I had always wanted to be a doctor. I spent my childhood playing with toy stethoscopes, becoming more familiar with the patterns of my friend’s hearts that the jingles on the commercials of Saturday morning cartoons. My best friend’s mother laughed when I mentioned his heart had a tweak to it that didn’t quite sound right, and after he was diagnosed with a murmur two years later she had me listen to the rest of the family. I could pronounce medical terms like horripilation before other students my age could spell two syllable words, and I’d read college biology books before my parents had the chance to give me the talk.
There was no doubt I was a prodigy. But it takes more than skill to earn a degree, especially to become a doctor. It takes money, and it takes time. Money was not issue, as there were a line of benefactors willing to pay for – or more accurately, invest in – my education. And time was no issue either, until after the first year of class at Harvard my mother, who worked as a nurse, fell sick with a condition even her own hospital could not identify.
And maybe it was my love, or maybe it was my ego, but I returned home to save her. But I was too late.
“Alan,” My mother whispered as I knelt at her bedside, offering me a hand that thinned to bone with each passing day, “Go back to school. Get your education. I’m getting old, and maybe it’s my time.”
Behind my mother, a heart rate monitor beeped like the tolling of a bell, and an IV bag emptied itself of liquid just as her body emptied itself of her life. A janitor whom I had come to know as Lenny emptied the trash as I looked over her stats, pausing to refill her cup of water. Lenny never smiled- come to think of it, I had never seen him use any facial expression besides a small nod.
“Empty,” he said in a hollow voice, gesturing to the trash can in his hand, then he said “Full” as he pointed at the glass in her hand, before departing.
“It’s not your time,” I said, with a laugh to my mother, “Your heart beat is regular. You hardly have a fever, if any at all. And you’re hardly past forty five. It’ll pass, I’ll make sure it does.”
I laughed too soon.
At my mother’s request I attended the community college across the street when I refused to return to my original university. And in my last quarter, during a written exam while my Harvard engraved pen lifted from the paper, my mother’s head never lifted from her pillow again.
She was still warm when I reached her room. The doctors had shut her eyes, and my tears fell against the sheets, but she was gone. Her body was there, her organs, her tissues, her cells still present, but death had taken something that mattered more than anything medical science could tangibly study. On the table, her glass was empty, as was the trash can in the corner.
Lenny was changing the lightbulb outside my mother’s room, and he held the spare bulb in his hand.
“Funny,” He said, looking at the spare bulb, “The one in the socket just burnt out, and this one seems to have come without a filament. You’re smart, Mr. Alan. Is there any way to transfer the burnt out filament to the bulb that’s missing it’s filament?”
“No, Lenny.” I said, still in shock from my mother’s passing, “The question’s ridiculous.”
“I’m not quite sure you’re right. Damn, I’ll have to head down to the basement to get another,” He said, then noticed my tears, “But I should tell you I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Alan.”
“Thank you, Lenny.”
“I hear you’re the best medically, Mr. Alan. Maybe you should stay around here, become a nurse like your mother. There are others here that need help.”
“I’ll think about it, Lenny.” I said, and left. But his words stuck in my mind, and bothered me late into the night as I lay awake. My mother had died from an unknown disease, and if it was contagious, or caused by some factor in the town, perhaps I could stop the next case.
I was hired without an interview. Already most of the hospital staff knew me, and many had contacts at the community college that would have written me letters of recommendation pages long.
And though I was a nurse, I had the mind of the doctor. I would solve the next case.
Each day I ate lunch with Lenny, and he asked me questions, ones that probed my mind in ways that no normal conversation could.
“Mr. Alan,” He asked one day, stirring a puddle of peas with his fork, “How is it that you’re so smart, and I am not?”
“Most likely genetics, Lenny. Pure chance, by luck.”
“Well is there any way I could become as smart as you? ” He asked. In front of him he had made two mounds of mashed potatoes with craters in the middle, one filled with peas and the other empty, and he asked the next question as he filled the second crater with peas, “You know, like in the movies. Is there any way I could have some of your smarts? That you could share?”
“That’s preposterous, Lenny. If you work hard, you can increase your intelligence too. You can make it grow.”
“But if I don’t have any to start, that’s a problem, isn’t it? If I was born without it.”
“Yes, I suppose. If you had none, but I’m sure you have some, Lenny.”
“I’m not quite sure you’re right, Mr. Alan.” He said, and ate both the piles of peas.
Weeks passed, and I grew to know some patients with long term illnesses by name. There was a young man in my care, named Mike and just past voting age, who had grown steadily worse despite our efforts. He had been admitted for a curable sickness, but seemed to have caught something else within the hospital. Hospitals can nurture some nasty illnesses, and such an occurrence was not uncommon.
But what was uncommon was his change in personality.
When Mike was admitted, he was cheerful, flirting with some of the more attractive nurses and even playing small pranks on his regular staff. But after a few days of care, something changed.
Mike’s smiles fled. His jokes, his laughs, even the winks he held for the attractive nurses stopped. Instead, they were replaced by an indifference, a melting away of all that had made Mike who he was, until his character was formless. His body improved, but mind deteriorated.
I checked on Mike twice a day, and the second time I saw him one Thursday afternoon I found him dead beneath his sheets. Next to him was an empty pill bottle, stolen from another section of the hospital, and a balled up paper bag was on the ground. His doctor was fired later that day for negligence.
“He seemed healthy,” I said to Lenny at lunch, “I don’t understand how he lost the will to live.”
“What do you mean, lost it?” Said Lenny.
“Come on, Lenny. You know, that bit of humanity that gives us form. The hope to live another day, to find happiness. And one day it was just gone.”
“I didn’t see it leave him,” Said Lenny, “Would it have spilled out somehow?”
“No, Lenny.” I sighed, “It would have been repressed. Pushed down deeper into him, or put out. It’s not like it would just fall out of him.”
“I’m not quite sure you’re right, Mr. Alan. Where would it go?”
I was no longer in the mood for questions, and I left the table. But when I did, I stopped, and remembered something peculiar.
The bottle of pills had been in Mike’s room, but there had been no cap.
Another week passed, and I kept a close eye on my remaining patients. There was a sickness spreading around the hotel staff, and many were calling in sick. Even a minor infection could prove fatal to some of my more serious cases. One of the other nurses, Angela, who liked to talk more than do actual work, had already been out for two days.
To keep myself from getting sick, I was drinking orange juice from a large styrofoam cup, and as I walked down the hall I noticed the cup had formed a leak. A trail of juice followed me on the tile in the welcoming area.
“Margaret,” I said to the receptionist down the hall, “Give Lenny a call. We’ll need to mop this up.”
“He’s out today,” She said, flipping a page of her magazine without looking up.
I sighed and walked to the janitor’s closet, looking for a mop. But it was missing, and the trail of juice was too long to clean by hand. I’d have to go to the basement, where janitorial supplies were kept.
The hospital was older than most, built to sustain our town’s meager population, and the last renovation had occurred long before I joined the staff. The basement was extensive, and during World War II there had been a stockpile of medical supplies down there, safe underground in the event of a bombing, but most of the area was now empty.
I descended the stairs, and noticed that the basement lights were already on, all but one that was dead in it’s socket. Perhaps it never had a filament to begin with.
There was a spare mop in the corner, and I took it, preparing to return upstairs when I noticed that one of the doors to an unused room was ajar. And just inside the doorway, there was a pen with no cap, with “Harvard” engraved along its side. I recognized it- it had gone missing during my first few days at the hospital. I must have left it down here long ago.
I stepped through the doorway to pick it up, and stopped as I saw the contents of the room.
Thick writing was strewn across all four walls, written in sharpie that had bled into the plaster. Words crossed over each other, making most of them unintelligible, but I could read a few.
Where is mine? I am EMPTY.
I stepped back, putting my hand on the counter next to me, and I felt a stack of books. The top most was a journal, written in the same handwriting as the walls and old enough that pages threatened to fall out, and I flipped it open.
The first page was ripped from a dictionary, and stapled to loose leaf:
Soul, Noun. The principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of humans as distinct from the physical part.
I turned the page, my breath catching. There was a date at the top, nearly ten years ago.
I think I’m different from the other boys. Father says I’m not, but I know I am. They have something I don’t. Something I want. I deserve what they have.
It’s not my fault father died. He owes me more of myself, owed it to me since birth, and I tried to take it from him. But he wouldn’t give it to me. So I tried to take his.
*Mother said I didn’t have one when she found out. No soul. She must not have had one either, because I couldn’t take it from her.”
I swallowed, and flipped through a few pages, coming to rest at an entry close to the end.
I’ve tried so many ways. So many. I think I found out what I’m doing wrong. I try to take it too fast. Maybe the soul has to leave slowly. Maybe that’s how I can catch it.
Tomorrow I start slipping the arsenic I found in the basement to the nurse. It served well killing the rats down here, it should kill her too. And if slow enough, maybe I’ll catch a piece of her. I only want a piece. Just a piece.
I’ve never felt happy. Maybe if I remove happiness I can catch a soul. Starting a patient on depressants soon. I’ll bring a bag to catch his last breath, and I’ll breath it in. Then I’ll be happy. I’ll get what I deserve.
Trial 34 Angela always seems so happy. Maybe the soul’s not something I can catch. It’s supposed to be inside someone, and it leaves when they die. Maybe I just need to be inside them. Maybe I just have to find it before it can leave.
Underneath there was a crude drawn picture, and I recognized a hospital bed. And I noticed organs strewn about, still connected to the body but outside it. And in the middle of the organs, there was a star, shining out from where the heart would be.
Ahead of me, a door leading to another room opened, and I started. Lenny walked in, his right hand bloody. His left hand held a gun.
“I wanted you to come down here, Mr. Alan.” Said Lenny, his voice like usual, “I poked a hole in your juice, and I hid your mop.”
“Lenny.” I whispered, anger and terror competing for my mind, “Lenny, what have you done.”
“I thought you could help me, Mr. Alan. I’m not as smart as you, but I’m not as stupid as you think either. I’m missing something. You see, I’ve never felt anything Mr. Alan. There’s nothing here.” He said, touching his heart, “I’ve read the books. I’ve taken tests. It means I’m a psychopath, Mr. Alan. But I don’t want to be. And I thought you might be able to fix me.”
“Lenny, there’s nothing I can do. I wouldn’t if I could. You killed my mother.”
“I should feel bad. But I don’t, Mr. Alan. I don’t think I was ever meant to have a soul. At least, I couldn’t find one to take. Either that, or Angela didn’t have one.”
I smelled blood, and did not have to go into the adjacent room to know what was there. My stomach turned.
“Don’t worry,” He said, cocking the pistol and holding it to his head, “Blood will leave my body, but nothing else will. Nothing that matters, anyway.”
With an explosion, the gun went off, and a note slipped from his fingers.
You were quite right, Mr. Alan.
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