By Levi Sable
Illustration by Bushra Khalid
Mrs. Jennifer Jerry and Mrs. Claudia Cho met for coffee every Tuesday at three. Tuesdays were late days, days when their husbands’ mining ship came in as Jupiter was setting, and the men who got off it were covered in dust and rock and flared tempers.
Jennifer and Claudia usually brought needles and overflowing bags of textiles to the coffee-shop dates. They didn’t always need to talk, though they often gossiped about life on their quiet little moon. Sometimes they had delicate confections on pretty plates, and generally, Jennifer drank volumes of coffee dark and black and Claudia shook her head at her while pouring clouds of cream in her tea.
“At our age, we shouldn’t be drinking so much caffeine. It causes your organics to inflame around your joints.” Claudia would explain, patiently. “You don’t want your organics to get caught in your mechanics, do you?” And Jennifer would shake her head, and, depending on her mood, laugh, or become angry that Claudia was calling her old.
On this particular day — there’s always that one day that changes things, no matter how idyllic coffee dates are — Jennifer wore brown and copper. Copper jewelry, copper bangles on her wrists, a fastener of copper and lace in her hair. Her smiles shimmered like the polished metal, but at first, Claudia did not notice. She wore stripes — blue and white — and a straw hat, and her wrinkles wore heavy on her eyes, that day, and Jennifer did not notice. Jennifer’s needles clicked methodically, and Claudia realized that Jennifer was actually concentrating. Jennifer never concentrated on what she was doing.
“Why, Jennifer,” Claudia said. “What is that you’re knitting?”
“Oh, Claudia, you know,” Jennifer said, smiling a sly little smile. “Just a little something.”
She hummed. She hummed.
“Jennifer,” Claudia said. “Jennifer Jerry, you sly girl. What are you making?”
She stared at the pattern, a base of soft, sea-foam green with a complicated metallic structure. She tilted her head. Claudia Cho had been knitting programs for a lot longer than her friend, and her expert eyes traveled the threads with mechanical precision.
“Is that an Attitude?”
Jennifer’s cheeks pinked. “It might be.”
“Who are you knitting an Attitude for? Mrs. Trystan?”
Jennifer shook her head, her high-piled curls bouncing in their place, as if they were impatient to fall. Her fastener glittered.
Again, a tight shake of her eager curls.
“I don’t know anyone else who put in an order this year. Oh, do tell me!”
Jennifer pursed her lips, and Claudia knew. She knew. Oh, the terrible, terrible woman.
“Oh, if you must know… Jackson and I put in an order a few months ago. It should be here next month.” Her copper glittered and her curls flopped and she preened like a bird.
“Well!” Claudia meant for the word to sound encouraging, but it came out like a judgment, the kind of noise she reserved for particularly toothsome gossip.
Jennifer knew what that sound meant, and her cheeks darkened. Claudia pulled herself together, one stripe, one wrinkle, at a time.
“What I mean is, congratulations! And I’m so happy for you. I’m just a bit surprised, is all — after what happened with Jessi—”
Jennifer winced at the name. “Jessi still lives on in our hearts, of course. We just — well, as Jackson said — we can’t live in the past, you know. It was terrible, what happened. But,” she raised her eyes to meet Claudia’s, defiant. “We have to move on.”
Claudia found a smile someplace deep within the folds of her soul and brought it to her lips. “Of course you do, dear. So let’s see.” She set aside the Transportation Protocol she had been knitting together and brought a brand-new set of non-reactive needles up from the depths of her bag. “What shall I make you?”
“Oh, you don’t need to—” Jennifer protested.
“Of course I don’t need to. But you’ve ordered a child! It would be my honor to help you bring it together. I don’t want to take anything too special from you, of course. Perhaps an Inclination? Mechanical, artistic, culinary?”
“An Inclination would be too sweet, thank you!” Jennifer smiled a relieved smile. “We were thinking we would make it Artistic.”
“Artistic sounds perfect. And so unlike Jessi.” Claudia was all sweetness, leaving the name suspended in the air between them.
Jennifer’s mouth twitched, but Claudia pretended not to notice, and moments passed slowly as she cast on. She started up a base program. The child would come with a basic language — these days it was all LLAMA. SHEEP went out of style a long time ago, and though Claudia preferred ANGORAA, it wasn’t standard.
So she started a LLAMA base program. She hadn’t made one in a while, but the stitches were all too familiar, and they went on smoothly. WHEN (choice), MAKE (art). Except there had to be more paths, and a random-number-generating algorithm, or the child would be impossibly flighty.
Claudia realized she was shaking. She took a deep, steadying breath, and looked at Jennifer, who was engrossed and unaware. Claudia’s hands trembled again, and she nearly dropped a stitch. She reached for her tea, and then stopped — the delicate cup would rattle in its thin dish, and she would be embarrassed. She excused herself to the toilet.
The toilet in the coffee shop was poorly heated, and Io’s chill seeped into her bones as she entered. She ignored the toilet and stepped to the wall, where a cool rock countertop was provided for customers to set their things on. She gripped it tight, her hands whitening, and looked herself in the eyes.
Her eyes were a deep brown, and her hair carried a generous dusting of white over the jet-black that had been her pride for so long. She had wrinkles, yes — perhaps more than she should. She had a heavy heart, and sometimes, she felt as though that heaviness inside her were pulling her skin down with it, pulling her limbs, pulling everything down, down to a darkness—
“No,” she whispered to herself, catching the reflection of her eyes as if she were convincing a whole other person. “You cannot do this now.”
She stared at herself and held onto the countertop and breathed the frigid air until she could let go without shaking apart.
“Feeling alright?” Jennifer said when Claudia returned, zooming along on her Attitude.
“Yes, absolutely. Just getting old and moving slowly. You know how it is,” Claudia said, chipper.
“Oh really,” Jennifer said, laughing bitterly.
Claudia wondered if she was doing this on purpose, making fun of her friend’s oversensitivity. She thought she might be. “No reason to take ourselves too seriously. Gives you wrinkles.”
Jennifer’s smile was tight.
Claudia picked up the Inclination, so even and perfect. She glanced at Jennifer’s Attitude. It was — so like Jennifer — sloppy. There were stitches here and there that had been dropped or crossed, and lumpy mistakes. Claudia looked down at her work. She bit her lip, searching for the words to point out the mistake without embarrassing or hurting her friend.
“And here I thought you were in the toilet, thinking about Tavi.”
The words nearly undid every stitch she had. She looked down at her needles, at the perfect Inclination program she was knitting, and she said nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing about Tavi, nothing about her son’s absence in her heart, nothing about what Jessi did to him and the way that they spiraled together so fast, like dry string catching on fire, like an exploding battery.
Nothing about the gaping holes in the program Jennifer was creating.
Jennifer and Johan looked old at the table of expectant parents, but they did not seem to notice. They laughed and drank and compared the flat, pastel programs they had knit. They discussed yarn types and paint colors and bedding.
The weekly community dinner was humming with activity, but that didn’t stop Jennifer’s piercing voice and high-pitched laugh from drilling into Claudia’s ears.
Toward the end of the dinner, Claudia was gladly drawn into a deep conversation with friends about irrigation protocols. Her husband had left early, and Claudia lingered longer than she would’ve. By the time she gathered herself to go, nearly everyone had left, and Jennifer’s knitting basket lay forgotten on the floor.
Claudia braced herself for the cold and picked up the basket. She would bring it to her friend.
Jessi had been a brilliant child, like flying directly at the sun. Jennifer’s programs had been too sharp, too extreme; she had no subtleties. Tavi had been quiet and reserved and thoughtful and completely susceptible to Jessi’s wild, incinerating ways.
Jessi had taken him on a ride in her new skipper — a small, light craft that could only go a few hundred miles, and was mostly for getting to and from settlements on Io. She had gotten the craft after she got accepted into college, back on Earth. Jessi would be leaving, and Tavi had been so happy for her — happy, and relieved to see the end of the whirling chaos in his life.
Something — something awful — had happened, and they didn’t come back. The crew ship found them the next day. Jessi had an electric device in her hand — homemade, technically brilliant, and deadly. She had shorted out Tavi’s insides, and then turned it on her own.
Tavi hadn’t fought. There was no stress, no strain to his body. Jessi had a smile on her face — smiling, though her circuits were melted. Smiling. Smiling.
The silence — the emptiness — was oppressive. It hurt to look at the stars, tonight. As she walked, she looked at the ground. At Jennifer’s bag.
The programs for the new child sat on top, after having been passed around at the dinner. They made Claudia’s fingers positively itch. They were messy and ill-stitched. They wouldn’t even run, the state they were in.
Claudia stopped in the doorway of a hair salon. The walls were cold but warmer than the moon’s icy air, and they blocked the wind. The cold seeped into her joints the moment she sat down. She would have to hurry.
She pulled off her gloves, flexing her fingers. She pulled a crochet hook from the depths of her coat. She began weaving together the dropped stitches, un-snarling the snarled lines of code. She finished the first one and was reaching for the second before her mind caught up to her fingers. The program was readable, but— but— she read it twice, her fingers running up and down the metallic veins. It was garbage. This couldn’t be what Jennifer meant. It was unclear. Confused. Erratic.
Her fingers were seizing up. Quickly she rifled the others, reading bits and pieces. All garbage. It would take hours to make sense of these broken rows, these raveled stitches.
She would bring them to Jennifer and tell her— tell her—
She looked out over the yellow expanse of Io, at the dark and endless space beyond. Somewhere out there, Tavi’s pod floated, preserved, his mechanical internals and soft, organic skin as it was when he died, a decade ago. So long.
Would she tell her?
She trotted through the quiet, her long, silver jacket whipping as the wind picked up.
The Jerry residence glowed warm against the dark. Claudia rapped on the door.
“Yes?” Jennifer’s pale face peered out at her. “Oh! Claudia.” She stepped aside, and Claudia stepped in. The house was warm, almost too warm, but it felt nice and hot against her frozen fingers.
Jennifer stunk like fortified wine.
“You left this—” Claudia held the basket out.
“Oh! Thank you. You are such a dear,” she took it and tossed it onto a chair nearby.
Claudia turned to the mantle where the heating coils glowed green and blue and red, to warm her fingers for a moment. An involuntary gasp tore from her as she realized that the picture that had once hung above it was gone. Their one, beautiful photo, Jessi and Tavi, arms slung around each other, grinning through eternity.
Jennifer stepped in front of the hearth, facing her. Defending it. “I took it down.” Her voice was hard. “I took it down. We have to move on. We have to live our lives. I need to live my life, even if you’re not ready to live yours. I am done paying for Jessi’s sins.”
Claudia smiled. The smile tightened over her entire body and the force of it cracked her. The heat of it wrecked her.
She walked out the door, leaving the basket of broken programs behind. Jennifer would pay for those sins just a little bit longer.