A Minor Fear
by John Hawfield
part 1 of 2
The fear was there. It seemed silly that a grown man could be enslaved by an irrational fear, but it had always been with me and was, to me at least, always valid. It was not one of demons and devils dancing a Faustian waltz of horror upon a stage of fog. Nor was it a fear of pain. No. This fear was a feeling that things were not what they appeared to be. That underneath the veil of what was considered reality was a layer of flesh rotting from deceit. It was a feeling of mistrust that hung over my everyday life, like a seemingly benign cloud that would one day open and drown me in its downpour.
The fear was always there.
Yet I got through each day by reminding myself that these feelings were just irrational. That, as mother always told me when I was a little boy and was terrified of going to school because I was certain Mrs. Thompson was an alien from another planet and wanted to steal my brain away for God knows what ritual on her home planet, I was being stupid. There were times when I was so afraid of the bullies on the playground that mother would have to spank some sense into me, as she always said.
Strangely enough, though, the fear wasn’t there at first when I walked through the doors of the hospital for minor surgery to treat a hernia that threatened strangulation. I was oddly at ease, and didn’t have to keep reminding myself that there was nothing to worry about. This was a hospital for Christ’s sake, full of people with degrees that said they understood diseases with complex names and knew exactly what to do to treat them. These were people that cared about one’s well being, and did what was for the best no matter what. What safer place could one be?
For the first time that I could remember the cloud wasn’t hanging over my head as I strode into the admitting ward full of confidence and trust in those whose hands I was about to place my very life, handed my pre-filled paperwork to the admissions nurse, took a seat, and began to flip through an outdated issue of Psychology Today.
After a while I started to notice just how hard the seats were. One would think that a hospital could afford something a little more comfortable. But at least my discomfort didn’t seem to bother my hernia, which never really gave me pain; there was a bit of luck that the doctor found it right away before it became a problem. Still, hernia or not, it felt like someone was sticking a knife up my bottom and rooting around.
That was the trigger.
Thoughts crept into my head of what could happen when one is under the knife, my chest tightening as the panic began to infect my mind.
I tried to focus on the magazine, but to no avail. It was like I became two different children seesawing back and forth between anxiety and logic, both battling over who was to be King-of-the-Hill, on a fertile playground that conjured up thoughts beyond the slip of the knife.
What if they are actually doing things to people?
What sort of things would they do (flipping the page)?
What wouldn’t they do?
Look, these are the people we trust (flipping the page).
How can we trust them?
We have to (slamming the magazine shut). They’ve gained our trust by being in a position of authority.
And they are the ones that have all control over us while we sleep.
Maybe it was the endless flipping of the pages, or the shifting in my seat trying to find a comfortable position while my mind battled bullies, but it must have been obvious that something was bothering me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the admitting nurse watching me closely.
“Is this your first time in a hospital?” a voice questioned.
I hadn’t noticed her before, sitting two chairs down from my right. She smiled at me, waiting for a response.
“Sorry. I probably seem a little nervous, huh?”
“A little,” she said with a slight laugh. Leaning over she stretched out her hand, “I’m Sarah.”
“Alan,” I answered, taking her hand in a polite, albeit not too, handshake.
“Nice to meet you.”
Her touch was gentle and surprisingly warm given the relative coolness of the hospital. For that matter, hospitals can be downright cold places. And this one was no exception. The stench of rubbing alcohol hung in the air-conditioning system, even finding its way into this closed-off region far from the need for sterilization, adding to the chill.
Tropical foliage plants, set artistically around the room, looked out of place against the arctic white walls, and foreign in the chilly air; and so did Sarah. Her red hair stood out like the Japanese rising sun against a field of white. I had seen her somewhere before, maybe at the grocer’s or on the street, maybe only in my dreams.
“So what are you here for?” she asked.
“Oh... um... well, I have a hernia that they need to fix.”
I was nervous just speaking simple pleasantries with her, that familiar quiver in my voice that was so prominent when the teachers would call on me for the answer to a question, or when mother wanted to know what I was doing in my room for so long, was back. But who could blame me for not wanting to fully draw back the curtain and expose the view to the playground below where I was currently being beaten for milk money. Besides, she was very pretty, which would make anyone nervous.
“They said it’s a simple operation. I should be out of here tonight, tomorrow at the latest.”
“Simple operations. Those are the ones you have to worry about,” she said with a wink. But the joke was lost on me, as I must have become noticeably more agitated.
“Sorry. Bad joke. I guess I’m a little nervous, too,” she said fiddling with the chain of a locket around her neck.
What followed was a moment of uncomfortable silence as if someone had farted during a State dinner.
“I’m finally having my tonsils taken out,” she said brightly, breaking the taciturnity. “Can you believe that? I’m 32 years old, and having a procedure that little kids have done.”
“At least you can have all the ice cream you can eat afterward,” I said trying to force a smile that would betray the gathering cloud.
Before she could say anything more a stocky nurse wearing a uniform fresh out of a Hemingway novel, all white with sharp pleats and a crown with a bright red cross on the front — a uniform that must have been favored only by the older staff and the non-professionals — came over saying, “Follow me. You’ll be in room 212.”
My operation had been scheduled for three o’clock in the afternoon; it was now just half-past nine.
As I followed the nurse out of the admitting ward, I turned back to Sarah and said, “Look me up if you get a chance. You know what room I’m in.”
“212, easy to remember,” she waved as I went through the door.
The spartan room had everything in its place. Blinds covered the only window and had been drawn closed cutting off my view to the outside and allowing only the barest amount of sunlight to enter. On the bedspread lay a pale-blue, lightly patterned hospital gown. The nurse told me to change into the gown and that someone would be along shortly for surgery preparations.
I undressed fully, feeling a bit of shame at my nakedness, and feeling utterly alone. Yet at the same time there was the sense that the whole world was watching my every movement, that the walls had grown eyes, wide and scrutinizing, examining my naked body, laughing at me.
Now dressed in the gown, I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes. I could hear voices from deep inside the hospital; murmuring from behind closed doors, coming up through the sink’s drainpipe. They were voices of warning, tinny and distant, telling me to flee while I still could. Each one grew louder, faster, overtaking each other, becoming a blur of verbiage that blended together into a crushing roar.
I opened my eyes, shook my head, and the voices stopped, replaced by the strong chill in the air that felt like slivers of ice stabbing into my body, impervious to the thin material of the hospital gown. Shivering, I crawled under the blankets and wrapped myself up into a protective womb. After a while I started to doze.
It was twenty minutes later, possibly longer, when a nurse entered my room and roused me from my half-slumber. Silent and unsmiling, she read my chart. Maybe it was her silence, maybe it was her almost featureless appearance under the same costume-like uniform that had been worn by the admitting nurse, but the mattress began to feel like a bed of needles pressing hard against the exposed flesh of my back where the gown would not completely close, the surgical sharp points piercing tiny holes, drinking the blood that trickled into yawning mouths for collection.
Finally she looked up from the chart and gave a crooked smile. “I see Dr. Lyons is your surgeon.”
“Yes,” I replied.
I had met Dr. Lyons briefly during a visit with my family doctor, Dr. Jeffery. It was Jeffery who had discovered the hernia and decided that surgery was the only option. He explained to me that Dr. Lyons was a close friend and was considered to be one of the best surgeons in the country, making it a point to emphasize “the best” knowing of my little problems.
He had said that even though Dr. Lyons specialized in transplant surgery, he would perform the operation as a favor. I had known my family doctor for most of my life, ever since I was a child when my mother had dragged me into his office, kicking and screaming, for an ear-infection. And, while not fully trusting him on every matter, I managed to convince myself that he knew what was for the best and agreed to the surgery. Mother knew him well enough, too; she had given his daughter piano lessons at one time.
Mother died during an operation.
“I’m sorry, but the doctor has been called off for an emergency surgery. We’ll have to reschedule your procedure for late tonight.”
“Couldn’t we just make it another day, then?” I asked, not wanting to stay one minute longer than necessary. Plus, the thought of someone just coming off of all-day surgery then cutting on me was not a settling one.
She smiled again, the same crooked smile, then went over to a cabinet along the wall that stood at the foot of the bed. Inside were a variety of instruments and concoctions that all seemed foreign and somewhat sinister to me. She selected a little amber colored bottle and poured out two tablets into her hand, made a note on the chart, then handed me the pills.
“Here. Take these. They will help you relax and maybe get some sleep.” Not that I wasn’t sleeping before she arrived and woke me up to give me pills that will help me sleep.
I held the pills in my hand, both white with a red dot in the center, as the nurse looked on expectantly, waiting for me to take my medicine like a good-little-boy; that damned crooked smile still plastered to her face. I watched as her smile grew bigger, slicing around the circumference of her head separating it into two halves that popped open, as if hinged in the back, exposing a tiny demon inside of her head laughing and pointing at me, asking me if baby wants his mother back.
Tentatively I placed the pills onto the tip of my tongue and reached for the cup of stale water sitting beside my bed. The voices in the drainpipe were screaming now: Don’t swallow! She can’t be trusted. Just push the pills to the side and spit them out when she’s gone.
I swallowed. Satisfied, she left the room.
I awoke to a darkened room; sunlight was no longer sneaking in through the cracks in the window blinds. The hospital had a stagnant, after-hours calm. The kind of calm that surrounds a funeral-home viewing room when the body is laid out for the first time, and no one is around but just the two of you.
Sitting up in bed, I felt both hunger pains and for the first time the pain from the hernia, which shot through my body like adrenaline being pushed through a needle into a stilled heart.
What time is it? The room was spinning a bit as I searched the nightstand beside my bed for a clock, and found that it contained neither a clock nor a phone, only the nurse’s call-button, which I pushed. No phone, so much for calling out for pizza.
I rubbed my face with the palms of my hands, tried to push away the sleepiness, and felt two little bumps plastered to the side of my right cheek. Pulling the lumps free from my face I could just make out the two little white pills with the red dots in the center. I must have left them lying on my pillow and they had stuck to my cheek while I slept. Quickly I hid them inside the pillowcase so the nurse wouldn’t see them when she arrived.
Where is the nurse?
I pushed the button again, listened to the darkness, and watched for the faint glow of light streaming in from under the door to be broken by the shadows of approaching feet. But none ever came.
“Hello?” I tentatively called out into the darkness, answered only by the stillness of the room. More time passed, and still there was no nurse. I began to draw myself out of bed when the slightest of knocks came at the door followed by a low voice.
“Are you in there?”
The voice was familiar and it took a few seconds, as I stood at the side of my bed, to recognize who it was.
“Alan,” Sarah called me by name this time, still in a hushed voice.
“Sarah,” I answered with relief at a friendly voice. “Yes, I’m here. Hold on a second.”
I searched the room for my clothes not wanting her to see me in my gown. But all I could find were my shoes. Everything else was gone, having been spirited away by some orderly while I had slept. I was hopping around on one leg, struggling to get the second shoe on, when the door opened and Sarah rushed into the room.
“We don’t have a second!” she made clear, swiftly closing the door behind her. “We need to leave now. They mustn’t find us.”
“They who?” I said finally managing to make the shoe fit. “What are you talking about?”
“The people that work here. Get your things.”
“Umm... this is all I have. My clothes are gone.”
“Fine,” she said pressing her ear to the door, listening. She seemed to be satisfied that whatever, or whoever, it was that she was listening for was not there.
“Come on, follow me and I’ll get you out of here.”
She opened the door just a crack and peered out into the corridor. Satisfied that no one was in the hallway or at the nurse’s desk, she started to fling the door open wide. But, as if guided by someone braver than I, my hand caught the door and prevented her from opening it, slamming the thick wood back against the metal frame.
“Now wait a minute,” I began with an edge of frustration ringing my voice. “What is all this about?” The demand for an explanation echoed off the sterile walls.
“Keep your voice down,” she quieted me harshly. She paused, listened once more at the door.
“Look, I’ve been sneaking around watching them. They tried to give me pills to ‘help me sleep’, but I didn’t take them. It’s all pretend, Alan.”
“What do you mean it’s all pretend?”
“This hospital! They’ve made up this elaborate show so people don’t know what’s going on; the admitting ward, the doctors, the nurses, wheeling patients through the corridors with I.V.’s dangling — it’s all fake! They give us those pills to deaden our senses, to keep us unaware while they go about their business.” She smirked then added, “The only thing real here are the bidders.”
“They line up along the walls, waiting for the auction to begin. Everything has to be fresh, so the bidders are right there in the room. That’s how I found out. I could hear them shouting out numbers, I could hear their applause.” Her eyes took on a wide, yet distant, look as if seeing a repressed memory for the first time. “When it’s all done the bodies are zipped up in a bag and taken to the morgue — still alive. I’ve seen the morgue. It’s filled with them!”
She listened at the door again.
“Look you’re... you’re not making any sense.”
“Alan, Dr. Lyons is behind it all. Your doctor.”
“Behind what?” I exclaimed feeling the pressure building up in my head.
Copyright © 2006 by John Hawfield