“Flotsam,” by Sarah Diemer
Chris, and her little brother Raz, live in the Broken Streets down by the dock–where the dead bodies of Chematech’s imperfect clones are flushed out. Every day, Chris and Raz pick over the bodies for parts they can sell…until Chris finds a body unlike the others. A girl who’s alive.
(photo by Elena Kalis)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Sarah Diemer
There are dead bodies floating on the water, and I am not picking them up.
“C’moooon, Chris! It’s your turn anyway,” says Raz, sniffing and running the back of his hand under his grubby nose. His eyes are all asky-ask, even though he’s a little rat, because everyone on the dock could tell you that I’ve done it twice the last few days, and that means it’s his turn.
“No,” I tell him, and lean against the pile of boxes as I count the bodies. Eighteen…nineteen. Jesus. They always dump the ones that aren’t “right,” after killing them by “humane injection.” Hah. But nineteen? That’s a lot, even by Chematech standards.
“But the water’s so cold.” I can’t believe he’s even still asking. He’s trying to wear me down is what he’s doing, which is totally not supposed to work, but when I glance sidelong at him, at his tiny little body and the sniffling nose he hasn’t been able to shake for weeks…I finally relent. As he knew I would. Bastard.
“The last time I do more than two in a row, you understand that?” I ask him, squatting in front of him and hooking my fingers into the front of his vest. He nods so quickly, his hat’s in danger of sliding off, and there’s pure relief in his eyes. He’s been pretty sickly since Ma passed on to that awful rubbish heap up in the here-after, and she’d want me to take better care of him, anyway.
This one’s for you, Ma, I grimace and jump off the dock onto the raft.
Okay. So it’s not much of a raft. It’s really just a door tied to an empty barrel that floats better than the door, but it’s what we’ve got, and I’m pretty proud of it myself because I built it while swearing a lot. I use elongated pieces of wood to push off from the dock, and then I’m splish-splashing through the choppy waves, sights set on the first body, the one I’m in most danger of losing, because it’s smaller than the others.
Chematech usually clones people as soldiers for our Blessed Government, may it rot in a pit of shit for all time, and the clones are pretty bulky and jacked up and not-very-human-like anyway. The body I’m aiming for is tiny in comparison, and if it slips beneath the waves, I’ll lose it, and I’m sure it’s got something on it worthwhile, maybe a pair of robotic eyes I can sell to Big Ol’ Alex. I’m hopeful, anyway. Sometimes, after they inject the clones, Chematech recycles parts and there’s nothing left in the bodies worth nothing.
I get as close as the waves allow and detach my hook from its peg on the barrel. I’m about to lunge out, sink it into dead flesh when I start, almost dropping the hook from my hand.
Her eyes just fluttered.
Jesus, Chris, you’re seeing things. I rub at my eyes, stiffen up and aim the hook at an arm again when her eyes flutter. I saw it really that time, the way they shifted, and kind of rolled back in her head.
She turns over in the water, her face underneath.
The water on my arms, on my legs, is freezing, but I can’t just let her drown. “Fuck,” I whisper, and then I’m off the door and into the water, swimming with two broad strokes, and then I’m alongside her, a gigantic dead body bumping into my legs beneath me. Or at least I hope it’s a body.
I’m gonna be sick. But nope, swallow it down. I hook her armpit with one hand and then angle back toward the raft. I scrabble up onto it, pulling her up, rolling her over onto her back on the board.
It’s a girl. A girl like me, but she isn’t, because she’s a clone. There’s the hideous red tattoo on the back of her right palm, Chematech’s logo. But from what I’ve seen, the trash they flush down and into the sea, they’ve never made a clone like her before.
And there’s never been a trash clone that was alive. Not ever.
Her eyelids flutter again, and then she’s on her side, heaving up seawater and splattering my precious raft with a chunky, milk-white substance that flows and flows out of her mouth. I pat her back gingerly, cast back over my shoulder and realize how far we’re out from the dock. The bodies are already being picked at by seabirds, and I can see the telltale dorsal of some bastard shark who’s going to make short work of the rest of them. And possibly me if I’m stupid and stay out much longer. I sigh for a long moment then put my boards back into the water and start to aim for shore.
The girl watches me, eyes wide, taking in a trembling breath and then coughing it out again, but at least she’s stopped puking. She’s beautiful. Perfect. Long, blonde hair and sharp blue eyes and a face that would make a robot turn its head. She’s a clone after all, they probably cloned the prettiest thing they could find, probably put out calls for gorgeous girls to come in and hand their genes over for a Free! Chematech! Facelift! even when they didn’t remotely need it. I’ve seen the posters in the gutter. I know what Chematech offers the pretty girls.
“I’m Chris,” I grunt, heaving on the boards, breathing out. My shoulders are screaming at me, my hands shaking. I’m too cold and too far out but I keep paddling because I’m stubborn. “You’re okay now…” I add, because she’s started shaking a little harder when I spoke.
She continues to say nothing, continues to stare at me. A medium size wave splashes over the side of the door and the barrel bobs dangerously low. I glance behind me, back at the dock and swear under my breath.
“We’re fucked,” I mutter then as the dorsal fin, so content with its meaty provisions, begins to angle toward us. It’s curious. It’s always really bad when they get curious. “Get your leg on the door…your leg…” I repeat, when she looks down at herself, at the leg dangling in the water as if uncomprehending. I pull up the boards, crawl across the door to her and pull up her leg. Her skin beneath my touch is so cold, and she’s shaking so hard. She’s only wearing wisps of white cloth in the shape of a very small dress, really, and I’m surprised they flushed her out with even that. I peel off my sopping coat, drape it around her form grimacing.
“You’ll be okay…” I mutter as the dorsal fin draws a wide circle around our door. I’m lying through my teeth, but what else am I going to say?
I’ve still got my arms around her from draping the coat around her shoulders. She glances up at me, so close that our cold noses brush up against one another. She leans forward then, presses her forehead against mine. It’s such an affectionate gesture I get all stiff for a heartbeat, and then she slides out of my arms, off the door.
Into the water.
“No…” I whisper, scrabbling to the edge of the raft. My coat floats on the surface and I draw it back up and onto the raft, and a sob catches in my throat.
But then her head breaks the water. She glances up at me, shakes it just a little, then she glances back—back at the dorsal fin that’s so much bigger this up close, the dark shadow beneath the water three times as long as my door.
The shark swims lazily up to the girl and pauses. I almost don’t notice the pause. There’s a strange shift of blue light in the water, and the big beast moves forward with a flick of its tail, its great jaws closed as it angles its nose beneath her hand.
Like a dog.
Gingerly, impossibly, the girl pets the shark, hooking her fingers over its dorsal as it turns, as it begins to move back toward the shore.
“He’ll help us,” she says up to me, holding out her other hand toward me. Her voice was a whisper, but I heard it, even over the splashing waves, even over my own thundering heartbeat.
“Please…” is what she whispers then, her eyes wide, beseeching.
I don’t understand. I can’t. But I slip into the water beside her and I put my arms around her waist, and she holds onto the shark, and I hold onto the girl until we get up to the docks, and Raz—open-mouthed—lets down the rope ladder and we both climb up.
The shark turns around and swims back to the floating bodies where it proceeds to rip them to jagged shreds, the water clouding to crimson like ink’s been spilled.
The girl and I sit on the edge of the dock, panting, Raz squatting beside us, doing his best to not sniffle every breath. I think the girl’s impressed him.
“What are you?” he asks then, slurring his words together. She breathes out, glancing up at him, then back down at her hand, at the red tattoo that fairly glows against her skin.
“Flotsam,” she says, glancing up at him. “Trash.” Her words are soft and pretty, but there’s a bite to them, too. I run hands through my hair, my fingers never having stopped shaking.
“We need to get inside…a storm’s coming…” I whisper, glancing out at the sea. Something flickers along the edge of the water and sky.
Something is changing.
The girl is watching me. She leans forward, head cocked to the side and takes my hand, turning it over. She takes Raz’s hand, too, brows up, glancing down at the lines in our palms, the lines in our palms that are so different from the other kids’.
She can’t know. How could she? Ma told only me, and only then when she was dying, coughing and wheezing, whispering under her breath so Raz’s fitful sleep wouldn’t be disturbed: “they say that clones can’t breed, and they’re wrong, baby girl…” she’d whispered. “Everything they tell you about clones is wrong. They’ve got feelings. They’ve got souls. I should know. Promise you won’t say anything…if you say anything, they’ll take you and Raz away, because clones can’t breed, but it’s also illegal for them to. They’d kill you for coming from me…”
The girl holds out her arms to Raz. He looks at me, eyes wide, but I nod, my heart knocking against ribs so loud, it feels like I’m hollow. He sits down in her lap, sniffling, wheezing because he’s gotten the same cough Ma had, and I’m so afraid it’s going to kill him. But she wraps her arms around him, and then there’s this sort of…light.
And Raz takes a deep breath and there’s no wheezing sound at all.
“What are you?” I whisper as Raz scrabbles off her lap, touching his chest, breathing in and out so fast, he’s gonna start hyperventilating. She stands up, hiding the back of her hand under her other arm. She stares down at me, blue eyes too bright, too unseeing, and then they focus here and now. Back to me.
“Flotsam,” she repeats, gazing back out to the sea.
I’m jolted, the sirens so near they make my body vibrate. Her eyes go wide, turning back to me. “They’re coming…” she whispers, and she’s so afraid it makes my teeth ache, her eyes filling with tears so quickly. “They’re going to kill me,” she says, gripping my hands, “if they find me.”
“Then they’re not gonna find you,” I say in an instant. The decision has been made. I take her hand in one of mine, and Raz’s in the other, and we run back along the dock, toward the Broken Streets. The Chematech assholes would never come to the Broken Streets.
In a heartbeat, I wonder why they’re after her. I wonder why they flushed her in the first place if they wanted to retrieve her. Did she just…escape? She runs beside me, feet fast, face determined, and I wonder a lot of things about her. Her hand is so warm in mine, and when she looked at me, when she placed her forehead against mine, her cold nose brushing my face, I…
I duck into an alleyway, pulling Raz and the girl behind me, and then through the alley into one of the countless abandoned buildings. I really like this one because most of the walls are still intact, and you can hide pretty well in here from all the other people who live in the Broken Streets.
We stop, listening, panting, listening.
“They’re on Broad Street,” she says, eyes unfocused. “They’re coming this way.”
“How do you know that?” I manage between breaths. “And how did you…with that shark and with Raz…” It seems the perfectly terrible time and place to be asking this, but I have to, because if they come in here after us, we could die, and—really—we could die at any moment, but the Chematech people usually aren’t after us, and…
She’s watching me, eyes wide in the darkness. She reaches across the space between us, and she takes up my hand again. She squeezes it. I go all warm all over, even though I’m still shaking and dripping, my nose so cold I wonder if I’ll ever feel it again.
“You shouldn’t have helped me,” is what she says, and then she steps forward and she kisses me.
“Ew,” says Raz helpfully as she steps back, and she’s smiling, and I suppose I am, too. “Kissing is gross,” continues Raz, sticking out his tongue. I roll my eyes and pick him up because I hear footsteps outside. I cover his mouth with a hand and the girl stands so close, I can feel her warmth.
My insides are turning over and over like a ball rolling.
She glances at me, one eyebrow up, questioning.
“I can save us. I think…” she breathes into the stillness.
“Okay.” I close my eyes, hold Raz tightly with one hand, reach out and curl my fingers through hers. “Do it.”
Light. Light so bright, it tears apart the dark.
In the beginning, man created clones. Now the clones were formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of their depth, and the Spirit of Man was hovering over their waters.
And man said, “let them be better.” And they were better. Man saw that their evolution was good, and he separated their evolutions and called the lesser one “clones” and the better one “Excellents.”
And things began to change…
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Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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