The doctor pressed on Mathilde’s abdomen and asked her to hold her breath. After several seconds, and several more, he told her to exhale.

Slowly, the breath exited her mouth, tumbling and rolling up her throat to spiral, turbulent, between her tongue and teeth, knocking against her cheek and slipping down her lips, pouring over her chin and some of it making nests in the doctor’s indifferent hair.

He smiled at her and told her to take another deep breath.

Feeling heavy with the weight of his finger’s against her diaphragm, she breathed again, held it, and released it when he asked her to.

The minute creeped by while he pressed the frozen metal of the stethoscope to her skin. He had a queer but soothing way of breathing himself. He let the first intake of breath through his nostrils, the sound of his throat opening like a welcome swing of hinges. Partway finished, he turned the breath over to his mouth, and exhaled with his nose again.

Mathilde was distracted by the sound and the sight of him, which she wondered if that wasn’t his intention. When his fingers sifted up her throat and pressed firmly under her jawline, she tried to avoid his eyes as they roamed up to the clock and ticked the seconds serenely. At last he let her go and picked up his clipboard, scratching incomprehensible cursive under the various boxes and compressed fill-in lines.

She pressed her nails to her neck and swallowed. “…Doctor?” she began.

He smiled at his clipboard but didn’t move his eyes. “You’re not going to die.” He peeled the paper back and began on the next sheet. His eyes flicked up to her, older than his coat. “Barring you stepping into a bus outside, of course.” He squiggled a check over a cluster of boxes. “You do look both ways when you cross the street?”

She swallowed and nodded curtly.

He clicked the pen with his thumb. “Then my job is already done.”

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