When I saw the thumb-sized hole in my right palm, I wanted to scream again. There was just something so crazy, so...wrong about a magically-induced wound that carved out a small chunk of my flesh without leaving behind any blood or scars. It went against everything I ever learned about the human body in high school health class. A wound like that should have left a black-and-blue mark, not a glowing gold one.
I wanted to put on some gloves to hide that hole from everyone - preferably a set of fingerless gloves that I could wear with most of my outfits without looking silly.
"Deanna!" Dad shouted from downstairs. "Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, Dad, I'm fine!" I shouted back.
"Come downstairs and get something to eat! We have to leave in an hour for your appointment."
"I know! I'm coming!"
I would get downstairs eventually, but first I had to go to the bathroom to take a quick shower, get dressed, and rub some lotion on my hands now that it was safe to do so. There was another pack of bandages in the cabinet behind the bathroom mirror. Once my hands dried off, I pulled out a square bandage that was smaller than the one I just threw out, but was still big enough to cover the wound without alarming my parents any further.
When I went down into the living room, I saw Mom grimacing at the mirror across from the television while she tried to untangle her hair. In her right hand was a brush covered with so many bristles I was surprised she didn't hurt herself picking it up. "Morning, sweetie," she said, tilting her head slightly to the left so she could see my reflection.
"Morning, Mom," I said, slowly walking around the coffee table to get a better look. "You okay there?"
It seemed the more she brushed, the less straight her hair got. I considered myself thankful to have hair that only went down to my neck so that I didn't have to struggle as much with brushing. After about a minute, Mom put down the brush and ran her fingers through her hair to ensure she didn't miss any spots.
"Yeah, everything's fine," she said. "Is your hand feeling any better?"
"A little bit. It doesn't ache anymore, anyway."
"Good." Mom turned around and rested her hand on my shoulder, and started speaking to me in the same soft-but-stern tone from yesterday. "Now just remember to keep calm and answer all of the doctor's questions truthfully. I'm sure he'll find a way to fix your hand in no time!"
"I don't think it's broken, Mom," I complained. "I just hurt it on the door. Besides, I don't think Dr. Keller's the kind of doctor who can 'fix' body parts."
"You know what I mean, Deanna. Now go on and get your breakfast. You don't want to be late now, do you?"
I left Mom to continue cleaning herself up for work and went to the kitchen to get a bowl of bran flakes, adding some dried strawberries and blueberries for flavor. Dad was in the dining room eating a plate of scrambled eggs as fast as he could, quietly signaling for me to hurry up.
"How can you eat that stuff?" I asked, looking at Dad's plate of half-eaten eggs in disgust.
"What are you talking about? These are delicious," Dad said between bites. "You used to love these when you were a kid."
"Yeah...that was back then. Now, though…"
I didn't want to finish the rest of the sentence since we were both eating, but every time Dad opened his mouth with the scrambled eggs still in them, it looked like he was about to gag. It almost made me want to gag. If I was going to finish my breakfast and keep it down, I would have to avoid eye contact with Dad until we both cleaned our plates.
Once we were all finished, we all got into Dad's mint-green two-door coupe so he could drop Mom off at the library up the street by the bus terminal. She kissed Dad goodbye, and then gave me a hug and once again told me to behave myself in the doctor's office.
With the front passenger seat now open, I moved up from the back and sat next to Dad, asking him to switch off the news talk radio station and put some "driving tunes" on. It felt like the preset stations played a lot of music that tended toward one of two extremes - soft and sugary enough to rot one's teeth, or hard and edgy enough to break those same teeth in one bite. There was one hip-hop station that played music we both liked, but a lot of the songs that made it to air had so much censored swearing that it was a miracle anyone even knew the lyrics. I eventually gave in and let Dad turn to ECLS, a radio station that prided itself on playing "nothing but the classic hits, all day, every day!" It was a polite way of calling itself an "oldies" station without actually using the O-word and making its target audience feel old. Most of the songs leaned toward the "fluffy" end of the scale, but I still found myself bobbing my head to the melodies, even though I was unfamiliar with the lyrics.
We ran into some heavy traffic right after we crossed into St. Gabriel. I looked ahead to try to see what was causing the delay, but a huge delivery truck blocked my view.
"Dad?" I asked, shouting over the cacophony of car horns around us. "Why aren't there any medical centers a bit, you know...closer to home?"
"Not enough space in town, I guess," Dad said. "St. Gabriel is the closest one we were able to find."
Our car lurched ahead a few inches every minute or so in sync with the traffic. Dad and I looked around for another path around the traffic jam, but the only side streets I saw led to either dead ends or cul-de-sacs. Traffic going in the opposite direction proceeded uninhibited, making me think of a joke I heard from a customer about the St. Gabriel motto: "You'll Fight to Get In, But You Can't Wait to Get Out".
After what felt like an hour of stop-and-go movement, I looked to my right and saw the culprit - a construction crew trying to fix a series of potholes along the road we were driving on, reducing traffic from two lanes to one for about half a mile. The aggravating honking finally stopped once we passed the construction zone, allowing us to go back to enjoying our music.
About fifteen minutes later, Dad pulled into the parking lot of St. Gabriel Medical Center, a medium-sized, single-floor building not too far away from a strip mall. The outer walls were painted a peculiar shade of white that reminded me of a mad scientist's laboratory. The inside was a bit more inviting - it was very well-lit and decorated all around with baby blue diamond-print wallpaper. I couldn't get over how many windows the building had, both on the inside and outside. It was a wonder anyone could get any sort of privacy during an exam.
A young woman wearing a white shirt and an embroidered St. Gabriel Medical pin above her left breast greeted us as we approached the main reception desk. "Hello! Are you here for an appointment, sir?" she asked.
"I'm not," Dad replied, "but my daughter is."
"Okay, no problem. What's your daughter's name?"
The receptionist typed something into her computer and then turned her attention to me. "Oh, there you are. You've got a 9:30 with Dr. Keller, correct?"
"I guess so," I said, having no idea what else Dad discussed on the phone.
I showed my photo ID and health insurance cards to the receptionist and stood back as she typed some more, amazed by how quickly her fingers moved across the keyboard. If I had learned to type a little bit faster in high school, I probably would have taken a job as a secretary or a desk clerk instead of a cashier.
Within seconds, the young woman had finished processing my information. "You're all set, Ms. Richardson," she said as she returned my cards to me. "Dr. Keller's currently seeing another patient, but he'll be with you as soon as he's done."
I took a seat next to an end table with a pile of magazines sitting on top of it. There were so many varied topics to choose from that I didn't know where to start.
A father and his young son arrived a few minutes after we came in. The boy was in the middle of a coughing and sneezing fit, and his T-shirt was covered in dried snot. The father fished through his pockets to find a pack of tissues to appease the boy's cold, but only found some change and a crumpled-up ATM receipt. I saw a box of tissues on the bookshelf next to the table and handed a few to the boy, keeping my distance so that he could blow his nose into them.
"Th-thank you," he said, snorting and sniffling.
They sat down in the chairs on the other side of the lobby, away from everyone else to prevent the boy's cold from spreading. Soon afterward, another young woman arrived from the doctor's office area. Unlike the receptionist, she was dressed in plain clothes so I couldn't tell whether or not she worked there until I saw her St. Gabriel's pin.
"Ms. Richardson?" she called. "Dr. Keller's almost ready. Why don't you come on back?"
I followed the doctor's assistant into one of the offices and sat down on the medical chair in the center. The cushioning was nowhere near soft enough to offer adequate support, but it was the only thing in the room I could sit on. While the assistant measured my height, weight, and blood pressure, I felt something weird pulse through my right hand. I didn't know if it was from the blood pressure cuff squeezing on my arm, or my sudden nervousness about what other tests Dr. Keller had in store for me.
The assistant left me alone for a few minutes, so I closed my eyes and placed my left thumb on top of the wound in a vain attempt to make my hand whole again. If I had known any spells at the time, the first thing I would have done was try to find a way to get rid of that hole.
I quickly sat upright when I heard footsteps approaching the office. No one came in right away, making me even more nervous than before. The weird pulsating feeling returned briefly, but then it stopped just as Dr. Keller entered the office. He was pretty tall, like my dad - probably about six-foot-four. He wiped down one of the lenses of his glasses on his lab coat and then reached for the clipboard hanging from the wall to review my measurements.
"Welcome back, Deanna," he said warmly. "How is everything?"
"I ran into a bit of traffic on my way here," I told him, "but I'm fine otherwise."
"Good, good." He looked at me, and then he looked at his clipboard again, stroking his chin as if he hoped to find a beard there. "Let's see here… Vitals look normal. BP and heart rate are a bit elevated, but nothing to worry about yet. Tell me, Deanna: How often do you exercise?"
"Maybe a few times a week?" I didn't know what the doctor's question had to do with my hand, but I answered as truthfully as possible so that he wouldn't give me an incorrect diagnosis.
"You should try to get in at least thirty minutes a day if you can," he said, "even if it's something simple as a brisk walk around the block. It'll help you lose weight, and more importantly, it'll help you relax."
"Relax? How can you tell?"
The doctor didn't say anything right away. He just pointed to my right hand, which I didn't notice was twitching even after the blood pressure cuff had been removed.
"Oh… right," I said, rubbing my hands together.
"Let's take a closer look at that hand," he said. "Your father said you burned it or something. Is that correct?"
"It certainly felt that way. I went home and tried to close my front door, and all of a sudden, my hand got red hot."
"Have you taken anything for it lately?"
"Some pain medicine and some lotion to stop the swelling, but that's about it."
"Are you able to squeeze it?" the doctor then asked. "Can you close your hand into a fist, like this?"
I watched him close both of his hands into fists and then did the same with my right hand. It was a lot less painful to do after taking some medicine, but it still felt awkward with the bandage on.
The doctor pulled a penlight out of his pocket and pointed it at me. "Now, I'll need you to take that bandage off for a moment," he said. "I want to make sure nothing's been permanently damaged."
I took off the bandage and held my right hand out, palm facing upward. The doctor looked down and swirled the light around my hand, paying extra attention to the hole in the middle. The loud, contemplative "Hmm" he gave as the light lingered on that spot did not reassure me one bit.
"On the bright side, it doesn't look like there's any damage to the skin," he said, "but I'm concerned about this area of your palm right here. Did you notice any strange markings on your hand after you touched that doorknob?"
That was one of many questions I never expected to hear in my lifetime. I knew doctors were trained to carry a serious demeanor at all times, but I couldn't believe how casual he was about asking something so odd. An astonished "Wait-wait-wait… what?" was all I could offer in response.
The doctor ordered me to look at where his light was shining. Inside the hole, I saw something that looked like a three-by-three grid of dots with a single, unbroken line zigzagging through them. It reminded me of a constellation or a pattern one drew when trying to unlock a cell phone. "It seems that the moment you touched the doorknob, it reacted to some sort of magical energy inside or around you and created this seal," he explained.
"Wait a minute… You've seen something like this before?" I asked.
"Over the years I've had a couple of patients come to me complaining about odd markings on their hands and fingers just like yours. Those who've seen them commonly refer to them as 'enchanter's signs' due to their connection with people coming in direct contact with magic crystals. The only difference between your case and the other ones I've seen is that their reactions weren't as… severe as this one."
"Did any of those marks light up like a night light? And will this part of my hand ever grow back?"
"To answer your questions in order," Dr. Keller said, "I haven't personally observed any glowing from any of the witch brands I've seen. The only thing I know is that they don't appear to be harmful. As for the wound on your hand, I think we'll need to do an X-ray scan before I can give you a definite answer. Whatever it is you touched left a pretty deep hole."
I expected him to say something like that, but it didn't make it any less annoying to know that I would be stuck with this wound and this weird symbol on my hand for quite some time.
Before I was allowed to leave, Dr. Keller checked my eyes, ears, and mouth for any side effects related to the crystal exposure. When he told me he didn't find anything out of the ordinary, I breathed a sigh of relief for the first time in days. He then wrote a note for me to return to his office next month for an X-ray to see how my hand was doing, and recommended that I wore a loose-fitting glove on it for protection. I could already feel the holes being drilled into my wallet.
"It looks like that's everything I can cover for now," he said as he opened the door. "Do you have any further questions, Deanna?"
"No, I think I'm good for now, Dr. Keller," I replied. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. Let me know if you experience any discomfort with that hand or anything else in the next few weeks - dizziness, fatigue, nausea, or anything like that, okay?"
"Sure thing. I hope it doesn't come to that, though."
I left Dr. Keller's office for the front desk to pay for my visit. The sick boy and his father were both gone, leaving Dad and the receptionist as the only ones in the lobby.
"Ready to go, sweetie?" Dad asked after tossing aside an issue of Reel Talk Weekly.
I walked with him back to the parking lot, showing him the note from Dr. Keller. The doctor took care not to write down anything related to my recently-discovered 'enchanter's sign', as the notion of me getting an X-ray was already shocking enough for both of us to comprehend.
"Why do they want to do an X-ray?" Dad asked. "Do they think you might have broken something?"
"I hope not," I said, rapidly opening and closing my hand. "My hand doesn't feel broken. He did say that I should keep it covered, though."
"Does it still burn or sting?"
"Then you probably should lay off the bandages for a little while. We may still need them for later."
"I know, Dad," I grumbled, but I truly wanted to stop wearing those bandages and see if putting gloves on would be just as effective.
Dad turned the radio back to ECLS on the ride home. This time, I didn't pay much attention to the music, preferring to surf the internet on my cell phone to compare prices on lightweight fingerless gloves and search for information on that weird symbol on my hand.
A lot of the results I found on the latter topic confirmed the doctor's diagnosis and my own suspicions - that enchanter's signs were created when someone came into direct contact with a magic-generating device and allowed the magical energy from the device to flow through their body. This made the body more sensitive to pain, so one also had to "release" any excess energy from their body by touching a non-magical surface within a set time frame to return the body to normal. It would have been nice to have this information before meeting Sol and essentially slamming my hand on two really hard surfaces and branding myself as a rancher would do to a cow, but it was a mistake that I wouldn't repeat - and hopefully wouldn't need to repeat - ever again.
While it was nice to finally figure out how I got that strange mark, I still didn't know why I was able to gather energy for Sol's magic wand when she couldn't do it herself and I didn't have the sign at the time, or whether my shiny new enchanter's sign enabled me to start casting spells for real. I planned on asking those questions and more to Sol when I went over to Cherry's after lunch, knowing that I'd also have to gird myself in case she asked me a bunch of questions that I wasn't fully prepared to answer.