by Russell W. Johnson
If there’s a Hell, I bet it smells an awful lot like St. Cyriacus Hospital. Its industrial-grade hand soap and grimy linoleum floors, combined with the funk of humanity, create an odor concoction that clings to your clothes and won’t let go. I’ve learned that much from far too many nights curled up on back-breaking “guest” beds, nervously watching the rise and fall of my son’s chest.
This is Wesley’s seventeenth surgery. He’s five. Every few months it seems we go through this same routine. I carry him through the hospital kicking and screaming, having to bear hug him until the calming medicines take hold. Then I have to let go, turning him over to a team of strangers in their funny hats and OR scrubs. That’s actually the easiest part. The worst is back here in the waiting room, desperately doing anything to keep my mind off the situation —books, magazines, iPad, emails — and holding my breath whenever the door opens, looking to see if it’s Wesley’s doctor.
Here comes one now, face still masked like a bandit. I can tell instantly it’s not my guy, though — way too much gray hair. Wesley’s surgeon is much younger, probably younger than me. I know because he has kids in the same daycare Wesley goes to, where I occasionally run into him at pickup time.
A young mother from the back of the room rushes forward. She hugs this more senior doctor, wiping away tears of joy when she gets the good news. I want to feel happy for her, but I can’t help but think her success just worsened Wesley’s odds. There are going to be bad outcomes, complications, infections, accidents, stone cold fuck-ups. It’s a statistical certainty. This hospital is pretty good, but if you keep going under the knife, time and time again, sooner or later, those odds have got to catch up to you. Just the anesthesia alone …
“Stop it,” I say aloud. “It’ll be just like every time before,” I tell myself. I followed all the old routines: same pre-surgery meal, same Cyriacus stink-stained T-shirt, got my lucky Dodgers cap turned backwards.
But I know it’s not all the same. There’s one glaring, snarling, sweaty, 6’2,” 240-pound difference staring me in the face: my Uncle Jimmy. He’s here in place of my wife, who’s back home in a medication-induced slumber, sitting this one out. Jimmy’s a gruff man who looks comical trying to calm a blonde-haired little girl in the midst of a tantrum. He’s doing his best to keep her from bothering me but eventually gives up and hands her over.
“She wants her dad,” Jimmy says, shrugging his shoulders.
I bounce the little girl on my knee for a minute and then gracefully redirect her to coloring books and some princess dolls. Once she’s content, I give Jimmy a look like, “was that so hard?” and return to my ruminating and toe-tapping.
Jimmy knows I’m getting antsy and tries to distract me with old war stories. He was a sniper in Vietnam who won enough medals to fill a shoe box. Now he’s running down each of his twenty-three confirmed kills, giving me the chapter and verse on distance, wind speed, visibility. When he graphically describes the way a man’s head can explode like a melon, the other families gawk like he has antlers growing out of his forehead, but Jimmy doesn’t notice. He runs his gnarled hands through his Grecian-formula hair, fluffing the feathers on his duck-ass hairdo, and stares at the little girl sitting Indian-style at my feet.
She’s all pigtails and smiles now, a perfect angel. But looking at her, I get the feeling that I’m the sickest person in this hospital because I can’t feel a thing for her. Not even the slightest tinge of emotion, compassion, or concern. I take her delicate little porcelain-doll hand in mine and still nothing. Absolutely nothing. God knows what kind of germs that floor is crawling with, but I just let her piddle around down there. I don’t even flinch when I catch her picking at a petrified wad of gum before sticking her fingers in her mouth. I’ve got no parental instinct toward her whatsoever. Been that way all day. I can’t even bring myself to say her name. It’s like there’s some kind of protective shell surrounding it in my mind. Today, she’s just Little Girl. Wesley’s all that matters.
Little Girl looks up and asks if she can have another candy bar. That’ll be her third since this morning but whatever; I reach into my bag and hand it over.
“This is taking too long,” I say, and check my watch for the hundredth time. “We should’ve heard by now.” I pace up and down the hall, looking for signs of Wesley’s doctor. Nothing.
I go back. Little Girl is in my seat, so I scoop her up like a ragdoll and plop her down in my lap as I sit back down. Jimmy finishes describing kill twenty-three and transitions to an episode decades later, when his son was badly injured in a bike accident. Jimmy’d had to hold him down while EMTs strapped him to a backboard. “Looking at my boy’s bloody face … ” Jimmy takes a deep breath, purses his lips, and whistles loudly. “I mean, I’ve seen some shit, you know? But nothing ever felt like that.”
I nod, realizing this is Jimmy’s way of saying he knows what I’m going through, but all I can think about now is how young the surgeon is. Why doesn’t he have any gray hair? I really do think he’s younger than I am, and probably just as fallible and fucked up, too.
“That’s what’s killing me,” I say.
“What’s that?” Jimmy asks.
“Just the randomness of it all, man. Did you know that less than one in 500,000 kids are born with Wesley’s condition?”
“Those are long odds.”
“Yeah, and once you hit those … It’s like being one of those people who gets struck by lightning multiple times or keeps winning the lottery. Like having one extreme thing happen to you opens you up to a lifetime of extreme things that aren’t even a concern for normal people.”
“Extreme becomes common,” Jimmy says.
“Yep,” I say, catching myself about to tear up. I sniff, pinching the bridge of my nose so hard I could just about rip it off. “I mean, think about how easy it would be for that baby surgeon in there to just have a bad day.”
“Nah,” Jimmy says. “He’ll do fine.”
“Everybody has a bad day at their job once in a while,” I argue. “Everybody. And all it’d take for the unthinkable to happen is one little slip of the surgeon’s hand. It’d all be over. Everything we’ve been through could all be for nothing if the doc just rolled into work this morning a little sleep-deprived or hung over, or pissed off about a fight he had with his wife, or if some asshole cut him off in traffic.”
I pause, trying to think of a way to articulate the helplessness I feel, that desperate falling feeling that shakes me awake at night. “It’s like flying,” I say. “You’re crammed into one of those steel tubes, trying not to think about the 30,000 feet separating you from the ground and how you’re totally at the mercy of the pilot. He makes a mistake, or falls asleep, or has a heart attack, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Everybody in that place is going down. You have no control at all over the situation.”
“Try not to worry,” Jimmy says, squeezing my shoulder. “The doc is on his A game today. I promise.”
And just like that, there he is: the doc at the door. His mask is gone and he’s not smiling. My heart drops; I swallow hard. The doc makes a beeline for us. I clamor to my feet, charging toward him like a pissed off rhino, like I might tackle him. He raises a hand to stop me. “Everything went well,” he says. Little Girl starts fussing, so I ask Jimmy to take her down the hall and give the doc and me some space to talk.
“I want to see him. Now,” I say. The doc hems and haws about hospital policy, but I give him a look that wheels him around.
He leads me to the recovery room, where Wesley is hooked up to what seems like a thousand tubes and wires. A nurse is taking his blood pressure amidst the beeps of all the different monitors. Wesley opens his eyes a couple of times and manages a crooked little smile before falling back asleep.
“Satisfied?” the doctor asks.
I start to comment on his bedside manner, or lack thereof, but decide not to. I shrug. Without another word, the doc does a 180 and scurries off. I go to kiss Wesley’s forehead and the nurse clears a path for me, like she might catch cooties if I brushed against her. I give her a bit of the stink eye as I stroke Wesley’s hair and fish around in my pocket for my cell phone. When I find it, I flip it open and speed dial Jimmy.
“Wesley’s okay,” I say when Jimmy answers. “Yeah, the doc’s on his way out. You were right; he was on his A game. You can let his little girl go.”
Russell W. Johnson is a North Carolina attorney and fiction writer. His debut story, “Chung Ling Soo’s Greatest Trick,” recently won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new author; it will be presented at the 2016 Edgar Awards. Johnson’s stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit and Out of the Gutter Online’s Flash Fiction Offensive.