Volume 26, Number 1


Tyra Kaufmann

I slay monsters, but I am not proud.

The first time I saw her was after her twenty-third surgery. Most of her organs had been removed and sold piece by piece, to be taken away by small refrigerated compartments. They had been replaced by their swine counterparts and occasionally mechanical inventions, a 21st-century marvel of both science and insanity. Her hair fell lax around her shoulders, mousy and uncut. One eye blue and the other brown. Her body appeared thin and atrophied, and her skin was covered in large sores from living her life in a hospital bed. They bled and oozed, smearing their infectious contents onto the thin sheets. She was seven years old.

This is what I do. I’m told who to cut open, what to remove, what to replace it with. Many die. Roughly eighty-five percent. But that’s science. That’s experimentation. That’s progress. The ones who live don’t last long, two years at most. Except for her. She’s been filled with more fake parts than anyone else. She’s been in the experimental surgery division for so long, this small white hospital room must be all she remembers. And yet somehow she’s still fighting. She’s a miracle. But miracles aren’t free.

They wanted me to monitor her before I operated on her. Learn about her and everything they’d done. And what I would do. I walked into the room, and she looked at me. She didn’t smile, she didn’t frown. Her expression was stagnant. I introduced myself, reviewed her file with her. She was unchanged and silent. I suppose I should have expected that from our surgical veteran, but it was the first time I’d seen such calm. Such lack of life. But when I ventured into her eyes I could see that spirit was submerged. Somewhere. I could find it. I had to. After sixteen years of this I needed to see life. Even if it could only last until I killed her.

She was a monster. Just like the rest of them. Once beautiful children, now twisted creatures. Scars cut across their bodies, quilting together different skins. Their eyes glazed over, filled with agony and hopelessness. They knew they were destined to die by the cruel hands that were supposed to heal. My hands. I was in charge of the euthanasia. Sometimes they died quietly and unceremoniously on their own. But if it was scheduled, I was the Grim Reaper. It was always my hands that were stained with blood. I deserved to die, not them. I am devoured by my guilt. I cannot count the number of mutilated children that I have ended. I feel shame at my mere existence. But they feel otherwise. They call me their Angel. Angel of Death. I release them from the pain and suffering. So tormented are they that death is their only desire. When they see me, they smile. But not her.

She didn’t cry when I saw one of the stitches in her hand rip. She didn’t scream. She didn’t even blink. I took a closer look to see what had caused the sudden tear in the suturing. The flesh on one side had begun to rot, turning a splotchy purple and losing grip of the thread. The skin had simply fallen apart. It would have been disgusting if I hadn’t seen it before. But I had. Too many times. The experimental skin replacement was a disaster. At least six had died from that one idea alone. But that was typical. The human body can only take so much before the trauma becomes fatal. I needed to do another operation to fix the damage. Soon.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

At first I didn’t think she’d respond, but after a long pause she looked at me and whispered, “Lacey.”

“A pretty name. And what is your favorite animal?” I asked, hoping to get some feeling, some hope, some interest, some life.

But she showed nothing. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen any animals.”

As I left her room I was determined. I would see her smile. See a spark. Vivacity. If only with one child I need to see that they’re still human. That we’re all still human. Even me. What can I do to make her really live? Would she like animals? It was worth a try. Anything was worth a try. I would bring an animal book next time I saw her. I wanted to make her laugh. Dare I dream? I don’t know how to make anyone laugh. All I know is death and pain. When they see me they are relieved. But that’s it. Relief isn’t joy. Can there be joy? I don’t know anymore. I don’t know.

The rest of my day was typical. I amputated a leg and replaced it with something new and terrifying. I tested a new IV fluid proposed to increase visual abilities once it reached the eyes. Instead they burst. That patient died. But at least they were under. They didn’t feel anything. I’ll hold on to that. I euthanized seven that day. About the average. None of them cried. They never cry when I come. It’s me that can’t bear it. Seeing their tiny, vacated faces. Knowing that I did it. I caused their pain, but I also ended it. What am I? What do I deserve?

When I returned the gentle monster woke. Her eyes opened, the only part of her that didn’t look dead. I waved the book I had brought, and took a seat in the chair beside her. “I brought you a story. Do you want to see animals?”

“Yes.” She said. She turned expectantly at the book, as if the animals would magically appear out of it. They didn’t.

I opened the book to the first page and began to read. “This is a cat. They’re soft, and they have whiskers.” I pointed to the picture of the fuzzy grey feline. I turned the page. “And here’s a horse. People ride them. It doesn’t tell you in this book, but there are many colors of horses. There are grey ones, black ones, white ones, brown ones. Some are more than one color.” I read through the rest of the animals and showed her the pictures. She examined them.

“I like cats.” She said. “And zebras. I want them.”

“I can arrange that.”

* * *

The next day I walked into her room first thing, taking with me two small stuffed animals, a zebra and a striped grey cat, just like in the picture book. Lacey was asleep, so I set them on the bed beside her. The decay had begun to spread. An operation was needed for her to survive, and I knew she could do it for a little longer. She’d lasted this long. I was sure she could live. Even though it wouldn’t be for long. I would talk to the chief of surgery to schedule the time.

When I looked again she was awake, just noticing her new toys. She picked up the cat carefully, so as not to damage any more stitches in her skin, and stared at it with immense curiosity. She pressed the soft animal against her face and made a small sound. I came closer. She was meowing with the cat.

“Do you like them?” I asked.

“I love them.” She smiled. Really smiled. Her cheeks puffed and her eyes sparkled. She giggled and hugged both of her animals. She meowed again and made the animals dance. She was actually happy.

I felt my eyes start to water, and I turned away, drying them with the edge of my lab coat. Happiness. What an amazing thing. I watch her play with the toys, and I know this is how it’s supposed to be. Children should be like this. Not tormented monsters that live only to be sacrificed to the power of progress. She’s just so alive, I can hardly believe what I’m seeing. I haven’t seen this in so long. Alive. But I have to schedule that surgery or it won’t be for long. And I know she can live. But I wish it could be for longer.

* * *

When I enter the Chief of Experimental Surgery’s office, I feel terribly cold. It’s a perfectly standard office with white walls and a wooden desk, but somehow it’s always chilled in that space, as if the man can somehow abolish any feeling of warmth. The expression on his face when I approach is no less icy.

“Surgeon. You wish to schedule an operation? Which subject?” The chief asked, paging through paperwork to find the necessary documents.

“Lacey.” I said.

“Lacey?” He looked confused.

“I’m sorry. Number 78253. She needs extensive surgery to repair—”

“She’s being terminated. Today. So you’re already scheduled to work with her.”

I felt faint. All I could do was stare at him in disbelief.

“Is that a problem?”

“I had no idea it would be so soon. Isn’t there a way to postpone? We could appeal—”

“It’s settled. That’s the order.”

I closed my eyes, breathing deeply. “I cannot do this job.” I whisper. When he continued to stare at me in silence, I continued. “I cannot kill her.”

“You’re not killing her, your terminating her. For God’s sake, Surgeon, it’s not as if we’re handing you a bloody axe. This is your job. Either you do your work or we will find someone to do it for you. Do you understand?”

I nodded. I understood my place perfectly. I was the one to burn. Always. When I walked back into her room she read my face.

“Am I going to die?” She asked.

“Yes.” I choked.

“Thank you for my cat and my zebra. Can they come with me? I don’t want to go alone.”

“Of course. Just hold on to them and they’ll be right next to you. And I’ll be beside you until the end. You won’t be lonely.”

“Thank you. I’m ready now.”

I injected a lethal dose into her IV. I watched her, and she watched me. She reached out her hand, and I took it. We sat in silence, looking at her black kitty and her striped zebra. She smiled at me one more time then her eyes closed, and her hand fell limp. She was empty.

I’m the villain. And there will be justice.

I slay monsters, but I am not proud.