‘Side Effects May Vary’, Avra Margariti

Art © 2023 Toeken

 [ Everyday © 2023 Toeken ] My friend, neighbor, and colleague will be in need of a cigarette once she stops hovering above our apartment building as a cloud. I place her favorite brand on the low wall by the solar panels. She’ll thank me later, when the effects of the trial pills wear off and she lands back to solid ground.

Today I was given a placebo, and normally I wouldn’t mind since the pay is the same either way. But Joanna makes being a cumulus cloud look so elegant. The psychological effects kicked in a little while ago. I feel all light and fluffy on the inside, although I remain unchanged on the molecular level. I suppose things could be worse. I could have ended up as heavy and resentful as a storm cloud.

I stand in the shadow she casts and take one last, lingering look at Joanna in the sky. Then I bum a few cigarettes and climb down the communal stairwell to my apartment below.

I unlock the door to find my daughter Spark and Joanna’s son Ten tangled up on my couch. Molted shirts and socks form a nearly ceremonial circle around them.

“Ten,” I snap, and take some satisfaction watching him blanch. “Go to the roof and wait for your mother to come down.”

Ten’s skinny teenaged body scrambles away from Spark and back into his clothes.

“I’ll text, yeah?” he says, hip cocked against the door frame.

“Mom! What’d you do that for?” Spark demands once he’s gone. She crosses her arms over her chest.

I get started on dinner: no-brand spaghetti and instant meat powder for the tomato sauce.

“Kick Ten out, you mean? His tattoos were ruining my appetite.”

A snort escapes Spark. Ten’s back tattoo really was a bad choice on his and Joanna’s part. An extinct Bengal tiger, opening and closing its jaws cartoonishly whenever he shrugs his shoulders.

Then, Spark remembers herself and whose side she’s on. “You can’t speak that way about my boyfriend’s ink.”

I stop my clanging rummage through the kitchenware cupboard. Only Ten’s heavy footsteps can be heard pacing the roof above. “Does he know he’s your boyfriend?”

Spark surges to her feet and glares at me, eyes aflame. Her irises are violet, a modification that cost half my monthly cashier’s paycheck from the local supermarket when colored contacts could have done the job just fine. Like Liz Taylor, I said as a way to console myself when I first saw her purple irises. Spark had rolled her eyes. Who?

“What’s wrong with you?” my daughter shouts, and I crash-land back to the present. “Do you enjoy seeing me miserable like you?”

She stalks across the kitchen and slams the door of the single bedroom behind her. So hard, in fact, that plaster rains down like dandruff. I look at the meal I’m preparing, and I don’t feel like eating a single bite. My good mood from the sugary placebo pill, gone. I’m back to worrying about the shitty apartment, the mounting bills, and the teenager who has vowed to forever mistake my concern for callousness.

My thoughts, as always, drift to Joanna. I drop my head onto the kitchen counter and picture her floating up in the smog-veiled sky without a care in the world.

“It’s not like they’re getting married,” Joanna says with a breezy laugh, as she flips through the bright blur of her magazine. The two of us are in the private clinic’s testing room, waiting for the floral injection to kick in. “They’re kids, barely seventeen.”

“Exactly,” I say through gritted teeth. “Kids. Besides, no offense, but we’re already in each other’s pockets 24/7. I don’t want us to be co-mothers-in-law, too.”

I can already tell this is going to be a bad trip. I try to distract myself from the discomfort, reading one of the magazines provided by the nurses who hooked us to IVs and strapped us to these padded chairs. It’s impossible to focus on any of the pictures, let alone the text. The ads are moving. Are they supposed to do that? Spark would know. My veins feel too small for my body, bursting at the already frayed seams. Discomfort teeters on the edge of pain, then plunges right over it. I was given no placebo this time, that’s for sure.

Joanna prattles on. First about the latest Ten and Spark gossip, then about this article in her magazine I just have to read. Something about in-vitro human body parts cultivated in disused dairy farms. It all seems so far away, removed from my reality. I toss my magazine across the room and grab the bowl in my lap just in time to violently vomit into it, a pink sludge dotted with rose petals, torn daisy chains and—are those thorns? I choke. My throat is scraped raw, coated in sickly sweetness and pine sap.

I yell for the nurse to dislodge the tubes from my veins, but Joanna shakes her head at me and makes soft clucking noises with her tongue. “Lydia darling, relax. If you leave now, you aren’t getting a single coin out of this.”

Sometimes I think Joanna is here for the drugs, not the money. Or perhaps it’s the thrill of the unknown that appeals to her. The pharma scientists, on the other hand, want to eliminate any unknown variables so they can sell their pills and injections to alternative psychotherapy centers or rich college kids looking for creative party drugs. But who tests everything beforehand to make sure the products are fun, safe, and relaxing? We do. People like Joanna and I, who need to supplement our income so we don’t end up evicted.

I slam my neck against the headrest and try to breathe despite the floral juice clogging my veins and oozing through my orifices. Chattering nurses come and go, sometimes accompanied by a young doctor, who takes notes of the progress and replaces our IV bags when they’re empty. Apparently even through the ordeal, we need to stay hydrated.

Joanna requests a different magazine and sits back to read serenely. Models catwalk up and down the glossy pages, the motions of their hips hypnotic. She didn’t get a placebo, but the floral medicine seems to agree with her body in a way it definitely doesn’t with mine. It leaves her all calm and lax, a slight smile lifting the corners of her mouth. She looks at the fashion models, and I look at her.

After it’s finally over, a couple of sullen techs escort us to the front desk. We sign yet another confidentiality agreement and fill out a retroactive consent form before we can get our payment—cash, of course. Joanna offers me a ride home in her pick-up truck. It’s a hybrid, though not in design or efficiency; a motley beast of a vehicle made up of several different car parts. She seems sincere enough. Perhaps a bit guilty, too. After all, she’s completely fine, while tremors are still running through my body and my mouth tastes like rose jam and blood.

“No thanks,” I say, flagging down a taxi cab that’s going to cost me tomorrow’s food budget. “You have a hot date tonight. Your words, not mine.”

Joanna waves and winks as the cab drives away with me slumped in the backseat. Her turquoise eyes are painted in perfect detail. I watched her apply at least five different products back at the clinic once it became clear her trip was going to be a good one. I don’t want to think about her and her date, not tonight. It’s true, what I said earlier. Joanna and I live next door, work neighboring cash registers in the supermarket, and do the pharmaceutical trials together. Sometimes we need a break from each other. It’s fine, truly.

When I arrive home, Spark is painting her toenails, propped up against the windowsill. Neon orange polish dries on the curtain. She takes one unimpressed look at me and orders, “Shower, now.”

I do as I’m told, letting the brownish water from the showerhead wash over me. By the time I return to our kitchen-and-living-room combo in my ratty T-shirt and sleep shorts, Spark has finished cooking. Instant soup, but soup nonetheless. She watches me eat with poorly concealed worry in her violet eyes. I have no luck hiding from her the way each swallow hurts my throat. But after a few spoonfuls, I’m beginning to feel marginally more human.

I crawl to the pull-out couch where I usually sleep, and Spark follows without a word. She tucks herself against my side and throws a scratchy blanket over us both. We talk about random, silly things. Or rather she talks, and I listen. Celebrity android singers, body mods, and animals coming back from the brink of extinction. After a moment’s hesitation she tells me about her vigilante social justice group, which, to my surprise, is neither random nor silly.

For the first time in a while, I get the feeling Spark doesn’t actually hate me. So, of course, I open my mouth and ruin everything. “Please promise me you and Ten are being careful. I can’t become a grandmother yet. I’d have to visit the organ harvesting clinic, because pill trials don’t pay enough for baby supplies.”

It’s like Spark can’t climb off the couch fast enough. I’m cold despite the blanket. Bereft.

“Just when I think we’re okay, you go and say shit like this,” Spark says, shaking her head. She punches her arms through the sleeves of a transparent vinyl coat and laces up her knee-high boots. “I’m going out with Ten. Don’t wait up.”

Just like that, she’s gone.

Time passes slowly, afterward. Although I regret bringing up the baby thing, I can’t stop picturing it: a study of human bioluminescence to buy a baby stroller. A test run of mood stabilizers that can knock out a horse to afford diapers and formula. In my fantasy, the test subject is always me, not Spark. Never Spark. I know Ten sometimes participates in trials from shadier districts that don’t ask for an ID. Those are high-paying, but also high risk, jobs. He’s a bad influence on Spark, just like his mother is sometimes a bad influence on me, as far back as when we first moved into neighboring apartments within days of each other, both very pregnant, and very alone.

When it happens, Spark packs a small bag and disappears into the night without a word. I like to think I wouldn’t have been smug about it; I would have comforted her if she’d let me. Perhaps it’s a good thing she left before she could put me to the test and watch me fail her again.

I sink into a plastic chair on my tiny balcony and browse the ads section on my phone, occasionally circling one in red. The activity offers me a fine view of the gray street below, in case Spark decides to come back.

I sense Joanna before I see her. Without looking away from my screen, I ask, “Did you know your son broke my daughter’s heart?”

Her exhaled smoke from the balcony next door clouds my vision. It’s tangy and herbal, but not outright unpleasant. “Yeah? What’d he do this time?”

“Broke up with her, then told her they were never together in the first place.”

Joanna makes a commiserating noise. “Hey, I’ll talk to him.”

“No need.” I don’t want Ten coming back to gaslight and string her along. She should focus on school or, I don’t know, her vigilante group. Even yelling at her mother is better than wasting all her time and energy on some boy who won’t give her the time of day.

Joanna offers me a cigarette over the balustrade separating us, then motions for me to hand over my phone. She circles a few pharma trial ads with a manicured nail and gives my phone back. She’s lucky this week, doing a long-term study from home. The batch of pills is almost ready to ship too, so they want to re-test some side effects, but nothing too serious. The same can’t be said for the ads Joanna has picked for me.

“Hey, no,” I say, tapping on an uneven red circle. “Liliput Pharmaceuticals. No way I’m working for them again.”

 [ Napping in a flower © 2023 Toeken ] Last time I was injected, I became small enough to fit inside a pickle jar. The doctors promised me the meds, in their final form, were going to help people. “Imagine coming home after a long day of work. You could unwind by napping inside a flower or on the back of your favorite pet!” they said.

It swiftly became one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, other than giving birth to Spark at home while I fractured Joanna’s hand from how hard I was holding on. The doctors and nurses of Liliput Pharmaceuticals couldn’t hear me when I screamed through the thick glass. Let me out, let out. Small, unimportant, crushable; it was like everything bad I’ve ever felt about myself had been made manifest. Meanwhile, Joanna got the big pill, which says a lot about us as people, I think. She was a giant walking the hills around town for hours, free from the smog and claustrophobia.

Eventually, we each returned to our regular size. The money was good, but after that I swore I’d be more picky with the trials I signed up for.

“Why not, Lydia? We could do the study together after I’m done with this one,” she says. “I won’t let you go alone, pinky promise.”

I shake my head no again. Joanna makes me stupid sometimes. Her infallible cheer and reckless confidence rub off on me and cause me to agree to quick-money schemes with lingering effects. Then there was that one time I made out with her in the back of her truck after a drug trial. We weren’t nearly high enough to pretend this wasn’t something we’d both been craving for years. I know I still do. But Spark needs stability, not a typhoon like Joanna in her life.

So what if Joanna is always in my mind, on top of all the other spaces I share with her?

I could kick myself when I ask out of the blue, “How did your hot date go?”

Joanna throws her head back and honks a laugh. It’s almost as charming as the softer smile she aims my way afterward. “It was fun, but don’t worry about it. I will always like you best.”

Before I can overcome my shock and say something, anything, she leans down over the balcony railing. “Is that Spark?” Joanna asks. “She’s in a hurry.”

I look too, my heart pinching tight in my chest. It really is Spark. I wave my hands as if to banish the scent of smoke from my clothes, or Joanna’s confession from my mind. Then I go back inside to wait for my daughter. Except her footsteps—wobbly, almost airy, and so unlike her usual stomping of boots—pass our floor and head up to the roof.

“Spark?” I call out as I slide my bare feet into canvas shoes.

The roof access door clicks open, then slams shut. I sprint up the damp-smelling stairwell, careful of the last steep steps, and burst out onto the rooftop. Spark stands in the middle of the grimy expanse of concrete, surrounded by cables and solar panels. She is trembling—from sadness or anger, I think at first. But then her form vibrates and oscillates as if without her consent.

I step nearer her, only to notice she isn’t entirely solid. The sun’s rays pass right through her.

“Spark!” I shout, thrumming with panic. “What did you do?”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” she whispers, her body already dissolving. “I just didn’t want to think for a bit.”

Spark begins to levitate, shifting forms mid-air. I try to grab hold of her, but all I feel is cold vapor against my hands.

There’s someone next to me, holding me back. Joanna, speaking soothingly in my ear. “Don’t do anything stupid, it’s just a pharma trial. We did it too not so long ago, remember? Perfectly safe.”

“The cloud one,” I say, relief spreading thickly through me. “Ten and Spark—have they been doing this together? Did you know and hide it from me?”

Joanna chews her bottom lip. Her expression is distinctly guilty. I bat away her arms around my waist, fuming.

“Look, it’s fine, she’s fine. The study is almost complete, they only wanted to check the duration of the effects on young adults.”

I stare at Joanna in disbelief. I am about to say something that I know I will regret, when the first raindrops hit us. It’s been sunny and dry all day, but Spark’s cloud is bruise-dark against the vapid blue of the sky. A storm cloud, heavy with rain. My daughter’s tears drench me, and in them I taste her heartbreak. Soon, the nebular mass of her starts moving away from the rooftop, out toward the town’s clusters of buildings. It takes me a moment to realize what’s going on through the salty blur of my own tears.

“Um, Lydia, this wasn’t supposed to happen.” Joanna is looking at me like I can absolve her. Mascara streaks her wet cheeks, while her soft-focus eyeshadow gives her the impression of a watercolor painting abandoned in the rain.

“The stabilizing serum.” I curse and kick at the rain-slick cement. Of course. When Joanna and I did the study last month, she was given a serum that ensured she wouldn’t drift away during her temporary transformation into a cloud. Did Spark refuse the serum on purpose? Did the interns in that shabby clinic Ten favors neglect to mention the serum in the first place?

I make a mad dash down six flights of stairs until my feet hit the graffiti-tagged sidewalk below. My gaze scours the sky for my daughter. There she is, my Spark, my Liz Taylor, my storm cloud shot through with barely contained forks of lightning. She’s moving past skyscrapers and billboards, headed for the green of the hills beyond our town. Rain still falls on the dry tarmac, painting it darker with her sorrow.

Joanna has followed me to the street.

I look at her, doubled over and panting by my side, and I sternly say, “Keys, now.”

She straightens and gawks at me. “What?”

“Joanna. I need to borrow your truck, and you can’t say no.”

She fishes the keys out of her pocket and places them in my hand, but she doesn’t let go. Her cool fingers wrap around my wrist, holding on. “They’re kids. You have to let them live their own lives.”

“Exactly,” I say, although my anger is evaporating fast. “She’s my kid. And she needs me.”

I extricate myself from Joanna, not ungently. It’s true that she makes me foolish, but a lot of the time I want nothing more than to be a fool with her. Not this time. She stands on the curb and watches me climb inside her pickup truck. I shove the key in the ignition and sweep her old fast food wrappers away from the dashboard. In the rearview mirror, my friend, neighbor, colleague, and almost lover looks strangely small and fragile. Right now, however, I have to focus on Spark. We can fight, and she can hate me all she wants, but she’s still my top priority.

I clutch the pink-furred steering wheel. The accelerator hits the floor. I drive toward the hills, leaving my cacophonous, steel-gray town behind. I’m not following the dark nimbus cloud that is my daughter so I can gloat and say I told you so.

When the pills wear off and she falls to the ground, I’ll be there to catch her.

First published in Fusion Fragment 8 (2021).

© 2023 Avra Margariti

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