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about the author… Helena Bell is a poet and writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina where she is an MFAcandidate in Fiction at NC State University. She has a BA, another MFA, a JD, and an LLMin Taxation which fulfills her lifelong ambition of having more letters follow her name than are actually in it. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Workshop and her fiction and poetry have appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Electric Velocipede, the Indiana Review, Margie Review, Pedestal Magazine and Rattle. Her story “Robot” was a nominee for the 2012 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and her website is www.helbell.com.
about the narrator… Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas with her husband of twenty-five years and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming and gardening. She has a self-published novel entitled An Unproductive Woman, has published a at Escape Pod and has a story upcoming in the An Alphabet of Embers anthology, STRAEON 3, and Diabolical Plots. Khaalidah is the Assistant Editor at Podcastle. She is on a mission to encourage more women to submit SFF stories.
Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth.
You can catch her posts at her website, www.khaalidah.com, and you can follow her on twitter, @khaalidah.
by Helena Bell
The last part of himself my husband will lose to his ghost will be his teeth. There will be a graying out, a glint of silver as the calcium is absorbed, repurposed. A few may be pushed out to fall onto his pillow like pale, rotten splinters. The process will take days or only hours depending on the molecular compatibility between the human and Sentin. My husband has excellent compatibility, they tell me. We are so lucky.
When my husband and his ghost sleep, I lift the corners of his mouth and peer inside him with a dim flashlight. Incisor, cuspid, molar. I count the line of them and wonder at what age each came in. I think of his older brothers tying one end of a string around one of his baby teeth, the other to a brick to be thrown from a second floor balcony. I think of the first apple he ever tried to eat, of pulling back to find a tiny bump of white against the red skin. Sometimes I count his teeth twice, itching to run my finger along his gums to feel for the metal threads racing through his body. The doctors tell me we have decades left, but they have been wrong before.
My husband’s ghost began as a silver fist clenched at the center of his spleen. A team of technicians placed it there, a tangle of wires and other bits which they claimed would absorb and reconstitute his damaged tissue. Sentin is not self-aware, they said; it is not alive in the usual sense. It can neither feel nor understand, merely mimic the thing which came before. When it senses potential failure, it stretches its roots like a weed, eliminating the weak and buttressing the strong.
We each held the ball of putty in our hands, pulling and stretching it to see if we could break it. We marveled at how it snapped back to its original, perfect shape each time.
“It is not yet FDA approved,” the surgeon warned. “But we’ve had remarkable success thus far.”
Lungs, heart, liver: these are still my husband’s. The saphenous vein in his left leg, his kidneys, arteries, left hand, and his lips: these things are the ghost’s. There is nothing in the body which does not eventually fail, and thus the Sentin reaches out, settles in the crevices of age, and seeks to change it.
In the morning, my husband’s ghost showers and dresses. He cooks four eggs: sometimes scrambled, sometimes fried. He undersalts. He reads the paper on his computer while I scrub the dishes in the sink. We compare schedules. He has meetings all day but should be home in time for dinner. I have three operations scheduled: all wisdom teeth extractions. I should be home in time to cook dinner.
“Good,” he says. “I’ll see you then.”
He kisses me with his ghost mouth. I let him.
In the evening, my husband’s ghost looks at me through my husband’s eyes, and speaks to me with my husband’s tongue. When I close my eyes, they are resolved into a singular wave function. He doesn’t like it when I listen to him with my head down, or turned to the side. He wants me to watch him, to see his ghost lips move while he tells me about a timing error regarding the statute of limitations.
“The client is fucked,” he says.
“Shit out of luck. Statue of Limitations. They have the same acronym. I thought it was amusing.”
“Oh,” he says.
My husband never found me funny. Neither has the ghost. Something they have in common.
At night, the ghost rests with my husband’s right arm dangling over the side of the bed, fingers barely brushing the floor. His other hand folds into mine and though this is his ghost hand: cold and hard and pulsing with electricity, I cling to it because I do not know how to let go. Our therapist says this is a good sign; we must tread in our familiar forms of intimacy. I simply do not know how to sleep any way else. Sometimes fumbling in the dark, there is a brushing, an unbuckling, and I pretend the metal in his kiss is not the ghost, but a metaphor for desire. I breathe on him, pant until his lips are the same temperature of my skin and after we have been drawn out, mixed together and poured back into our bodies, I pull away from him, shivering and awake.
Other nights he wraps his arm around me and talks into my hair. When did I feel loved today? Did I feel appreciated? We talk, and we argue. He hates the movie I made him watch last week. He loves that I made him watch it twice just so we could discuss it.
My husband’s ghost is very clean. He scrubs the glass tile in the bathroom and runs a metal finger beneath the lip of the drain to catch any hairs or epithelials. My husband is coming out of himself in drips and pieces, and once I thought if only I could collect them all, I could be happy again. I could stitch his body anew from its fractions and leave. But there is so little of him to keep: hair, nails, a crescent of skin and blood snagged by the gleaming metal of a cheese grater. I dream of cutting him open, peeling away his skin and removing his organs as the Sentin races to fill the divots I have made. Other nights I dream that after I leave with my knitted husband, my husband’s ghost rebuilds me in its own image: silver hair, hard skin and the glimmer of binary in my eyes.
Not all Sentin patients are as lucky as we have been, they tell us. Others have been suffocated in their beds because something grew where it should not: a hand wedged in the larynx, a thousand alveoli reborn as toenails. A medical student in New Orleans cut open his cadaver and found a stomach full of glistening metal ears. My husband and his ghost share a unique molecular compatibility. They move into and through each other. The ghost never takes more than is needed to maintain proper function. A perfect symbiosis culminating in my husband’s disappearance.
When I realize I am pregnant, I do not tell them. I do not wish to give birth to a ghost child who will grow ghost teeth, whose hair will be silver and cold and will resist the care of my hands. I have no lessons for ghosts, no wisdom to impart on the dating of ghost boys.
I beg my husband’s physician to refer me to a Sentin specialist in another city. The night before the appointment, I count my husband’s teeth three times. I tap on the enamel with my fingertips, an act I have done so many times, I do not worry about waking him. I almost do not notice the fluttering of his lashes, or the way his chest constricts with a suppressed cough. When I release his lips, they fall back too quickly and he turns over on his side. I whisper an apology, but he says nothing.
The specialist shares a building with three other medical practices, yet the waiting room is completely empty when I arrive. A nurse stares at me as the specialist ushers me down the hall to her office.
“Slow day?” I ask, and the specialist shakes her head.
“Slow year. It’s an interesting problem,” she says. “Some think there won’t be a need for medical schools within one or two generations, but that’s nonsense.”
She draws my blood and pulls two gray hairs from the root. Her hands never stop moving as she talks about studies and research she has read, about how excited she is for the future. They think Sentin is the answer to a thousand problems, rather than the catalyst for a thousand new types of failures”. It’s a very exciting time.”
When she finally asks about the progress of my condition, I tell her about counting my husband’s teeth at night, of insisting that he walk without shoes or socks through the house so he will remember the feel of wood and linoleum against his bare feet.
“But what of your own? Is the Sentin adapting according to prescribed rates? Do you experience any difficulty breathing? Sleeping? Any changes in appetite? In some cases patients feel a craving for batteries, silver coins, even Christmas tree tinsel when it’s in season.”
“I’m still human,” I tell her.
She sighs. “If you’re having trouble adjusting, or anxiety, I can recommend a support group. Denial will only undermine compatibility.”
“I don’t need a support group. I’m pregnant.”
She stares out at me with cold, gray eyes and I wonder if she’s a ghost too, transitioning to better understand and study. “Congratulations,” she says. “And you’re concerned about how the Sentin may interfere with fetal development?”
“I’m concerned the fetus is Sentin.”
She opens the file on her lap. Pinned to the inside is the faxed sheet from my husband’s physician. I can make out only two works upside down: Wife: Uncannyism.
“Oh,” she says. “That’s not as interesting.”
She tosses the folder aside, stuffs the blood samples and the hair she took into a biohazard bag, and hands me my purse.
“The baby?” I ask.
“Is fine. Sentin can mimic reproductive organs, but not their functions. Men eventually go sterile, women experience early onset menopause. It’s why we don’t currently recommend the procedure to anyone under the age of 35. That will change one day, but for now…” she suggests a few websites and medical journals, but her mouth is a tight line. She has other appointments, other patients. She thanks me for coming in and congratulates me a second and third time.
I call my husband from the car.
We name her Chandler, a family name on his side. By her fourth birthday, my husband is a frayed patchwork of flesh. We learn that he sinks immediately to the bottom of a pool should he fall in. When we visit the ocean, I am careful to keep him on the side away from the waves though he assures me he could walk along the bottom collecting scotch bonnets and limpets. He promises me a lettered olive, whole, for which I have been searching. I almost tell him to dive in after it, to scour the sea for the skeletons of mollusks, and to only come back to me when he has completed his quest. It would take years, I think. Years enough for me to forget. When he comes back to me, a silver ghost on a silver charger, his banner flying, I will have forgotten his brown eyes, his dark hair. I will know him by the tasks I set: peel a lemon in one long strip, hit the smoke detector in just the right spot with the broom, kiss me just so on the back of my neck. Make me laugh; make me cry. String the unstringable bow.
Chandler is not the only one in her Kindergarten class with a ghost for a parent. Matching compatibility has improved: there are fewer fatalities and more elective procedures. Within a few years, they believe that ordinary transplants will be the exception rather than the rule. Chandler introduces us to her friend Tom and then Mr. and Mrs. Tom’s Parents. His mother’s skin gleams like pale moonlight and I hear the inexplicable clink of her fingers as she ruffles my daughter’s hair. I pull Chandler against me as my husband’s ghost grasps her hand in both of his and shakes it up and down.
“A pleasure,” the ghost says, “a pleasure.”
Mr. Tom’s Dad and I sip apple juice and watch as my husband and his wife discuss the difficulties of metal detectors. She insists that he look into the ID program and proudly pulls hers from her wallet.
“Within a century,” I say. “We could all be like that.”
Tom’s Dad nods. His skin is almost as pale as his wife’s, though his cheeks flush when he speaks. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
Some nights I wander the house alone and barefooted, later counting the long hairs which tangle between my toes. To my daughter, my husband and her father are the same being and she is too young for me to contradict her. One vacation, she learns how to knock a hammer just so into the tip of a Queen Conch, to break the vacuum between shell and snail, to pull its meat gasping into the sun. She sits on the side of the boat and giggles as her father ties ropes and life preservers around his middle.
“The ocean is so deep here,” he says. “It would take me ages to walk back.”
The guide doesn’t think I notice, but he glances from me to the ghost, to Chandler and back again.
“She takes after her father,” I say.
He reaches as if to touch her skin, to examine its texture, but instead leans far over the side of the boat, splashing the knife in the water. He hands the shell to my daughter and joins me under the boat’s canopy.
“It would take a long, long time,” he says, “to climb out of one of the blue holes.”
“Assuming you didn’t get crushed first,” I say.
“Pressure is the same all around. It’s air spaces you need to worry about. You hold your breath, dive down. It hurts. You learn to balance, it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“You should write fortune cookies.”
He shrugs. “It’s just science.”
At the airport my husband is pulled to the side. They pass the wand over his arms and legs, over his head. The security guard asks if my husband would mind waiting.
“No problem,” the ghost says.
Chandler and I wait on the other side. There are a dozen men now, a few women. They each take turns with the wand. They run their hands up his arms and legs. They touch his hair, his face.
I tell Chandler to tie her shoes. Then to retie them.
“Are they doing it just to be safe?” Chandler asks.
“They’re just curious,” I tell her.
“It’ll be better,” she says. “When one day we’re all the same.”
I hold her hand in mine. Tan against pale. “Maybe,” I say.
Chandler is 15 when they find the tumor. It curls against her heart like a question. The doctors say they can remove it, but surgery has risks that other options do not. I tell them no, as the ghost says yes. The doctor leaves us and we stare at each other across the white linoleum.
“You would risk letting her die over something so small,” he says.
We decide to let her make her own decision and follow the doctors into her room. They explain the risks, the potential complications of various procedures. When she asks about Sentin, they tell her the procedure is irreversible, and there are always unanswered questions: her ability to have children, the shifting compatibility of a developing body.
The ghost and I wait. I know he expects me to attempt to sway her, to tell her that she will be stepping into a shell which believes she is something other than herself. He expects me to call on her sympathy and describe how I will walk barefoot through her room, brushing her hair from the floor, how I will see each loss as the punctuation to betrayal.
The knowing hurts as much as the waiting hurts. As our daughter considers her future, the ghost grips his seat in his gray hands. He rocks back and forth and I find myself rocking too. Back and forth, and the white floor between our chairs is a horizon disappearing and reappearing beyond the crest of a wave.
“What do you think?” my daughter says.
My husband opens his mouth to speak, his gray lips stretching across gray teeth. Last night I heard a faint pop as the last of his molars fell out upon his pillow. It was warm against my skin, and so small in my hand I forgot how it was ever alive.