Not covered by Medicare - Editor
My Brother’s Keeper
by Tomas Furby
The sun was the barest crimson sliver of twilight, the embers of my old life burning low. Ashes to ashes... I stood, one hand resting on the warm metal of the car roof, the other on the sharp corner of the door. The mountains stood tall, hazy heat obscuring details, behemoths guarding the setting sun. A breeze scattered the dust devils that marked the long, winding path my jeep had taken through the bone-dry hills. And everything so silent. I smiled, and stroked the long scar that ran from jaw to hairline.
The drifting memory of children’s chatter reached my ears. I turned in time to see the kids barreling down the hill towards me, like dogs released from the pits. Pablo holds the head start from a quick jump down the patio steps, but he’s losing ground to the longer legs of his sister. Maria’s gaining, and yes, she’s overtaken him at the bend of the garden path. Jane's lagging behind at the back, just behind her brother, but now Pablo’s putting on speed again and oh… They’ve crashed. There’s a pile up on the garden path.
Slamming the car door, I jogged up the hill towards them. Pablo and Maria seemed relatively unhurt, and were engaged in the melee of siblings; rolling and pushing and slapping and pulling at each other. Jane, however, was rubbing at her shin, tears in her eyes.
“Kids, enough.” I crouched down and brushed at Jane’s hair. Her lower lip trembled. “You OK Janie?”
“Hurt my knee.” She dropped her head, hiding behind her hair. Something tripped up inside me.
“Come on then.” I turned around and dropped down into a squat. “Piggyback?”
At the top of the hill, Angela stood. Framed in the door to our white-painted casa, standing on a patio of white stone, wearing a white dress shocking against her rich olive skin; she looked an angel standing at the gates of heaven. My angel. My Angela. She smiled as I dropped Jane in a deckchair and went to her, the merest wry quirk of her lips. I took my love in my arms, one hand tangling in her dark, tangled locks as my lips met hers. My angel, my heaven.
I expected the afterlife to be so much worse than this. It was hot as Hell, sure, but if there were devils in this place I could not see them. Perhaps that’s the role of the devil: to be unseen. Unseen, and beautiful.
A cigarette crisps and curls to dust between my fingers. It’s hot, smoked to the butt, hotter, hotter... It takes a moment to register, and I drop the offending fag to the carpet in a shower of sparks and ash. Swearing, I rub the grey residue from my fingers and inspect the livid burn. Bastard.
Hand shaking, I knock the bottle against my glass. It chips the rim of the glass, the sharp sound sending a shudder down my back. I feel sick. The room is dark, the only flare and flicker of light a match to light a new fag, and the glare of a neon streetlight outside. It is dark and gloomy, smoky and silent, twilight at its darkest. I hunch deeper into my chair.
I am alone.
I take a gulp of whiskey. It’s harsh, disgusting stuff. I cough as it burns my throat. I take a drag on the fag. The cough gets worse. My stomach heaves. I throw myself towards the bathroom, bouncing off the door frame and stumbling headfirst into the toilet. I retch up the whiskey, then bile, then foul air.
I sit there for a long time; sprawled around the toilet bowl, tears on my face and vomit on my shirt. I can see myself in the foot of the mirror. The streetlight throws shadows across a flat nose and wide mouth. Greasy hair, gingery stubble and yellow teeth. A single tear drips off the end of my nose and lands in the whiskey- I'm still holding it. Drunk. Pathetic. Ugly. Alone.
I throw the glass at the mirror. It shatters with my shriek. Damn her. Damn me. Damn everything. I regard my features: shattered, splintered, different.
And I have an idea.
I lay in the darkness. The shutters were open, the starlight turning all to silhouette. Outside, the cicadas sang, the wind moved among the olive trees: background buzz, peaceful, beautiful. I lay in the darkness and watched Angela breath. Her breasts, barely covered by the thin white sheet, rose and fell in rhythm with my heartbeat. Her hair was a midnight sprawl on the pillow’s shadow. I stroked one lock carefully with a finger, careful not to wake her.
I do not sleep much. At first, it was because I was terrified. Terrified that they would discover the truth. But they did not. I had been away for a long time, if there were any changes, they did not see them. The face behind the mask was safe, and as the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, my insomnia took on a different tone. These days I didn’t sleep because I couldn’t miss a moment. How could anyone sleep through a third of this life? How could anyone give up moments like these for mere fatigue? I leant down and kissed my wife’s cheek, the barest brush of my lips against her warm, smooth skin. She shifted in her sleep, snuggling closer to my body’s warmth. I smiled shadows and slid down beside her.
Sleep took me in her arms and dragged me under.
I groaned, a nightmare fleeing my mind on bat’s wings. Blinking blearily at the ceiling, I tried to recall it…
Something about time. Watching the hands of a clock tick towards something. Something final…
“Mike. The phone.”
Angela was there. In the dream. I was scared. Why?
“Mike. Wake up.” Angela shook me fully awake. “The phone’s ringing.”
“The phone?” I struggled up onto one elbow.
“What time is it?” Time, clocks, nightmares…
“Four in the morning.”
I groaned and dropped back to the bed. I pulled the cover over my head and snuggled up to her. Work in three hours.
“Fuck the phone.” The phone stopped ringing. Angela giggled sleepily and wrapped her arms around me.
The phone started ringing again.
“Bloody hell.” I threw myself out of bed and stumbled down through the darkness to the phone. Four o’clock in the morning made my tone sharp.
“Do you know what bloody time it is?”
“Yes? What do you want?”
“It’s Doctor Nahash.”
I’ve heard a lot about heaven and hell. A lot about the places in between too. When I was a child, the priest of our parish would lecture us incessantly on what heaven was, and why we’d go there; what hell was, and why we were going there; what limbo was... It was nonsense to us. We were children, what did we know of salvation and damnation?
Had the priest not been a drunken sot, he might have thought to give us an example beyond rambling nonsensical scripture. Waiting rooms, for example, are the best earthly example of purgatory.
Dr. Saladin Nahash
Aesthetic and Cosmetic Surgery
I sit and stare at that sign, in a room where everything is white and blue, starched and clean. I sit there, with several others - a girl so thin she disappears when she turns sideways, a man with a bulbous wart on his nose, a woman with skin stretched flat against her face- and I think about the drunken priest, purgatory and how bloody, bloody bored I am.
The clock on the wall says I’ve been here forty minutes. It could have been forty years for all I know. Waiting rooms were made for just that: waiting; and waiting fills them like so much nervous ice. He’s running late, the others mutter to themselves. No shit, I think to myself.
A cold, professional voice emanates from a speaker somewhere on the wall. Cold professional voice in a cold professional place with a cold professional sign. I nearly walk out, my chest suddenly tight with claws of anxiety. But no, I have to do this. Do this or be damned.
“Mr., Kane to Doctor Nahash’s office please.”
No one had come in or gone out of the office for the last forty minutes. Unless he”s Houdini, the good Doctor has been sat in there alone, for this entire time. Waiting rooms are for waiting. My anger and the ache of last night’s hangover are indistinguishable. I open the door without knocking.
“Ah. Mr.… Kane. Sit down, please.” Dr. Saladin Nahash is a short, squat, Indian man, late fifties maybe, wearing a sharp grey suit. I take the proffered chair. On second glance, his appearance makes my skin crawl. For a plastic surgeon, Dr. Nahash is surprisingly hideous. Yellowed eyes glare out under a swollen, bulbous forehead. His nose is sharp as a knife and juts out of his face like an assault. His lips are thick and pouty and squirm as he talks. Like two worms fucking.
“So…” The doctor glowers at me over steepled fingers. “What can we do for you, Mr. Kane?”
The shock of his devilish appearance makes me stutter, but I force words past numb lips.
“I want a new face.”
“A new face.” It’s not a question. Dr. Nahash smiles at me. I wish he hadn’t. There”s a ratty little tail of hair on his chin - second cousin to a beard - and he strokes it while scribbling something on a sheet of paper. “Well now, I think we can do that. But, if I may ask… Why?”
Easy question, easy answer.
“Because I hate my life.”
The doctor’s face contorts. I can’t tell whether the expression is pity or disdain, it”s just ugly.
“I see. Well… Yes, let me pose you a question. You hate your life, correct?”
“And you want a new face, because you feel this would influence your life in some way for the better”
“Therefore my question is this, Mr. Kane: Would you prefer a new face - as in a modification of your current features - or someone else’s face?”
“Someone else’s face?” I stare at him. He smiles again and I taste bile at the back of my throat.
“Someone else’s face.”
“Mr. Adams? Are you still there?”
Words turned to ashes in my mouth. I emitted a crackling gasp, swallowed, then tried again.
“Excellent. Now, Mr. Adams, I’m afraid I have to inform you that Mr. Kane has indicated that he wishes to return home.” Silence. Stark cold silence in my chest. “Mr. Adams? Do you understand? Mr. Kane wishes to discontinue the programme.”
I stumbled against the wall, then slid down it to huddle on the floor. I stuttered, forcing words past splinters of shock.
“Can he do that? We agreed. We agreed, he told me… He told me he wanted to extend the contract.”
“Certain circumstances have arisen that appear to have changed Mr. Kane’s mind.” Dr. Nahash’s voice was grim and I could hear the scowl in his words. “I’m afraid that, as your agreement was only verbal, Mr. Kane is under no contractual obligation to live out another term.”
I was scared, suddenly. So deeply and strongly that my hands shook and my voice wavered. No. I could not leave this life behind. I couldn’t! This was everything I’d ever wanted: a home, a family; beauty, happiness, peace… My Angela, my angel…
“Please. Please… There must be something I can do. I can’t leave. Not now. I”ll do anything, please. I… I’m happy here.” Electronic silence, blurred by distance and sharpened by fibre-optics. There had to be something I could do. Some way of reasoning with this man who held my life in his hands.
“Well.” The voice on the phone didn’t sound like Dr. Nahash’s at all for a moment. It sounded darker and deeper, like many voices speaking at once. Dodgy connection. “Well, of course we do wish to preserve our customer satisfaction record… Let me see… Yes. Please consult your contract Mr.… Adams. Sub-paragraph G4-1x.”
“Yes. Should you wish to utilise this service, simply transfer the funds specified to the account number given. We will take care of everything.”
“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Adams.”
“Apologies, I am being rather cryptic aren’t I?” Dr. Nahash shakes his head and rifles through a stack of papers before him. “Forgive me, I will to have to ask you to sign this.”
“What is it?” He passes me a single piece of paper with writing so tiny it can”t even be called small print.
“A non-disclosure agreement, Mr. Kane. There is a certain service we can provide you with. It is new, and very highly recommended. But before I can tell you any more I must ask you to sign the paper. Very secret, this service, and for you Mr. Kane, very helpful I think.” Still, I pause, squinting at the tiny, blurry writing.
“You must understand that identities must be protected and so forth, should you be interested in this service. It is not public knowledge, what we do. We invite very few candidates to partake. It’s still in the development stages.” He’s watching me, no longer smiling. The pressure of his eyes upon me is too much. I sign the paper.
“Now, well, excellent.” The good doctor whisks the signed form away to some hidden drawer. I feel a sharp stab of regret bordering on terror for my hasty decision. Always read the small print. Too late now, though. “Let me explain in more detail.” He leans forward on the desk. His smile widens to a grin. He looks hungry.
“The Gemini Programme is very simple in conception. You will have seen these television programmes where houses and families are traded much to the amusement of all… Our initiative takes this one step further.” He meets my frown with his yellow-eyed glare. He has me, and he knows it. “For those candidates unhappy with their current… perspective, we give the opportunity, not only to trade houses and families with another candidate, but faces, histories and personalities too. It’s a relatively complex procedure, of course, and can take a period of several months to complete. With recent advances in facial reconstruction technique and certain new… technologies, we can accurately copy and overlay one person’s features with another’s.” He pauses, and smiles again; sickly sibilant. “And of course, the procedures are completely reversible.”
“I see.” I did see. And what I saw looked like salvation.
“It is, I suppose, something of an exchange programme.” He giggles. “So… Are you interested, Mr. Kane?”
I can’t even think, caught in his yellow-eyed glare. I nod. He gets up and retrieves a file from the cabinet behind him, handing it to me.
Mr. Michael Adams
Sub-Paragraph G4-1, Section x
Should one participant of the programme be unsatisfied with their partner’s conduct - for whatever reason that may affect the overall feedback and therefore integrity of the programme’s trial period - that participant may request a Final Solution Scenario (hereafter referred to as FSS). This must only be requested once all other avenues of negotiation and reconciliation have been exhausted. FSS will be executed at the manager’s (see sub-paragraph 13b for clarification) discretion, and is permanent. Once FSS is executed, both participants will be immediately, and without subsequent consultation, excommunicated from the Company and all records of their Gemini experience expunged.
Should either participant thereafter breach contract by attempting to either contact the Company or the authorities with regard to the Company or the Gemini programme (specifically any activities in compliance with FSS) in accordance with Sub-Paragraph 613, Section z, they will be terminated.
I look into the mirror and try to remember me. I touch the scars, livid and dark. I don”t look like me: tanned skin, strong Roman nose, black eyes above a scruffy shock of thick black hair. I don’t feel like me: happy, healthy, full of hope and excitement. I wonder why I am doing this, what will happen, how it will all end. The contract says I have six months, thereafter continuing at the discretion of the participants. Will I ever meet the man who has taken the life I detest? Why would he want it? Will he survive six months of me?
Someone knocks on the bathroom door, telling me to retake my seat as we are landing in Malaga. I reply, my voice deep and dark and alien.
I don’t look or feel or sound like me anymore. So am I me? Or am I him? Is he thinking the same? Have we truly become one another? Is that all we are: appearance and location and a convoluted back story? Or will my new family see through me like dirty glass, catching a twisted glimpse of another”s reflection behind this mask? Shattered, splintered, different…
Who am I?
I look into the mirror, trying to remember me. I cannot. Everything I was is gone. I transferred the price of my life to the account specified in the contract. Three weeks passed with nothing happening. Then Lucas Kane broke contract. Dr. Nahash phoned me this afternoon. Five words were all he said before he hung up.
Mr. Kane has been terminated.
I feel a little tinge of something that might be guilt, but it’s drowned beneath an ocean of relief and wonder. I stare at my reflection: tanned skin, strong Roman nose, black eyes above a scruffy shock of thick black hair.
Mr. Kane has been terminated. I say it out loud. Mr. Kane has been terminated.
I know now who I am.
I am Michael Adams.