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art by Jonathan Westbrook

"You're Heads," She Says. "You're Tails."

M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Asimov's Science Fiction, Redstone Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several times, in Daily Science Fiction. He is also editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies, the second volume of which is coming from Grand Central Publishing in July 2013. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but people anywhere can find him at mbennardo.com.

As I peer from the window of the third-story lab in Bingham Building, I can just see the other guy crossing the rain-slicked cobblestones of the quad. He's hunched over, defeated. In shock, probably. He has no bags, but he's leaving forever. Everything he owns is on his back or in his pockets--a cheap suit, two hundred bucks, and a bus ticket to Topeka.
It's all because, a few minutes earlier, she studied the two of us--me and that other guy. Because she pulled out her magnifying glass and scrutinized every line of our bodies and faces, peered into our eyes, tapped our knees, checked how our hair met our scalps.
Then, after the inspection, she pointed to me and said, like she always does, "You're Heads." Then she pointed to the other guy and said, like she always does, "You're Tails."
She says it like the decision isn't hers. Like she's just the judge, calling how the coin flip lands. But all the same, Tails has to go while Heads gets to stay. I'm always Heads, even from way back at the beginning. I've never been Tails.
I must be the luckiest guy on Earth.
"Come over here and let me see those clear blue eyes again," she purrs, calling softly from the other side of the lab.
The other guy has just disappeared down Euclid Avenue--heading downtown for the Greyhound station, where he'll catch the late night bus to Chicago. That's always where they go first. It'll be dawn when he gets there, and then he'll go on, farther west, out and away and forgotten forever.
"Come over here," she says again.
I let the blind fall. She looks in my eyes and runs her hand through my hair, squealing with delight.
"This is the last time," she promises. "Finally, you're perfect."
The first two weeks are always good. The new moon fattens into a full moon, and we're happy enough. She's happy enough. I've got those blue eyes now--those clear, piercing, arresting blue eyes. The ones that take her breath away.
But then, as the full moon loses its first infinitesimal shaving on the way to waning, there's a change. She still loves my eyes, but she gets that thoughtful look as she runs her hand through my hair. She's thinking it could be softer or darker or healthier.
At times, I feel her touching me like a scientist. We still kiss, but she absentmindedly slips her fingers through my hair, evaluating its properties. She wraps a lock around her knuckles and pulls. Later, I wake in the darkness to the sound of her steadily scratching out notes in longhand.
I know what's coming, but I don't say anything. She thinks she tricks me, but I don't mind. I drink the wine, knowing I'll wake up in that tank in the third story of the Bingham Building. I drink the wine, knowing it's drugged.
They say that every coin flip is an independent event, but I don't really believe it. Or I don't really believe these are coin flips at all. Somehow, I've always been Heads. I've never been Tails. All those thousands and thousands of flips, and the result is always the same. How can I even imagine another outcome?
I drift into consciousness in the tank. I'm floating in fluid with a tube down my throat. Already I can feel the numbness along my spine--the tingling that starts at my neck and reaches down to my tailbone.
Or my tailbones.
I have a tangle of legs below my pelvis, four of them. Two tailbones. A pelvis and a spine that are uncoiling and unzipping, forming two identical sets. It'll only be a few more days now.
As I drift back to sleep in the tank again, I wonder how far back I can recall. Can I remember being the first simple planarian she placed in solution, directing it to reproduce asexually, guiding its tail to separate and its neoblasts to divide and differentiate?
Can I remember being the resulting planarian--similar, but not the same, a modified child budded from the parent, made better and more desirable by her own intervention? Can I remember that first evaluation, being judged the first microscopic Head, a tiny animalcule watching the first Tail sucked away in a pipette?
On and on, through thousands of generations, each one made larger, more complex, more perfect in her eyes. Can I remember them all, each stage in my own development from flatworm to man, each generation during which I was the superior Head and the other was the less evolved Tail?
I don't try. It's better not to.
I barely hear her when she points to the other guy and says, like she never does, "You're Heads." I'm already in shock when she points to me and says, like she never does, "You're Tails."
It's the impossible, the unthinkable. After those thousands of divisions, I'm somehow finally the less perfect duplicate. Some line out of place, some color less appealing, some tiny blemish--she doesn't say why, and I never find out.
I hardly know how I end up on the quad, walking numbly towards Euclid Avenue and the Greyhound station downtown. I turn around and a blind falls in the third floor of Bingham Building.
I'm Tails. Everything I've known my whole life is over. I'm Tails.
As I board the Greyhound, the driver grins at me. "I knew you'd be back. Every month you're here, on this late night bus to Chicago."
I nod and shuffle down towards an open seat.
"Where you headed this time?"
I look down at my ticket. I don't even know. "Rapid City," I mumble.
"Let me guess," says the bus driver. "You came up Tails again? Every month for years now I see you here like this. And you ain't never once got Heads. If you take my advice, friend, you won't come back to try again. You just look too beat down every time."
I don't say anything. I'm lost in my own thoughts again, thinking that elsewhere in the city, in that third-story laboratory, she's probably looking at the other guy right now. "This is the last time," she's probably saying. "Finally, you're perfect."
The bus driver shakes his head as he closes the door and puts the bus in gear. "But what am I saying? I bet I see you next month, and the month after that, and the month after that."
As the bus pulls out, I think about that other guy again--that guy who never remembers losing and thinks he'll always win forever. I look out into the darkness and then down at my hands.
"I bet you do."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 19th, 2012

Author Comments

I like to set my stories in specific places when possible, and this one borrows some details from the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In reality, Bingham Building is home to civil engineers, a microchip clean room, and a laser lab. But the building looms so successfully over the south end of the main quad that I never thought of placing the weird laboratory in this story anywhere else.

- M. Bennardo
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