Jared sat in the waiting room, alone. Cecilia wasn’t there, of course, but these bandages had to come off already. The cotton itched against his skin so badly he wasn’t sure if he could wait any longer.
He scratched at the outside of the bandage, but that didn’t help, only made it worse. The terrible waiting room music grated on his ragged nerves. As cool as Song was, as interesting and out there as the procedures he was performing were, he had a perfectly normal waiting room, with the standard quiet waiting room music; vaguely familiar jazzy renditions of vapid pop songs on the verge of being forgotten.
It was meant to be soothing and unobtrusive, but Jared couldn’t think of anything worse than hearing a song he loved that way, or anything more annoying than one he hated with the kitsch cranked up. He was sure that, somewhere in the world, there had to be something worse, but it was hard to imagine from a doctor’s office.
Jared thumbed irritably again through the brightly coloured skin and blurred nipples of the waiting room tattoo magazine and checked the clock again. It didn’t seem to be moving at all. He threw the glossy pages down and pulled himself to his feet, his legs stiff and unsteady from sitting still for so long, and lurched across the lobby to where the secretary sat, typing madly, oblivious to the rest of the world.
"Hey, can you tell me how much longer I need to wait?” She didn’t react at all. Jared was about to repeat himself when he noticed that the door leading back into the practice was open enough that he could see flickering lights in the darkened hallway beyond it. He slipped through the door and the secretary didn’t even turn her head away from the indifferent chatter of the keyboard.
Jared’s blood pounded in his ears as he made his way down the hall. The lights were out, save the yellow flicker drawing him toward Dr. Song’s office. The bandages weighed his arm down and he could hardly drag his feet forward.
“Come on in, Mr. Lane.” Song was at the door, half a bottle of gin in his hand, his eyes red and guarded. The smoke wafting out of his office door was thick and perfumed, reeked of floral incense, tobacco and dope, like a humidor full of hippies. “I’m surprised it took you this long. Don’t know how you got by without your stuff.”
“My what? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jared finally dragged himself through the door into the office. Candles were burning on nearly every surface. “I’m just here for my checkup. I don’t need any stuff.”
“We, here it is anyway. I don’t want it.” He brought a small wooden box out of the drawer and dropped it carelessly on the desk, splattering melted wax across some cryptic paperwork and onto the floor. Jared picked it up and looked at the things he’d supposedly left behind. His cellphone was in there, and so was his wallet. When he picked them up he saw little grey sausages rolling around and an old, matted toupee.
“I don’t think this stuff is mine,” he said, pushing the box away.
“I’m sure it is, Mr. Lane. Nobody else left it here, and I can see you need it.”
Jared scooped up the wig. The dirty mat of curly hair had a thin, papery backing, and the whole thing was crusted in brown filth. When he smelled it, his lip curled back instinctively at the reek of sweat with another metallic tang over it. Something familiar and organic. Blood? He reached for one of the sausages, but he froze when he saw the fingernail. He heard his phone and wallet hit the floor and looked down at his hand. Had his fingers been missing this entire time? He started to reach for his head, but stopped. He knew what he would find.
“Show me your goddamned arm.” Dr. Song set the cigar he’d been puffing aside and set into the bandages with a switchblade.
The screen of the implant was there, but it wasn’t melded in cleanly with his forearm like it was supposed to be. Jared’s skin was shriveling and cracking dryly away, leaving exposed metal chassis and plastic components underneath. Song brushed at it, sending ashy flakes falling gently to the wax spattered rug.
“Christ,” Jared said. “I thought this was supposed to be a routine upgrade. Is it supposed to look like that?”
“Part of doing something new is you don’t always know what it’s supposed to look like, kid.”
Jared held his arm up so he could see that candle light through his ragged, translucent flesh. It plainly outlined the hardware underneath. “What kind of monster are you turning me into here?”
“I can’t make a monster, I don’t know how. Monsters are all on the inside. If you can see it just by looking, you’re seeing something else.”
Jared felt like his head was spinning and his body felt impossibly heavy again, like it had in the hallway. He pulled away from Dr. Song and staggered to the window, his own pallid, ghostly image rushing to meet him. He saw where his hair was missing; his skull was broken away in places and lights blinked on the surface of his brain. His face was drawn and alien, his dry skin was flaky and torn and when his lips parts he saw broken and missing teeth. He was naked. Holes in his skin were covered with tape and metal patches, riveted to his bones. He looked, and felt, he realized, like the life was draining out of him, sucked from his scabby feet into the berber. He looked back up and reached for the cyber-punk parody of himself with a fingerless hand, but he only touched glass and could offer his ghastly image no comfort. The reflective surface of the window rippled lazily like a stagnant pond and made a sound like an angry tympani.
“Holy shit, kid!” Dr. Song screamed, clutched at his ears while he scrambled under the desk for cover like a crab. “What the fuck did you do?”
Jared came too, sweating, the bed sheets weakly balled up in his fist, fighting for breath. Gentle music played in the background, a jazzy rendition of a half remembered pop melody, and Dr. Song’s innocuously decorated recovery room faded in to replace the smoky office as Jared struggled upright.
“God damn,” Jared said, wiping his face with the un-bandaged hand. “Must have been the anesthetic.”
The nurse, the spunky one, Colleen, stuck her head around the corner. “Hi, Jared. Are you back with us?”
“I think so. Is Clinton still president?”
“Har har, funny man.” She methodically checked boxes on her clip board as she looked at the monitors he was attached to. “How are you feeling?”
“Terribly. If I didn’t know you were going to be waiting for me when I woke up, I don’t know that I’d bother at all. Have I ever told you how beautiful you are when I’m on drugs?”
“You know? I’m pretty sure you have!”
“Are you going to let me take you out on a date this time?”
“Well, I might, Jared, but I’ve already seen you naked.”
Colleen shrugged her nonchalance. “Meh.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Jared tried to shift his weight, but he was still too weak. “Jesus. Why do I keep doing this?”
“That’s something you need to answer for yourself, bub.”
Jared nodded feebly and closed his eyes. The exchange had been exhausting and answering his own questions about how he had come to this was too much for him to deal with on the best day.