by Claire Li
Issue: Audeamus (Winter 2011)
The world is an ocean of fire. The blood never ceases to spill. Society’s lust for perfection had created a savage monster, a force that usurped any conceited man or penniless child who was willing to accept it into their arms. Now the war burns within itself, using the corpses of its victims to kindle its flames. The reasons for those sparks that had given birth to the blaze had long been forgotten, but they are insignificant in the fever of war. Because continuing on means destruction, and another step away from life as it was, but to stop means to perish, and to be erased from the creation of the New World.
From the outside, Alec could hear the rumbling of bombs and the keening sound of lasers as they ricocheted off the Ward; the atmosphere within its walls seemed halcyon in comparison. Everyone was too injured to talk, too well disciplined to complain, or in too much pain to stay awake.
Eight corridors spiraled outwards from the Front Hall like the legs of a massive octopus. Pathways spanned out from those corridors, winding and interlacing, a maze that was nearly impossible to memorize. Each one of the hundreds of rooms were constantly filled and refilled with patients. The Front Hall served as the resting place for those with minor injuries—high fevers, broken bones, second-degree burns—and the rooms directly connected to it were for urgent care patients and residential employees. Below the entire dome-shaped building was a basement used to store food and supplies, the most secure place in the entire Ward.
Alec was one of the few doctors left in the world. And the colossal Ward was one of few well guarded refuges from the war where no one could be excluded. That is, the only ones permitted in their walls were those on the brink of death.
He rubbed his temples as someone in the back room screamed in agony. The patient, who had been admitted several hours ago, had arrived with a poisoned bullet embedded in his thigh; an old but still effective way of killing. We’re running out of sedatives…but without the amputation the rest of his body would’ve been infected. The flesh around the wound was already rotted and useless anyways. Live and fight in torture, or selfishly invite the alleviation that comes with death; those were the routine decisions a person made as he saw the sun rise every day.
The Hall stirred as patients woke from the abrupt sound. According to his watch, it was three hours from day break, although the incessant bombings made it difficult to tell dawn from twilight. One hour…just one hour, they can handle it without me. He made his way to his back room, filling up IV tubes with nutrients and medicinal drugs along the way. The patients were wide awake now; their eyes shining with gratitude as he passed by and whispered a few reassuring words in each person’s ear. It gave him a warm sense of belonging, which quickly turned ice cold. I shouldn’t have to be doing this.
The sheer band on his wrist blipped and blinked a red ‘462’, diverting him from his sorely missed rest. Alec suppressed a sigh and moved briskly towards the emergency care wing, his mind sluggish and filled with an annoying buzzing sound. At best, the patient had finally awakened. At worst, there was yet another body to dispose of. He nodded at the passing nurses hustling along the corridors, pushing along carts of equipment with one hand and cradling stacks of paperwork with the other.
Alec eased open a door near the end of a corridor that led to a small room consisting of a bed, a couple cabinets, and a middle-aged man who was currently propped up against a half dozen pillows. His eyes met Alec’s and lit up with hope.
“Doctor! I could never in this lifetime express how much gratitude I have, for saving my son and I.” he croaked, his voice weak from disuse. “I thought I’d wake up in heaven for sure.” He let out a raspy chuckle. “Though I guess this means that I’m still in hell.”
He closed the door carefully and stepped into the room, clearing his throat. “Ah…yes. We are all dedicated to ensuring that our patients receive the best treatment possible. It’s very good news to see you doing well.” Please don’t ask about him.
“How’s my son Jonathan? When will I be able to see him? How much longer will we be staying here?”
“He’s still…resting.” He won’t make it. “You will be dispatched within the week, or whenever I see fit.” Alec finished quickly.
The man, perhaps sensing the unease in the doctor’s voice and adverted gaze, sat up straighter and balled his fists. “When will I be able to see him?” he demanded. Alec couldn’t reply. Next to the bed, the monitor that was slowly pulsing began spiking erratically. His countenance warped into one of apprehension, and his eyes narrowed at the doctor. “What is it that you want? Money? I’m afraid we don’t have much of that right now, but I can give you what I do have.” His voice rose in panic. “Or is it resources? Medicine? Blood? Don’t hesitate to take mine. My son’s life is everything to me, anything…”
“No! No, no. It’s not that. Please don’t take what I said the wrong way.” Alec forced his eyes to meet the man’s, and he let out a short, reassuring laugh. “It’s just that…he will have to stay here for a while longer than you.” He’ll stay here at most a few days longer before we have to move his body. “We will have to dispatch you before him. We can’t have recovered patients lounging around in here, you see.” I can’t risk you seeing him. “Don’t worry; we have him under our care. Everything he needs is being provided for him.” We don’t even have enough tranquilizers to grant him a painless death. “When he wakes up, I’ll tell him where to find you.”
The man sank back into his bed like a puppet with its strings torn off, tears of relief staining his ashen pallor. “Thank you,” he nodded, “I understand.”
Alec turned around and pressed a button on the wall. “A nurse will be in here shortly to take care of you. Rest well.” He exited the room and shut the door behind him. The corridors were nearly empty now, since most nurses chose to take the daytime and late night shifts. Alec was thankful for the absence of human barriers as he hurried to his room.
His place was nothing like the patients’, with a desk that was overloaded with paper files—his preferred way of keeping information, even though the compact data tablets would be much more efficient—a large couch pushed in the corner, and so many coffee stains on the floor he wasn’t sure what the original color of the carpet was. Alec dropped on to the couch and placed his head between his hands, exhaling deeply, trying to expel the horrible feeling of guilt that clenched his chest whenever he spewed out those words of deranged deceit. He’d seen what would happen if he didn’t tell those lies; the people who had gone crazy, the people who killed themselves willfully or because of the strain the mind puts on the body. To take away a person’s reason to live in a war like this would be the same as slitting their throats. Alec knew all of that, but every time his duty as a doctor required him to force the will to live into a patient, it felt like he was rending his own.
My duty as a doctor… How long has it been, since he’d been unable to do anything but watch as a life had slipped away from him? Their glassy eyes would look up at him, as he’d whisper empty words of reassurance. Words did not heal; medicine did, equipment did, but before the Ward was built, neither were available to him. He’d feel their hearts stop beating; his family, his friends, strangers that came to his doorstep holding on to thin threads of desperate hope. But what could he do for those who’d had punctured lungs and fatal diseases, with the rolls of gauze and bottles of pain killers that the townsfolk gathered for him? The Ward, and the unspoken promise to uphold it, is what give people a fighting chance. They are efficiently healed, then sent out to be efficiently injured again—a twisted cycle that knew no end.
He stretched himself out on the couch, grimacing, acutely aware of the pain in his frayed muscles. Although exhaustion was nearly enough to make him pass out, the visions of blood behind his eyelids, and the chimerical songs of the dead ringing in his ears kept him awake. The dark haze of thoughts that had been slowly arresting his mind jerked and shoved, clamoring for his attention. Eventually, fatigue won out, and he was pulled into a flighty sleep.
Echoing footsteps drew him out of his nightmares. It’s just the battle that’s still raging on…you don’t have to get up. But something felt wrong. Something about the steps was too close, too precise, like someone who knew he didn’t belong. Yet, after every step came a heavy thud. Alec’s body shot upright, and he came face to face with the barrel of a laser. The young boy’s hands looked too frail and soft for the unforgiving cold handle. His face still held the innocent visage of a child, no more than eight or nine, and the baggy clothes he wore hung loosely on his slight frame. Yet his eyes burned with grief and malice; the eyes of someone who’d seen more blood than he could take. Is he one of the patients? How did he get in here? Alec’s mind groped for an answer, but nothing he thought of made any sense.
“Put that gun down,” Alec said, his voice firm and steady despite his erratically beating heart, “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“Are you the doctor?” the young boy spat, ignoring Alec’s assuaging words. Alec nodded without taking his eyes off the boy. “Then why should I let you live?” Before he could reply, the boy lashed out again. “Why should you be kept safe when everyone else is dying?! You’re useless! You couldn’t even save—” He broke off as silent, angry tears fell from his eyes, and his hands trembled until the barrel wasn’t directed at the doctor anymore.
Alec reached out to caress his hand, but he jerked them back as if the touch burned him. “Don’t touch me! I hate you and the way you take pity on people who don’t have any hope left. If you weren’t here to heal, no one would be daring enough to continue this war. If you died the war would stop.” His eyes gleamed with an insane light as words were hurled out, as if in an attempt to escape his mouth. A low laughing noise echoed in his throat, sending a gut wrenching feeling up Alec’s stomach.
He took a shuddering breath in, closed his eyes, and then opened them to gaze into the boy’s. “Okay then, kill me. If that will end the war, if that will even help ease the war by a fraction, then pull that trigger and kill me. I don’t fear death, I live around death, I help people conquer death, but there is one thing I must do before I go.” He looked down at the boy’s leg. The crimson ring on his pants had grown alarmingly from the time Alec woke up and saw the injury. ”You’re hurt…and it’s infected by the looks of it. Let me heal your wounds, and I’ll pull that trigger on me myself.”
The boy’s eyes widened and he backed away. “No…you’ll try to kill me. Why would you want to help someone like me? I’m trying to kill you.”
Alec cracked a tired smile. “I’m a doctor, I help people live. That’s what I am, and I couldn’t rest in peace without knowing that I’ve done my job as well as I could.” The boy’s cerulean eyes opened wider, and Alec finally realized who he reminded him of. The fierce temper, the irrational need to act upon a desire, as well as the eyes and powder blonde hair were exactly like his mother’s. “You’re Margi and Irek’s son, right?” He closed his eyes for a few moments, concentrating hard.
“Margi and Irek Taylor, admitted in the last week of October,” he recited. “Irek died a few hours later from severe blood loss to a severed leg. Margi followed him a couple weeks later. She gave up the medications that belonged to her, because some chatty nurse accidently told her about some other patients whose lives could be saved with the supply she was using.” He let out a short laugh. “You don’t see many people like that in this war, nor do you forget those people when you encounter them.” In fact, you might even end up falling in love with them, he thought, smiling inwardly. But that piece of information can be kept a secret for now.
While Alec spoke, the boy listened quietly, unconsciously letting the gun drop to his side. He shook his head slowly, as if waking up from a nightmare to realize that it was only a dream after all. “She really was brave, even in the end,” he murmured.
He stood there for a few moments, trembling, as if the time around him was stuck in replay. Uncertainly, he dropped the gun, the noise muffled by the carpet. Then tears came; slowly at first, as if they couldn’t believe what was happening, and then more and more joined them until he was curled into a ball on the floor, bawling out all the atrocious things that had happened in the past months. Alec’s heart constricted as he saw the young boy for who he really was; alone, lost, desperate. “When she left that night, she…she told me not to hate the wrong people…if she couldn’t come back,” he sobbed, the tears restricting his voice “But it’s so scary… being by myself.”
Alec knelt down and embraced the boy. How much strength must it have taken him until now not to break down and give up? He didn’t know what to say to someone so young who had been ravaged so violently by the war, but he did know that the words he used to comfort the boy wouldn’t contain omissions or lies. “You know,” he began hesitantly, then realizing that it was fine to simply say whatever came to his tongue, the words started pouring out like rain. “The person with the worst regret is the person who can change the future.” The doctor lifted the boy’s head and wiped away the remaining tears. “Maybe you will find the right answer someday. Maybe you’ll be the one who’ll end this war. Keep holding on. And until then, you have someone by your side again. I’ll be next to you, even if only to honor a brave soldier who died in my care.”
The boy stiffened, hiccupped in a few breaths to stem the torrent of tears, and removed himself from Alec’s arms. They both sat there for a moment, neither knowing what to do or say. Alec began getting up to call for a nurse to look at the boy’s leg, when he opened his mouth to speak.
“I wanted these things to change,” he whispered hoarsely, breaking the strange silence. “Though I suppose my way of doing it wasn’t…right.” He lifted his eyes to meet Alec’s. Through the boy’s matted hair clinging to the damp trails that ran down his cheeks. Alec could see that he had regained his composure and sanity. There was something else there too, other than the obvious fear that showed itself in his quavering lips and dilated pupils. Determination, just the slightest flicker of it, danced in his eyes—but even that smallest amount was enough to send a warm shiver down Alec’s spine. Maybe he won’t have to stand aside, helplessly looking on, as more lives are taken and more lies are composed.
“None of this is right. And I still want these things to change.” His lips curved in the barest hint of a smile. “This time, slowly,” he promised, “and with someone next to me. But surely I can.”
“I swear I will.”