Author : J.E. Bates

The bone-saw keened like a dentist’s drill above her paralyzed eyes. The injection had petrified every muscle down to her eyelids but it had not sedated her mind. This isn’t how you removed a minor malignancy, she knew. The brain scan had shown only a minute, black pinprick.

She stared at the spinning disc: How much pain?

Routine, they’d said at the university. Nothing to worry about, but best excise it now. But when the private car brought her to this place, too small to be a hospital, she should have known.

A male nurse spoke from beyond her line of sight. “Doctor, there’s still conscious brain activity,” he said. “Should I give her another shot?”

“No time,” the doctor answered. The bone-saw bobbed away as the doctor moved behind her, its spinning blade unseen but wailing in her ears. “Patient Y is critical. Prep the skull clamps.”

Patient Y? There’d been a pair of men in the lobby wearing crisp suits, one aged like a withered apple core, the other young and solid as a tree trunk. The doctor had introduced her as Patient X but the men gave no names at all.

Coherent worry ended as the blade cut. Paralyzed by the injection, her body couldn’t twist and thrash but her mind still exploded in primal fury against the scintillating overload of a thousand screaming nerves as spinning blade sliced skin and cored living bone.

Finally, mercifully, everything went anesthetic black.

Consciousness returned, the paralysis gone. She turned blurry eyes away from the blinding ceiling lights — only to get a jolt: a frail, hollow-chested body in a blood-splattered gown. No, it couldn’t be. She raised an arm only to see thin, grey hairs running down a lanky forearm, frail stick of a wrist leading to a withered claw dotted with age spots. No, please no.

That hand: the old man in the lobby had nuzzled her with it, fingertips like rat’s feet. “Young,” he’d said, breath musty like mothballs. “Healthy.”

She grabbed at her head and face, feeling wrinkled, sunken flesh scruffy with stubble, crown wrapped in drenched bandages. Her whimper came wet and alien from wheezing, fluid-filled lungs.

Too feeble to rise, she looked across the room only to see a further horror: her own body, head swathed in bloody wrappings, chest rising and falling in a deep, ragged sleep. Rage swelled inside: not fair, not right, but somehow they’d done it. A sickly man, a secluded clinic — she should’ve known.

The door opened. The young hulk walked in, the tree trunk in the silk suit. He came and loomed over her with a predatory sneer. “Hello ‘dad’,” he said. “Glad to be alive? You won’t be. The sanitarium is discreet.” He grinned. “Necessary of course, to avoid an inquest.” She craned her neck at her body on the far side of the room. “Ah yes, father,” he said, following her eyes. “He’ll drop out of college, re-join the family firm. Under your name of course.”

The depraved body-snatchers. Only one chance. “Son, it’s me!” she hissed, drool trickling off cracked lips.

Doubt clouded his face. She crooked a palsied finger at him and he bent close to hear dry words.

“The doctor botched the transplant,” she rasped, clotted lungs straining. “Then faked it. Make him do it again. Watch this time…” She faded back into unfeigned oblivion, trauma overwhelming the weakened frame.

Untold hours later her eyes opened again to the infinitely reassuring sight of her own chest rising and falling beneath a hospital gown. On the far side of the room the old man’s body lay lifeless, flat-lined according to the cardiograph.

“Father?” the hulking son asked, hovering and twisting his hands.

She smiled. He should have known.

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