Comfort Zone

KC Grifant

Story image for Comfort Zone by KC Grifant

M ar breathed shallowly as she headed inside the apartment complex and up the stairs, trying not to inhale the scent of cat litter and creamed corn soup. She paused in front of one of the apartment doors, and pressed her fingers together to keep them from shaking. Once they were steady, she knocked.

“Come in,” a voice said, catching like a jagged nail. The voice cleared itself with a cough and tried again. “Come in.”

Mar pushed the door open. The scent of lilacs, her daughter’s favorite, sent a twisting spike through her stomach.

A figure in a pressed plaid shirt tucked over a slight potbelly turned to her. Older than Mar, Leif was thinner since the last time she had seen him, maybe three weeks ago. Then, he had still been her daughter. Leif started to speak, but stopped when Mar showed him the pristine gleam of her handgun.

She pointed it directly at his cerulean eyes.

“Jenna wouldn’t want this,” Leif said.

“What could you possibly know about what she wants?” Mar spat and, just as she had practiced in the shooting range, took aim at his chest.

Orbit-sml ><

I t started with core waves.

Once scientists discovered how quantum patterns in the brain could be targeted with electromagnetic pulses, research teams targeted these core waves to nudge dysfunctional neurons into normal behavior, treating a host of neural diseases. And that was just the beginning: core waves also led to core swaps. Mar didn’t fully understand it, but physicists called it a quantum tunneling between brain states, enabling mice, then monkeys, then human subjects, to swap consciousnesses for a limited time. It was all fine and well, until Jenna volunteered be part of a pilot program through her university.

“Swap with what?” Mar had said, staring at Jenna across the coffee shop table last fall.

“His name is Leif. He works in sociology.”

“If you want to be a man,” Mar said, “why don’t you just get an operation, or steroids, the old-fashioned way?”

Jenna shook her head, hair sleek as a helmet. “It’s not about changing genders. It’s about swapping lives. Stepping outside of our comfort zones to really understand the human condition. This will redefine everything: gender, race, economic studies. It could even get us closer to a definition of the soul.”

“It sounds risky,” was all Mar could think to say. The latte scalded her tongue and she set down the mug, foam sloshing over the top.

“I’m doing it.” Her daughter’s brown eyes flickered, a hint of exasperation.

“What if he’s a pervert, a freak?” Mar hated the note of hysteria in her voice. She swore she’d never be like her own mother, paranoid and overprotective, and she wasn’t, but God knew this was too much for anyone to take without protest. “You have no idea what he’s going to do with your body. I can think of one hundred things right now that could go terribly wrong.”

“They screen everyone really carefully. Obviously.” Jenna’s mascaraed eyes narrowed, her shoulder blades folding up, a habit she had ever since she was a kid and didn’t like the conversation at hand. “And we all have to sign paperwork. It’s not like you can shoot up heroin or go on an orgy spree with someone else’s body.”

“It’s just… you’re all I have left.” Mar tried to sound matter of fact but it came out choked. By some horrendous turn of fate both mother and daughter had lost their husbands two years ago, Mar’s to a stroke and Jenna’s to a highway accident.

“It’s perfectly safe. If anything goes wrong, the core waves jump back to their originator. There’s been a ton of papers in all the big journals.”

“Nothing is perfectly safe,” Mar snapped. She had never had any luck instilling a proper sense of caution in Jenna. Jenna, who had learned how to headstand on a cantering horse, who had studied abroad in countries Mar didn’t dare consider visiting. And now she was about to give up her body to a total stranger. “Just because you’ve written some books on psychology, you’re qualified for a dangerous experiment?”

“It’s not dangerous, for the last time. They need someone who can write and capture and be self-reflective. I was lucky to be chosen. Do you know how many people applied? Ugh, never mind.”

Mar opened her mouth, on the verge of saying how horrified Jenna’s dad would be if he were still alive. But truthfully, Ricardo would have reminded Mar that their adult daughter was free to do as she pleased.

Well, Ricardo wasn’t here, and Mar had to do damage control on her own.

“Why you’d be so foolish I have no idea,” she said.

Jenna’s eyes and shoulders closed up even more, the distance between them miles as she uttered the dismissive sentence all parents dread:

“You just don’t get it.”

Orbit-sml ><

I t still hadn’t sunk in for Mar, even when she sat in the technician’s office on the university campus, watching onscreen while specialists fitted her daughter into a giant suit.

The technician narrated conversationally. “We strap in the participants and induce a sort of mini-seizure—” Mar shot him a look, and the tech hastily added, “It’s very controlled. We funnel the energy from these mental ‘storms’ into each other, creating the bridge.”

Mar had read a bit about it before the procedure: a sensitive and precise enough magnetic chamber could set up a quantum tunnel between brains to swap the core waves of each distinct personality.

“Is she all right?” Mar asked, for what felt like the twentieth time. They had said the procedure took five minutes, not counting the hours of preparation. The participants had already had microscopic high-end wireless neural readers implanted in their temples to maintain the tunnel outside of the chamber.

“The actual swap takes less than a second,” he said. “You should be proud. Your daughter is paving the way for a revolution in consciousness. Just think, if we could move between bodies, well, we could become a giant organism, and once tissue engineering catches up we could even live for—”

“Please stop.”

“Anyway,” the technician said. “This is just the start.”

After the procedure, Mar waited in the hallway until Jenna and a man emerged and shook hands before parting. The man headed toward Mar, but her daughter’s figure hurried away with two techs. Mar bit her lip to stop from yelling out.

He’s probably off to grab her boobs, Mar thought. A ridiculous, angry thought.

“How did it feel?” the technician asked.

“I feel great,” the man—not the man, her daughter, somehow her daughter—said. The face smiled in a way that made Mar cringe, that made her think of a sleazy guy giving her a drink. Jenna must have caught her expression.

“You shouldn’t have come,” her daughter said in the raspy voice, folding massive shoulders back. The candy blue eyes stared at her while Mar blinked back tears.

“Why did you have to do this? What is that man going to do to your body?” Mar fought back her sob. “What if he doesn’t give it back?”

“Leif,” her daughter said, touching the temple where a tiny incision scar remained. “His name is Leif. Not ‘the man’.”

“I know this is hard,” the technician chimed in. “We have some instructional videos. There’s also free counseling, if you want it.”

Mar turned away, patting at her wet eyelashes with the back of her hand. “I’m not the one who needs counseling,” she said. Even though part of her never wanted to leave her daughter’s side, she couldn’t be there a second longer.

Orbit-sml ><

M ar met her—him—her—at breakfast, a few days later, once Jenna had acclimated.

“Mom, you’re staring,” Leif’s voice growled. “Really awkward.”

Mar used every ounce of willpower not to shudder. Instead she took a bite of egg and watched her daughter pour sugar into her coffee. “That’s new.”

Jenna flashed a smile, a genuine grin, mixed with her signature arrogance. “This body craves more sugar. I’m trying to help him cut down, but it’s hard. The sugar highs feel so much more intense.”

Mar watched Leif’s lips, interested despite herself. How could she recognize her daughter’s smile in something so different? Maybe, Mar had mused, it was how the tiny muscles in the corners of the lip lifted and turned, giving off a sense of haughtiness. Or maybe it was something else, transmitted there in the space between them.

“What else is different?”

Jenna’s gaze grew distant, new eyes so unfamiliar in their creased wrinkle casing, like glass marbles in puckered bags. “You know when you’re watching a movie or reading a book and get so absorbed you start to feel anxious for the character? This feels like that, but times a million. I want the best for him. And I can still feel what I’m doing—what he’s doing, in my body, in my life—like a dream.”

Mar’s fork clattered to the table. “What do you mean?”

“My thoughts are changing his neural patterns a bit, and his are tweaking mine. And I guess the quantum tunnel gives us a ghostly feel of each other. Like, right now, I know he’s about to present to his class. And he probably knows I’m at breakfast with you.”

Mar cut out of the diner early, claiming a headache. The contract was for six months, and Mar had no idea how she would wait that long. The research team had capped swaps at that timeframe—some of the animal models had experienced confusion or missing thoughts after that.

“I won’t breathe easy until she’s back to normal,” Mar had told her friends. “That’s a long time of not breathing.”

Orbit-sml ><

F inally the awful experiment entered its final week. Mar thumbed off her phone as she and Jenna met at the corner of Newbury Street, amidst the brunch crowd.

“Are you still using that?” Jenna sighed. “The contacts are so much easier.”

“There’s only so much change a person can handle in a lifetime,” Mar said stiffly. While they waited at the crosswalk, Jenna took a small intake of breath, a harbinger of a statement Mar wouldn’t like.

“I’m doing another one after this. An amputee in India.”

“You’re joking.”

Leif’s head shook, the pale hair gleaming like icicles.

“You’ve done your piece. Let someone else give their time.” Mar tried her best to sound reasonable.

“The change is like nothing else. I understand so much more about myself, about others, about everything. I understand you and your worry better now too. Dad’s death destroyed us. And so did Tom’s. This is finally showing me how to heal. It’s hard to explain.” Jenna reached out to Mar’s arm, but the fingers that touched her skin were bigger, thicker. Blunt. Alien.

Mar tempered the scream that wanted out. “By escaping the body your dad and I gave you? Is it really so horrible you can’t stand to be in it?” And what’s to prevent people from abusing this, the rich old folks from taking over the poor and young? Body parasites, like a scifi movie?”

“Have you read any of the stuff I sent?” Jenna asked as they crossed the street. “There are only two places in the world that have the resources to create such a precise set-up. And the quantum connection expires naturally.”

“I think you’re doing this because of Tom,” Mar said. She could almost hear Ricardo telling her not to say it, but pressed on anyway. “And your dad. To get some twisted sense of connection. It’s unhealthy. Maybe it would be better if you spent your time going on some dates, moving on.”

Jenna’s shoulders hunched up, familiar, but now bulky as a bear’s. “You should—” she started, but then she, Leif’s body shuddering and nearly sliding into a lamppost.

“Jenna!” Mar sprang forward to catch the impossibly heavy frame, her knees buckling as she lowered her daughter to the curb. “Jenna!”

A few pedestrians slowed their pace. “Is he okay?” someone asked.

Mar tried to prevent Leif’s head from slamming into the dirty sidewalk, touching the coarse pale hair. “Help her!”

Jenna opened her eyes and muttered, “I’m sorry.”

“Thank goodness,” Mar said, but then she understood, somehow, in the space of those three syllables: it was him, and not Jenna.

Just like that, her daughter was gone.

Orbit-sml ><

I t couldn’t be prevented and had nothing to do with the experiment, according to the official death record. Legalese protected Leif, though Mar contacted a lawyer anyway, certain that whatever he had done—in that moment, he claimed he was preparing tea—had caused her daughter’s death.

The aneurysm had broken the quantum link, supposedly returning the core waves to their rightful brains just as Jenna’s body expired. Under pressure from negative press the program was put on hold, despite not being liable. But it was too late to care about that. Jenna’s unique pattern of thoughts and feelings, her quantum signature, whatever it was, gone. Her daughter’s soul had dissipated just like that, leaving Mar alone again.

After Jenna was buried, an ancient urge hummed in Mar’s fatigued bones, relieved only when she drove half an hour across state lines to buy what she needed. Maybe it would provide her some relief. Maybe not. It didn’t really matter.

Orbit-sml ><

L eif’s protesting palms, his wide sky-blue eyes, everything about him irritated Mar. She focused on the reassuring weight of the gun. She wasn’t nervous—Jenna’s death had scraped away everything, leaving her empty, as though she herself had no core waves, no signal, nothing.

“For Jenna,” Mar said, her hand and voice steady, just as she had practiced.

Leif lowered his head. “Do it,” he said in that awful croak, the voice Jenna had made her own over six months of Mar’s suffering, before he took it back. “Please.”

“If you’re bluffing, it won’t work.” Her voice wavered now, but she kept her focus on his chest. Leif didn’t give any sign of resisting, and it sent spikes of sheer rage, hot and dark, along Mar’s temples. “Don’t pretend to feel bad. You have no right. No idea. I am completely alone. Because of you. Whatever you did, you destroyed her. My Jenna is gone forever.”

Leif looked up at her, tearstained. “No one was closer to her than me. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I can’t explain. I felt her heart, her pain, her love. For you. For Tom, and dad. I miss her more than you can know.”

Mar’s hands shook badly though, through some Herculean effort, she kept the gun up.

“I can feel her still,” he said.

“What does that mean?” Giddiness swept over her. “The quantum tunnel!” She pictured a cloud funneled through a glass tube behind Leif’s forehead. “She’s still somewhere in you! Can you get her out?”

But he was shaking his head. “It’s like… a trace she left.”

Mar’s burst of hope fled and grief rushed back in, subtle as a pile of bricks crushing her chest. “I don’t understand.”

“There are no explanations,” Leif said, and he almost sounded haughty, like Jenna.

Mar lowered the gun, which had grown impossibly heavy, and squeezed her eyes shut. In this little apartment she was an indistinguishable point in the mesh of electrical signals that blinked in and out along the planet. Erased forever from that global network was the charge of her husband’s laugh and her daughter’s sigh. Now a balloon stretched around Mar, creating a void where nothing could reach her, where she could hardly even breathe.

But a bullet might still be able to fix that, ripping through her bubble.

Mar opened her eyes as Leif took a step toward her, then another, and before she knew what was happening he threw his arms around her. The gun was pressed into his flabby stomach, but he didn’t seem to care.

He sobbed like a child in her arms. Leif hugged her with a force that surprised her, his arms hefty and warm. Arms that Jenna had felt from the inside out, that bore the weight of a grief Mar thought belonged only to her.

“What am I going to do without her?” Mar’s thoughts, passing through someone else’s lips.

Leif pulled back, wiping his face.

“She loved you more than anyone,” he added. He held onto her shoulders, squeezing them as though trying to establish his own quantum tunnel, utterly oblivious to the gun. “You need to know that.”

As Mar stared at him, she swore she could see etched into Leif’s gaze a look her daughter might have given her: a mix of the same anguish and intensity when Ricardo had died, breaking through the blue.

She lowered the gun.

Orbit-lrg

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KC Grifant

Author image of KC Grifant KC Grifant is a New England-to-SoCal transplant who writes internationally published horror, fantasy, science fiction and weird western stories for collectible card games, podcasts, anthologies and magazines. Her writings have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Aurealis Magazine, Unnerving Magazine, Frozen Wavelets, Tales to Terrify and Colp Magazine. Her short stories have haunted dozens of collections, including We Shall Be Monsters; Shadowy Natures: Tales of Psychological Horror; The One That Got Away - Women of Horror Anthology; Beyond the Infinite: Tales from the Outer Reaches; Six Guns Straight From Hell Volume 3; and the Stoker-nominated Fright Mare: Women Write Horror. She is also the co-founder of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) San Diego chapter. For more information, visit her website or aMAZOM. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

© KC Grifant 2021 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: Thiago Matos, Artem Podrez, pixel2013, and romanosky77.

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