Original Fiction: Beta-Test Boy

Editorial Note: And now for something (mostly) different. While I’ve had a few published works dotted around the blog, it occurred to me that I’d not posted a story in full. This here is one I wrote a bit over a year ago (in looking back on it, it’s interesting to me to see the positively visible wisps of Working Through Some Stuff). My style’s evolved since then, but I’ve kept a soft spot for this one. And I hope it inspires a bit of the same fondness in you, dear readers. 

A Quick Summary: Michael is an indie game maker who meets a fellow aspiring artist in designer Nolan. The two fall into a business partnership that becomes a romance, though Michael can’t help but find himself uneasy at his the physical changes in his partner or the way she would much he think of her as one of the guys. He becomes fixated on the private sketchbook she spends hours with, wondering if Nolan’s visions for the future will be able to match his own.

He notices her first because she doesn’t want him to. It’s dark, and there’s a pounding in his head and what might be a growing stain on his pants. He scratches at it – definitely a stain, and the question will turn to what it’s made of as soon as the lights stop jittering for more than a minute. His attention wanders back to the girl, something he’s not trying too hard to fight.

She’s not dancing, and there’s something novel about the stillness in the cataclysm of movement all around them. Later on this friends will ask how he knew, how he could’ve spotted the prize under all that illusionist level material, and if he wanted a cut of the bets that’d been traded in exchange for telling them the nasty details.

The truth is that in the dark her specifics aren’t really present. He’s a guy who follows his guts, which is why he’s standing here at all. Two years of working in a hot-as-shit basement, straining his eyes twelve hours a day for love of the medium and knowing that you might never see a boob in that elusive third dimension, but too in love with the art (yeah, yeah, laugh it up assholes) to do anything less.

Like any good dream, it’s hard to remember how he got there. His friends, in one of those moments of solemn agreement that usually postdate a few good hits of something illegal, pushed him into the only jacket that didn’t have patches on the sleeves. And like any good friends, they shot-gunned a few measures of confidence into his gut, where it nestled and spent the the course of the evening blossoming. By the feel of things, the courage settled right over his kidney. But this being a high class party, the kind that could afford strippers but settled for cute waitresses in costumes that double as marketing, there’s not exactly an easy way to ask where to take care of his issue.

So he’s been looking on his own, scanning from dark corner to shaded table, wondering how much they paid those girls to dress like that. His eyes fall at last on the bar, figuring if he’s not up to asking another drink will boost his nerve and preparedness both.

And there she was, not on the corner stool but just to the left of center. She’s talking to the bartender, her slow and considered responses obvious from a thoughtful head tilt between the parting of lips even as the pound of music drowns out her voice. Despite the pitiful reach of the UV lighting he can still see the red where she’s been biting her lip, the time-stuttering blink of long lashes as a stray hair falls across her eyes (all of the light, like the glass bottles of the bar and the moons in her ears) to land on her nose (round at the tip, as if she were pressed against glass he can’t see). He moves, forgetting his initial quest and waving one long arm for the bartender’s attention. The man behind the counter comes to the smell of tips, and he order two beers. His roommate Jack could guess a girl’s drink order in two minutes flat, offered to teach him how once, but with the heat and the rock crushing down on his chest he doesn’t need any more incentive to puke his guts up.

“You look nice.” There might be a more starched compliment, but he hasn’t found it yet. He can’t say that he noticed the way her jacket rides up over the small of her back when she leans forward, and that was how he figured out her skin wasn’t a temporary tan, or that she was the first girl he’d seen within shooting distance of his league. So the awkward compliment hangs between them, strangling itself. The silence is punctuated with the clink of glass on cheap painted plastic. The bartender is staring at him with what he figures is pre-jealousy. That must be, he thinks, how he looks when someone else moves in on the cute girl he’s been eyeing all night. He nudges the other toward her. “Your first time?”

Subtly as he can, he watches her consider the beer. It looks tall and inviting next to the little tribe of whiskey glasses she’d formed around it. From nowhere there’s a sharp downward crease in her lips, and she uncrosses her legs like she’d just noticed how they were sitting. “How did you know?” She suddenly pulls at her jacket, rearranging it back into a flat and formless crease that’s almost in line with the get ups on the hosts, if obviously cheaper. Her voice is deeper than he’d expected.

“Lucky guess.” It’s a common brand, and girls are almost never into the dark beer. He’s surprised he lucked out, though. “I’m pretty new at this too.” Shit, that sounds bad. “Not girls, I mean, I see them all the time.” No, girls don’t like that. They like to feel special. Change the subject, idiot. “I’m with Robot Coding.” The marketing department was working on the name. “What do you do?” The foam in his bottle catches on his lips. He hopes she’s staring, but in the sexy way and not the creeped-out one.

Finally she smiles, just a little, and takes the bottle. Her jacket, tailored like a 30s suit coat and a little too tight, defies its master and curves around her breasts like the lost treasure of Shangri La. “Visual design and 3D modeling.” It cuts to the quick – everyone here has a project in their back pocket, like LA residents have scripts. She takes a drink, looking at something over his shoulder. At his urging she whips out her phone, thumbing through a few renderings with a strangled eagerness she’s obviously been holding in all night. When he says he likes them (they’re brilliant, fantastic, all the words ever invented to fill those dark and lonely eyes), she lets him buy another round and puts a second one down for him herself.

He falls in love with her somewhere between that second beer and the taxi ride where both of them throw up between the back seat and the sidewalk – her from the six shots she had before and him from the smell. It’s tough to argue over who would’ve owed more damages while running like hell but they’re managing. She moves everything when she’s talking, makes long sweeps of her arms like a pro wrestling announcer and giving no quarter on anything. She’s younger than him. He knows it as her feet bounce on the pavement like she might lift off with every new step. 26 years hold him pretty solidly to the ground.

When he holds the door for her she rolls her eyes, but he attributes it more to nausea when her next move is to double over and assault the neighbor’s potted plant. The jacket was lost somewhere around the taxi ride, and under the button-up he can see yet another thick shirt that had to be contributing to the prickles of sweat on her lip. He can still smell the starch on her clothes, while the thinning fabric around his shoulders flashes its cheapness more clearly than ever under the fluorescent light. He bundles her into a low-lying bed surrounded by an ocean of discarded clothes, all of them cleaner in a heap than his wardrobe managed when washed. There are pill bottles and shiny-new pamphlets on the bedside table, but she stirs as he stoops to read them, and he backs away.

After rummaging under the sink he finds a bucket to leave next to her bed, and tries to remember where home is. Two steps across the floor the carpet rises up to cushion his fall. It tries, anyway, but it’s mostly threadbare, trampled, and covered in cigarette burns from previous occupants. Thinking of the contracts that failed to beat down his door despite his best salesmanship, he understands the feeling.

Daylight comes when she nudges him with her foot. He knows it a drunk’s morning – the clock chimes two pm through his aching membranes. But he’s awake enough to smile at her, and say “sorry.” He thinks he remembers her drawings, and that he didn’t throw up on anything. Mostly he’s thinking she looks even prettier with her hair sticking up in the back and a pair of boxers on under that rumpled starch shirt. And he might still be drunk, so it’s hard to tell if his mouth is moving or if he’s blabbering in his own head. She’s looking down at him with something like confusion and annoyance, and she hauls him up on her shoulders (the muscles in her shoulder tighten where they touch, and she’s warm even though the apartment’s probably never seen a heater that worked). She hails a taxi and extracts his address from him, studies him through the window she’d rolled down to let off the stink of morning-after hangover. After a moment’s thought she stuffs the piece of toast from her free hand into his mouth, waving with just the tips of her fingers before they quickly yank themselves back down.

Half of him wonders if he dreamed her, but he’s not good enough to take credit for that.

***

Two days later she finds him. It’s a stroke of unbelievable luck, as the crushing black hole in his head blocked out everything but the scent of her perfume (deep, like pine and aftershave). His roommates, Jack and Nathan, are out drinking from what they claim is a need to drown out his bitching, so there’s no one else to see her and the heavy portfolio under her arm.

“Can I come in?” She asks, already halfway across the threshold.

When he doesn’t answer she hesitates, half stepping back from his life before he remembers to nod. She melts a little, or maybe that’s how he wants her to match his own feelings. She’s wearing another suit. Of two outfits it’s the closest he’s seen her to casual, with a faded blue hoodie over the simple pinstripes. The disconnect between the two makes her seem a traveler in her own skin, transient and stuck.

The apartment is not a good first impression. He’s sure he stinks, and there’s an empty pizza box draped over the back of the stacked-newspaper couch. One hand scratches stubble as he reminds himself not to scratch anything else. That, as they said, was the gentleman’s way. “Want some pizza?’ It isn’t cold, since the refrigerator is on one of its power glitches again, but that just means it’s halfway to the warmth his nonexistent microwave can’t provide.

She’s looking the stacked newspaper-couch over for an opening, the thick portfolio already set reverent as a bible on the dented coffee table. “Got any supreme?” He snorts. As if there were any danger of the (intentionally) green kind disappearing. He loads a plate full, figuring if she’s one of those finicky eaters it’ll be a good excuse to throw the rest away.

They’re both sitting side by side, the mammoth hard drive humming the tune of rendering hard-worked code and pixels as it sits alongside a sleek monitor on the apartment’s one new piece of furniture. The food disappears in silence, and all he can think about is how calm her breath is, and how naturally his falls into line with it. Today she smells like spice and sleep deprivation.

When he doesn’t ask, she says, “It gets cold there during the day.” She laughs. He thinks of ripples in dark lakes of coffee. “I figured you owed me one for trashing the place.” Her eyes flick to the heavy volume and back, and she bites a new redness on her lips. “Took me a while to remember the place.” His cell chirps helpfully on and off from the next room, announcing an eight a.m. alarm that he’d be ignoring any other day.

Between them the heavy volume acts like a chaperone, and both of his eyes draw worshipfully toward the electronic monolith in the center of the room. It’s why he does what he does. “You play?” he asks, and has the sense to look embarrassed at her flat stare.

The little piece of molded plastic fits easy in her hands, with none of the confusion or alternate desperate strut that seemed more natural to girls than – well, than videogames, for sure. He wins the first round, and when he reaches center for more pizza he can see her eyes flashing, moving from his fingers to the screen and back again. When the fight resumes she’s not watching the screen at all, fixated on the four sets of fingers between them. She wins the next two rounds, and the air buzzes with the contentment of a loosed tension. Fighting games were as good a stand in for opening talks as he could think of.

There’s no more pizza, so he lets her win. “You’re pretty good.” A flake from one of the crusts is stuck just above her lip, and his tongue traces the spot on his own face. “Don’t tell my roommate.” In his head, he’s already planned her coming back. “He hates losing to girls.” Nathan never had, and if someone brought it up he wore that expression of disbelief that bordered on pity. Girls just didn’t have it in them to devote that much time to getting as good as he was – this, to him, was inarguable fact. And it didn’t pay to argue to heavily with someone shouldering a third-and-a-half of an unbalanced rent.

Her lips pull too tight at ‘girl,’ the smile too small for the tension behind it. The little flake flutters down to the carpet. “Right.” Her mouth is still straining over a thought. “Hey, could you – never mind.” She pulls down on her shirt, smoothing out the creases that had formed in the heat of competition. The fabric stretches at the neck, and he thinks he catches a glimpse of her bra, though it’s more like a vest than any bra he’s ever seen. It presses her chest down like the secret service in the line of duty, and while he’s wondering what prize there is to hide she hefts the papers like they were nothing and traps them back under her arms.”I’ll see you.”

“Michael.” He supplies, though she didn’t ask. He stands, walking her to the door. It creaks, and he intercepts her hand as it reaches for the knob. “I owe you a rematch.” She brushes past him, but doesn’t say no.

***

For the next two hours he wonders how he pissed her off. Jack comes and goes in that time, looking about as half-dead as Michael feels but making up for it with his lively mouth. The business end of things, Jack had insisted at the start, was his specialty. There was a crumpled degree to that effect on the shelf, if only because there was no major in fraternity pledging (of which he’d tried twelve). He’s wearing those chintzy sunglasses Michael had tried to ditch over the side of the dock last summer, which had floated and stubbornly reflected the sun until they were rescued. Jack talks, and he catches that there’s a deal back in the works. It’s something about residuals and being bent over a barrel. But his roommate’s never worked well without a participating audience, and the room is soon lonely again.

She doesn’t come back for a week. He searches every phone book before he remembers that she never mentioned her name, and then he starts taking long walks around the block hoping he’ll see her. Things are turning away from summer, but the garbage still smells like too many people in clustered together without soap. His phone is quiet of news from Nathan, Jack, or some industry savior for their little game, and there’s not much to do until the beta testing starts. Maybe that’s why he’s thinking about how much he’s sleeping alone. All he ever seems to see are her eyes.

Thursday’s knock on the door catapults him out of his seat with such force it might as well have launched artillery shells. She walks right past his apology for the couch, sets the art book there, and waits. She’s got that look like a bomb, waiting for the time to be less worth it.

“Hey, man, I’m sorry.” Shit, wrong way to phrase things. The apology seems to its work despite itself. Her cheeks go just a little pink, and her mouth wraps around little snatches of his clumsy words. She doesn’t ask before letting herself in.

It’s back to step one again, but so much better than the bridges being burned. Halfway through setting up the heavy console he’d set aside to actually stand a chance of getting work done, she sets a hand on his arm and grins. “Rematch?” He could die a happy man in that moment.

As she kicks off her shoes he notices the socks beneath are mismatched and varying in length. He files it away as another Cute Girl Thing. She notices his eyes, and takes it for a question. “Electricity’s out at my place,” she mutters, then changes gears without a beat when she notices his laptop.  “Is it in beta yet?”

Most of the bar’s drunken conversation is a blur, but he does remember at one point launching into his painfully pre-prepared sales pitch. He’d been talking about the little app to everyone who would listen, from the uninterested staff to the very-nearly-dead who were busy giving their innards to trash cans.

Hesitating, he imagines her laughing and shaking her head. Or worse, there would be the long silence before she declared it ‘interesting.’ When he only coughs and shuffles she smiles, almost fond like there’s something on his face. “I like to see a sample before I work with someone.”

Her hand pats the notebook, and the dangerously thin pages flutter under the touch. Oh. There’s a sinking in the pit of his stomach. This is a professional thing. It shouldn’t matter, in that case, what she thinks. It does anyway. “Sure. But you’ve got to give me a chance to try to remember your name.” He’s good with them actually, from a lifetime of playing puppeteer to a thousand computer avatars.

She’s wearing that look again, calculated and honest. And she does laugh, but it’s soft and low and a little forced, not at all the reaction he’d wanted to his cool-guy posturing. “It’s No-lan.” There’s a hitch between the first and second syllable. She taps him again with those long fingers, studying with an expression both far off and laser-point interested. He remembers how quiet her apartment was, boxes still packed and flecks of rust around the sink.

Nolan? Something you want to tell me?”

“It’s complicated.” He adds squeak to the list of sounds he’s never heard before. It looks like she’s going to say more, but all that emerges is a strangled hmm.

Apologizing would probably make things more awkward, so he tries to brush things aside. “I’ve just never heard that name on a girl before.”  He boots up the files, and his laptop groans to life just in time to sound like disgust. The editing program fills a little window with stars on a moonlit lake, rendered in graphics meant to make it easier for little hand computers. He gets as far as the real starting screen and lets her nudge him over.

While the man onscreen moves through the winter forest, looking for the low hanging first item, he watches her.  Even though their air conditioner broke in protest last week, she’s clinging tight to her hoodie. It’s a freeing constraint, folding and liquidating like camouflage as she twitches her fingers this way and that. Her avatar doesn’t move in a straight line, but presses into the edges of his little world, looking for a breaking point. She passes the goal right by with a chording of keys, and walks infinitely into air with a grin. “You might want to fix that.”

He stares and restarts the game to try for himself, but he can’t follow her. The little man walks into the first puddle of blood, the text box appears, and things continue along their set path. “How’d you do that?”

She shows him again, and a third time. “You just have to know how to see it,” She explains, saying really nothing at all. She settles back into the couch in victory, soaking up his admiration like sunlight. Each revision cracks a few more edges, until it’s almost cozy between them. She learns where the cups are in the cabinets. He learns she hasn’t spoken to her family in three months.

By the fifth session she’s combed out half a dozen bugs – the man walks into the lake, gets stuck on the bird he’s supposed to be helping, and collects an infinite number of threads in the first area. She leans into him to show him how she managed it, and he’s long given up trying to do it himself. Michael just writes a new line of code, and tries to keep the blood in his head. She falls asleep on his shoulder, and it’s a perfect hell. What goes up must inevitably go back, frantically, down.

Once she comes over nursing a headache, complaining about the blank smiles of another studio she’d visited. This one had passed her over a month ago for an artist with half her skills. “Figures,” she’d mutter, and her hands would fidget with her jacket while her shoulders curved in like shells around her chest. She’s grown smaller over the months, her chest becoming less a presence even without the bulky undershirt and a small rounding of pudge appearing over her belly and narrowed hips. He blames the pizza, which is about all they can afford half the time.

They go shopping together once, taking the kind of trip that occurs when natural conversation withers and dies halfway through the day. She tries on pinstripes and clothes in emerald and russet, never weighted with jewels but always cut sharp as diamonds. She asks if she looks handsome, and it’s only when he says no that she says she was joking.

She takes long walks some days. Now and then he follows her, but she always manages to disappear into the winter snow, her dark shape covered by a blanket of white. He’s left behind with something like confusion, and a little anger: that she won’t stay with him, or that she steals his clothes in an absent minded way so removed from sexy it’s hilarious, and that there’s something in her face that dissipates like dust when she sees him looking. All of it filters back to the heavy tome of sketches, and the not-quite-moments when she brings it up only to think better of the idea; and how he hates someone so beautiful having a name like Nolan which, no matter how he tried to bend it, didn’t have the will to dance.  The stupid anger, undeserved but unshakable, spills out of its boundaries. It finds its way into arguments over business and contracts and groceries. So he moves it instead, into what Jack calls his shining white armor (always in exasperation). He thinks he can keep brushing off her insecurity until she recognizes it, and knows she’s just as good as the boys in the industry without having to pretend she is one. She’s shown him models from a tiny drive, finished and pixilated in fine detail. They’re good, he knows it. And she’s still sitting on his couch, no matter how often they argue over stupid stuff.

The sketch book comes up, still, with clockwork regularity, but she only shakes her head. His sister did this too, once upon a time, hiding things behind her back until he could puzzle out the thought pattern she wanted him to follow. It would be so much easier if girls would just say it. When he tells her so she begins that wry smile, then grows somber instead. “Not everything’s that obvious.”

“Only because you’re making it more complicated. I already know you’re good. I’m not gonna hate it.”

Her hair, soft and black and curling just under her eyes, tickles his arm. “I’m not worried about that.” She has never been anything but confident in his eyes, and the jury is out as to whether it’s maddening or irresistable. She’s looking at him upside down, eyes half lidded and floating with thoughts not yet concentrated into ideas.

When he leans down to kiss her he misses, and bumps the side of her nose with his teeth. It cracks the heaviness in the room, and he pulls back to let her break away. His ears are red. A chuckle suppressed turns into an undignified snort, maybe just so she’ll have a reason to be red too. He’s trying so hard to be a gentleman that when she leans forward she misses too, and her nose presses against his lips while her forehead knocks against his cheekbones. They’re both laughing so hard, first little rumbles and then embarrassed commitment, that it’s a third try before they meet each other.

***

She shows him her models. Her hands are rough calloused against his cheek.

They talk about the future, but not for them – it’s always about the intangible digital data that will connect them to thousands. It’s their baby. They fill all their conversations with the work, and all the time between occupying their mouths with equally urgent tasks.

The game sells, the first, though he hardly notices beyond the fact that Nathan stops asking for his share of the rent. Money was always a little beyond the reach of what he could focus on, even when he was single.

With her fingers feathered in his hair, she suggests that they work on something together. He laughs and asks if what they’d been doing wasn’t enough. He’s still thinking about how she looks like the moon in shadow. She took a sharp breath before his hands even brushed her chest, soft but almost flat, and only closed her eyes to avoid her reflection in his. Even naked she always seems to be wearing layers, crossing her arms over her chest or filling her lap with electronics. It’s a shyness that doesn’t gel with the open-legged way she sits, or the broad swing of her gait.

Even though she doesn’t stay over, she’s always there. Her face is lit in the glow of a monitor, and she’s so thin there’s little of her girl-ness about her from the back. But he knows, and he tells her. He calls her Nol, because it’s easy and if he sounds it out just so there’s room for an E just before the L, like a real name. She hmms and twists her mouth every time, looking caught and quiet. There are scars low on her back and under her ribs which she won’t explain, except as a reason for her secrets.  It’s one of those girl things, but he’s learned it’s only worse to ask. So he doesn’t, and it couldn’t have been that important because she doesn’t mention it again as the nickname worms its way in. He doesn’t even have to sleep on the couch.

“I’m going to Colorado in a few months. Don’t schedule anything for the game, okay?” She leaves pamphlets on the kitchen sink now and then, things about what they called ‘nontraditional relationships’ nowadays. If she’s gay, she has a funny way of showing it.

“Yeah.”

“You want to come with me? It’s kind of a big thing. I’m talking to this doctor.”

“Nah, that’s okay. If you’re going I’d better stay here. I’ll call you every night, though.”

“…Sure.”

But he still hasn’t seen the sketchbook.

***

Not once does he stop wishing she’d wear cuter clothes, or at least something less like smoke and mirrors. He even offers to buy her some with the little snowball of funds he’s managed to accumulate (he doesn’t know where Jack sold his soul to get them on the front page of that blog, but he’s more than grateful for the sales). She responds by picking suits for the next conference she drags him to, the lean folder from the night they met under her arm, prepped to show around the booths while a flash drive jitters in her hands.

“Let it go, huh?” She packs both their suit jackets when they travel. “You still love me under the suits, right?”

“Of course I do! Dudes just keep asking why I brought my boyfriend. I don’t want them saying that about you.” He rolls over, expecting them to laugh about it.

“Oh,” is all she says.

The game climbs to ten on the top download chart and sits there for twelve weeks. Nol commissions her art to strangers, and he only knows because she leaves ink trails on his hips (it’s old fashioned pen and paper mysticism, and it charms him), and because the fridge is now and again filled with edible objects he would never buy himself. It’s one more secret, even if only by virtue of his poor attention span. He’s increasingly sure there’s some secret everyone has seen but him. It makes him dig his fingers too hard into her skin, neither of them noticing since the lights are always muddy and low. It’s jealousy with no target, eating away at both of them.

“We should design something together.”

She snorts, adjusting the boxers she liberated from their original master. “I don’t think that’s going to help his case.” They’d started calling the little project “him,” like their bastard child – his ideas already half baked and her work a late addition. Michael’s had the numbers up on the computer screen all day: the game had fallen from the charts, and no one had downloaded it in almost twelve days. A week was already the death knell in the marketplace they’d entered, and no talk of legacy sales would sway him from the point.

After that non-conversation her work pops up in sidelined convention panels, the ones with unmarketable faces or round bodies and ringed with the same little audience on the convention’s island of misfit toys. He doesn’t know why she doesn’t apply to the bigger stages. He hates going to those crowded rooms, and the way her new friends stare when he teases her about the tie and the hair gel. He’d cuddle her close just to show he could, with the decency to feel a twinge of the pathetic around it. “Don’t worry. You just have to get out there. They’ll think this stuff is kick-ass.”

“You’re cute,” she’ll say later. She means stupid, but when she’s touching him like that it’s hard to care.

It’s a long shot, but one that’s slowly eaten and replaced the leg he has to stand on. “Let them see your book.” She’s quiet all the way home, and retreats into an even more silent nonchalance after.

***

A wall goes up. No matter how often they argue she leaves the book sitting on the squat little table, and threatens his roommates with merciless death if anything liquid goes near it. Nathan has twelve theories on the sketchbook. The first being the obvious conclusion that it’s shit, but he slides that one down to conjecture after Michael’s hand is drawn back like a snake and the bruise is starting to form. Two through seven are all various amateur porno scenarios, at least one involving half the population of a lesbian strip bar and two professional lumberjacks. Worst, to Nathan’s mind, the pages will be wet with inky wedding planner dates, all in red and solid as iron bars on Michael’s future. Like most men who were never visited by it, he feared the specter of commitment with a fervor that bordered on religious awe. Michael discounts that one – he’s seen her too often seated before a mirror or a photograph, totally still but for the flick of her wrist. In the mess of paranoia and conjecture, one theory sticks.

“Maybe her other boyfriend’s in there.” It cuts through silence and fog for the first time in a long while, and they sit there in the companionable silence of conspiracy.

She’s beautiful.

She’s too quiet.

She games.

She eats all the fucking pizza.

She’s mysterious.

She’s weird. And probably a dyke.

She’s –

He can’t say she’s his.

***

She weaves, but with charcoal and brush, and even when it’s pixels under her touch they marshal into shape under her precise touch. This is their version of the artist’s planning, long stretches of silence interrupted by staccato facts, the last being a sign that it’s time for his approval. She’s talking now, but he doesn’t know what she says at times like these. It’s sometimes mumbles, sometimes sung, always accompanying a stroke of change. He’s always watching her hands, and the rise and fall of the loose fabric hiding her chest. Today he’s thinking of meaty, calloused hands tearing at it, at her. The music in his headphones goes sour.

“Why haven’t I seen your sketchbook?”

“Artist prerogative.” She doesn’t even stop. “I can’t create if I’m thinking about who’s going to see it right from the start.”

“Yeah, but,” He looks for excuses in their brief history. “We’re working together. You shouldn’t hide that kind of stuff from me.”

A loud scratch cuts the paper she’s been doodling on. “Hiding what?” There’s a scoff, but it’s the nerves he seizes on. “I stopped borrowing your pants.”

“Somebody borrowing yours?” She doesn’t answer. You’re cute, you’re stupid. He presses on. “How can I trust you if you keep secrets? What am I supposed to think?” There’s tension, so much it’s seeping out of him and into the air.

The noises stop. “I’m not doing this.” There’s a blotch of charcoal on her work tank top, the one she’d bought only one of in a coldly confident huff. I don’t leave marks.

“What don’t you want me to see? You’re my girlfriend, for fuck’s sake! How do I know you’re not-”

The sketchbook hits him hard enough to punch what will become blood blisters into his chest. She’s perfect stillness, a frozen tenth of a second looped ad infinitum. “If you finish that sentence, you’ll never see me again.” Her shoes are in her hand, on her feet. She considers the door. “And I’m not your fucking girlfriend, you prick. I keep telling you I’m a guy.”

***

For all the effort it took to achieve it, the book is not so much a holy relic as a collector of dust. He paws through diligently, determined to find something to salve his pride fallout be damned. The pages leave ink spots on his fingertips, little dirtying damnations that he was never the kind to over-think before now. The drawings are nothing like the finished works she’s shown him, the ones with heavy lines and breathless style. These are ugly, unformed, hatched only to be stabbed with frustration or blotted with tears. They are abstract and niggling and mad.

Amateur is what it is, a testament to the evolution of her skills carved out of pain and devotion. He feels uneasy, holding a life in his hands. He makes to shut the tome, sheepish. His guts coil themselves around his baseless anger in shame, looking for anywhere to purge the guilt before it can poison its rightful owner. A page falls out. It is creased with such deliberation as to mark the page in halves, and it threatens to tear as he smoothes it out. The sides of the page are grey and runny where chewed bits of rubber have worked and reworked and then incorporated the indelible smudges into smoky hues of skin.

It’s a portrait (and here the righteous anger returns all in one swoop) of a man, carved from the grey smoke of trial and error. He’s lean and slight but akimbo with shivers of power implied in his limbs (but his dick, Michael notes smugly, is small). He clutches at it hard enough to leave his thumbprint in the corner, about to hold it aloft to a court of no one, when he takes a hard look at the face. The jaw is feathered and fine and strong, and the eyes are looking at him as if they’ve seen this dance before and wept. His world is very small, and that he knows this but not the reason why is enough to send little dark blotches of unease into the corners of his vision. The longer he looks at the drawing the more it seems to be the truth he’s searching for, but the look of empty repose is too open for a casual affair. He makes the acquaintance of a perfect stranger he’s met before, and it tells him that it knows her better than he ever will. In the corner, written in the same blocky lettering as her earliest drawings, is the word ‘Nolan.’

***

It takes her two days to ask. He offered her potato chips when she came back, trembling from cold and anger and the reassurance of being alone in the world.  She hadn’t spoken, and her skin had lain cold against his in the dark. He’d apologized for thinking her unfaithful, the first brick in his little wall. Then he’d waited.

“Where is it?”

Her mistake is in waiting for his guilt to hide itself. “I put it back on the table.” The book indeed looks untouched, the little waves in its pages calmed like the sea.

One is waiting for the other to break, and she’s the less equipped. “Nothing fell out?”

“I didn’t see anything around.” He pauses, all lies he doesn’t know when he learned. “Something I should keep an eye out for?”

If she steps forward now, it will be into a pit neither of them can climb out of. She bites her lip so hard that it bleeds. “Forget it.”

She has to cancel her trip, citing a scheduling conflict with her doctor. He doesn’t let the subject linger, moving on to emptier things.

They bandage over an arrow wound and forget it, with the barbs still inside.

In the end there is a second game, a little thing given away for free and taught to steal from its foster parents in nickels and dimes. Their children toddle modestly, and he grows into code he’s always known how to do but never before excelled at. There is always something more he needs from her, drawn from a bottomless well of excuses to keep her at hand. He buys her red pens, and when he absentmindedly brushes her curls back there’s a flinch that neither can seem to scrub out. On the underside of their haphazard mattress there’s a small slit, unnoticeable in the sea of mess surrounding it. He thinks of the charcoal staining in with every move of his hips, destroying evidence and binding it to him both, and he hates himself so much he can’t stand it. The worry she’ll know seems a little smaller every morning, while the guilt grows ponderous.

When the conventions roll around she doesn’t need the file, the drive, the suits. She still takes the panels in small and crowded rooms, awkwardly placed on the schedule so that even her fans must work hard to fill the little plastic chairs at the last minutes. She smiles in those moments, laughing deep in her throat.

She disappears for days.

Neither of them sleeps much. It’s the schedule, the appearances and readjusting to a metropolitan apartment now that it’s shrunk to the two of them. She won’t wear his ring on her finger, and he jokes that he’s waiting to afford her tastes. Their laundry is filled with troves from secondhand stores even still. Her shirts have grown even baggier, even if they can afford better food than they eat. Tuesdays he meets with Jack and Nathan over poker and drowned regrets, and she’s asleep when he gets home.

The third project, too soon to be respectable and holding all the dreams of an impossible vision, they fight over. Neighbors beat on the walls. Her art is the same, his hands are lazy. There’s too many individual codes to set, and if not it’s just a lazy retread of what they’ve done before. She’s sleeping on the couch, and it’s cold at night. He’s lonely, and she’s sorry.

One night he comes home to find the bedroom turned upside down, and an flight itinerary on the table. The mattress is empty.

When she comes home she shows him a bag filled with empty bottles and creams, pamphlets, and a crumpled handful of receipts.

He asks how long she’s been sick.

She takes off her shirt, and her chest is narrow and shivering and bare as plains. There are bandages that will someday become small scars, twins in placement and size. The shirt, he realizes, she’d been wearing when they met, when it hugged so nicely over her mysteries.

He wonders if this is why they haven’t been having sex, and if it will affect the project.

She holds a smudged piece of paper between forefinger and thumb, tattered at the edges. The smudges have worn themselves away into almost white, into the fibers and long dried sweat, and while he was thinking it contained it stepped out in front of him. It’s staring at him now, wearing a sad smile at his slack jaw. Above the grin, he sees the familiar worry lines (ten years from crow’s feet) have vanished.

“I tried to tell you.” The drawing says.

Six months later he receives a picture in the mail, of a smiling young man in a well tailored suit. The apartment in the background’s even more rundown than the first one, an obvious sign of having to start over at step one.

He’d never seen her look so happy.

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2 comments on “Original Fiction: Beta-Test Boy

  1. vilsal says:

    Very good. I’ve never realized that the amount of masculine behavior allowed to women in Western culture, along with general ignorance of transmen, could result in someone’s behavior and dress being misread this way. I like how that element influences Michael’s initial failure to get what’s going on with Nolan, making it even comic until it starts turning more and more oppressing and deliberate as their relationship continues. Through it all, he remains an understandable (and uncomfortably familiar) figure. Nolan’s dilemma of what to do when it becomes clear the person you love is terrible for you comes through clearly and effectively, despite our POV character only truly seeing him a few times towards the end. I also liked the conceit of likening video game development to transitioning and relationships. I wonder if it would have been possible to have Nolan send Michael his next game along with the photo to complete the idea, or would that have been a little too precious?

    So, that’s what I got out of it. Good stuff.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      Thank you very much for this – it’s a lovely comment, right to the heart. Most of all in hearing that Michael came across as familiar. More than anything I wanted to write a story where a “good” character, a likable one, could still do the kind of cut-to-the-bone damage to someone they loved – maybe even in a way the random bigot on the street can’t (much harder to brush off small or unintentional cruelty from those you love, after all).
      I like the idea of a game, though since Nolan was primarily a designer rather than a coder/scratch builder I think it might’ve been a bit too soon for him (but I love me some circular symbolism, so the idea as an abstract gets the thumbs up).

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