Reg always had a way of being in situations that were at the same time both fortunate and unfortunate. For instance, on the day one of his one tonnes decided to drop off the jack stands and put its axle through his chest and spine, at least one thousand of his fellow countrymen had died and become a potential donor. Unfortunately not one of those men died within the country. They had in fact died miles away in another country, fighting the war. Twenty seven females, however, did die within the country that day, four under the maximum viable age of thirty, one within the twelve hour window. That one female was eleven years old when she drowned in her family’s swimming pool.
I know this because Reg walked to my room, or should I say laboured? Laboured to my room several times a day during my time at the hospital.
“These goddamn machines don’t know shit about taking care of us,” he would say from atop the little girl’s body.
It was a long time before I ever got used to his almost stereotypical old man, blue collar voice coming from four feet off the ground, his head always hanging to one side or the other, the minuscule frame unable to properly support the full grown head. Yet with time his appearance made sense to me, he was an effigy of our time and place, the product of unfettered medical science, the combination of state-of-the-art medicine and an antiquated oath. He was two people frozen in time sutured together to create one.
“They feed me twenty five times a day because they say I don’t eat enough. As if shoving more food into my face will fix that problem. I’ve got the body of a goddamn third grader but they see me as a grown man. A fuckin’ chimp could see that I ain’t no grown man anymore but these fancy fuckin’ robots can’t see shit.”
It was the least Reg could say. Amid our pristine conditions and first class meals there was an affliction. It was in the air, in the walls, it was the network that kept us alive. Ninety-nine precent of the people who came in and left the hospital happy and cured would disagree with me, hard to hate a system that cut wait times, costs and mortality down to almost nothing. But for people like Reg and I things weren’t so simple.
When it came to saving human lives the machines were nothing short of gods: Stitching people back together after being torn apart in a car accident or curing them of a crippling disease. Their understanding of the human body and ability to pin point any problem inside of it was uncanny and greater than any living being. For decades the machines held our standard of living as the greatest in the world, a luxury the majority of people were not afforded. A division was created that grew until there were two distinct sides, an imbalance that always corrects. The masses with little will only tolerate the few with plenty for so long. With the the onset of war and the following shortage of overseeing human doctors an elemental flaw in the machines began to manifest itself in a small number of complex patients.
“There are dozens of fresh donors around here everyday now that the rail to the front is finished. Lots of dead boys coming back. I scream at the machines but of course they don’t give a fuck. I point it out to the nurses. I literally point at the bodies and say ‘put me on that, that is my cure,’ but they just tell me to take my pills and let the machines do their jobs. I don’t need the machines I need a Doctor! I just need someone to show me the fuckin’ doctors!”
He would often scream the last part out into the hall as if someone important might be listening. It was a tirade he went on often.
And often I would remind him that the doctors were in a war, helping to save our utopia, Something that I knew would piss him off more.
“Fuck you, you castrated fuck,” was a favourite response of his.
Reg despised the war. Who could blame him? It was part of what made him into what he was. And what he was was a travesty, caught in the inhuman care of the machines.
In Reg’s first months as a patient, after the shock wore off, he was assured that the situation would only be temporary, successful body-transplant had been happening for decades. With him prepped and waiting at the hospital it would be a snap, all they had to do was wait for a proper donor to come up, something that should and did eventually happen. Only when it did the machines wouldn’t preform the procedure. They gave the official explanation that they could not kill a human. And in their defence they would have to, although very briefly, kill Reg to take his head off of the little girls body and onto another. To any sensible person that was no reason not to proceed. Well, it turned out that Reg’s situation was a new one and it was something that came in conflict with the machines’s core programming. Typically in situations such as that, Reg would soon learn, it was only elected doctors and scientists who were authorized to override and correct such conflicts. And as rare as such conflicts became, no one thought to amend the rules as all the medical minds turned towards the war. Reg, myself and unknown others became problems that no one was responsible for, ignored like chores by children without an adult to divvy them out.
Except it wasn’t just ignorance, it was contempt. The nurses, the very people who were tasked with helping us, did little to hide their apparent disgust. Perhaps it was the repetition of everyday having to see our sorrowed faces. Everyday having to bear Reg’s insistent questions and complaints. Everyday having to clean me, the half man, of all my filth and shit.
We were an interruption into the norm, so different we couldn’t illicit pity from our own caregivers. We shouldn’t have existed by their standards. People came in and were either healed by the machines or died, there was no sick.
Often in Reg’s early years he would come to me with plans to rouse some sort of attention towards our plight, something which was not as simple as one might think. The problem was that the patients who came into contact with us on a day to day basis seemed perplexed when we explained to them our situations. The fact that the machines wouldn’t help us made no sense to them and they were in and out so fast there was little time to convince them otherwise. We needed to speak with someone important.
Unfortunately there was a further element to our struggle that made it near impossible to interact with people on the outside: we were not allowed to leave the hospital. The machines could read not only our physical bodies but also to some degree our minds, for is the human psyche not as fragile as our bodies? And in a cruel twist of fate the machines that had rendered us so abandoned by our fellow man now took too great of a concern in our mental states. Mental states that were not caused by genetic predispositions or a traumatic experience, causes the machines knew how to address with neuro-therapies. No, the cure to our physical illnesses and therefore our psychotropic pain, had already been denied, locking us into an eternal loop of administered drugs and therapies. None of which properly mended our minds in the eyes of the electronic doctors, who withheld our discharges indefinitely. Any attempt to exit the building by a diagnosed Mentally Unstable was thwarted by locked doors, physical restraint and if necessary, sedation.
So, Barred from the world, Reg would devise plans to bring the world to us.
“We will paint our messages in blood.” He stood on a garbage can beside my bed to speak face to face with me.
“We’ll take our own blood and with our fingers we will write our story on the hospital windows. No matter how often they clean them we’ll just keep writin’. The people outside will bug out when they see the sight of it, they’ll have to take a closer look.”
It wasn’t one of his best plans but because the majority of his plans concerned escaping I was glad to finally be able to contribute to one, albeit scarcely.
With my bed propping me up to a seated position I was able reach high enough on my eastern facing window to fit a short biography.
Mirrored so to be legible from outside, in my own blood I wrote, “My name is Samuel Byrne. I am twenty-seven years old and over half my organs have been removed. I am attached to a machine that keeps me alive and won’t let me leave.”
Despite my cynicisms, putting my story down in writing made me feel better than I had in years. Perhaps this would be the thing that got our story on the front page, onto the desk of a politician.
In the days that followed, after running around the hospital like a GI Joe head on a dolls body, painting the windows red with our nightmares, Reg would come to my room to watch the Eleven O’clock news. On the eighteenth night of this routine our efforts finally begged a segment on the local channel, yet as the young journalist standing in front of our hospital addressed the bloody windows we realized it wasn’t the story we wanted told. In a tone that suggested she had better things to tell the world the young women wove a narrative of unwieldy patients vandalizing a publicly funded institution. For corroboration she spoke with several nurses whom each derided the pair of us. With knowing chicanery they explained that a handful of disobedient patients were self inflicting injuries and harassing the staff. Never once was there a concise shot of the words we wrote.
As heartbreaking as it was, neither Reg nor I could admit to being very surprised. The nurses knew that for a press and public riveted to a full scale war anybody who complained about anything else was just a selfish prick. Even if we were trapped we had flat screen tv’s and meals on demand, we had cute nurses and jacuzzi baths. All while the boys at the front were being torn to shreds. The shadow cast by the war was simply too dark, for those of us hurting in it’s shade our problems were our own.
Though we were both used to such disappointments this particular loss I sensed put Reg down lower than the others, a low he never seemed to come out of. There was a tangible shift in the dynamic of his thinking. Ideas became hazardous, outright criminal and eventually suicidal.
When the day came when he was through dancing around the subject and wanted to talk openly about dying I became a sad but willing cohort. Willing for three reasons. One, it was getting hard to watch him suffer day in and day out. Two, Reg was interested in dying in such a way that would end with him alive once again, on a different and more fitting body, a doubtful but welcome thought. And three, I had long been attempting suicide myself, to no avail, and I welcomed any fresh thoughts on the subject.
Yes, suicide as well required a process of planning and execution. Of course the machines would not allow what went against their core directive.
Reg knew I had attempted suicide multiple times but he did not know to what depths my obsession with death had become. One arm, no legs, and one eye, several hoses exiting my body carrying fluids into the walls and down to the basement where my mechanical organs ran eternal. Each and every day I lived was suffering, I wanted nothing more than to die. More than freedom, more than a cure, I longed for death. Still they said I was a man, a man that needed to be kept alive at all costs. But I felt more machine than man and with my dick removed years prior who’s to say I wasn’t?
My curse, my personal version of what the machines were doing to Reg, was a bit more complicated or at least not as obvious. I came to the hospital with an infected wound on my right hand, the origin of which I can’t remember. After some quick tests the machines slapped life threatening status on me and dragged me to intensive care. A flurry of antibiotics and blood later and I woke up missing three fingers. Flesh eating bacteria the machines told me, I needed to be held and monitored. I felt fine and couldn’t see anything wrong anywhere on my body but the machines insisted something was present. Eventually another amputation came, an ear, only this time there was no wound. The same tests and same diagnosis followed. By the time I realized something was going wrong the machines had already labeled me unsafe for discharge, I found myself locked in a hospital bent on picking me apart piece by piece.
But in the end, whether man or machine, no matter how close to death I felt, I couldn’t die. Believe me when I say that I tried. At first through deranged fits of self harm where I would tear out the many life lines that kept me alive, believing I could cause irreparable damage to me and the mechanics. Then by more calculated methods like strangulation or poisoning. But of course the system had a way of dealing with the occasional difficult patient, before I could get half of the lines out of me an instant acting sedative would already be coursing through what was left of my bloodstream and to my all too human brain. This action and reaction continued into any following attempts at ending my life, the machine always had a way of making me live while also reducing my true capacity to do so.
Now that Reg, a crude yet mobile human being, wanted to die, like a tick I could attach my suicidal intentions to his belly. I hoped he would either kill me or at the very least show me how to jump further than the machine’s built in suicide barriers.
So began the experiments, the tests, the proverbial white board. The jumping off point was Reg’s plan to decapitate himself and end up on another body. If he was going to die, he argued, it might as well be in attempt to live. That meant that he was going to have to cut his head off clean enough to make transplant possible while also rendering his current body unusable.
After weeks of deep thought and discussion we came up with a series of clear questions and theories, and how we could put them under light of the scientific method.
If it sounds callus for us to have spoken this way about our own deaths let it show you the extent of our hell. It was the happiest I’d been in many years, even Reg seemed happier.
Cold and concise, the way science can be, the plan simply involved Reg cutting himself across the neck with a scalpel at intervals of worsening depth, each time recording the reaction of the machines. Without interference from the nurses, who would be glad to see him dead, Reg was able to run the experiment about once every three months.
Sure as rock beats paper as soon as he was physically able to Reg would get out of bed, run and tell me the results of the last attempt then steal another scalpel, drag that blade across his deepening scar and wait for the machines to prevent his death. It was years of this gruesome process. Years of not seeing my one friend for months only to have him dash into my room for one brief moment looking closer to death than the last time he’d done so, then disappear. Years spent wondering if maybe the machines hadn’t saved him that time, maybe he was lying cold on a table somewhere. It took years of horror to collect the information we needed, but we had a latent advantage on our side: we had a nearly limitless amount of time.
At some point during our exhaustive trials, Reg and I both separately realized that without our own intervention we probably wouldn’t die for a very long time. Without the hazards of the outside world, under the unsleeping eye of the machine no matter what we did or what illness came after us time would keep going. It was up to us to cut ourselves out of the loop we were trapped in.
Seven years of running this excruciating test it took Reg to find out the information he needed but once he got it it was days before he was concocting his first plan. I pleaded with him to take a break, to get some rest but he wouldn’t hear it, he wanted to die. A mere six days after he’d recovered from his last suicide he came to me with what turned out to be his first and last successful plan.
First I heard the patter of his bare feet running down the hall towards my room, as I had each time before when he’d come to me with a new plan. It was the sound of a child running down the street to his friends house on a summer day.
When he clamoured into my room, he dove straight into his latest idea.
“I’ve got it, I’ve finally got it. It’s brilliant.”
His accent was all but gone, ground down to a dull prosaic tone by blunt times. Not the voice of Reg anymore but the man of a thousand deaths.
“The basement, the morgue, it’s the key. It will give me the exact combination of time and confusion that I need.”
We had quickly realized, through the crunched numbers, that down in the depths, where they stored the recently deceased, the machines reacted slower than usual to death. It seemed that due to the low death rate, at any given time, the morgue was the least machine-populated department in the hospital. Furthermore the presence of dead bodies, few though they may be, appeared to mildly disrupt the machines’ ability to detect death.
“I’m going to grab one of those stiffs and use it to hide my body. I’m gonna jam me and it into a duct, with my head exposed, strap us in and hack the shit out of my throat. It’s perfect, with the stiff strapped to me it’ll take them at least fifteen minutes to find me, and I’ll be long dead. But that’s just phase one.”
I had already guessed as much.
“When they finally find me, unresponsive, and try to get me out of the duct, they are going to find it quite difficult. It will take them so long that eventually they will face a decision, either let me as a whole die or remove my dangling head and attach it to a strapping young man’s corpse. You see the beauty? Either I die or I get out with a new life!”
It did sound like a decent plan to me but it was just his first attempt, I thought it would be many more before he got it right, if ever.
“I just need to snag a bunch of bandages and hosing along with the usual scalpel. Maybe a towel.”
He was thinking out loud, still working on the details. And then, by the change on his face, I could see something dawn on him. Something he tried to ply into his plan as organically as fresh clay on a finished vase. An illegible smile creased his unshaven face.
“and guess what else is down there, tucked away with the dead.”
I didn’t have time to guess.
“Your organs. There’s a third phase, buddy, that actually takes place before the other two. I’m gonna sabotage those mechanical organs for you. Put poison in your blood, smash your lungs, empty your stomach, you name it.”
A pang of hope arose in my chest that I forced back down with practiced despondence. The thought of those imitation organs failing had always been enough to peak my deepest desires but I knew there was no way he would be able to get that close to such vital equipment. Besides, it didn’t help my confidence that I had just witnessed what few seconds there were of the planning process. But I said nothing. It didn’t matter whether or not he would attempt such a thing, it didn’t even matter if he was being earnest or bluffing. I had watched Reg suffer greatly for this opportunity, who was I, a bed ridden do nothing, to demand his precious attention.
Feigning optimism I concluded, “I think you’re right, this sounds like the ticket.”
I would have thought we were past charades as thin as these but Reg reacted as though I were sincere.
“Then it’s a go! This is it, our ticket out.”
His smile widened and I was saddened for I could no longer believe my only friend.
As I had each time before, I waited. Only this time I wasn’t just waiting to see if Reg died, I was also waiting to see if I would die. With what little human flesh I had left I tried to feel for it, for death, hoping to sense some part of me beginning to die.
As the days passed and I felt nothing it became clear that I probably wasn’t going to die. This left only Reg’s fate to be shown. I had conceded to anxiously waiting the months that it would take to reveal whether or not Reg were alive or dead when I noticed that the nurses were treating me worse than usual, impossible as I would have thought it. I was willing to bet the change had something to do with Reg.
From that point forward anytime a nurse came into my room to perform one of their tasks that dwindled away along with my human form I ceaselessly berated her for information about Reg. I howled and raved, shook in my bed, even spit at them. For weeks they screamed back, threatened to put me under but revealed nothing about Reg. Until out of the blue one morning four of them walked in to deliver the news with smiles on their faces.
Thin red curls, mother of many, Judith, a particular shrill nurse, stepped forward and addressed me.
“No need to make a scene today, Samuel, we are here to tell you what you want to know.”
I said nothing and tried to keep a steady face, I refused to indulge her. I knew things had gone their way.
“Well, as you know, a few weeks ago your friend Reg pulled quite the stunt. A stunt that caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people, the people who take care of you. But do you know what happened?”
She paused to give me time to contemplate and all four of them searched my face for reaction. I struggled to hold back a surge of acidic hate climbing in my chest.
When she saw that I wasn’t going to draw my own conclusions Judith continued with her own.
“He got out, can you believe it?” She scoffed. “We always knew one day he would die but get out? No way. He got that tiny little body of his stuck good in that duct, plugged it up with a corpse, you know that part. Well the machines couldn’t get him out for one reason or another and decided to take his head clean off, almost the same way he came here in the first place. The only difference being the body on top of which his head rode. None of us could believe our eyes when we saw him sitting up in that bed, head sewn to a brand new strapping young man.”
Though I knew it was what they wanted, what they had discussed among each other before coming in, I allowed myself a moment to savour the thought of Reg waking up in his hospital to find he is once again whole. A feeling of genuine happiness threatened to give satisfaction to the glaring women so I brushed the thought aside and waited for the crux of the story.
“Not long after that he was up and about, running and jumping, gleaming with joy. It was quite a scene.”
Then Judith’s tone shifted, inflated good-nature to stern lecture.
“I bet you can guess how concerned we were, Samuel, and I bet you don’t care. That’s the problem with you and him, you don’t care who is effected by your outbursts. Who do you think deals with all the other patients who see these things? Who do you think has to come running every time there is an alarm? And think about the gallons of blood that we have had to deal with?”
“The rooms are self cleaning,” I couldn’t help but state.
“Oh but you are not,” she stung back.
“Do you think we enjoy cleaning the blood off of the husk of skin that you are? Or do you think we enjoy the smell of what ever comes out of that tube that’s supposed to be connected to the end of your intestines? Well we do not. Yet we have always let you be, whatever it is that you are. You and Reg, we do our jobs then leave you two alone. Still, the outbursts get worse each time. You are like weeds in our back yard, Samuel. You do remember backyards don’t you?”
That part hurt. She could have asked me if I remembered weeds but she didn’t because weeds are a bad thing and would be a bad memory. She wanted me to remember something good, something I would miss. I couldn’t have hated them more than I did at that moment, nothing would have given me more joy than to have found out that Reg had escaped their toxic jaws. But I knew it was not so.
“And then Reg,” she continued, “Starts reading stable mental faculties, so well in fact the machines declare him fit for release. A miracle. He was free to go cause more trouble for people, outside of their jobs, in their homes and families.”
She smiled. “But now all I can say is thank God for conscription.”
So that was it, out of the jaws and into the web. Reg had continued his habit of being both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time.
“They came for him this morning, able bodied male that he is, kicking and screaming. I imagine he’s about half way to the front by now, that train travels pretty fast I hear. Now he’ll know what our fathers, brothers and sons have gone through. Now he’ll know just how good he had it.”
Maybe as the car rattled it’s way to the front Reg considered that, but I bet if he did he quickly moved past it. More likely he was excited to see some action, to feel freedom, before he died.
I tried to focus on that, but I just wanted to know one thing. I knew I couldn’t trust the answer but emotion overpowered my guard.
“Before he died, before he grabbed the dead man, did he try to save me? Did he try to sabotage my organs?”
“Oh Samuel, did he tell you that?”
Her disdain was clearer than yes or no.
They left me then so that I could contemplate the ways in which my already miserable existence would be worse going forward. If I ever doubted what they told me, if I held onto a shadow of a doubt regarding Reg’s fate, the nurses stripped it away less than a month later when they came to me with his dog tags, which they hung over my bed as a constant symbol of their rule. They considered things settled.
But in reality the dog tags, still covered in the dirt of battle, symbolized the opposite of what they believed. It was obvious even to me, a man shut in to a room with access to only the most basic of news sources, that the war was all but lost. The bodies coming back weren’t just that of young men anymore. At the rate it was collapsing the front was going to be inside our border within the year.
Last night I heard the first explosions in the distance. Today the brutal cries of women and children not heard for decades rattle the hospital walls. Hell has arrived but my prison is crumbing. Generators keep the power and my blood flowing but soon they will starve and a moment later I will be dead. And so I would like to say, soldier, enemy, conquerer, despite the horrors you have committed, despite whatever fanatic seizes power after the capital is taken, you have saved at least one man.
Spencer Dawson is an avid reader and new writer from Ontario, Canada looking to find his direction in the craft.