Dying Wish

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
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Is that Charlie's heart?
Please say yes.
Love you
Jess xx
(dark, psychological)
from the forthcoming anthology: Is It Today?

Submitted: March 08, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: March 08, 2019

A A A

A A A


DIs It Today?

Dying Wish

Jess took down the card from Charlie, saving the blob of blue-tack, stuck on the back, for next year. If there was a next year. She placed it face-down on the oak side table and gazed out of the window, wringing her hands. The morning light matched her mood: dull and dreary. Save for the first tentative shoots of spring, and autumn’s clinging sulphur leaves, the front garden looked drab and featureless. Washed out, like her, on the twelfth day of Christmas. Christmas had held such promise…

*****

Charlie escorted her down the high street in his green wellies and waxed jacket on the mildest of Christmas Eves to sing carols on the village green. They shared a plastic cup of hot mulled wine and a warm minced pie. An older man, wearing a bright yellow hazard vest, came around with a song sheet, shaking a bucket. Charlie put in a 20p piece as Jess sang Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Jess rose early the next morning to fetch some seasoned logs from the potting shed for the aga, stuff the turkey, and load the bird into the oven. Before she went back to bed, she hid seven sixpences in the pudding, then drenched it in brandy. The doorbell chimed Christmas Bells at noon. Charlie stood by the compactum, primed to disrobe guests and hang up coats while she embraced her family in the hall: Mum & Dad, Suzie & Mickey and Beattie & Debi with their screaming kids Charles II, Harry and Meghan. After pre-lunch drinks in the reception room, Jess ushered the guests into the dining room. They sat at the extended oak table and gawped at the elaborate candelabra, silver cutlery, crystal-cut glasses and fine bone china. Jess had even bought stupid reindeer napkins from M&S for the occasion. They all bowed their heads as she said grace. All that is, except for Beattie, Debi and the children, who were devout atheists. She lit three red candles, opening the window in case they fell asleep, drowsy with carbon dioxide. Then everyone pulled a cracker, put on silly hats, and read silly jokes. Meghan found this year’s good luck charm: a green plastic dragon.

Jess stuffed them like geese being fattened for pate foie de grâs. After they had watched the young King speak in the play room, it was time to open presents around the tree. Jess was given candy-striped pop socks by Mum, a tight-fitting purple sweater by Dad, and an e-book: Is It Today? by Suzie. As Beattie and Debi didn’t believe in bearing gifts, Jess excluded their family from the proceedings. There were gasps all round as Charlie bent down on one knee, took out a sparkly diamond ring, and asked if Jess would marry him. Thrilled to bits, she burst into tears and told him she would. The family celebrated with a slice of rich iced fruit cake and glass of Prosecco. All too soon it was time for fond farewells, hugs and kisses, fleeting waves from a car rear window…

Charlie washed up, dried and put away the greasy leftovers for rechauffé while Jess went to bed for a well-earned rest. As she lay asleep in the darkness, she felt her nose being tickled: her fiancé whispering sweet nothings in her ear.

‘I love you, Jess,’ he said.

‘Love you too, Charlie,’ she replied, ‘With all my heart.’

They kissed under a sprig of mistletoe. She giggled as she slipped off her satin pyjamas. He removed his naughty kitchen apron, and mounted her. She glowed with rude health next day. Suzie and Helen, passing acquaintances on the Boxing Day walk, admired the ring and told her how well she looked. Life was wonderful.

*****

She picked up the card: Happy Christmas to the One I Love, and read the message inside:

To Dearest Jess,

Have a wonderful Christmas.

With my fondest love, now and always,

Charlie xxx

Jess felt her mobile vibrate in the back pocket of her needlecords. Who could that be? She pulled it out and stared at an international number flashing on the screen. Just a nuisance call. Some turd pretending to be her internet service provider. She felt her chest tighten. What if it wasn’t? Jess swiped the green button.

‘Hello? Who is it?’

She didn’t recognise the woman’s voice: refined, genteel, public school, ‘Is that Jess?’

Something about the taut articulation made her hackles rise. ‘What do you want?’

‘Hello Jess. That is Jess, isn’t it?’

She panicked. ‘Who are you? Why are you calling me?’

‘Charlie’s alive.’

Jess froze, went to cut the call, paused, angry, intrigued. ‘Is this some kind of sick joke?’

‘Charlie’s alive,’ the woman repeated, ‘Would you like to see him?’

Her lip trembled, she sniffed back tears, went to switch off the phone, couldn’t, inhaled deeply, had trouble speaking. When she answered, she squeaked:

‘He’s dead! Charlie died in a head-on car crash driving home on Boxing Day.’

‘He’s here, with us. He wants to see you again. Wants to feel you touch him. Would you like to touch him, too?’

‘You’re sick! Leave me alone, won’t you!’

‘You haven’t forgotten his dying wish, have you, Jess?’

Shaking, she swiped the red button, leaning against the table to steady herself. How could the bitch be so cruel? He was dead. God, how she loved him. He was dead… wasn’t he? The call lasted less than a minute. She searched contacts, selected the number, swiped a green blur, dialled…

*****

The Institute, a towering prism of olive-tinted glass, dwarfed the other buildings in the City. The pyramid’s base occupied quarter of a square mile of wasteland overlooking the Thames. UV’s Clinic took up eleven storeys below its zenith, and reception was on the 74th floor. Jess stepped out of the hi-velocity glass lift and made a beeline for the ladies’ toilet. She stood in front of the full-length mirror and appraised herself. Charlie would have been so proud of her.

Jess was dressed to kill in a beige, wrap over mac with a broad white sash. Not ideal for a cold, drab January morning, but the colours flattered her appearance and she wanted to look her best for him. She inspected her hands: no rings, no nail varnish, plain as the day they met. Her wavy, brunette hair was cut short in a smart bob. Suits you, she thought. Jess didn’t try to disguise the smears of tiredness under her sapphire eyes. She couldn’t. She didn’t wear make-up, other than the stunning ruby red rouge that she wore to complement her beige complexion. Satisfied, she had lost none of her natural beauty mourning, she tucked her pink tote bag under her arm and strode out to the spacious reception lounge.

The attractive couple were standing by the vast expanse of triangular glass panes, staring at a vista which stretched as far as Canary Wharf in the East to the misty downs in the South. The woman wore a stunning, sleeveless, white dress with black trim worn above the knee, straight-seamed stockings, and black stilettoes. Her auburn hair was piled in a dome on top of her head. She looked positively statuesque compared to the little man standing next to her. From where she stood Jess couldn’t see his face, only the blow-waved, oak brown hair and well-cut charcoal grey suit. Both of them were impeccably groomed. The man swung a soft black bag against his knee. He reminded Jess of the doctor who called round to see her when she was a child suffering with chickenpox, measles and mumps. They were deep in conversation, didn’t appear to notice her.

Jess sauntered up to the reception desk. The glass-topped block was surmounted with two huge ceramic bowls of pink orchids. As she approached, the receptionists stood in unison and left their service station to greet her. She had never seen anyone so strange, or beautiful, in her life. They were identical: tall and elegant with flat chests, tiny waists, angular arms and long, spindly legs. The clones reminded her of giraffes, moving with the grace of gazelles, flexing their hips as they moved, as if disjointed. They had immaculate shoulder-length brunette hair - faintly-parted to the right - wild, starry eyes, and miniscule snub noses. Jess appreciated their Italian ¾ sleeve navy, square-neck tops, two-way stretch classic trousers in sand, and creamy stilettoes. UV clearly believed in their staff projecting an image as polished as the fabulous glass prism itself, no expense spared. There was something different about them, something indefinably pure. Jess admired their perfectly round pudenda, their missing tell-tale bulges and moulded clefts. She was positive they had no genitals.

‘Welcome to Uncanny Valley,’ they chanted, in sibilant voices, ‘How may we help you?’

‘I’m here to meet Amanda Irvine,’ Jess smiled. The clones had a relaxing effect, touching her with their presence.

‘Thank you. May we ask who’s speaking?’

‘Jessica Belcher.’

‘Thank you. May we take your coat?’

‘I’ll keep it on if you don’t mind.’

‘Thank you. May we offer you fine tea made from our freshly-cut leaves?’

‘Tea would be lovely, thank you.’

Jess found herself mimicking the clones, bewitched by their charming grace and manners.

‘Thank you. Would you prefer Earl Grey, Green, Assam, Strawberry, Peppermint, Lemon or Breakfast?’

‘Green… please.’

‘Thank you. Please take a seat by the window and complete this medical questionnaire…’

The clones were interrupted by the woman. ‘Thank you, Lucy, Lucian, that will be all.’

Lucy? Lucian? She went to speak. The woman with auburn hair spoke first.

‘Hello Jess. It is Jess, isn’t it?’ She extended her perfectly-manicured hand. Her incredibly long, thin fingers reminded Jess of vulture talons, cat claws. ‘Amanda Irvine.’

Jess couldn’t take her eyes off of the clones.

‘Beautiful, aren’t they,’ Irvine gushed, ‘They’re gender neutral. We create them here, you know, the perfect synergy between human and artificial life.’

Jess was shocked. ‘You create them?’

‘Yes, out of human embryos.’

‘Are they, are they human?’

‘Half-human, half machine. Lucy and Lucian are artificials.’

Jess felt her jaw unhinge at the joint. ‘Artificials?’

At that moment, Lucy and Lucian strutted up bearing trays: teas in silver pots, milks in decorous jugs, sugar in oriental bowls, and cylindrical drums: one turquoise, one lemon, which, she presumed, contained biscuits.

‘Ah, here’s tea!’ Irvine announced with a flourish, ‘Sit down and I’ll explain what we did to Charlie.’

They sank into the black leather sofas. The woman crossed her long legs and looked away.

What you did to him? Jess mused, taking an instant dislike to Irvine. Not: How we saved Charlie’s life?

Lucian interrupted her, bending at the hip to pour tea: green for Jess, grey for Irvine. Lucy offered her milk and sugar.

She waved her hand, ‘Thanks, but I prefer it neat.’  

Jess took a sip and grimaced: the lukewarm tea tasted insipid. Lucy unscrewed the lemon drum and offered her a biscuit:

‘Our zesty twist on the classic teatime biscuit,’ it intoned, ‘made with real lemon curd by our in-house chef for a delicious sweet-sharp taste. Would you like one?’

Jess keened, ‘I’d love one.’

‘Thank you. Can you stop at one? Why not take two, three, or four?’

She helped herself to three biscuits, nibbling around the edges. They were delicious, sickly, but delicious. Jess quite forgot where she was for a moment. The tea tray was set for three. A cup for the man who stared out of the vast window? The artificials turned away and pranced off to reception as Irvine reminded her of the reason for the meeting.

‘I’m sorry for the dramatic phone call.’ The impassive grin on Irvine’s face told Jess that she wasn’t sorry at all. ‘I had to be sure you came here quickly.’ She regarded Jess pensively. ‘We are under considerable pressure to release a statement, together with an image of your husband to the media.’

‘Charlie wasn’t my husband,’ Jess corrected her, setting down her cup, ‘He was my fiancé.’

Irvine seemed genuinely taken aback. ‘You’re not his next of kin then?’

‘He proposed to me on Christmas Day.’

If Jessica Belcher expected an outpouring of emotion from Irvine, she was disappointed. She bit into her third biscuit.

‘To release a statement and image of your fiancé to the media,’ she reiterated, ‘following his ground-breaking operation.’

Jess was confused, ‘I can’t keep up with you. What ground-breaking operation?’

Irvine licked her fat slug pink lips and set her teacup down on the saucer, with its handle set at exactly 90 degrees.

‘Jess,’ she said, lecturing her like a child, ‘Charlie is the world’s first…’

Jess gagged and retched, ‘Sorry, I think I’m going to be sick.’

‘You do look rather pasty…’

Jessica pushed out the glass-topped coffee table, slewing tea over it, ran to the toilet, threw a cubicle door open, hiked off her coat, knelt before the clean white ceramic bowl, and flipped open the lid. Shivery, she gripped the cold porcelain rim with both hands, bent at the waist and sloughed out the contents of her stomach.

*****

When she returned to her seat, she saw that Irvine had been joined by the man, attended by their ever-present sidekicks. Lucy unscrewed the turquoise drum and offered Jess a different biscuit:

‘Crunchy, buttery biscuits made with chewy, ginger pieces!’ it chanted, ‘Just the thing to get you hot under the collar at teatime. They also settle upset stomachs. Would you like one?’

Jess found herself unable to resist, and took four. Irvine arched her brows, cringing with embarrassment, then glanced at the man, anxious to move on.

‘How are you feeling, Jess, better?’ she said, ‘I guess that must have come as quite a shock.’

‘I’ll live.’

‘In that case, shall we continue?’ Jess nodded. ‘Allow me to introduce Janus Ventil, the bio surgeon who led the team that gave Charlie his life back. Janus?’

Ventil extended his hairy hand at her like a puppy trained to put out its paw. Jess noticed the Rolex, hanging loosely on his limp wrist. So, this is the house that Jack built, she mused.

‘Mrs Belcher,’ he fawned, ‘How lovely to meet you. Amanda’s told me all about you.’

Has she now? Irvine was smirking to herself, the childish snob: Belcher?!

‘Please, call me Jess, and it’s Miss not Mrs. Charles proposed to me on Christmas Day.’

‘Really? How wonderfully romantic!’ carped Ventil coldly, ‘I am sorry for your loss.’

The ginger biscuit soured in Jess’s mouth, a rough titbit stuck in her throat, she struggled to swallow, gagged it down in one, managed to speak. ‘I don’t understand.’ She glared at Irvine. ‘She told me Charlie was alive.’

‘Charlie is alive,’ the bio surgeon stressed, ‘but not in the conventional sense. I think it’s only fair to tell you that your fiancé’s life is being artificially sustained by UV. It belongs to us now, for us to experiment with as we see fit.’

‘It! How can you say that?!’ screamed Jess, ‘Charlie’s a man, not an animal. You don’t own him! I’m taking him home!’

‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible,’ Irvine asserted.

‘Why not? Charlie’s mine! You have no right to hold him here against my will! I demand…’

Ventil cut in, ‘I’m afraid we have every right. As you know, Charlie signed a dying wish, authorising us to use his head and body for medical research in the event of its death.’

Jess threw her arms about in frustration. ‘But he isn’t dead? He’s alive… I want to see him!’

‘Part of him is alive,’ cautioned Ventil, ‘It was delivered to UV clinically dead. His body was dead. But our scanners detected the faintest signs of brain activity.’ He paused for effect. ‘In the absence of next of kin, and you are not registered as his next of kin, Jessica, UV took the unilateral decision to proceed with the transplant. Your fiancé has made a remarkable recovery. He is now conscious, admittedly very weak and heavily sedated but stable, and able to speak when he is awake. You should be thrilled, Jess. Without our dramatic intervention his brain would have died within the hour. I must say you don’t seem too pleased about it?’

‘Of course, I’m pleased. I’m just concerned at how Charlie feels about the change, is all. How does he feel about…the change?’

‘Jessica,’ Irvine soothed, reaching across the table and gripping her hand, ‘Charlie is grateful to us for just being alive. He wants to see you again. Wants to feel you touch him. Would you like to see him? I think she’s ready for him now, don’t you Janus?’ she whispered as an aside.

‘I think so,’ he muttered, ‘It’s recovering in our specialist ICU unit. I’ll take her there.’

It? Her? What happened to Jess? ‘Who’s responsible for customer care here? I want to speak to someone in charge!’ Jess demanded.

‘I’m lead bio-surgeon at UV, Mrs Belcher!’ squealed Ventil, ‘Do you want to see it or not?’ 

Jess shut up. Ventil led her past reception to an opaque glass door, where he punched in an eight-digit security code. They entered a long, stark, white-walled corridor, without discernible windows or doors. As the partition slid closed, Jess took one last glance at Irvine, standing with her beloved artificials. Only then did she see Irvine’s eyes, devoid of emotion.

*****

The room was a tiny, plexiglass cubicle with a single bed. A metal grid covered nine radiating lights sunk into the glass ceiling, resembling a red, illuminated sudoku board. The place reeked of disinfectant. They’re keeping my man in solitary confinement, Jess realised, too late. She heard the door slide shut behind her, the click of the lock. There was no sign of Ventil. She swirled round and tried to open the door. He had locked her in. There was no way out. She stared at the cameras suspended from the ceiling. Whenever she moved, they moved. Smile Jessica, she thought, you’re on candid camera. She started to panic. Then she saw Charlie! Lying comatose on top of the counterpane, dead from the neck down. The body twitched! The body lit up, in deep purple! The body came to life!

‘Oh, my God! Charlie! What have they done to you?! Charlie! Charlie!’

He didn’t reply, he was asleep. Jess studied the purple head, bald except for sprinklings of what-looked-like brown sugar crystals on its pate, under the nose, and on its chin. Some kind of preservative, speculated Jess. She cast her mind back to the cryogenic bath her fiancé used to soak off in after Saturday football. Shuddering at the thought of his head, stored like a pickled beetroot in a human chutney jar, pending transplant. Its eyes were hollowed out, in black slits. Jess screamed in horror at the blue cheeks, nose and lips, the trunk-thick collar of stitches round its neck. Its neck? No, his neck, she reasserted. There was no escaping the incontrovertible fact: the head had been severed and preserved in some kind of freezing, embalming fluid, pending transplant onto a body. Frankenstein! fretted Jess, I’m engaged to be married to a Frankenstein! Oh, my, God! She flopped against the solid glass wall when she saw the body. Charlie’s head was crudely attached to a purpled prosthetic. Her thoughts were interrupted by Ventil’s voice, waffling out of the mesh speaker sunk into the alcove. Jess looked up, listened to the creator, pontificating over the prosthetic future of humanity.

‘Impressed, Mrs Belcher?’ Ventil hissed, ‘Let me explain how it works. As soon as your fiancé was pronounced clinically dead at the scene of the crash, we quickly attached his body to a cardio-pulmonary respirator to prevent post-mortem decay. The body was cooled to around 10C, then its blood was replaced with cryoprotectant fluid, a form of anti-freeze…’

I knew it! They froze him!

‘… to prevent ice forming in the brain during the freezing process. Over the course of the next few days we placed it in a waterproof bag and cooled it down to minus 70C using solid carbon dioxide, that’s dry ice to you Jess…’

Jessica Belcher found herself increasingly fascinated by the process used to preserve it, even began to take a morbid pride in it. To think her fiancé was the world’s first ever head transplant! She couldn’t wait to take him home, show Mum & Dad, Suzie & Mickey, Beattie & Debi, their screaming kids Charles II, Harry and Meghan. With the proceeds from the filming rights, Jess would be rich! She shook herself, ashamed of her selfish thoughts. Surely, Charlie would make a full recovery, come home, marry her, honeymoon her on some white, sandy beach in Antigua. Well, maybe not the beach…

‘Dry ice?’ she enthused, ‘Like they use at raves?’

‘Exactly! The body was packed in dry ice and ferried by private ambulance to our storage facility here on the 85th floor. Once we had established the viability of the head, we surgically removed it: with the neck-stump, vital nervous cortex, spinal cord, trachea and oesophagus, and preserved it in a vat of liquid nitrogen at a holding temperature of minus 196C. Naturally, we didn’t want to thaw the head and restore its life functions until we were absolutely sure that the prosthetic was ready and fail-proof.’

‘Naturally.’ Jess repeated, increasingly intrigued.

‘Would you like to know how the body works, Mrs Belcher?’ 

Jess studied the synthetic muscular body, glowing, deeply purpled in front of her, gasping in awe as it became fully transparent. Even she was forced to concede that Charlie, exposed in such an intimate manner, looked beautiful, no, more than beautiful, his body seemed unworldly, alienesque, godly.

‘Oh, my God!’ she cried, ‘I can see his heart beating! Is that his heart? Please say yes!’

‘Yes, that’s right!’ Ventil was excited for her. ‘The head requires a constant supply of blood in order to remain alive. This could only be achieved by transplanting Charlie’s own heart into the prosthetic. The human body wastes 60% of the energy it consumes. UV’s prosthetic body, by comparison, is 100% energy-efficient; its solar cells absorb infrared light generated by the lights in the ceiling and convert it into the energy used to power the micro-computers located in the body’s viscera, muscles and electronic nervous system. The infrared also penetrates deep into the synthetic muscle tissue which mimics the cellular changes and vasodilation of the blood vessels found in real human bodies, delivering energy directly to where it’s needed.’

Jess wasn’t really listening. She noticed more crystals, coating her fiancé’s shoulders, residual cryoprotectants. They would soon wash off when Jess bathed him. At its neck lay the life-essential sutures: stitching its trachea to its new windpipe, the gullet to the oesophagus. A gristly band of pink connective tissue tethered Charlie’s cerebral cortex to its spinal cord. What fascinated Jess most was the body’s finish, the attention to the tiniest details. She stared down, past the body’s trachea, lungs, stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, bladder to the groin. Ventil and his team had gone so far as to replicate the dark chocolate mole that jutted from her man’s groin, the mole she used to lightly stroke after she had made love to him. Jess was pleased with the new penis and testicles. She wondered if they worked. Ventil caught her smug grin.

‘Yes, they’ve been exhaustively tried and tested by our physicists,’ he assured her, ‘They’re purely mechanical at the moment I’m afraid. Our biotechnology isn’t that advanced.’

‘I’m pregnant, Janus,’ she announced, looking up at the speaker in the ceiling.

Ventil’s tone softened, ‘I’m sorry Jess, I didn’t know.’

‘I’m going to have Charlie’s baby. I want to take my fiancé home. Please, let me…’

‘You don’t understand. He can never leave this room. His brain is entirely dependent on the life-support systems built into the prosthetic and wired to our central computer system.’

Jess’s whole body sagged with despair, ‘How long can you keep Charlie alive in this state?’

‘Until the brain deteriorates. Your fiancé is still young. I’d say at least another 50 years...’

‘I want to be left alone with him. I want you to switch off the cameras and leave us alone.’

‘I’m very sorry, Jess. I can understand you being upset, but that isn’t possible. The prosthetic requires constant visual monitoring. You’re free to go now if you wish.’ There was a loud click: the door, unlocking.

‘Leave-me-alone!’ she screamed.

Jess never saw or spoke to Ventil and Irvine again. She stared down at Charlie. How would she begin to explain what had happened to him, to them, to her child? The body trembled, then shook. The head opened its dark, bloody mouth and spoke:

‘They gave me a new body, you know. Do you like it?’

‘Who are you?’

‘Do I know you?’


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