“Admit it, the only option left for that body is getting rid of it.”
Cousin Aloysius says this as he sprawls uninvited along the length of my bed, and I hate him for that. I hate the carefully browned skin on his shoulders and the deliberately rumpled edges of his collar. I hate the way he’s kicking one faux-suede heel against the bed’s heirloom oak panelling, leaving tiny ding after tiny ding on the priceless surface.
Most of all I hate the smug upturn of his lips and the way his eyes stay critically on my mound of belly-fat. I turn my back on him and study the displeasing, embarrassing shape it makes of me in the mirror.
“It’s just a bit of fat,” I say, but even the word feels uncomfortable on my tongue. Clumsy and unwieldy. When I tap my fingers on my belly I feel it jiggle in alien geometry.
Cousin Aloysius laughs.
Good cousin Aloysius has an easy smile and an internship in a big bank and a judge’s daughter for a girlfriend. When we were both seven he took my neural calibrator and hurled it into the storm drain quarantining our schoolyard from invading tendrils of forest. I wailed as the device sank irretrievably into rotting leaves and organic muck. “Cry what cry, your father can afford to replace that shit, right?” he had taunted.
He was already good cousin Aloysius back then, while I was only scabby-kneed loud-voiced cousin Agatha, so guess who got the blame? Daddy had been so angry, his rough hand bruised one corner of my cheekbone. “You want to become stuck in your own body? I’ll leave you there, you know!” Aloysius had laughed at the mottled skin on my face. He thought it was funny.
Cheap cousin Aloysius. Tacky cousin Aloysius.
He continues to kick my bed. “Don’t embarrass the family. Chinese New Year is in three months and I’m bringing my girlfriend. Are you going to diet like a pleb?”
I have bad genes. My mother’s mother had a round face and a body that bulged like a beehive, a victim of bad metabolism that spared my mother but resurfaced in me, her wayward daughter. Much as clinicians have tried to iron out the kinks in my DNA, each body they generate still goes soft and gelatinous within months. This is my fourth body since I turned twenty. Nothing sticks, not diets, not exercise. Only overhauls.
Rumours say one company has found a permanent fix to the metabolism problem. Vivaco has won awards and gathered effusive praise worldwide. They’re reputable, oh, we know they work. But they only grow sixty bodies per year, to an exclusive pipeline of suppliers. Money problems are no obstacle to me, but this isn’t a money problem. This is a who-you-know problem.
Cousin Aloysius has clinician friends who are supplied by Vivaco. Clinician friends who make a killing in reselling discarded bodies. Clinician friends who give him a cut for every client brought in and every financial transaction covered up.
Cheap cousin Aloysius has a smile that could cut flesh. Tacky cousin Aloysius says, “If you’re willing to resell that lump you have, I can set you up with my friend.”
And because I’m vulnerable, because I’m desperate, because I think what else have I got to lose? I say yes.
• • • •
To illegally sell your body takes a surprising amount of extra work. There’s extra scans to be done, extra things to be mapped, extra things to agree to. And all the fake paperwork: Guarantee of incineration. Waiver of indemnity. Dissolution of joint patent over the body.
The law highlights body recycling in big red bold font and a bunch of big red Xs, of course, but even idiots know that where there’s a demand, there’s a way to get a hold of things. The black market in secondhand bodies thrives, even in neat shiny little Singapore.
Dr. Subramaniam has a yearly quota of six orders from Vivaco. Not all buyers resell. To be offered you have to be introduced by friends, his network of enablers like Cousin Aloysius.
The doctor is a lot classier than I expected. Nicely done-up office, modern lighting, no tasteless looping posters selling the wonders of nanotech surgery. He has dry hands and a warm smile, perfectly paired with his doctor’s manner. Talks a lot too, like a doctor. About massaging the DNA and changing the face for the recipient. Some nonsense about identity.
“I don’t care about that,” I tell him. “I want to know when. Can it be done by Christmas?”
Dr. Subramaniam smiles. “Of course. The major issue is usually finding a second client—you know, you can’t just hand over the body to any Tom, Dick, or Harry. But luckily for you we have the perfect candidate.”
He turns a screen towards me.
I am confused. There are pictures of a woman—the same woman—but she cannot possibly be the client. Because she is beautiful. She is so beautiful the bottom of my heart falls away and empties its contents into the deepest pits of envy. Long limbs. Slender. Obsidian-skinned. The face of an Indian beauty pageant queen: wide lips, sharp cheekbones, high forehead. Eyes luminous. Dark hair spills everywhere, loosely curled and seemingly endless. Her face glows, and a universe of possibilities shines out of it.
“Is this a joke?” I ask. “She looks like a model. Why would she swap that for this lump?”
Dr. Subramaniam makes a soft noise. “You really have no idea, do you?” No, I don’t. And he’s not answering my question either.
The screen says her name is “Maryam.” Maryam. I form the word softly on my tongue, feeling the roll of its Rs, the softness of its vowels, the folds of its consonants. I imagine whispering it into the dark shell of her ear. I am in love. I am in love.
“Is there a problem?” asks Dr. Subramaniam.
No. Yes. No. How am I supposed to answer? The idea of a problem, a thing that can be solved, is too prosaic for the beauty in front of me.
Buyers and sellers of bodies don’t meet. Too much potential for awkwardness afterwards—it’s not the done thing. But I don’t care. Since when have I allowed the rules to restrict me?
“I want to meet her,” I finally say. I will brook no dissent. Dr. Subramaniam has already lost the argument. He just doesn’t know it yet.
• • • •
She’s even more beautiful in real life.
Skin that shimmers in the afternoon. Curves like a champagne glass, subtle and refined. Light clings to her on the verandah of my favourite café, the one with the red velvet cake that is to die for. Perfect makeup, not slathered on tastelessly but just enough to highlight her lovely features. Her smiles are tiny little things that reveal only teasing glimpses of her piano-white teeth. I take in her toned arms and the shape of bones in her ankles. Everything about her pleases me.
“I was born in the Philippines,” she says, when I ask her to tell me about herself. She has a voice like the velvet cake we’re eating, smooth and rich. “My father was a Singaporean, an Indian man, so we moved here when I was a baby. He passed away when I was very young, but my mother had already gotten her permanent residency so she decided to stay and work. She raised me alone.”
“Okay,” I say.
Maryam looks at me as if waiting for something else, but I shrug.
“Okay? That’s it?”
“Yup.” Her past is of little interest to me, honestly. Just making small talk. “How’s the cake?”
She has a tiny, fluttery laugh, like a hummingbird’s wing, like a potted indoor plant. “Oh, it’s good. It’s good. It’s very good.” I smile and pat her hand.
We talk about my work, my blogging and reviewing, until we’ve wrung the topics dry and the words peter out. Silence congeals between us.
“Come home with me,” I say. Mother is in Europe until her spring collection launches, and Daddy could live in his office for all I care. I have the house to myself.
She bites her plump lower lip, and I see trepidation simmering in her. “I’m not a serial killer,” I joke. “Why would I hurt you? I need a buyer!” I laugh, she doesn’t.
“May I make a phone call?” she asks, standing up.
I look at her face—there’s uncertainty there, but not animal fear. “Leave your wallet,” I say anyway, just in case.
So she does. She’s gone a long time, and I wonder if she’s just run off anyway, abandoning her tacky little PVC purse. My strong personality has no doubt left a bad impression on her. But that’s how I am with people. Stubbornness turns people off. It’s a blessing, it’s a curse. To calm myself down I stroke the surface of her wallet, which reassures me that she’ll be back. It’s her loss if she doesn’t. And I do so want her to come back.
She does return, holding her phone like a talisman. Whoever it was she was speaking to has calmed her down, because she’s smiling, a full, toothy smile. She sits down, and her voice is soft and high and musical as she says, “I’ll go with you.” I like that tone of voice. It’s sweet, it’s supple, it’s malleable.
So I bring her home, filling the car ride with pleasant small talk. Maryam acts like she’s never seen a house as big and multilayered as ours before. She walks around the cavernous living room with her eyes wide, long fingers trailing the air over the glass sculptures and the moulded furniture but never really touching it.
“Come upstairs to my room,” I say. “I want to show you something.”
My room is rosy in the afternoon sun that filters through the generous French panelling. As Maryam looks over into the garden and koi pond I get undressed in front of the mirror. Unclothed I stand in the middle of the room, ankles deep in white sheepskin rug, until she turns around.
She doesn’t even look surprised. The afternoon sun backlights her hair like a halo. I hold my hands out. “Here.”
Maryam walks around my naked body with a faun’s gait. There is wonder in her eyes. Wonder and joy. I feel vindicated for bringing her back here.
One tentative hand stretches out and hesitates millimeters from the skin of my arm. My hairs stand and my flesh shivers as those shy fingers of hers ghost over me. “It’s okay to touch,” I say.
Her fingers land, warm and radiant against my white skin. She presses once into the yielding flesh before her fingers depart, and move to my shoulder, my chest. Heat curls deep in my belly and I bite my lower lip.
Her hand moves downwards to my midsection, which sinks under her touch. She pushes gently on the fat, feeling its softness, its generous give. “This is it? This is why you want to change your body?”
I nod. A small sound comes out of her, somewhere between a sigh and a laugh. “The doctor said it was something small, but this—” She looks me straight in the eye, and it feels like it’s for the first time. “This I can live with.”
Her gaze is hypnotic. I gently close one hand over hers and slide it downwards, towards the waiting ocean. I see the meaning of my gesture catch in her face, and there’s no surprise there: She knows what I want. She’ll give it to me. Deliberately, she brings my hand to her full lips and kisses it.
Her sundress comes off easily, like a dandelion shedding its coat in the wind. She plays my body like a stringed instrument, quick nimble fingers drawing gasps out of me effortlessly. I lay her down on the thick carpet and kiss every inch of her body, her supple and rice-fed, sun-warmed body, firm and yielding at the same time. When I have her in my mouth she makes salt on my tongue and birdsong in her throat.
Walls break and reservoirs of pleasure wash over us. In their wake we lie like debris, breathing deep, sweat evaporating into the air conditioning. I decide, right there and then, that Maryam will not do the swap, no matter what. Dr. Subramaniam will have to find another buyer. I will convince her to stay perfect, right the way she is. I’m very good at that, convincing people when I have to. Getting my way is a survival skill.
I turn to her with a soft smile. “What do you think?”
She doesn’t return my smile, gaze fixed on the ceiling. Her voice is dreamy. “It’s something like a fairy tale, this place you live in. This life. I wouldn’t have believed something like that existed.”
A smile blossoms on my face. There’s my hook, there’s my opening. Lucky for me she was underprivileged, raised by one working parent. It makes my life an easier sell. I stroke the skin of her arm. “There’s plenty more where this comes from.”
Now she does look at me. “More?”
“You saw my car, the Volkswagen. But I have a Ferrari. It’s in the back. Yellow, kind of loud and tacky, but it’s a fun drive. You can try it, if you want.”
She makes that little not-laugh-not-sigh sound of amusement. I pull her closer. “Live with me. The house has plenty of space, you can see. I’ll show you all of the wonders, like they said: a whole new world of things. You can be my Princess Jasmine, and I’ll be your Aladdin.”
Her fingers grip the sheepskin. “And every night one of these magic carpet rides?”
“Took the words out of my mouth.” I kiss her on the cheek. “How about it?”
Maryam looks back up at the ceiling. Time elapses in agonising seconds before she nods.
• • • •
And so begin my days of propaganda, my campaign of love; a four-week affection bombardment, my version of shock and awe. I fill our room with gifts: coloured silks and precious stones and perfumes for the wrists and hair. “Those dresses look perfect on you,” I tell her. “The colours match your dark skin so well.” She merely smiles at my compliments, but I think she looks pleased.
I feel indulgent, just like a sheik of old, showering luxuries on my beloved. Or like a genie, wreathing her in magic. Prince Ali, marvellous he, Ali Ababwa.
I split our days like this. The nights are ours, a delightful confection of warm sheets and soft skin. Mornings are given over to work, phone calls and empales; afternoons I take her shopping; evenings she accompanies me to parties and events. Club openings, product launches, parties with $5000-a-bottle champagnes. My Maryam absolutely shines in them, my little black diamond. People coo and gather around her, sometimes dragging her off to corners to have one-on-one conversations. She’s the belle of the ball and I couldn’t be prouder.
Maryam has surprises in store for me, too. Like on the morning after the first day we spent making love, when she crawled out of the bed in the darkness of six am to search for her things on the floor. “Where are you going?” I’d asked.
“Home,” she’d said, her voice sleep-hoarse and crackly. “I need to get dressed for work. It’s Monday.”
“Take the day off.” Shouldn’t she be quitting her job anyway, if she was soon to commit identity fraud?
Turned out she still had a few weeks left to serve on her contract, with some PR agency I’d heard of but never bothered with. “Just leave,” I’d instructed. “I’ll pay off the balance. Surely your contract has a clause for that.”
“Look, my immediate boss knows what I’m going to do, and she’s agreed to write job testimonials for my new identity. I’ve got her full support, I don’t want to burn that bridge.” Her voice had gone a little glacial then, as she added, “Maybe you can afford that, but I can’t.”
Stubborn as you like, this one. Eventually I persuaded her to stay home with the promises of job referrals. There’s plenty a marketing and PR rock star like you can do in my line of work, I tell her, sweet words rolling off my tongue. I know all the people you should meet.
In my final plan for her, she won’t be working at all. Why would she need a day job that would take her away from spending time with me? No, I get it, seriously I do: Maryam wants a better life, and she thinks becoming Chinese will do it for her. I read this stuff on the Internet, too. But why bother with doing it herself, when I can simply give it to her?
I only have to get her acceptance. Which I’m working on.
I’m not a fool. I know she is far from swayed by me. She spends a lot of her time on the phone, hiding in bathrooms or whispering private conversations in corners. When I ask her who she’s talking to I get a dismissive “a friend,” or sometimes “colleagues.” I know lies when I hear them. I contemplate taking her phone, or smashing it into a thousand tiny glittering bits and blaming it on an accident.
But no, there are other ways of achieving my means, subtler ways to get her to drop her life plans. I need her willing and ready.
In bed one night she whispers to me, voice thinned by wistfulness, “You know, people treat me a lot better when I’m with you.”
I smile and squeeze her hand. “Of course they do. My influence counts for something, darling.” Something that even a new body won’t afford you. Maryam’s face changes in the dim light as she considers this, and wordlessly she pushes her face into my shoulder.
It’ll all work out, you’ll see.
• • • •
At one of the cocktail parties, cousin Aloysius shows up, the judge’s daughter on his arm, oval-faced and slender-hipped. I introduce her to Maryam, and while they make small talk on the verandah, cousin Aloysius pulls me aside. “So,” he says, voice dripping sulphur, “you’re taking her on a grand tour of your body or what? Showing her how all the plumbing works?”
I roll my eyes, even as my chest fills with fire that might be hurt pride or indignation. “We’re in love,” I spit at him, and it sounds like I believe it. “It’s for real, and she’s going to forgo her part of the swap. You’ll see.”
Cousin Aloysius makes an indignant A shape with his arms. “And then what? She’s going to live under your table, eating your scraps?”
“She can write. I’ll let her take over my blog while I run the events business.”
Cousin Aloysius laughs with a sound like a small dog barking. “You’re a fucking idiot.” He slaps me on the back, much harder than he needs to. Leaning close, he whispers, “Don’t fuck this deal up for me, Agatha.” And then he’s back out to the verandah before the goosebumps finish prickling over my skin.
Maryam has vanished into the folds of the party. I push through the spangled, suited crowd looking for her crown of curled hair, for flashes of her dark skin. Nothing. She isn’t in the washroom or by the bar. She can’t have left without me, can she? I go back out onto the verandah and ask the judge’s daughter where Maryam is, but she doesn’t know. “Perhaps she went for a smoke?”
Maryam doesn’t smoke, but on a whim I go out to the smoking area near the carpark anyway. Nothing but a rangy cluster of service staff shrouded in their own cancercloud. A waste of time. I turn to leave—and that’s when I see her.
Hidden behind a pillar a stone’s throw from the smoking area, but given away by the heft of her hair, Maryam is in intense conversation with another woman. One of the serving staff in the club, still clad in uniform. Something’s going on. I stick to shadow as I walk up, hoping to eavesdrop on something telling.
My muscles freeze as my guts turn to liquid. The kiss is not even a tentative one, the hesitant half-breath first-kiss type. This is the full-on, tongues-recruited, chest-to-chest kiss of the longtime lover. The kiss you share when nobody else is looking.
I don’t know why I’m surprised. I don’t know why I’m disappointed. But I am, I am, I am.
They break apart and the rapid-fire Tagalog begins. So this is the true identity of Maryam’s phone conversation partner. I clench and unclench my hands. Enough. I step into a streetlight. “Something you want to tell me, darling?”
Maryam doesn’t even have the decency to look dismayed. “What are you doing out here?”
“Looking for you. Guess what I found.”
Maryam’s chin tilts upwards defiantly. “This is my girlfriend, Belinda,” she says.
The woman glares at me, stone-faced. “You were going to mention this at which point?”
“Never, because you didn’t bother to ask. And it wouldn’t have stopped you anyway. Would it?”
No, it wouldn’t. That’s not the point. I look at my rival’s face. Belinda. Her face is moon-like, rough brows and broad nose. Yes, I recognise her, I’ve been a patron of this club long enough. Belinda. She’s one of the senior serving staff.
This is her. This is the woman that Maryam would choose over me. This worm. Belinda. My heart curdles in my chest. I will not see this woman’s face when I come here again. I refuse.
I march straight inside the club and summon the night manager. Benny. A good guy. “You need to come see this,” I tell him, and I pull him outside.
Maryam and Belinda are still engaged in deep and intense foreign chatter when we come up. Belinda’s face goes rabbit-like when she sees I’ve brought her boss. “This member of your staff has been soliciting one of my guests,” I declare. “Is this behaviour condoned by your establishment?”
“She’s my girlfriend,” Maryam blurts, trying to step between Belinda and Benny.
She might as well be invisible. Benny remains stone-faced, stern. “You know our policies,” he says to Belinda. “Go inside and pack your things.”
Belinda’s face crumples like so much paper. “But, sir—”
And she does. Benny turns to me. “I apologize for this. I’ll speak to the rest of the staff and let them know this sort of behaviour is unacceptable.”
“I understand,” I tell him. “No worries. Sorry for keeping you from your duties.” He’s a good guy, as I said.
Maryam stands where she is, breathing in and out hard enough that I can see the movement of her chest in the lamplight. “I’m saving you from bad choices,” I inform her. “You can’t be hanging out with this sort of low-class person if you want to get anywhere.”
She turns to me with a smile that resembles a shark’s. “You know, just when I thought you couldn’t get any more despicable, you actually do.” And she storms off. Where to? Where can she run to? She’s stuck with me. I still have what she wants.
• • • •
The moment Maryam gets home she flings open the closet and starts pulling out clothes. Only the cheap, ugly ones she’d brought with her. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” She pulls her carry-bag from a drawer. “Do you think I’m still going to keep up this charade? After what you’ve done?”
The sweetness and suppleness is gone from her voice. It’s as if a spell has been broken, and my malleable Maryam has been replaced with a spitting, angry caricature. But no, the pleasing confection has been the illusion all along, a crafted mirage of a lovely woman whom I could work on, who actually appreciated all I had been doing for her. I feel betrayed by my own dreams, by my own foolish feelings.
“I loved you,” I say, a last-gasp attempt at reconciliation. “I wanted you to stay with me forever.”
Maryam slaps a toiletries bag on the table with more force than necessary. “You have no idea how to love a person.”
“Says the lying, gold-digging backstabber.”
Maryam shoves the carry-bag full of her possessions. It bulges with cheap, tacky items—she takes only what she had brought over here. Trying to zip it up, she says, “Dr. Subramaniam said you were going to cancel the sale if I didn’t give in to your demands. So I did everything you wanted. But guess what? It’s too late to pull the plug on the deal now, I called and checked. So fuck you, fuck the car you drove in with, and I’ll see you never.”
The bag’s cheap zipper gives up the ghost with a plastic snap, and she slings the bag on her shoulder with it still open, contents swinging and yawing. “You think nobody loves you because your body doesn’t fit some fucked-up definition of the perfect woman. Well, no. Nobody loves you because you’re a miserable ugly-hearted lump of shit who cares only about herself.”
“I cared about you!” I did. I did.
She laughs as she leaves. Her laughter echoes all the way up the stairs. I stand in the middle of the room, my skin clammy, my mind swinging like a solar system cut free of gravity. I remember Cousin Aloysius’s schoolyard pranks, how they made me feel. This is worse. The failure is acid. The humiliation stings.
The liquidity in my gut, lingering from earlier in the evening, catches fire. Maryam thinks she can fuck with me? She doesn’t know the meaning of that word.
• • • •
I call Dr. Subramaniam to check on the progress of my Vivaco order. It’s coming along, it’s nearly done: “It’s too late to change your mind,” he says, simply.
In essence, he’s saying nothing I do can mess with the transfer on my end. It’s still going to happen, for me at least. Even if the other half of the swap is canceled. Even if, let’s just say, something terrible and irreversible happens to the body I’m reselling.
Drastic times require drastic measures—that’s always been my philosophy. I wait until it rains, turning the roads into ice-slick ribbons with no grip, before I get behind the wheel of the yellow Ferrari.
Deep pain begets deep pain. I tell this to myself in the split second between the wheels leaving the road and the roof coming towards me.
• • • •
The accident shattered my pelvis, broke four ribs, and punctured a lung. One of my vertebrae cracked and the doctor said I was lucky, I could have been permanently paralysed, even beyond the help of nanosurgery. If even the wiring is broken there’s nothing to transplant into a new body, nothing to set roots into.
I hadn’t even thought of that. I’d dropped bodies so often I’d forgotten how easily they can be maimed beyond repair. How easy it is to forget we’re mortal.
Well, as the doctor said. I’m lucky.
Mother wants to come back from Europe, but I say it’s hardly necessary. Both she and Daddy feel guilty enough that they offer to pay for a new body. Isn’t it nice that I already have one from Vivaco all lined up? Daddy nods with approval. He knows Dr. Subramaniam, friend of a friend of a friend. “Next time don’t arrange these kind of things without telling me,” he admonishes, but he lets it drop there. Feeling magnanimous to his injured daughter, I guess.
My hospital room fills with flowers and fruit baskets and ludicrous Mylar balloons, the last sent by people who clearly don’t know me very well. Cousin Aloysius is conspicuously absent from the visiting stream of relatives and well-wishers. His only communiqué comes in the form of a text. It’s four words long: “You fucking selfish bitch.”
I don’t care. I don’t need him any longer. Cheap cousin Aloysius. Tacky cousin Aloysius.
On the fourth day of hospitalisation Maryam comes to see me. She’s dressed like a pleb again, her hair tangled like brambles over her shoulders, her face plain and shiny. In place of her sweet expression there is a shark’s smile as she sets down the largest, cheapest, ugliest floral arrangement possible on my bedside table.
“I picked it specially for you,” she says. “It was so horrible, you were the first thing I thought of.”
Fine, I can play along. “What’s it for?”
“To thank you.” She sits on the edge of my bed, crouched like a spider. “I was so sold on swapping out this body. But four weeks with you opened my eyes. I realized that if I went through with it I’d be faking all the time. That every day of my life with a secondhand body would have been misery.”
She shudders like an actor in a community play. I see now that the light that I saw in her, that ineffable glow, is actually more of a forest fire, untamable and terrible. I could have let this woman burn me. I could have let her laser shark teeth chew right through me. Dodged a bullet right there.
“What a fool you are,” she says. “You thought you could punish me by doing this, didn’t you? But hey, you saved me from forfeiting a hefty deposit from canceling my half of the swap. It’s not my fault that the sale didn’t go through now, is it?”
She stands up, smug as a fishmonger who has won a marketplace quarrel. Her hair swings as she turns on her heel. “So take these awful flowers, with my compliments. And enjoy the rest of your fucking miserable life.”
“The same to you,” I spit. She walks out of my life, easy as she had entered it.
• • • •
My new body arrives and is perfect. Home from the hospital, I dance naked in front of my room mirror, admiring Vivaco’s handiwork. A week since the transfer but I’m still not used to how light and supple it feels. The skin is white and flawless, the stomach flat and firm as a store mannequin’s. I watch muscles ripple pleasingly as I turn and bend.
I’m so pleased. Maryam, who needs her? I shed the memory and desire I had for her like an old skin. She can go back to her pathetic life and her substandard girlfriend, and stay there until she rots. It was just as well that abomination of a body, tainted by her touch, was destroyed. Dr. Subramanian hadn’t been able to find a new buyer. Good riddance.
I spin on my heel and nearly lose my balance as a tremor seizes my leg. I sink into the sheepskin, frowning. Glitches are common in the first weeks post-transfer, when the nervous system is still learning the ropes of its new body, but they’re supposed to get better, not worse. I massage my calf. Surely a company as storied as Vivaco wouldn’t have given me something defective.
A rumble in the driveway. I pull on a bathrobe, open one of the French windows, and peer out. It’s Cousin Aloysius.
The last time he came here he had an agenda. What does he want this time?
He enters my room, a sly fox, the smile on his face beguiling. “I came to see how you were doing, my dearest cousin. Now that you’re finally back home from all your hospital visits.”
I stand up, full height, as cousin Aloysius circles the room like a vulture, like a military inspector. My hands go to my hip. “I’m perfect.”
“Pity about the swap failing, huh.”
“Yes, a real pity.” I narrow my eyes as cousin Aloysius peers out of my open window. If he’s here for an apology, he’s not going to get it.
As he turns around one of my hands shakes violently and slips from my hip. I let it go, but it hangs by my side, twitching and shaking like it has a mind of its own. Cousin Aloysius sees it and his smile widens. “Having a little problem with tremors, huh?”
There’s some meaning hidden in his words, layered like organic rot. “What do you mean?”
“You know, studies have begun to emerge from respected journals. Turns out there are risks associated with doing so many body swaps. Too much nano surgery and the nerve endings start to degrade in some cases. It’s rare, but it’s been known to happen.”
“What have you done?”
“It’s a gradual process. First you get shaking in the extremities, which get progressively worse. Soon you’ll lose feeling in your feet and hands, and then major motor control will eventually go. It takes a few months. It’s almost exactly like being poisoned with slow neurotoxin.”
“You low lives, you scum,” I scream, “What have you done?” My arms are shaking now, and I can’t tell if it’s from rage or my poisoned nerves.
“You really fucked us over, Agatha. The paperwork we filed had serial numbers, and now they don’t match with the documentation of the actual incineration. Do you know how quick the police are to pick up on that shit?” Cousin Aloysius sits on the edge of the windowsill, arms folded, smile like broken glass. “Consider this a gift from the both of us, dearest cousin. If we’re going to rot in jail, you might as well rot with us.”
When we were seven, cousin Aloysius threw my calibrator into a storm drain, and laughed as my father beat me for it. The look on his face then matches the look on his face now, a brittle and bitter triumph, a bastion of cheap tacky one-upmanship. The window is open and the sunlight fills my room with an incandescent glow. Beneath it, the koi pond waits with its silt water and rocky bottom, sharp points waiting to meet cousin Aloysius’s spine. My legs are still working, for now. Still active and able to accept my will, for now. I run forward.
I savour the surprised look on cousin Aloysius’ face as he goes over, his face finally scrubbed of its smugness, headed for the organic slime layer waiting to suck his broken body into its depths. I stand at the window and watch pond water thrash in disturbance, and exhale. My hands won’t shake if I grip the windowsill hard enough. Just another body to get rid of.
‘Secondhand Bodies’ was first published on Lightspeed Magazine in 2016: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/secondhand-bodies/
JY Yang is a queer, non-binary Singaporean author. They are the author of the Tensorate series of novellas from Tor.com Publishing (The Red Threads of Fortune, The Black Tides of Heaven, The Descent of Monsters, and the upcoming The Ascent of Heaven), and they have over two dozen works of short fiction published in places such as Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Lackington’s. They have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus awards, and their work has been a Tiptree nominee.