An essay by Stephen L. Thayer, as provided by Gordon B. White
Art by Errow Collins
My younger brother Cameron never understood what working from home meant, so when he called me at 2:30 pm, I was wrist-deep in a twitching half-cadaver. Normally I wouldn’t have answered, since I was practicing stitching a double set of lungs for an upcoming necromodding commission, but I’d been stymied by what to do next, and I also had to pick Dylan up from school by 3:30, so it was as good a stopping point as any. Besides, what is family for if not to answer your call?
I pulled my hands out of the writhing thoracic cavity and peeled off my surgical gloves. The talc inside always makes me squirm when I rub my fingers clean, so I grimaced beneath my paper filtration mask–which I never remove while in my garage laboratory–and swiped my cell phone to speaker.
“Cam,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I need your help, bro.”
“Are you drunk?” I asked.
He paused. “A little.”
A little was fine. We’re brothers, so how else were we supposed to talk?
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Do you remember my last serious relationship?”
I had to think back. I was pretty sure that was Brandon and that had been a year before? Two? Cam had never been good at relationships, but I’d forgotten how bad he was.
“Sure,” I said. “Tall, dark, possibly rheumatic.”
“You make him sound so sexy.”
“Not my type.”
“Anyway, I was out with Tyler.”
“Who?” I asked as I walked across the room, away from the twitching body and the faint burning smell rising from the wires in its cranium.
“Never mind with who,” Cam said, too quickly. “The point is that I ran into Brandon.”
“With your car, I hope?”
“Nice dad joke, bro.”
“Speaking of, I have to get Dylan soon.” An hour wasn’t really soon, but anything to give Cam a ticking clock. He’s the kind of guy who if you ask him what he did last night, he’ll end up telling you what he did this morning.
“Bro, this is serious,” he said. “Seeing Brandon reminded me of how terrible I am at everything.”
“What about this new guy?” I said, desperate to deflect the conversation. “Clearly you’re not completely unlovable.” Since launching my necromodding business, I’d had enough people calling me up for freebies that I was hoping to stem this off before it escalated. That double-lungs commission was the first paid job I’d had all month, although given how poorly it was going, I worried it might be the last, too.
“It isn’t going to work out,” Cam said. “I’m not good enough.”
“I’m not disagreeing,” I said, but I immediately regretted that brotherly sarcasm as I heard a glass hit the bar on Cam’s end. I could just about smell the booze through the phone. If I were there with him, maybe he could have seen on my face that I didn’t mean it, but what could I say?
“I need your help to get a boyfriend,” he said. “A serious one. A real one.”
“One who calls you back?”
“One who thinks I’m hot.”
“I don’t know any blind and deaf guys,” I said, unable to help ribbing him further. “Besides, I haven’t dated anyone in, well, forever. I really can’t help.”
My wife Cynthia and I had been together basically forever. We’d dated for almost a decade, been married for something like seven years, and Dylan was five, so contemporary hook-up culture or any online presence more than my freelance necromodding website were absolute mysteries. Despite the skills at my disposal and the bodies in my garage, I didn’t know what I could do to help Cam.
“Bro,” Cam said, “I don’t need your dating advice.”
Oh thank god, I thought, although I was also a little offended.
“Then what?” I asked.
“I need to be a different person.”
“Can’t help you,” I said. “Try therapy?”
“I mean, I need a new body.”
The half-cadaver twitched on the table, the crown of electrodes in its skull stimulating it into smearing its coagulating intestines across the metal gurney as its torn throat wheezed through the half-sewn double-set of lungs. Seeing how helpless it was, twitching there in the approximation of life, made me feel bad that I hadn’t had Cam over in a while.
“Fine,” I said. “Come by tonight after dinner. No earlier than seven.”
Cam arrived at 6:15. Cynthia was still cooking, and I was helping Dylan with his enrichment homework when the doorbell rang. Cam tried the knob from outside, but I’d told Cynthia he was coming and so she’d locked it. She stood in the kitchen, stabbing me with her eyes as I walked Dylan to the door and unbolted it.
“Look who it is,” I said to Dylan as we opened the door.
As Cam hoisted Dylan up, I took a moment to do my pre-clinical once over. Cam and I shared a party mix of the same genetics, so I didn’t think he’d been too let down, especially because if I’d received our parents’ brain Chex, he’d gotten the pretzel bits of good physique. Decent shoulders and long arms, a full head of hair that was mostly not gray as he pushed into his thirties. While beer had softened him up, his spare tire was a bike wheel at worst, not a full radial. I was noting that his glutes were adequate if not extraordinary when I realized that he was airplaning Dylan into the kitchen with Cynthia.
“Hey, Cindy,” he said, using a nickname she hates, perhaps accidentally.
“Hey, Ron,” she replied, purposefully using a nickname Cam hates. “Can you not steer my child into the Bolognese?”
“Into the Bolognese!” Dylan squealed, and I could envision the downward arc occurring in the other room. Suddenly, I was hit by the pungent tomato sauce simmering over the sweet fat of the beef. It’s funny how you don’t recognize some comforts until you’re just on their periphery.
“Ron,” Cynthia said.
“Cindy,” he said.
“Bolognese!” Dylan yelled.
I joined the family circle just in time and took Dylan from Cam’s outstretched arms. Dylan pouted, but Cam ruffled his hair and then turned to me.
“So, what’s for dinner?” Cam asked.
“Let’s talk in the lab,” I said, steering him towards the mudroom and the locked door to my lab in the garage. “We’ll give Cynthia some room.”
As Dylan latched onto Cynthia and I escorted Cam out, she gave me that look that asked “Are you really skipping dinner?” I shrugged in apology and hoped my eyebrows, wriggling like caterpillars on a hotplate, said “What else is family for, right?”
Out in the garage, the overwhelming smell of antiseptic spray is deceptive at first, but I offered a full respirator to Cam, which he wisely accepted. Whenever I open the storage drawers, the smell usually overwhelms the unprepared. It’s the primary reason that Cynthia made me spring for airtight locks, because while she’s fine with me being a stay-at-home dad doing freelance necromodder work, she doesn’t want to be known as that family.
“How’s business?” Cam asked, looking around at all the shiny equipment.
“Honestly, not great,” I said. “It’s really tough starting out. So far mostly just cranks and perverts.”
“But this is all so, so cool,” he said.
“Clients don’t trust necromodders without a deep portfolio.”
“I trust you, bro.”
“You have to say that,” I said, but I smiled beneath my paper mask. I didn’t know if Cam was being sincere or just trying to butter me up, but it was working.
“What’s that?” Cam asked, pointing to the halo of electrodes I’d been using to reanimate the half-cadaver with the double-stitched lungs. Cam had been in the lab enough to recognize new equipment, even though he didn’t know what any of it was.
“Sort of a test drive system for bodies so I can try new mods before putting them in living clients,” I told him. “The hope is to one day use it to amp up living brains, too, but that’s a long way off.” A very, very long way off, in fact, and not being able to get it to work stuck in my craw as yet another failure.
“No chance you can fix this then?” Cam thumped himself on the forehead.
“Nothing can fix that,” I said. “What’s Option B?”
“Bro,” he said, “I need a boyfriend.”
“Believe me,” I said, “that would make all of our lives easier.”
He ignored that comment, which was bigger of him than I expected. As the older brother, it was always both surprising and fulfilling to see sparks of maturity in Cam. Perhaps I sometimes pushed him too hard to find them–spraying his pants with water in middle school to teach him an ill-defined lesson about humility, for example–but whenever those moments emerged naturally, I could just about cry.
“I want someone to love me like Cynthia loves you,” he said.
I didn’t tell him that sometimes it takes a lot of work, but I was a sucker for romance. If I could help him, at least a little, wasn’t that my brotherly duty?
“So I need a new body,” he said.
“It’s expensive,” I said.
“It can be my birthday present.”
“It comes out of my pocket,” I said, but Cam looked pointedly at me, and I knew what he was being too nice to say about Cynthia in the other room. “Our pockets,” I corrected myself. “Do you really want to take the Bolognese out of your nephew’s mouth?”
“Birthday and Christmas.”
I stared at him.
“For two years,” he added.
I sighed. “And I can use pictures for my website.”
“Fine,” he said, “if I can also use them for my dating profile.”
“Fine,” I said. “I love–”
“Me?” Cam interrupted.
“A challenge,” I concluded. “So of course I will help you.”
There’s a sort of code that we necromodders undertake–whether it’s a full-time modder doing celebrity jobs in a fancy foreign clinic, or just a dedicated freelancer who left the hospital’s daily grind and whose wife supports him while he builds up a portfolio on low-paying commissions–that we’ll do our best to bring our clients’ visions to fruition, despite our own preferences. I’d seen plenty of things on the professional message boards–literal eyes in the back of heads, third arms in places arms don’t usually go–that I personally didn’t think looked good, but which somehow made the end users feel complete. Although I think of necromodding as an art, most clients see it as design, so far be it from me to deny anyone their aesthetic preferences. As a medical professional, however, I did have one other complicating factor.
“I’ll do it,” I said, “but as your doctor–” I trailed off, hoping to prompt him.
“Really?” Cam asked. “Again?” He knew what was coming, since I’d given him a new middle toe a year or so ago.
“Tell you what,” I said, as I punched in the codes to the cold storage. “If you can paraphrase the warning, I’ll consider that informed consent.”
“Let me see,” Cam began as he joined me to watch the various hunks and chunks of cadavers slide out of the freezer. “As my doctor, you have to warn me of potential health effects related to body modifications using deceased tissue.”
“There’s no guarantee.”
“That the process is effective or reversible.”
“And?” I asked.
“And what?” he asked
“You’re of sound mind to make decisions that could result in your death.”
He swallowed. “Yeah, bro.”
From inside the coolers, corpses and extra bits peered out. I didn’t keep a lot on hand, but I always had a few stock bodies–inoffensive types that were easy to cut and shape for after-market mods–so I could easily do a head swap, then touch Cam up afterwards. With our health care system, there was never a shortage of parts.
“Finally,” I added, “as your brother, and not your doctor, I think you’re great and have a great personality. Don’t fix a thing, blah blah.”
“I love you, too, bro,” he said.
“I never said that.”
I cut off Cam’s head and stitched it to the stock body that most closely matched his skin tone. He’d asked me about maybe trying out a different one, but that would just open up questions of bodily appropriation that I hadn’t the energy to parse with Cam. Nevertheless, we had gone over the alterations he wanted and, once his original body was safely wrapped and secured in Refrigerator B and his head was hooked up to the new one, I was ready to start.
He wanted bigger muscles, and although the stock body was fairly normal, Cam had picked out globs of the red ropey fibers for me to put in. The sizing was ridiculous, but the more I’d warned him, the more he resisted. Then he said it was okay if I didn’t know how to do it, which I’m pretty sure he did just to egg me on. Sure, a procedure of that level was just a smidge outside of my comfort zone, but I wasn’t going to give Cam the satisfaction of thinking he’d asked for something I couldn’t do, so I went to work snipping out the default tendons at the muscle heads and reattaching bigger ones. It was like trying to overstuff a batch of viscera dumplings, but I finally got it done.
When I finished, I brought him back out from sedation and rolled the full-sized mirror over to where he lay on the table. He grinned and flexed, and I worried that the glue in the skin wouldn’t hold, but although he bulged, he didn’t pop. I’d had my doubts, but seeing it finished, I swelled with pride, too.
“Isn’t this a little excessive?” I asked, even as I snapped a picture for the portfolio section of my website.
“You just don’t understand the male gaze,” he said and kissed his bicep.
“Like, looking at stuff.” He paused. “Also, that’s what he said.”
“That’s so juvenile.”
“You’re the older brother,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be too mature.”
“I need to look more mature,” Cam said, back in my lab after less than a week. “I have a baby face.”
“You have a childish face,” I said. I was already twisting his face this way and that under the light, though, figuring out what I could do with the soft tissues. Normally I wouldn’t have been doing more work so soon after the first procedure, but working on Cam had really energized me. Prospective clients were contacting me, and in a spurt of inspiration, I’d finished the double-stitched lungs and even improved the corpse-animating electrode helmet. Besides, Cam seemed to enjoy coming over for the post-op check-ups, even sticking around to come with me to pick Dylan up from school.
“What do you want this time?” I asked.
“Thinner cheeks,” he said. “And maybe a beard.”
From Freezer A, I pulled out a box of frozen samples. Inside the compartments, little swatches of hair curled like sleeping gerbils in multiple hues of blonde, auburn, ginger, and black.
“You can have a beard of this, this, this, or this,” I said, pointing out some.
“What about that?”
“That’s a dog.”
He considered it for a moment longer than I’d have liked, but then finally pointed to a nice normal brown swatch. “I’ll take that one,” he said.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Stop second guessing me.”
So I put Cam under again. I made incisions beneath the zygomatic bones, then slit all the way down the jaw and back around. I took extra time to stencil out around Cam’s lips before I peeled away his lower face, leaving him raw from closed eyes to throat. The yolk-colored globs of baby fat clung to his cheeks as I peeled them away, then laid them in the “Base” box to store in Freezer B alongside his original body. We were getting into alterations that weren’t as simple to undo as a head swap, but I’d given him the spiel and, since he’d used up his allotment of gifts already, he’d promised to pay in cash–just later, of course.
I unfurled the main roll of beard and skin, measured off a swatch, and then snipped it. The surface was itchy, and I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting it on their face or anywhere else, but according to the message boards, it was popular among other modders’ clients and, of course, the customer is always right. It was a pain to smooth down and arrange all the follicles the right way, but it felt good getting into the granular work again. The bliss of losing myself in the details reminded me why I’d fallen in love with necromodding in the first place.
Once everything was perfect, I woke Cam up and rolled the mirror over. “This is good,” he said, rubbing his new hirsute jawline while I took a picture for the site. “This is will be the one that does it.”
“The beard isn’t doing it,” Cam said at dinner. He’d shown up unannounced but had become a regular enough intrusion that Cynthia had a plate ready. He was still adjusting to his beard, though, and the egg from the fettuccine carbonara glistened in the hair.
“My problem is that I get too drunk,” he said as he took another swig of Primitivo. He was still adjusting to the muscles, too, and so all of his movements were outsized and reckless. “I need the alcohol to open up, but then it hits me too hard.”
“Drink less?” Cynthia recommended.
“Or he can give me a bigger liver,” Cam said.
“An enlarged liver isn’t healthy,” I said. “It’s pretty much the opposite.”
“I know that,” he said, although clearly he didn’t. “Then give me more livers.”
That might work and, if nothing else, would hopefully keep Cam away for a while. My work had been picking up recently–at first it was new clients looking for muscle and beard work after seeing Cam’s pictures, but referrals and repeats kept rolling in. Besides, I’d been working on my electrode helmet and was on the verge of a breakthrough. Cam just didn’t understand my need to work during the day or the importance of family time with Cynthia and Dylan afterwards. His continued interruptions at dinner and frequent calls just to chat during the day were reminders as to why I’d stopped hanging out with him so much.
“Fine,” I said to Cam. “Whatever you want.”
After dinner, I took Cam to the lab and sliced him open, then clamped the flesh apart to root around. I wasn’t shocked to see the paces he’d already put this current liver through. It looked scaled and pebbled, and oozed like a pickled beet. Even through my ventilator, the rich, briny smell hit me. Gagging, I took the extra livers–my Burke and Hare men had been coming through like gangbusters recently–and started wedging them in. The healthy organs were more pliant, but as I sutured them together, the knot of muscle got less and less manageable. In the end, I had to lean on them like I was packing a suitcase while I stapled the wound together. Despite being pleased with my innovation, this one wouldn’t get a picture on the website. Probably just a text description.
As I brought Cam back around, I told him, “Be careful.”
“I always am, bro.”
He sat up on the gurney, swaying under the new imbalance.
“Should we do shots to celebrate?” he asked.
Cam banged on the front door on a Thursday night at 12:30 am. Cynthia and I were in bed, with Dylan down the hall asleep, and she was none too pleased at the interruption.
“He needs to learn boundaries,” she said.
“I don’t disagree,” I said, but I was already out of bed and pulling on a robe. She wasn’t wrong, of course, but it’s hard to ignore family even when you want to. Besides, if I had to choose which one to deal with at that moment, Cam was probably the easiest.
Downstairs, I barely recognized Cam as I let him in. His body was getting strange; the muscles bulged in odd ways and all the livers seemed to be throwing him off balance. The beard hadn’t been trimmed in days.
“Do you know what time it is?” I asked, dragging him into the garage laboratory. At least the insulated walls would keep his disturbance to a minimum.
“I need one last one,” he said.
“Are you drunk?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he responded. “So? You going to judge me for that, too?”
“Someone has to.”
“Too bad it isn’t someone who ever has something nice to say.”
That stung. It took me a moment to respond. “I can’t,” I finally said. “It’s too late.”
“Please, I need it. You sort of owe me.”
He didn’t answer. “Just please. Do it and I’ll leave you alone. Forever.”
“Don’t be such a martyr,” I said.
“I just need you to make me taller, bro. Just an extra vertebra or three.”
“You dope,” I said. “It’s not your height. It’s not your muscles or your beard. It’s just you.”
“What do you mean?”
There are conversations that need to be had, and there are conversations that need to be had in a particular way. I knew this was the latter, but I was too tired. Besides, someone had to tell him, right?
“You’re a weirdo,” I said. “It’s not how you look or how big your liver is; you’re the kind of person who gets people’s names wrong. You don’t understand that you can’t show up late or that you talk a lot or ask too much.”
“Then fix that.”
“I can’t fix that,” I said. “That’s just you.”
“Zap me then.” He pointed at the electrode crown I’d been working on, the one that let me reanimate half-cadavers enough to test out mods before using them on paying clients. It had come a long way recently and I was sure it was going to launch me out of necromods and into actual biomodding, but it wasn’t ready to supercharge a living brain. Probably.
“It’s untested,” I said.
“I believe in you,” he said.
“It’s not about believing.”
“I don’t care,” he snapped. “I already agreed you’re not responsible if I die.”
“You moron.” I’d reached my limit, too. “Of course I’m responsible. I’m always responsible for you.”
“Stop treating me like a child,” he said. “If I could do this any other way, don’t you think I would?”
What was there to say?
“Just zap me,” he said again.
“Stop being so dramatic.”
“I’m sorry I’m not perfect,” he said. “Maybe if you didn’t leave me behind after you went to school, after you got married, I could have learned from you.”
“What was I supposed to do?” I asked.
“Help me,” he said.
“I didn’t leave you behind.”
“I feel like you did.”
“Fuck your feelings,” I said.
We didn’t talk as I put him under. Stewing, I drilled into his skull, then attached the headgear and pushed the little wire skewers in. That was it. If it killed him, well I’d warned him, right?
I pulled the lever, hard. Because he’d asked for it.
The lights dimmed like I expected as it warmed up; but then it hitched. The lights flickered, then everything surged, bathing us in the miasma of green and red LEDs. All the shifting colors made me nauseous and I shaded my eyes, squinting at Cam’s body under the waves of putrescent light.
Then it exploded.
Everything went black. As all the machines whirred to a stop, I couldn’t hear or see anything. I sat there, in the silent dark, wondering if I’d killed my brother. Wondering how I would explain it and wondering, afterwards, just how much worse it could feel.
Those were my first thoughts. My next was that the brain-charger was also an obvious failure. My equipment was a failure. My skills were a failure. Sitting there, unable to see anything, the whole necromodding pursuit felt like a vain delusion. I was a dinner theater actor, alone in the dark among the empty tables and the cold buffet.
Then the red emergency lights came on, but all the monitors were still dead. I wondered if Cam was, too. I couldn’t bring myself to check for life the old-fashioned hands-on way, so I waited by the machinery. Maybe by refusing to check for myself, I could wait and blame the instruments.
It was the longest thirty seconds of my life.
Then the backup generator kicked on. One by one the monitors popped back up, flickering open like eyes. They ran through their reboots. Cam’s heartbeat came up. His breathing levels stabilized. I brought him back around and he opened his eyes.
“What happened?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
He looked around at the red room and then down across his body and all the changes we’d been making.
“I gotta go,” he said, sitting up. “I’m late.”
And that was it. I glanced at the emergency report printouts and data, but I was too tired to deal with any of it, so I sealed the lab and went back to bed.
For the first day that I didn’t hear from Cam, I was fine with it. I needed some space and figured he probably did, too. I took Dylan to the park after school and just avoided the lab all together. After the second day without hearing from Cam, though, and then a third, I was worried. He didn’t answer his phone. He didn’t text me to ask for additional procedures or anti-rejection drugs. The kinds of modifications we had been doing had a fairly a short active life without follow-ups.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Cam. I’d really failed him, and not just as a necromodder–although that blow-up had me wondering if I should just give up, sell everything, and get a regular job again. No, I’d also failed Cam as a brother. It wasn’t the things I’d said, since I stood by those, but that I’d said them in that way. That I’d made him feel that way. That he was willing to risk dying with my half-baked brain overcharger rather than have to deal with me as a brother any more. That I’d been too proud or too stubborn to stop him. It was a dark time.
So I did what I always do when I have serious doubts and questions about life.
“What’s going on?” Cynthia asked as she answered her cellphone. I’d expected her voicemail, but apparently I’d caught her in-between meetings.
“It’s Cam,” I said.
“No,” I said. “Cam.”
She didn’t hang up. She paused, though, but then continued, “What’s wrong with your brother?”
“I don’t quite know,” I said. “I mean, I know you don’t like him–”
“I like him,” she cut me off. “I think you two have issues, but he’s family.”
“Right,” I said.
“Your family,” she said.
We waited for a second there.
“What about him?” she broke the momentary silence.
“I’m worried,” I said. “He hasn’t called me since that last thing.”
“Maybe it worked?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Regardless, there are these anti-rejection drugs that he knows he needs.”
“Shit,” Cynthia said.
“I know,” I said. “What should I do?”
“Go find him, of course,” she said.
I shook my head, even though she obviously couldn’t see it. “He hasn’t asked for my help.”
There was silence on the other end. Then Cynthia said, softly, “What do you think all of this has been about, then?”
“I mean–” I began.
“Go help him!” Whatever pristine office halls she was in must have echoed, because the reverberation carried onto my end of the phone
“But he might–”
“He’s our family!”
She was right.
So I drove to Cam’s apartment complex on the other side of town. I’d been there a few times before to pick him up for family events or to visit someone in the hospital, but it took some poking around and checking mailboxes before I found his building again. The door to his unit was unlocked, yet even before I entered I could smell the rot.
Cam was sitting in the dark, sagging in the center of his rent-to-own couch. The putrescence seeping out from around his midsection was soaking into the fabric. The muscles I could see–biceps, triceps, traps, and pecs–were purple and mustard yellow clots beneath the skin. The edges of his beard were peeling down.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said. “Let’s get you back to the lab.”
“It’s not worth it.”
“Don’t start,” I said. “Not now.” I picked my way around empty silver tallboys swimming like fish on the stained blue carpet.
“I’ve just been thinking,” he said. “I can’t do anything but think after what you did.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. I grabbed his arm and began to pull, but it was slack and, without his assistance, I worried my fingers would sink in and tear out big chunks.
“You broke my brain, bro,” he said and sunk down deeper. “All that zap did is made me depressed.”
“The machine didn’t do that, you dolt,” I said. It was true: when I’d reviewed the data that night, it was clear that the machine hadn’t worked. It had fried during the warm-up and although it blasted everything in the lab, there’d been no sign that it had any effect on Cam. “If you’re thinking about how shitty things are, then that’s on you.”
He had nothing to say to that.
I sighed. “And on me, too. I guess.”
“I’m sorry I said those things. For now, though,” I said, “as your doctor, I need to get you back to the lab before you have catastrophic organ failure.” I pulled again, but although he didn’t actively resist, he didn’t move his bulk to accommodate me either.
“What do you want from me?” I finally asked.
“You could tell me you love me.”
“Well, I won’t do that,” I said. “But, as your doctor–as your brother, I’d be pretty upset if you had caststrophic organ failure.”
The lab door is triple-sealed so that smells don’t seep into or out of the house, which is why it wasn’t until Cam and I opened the door that the wave of rot pushed out past us. The sweet and sick burst curled into my nostrils and even Cam–decaying from the neck down–winced at the ripe odor.
We stumbled into the lab, but I already knew what had happened. The power surge had blown the freezers and they hadn’t reset with the other equipment. When I opened Freezer B, as the smell had foreshadowed, everything was ruined. Cam’s original body was beyond salvage.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
Somehow in this tragedy, Cam had found equanimity and so he shrugged, one of the seams around his neck popping loose and green pus oozing out. For a moment, I felt that swell of pride in how mature he was acting.
We moved over to the table and I sat him down. All of my lab equipment seemed to be working fine, but there was nothing in the freezers I could use. What a pair our mismatched reflections in the full-length mirror made–me standing there slicked with gore and my younger brother falling apart like a poutine. I was trying to be strong, holding it together, but then Cam had to go and get sentimental.
“It was really nice spending time with you,” Cam said. “But I feel like you’ll be better off without me.”
“I never wanted to lose you,” I said. “I just wanted, you know, less of you.”
“Well, you’re in luck. There isn’t much left.” He tried to laugh, gesturing to the pile of meat festering below his neck.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“There might be a way.” Less of him. “It might be too complicated, though. I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Bro,” he said, and flopped a mushy hand onto my shoulder. “I believe in you.”
“You kind of have to say that,” I said, wrestling the tears back as best I could.
“Maybe,” he said. “But I feel like you know it’s true.”
I sniffled, just once. “Fuck your feelings.”
Then I cut off Cam’s head.
“Swipe right,” Cam said.
“Don’t yell in my ear,” I said.
“I’m not yelling.”
“Well it sounds like it.”
That was because his head was attached to my shoulder, so his mouth was right next to my ear. Normally he didn’t get this excited, but while we were sitting at the dinner table with Dylan, waiting for Cynthia, Cam had decided he absolutely needed to show me this new dating app. I didn’t really want to see, but I’d been trying to be more supportive lately. It was his life, after all. Mostly.
Cam whispered, “Swipe right.”
“Fine,” I said. “But I’m not taking you on any dates. Wait until your replacement body gets in.”
“Then I’m not doing any more surgeries with you.”
That wasn’t okay. Ever since I’d posted about our successful head graft, the commissions were rolling in. Not only that, but with Cam by my side, I finally felt like a true professional.
“Fine,” I said. “But just one date. Make it count.”
“Fine,” he said. “Now swipe right.”
I swiped right, and the next image popped up. I gasped.
“Can I see?” Dylan asked from across the table.
“No!” Cam and I said in unison.
Cynthia came out of the kitchen, bringing out a bowl of salad. “No phones at the table,” she said.
“Sorry, Cynthia,” Cam said. Over the past week, he’d been making a real effort to get her name right and to be a better houseguest in general. For her part, Cynthia had been much more understanding about all of this than I’d had any right to expect. Of course, she rightly insisted that Cam and I sleep on the couch downstairs. It’s funny, but you never realize how much you might miss some people until you’re just on their periphery, I guess.
“Dinner time is family time,” Dylan chimed in.
“That’s right,” I said, but as I went to put the phone in my pocket it rang, playing “Sunshine of Your Love.”
“Whose ringtone is that?” Cynthia asked.
“Tyler,” I said, reading off the Caller ID.
“Who’s Tyler?” Dylan asked.
I suddenly felt light-headed as the blood from my body rushed to Cam’s face. He’d turned bright red, and I felt the heat of his ear next to mine. I worried for a moment that our sutures might spring a leak.
“Just some guy I was seeing before all this,” he said. He swallowed, and the movement of his esophagus shook my collarbone.
“Just some guy, Cam?” Cynthia said. “I’ve never seen you this flustered.”
“I’ll call him later,” Cam said. “Dinner time is family time.” I could feel him straining, though, as he looked at the phone. I admired his attempt at impulse control, but then I looked at Cynthia, and she smiled wearily.
“What else is family for?” she said.
“No really,” Cam said. “It’s okay, I–”
I swiped the phone open and held it to Cam’s ear. I rose from the table and as we walked out Cam began, adorably, to stutter a hello.
Cynthia was right: What else is family for, of course, if not to answer your calls?
Stephen L. Thayer is a freelance necromodder operating out of his home laboratory in a discrete, secure suburban neighborhood. After receiving his MBA and spending several years in corporate finance, Stephen left the rat race to follow his passion into the burgeoning field of functional and aesthetic bio-enhancement utilizing cadaverous tissues. Although he performs standard cosmetic, muscle, organ, and/or bone alterations, Stephen considers his necromodding a blend of art and science striving towards transcendence. He is always eager to discuss exotic and/or custom commissions. A representative portfolio and anonymous client testimonials are available upon request.
Gordon B. White has lived in North Carolina, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. He is a 2017 graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop, and his fiction has appeared in venues such as Daily Science Fiction, A Breath from the Sky: Unusual Stories of Possession, Nightscript Vol. 2, and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. Gordon also contributes reviews and interviews to various outlets. You can find him online at www.gordonbwhite.com or on Twitter at @GordonBWhite.
Errow is a comic artist and illustrator with a predilection towards mashing the surreal with the familiar. They pay their time to developing worlds not quite like our own with their fiancee and pushing the queer agenda. They probably left a candle burning somewhere. More of their work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/
“The Parts of Him That I Can Help With” is © 2018 Gordon White
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Errow Collins