“Thirsty work, eh Winnie?”
“It’s Winn. Just Winn.” Winn scraped the straw along the bottom of her for-here water cup, for co-owner co-workers only. Other people might break them, and broken glass was against Meant to Bean’s customer safety and hygiene policy. At least that’s what Brenda said at the last staff meeting. “Hot day,” she added. “Blood’s sticky.”
The man slid his chair up to Winn’s table. “No tables, you see?” He gestured at the nearly empty coffee shop.
He ordered the same soy cortado every day, but Winn didn’t know his name. This didn’t bother her as he obviously didn’t know her’s either.
“You hear that, Brenda? Winnie’s blood’s sticky. You gonna make her work with sticky blood?”
Brenda paused mopping up a hot chocolate spill by the window and turned. “What? I don’t even want to know. Winn, can you get back on the floor. It’s getting busy.”
Soy cortado made a show of sighing. “But we were having such a good chat!”
Winn pushed her chair in, and the table shuddered. She reached to scoop up her glass, and cold water ran over the rim of the cup, dripped into the cuff of her sweater. Her wrist grew heavy, and she shoved the sleeve up past her elbow to push away the damp. Her fingertips whitened as the sleeve forced the blood back up into her arm. The blood still wasn’t flowing right. Winn wiggled her fingers to gauge how close they were to dropping right off her hands.
“Winn! No personal drinks on the floor! You know that!” Brenda snatched Winn’s glass and dumped the contents down the sink over stacks of crumby plates and coffee-stained mugs.
“I need a bathroom break.”
Brenda grumbled as Winn tugged her apron over her head and tossed it on top of the fridge.
“Less water, fewer bathroom breaks, Winn. You’re a complete liability today.”
In the bathroom, Winn cupped her hands under the cold tap and splashed water into her mouth, dripping it down her face and into the collar of her sweater. Her limbs felt stagnant, like they were moving through soup or fighting in a dream. White fingertips, numb toes in scuffed shoes. Her blood stalling before reaching her faraway edges. She shook her arms out to startle the cells back into her hands, but they wouldn’t budge. Kept creeping through the veins and arteries of her torso and crawling slower the further from her heart they moved. Winn poured more water into her mouth, over her face. Watering herself down before she hardened and dried up altogether.
The nurse who took her blood laughed, “What have you got in there, molasses?” The blood bag rocked back and forth on the machine, a dark sludgy pool expanding drip-by-drip in the plastic. Meant to Bean had challenged its co-worker co-owners to do something that scared them for its October monthly team building exercise. Team building scared Winn, but needles didn’t, so she opted to donate a bag of blood. 22 minutes later, Winn’s bag was still half empty or full, but the chairs around her were occupied by a new round of patients bleeding out. “Don’t worry, you’re almost there, girly. Drink more water next time!” Winn clenched a stress ball as the blood bag swelled and tilted.
Winn’s blood was too thick. Not enough water, too much whatever else. Cells. Plaque. Plasma. And now she was short a whole bag of it. Monday to Tuesday, it thickened and moved slower. It would be brownie batter thick if Winn couldn’t thin it out. The nurse had suggested water, and Winn had to commit. If Brenda wouldn’t let her sip while serving guests, Winn would sneak away and guzzle. Anything to save her blood from curdling. Eight, nine, twenty-five cups a day.
Winn dragged the back of her hand across her face, yawned and stretched her arms over head. Clipped her knuckles against her headboard and winced. Licked her lip and tasted pennies. Winn squinted against the sleep flaking in the corners of her eyes at the back of her hand, streaked in red. The rough headboard must have split her knuckles, but her skin was smooth, no marks or holes or scratches. Just blood. Warmth ran down the side of Winn’s mouth and she fell out of bed and stumbled over slippers on the way to the bathroom. Winn’s nose had let go, rolling in droplets out one nostril and down the corner of her lips. She snatched toilet tissue off the roll, leaving red prints on the layered edge of the quilted paper. She rolled a wad up tight and stuffed a hunk up one nostril, waited for it to drink up the leak in her skull.
Winn ran her hands under the tap and scrubbed the hardening stains off her knuckles. Shook them out, spattering the mirror with specks. She felt her pulse rushing into her fingers, white tips blooming red and warm. Blood finally moving through her arms, fingernails growing pink. She raised her hands above her head, draining her arms to pale like an hourglass losing sand. Dropped them down again and traced the flow reddening her skin, mottling her palms.
Her feet warmed against the bathroom tile, a dull sensation of weight in her ankles. Winn’s blood traced gravity down and pooled. Fluid expanded her ankles and pushed the prickly hairs on her legs outward as the skin tightened. Winn shook her legs out and willed the blood back up. Raised her arms above her head and drained them again. Chewed her inside lip and shook her head out. Too much water. Too much blood. The balance was off again. The toilet paper up her nose fluttered, and a warm drip hit her lip on the opposite side. No more room, Winner. You’re full up. Full past the brim.
“It’s against our policy. For your own safety. I’m sorry, Miss B—”
Winn rubbed her thumb and forefinger of her right hand together, building heat in her fingerprints. Anything to mask the ache and fullness in her hands, filling up and up and more up with fluid by the minute. “But, the radio said there is a shortage. I’m just trying to help.”
“Donors may only attempt donation once every 56 days. It’s policy, but a young woman like you especially, you need that blood too.”
Couldn’t she tell that Winn had more than enough blood supply? It had been the advice of the clinic that landed her in this state to begin with. More water. Water yourself down. No one wants blood like syrup. Under her tights, Winn’s legs reddened. Her ankle seams, where her feet attached, grew convex and taut.
“I’ve got too much. I really do. Please, believe me. Just take some away.” Winn’s voice wavered and her eyebrows rose toward her hairline, wrinkling her forehead. “Look!” Winn thrust her mottled palms in front of the nurse. “It’s getting worse every day. I’m going to overflow soon. I need help.”
The nurse sighed and took Winn’s hand in her own, turning it over in front of her like an artifact. “You’ve just come in from outside. The redness is just your body adjusting to the change in temperature. Really, there’s no way you have too much blood. We’ll see you in 54 days, Winn.”
Winn couldn’t waste any more time at the clinic. She could sense the blood rising through her, flushing her chest and turning her ears pink. She walked out into November, the scratch of leaves on the road and the sharp breeze catching her bare neck. The cold stirred her blood again and forced a blush into her cheeks.
“You’re researching what, exactly?”
“And you’ve had trouble finding the invertebrates you need? Doesn’t your lab have access to a supplier?”
“Well, the thing is, I’m more of an independent researcher. Not affiliated with any institution. It’s more of a…passion of mine. The human relationship with invertebrates.”
“And what type of research will you be doing with these specimens?”
“Oh, nothing unethical or anything. No harm will come to them.”
Winn couldn’t imagine slipping a scalpel into any creature, invertebrate or otherwise. In high school, she choked back vomit in her throat as Mr. Seeton the bio teacher carted in trays of fetal piglets to slice up for science. The formaldehyde tickled her nose hairs and crept down the back of her mouth. Nate and Matt R. argued over names for their specimen.
“No, he’s definitely a Percy.”
“Percy piglet? How original. I still say we call her Phyllis.”
“No, fetus Phyllis.”
Winn rested her scalpel between her fingers and flicked it back and forth like a much sharper pencil. She slipped and dropped it onto her tray, the clatter cutting into Frank the fetal pig’s naming debate. The noise coaxed her brain into her ears and away from her nose, the vomit still threatening toward her lips.
“Winn, you need to keep up with the class.” Mr. Seeton was standing over Winn’s lab bench. “Put your gloves on and get moving.”
Winn stretched the blue nitrile over her fingers. The back of her hand caught clammy on the glove and Winn gagged again as she pulled the band closer to her wrist. The texture choked her, as if the glove covered her mouth.
“And the other one, Winner.”
Winn shook the face of the piglet out of her head, hair falling into her eyes, tangling in her lashes. She reached for the second glove. Emergency eye wash station. Read instructions below before use. Matt R. prodding his piglet with a gloved finger and laughing. Someone’s homework assignment footprinted on the floor. Mr. Seeton’s brown leather shoes.
The tray hit the ground and reverberated metal across the lab. Winn’s nameless piglet fetus flew into the edge of the bench, bounced and skittered across the tile, finally resting near Winn’s left knee.
“Someone call the office. We need a nurse, or the gym teacher or something.”
The smell of 17 fetal pig specimens settled into Winn’s nostrils.
“Excuse me, Miss? Are you still there?”
“What? Oh, sorry. Yes, about the leeches. Very kind, comfortable research. Just want to learn how they feed.”
“I’m sorry, Miss. We just can’t distribute to unaffiliated researchers. We’re bound by our company guidelines. Official research and medical purposes only.”
“But, where am I supposed to find leeches then?”
“I’m not sure, Miss. I’d try somewhere damp?”
The reeds cracked as Winn pushed her way toward the edge of the pond. Dry and half-frozen, they dangled like compound fractures and snapped underfoot. The frost crept toward the muddy bank but didn’t touch the water. Not yet. Too early in the season for ice skating and melt warnings. Teenagers shovelling rinks and dragging nets across glass cracks. Groaning under skates with threats to swallow them whole.
Winn paused, edges of her rubber boots sucking into the mud. She slipped her feet out of socks and left them balled and rolling around the toes of her boots. Rolled up her tights one leg at a time up to the knee. Sock lines pitted her ankles. The cold swept into her boots and pulled the hairs on her legs upright. She shook each boot off and felt the reed ridges brush her calluses as the mud filled the spaces between her toes. Boots on the bank like an anchor or a mitten string, Winn hovered one foot above the water and tucked her toes and tendons inch by inch into the murk. The icy shock cut into her legs as she stepped forward, water rising toward the crumpled creases of her pants. Winn felt her blood press into the inside layers of her skin, pushing the sock indents back out. Blood begging to be let go.
The pond lapped with the breeze, grimy tide leaving toilet rings across the top of Winn’s calves. A bird cawed from somewhere in the reeds. Winn’s blood cried out to the leeches. Come and take me, sending sonar waves through the pond. But the leeches wouldn’t come. Couldn’t they hear her reaching out to them? A free meal. A buffet.
A shiver wandered across Winn’s scalp and down the backs of her ears. The sun tucked behind a cloud and the pond vibrated with intention. Were they slow moving in the cold? How long should she wait? How could they deny themselves a willing sacrifice?
Winn shook feeling back into her legs, sending ripples across the surface as far as the blur in her vision allowed. The murk shifted, Winn breathed her chest open and dragged a foot across the pond floor. A rock pierced her sole and traced a rough gash into her instep, rough edge like a paper tearing in half. The red cloud expanded out into the pond, a teenage girl’s pool party nightmare. The chill of the water dulled the sting in Winn’s foot as the pressure in her legs bottomed out. As she drained, Winn lightened and the throb slowed and calmed in her limbs. The leeches had to feel her now. Smell her. Sharks after chum and no cage to stop them.
Winn closed her eyes as her foot stained the pond sludge darker and blood seeped away from her in rings. Numb from knees down with the blush draining from her face, she waited for the shudder in the water as the leeches finally picked up her scent. Turned en masse toward her. Latched and fed and pulled her back toward equilibrium.
Kate Hargreaves (she/her) is a writer and book designer in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of three books of poetry and fiction with a second poetry collection, tend, forthcoming from Book*hug Press in 2022. Find her work at CorusKate.com.