av Sarah Wundermann.
The pain cuts into him like a hot knife before he even regains full consciousness. He moans, but his own voice doesn't sound familiar. It is hoarse and weak, as if he hadn't spoken in a long time. He wants to turn sideways, to numb the pain in his abdomen by curling up. But his arm appears to be stuck. Tugging on it, he opens his eyes. His wrists are fastened to rails on both sides of the bed with thin cable ties. The room is dim and he can hardly focus on anything. What the hell? is all he can think, over and over.
A ray of light falls into the room as the door opens. Somebody must be approaching the bed, but he can't turn his head far enough to fully see them. «Doctor's orders», says a voice, and he feels a sharp sting in his neck as the needle enters. Within a minute, he is back asleep.
1. Life as it should be
There hadn't been any reports about it on the news. Dr. Walder always checked the papers thoroughly. This was more than fine with him: The boy was probably too scared to even go to the police. Dr. Walder had released him when the healing had been complete. Sure, it had taken a couple of weeks - the boy had lost a lot of muscle, but he was no longer in any kind of danger when his trusted assistant had shipped him off to Portugal. According to his calculations he must have woken up on the flight. A twenty-something who had already had his fair share of unwanted interaction with the police would think really hard about going to the authorities, let alone at a foreign airport. What would he tell them? That he didn't remember what drugs he took and obviously must have blacked out - for more than a month? Dr. Walder smiled and took another sip of coffee.
He heard a door open and close upstairs, and moments later, light steps on the stairs reassured him that this was going to be one of the better days.
«Good morning, daddy», a soft voice said. He looked up from his newspaper and she came over to hug him.
«Would you like a cup of coffee, peaches?», he asked, and they both knew that this was the closest thing to «I love you» he could say to one of his children. Meghan was the youngest of three, and even though she was 22 and had lived on her own for more than a year, her father still felt very protective of her.
«Don't you have to go to work today?», she asked, yawning as she poured coffee into a cup.
«I have a function later today, with Frank's transplantation society. You are welcome to tag along. there will be free food, brilliant conversations and probably a very emotional speech by our very own Mrs. Devereux,» he said, half joking, but also secretly hoping she'd be up for it. It would do her good to get out of the house. She smiled and rolled her eyes. «I'm seeing my therapist at eleven. And I have an assignment to finish for Professor Clarke. She granted me some extra time to hand it in after...», she stuttered, «after Elle told her what happened.»
What happened, he thought. These words tasted bitter. His little girl had been assaulted by a man she had been supposed to trust. The anger inside him was still raging, but he had to stay calm about it for her sake. Make light conversation, play normal.
«So, Mrs. Devereux is the society's secretary, right?», she asked.
«She was», he said, «for fifteen years. She's such a fighter. Been retired for ten years, still urging people to get a donor card any chance she gets.»
«I bet it's even closer to her heart now than it was before», Meghan said. «James is her only child, right?»
He nodded. James Devereux had been hoping for a new liver for as long as Dr. Walder could remember. For a long time, that had been the only thing he knew about Mrs. Devereux' son. By the time his condition had gotten so bad he couldn't leave the house anymore, he was already well into his fifties. His mother had always feared that this would make him less eligible for receiving a donation.
«It really is a small miracle», he said. «She's going to make me talk about it all afternoon.» He sighed.
«Well, I think it's a lovely coincidence that you got to supervise his surgery. I mean, you're hardly ever in a theater anymore.»
«That's the beauty of retirement, love. Now I only do the fun stuff.»
2. The Size of an Orange
Sirens were howling as the ambulance turned the last corner. Two ER nurses came rushing towards the car. The paramedics hauled out a stretcher. One of them rattled down all the information they had on the pasty young man lying on it. Adult male, collapsed in a hotel lobby, apparently suffering from abdominal pain right before that. He was breathing flatly but regularly, no markings or bleeding.
They gave him painkillers that made him too woozy to hold up a conversation. He was drifting in and out of sleep while they examined him. The nurse helped him take off his shirt and lie down for an abdominal ultrasound. There was some heated conversation between the doctor and the nurse that suddenly stopped when the image on the screen became clear. The doctor's jaw dropped.
When he woke up, he felt like he'd been trapped under something heavy for a while. His throat was sore from heartburn. He blinked and looked around the room. At the sight of the needle on his hand, his heart started racing. This was wrong. He could feel it. He shouldn't be here. All his muscles seemed to cramp simultaneously. His chest felt too tight to hold his organs, he gasped for air and his vision became blurry. This was clearly how he was going to die, here and now. He couldn't hear the nurse entering the room. But when she took his hand and urged him to breathe deeply, he was able to follow. The panic attack faded after a few minutes. When the doctor who'd answered the nurse's call sat down by his bedside, he felt in control of himself again.
«So, how's the hero's recovery going?», the doctor asked. He didn't understand. The doctor looked annoyed.
«I'm sure they instructed you not to drink when you made the donation», he said, «so I'm really curious: What the hell did you think you were doing?»
He still didn't understand. «The donation?», he asked. The doctor was not having it. «Don't waste my time! Your liver is the size of an orange so it can't be too long since you had the better part of it taken out. And then you go on holiday and down a few cocktails to celebrate? Were you trying to kill yourself?»
«I, I don't...», he stuttered, «I mean, I... what?»
«Here's a friendly tip», the doctor said, «just look at the scar on your belly as a reminder that you won't be equipped to handle alcohol for a long time.»
He still looked puzzled. «The scar... from my appendix surgery?»
«Are you kidding me», said the doctor, but it wasn't a question. This was by far the strangest case he'd ever had.
3. The Reaping
He woke up screaming, shaking. Tonight's rendition of his recurring nightmare had been worse than all the ones before. After waking up, there was the usual relief that he was safe and sound in his own bed and certainly not in a brightly lit operational theater witnessing the dissection of his own body. But the relief wore off quicker each time. He knew by now that it was only a matter of time before he'd see those gruesome scenes again, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. He couldn't talk to his friends about it. He had tried and failed. They'd been distant for a while. He'd had to agree that it was kind of bizarre to bail out on the holiday they had planned together, especially after he'd been the one insisting they'd all book five star suites and first class tickets. Also, going to the same place by himself a few weeks later only to call one of them up from the hospital after two days hadn't helped much. «Everyone gets a bad trip every now and then, bro», was the nicest thing someone had said to him since. «When are you going to stop being such a whiny son of a bitch» and «you better get yourself a bloody therapist and stop calling me for Christ's sake», were among the harsher comments. His stay in the hospital had been strange to say the least. The local doctor was convinced that the surgeons had taken out a part of his liver during his appendectomy. He didn't believe him when he said that his appendix had been removed eight years ago. Eventually he just stopped talking until he was let go.
The dreams had begun shortly after his return home. Most times, he was aware that he was dreaming, but couldn't make himself wake up before it got to the part with the operational theater. It always began the same way: He would dream about being woken up by a phone call in the middle of the night. Lately he'd started panicking when his phone rang while he was awake. In the dream, he would pick up and say «Hello?» and then, after a few seconds, hear a faint voice reply: «It's time». He'd look up and see a person with a surgical mask standing in his room, syringe in hand, casting their shadow over him as they approached. When he thought about the dream while he was awake, it always seemed strange to him that the sharp, stinging sensation in his neck alone was not enough to wake him up, the same way you'd wake up the moment you hit the ground when you dream of falling. He had tried putting off sleep for as long as he could, he had tried to induce it forcefully with pills, he had woken himself up every 40 minutes one night to avoid slipping into REM sleep. Nothing helped. Days and nights drifted into one another and the visions would haunt him whenever he dozed off. He'd been struggling for weeks when he suddenly realized that there was only one thing he'd never tried: Sit through it.
So that night, when the phone rang, he answered it calmly, looking around the room. This was the first time he actually saw the door swing open. The carrier of the syringe no longer wore a mask. Her face looked familiar, smiling at him with cold eyes. Bending over his paralyzed body, she whispered: «You're finally going to meet my dad tonight. Isn't that exciting?» Then she rammed the needle into his neck.