By Alison McBain
“Call me when you hit bottom,” she said, laughing. Her laughter was big screen sexy, like a rom-com on drugs. But I had no time to stop her or even to say anything before she took her last step, right off the edge of the roof and into the open air.
No—reverse that. Zip backwards in exaggerated movements of flashing lips, blinking eyes, limbs flailing through the universe—time flowing backwards in CG. We’ve watched too many movies not to mistake it. We’ve seen the process.
Stop. Press play: meeting, scene one.
A blacklit club, the anonymity of strangers in a sardine can. She flirted, I bought her a drink. A drink turned into a dance, a dance turned into a kiss, the kiss became the cover of a private table. She had one hand under my skirt, the other tangled in my long, brown hair. What she was doing to me—fireworks would fade under comparison.
Afterwards, before I’d gotten my breath back, she stood up with one hand on her hip and a cold light of calculation in her eyes. Oh, God, I thought, taken in by a fucking pro. I fumbled with my glittery purse, not sure what to offer her, but she turned away.
Over her shoulder, she tossed back, “Save it. I don’t want your money.”
My face burned as I watched her fuck-me heels tapping away across the floor. Too late to ask for her number. The lights flashed and the crowd swallowed her up.
Add a week to the countdown, but remove the public setting. Déjà vu in private. A knock on my apartment door, and my surprise when it was her. I asked her a dumb question, easily forgotten, but she was smart enough to ignore it. Without a word, she pushed me back into the bedroom.
Should’ve asked for answers then. But frankly, after time between the sheets with her, I didn’t care how she found me.
It wasn’t until I woke up alone that I thought of the questions. Once again, too late.
The third time I saw her, she was walking past me on a crowded street. I don’t think she saw me until I grabbed her arm, and I got looks from other women around us that were a combination of outrage and envy as I held onto her. Her eyes traveled down to my hand, and the look wasn’t friendly.
“I won’t stop you again,” I said. “Who are you?”
“Nobody,” she replied, then twisted her grip, ninja-style. My hand was suddenly empty and hurting, and she was walking right by me, and gone.
When the phone chimed in my lab later that week, I didn’t bother to raise my face from my work tablet. “Yes?” I said in a bored tone, voice-activating the screen.
“You’re behind,” Dad said.
I tapped my work tablet, still without bothering to glance up. “So sue me.”
“I can’t squeeze water from a rock.” He grunted, as if sitting down. “Come on, Hallie. Stop fucking around. Look at me.”
I looked up. There was my dad’s face on the wallscreen, just beginning to jowl. Emily, his fifth wife, was an amateur French cook, and my dad liked to eat. A match made in cholesterol heaven.In the past year alone, he must have put on two stone. What with his heart problems and moral resistance to exercise, it wasn’t looking good for him seeing the next decade.
But I ignored his weight gain, as I did the nasty comments Emily always sent my way when no one else was around. She’d always had it in for me good. Lately she’d slacked off, which worried me. I knew she was planning something particularly insane if she didn’t bother with potshots, so I tried to stay under the radar as much as possible.
“Look, you don’t even make the minimum payments. I know your little project is important to you, but I can’t lend you more money. You know how supportive Emily has always been of you, and even she says…”
I toyed with a piece of paper on my desk as he ranted.
“…maybe it’s time to give this crusade up,” I heard him winding down. His usual spiel. “There’s still a place for you at the company, if you want it.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
Trapped in his soul-sucking corporate culture, where “environmental protection” was the dirtiest phrase imaginable? No thank you, sir. But I wasn’t going to say that to my bankroll. Little did he know, but in spawning me, his short-sighted production empire became doomed as soon as I was old enough to see the damage it was causing. I wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps, or there would be no more footsteps for the next generation to follow.
“Okay, Hallie. Have it your way.”
My dad signed off without saying goodbye, but it was an understatement to say he wasn’t known for his talent with goodbyes. When I was fourteen, he’d sent me to break the news to his third wife that he was leaving. He’d handed me a note and gave me a push towards the pool, where she was soaking up the cancer rays, oblivious. “Better to do it in person,” he’d told me before heading out the door for his usual Saturday round of golf.
Of course, he couldn’t be bothered to be that person.
Without my dad’s say-so, government funding wouldn’t be forthcoming for my project. And now he had cut me off. There weren’t many options left to me now.
Only one. I picked up a slip of paper I’d been playing with while talking to Dad. On it was a phone number, nothing else. No name, but I knew who it was for. I’d gone through a lot of trouble to get it.
I glanced out the window. Cars flashed by, all of them unique, sleek and modern, and all of them faceless and destructive. We’d come full circle, from gas-guzzling SUVs to electric cars, and now the trend was turning back again to useless, environmentally-destructive consumption. I felt a burn in my throat at the lack I saw, the same burn that I felt whenever I thought about the rest of my life spent working for my dad in his goddamn BS empire that couldn’t see beyond quarterly earnings.
The cost was too high if I failed. I couldn’t rely on someone else doing it—I had to step up and do my part to make sure we stopped destroying everything within our power.
Time to make that call.
Once the dirty money was in my account, I didn’t dick around. I unplugged all devices except the ones I needed. Instead of wasting money on an apartment, I gave up my lease and slept on the couch in the office.
I had a year. A year before I had to pay up or I’d start losing body parts I quite enjoyed using.
The materials weren’t cheap—I had to manufacture several of them myself. I used up most of the money on that alone, and ate ramen noodles every night to compensate. But when the final tests came back green eight months later, I experienced that warm glow I hadn’t had since grade school—the glow of success.
I’d done it. I had created something unique. Sustainable. Beautiful.
Basking in that glow, I heard the outside door open behind me.
At first, the sound didn’t register. It was a commonplace noise—the beep of the lock release, the swish as the door swung inwards. At the time, I didn’t remember I had locked the door, and that no one had a keycard except for me. Heck, the only part of the sound that got me out of my blissful daze was the even tap, tap, tapping across the floor.
Here she came in those fuck-me heels. She was wearing a black trench coat with nothing underneath—a bit of a cliché. Even I can admit that in hindsight.
After some quality time together, I fell asleep on the couch. When I woke up, I was alone.
And the prototype I had worked so hard for, that the future was depending on—and for which I’d bartered my soul—was gone.
She must’ve known I was an easy mark from a mile away.
After I tossed the lab and yelled every cuss combo I knew—twice—I ran my fingers through my hair. Had a competitor somehow gotten word of what I was working on and sent the woman to sniff around…?
But that didn’t make sense. Only a handful of people knew what I was up to, or would even see my work as a serious threat to their profitability. I had never talked to my Houdini lover about it. Sitting on the couch, I gripped my head in both hands, squeezing punishingly. I had to think. My notes were missing too, so while I could recreate the prototype given enough time, I couldn’t do it in the four months I had left of the twelve my shark had loaned me.
I called my dad. “Sorry, sweetie,” he said mournfully out of his shiny, round face when I asked for help. “No can do. Emily says that I need to let you sink or swim on your own.”
All at once, I wondered about Emily’s recent hands-off approach with me. Maybe she was smarter than the rest of his bimbos had been—helping my dad self-destruct in a completely innocuous way. After all, if he had a heart attack, she’d get everything. Especially now, with me putting myself out of the picture so elegantly with my “crusade,” as Dad called it. What if she had sent a spy to sniff around me, to be her untraceable hands-on?
After shuddering at the thought that sprang to mind—I didn’t want Emily’s hands anywhere near where the fuck-me-heels woman had put hers—inspiration struck. Emily wanted hands-on? I could give her that. I called my dad and said, “What about a visit?”
The old man’s face lit up. “We’d love to have you! When?”
I glanced around my trashed and empty lab, then back at the screen. “How about now?”
I had enough money for a plane ticket, but my old man was more than happy to book one for me. He didn’t actually meet me at the airport—that would be too much—but he did send his personal driver, which was nearly the same thing.
“So Smitty,” I said. “How’s it hanging?”
“My name is Thompson, miss,” the man said with icy aplomb in his starched-shirt British accent.
I stared out the window without saying anything else. Of course I knew his name. He’d been driving my dad for as long as I was alive. Of course, he’d been missing a sense of humor for just as long.
Emily was waiting for me in the foyer. “Darling!” she said, zooming in for an air kiss.
She was three years younger than me.
“Darling!” I said mockingly, seeing her already frozen expression turn even icier as I avoided her lips. “So, evil stepmother, where the hell is it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She stiffened and stepped back.
My grin took her aback. “You need more Botox. I can still read your expression, and it says guilty as hell. Not to mention that the passwords on your account…” I held up my tablet to show her. “Silly woman, don’t you know not to use your birthday?” and pointed to the enlarged text of her latest email, sent to an anonymous account. For Emily’s easy viewing pleasure, I had highlighted my name and also her order to “destroy” me.
She growled and stalked off, but I knew at that moment I’d won.
When my dad appeared a moment later from another wing of the house, I asked, “Pops, how does it feel to be married to a thief?”
After a quick search of Emily’s office, my dad’s private security hauled off his wife. She wasn’t talking yet, but the electronic trail of her activities was pretty damning. Thankfully after the story came out, my dad decided to cover my debts—for a price.
Yep, you guessed it—my slavery to his company. All’s well that ends well, right?
Except it didn’t end there.
That night, I woke up to feel a weight on top of me. There was enough light coming through the window to see her.
“What are you—”
She covered my mouth with her palm. With the other hand, she beckoned for me to follow, creeping off me and backing towards the door.
I trailed her up to the attic and out the window. To the edge of the roof.
She’d stashed the prototype behind a chimney, along with a bulging bag. She handed me the bag and swung the machine onto her back. With one smooth motion, she strapped the buckles closed and pressed the buttons in a complicated array that I knew by heart. She must have solar-charged it during the day, since the engine hummed immediately to full life. Its quiet purr was like the sounds of contentment she made when I put my mouth on her. I glanced in the bag in my hand, only to see familiar handwriting glaring back at me in accusation. My notes on the prototype. All of them.
“Who are you working for?” I asked.
“Nobody.” She smiled at me, but I could see that the game was over. Her eyes were no longer cold and aloof, like at our first meeting. They had become a summer night. “Not anymore, thanks to you.”
“Thanks to me?”
“Your stepmother, Emily, was blackmailing me.”
She laughed, but didn’t answer. Somehow, I didn’t expect her to.
“Call me when you hit bottom,” she said teasingly, and leapt off the edge of the roof and into the sky.
I watched her zoom up, up, up through the air. The lines of her body were sleek and round, the perfect silhouette of woman and machine in harmony. They were completely indistinguishable from each other, flying free and unrestrained against the full whiteness of the moon. This was the future I had imagined.
And, at that moment, I didn’t know which of them I loved more.