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Breath & Shadow

Summer 2017 - Vol. 14, Issue 3

"The Karma Bug"

written by

Erica Verrillo

Harriet woke up feeling slightly hungover, bleary from the after-effects of the bug that was going around. She reached over to her nightstand and flipped up the digital clock. 8AM. The arraignment had been set for 10AM. If she didn’t get moving, she was going to be late.


She hauled herself out of bed, slipped into a white silk blouse and gray skirt, and grabbed her make-up kit. A little lipstick could always be counted on to work wonders. There was nothing like a pout to distract a judge: the redder the better. She padded into the bathroom and gazed at her reflection in the mirror: brown hair that fell in soft waves to her shoulders, clear blue eyes, a pert nose. No mouth.


Harriet put down the lipstick. She tried to sigh, but it came out as a snort.


You never really appreciate a pert nose until you don’t have a mouth, she thought. She placed her fingers against her cheeks and pressed gently. At least her teeth were still there. She believed she could feel her tongue. Briefly, she glanced at her Lady Gillette. No, if she took drastic measures now it would only make her miss her court date entirely. There was only one thing for it – she’d have to write her response.


Harriet rummaged around in her desk for a white pad and marker, crammed them into her briefcase, and hurried out the door. Fortunately, the subway was still running, and, at this hour, there weren’t too many crazies on the street. In fact, there was nobody on the street, or on the platform. She could lean over the pit that held the rails and watch the train materialize from the darkness of the tunnel unencumbered. For once, she didn’t have to wait for the M.


The doors slid open and Harriet automatically looked around for an available seat, even though there was only one other person in the car, a man holding his groin and weeping openly. She sat on the opposite end of the car. Without passengers the car felt not just empty, but hollow, as if it, too, had lost part of itself.


She pulled the briefcase onto her lap and flipped the latches. The blank whiteness of the pad stared up at her. For a moment, she considered uncapping her marker and writing, NOT GUILTY, on it, but the car was lurching, and she didn’t want to waste the effort. This was a court-appointed case, and she hadn’t even looked at the file yet.


Fermin Gonzalez, 32, assault and battery. Spanish only. That was too bad. Her Spanish was non-existent, but it didn’t really matter; there would be a translator. She skimmed the notes, looking for something that would mark this case as out of the ordinary. Sadly, it was just the same old same old. The wife had been taken to the hospital, again, where she had finally been convinced to press charges. In all likelihood, she would drop the charges once her husband sent her a dozen roses. They all did. She turned the page.


The between-cars door screeched open, and a young man entered. He was carrying a clipboard and had the welcoming, direct stare of a man on a mission. Scientologist,thought Harriet. They liked to pretend the clipboard gave them legitimacy. She immediately lowered her eyes to the file, but he sat down next to her anyway. Go away, she thought.


“Have you heard the good news?” Bright eyes, bright smile.


Oh, no. A Jehovah’s Witness. If only Harriet could groan. As it was, all she could do was twist her head away and cross her arms. There was no point getting up and sitting in a different seat. These people were dogged, especially now, and he would only follow her. She would just have to let him talk himself out.


“The City is offering free counseling to anyone who has contracted the virus,” he said.


Harriet turned back. Now that she took a good look at him, she could see the City badge displayed on his chest. The young man unclipped a brochure from his board and opened it. She leaned over, interested.


He took a pen that was attached to the clip with a little chain and began pointing to red dots that were scattered like pimples on the map.


“Here are the clinics that are open every day, and here,” pointing to a few black dots, “are the clinics that have evening hours.These are all walk-in clinics, and over here,” indicating a flurry of blue with his pen, “is a list of phone numbers in case you want to make an appointment.”




The young man looked at her face. “Well, you can just walk in. The staff are all fully trained, and the services are free of charge, although donations are accepted.”


Harriet took the brochure from his hand and noted the location of a clinic close to the Courthouse.


“If you wouldn’t mind taking a moment to fill out this brief Customer Service Satisfaction Survey, I would appreciate it.” The man passed her the clipboard and pen. As she ticked off, “satisfied” after each question, she felt his eyes on her.




“Mmmm,” she said, handing him the clipboard.


He stood up. “Figures.”


She watched as he made his way across the car to the weeping man.


“Canal Street!”


Harriet was already on her feet and waiting. The doors slid open, and she emerged, feeling simultaneously relieved and irritated. It would be nice to talk to someone, a trained someone, even if it had to be in writing, but she really didn’t appreciate that young man’s attitude.


On the street, she kicked aside a discarded newspaper – Third Week of Epidemic! City Declared Federal Disaster Area! – and nearly tripped over a man lying on the sidewalk. He had a sign on his chest that said, “I’m sorry.” Harriet pointed emphatically at the curb. There was a place for that sort of thing, and it was not where other people, people with functioning legs, were walking.


Canal was crowded, as usual, with all sorts of characters – bearded fanatics shouting that the end was near ,bedraggled men holding out tin cans. One of them reached out a dirty hand and said, “Help a crippled vet.”


She sidestepped him. There’s nothing wrong with you, she thought. Get a life. But, the truth was there was no way to tell, just by appearances, what was missing from a person’s life.


The pretzel seller was in his usual spot in front of the Courthouse.Harriet’s stomach growled. How long can I go without food? she wondered. How long can I go without coffee?


She placed her briefcase on the conveyor belt to be checked for weapons of mass destruction, then she walked under the arch. Nothing beeped. The guard returned her briefcase without comment, without sparing her a glance, and she made her way down the hall to the courtroom. On her way, she passed two lawyers from the DA’s office furiously gesturing at one another, scribbling wildly on a pad, passing it back and forth. It was too quiet.


As she approached the courtroom, she spotted what looked to be her client, Fermin Gonzalez, sitting on the bench. Apparently, he had made bail. She walked over to him with a firm step, trying to convey confidence. He looked up as she drew near. His face had guilty written all over it. Harriet pointed to her briefcase and held her hand out to him. He didn’t take it.


The bailiff called the docket number and they entered the courtroom, Harriet first. It was only when she had placed her briefcase on the table and taken out her client’s file that she realized she hadn’t written, Not Guilty, on her pad. She took out the pad and fumbled for the marker.


“All rise!”


Harriet stood. The translator, a mousy little woman with a pinched face, whispered in Fermin's ear, and Fermin stood as well, his arms hanging at his sides like two blocks of wood. Judge Mendelson tottered in with the help of an assistant. Mendelson was a judiciary relic, having outlived most of his contemporaries, and a real stickler for rules that had been established in the 19th century. Harriet was only half listening as the bailiff announced the case and read the charges. She was busy writing the plea in block letters so that the judge would be able to see them clearly from the bench.


“The charges have been read. How do you plead?”


Harriet looked up, her sign almost complete. She wanted desperately to say, “Just a moment,” but the only thing that came out was, “Mmm.”


“How do you plead?” The judge was facing straight ahead, his eyes closed. Blind.


“Mmm…mm…mmm.” Did that sound like “not guilty?”


“Speak up!” said the judge.


“Culpable!” Fermin was speaking.


“Guilty,” said the translator.


Harriet quickly finished writing and flourished the pad at the translator, jabbing her index finger at each letter.


“Sorry,” said the translator. “I don’t do English.”


“Soy culpable!” Fermin repeated. “Y tengoque irme a la cárcel por lo que hice.”


“I’m guilty, and I have to go to jail for what I did,” said the translator.


Fermin looked over his shoulder into the courtroom. A dark-haired woman met his gaze. “Sólo quiero que ella me perdone,”he said.


“I just want her to forgive – ”


The woman jumped to her feet. “Fermin,Fermin! Te quiero! Te perdono!”


“Fermin, I love you,” said the translator.“I forgive you.”


The judge was rapping his gavel on the bench. “What is all this? Who is loving whom here? I’m not a damned Justice of the Peace! Bailiff, shut these people up!” The bailiff escorted the weeping woman – Harriet presumed she was the wife – out of the courtroom as, all the while, she continued to declare her love.


“Guilty plea entered,” said the judge. .“Sentencing will be Friday the 17th of this month.”


Two officers led the unresisting Fermin away. Harriet looked down at her sign, dumbfounded. She was afraid this was going to be a day filled with clichés. Justice and love, she thought, both blind in the same courtroom. And it’s not even noon.”


Harriet gathered up her briefcase and useless sign, and left the Courthouse. As she walked down the street with its menagerie of “Sorrys” and “End is Nears,” a wave of futility washed over her. Her career was probably finished; she might never speak, or laugh, or kiss again … and she was very hungry. She needed help. Harriet stopped by a kiosk and took out the brochure. There was a walk-in clinic three blocks away.


The clinic was a hole in the wall, not at all what she expected. She almost didn’t enter. After all, what was the point of counseling if she couldn’t talk? Then she thought of the blind judge and Fermin Scissorhands, and screwed up her courage. To her relief, the inside of the clinic looked more professional. Bright lighting, clean floor, a receptionist busily typing away at a keyboard. She made her way to the reception desk and announced herself.




The receptionist looked up. “Can I help you?”


Harriet snorted, and showed her the brochure. The receptionist handed her a clipboard and said, “Fill this out.”


Harriet sat on a chair and filled out the form while the receptionist continued to type. She left one question blank.


“Mmm,” she said, pointing to the line where her insurance information was requested. She took out the brochure and pointed to the word free.


“Oh, that,” said the receptionist. “Even though the service is being paid for by the City, we need your insurance information. Some companies are still reimbursing." Explanation now exhausted, she returned to her typing. "Every little bit helps.”


Harriet penciled in her insurance information, then sat down and leafed through back issues of Home and Garden. It was odd that nobody else was in the waiting room. After a few minutes, the receptionist said, “You can go in.” She pointed to a door. “Don’t bother knocking.”


Harriet opened the door and entered what she would have imagined to be a typical therapist’s office: comfortable chairs, an old-fashioned wooden desk, homey décor in warm colors, even a leather couch. .A man rose from one of the chairs and greeted her with a reassuring smile. He was wearing a cardigan with leather patches on the elbows and brown corduroy pants. In one hand he held a pipe. It was Doctor Rogers!

Harriet immediately felt better.


“Sit anywhere,” he said. Like Mister Rogers, he had a soft, breathy voice. Harriet had to strain to hear him. The couch looked threatening, so she chose a harmless-looking floral armchair that was positioned in front of a low table. The table, she believed, would act as a buffer, in case the man got too interested in her private life. For all she knew, he might be a Freudian. She placed her briefcase on the table and opened it.


“My name is Dr. Bell,” he said, taking a seat across from her. He opened up a small loose-leaf book, one of those personal organizers that contains a notepad, daily planner,and address book.


“Mmmm,” she said, taking out her pad and a pen.


“I’m a family therapist, licensed in the State of New York,” he waved a hand toward the wall, where several diplomas were displayed, “and I also have training in trauma therapy and a Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience.” He leaned toward Harriet, looking sincere. “How can I help?”


Harriet thought her problem hardly needed spelling out, but she was here for help, so she pointed to her face and wrote the words, I have no mouth, on the pad. She held it up.


“I see,” said Dr. Bell. “When did you first notice that you had no mouth? And how did that make you feel?”


Harriet snorted and wrote furiously. She thrust the pad at Dr. Bell. He read it and colored slightly.


“I sense a lot of anger in you,” said Dr.Bell, taking notes in his little book. “I understand how frustrating this must be, but I assure you that you still have a mouth.”


Harriet drew a large “?” on a blank sheet of paper and held it up.


“If you don’t mind my getting technical here, the virus you contracted, a member of the enterovirus family, like polio– please don’t be alarmed– has an affinity for central nervous system tissue. That is to say, it has lodged in your brain.”




Dr. Bell went on, as if she hadn’t interrupted.


“The virus causes a disruption in your brain’s ability to receive afferent signals from various parts of your body, a reverse of a phantom limb, if you will. You’ve heard of phantom limbs?”


Harriet nodded. This was not sounding good.


Nodding in turn, Dr. Bell continued. “In the case of a phantom limb, the person who has lost, let’s say, a leg, still has sensations in the lost limb. In this case, the reverse happens. You don’t feel a limb that is actually there.”


Harriet thrust out her hands and raised her eyebrows in an unambiguous gesture of disbelief. Then she pointed to her eyes and to the place where her mouth should have been.


“I’m glad you brought that up,” said Dr.Bell. “Because this is where psychology comes in. For some reason, the brain’s sensory input – primarily vision and touch, although hearing can be affected as well – simply does not register that the missing part is still there. You literally can’t see or feel that you still have a mouth!”


Harriet held up the “?” again and shrugged helplessly.


Dr. Bell leaned forward and adopted a concerned expression. “Now there, you mustn’t give up. Just because you can’t see or feel your mouth, doesn’t mean you don’t have one. It can still be accessed through indirect means. In time, you will learn how to cope. Oh, and before I forget, there is a feeding station down the hall.”


Harriet wrote, Thank you.  It was nice having an explanation. She was beginning to feel calmer already, but she still didn’t quite understand. Why my mouth? she wrote.


“Well,” said Dr. Bell, “that’s a very good question. And, once again, this is where psychology comes in.” He placed his pipe in his mouth, meditatively. Harriet noticed it was not lit. “In a very unusual confluence of behavior, unconscious motivations, and neuro-sensory injury, the affected body part seems to be related to an emotional state, most likely through a connection with the anterior cingulate cortex. It’s very interesting.”


Harriet shrugged again and held up her “?.” She didn’t see how this was going to help.


Dr. Bell sucked on his pipe. “To put it bluntly, the part that is lost is somehow connected to a feeling of guilt.” He paused. “Are you a lawyer?”


Harriet nodded.


“I see a lot of lawyers who don’t have mouths.” Dr. Bell's gaze was compassionate, wise, all-knowing. “Perhaps you would like to talk about that.”


Harriet thought for a moment. Perhaps she would. But, in typical lawyer fashion, another question had surfaced in her mind. Something wasn’t quite right with Dr. Bell’s explanation.


Did you get the virus? she wrote.


Dr. Bell read the question. “Yes.” He put his pipe down on the table and flipped a tab on his organizer.


As Harriet began to write Then why aren't you … the phone on the desk began to ring.


Dr. Bell looked up at Harriet. “Now, when shall we meet again?”


And the telephone rang and rang and rang.

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