(first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in February 2015)
The day Michael came back to school, I was still wearing long sleeves.
Not because of the bruises. That’s what everyone thought, but the truth was, the bruises had faded weeks before. I didn’t know why I was wearing them myself, until Michael slunk through the front doors, and everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at him.
Once, he would have laughed and strode through them, meeting their eyes and daring them to say something. Instead, he focused on the yellow-speckled white tiles as he walked down the hallway.
My heart lodged in my throat. He had always been so fierce, so vital, with so much life in him that it spilled out around the edges and infected everyone close to him. Now his steps were slow and heavy, and when Nandini stepped ostentatiously away from him, he flinched.
I did that to him.
I took a deep breath, stepped out of the classroom where I had been hiding, and walked across the tiles to meet him.
Aim #1 accomplished: No one was looking at him anymore. Everyone was looking at me.
Everyone but Michael.
He saw me, but wouldn’t look me in the face. His blue eyes flicked to my sleeves, and I waited for him to ask if the bruises were still there.
That was why I had been wearing long sleeves. Waiting for this moment.
His eyes finally met mine, his expression a mute plea, and my heart thudded dully. Somehow, just by walking over, I had hurt him. Again.
Walk away. How many times had Nandini urged me to do just that?
Only this time, I did.
As soon as I slammed the stall door shut, I heard someone else walk into the girls’ bathroom. No question who it was.
“Go away,” I said. I hadn’t started crying yet, but my voice was quivering.
Like it could be anyone else. Nandini had been playing concerned-best-friend to the hilt the past month. And though she eighty percent meant it, I was still really, really sick of hearing it from her.
“Go away,” I said again, with a viciousness Nandini claimed I learned from Michael. She doesn’t know me as well as she thinks.
A pause, and then the bathroom door closed again.
I wondered if Michael blamed me. Probably. Ms. Thompson said he could still feel anger, he just couldn’t act on it. But she didn’t know Michael as well as she thought. Acting on his feelings was the way he felt them.
Nobody knew Michael, not really. Ever since he agreed to get a chip — and people only agreed to chips to avoid jail time — everyone talked about him like he was a monster. Like his mistakes were all he was. Like they had no flaws, nothing ugly deep inside them.
The way they looked at him. As if he was a zoo exhibit. A monster in a cage. The way his head stayed down, as if he had been forced to agree with them.
Oh, Michael. I blame myself too.
Of course, I had to have an extra therapy session that afternoon, to help me deal with him being back. Ms. Thompson, leaning over her desk with her blond hair swinging around her chin, wanted to know how it made me feel.
“It made me feel happy,” I said. I had been behaving for weeks now, playing my part. But just being in the same building as Michael made me defiant. The way he once would have been. “I missed him.”
Result: an extra therapy session the next week. Clearly, that “Feelings Can’t be Wrong Sign” on the office wall was a blatant lie.
I spent the next week scheming to talk to Michael alone. Going to his house was, of course, out of the question — his parents hated me, and I didn’t blame them. School was equally problematic. Nandini stuck to me like lichen, warding off everyone else with protective looks, steering me clear of the more obnoxious girls. As if I couldn’t handle their questions.
More likely, she was afraid of what I would answer.
In the end, Michael found me. The way he always did. I was on my way to extra-cred bio when he stepped into the hall in front of me, gave me the crooked grin I had missed so much, and disappeared into an empty classroom.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I slammed the door behind me and flung myself into his arms. At that moment, it didn’t even occur to me that he might push me away.
He didn’t push me away.
Maybe twenty minutes later, I finally untangled myself from his arms. My lips were puffy, my skin was on fire, and I was so happy. I hadn’t realized how unhappy I was.
“I love you,” Michael said. He was breathing hard, almost desperately, his dark hair a mass of damp tangles. “Anna. I missed you so much. The treatment was awful, but not being able to see you was the worst part of it.”
I burst into tears.
“Don’t.” He grabbed my hand and drew me close. “Don’t cry. It will be all right. We’re together again.”
And we were. Just like that.
I should have known it was inevitable.
Not that it would be easy. My parents would never accept my decision. Just thinking about how they would react made me want to crawl into a hole and hide. They couldn’t know. No one could know.
“How are we going to manage that?” I said. “We go to the same school.”
“We’ll manage,” Michael said, with the easy confidence I remembered. He had never, ever been afraid of a challenge.
And when I was with him, neither was I.
I was hurrying out of the cafeteria — if I ate quickly, I could steal ten minutes with Michael before lunch ended — when someone stepped in front of me. I almost collided with a silver sports jersey.
“Oh, sorry — ” I began.
“No, my fault,” Darryl said quickly. “I, um. I wanted to ask you something.”
I blinked up at him. In retrospect, it was stupid that I had no idea what was coming. Darryl was a jock, not one of my and Michael’s usual crowd, but I had been in a study group with him when Michael was arrested. He had been concerned and sympathetic, just like everyone, and I hadn’t really noticed his existence, just like with everyone.
“The spring dance,” Darryl said, and ran a hand over his short curly hair. It was unusual to see a guy that good-looking get nervous. If his skin was lighter, he definitely would have been blushing. “Would you — do you think you would want to come with me?”
That night, I thought of a dozen good reasons for saying no. It’s too soon. I need to be on my own. I’m going with Nandini, a girls-only sort of pact. Anything.
Instead, I said the worst possible thing. I said, “I can’t do that to Michael.”
Darryl’s jaw tensed, but his voice went gentle. “Anna. You don’t have to be afraid of him anymore.”
I wanted to slap him across the face and fill that patronizing mouth with blood. For a moment, I understood exactly how Michael used to feel.
Still feels, I guess. Though he can’t slap anyone, not anymore.
As if it the only thing between me and Michael was fear. As if Michael’s temper erased his brilliance, and his courage, and his sly sense of humor, and his love for me.
Back when he could hurt me, it was all true. His temper, his need for control, overshadowed everything else. For a long time, his fists mattered more than anything. I proved that when I reported him. It was the hardest thing I ever did, but I did it, because I knew I couldn’t be with someone who was hurting me.
But he couldn’t hurt me anymore, and that changed everything. Why did nobody get that?
“It doesn’t matter how angry he gets,” Darryl said. “The chip removes his ability to engage in violent behavior. He can’t hit you.”
“Thank you, Darryl. I know how it works.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “And weren’t you on the anti-chip side of the debate team? I remember your speech. Human freedom, moral responsibility, blah blah blah. What happened to all that?”
“What happened,” Darryl said tightly, “was that I saw your bruises.”
Like it was my fault he had to let go of his holier-than-thou beliefs.
I stepped back, and his eyes widened. He said, “You don’t have to be afraid of me. Even without a chip, I‘d never hurt you.”
He looked over my shoulder when he said I. I turned around. Michael was leaning against the wall, watching us.
I knew I didn’t have to be afraid, but I couldn’t help it. I was.
I waited for the inevitable consequences. But nothing happened.
Nothing happened for five days. Michael didn’t come over to me, didn’t talk to me, didn’t meet me at any of the places we had been meeting. We weren’t in the same classes anymore — his had all been switched — so I didn’t get to see him at all.
Was that what he was going to do now, when he was mad? Just ignore me?
It was almost worse than the alternative. I didn’t know when the silent treatment was going to end. I didn’t know if it was going to end.
And that scared me worse than waiting for the blow-up used to. At least then, I knew that when it was over, everything would go back to normal.
On the sixth day, I did something I never would have dared do before. I went to Michael and forced the confrontation myself. Told him he was being an idiot, Darryl was only asking, I hadn’t said yes. I loved him and would never cheat on him and he had to trust me.
He was furious, his eyes sparking, but he had to listen to me. There was nothing else he could do.
We had a month together — a blissful, joyous month — before my parents found out. That went about as well as could be expected.
“I’m seventeen,” I shouted, after they had been going at me for an hour. “I’m old enough to know my own feelings and make my own choices. I love him. I need you to trust me.”
“Trust you?” My dad was doing all the talking by now, since my mother was sobbing hysterically. “Do you understand how hard last year was for us? Forget us — for you. We don’t even know everything he did to you. How can you possibly — “
“You’re being irrational.” I was doing my best not to cry, but I was fighting a losing battle. “Michael won’t hurt me ever again. He can’t. If you look at it logically, I’m safer with him than with anyone else in the world.”
“It’s not that simple! He’s a monster — “
“He is not! He had one flaw, and it is fixed. So what’s your problem?”
“He’s not fixed,” my father said. “He’s controlled. Muzzled.”
That did it. I whirled on my heel.
“I just don’t understand,” my mother gasped, through her tears. “I don’t understand, Anna.”
“I know you don’t,” I snapped. “But I’m the one who was hurt, and I forgive him. Why can’t you?”
To be fair: I had to meet Darryl, to get the assignments I missed during the new extra-extra therapy sessions requested my parents.
To be honest: I didn’t have to laugh quite so hard at his imitation of Mr. Purcell, and I definitely didn’t have to brush his arm with my hand when I said thank you.
“You’re testing,” Ms. Thompson said, when I brought it up. “Making sure you’re really safe with Michael, even when you do things that used to lead to his… outbursts.”
By now, the fact that I was back with Michael was public news. But Ms. Thompson, unlike my so-called friends, still had to talk to me.
She didn’t know me that well, though, which was why she was giving me the benefit of the doubt. I knew better. I wasn’t testing. I was goading.
But I didn’t know why. I loved Michael, I didn’t want to upset him… or didn’t I? Maybe I wanted a little bit of revenge. Maybe anyone would, in my position.
That answer made sense, just like Ms. Thompson’s. But it didn’t feel any more true.
Michael was practically crying when he confronted me. He said it proved what he knew all along, that I was a stupid slut who couldn’t be faithful unless I was afraid. His fist clenched and his arm bulged, and I almost backed away, but he was so clearly… helpless. He couldn’t touch me.
I was safe.
I stood my ground, and he was the one who left, storming away with his fists clenched at his sides.
He gave me the silent treatment for a week, this time, but in the end he couldn’t resist me. He never could. And it wasn’t like anyone else would talk to him.
Or me. Nandini’s interactions with me had been reduced to sending me article links (the last one: “Chips: How Safe Are They? Are There Workarounds — and Are Criminals Figuring Them Out?”) Darryl and I still hung out, because we were in almost all the same classes, and he was surprisingly smart for a jock.
A part of me felt guilty for hanging out with him — guilty with a lining of fear. But that was just old habits, and I had to overcome them. Things were different now. I could be with Michael and still have a life. I should be able to have another friend, even a cute guy friend, without feeling like everything would come crashing down on me.
I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Not being with Michael, not hanging out with Darryl. This was what a normal life felt like.
This was the way things were supposed to be.
Then, during one of our fights (about Darryl, they were always about Darryl), Michael grabbed my wrist.
Just for a second, and then he winced and let go. But I didn’t think he could have done that a few weeks ago.
Did chips weaken? Could they weaken if someone was fighting them all the time? They’re not supposed to — they’re supposed to last forever — but even though I never read Nandini’s articles, even though they were all by crackpots, they had planted a seed of doubt.
And I hadn’t deleted them.
I read them until three in the morning, and read the comment, too, which of course was a terrible mistake. A lot of people were convinced the chips could be fought. That the human brain could find ways to work around them, to gradually weaken them by sheer persistence. There was no proof. But there were a lot of anecdotes from random strangers on the internet. People, I reminded myself, who I didn’t know and had no reason to trust.
By the time I clicked the computer shut, I was scared again, and I didn’t like it. I had forgotten how it felt.
The next week, Michael grabbed my wrist and squeezed. Long and hard enough to hurt.
I had also forgotten how it felt to be hurt. There was so much pain. That was obvious — should have been — but everyone had talked to me so much about the other parts of it: the helplessness, the guilt, the loneliness. I had almost started to think the pain was unimportant.
Fear spiked through me, and memory came flooding back: of being hurt, and hurt, and hurt. I didn’t want that. I had never wanted it. What I had wanted, always, was Michael. A Michael who didn’t hurt me.
And now I had that. So why was I doing this? Why was I spending time with Darryl, pushing Michael harder and harder?
I said, in a low whisper, “I won’t talk to him again. I promise.”
Michael let go of my arm and leaned in to kiss me as if nothing had happened.
After he left, I sat for a long time holding my phone. I could call my parents — or Ms. Thompson, or the police — and tell them. The chip had been part of Michael’s plea bargain. It wasn’t an agreement he could back out of. If I told, he would be taken back to the clinic, and the doctors would find out what was wrong. They would implant a new chip, a stronger one, and monitor him more closely afterward. I would be safe with him again.
Why wasn’t I dialing? Was there a part of me that wanted to be hurt?
Was it my fault, the way I used to think it was?
Michael was really sweet the next day. Like he used to be. During lunch, we lay together on the lawn, and talked so long we both forgot to eat. He told me he wasn’t making any college choices until I decided where I was going. My heart turned over and flooded me with hope.
It wasn’t like he had left bruises on my wrist. It wasn’t like he even grabbed that hard. I was overreacting.
“I love you,” he whispered. “I tried to stop loving you, when I was in treatment, and especially after the operation. I tried so hard. Then I saw you, that first day back, and in one second it was all over.”
I floated through the weekend in a haze of happiness.
Darryl cornered me after study hall on Thursday. I tried to squeeze past him, and he grabbed my wrist, exactly where Michael had. I yelped, and he let go instantly.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“Nothing,” I lied. “I’m not trying to avoid you. Michael and I are spending a lot of time together, that’s all. Deciding on colleges.”
He stared down at me, chest heaving, and I waited for his accusation. I hadn’t been fair to him, and I knew it. I wished I had done things differently. But in the end, he was just a random guy, and he’d find someone else to flirt with. Michael was the one who mattered.
“Why?” Darryl said. “Why are you with him? I don’t get it.”
“I love him,” I said. “I never stopped loving him.”
Darryl’s face tightened. He shook his head, and then, finally, turned and walked away.
Not quite fast enough. I caught Michael’s steel-blue eyes across the room, recognized the familiar set of his mouth, the fury building in him.
Ms. Thompson’s office was down the hall. Nandini’s number was the first speed-dial on my phone. My parents’ was the second. I could have called any of them.
I didn’t, even when he started toward me.
I didn’t know why until I saw him coming up my front steps, a bouquet of flowers in his hand. Blue and lavender — my favorite colors — so large the petals almost obscured his face. And then I understood.
My upper arm throbbed beneath my long sleeve, and my stomach felt tight and bruised. It hadn’t been his worst rage, not by a long shot. He had been sufficiently in control to avoid my face. My parents hadn’t noticed the careful way I was moving. Nobody knew anything. Nobody would.
I picked up the phone and dialed.
He was on his tenth knock by the time I got to the door. After only a moment’s hesitation, I opened it. I knew his pattern. There was nothing to be afraid of, not right now.
I took the flowers without speaking. His face was drawn, stark hollows beneath his eyes. He looked at me, then away.
“Anna,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. I don’t — I can’t — I love you so much, and I hate that I — I’m just so, so sorry.”
“I know,” I said.
He looked up, a faint, fearful hope dawning on his face. “Can you forgive me?”
“Yes,” I said.
He smiled at me, radiant, the smile of pure joy that had drawn me to him the first time I saw him. It filled my heart, to know I had caused that joy in him. It eased the fading pain in my arm and back.
But when he stepped forward, I stepped back.
“Anna?” he said, hesitant.
And then he heard the sirens.
He could have run, but he didn’t. He stood there, the brightness draining out of his face, staring at me.
“Why?” he whispered.
Anger came to my aid, at last. “Are you joking?” I yanked up my sleeve. The bruise was purple-yellow, still darkening.
He flinched. “But then — why not yesterday? Why now, when I came to apologize?”
As if his apology should have made everything better.
But I had also thought it would. It was what I had wanted, what I had never gotten, while he was chipped. He hadn’t been able to hurt me anymore, but he also hadn’t been sorry that he had.
This was why I flirted with Darryl. This was why I hadn’t told. It wasn’t that I wanted to be hurt.
I wanted him to be sorry.
I had thought that once he was, we could be together again. I took another step back, hoping I wouldn’t cry.
A new chip, hopefully, would fix him. But it wouldn’t fix us.
“You don’t have to do this,” Michael said.
“I do,” I said. “I have to do exactly this.”
He stared at me blankly. Behind him, a police car pulled onto the curb, red and blue lights flashing.
I went inside, through the kitchen and into the family room. I put the flowers carefully into a crystal vase and filled it halfway with water, and by the time I was done, I had my tears under control. I yanked my sleeve down over my arm and went outside to give my statement.