In the heat, even paper seemed to sweat. Dr. Startsev’s fingers left wet stains on the pages of the open notebook, on a number: thirty. Thirty minutes to try and deter the people about to enter his office from doing the irreversible.
He always hoped for thirty; but when the front door in the lobby opened and steps drummed on the laminated floorboards, a resolute ostinato, he corrected himself: at most, twenty.
Then a male voice rang, the barking ‘a’s and the rolling ‘r’s, and Startsev was down to fifteen.
Through the blooming headache, he imagined Mr. Turkin answering the receptionist: “I’m here to replace my son.”
Something rolled and rumbled in the street, and the noise made Startsev realize that his hand on the table had convulsed into a fist. What the hell is wrong with you, old boy, calm down, calm down, they aren’t even in the room yet.
Nerves would only hurt the kid’s chances.
Mr. Turkin wouldn’t say ‘replace’, of course—people like him never shared Startsev’s views on character grafting, people driving imported Bentleys, people sipping Bacardi in sunlit lounges at midday, life’s marketers and lenders. The man’s knowledge of the procedure likely stemmed from the ads in glossy magazines; Mr. Turkin would say ‘enhance.’
The door into the office, opening, threw a shadow over the glass cases on the shelf: butterflies, brush strokes of wings melting in the summer heat. Startsev had started the collection in the third grade; he no longer knew why, but now, as the pieces of the July sun slipped back into the picture-like frames, something stirred in him, and a silly thought occurred: maybe, if he saved the boy, he could remember.
“Good morning, Doctor.”
“Good morning, Mr. Turkin, Mrs. Turkin. Kolya. Please, come in, take a sit.“
They moved, figures assuming their places on a ghostly chessboard: the father, looking more like a hipster than an oligarch in his slim trousers, designer shorts, and sneakers, put on as though by accident; the mother, in a black-and-white polka-dot dress; and the son, a shorter figure trudging between them, clutching a mechanical dinosaur in his hands.
The boy. Kolya. Startsev’s fingers spasmed again, and he forced himself to concentrate, try to piece together the parents’ decision process: ‘A bit too plump, a bit too passive for his age, stares at his toes all the time.’ Over the phone, Mr. Turkin had summed his son up in one word: ‘Slow.’
“I wonder if I’ve seen you before, Doctor.” Mrs. Turkin lowered herself into a chair. “On TV, maybe?”
An acute feeling pricked Startsev, of being out of fashion, like an obsolete cell phone.
Mr. Turkin remained standing—and so did Kolya, after stealing a glance at his father.
“I’ll repeat my question from yesterday: I’d like to know why we’ve been called here, after all the tests. My son has been through psychological and physical evaluations.”
“It’s not about tests,” Startsev said and cringed inside at his own words. “This is an assessment of you as a family.”
“Which our psychologist has already carried out,” Mr. Turkin said. “How else could we’ve gotten a referral to this clinic?”
“We perform random checks to ensure the quality of practicing psychologists’ work.”
“So we’ve drawn the wrong ticket.” Mr. Turkin nudged Kolya towards a chair and took the place next to him.
Startsev made an effort to smile. “I would look at this rather as an opportunity to get to know each other.”
Mrs. Turkin stretched her hand behind Kolya’s back to touch her husband’s shoulder. She said, “It’s fine, Doctor, we’ll of course cooperate. And by the way, I’m sure now I’ve seen you on TV.”
Mr. Turkin said, “On Malakhov’s Show, probably. They like doctors. I take it then you’ll be doing the operation?”
“No, I don’t operate on patients anymore.”
“Then? …” A hand gesture, as though inviting Startsev to speak.
Then what the hell are you good for? Why are you intruding on my time?
Startsev said, “We’re getting ahead of ourselves.”
Kolya turned and looked back at the door; perhaps, on an unconscious level, searching for an escape.
A black leather document folder, snapping open. Startsev couldn’t beg—a doctor begging just scared people; he had to follow the established dynamic, slide along the accepted routes, play the game. “This photograph. Could you tell me about the man, the donor? I may have seen the face somewhere, but I can’t quite place him. Why have you chosen him for the character graft?”
The guy on the picture had a jaw which seemed wider than the rest of his head, a stretched smile turning his eyes into a pair of slits.
“Andrey Arshavin,” Mr. Turkin said. “Midfielder in Zenit, the best footballer in the game right now.”
“Does that mean you’re interested in soccer, Kolya?”
The boy pressed the dinosaur against his chest. “Doctor, I—”
“He isn’t,” Mr. Turkin said.
“Then why this Arshavin fellow?”
Mrs. Turkin produced a neat little smile. “Our psychologist recommended him, and we both like the way Andrey plays.”
“Dr. Petrov did a comprehensive analysis,” her husband said. “Full mapping of Kolya’s brain, plus nine or ten surveys. I mean, put together, how long have you spent in his office, Tatyana?—yeah, at least a day. He said Andrey Arshavin is the perfect donor for the character traits Kolya needs.”
The yellow card in the document folder said, ‘Resilience, competitiveness, will for success.’ A fly, half-comatose from the heat, crawled onto Startsev’s hand and stopped between the two bulges of veins. Sweat, palpable against the onset of a headache, burned a line on the back of his neck.
Concentrate, Startsev thought.
He said, “Kolya’s eight years old.”
The boy drew in a breath. “Eight and a half.”
“Please do not interrupt the doctor,” Mr. Turkin said.
“He didn’t interrupt me at all—and thank you for correcting me, Kolya. At this age, how do you know he’s not resilient enough?”
“He’s afraid of math tests.”
“I probably was too when I was eight.”
Mr. Turkin leaned forward. “He’s slow, he’s not measuring up to his classmates. He has a ‘Satisfactory’ in math. A ‘Satisfactory.’”
Startsev slapped his palm on the desk; he did it to shake off the fly, but the crack of flesh against wood broke some dam inside him. “Then maybe Kolya’s the next Mendeleev. Mendeleev had mediocre marks at school. You yourself, Mr. Turkin, did you ever get anything above ‘Satisfactory’ in math?”
The man leaned forward in his chair. “Doctor, are you absolutely sure your guidelines include insulting your customers?”
Back off, rethink. No lashing out, not with these people, old boy. “Please forget what I’ve said.” Startsev fanned his fingers and patted the table. “Must be the heat. The air conditioner’s been dead for days.”
“To answer your question, Doctor, we are certain he’s lagging behind,” Mr. Turkin said, “because our psychologist has told us that if we don’t act now, Kolya would never reach his full potential.”
“The potential—I’m sorry, Mr. Turkin, his potential, by definition, is right here in front of you.”
Husband and wife stared at him. Kolya turned to look at the door again; no, not the door, Startsev realized: the boy studied the shelf, aquamarine wings in glass cases.
“Do you like my butterflies?”
Kolya jerked his head back around and straightened. He didn’t appear frightened, only a little anxious: he must’ve sensed the tension in the room, but eight years was too gentle an age to comprehend the full gravity of the conversation. His fingers let go of the dinosaur and reached for his mother’s hand.
“Go on, answer the question,” Mr. Turkin said.
“I love bugs, Doctor. Insects, I mean. They’re so different from us, like aliens…”
Something squeezed inside Startsev. All the little worlds, we step on. That’s what we’re good at, stepping on precious little worlds, trampling them underfoot.
You cannot, you cannot beg for him.
Mr. Turkin shrugged. “Spends weekends in the garden—”
Mrs. Turkin said, “We have a big garden.”
“—taking pictures of beetles and such, can you imagine that? He takes photos and then, for a whole hour, arranges them on his table.”
Without thinking, Startsev said, “I rearrange my butterflies too, every morning.”
He immediately regretted the words, a part of himself he hadn’t meant to share.
“Why do you rearrange them, Doctor?” the boy said.
“I… Doesn’t matter.” As though in a dream, Startsev glanced at the butterflies, wishing he could see them through the boy’s eyes. Then he caught himself and forced his thoughts onto the more practical rails. “Mr. Turkin, Kolya may become an entomologist or a botanist. You should be proud; most kids of his age have no hobby at all.”
The boy batted his eyelashes, and Startsev thought, They don’t praise him even a bit.
Mr. Turkin sniffed. “Not much of a hobby. I’m not raising him to end up a loser. Ever heard of a millionaire botanist, Doctor? Money and success are in the financial sector.”
Mrs. Turkin said in an apologizing tone, “We want him to be a winner.”
Startsev rested his head on his fingers—think, think—trying to come up with next move the way a chess player would. He wished for the sun to stop, he wished it were evening already. Watercolor wings now seemed like eyes, gazing at him accusingly from the shelf.
“The operation, Kolya,” he said, “do you have any idea what it entails?”
The boy hesitated and glanced at his father. “I want to become tough.”
Startsev turned to Mr. Turkin. “Could we have a word alone?”
“If we must. Son, sit outside.”
Behind the glass panel by the door, Kolya’s silhouette slouched into a chair in the lobby. Dangling legs, just long enough for the toes to touch the floor. Hands, fumbling with the leg of the mechanical dinosaur.
Mr. Turkin said, “What kind of family assessment is this? I don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, Doctor, but I’m this close to leaving—and then I’m going to have a talk with whoever runs this establishment.”
“I’d like to describe the procedure to you,” Startsev said. “Because some think we do it with magnets and lasers. What really happens is, we sedate the patient, and then we peel away the skin.” He made a gesture as though taking off a hat. “Saw through the bone. Then the surgeon takes the scalpel and makes an incision, cuts into the lump of meat. At this point, the brain is just meat, and you need to cut it for the machines to go in and reshape the neural pathways. The doctor who operates the machines flashes a light into the opening every now and again to make sure nothing got jammed, and if you peek in at that instant, you see metal working inside the brain. Inside the person. And in my experience, the person who leaves the operation room is never the same one that has entered it. Whatever you may think, it’s not an enhancement.”
“Do you realize how the grafting of character traits came to be?” Startsev said. “It branched off from a different procedure; ‘personality transplant’ as we called it.”
Still, they waited.
“It was conceived as a remedy for schizophrenia.”
“I know,” said the father. “We researched online before coming here. Character grafts are trivial in comparison. Like, you’ve rules for it, the graft must not constitute more than ten percent…” He waved his hand.
“Mr. Turkin, as somebody once told me, there’s no scientific definition of an individual. No definition of you or me. How much can you replace before the old ‘you’ ceases to exist? Twenty percent? Forty? Forty-five? If you take your son on a fishing trip, it’s the most amazing thing in the world to him, and then a year later he can’t even remember the occasion—is he still the same person?”
“We don’t do fishing trips,” Mr. Turkin said. “Fishing trips are a waste of time.”
“Mrs. Turkin,” Startsev said, “his dinosaur—the toy—things he loves right now, he may not love them afterwards.”
He glimpsed a flash of fear in her eyes, and panic pricked him. How much time did he have left? He’d been wrong, he’d been wrong since the first moment, he should’ve concentrated on the mother, the mother was the key. Perhaps…
She said, “But he will still love me?”
Startsev opened and closed his mouth. Then he dropped his gaze to the documents as though he hoped to find there a cue which would allow him to say ‘no.’ “Love for one’s mother is a deep-going instinct,” he said quietly. “Kolya will keep loving you, yes. And yet I’d like you to consider carefully what you’re doing. Please. Your son, the one that just exited the room, will die.”
She rose her hand to her lips in a quick gesture, then said, “But I thought the mortality rates were zero.”
Startsev studied Mr. and Mrs. Turkin: two human beings separated from him by an invisible, impenetrable wall. A decade ago, when that moment had come during his first prep talk, a part of him, inside, screamed, and scratched, and fumed, and fought for the control of the motor neurons—but years dull one’s edge. Repetition upon repetition, they wash away everything but the underlying fatigue. He wished it were evening and he could curl in the corner of his office and cease listening, seeing, thinking.
He leaned back in his chair and took out a pen.
That’s it, old boy. Let it go.
“This week is booked. I can put you down for next Tuesday.”
They signed the papers.
At the door, Mr. Turkin paused, holding his hand on the knob. “This was no family assessment, was it, Doctor?”
“Goodbye, Mr. Turkin.”
“I know where Tatyana saw you. I recognize you now. You’re one of the graft’s fathers. One of the original team? What are you trying to do, sabotage your own work?”
“Goodbye to both of you.”
After the door slammed shut, Startsev leaned back in his chair and pressed his fingers against his forehead. You’re right, Mr. Turkin. Sabotage was a strong word, though; his old colleagues had all but tied his hands—and they would’ve gladly removed him, too, hadn’t he held a significant share of the stock.
What remained were these prep conversations: hardly sabotage, only a tiny chance of dissuading people from making the biggest mistake of their lives.
A handful of successes over a decade of failures—but still, he kept trying: his own private little war against human nature.
Through the glass, he saw the parents talking to Kolya; following an impulse, Startsev stood, picked up a butterfly from the shelf, and went into the lobby.
Behind the window, the far end of the street squirmed in the heat haze. Startsev watched the family exit the hospital; Kolya trudged between his parents, glass case under his arm. He took his mother’s hand.
Startsev turned and regarded the insects on the shelf. One was missing now, but he surmised, with weariness, that it would return to its place on Tuesday.
Once, the butterflies had been important to him, but he no longer knew why, and no rearrangement of cases would help that. He didn’t remember his own operation; he recalled the rationale—he was a remnant of an age when scientists believed the first test subjects should be themselves—but not the feeling. What had that man felt, lying down on the operating table and breathing in the first curls of anesthetic gas?
Memory is an internal rumor, he thought. Perhaps the old Startsev had never existed; perhaps it had always been him, in the white lab coat, in this office, staring at a collection of butterflies that belonged to somebody else.