By John M. Cusick
(Note from YARN: “Abandon Changes” takes place several months after the events of excellent Cusick’s novel, “Girl Parts”—an awesome Christmas gift for the deserving on your list!)
Sam. I’m breaking up with you. We’re through.
You have changed your draft without saving. Do you want to abandon changes?
Rei tossed the burner under the lumbering street cleaner and heard it crunch. The swirling brushes raised dust and paper scraps, thrusting debris onto the sidewalk. The cleaner shifted north and Rei turned south, hands in pockets, as if blown by the swirl.
It was early spring, too cool for blossoms. Drizzle freckled the sidewalk and turned the awnings to bongo drums. Kids biked home from class. They crossed the quad in chatty cliques and congregated outside coffee bars. School-café-home: just three stops on a short course. She pitied them. This was all they knew.
Rei skirted the square, fleet and anonymous. While normal kids learned the quadratic equation, Rei had learned to be a runner. She knew how to stay out of sight, how to keep moving. She was fast, smart, didn’t ask questions, and kept her mouth shut. Joe said she was his best ever. Even the rain didn’t seem to touch her.
She was free, and loved it.
It was time to buy a new burner. This too was a special skill. There were three cell shops in this neighborhood. She knew every shop in town and alternated between them to avoid attracting attention. The clerk was her age, trapped behind a little counter. She gave Rei a minimum-wage smile. “What can I do for you today?”
“Disposable, please. One hundred minutes and texts.” She hesitated, then added, “In pink, if possible.”
Joe insisted on cheap, untraceable burners. In the eight months since she’d quit school to work for him, she had purchased and destroyed more than four hundred. They were mostly flat, gray hunks of plastic, but lately she’d wanted a little style. Pink casings, fuzzy antennas. Normal kids had keitai: stylized, customizable super-phones. Keitai had swappable cases, personalized fingerprint stickers, gyaru-moji tags, and jangling, illuminated charms. Each was a personal statement, a reflection of the owner’s identity. Rei didn’t envy normal kids, but she envied their phones, a little.
She could buy a phone for personal use of course, but she never called anyone but Joe.
Well, not Sam. Not anymore.
There were no pink burners, just a flat gray Gazer Tech with a green screen. She paid with cash and left.
The rain had stopped and Rei felt refreshed. Buying a new phone was like shedding her skin, becoming new again. The last phone faded from memory, along with its run— just scraps on B Street two blocks, sixty yards, a thousand years away.
She opened the new text program.
Sam. I thought about it and I need to break up with you. I’m sorry.
Her thumb hovered over SEND. She would do it this time, empowered by the new-phone rush. She was without ties.
She pressed CANCEL MESSAGE.
Do you want to abandon changes?
“Damn it,” she hissed.
Stepping into an alley, Rei dialed the only other number she knew. The line clicked and she heard breathing.
“How are you, honey?”
Joe could call her honey and it was no big deal. He was harmless— to Rei anyway. Every month he sent her a new birthday card with her pay inside, signed Happy Birthday, Sweetheart! or Happy Birthday, Love!
“I’m thinking of dumping Sam.”
“I’m sorry, kiddo. He lasted longer than the others.”
“Six weeks.” Rei closed her eyes. “Boys are . . . complicated.”
“Let’s talk about something simpler then, eh?”
She listened closely. She was not permitted to write anything down and Joe would not repeat himself.
“The recipient is an American girl, your age. A club kid. Tonight she’s at the Purple Flower Room. She calls herself Iris, and she’s got bottle-blue hair.”
So it was drugs . X or ketamine or that new one, Path, the “empathy drug.” It didn’t matter what the package was. In four hundred runs she’d never opened one or asked what was inside. “That’s what makes you a good runner,” Joe always said. “Light feet and no curiosity.”
“Where’s the pick up?”
“No package,” said Joe. “Just a message. Make sure you get it right. I need you focused, Rei.”
“I am,” she said, a little stung. She always performed assignments perfectly.
The Purple Flower Room was part of the Sunshine Pavilion, a twenty-four-hour arcade on the other side of town. She decided to walk it. She knew the city, knew it better than the cops, even better than the cabbies. She knew the fastest routes, the most hidden. The rush of passing inches from a cop unnoticed, slipping by a doorman, moving undetected through a cam’s blind spot, was intoxicating. She floated above the world, untouchable, a ghost. Sam didn’t understand. Nobody did. Her skills made her unique.
As she crossed D Street Sam’s voice was with her. It had been a whisper all morning, but now the reception was crystal clear, three bars.
“You’re a drug dealer?” he’d asked.
“I just run errands,” she’d said then, she mouthed now.
“But you don’t know what you’re delivering, and it’s definitely not legal, right? Why do you do it?”
“It makes me feel free . . . safe.”
“Safe from what?”
She didn’t have an answer. And then Sam, being Sam, crushed her:
“Well I don’t care what you do. I love you anyway.”
Rei paused on Osaka Bridge, interrupting foot traffic. A group of girls clucked at her.
She unlimbered the burner, and wrote a text.
Sam, I love you too but I can’t be with you.
She’d never used the word. Love. It felt like flying, hurling herself over the railing into the black churn below. It made her feel dizzy, reckless.
She pressed CANCEL MESSAGE.
Do you want to abandon changes?
She didn’t know she was being followed until Okawa Circle, just a block from the pavilion. She’d never had a shadow before; she’d never been that careless.
“Distraction is a runner’s enemy,” Joe would say.
It wasn’t a cop. Cops were obvious, like they wanted to be seen. It had to be a rival, someone against Joe who didn’t want Rei to complete her run.
That was very bad.
She switched directions and crossed the circle, cutting through traffic and putting a yellow bus between her and her tail. As the light changed Rei climbed on the running board and pressed herself against the paneling. People stared— just some kid showing off. The bus rounded the fountain and Rei jumped away, cut around the bank and approached her shadow from behind.
The side street was empty. She moved silently onto the fire escape, her tail below her now, crouched behind a dumpster, scanning for Rei by the fountain.
She cleared her throat.
Her tail whirled and said in English, “Jesus Christmas!” adding in Japanese, “You scared the holy hell out of me!”
Rei deflated, her limbs twitching with wasted adrenaline. She’d been proud of her maneuver with the bus, but her shadow was just a loud, bespectacled American woman in a rainbow T-shirt and lavender jacket. Not exactly a pro. Rei felt worse for not having noticed this one sooner.
“You’re following me,” she said. “Stop.”
The tail smiled. It was unsettling. “I’m May. Want some Pocky?” She shook a snack box at Rei. Her Japanese was textbook, her accent miserable. Rei guessed she’d been in the country less than a month. “This stuff is amazing. You can’t get it where I’m from—”
“Final warning. Piss off.” She started to climb away but the woman cleared her throat.
“Did you drop this?”
She held something small and plastic. The pink casing was crushed, the fuzzy antenna smeared with mud, but the green light still blinked, alive. The phone Rei had tossed under the street cleaner.
“That’s . . . not mine.”
“I mean, this is your boss’s number, right? Joe?”
Panic seared Rei’s throat. She’d never texted Joe, only spoken to him. There was no way to pull conversations off a phone, was there?
“I’m good with gadgets,” May said, as if reading her thoughts. “Like, the best. In the world.” She cocked her head like a curious dog. She would have been cute if she weren’t holding Rei’s life in her hand. “Who’s Sam, by the way?”
Rei lunged for the phone, shoving her arm between the metal bars. But the girl was surprisingly quick.
“Give it back.”
“I’ve got to tell you something.”
“Give it back or I’ll break your neck.”
May pocketed the phone. “I know you’re going to meet a girl, an American like me. She won’t be what you expect.”
“I don’t know what you’re—”
“Pup-pup! Not finished.” May wagged a finger. “I know you have a message for her, and I know you’ll deliver it no matter what I say. But I’m hiring you to give her a package. I’d do it myself but the men who hired your boss would recognize me.”
So, she was sunk. May knew everything. It didn’t make sense, but there it was. Rei was made, which meant her time with Joe was over. All because this ridiculous gaijin had spotted her, because Rei hadn’t made sure the burner was completely destroyed, because she’d been distracted.
By Sam, a voice whispered.
She shook it off.
“What’s the package?”
They were tinted glasses, goggles really, though stylish enough to pass for normal eyewear. Rei took them. They were surprisingly heavy, with two switches marked A and B in Roman letters.
“Neat, huh? Don’t you want to know what they do?”
“No.” She tucked them away. “Now give me the phone.”
May tossed the burner. Rei nearly fumbled it. She clutched the device to her heart, unbelieving. “Why would I help you now? You just lost your bargaining chip.”
“Because.” May’s smile vanished. “If you don’t, they’ll kill her.”
A few nights before, in Sam’s bed, with his arm around her waist.
“Don’t you worry you’re hurting people?”
“No, Sam. I’m just delivering packages.”
“But you can’t pretend—”
“I’m not responsible for what I don’t know, Sam.”
The Flutter Café was a mom-and-pop noodle bar across from the Purple Flower Room. The commuter rush had cleared and only a few stragglers lingered in the close, damp heat. A lone flower languished in its pot, a furry moth leisurely ingesting its petals.
A boy sat with his back to the door. He had blond hair and looked American from behind. She took a seat across from him at the horseshoe counter and saw he was Japanese. He scratched his scalp— a fresh dye job— and stirred a bowl of noodles, long cooled. He might not know why he was being paid to sit in a noodle bar, but he was the decoy all right.
Rei scanned the room. Two large men, not cops but obvious the way cops were, flanked the door. They were the muscle. Where was the brain? She glanced to her right. At the end of the bar, with the only unobstructed view of the door, was an American man with feathery gray hair peaking from beneath his hat. He wore dark sunglasses. To Rei he looked like someone trying very hard to see without being seen. They were all waiting for the girl Rei was to meet. These were the men May had warned her about.
She ordered a sticky bun, ate it slowly, paid, and stepped into the rain. The Flutter Café felt less like a mom-and-pop place and more like a steel trap, waiting to spring.
She wished she hadn’t gone in to confirm May’s story. It was not like her to be curious. No, not just curious— sentimental. Who was she now? She’d changed, or was changing.
She started to text:
Sam. I’m in love with you and it’s making me into someone I can’t
Do you want to abandon changes?
“Yes,” Rei said aloud. A woman glanced up, startled, then looked away.
Lights and lasers swept the ceiling: blue, gold, green, pulsing through the disco ball in the middle. With every phase of light the faces and clothing changed colors, the crowd a writhing rainbow. Music crashed through story-high speakers.
Iris’s hair was red, green, indigo, crimson in the changing lights. She was by far the best dancer. Her moves were marvelous, each limb moving effortlessly in a wave. She danced alone. The boys were too intimidated. A few girls tried, and she danced with them, but soon they too could only groove on the sidelines, watching her. She was mesmerizing.
Reckless, thought Rei. She attracted a lot of attention for a wanted girl.
Rei approached through the throng. Iris thought she wanted to dance and pulled Rei’s arm around her waist. She must have been on Path, or something. Rei pulled away.
“I have to talk to you.”
Iris put a hand to her ear. “I can’t hear you.” Her accent was flawless, much better than May’s.
“I have to talk to you,” Rei shouted. “Somewhere private.”
She led Rei to the private rooms. The bouncers let them through with a nod to Iris.
The small lounge was dark, the walls mirrored, unspooling gloomy chambers in every direction. Electric candles flickered on the low glass tables. There was one other door, an emergency exit or bathroom.
Iris made herself comfortable on a heart-shaped sofa. Her smile put Rei at ease, a feeling Rei dismissed. She wondered if Iris was some kind of courtesan or special escort. They were paid to make people like them, make people comfortable. Rei remained standing.
Iris poured a drink from the tumbler. It looked like water but might have been anything. “I haven’t seen you here before. Are you a friend of Ken’s?”
“I have a message.”
She blinked false lashes. “OK.”
“The message is this.” She swallowed. It caught at first but she got it out easily enough. “I came for you. I’m across the street at the Flutter Café.”
Iris looked confused. “Is that all?”
“No.” It was the second part that would snare her. The men next door somehow knew this girl, knew exactly what she needed to hear. “The last time I saw you, I said you were a waste of time,” said Rei, borrowing borrowed words. “You never were.”
Tears have a way of shining in the dark, a silvery phosphorescence. They illuminated Iris’s cheekbones. She placed her glass on the table, slow and deliberate. When she spoke her voice quivered like the false candlelight.
“David, he…said that?”
“That’s the message.”
Her breathing quickened. “I never thought it would be David. I thought if anybody came for me—” She stopped herself. “Across the street? The Flutter Café?”
Last night she’d said to Sam, “I can’t be close to someone and do what I do. I can’t do both.”
“Then I guess you have to decide.”
“No,” she heard herself say. “A girl named May wants you to have these.”
May’s name conjured something in her eyes. Iris examined the goggles. She put them on and flipped the switch marked A.
A staccato pattern of light, like Morse code, erupted from the goggles. Their lenses flashed inward at the wearer’s eyes, but their brilliance filled the room. The dance of photons meant nothing to Rei, but when it was over and Iris removed them, all trace of her previous cheer was gone. The light had broken her heart.
“Thank you for bringing these,” she said.
In four hundred runs there’d never been anything like this. The light had spoken to Iris. “What does it mean?” Rei asked.
Iris stood. “What’s your name?”
“I call myself Rei. I’m just a messenger.”
“Rei, that’s pretty. Ghost.” She folded her arms, hugging herself. “My name isn’t Iris. It’s Rose. Some men are looking for me. They caught me once, took me from the people I cared about and kept me in a locked room. But I escaped. That was eight months ago. Now they’ve found me again.”
“The goggles told you?”
“They warned me, yes.”
“Run,” said Rei. “I would run. Running is the only way.”
“They can track me. Because I’m in love with a boy. The boy who left me,” said Rose. “The light told me that, too. It said if I forget the boy, it will sever their connection. They won’t be able to track me.”
The ceiling lights changed from green to purple, lending a violet cast to the girls in the mirrored walls. “You can’t just forget someone,” said Rei. “It’s not possible.”
Rose smiled. “I’m special. I can press this button,” she indicated the switch marked B, “and poof he’s gone. All my memories will be wiped and I’ll start over from day one. Like rebooting. I’ll be free.” Rose considered her reflection. “I’ve changed a lot since day one.”
Rei shook her head. “How is that possible? Hypnotism?”
“You could call it that.”
“Would . . . would it work on me?”
Rose shook her head. “I’m sorry, Rei. Like I said, I’m special. The only unit in my series.”
Rei didn’t understand, but she believed Rose.
“I don’t want to change,” Rei said.
Their eyes met in the mirror. “Neither did I.”
Rose removed the blue wig. Underneath was a roughly shaved scalp, a doll’s head a child had taken to with mommy’s scissors. Her hair was once crimson, but shorn it lost all flourish and was now pale, stiff, and reddish brown. Like dried blood, Rei thought.
“It won’t ever grow back,” Rose said, touching her scalp. “I learned that too late.”
The lights changed again, to pale white this time, and some of the dreamy atmosphere evaporated. They were just two girls in a gawdy back room, talking about boys.
“You can’t really forget,” said Rei. “I don’t believe it. You can’t just hit UNDO.”
Rose turned the goggles in her hands. “You know what? You’re right.”
She raised the goggles over her head and smashed them on the tiled floor. The bits skittered to the walls, sparking—the light in the lenses fading, and then dying altogether.
“Come on,” she said, taking Rei’s hand. “If I’m not across the street soon, they might come looking.”
She pulled Rei through the far door, into an alley. The sun was gone and the clouds had passed. The stars were barely visible in the city’s glare, but a few blue dots shined at the zenith.
“I have to run now,” said Rose. “Thank you, again. I think you saved my life.”
“You know where you’re going?” Rei asked.
“Yes.” Rose still held her hand. Her touch gave Rei gooseflesh. “You?”
“I think so,” Rei said.
Rose fixed her wig, turned, and was gone in a flash of ultramarine. Rei followed a moment later. Rose’s pursuers were gathered on the corner outside the Flutter Café. A black corporate town car idled and they climbed inside. The man with the feathery gray hair scanned the street. They would try again. They’d keep coming. But she was safe for now.
It took Rei hours to find his apartment. She’d never been there, but knew the address. It was a shabby complex on the south side, dim windows and dark stoops. She rang the bell, willing herself not to run. Finally he opened the door, and it was too late to change her mind.
“Rei! I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I have to end it.” She’d rehearsed a speech but it left her now. “I’m so sorry. I can’t do both. It’s over. ”
A bug zapper hummed a blue note, mosquitoes flirting with its grate.
“Because of him?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Joe took the toothpick from his lips and smiled. “You sure you know what you’re doing, kiddo?”
Joe shook his head like he didn’t think she did. Then he kissed her forehead. His white hair smelled of camphor and lemon candies. He took off his bifocals, wiped them on his shirt, and put them back on, looking for all the world like a sweet old man.
The bug zapper sparkled, and Rei felt a chill.
“I think I better go.”
Joe picked a fresh toothpick from his shirt pocket. “Disappear, little ghost.”
On the street the air was warming. Spring was here and soon the cherry trees would blossom. Sirens wailed to the east at Hal’s Fish Market. She and Sam had shopped there once. Steam rose from the Yasuki Refinery, by the snack truck where she and Sam had met. She knew every corner of this town, and every inch reminded her of Sam. He kept her tied to the world, and made her feel a part of it.
It was a beautiful night, the city gleaming and music somewhere and Rei ambling, remembering. A street cleaner rumbled by—the same one? Like it was following her. She turned north, hands in pockets, fingers wrapped around the burner. A man in a long coat watched from a doorway. As she passed, a van started its engine and moved into the shadows. She walked in the street for all to see, beneath the bank of streetlights, casting many shadows.
She strolled toward the river and Sam’s apartment. Not a ghost but a girl. A real girl.
Published by arrangement with Scott Treimel NY
This story will be available on January 17 as a free ebook, published by Candlewick Press.
John M. Cusick is the author of “Girl Parts” (Candlewick Press, 2010), and the forthcoming “Cherry Money Baby.” He is also a literary agent with S©ott Treimel NY, and a managing editor and co-founder of Armchair/Shotgun, a Brooklyn-based literary magazine. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2007 where he wrote his first novel on a SmithCorona Electric (now kaput). He lives in Brooklyn.