by Stuart Snelson
He awoke clutching his liver, or at least the spot where he believed his liver lived. The pain was excruciating, a bird nestled beneath his ribcage pecking relentlessly at his pickled organ.
At the doctors, he had whitened at the news: if he didn’t give up drinking he was going to die. He knew that one day his lifestyle would lead to this death sentence. How long do I have? The doctor explained that exact expiry dates were the fanciful creation of television, a countdown for dramatic effect. It seemed unlikely, though, that he would see the other side of Christmas. It was July.
Death beckoning, he lost concentration. His thoughts wandered as his doctor held a model liver and with his finger outlined the abuse to which he had subjected it. From the doctor’s hands he retrieved it, held it like a talisman. Wrapping up his consultation, wishing to forge ahead with further heartbreak, the doctor had enquired, any questions? This was usually the stage where patients became enraged, bargained for more time, tried to convince others, if not themselves, that they would change their ways. His patient contemplated the replica liver, weighed it in his hands. Snapped from reverie, his eyes beseeching, he asked simply, where did you get this?
He sourced his liver online. Within two to three working days, he was unpacking it in his living room. Having long suspected that one day he would await a new liver, he had never guessed that it would arrive so quickly. It was identical to the one he had handled at the surgery. It felt alien in his hands, a prize vegetable at a village fair. Box fresh, robust and solid, he doubted that his own had ever seemed so shiny and new. Surely his drinking couldn’t obliterate something of such substance?
He recalled childhood games, tweezing hindrances from a lifeless patient, a flattened sap reliant upon steady-handed children to remove sidesplitting obstructions. A piercing buzz nettled the hesitant. In this field, as the operator, he had proved himself a surgeon of distinction. He imagined approaching it now, his hands trembling deliriously, the ceaseless screech that would greet his intervention.
He planned to externalise his condition, confront death head on. There was no question of his giving up the drink – it would take more than a malfunctioning organ to keep him sober – but rather than pretending that it wasn’t happening he would make a centrepiece of his affliction. On a coffee table, unaccustomed to coffee, he placed his plastic liver.
It was not purely decorative; this bizarre ornament would play a key role in his final months. Each day he drank, which was each day he woke up, he marked by gouging at its surface: with a chisel he chipped a little at his liver. In this way, he reasoned, he would see the damage he inflicted. Bearing daily witness to this increasingly pockmarked form would perhaps help reduce his intake.
How else could he map his own demise? Funds would not run to a scanner, a blizzard of printouts, a grim flipbook, or, pinned to the wall, a time-lapse gallery of his liver’s disintegration.
Gung-ho, he had chiselled initially with relish. He would show his liver to visitors, revel in their reaction to his perceived bad taste, as their fingers explored its cack-handed cavities. How could he treat impending death with such disrespect? They implied that he was in denial. How could I be, he reasoned, when the evidence is right there before me?
His cocksureness shrivelled with his liver’s diminishment. No longer blasé, he became convinced upon confronting its withered form that it was shrinking outside of his gouging, that it was somehow decreasing of its own accord. Acknowledging the absurdity of this assertion, he still bought a set of scales, weighed it to a number of decimal points before retiring for the evening. The next day, though the figures tallied, he remained sceptical.
He chipped away steadily, as he had done all his life, at family, friends, partners, until nothing remained. For the first time, he would be left with traces of the destruction he wrought.
His amendments lacked surgical precision; a sloppy sculptor, he was lucky not to lose a finger in the process. He wished he hadn’t begun with such enthusiasm, hadn’t taken such sizable chunks from its structure. What remained now presented itself to him as a morbid marker, sands of the hourglass solidified.
Would he reduce his drink intake or the amount he chipped from the block?
He bought a smaller chisel.
Spooked by his jaundiced reflection, he suspected that the mirror was yellowing rather than his skin, ascribed his sallowness to some unearthly patina on its surface. He binned his fickle image. In a skip, at its smash, he flashed back to older superstitions: seven year’s bad luck. What he wouldn’t give now to luxuriate in such protracted doom.
In silhouette, in steady regression, a lost love, a woman shrunken in his memories. An ultimatum had been her final offer: the drink or me. She had looked angelic as she walked away.
Through persistent snicks, it reduced dramatically. For safekeeping, he transferred it to the mantelpiece, so small now that it could be easily misplaced. Another couple of chips and he could squeeze it into his pocket.
He regarded this portentous pebble, all which remained of his once vital organ, or at least its external incarnation. He was not sure that it would take even the finest of chisels. It would necessitate more delicate equipment than he had access to. If he was looking towards nanotechnology, then maybe the battle was already lost.
Between his actual liver and its whittled twin, he sensed a twisted symbiosis. As he gazed upon this gnarled, misshapen trinket he felt unwell, clutched at his side as he drew long breaths. Did he actually feel worse or was his mind tricked by his wilfully fractured manifestation? He entertained voodoo delusions, considered the notion that rather than duplicating internal dysfunctions, his attack upon this model was in fact the source of his suffering. At each approach, sharp tool in hand, was he effectively sticking pins in his own effigy? He imagined returning to hospital, subjecting himself to another scan, and as his doctor explained the shadowy image of what remained, unfurling the tightened fingers of his fist to reveal its physical double, identical in every respect to the onscreen, chiaroscuro flicker. Alighting upon supernatural explanations he realised his grip was slipping. He would escape such thoughts in the only way he knew how.
He lamented not keeping the pieces, the plasticized flecks he discarded daily. And if he had kept them? It seemed unlikely that he would spend his remaining days puzzling together the pieces of an impossible jigsawed liver, attempting to reconstitute the whole, undoing damage done.
Eventually it was whittled to a point where he didn’t wish to leave it unattended. It had reached a state of portability. This dwindled, synthetic liver he would guard with his life.
Shaking, he pocketed what remained, walked his anxieties to the pub.
His worries supped away, he awoke the next day to light relief and a thundering hangover. Feeling wretched, he fumbled in the previous night’s trousers, having had the foresight not to remove them, in a bid to retrieve his prized possession. He turned out pockets, shook them frenziedly, but to no avail. His liver was gone.
He had failed, had proved a luckless custodian. Where was it now? He scanned for memories that were no longer there. Had it been scooped from his pocket, perhaps, a minor land mass in a sea of small change exchanged for one final drink? Had it eroded to nothing, a final unseen disintegration?
It didn’t mean anything, he tried to reassure himself in his panicked state. Any superstitions were of his own construction. He would not succumb to such routine voodoo.
And then he felt a twinge.
Stuart Snelson is a London based writer. His stories have appeared in Litro, 3:AM, The Londonist, Paraxis and Popshot, and are forthcoming in Ambit and Structo. He is currently working on his second novel whilst seeking a publisher for his first. He can be found on twitter at @stuartsnelson