I found this short story digging around some old file folders. I gave it a light polish and thought it would make for a good inaugural blog post. Enjoy. — Nick
My college philosophy professor argued that humans are agents of chaos. But I found his logic flawed. Indeed, chaos has no need of agency.
Humans are agents of order. The natural way of the world is chaos. Atoms recombine, elements battle, dissolve, build; rocks erode, planets die and stars are sent slowly spinning outwards, away from one another, away from an unknown core where perhaps order once reigned. We are the remnants of that time and place.
Of course it would begin in hospitals. On an average day—a Tuesday, perhaps—war is waged here against death. And so where else to begin when that war is waged amongst the remainder of civilization?
It spread upwards from the morgue. The situation was likely beyond repair long before I even became aware of it: The surgical wing is up two floors from the basement. Still, I can blame no one but myself for my now glaring imperceptions. I lost three patients on the table today, which must have been my poorest shift to date, though I try not to keep track. It wasn’t until I strode to the break room to quell my nerves with a decaf that I awoke from my internal ruminations. A patient cloaked only in front with a blood-spattered hospital gown strode by with an open wound on his back, utterly unaffected. Pale. Vacant. I broke the threshold of the break room in time to hear Nurse Peters mumble the end of a prayer under her breath, then slit through her own carotid artery with an unsterilized scalpel. The will to act muffled my own cries of protest, but by the time I was to my knees at her side it was too late.
As I watched the crimson and ink sputter out of the young girl’s neck and discovered the mangled meat of her shoulder, it struck me: the patient from the hallway was one of my own. The second casualty of the day. It was then, in yet another costly moment of introspection, that I had been attacked. A third person in the room, another patient, and the likely inspiration of Nurse Peters’ gruesome suicide. Teeth, as sharp as they may seem, are primarily only good for tearing. Up until today, a dentist’s area of expertise.
I have tied a rubber hose around my shoulder, squeezed tightly under the armpit. A carefully measured dose of local anesthesia waits in a syringe in my opposite hand. Relics from another life. Though under the circumstances, I doubt my sponsor would deride my use of a needle.
The operating room is in good order. What little mess remained after the last surgery cleaned before any incidents on the second floor. To make for as comfortable a work environment as possible, the doors here are all but soundproof. At my back, a small rectangular window cut above the door handle is the only evidence of the spreading doom at St. Mary’s Intensive Care. Instead I face the pristine stainless steel of the operating table, clear but for a scalpel and bone saw, with which I have performed hundreds of operations. None before, though, on myself.
Just after I inject the needle – carefully, lest I stop my own heart – I dislocate my shoulder, a trick my boys inherited from me. A funny thing, genetics. This will allow working through the joint and tissue easier. I feel the pain of my forearm’s open wound begin to dissipate and my fingers gently tingle and I know the anesthetic is taking its course. As I touch the cold handle of the saw, I chuckle to myself:
“Chaos in the midst of chaos isn’t funny, but chaos in the midst of order is.”
The measured wit of a modern day philosopher. Steve Martin. But what, I wonder to myself, of order in the midst of chaos?
Something smashes against the door outside. Perhaps the glass is cracked, I don’t notice. A bead of sweat crawls from a pore above my brow and the arm belongs to someone else. A surgery just like any other: a lifesaving procedure to prevent an unknown pathogen from reaching the heart, the blood stream and the brain. The door surely rattles now, barraged from its opposite side by those I couldn’t save.
The arm falls from my side with gravity. It falls with the weight of genetic history and forty-six years of muscle memory. I collapse to sit and breathe, for no other reason, and my thoughts move to cauterization.
A hill erodes and we build a wall. A car breaks down and we phone a mechanic. Meat tends toward spoilage, so we freeze it in preparation. Oceans swirl and winds blow so we harness their motions into energy. A drug burrows a living space into the mind of a once proud father, so we send him to rehabilitation, put him on diets, make him attend meetings. Humans are always fighting the inevitability of chaos, trying to control that which cannot be controlled; only momentarily tempered.
…Cauterization. I look to my shoulder, but…there is no blood. My mind is afraid, but there is no adrenaline. My breathing is measured, even slow. The pounding at the door has ceased…
An unknown pathogen. In med school, a professor once asked us to write a paper on the human soul. I wrote that the human body was a part of the world…at one with the chaos that surrounds it: disease, injury, aging…But the soul was the driver. The soul was what allowed us to fight death. To fight chaos.
A man is sick and we attempt to cure him.
I look into the thin reflection offered by the scalpel and see my brown eyes turned grey. And I finally let go.