Photo: Russell Challenger
Charlene Challenger is a writer and graduate of Ryerson Theatre School. Her first novel, the young adult fantasy The Voices in Between, was nominated for the 2015 Aurora Award for Best Young Adult Novel and long-listed for the 2015 Sunburst Award Young Adult Novel category. Its sequel, The Myth in Distance, was published in 2016. Her work is also featured in Stone Skin Press’s Gods, Memes and Monsters. She lives in Pickering with her family and her adorable house-wolves.
In anticipation of her reading at our event next week, Charlene shares an excerpt from a short story called Made Flesh, written for an anthology showcasing QUILTBAG speculative fiction.
Drs. Colby and Gahan are robotics engineers, though they could also be lovers. Their workshop is a rented corner of a converted warehouse on the east side of town. It used to be a shelter for the transient and the infirm, until the New Millennials could no longer abide the lack of return on their investment and gunned the poor bastards down in the streets. The downtown core still hums with the triumph of that brightest April morning.
Colby and Gahan have access to better facilities; as New Millennials, they’re entitled to seize assets and resources from card-carrying Xs and Ys anywhere within the NM borders. But laboratories are popular locations for the rave scene — still going strong, all baggy pants and baby dummies — and Colby and Gahan don’t care much for rubbing elbows with anyone on ecstasy.
In this summertime afternoon, the stale air leaves a film on the women’s faces, on their arms and shoulders. When they work on the android’s hands — on its modified spherical joints — when they wire its phalanges so that they twitch and beckon the way they’re supposed to, Drs. Colby and Gahan slap palms and half hug in the shade, where the air is slightly cooler.
Colby has a sculpted fairness that comes with hours of preening. She’s flagrantly selfish, greedy with her sleep. She is also sharp, and cultivated her intelligence at her own pace through the luxury of beauty, and the patience of others that it affords her. She designed, among other parts, the android’s hands.
Gahan specializes in building them, controlling them. Her thin fingers and keen eyesight are perfect for the fabrication process. One day soon, though, she’ll move on to skin: at night she slathers the rough, scaly areas of her body in balms and creams, and leaves an oily imprint of the side of her face on her pillow.
These days in particular are days of shameless excess. It’s the New Millennial Revolution, the fourth year of a ten year period. There will be no eleventh; everyone knows there will be nothing left.
Colby and Gahan take their commission very seriously, but that doesn’t stop them from taking turns holding the android’s hand and using it for obscene jokes. Dr. Colby pretends to pick her nose with an index finger; Dr. Gahan freezes in mock embarrassment as she holds the hand against the front of her jeans, two of its digits extended in a crass “V”. They admire its tendons, its pistons, and the soft clicking sound its fleshless knuckles make as they move.
Tacked onto the cork board next to Colby’s designs of legs and feet is the official letter from an eccentric, Mr. Ryan, commissioning an android.
Colby merely skimmed the letter upon receipt, while Gahan read it closely and highlighted several passages. “I’ve selected you,” and “I’m a long-time admirer of your work,” then, “To commemorate the fourth of ten years of the New Millennial Revolution, I ask you to design and build an android which embodies our recent, sordid, abandoned relationship with patriarchy and patriarchal ideology. The android will be unveiled at the Fifth Year celebration, tentatively scheduled for April 15.”
“A man sent this?” Colby asked as Gahan read the letter aloud, emphasizing what she took to be its finer divulgences.
“Male.” Gahan tapped at the page. “Self-hating male at that. Incredibly bored. Probably shit in bed.”
“What is he going do with a patriarchal android? Burn it as an effigy? Why do that? We won.”
“He could buy a mannequin for less. My theory is he wants to enslave it. Get it to fetch his slippers and shave his back, that kind of thing.”
Colby leaned a naked forearm against the workshop counter and began to doodle on the back of a torn envelope with a 2B graphite pencil. “So, a fetishist.”
“Exactly. Equal loathing and longing. At first I el-oh-elled, but it’s a lot of money. I don’t really want to turn it down.”
“I’m sure Maria wouldn’t want you to turn it down either.”
Gahan gaped at Colby, who didn’t look up from her sketch. “One dinner out with us and you’ve got her pegged, eh? So she likes shark fin soup, so what? Have you ever seen a shark up close? They’re terrifying and the ocean’s full of them.”
“It’s not just the shark fin soup. She wears fur. Eats veal.”
“So what? We can eat as much veal and wear as much fur as we want. You wear fur and eat veal. And horse, I’d like to add. The riots may be over but I’m still a pescatarian. And a pacifist.”
“I only mean it’s difficult to keep a girlfriend like Maria from chewing her own hand off from ennui,” said Colby. “The rest of us can occupy ourselves with other things, but Maria’s…” She put the end of her pencil against her bottom lip and turned it, pinwheeling the skin. “I don’t think she gets the concept of varied personal interests.”
“She has a liberal arts degree. That’s plenty varied. You never talk to her anyway, you don’t know.”
“I know why you want this job.” Colby held up the envelope. Her sketch was the first of several of the android’s eye, sliced open, its veins — its wires — webbed around an expanse of synthetic aqueous humour.
Gahan snorted. “You’re always so quick to slit a throat. What do you do when you’re done, bathe in the blood?”
“What do you think of this?” Colby said, waving the envelope.
“Nice. Rudimentary, but nice. What colour?”
“What else? Pale blue.”
“Brown,” Gahan said. “I’m so over blue. All that Nazi imagery’s played out. It takes all types, anyway. My mother’s eyes are brown.”
“And she’s always lived in a very big house. All right, brown.” Colby tacked the envelope to the cork board.
Charlene Challenger visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Catherine Hernandez, Anubha Mehta, Téa Mutonji, and guest speaker Rosamund Small who gives us “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting” or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time). Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin.