The checkout clerk looked glanced over at the man at the end of the conveyor belt, then glanced at him again. Traveling toward her were several packages of tripe, a tub of pig's kidneys, several beef hearts, tongue, several livers, and two tubs of cow brains. A knot rose in her throat. It was the cheap meat that really frugal people bought, even so, no one ever bought that much.
She suspected he must be up to a prank, but he looked about 60, probably too old. He looked ragged and unkempt, though his clothes were of a high quality. He looked like he hadn't slept in a few days. The man kept piling organ meats onto the belt. The clerk picked up each package with as few fingers as necessary and scanned them. After the meats he put up a dozen bottles of cheap shampoo, two jugs of bleach, four jugs of distilled water, several packages of assorted batteries, two rolls of plastic aquarium tubing, numerous tubes of epoxy glue, two boxes of heavy-duty freezer bags, rubber gloves, twelve packages of dehydrated agar and six packages of unsweetened gelatin powder, a roll of crafting wire, a roll of twine, a roll of pink sewing thread, and three inflatable kiddie pools.
When the man was finished, he went up to the middle of the check stand, shifted his weight from foot to foot more than he ought to just to maintain balance, and looked around to see who was watching.
"Do you want--" started the clerk.
"It's for my wife," said the man quickly, then chuckled nervously.
"Umn, do you want paper or plastic sir?"
"Oh, haha, yeah," he said, looking down.
"Which one sir?" said the clerk.
"Oh. Oh! Um, plastic I guess. Whatever's easier. It doesn't really matter to me."
"Okay then," she said. "Looks like your total is two hundred and thirty eight dollars."
"Oh really? I thought it would be more."
"Nope. Cash or credit?"
"Uh, I have a check card," he said. He handed it to her.
"You can just swipe it there," she said, pointing to the card reader and keypad in front of him.
"Oh, haha. I don't go to the grocery store all that much. My wife--" he choked up on these last words, and looked as if he was about to cry. The clerk took his hand and swiped the card.
"Just, uh, press in your pin number when you're ready," she said.
"Yeah, okay," he said, fighting the urge to sob. He punched in a number. The register started printing the end of the receipt. The clerk tore it off and started bagging the items. "I'll help you with that."
"Thanks," she said. They bagged and piled the items back in the cart. He pushed the cart out of the store and across the length of the parking lot. He pushed it to the sidewalk, where the back wheels locked up from the anti-theft device on the cart. He pushed the cart, scraping, down the sidewalk, and across a crosswalk, towards a warehouse complex that faced the grocery store. He took out a key and shakily opened the door and pushed the cart into a hall. He scraped the cart down the hall, grinding trails into the linoleum, to the second door on the left. He took out another key and opened that door, pushing the cart inside. He locked the door behind him, and threw his coat to the floor where he stood.
It was a large room, the biggest he could afford on such short notice. It included a walk-in freezer and a walk-in refrigerator. It was probably meant as a restaurant storage facility. There was also a pantry, prep tables with various knives and implements laid out neatly on top, and a water supply. There was a futon mattress on the floor in one corner, still wrapped in a large plastic bag.
He got to work. The meat went into the fridge, and the other items went into the pantry. He unpackaged one of the kiddie pools, and blew it up slowly so he wouldn't get light-headed and pass out. He dragged it close to the door of the freezer, which he then entered. He shivered. There she was, lying on the floor, in plastic wrap. He grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the plastic wrap. He felt her skin--she was frozen solid. He picked at her sweater, which was stuck to her skin and saturated with frozen blood. After a few minutes he was able to pull it away from her abdomen. He took a knife and sawed off a chunk of her belly fat. He put it in a freezer bag, and left it to thaw on one of the prep tables. Then he wrapped up her body carefully again and closed the freezer.
Next he inflated a second pool, and then squirted all the shampoo into it. It only made a pale green layer a few inches deep. He sighed and wished he'd gotten more. He unwrapped all the meat, washing each cut in the sink before tossing it into the pool with the shampoo. All of the contents came to the brim, and he pulled this pool with much grunting and pain, into the fridge. He wrapped the top of the pool with plastic wrap, then closed the fridge up.
He cut apart the plastic on the futon (with a different pair of scissors) and flopped down. Exhausted, he went to sleep almost immediately. Several hours later he awoke and checked on the bag with the fat. It was soft and pliable. He left the room to use the communal building restroom and wash up. When he came out, he put on the gloves and opened the bag. He scraped the fat from the skin, and cut it up into chunks. He deposited each chunk in a different freezer bag, then went to work on each one separating the cells from their matrix as best he could. After several hours work he was left with bags of goopy yellow fat. The bags went into the fridge.
He left and came back with fast food, which he ate sitting on the futon, staring at the freezer door. When he was done, he rehydrated the agar, and disolved the gelatin powder. To half the bags of fat he added agar, and to the other half he added gelatin, not sure which would work best. He set the bags in the fridge, then rested.
For a few days he slept or sat up thinking. He returned the cart to the grocery store. He checked on the progress of the meat and the fat several times. Finally it seemed ready.
He pulled out the pool with the meat and shampoo, and unwrapped the top. The shampoo had changed color to a dull patchy brown. He fished out a kidney and took it over to the sink and rinsed it. When it was clean, all that was left was a milky ghost, the kidney cells were dissolved, leaving just the spongey intracellular matrix. The man smiled.
He inflated the remaining pool and filled it with tap water. He picked out the organs one by one and put them in the water bath. He felt around in the shampoo pool for any stray organs, and when he found none he picked up that pool, which was easier to carry at that point, and slowly dumped the used shampoo into the sink. He thoroughly rinsed out the pool and let it dry.
From the water bath he took each organ and rinsed it again with first tap water to remove all the soap, then with distilled water to remove all the tap water. Each ghost organ went into a separate freezer bag, and he put everything back in the fridge.
He opened the freezer again, and completely unwrapped the body of the woman. He put her clothes and all in one of the kiddie pools, making sure to curl her up so she was entirely in it, and poured warm water over her. He packed ice just around her head. He went back to the futon, and watched her thaw for hours.
Eventually her skin was unfrozen enough that he could peel off her clothes. He put them in a heap in one corner of the room. He went back to her body and stroked the hair on her head. The pool was full of blood now--her wounds were unthawing. He changed the ice, and held her hand, feeling her icy fingers in his until they were warm with his reflected heat. He pulled up her arm and kissed the back of her hand and started to cry.
An hour later he got to work. He started on her organs. He cut open her abdomen and pried open her chest. He cut chunks from her liver, kidneys, pancreas, spleen, stomach, intestines, colon, lungs, heart, uterus, ovaries, and thyroid. Each chunk went into a separate freezer bag and into the fridge. He then cut out lare swaths of arteries and veins and put them in one bag. He took samples of various connective tissues around her wound entry points. All of that went into the fridge.
He cleaned out her wounds as best he could, and removed entirely the damaged organs. He stuffed ice in her chest cavity and pulled the skin back up over it. He removed some more of the fat just in case, and some excess skin, trying to sculpt her body as nicely as he was able. He poured more ice over her and drained off much of the bloody water. It ran all over the floor and started soaking into the futon. He cursed when he realized it, but pulled her pool into the freezer before attending to the futon.
After he mopped up the floor and cleaned it with bleach (and tossed the futon in the dumpster behind the warehouse building), he retrieved the tissue samples from the fridge, and just as he had done with the fat, he pulled apart the samples until he was left with a cellular goo. He then matched up the samples with the appropriate ghost organ, except for the beef brain, which had no corresponding sample.
He took the batteries and attached wires cut from the craft rolls at each anode and cathode. He glued down the wires so they could not come loose. To each ghost organ bag he added a very mild saline solution, then glued the wires into the bag, one on each seam per battery. Then he added the sample tissues and massaged the contents so they would mix. He put everything back in the fridge and adjusted the temperature warmer.
He left and bought a new futon, lots of linens, buckets, and a consumer-grade defibrillator. He bought well-used pair of scrubs from a charity clothing store, and used them to sneak into a hospital where he stole, with some guile, surgical instruments and thread, several bags of type-O negative blood and saline, and several types of intravenous antibiotics. It was the same hospital where he had stolen the body, from the emergency room, days earlier, after the surgeons wouldn't listen to his pleas.
At the warehouse several days later, he cleaned down one of the prep tables with bleach, and laid a linen sheet on top of it. He moved one of the other prep tables closer to use as a work surface. He carried the woman's body from the freezer and laid her out on the prep table with the linen. He cleaned the ice from her chest cavity and let her thaw again. He checked her temperature every few minutes, at various parts of her body. He packed ice near her head to keep it cooler that the rest of her.
Eventually she thawed enough that he could start her on saline. He threaded the plastic aquarium tubing into one of the large veins that had gone to her heart, and forced salt water into her body. After a several seconds, blood started bubbling up into her chest cavity. He collected it in buckets under the table. He kept pouring in fresh saline until the blood ran pink, then clear. He checked her extremities to make sure the saline had washed there as well. Finally, when she was of a ghost like pallor, he stopped and removed the tube.
He went to the fridge and took out the replacement organs, now grown. Some were malformed, there were enough left over that would work. He patched up her intestines and colon first, then sewed in her new stomach, attaching it to her existing esophagus. He attached the liver and pancreas and spleen, trying to remember everything he learned as a young medic back in Vietnam about where organs were supposed to go. Then he carefully laid in the lungs and sewed them to the trachea. Finally he got the heart and sewed it in.
When he was done, it was many hours later, and he was exhausted and bleary eyed, but he pressed on. He changed and repacked the ice. He found a vein in her arm and started an I.V., with a bag of saline. He pressed on the saline bag to force the liquid in. He looked for leaks around her organs, and sewed up what he saw, then drained her again, sponged her out, and repeated the procedure to make sure everything was caught. Then he closed her chest cavity, and sewed up the muscles and skin.
He started having heart palpitations, and felt faint. He was sweating profusely even though the room was cold. He changed her I.V. over to a bag of blood, and filled her body with a few more. He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder, but he continued. He charged the defibrillator, and placed the paddles on her chest. He gave her a jolt, then checked the heart with his ear. There was no beat. He did it again and again, and then the heart started. He felt joy and trepidation.
Her chest was not moving, so he started mouth to mouth. After minutes of this, the lungs would not breath on their own. The heart was still beating, so he kept breathing for her. He worried about nerve endings and if he had patched up everything correctly. The pain in his shoulder grew and crept down his arm.
Between breaths he checked her temperature. He removed the ice and wrapped her in blankets. He turned the heat up in the room as far as it would go, which was about 90 degrees. He breathed and breathed and breathed. He changed the blood out and and started the antibiotics. He breathed. The pain was in his jaw. He checked her temperature and breathed. Both arms were wracked with pain and his fingers were numb. He breathed.
Then her lungs moved on their own. He watched her chest move with disbelief. He cried and kissed her hands. He swept wet hair from her brow and smiled. But her face was still, and his smile faded. He watched her, breathing on her own, and told himself that was enough. She lived. He fixed her as much as she was able. His thoughts wandered to the beef brain matrix in the fridge, but admitted to himself that he could not fix that for her.
He straightened and smoothed out the blankets covering her body, and looked at her face longingly. He kissed the palm of her hand, then laid her arm across her chest. He went and laid down on the futon, watching her breathing form. He closed his eyes.
An hour later, she gasped. Her eyelids fluttered open, and she saw the strange ceiling with blurry vision. Then she felt the pain. Her chest and abdomen where on fire. She cried out. Every move delivered more pain. She yelled periodically for hours. There were voices outside, and loud banging on the door. The door was wrested from its frame, and policemen swarmed in.
Thirty minutes later she was in the hospital. She gave her name and the staff was in disbelief, since she was the stolen body. They examined her, and conferred, and performed some more surgeries, as well as many tests. The next day she asked for her husband.
"He died," said the doctor.
"He was shot too?" she asked. The doctor shook his head.
"I'm not sure how to explain this, but only you died then."
"You died. We were going to put you in the morgue when he took you. And somehow, he brought you back to life, when we couldn't. We're still trying to figure out how. He kept you cold, and we know that's been used to extend life during long surgeries, but never days long."
She slowly smiled and said, "he would do that." She looked in the distance for a moment, "then he died of exhaustion?"
"Yes, how did you--"
"I know my husband," she said. "Where is he now?"
"In the morgue."
"Could you try the same thing?" she asked. The doctor looked at the tops of his shoes. "It's been too long, hasn't it?"
"I'm afraid so," he said. "It was hours between when we found you and him and when he died. Even with whatever he did, it was too long."
"I understand," she said. She looked down at her hands, with a neutral expression.
"What will you do?" asked the doctor quietly.
"I guess I'll have to live life for both of us," she said. She smiled briefly then looked out the window.