Last Chance To
by Tracie McBride
Sharon lifts her hand to her temple. She has a feeling that her head should hurt, but there is no pain, only the distant memory of it. Why should it hurt? She struggles to recall. She was driving home after a PTA meeting. There was another car, approaching too fast, too close, a sudden, tooth-rattling impact, and she was spinning, round and round and upside down and there was red, lots of red…
Her eyelids flutter open. Her husband Mark looks down at her. His eyes are bloodshot, and he looks like he has slept in his clothes. There is something wrong with her own eyes; her vision is slightly blurred around the edges, and she rubs at her eyes in a futile attempt to clear them.
“Sharon, Sharon,” he says, “Can you hear me, Sharon?” He sounds like he is testing a microphone.
“Of course I can hear you,” she says. Her voice sounds strange, as if it is a skilled impersonator who is speaking, using all the right Sharon-like intonations but lacking the exact configurations of her voice box. She tries to sit up, but her muscles don’t respond as they should, and she can only raise her head from her pillow before slumping back down again. She looks from side to side.
“Where am I…what happened?”
Mark opens his mouth to speak, but a woman steps into her field of vision and silences him.
“I’m Dr Hayley Phillips,” she says. “You were in a car accident. You died, Sharon. This is a reincarnation facility.” Sharon looks to Mark, who nods confirmation, his throat working with barely contained grief.
“The avatar you have been transferred into has near-normal speech, hearing and vision and limited tactile sensation,” Dr Phillips continues. “You are unable to eat or drink, so no Last Suppers, I’m afraid, and you are not equipped for…ahem…marital relations. Otherwise, you will function just as you did before death. Your avatar will hold your personality and memories for twenty-four hours. I suggest you spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with it before joining your family.”
Sharon shakes her head. “I don’t understand…I can’t take in any of this.”
Dr Phillips bows her head. “I apologize if I seem a little brusque. It’s just that most of our clients prefer to spend their remaining time on Earth with their loved ones, rather than conversing with me.” She gives a wry smile, and Sharon starts to feel sorry for her before remembering that she is the one who is dead and in need of sympathy.
“Your husband has been fully briefed,” Dr Phillips continues, “so he should be able to answer most of your questions. Otherwise, we have an after hours information service.” She slips a card into Mark’s hand and leaves the room.
Sharon tries again to sit. Mark helps her, slipping a hand under her elbow and levering her into an upright position. She now understands what the doctor meant by ‘limited tactile sensation’; it feels like Mark is touching her through several layers of gauze. Tears prick her eyes, or at least it feels like it, but when she tries to wipe them away, her hand is dry. The back of her hand looks unnatural. The skin tone is all wrong, it is too uniform, and there are no lines or visible veins.
What does the rest of me look like, she wonders. Her stomach knots with a sensation-that-is-not, a feeling that is already becoming familiar. She slips off the bed and stands swaying for a moment before shuffling to the far wall to stand in front of a full length mirror.
The knot in her stomach liquefies into nausea. “What have they done?” she whispers. The image that looks back at her is that of a life-sized Barbie doll wearing her face. Her borrowed body is more slender than her real one, with a sculpted waist and high breasts. She has no nipples, no pubic hair and no genitalia. The facial features are similar to her own, but minus the flaws, the acne scars and the laughter lines. She tries to smile and to frown, and the face in the mirror responds sluggishly. Had to wait until I was dead to get the body I always wanted, she thinks, and an involuntary giggle escapes her.
“Apparently, most people prefer to see an idealized version of themselves for their reincarnation,” says Mark. “Anyway, your real body was too damaged to be able to take an accurate casting, so they recreated your face from photos and used Template B for the rest.”
“The kids are going to be terrified when they see me like this,” she says. “I feel like Frankenstein’s bride.”
“It’s only for a day,” says Mark. “They’ll cope.” He passes her an overnight bag. “I brought some of your clothes to change into. They probably won’t fit properly, but it’ll help you look more like you.” Sharon dresses, looks in the mirror again, and grimaces.
“How are you going to pay for this?” she says.
“I took out a Terminal Extension on our insurance policies,” he says, looking inordinately pleased with himself. He looks at his watch. “We’d better get moving. The police want to speak to you, you have to sign off on your will, and we have an appointment with the funeral director – and there are a lot of people waiting to see you at home.”
* * *
The journey home seems too banal for Sharon’s final hours of consciousness – same dented station wagon with sticky chocolate wrappers and children’s odd socks hiding under the seats, same shabby suburban streets, same husband with the expanding bald spot and that annoying habit of swallowing loudly and frequently when under stress. At least he let me change the radio station, she thinks as she turns the volume up to drown out his gulping noise. She winds down the window, the early winter chill barely registering on her skin, and closes her eyes so she can picture herself cruising in a sports car wit the top down along the coastline of a Mediterranean island with a Brad Pitt look-alike at the wheel.
Cars line both sides of the street outside Sharon’s home, with more jostling for space on her front lawn. Her house is full of people, and there is a festive buzz in the air that stops cold when she enters the room. Her best friend Tania is in the kitchen, and she raises an eyebrow in casual greeting before returning her attention to the production line of food she is single-handedly preparing. She reminds Sharon of an elite Russian shot putter as she manoeuvres her 100 kilo frame through the confined space, simultaneously smoothing chocolate icing over a banana cake and warding off a swarm of sugar-starved children. Tania’s father was reincarnated last year, Sharon remembers, which might explain why Sharon’s appearance doesn’t faze her.
“It looks like backstage on ‘This Is Your Life’ in here,” she says, realizing too late how tasteless the joke is. Her mother and two of her aunts form a defensive huddle in one corner, drinks in one hand and hors d’oeuvres in the other. They put down their refreshments and start to wail when they see her, then they cut through the crowd in a wedge formation with her mother at the apex.
“My poor baby girl!” her mother says, stroking Sharon’s plastic cheek. Sharon flinches; the last time her mother touched her face, Sharon was fourteen, and it had been a slap, not a caress. The sound of three sets of pounding little feet dispels the awkward moment.
“Mum’s here! Mum’s here!”
Sharon’s children skid to a halt in front of her.
“Mum?” Her eight year old son Patrick looks from her to his father to her again. He reaches out a hand tentatively to touch hers, and then jerks it away. “That’s not Mum,” pronounces three year old Katie in her best adults-can-be-so-stupid-sometimes voice.
“Remember, kids,” says Mark, “I told you Mum would look different. She’s just borrowing this body for a day.”
Five year old Gemma eyes Sharon speculatively. “A day?” she says. “Does she get her old body back after that?”
Mark shoots a pained glance at Sharon. “No, darling, after today she…”
“Oh, good,” interrupts Gemma. “This one’s much prettier.” Her inspection complete, she runs off in search of more stimulating company. Katie takes one more look at the impostor posing as her mother and then follows her sister. Patrick stays, and he edges closer to her until she is able to embrace him. She buries her face in his hair. The body she inhabits cannot smell, yet still she imagines she is breathing in apple-scented shampoo. He pulls away from her after a few moments and looks at her with a pained knowingness that is far beyond his years, and Sharon feels a wrench in the place where her heart used to be.
Mark gets her settled into a comfortable chair in the lounge, as if such courtesies still mattered. There are many people who seek an audience with her – aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbours, a few distant acquaintances who are ghoulishly interested in seeing a reincarnated person and who no doubt will be at the funeral tomorrow for the free food. Her sister Lisa arrives, tousle-haired and flustered after driving in rush-hour from the airport. She greets Mark with a kiss and presses her body for half a second too long against his, then lights a cigarette and takes a place on the edge of the throng around Sharon.
“Bloody typical,” she says, releasing a plume of smoke out the side of her mouth. “Still getting all the attention, even when she’s dead. Does anyone have any idea what I had to go through to get here? I had to put the flight on my credit card, and now it’s over the limit. And do you know my work didn’t even believe me when I said my sister had died? If they try to dock my pay, I swear…”
Sharon feels a quasi-headache coming on and rubs at her synthetic forehead. Her brother-in-law Andy walks in the door and the headache intensifies. Sharon gives Mark The Look, the one that says keep-that-idiot-away-from-me, and Mark gives back a Look of his own, the one that says he’s-my-brother-so-suck-it-up. Andy stands in front of her and studies her with a lecher’s practiced eye.
“Cool body,” he says to Mark. “Not exactly true to life, though, is it? Sharon’s tits were never that perky.”
“I’m dead, Andy, not deaf,” Sharon says through gritted teeth.
Andy has a few Looks too, and this one is all raised eyebrows and innocence, a what-did-I-say? Look.
Tania announces that dinner is ready, and everybody heads for the makeshift buffet set up on the deck. The food looks delicious, and Sharon looks on with envy as her guests eat and drink. Her mind imprint tells her that she is hungry, and she even tries to take a bite of roast chicken when she thinks that no-one is looking, but it just falls in a flavourless chewed-up mess from her mouth. She has a sudden vision of herself as Cookie Monster, masticating wildly on a cookie with crumbs flying from a wide fabric maw, and ducks her head to hide the blush that would have formed had her face been real. She feels a tug at her sleeve. Andy is back.
“Hey, Shazza,” he says. She winces – she hates being called ‘Shazza’. “I’ve heard that re-animated bodies don’t have….” He stares fixedly at her groin.
“Andy…” says Mark in a warning tone.
“That’s right, Andy. They’re not entirely anatomically correct,” says Sharon.
“Oh. Bit of a waste of money, then, if you ask me.”
Mark takes a step closer to Sharon. “Nobody asked you,” he says. Sharon feels a surge of love for him, the first she has felt since her reincarnation, and, if she thinks about it, the first she has felt for many months.
“Wouldn’t have been any fun for you, anyway, Shazza,” Andy says consolingly. “They reckon that you don’t get much sensation in those bodies.” He brightens as a thought occurs to him.
“Hey – can you feel this?”
He plunges a fork into Sharon’s upper arm. She yelps in surprise and jumps backward, tensing in expectation of pain, but there is only a dull and distant throb. A pale sap-like fluid seeps from the puncture wounds. Sharon’s children start at the sound of her yell, and Katie starts to cry. All conversation around them stops, and people stare. Mark steps between Sharon and Andy, although who he is trying to protect is unclear.
“Good one, dickhead,” Mark says. “I’m going to lose my security deposit now.” Any tender feelings Sharon might be having for her husband dissipate as he steers her away into the bathroom and does a hasty patch-up job on her oozing arm. They rejoin their guests to find them already flowing into the gaps left by their brief absence. Andy has cornered Lisa, or perhaps it is the other way around. Sharon spends several precious minutes watching the pair manoeuvre in a complicated dance of flirtations and faux pas. One of her children is fighting with one of Tania’s children, and Tania wades through the crowd to separate them.
“The kids are getting tired,” says Mark. “I could try putting them to bed, but…”
“No,” says Sharon, “let them stay up a little longer.” Her aggrieved offspring wriggles free from Tania and runs, sobbing, for the comfort of Sharon’s embrace. She looks around at her friends and family and wonders who will best be able to give her children solace this time tomorrow.
The cars on Sharon’s front lawn play a polite game of dodgems as local visitors leave and a new wave of relatives arrives from late flights. Someone turns on the TV, and a crowd gathers around it to watch a rugby game. The kids run around in ever-decreasing circles until they collapse wherever they can find a space. Sharon crawls under the dinner table and gathers up Katie, who is curled up in a foetal position, snoring gently through the sporadic cheers that break out whenever the home team scores a try. Her cousin Kathryn pulls out a pack of cards and invites her into a game of Gin Rummy. Mark and her mother begin work on the conundrum of sleeping arrangements for the out-of-town visitors. A communal howl of despair rises as the opposition team scores. A slurred female voice yells out, “aww, just get over it, guys, it’s not like it’s life or death.” Another voice shushes her in a drunken stage whisper. The rugby game ends and so does the card game and everyone drifts off to home or to bed or to sleep where they sit.
Sharon’s temporary body does not know fatigue. Only Mark keeps vigil with her. They sit hand-in-hand in a dimly lit corner of the lounge.
“One extra day isn’t enough,” says Sharon. “I’m not ready to die. There was so much I wanted to do. I was going to write a novel. I was going to visit the Greek Islands. I was going to go to my children’s weddings. I was going to celebrate my fortieth birthday.”
Mark yawns and squeezes her hand. “How many people lie on their death bed and think, ‘yeah, I’ve done all I want to do, today is a good day to die’?” he says. “Be thankful for the extra time you do have. Love everyone. The rest is all just padding.”
Again Sharon feels phantom tears falling. She looks at her husband, surprised at his insight, but his hand has gone limp in hers and his head is nodding on his chest. She sits alone and waits for her last dawn.
Tracie McBride is a New Zealander who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 40 print and electronic publications, including Pulp.Net, Coyote Wild, Abyss and Apex, Space & Time, Sniplits and Electric Velocipede. She won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent for 2007.
Last Chance To See was previously published in JAAM (Issue 26, November 2008.