QSFer Albert Nothlit has a new Sci Fi book out:
A surgeon’s hands are his livelihood, but what if they are rendered useless by pain?
It started with gentle tremors and slight exhaustion after a long day in the OR. Mark ignored the signs, and now overuse and repetitive stress have rendered his hands practically useless. It hurts even to brush his teeth.
For Mark, it seems his career is over just a couple years after it began. He sinks deeper into depression with each day, and he doesn’t have high hopes for the weeklong stay in the physiotherapy clinic his mother has arranged for him. His therapist, Corey, is young and handsome, but Mark isn’t looking for a boyfriend. He’s looking for a friend.
Mark Schneider was trying to shave without losing his temper.
He had just gotten out of the shower, a white towel wrapped around his slim waist. His bathroom was shrouded in vapor from the scalding hot water he liked to use when bathing, but the shaving mirror over the sink was clear.
He ignored the gentle tremble of his right hand when he picked up the razor and started. Sharp blue eyes stared back at him, the icy color of a winter sky. Mark was halfway into his thirties, but he had always taken such good care of his face that people usually thought he was much younger. He was fit from years of regular exercise and healthy eating, and although he was not model-handsome, he knew that with the right clothes and the right smile he could make heads turn his way.
Until recently, that is. The thought made Mark grimace as he slid the sharp blade over his right cheek. Now his eyes looked puffy from lack of sleep, his skin had a sickly pallor and his light brown hair was an unkempt mess. He still exercised, but since the diagnosis he had been forced to limit himself to cardio. Mark could feel how his carefully sculpted physique was melting away under the mandatory rest the doctor had prescribed. No lifting weights at all, and it had been almost two months now.
Mark lost his grip on the razor for a moment, tried to compensate by jerking his fist closed, and ended up cutting his face. He felt the sharp sting of the metal on his upper lip and nearly exploded with rage, but he made himself calm down with an effort of will. He had things under control. He was not going to get angry just from a little cut.
He closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. By the time he exhaled for the second time he felt good enough to continue shaving, and he managed to finish without incident although his right hand was shaking badly by the time he was done.
Now for the exfoliating cream. Mark reached for the bottle with his left hand, fumbled with it for a moment and then flicked off the cap. A sharp, stabbing pain spidered up the inner side of Mark’s wrist and he winced but continued. He was in control. Besides, he needed to do this. He hadn’t used his creams in weeks.
He rubbed some of the mild grainy substance onto the tips of his fingers and brought them up to his face to begin applying the exfoliator, avoiding the area where he’d cut himself. Whenever he pressed down, no matter how lightly, he felt pain centered on the underside of his wrists. He continued nevertheless. He finished applying the cream, rinsed it off, and proceeded to use his moisturizer. He grabbed the new bottle, but this one had a screw-on cap.
Mark stared at the bottle in his hand for a good five seconds, looking at that cap.
He reached for it with the left hand since that one hurt the least and tried turning it.
The cap resisted.
He let go almost immediately, scared to hurt himself even more, but he had already started.
I just want to moisturize, goddammit!
He tried again and twisted harder. The cap gave, but so did his hand. Mark felt as if someone had stabbed the nerve bundle inside his wrist with a hot needle and cried out, letting go of the bottle. It clattered to the floor. Mark lost his balance because of his own sudden motion, stepped on the bottle by mistake, and only barely managed not to fall by grabbing onto the towel rack with his right hand.
He realized too late that he should not have done that. He had grabbed the rack tightly by instinct but that only made a new white-hot stab race up his other wrist. He grunted, regaining his balance, not allowing himself to cry out again. His face was scrunched up in pain.
He opened eyes that he had shut tightly, taking more deep breaths to try and calm himself. Whenever he exhaled it came out shaky.
Mark stared at the mess on the floor. The contents of his moisturizer bottle had been sprayed all over the bathroom tiles when he had stepped on it. The shower drip, dropped to his right while Mark stood as if petrified, unblinking, shoulders taut with tension. Water vapor condensed into droplets on the tips of his hair, grew, then slid down Mark’s skin leaving a trail of moisture behind.
Then Mark screamed.
A roar of rage escaped from his chest and he slammed his right elbow sideways onto the shaving mirror. Crystal cracked from the force of his blow, fell, shattered in the sink.
Mark straightened up, panting as if he had been running, looking at his reflection staring back at him from the shards. He only noticed he was bleeding when the first red drop ran down his arm with unexpected warmth.
Mark opened the medicine cabinet with his other elbow. He fumbled about with shaking hands until he found gauze and rubbing alcohol.
The alcohol bottle was shut tight.
Mark almost laughed. Instead of that, however, his shoulders slumped in defeat. He left the bathroom as it was, ignoring the cut on his elbow, and went to his living room still wearing only a towel.
He sat down heavily and allowed his head to loll back on the cushions. The sofa was imported from Italy and he was going to get blood all over it, but Mark didn’t care. He stared at the ceiling, seething.
He wanted a drink, but the whiskey was in the upper cabinet and the bottle was heavy.
Mark wanted to punch something. He wanted to grab hold of his punching bag and strike it until he had no strength left, but that was precisely what he couldn’t do. He felt trapped, confined inside his own body by a condition that was invisible, that barely counted as a disability, and which had ruined his entire life.
He sat up on the sofa, resting his wounded elbow on the towel. It was barely bleeding anymore. The cut had only been superficial, then. Mark lifted his eyes to the opposite wall and stared hard at the array of diplomas that he had hung there with pride back in the years before the diagnosis, back in another lifetime. College, med school, specializations, dozens of congresses and training seminars. More certifications than he could count.
Mark looked away from the remnants of his career. To his right, the panoramic windows of his apartment showed him the skyline of the city ablaze with sunset. It was a breathtaking view but he scarcely took it in. All he saw was the faraway storm clouds that were threatening to come closer, bringing rain with the coming night.
Mark grinned sadly. It was just like his life. Nothing good to look forward to anymore. Just slowly approaching rain.
He rested both his hands on his thighs, palms facing up, and stared at them. He looked at them hard, and although he didn’t want to, because it was just one more admission of weakness, tears started stinging his eyes. He shut them tight so none could escape.
He was in control. He had to be.
He really needed a drink.
He almost got up to grab the whiskey but he caught himself before he did. He recognized the urge to have some alcohol in his system for what it was, a futile gesture. He would be numb for a while and then everything would come crashing down worse than before. It wasn’t even worth the effort.
Mark looked out the window, taking in the scenery without really seeing anything. What he really needed was someone to talk to. He had friends, but none of them could understand what he was going through. They were all young, healthy, and perfect. They meant well, but not even his best friend Jonathan could imagine what it felt like to be trapped inside your own body, having something inside you screaming and tugging at chains that would not give. Mark felt like that most of the time lately. He was angry, seething really, and putting up a faÃ§ade of normality on everything in his day-to-day life was getting harder and harder.
Maybe that was why he had stopped going out. At the beginning he had gotten lots of e-mails, calls, and messages asking whether he was all right, but now that the weeks were going by his friends were slowly but surely forgetting about him. Mark shook his head slightly, alone in his living room. He should not indulge in self-pity. It was better for his friends to keep enjoying their youth while they still had it. Not even Jonathan would have the patience to sit through yet another one of Mark’s rants about how much his condition was affecting his daily life, and how unfair everything was.
Sure, at the beginning everyone had been understanding. They showered support on Mark, but most of them expected to do it only once, as if somehow their good wishes would have a magical curative power that would rid Mark of his problem. What most of them failed to realize was that the problem was still there, and would be for months or years, and who wanted to be in the company of someone like Mark then? He had seen it during the last few times he had gone out: his mood was like a dark cloud tainting everything around it. Rather than ruin yet another dinner party or club night, he had simply decided to be on his own.
He almost wished for a friend who could understand what he was going through. Then he pushed the wish away, rejecting it as another sign of weakness.
Maybe the drink was not such a bad idea, after all.
Mark had just gotten up to grab the whiskey when his front door burst open.
“Mark, Dearie, come help me with the bags!” a feminine voice shouted.
“Mother?” Mark asked, very surprised.
A large woman came strolling into the apartment as if she owned the place.
“Who else, Dearie, alone as you love to live? I wonder if you ever even have friends over, I can’t imagine it’s healthy to be so isolated– Mark! Why are you only wearing a towel? And you’re bleeding! Goodness, come here so I can see!”
Mark’s mother had managed to somehow say everything in the same breath and was now in the living room, her flowing animal-print dress struggling to keep up with her. She reached Mark and hugged him tightly, engulfing him in an overpowering fragrance of violets. Large, glittering eyelashes blinked at him when his mother held him at arm’s length to study his elbow.
“It’s not bleeding anymore, Mother,” Mark said.
“I can see that, Mister Doctor, but it’s a mess! Where do you keep the first-aid kit? Let me see, in the bathroom!”
“Mother, don’t–” Mark tried to say, but it was already too late. His mother went into the bathroom and screamed.
“Mark, you’ve been attacked!”
“I’m fine,” he reassured her as she came out, manicured hand on her chest. “I just had a little accident in the bathroom. Nothing to worry about.”
“But you’re okay? It looks like a crime scene in there!”
“Yes, I am. Would you mind closing the front door, though? It’s still open and I’m practically naked.”
“Oh, of course! Just come and help me with the bags, Dearie. I stopped by Armand’s on the way here, the best bakery in town if you ask me, and I got some Ã©clairs to die for.”
“I can’t, Mother,” Mark said, accompanying her to the door just the same.
“Oh, right!” she exclaimed, picking up the bags herself. “Your hands. Are they hurting a lot today?”
“Let’s just come in,” Mark hedged, kicking the door shut after his mother.
A flurry of activity followed as she unpacked her various purchases in the stylish open kitchen, freshened up in the restroom, texted one of her friends, and finally came to sit in the living room with her son. By then, Mark had had more than enough time to change into actual clothes and clean up the wound on his elbow. The bathroom mess he left for the next morning.
“So?” his mother asked at last. Night had fallen, and thousands of lights winked at them from the window of the apartment. Mark had turned on soft lighting that went well with the minimalist dÃ©cor of the living room.
“How are you, Dearie?”
“Fine,” Mark answered automatically.
His mother raised a drawn-on eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“What do you mean, am I sure? I’m fine!”
Mark’s mother allowed a wordless pause to stretch while looking straight at him.
“What? I said I’m okay!”
“Mark, I didn’t drive halfway across the city to be lied to.”
Mark bristled. “I didn’t ask you to come.”
“See? That’s exactly what I mean. You’re all defensive lately, you barely even Skype with me, and yesterday I even got a call from Jonathan.”
“He called you?” Mark asked. Jonathan was his best friend, ever since college.
“Well, he had to call someone, since apparently you’ve been ignoring him along with everyone else. He was worried and he asked me to check up on you, so here I am.”
Mark didn’t know whether to feel offended or touched.
“I’m not a child,” he protested. “I don’t need your supervision anymore.”
“My, I raised a thankful one, didn’t I? I’m not here to supervise you, Mark, but I do think you need to hear some things. First, you should not stay cooped up in the apartment like this all day. It’s not healthy. Jonathan tells me you haven’t even gone to the gym in a while! You used to love it, ever since you hit puberty. You remember how you used to be a little chubby? You were so adorable.”
“Fine, if you say you are okay then that’s that, but I was reading in Cosmo the other day about depression, how it can affect everyone when they’re going through a rough spot. The article said to watch out for telltale signs like social seclusion, stopping doing things you used to like, irritability and so on. Sound familiar?”
“I’m not depressed, Mother,” Mark said, but he wasn’t sure he believed it.
“Well, you’re the doctor.”
“Surgeon,” Mark corrected. “Except not anymore.”
He couldn’t help the note of bitterness that crept into his voice as he said the last part.
“Oh, Dearie, don’t get like that,” his mother said, patting him on the shoulder. “Your career isn’t over. You told me yourself that this carpal syndrome thing of yours can get better. You went to see all kinds of specialists, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Mark agreed, remembering all the colleagues he had gone to trying to look for advice. He had even gone abroad to meet with the top researchers in the field. “Recovery prognosis is good as long as the tissue damage is not too severe.”
“You see? And you caught this early, didn’t you?”
“In my case it’s complicated, Mother. I regularly subjected my hands to stress not only at work but also in the gym and playing all those computer games late at night. You wouldn’t believe the complexity of the bundle of nerves that goes through the so-called carpal tunnel in the underside of the wrist, and how easily they can be damaged, sometimes permanently. Even surgery can sometimes only alleviate the chronic inflammation temporarily, but the somatic profile of the disorder is so varied that we’re still basically taking stabs at the problem in the dark. I don’t want to go the route of corticosteroid injections until I need to, even though the etiology of the condition is–”
“Mark, you’re doing it again. I get lost with your doctor jargon.”
“Oh, right. Well, essentially there’s no sure treatment for the condition except resting. Maybe some more therapy.”
“You’re still going to the sessions?” his mother asked, meaning his physio.
“It’s ongoing, but the symptomatology has changed very little. I keep getting told to just wait it out and rest.”
“Then why don’t you do that?”
“I know, I know. I used to drive you to all your after-school clubs and activities, remember? I know you can’t stand being idle. It’s one of the worst things for overachievers like us, isn’t that right? I’ve been there, trust me. When I was pregnant with you and the doctor said I couldn’t move very much during the last trimester I nearly went out of my mind.”
“–the same?” Mark’s mother finished for him. He nodded. “I know that, Dearie. Which is why I have a surprise.”
“A surprise?” Mark asked with suddenly sinking spirits. His mother’s surprises tended to be extremely elaborate and require lots of his time.
“I booked us both a whole week of relaxation at this amazing physiotherapy clinic in California, starting tomorrow!” she announced brightly.
“Well, since you’re not doing anything, I thought it would be a good idea. Actually, Jonathan brought it up first when he called. I thought it sounded good, so I gave my travel agent a call and voilÃ ! You’ll have your own therapist, and so will I! They can help me with my back, you know it aches every now and then, and I specifically asked if they had experience with problems like yours and they said yes! Our flight leaves early tomorrow, so we better get as much rest as we can.”
“Oh, no. You’re not getting out of this one, Mister. I think you’re stuck in a rut here and you need to try different things. You doctors think you have the entire world figured out, but there’s things nobody can explain about the body yet, like the power of the mind. I’ve told you about the Tibetan yogis, how they can control their own bodies by meditating! As I always say, I don’t think it’s one or the other, but maybe traditional medicine and alternative healing methods can both work and help each other out. You’ll go with me for a week of acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage therapy, and as many other kinds of therapies as the clinic offers and I’mnot taking no for an answer. Understood?”
She had barely gotten a proper breath during her diatribe, but when she was forced to stop Mark saw that there was nothing he could say to make her change her mind.
He looked around at his apartment and was seized by the sudden desire to leave it behind. His mother was right; he had been holed up in his own place for too long.
“Fine,” he conceded.
His mother clapped briefly. “Marvelous! I’ll just confirm with your therapist at the clinic. I made him cancel everything so he’ll have the entire week just for you. His name is Corey. He’s about your age, too, and very good-looking from his Web site picture.”
She gave Mark a conspiratorial wink. Mark cringed.
“Mother, I’m not going to sleep with my therapist.”
“I didn’t say anything!” she claimed, palms facing forward. “That’s your subconscious talking, Dearie. You see? Even you want yourself to go. You’ll meet some new people, get lots of fresh air, it’s going to do wonders for your hands, you’ll see.”
“I hope so,” Mark murmured. “I really do.”
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Albert Nothlit is a writer and an engineer who enjoys creating science fiction worlds and M/M romance, or sometimes both at once. He has worked with MLR Press, Bundoran Press, and has a full-length novel scheduled for release next year through DSP Publications. He currently lives in Mexico City with his soon-to-be husband, and Link, his sassy little dog. He loves getting feedback from readers, so if you’d like, you can stop by www.albertnothlit.com and drop him a note.