Edie wanted a smoothie, so that’s what she got on her drive home from the doctor’s office. She curved her Honda Accord around the hook of the drive-thru, ordered a Kale-Banana-Rama with extra chocolate, and sipped on the sugary, expensive, nutrient-dense drink instead of calling her kids with the news. They were adults now, working adult jobs, with their own anxieties and issues and troubles. What was she going to do, interrupt their day with a call, say Hey there, I know we haven’t talked in some months, but the thing is that I’m probably, most likely, dying? No. Sorry I missed your birthday, sorry I’m a terrible mom, but also it turns out I’ve got this insane disease… She parked in the lot and sipped on her smoothie. In the cloudless blue swath above the strip mall, a seagull was looping and diving. She went home to a dark and quiet house and microwaved her meal before perching in front of the TV to eat. Her daughter had told her once that nobody used cable anymore, and had even offered to help with the transition, but that would be too complicated: all the boxes, buttons, remotes, WiFi passwords. Edie would stick to the programs, the channels she knew. She ate her chicken and clicked on her TV and there was Dr. Oz, interviewing a patient with Lethaea’s Disease. Edie’s heart almost stopped, her breathing slowed, but she could not click away. The woman was perched in a wheelchair, her hands folded on her lap, the majority of her skin a horrible, god-awful white. “What people don’t understand,” the woman was saying, “is how you feel everything.” “We have a brainscan here of a woman who’s been fully petrified,” Dr. Oz said to the audience, pointing to a CAT scan enlarged on the glowing white screen. “The lack of activity here—” he gestured to the entire brain in one general sweep, “indicates that activity has ceased. That this person has passed away.” “Listen,” the woman said. Streaks of white ran up her neck. She was close to the end. “Doctors can say whatever they want. What I’m telling you is that I feel it. My legs and arms— I still feel...I’m in here somewhere.” It was clearly difficult for this woman to speak, she could not move most of her body, but her eyes blazed like fierce little planets. “I’m saying: don’t give up on us.” It had started with stiffness, that was all: a pain in her shoulder, an ache in the arch of her feet. Edie had thought it nothing more than plain old soreness, a side-effect of age. But as it turns out, she, along with 1.8% of the population, was slowly turning to stone. Edie tried not to think of it, the mysterious thing crawling through her lymphatic system, the disease that would soon render her nothing more than a thick block of marble. That night, after receiving her diagnosis, she fell asleep— sleep, at least, had always come easy— and woke sometime later to a honking alarm. A car screaming out on the street. Her toes felt cold, and the thought rattled through her, a pulsing panic, she whisked off the covers— and exhaled. Today, at least, her toes were still flesh. The average rate of conversion— what her doctor had called it, conversion— was anywhere from six to twelve months. The flesh would transform, slowly, to stone, generally starting at the extremities, working its way up the body. There was a research center in Minnesota, where scientists were studying petrified patients, trying to derive a cure. But the look on her doctor’s face told it all: your chances are shit. Move now, while you can. The Lethaea Clinic looked, she imagined, just like the Uffizi in Florence: a wide gallery room full of statues, marble figures fixed in a single pose forever and ever. What would she look like, in her final moment? What expression, what pose, would remain? She’d seen enough petrified patients on the news to get the gist. She supposed that now would be a good time for all the things she’d once told herself she’d like to do: hike Mount Hood, take one of those airboats through the Everglades, learn how to foxtrot. But what would be the point? What she wanted now, more than ever, was the banal, the simple. What she wanted, now, was her life. She slipped on her socks and grabbed her car keys, determined to make today count. The automatic doors purred open and Edie stepped into the store. She pushed her diagnosis out of her mind, determined to live as if nothing had happened. Marcus, the new hire, a kid with a big crooked grin and a streak of blue in his hair, who spent his breaks making TikToks in the staff room, was restocking waffle makers. “Looks good,” Edie said, over his shoulder. “Make sure all the logos face front.” “Got it.” Edie hung around, her hands in her pockets. He was the first person she’d talked to, besides the cashier at Smoothie King, since hearing the news. She craned her neck and looked up at all the shelves, feigning inspection. “So, you’re a sophomore?” she asked, when he’d stocked the last box. “Junior,” he said. The distinction was small, but Edie could almost remember back to a time when it mattered. She stretched and rolled her shoulders, ignoring the pain that shot down her spine. “Do they still have you take those aptitude tests?” “What?” “Gauging your future career options, that kind of test?” “Oh, yeah. I got Software Developer even though I have absolutely zero interest in coding.” “Interesting.” Edie felt, suddenly, so very old. She shoved her hands deeper into her khaki pockets. Above them, the air conditioning roared. “When you’re done here, towels in 9 need refolding.” “On it.” “Great, Mark. Thank you.” He blinked, and then corrected her. “Marcus.” Edie didn’t know what to say. The boy smiled, his grin big and dumn. “My name’s Marcus. Parents named me after Marcus Aeralius.” Edie nodded slowly. “Thank you, Marcus,” she said, and watched him turn and trot off to fold the towels. A little pretentious, wasn’t he? Or precocious. Was there a difference? Then again, she thought of her own name, a reference to a documentary so depressing and dismal she’d had to shut it off half-way through. Strange, how our names come to define us, when we didn’t even get a say. Later, she looked him up, Marcus Aeurilias. Various aphorisms glowed on the screen. In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his body a prey of worms, his fortune dark... Pretentious and morbid, thought Edie, but not entirely wrong. Except for the worm part. A perk, perhaps, of this strange disease. Her body would never rot, never decompose, not exactly. Flesh unfleshed, she would become art: a thing. That was one conceivable perk.
In high school, Edie had taken a test alongside her peers, a scantron that, when the bubbles were filled, was said to predict your future. Like shaking a magic-8 ball when you’re a kid and asking will I be pretty? will I marry a millionaire? No, no, don’t count on it. When the results came back, her friends got all the normal predictions. Doctor, lawyer, lumberjack. But Edie’s test had come back with the words: results inconclusive. She took it to mean, at the time, that she defied limits, that she was fleeting, ephemeral, could not be contained. Now, looking back, a scantron from the late 90s probably didn’t have the language to tell a sixteen-year old girl you know what, you’re going to collapse into a slate grey depression for several years, take some pills to dull the ache, and wake up one day at 40 years old, exhausted, confused, somehow the manager of a Bed Bath & Beyond. How fast, Edie thought, can your own life slip away.
In two weeks, she returned to her doctor to discuss treatment options, sitting in a big mauve chair while Dr. Norris flipped through her chart. “We can give you something for the pain,” her doctor was saying. “And you’ll need to come in, every two weeks, to check in, gauge your progress.” Edie nodded. “It’s up to you, when you’ll want to transition into a wheelchair. Though sooner, I find, is usually better.” Edie was looking at the bookshelf that towered behind Dr. Norris, the broad spines with titles displayed. Her doctor continued: eventually, she’d need a hospice worker to assist in the home. And soon, we should begin thinking about arrangements. Would you consider consenting to research? Edie’s mouth felt dry. She didn’t quite know what to say.
At work, she was confined to the blissful over-air-conditioned warehouse-sized store, aisles and rows with goods stacked high: the giant cage full of pillows that towered up to the ceiling; twelve kinds of coffee makers with sleek, shining designs; on the wall-hooks: avocado slicers, silicon spatulas, metallic straws. So many things that needed organizing, arranging, perfecting. At work, Edie could disappear. She could walk slowly through the aisles, or sit in the back office and breathe, the meditative repetition of inventory taking her away.
There were several times, in those first weeks, where she considered calling her daughters. And yet, with the phone glowing flat in her palm, with her daughters’ contacts pulled up, she couldn’t make her fingers move to the dial. And what would she say? I know I wasn’t there for you then, but soon, I’ll be inert… There was something about it that felt like intimacy: that she and her doctor were the only two people in the world who knew. For a while, she kept it that way. It wasn’t until a month later, she’d been arranging a tupperware display and she tripped, fell off the ladder, her body thudding hard against the concrete floor. Markus had been the only one in the store and she heard him come running. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” Edie said, hoisting herself off the ground— but it was too late, he saw before she did, a horrible whiteness on her thumb. “That’s…” he said, pointing. Edie gasped, seeing it too. She hadn’t realized that up until then, until that moment she saw it— her own body, stone— that she’d been holding onto hope: perhaps Dr. Norris was wrong, perhaps the diagnosis was wrong, perhaps she’d be fine after all. She looked at her thumb, marble white, solid and cool and hard, and she ceased to breathe for a moment before shaking her head, shoving her hand inside of her pockets. “You’ve got…” “It’s nothing,” Edie said.
Driving home, she flipped through radio stations, stopping on one where the news anchors were discussing a new foundation, the work of Jeff Bezos— a foundation for Lethaea patients. “So many people with this disease wind up with exorbitant bills,” the anchor was saying. “Their families end up with mountains of debt. All the tests, treatment, and research. Bezos designed this organization to help patients pay for their care; to help them help their families, to prevent all that debt.” Later, Edie looked it up. The foundation’s premise seemed simple enough: patients could sign up, and they would be placed with a buyer. Rich people with sprawling, luxurious homes would purchase the right to own your petrified body, the right to display it, however they wish. In exchange, the buyer would pay off your medical care, pay your family as well. It was described on the site as a win-win. Edie shut down the computer. She was terribly, terribly thirsty. The progression was slow and creeping. It grew in slivers of centimeters, but now and again would leap forward horribly, a whiteness consuming, a hardness, a coolness she couldn’t believe. When she could get over the repulsion, the disgust, the grief for a moment, she would take her one good fingertip— index, left hand— and rub it over the marble growth. Cool, smooth. If at a gallery, she’d be exquisite.
The next appointment, they sent her for scans. She stripped, slipped into an aluminum apron, and layed out onto the paper bed. A whirring sound, and she was pulled into the mouth of the machine, where pictures were taken of her body, inside, the cells mid-conversion, stone and flesh colliding. More data: temperature, weight, blood pressure, pulse. The nurse took it all, blinking his beady, untelling eyes. Edie wanted to tell him that he had nice eyelashes, that she’d once knew a boy with eyelashes like that, thick and curled, like dead spider legs, but she decided against it. He was silent as he scratched at his clipboard, filling her chart with information that, if anyone were being honest, no one knew what to do with. They had no idea how to stop this thing, slowly slipping over her flesh. It wasn’t until the second month that she recognized the sensation, a kind of claustrophobia. The feeling that she was being consumed. It had crept beyond her hands, white streaks reaching up the length of her forearms like some kind of costume glove.
Christie wouldn’t answer her calls. Robin only did so after the seventh ring. “Yes?” Robin had said, not the most hostile greeting, but not the warmest either. In the background Edie could hear laughter and screaming, howling kids. She pictured a softball game, the red dust of a diamond, the moms overeager, shouting, shooting video on their phones. Robin there too on the bleachers, phone pressed to her cheek. Edie listened for a while, waiting, searching for words. Robin sat too, listening. Edie looked out the window where the sun was a plump navel orange. Her phone was burning hot in her palm. She couldn’t bring herself to do it, couldn’t find the will to apologize. A snap in her heart— and she hung up the phone.
Edie made the decision herself, to quit before they let her go. No more inventory, excel, emails. No more wandering the aisles and rows of household things, endless things, that grand mausoleum of household essentials, soap dispensers, apple slicers. She now spent her days eating marijuana gummy bears prescribed for the pain and watching cable news. An oil rig exploded in the Atlantic; they showed pictures of the animals, floating dead in the dark, iridescent murk. A woman in Thailand who went to check on her vegetables in the middle of the night. Her garden was very important to her. In the dark, she crept up the path, where an anaconda found her. Swallowed her whole. In the morning, all that was left was a blue slipper and flashlight.
Dr. Norris was pushing her towards the Letheae clinic, encouraging her to sign the forms, lend her body to science. “You don’t know how many people you’d be able to help,” she’d said. Edie wasn’t so sure. “Just think about it,” Dr. Norris said, her pink lips pulled into a tight eerie grin. “Really think about it. This is your legacy.” Edie drove herself home, using her elbow to guide the wheel, aware that it would likely be the last time she would ever take herself anywhere. She played the radio loud, rolled the windows down, and felt the air as it rushed onto her flesh. Chigozie arrived on the porch early one morning. Edie looked through the peephole and observed this woman, her braids, her lavender scrubs. On the porch her face was firm and unsmiling.
In the crook of her armpit, she held a folded-up wheelchair. Edie her elbow to open the door, shifting her weight just so, nudging her hips. “Good morning,” she said, the door swinging wide. She propped herself against the door frame and looked Chigozie up and down. A beat of silence fell between them. Edie knew the daylight would be hitting her, illuminating the horror of her body, the patches where marble met flesh. Chigozie’s eyes flashed over her skin for just a moment before a forced smile cracked on her lips. Together they watched the news. A bombing in a rural Czech village on Easter sunday. Footage of people in skirts and suits, mouths agape, in total shock. Smoke rising up from an old church spire. A Saudi Prince is looking to sell his oil shares. An elephant at the Smithsonian Zoo received a new prosthetic leg. He hobbles around his cage with his metallic foot, a ginormous cyborg, stomping, raising his trunk, flopping his big floppy ears. “He’s happy, much happier now,” says the vet. But really, how would he know? Edie gets used to the way Chigozie’s arms feel as they lift her up, onto the toilet. The feel of another woman, brushing your teeth, blending your food, combing your hair. It would be nice, the contact, the love, if it wasn’t a sign of the end. How fast it will come.
Dr. Oz was again on the screen, demonstrating the importance of dinosaur kale, when the doorbell rang. “Expecting anyone?” Chigoze asked. Of course, the answer was no. Another ring, and a knock, and Chigozie opened the door. Edie heard a voice stuttering on the porch, but didn’t recognize him until he stepped inside. “Marcus,” she said, the surprise a crack in her voice. “Hey, I just wanted to see how you were, uh, doing, with the disease and all. I wasn’t sure if you were— I just wanted to say hi. I brought soup.” The thought of this young boy, on her porch, bringing soup, this young man— the sheer act of care— it’s enough to break Edie’s heart. This thought makes her actually think about her heart, the physical thing, the meat of it, valves and tubes and veins, how soon it will be nothing more than a fat chunk of marble. She tries not to cry as Markus sits down beside her and shows her a TikTok video on his phone. Edie does not fully understand the humor, the video flashes too fast, the text is too small, but still: she smiles. This is enough.
Edie only tried once more, towards the end, to reach her daughters. Chigozie dialed the phone. With each ring, the breath tightened inside Edie’s chest. This was her last chance, she knew. I am sorry. Say it, say it, she told herself. You’re fucking sorry. But the line kept ringing, ringing. No voicemail. Eventually, Chigozie hung up. “I’m sorry, Edie,” she said; her eyes were earnest, and that was somehow worse than if she hadn’t cared at all. If Edie could have, she would have shrugged.
She doesn’t know she is going to make the decision until she does. She directs Chigozie to the website, tells her to fill out the forms. When the petrification is complete, she will be assigned to a patron, she will be bubble-wrapped and shipped with care, sent to some wealthy estate where she’ll occupy a garden or gallery or clubhouse, an ornament for some well-off ornament-lover. Edie imagines all the possible outcomes, hoping most that she will be placed in a brilliant garden by a little green pond, flowers blooming around her, ivy on walls, hummingbirds fluttering and honeybees humming, the sound of a fountain bubbling near. She has no way of knowing this, that she will wind up in a lonely hallway in the home of a market research analyst, the employee of a large oil company. He travels often. His wife spends her days in the pool. The halls are white, barren. Minimalism is very in vogue. No paintings to look at, no flowers, no color. Not a single window in her line of sight. She will stay, stiff, unmoving, in unbearable pain, staring down the same long hallway, an endless flow of white.
In the suburbs of Sacramento, a woman opens her small metal mailbox. She pulls out a thin white envelope, the first piece of physical mail she’s received in some years. When she sees the check, she doesn’t believe it. She makes a phone call, then another. Calls her sister. Is this real? It’s real. More money than she’s ever held, ever imagined, right there in a piece of paper she holds in her hand. The check was accompanied by a note, unsigned. All it said: I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
-- Aiden Baker is a writer based out of Berkeley, California. Her work can be found in the Ninth Letter, Sonora Review, Orca, and elsewhere.