SHE IS: Lover
Three of Four.
It's almost done.
I'm just ironing out the last few little bugs and then the whole thing will be complete.
The lab is dark. I long ago got too engrossed in my work to switch on the overhead lights when the others went to bed. Nothing could disrupt the flow of my concentration, not when I was so close to finishing it absolutely. Just a little bit more, a few adjustments to coding here, a little tweak there and it will finally be ready.
I'm always careful with the programs I design, the machines I build. There's no end to my patience as I go through them over and over again, carefully trialing their various components to ensure optimum functionality. Tinkering with them to correct any flaws, adjusting them to improve durability, or performance. As far as I'm concerned, there are no shortcuts. Well, none worth taking anyway. Their true beauty lies within their construction, at any rate. The hours it required to build them, the knowledge I draw on to watch them evolve slowly before my eyes, the experimentation I undertake to discover something new, something even more brilliant and perfect. Sure, I can slap something together in a few hours, even less, and it will work and possibly even work well. But there isn't the same feeling of accomplishment underscoring those efforts. It's not the same journey, not by a long shot.
Each new project is an adventure, a mystery and a romance.
Every time I conceive a new design I have to decipher the methodology and processes it will require, the equipment I will need and account for any hazards or incidentals along the way. Sometimes gathering the equipment takes hours in itself, hours of scouring junkyards for abandoned scraps that will serve the purpose, or of acquiring the necessary software or hardware I might need. Then there's the undertaking, the slow unfolding of the thing, the unexpected variables that set me back or sometimes drive me further forward, patiently adding, block by block, step by step and watching it form. Finally there's the all consuming love-affair I seem to take on with every new project – sometimes it's all I can do to think of anything else. I'll miss instructions during practice, forget to eat, fade out of conversations until I'm startled back to the present by a cushion connecting with my head. Be called from my bed in the middle of the night to try something else that's just occurred to me.
But even given all that, I have to say I've taken extra special care with this one.
I was very curious about April when she first came into our lives, some time ago now. That was only natural – never before had we been so very close to a human, and certainly not a human female. Everything I knew about humans came from watching television or from distant observation – far too far to come to any solid conclusions or even reasonable assessment. I wanted to compare our similarities and differences – in such analysis would lie illumination on our own beings, our genetic structure and the mutation that made us unique, I felt sure. Instinctual terrapin behaviour that we had retained through our evolution made itself apparent with time and was labelled as such with the aid of books – for there was the rub. We had no way of knowing what was turtle behaviour and what human, for we did not have humans to compare ourselves to.
Just exactly how human were we?
Naturally, this field of enquiry was pretty much solely my domain. The others didn't care, or were happy to accept things as they were. But that had never been my nature.
Then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in the very up-close and personal presence of one.
Done. Now, for one quick run-through – just to make sure everything is working absolutely perfectly.
That old familiar feeling of elation swells in me, spreading out from my solar plexus and flooding through ever vein, every fibre, cell and tissue of my being. Done. Finished. Complete.
I slide the empty disc into the drive and set it up to burn, finally leaning back in my chair, my hind quarters stiff and numb from the amount of time I've spent still in this chair. I stretch my arms above my head, hear the pop and crack of my joints as the computer quietly whirrs. The lair behind me is dark and silent, the others all long in bed – or Raphael out in the city somewhere.
I reach for my can of soda and take a swig. It's warm and flat but the sugar feels good. Once the joy of being finished wears off I'll be exhausted. But for now I'm still buzzing and I swing around in the chair to another monitor with a Firefox browser open to Gmail. I double click the Trillian icon and it connects, a quiet electronic beep indicating there's someone else online.
I type, quick and sharp, the keys rattling away:
After a moment she responds:
Hey you! Still up, huh?
I grin, unable to help myself, type back:
Yeah, just been working on a program I wanted to finish. Can't sleep?
Her reply takes a few seconds:
Nah, had one too many coffees to get me through the day and I'm paying for it now! Figure I'll stay up awhile longer, maybe watch a movie or something.
Okay, so she'll be awake for awhile. I type back:
Sounds good! I'm beat though – going to bed. Talk later?
Her response is swift:
You bet. Night. Xx
I type back and sign off. Time to move.
Unlike the others, my interest in her was purely scientific. In their own ways, they all went ga-ga for her. I seemed the only one able to keep a straight head on my shoulders and it meant it was easier for me to talk to her. Which meant I was able to observe her closely and glean information from her. Watching a human from close-quarters can be a fascinating experience. Especially a female. They are so much more delicate and graceful than the males. The way they move, light and bouncy so that their hair springs softly with each step, the sleek curve to their necks and their fine jaws and high cheekbones. Their beautiful, large and expressive eyes, crystal clear and fervently sincere. Long, narrow noses and full lips, red as cherries and opening wide when they laugh. In fact, I would go so far as to say that human females like April were far more interesting to watch than the males. And that I had the opportunity to observe one so closely was a rare treat. Fortunately for me, April had seemed as fascinated by us and appeared frequently in our home and invited us to hers. It was even better when that happened, for it gave me the chance to observe her in her own environment and analyse the dynamics between them.
I knew April was smart. Very smart. That she worked as a programmer for Baxter Stockman was testament to that, but also the speed with which she adapted to and accepted us. Only a person of high intelligence could demonstrate such resilience.
I enjoyed talking to her but never discussed my projects or activities with her, or even the finer points of engineering. I was trying to remain objective in my observations and thought it best to keep things as impartial as possible.
I slid the newly-burned CD into my duffel bag and stole quietly through the lair. All was silent and the brick door slid softly apart for me. It was only a short trip to the surface and from there I knew the way like the back of my hand. I could envisage the rooftop passage way in my mind's eye as clearly as if it were already stretched out before me.
It was past midnight but that was still early by NYC standards. The streets were still busy with cars and people and I got to a rooftop swiftly. The night wind was cool and strong, lifting the bands of my mask, and I stretched again, working out the little kinks that had knotted their way down my spine. Checking the bag was secure over my shoulder, I studied the path before me, then sprinted forward, catapulting off the edge of the roof and leaping high into the air.
I don't train as much as my brothers do. But I'm still good at what I do and the feel of my limbs being stretched and free after so many hours cramped and constricted is gloriously liberating.
But nothing can compare to the giddy feeling of anticipation that's begun to bloom within me now that I'm on my way.
We brothers had just reached the age where females were becoming of primary interest to us. Unfortunately, our unusual development meant that we had no females of our own unique turtle-human blend species with whom we might have future prospects. I hadn't discussed it with the others, but I rather felt I was the first to realise this and contemplated that ours might very well be a singularly lonely existence.
It had occurred to me long before we met April; but her arrival in our lives definitely stirred up those thoughts anew: would it be possible for us to mate with a human female?
Given that of all the creatures we knew on earth, humans were the only others besides ourselves who could give informed verbal consent to the proposition of a liaison; additionally we shared DNA with them and finally, we'd all watched so much TV by that point, that human women figured pretty heavily in our fantasies.
And, if it were possible, what would the specifics of it be?
Once again, thanks to books and later, the internet, I had familiarised myself with the anatomy of human females and all signs pointed to it being possible, even probable, to manage. The main restriction would be how vastly different we were constructed to your average human male and whether or not the female in question could tolerate that.
Actual reproduction would be impossible, of course, but I don't think any of us were thinking of actually reproducing. We were fifteen, after all.
I pause before rapping on the glass when I reach her window. She's inside, curled up on the sofa, reading a book. All the lights are off except the lamp on the side table next to her and her red-framed reading glasses are perched on the end of her nose. Her hair is pulled up into a messy bun on top of her head, strands of it escaping and curling over her knees and down her neck. Her sweater hangs off one shoulder and it's bare and white – no bra strap. The awareness of it causes a tightening to begin low in my stomach. She's got old boxer shorts on beneath and my eyes run the length of her exposed legs, smooth and shapely, pale and soft, like the rest of her, soft milk-white thighs like those of Venus on the half-shell. Her feet are covered in thick purple wool socks and I'm sorry, momentarily. I've only glimpsed her feet bare on one or two occasions. They're perfect, with ten pretty toes, and I wish I could see them now.
But I know I've been lurking out here long enough. I'm not trying to be creepy – it's just she looks so lovely when she's so unself-conscious, so natural and relaxed. It's been a rare sight lately.
I rap on the glass and she looks up, long since used to one of us dropping around this way. Her face breaks into a great, beaming smile when she sees me and I let myself believe she's especially glad that it's me. She tosses her book down without marking her place (she memorises the page number) and hurries over to unlatch the window, admitting me in. The warmth of her apartment rises up to surround me like an embrace and I'm suddenly shy and awkward as I hesitate over the sill.
"Don! I wasn't expecting you! You should've mentioned you were coming over and I would've made us something!" She sounds so cheerful, so normal. I can see by the faint shadows under her eyes that she's tired. Rebuilding the store has taken it out of her in a big way. She hasn't been around as much and I know I'm not the only one missing her.
"I miss you guys!" she said as though she read my thoughts and I finally leap in, shutting the window tight behind me to keep out the chill.
"Sorry to drop by so late," I apologise, still feeling awkward. Maybe I've made a mistake. Maybe I shouldn't give it to her…
"Not at all!" she exclaims, putting the kettle on in her tiny new kitchen. "I was driving my self stir-crazy up here anyway. I'm thoroughly exhausted but I just can't sleep! Got anything you want to work on or just want to talk?"
"Actually – I – uh – that is – I – " Damn it, why was it suddenly so hard to talk? I never have a problem with words and utilising them to express myself in a satisfactory fashion. She looked up from the mugs she was measuring cocoa into, her vivid green eyes inquisitive. A strand of red hair falls across them. Suddenly, I feel it. Creeping up over my cheeks. The blush, hot and fierce. Great, just great. This has been happening more and more lately, particularly when she looks at me a certain way. I realised I'm wringing my hands and grasp desperately at the bag slung over my shoulder.
"I have something for you!" I burst out.
I'd been working on the program that deciphered the signals sent by the trackers I'd designed to the lair's main computer. But something kept going wrong. The computer was picking up the signal, but kept returning incorrect locations. And not by a few inches, or even feet. Wildly incorrect locations. I'd been working on it for hours and wanted desperately to pull the plug on the whole thing but that was the problem with me. I just couldn't put a project aside even if it was going wrong. Especially when it was going wrong. I felt compelled somehow to keep plugging away at it until I'd gotten the problem figured out and implemented a solution.
But somehow, this one kept eluding me. I'd been through the coding line by line by line then over it again. And again. And still I couldn't seem to find exactly where things were going wrong.
My eyes were bloodshot and bleary when April walked into view, a blurred vision of red and purple that I blinked wearily at and offered a half-hearted smile.
"What's up, Don?" she paused and walked over to where I sat hunched over the keyboard, shoulders slumped in near-defeat.
"Just a little something I've been working on to help us keep track of each other." I was not forthcoming, but I was always a little irritable when I had a hiccough during a project.
"Maybe I can help?" she'd offered, leaning over with her arms folded across the desk. I'd waved a hand at her, rubbing at my temples with the other one.
"Nah, forget it. I'm just about ready to give up." I sounded as gloomy as I felt.
"All the more reason to let me have a go!" she'd replied cleverly and I'd looked up at her, eyes smarting with over use. "Come on, shift over." She'd given me a friendly shove on the arm and I'd reeled with shock.
You have to understand – no one in my family tried to interfere with my projects. It just didn't happen. For one thing – none of them could. They didn't have the skills or the ability. For another – they were my projects. This was implicitly understood.
But April was new to the game.
Since I hadn't moved, she'd swivelled the monitor towards her and was leaning right over to tap the down arrow key, moving through the coding.
"Donnie, this is beautiful!" she'd breathed and I'd felt a little swell of pride tickle in my chest then. Of course, no one in my family was ever able to appreciate the behind the scenes workings of the gadgets they took for granted either…
So I moved aside and let her have a look.
"It's the location. I can't get it to return the correct coordinates. I've tried everything and just can't figure out where it's going wrong. Latitude, longitude and compass points are all written in. As far as I can tell, every line of code is correct. I've been over it a thousand times. Maybe two thousand." Just going over the problem again made me feel weary and my head drooped on my neck as April began clicking through rapidly, biting her lower lip with concentration.
"Don't stress about it, you've just been looking at it too long. It needs fresh eyes." She said crisply and I knew she was probably right. "How about you go get us some soda while I deal with this?"
But I found I couldn't move away from her. I stopped looking at the monitor and instead just watched her, watched the way she chewed on her lip so that the blood flushed out beneath the surface, staining her lip. The way her brows furrowed in the centre of her forehead and how her slim hands pushed her hair up and out of her face. Her fingertips moved with rapid assurance over the keyboard and she screwed up her nose in thought. I was transfixed and unsettled, unsure what this warm, decidedly gooey feeling pooling in the pit of my gut was all about or why my heart beat had suddenly escalated and I'd broken out in a slight sweat.
'Low blood sugar' I thought to myself. 'For sure.'
Suddenly a smile had burst across her face and she declared loudly: "Ah-HAH!"
"What, what?" I moved to stare at the monitor, and she tapped on it with one fingernail.
"There. Nothing's wrong, you just need to put in an additional line of coding. See, it is returning the correct location – but down the line it's becoming flipped – you're seeing a mirror image. East is West and North is South – you see? You need to write it a rule to apply to reverse the information so it'll display correctly."
I'd stared at the screen, my jaw slack and my eyes gaping. Of course, of course. It was such a stupid, simple oversight. How could I have missed it?
I'd had to duck my head with the rush of embarrassment I'd felt then.
"For me?" April's eyes had lit up and that alone made it worth the potential embarrassment. I'd moved over to her computer, removing the CD from its plastic cover and sliding it into the disc drive.
She hovered behind me, one hand on my shoulder and I swallowed hard and tried not to notice as I started the program up.
"It's an electronic database – for the store" I explained softly, to keep the quaver from my voice as I flicked through the program. "You can use it to catalogue your entire inventory, complete with images and multiple keyword search options. It takes barely two minutes to add a new entry – see here, you just click add, and then choose from Antique, Second-Hand, Vintageand Reproduction. Then you've got categories like Furniture, Bric-A-Brac, Household Items etcetera – you can add in time period, estimated value, shop price, distinguishing features, historical information – I've accounted for as much as I could think of." I talked in a rush, not giving her a chance to speak, although I was aware she was gasping behind me, had lifted her hands to her face. "You can note whether it's been sold or auctioned off, or the type of people who've expressed interest in it. Scan in a picture and just click the 'add photo' icon. I've – uh – I've already catalogued your entire current stock." My voice dropped down to a whisper on those last words. That seemed suddenly boastful.
After that my interest in April became much more personal than scientific. Watching her work was like poetry. The easy, unconscious way her ready brain grasped a solution, deciphered a problem and laid it all out clear and concise was a joy to watch. Perhaps it was calculating, perhaps even manipulative, but after that I suddenly required a lot more help on my projects than I ever had before. Of course, April was the only one besides myself with the skills and ability to assist me. We could spend hours together, her laptop perched on her outstretched legs, chewing her bottom lip, me in front of my fleet of monitors, watching her surreptitiously from the corner of my eye. Being able to share with her the creation and development of some wondrous new device was a matter of pride rather than a division of credit – whenever I thought of how we had created something together my pulse sped up a little and that little twinge of elation was as addictive and bewitching as the process itself. How this strange and wonderful creature had ever happened into our lives I couldn't say – but for once I wasn't going searching for answers. I was content just to accept it and savour each moment we spent together, sharing in something we both loved. And if, now and then, my hand grazed hers as I reached for a tool or our legs pressed together when we sat on the sofa bent over our work, well she didn't seem to mind.
"You did all this – for me?" April's eyes were bright and it wasn't with exhaustion. I realised she was on the verge of tears and became alarmed, leaping up from the computer stool nervously.
"Well, it's just you've been so busy lately – what with rebuilding the store and getting all the new stock in and working the extra hours to afford advertising – I just thought – well this will be far more efficient and quick than that old paper filing system you're using currently." I mumbled hurriedly, and scratched the back of my head, looking down at my feet, the carpet, the corner of the sofa, the legs of the computer stool. Anywhere but at her. She just stood there, completely still. "Hope you don't mind." I finished lamely.
She launched herself at me across the carpet, arms going tight around my neck and my nostrils were filled with the scent of her, of strawberries and citrus, cocoa and fabric softener. Then her lips were pressing against my cheek again and again and I had to swallow very hard around the huge lump constricting my throat. Her lips were soft and felt so sweet but I didn't dare move, not even to hug her back, in case it made her stop.
"Thank you," she whispered in my ear, and I felt the heat of her tears brush my face. "It's the best gift I've ever been given."
Hesitantly, I lift my hands, the hands that are usually so sure and steady but are now trembling, and press them against her back.