Flinch

When you go grave robbing, timing is everything. If you pick a freshly dug site, the soft and relatively unpacked earth means you can reach the casket in under two hours. If you wait too long, the ground dries out and the pressure of time means you’ve got a long, backbreaking night ahead of you.

For fresh cases, you should target those families who sprung for a hermetically sealed coffin. That keeps insects, debris, and vermin away for a little while. Of course, if you wait too long, you’ll open the casket to find a putrefied soup.

You’ve got to plan, but you also need your fair share of luck. You’re looking for cool, clear weather, ideally in the spring or summer. Winter makes the digging virtually impossible, and heavy rain requires you to bring a sump pump and a generator if you want to get anywhere at all.

Once you’ve unearthed the casket and opened it, you find yourself face to face with the corpse. It’s easiest when you don’t know the person. But if you’ve just dug up the sister who held you close as you hid in a closet during your father’s drunken rages, you might feel a twinge of horror as you look into a lifeless face. Put the useless sense of revulsion out of your mind, raise your axe high, and swing for decapitation.

And whatever you do from here on out, don’t flinch.

*          *          *

My 13-year-old self woke to a broken zygomatic bone and the sterile smell of plastic sheets. I immediately realized I was in a hospital, but I didn’t know who held my hand. The person sat to my right, stroking just below the wrist. The purple swelling of my face hid my good eye from their perspective, making it look like I was still sleeping.

Emergency rooms are filled with quiet noise – everybody walking on eggshells until they’re needed, then bursting into action. A nurse stood at the door, watching me. With the comfort of a third party to protect me, I turned my head. Emelie’s olive skin and raven hair greeted me, and I sighed in relief.

“He did a number on you this time, Roosevelt,” she said. Then, leaning in closer, “It doesn’t have to be this way. We could fight back.”

I ran my functioning eye up and down Emelie’s body. She had taken the wide frame, muscular build, and tenacity that our father had passed down, leaving me with little more than pasty skin and a big brain.

“How?” I asked.

“Get better first. Then I’ll show you.”

She let go of my hand and moved to touch me on the shoulder. Despite myself, I flinched as though she were about to hit me.

*          *          *

My Eastern European castle lies close enough to civilization to access the power grid but far enough away to avoid nosy onlookers. It’s the type of crumbling ruin normally reserved for postcards. But I didn’t spend my life savings on it for the grandeur and wonder; I did it so I could spit in God’s eye.

The surrounding hills are prone to extreme lightning storms during the summer, perfect for my enhanced power needs. While the quitters started measuring Emelie’s life in months and weeks, I gathered equipment. I broke out my encyclopedic knowledge of biology, chemistry, and scientific fields that have yet to be fully defined and prepared to do the impossible. All it took to finish the job was my sister’s freshly-deceased brain.

After the thunder clears and the elevated platform descends from the castle’s ceiling, I’m left with the whiff of ozone mingling with the overpowering scent of formaldehyde. Now it’s just a waiting game.

No need to pace or fret. I’m in control of my situation – I have been since my teen years. When she rises from the table, I don’t cackle with glee. I give a curt nod as reality confirms what I already expected.

Her body is a mass of discoloration and scars covered only by a bedsheet. Her skin is badly jaundiced, and will remain so until her stolen liver begins functioning properly. But her face is Emelie’s, and the brain inside will eventually think her thoughts.

“Roosevelt…?”

“Welcome back, sis,” I say with a smile.

“How did…what did you do?”

I place my hands on her shoulders – slightly broader than before, but I’m not out to make an exact replica. “I brought you back – replaced your old diseased body with something stronger and more durable.” I run a finger down her arm, all stitches and scars like a human-skin quilt. “It’s crude, I admit. But I can keep working and make improvements as the years go on. You’ll never be sick or weak again.”

She gives a sound that seems like a cross between a groan and her clearing her throat. She frowns, the wrinkles of her face folding in on themselves like a collapsing tent. Then a look of realization washes over her and she smiles. Pushing my hands away, she lets the bedsheet fall away and pulls me close, pressing the side of my head to the base of her neck like she used to. “Thank you.”

My bones creak under the pressure of her grip. She doesn’t know her own strength yet. But I’m used to pain, and I know how to push past it.

*          *          *

My 14-year-old self fell to the ground again and tasted the saltiness of blood as my teeth scraped against the inside of my cheek. My eyes stung with frustration. I almost let myself flop backward and collapse in the dimly-lit parking lot.

“Get up,” said Emelie.

I pressed my elbows against the rough asphalt and pushed myself into a sitting position. Before going any further, I extended my arms outward, signaling that I needed a hug first.

“Come on,” she said, ignoring the gesture. “We don’t have all night.”

I looked significantly around the lot. A single street lamp illuminated our teenage fight club with flickering yellow light. Our bikes lay next to it, and the empty grocery store at the front of the lot had boards on its windows.

“Nobody’s going to interrupt us,” I said. “And for all we know, Dad’s never coming back. We can take a break.”

With a growl, she grabbed me roughly by the collar of my polo shirt and hauled me to my feet.

“He’ll be back,” she said. “Sooner or later, he’ll get sick of the world kicking him around and he’ll come looking for someone to take it out on. I can take care of myself. You’ve made no progress.”

I wrenched her hand off my shirt and took a few steps away. “What if fighting’s not my thing? What if I figure out other ways to defend myself?”

“You can’t think your problems to death, Roosevelt.”

“I don’t want to keep throwing punches at people I love.”

My words caused her to step back – the only solid blow I had landed on her all evening. Then her face darkened and she made a fist. “Then what good are you?”

The blow came in faster than I could react. I hit the pavement again, gasping for air and feeling a burning sensation in my chest. She walked to her bike.

*          *          *

We remain inside for the first few days, her getting used to her new form and me repairing the fixtures that sustain damage from her new superhuman physique. Her skin gets increasingly jaundiced in the dim dreariness of the castle, to the point where she has an almost orange hue. Other than the jaundice, though, her body remains in good condition. The preservatives in her skin keep her flesh from decaying, as expected. Her cell structure regenerates quickly but at a controlled rate, allowing for rapid healing without the formation of tumors.

The sunlight staggers her when we first venture outside together. She hisses like an animal and waves her arms as though she can swat the giant light in the sky away.

“Calm down,” I tell her. “Your eyes will adjust in a moment.”

“Don’t tell me to stay calm, you little bastard!” Her arm thrusts out blindly, but still catches her by the front of the throat with amazing speed and accuracy. “You’re trying to kill me again. You’re trying to…to…”

My ears throb with the thunder of blood rushing to my head. She has me completely at her mercy; an extra squeeze can crush my trachea, or a twist in either direction could snap my spine. I let my body grow limp and keep my face expressionless as I stare at her, waiting for her to come to her senses. Finally, her grip loosens as her vision clears.

“Roosevelt, I’m sorry. I…”

“No need to…apologize,” I croak, rubbing the rapidly-forming bruises around my neck. “Momentary bouts of psychosis are to be expected. Your brain is still adjusting to your body’s new chemical composition. Some…unexpected side effects might occur. Maybe even…”

But she’s not listening anymore. She’s taking in her surroundings – the green hills, the sunlight that illuminates the crags and scars of the old castle walls. The trill of cicadas echoes in the distance, and the sweet aroma of flowers fills the air.

“What are these?” she asks, gesturing toward the flowers.

“Hyacinths,” I respond, my voice as dry and coarse as sawdust. “Your favorite, remember?”

She touches the petals of the blooming flowers with a delicacy that is the exact opposite of her outburst a moment ago. I feel the corner of my lips tick upward as I recall our summers together – running away, looking for patches of these flowers and old ruins in which to hide away. If our pre-teen selves had found this place, we never would have gone home.

The delicacy disappears with the speed of a passing storm cloud as she grabs one of the plants by the stem and tears it up by the roots. Then she crushes the petals experimentally, creating a purple smear against her patchwork hand.

“They’re interesting,” she says.

“They’re beautiful,” I correct.

But she’s already distracted by something else, wandering down the hill toward the dusty dirt road that leads to our front door.

While the body that currently houses Emelie’s brain looks vaguely human, its true nature is clear to see. She now stands almost two meters tall, with her piecemeal nature still obvious thanks to stitches I have yet to remove. The simple black dress she wears does little to hide her deathly yellow skin, and her tangled, unkempt hair completes the picture of a movie monster. I should stop her from wandering too far away from the castle walls until she looks more presentable.

Instead I lose myself in thought, contemplating the adjustments I need to make. Raising her serotonin and oxytocin levels might reduce the outbursts. If I get the balance right, she never has to raise a fist in anger again.

I snap back to reality just in time to see a passerby in the distance drop his walking stick in shock as he sees Emelie from afar.

“Emmie,” I yell. She cocks her head like a dog who just heard a dinner bell. “Come on back. I need to give you some medicine.”

Walking with the off-balance gait of a giant toddler, she heads back in my direction. The man in the distance comes no further, but neither does he go on his way. He just picks up his stick and watches us.

I should go speak with him – tell him he’s not really seeing what he thinks he sees. But I have more work to do.

*          *          *

My 30-year-old self knew the diagnosis early, even though she ignored the hand tremors and muscle cramps until it was too late. By the time I finally came to see her, she couldn’t get out of bed anymore.

One eye flickered open and shut involuntarily as I surveyed the room. A quiet little suite all to herself, complete with neatly folded sheets and flowers on the windowsill. All it took to get there was landing on the brink of death.

“Go ’way,” she said through half her mouth. Then she wiped some drool away with a trembling hand.

“I’m your next of kin,” I said matter-of-factly. “They said I should come see you.”

“Why – to gloat? So you can…hrm…so you can see how weak I am?”

I took a seat in the folding chair next to her bed and touched her hand. If she felt anything, she didn’t show it.

“Our bodies betray us,” I said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s ALS or something else. But you’re lucky.”

She pulled her hand away from mine and swung upward, slapping me in the face. It stung, but I didn’t change my expression.

“You call this lucky?” she snarled. “All that…hrm…all that time trying to teach you. N-now I’m as weak as…as you.”

“You’re lucky because the disease won’t affect your brain,” I said. “You’re going to die, Emmie. But that doesn’t have to be the end of it. We can still fight back.”

“How?”

“Trust me, and I’ll show you.”

I reached out to touch her on the shoulder. This time, she flinched.

*          *          *

Playing God in a secret laboratory takes significant capital. You have to cut corners somewhere. If you want to reanimate dead tissue, you might not be able to build the electrified perimeter fence you wanted.

I encouraged Emelie to take a walk in the moonlight. She can stretch her legs, feel a little closer to human. Most people call it alone time. They often enjoy it. I just endure it.

The picture on my dresser comes from the day Emelie graduated from high school. She wears her cap and gown. I’m in a tie and blazer, standing on tiptoes as I throw an arm over her shoulder.

A shout from outside startles me out of my contemplation. It’s not her voice – it’s a man’s. Then comes a yowl that I vaguely recognize as coming from her vocal chords. Something wordless and animalistic – not a sound a human would make. A gunshot echoes through the countryside. Then there’s silence.

The full moon removes the need for a light. I slip on my shoes and head out in the direction of the struggle. I can guess the scene before I even see it.

The broken man lying in a pool of blood might have been a hunter. Or maybe he was the onlooker from yesterday, come to investigate further. His motives don’t matter because his spine has been snapped in half. His hand still clutches a useless revolver.

“He shot me,” says Emelie. She steps out of the shadow of a tree to show a front torso stained with blood. The bullet looks to have entered just below her collarbone.

“It’s okay,” I say. “You’ll survive. That’s what I made you to do.”

I look carefully at her face. No tears, but no sign of shock, either. She seems perturbed, as though her would-be killer was just some bully who kicked mud on her new dress.

“I thought you said we were safe.”

“I said nobody would hurt you.”

“I’m bleeding.”

“You are.” I step toward her and she snarls, raising a fist. With a quick step back, I reconsider my approach. “Can I see?”

The hoot of an owl causes her to whirl around and punch a tree. The wood cracks audibly from the blow. But then she’s calm – shoulders relaxed, eyes softening. “Inside,” she says. “Let’s look at it inside.” Without waiting for a response, she stalks off toward the castle.

I look at the cracked tree. “Good idea,” I say. “It’s time for more medicine.”

*          *          *

“No medicine can save her,” the doctor told me last month. Even over the crackle of the speaker phone, I could hear frustration in his voice.

“Then stop treatment,” I said, focusing on the machinery in front of me. Here I was figuring out how to harness the power of lightning and convert it into something capable of jumpstarting macrocellular regeneration, and he called long distance to talk to me about pills.

“If we do that, her lifespan becomes days instead of weeks. You might not make it home before the end.”

“I’m not coming back anyway.”

“What?”

The conversation went to static for a moment as an arc of electricity jumped between two of my Tesla coils.

“Roosevelt…are you there?” came the doctor’s voice again.

“I just bought a new home, doctor,” I responded. “And I’m in the middle of an important project. Now if you don’t mind—”

“You can’t block this out, Roosevelt! We can care for her right up to the end, but she needs family nearby. She’s miserable right now. She can barely move—”

“Let her lose this fight.” I pressed the red button to terminate the call and turned back to my work. “I’ll teach her what it takes to really win,” I told the air.

I walked over to the switch plate and pulled a lever. The air filled with the scent of burning oxygen and chlorine as lightning danced across the coils. I grinned and continued my work.

*          *          *

“It doesn’t even hurt, really,” she says as I add another stich to her jigsaw body. “It just itches.”

“It shouldn’t hurt,” I respond. “I built you to last. I didn’t want to lose my beloved sister.”

She places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. The joint gives a pop. I grit my teeth and make a mental note to modify the release of epinephrine in her system to help give her more fine control.

Pulling away, I pick up a large syringe from my workbench. “I need to give you another shot of this…so you can sleep.”

She nods and rolls up her sleeve, allowing me to inject her. Seconds later, she yawns.

“Will I always need this at night?”

“No…just until you’re ready.”

“Ready for what?”

I push her backward on the lab table. Her muscles, capable of breaking me in two, simply follow my suggestion, relaxing until she’s laying down and ready to sleep.

“Good night, Emmie.”

“Goodnight, Roosevelt,” she mutters. “And thank you.”

I wait until I’m sure she’s out, then I take a surgical pen off my workbench. Brushing the hair away from her temples, I start drawing the dotted lines over which I will cut tonight.

I have so much to do – a dead body to dispose of, a brain to repair, and suspicions to quell. But I’ll do whatever it takes to fix it all. My sister didn’t teach me how to win a fight, but she did teach me never to flinch.

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