‘Huddle’, Monica Joyce Evans

Art © 2023 Dr T. Eratopo

 [ Tube bus © 2023 Dr T. Eratopo ] So everybody gets off the tube bus, that’s how it starts.

It’s my fault. I was alone in my seat, and they were together in theirs, the three of them. They’re smaller than me and I think younger than me, at least they look it. I have a hard time telling how young people are. But we all get off the bus, them walking, me rolling, and the nav announces that it’s going to be a while, not to worry, but go ahead and make yourselves as comfortable as you can—even though there’s nothing this far out on the station. The sun is high and hot and there are wheat fields. Waving.

It’s my fault we’ve stopped, and I roll over to tell them this. It occurs to me as I head toward them, heavy and gelatinous, that it might go very poorly. I’m molting, which most people don’t like. Not something I can control, the molting or the people—but I should have remembered, before leaving, that it was a molting day, that everything I was secreting would trigger the failsafe on a tube bus. Station officials told me it was a design flaw, the first time it happened. Not fixable. And my secretions aren’t hazardous. They’re perfectly safe. But they’re not pleasant for anybody.

If there were more of me, I’d protest the station management until they retrained the tube buses. But it’s just me.

Anyway, as I come up to them, I see that they’re huddled together, not unhappy, just annoyed. Three young women, teenagers, I think, with expensive black implants and striped hair, touching fingers to their temples and looking in three different directions, having three low conversations. Telling other people where they are, telling those people to tell other people what’s happened. Rescheduling a dinner, a party, an arrival. One of them makes a gesture that I’m pretty sure is a rude one, and I hope it’s not aimed at me.

I come up to them as the tube bus starts hissing, the beginning of its decontamination sequence. It’s no problem, they tell me, and I say again how sorry I am, how I didn’t think it was a molting day, that I’m usually better at tracking molting days than this. They are very understanding. “Actually, I’m missing my sister’s flute recital,” one of them says, laughing, “so you’re doing me a favor, really.” None of them like flutes.

I wonder, shamefaced, if we need to exchange information of some kind, if they have to report this as an incident or if the tube bus does it automatically. They stare at each other for a minute. Maybe also at me. There’s no need, they say. You didn’t do anything wrong. The bus is stupid, that’s all. And I find myself strangely thankful that none of them has made a joke, or tried to compare molting or secretions to something they do that isn’t really the same thing at all. It’s hard being on station. They seem to know it.

But I have done them harm, in that they have to wait out here in the hot artificial sun by the boring wheat fields for who knows how much time. I start to apologize again, but before I can, something flaps up out of the waving gold. “Is that a crow?” one of them asks, and they all turn and shade their eyes.

I don’t look at the crow. I look at them, young and strong and healthy, thinking about whatever humans think about, and I’m so grateful, for a moment, that they’re not looking at me, with my appendages that don’t fit and my awkwardness and my bulk, all the fleshiness of me that just won’t stop secreting fluid, not today.

But one of them turns back and says to me, “You think that’s a real crow, or a station fake?” Another one gestures, come and see, and I realize that these young people grew up on station, they’ve probably seen more different kinds of people than I have, and it’s shocking but they’re being genuinely nice to me, even though I stopped the tube bus. So I roll up to the wheat fields, still molting, smiling at the shadows, and I resolve to spend these next few minutes, for once, just being one of the girls.

© 2023 Monica Joyce Evans

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