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Rentals

by Zoran Krušvar

I’m ten years old.

Mom’s crying.

Dad’s sitting under the shower, water spraying on him, sliding off his skin in tiny streams. He’s shaking and sobbing like my little brother Marko when he’s ill. The shower curtain’s torn. Everywhere I look there’s rust, and the ceiling is covered by those dark damp stains. Some of the tiles are cracked, but it’s not my fault, they were already like that when we moved in. It’s not my fault mom and dad are crying, either, but I think maybe Marko is to blame because he’s sick. He’s in mom’s arms, crying along with her. Or maybe it’s Nikola Tesla’s fault, though I don’t know who he is. Dad is squealing with his head between his hands. As he pulls his skin tight, a thin pale line starts showing on his forehead – it’s a surgery scar. You can’t normally see it, the doctors made it so that it wouldn’t show because they can do that, but when the skin is pulled really tight, then it starts showing. A thin white line, like a sewing thread. I guess those doctors didn’t think my dad would be stretching out his skin under the shower. I still don’t know what it’s all for. I know they opened up my dad’s head so they could put that thing in, that device made of plastic and wire that shows under his hair, there in the back where his neck ends and his head begins.

He needs it for work.

When he’s asked about his job, dad says he’s not working. I asked him if that was a lie, but he told me it wasn’t one ‚cause he was really out of work since machines took over his old job. It’s just that he sometimes has to go, ‚cause we need the money, and then he does some different job. But that’s only once every ten days. That’s what he told me. Mom is always sad and nervous when my dad goes out to work. I can see that she doesn’t like that thing either, that device the doctors had to open up my dad’s head for. I asked her why he doesn’t take it out then, but she told me it’s not just that little thing sticking out of his head, that it’s in his whole head and the doctors would have to open it up again to take it out. That’s really expensive and we have no money. And dad is the one bringing home the money when he comes back from work, and to do that he needs that… …whatever the doctors put in his head. I’ve also heard mom saying it was all the fault of some man who died more than a hundred years ago, but she didn’t say that to me, and I knew she didn’t want me to hear it. So I didn’t wanna ask; “What’s that Nikola Tesla’s fault? And who was he, anyway?”

My brother Marko is often sick. That’s why he cries that much. Then mom is sad, too, because the drugs Marko has to take cost a lot, and we have no money. Then dad goes out to work and she gets even sadder and cries along with Marko. I practice not to cry ‚cause I want to be brave, but sometimes I don’t make it and I start crying, too.

Dad came back from work today and I could see he had a bad day. So now he’s sitting under the shower, naked and trembling. Maybe he’s trembling ‚cause he’s cold? The boiler’s dead and we have no warm water, but dad brought money today, and mom’s gonna call the repairman to fix it tomorrow. And she’s gonna cook a special lunch for us, and buy the drugs for Marko, and I’m gonna get new shoes and clothes. Everything’s gonna be better tomorrow. And today they’re crying. Dad, and mom, and Marko. I’m the only one not crying, because I’m practicing being brave. I’m standing in the bathroom looking at my dad, how he’s trembling, how the water is running off him in streams, how a thin red line is welling out underneath him, making its way toward the drain just like a brush leaves a trail of paint when you drag it through the water.

I’m practicing being brave.

I’m seventeen.

Mom is crying.

A man in a black suit is opening the little see-through plastic door and inserting an urn in the suitable opening. The urn holds my old man’s ash. The man in the black suit closes the door, locks them, hands the key to my mum and leaves us to say a final dignified goodbye to the deceased. Thank you, oh, man in the black suit, but can you bring us back what our dear departed sold a long long time ago? There’s another door right beside the plastic final resting place of my father. The door whose key is dangling around my old lady’s neck. “Maybe Marko and dad are together now?”, she asks. “I’m sure they are”, I respond calmly, in a voice that perishes the thought that I could be uncertain of what I’m proclaiming. I’m not crying today. I never cry.

The law says I won’t be a grown-up for another year, but I feel I already am. Everything is clear to me. All the things I once didn’t understand have cleared like the water going through a filter. I don’t wanna think about my old man, but I cannot escape it. They had to take the device out of his head before he was cremated. The device. “Tesla CT 3.01” Cerebral Telecommunicator. They named the factory after Nikola Tesla, the scientist who invented remote control and wireless transfer of electricity. Now I know well enough how my old man earned his money and I know well enough why he and my old lady were crying.

But I’m not crying.

I am brave.

I’m twenty.

Mother is crying.

I’m in a hospital bed. I’m not feeling very bad. The food is good here, better than in the shelter mother and I sleep and live in. And it’s clean. Not decrepit like that other hospital, the one mother will have to go to. Her health has become much worse lately. She should’ve already received treatment, but we still have no money to pay for it. Now we don’t, but we soon will. I’m sorry they had to shave my head, but my hair will grow back. I will keep it long and you won’t be able to see a single piece of plastic and wire I now feel under the bandages, here in the back of my head where my scull connects to my neck. Mother is silent and tears are flowing down her cheeks. Her hair laced with grays is falling untamed over her face marred by wrinkles and dark circles under her eyes. She has grown old much too soon. Will I follow in her footsteps? I know she didn’t want her child to make money this way, but what else is to be done? I can’t find work and I don’t know how to steal. Should I turn tricks? How much could I earn? All too little. She tried. Never told me, but I know she did. I found out. Of course I didn’t tell her, it would’ve killed her. Will this kill her? Will she be able to get better when she knows how I earned the money to pay for her treatment? She’s not gonna tell me anything. She can’t. She knows I’m doing it all for her, just like she knows signing that contract was not an easy task for me. The kind man explained it all to me, although I knew it all to begin with.

“Thoughts, emotions, sensations… When reduced to the basics, they’re nothing but tiny electric impulses. You smell something nice – zing, a tiny spark of electricity goes from your nose to the olfactory centers in the brain. You wish to see what that nice smelling thing is, and another spark goes from your brain to your eyes and they turn in that direction. You gaze upon a flower and you think you saw a pretty picture, but it’s really a current of electricity flowing from your eyes to the centers of sight in your brain. The brain is filled with electrical activity. And Mr. Nikola Tesla revealed to us the hidden secrets of electricity a long long time ago!” He tapped my head with his index finger. I said nothing as he continued with his explanation:

“We’ll put a network of little nano-electrodes into your head. They will neither hurt nor disrupt your life in any way. You won’t even know they’re there. Here, behind your head,” he touched the very place out of which Tesla CT 4.03 device is now sticking out of my head, “there is where the transmitter is going to be.It will send data of what you see, hear, smell, feel, etc. Some parts of your brain will not be encompassed, so we won’t have your thoughts, memories and the like. The data sent by the transmitter will fly through the air all the way to our headquarters and the room where the client will be situated. He, or she, will have a similar device on his or her head. Considerably bigger and more complicated, not to mention much much more expensive. We don’t drill their head, that would be completely unnecessary since they have no need for a portable device – they lie with their body immobilized, with a load of machinery hanging around their head. The client will see everything you see, hear everything you hear and feel everything you feel. He or she will have a complete impression of being inside you, but will have his or her memories, wishes, and every other vital part of his or her personality. Do you understand?” he asked like I was some stupid little girl, and I just nodded my head as every good little stupid girl would have done. He continued:

“The client may want to say something, but his body being chemically immobilized, it won’t be able to move an inch. But nevertheless, a little brain current will start flowing toward the jaw and tongue muscles, a current the device around the client’s head will register, and it will send a signal your receiver will in turn catch. Then the nano-electrodes will send corresponding impulses to the corresponding parts of your brain, and your mouth will open for the client’s words to come out. You will feel your mouth opening and your tongue moving, and you will hear your voice uttering words that are not your own. Then the client will want to take a walk, and your feet will be the ones doing the walking. He will feel the emptiness of your stomach and head for a restaurant for a meal. You might be a vegetarian, but the client craves roast pork, so roast pork is what you two will have. You will both feel grease dripping down your chin, but only the client will be able to take a napkin and wipe it off. Maybe you won’t like it, but you won’t be able to do anything about it. Once the client plugs in, he gains full control over the body of the rental.” At this point I shivered. He noticed that and merely stretched the corners of his mouth a bit more towards the ears.

“This is not a job for everybody. Our clients come in two varieties: the first one are mostly disabled old-timers who want to find themselves in a young body one last time. To dance, have fun, run… make love.” I KNOW it all already and there is absolutely no need for me to listen to him, but I don’t interrupt his flow of consciousness and he speaks on:

“Now the other variety of clients is a bit more tricky. We charge them extra since they often damage our rentals. Those are adrenaline addicted people, but they choose to act upon their addiction from the security of a rental body. If someone like that happens to come your way, you will go sky-diving, race-driving and bar-fighting, you’ll walk on embers and so on. Everything the client would like to do himself, but is afraid of damaging his own body. That kind of people will introduce all kinds of heavy drugs into your organism and drink until you pass out. And I will not lie to you…”, he put his hand on my shoulder, “… when those people start craving sex, and very often that is exactly what it’s all about, you can expect all kinds of hard-core perversions.” I remembered my father crying under the shower, and the trail of blood crawling towards the sink, slithering like snakes and dragons embroidered on some lavish silken japanese kimono. I moved my shoulder away from his hand and asked to sign the contract.

He gave me the contract.

And told me I was brave.

I’m twenty-one.

I’m crying.

Mom needs another surgery, but they can’t promise me they’ll save her. We need money. I’m heading off to work, and she doesn’t oppose in any way because she’s unconscious of everything that’s happening around her. The whole process is managed so we would never meet our clients. But I did meet them. Maybe they were never my clients, those two young guys in fancy clothes, but while I was passing them on the street, overhearing those words, I could feel them inside me. Both of them.

“…fuckin‘ great, you wouldn’t believe it!”

“I’m gonna have to try it next time…”

“You have to try it, it’s crazy, I’m tellin‘ you, I was in some broad and screwing a fuckin‘ HORSE!!!”

“Does it hurt?”

“Like hell. I was covered with blood all the way to my… tits! Ha ha ha… screw it! But the feeling is unique, you have to try it!!! It was crazier than that one time I…”

I’m stumbling.

I don’t hear them any longer, but my brain is offering all-to-familiar scenarios that could finish that sentence:

“…ate shit.”

“…shoved a beer bottle… and…”

“…took six different kinds of drugs and got thirty-three piercings.”

“…gave myself consecutively…”

I can’t take it anymore. I’m collapsing to the floor sobbing. I’m crying. People pass by me, but the piece of plastic and wire jutting out my hair makes me contaminated and invisible to their eyes. All my scars ache and all my late father’s scars ache. My dead brother and my bedridden mother ache. All the electrodes in my brain and the laughter and all the who-gives-a-fuck’s ache. I’m vomiting, on all fours, on the sidewalk of a busy street, in broad daylight. I’m not embarassed. What’s that for me? For a rental? I continue crying for another moment and then try to get myself up. Both my knees and my hands are shaking, I’m walking like my legs are those crystal glass stems, so familiar to my champagne-loving clients. I keep walking. As I walk, my shivering hand wipes the tears and vomit around my mouth. I hold myself against a wall not to collapse again, but I keep walking. Another job is waiting for me.

I’m not brave.

I am miserable and desperate.

Translated by Tanja Štajduhar

Copyright © 2011 by Zoran Krušvar

Zoran Krušvar is a Croatian psychologist and science fiction and fantasy writer, born on April 9, 1977, in Rijeka. He won four SFERA awards, in 2002 (for Igra), in 2003 (for Brodovi u tami), in 2007 (for Izvršitelji nauma Gospodnjeg) and in 2008 (for Tako biti mora) from the Zagreb-based science fiction society SFera. Krušvar’s first novel, Izvršitelji nauma Gospodnjeg, was a multimedia project, first of such kind in Croatia.

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