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We saunter down the way, peering through the food shops and hot dog stands, arguing over what to eat. I want Mexican – I’m dying for a carnitas tostada – but my assemblage hates to eat meat. They want tofu burgers or peanut stir-fry or some other disgusting display of vegetarianism. Just once, I wish I could have a grease-brimming steak smothered in ground sausage and a cup of gravy as beverage. That would be the day, though.
Another assemblage knocks into our shoulder without apology, leering at us for a moment. Then they continue urgently walking to the nearest office building.
“People are so rude these days,” Susan says within our head. “So bitter.”
Of course, we are just as bitter as most, especially to each other. I am bitter toward Tucker most of all. He is the part of us that always tries to take over the body, do all the talking, do all the deciding, everything. And then he complains when he doesn’t get his way. If he keeps it up, I’m going to demand we go to the courts to get him removed. Then he can go plague some other assemblage.
“We’re getting bean stew,” Tucker argues.
“Sorry, Tucker,” Mary says. “It’s my turn to choose.”
“No, it’s not,” his voice bully-whines. “You had us eat that vomit-soup the other day.”
“That was last week, and it was good.”
Arne barges in with his hunter’s voice. “She’s right, Tucker. It’s not your turn until tomorrow.”
Arne is the oldest of us, probably 40 by now. Some of the older people were put in young assemblages to add wisdom to the groups. Of course, each of us has a strong characteristic. I add artistic sense.
Before we were merged, I was a painter. Even as a high school student, I won dozens of awards. The teachers had me paint a mural over the graffiti-covered walls before I graduated. It was a giant crab with humans for feet. They called my style “a chaotic display of surrealism,” and everybody thought I would be a famous artist one day. But that didn’t last. After the merging, I could not paint anything. Not only were the hands I had to work with unsteady and backwards, but my assemblage couldn’t stop whining. Not one of them appreciates the creative arts.
“We’re going to the salad bar,” Mary tells us.
She was added to our assemblage because she is very left-brained. Math comes as easy to her as painting does to me. Of course, Susan is good at math too, but she’s not a mathematical genius like Mary.
Susan adds purity and religious strength. She is the one who prays for us and gives us spiritual guidance. However, religion is not supposed to be a big thing these days. We say we are Catholic, but it is only for Susan’s sake. She was the only one who was religious prior to merging.
We are in Susan’s body, by the way. The courts selected hers because it was the healthiest. Both Tucker and I were smokers, Mary was too hefty, and Arne was too old. Of all five of us, I’m glad we are in Susan’s body. She is like a piece of art; curvy slender features, absorbing brown eyes, platinum blond hair streaming down our back.
We go into a salad bar and let Mary take control of the arms, scooping whatever vegetables she wants onto our plate.
“Don’t get blue cheese again,” Tucker says.
“I’m getting whatever I want.”
“You like ranch. Get ranch.”
Mary says nothing, scooping shredded carrots and radishes, macaroni salad and pasta. When she gets to the end of the counter, she goes straight for the blue cheese. Tucker moans and resists, pulling our arm away from the bowl of creamy dressing, dribbling goo all over our front.
“You jerk,” Mary yells at him. She seizes control of the arm and dumps the spoon of chunky dressing on her salad, creating an oozing lake of white.
“Not too much,” Susan says to Mary, weight-warning as usual, wiping the cheesy slime from the shirt.
Mary takes us to a table in a dark corner, as she always does when we eat. I wonder if she was ashamed of her weight before she merged with us, always hiding in the back of restaurants so nobody would see her make a pig of herself. Now she eats salads instead of pizza and cake, trying to keep healthy so that we don’t get as fat as she was.
Tucker cringes as we bite into the blue cheesy lettuce. “How can you like this stuff?”
The eatery is mostly empty. Three bodies are in there, crunching vegetables in the stiff atmosphere. Assemblages usually don’t associate with other assemblages, talking amongst themselves instead, leaving this world a dismal, hushed place.
I wish there had been another way for humans to survive. After the drought of the twenties, our food supply could not support a population of our measure. It was either exterminate the majority of citizens or merge multiple people into a single body. Because the courts chose the latter, most people became miserable. Some think we would have been better off sacrificing our greater half. Tucker childishly jerks our hand while Mary is trying to eat.
“Don’t be so immature,” Mary says. He chuckles and does it again, causing Mary to yell outside of our head, “Stop!” The other assemblages glare at us.
“Sorry,” Arne says to them in his calm voice.
When we speak through Susan’s vocal chords, you can tell who is doing the speaking. We all speak at a different tone or variation. Arne’s is a deep version of Susan’s voice, mine is more mellow, Tucker’s is a loud and obnoxious version, and so on. I can’t imagine how she feels when she hears other people speaking through her voice – her mouth is moving, her voice is sounding, but somebody else is doing the talking. I would have gone harebrained if they chose my body. Twisted.
As Mary brings the fork to our mouth, Tucker tips it and giggles, scattering food onto our lap. She screams with our voice again, “Cut it out, jerk!”
But he just does it again on the next bite, cackling.
“Now you two stop your arguing, or we’ll take you to the courts to get you removed,” Arne says in his cool, mellow voice.
“Go ahead and take me to the courts,” she says. “I want out of this body.”
“Yeah,” Tucker says. “I want her out of here too.”
Arne says gently, “Look. We need to see a counselor for you two. You know that the courts won’t alter assemblages anymore unless the problem is severe. And in that case, they usually terminate the conflicting personality.” He falters, trying to get his thoughts in order. “We’re going to have to get used to living like this.”
We pause. Nobody knew it was going to be so terrible after we merged. Nobody knew there would be so much conflict. When I was a kid, I got sick of my brother because we shared a room. Well, sharing a body is a little more extreme.
“Why don’t we just be terminated?” Susan said. We all stare at our plate, frozen, surprised to hear those words come from Susan. She is too beautiful to destroy, too pure. She is our temple.
“What’s the point of living now? We’ve given up our individuality, our souls.” She shakes our head. “You people took over my body, took over my life. I just don’t care anymore. I can’t live like this.”
“Aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” Tucker asks.
She shrugs, shakes our head, but does not respond. Instead she says, “I can’t remember the last time I was happy.”
“We weren’t meant to be happy,” I say. They are startled to hear my voice in the back of our head. I usually don’t speak, remaining silent, listening to their discussions in our mind. I wonder if they forgot I was here and are just now remembering, shocked.
I continue, explaining a theory that has been in my thoughts for the past month. “We sacrificed happiness for the sake of our children’s future. The courts knew we would be miserable too, but they didn’t have a choice. The human race would have been wiped out otherwise.”
“That’s not what they said,” Mary interrupts.
“I know. They lied. They said that it would end loneliness and antisocial behavior, but they knew it wouldn’t. The only purpose left for us is to make a child, raise it, then wait to die.”
I pause, giving us a bite of salad, then say, “That was the plan they had to decrease our population without literally killing anyone. After we’re gone, things will be back to normal. Mankind will live on because we gave up our happiness.”
They agree with my theory by not speaking, glaring away from the table. The courts said that we would be more happy together, but it was just another illusion. I get us up, leave $10 for the food, and we go out to the street. It is flurry-cold out here, shivering in Susan’s frail skin. Our voice stutters a sigh. Everything is stale, empty as usual, so lifeless. The courts thought they had solved the overpopulation problem, but in doing so they’ve overpopulated our minds.
We decide to take a cab, the only car on the street. We don’t speak a word to the assemblage driving, stuttering to ourselves, dazed. And then we return to our quiet apartment, sitting numb in the dimness, alone with each other.