Palo Alto Weekly 27th Annual Short Story
by Andrew Briggs
It was a quarter past six when William James died. He was not a particularly old man, and had put up a good fight before the brain tumor finally overwhelmed him. As the sunlight receded over the barren trees which dotted the snow covered ground outside his windows, he lay motionless, unseeing, as if numb to the pain of the world. The equipment which once surrounded him had been long since taken away. All that remained was a crash cart, and the telltale chest burns which resulted from repeated use of a defibrillator. The vital monitors, displays black, cast long shadows over the body from where they hung, bolted to the wall on either side of the bed. A mournful silence made the pall complete.
As the light receded from the darkened room, and frigid air pounded the glass, a man appeared in the doorway. The tableau stopped him in his tracks. He double checked the clipboard, then the room number.
Hanging his white coat on a hook, Dr. Randall Clark changed from his work attire to the clothes he would wear on the way home. Fastening a disposable mask across his face, he stepped out into the frigid night, and buzzed himself through the barbed wire fence which surrounded the hospital. As he shuffled slowly down the drive to his flat a few blocks away, he marveled at how quiet it had become. “People don’t go out much these days,” he remarked to himself.
here were a few pedestrians, masked as he was, but they hurried, not wishing to talk. Death seemed to follow each of them as closely as a shadow, staring over their shoulder, reminding them that they could be the next person hauled away in a body bag. Randall shivered, but kept walking. “I simply do my job. I simply do my job. I simply do my job. I simply do ...” he coughed, a half wretch. The taste in his mouth was bitter, the taste of regret. He spat, clearing the unpleasant feeling, and walked on.
“I simply do my job. I simply do my job. I simply do my job.”
Dr. Clark was better off than most. He lived in his own flat; even better, it was clean. The stench, though, had not muted over time. Stains of vomit adorned the walls, courtesy of the last occupant. Dengue fever is not a pretty disease, he thought to himself.
“Still, though,” he continued aloud. “It must have been a quick death.” He knew, however, that this upbeat facade was not anywhere near the truth. As a 4A, the man would not have received medication for fatal diseases. Grimacing, he turned his attention to his dinner, trying to put the scene from his mind. It was no good, and he threw most of the meal away uneaten. They’re never very good anyway, the thought popped up as if from nowhere, adding to the symphony of discontent which had as of late been simmering in his mind. No matter what he did, he could not shake the feeling that there was something wrong. A new emotion, disdain, crept irrevocably into Randall’s palate of consciousness. “I simply do my job. I simply do my job. I simply do my job.”
The strident ringing of an alarm jolted Randall to life, and he was half way to his black market gas mask before realizing that the noise was his alarm clock, not an airborne pathogen alarm. He switched it off, replaced the mask in its hollowed out book, and instead reached for a heavy overcoat. It was bitterly cold on winter mornings; the central heating had broken 20 years ago in this building. No one had come around to fix it, and broken it had stayed. Randall could faintly remember a time when there had been people who knew how to fix things, but that was long, long ago. No simple laborer would be allotted even a 5F status, entitling them to basic health exams, though no treatment. It was a shame, he introspected, working feeling back into his toes, which had turned blue overnight. Having dulled the pain in his feet, he gingerly shuffled across the room to the door, and, bracing himself for the blast of even more frigid air which lay waiting for him in the hallway, opened it to bring in the paper. Not sparing a glance, he bent down quickly to retrieve the scrap of paper. Where he expected it to be, his hand hand met only air. Still burying his face in his arm against the cold, he reached lower, and felt his hand meet the floor.
For the first time uncovering his face, Randall looked around. On the wall across from his door was written, in a substance he recognized immediately as human blood.
Below the message was a man, unconscious, his finger still covered in the makeshift ink of his plea, a puddle of which was slowly drying, a puce stain on the mauve carpet of the hall.
Several thoughts came to Randall almost simultaneously. Blocking them out, he knelt, and rolled the man over from the prone position in which he had collapsed. Seeing no healthcare status card pinned to the jacket, he frantically searched the man’s pockets. It was to no avail. Blood pounding in his ears, he let his rational brain take control. The realization of what he must do hit him like a wave, breaking over him, chilling him to the bone. He shook, all of the years of doubt about his life welling up into one beautifully synchronized symphony of grief for the pain that he had seen. All of the people whom he had turned away, glancing at their badges, sentencing them to death, flashed before his eyes. Putting his fingers to the neck of the body in front of him, he checked the pulse. Barely confident that the man was alive, he pulled him into his apartment, and started CPR.
Two hours had passed since John Doe, as Randall called him, had arrived in the apartment. His pulse had slowly stabilized, enough at least for him to breathe on his own. A smuggled syringe of Fibrinogen from the selection of pilfered supplies in his bag had stemmed the blood-coughing. Not entirely conscious, he had opened his eyes, and permitted himself to be seated on the couch. Randall, getting up from checking the man’s vitals, collapsed to his knees in front of his toilet and threw up. To give healthcare to a 6 was unthinkable. It went against everything that doctors were taught. He remembered, in bold gothic capitals, the inscription on the floor of the hospital lobby.
It was the founding principle of the Asocial Tannin Philosophy, calling to mind his History of Medicine class at the Bureau of Health. If you give to everyone, the quality of medicine goes down. This was best, the textbook said. “If you break this rule, you kill.” Randall had believed it. He still did, and yet he had saved John Doe. Again, his stomach heaved. “Please,” he panted in between sobs. “Please forgive me for saving a life.”
Punching his code into the entrance keypad, a sharp buzz signaled his arrival into Asocial Tannin Private Hospital. At 9 AM, the facility was already busy inside, allowing him to slip down the corridor unnoticed. Grabbing a wheelchair, he returned to the staff entrance. Opening it from the inside, and simultaneously covering the security camera, he called for his John Doe to come up the steps. Wheeling the man down the corridor, he whispered, over and over, his mantra.
“I simply do my job. I simply do my job. I simply do my job.”
William James’ body had been removed from the room he once occupied. The night shift had cleared it hours ago. Carefully, he removed the accounting closure slip from the door, his hands shaking, and pocketed it. Helping John Doe from the wheelchair to the bed, he reconnected the vital monitors, and paged staff to return the medical equipment. “Your name is William James. You are 2A. What is your name?”
“William James, 2A,” came the response.
William James returned to life.
A singular, brave physician in a cowardly, cold and merciless future world where medical care is informed by the maxim, "If you give to everyone, the quality of medicine goes down," makes an heroic commitment to humanity. It is an homage to the potentially good doctor in us all.