By Lora Kilpatrick
My wife says, “Everyone like you has to die.”
The scream tickles my throat, like a demon clawing its way up my esophagus. It hums in my ear, vibrates through every hair. And yet the room is quiet, the only sound is the beep of my heart monitor.
I watch Gloria through sleep-crusted eyes. Rivulets of mascara run down her cheek. She is thinner than usual. Is it grief? Or the food rations taking their toll?
“They say it was your plan. You’d be fulfilling your dream if you were the first,” Gloria’s breath stutters.
The scream in my throat gains strength, rumbles forward like an eighteen wheeler in the night. My lips don’t move, but my vocal cords tighten. A scream fills my ears. If my body could move, it would thrash against these drool-covered sheets.
After a drunk truck driver plowed into me two years ago, this internal scream has been the undercurrent of my life. At first, it was a howl of frustration, now a constant whimper of resignation. The scream swells occasionally when Gloria is near, and I long to say the words that always die on my lips. I don’t care about the plan anymore; I’ve cried a million apologies for that. My tenuous hold on life is comprised of two words for Gloria. Two words that mingle with my silent scream, repeating until they split my skull.
A nurse pokes her head in. “You got five minutes,” she snaps.
The scream dies down to mimic Gloria’s muffled sobbing. I remember when I roamed these halls, not as a patient, but a president. That suppressed crying always leeched through half-open doors and dark rooms. I never noticed the tears of family members. I only saw resources being sucked down tubes by comatose mummies. I only heard news reports of famines and cataclysmic dust storms.
During the darkness of the first months after the accident, when the scream was an embryo, I could sense Gloria when I couldn’t see her. A perfume lingering around the dulled edges of my consciousness. As the scream grew into a monster and my limbs lay worthless at my side, her words drifted into my dark sleep in curling tendrils of poetry. Shakespeare and Neruda. Sometimes she closed the door and crawled on top of me, her hot breath an ecstasy long forgotten. We stayed up watching romance movies. I listened to her problems. She cried on my shoulder.
I was a better husband to Gloria as a vegetable than I had been before. I hadn’t been a bad husband, merely an absent one. Gloria understood. She said it was selfish to demand more of my time when so many starving children depended on my plan. Sweet, naive Gloria. Did you feel duped when you discovered the real plan? Did you laugh at the irony that twisted my life around?
When I sat at the head of mahogany tables with government men in their black suits and featureless faces, we thought the plan would benefit everyone, especially the vegetables on the bottom floor.
We gave our vision a name brimming with promise. The Resource Reclamation Plan. We’d start with the comatose. After a few hungry years, the public wouldn’t care. My hospital would be the first. Then we’d progress to the mental institutions and prisons. One thing stood in my path: my hospital staff. They fought the plan in every way they could. Dr. Roberts led the mutiny, but he was no match for me.
Then the accident. My brain floating alone in space. Gloria weaving in and out of my dreams. I tried to move my fingers, blink my eyes, but somewhere between my brain and the rest of my body there was a chasm my neurons couldn’t bridge. A scream slowly filled that space. A cry for help that would never be answered. I’d been sentenced to life in a prison no one knew existed. I spent my timeless days there, in the shadowy depths with Gloria climbing down to meet me.
The real world crystallized from the dark. The never-ending scans, high-pitched beeps and artificial lights. Of course, it would be Dr. Roberts hovering over my bed.
“I’m sorry,” he told Gloria. “The tests are conclusive: irreversible vegetative state.”
I clenched my jaw, a command I was positive I could still handle.
“Some body functions will appear to be signs of awareness, but these are involuntary movements.”
A dozen specialists agreed with Roberts. I was nothing more than a few pulsing nerves.
“Time’s up,” says the deep voice of a male nurse.
Gloria collapses onto me, her hair spilling across my face as she sobs into my chest.
“I love you,” she breathes into my ear. My mind whispers the two words I will never say. I’m sorry.
They roll me into a room that is dark around the edges, a single operating light in the center. Roberts stands in a halo of white incandescence. The needle in his hand shimmers.
“Tough luck, pal,” Roberts says with a soft chuckle, “but this is what you wanted.”
I can’t feel the needle, but a numbness pervades my brain as my veins chill into icicles. Now that the moment is here, the raw, primordial urge to live floods my nerves. If my lips could move, they would whisper Gloria’s name.
“I wonder if you’ve changed your mind about your plan?” Roberts says. “I think you have.”
The nurse laughs.
Roberts squats and hisses into my ear. “It was our little secret.”
As the last of my vision fizzles into blackness, I see it in the bright, cruel smile in his eyes. He knew.
The scream surges through me in one final wave of rage. Two years of callous treatment coalesce into a hard knot of realization. It all makes sense. The crude jokes from the security guards. The snickering nurses with their rough hands. The smirk on every doctor’s face.
They all knew.