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Using My Head

by Jen Hoffman

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Part 2 appears
in this issue.

I didn’t hear anything at first. Then, I did. Susan was singing. There were no words, and the tune was hard to follow, but it seemed familiar somehow. I knew I’d never heard anything like it, but I also knew it was exactly right. I could hear Amy’s Symb too. They harmonized, and then a third voice joined them.

“Is that the baby?”


Amy and I sat quietly, listening to the Symbs. When the song was over, we were both surprised to notice we were holding hands.

Susan told me the baby would be strong now. I could tell she was pleased to have had the chance to sing with her baby.

Amy and I became friends. It’s hard to share something like that and just walk away. We sat on the bus together every morning. Sometimes, our Symbs sang, but neither one of us could predict any pattern to the days they chose.

Susan had started talking to me regularly after the Joining. Usually, she used pictures, but she got better at using my other senses the more she practiced. Rung eggs tasted sort of like avocado, but sweet. Yawnas would eat themselves sick if you let them, so the Hrills only gave them as special treats.

I saw the wispy grasses of Hrill, where the Yawnas played and wrestled with each other while the Hrills talked, and showed each other small transparent cubes. Susan said she wasn’t really sure what the cubes did, but all the Hrills had them, and spent hours holding them up to the light, pressing the various sides, and showing the result to all the other Hrills.

At night, the Hrill owners would take their pets inside. The Hrills themselves were giants, able to pick up a Yawna with one hand. Symbs don’t laugh, but that amused Susan. She flashed a picture of me, bending down to pick up my Yawna back at the SS. The Hrills looked so huge because Susan had only ever seen them from a Yawna’s perspective. Yawnas liked it when you stroked the tops of their feet.

Most of my questions didn’t make any sense to her, but she tried to answer them as best she could. She told me once that the Yawnas had been better Hosts, because they never asked questions. I think she was kidding. She had a very dry sense of humor sometimes.

As Amy’s birthing approached, Susan got more withdrawn. I could tell something was bothering her, but she wouldn’t tell me what. All she wanted to do was sing, but it was a different song now. The Joining song had made me feel hopeful, this new song was almost like a dirge.

“That’s it, isn’t it. You’re dying.”

She wouldn’t answer.

“Susan! Talk to me! Maybe I can help.”

Finally, she told me. Every time a new Symb was born, one of the parents died. She’d been the birth parent four times back on Hrill, but since she wasn’t this time, she wasn’t needed anymore. She would sing one more song to her baby, and then she would die.

“But where does that leave me? Can I Host the baby?”

The baby would choose her own Host. Maybe she would choose me, but maybe not. I was a Host forever, though. Eventually, another Symb would want me.

Amy’s baby was ready to be transplanted two days later. I went with her to the SS to find a Host. The baby saw her Host right away, and pointed the man out to Amy. I tried not to cry as Susan sang her last song. Then, she was gone. Amy tried to console me, but she had no idea what it felt like. The whole world was grey.

I started volunteering at the SS a few nights a week. Marie was working there full time now, and she knew enough about Symbs not to try and make me feel better. She offered me all the busiest shifts, and let me work through my grief privately.

I saw two transplants that first month. Each time, I thought for sure it was going to be me, but the Host went to someone else.

Finally, after about six months of volunteering, a man came in to the SS during one of my shifts. As soon as I saw him, I recognized him, even though I knew I’d never seen him before. I thought about the hopeful feeling I’d had with every other Host I’d seen, and knew this was nothing like it. This was real. He was definitely carrying my new Symb. He saw me, and waved.

He said, “My first Symb was one of the first to Join, and it took me almost four months to find another one when she died. I know exactly how you feel. Let’s get this started right away.”

My new Symb is a lot more responsive than Susan was, but of course she’s basically just a little kid, born inside Barry on Earth. The Symbs born inside humans sometimes use pictures, but a lot of them speak a pidgin version of the Host’s native language. I call her Lila, after my mother. I’m trying to tell her what I can of Susan’s home world.

* * *

Jonas showed up at the SS the other day. I tried to warn Marie, but she said he’d been in already a few times on my days off, and she thought he was harmless. I avoided him as long as I could, but then he cornered me.

“I feel I should tell you I faked my scar, Stell.”

“I knew that.”

“I’m trying to practice humility. I know I have a lot to offer the Symbs, and if I serve them faithfully, maybe I’ll get one of the new podlings.”

“They don’t call them ‘podlings.’ They’re just called babies.”

“Really? Yzrxl said... Sorry, sorry. I know there was no Yzrxl.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I made her up. But she was real to me.”


“I just wanted it so badly. It wasn’t fair. You had one, and you don’t even recycle. I was going to the Cedar Point SS every week, but I knew it was just a matter of time before they recognized me and kicked me out, just like the SS here had. I maybe lost a few weeks in there somewhere, I think. I remember I woke up one day, and I had a Symb scar. I guess I just assumed that it was a real one, because then everything made sense again. There were so many scared people, and I knew I could help them. They asked me questions, and I knew just what to say. Then it all got kind of confusing. Did Laurel tell you what happened?”

“No, not really. She said you stopped having the meetings right after that woman came in looking for a Joining.”

The Joining woman was really the start of all his problems, said Jonas. Just a few nights earlier, Yzrxl had told him all about how Symbs needed to be near water to breed. They laid their eggs underwater, and the podlings had gills until they were six months old. Then they grew legs, and walked to land to find a Host. It was a fascinating story, and he’d been looking forward to sharing it at his next meeting.

Before he even got started, though, there was this woman, saying all the wrong things. Joining? Yzrxl surely would have mentioned it. And then the newspaper stories came out a few days later, and they contradicted what Yzrxl had told him even more.

He asked Dr. Nordstrom for advice. That woman was crazy, Dr. Nordstrom assured him. He asked what Jonas really believed, a newspaper, or his very own Symb? Jonas and Yzrxl had the truth, and they had to share it with the world.

That helped a little. But then Yzrxl started saying really strange things. She wanted to take him back to Hrill. He could save the Yawnas, if he wrapped them up in cellophane for three days. Then she started chewing on the inside of his head, making it impossible for him to sleep.

“I didn’t know what to do. Dr. Nordstrom didn’t even listen to me anymore. He was too busy working on his new relaxation tape. He just kept saying that if I had another meeting, I’d feel more like myself again. I wanted to believe him, but Yzrxl had been screaming nonstop for two days, and I couldn’t take it anymore.”

He’d waited until Yzrxl fell asleep, then he’d come to the SS. He told them his Symb had gone insane, and he needed to get it removed immediately.

None of the staff had ever heard of anything like it. They asked him his name, and where he had gotten his transplant. They tried to pull up his file on their computer. Of course, he didn’t have one. He wasn’t a registered Host, so they called the hospital.

That was almost two years ago. He’d been talking with a psychiatrist, and she’d helped him a lot. He hadn’t ever been a Host. He knew that now. He didn’t remember faking the scar, but he definitely didn’t have a Symb. Last week, his psychiatrist had told him she thought it might be therapeutic for him to volunteer at the SS. He could see firsthand how Hosts acted, and how it was nothing at all like how he had been behaving.

“I mostly help Marie clean the transplant rooms. That green stuff gets everywhere.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“It’s so great to see you again. How’s Grxt?”

“Who? Oh, you mean Susan. She died. I’m Hosting Lila now.”

“You named your Symb Lila?” He sounded like his old self then, mocking my practicality. “What kind of a name is that for an alien?”

“It’s one I can pronounce.”

He shook his head. “Same old Stell.”

It seemed like there was something else he wanted to ask. “Say, Stell? You and Marie are friends, right?”

“Sure, I guess so.”

“I’d really like to work security in the Host room. I’d be really good at it, because I know all the tricks you can use to get around them if you want to stay longer than two hours. Marie says not until she talks it over with Dr. Rivera, and I know she’ll say I’m not ready yet. Will you talk to Marie for me? Tell her I’m sane now?”

“Um, I’m not sure if I can tell her that, Jonas”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Come on. You know you just want to work security because then you could stay in there all day, right?”

“I will be a Host. I was wrong about Yzrxl, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t happen.”

This was starting to sound like a conversation I didn’t want to be part of. Thankfully, Marie joined us. “Hey, Jonas. I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I think Barry wants your help in the Host room.”

“Wow, really? You mean it? What does Dr. Rivera say?”

“I just got off the phone with her. She says you can work there today, but you have to talk to her tomorrow before I let you back in again.”

He raced off, and Marie looked at me. “Interesting guy. Confidentially, I think he’s nuts, but everyone seems to like him, and he’s always asking what he can do to help. Did you know he’s Jonas Sawden? As in, The Jonas Sawden, used to run those Symbiology meetings downtown?”

“Yeah, I used to date him.”

“Oh, jeez, I’m sorry. I wondered why you were so concerned about him working here.”

“It’s really okay. I’m over him. You’re right, though. He’s out of his tiny little mind, always has been.”

“Well. If you’re not doing anything, Barry really could use some help with crowd control. Another shipload of Yawnas arrived near Cedar Point this morning. The SS down there is swamped, so they asked if we had the resources to find Hosts for some of them.”

The Host room was chaos. Marie had said there’d been a segment on the local news about the new shipload, and it seemed like everyone in town had come down. Lila wouldn’t shut up. The only Symbs she’d ever met all lived in humans.

“Oooh! So pretty! Touch them?”

“Maybe later. I need to find Barry.”

“Barry over there. Helping interesting guy Jonas. What means ‘date’?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older. You said Barry’s with Jonas? Is he OK? Did Jonas freak out or something?”

“What means ‘freak out’?”

I ignored her. I’d finally spotted Barry. He was kneeling next to Jonas, who had a Yawna squeezed tightly to his chest. Tears were running down his face.

“Jonas! Stop it! You’re hurting it!”

He looked up at me and smiled. “No, I’m not. I can tell. This one is mine. I told you I’d get one someday.”

Barry said, “It vibrated at him, I saw it. I think he’s right.”

Marie came running over. “Jonas, I don’t know if I can allow this. You have a history of mental illness. I think I should call Dr. Rivera.”

Barry and I said “No!” almost simultaneously.

I explained, “We’ve never done background checks on any other potential Host It’s not fair to single Jonas out.”

“Besides,” added Barry. “You know the statistics as well as any of us. This Symb might not find another suitable Host for months, if ever. It picked Jonas, and we have to respect its decision.”

“Peanut says they’ll be fine. It might actually help him.” This was from Amy, who had noticed all the commotion, and joined us. Her Symb had named herself, after Susan had explained the human importance of names. She said she liked the sound of it, and Amy hadn’t wanted to discourage her. “Peanut’s one of the originals, and the oldest Symb here, so she should know.”

Marie looked at Jonas, who had his face buried in the Yawna’s fur, and then at the three of us. “Right. I’m just a human, what do I know? Come on, Jonas. I’ll take you to a transplant room.”

After she was gone, I asked Amy, “Did Peanut really say that?”

She blushed. “Not exactly. She talked a lot less after the baby left. She hasn’t said anything at all for about a month. But did you see him? He wanted it so badly. Think about when you first saw Susan, and how you would have felt if someone had told you no. Marie will never find out.”

I laughed, and hugged her. “Did Peanut ever tell you about the Rung eggs? Let’s see if these Symbs brought any extras. I want to show Lila how to feed the Yawnas.”

Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Hoffman

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