Warm, grasping hands! Tan, muscular calves and legs!
Looking down at her body, Benaroya had to shriek with laughter. It was so perfect it was absolutely fantastic. What would the kids back home say if they could see her now?
She glimpsed her face in the rearview mirror. The lips peeled back, displaying a set of shiny white teeth—not apelike, but quite sharp—and a wet red tongue. The tongue poked out and touched the upper lip. Holy Moses! The eyes were a dazzling sapphire blue, alive with lusty humor. It was the face of a predator. A sleek, dangerous animal. Make no mistake about that. From here on, anything could happen.
But leaping lizards, it was a wonderful feeling, this being alive in a human body! She couldn’t help bouncing up and down in the bucket seat out of sheer exuberance. Graduation day. What a thrill. After months of training here she was, roaming the savage, backwater planet Earth, ready to begin her first assignment.
She remembered Omark’s briefing: “Never forget, these bushmen must eat other creatures in order to survive. Not a single one of their leaders—presidents, popes, kings, basketball players—has a shred of ethics whatsoever. Carry a weapon at all times and don’t hesitate to kill.”
Yet the California scenery was ever so pretty. There, just ahead, was some sort of fabulous monument. What could it represent? Aha: a giant taco, eighty feet tall, oozing lettuce, bits of cheese and tomato and a thick purple goo, possibly plum jam. She’d seen ever so many pictures in magazines. But the monument was made of plastic! Oh, how inventive. And the sweet little bushmen were lining up to get small, hot duplicates of the tasty food product.
Benaroya felt a pang of ecstasy. This trip was going to be thrilling. Already she liked her Brenda Starr body, so lush and supple, wearing a thin bikini, since the day was a scorcher. She had a closetful of other bodies back at the ship but the Brenda had seemed so very right. She could have slipped into a Mary Magdalene, or a Ruby Keeler in tap shoes, or Nelson Rockefeller or Dorothy from The Wizard or Toulouse-Lautrec, Zorro, Gertrude Stein, or any of a dozen others. These bodies had been reproduced from films and comics, police records, time-travel cubes and other devices. Each was a dead ringer for the original, down to the very freckles and toenails, EKG, blood-sugar level and condition of arteries. Not a one could be distinguished from the actual person! And this wasn’t easy, boy, because primitives look so much alike.
At the moment, Benaroya was moving much too fast. She hadn’t anticipated the impact of culture shock; this lightheaded, out-of-control feeling much like the “rapture of the deep” experienced by divers. She’d stolen the Mustang a mere ten
minutes ago and was already doing 90—wow! Such a kick to zoom past other cars, floating in and out of traffic, losing the police miles back, with their funny wailing sirens and flashing lights and cute, wide buttocks and slow reflexes. She knew they were hated and feared by everyone and this heightened her sense of drama.
Benaroya’s original body, the one she wore back home, was exclusively aquatic. (Rysemus was a thick-molecule “water” planet.) Her body was dolphinesque with a smash of semidivine Bright Lights class and glitter. Of course she’d never wear it here on Earth; it wouldn’t survive the rough frontier conditions; seawater would ruin the rippling chiffon fins, impurities would lock the gills--oh, the bod would be an absolute mess in no time. She kept it in storage back at the ship.
One of the motorcycle cops was moving up. She knew he was called “pig”--darling nickname!--and he would be terribly annoyed, so she slipped between a couple of trucks and lost him. The officer made radio contact with his reinforcement down the line: “Phil, intercept this baby. Black Mustang license H5428; red hair and a bikini; jumping lanes like she’s on speed or worse. Stop her! Before she wipes out some decent people,” at which point his voice trembled and he broke connection.
This officer was in pain. He’d fallen off his Harley the day before yesterday. Fortunately no colleague had been present to witness his embarrassment. He suspected a hernia but didn’t want to see a doctor and fill out all those fucking insurance forms. Benaroya caught this stream of images telepathically, and was puzzled--how very complex the sweet little bushmen were!
“Right,” Phil barked to empty air and waited for the suicidal redhead to enter his field of vision. This took longer than expected: Benaroya was jumping a median to slither south between lines of northbound cars; now she flew twice around a cloverleaf, giggling at the deathtraps of Stone Age engineering, drinking in the heady waves of larceny, guilt, greed, anguish and nervous agitation that flooded the sunbaked ether. Oh Earth, Earth, how ubiquitous is thy wide-screen insanity! (As Omark had orated this very morning at graduation exercises.) But soon she zoomed into Phil’s turf, and the busy little centurion was on her tail, using lights and siren to force her over.
Benaroya gave a joyful wave. She loved Phil’s Nazi-like helmet, his outraged sense of authority. She was drunk on industrial fumes, flocks of wheeling gulls, soot and tideflat and carbon monoxide, new leather and her own pungent, sun-kissed, unfamiliar sweat. It was a giggle to move this alien vehicle through traffic and suck waves of horror from other drivers who were pop-eyed at the beat of death’s approaching wings--zowie! The dial was hitting 110, 115, 120, flashing past billboards of Sea & Ski, Marlboro, Budweiser, and under enormous, spider-legged signs--San Diego! Santa Monica! Golden State! Hollywood!--names to roll on the tongue, sweet, remote echoes, exhilarating, tantalizing, incredibly exotic.
“God damn you crazy bitch pull over!” Phil screamed in an agony of frustration.
Benaroya was flying high. She flitted beneath overpasses, around curves, through a tunnel; wasn’t surprised when Phil hit an oil slick and was sucked, bike and all, under the eight screaming wheels of a semi. She came out in flat saltmarsh where hills cut the horizon, and was slowing to admire a produce stand heaped with brilliant oranges, avocados, watermelon, red and green and waxy yellow peppers, when her first Clash began.
To a Rysemian anthropologist, the Clash is the ultimate learning experience. How else can you learn all there is to know about a person? This woman drove a green Lotus and had one of those funny Earthie names (Benaroya probed her mind carefully) that sounded like Wolf, or perhaps Fox.
This Fox was a miserable being. It seemed other people sneered at her fat arms, thin hair, angry features, and at the fact that she was unbeautiful and not young. Her whole life was a waste. Salesgirls insulted her. She was never respected. She was no longer desirable. The world was rotten. Life stunk.
Benaroya found herself charmed and amazed. Why, the darling person relied completely on the judgments of humans! She thought that “life” meant the opinions of three billion bushmen. How quaint! How adorably provincial. Here was Fox, a taco eater, glamorous, entrancing, absolutely stuffed with pulsar power, being “unhappy.” Tee hee! Earthies were ever so ramified.
Fox whipped past the Mustang and cut in front with a glance of withering contempt. Seeing how it was done, Benaroya zoomed past the Lotus and also cut in sharply, with the same look of disdain.
Why in the world was Fox unhappy? The anthropologist probed. Yes indeed, it was because the other little Earthies sneered at her. But how absurd. They all did that to each other constantly. All competitive beings ripped at each other like cornered rats, but who cared? There must be a more important reason. Aha: it was because Fox’s husband ran around. But how silly! She should be pleased that the sweet little bushman was being hysterical somewhere else. Anyway, now was the time to cheer Fox up. Give her a race she would never forget.
The anthropologist tramped on the accelerator. This was going to be gorgeous. From Fox came a burst of confusing images: Benaroya had never probed a real Earthie this close and it was like a jolt of sour mash. Fox seethed with anguish. She was a volcano of wounds and grief, of tears, prayers and frustration that other humans forced her to keep under cover. Fascinating! Just like Omark had said. Earth was a powder keg waiting for a match.
Fox was increasingly angry at Benaroya. For what reason? Her chutzpah, her smile, the fact that she was free. Could such idiocy be possible? Earthies were so illogical. It seemed Fox craved being first in line. Excellent; Benaroya would show her some real fun.
“Do exactly as they do and you can’t go wrong,” Omark had said. How easy, how delightful it all seemed. She would become a top secret agent, make Omark fall in love with her, and be a credit to her planet.
Ahead was a sharp turn. Benaroya geared down to third, then to second, the Lotus moving up until they ran hub to hub. Benaroya looked across and smiled, winding it up, testing the silken mesh of gears--oh, how she adored primitive mechanics! But Fox would have none of that smile. Fox’s morning had been a roll of ratshit and she despised bubbly redheads; this was the kind of cheap slut her husband chased. Fox could hardly control her resentment. This redheaded floozie was disgusting!
Fox bent forward grimly, her knuckles white with tension. She moved an inch out of lane and barely, almost tenderly, touched the flank of the Mustang.
It was enough to send Brenda Starr spinning across lanes of traffic, around, around in highway roulette; landscape a whirling blur, horrified faces whipping in circles to a wail of horns and a shriek of burning rubber. Then the Mustang recovered and drifted broadside. Benaroya eased into line. So much for round one.
Fox settled back to enjoy her triumph. Benaroya slid closely behind the Lotus. Fox’s lips tightened. Hadn’t this stupid girl had enough? She floored the Lotus, putting distance between the two cars.
Benaroya went flat out with the tach up to 5000. At the next curve she dropped into third and pulled abreast of the Lotus, grinning and waving.
Fox exploded with a lifetime of suppressed rage. “You cheap slut! You cow! What right do you have to be happy!” Fox screamed, despite herself.
Benaroya blew a kiss, as they did in the films. Benaroya knew a lot about human death. She had personally strangled, drowned, shot, beheaded, and dissected scores of empty bodies to test their capabilities. They were fragile eggshells, but what did it matter? Bodies were unimportant; you could grow hundreds of them in the ship tanks. Sensing this attitude, Fox experienced a stab of fear. The girl was plain crazy! Either that or she’d swallowed a whole bottle of uppers.
The Rysemian nosed out to slip ahead with a brash wiggle of the rear end. Fox tried to control her emotions. What an impudent bitch! But anger never won a race, and her Lotus could beat anything on the road.
Fox whipped around the Mustang and cut back in, horns blaring contempt. She lifted the stiffened middle finger of her right band and punched air with it. Benaroya wondered if the gesture had some special meaning. The Lotus was boxed in for a moment; Benaroya crept up and tapped its rear bumper caressingly.
Fox screamed. She raised one fist in hatred. Now she could never rest until the Mustang had been forced off the road.
“Cow!” she shrieked.
“Cow!” Benaroya repeated.
The two women leapfrogged, grabbed the lead by turns, honked and yelled obscenities at each other. Brenda Starr displayed a stiffened middle finger whenever she caught Fox’s eye; it was wonderful; Fox seemed to go higher up the pole each time. Several motorcycle centurions were closing in, and now a bearded black man on a Honda 750 shot into view. He seemed infuriated. When he was even with the Mustang, he screamed at Benaroya, telling her to pull over.
“This is a citizen’s arrest,” he shouted several times.
Why was he angry? Fieldwork was certainly interesting. Benaroya sorted mental patterns busily. Now five contestants were racing in a tight, emotional little network. The more people who joined in, the more fun it became!
Signs kept flashing past: Magnolia, Burbank, Oxnard, bathed in a metallic yellow haze. The road narrowed here; it had been raised above ground level and was flanked by scrubby weeds, not crisp ice plant or concrete like the roads downtown. Along each side were rooftops poking through a blanket of smog. Exquisite! Earthie dwellings were so meltingly picturesque! And how lovely were the endless billboards, gas stations, the brick walls of housing projects or were they concentration camps?--oh, so many quaint, otherworldly sights to see!
But first there was a good race to be won, and a lovely Earth lady, Fox, to be shown a bang-up jolly time.
Benaroya did a snake dance between lanes to the tune of blaring horns. She crept up on the Lotus, pushed Fox to the railing, and tried to cut her off.
For Fox, this was the last straw. She jerked the wheel to give the Mustang a well-deserved slap; lost control, skittered toward the metal railing, and crashed through it.
The Lotus turned somersaults end over end. It appeared to freeze in midair at each bounce. Then it slammed down the embankment and shot across the intersection. It came to rest on a cyclone fence, teetered for a moment, and burst into flames.
Fox was pinned in the wreckage.
Her mouth gaped grotesquely. The boom of traffic drowned her screams. Benaroya bounced to a stop upside down. At that instant the Lotus exploded--BLAM!--like a hot gasbag; it shattered the windows of a barbershop across the way.
Metal, glass, and bits of human flesh rained down for a hundred yards in every direction.
end of Chapter One.
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