The Last Stand of the Elephant Man
“Mr. Merrick, please wake up.”
Joseph Merrick’s eyes fluttered open, and he stared up at an unfamiliar ceiling. Was this the hospital ward? Had something new happened to him?
Good God, he was lying flat on his back.
He struggled to sit upright, astounded at how effortless the action was. “What—”
The word came out clearly.
His left hand flew up to his mouth. His flat mouth. “My God,” he murmured against his fingers.
And then he saw his unblemished right arm.
“Is this Heaven?” he asked the white-swathed figure at the foot of his bed.
“Almost. It’s America. You’re in Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and you’ve been cured.”
Joseph stared in wonder at his two perfect hands, now mirror images of each other, and flexed the fingers of his right hand for the first time since he was a child. “I have no memory of coming here.”
“You fell ill before your trip. Do you remember that?”
Joseph shook his head, its weight so light that it felt like it would float away were it not for his neck.
“I’m not surprised. You were so delirious with fever that Dr. Treves nearly didn’t bring you to the ship. It’s a miracle you survived the Atlantic crossing at all.”
Joseph brought the fingers of both hands back up to his mouth, then feathered them up his cheeks to his forehead.
Had he ever felt anything so smooth?
“This is the miracle.”
“No, Mr. Merrick, this is science.” The man turned to the door. “Nurse Hotchkiss, if you please?”
A woman clad in a crisp white dress stepped into the room, holding a large looking glass in her arms. She smiled sweetly at him and said, “Why, Mr. Merrick, you’re even more handsome awake. See for yourself.”
She turned the mirror towards him, and he stared at it, transfixed. His head was so smooth, so small, so…
Joseph Merrick buried his perfect head in his perfect hands and wept tears of pure joy.
“You’ll have your own room here for the next week or so,” Doctor Pemberton said. “Once we’re certain the procedure hasn’t caused any unforeseen complications, we’ll help you find an apartment in the city.”
Joseph walked along beside him, flexing his perfect feet with every step. For the first time in memory, he was in no pain. They ascended a flight of stairs, and it was so easy, so effortless. Joseph wanted to sprint up them to the very top floor, then race headlong down to the basement. Had any man ever truly felt so much joy in such simple movement?
“I’ll need to earn my keep,” he said. “I don’t want to be a charity case. Not anymore.”
“Take your time. Your British benefactors have set you up quite comfortably.”
When they reached the top floor, Dr. Pemberton guided Joseph down a clean, well-lit wing. He opened a door numbered 130 and said, “Here you are.”
Joseph stepped through the doorway, marveling at the view out the large picture window. New York City was wondrously strange, with tall buildings jutting majestically into the sky as far as the eye could see. Looking down, he saw an orderly swarm of pedestrians, street cars, and horse-drawn carriages. “So many people.”
“And none of them will ever stare at you again.”
He pressed his now-normal right hand against the glass and stared off into the distance as a dirigible floated above the statue of Lady Liberty. “How long until I’ll be able to leave the hospital?”
“Soon enough. A week, at the outside. Meanwhile Nurse Hotchkiss procured something for you that I think you might like.”
Joseph tore himself away from the view, and saw Dr. Pemberton pointing to a leather dressing bag sitting on a small end table. “Is that—”
“It’s not the one you had in London. Dr. Treves couldn’t bear to part with it. But hopefully, this will be an acceptable substitute.”
Joseph sat down at the table and opened the bag. There were the silver backed brushes, the comb, an ivory-handled razor, the toothbrush, the cigarette case, a silver shoe-horn, the hat brush. He’d known how ridiculous he’d seemed when he’d asked Dr. Treves to buy him a dressing bag for Christmas. He’d known he’d never be able to use any of the items inside. But when he’d held it in his one normal hand, he’d been able to fleetingly pretend that he was a normal human being with normal human needs.
He’d never imagined that the day would come when all of that would change.
“I’ll leave you for now,” Dr. Pemberton said. “Nurse Hotchkiss will be by later with your dinner. Congratulations, Mr. Merrick. Welcome to your new life.” He smiled, nodded, and let himself out.
Joseph looked at the full-length mirror on the other side of his room, then stole a quick glance at the door.
Yes, it had a lock.
He bolted it securely, then pulled off his robe, his surgical gown, and his slippers, and stared at his body in amazement. In all the years he’d yearned for normalcy, he’d never once believed he’d ever achieve it. He’d learned to content himself with his unblemished left arm and genitals, and the small oasis around his left eye. Now…
He turned, staring at his smooth back and buttocks, not daring to believe that every square inch could be cured. But it was.
Joseph clasped his hands together and bowed his head in prayer. “Thank you, Lord. I am humbled.”
“Joseph Carey Merrick?”
Joseph spun, covering his nakedness with his hands, and gaped at the three men and one woman standing just inside the door. “But…I locked it…I didn’t hear you—” He dove for his robe, feeling his face break out into a hot flush.
“Mr. Merrick,” the oldest of the men said, “I regret to inform you that you have been the victim of a hoax.”
“But…how can that be?” He held out his matching hands. “See for yourself.”
“What I mean is that you’re not in New York, and it’s not 1890.”
“But…” He gestured weakly at the window.
“This is all an illusion. You’re really in a virtual reality simulator in San Antonio, Texas in the year 2304.”
He stared blankly at the man, then turned to the other three to see if any of them appeared to be more sensible.
“Let’s just pull him out,” another of the men said. “Then he’ll believe us.”
“Do you think that’s wise?”
“We can’t leave him in there forever. I don’t think there’s any way to ease him into this.”
“You’re right. Mr. Merrick, this is going to be something of a shock.”
The four people disappeared, and Joseph staggered back into a chair, knocking it to the floor. “Dr. Pemberton!”
A rush of unintelligible words roared around him, and he clapped his hands over his ears to try to drown them out.
Everything went black, and Joseph felt himself being lifted out of a thick liquid, deposited onto a flat surface, and covered with a blanket. A mask was peeled from his face, and he blinked in the bright lights as four half-naked Negroes stared down at him. One of the men said, “Joseph Merrick, pursuant to the laws of the San Antonio Protectorate, I must inform you that you have been the victim of an illegal bring-forward.”
In a panic, Joseph pulled his hands from under the blanket.
Thank God, they were normal.
“The individual who brought you forward has exchanged bodies with you. As this was done non-consensually, you have the right to remain in the body you are currently inhabiting if you so choose.”
“Rest assured, Mm. Paredes has been charged with both crimes, and his spot in the breeding queue has been revoked pending a full investigation. If you would like your own body back—”
“I’m going mad,” Joseph muttered. He clasped the blanket in his brown fingers and pulled it over his head. “I’m in the asylum. None of this is real.”
A woman’s voice said, “Give us a moment.”
He heard footsteps, a quiet hiss.
Fingers pulled the blanket away from his head, and he looked up to see the young Negress smiling down at him. “I’ve gone mad,” he whispered.
“I can see why you’d think that,” she said. “I’m Naia. May I call you Joseph?”
“I know this is hard to believe, but you’ve been brought forward 400 years.”
“That’s not possible.”
“But it’s the truth. The New York you were living in was a simulation.” She pointed across the room to a tall glass tank with tubes running into it. He followed her finger, then found himself staring at her bared belly out of the corner of his eye and forced himself to look away. What she was wearing wasn’t decent, but it was even less decent of him to take advantage of her unladylike dress with his gaze.
“How about I prove it to you? Look at any wall.”
“Computer, display satellite image of this settlement.”
As if by magic, one wall presented a picture of a large dome surrounded on all sides by white. Joseph sat up, clutching the blanket to his chest. “How is that possible?”
“It would take too long to explain. But that technology certainly didn’t exist in your time, did it?”
Joseph stood, wrapping the large blanket around him like a cloak. “No, I’ve seen this before. You’re using a Magic Lantern.” He held a hand up in front of the image, looking for a hand-shaped shadow and seeing none.
“It’s not a projection. The image is coming from the wall itself.”
He ran his finger across the surface of the wall. It was cool, like plaster. The image was coming directly out of it? That wasn’t possible. It wasn’t…
But there it was. And declaring it to be impossible wouldn’t make it go away. If that worked, he would have successfully wished away his deformity years ago.
So instead he focused on the image and tried to make sense of it. “What is the dome?”
“A picture of the Protectorate from space. Computer, pull back image to show all of North America.”
The view expanded so fast that Joseph was struck by a sudden attack of vertigo. He blinked hard to clear his head, and opened his eyes again to see an image of the continent almost totally covered in ice. Joseph’s hand shook as he pointed. “What is—? How—?”
“We’re in an Ice Age, Joseph. A lot has changed since your time. One of the changes is that we’re now able to bring people forward from history to try to increase the genetic diversity of our population. Unfortunately, your body was brought forward illegally for entertainment.”
He turned to her, uncomprehending.
Naia winced. “I’m sorry to have to tell you that the person who’s currently wearing your body is doing so for fun. But you can have it back if you want it.”
“No. Never.” The words came out before he even had time to consider his answer.
“I didn’t think so.”
Joseph gazed down at one of his new brown hands and asked, “What do I look like?”
“See for yourself. Computer, silver the wall.”
The ice was replaced with a giant mirror, and Joseph stared at the image it presented. He was a Negro, just like the others, with skin the color of a Christmas chestnut. His black, wavy hair cascaded past his shoulders, and when he turned, he saw that it reached nearly all the way down his back. The body had strong shoulders, and when he peeked under the blanket, he saw that it had a ropy, lithe build. He wasn’t quite as dark as the Negroes he’d met while displaying himself as an oddity. They’d also displayed themselves — in their cases, as wild men from the jungles — but became proper gentlemen again as soon as the paying crowds went away. It had been so many years since he’d last seen them…
So many, many years.
He looked into his pitch-black eyes and stood as straight as he could. “I’m tall,” he said.
“Not that tall, but certainly taller than you were. You shouldn’t have any trouble getting used to the body. Mm. Paredes seems to have undone all of his enhancements before making the switch.”
Naia held up her hands, showing off the five fingers and two thumbs. “Let’s just say that this is considered mild body modification nowadays.”
Joseph clutched his hands to his breast, his heart hammering madly beneath them. It was now painfully clear that he was no longer in the time that he had known. “At…at least the Queen’s English hasn’t changed,” he stammered, grasping for the one familiar thing left in his life.
She tucked all four of her thumbs into her fists and said, “Actually, you’re speaking Spanglish. The Anglos fled south long before the dome was built. Everyone here is of Latin American and African-American descent. That barrage of words you were hit with before we pulled you out — that was an immersion program. It works very well for languages, not so well for culture shock.”
He put his fingertips over his lips and said, “I’m speaking what?”
His lips didn’t match what he heard himself saying, and his hands started to shake.
“Joseph, are you all right?”
“May I… May I be alone for a moment?”
“Certainly. Just touch the glowing plate over there to slide the door open when you’re ready.” She demonstrated, and closed the door behind her, leaving him alone in this strange room with its strange walls in this strange future.
Ultimately, there was only one thing that mattered.
Joseph dropped the blanket and appraised every inch of his body, turning to make sure the back was as smooth and unblemished as the front. He felt behind each ear and under his scrotum, examining every surface.
No polyps. No growths. Nothing.
He might not have understood what was going on, but he understood that the body he was wearing was healthy and normal. That was more than enough.
He picked the blanket back up, wrapped it around himself, and pressed his palm against the door panel.
From the hallway, Naia looked at him expectantly.
“Please, I’d like you to explain everything again. I want very much to understand.”
Naia smiled, her teeth startlingly white against her dark face, and said, “Welcome to your new life, Joseph.”
She did her best, but so much of it didn’t make sense.
“There’s ice everywhere because it got too hot?”
“Pollution caused global warming, which shut down the North Atlantic current, which disrupted the flow of warm water to the northern hemisphere, which produced an ice age. It all happened much faster than anyone predicted.”
“You’ve put an entire city inside a glass dome?”
“Not technically glass, but yes. After the ozone layer catastrophe, we needed a way to shield our city from the sun. Plus, we needed to seal the system so no genetically damaged people, plants, or animals could get in. The downside is that nobody can get out either. Because of that, the population is strictly controlled. No one gets to have a baby until someone else dies.”
“You bring people forward from the past?”
“Yes. We use their ova and sperm to bolster our gene pool. But we only take people moments before twentieth- and early twenty-first-century disasters that history tells us they didn’t survive. Dresden, Halabja, New Orleans — they’ve all provided us with fresh DNA. Any earlier than the twentieth century, they have too difficult a time adjusting to our present; any later, we risk letting damaged DNA into our gene pool.”
Naia shook her head. “Your case is an example of how every system can be corrupted by the very rich. A sealed society like ours only provides so much variety. There’s been a trend towards radical body sculpting among the well-off. They give themselves dorsal fins, head ridges, all sorts of things. Jean-Pierre Paredes de García has spent his life leading that trend. His father is one of the most renowned body sculptors in the Protectorate. But it looks like he decided to up the stakes. He wanted to wear an infamously grotesque body. No offense.”
Joseph said nothing. How could he take offense at the truth? So he simply put his hands in his lap and once again wished that they’d been able to find longer pants for him. He felt positively indecent in this short-sleeved tunic and knee-length trousers. His surgical gown at the imaginary hospital had covered more than this.
“He created a lifeless copy of your body to leave behind, set the machine for April 11, 1890, and took you. History records that you died trying to sleep lying down.”
“No. That would have been suicide. I would never have—”
“Maybe you were tired,” a voice slurred.
Oh God. No.
Joseph looked up in horror at the nude monstrosity staring back at him from the door.
“Life wasn’t worth living anymore,” his old face said. “You just wanted to go to sleep forever.”
Joseph surged from his chair and flattened himself against the back wall. He opened his mouth, but all that came out was a rattling squeak.
“Oh, that’s right, you’ve never seen yourself from the outside before.” He ran his grossly deformed right hand along the lumps and knobs of his skull. “It’s magnificent. I love it.” His normal left hand grabbed his unblemished genitals in a tight grip and said, “And so do all my dear friends.”
Joseph felt his gorge rising and gagged into his hand. That body was a nightmare come to life, a gross parody of humanity, a perversion of nature. How could anyone have stood to look at that…that…him? It was a true horror. He’d never understood that until now. He’d been protected from the full impact inside that twisted shell.
“You can’t have it back, you know.”
“I don’t want it back!” Joseph shrieked.
Naia advanced on the intruder and said, “Mm. Paredes, please. I don’t know how you got in here, but—”
“Call me Jean-Pierre.” The name came out with a spray of saliva. “Oh, how I love how this body sounds.”
Naia turned to Joseph and asked, “What is he saying? Can you understand him?”
“Right now, you’re the only one who can,” Jean-Pierre said. “But soon enough, they all will. I’m not keeping this body to myself. I want everyone to get a chance to play with it. Let them bring on whatever punishment they will — it’s worth it.”
Joseph extended a shaky finger. “Make him leave.”
“Stay here. I’ll get help.” Naia dashed into the hall.
“Ah, and now we’re alone,” Jean-Pierre said, his lips stretched so tightly over his twisted, jutting teeth that they looked like they would split at any second. “Come, let’s have a gentleman’s agreement on this. You can keep my boring old body, and I can keep this marvelous thing.” He shuffled forward, holding out the grotesque mass that was his right hand.
Joseph was still screaming long after Naia and several others dragged his old body out of the room.
“You’re going to have to get used to him.”
Joseph sat on the floor in the corner of the room, clutching his knees tightly to his chest. He looked up at the dark-skinned man staring down at him and tried to remember if he’d seen him before.
The man squatted down next to Joseph, his four long braids each swinging like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. “He’s the hottest thing around. You’ll see him on all the walls. There’s going to be no getting away from him.”
Joseph shuddered. How could his old body be even more repellent to him now that he was no longer in it?
“We’ve found you a host mother. Giancarla Baratella. You’ll be her ward for a full year, at which point you’ll be able to apply for legal emancipation. It was tough to find someone willing to take in a bring-forward wearing a contemporary body, but thankfully, she stepped up. She’s friends with Jean-Pierre, but she’s agreed to keep you apart.”
How could anyone consider living in his old body to be entertainment? What kind of a world had he been brought to?
“Also, we bent the rules a little bit for you. We don’t normally allow bring-forwards to meet until they’ve had several months to acclimatize, but we’re giving you one evening of overlap with Giancarla’s current bring-forward. In exchange for spending a few hours with you tonight, she’s getting emancipated a week early.”
He was cured, in a way. He should be happy. Why wasn’t he happy? All he’d ever wanted was to be normal. He ran the fingers of his left hand along his new thick lips, searching for the telltale swelling that had haunted his face all of his life and not finding it. Why wasn’t he happy?
The man sat on the floor and said, “Personally, I’m against the overlap. I strongly believe that immersion is the key to a successful adjustment. But I was overruled.”
Joseph looked up at him, and did a double-take. The man’s face was peppered with symmetrical purple bumps that looped across his forehead, cheeks, and chin. What kind of pox–
Would they still be troubled by pox in a future where brains could be exchanged between bodies? He asked, to be sure.
“They’re decorations,” the man said. “I got them from a scar artist. They’re a pretty mild modification. Your host mother, on the other hand…” He shook his head and grinned. “I can’t wait until you see her.”
Joseph let himself be led to an elevator by the man, who introduced himself as Rodrigo. He’d never been in an elevator before, and felt hardly anything as they rose to the top floor. In fact, he was just about to denounce the experience as a hoax when the doors opened, giving him a panoramic view of the bubble city of San Antonio. All around them were great white needles jutting into the sky, with scores of gondolas racing from needle to needle in a never-ending stream. Beneath the towers was a maze of blocky buildings, each with moving images on their walls. Tiny dots swarmed between the blocks, and Joseph was shocked to realize that they were people.
“The towers are living space, the bases are shopping and work space,” Rodrigo said. “And if you look closer to the edges of the dome, you’ll see the farms.”
Joseph just nodded dumbly, entranced by the spectacle. It was an impossible city, just as impossible as the circumstances that had brought him to it.
“You’ve probably never been this high up,” Rodrigo said.
Joseph shook his head and reached one hesitant finger out to tap the glass. “Are we safe?”
“Absolutely. You couldn’t break the windows if you tried.”
A flash of blue caught his eye, and he looked to his right to see a thin ribbon of water winding through the city. He’d only ever read of water so blue.
“You should take a walk around the city,” Rodrigo said. “There’s a couple of buildings down there that are from around your time. Earlier, even. Like the Alamo.”
Rodrigo grinned, a slight chuckle escaping from his closed lips. “Let’s just say that San Antonio is a city of last stands. Mexicans, ice…” He waved a hand and trailed off.
Joseph looked back down as one of the far-below walls filled with an image of his former face, and he forced himself to look up at the sky. Just under the dome, a flock of sparrows was circling.
“Like I said, he’s everywhere. Your old body’s a hit. Come on. Let’s get a skyslip.” He touched a small glowing panel and said, “Computer, transportation for two to spire seventeen.”
A small gondola pulled itself from the stream and anchored itself against the outside wall, which slid open with the barest whisper.
Joseph stepped through the doorway, tentatively putting one foot on the floor of the gondola. It was rock-steady. Rodrigo nudged him the rest of the way on, the door closed behind them, and the gondola was off.
Joseph gripped the walls, unnecessarily, as the ride was as smooth and steady as the elevator had been. “I don’t understand any of this.”
“You probably never will.”
Joseph turned to look at him, but Rodrigo’s gaze was far away.
The gondola pulled up against another spire, and they took its elevator down to floor 130. “The floors are small up here, so Giancarla has the entire one to herself. At least you won’t have to remember an apartment number.” Rodrigo’s expression grew clouded, and he said, “Immersion is tough. The next few days will be—” He stopped, blinked, and snorted out a laugh. “I was going to say they’d be the hardest days of your life, but considering that we’re talking about your life…”
“Ah,” Joseph said under his breath.
“You’ll be fine,” Rodrigo said. “If what I’ve read about you is true, then you’ve dealt with worse. Just remember, no matter what anyone looks like, they’re human, and they’re healthy. Just like you.”
The doors opened, and Joseph once again found himself clinging to the walls. In front of an expansive view of his old face stood what he could only assume was a woman. She spread all four of her spidery arms wide, and with a grin that literally went from ear to ear, she said, “Welcome home!”
“Good luck,” Rodrigo said.
Joseph cast him a stricken look, then took a deep breath and forced himself to step off of the elevator.
The doors closed behind him, trapping him with this voluntary freak. “Ma’am, I–” He gaped at her, at his old face staring back at him from the wall, and looked down at his sandals. The world tunneled in tight around him, and he blinked hard to keep from passing out. “Please, ma’am, is…is it possible to make that image go away?”
“It’s a magnificent view. You should be proud of it. But yes, if it will make you comfortable. Computer, show windows.”
Joseph peeked up and was relieved to see that his face had been replaced by a series of massive picture windows. If only the woman’s face were so easy to replace. A mouth that large belonged in a nightmare.
She stepped forward, the mass of snakes sprouting from her scalp writhing and hissing as she did so. “It’s wonderful to meet you, Joseph.” She flicked a particularly aggressive snake away from her face with her whip-thin fingers. “They’re getting to be such a bother. I’m thinking of taking a cue from Jean-Pierre and replacing them with some bony protuberances. Tell me, did they hurt? It’s been so long since I’ve experienced pain that I’m almost hoping that you say yes.”
“Don’t listen to her.”
Joseph turned and saw a mercifully normal woman limping towards him on an artificial leg. She was wearing a dress that covered far more than any he’d seen so far, yet still seemed improperly short. The brown hair hanging in her face did little to conceal the large burn scar covering her right cheek.
“Ah, let me introduce our other bring-forward,” Giancarla said. “This is María Luisa Bonilla Hidalgo. We got her from the World Trade Center, South Tower. That’s the fashionable tower this season. Even better, she was undocumented, so she never showed up on the lists of the missing. Isn’t that fabulous?”
María Luisa shot Giancarla an ill-concealed glare and said, “Joseph, we need to talk. We don’t have much time.”
“You show him his room,” Giancarla said. “I’ll see if I can’t find a way to get the computer to spit out some authentic Victorian cuisine for dinner. Or would that be Edwardian?”
María Luisa took Joseph to another seemingly blank spot of wall and placed her hand on a glowing panel. Yet another invisible door slid open, and she ushered him through it into an empty, white room with a giant window for its outside wall. “Computer, sofa for two.”
Joseph jumped back as a spot on the floor bubbled up into the shape she’d commanded. She sat, and patted the cushions next to her.
“I don’t understand this,” Joseph said, gingerly taking the proffered seat.
“I don’t either, but you get used to it, more or less,” María Luisa said. “You get used to it as much as you get used to anything around here.”
“I feel like I’ve been dropped into a dream. None of this seems real.”
“I felt the same way at first. Sometimes, I still do. Just take your time, and don’t let anyone talk you into anything that doesn’t feel right, especially Giancarla.”
She’ll want to take you to parties, show you off, use you in any way she can to gain status. But you don’t have to cooperate. Legally, she can’t force you to do anything. Just be your own man.”
Joseph looked down at his brown hands. He wasn’t sure how to be his own man while wearing someone else’s body. But nothing would get him back into his old one. Nothing.
“Giancarla only took you in to annoy Jean-Pierre’s father, you know.”
“I don’t know anything.”
“No, of course not.” María Luisa folded her hands in her lap. “He’s the best plastic surgeon in the Protectorate.”
“They call themselves ‘body sculptors.’ They take healthy people and turn them into monsters. Giancarla’s a plastic surgeon too — one of the best, but not the best, and it sticks in that massive craw of hers. She only took me in to try to start a fad. ‘Amputee chic.’ It lasted about three months. Then she tried making burns fashionable.” María Luisa rearranged her hair to try to cover more of her scar. “But will she fix me? No. She claims it’s bad for business.”
Joseph opened his mouth, but didn’t know what to say, so he closed it again.
“All you need to know is that she’s going to use you. I don’t know how, but she will. If you’re lucky, all she’ll do is pump you for information on Victorian deformities. But I doubt it’ll be that easy. This isn’t altruism, Joseph. Never forget that.”
Joseph felt his heart sink into his stomach. “What in the name of God has happened to these people?”
A strange expression settled on María Luisa’s face. “Do you believe in God, Joseph?”
“Of course. With all my heart.”
María Luisa looked out the window. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone say His name. I tried praying when I first got here, but…” She shook her head. “I don’t think He can hear us anymore.”
Joseph grabbed her hands, shocked by his own forwardness. “I don’t think I can do this alone. Please, I beg of you, don’t leave tomorrow. Please stay.”
She smiled sadly and pulled her hands from his grip. “They won’t let me. If I’m not at the transport to the ag-op first thing tomorrow morning, they’ll bring me to it by force.” She rolled her eyes. “Me, a city girl, raising chickens. But at least it’s as far away from these people as I can get.”
“But…” He looked around the strange, bare room with its strange, extruded sofa, and his hands fell limply to his sides. “What am I supposed to do?”
María Luisa rested a soft hand on his knee and said, “Do whatever it takes to survive.”
She showed him how to control the furniture and walls in his room, helped him order some appropriately modest clothes, and then left him alone.
Joseph buried his wonderfully smooth face in his wonderfully normal hands and let out a long sigh.
For the first time since he was a tiny boy, he was completely normal. Only he was living in an abnormal world. He’d gone from one world that had no place for him to one that he couldn’t find a place in.
Voluntary freaks? He shuddered.
No, no, he wouldn’t judge them. He couldn’t. Not after all he’d been through. After all, he’d attempted to make a living by exhibiting his deformity, touring Britain with people of all shapes and sizes: bearded ladies, two-ton men, the limbless, the foreign. At least these future bodies were deliberately chosen. At least they could be easily fixed.
And this particular future body was magnificent. He wondered just what he could do in it. Did they have sports in this future? Could he go running? Play badminton? Swim?
Could he even find himself a lady friend?
He clapped his hands over his suddenly-warm cheeks, then let himself smile.
Smiling. That was also something he hadn’t been able to do since he was a small boy.
He stood up and said, “Computer, silver wall.”
A warm brown face smiled back at him.
He could get used to being a Negro, given a little time.
And in exchange for this body, he would get used to this future. It seemed a fair enough trade.
Dinner was llama curry. Giancarla wrinkled the flat spot where her nose should have been and said, “British food from your period looked so inedible that I decided to make something from a century later. Apparently, Indian food will be all the rage in late twentieth-century London.”
Joseph had to admit, the curry was delicious. And it had been so long since he’d been able to chew normally that he’d forgotten what a simple joy it could be. He wondered how much food this body’s stomach could take, because he wasn’t particularly eager to stop filling it.
Throughout the meal, he did his best to look at Giancarla without flinching, but it was difficult, especially when she opened her massive mouth to put another bite of llama in it. And the room again looked different. The square dining table hadn’t been here earlier. The same went for the thick navy carpet. And the walls were projecting a brilliant view of the night sky, complete with fiery, twinkling stars, which made it feel as though they were eating out of doors. María Luisa had already told him that it wasn’t the actual view, but he didn’t care. It didn’t make the sight any less magnificent.
Giancarla folded the spidery fingers of both sets of her hands together and said, “Well, now I understand why Jean-Pierre asked me to reset his body last week. Oh, the modifications he wore. He was my finest creation.”
Joseph put down his fork. “I thought his father was a surgeon.”
“We prefer to be called sculptors,” Giancarla said. “His father cut him off when he reached adulthood, so he came to me, and I’ve been doing his work ever since.”
Joseph felt a knee brush against his under the table, and widened his eyes at María Luisa, who winked back at him.
“Would you like some body modifications of your own?” Giancarla asked. “I’d be more than happy to run some designs past you.”
María Luisa’s mood abruptly soured, and she silently touched her burn scar under its curtain of hair.
Joseph looked from her to Giancarla, and shook his head. “No thank you. This body is healthy enough.”
“Of course you’re healthy,” she said. “I just wondered if you’d like a different look. I could understand if you wouldn’t want to wear Jean-Pierre’s face.”
“I’ve had surgery before, and I mean no offense to you and your profession, but I would rather not repeat the experience.”
Giancarla raised her eyebrows. At least they still looked like a normal human body part. “You had surgery? I was of the impression that surgery was a frequently lethal proposition back in your day.”
“It was dangerous, yes, but I had no choice. The growth on my mouth—” He gestured, only a moment later realizing that he’d drawn an elephant’s trunk in the air with his fingers. “It had gotten so large that I could barely chew.” He scooped some spicy peas and potatoes onto his fork and delivered them to a mouth that had no such problems. Oh, if only he could sit and eat forever.
“Well, this will be nothing like that. There’s no pain, no recovery time. A simple facial reconstruction can be done in a matter of hours. And you wouldn’t have to look like me.”
He set down his fork and sputtered, “Ma’am, I apologize if I’ve given offense—”
Giancarla laughed, her mammoth mouth opening so wide that he could see partway down her throat. “Please, Joseph, I know what I look like to you. I’m sure you find my modifications just as horrifying as I find the corsetry from your time.” She shuddered, then picked up her wine glass and took a deep gulp. “Just think about it, Joseph. If you’d like to look like someone else, I can do it for you.”
“This is the third face I’ve worn today,” Joseph said. “That’s all the change I can handle for quite some time.”
Giancarla raised her glass and said, “Fair enough.”
He offered to help with the washing up, but she showed him how the table could clean and store the dishes without any human intervention. He wondered what astonishment looked like on his new face. It was such a gift to have an expressive face again.
María Luisa took his hand and led him to his room, limping ever so slightly on her artificial leg. “We just have tonight.”
“Teach me everything.”
She pulled her dress over her head, and he blushed furiously and turned away. “Miss Hidalgo, I—”
She took his hand and placed it on her bare bosom, and he felt his knees weaken. “Please let me do this for you, Joseph. I don’t want your first time to be with one of them.”
“How did you know I’d never—?”
“Because I know how people from our times must have looked at you.”
She pulled his shirt over his head, pressed her bare skin against his, and he was lost.
After, as he lay trembling in her arms, he murmured a quiet prayer of thanks and penance against her skin.
She stroked the back of his head and crooned, “It’s not a sin anymore, Joseph. Nothing is. I don’t think these people even know the meaning of the word.”
He slept with his smooth head tucked in the crook of her sweet, brown neck.
And when he awoke, he was alone.
He stretched his hand across the empty bed, trying to find an indentation in the mattress to prove that he hadn’t just dreamed the previous night.
There was none.
He sat up and looked behind him to see if his own body had left any trace on the mattress.
No. It was as smooth as if it had never been slept on.
He wondered if all of 2304 was this impermanent.
He felt tears welling up behind his eyes and blinked them back. No, there’d been too much crying in his life. This new start wasn’t going to have any more crying.
Across the room, María Luisa had left a final message on the wall. “I’m sorry, Joseph.”
“Don’t be,” he said, and the image faded away.
He’d never understand this future.
But he had to try.
And the first step was getting out of bed. He palmed open the closet, looked at the skimpy offerings inside, and instead put on the previous day’s clothes, which were at least a modicum more modest. He silvered the wall, shook his head at the wild state of his long, curly hair, and ran a fat-toothed comb through it before tying it back with a slim band. Then he slid on his sandals and entered the main room of the apartment—
—where Giancarla was standing at a high table, bare-breasted, and sipping what smelled like coffee. She turned to him with her ear-to-ear smile and said, “Ah, Joseph, you’re awake.”
Joseph tried not to stare at her bosom, failed, and forced himself to look at the floor. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t realize—”
“Don’t be so prudish,” Giancarla said. “I’m wearing a skirt.”
He peeked up, saw that she was indeed wearing stiff, striped, floor-length skirt, and was grateful that his skin was likely too dark to show the flush that he could feel burning at his cheeks. “I’m not used to this, Mrs. Baratella.”
“Please, my name is Giancarla. If you want to have any hope of fitting in, you’ll have to lose the formality and the antiquated titles.”
He saw a set of bare feet shuffle into the room, and peeked up again to see what appeared to be a young man walk into the room. His face looked like a limestone angel that had spent too many decades out in the rain, his features strangely blurred and softened. All he wore were a pair of tight briefs that were the same shade of brown as the rest of him.
“Ah, my son stirs,” Giancarla said. “Give mother a kiss, LeShawn.”
He ignored her and touched a glowing button on the wall, revealing a cupboard.
Giancarla rolled her eyes. “He’s a committed Do-Nothing. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.”
“The leisure society is corrupt,” LeShawn said, pulling a wrapped bar from the cupboard. “I choose to protest by not participating in society at all.”
“He’ll outgrow it,” Giancarla said. “Joseph, I think your new clothes should be delivered soon. You shouldn’t have let María Luisa help you design them. I’ll bet she talked you into long pants and buttons and other outdated nonsense.”
“I just wanted to look…” He trailed off, realizing he was about to insult his bare-breasted host.
“Decent,” she said, completing his sentence. He looked up again, this time managing to get to her face after only a few seconds lingering on her bosom. “You don’t have to worry about insulting me. You, at least, are doing your best to be polite. I learned many colorful twenty-first century curses from María Luisa the first month we had her.” She took one last sip of her coffee, then said, “I’m sorry, but I have to go to work. LeShawn will take care of you — won’t you, dear?”
LeShawn, who was now eating the bar, wrapper and all, nodded dumbly.
Giancarla waved two of her four hands at Joseph, and breezed out the door.
LeShawn turned his dull gaze to Joseph and asked, “Hungry?”
“Actually, yes, if it’s no trouble.”
He took another wrapped bar out from the cupboard and handed it to Joseph, then pulled a scroll from the back pocket of his improbably tight shorts and handed it over as well. “Here’s a tour guide. You should go see the city. Enjoy your leisure before it consumes you.”
Joseph put down the food bar and unrolled the small, slippery sheet. It lit up, displaying a map of San Antonio. He ran his index finger over the ribbon of blue winding through the middle of it, and the image zoomed in, showing him an animation of the Riverwalk.
“What else does this contraption do?”
“Everything the computer wall does. I’ve set it so its default view is the map.”
“But… You won’t be coming with me?”
LeShawn shrugged. “I’m too busy doing nothing. I’ve got a couple of friends coming over in a bit, and we’re all going to do it together. You’ll understand eventually.”
“Your mother doesn’t seem to approve.”
“My mother doesn’t care.”
“But she’s your mother.”
“She hasn’t cared about me in years. Why do you think she has you?”
Joseph opened his mouth to apologize, but LeShawn waved him off, so instead he stood with his mouth agape as the young man shuffled back out of the room.
He looked at the little map in his hand and took a deep breath. Yes, he could tour the city himself. After all, he’d successfully made his way across the English Channel back when he was a huddling, misshapen wretch, swaddled under a shapeless cloak, peering out at the world from a single eye-hole. Touring San Antonio in this body shouldn’t prove to be a challenge after that.
Looking down at the scroll, he said, “Computer, silver the sheet.”
The face gazing up at him was becoming more and more familiar by the moment.
He picked up his meal and headed back to his room. He prodded at the wrapper, which felt exactly like paper, but he decided to take it on faith that LeShawn wouldn’t have eaten it if it hadn’t been nutritious. So he bit all the way through. The wrapper melted on his tongue into the richest chocolate he’d ever tasted, and moments later, the bar exploded with the taste of berries. Oh, it was spectacular. He’d never tasted anything more lovely. It was these little things that he’d have to remind himself to hold onto in these first chaotic days.
And his closet door was blinking. Did that mean— Yes, he now had modest clothing. He had no idea how it had been transported to his closet, but the less he thought about it, the easier it was to accept. He pulled on a pair of chocolate brown linen pants, a long-sleeved cream-colored shirt, and a pair of soft black shoes.
“Computer, silver the walls.”
Now that was what a gentleman of the future looked like.
He finished his food bar, washed up in his small bathroom, and took the elevator down to the ground for his first visit to the outside world of San Antonio.
The door slid open to a riot of color and sound, and he stepped into a large indoor pedestrian thoroughfare. The walls flashed a variety of images his way, and as he turned to face each, different sounds broadcast in his head: the field of grain had a soundtrack of twittering birds; the crowd of naked, dancing people was accompanied by tribal drumming; and the light brown, broad-featured woman’s face filling another wall said, “…and in day two of Merrick-watch, we’ve just received a report that he’s entered the St. Mary’s Street Mall.”
Her face disappeared, replaced by an image of his new body, standing in front of the open elevator, looking straight at himself. He raised his hand and tentatively waggled his fingers, and the image on the wall waved back. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how that was possible, so he didn’t try.
Several of the pedestrians in the mall turned and stared.
On one of the walls, the speaker came back and said, “And in related news, the New British Museum of Gibraltar is threatening to sue Jean-Pierre Paredes de García for as-of-yet unspecified damages. For centuries, they have been studying counterfeit Joseph Merrick bones…”
A pack of boys ran over, wearing nothing but scores of multicolored ribbons streaming from their long hair and body paint on their naked skin. As they swarmed around him, Joseph realized that they weren’t painted — the swirls of color were embedded in their skin. He supposed it wasn’t any stranger than having four arms. “Excuse me,” Joseph said. “Can you please tell me how I could get outside?”
The throng of boys shrieked and whirled and herded him through the building, and when Joseph looked back, he saw that they’d collected a train of followers, all murmuring and pointing at him. But escape was just ahead in the form of two glass doors, which slid open at their approach. Joseph soon found himself standing in the delicious warmth of the mid-morning sun.
He looked up, up past the video walls, the spires, and the gondolas, all the way to the brilliant blue above. From here, the dome was practically invisible. If he unfocused his eyes, he could pretend that there was nothing between him and the sky.
But that wasn’t the world he was living in. Out there, there was ice. He found himself shivering despite the warmth, and wrapped his arms tightly around himself, clutching at perfectly matched shoulders that felt utterly unfamiliar and wrong.
No, he was going to enjoy this body and this opportunity. He would not waste a single moment on things he couldn’t change. He let out a long breath, then said, “Thank you. My map will guide me from here.” He looked down at the scroll and decided he would visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace. The thought of seeing something that had been built over a hundred years before he was born sounded appealing.
But he wasn’t sure how he was going to get through this crowd.
Why did there have to be a crowd? Hadn’t he already had more than his fill of staring crowds?
Someone plucked at his sleeve, and he turned, his disquiet replaced by confusion the moment he caught sight of the offender. Its arms, legs, and head were swathed in red and blue fabric wraps, but its torso and pelvis were bare and devoid of any genitalia, or indeed, of any definition at all. From inside the mummy-wrapped head, a voice said, “I can’t believe it’s really you.”
“Please, I’m no one,” Joseph said, trying to pull back and finding he had nowhere to go.
“But you wore that body.” Wrapped fingers pointed up at a wall, and Joseph’s gaze followed. Splayed across the wall was a black and white moving image of his old body. No, an approximation of his old body. There was something not quite right about it…
“That’s the movie,” the person said.
“Movie? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
He looked back up at the wall just as his counterfeit self cried, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”
“I never said that,” Joseph said, bewildered.
The wall changed to an image of the New York he’d woken up to just yesterday. Dr. Pemberton stood in front of the picture window and said, “Really, it would have been far more ethical to simply leave him in here. You can’t expect the man to adjust to this kind of social and technological advancement. I was very careful to craft a world that would be reasonably familiar to him, yet exciting and new at the same time. If there’s been any injustice, it’s been at the hands of the authorities who pulled him out of here.”
Joseph spun away, unable to look at the façade he’d been imprisoned in, only to be confronted with a wall-sized view of María Luisa making love to him. “Who did this?” he cried, pointing angrily at the screen.
He saw María Luisa on another wall, and turned. She smiled, her face radiantly unscarred, and tucked her now-whole leg up underneath her. “Well yes, of course I feel badly for using him like that, but I couldn’t think of any other way to raise the money for my plastic surgery. Can you believe that Giancarla actually offered him free surgery his very first day in the house after a year of denying it to me?”
María Luisa had only lain with him for the money? She knew it had been his first time, and still, she… She…
Joseph felt something wither deep inside.
He had to get out of here. He had to get away from these horrid walls and their incessant betrayal.
The half-mummy tugged at his sleeve again, and he yanked his arm away. “Stop staring!”
A violet-haired woman snagged him by the arm and drew him close. “Are you kidding?” she asked, her eyes sparkling aquamarine inside of a half-moon of bone ridges. “You’re the most fascinating thing to come along in weeks. I’d love to have sex with you. I want to compare you with him.”
She pointed to another wall.
Joseph hesitated, then with great reluctance, looked up.
There was his old body, sitting sprawled in a chair, with its overgrown right hand cupping a violet-haired head between its legs.
Joseph felt his breakfast rise up his throat, and buried his face in his hands to fight it back down.
Fingers reached for his waistband, and he slapped them away. “Leave me alone!”
“Oh, come on,” the violet-haired woman said. “I want to do a taste test. Surely I’m prettier than that plain little bring-forward you were straining on top of last night.”
“But I’m normal now,” Joseph said. “Why won’t you all leave me alone?”
“You’re famous,” his old voice slurred from a wall. “Enjoy it.”
“You’re disgusting,” Joseph snapped, his hands balling into fists at his sides. “Depraved.”
“I’d think you’d be happy to see your body getting so much affection,” Jean-Pierre said. “Surely you would have wanted the same back when you were trapped in it.”
“Never! I would never have defiled a lady in that way.”
“It’s not defilement if she asks for it.”
“Allowing a lady to touch that body is defilement enough.”
“I find it sad that you’re so ashamed of who you were.”
Joseph glared speechlessly at the image on the wall, then turned to the violet-haired woman and whispered, “Take me to an elevator.”
Her aqua eyes twinkled. “Elevator sex. My favorite.”
She took him by the hand and helped clear a path through the crowd, which was getting thicker by the second. Hands plucked at his clothes, and by the time they were alone in the elevator, he was missing most of the buttons off of his shirt and one of its sleeves. “Does this go to spire seventeen?”
She pointed to a 19 etched into the wall. “No, but you can catch a skyslip to seventeen from the top floor.”
“Top floor,” he said in what he hoped was a sufficiently commanding voice that the elevator would obey it. “Please don’t let anyone else on.”
The woman grinned and sunk to her knees. “Ooh, a time challenge.”
As she reached for his waistband, he collapsed to the floor, his knees tucked against his chest.
“Oh, um…” The woman stood and backed away, clasping the vee of her neckline together in a sudden burst of modesty. “Are you all right?”
“No,” Joseph mumbled. “I’m not all right. How could I be?”
“I…I though you were going to let me—”
He looked up at her, momentarily speechless, then said, “How could you stomach doing that to him?”
She shrugged. “It was new. It was different.”
“Novelty’s a rare thing here.”
“And so even though I look normal now—”
“—you’re something new. You don’t fit. That’s sexy.”
He looked down at his black shoes. They were so covered in other people’s prints that they looked gray.
The woman squirmed. “Um, if you’re not going to let me…uh, then I’d like to get off.”
She stopped the elevator and made a quick exit. When the doors closed behind her, Joseph eased himself to his feet and continued the trip to the top of the spire in silence.
Was he really ashamed of his original body? It was as God had made it. But if God hadn’t seen fit to make it appealing to the fairer sex…
No, that didn’t make sense.
None of this made sense.
At the top floor, the doors opened, and a gaggle of excited faces looked in at him.
He wasn’t sure how much of this he could take before he broke.
But he had been through worse.
So he straightened his shoulders, stepped off of the elevator, and did his best to ignore the small crowd as he touched the glowing panel and said, “Computer, transportation for one to spire seventeen.”
“Hey, that’s where I’m going,” said a bald, snake-patterned man. He appeared to be nude, with no arms and one solid leg as wide as his hips. Upon further inspection, Joseph was able to discern that he did indeed have limbs, but they vanished when held tightly against his body. He didn’t look very hard to see what had happened to the man’s genitalia, if indeed he were a man. He was learning not to assume anything in this future.
A gondola for two pulled up, the number 17 flashing on its doors as they opened.
“I’ll wait for the next one,” Joseph said.
The man smiled and flicked out his forked tongue. “I only bite if you ask me to.”
Behind him, he heard another man say, “I’ll go to spire seventeen.”
“Please, go right ahead,” Joseph said. He turned to wave him onto the gondola, and froze.
The face staring back at him was like a teenaged version of his own, back before the bony lumps had blossomed to their full size and the swelling under his lips had rendered his speech almost completely unintelligible. “No, silly,” the man said. “I meant I’d go with you.”
Joseph had to struggle to find his voice, finally stuttering, “Ah— Actually, I’ll t-take this one,” as he backed onto the waiting gondola.
The doors closed, trapping him with the snake man, and he prayed to a God who he hoped could still hear him that the trip to spire seventeen would be a short one.
The snake man shook his head. “So unimaginative.”
Joseph closed his eyes and leaned heavily against one window. “He did that to himself on purpose, didn’t he? He thinks my old body is fashionable.”
“You’re the latest trend. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of that. I’m hoping it blows over quickly. I always hate it when everyone starts looking the same.”
Joseph said nothing, just waited silently for the ride to be over.
“You must be used to that kind of attention, though,” the snake man said.
“I never liked it.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll pass. It always does.”
Joseph opened his eyes and looked at the man with weary gratitude.
The man smiled, and Joseph noticed a stirring at his snake-scaled groin. Ah, there were his genitals. “So, would you like to—”
“No thank you.”
The snake man shrugged. “Fair enough.”
The gondola pulled up to spire seventeen, and the snake man was kind enough to let Joseph take a solo elevator trip down to floor 130. LeShawn and two other young, soft-faced men sat in the middle of the bare floor, staring into space, doing, as LeShawn had promised, nothing. Joseph grabbed a handful of food bars from the cupboard, then disappeared into his bedroom.
“Computer, is it possible to lock the door?”
The wall read, “Locks engaged.”
“Computer, tell me, how did María Luisa record our…congress?”
“She enabled my recording abilities.”
“Is it possible to shut them off? I don’t want to be recorded without my consent again.”
The computer helped him set up encryption based on his brain-wave pattern, and recommended that he opaque his windows to prevent camera-bots from peering in. “Suggest replacement imagery.”
He hated himself the moment he said it: “Give me the view of New York City that I had in my tank.”
Joseph glanced briefly over his shoulder to ensure that the view was in place, then kept his back to it as he made the wall teach him everything he needed to know before he dared venture out again.
He’d gone through two meal bars and countless hours of programming by the time the door started flashing. “Giancarla,” it read.
“I’m not coming out,” he said. “I’ve seen enough.”
The door flashed again. “Giancarla.”
“I’ve locked it. Please, just leave me alone.”
It flashed again. “You’ll need to come out some time.”
He closed his eyes. She was right; he couldn’t hide in here forever, no matter how badly he wanted to. He paused the program he’d been watching on life outside the dome, had the computer replace the fake New York City view with a blank opaque wash, then unlocked the door.
Giancarla stepped in, clutching a satin wrap around what he assumed was a still-bare torso. The snakes on her head had been replaced by a symmetrical series of orange lumps, each with a flashing green spot at the very top. “Well, I saw María Luisa’s little recording. I assume that’s why you’ve locked yourself in here.”
Joseph stared down at his folded hands. “She used me.”
“Good for her,” Giancarla said. “She’s learning how to get ahead in this world.”
“And you used her, too,” Joseph said, not daring to look up as he said so.
“Of course I did,” Giancarla said. “Altruism is a thing of the past. I take bring-forwards in for the same reason everyone else does–for my own gain. I spent a lot of money to buy out someone else’s breeding credit so I could trade it in for her, and it paid off three times over in body sculpting commissions. María Luisa was worth every peso.”
“Oh, you I took simply for the notoriety. You’re already getting me invited to the best parties, with the caveat that I bring you with me, of course. The first two are this Friday. It’ll be fabulous — you’ll be the center of attention all night long. No one’s ever been brought forward from so far back, or from so wretched an existence.”
“That’s the reason you volunteered to take me in?” Joseph asked, aghast. “For party invitations?”
“Well, you came cheap. But that’s just how the world works, Joseph. No one does something for nothing.”
Dr. Treves had. Or had he? Joseph had taken it on faith that Dr. Treves had helped him because it was the Christian thing to do. But had he profited in some way from Joseph’s care? It had certainly seemed to gain him notoriety in many upper-class social circles, and Joseph had heard murmurs that he’d been introduced to the royal family…
Had Dr. Treves only helped him so he could get ahead?
Joseph rested his head in his hands and wished he could order the floor to swallow him up along with the sofa.
Giancarla had the floor conjure up an easy chair and sat in it, adjusting her wrap with her lower two hands. “So, I also hear that you saw one of Jean-Pierre’s little shows.”
Anger spiked through Joseph, fierce and hot, and he rose to his feet and paced the far wall, his hands balled into tight fists.
“It’s not your body anymore. I don’t see why you’re so bothered by it.”
“What he’s doing is highly improper.” He clasped his left hand around his right fist, holding it back from punching who knew what.
“It’s not like he’s defiling something that you want back.”
“It’s just…” Joseph struggled to articulate the complicated mixture of repulsion and shame roiling in his gut, waving his hands helplessly in front of him. He gave up, and collapsed back onto the sofa. “Why do I care so much what happens to that body?”
Giancarla shrugged. “It’s a bring-forward thing. You all see your bodies as so permanent.”
Joseph sagged as all his breath left him. “I spent my entire life in that body, trapped helplessly in a flesh and bone prison that grew ever more deformed over time. I should be glad to be rid of it.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, Jean-Pierre’s paying a heavy price for what he did to you. The court has awarded you all of his assets and his slot in the breeding queue. You’re officially rich. Congratulations.”
“He has no money? But what will he do?”
Giancarla waved both of her left hands. “Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s living comfortably off of the curious and the lascivious. And I’m sure his father will take him back once people get bored with him. You, on the other hand, now have the same problem that he did, namely, trying to figure out what to do with all that wealth while trapped under a dome.”
Joseph shook his head. “I have no idea.”
Giancarla’s eyes twinkled, literally. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”
Joseph special-ordered a new dressing bag that very evening.
Joseph didn’t leave home for the next several days. He had a barber come by to give him a proper haircut, and when they determined that his hair was too curly to lie flat, he had it cut down to half an inch and used a pomade to flatten it. Sometimes he’d sit in his room just running his hands over his scalp, marveling at how small and smooth his skull was.
He ordered more things for himself through the computer, including new templates for the furniture in his room. By day, his space was configured to be a proper sitting room, complete with a Berber rug, a richly upholstered reading chair with matching ottoman, a chestnut coffee table, and two sofas for guests. At night, the room switched over to a four-poster bed with an exotic South American throw.
And most importantly, he started granting interviews.
He hadn’t planned to. But after Giancarla had left for the office one morning, he’d stood in the middle of the living space, staring at the front door, desperate to come up with a way not to have to go through it any time soon. LeShawn shuffled out of his room and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“She’s going to bring me to parties.”
“Yeah. She does that.”
“I fear I won’t like them.”
“No, you won’t.”
“What can I do?”
LeShawn chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip, then said, “Use up your fame now.”
“Won’t that make your mother angry?”
And then Joseph saw something he’d never seen before: LeShawn’s smile. “Most definitely.”
LeShawn set up a battery of interviews, booking Joseph on all the major entertainment channels. He made it clear that if Jean-Pierre made an appearance, either in person or on the wall, the interview was over. Each reporter came into Joseph’s room in turn, marveled at the reproduction antique furniture and his overly-modest clothing, and then launched into a series of questions about Joseph’s past and what he thought about the present. Joseph followed LeShawn’s instructions and answered calmly, but with candor, even when the subject turned to María Luisa, who one reporter brought in on one of the walls.
“Joseph, I’m so sorry. I just…” She winced and trailed off, staring down at her clasped hands.
Joseph put on a fake smile and tried to ignore the knife twisting in his gut. “I understand how hard it is to be disabled. You just wanted to be whole again.”
LeShawn made sure Joseph had a few moments to himself after that interview before letting in the next reporter.
Like the rest, she asked, “So, what do you think of what Jean-Pierre’s been doing with your body?”
He gave her the same answer he’d given every other reporter. “It’s his body now. He can do what he wants with it.”
If he said it enough times, he might eventually come to believe it.
His final interview over, he stood and gazed out his picture windows at today’s image. It was a ground-level view of one of the few remaining rainforests. Most had been destroyed by migrant populations outside of the domes that were desperate for a patch of land, a scrap of food.
Maybe once he understood this world better, he’d see if he could use his money to help some of them. Maybe that could be his life’s work. Philanthropy was a noble cause. Could he build a life around it?
He had to build a life around something.
When Giancarla came home, she was, of course, furious. “How dare you?” she snapped. “No one will care about you by Friday! What am I supposed to do now?”
“Perhaps you should spend some time with your son.”
Twin expressions of shock graced both Giancarla and LeShawn’s faces as he withdrew to his room and closed the door behind him.
From the solitude of his room, he watched the walls to see if his interviews had changed anything. The furor over him grew for a day or two, then subsided once people realized that he wasn’t interested in publicly exhibiting his culture shock any further. He received several interview requests from historians, and one from the New British Museum, but as far as the greater population was concerned, he had become yesterday’s news.
And as much as it pained him, he forced himself to watch his body’s escapades, or, at least, the clean ones. Jean-Pierre was impossible to escape. He was invited to every party in the dome, whether lascivious or chaste. He was the main topic on all the fashion programs, where the hosts would give tips on how to achieve that genuine Proteus Disease look in between discussions of other “Deformity Chic” surgeries. His visit to the ruins of the AT&T Center was covered live by nearly every channel, as was his subsequent boat tour of the Riverwalk.
And then nearly a fortnight later, the coverage stopped.
At dinner, Joseph asked why.
Giancarla shrugged. “I suppose he’s gone out of fashion.”
LeShawn, who had recently begun joining them for meals, nodded in agreement.
The next morning, Joseph ventured back down to the ground floor, into the thick of the St. Mary’s Street Mall.
Nobody gave him a second look.
Joseph stepped into the closest store, a fragrance store, and peered at the racks of amber tubes.
A salesperson came up to him and asked, “May I help you?”
“Oh, I’m just looking. I’m Joseph Merrick, by the way.”
The salesperson smiled. “How nice for you.”
Joseph offered up a silent prayer of thanks that his ordeal was finally over. He bought a small vial of musk, browsed through several other stores, bought something called teriyaki ostrich, and decided, as he was nibbling it off of its genuine faux wood stick, that he liked it better than curry.
Later, as he was putting his purchases away in his room, he heard a chime, and turned, puzzled. He stepped back into the main living space and saw that the elevator door was blinking. “Visitor,” it read.
“Computer, who is it?”
“Jean-Pierre Paredes de García.”
Joseph felt his hands grow numb. Jean-Pierre was here. He was just on the other side of that door. That body…
No. He’d forced himself to watch it on the walls. It didn’t bother him anymore. It wasn’t him anymore.
But there was a big difference between seeing something on the wall and seeing it in the flesh.
He didn’t know if he could face it again.
Joseph swallowed hard, unclenched the fists he’d unconsciously made, and wrapped his arms tightly around his borrowed body. “Computer, relay message: What do you want?”
After a pause, the wall displayed the words: “I need to talk to you.”
Joseph stared at the blinking door, his body breaking out into shivers. Why couldn’t he open it? Why was he still afraid of what he once was? This was madness. He had nothing to fear. It was just a body, a horrible one, but one that had sheltered him for twenty-eight years. It was, he reminded himself, the body that God had seen fit to give to him.
And it was the body he would never have to wear again.
If he didn’t open the door, then that body still had power over him.
“Computer, let him in.”
Joseph looked down at the crumpled heap on the elevator floor and felt a swell of disgust.
“Help me,” Jean-Pierre mumbled.
Joseph narrowed his eyes, feeling his heart grow cold in his breast. “Why should I?”
Incredulity radiated from the body’s one good eye. “I thought you’d understand.”
“Understand?” Joseph scoffed, and realized that his fists were back at his sides.
He saw fear.
He stepped into the elevator and watched Jean-Pierre whimper and cover his head with his thick right arm.
“Bastard,” Joseph spat, and kicked him instead.
His old body howled and curled up protectively.
Something inside Joseph snapped, and he attacked, pounding fists and knees into the revolting excuse for a human body lying huddled in the back corner of the elevator. Twenty-eight years of torture, twenty-eight years of imprisonment, twenty-eight years of hell on earth, and after all that, it was begging him for a handout? Hadn’t he given enough? Hadn’t he been made to suffer enough? “I hate you!” he screamed, raising both fists over his head and bringing them down hard on the knobby skull again and again. “I hate you!”
Out of swollen lips, he heard the faintest, “Please,” and it was his undoing.
“Oh God,” he gasped, collapsing to his knees next to the bruised and bloodied flesh. “Oh God, I’m so…” He reached a hand out to the quivering body, but it whimpered and pulled away.
What had he done?
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll help you.”
Out of the mass of flesh, a shaky, unblemished arm extended itself, and he clasped it, pulling Jean-Pierre to his feet. He put his arm around his shoulders, feeling the cauliflower masses compress under his grip, and led him into the apartment, where he called up a divan and helped him settle onto it. “I’ll get you a blanket,” he said.
Jean-Pierre said nothing, just cradled his massive head with his misshapen arm.
Joseph laid the blanket over Jean-Pierre’s naked body and said, “I am truly, truly sorry. I have no idea what came over me. I’ve never—”
“You’re a heartless bitch.”
“I swear, I didn’t mean—”
“I’d think you’d have more sympathy for this bag of bones.”
Joseph sank down onto the floor and buried his face in his hands. His smooth face. His normal hands. “You gave me this body,” he said. “I should be grateful.”
Jean-Pierre snorted, and it sounded wet.
Joseph looked up and saw Jean-Pierre dabbing blood from his nose with the blanket. “I’m sorry,” he said, putting his hand underneath him so he could push himself to his feet. “Let me get you—”
Jean-Pierre waved him back down with his oversized right hand. “It’s nothing. Well, comparatively.”
“You need a doctor.”
“I can’t afford one.”
Very quietly, Joseph said, “Oh.”
“That’s why I came to you.” Jean-Pierre gestured to his body with his good hand. “I can’t live in this anymore. Not without help. I knew they’d fine me for what I did, but I never imagined they’d take everything. I mean, I can barely manage simple things like eating or bowel movements.”
“I know,” Joseph said.
“Not that I have anything much to eat anymore,” Jean-Pierre added. “My friends have decided this body is too tiresome to support. If you could just pay to have this body surgically altered to be easier to live in—”
“I thought your father was a surgeon. Can’t he help you?”
Jean-Pierre looked down at his mismatched hands. “He cut me off years ago. Said I was too much of a bother.”
Joseph looked at his own hands, his new hands, and said, “I know what that’s like.”
Jean-Pierre cocked his massive head to the side, supporting it with his hand. “That wasn’t in the movie.”
“From what little I’ve seen of it, it doesn’t seem to have been particularly accurate. It didn’t even get my name right.” Joseph walked to the nearest wall and said, “Computer, please put me through to Giancarla Baratella’s office.”
A moment later, Giancarla’s face filled the wall. “Joseph, what… Oh, you have company. What happened to him?”
She held three of her hands up. “Say no more. So, I take it Jean-Pierre needs my help.”
“Are we talking about setting his broken nose, or—”
“He needs to be able to support himself.” Joseph knew far too well how impossible it was to make a living in that body. His only options had been exhibition and charity. Jean-Pierre had already used up his exhibition time, so all he had left was this act of charity.
Besides, if modern medicine could give people extra arms, surely it could give his old body some relief.
“Ah. Yes. Hmm.” Giancarla turned away and said, “Computer, give me complete information on the body of Joseph Merrick.”
It flashed an image of a tall, slender, brown man.
“No, the body he was born in.”
The image was replaced with the one that Joseph knew all too well.
“Neurofibromatosis and Proteus Syndrome. Well, your body certainly was a deformity overachiever. Jean-Pierre, why on earth didn’t you have these switched off?”
“I didn’t want a static body. That would have been boring.”
Giancarla sighed. “Jean-Pierre, if there’s ever a prize for stupidity, I’m nominating you for it. Deformity is not something to be left unsupervised.” She turned back to the image. “Well, the neurofibromatosis should be fairly easy to switch off, but the Proteus will be a tricky one. The only cure on record is not letting a fetus with its gene markers be born.” She studied the image further, having the computer rotate it so she could view it from all angles. “The skin growths will be easy to take care of. Computer, show skeleton.”
Joseph staggered back. The skull that stared back at him looked like the face of a demon. That’s what had been lurking just under his skin? Good God.
“Now this is the challenge,” Giancarla said. She zoomed in on his skull, and Joseph looked away. “I’ve never seen natural bone growth like this. It’s…well, frankly, it’s horrifying.”
He peeked back, shielding the view with his hand, carefully looking only at her, at the concern marring her bizarre features.
Well, at least she finally recognized his former body for what it was.
She shook her head. “Jean-Pierre, you had no idea what you were getting yourself into, were you?”
“Obviously not,” he slurred.
“This is barbarous. This is precisely why we’ve been so careful to maintain the integrity of the dome. Just knowing that the human body can do this to itself…” She switched off the image, and Joseph let out a pent-up breath and dropped his hand. “I can make the body livable. It’ll take some work, but I can do it.”
“Can you make it look as it would have looked had I been born healthy?” Joseph asked.
“Absolutely. Computer, simulate this body’s appearance without either Proteus or neurofibromatosis.”
The face staring back at him looked exactly like the face from his New York fantasy world.
“Will you look at that,” Giancarla said. “Jean-Pierre actually got something right. Now mind you, unless I can engineer a cure for Proteus, there’ll be more corrective surgeries in that body’s future. They’ll be minor — a tweak here, a tweak there. He’ll probably be in surgery less than most of my clients are. But I assume you’ll want him to pay for his own upkeep, yes?”
Joseph looked down at Jean-Pierre, at the man wearing the body that God had seen fit to give Joseph. It could be fixed. It could be made human.
God had never seen fit to fix him.
Or maybe God was the one who had arranged for him to be brought to this future for the cure.
That body was a horrible, hateful thing. It had given him nothing but anguish all his life.
Could he bear to have someone else live in it once it was made whole?
With his back to Giancarla’s image, he asked, “How long will it take to do the procedure?”
“This is going to take a lot of careful sculpting. I’m used to working with planned deformations — no one’s worked with chaotic, natural deformity in decades. Still, if I get the bots in on it and call in some assistance, I can probably complete the job in one marathon session.”
“Do it,” he said. “All at once. Whatever it costs.”
“Thank you,” Jean-Pierre sighed.
“And give him this body back.”
He looked down at Jean-Pierre’s startled eyes, his eyes, and saw twenty-eight years of unfulfilled dreams reflected back at him.
He couldn’t let someone else wear that body once they were fulfilled. He couldn’t let someone else become the man he should have been.
From the wall, Giancarla said, “I thought you said that was out of the question.”
Joseph turned, advanced on her image, and said, “You have to guarantee that I won’t wake up until the body’s been made completely normal.”
“After all this, you still think of it as yours.”
“I will never understand you bring-forwards, but that’s what makes you so much fun.” Giancarla’s eyes sparkled. “Yes, you have my promise that you won’t wake up until it’s cured. Well, I have a very complicated sculpt to plan, so if you’ll excuse me—” The wall went blank.
Joseph took in a deep breath, then let it slowly pour out of him. Soon, the worst would be over. There was just one last thing to do to set everything right. He turned to Jean-Pierre and said, “We need to make a public statement.”
Jean-Pierre cocked his massive head to the side. “And pray tell, why?”
“You and I are going to make sure that every bored, wealthy person in this dome knows that you had to come begging to me to be let out of my body. This must never, ever happen again.”
He shrugged. “Fine, if that’s your price.”
“It is,” Joseph said. “Once that’s taken care of, we’ll be even. What do you think about doing it at the Alamo? The historical significance—”
“Of a doomed last stand?” Jean-Pierre chuckled. “Brilliant.”
“Perhaps it was doomed,” Joseph said, “but it was never forgotten.”
Jean-Pierre fell silent for a moment, then said, “Can I eat something first? I’m starving.”
Joseph dug through the kitchen cabinets until he found something soft, and when Jean-Pierre was done, Joseph held out his hand, helped that body to its feet, and gave it his arm.
Time to make that last stand, doomed or no.
It would be difficult, but then again, he’d been though so much harder.