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I Have a Secret
Lincoln Council Court
New York City, NY
I take a sip from the glass of water – carefully and quietly – before I place it back to exactly where it sat. The liquid feels cool as I slowly swirl it around in my mouth once… twice… three times, before it slides down my parched throat.
Perhaps I should be worrying. Perhaps I should be concerned that Death will no doubt strike within the next hour or so. But my mind has drifted far elsewhere, to Karen and to James and to Charlie, maybe never to return.
All eyes are fixed upon me now. I can feel them, like cold sharp daggers scraping down my nape in a horrid harmony. Each tick of the clock marks another inch of reality – another part of her – being cut away from me, to be lost forever. It seems to make all this stuff worthless and futile. But isn’t this all for her, though?
A blanket suddenly settles over the spacious courtroom, reducing the reporters and journalists seated around the sides to a stifled cacophony of intermittent murmur. Reality segues into my distant reverie, and I realise that a woman to my left had begun to speak.
“…we are gathered here at Lincoln Council Court to celebrate the honesty and integrity of the citizens of the United States of America…
… Do you, Dr John Duncan Wells, swear that your testimony is of the absolute truth, devoid of the influence of fallacy and/or deceptive details?”
I look up from the mahogany desk. “Yes’m.”
“Then we shall proceed.”
The truth… The words linger, reverberating in my skull for but a moment. I certainly hope that it is the truth. But alas, there’s no time for deciding whether it is not. The hour has begun, and in some dark corner, Francis Graham is plotting – if not executing – my very death.
2 WEEKS EARLIER
The promotion arrived almost as suddenly as the rain that Friday morning. I’d kissed Karen goodbye in her bed down at the fifth floor of Winston Royal Institution, before taking the elevator up. A sigh escaped me as I leaned back against the mirrored wall. It must have gotten to her, I thought. She seldom smiled these days.
The top button in the elevator finally lighted up, and I stepped out. My shoes clicked along the varnished linoleum in a staccato gallop toward my rendezvous. It felt different – almost strange – to feel joy again, and to escape the shadows that enshrouded my days and my nights. It was invigorating, refreshing, exciting. I felt like a child on Christmas Eve again, and that the door to Room 17 would open to my present – the promotion. Maybe I’d even earn enough to cure her ‘incurable’ cancer.
The stark white hallways soon ushered me to a metal door upon which ‘17’ was inscribed on a pitiful white plaque. Its utter dreariness seemed to shout a shrill, silent warning, as if entreating me to not open that dreadful door. Imprudently, I reached for the handle, but the piece of metal seemed to lurch from its bolts, and its cold grasp clutched mine.
“Well, well, well. Is it not Dr Wells?”
Dr Francis Graham’s guttural laughter echoed in the dark room. I was quickly introduced to a middle-aged Irish woman by the name of Amelia Devlin, and a man reminiscent of a rodent called Eric Greene. We gathered around the operation bench with a blinding fluorescence showering white from above.
“Today, doctor, we are required to outline your…” Graham paused and fondled with his greying beard. “…your responsibilities, if you will.”
I nodded slowly, acting as if there was really anything to comprehend. Greene suddenly hoisted up a cuboid device from behind him and set it down in the middle of the table. Magnified eyes stabbed into mine through a greasy curtain of light brown.
“Ave you seen, heard or know anythin’ ‘bout this lil’ beautee?” Greene asked.
I shook my head – partially at the question, partially at the ridiculous accent.
“It’s an ADA,” Devlin continued. She leaned in, her eyes gleaming with a disturbing dose of malice. “It allows the injection of 2-PHP.”
My heartbeat fluttered like a roused butterfly. 2-PHP. My mind frantically tried to break it down into smaller pieces, hoping that my conscience would be tricked into digesting it. But the words just laid there, stuck in my throat like a dry piece of wood.
“I… uh. 2-PHP… isn’t that – ?” I stammered, though my countenance revealed nothing.
“Controversial?” Graham spoke in a raspy impatience. “Potentially harmful? Possibly. But does it save lives, Wells? Does it? Only a handful of institutions and hospitals worldwide utilise this… technique. And what has Winston Royal Institution gained, Wells? You should know this.”
His eyes commanded me to answer.
I said in a choked voice, “The highest success ratio of pre-ICU operations in the US.”
“Good, Wells. Very good.” The three sets of eyes leered at me, as if devouring my soul. “Do you accept the responsibility to operate accordingly, along with the promotion to Head Surgeon?”
I must have stayed silent, for Graham made my decision.
“I hope the two extra zeros was a worthwhile investment,” Graham sung with a slight purr.
I nodded. “Certainly.”
Graham’s lips broke into a grotesque list. “Welcome to the club, doctor.”
Several days passed before dishevelled patients began starring in my evening Broadways. Some nights, I’d lay there amidst the soft ferns in our yard, begging to the stars to pry open my concrete eyelids before it was too late. Sometimes I’d succeed and escape the horror and the torture of the operation room that haunted my slumber. Why had I opened the door to Room 17? Why had I blindly accepted that so-called ‘responsibility’? It was weighing me down, fatiguing me like a bag of bricks. I knew that only time stood between me and the swelling urge to taint the world with the surrealistic darkness that had engulfed mine.
Exactly one week elapsed before I sent the anonymous complaint form. After a brief scan of the almost empty template, I decided it was far too vague for the commencement of any proper investigation; but that didn’t matter. I just needed to wash out the horrid images, relieve myself of it all; for I was afraid that I would soon burst into a million pieces and that they’d rise from their graves to eat me up, bit by bit, to exact their revenge.
My days were quickly moulded into a monotone regime of work, check on Karen, work, check on Karen, pick up James and Charlie, sleep. Time slipped between my fingers like loose grains of sand, and it was all a perpetual blur of colour and people speaking too quickly, as if they really thought life was too precious to waste.
And then it came. The crinkled piece of paper arrived in the letterbox at dawn, hastily folded into four squares. I was still awake so I went out to retrieve it, thinking it was something interesting. I unfolded the paper, and the several jagged lines of magazine clippings read:
We know it was you who sent it. Can’t handle the responsibility, can you? Let us just hope that you don’t kick it up a notch and snitch. Otherwise, your wife and kids will turn up on your doorstep as minced meat instead of this lovely letter. You know we’re capable of it. We’ve got the tools, and you should know that all too well, Wells.
Those messengers of death, masquerading in colourful little costumes of false innocence, returned me to my dormant senses. A violent eruption of emotions ensued in an overwhelming gush. Panic won the race. An anxious gust of remorse limped closely behind, before I was finally encircled by an impenetrable vapour of desolation and vulnerability. I felt lonely, cold. Awfully cold. The kids were still asleep, and Karen… God, did I miss Karen.
I clambered into the sedan parked in the driveway. Seconds passed before the suburban houses and streetlights were mixed into one thick blur. The Institution soon came into view; I swung the sedan around the corner and into the parking lot. Crunching down the brake, the sedan was brought to a halting screech. The doors of the Institution slid open as I rushed in. I bolted into an empty elevator, and the single glowing light crawled up ever so slowly.
Floor 1. I’m coming, Karen…
Floor 2. Come on…
Floor 3. Nearly there…
Floor 4. God, I swear I’ll…
Floor 5. Ding.
I dodged a nurse as I sprinted down the still-dark hallway. Which room? Which one? Her crimson slippers caught my eyes amidst the blur, and I charged into the room.
“Honey –,” she began in a startled tone. Black circles surrounded her lower eyes.
I cried her name as I fell into her chest, the metal railings carrying most of my weight. I’m not certain how long we remained in this intimate embrace.
“I can’t sleep,” she said softly, as we both wiped the slick tears from each other’s cheeks. “They want to operate tomorrow.”
“I love you.” My eyes were closed, but I tucked the few remaining wisps of hairs behind her ears’ just like I used to.
“I love you too, honey.”
The faint humming of the monitor.
“They say they want to use a technique that’ll cure me. So much for ‘incurable’, right? Doctor Francis Graham said that they’d already contacted you about it all during your last shift.”
I must have been hit by a train, judging by the magnitude of the impact. I hadn’t even seen Graham last night. I was as quiet as a stone for seconds… minutes. Who knows how long? Once the shock subsided a little, I reached for her hand and clenched her tight. So tight. Our breathing became one, and her ice blue eyes pierced into my throbbing heart.
“Baby, listen to me, alright? Alright!?” I spoke so fervently that I felt the alarm emanating from her pupils. “Don’t ever, ever go through with it. I’ll take you tomorrow. No. Today. We’ll go anywhere, anywhere, but away from here.”
“What the hell, John?” She mumbled, her brows gathered in a confused frown.
I paused and pressed her hand even harder. I spoke in the slowest, steadiest voice that I could manage: “I’d rather you die, Karen, than go through it. It’s just horrible. So horrible, because I’ve seen it all, all of it, and the pain and the agony after it is just – ”
She pulled me in close, and our lips bonded. We lingered in the serene bliss. For a second, she was my world, and I was hers. It was the two of us in a void of eternal darkness. Just the two of us. But I broke away. I had to, or I’d never be able to peel myself away from her. I mouthed those three, simple words that had meant little till now, before I fled the building as quickly as I’d entered, without looking back.
I’d barely driven three blocks away before it came to me. The rain pattering on the metal frame mingled with the 80’s tune on the radio produced a hypnotising melody. It helped me concentrate. Three traffic lights had allowed my mind to set loose on an outburst of ingenuity. Yes, James and Charlie would stay with Uncle Henry in Arizona, and I would soon be flying via American Airlines to Lincoln Court in the Big Apple. My plan was clear, my mind was clearer, and retribution never sweeter.
Lincoln Council Court
New York City, NY
The room falls to a deathly silence. Three hundred reporters and journalists flown in from forty-three states await the words that will be their pay check. Suppose “National Health Conspiracy” was an effective testimony query, I muse.
I look down at the sheet of paper. A whole heap of useless words that I’d prepared pollute the page. Instead, I bring forth the line that I’d been brewing, stirring, shaping in the depths of my mind for the past several minutes.
I breathe the air – thick from the anticipation – before opening my mouth to speak, but it’s as wet as a Texan summer.
I swallow, and the words spit out before I have a chance to pull them back in.
“I have a secret.”
The span of two hours would see an ensuing flow of internet headlines that would receive millions of hits that very hour; three days would elapse before a nationwide investigation takes place; one month would pass before Congress churns out health reforms in the most rapid fashion in the history of the States; and five weeks would succumb to the clutch of time before one more name is added to the Kentucky State Cemetery – that name would be Karen Josephine Wells.