Cape Town, April 1968
He put the pencil down and leaned back in his chair, his hands behind his head. The clock on the wall said 12:57. A flicker of doubt flashed through his brain.
It was looking more likely by the minute that this was a practical joke played by a jealous colleague, though who among them would think this was funny, he had no idea. He longed to be in his bed, with a home cooked meal in his stomach and Aletta by his side. The last desire was pure wishful thinking. Aletta had been sleeping alone for weeks now. The constant barrage of reporters had done nothing to improve their marriage. Sometimes the thought weighed on him as he went through his day, but he pushed it back. He needed to smile for the cameras. He needed to be there for his patients.
And yet...there was a note of dire urgency in that letter that he could not bring himself to ignore. He had left the door it requested unlocked. He had waited in his office for the appointed time, tapping away the quiet hours with his pencil.
Security was a concern, of course. Fame did strange things to people and there was no telling what sort of oddities crawl out of the woodwork in its presence. He had asked the night nurse to look for a phone call from him at exactly 1:30. If it didn’t come, she was to call security. He had a whistle in his pocket that he would blow for more immediate help. He hoped it was enough.
The second hand inched around the clock face. He could feel his heart beating faster. When he lifted his hands from behind his head, his palms were covered in sweat.
There was a gentle tap at the door. He took a deep breath, rose from his seat, opened the door - and blinked in surprise at what he saw.
He didn’t know what he expected. But the thin woman in rumpled clothes clutching a thick folder to her chest like her life depended it had not been it.
“Ah...good evening.” he said, flashing a quick smile, “Won’t you have a seat? Ms...”
“Doctor.” she corrected him, brushing by him into his office like she owned the place.
Her accent was heavy and undoubtedly German, twisting the word into something that sounded more like Dock-tor.
The chair she pulled out screeched across the floor. She fell into it ungracefully, the folder like a weight pulling her down.
“You may call me...Frau Doctor. Is better than whole truth.”
Barnard frowned at her back.
When the door was closed and he was situated, she tugged something out of the folder and slid it across his desk.
It was a Time Magazine from last December. His own face stared back at him. THE TRANSPLANTED HEART, read the headline.
Frau Doctor was grinning ear to ear. It was an eerie sight, as though her face were stretching into an expression it was not meant to bear.
“I hear of your accomplishments only recently. I was...not in the world for a long time. And when I emerge, I swear off Science for years. Mostly.”
A fan. He should’ve known. He couldn’t help but think that this place “not in the world” was an asylum.
“Your point, Doctor.” he said brusquely, fingering the whistle in his pocket.
“The point is, I have only some of your studies. Patchy information about procedures. I want the whole story. Tell me, is Herr Dr. Blaiberg still alive?”
His second heart transplant patient.
“Yes. Nearly four months now.”
“Only small ones, at the outset. He tells me he’s returned to his life as usual. He’s driving his car. His wife is ecstatic.”
Doctor T pursed her lips and stared intently at a point on the wall behind him.
“Gut. Very gut.”
The clock ticked, filling the silence between them. Her gaze shifted to him, piercing him, dissecting him, examining, he felt, the contents of his soul.
“I would like...for you to perform a surgery. An unusual one, though not anything you haven’t done before. It must be done in secrecy. No papers, no press, not a word of it outside the operating theater. Does this interest you?”
It sounded like a terrible idea. A potentially dangerous one. Was it a kingpin? A warlord? He had no intent to get involved in any such thing.
Frau Doctor was frowning at him.
“Here. The patient’s vitals.”
She pulled a single wrinkled sheet from the folder and passed it to him.
The name was blacked out, but the rest…
Weight: 1038 lbs
Systolic Blood Pressure: 300 mm Hg
He rubbed his eyes.
“Doctor...is your patient human?”
“How to answer…”
She tapped her fingernails on the armrest of the chair and screwed up her mouth as she considered.
“Yes. And no. Is hard to say unless you meet him. Would you like to?”
“Is waiting outside for you.”
An icy shiver ran down his spine. This had to be a trap. Of what sort he had no idea. He should send her away right now. He should pick up the phone and dial security. He should…
For a moment, he saw her facade slip. There was a hollowness in her eyes. A weight that pulled down all the features of her face. He had the sudden impression that she was not as old as she looked and that some great sorrow had aged her before her time.
He let the breath he had been holding out.
“I’ll come with you, but…” he pulled the whistle from his pocket and showed it to her, “anything happens, I blow this and help comes. You understand?”
He stood up and showed her to the door.
Their footsteps were loud in the shadowed hallway. He felt as though he were not entirely connected to his body, not entirely doing this, not entirely here.
She led him down and down and down, until they reached the maintenance door that she had come in by. She rested her hand on the handle.
“Before you meet him, I must ask...don’t scream. Is impolite.”
He nodded numbly, not at all sure of what he was agreeing to.
She opened the door.
The expanse of Devil’s Peak rose before them, a black blot on the sky. Frau Doctor made an abrupt right turn and continued until they reached the dumpster where the cafeteria dumped its waste.
The smell reached him first. It was the trash, but beneath it, something worse, something powerful. He coughed despite himself. His eyes were watering.
Frau Doctor had stopped at the enclosure beyond which the dumpster lay, her hand on the latch. He saw the chain that had held it shut against wild animals laying on the ground, sheared clean through. She turned to him.
“I am going to open this gate and you are not going to scream, yes?”
He felt faint. His mouth was dry. He nodded vigorously.
The gate squeaked as it swung open.
He saw the girl first. She was tall and thin and there were hollows in her cheeks. Her dress hung off her small frame and her hair was greasy.
She picked a card from the pile at her feet and frowned at it. At the sound of the gate, her head jerked toward him. Her eyes narrowed. Her lips turned into a thin line.
“Eleanor,” Frau Doctor was saying, “This is…”
A small lantern illuminated the game. He followed its pool of light into the toe of a massive boot, then a knee, then…
There was a roaring in his ears. He gulped at the warm night air desperately. He squeezed his eyes shut. He could taste the cafeteria sandwich he’d hastily eaten for dinner rising at the back of his throat.
When he opened his eyes, it was still there. It was like a diving suit out of a history book, but alive, filled with a body too monstrously huge to be human.
“...and this is Herr Delta. Your patient.”
He stared at the thing in dead silence.
Frau Doctor coughed, frowning at him.
“Is polite to say hello, no?”
The thing extended its hand. Trembling, he reached out to grab it. His hand barely fit around its palm. It gave his hand a gentle shake and then released it. It was the weakest handshake he’d given in his life.
“Hel”- he gasped, before his throat refused to let him finish the word.
“Now, then…” Frau Doctor said, pulling out a milk crate and easing him down onto it, “to business.”
She pulled up a milk crate for herself and half-fell onto it, the folder still clutched awkwardly to her chest.
“He wishes to be cut out of that suit. An easy procedure. Done before. Now the diffi”-
Frau Doctor smiled and held herself up with a little more poise.
“Yes. Twice. I was lead surgeon. One success. One failure. A better rate than I had hoped. Even the failure not so much my fault as fault of bad genes and poor splicing. Now the real problem is...”
Doctor Barnard ran his fingers through his hair and pulled. He took a deep breath, struggling not to gag on the stench.
“Okay.” he said levelly, “We cut him out of the suit. Then what?”
“Then…” she looked around furtively, squinting at the shadows, “...I have drug in my possession. Powerful drug. More costly to get than you know. It reverses what was done to him.”
“And what...what was done to him?”
“Genetic engineering. To be bigger, stronger. Survive greater pressure. Forget who he was before.
“Genetic engineer-! That isn’t”-
He dragged a hand down his face.
“Okay...genetic engineering is possible and...one drug can reverse all that?”
“I design it myself.”
His brain refused to believe it but was unable to complete the action due to the presence of proof right in front of him. Deep down, he felt what might have been a twinge of respect for her.
“Here, you come in. I believe he was small before change. Smaller than others. After he was given growth hormone, his heart works harder, to pump farther. Long term damage results. The others have similar problem, but not so bad. He is stable for now, but not for long. Without new heart, he dies.”
“We have money to pay. For silence and work alike. I have notes from previous operations. Diagrams. Instructions.”
A shadow passed over her face.
“We have donor as well. Compatible. Will you do it?”
The girl’s eyes were boring into him. The playing cards were bending in her grip.
Doctor Barnard swallowed and stared intently at the patch of ground between his feet. His marriage was falling apart. He felt as though everything he did was public, every little action put under a microscope for scrutiny. To do this, he would have to vanish. He would have to leave his life for a period of weeks at least. In that time, there was a chance that the media frenzy would calm down. Perhaps Aletta would get some relief.
But more convincingly...he knew, in his entire career as a surgeon, that he would never again have a chance like this. His fingers itched to try. His brain buzzed with ideas.
He sat back up. Everyone was staring at him. Even behind the foggy diving helmet, he thought he could feel the gaze of the patient. He licked his lips.
“Yes. I’ll do it.”
“Aha!” Frau Doctor yelped, “Shall we discuss here or in office?”
“Ah...office, please. I have a phone call to make. Nothing bad - I need to tell a nurse I’m safe and well.”
“Very well. Eleanor - get in truck. Anything happens, you drive, ja?”
The creature rose up and was followed by the girl. Its footsteps shook the ground as it walked. Not far away was a plateless truck with its loading door open - this was what it climbed into, with the greatest of care. The truck groaned under the weight and the bottom bowed. It curled up inside - he felt as though it were looking at them for one last time - and then pulled the loading door closed behind it.
She tapped the diagram laid out over his desk. There was a small, dark object that looked as though it were lodged in the creature’s throat.
“Electronic voicebox. Will need to be removed. Vocal cords...are most likely not salvageable, though that is matter of luck. Previous patient regains almost full use of voice. But from what I see, Herr Delta has messier job.”
He flicked to the next page of his notepad. It was halfway full already.
“Next, dental implants. Why he lacks teeth is mystery - is not normal in his class. May need to rebuild jaw, but we see how well ADAM works first.”
His pencil was worn down. He paused in his note-taking to pull a sharpener from his desk and use it, not caring that the wood flakes fell on his carpet.
Frau Doctor jabbed at a black object running from the figure’s ankle to his thigh.
“Steel rods in his legs. May be hard to rebuild musculature. May be long time before he walks again.”
The pencil’s tip snapped against the notepad. Doctor Barnard’s hands were shaking. He was clenching his jaw.
“Who did this?” he asked, “To so thoroughly wreck a human body…”
Frau Doctor shook her head.
“That I cannot say. For your safety. World’s safety. Is not that I distrust you, Herr Doctor...is that this secret dies with me.”
“Now...here is where his veins are weakest. Possibility of gangrene in toes…”
Where the good doctor had gotten all this money, he could not begin to imagine. She did not seem to be the embezzling type. Her letters were always addressed locally and were always to doctors that had been let in on the secret already. In her spare time, she strolled along the savannah, basking in the sunlight before it got too hot to move. Somehow, he thought that there couldn’t be a whole lot of underworld connections out there.
One night, as he drifted off to sleep, it occurred to him that her fortune was based in grave goods. He dreamed strange dreams of sunken treasure and moaning monsters that prowled the ocean floor ever after.
In the daylight, he got on with his work.
Dr. Voorheen, an old friend from medical school and the best nose and throat surgeon he knew, had arrived just this morning to make his diagnosis. They chatted over coffee, Barnard describing in detail what he was about to see, to take a little bit of the shock out of it. When he felt his friend was ready, he directed him to what had once been the clinic’s sick ward.
It was where Delta and Eleanor lived. She on an old hospital cot and he propped up on a pile of mattresses in the corner. The furniture was sparse and amenities were few, but neither of them ever complained.
Eleanor stared intently at them as they entered and seated herself next to Delta, her perpetually greasy hair drooping over one eye.
“Alright.” Barnard said, cracking a smile at Voorheen, “Let’s do this.”
He released the pressure valve on the diving helmet and slowly, straining against its weight, lifted it over Delta’s head.
Voorheen made a terrible sound in his throat and backed up a step. Barnard had gotten somewhat used to it but his heart always skipped a beat when they had to look at his face.
His skin was like melted candle wax, his ears shrunken into little nubs on the sides of his head. His collapsed jaw, buried in layers of fat and skin, was just the cherry on top.
But his eyes were a crystalline blue, nestled like jewels in the flab of his face. Seeing them for the first time - that was when it had sunk in that he was human.
Voorheen composed himself in record time.
“Ah, well….good morning Mr. Delta! And...uh?”
“Eleanor! Lovely name.”
Eleanor glared. Voorheen continued, his smile unwavering as he turned back to his patient.
“I’m Dr. Voorheen, I’ll be responsible for your vocal surgery. May I ask you to lift your head up?”
He strained against the heavy collar of his suit until his throat was bared and the item lodged in it visible. Voorheen knelt on the floor, frowning at it.
He touched it lightly and then tapped on it with the nail of his index finger. It sounded like plastic. Around it were gnarled knots of scar tissue. Barnard wondered if they made it harder for him to breathe.
Voorheen leaned in, took ahold of the object and ever so gently, gave it a small tug. A roar like the sound of a rockslide blasted out of Delta’s mouth, sending Voorheen tumbling back in fright. As the sound died away, he realized that Eleanor had screamed too.
Her face was contorted into a grimace of pain. Her hand was wrapped around her own throat as though it were hers that he’d touched.
“It hurts him.” she gasped, her hand shaking as she withdrew it, “Gentler.”
Voorheen picked himself up off the floor.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful. May I have another look?”
Eleanor nodded, the tiniest of smiles on her lips.
Frau Doctor let out a puff of smoke. It drifted away over the empty land beyond.
“Eleanor, you mean. They are...is hard to say in way you understand. Symbiotes. Ja, that’s the word. When she was young, he took care of her. Now she gives strength to keep him alive. He came...close to death. Very close. But Eleanor bonded with him. Deeper than bond they’d lost.”
“Is that bond you must break.”
Barnard almost bit clean through his cigarette.
Frau Doctor took another another drag and let it out in a hiss through her teeth.
“For her as much as him, you understand. He get weaker, so does she. He die, she die. She must be present during surgery. With nurse assigned to her. It will cause her pain. But you must continue no matter what happen.”
He spit out the few threads of tobacco in his mouth.
“Continue...what? How would I...”
Frau Doctor took a long drag and held it in. Just when he thought she wasn’t going to answer, she breathed out.
“You cut out his heart.”
The silence was deafening.
She lay on her cot, watching a patch of moonlight move across the ceiling. When she could stand that no longer, she rolled out of bed and padded softly to the room that passed as the kitchen in her bare feet.
Tenenbaum was there, a full ashtray beside her and another cigarette in her mouth. She was focusing intently on the book in her hands.
When the floor creaked beneath Eleanor’s feet, she lowered it.
“Mein kleine…” she said gently, “No sleep for you?”
“It’s so quiet.”
She sank to the floor, leaning beside her as though she were ten years old again (as though she had done such things when she was ten years old). She had a craving for comfort so strong that it felt like there was a hole in her heart. Tenenbaum was almost definitely not the person to fulfill it, but she was at the very least a better substitute for a mother than the one she’d had. Not that it was a terribly high bar.
Tenenbaum set down the book and patted her on the head awkwardly.
“It’s always going to be like this when he…”
“How do you deal with it? No one in your head but you. Nowhere to hide but in your own thoughts…”
“You learn, mein kleine. Is scary...being alone. But you live with yourself. One day, maybe even like yourself.”
She snuggled into her leg until she felt the current of Delta’s thoughts flow strongly again.
Frau Doctor pulled out her pocket watch again and grimaced.
“Suppose they’ve stalled.”
“Nein. Don’t even say it.”
“Suppose they got stuck in a rut. Should we send out a search party? I’m sure Dr. Voorheen would graciously”-
“Half an hour. We panic then.”
Dr. Barnard sighed and leaned against the clapboard building. There was nothing on the horizon. If there wasn’t soon, none of this would have any purpose.
He stalked inside for some lemonade.
When he returned, there was a cloud of dust in the distance and a smile on Frau Doctor’s face.
His heart beat faster as the vehicle approached. Before he knew it, it was backing down the dirt road that passed for the clinic’s driveway.
The driver hopped out, opened the back doors and helped the two other men inside lower a ramp to the ground. Together, they hauled the gurney inside down. Barnard rushed to take a look. It was a thin man in a hospital gown, his greying hair overgrown, his beard unkempt.
He took his pulse, the man’s wrist limp in his hand. It was strong. Stronger than he’d hoped. He let his hand fall back to the gurney and at that moment, a tattoo on the back of it caught his attention.
It was the Greek letter omega. His other hand had a matching one.
“Ahhhhh, my failure!” Frau Doctor crooned, walking towards them with outstretched arms, “No infections, no bedsores, well and healthy...if his brain had any activity beyond keeping him breathing.”
She picked up one of his hands and let it drop limply back.
“He was so close. You can’t even tell what he once was, can you? Ahhhhhh, but his mind. His mind not strong enough. A pity...but a gut bit of luck down the road, ja? Come, let’s get him inside.”
While the orderlies wheeled him over the threshold, Dr. Barnard felt a tap on his shoulder.
Frau Doctor was looking at him with grimmest expression he’d yet seen from her.
“Herr Delta is not to see him.” she whispered, her breath tickling his ear.
Before he could even think to ask why, she was gone.
But the doctors were in high spirits, the anesthesiologist was hard at work and the nurse assigned to her was keeping a reassuring hand on Eleanor’s shoulder.
Eleanor sat in the farthest corner, swaddled in a surgical gown far too large for her, her hair tucked up into a cap and a mask concealing her face. She felt numb. It wasn’t like when Delta slept. Her limbs were heavy and thoughts came slowly to her. She thought that she should have been afraid, but was too tired to feel much of anything at all.
Dr. Barnard was laying out the battle plan. The words drifted through her brain like strands of kelp, tangling into hopeless knots, tying her down until nothing made sense. She blocked them out and looked over to the other gurney.
It was like there wasn’t even a person on it. A green sheet lay over it, concealing all that lay beneath, save for the square that revealed a shaven human chest.
But no...that wasn’t quite true.
A hand dangled from beneath the sheet and on the back she could just make out…
All of a sudden she felt sick to her stomach. She hugged herself as though to stop herself from breaking.
“Eleanor?” the nurse mouthed into her ear, “Do you need help?”
She shook her head almost imperceptibly. They were readying the buzzsaw.
The sound was awful. Sparks flew. Pieces of him clattered to the ground. All the familiar handholds she’d clung to as a child - nothing but scrap metal. It felt indecent. It felt wrong beyond belief. Eventually, she stopped looking.
When the sound had stopped and she opened her eyes, a doctor she’d never been introduced to came to the front. His accent was heavy and she could barely make out what he was saying. She did catch one word though - legs.
And orderly passed him a scalpel.
She felt its cold tip bite into her hip and cut down the length of her leg. Just when she thought she couldn’t take it any longer, it cut into her other hip.
A nurse passed by with a tray of bloody tissues. She swallowed, trembling.
She felt little pinpricks in her skin after that - stitching, she supposed. It was better than what had happened before.
When she next looked up, Dr. Barnard was calling for Tenenbaum (though not with that exact name) and Tenenbaum, smaller than all the doctors surrounding her was easing herself to the front, a syringe held before her like it was the most delicate thing she’d ever handled.
“The injection, Frau Doctor.”
“Here, Herr Doctor.”
Something icy slid behind her collarbone. She felt its liquid fill her chest.
The entire operating room exclaimed as one. Her skin tingled and she felt as though her organs were twisting around inside her.
And then there were cheers - which were abruptly cut off by the dead tone of the heart monitor.
Eleanor heard herself crying out as though from a great distance, her soul rippling from her body, the nurse’s arms around her, trying to hold her in one piece and then -
Sweat from beneath her cap oozed down into her eyes. She could hear her own heartbeat, feel the hardness of the chair beneath her, the texture of its wood beneath her fingers. She didn’t know if she had ever felt so alive before.
Her eyelids grew heavy and her body sagged into the nurse’s arms.
Someone was drawing a line down her chest. She shivered as it reached its completion.
And then -
She’d never known a person could be this cold, this deep inside.
The feel of the bonesaw was awful. The smell of her powdered bones was worse.
They were peeling her away, layer by layer, digging deeper, touching things that never expected touch.
“Please…” she mouthed, “Stop…”
Someone fastened a clamp deep inside her and then another.
Hot tears poured down her cheeks. They were taking it, tearing it free from its moorings.
Silence as deep as the ocean.
“Is done.” Tenenbaum called out, “Take her away.”
She felt herself being scooped up like a baby and trundled out. When she opened her eyes, there was a gap in between the doctors through which a pale human hand had drooped.
She glimpsed a triangle emblazoned on it and then the vision was gone, the bustle of the operating room behind a thick sheet of plastic.
His trigger finger moved on its own. A bolt fired from his gun and embedded itself in the wall just to the left of Delta’s head.
“It’s alright! Save Eleanor! I’ll be fine!”
His arm moved of its own accord and smashed his fist against the window in Delta’s helmet.
“AHHGHHH.” Sinclair screeched, sure he’d broken every knuckle in his hand.
Before the pain could sink in, a worse pain took over. His body was electricity, his muscles spasming even beyond Lamb’s control.
The calm part deep inside him said “This is it.” He’d seen enough security footage to know what happened next. That drill, about to shear right through him before…
Something hit him in the face and dripped down his window.
An all-encompassing calm flooded his mind.
Her voice was nothing more than a whisper.
That was a voice he didn’t recognize. And yet...it was as though he’d heard it thousand times before.
Delta turned tail and ran.
“Kid…” he wailed uselessly after him, “You’ve gotta finish the job.”
His foot inched forward, in obedience to one command and against the other.
In the distance, he could hear the screech of metal against metal, the grinding of gears, the hail of gunfire and the voice of a big daddy roaring in pain.
His feet were taking off without him down the corridor into which Delta had vanished.
“KID!” he bellowed into the darkness, “I can’t hold off any longer! I’m behind you, I’m going to”-
He nearly crashed headfirst into a bulkhead door that had been crumpled like paper, lifted halfway open. Its mechanism moaned in pain as it jerked in its track, unable to go either up or down. Lamb screaming in his ear, he scrambled under.
As he was getting to his feet, an awful sound that rattled his teeth and stabbed through his ears filled the air. It was a high-pitched screech, a wail, the sound of a machine being pushed to its breaking point until -
Glass shattered. Lamb screamed in his head, a psychic keening that chilled him down to the tips of his toes and squeezed his heart until he thought it could take no more.
And then it was silent.
He stood there for a moment, waiting for the next command, the next nudge into action, the push into doing the last thing he wanted to do.
It didn’t come.
His heart in his throat, he ran, following the trail of busted robots, the blood that nearly vanished into the rust of the floor until -
He felt as though he were looking into a deep, dark pit. As though he were there and not there. The ground sparkled with sharp bits of broken glass. Recording equipment was thrown about the tiny room like a whirlwind had hit it. The walls bore a thick sheen of blood and...chunks.
Delta stood in the middle of it, still as a statue.
Something dropped from his hand and hit the floor with the heaviest thunk. It took Sinclair a moment to realize that it was his drill, bent into a shape nearly unrecognizable.
There was a strand of blond hair tangled around it.
Delta turned and slowly lumbered toward him. Sinclair backed away despite himself, his heart thundering in his chest. All the security footage in the world was nothing compared to this.
He felt his tanks bump into the wall behind him. Delta reached a hand out - he saw that it was shaking - and rested it on his shoulder.
His suit was studded with broken glass and riddled with bullet holes. A larger piece stuck out of his stomach like a dagger, breaching his suit.
He fell forward, putting most of weight on Sinclair’s shoulder.
“Kid…” Sinclair gasped, holding him up as best he could, “You didn’t…”
The radio on his belt buzzed to life.
“Father?” Eleanor’s tinny voice cried out of it, “Father, what was that? Are you alright? Did you get the key? Is Sinclair”-
Wincing at the pain in his knuckles, he tugged the radio off of Delta’s belt and pressed the outgoing button.
“Eleanor” he rasped into it, “We’re on our way. Both of us. You keep a couple seats open on that submersible, y’hear? We’ll be arriving before you can say ‘boo.’”
He released the button. The radio fell from his unsteady hand and hit the floor, landing in such a way as to break the casing neatly in two. He let it lie and shrugged Delta into a more comfortable position.
“You lunk” he chided, using all his willpower to keep the fear out of his voice, “Giving old Sinclair a scare like that. Why, when we tell Eleanor…”
Sometimes he came so close to consciousness that his eyes fluttered open for a moment. In those moments Eleanor would sit bolt upright in her chair, barely breathing, barely moving, her every nerve poised on the edge of a knife.
But they always closed again. His breathing deepened and he went into the stage of sleep where she couldn’t reach him again.
Sometimes he cried in his sleep, the tears soaking into the bandage around his throat if Eleanor didn’t get them with a tissue first.
“He’s remembering.” Tenenbaum had said, peeking over the top of her newspaper to see.
She’d been indignant about him having memories that she didn’t, about there being no possible way she could reach them.
“Not for me to say.”
She dabbed at his cheeks until the tears stopped, pointedly ignoring Tenenbaum.
The skin was soft and new, not a callus or a scratch on it. It wasn’t the hand that had killed for her or lifted her up onto his shoulders when she got too tired of walking the dripping halls below the surface of the ocean. There was nothing she recognized about the man at all - save for one tiny detail.
The deltas tattooed on the backs of his hands.
They were the only reminder of her past life left, the one connection to Rapture remaining. The only proof she had that the first seventeen years of her life hadn’t been a dream. She’d stroke them while she held his hand, remembering the glove that had once concealed them.
Eleanor’s eyes snapped open and she was out of bed before her mind even registered that her body was awake. The morning sun was shining through the blinds. He was staring at the ceiling, his face red with effort.
“Father!” she cried, tears running down her face as she stumbled toward him, “Please don’t try to speak! It’s...it’s still healing. Dr. Voorheen said....”
She stopped short. His eyes widened when he saw her and a look of terror took hold of his face.
She felt something fracture deep inside her. A tear tasting of the ocean slid into the corner of her mouth.
“I’ll...I’ll get Dr. Barnard. He’ll want to…”
She stumbled backwards, a rushing sound in her ears, the ground surging under her feet.
Subject Delta reached a shaking hand up to touch the gauze on his throat. With a look of pain, he swallowed.
Tenenbaum bounced her leg, waiting for an answer.
He was having difficulty with the pencil. It was frustrating him immensely. With an angry gurgle in his throat, he made a fist around it and wrote slowly and shakily. He offered the notepad to Tenenbaum when he was done. She squinted at what he’d written, holding it at distance and tilting her head until it made some kind of sense.
‘DEVON’ was clear enough, though the D looked more like a P. After that she could make out the letters KEI. But beyond that, nothing but a tangled mess.
She rested the notepad on her lap.
“Do you have any family?”
He glanced at Eleanor, hovering in the doorway and then shook his head.
Tenenbaum made a check on her list.
“A home address might be a bit beyond your capabilities, ja?”
He glared. The effect would have been more dramatic if he’d had eyebrows.
“Well…” she said, tossing the notepad back to him, “Practice makes perfect. Your muscle memory will return in time.”
When she stood up to leave, he was crossing his arms and frowning at the paper.
When she glanced back at a moment when he thought she wasn’t looking, he was peeling back the first page, pencil in hand.
Eleanor backed away to let her pass, looking at her shoes all the while.
She opened her eyes. The handles of the wheelchair were digging into the palms of her hands. She was still taking the stranger who’d been her father on a walk down a grassy trail that Tenenbaum had practically shoved her out the door into.
He was still and quiet. They had not exchanged any type of communication for the duration of the walk. When she peered over the top of his head, she saw that he had pulled the sleeves of his shirt over his hands again. He was constantly doing that if his hands weren’t otherwise involved with something. When he was napping or staring at the wall, they were hidden under his blanket. He’d found a trick of scratching a hole into the sleeves of shirts with looser fabrics so he could poke his thumbs through, leaving his fingers free, but the backs of his hands covered.
She looked away and concentrated on not jolting him too badly on the rocky path.
At the end of it, there was a little watering hole. A stream trickled out of a rock, feeding into a tiny oasis. The grass was greener here and the ground, softer. She found a shady spot to park the wheelchair and then plopped down next to it herself.
They watched the animals coming to drink for a time. Little birds drinking little gulps. Insects dancing on top of the water. At one point, some brownish creature that she couldn’t name crept to the edge of the pool. When Eleanor moved to get a closer look, it had bolted in a blur of fur.
But as the silence between them wore on, it grew heavy. There was a question on Eleanor’s tongue that was getting more cumbersome by the minute. She decided that she was going to blurt it out before she had time to overthink it.
“Is it...okay if I call you ‘Father?’”
He hung his head. He seemed to shrink in the wheelchair, to fold in on himself. The silence wore on. Just when she thought it was never going to be broken, he raised a hand to the patch on his throat, letting the sleeve drop and the Delta be revealed.
He had a voice like gravel rattling in a bucket. Eleanor’s heart skipped a beat. Had he really -
There was so much pain in his eyes.
He looked at her with the tiniest of smiles.
“Ssshorry...ah dun know.”
She touched his arm. Her bottom lip was trembling.
“It’s going to be okay. We...we can figure it out together. I...I want to know you. Do you want to know me?”
He nodded, his eyes shining with tears.
He held out his hand when she asked him to and ever so carefully, wound the gauze around his palm, just enough layers to cover the tattoo. After securing the first, she did the same for the next.
“There.” she said, sorrow and joy warring inside her, “Now you can stop ruining your clothes.”
The car the dentist had driven in was fast becoming a puff of dust on the horizon. Devon was making weird faces as he ran his tongue over the dentures the man had brought.
He looked up at the nurse who had asked the question with a wry smile.
“Bit a nursh.”
Her hand fluttered to her chest.
“Should I be worried about where I stick my fingers?”
“Nah. Worsh nursh. Mush worsh nursh.”
Eleanor leaned over conspiratorially.
“But was it worth it, Papa?”
He considered for a moment and then nodded firmly.
Dr. Barnard had departed back into his life of fame and marital troubles with a sad wave goodbye. Dr Voorheen, the orthopedic surgeon whose name she’d never discovered - they’d all packed up their sleeping bags long ago and their visits became more and more seldom. All that was left was the nurse that helped to move him from bed to chair and Dr. Tenenbaum.
It was becoming a lonely existence. Eleanor was beginning to long for other people to talk to, other places to go. She’d seen so little of the world. Something inside her was itching to see more.
She pushed Papa along on their morning walk, commenting on the weather, the birdsong, the beauty of the sunrise earlier that morning. Then she looked down and yelled “Papa!”
He looked around as though he expected a wild animal to leap out of the grass.
She squinted at the stubble that had just started growing out of his bald head a few days prior.
“Are you...a redhead?”
He laughed. It still sounded like a car breaking down.
“Am I? Been ssho long.”
“Ohhh, now they’ll never take us for father and daughter out there.”
“I could be your uncle. Dishtant coushin?”
She hugged him from behind.
“Whatever happened to Sshinclair? He’d be an exshellent shecond coushin twish removed.”
“After leaving Rapshure...ish all ssho blurry. Wonder if he ever got that i-land.”
“He died, Papa.”
She gave him a tight squeeze and then stood back up. They walked in silence for a while longer.
“But...he’s still with us. In memory. In spirit. He got to see sunlight for one last time, thanks to you. That’s an incalculable gift. I didn’t think I’d ever see it. I...I love you, Papa.”
Her voice cracked on the last word. She’d stopped walking.
He strained to reach behind himself to give her a pat.
“Why don’t we make a little corner for him...in our new housh. Burn a candle for the dead, like my mother ushed to do. Cath-lic tradishun. What do you shay?”
“I don’t know what a Catholic is.”
“Ah, maybe ish better you don’t know that one. Lotta politicsh. Nice tradishuns. Besht leave the politicsh out of it. Do you think Tenenbaum’sh learned how to cook yet?”
“I doubt it. But...she tries.”
“Why don’t we find out.”