Who Will Free the Flesh Pets?

Chapter Seven — The Grim Reaper*

Peter Parsons is alive and well in China, last I heard.

Peter, if you are reading this book, as I know you will, I toyed with dedicating it to you. There are only three people I considered, and you were one of them. As you can see, I ultimately decided to dedicate the tome to no one, as I realized the entire book is nothing more than a dedication to myself! (Jeff would find this funny!)

I'm sure that most of you reading this book know who Peter is, and are equally aware of our professional relationship. If I'm the idea, he is the instrument. Without him, none of my greatest achievements would have occurred. You owe him everything.

I met Peter in medical school. He sat on a panel invited to discuss advancements in allotransplantation not too long before I completed my first major paper. Peter was on the team that was pioneering hand transplants during that time, and came to Stanford with other experts to discuss their reduction of immunosuppressive drugs to one pre-surgical dose of Campath, a drug once used to treat leukemia. Although Peter's specialty was microsurgery, he was instrumental in creating both the pre-surgical treatment and post-surgical recovery plan. When I read the announcement of this lecture, I knew instantly that Peter would be necessary to the goals revealed in my vision.

As I mentioned, my visions grant me the answers, even if I don't understand the questions; they show me the shape of things, but not the names. The night I kissed Beth, I saw a man helping me. At first, I assumed it to be Jeff, but the vision continued to expand in the years that followed, and I realized that the man in my mind was someone else. It was Peter.

In addition to being a rising star in his field of research, Peter was also everything I was not. Although he was spindly, and many of his features were mildly exaggerated, he inherently handsome, and when he smiled, you would find it difficult not to consider him attractive. He was also a dynamic speaker and, most important for someone like me, generally well-liked. Dressed like a perpetual college kid, Peter easily managed to win over all who met him. Best of all, he did it with humility and kindness.

Seeing him as a sort of surrogate professor/big-brother, a group of medical students, myself included, surrounded him like groupies, eager to ask a question or slip him a self-printed business card. I hung back, and waited for the crowd to die down. Finally, as Peter began flashing regularly to his watch, the crowd did dissolve, leaving only him, me and his hosts by the podium. Peter closed his laptop and began collecting his notes.

"Have you done it yet?" He asked me.

"I'm close."

I stepped forward and offered my hand. He shook it warmly, and then returned to gathering his things.

"Excellent paper, Dr. Parsons. I'm very interested in your work." I said, as a matter of formality.

"Thank you, and I'm sure you are. We've all read about you. You quite famous in Louisville, Mr. Fleischman. Raised enough cash to fund six grants for six years, they say." He met my eyes and held them. This wasn't just a comment; it was a question.

"Well, not that much. Maybe five."

"Grants or years?"

"Both."

"Hmf. You are quite the golden child. I look forward to seeing what you do."

"I need you to help me."

"Really?" He asked this with no condescension. Peter's personality just seemed to prevent him from coming across as anything less than concerned.

"I'm leading a research team here. We'll have a paper ready soon, and it will change the rules."

He stopped packing and smiled at me.

"Well, you sure have the necessary confidence."

"It's not confidence talking. We're already way past the Hayflick limit and the cells are regenerating at an enormous rate, and we've seen significant increases in telomerase in cancerous cells."

"Well. That's impressive. How can I help?"

"I know how to stabilize allotransplantation without immunosuppressive drugs."

"You do?" Now Peter was really smiling. "So why do you need me?"

"Because…" I had rehearsed this. There was no way he could know that a vision had told me to enlist his aid. "I need you to test it, get it on the table. I need someone with credentials."

"Uh-huh. This really has been an interesting conversation, Mr. Fleischman, but I need to catch a plane."

"Dr. Parsons, I know it is impossible for you to trust me now, but when my paper comes out, after you've read it, please consider my request. It is essential that I get my work to a productive phase as soon as possible."

"Okay. I can do that." He extended his hand again, and I shook it.

"Thank you, Dr. Parsons. You won't regret keeping an open mind."

Oh Peter, how does my description of this meeting find you? Can you believe that we all once held such a perception of you? I know you are not so insulated, so vain, like me, to not feel the pinch of your transformation. Once a darling of the medical research world, you became its most formidable rogue! How did this happen? Callous, cold, ruthless—do these words even strike near your heart? I would have never guessed that it would be me seeking redemption rather than you, but here we are. You are the satisfied lord of abominations, and I am just a poor, old deathist seeking atonement.

*****

Jeff had been installed at the Mount Zion campus of the University. His care was the best that could be afforded, but even still, his health had continued to deteriorate. Seven years after his diagnosis, Jeff's body looked like nothing more than a skeleton draped in skin.

Before I convinced her to let me move Jeff to San Francisco, Tina had contacted Hospice about Jeff. I had arrived during one of the visits, on a quick trip home while still pre-med.

When Tina opened the door that day, she looked frightened to see me.

"Charlie, what are you doing here?"

"I've gotten Jeff a room at the campus hospital in San Francisco. I came to tell you both!" I held out my arms, expecting Tina to hug me. Instead she looked down and began fidgeting with some small bit of skin on her index finger.

"Isn't this great news, Tina?"

"Charlie, it isn't a good time. Jeff's bad today."

"Then this will cheer him up."

A man approached the door from inside her house. He looked at me, and then withdrew back inside.

"Who's that?"

"His name's Mike."

"Mike who?"

"He's a minister from Hospice," she answered, rubbing her eyes with her hand.

"Jesus, Tina." I pushed myself into the house and passed her. She did not struggle to stop me, knowing perhaps that I would not be easily dissuaded.

Mike was standing next to the staircase, waiting.

"Hello, Charlie."

I had become used to people knowing my name, and to a certain sense of familiarity with which they treated me. In my initial push to get my story out into the news, I'd done every interview, every charity event, every possible bit of outreach I could. My face had become synonymous with the fight against cancer, just as Jeff had become the face of cancer, itself.

I tended to avoid bringing the news stories to Jeff, not wanting to distress him with detailed descriptions of his condition that were broadcast. The journalists each tried to outdo each other in describing his feeble state, his sunken cheeks, his rattling breath. Unfortunately, getting only my side was rarely enough for them, so the journalists would ultimately call or just show up at his house, asking to speak with him. He consented at first, but after reading several of the articles, he lost interest.

"I'd rather be the face of acne," he said to me once. I had grown a decent beard over my face by then, but I knew what he meant. He'd rather be me, be the hero, than receive sympathetic letters from other cancer patients across the country.

He received letters, flowers, donations, marriage proposals and countless other gifts. Cancer was killing him, but it was also making him a celebrity.

"You know, if you cure me, the attention will eventually stop." He told me once. "I can go back to doing drugs for fun."

"What about your college plans?" I asked, trying to remind him of his former life.

"I'm educated enough for one life. I think I'll try working on cars since you've given it up."

"If you do," I replied, "I'll help you buy a houseboat for all that weed you'll smoke."

"You better."

"And I visit you for that bowl."

"Jesus, Charlie. Are we really having this conversation?" He began quietly sobbing, something he did with enough regularity that I no longer jumped to attention.

"Come on, Jeff. You can do anything. Just hang on."

Hang on. Even as I said it back then, I didn't really know what I was asking. If someone were to ask me to hang on now, I'd simply ask, "for what?" I had unfinished business back then, and I could not see Jeff slipping away, growing less and less invested in my vision as the months turned into years. I shouldn't have been surprised to see the Hospice minister in the house, but I was, and I treated him horribly.

"Hello, Mike." I replied to him, gritting my teeth together menacingly.

"Jeff asked me to come." He read my reaction perfectly.

"The hell he did."

"It's true. He told Tina to make the call."

"And how long ago did he do that?"

"I've been coming for over three months, now."

Over three months! I'd visited at least a half dozen times since then!

"I expect you've pitched god to him. Salvation. Heaven. Fluffy fucking clouds jammed full of cancer free angels."

"We've spoken of God. Jeff wants to be at peace, Charlie. Please try to understand."

"I understand, Mike. I understand that convincing Jeff that god is waiting to give him a big hug makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you've made a difference, doesn't it, that god will love you even more, once you bring him another volunteer."

"It's not like that, Charlie. I sit with people because they have nothing left at the end but fear and despair. I want everyone to have the chance to die with dignity and grace." He was so genuine, so soft spoken. I wondered how he would look without his skin.

"The fuck you do. You should encourage him to fight, to beat down the cancer while I develop the cure that will beat it down permanently."

"I hope you do that, Charlie. More than anyone else you're likely to meet, I hope you do. I've sat with hundreds of cancer patients until the end. I've prayed and prayed and prayed for a cure, but all I have to give them is hope and companionship."

My rage lost its footing and faltered, but I was not ready to retire.

"You're like the grim reaper, aren't you?" I whispered, getting very close to him. "Do you get off on death, or something?"

"My first case was my brother," he said, holding his hands up to signal I was too close. "I lost him twelve years ago. I was a lawyer, and I sold my stake in the firm to sit with him. In a way, I'm still sitting with him when I sit with anyone. So, yes, Charlie, some part of me gets off on death, but not in the way you mean. Every time I sit with someone, I get a little bit of my brother back, just for a while."

Hearing this admission was the final punch to my gut. Mike seemed without motive, authentic, caring and kind. I wanted to flay him for interfering with my plans, but I could not continue on my present course and hope to change the situation.

I turned around and moved away from Mike, walked right out of the house and to my car. I started it up and sat there, simmering.

Now, I can see that my anger had nothing to do with Mike, or Tina, or even Jeff. I felt threatened again by the loss of Jeff. Only this time, I was not afraid of losing my mentor. I was afraid of losing my project, my reason to create. I had a need to follow the vision, and Jeff was a part of it.

The human mind does not conceal the truth from us. It merely shows us a myriad of possible truths, and we select the one that meets our needs at the time, even if it is not the most accurate. In the car, in front of Jeff's house, I picked a truth and acted on it.

I exited the car and marched back into Jeff's house, shouldered my way past Mike and Tina and bounded up the stairs. Tina tried to grab my arm, but Mike said, softly, "let him go."

I broke my stride at the entrance to Jeff's room. He was lying in bed with headphones on, his eyes closed. The afternoon sun bled through the thin curtains of his room, lighting up his translucent skin like an X-ray.

"Jeff."

He opened his eyes. After regarding me of a while, he clicked off his music player.

"Done yelling at Mike?" He asked.

"I'm not sure. I may have another go at it," I replied, following his lead.

"Quit being an asshole and leave him alone." Jeff removed the headphones, his arms quivering.

"You know I can't."

"I know. You'll always be an asshole, but you're just not the pussy you used to be."

"All grown up." I puffed out my chest and patted my gut.

"I liked you better when you were a pussy."

"I guess that means you're not as gay as we all thought."

"Too bad for me, since you've become such a dick." He said with a rasp.

I chuckled. I would never win one of these. Even in death, Jeff was still my verbal master.

Knowing that my laugh was a white flag, Jeff shifted his tone.

"I asked Mike to come, and now I'm asking you to leave him alone."

"Why would you ask him here? You just need to…"

"Charlie, shut up."

"Jeff, come on…"

"Really, Charlie, you need to shut up. I need him to come. It's too hard. It's taking too long." His voice scraped with every word, but I heard only the echo of my own need.

"I'm working on it. I'll get there. I promise."

"I'm not talking about you, Charlie. I'm talking about dying. It's taking too long."

"That's enough of that talk. Now, you shut up and listen. I got you a room at Mount Zion, the place I told you about. You'll get the best care possible."

Jeff closed his eyes again and tears emerged through the crust that surrounded his eyelids.

"I can't. I don't want to do this anymore."

"You have to. Do it for me, Jeff. What am I going to do at school if you die?" I didn't believe this statement at the time. So closed to the truth, and I used it to lighten the mood!

He coughed and sucked back in whatever dark mucus had emerged.

"Come on, Jeff. I'll take care of everything. There's even a furnished apartment next to the hospital for Tina to stay in when she visits."

He sighed heavily.

"Okay."

"Great!"

"But…"

"But what?"

"I'll go, but I want you to arrange for Mike to visit, also. If you agree, I'll do it."

I burned up thinking about this condition, but I could not find any reason to argue against his request.

"All right. Deal."

"And I want you to be nice to him, or I promise I'll die."

I walked over to his bedside and leaned in close to him. I smooth the soft downy fur that replaced the once long hair on his head.

"We all have to die, someday. Even the ungrateful." I said softly.

"Fuck you too," he replied, gently slapping me on the cheek.

*****

After my inaugural conversation with Peter, I drove to San Francisco to visit Jeff. As famous as he and I were, the nurses and doctors at Mount Zion treated us both as any other patient and visitor. For this, I commend them. Later in life, I would be starstruck on many occasions, often making poor decisions because of the name that was asking me for a favor.

I stopped at the nurse station in Jeff's wing to check in. I had seen this woman more than 100 times, yet I still called her nurse instead of Sally, the name on her badge.

On this day, Sally greeted me with a hint of dismay. I hadn't been to see Jeff in a couple of weeks. My team and I were working 16 hour days to finish the paper in time for submission to the American Transplant Congress in Boston. Seeing Peter speak was enough of a break in my schedule to remind me that I had been neglecting Jeff.

"I know, I know. I've been under the gun," I said, pathetically.

"His mother and friend are here."

"All righty."

Knowing that Mike and Tina were present annoyed me. Hopefully, Mike would be gracious enough to step out while I told Jeff about Peter. I felt I could relay the continuing evolution of my vision in front of Tina without letting on, but having Mike around always distracted me. Although I'd come to be on semi-friendly terms with him, his presence still reminded me of a grim reaper.

I walked down the hallway and found the door to Jeff's room.

I walked down the hallway and found the door to Jeff's room.

I wrote this sentence before, I believe. Maybe a couple of chapters ago? Back then, I had death in my heart, and I was certain that I would never see or talk to Jeff again. This time, my heart was light from my meeting with Peter and the near success of my research.

I opened the door and entered the room.

Tina sat in a chair and Mike stood just behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. Her hands held her head up, and I could tell that she had been crying.

"Hey, Tina," I began, before my mind could register the tears as a sign of a change in Jeff's condition.

She looked up and me, and new tears remoistened the old. I could hear Jeff's labored breathing, more staggered than usual, in the background.

"What's going on?" I asked, not even looking at Jeff.

Two days later Jeff died.


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Posted November 22, 2014 Continue