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The Lorelei Signal


The Gift

Written by Abby Brown / Artwork by Marge Simon

The Gift woman.jpeg

The end of a long day.


One more patient.


Ms. Whatever her name was. She came in complaining of pain more often than not. The sooner he saw her, the sooner he could finish his paperwork for the day in peace and quiet.


Dr. Burnt opened the door.


She was sitting on the examining table as if she were a patient patient.


"How are you today?"


"A high pain day." The woman held out her hand. She had a tiny scratch on the back of it. Not infected or anything.


"Where is the pain today?" He closed his eyes in frustration. So many of these women came in complaining of pain, without any visible cause. No broken bones. No results via a blood test, x-ray, or even a CAT scan.


"My arms ache and my legs. I can't lift my hand as high as my shoulder."


"It's just age. Not something to worry about."


"Are you sure? How will I dress myself?"


"Um." Good question. Not something that had been covered in medical school. How did you help people who couldn't do for themselves anymore? No matter. "There is nothing in your bloodwork, or other test results, to indicate you have any reason to feel pain. No arthritis in the x-rays. No infection in the blood. Nothing. Your bone density is normal for someone your age and weight."


"Is my weight abnormal?"


"Wouldn't hurt to lose a few pounds. Everyone can afford to lose a few at least."


The old woman looked at him. "Are you sure? I remember being ninety pounds and being told that."


"How old were you then?" Doctor Burnt asked.


"About thirty, I think."


"That's difficult to believe at your height." He checked his chart. At ninety pounds, she should have been hospitalized. Could there be a connection? That was thirty years ago. She was now at least ten pounds beyond the recommended weight for her height.


"Even if you can't see the pain, it is there. It is suffocating."


"I'm sorry I can't see it." He shuffled his feet. "I'm sure it would help if I could."


The woman turned her head and looked up at him, rather like a bird on his windowsill. "I can give you the Gift."


He laughed. "What gift?"


"The Gift of feeling what any person you are within ten feet of feels."


That would make diagnosing much easier. Of course, it was quackery. Not even alternative medicine said that could be done. "Sure. Why not." Best to humor the old woman. Maybe she'd leave, and find another doctor when it didn't work.


"Are you sure you accept the Gift?" The old woman struggled to speak.


Doctor Burnt laughed. "Sure. You only have a scratch on the back of your hand. It doesn't hurt. I'll prove it to you." She couldn't endure a simple scratch. How had she lived to be sixty years old?


The old woman smiled. She reached out and touched his hand.


A fog descended.


A heavy weight dropped him to the ground. It felt as if the whole world had landed on his chest. He struggled to breathe.


The light was fuzzy. His eyes stung. He couldn't see. He clawed at them, to clear them of the matter that had to be hiding his vision. Tears poured down his cheeks.


His arms and legs burned as if scratched by sandpaper.


Doctor Burnt could hear his own heart pounding in his chest as if it wanted out. His ears felt heavy, and yet floaty, as if they were on the ceiling listening for him, and redirecting the loud sounds to his brain.


He could smell a dark and dank odor. An odor he didn't recognize. He knew that odor would tell him what was wrong with the woman.


He gasped as he realized he was on the ground at her feet. The woman's chart was under the examining table. His arms couldn't stretch far out enough to reach it.


"Stop it. Stop it."


"I can't. You accepted it. The Gift of Pain Empathy is yours till you find someone to pass it on to." She struggled up. "If you can't help me, I'll leave."


"I can't bear it."


"You will only feel the pain of those within ten foot of you. And only as long as they are. I'll leave." She struggled, pushed, and pulled until she was off the examining table. Slowly, she tottered out the door.


As she left, his vision cleared. His ears returned to normal. His arms worked again. The smell dissipated.


He reached for the folder under the examining table. His hands shook as he pulled it closer.


If her words were true, it could be a long time before he was free of the Gift. It could be used to help heal, if he could withstand the pain of his patients while diagnosing them.


A nurse passed him in the hall.


He struggled as a sharp pain in his hip radiated down to his knee. He gasped and grabbed his hip.


The nurse stared.


Back at his computer, he struggled to write in the woman's chart. The pain, feelings, and even the smells revisited him. Rather than add his usual terse note, he began to search for the symptoms. Maybe she really did have a diagnosis. He'd find it.

Originally Published in Concurrent Earths - October 2021

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Abby Brown began reading at far too young an age. Her preferred reading material was nonfiction, with biographies and science being at the forefront of her library excursions.

Her ability to memorize and use all the grammar rules in school led to working in the school library while classmates caught up. All of those rules, and diagramming sentences was easy and relaxing. For many years. All forgotten now. Except the joyful memories of preparing the library for others to use.

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