“It’s rejecting again, isn’t it.”
It was a statement, not a question, flat and almost casual in delivery. The woman who said it lay sprawled on her back on a rumpled bed, rubbing the raised scar at her hairline with one hand, flicking ash off the end of a cigarette with the other. Both were quivering, perhaps from fear or tiredness.
Maybe only because she wasn’t used to such feelings yet, not as she was now.
“Well?” she said again, addressing the other woman on the opposite side of the room. “I want to hear it from your mouth, Fern. Is it or isn’t it?”
“Shit, Alice, you’ve been through this enough times to know the answer,” said Fern, wearily. “It’d be easier if you’d let me select whoever I want, not just the dregs of the world. The protein match is never quite right. If I had a bigger pool to work with we’d have more luck. I could do more research, make sure there’s a good chance of it taking before we go through this rigmarole.”
Alice waved her cigarette dismissively.
“I don’t care how long it takes, you know that. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. We can find another body, can’t we?”
“I could, but you’re so damned picky. ‘Only the bad and the beautiful,’ you said. If you stand by that then honestly I’m going to struggle. You do realise the police have started sniffing around? I’ve been careful, and I’ve been clean- just one from every city, only two from every state, like taking out the trash. But we can’t go on like this forever. I’ve told you this before. Your brain, your system won’t take the strain.”
Fern crossed the room and placed a cool hand on Alice’s fevery brow. For a moment Alice leaned into her touch, then pulled away, her eyes closing in a spasm of pain.
“Every single time I’m closer and closer to being myself,” said Alice. “I can feel it. Closer than I ever was before all this, when I tried to get on with things the way I was. Without changing anything. This is something I need to do. Sometimes I feel like… I feel like you don’t understand.”
Sighing, Fern sat on the bed and rubbed her red-raw eyes.
“I do my best. I know that’s not perfect. But can you give me one thing and let up on your morals a little? Just once? Let me find you a body- any body -I know will match, without doing the background check. Don’t think about whether they were good or kind or whether they had kids or what they named their fucking dogs. Let me help you, Alice. Just let me help.”
“I won’t do that.”
“Then I don’t know what you want me to say, my love. This body is rejecting you. And rejecting fast.”
Dragging herself upright Alice shook her head, jaw set on her cigarette. Blowing a plume of smoke through her teeth she said, “How many do you have left in the lab? Any at all?”
“Just the one,” said Fern, still rubbing her eyes. “It’ll be touch and go whether or not you’ll take to her. The tests weren’t conclusive. If you want me to try, fine, but it might be the last time. You’re getting so sick. If I’m not one hundred percent…”
They sat together in silence, Alice smoking almost desperately while Fern chafed her hands together, as if looking for another, better option between them.
“Tell me about this one,” said Alice, abruptly.
“You sure?” said Fern, raising an eyebrow. “You never want to know. Hell, I wouldn’t, either. Plus, she’s dead already. There’s no taking that back.”
She made a knocking gesture with her fists and clicked her tongue, like a poor man’s Punch and Judy. Alice didn’t laugh.
“Maybe I’m getting sentimental,” she said. “If this could be my last chance at life, shit, maybe I should know who was killed so I could have their body.”
“Who I killed,” said Fern, ruefully. “Give me that thing, first. I’ll bet smoking isn’t helping, you know.”
She took a drag of Alice’s cigarette, puffed smoke through her nostrils, and thought for moment, staring into space.
“Her name was Karen Mulvey. Twenty eight years old, Wisconsin girl. She got booked for animal abuse two years ago; I checked her records. She didn’t even do time for it. Maybe there wasn’t enough evidence, I don’t know. So I figured she could make up for it another way: helping someone in need.”
“Karen,” Alice repeated, and laughed. “Damn it. I might die wearing a skin named Karen.”
“It won’t be Karen once you’re wearing it,” said Fern. “You know that, right? It’ll be you. Every single time it’s been you. Just looking a little different.”
She took Alice’s hand and kissed it before pressing it to her cheek, suddenly and urgently, as if it might be taken away from her at any moment. She rocked gently, and grunting with exertion Alice learned forward to draw her into an embrace.
“I know,” said Alice. “That’s not what I’m worried about. Just… the risk. Fucking everything up. Ending up without you.”
“Don’t you think that’s what I think about too? Eleven times we’ve done this, and every time I think, ‘this is it. This is the day I lose her.'”
Another silence, but this time of a gentler kind, listening to the thud of one another’s heartbeats. Both sounded exactly the same, as if the rhythms were part of a greater, singular song.
“I’ll do it again, though,” said Fern. “I said I would, from the start. We’ll just have to hope it works, won’t we?”
“I’m used to that, aren’t I?”
They sat presssed close together, eyes closed, drinking in one another’s softness, warmth. The quiet minutes they might look back and regret not letting sit unbroken.
But at last Alice spoke again.
“When can we do it? The next exchange? I want it done before I get bad again.”
“Tomorrow,” said Fern. “Or the day after. Your choice. I’m ready whenever you are.”
“Tomorrow,” Alice repeated.
She folded back down on the bed again, eyes closed, and after a moment or two Fern lay down with her.
WRITING PROMPT BY RAVEN