The creaking wheels of the stationary bike are no longer grating on Dawn’s ears, the sound having long since become part of the background. Even so, she is thankful when Kara arrives with an oilcan because it means she gets a short rest. Taking a cup of water and a towel, she puts at her bare arms and legs that are beginning to feel the winter chill in the air. Passersby stare at the woman who is wearing an outfit that is better suited for an indoor gym instead of the wilderness. None of them are aware that the reason for the tight shorts and colorful sports bra is because the doctors found Dawn to be too healthy. Flesh-colored sensors have been taped to her body and connected to a machine that is sitting next to the bike. Only a handful of people have approached to ask what is going on while the rest assume it is a bizarre device that the strange woman brought along for the journey. Jumping in place to keep her heartrate up, she waves to anyone who look in her direction for more than a few seconds. Most return the gesture, but a few avert their gaze and hurry out of sight. Once Kara is done and takes a seat in front of the beeping machine, Dawn gets back on the bike and gradually builds herself back up to the pace she had been keeping for the last fifteen minutes.
“I really wish they let me wear heavier clothes,” she mutters as she slows down to let a young man switch out the rechargeable batteries. He is about to pat her on the back when the box is locked in place, but turns the gesture into a thumbs up. “That’s the fifth time somebody almost made contact with me and stopped. Do I look sick or are they just afraid of strangers? You seem to be fitting in rather nicely. I’m starting to think the excuse that clothes would get in the way of the sensor wires was a lie. Probably want to see if my body does anything weird as I get tired and sweaty.”
“There have been creatures that pretend to be human and turn when under stress,” Kara explains while she writes down the information the doctors want. Shivering under her cloak, she takes out a thermos of hot chocolate and takes a sip. “At least you don’t have much longer to go here. Can you even blame them for being suspicious? The doctors said your body was too perfect for someone who lived in the wilderness. You have to admit it’s strange that you don’t have any scars or signs of disease. I overheard some people saying you look a little like one of the monsters too. Maybe Melissa only wants to put everyone at ease and that’s why she’s having you do this.”
Feeling an ache in her lower back, Dawn sits up and massages her muscles while continuing to pedal. “You might be right to some extent. I think it’s more that perfect body thing, which I would deny if they’d let me. Got a mole on my back, a birthmark on my inner thigh, and a few pimples on my chin. I know it’s nitpicking, but it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are some people out there like me. All you need is a stable environment, food, water, and shelter to avoid getting sick or malnourished. The lack of scars is more luck since I’ve been injured by wild beasts in the past. What if this is only to keep me in one place while they choose a job? It isn’t like I’ve been a slouch here since I filled ten batteries.”
“The record is twenty by some Olympian.”
“They have professional athletes and I’m the suspicious one?”
“All of them have scars.”
“So, I’m being punished for being a good healer.”
“Your heartrate is going really high.”
“Because I’m getting angry.”
The machine suddenly beeps loudly and smoke comes out of a vent, which spits out a burst of flame. Kara scrambles away from the device and throws the last of her hot chocolate to put out the small fire. A blast of sparks fly into the air and hit Dawn in the leg before she can get off the bike. She yelps in pain as the polyester pants ignite and she rolls around the snow to avoid getting severely burned. People gather around to see what is going on, but their attention is more on Kara, who is throwing snow onto the burning machine. It is only after the flames are replaced by billowing smoke that the other travelers notice Dawn on the ground. Covered in snow and groaning in pain, the sight of her being injured inadvertently helping to prove that she is human and not a threat. Two men help her stand while an elderly woman puts a warm jacket over her shoulders. They guide her to a chair, but she is unable to sit down due to her melted pants having stuck to her skin. Waving for a towel, she ties it around her waist and carefully takes the tight shorts off underneath the covering. She hisses and bites her lip at the sensation of skin getting tugged, the fragile flesh tearing away with the clothing. By the time a doctor has arrived, Dawn has stripped down to her underwear and is using a borrowed towel to wipe at the blood flowing down her leg.
“It isn’t as bad as one would expect,” the doctor mentions while he examines the blistering wound. He uses tweezers to pull away the dead flesh and takes out an adhesive bandage to slap on as soon as he is done. “Not that I’m saying it’s suspicious. You rolled in the snow so quickly that the fire had very little time to do more than a first-degree burn. I’ll put some aloe gel on this and check on you every few hours. Considering you’re on laundry folding duty, I don’t think this will keep you away from work.”
“Just let me get some real clothes on first,” Dawn groans as she tries to stand. Feeling her legs quiver, she sits back down and slumps in the chair. “Think I reached my limit too. Give me an hour to rest and I’ll get to work. Kara can show me to our tent or wherever we’re staying. I should probably know that anyway. Can’t depend on her to lead me around all day. Don’t happen to have any crutches or a cane, do you?”
The doctor takes a pen out of his pocket and jots down a note that he hands to Kara, who empathetically nods her head. “We can give you a walking stick, but I’m sure you will be fine within a few days. If it’s true that you don’t scar then you have even less to worry about. I will expect you back at my office in an hour and a half, Ms. Stein. You have been a terrific assistant so far and I’ve requested that you continue helping me. I will give my report to Ms. Williams, so expect her to visit during your shift, Ms . . . Do you have a last name?”
“Chambers, but I don’t really see the point in using it these days,” she answers with another groan of pain. Watching the doctor leave, she lets Kara lead her away and is amused to see that the crowd is still lingering nearby. “I can’t tell if they’re curious or worried. Guess I have some time before I’m part of the background. Have to admit that I’m not liking the attention. Might be the years of being alone, but I feel like I’m being hunted. Congrats on getting what I assume is an important job. Are you happy here?”
“It’s everything that I ever dreamed it would be,” Kara gleefully admits.
“Then, I’ll do my best to fit in and not cause any trouble.”
Dawn smiles at how the girl is about to say something, but stops with her mouth open. It is not clear if she does not know what to say or was about to utter something embarrassing. The sudden rosiness of Kara’s cheeks makes Dawn think that it is the latter, but the thought of pushing for the truth is nearly as exhausting as her time on the stationary bike. Gripping the towel to prevent it from falling, she continues limping even after she stops feeling the pain. Even the aches and stiffness in her muscles has faded to the point where they are more a mild discomfort in her calves. She lets her other hand slip down to press on the dark red bandage without putting a hole in the thick gauze. Dawn is relieved to feel her fingers sink into an open wound that sends fresh blood trickling down her leg. The blossoming fear of discovering that she is not as human as she believes quickly dissipates, but she can already feel it lingering on the edge of her thoughts.