It was starting to go gray. Its skin sat in wrinkled folds as it floated in the life-sustaining chemical mixture, the mixture that kept the heart beating, the muscles fresh, the blood flowing, the organs functioning. But while this technology could keep the body alive, it couldn’t keep it looking as good as it had when Harry had been connected to it. In the sallow glow from the Subway sign, Harry’s old body swayed, unaware that its former owner looked on from just a few feet away.
The tank that housed Harry’s body was the farthest on the left in the window of the life-preserving facility, closest to the Subway vending machine just adjacent to the building. They put the bodies they preserved in their front window to demonstrate to potential customers just how proficient they were at keeping things alive that should be dead. Harry didn’t know if the Subway vending machine had been placed next to the life-preserving facility or if they life-preserving facility had decided to set up shop next to a sandwich vending machine, but it seemed like a poor business decision on somebody’s part. And it really wasn’t a flattering light for Harry’s (admittedly flabby) former body.
Harry looked at his own penis in the vending machine’s yellowish-green light. Covered by a modesty-saving speedo, it floated so that a faint outline was visible. It seemed to get sadder every time he saw it. It had never been incredible or had anyone squeal over its size or beauty, but it had worked, it had pleased him and pleased others, and he wanted it back.
So it was a pity that medical science had advanced enough to keep body parts alive, body parts that rightfully should have died and decayed, but not enough to reconnect these body parts back to one another. The impulses that came from the human brain were complicated, and difficult for machinery to recognize or aid. Life-preserving sciences and prosthetics had advanced, but fully synchronized hands that responded perfectly to the brain’s wishes or legs that could bend and flex with the subtlety and grace of the human body still eluded modern society’s grasp. Even the best-mechanized prosthetics were clunky and slow, a fact Harry was all too aware of.
Harry’s “neck” juddered and whined as he concentrated on moving it to look at his “body.” The prosthetic was so slow that Harry had to continually focus on this one thought—tilt my neck forward—for several seconds while the thing slowly, slowly did as he commanded. Harry thought stop a moment before he actually wanted his head to stop moving, and a second later his neck halted, giving Harry an excellent view of the machine connected to his head.
A squat, drab little thing, the machine rolled on four wheels underneath a rounded chassis. It looked like a vacuum cleaner if it had been built to go off-road, a lint-gray piece of plastic covering up the mechanized pieces held within the contraption’s main body, four large wheels beneath that, except where the hose would have connected there was instead Harry’s head, connected to the machine via a jointed, flexible neck made out of stainless steel. A tasteful scarf covered the area where the machine’s tubes connected to Harry’s neck, around where his Adam’s apple would have been. White with red trim, it was a splash of color in the gray wasteland. It was the last thing Harry had bought before the accident.
A blur in Harry’s mind, the accident had been described to him as “horrifying,” “tragic,” and, by one drunken friend at a funeral, “sickeny-ing.” The accident had occurred when Harry and a friend were driving to the opening of another friend’s art gallery. They had been T-boned in the middle of an intersection by a pickup truck on the driver side door. Harry’s friend, who had been driving, was killed instantly. Harry, meanwhile, had merely been shoved so hard by the force of the collision that his neck snapped. He also fractured his pelvis, but that was neither here nor there. Harry’s head then lolled back, away from the pickup truck and through the passenger door window, which had been rolled down. Unlike his friend, Harry could have survived the accident mostly intact if that had been the end of it. However, it was at that moment that an SUV came barreling through the intersection in the lane next to Harry. Harry’s deceased friend’s car, having been moved by the pickup truck’s T-boning, now sat partially in the SUV’s lane. The driver of the SUV, a very nice soccer mom named Jordan, swerved to avoid Harry’s deceased friend’s car, but she did not have a lot of time to react and her side mirror clipped Harry’s head with some force. Reeling from this phenomenal blow, Harry of course lost consciousness, but his neck rolled over the pieces of Jordan’s broken mirror and snapped into the frame of the window.
Thus was Harry found by a luckily nearby police officer, with his neck broken on the window frame and partially severed by the glass. Once Harry’s near-corpse was delivered to the emergency room at a luckily nearby hospital, the doctors knew immediately there was only one way to save him. They could see that Harry’s body was not providing its brain with the materials it needed to survive. And so, without pausing for a moment, the doctors severed Harry’s head from his now-useless body, and began connecting Harry’s neck to tubes filled with life-saving fluids. They had hooked Harry up to his rolling prosthetic vacuum cleaner some time later.
Harry felt a small stirring of gratitude that the doctors had also remembered to keep his body alive. They hadn’t needed to. Legally, their job was done once they had saved Harry’s brain. But they had, and fixed the body in about a thousand ways besides. Broken bones, burst blood vessels all healed over time, as they waited in a life-preserving facility for medical technology to advance enough to reconnect them to their brain. A life-preserving facility that was costing him a figurative arm and a leg, Harry thought grimly, just as his train of thought was broken.
“Hey Harry, wanna see something funny?”
Harry didn’t command his machine to turn his head to look at the source of the voice. He knew who it was—the gormless, jocular tone could only belong to the lone employee tasked with keeping watch over this part of the life-preserving facility at this late hour. Beatrice.
She bounded up to him when she saw his head wasn’t turning. Standing in front of Harry, directly between him and his former body, Beatrice made sure she was in the center of his vision. A solidly built woman, Beatrice sported thick glasses whose shade of maroon managed to clash badly with her nut-brown hair. She stood in a wide stance, her long skirt forming an effective screen so that not even Harry’s body’s legs were visible. Her round, fleshy chin stretched in a grin as she looked down at Harry and his machine; she was tall, and Harry “stood” well under four feet high on his contraption. It was impossible not to see her, yet Harry did his best to look right through her, to ignore her as much as possible. She was always, always, always his least favorite part of visiting this place.
As soon as she saw that Harry wasn’t speaking to her, Beatrice narrowed her eyes and growled, “I said. Hey Harry. Do you want. To see. Something Funny.”
“No.” The voice that came out of Harry’s mouth was not quite human. Since he lacked a diaphragm, the machine had to perform the duties of sending air into Harry’s vocal cords. In general, he could talk normally, but Harry tended to stay silent as much as possible, because speaking took some effort due to the alien feeling of having a machine blowing up one’s throat, and also because the result sounded just a little metallic to a human ear, just a little empty. At least it didn’t take as much time to coordinate as moving the wheels and joints of the machine.
“Oh come on, you big dumb grouch,” Beatrice sighed extravagantly, her angry demeanor instantly undermined by her slouching like an affronted teenager, “you’ve been in here so many times and all you do is stare at… yourself, and frankly I’m getting very bored of this grimly wistful aura you bring in here night after night.”
“Go away.” Harry had begun telling his neck to turn away from Beatrice a few seconds into her speech, but the moment she noticed his head moving, Beatrice had begun to revolve around Harry, keeping perfect pace with his vision as his head rotated. Harry obstinately kept rotating his head, spinning his contraption to look away, but Beatrice obstinately kept revolving around him, a moon locked in orbit around Harry’s tiny metal planet. After a few moments of glaring, obstinate silence, Beatrice made a small growl in anger.
“Harry, you’re being stupid,” she said, grabbing his chassis. Harry frowned and continued rotating his head, but now instead of walking to keep pace with him, Beatrice simply picked up Harry’s chassis and turned it in her hands, so that Harry, no matter how he turned his head, always faced Beatrice’s glare.
Finally surrendering, Harry allowed his eyes to meet hers. His gray irises stared sullenly into her brown ones, and he could see in an instant she wasn’t going to let this go. If he wanted to stay in the facility, he was going to have to find out what Beatrice wanted to show him.
“All right, Beatrice,” Harry sighed, trying to force as much resigned resentment into his robot voice as he could. “What did you want to show me?”
“Oh my gosh,” she gushed as she immediately put Harry back on the ground (not as gently as he would have liked) and whirled around to face Harry’s body, floating in its tank. “So not to be disrespectful or anything, but I have to show you on your body. The cord doesn’t reach far enough for any of the others.”
“What cord? What are you going to do to my body?” Harry felt a twinge of unease at Beatrice’s words. What had he just agreed to? He hadn’t known that it involved his body. Giggles emanated from her as she snatched up a ladder she had been keeping behind the front desk of the life-preserving facility and stood it underneath the Subway sign.
“Normally,” declared Beatrice as she started to climb up her ladder, “I would not do something so irresponsible with a powerful company’s property. However,” she continued, looking seriously into Harry’s eyes, “this one was founded by a pedophile, and I don’t support pedophiles.”
“Subway wasn’t founded by a pedophile,” Harry corrected absentmindedly before pressing on to the question that was worrying him. “Beatrice? How irresponsible is the thing you want to show me?”
“Jared was a pedophile,” proclaimed Beatrice, sanctimonious. “He was convicted of it and he went to jail for it.” She made it to the top of the ladder, and looked down again. “Stop worrying, you ninny. It’s perfectly safe.” With that, she reached up and grabbed the side covering of the Subway sign.
“Jared was just a guy who ate their sandwiches. He didn’t found anything.” Beatrice wasn’t listening to Harry. After two wrenching tries, she succeeded in pulling the cover off, which gave way to several long wires spilling out of the innards of the sign.
Beatrice dodged clumsily out of the way of the falling wires. “Whoa!” She cried out, her eyes widening. “That was dangerous! They haven’t fallen out like that before. Lucky I’m so quick on my feet.”
“Why was that—“ Harry started, before remembering why exposed electrical wires were dangerous. They were live. They were live wires, and Beatrice proudly held the split ends of two of them in her hand, grinning manically. Quickly, the ladder rocking unsteadily beneath her, she clambered down and brought the wires in front of Harry’s body’s tank. She paused for dramatic effect.
And then she started singing.
A slightly off-pitch version of “The Entertainer,” she started it slowly and then sped up as she got more and more enthusiastic. Finally, on beat, she stuck the ends of the wires into Harry’s body’s tank.
Harry’s body started dancing. Jerky, uncoordinated movements followed every time Beatrice stuck the wires into the tank. Harry’s legs almost jogged in place, flexing and relaxing in time with the rhythm. Harry’s head nodded, his pelvis wobbled, his arms flailed outwards, smacking the sides of the tank, performing clumsy, uncoordinated, unfinished jumping jacks. “Da da da-da-da-da-da da da da,” droned on Beatrice.
It took Harry a moment to fully comprehend what was going on. But even after a few seconds of watching his old body jolting along to Beatrice’s rhythm, the only expression his face wore was of blank surprise. As he watched Beatrice gleefully shock his old body over and over in time to her singing, Harry expected to feel outraged, but found that he didn’t. The use of his body for Beatrice’s inane entertainment was an affront, of course, a gross misuse of power over another person’s body. But even as Harry intellectually grasped this, he did not emotionally react to it. No flood of outrage, no burst of anger came to him. Instead, he actually chuckled.
“I knew it’d make you laugh!” Beatrice shouted triumphantly.
“It’s very nice Beatrice, but maybe you shouldn’t do it for too long.”
“Oh, it’ll be alright, Harry. I don’t ever leave the wires in for longer than a second. I’m being careful.”
“Well…” Harry found that he had run out of objections. “Alright. I guess you can keep doing it.”
“Oh fuck yes,” breathed Beatrice, and resumed her singing.
And they continued like that for several minutes, Beatrice singing various songs and making Harry’s body caper inside its tank, Harry watching the show in bemused fascination. Harry watched his body dance to Beatrice’s electric prodding, and he realized that he really was okay with it. He wasn’t just in shock; he was all right with the idea of his body dancing for Beatrice’s amusement. Watching his various body parts float and flop, he still wanted to be connected to it, but he was okay with it bringing someone enjoyment with his brain being the thing moving it. So he watched, and he smiled.
At least until a passerby, with a slightly disturbed look on his face, walked by the tank and fed the Subway vending machine a few dollar bills. Harry and Beatrice looked at each other. Neither of them had seen anyone on this street this late at night before, let alone buying a Subway sandwich here. But buy one he did, and he waited for it to prepare his Italian sub. Beatrice kept making Harry’s body dance, but stopped singing. Apparently she was fine with continuing to make Harry’s naked body cavort, but singing in public embarrassed her.
But a funny thing happened when the vending machine beeped to let its customer know his sandwich was ready. As the sub plopped onto the platform to let the customer grab it, a surge of electricity came from the machine.
At first, Harry didn’t realize what had happened. Beatrice yelled “OW!” as the arc of electricity made the wires heat up, and all of a sudden Harry’s body wasn’t dancing anymore. As Beatrice nursed her singed finger, Harry looked at the tank. His body floated, much as it had before, but now there was something off, something Harry couldn’t quite place.
The passerby walked off with his sandwich, unaware of what had just happened (perhaps he had been purposefully ignoring everything involving the naked, headless body). Beatrice stepped down off the ladder.
“Ow ow ow,” she muttered. “I’m gonna need a band-aid.” She hauled her ladder back inside with her good hand and started rummaging around her desk for a first-aid kit.
“Beatrice?” Harry called.
“What?” She yelled back irritably.
“Could you check the vitals on my body?”
Beatrice met Harry’s eyes for a moment. At first they were confused, questioning why that would be Harry’s request. Then they widened. She stopped what she was doing immediately, and went to the monitor at her desk.
“Oh my God.” Beatrice began typing furiously at her console. Her movements became more erratic, more frantic, the longer she kept at it. “Uh, um. Uh, Harry?”
“I, uh. I really hate to say this, but… you’re dead.”
“Oh gosh. I think…” Beatrice swallowed, choking on her words, “I don’t think your body survived that amount of electricity.”
“Well, fix it.” Harry was perplexed. Had this kind of situation never happened to her before? “Bring it back. Make it… not dead. This is a life-preserving facility, right? You’ve got to have some kind of solution for this.”
“Exactly, Harry,” Beatrice said, a hint of panic creeping into her voice now. “It’s a life-preserving facility, not a resurrection facility. Your body isn’t responding to any of the standard procedures, and there isn’t any protocol for a sudden accidental death.”
“Oh come on,” Harry scoffed, trying to keep the nervousness out of his own voice now. “You’re telling me no body has ever… expired at a life-preserving facility before?”
“They have,” nodded Beatrice, “but always slowly, gradually. And when they’re dead, they’re, you know. Dead.”
“Oh.” Harry’s voice was very small.
“I mean, I guess I could call my supervisor? But…” Beatrice continued on, detailing the protocol for crises at the facility, but Harry stopped listening. He slowly, slowly turned his neck back to look at his body—no, his corpse. It floated, as gray as before, as wrinkled and flabby as before. There didn’t seem to be much difference now compared to fifteen minutes ago, when it was still “alive.”
Harry pulled himself out of his thoughts, re-focusing on Beatrice. She was still talking. “I mean if you had asked me thirty minutes ago, I would have said that I could never kill anybody, only now I have—“
“You didn’t kill me, Beatrice, I’m talking to you right now.”
“You know what I mean, Harry,” Beatrice whimpered, her voice increasingly shaky, her eyes brimming with tears, “I killed you. I killed, you know, you you.”
“It’s okay, Beatrice.”
“No it’s not!” Beatrice began to cry in earnest now. “That was your body, and I was responsible for it! I was supposed to preserve your life, and I didn’t! I messed it up and they’ll probably fire me for it!”
“Well,” Harry said thoughtfully, “I don’t know about your bosses, but I can speak for myself when I say that I forgive you, Beatrice.”
Beatrice stopped crying. “You mean it?”
“Yes.” And he did. Because what he had realized while Beatrice had been making his body dance still held true: his body wasn’t really his anymore. He still yearned for it. But someone else making it dance hadn’t bothered him, and it being dead didn’t bother him much more.
“Yes Beatrice. I really do. Although I have to say,” and with this Harry began to turn his chassis around, “it looks like I won’t have much reason to come around here anymore.” Beatrice didn’t respond.
“I think I’m going to head home, Beatrice. I hope you don’t get in too much trouble.”
Feeling oddly unmoored, Harry rolled away from the life-preserving facility. Coordinating with his mechanical neck, he took one last look at his old body as it floated, somehow even less alive than it had been when he had arrived this evening. Beatrice stood in front of the body, wringing her hands in indecisive apprehension. The poor girl. She really liked that job, and Harry guessed that this kind of mistake wouldn’t be tolerated. She’d have to find something else to do with her evenings.
Harry rolled on, still looking behind him at the facility. He began the command to turn his head, since he knew he was coming up close to the curb. But for a moment, a circuit shorted, the result of a droplet of moisture from Harry’s body’s tank falling onto Harry’s chassis and finding its way inside. The short caused the machine to adhere to its previous commands for a half-second longer than it should have. Harry thus rolled off the sidewalk and into the street without looking where he was going, and was promptly hit by a car.