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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Still Life Through Water Droplets

When not pounding away on his keyboard, D. Thomas Minton moonlights as a marine biologist. He prefers to spend his days underwater, but at any given time, he can be found lounging on some tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with his wife, daughter, and too many cats. His fiction--which has surprisingly little to do with the ocean--has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and Dagan Books' In Situ Anthology. He scribbles idle ramblings at dthomasminton.com.

Brandon wanted to find a woman he could put his arm around and have her shoulder slide into the nook of his armpit. Then he could smell her hair when he pulled her close.
Susan's hair had always smelled of coconut and jasmine. He still had a half-full bottle of her shampoo in the shower, waiting.
"My parents are from the Ukraine," Odette said over the top of her tea cup. "But I was born in Ohio." She didn't speak with a Midwesterner's flat vowels, but neither had Susan.
"I live in Chicago now," she said. "I'm in Boston on business, but I don't want to bore you."
Brandon wished she would stop talking. If he learned too much about her, he might not be able to go through with the personality transfer. He had spent months looking for the right woman.
His hand trembled as he set his cup down. If he failed now, he was afraid he could not go on.
Odette flashed a half-smile. "It's getting late...."
After several heartbeats, Brandon realized she had left the sentence hanging. Had his clumsiness cost him? "Can I walk you to your hotel?"
Her eyes sparkled as she played with the string and little paper square that dangled out of the tea pot. "I was hoping you would offer."
Brandon's heart raced. He glanced at the other patrons in the coffee shop. Did they suspect the crime he was about to commit? It wasn't murder, he reminded himself. No, not murder. More like theft. He could live with theft.
Odette cleared her throat delicately. She stood with her coat buttoned.
Brandon fumbled his arms into his own jacket. Outside, an icy rain soaked them in seconds. Brandon wished he had remembered an umbrella.
Odette had a room on the twentieth floor of a mid-priced hotel. It looked east over the harbor. He shed his coat in the entry way as Odette danced into the bathroom.
She tossed him a towel before closing the door.
Brandon stared at it. He shivered despite the warmth of the room. He had planned every move in detail, but now he couldn't remember them.
Odette came out wrapped in only a towel. Dark hair, tussled and wet, framed her impish grin. She had muscular legs, not the match-sticks women seemed to value. They were like Susan's, but firmer and creamy white.
He backed into the wall as she came at him.
Her hands slipped around his neck and she pulled his face down to hers. She was the perfect height, Brandon thought, as her lips touched his. Then all thought of heights and legs vanished.
"Why don't you get out of those wet clothes while I fix us drinks?"
Drinks. That was what he was supposed to do. In his wallet, he had a packet of paralytic powder and neural activator to facilitate the transfer.
"Go, go," she said playfully as she pulled two small bottles of gin and a can of tonic water from the mini-bar. "I hope they have limes."
Still cursing himself, Brandon closed the bathroom door behind him. He could barely breathe as he propped himself against the vanity. What was he going to do now? He needed to make the next drinks, but that meant getting to "next drinks."
He turned on the tap to buy himself some time. You can do this, he told himself, for Susan. She had fought the cancer valiantly, even after it ate through her liver and into the heart of her bones. Even after the doctors told her there was no hope, Susan wanted to fight. In the end, after every medical procedure failed, they did not have enough money for a legal personality transfer and clone.
Brandon's fingers ached from gripping the edge of the vanity. After all the bills had been paid, he'd had just enough money to pay for a black market transfer. Now he needed a surrogate.
He pulled the wax-paper packet of paralytic from his wallet. Susan's transfer cache fell out onto the counter. Taped to the back of the credit-card sized device, was a wrinkled picture of Susan. He remembered the exact second he had snapped that picture. They had gone to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. He remembered the sweet fragrance of the brown rice green tea, steeped perfectly, the gentle cascade of water over stones into the Koi pond. Her hair had already fallen out from the radiation treatments, but even in the hat, she was so, so beautiful.
Why had she been afraid? The transfer agency had assured them any changes in her personality would be minor. She would still be Susan, mentally and physically.
If she had just surrendered earlier, they could have done a legitimate transfer. No need for Brandon to search for a surrogate. No need for him to dither in a hotel bathroom. The light playing through water droplets on the bathroom mirror distorted his face. He looked as haggard as he did the day Susan had finally, mercifully, died.
You can do this, he thought.
Brandon tucked the cache back into his wallet and stuffed it into the back pocket of his pants. He stripped and hung everything next to Odette's dress and bra and panties on the drying line strung in the shower.
Before heading out, he wrapped a towel around his waist and palmed the wax-paper packet.
Odette stood at the window, her face reflected in the black glass. Her eyes were closed, but tense lines pulled at their corners and tugged at the edges of her lips. She must have heard him because her eyes snapped opened. Seeing him, she forced a smile, but sadness clung to her like an oily sheen.
"A penny for your thoughts?" Brandon picked up the waiting gin and tonic, and at the same time, slipped the wax packet into the dish that held three tea bags.
"It's nothing," Odette said.
Panic gripped Brandon's gut. What if she had changed her mind and was going to ask him to leave? "No thinking," he said.
She gazed into her gin and tonic.
With a curled index finger, he raised her face up to his. He smiled, the one he had practiced so much that he knew it looked genuine. "To moving forward and not remembering what has passed." He clinked the edge of his glass lightly against hers and emptied it in one swallow. The drink burned pleasantly as it went down. "Corny. I know."
She smiled, more genuine this time, and finished her drink.
Brandon took the empty glass and turned toward the bar. She grabbed his elbow. Her grip was gentle, but firm. She rolled onto her toes to kiss him.
Reflexively he stepped back, realizing immediately--but still too late--that he shouldn't have.
Odette crumpled onto the edge of the bed. She buried her face in her hands. "Do you ever feel like your life is frozen?" she asked. "Like a painting?"
Brandon set the glasses down. He sat next to her on the bed. The warmth of her body radiated through her towel.
The last thing Susan had told him before she slipped into a coma was that life needed to move forward, with or without her. She would be disgusted by him, he realized. He felt certain of that now, and the thought made him numb.
"I've made a terrible mistake. I'm sorry, Odette." He started to rise, but she grabbed his arm.
"Don't leave."
He felt unsteady. His head spun with thoughts of Susan. The idea that she would despise him made him nauseous. "My wife...." It was difficult for him to find the words. His brain was muddled and confused. "I really need..."
He tried to stand but his legs were rubbery. He fell back onto the bed. "I don't feel well," he said. His jaw didn't work properly; the words came out slurred.
Odette leaned over him. She touched his cheek, but he couldn't feel her hand. "I'm sorry, Brandon." She fished a transfer cache from under the pillow. Unable to move or even blink, he watched her lower it to his forehead. "I miss him so much."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Author Comments

"Still Life Through Water Droplets" started as a title. I liked the abstract image, but had no story to accompany it. For over a year I tried to find its story, focusing on ideas in which the characters' lives literally stopped in time. None were successful. After letting the title stew for a while, I realized that a less literal approach might work better, and Brandon and Odette's tragic quests finally emerged.

- D. Thomas Minton
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