When the Xiongs’ only son died, instead of calling the crematorium and arranging for a funeral, the family came to me.
Pneumonia, they told me. Never mind the blunt-force trauma to his face and head, the ugly concavities causing dips in the white sheet wrapped around his body. It was late-onset pneumonia. Tragic.
“Tragic,” I agreed, slipping the smooth envelope they had laid on the table into my pocket. “I’ll need you to sign this waiver.”
There are three rules I operate under, and I make my clients understand before they sign anything. I speak slowly, look into their grief-filled eyes, do my best to get clarify without dissuading them from the idea that they need my help.
I need six months, minimum, to grow a new body. I need time to run mobility tests, to make sure those new-formed eyes, ears, and mouth work. To teach this blinking, wet-skinned creature to talk and emulate humanity.
I take cash only, in two payments. Half up front, half upon completion. No refunds at any stage in the process.
I am not God. I cannot bring back the dead. But I can give them the next best thing. For some families, that’s enough.
Alone in my lab, I peeled away the sheet covering the Xiong boy. Bruises blossomed across his face, around his neck, down his ribs. I could see the shape of him as he might have been: tall and skinny, with short thumbs and a nose that would have been pretty if it hadn’t been knocked out of place.
My job wasn’t to ask questions, just to reconstruct. And yet I asked them anyway, in the privacy of this quiet, cold, bright-lit place.
“What did you do?” I murmured. My hands memorized the shape of his face, the abrupt dips and jagged shifts of bone where his body had broken. “Didn’t live up to their expectations, so they came for a replacement?” Although they’d never laid a finger on me, my parents had been much the same; I’d left before they could break me.
The Xiong boy hadn’t been so lucky. I wondered if he had dropped out of school, or fallen in love with the wrong person. And I knew the shape that adult fists and kitchen countertops left on bodies.
I hadn’t heard Lilin come in. She draped her arms around me from behind, her silky pale hair pooling over my shoulders.
“New client? I was wondering why you’d vanished for so long.”
I wrapped my hand around hers. She was getting thin. “Yes. First consultation today. It was a rough one.”
“Come inside,” she murmured. “Where it’s warm. It’s so cold in here.”
I kissed her gently. “I’ll be there in a second. I’d like some time alone with him before I start.”
Lilin’s hand paused over the Xiong boy’s bruised neck. “Take all the time you need,” she said quietly. Her dark, luminous eyes were unreadable.
As she disappeared on silent, elegant feet, I glanced at the calendar and my lips tightened. It seemed the Xiong boy’s body wouldn’t be the only one I needed to grow by summertime.
There is a stipulation in my waiver that people often overlook, or decide to forget. And no matter how often I bring it up, the effect of seeing a lost lover or child again tends to wipe one’s memory of inconvenient facts. There are limits to what I can do. The creatures I grow in tanks, nurturing from tiny clusters of stem cells cut from rabbits and reshaped to my liking, do not live long. They thrive for a year, maybe two, maybe three, before they start to deteriorate. My process is imperfect, and I haven’t figured out how to make them last longer than that. Rabbits are rabbits, after all, even if they wear human skin.
After losing their loved ones twice, many people learn to leave well enough alone. But there are always the families who keep coming back, in hopes of achieving their perfect child. To mold them in their own image and reshape them to their liking.
Those families? I will take their money again and again, until they realize that they do not own the people they love, that they cannot buy another person’s destiny. Their pride keeps my pockets full. Mine keeps my heart lonely, even with Lilin’s arms around me, her pulse beating inhuman fast, my guilt all over her slender frame.
It took me eight months, but the Xiongs left with elated faces, their new son following behind on quiet, elegant feet. As he glanced behind him, his eyes dark and liquid, I knew that they would be back in a year’s time, if that. “Only feed him vegetables,” I had told them, but I could tell they weren’t listening. Neither of them had looked at me from the moment I had brought him into the room. “His body isn’t built to handle meat.” The imprint of their bodies on the couch lingered, and I ran my fingers over the dent the new son had left behind. His body looked the same, but it was so much lighter than the original had been. I could already see the Xiongs cooking all of their son’s old favorite dishes. Steamed fish, xiaolong bao, the chocolates and sweets they had been so strict with when their son was a child. “It’s a shame,” said Lilin. She watched from the door, her body full and healthy. I remembered the first time I had seen her in a cage at the pet store, her white fur luminous, her black eyes shining like two round stones. The first time I lifted her, new-born, from one of my tanks and felt her pulse racing against mine. “I made some oolong,” said Lilin. There was sympathy in her face. “There’s extra. Would you like some?” I laid the Xiongs’ money on the table to deal with later. She didn’t yet know that I hated oolong. “Yes,” I said. “I’d like to spend some time with you.”