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Snake Heart

by M. C. Tuggle

Carina sat alone in the examination room, which was wide and deep and windowless. She wore the paper gown the unsmiling nurse had told her to put on. Sitting on a cold table, the air around her heavy with pine disinfectant, she frowned at the white door across the room. She heard indistinct murmurs on the other side.

Hands clasped, Carina chewed her lip and let her bare feet dangle from the table.

A Grid helmet lay beside her. Teacher had worried about her lack of interest in the Grid. Was she supposed to put it on?

Carina peered back at the door. If she could get closer, she might hear the adults on the other side.

Carina slid down from the table and crept barefoot across the tiled floor. But when she reached the middle of the room, the white door opened. She froze.

Two men and a woman stood in the doorway. One of the men said, “Look at this. Even now she is drawn to us.” He took a step toward her and bent down. “Young lady, did you not see the nice Grid helmet?”

The man had a booming, musical voice. He stood a head taller than the other man and his broad smile flashed against the dark skin of his face.

“You can talk to us,” he said. “I am Dr. Okafor. This is Dr. Pagouli, and this is Dr. Asztalos.”

Pagouli, a woman with dark, appraising eyes, held a VoxReader in her hand. She frowned at Carina and examined her from head to toe as she spoke into the reader in a language Carina did not understand.

Dr. Asztalos stooped and peered into Carina’s eyes.

Carina gazed back. “Do you want me to go back to the table?”

Asztalos shook his head. His brow crinkled as he studied Carina.

Dr. Pagouli spoke again in the strange language. Asztalos stood and nodded at Pagouli. “Yes. It would explain much. ”

Carina looked up at the three faces. “Have I done something bad?”

“No one is angry at you, child,” said Okafor. “You are not responsible for what has happened to you.”

It took two deep breaths before she could ask, “What’s happened to me?”

Dr. Okafor nodded toward the examination table. “Have a seat.”

Carina padded across the floor and hopped onto the table.

Dr. Okafor looked down on her, arms folded. “It is important for you to understand that you have done things that have frightened other people. We are here to help you stop doing those things.”

“Are you talking about what I said to Zhen?”

Dr. Okafor’s large eyes brightened. “Tell us about that.”

“He... he was sad. I told him I knew how he felt and that I would friend him.”

Dr. Pagouli’s mouth compressed into a rigid line. Dr. Asztalos turned toward the door.

Carina searched the doctors’ faces. “I don’t know why Zhen told Teacher I had done a bad thing. And I don’t know why you’re acting this way.”

Dr. Okafor grimaced, the large eyes downcast. When he looked up, he said, “Carina, we believe you have Hart’s Syndrome.”

“What’s that?”

Dr. Asztalos said, “Hart’s is an affixation disorder.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“It refers to pathological dependence,” said Dr. Asztalos. “Individuals with Hart’s are obsessed with the feelings and thoughts of those around them. They’re unable to live independently and tend to... cling to other people.”

“Hart’s Syndrome is a regression to tribal and social behaviors of the past,” said Dr. Okafor. “It is rare, but it is also very frightening.”

Carina gazed back at Okafor. “I don’t mean to scare people. I really don’t.”

“But you do,” said Okafor. “It is intrusive to approach someone and begin talking to them without their consent. Why, it chills one’s blood.”

With the palm of her hand, Carina wiped away tears. “You said you were going to help me.”

Okafor nodded. “Yes, and we will. But we’re unable to explain how this could have happened. I’ve read your history. Your biomom turned you over to the Nurturing Center at three months. Before you were one, you were proficient with several Grid navigation devices.” He shrugged. “So, a perfectly normal beginning. But two months ago, when you turned eleven, you started showing troubling symptoms. Excessive fraternization, aggressive eye contact, limited Grid activity. And worse: abnormal concern about others.”

Dr. Asztalos turned toward her. In a low voice he said, “At puberty, the brain reconfigures itself, creating new circuits. Sometimes neural disorders are triggered, such as schizophrenia. We thought Hart’s Syndrome had been all but eliminated, but your symptoms seem to confirm that diagnosis.”

“Hart’s Syndrome,” said Dr. Pagouli, her voice shaking with contempt. “Snake Heart.”

Carina stared back wide-eyed. “Is that what’s wrong with me?”

Okafor glanced at Pagouli. “I’ve never cared for the term.” Jaw clenched, he turned to Carina. “An actual case of Snake Heart is when someone’s heart” — he touched his chest — “has three chambers instead of four, like a reptile. Like Hart’s Syndrome, it is a throwback to a more primitive time in our evolution. The two names sounded alike, and the syndrome is viewed with such revulsion that the name stuck.”

“Revulsion?” Carina bowed her head. “What can you do?”

Dr. Okafor rubbed his temples. “At the very least, we do not want this transmitted to your offspring. You don’t want that, do you?”

Carina shook her head. “No.”

“Fine. Dr. Pagouli will take care of that.”

Dr. Pagouli leaned back, dark eyes fixed on her patient.

“With therapy,” said Okafor, “plus the proper medications, you can have a happy life.”

“Monozine will kill those unwanted sensations,” said Dr. Asztalos.

Carina looked up at three faces filled with concern for her. She tried to blink away tears. “Thank you.”

Dr. Okafor folded his arms together and slowly nodded. “It’s all right,” he said. “After all, we’re here to help one another.”

Copyright © 2014 by M. C. Tuggle

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