Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

Big Boss Bitch

The woman began as an idea, as so many women do. She couldn’t be entirely beautiful, because that would stretch credibility too far. She couldn’t be ugly, either, though. A face with just enough lines that on a man it would be called rugged or handsome; but let’s put a little makeup on to smooth the edges, hmm? For clothing, a pantsuit, and sometimes a skirt. Recognizable brands made invisible through smart cuts and conservative hemlines. And let’s make sure that she smiles. A little razzle-dazzle. You can see how her husband found her pretty, once.

We picked out our woman in Oklahoma. Six weeks of traveling all throughout the Middle West before we got results. Casting would’ve been easier in California or New York, but these days people always look for the provenance, and why include an elitist factor that will just have to be explained away? This girl screams Real America, the way a cheerleader would in the last quarter of the game. She was runner-up Homecoming Queen, 1979. Now she helps her dad run a cattle ranch; the grass is so green it’s blue, so blue the horizon bleeds into the sky.

That is, she helped her dad. Until she started helping us.

We picked her up off the street. She was walking around looking for a leather worker to repair a pair of stirrups. “He switched storefronts,” she said. “Can you believe it? Same sign, same everything, but move it down a block and a half and I can’t pick the damn place out. Been coming here for the past twenty years.” Her laughter was self-effacing, aw-shucks, and revealed a few too many smile lines beside the eyes. But these could be handled with a deft concealer brush. We asked if there was someplace we could go talk. About what? she wanted to know. A proposition. What kind? Well. How would she like to serve her country?

• • • •

It doesn’t take a lot of convincing to get someone to accept a mantle of power. We were counting on that. And also on the fact that she wouldn’t read too far into the fine print before signing on the dotted line, and didn’t have too many ideas for what needed to change in our great nation. General concepts, inarticulable feelings: great. A new day for America. Stand up for the little guy. It was convenient that she still used male pronouns; not everyone does. Even people you don’t expect to be vehicles for inclusivity slip and say “they” instead of “he,” though the grammar books won’t back them up. One less thing we would have to coach her on. She teared up a little when we told her she was just what the country needed, and that, too, is a talent that can’t always be taught. Just enough emotion at just the right moment. Powerful, but soft. Like a blanket that’s put through the wash a hundred times, a thousand.

• • • •

Our job is to give the people what they’re clamoring for. In moderation, of course. Figure out what they desire and then turn it into something they actually need, like those terrible chocolate chip cookies your mom makes with grated zucchini inside. The people wanted a woman, but they didn’t understand in what capacity. So many different kinds out there, and only us to find the right one. Welcome, open, elusive, chagrined. She wanted to be president, but only after we told her so.

The campaign trail was a dream. A few hiccups in the primaries from those on our side of the aisle who couldn’t see the bigger picture. But once we hit the main stage, things clicked into place. Sometimes after giving a speech she’d start to walk away from the mic and then turn around, flashing a last grin for the cameras. We hoped it would trigger some vestigial supermodel response, a little glimmer of unattainable warmth between the thighs. The newspapers called her a strong woman and a force to be reckoned with, and she was quickly spoofed by variety shows and ambitious comedians. Her name was in the headlines every day. We hardly had to try.

• • • •

Now, we aren’t sure exactly when people started looking to their politicians and expecting to see a mirror, but these days that’s the game we’re playing. Everyone knows it. People turn on the TV and want their better selves reflected back. It can be a boon: much easier to find someone folksy than a genuine visionary, a policy miracle. An empathetic, systematic, deep-digging go-getter with an eye on the prize. Not to mention the grace to get through all those interminable dinners with foreign dignitaries while carrying off couture. Even a well-fitted tux can start to feel restrictive after a few roulades de marmelade avec une ice vanille, if you know what we mean.

(As a side note, this is one area of diplomacy we identified early on in which women actually shine brighter. They have generations of experience saying no, it looks lovely, but I couldn’t possibly, well maybe just one bite. Like how women do well in submarines because they’re designed, as it were, for interpersonal conflict resolution. It’s a scientifically proven element of nurturing.)

But the mirror. The mirror. At last the country figured out that anyone could hold one, and they began to get tetchy about it. They wanted to project their dreams into the nethersphere by ticking off a box in a booth—which we admit is a beautiful idea. But it takes planning to make it work. People drop mirrors all the time. They crack. We needed something scratchproof, not too heavy, classically designed. The pride of Inola High School, OK, and a prize-winning member of 4-H. Pliable, friable, and a decent physical specimen. Don’t judge: They look at physical fitness when choosing crew for those submarines, too.

• • • •

There were no problems to speak of until we got her into the office, and even then we were distracted by the early flurry of activity. An in-depth special with a bevy of design blogs showing off the new Oval and discussing her selections from the National Gallery. A sit-down with the most sentimental evening news anchor talking about how young she was when she lost her mom, and her own struggles with raising three children at the same time as managing so many heads of cattle. “Heads of State, now,” the anchor joked. Madame President laughed, that same unpretentious chuckle that made our knees weak outside the Stop-n-Chop café.

Still, we should’ve seen the signs—no one wants to talk about family planning right after dinner, while sipping a postprandial highball. Her target demographic was people with televisions; there were certain types of female she could be for them, but not every type. Maternal, yes, but only a mama bear when it came to protecting the country from outside threats of the sort we earmarked. Easier to pretend that she’d never had a period or bought a box of Tampax—that was one benefit of a post-menopausal candidate, even if it lost us points on sexual charisma. Better to let her appeal be a little bit confusing. A girl in a mink coat who smells like dad’s cigar. A show-jumper who doffs her cap at the end of the rodeo and lets her hair tumble down onto her shoulders while she sweats.

One day, in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, she made a joke about breastfeeding in the War Room. Afterwards, there was whispering in the hallways, interns giggling in pantyhose and bad suits. We snapped and told them to get back to work, and they did—but all the girls had a little extra pep in their step. Some unrecognizable jus as they imagined, even as a gag, something they’d never before thought possible. The boys looked nervous. We couldn’t blame them.

When we talked to the President about taking care with what she said around impressionable young staffers, she didn’t share our concerns. “Kids,” she snorted. Her mannish laugh relaxed us. The distinct impression she gave was of someone thinking something dirty, but not quite ready to say it out loud. Still, when we complimented her brooch she gave us a strange look—one we’d never seen before. It didn’t get any better when we said it must be hell to spend so much time in heels. “Hmm,” she said. Then she told us she wanted to go on Crossfire.

She stretched her concept so slowly that, at first, we didn’t even notice. The morning of the White House Christmas Party she walked into a briefing without any makeup, and snapped at a page who told her she looked tired. “Have to show up as a clean slate before they make me camera-ready,” she said. “Boy, are they going to layer it on. Damned if I’m going to wash my face twice just to give you the illusion I’m well-rested.” Little things added up, and we brushed them off, as we would the dandruff on her shoulder. Lovingly. Sometimes with scotch tape, or one of those lint rollers they sell in the impulse aisle at Target, though she smacked our hands away. At a rally we’d been careful to position as “church-going” instead of specifically “pro-life,” she made everyone cry with her story about a hometown girl getting pregnant too young and still graduating from high school on time. But then, at the last minute, she turned thoughtful. “I remember,” she said, “how that girl came up and told me she felt like her body didn’t belong to her anymore. She thought life was sacred, of course, but she asked me, isn’t my life a little sacred, too? And I said, Oh honey.” The room was quiet. Then the President smiled, to tentative applause.

It wasn’t so much the things she did: pummeling Congress for weeks until they introduced a bill to enforce the testing of rape kits; visiting with dignitaries in flats instead of the shoes that slimmed her ankles; taking meetings while her husband was out of town, so he couldn’t offer a veneer of approval for those—not us!—who thought he should. No. It was the fact that she wouldn’t listen to us when we offered gentle corrections. “The American people don’t want—” we began. And she said, “Hogwash. My name’s the one they checked off in the voting box.” Later that week, she gave a national radio address with no lipstick. Yes, it was radio, but we were all in the room, and a photographer was present. On our request, he shot the whole event without film.

Okay, we thought. Okay. We can fix this. We pep-talked our reflections, slapped ourselves on the cheek to stimulate creative thinking without that jittery after-effect you get from too much coffee. We did a little bit of cocaine. At about four a.m., one of us lay back on the couch and looked up at the ceiling, making one of those fingerboxes people use when they want to indicate they’re looking through a camera. Directorial as all hell. What if, he said, we had her, but it wasn’t her?

We all laughed. The pot had really loosened us up, and only made a few of us too sleepy. The caverns of our minds were open, the walls throbbing and glistening with portent. Potential. I mean, the directorial one continued, we have the tech, right? For some reason this was a really funny sentence and we all started giggling again, and couldn’t put a lid on it for at least fifteen minutes, at which point the room grew silent as the gravity of the idea settled over our shoulders.

We did have the tech. We were pretty sure.

• • • •

For weeks, we watched her. Then for weeks after that. We made notes. How often did she insist on driving herself places? (Never. The Secret Service wouldn’t allow it.) How much did she travel home? (Enough.) Which of her habits were unassailable, basically invisible? Unfortunately, she didn’t smoke cigarettes outside the Residence or go for runs around the Capitol Mall. But she had burgers flown in from her favorite diner in Oklahoma every week, and she enjoyed walking in the Rose Garden to clear her head after complicated briefings. Most promising of all, she drank a neat bourbon every evening—and how well did we know it. During the campaign, we carried a bottle and a set of beveled glasses so she could drink with important donors and party leaders, not to mention a few regular folks we deemed camera-ready. Now, the liquor was decanted into crystal, and she had a habit of playing with the bottle stopper, rolling it around on her palm.

Some nights we sat with her, and, if invited, poured ourselves a small glass, too. Up close she had her own kind of beauty. We had trained ourselves to see it, but that didn’t make it any less real. There was something about the way she tilted her head while she tilted her glass, bourbon gathering in one edge and turning a wedge of light to amber. Hair falling over one shoulder. On camera we’d hidden her wrinkles, but up close they distinguished her the way a fingerprint might. She had a scar by the corner of her mouth, from a near miss with an uncontrolled steer. “What the hell are you looking at,” she’d ask if she caught us staring. “I’m the leader of the free world.” As if she didn’t want us to look. As if she thought we didn’t have that right.

• • • •

We grew more determined in our efforts. Roboticists are a dime a dozen, and we weren’t looking to create an AI. No more unpredictable intelligences: that was our motto for the year. The real issue was slipping something into her drink that would stop the heart without giving her a chance to raise the alarm. Timing would be critical. We had to get her out of the Oval and into the limo we had standing by. We had to reach mission control before rigor mortis set in; we had to have a team of surgeons ready with scalpels, and with the living frame. It’s no easy thing to slip off a skin, not at all like undressing. A shoe kicked crosswise, a garment falling to the floor. This was a thousand pinpricks, a lifting of the whole. Smooth cuts at the scalp, hidden underneath the hair the same way we’d disguise a facelift. This was theft.

Would it hurt? we wanted to ask the doctors. Would some part of her still feel the knife? She would be dead, but sometimes you hear stories about people hovering just above their bodies, not yet dissolved into the beyond. Or surgical patients who seem to be under, who feel every cut, every shift of their organs. They used to tie bells to corpses for days at a time, just to make sure they didn’t bury you alive. Of course, you may wonder why we cared, but the answer is simple: We picked her, you see. She was a person, in spite of everything, and she was unique. She wasn’t expendable, she just needed tweaking. Plus, we worried that somehow the robot would feel it, too, and blame us. We were done with the blame.

An assassination would’ve been easier, of course. Institute a national period of mourning, whole shebang. The VP is just some guy. Automatic transmission, almost too easy to drive. But there’s a certain curve to this woman’s cheekbone, a way she waves off questions from the press that would make you forswear your own mother. Put a bullet right between her eyes. That’s the level of commitment we’re talking about here. You have an idea, you have to see it through to the end. And we did. We did. We watched the blood go down the drain. It’s not something we like to talk about, but—the last crook of her finger. The last flip of her hair. The last breath. We were there, and no one can take that away.

For a few days we told reporters she was under the weather with a mild strain of Asian flu. Enough to account for any lags in speech when she returned, strange sagginess in the skin under her eyes. But soon enough we were up and running again. You’d be surprised how efficient the new system is. Much less glitchy. There are safewords to turn her off or deflect her, if needed: Once, early on, we had to send her into a faint, and had the Press Secretary say she’d come down with the vapors. Just a little joke. Some of us thought it was going too far, but don’t we deserve a stress reliever now and then? Shouldn’t she be willing to give us that much?

• • • •

She grew up on acreage, you see, riding an Appaloosa gelding across hillsides, ducking tree branches, whipping her braid back from in front her face in the wind. She studied psychology at the University of Oklahoma, with a minor in agriculture and a special interest in Nineteenth-Century French Literature that you better believe we scrambled to hide during the election cycle. She was blessed with good health, such clear skin that even now it connects with each electrical node and under the right light practically glows. She had horse sense. A terrifically sly mind, if not a suspicious one. Not suspicious enough. But still, she was the big boss. Head of every department you can think of, thanks to those who worked tirelessly on her behalf, choosing her from among all the female options in the country and blessing her as the least objectionable, the very least objectionable of all.

And what do we have? What did we ever want in return? Just the right to look at her with pride and say, I made this. Just the right, when we ask it, to touch her face and move the jaw into a slightly more becoming angle—or more pugnacious, as needs be. The right to arrange her hair and critique the color of her blouse, to hold convocations on her spring style and whether it looked well under the light of the afternoon sun. Ask her to reconsider her opinions, to apologize when the moment arises, since we have feelings, too. Troubles enough to call our own. We’ve given ourselves the task of helping America understand the reality of the female, even live with it—even love it. And she is our laboratory. Difficult, but worth the effort: her body, alive to our every suggestion. Her body steel, her body complicit.

Her body reborn.

Adrienne Celt

Adrienne Celt is the author of two novels: The Daughters, which won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award for fiction and was shortlisted for the 2016 Crawford Award, and Invitation to a Bonfire, which will be published by Bloomsbury in June 2018. Her work has appeared in the 2016 O. Henry Prize Stories, Strange Horizons, The Kenyon Review, Esquire, Zyzzyva, Ecotone, and many other places, and her collection of comics, Apocalypse How? An Existential Bestiary came out with DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press in 2016. She lives in Tucson, and publishes a webcomic (most) every Wednesday at loveamongthelampreys.com. Find her online at adriennecelt.com, or, against her better judgement, on Twitter.