1. SLOPPY DEAD
The IV dripped cold into Jared Martin’s arm, a remarkably grounding sensation. Saline—he remembered the nurse telling him he was dehydrated, and that he kept throwing up the water they gave him. Bile scorched the back of his throat. An unseen ambulance warbled, growing louder. The lights were achingly bright. The hospital mattress was firm against his back and the pale curtains surrounding his bed were shut. Through these fabric walls, he could hear other patients in the Kitimat General Hospital emergency ward murmuring with their families, friends, lovers. A scream cut through the quiet as electric doors swooshed open somewhere near, bringing the smell of rain, then closed. Voices shouted information and instructions at each other as a lone male voice howled, guttural. He shivered.
Nausea hit again. Jared’s stomach cramped. The nurse had given him a little cardboard container for his vomit, but it was full and pungent, reeking on the medical table. Jared slid off the bed. The floor was cold against his bare feet. He yanked off the clear tape that held the IV in place and carefully pulled out the needle. The other bed curtains were shut, but through the gaps he could see patients listening intently as another male voice joined the first. He made it out to the corridor, where he watched two men fight free of the paramedics and a lone police officer to grapple with each other. A security guard ran past Jared as the men threw punches that landed with earnest thuds. Jared covered his mouth as he started to heave. He pushed open the heavy bathroom door and threw up into the toilet.
Blood, bright red against the white enamel, diffused in tendrils in the water. Copper in his mouth. The muscles in his throat clenched and released until he threw up again, this time a stew of blood and chunks. His stomach burned, a hot pain like accidentally swallowing a live coal. The searing intensified until it was as if he’d swallowed the whole barbecue pit.
Oh, God, Jared thought. I’m dying.
He could hear police sirens in the distance. He hurled, and could feel large, firm masses working their way up his throat, blocking his breathing. Dizziness hit as he fought for air. He crawled towards the door, spewing strange sacs of flesh, bloody and self-contained, shapes his biology classes led him to guess were organs, a spleen maybe. A kidney. Jared tried to scream, but it came out as a gurgle as he puked again. He felt his intestines shift, and then an intense urge to defecate.
God, he thought. Oh, God. Please.
Not God. Only the voice of his biological father, Wee’git. The transforming raven was speaking to him as magical beings speak to one another, sharing thoughts. The insanity of the magic Jared had unleashed left him with no way to deny he was a Trickster himself, that he was a part of the crazy, that his amateur dabbling had created the shitstorm that had eventually landed him in Emerg. Again.
All his relationships changed now, except the rotten one he had with his bio dad. Normally, Jared would tell him to fuck right off, but his organs were running amok in the hospital bathroom and he had no pride left. Please help me.
You’ve pushed way past the limits of your magical ability, you lumbering dolt, Wee’git thought at him. Stop blubbering and call your damn organs back to your body.
I don’t know how.
Pretend it’s a dream. Will your organs back in your body. Will your blood and guts to behave. You’re the boss. Make them listen to you.
He still couldn’t breathe. The part of him that didn’t want to admit he was something other than a regular human fought the part of him that wanted to live at any cost. Fear metallic in his mouth, humming through his body, making him shake. He wanted to be whole. He wanted himself back together and he fought through his own panic and finally felt a connection to the bits of him that had escaped, an awareness like knowing that someone was near you in the dark. Like a film in reverse, his blood streamed back to him and disappeared when it touched his skin. The organs, naked, shiny and slick, continued to roll across the industrial-grey floor, while two of them splashed in the toilet like children in a kiddie pool. He touched the organs near him, and they tried to wiggle free but were absorbed back into his body, where they fluttered beneath his skin and then went quiet. He grimaced at the two organs swimming in the toilet bowl. You’re dreaming, he told himself. Just touch them, you big baby.
They were chilly to the touch, but obeyed. It was not so nice to feel them moving inside him. He slid to the floor, muscles spasming in rolling clusters. He hugged himself. The blood on his hospital gown disappeared.
From the corner of his eye, he caught movement. He turned his head slowly and saw a triangle-shaped deep-red blob of his flesh sprout tiny legs, tiny arms and a tiny, misshapen head. His liver transformed into a little person, the head budding ears and newborn eyes, fused shut, blind. The toes and fingers fused together into frog-like fans, slowly separating.
No, he thought. Oh, holy fucking God, no.
He crept across the floor. Despite his stealth, his liver saw him coming. He willed it back, but it hid behind the toilet, the head expanding, the arms and legs lengthening, until it looked like a fetus with a bloated, triangular torso.
Jared lunged and caught it by one plump arm. The mouth opened, but no sound came out. Jared hugged his liver-baby, willing it to stop. Right now.
A wave of yearning hit him, an endless curiosity to see the world and not be imprisoned in Jared’s torso, doing the same thing day after day after day.
I’m not having this conversation with you, Jared told it. You aren’t a person. You’re my liver.
The head and limbs withered. The surface of his liver undulated, fighting to free itself even as Jared lifted his hospital gown and pressed it to the hollow beneath his ribs, where it sank back into his body. He washed his hands and splashed water over his face, then checked out his abdomen in the mirror as it shifted around as if it hid a gestating alien. His saw that his neck was ringed with bruises he didn’t want to think about. The pain eased in his guts. He inhaled a shaky, relieved breath.
Good, Wee’git thought at him.
I want to wake up, he thought back. Please let me wake up.
Where are you? What kind of magic were you doing?
“Knock, knock,” a female voice said. “Are you decent, Jared?”
“Just a minute,” Jared said, his voice cracking.
Thank you, Jared thought at him.
Silence, and in that silence in his head, all the things they’d screamed at each other, left unspoken even now, were a raw presence between them.
Don’t use magic until your organs stop trying to run away or you will reach the point where you don’t have enough energy to call them back and you will disintegrate. Got it? Is that clear enough for you?
Is this real? Jared thought. It doesn’t feel real.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
And then he was alone, nothing in his head but his own frazzled thoughts. He pulled paper towels from the dispenser and wiped himself dry.
The door opened and a nurse poked her head in. “Sorry, Jared. Mrs. Vasquez needs to use the washroom.”
“I’m done,” Jared said, trying to remember her name. Kelly. Karen. The tall blond nurse who’d put his IV in while telling him about the injuries her daughter earned learning to ride a dirt bike.
An old woman in a blue hospital gown with a walker glared at him as he exited. “Hoodlum.”
“Mrs. Vasquez,” Kelly or Karen said.
Mrs. Vasquez waved off Kelly or Karen. “No, don’t come in. I can piss by myself.”
The nurse held the door for her. “Use the buzzer if you need help.”
Mrs. Vasquez grunted. She turned and glared at them both as the door eased shut. The lock clicked.
“We got a hold of your dad,” Kelly or Karen said. “He’s driving down from Terrace to pick you up.”
“Really?” Jared said.
“Did you take your IV out? You silly goose.” Kelly or Karen tilted her head, smiling through gritted teeth.
Philip Martin stood at the foot of Jared’s bed chatting with a doctor. His dad, his stepdad, he guessed, anyway the dude who’d raised him when his biological sperm donor was, was, the thing Jared was, not human, not remotely human. Jared tried to pay attention to what the doctor was telling Phil, but his guts kept shifting and he had to concentrate to keep them still. He wondered if this dad was an imposter; he’d been fooled before by a shape-shifter or some other transforming creature. Phil usually schlepped around, gangly and unshaven, in stained jeans, a saggy T-shirt and beat-up sneakers. This Phil wore a pressed white shirt and dark-grey slacks. His tapered salt-and-pepper hair shone with product and his thin face was clean-shaven. Jared decided he really was dreaming. He was having a super-long snooze. And Phil was in his dream because Jared was feeling guilty about not calling him for a while. Phil nodded his head, stroking his chin as the doctor explained something to him. They both turned to stare at Jared.
“Is that what happened?” his dad said.
“Yes,” Jared agreed, not knowing what they’d said. Explaining the real events of the last few days was futile. Even in his dream state he didn’t want to have to undergo a psych eval. Better to play along.
“We all slip,” Phil said.
It was more of a bungee jump into hell, Jared thought. But he smiled, felt the fakeness of it, let it collapse. Still, if it got him out of the hospital, he was happy to pretend that he’d ended up naked and dehydrated in the basement of his mom’s old house because he’d fallen off the wagon in a big way. His dad asked him if he needed help dressing.
“No,” Jared said.
“Okay.” Phil put a plastic grocery bag of clothes and a pair of polished black dress shoes on the bed near Jared’s feet. “I’m going to grab a coffee from Timmy’s. Want anything, kiddo?”
“Sure,” Jared said. “Double-double, please.”
“I’ll be back,” his dad said. “Thanks, doc.”
“My duty, Mr. Martin.” Once he was gone, the doctor said, “You’re a very lucky young man.”
The doctor’s face tweaked something in his memory. “Do I know you?”
“Your mother and her boyfriend brought you into emergency a few years ago after a camping accident. I stitched you up.”
Ah, the fancy doc who’d stitched up his otter bites after one of them’d lured him out of the house by pretending to be his girlfriend and trapped him in a cave. “You wore a tux. You’d been at your daughter’s wedding.”
“Luck only lasts so long,” the doctor said.
“Unless it’s bad luck,” Jared said. “That shit has no expiry date.”
The doctor sighed. “You haven’t changed at all.”