Katja realizes why first impressions matter: In this city, actions determine appearance
I rush down the crowded street, everyone's faces reflecting the same look. An average nose, average eyes, average mouth. All completely identical. To them, I look the same.
I need to get to the library. I've only got nine minutes until it closes. I need to return the scrolls. I can't afford any more late fees.
Where the people differ is in their clothing. And, of course, by gender. There are two generic faces. One male and the other female, like mine. This caused some complaint, but it's too late to change it now. Personally, I'm happy with the choice.
I round another corner and slam into someone else. All my scrolls tumble out of my arms and roll in different directions across the sidewalk. The young man I ran into stutters an apology.
I suppose faces (and height) also differ slightly by age. You can always tell precisely how old a stranger is, just by looking at his face and stature. There are some people who are tall or short for their age too. The perception changes can't eliminate that difference completely.
"I'm so sorry," The stranger says. "Are you alright? I shouldn't have cut the corner so close."
He starts picking up scrolls from under the crowd's trampling feet. As he does his face changes. This process always intrigues me. I've only just started seeing the change.
For most people, the perception changes start occurring around age thirteen, sometimes even as early as eight. For me it didn't start until a week ago. I'm seventeen now. My mom always did say I have an open mind. I suppose that could have influenced my late changes, but my friends always said it was a glitch in the system. That I was a glitch.
As the stranger places scrolls in my arms his short, mousy brown hair lengthens and curls slightly. His cheekbones become more defined. His chin comes to a point, and his eyebrows soften. His eyes. Oh, his eyes.
Like always, his face transforms into a devastatingly handsome angel. It's supposed to be less drastic later on. But I'm rather enjoying it as it is for now.
"It was my fault really. I was rushing. Thank you." I say as he places the last scroll in my hands. "I really have to go. The library's closing. Thanks again."
I rush off. It's always sad leaving such a pretty face. But his face will stick out like a sore thumb in this crowd if I ever see him again.
With about two minutes to spare I rush into the library. I slow my pace the second I get through the door. It's not a good idea to run in the library. Your face will be forever recognized by the librarians as a disturber of the peace.
"Hello. I'd like to return these scrolls." I say as I walk up to the librarian at the counter. I think she's new. But it's hard to say since I haven't been here since the perception changes started.
She gives me a disproving look. I dump the armful of scrolls on the counter. They roll to both ends, but we catch them before they can roll off. I'm sure I appear hideous to her.
A few of the scrolls have been soiled from the tumble in the streets.
"We might have to charge you if we can't get the stains out."
"I understand. I'm terribly sorry."
"I just need your chip now." She says. I hold out my left wrist and she waves the scanner wand over it. My name, Katja Nattelle, flashes on the wand. "The library is now closed."
Her face, which had a few wrinkles to begin with, sags a little more than when I came in. Her nose is just a bit larger as well.
I exit out the large double doors of the library into the crowded streets once again. As I walk by the strangers, this time I walk slower. I pick out faces, one at a time, and focus on them.
The first face my eyes settle on is a woman's face. She's fairly young. Younger than me. Probably fifteen or sixteen. A hand raises to her face with a cigarette. It's so sad to see people so young smoking. Her face stretches until it is long and gaunt.
This feature was added by some health organization or other to try to deter people from smoking. From what I've heard it helped a bit, but it didn't eliminate the habit completely.
My eyes fall next on an older woman. Maybe thirty years old. She's wearing a very skimpy outfit. Her face stretches and widens until it takes on a completely disgusted look. She looks ready to kill someone, but I think that's her normal expression. What an unfortunate change. I guess that shows what I think of her outfit choice.
It's amazing how much the perception changes can show you about yourself. I always thought I'd learn many new things about the people around me. Instead I've learned much more about myself.
I look for a new face to focus on. I find it simply fascinating to see someone's facial features morph into something new.
Through the crowd I see a face slightly different from the rest. I must have encountered him before. He's middle aged. He has a nicer look to him than the other men around him. Kinder, almost. I think he's the man who helped me with my ticket at the train station.
It's funny how much easier it is to recognize people now. Strangers, that is.
When I first saw my dad after the perception changes kicked in, I didn't recognize him at all. He started out with the generic, male face.
I remember I walked down the stairs to the dining room. It was a normal day. A weekend. Dad was home from work and I had no school that day. When Dad turned around I stopped.
The figure cooking eggs had my dad's pajamas on, but not his face. "Hey, Kat." He said with a smile.
For the first time, I watched the transformation. His features became, somehow, more fatherly. "Everything all right?" His voice sounded the same.
"Dad?" I asked hesitantly, afraid of what might happen if I was wrong.
"Are you sure you're fully awake?"
"Sorry." I said as I watched his face change once again. The features all at once got both softer and harder. He got sharper angles but softer eyes. "Um. How can you tell if you've started the perception changes?"
His face lit up. The more he said and did, the more familiar his face got. "You didn't recognize me, did you? Did I look like this?" As he spoke he lifted the newspaper. On it was a picture of a crowd of faces, all the same male and female faces.
"Kat. This is wonderful." He said. He had worried about me a lot before last week. We had been to various doctors. A few seemed concerned, as I was the oldest patient they'd had who still hadn't experienced the changes. Others said there was nothing to worry about, that I wasn't behind developmentally in any other way.
"Why don't I remember what you looked like before?" I asked him. It scared me, it still does, that I couldn't recall what his face looked like before the perception changes determined his face.
"That's normal. You won't remember anyone's faces. It's all a part of the perception changes. You'll still recognize people. By their clothes, the way they act, the way they talk and sound. And then, once you form a new face, it'll stick with you." Dad went back to stirring his eggs.
"And the way people look is determined by what I think of them, right?" Without having any sort of real example, I had never understood when I was taught what changes are to be experienced. And that was forever ago. There's usually no need for someone my age to need a refresher on the perception changes.
"Not exactly. It's like a first impression. It is what you think of someone, but it's something more. Yes, if someone is downright rude, they'll appear uglier. If someone is really nice, she might get a prettier face. But the other changes are something you can't really think solidly, but more feel with the back of your mind. If someone's witty, for example, the corners of their eyes might turn up. That's not really a negative or a positive thought on your part. You'll see as you meet new people. It's hard to explain."
And that's how it all started. Dad was right. As I saw my friends, I did recognize them, and I formed new faces for them much quicker than I do strangers. Unless they're nice guys. It's rather annoying sometimes. If a guy so much as holds open the door for me, he instantly transforms into a charming prince.
Someone bumps my shoulder as he walks past and I instantly check for all my belongings. In a city like this you really have to be careful of pickpockets. Everything is still precisely where it should be.
I take the final turn to my usual bus stop. I had to take the train earlier because I was coming from out of town. The buses only go around in the city. Pretty much everyone in the city has a bus pass.
I walk forward to wait under the awning with a couple other people. Neither of their faces change as I walk up, or as I sit on the bench between them.
I tap the underside of my left wrist. My chip flashes the time through my skin. The bus should be here any minute. A groaning of air brakes and a click of metal immediately follows my thought.
I look up to see the bus floating on the magnetic suspension road in front of me.
A few people disembark then we board, swiping our wrists over the scanner as we enter. I pick a seat in the back and close my eyes for the long ride home.
My chip buzzes in my arm to wake me and alert me to the fact that we have reached my destination.
I stand a moment too soon and am tossed forward slightly as the bus comes to a final stop. I catch myself in time and depart from the vehicle.
My eyes follow the side of the building front of me up to the twenty-first story. A ritual I started the very first day we moved in. Then I count over to the fifth window. My window.
Having completed the ritual I move toward the door. I swipe my chip for entry then embark on a journey up the elevator to the twenty-first floor. The elevator does not stop to pick up new passengers as it sometimes does. In only a few seconds I reach my destination.
I step out and walk down to the appropriate door. With a swipe of my chip I gain entrance to the apartment. A wet tongue greets me immediately.
“Hey, Nine-Sixty. Were you a good boy while I was out?” I rub the dog’s ears and push my way into the hall, shutting the door behind me. There was a time in the past when people would have had to take their dogs out. But now, with a lack of lawns for the dogs to do their duty in, a dog version of a litterbox has been created.
It’s not exactly a litterbox, it’s more complicated than that, but it’s the closest thing I have to compare it to. It means no mess to deal with, no cold walks in the snow, and no muddy paws.
There, of course, are animal rights activists or whatever who remind you that dogs still need fresh air as much as the next individual. And I do take Nine-Sixty out occasionally, but it can wait. For now I need a little introvert time.
I plop down on the couch to recharge. Menial tasks and errands really drain me of energy, especially when I have to deal with other people.
Nine-Sixty decides he can fit on the couch next to me, even though he really can’t, and hops right up, landing halfway on top of me.
My niece named him when she was three. I don’t know where she got the inspiration for the name, but it stuck. Nine-Sixty moved in with us when my sister and her family moved to a place that doesn’t allow dogs.
There’s a large age gap between me and my sister. I’m still working to complete high school while she’s managed to graduate college, get a job, marry the man of her dreams, and have two beautiful daughters. I’m not jealous though. I’m taking advantage of being a kid while it lasts. Responsibility looms right around the corner.
I pick up a scroll from the end table above my head. Today’s scrolls are made to look and feel like the papyrus scrolls from forever ago in ancient history, but are made of completely man-made materials. No papyrus, no paper. Another minor difference is that these scrolls are electronic.
When we started running out of trees a big push was made to replace paper entirely. But not everyone wanted to switch fully to electronics. So a compromise was reached. At first some people pushed for something that looked like the books of old, with hundreds of pages. But as you can imagine, that was far too expensive.
The scrolls, on the other hand, are made quite cheaply. They contain just enough memory space for one “book”, as we still call them. Some traditions never change.
To read the scroll you can either twist it, like people would have thousands of years ago. Or you can simply swipe your finger. Either way, the paper never actually moves, only the words scroll across the page. I personally prefer swiping my finger. I’m lazy.
Most people also have tablets which you can download books onto, but the scrolls are readily available at the libraries and aren’t as rough on the eyes as a lit-up screen.
I immerse myself in my book. It’s a story about a girl who finds a special charm. A charm that not only brings her luck, but takes it from those around her.
With my eyes skimming rapidly over the words, I use one hand to scroll and the other to nuzzle Nine-Sixty.
The story is just getting good when the front door opens. My eyes linger on the page for just a moment longer before looking up.
“What are you doing home so early?” I ask the figure in the front walkway.
I’m answered with a sigh. My father turns around and I can see it in his eyes. Even though his day’s not even halfway over, it’s already been too long. “It’s nothing to worry about, Kat.” He says. “I just need some time to myself for a little while.”
“Well, can I make you a sandwich or anything?”
“Some coffee would be great.” He says as he shuffles to his bedroom door.
I hop up to start the drink maker. I insert the coffee pellet and place a mug underneath. Less than a minute later I have a cup of coffee. Strong, no cream, a little sugar, just the way he likes it.
As an afterthought I get a second mug for myself and insert one of my own custom coffee pellets.
I let it brew as I bring the mug to my father. He’s left the door ajar. I knock anyway.
“Come on in, Kat.” His tie falls to the floors as he speaks.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?” I press him.
He sighs again. “I don’t want to worry you.”
“I’m almost an adult. I’m pretty sure I can handle it.” Sometimes I think he forgets that I’m not a kid anymore. With Mom gone and Elyse out of the house, I don’t think he wants to admit that I’m not home for too much longer.
“Right. Sorry.” He takes the mug of coffee from my hands. A brief pause floods the room with silence before he continues. “I lost my job.”
“Oh no.” I say in a quiet, concerned voice. “What happened?”
He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. They’ve granted me a week of pay to sustain us until I find a new job.” That’s not a lot of time, but it’s something.
I sit down on the bed next to him. “Don’t worry. We’ll find you a job.” I cringe inwardly at my own terrible grammar but continue. “I heard that O’Donnell’s is offering temporary jobs. The hours are really flexible and it only lasts as long as you need it to. It would be perfect while you’re in-between jobs.”
Dad offers me a weak smile. “Thanks, Kat.”
We sit in silence for a few moments, which feels like an eternity, before I stand up to leave. I can tell he’s leaving something out. A few times he acted like he was going to say something, then stopped himself. I’ll give him time. He’ll tell me eventually.
I step into the kitchen. I totally forgot I had made myself a mug of coffee. I pick it up. Still warm. Guess the coffee maker really does know how to do its job.
Perhaps I should get a job myself. Things were already a little tight as far as money goes. Maybe I should chip in if Dad can’t get the pay we need.
I settle back onto the couch, but I don’t pick up my scroll. Instead, I grab the tablet from the end table. It’s time to find some jobs.
Before I can even turn the thing on my father walks back into the room. I look up at him as he opens his mouth to speak. The words that come out do not seem his own. “I’m getting married.”