Trace, by Ian M. Smith

 

“What happened to your arm?”

Joanne looked up and bit back the reflexive snark that had formed on her lips—the kid was maybe eight; pale and bespectacled. He stood in front of her uncomfortable waiting room chair clutching a ragged copy of Harry Potter in one hand, and an inhaler in the other. He seemed unable to keep his eyes off of her stump for more than a second.

Joanne made a show of looking him up and down before leaning in to whisper, “Do you really want to know?”

The boy nodded, seemingly suspicious of the conspiratorial tone and excited by it.

Joanne raised her right arm and pointed at him so he could see the scars that traced the few inches of her arm beyond her elbow. “It was eaten by a dragon!”

“Nuh-uh! There aren’t any dragons. They’re made up.”

She brought her left index finger to her lips, urgency in her eyes, “Shhhh! They’ll hear you. I only barely escaped last time, I won’t be able to protect you.”

“Kevin? Kevin! Don’t bother that poor girl!” A woman crossed the waiting room in three strides, and snatched him by his elbow. “I’m sorry, miss.” She said over her shoulder as she hauled the boy to the opposite corner of the room.

“He’s no trouble, we were just talking.”

A nurse stepped through the doorway. “Joanne Shaughnessy?”

Joanne rose and slung her bag across her body. As she walked away she gave the kid a quick wink and pressed her finger to her lips.

tracesepding
After the standard blood pressure/pulse routine, the nurse swished away and left Joanne alone in a room with a cross-sectional poster of a child’s trachea. She absently rubbed her stump, mildly annoyed that she wasn’t feeling anything now. This was the way of it: sometimes the pain was so overwhelming it was all she could do not to cry out, but as soon as she was in front of a medical professional, nothing. It made her feel crazy, like it was all in her head—and, in a way, she supposed it was. The problem certainly wasn’t with her nonexistent arm, was it? But her nonarm seemed to know when it was least convenient to act up, and when it was vexing to behave. She was reflecting on the strangeness of personifying a missing part of her body when the door swung open.

The doctor entered wearing a button-up shirt that boldly straddled the line between professionalism and luau attire. His cheeks and the skin under his eyes sagged a little, reminding Joanne of a basset hound. His gaze flicked twice between the chart and Joanne’s face in a pattern she recognized. She certainly didn’t look like a Shaughnessy. “Hi, Joanne? I’m Dr. Keller. Have a seat. So what brings you in today?”

Joanne braced herself to repeat the litany of initial medical inquiry. “I have persistent phantom limb pain that’s resisted conventional treatments, so I was recommended here.”

“Mmhmn, mhmm. Right arm, transradial…I don’t seem to have the circumstances for amputation?”

“That’s unfortunate. Neither do I.” Her attempt at humor fell flat. She hadn’t yet discovered a good way to have this conversation with a medical professional. She knew it was relevant, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. “I was adopted with no medical history. My arm had already been amputated before I was deposited at the agency. The people who made that decision are somewhere in China, and I doubt they recall.”

“Hmmmn, can you describe the sensation for me?”

“It varies quite a bit. The most common is a prickly burning, but sometimes it’s crushing, pinching, cutting….” She gave a shrug.

“Always painful?”

“Yes.”

“Mhmm….”

He tapped away at his laptop for a bit, giving Joanne the chance to return to her observation of the artist’s rendering of juvenile vivisection. Her phone buzzed, and she slipped it out of her pocket.

 

Katy:
Hey! How’s it going? Are you cured?

Joanne:
Yup! They just pulled a new arm off the rack and popped it on.

Katy:
Awesome!! How well did they match your skin tone?

Joanne:
All they had in stock were Melanin Deficient Waif and Zulu Princess. I am now officially 1/8 African-American.

Katy:
Bad ass!
Hey, wanna do me a huge favor?

 

“Can you visualize your arm?” Dr. Keller asked without breaking the chatter of his typing.

“Uh, sure.”

“Can you try to open and close your missing hand?”

Joanne held her arm out and the muscles wrapped around her stump twitched rhythmically. He watched for a moment and returned to typing.

“Can you close your eyes and point to where your hand would be?”

“Why?”

He looked up, blinked twice. “I am just trying to infer what your nervous system thinks your arm is up to.”

Joanne clenched her jaw, but shut her eyes and pointed with her left hand to where she imagined the right to be.

“Ok, open your eyes? It looks like your proprioception is still functioning for your missing limb. And it seems to have grown with you, which is not at all guaranteed. Have you ever had any bodywork?”

“Excuse me?”

“Bodywork…like a chakra reading or biorhythm evaluation? Aura alignment? No?”

Joanne shook her head. This was clearly a mistake. “No, I haven’t. That’s always sort of smacked of bullshit to me.”

Dr. Keller tilted his laptop half shut. “You know that this is an alternative medicine clinic, right?”

“Well yeah, but I thought that meant you’d do homeopathic stuff along with the regular meds.”

“Sure, sure. Some of the doctors here do, but there are a multitude of different medical traditions. My work is grounded in the Eastern idea of chi balance, and I’m participating in some initially promising research for both pain management and disability compensation. If you’re willing, I’d like to do a series of regular visits to try some different centering techniques.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t given much thought to my chi before now.”

“Right. Well, I’ll tell you what. You’d make a really interesting case study for my research, so I’d be willing to pay you a stipend if you can come in for an hour every other week and follow some basic lifestyle guidelines. And of course, your medical care would be covered, as well. Would you like to talk it over with my research assistant and see if you’re interested in participating?”

A little extra money and a few less expenses would not hurt anything right now; the savings she had moved to Seattle with were wearing a little thin. “Yeah, I guess so.”

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