The man in the video stood in a stark and windowless room. It was empty, except for the glass bottle and box of matches at his feet. He wore a tuxedo, black as coal, cut sharply against the cliffs of his shoulders.
Some who began watching the video that night would have closed it at this point, taking it for advertising or some other form of spam. But others would have watched on, intrigued perhaps by the formality of his dress or the hard glint in his eyes.
Those who kept watching would have heard him state his name and age. They would have heard him explain the reasons for what he was about to do, how long and hard he'd deliberated before coming to this decision, why he did not want to live another two hundred years. They heard him say that his family had no part in this, and that he had chosen to dress up for the occasion.
After the man finished speaking, he picked up the bottle from the floor, tipping its contents down his throat. His Adam's apple bobbed under the fleshy creases of his neck as he drank.
When he finished, he gave his invisible audience a long, silent look.
"They leave us no choice," he said at last. "DiamondSkinTM, ToughMuscTM. Replacements. It must have been so easy when you could just take a kitchen knife to your wrists and watch the life pour out of your veins."
More observant viewers saw that a trail of clear fluid was trickling down the side of his mouth as he spoke.
"Something has to change. In being robbed of our deaths, we are robbed of our lives."
He struck a match. The flame shivered under the cool, fluorescent lights.
"They leave us no choice.”
When he touched the tip of the match to his outstretched tongue, the flame seemed to pause for a moment, almost as if wondering where to go.
But then he breathed in and the flame grew and grew, filling the alcohol-soaked cavity of his mouth, darting down his throat and up his nasal passages. The man spoke no more.
The cake was a huge, tiered thing, painted with buttercream and decked with tiny red flowers, floating on a glass pedestal in the middle of the crowded room.
No one talked about it, or even looked at it. But they were all acutely aware that it was there. Every now and then, someone would linger a little too long by the drinks table, assessing the various bubbly greens on offer, peeking at the cake out of the corner of their eye. Todd stood dutifully by Lea's side, a slender flute of pale cordial in hand.
"Lovely party," he said, nodding as if someone had asked him a question. He beckoned at her with his glass. "Great drinks. I'm really enjoying the Spirulina Spritz."
Lea smiled absently. Her eyes flitted over the crowd, taking in the navy dresses and delicate silver jewellery, tasteful suits in varying shades of grey. The flowers on the cake stood out like pinpricks of blood in an otherwise bloodless room. Even the bronzed faces, framed by shiny locks, so well-hydrated and evenly-boned, seemed grey to her.
But it was a success, by all accounts. The party was a success.
She wouldn’t forget to smile. Healthy mind, healthy body.
"There they are. My favourite couple.”
"Natalie," Todd brightened, tilting his head in welcome.
Natalie delivered her air kisses with the forbearance of a celebrity deigning to have their picture taken. First to Todd, then to Lea, careful not to actually touch their cheeks.
"You look - wow - great," Todd said, still nodding. Lea suppressed the urge to grab his head and hold it still.
She did look great though. Her sheath dress shimmered in the candlelight, a shadowy indigo colour. It looked as if Natalie had been poured, a creamy, fragrant liquid, into the sleek dark length of it.
Lea flashed a smile, mentally cataloguing her own appearance. She measured her straight black hair against Natalie's glossy brown curls (Natalie's was more luscious, more full of life), the burnt umber of her brown skin against Natalie's pale, freckled visage (prone to UV damage and melanoma, so here Lea had a clear advantage). Natalie's face was angular and long, which together with her large front teeth, gave her an equine aspect. Lea, on the other hand, had never lost her baby fat, something which had bothered her as a girl but that she prized today, and her cheeks remained full and plump, lacking in angles altogether. Their bodies were as similar as their faces were different, nearly identical in stature and muscular tone, as most lifers of similar age were.
"Please," Natalie said. "Don't patronise me. Can you see these lines?" She pointed to one smooth, rouged cheek. "I know you can, so there’s no need to be polite. I've had the worst week, just the worst, must have taken at least three months off my number. But I don't want to talk about it."
She pressed her lips together. It was evident that she did, in fact, very much want to talk about it, but no one said anything.
"Lea!" she said suddenly. "Tell me all about you! You are naughty, always keeping things to yourself." Natalie glanced coyly at Todd.
"Trust me, I'd love to have some secrets. But with friends like you..."
They burst out laughing. Todd laughed too, right on cue. Their laughter was rich and cascading, a golden ribbon unfurling through the party infectiously, making people turn to look, people who were until then perfectly secure of their position in life but at that moment felt something was missing.
More friends arrived to join the group, and the flirtatious barbs continued. Lea was up for a big promotion at work, which she made sure to slip in casually while complaining about how much more work she was getting. She felt the information sink in and waited for the reaction it would generate. Sure enough, Jasmine jumped in with a cautionary tale about how promotions tended to turn co-workers against you; after all, that was what happened to her when she was the first lifer at her firm to get to director level before she hit a hundred.
The conversation fizzled, and they cast their gazes about, looking for a new topic. Some pulled out their tablets.
"So," Natalie said, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "Have you seen it?" She tossed her head, the lush ringlets of hair giving off the faint scent of coconut. Her neck was firm and smooth. Like the flank of a racehorse, Lea thought.
Natalie rolled her eyes, pushed her shoulders back. Her left shoulder, Lea noticed with satisfaction, was slightly lower than the right. Lea drew herself up to her full height as well, glad that her sleeveless silk top showed off the definition of her upper arms, the symmetry of her clavicle.
"The video, of course," Natalie said.
No one looked up from their tabs, but Lea felt the air freeze. She saw the man's eyes, hard and shiny, pupils perfectly opaque, like a fish. His mouth, filling up with heat and fire, melting into brown and black and red, flesh vanishing into smoke and flame.
"Oh God," a tall man with poreless mahogany skin said. He sipped on his vitamin spritz and shuddered. "Can we not talk about that again, Natalie?"
Natalie's new fiancé, Lea remembered. She looked at him closely, taking in his height, posture, muscle tone. She noted the dark intelligent eyes, long lashes, elegant, broad forehead.
"What? We know everyone's thinking about it," Natalie said.
"Unfortunate, unfortunate, very unfortunate. How could we not?" Todd bowed his head.
"Exactly!" Natalie crowed.
"They’re sick," someone else chimed in.
"Imagine children watching that.”
"Imagine us watching. Who knows how many months you lose watching that kind of thing?”
"Right! Just think about what it does to cortisol levels.”
"Why make a spectacle like that? What's the point?”
"And to do it like that. Ugh. I feel nauseous just thinking about it.”
Suddenly Lea could smell it - the acrid burn of flesh, the eye-watering sting of smoke.
The man's eyes filled with a hard, unfamiliar conviction, a deep sadness. Something inside her lurched. Revulsion, she told herself. Shock.
"Are you okay, Lea?" Todd said. "You look a little pale."
Everyone was looking at her now.
"Oh yes, Lea," Natalie said, eyes wide with concern. "Now that Todd’s mentioned it. How are your Vitamin D levels, darling? I can recommend a clinic, you know, if yours isn't quite up to the mark."
"Perfect, actually." Lea smiled, ignoring the barely veiled insult. "And no, thank you. I would never leave my Tender. Jessie and I go way back - she was assigned to our family when my mother made senior VP."
"Of course," Natalie said. She pressed her lips together and turned back to the others.
It won't kill you to be nice. At least try.
I am, Lea thought. I am trying. Irritation flared in her belly. She saw her mother's face, the lines emanating from the corners of her eyes. Then she heard her voice in her head again: Wrinkles are caused by the loss of elasticity in the skin, a consequence of wear and tear that can be delayed, but not eliminated, by Repairants.
Ever practical, her mother. Even after she'd been dead for thirty years. Her spine had remained upright till the very end, her downy hair as black as it had always been, neatly cropped close to her skull. Her skin retained its elasticity far better than some of her lighter peers, who withered decades earlier. Her muscles stayed firm, her feet smooth and well-groomed, her mauve lips full. Such were the benefits of being the CEO of Talent Global and having access to Tier 4 benefits.
Uju had lived to a hundred and forty-two—forty-two years older than Lea was now. It had been a good outcome for someone of her generation, someone who had been in her sixties when the Second Wave began. For Lea, however, a hundred and forty-two would be failure. Three hundred was now the number to beat.
Don't waste it. I gave you everything. Everything your father couldn't have. Her mother's voice was quiet now, but Lea heard in it the ache that always made her snap to attention, that threatened to open up the wound that the decades, so many of them, could not heal.
She looked around the room at the sleek, glossy haircuts, the smooth foreheads and ramrod spines. The beautiful, wealthy, life-loving people conversing in low voices, politely laughing and clinking glasses from time to time. She took in the premium vitamin spritzes, the crystal flutes, the high ceilings and expansive view of the city down below. The space she had rented for the party was usually reserved for corporate functions only, but employees at the Healthfin fund she worked for were able to book it for special occasions.
No, she hadn't wasted anything, Lea thought. Her mother would surely have been proud.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Lea!"
The room burst into thunderous applause and wolf whistles. Cameras flashed. Lea smiled the way Uju had taught her when she was seeing the doctors eighty-eight years ago. Your eyes, make sure to use your eyes, or it looks like you don't mean it.
She picked up the knife and sliced into the bottom layer of the cake. The styrofoam gave a high squeal as the plastic blade went through it, but even as she winced inwardly, Lea never let the smile leave her face.
The pavement was a slipstream of browns and greys as the jacket-clad men and women flowed down the sidewalk. They walked in the same way - elbows pinned to their sides, heads down, gaze directed at the heels of the commuter in front of them.
Lea didn't know what it was that made her look up. Perhaps it was something in the air, the smell of summer giving way to fall, that first nip of lightness brushing her cheeks. Perhaps it was the delicate ankles of the woman in front of her, clothed in dark mesh. Or the leftover buzz from her birthday party the night before, a desire to take in the expanse of the street, the eggshell blue of the morning sky.
When she saw him the air went out of her lungs. He was crossing the road some way ahead of her. He moved slowly, unaware of the disruption he was causing to the flow around him. Lea could see the looks of annoyance on their faces as people were forced to veer off their usual unthinking paths. The impatient clicks of tongues and issuance of sighs filled her head. He, however, did not seem to notice, and only kept walking at the same ponderous pace, one heavy footstep after another.
This old, oblivious man couldn't be her father. But she couldn't tear her eyes from him, drinking in the curve of his jaw, that used to hold more flesh than it did now. She saw how his once-black hair had faded to grey; how thinly it sat against his scalp, the unkempt edges of it curling at his lined neck. She watched as he brought his chin to his chest and his hand to his nose, pinching its fleshy base, as if preparing to go underwater. The gesture was unmistakeable.
Lea felt a violent jerk in her chest. A pressure on her diaphragm, a tightness in the throat. Eighty-eight years since the day he'd disappeared without saying goodbye, and there he was again. On the other side of the road, as if he'd never been gone at all.
Let him go. Uju's voice to twelve-year-old Lea. We have to let him go. It's better this way, after what he's done. He doesn't belong in your life.
The crowd was bearing the man further and further away, despite his slow pace. Now he was on the other side of the street, disappearing down the pavement. Soon he would be out of sight.
Her mother had been right then and she was almost certainly right now, especially now. Everything Lea had worked so hard for, decade after decade, was about to pay off. She'd done it with her mother's support and discipline, yes, but she'd also done it in spite of her father, everything that he'd done and was.
Lea bit down hard on the inside of her cheek, sucking the soft flesh between her teeth. She started elbowing her way through the crowd.
"Watch out!" A stray shoulder rammed into her chest.
He was getting further away. Only his lack of speed allowed her to keep her eyes on him; he was like a pebble in a stream, forming ripples in the crowd that surrounded him. Now all she could see was the top of his grey head, bobbing amidst the swirling human currents.
The traffic crossing was too far away. Lea craned her neck as she continued pushing her way through the crowd, but he was turning the corner on the other side of the street, and would soon be out of sight altogether. She made a sharp right.
Sorry. Excuse me. Sorry, sorry. Pardon me. Sorry.
She found herself at the edge of the sidewalk. Vehicles sped past, their tinted windows hiding those powerful enough to use car pools at peak hour. On the other side of the road, her father was about to turn the corner, about to disappear again. For the second time in eighty-eight years, she was going to lose him.
A gap opened in the flow of traffic. Lea stepped out onto the road.
She woke up with the familiar cold of tiny electrodes attached to her bare skin.
"Lea Kirino, one hundred years old.”
The voice came from a woman in Tenders' maroons, standing next to the bed. She was reading from a tablet. When she lifted her eyes from the screen, Lea saw that they were the dark, damp colour of moss.
"Happy birthday. Could you tell me what happened?" the Tender said.
"I was walking to work. I was late - " Lea stopped. Work. The Musk presentation. She stiffened and tried to sit up, but her head felt thick, her brain swollen. "What time is it?"
The Tender placed a hand on Lea's shoulder. Her touch was gentle, but surprisingly heavy. Lea sank her head back into the pillow.
"What happened?" the Tender asked again. "Why did you step out onto the road like that?"
Her father's face in the crowd. The sagging cheeks, the thin neck. Lea thought of the white envelopes that were slipped under her door every few months, the statutory declarations she had to make stating that she did not know where he was. They were still looking for him, decades later. What was he doing in the city?
"I was late for work," Lea said again, her thoughts whirling. "I was trying to take a short cut. The cars - they didn't stop."
The Tender was looking at her with eyebrows drawn together, two deep lines between them. Lea wanted to tell her not to frown, to remind her of the importance of a neutral expression in preserving skin elasticity. But she could tell from the Tender's skin that she was well hydrated and pH balanced.
"How bad was it? Will I need to have anything replaced?" Lea recoiled inwardly. She had managed thus far to keep all of her limbs organic, no mean feat for someone who had just reached a hundred. It was only when the Tender failed to reply that Lea noticed the white stripes across her maroon sleeves.
"Which division is this?" she asked.
The Tender tapped a silent note into her tablet. Its red recording light blinked.
"Late for work, you said.”
"Yes. Why does that matter?" But Lea's heart was sinking even as she asked the question. Directive 109A: Reckless pedestrian conduct in undesignated zones.
"Look, I know it was an undesignated zone," Lea said. "But you'll see, just look it up, my record is spotless. It was one tiny mistake, surely this doesn't matter?”
The Tender was listening carefully now, head tilted to one side. "Where did you say you were crossing again?" Her cool gaze didn't budge.
"Somewhere along Broadway. The intersection with thirty-second. Maybe thirty-fourth.”
The Tender's fingernails clicked neatly against the polished glass of her tablet.
"And where do you work?"
"Midtown West. Why does that matter? You haven't answered me - how bad was it? Am I okay?" Lea spread her hands out underneath the sheets, feeling the webs of skin between her fingers stretch. She wriggled her toes and bent her knees. Around her, the electrode wires rustled like a bed of grass. Her body felt normal, as far as she could tell. But she'd heard that these days, replacements felt normal too.
Posters lined the wall, comforting and familiar in their thin metal frames. A fat-encrusted artery stretched out like a sock ("Meat kills"); a raw, torn joint ("Switch to low impact today"); the ubiquitous glowing red eyeball ("Fruit - #1 cause of diabetes-led blindness"). Recessed ceiling lights cast a warm but insistent glow, leaving no corner of the room unlit. Lea recognised the album streaming from invisible speakers as Sea and Mandolin, dubbed one of the most calming tracks of the decade. Nevertheless she felt her cortisol levels ticking up. What was this Tender doing? Certainly not her job. Lea looked around the room for a feedback box, but except for the bed, the room contained no furniture or equipment.
"Midtown West," the Tender repeated. "Why would you try to cross where you did, then?"
"What?" Lea said. Because I saw him, she thought. Because I couldn't lose him again. But she couldn't say that.
"Where you crossed. That would have taken you further east.”
"This is ridiculous. I have to get to work." Lea sat up.
The Tender eyed her, but didn't say anything. After a few seconds, she tapped another note into her tab. It silently spat out a single sheet of paper.
"Your treatment plan," she said. "You sustained no injuries, only minor bruises from when you fainted. Shock. The car barely grazed you, its sensors were perfectly operational."
The paper was wafer thin between Lea's fingers and so translucent that it looked like it would dissolve when touched. A deep red cursive rolled across the page, curling elegantly around words like 'occipital curvature index' and 'ventromedial prefrontal cortex'.
"You'll need to attend some follow-up sessions."
Lea read the sheet again, her eyes darting unevenly across the page, but she couldn't make any sense of it. It was like no treatment plan she had ever seen before. The weekly sessions were at a different clinic than usual; no supplements were prescribed. No rehabilitative exercises.
"What is this?" Lea asked, looking up from the sheet of paper.
But the Tender was already gone.
Lea turned the page, dread collecting in the pit of her stomach. She was under Observation. But that made no sense; people like her didn't get placed on the Observation List. That was for other people - no one she knew, of course - but people she imagined were serially divorced, unemployable, or cognitively impaired. The non-life-loving, the antisanct. Lea was a good lifer. She worked in Healthfin. She was as life-loving as it got, surely the Ministry knew that?
Then it clicked: they thought she'd stepped in front of the car on purpose.
Lea let out a snort of indignation. She shook her head as she began plucking the electrodes off her body. The white circles offered little resistance, lifting off her dark smooth skin with a satisfying sluice. Each electrode she placed in a neat pile on the bed, wires aligned so that their little adhesive heads bunched together like a bouquet of white wilted roses.
Her clothes lay folded next to the bed. As Lea slipped on her underwear, she caught sight of her reflection in the opaque polish of the smooth walls. Instinctively, she stood up straighter, drew her abdomen in and clenched her glutes. She was the picture of a model lifer. Under Observation – she would clear that up soon enough.
Lungs expanding with the tilt of her spine, her breathing was back to normal now. She would speak to Jessie. Maintenance was scheduled for Thursday, so a special appointment wouldn't even be necessary. She could tell her everything then. Jessie would inform them that the whole thing was a big mistake, elaborate on Lea's exemplary medical and motivational history. They would remove her at once from the Observation List. Perhaps she would demand a formal letter of apology.
Lea's office was in a tall glass building in the middle of Borough One. Eighty floors of floating desks and people, and Long Term Capital Partners at the very top. Stepping into the building's vast lobby always sent a small tremor up Lea's spine. There was something about this great cathedral of empty space carved out from the choked, tumbling streets outside. Looking up, there were the soles of polished shoes, cushioned desk feet, the glazed bases of ornamental plant pots. Something naked and alive about it all, all those objects and people suspended so naturally above her, their undersides exposed and vulnerable. Often she came to work early just to linger in the lobby, but today there was no time.
Lea listened to Jiang's frantic voicemails as the elevator swept her up. On one side, people and screens and cubicles whipped by, melting into a smudge. On the other, the city soared, a forest of metal and glass reaching up to the heavens.
As the ground dropped away from Lea's feet, she thought of the way the Tender had looked at her this morning. There was something about her shifting eyes, her pale mono-ethnic face that left Lea with an unsettled feeling. Even the motion of the elevator, normally so pleasurable, did not dispel this sense of unease in Lea.
When she got to her office, Jiang was already there. From the violent knitting of his forehead, Lea could tell that it was worse than she had thought. Jiang was usually very careful about that sort of thing.
"I am so, so sorry," she said before he could say anything. "You'll have the presentation on your desk in an hour, I promise. It's practically finished. I just need to update the hourly figures." She wouldn't tell him about the accident, it might have an impact on her promotion this year. No, better to keep it vague.
Jiang was still frowning. He was not one to get angry - none of them were. They knew how bad anger was for oxidative degeneration. She wondered if she should suggest some breathing exercises.
He was pointing at something outside her office. "What are they doing here?"
Everything looked normal: well-dressed colleagues watching terminals as green numbers ticked by, sitting in the QuietCoves with their eyes shut, constructively dissenting in glass-doored meeting rooms. An air of efficiency suffused the bright, sunlit space.
"Who?" Lea asked.
And then she saw them. Two men in suits, one fair and lanky, hair slicked so far back it dipped into the back of his shirt, the other, dark-skinned, square-nosed and well-built. Their suits were charcoal grey - tasteful, Lea observed, but not in the expensive fabrics her clients wore. Both clasped tablets in their right hands like bibles. They were looking straight at Lea.
"They've been here all morning asking questions, with some kind of permit from the Ministry? It's a sub-division I've never even heard of. The clients don't like it. Strangers are bad enough, but if they knew they were Ministry - well, then."
What were they doing here, and how could they have gotten here so quickly? She'd only just come from the clinic.
"So? Did you do something? You know, you're under oath to the company. Is it – " he lowered his voice even further, " – extensions fraud? Because if it's anything like that, I know a guy. Not from personal experience, of course. But you know how it is, I keep a wide network."
"No!" Lea said. "Of course it's not fraud. It's - I had a kind of accident this morning."
"Accident? Did you get anything replaced?"
Something in Jiang's voice made Lea turn. An edge to it, a frisson. Was it excitement? But his expression had not changed from the serious mask, tempered now with some concern.
"No! I’m perfectly fine, just look at me. This is completely ridiculous," she said. A polite yet firm smile on her face, the kind she gave clients who simply did not meet their lifespan-net-worth-index quota, she strode out of the office and out onto the main floor.
"Good morning gentlemen. Can I help you with anything?" Lea said.
The one with the slicked back hair and bad posture opened his mouth as if to speak, only to be interrupted by a cough from his colleague. He closed his mouth.
"You would have received a treatment plan," the interrupter said. Dewy and poreless, his skin had the unreal sheen of someone with abundant access to antioxidant treatments. He had to be high up in the Ministry.
Lea couldn't take her eyes off his skin. It was literally giving off a glow. Its unblemished expanse was like varnished mahogany and it tugged at something inside of her, made her want to bring her palm against it, leave a smarting mark.
"What are you doing here?"
The two looked at each other again. They were getting more attention now – polite colleagues, pretending to be absorbed in trading and leveraging, were in fact far too quiet to be doing any actual work.
"My name is AJ," the one with the perfect skin said. "And this is my colleague, GK."
GK, busy tapping notes into his tablet, glanced up.
"We are here to observe," AJ went on. GK was slouched over his tablet again. Lea resisted the urge to correct his posture – clearly he had to be further down in the Ministry, with a spine like that.
"This is a place of business. Do you know who our clients are? You can't be here."
At this, the two men simultaneously pulled out slips of paper, crossed with the same red cursive on the plan she'd received this morning. These were smaller, just large enough for the three words: Right to Observe. A gold stamp, the shape of a heart, right in the middle. Papers, like Jiang had said.
"What sub-division are you with?" Lea asked. "I'll have to provide feedback."
AJ blinked. She had his attention now. But then he smiled, flashing small, square teeth. "What about?" he asked.
"Trespassing," Lea started, but then remembered the papers. "Deliberate inducement of cortisol generation," she continued. They could lose their jobs for that.
Her colleagues were openly gathered around now. At the edges of her vision, Lea saw Jiang, tapping shoulders and cupping elbows, trying to disperse the onlookers.
GK was typing faster. Between sentences he would glance up at Lea, first one way, then the other, like an artist trying to capture her likeness.
"And if you don't leave immediately, we'll have to call security," Lea went on.
Now GK smiled too, looking up from his tablet, lips stretching across his flat, pale face thinly. "We're in touch with security. You shouldn't worry about that." He pulled out a small square of orange plastic, curved at the corners, identical to the pass Lea had attached to her keys. "We've been given full access."
Lea breathed down a rising panic. "Fine. Do what you like."
She turned and walked back to her office. Jiang followed her, closing the glass door behind them.
"They can't stay here. It's throwing the clients off." Jiang gestured at the waiting area, where a handful of clients were filling in forms and reading their latest reports. Several had brightly patterned silk scarves wrapped around the bottom halves of their faces. A couple were even wearing sunglasses. They were far too discreet to stare directly, but Lea could feel their eyes on her.
"I can't do anything about it. You heard them. I'm under Observation."
She scratched at a hangnail under her desk, the old guilty satisfaction a sudden relief. Blood swelled from the wound for a split second, before clotting in a smooth patch that would heal in moments.
"Oh," Jiang's voice changed, buckling ever so slightly, as if under an invisible weight. "Observation. I see, well. I see. I didn't hear that."
His gaze slipped from her face, travelled the length of her office before coming to rest on a spot in the middle of the far wall. He clasped his hands together, then unclasped them, then clasped them again.
He glanced out again at where AJ and GK were standing. AJ was talking to the receptionist, hands in his pocket, leaning against the desk in an unnaturally casual stance. A peel of low laughter trickled out of the receptionist's throat. She leaned forward conspiratorially, red lips barely moving. Tap tap tap, went GK's fingers.
"Jiang," Lea said. "You don't actually think – “
"No, no, of course not." He flashed his pink palms at her. "But - still.”
"Just, you can never be too careful, you know. As employers, we only want what's best for you. Healthy mind, healthy body. Maybe," he said, examining the back of his left hand as if he had never quite noticed it before. "Maybe you're working too hard."
"What?" Lea's voice rose.
"We can get Natalie to back you up on the Musk account. Always good to have two heads working on a deal as big as this."
The thought of Natalie's smug, all-natural face made Lea say in a louder voice than she'd intended: "No way. I brought the Musks in. You're not handing them over to anyone else."
Sunlight streamed in from all directions. Jiang's face was like a moon, round and pitted with visible pores, several of which were dark and enlarged. Despite the icy air-conditioning, a fine film of perspiration coated his forehead.
"They'll be gone by Thursday, I promise," Lea said, controlling her tone. "I have a maintenance appointment then. They'll sort the whole thing out. It’s just a misunderstanding."
"Okay," he finally said. "But you promise you'll let me know if - if anything comes up. Anything too cortisol-generating or rest-detrimental."
When Jiang had gone, Lea leaned back in her ergonomic chair. Except for the alarm that regulated her sitting time, the screens on her desk were completely dark. The green numbers meted out a fixed number of seconds before an automated voice would remind her to complete her Hourly Stretches. The numbers vanished noiselessly, green resolving into black again and again. The longer Lea stared at them, the less sense they made. Glancing over the tops of the screens, she saw GK and AJ, now pacing the perimeter of the waiting area.
It occurred to her that she could make it all go away. She could tell them who she had seen, why she'd stepped out onto the road so urgently. She could tell them she didn't want to let him get away, not again. And it would be true, in part.
But then what? What if they found him? It may have been eighty-eight years, but the Ministry had a long, unforgiving memory.
Anja drew the woollen shawl across her thin shoulders tightly, sinking her chin to breathe in the fading scent of her mother. French lavender and the sea, all mixed up in one sharp whiff.
Time was measured in the beating of her mother's mechanical heart. Thud, thud, thud. Space, in the number of steps taken to cross the room to retrieve the dried meals that arrived at regular intervals.
Her mother's heart, rupture-proof, was now visible through a transparent film that had once been her skin, wrapped around a cage of bones. Anja could predict with split-second accuracy the rising and falling of each atrium, each ventricle. Each beat was exactly the same as the last. She watched it fill and squeeze, valves open and close, the ink-coloured SmartBloodTM flowing thick and steady.
Thud, thud, thud. Like the footsteps of someone pacing back and forth along the corridor of a big, empty house. The heart would be the last thing to fail. It had the longest working life and had been the newest, most cutting edge technology. The skin had been the first. Anja had watched as it mottled and shrank away from the bones, great stains of tea brown spreading.
DiamondSkinTM, they called it, self-repairing and extra tough. To a point, until her mother reached the end of her predicted enhanced lifespan, and the clinic doors of spotless glass slammed shut forever. So Anja waited, alone with her in this dark room that smelled of stale water, with nowhere to go.
When her mother first took to bed it was not so bad, because at least they could talk. Back then, things still felt normal even as her mother's muscles atrophied under the embroidered quilt and her lungs slowly collapsed into themselves. They passed their time in idle conversation, talking about anything and everything - music, Sweden, Anja's father.
Sometimes Anja would play the violin for her, the strings pressing cold and cruel into her stiff fingers. She was out of practice and it showed badly, but her mother no longer pointed out her mistakes. She didn't seem to hear the flat notes or stray beats, only smiled quietly, eyes on the ceiling, hands clasped on her hollow stomach.
Anja longed for harsh words, for her mother to point out where she was going wrong and to call her lazy, complacent. To suck the air in through her teeth sharply, stamp her feet, to rap Anja hard on her knuckles like she used to. So Anja started playing badly on purpose, notes slipping and sliding, rhythm askew, watching in quiet desperation for the slightest twitch of displeasure on her mother's face. But it never came. All that remained was that blankness. Anja packed her violin away in its dark velvet case, the shiny metal clasps making gunshot clicks as they snapped shut.
When Anja was a girl, a proper girl with ropey limbs and scattered acne, her mother used to take her swimming in the Baltic sea. They would rise before dawn when the clouds were still asleep and the air was damp with fog. Wrapped in thick bathrobes, they'd cycle the shrub-lined path in the dark, anticipating each bump and turn before it came. The cloistered night seemed to go on forever, as if in a dream. But then suddenly, just as their sandalled feet started to go numb in the wind, the path would open up and there it would be: lapping, metallic; the open sea. They stripped quickly. Leaving their bathrobes in a pile, tripping lightly over rough sand and spiky little plants until they reached the edge of the surf. It was better to do it quickly, so they always plunged straight in, pushing through the suffocating chill that pressed from all sides until the sandy bottom dropped away and there was nothing left to do but swim. Her mother's limbs shone like ivory in the moonlight, fearlessly sluicing through cold. They did this every morning of her life but then they came to New York, and there was nowhere to swim.
The day her mother said her last words, they had been talking about their beach. How the sand would rub their feet raw, the steely water blending into the sky. How every single time the sharp cold never failed to take their bodies by surprise. Her mother wondering if their neighbour, Mr Andersson, was still watering their plants as he had promised, waiting for the day when they would return to their little white house by the sea. Anja reminding her that Mr Andersson was long gone, fifty years ago at least, before they even introduced life extension in Sweden. They had embraced it by now, of course, but were still a long way behind where America was today.
It was in the middle of this reminiscing that her mother's voice box quit, the muscles clenching around shapeless sounds until they gave up forever. At first, Anja kept talking, filling in with what she imagined her mother would say. It helped that her mother's eyes were still alert, still met her own with a burning life. But eventually they dimmed. Then her skin started to fade, losing its colour and opacity. It grew harder and harder to keep up the one-sided conversation.
Now Anja sat silently in the hard wooden chair next to her mother's bed, listening to the pumping of her mechanical heart. Thud, thud, thud. How long had it been now? She couldn't tell. The days smeared into one another.
Before they turned milky and white, mother's eyes had been the colour of the sea. A clear, cold grey, the colour of ice on a freshly frozen lake. When Anja looked in the mirror now, all she could see was her mother's eyes staring back at her. Her mother's eyes, her mother's sharp nose, her mother's pale, salmon mouth.
Just to see, what's the harm? That was what her mother had said when they first arrived in New York and walked past the clinic. So they got tested. It turned out they both had good genes, excellent genes, so good that they were eligible for all kinds of subsidised treatments. They laughed it off. That was not what they were here for, no, they were here for the music. Her mother to sing, Anja to play the violin.
But the thought of living forever was a slow-burning disease she'd caught from the moment they took those tests. Her mother started living like the Americans, no longer eating meat or even fish, her hefty bulk dwindling into an efficient, gym-honed leanness. She stopped running because of what it did to her knees. Eventually she sang less and less, because they'd told her about her heart, how it was the weakest link in an otherwise immaculate genetic make-up. There was also all that excess cortisol production involved in being a musician. Occupational hazard, as they called it.
Her mother became obsessed with enhancements, and then repairs. First it was the skin, re-grafted every fifteen months, then the blood, souped up with microscopic smart particles, nanobots that cleansed and repaired and regenerated. The day they replaced her heart with a high-powered synthetic pump, Anja practised the violin till her fingers turned purple and raw. At the clinic she searched her mother's face for clues as to where this would end.
Now she knew, of course. This was how. The two of them in this empty, damp room with nothing but a few instruments to their name. The treatments were only subsidised up to a point, growing more and more expensive as her mother reached the end of her predicted lifespan, until they had nothing left. All there was left to do now was wait.
Her phone began to ring, but Anja ignored it, instead standing up and walking over to the window. She placed her hands on the smooth painted wood and pushed up. At first it wouldn't budge, so she pushed again, this time harder, and the shawl around her neck fell to the floor. The window's dusty seams creaked as it opened.
The smell of the city was crisp and sour. It hit her nose like saltwater, making her eyes well up. The streets outside were empty and most windows were dark. How many others were there here, dying and unable to die? At least her mother had her.
The shrill cry of the phone bled out onto the empty streets.
Anja stepped back from the window, slipping a hand into her pocket. Her fingers closed around a card she had been carrying with her for a long time now, ever since her mother had taken to bed. With her thumb she traced the curves of embossed numbers that she knew by heart now, a phone number printed under two words in bold, red type: Suicide Club.
It was always a matter of focus, as most things were. So Lea focused, pushing every stray thought out of her mind, forcing herself to relax and breath. She focused on the sinuous curve of Todd's shoulders dipping and rising, blurring and sharpening with the movement of his head. She focused on the damp heat of his hard flank pressing against her calves. His cheeks, crumbed with stubble, on her inner thighs. Her fingers, which had been resting gently on Todd's head, gripped a handful of hair. He sped up, but Lea closed her thighs and sat up.
"What?" he said, pink lips glistening in a blade of light. The light from the window cut across his face, casting the top half of it in a shadow.
Lea slid off the bed.
She checked the living room first. Everything was as it should be. Throw pillows neatly arranged on the mid-century couch, cashmere throw draped over its grey herringbone upholstery. White storage units that lined the wall, flushed orange in the morning light. Paper lanterns scattered through the room pulsed a soft pale pink, a hue meant to energise and uplift. The spotless linen curtains hung still, the furniture mute in its coordinated palette of neutral shades. The marble floor was cold beneath her feet.
Lea walked through the entire apartment twice, checking the kitchen, bathroom, guest room.
When she returned to bed, Todd shot her a look.
"I thought I heard something," she said.
Todd propped himself up onto his elbows, worry creasing his brow. "You have to stop. All this paranoia - it's not good for you.”
"You don't get it. Do you realise they were there? In my office? Asking questions, talking to the receptionist. And - " she stopped.
I saw him. My father. But the words stuck in her throat. Todd knew about her family, of course he did, but to him it was nothing more than backstory, a tragic chapter of Lea's life that was long past. As far as he was concerned, it was a thing that she had overcome.
Todd's warm toes found her tailbone. Then his fingers, kneading upwards, digging into the hard muscle that knotted her spine. When he reached her neck, Todd wrapped his fingers around the bare, smooth length of it, thumbs working diligently. She stiffened.
"What?" Todd said.
She pried his fingers from her neck, leaning forward out of his reach.
"What else can I do?" she asked. "How can I convince them?”
"Like I said, you don't have to convince them," Todd said. "This whole thing is crazy, Lea, they'll realise sooner or later they've made a mistake. The Ministry will sort it out. There's no point getting worked up, losing days over this."
Lea stood up from the bed and turned towards the mirrored wardrobe. Even naked, she could still pass for no older than fifty. This wasn't unique to her, of course, most lifers close to a hundred were indistinguishable from those in their first half century. But it was how you looked as you approached your second century that really counted. Still examining her straight spine, the well calibrated gap between the tops of her thighs and the subtle hollows of her hips, it was hard to believe that she, of all people, was under Observation.
"Worrying about it is only going to make it worse," Todd went on. "Healthy mind, healthy body. Can't you just ignore them?"
"We lost the Musk account because of them. That could set me back by years," Lea said.
"You haven't lost it," Todd said. "They said it was on hold. Why assume the worst? Maybe if you just - "
"Just what? Just relaxed?”
Todd looked away. He smoothed out a crease in the sheets.
She knelt down next to him, running her palms over his thighs. Under the soft, surface, freckled with blond hairs like the surface of an alien planet, was a hard solidity that always fascinated her. One day, that would be all that was left, she thought, suddenly sad. SmartBloodTM, DiamondSkinTM and ToughMuscTM, living on into eternity. She pushed away the thought of her father's face, dark with pigmentation and ridged with creases.
Todd placed his hands over hers. “I know it’s going to work out. You’re the best, most dedicated lifer I know, that’s all I’m saying.”
“But what if it doesn’t? What if – ”
“I’ll go to the Ministry myself and tell them. I’ll tell them about how you were the first lifer to give up running, even before the high impact advisory came out. I’ll tell them about the way you split your Nutripaks into half-hourly portions to ensure optimal nutrient release through the day. I’ll tell them about the two hours you spend meditating each night, the daily morning stretches you’ve never missed a single time, the – ”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Lea said.
She smiled, but her insides still felt tight. The look on his face now was the thing about Todd. Why, maybe, they had now been engaged close to eight years and still hadn't set a date for the wedding. Todd, with his impeccable genes and trusting goodness, his firm belief that the Ministry was fair and reasonable. Todd, with his Healthfin family, his trust fund that meant he was able to pass his days indulging in languid self-maintenance. Todd who had never known a sub-100 in his life, who existed solely on the plane of the genetically blessed.
But wasn’t that why she was with him? Didn’t she wear Todd like a band-aid, armour against the darkness that lurked in her past? Wasn’t he her crowning glory, the last puzzle piece of the life she wanted, the life that Uju would have wanted for her? Their offspring would almost certainly be lifers, and for all they knew, could even be the first to break the threshold. Immortals. They'd have as good a chance as any, with Todd and Lea's genes.
Lea stood up abruptly. "Come with me," she said.
She took him by the hand, leading him to the smallest room in her apartment. It had originally been conceived of as a walk-in wardrobe. Now it was full, ceiling to floor, with paintings and the tall mirrors that spanned the length of one wall were now smudged with streaks and spots of colour.
Todd never came in here alone. He was always sweetly respectful of what he considered her odd, private hobby. Now he stared at the canvases with polite puzzlement, brow furrowed like he was trying to solve a math problem.
"What do you think?" She spun him around to face the large easel which stood splayed in the middle of the room. "It's the city," she said, pointing to the grid, the skyscrapers, the ombre sky.
"I see," Todd said, nodding slowly. Lea could see that he didn't. Still, she picked up the canvas and held it out to him.
"Here. I want you to have it."
"I can't take this," Todd said. But when Lea didn't move, he took the painting from her gently, taking care not to touch the glistening surface. "It's beautiful," he said with a certain resolve. "Thank you."
Lea kissed him the way she always did, lips parted as if to sip from a straw, tongue coyly poised on the edge of her teeth. Hands stroking his sinewy, strong neck, reminding herself that this was it, this was success. Healthy mind, healthy body.
They did it on the floor, cold marble pressing against her thighs, surrounded by canvases and the chemical smell of liquid colour. Outside, the sky was thick with clouds.
Everyone was born with a number. They ran the tests immediately after birth. A simple swab of a wailing throat, parents waiting, hands clasped nervously, for the moment that would define the rest of their child’s life. Sometimes the results came out as a mother held the baby in her arms for the first time, staring into its liquid, barely human eyes.
That was how it had been with Lea, so the story went. She had heard it countless times - how her mother had asked them to repeat themselves, and then, on hearing the same thing, insisted they repeat the test. The brusque way in which they stated that they did not make mistakes, the doctor so offended that his black moustache wouldn't stop twitching. How she still couldn't bring herself to believe it, but found herself crying anyway, tears dripping down her chin to fall onto little baby Lea's perfect, round cheeks, how she had parted her tiny pink lips and tasted salt for the first time.
It had been different with Samuel, of course. Forty years before Lea was born. Then her mother had shown no expression, had taken the news as though she'd expected it.
First there was Samuel, and then there was Lea. Uju and Kaito gave them what they thought were good American names, names that signified a new beginning for their family.
The doctors gave it a million to one chance, what had happened. It was extremely unusual. Siblings' numbers were usually within a hundred years of each other; each extra ten years of divergence were a slap in the face of probability. For one to be a lifer, and the other not – that was practically unthinkable.
Sometimes Lea wondered if a gene pool were finite and could only be split so many ways between siblings. If she had stolen something from him. But she never let herself wonder for too long.
"Good morning Lea!" the receptionist trilled as the clinic's doors slid shut behind her. "I'll let Jessie know you're here. Won't be a moment."
Other customers, mainly women in pencil skirts tapping away at their tabs, sat in the glossy reception area. Some held glasses of khaki coloured liquid, freshly cold-pressed at the clinic's veggie bar. Its solid pine counters, white Zen paintings, and paper lanterns all designed to soothe.
Lea ordered a ginger tea from the attractive barista at the counter. She watched the outline of a vein in his forearm as he sliced a stalk of fresh ginger into wafer thin strips. Perhaps he was in training to be a surgeon. He couldn't be a day over fifty and was probably finishing up his third decade in med school. These days, she'd heard, every clinic job was hotly contested by students eager to get any experience they could, even if it meant blending smoothies and scrubbing latrines.
Samuel had wanted to be a paediatrician, she remembered suddenly. He had always been good with children. He’d practised on her. She thought of him now, long-limbed and knobbly at the joints, long hair brushing the floor and glasses sliding past his forehead, teaching her to a do a headstand against the kitchen island. Lea laughing and kicking up before her mother could stop her.
He'd never stood a chance, of course. Non-lifers didn't have the lifespan to complete the four decades of medical training required to qualify as even the most basic of doctors.
At the sound of Jessie's voice, Lea's insides warmed. Jessie had that effect on people, most Tenders who worked maintenance did. The texture of her voice was golden and syrupy. Jessie was family. She'd looked after Samuel before Lea, her mother, when she was still alive. And her father, before he'd disappeared.
They entered the treatment room, a space so clean and uncluttered that it felt much larger than it really was. All the equipment - regulators, sensors, scales - were neatly tucked away behind white panels, all except for the cocoon, which sat silently in a corner. Lining the far wall was a vertical garden, row upon row of shiny porcelain pots, mostly succulents, prickly turgid limbs jostling for space.
"Oh Jessie," Lea said. "You're going to be so shocked at my stats. I've probably lost a whole month just from yesterday alone."
Jessie's hands squeaked into cream rubber gloves, milky against her skin.
"Well, let's see what the damage is, shall we?" Jessie drew one finger across a screen. The cocoon in the corner of the room softly whirred to life. It emitted a pale green light, and then was silent.
Lea removed her clothing quickly, folding them neatly on Jessie's desk. Her skin prickled with cold.
"Oof." Jessie's gloved fingers met with the dark purple shape on Lea's hip. "Land yoga?"
For a moment Lea was struck with the odd thought that they could have been sisters, her and Jessie, comparing bodies in their bedroom. She wondered what that must have been like, having a sister. How different it would have been to having a brother.
There he was again, Samuel. Sitting in the corner of the room. He had his nose in a worn book, something to do with string theory or ornithology, his two favourite topics. He chewed on his forefinger as he read, nose scrunched up. Lea stared at him, wishing he would look up at her. But he never did.
You've always had his nose, her mother said. It was the only time she'd allowed Lea to indulge in what she would otherwise consider to be unproductive wallowing. Uju had always made exceptions for Samuel.
The cocoon was ready. It slid open noiselessly, revealing the narrow bed within.
Lea took Jessie's outstretched hand and stepped in. Bare skin against the rough, sanitised sheet, she exhaled one long, audible breath. The sides of the cocoon were transparent, allowing her to see outside, but it was little comfort. Her heart rattled in her chest.
Jessie touched the screen again, sending the sound of a calm ocean streaming into the small space. Then, the smell of salt, fresh and bracing. Lea closed her eyes.
The lid slid over her body, a click telling her that the air lock was sealed. The sides turned opaque, plunging her into an inky darkness. She spread her fingers against the rough fabric of the mattress, then closed them, then spread them again, reassuring herself that she was still there. She squeezed her eyes shut.
She saw Samuel again, the day the coughing wouldn't stop, the day he stared at his hand for a long time after bringing away from his mouth. Lea making herself as small as she could in the corner of the living room as her parents rushed to Samuel's side. Thinking about it now, it must have been strange, Samuel crinkle-eyed and loose around the middle, the hair on his head sparser, greyer than that of their seventy-six year old father.
A low vibration filled the cocoon. Lea knew the drill: the gas, the green light, then vibration again. She breathed slowly, mindfully, dragging the air against the walls of her windpipe. It would be over soon.
The second vibration came. And then, without warning, her father's face. Not the man she had seen on the street, but her father as he used to be. His skin firm with life, his eyes dark and shining pinpricks, the same shape and colour as hers.
Her father, grabbing Samuel's wrist so roughly that she saw her brother wince behind the corrective lenses. Her father, staring shock-still into Samuel's palm, as if reading some terrible future in their lines. She found out later it wasn't the lines he was looking at, of course. It had been blood, thick and frothy, mixed with phlegm.
But it wasn't the blood that she remembered most clearly. Or what came later, the coughing fits, the cancer, the hospitals, the funeral. She had always known that Samuel would die. What she remembered was the look on her father's face that first day, the day the coughing wouldn't stop. The way his face had twisted as he stared into Samuel's hand, his mouth becoming a thin line. His eyes were blank and intractable pools, suddenly cold and foreign to her. The terrible, sad look on her his face was what she remembered. It was a look that coloured everything that happened after.
When the cocoon's lid finally opened, Lea's eyes were still squeezed shut.
"All done," Jessie sang. "Hey, you okay?"
She took three deep breaths, counting as she filled her lungs.
Lea opened her eyes and sat up. Her skin prickled at the sudden chill.
"Fine," she said. "I - " Lea stopped. How could she even begin to tell Jessie? "I just never get used to those things.”
As Lea dressed, Jessie turned to the three large screens that loomed over her workstation. Lines began to arch gracefully across each of them, propping up bars, connecting circles and triangles. The shapes formed familiar constellations, but they meant nothing to Lea. Only Tenders could read them.
Jessie glanced over at one screen, then the next, then the first again. Lea stared into her face, trying to decode her features instead, but Jessie's expression remained unchanged. A tiny smattering of dark freckles across her nose was the only mark on her bronze skin.
"Nothing to worry about," she finally said. "Whatever that little shock was yesterday, it barely moved your stats. A couple of extra cleanses, some months of intensive meditation and you'll make it up in no time."
But when the numbers started to appear, filling the screen with their pert green angles, Jessie paused. "What happened yesterday?" she asked.
When Lea told her, she kept her tone light-hearted. Made it sound like a big joke: the two guys in their shiny suits, the Tender who clearly needed a refresher course in Creating A Soothing Environment (which Jessie was a master at, Lea threw in), the incomprehensible ‘Treatment Plan’. She didn't mention why she stepped out onto the road.
"You'll speak to them today then?" Lea said when she finished.
Jessie turned away from the screens, retrieving a small red watering can from under her desk. She said nothing until she finished watering the plants. Eventually, most were covered in fat jewels of water, and she turned back to Lea. The watering can, Lea noticed, was the exact shade of maroon as the robes Jessie wore.
"Lea," Jessie said gently. "This is Maintenance. Monitoring - they're completely separate from us. A totally different division."
"What are you saying?"
"It's not that I don't want to help," Jessie said, without meeting Lea's eyes. Under the warmth of her voice was a hard spine of professionalism, something that Lea had always known was there but never given much thought to until now.
"Oh." Lea stared at her hands in her lap. "Well then. Should we carry on? I have - I'm meeting someone in ten minutes," she lied.
"Of course." Jessie turned back to her screens and started typing, the even clicks of the keyboard like the pattering of rain. For the rest of the session, she didn't say a thing about the bruise on Lea's hip or the Observers. It was as if Lea hadn't said anything at all.
A series of scrapings, joint manipulations and spinal fluid adjustments later, they were done. The delivery tube next to her desk pinged, spitting out a small glass vial.
"I'm giving you some extra RepairantsTM. The usual anti-oxidants, plus a little boost to help you get over the extra stress. Oh, and good job on the Swimlates," Jessie said. "Great for your tendons."
Lea smiled dutifully as she rose from her seat.
"I'll see you out," Jessie said.
They walked in silence down the short hallway towards the lobby. Lea could feel Jessie's discomfort hovering between them, but she did nothing to assuage it. It was Jessie's own fault, she thought, for not even trying to help. It was impossible that she couldn't do anything. She was a Tender.
The clinic's peach walls were lined with a series of portraits, dramatically lit photos of men and women in lab coats, labelled with titles and dates in handsome serif type. Lea recited the familiar names - Pillai, Blackwell, Chan, Krusov, Moll - staring into their blown up, high definition eyes that watched over the ebb and flow of clients. She wondered what the pioneers of the First Wave would think if they could see New York today, post Second Wave, on the cusp of the Third. The first immortals already lived among them. The phrase, usually so often recited that it had become a meaningless mantra, struck her all of a sudden. She thought of Samuel.
She stopped and turned to Jessie, grabbing her arm.
"You could look into it, couldn't you, Jessie? You could do it for me?" Lea said quietly. She hated the pleading note in her voice. "The Third Wave. I've heard rumours it's happening sooner than expected. I can't have this on my record when it begins. Not now, not after how hard I've worked."
Jessie looked about the lobby, her gaze skittering away from Lea's. As she blinked, her long eyelashes cast a cobweb of shadows across her cheek.
"I'll see you next week," she said brightly, prying Lea's fingers from her arm.
"I will, yes, but couldn't you just - " Lea stopped. Jessie was no longer listening. Her eyes were fixed on some commotion behind Lea, the voice of the receptionist rising over a low, insistent baritone.
Lea turned. The scene in front of her didn't register immediately. It was, at first glance, exactly as she had left it when she'd gone into Jessie's office for her appointment. The Zen paintings, the paper lanterns, the barista manning the juice counter. It had filled up while she was gone, every plush sofa occupied by other customers. But unlike before, none of them were looking at their tabs or their phones or the glossy magazines whose open pages flopped lifelessly in their laps.
Instead, they were looking at the man standing in the middle of the room. The clinic lights did him no favours, making his scalp under the sparse grey hair appear shinier than it probably was, casting shadows under his eyes and mouth, revealing the excess folds of skin in his neck.
"Our waiting area is members only, sir, I really must ask you to wait outside," the receptionist was saying, her voice getting higher and higher.
"All I'm asking is whether she's registered here." His voice a rich, calming sound, commanding and strong, at odds with the decrepitude of his face.
"We don't reveal confidential client information to strangers, as I have already said," the receptionist went on. The distress in her voice was palpable. Likely a medical student herself, it was clear that she was unused to anyone other than the clinic's polished clientele.
"And as I've already said, I'm not a stranger," the man said.
"Sir." Jessie stepped forward.
Lea’s father turned, and their eyes met for the first time in eighty-eight years.
Jessie was by his side now, her hand cupping his elbow. "You'll have to leave now sir," she said. She nodded at the barista, who joined her in a flash, taking Lea's father by the other elbow. He twisted out of their grasp, pulling his arms away from them. He made as if to take a step towards Lea, but the barista grabbed him again, this time in a firm lock around his chest. He stumbled and gave a yelp.
"Hey!" Lea said sharply, stepping forward. "Stop that.”
The barista looked up in surprise. "But he's a sub-100, ma’am."
"He is not a sub-100," Lea answered, walking up to them.
"What are you talking about, Lea?" Jessie asked curiously. Her father shrugged off the barista's grip, pulling his worn blazer straight on his shoulders. The familiar movement made Lea's chest tighten.
"It was you he was asking about," the receptionist said. Now that she was back behind the front desk and absolved of responsibility, she seemed eager to get back into the fray. The other clients looked on as well, hungry for a story.
"You know him? Who are you?" Jessie asked. She turned towards the man, squinting at his face. Something flickered across her eyes. She stared at him as if he was a ghost. And wasn't he, after all?