‘Faulty Genes’, Hannah Soyer

Illustrations © 2021 Eric Asaris

 [ DNA spliced, © 2021 Eric Asaris ] Olivia told me once that she thought we had aliens to thank for our faulty genes. Those are her words, not mine. “Faulty,” as if we were houses with broken pipes, unable to be repaired by the father, the mother, the competent children with college degrees, every handyman in town. She figured that years and years ago, someone had been abducted by little green men in a spaceship, experimented on, had their DNA spliced so that the SMN1 gene stopped synthesizing protein, and then sent back down to earth. Dylan, Olivia’s best friend who also happened to be “faulty gene” free and who I was in love with, thought this theory was fantastic.

“I know, I know, Olivia’s an odd one, but you have to admit, it’s a pretty great hypothesis.” He told me this over the phone one night, as I lay in bed with my cat curled into the crook of my arm, the hot screen of my phone pressed to my face. Dylan and I lived three time zones apart, playing fast and furious with the spark we felt when I had visited Olivia a month earlier and been introduced to each other. He never slept—something about chronic insomnia partly caused by his meds. It meant I could fall asleep each night with the low purr of his voice in my ear, and I loved him all the more for this.

At the time I thought the alien theory was charming. Ridiculous, but charming. Olivia and Dylan had more similarities than she and I ever would, despite our common gene sequences. This probably made Dylan uncomfortable.

Of course, this was all before the dreams in which I’d be lying on a table in a circular room, the feeling of cotton pressing down around me, an immaculate scalpel poised in midair above my stomach. There was never any hand wrapped around the scalpel, although dream me never questioned this. Dream me just stared at the metal and waited for it to complete its purpose.

The first time this happened, I awoke in the middle of the night, my stomach lurching. I hated how fear and desire seemed to come hand in hand for me. If I could, I would have clambered out of bed and grabbed a pen and notebook. Instead, I started composing a list in my mind, each word shaped by the burn of acid in the back of my throat:

Tables I’ve Lain On
Table in hospital, as preemie baby
Therapy table in childhood bedroom
Doctor’s office tables (unnumbered)
Do beds count as tables?
Do back seats in cars count as tables?
That picnic table, once, because why not

Dylan didn’t understand the fear elicited by this dream. “No shit?” he said after I told him about the floating scalpel. “I’m going to start calling you Billy Pilgrim.” Slaughterhouse-Five was Dylan’s favorite book. “See you in Dresden,” he was always telling me. I never had the heart to tell him this really didn’t make any sense. I was in love with him, remember?

For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to also tell Olivia.

“Oh my god, Hannah,” she said. “Do you think it has anything to do with the aliens?”

“What aliens exactly are we talking about?” But the words she doesn’t have to be wrong, you know, were making themselves comfortable against my will in my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and pictured an empty black slate, willing the thought to leave. I’d been doing this since the age of 10, when I first started having intrusive thoughts that I couldn’t get rid of. I’d read in a book on mental health for preteen girls that having a physical movement to draw your mind away from negative thoughts could help, such as clapping. I had never been much of a clapper.

“The aliens, Hannah. The SMA Aliens.” Olivia whispered the last part, as if it were some sort of secret that only she and I could be privy to.

“I mean—” I looked out my bedroom window, over the alleyway behind my apartment complex. The ground was covered with a thick layer of snow. In Ireland, where Olivia lived, snow was a novelty that she couldn’t get enough of, despite it making it difficult for her to get around in her chair. “Maybe,” I finally said. “Maybe.”

I was visiting Olivia for a run that she had organized, for MD UK. The people in Belfast seemed different than those I had encountered during my previous week’s adventures in Dublin and Cork. Maybe I was just on edge from being at a charity event, but I could feel a layer of condescension hovering over the crowd. Older women smiling pityingly at me, parents telling their kids not to stare, the man who had to be the same age as Olivia and I shouting into the microphone, hyping Olivia up like she had actually just run a marathon herself.

“What a weirdo,” Dylan said beside me. We had been introduced that morning, and I could already tell he and I were going to get along just fine. “He’s literally talking about Olivia like she’s a martyred saint. She’s not dead, and she’s definitely no saint.” I snorted.

Olivia and I had discussed ableism at length, traded stories of being approached by well-meaning strangers saying they’d pray for us when they saw we couldn’t get into a store because of steps. I knew that like me, she wouldn’t choose to be able to walk if she was given the chance, and rejected any sort of cure narrative as being monumentally fucked up. She did, however, want stronger lungs. I hadn’t yet decided how I felt towards my own lungs. I wasn’t certain if it was possible to embrace one’s body wholly and still wish things were different.

As I watched Olivia from the sidelines that morning, I wanted to know how she could play the part of SMA poster child so convincingly. She was smiling at the man talking into the microphone, laughing as he relayed a story about her determination and grit. I cringed. Was she playing a part? Or was there a part of her that believed it?

The thing about Slaughterhouse-Five and the thing about Dylan is that they were both so obsessed with seeing the world as this unfixable ridiculous thing.

When Olivia and I met up with him later that night at the bar, he ordered me a Guinness and put a straw in the glass for me without a second thought. As he placed the drink on the booth in front of me, he put his hand on my shoulder, where he let it rest for a beat longer than was necessary. There was one, strikingly clear moment where I wondered if he’d done this same thing, once, to Olivia.

“It’s fucked you know,” he leaned down to tell me above the music and chatter of the bar. “That they only have high tables here. Olivia insists on coming, though. I’m just waiting for the time she lets me burn the place down.”

Olivia had warned me before we got to the bar that Dylan could hold his liquor. “Don’t even think about trying to keep up with him,” she had said. There was something uncanny in her ability to read people. “You’ll never actually be able to.”

Reasons to Not Let Yourself Love Dylan
He lives in a different country
He probably drinks too much
He hates his mom

There was a part of me that knew from the beginning that Olivia loved Dylan, and not the love of a best friend, either. It took a certain amount of mentally distancing myself from her in order to be okay with following him home that night. If I drew a clear line between the ways our bodily similarities diverged from one another, if I sawed through the ties that spelled out “SMA siblings,” if I removed myself just enough from the community I had learned to lean on, I could pretend I was not betraying Olivia.

I took Dylan’s house being accessible as a sign from the universe that this was supposed to happen. I didn’t let myself acknowledge that his house was accessible because his younger brother also had SMA. Or, I did, but I told myself that this, also, was a sign.

“You’re so perfect,” Dylan breathed as he positioned himself above me in his bed. Scary, what words can do.

The second time I had the scalpel dream my overnight helper shook me awake. “You good? You were mumbling and seemed pretty upset.”

I swallowed. “Yeah.” I didn’t believe myself.

My helper went back to the couch in the living room. I started making a list.

Ways This Time Felt Different
There was definitely someone in the room with me
The scalpel didn’t just float there, but started to descend
Less a feeling of cotton pressing down around me and more a feeling of pins
A voice, right before I woke up: “What a perfect specimen. She’ll do just fine.”

I had a three-minute voicemail from Dylan in the morning.

“Hannah, Hannah, Hannah. What is happening in Hannah-world, you beautiful creature? Sorry if I seem a little out of it, I just took two of my pills and I am feeling good.”

I heard a deep sigh and a rearranging of something, as if he had turned over in bed.

“I’ve been thinking more about the dream you had, and you know, there’s something to be said about the fact that you were the only living person—well, being—in the room. No one was watching you, no one looking at you through bars, no spectators.”

I started chewing on my lip, in the same spot I always did, worrying away at the tiny, darkened bruise that never had a chance of leaving. Dylan sighed again.

“It’s odd, you know. Not really so Billy Pilgrim-esque after all.”

I chose to ignore the keen observations of my unconscious and typed out What do you mean you just took two of your pills? instead.

Later, as I was returning from the outside, face flushed with cold, a buzz from my coat pocket: Sometimes I take two. Sometimes I take three. Never just one. Not enough colors, then.

Why not take them as prescribed? Little inklings of fear were pushing themselves to the forefront of my mind, but I shoved them back to the corners.

My dear girl, Dylan wrote. Nothing worthwhile has ever come from following the rules.

 [ Teeth barely grazing, © 2021 Eric Asaris ] That night we fought, voices shouting at each other across 4000 miles.

“Why don’t you want to get better?” I finally asked, defeated, hurting, unable to get the image of a full-grown man-cub sitting in the bathtub with a bottle of Jameson out of my mind, as he had described he was doing at the start of the phone call.

You don’t want to get better,” he said.

“That’s not the same! You’re hurting yourself!”

Perfect, you’re absolutely perfect. I was back in Dylan’s bed, his mouth on my shoulder, teeth barely grazing my skin.

“I am? Aren’t you? What’s so different between my illness and yours?” I could picture the eyeroll, the smirk, the Hannah’s so desperately naive written across his face. He couldn’t know about the careful lines I had drawn separating who he is from who I am––or could he? “You just don’t want to admit it because it would turn your whole worldview on its head.”

There was something about Dylan that scared me, and then there was something about him that made me want to denounce all that I knew to be true and offer my body up to him as a form of sacrifice. I still don’t know if these two things were different.

The scalpel was no longer solitary after this—there was now a hand wrapped around it each night, something that looked too human for my comfort. The voice was still there as well, although I could never tell if it was coming from the body that was (surely) attached to the hand, or from somewhere else in that nightmarish room.

Things the Voice Said
“We can do wonders with her”
“Do all female humans look like that?”
“Why doesn’t she scream? Why don’t you scream?”
“Must be faulty genes. We can fix that.”

Sometimes I wondered if the alien dreams were just a way for my unconscious to make sense of the otherness I felt every time I found myself surrounded by visibly able-bodied people. The perfect metaphor, the most carefully constructed allegory: Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack fucking in a cage at the zoo on Tralfamadore as a symbol of Billy’s surrender of free will after the bombing in Dresden. Billy Pilgrim listening to the bird that says “Poo-tee-weet?” outside his hospital window as a symbol of the complete lack of intelligent responses to trauma. Billy Pilgrim’s gravestone reading Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt as a symbol of Billy’s dissociation with reality.

It was as if Dylan was living inside my head whenever I started thinking this: Vonnegut would be proud.

And then the night came when I woke up and still saw the scalpel in front of me. On my skin, the feeling of teeth.

© 2021 Hannah Soyer

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News