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The rest of that day was perhaps the most surreal hours of Andy's imprisonment yet -- which was saying a lot. This Yumi might not have been the Yumi with whom he had fallen in love, but she was still Yumi! She wasn’t an artist, but her personality and all her mannerisms were identical to his Yumi back home. The way she talked, the way she laughed, even the way she tucked her hair behind her ears...
Naturally, Andy couldn’t deny his physical attraction to her either. It was incredibly difficult to separate his feeling for the Yumi back home when someone exactly like her was standing before him. So most of that first day together was spent trying to find ways to distract himself from her presence. In fact, having this almost-Yumi in his vicinity fueled Andy's need to see his Yumi even more. He had to figure out a way to get rid of her as soon as possible before he went out of his mind. Or before his confused lust drove him to some really stupid, regrettable antics.
As for her, Andy had no idea how this "ringer" Yumi felt about him, or if any of the same, unsettling feelings were swimming through her mind. She mostly kept to herself, writing or observing the Praxian visitors, while Andy tried to distract himself with the TV in the livingroom. She couldn’t get enough of the aliens. The Praxians seemed just as fascinated with her.
She muttered with awe between snaps of her camera. "I can't stop staring at their faces... The way their eyes and mouths just float in their helmets like that. It's so eerie..." She was right up against the force field separating her from the Praxians. "I mean, what is going on there? Are they, like, invisible? And if so, how can we see their eyes and the inside of their mouths?"
"Mo explained it to me," Andy said from his dad's recliner. "It's a defense mechanism which was developed early in their evolution to hide them from predators. The cells of their skin bend light in such a way to make them invisible. But of course, that means any part of their body without skin -- like eyeballs, teeth, their insides -- remain visible. Also, their eyes can see in the spectrum of their skin's unique properties, so we can't see them, but they can see each other. Crazy, right?"
"Incredible," Yumi breathed. "It’s too bad this cell is sound proofed. I would love to interview these people and get the answers straight from the source. Think of the cultural exchange we could be having!" Then she pointed to a couple of stray Praxians standing apart from the main throng in front of her. "Hey, what's with those Praxians over there?"
"Who?" Andy turned his head away from an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and peered into the hallway in the direction of Yumi's finger.
"Those two over there," Yumi said in a puzzled voice. "They’re just standing there staring into space."
Just as Yumi had described, two Praxians stood in the middle of the hallway like emotionless zombies, eyes hooded and distant. The other visitors paid them no attention, flowing around them like they were rocks in a stream. But Andy wasn't surprised. He had seen this odd behavior many times since his imprisonment had begun.
"Oh yeah... I’ve noticed other Praxians acting like that from time to time," he said. "They'll snap out of it in a little while and go about their business. They always do. Maybe it’s some kind of Praxian ritual or something? Like praying? Or maybe they're just high." He chuckled. Then Larry David lured his attention back to the TV with a typically inappropriate and hilarious line.
Yumi was fascinated by the blank-eyed Praxians. She tried everything to get their attention -- waving frantically in their direction, jumping up and down, setting off her camera's flash -- to no avail. They continued standing there amidst the bustle of the crowd like two kids hypnotized by a cartoon. Their eyes scarcely blinked, focused on something far, far away.
Yumi rubbed her chin. "Weird," she whispered to herself.
The moment visiting hours were over at the C.I.S. Zoo later that evening, Andy bolted for the bathroom and threw himself on the toilet. Then he unloaded a payload to rival the Enola Gay. Thus far, he had been successful in holding his dumps until the zoo had closed and the Praxians' prying eyes were gone, but even this small comfort was thwarted now that another person was in the cell with him. As long as Yumi didn’t step out onto the lawn, he was out of sight, but there was no barrier against sound (or smell, for that matter). So they found sanctuary in headphones with music cranked up whenever the other person was in the bathroom. Right at that moment, Yumi was probably cringing in the furthest corner of the cell from the bathroom with her nose plugged up and the Pixies blasting into her ears. Sharing the cell was going to take some getting used to...
Andy sat there trying to crap as quietly as possible, stewing over the day's disastrous events. He chastised himself for thinking something would actually work out for him.
"Hi, Andy Go!" Dash's voice rang into the room like a bell.
Andy whirled in his seat and saw Dash pushing her grinning face through another square hole which had opened up in the wall behind him, just above the toilet's water tank.
Andy shrieked and unspooled up a wad of toilet paper to blanket his genitals. "Jesus Christ! Is there any part of this cell that doesn't open up?" With his other hand, Andy tried pushing Dash's face back into the wall, but she was much too strong for him.
"Shhh!" she hissed. "You know I'm dead if my dad finds out I'm here visiting you!"
"Do you mind?" Andy demanded hysterically. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm trying to squeeze some soft serve over h--"
Dash reached down and clapped a hand over his mouth. "I had to wait forever for him to go home and make up some lame excuse so I could stay longer at work," she whispered carefully. "But if any one of my co-workers spots me here with you, the news would eventually find its way to my dad, believe me."
"And how does that effect me exactly?" Andy sneered as soon she uncovered his mouth. "Look, we don't have a deal anymore. You didn't hold up your end of the bargain, so I don't have to hold up mine. Are we seriously having this discussion while I'm taking a dump?"
"But... But there was nothing I could do!" She whimpered like a sad puppy. "My dad would have gotten suspicious if I had asked to hunt down this one specific human all the way in another continent! It just didn't work out..."
"Well, can't you just take this Yumi back, and wait until my Yumi comes back from her trip?"
"I heard that!" Yumi barked from the livingroom directly below the bathroom.
"It's not that easy," Dash replied to Andy. "I don't have that kind of authority! Unless you and this Yumi Kwon are at each others' throats on a daily basis, there's no reason for the C.I.S. to send her back."
Andy groaned, and it wasn't from passing a turd. But before he could grumble anything else, Dash hopped up and down and thrust another folded sheet of paper in front of him. "But look! Look what I did today!"
This time Dash had drawn two wonky figures holding hands. A poofy bowl haircut, filled in with black lines, sat on the head of one of the figures, and the other sported a spiky, bleached bob. Immense, joyful smiles were etched across their faces as they held aloft ice cream cones in their free hands. A large, cheerful sun beamed in a sky filled with pillowy clouds drawn with big loopy lines. A sappy smile crept onto Andy’s face as he realized what he was looking at.
"Is that... Is that supposed to be me?" he asked, pointing to the black-haired figure.
"Yeah! Since you drew me, I thought I'd try drawing you," Dash said with a huge, toothy grin. She pointed excitedly to the other figure. "And see, it's Yumi Kwon holding hands with you. Your Yumi Kwon, I mean."
A lump welled up in Andy's throat. He couldn't remember the last time he had been so touched.
"Dash... This is really great," he murmured.
Dash clamped her hands together and beamed like the sun in her drawing. "You really think so?" she asked breathlessly. "It took me five fake trips to the bathroom to finish it. It's the only place I feel safe enough to do this stuff. My dad must think my bladder has shrunk or something," she giggled. Then, resting her head in the lap of her arms crossed over the sill of the window, she continued gushing with a dreamy smile spread across her invisible face. "Andy Go, I just want to thank you again for introducing me to this... this art stuff. I see the world in a whole new light now. Like I've been asleep all my life and finally woken up. When I'm drawing, my thoughts wander into all these corners of my mind I've never explored before. And when I'm done, I feel so proud of what I've produced." She pointed to her newest work over Andy's shoulder. "I can't believe I did that with my own hands! Just looking at it makes me so happy. Do you feel like this every day?"
As Andy gazed over his shoulder into Dash's doe-like eyes dazzling with rapture and wonder, she awakened something in him too. She made him remember why he had fallen in love with drawing in the first place. How much joy and satisfaction it brought him when he was a kid. When art wasn't a "career" or a "major", and there was nothing driving him to draw but the simple love of doing it. When it was so pure... All the petty spite which he had built up toward Dash slipped away at that moment, and all he wanted to do was nurture her love of drawing.
"All right, Dash," he said, flashing her a warm smile. "I'll keep your drawings for you. And I'll be your art teacher."
"Really?" Her eyes lit up like light bulbs. Then she threw her entire torso out of the window and smothered Andy in a fearsome hug. "Thank you, Andy Go!" she cried with glee, snuggling the side of her helmet into his cheeks.
"Wait, wait!" Andy squeaked through her arms. "Don't squeeze so hard, or I'm going to--"
Dash dragged the tip of the pencil across the page like a surgeon making an incision. This was the first time Andy had seen this side of Dash -- disciplined and calm. Her eyes, focused like a hawk’s, darted back and forth between the bowl of fruit on the coffee table and the sketchpad in her lap.
“That’s it… Good,” Andy said over her shoulder. “That’s much better, Dash. Remember, drawing is learning to see, it’s not about the tool you’re using or the movement of your hand.”
She nodded diligently. “I see…”
Yumi observed them from the kitchen table while Andy walked Dash through her first drawing lesson on the livingroom couch. Thirty minutes in and Dash was already improving. Her renditions of fruit were slowly evolving from simple scribbled shapes to three-dimensional objects with volume and texture. These early drawings were still crude, of course, but they showed an alarming amount of promise.
“Okay, try that contour line again,” Andy instructed. “And this time, really try to see what’s in front of you, not what you think you see.”
But this time, Dash didn’t respond. Her shoulders drooped and her pencil slowly came to a stop like a toy running out of batteries. Andy was standing behind her while she sat on the couch so he couldn’t see her face.
“Dash?” he asked once more.
Again, no response. Andy leaned over the back of the couch and peered inside her helmet. Her eyes were hooded and distant, just like the strange Praxians Yumi had seen outside of the cell earlier.
Andy shook her by the shoulder. “Dash!”
She finally snapped out of her stupor and resumed drawing.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I got distracted by the Feed.”
Andy cocked his head. “What are you talking about?”
“The Feed is like... what do you humans call it? Oh, yeah, TV! Like TV for us Praxians.”
“Huh? But you were just staring into space…”
“The Feed is streamed directly into our brains,” Dash explained nonchalantly, not bothering to look up from her drawing.
Yumi and Andy exchanged a knowing look. This solved the mystery of those zoned out Praxians they kept seeing.
Andy turned back to Dash, scratching his head. “So you just... see the program inside your head?”
“It can tap into any of our senses since it’s fed directly into the brain. We don’t simply watch stuff, the Feed allows us to ‘experience’ it.”
“Wow, the porn must be phenomenal here,” Andy pondered breathlessly. Then he shook his head and pointed to the sketchbook in Dash’s lap. It was his gift to her -- one of many blank sketchbooks he had laying around in his room. “Anyway, turn it off! I’m trying to teach you how to draw here.”
“You can’t turn it off, silly.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Feed is streamed into our brains every second of our lives, from the minute we’re born to the day we die. You can tune it out, but you can never turn it off completely. It’s always there, streaming in the back of our minds.”
Andy heard Yumi typing frantically behind him as Dash spoke. “God, that sounds awful,” she muttered with horror.
“Why?” Dash asked innocently. “With the Feed, we’re never alone. It isn’t really like your TV. There are no channels, and certainly no art involved or anything like that. It’s important information and keeps every Praxian up to date all the time. Especially on the war with the Shigra Empire.”
“Well, can you push it to the back of your mind and focus on the lesson?” Andy asked.
Dash sat up like a soldier standing at attention. “Right! This is way more interesting than the Feed anyway!”
Dash stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth and attacked the sketchbook with renewed zeal. Andy couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm.
Dash had to rush home about an hour later. But she couldn’t stop gushing about her first art lesson as she and Andy climbed the stairs to his bedroom. The unbridled rapture in Dash's face filled him with delight and pride despite the shitstorm she had wrought earlier in the day. She drew him into a crushing hug before clambering through the hole in the wall. Andy tucked her sketchbook away on his bookshelf and shuffled back down to the livingroom. Yumi was curled up on the couch, hunched over her laptop.
“Is she finally gone?” she asked.
“Yup. But not because she wanted to go. She’s afraid that fascist Dad of hers will get suspicious if she stays any longer. Boy, getting her to stop drawing was like trying to pry a gun out of Charlton Heston’s cold dead hands. She loves it!” Andy plopped down beside Yumi. “You know, that Dash... She’s something…”
Yumi smirked. “Sounds like someone’s in love.”
“You wish. So seriously -- what’s going on between you two anyway?”
Andy filled her in on everything which had led to his deal with Dash. About the Praxians’ artless world and how Dash had fallen in love with drawing once she discovered it through him. Yumi actually stopped typing for once and listened attentively.
"Hm... Interesting," she murmured ponderously when Andy had finished. Then she looked straight into his eyes. "Listen, Andy. Be sure to nurture this relationship with Dash. She could come in quite handy."
Andy cocked his head at her. "Okay…,” he drawled. He stared at her expecting some kind of elaboration, but she was already back in her head, typing away. Feeling awkward, he picked up a comic book strewn on the coffee table and pulled it up to his face. He kept peeking over to see if Yumi would say something more, but the only response he received was the busy clicking of keys. There were so many things he was dying to ask her, so many things he wanted to discuss. But just like before, she seemed to be using her writing as a force field. Andy started to wonder if anything was even being written anymore, or if she was typing gibberish just to keep him at bay. Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Hey, so... can you tell me more about this Bizarro version of myself in your dimension?”
Yumi stopped typing, but she didn’t look up from her laptop. She closed her eyes as a pained look flashed across her face. “Listen,” she said. “I have to be totally honest... I’m finding it really hard to look at you…”
Andy lowered the comic book and gazed at her sympathetically. “I think I understand what you mean. I--”
“Looking at your face makes me want to gouge your eyes out,” she finished flatly.
“Look, I know you’re not the Andy who cheated on me three times. But right now, it’s really hard for me to separate you two. It’s so freaking weird... You’re here… but not here.” She breathed a wistful sigh and resumed typing. “So the last thing I want to do at the moment is talk about him.”
Andy covered his face with the comic again, an awkward heap of twisted emotions. “I understand,” he mumbled.
Yumi stretched like a cat and yawned.
“I think I'm just going turn in now,” she said wearily, smacking her lips. “I'm bushed... First day in another dimension and all. Plus I think my hands are starting to cramp up. I don't think I've ever written this much in one day.” She shut her laptop and hugged it fiercely to her chest. “But it's all worth it! This is pure gold!”
Her yawn reminded Andy just how tired he was himself. It had been a long day.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I'll take the couch. You can have the bed in my room. My parents’ room wasn’t built into this mock-up house since any room not facing the viewing window is useless to the zoo. So it's either the couch or my bed.”
Yumi’s eyelids drooped like a heavy curtain. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, it’s totally cool.” Andy nudged her off the couch and gingerly stretched across the cushions like an old man. His body still ached slightly from her assault in the morning.
Yumi's eyes softened with gratitude. “Thanks,” she said, padding toward the stairs. “That’s sweet of you.”
“No problem,” Andy replied with a sheepish smile. He grabbed the fleece blanket draped over the back of the couch and pulled it over himself.
Yumi paused at the foot of the stairs. “Hey, this reminds me of something I wanted to ask you. Why did they put you in your parents' house anyway? Shouldn’t your ‘habitat’ be your apartment?”
“What apartment?” he asked curiously.
“Well, the Andy in my dimension... Wait, do you still live with your parents?”
Andy dropped his head into a cushion and slapped the comic book over his face. “Good night,” he muttered.
“Good night,” Yumi replied with a coy smile.
Andy heard her footsteps grow distant as she climbed the stairs. She hit the light switch and darkness fell over the entire cell. The lights in the cells were controlled by the Praxians during the day, but the 'animals' were allowed to use them as they pleased when the zoo was closed.
Andy slid the comic book off his face and stared at the ceiling. Creaking from his bed and soft shuffling of cloth drifted down from his room. His brain converted the sounds into a moving image of Yumi slipping out of her clothes and into his bed. He immediately shook his head to rattle the picture out of his brain.
Then the cell fell silent. The darkness was only padded by the soft hum of the refrigerator. Andy rolled onto his side and coiled into a ball, pulling the blanket tightly around him. It had taken him a long time to get accustomed to sleeping in the cell. In the darkness, the cell felt like a cave; cold and hollow no matter how many blankets he cowered under. The darkness lay heavily upon him, and the air felt dry and hard like the recycled air inside of an airplane. But after the first week of his imprisonment, stripped of all hope, he had grown numb to his unnatural surroundings. Now he was back to square one with Yumi sleeping above him, just a few yards away. As tired as he was, sleep did not come. He lay there for a long time with his eyes open, his brain abuzz with a million thoughts crashing into each other. He was certain Yumi was in the same state, even though he couldn’t see or hear her. He could feel it through the darkness, like electricity coursing through water.
Andy didn't know when he finally drifted off to sleep.
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