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by Feech
Feech -- all rights reserved

This is for some friends of mine; they know who they are.

The bar is almost empty.

That may seem strange, on a night in December when the businesses all seem to be hosting early holiday parties, but the bar is almost empty because the party has moved upstairs. Here, it is dark, and the three of us can sense the music and light from above. There is a DJ, and it is late enough that everyone is through with thoughts of eating and much more interested in dancing and laughing. The building shakes, as all buildings do during such goings-on, but you only notice if you're not part of the majority rhythm yourself.

The piano is not part of this particular festive moment, except in the same way that I and the one other occupant of the main room are; it receives vibrations from above and, I believe, perceives the jostling and milling and alternate laughing and conversing that drop down off the balcony edge. I believe so, and I believe there are three of us, because I am not a very obvious presence in and of myself and one night I witnessed an interaction that I am not certain I was meant to witness. It was no more than a short conversation, natural and most likely frequently replayed, but I get the feeling Tim has a preference for remaining the piano alone, only Jack and Donnie knowing for sure.

I shrug a little in my own form, registering the indoor heat and compensating for it as I have come to do almost without thought. I'm not very noticeable, no. But maybe Tim noticed me, as I think he must somehow understand Jack when he speaks to him, or know that the party has moved upstairs and that he did his part, as always, during regular hours. There's something to be said for being a mechanical object, I suppose. Even a seemingly low-tech one like a piano. There's the intricacy that blends with your life, your own belief that you are alive, but you can play all night and all day, be played all night and all day, day after day, and no one need ever know and you need never feel taken advantage of, because it doesn't hurt you.

Or maybe it does. Even pianos wear out, sometime. Sometime, I suppose they do. But it's better to be used in a way you were meant to be used, even if you are what you are because of SCABS. Tim has a part in so many lives. So many, whether they know it or not.

Besides myself, the wooden floor with its various groupings of chairs, tables, species-specific traction for safe passage, perches and seats, the long dark bar, the dimmed lights and blacked out corners, and the piano, there is a man. He sits in a curve-backed Norm chair and squints at the empty table before him.

From where I sit, watching silently with a perception as close as I can create to human eyesight, he is backlit by falling light from the friendly party above. He has very short, strawberry-blond hair and a big, solid build, and he rocks so very slightly on the stationary chair that I have to know what to look for to see that he is doing so.

Andy, Andy Hildebrandt, is the nephew of one of my coworkers. She takes him everywhere that she goes outside of his usual adult daycare hours. Andy doesn't respond to much. He would just as soon be downstairs, staring reproachfully at a table, as up with his aunt in the group. At least, it seems to everyone that he would rather be here. He came near to hurting someone at the last gathering, and they had hardly said a word to him, and certainly hadn't touched him. I think he's just frustrated.

Frustrated. Just frustrated, oh is that all, we can live with that. I brush the bar with an approximated hand, as though I hold a drink and am swirling it in its glass, but of course I hold no drink. I have incorporated one iced cappuccino into my being this evening, and even that is a bit hard to hold. I just had to have something, to celebrate. It is almost Christmas.

Andy furrows his brow and seems to stop his slight rocking as for just an instant he leans further forward, almost forcefully, as if demanding something of someone, but there is no one before him except a polished tabletop. The pause over, he shakes his head, as if hearing something promising and then dismissing it as his own imagination, and resumes his rocking and tight-lipped expression. He is trying, trying constantly. I think it is when they interrupt him, break up his train of ever lost thought, that he lashes out. In that one moment, one instant when someone interrupted him, he might have had the answer, the breakthrough, the beginning of the string that he could pull to bring it all back. So he is desperately angry, and at his size, just a little dangerous.

The DJ announcing something enthusiastically over the footfalls and chatter upstairs takes nothing from Andy's concentration. I don't really shift my perception, either. I mainly have it leveled at the bar, and my two silent companions.

Tim, of course, is never completely silent when there are any other beings moving about in the building. The vibrations work on his hammers and strings just the slightest bit, so that life about him makes him harbor a sort of continual thrum. But that wouldn't differentiate him from any human-manufactured upright piano. I wouldn't have known except for the fact that I was here, almost in this exact spot on the end of the bar nearest the door, when the other customers had cleared out one night and Jack deMule began casually speaking to "Tim". I didn't have any idea who Tim was, wondered idly whether Jack was talking to himself, when the piano answered with a few random, lightly self-played notes. It surprised me, and later on my surprise gave me something to think about. It's funny the things we don't expect, even when we've been there, seen it, been it; some things just don't cross our minds. Maybe that's why Jack assumed I wasn't in the bar. What you don't see isn't there, and I have no scent other than that of water. With Tim, it's what you do see that is so conventional that it doesn't ever change; it's something from Before, something you know, so you never look to see if it has changed.

Maybe that's why Tim does it. Stays quiet, I mean. Besides the obvious fact that Jack does most of the playing, which might be some sort of clue as to Tim's own confidence along those lines, maybe he understands everyone else's need for him to be a constant. Something about the bar that doesn't have to be part of the New, part of the SCABS. Just a piano.

There is Andy, just a man. A Norm. He is also a piece of the "normalcy" a lot of us expect to see, and don't question because we are grateful for its presence (and maybe take it for granted). But it doesn't take as much looking, with him, to discern that the Martian Flu left its mark on another. His behavior might be taken for that of any school of variously disturbed human beings, but his aunt will tell you differently: the Martian Flu took away his memory.

Not all of it, you understand, and that's the frustrating part. Andy stares tightly at the table, lips pressed, eyes narrowed, forehead creased, willing the recognition of anything that crosses his mind to spark something, bring it back. Because he knows he lost his memory. He knows from the scarce moments when his aunt or someone else finds, miraculously, some tiny piece of it that shears through the fog and means something to him for one short instant.

But his collection of moments doesn't mean anything as a whole. Not yet, and probably not ever. But the painfully tempting pieces of recognition and certainty that there was a whole left behind, one that could be grasped if only the order were correct and the pieces presented when he was looking, make it seem so achingly possible. So he must never stop looking, listening, and interruption could mean the loss of the greatest clue to his existence yet.

Andy is not upstairs because he is afraid that the nearest piece of himself, the nearest bit of self from Before Martian Flu, might get jarred out of his immediate reach and the potential he feels for understanding would be ripped up and have to be begun again. Who knows how many times he has restarted this process, or how many clues that come through in flashes to his awareness have upset the puzzle he thought he was properly piecing together. I don't blame him. Let them have their fun, up there, stopping each other with taps on the shoulder and smiling small talk. If one piece of it felt right, just one, it might make it more than worth it, but in the next shoulder-tap, the next smile, it could all be lost. It goes by too fast. Andy hasn't caught up yet to the days before he got sick, let alone the whole story. So, I might not understand. But I know a bit of why he is rocking on a stationary chair, here on the ground floor.

Tim is down here because he probably couldn't get up the stairs without a good deal of risk to the bearers, not to mention to the convention of his form, the expectation. If Tim joined the party, which he was keeping in good swing under a player's fingers a couple of hours ago, the disruption might not be worth it to him, either, in his own perceptions. He might rather they not know. He might figure they would rather not know.

I shrug, and lift my hands to my "face", again as if holding a drink, but I pause like that for just a moment and then fall to tracing invisible patterns atop the woodgrain again.

I am not upstairs because I am afraid of melting. Here, and most of the time in a small group, I can maintain a temperature safe for myself as I interact. The thought of upstairs, the crowd and the heat and the constant shifting of the party's members behind, beside and in front of me makes me shiver, and I make the tiniest of ice-crackling sounds as I do so.

I am barely visible on this barstool near the door, since in the darkness I appear as black, except for the periodic shimmers of crystal moving across my form in a sort of constant, self-creating march. I don't want to be jostled against, for then I could easily break, but more than that, the tips of snapped-off ice person could be melted onto the floor, and then... before I could collect myself again... they could be gone.

I am afraid of evaporation. I do not pretend to know why and how we inanimorphs set the limits we do for ourselves, but I am almost certain that we do set our own limits, and mine has stopped at the idea of dispersing into the air, maybe peoples' lungs, maybe beyond. I could travel so many places, as a vapor. I know I could. But I can't get beyond it. I am afraid of the puddles seeping away and then being carried off into the air and my soul never knowing how to find them, refreeze them, put them back together.

As me. An odd thought, I know, since this humanoid-looking, crystal-rippling black-white fragile form is nothing I would have called "me" before the Flu. Why didn't my soul just decide to leave, as I so fear it would if the particles were lifted into air? If my soul can recognize the pieces of what I have chosen to reside within, collect them and make them solid again, when they are in puddles, why am I sure with a certainty built of near-panic that it could not do it with a vapor? I do not know. I do not know why we decide what we do, but I wonder if it doesn't have to do, again, with what we are used to.

I had human vision, a human body. I may well be limiting myself to what a human's eyes could sight as part of a crystalline body. The puddles, even teardrop sized, of bits broken off in even a gentle, accidental shove, are visible to the naked human eye. So they are still me. I really think I would die if I evaporated. I would no longer be part of a human's "normal" perceptions.

So, I don't know. But that may be some of it.

If I die, perhaps I should say when I die, even though I don't know whether I will ever evaporate, my soul will have to find some other place to occupy. Can it occupy itself alone and still be called a life? Or is that something that we only have when we're still ice, or piano, or man? I have something, now. SCABS took away my human body, but at least it gave me this. With Andy, there doesn't seem to be any trade. It just moved things around in his brain until he couldn't find them anymore. I wonder about those who die of the Flu, with their bodies intact. Or those who die at all. Of anything. They got forced out, somehow, or decided to leave. Somehow, they departed.

I wouldn't have thought that it necessarily went on, or went anywhere, the person, that is, except that when I melt I am something else entirely and then I regrow in spears of thin crystal and am the thing I was. And, through it all, I remember, I am. I am. But what to do with this information. I may die, evaporate, any moment, and then it might come in handy to know I have a self that exists outside of it, even if it is a scary thing to die.

Tim, on the other hand, is not so fragile a thing. There are those who are far more robust than he is, inanimorph wise, and even he seems bound to live a long time, barring fire or something worse. There are inanimorphs I know who are deeply, passionately envious of the dead. At least, they say, they can die. At least. But I know I can die, because I believe I can die. I fear my death. In fearing, I anticipate. Those who do not know how their selves would be jeopardized might not know how to depart when the time came, and be they ash or rubble they could never, ever leave.

I know a man, an inanimorph, who stays with the inanimorphs who are too big to reside indoors. There are a number of SCABS that live in his area, staying inside the inanimorphs. I suppose every town has a few, and I suppose some governments have destroyed a few. But MacLeod University let some have a bit of gravel by the vehicle pool, and I've stopped by there sometimes. They keep pretty well hidden. It's like the thing with Tim. You can walk right on this man, and you just never think that the road you walk on could have been a trombone player back in the seventies, who's checking out your shoe size as you move. But he's one, not one of the jealous inanimorphs, but a sort of frighteningly joyful one, because he says he doesn't know what to make of it yet. He thought he was dead for twenty years. Twenty years, he laid perfectly still.

And then, as he puts it, he said to himself, "Hey, I'm not dead!"

But what made him say that? What kept him unconscious in a nonliving chunk of material, when he was free to go, when his body was gone? Is it the fact that, as with me, as with Tim, there was a trade enacted? Do we stay because we never had a dead body to acknowledge, a human-dead self to leave?

What thoughts for Christmas. But it is December, this is a Christmas party, and these are my thoughts. We don't change all that much as a holiday such as this approaches. We only begin to think harder on the same things that make up our consciousnesses the rest of the year. At least, I do. Sometimes it leads to a realization, or something accomplished, or something nice for someone else, and sometimes it doesn't. But I try to pay attention to Christmas, because it has always meant something to me, and for me it is a way of measuring the years and the people. It's probably a different day or season that does it for other people. Christmas does it for so many, means something to so many, that we have a sort of comradeship of introspection. We try to share, because we feel something welling out of our annual attempt at awareness about ourselves.

It's harder for me to share, now that I have to stay down here, in corners, out of crowds. I move the crystals in my "hands" back and forth in a sort of miniature tidal motion, and I know that streams of reflection can be seen from across the room, or could if Andy Hildebrandt were looking at me. I seem to float like a lone bat's wing above the barstool, but that is because the part of me that is seated is momentarily shrouded in the patch of pitch-black made by the bar. I move my "face" to survey the empty room, and I glisten in squares, rectangles and sometimes ribbons, depending on the way the light hits the fingers of crystal growth over my surface. I could break off pieces of myself, I know, if I cared to do it. I could just snap off any limb or part I wanted to, with so very little pressure. But I can never do it. I don't know how it is that inanimorphs have any self preservation, but I have an instinctive block when it comes to experimentally harming myself; it seems as impossible as climbing the stairs to the lively dance.

Andy Hildebrandt growls under his breath and balls a fist tight against his thigh. He was gaining on something, perhaps, and lost it.

A scarf comes fluttering down over the balcony to the floor, and Andy allows himself to look at it, evidently between efforts for the moment. The scarf's owner, laughing and scolding alternately, trips down the stairs in high heels as the perpetrator of the scarf's fall leans over the balcony and jokes mercilessly. The woman snatches up the scarf, smiles at Andy, and dashes back up to the party. The man, suddenly noticing Andy, nods to him, then turns around and shoulders his way between two other people to rejoin the lady. I watch, but I don't think they notice me, although plenty of people here know me personally and know I am here.

Tim makes a sound.

I am not startled, but I am somewhat puzzled and intrigued; why? Has he changed his mind about the seeming anonymity he and so many of the City's inanimorphs prefer? Of course, it soon occurs to me, there's not much likelihood of the crowd upstairs noticing the note he just played. He could probably bang away at a march by Sousa down here without any disruption. Still, it catches Andy's attention. He fixes his relatively relaxed expression on the piano, his brow having smoothed out since he paused in his ongoing search.

Tim makes another sound, a note that I feel tingling my thinly layered crystals against one another. He doesn't have the style Jack would have even in delivering one note, but it's not musical as much as it is a verbal greeting of some kind.

"What," says Andy. It's the word he uses when he's willing to refrain from violence, when it's okay to make a sound around him. It's still consistently delivered in a tone that would imply an ongoing engagement with something else, something vital, as when a businessman in the midst of an unsettled, life-directing meeting allows an outsider to offer one, probably irrelevant, bit of input.

Tim begins to play "Good King Wenceslas". He's slow, and careful, and even so the rhythm isn't right on. He sounds like a child, or a very hesitant older person, playing with one finger at a time, but Andy is transfixed. Truth be told, so am I. There are three of us here, and this is the first of any sort of conversation we have engaged in all night.

Andy stares at the piano. Tim continues playing, then pauses halfway through, and I think he is done but it seems he was only attempting to recall the remainder. Finally, the count becoming more definitive, he goes through it again and finishes with the piece.

Andy waits, watching the keys, which almost seem to have taken on a shy expression of their own, but Tim does nothing for several beats of the music upstairs. Finally, sensing the young man waiting, he plinks out a few notes from no tune in particular. Andy waits some more.

I wander, off the bar stool, closer to Andy and stand behind him, where I am not even sure if he knows I am there. The man watches the piano, steadily, but nothing further seems likely.

Finally, Andy gets tired of waiting. He stands, his bulk blocking out a chunk of the light we receive from the second floor, and steps purposefully over to Tim, where he applies his fingers in the first two measures of "Good King Wenceslas".

Tim, almost eagerly, it seems, takes the cue and begins again. He's a little bit better this time.

Andy, nodding seriously, seats himself on Tim's bench and faces the keys as they depress themselves, each setting off its own chain of events within the instrument.

I decide to say something. "Merry Christmas, Andy," I say. Only my voice is like a very fast layering of frost onto a window over night, and Andy isn't interested in hearing me just now. He is focused on a Christmas carol-- maybe, to him, a familiar one. Maybe most of them aren't, to him, anymore.

I sigh, making my "hand" into a curve as if I hold a mug of something comforting. I don't know what it is with me and drinks these days. I already had mine for the night. "Andy, merry Christmas."

This time he almost turns around, but he never gets as far as even glancing directly at the place where I'm standing. Tim plays on, and when he is done, he waits only a short time before starting once more, unbidden. Anyone looking down on us now would probably think that the man at the bench is playing the carol. They may not even see me standing behind Andy, depending on the light. They may not know who is playing, or that there are three people here, all together, even all communicating. I know Andy heard me the second time.

Quietly, almost before I realize I am hearing it, Andy's voice comes in just under the volume of the piano. "Merry Christmas to you, merry Christmas to you..." Only it's the tune to "Happy Birthday," and he stops there. Then he nods, in time with the tune he used, to Tim.

Tim takes the cue and begins playing "Happy Birthday," one key at a time, no chords, as with the carol.

"Thanks, Andy," I venture, and he nods, maybe out of time with the song and meant as a response, maybe just wishful thinking on my part.

No, I'm pretty sure he nodded to me. Now he turns his head, perhaps, almost certainly, enough to see a part of my surface reflecting back at him. I sip an imaginary eggnog.

Andy turns back to the piano, shutting me out-- he abruptly ends Tim's current rendition with a prompting finger on the beginning of "Good King Wenceslas" again. Tim obliges, and Andy leans forward, concentrating. Trying to make it fit. He knows it fits, somewhere. He just isn't sure, yet, what it fits.

It comes to me that we three all know we are here. Even better, we know that each other knows.

Not one other person in the course of all of our lives might ever know that the piano was being played tonight, let alone that he was playing himself. And most people who did witness this scene, if any ever did, would not include me in it, because they would not see me. They will never know, perhaps not even those who know I am in attendance at the bar tonight.

Yet, I know it happened. I wouldn't have known, if Andy hadn't crossed that line that my own mind defined as "yes, he nodded to me." My mind asked for it, and he gave it. No one else would even recognize it. I wouldn't have assumed I communicated with him if he hadn't reciprocated. But he did. And, somehow, that makes me able to believe that all of this has happened.

I am a real person, here, to someone else.

Even as a soul, without a body, with nothing but consciousness, I could be just a figment of my own imagination. I could drift forever without knowing what defined me... I could be making it all up. I could, granted, be making up the motion of Andy's head towards me, the communication between himself and Tim. I could. But I know these things have happened. My consciousness has something that it believes came from someone else. Without it, I could never have anything to compare my usual inner musings with. I could never tell the difference between truth and nonexistence, or tell the truth of nonexistence. This difference, the difference between myself and Andy, Andy and Tim, is what makes me know.

These are the gifts you can take with you.

And what's comforting, to someone like me, maybe to anyone who has wondered about the piece that remains after the package has dispersed into air, is that I have probably never really been alone. There are people noticing my existence all the time.

Invisible as I can be, there are others like me, like Tim, all over the City, and maybe beyond.

If my consciousness, even encased in this etched, glassy form, is real to someone else encased in a different body, maybe it's real to another consciousness that has already left. Maybe they can see what even the chosen senses of the inanimorphs can't.

Maybe there are more than three of us here, on the ground floor beneath the party. Maybe, if I die sometime, I could look around and count them.

I know it is me, in this form, because Andy responded to no one else. I spoke, and he made an acknowledgment of me. And this I will remember, and he will remember, even if he cannot recall it while he works out the tangled skeins in his mind. Some part of him recalls it, because some part of him did it. And when he dies, there will be no Martian Flu to keep him from seeing it clearly, all in the right order, and he'll know me if he sees me.

So all I have to do, when I evaporate, when the fear is past because it has already happened, is wait. Someone will recognize me. I'm not the only one.

For right now, though, the very idea of evaporation sends shudders through my crystals yet again.

Tim continues his caroling. Andy shakes his head once in awhile, that close to an answer that drifts maddeningly out of reach on every turn his own inner machine makes. Still, the Christmas carol is relaxing, and Tim improves with each time through, so the anger doesn't well so hotly or readily as Andy sits on the piano bench and listens as closely as if his life depended on it.

And so, in a way, it does. I want to tell him that I'll show him I know who he is, but I don't know how to articulate it. For now, he's trying to grasp a life that makes sense in the body he inhabits. The life he lost when the Flu took away all but his proof of its past existence.

I'll know you, Andy, I want to say. If you're afraid you won't be anyone, won't exist, won't know who you are, won't be any more certain than you are now, believe I'll tell you I recognize you. It's the least I can do-- you reminded me, told me someone else believes I can exist. I believe you can exist.

The words don't quite vibrate out of me. I don't know how to say them and not sound morbid, because I know they're referring, in a way, to all our deaths.

Andy knows he has lost something, something he strives to regain. I wonder if that's what we inanimorphs did when we saw our new bodies, somehow sensed them, and sensed that our old ones were no more. I wonder if the jealous ones are still searching for their old bodies, and whether I am going to be content for long with believing that I can leave this one and still die a legitimate death. I remember being human. Sometimes, I think I remember it too well. Like Andy. We limit ourselves. We try to retain what we had, what we remember only imperfectly, and try to rebuild the parts that just aren't with us anymore.

Does Tim have the right idea? Just be a piano? No pretenses.

Yet he spoke to Andy, and not as a piano would.

Of course, to say that Tim is not like a piano is to limit this interaction to what I have known. Now, that has changed. Tim is a piano. He has greeted a man this way.

"Good King Wenceslas" starts over again. Somehow, I'm not tired of it yet. It matters, I think. Even though no one else knows, it matters, and it matters as much as all the conventional ways we are known; work, medical records, tuition bills and paychecks. I can exist physically, because those things surround me. But I could not know of my existence outside of my body, unless someone else showed me that I could. Tim does that, and Andy, because it is through such unconventional means that they communicate that their interaction with me would never be accepted by the majority of people on the street. But I needed this. I needed to know I am not just legitimate when I converse in a "normal" way. I am not a Norm. But I am still a person. I can still be one even if I die in a SCABS body.

I glance up at the lighted second floor, and just for a moment ponder it, but I'm not ready to risk joining into the vibrant gathering.

Tim has a regular flow accomplished in his carol rendition. I begin to sing with it, almost inaudibly as usual, imagining that I might just, given enough alcohol in the listener's system, resemble distant bells chiming with the piano. Ah, probably not. But it's a nice, Christmasy thought.

Andy is quiet. One of these times around, he's sure, he's going to catch hold of the meaning of this song in the worked and reworked puzzle in his head.

I realize, partway into my vocal accompaniment, that I only know the first few words to this song. So, I fall silent and listen, too.

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