The Lorelei Signal
Written by Gordon Sun / Artwork by Marcia Borell
Astrid closed the door and settled into a worn faux-leather armchair, smoothing the creases in her white coat and folding her hands on her modular desk. Across from her sat a nervous-looking man with wavy brown hair tied back in a ponytail, a full mustache and beard, and a few dark strands peeking out from underneath a well-used blue suit and white shirt. He plucked at a diamond stud in his left earlobe.
“Thanks for seeing me, Doctor Dejas,” the man said. “Your, uh, your schedule’s always full.”
“Sure, Mister Silver—”
“Sure, Kalin. Dominique said that you feel anxious.”
“A lot.” Kalin cleared his throat. “Well, you know, maybe not a lot. Just, uh, some of the time.”
“Okay, go on.”
“It’s been going on for, I don’t know, months.” The patient shifted uncomfortably. “Embarrassing.”
“Take your time.”
“I mean, I haven’t been able…” Kalin looked at the floor. “I haven’t been able to turn.”
“You know, uh, turn. Morph. Turn into a wolf. Almost every time I, uh, deliberately try, I just…” Kalin blinked, his eyes watery. “I just can’t.”
“Hmm.” Astrid held out a box of tissues.
“Oh, thanks.” Kalin grabbed a tissue and blew his nose hard. “I need to be able to do this, you know. It’s not like I can hang out with regs after work.”
“They’d probably harass me. Maybe I’d get fired. Both. I don’t know. There are a lot more of them than there are of me where I work.”
“Harassment and termination based on morphology are illegal.”
“That’s not my fight,” Kalin said, shaking his head. “Anyway, that’s not the issue. It’s outside of work.”
“What do you mean?”
Kalin wadded up the tissue and took another one. “I can’t go hunting deer or whatever with my buddies when they’re all in natural form and I’m just, uh, just like this. I have to stay behind.”
“Unable to socialize.”
“Yes! What’s worse, when I’m out on a date, and you know, uh…” Kalin flushed bright crimson, unbuttoning his shirt collar. “You know, when I’m trying to impress her. By, uh, by turning. And I can’t. It just makes me feel…I can’t even be myself.”
Astrid paused. “Can you still turn during a full moon? At night?”
“Well, naturally, but I stay indoors. Full moon transformations are too, uh, unpredictable. I don’t want to do something stupid in public, you know?”
“And you have no medical conditions?”
“None that I know of. I don’t take any meds, drugs, anything like that. I eat healthy, work out, all that stuff.”
“Okay, Kalin. Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. Let’s start with a few blood tests, just to make sure your issue’s nothing, ah, organic. I know it’s easier said than done to get rid of any major life stressors, but it really does help.”
“I understand, Doctor Dejas. If anything, this whole issue is causing my stress.”
“Right. Next time we’ll delve into that a bit more. I’m also going to refer you to a therapist I know, Dervina—”
“Dervina? Isn’t she retired?”
“She’s not on the TV circuit anymore, but she still sees patients behind the scenes.”
“Wow! Sure, that’s great.” Kalin grew animated. “It’s so hard to find doctors who treat preters around here, you know. They’ve closed down most of the clinics.”
“Believe me, I’m aware.”
“Well, I’m glad at least you’re sticking up for us.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
“Why are you helping us anyway? I mean, you’re a reg, after all.” Kalin looked away. “Sorry, I mean…”
Astrid chuckled, scratching an old scar hidden in her scalp. “How about we just take care of you first, okay?” She stood up, extending a hand, and Kalin shook it. “All right, see my office manager Zephyr on the way out to schedule your blood tests and your follow-up call.”
“Thanks so much.”
As Kalin went to the front desk, Astrid crossed the hall to the procedure room, knocked, and entered. Inside, a bronzed, muscular woman in gray scrubs and surgical cap was washing her hands in the sink. Stray clumps of grit streaked the porcelain.
“Dominique, you finished already?” Astrid asked her physician assistant.
“Done. Last patient just needed a bunch of stitches and some antiseptic powder.”
“Sablis, right? The fairy?”
“Yeah. I couldn’t convince them to wear protective shielding for their wings, though. They said it was too restrictive.”
“No surprise there.” Astrid fluffed out her jet-black hair. “Sablis always takes their regenerative powers for granted. They might feel a little differently about it if they weren’t born that way.”
Dominique cleared her throat. “How was Kalin?”
“He’s got, ah, performance anxiety. He needs some good old-fashioned talk therapy. Going to see if Dervina can take another one.”
“I feel bad that her retirement isn’t really retirement, but what can you do? Anyway, before you go, can you wipe down room three as well? I need to finish charting.”
“No problem, doc.”
“Finally.” Astrid logged off her computer. She stood and stretched, then walked into the kitchen to rub her forehead and splash water on her face. After toweling off, she sniffed the coffee pot, cringed, and pitched the dregs into the trash.
Peeking into the waiting room, Astrid noticed Dominique had left her duffel bag at the registration desk again. She grinned and shrugged. Her PA would return to pick it up soon enough.
The doctor returned to her office and speed-dialed a number on her cell. “Hi, Sara.”
“Six-thirty PM? Kind of early for you, Astrid,” Sara joked.
“I got lucky. Dominique patched up one of our frequent flyers.”
“Well, I’m still cooking, so everything should all be ready when you get home.” Sara paused. “It’s raining, so don’t rush.”
Astrid looked out the window. The gray, overcast sky looming all day had opened up. Large raindrops spattered on the pane. “I hate rain,” she muttered. She glanced at her faint reflection in the window, watching the rain dribble down the glass like rivulets of tears. Astrid frowned. “But hopefully it got rid of the protesters.”
“I never understand how you can be so blasé about them. They’re goddamn troglodytes,” Sara groused.
“We’re allowed to have differences of opinion.” Astrid stowed her laptop in her backpack.
“Yeah, expressed productively. Don’t they have actual jobs? They seriously have nothing better to do than harass your patients and call you a monster-fu—”
“I’m sure they believe they’re being helpful to the conversation,” Astrid interjected, over the sound of a nearby peal of thunder. She tossed an empty thermos into the backpack and zipped it up.
Sara sighed. “Just be safe, okay?”
“The parking lot has security. I’ll be fine. See you soon.”
“Love you too.” Astrid hung up and dialed the number to the security station. No one picked up, but the reception was often poor in bad weather. She decided to visit the booth and see if the guard was there.
Hoisting the backpack over a shoulder and making sure her car key fob was in her scrubs pocket, Astrid locked the clinic and jogged down four flights of stairs to ground level. The doctor walked out the back set of double doors, heading toward the well-lit security booth at the parking lot entrance.
~ * ~
The security booth was empty when Astrid arrived. A steaming mug of black coffee rested on a shelf. A dry, unopened black umbrella was propped in a corner. She squinted through the rain but didn’t see the guard under the hazy, pale-yellow glow of the streetlamps. Even the throngs of angry protesters that clogged the sidewalks every day had been driven away by the storm clouds.
Astrid crossed her arms and frowned. This was one of her key requirements for opening the clinic out here, having reliable security. The building owners seemed reasonable enough, but this wasn’t the first time she passed by the guard station and found it unmanned. The security contractor company was human-owned, so she had her suspicions about the occasional lapse in coverage, but…
Astrid shook her head, hurrying out of the rain into the covered parking lot. Several luxury cars and convertibles were parked together on the ground floor, probably some of the guys from the consulting firm downstairs working late as usual. She passed their cars and entered a narrow stairwell, taking the stairs two at a time.
On the second floor, she spotted her sedan by the back wall, wedged between a rust-stained pickup truck and a brawny motorcycle. But as she approached, she heard scraping sounds nearby. Out of the corner of her eye, Astrid saw two men emerge from behind a plain white van.
“You the doc?” one of them, a large, heavily tattooed brute with a soot-stained white baseball cap and checkered bandana obscuring most of his face, called out.
Astrid ignored him and continued walking.
“I said, you the doc?” the man repeated.
“Jones, it’s her,” his associate, a short guy wearing a tan raincoat and aviator sunglasses, hissed. “That bitch from the fourth floor.”
Astrid cursed under her breath and picked up her pace. Having flight or translocation powers would be great right about now, she thought grimly. She was still only about halfway to her car. In vain, she glanced around for any sign of the security officer.
“Looking for the guard, doc?” Jones scoffed, keeping pace behind her. “He ain’t coming.”
Astrid broke into a sprint, yanking out the key fob and jabbing the lock/unlock button. But when she was several feet away from the driver-side door, a man in a dirty gray hoodie and black scarf leaped out from behind the adjacent truck. She scrambled to grab the door handle, but her assailant shoved her back into the driveway.
Astrid stumbled into Jones, who locked his muscular arms around her shoulders. The stale odor of booze and cigarettes clogged her nostrils. She shouted and struggled to no avail.
“If you wanted to treat animals, you should’ve been a vet,” he said, while Astrid yelled for help. “Dammit, Harris, shut her up!”
The man in the hoodie plunged a fist into Astrid’s stomach, knocking the wind out of her.
“Listen,” Jones continued, bracing himself as Astrid gasped for air, “there are plenty of us who need your skills. It bothers us that you think treating them is more important.”
“You look like a human. So why don’t you act like one?” Harris added, leaning close. “Another goody-two-shoes animal lover.”
“Two years she’s been doing this, rubbing our noses in her crap,” the man in the raincoat grunted.
Astrid finally caught her breath. “What—what do you want?” she managed to croak out.
“Do what every other doc does in this city. Treat people,” Jones replied. “Not predators.”
“Easy enough, right?” Harris sneered, hooking his thumbs in his black jeans.
“And if I don’t?” Astrid rasped. Jones responded by clenching his arms tighter, causing her to wince. Gritting her teeth, she gathered her strength and kicked backward as hard as she could. The heel of her shoe caught her assailant’s right kneecap.
Jones yowled, clutching his knee. Escaping his grasp, Astrid stumbled forward and tried to run to her car, but Harris lunged at her feet, tripping her. She fell forward and landed in a puddle, her backpack flying off. Harris scuttled over and quickly kneeled on her back, keeping Astrid pinned, while raincoat man spat curses.
“Goddamn bitch!” Jones snarled, wobbling on his uninjured left leg, his baseball cap askew. “You’re gonna pay for that.”
Astrid glared defiantly from the ground. “Oh, what are you going to do, kill me? There are security cameras all over—”
“Shut up!” Harris yanked Astrid back by her hair. He slammed her forehead into the pavement with a sickening thud.
“What the hell, Harris?” Jones shouted.
“It was just a little push, Jones,” Harris snapped as he stood up. “Get over yourself.”
“You’re supposed to scare the bitch, not kill her!”
“Look, she ain’t dead.” Harris prodded Astrid’s prone body with his boot. “Still breathing.”
“That’s not the point.” Jones suddenly tensed. “Hey, what was that?”
“Thought I heard something.” Jones readjusted his cap.
“Jumping at ghosts again? Hey, where did Carl go?”
“Carl? He was just here.”
The thugs glanced around, but raincoat man had disappeared. “He must’ve run off,” Harris snarled. “Figures.”
“Screw it, we got the money,” Jones replied. “Little bastard ain’t gonna tell anyone.”
“Then what do we do about—”
“Shut up.” Jones made a cutting gesture across his throat. “There it is again.”
“Still don’t hear anything, man.”
“Take off your goddamn hood.”
Harris removed his hood. “Hold on, now I hear it.” As he spoke, the ground began to rumble. “Hey, what’s that—why’s the ground shaking--”
~ * ~
—Before we start, would you like some coffee, Astrid?
—Black coffee would be fine, Doctor Russo.
—Sure, let me get it going. So, it’s been a while since you’ve dropped by. Is everything okay?
—How are you feeling these days?
—Every day is a little better. I’m even managing to get regular sleep despite my schedule.
—Good. How’s med school?
—Really busy. People…patients can be complicated.
—That they are.
—It’s really interesting to unpack problems and go through them in an organized manner. Though sometimes it seems like we see the same things over and over.
—It’s a cliché, but common problems are common.
—Yeah. If we really wanted to dive into root causes of our patients’ poor health, it’s basically the environment, genetics, and badly informed decision-making. Or some combination of the three.
—A little reductive, don’t you think?
—I guess so. But that’s humans for you. Preternatural med, on the other hand, is where the really interesting stuff is. There’s still so much to learn about—
—You’re planning to go into preter med?
—Eventually, yeah. I’ll start in internal med, then specialize.
—You look skeptical, Doctor Russo.
—I don’t…can I share some thoughts? Don’t think of this as medical advice. Just a few words from someone who’s been treating you for many years.
—Are you…absolutely sure you want to go down that path? Preter med is…very different from what you’ve maybe heard of in school or seen on TV, from how they work to how they tick.
—I don’t follow.
—Understanding and treating preters is a long, arduous road. You’ve got to go into it for the right reasons, and not because you think it’s hip or exotic or whatnot. Also, and this…this is no surprise, but people look at them a little differently from us. You’re going to be on the receiving end of a lot of skepticism.
—From preters who think you’re not one of them and consequently won’t understand their problems, or those who think you’re just a misguided idealist.
—Oh, that’s it? I think I understand—
—And also from humans who think you should be spending your time taking care of other humans. Doctors like us don’t grow on trees. Lots of people are suffering in this economy. Many think preters don’t need our help, because most of them already benefit from more…advanced physiologies and psychological capabilities.
—From what I saw in the clinic, that’s just an excuse to deny them basic services that humans get without difficulty. Regenerative or psychic powers don’t help when you don’t have enough to eat and are sleeping on the street. Sometimes I wish there were two of me. That way I could see more patients.
—I’m just warning you that it won’t be easy. Plenty of folks feel quite strongly about this. They’ll use anything and hold everything against you. It’ll get nasty.
—Anything and everything, you said?
—Look, I just don’t want you to go through more unnecessary trauma. Isn’t once in a lifetime enough? Aren’t you still having those horrific nightmares? The ones about--
—Yeah. But they’re manageable. I stopped the meds last year.
—If there’s nothing else, I’ll see myself out. Thanks for everything, Doctor Russo.
~ * ~
Harris and Jones braced themselves as the concrete floor of the parking lot swelled, like an enormous ocean wave made of gray rubble.
A large humanoid-shaped figure emerged from the bulge in the ground, with the barest outlines of a face, a few stubby fingers at the end of two pillar-like arms, a compact torso, and a pair of squat legs. A horizontal crack formed in its head, pebbles spilling from the cavity. Its voice thundered like the rumble of an erupting volcano. “What have you done?”
“Earth elemental,” Harris growled. He stood, placing a heavy brown boot on Astrid’s back. “You try anything, I’m going to—” He was interrupted by a guttural roar echoing through the lot. “Goddammit, another one?”
Jones shook his head. “Screw this, I’ve got a bad leg. I’m out.” He began limping away.
“Hey, get back here, you coward!” Harris shouted as his associate fled the garage. He returned his attention to the looming stone figure, who had not moved. “Listen, you’re gonna back away, and here’s why.” He pressed his boot deeply into Astrid’s back.
The elemental now began to shrivel, its humanoid features becoming more well-defined. Rocks and clods of dirt crumbled to the ground.
“Now what? You going to turn into a human or something?” Harris mocked. “Begging for mercy for your friend? Just walk away. It’s not like anyone’s going to recognize that pile of waste you call your face—”
Harris paused, hearing something behind him. As he whirled around, a second humanoid delivered a fast, rock-hard punch to his jaw. The man crashed to the ground, unconscious.
The two figures walked up to each other and grasped hands. Stone and rubble molded and reformed as they merged. As the assimilation continued, a brown-haired werewolf appeared at the entrance to the garage, wearing nothing but black spandex pants and the shredded remains of a white button-down shirt and hoisting the limp form of Jones over a shoulder. In several agile strides, the werewolf joined the now completely fused earth elemental and unceremoniously tossed Jones on top of Harris like a flimsy rag doll.
Lycanthrope and earth elemental stared at each other for a beat. Finally, the werewolf spoke: “Is that you? From the—”
“Outside,” the elemental interrupted in a dry, crackling voice.
Silently, the preters tied the thugs’ wrists behind their backs using the men’s own belts and lined them up in the middle of the driveway. The earth elemental carefully cradled Astrid in their arms and left the parking structure, the werewolf following behind. They stood outside in the rain, away from the cameras.
“I’m Dominique,” the elemental said quietly. “Astrid’s PA.”
“I thought so.”
“Who are you…?”
“Just a guy.” The lycanthrope looked away for a moment, and the glint of a diamond stud in his left ear caught Dominique’s gaze. “There was, uh, a delay at the subway, so I was stuck waiting in the station down the street. My hearing’s pretty much off the charts, and I, uh, heard a commotion. I came to see what was going on.”
“Hm. I left my bag at the office again and had to come back. The one time I’m glad I forgot it.”
They looked at Astrid, who was groaning but still in a stupor. There was a bruised, lacerated dent in the middle of her forehead, a thin trickle of blood crawling down her face. “What should we do?” the werewolf asked.
“Astrid’s the priority. She’s going to the hospital. I called 911 before I confronted those guys.”
“But what about them?” The werewolf pointed a long claw at the two thugs lying in the parking lot. “People are, uh, going to ask questions, even though they started this. Nearly all the city cops are regs, you know. They’ll blame us first.”
Dominique shifted her weight, sighing. A small pool of mud had accumulated at her feet. “An ambulance and the police should be here in the next several minutes.” She shrugged.
“Fine. What should I do?”
Dominique eyed the nearest security camera, glad that they were out of its view. “As long as you stay in natural form, reg cops are going to have a hard time identifying you on camera. There’s no shortage of lycanthropes in this part of town.” She paused. “It’s not like…I know for sure who you are.”
“Well. Maybe I don’t need a therapist after all.” He canted his head. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll stay here until help arrives. She’ll be fine. Thank you.” Dominique nodded. “Just go.”
The werewolf bared his teeth in a grin, turned, and loped off into the rain.
~ * ~
—No, no, no, get away from me! Someone help me! He’s trying to hurt me!
—Hey, what’s going on here?
—I don’t understand. Stop who?
—Don’t you see him? Standing over there?
—No, we don’t. What do you see over there?
—It’s me. It’s me. It’s me!
—That doesn’t make sense. You’re right here.
—No! He’s right there!
—Who’s right there? We don’t see anyone.
—That’s impossible! You’re lying! You’re all lying! Someone help me!
—It couldn’t be…
—Are you seeing someone that looks like you?
—Yes! Get him away from me! He’s going to kill me!
—Oh my gosh. Principal Garrett, do you think…?
—Yeah, we’ll have to call the hospital on this one. It’s been a downward spiral ever since the attack.
—The hospital? Isn’t that a little drastic?
—The kid’s not only seeing something or someone that none of the rest of us can see, but apparently it looks just like him. In other words, he’s seeing double. Maybe he is a double. You want someone like that here?
—Well, when you put it that way, you make a good point.
—We can’t have those sorts of ideas infect the rest of the children. The parents are already scared of preters as it is.
—Maybe we shouldn’t have let Johnny come back to class. I mean, that poor girl who got hurt…
—Let’s not emphasize that point to the authorities, Miss Mulligan.
~ * ~
“Why aren’t they answering?” Thomas hissed, hanging up for the fourth time. He clutched the steering wheel, squinting through the downpour as the squeaky wipers struggled to keep the windshield clear. The only saving grace of this disaster was that he never provided his real name to Jones and Harris: just a pseudonym, some cash, and a throwaway phone number.
There were no police and hardly any cars, so “Carl Thomas” shot straight through the four-way red light and onto the local freeway. He still had several miles to go before he reached the motel. He needed to regroup, think about what to do next.
Most of the trolls Thomas met online still preferred to sling their insults from behind the safety of screens and keyboards, but he was confident he could scrounge up a couple more losers for some real-life mayhem if needed. Or maybe he needed to step up the political pressure. He’d dug up enough dirt to remind the mayor about his past dalliances with a few of those--
“Dammit!” Thomas yelled, swerving by a wet chunk of cardboard lying in the road.
Get it together, man. Just get to the motel, get wasted, figure everything out tomorrow.
Shaking his head, Thomas eased off the gas a touch.
Minutes passed. As he drove through another red light, he noticed a solitary figure walking along the roadway up ahead. The mystery person was hunched over, wearing a loose-fitting long-sleeved shirt and dark pants, but didn’t have an umbrella and was soaked through. Thomas couldn’t tell if the figure was male or female.
Some weirdo walking in the rain? This town really is overrun by freaks.
The pedestrian suddenly turned toward him as it came into view, revealing its face.
It was blurred, but shockingly familiar.
Thomas slammed on the brakes, skidding sideways until finally sliding to a stop over the double yellow line. The car idled, its headlights beaming out over a deserted, muddy field. Heavy sheets of rain pelted against his car and formed deep puddles in potholes in the road. The wipers continued to beat relentlessly, hypnotically.
Thomas looked over his shoulder. The figure had disappeared.
Someone he knew well was there. That much was certain.
Thomas backed up his car until he was back in the right lane, then started forward again. He switched on the radio for company.
Maybe it was an animal or something, scared off by the car. Yeah, that’s it.
As he cruised along the road, the wipers swishing steadily, an AM talk show buzzing in the background, Thomas relaxed. To his mild surprise, the hard rain faded, then stopped. Other than an occasional vehicle going the opposite way, he was alone on the freeway.
Just a little further.
Another figure gradually materialized up ahead. Thomas examined it as it got closer, trying to pick out details. Like the previous pedestrian, this one also wore a white shirt and dark slacks. Thomas slowed and turned in his seat to get a good look as it passed by.
The figure wore Thomas’s face.
His heart pounding, Thomas gunned the gas pedal and sped off, strangling the steering wheel. His breath came in quick, ragged gasps as a cold sweat broke out over his forehead. He glanced in the rearview mirror, but the Thomas-figure had already vanished from view.
“Dammit! What the hell is going on?” He waved his hand, slapping the radio volume dial. The talk show host’s cantankerous voice shrieked in his ears. Thomas cursed and shut off the radio. “No goddamn way I just saw that. Gotta be just…I don’t know…”
Thomas took the next off-ramp, which looped into an even lonelier road winding through a cluster of shadowy hills. He hunched forward in his seat and peered around, searching for recognizable landmarks. Under the weak, sallow light of old streetlamps, Thomas passed a row of small shops on his left, all closed for the evening. He cruised under a blinking red traffic light, then through another empty block.
Puzzled, Thomas flicked on the high beams.
Where was the motel?
After more fruitless searching, Thomas pulled over to the curb. He switched on the vehicle’s onboard GPS and entered the motel’s address.
“GPS signal weak. Navigation may be inaccurate,” the computer intoned. Thomas cursed and turned on his cell phone, but his GPS app gave him a similar non-response. Finally, he dialed the numbers for Jones and Harris, but both calls went straight to voice mail. He threw the phone in the backseat in disgust.
Well, any place will do. Even this dumpy little town’s gotta have more than one motel.
Thomas started to put the car back in gear, but an odd movement outside caught his attention. He looked up.
A man wearing a brown fedora and raincoat over a white shirt was peering through the passenger-side window. His face was nearly a replica of Thomas’s own, other than for the milky, opaque eyes that bore straight through Thomas. Blood dripped down the lookalike’s forehead and nostrils into a grinning, gaping mouth.
Eyes bulging in fear, Thomas floored the gas pedal again and raced away from the curb. As he put some distance between the figure and himself, Thomas ventured a timid glance in the rearview mirror. The other Thomas stood silently on the shoulder of the road, a frigid smile plastered on his face.
Thomas returned his attention to the front.
Inexplicably, his doppelganger now stood in the center of the lane. The figure’s forehead and face were smeared with streaks of blood. The duplicate wore a mask-like, toothy grin, dark liquid oozing from his nose and mouth.
Thomas gasped, trying to dodge him, but his rental’s thin, cheap tires were unable to grip the road. The lightweight car quickly swerved out of control. His panicked efforts to straighten the steering wheel only worsened the spinning.
Thomas screamed in horror as he careened into the guardrail on the right, the front half of the vehicle mashing together like the folds of an accordion. The barrier shattered from the impact, and the mangled car screeched through the opening and plummeted into the darkness below.
As the sedan rolled down the hillside, pieces of metal, glass, and rubber flying everywhere, the Thomas-figure on the street winked out of sight.
~ * ~
—Welcome to my clinic! I apologize for the mess, we just opened. How can I help you?
—It looks like you’ve had a busy day, Doctor Dejas.
—Yeah, you noticed, huh? Waiting room must have been crowded. Again, I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. It’s days like this that I wish I could be everywhere at once, but you know how it is...
—No problem. Listen, I’m not here for medical care.
—You aren’t? Then, why are...oh, I hope you’re not here to tell me that my soul’s damned for eternity or that I ought to go back to where I came from or whatever. Because I will call the cops again if—
—No, no, no, that’s not it at all! I’m here to help you.
—Help me? How?
—Physicians need assistants, right? It sounds like you have more patients than you can handle, and I’m looking to return to preter care.
—You’re looking for a job? I’m barely settled in and have no income yet.
—No worries. I can get you acclimated to the neighborhood, put you in touch with some people. I’ve been a PA for over ten years, and I grew up around here.
—Wow, okay. Where do you work now, um...
—Reg hospital across town. Would prefer a preter hospital, where I wouldn’t get so many stares and comments, but surprise, there aren’t any close by.
—Stares? Comments? About you? Sorry, I don’t get it.
—Here, shake my hand.
—What? Okay…oh! Um, you’re an earth elemental?
—Dominique, I’m a bit surprised you pick up so much flak at work. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you were an elemental without touching your hand.
—-Well, earth has a way of annoying people who think it breaks sterile protocol.
—Even though it doesn’t! Plenty of research shows earth elemental-derived soil and dust are naturally antiseptic. It’s great for rapid wound healing. I mean, it explains why elementals are so resilient—
—Too bad none of my reg colleagues believe it. They just say it’s magical thinking. Anyway, when I heard you were coming, I had to see if there were any opportunities.
—You’ll have to give me your resume and a reference or two. But if you don’t like working for humans, why work for me?
—We all deserve to keep our secrets, right, Doctor Dejas?
~ * ~
Astrid awoke with a gasp. She glanced around, noticing Sara leaning over the hospital bed with a protective look on her face.
“They’re going to let you out of here in a couple days,” Sara said. She lightly kissed Astrid’s cheek. “Doctor Cross said your last CT scan looked fine.”
Astrid felt dazed, sweaty. She just had the strangest dream about…clinic? Her patients? Dominique? She tried to sit up but winced from a pounding headache. “How…how long have I been here again?” She sank back against the pillows.
“Almost two weeks.” Sara moved a serving table aside and sat on the edge of Astrid’s bed. “You were totally out of it for over a week.”
“And you said they…” Astrid paused, searching for words. “…opened my head up?”
“Yeah. They had to take out a piece of your skull again. But on the right-hand side this time.”
Astrid prodded at her scalp with a tentative finger, where the hair had been shorn close. The flesh underneath was soft, almost jelly-like, the missing portion of her cranium now temporarily implanted in her abdominal wall. Dry gauze bandages were taped over her forehead and belly. She couldn’t feel the scar anymore. “What’s…going to happen next?”
“You’re going to rehab soon. It’s a nice little facility. Don’t you remember the videos they showed you yesterday?” Sara gently ran her fingers through her partner’s remaining shoulder-length hair.
“Do you remember anything from the last couple of weeks? The treatments, the therapies?”
“I guess your short-term memory’s still a little…off right now. Doctor Cross said that’s expected.” Sara smiled. “I’m just glad you’re getting better.”
“Just feel like…like foggy.” Astrid looked at her partner. Hesitantly, she asked, “Did I say anything…stupid? Weird? While I’ve been in the hospital?”
“No, nothing that I’ve heard. Promise.” Sara gave Astrid a reassuring look.
“Okay.” Astrid sighed. “That’s good.”
“You’ll get better, honey.” Sara checked her watch. “This afternoon, the police coming by to see if you’re ready to give a statement.”
“Police?” Astrid tensed.
“Yeah. About what happened.” Sara hesitated. “The attack.”
“Oh.” Astrid groaned. “I don’t remem…remember much from the garage.”
“What do you remember?”
“One of…someone pushed me into the ground. It was dark…for a while. I don’t know. Reminded me…of nightmares I used to have...” Astrid closed her eyes. “Then I woke up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sara said in soothing tones. “The detective said they had video evidence. Security cameras. They said they only have a few questions for you.”
“What…what happened? Did they catch…them?”
Sara nodded. “They found two men tied up at the scene. It was your PA, Dominique, who saved you.” She raised her eyebrows and shrugged. “Well, her and a werewolf. They haven’t figured out whom. Dominique said she didn’t know.”
“We were all surprised when the district attorney said they’re considering the attack on you a hate crime. Despite your well-known work in the preter community, we weren’t sure they’d go for it. At least no one’s pressing charges against either Dominique or the werewolf. Dominique decided to go back to the clinic a couple days ago.” Sara waggled her hand. “She’s been trying to keep things afloat while you’ve been away. Hope that’s okay.”
“Okay. Good.” Astrid blinked. “Sorry. Just…hard to concen…concentrate sometimes.”
“It’s okay. You should get some rest before therapy later.” Sara stood up to leave.
“Wait.” Astrid reached out with a hand. “Wasn’t there…uh, wasn’t there a third…someone else?”
“Someone else? Oh, that guy.” Sara rolled her eyes. “He died.”
Astrid squinted. “What?”
“Guy was an out-of-towner. Apparently lost control of his car, went through a guardrail down a steep hill, and crashed.”
“You mean how he lost control?”
“No one knows. It was nighttime and raining. There were skid marks in the middle of the road. Tires were wet. The end.”
“He must have been going really fast.”
“Maybe. Don’t know why. There was hardly any traffic and the police hadn’t yet been alerted. Maybe he was trying to avoid something?” Sara shrugged.
“How…how did they know? I mean…it was him?”
“His two partners-in-crime identified him. The security guard—they found him tied up on the roof of the garage—recognized him too.”
Sara snorted. “He literally threw his buddies to the wolves and ran away. Karma’s a bitch.”
Astrid smiled weakly. “I guess…I guess so.”
“Sorry, I’m stressing you out, aren’t I?” Sara pecked Astrid on the cheek. “I’m going for real this time, okay? I’ll be back later this afternoon.” She went to the sink to wash up.
“Okay.” Astrid watched Sara leave the room. “Bye.”
Astrid lay in bed, listening to the occasional padding of shoes on tile flooring and beeping of nearby monitors. Her thoughts turned inward to that scar from so long ago, the scar that was no longer present on her scalp. Sara knew Astrid had gotten the injury back in high school, but little beyond that. No one but her therapist Dr. Russo, who Astrid hadn’t seen in years, knew her side of the story.
Astrid turned away from the door. She could feel her head throbbing again. Fragments of the odd dream she just had were surfacing in her mind’s eye.
No. Now that she thought about it, it was more than a dream. There were recognizable snippets of dialogue in the murk, real conversations she’d had in the past.
Conversations she’d overheard.
The tension in her chest spread like a stubborn weed. Sara had reassured her that Astrid hadn’t said anything out of the ordinary...but was that true? She found herself growing doubtful, suspicious. Astrid hated that she was even considering the possibility.
And if the DA did bring hate-crime charges against the two surviving assailants…investigations could go into unexpected places. Lines of questioning could venture down strange paths, uncovering pasts that time may have faded, but would’ve been better left alone. And all Astrid wanted was to be left alone.
Astrid knew no one, especially a scumbag like Johnny, would willingly pretend to be the kind of preter even other preters loathed. Doppelgangers were called “dupes” for a reason. But combining that with astral projection—how else would Johnny have claimed to see a clone of himself no one else saw? —was beyond frightening. It was inconceivable. No wonder everyone decided it would be easier to throw Johnny into the asylum, shove the whole debacle under the rug, and move on.
Astrid settled further under the linens and looked out the window at the dark, cloudy sky, recalling what Sara had said before leaving. The third man “was trying to avoid something” before he crashed even though he’d escaped the scene of the crime and wasn’t being pursued by the police.
What was he avoiding? Or rather…who?
Someone who could swap appearances and identities like clothing…and physically appear in multiple places at once. Someone who by all appearances still looked human…but wasn’t.
At least, not any longer. Not after Astrid was assaulted by Johnny, so many years ago.
It’s happening again.
I never asked for this.
It’s not my fault.
It’s not my fault.
It’s not my fault…
Gordon Sun is a surgeon and clinical informaticist exploring the interstitial spaces within healthcare, science, and technology. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in If There’s Anyone Left, Daily Science Fiction, The Dread Machine, NewMyths.com, After Dinner Conversation, Please See Me, Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Constraint 280, Mad Scientist Journal, and other publications.