by David Brookes
Jason passed a bowl of Frosties across the table and said, ‘I stopped watching my diet at forty, didn’t you?’
‘I’ve been eating Coco Pops since Christmas,’ she chuckled. ‘I’ve not told the kids yet. After all the years I’ve been telling them how bad it is to have chocolate for breakfast, they’d probably call me a hypocrite.’
Jason crunched his cereal and smiled. He took his Frosties with a lot of milk. His was white, whereas hers had the expected green tinge. It had more of Jason’s solution in it.
‘We’ve got to enjoy the simple pleasures,’ he said.
Phoebe nodded. She’d subscribed to that philosophy just days after her original diagnosis.
He smiled at her reassuringly, collecting age lines around his eyes. He had worn-looking skin and curly brown hair pulled back into a small ponytail. An arty type, the sort of kid at school you knew would either be a resounding success or a total failure, stewing hopelessly on soft drugs and benefits. An inaccurate prognosis, as it turned out.
After a moment he allowed the smile to slip from his face, and then finished his mouthful. He said, ‘You don’t have to wear the hat all the time, you know.’
‘I’m just more comfortable with it on.’
‘Everybody here has some particular ailment,’ he reminded her. He pushed his bowl aside and looked at her earnestly across the table.
In the silence, Phoebe heard quiet discussions from one of the other tables in the dining hall. One man was noticeably burned on one side of his face. Phoebe suspected that the others had some internal illness: organ failure, a virulent and incurable disease maybe. But not all of them were obvious illnesses, like hers.
Jason was looking at her pointedly.
Slowly, Phoebe nodded. She reached up and slid the woollen hat back over her smooth forehead, then took it off completely. Her bald scalp felt very cold without it. She was acutely aware of the beauty spot above her left ear, and the wrinkles in the skin where her spine fit into the back of her skull.
‘It has its own kind of beauty.’ Jason took the hat from her and looked at the pattern in its weave for a moment. ‘If you like, we could discuss the candidacy now? I suppose that you’d want to keep things moving along.’
‘Yes,’ she said. Since turning fifty she’d been prone to tears, and she didn’t want right then to be one of those moments. Blinking made the tears go away.
Jason had a large textbook and some notes next to him. He opened the pages of the book and removed a plastic wallet, in which was another sheaf. He removed the individual pages and spread them out in front of her.
‘These are the first six. All female, all between thirty-five and forty-five. Do you want to know the names?’
‘Is it important?’
‘Not at all. Their identities or thoughts or personalities don’t impact the treatment in the slightest; it’s all the same. The important thing is that they’re of the same height, give or take an inch, and that their outward appearance is satisfactory to you.’
‘I’m not interested in the outward appearance,’ she told him. Her hand gripped the spoon tightly.
‘No. Most of the people who resort to this kind of unorthodox treatment aren’t.’
‘And the candidates... They’re all volunteers?’ she asked.
‘As much as they can be. All of our applicants usually suffer some kind of mental impairment. Disabilities, severe depression or bipolar disorders, or brain damage from car accidents, drug or alcohol abuse... It’s actually a long list but the bottom line is this: if they have the faculties to make a legally acceptable decision, and provided that they aren’t missing limbs or organs, then they are admitted. We’ve had about two dozen applicants since I bought this place.’
All of the women in the pictures looked clean and healthy. Their eyes were not always crystal clear, and one hadn’t been looking at the camera when the picture had been taken. One of them had been talking the moment the shutter had opened. Another had what looked like fingernail scratches up and down her neck.
Phoebe arranged her hands so that there was a finger on each picture. She wondered if she should develop some sort of emotional connection with the applicants, or if they should try to do the same with her. Maybe shave their heads, too. Made to throw up daily. Made to feel...
She pushed the photographs away. ‘Can I meet them?’ she asked.
Jason nodded. ‘Of course. They don’t stay here, so it’ll take me a few days to arrange it.’
‘That’s okay. I just want to meet them.’
* * *
That afternoon, and twice a day since, Phoebe visited the school’s swimming baths. It was a modern addition and incongruous to the rest of the site. The red bricks clashed with the acid-rain scarred stone, and the automatic doors were out of place. Phoebe was filled with a deep sense of dislocation and uneasiness. Jason assured her that it was a harmless side-effect of the solution, which was an ingredient in everything she ate and drank.
The baths received her like an old friend, warm and inviting and generous. She relished the moment when the water soaked through her swimsuit and began to sooth her skin. She sighed from the comfort of it all, the tranquillity, and gazed around the pool. The whole place was hers.
She began to swim. The water rolled as she swam through it, parting gently before her and glowing with its own luminescence. The whole pool had been mixed in with the solution, which lent it its leaf-green hue. This is what a pool of chlorophyll must look like... The colour of the blood of plants.
She examined every centimetre of the skin on her arms, from the curve of her shoulder to her flabby underarms, down past her crinkly elbow to her wrists. Her skin was getting looser. It hung from her like the bangles she wore as a girl. The inside of her elbow was a reservoir of wrinkled flesh whenever she bent her arm.
Not long now. It won’t be long. In the mornings Phoebe examined her scalp in the mirror. If she pinched the skin at the back, she could pull it out to almost the length of her little finger. The bags under her eyes were more pronounced; she had the jowls of a bulldog.
Soon, soon, soon.
* * *
After almost a week of waiting, Jason said that the current applicants were ready for interviews. He warned her that they might not be fully co-operative in answering her questions. ‘Some of them are in our rehab programme for drug and alcohol addictions. A few of them are still a little irritable. There are two guys who refused to speak to anybody until they got a drink.’
‘Do you force them to dry up?’
‘We urge them very strongly,’ he said.
When Phoebe looked at the photographs, examining the faces of the six women selected for her, she felt a mixture of sorrow and — could it be? — hope. Just as Jason had said, she was beginning to wonder why she didn’t just pick the most attractive one and be done with it. When all other things were equal, that was the only real consideration, wasn’t it?
‘Where are they?’ she asked him.
‘In the common room. You’ve had your eye on the one that looks like you, haven’t you? Short mousy hair and brown eyes. The one that isn’t looking at the camera in the photo.’
‘She’s a lovely, very unfortunate girl. When I found her, she’d been homeless for nearly two years. Want me to set up a one-on-one?’
‘No. I’ve thought about it. So long as you’re sure they want it.’
‘This particular application has a degenerative mental disease. It’s sad, but for her there’s no treatment. But it won’t affect you or the final stage of the process. She can’t be saved. But you can be.’
* * *
The dark bathroom echoed the sound of Phoebe throwing up. She gripped the edge of the hand basin, her forehead shaking hard enough to knock the tap. Her head throbbed. Her eyes, which tried to focus on the fuzzy grey rays of light coming in through the window, pulsed from behind.
She was getting worse. She’d known that she would, of course. She’d spurned the conventional life-prolonging therapy that the doctors offered her. Although she believed totally in Joseph’s new therapy, the solution was only the preparation, not the treatment itself. Meanwhile her body was still on its way out. Her cells still gathered into tight knots down her spine and in her stomach. Phoebe had lost her hair, and now she was in end-stage organ failure.
The dying woman lay on her bed and tried not to curl up. She felt like a slug whose stomach had been rubbed with salt, the pull of death constricting her right across the middle. What a life this was. What a sorry end for any soul.
The following morning she asked Jason if there was a way to speed up the treatment.
* * *
She stood looking at her bare toes, wriggling on the edge of the slick tiles of the pool. It was only half full, but it was thick and vividly green. This was concentrated solution, with an alkalinity high enough to be almost dangerous, mixed with amino combinations and enzyme substrates and only a little water.
The fluid gave off its own heat, like a living animal. It turned the room into a sauna, making her breathless. She felt there was condensation building on the films of her eyes, but the sensation was yet another side effect, related to the cataracts.
With his fingers running back and forth through the liquid, Jason knelt beside her in the heat. He spoke in a low, quiet voice as she prepared to submerge. Clouds of water vapour half hid him from sight.
‘It’s perfectly safe. It won’t have immediate effects but you’ll notice the difference by tonight. Try not to swallow any of this particular mixture; it can cause heart or respiratory problems. There’s no pain, but you might get dizzy. Keep to the edges of the pool. I’ll walk around with you.’
Phoebe did as she was instructed. The fluid was slightly viscous and hot. She liked to imagine that her sickness, the malignant portions of her body, were being drawn out of her and dissolved.
Content in her buoyancy, she closed her eyes. She leaned forward and half-walked, half-swam through the concentrated solution. It rose against her lips and tasted of vegetables, accompanied by a kind of electric tingle in the tissue of her mouth.
She sighed contentedly, and opened her eyes enough to see Jason smiling with her through the steam.
‘We’ll give it twenty minutes, and then you can towel off,’ he said. ‘I’ll have a special meal prepared for everybody tonight: I think that tomorrow we’ll be concluding your treatment.’
Phoebe felt her smile melt into her face, just as she was melting into the warm fluid. She drifted away on her back with folds of loose skin floating on the surface around her. She felt no dizziness at all, only happiness. There was no Phoebe, only the solution.
* * *
They did have a meal. It was a takeout from the local Chinese, and it was delicious. Phoebe had eaten school-dinner meals for almost a fortnight and the blander dishes let the taste of the solution through. She greeted the bowls of rice and pyramids of spring rolls with great zeal, and in five minutes devoured as much as she could fit onto her plate.
The other patients were the same, satiating themselves. They were in various stages of the treatment, some still ill-looking and thin, the rest wrinkled or happily saggy.
Phoebe herself was surprised by the immense folds of skin that had developed in rings around her body. Her two hours in the concentrated solution had shaved days off her waiting time. There was a single skirt all around her waist two inches long. The backs of her legs had runners of crinkly flesh; her underarms had wings that were twice as wide as the arms themselves. In the outside world she would have been ashamed by them, but here she couldn’t have cared less.
She sat back in her chair with her chin receding into a pouch of loose flesh. While the others picked scraps of food out of their teeth with plastic toothpicks, Phoebe happily pinched at her skin with her fingers, stretching it like the fabric of a glove from the meat of her hand.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by David Brookes