Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Only Bodies Wanted"

a short story
by Jacob Steven Mohr

January 25, 2023
2,908 Words
Genre(s): , ,

The room’s perfect whiteness is infinity. Without variation, without shadow, the illusion of perpetuity is near-flawless. She waits on the tissue paper, legs dangling. From somewhere comes the soft ticking of a clock, though there’s no clock in the room. Her clothes are a neat pile beside her on the paper; they are the only island of color against the white. She shivers—though there’s no breeze in the room. The temperature holds level at a balmy and precise sixty-eight degrees.

A knock and the female doctor’s voice comes from beyond the wall. “Daphne Mann?”

“Come in.” Her voice echoes back against itself.

When the wall opens, it makes no sound; the world beyond that brief aperture is just as white as the consulting room. The doctor glides forward, and the door vanishes behind her. She could be thirty or seventy, her face taut and smooth like in an oil painting. Her scalp is almost hairless; only a slight film of stubble peppers her crown. She carries a clipboard in one blue latex hand. Above the line of her mask, her dark eyes carry no expression.

“Your survey passes muster,” she reports. “But there are still a few questions we’ve got to ask you out loud. It’s only a formality—but you need to answer them honestly.”

Daphne stares a hole in the blank wall. “All right.”

“Are you over eighteen?” the doctor asks.

“I am.”

“Are you here of your own will?”

“I am.”

“Are you genetically intact?”

“I am.”

“Have you made any attempt to alter your genetic makeup in the preceding twelve months?”

“No.”

The doctor flips a page on the clipboard. “Are you a returning franchiser?”

Swinging above the floor, Daphne’s feet dangle. “You’re not allowed to ask that.”

“No, you’re right.” The doctor clears her throat. “I was just curious.”

Those dark expressionless eyes don’t even glint. Daphne looks away quickly.

“Is that everything?” she asks, and the doctor nods.

“Roll up your sleeve and hold out your arm.”

Daphne obeys. Even through the latex gloves, the doctor’s hands are cold, swabbing and numbing her arm just below the deltoid. From outside Daphne’s vision, the slicegun’s insect hum warms up. Her skin crawls—all but the anesthetized section below the shoulder.

“Relax your muscles,” comes the usual instruction. “This won’t hurt at all.”

The old lie. Daphne squeezes her eyes shut.

A loud crackling buzz—and it’s all over. She doesn’t even cry out this time. The doctor places a circular wafer of her dermis between two filmy slides, thin enough to let light through. Daphne stands up and starts dressing herself, the tissue paper cleaving to her bare buttocks.

The doctor coughs behind her mask. “Can we inform you when. . .”

“No. Thank you. No.”

“All right. We’ve got your bank details. Expect an email within five business days.”

Daphne lifts a card from the tray. Before she can approach the wall, the doctor says:

“Miss Mann. The scars, you know. . . We’ll have to use the other arm next time.”

The room’s whiteness is blinding and crushing and huge all at once. The card between Daphne’s fingers trembles, though there’s no breeze. “Can I go now?” 

“Yes—thanks for being a model citizen.”

Daphne brushes past the doctor. The wall unhinges its jaw, disgorging her back into the world.  

The sidewalk outside the clinic is more crowded than she’s used to. The wall of noise confronts her: dozens of voices, some chanting, some merely shrieking. Somebody’s got a bullhorn, trying to lead the rest in call-and-response with little success. The summertime heat is immense, and the megaphone’s electric distortion warps each syllable into heavy squawking fuzz.

Daphne pushes her sunglasses up and draws her hood over her ponytail. With her head down, she can’t see the pasteboard signs, the handwritten slogans, the bloody photos, and crosses, and drawings of chains. Blocking out the noise hardly takes effort now. So when the little girl steps onto the sidewalk, Daphne stumbles and nearly sends them both sprawling.

The child’s in a school uniform: pleated shorts and a white polo, with dark sweat stains under each armpit. Her hair is the same red as the round sunglasses that push off her face like bug’s eyes, and when she talks, Daphne spots metal glinting on every tooth.

“God-killer.” She enunciates every syllable, like the word tastes funny.

Daphne stops, peering down at her accuser. She can’t be more than six. The small white face and thick red sunglasses stare up vacantly. “What’s that?” Daphne says.

“You came out of the clinic,” says the girl, scratching under the hem of her shirt. “Dad says that’s where franchisers like you go to kill God.”

Daphne blinks. “Girls like me.”

“Creation is God’s.” Each word is halting, half-remembered. “It belongs to Him. Evil can’t create, it can only destroy. Your soul is split up, and you walk under a shadow.”

“Jesus. Are you for real?”

The little girl nods. “Don’t take Jesus’s name in vain.”

Daphne starts to answer—a host of questions pep-rally on her tongue. But a blasting car horn drives the thoughts away. A huge blue SUV idles at the corner; a woman’s thick brown arm thrusts out the window, waving her over and slapping the driver’s door.

When Daphne looks back at the sidewalk, the girl is gone, swallowed by the crowd.

The clone leans out the drive-thru window, two white paper bags pinched in a brown manicured hand. Almost immediately the car breaks out in hushed nervous laughter. The girls in the back seat grin and nudge each other while driver Samaya stares up at her own reflection and tries not to squirm. The face looking down at her is almost a perfect mirror image. The cheeks are thinner; the hair is black and tucked up under a ball cap instead of streaked green; the lips are pale pink instead of the color of pitch. But the countenance is her own, down to the last freckle. Daphne, curled in the passenger’s seat, pops out one AirPod and glances over, then returns to her music.

The clone regards Samaya quietly, but no recognition flashes on her features. “Here’s your food,” the familiar voice says without inflection. “Thanks for dropping by.” Below the window hangs a cardboard sign with ten-inch lettering: NOW HIRING.

Samaya gives Daphne the bags. “Jee-zus,” she breathes. Her window whines shut, cutting off the road noise. “Nothing spookier than that. Jee-zus.”

From the back seat, Chandler leans into the space between the front headrests. “Ballpark, what do you figure the odds are? I mean, of running into your own NCB. . .”

Kal, slouching beside her, cuts in, “I’m too hungry to think about it.”

“. . .at a fucking Whataburger,” Chandler concludes triumphantly.

“Nothing spookier,” Samaya repeats. “I’m still not over the first time.”

A hoot from Chandler. “You’ve seen her before?”

“Not that one. Down in Florida—my first NCB’s stuffed in a Minnie Mouse costume.”

“You’re kidding. Seriously, tell me what you think the odds are.”

“Is that all you’ve got to contribute?” Kal seethes. “The fucking odds?”

“Oh, take a rip, sweetie,” Chandler replies.

“Cut me some slack. I skipped lunch.”

Daphne juggles the bags, finding a carton of fries and handing it back. She watches Samaya shake herself, flinching away from Chandler’s shoulder-tap.

“How many’s that make for you?” she asks. “Four? Five?”

“Just the two. I only went in again because the franchise fee goes south after the first year.”

“How recent is she? Little Miss Do-You-Want-Fries-With-That.”

Samaya shrugs. “A month? Can’t be much older. Direct deposit only hit a few days ago. Mom pitched a fit when she saw the email, but—bite me, it’s my body.”

“Half yours,” Daphne mumbles. Samaya glances over, eyes full of afternoon sun.

“You ever think about it?” she asks. “Being a Model Citizen?”

“No way for me,” Chandler cuts in. “I know my dad would freak. Plus—it’s so creepy, you know? Having another you running around, getting up to God knows what. . .”

“NCBs are registered. You can look up who buys them if you’ve got the PIN.”

“Shit. That’s almost worse. What if I found out she’s doing porno?”

Samaya yanks the wheel, swerving around a dawdling sedan. “NCBs can’t do sex work. No pornography, no prostitution, no massage parlors. There’s laws.”

“Like there’s laws against doing eighty-five in a seventy?”

“I’m just giving you the spiel,” Samaya protests. “There’s a referral program now. You go into Model Citizens and give them my name, they’ll kick me over an extra thousand bucks. I’d split that with any of you, right down the middle.”

Chandler reaches for a fry. “I dunno. I’d have to think it over. Daphne—you call it. Would you go in if you knew you’d get good money?”

Daphne stares hard out her car window. The world whips by in a blur. “No. Never.”

“I forgot,” Chandler says. “Daphne’s still strict orthodox. The girl next door.”

“Daddy’s favorite,” adds Kal through a mouthful.

“Sure,” Daphne says. “Daddy’s favorite.” Her phone struggles in her pocket.

On the screen: We need to meet. Right now.

She types back: I’m out with friends. Can it wait?

Instantly the reply flashes up: We’re coming to the apartment. Be there. 15 min.

“I’d do it,” Kal chirps from the back seat. “I mean, I don’t get what the big fucking deal is. I’m young. I’m hot. I’ve got my whole life ahead of me. And besides. . .”

Samaya, Chandler, and Kal’s voices chant together in singsong: “It’s your future, Citizen.”

The girls in the back seat slap high-fives. Daphne turns her music up. Somebody—Kal or Chandler, she doesn’t see which—hands up a palmful of fries, which get cold in her cupped hands. Samaya turns the AC up. Outside, a huge billboard looms above the treetops, forty feet high with thirty-foot lettering: NOW HIRING. ALL POSITIONS.

The unmarked cars are parked fifty feet from her apartment door. Daphne stalks past them, wiping salt crumbs off her lips. Her door is unlocked already; she pushes past into the living area, glaring at the two bodies sitting on her sofa. Detective Bloch turns to meet her gaze, smiling out of a face not used to smiling. “You’re late,” she says. “We got worried.”

The door closes behind her; Daphne doesn’t bother with the lock. “Some gang in a white van snatched me off the street,” she reports. “I’ve got a barcode tattoo now, on my neck.”

The other cop, a man, sneers across the room. “She’s funny. You didn’t say she was funny.”

Daphne moves to the kitchen, rooting in the fridge. “Who’s the new meat?”

“He’s Harry Grady,” Bloch replies. “He left his manners back at HQ”

“I guess she left hers in the van,” Harry Grady snorts.

“Detective Grady’s got his own style,” Bloch says. “I’m learning to live with it. Really—he’s very excited to meet you. But he hasn’t figured out how to show it.”

Grady scratches the back of his head. “Like hell I am.”

“What are you doing here, Bloch?”

The detective stands up from the couch, all business. She isn’t a tall woman, but she’s straight-backed in a way that makes you look up at her, even from above. Her eyes are set in a permanent suspicious squint, and her lips disappear into her face. She waves a manila envelope.

“How many Non-Citizen Bodies you got in circulation?”

Daphne pops the tab on her beer but doesn’t drink. “Getting right to it, then.”

“The data I’ve got says five. Is that number right?”

“Answer the question,” Grady huffs. 

Daphne studies his face, the hostile hunch of his shoulders. “Well—if you know already. I went in this morning. It’ll be six a few weeks from now. But for now the number is five.”

Bloch shakes her head. “You’re back to zero. Just found it out today.”

Daphne takes a long, steady sip. Foam pools under her nose. “Is that right?” she says.

Bloch looks at her steadily. “Miss Mann. He’s looking for you again.”

“I guess he is.”

“You guess he is—is that all you’ve got to say?”

Daphne gestures to the manila envelope. “You’re gonna show me pictures again?”

“You don’t wanna see these,” Bloch says.

“You brought them. You must have had a reason to bring them.”

“She wants to see the pictures.” Grady levels a smirk. “Go on. Give her a thrill.”

Bloch ignores him. “This doesn’t worry you?”

Daphne shrugs. “You gonna arrest him this time?”

The detective’s face stiffens slightly. “You know we can’t do that.”

“Then yeah—I’m all shook up.”

“That’s not fair,” Bloch protests. “If he committed a crime, I’d bring him in bloody. You know that. But it’s property damage at best—and the company doesn’t press charges.”

“They don’t wanna open their books,” Grady puts in. “What’s that tell you?”

Bloch spreads her palms, a gesture of supplication. “Our hands are tied.”

Daphne swirls beer in her mouth, swallows.

“This could’ve been a text,” she said.

“I wanted to tell you in person. It didn’t feel right the other way.”

“Well—it’s good to see you. Maybe next time you visit, you can watch him cut me up, like he’s done to all the others. Get some photos of it too, for the scrapbook.” 

Bloch opens her mouth but shuts it without saying anything.

Daphne finishes her beer and puts the can on the counter. “Is that everything?”

Detective Bloch shrugs her broad shoulders and turns toward the door. Passing an end table, she puts the manila envelope on it and taps it with all five fingers.

“If you’re feeling brave later,” she says.

Daphne watches her until her hand is on the doorknob. “Detective Bloch.”

The bigger woman turns. “Miss Mann.”

“He could find me. Easy enough, if he wanted to. Why doesn’t he?”

Harry Grady puts his hat on his head and shows teeth. “Miss Mann—are you working?”

Daphne jerks her chin at Bloch. “She knows I’m not, so do you.”

Grady’s grin widens, turns grotesque. “You’ll have plenty of time to figure it out, then.”

With that, the detectives are gone. Daphne locks the door, and watches through her window as two unmarked cars peel off. It’s evening, but the air’s still too hot to breathe.

The shower shuts off; Daphne drips water as she ties the first towel around her wet hair, then tucks the other across her breasts. Now it’s almost night and the apartment is almost dark. She puts on a few lights, moving through the main living space. The TV is background noise. The AC unit in the closet kicking on is more.

On the sofa—a knock on the door startles her out of a half-doze. She counts down from thirty, then goes to the door. The peephole shows only darkness on the porch, and the distant lights from the parking lot beyond that. On the stoop is a white cardboard box with no logo on the sides. She brings it inside, puts it on the breakfast table. 

A long slow silent moment—then she cuts the tape with her keys.

Inside is a cake. White frosting, with red lettering smudged in transit. The beginning of a D remains intact, but not much else. The letters don’t matter. Five women’s pinkie fingers stick out of the frosting, pointing at the ceiling. They’re pale and stiff and drained of blood, and each one has the same polish on the fingernail, a shade of green Daphne has never worn. But they’re hers, down to the fingerprints, down to the last wrinkle and tiny fine hair.

And even though the writing is smeared, she knows the letters spell: DADDY’S FAVORITE.

She crosses the room and joggles the doorknob: locked. She checks it again, and again after that. A square of color catches her eye. The manila folder, one corner of a printed photograph peeking out between the leaves. One trembling hand reaches for it, then drops to her side. In the kitchen, the folder makes a dull crunch being shoved down in the trash. Even with the TV playing, the silence is enormous. The darkness outside creeps in through the windows.

Daphne picks up her phone. Detective Bloch. Samaya. Her mother. Her finger trembles above the call button. But instead she waits until the screen goes dark again, showing her face in the reflection. Her hand continues to shake; the reflection wobbles, stretches, warps—becoming something alien, something she no longer recognizes. A notification pings: an email, from Model Citizen. She doesn’t open it. She can recite it from memory by now. She locks the phone screen, leans damp shoulders back against the wall, and slides slowly to the cool floor.

Thank you for being a Model Citizen. A deposit of $5,000 USD has been moved to your account as of 8 p.m. Your Non-Citizen Body has been purchased by one of our affiliate partners; to learn where the new You will be employed, enter this code on our website or visit TrackMyNCB.com.

Model Citizen thanks you for your contribution to the workforce of tomorrow.

It’s your future, Citizen—we’re just living in it. 

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About the Author

Don’t buy the hype: Jacob Steven Mohr was not raised by wolves. Feral children are capable of many things, but weaving wild words into flesh and fantasy isn’t one of them. Lucky us. If it were, we’d all be speaking Wolf. Mohr’s work has previously appeared in Nightmare Sky, Summer Bludgeon, and Night Terrors, Vol. 20, as well as on The NoSleep Podcast and Scare You to Sleep. He lives in Columbus, OH.

twitter.com/jacobstevenmohr

Copyright ©2023 by Jacob Steven Mohr.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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