“The problem is, doctor, that I’m afraid.” If I knew then what I know now, would I have been any less afraid? Or would I have simply accepted my fate?
“Would you prefer to talk to a psychiatrist?” he replied. I smiled, despite the pointlessness of his suggestion. I did feel the old expectations of myself welling up, to scold him for rudeness, to remind him of whom he was talking to. But I was being more forgiving of others these days.
“I have seen a great many doctors. Endocrinologists and plastic surgeons, usually, when they had the right recommendations and references.” I saw his eyes change at that one. The game was afoot. His reputation was not the one that prominent socialites sought out. So why was I here?
“They seem to have done well by you,” he said, my young doctor keeping his professional demeanor.
“Oh, there are years of hunting in this cougar yet,” I said. “But only so many."
He nodded. He was catching on. “Please continue.” Ah, yes. He could not make the offer; I might be trying to entrap him. I fought down old instincts again. I did not want to be alluring. I wanted him to understand that I did need him. But one way or another, I was a cougar on the prowl.
“When I was young, I was afraid of poverty. So I did all the right things and married well. Then I was afraid of losing my marriage. So I did all the right things again. I was an asset; I was a support. I cleaned up after him, I looked the other way; I helped his problems go away. I am now a rich, attractive widow. I suppose you can say I succeeded in life. I look behind me, and I can’t see anyone pleased by my success. I look ahead of me, and I see an accounting coming. Are you religious, doctor?”
“If the human body was designed by a perfect creator, then perfection needs some explanation.” He put down some of his mask, as I’d put down mine. But he was not going to make the offer. I had to ask.
“I did not use to be. I expected nothing after death. And I think that if there was nothing after death, I would be fine. But I am lately convinced that I am going to be facing a great many people I outlived. They are going to hold me accountable for everyone I pushed away, drove away, or walked away from.” I smiled, one of the old smiles. “You know how the rich stay rich, doctor. They don’t pay unless they have to.”
“Sounds like you need a priest who’s been to law school,” he bantered back.
“I might. But I’d much rather investigate the possibilities in your paper on modified plastination.” And so I threw the switch; the offer was on the table.
“Go on,” he replied, leaving me with all the risk. As an experienced hunter, I was used to it.
“As I understand it, ordinary plastination is the preservation of tissue by using liquid plastic to replace water and fats, preventing decay in the cells. Your theory was that a similar substitution mechanism could be used to replace decaying tissue with robust tissue, effectively replacing organs in place without performing transplants. Your small animal studies were showing promise.” I paused, assessing the damage from his face. His expression did not change, but it subtly hardened. “Then there was some sort of paperwork problem and your laboratory privileges were suspended. I don’t know about that.” Yes I really did, and he knew that I did. “What I do know is that I can fund your ongoing work on a small scale; a private research lab where you can perfect your methods.”
“To benefit the human race?” he asked rhetorically.
“Perhaps after,” I admitted. I relaxed, having made my pounce and caught my prey.
Everything was done as far off the books as could possibly be managed. At my insistence, he worked on chimpanzees immediately. The sooner it the method was proven on primates, the better. This required performing some black market manipulations but I’d continued to cultivate my late husband’s contacts.
He met my goal within six months, although using more chimps than I had budgeted for. He claimed that the more he used, the more information he had on finding a balance between preserved tissue and functional tissue. He now claimed it worked at will.
“When do I get my first treatment?” I asked flatly. I was in no mood to be tactful or patient. I’d seen my physician a week ago, and he’d called me to express concern about something in my electrocardiogram.
“We can do it tomorrow morning. Eat and drink nothing after 10 PM.”
That gives me ample time to confirm various precautions, in case I mysteriously disappear or die.”
“Be sure you spell my name right.”
An hour later, he met me in a private part of the lab. Even people who visited the lab under strict confidence did not know this existed. In it, the perfusion apparatus used to preserve primates had been scaled up for a human. For me.
“It looks like a shower stall from Star Trek,” I observed.
“Pretty much. It maintains a ‘clean room’ environment – the only thing going into you is the perfusion chemicals – but first we have to clean you.”
“Absolutely no dust, pollen, or anything uninvited on your skin is getting inside you. I’m taking precautions, too.”
He was even thorough enough to have hangers so I could put my clothes up neatly. I disrobed and entered the stall. The first round felt like something between being in a sauna and being in a dry cleaner’s steam press. “Am I supposed to be inhaling this?” I asked.
“Yes. We want the inside of your mouth, your lungs, and so on.”
When it was finally over, I asked for a towel.
“No. This next phase happens with your pores open.”
He turned it on abruptly. I screamed. It felt like my entire body had suddenly erupted in paper cuts and I was thrown into a vat of iodine.
When I was finally released from that hell, I was on my hands and knees, dry heaving. My first thought was that if he was filming this, I knew who to hire to have him skinned with a cheese grater. Then I felt a wonderful, soothing breeze. I got up gradually, soaking it in, and feeling the increasing warmth. Then, suddenly, I laughed. “Oh my god, I’m being blow-dried!”
“Pretty much. I want that stuff evaporated before you put fabric on again.”
It was 2 PM when I was finally dressed and somewhat reassembled in terms of grooming and make-up. My thoughtful doctor had also put up a full-length mirror. I examined myself carefully for any changes in skin color. No blotching, no chemical tans. I did feel better. Perhaps it was just from being out of that awful shower stall, but my limbs felt less stiff, breathing seemed a bit easier. Even if it was quackery, there might be a nice little business in it.
“How are you feeling?” he asked me, looking at some gibberish on a computer.
“What I’m feeling are my oats. Let’s give it a week perhaps before I get rid of those nasty death-and-disappearance precautions.” He nodded, and went back to his typing. I was feeling very good, for the first time in I didn’t remember how long. I was feeling like a cougar who wanted to hunt. He might have made tasty prey, but my late husband’s example taught me to hunt in territories removed from my own nest.
Two weeks later, we met as agreed. I gave him a very large check. As I wrote it out, I looked at him – standing there abashed with his hands in his pockets – and felt a rush of generosity. The amount I handed him was twice what I’d originally planned, but so what? I felt very good, and I owed it to him.
Just then, my phone rang. For some reason, I was suddenly frightened. I took the call. It was the wife of a former partner of my husband’s. She claimed to have evidence on a business transaction where her husband came out the loser. She insisted I meet her at once.
I should have hung up. I would have, but I had this persistent terror. And my young doctor was still in the office, still with hands in pockets. “Are you all right?” he asked. I nodded, told my caller I’d be there, and she told me the address and hung up on me. I replaced the phone and thought about how to explain where I was going. Ah, well, the cougar had had a nice run of it. Just hint to my secretary that the new call was from one of my recent catches and I was out for a quickie.
I felt like an idiot making that drive over, especially in my Lexus. She lived out in the boonies, where trailer parks are upscale. I almost got lost twice, but somehow, like a homing pigeon, a lemming, or a dying elephant, I knew where to go.
She was waiting for me on her porch. She crooked her finger at me, beckoning, and giving me the smuggest smile I’d seen in my life – including glances at my own reflection.
I got out of the car and stood in front of it. “I’m here because you called me, but I’m expecting manners,” I said to her.
“Walk upstairs,” said a voice from within my ears. Her lips didn’t move. I looked around. “Walk upstairs,” the voice repeated and I felt that rush of terror again, even worse. I walked upstairs as if sharp knives were being held next to my throat and eyes. Then the front door opened and my young doctor came out, holding a cell phone.
I put two and two together, but still came up short. “Did you put something in my ear?”
“I put something in different parts of you. No, you aren’t going to die or mysteriously disappear. You’re just going to live miserably, like my father died miserably,” my young doctor replied.
I turned to run. But my body would not respond at all. I was totally rigid. “What you’re having now,” he explained clinically, “is a severe form of Parkinson’s disease. I’ve hit a button that totally blocks the system attacked in Parkinson’s, so you can’t move your muscles at all. Clinically, it’s called aphasic catatonia. I have quite a few of these buttons.”
He hit another one, and I could move again, but I staggered as if drunk. “Put that thing down,” I said, slurring my words. He hit another button and I was sober, feeling a rush of dread as intense as I had when his mother phoned. Another, and I felt the same animal lust that I had relished the past week when I was courting younger men. I’d have sex with him there on the porch if he wanted me to. The fear was still there, I realized. I’d obey him because I was scared of him, even though I knew the fear was completely artificial.
“I have a button for narcolepsy as well if I need you to take a little nap,” he said. “And a pain button if I need it.” Did he touch the fear button then? “I also put in a way to track you, so you are – should I cackle evilly? – in my power with no escape.” Yes, he was definitely touching the fear control. I backed away, not taking my eyes off him. “Relax, you’ll enjoy it.” He touched another button. The fear was gone, replaced by giddy euphoria.
His mother snickered. “The funny thing is, my Leroy worked like a dog to make sure I and his son would be set for life. Then you and your husband ruined it all.” I nodded, remembering. A piece of information picked up here, a piece of disinformation put down there, and her husband had been left holding the leaky end of a business deal. “Well, now we get all of it. Because rich bitch widow is going to marry herself a shiny boy toy.”
“I wanted to make sure it was completely safe for use on human beings before I used it on my mother. I should know in a few years. You’re a poor excuse for a human being, but as a test subject you’ll do fine.”
It was a small wedding. A civil ceremony. A standard pre-nuptial agreement, so no one would ask questions. We honeymooned on my yacht. He enjoyed watching me swim, especially when he pressed the fear button and whispered “sharks” into the device so only I could hear it. The only thing I was allowed to wear was a French bikini. I had a few for variety’s sake, but nothing else for modesty’s sake. I wonder what the crew thought.
Afterwards, I went back to my old routine. However, my husband’s remote control made sure that between press-button anger and press-button inebriation, sometimes both at once, my next society paper mentions were full of malicious gossip and speculation. Then, when I stopped appearing, the only sporadic mentions were of relief. Old acquaintances were happy at the excuse to fall away.
I was still quite visible at home. With complete privacy, my young doctor husband was able to use fear when commanding me, and euphoria when I obeyed, to program me quite thoroughly. He didn’t need the little box for my obedience any more.
My brilliant, inventive, creative husband had put a great deal of thought into me. He could have just paralyzed me with the artificial Parkinson’s disease, but I would still have needed to be fed and I would still have physical needs.
My clothing these days is cougar-patterned bikinis and catsuits. I wear them as I stand on my little platform. My feet are bare. A modulated signal passes through the platform. Some of the many chemicals inside me congeal in response. As long as I stand on the activated platform, my heart beats perhaps once an hour. All biological systems are slowed to a crawl, and any deterioration is prevented by my plastination. If my husband needs me, he turns off the little stand and I’m his obedient pet again.
Otherwise, I stand as he poses me, a stuffed cougar, in the oblivion that was the best I could expect.