“My name is Norman. What’s your name?”
In the night, fluorescent light and white lab coats with pale faces outside the window, the boy dreams of a girl who falls from the sky. It’s always the same dream, freckled fingers catching sunlight: there’s a canopy of green above his head and a child who falls through the branches. There might be wings on her back, or there might be butterflies in the clouds. There might be a song in his head like a phonograph looping, but it’s a song he can never catch.
He wakes, he sleeps, he dreams.
He wakes, he sleeps, he dreams.
There’s a voice in the room singing a lullaby, spreading like some black tumour from heart to vein to the trembling tip of the tongue. Too tender to be cruel, too gentle in the dark of night.
(And do not go gentle, do not go gentle, do not--)
He wakes, he sleeps, he dreams in--
Red. It’s on his arm, it’s smeared all over. He lifts his wrist. His hand flops in response, his flesh dead weight and dangling. Soft as plastic.
“Our most advanced prototype yet, sir.”
Cold fingers lift his chin. The room around him is meant to be white. It’s not white any more.
A pause. And then, the same voice.
“I suppose the experiment went well, disregarding the fact it seems to have broken half its bones in the... process, of the test. I trust this is not intentional.”
“Ah. It... ah, it doesn’t know its limits, sir. There was a slight issue with the pain receptors when we removed certain inhibitions- that were blocking the brain. We’re still working on it, there’s a-”
The hand drops. From the corner, an audible swallow.
“There’s a very- delicate balance that needs to be achieved. We’re very close director, I assure you.”
He tilts his head, blinking at the brightness of the room.
“Very well. Then I expect you’ll carry on with the good work, gentlemen.”
Sometimes, it seems as though he’s always dreaming.
“Hey there, hey there- we’re going this way Zaz. Listen, I’ll get ya all the butterflies ya want later. All of them. I promise, ‘kay? Jeez Barbara, work with me here.”
“Huh. I could get you a leash for him if you wanted.”
“Shaddap. Hey Zaz, c’mon man, we gotta go.”
Something warm and slick slips down his cheek. Drips from his chin to the white, white ground.
The inside of his head is as white. Perfect, distilled white noise. Drowned in a hum. Drowned in a lullaby.
Action and reaction. Blade and blood. Motion and the parting of--- muscle, flesh, marrow and bone.
“-it is, yes, absolutely. Perfectly Pavlovian, I assure you. Point the finger and he’ll-” a sound, two fingers snapping together. He hums, disjointed, trying to catch a tune with nothing but the back of his throat and a questioning sound. “Just like that. The wonders of classical conditioning.”
“Fascinating. And the… noise?”
“... A minor quirk. Of the subject, of course. It’s not a, ah, a part of the conditioning.”
There’s no white left in the room. There’s a boy stretching a hand out, there’s a smile curving easy on his mouth.
“My name is Norman,” he says. “What’s---”
“Oh! Nothing, really. But uhm--- Zazie?”
“It sounds cool, right?”
“We were looking in the library for that space invaders series yesterday, you know the one with the ogres from Mars? And the purple food Mama let us make with purple potato last month? ██████ really wanted to read it again but he couldn’t find it on his own.”
The girl with a star is pinning something to his coat.
He tilts his head.
“It’s a tiger. One of those, uh, grargh, things, you know.” Her fingers make claw motions in front of her face. “They go roar, and stuff. And they bounce. They have stripes? Oh man, yo- dude, help me out here.”
“What do you want me to say? That you’re making some strange allusion to an apex predator that hunts prey for a living? Or that the tiger is the largest of the cat family, a nocturnal ambush predator, and occasionally the subject of choice for stuffed toys and children’s stories.”
“No- well, I mean, yeah. I mean the uh, you know. That book we read when we were kids, the one with the uh, the honey?”
“How terribly juvenile.”
“You have got to know the one I’m talking about.”
“I do recall it.”
“It fits, yeah?”
“... I suppose it does, yes.”
“It was ████ favourite series before she was adopted, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah! So we were looking for ages and ages, though ███ was checking, and she said it was only twenty minutes. And we found this book of names instead! Apparently it’s short for ████████. I mean, that’s really cool, isn’t it?”
“Is that why everyone’s started calling you that?”
“I think ███ might’ve spread it around, a little. Oh! And we found your name too, apparently it means-”
What did it mean?
There are times, in that strange liminal space between dreams and waking- there are times confusion is like a pinwheel, the colours beneath his eyelids a kaleidoscope showing skies painted in blue and green and angels all in white, numbers printed on their throat and dark hair falling in braids.
There’s a word on his tongue, there’s a weight in the back of his throat. There’s a prayer in him, if names were prayers and if worship was remembering- and he’s sure it’s a simple word, he’s sure it’s a beautiful word. He just doesn’t know how say it.
His mouth forms the shape of syllables he does not know. That he should. That he should. That---
There’s red on his palms and butterflies in the air, dancing.
“I mean, dude, it literally hurts to look at you. Feels like- y’know- you might shatter somethin’, break your bones just swinging that sword into a tree trunk.”
“She means your talents don’t appear to match your physique.”
“I mean he looks like he hasn’t eaten for fuckin’ months.”
“Ya know, he looks healthy enough to me. Just thin bones, thin boned, what have ya. What’d ya call them?”
“Bird bones, if you would like me to wax lyrical.”
A hand taps his wrist, and the butterfly on the tip of his finger disappears into the sky.
“Hey, let’s go Zaz. Think it’s curry on the menu today- hope ya like it, cuz I’m pretty sure those two are plannin’ ta force feed you or something.”
His thumb presses over the name on the yellowing paper.
The boy looks up. “Zazie?” He asks, soft like he’s testing it on his tongue. Softer than it has a right to be.
His thumb presses deeper, nail making indent making crease. His brow furrows. He lifts his hand.
It doesn’t sound right. Not as right as it should.
It doesn’t sound wrong, either.
“Zazie,” the boy says again. “It’s nice to meet you.”