Despite the title, this story is more horror than sci-fi. (And as horror goes, fairly mild.) As Corner Bar Magazine editor Garry Somers told me, “It’s like a Twilight Zone episode, only without the preface by Serling that warns you that you’re about to be freaked out.” Being a TZ fan myself, that is high praise. First published in July 2019.
Where Pluto Used To Be
by DL Shirey
The nausea hadn’t started yet, but it was just around the corner. Right now the problem was itching, and those awful thoughts that if she scratched too hard, too often in the same spot, her skin would shred like grated cheese.
Elsa tried not to scrape her manicured nails where it itched most, on her ankles. Instead she crossed her legs, placing a foot on her knee, then gently rubbed at the itch beneath her pant leg. But a laying-on of hands wouldn’t sooth it, nor would a lotion to moisturize skin. Oxy or Vikes would do it.
Compared to the others at Ninth Street Clinic, Elsa’s immodestly hiked leg wasn’t the most obvious thing that set her apart. A half-dozen people of color were waiting when she came in and few more had entered afterwards. Two women looked to be Elsa’s age, early twenties, but most of the others in the waiting room were older. Although Elsa had no way of knowing for sure, to her, they all looked poor; or in the case of a couple of raggedy men, destitute and filthy from the streets.
Elsa was white and clean and comparatively healthy, if you didn’t count her runny nose and the impending sweats and stomach cramps, perhaps a day away. Ninth Street Clinic was Elsa’s go-to. All her girlfriends had a fallback when in need: stealing from Mom or Dad, trading sex for a few pills, grab-and-run at a pharmacy, or heroin. Only Elsa and her friend Leigh knew about Dr. Shermer, and Leigh probably would have kept the secret to herself if she hadn’t wanted someone to go with her. This wasn’t the best part of town.
When they were here together the last time, Leigh was really strung out. After the visit she disappeared. That was six months ago. Elsa imagined her friend had turned to heroin. It was cheaper, easier to score, but a whole different lifestyle. Elsa knew plenty of people who ended up hanging out with that crowd and figured Leigh was with them now. Playing around with pills was one thing, but when you started on the needle, the problem became serious.
Elsa felt very lucky to have Dr. Shermer. Sure, he would stare at her cleavage, but he didn’t want anything else in trade to write a prescription. He never touched her inappropriately or extorted cash, he just warned her not to come in too often; every couple of month seemed fine with him or when she was desperate. Other than looking at her chest, Elsa thought the man was simply being kind. And if ogling was his thing, if it helped to get the pills, Elsa was happy to oblige. She was wearing yoga pants, over which she had a cute sundress with a short, lacy hem. If the spaghetti straps didn’t advertise that she had no bra, then the front placket did, with three buttons undone.
Elsa’s long, mouse-brown hair was still damp from a fresh washing. She decided to rake her fingers through the wavy hair, thinking that her fingernails should be otherwise engaged than in close proximity to the itch.
The nurse was waiting at the door as Elsa slung up the shoulder bag. Elsa assumed the woman was a nurse, but couldn’t tell by the uniform. Everyone who worked at the clinic wore light gray drawstring pants and white, comfortable shoes. Their tops were different colors and patterns, as if each was trying to bring a unique fashion sense to run-of-the-mill scrubs. Elsa followed the one dressed in navy blue with white pinstripes, the one who never smiled.
In the narrow hallway, all doors were on the right-hand side. Down the long wall opposite were photos of the current staff, side by side, in one long line. Each frame was labeled with a first name. Almost all had young faces, so Elsa guessed they were med students padding their résumés with volunteer hours. Over the eighteen months Elsa had been coming here, all but one of the photos had changed. Only pinstriped Nancy remained, with her pulled-back hair and foxy face; vulpine, that is, not at all attractive. And Dr. Shermer’s portrait had never been hung, which Elsa assumed meant he ran the clinic.
Nancy opened the last door, Dr. Shermer’s office. After her first visit, Elsa had always been ushered to this room, always by Nancy. That first time, Elsa was shown to one of the tiny rooms off the hall, each dominated by an examination table and cabinetted sideboard. Dr. Shermer’s office had these too, but his room was a much larger, holding his expansive desk, three framed graduate certificates and a wall of books. Above the desk was a mobile of our solar system with eight plastic planets and a snipped string where Pluto used to be.
“Nancy will take your vitals. I’ll be with you in a moment, dear.” Dr. Shermer didn’t look up from his desk. He was hunched over, engrossed in a book.
As she was weighed, thermometered and blood pressured, Elsa’s skin started to itch at an almost unbearable magnitude. It was as if the discomfort knew it would soon be abated and, in desperation, was making one last stand. Elsa forced herself to concentrate on something else fearing she would flay open her own skin if she started scratching. She stared at the mobile in the corner, hanging from the ceiling. On both walls behind it were poster-size photos of space, a panorama of starfields, as background for the dangling orbs. It was a galactic aquarium, Elsa thought, like fishes swimming in a fake seabed, only with planets and stars.
The rip of the Velcro cuff usually signaled the end of Nancy’s duties, and it brought Elsa back from space. But the nurse wasn’t done. She opened a closet and wheeled out a piece of equipment Elsa hadn’t seen before. It looked sort of like a sewing machine, except for all the dials and gauges, and where the fabric would have gone there was a padded cradle.
“Just one more test,” Nancy said, “Give me your arm, please.”
Elsa didn’t have to move from her seat on the exam table except to extend her arm. Nancy deftly maneuvered the machine and adjusted the height, until the cradle snugged up against Elsa’s armpit.
“Just relax,” Nancy said, bending Elsa’s elbow up ninety degrees. “Make a fist and flex me a muscle.”
Elsa did and Nancy put an adhesive patch on Elsa’s skin atop the biceps.
“Okay, good. Now relax completely,” Nancy said, laying the arm out straight. “I want you to hold this sensor in your fist. No, not so hard, hold it loose in your grip. I need your muscles completely relaxed.”
“Like this?” Elsa asked and received a nod from the fox-faced nurse.
Nancy flipped a switch and every meter on the sewing machine lit up, all indicated zero. A faint glow brightened the housing just above Elsa’s arm and bathed her flesh with dull red light. The color grew more intense as the red light snapped to the edges of the skin patch. Within that rectangular boundary the beam intensified to bright neon and Elsa felt the sting of heat.
She did more than tense up; Elsa threw her other hand over the skin patch. The light diffused to its original pinkish glow.
“What the hell! What is this test for anyway?”
“Opiate saturation,” said Dr. Shermer in a frank, flat tone. He finally looked up from the book he’d been reading. “Did you feel discomfort?”
“God, yes. Is this test really necessary? I mean, it’s the first time you’ve done it. Usually she takes my blood pressure, we have a little chat and that’s it.”
Elsa tried to pull her arm from the cradle, but Nancy urged her not to move. The nurse’s grip was gentle, but quite strong.
“Is there something wrong?” Elsa asked in a panic, “Something you’re not telling me?”
“No, nothing’s wrong.” Dr. Shermer did a slow spin in his office chair, book in hand. Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
Seeing the book, Elsa immediately started wrestling a trio of emotions. Anger, because instead of her, the doctor was paying more attention to his stupid astronomy hobby. Fear that she was being tested for something dreadful. And an overriding anxiety that the prescriptions would stop at a time when she desperately needed them.
“Just keep your arm where it is and we’ll give you something for the discomfort,” he said. “People sometimes have a sensitivity to the test, usually not. We’ll give you a local anesthetic.”
The doctor left the book, rolled his office chair next to Elsa and sat down beside her. Shermer eventually met his patient’s eyes after lingering on Elsa’s cleavage. He didn’t smile.
“It’s quite important to complete this test. You’re at a very critical stage. The results will tell me the strength of the prescriptions you’ll get from now on.”
“For opiate saturation, you said.”
“Yes.” Shermer turned to Nancy. “Lidocaine, five cc’s.”
Shermer then asked Elsa to describe the pain from the test and had her rate the intensity from one to ten.
“Hmm. I was going to numb the skin around the patch,” he said, “but the way you described the deep burning, I’m more inclined to give you a general. Something to help you stay relaxed.”
Shermer nodded at his nurse who plucked a different needle from a drawer and handed it to the doctor. Elsa looked away, in case there was blood. She flinched at the prick.
“There. In a minute or two you shouldn’t feel a thing.”
A warm syrup flowed beneath her skin, draining away Elsa’s anxiety. She didn’t even mind that the doctor and nurse were both staring at her. He sat in his chair and gaped at her breasts while Nancy stood over his shoulder with a fox-like grin. Funny, Elsa never noticed the resemblance before. Perhaps because Shermer’s bald head didn’t have the thick, ginger mane of his nurse. His snout was a little less pointy than hers, but he too had a small, round face. And his eyes, like Nancy’s, were set very close together. Elsa wanted to ask if they were brother and sister, but was distracted when her vision began to swim. The fox faces now looked like reflections on a ripply pond.
“All right,” said Shermer, “We should be good to go.”
Elsa savored the effects of the injection. The itch was washed from existence, replaced by a luxurious numb. She tried to ask Dr. Shermer to give her a prescription for this stuff, but Elsa was unable to make her tongue form words. She would have swooned from pleasure if the fox faces hadn’t smiled.
Their mouths had too many teeth; a second row behind the first, it seemed. This had to be a hallucination, didn’t it? Dr. Shermer’s lips were moving and Elsa was fascinated by the way his mouth formed words around all those teeth. It appeared he was talking to her.
“Opiate addiction is a funny thing. It takes more and more amounts to achieve the same level of sedation. Over time, your body has become saturated with the stuff. To a point where the high is no longer enjoyed, and you need the narcotic to stave off symptoms of withdrawal.”
Nancy uncovered the skin patch, pulling Elsa’s hand away and leaving her arm suspended in mid-air. Elsa felt like a wax doll, her joints only working when somebody else moved them. She worried that the drug she’d been given had paralyzed all her muscles, so she wouldn’t be able to breathe. She inhaled deeply and was also able to swallow and roll her eyes, but otherwise could not move. Dr. Shermer glanced over, watching her chest rise and fall.
“Western medicine is all about moderating symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause, which makes opioid addiction the perfect medical condition. The addict has nothing but symptoms, and prescribing more drugs only compounds them. It’s a perfect cycle of symptoms and relief, symptoms and relief, with no real underlying illness to worry about.”
The red lamp reframed its intensity on the skin patch, the needles of light causing the meters to spike. Shermer studied the readouts and nodded to Nancy who flipped a switch on the machine. The skin patch turned to toast and Elsa could smell her flesh sear. She didn’t feel pain, but neither were her eyes capable of registering panic as she flicked them toward Dr. Shermer.
“Addicts like to think they have a disease, but they don’t. It’s compulsive self-medication to relieve discomfort. I just happen to be different than most doctors because I want the cycle to continue for as long as possible, to see my patients achieve a certain saturation level.”
The hum of the machine changed noticeably. A sound like a dental drill accompanied the descent of a two-tined fork, slowly lowering from the machine. It pierced the square of flesh and juices welled up around the twin points of entry. White noise deafened Elsa’s brain, supplanting her inability to recoil and scream. Sparkles swarmed at the edges of her vision.
“Then the day comes when the body reaches the perfect saturation point. The permeation is so complete that the opiates begin to tenderize the meat. Given enough time it practically ‘falls off the bone.’ Isn’t that how your people say it?”
The hum changed pitch only slightly as the fork reversed course bringing up a toasted square firmly affixed to the skewers. When Elsa blacked out, the only outward sign was that her eyes stopped moving. Before today, she had only fainted at the sight of her own blood. With this procedure there wasn’t any, only cauterized walls adjoining one missing piece, like a brownie removed from a baking pan.
Dr. Shermer prattled on, “But alcohol addiction has the opposite effect on meat. Dries it out, makes it chewy, which some of us prefer. Nancy, here, enjoys a good chew.”
Nancy opened a cabinet drawer and removed a delicate porcelain bowl and chopsticks in a matching pattern. She pulled the morsel from the tines and set it in the bowl, testing the texture with one of the chopsticks. Nancy nodded.
“Personally, I don’t care for alcohol infusion. Gives the meat a peculiar aftertaste that is a little too, I don’t know, metallic. Opiates, for me, are the best marinade. In addition to making the meat tender, the taste is…”
The doctor paused and chuckled to himself. “The flavor is quite addicting. Nothing like it where we come from.”
Shermer sighed, turned his head toward the star maps behind the dangle of plastic planets. His introspection was interrupted when Nancy offered him the first bite.
“No, you go ahead,” he said, “It’s been a while since you’ve eaten.”
Nancy popped the square of meat in her mouth. Her foxy eyes drooped with pleasure and she tilted her head, shoulders slumping as she savored.
“Besides,” Shermer said with a two-rowed smile, “I’m partial to breast meat.”