I lay on the couch with a cigarette between my lips.
“It happened again.” I told my therapist, Pamela.
The old woman pushed her glasses up. “Thoughts or actions?”
I slowly exhaled a stream of smoke. “Just thoughts.”
“About who?” She probed.
I used my palms as a pillow, looking up at the ceiling. “One of the shells. A red-head with brown eyes and freckles... He’s been there for a few months now.”
I pictured him so clearly as I described him.
“I keep thinking about him.” I admitted reluctantly.
“And these thoughts bother you?” The woman asked.
I snorted. “Of course they do! But not even conversion therapy could get rid of them…”
Dr. Pamela Andrews was quiet for a moment. Even though my eyes were closed, I imagined that she must be clasping her hands together as she liked to do.
“You have romantic feelings for a shell?” She repeated. She didn’t sound judgmental, she just sounded curious because it was her job not to be judgmental. Or maybe I just needed to have more faith in her; perhaps she was just a good person who didn’t judge.
“Yes, I can’t stop fantasizing about him.” I took the cigarette out of my mouth and reached over my head—putting it in the cigarette tray on the side table behind me.
My words hung there for a moment as a comfortable silence reigned.
“Are you ready to tell me why it is that you want to be straight so badly?” Pamela prodded.
I fought back tears just from the thought of telling her why.
After my session with Pamela, I went home and disrobed, intending to change into pajamas.
I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror.
I wasn’t looking too shabby, but no matter how shiny and soft my curly blond hair was, it did not draw my attention away from the scars and cigarette burns on my body.
I pressed a palm against my forehead.
It felt like the thousandth time I had come home to an empty house. It could get lonely, from time-to-time.
I miss him.
I was ashamed.
The alarm went off at six in the morning.
I wondered, briefly, how other people felt when they woke up. I always woke up with tense muscles and a buzzing, overactive brain that wouldn’t let me stop worrying about the things I had to do throughout the day. I wondered if I would ever get relief from that stress. Without the intervention of medication, I doubted it.
I hopped in the shower and dried off afterward. Once I was dry, I put on a dress shirt and brown slacks. Heading to the kitchen, I brewed up some coffee, took a few sips, and hurried to my car. I didn’t like driving, but at least it was a short distance.
I continued sipping my coffee whenever the traffic lights turned red while I drove.
I gazed at the building where I worked over the rim of my mug.
The architecture was reminiscent of a public-school building; there was a giant central building shaped like a rectangle, and several smaller buildings situated near it.
It was not a school, but it was run similarly to a school. Its occupants were kept on a much tighter leash than students were, and some might say they were treated more like prisoners.
The light turned green, I drove onward.
After a right turn and two left turns, I was in the parking lot of the clinic; I parked my car, flinging the door wide.
I glanced at my watch. I had five minutes to spare.
Locking the car, I tossed my keys into my bag and dashed through the parking lot. I sipped my coffee as I went, trying not to spill it on my shirt.
I pushed the red button to the side of the entrance, waiting for someone to let me in.
Jenny, a young intern, opened the door with a pleasant smile on her face. “Hello, Dr. Green. You’re on time as usual.”
I nodded. “As are you, Jenny.”
I walked down the green hallway with her. The wallpaper always reminded me of the wallpaper they would have in a preschool; it was lined with cats and dogs and children playing with them. The clinic was a rough place to work as well as a rough place to live in. I supposed the wallpaper was an attempt to brighten things up for the employees and the residents. We arrived at the end of the hallway and I opened the door leading to the adjoining room.
To get to my chiropractic office, I had to walk by the first-floor shells who were locked behind glass at this time of day.
Shells were like train wrecks, and because they were like train wrecks, I couldn’t look away from them.
All of them were eerily beautiful, and all of them were identical to the deceased humans whose bodies they snatched.
But they were not those people.
The people who had died were full of depth, full of life, and bursting with human intelligence.
Shells were, for lack of a better word, shells of those humans.
Most shells, both male and female, were exactly five-feet-tall, had very low IQs, and were very shallow creatures. As I passed through the hall, many of them slammed their fists against the unbreakable glass and yelled unkind words at me. Some of them were alone in their rooms, and others were packed two or three to a room. Jenny sped up her pace and went on without me.
Because she was gone, I stopped at the red-head’s room on the way to my office.
He was packed two-to-a-cage.
He was playing patty-cake with a six-year-old who he seemed to treat as a younger brother. I smiled a little; their relationship was undeniably sweet. They had been at the clinic for one or two months now, and before, they were at a different clinic that was under investigation for abuse. They were inseparable, as far as I could tell.
The red-head looked up and glanced my way.
He wore a neutral frown. Eventually, he waved to me with a smile on his face.
I blushed and hurried onward to my office.
I nodded to the young receptionist at the front desk. Afterward, I headed to my tiny, cubby-hole of an office within an office. I kept the door open and plopped down in my swivel chair. I took care of any outstanding work-related business on the computer, and then I printed out math equations to solve for fun.
The first batch of shells arrived quickly. I heard the voice of the clinician, Rosy, leading them along. “Alright, it’s time for your adjustments!”
I climbed out of my chair and headed through the archway to the two adjusting tables at the back of the room.
The other chiropractor was late as usual, I would be taking this first batch on by myself. I braced myself for a tiring day.
Rosy walked toward me with twelve shells marching in a line behind her.
The first in line must have been a new shell; I didn’t recognize him. He looked to be about twelve-years-old and had bright blond hair and blue eyes.
“This is Jesse,” Rosy introduced the new shell to me. “He spawned out in the swamp and was given to us by the mud. He is the reincarnation of a young boy named Andy who originally died from heart complications. Jesse, however, seems unaffected. Right, champ?”
Jesse nodded without a word.
I gave him a warm smile. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Jesse. Go ahead and lay face down.”
I patted the adjusting table like a drummer would a drum. The shell smiled at that and approached the adjusting table; I gave him a hand, intending to help him up on the table, but he backed away.
I glanced at Rosy and she returned the glance.
A staff member had done something to this shell.
I kept my hands clear this time and patted the table again. Jesse climbed up with no problem.
I lay one hand on top of the other on Jesse’s back and thrusted downward, eliciting a satisfying crack!
Every time I touched him, he flinched.
After following through with my adjustment, I helped him get down from the adjusting table. I looked him in the eyes with a concerned frown.
His eyes had no life to them.
I turned to the clinician. “Does this one speak?”
She shook her head with a sad smile. “Not very much. We’ve been working with him and have trained him to say a few things, though.”
“That’s good.” I forced a smile.
One-by-one, I adjusted the rest of the shells in line.
The second chiropractor came in an hour late and helped me adjust the seemingly unending stream of shells who all cracked like celery when we applied our techniques.
My mind was drifting; my head wasn’t in the game due to my thinking about the poor shell, Jesse.
My adjustments felt sloppy, but then, they would have felt sloppy to me regardless of whether they truly were or not. It was one of the many things I was trying to work on in therapy. It wouldn’t be the first time that a staff member was found abusing shells, and it wouldn’t be the last. Not by far, but somehow, I could never get used to it.
I kept looking at the clock hanging above the archway. I wanted to go home.
I tried to keep my mind on task. I couldn’t fall apart; not while I was working. My trembling hands betrayed some of my nervousness, but did not affect my overall performance to a noticeable extent.
I glanced at the clock for what felt like the fiftieth time that day.
A smile came to my face; only a half-hour left until my shift was finished. I swayed impatiently while I waited for the last batch of shells to arrive. As if I had summoned them, the last batch funneled in, following Rosy.
The smile melted from my face.
Among the shells was the red-head who I had a crush on.
I took as much time as I could adjusting the shells that were in line before him. If I took enough time, I was sure he would be sent to the other chiropractor instead. Unfortunately, the other chiropractor didn’t return from her thirty-minute bathroom break in time to save me.
The bright-haired shell approached me with a smile. Trailing him was the six-year-old, black-haired shell who he treated as a little brother.
I nodded to him with a smile despite my internal conflict.
“We’ve met before, right?” The shell asked. He maintained eye-contact with me, which was rare for a shell.
“We have, but only once or twice. Good to meet you.” I reminded myself to hold a hand out for him to shake like me and Pamela had practiced in therapy.
He paused for a moment and looked at the hand with a blank face. In another moment, he shook it.
I patted the table; he laid face down.
There was an uncomfortable silence between us as I thrusted my hands between his shoulder blades and provoked a crack from his back.
“What’s your name…?” The shell asked as he rolled onto his back at my request.
“It’s nice to meet you, Dr. Green. I’m Kay.” His smile was delayed. “You’re my favorite chiropractor!”
I blinked twice, taken aback. “Really? Well, thank you. I think I’ve only adjusted you once or twice though.”
“The other ones don’t really get the crack.” Kay explained while I placed my hands on either side of his face. “You get the crack!”
I snorted. “Just because they don’t get the crack doesn’t necessarily make them less effective.”
“But I also feel better when you adjust me! You must be doing something better than the other chiropractors!” Kay exclaimed.
I jerked his head to the side and got the infamous and desired crack! Out of his neck.
“See! The other chiropractors can’t do that as well…” Kay continued praising me.
“If you say so…” I replied, feeling uncomfortable with such praise.
I finished my adjustment and then helped him to a sitting position. I expected him to climb down from the table and go on his way, but he stayed there for a moment, staring forward blankly.
I was feeling adventurous, so I asked him, “Where did you spawn?”
Kay’s eyebrows furrowed. It looked like he had dropped out of reality for a moment while he tried to think of a proper answer. “I spawned on Mount Mirrieos. Before I died, my name was Milo. He was really smart; an aspiring engineer.”
“I see… And what do you plan to do when you’re ready to graduate from the clinic?” I queried.
“I guess a waiter—anything where I get to interact with people. If it were allowed, I would want to be an artist!” Kay confided in me cheerfully.
When I was reminded of how few and how undesirable the jobs shells were allowed to have, I felt the need to coddle him. “I’m sure you’re a great artist.”
His face lit up. “Can I show you sometime?”
I scratched my head, wondering what I had gotten myself into. “Well… If your clinician says it’s okay, I don’t see why not.”
“I will then!” He replied jubilantly.
I glanced over at the six-year-old shell with the black hair. “You seem close with that other shell—what’s his name?”
“That’s Lyle—he’s my adopted brother! They told me they would let me adopt him for real and live with him once I graduate!” Kay told me.
I glanced over to the younger shell who locked eyes with me for half-a-second and then looked away.
I felt sorry for them. I knew that a staff member had only told Kay that to keep his motivation up; shells were not allowed to adopt other shells, and shells under the age of eighteen were not even allowed to graduate.
“That sounds idyllic…” I humored him.
“Idyllic…?” Kay repeated, a question in his voice. “What’s that mean?”
“It means picturesque or… The greatest version of reality that is often unobtainable.”
Kay whispered in delight. “Idyllic… What a great word.”
He climbed down from the table, then, and was about to join the other shells who were crowded around the clinician, but he paused on the way over.
He turned to me. “How come you didn’t smile?”
I cocked my head to the side.
“When I smiled at you earlier and a few days ago… You didn’t smile back.” He explained.
I cleared my throat and felt embarrassed that he should call me out on my lack of social skills. “Oh, well… I suppose it just didn’t occur to me to smile back.” Besides, you’re only a shell; I don’t owe you an explanation.
Kay smiled widely. “Oh! You should get a clinician, then! If you do, they’ll remind you to smile!”
I was embarrassed, but I tried not to take it personally.
“Right. Well, you have a good day, Kay.” I said to him.
The last shell to adjust was his adopted brother, Lyle.
He showed the same delays and deficiencies Kay did, but, similar to Kay, he also seemed pretty smart. He knew many words and replied to my questions; he was just a delight in general. When I finished adjusting him, he giddily ran over to the clinician and pointed at me.
I imagined he must have been telling her that he made a friend.