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Tales of the City, Part Three : Schism

Estimated reading time — 9 minutes

“You want to hear the scariest story I know?”


“Is it scarier than the last two? If it is then I don’t want to hear it. In fact, I think I’ll head home. I’m sure I’ve had enough to drink already.”

“Don’t mind him. The rest of want to hear.”

“Wait, is this going to be about more ghosts or vampires or whatever? Because I’m not buying into all this.”

“It’s not like those other stories. I don’t believe in all of that bullshit. But there was something about it that reminds me of those ones…well, just let me tell you how it happened. This all went down only a few blocks from here, actually…”


She was a cutter.

She was the only surgeon in the city who didn’t have to worry about keeping her patients alive. By the time they came to her, they were already dead. Her job was just to find out why.

She was good at it. Every fresh cadaver had secrets; by cutting, she discovered them. And she knew as much about the human body as any other doctor. She knew hearts, for example; how they fit together, how they worked, and most importantly, how they could be hurt. The cutter would say that she understood the heart. In a certain sense, she was right.

She knew about brains too, and about circulation, and the metabolism. She knew enough to be sure that the man tied up on the motel room bed had not had enough flunitrazepam to kill him, and that if she waited for long enough he would wake up, though he’d probably feel fatigued, have a headache, and suffer some short-term memory loss. Flunitrazepam, also known as Narcozep, Rohypnol, and Primum, was illegal in the United States, a class of psychoactive drugs commonly referred to as “roofies,” or simply “the date r**e drug,” and she had employed it in the most common way, by slipping it into the man’s drink at a bar. She disliked the association with sexual assault, but it was simply the quickest and most convenient way to render a person unconscious.

The man on the bed was also a doctor, a psychiatrist. His name was Walter Graham. He was fifty three, twice divorced, and had no children on account of a vasectomy his first wife encouraged him to get. He was very respected in his field, widely referenced in medical journals for one remarkable case he’d treated. He lived in a condo on Vallejo Street with a beautiful view. He abused prescription painkillers, watched rugby on the weekends, and liked cats. These were the things the cutter knew about him.

In a way, they were alone together. Anyone else who walked in would see only two people in the room. But the cutter saw a third, another woman, a woman who stood in the corner and watched. This other woman (who was not, the cutter knew, really there in any tangible sense but who seemed no less real despite that certainty) would sometimes respond to the cutter’s questions by nodding or shaking her head. Other than that, she did not do much besides watch.

The motel room, which the cutter had paid for in cash four hours earlier, was on the third floor of a dangerous-looking rattrap squeezed alongside nicer buildings between Mission and Valencia Streets. The carpets were filthy, the walls dotted with graffiti, and the rooms had no windows. The black and white television in each room played only two local affiliates, pornographic films, and static. It was a good place to stay if you liked the idea of being murdered without anyone noticing. She’d picked it because it was the kind of place where no one asked questions, even if you came in out of a cab with an unconscious middle-aged man slung over your shoulders in the middle of the night. All they cared about here was taking the money and minding their own business.

Dr. Graham was secured to the bed frame by four pairs of novelty handcuffs that she’d bought in a s*x shop on Folsom Street, where she went so that she’d run the lowest odds of running into anyone she knew. She waited for him to wake up. It took a long time. Flunitrazepam, she knew, could last up to twelve hours, but she was the patient type. Patience was a good quality in a cutter. When Graham took the first unsteady steps back into consciousness she sat down next to him. The stained mattress was thin and the bad springs creaked under her weight. He would be confused and prone to panic, and she didn’t want that. She looked at the other woman, who stood in the corner, watching without blinking. “Are you sure this is the best way?” the cutter said. The other woman nodded.

Whispering, the cutter explained where he was and what had happened to him. She warned him that the restraints she’d used probably wouldn’t hurt him but he still shouldn’t struggle. And she assured him that she did not plan to kill him.

“Trust me,” the cutter said. “I’m a doctor.”

Graham, for the most part, kept his head. He licked his lips and when the cutter saw they were dry she gave him a sip from a bottle of water. The first thing he asked was, “Who are you?” She told him her name. He had heard of her. Some of his patients were police officers; one of them was struggling with feelings of guilt over his constant infidelity and as part of an exercise Graham had asked him to list all the women in his life he felt uncontrollably attracted to. The cutter’s name was the first he came up with. Graham told her all of this in one long run-on sentence, babbling and obviously not sure what he was saying by the end of it. He was not yet fully sober. He did not, she noticed, ask him what she planned to do next. Perhaps he knew better. Or perhaps he was too afraid.

The cutter took a sip of water to wet her own lips and then said, “I want to talk to you about another one of your patients. Do you remember Cleopatra?”

Graham blinked, brow furrowed. And then he laughed, too loudly. The cutter shook her head.

“Maybe you’ll remember her if I show you a picture.” The cutter took a folded photograph out of her wallet. The only light in the room was the grainy, unreal blur of TV static, and Graham was still be dizzy from the drugging, so she had to hold it in front of his face for a long time before he made the soft little “Ah!” sound that indicated recognition. “You mean Jane,” he said.

The cutter looked at the other woman in the room, the one who Graham couldn’t see even though she was right in front of him. The other woman nodded. So the cutter hit Graham in the face. He grasped. “Her name,” the cutter said, as Graham winced from the split lip she’d just given him “was Cleopatra. You killed her.”

“What? No!” Graham tried to sit up, and the restraints rattled against the cheap aluminum bed frame. “First of all, you have it all wrong. Second, that was years ago. Third…third…” He paused, unable to focus for a moment, muttering nonsense before his train of thought reconnected. “Third, how do you even, I mean, what’s it to you?”

The cutter unfolded the photograph. There was another woman in it, with her head on Jane’s (Cleopatra’s) shoulder, smiling. It was the cutter.

“We met in medical school,” the cutter said. “Well, I was in medical school. She only said she was. That turned out to be…not a lie, exactly. More like a misunderstanding. Like a lot of things about her and us. Including her name. I guess you think the name Cleopatra is funny? It wasn’t to me. I loved that name. I loved her.” She folded the photo and put it away again. “Until you took her away from me.”

Graham didn’t say anything for a while. The cutter was quiet as well. In the room next door, someone was making a lot of noise. Graham seemed to be preparing his next words very carefully.

“I realize that these are strange circumstances,” he said. “But as a medical professional you should already understand what’s happened here. The woman in that photograph was—is—named Jane Cohen. She suffered from a rare psychiatric disorder, a disassociative identity. ‘Cleopatra’ was the name of an alter ego her subconscious invented. There was no way you could have known this when the two of you met.

“Jane came to me because she said she was suffering from depression. She was wholly ignorant of her real problem, and it was two years before even I began to suspect it. Real disassociative personalities are very rare. In Jane’s case the psychosis emerged gradually; people invent alter egos and fantasy lives for themselves all the time. In Jane’s case it manifested itself in the most extreme way possible. I spent nine years treating her, restoring her to a single functioning identity with—”

“I’ve already read your essays in the journals, Walt,” the cutter said. She stood up. “You’ve done very well for yourself with the story of how you helped poor ‘Jane.’ But you never gave a thought to woman you got rid of. Cleopatra was not an alter ego to me, not just part of some other woman. Even after she left me I still loved her. I spent years trying to find her again after college. And when I finally did, I discovered that she had no idea who I was. She didn’t remember a thing about me. Because the woman I knew was gone.”

Graham tried to sit up again. Next door, it sounded like someone was hitting the wall over and over again. “Listen to me. I knew that Jane had romantic partners under her alternate persona. Part of the treatment was reconciling her primary personality with the actions and relationships of her alternate one. If I’d had any idea that the two of you…that is to say, if we’d known—”

“I know,” the cutter said, nodding. “You did what any responsible physician would do. That’s why I’m not going to kill you.” Graham looked relieved, although she had told him so once already. “Still, you took something away from me. You think you made ‘Jane’ whole, but what you really did was cut her apart. You picked one half of her and you cut the other half off and threw it away. So it’s only fair that I take something from you too. What do you call that in your line of work? Reconciling the schism?”

“Now wait a minute,” Graham said, raising his voice.

“Do you think much about dying, Walt? I do. I’m told that most people in my field rarely do. Makes it easier not to internalize your work. But I think about it all the time.” Graham was saying something, but she talked over him. “Sometimes I think about the soul. I didn’t think there even was such a thing until recently. I’ve been cutting people apart my whole life and I’ve never once found anything that looked like a soul anywhere in them. But now I think there really is such a thing. And I think that even people who aren’t real can have souls. Even someone who didn’t exist can be a ghost. That’s what I think. What do you think?”

Graham didn’t seem to know how to answer, but she hadn’t really been talking to him anyway. From the corner, Cleopatra watched. When the cutter looked at her, she nodded. The cutter turned the television from static to another channel and put the volume all the way up. Human voices through tinny speakers at full blast sounded like shrieking, wordless ghosts. She ducked down, getting something from under the bed. She heard Graham moving, trying to see what she was doing. When she stood up he started to scream; not words, just screaming. The cutter put a finger to her lips, motioning for him to shush.

“I’m pretty sure I can do this without killing you,” she said. “You know the old joke about being a cutter, right? ‘I’ve never lost a patient yet.’” She pointed to his legs. “Do you want me to cut above the knees, or below?”

Graham was beyond answering now; he was just screaming. The cutter hoped that his commotion would not throw her off when she made the first incisions. She was noted in her field for her steady hands. But then again, she thought, as she pulled the chord on the chainsaw and felt it come to sputtering, grinding life in her hands, this was not exactly her normal precision tool.

“Now don’t worry,” she said, pausing with the whirring saw blade just above Graham’s legs. “I’m a doctor.”

From the corner, Cleopatra smiled.


“…as it turned out, someone in another room did overhear, and did call the cops, but by then it was way too late to stop her. When we got there…I’ve never seen blood like that. In my line of work you think you’ve seen it all, but that call was the worst I’ve ever been on.”

“Are you a cop?”

“Paramedic. I’m the one who saved the guy. She did a pretty good job on him, all things considered, but he’d still have bled out if we hadn’t gotten there.”

“I remember reading about that when it happened. Two years ago, right?”

“Me too, but how do you know all that other stuff? I never read anything about why she did it.”

“She told us. She hurt herself with the saw so we had to take her to the hospital too. I rode the whole way with her and she told us the entire story. She wouldn’t stop telling us, in fact. Messed my buddy up real bad in the head. He had nightmares for a while. He thought about going to see a shrink, but under the circumstances it seemed…”


“Ha, yeah, something like that.”

“So you told you about Cleopatra and everything?”


“And was there really, you know, anyone else in the room with them?”

“Not when we got there. She did keep talking to someone else in the ambulance, someone she said was there but we couldn’t see. Sometimes I think…no, no, it was all bullshit. That lady was nuts. But she talked a good game, you know?

“So if wanted to know all about ghost stories, well, now you know what’s been haunting me.”

“And I thought I had rough days at work. What do you do after a thing like that?”

“Drink. Speaking of which, anyone want another?”


Credit To – Tam Lin

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