by Antoine Valot
Living is fear: deaf, mute, ever there.
A coronal head CT shows it.
Like a crab, like a gnat, the limbic eye: unblinking, scared.
Staring, glaring, aware.
Scan for motion, look out for death:
Where is it, where?
10:51am — Metal gurneys, metal carts, metal grab bars, metal clipboards, metal trays with plastic silverware. Green curtains separating moans and mute pain. Families waiting, helpless. The doctor will be with you shortly.
The skeleton’s name is famous, even after the shortest of stays. Every person Jeremy’s approached with her name had a nickname at the ready, or two, or three. “The shrieker”, “ghetto mama bin laden”, “the megabitch from hell”, “little miss chompy”, “that sad angry woman”, “Mike Tyson’s mama”, “lucifer on wheels”, “old yeller”… She seems the stuff that hospital legends are made of.
She’s screamed at everyone. She has a powerful throwing arm, clearly from frequent practice. She punches, she bites, she spits, she scratches. She came in on a potent cocktail of God-knows what uppers, downers, and hallucinogenics, and is now restrained so as to prevent harm to herself, the staff, and the building. Also, to avoid grievous harm to the hospital’s supplies of pharmaceuticals. With drugs, unlike with people, she’s broadly sympathetic.
The DXA was completely unnecessary. She’s in her late forties, with no signs of osteoporosis, and physically healthy as an ox, albeit through no fault of her own. Wooley ordered the DXA to use her as a punishment on Judy, who had helped Jeremy run interference with that pretty medical student. He probably hoped that the woman would try to cut off Judy’s head with an x-Ray plate. But by the time she arrived in radiology, “sticks-and-stoner” had already been assigned a retinue of two beefy orderlies, who kept her from destroying the equipment and staff. She screamed threats and oscenities, and nobody could figure out how to get her to lie still on the DXA table long enough to be scanned. Andre finally showed up with a syringe full of saline, told her it was morphine, and said he’d give her a taste now, the rest if she laid down quietly for two minutes. She relaxed in anticipated ecstasy after he’d injected a couple of CCs, and by the time she realized she’d been placebo’ed, the deed was done. The DXA was complete, millions of dollars of equipment were unscathed, and Judy remained capitated.
3:39pm — framed pictures: two blond babies, blond kids with a golden retriever, blonde wife, kids and dog alongside administrator Jensen, posing on the lawn, at the tennis club, in front of the Eiffel Tower, in front of a pyramid. Jensen shaking hands with the mayor, three senators, the former president, the movie star. Welcome, Doctor!
Administrator Jensen speaks only in obvious absolutes, in of-courses. Of course, any deviations from the hospital’s code of ethics must be reported. Of course, any deviations from professional demeanor must be addressed, so we can remain true to our core values.
And of course, we must’ve judicious also in making sure that we apply these rules in a considerate and appropriate way. Of course the medical profession is high stress and requires some letting off of steam. Of course we shouldn’t pry into what our esteemed colleagues are doing with their personal time. Of course, we must respect the privacy needs of busy professionals.
Certainly, Jeremy is aware that Dr. Wooley is a highly respected expert in his field, and a sought-after lecturer and partner to no less than five medical education institutions of renown. Jeremy certainly also knows that Dr. Wooley’s work has brought considerable revenue streams to the hospital, in terms of grants and research money. Jeremy could certainly learn a thing or two, as we all certainly could, from Dr. Wooley’s ability to cultivate a network of powerful benefactors and friends to the hospital. It’s certainly a good thing for Jeremy that Mr. Wooley, Dr. Wooley’s brother, who sits on the Board of Trustees, is such an expert and an advocate for the needs of the radiology department.
So yes, Dr. Wooley is important to the hospital, and Jeremy will surely appreciate the advantages of working with such an individual, yes? Yes, there have been those who haven’t quite understood Dr. Wooley’s peculiar blend of humor and his sometimes offbeat personality, like Jeremy’s predecessor. But he doesn’t work here anymore, right? But Jeremy does work here, yes. And we’re glad to have you here. So yes, do come again and let me know if anything bothers you, yes? And in the meantime, keep on doing the great work you do, which we all appreciate so much.
Jeremy stands two steps outside the door, stunned. He didn’t notice himself leaving the office, and it’s only now that he’s making sense of what he was told: Of course, certainly, yes, they don’t want to hear a word of complaint about Wooley. Or else.
And of course, Jeremy knew that would be the answer. He certainly didn’t expect anything else. Yes, he understands why this compromise is necessary. What he doesn’t understand is why he came to administrator Jensen in the first place. What temporary act of insanity prompted him to ignore the obvious, and just run off to do the right thing.
Of course it was a bad idea, doomed to fail. But Jeremy still feels a certain satisfaction about having done it. Yes, he feels fantastic about it, in fact. He stands by the window, a few steps outside of Jensen’s closed door, with a smile on his face, savoring his own serenity.
Minutes pass unnoticed.
4:18pm-cracked concrete, muddy flowerbeds, dusty tiles, cigarette butts. Sound of cars rushing, clangs from a construction site a few blocks away. One lone fat man with a mobile IV drip, puffing. His mute, tired stare.
Jeremy had never stepped into the smokers’ courtyard before, but today for the first time he noticed the trees outside the lobby window. They called at him, so he stepped out.
The fat man looked at him with surprise. Doctors don’t smoke. “I shouldn’t be here,” Jeremy thinks, and his brain reels back into the familiar buzz of stress, cases, schedule, rush… But it doesn’t stick. That thought bubble pops as soon as it grazes the limbs of the tree, and all that’s left on Jeremy’s mind is birdsong, warm sun, and the greasy stink of cigarette smoke.
He smiles at the man. The man smiles back. All is well. Jeremy puts his hands in the pockets of his lab coat, and looks up. The sky is shamelessly blue. The sun blasts through the small, gnarled trees in the courtyard, making their leaves glow a bright light green. Nothing out here cares to be sick. Everything out here is happily alive. Jeremy feels good.
Inside he saw her, he woman with the skeleton. She’s still restrained. Her skin is mottled, rough, stained, scarred. Her hair is short and dirty. She was yelling at nurses, her neck tendons straining, hunched in a way that made her clavicles jut forward. She was twitching, jerking against the straps, seemingly unable to hold still for more than a few moments. The vigor in her movements was fascinating. When she threw her weight against the restraints, he saw pure motion, muscles dancing on this perfect frame within her. Energy ripples from her core, radiating out in pulses that express life’s raw desire to live. Of course she’s rebelling, struggling, fighting: she contains a force too powerful to fit into a prosaic society. In Ancient Greece she would have been a goddess. The beauty within her was meant to dance, to leap, to resonate with the vibrant harmonics of life itself. She’s an artistic gift into a world that’s forgotten what art is. She’s a pearl in a world of swines.
But Jeremy saw her. He understood her, the light within her, the uncontainable urge she must feel to be a resplendent beacon upon the world. He was given this training, this vocation, this path, so that he could notice her, and bear witness. Jeremy understands art now, and beauty. He understands religion, and purpose. Jeremy will not fear death, because he’s met her, and she is meaningful.
11:24pm — Wind howling, roaring, ripping at leaves on the trees, whipping dust and sand. Dark sky turning blacker by the minute. Smell of the sharp tang of static electricity, a storm about to burst. Not a soul around.
Jeremy has been on this balcony for hours. Nobody ever comes here. He forgot about dinner, the gym, going home. He was listening to the feeling inside him, growing mutely stronger. But now the sharp cold wind cuts through his reverie. All of a sudden he’s cold, hungry, and aware.
He looks down to the parking lot and is surprised to see Wooley walking in from a parking space far from the building, behind the trees on the access road. He has a baseball cap on, and is holding his coat tightly about him, lapels raised, as he walks briskly toward the side entrance. What is he doing back at the hospital this late?
Jeremy watches him approach the entrance, and stop, and peek inside. He’s staying in the shadow, waiting for something, waiting for the coast to clear? Finally he walks in. Jeremy leaves the railing and runs for the door. He steps into a darkened hallway. The ICU is quiet at this time of night, this far from the nurses’ station. Jeremy turns right toward the service stairs, just in time to see a shadow approaching from behind the frosted glass door. He flattens himself against the wall, behind an orderly’s cart, and watches as the dark shape opens the stairwell door quietly, crosses the threshold. It’s Wooley, still in his coat and hat.
Wooley slithers down a side corridor, and Jeremy runs on tiptoe to the corner, peeks around it. Wooley is entering one of the ICU rooms, in the dark. He slides inside and closes the door, quiet as a whisper.
Jeremy’s pulse is thudding. His face is hot. He is not even wondering what Wooley’s doing in there. He realizes he should have known all along. Earlier today they processed the head CT for a young girl, a high school kid, who was in a car accident. Jeremy is burning with rage because of what Wooley is doing, and has probably done many times before. Because of what Wooley is going to make him do. And because Wooley, with his connections, and his power, and his well-laid plans, is leaving him no options at all.
He opens the door, silently walks in. Wooley is by the IV rack, his back turned away from the door, injecting something. Jeremy takes three steps forward and grabs the bottle Wooley’s left on the tray. He reads the label. Sure enough, it’s exactly what he thought. He slams the bottle back down on the tray. The sudden noise makes Wooley jump.
“You’re into anesthesiology, now, Scot?” Jeremy’s voice is low, cold. Wooley’s eyes widen. He pulls the syringe out, drops it on the tray with shaking hands. For a few seconds he’s actually speechless. His mouth opens and shuts without a sound, like a big fish.
“Out!” Jeremy says, and heads for the door. Wooley grabs his syringe and bottle and follows him out. “Jeremy, I don’t know what you think you saw, but it’s probably best if…” Jeremy turns around and shushes him: “Not here. Follow me.” And he leads the way toward the balcony. All the while, his blood is pumping like there are pistons in his jugulars, whooshing in his ears. His mind is screaming.
It all recedes a few seconds later, as he watches Wooley’s body contorted on the concrete below, a black pool of blood rapidly spreading around his skull, still contained in the baseball cap. Amazing what a little gravity, and a little adrenaline, will do to bones, and ligaments, and tendons. He imagines what Wooley’s skeleton would look like, in this grotesque posture, and nearly chuckles.
It went by so fast it surprised them both. Wooley didn’t even have time to scream. Grab, pull, lift, shove. It was over in seconds. Now Wooley’s in the shade, between the building wall and some bushes, in a ridiculous pose, and the hospital feels serene again, just like it does everyday when Wooley leaves. Jeremy basks in the calm and quiet. The roar in his eardrums turns into the whisper of the wind, the heat into pinpricks of cold.
He floats lightly through the hallways, seeing halos in the pools of light, around the faces of the nurses and attending physicians. Smiles light up his way, and he realizes he is smiling too. He hears peaceful piano music as he walks toward the indistinct shrieking coming from her room. When he opens the door he interrupts her mid-scream. She, and the male orderly, and Dr. Novak, all raise their eyebrows high, at the sight of Jeremy’s face.
He looks at her with pure loving wisdom, with unshakable devotion. He reflects the pure light he sees at her core, and all are blinded. In the pregnant stillness, his smile sings her praises, heralds the coming of her age. He is her Gabriel, her John the Baptist.
Her features change. The anger and hurt of a lifetime fall from her face. Ageless, her eyes look into his, awaiting, not quite hoping for, the next moment. She is compelled to let it happen.
The restraints fall open fast. She doesn’t move. He offers his hand, and she takes it. Jeremy turns to the great heavy door, and opens it, revealing the darkened corridor, and the bright foyer beyond. Resplendent, forgiven, oblivious, she follows him into the light.
Antoine Valot does software, performing arts, and fiction. He crafts experiences that empower and delight.