What’s In A Life?

The room is sterile. The air tastes sterile. My mind feels sterile. We are about to perform our second euthanasia. 

The patient beside me hums quietly to himself under his breath. I tug at each of my cuffs in turn as if shrugging off some weight that’s clinging to me. Behind me, Jennet flips through piles of papers. The mechanical way she jots down notes sounds harsh and grating. Before me, Orison is explaining things to the patient’s son. 

I see the care-laden expression on the son’s face — the anxiety. He really cares for my patient. “I had no idea it was that serious,” he mutters. I look away, only catching a glimpse of Orison’s magazine-cover smile as he explains in friendly soothing tones “just how things are” to the victim of the system we run by. There is an uncomfortable feeling tugging at me like a child wanting me to help him find a ball — a feeling aggravated by the patient’s soft peaceful humming.

“Dr. Hall?” I hear a voice behind me and spin around in my chair. At the doorway is a radiating beam of chronic positivity known as a nurse and referred to as Kara. 

“Your father is here,” she tells me. Yes, I expected such, so why does it bother me? 

I rise with stoic dullness. “Thank you, Kara, I’ll be down immediately.” 

The ball of positivity disappears and I head toward the door. Behind me, Orison is saying, “We care about your dad. We’ll give him the best care we have.” I am right beside Jennet and I hear her mutter, “Hypocrisy!” contemptuously, indicating Orison by a slight almost imperceptible tilt of her head. She remains bent over her stack of papers. She is at home among papers. They are cold, thoughtless, easily manipulated things with hard, unmoving lines and impersonal blankness that is sterile and white. Jennet is a drill sergeant who got lost in a medical school and ended up with a doctorate.

“Perhaps,” I say airily. 

Jennet spins around to face me. One eye is a threatening syllogism and the other a cool, unmoving, heartless block of stone. “This patient,” she says so only I can hear, “is useless to the majority. His mental state renders him unable to work. He is a drain to the state.” 

My eyes lock into hers and I feel at once a chill and a blankness. My eyes drift toward the patient who is smiling. The appearance smacks of the ridiculous and a sudden urge fills me to get out of here. I fly out the door, leaving Jennet to map out her world of rocks, lines, moralities without good, and laws without end. I rush with an air of unconcern down halls of garish blankness.

Presently, a feeling creeps into my consciousness that I am no longer in the halls. I blink and see murals before me of tropical jungles, children playing idly with blocks, and various personalities flipping through magazines for all the world like they would give all the world for something better to look at. 

“Son,” I hear from beside me. The voice is old and familiar with a warmth that makes something leap inside me while the rest protests and kicks. I turn toward the old man, trying to imitate Orison’s smile and feeling like I have failed. He rises from his seat and smiles calmly at me with a smile that’s ever so slight but ever so noticeable — one that is unconcerned for anything except perhaps me. He doesn’t say it, but his body language tells me, “Make yourself at home.” 

Strange, I think. This is my place, not his. 

“How are you doing?” He says.

“Living a good life,” I reply, warming just a little.

He smiles with a far away air and looks at the floor. I can’t tell whether he is pleased with my answer. “And what’s your goal?”

“Goal?” I repeat, feeling hazy.

He looks back up at me with his tender penetrating eyes. “What’s this all for? What are you aiming at?”

“Oh,” I reply, “I guess I’m fine where I’m at. The pay’s good.”

His eyes have not changed. They are still looking straight at mine with that same tender calm. “When you first left for medical school you wanted to help people. Are you satisfied?”

“Yeah … I guess,” I answer. “You don’t really know how … controlled this place is. It …” My voice trails off and I rub my foot on the floor as if it needs combing. “How’ve you been?”

Relief pours over me as his eyes turn away from mine, though I feel a hesitant remorse. He looks down at his legs and I notice for the first time that there’s a limp in his stance. “I’m getting old,” he says. “Won’t be long before I can’t work anymore.” His smile becomes large for a moment. “My boss thinks I’m becoming less of a help, but he just doesn’t get old men.” He pats me on the shoulder. “I can still help a fella when I want to. If you ever need anything, you know where to find me. I’ll be in town for the whole week.”

I feel a life inside me — a glow, a sprint, a breeze, a stirring. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a young woman with purple-streaked black hair staring cynically at me. Yes, I work here, I think to myself. Don’t stare at me like that just because I work here. I feel an itching to get out of here and a loathing to go back. I make myself look at my watch. “Sorry Dad, I need to get back to my patient.” 

It takes him a moment to respond to that, but when he does his voice is almost encouraging. “Alright son, get to it. If a fellow needs healing, I shouldn’t keep his doctor.”

I swallow down the feeling that I’m a terrible person and fail again to smile like Orison as I wave a goodbye and return down the hallway. 

I have that same teleportation feeling as I head back through the glaring halls of spotless white and cream, only this time the air seems thicker and my mind more alive. 

I arrive back at the room and my heart races with something like fear as I open the door. Inside, Jennet has finished with her papers and is organizing our equipment while Orison sweet-talks the patient. The patient’s son is gone. Jennet looks rebukingly up at me. “Back finally.”

“Yeah,” I mutter, clutching at my heart and hoping it will stop fluttering.

Jennet lets down a large sized needle and raises her ever-straight eyebrows in surprise. “What? What’d he say?”

Now my heart beats faster. “Oh, never mind,” I stammer, taking my seat beside Orison.

The patient looks at me just like my father does, then this sly sort of grin spreads across his face. “I’m not sure I want a nervous doctor operating on me.”

“Injection,” I remind him, my mind heavy and confused, “Not an operation.”

“Oh,” he says and slumps into silence. My mind cools slightly. Then he begins to hum again — so very childishly. My heart races to the tune and my mind goes into a blur again. 

“Now,” I hear Orison say in a tone that sounds soothing but only pricks the living thing inside me to dance faster, “like I said, this drug is probably going to put you to sleep, so don’t worry if you start to feel drowsy.” He reaches over to grab the syringe.

“Goodbye,” the patient says to me. “I’m going to go night night now.” He winks at me and laughs with zero protocol. Orison laughs with him because that is Orison. I cringe at the laughter. What’s in a life? I ask myself and find myself looking at the patient before me, listening to his resumed humming. 

Orison is bringing forward the syringe and this life will soon pass away. Goodbye, I think, my heart lunging forward within me. Who is this life I’m taking? Wait! How can I let him go? I will donate blood, money, anything. What have I done! What am I doing! Oh God, am I a murderer?

“This shouldn’t hurt at all,” Orison is saying coolly.

No. Not another human. Don’t! How can I let you go? I can’t sit motionless and cold. The living thing inside me is dancing me to death. It crushes my guts, rips at my flesh, and stings my blood. I dart out my hand — if only I can somehow hold this patient back and keep him from the fate which I am a part of. 

“Darryl!” Orison yelps. The syringe clatters on the floor like a cymbal in a still room.

I stare blankly at Orison. The patient has covered his ears and begins to whine pathetically.

Orison’s mouth has never been so wide, so aghast. “Holy…” His voice trails off in reverence. I follow his eyes toward my hand and see one small pinhole and a dot of blood. So I’m dying. The living thing inside me lifts one outstretched arm in the climax of its dance and lets forth one glorious triumphant note. I feel suddenly peaceful. “Orison.” My voice is steady. “Orison, contact this man’s son. We need to set this right.”

Orison puts his hand to his chest as if he will cross himself, but doesn’t know how. He rises slowly from his seat. Taking a step toward the door he nods with painstaking care. His eyes are wide.

“Oh no you don’t!” Jennet howls, springing to block his way to the door.

“Jennet,” he trembles.

Now she is trembling. “Don’t you —!!!”

Orison bows his head and pushes past her. “No.” He is out the door. At first, I think Jennet will chase him, but instead she flies into a rage and starts throwing things. 

The patient before me whimpers and covers his ears tighter. I lay my hand on his side and begin to hum. He stops whimpering but keeps his hands over his ears. I hear breaking glass and Jennet screaming as she runs out into the hall. 

I lay my other hand — the fatal one — upon the patient’s shoulder. “Is this what it’s like to be free?” 

He nods. 

“My dad always said that death cannot conquer life. I didn’t believe him. Not till now.”

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