By Tracey S. Rosenberg
The administrator had an unnerving habit of typing while looking straight across the desk. Jameson couldn’t help but wonder if her tap-dancing fingers were striking keys at random.
“Name?” she asked.
“Hers or mine?”
The fingers paused. “Yours, sir. The donor.”
“BeneLift Southwest, division four.”
“Vice president of still images, PhotoCorp.”
“Forty-nine.” More than old enough to make a donation, since the legal age was eighteen.
The administrator smiled with the insouciant air of someone young enough to be certain that her light hair would never turn grey, nor her face grow drawn with wrinkles. “Relationship to the proposed beneficiary?”
Jameson turned it over in his mind. Stalker, technically? No, he hadn’t contacted Anna since she’d resigned from PhotoCorp. Would never do so. Would rather die silently in the alley behind her building, touching the bricks, than give her a moment’s uneasiness.
“Former line manager,” Jameson stated in what he hoped was a definite tone.
The administrator tapped it into the record, then gazed at the screen as she smoothed her unruly bangs. “The system’s slow today,” she apologized, lowering her hand as if to prod the keyboard into activity with her frustrated fingers.
“Maybe the system has ethical concerns.”
She gave Jameson an odd look, but something on the screen caught her attention. Jameson found himself holding quite still, the way he did when he tried to force time to stop.
Of course, nothing succeeded. Not holding his breath while the rain rushed down, nor curling up inside his mother’s closet, beneath the clothing rail with her skirts brushing his head. Not sitting beside her in the hospice, willing the clock on the wall to cease ticking. If only he could take that fragment of silence between two ticks, halt it, and stretch it, and freeze—
“Your health records are complete, and there are no contraindications. Place your hand on the scanner.” She was back to full typing speed, smiling at him as if pleased to be back in her natural activity.
Jameson smacked his hand down so quickly his palm twinged. “So I passed? I’m allowed to donate?”
“You passed your health screening,” she corrected him. “The next step is a discussion with a psychiatrist. You should be called within thirty minutes.”
The waiting room was boring in its adherence to convention — white plastic chairs bolted to the floor, an artificial potted plant lazing in the corner, a counter behind which two uniformed women murmured to each other. In the time he’d been speaking to the administrator, the half-dozen nervously waiting people had been reduced to a single man shivering in the far corner. His head was bowed so low that Jameson could only make out a tonsure-like bald spot in the middle of his golden hair. Perhaps a monk, wishing to benefit a random member of society by offering the ultimate gift?
Jameson sat gingerly on the opposite side of the room, wondering how many donors were rejected before they reached the face-to-face interview. The first step, a mind-bogglingly detailed online health screening, took into account not only actual health, but genetic predisposition. A claim of “never been sick a day in my life” wasn’t worth squat if some previously unknown genetic time bomb was likely to strike you down imminently. The donation procedure was delicate enough, and no doctor worth their oath would risk two lives in order to give one person a minimal amount of extra life.
Not officially, anyway. The black market would do anything, but Jameson didn’t have enough money to consider that option. Anna might reject his gift even if it was clean and above board; he’d once seen her throw a near-tantrum in the PhotoCorp canteen because she discovered one of the lunch options contained black market onions. She’d smack his face if he offered her an illegal substitute. No, his only chance was to donate by the book.
The receptionist called his name and pointed him to the next door.
The shrink looked as though he’d just been released from plastic and set down outside the box he’d been shipped in. Even his shiny brown hair appeared artificial. His smile was quick and his handshake hardly more than a brushing of skin. “Just have a seat. I’ll have a look over your file.”
Jameson glanced around the room in case there were any hints of what he could expect — maybe a thick tome with the title Ways to convince a psychiatrist that ending your life on behalf of another person is a good option.
None of these rooms had clocks, or any indication of time passing. Not even windows.
The shrink made him run through the same litany to verify his identity. It occurred to him that no one had yet asked him the name of his beneficiary.
Then, as if reading his mind, the shrink asked him just that.
He hated himself for hesitating before saying her name. “Anna Runaskaye.”
The shrink wasn’t typing, just watching him. “What relationship is she to you?”
Jameson tried not to squirm. If he were able to say “girlfriend” or “wife” (not that he could imagine that for a moment) or even “college roommate,” no real explanation would be needed. Details would be pried out, of course, but a gift was considered natural with such a verified, official relationship. There were rumors that spouses or family members blackmailed each other, but since no shrink would approve of a donation made with any hint of emotional coercion, they were quickly weeded out.
“I was Anna’s line manager for two years,” Jameson finally said. “She transferred from another department and worked for me until she left the company, when she first became ill. At the time, we had no idea of how ill she actually was.”
“How well do you know her?”
Anna loved heights, sang on key but in a limited range, loathed ice cream to the extent of retching when anyone so much as mentioned it. She was mostly a stranger to him.
“More importantly, why have you chosen to die and give the rest of your life to a former employee?”
Well, that was the central question, was it not?
Jameson had rehearsed and revised a thousand responses, but now that he was on the spot, he simply said, “I don’t want to live in a world she doesn’t exist in, where I can’t think about her and know that she’s somewhere. I have no family and there’s nothing so important to me that I feel any need to stick around for it. I’ve lived a fairly decent life so far, and I’d rather give the rest of my life to her.”
The shrink followed up with some seemingly casual remarks, to which Jameson responded as honestly as possible. Inside, though, he was hysterical. What if the shrink said no?
Anna’s records were brought up on screen, and Jameson wasn’t surprised when the shrink commented, “She’s certainly very ill. And she’s only twenty-six.”
“How?” Jameson couldn’t help bursting out. “I don’t understand how it’s even possible for her to be this sick at her age. Hasn’t medicine gotten rid of nearly everything except accidents?”
Anna had once mentioned, almost diffidently, that her mother died young. She must have known, or at least suspected, that she herself might follow the same path, even with so many scientific advances.
The shrink made a tight-lipped face meant to indicate agreement. “Obviously it’s quite unusual. Most likely bad genetics, though there could be environmental factors or the result of childhood trauma. In her case it’s impossible to tell.”
“Why in her case? Surely everyone has some tangled genetics. And why can’t you access her childhood records to check whether there’s any trauma?”
The shrink gave him a quizzical plastic glance. “She’s an immigrant from an unstable region. Her country of birth doesn’t exist anymore. Between a third-world medical history and whatever nutritional deficits she was subjected to, not to mention the destruction of infrastructure and records, she simply doesn’t have a verifiable background.”
Jameson had to remind himself not to attack the shrink for talking disparagingly about a person who was merely a name on a screen to him. He wished for his camera, so he could freeze the man in his beige chair.
Anna couldn’t have been more than eight when she emigrated. Certainly she had come over young enough to learn her new language fluently and speak it with a native accent. “Is her birthplace going to be a contraindication?” Jameson asked, trying to ensure his voice didn’t shake. “Or the lack of records?”
The shrink glanced at the screen for several moments, clicking through pages. “I shouldn’t think so,” he said after an endless moment. “The health system was far inferior, and riddled with irregularities even before the uprisings, but the only factor that would preclude her outright from receiving a donation would be if she herself had already tried to donate to another person, and failed to complete the procedure. Given her age when she came here, that obviously isn’t an issue. Her lack of early medical history means we’ll have to be particularly careful with the procedure, and install a few additional failsafes, but the crucial factors are her actual health — and yours. At the moment, I can’t see any reason why either of these will prove problematic.” He turned back to Jameson and smiled stiffly. “But then again, that’s all been covered in the health screening. I’m concerned with your emotional health. You are, after all, asking me to let you commit suicide — albeit with the most altruistic reason possible.”
Jameson felt distant and reserved, as if it were some cold utilitarian equation where you could tot up the number of years and divide them more equitably. Why had he been given a safe, privileged upbringing, whereas Anna had known hunger and fear and upheaval? Surely letting her live the remainder of his life was only fair. He was simply trying to balance the raging disparity doled out by the cosmic decider who handed out life and death as if he were the dealer at a rigged blackjack table.
Most of the time, Jameson felt quite comfortable in thinking about it in this way, as if he were watching a photograph of his immutable decision.
But there were moments, almost unrecognizable as he sat in a well-lit room, moments of shivering in the rain and scraping his hands against the bricks that made up the outer wall of Anna’s building, moments when he gritted his teeth and locked down his lungs. Only if he could force everything to stop — the universe, the vile marauding cancer cells, the clocks, his own life — did he have any chance of keeping Anna alive.
It didn’t really matter that it would be her husband, not Jameson, who touched the back of her neck when he passed her in the kitchen; it wasn’t like that at all. Jameson knew he could never sit down at the blackjack table, turn over a card, and find a meadow of daisies, or a string quartet, or the chemical equation for happiness. The universe, for all its chaos and possibility, could never shuffle the deck thoroughly enough to deal him a hand in which Anna looked at him with love.
He had sat helplessly at his mother’s bedside, offering nothing but love, and she had still died. Now, in addition to love, he could offer the rest of his life.
The donation preparation was complete, except for the final pair of signatures.
Jameson left the building, blinking in the sudden sunshine. There was no way to know exactly how much time he could give Anna, but apart from his mother — who had died from pneumonia complications exacerbated by a heatless winter — his immediate family members had all lived into their seventies. Most likely, he had over twenty years left. The fact that those years could somehow be scooped out of him and dropped into another human being, like a ball of vanilla ice cream into a waiting waffle cone … well, they could, and he had asked for permission to do so, and it had been granted.
The shrink emphasized that Anna might accept the donation and then step out into oncoming traffic; even the mandatory year of post-donation counseling could not always prevent such overwhelming guilt. However, assuming she accepted the gift completely, Jameson could be reasonably assured that after his ashes were buried, Anna would live for quite a long time.
Now he just had to tell Anna, and ask her to sign the document.
Given what he’d heard from Anna’s former colleagues — conversations in which he’d carefully maneuvered the discussion so as to gain information without giving his own personal interest away — Anna stayed home except for increasingly futile medical treatments. A particularly horrible outcome for a woman who had regularly taken vacations which allowed her to hang by her fingertips off the sides of mountains, chattering about her adventures upon returning to the office, waving her hands so dramatically she was always at risk of bruising herself against the office walls.
Jameson could barely imagine her restricted to her own apartment, surrounded by photographs and souvenirs that reminded her there was still a world her rapidly degenerating body would no longer allow her to meet.
He sent Anna a brief note, despairing that she wouldn’t respond. Why should she? He’d been her crotchety boss, undoubtedly far too harsh on her. Whenever she’d ducked out for fifteen minutes, returning to her desk with red-rimmed eyes, he despised himself, but treating her sharply and refusing to make allowances for her mistakes was the only way he could distance himself from the joy he felt in her sheer existence. What if she read his note and decided she had no need of this man in her life again, even for a brief social call?
But Anna wrote back within an hour — pleasantly, though without indication that his out-of-the-blue email meant much. She suggested he come the day after next. On her treatment days, she was too exhausted to communicate. She wrote this apologetically, as if worried that her medical needs might inconvenience him.
Oh Anna, he murmured that evening, as he leaned against the outer wall of her building and stroked the bricks, you have no idea.
He spent that extra day tidying up his affairs: bringing his will up-to-date and inserting the necessary clauses required for life donation, making arrangements for disposing of his furniture and ending his lease and handing in his notice to PhotoCorp. He was somewhat surprised at how easy it was for a human being to cease imposing on the world.
He left all his actual possessions to a charity that preserved historic photographs, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave any specific instructions for his mother’s rings, or his personal photo albums. He took one final glance through his careful records of his parents and other relatives, places around the city where he felt safe, Anna at office parties and other company outings when taking her picture wasn’t a huge risk. He packed the albums and rings in a box, fully aware that he was fooling himself, and amended the will to leave them to Anna.
Eventually, life stopped whether you wanted it to or not. No photograph could prevent that. The best thing was to control the stopping, so in that moment before your heart gave that final beat you could think, at least I provided a smidgen of goodness that was not here before.
It was strange to walk boldly into the front door of Anna’s building and take the elevator up sixteen flights, rather than sneaking to the back alley.
Anna’s husband opened the door. His face was drawn. “Can I help you?”
“I’m Jameson Lemuel; I used to work with—”
“Anna said you’d be calling, but she’s unwell today.” His body language, his bitten-off words, even his brassy hair seemed to be repelling Jameson. “Did you want to leave something for her?”
Jameson tried to suppress the swell of jealousy he felt towards this somber, bitter man. But of course, anyone who had the glory of being married to Anna and thought he was about to lose her would be fundamentally unhappy. “It’s important. This will be the last time I ever see her.”
He was astonished at how calmly he stated that.
Anna’s husband looked as though he’d prefer to push Jameson down the garbage chute, but he stepped back.
Anna was lying on an overstuffed sofa that seemed on the verge of swallowing her up. For an instant she was nothing more than an ill, pale woman. Jameson swallowed hard as he took her hand, squeezing it as gently as if it were a butterfly.
“How are you feeling?” The pill bottles and antiseptic smell told him enough. If he closed his eyes, he might have been hiding under the clothing rail again, praying beyond hope to make the ticking stop.
“Yesterday’s treatment didn’t go well. They keep frowning when they think I don’t see.” Her hands looped feebly in conjunction with her words. She wasn’t wearing any rings.
Jameson knew he should lead up to the announcement carefully, not plunge into it as if he were stepping off a hangman’s trap door. After all, he’d been thinking about the decision for months, whereas Anna had no context or awareness. But the pressure had been building up in him, as if the second hand of his clock had been forced to remain still until — thanks to the unstoppable passage of time — sudden freedom pushed it forward into its rightful place.
“Anna, I want to…” He dropped to his knees beside the sofa, trembling with the intimacy of her lovely face so near his own. “I’ve decided … to donate the rest of my life to you. At least two decades, possibly more.” Only the thought of her husband in the next room prevented him from stroking her face. “It’s all I can give you, but it’s yours. There can’t be a world for me without you in it. Please take it, please; it’s worth nothing to me if you aren’t here. Just think about me, once in a while, on top of a mountain somewhere.”
Anna’s eyes widened.
She looked past Jameson and shrieked a few unintelligible words.
Her husband elbowed Jameson out of the way, bending over the sofa, murmuring in the same language.
Jameson backed off, reeling from the emotional gush that accompanied his outburst, his mind straining to comprehend the foreign syllables.
Anna’s head rested against her husband’s hair, golden hair that failed to grow within a small bald patch on the back of his head, like a monk’s tonsure.
“He’s donating,” Jameson choked. “You’re going to take his donation.”
He yearned to pull them apart and scream, I am offering you the rest of your lives together. Neither of you will have to make that sacrifice. Can’t you be in the slightest bit grateful? Or even acknowledge that I’m here?
Her husband rocked back on his heels, bowing his head.
Anna stared up at Jameson, her face tearful. “Not you too. Not both of you. I can’t do this again.”
Did she mean that she was accepting both donations? Or turning both of them down?
“Anna,” he said helplessly.
But if her husband had already offered to donate … if Anna lived on, and her husband died, and Jameson himself did not have to die for her to live…
No, he couldn’t think about that.
Anna said a few soft words to her husband, who stood and left the room without looking back at either of them.
“I wanted to save my mother,” Jameson said brokenly. “I wanted to stop time. Even if that meant freezing the rest of the universe in place. I would have donated to her if I could have — I mean that,” he said emphatically. “I was only twelve, but I knew what it meant to love someone enough to rip out the rest of your life and give it to her.”
“I was six when my mother died,” Anna said faintly. “And I knew what it meant, too. So much better than you.”
It took him several moments to piece together her meaning. “You couldn’t have tried to donate your life to your mother. Not at six! No medical professional could possibly allow such an unethical— ”
“In my godforsaken home country? Only foreign suckers worried about ethics. There was a black market for everything — meat, clothing, children — why not life?” Her hands were struggling to shape her words, as if she were scrabbling at the base of an infinite mountain. “I brought my only doll to church so I could place it on the altar. I told my father I would give anything to God if it would convince him to let Mamuska stay with us. My father had already sold one of my brothers to a rich foreign couple. Why not sacrifice another child so that his wife could live? The very next night … he told me we were going for ice cream.”
She was openly sobbing, and Jameson could barely see her through his own wall of tears.
“They tied us up side-by-side, as if we were animals. Even though she barely had any strength, she tilted her head away as if she couldn’t bear to watch me. She never told them to stop. I failed her. I killed—”
“You were a child!” Jameson screamed.
Anna wiped her eyes, the tears streaming down her thin hands. “My father hanged himself. My aunt and uncle adopted me, spent two years lying and stealing to get our exit visas. I thought I’d left all that corruption behind, and then I got sick. What they did to me means I can’t take your gift, or my husband’s. I’m sorry. I never even dreamed you thought of me that way.”
“You were innocent,” Jameson pleaded. “You don’t deserve to be punished for what they did to you. If anything, it’s only fair to give you extra life to make up for it. Let me give you this gift—”
“I told you, I can’t take it! They broke me, trying to force me to donate when I was six years old. Physically, a donation won’t work. It’s impossible now. They made me try to save my mother, and now I can’t be saved.”
In the alley sixteen flights below Anna’s apartment, impervious to the rain rushing down, Jameson crouched against the wall, stroking the bricks with his fingers. He willed them to freeze, to slow time into stasis so that they existed with no more motion than a photograph, to protect Anna for the rest of his life.
Tracey S. Rosenberg lives and writes in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her novel The Girl in the Bunker (Cargo Publishing, 2011) was a Scotland on Sunday Book of the Year. She’s published poems and short stories in a variety of journals, including New Writing Scotland, Gutter, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. She regularly performs her own work and will be appearing in Canada and Sweden later this year.