Jenji held her fan delicately, her nails reflecting the sun. With short, stiff motions she directed the feather forward. It levitated once, twice, jumping the sticks I’d laid out as obstacles. My fan was folded, pinched tight in my sweating hands as I watched her feather pull ahead of mine.
The dry breeze blew her feather out of bounds. “Crap,” Jenji said. I couldn’t help myself as I grinned, unfolding my fan.
I inched forward on my stomach, dust grinding between my knees and the ground. The sun burned my scalp. Unlike Jenji, I’d forgotten my hat. Now the summer sun baked the back of my neck, my nose, and my arm as I reached out, my fan nudging the air.
It wobbled up, floating over the second stick. I flicked my wrist to keep it airborne; if it touched the ground, my turn was forfeited back to Jenji, and I had a feeling she would win on her next go.
Flick. Flick. My feather passed the third stick. Only one more separated mine from Jenji’s.
I dragged myself forward, uselessly wetting my chapped lips. Faha told me it only made them drier and took away some of my own regulated hydration. I knew she was right; my mother’s courtesans were always right. That didn’t keep me from doing it though.
Sweat crept down my back. I looked at Jenji. She was a few years older than me, my only friend in the villa. Her face was free from moisture, a new normal that I was still getting used to.
I looked back at my progress too late. My feather touched the ground.
Jenji threw her fan open with a snap. She tipped her hat back on her head and started waving. In a matter of seconds, the game was over. She’d won, as usual.
We walked back to the villa side by side, looking forward to cups of jade green cactus juice and sliced pineapple. Sure enough, Faha and some of the male courtesans had set out our treats on a table in the shade of the courtyard. I slid gratefully onto the cool stone bench and poured myself a glass of juice. My mouth was so dry it was sore.
Jenji sat across from me and took a single slice of pineapple. She was thinner today. I wondered when she’d last eaten. I heard that your appetite changed when you evolved.
None of the courtesans ate at all anymore. Nor did they sweat, despite the heat. Only me and Jenji were still defaults–everyone else in the villa had evolved. And now Jenji was evolving, leaving me alone.
“Does it feel weird?” I asked, swallowing a mouthful of cactus juice. Jenji licked her fingers.
“A little. Just sort of numb. Like, I don’t know if it’s hot out or if I should be hungry or have to pee.” We both giggled. “Is it? Hot, I mean.”
I thought my sweaty face answered her question. “Really hot. I think I got a sunburn, too.”
I had a hard time reading Jenji’s face. That was another thing with people who evolved. Their faces didn’t work the same way. I could never tell how my mother was feeling.
“I don’t think I get sunburned,” Jenji said, staring at her hands. Her forehead scrunched up. “I don’t remember what it feels like.”
I sat back, my sunburned skin tight and aching. I wondered what it must be like, to not feel any of that. It must be like a dream.
Over the next week, Jenji changed. She stopped wearing a hat when we went out into the desert to play. She didn’t eat at all, and she seemed to forget how to smile. She evolved faster than I thought she would. It had taken a long time with the courtesans, especially the male ones. I asked my mother about it.
“Men have more trouble evolving, Shi,” she said, her gaze not quite focusing on me, despite the fact that I was standing right in front of her. “They have too many emotions, and their bodies feel so much. Because of this they make excellent courtesans, but are very difficult to change.”
I sat on the dusty floor, staring at my feet. “I don’t want to evolve,” I said.
My mother looked towards me—not at me, but almost. “Why not? You will no longer need so many things.”
I thought about cactus juice and playing with Jenji. She had started to lose interest in our games. Yesterday, she’d forgotten the taste of pineapple.
“But Ma, you forget!”
My mother’s smooth face crinkled. She ran a finger over her smooth lips. Mine were chapped. Faha said I would use up all the water we had if I didn’t evolve soon. I didn’t want to go thirsty. I imagined my whole body going chapped, flaking away into the sand.
“What do you forget, child?”
I looked at her. Every day, she looked less familiar. Her body was thin, the linen shroud hanging from her like a pillowcase pegged out to dry. I could count the bones in her hands through her skin when she touched me.
“What’s my name?” I asked.
My mother stared at a point just above my head. She sighed. “I’m sorry. I can’t remember right now. Ask me tomorrow.”
Jenji didn’t want to come out and play. I stood in the doorway, licking my lips. “Don’t you remember how much fun it is?”
Jenji tied her silk robe closed. The tie pinched her waist so small. Had she always been so much thinner than me?
“I’m sorry, Shi. I don’t think you should go out in the desert. It’s safer here. And Faha says you’re using up all the water.”
“I’m the only one who needs it!” I cried.
Jenji looked at me. She was so smooth and so calm. I wondered if there was anything I could say that would make her angry. Or happy.
“It’s late,” Jenji said. “Why don’t you go to bed? Don’t you need to sleep?”
“Don’t you?” I asked, trembling. She shook her head, no expression creasing her skin.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
When she met my eyes, there was something missing. Something of Jenji gone. Forgotten.
I ran back across the courtyard, the sun-heated rock burning against the soles of my feet.
I sat on my bed with my arms around my legs. Was it so bad staying default? I knew there wasn’t a lot out here, but my mother could send for more, couldn’t she?
I thought about the last time we had a delivery of food and fresh water. How long had it been? Months, at least. I remembered a time when the deliveries from the city came weekly. Maybe we weren’t the only ones running out.
Something bad happened in the city. We moved here to escape it.
I wondered if my mother remembered why.
Out here, there was nothing but dust and the sun. People had to evolve to survive. It started with the courtesans. Then my mother, then Jenji.
Would another delivery come? What if it didn’t?
I thought about what I’d do by myself, the only person in the villa who refused to evolve. Faha said that staying default was what killed the land around us. Too many mouths to feed, always hungry and thirsty. The land just couldn’t support everyone. We had to evolve to survive.
Before my mother evolved, she said the process was reversible. That when the land recovered and we could grow food again, when there was fresh water and not the tins that we used now—that were running out now—doctors would give everyone a drug to return to normal. We could be defaults again.
I worried that Ma had forgotten this, too.
As the searing heat of the desert beamed through the open window, I pulled all my books off of the shelf. I laid them out on my bed, books about plants that were extinct, books about animals that lived far away. Books about history and stories my mother used to tell me—before she forgot.
When all the books were arranged from biggest to smallest, I opened the drawer next to my bed and took out a pen. I flopped on my stomach and pulled the first book towards me. Its cover cracked when I opened it. The desert made everything crack.
Gripping my pen so hard, my knuckles gleamed through my sunburn, but I wrote along the blank spaces next to the book’s words, putting down everything I could think of. The rules of the games Jenji and I played. The way cactus juice tasted, the sound of the can opener as Faha cranked it along the top of a can of pineapple. The feeling of sun on my neck, and the ache of sunburn. The relief of cold aloe on the burns. The cracking of chapped lips when I forgot and smiled.
I wrote down everything. My memories of Ma, of Faha, of all the courtesans. My earliest memory of leaving the city, smoke in the air, and people yelling around us. Maybe there were other villas in the desert, full of defaults evolving one by one. I wrote about the first time I glimpsed the golden sands that surrounded us, about the way evolved people smelled—like dust and leather—and my conversation with Jenji today.
I filled the pages of all the books, from animals to plants to people and back. When I ran out of space and my pen was almost out of ink, I put the books back onto their shelves. With the last ink left in the pen, I wrote on my pillow:
B O O K S.
That night I went to my mother. She was sitting in her chair, staring outside. Her hair was a knot on her head, her skin waxy like polished shoes. She looked like one of those mummies in a book Jenji showed me.
I should have written in her books, too. It was too late now. If I went to her to ask, I was afraid she wouldn’t know who I was.
My mother shifted slightly. Her hair crackled against the chair’s upholstery. “Shi. My child.”
I smiled at my name, then winced as my lips cracked. “I’m ready. To…to evolve.”
Ma nodded. She waved her hand, and a male courtesan walked up to me. He was very, very thin. I thought I could count his teeth through his lips. He knelt beside me and held out a syringe.
I wanted to flinch away, but then I thought about the little pile of tins Faha showed me. If I stayed default, there wouldn’t be any left for when the doctors came. When they changed us back.
“This will pinch,” the courtesan said.
I nodded. I knew how it felt. Jenji told me—before she forgot.
The courtesan injected my arm. I felt hot—the desert sun in my veins—and then nothing.