“They look so real,” said Rodney. “But I don’t think I would want to meet one of those on the street.”
“They didn’t play on the street.”
“You know what I mean. If I saw one of those things outside of a zoo, I’d run so fast I’d leave my pants behind me .”
Normally, Shara laughed at Rodney’s absurd descriptions. But today, she shook her head. “Uh-uh,” she said. “Not me. I’d stand there and wait for it. I’d clutch its fur into my face and breathe it in.”
“And it would shred you. Those aren’t kitten claws on that thing.”
“I’d welcome it. I’d drink my own blood as I lay dying.”
“Really? I don’t think I’d find it all that pleasing myself.”
Rodney pulled Shara’s arm. But Shara remained unmoved, resting her head now on the glass below her hand, oblivious to the descending robot and its tiny pincers. She remembered being seventeen. She remembered sitting in that doctor’s office.
“You’re cutting yourself again.”
“I fell on a broken bottle.”
The physician didn’t say, “You’re lying,” so Shara didn’t have to claim to be telling the truth. Instead, he said, “You’ve torn a tendon here. This one needs surgery.”
“I can work you in right now, so you won’t have to come back.”
“Thanks.” She had come through three checkpoints and a guarded office door precisely because this cut was infected. She thought the doctor knew she wouldn’t return if he sent her away now.
Shara followed him to the basement surgery. On the way, he leaned into his secretary’s office. “Call Mrs. Carr and reschedule her for Monday next.”
“I don’t want to be a bother,” Shara protested.
“Nonsense. You’re here, and she’s not. If she needs me, she will come when I can fit her in.”
Downstairs, Shara lay on the table, and he eased both of her arms into pain blocking sleeves. “Why not just the one?” Her voice echoed a little as he gently clamped on the helmet that paired with the sleeves.
The doctor said, in a voice made tinny by the helmet’s metal barrier, “Your chart indicates a history of pain transference. You may feel me working on the arm I’m not touching, just like you used to feel your ear infections on the unaffected side.”
Shara lay still and strained to feel anything at all while he worked. He had mirrors. She watched him scrape down through layers of skin with a sharp little knife, suctioning away the blood at every cut. Then, he rubbed salve into the wound before he began his work with the needle and thread and then the surgical glue. Shara lost interest after he put down the knife, though. She tried to think how she could palm it before she left. Something that sharp would be handy.
When he was finished, he took off first the helmet and then the blocking sleeves. “There,” he said. “Good as new.”
And it was only then that she realized the trick with the mirrors and her wound had all been a diversion. Both of her forearms had three neat, tiny plastic buttons affixed where the sleeves had touched her skin. “What have you done to me?” she demanded, her hands flying up to touch her scalp where the helmet had rested. There, too, she felt little plastic knobs.
The doctor said, “I’ve helped, I hope.”
Shara fled the office, sobbing. She didn’t remember returning through the checkpoints, although she must have held out her passport every time, because she later saw the stamps that she had travelled both ways along the authorized route. At home, she picked up every kitchen knife, one after the other, and tried to slice herself. She couldn’t do it. Her hands would only carry the blade so close to her own skin before they simply stopped. She couldn’t do it looking, she couldn’t do it with her eyes averted. She could no longer draw the blade across her skin and watch the red blood well up. She eventually had to return to the doctor and plead with him to reset the things so she could at least shave her legs.
And, although she had been furious at first, the doctor was right. Mostly, he had helped. Though she still squirmed and cringed every time she handed over her passport for stamping, she no longer arrived home needing to make herself bleed in compensation for the checkpoints.
Still. There were times like this, like now, at the zoo, when she could feel the impotency of the extinct species. That need to roar and slash would clutch at her throat like a choking hand.
“Hey, Shara. Come on.” Rodney pulled her fingers away from the glass just before the cleaning robot could pinch them. Her face followed her hands, and he kissed her. “You know I love that about you,” he said. “That intensity. Sometimes, when you say things like that, I can feel them all the way in the back of my stomach.”
She smiled, because she knew he expected it, because she loved him. “But I think you’d be happier if we moved on to something a little tamer,” she said.
He nodded, then kissed her again, and his lips were hot like the Indian jungle.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.