"-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"> Frigg | Spring/Summer 2023 | Donation | Lucy Zhang
artwork for Lucy Zhang's short story Donation

Lucy Zhang

Alex donated his time to me which means he now dies in two months and 17 days. We could’ve lived a longer life together: stepping on each other’s backs as both a workout and massage, trying to trick each other into taking out the trash or removing dead cockroaches from the bathtub, grilling chicken thighs doused in cumin on the electric grill because a real, outdoor, propane-based grill is too much for us to handle. I had been scheduled to die in six months, after which Alex could’ve tidied his things and moved somewhere greener, where the leaves change with seasons, where you don’t see sketchy people on the streets trying to take a dump. Instead, he donated his time even though I had never asked for it. I told him we could spend those final six months before my expiration date experimenting with the convection oven and yeast, visiting our extended relatives in Fuzhou and Shenyang eagerly waiting to throw us a banquet and shower us with money, visiting the newly opened street of Cantonese restaurants for rice noodle rolls and turnip cakes, which is all we eat when we go out. We like to pretend we know what we’re talking about when we eat the same things every time, and Alex even has a Yelp Elite status for his lengthy reviews, although I’m the one doing the actual posting from his account.

Donating time is a simple procedure: you register with the county clerk, fill out some forms and waivers online stating you know you qualify for the donation and acknowledge the consequences, input the amount of time you wish to donate. After a week or so, the request is approved with a mailed certificate in a thick, yellow envelope padded with bubble wrap. I don’t understand why a single sheet of paper requires bubble wrap, but I don’t understand a lot of things, especially when it comes to bureaucratic processes.

After we had received the certificate, I asked Alex, “So what now? What happens?”

“I think it has already taken into effect? Although I don’t feel any different.”

I didn’t feel different either. Still don’t. But we trust the paperwork and operate accordingly. Since Alex now has two months and 17 days left and I have plenty of years ahead of me, we’re cramming everything we’ve wanted to do within these two months. I tell Alex we could’ve had a full six months to do so if we’d just left things as is, but he said he didn’t want to be left alone rotting with his brain. Alex gets into dangerous mindsets when he’s alone. The last time I left on a business trip to Israel, he subsided on ramen packets which he’d only remember to eat on the brink of starvation, and then he drove down to the peach orchards in the No Man’s Land farms without actually picking peaches—just looping around and around in his car. When I returned, I found the trash filled with ramen-pack wrappers.

* * *

We buy a ZaraPet because we’ve always wanted a pet but don’t want to deal with it dying before us. We’ve always wanted a family beyond our party of two, but at the time, we worried a baby would hasten my body’s six-month expiration date. “You don’t need to worry anymore,” Alex says, grinning, when we place the order online for express delivery. Our ZaraPet arrives the next day in a cardboard box the size of our mini-fridge, although the ZaraPet itself is much smaller, padded with styrofoam and packing peanuts. We place it on the counter, insert its BioMaxChip, and wait several seconds for its systems to sync. The guide says our ZaraPet should auto-calibrate to our home and our voices once we’ve gone through the starting guide, so we take turns speaking to it, enunciating clearly, avoiding any verbal blips, and using soothing, calm tones like we’re coaxing a duckling.

We set up our ZaraPet with little issue and prepare a small corner of the living room for it to sleep. We place a bowl of water and dinner leftovers next to its cushion, and despite our fear it might not be able to stomach our heavy use of chili peppers and ginger, it devours the food in one go. Alex tells me not to feed it too much since ZaraPets don’t require food for sustenance, but I refill the bowl as soon as it’s emptied. According to the instructions, eating fosters a sense of dependence and nurturing. Alex calls it a gimmick, but he starts refilling the bowl whenever he finds it empty, too.

ZaraPets live for a long, long time given proper maintenance. Much longer than humans. We figure we have plenty of time to figure out its name: a whole two months’ (or so) worth. Alex chases our ZaraPet around the house, trying to get it to curl up under his desk near his feet, or carry and swing it around like it’s on a roller coaster ride. I tell Alex not to bother our ZaraPet so much because I certainly wouldn’t like it if someone picked me up randomly, but Alex continues to snatch our ZaraPet off the ground, spinning in circles or running around the kitchen like a child. I don’t think our ZaraPet appreciates the gesture much because when Alex isn’t carrying it to and fro, it follows me to the bedroom and bathroom and garage—as far as it can go before I have to lock the door and drive to the grocery store for non-sour silken tofu. You can never trust what you’ll get at the King’s Seafood Center—even if the packaging says it expires in two months, some blocks of tofu taste like under-salted kimchi.

Eventually, we name our ZaraPet Ai because we think it’s a fun play on the words “爱” and “AI.” Neither Alex nor I care much for those kinds of topics—whether artificial intelligence can truly “love” or not. We just think it’s cool, sounds meaningful, and is easy to remember. When we discussed children, we always thought it’d be a fleeting desire that would disappear after one year, which I suppose is well-timed on Alex’s part now that I will be left with all the responsibility. “But you can just recycle Ai once you’re done with the caretaking business,” Alex reassures me. I laugh.

* * *

When there’s one month left of Alex’s life, he picks up chess. I don’t know anything about chess, but he seems to learn quickly and begins beating character-imitation bots in online games. I buy him a real chessboard but he says it’s not the same, you can’t see the board from the same bird’s eye view and the height of the individual pieces obstructs potential lines and makes you less likely to see tactics. He leaves the chessboard untouched but I don’t return it in case he changes his mind at the last second and decides to tear open the packaging and at least hold the pieces in his hands.

By this time, Ai has gotten comfortable with sitting by Alex’s feet as he plays, but will still run to me when Alex stands. Alex spends less time harassing Ai now, distracted by his games. Ai and I lie on the bed together, me reading or watching travel videos or sketching on the iPad and Ai cuddled by my back or feet, watching my eyes dart back and forth or sleeping to the sound of instrumental YouTube music I play in the background. When I’m not too focused, I’ll stroke Ai’s back and hum.

Alex comes up for air once in a while to refill his mug of water, and as he waits for the tap water to filter through, he asks me where I’d like to travel with our remaining time together. I, an expert via countless travel vlogs, begin reciting a whole list.

“We can’t go everywhere, that’s not possible. Maybe three at most, if we travel back-to-back without a break. But I think I’d prefer to die at home,” Alex says.

I open my mouth to answer with one place, the best place, the one where we can make the most memories and experience the most the world has to offer. “Do you want to grill chicken for dinner?” I ask. Raw, cumin-rubbed chicken thighs have been sitting in the fridge for the last two days, and I’m worried they’ll go bad.


* * *

Ai runs up to me when I return home from work. I crouch down, bending my knees close to the ground, arms open for Ai to enter into a hug. Ai jumps all over me, more hyperactive than usual, and I spend several seconds whispering “It’s OK, it’s OK,” patting Ai on the back and stomach. Then I stand to take off my coat and hang my bag. “Where’s dad?” I ask, and Ai runs toward the master bedroom. I follow slowly as I simultaneously try to change out of my blouse and dress pants into sweats.

Alex lies on the bed, eyes closed, head bobbing, AirPods stuck in each of his ears, his phone on the pillow next to his head. On closer inspection, I see his mouth opening minutely and lips forming different shapes like he’s speaking. Ai jumps onto the bed as I tap Alex’s shoulder. He opens his eyes and pulls out his left AirPod.

“I finally found an artist who sounds too good not to sing, but also too good for me to sing,” he says.

“It’s not like anyone else is listening,” I reply. Alex has always sung as he pleased: in the shower, in the car with the windows rolled down, at karaoke with extended friends of friends whom I was in no way comfortable with singing in front of. I look down at Alex’s phone, the lyrics animating down the screen as the music continues to play through the AirPods. Alex disconnects Bluetooth, and the sound output redirects through the speakers. I listen for several seconds.

“How can you tell what they’re saying? There’s no enunciation or intonation,” I say.

“That’s the beauty of it, tones are obliterated and no one cares. Jay Chou is a master. A language concealed by a language.”

“OK.” I don’t see the beauty behind it, but I suppose having one week left to live makes Alex see meaning in all sorts of things.

* * *

During Alex’s final hours, Ai suffers a breakdown. We’re not sure what causes it. One moment, I am sliding carrots back and forth across the mandoline, the next, Ai is heaving on the ground, coughing up bile and emitting smoke like a steam train. I first try to pat Ai’s back, trying to get out whatever might be stuck in Ai’s throat. Ai stops coughing, but liquid continues to leak from its mouth, pooling on the hardwood, glistening like oil.

Alex sits on the couch, popping spicy beef-flavored roasted broad beans into his mouth. He doesn’t wait to swallow the first before popping in a second as though he can’t get enough of them within the limited time he’s got. The liquid has stopped leaking from Ai’s mouth, but smoke continues to rise, and I try to feel where the smoke is escaping from. Ai’s body is hot to touch so I can only briefly place my hand before pulling it back for my skin to cool and the red splotches to subside before I turn my fingers bright red again.

“What do I do?” I call over to Alex. Alex looks in my direction.

“Oh, no,” he says like he has only just noticed a bathtub overflowing. “What’s wrong with Ai? Do we need a doctor?”

“I don’t know.”

“A doctor is better than nothing.”

“What about you? Don’t you only have two hours left?”

“Oh, come on, we’ve been together long enough. Another two hours won’t make a difference.”

I don’t say anything for a moment.

Alex breaks the silence: “Ai might break. Irreparably. You should go. Doctor visits are fast, too. You’ll probably be back in under two hours.”

I do as Alex says and take Ai to the doctor. It turns out there’s not enough lubricant between the metal parts of some of its joints, and metal on metal heats up rapidly to make smoke. The doctor fixes Ai up real fast with a bit of oil. “Odd this happened so early with your ZaraPet. Normally brand new ZaraPets don’t see these problems until well after their initial owners pass away,” the doctor remarks, eying Ai like an interesting specimen.

“Yeah, weird,” I say.

“In any case, this should last you a good, long time. Certainly well after you pass.”

I thank the doctor and head to the administrative office with Ai to pay the operation fee. Alex is wrong: doctor visits take forever; insurance document processing takes forever; Ai takes forever to console. I imagine Alex resting on the couch, several broad beans littering the ground where one of his arms hangs, grip loose and dangling just above the floor.

Ai cuddles up to me when I finally make it to the car to drive back. Normally I don’t let Ai touch me while driving because it’s not safe, but this time I try to scoot closer so Ai can reach me over the cupholder. Anyway, Ai should be able to survive a crash with no problem, and I am feeling a bit reckless with this one life of mine.

Lucy Zhang’s Comments

This piece was the result of a grab bag of things I wanted to write about: the idea of time being a transactional means, robots, mortality as a machine versus as a body. I’m also at a point in life where I’m seeing people pass away and their loved ones being blocked from mourning due to physical distance or emotional distance. I wanted to explore a detached form of grief that seems completely controlled by numbers and defined operations—and yet … not.

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Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 61 | Spring/Summer 2023