[Beginning Log File 0289]
No, seriously, fuck you.
My collection site hurts particularly bad today and I’m cranky, but I need to focus on you. You, the one with the permanent bag under your left eye after you let your dumbass cousin hack your car and turn the ADT off. Your face slammed into the console, which turned your orbital bone into an assortment of mismatched, razor-sharp puzzle pieces that tried to find homes in the gooey surface of your eye, but it was Shakyra who flew through the windshield and wetly slid down the hood until she plopped onto the road. The ambulance had already been deployed the moment she crashed into the car in front of you two, but when it arrived five minutes later, its sirens weren’t even on. It eased to a stop and two paramedics casually slid from the front seat. The road sensors had already told them she was dead.
You were spared from the full visual effect of her broken, bleeding body because you’d gone temporarily blind in that left eye. But you knew. The paramedics knew. The onlookers, who cruised by in their own self-driving cars, never stopping, never slowing down—they knew, too. But you weren’t thinking of Shakyra as stupid then, not yet. All you were thinking as the paramedics guided you onto the stretcher was, “No.”
Shit, I hate thinking about that. Fuck, fuck, fuck—
[Log file recording terminated. Progress saved.]
…Shit. Calm down. They’re listening, of course they are. They always are.
But back to you. That accident is where my story begins.
When the blood trade started, you and Shakyra just shook your heads and laughed. “White people,” you agreed. But that sure as hell didn’t stop you from slipping into some seedy pit of a plasma center when you were finally fired from your job at Meijer—a particularly bad migraine had you vomiting all over the produce section like some horrible parody of The Exorcist.
You remember The Exorcist, right? I’ve become obsessed with artifacts from before the Great Elevation: movies, TV, books, you name it, I got it, even Dracula, which oddly was a bitch to find. When I can’t quite grasp onto you, I grasp onto those movies. They remind me that there are much worse fates than death…Not that I really need reminding, anymore.
“Feeling better?” Katya asks me, a placid smile on her bright face.
“Yes,” I say, because there’s nothing else she wants to hear. I settle back down on my bed and turn to stare out at the cloudless gray sky. The little virtual assistant console on the nightstand flickers blue three times before the light goes out. Not dead, just resting.
“That’s good. Repressing your feelings isn’t good for stress levels…a little emotional release here and there can be really helpful.” She gives me the practiced stare of a fed-up, underpaid RN, though her immense wealth is why she’s here at all. “Just don’t overdo it, okay?”
Warning heard loud and clear. “Okay.”
Katya Belaya is 115 years old. She’s worked as a hematology nurse almost as long as I’ve been alive, at thirty-four. That was when research around blood therapy really kicked off.
She doesn’t talk about her life before the Great Elevation much, but I’ve overheard bits and pieces during the chaos of shift changes—she was retired, living quite well on the inheritance from her dear old husband’s death, but then the advertisements started coming out in full force, promising eternal youth for the right price. And this fool actually believed it; she’s been supervising dumbasses like me ever since. Right now, her bland smile seems to say, “Who’s the fool now?”
After just ten years of treatments, she looks young enough to be my mother.
This is the story of how you overcame death: You signed a contract.
You’d heard the rumors, of course. Everyone had: Rich old people thought they could obtain the key to immortality by getting regular infusions of blood from young, healthy people…sorry, young, healthy, poor people. Because why in the fuck would you help someone like David Rockefeller live even longer unless it was the difference between sleeping in your bed for another month or living in your car? So yes, you overcame death because you were too poor to die. The moment those bullshit treatments turned out not to be so bullshit after all, the coveted “good death” became a luxury like it never had before.
You are the perpetual motion device keeping that luxury conveniently available to people like Katya. You spend a lot of time in these hospital rooms, these beds. They’re much comfier than anything you could ever afford on your own, let’s be clear. And the staff is just always listening and watching and smiling because they want you to be healthy, pet.
I mean, what the fuck good is your blood if you—sorry, they—let your body go to shit? Kale for everyone. Hurray.
There will be raised bumps amid the corded muscles of your upper arms—one for each side. They’re as big around as a penny, with the mass of a glass marble embedded under the surface. You’ll scratch at them sometimes, when no one’s looking—never in the hospital, though, that would be a level of stupid even you won’t begin to contemplate—but they do not move or compress.
If you were to take, say, a knife—do NOT do this, but just say one day you did—and make a small, clean cut across that marble of tissue, you would be engulfed by a pain so relentless that you’d immediately black out. When you’d wake up, any evidence of your crimes would be gone, save for a pale scar that’d vanish within a couple days.
Soon, you’ll enter your go-to blood center looking to score enough for rent and your car—the demand has gone up. Three times the money. And when the nurse slaps a Band-Aid across your inner arm and tells you you’re good to go, a man in a doctor’s coat who you suddenly, somehow, know is not a doctor will appear in the slim gap between the privacy curtains and ask you to take a survey. The nurse will slip away, as light and soundless as a sunbeam, and the not-doctor will slowly ease into the chair she’s just vacated.
You will remember him well, so well, even after decades pass: the bald head with just a hint of brown fuzz, long fingers and wide palms with bulging veins, beady gray eyes tracking your every movement behind basic black frames. The frames are what give him away—they’re Mykita, which are expensive as fuck. Your girlfriend at the time is (was) crazy about everything fashion. You’ll scoff at the thought of remembering this, and vow to get payback by forcing her to sit through a Hell’s Kitchen marathon.
The not-doctor has other plans. “When was the last time you lost someone you cared about?”
Many faces will flit through your mind as an unwelcome wave of longing seeps into your chest. But although she wasn’t the last, she was the most: Shakyra. You watched her die. You didn’t stop her. But you could’ve. You—stupid, stupid, stupid you—didn’t. Why? You won’t know. You never will.
The not-doctor will see something in your eyes, something he approves of. He’ll lean forward, his legs planted shoulder length apart, and brace his forearms on his jean-covered thighs. Stare straight at you. Clasp his hands together, solemn. “What would it be worth to you,” he’ll murmur, voice thick with faux empathy, “to never have to experience that pain again?”
And that…your poor, sick bastard, that’s all it’ll take. He’ll explain, using way too much medical jargon, about what he wants to do—what he wants you to do. And you’ll sign. Even though, deep down, you know eliminating programmed cell death wouldn’t have saved Shakyra, grief isn’t sensible, so you’ll sign. The nurse will reappear with a twin pair of syringes before you’ve even finished the last curlicue on your signature.
“Everyone will have access to this,” the not-doctor assures you. “And for every person you refer, your payments will quadruple.”
But your girlfriend has (had) Type 1 diabetes: unfit.
Your mother? Hypertension and asthma. Ask her to lose some weight first.
Father? Lung cancer. Brother? Bipolar. You’re the dumbass with the permanently puffy eye, but apparently that’s not a genetic flaw, just a common-sense one. You’ll receive marbles in your arms that permanently stop the passage of time, as far as your DNA is concerned, all so you can spend the rest of your immortal existence “donating” blood to people who want to be buried as young, beautiful corpses.
Confused? Yup, it’s true: Katya, the not-doctor, and all the rest of the recipients…they don’t have the marbles.
You will sustain them for as long as they want to live, then stand watch when they don’t.
Today is Katya’s Death Day. She is 137 years old.
She has decided she’s seen everything the world has to offer, so it’s time. She picked out her coffin—sleek mahogany with golden accents—herself. She’s been without blood transfusions for a week now. The attending doctor says it will be any minute.
They don’t say “death” anymore—it’s the “next elevation.” Half her family, just as bright-faced and virile as she was, are drunk off their asses while she lies in the coffin, her breathing slowing, slowing, slowing…a long pause, during which everyone and everything suddenly sobers, stops…and then a wet rattle from her throat shatters the moment and the merriment continues.
I hover nearby; once she’s finally dead, I’ll have a new “nurse,” but who the hell cares. This precious thing, death, is something I likely will never experience. I dream of it, ache for it. I’m monitored too closely to down a container of bleach, or jump off a roof. My knives disappeared from my kitchen decades ago; my food arrives pre-cut. Everyone I knew who was too “unfit” for immortality is long gone. Naturally, there was no fanfare for them. Disability and illness are for the poors, you know. Should’ve made more money, and then they could’ve died in health instead of sickness. Should’ve taken better care of themselves.
You know, like I do.
Katya’s breathing stops again, for long enough that the DJ lowers the music until it’s just a faint pulse in my eardrums—like a heartbeat.
I stare at her softly rounded, rosy face; she’s wearing foundation and concealer under her eyes for her nonexistent flaws and diamond earrings that glint under the light of the crystal chandelier directly above us. She’s beautiful, and I want to drive a stake through her rotten heart.
The doctor leans over and presses her index and forefinger against Katya’s throat. After another pause, she proclaims, “Official time of death: 21:27.”
A chorus of applause and joyful shouts fills the room. I trail my fingers over my upper arm, not even feeling the sting of my nails digging into the flesh, reflexively. I lift my other arm and wake up my smartwatch with a scan of my retina.
“Log file 1076,” I whisper. “Those books were really fucking wrong about vampires.”
I’m being harsh, I know. I’m sorry. This…this is a lot.
Please, before you walk into that donation center one last time…think of Shakyra. Think of her broken body, splayed across the ground. The indifferent stares of onlookers who felt she’d brought it on herself.
Imagine what her last few seconds of awareness were like. Did pain rip through her like those ragged shards of glass? Did she sense her lungs filling with blood and phlegm? Did she choke? Gasp?
Imagine it. And know that, even though it’ll forever haunt us both, I wish it’d been you.
But I’ve gotta go: Katya’s replacement is waiting, and I bet he hates having to wait.
Sydnee Thompson is a writer and editor who’s unabashedly obsessed with all things death, especially when it comes to her speculative fiction, which has also appeared in publications such as Fiyah Lit Magazine and Fireside Magazine. You can stalk her on Twitter @SydMT or visit her website, shadesofsydnee.com.