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Art by Melissa Mead

His Brother was an Only Child

After years of teaching college mathematics and publishing several textbooks, Ron Ferguson decided that writing fiction was more fun, so he and his wife (and five feral cats) now live on two acres of the Texas Hill country where he make wine, plans the next road trip, dabbles in woodwork and gardening, and spends an inordinate amount of time pounding out plots on his laptop. sites.google.com/site/authorianlegend.
I clenched my eyelids, and my memories trickled in.
John Ashley. Twenty-three years old. Terminal cancer. Crying parents. Cryogenic storage. The first cold moment. The last brief hope: they would awaken me when they had the cure.
I tensed and shivered. "How long?"
An old man touched my neck, and relaxation seeped from the touch. I mumbled, barely able to understand myself. "Who are you?"
"I'm your brother, Larry."
That was good. Peace surrounded me. A sketchy doubt arose as I drifted.
I had no brother.
I do not know how long I struggled with groggy consciousness, but finally I reached a point where I managed to stay alert through the day. That night, I slept extremely well, and awoke refreshed the following morning.
The nurse entered my room loaded with a sponge and a container of soapy water. Often, I had seen her dour face during by bouts with consciousness. For some reason today, she looked younger and crisper.
"Something special for me?" I asked, happy to be able to talk. As usual, she did not speak.
Instead, she smiled, that thin, tolerant smile that shows no teeth, that reeks of efficiency. She set the water and sponge on the bedside table and pulled the top sheet from my bed.
She leaned over me to straighten my pillow. This was new, no tightly buttoned uniform today. Rather, the open neck revealed her creamy cleavage for too short a moment.
She crumpled the sheet and tossed it to the floor as laundry. Then she took hold of my hospital gown and stripped me bare. My gown joined the sheet on the floor.
I was surprised. When I had been a pre-med student--before the cancer, before the long sleep--the curriculum drummed privacy and modesty issues into us. I guessed that people now were not as worried about nudity.
Just as well. I expected the chill of the cool room to descend. Instead, my face flushed and heat rose to my cheeks when she thoroughly inspected me. She picked up the sponge and dipped it into the water.
A few strokes of the warm sponge along my underarms, neck, and chest, and the tension melted from me. I relaxed. While her left hand patted my chest, she ran the sponge across my ribs and onto my stomach. Her left hand glided to my throat. Immediately, I felt drowsy.
The warm, friendly sponge moved down my stomach, over my thighs, and toward my perineum. I wanted to stay awake, but I couldn't. As I faded, I thought I heard her whisper, but I never saw her lips move.
"Good boy. Clever boy. Thank you for cooperating."
About two weeks later, I could walk unassisted, and Larry took me on my first outside sojourn. When he opened the door for me to pass, the bright morning sun blinded me. As my vision cleared, I digested the green wall that lay a hundred meters beyond the doorway.
"Is that a forest?" I asked. In my previous life I had seen a tree every now and then, but nothing like this.
He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. "One of our successes," he said. "We're much better stewards of the planet. Some of those trees are thirty meters tall."
I could contain myself no longer. I blurted out the concern that I had concealed for weeks.
"Larry, I never had a brother. Perhaps the paperwork is screwed up, but I think you've confused me with someone else. I want to thank you for how well you've treated me, but . . ."
"You didn't have a brother before you were frozen? Yes, I know you were an only child. But after your parents... lost you, they wanted another child. At their age, it was not an easy thing, but as proof, I stand here before you."
I looked carefully at Larry. He looked much older than Dad had been the last time I saw him. Larry looked old enough to be my grandfather. The mirror told me that I was still the same scruffy twenty-three-year-old pre-med student who jumped into an icebox to avoid death. Well, maybe not quite the same. Healthwise, I felt a lot better.
"Mom and Dad are gone... How long?"
He sighed and turned from me. "You've been in cold storage more than seventy-five years. Come on. Let's look about. I think you will find the environment exciting."
More than seventy-five years? One hundred years is more than seventy-five years. One thousand years is more than seventy-five years. Was there some deception here? Just how much had medicine advanced? How far into the future had I travelled?
The doubts subsided as my surroundings compelled my attention. I had been a twenty-three-year-old kid teetering on the brink of death. I remembered those last frantic days of pain and exhaustion when my life rushed toward its close. Now, with firmer body, I stood on my own and looked at rebuilt forests.
I felt good. I felt hopeful.
A strange creature hopped from beneath a nearby bush and nibbled on a flower.
"What's that?"
"Another environmental success. Don't you recognize the animal from old pictures?"
I examined the creature carefully. It regarded me with mismatched eyes, one sickly pink and one deep red. A short, tan ear perked at the left side of its head, and a longer, brown ear hung listlessly to the right. The hind legs seemed far out of proportion to the front legs, so that the creature sloped downhill. I struggled to retrieve an unfamiliar name.
"Is it a rabbit?"
"Excellent. We are quite proud of the species' recovery. The population was down to three rabbits, one marginal male and two fertile females. Of course, with a small genetic pool, we had plenty of setbacks in the program. Intensive inbreeding produced many stillbirths and malformed offspring, but now each new rabbit generation is afflicted with fewer of the bad effects from recessive genes. Fortunately, as a regression offset, rabbits are prolific. The rabbit population today is just over a thousand, and the species will have a chance beyond mere survival. We hope someday they will thrive. Still, if we could introduce some fresh genetic material into the rabbit gene pool... Ah, well."
I looked back at the forest. How long did it take a tree to grow to thirty meters? How long had I slept?
How old was my brother?
I first saw the woman during an after-lunch walk. She sat on a bench and fed breadcrumbs to small birds. The birds flew away when I approached.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to scare them."
She did not reply. With her back straight and stiff, she stared ahead. The wind ruffled her hair so that I could see the left side of her face better.
She looked about Mom's age, or at least the age at which I last remembered Mom. Wrinkles pulled at the corner of her eye, and she wore her skin more loosely than a young woman. I did not try to guess her age, but from her profile I suspected she had once been beautiful. Because of my experience with Larry, I was not sure I could judge age based on appearance. Clearly, she was another patient.
"My name is John, John Ashley. I've only been here a few. . ."
The woman rose and walked away. I had not noticed before, but she had a withered right leg, and she limped when she walked. Also, her right arm was conspicuously shorter than her left arm, and her right hand appeared incomplete.
I called after her. "Please. Don't leave on my account. I didn't mean to. . ."
She glanced back over her right shoulder. A large scar dimpled and puckered the right side of her face. The scar continued above her mangled ear and left a large bald patch on the right side of her hairline.
I watched her until she turned the corner of the building.
What kind of hospital was this?
"When can I leave?" I suppressed 'when can I go home,' because I realized I no longer had a home. "I feel much better now. I've been here for months. Except for an occasional headache or a little nausea, I feel great. I want to start a new life for myself."
Larry sat behind his desk and looked thoughtful, as if he needed to be careful of his response. He thinned his lips.
"Few people get sick anymore, John."
"That's good. Is that why there are so few patients here?"
"Yes. Of course, but few patients mean medicine is no longer mass-produced. Each treatment must be a custom solution."
I said, "I don't understand." But I thought I did understand. Perhaps I had not been cured. Perhaps my disease was simply treatable, and I would have to live my life with a chronic condition that needed to be controlled. Larry confirmed my diagnosis.
"We are pleased with the remission of your cancer, but we hesitate to call you cured. Please give us a bit more time to study you, to design your treatment. I am afraid that you would not do nearly as well without our continuous supervision."
Supervision? That did not sound medical. Was he worried about how I would integrate into society? I had seen few other patients on the hospital grounds. Seldom would any speak with me. I suspected that this was not a hospital just for diseases of the body. None of the minds I met seemed healthy to me.
But surely I was different from the mentally ill. On the other hand, maybe I was also different from everyone. Maybe that was the problem. The elapsed years had made me too different from those in the outside world. I told myself that with effort I would learn to adjust, to fit in. Confidence ebbed as I wondered how much the world had changed.
Larry sought my attention. "John."
"Hmm." I remained distracted.
"John, I think it best if you reconciled yourself to a longer stay. I know you didn't expect resurrection until we had a cure, but circumstances forced our decision and made the timing now or never. Perhaps it's difficult to see now, but I am sure that you will eventually agree that a longer stay here is for the best."
I read the concern on his face. Well, he was my brother. He would have my best interests at heart. I summoned a smile. "Yes, Larry, I suppose you're right."
I was lonely. The nurse never spoke, and I seldom saw Larry. I found comfort outside, near the forest. I walked slowly and quietly to avoid frightening the birds.
The woman sat on the same bench, feeding breadcrumbs to the birds with her left hand, and rubbing her stomach with her shriveled right hand. She turned her head to look at me full-faced. The scars on the right side of her face pulled at her lips.
"Remember me? I'm John. I hope you will tell me your name." Maybe she did not speak English. Maybe no one except Larry spoke English anymore.
She stopped feeding the birds and regarded me for a long moment, but she continued to rub her stomach as she measured my face. Finally, she spoke.
"Annie," she said, and then she emptied her hand of breadcrumbs. The birds fluttered in to retrieve the treasure.
Annie's accent was strange--not familiar like Larry's--and her pronunciation was either peculiar or distorted by the scars about her mouth. She wiped her hand on her skirt.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Annie." I extended my hand.
She ignored me to look at her stomach. She patted her stomach lightly. "Howjado. Howjado. Now to meet your daddy?"
"What?" I had made a bad mistake. Clearly, she was unbalanced, and somehow, I had upset her.
She looked up with frenzied eyes. "Howjado? Your daddy's an idyot says I. Thirty-seven now, but soon thirty-eight." She patted her stomach again.
The woman needed help. I cast about. Larry rushed out the door toward us.
"Did you miss your medication?" I asked. "Here comes my... uh, Dr. Ashley. He can help you."
She glanced toward the door and grinned. Larry walked faster. Concern coated his face.
"Doctor?" she hissed. "No doctor. Body technician. Not one of us."
I grew confused. Were medical workers now simply body mechanics? Had medicine progressed from a professional practice to a technical skill? Suddenly, I realized that Annie still watched me with glowing, intent eyes as if she measured my worth. I tried to calm her.
"Everything will be all right. Just relax. You're at a wonderful hospital, and they will give you the best of care. Larry, Dr. Ashley, is my brother. He will take good care of you."
"Idyot. Here not hospital. Wildlife preserve for endangered." She gestured towards Larry, who now closed rapidly. "Hez alien, 'nother world. Thirty-seven humans left, soon thirty-eight." She patted her stomach for emphasis.
My jaw dropped open. I stared, first at the wild-eyed Annie and then at the deep concern written across Larry's face.
"Please, John, I am sorry. I didn't want you to learn this way," Larry said. "We hope to have a cure for your cancer soon, but we couldn't wait. We need you now to re-vitalize the DNA pool."
Annie giggled and drove the point home. "Hez not your brother, hez your keeper."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

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