Dr. Death

They call me Dr. Death.

I offer a service, as discreetly and humanely and as painlessly as possible, to shuffle those off this mortal coil who cannot do the shuffling on their own. Those who are broken. Those who are beaten. Those who are so tired but cannot bring themselves fall asleep.

Do no harm, the oath says; but who’s to say that if someone is suffering, really, truly suffering, that the act of putting them out of their misery is doing more harm than good? That ending a life cannot be a benevolent act? An act of healing? An act of righteousness?

I am bound to a chair. There is blood everywhere on the floor beneath me. I’d never have thought a person could bleed so much and still be alive.

“I’m not afraid to die,” I say once more to my captor. The words come out slowly and quietly, choked whispers. I’m gasping for air again and I don’t recognize my own voice. “I’ve seen hundreds of others do it. I’m not afraid…”

“You killed her!” he screams, for what seems like the thousandth time. The bloody straight razor hangs from his hand at his side. He is covered in my blood. My vision is blurring and I can’t see his face anymore. His voice sounds garbled and distorted. “You took her away from me!”

“She wanted to die…” I gasp weakly. “She asked me to do it…”

My vision is fading. This is it. I feel myself slipping away. And then, far off, a pin prick in my arm, again. He’s stabbed another needle into me and is pushing the plunger.

He draws his face close to mine and I see it clearly now. He is grinning wickedly.

“Not yet,” he says. “Not yet.”

They call me Dr. Death. What I’d give now for my own medicine.

Let There Be Light

I am going to be famous. I will go down in history. I will be the first person to receive Digitally-Assisted Complete Vision Restoration (DACVR) – the first person truly and completely blind from birth to have their sight fully restored.

I have a picture of reality in my head, what the world is made up of: how people look (from feeling their faces); the size of rooms in my apartment, the grocery store, the university hospital; the jagged cracks in the sidewalk outside the stoop of my building. But it’s all aromas, noises, textures – what will vision be like? For how can anyone describe for me an experience of a sense I do not have? The qualia that are the fundamental building blocks of the universe and our perception of it?

“They’ll be a slight tingling sensation,” Dr. Matthews says. He checks the wires running from my temples down onto the bed, over to the machine humming next to me.

“Any words for this momentous occasion?” says the nurse.

“Let’s do it,” I say. “I want to see. Let there be light!”

I hear the switch flip and there is a rising humming growing in volume and intensity like a fluorescent light coming on. Then, following it, the darkness gives way slowly to – is this what light is? So bright! – then, figures, these must be the doctor and nurses. Oh! Oh God! NO! NO! MY GOD!

And then I’m flailing and thrashing in the hospital bed, and hear my voice screaming, as if far away, in another body: “TURN IT OFF! OH GOD, TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!! NO! PLEASE….”

Anesthesia

Don’t let him drive. That was the last thing Kate had said to me when the two of us left the house, heading out to the local bar to knock back pint after pint and watch the Avalanches take on the Blackhawks.

But of course I had let him drive. When we’d stumbled out of the red light of neon signs advertising beer brands and into the sodium yellow of the parking lot, I knew Frank had had too much. I knew he was in no condition to drive. But I was drunk too, and the thought of waiting for a cab, of arguing with Frank long enough for him to give me the keys just seemed so difficult, so tiring, while heavily sliding into the passenger’s seat, as I found myself doing, just seemed so easy. So natural.

That was three months ago. Frank is gone now. Kate knows everything. Kate knows what I did. Or rather, what I didn’t do. I couldn’t make it to the funeral, but I wonder how much the tears she must’ve cried were of sadness and not rage. Anger at the senselessness of it all. Anger that the man she loved was gone. Anger at me, for breaking my promise. My only promise. My simple, simple promise I just couldn’t have been bothered to keep in my state.

The last surgery is today. After this it’s just one more month and I’m free to go, good as new.

“There’s a new anesthesiologist in the OR today,” the surgeon says as I stare up at white fluorescent tubes. I feel the mask come down on my face.

“Just count backwards from 100,” I hear a familiar voice say.

The doctor does not see my terrified eyes. I try to struggle, to call out, but already I am immobilized.

“Goodbye Michael,” Kate says, looking down at me.

Zoonotic

“It’s my cat,” I said, holding it out toward the doctor. “She’s sick.”

“Um, alright,” the doctor replied . “If there’s a problem with your animal, ma’am, I recommend you take it to a veterinarian.”

“No, I mean it started with my cat, but she got me sick too. I can feel it.”

The doctor stared. “Okay,” he said skeptically, “could you describe your symptoms? There are very few diseases transmissible between cats and humans. You could have a bacterial infection, or cat-scratch fever, as it is colloquially called. Are you experiencing any fever or headache?”

“No, nothing like that.” This was getting frustrating. He just didn’t understand. “I’m dead, doctor. I’m rotting away inside. I’m dead and the disease is what’s keeping me moving around. I caught it from my cat! She died a year ago and has been reanimated by the virus since then. See, look! Look at her eyes! They’re all green! She’s dead!”

I pushed the cat into the doctor’s face so he could see, but he didn’t look. He wasn’t even looking.

“Ma’am, there’s nothing wrong with your animal. And if you aren’t experiencing any real physical symptoms, I would venture that perhaps you need a psychologist not a doctor.”

“I’M SICK!” I screamed in his face. “WHY WON’T YOU LISTEN?!” I could feel the virus rising inside me. I could feel my mind slipping. I felt myself losing control again. The hunger was rising.

“Nurse!” The doctor called.

“I’M SICK!!” I pounced on the doctor and bit into his neck, and the warmth of his blood rushing into my mouth was a sweet release.

Compound Fracture

I’d never broken a bone before.

The pain was excruciating, it was all I could think about. I scarcely noticed the chaos on the soccer field while the paramedics came. I barely realized I was being loaded onto a stretcher and taken away. I didn’t hear the voices calling my name, or even my own screams of agony. I hardly noticed the exposed white of my bone, poking out from my skin and exposing the surrounding muscle. Because all I felt was the unbelievable pain of my shattered limb.

Once at the hospital and the unreal haze of surgery was over – my arm all done up in a cast, my body all done up with morphine – the doctor assured me everything would be fine. But I told him I still felt a strange sensation; an itching, no, more like something writhing, inside me.

“Itching’s normal,” he said. “It’s just a part of having a cast. Best get used to it.”
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “The feeling’s inside me. Where the bone broke.”
“Yeah, they’ll be all kinds of sensations while you heal up. Wouldn’t worry about it.”

scribble scribble scribble on the chart. Release form. Out the sliding glass doors. Have a nice day.

The sensation is still there, and it grows worse each day. I can feel it inside my body: squirming, crawling, writhing. I can hear it while I fall asleep, scraping away my flesh and bone in the quiet stillness of the dark.

But lately what terrifies me these nights is not the thought of what’s inside my body, but what will happen when it finally gets out.

Tinnitus

That horrible sound, that constant high-pitched eeeeeee in my ear – whining, buzzing, ringing. It was perpetual and unrelenting. It plagued me all hours of the day and night. It was maddening. It made it impossible to sleep.

“Tinnitus,” the doctor said. “A variety of causes, not always physical. Have you been under a lot of stress lately?”

“Stress?” I answered with annoyance. “I’m a lawyer, doc, I work 85 hour weeks, every week.”

“Well it sounds like that’s likely the cause of condition, given what else you’ve told me.” He scribbled something on his notepad. “I’m going to recommend some CBT.”

Great. I can’t sleep because of this ringing in my ear, like I just walked away from standing next to the subwoofer at a death metal concert, and my doctor says I need to go lay on a couch and talk about my feelings.

“Sure, whatever. But what am I supposed to do in the meantime to sleep?”

I’ll admit I wasn’t thrilled. A hearing aid? I’m not a senior citizen. But I’d try anything to get rid of the damned noise, even if it meant putting a little plastic blob in my ear playing a different eeeeeeeeeee to cancel out the one I was hearing.

The problem is, now I can’t sleep at night for a different reason. Because now all I can hear are the screams.

Unmarked Postage

If only I’d been more careful, this never would have happened. If only I’d thought things through, I wouldn’t be in this situation; here, now, in the hospital, typing this out while sitting in this hospital bed, hoping that if the thing that got to me isn’t just about me, if there’s others out there it’s also happening to, that they can learn from my mistake. I just hope it’s not already too late. I just hope there’s still something that can be done in time. I just hope my warning doesn’t go unheard. Don’t be stupid and end up like me.

I found a box on my porch last week, a giant nondescript cube of cardboard sitting right outside my front door. I probably should have realized something was up right off the bat; I wasn’t expecting a delivery.

Stranger still, the box was completely devoid of anything to identify its origin, destination or purpose: there was no shipping label, no plastic pouch with an invoice, no “this side up” arrow, no nothing. It was a completely anonymous cardboard box. But clearly it was intended for me – it was placed directly on my porch, directly outside my door.

I’ll admit there was a moment of doubt in my mind. What if some psycho had put this there? What if there were hacked up human body parts inside, their blood soon to leach through the bottom in ugly spreading crimson stains, like devastating black death escaping the shattered carapace of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico? What if it was full of burned DVDs of child pornography, scraped from the deepest darkest corners of internet, a box of incriminating evidence placed directly into my hands just before a SWAT team coincidentally showed up at my door?

You’re being ridiculous, I thought. This is either a package meant for you, or some stupid prank. Just open the damn thing.

I wish I never did.

I’ll bring the box inside and open it. Settle this and stop being so irrational. I bent down to lift the package, and expecting it to be heavy, nearly threw it through the roof of the veranda when I lifted it. It was light. Very light. Whatever was in it weighed almost nothing – the majority of that emptiness inside was probably filled with those styrofoam packing peanuts.

I brought the box into the kitchen and grabbed a small paring knife from the drawer. I bent down on one knee to slice the clear packing tape that sealed the top flaps shut and a strange unwanted thought entered my mind: I was a butcher, ready to slice open the carcass of a pig. A hunter about to field dress a murdered deer. A surgeon ready to slice open the chest of an unwilling patient, and steal their heart for a black market transplant.

The blade split the tape cleanly, perfectly in half, almost surgically, just like my last strange mental image. When I ran it over the center where there was a gap between the flaps, there was a small sound as air escaped – the last exhale of the unwilling patient. Whoever had packed this thing had done so that it was damn near hermetically sealed.

I cut the remaining parts of the tape sealing the box flaps to the sides, and I’ll admit that as I did excitement rose in my chest, in anticipation of finally discovering the mysterious package’s contents. I lifted the flaps and opened the top of the box to reveal that it contained…. nothing.

There was nothing in it. The box was empty. The box was empty. There was nothing in it. What? This doesn’t make any sense. This doesn’t make any sense. This is fucking surreal. There has to be something. Something.

In disbelief I ran my hands all through the inside, touching all of it, pressing my palms against the smooth cardboard, then hitting it, grabbing it, punching it. No, there was nothing. It was empty. Empty. Empty inside. Unreal. Fucking unreal. Surreal.

A strange smell, a chemical, antiseptic smell mixed with something metallic was in the box, and now the air around me. I brought my hand to face and could smell it on it too, from where I’d touched the cardboard. The box was empty now, but there had been something in it once. Something which left behind this strange smell that now filled my kitchen and coated my hands. Eau de Union Carbide – the latest fragrance from Paris – the smell of sterile green hospital corridors filled with patients dragging IVs hanging from little metal trees, the smell of a surgeon’s instruments laid out in their roll ready to make the incision, the smell of sitting behind the curtain in a hospital gown and waiting for death. The smell of humans being treated like pieces of meat.

I sat on the floor in disbelief. It just didn’t make any sense. Where the hell had this come from? Why would someone drop an empty box on my porch, very clearly personally delivered by hand, to me, with nothing inside? It defied all logical explanation. What was this? What was this? I kicked the box aside in disgust. Fuck this.

I made dinner. I watched Netflix. I went to bed and dreamt of evil surgeons with giant grins of pointed teeth stabbing me with oversized hypodermic syringes. When I woke up in the morning the box was still waiting for me there on the tile of the kitchen floor, a big crease marring the side where I’d kicked it.

I got ready for work. I sneezed in the shower and the water running down me turned pink. Great, another morning nosebleed. Guess I needed to finally get that humidifier like I’d been meaning to.

My co-worker didn’t think it was so strange when I mentioned it to him the next day.

“Naw man, that kinda thing happens all the time,” he said, sipping his coffee and hovering over my cube.

“What the hell are you talking about? Psychos hand-deliver empty packages to strangers all the time? Because if they do, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Nah, it’s a mix-up man.” He sipped his coffee again, from one of the old mugs from the kitchen, the one from the local radio contest where they’d spelled the station name wrong.

“I betcha that for like 95% of its life that package wasn’t even handled by human hands, man. You know what kinda age we’re livin’ in now? We’re living in the goddamn future, bro. Amazon’s got freakin’ unmanned forklifts buzzing around their warehouses, picking your shit offa shelf and loading into a truck for delivery and there aren’t even people involved. There doesn’t have to be, man – all that shit’s numbered and computer-coded and in the system.

“Didn’t you read that article about that woman in Tucson? Same thing happened to her as what happened to you. She ordered a freakin’ Magic Bullet from Amazon and instead of getting her fancy blender in the mail, a week later she gets this big-ass box with a huge piece of conveyor belt machinery from the warehouse in it. Bug in the system, dude. Literally no humans involved from end-to-end, and the goddamn robots don’t know whether they’re packing up a mix-o-matic for some old lady or a freakin’ nuclear bomb.

“It’s automation, dude, it’s the future. No system is perfect and you just happened to be a bug in the system. Some other guy is on the phone right now, bitchin’ out Amazon’s customer service reps ’cause he never got his package, and you’ve got an empty box, and some other fucker’s got a pile of throw pillows in the mail instead of his box set of Deep Space Nine.”

“I guess so,” I said. “I mean, it makes sense. But it still doesn’t explain how the package got on my porch if there was no shipping label.”

“Whatever man,” he said, and made to leave. “Not worth losing any sleep over if you ask me.”

As he turned to leave, a pain gripped my chest and I bent over in my chair. I hacked and coughed, over and over again. Oh god, it hurt. It was like there was something stuck in my lungs. I could feel my coworker hovering over me, uncertain of what to do as I kept coughing. I could hear my hacking noises going out over the floor above everyone else’s cubes.

Finally, whatever demon was squeezing my chest released me and I righted myself. The exertion and pain going left me light-headed and dizzy; I leaned back in the chair, red-faced and teary-eyed, a self-conscious smile on my face. My co-worker was staring.

“Bro, you alright? Thought I was gonna have to give you the freakin’ Heimlich.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, and coughed again, quieter and under control this time. I cleared my throat and smiled again sheepishly. “Just had a weird something, you know? Down the wrong pipe.”
“Sure,” he said, still staring. He looked like he didn’t believe me. He took one last sip of his coffee and turned to leave. “Later man.”

Days passed, but that cough didn’t go away. I figured I was coming down with something. Great, burning more of my sick days when I should be saving them to play golf in the summer. Whatever, chicken soup and bad TV and this will be over soon.

Yesterday was when I knew. Yesterday when I woke up and a nosebleed would have been positively welcome. I awoke to a horrible searing pain burning my insides. Razorblades were slicing my viscera into a stacks of thinly-cut deli meat. Swarms of snakes covered in barbed wire were writhing in my guts and biting out chunks of my soft red flesh.

I ran to the bathroom and threw the lid of the toilet up. I fell to my knees and could feel the writhing snakes were making their escape, up through my stomach and esophagus. I vomited, retch after retch of disgusting reeking ejecta, fountains and fountains of my blood falling into the ruddying water waiting in the bowl. The pain was like nothing I’d ever felt.

Finally it subsided and weakly I brought myself to my knees. I ran the tap. Cold, cold, cold water poured out noisily. I put my hands under it, grateful for a pain somewhere else, a welcome numbing distraction from the ordeal I’d just experienced. I splashed my face with the frigid water and stared at my weary eyes in the mirror. My weary eyes stared back. I drank the cold from the tap to rid my mouth of the taste of old pennies. I stared at my half-naked self in the mirror.

The image came back to me, the grinning devil-surgeons and their comically oversized syringes: we’re coming for your kidneys. You won’t need them when you’re dead. Be there soon.

I opened the mirror, took a handful of painkillers and closed it again. Something was horribly wrong. I had to go to the hospital. This was more than a cold. This was more than me failing to control the humidity level of my place during the winter.

I called the hospital and explained what happened. I was too weak to drive, I said. Afraid of what might happen if I did. Fine, they’d send an ambulance. Be patient. I hung up the phone and went to walk out to the front porch, out to the veranda, where I’d found that stupid fucking empty box. That stupid empty lump of cardboard.

When I reached the door was when I put it all together, when all the pieces fell into place: the box, the airtight seal, the smell, my coughing, and the final piece, the final nail in my coffin, hand-delivered just as the box had been.

It was a plain white piece of paper slid through the crack underneath the front door, an ocean of white save for two tiny lines of text set dead center in the middle of the page. They were the naked, anonymous metal letters banged to the page from an old typewriter. Staring back at me – foreign, alien, uncaring – their meaning slowly seeped into my addled brain and pushed aside my confusion into a rising horror of realization:

JUST BECAUSE A BOX IS EMPTY
DOESN’T MEAN THERE’S NOTHING IN IT

Dove Lake

I always loved going up to the cottage. It had been passed down in my family for generations. A rustic little box of stone and red wood, it sat in the middle of clearing down by the waters of Dove Lake, a stalwart little guardian of the serene wilderness around it.

I remember packing up all our things every summer with my Dad – fishing rods, propane grill, pots and pans, citronella candles, the whole kit and caboodle – into the back of our tiny dark green station wagon and heading up there for a week every July.

I loved those times in my childhood. My father was a stern man, but that tough armor he wore, that look he had like the world owed something and he was going to fight damn hard to get it, seemed to fall by the wayside as soon as we made our way up north. The beautiful trees and rocky hills of the Canadian Shield just brought out the good in him and let him leave all his worries behind.

My old man passed away many years ago, God bless him, and so the cottage belongs to me now. Kate and I had been loading up our own little car and heading up there every summer just as I’d done in my childhood. But that all came to a stop that one summer. I could never look at the cottage the same way after that, or think of it only in the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

It was two years ago that it happened. Kate had just had the baby not too long ago, and we’d decided after all the stress of becoming new parents to head up to the cottage for some time just for us. We deserved it. We left the baby with Kate’s parents, packed up the car, and headed up the highway to Dove Lake.

“I just want to sit out on the dock and read my book,” Kate had said.

That was the other thing. We weren’t just heading up there and leaving our newborn son behind just because we wanted some time for ourselves. Kate hadn’t been doing so well after the delivery. She’d still been in a lot of pain (which the doctors said was not normal, but did occur) and more troubling, had been very down since.

I talked with our doctor about what to do. Medication wasn’t necessary, he’d said. This happens after a baby sometimes and it eventually goes away. If things worsened or Kate’s mood didn’t lift we could look at other options. He agreed that heading up to the cottage to relax and take our minds off things would be a good way for Kate to feel better.

It was great to get up there. The sun was beautiful on the rippling dark waters of Dove Lake and our little rustic getaway (humble though it was) brought joy to my heart when we pulled into the property’s gravel drive. I thought of my youth, of sitting out in the little tin tippy and fishing with my Dad, and him telling me stories about the men at the factory, and how he’d travelled across Europe by train when had graduated from college, and how Grandpa used to sit out and fish on the lake with him just as we were.

I squeezed Kate’s hand. She was staring out the passenger window.

“Honey, we’re here,” I said.
“I know,” she replied heavily, and sighed. She frowned and I kissed her on the cheek.

It was always cold in the cottage. Though it was the middle of July, Dove Lake was far enough north that the temperature really dropped in the early morning and in the evening. You could see your breath in those early hours, those mornings we’d sit out on the dock and drink strong black coffee from tin mugs, and watch the mist rise from the still waters of the lake.

This year was different somehow. I was excited and happy to be away and escape up to the family retreat, but everything carried this dreary heaviness that emanated from Kate. Nothing seemed to break up the dark clouds that surrounded her; there was an impenetrable wall, a filter where all the sunshine and beauty passed in dull and gray to her, and all the beauty I knew she had inside couldn’t get out.

I tried to help. I tried to cheer her up, but I just couldn’t. Things got worse, and we argued at night, though she had even little energy to put into that. In those nights we huddled under the sheets close but were a thousand miles apart; the air in the cottage was cold but her next to me was colder still.

By the fourth day we weren’t talking much. There was just this uncomfortable silence between us, and the dark gloom enveloping her. I began to wonder what to do. I just wanted us to be happy. I suggested that perhaps we should just go home, that it wasn’t right to do it that year, what with the new baby, and how she was feeling, but she wouldn’t hear any of it.

“We came for the week,” she said, sad but resolute. “We’ll stay for the week.” She sighed again.

On the fifth day Kate wouldn’t come outside. I went for a hike. I came back to the cottage and she was lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“Honey,” I said, “Let’s go out in the boat. Come on, let’s go fishing.” Anything.
“No,” she sighed, and rolled over. “You go.”

I should never have gone.

The waters of Dove Lake were dark that day, dark and still and quiet; the air was cold and damp. I rowed out and there was no sound at all, except the metal oarlocks creaking in protest and the water splashing from their cyclic motion. I stopped when I reached the center of the lake and dropped my line. I felt alone. I worried about my wife, and about our new son. I looked over the side of the boat at my reflection in the glassy water. It was like a mirror. My face stared back up at me, tired and sad, with the dark gray clouds over that overcast day as my backdrop.

Far off near the shore, I saw mist rising from the shallows. I didn’t catch anything in those lonely hours. I felt as the last man in all the world, sitting completely alone and isolated, in the center of purgatory. No one could reach me. No one knew I was here. Nothing could lift the gloom of the mists of the lake.

I paddled back to shore, and turned to see the cottage dock coming into view, coalescing out of the mist. I pulled the oars again and their metal shackles squealed. Splash. Squeal. Splash. Squeal. I stopped again and turned to toward the cottage.

Peering through the mist, I saw a ghostly spectre emerging from the far end of the dock. It was a pale, thin form, naked, slowly treading along the boards toward the cold black waters at the end.

It was Kate.

I screamed her name and my cry echoed out against the gray sky. She didn’t slow. I began to panic and started rowing with all my strength. The oarlocks groaned and complained louder than before and I felt like I was going to tear them from the gunwales of the boat. I’d never get there in time. I called her name again and again and my distraught cries echoed out into the nothingness, into the watching trees of the North.

Again I turned and looked over my shoulder. I was too late. I watched my wife reach the end of the dock. Even from the distance I could see her standing there, starkly contrasted against the rising mist. Slowly, she looked down. She raised her eyes straight up, to the lake, to me, and then her arm in one long, fluid, languorous motion. One finale wave goodbye.

Kate stepped from the dock and disappeared into the waters of Dove Lake.

I screamed and screamed and pulled the oars with all my strength. I paddled faster and faster, faster than I ever had before, until my arms burned and every fiber of my being begged me to stop. Still I rowed, until my arms felt like they would be pulled from their sockets. It didn’t matter. There was nothing I could do.

By the time I reached the dock, Kate was already dead. Her body floated cold and lifeless in the water. Sobbing, I pulled it into the boat with me. I cradled her head in my lap and sobbed and sobbed and called for her to come back, to live, not to go.

But she was already gone.

Last year the anniversary of Kate’s death came around. Her parents and my family offered their condolences. We had a nice dinner at her folks’ place, and visited the cemetery to honor her memory. But I wanted to do so in my own way. I wanted to go back to Dove Lake and have some time alone just as I’d done every year.

When I got up there after the long drive, everything was eerily still and all the memories came flooding in a rush, like a dam breaking. It was just as it had all been the year before. On the coarse wood of the table made of logs, still folded, sat the quilt Kate had lain under the day she died.

I’m selling the cottage this year, because like I said, I can never go back up there again. I can never feel the same way about the cottage as I did before. And maybe you think that’s because of what happened, because of Kate dying, and because of all the bad feelings I now have associated with that place, overpowering all the memories of my youth.

But that’s not it. I can never go back because last year I rowed out to the center of the lake again, and in the mists of the far shore I saw Kate walking out into the water; and when I looked down into it I saw not my own reflection, but her sad face, begging me why I’d done nothing to stop her.