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The Poet with Fishhook Eyes

Once a space shuttle engineer, Michelle Knowlden now writes full time. The Shamus award nominee's stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Amazing Stories, and more recently in Neal Shusterman's UnBound anthology. Her two latest novels will be released Winter 2016. For more about her writing, please visit mlknowlden.wordpress.com.

"You have no heart."
Surrounded by politicos at the governor's party, the poet with fishhook eyes glared at me. I did not remember her. Had I been a patron? A critic? An enemy?
When I said nothing, she strode away, her eyes snaring sycophants and lechers in her wake, till they too melted in the crowd.
"Who was that, General?" One of my lieutenants stood next to me.
I shrugged.
"Riffraff, sir?" His gaze fixed on the small eddy she'd left in the line of onlookers.
Like testing a sore tooth, my thoughts touched the surgical borders of my mind, but I felt nothing: no sorrow, no joy, no interest. I probed deeper. No horror of the genocide I'd witnessed thirty years ago, no lingering rage upon hearing of my mother's murder when I was seventeen.
"She's no one," I said.
He stiffened. "Do you want me to--?"
"No." Many had vanished in the past months. Nothing must now mar the night of the governor's speech.
More to rid myself of his uneasy glances, I said, "Follow her. Make sure she doesn't talk to the governor or the press."
Before he disappeared into the masses, I'd forgotten his name. A side effect of the surgery, but not a problem. My men wore nametags.
A journalist sidled so close that I smelled garlic on his breath.
"Any comments?"
My alert state eased. What did it say of the new regime and my altered brain that I felt more comfortable with reporters than I did with my troops?
"It is a proud moment for us all." I tried smiling but with no pleasure to bolster it, my mouth didn't move.
"How does it feel?" He tapped his temple. "You know, to be the first not to feel."
He didn't have it quite right: I still felt a tingle of nerves when danger approached but no fear. Satisfaction in work well done but no hubris. Discomfort for past deeds but no debilitating guilt.
I tried a smile again. "The procedure last year excised only imprudent emotions. I'm still me."
Seeing the lieutenant's signal, I excused myself.
Leaning against a side door, the man looked green. "Things gotta out of hand, sir."
A nerve tingled. "What happened?"
"She raised a ruckus, trying to see the governor. We took her outside, you know, to calm her, but she pushed one of the men, and he pushed back. Too hard. We called a medic, but she died."
Testing the cuts in the brain again, I discovered no remorse over a lost life, no grief over the lines that would never be written. After all, poets were as plentiful as sardines.
Someone from the governor's staff appeared and stared curiously at the lieutenant. Unfortunately the governor's staff didn't come with tags.
"Everything all right here?" the woman asked. "The governor wishes to introduce you."
I straightened. "I'm ready." Scanning the lieutenant's nametag, I added, "We'll finish our discussion later, Revere."
Making my way to the stage, I heard scraps of the governor's speech: "...creating a new breed of soldier," "...entering the next stage in the evolution of man," and "...it will clear doubt from a doctor's thoughts, fear from explorers breaching the unknown, and dare we hope, rid politicians of their thirst for power."
In a spate of laughter and spontaneous applause, I climbed the stairs. The governor grinned broadly. "Ladies and gentlemen, meet General Avery James. Sir, how are you feeling?"
The poet with the fishhook eyes had it wrong. Her heart had stopped, but I still had mine and the world spun to its beat.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Author Comments

Watching an airport news spot where a mob slammed a celebrity with personal questions, I wondered what went through the victim's mind. It had to hurt even if the person were emotionally stunted. Then I speculated: what if he were truly devoid of emotions, and this story took root.

I've worked with the military for years, and they will always be my heroes. The story's main character could have been anyone, but the tone of the last line had to come from a soldier. I never knew military personnel who would think this way, and that's why I write fiction.

- Michelle Knowlden
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