The third place winner of the LeVar Burton Reads writing contest, as co-presented by FIYAH Literary Magazine and Tor.com
K’Mori has died once already. Brought back to life, she struggles with the limits of her reanimation while the world struggles with its meaning.
“You cuffed me. That could be the worst way to say you’re a safe adult.”
“They are not handcuffs, K’mori—they are padded restraints. And they are for your safety.”
“Doctor. Respectfully. Do you hear what you’re saying to me right now?” I lift my leg, the seat-belt webbing tugging tight against the bed frame. “It’s mad goofy.”
Dr. Sanna is the first doctor I remember meeting after I died. Usually, we’re cool because she teaches me how to curse in Italian, but right now her tone says she is losing patience.
Hospital lights bounce off the fat diamond she wears on her hand as she massages the wrinkles in her brow. She’s overdressed as usual, her white lab coat downplaying a bright sundress and too-high heels. She pins me down with an unblinking gaze framed by stylish fuchsia glasses. Their lenses spit back my reflection—a bald Black girl in an open-back hospital gown.
The shackles are laughably unnecessary. I tried to leave a physical therapy session early, not jump through a window. It’s not like I wanted to visit the surgeons afterward, either. It just happened.
“Look, K’mori, you’ve painted me into a corner and now I have to be the bad guy.” She sighs and crosses her arms. She’s the real victim here. “Your little bid for freedom ruptured a weak spot in your aorta. It was lucky you were here. Something like that usually kills people.”
There is no need for either of us to point out the obvious—that cancer killed me once already. It became a joke I’d toss out whenever the doctors warned of a developing bacterial infection or that not addressing an ulcer in my small intestine “might kill me.” The joke got old fast.
Three months ago, I was dead. For a total of nine weeks and four days, my mother was that word that doesn’t exist in the English language—she was a childless parent. “When can my mom come back?”
“We’ve been over this. Your body is dangerously immunocompromised because of the surgery.” Sanna gestures to the pump. “Hence the moxifloxacin-vancomycin cocktail. Because your mother developed that cough, she opted to stay away until your course is complete.” She reaches down to rub my calf like she cares, but stops when I pull away.
“It’s only until the stitches come out, kiddo.”
I clench my jaw. My mother opted to wear a mask around me but was strongly discouraged from staying either way. Something we don’t talk about is whose child I really am now, how limited her power has become now that she shares custody in this medical fishbowl. My mom lost a kid—and got an expensive science experiment back. Now the government is protecting its budding investment.
Sanna leaves. Her heels sound bright and controlled—like polite applause at the end of a performance. Fuck her. I hope she sleeps terribly tonight. The door clicks shut.
I am the first person in modern history to have ever been scientifically resurrected. Excuse me: revitalized. “Resurrection” is a religious and political minefield. I don’t understand the specifics of the procedures; I just know that I have four different people’s organs in me, and my new pancreas allows me to proudly say that I am a cyborg.
When they first got me back online, it was all over the news. There’s a video of when it happened—of when I un-died. I asked to see it when I found out, but it’s . . . gross. Seeing my draped, dead body jerk and shiver to the soundtrack of drills and wailing alarms—I couldn’t watch the whole thing.
Because pancreatic cancer is aggressive and knocks out a system that can’t be synthesized, it kills people quickly. In this case, that was a good thing—it wrecked less of my body before taking me out. Since I was active with track and swim, they found that a fair few of my body parts were still in okay condition. Good enough that, as the surgeries and chemo continued to fail, Dr. Prem stepped in to make my mom a proposition: In the event of the unthinkable, what if a treatment could bring me back to life?
Dr. Prem could probably talk the pants off Jesus. He’s the youngest doctor on the research team, but he won’t tell me how old he is. I think I’m in love with him, even though his haircut makes him look like a middle school weenie. Someone’s caught on, because now, whenever there’s a painful procedure coming, they send Dr. Prem in to pave the way.
I look at the pictures taped on the wall next to my bed. I don’t need to look around to know what’s in the room. I can’t stop seeing it. There is a maroon couch by a window I am not strong enough to walk to. There is a shiny pleather recliner that can roll close enough to my bed for my mother to hold my hand when she rests in here. Even though she brought streamers and posters from my room to make it feel less sterile, all I can ever see is the off-white paint on cinder-block walls, peeling under the onslaught of disinfectant. It is a room made for transit: Are you on your way to living or dying? Make up your mind and move along, sister. I can’t decide which bus I’m on.
My body is doing something that bodies have never done, so there are things about me that are . . . still coming online. My liver and bone marrow are doing what they’re supposed to, but doing it at half the speed they should be. I bruise like a newborn, so even sitting in a wheelchair requires pillows for protection.
It’s not like I was really into my looks or anything, but dying doesn’t look good on anyone. It’s too thin. It’s all flimsy nails and receding gums. Even without the scars from surgeries and IVs, my skin feels like eggshelled asphalt. Everything looks newly lifeless. They say it won’t be like this forever, but they took the mirrors out of my room when I asked.
“Someone has an admirer!” A loud singing voice throws open my door. Pushing in ass-first is Lillian, my nurse this shift. She looks through a sheaf of colorful papers and grins deviously.
“Ho ho! I was right about that Javi kid, girl. He’s got his nose wide open—” She looks up and her voice immediately drops to a horrified whisper. “K’mori, honey, what happened? They put the restraints on—?”
It’s her concern that undoes me, that transforms my righteous indignation into the sham it is. I crack apart into ugly, terrified sobs. Fury flashes across Lillian’s face, gone so quickly I could have imagined it, and she sits next to me on my bed. She smooths the brittle baby hairs on my head with a gloved hand while I cry. I can’t look at her. Being seen like this, so fragile and alone, is humiliating. I want my mom. Because I can’t do it for myself, she wipes my nose with a tissue from a pack of the soft type she brings in from home.
Quietly, she rocks me. If my body is a rotted boat, then Lillian’s is water. I make sense with her beside me—I’m just a sick kid, that’s all; and sick kids cry and need to be comforted. Lillian is my nurse, but she makes me feel like a person who will go home. I know she starts IVs and administers medications, but right now, this is the single most life-saving task she performs for me in a day.
Later that night, Lillian risks her job and probably jail time to break me out of my room. Most people like her, but the guy with the gun guarding the unit this evening seems especially interested. He grins and rolls his eyes when she puts a finger to her lips and pretends to tiptoe through the unit doors with me.
“Like there isn’t surveillance up and down this place watching your pretty—”
“Excuse me,” she cut him off, feigning scandal. “There are children present, Officer.”
“Yeah yeah, just remember I’m out in twenty minutes.” His face turns serious, the
two beauty marks on his chin staring like eyes. “Make sure you guys are back by then.”
“Like they won’t let you back in if we’re not.” Lillian snorts as we glide around the corner. I salute him as I roll by. Lillian stifles a laugh.
What he’s allowing us to do is technically unauthorized. Even though the charge nurse knows Lillian has me uncuffed and wheeling around, there is an underlying tension humming through everyone. Things could get very sticky for them if something happened to me outside of my room.
The hallways outside of the cafeteria are empty and as bright as high noon. She rolls me down a ramp while I eyeball the mango milkshake cocked jauntily in the cupholder tied to the wheelchair’s armrest. A casualty of being revived is my appetite: My body doesn’t know what it wants, but it sure ain’t food. I am never hungry even though I burn more calories while tied to a bed than I used to in a full school day. There is a special alarm in my room reminding me to swallow food. This is one of the many amendments to my new life. If I had died and come back like I was, I think it would be a pretty sweet deal. But it’s been two months now.
Lillian is quiet while we pass the labs, giving me time to eat. Then, “So, you gonna write him back?”
“Write back who?”
“Uhh, Javi. Duh.”
“You can ‘duh’ yourself, ma’am.” I scoff over my shoulder. “All those years in school and somehow— somehow—you need a diagram presented to you on how that’s a terrible idea?” We’re rolling into the elevator that will take us back up to my floor on 15.
“Pull your mask back up.” She clicks her tongue at me. The elevator churns upward.
“Pull your mask back up,” I mimic, but I do it.
We nod to the beauty-mark guard and come back on the unit before I continue on the topic of Javi. Javi is a kid from school in my second-period art class. We flirt some. It’s casual. He has long, dark hair that he keeps pulled out of his face and this stupid little mustache growing that I give him hell over even though it looks okay.
“I’m pretty sure guys like girls that have, I don’t know, fewer things in common with zombies than I have.”
“Maybe,” Lillian allows. “Is he religious? Lazarus rose from the dead too. Pretty sure he was good with the ladies.”
Lillian and I pull around a corner and sidle to a stop. I’ve only been down to the caf two other times, but I have burned the pathway into my brain.
Beside us, a window spans the entire hallway. This is the best part of the whole trek. I lean through my hungry reflection to see. Houston is on fire with neon lights. Yellow speckled buildings bounce above and below us like sound waves. I push my face against the window to look up, wanting to see them crest—wanting to see if the building breaks into mist or a garden or just mundane star-space.
My fingertips tingle to numb nubs even though my face knows that the window isn’t really that cold, and I stick them back in my lap with the nest of disposable hot-packs cradled there. Squinting, I can make out silhouettes as people pass by the closest windows. My eyes are blurry. I don’t know if it’s from being dead or being in such a small room for so long, and it doesn’t matter.
I ask Lillian, “Is there a word for eating with your eyes?”
“Savor,” she says, after a small delay. She says it softly, like she’s thinking about someone. It’s the exact right word.
I take a dutiful pull on my milkshake before turning my eyes down to the streets. Below, a pulsing island swells and contracts, shimmering on the edges like heat on pavement. It is a crowd of people wide enough to fill in all the space between the hospital and the building next to us. There are enough of them to run east of the hospital and curl around the block. Big night, then.
From here, I can’t tell if they’re all together or if there are separate warring camps. I can’t tell if they love me or hate me. Both options are equally unsettling. My stomach lurches and I suddenly don’t think I can take one more sip of my drink.
The first night Lillian stopped here, I asked what was going on down there. “Is it a parade or something? Like Mardi Gras?” It was late in the night, but hell, maybe they party harder in Texas.
Lillian pulled me back from the window.
“They’re your followers.” I was surprised at the venom in her voice. She looked down the glass at the swarm below, her face repulsed and alarmingly cold. “They’re nuts, kiddo. Not a lot that modern medicine can do for people who want to hound a poor kid that got roped into making history.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that. About having followers, but mostly the idea that I was now a part of history. And not because of anything I did, but what someone did to me.
When Lillian got me back in the room, she knelt beside me and told me that none of this was my fault. That is what people say when something actually is a teensy bit your fault. I stared at her hands instead of her face—she always had pretty nail polish on, even though the skin around them was nibbled painfully raw.
That was the night it first occurred to me that Lillian might not like me as much as I liked her; that maybe there were a few of the nurses, and even doctors, who didn’t. Maybe something about me disturbed Lillian as deeply as those people outside did. Maybe disgust was the only thing about me now that was truly natural. The thought made me feel naked.
Not for the first time, I wished that I could talk to Kenny. My cousin was always good at stuff like that, cutting through what people said to what they were really telling you. He’s the one who took pictures of everyone in my family and school and made my mom bring them in to hang on the wall. He was telling me he missed me. The world was still turning outside of the hospital, but he needed me there for it to be complete.
I watched the news for the first time that night after seeing the crowds below the hospital. I haven’t done it since. There were clips of people pushing over barricades in the street before erupting through the doors of a church; another of a town hall meeting where some young white guy pushed an old white guy over to steal his microphone while the crowd chanted. Interviews with women showing pictures of their children and pleading that their baby to be the next one brought back; suits shaking hands, and then using their words to rip open the other’s neck.
I refused six food alarms after that. Couldn’t even really try. Then they sent Dr. Prem in who told me he would have to put the feeding tube in my nose again if I didn’t eat. Tonight, back in my room, Lillian tells me to call her if I need anything and turns down the lights. She doesn’t put the shackles back on me. I lay awake long enough for her to come in two different times with medical boluses for the pump. I pretend like I’m asleep.
I am dreaming.
I know because I am in my hospital room, it is daytime, and I am all by myself—no white coats, no nurses, not even Mom. The silence is oppressive. It pushes against my head. No monitors. No clicking or whispering or shrieking. Immediately, I notice that I am in my own clothes. Sleek black shorts and a soft tank top, my purple Nikes. It is so nice that all I do is touch my shorts for a few minutes and think about how I am probably broken forever if this is now my idea of a good time.
Is today the day I’m going home? That’s why I am wearing my own clothes. It must be. A bubbling, breathy relief breaks open in me, and I know it’s a dream, but god, I don’t even care, if I can just believe it for however long this moment lasts. I sit up smoothly with no pain or dizziness and look around. My body doesn’t resist me when I kick my legs over the side of the bed. If I stand up, my feet will anchor me. I could walk all the way to the door and think about something, anything, else.
My door is cracked, just barely open. I glide over to it, reaching out a confident hand, then stop. There are low voices on the other side. People are gathering out there. They’re getting ready for something, but I can’t hear what.
“They got guns, Meems,” a voice says behind me. There is only one person in the world who calls me that.
I spin around. Sitting on a stool by the window is my cousin Kenny.
“Kenny! You’re here!” Of course he is here. He is my cousin and best friend and payment for everything I did right in another life—of course he’s in my good dream. I scramble over the bed, lunge for him. I can’t tell if I’m crying or if the room is sweating jubilation. I can smell the aftershave lotion he wears on his face. I know he hates when people hang on him, but I can’t stop myself and I almost have him when—
“Cut it out.” His tone is quiet, crisp, impatient. “We don’t have a lot of time, Meems. Come on.” He’s dressed like he always is, as though he’s on his way to a very casual happy hour on Wall Street. His glasses throw light from the window, and I can’t see his eyes. In his hands, he holds a shoebox. Setting it in his lap, he straightens his collar, rolling his shoulders back to sit taller. He looks away like he’s embarrassed by the way my eyes cling to him.
The air leaves the room. I look down and notice a PICC line in my right arm, three medical lines spidering from it to bags on an IV pole that stands close to my right hip. Looking down, my shoes are gone, replaced by hospital socks. I am exposed again in my issued uniform of access and humiliation: open-assed, mass-produced, industrially sterilized gown.
Outside, the light dims the way it does when a dust storm lurches in at home. The room is dusky now, dark enough for a light to be necessary. Something raps against the window, once, twice. I can feel my heartbeat, an animal in my throat.
The last time I saw Kenny, every system in my body was shutting down because of the cancer. I was dying.
“Kenny,” I croak. Clearing my voice, I start again, “How—what are you doing here?”
“You tell me, funny girl. It’s your dream.” He grins then, a shy gap peeking from between his front teeth. “You think I’d choose a dump like this? You should sit down, Meems. They’ll come sooner if you throw a clot or something.”
Now that I am in no danger of touching him, Kenny is almost warm. I am afraid that he will vanish if I take my eyes off him, the way my good body and clothes disappeared. I shuffle backward for the bed, bringing my IV pole with me.
Kenny stands and looks out the window, distracted by whatever he sees. The shoebox sits beside him on the windowsill with his hand resting protectively on top of it. His long body looks coiled beneath the clean-cut clothes. I swear he is twitching with tension. In my entire life, I have seen Kenny serious only a handful of times: when he asked me to stop calling him a her; when my parents split; when my cancer made it so I couldn’t go to school anymore.
He pivots around, all traces of familiarity gone. “I got you this.” He brandishes the box at me. “You need to keep it with you at all times. Seriously, Meems. I’m talking while sleeping and on the shitter. Ev-ry-where.”
“Cool, but, what is it?” I reach for the box. It looks like it once housed the kind of ugly-ass boat shoes that he—
I feel my legs seize, lightning arcing from the floor up both my calves. The pain claps my jaw shut, skewering my tongue. My knees lock reflexively, and I pitch into the side of the bed. I’m clawing at the blankets, trying to find something to keep me up—
I crash into the floor, teeth clamoring. The shock makes the room waver. The walls flex and grow thin around me, like dry spaghetti noodles bending in your hands. I know instinctively that the dream is almost over. I am waking up.
“Shh. Shh. Listen, Meems. Calm down.” Kenny’s whisper is panicky. He darts over to the bed and kneels in front of me. “Shit’s getting weird out there. I don’t know if you’re safe in here, and if you are, I don’t know how long that’s going to last.”
Where is the box? My eyes swivel around looking for it, but it’s out of my line of sight. Kenny takes a shaky breath to continue, but looks up sharply when something cracks against the window again. Harder this time.
He tries again. “Look, they’re not gonna let you go. So you gotta be smart about it, okay? They got guns.” He puts the shoebox down in front of my face and his hands are trembling. “But I got this for you. I know it hurts, Meems. I’m really sorry, but when the time comes you gotta use it to get out.” He shuffles back away from me, licking his lips nervously. “I can help you if you get out.” He says it like he’s convincing himself.
“Kenny, please—” I can just see him if I look up and to the side. I can’t lift my head anymore. The box pushes me. The brown side looms like a wall, and it is so very hot. Every hair on my body leans away from it, desperate to escape. Sitting this close, it fills the room around me, clogging my ears and nose. The skin on my forehead burns. Tears and snot slick the side of my face, evaporating from the floor.
“Please. They can’t just keep me in here. I’m okay now. Ask the doctors!” I scream. “Ask them! Ask them! They said—”
The dream resets.
I am in my hospital room, it is daytime, and I am all by myself—no white coats, no nurses, not even Mom. The silence is oppressive. It presses against my head. When I open my eyes, Kenny sits by the bed. Of course he’s here. This is a dream with only good things in it. He is holding my hand. I can hear his foot tapping nervously on the floor.
“Everyone knows your face, babe.” He says it gently, like it hurts him to share this precious information with me. “The Feds busted a cell of religious fanatics in San Jose on Thursday. They were making bombs and had you pegged as the Anti-Christ.”
He reaches to the table at the end of the bed and pours me a glass of water from a pitcher that wasn’t there before he reached for it. I am suddenly so thirsty. It’s like I’ve been outside for hours in the heat of the day. I take a sip.
“That’s a terrible way to say ‘hello’ to someone you haven’t seen since they died,” I quip. Something cracks against the window.
He doesn’t answer me. Instead he forges on. “No one cared that a cute little Black girl bravely fought and then died of an incurable form of cancer. But then you un-died. People from all over the world are watching now, just wanting to get close enough to study you better.” His mouth hardens, and he shakes his head.
“Only way to protect a weapon is with a bigger weapon, babe.” He looks at the door, shaking his head sadly. “I put my box away for now, K’mori, because you don’t like it. I know it hurts, but you promise me you’ll use that when it’s time, okay? You have to promise.” A shadow passes by outside the door.
“They’re not gonna let you go.”
It’s too cold. I can’t get away from it. It’s everywhere—even behind my eyes. I try to open them. A light overhead blinds me. My hands scrabble against a smooth surface as I try to shade my face, but my arms are too heavy to lift.
Someone is screaming. It’s far away, ragged, and endless. The sound is familiar, a name just on the edge of my memory. I don’t want to hear that sound anymore.
I can’t get away from it.
A gloved hand touches my forehead. Fingers force my eyelids up.
“Hey hey hey it’s okay, K’mori, baby.” The voice is loud in my ear. Wet. “Shhh. Shhh, it’s Carter, honey. It’s Doctor Carter, the night Attending. Your heart is working too hard to pump blood through your body, but we’re going to help you, okay? Try not to move too much.”
The screaming falters. Her mouth moves away and there’s the fleshy sound of vinyl ripping. The sound of sterile packaging ripped open quickly. The sound of an emergency. A sharp chemical scent fills my nose, choking me.
“Someone get that fucking alarm! Where are the goddamn floodlights? Get another light over here!” Carter booms. My stomach heaves. Hot sludge slaps across my cheek.
“Airway! Who’s on airway?”
A hard plastic tube pins my tongue down. A rude sucking roar fills my head, stealing my breath, disappearing as abruptly as it came. I lick my lips, tasting something bitter. Opening my mouth to tell them all to stop, that I’m fine now, I promise, I hear muted cracks behind me—three, no, four.
“Was that a gun?” Not Carter’s voice. A different woman. Her voice is clear as clean water.
For a moment, the room freezes.
Another crack rings out. It sounds closer than the ones before. It breaks the dam of order that has until now held the room together. Panic floods in behind it.
“Nope. I did not sign up to die for this.”
“My phone’s not working!”
“No one’s going to die in here today! Lei, Kelly—block that door with the other bed.”
“I got kids, Carter! I’m not trying to end up—”
“Hey! She’s dropping! Code! Code! Get the cart!”
The last voice yanks the atmosphere into focus. Blue hands shove over my body, flying in and out of my vision like gnats. My chest sinks in, heavy with the sudden weight of blood moving too slowly.
My eyes open easier now, face pressed to the side. In front of me, a nurse is kneeling, squatting sideways on the wall. A mask covers their mouth, but they have such warm, sorry brown eyes. I hope I remember them when I wake up.
White lights dart everywhere. Flashlights. The nurse holds up a pale hand, not bothering to compete with the oceanic noise lashing through the room. One wild beam clings to this ungloved hand, this human hand. Nails chewed raw around the edges, pretty with lavender polish. Something to savor. I marvel at the color, at the name of it, something small and vibrant blooming from within a hurricane of circumstance. One hand signals a countdown: Farewell, or many happy returns.
“Synthetic Perennial” copyright © 2022 by Vivianni Glass
Art copyright © 2022 Dani Pendergast