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The second time he died was more difficult than the first. More difficult because he saw it coming.
He stirred to consciousness between the two events, twin sources of light above him seeming like a pair of struggling midday suns behind thick layers of cloud. He was flat on his back, that much he knew, and beneath him were sheets that had been washed too many times and stretched tight over a thin mattress.
The voices were every bit as opaque as the light, a man and a woman, neither familiar. He could make out most of their words, a disjointed back-and-forth that seemed to arrive through a soup can.
How long had he been awake? A minute? Two? Long enough.
A shadow blocked out the suns, and again he willed his eyes to open. There was no response. All voluntary movement had ceased. Then a brush of warm breath came across his face, moist and without scent.
And somewhere, he was sure, a needle. His first hint, moments ago, had been the smell of alcohol. Not the beery scent of a pub or anything from a crystalline decanter, but the biting, antiseptic variety. His hand was pulled outward, and two fingers probed the flesh of his useless right arm in that time-honored way. Tap tap. Tap tap. Searching for a fat, well-formed vein. Then, apparently, success. A cool wet swab rubbed the flesh of his inner arm.
“What’s the point of that?” said the man.
“Oh, right,” the woman replied. “Force of habit, I guess.”
The patient was not prone to panic—no man of his background could be—yet a sense of desperation began to settle. Move an arm, a hand! A finger, for God’s sake! He tried mightily, yet every muscle in his body seemed detached, like a machine whose gears had disconnected. The pain in his head was excruciating, unyielding, as if his skull might explode. But at least it told him he was alive. What had happened?
“Want me to do it?” the man asked.
“No, I’m okay.”
“It bothered you last time.”
“I said I’m okay,” she countered tersely.
Open your eyes! Move! No response.
The jab came quick and sharp, but was over in an instant. Nothing compared to the constant throb in his head. What followed, however, was worse than anything he’d ever experienced. A terrible sensation of cold. No, not cold. Frost coursing through his veins. It crawled into his arm, toward his shoulder, numbing everything in its path. Leaving no more than twitching, frozen nerves in its wake. He battled for alertness, fought to think logically as the glacier inside him flowed toward his neck and chest. When it reached his heart, piercing like an ice pick, the first flutter of oblivion arrived.
He felt a cool circle of metal clamp to his chest. A stethoscope.
“Almost,” she said. “This one’s going fast.”
“I’ll get the bag.”
The lights above began to fade, a gathering overcast. The voices fell to no more than unintelligible mutterings. His only remaining sense was that of touch. He could still feel the sheets, the needle. The cold within.
But why can’t I move?
His ending thoughts were oddly lucid and vivid. The needle being pulled. Adhesive sensor pads getting plucked from his chest. His body was rocked from side to side as they worked cool plastic under him. A zipper closing, beginning at his toes, then a long, practiced pull up over his knees and waist. Over his chest and face.
And finally, all at once, the darkness was absolute.
* * *
The nurse watched her coworker wriggle the sealed gray bag back and forth, adjusting it to the center of the gurney.
“Why no autopsy on this one?” he asked.
“Those were the doctor’s instructions. He said he already knew what went wrong with the procedure.” The nurse clicked off the brake and began wheeling the gurney toward the door. “I can take it from here. Why don’t you get a head start on the cleanup.”
“Yeah … I guess you’re right. We won’t be using this room again for at least a few months. Can you believe they’re going to pay us to just sit at home until the next phase?”
Neither commented on that thought, which only added to the nurse’s discomfort.
“Wait!” he said. “I don’t see the last syringe we used. We have to account for that.”
“Crap!” she muttered. “I must have dropped it into the sharps container.”
He frowned at her. “Force of habit again?”
She said nothing, but paused at the door, watched him peer into a red plastic box full of spent needles.
“Okay,” he said. “I think maybe I see it. I’ll just get rid of the whole box.”
“Good,” she said. “And do me a favor, don’t tell the doctor about that—you know how he can be.”
“No problem,” he said. Then as an apparent afterthought, “Maybe we could get together for dinner tonight.”
Having worked with the man for six months, she was accustomed to his clumsy come-ons. Even so, being delivered from behind a surgical mask, by a man wearing a gown and fabric booties—the proposition seemed inane by even his standards. He was nearly sixty, with a big belly and a bad comb-over, and as far as she knew had never been married. She was matronly, on the high side of forty, and over the whole damned dating thing. If that wasn’t enough, his timing couldn’t have been worse. She said without flinching, “I have plans.”
Before he could respond, she pushed through the swinging doors and turned left down the hall. She wondered how the man had ended up here. Aside from the doctor, there were only four of them—carefully selected to be sure, and competent, but each with some strike that had left them outcasts in their professions. Men and women who were happy to have a job at the price of discretion. At the elevator she hit the call button and set the brake on the gurney. The incinerator in the basement was already fired up.
The cab arrived, and she pushed the gurney inside and took a last look down the hall. When the doors sucked closed, she ignored the button labeled B and instead pushed 1.
Copyright © 2018 by Ward Larsen