­out direc­tion, the sky an omi­nous FLASH‑y gray. A glow­ing orange fire-prick land­ed on her cheek. Screen-talk insist­ed that the pop­u­la­tion had become inured to first degree burns but the damn thing stung!

In a few more blocks, she found her­self out­side the Hebrew Home. She didn’t real­ly want to see her hus­band but the guard-bot was off-duty so she entered unchecked. When she’d called yes­ter­day, they’d told her that George could not be dis­turbed dur­ing recum­bent Macarena. This morn­ing, the same rude voice said that he was busy in the Animal Husbandry room “feed­ing bun­ny.”

Nevertheless, she strode down the hall hung with dis­tort­ed nudes and cats paint­ed by the inmates. Her life wasn’t chang­ing as quick­ly as she’d hoped. Marlena was elu­sive and she hadn’t booked a moon vaca­tion, picked a pas­try course, or found a new part­ner.

Arthro appeared as soon as the ele­va­tor opened and unmasked when he saw her. She feared anoth­er lec­ture about George’s need for inde­pen­dence. Everything still about George’s needs; wasn’t that rich?

Are you here for the care-taker’s sup­port group?” Arthro asked.

I am not a care-tak­er any­more.” She unmasked and savored the spiky words in her mouth.

Yes, but there are prob­a­bly lin­ger­ing issues: anger, fear, resent­ment, dys­pho­ria, der­mati­tis, fir­flots, PTSD…”

Where’s George?”

Arthro fol­lowed her down the cor­ri­dor to her husband’s closed door. The Do Not Disturb plack­et hung from the knob. One pink pom-pom lit­tered the thresh­old.

What the fuck?” Lucy kicked the door.

Come with me.” Arthro took her arm.

He unlocked a room she hadn’t noticed before. A sign on the door said: “Transitions.” One side was filled with neat­ly stacked box­es. She rec­og­nized a  car­ton, with a canoe pad­dle stick­ing out of the top, that she had packed her­self. On the oth­er side of the room, a mat­tress rest­ed on a low plat­form, its cov­er­let bathed in the amber glow from a Himalayan salt lamp.

We can talk if you like. I’m licensed,” Arthro said.

They kissed instead.  She held up her right fore­fin­ger, the uni­ver­sal sign that she was okay with the ini­ti­at­ed sex­u­al activ­i­ty, okay with yield­ing, smooth­ly bovine inside of his mouth. Arthro raised his fin­ger to con­cur, and indi­cate that he felt no per­for­mance pres­sure. His beard rip­pled like a benev­o­lent mus­cle, the hair sur­pris­ing­ly soft. They sat side by side on the bed and with his plaid shirt and sweet grassy beard, Lucy felt as if she were on a hayride.

Are you from the Midwest?” she whis­pered.

You’re fun­ny.” His hand moved in deep sooth­ing cir­cles on her back. She thought of anoth­er clever ques­tion, an entic­ing remark. It had been so long since she’d spo­ken into a man’s ear, rubbed her face in someone’s pheromones. But she remem­bered how to lis­ten, lis­ten, mir­ror back, to be sweet, sassy, flat­ter. She remem­bered how to flirt.

Arthro sig­naled and placed a hand on her breast. She raised her fin­ger and nuz­zled into the heat of his armpit although FEEP, the Fire Evacuation Emergency Plan, advised nev­er open­ing a hot door.

They kissed again, fin­gers raised. He slid his hand under her butt. She angled her body, stroked his hair. He kissed her neck.

Fingers,” she whis­pered when she real­ized that nei­ther of them had sig­naled.

He mis­un­der­stood. Took her hand into his mouth, lav­ished it from tips to webs with his tongue. She con­vulsed, the plea­sure set­tling in her crotch.

She climbed onto his lap, sat fac­ing him. Her wrist stung, then burned as her SCAR recal­i­brat­ed. She smelled smoke.

He dipped inside her waist­band. “Is this okay?”

Wait, she thought to say. It’s been too long. I’ve for­got­ten how. I’m parched down there — tree-line with­ers, ridge rot, smudge root, Silent Spring. But her floaty pants seemed to low­er them­selves.

She sat on him hard, took his ther­mal col­umn all at once. Her wrist screamed, shot sparks. Wrapped them in dusky smoke. The room melt­ed. She laughed and cried, on fire.

~

Audrey Ferber’s work has appeared in the New York Times, LILITH MagazineCimarron Review, Fiction International and else­where. She received her MFA at Mills College and is at work on a hybrid col­lec­tion of essays and sto­ries about aging, sex­u­al­i­ty and care-tak­ing.