A Puddle of Dead
by Grayson Bray Morris
This story was first published in Daily Science Fiction in 2011. Its permalink is here.
Henry came back to me in 2048, fifteen years after he’d left.
I was married by then, with two kids. I was happy. But when I opened the door and saw Henry standing there, my heart sang.
He hadn’t aged a day: still that same mouse-brown hair in lazy waves to his chin, that same trim body in jeans and a flannel shirt, the same warm, wintry scent that made me think of crackling fires and roasting nuts.
“I spent everything I had to see you one last time,” he said. Henry’d never had much, never cared to have much, but I heard the important thing: he’d spent it all on me.
The kids were away and my husband was working late. I let Henry in and made him the best dinner I’d cooked in weeks. I chopped up the eggplant and the imported onions for Saturday’s company and rolled out fresh lasagne. Henry stood beside me while I chopped and mixed, and it was like he’d never gone. We talked about old friends and favorite movies, bands we loved and writers we hated. After dinner we moved to the living room, and there on the couch I unbuttoned his flannel shirt. I don’t know why it was so easy. I wasn’t discontented; I loved my husband well enough. But loving Henry seemed right that night. It seemed inevitable.
I ran my hands over his smooth, hairless chest, the skin still as soft and young as then.
“I’ve gained fifteen pounds and a face full of crow’s feet, but you haven’t changed a bit,” I said.
He smiled, wrinkling the blue eyes I remembered, and put a hand on my cheek. “I stopped the drugs. I got clean. I wanted you to know.”
I kissed him then, and tasted the sweet tang of tomato and basil, the subtle bite of good Merlot, and a fine and heady flavor that still came to me sometimes in dreams.
Afterward, I leaned against him and said, “You left me for the drugs. I never forgave you for that.”
“You forgave me tonight,” he said, kissing my hair. “That’s why I came.”
I pulled away to look at him. “After fifteen years, you wanted my forgiveness?”
“I loved you, Mia, and I threw you away to chase chemical highs. I should have thrown away the drugs instead, and been the father of your children.”
I started to cry. There was nothing I had wanted more, fifteen years ago. But Henry had walked away.
“You’ve ruined my life,” I wailed at him. “I was doing okay, and now you’ve come back. What a mess.”
“No, Mia.” He took my face in his hands. “I’m not back. One last time, remember? You’ll never see me again after tonight.”
“What?” My chest hurt. “Henry Wilton, you can’t do this to me again.” I slapped his face and cried.
“Remember me like this, Mia,” he said, pulling on me until I gave in and leaned into him. “Remember that I love you more than life itself.”
After fifteen years, Henry had resurfaced, and he still loved me. I couldn’t let him go, of course.
At nine o’clock he told me goodbye and walked back through my door. I watched him lope down the stairs with that easy gait of his, then out the building’s entrance. I counted to six, and then I followed him.
He led me south down Racline Avenue, past the neat brownstones and the office quarter, into the seedy part of town. Halfway down Patson I started getting catcalls and whistles, but Henry didn’t turn to look. Why would he? There were hookers on every corner, dopers in every alley, sidewalk criers pimping the city’s cleanest sex-vid suites and sense-holos that were better than the real thing!
Henry ducked into a darkened side street and I almost lost him; the weak light from an opening door found him for me again. I followed him up the greasy stairs, staying one flight behind, glad for the arguments behind thin walls that muffled my steps. He knocked on a door on the third floor; it cracked, then opened to swallow him whole.
What had I been thinking, following Henry into Sin City? He hadn’t quit at all. No, coming here, to a dump like this, he had to still be using. I’d followed a lie.
But I was here now.
I left the stairwell and knocked on the door. A pair of dark eyes squinted at me through the crack. “Yeah?”
“I’m here for Henry.”
“Don’t know no Henry.”
Yeah, right. “The guy that just walked in here. I’m his skin.” I’d learned the jargon fifteen years ago; I hoped it hadn’t changed.
The door swung open and a short, fat man let me in without a word. I followed him to the back.
I sat on a filthy, sagging couch without cushions that smelled of perfume and vomit, beside an emaciated girl with wide, empty eyes. There were three or four more like her, scabby skin flaking and dessicated hair falling out in patches. The fat man said “him” and pointed at a chair in the corner, and I saw the fifth one. He was too far gone to walk, nothing but a bag of bones, with gaping sores where the bugs that make the dope had finally eaten their way to the outside. Two boys came in and picked the doper up, then carried him down the hall.
“That far gone, and still using,” I whispered, aghast.
“He ain’t using no more,” the girl beside me said. She laughed, as if it were the funniest thing. “He here to pay his last respects.”
“You.” The fat man was back, pointing at me. “Get up.”
The fat man led me through a bookcase, down four flights of stairs, through a triple-padlocked door and down another hall into a surprisingly clean room, jolting my understanding of where I was. As soon as the door closed behind us, his demeanor changed.
“Do you know where you are, ma’am?” he asked me.
I shook my head, thoroughly confused.
“I didn’t think so. ‘Skin’ fell out of fashion ten years ago, before our work existed.” He smiled at me. “You’re in a wish house. What we do isn’t legal, but we feel a moral obligation to serve those in need.”
“You help dopers die,” I said, thinking I understood.
The fat man shook his head. “No, ma’am. They’re already dying. We help them use the time they have left for that one last, most important thing.”
The double import of his words sliced into me, and I started to cry. “I don’t understand. I just saw him an hour ago. He was in perfect health. He can’t be dying.”
“Your Henry still has a little energy left,” he said softly. “Enough for one last glimpse. Come with me.”
Henry lay on a molded table, completely encased in a bulky white suit hooked up to a ceramic box, invisible behind the opaque visor of his flat-fronted helmet, like a space miner or a virtuvid gamer.
Or a gravewalker.
“I thought those were forbidden technology,” I said.
“They are,” the fat man replied. Then he closed the door and left us alone.
Several years back, some government scientist figured out how to extract energy from dead things. The discovery was hailed as the solution to Earth’s energy crisis: suck the remaining life out of banana peels, dead rats, anything that had once lived. It didn’t solve all our energy problems, but it did halve them, and the government scientist won a Nobel prize.
Then another government scientist figured out how to channel the energy back into physical form. Not just any form; for reasons too complicated for me to understand, the energy from a dead banana would only make another banana without requiring thousands of times the juice. But the banana it made was young and firm: it would seem the banana had been reborn. The rematter cage, and the men who created it, made the cover of Global News Weekly. It had been massive news.
It didn’t take long for someone—someone not on the government payroll—to try it on dead bodies.
There was a catch, of course. It was all so terribly inefficient. Only a fraction of the energy in a thing could be extracted; only a fraction of that could be converted back to substance. So the reborn banana was lovely, but it was ephemeral: it lasted a matter of minutes, maybe an hour. Then it flickered, thinned, and evaporated, leaving nothing the scientists could measure in its wake.
As a way to cheat death, then, the technology was a failure.
But the terminally ill, people in chronic pain, people locked in bodies that had failed them, they all flocked to the idea: take the energy from their traitorous bodies and create a new one. Better a few hours lived well than years hobbling forth in misery. Alas, choosing the time and manner of one’s death is as illegal today as it has always been. The government banned the gravewalker suits and executed the men who’d created them for habitually aiding and abetting suicide. Ironic, isn’t it?
That made the cover of Global News Weekly, too.
“Henry?” I said. Then louder: “Henry?”
Metal scraped the tile floor behind me and I turned. Young, perfect Henry stood up from a stool behind the door. He had a photo vault in his hands, its thin display pages sprawled open like an old-fashioned book.
“Why didn’t you come to me for real?” I wailed. “We could have had years together.”
He shook his head. “I fucked up my life, Mia. There was no other way back to you.”
“You never stopped using, did you?” I wasn’t accusing him. I understood why he’d lied to me. “That’s why you never came for me.”
“I quit years ago. After I got clean, I went looking for you.” He closed his eyes. “Someone else was the father of your kids, and you seemed happy. So I started over without you, but there was no life for me without you. Not clean.” His mouth trembled. “So I started using again.”
“Oh, god, Henry,” I whispered. “I would have left him for you in a heartbeat.”
He put his face in his hands and wept. I wept with him.
“Well, we’re here now,” I finally croaked. He lifted his face, and I pulled him to me. “Spend the rest of your life with me, Henry Wilton. Till death do us part.”
We kissed urgently, greedily, until his lips no longer pressed into mine but only brushed them; then they were gone, and I was left kissing air beside a puddle of dead in a gravewalker suit.
My husband called me out on the photograph when he got home after midnight. “What’s this supposed to mean?” he said, his voice equal parts worry and anger. “Why is your old boyfriend’s picture on the mantel?”
“In memoriam,” I called from the bedroom. “I found out Henry died today.”
“Huh,” my husband grunted, unbuckling his pants as he came into the room. “Well, that’s a shame, honey. I know he meant a lot to you once. Awful young to die.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you want to go to the funeral?” he asked, suddenly magnanimous. “We can get a sitter for the kids.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t need to see the body. I’ve already said my own private goodbye.”
My husband nodded and climbed into bed. “I’m sure he heard you, sweetie, wherever he is now.”
“Yes.” I laid my hand on his and gave him a little squeeze. “I know he did.”