by David Brookes
‘It’s time. Are you ready, Phoebe?’
She stood in the centre of the small operating theatre. It was dirtier than she’d imagined. She thought that it should have been fully sterile, with bleached tiles glistening in artificial light, smell of disinfectant sharp in the air... There was none of these things, only a room with dust in the corners and the blinds closed, light slicing through in white blades across her body and his.
Jason stood to one side, typing on a computer. It was positioned on a desk that had no chair. He typed standing up. The monitor glowed with information displayed on spreadsheets and charts.
There was a varnished wooden bench on the left side of the room, of the kind you would expect in a school gymnasium. It was dull in the middle from years of use. Above it, opposite the window, was a large painting behind glass. Because of the glancing light, she couldn’t make out what the painting was.
‘It’s not as scientific as I imagined,’ she said quietly, worrying that her voice would tremble if she spoke normally.
‘It’s not exactly science...’ Jason replied absently. His voice was small in the little room. They both sounded trapped inside a two-way radio.
He peered over his glasses as he punched instructions into the computer. A large box that Phoebe presumed was a motor or battery of some kind started to hum. Something else behind the walls clunked rhythmically, like the MRI scanner they had at the hospital.
‘What else is it, if it’s not science?’
‘Step forward, please.’
She stepped forward. There was a pool of light in the very centre of the room. She could see the prints of other people’s bare feet in the dust. How many people had undergone Jason Sampson’s esoteric treatment? Some of the footprints were smudged. There were other imprints with shapes that she couldn’t identify. How many of those treatments had failed before the process could be perfected?
Phoebe supposed that she should have asked these questions much sooner, but she had confidence in Jason. She didn’t know him that well, but she had confidence in him. There he was, using the computer’s mouse to alter points on a graphical display that shone behind the glass of the screen. Click, click. He adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. Click, click-click. Could he do it? Could he make her well, rid her of her malignant sickness?
This is not a cure. You must understand that from the outset. It’s as good as. But it’s not a cure.
Her memory of his voice merged with the words he said to her now: ‘Your applicant is behind the wall opposite you. In a moment I’m going to draw the wall back. Don’t be afraid by what you see. It will be just the same as I showed you in the procedural pictures, though it might still be a little frightening. But it is normal and it is consensual. Okay?’
‘Are you ready? I can begin any time.’
‘I’m ready,’ she said.
He typed again on the computer. The machine made a few alarming beeping noises that might have been warning sounds, but Phoebe had never been much good with computers. She reminded herself that Jason always had been.
The dividing wall in front of her began to move. It looked feeble and thin now that it was in motion, all quivers and wobbles. It slid to the right, behind Jason and his workstation. Where the partition had been was now a focused sheet of bright emerald light. It was filmy with shapes moving across it in the way oil moved on water. Dust drifted through it, the motes sparkling as they were momentarily illuminated, then disappearing into obscurity. Behind the layer of light was a second room, unlit but for the cold light shed by the gap in the wall.
A cool breeze washed over Phoebe. She thought there might be a window open in that other space, letting in the late February air. She could see small shapes skittering across the wooden floorboards that could have been dead leaves, could have been mice. Opposite her was the applicant.
The thin woman was suspended from the ceiling by cables, her body turned away from Phoebe. There was just enough light to make out the applicant’s naked back, where the skin was pulled taut by the tiny hooks on wires. She was unconscious. The wires kept her from falling on her face. Her head hung low on her chest, hair hanging in a blonde-brown curtain as far down as her belly button. Although it was emaciated and damaged from years of living on the streets, the body was clean. Jason had had it scrubbed.
The hooks kept the spine exposed. Red strips of muscle glistened wetly, as if the incision had only just been made. There was no spilt blood. There was no bruising on the body, or around the wound. Several of the vertebrae had been removed, at the top of the curve between the shoulders. The back of the skull had been partially cracked and what was left of the brain, cleanly cauterised, was visible as a small mass of grey. There was a thin membrane stretched over it, glossy with moisture. Blood pulsed through the membrane; the body was still alive, as intended.
‘It’s consensual,’ Jason reiterated. Phoebe looked at him, the light that came through the blinds bouncing off his glasses, which had slipped down the bridge of his nose. His eyes above the lenses looked very dark. ‘Go on now.’
‘Just walk through?’
‘Just through the light and straight in,’ he said calmly.
Phoebe held her hands out in front of her, examining the palms. They had more lines than the rest of her body put together ever used to have. Now she was a walking sack of flaccid skin.
Without further hesitation, she stepped forward towards the hole in the wall and the veil of light that shone across it. The layer was only as thin as a single mote. Its green film swam with obscure patterns, like mathematical equations that she would never be able to decipher.
Phoebe caught her breath, but this brought on a bout of coughing that she couldn’t stop for several seconds. When she regained herself the light was still there, and beyond it the applicant’s body, the skin pulled out from the centre like the wings of an insect.
She arrived at the light and pushed her hands, both of them, through it. Twin lines of green passed over her fingers and wrists. When they did, the skin of her hands sloughed away and all that was left were bones, semi-transparent to her, and elastic twists of sinew. There was no pain. She flexed her hands and the tendons made their complicated manoeuvres.
Afraid to stop and expecting discomfort that never came, Phoebe pushed herself quickly through the light. Skin slipped away from her arms, exposing smooth ropes of striated muscle. The light passed over her stomach and breasts, which turned into small fatty mounds, barely identifiable. Her nose turned red and translucent in front of her crossing eyes. The light in all directions turned grey.
Before the top of her head was through the screen of green light, her fingers made contact with the applicant. Closer now, Phoebe could see that the woman was still breathing. The lungs inflated — she could see them through the backs of her exposed ribs — and deflated. The strips of flesh and muscle glistened invitingly.
Phoebe’s finger-bones slipped between the skin and the bone of the applicant’s exposed interior. She pushed without resistance into the applicant’s arms, overlapping them, wearing them like long gloves. She was ghostlike, a hologram, a puff of molecules.
She nosed her way into the skull, waiting for her eyes and the applicant’s to line up. Phoebe’s sloughed skin hit the floor behind her with a wet slap as she passed fully through of the green veil of light.
Her substance thickened and she was no longer translucent. Grey light brightened until it was normal light, rich with texture. Something inside her clicked, like mechanical components locking into place. Her flesh felt clean and weightless; the breeze blew across her again, exciting the small hairs on her new body.
Phoebe raised her head and long hair parted in front of her eyes, revealing a slightly different world than the one she had occupied the day before. She felt the hooks in her back pop out of her skin, freeing her. Colours coalesced behind her eyes as her mind settled into a new configuration.
Cool, crisp air rushed into her lungs.
‘Feel a little better?’
Jason was behind her, peering through the green light. His face appeared very flat against that light, an impression compounded by the shapeless reflections of his glasses. His teeth shone the colour of the solution.
‘Yes,’ Phoebe said slowly, examining the unfamiliar body. ‘I can stand up straighter... and without any pain...’
‘Any problems in your head? Or muscles that aren’t responding?’
‘No, but... it’s confusing, like my thoughts are talking to each other.’ She laughed. ‘That sounds so weird.’
Jason beckoned her back through the light. He seemed very hesitant to step through it himself. When she was back inside the small dusty room he held her elbows, smiling, and then embraced her.
‘It’s normal, it’s all normal,’ he said. ‘That’ll go away soon enough. But it worked. You’re no longer sick. That was your old body.’
‘It’s closed, sealed perfectly. It might not even scar. Take a look in the mirror in your room when you get back to it. And you’ll want to shower, yes?’
He put a soft dressing gown over her shoulders and she pulled it on fully. Where her back usually ached there was only the rolling motion of normal, healthy tissue. Phoebe turned to the film of light, in front of which lay what looked like a dead body, very solid and pale. It was not just her shed skin; there was meat and bone in there, and no opening in the skin. Behind the light, where the applicant had been suspended, were only wires with the tiny hooks on the end, swinging slightly from side to side.
‘I know it’s disconcerting, but it’s best not to look,’ Jason said, touching her on the shoulder and turning her around slowly. ‘You’re good now, Pheebs. You’re good.’
* * *
Phoebe did not spend the night at the school. She’d been there long enough and no longer felt she fit in there. After her morning shower it was still early in the day and suddenly she realised that there was a lot to do: a house to clean, a job to catch up on and a boss to appease, two grown-up boys to speak with over the phone. Her TV box had a fortnight’s worth of programmes stored on it, waiting for her to watch. There were books that she’d meant to bring with her to the school, but had felt too deflated to pack. She would read all of those.
Jason saw her off. Outside was freezing, and the vapour of their breaths intermingled in the cold air.
‘You could stay,’ he said confidently, as though expecting that she would. ‘Some of the residents are people who have taken the solution and had the treatment. The only reason they stay is to help me. We could do this for hundreds of people just like you.’
Phoebe shook her head kindly. ‘I have what I came for. Thank you so much.’
‘As long as you help me keep all this a secret for a little while, that’s perfectly fine. You’re feeling well?’
‘Different. But... new. Very well.’
She took off her woollen hat and let her hair fall free. It felt very natural. It also felt strange to wake up and not instantly want to vomit from the pain of the light in her eyes. She wouldn’t have to suffer any more tests or chemotherapy. No more MRI scans. No more minor ops to shave away rapidly-expanding layers of malignant tissue. Her body felt healthy and so full of energy it made her dizzy.
She held out her hat, which for so long had hidden her shameful naked scalp. ‘Take this.’
‘I already have one.’ He pointed to the beanie on his head, grinning. ‘See?’
‘Have this one as well. I’m quite warm.’
Jason took it and folded it in half, then put it in his coat pocket. He looked a little uncomfortable for a moment, shuffling his feet on the concrete path. Phoebe could hear the cars on the road behind her, whooshing past like creatures too alive to be patient.
Finally he looked up and said, ‘Well, it was lovely to see you again, Pheebs. Promise me we’ll catch up again some time soon, okay?’
‘We’ll see,’ she said, and the words turned into white mist from her mouth and floated upwards towards the sky, insubstantial. ‘Goodbye, Jason. Stay well.’
He nodded, a funny little smile on his face. ‘You know I will,’ he said.
Copyright © 2014 by David Brookes