Warning: graphic content
The tiger smiled at Wilbur Rawlings, revealing fangs that were so extraordinarily white they looked like they’d been bleached. The feline physician said, “Before we begin, I will check your internal organs for weakness. Do you have any questions about the procedure?”
Rawlings glanced from Dr. Tigris to the surgery consent form. The print was so tiny, it was impossible to decipher. He squinted, trying to read the blurry letters, but it might as well have been hieroglyphics. “I don’t have my glasses. Do you have a copy of the form printed in a larger font?”
“I’m afraid not,” the tiger said. “Don’t worry, there’s nothing unusual about the consent terms.” He glanced across the surgery table at his nurse.
The chimp snatched the clipboard from Rawlings. “I’ll read it,” she said. She lowered her surgical mask and said, “In this document, the term patient means the human receiving treatment.” She tapped the paper. “Shall I continue?”
“Please,” Rawlings said. He hugged his arms across his chest. His teal hospital gown was made from starched linen, but the fabric wasn’t much thicker than tissue paper.
The operating room’s air conditioning was blasting, making his teeth chatter, but sweat trickled down his spine. Hospitals made him anxious, even when the physicians and nurses were people. This wasn’t his first visit to Omnes Hospitium, but all of the other appointments had been outpatient, chest X-rays and a colorectal cancer screening.
The chimp sighed. Reading faster, she said, “Use of the words I or me means patient.”
Rawlings said, “I’m sure the form’s fine. I’ll sign.”
When the chimp gave Rawlings a pen, her fingertips brushed his hand.
He flinched. Her skin was as hot as a radiator. She must’ve noticed him recoil, because her lips pressed together in a tight line.
Rawlings scrawled his name and said, “Will the procedure take long?”
Dr. Tigris said, “Hard to say. Each case is different. What’s your hurry?”
“I need to use the restroom.” Rawlings crossed and uncrossed his legs. His bladder felt like it was about to burst, even though he’d drained the lizard less than ten minutes ago.
The feline scowled, furrowing his furry forehead. “You were supposed to fast. Did you eat or drink anything after midnight?”
“No, but I really need to urinate.”
“You can use the restroom in the hallway.”
The chimpanzee nurse said, “I have the key.”
“Thank you,” Rawlings said. He hopped off the operating table and smiled at the nurse.
She didn’t smile back. Her pink nurse hat was at least a size too large and kept slipping down her forehead until it covered her wiry charcoal eyebrows.
Though there was no one in the hallway besides him and the chimp, Rawlings held the back of his hospital gown closed so his bare buttocks wouldn’t be exposed. When he was at the gym locker room, he walked around naked, but the nurse’s piercing gaze conveyed that she was disgusted by his flabby body.
She unlocked the restroom and said, “Don’t dilly dally.”
As soon as the door shut, Rawlings twisted the lock.
Instead of being painted a pleasant shade of robin’s egg blue like the operating room, the restroom walls were dingy white. At least the toilet must’ve been cleaned recently, because it reeked of bleach.
He knelt on the cold tile floor, clasped his hands together, and shut his eyes. Murmuring quietly so the chimp wouldn’t hear if she lingered in the hallway, Rawlings said, “God, I deserve the pain and probably don’t deserve forgiveness, but please give me the chance to atone. I’m so sorry.”
Of course, God didn’t answer, but Rawlings wasn’t expecting a response. He was an ordinary asshole. No, extraordinary asshole who needed to do a hell of a lot more repenting or he’d spend the afterlife roasting in the pit, with all of the other assholes who’d made good people’s lives miserable.
The seams from the tile dug into Rawlings’s knees, but he didn’t get up from the floor. He tried to focus on an image of a cross on top of a mountain while he prayed, but the clouds kept shifting, swirling, until the hazy vapor formed an image of Noreen’s face.
Churning again, the clouds got darker, denser. Lightning crackled.
His wife was weeping, but her tears were droplets of fire.
Cowering below her in the dirt, Rawlings writhed. His skin blistered each time liquid magma spattered his flesh. He pleaded, Don’t send me away, don’t send me away, but the hail of fire didn’t stop.
The thunderheads shifted until two other faces materialized.
Little Jamie, his sweet little Jamie, but a blindfold covered her eyes.
Daddy loves you, he cried, but she refused to look at him.
His son’s expression was rigid as if Nathan’s face had been carved from granite.
A sharp rap on the door broke his reverie. The chimp said, “Mr. Rawlings. Mr. Rawlings, can you hear me?”
“Yes, I’ll be right there.” He stood and wiped a tear from his cheek. His skin still stung as if it had been burned, but there wasn’t a single red blotch on either arm or his legs.
He tried to use the toilet, but his prostate didn’t cooperate. The pressure from his bladder was intense, but only a dribble came out. He washed his hands and hurried back to the operating room.
Rawlings said, “I’m sorry you had to wait.”
The chimp said, “Please get on the table.”
The huge feline retracted his four-inch talons and rolled a pair of surgical gloves over his paws. The sheer latex was stretched so tight it looked like it was about to split. “Roll on your side and bring your knees to your chest. Very good. Are you comfortable?”
Rawlings said, “I’m cold. Can I have a blanket?”
“Mr. Rawlings, I cannot operate through fabric. You’re just experiencing a touch of nerves. You’ll warm up after we begin.” The tiger picked up a long shiny metal probe and pressed the lever on the hook-shaped handle. It made a whirring noise like wind rustling wheat and the end of the instrument opened, revealing a tiny pincer attachment.
On the other side of the operating table, the chimpanzee arranged three scalpels and a saw on a metal tray. Like the tiger, she wore clear surgical goggles, but her eye protection was bordered with violet, aqua, and crimson rhinestones. Her pointy fingernails were lacquered in the same brilliant crimson shade.
Rawlings supposed the bright nails weren’t as scary as the tiger’s talons, but the nurse’s frown and the operating theatre’s heavy stench of antiseptic were making him dizzy. He was having serious regrets that he hadn’t spent the extra money for a physician outside his HMO insurance network.
The examination table lowered with a jolt.
The sudden motion made bile crawl up Rawlings’s throat. He swallowed the bitter fluid and took a deep breath, but his heart kept pounding fast.
The chimp pressed a button on the wall. The overhead lights rotated and increased in intensity until the glare was like bus headlights.
The tiger said, “We’re ready to began.” He gestured towards the nurse. “Jelly, please.”
She grasped a clear bottle of azure fluid.
The physician took the bottle and strode around the table until Rawlings couldn’t see what he was doing.
He felt the gown being lifted.
“Uncross your ankles. You’ll feel a wet sensation on your anus.”
The chimp tore open a little gold foil packet.
Rawlings said, “Nurse, aren’t you going to wear gloves?” his voice sounded unnaturally high.
She set the packet on the surgical tray and opened the supply cabinet.
He was so focused on watching her foraging through a pink box that he didn’t realize the tiger had taken the surgical sheath until he felt something slick probing his rectum.
“Hold very still,” the doctor said.
He heard a bell-like ping as the metal instrument inside his bowels expanded. The strange pressure beneath his navel increased. Not painful, but much more irritating than a tickle.
The doctor said, “There are three strands of regret twisted around your liver.”
Rawlings had an overwhelming urge to sneeze. His lips popped open in an expulsion of breath that spattered the nurse with tiny droplets of saliva. She gave him an irritated grimace and used a pale blue cloth to clean her goggles.
“Sorry.” He tried not to fidget as the tiger’s instrument tugged and prodded. Though the jabbing thrusts made him fear that his bowels might be eviscerated, Rawlings felt his pecker twitch. Blood flooded into his member until it was rock hard, the first time in more than two years that he’d achieved an erection without taking a little blue pill.
“Mr. Rawlings, your case is rather complex. One regret is knotted over the others. I’m sensing you valued career aspirations over family?”
“Yes,” Rawlings said. Tears stung his eyes.
“What happened?” the tiger said.
“Promotions, money, it wasn’t enough. I told myself it was for them.”
“Who’s them?” the tiger said.
“My family. But they just wanted me home. Too much time on the road.” Rawlings wiped a tear from his cheek. “I started catting around. My wife found out.”
The probe gave Rawlings a sharp jab.
“Ouch,” he said.
Dr. Tigris said, “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t slander my kin.”
Rawlings said, “I wasn’t having affairs with felines. Women. They were women!”
A scraping noise made him turn his head. The chimp was using a whetstone to sharpen another saw. She waggled her eyebrows at him.
Rawlings exhaled his breath in a hiss. His boner shriveled.
The chimp’s pupils dilated until the brown irises were completely black. The soulless expression was more intimidating than the wicked metal blade.
“Don’t move,” the tiger said. “I’m unknotting the regrets.”
Rawlings took a deep breath and exhaled.
The tiger said, “You’re divorced?”
“No. I found a new job and we saw a marriage counselor.”
The whirring noise from the probe got louder, but it didn’t drown out the sound of Rawlings’s sobs.
The tiger said, “Your wife is very understanding, but I sense she harbors some resentment?”
Rawlings was trying to stop crying, but tears kept streaming down his cheeks. “I—I don’t deserve to be forgiven. Noreen had breast cancer. I started cheating after she had the mastectomy.”
The chimpanzee bared her teeth. One of her canines had a gold cap. The chimp said, “Do you have children?”
“Ye—yes, a daughter and a son. My son’s waiting for me in the lobby. The procedure was his idea. He’s been so understanding.”
The tiger said, “I’m afraid I cannot provide a complete diagnosis until the first regret is severed. Do you understand that your HMO covers one diagnostic exam? Surgical fees are out-of-pocket expenses.”
Rawlings sobbed, “Whatever it costs, I’ll pay.”
“Give me your hand.”
At first confused, he didn’t move.
“Your hand. I shall take it as payment.”
Desperation made Rawlings comply. “Right or left?”
“You may choose.”
He raised his left hand.
The tiger opened his jaws and severed the appendage at the wrist.
Hot fluid spurted from the stump.
Rawlings tried not to wail, but when the chimpanzee applied an iron to the raw wound it smoked. Cauterization was more agonizing than amputation. She still wasn’t wearing gloves, but that no longer seemed to matter.
The tiger puffed his cheeks and turned his back.
Rawlings heard finger bones being ground to a pulp.
After a few seconds, the patient felt a spark of hope.
The tiger turned back around. A scarlet dribble clung to his black and gold chin fur. He wiped his face with a damp cloth. “Are you ready?”
The probe hummed even louder. He felt a sharp twinge between his diaphragm and stomach, like the snapping of a rubber band, but more powerful.
Something hot and wet made a puddle beneath his buttocks, accompanied by a strange sensation of tranquility.
The tiger said, “Your daughter will savor your remaining time together.”
Rawlings wondered if the feline had savored the flavor of his arthritic knuckles, but he didn’t feel cheated. He was experiencing a bizarre kind of euphoria. Spots swam in his vision. He opened his mouth to laugh, but the only sound that came out was a gasp.
The physician sighed. “Unfortunately, the last two regrets are rather thick. Each excision requires a separate fee.”
Rawlings still smelled his stump sizzling, but the loss of the hand didn’t seem to matter. He raised his other arm.
The tiger shook his head. “It wouldn’t be right to leave you without a hand.” He reached for a hypodermic.
When Rawlings saw the size of the needle, he almost changed his mind, but since the loss of one regret felt this good, further sacrifice couldn’t be much of a hardship.
“I’ll administer an epidural injection in your lower back. You wish to proceed?”
“Please,” he whispered.
The fluid burned as it entered his spinal column. The medication must have been potent. Within seconds, he was numb below the waist.
The nurse put a green plastic bucket at the end of the table.
“This will only hurt a little.”
Rawlings shut his eyes. He didn’t want to see whether the feline or the chimp wielded the saw.
A heavy paw grasped his left leg. The grip tightened. He felt a tugging sensation and heard a thunk.
When he opened his eyes, the chimp was pressing a sodden towel against his lower leg.
Once the physician had finished masticating the payment, he slid the whirring probe deeper. “I sense you’ve been trying to improve your communication skills?”
“Ye—yes,” Rawlings stammered.
“The second regret is a slippery little devil. Take a deep breath and hold it. I don’t want to perforate the liver.”
The tugging sensation became more insistent. Rawlings heard the machine ping and realized the feline must have dispatched another regret. He had expected his elation to burst into joyful flower, but he didn’t even notice a snapping sensation.
The tiger said, “Your wife will grow to love you again as long as you stop keeping secrets.”
“Doctor, why don’t I feel a sense of relief?”
“I’m sensing your parenting style was rather harsh.” The physician gestured for the chimp to mop up the puddle on the surgery table.
Rawlings sobbed, “I’ve tried to be more compassionate.”
The tiger said, “I’m afraid I have bad news. The final regret is thicker than all the others. Perhaps this is a case of too little, too late? Your son still feels emasculated.”
Tears steamed down his face. “Will it hurt?”
The tiger shrugged. “Perhaps, but the pain will be fleeting. We’re all a little broken inside, but life is much better when we banish our regrets.”
Being rolled onto his back by a tiger was like being hugged by a giant teddy bear. Unfortunately, the chimp wasn’t so gentle with the testicle clamp.
The next morning, Nathan visited his hospital room with a large pizza and an even bigger smile. He looked like he’d grown two inches overnight, but that wasn’t possible. Thirty-year-olds were way past puberty.
Nathan set the box on the bedside tray and opened the lid. The smell of grilled sausage reminded Rawlings of his own seared flesh.
“How’re you feeling, Dad?”
Was that a glint of malice in his son’s eyes? Rawlings tried to sit up, but the pain in his groin was too intense. He forced himself to smile and said, “Never better.” He wished the tiger had swallowed his other hand instead of gulping the scrotum, but it was too late for regrets.
This story previously appeared in Podcast by Brick Moon Fiction.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Alicia Hilton is an author, editor, arbitrator, law professor, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic, and monsters. Her work has appeared in Akashic Books, Best Asian Speculative Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Neon, NonBinary Review, Unnerving, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4, 5 & 6, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. Her website is Alicia Hilton. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.