1. Masha, age 74, heart attack
Most of the brains that Liv eats are little old ladies. Ravi screens them for dementia and mental illness, but plenty of sharp-witted septuagenarians come through the morgue. They undergo autopsies so that their families can sue their doctors or their employers, or simply confirm cause of death. Most of them have unobtrusive minds that take a backseat to Liv’s personality, so they’ve become her meal of choice.
Masha one is more colorful than most. She lived in communist Russia for fifty years before the Iron Curtain came down. She spent the final third of her life cleaning houses until her heart gave out. Masha has a wry sense of humor and curses every inconvenience and injustice with Russian invectives so filthy that Liv writes them down because she knows they’ll come in handy.
Masha has outlived three husbands: two in Russia, one in America. They might have complained about her cooking and her swearing, but they never complained in bed. Unhooking her bra, Liv says to Major, “This brain is just full of fun ideas that won’t turn you into a zombie.”
“High class call girl?” Major guesses, licking his lips.
”Nye bud’ zhopoi. Russian cleaning lady.”
Lying satisfied an hour later, Major says, “Those Russian cleaning ladies got some moves.”
2. Arun, age 28, vehicular manslaughter
Liv hears voices in the morgue when she gets to work, speaking a language she doesn’t understand, and assumes Ravi has gotten himself addicted to Indian soap operas again. Instead, it’s Ravi doing the talking, along with a middle-aged couple who look like their world has ended. “Morning, Liv,” Ravi says over his shoulder. “Your breakfast’s in the fridge already.”
She still has half a brain from yesterday to finish, but it sounds like Ravi wants her to try the new one. She fries herself a brain omelet and spikes her coffee with hot sauce. By the time she’s washed her dishes, she understands the conversation in the adjoining room. The deceased was a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering. His parents have flown in from Kolkata. They’re begging Ravi for an explanation, but he has no answers. “I’m sure the police are doing everything they can to find the driver, but it was a hit and run with no witnesses.”
Arun saw things in terms of their component parts. Ballpoint pens, medical imaging equipment, the human skeleton: elegant systems that he could turn and manipulate in his head. Liv takes a stroll after work before heading home, admiring machines. They’ve never seemed alive to her before, and they’ll be dead again in a few days, when she runs out of genius brain.
Before Major comes over, Liv discovers a brilliant method for repairing the wonky shower head in her apartment. Before she can implement it, she reinforces the stability of her stepladder, and that’s where Major finds her, on a ladder rigged with duct tape and metal rulers, reattaching her shower head.
They put on a movie, and Major massages her neck. “You like this brain, don’t you?”
“I like the ones that are smarter than me,” she says. “And the ones that are smart in different ways than I am. This one’s both.”
“How’d he die?” Major has been getting more cavalier about this kind of question.
“He got hit by a car walking across campus,” Liv says. “Probably some drunk idiot they’ll never find.”
“Ironic, don’t you think?” Major says. “A guy whose whole purpose in life was to make machines that were human-proof, and he gets killed by some jerk who can’t control their car.”
“Yeah, irony’s kind of lost on this brain,” Liv says. She suddenly misses irony more than she misses sex or prolonged exposure to sunshine.
“Guess I’ll have to try it again with the next one,” Major says.
3. Miguel, age 31, smoke inhalation
This brain literally died in a fire. It would sound callous to put it that way, but it’s the dead guy’s sense of humor, not Liv’s. It had a pleasant smoky flavor, too.
“Who did you eat?” Major says. “Because he’s not funny.”
4. Doris, age 102, pneumonia
“Pancakes and bacon?” Major skips back to the kitchen table with a full plate. “I don’t know what kind of brains you’re on, but I hope you don’t run out soon.”
Liv, on the other hand, hopes someone more exciting dies today, because she deplores this version of herself. Meek and self-negating, anxious until she’s certain Major has exactly what he wants. The owner of this brain was content in a long marriage to a man she didn’t love, incomplete for the twenty years of widowhood she spent in an assisted living community after he passed away. “She was a hundred years old,” Liv said. With discomfiting pride in her voice, she adds, “Made her husband breakfast every morning for sixty years.”
“Why would they even autopsy someone that old?” Major asks, his mouth full of pancakes.
“Insurance dispute.” She pours the last of the batter into the pan. “Will you want seconds?”
“No, you go ahead,” Major says.
The ghost in Liv’s head feels guilty for eating her share, but Liv shakes off the influence and breaks out the habanero salsa. “She wouldn’t have bothered with the insurance. Her grandchildren were concerned.”
“Sounds like the kind of lady who wouldn’t have bothered, in general,” Major says, hitting the nail on the head as usual. Liv wonders if there was a course in that in his Masters of Social Work program.
“Yeah, she lived a whole century, and she never accomplished much beyond pancakes,” Liv says. “All these people lured into zombiehood with the promise of living forever, but it’s like - maybe the longer you have, the less you do with it. Better to die young and make your mark than to sit in a holding pattern.”
“Is that you talking, or the brain?” Major says, sounding even more like a social worker.
“I’m not sure,” Liv says.
5. Dave, age 21, aortic aneurysm
Some brains turn Liv into an inspired painter or a brilliant engineer. Others turn her into the best Halo 3 player in the world. She considers the reasonable strategy of buying her own copy of the game and borrowing Major’s XBox, but the brain compels her to swipe his console from the crime scene, so she’ll have the one with his password and game history already saved to memory. She doesn’t mind helping him embark on one last campaign from beyond the grave.
When it’s clear there was no crime, only a tragic sudden demise from natural causes, she gets Ravi to let her go home and play video games. He says this brain is making her twitchy and distracting. It’s true, the guy didn’t get out much; he’d dropped out of college because he was making so much money winning tournaments. Maybe he’s making her more socially awkward than she realizes.
She’s so absorbed in the game that she doesn’t notice her phone when Major texts to say he’s coming over. He startles her when he lets himself in, and she recoils when he sits down too close to her on the couch. “You’re messing me up,” she says, eyes glued to the screen.
“Ravi warned me this might happen,” Major says, respecting this brain’s exhaustingly rigid touch bubble by scooting to the far end of the couch. “Can you pause for a second?”
She hits pause, fighting off the urge to chew him out for interrupting the momentum of a very important game. There are no important games for this guy, not anymore. “Sorry. It’s one of those overwhelming personalities. I’m having a hard time finding myself today.”
“That’s why I brought this,” Major says, and he pulls a copy of Halo 5 out of his bag.
“You shouldn’t have,” Liv says. “This brain will wear off in a few days, and in the meantime, I am strangely adamant that the series peaked with 3.”
“So the dead guy never played 5?” He smiles like this is going exactly where he wants it to.
She shakes her head.
“Good. Then we’ll be on equal footing. Equal-ish.”
She sidles closer to him like an appeased cat. “I’ll still be a lot better than you.”
“You know I like a challenge,” Major says. “And I - I bought this when it came out, but the time I would have spent playing games, I’ve been spending with you instead. And since it’s clear you’re not in a frame of mind to even let me kiss you tonight, I thought, hey, let’s do something else I enjoy.”
She quits out of her game, and Major does some fiddling to get the console to recognize his spare controller. They play through the tutorial and a couple of beginner missions. Major is preternaturally good at most things, and she doesn’t need to slow down for him as much as she expected. She wishes Dave could have lived long enough to meet someone who would find the way to his heart like this. It’s a shame that people run out of time so easily, in a blink, with no warning.
They beat a stage, and Liv inches closer, so their thighs touch. “Maybe you can talk me into doing this even after this brain wears off.”
Major scrunches up his face. “You always hated video games.”
“That’s one of the upsides of being a zombie,” Liv says. “You realize you’re interested in things you didn’t know existed. And some of them stick, because that’s me. I like learning. I like being good at stuff.”
Major puts his hand on her knee, and she doesn’t shy away. It’s like he’s dug her fundamental Liv-ness out from under this brain’s influence.
But not so much that she doesn’t crave another round. “Come on, Master Chief,” she says. “We’ve got Prometheans to kill.”
6. Destiny, age 17, cerebral hemorrhage as a result of blunt-force trauma
Liv has never been in love with Major like this before. Her mind keeps wandering to thoughts of his smile, his kiss, his strong arm when he rests it across her shoulders. Why does work have to go on so long? She texts him a pouting selfie and follows it up with So bored. Miss you bae, and a string of emojis. When she looks at her phone screen after hitting send, she laughs, embarrassed but also pleased with herself.
Major texts back, What did you eat, a John Green novel?
Yeah, sorry, she was 17.
Did she learn about the power of love just before tragically dying of cancer? Major has been disturbingly lighthearted on the subject of death lately. Liv hopes it’s just her own influence, but she senses something else awry, secrets he’s keeping. She can forgive him: he’s had a traumatic year, and besides, he’s hot.
I wish, Liv texts. They just arrested her stepdad for beating her to death.
Her phone lies silent for a minute, and she worries she’s offended him somehow, that this is the last straw that will make him leave her for good.
Well, fuck, Major texts after about a million years. He is really good at summing things up. It’s one of the many things that makes him the best boyfriend of all time.
7. Lynda, age 72, proximate cause of death undetermined
“The subject was suffering from ALS at the time of death,” Ravi explains as he severs the brain from the spinal cord and lifts it from the cranium. “Since it doesn’t affect cognition, it shouldn’t harm you. Do let me know if you experience trembling or muscle weakness, though.” He’s frustratingly clinical about all of this, but Liv is too hungry to call him on it.
An hour later, Liv feels more like herself than she has since she died. Lynda was a celebrated pediatric surgeon. She’d met the love of her life during her senior year of college and married her on the City Hall steps the day Washington had legalized it. Aside from the lesbian thing, she was exactly who Liv had expected to become. Liv feels competent, wise, hopeful -- like she could have her old life back if she fought for it.
It’s a strange examination. Liv is tempted to list “suffocation” as proximate cause, but the case will just get sent back to her and Ravi for review. If Lynda died because her disease robbed her of the ability to breathe, they can release her body to her family at the end of the day. If her doctor prescribed her medication to assist in her death, it will be someone else’s paperwork nightmare. If her wife took euthanasia into her own hands, it’s murder. “Maybe it’s an ethical question, not a scientific one,” Liv muses out loud. “Maybe we say the evidence indicates natural causes not because we’re sure, but because we’re merciful.”
“This is the last time I’m letting you eat a doctor,” Ravi says.
“That’s not the brain,” Liv says. “That’s me.”
“Hm,” he says, and he thinks for a moment before adding, “Go ahead. Write the report.”
Liv feels like she’s writing her own epitaph. She spends longer on the report than she needs to, not ready to let it go. By the time she’s comfortable with it, it’s time to head home. Ravi doesn’t ask if she’s shaken or shaking, if her problem is emotional or neurological; he just offers her a ride. “Back to your place?” she asks. “I want to be with Major right now.”
“I’ll just be in my room with the music turned up very loud,” Ravi says, but he sounds more cheerful than put-upon.
Liv is all set to share her shiny new brain with Major, to give him some respite from the rollercoaster of dating a zombie. But he’s distant all through dinner, responding in brief sentences and avoiding her eyes. He never likes the brains that she expects him to like. “What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Whoever you ate, they’re kind of smug,” he says.
She’s insulted, personally as well as on Lynda’s behalf. “Was I smug before I, you know. Before zombie.”
Major presses his lips together, the way he does when he wants to laugh but is worried about hurting someone’s feelings. “A little. Or maybe more like, you were on autopilot. You’d set up your whole life a certain way, and after a while, you were just coasting toward the end of it.”
“Yeah, I guess that is smug,” she says. “It’s pretty much the definition.”
“You’re more fun when you’re unpredictable,” Major says. “Exhausting sometimes, but each version of you is like a new puzzle. A human puzzle. And those are my favorite kind to solve.” He leans across the table to kiss her and knocks over his water glass.
He jumps up to clean the spill, but she blocks his path to the paper towels. Some brains affect her sexuality, but she has good luck tonight. “Don’t run away from me when you look like you just won a wet t-shirt contest.”
He manages to kiss her this time without making any more messes.
“You know who really knows what to do with their hands?” she says, groping his butt. “Old lesbians.”
Major lifts her up, and she wraps her legs around his waist. “I’m starting to like this brain,” he says.