Mark Chen is staring down at me like I'm a stranger, and that's how I know he's not Mark: He's Allen, Mark's OS. His otherself.
The thick-lashed eyes are the same, the obsidian hair that falls into them the same, the long-lined body...also the same. The difference is that Mark wouldn't look at me this way. He wouldn't ooze the chill that's creeping up my skin.
Looming directly above me, he stands beside my bed, where I lie flat on my back.
My arms—having reached toward him—now drop, along with my smile. I hug myself instead, and squirm under Allen’s unsurprisingly but still unnervingly distant gaze.
“Um, morning,” I mumble.
This isn’t the first time I’ve woken up to Allen rather than Mark—the switch occurs overnight, in their sleep—but it may be the most awkward.
In general, Allen pretends I don’t exist. When forced to notice that I do, escape becomes his only option. So why is he not escaping?
I avert my eyes from their—currently, his—naked chest. I know the body he shares with Mark, but this is unusual behavior from him. At the top of his list on these kinds of mornings is to get dressed. He doesn’t tend to hang around shirtless.
Sitting up, I’m thankful for my room’s clean, uncluttered grayness.
That gaze slides lower, and I give my sleeve a nervous pinch. My jacket, a fuzzy blue favorite, is excellent for keeping an easily-chilled body (mine) warm. I might appear strange for having worn it to bed on a late summer night, but I don’t care.
I decide to give Allen some privacy so he can head home, feet searching the carpet for my missing bunny slippers.
This leaves me right between his legs.
Allen’s hand moves. Every part of me goes still. Without touching my skin, he lightly flicks my jacket zipper...which at that moment I realize has sunk too low. His attention entirely on the cloud shape, Allen ignores my faux terrarium necklace—a handmade birthday gift from Mark.
“Why not a rainbow?” Allen asks. His voice isn’t as low as Mark’s. It’s smoother, softer, yet more pointed. Rather than something rich, I always think of a blade.
A blade that may slice me at any moment.
I shiver and back away from the contact, palm covering my necklace.
“I identify more with the cloud.”
Familiar-unfamiliar eyes meet mine, and I find this contact even worse.
Rushing past him, I almost make it to the door. Then I don’t, because Allen speaks. And what he says stops me cold.
“There’s no reason for us to see each other again.”
“Mark is gone. He and I didn’t want the same things.” A heavy pause. “I don’t make exceptions.”
I spin around. Allen has pulled Mark’s shirt on. “Sorry, is this a joke?”
And the slash—
“Yes.” My heart thunders as he looks away. “I meant what I said…I hope we’re done here.”
Indeed, the statement rips with finality.
Stunned silent, I trail him to the hallway, the living room, the front door, all the way outside. The air is thick—to a suffocating degree.
Within a couple of minutes, he’s in the Chens’ backyard and through the sliding glass doors that lead to his and Mark’s bedroom.
Halfway inside, Allen turns back and sees me standing there.
His body does something—my mind searches for the word that would describe it.
A light sheen of sweat sticks my hair to my face. I focus on his hand, frozen on the handle, knuckles stretched white.
I feel strangely soaked-through in the lowest part of my body, and I can’t seem to hear what he’s saying. I glance down as he does, at my very wet socks. I’ve stepped in a small puddle of overnight rain without shoes. Huh. Ew.
Allen withdraws into the room. I begin to shake, chilled to the bone.
It’s very simple, though, and I’ll simply explain it to Allen. He’s a reasonable guy, from what I’ve heard—he’ll understand.
Mark Chen is my best friend, and I refuse to accept that I’ve lost him.
Allen returns, carefully placing a pair of sneakers down on a dry patch of grass next to me. I blink at them.
“Keep them," he says.
Recoil. That was the right word, earlier. He recoiled.
This is no place to vomit.
Allen vanishes behind the sliding doors. The curtains sway, I hear the lock turn, and no matter how long I stare...the doors remain closed.