If she plays the song, she’s gonna lose half her day.
If she just had housework to do, it’d be fine. Be her space cadet self, maybe not as productive as she would be completely lucid, but enough to get the dishes put away and the laundry in the wash. But she has that article to write, and if she plays that song now, here in her car, she’ll come home with her dream in full swing and she’ll just play her song, over and over. She’ll imagine herself onstage. She’ll sway while looking off into the distance. And since no roommates are home, she’ll be like this for hours.
She can’t play the song. She can’t.
She hits play.
And suddenly, hell yes, she’s rocking and bangin’. She’s an Air Force General and…
No. Play it again. That didn’t do much for her. What should she be now? Maybe not General Amalie today. How about Amalie the intrepid reporter, uncovering a vast DC conspiracy, and she’s investigating in a dive bar as the music plays.
She slams her steering wheel in frustration, and in response, the car wobbles. None of it works. She needs a new storyline. Her emotional resonance is missing and she’s empty. Like—a psychic set of blue balls. When you are resisting that click onto that adult site but then you finally give into the thrill and get your headphones on, incognito mode set, and it just…doesn’t…load and now your own load is unblown, ya feel her?
Exactly. Psychic blue balls. Can’t get any without the story, you know? The story is everything.
Damn brain. She’ll need something better to fall asleep to tonight. Problem is, if she actually thinks up something new it’s gonna keep her up, because of the novelty, not lull her into dreamland because it’s warm and familiar. Hell. It’s like she should plan ahead. Today, her calendar should say: start dreamin’ up a funny story, one with the perfect punchline that gets you giggling and snorting and next thing you know, you’ve jumped up from your chair in the middle of the library and have launched yourself across the room while the patrons stare. No, wait. Shit. That’s bad planning, Amalie, save the runnin’ jumpin’ hilarity for when you’re home alone, Amalie.
Home, and reality, and a deadline. And so she wakes, geeky frumpy Amalie again, dumpy belly and frizzy hair and not as smart as she used to be Amalie.
And that’s the cycle of her life. She dreams, she wakes.
She’s an unfinished story, who begins by waking up from her dream. Every human interaction, every focus on her work, or the dishes, or the washing, she dies a little death, destroying the bit of her fighting a dragon or running the voice competition or discovering the hidden treasures in the national museum. La petit mort, if you will, but without the orgasm, but rather, the loss of consciousness, because those worlds—those are her reality, and every time she has to go back to being Amalie Chaudry, two-bit blogger, she dies to herself.
She is an unfinished story, the threads of which sizzle in the air, broken sparking circuits in need of completion, the compulsion so strong and time she finds herself—
“Amie, going out with us tonight?”
Blink blink reality oops here goes gravity, and now she hasta find a way to tell her roommate, “Heck no, I got me some blue balls here,” because if they’re all going out tonight that means she’s alone at home and she can turn up the music and dream and dance and dance and dance.
Her roommate is still waiting for her response, and she gestures at her computer apologetically.
Today she speeds toward work, air guitar slamming through the air, but she’s not in a rock-it-out mood. She’s in a ballad mood. Today, Princess Amalie marries her long-time love, King Druhal of Arosia. Just epic and sprawling and a perfect coda to a perfect evening, when she snuggled and kissed her pillow all night as it wore the guise of King Druhal, who said the most perfect romantic things. It was a kind and sweet night. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes she cries and cries as her heart gets broken over and over and if someone sees her later, she has to claim allergies.
She looks at everything she has to do at work today and groans, closing her eyes to it. Nothing exciting, obv. Fixing their site, which keeps crashing, answering reader mail, moderating comments. The blog is a startup political one, but others do it better.
No one’s here yet, so she settles into another dream. She’s still annoyed by her drive. She should have imagined flying, an ace in a snubfighter, as they battle over…some planet. She should have grinned and clenched her teeth as she wove in and out of the beltway traffic, mimicking the maneuvers in her mind…
“Squad commence readiness count off,” says Leader over comm.
“Blue Five optimal,” she recites at her turn.
“You know the drill. Get as far away from the Cruiser as possible. Draw fire away from our lines toward enemy ships. Blue squad launch first, Starbright second.”
Blue three, Blue four . . .
“Blue Five launched,” she announces briskly, and sends her fighter into a stomach-churning turn as she speeds away from the Cruiser and into the heart of the battle.
Now this, this, is flying, real flying. She rolls, maneuvers, fires along beside her wingman Jiminy. She switches suddenly to Lead and does a dead man’s drop straight down and cuts into the enemy above her, looping and flying through the explosion Jiminy just made with his opponent. She bandies exclamations back and forth with others as they watch her back or nearly escape death themselves. She’s in her element, free, unfettered . . .
The phone in her snubfighter rings and she picks up—
She picks up in her office, and her boss is calling to say he’ll be late and did she get that press pass ready for him?
She stalls while she panic-emails all her contacts and at the same time her head is still in the clouds, and she’s impotent and frustrated because she was interrupted from her secret life. She remembers reading Walter Mitty in high school, and everyone thought he was so weird and didn’t understand the story, but it made perfect sense to her. And what she wants to say, all the time, is what he says when his dreams keep getting interrupted: “I was thinking. Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?”
But she’s also thinking her way out of this predicament. Fighting to even get credentialed for a press conference is humiliating. And worse when she just…forgets, dammit. She gets distracted or lost in her head and then her priorities shift out of order and she misses things like getting her boss credentialed for a press conference.
And maybe she should care more, but with the whole job doesn’t pay the bills thing, why the f should she? Ammu doesn’t consider it real work. Ammu doesn’t think much of anything she does, including becoming a teenage mom. And it sucks, because it feels like she’s reaching out to grasp some sort of meaningful life, but her hand misses and she gets nothing but air. Because she first knew love when she had her baby boy, but she first knew passion when she discovered the power of the written word.
Amalie sends her panic missives off and leans back. If only she were some amazing investigative reporter, like in her dreams.
If only she could be daring and thrilling. Like…an art thief. Someone who first knew thrill when she learned how to steal.
Her name is Amalie Chaudry, and when she was seventeen, her pregnancy just wouldn’t die.
She had tried surfing down a set of stairs. Practiced some highland dancing. Drank until her liver waved a wee white flag. She rode bikes, ate pineapple cores, had a perfect fat joint, and topped it all off with a steam bath. Nothing. Not a blip. At 20 weeks she heard the heartbeat, strong and sure, with a pilfered stethoscope.
She had needed a plan for the bloat and the tummy pooch, and so, little by little, she grew her wardrobe. A stolen empire waist tank here, a Goodwill sweatshirt there. Rubber bands to keep her pants together. A few outfits just a size larger. A wrap dress. (A stolen look at her belly. A stolen day dreaming of names).
The pregnancy caught her but the stealing did not, so she continued. Her friend’s roommate was the easiest. She was so trusting. 40s music was playing in the background and the book was a spy story, and Amalie just grabbed it off the shelf and stuffed it in her bag. Then there was the iPod. Just sitting on a lonely bench. The answers to an exam, staring out from her neighbor’s desk.
And she’s still stealing things. Today, she, Amalie the intrepid reporter, hopes to steal a story.
She rings up her editor, Jiminy. “I’ve got a possible story. Senator Rosco. There’s something fishy about that sex tape.”
“Page Six stuff,” he says dismissively.
“You wanted a story, didn’t you?” They need this. They need to steal the show. “Look Jiminy,” Amalie continues. “I see you, I hear you. I’ll get something decent and important for you soon enough and make the phone calls and so on and so forth. But I was just calling to let you know I’m doing it. I’m going in.”
“Going in? Going in to do what?” Jiminy’s voice holds a faint note of panic. “You’re not doing something stupid are you?”
She runs her hand over the speaker. “Oh hey, J, I’m having trouble hearing you. Must be some sort of static.” She breathes onto the receiver.
“Oh jeez, Amalie, this isn’t a war movie. Cut it out.”
“Amalie? Agent Chaudry?” A hand waves in front of her face and she’s thrown out of her dream again. Shit it’s probably her boss, although wait, Agent?
She turns to look at him, contrition ready on her face and—
A hazel-eyed boy stares back at her. He waves again, this time congenially.
“Hiya! I’m Bond. Jiminy Bond.”
And she yelps, because Jiminy isn’t real.
Sometimes she thinks she’s the simulacrum of a person. She’s learned how to deal with all the facets of human existence through dreams, like a method acting class. Friendship and leadership and heartbreak and…and romance. And oh, God, forget romance because reality can never live up to the perfection of imagination.
And now, fucking Jiminy is staring at her like she’s the fucking figment of imagination.
He waits for her to perch, uncomfortably, on the sofa edge, and then leans in close. “No one else can see me,” he whispers. “I’m your invisible guide.”
In sixth grade, she used to sit at the dorky table, and it was split into two distinct parts: dorkier and dorkiest. And she lived on dorkiest, but when she would go to sit, the dorkiest girls—the lowest on the hierarchy of middle school—would pretend Mr. Nobody had taken the last empty spot. And they would talk to Mr. Nobody like he was really there, and the only thing comforting about that—as she slunk away to go sit with a teacher or something —was the delicious idea of there actually being an invisible guy, wearing floating glasses and trilby, sitting and responding to her so-called friends, completely unbeknownst to them, and only she knew. Just like the plot of all those books, like Ralph S. Mouse and the Indian in the Cupboard, where you would go to school with a secret fantastical buddy and only you knew and maybe that’s weird but hey, free friend.
Of course, that meant Mr. Nobody elected to sit with the other girls, even though they didn’t even know he existed, rather than sit with her.
Her dreams began around that time, when she got a boombox for her 13th birthday and all she had was a gospel CD and she would put it on and she would dream, dream she was far away from this small town outside Omaha, Nebraska and not weird and ethnic and different and frizzy and—
And Jiminy is waiting for her response. Think, Amalie.
She’s like the ruffian in Tangled: Go, Live your daydreams, Amalie.
She arches her eyebrow, and she turns into someone else. In her dreams, when someone gets into a mech suit, it begins automatically clamping shut with a thousand different locks. And like a suit, her soul buries her and puts on someone else as armor.
But then her boss walks in, and Jiminy disappears.
Her boss throws his phone down in front of her, open to their blog.
THIS IS YOUR CHANCE TO GET THAT MRS DEGREE OR, YOU KNEW THAT LAW SCHOOL GUNNER WAS A LITTLE BIT SKETCH
Well, well, well. The Washette got a wonderful anonymous tip tonight. Vox
Fiqh, the oh-so-secretive Georgetown University all-male society, is having a reunion in — nope, you guessed wrong, not a highfalutin’ cigar bar — in The Cove. Yes, The Cove, of Adams Morgan, known for stabbings and roofies and all sorts of drug deals in the back room. We knew those boys had a 1980s Northeast boarding school evil preppy vibe to them.
If you ever wanted to know who belongs to Vox Fiqh (oh, who am I kidding, it’s the biggest DC open secret there is, aside from the fact Smitty is running a meth lab out of his downtown loft), stop by Friday night, 2nd floor. Even some of the congressional alumni will be there. Just make sure you pack your mace and rape whistle first.
The Washette, that’s her, tweeting with an avatar that’s a silhouette wearing red heels holding a martini.
“What?” Amalie responds
“You had two days to do this. This is the best you can do?”
Amalie wishes Jiminy was real and had taken her away to some far-off future and she had brain surgery to fix her, dammit. And there’s also a part of her that’s scared, because if someone fiddled around in her brain and she’s still late to things and she still sits around for an hour staring out a window, maybe it means she is lazy. Maybe she is a fuckup.
Maybe it’s just her, after all.
After her boss leaves, grumbling, Amalie takes a deep breath. Then she gets up and finds a corner of this shitty room. Scrunches herself down next to the writing table and the suit of armor. She sits, head in her hands.
Just an overwhelmed girl in the midst of chaos.
She starts gasping for breath. Shallow, shallower breaths. And in the back of her mind she’s going, am I doing this to myself? Am I simulating a panic attack? Because she knows that breathing like this is going to make her hyperventilate. Like, isn’t there a mind over matter thing here? Can’t she control not being upset? Is she just looking for sympathy? But then her brain starts sparling out of control. She can’t do this she can’t do this she can’t do this—
She can’t do this, so she fast forwards in her dream. Jiminy has brought her through a portal into another world. To the year 4000. And it’s scary, and she’s… she’s inhabiting someone else’s body. An older her. Whose brain she’s taken over.
She doesn’t know where she is. She misses her family. She’s going to end up getting murdered in this strange world in a strange system, with the terrifying queen of hearts yelling off of her head. Cuz she’s not a badass. She’s just her.
And she clinches in her mental mechsuit, like cinching the boning of a corset tighter and tighter.
Here lies Amalie, a mild mannered blogger. She’s Doc Ock, shy curly-head scientist unraveling and revealing herself. She’s Clark Kent heroically bursting into Superman. She’s the nerdy brown girl with glasses and long, split-ended hair. C’mon, you all know her. Not the one that looks like Priyanka Chopra, but the one that looks like a drowned rat, awkward and shuffly and a bit too earnest. That’s her.
Her name is Amalie… Like the desi pronunciation of Emily, very much on purpose, her parents’ compromise between assimilation and heritage. And heroes don’t look like her. When she imagines being a starship captain, she imagines dirty blonde hair and hazel eyes. Even in her fucking dreams, she doesn’t cast herself.
Are they proud of her? Probably not, given she had been the ultimate shameful child, getting knocked up in high school, yes nerdy Amalie Chaudry wasn’t as goody two shoes as people thought she was. He went to another school, of course, and thing was, she wasn’t sure she wasn’t sure but she also liked the attention so she did it anyway, and a few times later, well—biology, right?
Just listen to her: the dutiful daughter, wondering about her parents’ pride. Just a stammering immigrant girl, boring awkward frumpy, dutiful like that’s all there is to her, not vibrant and curious and profane and passionate. Like outward is beige and inside a swirly whirlpool of color that just…wants to dare, wants to explode, and in her dreams she is incandescent, luminous not like a lightbulb but like an inferno, like an endless internal scream filled with glitter, so when she explodes it will get in everyone’s nooks and crannies and unmentionables so they’d never ever forget her.
Because yes, she can be as nasty as any of you. Inside she’s an undulating snake, shimmering and sashaying as she rises out of her coil, a bathump bathunk of sexy drumbeat, cymbals as she bucks and curves.
In her dreams, the door opens, and a man rushes to her, and he crouches next to her and takes her hand, and strokes her hair, and it’s like, for the first time, someone knows how to do this. Someone knows how to calm her. She looks into his concerned eyes, his beautiful eyes, and he says I’m here Amalie. Breathe with me.
Eyes of deep green, skin like burnished copper, shaved head. He looks nothing like the various men she dreams of, but …but she knows. This is him. This is that love, the one beyond compare, that no one else can measure up to, the one she can’t live without.
Amalie—in reality, that is—can still smell her child’s milky breath. It was intoxicating. She has always loved cigarette smoke. “Blow it in my face,” she’d always command. “Mmmmm”, she’d say exaggeratingly.
It has nothing on baby’s breath. That smell—it wasn’t just sweet breast milk. There was some sweat, some of her own glands, on his breath. She could huff it all day.
And the impossible smoothness of his heel. She’d rub his heel on her cheek, over and over. Kiss his ankle.
She would take the wrinkles on his forehead and move the skin up and down, up and down, making his head talk to her. “Hello,” his forehead skin would say. “Hello lady.”
And then she’d look into his impossibly blue eyes, his father’s legacy. “Why don’t you love me?” his eyes would silently scream. “Why are you letting me die?”
Rob was sick. Very sick. Months of looking into her sweet boy’s eyes, and all she felt was fear. It choked her, made her want to retreat back into her fantasy life, the escape she had concocted long ago to shut out family, lost friends, alcohol on Wes Dryden’s breath as he told her to justrelax, it would be over soon.
Moments before Rob died, she swore a shimmer displaced the air, a ripple in space-time. Then Amma wailed and everything shattered.
Amalie dreams she’s back through that portal, in the future. An evil queen. And she wonders what happened to America, what happened to exceptionalism, and Jiminy, he shows her.
And she watches as demagogues rise and fall and prey on the fears of her people, bringing to life the ghouls and golems they fear are stashed under their beds, tell them their waking nightmares are all true and those people over there, they are the ones to blame, a manifested witch trial of finding the different, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged and calling them an affront to God. She watches good people, frozen in their indecision, allowing it to happen and she knows, she knows, if she were still there, she’d be one of them. Not brave, not like she is in her dreams, and instead she’d want everyone to get along and understand each other and want the country she loves be the country she thought it was.
And then, she watches it play out on the hundreds of countries across the globe, all caught in cycles of fear and bust, and then she watches as a lunar colony descends into hatred and paranoia, then, centuries later, Alpha Centauri, and so on and so forth, and she looks around at Queen Nyssa’s court and then she knows, this is the legacy of her shining city, her beacon of hope, of human exceptionalism, because we are, we all are, exceptional at being selfish and terrible.
When she had been in labor with Rob, she refused to have her cervix checked by the obstetrician, with his rough hands and brusque manner. She didn’t want to examine that feeling. It brought back too many memories of insults and aggravations long forgotten. Her mother fretted, traditionalist she was. How would they know when she was ready? What harm would it do the baby if they didn’t know when to push? How could she be so selfish?
But Amalie had faith in her labor coach. It had been an imaginary Jiminy who had been beside her that day. Ammu, too, in reality, but her mother stresses Amalie out so much she chose to go with a fake person. It was Jiminy who learned about the mystique of birth. The way a woman’s voice changed when she was near transition, near the end. The way the pitch of her moans oscillated. The unique dimpling of the belly near the uterus and how it projected the width of the cervix. The purple line on her buttocks that would grow longer and longer as she progressed through labor. The sphincters throughout her body, the gates through which energy needed to flow to allow her to push through her pain. Including the one in her throat. He held her hand as she opened her mouth to scream…
Back in Queen Nyssa’s court, Amalie is a hero. Amalie Chaudry. Knight of Justice. Wife to Druhal. Mother to Alexandra and captain of the Noble Endeavor. Friend to Jiminy, damnit. Defender of the Realm. Scion of the Shannara Court. Subject of Queen Nyssa the Glorious Ruler of All.
And she’s about to kill that bitch.
And distantly there’s another her, the new one, screaming in terror and grief, and Amalie shoves her down, deep deep away because it’s a crisis situation, dammit, calm down.
Amalie stands like stone, then she turns her head to catch Druhal’s attention and raises her eyebrows in that special way, the one that says “I’m going in.” Druhal’s eyes widen in recognition and wonder. He minutely shakes his head, as if to say, “Are you out of your mind?” They have a staring contest, one that lasts through the milliseconds. And then Druhal dips his chin. He knows she’s right. He twitches his nose, to signal to those around them.
A suborned guard tosses Amalie a weapon and she hefts it, grinning appreciatively. Her scythe. Yes. This is right. This is now.
And the battle begins.
Her soul is tied to a chain of resistors reaching backwards through time. Druhal fights beside her, sinewy muscle, taut strength, bladed prowess.
“In the name of Arosia, the true Kingdom!” she roars.
That child, that thankless whelp of she-past, is attempting to make herself known. By the fires of Atlantis, if she causes Knight Amalie to lose this contest because of her meddling—
The Queen chooses this moment to accept the gauntlet and whacks Amalie across her face. The tangy froth of copper and sweat fills her mouth.
Amalie, the Younger, is trapped beneath the force of the Knight’s personality, the tentacles of memory and synapses languidly devouring the delight of id and ego, allowing her to descend dramatically into the quicksand of gray matter.
Druhal is cut down.
Now the Knight is an avenging hellcat. She composes odes to her blooded sternum and drinks to her shattered jaw. She slices the scythe of justice through the air, her wounds forgotten.
The Queen sweeps her leg. Amalie falls on her face and then struggles to bring her knees in, head and chest contorted upward in a simulacrum of prayer.
The Younger is in charge of this play. Enough of this now. She refuses to be the understudy to this shitty drama.
The Queen now has her knee on Amalie’s neck, and Amalie gapes and grasps, fishlike. The pressure loosens and there emerges a gargle and a warble and then —
And Amalie knows. She knows.
“Bring my son back,” she gasps.”Bring him back to life. Bring his body here, to me, and heal him. And I’ll kill the rebellious Knight. It’s me. Amalie the Younger. I’ll take over.”
The Queen claps her hands in sheer delight. “Is that all? Oh you quaint dear.”
Amalie plunges the neuroknife into her brain stem, killing the Knight of Justice for good. She retrieves her child with a swagger, standing proud among the blood and bits and severed limbs. If she has to be here, she’s going to be here.
In her mind, a triumphant symphony plays, and she sways in time, lost to the moment.
Orbiting high above a tempestuous world, the court picks up around her and continues on, already discarding the rebellion to the broken plains of history.