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art by Melissa Mead

Apology Accepted

Kathryn Board's work has appeared in the speculative fiction anthology Triangulation: Dark Glass and the horror anthology Torn Realities. She has also had short fantasy stories appear in the Mad Scientist's Journal and Electric Spec. She lives in Pittsburgh with her partner of thirteen years and the happiest cat on the planet.

"I'm so sorry."
As the words slipped from Jane's mouth, another blue Line of Apology on her arm disappeared in a searing--but brief--slice of pain. She only had ten Apology Lines left. Most people her age had blue streaks marking their arms all the way to shoulder.
As the pain in Jane's arm faded, so did the look of suffering on the young man's face. She reminded herself that Andrew had a much harder life than she did. His wife of five years had died in a horrible accident. She left him with an infant child to care for, when all he wanted to do was die with his spouse. Jane's apology wouldn't remove the hurt, but it would start the healing process.
"Thank you, Dr. Melior," Andrew said. "That was very generous of you." A new blue line appeared on his hand. There wasn't any more room on his arm. He probably got dozens of apologies from friends at his wife's funeral, but none from a professional.
"You're welcome," she replied, standing to signal that Andrew's therapy session was over. He shook her hand as he left.
Jane caught Dr. Gardiner watching her in the cafeteria. She hurried to pay for her food. He was a doctor of mental health; she was just a therapist. They weren't even allowed to ride in the same elevator together.
He didn't seem to care about those things, though. Certainly not from the way he strode to her table. "Do you mind if I join you?" he asked.
"Of course not," she said, unable to hide her flush.
"Forgive me for interrupting your lunch," he said, sitting next to her, "but I noticed your last patient leaving. Andrew Willard? I've been regulating his medication and I wanted to ask how his therapy is going?"
"Better, I think," she replied as vaguely as possible. Why did he have to ask about Andrew, now? And why did his eyes keep straying to her sleeve. Her heart accelerated.
"Today he was the most engaged I've ever seen him. Just yesterday, I was thinking about upping the dose on his medication."
Jane hated the over-medicated zombies that shambled through their in-patient center. She couldn't stand the thought of Andrew turning out that way. "Dr. Gardiner--"
Her eyes skipped from the table and back to him. "Tom, I think we should give it some time. He might be turning a corner."
Tom cocked his head. "Really?"
Her face grew uncomfortably hot again. "His demeanor is improved. He hasn't had a positive outcome yet, but I think he's headed in the right direction."
"And he's your patient," Tom added.
"Excuse me?"
His hazel eyes settled on her in a serious way. "I've been checking your files. Not a single suicide. An unusually low rate of divorce...."
"I'm good at what I do." She stood to leave. To flee.
He stopped her with a hand on her arm. His touch was sweet. "You used your personal apologies to heal them." It wasn't a question.
She looked around at the doctors and therapists in the room. Nobody was listening in. "Yes," she said softly.
"Is he the only one?"
Her eyes fell to the table.
"Let me see," he said.
She pushed up her sleeve and a sharp whistle slipped through his lips. "You have to stop this."
"I can't let them keep hurting."
"You can't keep giving away pieces of yourself to everyone who hurts," he countered. "You have--what? A dozen lines? Less? You have to save something to forgive yourself."
Jane remembered the very first apology she had ever received: the sense of calm, the flood of good-will, and the purge of poison that had been her anger. From the moment she got her first apology when she was twelve, she knew that all she wanted to do was be a therapist and help people feel better. Jane picked up her untouched tray and stood. "Thank you for the advice, Dr. Gardiner." She turned and felt his eyes on her as she left the room.
Jane managed to wait a week before she used another apology. Her ten o'clock Tuesday patient was listless and not improving. Jane feared she would hurt herself. Another Line of Apology spent in a moment of sympathy and pain.
She saw Tom Gardiner in the cafeteria the next day and ate her lunch in her office. She stared at the few lines on her arms with dry eyes.
Friday, she started with a new patient. He was a soldier, an amputee, freshly home from war. She couldn't have denied him an apology if she wanted to. Just after she healed him, a weight settled on Jane's shoulders. It grew harder to get out of bed or to care about anything at all. She only went to the homeless shelter the next weekend out of habit. While she was there, she spent another apology. Her shoulders sagged. Her steps dragged.
None of the supervisors at work followed up on Tom Gardiner's concerns. If she saw him in the halls or cafeteria, she hurried in the opposite direction. Two weeks passed without incident.
Another patient hovered on the edge of despair; another blinding slash of pain to heal her. An addict given hope. A child. A widow. They ran together in her mind. The pain wasn't physical anymore.
Jane only vaguely sensed hunger; she drifted instinctively to the cafeteria. She saw Dr. Gardiner across the room through a haze of indifference. He crossed the room to join her, but there was no quickening at the sight of him. She registered his concern like it was a mathematical formula and let him lead her to a table. His hands fumbled for her sleeve. She didn't care enough to stop him; nor did his audible groan concern her.
"Oh, Jane," he whispered. "I'm so sorry." He pressed his lips against her cheek in a way that she had once hoped he would. She didn't feel anything.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Author Comments

This story was written in response to a fight that I was having with a very dear friend of mine. I was questioning why it's so hard to apologize, and how it feels like you're giving up a little piece of yourself when you do. This story came to me fully formed: beginning, middle, and end. It's probably one of the more personal and emotional shorts that I've ever written.

- Kathryn Felice Board
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