Relief by Kaci Curtis – FREE STORY

So many people regret so much in their lives. So much pain, regret, grief… This story shows the extremes to which some will go to, to get even a short respite from that pain. Only a respite from pain, regret, grief, but not from reality.

The client that approached the other side of the counter looked nervous. Alice smiled reassuringly, even as she deduced that the man was undecided; her least favorite type of customer. She waited a beat, giving him the chance to speak, but his pale blue eyes were fixed on the sign behind her, which detailed specimen storage options and their varying costs.

“I can help with any questions,” she said at last, taking in the man’s long black coat and wrinkled khakis. Fresh out of the office, she’d bet money on it. He’d probably spent the entire work day sweating, penning pros and cons in a tidy list.

“What’s the longest storage option?” He asked, finally looking away from the sign and down to Alice.

She logged into her computer as she replied, “We are only licensed to hold the specimens for a period of 60 days.” Clinical trials had yet to be successful beyond that timeline. Re-insertion became…. complicated, after that.

“But I can bring it back, again, right?”

Alice eyed him over the blue rim of her glasses, even as she maneuvered to the intake page on her screen. “Federal law allows you to store your specimen once per calendar year.”

The man sighed, as though that amount of time was intolerable. And perhaps it was. She had no idea what had driven the man to come here. She didn’t particularly care to know. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pleasant, and it wasn’t her business.

There was a long pause, and the man ducked his chin into his overcoat as the door behind him opened, and a gust of frigid air blew in. Finally, he spoke again, even as the newcomer took her place in line.

“I’ll take the cheapest 60-day accommodation,” he finally said. “It’s not like it really matters.”

Alice began sending forms to the printer behind her. “That’s a common misconception. Research has shown that the storage accommodations do affect the specimen in varying ways. For example, most do better with an hour of sunlight per day, and we’ve had some success playing classical music or nature sounds over the vault speakers…” She trailed off when she realized he wasn’t listening.

His hand was already extended, the card in his grasp quivering only slightly.

She was careful to avoid his gaze when their fingers brushed as she took his card. Only desperate people came here. People with bleak, empty eyes, and shuttered expressions.  People she was better off forgetting. If she didn’t forget them, she would want to fix them, and that led down a dangerous road.

It was better to not wonder.

There was a chime as thousands of dollars emptied from the man’s bank account, and she handed his card back. “I’ve got a few forms for you to sign.”

She stepped to the printer and returned to lay the handful of warm pages on the counter between them. “Sign and date each form, please. The first one says that we aren’t liable if an act of nature affects our facility, and your specimen is damaged. The second one waives your rights to sue us if the storage package you selected turns out not to be ideal for your specimen. The third page—–”

The man had been scribbling; he held a hand up, silencing her. “It doesn’t matter; they’re already signed.”

Alice pursed her lips, but took the papers from him, adding them to the folder on which she’d already neatly printed his name.

“If you’ll follow me to the procedure room, then,” she said, turning to step out from behind the counter. “It’ll take about five minutes.”

The man followed her, his loafers squeaking a bit atop the marble floors. A burst of cold air swept through the lobby behind them, and another person joined the line.

Alice opened the door to the procedure room and flicked on the light. A single chair sat in the center of the room, a panel of illuminated controls along the wall on one side. The man hung his coat up rather methodically, and collapsed back into the chair with a sigh.

She hummed a bit of melody to herself as she strapped his wrists down to the arms of the chair with comfortably padded cuffs, and then moved to the control panel.

“When I step out, a mask will descend to cover your face. The procedure will begin once the sedative takes hold,” she informed him, just as she had done to thousands of others. “The incision will be made with a laser,” she went on, “and you’ll wake in a recovery room. A transitional counselor will be there, if you have any concerns, or need someone to talk to.”

The man closed his eyes, as though he couldn’t bear to look at the bright, sterile ceiling. “Let’s just get it over with.”

He sounded so weary, and looked so…. blank. As though whatever had once animated him, had drawn him back from an abyss… well. Whatever or whoever that had been, they were long gone.

Alice finished setting the controls, and turned her back to him to open the door. “I hope you find peace,” she said over her shoulder. The man scoffed, but made no reply.

She waited outside the door, watching the man’s vitals as his pulse rate, oxygen levels, and other trivial numbers flickered on a viewing screen. Moments later, there was the grating of a mechanical lock, and the hiss of compressed air. She opened the door to the small antechamber, and withdrew the compartment that the man had purchased to store his specimen, which was already locked inside.

It was her least favorite of all the ridiculously expensive options, because it was the least hospitable. Nothing could be expected to thrive in such conditions, but still, the desperate and the bereft paid for them, not seeming to care. The storage box was small, no longer than her forearm. It was made of tempered glass; there was nowhere to hide within it, no shaded nook or secluded alcove.

It was stark, and emptier than a prison cell.

Alice tucked the box under her arm, leaving the man to the care of his assigned transitional counselor, and strode down the hallway. She used her keycard to access the door to the climate-controlled storage facility, and her breath misted against the glass as she pushed it open. She tried to ignore the familiar tremble down her spine as she stepped through, and the lights grew dim.

The feeling of awareness, of being pressed upon by invisible eyes, was as acute now as it had been on her first day. The very air felt thick and…. occupied. She kept her eyes firmly on the ground beneath her feet, illuminated with running lights that mapped a grid of numbers and letters.

She had been curious, once. She had watched the specimens as she’d walked by, taking in their vast differences in color, texture, and mood. Some hid when she passed. Others pressed against their containers in an awful, pleading pantomime. A few had not acknowledged her at all, while still more seemed to darken with her every step.

Darkness was a common aesthetic here.

Alice reached the combination of letters and numbers that marked the new specimen’s resting place for the next 60 days, and she eased it down, careful not to jostle the inhabitant within. Locks clicked into place around the base of the compartment, and a green light flickered to life along its lid, advising that all was well within.

Medically speaking, of course.

Alice couldn’t help but cast a glance around, even as she made for the door with increasing swiftness. Her heeled shoes tapped against the marble. There were a few specimens in here that she remembered well, no matter how much she had struggled to ignore them. She could feel their presence like a chilled breath upon her neck.

The specimen of the mother with dead twins rested in B23. R41 belonged to a doctor whose prized vaccine had been sidelined for deadly side effects. V02 held the specimen of a military spouse, whose husband had deployed out of the country for twelve months. T18 was a widower. H78 was an orphan, alone in the world. Y64 was divorced, and his son wanted nothing to do with him.

Each specimen, each mangled, broken heart… waited in this dark, cold room.

Alice shuddered as she opened the door to the hallway that led back to the lobby. She would never understand it. She would never understand how a person could literally remove their heart, and leave it in a place like this.

She was familiar with the medical jargon. She knew the transplanted hearts that had replaced these damaged specimens were perfectly viable, lab-grown organs. They functioned exactly as they were supposed to. They did not possess the ability to be inundated with emotion, they did not overflow, or yield, or break.

They were practical and functional. An improvement, many said. People paid thousands of dollars to have their hearts removed, and left them to rot in this place for however many days they were able to afford. And when they reluctantly returned to have them reinserted, they expected the time apart to have done some good, as though their bereaved heart had been on some sort of healing vacation.

It was madness.

But the grieving, the disillusioned, and the dreamers of dead dreams didn’t particularly care. They didn’t want to die, but they wanted to stop feeling. They were so desperate for relief; to stop hoping, or dreaming, or missing someone who would never return. Even if only for a few days.

And so, they came here, offered up their most irreplaceable possession, and walked away with a glazed look and a smear of liquid adhesive atop their chests.

It was a shame that the hearts they were so eager to leave behind didn’t get to partake in the bliss of forgetting. Instead, they sat, rows upon rows of them. Abandoned and ignored. Receiving none of the healing that would make any kind of difference at all.

Alice’s lips trembled as she affixed a reassuring smile on her face. Her heels tapped across the marble floor, back to her spot behind the counter. She raised her gaze to the next new face, and logged back into her computer.

“I can help with any questions,” she said, not meeting the woman’s empty eyes.




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