BY ALTER REISS
Court ordered extractions are the worst. When I started, some of the others bothered me more: grieving parents, hospice extractions, prisoner extractions, assholes who wanted to stop feeling bad about some asshole thing they did. The pain from those can fill you up like a pitcher, if you let it. I'm used to that now. Court ordered extractions, on the other hand, mean dealing with people who yell at you. This one was a lawyer, which was even worse. People with jobs like that, they think they're the kings of the world. They will shit on you and expect you to thank them for it.
This guy was Randolph Zimmerman, associate at O'Dyer and Pachmeyer. I pulled up in the lot outside O'Dyer and Pachmeyer's office park, and pulled out the picture that I keep under the passenger side sun visor. It's not anybody I've ever met—it's just a picture of a girl that I pulled off the internet. Whoever she is, she's got a glass of wine in one hand and she's smiling at someone out of the shot. She's not particularly pretty. I mean, she's pretty, but no more so than lots of girls. The broad panels of golden light in the picture were right for her face, which was long planes and sharp edges, and there was pure glee in her smile.
I don't get paid by the hour, so I didn't look at her long. Just a little bit, like an alcoholic having a shot of schnapps as an eye-opener. Then I got on with the job.
There was still snow on the ground. Grit-surfaced lumps of snow, which crunched unpleasantly when I stepped on them, and which covered pools of filthy water that had refrozen into black ice. It was March, but spring wasn't in any hurry.
"How can I help you?" asked the secretary, who was wearing a fluffy sweater and about twice as much perfume as she needed. She seemed nice; there was a warmth in her smile that wasn't entirely artificial. I gave her my card, and the warmth went away. "I need to talk to Mr. Zimmerman," I said.
"Of course, sir," she said. "If you'll just take a seat, I'll let him know that you're waiting for him."
I took a seat. Could be that Zimmerman would decide not to be in. In which case, I'd get back into my car, collect a partial fee from the county, and visit him a week or so later, when he was in custody. Which wouldn't be a great deal for him, but, whatever. His call. I sat for a while, looked over the paperwork.
After fifteen minutes, I got up, and walked over to the secretary. "I-" I started, and "Mr-" she started. We both stopped, and I smiled at her. "You first," I said.
She didn't return the smile. "Mr. Zimmerman is very busy," she said. "I'm sure that if you'll just be patient, he'll be with you shortly."
"I am sure he is," I replied. "But I'm afraid that I have a full schedule. If he can't fit me in by-" I looked up at the clock. It was ten twenty. "By half past," I finished, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave." Leave, and report him as non-compliant, and though I left that part unsaid, she seemed to have heard it.
"I'll let him know," she said. I smiled again, and waited. There was a brief conversation that I couldn't hear. "Let me show you to Mr. Zimmerman's office," she said, when it was done. The secretary was a tall woman, taller than me, and she strode ahead so quickly that I had to trot to keep up. She wasn't afraid, not exactly, but she didn't want to be around me any longer than necessary.
I get that a lot.
Randolph Zimmerman looked younger than I expected, with a lantern jaw, and hair that looked like one of the pictures in a barber shop. "Mr. Zimmerman?" I said, sliding into the seat opposite his desk. "I'm here as a representative of-"
"I know why you're here," he said. "And you can go to hell."
"I see," I said, standing up. "Well, in that case, I can-"
"No, no, I'm sorry." He shook his head. There were bags around his eyes, and his skin looked grey. It was tough on him, like it always is. "It's just that I want to keep loving my wife."
"Your ex-wife," I corrected.
"My ex-wife," he said. "I haven't done anything to hurt her; those are years . . . I can't-"
"You know," I said. "You're wearing a really great shirt."
"I . . . I'm sorry?"
"Anyone can buy a fancy suit," I continued. "Most people, they get a little money, want to dress the part, that's what they do. But if you really want to convey authority, you need a shirt like that. You'd think, white shirts are white shirts, right? But then you see a quality shirt, and you know different. I mean, you're in a bad situation, right, and I'm not, but I still feel like I should defer to you."
"It's custom-made," he said, looking puzzled.
"What does that cost, like three hundred dollars?"
"Something like that. What's your point?"
"My point is this, Mr. Zimmerman. You've got a lot of advantages. Good job, nice car, great shirt. But you're miserable. Give me a minute, and you won't be miserable."
"I don't want," he started, face tightening into a scowl. "I don't want you to ruin my life," he said.
"Then you shouldn't have violated the restraining order," I said.
That got him in the gut, just like I intended. Set him up for one sort of argument, then hit him with another. He was ready for me to say that his life would be fine, and would have wasted more of my time arguing that point. This way, we were just about ready to go.
"It was all a mistake," he said.
"I'm sure it was."
"If I could just talk to Justine, I could-"
"I'm afraid that you've already made that mistake."
"My wife loves me!" He leaned forward, his vein throbbing. "If you people hadn't-"
"Your ex-wife," I said. "And I can assure you with absolute confidence, Mr. Zimmerman, that she does not love you."
That sat him back down. "You didn't . . . she . . ."
"She requested the procedure about an hour after filing her complaint," I said. "Now, if we could-"
"You know what?" he said. "Fine. How long is this going to-"
I reached over the desk, touched him in the centre of the chest. People tend to be surprised by physical aggression. That's why bar fights start with yelling and throwing chairs; to let everyone get used to the idea of violence. There was a pause between my touching him and him pushing me away, as he processed the fact that I had touched him. A long enough pause. I opened up my talent, and reached into the tangle of emotions and memories built up like a wall around his heart, like the crust of barnacles on a breakwater.
The love for his ex-wife was wound tightly up with everything else, extending out into his work, deeply intertwined with his love for his family. And with his hates, of course. Hate isn't my talent—love is. I detached the tendrils, unwound the coils, and pulled it out of his chest, a dripping, bloody, ulcerated thing. The court had been right. It wasn't poisonous yet, but it was going bad. Another few years, it would be as black and twisted as the love I took from people who had done terrible things to the objects of their affections.
Zimmerman was sitting back in his chair, eyes open but unseeing. It took them like that. He'd snap out of it in a minute or so. Meanwhile, the love I held in my hands writhed and stretched, reaching for the heart I had taken it from. When I started on this job, I'd smash them, or burn them, or just toss them in the trash when I was far enough away. That never felt right.
I had a collecting jar with me, and I dropped it in, twisted the lid closed, as Zimmerman came to. He took a single gasping breath, and then shook his head. "Huh," he said.
"Yeah," I said, putting the jar back into my pocket. "It's like that."
"I'm sorry," he said. "It's . . . ."
"It's kind of embarrassing now," I finished for him. He'd get to that point after a while, but it's not like I was this guy's friend, or his therapist, or anything. I didn't have to guide him to his epiphanies. "If you'll just sign here," I said, passing him a form.
Naturally, being a lawyer, he read the whole thing, even the fine print. Which didn't bother me any. It just said that the procedure had been completed, and with his consent. It was a legal form, so it took a lot of words to say that. If I had let him talk about what had happened, he would have been happy to, maybe bought me a drink. A couple of early clients had tried to become friends with me. After all, we shared a secret, and I was the only one who understood what they had been through.
Or at least, they had wanted to be my friend for a couple of days. After that, they went from being relieved at the weight they had let go to wondering about it. Then they found out that I didn't actually understand what they had been through; I had just been what they had been through. There's no way to answer their questions, and there's no way to put back what I had taken out. One guy wouldn't give up trying to get me to tell him about his feelings for his son for more than a year, until I threatened him with legal action.
Extractors can't stay around; when you make a hole, you have to let it fill by itself. If you're there, they try to fill it with you. Eventually, Zimmerman initialed and signed, and I left, past the frosty stare of the receptionist, and out into the frosty air. It was cold, but the car started fine.
I sat there, in my seat, and took out the collecting jar, looked at the love that was twisting inside, hungry, cancerous, blind. I took out the other jar, the one I had collected earlier, and I unscrewed both lids, emptied Zimmerman's jar into the one from his ex-wife. The two were similar, but not the same. Hers was a hair larger, and bloodier. His was, perhaps, a bit fiercer and darker. They found each other, coiled and writhed around each other, all their tendrils and coils locking and interlocking. They were freed of all their other attachments, anything but each other.
They grew so close until they were one thing, and they kept growing closer, his love for her, her love for him swallowing each other up, until it was all gone. That's how it always goes, when you get the pair, even if one is a giant thing, many mouthed and many fanged, and the other is a fingerling of regard.
I looked at the picture of the girl again, saw the mischief in her smile. Then I folded it back under the sun visor, and made my way out of the parking lot. There were other people waiting for me, and showing up late wouldn't make them any happier.
Alter Reiss is a scientific editor and field archaeologist. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel, and enjoys good books and bad movies.
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