By Kajetan Kwiatkowski
Will left his ground floor apartment and breathed in the rotten air. Two years ago, he would’ve thrown up on the spot, it had been impossible to stomach the indescribable sewer reek that filled one’s sinus and caked one’s tongue. The closest definition Will could come up with was: moldy bananas festering in a broken urinal. But time and experience had played their part, and eventually the repugnant smell was assimilated into Will’s day-to-day. It became the balmy spice that simply lined his saliva. A mild discomfort but nothing more.
With cane in hand, Will gently sauntered over to his refurbished floater-car. In appearance it was a harmless four seater with auto-steering, but two years ago it stood as a defeating reminder of Will’s divorce, his near-bankruptcy and his firing. Just a momentary glance used to crumble him into a regret-fueled stupor followed by a sleepless night on the floor.
But not anymore, Will forced a weak smile and prepared for boarding.
No matter how gently he stepped into the seat, Will’s lower back would always protest. Only by sitting perfectly still for five minutes would the fiery wire eventually uncoil from his spine. Though sometimes it took ten minutes. And other times a little longer.
He used to enjoy the self-piloting feature of floater cars. It allowed him to observe the tapestry of subways, the weaving of other vehicles and the flashes of red sun peeking out between the thousand-floor suites. But today’s headache once again proved too greedy. Will applied his blindfold and embraced the darkness.
Calm, soothing darkness. It allowed Will to breathe and remember his new existence wasn’t so bad. Just like at his old job where he would downgrade bank accounts from premium to basic, his own life had switched from being a complicated blend of relationships and responsibilities to something far more modest. Like basic chequing.
A beep and a gentle thrust indicated the Ford was now ascending. Despite his blindfold, Will could almost discern the exact elevation based entirely on smell. The higher he rose, the further the city’s drainage disappeared. The air became fresh.
The car quickly reached the required airspace and bolted along a designated route. For the next seven minutes, the world became a loud, vibrating hum, full of precise dips, lifts and turns.
Once docked at the clinic’s five hundredth floor, Will removed his blindfold and gently rolled out of the car. The ceramic promenade was not gentle on his feet, but as long as he kept moving, the waning pain could not settle on any particular bone.
Past the frosted glass, Will quickly reached the front desk and flashed the appointment badge on his phone. He was quickly directed down the hall. Room 5420 – Hirudotherapy.
As usual, the waiting space was empty. Before Will could inspect the window into the physician’s office, Dr. Montgomery had already opened its door.
“So…you’ve had a relapse?” The greying doctor was never one for introductions.
Will stared blankly for a moment. “Yes I think so. Thank you for seeing me.”
With the utmost care, Will collapsed his cane and seated himself on the patient’s recliner, here he would try to move as little as possible as his spine settled.
Montgomery drifted past the many tubes, leech tanks and metal trays before perching upon on his tiny stool. The doctor had always seemed a little strange to Will. It had something to do with the black toupe resting on sideburns so obviously grey, but Will supposed the physician had gone past caring about appearances. Everyone is suppressing something.
Montgomery raised his head from his tablet, “You say it’s on your back?”
Will nodded with a grimace. Shoulder bones flared as he removed his shirt and leaned slightly forward. Staying still was always difficult at the clinic.
The doctor adjusted his glasses and came over for an inspection. “I don’t see any eczema.”
Will was prepared for this and did his best to sound convincing.
“Ahem. I know it’s very faint. But I can definitely feel it. The characteristic tingling I mean. I usually get it before the redness swells up.”
There came a long sigh from the doctor. With cold hands, he inspected the skin around Will’s shoulder blades and lower back.
“Mr Zhu, I can’t even spot the faintest signs. Also, I can see on your file you’ve been requesting other practitioners about the same thing.”
“That’s because it’s been acting up.”
Another sigh. Montgomery wiped a smear of dust off his glasses. “Mr. Zhu, Our leeches are very specialized and very expensive. There’s a woman coming after you with extensive psoriasis. I can’t spend hours each day on rashes that have already been treated. I thought the last time you had come —we confirmed it was gone”
“I know, I know, but please understand, the leeches…” Will tried to find the right words.
“—Have cured the symptoms they were prescribed for.” Montgomery stood up and began tapping on his tablet.
A new barb formed around Will’s vertebrae. “The leeches allow me to cope with other pain from my accident.”
Montgomery perched back on his stool. “We don’t overmedicate.”
The tendrils of defeat began sagging Will’s head, he tried his best to stay upright.
“I know there’s regulations, and I know you can’t prescribe them for just anything. But honestly it feels like they draw it out. The leeches have a way of removing all my discomfort. For a whole month I feel alleviated of… everything.” That was about as well as he could put it. Will didn’t expect the doctor to fully comprehend. But truly it felt like the hirudotherapy had a way of draining the ‘bad blood’ of his trauma.
“Mr Zhu. You’re at the wrong place.” The doctor removed his glasses, revealing lined, tired eyes. “The leeches aren’t designed for this.”
The barb tightened further, Will momentarily stuttered. ”Y-Youve got my file. You can see the amount of Fluoxetine and other pills I’ve been prescribed. I’m telling you —none of that works as well as this. None of that.”
The doctor entertained the request and perused the tablet again.
The medical history should be obvious, Will thought. He never had the energy to re-explain what he’s gone through. What he’s going through. Carrying himself and bottling the car accident was already an all-consuming activity. Putting anything on display felt impossible.
“Hirudotherapy is not designed for anything neuropathic,” Montgomery said. “Nor can it cure depression or mood disorders. Whatever you think it’s doing for you. It’s not related.”
A shudder travelled through Will’s skin. He grimaced again and forcibly slipped on his shirt. “If I could buy my own leeches I would. I’d even consider going to the lake, fishing my own if I had to.”
“That is ill-advised.”
The dormant anguish was now bubbling inside Will, it had been months since emotion had overcome apathy.
“I… I don’t know what else to say. You’re a physician. This helps me. Improves my life. Isn’t that the purpose of medicine?”
“Mr. Zhu, I don’t want to sound rude… but I know your type.” The doctor stood up, the harsh lighting cast a shadowy veil across his face. “I can smell it on you.”
Will now realized the situation he was contending with. The unspoken tension. Does he think I’m some bottom-dwelling Junkie?
“Whatever claim you’ve got to travel up here is long expired. I know how far the gene-hacking in these leeches has come —their enhanced anesthetic should frankly be classified as an opioid. I don’t just prescribe them willy-nilly.”
A moment passed. The fire renewed inside Will.
“Doctor, excuse me, but I used to live on the two hundredth floor of a nearby tower. I used to work for Metro Bank. Whatever you think I am—”
Then came pain. Abrupt and sharp. A release of sparks melted Will, broke his composure. He fell back into his chair, groaned, and dug nails into the padded foam.
“That’s quite enough Mr. Zhu. This act your putting on isn’t going to get you what you want. Your eczema is gone. I’m not going to waste my valuable leeches on your addiction.”
Will waited for his back spasm to acquiesce before continuing to speak. All he could do is focus on breathing. He closed his eyes.
“I’m writing you a referral to a psychiatrist and an orthopedist. Their expertise is far more appropriate for the injury you’ve got.”
Will exhaled, shook his head. The insurance limits had been used up on ortho and psych. He needed the leeches. Nothing else worked.
“Up we go now, take your cane.”
There came flashes of Will’s old floater spiralling out of control. An incoming commuter train. He could barely see the room he was being led out of. Tears began to form.
Montgomery seated Will in the waiting room outside, and placed the printed referrals on his lap.
“This is for the best Mr. Zhu, believe me. I’ll leave you here to gather yourself. When you’re ready you can call a cab from the front desk. Alright?”
Will could feel himself being pressed beneath broken glass. For a moment it felt like he had to crawl his way out of the wreckage all over again. One agonizing arm at a time. Then the bright headlights became the ceiling LEDs. he was back at the clinic.
“Are you alright Mr.Zhu?”
There wasn’t any energy left to talk. Or disagree. Will gave a wan nod.
“Very good. Take care now.”
Will eased into the hot coals. For the next little while he would have to truly focus on staying absolutely still. not moving at all.
Maybe I have formed an addiction without realizing it? A dependency? He wondered if the leeches were just a band-aid on a disorder that now truly delved far too deep. Perhaps he had to reset his recovery by a different means.
He stared at the papers resting on his legs. The names of the orthopedist and shrink seemed totally unfamiliar, they must have been out-of-district. But maybe that was a good thing, he thought. Somewhere new.
Then he wondered how he could possibly afford the coverage. Additional treatment was all beyond his means. He might have to start seeking additional employment at another bank again, and hope they somehow overlooked his record.
Christ. He bent over, ignoring the pain. Starting over is so hard.
He considered where he might find the nearest lake.
Dr. Montgomery shut the exam room door and obscured the window. He stared at his warped reflection on one of the leech tanks. A furrowed scowl stretched across the moving black bodies. What has become of my profession?
It seemed like every other day someone was crawling their way into his office with personal trauma this and separation anxiety that. The leeches were predominantly designed for skin conditions, coagulation issues. He didn’t have a degree in clinical psychology. Nor did he care to acquire one.
Let the psychologists deal with the kranks. Montgomery applied his gloves and with reluctant expertise of a master, he thrust his arm into a tank and snagged half a dozen blackstripe leeches.
This bio-engineering has gone too far. It’s turning them into something unwieldy. Something aberrant. He placed the creatures on a tray and wiped away the excess moisture. They recoiled. Squirmed. Then Montgomery wheeled the tray over beside the patient’s recliner. And sat in it.
He thought about the dozens of email drafts he’d composed about returning to standard leeches. He’d written long lists about the unintended effects these new lab-breeds came with.
Eventually I’ll send something. I’ll have to do something about it. In time. Then he sighed, stared at the elongating lifeforms and knew that it wouldn’t happen.
Dr. Montgomery had his own set of problems. A daughter who wouldn’t speak to him, a legal debt from three different malpractice lawsuits, and not to mention his persistent bouts with glaucoma. He removed the black toupe off his head, revealing a pale scalp riddled with teeth-marks. Red circles overlapping each other. Venn diagrams.
One by one, he applied the leeches onto his head. Their cool bodies writhed against his scalp and squirmed along the bumps of his skull, turning all sensation frigid. Had he used any specimens on patients today, he wouldn’t have been able to reach the same level of relief as he needed. His tolerance had grown too high.
It is a knowing self-delusion, this habit of mine. But there was no use worrying, all material concern would always end in the last hours of his office —when he had the space to himself.
With eyes closed, the doctor waited for the first instance of the needle-pricks. His serotonin levels would reach the requisite levels, and his synaptic receptors would become blocked. He’d feel at ease for another few days.
When the bite finally came, Montgomery slightly winced. It was like the puncture of a mini-stalactite. Every bite afterwards grew increasingly numb.
He gave one last glance at the door —to make sure it was closed— and caught his reflection on a hung mirror. What he saw was a gorgon. A medusa-like monster with leeches instead of hair. It hissed and laughed at him, sparked a momentary horror. Then Dr. Montgomery turned away, sank into his chair and felt nothing at all.
About the Author: Kajetan’s credits include publications in Defenestration, Black Petals, Literary Yard and a forthcoming story in Deep Magic. Ever since playing Sim Ant on Windows 98, Kajetan has had a lifelong obsession with arthropods. He’s fine when a fly falls in his soup, and he’s fine when a spider nestles in the side mirror of his car. In the future, he hopes humanity is willing to embrace such insectophilia, but until then, he’ll write entomological fiction to satisfy his soul. You can visit www.EclosionStories.com
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