Art by Margot Jenner.
From the author: Vivian and her community have built a makeshift life for themselves since the shipwreck. Still, it's the tiny inconsistencies that wear at her. Why can't she remember the origin of her own damn lip scar?
They think I have the mirror for vanity reasons, but that’s not really the case. I have it to examine the distinct scar above my lip, next to the right corner of my mouth. Despite all the other issues on the island, this one keeps niggling at me. I can’t remember where or how I got it. It makes me feel as though I’m missing something.
The winds pick up that night, worse than we’ve seen them in all five years. They blow the beach up into a sandstorm. They blow our wooden shacks into the forest where they shatter on the trees. They blow our bonfire into the undergrowth and set the island ablaze.
Members of my tribe struggle along the beach, trying to preserve precious objects and provisions, but they’re fighting a losing battle. “Leave it,” I bellow, squinting through the wind and sand and gesturing wildly towards the ocean. “Get into the water!”
They look at me with horrified, wind-whipped faces. Everything will be gone – we’ll have even less than we started with, straight after the wreck.
I manage to corral most people into the icy water before wading in behind them. A few stragglers are still on the beach, or have disappeared into the forest in search of loved ones. I submerge myself in the inky ocean up to my eyes. The salt burns where my skin is bare and ravaged by the sand, but at least the sand can’t tear at me underwater.
Ray and Thelia find me and each take one of my hands. Their eyes glow amber in the firelight. I squeeze their hands and pull them closer for warmth, and together we watch the island burn.
I’m woken at sunrise by the blast of a horn. The entire time we’ve been here, we’ve never seen a boat or plane of any kind. My body stings and burns, and my mouth is paper dry. I force myself up out of the tangle of Ray and Thelia’s limbs.
There’s a boat, perhaps half a kilometre away. A big boat. A boat heading straight for us.
Its crew are two dozen grinning people in buttercup-yellow rain jackets, armed with enough blankets, soup and hot tea for all of us. After being certain last night that we would all starve in a matter of days, it seems ridiculously perfect. I wonder if this is all a glorious, last-ditch hallucination.
I sit on the sun-warmed deck, huddled under a woollen blanket in my damp leathers, sipping lemon tea and believing it’s a nice way to go.
There must have been something in the tea.
I wake to fluorescent lights, clinical whites and greys, and a middle-aged woman in front of me, staring.
“She’ll be disoriented,” says a man in an oversized lab coat. “Take it slow.”
The woman smiles. “Hello, Kerry,” she says. “Don’t you recognise your mother?”
When I fully comprehend the situation I burst into tears. Between the sobs I ask to be alone, and they put me in a “private” room with one-way glass so they can monitor my state. Truthfully, I don’t know what I’m crying about. Is it the hardships of the last five years, trapped on the island? The people who disappeared and assumed dead, when I understand now that they were simply evacuated? The time I lost with my mother, time from my real life. And perhaps most damning: that I chose all of these things?
Vivian wouldn’t cry. She led her tribe with such confidence and wisdom, with such fire in her belly. These toned arms of mine are Vivian’s arms. This hard stomach is Vivian’s stomach. The only thing that’s not hers is this lip scar, obvious to me because I've lived with this face for thirty-two years. I can understand how the people creating Vivian’s fake memories could’ve missed it.
After an hour or so, my mother – my real mother, not Vivian’s – walks in with some chocolate chip cookies and an orange juice box. She says, “Sweetheart, sweetheart, please don’t cry. You’re home and safe and you have more money than you’ll know what to do with. The show was a tremendous hit, especially Vivian. You never have to worry about anything again.”
I allow her to hug me, burying my head into her cardigan, which smells vaguely of lavender and fresh dirt.
I don’t miss the dangers of the island, the lack of medical care, or the lack of technology. But I do miss a lot of other things. Kerry doesn’t have a tribe, or any power here, or people in love with her. Kerry doesn’t have a lover. Kerry doesn’t have a sense of doing something meaningful with her life.
I break the hug to wipe my face with a wad of tissues. “Yes,” I say. “You’re right. Everything’s just fine now.”
I have dinner with Michael, who played Ray, at an exclusive restaurant that offers us hot face towels on arrival. The other patrons take surreptitious photos with their smart-phones. To my relief, we’re ushered into a more private booth towards the back, where two glasses of sparkling wine and a vase of purple roses wait.
Before we sit down, I embrace him and smell his familiar, intoxicating scent that made Vivian’s abdomen tighten. Our bodies are the same, even if our minds aren’t. I feel mildly giddy.
“How are you finding things?” I ask, after we’ve both ordered from the small selection of things on the menu that we actually understand.
“Strange,” he says. “Like I always know what Ray would do, even though I’m acting different.”
I nod, sipping my bubbles.
“It’s weird having Ray’s memories – both from before and on the island – and knowing they’re not real. They felt so…final.”
“But it was real on the island,” I say. “That was the whole point. We didn’t know it was a show. That was our reality for five years, even if they did alter our personalities and memories to their liking. That doesn’t make it fake.”
Michael’s eyebrows knit together. We sit in silence until a slow smile breaks across his face.
He says, “You know what Ray really enjoyed? Kissing you.”
I smile despite myself. “Vivian enjoyed that, too.”
It had never gone farther than kissing because Vivian had flat-out refused to risk getting pregnant on the island. In fact, I had gotten my tubes tied before the show, but of course Vivian hadn’t known that.
Michael stares at me expectantly. “Do you think we might be able to do that again?”
I leave the dinner knowing Michael is not Ray. Ray was sexier in every way, from his name to his voice, to his smile and how he ran his fingers over his stubble. Ray was a creation, and I doubt I’ll be dining with Michael again.
I buy a small, beautiful house in a leafy suburb, a house with high walls and discreet security. I buy the first four seasons of Wrecked, the extended editions (the fifth season hasn’t reached DVD yet), and lie in my enormous bed watching the highlights of the survivors’ first four years.
I watch them fight, and learn, and build a new home for themselves. I watch them adapt, and cry, and form new families. I watch them discover luxurious debris, like Vivian’s mirror, at strategic points throughout the show, cleverly placed by the production team.
I watch some of them get sick, or injured, and vanish overnight. I watch the tribe arm themselves over new threats, and watch conflicts as they come to a head. I watch the tribe split into three halfway through season two. Vivian rises up to lead the original tribe, and she looks like a queen.
She looks like Vivian, in her cloak of leather and teeth and fur, and not at all like Kerry.
I watch Vivian and Ray’s simmering, largely non-physical romance build for weeks until Vivian ends it. I watch Vivian discover a very different romance with Thelia – Thelia, who was gentle and flexible where Vivian could be cruel and rigid. Thelia, who could never knock up Vivian.
This is the part of the show that I struggle with the most. Vivian is not me – is not even me playing a character, in the traditional sense – and she’s done dozens of things that I would never do. Because of her, my body has killed and skinned animals, has knocked out someone’s tooth with its fist, has sewn up a cut with a bone needle and strands of hair. But Thelia is different. Because I feel like my body, rather than just Vivian’s mind, must be at least slightly responsible for that.
It’s not something I ever considered before the show.
I know exactly what kind of life I could be living, because Michael is living it.
Two and a half months later he’s still a hot topic, appearing on all of the talk shows and posing for photo-shoots in a litany of glossy magazines. I flick through a six-page spread of him shirtless, riding a white horse along the shoreline with a sword slung across his back. I spot him in an ad for expensive coffee on the side of a bus shelter, emblazoned with the slogan “for the man you want to be.”
I know the same opportunities are available to me, but I can’t bring myself to say “yes” to a single one.
Who they really want is Vivian. Not me, the poor substitute who can barely get out of bed in the morning.
The men are half shell-shocked in their swivel chairs, glancing at each other a few times a minute and then back to me.
“So,” says the one with the eyebrow ring, “did you want to change your memories as well, or just the personality?”
“Just personality,” I say. “No need to confuse myself.”
The other one steeples his fingers — the one with the ballpoint pen leaking through his shirt pocket. “Well, it’s usually prohibitively expensive, but you’re Kerry fucking Kingsley.”
“Yes,” I say flatly. “I’m Kerry fucking Kingsley.”
“Usually you also have to get a specialist to design the personality blueprint and then we fit that to your brain, but we’ve still got the one for Vivian in our files. You’re aware of the possible complications of the surgery?” Eyebrow Ring rifles through his filing cabinet until I interrupt.
“’Cos this is brain surgery. And it’s not like the production company is going to shell out billions of dollars to your family this time if something fucks up.”
I cross my arms under my breasts, over the chest of my woollen reindeer jumper. “I’ve already spoken to the company. They’re thrilled that I’m considering this, especially out of my own pocket. Don’t worry about it.”
They glance at each other again, wide-eyed. Ink Stain hands me a stark white business card with a single name and phone number.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he says.
Two weeks before the auction of my childhood home, I stand in my old bedroom, feeling like a giant in the small space. It’s only been partially refurbished – my former presence here is a selling point, complete with the ballet-printed bedclothes and framed photos of my teenage self in early stage productions.
I touch the frames with a dulled mixture of shame and reverence: here is Kerry cast as Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House; here is Kerry portraying a figurative blackbird; here is Kerry with her head sticking out of an urn in Beckett’s Play.
The house smells of my mother’s roast potatoes and pricey orchid air freshener.
I feel half-asleep. When I shift, I can only just sense the stiff cardboard of the business card through the back pocket of my jeans.
I’ll schedule the surgery tomorrow.
Today I’m having coffee with Mary-Anne.
Mary-Anne has three shelves of china vases, two whippets and not a single red hair out of place. Watching her bring out the cappuccinos on a silver tray, hazy images of Thelia flash unbidden to my mind. Vivian has seen Thelia naked.
Vivian has seen Thelia naked a lot.
I dig my nails into my palms. “I didn’t mean this as a date or anything,” I say.
She smiles at me, wrapping her perfectly manicured nails around the mug. “I know,” she says.
“I just wanted to meet you.”
She nods politely. “Lots of memories.”
I nod, too. With a deep breath and considerable coffee-gazing, I explain to her my thoughts on the surgery, thoughts I’ve not previously revealed outside of the lab.
“Vivian was pretty amazing,” she says. “But I won’t be Thelia.”
“Yes.” My eyes widen. “Of course.”
“You could just be Vivian anyway,” she offers. “You don’t actually need the surgery.”
I snort. “Just because I know what she’d do in theory, doesn’t mean I can really do that.”
“Doesn’t it?” One of the whippets trots over and perches on Mary-Anne’s foot, flicking its tail against her ankle. She massages its temple with her fingertips, and says, “You’re an actress.”
I freeze with my coffee halfway to the table.
“Do you really want to be Vivian?” she asks.
The hand with the coffee is shaking now. I place the mug down as gently as possible, but it still clinks too loudly against the table. “I think so,” I say quickly. “Most of her.”
“Then do it.”
“It’s not that simple.”
Mary-Anne just watches me for a while, both of us silent. She picks up one of the after-dinner mints on the silver tray, tears it open and sucks on it for a good minute.
Finally, she says, “You’re ashamed of her.”
My anxiety, which had started to dissipate, returns in full force. “Who?” I ask.
I try to focus on my breathing.
“Probably best that you don’t have the surgery, because she’d remember. Vivian would remember you were so ashamed of her.”
My face is burning up. I feel the familiar pressure behind my eyes, which pre-empts tears, feel myself curling further into myself. Breathe.
Mary-Anne must notice, because she dislodges the whippet and disappears into the kitchen, before returning with a glass of water for me.
I sip it slowly, glancing up at her warm brown eyes, the colour of her after-dinner mints. I wish she was Thelia.
“Vivian’s well loved,” she says. “I promise. You can relax.”
I try and relax. I close my eyes and try and find the woman I left on the ship, bent over her lemon tea in a polystyrene mug.
I know what she would do.
“Thanks, Mary-Anne,” I say. I grin and stretch my spine, working all the knots out of my neck. This body is stiff but familiar. My voice sounds a little deeper, down from somewhere satisfyingly low in my gut.
I brush a finger over the tiny indentation in my lip, acquired when I was ten years old by falling over a farm’s barbed wire fence. “Now I know where I got that damn lip-scar.”
This story originally appeared in Aurealis.
An otherworldly banquet of contemporary fantasy, dark fairy tales and soft science fiction, Next Curious Thing collects some of Gale's best short fiction from 2013 to 2018, including 'In the Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold' (Syntax & Salt Editor's Award winner) and 'Wrecked' (Tangent Online Recommended Reading List). In addition to its previously published stories, Next Curious Thing features six brand new tales original to this collection.
Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.