He’d been getting underground CRISPR treatments for years. Maybe his new friends didn’t suspect, but I knew Elray back in the 90s, when I was in high school and he was pushing 40. He should have been in his late 70s, but with a full head of jet black hair and athletic build, he looked younger than when I hung out with him. Plus he had to be eight inches taller. He was all brilliant white smiles as he walked up to me in his signature black tuxedo, through the crowd of retro-punks and retro-mods.
“Jane!” Elray swung his arms wide for a big, showy hug. “I’ve gotta introduce the next act. You look great! Stick around, we’ll have a drink!”
“Oh my God, you’re emceeing,” I said. Elray bounced up the stairs onto the stage and took command of the room. He was like his old emcee self, but even more exuberant.
“This next performer is a man who needs no introduction, but I’ll introduce him anyway….” He was recycling all his old stage material from the 90s.
I didn’t want to hang out for any more of the show. Something about the next act, a guy who had his vocal chords altered to sound like an accordion, wasn’t appealing to me, plus I knew that Elray would forget about me and schmooze his way through the audience toward his ultimate goal, going home for sex with someone who didn’t know or remember him.
On my way out, I could hear him doing his forty year old routine. I wondered if CRISPR technology would mean the end of times… the end of anything new. People will just live forever in a repeating snapshot of their peak moment in life. It’s not that I haven’t gotten any CRISPR done myself. I mean, small things. I fixed my hair. Twice, in fact. I thought I wanted long, blond wavy hair. But it looked out of place against my Caribbean bronze skin, which was also the product of CRISPR. So I switched to dark red hair. I don’t quite remember what my birth skin color was. I deleted all my old pics, wanting to start fresh.
Out of the club, I decided to walk the mile and a half back to my apartment. It was dark out, but not that late. I was listening to retro-hip hop because that’s what the Program decided I’d want to listen to. It was easy to tune out. I remembered how everything seemed new back in the old days, hanging out with Elray and everyone. Jessica. She was just starting to market Lifestyle Purses, the ones that change the way they look depending on your mood. Now you see them on every site. That was her one big idea. It’s supported her for decades.
I’ve lost touch with all those people, and I know exactly why. It’s because they’re all so boring. Everything is boring.
Before I knew it, I was at my doorstep. I walked upstairs, not bothering to turn on any lights. I knew the place so well, I didn’t need to use my eyes. I plopped down on the couch and thought again about that service where they wipe your long-term memory. Then, everything would seem fresh again. But I’d still know it was stale.
I woke up on the couch. Ug, I never even took off my boots or jacket. There was a message waiting for me, but I figured it was spam, so I didn’t bother to play it until after my shower. It was still there, glowing orange when I was getting dressed. I didn’t even know why I was bothering to get dressed. I had enough food in the apartment. I didn’t need to go out today. There was still half a pizza in the delivery tube if I got desperate.
I finally touched the message, and was about to delete it when I saw it was Elray, still in his tux from last night.
“Jane! Great to see you. I’ve got something for you, an idea. Meet me for lunch at Lenny’s. Is 4:00 OK?”
I hit “OK,” and Send.
Lenny’s is a little restaurant that our friend started in the 90s. It only sold food that Lenny loved to eat, mostly soup and cookies. He was still running the place. Elray was waiting at one of the sixties-style formica tables, still in his tux. His hair was tussled and he hadn’t shaved.
There was some small talk (“What have you been up to?” etc.) then he hit me with it:
“The clinic that I got a little bit of CRISPR work done at, they’ve got a new thing going.”
A little CRISPR work? I let it pass. He slid a paper over to me. Scrawled across a background of psychedelic art were the words, “Enhance Your Creativity.” Then some details written in grey type that were hard to decipher.
“There’s no known gene for creativity,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, I know, but they discovered it. Or a combination of genes. We should totally check it out.”
I hesitated, so he continued, “Come on, Jane, we could create new kinds of art and music. Stuff no one’s ever thought of before. We’d be like the Beatles but in 1955.”
I smiled at the reference. Back in the day, Elray and I used to get stoned and talk about how great it would be to go back in time right before the Beatles and record and release their music to great amazement and acclaim.
“Where is this place?”
He squirmed almost imperceptibly. “It’s just over the border in Mexico.”
Right. Tijuana. That’s where the unlicensed CRISPR clinics did their work.
“How much?” I asked.
“It’s in the range of a couple of grand. Pretty cheap for cutting edge stuff.”
“Two thousand?” I asked.
“Four. Four or five thousand tops.”
Oh. That’s why you’re meeting me. You think I have money. I used to pay for ElrayFest, back in the mid 90s. It was an annual 2-week music and art festival that Elray emceed. He didn’t know that I did it all on my parents’ credit and when they found out they banned me from their account.
“Jane, think about it. There’s nothing new in the world. No new music, art. Remember Jaime and Jessica? Ross?”
“Our freak friends,” I said.
“Yeah. But they’re not freaks anymore. They’ve been cured of whatever made them special. They’re boring.”
“It’s called growing up,” I pointed out.
“No, they weren’t supposed to ever be normal. They were artists. And now that nobody is born with any propensity toward mental illness, the culture’s come to a standstill.”
“Yeah, but think of all the suffering that’s been alleviated.”
“People used to suffer for their art!” Elray slammed his fist on the table at the word suffer. “But at least they created something new.”
I thought about how much credit I had. Probably enough. But some quack doctor would be experimenting with my genes. I looked back in the kitchen and saw Lenny there. He was making the same food he made in this place forty years ago. He was playing the same music, too, some horrible 90s radio shit. But it was a modern Program-generated version of the horrible 90s music, which made it even worse.
“OK, I’m in.”
I packed light because I didn’t believe we’d really make the two-day trip to Tijuana. A lot of grand Elray ideas never came to fruition. Like filling an olympic-sized outdoor pool in West Seattle with green Jello for a giant community Jello wrestling match. He ended up with enough Jello to fill a small inflatable kiddie pool in his back yard, and had to use a combination of red and green; he looked like he was sitting naked in human effluent. Elray pulled up at 9am in a green 2019 Ford Fairmont. He had to get out to let me in, since the passenger door didn’t open.
“Is this the same car you were driving when I met you in, like, 1992?”
“Very funny. It does take gas, though. I had to get a waiver to drive it on the road. I already filled up the trunk with enough full cans of gas to get us to the clinic and back.”
“That explains the fumes,” I said.
We talked nonstop the first four hours of driving. Just reminiscing, which I guess we had to get out of the way. I wondered if we had nothing new to talk about. Maybe that’s just how old people are. I stared out at the seacoast rocks along Highway 1, wracking my brain for topics to discuss. I couldn’t smell the gas fumes anymore, but Elray kept his window cracked open so we wouldn’t asphyxiate. I would have cracked my window, but it was stuck closed. Gas powered cars are loud, and the constant rumble of the engine, along with the whistling of air from Elray’s window helped keep things from getting too quiet. Finally, Elray broke the conversation impasse.
“What have you been up to since the 90s?”
“Well, I went to college.”
“Yup. I worked in art galleries in Boston. But more and more it was just retrospectives. I heard there was a good art scene in Chicago and moved there in 2020. I worked for an arts collective called SeeScape. Met an artist called Rowanda.”
“Oh yeah, I saw pics of you guys. I follow you. You never followed me back.”
“I don’t follow anyone,” I said.
“Rowanda did a couple of performances in Seattle in the 20s. I saw her at Punk Palace.”
“I’m really sorry about what happened. She died in a plane crash, right?”
“And so then I moved back to Seattle to be near my parents.”
“How are they?” he asked.
“Old,” I said.
He took that as his cue to talk about himself. “I never left the city. We did one more ElrayFest after you left, in 2000. But it wasn’t the same. A lot of people from the scene moved away. I just went back to emceeing shows but it pays shit. I make some money translating blogs from Spanish to English. I mean, they’re automatically translated but I make adjustments so they sound more natural.” Elray grew up in Seattle, but his parents were from Mexico.
We pulled up to a motel that pretty much defined the word “seedy.” I think it was just called “Motel.” Next door was a diner apparently called “Eat.”
The clerk was behind a bullet-proof window. “I think we should save money -“ Elray started.
“Two beds,” I said half to the clerk, half in response to Elray. Even though Elray was living in the body of a 20-something Elray and I was in my 50-something body, the dynamic between us hadn’t changed and I still felt like he was too old for me.
I peeled off my clothes and crawled into bed while Elray walked over to Eat for some take-out. The smell of fried food woke me up. Elray listed everything he bought from Eat.
“I’m just going to drink some water and sleep,” I said.
“I’ll get you a glass. Hold on.”
I sat up with my back against the yellow wallpaper and the blanket slipped down to my waist. He tried to hand me the water, but was so busy looking at my boobs that he let go of the glass over my lap.
“Oh, shit,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it, I can just turn the blanket like this. It’s fine.”
He dabbed the blanket with a towel and gave me another glass of water. “You’re still beautiful!”
“And you’re still Elray.”
“Ouch!” he said.
Early in the morning, Elray filled the Fairmont up with gas from the trunk and we took off, deciding we could probably do better for food than breakfast at Eat.
We stopped at a convenience store near San Jose for snacks. When Elray was in the bathroom, I bought a can of black spray paint. I shook it on my way back to the car, remembering how Elray, Jaime, Jessica and I used to shake cans of paint as we snuck down the alleys looking for targets for political and absurdist graffiti in the middle of the night. Anyone within a block would have heard the rattling of paint cans but we never got caught. The next day the local paper would report the wave of graffiti and blame it on gangs. The best part is when they quoted what we wrote: “Cows are people Too!” on the side of a burger joint and “After the Revolution All Merchandise Will Be Marked Down 15%!” on the window of a big department store.
I walked around to the back of the green Fairmont and scrawled, in big black letters: ElrayFest 2039! Elray didn’t notice when he came back from the bathroom and we took off toward the border.
The clinic was a sprawling concrete compound in the Centenario borough of Tijuana. An English speaking receptionist named David checked us in. “He’s new,” said Elray.
It was night when we arrived. David made us an appointment to see the doctor in the morning. We were staying in a dorm with eight bunk beds. Every bed was taken with patients except one bunk bed and I quickly jumped up to the top bunk. I didn’t like sleeping under people. Elray took the bottom.
Some of the patients were asleep and some were talking in low tones. I heard German and some Scandinavian language. I surmised that all the patients came from northern, wealthy countries.
“People come from all over to see Dr. Clarke,” said Elray from below me. “She’s amazing. She can cure anything.”
Most of the patients looked elderly. They must have come with real diseases instead of Elray’s touch up type work.
It took me forever to fall asleep. I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Every other time I had gone for a CRISPR treatment, it’d been at a legit clinic, getting a routine procedure that was common, safe. This was different. I thought I was still awake, but when I felt Elray shaking my elbow I realized I had drifted off. It was time for our appointment. I peed, brushed my teeth and followed Elray down a long corridor, down a flight of stairs, down another hallway, into a doctor’s office and sat down on a wooden chair. There was David the Receptionist again. There were no other patients in the room. We followed Dave into an examination room. It was pretty standard looking; everything was white. There was a framed picture of a white flower on the wall.
“We’re pretty lucky to get to see Dr. Clarke this quickly,” said Elray. “Usually I’ve had to wait up to two weeks. That’s how popular she-” The door opened. In walked a tall Scandinavian looking woman in a white lab coat, her blond hair in a tight bun.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Winters.”
“Oh, we were going to see Dr. Clarke,” said Elray.
“I’m sorry. Dr. Clarke died about six months ago,” said the doctor.
Elray looked ashen.
“She was very old,” continued the doctor.
“Yeah, I guess,” said Elray, looking down at the square linoleum floor tiles.
“I don’t think she ever treated herself,” said the doctor. “She was so busy helping her patients.”
Dr. Winters went on to describe our treatment, which sounded like any other CRISPR treatment you’d get. But we’d have to stay at the clinic for four months for observations. I gave Elray my look of defiance.
“Or, you could stay in town and drop in for observations. You don’t have to stay here with us.”
But we did have to stay with them. I didn’t have enough credit to rent a place in Tijuana.
“An extended vacation,” suggested Elray.
I sighed. We were in this far already. Maybe enhancing my creativity would help me figure out a way to make enough money to pay off my credit bills, I thought.
We got our CRISPR treatment and stayed at the clinic for weekly genetic testing. There was a small spare room on the ground floor that they let me use for an art studio. I wanted to see if my painting got any more creative. The room had a window, unlike the dorm room where we slept, so there was nice natural light.
It was really hard to tell if my altered genes improved my creativity or if the effect was psychological, from anticipating a change. But I did make a sort of breakthrough – I finally stopped painting in my lifelong style of representational art and started painting my take on abstract, universal memes. By the third week, I was also studying the border between the US and Mexico and riffing on the concept of borders in general. So, at least I was distracted. Elray was performing a nightly stand-up routine for the patients at the clinic.
One night after his comedy show, Elray shuffled into my studio. I was thinking about my canvas as a border between the world of artistic interpretation and the world as it is in its natural, unadulterated state.
“Whenever we name anything, even visually, by drawing it, we start to approximate it,” I said.
“Fewer and fewer people are showing up to my shows,” said Elray.
“Huh?” I turned my attention to him, thinking about how I wasn’t really seeing Elray, but an interpretation of him that I had created through experiences and labels.
“David said that they’ve had some deaths at the clinic. Our dorm room is the last full one, the others are mostly empty,” he said.
“Um, did he say why they were dying?” I asked
“No but he was acting all sketchy.”
“Do you think we’re sick, that the treatments are killing us?” I asked.
“No, I don’t know. I feel fine. Do you?”
“Yeah, I’m good. We should sit David down and talk to him,” I said.
“Yeah, OK. Let’s do it now. His car’s still here. I think he’s in the office.”
I could hear a news program playing when we knocked on the office door. It went silent and David opened the door.
“Hey, guys,” he said. He was looking a bit pale and fragile, like snowflakes that find themselves landing in a world just a little too warm to sustain them.
“Elray and I were wondering what was going on with the high mortality rate of the patients. Is that something new? Is it from the treatments?”
“No, it’s not the treatments,” he said. “Here, sit down.”
“What is it then?” asked Elray.
Both Elray and I said, “Huh?” at the same same time which I thought would normally have been funny, except for the death stuff. So I didn’t smile, but I thought about the border between a smile and the emotion that the smile expresses.
“Dr. Winter has been working with the lab techs on viruses that mosquitos can spread to do the work of CRISPR much more efficiently and cheaper,” David explained. “With the success of you two and your creativity gene sequence, she was working on spreading that same kind of enhancement to everyone. They modified a single mosquito and set it free.”
“OK, wait a minute,” said Elray. “They released a genetically modified mosquito?”
“Well, no, that’s been done a million times by people fighting mosquito populations and mosquito borne illness. They added a virus to the mosquito that would spread to the mosquito population and infect people to modify their genes.”
Neither Elray nor I spoke. We let David collect himself and keep going.
“It’s spread really quickly,” he said. “But it had an unintended consequence.” He clicked the news program back on. Elray and I had been happily cut off from all news since we’d started our trip a couple of months before.
“Death… devastation… pandemic….” the news was going on and on about people dying.
“How many- ” asked Elray.
“Millions,” said David.
“What’s Winters doing about it? Is she working on a cure?” Elray asked.
“No,” I answered for David. “She isn’t, is she?”
David clicked the news back off and looked back and forth between the two of us. “It was an accident. But she… I don’t understand her, I-”
“Where is she? Is she at the clinic?” asked Elray.
“She’s at her apartment. She didn’t even come in today.”
“What’s her address?” Elray wrote it down and we took off. He was in a hurry, but I was just thinking about the border between the snowflake and the water it becomes, melting into all the other doomed snowflakes.
Dr. Winters lived alone in a red brick apartment building in downtown Tijuana. On our way, we passed no moving cars, no people on the street. Tijuana, a city of two and a half million people, was dead. But Dr. Winters was alive. She must have seen us coming. Either that or David had called her. She was standing in the main entrance of the building waiting for us.
“There’s no security here anymore. Come on in.” She was holding a glass of white wine and when she gestured toward the inside of the building, about half of it sploshed out onto the gray carpet. She led us to her apartment, which was surprisingly beautiful. The clinic was so sparse and boring that I expected her place to be the same. But it was filled with carved wooden art, plants I’d never seen before, and books on every surface. Instead of her white lab coat and white shoes, Dr. Winters was wearing color. Some sort of long South American dress in bright blue and green and yellow.
She offered us some wine. Elray, who seemed more and more agitated, dismissively waived his hand and said, “We know about the mosquitos!”
“I’ll have some,” I said and she poured me a big glass to the brim.
“The mosquitos are killing people. It wasn’t my original intent,” she said. “Have a seat.”
I moved a couple of books and sat down in a very soft and comfy couch. I rubbed my hand over the surface. It reminded me of the soft skin of my great grandmother when she was in the nursing home.
Elray remained standing. “What do you mean, your ‘original intent’?”
“Oh, oh!” I said, raising my hand. “I know this one!”
“Go ahead, Dear,” the doctor said to me.
I placed my glass on the inlaid wooden coffee table and turned to Elray. “When Doctor Winters-”
“Delores,” said Dr. Winters.
I smiled at her. It was a genuine smile, I noted – there was no thought of the word, “smile.” It just came, like the expression of an animal. “When Delores and her crew found out that the mosquitos were killing people, they realized that they had, in fact, succeeded.”
“Succeeded in what, genocide?” asked Elray.
“Well, that, yes, but succeeded in the quest for enhanced creativity.”
There was a two-beat pause and Delores leaned toward Elray and placed her hand on his knee. “It’ the penultimate expression of creativity: destruction,” she said.
“To really create something new,” I started.
“You have to destroy something old,” she finished. “Think of it as a reboot.”
“So that’s it?” asked Elray? “We’re all going to die?”
“I am,” said Delores. I was bitten yesterday. I’ll be dead in the next 24 hours. But… not… you… two.”
I had been feeling pretty smug with figuring everything out up to that point, but this part surprised me.
“Why not us?” Elray asked.
“You’re immune!” Delores said with glee. She reached over and poured herself more wine. It was red, which swirled into the white wine still in her glass. I guessed that’s what one does on one’s last day alive.
Delores continued, “The virus won’t affect you because your genes were already altered for creativity. A happy coincidence.”
“What about the other people you altered for creativity? Are there a lot of us?” I asked.
“Nope. None. You two were our only successful pair. You were the proof of concept. We went from you straight to the mosquito experiment.”
Elray picked up an empty wine glass and held it out for Delores to fill.
. . .
Elray and I found a great apartment with plenty of studio space, on the top floor of Delores building. It was free because of everyone being dead. There’s no news, no human noise. A few months ago the Program stopped working for some reason, so we have to choose our own music.
About a week into our new digs, Elray walked up to me and said, “You know, I think it was Dr. Winters’ plan for you and me to repopulate the Earth. It would be the ultimate creative act.”
I gave him a big smile. “Sorry, Last Man on Earth. It ain’t gonna happen.”
These days, when I finish a work of art, I burn it. Then I use the ashes in my next piece. And every evening, Elray performs a stand-up routine for me. And his material is always new.
This transportational daisy will take you to another story of speculative fiction: