Image by Lewis Fagg
Nature vs. Suture
by B.G. Hilton
The thing on Susan’s doorstep was a grim parody of human form. It stood seven foot tall—its skin pale, ill-fitting, and criss-crossed with scars. Hard, deep-set little eyes were framed by scant black hair that hung loosely around its asymmetrical face. A heavy grey suit mercifully blocked Susan’s view of the thing’s misshapen body, but she could tell that one shoulder was higher than the other and that it had two right hands.
“Don’t be alarmed,” it said.
Susan took it by the sleeve. “Get inside!” she hissed. “Before the neighbours see you!”
The thing’s face was hard to read, but it seemed taken aback. Meekly, it lurched into the house, ducking a little to fit through the door frame.
“Please forgive my intrusion,” it said. Its mouth moved like a boxer’s broken jaw, manipulated into life by an inept puppeteer. “But my need is great.”
“Yeah, yeah. Come into the kitchen, I need a coffee. Yes, I know it’s not the pick-me-up you’re after. There’ll be time for that later. Coffee first. Sit down. Don’t touch my stuff.”
Susan walked into the big suburban kitchen/dining room, dominated by a round table. The creature shambled behind her and looked around, as if having difficulty taking in its surroundings. Eventually it sat, its huge legs fitting uncomfortably under the table.
“How do you have it?” Susan said.
“Black, thank you. No sugar.”
She handed the thing a black coffee in a mug bearing a picture of a bunny. It downed the drink in a single gulp, not waiting for it to cool, and watched as Susan added milk and sugar to her own drink.
“You know why I am here?” it asked. Its voice was slow and deep; surprisingly smooth, but with a strange singsong rhythm.
“Yes,” Susan said, avoiding eye contact. “You’re not the first. There must have been two dozen or more of you since Grandfather died.”
“All like me?”
“No, not all. There was a cyborg, a couple of robots, a hologram. One was a… I don’t even know. It was made of half a tonne of plasticine over an eight-foot brass armature. My daughter thought it was funny, but it fair gave me the creeps. But most of them were the classic model. Like you. Like an autopsy on legs.”
It nodded. The movement of its head disturbed its shirt collar. Susan shuddered as she caught a brief glimpse of bright metal at the side of its neck.
For a long time, nothing was said. Then, perhaps uncomfortable at the silence, the thing rose and lumbered over to the fridge. Attached with a couple of letter magnets was a child’s drawing of half-a-dozen indistinct figures in green and grey crayon. It was titled in a scrawling hand: “onE hundrEd thowsand FrankEnstEins!”
“My daughter drew it,” Susan said.
“Yes, she knows. I’m not making the same mistake Grandfather made. I didn’t find out until I was nearly eighteen and believe me, it’s a big shock.”
“Now speaking of a big shock…” the thing began.
“Yes, yes,” Susan said. “Let’s get this over with, so I can get back to my life. Just a recharge, isn’t it? You don’t want me to build you a bride, do you?”
The creature’s jaw dropped and it let out a grunt of indignation. “No. Thank you, no,” it said from between clenched teeth. “That won’t be necessary.”
The living room door opened. Susan breathed a sigh of relief. It was not her daughter but Jasmine who poked her head through.
“Susan, have you…” she began, before turning to face the creature at the table.
“Do not be alarmed—”
“Ugh. Another one?” Jasmine glared at Susan.
“You know I promised my grandfather that I’d look after them,” Susan said.
“I seem to recall you made some promises to me, too,” Jasmine snapped, closing the door with a slam.
Susan glowered over the top of her glasses as the thing looked from her to the door and back again.
The thing squirmed under her gaze. “I hope I’m not causing trouble with your housemates,” it said.
“That was my wife,” Susan said in a tone that would have chilled a walrus.
“Oh. Uh… No offence intended, I assure you,” the thing said, its voice deep, slow, and surprisingly smooth with a strange sing-song sort of rhythm. “Things are so different now… I’m still coming up to speed on how much everything has changed. I’ve been out of circulation for a while, you see.”
Susan laughed a bitter laugh. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess: ice-floe? Hah! Why can’t you people just keep away from freezing water?”
The thing’s self-control broke. In a second, it was on its feet, its chair was overturned. “You people? You people?” it said. ‘We’re practically family! Hah! You people!”
“Shh! Keep it down! My daughter’s asleep!”
“Sorry! I’m sorry.” Taking deep breaths, it righted the chair and sat down, shaking. “But you are a Frankenstein, aren’t you? All this… it’s in the blood!”
“I’m not like that,” Susan said. “I don’t make monsters. I’ll patch you up when you need it—I figure we owe you that much—but I don’t do the other Frankenstein shit, okay? Making monsters is not in the blood. Heredity doesn’t work like that. I should know, I lecture in genetics.”
The thing raised a sparsely haired eyebrow. “The life sciences? What an interesting career choice.”
Shooting it a look of pure contempt, Susan put down her coffee. “Come through to the garage. We’ll get you fixed up and out of here.”
It was a two-car garage, but Susan and Jasmine only owned one car. The other bay was mostly given over to an elaborate home-brewing setup, some old furniture, and a stack of tea-chests stamped with the Frankenstein arms.
“Gimme a hand with these, they’re heavy,” Susan said.
The creature effortlessly manoeuvred the boxes onto the garage floor so Susan could unpack the equipment. Out of the chests came cast iron and hard rubber, thermionic valves in Bakelite settings, heavy white plastic in 1970s lines and twenty-first century computers all held together with a spaghetti of wires.
“Your ancestors were geniuses,” the creature said. “Doing what they did with this junk.”
“They were idiots,” Susan replied, attaching a Tesla coil to an oscilloscope with a set of crocodile clips. “They could have just replaced and upgraded the whole of this pile, any time. But they were Frankensteins. Why would they make something new, when they could throw something together from scraps?”
“Why not replace it yourself?”
“Would if I cared.”
The creature’s brow furrowed. It hesitated before speaking again. “Have you ever…” it began.
“Have I ever what?” Susan said, her voice like rock. “Made a Creature? I told you, I don’t do mad science. I may be a Frankenstein, but I’m not a Frankenstein. Understand?”
“Not really,” the creature said. “But that’s not what I meant at all. What I was going to say was, uh, have you ever met the first of us? Victor’s original?”
The thing was an unconvincing liar, but Susan didn’t press the point. “I met one or two who said they were the original,” she said. “Don’t know if one was telling the truth or not. Mary Shelley’s description is much too vague.”
“True,” the thing nodded, “But I don’t suppose people read the Romantics for precision.”
“Literature isn’t my thing.”
The door from the kitchen to the garage opened, and in skipped Tori, Susan’s little gap-toothed daughter. “Mama, I’m hungry,” she said.
“Don’t be alarmed, child,” the thing begged, hiding its hideous face behind oversized hands.
“I’m not ‘larmed. I’m hungry.”
“Have a banana, dear,” Susan said, barely looking up from her work.
“I don’t wanna ‘nana,’ the girl said. ‘I wanna napple.”
Susan sighed heavily. “Okay, have an apple.”
“You have to cut it up!”
“I can do that, if you like,” the thing said.
Susan grimaced. But, she reasoned, a monster with a fruit knife isn’t much more dangerous than a monster without one. “There’s a bowl of fruit on top of the microwave. Take a knife from the top drawer.”
She didn’t add “leave the door open,” but she didn’t have to. The creature even made certain to seat Tori in a chair directly in Susan’s range of view as it took some apples from the fruit bowl.
“They’re very little apples,” it said. “I’ll cut up two. Do you want them peeled?”
“No, ’cause then you lose the vit-amins.”
“You’re not scared of me?”
“No! I seed monsters before.”
The creature paused in its cutting, shook its hideous head and went back to slicing.
“I seed lots of monsters,” Tori continued. “Most of you are all ugly. ‘Cept for Esteban.”
“Oh, you’ve met Esteban?” the thing asked, plating up the apple segments and handing them to the girl.
“He’s funny,” Tori said. “But he can’t play guitar good like how he thinks he can. How come he’s pretty?”
“He’s only pretty down to the neck,” the thing muttered. “Under the shirt it’s a different story… Uh, but to answer your question, back in about, what? 2005 or so? Berthold Frankenstein read some book about vampires that… Well it gave some funny ideas to a lot of people, I guess. Esteban was a result of some of those ideas.”
Tori nodded, as if this explained everything. “Who was your Frankenstein?” she asked, between bites of apple.
“My? . . . Oh, I see.”
The creature picked a grapefruit from the bowl and began eating it, skin and all. Susan noticed that it was moving in the awkward, nervous way of someone handling a delicate antique. How delicate must Tori have looked to it? How breakable? The creature was probably more nervous of Tori than she of it.
“I was made by Flothilde von Frankenstein,” the creature said. “It’s a strange story. Back in the 1980s, there was a vampire who got it into his head that he wanted to fight crime.”
The girl laughed.
“Yes, I guess it is sort of funny,” it said, “But people… people can be strange. No one’s quite like you expect them to be. Anyway, this vampire found a werewolf to help him, and then he decided that the two of them needed a Frankenstein monster to round out the group. So the vampire spoke to Count Dracula; Dracula called in a favour from Flothilde, and the next thing you know, kzzzzzt! Its aliiiiiive.”
It chuckled at its own joke, but Tori responded with perfect seriousness: “I don’t like Dracula.”
“I’ve never met him in person,” the thing admitted,
“He smells funny. Mommy wouldn’t let him in the house. What’s your name?”
“Frankie,” the creature grimaced. “But a lot of us end up getting called ‘Frank’ or ’Frankie’, so I go by ’Francis.”‘
Susan was long tired of listening to this conversation when she put the final pieces in place.
“Ok, you good to go?” she called.
Francis lumbered back in, wiping grapefruit from his mouth. He pointed to the aluminium sunlounge in the middle of the apparatus and let out a chuckle. “That the table?” he asked. “Guess it does the job.”
“Guess so. Lie down.”
Laying down, Francis loosened his collar and Susan clamped some cables to the electrodes in his neck. There was no lightning; no ranting speech. She simply flicked a switch. There followed about five minutes of electrical pyrotechnics and ozone smells, then she flicked it off again.
“How are you feeling?”
“Good as new!” Francis said, stretching his mismatched arms. “If I could shamble with a spring in my step, I would.”
“Great,” Susan replied, without enthusiasm. “You may experience some occasional dizziness over the next few days, so you probably don’t want to be operating heavy machinery. And steer clear of any large body of water close to freezing point.”
“I’ll try to bear that in mind,” Francis said, deadpan.
Tori, half interested, had been watching all this from the kitchen. “I’m going to go watch TV. Goodbye, Francis!”
“My name is Victoria Yizman-Frankenstein,” she recited in a singsong rhythm. “And I am six years old.”
Susan rolled open the garage door and led Francis to the driveway.
“Thank-you so much for your help,” he said.
“Nothing personal,” Susan said. “My family has a lot of unfinished business.”
Francis stood on the threshold, stunned and hurt. His heavy brows knit and he said: “You say you’re not really a Frankenstein. Not one of the bad ones, anyway; not one of the crazy ones. But if I had asked you to build me a mate—would you have done it?”
Susan’s face went bright red. Her mouth opened, but nothing emerged but angry spluttering.
“I’m sorry,” Francis said. ‘That was way out of line. I… I’m… Look, thank you for your help.”
He lumbered down the driveway. Had he looked back, all he would have seen was Susan slamming down the roller door like it was the portcullis of a castle.
Susan always cooked dinner on Tuesdays, her day off from the university, but right then she could barely bring herself to look at the meat. Even safely wrapped in transparent plastic from the market, it challenged her. It looked like a puzzle, all in pieces and waiting to be assembled.
She was staring at it in the fridge when Jasmine came in.
“Is it gone…” Jasmine said. “Oh, no. Honey!”
Without turning around, Susan spoke, her voice soft and distant:
“There was Victor, of course,” she said. “several Victors. And Henry and Wolf and Ludwig and Peter. Then there were Rudolph and Ben and Hannah; Maria and Freda; Oliver, Carl and Frederick. And then there were the ones who didn’t use the family name. West, Rotwang, Stein, Walsh, Solon…”
Susan’s words had started slowly, but become faster as faster as she went, until Jasmine checked her with a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Honey, honey, calm down. Calm down. It’s all right. I’ll cook tonight? Maybe just an omelette or a salad.”
“You aren’t like your family,” Jasmine said, and closed the fridge door.
“I know,” Susan said.
“Dead things come back,” Susan said.
“Not if you don’t bring them back,” Jasmine said. She looked at the fridge, with its picture of onE hundrEd thowsand FrankEnsteins, then peeked through the doorway to the living room, where Victoria was watching cartoons, and sighed. She went back to Susan and sat down.
“Are you going to be okay?”
Susan put her head on Jasmine’s shoulder. If not for the laughter occasionally floating in from the living room, they would have sat there in silence.
“I wonder what it would be like,” Susan said, eventually. “I mean, it wouldn’t be like making Victoria. My body did most of the work there, not my brain or hands. It must be like craft, I guess. Like making your own clothes, or building a model railway, or like your home-brewing. Old-fashioned craft.”
“It’s best not to think about it,” Jasmine said. “You can’t leave your family behind completely. Of course you can’t. But you don’t have to do that. You know where that leads.”
“I know,” Susan whispered. “It’s just that some days are harder than others.”
She left Jasmine to do the cooking and wandered into the living room, where the cartoons no longer held Tori’s attention. Her daughter’s stubby fingers poked the red apple slices around her plate and pushed them back together. The resulting mass didn’t look much like anything, but by taking uneaten wedges from the green apple she formed a rough, lopsided shape of a single piece of fruit. Perhaps Susan was too tired to be troubled. Instead, she found it oddly endearing.
Tori looked at her handiwork with a gap-tooth smile, then noticed her mother standing above her.
“Kzzzt,” Tori laughed. “It’s aliiiive!”