Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Lollipop Man

            Ana was at a loss for what to say.
            This funny little man was the reason she was still breathing. But he had also ensured that she had lived nearly half of her life dead. After Arthur died, her parents had grown distant and seemed to jump when she walked by them. She had assumed that it was because of the trauma. She had assumed that it was because she had lived when her brother had not. She had assumed that all of this was typical and that its effect on her own personality was in keeping with the grand tradition of family dysfunction as a result of grief.
            But she hadn’t survived, had she? Her parents had lost both of their children, and then they got one of them back. Ana remembered the fights she had had with her mother when she told them she had a girlfriend instead of a boyfriend. They had been so loud and angry. She had told herself that that was why they grew apart. Perhaps it had been about something else.
            But it wasn’t fair, because Ana had been missing a crucial piece of information. She had been at a disadvantage, and her parents had allowed her to stop talking with them without providing the real reason they had grown so distant.
            It had taken two days for Lisenrush to wake up. She was concussed and had suffered fractures in her vertebrae, though they believed her spinal cord was still intact. They were keeping her braced so that she could not move her back for fear that doing so might worsen the damage. They said she would walk again, but not soon.
            Ana had expected to be burned at the stake when she got back to town. Instead, Max Harrick himself had come to her at the station, accompanied by Mraxinar, the towering skeletal construct who was, despite his ghastly form, warm and polite as ever.
            Mraxinar had taken a blood sample and looked visibly relieved – not that it was easy to tell, not having muscles or skin on his face to express nuanced emotions – the moment he saw the bright red in the vial.
            In fact, after he drew the blood he nodded to Harrick.
            “Ana…” Harrick spoke quietly. It was an unusual tone of voice for him. “We… we should have…”
            “It wasn’t you. It was the militia. Lisenrush was the one who dragged me out of the hospital” It was easier to forgive him. She had decided on forgiveness once she was convinced that the town – or at least the leadership of the town – wasn’t interested in destroying her. She, of course, was internally screaming and crying and entertaining thoughts of getting on a ship and sailing for somewhere no one knew her. A peaceful place, like Arizradna. She wondered if the bright sunlight would burn her skin there.
            When she saw Harrick, she saw two men – one the man who had been like a father to her after she stopped speaking to her own father, and who had, as an example of contrast, greeted the revelation of her sexual orientation with a calm, almost indifferent acceptance sadly atypical of their country, and the other man the stupid and frightened coward who had let her be taken away by the military unchecked.
            It was easier to forgive him. She felt short-changed, to be certain, unable to exact the price in rage to which she felt she was entitled. But it was easier to move ahead, to move past. Lisenrush owed Ana her life, and she had the Ranger-Captain’s support about her stories of the strange things that now lurked in the forest. With Lisenrush’s corroboration, the town would be forced to believe her about the faceless men and that she was not some mindless servant of the Icelord.
            And it turned out that she did not need the Ranger-Captain to vouch for her on that point. Because now there was this strange little bald doctor she had not seen since she was a teenager explaining everything.
            She wished he were dead. Not out of anger. She had not even begun to unpack her feelings toward this Doctor Meldi. But if he had been dead, she could avoid anything like a confrontation.
            Instead, she sat in the living room of the house that Meldi had rented for his stay in town. It was a nice house, and she wondered where he got the wealth to set himself up so comfortably for this visit.
            “Can I make you some coffee?” he asked.
            “Ok.” She shifted her weight on the sofa. It was overstuffed, making the cushions stiff and the upholstery taut. It was not a very comfortable piece of furniture, selected presumably more for appearance than anything else.
            He came back in a few minutes with a tray on which sat two teacups and a glass coffee press. He placed it on the coffee table and sat in the chair to her side.
            He was a rather short man, only about five and a half feet, with hair above the ears and in the back but a perfectly shiny scalp above these salt-and-pepper (more salt than pepper) tufts. His goatee was carefully sculpted, and she suspected it was even subtly waxed.
            “Do you remember me, Ana?”
            She did. He had been her doctor when she was a teenager. Despite her age, she remembered and unashamedly enjoyed that after each visit, Dr. Meldi would give her a lollipop.
            Not long after her parents found out about her and her first girlfriend, Elsa, she also stopped seeing Dr. Meldi. Her parents never bothered to find a replacement, and so she had gone for all this time without one. In a sense, Meldi was still her doctor.
            “I…” he began, and then crossed his legs. “I’m sorry, do you mind if I smoke?”
            “Depends on what you’re smoking.”
            Meldi frowned apologetically, but then his face straightened, projecting authority and he waved away his initial request. “Ana, your parents were the ones who kept my mouth shut on the matter. They are the ones that decided that you would no longer see me and they forbade me from contacting you.”
            “Yeah, well, I don’t have much contact with them these days either.”
            “I see.”
            “But…. Couldn’t you have contacted me after I turned eighteen?”
            Meldi looked down. “That was a failure on my part.”
            Ana shook her head. Just like Harrick, she saw in this man two men – one the professional authority, one the little rat who had been too much of a coward to tell her what she was. “I still don’t even know what this means.”
            Meldi took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Well, I assume you have the main point.”
            “I’m dead.”
            “But…” she held out her arms. “I don’t… do I look like a draugr?”
            “To be precise, you are partially undead. You are, precisely, brain dead. Your body still functions, and the procedure that I performed restored enough conscious control over your body that further deterioration was halted.”
            “My heart stopped for several hours. After I was shot.”
            “I know.”
            “And that didn’t cause further deterioration?”
            “Most likely it did. But your heart is, I understand, beating again?”
            Ana nodded.
            “This is… not exactly familiar territory, medically speaking. If we are to be precise, it may in fact no longer fall under the category of medicine at all.”
            Ana nodded, though her mind was beginning to wander. Had she really escaped Far Watch intact? What horrific things might be going on underneath her skin at this moment?
            “It is most likely that your body has managed to recover, or will eventually recover, from this trauma. You – the very essential you – are in control of your own body. Your brain does not need to function for this to be the case. That is one of the first principles of necromancy.”
            Ana shifted again in her seat. She had not had any of the coffee yet. She suspected that it would remain there and get cold. “That word… is not exactly a comforting one.”
            “Believe it or not, necromancy was once a rather neutral term. A thousand years ago, when Vansa was just Vansa, the doctors of Spire used the term to refer to anything from magically reanimating dead tissue to surgically performing organ transplants.”
            “I think it tends to be used more for the former these days.”
            “Indeed, but figures like Paul Airbright, Mogra Thesh and this Icelord have perverted this school of study into something quite abominable.” Meldi had transitioned strongly into his professional authority form. “Ana, I have asked you here first to beg your forgiveness for keeping this secret from you. No matter how the medical rules tied my hands when you were a minor, I was under an ethical obligation to tell you, and I failed to do so.”
            It was easier to forgive. But for now, she withheld it.
            Proceeding, though clearly having noted her silence, Meldi said “Secondly I want to ask if I may examine you. Conventional doctors will be unlikely to be able to navigate around your individual condition. You suffered a terrible injury that would have killed you had things been different. We need to ensure that your body has not suffered any serious long-term effects.”
            He seemed surprised at this quick and easy answer. “Very well. I’m afraid I don’t have any sort of examination room here. I will attempt to secure one at the hospital. May I contact you once I’ve done so?”
            Meldi took his own cup of coffee and finally took a sip. “Well, I will let you know then.” He set his cup down. “Ana, is there something else troubling you?”           
            She looked up. “Necromancers don’t just raise the dead. They control the dead.”
            Meldi stared at her for a second, as if this notion had not even occurred to him. He looked her in the eyes, placing his hand on hers. “Not you. You are in full control of your will and your actions.”
            Ana nodded, and she believed him. She realized now all the doubts that had been swimming in her head. She had worried, when she found out what she was, that any number of aspects of her personality might have been the product of Meldi’s procedure. Was her career, her sexuality, her very demeanor all the product of this strange magic?
            Yet now, she did see Meldi once again as the lollipop man, the man who had done for her something that no other doctor would have been able to. He had saved her life. He had given her the life she had.
            They chatted about more mundane topics for a few minutes and then Ana began her walk back home, past neighbors who could not help but stare. Tomorrow she would have lunch with Harrick at the Unnamed Shack, get drinks with Nick and George and perhaps, after some time, there would be a return to normalcy, or at least the establishment of a new normal.
            Meldi watched her walk down the street until she could no longer be seen out of his window. He noticed that she had not touched her coffee. He took the tray to the sink and poured the cold liquid down the drain.

            His hands were shaking. He nearly fell as he dropped himself back into the kitchen chair, holding his head in his hands.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)

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