Thursday, 16 July 2020

ONE

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One,” by Nancy Kress, is a science fiction novella about an angry young boxer who, after experiencing a concussion in a bout, is able to sense what people are thinking and predict their every move. He finds this useful in boxing but not great for personal relationships and turns to artificial means to deaden the sensations.

This novella was acquired for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.

“I doubt if anyone ever touches the limits at either end of his personality. We are not our own light.” —Flannery O’Connor, private letter, 1962

 

 

I.

“It’s a long way to fall, Zack.”

Zack scowled up at Anne, wishing she would go away. Bad enough to be lying on this damn hospital bed in a thin cotton dress that left his ass bare. Bad enough to be going into surgery for something wrong in his brain. Bad enough to not understand what that something was, not even after one of all those doctors had explained it, just the same way he’d never understood that kind of intellectual crap his whole stupid life. But having his sister loom over him, upright when he was down—well, wasn’t that just the icing on this particular shit cake?

“I’m fine,” he said shortly.

“Of course you’ll be fine,” Anne said.

“So go back to work. I don’t need you here.”

“I’m on break anyway,” Anne said. She wore her nurse’s scrubs, her brown curls tied back. She, or the curtained cubicle, smelled of disinfectant trying to smell like pine trees. “I just wanted to remind you that when they put you under the anesthetic, it can feel like a long way to—”

“I got it, I got it already! Now go away!”

Behind her, Gail—and who invited her to be here, anyway?—said, “Knock it off, Murphy. She’s just trying to be nice.”

“Nobody asked you!”

“If anything happens to you in there, do you really want your last words to Anne to be ‘go away’?”

Gail was right, the bitch. Gail was right, Anne was right, the doctors were right—only Zack was wrong. Like he’d been wrong his whole life. But if they’d just leave him alone for five fucking minutes to think, he couldn’t think with both of them jabbering at him . . . And it wasn’t like Gail cared what happened to him in surgery.  She might love Anne, she might have married Anne in a state where they could do that, but Zack was just so much spoiled meat to Gail. Always had been, ever since she and Anne got together. Gail, lean and muscled and as welcome here as a bad uppercut to the chin.

A second later, the other too-familiar feeling swamped him: regret that he hadn’t been nicer to Anne. Why was that always so hard to do?

“Please,” Anne said in her soft, pleading voice. “Please don’t fight again, you two.”

“I’m sorry, Anne,” Gail said.

“Sorry,” Zack muttered. Sorry, sorry, sorry. He was always apologizing to Anne.

“I know you didn’t mean it,” Anne said.

Another, older nurse came into the curtained cubicle and glanced quizzically at Anne, who began explaining that she was a relative, Zack’s next of kin, not a member of the surgical team. The other nurse nodded, not interested. “Ready, Mr. Murphy?”

“Yeah.”

“Wait—what’s that black eye? Does Dr. Singh know about this?”

How should Zack know what Dr. Singh did or didn’t know? Zack wasn’t a damn mind reader. He said, “I box. We get hit. We get black eyes.” It came out nastier than he intended. So, all right, maybe he was nervous about this operation. It was on his brain, after all. Maybe his brain wasn’t much, but it was the only one he had.

His sister, the brainy one, launched into a history of all the doctors Zack had seen in the last week, what they’d said about the tumor in Zack’s head, the concussion he’d gotten in the fight against DeShawn Jeffers, a bunch of other medical bullshit. Finally—finally!—the women finished talking and an orderly wheeled him into the operating room.  Almost a relief. Anne, Gail—it was too much sometimes. And Jazzy not there only because he’d forbidden her to come. She hadn’t liked that, but he’d been firm. Three months of seeing each other, even with great sex, didn’t mean she could invade every corner of his life.

The last thing he saw before the OR doors closed was Gail, her arm around Anne, staring fixedly at Zack like she could erase him from the Earth. He wanted to give her the finger, but he didn’t get his arms free of the blanket in time.

He transferred himself from the gurney to a table, someone holding his IV tubes out of the way. The room was full of masked people, only their eyes visible. A bright light overhead like a mirrored UFO with a handle sticking out of it. Humming machinery. One nurse lifted Zack’s wrist to read his name band; another assisted a doctor with gloves.

A third doctor sat on a stool beside Zack’s head while something was injected into his IV. “Relax, Mr. Murphy,” she said. “You’re just going to take a little nap. Now, count backwards from a hundred.”

Don’t tell me what to do. He counted forward instead, picturing Jeffers lying there in the ring, that was it, Zack should have won that fight, one two three four . . .

A weird drifting took him. What the . . . he wasn’t . . . this . . . .

It’s a long way to fall, Zack.

 

He woke in a cubicle with a curtain around it and a bedside table holding a barf bowl shaped like a fancy swimming pool. Plastic tubing ran all over him. From somewhere came the smell of coffee. Everything seemed fuzzy. Someone—not Anne, not Jazzy—fussed with machines. Zack tried to say something and couldn’t.

“Rest,” the someone said. He slept.

 

But the next time he woke, he was in a different room, and it was full of people. Scrubs, white coats, two men in suits.  None of them were looking at him. They clustered around a screen, looking at something Zack couldn’t see.

“Not possible,” someone said.

“It has to be possible because there it is,” someone else said, irritated and impressed and scared.

How do I know all that from looking at his back? Zack thought drowsily, and slept again.

 

The third time, he came fully awake. The plastic tubing was all gone. The room had pale blue curtains and a view of the parking lot. Only Anne, wearing an off-duty skirt and top, sat beside his bed, her head bent over a magazine. Unexpectedly, gladness at seeing her flooded him.

“Hey,” Zack said. It came out a croak.

Anne looked up. Instantly, Zack thought: She’s scared. Really scared.

“You’re awake!”

“Yeah. What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t lie to me, Anne! Something’s wrong and it’s, like, major. Am I . . . am I dying?”

Her hand shot out to rest on his. “Oh, no, Zack, nothing like that! You came through the surgery just fine. Nothing’s wrong.”

“I said don’t lie to me!” He could feel her fear—no, wait, what did that mean? But it was true. 

He knew she was afraid, and wary of him, and at the same time . . . curious, her mind open and searching for answers . . . How could Zack know all that? He was no mind reader. No, he knew it from the way Anne held her head, the way her eyebrows shifted, the set of her mouth . . . He simply knew. Just like he knew a second before she stood up that was what she’d do next.

“I have to get Dr. Jakowski,” she said. “I told him I’d send for him as soon as you woke up.”

“Who’s Dr. Jakowski?” Hadn’t his surgeon had some Indian name, not a Polack one?

Anne didn’t answer. She left, and Zack lay in the bed testing his hands and arms and legs. Everything seemed to work all right. He made a fist, two fists, sat up. Still in that damn bare-ass cotton dress. A man in a white coat strode into the room ahead of Anne.

Eager as a rookie before his first fight. Thinks he’s way better than anybody else. Looks at me like a lab rat. He’s going to ask me a lot of questions but tell me nothing.

“You’re quite an interesting phenomenon, Mr. Murphy. I’m going to ask you some questions now.”

“No, you’re not,” Zack snapped. The man is going to hold up his left hand. Cold slid down Zack’s spine, icing his bones. How do I know what he’s going to do before he does it?

Jakowski held up his left hand. “Purely routine, Mr. Murphy. Now, when you—”

“It’s not routine and you know it, you bastard.”

“Zack!” Anne said. She turned to the doctor. “I apologize on behalf of my brother, doctor. He—”

“Don’t apologize for me, Anne. You’ve done it my whole fucking life. I’ll talk to somebody, but somebody who isn’t a high-and-mighty prick.”

The doctor mottled maroon. Another man in a white coat entered the room. “Mr. Murphy is awake?”

As eager as the other one, but this guy’s human. Hasn’t got a stick up his ass. Quiet but not timid, he’d go the distance in a fight, featherweight maybe, good shoulders . . . He’s going to reach out his right hand, ask me how I’m doing . . .

“How are you feeling? I’m Dr. John Norwood, a neurologist.” He held out his right hand to shake hands with Zack.

Zack shook and nodded, all at once too confused to speak.

Anne said, “Zack, does your head hurt?”

“No.” Something easy, something he could answer. Zack clung to it like a life raft in a choppy sea.

“Good,” Norwood said. “I’d like to ask you some questions, if that’s all right with you. May I sit down?”

“Sure. But Dr. King-of-the-World there, he goes.”

Anne looked startled. Jakowski stalked out. Norwood sat and smiled, so slightly that no one could have seen the tiny movement of his lips, too brief for interpretation.