He woke to the sound of a gentle beeping.
He tried to force his eyelids open, to dissipate the darkness of his unconsciousness, but they refused to budge.
He felt his pulse quicken. The beeping he heard matched the pace of his heart, the tones now coming quick and sharp. He tried to suck air into his lungs. He needed more air. He was suffocating.
He turned his head, but it wouldn’t move. He tried to open his eyes, but they refused to even flicker.
With a sudden jolt, like someone had swung a heavy switch in his brain, he sat up straight. His eyes bulged open. Light burned his retinas, but the white hot pain was preferable to never ending darkness.
He screamed. And from his mouth came a dull croak, and a small hiss of air.
He collapsed, and drifted back into darkness.
When he awoke again –Minutes? Hours later?—his body ached. He took it as a good sign. An aching body was better than a body that felt nothing at all.
He looked around the room. It was a hospital room. A machine stood near his bed, the source of the gentle beeps. Cables snaked from the machine and disappeared underneath his pyjama top, like it was feeding off his flesh and he’d just interrupted meal time.
There was a chair beside his bed. Empty. Sadness attempted to engulf him until he realised that he didn’t even know his own name, and so it was a little hard to mourn the lack of friends or family if you didn’t even know if they existed. It was like someone had packed up all his memories in little wooden boxes, and nailed them shut.
He started to laugh. It was a choppy sound, like someone had told him to breathe out, and then started hacking away at his ribcage with an axe. Nothing was particular funny about his situation, but it seemed preferable to crying, or worse, screaming himself insane.
As the laughter faded, he decided to do a quick self-diagnostic. He wiggled his fingers. They cooperated. He wiggled his toes, and while he couldn’t lift his head to check for movement, he felt them rub against the sheet. He smiled, and even that seemed to work.
He tested the movement of his head. Nice and slowly, all the way to the right. The empty chair and beeping machine was in full view. Not too much pain. All the way to the left, and he stared straight into two piercing eyes.
He screamed, yanked his head back, and felt a stabbing pain shoot from the base of his skull and through his shoulders.
As his heart beat fast, and the machine chirped wildly, he saw the eyes again: deep green, the left one with an odd blue fleck.
“I’m sorry for startling you,” the doctor said.
His voice was muffled from the cloth mask he wore. It was just a rectangle of material, tied behind his head, like they wore in surgery. Or at least they did on TV, and that was pretty much the extent of his medical training.
He tried to respond, but while his mouth opened, the sound that came out was a garbled cacophony of groans.
“That’s okay, don’t try to speak,” the doctor said. “You’ve been in an accident.”
The doctor’s eyes creased in a smile, and he reach backed and took off the mask.
“Where are my manners,” he said. “I’ve been in surgery. You know, I’ve been wearing this mask so often over the past few days that sometimes I forget it’s even there.”
The doctor smiled again. For a reason he couldn’t quite identify, the smile was a little unsettling.
“Do you remember your name?” the doctor asked.
He shook his head.
“I suppose an introduction is in order,” the doctor said. “I’m Doctor Clarence Singleton. I’m a surgeon. And you, my friend, are Mr Dean Connolly – my patient.”
Dean Connolly, he thought. There was no revelation; no flooding of memories, but it seemed to fit as well as any other name.
Dean assessed Doctor Singleton. He sat on a chair, hunched forward slightly, an almost hungry interest shining in his eyes. His clothes were splattered with blood. He must have come straight from one hell of a surgery. Apparently he was overworked, but turning up to another patient’s room covered in blood didn’t seem terribly professional.
Dean tried his voice again, forming the words carefully in his head before opening his mouth.
“Why am I here?” he asked. The words were disjointed, but comprehensible.
The doctor beamed like he’d just seen his son ride a pushbike for the first time without training wheels.
“Your voice is returning,” he said. “That means you’re recovering well. But try and rest it and it’ll return a lot quicker.”
Dean nodded, and his stiff neck allowed the movement with minimal pain.
“You were in an accident,” the doctor said. “You were hit by a van as you crossed the street. You’ve been in an induced coma while I assessed your injuries and allowed your body to heal.”
Dean was about to ask how long, but the doctor beat him to the punch.
“How long? That’s always the next question. It’s been eight days. But don’t worry – you’re recovering more quickly than the others.”
“The others. The other patients,” the doctor stammered. “Other patients with similar injuries, I mean.”
His smile was gone, and in its place was an almost wounded accusation, like Dean had played some dirty trick on him. For a brief second, the doctor had looked…unhinged.
Dean felt a chill, like bony fingers had gently stroked his spine.
The doctor stood.
“It’s time you slept,” he said briskly. “You go into surgery first thing tomorrow.”
Dean tried to protest, but his voice didn’t cooperate. It just squeaked and wheezed.
The doctor produced a needle, like some kind of medical magician, and plunged it into Dean’s neck. He tried to pull away; tried to push the doctor back, but his arm flopped to the side and hung limply from the bed.
As the plunger fell, Dean was once again wrapped in darkness.
But this time he dreamed.
In his dream he could walk. He could feel the sun on his face, the breeze in his hair. He was in the city, on a street he recognized, but couldn’t name. But it was familiar, and the familiarity brought comfort, and for now that was enough.
Ahead of him he saw a cafe, and as he was pondering what to buy for breakfast, he heard the roar of a van. In slow motion he turned his head, mildly surprised at the noise. But by then it was too late.
The van slammed into him, launching him into the air. His head smacked the pavement with a dull thud that echoed through his skull. He looked up and saw a faded blue sky, the world fuzzy. To the side, people stared at him. One lady held a hand to her mouth.
Why are you just standing there? Help me!
And then someone did. He heard a van door open, and the driver ran towards him.
“I’ll take him to the hospital,” the driver called out. “It’s just around the corner. Give me some room!”
“You shouldn’t move him,” someone from the crowd said.
“It’s okay,” the driver said. “I’m a doctor.”
Dean looked into the driver’s face and piecing green eyes stared back. In his left eye was an odd fleck of blue.
Dean woke, and again tried to open his eyes. This time they slid back relatively pain free, but his body still ached.
He remembered his dream. He remembered Doctor Singleton, the driver of the van. And he knew something was seriously wrong. He couldn’t say exactly what the problem was, but the accident, the forced sedation, this whole situation. Something was off. He needed to speak to another doctor, or maybe find a sympathetic nurse.
His heart was pounding, his palms sweaty with unidentified fear.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand. But instead he collapsed to the ground. The wires attached to his chest pulled free, and the machine that was previously uttering such a gentle beep cried out in a piecing alarm.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” Dean whispered.
He realised his voice was returning, but he didn’t have time to celebrate. He was lying on the floor, and he looked for the cord that snaked from the back of the machine to the wall. It was just over a metre away, but it might as well have been across the other side of the world.
He had to quieten the machine. Shut its incessant beeping. It was giving him away.
He pushed with his useless legs, but nothing happened. He tried again, and they brushed at the vinyl covered floor like a playful kitten. A fucking weak, useless, condemned kitten.
He embraced the anger, and let it strengthen him. It flowed through his body, and at that moment he knew he wasn’t going down without a fight. He was going to crawl his way out of here on broken and bleeding nails if he had to, all the way to the police station. He’d make sure the doctor never practiced medicine again.
There was a sting in his neck. Dean flopped to the side before the doctor could slam the plunger down. The needle pulled out, fluid running across his throat and soaking into his pyjamas.
“Oh bollocks, look what you’ve done,” the doctor cursed. “You don’t like needles huh? Well you lay there. You lay there like the dog you are!”
The doctor’s voice was high and whiny. It cracked, and through the crack psychosis flowed.
The doctor stomped from the room and slammed the door. A split second later, the door flew open again, and the doctor pointed an accusing finger at him.
“If you hate needles so much, then that’s it – no more needles! I’m prepping you for surgery and there’ll be no anaesthetic!”
He slammed the door again.
Outside the room, Dean heard him continue to yell.
“You’re ungrateful, that’s what you are!”
Again the doctor poked his head in the door.
“I saved your life!” he screamed.
“You ran me down,” Dean croaked.
The doctor huffed with indignation, and slammed the door once again.
Then there was silence.
Dean’s heart thumped. He wondered why no nurses came to help him. Were they that scared of the doctor that they didn’t dare cross him?
The full force of the doctor’s words hit him.
With no anaesthetic.
The legal, ethical, and moral issues were unfathomable. But fat good a lawsuit would do right now. He needed to get out. The doctor had cracked, and Dean didn’t want to wait around to suffer the consequences.
Fear dumped adrenalin into his blood stream, and he pushed himself to his feet, holding onto the bed for balance.
The pain was excruciating, but probably a hell of a lot less painful than what Doctor Frankenstein was planning for him.
He put a step forward, and fell to his knee. Pain shot up his leg, but it seemed like a piss in the ocean compared to what his body was already feeling. With burning determination, he pushed himself to his feet once again.
A small step forward. Then another. And another.
It was slow going, but as he moved he felt his balance return. He felt the muscles start to flex again, and his joints releasing. The pain receded, or at least his brain decided to ignore the frantic signals from every single nerve in his body.
Another step took him closer to the door, and one more. He reached out, and touched the doorknob.
He’d find a nurse, or better yet, a security guard, and get the hell out of here.
He turned the handle, and it opened.
He stepped from his hospital room into a huge, empty warehouse.
Old dusty machinery lined the walls. The ceiling was a great expanse of rusted metal beams that supported an equally rusted metal roof. Cracked and broken windows lined the top of the warehouse and let in small streams of sunlight.
Dean’s legs were rubbery. His heart thumped and his mind swooned. He grabbed at the doorframe for support. His brain couldn’t process the sudden back flip in reality.
He looked behind him, and saw that his room was simply a small wooden box, the framework exposed on the exterior. Outside the door to his room was a partition wall, painted to look like a hospital corridor, just a few meters long.
He noticed three other boxes, just like his, deeper in the warehouse, and a larger fourth one off to the side. Cables snaked from each wooden box to what must be a power junction.
How many people had this doctor run down and kidnapped?
This was insane.
He looked for an exit. Twenty metres away was a small metal door in the wall of the warehouse. He stumbled towards it, his feet shuffling over the grease stained floor.
What is this place? And why was the doctor doing all this? And was he even a doctor?
So many questions. No answers. Or at least none that mattered right now.
Each step took him closer to freedom. He tried to listen for the sound of traffic outside, but all he heard was the slap of his bare feet on the concrete below.
Fifteen metres to freedom.
His body burned.
His legs were on fire.
His knees were locking up, grinding to a halt like dry and rusted gears. He forced them to bend, and finally he was at the door.
As he turned the handle, he heard a voice scream from behind him.
“Get back to your room!” the doctor yelled. “You’re not authorized for discharge!”
Dean pulled the door open and felt the sunlight on his face. With a mammoth effort, the stepped forward into freedom.
A jolt struck him in the back. He pitched forward, and shuddered on the ground. His body locked up, and he lost consciousness.
When he awoke, he was once again laying down. But this time he was strapped securely to a table. Lights shined from the roof, blinding him, and he squinted against the glare.
“Sorry about the Taser,” the doctor said. “But we can’t have patients just wandering around. It’s against Occupational Health and Safety regulations. I’m sure you understand.”
“You’re insane,” Dean muttered.
“What’s that?” The doctor’s voice was sharp.
“You’re insane!” Dean yelled, and he felt saliva spray from his mouth. He tasted blood.
“Fiddlesticks!” the doctor yelled, and stomped from the room.
He returned a few seconds later and strolled towards Dean, suddenly composed.
“Is it insane to want to help a loved one?” the doctor enquired. He held his arms wide, his palms up, like a badly choreographed stage play.
It was the last thing Dean expected to hear.
“Loved one? I don’t even know you,” Dean spat.
The doctor laughed.
“Oh no, not you,” he said. “My daughter – she’s very sick. She was born with one working kidney. Over the years I watched the remaining one deteriorate. She was on dialysis for so long. I watched my beautiful girl have the blood pumped from her body, cleaned, and injected back into her by soulless machines, day after day. Do you know how painful that is for a father?”
Dean wriggled against the straps that held him in place. He didn’t like where this was heading.
“And not just a father, but as a surgeon?” the doctor asked. “Even I was powerless. No kidney donors, they said. But then one day, a kidney came. And it was my job to transplant it into some other bitch that didn’t deserve it. Not with my little girl slowly dying!”
This was all about his daughter?
“You want my kidney?” Dean asked. “Okay, okay. Let’s go to a real hospital, and I’ll donate my kidney. I promise.”
He was getting desperate.
The doctor barked another laugh.
“Oh no, that’d never do,” he said. “I need both of them.”
The doctor leaned down, and placed a strip of surgical tape over Dean’s mouth, muffling his screams.
Tears started to stream down the doctor’s face as he tied a cloth mask over his mouth.
“I’ve tried two transplants already, but her body rejected both. I have a feeling your kidneys will save her. You’ll be a hero.”
Dean struggled against his restraints.
“Now I’m about to roll you over,” the doctor said, “but before I do, I want you to see my darling princess. You’ll see what your sacrifice is for. You’ll save my wonderful little girl. She’s going to be ten next month, did you know?”
The doctor loosened the straps.
“Now look into her eyes, and be at peace.”
The doctor rolled Dean onto his side. He saw the doctor’s daughter, and he started to scream beneath the surgical tape.
The little girl’s face was sunken and shrivelled. A few wispy pieces of hair remained. The rest had fallen out as her body decomposed. She’d been dead for months.
The doctor stroked her head lovingly, and pieces of her remaining hair pulled free. A strange fluid leaked from the corner of her mouth, and both her nostrils. The doctor leaned down and kissed the dead flesh on his daughter’s forehead.
“We’re just going into surgery again, princess,” he whispered to the corpse. “This time it’ll work. Daddy promises.”
Dean was rolled onto his stomach, the straps once against tightened. He continued to scream, his head thrashing from side to side.
And as the scalpel cut into his lower back, he screamed some more.
More on Sam Stephens and his fiction can be found at www.samstephens.com.
The Australian Literature Review