SWITCH

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Favors

Gerald and Richard squared off in the hallway outside the lab. A section of frosted glass wall let me see their animated arm movements and defensive body posturing. Plus they were arguing loudly enough to attract the attention of everyone in earshot. Richard stood with his broad shoulders to the window. Gerald looked up with a disgusted look on his face and saw me. Richard spun around and darted back into the room.

“Tell me exactly what you saw.” Richard’s tone was almost frantic.

“It’s ridiculous really. I’m sorry for how I acted. I don’t understand why I got so angry; it’s not like me, I’m a very calm...”

“Angry, okay how angry are we talking? Did you want to take a swing at me?” Richard interrupted my rehearsed apology. I wanted to grab him by his overly starched shirt and shake the crap out of him, hopefully shutting him up in the process.

“No, of course not. I just needed to get dressed that’s all. I’m perfectly fine now.”

“Bullshit, you were staring at me, and I think I know what you were after. You’re still injured. You’re in pain right?” Richard’s snarky smile cracked his normal resting asshole expression. I wanted to scrape it off his face with something sharp and rusty.

“Yes. Of course, I’m in pain. What do you think?” I could hear the anger growing in my voice. But he kept talking. I just wanted him to shut up so I could apologize and politely go back to my room.

“Okay now, let’s just take a step back and take a breath.” Gerald was avoiding contact with Richard, or maybe he was avoiding me, I couldn’t tell who bothered him more.

“The hate and burning how bad was it? What did you want to do?” Richard seemed to be thoroughly enjoying barking his obvious, stupid questions at me.

“I don’t know. You’re yelling at me, stop it. I don’t like it,” I demanded.

“Don’t give me that touchy-feely crap. Don't prepare an acceptable answer. Just tell me the truth.” Richard grabbed my arms at the shoulders. I could feel the bruises on my arms squish under his long fingers like overripe fruit.

“I wanted to rip the skin off your arm. The muscle and the bones, I wanted to tear them off you. I’m tired of this bullshit guessing game. Tell me why you brought me here.” I screamed at him while I backed away, but as I moved Richard moved. Skillfully he forced me into the far corner of the lab until there was nowhere left to go.

Richard kept his gaze fixed on me while he closed the gap between us. He hastily unbuttoned his shirt. The blood started pouring from my nose. My legs were shaking and my frantic brain was scanning the room for something to slice him apart with, but there was nothing. I grabbed a potted plant from a nearby bookcase and chucked it at Richard missing him completely.

“That’s it. Keep that thought solid in your mind. Picture tearing off my skin and getting your hands on the warm, red muscle underneath it.” Richard tossed his uniform shirt on Geralds desk and pulled his undershirt over his head seemingly in one motion.

“Don’t say that awful shit to me. What is wrong with you? What the fuck are you doing?” I growled a string of incoherent curse words at the room. Nothing fazed Richard, he never took his eyes off mine. Gerald looked frightened and somehow that made me feel powerful.

Richard reached out quickly and grabbed my wrist. He forced my clenched fist his bare chest just under his heart. I could feel a tingly, sticky connection. It was like that first static twinge you feel when something electric shocks you. It startled me, and it hurt, but only for a split-second. I relaxed my fist and stood still savoring his energy. I must have stopped screaming obscenities because it was suddenly quiet except for the sound of my breathing.

Everything in the room went white and silent. I felt empty, my mind relieved of all its thoughts and concerns seemed peaceful. The emptiness filled to capacity with energy. My thoughts flung in every direction consuming any scrap of energy they encountered. I could push beyond the walls. There were bodies in the hallway and walking around outside and down the mountainside to the people who lived below. I could taste them, smell them, their very life called out to me. The pull of Richard’s skin to my hand seemed to bring me back to him in waves of escape and return. Focusing me there in front of him, making him the center of my thoughts.

The patch of skin under my hand was hot. The dull throbbing pain in my head was missing. I was breathing deeply, and my ribs didn’t hurt. The body that caused me so much pain was gone. I felt light as if I were growing taller and thinner like a long silver thread stretching upward. As if I would disappear completely, float off the floor, and atomize into the air like a puff of perfume.

The feeling of weightlessness overcame my other senses. I was out, above, around but not in my skin anymore. I couldn’t feel my hand or Richards’s chest. I could only feel the heat and I was growing in strength. The power and the limitless space around me created a complete sense of joy. Waves of energy pulsed in thick currents. I could hear the energy swirl and hum in the air. I could taste it, sweet and …

“Okay, let’s leave this very stupid man with some life Caly.” Gerald pulled my hand off Richard’s chest; he gasped when my hand lifted from his skin. It sounded like I had ripped duct tape off his mouth. We were connected and the separation was jarring for us both.

“How did you do that. I feel great. I think you fixed my bruised ribs?” I twisted around and tried to reproduce the sharp pain in my side that I woke up with that morning.

“Oh, man that still feels as weird I remember. I have to sit.” Richard was a tall, thick, strong looking man. He wobbled as he walked toward a leather couch only a few feet away. Richard grabbed his white undershirt from the floor and flopped on the couch like a sack of rocks. There was something horribly wrong. I felt fantastic, but this strong man was reduced to a shaky bumbling mess.

“What is wrong with him? How did you do that to me?” I questioned openly.

“Hey don’t look at me girly. I just stood there. You did all the work,” Richard mumbled.

“Gerald, what is he talking about?” Gerald looked genuinely frightened but he forced his hand to touch mine. It was interesting to watch like a man willing himself to reach into an open flame. I could still taste the sweet tanginess of my connection to Richard. There was no way for me to be anything but happy at that moment.

“I want you to sit right here at the table, I’m going to get you a cold water, and we are going to talk about what the Colonel has done.” Gerald put his hand lightly on my shoulder, coaxing me down into the chair next to me as he spoke.

“She would have remembered eventually.” Richard barked across the room while signaling for Gerald to continue on his way with a floppy handed flick of his wrist.

“Did it have to be right this damn second? I have to get you to bed. You are going to need to rest for God knows how long. She could have killed you."

"Like you're really concerned with my well being."

"Her injuries are too fresh. You had no idea what would happen. She can’t control any of it yet.” Gerald scolded Richard, but he actually looked relieved. They were keeping quite a bit from me.

“Wait not me? No, I would never hurt anyone.” Then it hit me. I would never hurt anyone. I most certainly would and I didn’t think twice about it at the restaurant. I killed those men like it was my purpose in life. I wasn’t going to break away from Richard on my own. I was just getting to the peak of that ride. I was getting ready to float away. If Gerald hadn’t stopped me. I would have taken all his energy not realizing I was probably going to kill him.

Whatever mechanism we have that stops us from killing other living things. I don’t I have it anymore. Maybe I was born without it like a birth defect. I detach too easily. I rarely shrink from blood or gore, and dead things don’t bother me as they do others. It was starting to make sense to me now.

There was a car wreck in the parking lot of the grocery store last summer. Dave was with me. He stood frozen with our bags in his arms as the two hunks of metal intertwined. I ran toward the noise. One passenger busted through the windshield arms first and landed in a rock-filled planter a few feet in front of the mangled cars. Horribly shredded and percolating blood from his face the man lay there in shock. I focused on him. I rolled him on his sided and let the blood he was choking on escape. I spoke calmly to him and carefully wiped the blood and loose rock from his face with my fingertips rinsed in bottled water.

The woman driving the car my bloodied man was ejected from looked dead, there was no chest movement, and her head rested back against the driver’s seat in an unnatural position. The dead woman didn’t bother me, the excessive amount of blood and chunks of flesh that lay on the ground around my shredded man didn’t bother me either. One of the paramedics commended me afterward for staying with the injured man and keeping his breathing. He said most people wouldn’t have been able to stomach the gore.

Afterward, we took our groceries home. I changed out of my bloodied clothes and headed back out to finish my errands. David had to stay home for the rest of the day; he felt too sick to leave. I remember the confused look he gave me as I walked out the door. We needed toilet paper and laundry detergent. Somebody had to find the rest of the groceries on our list.

When I was done with the shopping, I grabbed a pizza and came home. Dave was still so overwhelmed by what he had seen he couldn’t eat and went to bed early. I stayed up and finished the laundry, ate some pizza, and caught up on my shows. Maybe I should have pretended to be bothered. Was I supposed to be scared or should I have faked disgust? The problem was I didn’t know what David expected me to be in that situation, so I was just myself.

The couch frame creaked as Richard tried to push himself up to a seated position. The noise brought me out of my daydream. “Can I give it back? Can I only take energy? How does this work? No wonder you are all so afraid of me. How could you have let me leave this place?”

Richard groaned as he labored to pull himself off the couch. “Nobody’s afraid of you; don’t go getting all cocky. You earned the right to leave, and you wanted out badly enough to let the good doctor play with your brain. We had no idea how long the implant would last, but we were watching you the whole time.”

“Watching me? I guess someone would have to make sure I didn’t go around siphoning the life out of people.” I let the idea soak my brain for a moment. How could they have let me walk around freely knowing what I was capable of? “Richard, why would you do this? I wasn’t going to stop on my own. I was completely lost. How do I keep from hurting people?”

“That’s what you have to remember. I knew you for three years before you left. You never had control issues. You did tell me once that the worst moments for you to control were right after being injured. Your self-preservation instinct goes way beyond normal. I’ve seen it in action. You can repair yourself with whatever raw material happens to be available. You could pull energy out of the damn dirt if you needed to. By the time we met, you already had all the details worked out. You never told me how you control it, but I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for your odd talents. I don’t see the harm in helping you heal faster.” Richard looked tired, he smiled, but his eyes looked flat and lifeless.

“Can I give back some of what I have taken from you? How do we fix you? You look so exhausted.” I half-afraid to touch him and harm him any further. I could see a raised scar under his thin tee shirt, a large bullet wound or combat injury of some sort I imagined. I moved to touch it, but he grabbed my hand before I could reach it.

“I think we should wait on the giving back idea. That’s a whole other side of strange. I have seen you do it, but I don’t understand how that works either. I’m older than I was last time we did this, but I was never this wiped out afterward. You must have always held back.”

“I’m going to get more coffee. Can I get you something,” I asked calmly, trying to grab a shred of normalcy from the moment.

“No don’t move. Anything we need can be brought to us. When you connect with people, there are some residual effects. It’s been different for each person but for me, it is like a jet taking off in my head. It feels like my chest and my head are going to explode if you get too far away from me; it only lasts for a few minutes. Just stay until it stops.”

“That sounds like a panic attack.” The euphoric buzz I had from our joining was beginning to fall away. As high up as the ride had taken me, now it slammed me down even further. I felt heavy as if gravity itself were feeding on me, sucking the life out of me right through the floor. My hands began to tremble, and my skin felt two sizes too small.

Richard pointed at my trembling fingers. “You need some food. You always eat after you do this shit. I’m hungry too.” Richard found the closest chair to lean on. His color started returning, his face and neck flushed bright red. I was still fixated on the large scar. I wound that close to the heart would surely have been fatal.

“Did I do that to you? Is that why you won’t let me see it?” Something about scars has always intrigued me. I expect they will tell me their tale of creation when I touch them.

“Yes, actually this was the last thing you gave me. Along with all the rest of the skin on my body, I suppose.” Richard pulled his undershirt half off, folding it over his biceps. I hadn’t noticed before, but he was in suspiciously good shape for a desk jockey. “There are eight other men in the world with this same scar.” Richard looked to be in deep thought as he ran his fingertips over the rough patch of skin. “We all have it in the same place, and we all got it the same day. I am the lowest ranked in that group, but that’s my own fault and a boring story for another day.”

“How is that even possible? Did you all stand in a line and let me cut you? What is that thing? It looks like an evil cabbage rose? Why not just have it removed?”

Gerald made it back with an armful of food. “I have a milkshake for Calynn and a sandwich for you Richard. Turkey is all they had. Just eat the damn thing and don’t complain about it.” Gerald looked over and saw Richards scar. All the color drained from his face. The scar wasn’t that bad. It was as round as baseball and almost flat, but there was no reason for such a reaction from a medical professional.

I leaned into Richard's shoulder to whisper quietly, “He is a very odd man.”

“You have no idea,” Richard moaned as he shuffled across the room to the pile of food. It looked like I had aged him ten years in twenty seconds.

“You are going to have to rest for the whole day Colonel.” Gerald was more than just a little concerned you could hear the authority in his voice as spoke.

“Yeah, you are probably right Doc. I need to stay here. I don’t want to try to make it home.”

“The residual effects, are they worse than before?” Gerald knew more than he let on. He knew what to expect and obviously, he knew enough not to get within arm’s reach of me.

“It’s bad. Much worse than ever before. She must have held back in the past. This was raw, unfiltered.” Richard pulled two chairs to a small table by the window and sat down. I unwrapped his sandwich, opened his water bottle and sat down next to him.

“You’ve got pretty good domestic skills there Cal. I was just wondering how to wrangle that sandwich out of the wrapper.” Richard chuckled as he mocked my attempt to be helpful.

“Yes, I recognized the helpless look. You forget I have a teenage boy at home.” I stopped hearing what I had said. “I don’t any more do I? I don’t have a home, and I’m not much of a mother or a wife for that matter. Not while I am stuck here.” Tears began to run down my cheek as I realized then what this all meant for me.

The only life I knew was gone, and I had no idea what to expect. None of my experience so far had prepared me for what I had just done. Richard looked at me like he was trying to think of something to say. “Please don’t look at me. I would go back to my room, but I don’t want to walk away and have your head start pounding.”

“They are coming to see you Saturday. I don’t know about your home or your husband, but your son, I know he is going to want to see you. I’ll make it possible for him to visit you as often as he can, don’t worry.” Richard seemed different today. As he began to get weaker so did his cold, rough exterior.

“It is not as if I have any other options now.” I wiped my tears on my sleeve and downed the last of my milkshake.

“Doc do you have any rooms with a double bed. I’m going to drop. I need a place to lie down.” Richard was passing out. By the far off look in his eyes, he only had a few minutes left.

“Double bed? This isn’t the damn Ritz. Drink some water wash that sandwich down. I don’t need you choking in your sleep. We can put a cot in Calynn’s room. You should be able to sleep close enough to her there.” Gerald hurried off to get the cot brought in and set up.

“Okay, old man let’s get you up. We can walk right over here.” I helped Richard make his way across the room to the hospital rooms on the other side of the hallway.

“What did you just call me?”

“Old man,” I joked smugly. “Don’t you feel like an old man? You sure look like an old man.”

“You are pure evil.” Richard’s voice was strained. He struggled to speak with any volume.

“Yes. Today I will agree with you. Here we are. See it’s a nice bed.” Richard opened his eyes very wide as if he was trying hard to focus. He was almost out.

“Doc is bringing me a cot.” Richard half-heartedly flailed his arm in the direction of the open doorway. Even half asleep the man still knew where the exit was.

“Doubt there’s enough time for that. I’ll take the cot so your head doesn’t explode.”

“Lay here next to me. You used to wear Chanel. It was nine or some number. Our bed smelled like it for weeks after you left. I love that smell. This bed smells like bleach.” Richard reluctantly surrendered to the pillow with a string of half grumbled half cursed words. He was out cold.

I was stunned to hear the name of that perfume. I found a small bottle of it at an estate sale shortly after I made it back home. My mother loved estate sales. I went with her on treasure hunts a few times. The purple bottle was part of a beautiful miniature set of jewel toned, glass containers. The kind you only see at Christmas. As far as I knew, I had never worn that perfume, but something about the scent, I fell in love with it instantly. Later I found out the scent was out of production so I only wore it on special occasions. Sadly it ran dry shortly before Matt's fifth birthday.

Still, I had no memory of sharing anything with the man passed out on my bed. Some twinge of recognition fired in my brain as I looked at him. A quick, hot pinprick dug in my skull causing me to reach up and grab the left side of my head. The pain left as quickly as it arrived taking whatever information it had with it. Two orderlies quietly entered the room with a narrow folding bed and positioned it next to where Richard was sleeping. I waved and nodded appreciatively for their stealthy efforts.

Gerald brought in two cold sodas and a thick stack of medical files. He wanted to piece together how my ability works, and he wanted me to keep up my sugar. After reading a few of my earlier reports, it became clear that I always had some type of memory block when it came to my childhood. I had little recall before age twelve even back in my early twenties, long before the car accident.

Gerald was at a loss. He didn’t have anywhere else to look for clues. “Do you know of anything that happened? Did anyone share any family stories of tragedy or illness you may have had around sixth grade? I assume you developed your abilities early in your childhood, but there’s nothing to support my theory. Maybe an event of some type triggered all this for you.”

“Nah, I don’t think so, and no one in my family ever mentioned anything. There is one conversation with my mother that sticks out to me now. Talking with her after the accident. I was whining about my money situation. She asked how my eyesight was, could I see everything? She made quote marks in the air as she spoke and I remember thinking she was acting stranger than usual. I read the calendar to her from across the room and told her I could see everything fine. She laughed at me and said, well good now you know what normal feels like. Enjoy this pain you're in, you’ve earned it. At the time I just chalked the comment up to her strange way of looking at things. But now the little remarks over the years make sense. She was trying to see if I could remember my abilities, but I didn’t.”

Gerald looked over my injuries and replaced the goop on my skull while I droned on and on recalling several out of place moments that occurred over the years. There was nothing useful left in my head when I went back to California. I was broken and confused but I was normal.

Richards sacrifice sped up my healing process. My sides and legs no longer needed bandages even the deep gashes in my hands looked better. My head wound was not nearly as painful, but it didn’t look as restored as the rest of me. The pattern of repair seemed to have graduated from the ground up. Gerald surmised it was a primal response. Having your legs heal first meant you could run away and hide from danger. This would have been an advantage to early humans, allowing them to flee predators, and get to safety while they recovered from battle born injuries.

We documented what we could from the experience. It was obvious we would not be siphoning more life from Richard anytime soon. He was beaten and to have brought down such a strong man so quickly. I can’t imagine I could use just anybody for this process. I would need strong subjects.

Gerald wanted to map my brain function while I drained the life out of somebody else. But I didn’t want to surrender to that feeling without some safeguards in place. It wasn't worth trading a life for an experiment. I was shocked that he would even consider it.

“How is your patient doing?” Gerald kept busy in the lab, but he kept coming back to check on me. He did actually look worried about Richard.

“I walked across the room to get a bottle of water and he didn’t flinch this time. Seems like I can move away from him without causing him any pain. I could use a second pair of eyes to test my theory.”

“No problem let’s try it.” Gerald stood in the hallway and watched as I picked up my shoes and walked out to the lab. We stood silently in the hallway waiting to see if Richard reacted.

“Looks like you are off the hook. Let’s call that six hours of recovery time for the Colonel. You seem a little off. Too much time alone?”

“What makes you say that? I’m fine. I feel good actually.” I had been in silence too long. Having time to think about my situation left me to question how much of my life I could share with David. None of this would sit well with him.

“Okay then let’s check out your new cottage.” Gerald was trying hard to be upbeat, jingling a set of keys as he flashed me a cheeky smile. It reminded me of a desperate parent trying to get their toddler to try summer squash for the first time.

“I can’t say I like the idea of a permanent residence here. I would like to think that all this will be over soon and I can go home.”.

“Think of it how you like but you need a space of your own to relax. Besides, you are going to have visitors this weekend. If Richards’s extreme tactics don’t drive you to insanity living like a nomad out of that backpack of yours most certainly will.” Gerald made sense, reluctantly I agreed with him.

“I can’t go home now what if I hurt somebody?”

“This is my point. Before this morning you probably felt like a captive and had the logical hope of release. But this place isn't a prison, I swear it's not. Besides, I heard we're getting frozen yogurt machine installed in the west wing mess hall. I don’t know of any prison that has fro-yo.”

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