Pristina, the photocopy girl. The nickname clung to her like the office scent that filled her pores, her hair. Our mutually precarious existences had brought us together in the grey-mirror of corporate city hell, and though we try, we are never able to wash away that stench, that cancer that runs through our veins now. Each day Pristina stands naked in the shower, weeping as the water runs black and blue, the ink running out of her. I hold her and carry her to the bedroom. We lie together.
Through most of these nights she is silent; the sun rises, and in its orange blast we rise and return again to the concrete belly of the city. But some nights she talks for hours. Talks of her dreams, her nightmares. Sometimes she stutters like a broken machine and noises emerge from her mouth that are no language ever heard. Those times she seems to fall into a seizure, and I see her contort her body into awkward, impossible shapes and angles. She throws herself against walls, static blasts from her lips and I plead with her to stop. Those are long nights.
Her days are spent in the small reprographics room, a cell of noise and machine, of paper and ink. These thousands of letters she prints, she copies, she mails into the world. She mutters the names as she stands there alone, repeats the addresses over and over, tracing fingers over the warm, damp lettering, smudging those words.
Sometimes she sees her own name on those address labels, in those letters. She sees words addressed to her going into envelopes, sealed into mail bags. She tastes the ink from her fingers, feels the presence of others, her namesakes. Her copies.
She is replicated many times over. She knows it. She feels it. She is copied as she copies, as she prints, as she slaves to those machines. And through the clotted veins of the city her copies live and breathe. In those concrete corridors copies of copies of copies have jobs and careers and families that are not her own. She feels at times as though she is a copy herself: on Monday mourning when the sense of loss is greatest, when sick and sallow she looks at herself and feels as though she is beginning to flicker, jump-cutting in the frame. She reminds herself that she is the original, but then she knows they all think that.
She tests me sometimes. What’s my name? she asks, looking at me, lying beside her on the bed. I make up different ones each time, teasing her. She smiles thinly and laughs, then goes to look at herself in the bathroom mirror. I watch her push and pull at her face, staring into the reflection of her eyes for long moments. She checks her fingernails, black with the ink and dust of the office. For long minutes she stands there, staring. I tell her she doesn’t look any different, that her face is the same as yesterday. She turns sharply and there is anger.
She ghosts her way through those copy lives, leaking into them like the ink she inhales each day, the ink in her blood. It’s what powers her, a fluid that enables her transition from her body to theirs. I see her in the bed, lying naked in a pool of murky red-black. It oozes from her pores, her mouth, her nose. I touch her face, enamel-white like hospital gowns soaked in bleach, and I feel the cold of her body seep into me. Her skin smells so stained, tastes so toxic. She is a multitude of other lives, a polyglot of existence.
And in those other lives she becomes entangled, becomes obsessed. I wonder now whether she remembers who she is; some days she seems so washed through, so vacant. When she walks through rooms the shadows that leap across walls don’t appear to be hers, and when she speaks her voice has an unusual edge, the hiss of distortion, the low crunch of cracking concrete. The way she looks at me, with anger flaring, or with a dangerous lust, frightens me. Her personality slips and slides as her movements become precise and deliberate. She picks her way over the ink-stained furniture, colours flashing from monochrome to neon arcs. When she kisses me it is cold, poisonous water pouring into my throat. I touch my fingers to my wet lips and they come away slick and dark.
When she wakes up, she talks about the copy life she shared some time with, about her job, her family. Sometimes these are happy stories. Her smile glows like dawn and she laughs. Then there are the times that are not so happy. Some of her copies are sad, they are lonely. They live with squalor and abuse; they are violence and nightmare. Those times Pristina wakes with bruises, black and blue and green, along her arms, her face. She talks very little about them; she just crawls to me and quietly cries.
But the good episodes are the worst. In those, she gets a glimpse of the possible, of what her life could be like. Her longing, her desperation, it turns to melancholy. She starts to talk then of escaping, of running away from this. Leave it all, she says. I don’t understand what she means, and tell her we don’t have the money to just leave our lives. She turns away from me then, whispering to herself, a kind of coldness creeping into her.
Her copy selves degrade, grow less and less defined. She finds it harder to reach them, to slip into them. She has her favourites, the ones with happy lives, and she likes to revisit them, despite the depression that follows. My only escape, she says.
But in time they all fade. She says it feels itchy when she is ghosting with a copy who is badly eroded. Her vision is grainy and she feels as though she is wrapped in wire wool. I watch her in these moments, twisting on the bed, her eyes flickering beneath her dark eyelids. Her skin grows red and angry, a rash spreading over her, irritated by the abrasive aura.
And then small muscle twitches. Her body begins to move like the surface of the sea. She heaves and rolls, mouth opens and a roar of surf emerges, becoming a scream. She thrashes, a violent spinning storm, a tangle of bedding and noise. I watch as she lives through the death of one of her copies. I watch while she feels the draining, the erosion of existence, the blurring away to the black, the nothing.
Now there is a rage that boils at the very centre of her, a rage that spits and hisses and tears down plaster walls, burning and seething, a star burning itself into oblivion. A star preparing to explode. She throws her anger into her copies, into her faded other lives; she throws hate and destruction into those photocopy people. Her army grows as her rage grows, and daily she copies herself, unleashing more and more, degrading herself as she multiplies.
Her obsession now: the growth of her many, the increasing numbers of copies out there in the city, the building of her army. What used to unite us, now divides us. Each day she returns to the city, to the office, to false daylight and machines. Each day she basks in the blast of neon and amber and yellow. I see her fade. I see her beginning to dissolve as ink in water, and I cannot stop her.
She begs me to help her. To go with her to the light and machines. Let the ink flow in my veins. You will see what I see, she says. You will know what I know. Feel what I feel. Our multiplied selves would move through the city, and the whole of this rotten world would be ours. We would repay them for all the pain. I tell her I feel no anger. I am only sad and empty inside, because once we were partners in facing a shared nightmare. I am afraid. Of dying? she asks. I tell her I am afraid of being alone.
She looks at me with eyes dark and red, with the burning vision of someone ready to annihilate. Quivering angles cut shadows deep, her hands shaking as she touches my face and I flinch. Cool skin hot brow, she tastes my sweat with her tongue and it makes her smile. She tells me not to be afraid. Life is lost in this hell, she says. Everything will end. We will rebuild. You and I.
I wish I could believe that what she says is true. I wish I could believe that this could bring us together, unite us in struggle, empower us. And that once it was over, we would start afresh, reborn. But her thirst, her lust, the way her hands burn when she touches me. The way her eyes seem to stare, unblinking, for hours during the night as we lie in bed. There may well be a reckoning for her, but the aftermath will be a great swallowing, the collapse of everything. Pristina feels that doubt in me. As though it were written on my body in tattoos. She reads the fear and grows more distant.
She spends her nights ghosting through those copy people, setting to work, putting plans in place. I can only wait at the bedside, hoping there will be no more horrific screaming. In the mornings she scans newspapers, sits with her face pressed close to the television screen, watching, waiting. An expectation is growing in her. Red circles in ink-print signal signs from her army. She covers the bedroom walls with stories, photographs, headlines. She shows me these triumphs, the victories of her forces. You see? she says, it begins now. Her hands move over those black pages, delicate, sensual. Ways she used to touch me.
I no longer sleep. I lie awake next to Pristina, in a room wrapped in the newspaper ink of her spreading war. I watch the shades of her copies moving around the rooms, phasing in and out, flickering as old film images. At first these apparitions startled me, and I recoiled as they walked from walls and stopped to stare at me, huddled there next to their original version. Their eyes, those copy eyes, moved from me to her, and they stared at her long – hours – and as dawn encroached on the city they melted away into the early morning orange, leaving small damp patches of tears.
They no longer concern me, and they no longer take notice of me. They come to watch her sleep, perhaps to watch over her. They stand in groups around the bed, kneeling beside her. Each night there are more of them.
Soon, I know, she will be ready.