Replacement Parts by Michael Milne

Nancy fiddled nervously with the adjustable bed, raising and lowering her husband in it. Evan wore low-cut scrubs, and they tried to make jokes about his shaved chest, sharpie-lines grazing his ribs.

“I paid a little extra so I could watch the procedure,” Nancy told Evan. Their insurance being what it was, Nancy was paying for much of this out of pocket anyway. Even if the surgery was mostly-life-saving.

“That’s so macabre, babe.” Evan tried to laugh, but a butterfingered orderly was making a mess of sliding an IV shunt into his hand. “Are you going to bring popcorn?”

“It’s not technically ‘macabre’ unless you’re going to die,” she said, punctuating with a smirk. And then she welled up and wrung her hands. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“Forget it,” Evan said, his eyes already droopy from whatever flowed into him. A doctor wheeled his gurney away, and Nancy trudged to the gallery.

Nancy settled into her high seat, trying to look appropriately detached from the weak form in the centre of the room below. Anonymous, turquoise-clad surgeons covered Evan head-to-toe: Nancy felt like she was watching a stranger get sliced up. There were close-up angles on the incision site, and the doctor wore a live-cam strapped across her forehead. Spire Re-Animate Ultralungs were the most trusted brand on the market, so Nancy wasn’t worried. Much. Still, after Evan was opened up, Nancy gasped aloud and gripped her chair. The doctors groped at his first blackened and cancerous organ, they severed and clipped, they moved it away. It looked forlorn in the chrome basket.

The new pair of organs seemed manufactured and alien, two childish pink ovals, quivering in embossed glass cylinders. Saline sloshed behind the corporate logo, a winking blonde little girl. Nurses popped off the cap of the first container, and one by one the doctor wedged the new pieces into Evan.

Later in the recovery room, Nancy dragged a scratchy low armchair beside the hospital bed and attempted to sleep next to her husband. The IV tube kept tangling as she tried to hold his hand through the night. His breath was ragged, and she moved to his chest to listen as he slept. Although she would never voice it aloud, she was afraid she would hear the distant, mechanical clank of metal and turning gears. (“That’s not how they make them,” Evan would have said.)

“I’m quitting smoking,” she announced as soon as he woke. He was quitting too – he had no choice. His model came with anti-nicotine features, only twenty million Won  extra, and Evan’s body simply could not process cigarettes anymore.

“I’m so proud of you,” Evan croaked weakly, as he would do every morning for the next month. And when she inevitably relapsed and took her smoking underground, when she began hiding her cigarettes in the far back of the vegetable crisper, Evan smiled and pretended not to notice.

The second and third surgeries were technically necessary, Nancy guessed. Spire Ultralungs had compatibility issues in about 10 percent of the population, the consultant told them. Perfectly normal. Should be cleared up if you got the heart and kidney package. If it meant his survival, Nancy was happy to pay, she was happy to pack a little more overtime matchmaking corporate vendors to the various appendages of the telecom giant she worked for.

After recovering from the last procedure, Evan began working out. He bought new shoes and new clothes that clung to him, and he worked until the clothes stopped clinging. Nancy watched Evan gradually shrink in size, smaller each morning as he rose before the sun to go out running or swimming. The new look was appealing, Nancy certainly thought, though she didn’t understand Evan’s sudden need for change. And she felt, though Evan never said anything aloud, a growing pressure for her to start working out or drinking kale smoothies.

“He’s cheating,” Emily told Nancy plainly at lunch. The sisters had eaten together every Tuesday since being old enough to eat lunch without their parents. Nancy had never missed one.

“Why would you say that?” Nancy asked. She clenched her chopsticks in her hand.

“Who’s he trying to impress?” Emily took a sip of her drink and shrugged, gesturing at Nancy. “He’s already got you. There’s some piece on the side.”

Nancy loved Emily, even though she sometimes felt like slapping her very hard across her face, hard enough that the entire restaurant would turn at the sound. But they were sisters, and Emily was essentially her best friend, and loyalty and habit kept Nancy close to her. She changed the subject, but let the comments stew and percolate for days and weeks after.

“I just feel like getting in shape,” Evan assured her. Nancy did not bring up Emily’s crackpot theory, but still felt a need to poke around. “And it will speed up the recovery. Maybe I’ll jog home from the hospital!” They were on their way to the movies, a loud and boorish comedy they both would have once loved, though she was starting to find them immature. Nancy now watched them mostly to please Evan, though she sometimes suspected he was doing the same for her. “You should come with me some morning.”

So she woke with Evan, foregoing her own alarm and waking with his, rolling through the warmth of his side of the bed before trudging to the wardrobe. She found exactly one pair of shorts that could be used for physical activity, too tight, and she felt embarrassed as they left the house. He smiled every single lap, most especially when he passed her, always encouragingly, telling her how great she was. And Nancy felt deeply, mutely furious, resentful in her arms and her legs and her everything, she wished desperately to be back in bed, but she smiled back and didn’t let it show.

Nancy watched the second surgery, looking away when the surgeon plunged wrist-deep in Evan and wrestled his liver out of him. She told Evan later she felt like a voyeur, and she didn’t go to the viewing gallery for the next one, she never saw them toss Evan’s heart into a wastebasket or fit him with a smooth, meaty replacement. She had once nursed fantasies of going into medicine herself, but the thought of people’s lives in her hands, juggling vital organs like overripe oranges, had warded her off.

Waiting in the hospital café re-reading a battered paperback, Nancy received a text alert that the heart surgery was over. Pale and unconscious, Evan was rolled into an expensive recovery room and Nancy curled up uncomfortably at his side. She thought of all the new things inside Evan, and wondered how much of Evan they would have to trade away before he became somebody that wasn’t Evan.

Nancy sometimes dreamt of herself on a cool grey operating table. A surgeon in magenta scrubs would split her open lengthwise like an avocado and Evan would be curled inside her, a soft and snoring Z-shape. The doctor would scoop him out with a kitchen knife and toss him into a container of medical waste. They would pop a fresh husband from a bulk set, handsome and roundish thirty-something men stacked like spoons in vacuum-sealed plastic. They would slide the new man into the Evan-shaped groove and suture Nancy back together before she could brown, and they would whisper and hope her body didn’t reject the transplant.

Her sister Emily listened when Nancy told her about the dream, though Emily openly complained at hearing about this sort of thing.

“Replacement boyfriend, huh?” Emily laughed a little. “Give it up, Nan. The technology isn’t there yet.”

They were sitting at a bar on a dreary, drizzly Tuesday afternoon: the usual lunch had turned into drinks. Evan told her she didn’t need to take the day off work: the full-gastro replacement surgery would be long and she could just meet him at the hospital later. She had not cried about it until she told Emily, at which point she cried a lot.

“And now he’s a raw tetra-vegan, and we can’t even shop at the same grocery store anymore.” She sobbed into her wide-brimmed margarita, knowing  she sounded obscene and petulant and not caring. “And I took the day off work anyway because I hate my job, and I only stay there to help pay for the surgeries, and if I tried to change jobs I think it would stress him out.” Would it stress him out enough to leave, if she couldn’t maintain the medical costs?

“Is the new diet thing for the surgery?” Emily pretended not to notice Nancy making a scene, which Nancy appreciated. “I know some of those new intestines have those weird bovine genes wired in.”

“No. He said he just . . . wanted a change.”

He had said more: that he felt in a rut, that he felt his feet dangling over the grave, that he hadn’t bothered to improve himself until the malignant tumour wakeup call. Nancy tried not to see herself in his words, tried not to make it about her, but couldn’t help it.

When Evan awoke the next morning, Nancy gingerly spooned him scoops of the flavourless, new-organ-safe hospital gruel. He winced with every swallow.

“What does all of it feel like?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Evan patted the air around his flat stomach, avoiding actually hitting himself. “I can’t feel my lungs or my new guts, Nan. No more than you.”

“But I mean . . . is it different?” She looked in his eyes. “Do you feel different?”

“Well.” Evan was quiet for a moment. “I feel better. Better than I have in a long time. Like I’m becoming the best me.” He shifted uncomfortably in his bed. “I know right now it doesn’t look so attractive, but you should really consider it, Nan.”

They rehashed the same old conversation: maybe Nancy could get her own set of new lungs, or a new heart or knees. Nancy told him she didn’t need new anything, she liked all of her old things, and they all worked just fine. Evan looked at her appraisingly, not judgmental, but pausing occasionally as his eyes drifted past some part of her, as though mentally carving a turkey. Here they could stitch on a space-age polymer new breast, there they could glue some sleek bionic shoulders.

“I’ll think about it,” Nancy said, like always.

When Evan finally fell back asleep Nancy slotted her hand into his, now familiar with the zig-zag wrap around of the intravenous shunt. Would her hands fit, clasped in his, if she had them replaced? She sat watching Evan’s heart monitor, counting the beats until she too fell asleep.

They drove quietly in Nancy’s car, a battered and aged Camry she had driven since age eighteen. It was a twenty-minute path to the hospital, where Evan’s new bioengineered eyes were waiting for him. They spoke over the histrionic sputtering of the muffler.

“We don’t have to do anything special. You’ll still be recovering.” Nancy was taking the path of peace, as she often did.

“It’s our tenth anniversary. We have to do something. I mean, maybe let’s not go to the movies or the theatre.” Evan reached up and covered both of his eyes with his hands. “But a nice dinner? Or we could go somewhere, travel. We could drive—you could drive us out to Montreal. It smells nice there.” He laughed.

Nancy was taking the scenic route to the hospital on Evan’s request, so that he could see the oaks and the maples and whatever meagre wildlife survived along the brim of the freeway. He wouldn’t be able to see for three weeks, and had to get both ocular transplants done at once or the upgraded vision input would go wonky. “Half-a-pair of 3D glasses,” Evan told her. He said he wanted a last look at the world through his old eyes.

“You’ll be blind, and I’ll be preparing for my surgery. We could just stay in. I’ll cook something.” Like their last three anniversaries, each of which Nancy had loved more than the last. They downloaded The Princess Bride and shared a liter of ice cream cradled in Nancy’s lap, every time. Always French vanilla.

“Em’s probably planning a surprise party anyway.” Evan smiled. “And you won’t need to prep for the surgery. Really. You have nothing to worry about.”

She didn’t, but she did. Her toes had always bothered her, and they seemed like a fair moot point in Evan’s crusade of medical self-improvement. They were small, Nancy hated them, and they were as far away from her face as possible.

Originally Evan had talked about both of them getting their eyes done, staggering the surgeries out so they could nurse one another through their temporary impairments. It would be romantic, he said.

Their coffee table sagged under catalogues full of grotesque irises: heterochromia was all the rage, and for a little extra you could install polka dots or paisley. The back pages of each magazine contained glowing reviews from satisfied customers, their pictures featuring harrowing, cartoonish new eyes. Didn’t she hate wearing glasses, and didn’t she wish she had telescopic vision and could see the pained grimaces on the faces of worried airplane passengers high overhead?

Nancy had been terrified at the idea of any surgery above the neck. She imagined an overzealous surgeon and a misread medical chart. Someone would slide open the top of her skull like a can of soup, tipping her over and dumping out the contents. And then they would plop in a fresh smooth brain, free of her own cultivated neuroses. The doctors would fold in new convolutions themselves, they would massage the tissue and re-design Nancy from the top downwards. Her toes had been her bargaining chip, and she thought of them as far away, practically not even part of her.

“I’ll see you soon,” Evan said with a wink. They pulled up to the passenger drop off at the hospital and Evan gave Nancy a chaste kiss before hopping out. After the campaign of passive aggression last time, he had scheduled this visit for the weekend so Nancy could be nearby. Nancy drove off to park her car.

In the wide, empty parking lot Nancy climbed onto the hood of her car to sit and watch the sunset. She imagined what it might look like with a new pair of eyes, and she found herself shaken at the idea of orange never quite looking the same.

Nancy thought about marching into the hospital and slapping the scalpel from the doctor’s hand, of shielding Evan’s eyes and whatever else of him he hadn’t thrown away. She thought of a dumpster behind the surgical wing brimming to the top with discarded eyeballs, brown and blue and hazel, still perfectly good, maybe a little worse for wear. Left to rot, together but alone, decoupled and jumbled around like they were in a bingo ball cage. As night fell, Nancy thought about getting back in the car and driving home, falling asleep in their bed without Evan, and letting him wake up on his own, calling out her name and being the one left wondering.

But Nancy didn’t leave, as she knew she wouldn’t. She took off her shoes and socks, letting her toes stretch into the cool night, and she rested her head on the windshield of her weathered and withering car. When the call came, she walked inside, shoes in hand, to find her husband.


Michael Milne is a writer and educator living in Switzerland. He’s written stories in coffee shops in Canada, Korea, China, and many other places. Being from nowhere anymore really helps with making science fiction. You can find him on Twitter or his website.