Norton needs a body transplant. He wonders, lying here, rotting, what it would be like to reject a lung. Would he feel it inside his chest like a stone balloon, sinking under his skin. The body is a kind of organ the way a blank page is a kind of writing.
He’s having trouble commanding his limbs today. His mouth always tastes like bile, and everything smells like flour, a smell he spent much of his childhood saturated in within the kitchen of his mother’s bakery. And he has never shaken it, not for his whole life. It’s gritty and fine, and he has the urge to wash it out of his hair and off his face, but he can’t stand just now. Thinking back, though it’s hard to think now like it’s hard to breathe, his whole life has been a fast and slow process of his body failing him.
The light in the window is blue, and he can’t tell if it’s moonlight or light from the hospital signs. It worries him that he can’t remember how long he’s been here. Not long. It worries him that he can’t remember if his window faces the moon or not, or if that’s how windows work. It worries him that he can feel, just a few inches beneath the surface of his body, his whole life boiling down to something thick and sticky and sweet.
It makes him feel slimy. He can feel his whole body like a loose skin, sliding around on his bones. Mismatched pieces.
Norton lives in a house alone with his son. His son is still small, with a big head of furry black hair and tiny, child’s hands. This is not his life. This was his life. In this re-lived, pared-down version of his earlier life, there are no other houses around and no other people. In the morning, before work, Norton puts a box of cereal, a clean bowl, and a spoon out on the table. Next to this he places a card, laminated for his reuse, which reads “milk in the fridge.” Then he goes outside. It’s all white out here like a very soft blizzard. The only things that are visible are the house, the bus stop down the street, and his own body. He walks around the house and waits below the kitchen window until he hears his son pouring the cereal into the dry bowl. He doesn’t have to wait long. He knows that most days his son is also waiting, listening for the sound of the front door shutting before coming down.
When Norton hears it, crouching below the window and staring off into the whiteness surrounding the house, it sounds like pills being poured into a waiting hand, except the hand is made of glass. It brings him immense relief, and he tiptoes away down to the bus stop. It’s all much closer in this memory.
He can feel everything.
“Stop it,” his son says in the morning. How did the morning arrive? How did his son turn suddenly into this middle aged man. He has brought flowers, and Norton can tell the gesture confuses them both. They smell like a grocery store and cheap baked goods, and Norton realizes that he has been clenching a bright yellow daisy in his fist and some of the dye has come off onto his skin. It makes his hand look strange, like somebody else’s hand.
“Stop talking like that. It’s morbid,” his son says, pulling the flowers back out of Norton’s reach. There’s a vanishing smile in his voice. His son doesn’t attempt to take back the one flower Norton’s body managed to grab. He’s making a fist around it so tightly it shakes. He can’t control his hand. His son continues, “Bodies treat us as well as we treat them.”
“I can feel my body all around me, like I’m in a pool. It feels like other bodies. Oily. Understand?” Norton says. His jaw obeys him today, but his eyebrows don’t, and he can feel them spasming wildly and suggestively above his nose like drawings of wings. His son sighs, places the flowers on the bedside table where they vanish completely from Norton’s pinhole vision and pinhole thoughts. He’s worried he’s not making very much sense anymore.
“Come on, Dad. You’ll have a new body in no time,” his son says, but in a way, glancing off at the floor like a guilty dog, and softy tangled in his breath, that makes Norton think what he’s really saying is, This is your fault.
“And then,” his son continues, “you can start all over.”
That night, everything is humongous. The wind blows in a little light through the open window like blue snow, and the strong scent of flour nearly makes him give up. Makes him want to keep remembering his life the way almost dead people do. In an accounting kind of way. In a “what did this mean?” kind of way. Instead, he draws pictures of himself, in his mind, as different shapes. A square, a line, a circuit. It is easy to understand himself as a circle, a triangle. Not as a body. Unbidden, he recalls using a razor blade to score loaves of warm dough before baking. The satisfying feel of it, the blade between his fingers and the drag and give of the dough, the moisture and heat in the air, is enough to make him shiver inside his numb, still body.
The next morning, he thinks of his mother laughing, framed by a window and an inhumanly large sun. The light passes right through the stretched skin of her cheek like a flashlight held to a bed sheet. That, he thinks, is the function of the body. To stop light from passing all the way through you.
His son places a hand on Norton’s chest and panics for a moment because he can’t find his father’s heart, then calms down again.
Later, Norton says to his son, “I’m losing touch.”
A few moments later his body says, “I’m losing touch.” Like an unpinned shadow struggling to follow him.
“Your body will come through,” his son says, as if this is supposed to make him feel better.
“You look good today. Strong,” Norton says in that echoing way he says everything now. He hopes he doesn’t sound angry, but listening to himself, he does.
“I’ve been running.” Indeed, he has that runner’s look in his eye. Like looking straight down a very long, narrow hallway or road. He’s not looking at Norton, but at something way beyond him.
“Me too,” Norton says. His son raises an eyebrow. They both have very expressive, dark eyebrows, bushy as bear fur. “Just not on purpose.”
His body has begun to leave him entirely for short periods of time. That night, it crawls out of the hospital bed and out the window like a brain-dead spider. And Norton is left in that enormous bed, the world around him as raw and uncovered as outer space. He is a planet without atmosphere, beaten by starlight and stone.
The next day, when his body is back, he can tell it’s been running from how sore its knees and calves are. There is dried, red clay between its toes. He tries not to think of these feelings as what they feel like. Gifts.
When his son arrives, it seems that he too has been exercising. Sweat on his brow. Under his arms. Red clay or mud on his running shoes. Norton feels irrationally jealous. He tries to explain the scope of the problem to his son, but he is thinking almost completely in shapes and memories at the moment, and no words come out.
His son smiles broadly at him. “Did you have a good night? My night was amazing.”
Norton sits at the bus stop bench in his past, in his body, and imagines he is sitting across from his son at the small breakfast table.
“What did you dream about?” he imagines saying. All around him the world has fallen away into a storm of loose flour. Occasionally, a zombie shambles by on the sidewalk, sighing and farting softly.
“I dreamed about you,” his son says in his imagination, smiling, a little milk running down his little chin. Everything about him is so clumsy and new. “Boy, this milk is good.”
“I know it is,” Norton whispers, and a passing zombie, the flesh of its eyelids rotted away so that it cannot close its eyes, glances up at him briefly. Norton remembers when they were new. When people’s bodies first started disintegrating around them like clothes worn for too many years.
It turned out that a certain kind of person was particularly susceptible to zombification. Postal and factory workers. Drivers. A surprising number of teachers and mathematicians. It was important, the news warned, be to interested in your life. It was around that time that Norton’s mother, then quite old, another particularly susceptible demographic, and his wife, a high school English teacher, both disappeared out of his life.
Sometimes he imagined them, drooling and gnashing their teeth in the air, picked up by city services and stuffed into one of the huge furnaces out by the warehouses on the edge of the city. Sometimes he imagined they had run away together.
And it’s then, on that bus stop bench, that Norton realizes how intensely invested in himself he is. Which is not exactly the same thing, he reflects, deep inside his body, half watching the zombie shuffle by and half watching his imaginary son wipe milk off his chin, as being invested in his life.
“Try not to go out at night,” the nurse says as he sympathetically locks the window shut. Seals in the smells of disinfectant, powder, flour, infection. This last scent rising off Norton’s own flesh, which is rotting off his bones like unpicked fruit. The nurse looks like an actor playing a nurse. His arms are smooth and huge. “If city services picks you up off the street, that’s it. They don’t know you’re still in treatment. They don’t know you’ve got people waiting for you.” The nurse claps his football player’s hands. “Right into the furnace.”
“I’m trying,” Norton says, far, far too late.
He is losing connection. Memories rise in him like balloons slipping out of his fingers. His mother asks him what he’s drawing. He’d been close with his mother.
He says, through a missing-tooth whistle, “I’m drawing a stick figure who’s drawing a real boy. Now I’m drawing me.”
But all Norton can see, buried in that child’s body, in a memory, is a blank page. And when he touches it, it gives way like a surface made out of flour. This is his mother’s scent, he realizes.
He feels suddenly, in the hospital room, in his old, old man’s body, haunted.
Norton watches his son talking to his body. They are huddled together in a corner of the room like smokers against the cold. He cannot hear what they are saying to each other, but they appear to be laughing. His body in a slow way, and son with his whole chest. Everything about Norton is raw and bloody. A body in time, Norton thinks, is always a betrayal.
The doctor has told him that he has been moved up the list. His body failure has accelerated more quickly than they expected. Soon ghostification will set in, then transplant will be too dangerous. The same way his current body is degrading and zombifying even as it works out each night and eats lots of protein and does the things a body does, his next body, too, will rot away while he’s still alive inside it.
“What do you two talk about?” Norton says, and minutes later his body, back in bed now, echoes it and points feebly at the corner where Norton’s body likes to do jerky squats and pushups and yoga.
His son shrugs. He looks happy, and boyish, despite being forty-eight. “Sports. Girls. Workouts. How to stay healthy. Nothing important.”
They had never talked girls before, Norton and his son. They had never talked health before. Norton remembers, after his wife went away, hearing his son scream awake from a nightmare. He’d been prone to nightmares. Norton had rushed down the hall to his son’s door. But instead of opening it, he’d put his ear to the door and listened until his son’s scattered breathing slowed back down, and then he’d tiptoed away. It’s like he’s living it. It’s like he’s a ghost already, haunting his memories.
“You’re friends,” Norton says. It’s like hearing someone else say it.
He son laughs nervously and looks away again. Now that the window’s sealed, the air is thick and hot. Norton sees little white spots floating everywhere like dust motes or flour in light.
“How could we be?”
At night, in the past, in his re-lived body, Norton watches TV. Sometimes he watches shifting, blank whiteness and sometimes he watches news. Sometimes his son comes downstairs and sits as far from him as he can on the couch.
“Is that what happened to Mom?” his son asks. His voice is shockingly soft.
“Not at all,” Norton says. They are watching bodies shuffle by on the screen, though it looks, in this memory, suspiciously like a window. The bodies are in various states of dissolve. The stench coming off the TV is awful, and it’s mixed with particles of flour, which Norton is starting to think of as the smell of ghosts. They’re chewing on each other, these bodies, but anyone who’s still strong, they ignore. Then Norton says—as if changing his mind, and indeed he is scanning the crowd of bodies closely, as if he might spot his missing wife somewhere among them—“Things aren’t like that anymore, anyway. There are treatments now.”
There is no body for Norton. After measuring him again, the doctors decide that no body available could support his dissolving form. He would need a heart the exact size and taste of a peach pit that has been sucked clean. He would need lungs as tiny and fine as earrings. Bones as soft as river reeds. In other words, an infant’s body. In other words, the seed of a body, at the beginning of time. Something both smoothly worn in, and brand new. No such body is available.
His son and his body look more alike together than Norton remembers them ever looking before. They’re in their corner, and Norton is scattered across the bed like a collection of rain drops. His body looks healthier. It has definitely regained some meat, though it has lost some skin. There are now red, bare patches and missing pieces of flesh where Norton perceives the strings of its muscles shifting along with it movements. Even the wounds are cleaner and healthier looking now. When his body nods, listening to his son, its whole upper body sways as if it were only a semi-opposable action figure for his son to play with. His son laughs—a chesty, throaty laugh.
Norton can’t exactly hear anymore. He can’t exactly see. He perceives these things to be happening almost like faint sensations. Like picking individual flakes of snow out of the air by the feeling of them landing on his skin. He wishes he was closer to them. This room has become the size of his whole life, all the time he’s lived, and crossing it seems both impossible and, watching his body sway, inevitable.
And then, almost without warning, he’s beside them. Except it’s like he hasn’t moved at all. He’s totally insubstantial now, and he experienced no feeling of movement. It was like the world moved around him, and he stood still. The thought shocks him, that he might be, after all, the hard center of his own life around which all else revolves.
“So ask her,” Norton’s body says. It’s got a slow, deep voice and a slight lisp that makes it sound both very young and very old.
“She’s my boss,” his son says.
“Not after the transfer.”
“She wouldn’t want somebody like me. Look at me,” his son says, gesturing at his body, the soft curves of it, the sweat stains, but he’s half smiling.
Norton’s body reaches out its arm in a jerky, shaking motion and tries to place its hand on his son’s shoulder, but it misses, and the hand ends up pressed against the side of his son’s neck, like a lover’s hand. “You’re not worse than anybody else.”
Watching this from outside his body, Norton feels both embarrassed, as if he has just watched strangers embrace, and furious.
“We’d like to try something new,” the doctor says from somewhere above the surface of his body. The doctor is a very serious, tired looking woman with her hair pulled back tight enough to make the skin around her temples look like a tucked-in bed sheet. She’s holding a doll, about the size of a teddy bear, with wooden hands and a wooden face, and it looks a bit like his body, which confuses him. “But it’s dangerous. Hauntings always are.”
“Do it,” Norton says, surprising himself with how clear he sounds. At this point, he would do almost anything to escape the naked surface of his mind. The air is shocking against the exposed skin of his self. He is so much more tender, inside, than he expected. The light is searing as it passes through him. The way he moves through the world frightens him now. How easily the world moves around him. How slippery time has become. And having to watch his body galavanting around the room is sickening.
His son looks disappointed. The doctor shakes the doll up and down at Norton, as if this will make it easier to apprehend.
“Are you sure? I need your informed consent. This may extend the timeframe for a viable transplant, but you might also lose something in transition. Frankly, your faculties are already diminished. At this point, it’s a stall.”
Norton cannot actually see the doll. His eyes aren’t working properly anymore. Or rather, they are giving the silent treatment to his mind. So instead, he imagines the doll looks like the kind of body he would like to have. Very small. Almost invisible. A body that can do no harm, and has no memory. That can make no mistakes. That will not wish, later, for other things. Impossible things.
“I consent,” he says, and a five full minutes later, he hears himself say it.
Later still, like another echo, he hears his son asking the doctor, out in the hall, in a high, worried voice that makes him think, for a moment, of his son as a child, “But what will happen to this body?”
The doctor’s clear, tired voice: “We’ll burn it.”
When Norton comes downstairs this time, plumes of flour rising from around his steps, his young son is already at the table. Is this a memory or a fantasy? Everything around him is a flour-storm white. The only things visible are the small table and his son. Fantasy, he decides. Because he’s in control.
“You’re up,” Norton says.
“Bad dreams,” his son says, picking at the table cloth. He’s a little older this time, perhaps ten or eleven.
Norton sits across from him, fingers the laminated milk card in his pocket, unsure what to do with it. “What were you dreaming about?”
“Most of our dreams,” he says, “are harmless after we wake up.”
“Most of them?”
“Well, some dreams,” he says, frowning softly, and he doesn’t know why he’s saying this, “do have bodies.”
What is it like to live inside a doll? It’s very soft and warm, like living inside a blanket or a sleeping bag. All he does is sleep. They put him on a shelf in a room filled with other dolls. He can tell right away that only about a quarter of them have people inside. But the janitors and nurses treat them all the same. The empty bodies and the full ones.
It’s dark in the room, which is like a large closet lined with shelves lined with dolls. Sometimes, the nurses come in and fool around. One day, a nurse wearing only a bra picks up two dolls and makes them dance together. Norton is not one of those dolls.
“Those are haunted, you know,” the other nurse says. He’s got a head like a lightbulb and a body as skinny as a lamp post.
“Only the newer ones,” the female nurse says. She tosses the dolls she’s holding back onto the shelf, then gestures up to the corner where Norton’s is.
“Why only the newer ones?” the male nurse asks. She shrugs.
Just like real bodies, Norton thinks, and this gives him some pleasure.
“Which one is the guy whose son disappeared with his zombie?”
The girl laughs. “Who cares?”
“It’s just,” the boy says, “a little touching.”
“Careful. You get too attached, one of them might decide to haunt you.” She playfully tosses one of the dolls at him, and he bats it out of the air like nothing.
Norton spends a long time in that closet. He gets used to wooden hands and painted eyes. He gets used to the scent of flour and the confusing rotation of nurses and dolls. Skin and wood. The smell of flour, he is surprised to discover, is not the smell of ghosts. Every ghost smells different. This one like a hot battery. This one like moss. That one like paper. This one like nighttime. Flour, it seems, is his smell, not his mother’s after all.
Often, he wonders where his son and body disappeared to. Sometimes he is sure they’ve gone where his wife and mother went. A country house, goat milk and fresh eggs. Or a liberal city on the coast, with more relaxed body laws, where they could hear the ocean through an open window and all live together like the family that never was. Or, when he is sad, he imagines them in one of the huge furnaces that burn every Sunday like churches.
Eventually, he notices that, yes, whatever is in these dolls around him is disappearing. One at a time, like teeth falling out of a child’s open mouth. He waits for whatever roots are holding him together to dissolve, but it never seems to happen. He feels like a closed hand. And where would he go, anyway? The place he really wants to go doesn’t exist anymore.
He remembers moving across the room when he had no body. Moving the room around his body, like moving a piece of paper upon which a tiny light is shining. It was a sensation not unlike remembrance. Not unlike regret. It has a little in common with forgetting too. He can’t do it now though. He’s stuck fast in this doll. But perhaps he is going about this the wrong way. Perhaps the roots don’t dissolve, but are cut away.
He starts trying, and soon he’s trying every day, all the time. It’s like moving a body he doesn’t have. He tries and tries. It’s like trying to wake up while already awake. He imagines his mother is haunting him, and then he imagines he is haunting himself. Has been haunting himself. He feels like a soul that is trying to patch itself back onto a life. That is to say, like a strip of cloth. He realizes, slowly, he isn’t sure he knows himself.
There’s a crack of light, like watching a door open from the inside. He hears someone laughing, and this too is observed as if from inside. They sound young. Excited. There’s something hot and moist in the air, and something gritty. Something is about to happen. He can feel it. He can feel it.
Ryan Row’s short fiction has appeared in Quarterly West, Clarkesworld, Third Coast, Interzone, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Award. He holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of California Davis. He lives in Sacramento, California with a beautiful and mysterious woman. You can find him online at ryanrow.com