Art for Red Oil.
Lincoln Michel,  October 23

Red Oil

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The app tests for human blood. That’s the problem. You’d think you could smuggle in runoff from the butcher shop in a Ziploc slipped inside your underwear, but not anymore. There were a few incidents early on: a couple CEOs ended up in the ICU, forced to get the cheap stuff from hospital fridges. With the new screening module, it’s one hundred percent human blood. Fresh, warm, and young. Emphasis on young. After twenty-seven, you’re done in a big market. If you’re in a small town, you might be able to eke out a living ‘til thirty. After that, no one wants your wares. Not at Bleedr’s prices. One client told me it’d be like “going to a Michelin star restaurant and getting macaroni with Prego sauce.”

 

By the time I wake, groggy and dried out, my phone is dinging.

“You’ve got three ding-dongs in the queue,” my roommate says. Tanya is poaching eggs while the pump whirrs. These days she’s working temp as a milker. She’d just gotten a well-paying gig as a surrogate, but the baby ended up stillborn. Unregulated chemicals in the food, the doctors thought, or possibly just bad luck. The clients have been threatening to sue, but it probably won’t go anywhere. “In the meantime, I’m squeezing out the last drops I can. Financially speaking,” she says.  

I maneuver around Tanya to the fuel drawer. It’s important not to drain yourself on an empty stomach, and my first gig is in an hour.

“Justin, this is Ms. Oates,” Tanya says, nodding toward the screen on the wall where a woman in a navy skirt is typing into her phone. Tanya turns from the camera and rolls her eyes. “She wanted to watch.”

A lot of my clients do too. They say it’s for quality control. Safety. Peace of mind. But I see their grinning eyes as they slide in the needle.

The woman on the wall looks up. “If I’m paying for it, I want to know it’s fresh. And it’s Dr. Oates, please. I worked hard for my degree.”

Tanya pops off the cup, sloshes for the camera. “Full up. Moo.”

Dr. Oates nods, says her courier will be by shortly. She gives Tanya the once over another time. Sighs. “I remember when I had a body like yours. Young, supple, and filled to the brim. I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you’re lucky the pregnancy went kaput. Stay young and free. I wish I had.”

Tanya maintains her smile, but I see her twitch.  

 

My first match of the day is Chad Chapman. He buzzes me into his office just as he’s storming out the door. “I received my DNA Detective results and I’m two parts busy, three quarters busy as fuck. Walk with me.”

I trail him down the carpeted hall, annoyed. I get paid by the pint not by the minute. However, Chapman is a “Boss” tier client, which mean his ratings have extra weight. He’s a junior president. Or maybe a senior VP. I can never keep track.

“I’ve got a meeting in fifteen. Well it’s already started, but it’s good to make them sweat.”

Chapman is youngish, yet old enough to sense the next generation creeping up behind him, knives drawn. The ones with fresh degrees, daddy’s connections, and trust funds the size of war elephants. That’s why Chapman gets the shots of youth pumping in his middle-aged veins. Plus, he works at Plethora Inc., the company that owns Bleedr, and everyone’s required to taste the wares.

You can sell every part of yourself these days. Every fluid, every organ, every itty-bitty bone.

My phone buzzes. It’s my little brother, Tomas. Are you still coming today? Sorry but I need it pretty bad. I’m already three days late slipping him his CCs. With our father MIA, again, and our mom mostly passed out, I’m all Tomas has. Yeah. I got you, I write back. Be there in an hour.

Chapman speaks quickly, not noticing my attention’s calculating subway routes. “You’ve heard of Hudson Analytics? Course you haven’t. If you had you’d be a board member, not a blood bag. We’re going to acquire them today. Hostile-as-fuck acquisition. I’m talking Caesar and Gaul, Alexander and Persia, Genghis and half the goddamn world.”

“I didn’t know you were a history buff.”

“I podcast while I pump iron,” Chapman says. “Now I need iron pumped in me. Melinda here will fill you in.”

I realize a woman swinging a metal briefcase has fallen into pace with us. She’s wearing a silver power suit that wavers like mercury under the hallway lights. She straps a sphygmo around my bicep as we stride, checks the count. “He’s ready.”

“Fill me in?” I say.  

“I misspoke.” Chapman stops in front of the door. He grins. “I meant fill me in. With your oil.”

 

I’m woozy and ambling down the street to the automated taco truck. The meat sizzles while the robot arm whirrs. I chomp two carnitas in four bites, feel the heat as my body’s factory gets to work. It’s breaking down particles, smelting protein, and forging it as something I can sell. Later I’ll tap the well, let it burst forth. Red oil.

A holographic face stares down at me as I take the subway uptown to Tomas. A young woman in a leather jacket with eyeliner running over her sneer. The ad reads Blood. Sweat. Tears. Money! An ad for CryBuy, a new service from Bleedr’s rival company, YouFluid.

You can sell every part of yourself these days. Every fluid, every organ, every itty-bitty bone. Although I find it best to stick to the renewables. The old timers grumble. They say the young don’t know an honest day’s work. Blame us for their generation automating half the economy and outsourcing the rest. I’d like to see them try flipping burgers faster than a robot arm that gets paid in grease.

Anyway, I’m not sure it was different for the old timers. My great grandfather ripped up vegetables in the bright sun until his back was drenched in sweat. My grandfather hammered nails until his hands bled. You always had to sell your sweat and blood, only difference is now you can do it directly.

As for my father, last I heard he was working in the Pfizer parts gardens, tending to the organs and limbs to be sold to the superrich. Mom showed me some photos he’d sent. I thought they’d be little fingers and eyeballs growing in petri dishes. As it turned out, I wasn’t far off. But mostly I don’t hear about my father much anymore. Which as far as am I’m concerned, is more than enough.  

 

Tomas is on Mom’s couch, smiling dryly. Mom either wasn’t home or she’s home and passed out again, blood more Old Crow bourbon than hemoglobin. If so, I’ll have to do the laundry. She leaks out. Big yellow circles.

“Justin,” Tomas says. “Thank god. I thought I might die on this couch. Wake up in another, less shitty, reality.”

“Such a drama queen,” I say, although I can see he’s so clammy his shirt is soaked.

Tomas turns over. I jab the insulin needle into his buttocks through the boxers. It’s not as hygienic, but he’s shy and we all deserve little luxuries.

Tomas sits back up and rolls the insulin vial around the table. “How many bleeds did it cost you this time?”

I fish around in my backpack for a bag of plantain chips and a coconut water, fling them at his belly. “Drink something. You look like a dehydrated dog. And you know I don’t keep track of that shit.”

Tomas sighs. He gulps the water and slowly opens the chips. He can see it on my face. I never was a good liar. I know exactly what his insulin cost me. Drop for drop.  

Tomas would bleed himself if the screener wouldn’t flag his disease. The tech barons and finance lords who buy young blood are superstitious. They think they’re absorbing your power, growing stronger by making you weak. They don’t want to pay for blood from someone who might die before them. So Tomas works odd jobs, servicing the self-service machines at the bodega and temping in medical trials. It’d be enough to scrape by, if a tiny vial of insulin didn’t cost a large paycheck.

My brother is perking up. “I’ve got a new plan. I’ve been tracking the fluid markets. Human commodities.” Tomas opens his laptop and points at bars and graphs I can’t begin to decipher.

“Right.” I furrow my brow, pretend to follow.  

Mama used to joke I got the body while Tomas got the brains. “If only I could stitch you two together, I’d have one decent son.” Tomas was always good with the thinking things: math, computers, finance. I played sports and lifted weights. Anything to be out of the house when Dad was around, back when he was around.

“Mom in her room?”

“Nah, she’s got ladies night. They’re down at Gary’s trying to get laid.”

“Gross,” I say. Although some dickbag on a barstool is probably better than Dad. He isn’t a bad man, not really, but he is a loser. He has a million get-rich-quick schemes that make him poorer each time. When one fails, he either takes it out on us or disappears altogether, only to reemerge months later with another doomed line on the American dream. Last time I saw him, he was right where Tomas is sitting, holding the schedule of self-driving bus routes and a schematic of the local security camera angles. Said he’d pay Tomas and I half the profits if we would only throw ourselves in front of a bus so we could sue. “I’m just talking a broken leg, maybe a hip,” he said. “Those companies have so much money, they’ll just write it off!” Mom pulled herself out of her drunken stupor long enough to slap him in the face. I moved out of the apartment after that.

Plans. Tomas has always had a bit of our father in him. Now his scheme involves shorting milk. Thinks he can triple his investment with enough options and leverage. “Buzz is YouFluid’s nearly finished with synthetic mammary glands for the home market. The milk’s supposed to be ninety-seven percent identical to real-life lactation.”

Tomas pulls up the concept art. It’s sleeker than I was expecting, a pink metal tube with a nozzle at the bottom.

“Looks like it could make me an espresso.”

“The glands are attached to internal wetware scaffolding. Two models. Human or cow, depending on your needs. Goat’s in the works.”

I ask him where he’s getting the capital for these investments, and his cheeks dimple in the frown.

“That’s the only kink in the hose,” he says.

It’s a kink the size of Kansas. I might not be great at math, but even I know a five hundred percent return on zilch isn’t worth a penny.

On the computer screen, milk drips out of a silver nozzle into a cup of steaming coffee.

I debate texting Tanya, telling her to pump as much as she can now. I don’t want to upset her though. The other day I came home and she was weeping, without even collecting the tears. “Why wouldn’t my body let me keep it?” she said, not looking at me. “I know he wasn’t for me. But couldn’t he have been? Don’t I deserve one thing that can’t be taken away?” I didn’t know what to say. That the whole system is garbage? Better luck next time? Maybe you’ll win a clone lottery? Instead, I suggested we holo-stream a comedy and she sat next to me on the couch, gripping my arm so tight I thought she might pull it off.

She’s got time though. Tanya’s still young, like me. We’ve got things to sell for a few more years before we have to worry.  

 

It’s morning and I slap an AlmostSteak in the pan, then sauté greens in the grease.

“Tanya, want me to crack a few chicken periods in the pan for you?” I shout.

She doesn’t answer. I walk softly to her door, press my ear to the wood-molded plastic. I crack open the door and see her staring at the wall, silent and unmoving. She’s got a fork in her hand which she’s using to dig ruts in the linoleum floor. I close the door and tip toe backwards to the kitchen.

I can’t remember my night dreams either anymore. It’s like everything inside me has been siphoned away.

I have to eat if I want to work. I learned that lesson early on. One of my first gigs, I was bleeding on an empty stomach in a penthouse overlooking the park. I thought I was getting dizzy from the heights. Next thing I knew, security was t­ossing me in a self-driving cab I couldn’t afford. I got a ding on my phone as soon as the taxi peeled out. One star. No tip.

You can afford a couple one stars. But only a couple. When your average drops below a 3.75, they start taking your platelets out of circulation. Pretty soon you’re draining yourself to regional managers at the back of a BestBuy or CTOs of start-ups that haven’t even started yet. Get below 2.5 and you might as well give up. Your red oil will sell for less than it costs you to make. Food isn’t free after all. Tomas tried to crunch the numbers with a diet of ramen and sample supermarket cheese cubes, but it doesn’t even cover rent. Not in this city.

 

I’ve got Chapman again today. He’s come down from his acquisition high and needs a pick-me-up. “It was this or a Bloody Mary, but tomato juice gives me acid reflux.”

As I’m drained, Chapman strikes up a conversation. “You ever wonder what it would be like to be rich?”

“Like you? Sure. I’ve thought about it.”

“No,” he says, his face squishing up as if he French kissed a lemon. “I mean really rich. I don’t have even a single billion yet. That’s what you need in today’s economy.”

He goes on about the cost of private schools, health care, yacht repairs.

I bite my tongue. Softly, so as not to waste any blood.

Afterwards, I sit on a bench outside his office building with a box of lamb over rice. Extra white sauce, extra hot sauce. I feel too weak to eat so I stir it around till it’s all the same shade of pink. I close my eyes and try to daydream. Nothing comes. I can’t remember my night dreams either anymore. It’s like everything inside me has been siphoned away.

Then an image does appear. Tanya. Or rather a whole series of Tanyas. Tanya laughing with me on the couch. Tanya sliding baked ziti into the oven. Tanya shouting at the dumb neighbors to turn down their orb speakers. Tanya’s belly swelling. Tanya sleeping. Tanya smiling.  

Am I in love with Tanya?

And if so, am I an idiot?

Who can afford love in this economy?

 

I’m in bed, mostly immobile, when Tomas texts. Sorry bro. Assholes raising insulin price again. A link follows. “AmeriChem CEO Predicts 4Q ‘Profit Tsunami.’”   

Don’t apologize.

We need a new plan, he writes. This isn’t sustainable.    

Don’t worry. I got you.

But I don’t really. He’s going to slip right though my fingers. I pull up a spreadsheet and slot in the digits. Rent, food, healthcare, utilities, debt. No matter what I rearrange, the sum cell stays in the red. My only chance is surge bleeding. The price bonus you get when you hit a 4.3 user rating. I’m currently a 3.9. I log into Bleedr, send “pokes” to my best clients. I’m close enough to that 4.3 I can almost taste it, and it tastes metallic and sour, like money.

Tanya knocks on my door as I’m drifting off to sleep.  

“Hey.” She sounds so chipper that I think she might break into song. “Any chance you want go to the old watering hole? I need to stop thinking for a while.”

“First round is on me,” I say, sliding out of bed.

We slide into the back booth with our drafts. I tell her I’m sorry about the surrogacy, how it ended. She reminds me she came here “not to think.” We talk about other things. Movies, holographic games, online articles, stupid dreams. Tanya sips her drink, but her smile is gone and her mind is slipping off somewhere else.

“Do you ever think about the future? What we’ll do in five years? Ten?”

“Sure,” I say, unsure what she’s getting at.

“I don’t know how much longer I can live like this, Justin. All struggle and no break. What do I have to look forward to?”

I take her hand. Squeeze. My heart is pounding so hard it hurts, but maybe that’s because there’s so little fluid left inside to pound. The booze might have been a bad idea.

“Yeah, I think about it all the time,” I lie.   

“What do you see? I need to hear what it could be like.”

“Give me a second.” The truth is, I don’t think about the future. I can’t conjure it. It’s like a big blank cloud in the sky of my mind. Yet, for Tanya, I try.  

“A house,” I offer. “Somewhere peaceful that I could settle down. Far away from the city, the hustle. A partner with me. Maybe a little dog. There’s a garden out front and a yard with those spikey fences.”

“White picket.” She smiles.

“Exactly.”

“You saw all that in an old movie,” she says. Still, we clink glasses.

By the time we stumble home, I’m wasted. Being a lush is cheap when your blood’s thin, but the hangover makes you pay. I don’t remember what happened at the end of the night, other than nothing. I didn’t make a move, and Tanya was just trying to keep me upright.

 

Tomas is in my room when I wake up, slumped into my stained free-from-the-street-corner chair.

“Mi casa, su casa. But what are you doing here?” I say. My head is thrashing like a rat on a rope. Tomas hands me a Martinelli’s while I groan myself awake.

“Tanya texted. She was worried. Said you threw up more liquid than you drank.”

Tomas’s looking around nervously, in that way that makes me know he’s got something on his mind he doesn’t want to say.

“What else?”

“What else, what?” Tomas rubs his already red eyes.

“Okay. I’m going to go drain the hose. When I’m back, try to remember how words fit together?” My voice has a little venom in it, but sometimes that’s okay with a brother.  

“So,” Tomas says when I return. “Dad’s back.”

“Mierda,” I say. “That cocksucker. That deadbeat bastard!”

A few expletives later, Tanya comes in shaking her head. “You don’t have to yell. Also, don’t talk that way about your father.” She hands me coffee in a Bleedr mug they sent for my one-year app anniversary. It has a picture of a woman sipping an exotic drink in front of an ocean as blue as melted candy, blood tube wrapped around her arm like a red ribbon. Caption: Draining Never Felt So Relaxing.

Tomas explains what happened. How pops came back with a new suit, a new scheme, and a bottle of Maker’s. “He was trying to rope me into selling smuggled body parts from the Pfizer lab he’s working at. Says you can get a couple hundred for a lab-grown pinkie on the black market.”

“And Mom?”

“She just nodded her head”

“Don’t worry,” I say. I wave my hands and try to think. “You’re staying here now, with us. Right, Tanya?”

Tanya thinks a second, but concurs. “We’ve got a couch in the living room with your name on it.”

I remember the year Tomas and I slept on different couches each month, when my father thought he could save money by returning each piece of furniture before the free trial was up. That is until our family got blacklisted. Now I couldn’t buy anything larger than a folding chair.  

“It’ll be just like old times,” I say, clapping him on the shoulder. “Except better this time.”

 

I leave Tomas and Tanya to turn the living room into a makeshift bedroom while I visit clients who responded to my late-night pokes. For my health, I should slow down. No more than two bleeds in a week is the official guideline. And that’s without a hangover. Yet Tomas crashing and my dad returning has me nervous. Plus, I poked too many in my panic. If you don’t answer the calls, the client’s tapping finger starts to wander. There’s always another user, younger and hungrier, primed to fill your slot.  

Top floor, Fifty-Second Street, offices of Karen Hunter. She’s the CEO of BodyBnB, an app that lets you rent out people’s bodies for big events. Make sure your future precious memories are properly attended in the pics and videos. It’s catching on in the sweet sixteen and mitzvah scenes.

“Are you activating your organs with a glass of water each morning?” she says as I sit. Hunter likes to pry, but she’s a softie. Guaranteed five stars. “Yoga? Meditation? Keep a positive mental attitude? It’s very important to have a positive mental attitude. It affects your whole body.”

“I’m aware,” I say, pointing to my painted-on smile.

Hunter’s going to her son’s wedding this weekend. “He’s marrying some Sally Jane Nobody from Newark who probably can’t even afford a starter home. Hope your juice can get me through this wedding bells hell.”

Hunter always calls it juice. Most of the women do. That or lotion. The men always call it oil.

Hunter whistles in her manservant with the equipment. He’s all bones with a complexion like skim milk. When he sees me, relief floods his cheeks. She’s clearly been tapping him for free. Illegal to do without an approved medical service like Bleedr, but when has the law ever stopped someone who could afford to keep going?

No more than two bleeds in a week is the official guideline. And that’s without a hangover.

Hunter takes off her cashmere cardigan and places one arm on the table. It’s marked with pinpricks, fading bruises. Little scabs where she’s sucked up the vitality of dozens like me. I roll up my sleeve and bare my own blotches beside hers.

“You know how much this arm is worth?” She shakes her head and rubs her free hand across the skin. “A pound of me is worth seven million. Want to know my net worth? Guess my weight.”  

“Seven-hundred million,” I offer.  

“I don’t know whether you’re trying to flatter me or insult my portfolio.” But she smiles.

I wobble into a lamppost on the way out of Hunter’s office, but I stay upright. Then suddenly I’m not.

When I wake up, my head is pounding. Luckily when I touch the back, it’s dry. No wasted blood. A guy with a long beard and a thick smell is hovering over me, hands unzipping coat pockets, fingers slipping in.

I groan.

“Ah.” He moves away. “Only making sure you’re alive, buddy.”

He’s shuffled halfway down the block by the time I sit up.

I must have passed out. Occupational hazard. Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t recharge, although my head seems to be ringing. Then I realize it’s the phone. I pull it out worried that it’s Tanya feeling suicidal or Tomas nearing a diabetic coma, but it’s even worse.

Bleedr notification.

Account suspended.

Everything moves impossibly slowly, like my arteries are carrying molasses. Somehow, I think of my father. How he must have felt in gut every time a plan went belly-up. I tilt the screen back and forth as if the message would disappear if I could only find the right angle.

It doesn’t. I click the icon. One of Bleedr’s censors marked my oil as “insufficiently bloody.” The screen suggests I get more sleep, drink less, eat a high protein diet. I can reapply with a fresh sample in two weeks. Remember, your health is our top priority. A red anthropomorphic drop waves goodbye.

 

I’m screwed. Out of work, out of luck, and no clue what to goddamn do. All I can think is fuck it, I’m the big brother and I’m going do a better job protecting Tomas than my dad did.

Except then, a few days later, Dad is there filling the frame of my doorway. He’s wearing a smart charcoal suit that doesn’t fit right. But he smiles wide and, goddamnit, I feel my heart beat a little more tenderly.

“Dad. I didn’t remember inviting you over. Or even telling you where over was.”

He scratches his recently trimmed beard. “Mom sent me. I’m helping her out. Since her boys won’t.” He winks to let me know it’s partly a joke.

“What more specifically are you here for?”

“Well, I wanted to talk to you about the rent.”

I blink, take a step back without letting him inside. I knew his social visit would be all business. “You must be confused. You aren’t our landlord.”

“The rent’s for Mom, the woman whose womb you two fled from.”

“You want us to pay rent for Mom’s womb?”

Dad holds up a hand. Smiles. Laughs. His eyes are warm and brown. “Let’s not start off fighting, son. It’s been too long. Time heals all the wounds, right?”

“Depends on the time. And the wounds.”  

He slips by me, stops when he sees Tomas at the counter eating a bowl of oatmeal.  “Son,” he says, glancing between us. “And other son.” He looks around our common area at the buzzing fridge and the makeshift couch bed. “Thanks for showing me your place. You fixed it up pretty nice. I like that lamp.”

“Tomas’s staying here. He’s not paying you rent.”

Dad takes his hat off, spins it around his finger. “I think it’s great you two shacking up. And while I hate to insist, there’s still the issue of back rent.”

“Back rent? What kind of bullshit is that?” Tanya is standing in the hallway, arms crossed and eyes glaring.

“This is a conversation for blood only. If you don’t mind.”

“Tomas is ill and Justin is bled out. They don’t need you roping them into dangerous schemes,” Tanya says.

Dad spins his hat in his hands, slowly.

“You’re Tanya, right? I heard about your surrogacy. I’m sorry. Sometimes the womb just doesn’t work. My advice is to get back on the horse. Second time’s the charm.” Dad turns his back to Tanya, blocking her from my line of sight. “Tomas told me about your problem. And I’m here with a plan.”

Tomas is looking at the counter, keeping his eyes from mine. “I’m already a day late on my shots. I thought maybe Dad would have some money, maybe.”

“I may not have money, but I do have a way to make some.” Dad strides to the table, big old smile scrolling across his face. He tosses a handful of silver foil packets on the countertop.

“What’s this?” I ask.

Dad opens one and taps out a little mound of red powder in his palm. Gives it a quick lick. Hemosteel is stamped across the foil.

“Blood thickener. They use it in the parts gardens, goes in with the nutrient slurry. Helps the fingers, noses, and legs grow. I figure if it helps laboratory replacement parts, it ought to work on the real thing.”

Dad gives us the rundown, how his calculations say I could double my blood production. Sell twice as often for twice as much. All he’d ask for is twenty percent. I realize it’s one of dad’s classic plans. One that me and Tomas carry out while he reaps the reward.

“You’re a chemist?” Tanya says.

“He’s a janitor,” I say.

Dad frowns. Spreads his big hands across our little counter. “I’m a guy with access. And a guy with dreams.”

 

We have a solution, but it doesn’t fit the problem. Even if I get my account reinstated, it will take two weeks and I’ll return docked a full rating point. Maybe two. Making matter’s worse, Tanya’s dried up. “Not even a dribble,” she says, squishing the air. Her Bleedr application was denied. Undesirable blood type and they detected the birth, said she needed six months to restore her iron levels.

“Tell me the worst thing you’ve ever heard,” Tanya says, walking into the common area.  

“You mean besides what our dad is trying to make us do?” Tomas says.

“I’m talking top tier tear-jerker.”

“People were passing around a video yesterday of a baby dolphin trying to free its mother from a tuna net,” I say. 

“No. Stop it. Jesus. Really?” She finds the video and hits play. The squeaks are something awful.

I see tears making the journey down her perfect cheeks. I get up to hug her and she pushes me away. “I’m working here.” She lifts a blue plastic gizmo to her face that’s somewhere between a set of goggles and a chemistry set. “I started a CryBuy account. I have to contribute to this household too. So keep the dolphin torture coming.”

The three of us sell enough hair, tears, and saliva to get Tomas insulin for a week and the house an industrial box of ramen packs. Then, while, microwaving water for the noodle bricks, it hits me like geyser blast. A plan. One that will work.

“We’ll sign up Tomas on Bleedr.”

“Tomas is diabetic,” Tanya says.

Tomas grimaces, agrees. “You know they test for that. I would have been bleeding years ago if they didn’t. Come on.”

“No, no. Listen, Tomas isn’t in the system,” I say, sprinkling the beef flavor packet across the noodles. “They don’t know his blood, so they won’t know when we use the Hemosteel-enhanced oil in my veins.”

“That’s crazy,” Thomas says.

“I look close enough to you on an ID.”

“No, no,” Tanya says.

“You know you can’t trust one of Dad’s plans,” Tomas says.

Tanya and Tomas take turns arguing, offering up every counterpoint and objection. It’s dangerous. It’s illegal. It’s unethical. It’s Dad.

Once they’ve run out of rebuttals, I ask, “What other option is there?”

 

I place a glob of product in my hair, comb it back instead of to the side. Button-up shirt buttoned all the way up, khakis with the store crease still intact. I look different, but different enough? Tanya gives me a set of prescription-free glasses she got at the dollar store. “It worked for Clark Kent.”

I pour a pack of the Hemosteel in a glass of tap water, swirl, down it with a scowl. It doesn’t taste like much. Then an hour later, my veins feel like they’re about to explode.

“I can feel my heartbeat without even touching an artery.”

“Maybe we should slow down? Test it a little?” Tanya says.

I can feel the blood begging to be let out.

“Too late. I’m testing it live.”

Chapman doesn’t recognize me. “You’re scrawnier than my last guy,” he says. “You need to lift more. Rotate upper and lower routines.”

I tell him I will and then he barely looks at me again. He doesn’t suspect a thing. None of my other clients do either as I make the rounds over the weeks and months. I might as well be a walking six-foot artery for all they care.

But that’s okay, because Tomas, Tanya, and I are saving up money now. Dad’s plan actually works. We’re buying takeout tacos and coffee we don’t have to steal from hotel lobbies. Tomas has enough insulin he could bathe in it. Well, not literally. But enough. Tanya is looking at surrogacy again and every Friday Dad comes by with a new satchel filled with smuggled powder and a waiting hand.  

He counts his cut with a paternal smile. “You boys made good. I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am.”

Tomas and I are stiffing him five percent, but he can’t complain. A trick we learned from him no less.

“Aren’t you afraid the lab will notice the packets missing?” Tomas asks.  

“It’s a calculated risk,” Dad says. “Plus, by my calculations, if things keep going this well, I can quit in a couple years. Retire. You know how long I’ve been waiting to do that?”

Dad’s happier than I’ve ever seen him. He’s got his greying beard trimmed right to the jaw line and most times he comes over he brings us a bag of cookies “fresh out of Mom’s oven.” It’s almost like we’re a real family again. Or for the first time.

Everything’s good, except my body. The Hemosteel is making me feel strange, stuffed. I sweat constantly and the fingernails on my left finger are turning a strange purple color. This morning I was shaving and noticed what I thought was a pimple. When I ran the razor over the mound, a red spurt hit the bathroom mirror. I went through half a wad of toilet paper stopping the leak.

Otherwise I’m happy. When I’m riding buses through the city now, I no longer feel like a parasite swimming through the arteries of a hostile body. I’ve got money. I’ve got a future. I belong.

 

One night, Tomas is at the public library studying the markets, and Tanya and I are alone, buzzed under the blanket on the couch. We’re a third of the way into our second bottle of wine. We’re watching an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, and the wolf has just slipped into grandma’s skin. Tanya lets her cheek fall against mine. The corners of our lips inch closer. Then we’re in it. Lips on lips, tongues on tongues. Regrettably, a bit of teeth on teeth. It’s been a while.

I feel light, alive. Tanya’s gets on top of me. The glow of the TV washes over her back. I try getting my hands to places she’s already gotten hers.

“Wait.” She looks me in the eye. “Are you sure you want to?”

“I’m sure. Are you sure?”

“Yes! Although, are you sure you’re sure?”

Assured, we strip each other, helping with certain buttons and clasps. At some point, I can’t hear or see anything. I’m only feeling. Hot and throbbing feeling.

Then the feeling starts to feel kinda bad. The sweat smells wrong and the blood pumping through my system is thick as sludge.

“Shit,” I say.

Tanya sits up. “What’s wrong? Was this a mistake.”

“No, no. It’s not a mistake. The last thing from a mistake.”  

“But . . .” she looks at my underwear where my member lays unengorged.

I know the spirit is willing. It’s the flesh that’s gunked up. And it hits me. The blood thickener. Did I have too much? Did it clog me up like grease poured down the drain?

“It’s all right.” Tanya sighs and lays beside me. She stares at the ceiling and lets her hand inch down her stomach. “It happens. I’m going to finish off. Just lay here with me, okay?”

“Wait, wait,” I say, working myself to something functional. With enough friction, the blood starts moving again. “Okay,” I say, unsure if it is.

 

A couple days later, I’m triple counting Dad’s cut as he squints at my blackening fingernails. My fingers leave damp prints on the bills.

“You’re looking a little under the weather, son.”

“Just been working a lot,” I say, scratching my neck. I’ve been getting more of the blood pimples around the collar. When I pull my fingers away, they’re slick and pink.  

Dad cocks his head. He nods. “I was thinking it would be nice to have a family meal.” He wipes the bills on his shirt, then slides them in his pocket. “See your old mom. Have a home-cooked dinner. Hell, bring Tanya. She seems a little lonely on her own.”

I’m against it, but Tomas thinks it couldn’t hurt and Tanya says it might be nice. So later we’re sitting around the little rickety dinner table while Dad hums in the kitchen.

“What do you do for a living, Tonya?” my mother says. She pours herself another glass of wine from the box. Her lips are already purple.

“Tanya, Mom. Tanya.”

Tanya looks away, tucks her hand under her shirt. “I’m between things at the moment.”

“She might start bleeding soon,” I offer. “Her application is in the queue.”

“That’s nice,” Mom slurs. She closes her eyes. “That’s very nice.”

“If she wants the Hemosteel hook up, just let me know.” Dad walks over, carrying a heap of pasta and a basket of bodega bread. He winks at her. “I can give you the family rate.”

When I’m riding buses through the city now, I no longer feel like a parasite swimming through the arteries of a hostile body. I’ve got money. I’ve got a future. I belong.

The food is over-salted and the conversation strained. Tanya tries to talk to my mom about how I was as a kid, but Mom’s stories are more fiction than the fact. “Justin here was my little track and field angel. State champion shot putter,” she says.

Tanya gives me the surprised eyes.

“I was second place in the borough for long jump one year,” I explain.

Tomas keeps trying to tell Dad about his market strategies while Dad brushes him off. “That’s good son. It’s important to have dreams. Hey, Justin,” he says, turning back to me. He starts grilling me about my vessels. How the drug is holding up. My bleed rates. Percentage income increase.

When we’re clearing the table, Dad pulls me into the back room. “Let’s let the girls and Tomas clean up.” He shuts the door and says he’s proud of me.

“Um, thanks.”

Dad sits on the edge of the unmade bed. “Did I tell you about work?”

“I wasn’t sure you were familiar with the concept.”

“Smart ass.” He hangs his head. “Son, I haven’t been able to meet my quotas recently at the Pfizer parts garden. Not scrubbing enough fingers and toes. Can’t water the synthetic eyeballs fast enough. I’m losing my edge, son. I’m too old, too tired. Do you know how hard I’ve worked my whole life? For you and Tomas and Mom?”

“You were barely even around.”

“That’s because I was off looking for work!” He frowns, clenches his fists. “And Einstein, if I lose this job then you lose your Hemosteel supply. It’s bad for all of us. Anyway, I just want you to know how proud I am.”

I know this line. He’s trying to sweet talk me before asking something I won’t like at all. “What do you want from me?”

“Only a little edge, a little youth. A little help from a son to a father,” he says. His eyes are big and dark. He looks at my veins, then his. “I need a bleed.”

Of course. What does anyone want from me? Yet I somehow feel a great pity for this man. This shitty father standing in the dark of a dirty apartment, face wrinkled and head hung, asking for a taste of my wares.

I say okay, just this one time. Before I even finish the words, he’s got the equipment out.

“I’m really so, so proud of you.” He puts one hand on my shoulder and slides in the needle with the other.

Then, a few seconds later, he’s shouting. “Jesus Christ!”

I look down and the blood is oozing out of the puncture wound, thick as paste. The skin has ripped around the incision.

“That’s not supposed to happen,” I say.

 

I’m on my side in my ancestral home, red vomit staining the linoleum floor. Someone has wrapped a bandage around my hand. I’m trying to figure out what percentage is wine or sauce, and what amount is wasted blood.  

Tanya is beside me, hands holding my face. She shouts over her shoulder. “What poison have you been giving him?”

Tomas is trying to be scientific. “What are the side effects? Hell, what are the main effects?”

Dad holds one of the Hemosteel packets. He’s still got the needle hanging from the crook of his elbow. He looks angry, sad, and feral. The father I remember. “What do I look like, a rocket scientist? You all were in on this just as much as me.”

My own arm is extended in front of me, fingers in the vomit pool. My veins are almost as purple as my mother’s wine-stained lips.

“It’s okay.” I sit up, sorta. My breath is short. “I’m alive. Let’s go.” 

“What happened, baby? Why are you veins all dark?” Mom says. She’s still at the kitchen table, hand gripping glass.

I realize Dad hasn’t told her a thing. And she hasn’t bothered asking where the extra money was coming from.

“They use it in the lab. It’s got to be safe.” Dad keeps flipping over the packet, squinting as if he’ll suddenly discover the answer to everything in the fine print.

At some point, I slide back into the dark pool of my mind. When I wake up again, Tanya’s spooning me on my twin mattress. She’s got an arm locked on my chest. She’s begging me to stop using the powder.

“We can find another way. There’s always another way.”

I groan an assent. Close my eyes again.

She’s right. I should stop. And I will. Just as soon as we save enough money. As soon as we figure out something else. As soon as we’re okay.

 

I rest for a couple days, then get back to work. I need to. There’s still bills to pay, groceries to buy, and insulin to acquire. Dressing for my appointment, I see my veins and arteries have lightened, slightly. But the blood pimples are everywhere and the fingers on my left hand are engorged, purple slugs.

The clients may not recognize me, but they notice my goods are crooked. Chapman takes one look at me, flips out his phone, and cancels the appointment. “Maybe another time,” he says, locking the office door. “I’ll have my people call your people.”

Across town, Karen Hunter is aghast. “I don’t think I want what’s inside you even in the vicinity of me.”

I run my hand over my face. My palms are slick with a pink sauce of sweat and blood. 

“This is goddamn gold,” I say, desperate. She’s my last hope. I hold out my arm, point at the artery in the crook of my elbow. “Primo stuff, I promise.”

God, I need to get it out. Even though I’ve stopped taking the powder, the chemicals are inside me. Building up until I explode.

Hunter’s assistant steps between us. “Should I call security?”

“How the hell haven’t you already?” she says from behind his back.

 

I’m back in bed, immobile and fevered. Tanya comes in every now and then to stroke my head with a warm washcloth. She bleeds me a bit into a thermos. There’s a stack of them against the wall. Thomas researched online. If I don’t let it out regularly at this point, my veins will gunk up until I can’t even move.

I’m not sure how long I’m in my tiny apartment, helpless in front of the people I was trying to help. The days seem to go back and forth. Time itself bleeds. I wake up and fall sleep. Glimpse little snippets of life before sinking back into my sea of failure. My eyelids feel heavy as anvils.

In the dreams, I’m in a small wooden boat. I have to lay on my back to fit inside. The stream is carrying me somewhere, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is, I’m desiccated. A shriveled vine. All I want is to reach over the edge of the vessel and scoop up a cool handful of water. Yet when my fingers touch the current, the river is thick, warm, and throbbing.

Then, one day or another, I’m awake for long enough to uncrust my eyes. Tomas and Tanya are standing beside the bed. This time, they’re smiling.  

“Tomas has something to tell you,” Tanya says.

Tomas holds up a couple sheets of paper. He’s grinning and nodding.

“I can’t read that,” I mumble. I look around for a glass of water. It hurts to move. When I look at my hands, they’re purple and cracked. I try to bend my fingers, but flinch in pain.

“I told you. I did the research. See?” Tomas says.  

“No, not really.”

“My plan worked.”

“What plan?”

“My market strategy. Playing the human commodities sector. It’s going to be okay.”

I can’t fully follow his explanation of volatility and leveraged options, but I learn he found the shoebox in Mom’s closet where Dad was stashing his cut. A big pile of bills, rubber-banded and tucked into a pair of boots like Dad was saving up enough to split town.

“Figured it was fair to take. Brother’s keepers rules and all that.”

 “Isn’t it ‘finders keepers’?” I say.

“Either way. I get to take care of you now, brother.”

I feel the pressure leaking out from little holes along my skin, like my body is pleasantly deflating basketball. Maybe it will be okay after all. With Tomas taken care of, that’s one less person for me to fail.

“Good.” I try to push myself up, but my fingers scream. I settle on my elbows. “Take the money and get away from our messed-up family and dying city. Don’t worry about me. You deserve a better life. I’ll deal with Dad.”

Tomas squints at me, annoyed. “I’m not going anywhere. Just because you’re a couple years older doesn’t mean you’re the only one who can do anything.”

“It’s not like that,” I say.

“There’s not enough money left over after anyway.”

“After what?”

“The lawyers.”

 

“You’re coming along nicely,” Doctor Lanoff says, months later, after everything has been sorted out and settlements signed. His face is on my screen while he’s remote controlling the machines hooked up to my body. The IV bag beeps as he remotely increases the drip rate.

“It doesn’t feel nicely.”

The doctor’s face stutters as he chuckles. “Pain is medicine sometimes. Our body has to go through trauma to build up its defenses. You can’t make antibodies until your body has been attacked.”

“Raw deal,” I say.

The Hemosteel should be out of my system in another two months. Or so Doctor Lanoff says. Still, it’ll be a long time before I can afford to sell my blood.

“In fact, I’d scratch that skill from your C.V. Let’s keep your fluids on the inside for a while.”

Despite the doctor’s phrasing, my blood doesn’t stay inside. I’ve got four tubes draining me from each limb, straining through a purifier, and pumping it back in. I watch it spin around these tubes all day until I’m dizzy.

“You’re almost done with your nutrient drips,” the doctor says. “I’ll drone over some fresh ones this week.”

“I’ll look out for them.” I attempt to scratch my cheek. My face is dry all the time these days, even though I’m going through IV bags so fast I’m practically chain smoking them. The blood pimples have drained, leaving flattened red sores. When I scratch, my nubs run smoothly along the flaked skin. Months in and I still forget. 

“How are the hands doing?” Lanoff asks, noticing my struggle.

I look at what’s left of my hands. I lost all the fingers on the left and only kept the thumb and forefinger on the right. Chemical-induced gangrene. Lanoff snipped them off with a surgical drone while I slept.

“Don’t give up hope.” The doctor shows me his palms on the screen. “It’s a new age. There are some exciting treatments on the horizon. One company has been experimented with lizard DNA. You might be able to regrow a finger with a few pills if the trials go well. The future could be very exciting!”

The future is always exciting, I think, if you can afford to hold out for it.

And now I can.

Bleedr’s paying for the whole treatment. For the doctor, for the medicine, for drone deliveries, everything. At first, they tried to countersue, but the lawyers Tomas hired were canny. They leaked my story online, and soon Bleedr changed course.

“We ran the numbers,” Chapman says in our weekly strategy meeting. “It’s actually cheaper to pay you off. This way, it’s good publicity. Poor kid makes good with Bleedr app. Bootstraps himself into the middle class. An inspirational story. You’re like the child who saved up for summer camp selling lemonade by the side of the road.”

“It wasn’t lemonade,” I say.

He frowns, adjusts his scarlet tie. “Listen, we’re paying you more than lemonade too.”

The days seem to go back and forth. Time itself bleeds.

He means be grateful. He means don’t bite the hand that feeds. He means shut up. And I do. I’m one of Bleedr’s “bleed ambassadors” now. Am I working for the enemy? Of course. They’re the only ones who you can work for anymore.

Dad skipped town, again. Went off to chase the American Dream in a state where he didn’t have an outstanding warrant. I hope, despite everything, he gets away. I like to imagine him on some distant automated farm, leaping over the fence as the cop cars screech into the driveway, and sprinting into the towering cornfields, never to be found. I guess at the end of the day, he’s still my blood.

As for Mom, Tomas got her into rehab. He’s staying in her apartment while she’s getting the disease out of her system. He can afford to do it with his new job. Tomas’s commodity plays were monitored by a hedge fund’s bot, and the firm brought him in to tweak the algorithm. He’s working on putting himself out of a job I guess, but at least he’s working.

And then there’s Tanya and me, with a third on the way. A little girl they had to suck out of me with a big needle and blend with Tanya’s eggs before injecting back to safety. We couldn’t conceive in the traditional way, not in my condition. I don’t mind. My only worry is that the baby will inherit whatever is rotten inside me. The bad medicine or the bad genes. Maybe both.

Tanya tells me to shut up as she wheels me to the balcony. “She’ll be fine. The hospital says she’s healthy. Plus, she’s a fighter, like her dad.”

“That sounds like a line from an old movie,” I say.

“They all are.”

We live in a bigger place now. Not too gaudy, but the kitchen is separate from the living room and the windows have a view that isn’t a brick wall. It’s nicer, and it costs more. So there’s barely any money left over, barely any relief. Still, barely is more than none.

It’s evening. The air is warm and someone’s blasting music on the stoop across the street. Tanya’s letting me have a bit of wine in a glass I hold in my two remaining fingers. She’s drinking seltzer with a couple wedges of lime. We’re on a tiny jut of concrete the condo association calls a balcony. It’s hard not to think it might just snap off, smashing us on the sidewalk next to the mounds of gum and desiccated dog shits. Yet it’s holding so far.

A few drones putter by, advertising new apps, new ways to buy and sell. I watch them float off looking for the next sucker.

Tanya is totaling our expenses. A nightly activity: doctor’s bills, diapers, formula, and blankets.

I say we’ll have to cut back a little. Or take in a little side income. “Something other than blood,” I say, when Tanya tries to interrupt.

“Don’t even think about joking about thinking about it.”

She sips her drink and I sip mine. The sun is going down, spurting deep red light across the entire skyline. The color washes over us.  

“Isn’t there a point where things get easier?” I ask.

“Sometimes,” Tanya says. “But not most of the time.”

Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015) and the forthcoming novel The Body Scout (Orbit 2021). His short stories appear in The Paris ReviewGrantaNOON, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism appear in journals such as the New York TimesGQBOMB, and The Guardian. You can find him online at @thelincoln and lincolnmichel.com.

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