“You haven’t eaten anything for a month, right?” Doc asked me.
“Good, good. You should be on track then. Now, I don’t want you touching snacks as we approach the holidays. Liquid-vitamin diet only for the time being, okay?”
“Okay. I got this, Doc. I’m going to be great this year. I mean, I look scary already.”
“You’re looking good, Sam. Just around a hundred pounds. Starting to see those clavicles pop. Winner takes all again this year?”
“Yes. I placed third last year, so I’m going all out this time.”
“Yup. You get to live in the mansion for the year, everything paid, butler service, personal chef, all you can eat, horror movies playing nonstop in the theatre. But the big thing, of course, is the honor.”
“You get to live the rest of your life a champion, for sure. You’re going to like where we go with you.”
“You’re down to eighty. Are you feeling fatigued?” Doc asked.
“Sometimes I’m low-energy, yes. But I also feel freer. It’s hard to explain. I am less, so I need less. Pretty much just water to keep me hydrated at this point.”
“Let’s take a look at your chart. You’ll end up about fifteen percent of your initial weight. Let’s see, you were around one-sixty, so I figure when we finish you’ll be around twenty-four pounds.”
“I have a lot to go.”
“You’ll be fine. During the last stages, you’ll really start shedding the pounds. Plus, we’re eventually going to take parts out of you, so your weight will come down quickly. This will happen right about the time your skin changes color, so watch for that.”
“You’re less than fifty pounds now. This is the messy part. As you begin to wither and decay, you’re going to start the removal stage,” Doc said.
“Lumps of hair from my head are coming out already.”
“I see that. Just give the rest a good yank, and it’ll come out. Same with your arm and leg hair, and the hair on the rest of your body. Just pull it out so the follicles dry up and we can work on the skin.”
“Can I leave a patch or two on my scalp? I mean, wouldn’t that look freaky?”
“You can try, but as your overall body withers, your skin’ll just flake and slough off the top if you try to leave a patch.”
“How do other people do it? I’ve seen pictures of finalists with those ghastly clumps of hair still on their head.”
“Well, they likely had them sewn on. For other parts of the body—say if you want to keep skin on your arm or something like that—we usually use a butane torch to shrink the skin and tendons, so they tighten and hold onto the bones. You can’t keep the hair if you do that, however, because it will singe. Unless you’re going for a charred look or something like that.”
“Let’s keep it simple, Doc. I don’t want to complicate things. I still have a ways to go.”
“I’m sending you home with these organ removal kits. They’re fairly self-explanatory, and they come with instruction booklets. There’s also a DVD. As you take your organs out, just keep them in the freezer until you come back next time.”
“Looking great, Sam! Just over twenty-four pounds. I checked your bone density, and you should hold up fine. You’re still taking the calcium pills, right?”
“Of course. I savor them.”
“The ones I prescribed are better than the bland tablets we used to give out. Flavoring’s not bad, huh?”
“Not bad at all. I like the orange over strawberry.”
“That’s what most people say. You going with one eyeball or two?”
“I don’t know, what do you think?”
“Well, let’s take one out and see how you look.”
Doc reached into my mouth. “There’s the orbital fissure . . . right there, out we go,” he said as he pushed my eyeball out from the back side of its socket. Then he went into my rib cage and pulled off a few stray pieces of flesh and some excess cartilage.
“Lemme just scrape a few areas with the scalpel, and you should be ready.”
With little of me left, the scalpel chiseling noise reverberated through my bones and into my head, like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“There you are,” Doc continued, “now take a peek in the mirror.”
“I like it. It’ll take some getting used to, but I’ve got the rest of today to decide one eye or two.”
“Either way, you’ll be fine. Let’s weigh you one last time for the file—
—yes, just like I thought, twenty-four exactly.”
Doc smiled and shook my hand.
“Congratulations, Sam, you made it. If you win, I want an invite for dinner so I can see that mansion. Now go and scare the hell out of ’em.”
“Thanks, Doc, you know I will,” I said as I stepped out of the examination room.
As I shut the office door on my way out, I saw a woman with short bobbed hair down the hall. Her back was toward me as she walked away, wearing scrubs, clogs, and a nurse’s cap.
A chance to practice before the main event! I grinned and quickened my pace.
When I got close, a strange scent tickled my nostrils. Cinnamon? Cayenne? No, it was something more tart. Crushed pine needles? Vinegar?
I reached out to grab her shoulder with one skeletal hand, my loose eyeball in the other. For a moment, I admired the contrast of my white fingers against the blue scrubs as my hand hovered over her shoulder.
Just as I was about to touch her, she slowed and I caught the scent again . . . Formaldehyde! That’s it! Then she spun and faced me.
In terror, I dropped my eyeball and ran.