Alterations: Part 3

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Over the course of the workday, I notice a pattern in people’s willingness to talk to me.  Although pretty much all of the guys are cold-shouldering me, if it’s someone I know and have worked with before, it only takes a couple of minutes of working together before they shake the bad attitude and things are fine.  On the other hand, any time I’m working with guys I haven’t talked with much before, they won’t give me the time of day.

The whole thing feels like I’m back in high school and someone’s been spreading rumors about me.  Construction workers aren’t usually the gossip type, though.  If someone’s got a problem with someone else on site, it’s expressed through threats and cursing, not hints and glares.

I ask Christopher about it, and he shrugs.  “I think I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, Dan.  I heard your voice this morning and it just ticked me off.  Like — I’ve got this one cousin who doesn’t work.  Not can’t, just doesn’t.  Spends his time sponging off the family, traveling around from one sucker to the next.  He did a stint on my couch a year or so back, spent a couple of months drinking my beer until I kicked him out.

“And this morning it was just, like, all of that.  Just this no-good, total waste of space, making-my-life-worse leech.  I heard you and that’s just where I went.”

“Whoa, man!  What did I do to deserve that?”

“Well, nothing, right?  Like I said, I think I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  I’m sorry if I took it out on you this morning.  Monday, hey?”

“Yeah, Monday,” I agree.  What else am I supposed to say to that?

Doc Simmons texts to ask me to stop by the hospital after work, so I let Regina know not to pick me up, and hike to the nearby bus stop at the end of the day.  I’m more than half-expecting the driver to sneer at me when I get on, but we have the same neutral non-interaction that I usually have with the bus drivers.  I take a seat, and no one glances at me twice.  So it does seem to be something I’ve done at the construction site after all, not just something about me in general.

The doc’s all business when I show up, as usual.  “You say you grew this overnight?” she asks, waving a slide at me.

“Hi to you too, Doc.  Yeah, I woke up with a skin sleeve over my arm.”

“It weighed over a half a pound, did you know that?”  She’s looking into the microscope, carrying on the slightly-disjointed conversation as an afterthought.

“No.  Is that bad?”

“That’s closing in on the amount of skin most people shed in a year.  To create it as a temporary coating — it must have taken a tremendous amount of energy.  Have you weighed yourself lately?”

“No, I didn’t really think to.”

The doc tsks without looking up.  “We’ll do that today.  How’s your intake?”

When I don’t immediately respond, she finally lifts her head from the microscope to look at me.  “Food, Dan.  Are you eating more?”

“I know what intake is,” I say, irritated.  “I was just trying to remember.  I guess I did order more from the Chinese place than usual last night, and I made a couple of extra sandwiches for lunch.”

The doc stares at me.  “When’s the last time you ate a vegetable, Dan?”

“Hey!  There were vegetables in the chow mein, and I had a pickle with lunch.  Anyway, if the ‘bots are cannibalizing the food, what does it matter what I eat?”

Doc Simmons winces.  “In order of least to most egregious errors: you can’t use ‘cannibalize’ to describe a symbiote using your energy, fried and brined vegetables are not a good way to get vitamins, and if the nanomachines are siphoning from you, that means you need to pay more attention to nutrition, not less.”

“If they’re just going to use it anyway, it seems like I should just go for high calories, no?  Like an all-cheese diet.”

“Dan, I honestly cannot tell sometimes if you’re really this clueless, or if you’re just baiting me.”

“The first one, I guess.  Hey, speaking of being clueless, what do you think about me?”

“In general?  You remind me of why I don’t have pets.  I don’t have the talent or schooling to train a dog, and I don’t have the patience to deal with one if it’s untrained.”

Well, ouch.  Still, that’s better than what I heard from Christopher this morning, and honestly it’s not a surprising comment coming from the doc.  Still, it stings a little.  I know I’m not on her level, but a poorly-trained dog?  Harsh.

I shift the focus before I learn any more about Doc Simmons’s opinion of me.  “So why not have a cat, then?”

“Single woman living alone with a cat?”  The doc shrugs.  “Too cliche.”


Brian catches me on my way out of the hospital.  “Hey man, what’re you up to tonight?”

“Heading back home for an exciting evening of watching fast-forwarded security footage.  Why, you want to join in?” I joke.

“Yeah, sure, why not?  Two heads are better than one.  Or three, I guess.  Regina’s there, right?”

“Yeah,  I’m not watching this stuff on my own.  I’d make it about ten minutes in before I fell asleep on the couch.  It’s like watching the world’s most pointless silent film.  You sure you want to subject yourself to this?”

“I mean, I’m not doing anything tonight anyway, you know?  I’ll come hang.  You need a ride?”

“Sure, man, thanks!”

“Cool, I’m off in ten.  Chill for a bit while I go straighten up.”

On the ride home, Brian asks me, “So how are things going with you and Regina?”

“Going well, I think!  She’s not overmagnetized anymore, so she’s using the phone and computer like a normal person.  I think she’s applying for jobs again now that she can use modern technology.  She hasn’t said, but I think she’s not psyched to be freeloading.”

“Yeah, cool.  So you guys are good, then?”

“Yeah, sure!  She’s a good roommate, totally not in my way.  Plus it’s been nice getting a lift to work in the mornings instead of waiting for the bus.  I should really get around to getting another car, but I want to get a bit more saved up first.”

“Makes sense, sure.”  Brian drums his fingers on the steering wheel briefly, and we ride on in silence for a bit before he turns on the radio.

At the house, Regina’s already downstairs on the couch, watching the footage speed by.  “Hey, Dan.  Oh, hey Brian.  Come to see the lowlight reel of my convenience store days?”

“Yeah, it sounded so compelling when Dan talked about it, you know?  I just had to come check it out for myself.”  Brian sits on the couch next to Regina, and I flop down in the corner seat, sprawling my legs out.  Brian gives them a shove.

“Dude, quit manspreading.”

“It’s my couch!  I’ll manspread where I want.”

“Are you two going to watch the tapes?” Regina asks, a mock-serious expression on her face.

“Yes, ma’am.  Sorry, ma’am,” Brian says solemnly, hiding a slight grin.  I put my legs on his lap, and he shoves them to the floor.  Regina turns pointedly away from both of us to watch the television.

With our audience ignoring us, we quit clowning around after a minute and settle in to watch.  Unfortunately, it is extremely boring and we are easily amused, so it isn’t long before Brian and I are filling in internal monologues for the customers on the screen, and Regina is pretending not to laugh.

This lasts until a woman with an honest-to-goodness beehive hairdo appears on the screen, and Regina says, “Oh!  I remember her!” and begins doing a monologue of her own.

Soon, Brian is up off of the couch and wandering around the room, doing exaggerated impressions of the customers on the screen.  Regina and I are in hysterics watching him, especially since in between characters, he droops limply like a discarded muppet, springing back to life as soon as the next sped-up person arrives on screen.

His current character appears to be a human-sized crab.  He’s scuttling sideways across the room, gathering imaginary groceries and clutching them to his chest, and I’m only checking in with the TV enough to confirm that he’s not totally inventing this.  This may not be the most attention we’ve paid to the tapes, but it’s definitely the most fun we’ve had watching them.

Brian sags into his null position, arms swaying slightly, and I catch my breath from laughing and wait to see what he’ll do next.  After a moment, he gangles to life, arms flapping up and knees high-stepping, parading across the room like an animated scarecrow.  I start to laugh, but something about it looks familiar.  When I check the television, my attention is immediately arrested.

There on the screen, arms and legs whipping about in 4x speed like loosely-lashed sticks, strides an ungainly man I’ve seen before.  He’s wearing the same slightly shiny undertaker’s suit as the last time I saw him, and it still looks like his frame was built entirely out of broom handles.

“Back it up, slow it down!” I say, and Regina obliges.  At regular speed, we watch him enter, take a single lap around the store, select a bag of candy without seeming to look at it, and approach the register.  Regina rings him up and reaches out to accept the money for his purchase, but instead of just handing it to her, he seizes her hand and holds it in both of his for a second.

Regina pulls away, looking disgusted, and puts the bills in the register.  She places the change on the counter and pushes it over to him, but the man is already turning away, heading toward the door with that awkward walk of his.  Regina stares after him for a second, then scoops the money into the “take a penny” tray, shaking her head.

“There!  Him!” I say, pointing.  “Do you remember that?”

“A weirdo who wanted to touch me?” Regina says, arching an eyebrow.  “That was pretty much every night.  He’s not ringing any particular bells.”

“I saw him at Børger the day I discovered my pyrokinesis.  He was there when the fryers caught fire, and I thought he’d done it at first.  But then — I don’t know.  I mean, obviously it was me that did it, before I got it under control.  But he was there, and he was there with you.  And you saw how he grabbed you!  That was probably where he gave you the ‘bots, right there.”

“Did he ever come to the museum?” asks Regina.

“Maybe.  I don’t know.  I don’t remember him, but maybe.”

“Well, does the museum have tapes?”

I make a face.  “Could be.”

“What are you scowling about?”

“My ex-boss,” I say, and Brian chimes in with me: “Edgar.”


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