“...in the end, that’s the challenge,” Helen finished her address. “We live in difficult times, so I think we should finally stop expecting easy answers.”
She passed the microphone, and waited for the round of polite applause to sound out before passing the microphone to the older woman seated to her left.
“Thank you Helen for sharing this with us,” she said, standing up. “And to continue from where you finished, I have to give you all the difficult answer: we have no time for questions before they lock us out. Thank you so much for attending, and hopefully we will see each other next time.”
The audience clapped again, and started to duly disperse. In a few moments, the hall was empty but for Helen and her fellow speakers. Thankfully, the crowd did not leave too much of a mess, so cleaning up was a matter of unplugging the projector and folding all the chairs back down.
“Need a lift home, Helen?” the older woman asked as they moved to close the hall down for the night. “I’m by car tonight.”
“Sure, Bea. Thank you,” she replied, smiling back. “I really appreciate it, actually.”
“Quite a lot of people tonight,” Bea observed, passing the keys to the night porter. The cool, evening air enveloped them as they stepped out into the street. The atmosphere suited Bea quite excellently, Helen noticed. In the shimmering city lights, her sharp features had something of a noir feel to them. Along with her massive coat, she looked a bit like a PI on a case, if noir PI were ever allowed to be women.
“Mhm,” Helen nodded along, stepping next to her, hands in her pockets. “I think it went well, too.”
The parking lot where Bea left her banged-up Toyota was two blocks away, so they spent a few minutes just walking. This part of the city was going to sleep early. The stores and cafes closed all around, and even the streets emptied out. In the setting night quiet, Helen could hear indistinct music carry from somewhere far away. Concert spaces in that park down the street? Maybe. She couldn’t tell.
“You keep hitting very lofty notes in your talks,” Bea observed as they neared the lot. She stopped, and spent a moment looking through her pockets for the keys. “It has its charms, don’t get me wrong,” she added, finally dragging them out. Helen smiled against herself at the sight of the key-chain attached: a stylized labrys, easily large enough to actually hurt if used to hit someone. “But sometimes, it feels like you get carried away by the need to sound important.”
She accepted the criticism quietly, waiting for Bea to open the car. The inside smelled vaguely of air-fresheners and intensely of nicotine smoke.
“I get it,” she continued to speak, starting the engine. “You’re young, full of fire, you want to change the world. It’s admirable, really. But you have put some measure to it. If you start sounding too idealistic, you will get everyone to nod along and no one to do anything.”
The toyota whirred to life reluctantly, engine coughing and sputtering. Helen allowed herself to sink into the chair and the tensions of the day to slowly mute down. She liked public speaking well enough, but Bea’s audience wasn’t easy to please. There was always the threat of someone standing up and trashing you on the spot for failing to live up to the community expectations. It hadn’t happened in a while, and never to Helen, but she had seen it first-hand, and it was never a pleasant sight.
“It’s like with that piece you wrote, actually,” Bea said after a moment, steering the car out of the lot and into the street. “Solid criticism, and I actually feel for your loss. But instead of asking what to make out of what your friend did… by the way, who was she? Anyone I know?”
“She was at the meetings once or twice, but never introduced herself,” Helen replied, staring out of the window and the blur of the city. “Shy woman. Honestly, I don’t even want to think about it anymore”
Shy, and afraid of Bea’s brand of feminism. It was not that the older woman was trans-exclusionary, she just had very stern expectations of women, cis and trans alike. And a reputation to match.
“All the worse then,” Bea said. “Where do you want me to drop you?”
“Prince Bridge. I live five minutes from there.”
“Put it on the GPS, then,” the older woman commanded, indicating the panel on the dash-board. Helen leaned and started to fiddle with the display, trying to set the address in. Her first attempt had it navigate to Princeton, through Vienna.
“Anyway, where was I?” Bea glanced at the navigation, then promptly disregarded it’s suggestion, causing it to protest and plead for her to turn back.
“Right. You just ended it on this wistful ‘may she be returned to me’ note. I know that loss hurts, but you need to keep yourself focused on questions, not wishes. And there are questions there, you know that, ones that are difficult. And, as you said so eloquently today, they demand difficult answers.”
Helen nodded along. It was not that she wanted to ignore or tune out Bea, but she had learned through the years of their friendship that arguing with her wouldn’t get her anywhere. The opinions Bea had were like the woman herself. Usually smart, forceful and long since set in her ways.
Her phone buzzed, giving her an excuse not to answer. She unlocked the screen, looked at the notification and felt her stomach plummet.
“Oh, shit,” she uttered, hurriedly opening her email.
“What is it?” Bea’s tone hardened to what she had always thought was supportive. “Has something happened?”
“Galatea Corporation just emailed me,” she whispered, staring at the screen. “It’s about Ro… my friend.”
Feeling her fingers shake, she opened the message and started to read. With each line, she felt her anxiety sublimate by degrees into raw anger.
“Are they suing you?” she heard Bea ask.
She raised her hand and finished the message. Slowly, she turned the phone off and slid it into her pocket.
“The absolute,” she spat, “fuckers.”
The rest of the drive, Bea’s concerned silence, the short walk home: they all blurred together into an indistinct haze of furious indignation. She stormed into her apartment, kicked her shoes down, marched into the bathroom and gave herself a shower as scalding as she could only stand, scrubbed herself until it felt like she was shredding her skin, then wrapped herself in a fresh blanket and sat at the edge of the bed, waiting to dry. She tried a few breathing exercises, but all they managed to do was to turn the roaring bonfire of anger in her stomach into something colder and meaner.
She put on some clothes and went into the kitchen. She found the kettle, put it on and spent the time it took the water to boil staring at some indistinct point outside her window. She rinsed a cup, threw two bags of green tea inside, waited for the water to cool down a bit, poured it, then looked out of the window some more as it brewed. After a moment, she turned away, grabbed the broom and gave the floor a few sweeps, gathering loose crumbs and motes of dust into a pile, then ushering them into a duster, then into a garbage bin.
The phone burned a hole in her pocket. Holding it out as if it could bite her, she brought it, and opened her inbox again. The email was still there, right on top: Concerning Rowan.
Feeling rage clamp down her gut, she considered just deleting it without having to ever look at it again. Hell, just tossing the phone out of the window would also work. But she shouldn’t. She opened it.
Dear Miss Hu,
It is not in my nature to contact the press directly, and so I apologize if I break protocol or act against some epistolary rule…
“Just fuck off,” she wheezed, tossed the phone at the table. She opened and closed her fists a few times, trying to be mindful of her body and her emotions.
She sank her fingers into the cup, scalding them, but at least managing to fish the tea-bags out. In getting them to the garbage bin, she managed to get tea to drip all over the white-tiled floor. For a moment, she stared hatefully at the yellow stains. She ripped a piece of a paper towel, then another, then two more, then an entire handful. She wiped the floor, squeezing the large ball of damp paper until she could feel her hands press again the tiles, then shoved it into the garbage. It took her about half a minute to realize what she had just done. Seething, she puniched the lid of the bin open and fished out the disgusting mess of paper before squeezing it into the waste paper bag, with enough force to split it at the bottom. Old tissues, shopping bags and an odd piece of junk mail cascaded to the floor. Helen’s first reaction was to stop herself from kicking the pile.
Carefully, she gathered the waste into a new bag, then tied it up. For the third time today, she glanced into the garbage, but she had emptied it the day before. There was no need to throw it out again. Anxiously, she glanced around, looking for something to do. Maybe scrub the sink? She tried to open a cupboard where she kept the detergents; in her haste she almost ripped the door off its hinges.
“Stop,” she groaned to herself, staring at the row of colourful bottles inside, “you are being stupid.”
Carefully this time she closed it, found a grabbed the tea-cup and leaving the phone behind, went to her desk. She flipped the lid of the laptop open and waited for the old machine to boot up, trying to not get too frustrated at how long the email client took to load.
Once more, she tried a breathing exercise. A few measured inhales, a few measured exhales - she wasn’t sure if it helped any. For the third time, she opened the message.
Dear Miss Hu,
It is not in my nature to contact the press directly, and so I apologize if I break protocol or act against some epistolary rule. I understand that by the virtue of representing a corporation, I will be taken by you to be duplicitous, but please believe that the intention behind my writing is genuine.
It is with heavy heart that I read your piece Mourning a Friend on gorgonslaugh.com.
When she’d read it for the first time, she expected a cease and desist to follow, or an actual notification of a libel suit being prepared. Not… what followed.
Your opinion of our work and methods is, of course, warranted. I would prefer for you to see us in a different light, but I also understand how tall of an ask that is. And so, I am not here to convince you, at least not directly. What hurt me is your pain, and your loss. It is obvious that you care for Rowan Edelinsky a lot.
“How dare,” she mouthed, in a cold, measured fury. “How dare they?”
Still, she read on. That wasn’t even the worst part.
You have said you are concerned for what happens to her once she is my care. It is understandable, given the secrecy that surrounds the Galatea process. However, we should never forget that our fears exaggerate the harm and diminish the joy. Two years is a long time to stay in separation, and in anxious expectation of your friend being returned to you, unrecognizable.
There were words that Helen wanted to shout back at whoever wrote that message. They were not her friends. They did not care. They were an exploitative corporation that had enslaved her friend. She wanted nothing from them, least of all empathy.
Thus, the Galatea Corporation would like to extend you an offer. Please, treat it as a gesture of good will, a token of our commitment to values which are close to you as well.
She forced out a grim, nasty laugh. She shared nothing with them, and the very idea was as much preposterous as it was offensive.
Included in this message is a link which will allow you to download an application for your computer and your phone. This application will then allow you to watch and review footage of everything that is happening to Rowan as she stays in a Galatea facility. The footage will be unedited, broadcasted live and archived with the possibility of a local download. The application will also contain several additional features to make your observation of Rowan as detailed as can be managed. There will be no strings attached. The material given to you will be yours to do with as only you think is suitable. If you choose to publicize it, in portions or in full, what it depicts, the Galatea Corporation will not intervene to stop you.
Helen thought of putting high-fidelity videos of her friend being used online and spreading them through the media. The very idea made her feel ill to the core. They knew that. They knew how she would react. They had to.
Perhaps by following Rowan’s oncoming service, you will come to understand that the Galatea Corporation is not an antagonist in your struggle. This is the hope, and it is because of this hope that this offer is extended. Of course, it is likewise understandable that it is not material you wish to ever see. Perhaps your task is, as you have yourself indicated in the text, to mourn, and to mourn is bury and forget.
She imagined just how much fun the person writing this must have had, how much pleasure it must have brought them to mock and blackmail like that.
Thus, the link will expire in 24 hours from you opening the message. If you choose to let that happen, it will be taken to be a rejection of this offer, a rejection which will be respected. There will be no further attempts made to convince you.
Until that time, I will be available to answer your questions, should you have any. I would like to conclude this missive by reiterating that I speak in the name of the company, but also out of genuine concern and sympathy.
And, there it was, below, a small hyperlink. A line of pale blue text which appeared to Helen as a kind of a bomb just waiting to explode.
She stared at the message for a few minutes, fingers drumming at the side of the computer, then at the table. The bile building up in the back of her throat threatened to spew out.
“You absolute fucking bastards,” she whispered. “You heartless, exploitative, sadistic assholes. You…”
She reached for the cup of tea, now tepid, and quaffed most of it. There was a bottle of wine in the cabinet, but she really did not want to drink to this thing. Not alone. Slowly and soberly, she traced the spite to where it sprang from, and swore again.
Beneath the swirl of rage rocking her there was something else, and as she watched in muted fury the Galatea Corporation taunt her, she found a name for it. Guilt.
Perhaps your task, as you have yourself indicated in the text, is to mourn.
What Rowan made her feel, when they met, was powerlessness. She could not change her friend’s mind, try as she might. There was nothing more she could have done to help. And, as callous as the thought seemed, it meant that she had to move on. There was no point in reliving her failure every day, in imagining Rowan’s body abused and exploited in increasingly grotesque ways until the corporation spat what remained of her friend back into the world. That was no way to live. As Bea once put it, “life is a bitch, and sometimes you have to stop caring for others or die,”. She’d never liked that lesson very much. Neither did Bea. But it didn’t stop it from being true. She had to give up on Rowan. Because, as she convinced herself, there was nothing else left to do.
What she really wanted to do now was to grab her phone, message Hank that she was going out, and ask him if he was game. He was always game, especially when it came to booze and drugs, and she could spend the next twenty four hours knocking herself out, so that by the time she crawled back home, the link would have expired and the burden would be removed from her shoulders. But to want that was cowardice, and it only made her feel more guilty.
“How could they,” she sputtered, tearing herself up and starting to pace the room again. “Who gave them the right?”
Another wave of hot fury washed over her. For a short while, all she wanted was for this entire thing to go away and leave her be. Her life was difficult enough without being played with by a pornographic conglomerate.
“Bastards,” she hissed.
As rage withdrew, exhaustion claimed her. Why was she feeling like that? Why was she reacting? It was just… just something she wanted gone?
Slowly, she sat down in the middle of the floor, legs crossed. She’d always found those exercises infuriating, but right now she needed them. Her focus moved to breathing: in and out. She allowed the air to fill her, and then slowly leave.
“Questions,” she murmured. “Not wishes.”
Why had she reacted the way she did? Didn’t she want to know? In fact, she wanted to know so badly that she had tried to bury a friend just to kill that desire.
She put a hand over her stomach, feeling it rise and collapse. Again, and again, and again. She had reasons to be angry. Even if - and that seemed preposterous to believe - the person who wrote that email was sincere, they were also manipulating her. She had every right to breathe fire, if only because of that. But that did not remove the question.
She wanted to know. So why did the opportunity to learn enrage her so?
What would taking the Galatea offer entail? What would it feel like, watching Rowan go through her servitude? Watching Rowan be used? The mental image alone felt slimy and sleazy. Disgusting. It meant participating in what was going to happen to her.
That was why she was furious, she realized. Because what they offered revolted her. But the alternative was to bury a friend. They’d set the fork for her. But, at the end of the day, she wanted to know. She wanted to understand.
“We should stop expecting easy answers,” she repeated to herself.
Helen thought of Rowan, and tried to visualize not what was happening to her right now, but the moment of her return. Would she be able to face her then and say that she did not want to know what was going on with her? When they were parting, she’d asked if she was going to be able to visit her.
So there was her answer. If she wanted to be able to recognize Rowan when she returned, she should not - could not - allow herself to look away.
Carefully, she stood up, and sat at the computer again. She opened the mail, then brought the message back up.
Has she consented? she typed, then hit reply.
She didn’t have to wait a full five minutes for a response. Whoever that “Aphrodite” was had to be camping her inbox.
She agreed to be recorded, and displayed. It is a part of her contract.
Helen expected as much. Still, there was one more question she had to ask, before committing. Even if she already knew what her decision was going to be.
Will she know I’m watching?
She went to the bathroom after sending that, splashed her face with water, gave herself a long look in the mirror. The day had left her more than a bit haggard. The response was there when she returned.
Would you want her to?
Helen did not respond further. She took a deep breath, and clicked the link.
“...in the end, that’s the challenge,” Helen finished her address. “We live in difficult times, so I think we should finally stop expecting easy answers.”