‘Millie’, Anna Caro

Illustrations © 2012 Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein

 [ Projection, © 2012 Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein ] When my father died, I inherited my coffin.

My parents would be horrified to hear me refer to it as such; more so to know I had been doing so jokingly since my mid-twenties. It doesn’t even look like a coffin; it’s a cedar chest that had been my maternal grandmother’s, with carved feet and an inlay of what looks like mahogany. But I’ve always known what it was.

Though my driverless car has changed my life at home, it’s still technically illegal to drive without having passed the test in a regular car, and I don’t want to risk getting stopped this far away. I flew here, but I don’t know how I’d start explaining the contents of my coffin to the airline. So after we finish cleaning out the house where we grew up, Cal drives me the two days home with it strapped to the back seat of the car.

Neither of us mention the coffin the whole way.

I first found out about it the year the fires came. The bush behind us, where Cal and I played when he could be bothered carrying my support unit strapped to his back, and when our parents let him, crackled red and orange. We could taste the burnt air. The emergency call rained down on us from the helicopter; stay and defend or leave now. We were already loading up the car—or they were; I was sitting, simultaneously scared and excited, in the back seat. Cal and our parents carried down clothes and valuables and the cedar chest which they somehow managed to squeeze in.

“You’d have to be fucking mad,” Dad said, as the words stay and defend echoed through the air, but our neighbour was already hosing down the wall of his house, and dad yelled him words of good luck as he sped the car away.

Our house was saved, if with a smell that lingered for years, but the northern tip of town was completely gone. Those days changed things in other ways. I asked what was in the box.

My parents gave each other confused, concerned, terrified looks. They held a whole conversation with their eyes—do we tell her is she ready maybe not yet she has a right to know. They reached a conclusion. Cal was sent out with ice cream money.

“Sweetie,” my father began, perched on the motel room chair. “You know that in most ways you’re just like other girls. You’re pretty and clever and we love you very much.”

Something was happening. I could sense it in the air, like the crackling fire we had left behind.

“But you understand that some things are different?”

“Because of Millie?” I asked.

“Yes, because of Millie. Because… because of how you can’t pick things up or touch things.”

“When Callum was a baby,” my mother said. “We kept some things so we could remember what he was like when he was little. We kept a bit of his hair and the first tooth he lost… Well, once you weren’t like you are now. Once you had a body like Callum does… not one that looked like Callum, one that looked like you… and well when you got Millie, we kept…”.

I bolted. I made a beeline for the door and… I couldn’t open it. Of course I couldn’t fucking open it. I couldn’t do what a normal kid could have done. I couldn’t stumble past the motel units to the unfamiliar streets of an unfamiliar town. They wouldn’t drive round for hours as I got colder and tireder until our eventual reunion. I was stuck.

Mum had her arms round me and I just wanted her to let go, to let go. Powerlessness surged. I needed them to get away from me, for me to get away from them. They couldn’t tell me things like this when I had no choice but to stay in that room. The world was collapsing.

We sleep overnight night at a distant cousin’s house. I laughing—only not quite laughing—persuade Cal to take the spare room. It isn’t like I’ll feel discomfort on the sofa. Their uneasiness is obvious as they fed us lasagna. I’ve learned to laugh it off, ask them to put just a little on the plate so I can smell it, and not to worry, but it feels like I’ve been telling people that every day of my life, and I’m tired of it. I want to be home, home with Beth—and believe it or not, work—and the familiar streets where Millie and I had adapted to every crack, every unevenness of the footpath.

I dream of childhood that night, which could be a reaction to dad’s death, four years after mum’s, rather than the box we carry in the car, but is linked all the same. I dream of the perfect little girl I became, with the long blonde hair I could wear loose and flowing without it getting caught in paint pots or door hinges, how I never got a rash or chocolate smears on my face, how sometimes my parents would let me become a princess, and with a few buttons my hair would glitter pink and gold, and a long flowing dress with ribbons and tassels and pearls would appear.

Did it matter that I couldn’t hold, couldn’t touch? Of course it did. Did it bother me I couldn’t go anywhere without someone—someone my parents trusted—to carry Millie? Absolutely. Was I unhappy? I don’t think so. The things I wanted to do and couldn’t were matched, in my mind at least, by those I could that others couldn’t. Even when things became more problematic, it was a simple matter of ability, or lack thereof. I understood that there were things I couldn’t do, and I became frustrated by that fact, but I had no sense that it ran deeper than that, no sense of anything being off with my identity in any way.

But it is not those frustrations I dream of; but of a world where I could be anyone, anything.

I chose this apartment partly for the small kitchen. You can’t get anywhere without one—legal restrictions on landlords or something, and it’s not like it does me any harm, but on principle I didn’t see why I should pay for something I wasn’t going to use. And whilst it has been pointed out to me that I could technically live in a railway station locker, I appreciate space and decoration and possessions every bit as much as anyone else.

For the first three years I was here, it sat empty. Lovers learned that there would be nothing to eat or means to prepare it, and stopped for kebabs or fish and chips between work and my apartment. That changed when I met Beth. Slowly, carefully, but with a sense of persistence, items began to appear. A glass—and she ran the water for half an hour before drinking, because god knows how long it had been sitting in the tank. Then an electric jug, mug, box of tea. A tin of biscuits. Coffee and plunger.

Had I at any point screamed get that shit out of my kitchen, I’m sure she’d have obliged. But I was fascinated. This wasn’t an act of exclusion, not a taunting of normalisation. This was change, merging, compromise.

She’s cooked and is waiting for us. By now the kitchen has grown to functional. Not like hers with lemon zesters and bottling equipment and countless sizes of spoons, but the sort you might find in a student flat—enough to cook meals, if only of a basic sort.

So she serves Cal chicken risotto, and puts a little out for me, and we talk and laugh and for now I don’t think about the fact that my body’s in the boot of Cal’s car, and at some point in this evening Cal and Beth are going to have to walk outside and carry it up in the lift and it’s going to be here, with us and Millie and my furniture and photographs.

My first real crush was on a boy. A good thing too, because I’m not sure I could have dealt with any more turmoil at that point in my life. There were others, of course, on girls too, in retrospect, but this was the first one with real strength, the first I really felt, that really shook me. The first that made me realise something was wrong.

His name was Yusuf. He was a year older, but in my class for maths because I’d been pushed ahead. He’d work with me when so many—particularly the boys—were angry at having this girl a year younger than them who could easily outshine them, much less one who—they said—didn’t even really exist. I’m not sure whether it would make things better or worse if they knew I was only so good with maths and computers because there were so many things I couldn’t spend my time on.

That was when I began to realise something was missing.

It took me almost two years to act on it. I had started insisting on seeing the doctor alone a few months before, so it wasn’t new that my mother brought Millie inside and then left to get a coffee. He talked to me about how my projection is moving, did some cognitive tests. He asked if I have anything I want to ask. Usually the answer is no.

Shyly: “We’ve been learning about… bodies in school. Sex ed.”

He frowned. I continued.

“The bodies in the pictures aren’t like mine. Can my body be like that. I am thirteen now.”

“You do know the age of consent is sixteen,” he says.

I looked down. “Yes.” Embarrassment was pushing up inside me.

“You’re still a child. Come back when you’re older and we’ll look at making you an adult. Believe me, it’s better this way.”

I left, burning, hoping he wouldn’t tell my parents.

Beth stays the night, as she does at least three a week. Sleeping in a bed—actually lying beneath the covers—is something I rarely did before Beth. Now I do it every night, even when I’m on my own. It’s a little dubious, even now with all the improvements in projection technology I still sometimes cut across and between the covers, and if Beth were to look she would often find that parts of me were not there.

It doesn’t seem to freak her out.

I survey the room before using the infrared capabilities I added to Millie to shut the lights off. I try to shut off all thoughts of my parents, of my old home, to ground myself in the present and ignore the little girl with twisted limbs and no tone in her neck, whose parents decided she would be better off as a brain and a projection, a girl with no body and with the perfect body.

I look round. There’s a collection of ceramic snails on the dresser. A painting I bought at a co-workers’ daughters’ exhibition. A mirror. The drawers are full of Beth’s clothes.

Come to bed, Beth says, and I do. I perhaps can’t feel her skin as warm, but I know it is.

Maths was abstract. I enjoyed and was good at it, but the only practical purpose was to prove myself.

What it formed the foundation for, hacking, was the opposite.

I only got my genitals four months before my sixteenth birthday. But those four months were everything to me; the first real control I had over my body.

By my mid twenties, with a post-graduate degree behind me and a software engineering job, I realised there had to be an alternative to relying on a series of care assistants when I could afford them, friends when I couldn’t, to assist my every movement. Millie gained wheels and a motor, the ability to move according to messages I sent. For the first time in my life I walked somewhere alone.

It wasn’t that I was ashamed of Millie. But one too many encounters with a curious dog, child—or, worse, adult who should have known better, began to terrify me. My whole consciousness was in that projection unit—if she was badly damaged, I died. If she was stolen, I was kidnapped. Only the law didn’t see it that way, and most people didn’t either. It was time to make her a bit less like a mechanical animal who ran along behind me. A bit less cute. With help from friends, I encased her in a suitcase with wheels and with a bit of practice learned to hold my arm back to give the appearance of dragging her. With a technician on call, automatic doors and other modifications to the apartment, and an occasional cleaner to stop the buildup of dust, I had more independence than anyone could have thought possible.

It’s now or never. It takes about an hour of brain-commanding Millie’s movements—which are, after all, amateur built and mostly designed for walking along footpaths—to flip open the lid of the chest with the suitcase handle. I look away, then force myself to look back.

They paid for high quality preservation techniques, and she looks almost alive. A toddler with dark blond hair. You can’t even really tell there was anything different about her—her limbs have been manipulated to lie perfectly straight. She could just be sleeping.

Can I say, with all honesty, whether I’d be better with that body? No. I’ve tallied up the columns in my head before, the way they do when you’re deciding whether to get a job or stay in school, whether to buy a car or save for a house deposit. But they’re not easy points of comparison; how do you rate being able to touch and hold objects versus the mobility Millie brings me? What is the comparison between feeling constant pain and never knowing this feeling that drives so much of what other people do?

I don’t know which choice I’d make, but I want that choice back.

And in some ways I’m almost glad that my parents are gone, because there will never be the temptation to ask them if they were really thinking about the pain I would be in, or the fact my body scared them. To ask if, even subconsciously, there was a hint of revulsion at my limbs and my neck. To ask if this was not about me at all really, but because they’d pictured a little girl before I was born, who could run and jump and catch and that was what they wanted, even if they couldn’t touch her.

 [ Cremation, © 2012 Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein ] When cedar burns, it cracks and pops, even explodes, risking igniting everything in its path. So Beth half carries, half drags, the coffin down the narrow path to this small, isolated bay north-east of the city to the still damp sand. When we get the fire going, it burns hot and crackles against the ripple of the waves.

This isn’t a perfect solution, because we live in a world where people make imperfect decisions for imperfect reasons. But it is my decision, and this is what I need to do.

Beth leans closer to me. There’s space for her.

© 2012 Anna Caro

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