Sometimes it was so easy to forget that Oliver wasn’t whole.
Sometimes he could make it an entire day without thinking about it, without someone commenting on it. Those days were often the best days. Then he at least felt more human.
But today wasn’t one of those days. It had started early this morning when, while packing himself something for lunch, he had accidentally cut his finger. Or rather, he cut the artificial skin covering his mechanical hand. It wasn’t a big deal. It stung a bit, and it only took him a minute to fix the minor cut. Normally letting a knife slip like that would have resulted in cursing and blood. It was the first reminder that day that he wasn’t normal.
The second had been when he had shaken a new client’s hand. The man instantly recoiled, as if he had been bitten by a snake. Oliver had, of course, been required to explain why his hands were so cold.
And now, here he was, at the gym. One of the few places he completely resented. He, of course, was supposed to come here everyday just to keep his torso strong. It was all part of his contract. Four years of service. Of course that had been changed to 2 years active duty and two years on reserve. Today marked the first anniversary since he’d nearly died. Most people would have been grateful that they were still alive, and while he wouldn’t say he was ungrateful, he’d rather that the doctors had been able to save his arms and legs.
Even though he wasn’t out fighting any longer, he still had to fight continually to keep what remained of his body in shape. As a result he usually would come here late at night, when there were only a few other people here. That way he could work in peace without someone openly staring at him. He couldn’t workout with the artificial skin on. He had to take it off.
But today a friend of his, Brant, had invited him along to workout at the end of the day. Oliver hadn’t been able to say no. There was no way that he could, he’d been putting it off for a few days now.
Oliver completed his last sit up and climbed off the machine. Brant gave him a thumbs up before getting on for his last set. “Hey man, listen, a friend of mine invited me over for dinner tonight, I think you should come along.”
“Who is this friend of yours?”
“Just a single girl I met a while back before we were shipped out. Since Nadine and I are dating, I thought maybe you might have luck with her.”
Oliver frowned, he doubted it, most women looked at him like he was some sort of monster. “What is her name?”
Brant grinned, “You will just have to come along to find out.”
Brant climbed off and rubbed at his shoulder where his mechanical arm met with what was left of his original arm. “Feels like there is a storm coming. Stump aches…Anyways are you in or not?”
Oliver didn’t really feel any desire to go. Whenever anyone found out that none of his limbs were real, they acted as though something was wrong with him. Sometimes the shock was so much that they couldn’t even say a word and would just stand there gaping at him. At best, they might apologize or thank him for his service, but even then, he could always tell they thought of him as an outsider, as inhuman. It was especially worse when they found out despite the artificial skin he wore because then they felt as though he was trying to trick them.
“Look, I know how things are when people find out,” Brant said, “But she isn’t like that. I promise you will have a good time.”
“What if I say no?” Oliver said, turning to go to the locker rooms so he could head home.
Brant pulled Oliver to a stop, “I will drag you there by force. You need to get out some. Smell the roses every now and then.”
“Yeah, whatever man. She will just freak out, like everyone else.”
“I swear Oliver, you are so dense sometimes. Here’s the address. If you aren’t there we will come to your place and party there.”
Oliver rolled his eyes but took the slip of paper anyways. Normally he would have just ignored a threat like that, but Brant really was the kind of person that would move a party to Oliver’s house just to make Oliver socialize. It had happened before.
Oliver shifted nervously in front of the bright green doorway, hands jammed into his coat and his hood pulled over his head to block out the rain. What was he doing here?
He freed one of his hands and looked down at the dark metal that made up his palm. He wasn’t wearing the skin tonight. Might as well get the alienation over with right away, then he could just slip out early.
Brant’s clear laughter could be heard through the door, along with some faint music. Oliver took a deep breath and turned back to the dimly lit street. Maybe he should just go home and lock his door.
Without really meaning to he turned back towards the doorway and knocked. Even the sound his clenched fist made against the door sounded artificial to him. But, tonight, he would do his best to forget about it.
The music inside grew quieter, the laughter stopped. Brant said something and the sound of footsteps making their way towards the door drifted through the air. Oliver found his heart pounding heavily in his chest. He was already mentally bracing himself for the inevitable. Maybe he should have worn a long-sleeved shirt.
Even if this girl was smart enough to not act surprised that he was mostly mechanical, there would still be signs. Little pauses in her speech, moments when she would glance at his hands and arms. And even then, he could always see the look in someone’s eyes. Everyone always had the same look, the look that said he was different, that he wasn’t normal. He hated that look more than anything else.
There was a slight pause between when the footsteps stopped and the door opened. A pause that almost seemed to say that he shouldn’t be here, that maybe the person on the other side of the door would just close it the moment they saw him.
The handle turned in a smooth motion and the door swung inward bathing him in warm yellow light. Luxurious and inviting smells from cooking food drifted out, embracing him. The interior of the house was inviting and cozy. He could see Brant down the hallway, a crooked grin across his face and Nadine tucked under his arm. For a moment Oliver felt like he did whenever he returned to his parents house. The light felt warm and comforting, like he belonged here.
And then she stepped out from behind the door, a warm smile on her face, eyes dancing with life, gorgeous brown hair tumbling down over her shoulders, a red blouse and blue jeans. Oliver felt his heart skip a beat and he struggled to keep his jaw from dropping. What in the world? “Lu…Lucy? Is that really you?” he stammered, stepping back.
Shock quickly spread over her face, her hands covered her mouth and she managed a little nod. Oliver took another step back and crashed down the stairs. He lay there, on his back, for a long time, rain dripping down onto his face. So she was alive. Lucy had survived.
He heard the door up the stairs close, shutting off the warm light. He didn’t blame her, not after the way they had left things. He wouldn’t have wanted to talk to himself either.
Oliver blinked, well, that charade was over, it was time to go back home and forget tonight ever happened, forget her address, and move on. His heart was still pounding heavily in his chest and he felt sensations that he had thought had long since vanished.
“Are you alright?”
Oliver looked up at Lucy, who stood over him with a concerned look on her face. He pushed himself up, “I should get going. Sorry. Forget I was even here.”
She put her hands on her hips and scowled, “And where will you go? Huh? Just go back to being alone?”
He started to say something but she cut him off.
“You always were bad with people.” She said softly, offering him a hand up, “Come on, let’s go inside,
Without meaning to he reached up, but then he saw it, the flash of surprise and confusion the moment she realized that his hand wasn’t real. He snatched his hand back and got to his feet.
Oliver nodded, straightening his jacket, “Yep, and my arm. Both arms really. Oh and my legs too. Brant didn’t fill you in?”
She shook her head, “What happened?”
“I served the country. That is what happened.”
Again she covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes wide. There was sadness in them. He jammed his hands back into his pockets, “I should just go, you have guests to look after.”
Before he even took a step she crushed him in an embrace. She felt so warm, even in the cold rain. The bitterness and distance he felt for the world seemed to just melt away into nothingness. He returned her embrace and for the first time since he had returned, his body truly felt whole again.