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The Skein of a Life

by Dan Sexton-Riley

Part 1 appears in this issue.


Benny is barely recognizable when the next memory comes into focus. A lanky teenager with hair dyed black and clothes to match. A living shadow, save for the pale moon of his face beneath his hairline. There’s a small pocket knife in his grip, balanced on his finger. He strokes the wooden inlay of the grip appreciatively.

He’s watching a show. The desk on which the television stands is covered in scratches and gouges. It seems that Benny has been taking his frustration out on it.


He looks at me sidelong and with no fondness. It always stuns me, how sweet little kids can become such wounded, bitter teens and adults, no matter how many times I see it.

“Benny? It’s me—”


I bristle at the sound of my name. If he can remember my name, then I must have made a bigger mistake than I thought earlier. I push down the self-recrimination and focus on recovering the situation. It’s likely a small tear in the thread that won’t matter if I keep going carefully.

“How’s it going, Benny?” I keep my voice neutral.

He jabs at the desk absently. The little knife chips away the finish, but isn’t sharp enough to do much harm. It must have taken quite some time to cause the damage I see. He doesn’t answer.

“What’s happening today, Benny?”


I pause. “What happened yesterday?”

He holds my eye for a second then looks away. He doesn’t trust me.

“Maybe I can help, if you talk about it.”

His glare is the green of holly through fresh snow. He dandles the blade along the soft flesh of his inner arm. It leaves a white line behind it.

“What happened?” He sneers. “I figured out just how useless I am. That’s what. Watch the door, tell me if anyone’s coming.”

He clambers over his bed to open a window, then fishes a cigarette from a little box beside it. A spark of light and a long drag later, he does his best to direct the plume of smoke he breathes out of the window.

“I know you’re not as apathetic as you seem,” I say.

“Oh yeah?” He smirks at me.

“Yeah. You’re worried about what your Mum thinks about your smoking for one thing.” I’m guessing, but it pays off.

His mocking smile dissolves and leaves him looking ill. The air blowing through the window is cold. It makes him shiver, and the smoke scent is heavy in the room. He finishes the cigarette in silence then stubs it on the wall outside his window. He stows the end in the same little box he brought it from.

“She’s going to ask me about it again tonight,” he mutters.

“What will you tell her?”

“This time I’ll say yes, and it’ll break her heart.” Despite his tough-guy act, his eyes are red. “Why is it that I always want to cry when you’re around, Eve?”

I ignore the question, but jump on his previous statement. “It won’t stay this way, if you stick with her. She’ll only be upset because she loves you.”

“I know,” he says, as the memory blurs into another.

* * *

The store front is dark, and it’s beginning to snow outside. A calendar on the wall is decorated with various fruits and vegetables, it tells me this is late March. The weather is unseasonal for his new home. I can tell where we are from the newspaper on the counter. Small town America. A far cry from his city life in England.

Benny storms into the room from the back of the store, his face like thunder. I guess he must be in his twenties. His co-worker is a younger girl, perhaps eighteen or so, and his expression surprises her. She has hair like copper wire and big round spectacles. Her blue eyes are magnified by the strength of the lenses. I imagine she always looks surprised to some degree.

“Benny? What’s up? Are you feeling okay?” she asks.

“Good luck with this place, Lila,” Benny says, biting off as much of the anger from his tone as possible. “I hope they treat you better than me.”

Before Lila can respond, he grabs his pack and jacket, turns on his heel and walks out the door. I follow him to a bench outside. He’s struggling to hold back tears. I sit down next to him and he chokes out a bitter laugh.

“Would you recognize me if I wasn’t crying, Eve?”/p>

“I know your story, Benny.”

“You do, huh?” he snorts. “Yeah, I guess you do.”

“It got better, though, right?”

He sighs.

“Yes. And no. Mostly yes.”

“Nothing can change what happened to you. It happened.” I want to reach for his hand but I know better.

“How do I come to terms with it?”

“Didn’t you?” I ask.

He looks me in the eye and, for the first time in years, I’m uncomfortable. This was not what I wanted for my first procedure. Rarely, during surgery, do patients realize that they are dead. Or perhaps, in the memory, like an actor breaking the fourth wall, they know they will die soon. It adds a new dimension to the work. It requires a great deal more focus to guide an active participant. It becomes much more likely that I’ll make a mistake outside of the memory.

I recover quickly and adjust my approach. “How much do you know, Benny?” I ask.

“I don’t know anything for certain,” he muses. “I don’t think you’re really here, though.”

“Not quite,” I say carefully. “I am real, but it’s more like here isn’t really there. This is just a memory. Think of me as your doctor. I’m trying to help you to let go.”

He lets loose a long sigh. “You’ve been tricking me... But I get it. You’re just doing your job.”

“Nobody gets into this line of work because they enjoy it,” I say gently, and he looks up as if he’s seeing me for the first time.

“No, I don’t suppose anyone would.” He mulls the thought over for a while, letting the silence stretch out between us.

“Your wife and child are coping. She’s a powerful lady, your wife,” I say.

He looks to me, bitterness gone and replaced by something softer, kinder. The face of the little boy who went hunting for bugs in his grandma’s garden all those years ago.

“I don’t know if I can leave them,” he says at last. “I only just found them and now I’m about to leave them alone.”

“I can’t force you to go, and wouldn’t if I could, but you should know that the emotions that you have tethering you to them will become malignant eventually.”

“Malignant how?”

“The details are less important than the result. You’ll lose yourself, and you’ll hurt people. You can avoid it by letting those feelings go before that happens. I can’t help you if that happens.”

“Like in a horror movie,” He giggles in the way people do sometimes after being told they have cancer.

“The idea had to come from somewhere, right?” I say. “Those kinds of things don’t happen very often these days. We’re about as effective as we can be. Most people are caught and heal before they can be noticed.”

Snow is gathering on the ground while we sit in silence. I stay still and calm. There is still time before his awareness will decay the thread beyond repair.

“Have I hurt anyone?” he asks.

“Not yet. You never will, if you let me help you.”

He nods mostly to himself. “What do I do?”

“Accept that staying isn’t right. Move on to whatever is next. Trust that you did enough.”

I expect him to be weep once more, but he doesn’t. A small smile crooks the edge of his lips, and his eyes are not so sad. The air around him shimmers and hums like a plucked cello string.

* * *

The hospice room is comfortable. The fixtures are wooden with a finish that is easy on the eyes. Benny is in the bed, his eyelids threatening to close at any moment. He will leave soon. He sees me and nods in recognition.

His wife is at his bedside holding his hand. Her face is love and contentment. I know the pain she is holding at bay so that he can feel safe. Such a powerful woman. I wonder if I’ve ever been this strong for another in my own life. I’m not sure I have. I watch in quiet admiration

She is with him to the last moment. I sit at his other side and place my hand over his. “It’ll be okay, Benny. You can go.”

“Thank you,” he wheezes. His body relaxes and becomes still. Then he is gone.

The air shimmers one last time and I’m back in the operating room, standing over an empty table.

* * *

“Exemplary, just exemplary!” Dr Levitt says when he’s sure I’ve found my bearings. “I saw there was a little hiccup at the end, but you compensated perfectly. Congratulations on your first!”

“It’s still hard,” I say, wiping an tear from my cheek.

“It should always be hard,” he replies. “What did I tell you on your first day?”

“I have no time for the carefree or the careless, and neither do my patients.”

The memory elicits a smile. “Exactly. This is a path few can take. You should be proud.”

“Thank you, sir,” I say.

“Come now,” he says, the smile back on his face. “We’re peers now, Doctor.”

The rest of the session is a blur of papers to be signed and sealed for my future. I know that I should throw away the pile of red thread beside the table. I should be cremating it, to keep it from falling into the wrong hands... But I don’t.

I wind the thread into a small skein, and hide it in my pocket for safekeeping

* * *

Years later. Another day, another surgery. She’s an older lady; the chart says she was 79 when she died. While I’m gathering my equipment, I catch my reflection in the glass of a cabinet door.

I’ve barely changed, save for the red patch knitted into my jacket in the shape of a beetle. I touch it. For a moment, I can smell summer flowers and a mid-September sunshine.

Then I’m back in the room, and it’s time to get to work.

Copyright © 2020 by Dan Sexton-Riley

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