Sofia contemplates the advertisements above the bus windows as she sways back and forth with the bumps on the road. Almost every ad features the re-gens: a smiling, ivory-faced woman suggests insurance holds the secret to eternal happiness; a now grey-looking black couple happily embrace in front of a house, a bank loan the key to their success; a group of skeletal women seem to market underwear or deodorant or both. They all share the same glassy eyes and ashy skin, not quite eliminating racial barriers as the media keeps asserting, but nevertheless creating a united front, a solidarity of pallor. In the sickly green glow
of the bus interior, Sofia thinks they look like aliens. She wonders if her own brown skin, transformed to sallow beige in the regeneration process, would look the same. The only advertisement without an undead model reads A BETTER YOU in white block letters against a black background, a small Re-Gen logo in the bottom corner identifying it as a promotion for the corporate giant.
The bus hits a deep pothole and Sofia grips the sticky bar in front of her to stay in place, accidentally brushing the shoulder of the man in the seat. When he turns slightly to give her side eye, she sees a pasty face and one slippery eyeball marking him as a re-gen. “Sorry,” she says, drawing her eyes downward with difficulty, wanting to watch him more carefully now. When she senses his head turn back towards the front of the bus, she surreptitiously examines his reflection in the window. Other than the waxen whiteness of his skin and eerily unblinking eyes he looks almost normal. The circles under his eyes are perhaps a shade too dark, but otherwise he seems like another burnt out commuter taking a late bus home from the downtown core. Sofia has not encountered a re-gen on the bus before and she wonders if he sought the treatment illegally. Surely someone with enough money to afford the centers would not need to take the bus. Or maybe he cares about the environment, taking public transit to make sure the world survives for the regenerated.
When the bus stops for a passenger, Sofia sees a flash of movement in the alley running perpendicular to her window. She squints, trying to make out shapes beyond the reflection of herself in the glass, and sees a woman stumbling next to the dumpster at the mouth of the alley. Not someone homeless, she thinks, as the woman appears well dressed, or at least better dressed than the usual transient. Sofia wonders if she should say something, alert the bus driver, but she hesitates when she sees what the woman has in her hand and when the bus starts up again, she loses her chance. She has a sick feeling in her stomach. The woman had something that looked like a dead animal held up to her mouth, the limp bundle of fur spasming with the force of her chews.
“Can you lift your arms over your head, Ana? Like this, straight up?” Sofia watched her mother try to mimic the young doctor. Ana raised both brown, gnarled arms, but held them out in front of her chest like a sleepwalker.
“Good, that’s great, Ana,” said the doctor. Sofia thought he looked late twenties, maybe thirty at best. Slim, tanned, perfect teeth. “Now, I want you to look at this clock face,” he said, pulling up a large cardboard clock with plastic minute and hour hands. “It’s three o’clock,” he said, glancing at a large gold watch on his wrist. “Can you move the hands on the clock to show the time?”
Sofia felt her face growing hot, irritation with the doctor or perhaps humiliation for Ana, but she remained quiet as she watched her mother take the clock. Ana had trouble grasping the plastic arrows, her knuckles swollen and disfigured. If not for the arthritis, her fingers would look as skeletal as the rest of her: boney shoulders hunched and protruding through the thin fabric of her summer housecoat, no muscle or fat left on her spindly legs, indigo veins tracing runnels along the paper-thin skin of her arms. She fumbled with the clock as she handed it back to the doctor with the hands set to six and eleven.
Later, Sofia tried to conceal her increasing panic as the doctor confirmed what she had already suspected. Ana had dementia: faulty motor coordination, advanced cognitive decline, trouble with simple tasks and basic communication. Blood tests and a brain scan would help to further refine the diagnosis. Her mother needed full-time care. Eventually she would be fed through a tube as her autonomic system shut down. Had she considered regeneration?
“What?” Sofia realized she had been staring at the doctor’s perfect teeth as he spoke.
“It’s completely safe and, now that the regeneration bill passed, also completely legal.”
Sofia frowned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The doctor seemed surprised. “You haven’t heard about Re-Gen? They’ve been in the news constantly with all the protests and legal challenges.”
Sofia shrugged. She had double shifts at the hospital most days and spent the rest of the time with her mother. She kept the television tuned to games shows, so she knew more about reruns of Family Feud and Match Game than current events. Maybe she had heard something in passing at work, snippets of conversation in the staff room, but if so, she had not paid much attention.
“You’re a nurse, right? The short version is researchers at the university found a way to use nanotech to prevent weakening of the cellular membrane and restore normal functioning of the body’s tissues after death. Re-Gen owns the technology.”
Sofia felt like she had back in 2001 watching footage of the first plane crash into the World Trade Center: horror, but also a feeling of depersonalization as she realized that what she saw on the screen would forever populate the history books. “That’s not possible,” she said.
The doctor smiled briefly. “Re-Gen would beg to differ. They’re already building centers in other cities. Look, it’s quite expensive and most of the people getting it done are healthy, they just want to be immortal, so to speak. But the clinical trial results are unreal: they’re literally curing cancer.”
“Wait, I don’t understand, what are you saying? When my mother dies, I should have her corpse brought back to life?”
“No, it’s nothing so vulgar as that, I don’t think they can reanimate anyone after natural death. The religious protests would be even worse if that happens.” The doctor smiled again, and Sofia tried to focus on his words rather than stare at his perfect teeth. Large, too white, and apparently symmetrical. She wondered if he had caps and why he would want his teeth to look like those wind-up chattering toy sets.
“Re-Gen patented a dual action solution that temporarily stops the patient’s heart and then restores cellular function, essentially bringing them back to life,” he continued. “The only side effect seems to be eliminating existing trauma and disease. It’s not really immortality, of course, but the drastic slow-down in cellular decline suggests the regenerated will continue their existence far beyond any normal human lifespan.” The doctor stopped and shook his head. “I can’t believe you haven’t heard about this.”
Sofia got up from the kitchen table to look in on Ana in the living room. Her mother sat on the sofa, staring at the blank television and periodically tapping the remote without managing to select the power button. Sofia had watched Ana succumb to a kind of living death over the last year, first just forgetting things like bathing, eating, and turning off the stove (which eventually led to Sofia moving in with her as a precaution), then increasing disorientation and periods of blankness as if Ana could not remember how to function in any capacity.
Her mother drifted in another world now, one that Sofia could not reach.
She turned back to the doctor. “You said it’s expensive. How much?”
“Well, I don’t know the exact figure for a medical case like Ana’s, but probably in the $500K range for an elective treatment.”
Sofia’s breath escaped in a raspy laugh. Her mother had almost no retirement savings, and even with what Sofia saved in rent by living with Ana, she could never afford such a sum. She had already researched care facilities before this appointment, and with her meagre salary, Sofia could barely afford one of the understaffed facilities subsidized by the government. For a moment, regeneration had sounded like a blessing, a way to bring her mother back to herself.
“I can set up an appointment for you at the Re-Gen Center if you like.”
She looked at the floor, hiding from the doctor’s blinding smile. “No thank you.”
Sofia reaches up for the bell pull when she sees the bus nearing her stop. She knows the approximate location of her destination but checks the map on her phone again just to be sure. The sidewalk feels slick when she disembarks, and she is glad she wore her winter boots with the thick treads. She pulls her toque down tighter, flicking strands of her chin-length, dark hair away from her face, and stuffs her gloved hands into her jacket pockets for extra warmth, still shivering from the cold air blowing against her scrubs. She feels jumpy thinking about the woman in the alley and walks at a brisk pace along the dark sidewalk, thankful for the orange halos cast by the sporadic streetlights. On 85th, she turns north and walks two blocks along a scruffy, tree-lined residential street, the leafless branches overhead clicking together in the wind like hanging bones. She stops in front of a 50s bungalow with a spiky hedge marking the property line, and a crumbling walk leading to a side door emitting jaundiced light from its window. Sofia checks the address one more time, takes a deep breath, and marches to the door with a confidence she does not feel.
On her second knock, a man opens the door a crack and peers at her with narrowed eyes. He stands at least a head taller than Sofia and his long, dark fingers, bejeweled in gold rings that glint garishly in the yellow light, grip the doorframe like spider legs. She hesitates when he says nothing, and then blurts out her story: “Are you Aaden? I was told I could come here for…that you could get what I need…for my mother.” She thinks she probably has not made much sense, but his silent stare unnerves her. She stumbles over her words.
“I do not have that anymore,” he says, starting to close the door. Sofia surprises herself by kicking her foot between the door and jam before it can close.
“Please,” she says. “She’s dying, this is the only way I know how to help. She’s all I have.” She feels panic welling in her throat, threatening to close off her breath.
His dark eyes soften. “Perhaps death would be a blessing,” he says.
“Please.” She stares back at him, willing him to see her, to see how desperately she needs this.
“I will show you something first,” he says. “Then maybe you will not want this for your mother.” He holds open the door for her and she hesitates for only a second, the natural fear of entering the home of a stranger. She follows Aaden down a set of stairs to the basement of the bungalow, each step creaking and groaning underfoot. The wood-paneled walls seem to absorb the meagre light escaping from a brass fixture on the ceiling. At the bottom of the stairs, a long, damp-smelling and linoleum-lined hallway ends in a small window near the top of the back wall. Two closed doors line each side of the hallway. Aaden opens the door on the right and leads her into a den complete with brown shag carpet and a red-brick fireplace dominating the far wall. A man sits on a sagging sofa in front of the television.
“This is my brother,” Aaden says. “Cabid, say hello, we have a guest.”
Cabid turns his head towards them but says nothing. He looks almost exactly like Aaden except for his greying skin and vitreous eyes: a re-gen, then. Sofia steps closer and feels her breath catch when she sees what Cabid holds in his lap. It is a ragged human arm. As she watches, he lifts it to his mouth and tears into the bicep.
“What is this?” she asks, her voice a pained whisper trying to escape from her too-tight throat. She starts to back away from Aaden, wondering if she can run fast enough back through the hall and up the stairs before he can stop her.
“You are safe,” Aaden says, obviously seeing her discomfort. “He must eat human flesh, so I bring him what I can salvage from work.”
Sofia furrows her brow, distracted momentarily from the hypnotic workings of Cabid’s jaws. She has seen worse during her shifts in emergency, but she finds the scene disturbing nevertheless, a man who looks almost normal munching on an arm like a dog with a bone. “Where do you work?”
“At the Re-Gen Center, that is why I have some of the solution. I get the body parts from a friend at the hospital morgue.”
“But why does he need to eat…that? Does your process not work properly?”
Aaden sniffs. “I assure you I have the original solution. Eating human flesh is a side effect of the process, one they did not discover immediately and which they are now trying to cover up. The regenerated can eat animal flesh, but they do not thrive and eventually become, well, feral I suppose is the best word. Even I did not know the truth, and now I have turned my brother into a monster.”
“It’s not possible,” Sofia says. “Something like this, the media would explode!”
“And so they will, I believe. Re-Gen recruits volunteers to donate their bodies in exchange for lucrative payouts to the surviving families. They approach terminal patients, those they carefully screen who do not have the funding to save themselves. Non-disclosure agreements seem to have kept things quiet so far, but I do not believe this will last.”
Sofia remains silent, taking time to absorb this new information.
“So, you have seen enough, yes? You would not want your mother to live like this?”
Sofia pulls out the purse she has gripped under her arm and withdraws a wad of bills, the last of her savings withdrawn before leaving on this errand. She had tried other options, even a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the procedure, but Ana’s case drew little attention compared to the funding requests from family members trying to save their terminal children and social media influencers with millions of followers willing to donate to see their favorite b-celebrity regenerated. Who cared about an old, near-death Latina woman? Sofia had hoped the ongoing debates about better regulation would ultimately result in a more affordable pricing scheme, but Ana would not survive that long.
“Do you have the solution?” she asks now.
Aaden nods as if he expected this, despite what he has shown her. “They are not really alive,” he says. “They can smile and speak and act human when they want to, but they are not the same.”
She continues to watch Cabid chewing mechanically while she waits for Aaden to bring her what she needs.
Sofia learned about the regeneration black market on the night her mother almost died. She had come home from a long shift to find the apartment quiet and the usual note from Mrs. Mackie next door saying all had gone well when she popped over at noon. She said hello to her mother, switched the television to the evening news, and began making a supper of baked fish and mashed potato. Soft foods so that Ana could more easily swallow the paste Sofia created.
At some point while Sofia prepared dinner, Ana had gone to the bedroom to change her clothes. This happened from time to time, not as often now that Ana’s blank periods had increased, and Sofia wondered each time if her mother intended to communicate something because she always took off her clothes and put them back on inside out. On this evening, Sofia felt the rage she tried to keep in check bubbling to the surface. “Why do you do this to me, mamá?” she shouted, feeling terrible immediately. She helped Ana put her clothes back on properly and led her back to the living room in silence.
Sofia blamed herself for what happened next. She had been absorbed by the news, which she watched regularly after her mother’s diagnosis, as she mechanically spooned the mush into her mother’s mouth. Another religious group had emerged to join the growing ranks of protestors, who had disparate interests but tended to unite in their shared hatred of the re-gens. When Ana began to choke, Sofia realized she had spooned too much of the paste and frantically used her fingers to dislodge the soggy food from her mother’s throat. Ana continued to choke until Sofia levered herself behind her mother and began applying pressure to her abdomen in rapid bursts. The clog finally dislodged but Ana would not respond, seemingly unconscious.
Sofia still feels ashamed not because she made such an error, but because she hesitated to call an ambulance immediately. She had looked down at her mother slumped on her side on the sofa, the TV table tipped over, the mushy potato-fish scattered on the carpet, and thought about letting her die. She spent every day working and every evening attending to her mother’s needs. Most days she hated Ana, although she did not like to admit this. Her mother’s disease felt like a curse to Sofia, something designed to hold her back from her own life, to consume every part of her being until she had nothing left to give. She wanted to do the right thing, but she felt shriveled inside, rotten, more undead than the re-gens.
Eventually Sofia grabbed her phone and called emergency. After a series of tests and an overnight for monitoring and rehydration, the doctor declared Ana stable. “She’s lucky to have you,” one of the nurses said to Sofia. She felt guilty for smiling in return. The nurse, a petite woman with kind eyes, short-cropped blond hair, and an upturned nose, stared at Sofia for a moment longer than normal, and what she saw must have determined what she said next: “I know someone who can help you.”
“Sorry?” Sofia asked. She sat next to Ana’s bed in a daze, holding her mother’s crooked, veiny hand in her own.
The nurse had taken a small notebook and pen out of her pocket. She ripped off a piece of paper after writing and handed it to Sofia. An address scrawled in messy script. “Ask for Aaden. He helps those who can’t afford regeneration. He can help your mother.”
Sofia shivered despite the warmth of the room. She understood.
Sofia follows her usual routine when she returns home, saying hello to her mother, adjusting the television, and starting supper. She pauses with the egg carton and the fridge door wide open. If she gives her mother the solution tonight, there will be no need to make any more mush. She puts the eggs back, takes out the envelope stashed in her purse and looks at the two syringes inside: one to stop Ana’s heart, the other to bring her back to life. No guarantees, Aaden had said. The solution might not fully restore Ana’s cognition. Researchers had not sufficiently explored the impact of the solution on different diseases, although theoretically it should restore the damaged brain tissue causing her mother’s decline.
With the two syringes in hand, Sofia walks into the living room, feeling the same disembodied sensation she had felt before, as if she hovers on the cusp of something much bigger than herself. She sits next to Ana on the sofa and takes a moment to watch the news. Another local woman missing, the anchor says, and authorities need assistance from anyone who might have seen her. A photograph appears on the screen and Sofia thinks it looks like the woman in the alley. How many others like Sofia have illegally turned themselves or their loved ones? What happens when they discover eating animal meat does not work?
“Mamá,” she says, turning to Ana. Her mother continues to stare at the television screen, no indication that she has heard Sofia. She grips her mother’s hand, gently because of her mother’s arthritic pain, and wills her to hear. “Do you want to come back, mamá? Please show me somehow, tell me what to do.” Sofia feels the sting of tears and angrily wipes at her eyes. Ana offers no response.
Sofia knows she can do this. She will struggle to deliver the first shot, knowing she must first kill her mother before she brings her back, but after the second shot restores Ana to herself, she will arrange their new life with ease. Sofia has connections at her own hospital. She can coordinate something there to get the body parts Ana needs. Failing that, maybe Aaden or the nurse she met in emergency will help again. She and her mother will settle into a relatively normal routine, with Ana requiring less care, assuming the solution works. Assuming Ana’s brain heals. Assuming she does not come back as a monster.
Letting the syringes warm in her hands, Sofia wonders what reanimation would feel like. To have no other need than to eat, to consume her way through life the way life has consumed her. She removes the cap and flicks the first syringe, the clear fluid inside offering no indication of its life-ending power. Would the solution work if she administered both syringes simultaneously? She readies the second syringe and lays them both on her lap, feeling a sense of elation, an expansion, as if her atoms could explode outward to create a new, powerful shape, a possibility. Perhaps she could become a better self like the advertisements promised.
No, she cannot imagine leaving her mother trapped within her diseased mind, no matter how much Sofia wants freedom. She would rather feed her own flesh to Ana, give up her own life, if it meant seeing awareness again in her mother’s eyes. She takes Ana’s left arm, tightens a rubber tie around her bicep, and rubs her inside elbow with an alcohol wipe. She forms her mother’s hand into a fist because Ana cannot form one for herself.
“I love you, mamá,” Sofia says as she inserts the first syringe into her mother’s vein and waits for Ana to die.
Jennifer Bertrand is an aspiring writer based in Edmonton, Alberta. She is an MA student at Athabasca University with a dual focus in Literary Studies and Writing and New Media.