The insurance packet had arrived months ago. They were hard to miss, the high-gloss oversized envelopes. The stylized blue heart and inset wrench in the lower right corner was always there to eliminate any final shred of hopeful doubt.
Hard to miss, so much color in an ash-gray apartment. Hard to hide. But Alice had tried nonetheless, burying it under the teetering pile of bills and partially-graded student exams that occupied their already small kitchen table. You could barely see anything in the smog-filtered light that made it through their nth story window anyway. Good enough.
Good enough, that is, until the morning Lenore gets up early, offers to make breakfast. Rehydrated egg whites, instant coffee. Again. Still, nice of her to offer.
But then Alice drags herself out of bed fifteen minutes later to find Lenore sitting in the kitchen, hands in her lap and fingers intertwined. Idle. Instead of the standard bowl of gelatinous white paste, a clean tabletop and an open envelope.
Mental note: throw it out next time.
“I’m going to do it,” Lenore says.
Revision: burn it next time. Who would notice a little extra smoke?
“Please,” Lenore asks. “Please just read it?”
“I know what it says.”
It says the same thing insurance letters have always said. It says that you would never think of driving a car without keeping to a maintenance schedule. It says that oil must be changed every 3,000 miles, tires every 30,000. Parts go bad after all, especially the soft bits.
It says that the human body is no different.
Once, years ago, Alice could read Lenore’s moods by her eyes. She’d never been able to hold eye contact comfortably. When confronted she would fall into a nervous, irregular rhythm, searching the room for a focal point, never settling. Even once Lenore’s vision began to fail and she viewed the world through squinted eyelids and thick panes of glass, the reflexive darting motion had never stopped. Alice could still remember the way her eyes had once caught the light as they moved, flecks of amber against soft green.
Instead, two blinking red pinpoint lights. Clicking. Whirring with every incremental adjustment of the ocular replacements embedded within the eye sockets of Lenore’s skull. A mechanical soundtrack that now accompanies their every waking moment.
Except now the red lasers are directed straight back at her.
“You don’t have to do it,” Alice says. “You have a choice.”
Lenore seems to think that is funny. Or at least, what passes for a laugh escapes around the standard-issue air filter embedded in her trachea.
“You really think so?” The cameras slowly rotate downward, gears grinding against one another before stuttering to a halt. “I’ve decided to do it.”
Someone should make coffee.
Alice finds herself in the kitchen, turning toward the sink, maneuvering a thick glass jar around a graveyard of dirty dishes into position below the faucet. The rusting pipes deliver water with a metallic scream.
She knows what it says.
It says that Lenore will enjoy a 33% median lifespan extension.
Reduced risk of myocardial infarction.
With less than 5% procedural mortality.
And if there was any doubt.
Exemption from age-dependent premium increases.
There’s no way to heat the water, they ran out of the month’s fuel ration three days ago. But she mixes in the powdered coffee crystals anyway, returns to the table still stirring, watching the clumps spin round and round, until one succumbs to the vortex and drops below the surface.
“I won’t let them.” Alice hopes she is at least convincing in her resolve, her entire weight pushing down on one slender wrist, bulging skin and thinning bone that, if you put any faith in statistics, should have snapped last year. The insurance company has said that too. More than once, reminding her with each successive price hike that she can exchange porous bone for medical-grade steel any time she chooses. That humanity is a luxury that she can no longer afford.
But it’s the chair that snaps first, sending Alice careening headfirst into the table and the jar tumbling into the air.
Then she’s on the floor, staring up at the corrugated metal underbelly of their kitchen table. When Alice finally rights herself Lenore hasn’t moved, still sitting with spine straight, palms pressed against her lap, a quiet resignation that Alice doesn’t recognize. Then Lenore climbs down from the chair, settles in amongst the sopping paper and pooling coffee to press her face against Alice’s shoulder.
“It’s just a heart, Alice.”
The dust settles, a new layer of grime accumulates. Their monthly premium is already far too high, and they both know why. There is nothing left to be said.
Certainly not, “thank you.”
That would mean admitting it.
That night they lay together in the darkness, no longer listening to the beating of each other’s hearts, but to the one that will soon be replaced.