It began as a dull ache. She saw her doctor when it hadn’t gone away a week later but he said there was nothing the matter. He told her not to worry. She told him that it woke her up at night sometimes. He said it was safe, to continue on with her life as before. She wanted to know if there was any danger. He assured her there wasn’t.
The first one was from the local karaoke bar. It was the kind of place with goofy crap on the walls: games people have never heard of, old-timey knickknacks, and even a mounted boar’s head. It was one of her typical haunts. She lived in a soggy basement studio in a midwestern town; she chose not to spend her free time alone, encased in its tomb. Especially since she knocked her monster of a TV off its unsteady stand.
At first she assumed he had merely left. Her level of intoxication the night before wouldn’t have made her memory fog anything out of the ordinary. Men had left her tomb before the pale light of the morning before. When she awoke, she merely rolled over and reached for her cigarettes. Another one bites the dust. The pinch in her abdomen barely registered then.
The second one she took home from a Chili’s; the third from the marine themed (in a landlocked state) dive bar behind the local motel, which rented by the hour; the fourth from the Post Office. All of them were no longer there in the blue morning light and each time the ache got a little bit worse. After the fifth one disappeared, she swore off drinking altogether. The men folk, they always left, but usually they had the decency to drink her shitty coffee first.
She called her doctor, also a man she knew biblically though not in years, from the pay phone at the back of the diner before her shift started. She told him the ache was worse. It had progressed beyond dullness to a constant throb. “All the cultures and blood work came back normal. Your pelvic exam showed nothing strange. Perhaps you should go talk to someone. I can recommend a therapist a few towns over. He’s actually the only option, but he’s nice. He specializes in hysteria.”
His office was in a strip mall surrounded by cows. She thought it was suspect that he made her appointment for eight o’clock at night and that he had a liquor selection in the corner, but she was no longer suspicious after her fifth drink. When she awoke in the early morning hours still on the leather couch, her head ached and her mouth was dry. The handsome doctor was nowhere to be found. All she could remember was how she started by telling him all about her favorite TV programs and how different her life would be if she lived there, in that box, with him playing her leading man.
She dressed and drove her Suzuki hatchback home as the sun came up beyond the flat, snowy expanse of the horizon. The farm fences went on forever, putting her in a trance until she was home before she knew it. She took four Advil and went to sleep before her late shift.
There was a knock at her door early one Tuesday morning. She groaned and rolled over, to find yet another bed buddy MIA, the fourth one this week. “This must be some record of rejection,” she muttered. Simultaneously cursing the gin from the night before and lighting a cigarette from the nightstand, she stood up unsteadily. Throwing on an oversized t-shirt, she headed for the door. The light outside was bright and she grimaced in the intensity of it. A man in a tie and leather jacket with the sleeves pushed up despite the cold furnished her with a badge without looking up from his tiny, ubiquitous notepad. She knew him from the diner: he did paperwork at the counter at night. He always dressed like he was a rent-a-cop on his big break.
He came in and sat on the edge of her bed. “Where were you last Monday?” he asked in a monotone.
“I worked the lunch shift,” she answered.
“No, Monday night.”
She tried to think. The nights were starting to blend together into one lonely face after another. Her schedule at the diner was constantly changing and the line cook always called her an hour before her shift to wake her up. “I honestly don’t remember. I think I was here with some guy I met at the Laundromat.”
“Didn’t catch it.” She turned from him to grab a handful of Advil; the ache was getting unbearable and only seemed tolerable with a finger—or three—of whiskey, which she used now to wash down the weak painkillers in her hand.
“Have you ever been to see the therapist out on Route 11?”
“My doctor made an appointment for me. I’m an artichoke.” The cop raised his eyebrow. “Scaly and prickly outside, sweet and tender inside,” she said, grinning around her smoke.
“Clearly,” he said, gesturing around her dank, messy apartment.
“The doc and I didn’t click, you know, emotionally speaking. I’m not one much for whingeing away about how your parents ruined your childhood. Yawn, am I right?”
He stood up and came in close to her. “What are you one for?” he asked, smiling lecherously.
The next day a second cop arrived, along with a uniformed sidekick. This time she responded to the knock with a start. Shit’s starting to get weird, she thought blithely when she opened the door. This time the conversation didn’t end with innuendo. Actually, it wasn’t so much a dialogue as a soliloquy, which ended with her in the back of a cruiser. Apparently, her snooping, invalid upstairs neighbor told the police that the detective came in but never went out. She tried to explain about the inappropriate abuse of authority and the ache in her uterus, but no one would listen.
They put her in a room with one of those two-way mirrors. Scores of detectives and psychologists came through to ask her the same questions over and over again. She couldn’t explain what had happened to either the doctor or the detective. “I could really use a heated pad,” she said, “or a drink.”
“Your lady issues are not our concern.”
But eventually, they took her to a doctor. It was in a small town doctor’s office, which meant there were toys in the waiting room. The doctor came in lab coat and all. Doctors in small towns went two ways: flannel or lab coat. This one worked with the police, so he chose the more draconian look. He asked her whether she’d seen a doctor recently. When she told him she had, he called in the nurse, a dude-bro in scrubs, and immediately sent him to have the records sent over from her doctor.
He put her feet in the stirrups and pulled the floodlight next to her left knee. It was then that his brow furrowed and he flipped off the light. The room remained brightly lit and the doctor exclaimed, “Holy golden light!” She propped herself up on her elbows to get a better look but saw nothing. No light. No Doctor. Nothing but a sharp pain, followed by the old familiar ache.
The door opened and the male nurse poked his head around the curtain. “Where’d he go?” he asked. She tried not to look like a deer caught in headlights and thought, that can’t be. A moment later, two uniformed policemen entered in the room.
“Oh good,” she said, “I think it’s time to take me to a real hospital.” When she closed her eyes she saw a kind of fuchsia-pain color. But they handcuffed her hands behind her back instead of seeking medical attention. Still in her hospital gown, she was tossed into the back of the cruiser that brought her there. They could have let me put on my clothes, she thought, my ass is sticking to the seat.
At the station she was put in another interrogation room with yet another detective, who opened by telling her that the officer that came to her apartment was his partner. He seemed less than thrilled by the “alleged” actions of the night his dear friend disappeared. “You want to know how I know you’re lying?” he asked her. She felt an overwhelming sense of ennui (aka pain interference), which resulted in a blank stare in response to her verbal pillory. “The man you murdered was a tits man, and you ain’t got nothing upstairs,” he continued, gesturing to the flat gown beneath her chin.
“Yes, sex for me is always about desire as well,” her voice saturated with sarcasm. “But I really do think I need to go to a hospital.” Then he did something trite, as if they were on an hour-long cop show on NBC: he slammed his fist on the desk in front of her. This sort of behavior went on for hours, from a variety of fat, sweaty, often ruddy detectives.
One pulled out a file that had her name on it. “Your therapy file from the missing doctor’s office,” he informed her. Then he used words like psychosomatic and hysteria. He sat back and folded his arms, his question implicit in his one raised eyebrow. She reached her hand toward the file to examine it, but he batted it away.
Her pain had been progressing in a throbbing roll that reminded her of the rhythm of a harbor cruiser on the open ocean: unsteady waves mixed with nausea. As she opened her mouth to ask again for a doctor, the color quickly drained from the world, followed by shapes and lines.
When she woke up, she was handcuffed to the chair. “Nice try,” the fat man said.
In the end she was jailed and the trail was set to be televised. The only doctors she saw were there to testify at her trial on her psychosis after shrinking sessions where she mostly writhed in pain on the floor and they rolled their eyes. Further examinations were prohibited, though the pain never diminished. They didn’t believe her, but they also didn’t let a medical doctor examine her again. She was dangerous.
Even her lawyer rolled his eyes at her complaints and merely tossed her a bottle of liquid Vicodin the next time he came to see her. She merely shrugged in response and downed the viscous liquid like it was gin. It tasted of sugary cough syrup. Good thing I’m not pregnant, she thought, but couldn’t remember the last time she had her period. She just shrugged and took another swig. They must know better than me, she thought, they are, after all, men of law and medicine. I am just a stupid waitress.
The trial concluded with her testimony, as any good courtroom drama would. Prior to that, the prosecution repeatedly pointed to her grimaced expression and the perspiration on her upper lip as evidence of her guilt. Her lawyer’s only advice was to “stop sweating,” written on a legal pad where he doodled pictures of bosoms, complete with the letter “B” on either side: a true titty artiste.
Most of the witnesses to take the stand were head doctors and policemen. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had the money to employ a full-time forensic specialist, since there wasn’t any of that kind of evidence to present. The doctors painted her in red and bordered on name-calling. Even the psychiatrist for the defense—whom they had sent for from the “city” four hours away—used words like “unstable”, “caustic”, and “delusional”. By the time her lawyer put her on the stand her vision was blurred and doubled. She could barely hear the prosecution’s questions over the roar of her own oven. The judge kept goading her to pay more attention, accompanied by a rap of his gavel. Man is busier rapping that gavel than three-legged cat in a sandbox. Sure does love to hear himself talk, she mused, smoothing down her sweaty bangs.
By the time it was her lawyer’s turn to ask her questions, she could barely sit up anymore. It was then she noticed the dim light below her chair. She lifted up the skirt of the cheap suit her lawyer made her buy. The light shifted from dim to brilliant. She barely had time to yelp before the missing men burst forth from the radiance onto the courtroom floor: amniotic, flushed, and smiling.
It seemed to everyone in the courtroom to happen in an instant, but she experienced it in such slow motion that each rebirth seemed to take a lifetime. And each lifetime was slow and merciless, taking a million hours of boredom and intensifying them exponentially. There was no clemency for her ignominy as she watched it dozens of times, like she was a washed up movie star. Dumb bitch, they would have yelled. And TV being the one place you could count on for justice, she would have agreed.
Now, she thought, I'll be the star.
Cassandra Sims Knight was born and bred in the suburbs of Boston, but has since followed her West Coast dreams to Seattle where she edits the literary magazine, Poplorish, for the nonprofit Old Growth Northwest (www.oldgrowthnw.org). Her fiction has appeared in 5923 Quarterly and Five Stop Story, and she was a finalist in NYC Midnight's Short Story Challenge. You can follow her at twitter.com/scifisybil.