by Brianna Ferguson
It was a gorgeous Vancouver morning and Liz was out shopping. The bags hanging from her wrists were cutting off her circulation, but she was a trooper. There were children carrying buckets of water kilometers and kilometers every day in Africa and Asia and places like that, so the least she could do—the absolute BARE MINIMUM—was allow a little discomfort now and again. She could tell people were watching her, thinking her mad for her exertions, but she just ignored them.
In a half hour she was back in her Yaletown apartment, rummaging through her spoils. The sterile white walls of her studio bounced the light from her floor to ceiling windows around the open space like the panels of a disco ball. The frantic beats of the Top 20 matched the refractions, drowning out the pounding of the downstairs neighbour’s broom handle thundering against the floor.
Liz twirled and sang as she stacked vegetarian foodstuffs of all foreign make and manner inside her fridge. Avocados from Mexico, Coconut extract from the South Pacific, legumes of all shapes and sizes from island countries she’d never heard of, all of it tumbled together in a rainbow of environmentally-conscious contentment. From her wrists jangled hemp bracelets she’d fashioned herself from a ball she’d purchased at a department store a few months back. Her girlfriends had been quite scandalized at first by the appearance of the peeling bands, their faintly dank aroma, and their worthlessness on any scale besides a sentimental one. But Liz had quickly reminded them of the red string doo-dads once touted by the likes of Madonna and Ashton Kutcher when the Kabala craze swept through Hollywood, prompting smiles and nods of understanding.
“Plus, for every hemp ball sold, the company donates one dollar to cleaning up the ocean,” she’d added, cementing the hemp’s acceptance in the minds of her more enlightened drinking buddies. Within a week, every one of them was sporting a bracelet, and the seas were nine dollars cleaner.
The food put away, Liz swept to the bathroom, belting out the repeated vowels of the latest Ariana Grande single. In her hand was a small tube of microbead-infused solution that promised to peel five years off her skin in twenty minutes of soaking. Now, she’d heard all about the harmful effects of microbeads on the oceans (who hadn’t?) but she’d also purchased the beads from the same store from which she’d gotten the hemp. And while not explicitly stated, she assumed that a store as woke as the hemp store wouldn’t be stupid enough to carry the champion of the seas in one aisle and the oceans’ nemesis in the other. Certainly not when Vancouver Today had just named the store one of the top five locations in the city to support the cleaning-up efforts launched by the local fisheries.
Dumping the lot into her bath and blasting the water on high, Liz busied herself with locating and hooking up the iPod dock, lighting some candles, and placing her softest towels and easiest reading materials within reaching distance of her high-backed tub. When the water was to her liking, she propped the radio up on the toilet seat, jammed her iPod into the dock, shed her summer dress and slid into the water’s steamy embrace.
The microbeads lapped at her naked skin as she selected the playlist entitled Folksy as Fuck. With a thousand tiny fingers they massaged her back, her thighs, her nether-regions. She lifted the cord to create some slack as Johnny Flynn began crooning an ode to Water. Liz giggled at the boy’s pronunciation of “water.”
“Woah-tah,” she said, still giggling as she slid back in the tub, forgetting entirely that the cord was still clenched in her hand.
The dock hit the water with a gentle splash. It sat a moment on the tension of the woah-tah. Microbeads drifted towards it like seals to an ice flow. For a moment, all was well. With her eyes closed beneath the surface, Liz hadn’t even noticed anything was wrong. The problem came a moment later as she sat up to replace the stale air in her healthy, pink lungs.
There was a snap and a pop and the lights went out. The music was playing to the very last—max volume, of course—so the neighbour downstairs didn’t hear the shriek when Liz finally realized what was happening.
A minute later when the plug finally fell from its socket (the downstairs neighbour cursing continuously as he located the breaker box with the flashlight on his phone), Liz lay good and dead in the water.
To be more accurate, Liz lay good and unconscious in the water. Her heart had stopped somewhere between the twenty-five and thirty second mark, but with her brain still bouncing around, firing signals like a Semaphore sailor with ADHD, Liz was not legally dead. She was certainly in no position to sauté any quinoa or liberate any dolphins from beer rings, but she was without a doubt more on the side of the living than not.
Fat load of good it did her—or indeed would do her for the better part of the evening. For it was almost three in the morning when she finally gasped and sat up in the charred and sticky tub. Though she’d been breathing softly since the incident, the gasp that followed her return to the world of agency was so loud that the neighbour downstairs reached out and tossed the nearest hard object (his phone) up at the ceiling, warning Liz to shut the hell up or else.
Liz gasped, her hands clamped on either side of the tub. The water had drained in her flailing and her unsupported extremities ached horribly from the angles of the porcelain. She cracked her neck in a chorus of pops not unlike the pops that had rendered her medium rare and climbed unsteadily from the tub. She swiped her towel from the floor and wrapped it around her trembling body as she crept to the mirror.
Her reaction to her reflection was enough to prompt another projectile from below (this time, a throw pillow). The face before her was not charred. The hair was not erect. The eyes were not bloodshot. All the usual indications of an ordeal such as hers were missing. There were, in fact, no signs of what had taken place except for one glaringly obvious abnormality that—to attempt to describe with language alone—may not fully make itself understood.
For starters, the face staring back at her from her IKEA medicine cabinet mirror glowed with a kind of iridescence. The shade was primarily tawny (one might argue, a more vital hue than her normal lily white), but as she tilted her head this way and that in the lighting (which had fortunately recovered after Mr. what’s-his-name downstairs located the breaker), her complexion seemed to reflect light in a fashion not dissimilar to the windows of her living room/bedroom/kitchen. She pressed a few fingers to her cheeks, prodding the confusing bulk of flesh, searching desperately for a way to make sense of the whole mess. A few scrapes and smears of her skin removed not a bit of the colouring, leaving her ever so confused.
“I’m sure I’m just dreaming,” she said out loud. “Or delusional. No telling what a jolt like that can do to the head.”
With that, she turned out the lights, marched out to her bed and was instantly asleep.
As she slept, she dreamed strange dreams of standing still at the top of the world while birds made nests in her hair. Years passed by as she stood in place, but she neither aged nor grew hungry or tired. She was immortal and happy and my god was she skinny.
When she awoke it was after noon, but she was not hungry. The light streaming in through her windows had her skin tingling in a happy way she couldn’t quite describe. She felt as if she’d both slept a hundred hours and spent the last day and a half running a marathon on a white sand beach. She giggled to herself as she got up and drank a glass of water. She felt so good she fully believed that glancing in the bathroom mirror would reveal nothing more than the shining face of a girl with everything worked out.
Naturally, when the face in the mirror bore every similarity to the nightmare she’d witnessed in the wee smalls, she was so devastated she had no idea how she ended up watered, dressed, and standing on the platform of the Yaletown-Roundhouse train station of the Canada Line not fifteen minutes later. When she disembarked at Broadway and made her way down to her family doctor’s office (a 10 Tree hoodie pulled high over her monstrous form), she still couldn’t think of a rational explanation for her hideousness—hideousness being the word she clung to to voice her displeasure, though the new hue of her skin was (quite objectively) beautiful.
The doctor's’ office in which her GP practiced rose high and sturdy on her right. She glided through the revolving door with all the bent-double grace of Sméagol caressing his Precious. The doorman glanced at her, but—noting the obvious quality of her dress, and the slender (not meth slender, but fit slender) build of her body—said nothing about her incognito hoodie and sunglasses ensemble.
The office was thankfully dead as she whispered to the receptionist that she needed to see Dr. Bradley post haste. The receptionist—a middle aged woman with a lazy perm and a name tag that said “Sue”—pointed to a chair and told her the doctor would be right with her.
Not bothering to peruse the magazines, Liz sat on her hands as she waited. She remembered with sudden dread that there was a luncheon for her Save The Whales group she was to attend later that day. She’d just begun to work out how she was going to get out of it when the doctor entered the room and asked her to follow her to an examination room.
Liz was silent as she followed after the slim form of her GP into a tiny room at the back of the building.
“So Liz, what seems to be the problem?” Bradley asked, consulting a chart.
Liz crumpled into the seat next to the examination table and yanked back her hood. The tears were already rolling before she spoke.
“LastnightIwashavingabathandthestereofellinthewaterandIpassedoutandwhenIwokeupIlookedlikethis!” she blurted, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Woooah, woah,” Bradley said, handing Liz a tissue from the counter where the gauze and the biohazards bins stood. “Slow down there a minute. Whatever happened last night, at least you’re alright!”
Liz sniffled, wiping a healthy string of snot on the tissue and crumpling it into a ball.
“No, I’m not! Look at me!” she wailed, dropping her arms to her sides in a parody of the crucifixion.
Dr Bradley’s brow furrowed as she stepped closer. Liz’s hand shot to her wrist to play with her bracelets, only to discover they were gone.
“Well, right off the bat, your skin looks a little oily. Have you been drinking?”
Liz’s shoulders slumped even further. Her eyes shot up to the corners of her sockets.
“A little. Just with the Girls. Sometimes at lunch but not always.”
“Mhm. And have you been drinking today?”
Liz shook her head, snot wagging at the tip of her nose. Another pass with the Kleenex had it sorted out.
“And you were electrocuted last night you say?”
“In the bathtub?”
“I was soaking in some stuff I got from that health place downtown.”
A note was scribbled on a clipboard.
“What was in it?”
Liz rolled her eyes.
“I don’t know—a bunch of chemical shit and some microbeads. Supposed to keep you young.”
“Mhm.” More scribbles. “I think the best thing to do is to take a few samples and run them through the lab. Would that be alright?”
Liz nodded, dabbing at her eyes.
The phone rang as she was biting into a breadstick that tasted like cardboard. The girls were gabbing about the foreigners coming into the country and all the new diseases that might have arrived with them.
“I mean, I’m not saying they’re more disease-ridden as a race. But I am saying they come from places with diseases…” Bianca was stating, digging an olive from her incisors.
“Hello?” Liz asked, cupping the mouthpiece.
“Hello, Liz? This is Dr. Bradley. Can you come back to the clinic? We have something we need to discuss.”
“Thanks. Nothing to worry about. Just…hurry.”
Liz clamped the phone shut.
“I’m sorry, you guys, I have to go.”
“Ohhhhh,” Bianca, Cassidy, and Jenny moaned in chorus, pouting up at her. Liz stared down at the three identical blonde heads—their mouths slack with quinoa, kale leaves and tomato slices thin as paper. She opened her mouth to make an excuse—something environmental—but nothing came out.
Dr. Bradley greeted her at the door.
“I’ve never seen anything like it!” she said, racing up the stairs ahead of Liz.
They ducked into the same room as before, only this time there were posters tacked haphazardly to the wall and boxes and dishes scattered over the counter. The posters depicted various forms of plant life and the dishes touted little blobs of green filth that looked like algae.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bradley said again, swooping to the counter and picking up a small, plastic dish. “Whatever you had in the water with you—those beads—were they hemp by any chance?—they must have fused with your skin when the electricity hit, forming a million little reflective lenses in the upper layer of your epidermis. Your skin, as it is right now, has the ability to reflect and absorb light. Watch this…”
Bending down, she shone a light on the small sample of flesh sitting curled in the dish. The flesh (Liz saw even from where she was standing) literally…curled…towards the light—like the leaves of a plant seeking out the sun, but sped up by about a million times. As it absorbed the light, it grey greener and more vibrant before their very eyes—as if someone were cranking up the saturation.
“It’s…I don’t know how else to describe it…it’s photosynthesizing! Look at it!”
“I’m looking,” Liz said, her mouth slack and shoulders slumped.
“Do you know what this means?” Dr. Bradley asked, straightening and strutting around the room.
Liz shook her head.
Dr. Bradley shook hers too, but there was a smile on her face.
“You can—I would imagine—survive off of sunlight! Just like a plant. You know, there’s a slug out there that can do this…Eliza something…or Elysia. Apparently it can absorb the plastids of the plants around it and perform photosynthesis almost indefinitely.”
Liz slumped into a chair, her arms dangling between her knees.
“You mean…I’m immortal?”
Bradley cleared her throat.
“Well…most plants aren’t…immortal…”
Liz’s eyes glossed over.
“But I might be…”
“Well…sure…the important thing it, this is one of the most important discoveries in the history of humanity! This could lead to the mass production of solar-powered energy on the molecular level! With technology like this…if we can harness it…” She began to pace.
Liz watched her, wondering what had her so excited, and so preoccupied. So what if she could photosynthesize? Didn’t they already have solar panels for houses and cars and watches and everything already?
She stood up and headed to the door. Bradley didn’t seem to notice. Nor did she notice as Liz drifted into the hall and, soon after, left the building. She was still pacing, wringing her hands together when Liz stepped into a cab.
Lynn Canyon is a hiking spot in North Vancouver popular with first dates and old couples. At the opening to the main walkway there are wooden signs boasting pictures of couples in 19th century garb, poised on the same trails, smiling at the camera with their feathered hats and billowing skirts. Their clothes say Tea Time but their eyes say This Land Is Ours.
Liz blew past the signs, marching with the determination of the recently-released; her head down, her shoulders squared. She marched across the suspension bridge and into the woods, passing modern couples posing for modern photographs. She marched past the German Shepherds in the ponds and the vegans honouring the regrowth trails. She marched straight up the side of the mountain (ignoring the trails herself) until she finally collapsed on a bed of moss.
The moss, she noticed, was warm from a beam of sunlight creeping through the trees (despite the foggy moisture in the air). Her skin tingled as she, too, soaked up the damp sunlight. She’d been peckish when she’d started her hike, but after a few minutes in the woods… There were no two ways to put it; she was stuffed; almost bloated.
She turned over on the moss and let the sun berate her face. The beams were like hands kneading her skin. The air was moist and delicious; icing on the cake.
She sighed, blissful. What more was there to want?
As her breathing returned to normal, she began to realize there was a noise of some kind brewing in the trees. It started out low, like the rumbling of a construction site across a lake, but as she listened, it started to grow.
She sat up and looked around, expecting…she wasn’t sure what. Five hundred men with rifles would have been a start, with Dr. Bradley leading the charge astride a stallion. But there was nothing and no one. Just trees and grass and a few discarded coffee cups.
She laid back down and let the sun continue to work its magic, kneading her skin with its nutritive fingers.
So it’s true…
She didn’t know what to make of it. How do you deal with being the first ever human capable of photosynthesis?
She rolled the word around in her mouth. Photosynthesis. She’d known it since she was a little kid, but it had never meant anything beyond the well-being of a lima bean in a Styrofoam cup.
She closed her eyes but the noise was getting louder, almost deafening.
She sat up again and looked around. Nothing but the trees.
And the grass. And the moss.
She closed her eyes and squeezed the moss beside her…
And the sound increased tenfold.
Her hands balled into fists and she tore clumps of moss from the soil with a sound like hair being ripped from a scalp.
A deafening shriek rose up around her; the shriek of an animal in brutal, bloody agony.
She dropped the moss and the sound stopped.
She took a breath.
Then she tugged again at another patch of moss.
The sound started up again, even louder than before. She dropped the moss and stood up. She closed her eyes and listened with all her might to the cacophony around her. It was hard to think straight with so many voices, but she gave it her darndest.
The trees were whispering to each other, as was the moss, as were the grasses. With so many whispers in the air, it was like an auditorium of people rubbing their hands together. She wanted to cover her ears, but she knew that wouldn’t fix it. It wasn’t language like she was used to; it was something else entirely.
She glanced down at her wrists and remembered the hemp bracelets that had disappeared.
She raised her arm in front of eyes and, for the first time since the incident last night, noticed the little plains in her skin. She could see the plastic surfaces reflecting light back against her flesh like the pebbles in asphalt—the tiny hempen fibres standing and wriggling in the air like the hairs that were rising on the back of her neck.
She sat back down on the moss (ignoring the cries of protest beneath her) and shut her eyes, listening to the screams and moans of those for whom their roots were failing, or their bark had been cleaved away, or their leaves were being torn asunder by the ravenous mouths of bugs, and for the second time that day, a tear tumbled down her cheeks.
Brianna Ferguson earned her BA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia in 2016. Her writing has appeared in The Minola Review, Polychrome Ink, Femmeuary, Mistake House, Effervescent, and the upcoming anthology, Another Place.