Authors: Sean Costello
They'd been forewarned of the gravity of their son's condition, that it was only a matter of time. But Eve had brushed it off, convinced that her boy was just sleeping. "The Lord's sleep," she had solemnly proclaimed. "And soon he will be re’wakened, cleansed and at peace in his soul. "
Bert sighed, his shoulders heaving under the weight of his anguish. He had reached the traffic lights at Highway 69 South—the road out of town—and for a moment the urge to flee into the starless middle-night was almost overpowering. Then the light changed and he thought of Eve the way he'd known her, years ago, and the memory drew him homeward.
Donating the boy's organs was a chance, Bert had decided, to salvage something good from the wreckage. The doctors had told him to take his time, consider it carefully, go back home and discuss it with his wife. His son's body, they told him, could be kept viable almost indefinitely.
But Bert had signed the consent right away, without hesitation, excluding his wife from an important family decision for the first time in almost thirty-five years of marriage. His reason, although tragic, was simple enough. Eve had changed over the course of their lives together—changed for the worse. Her once plain religious beliefs had taken on the sulphury flavor of fanaticism, and she had drifted away from him, become someone he no longer knew or wholly understood. And Bert had known that, given her say, Eve would not have allowed the surgery. She'd have come up with some cryptic Biblical quote, paraphrased it in her own zealous, self-serving way, and damned the whole thing.
So he had gone over her head. . . and now he had to tell her.
Bert swung, into the driveway and paused, heavy behind the wheel of his aging Chrysler, remembering dreams that had turned to regrets. Then he went inside.
Eve was there, sitting stiffly erect in her wheelchair, the bandaged domes of her arthritic knees pressed firmly together, her worn, leather-bound Bible laid open in her lap.
"You weren't at the smelter," she said, her tone accusing. "I called."
Bert looked down at his feet. "I was at the hospital."
"Is he, all right?" Eve demanded, her blue eyes, suddenly bright with dread. "Is my baby all right?"
She was parked partway through the entrance to the living room, her sharp face only half-lit in the darkened hallway. The light, yellow and flickering, came from the dozens of blessed candles she had kept burning since the boy was injured. Behind her, Jimmy Swaggart crooned a scratchy, muted hymn on the stereo. It was almost four in the morning.
Bert paused in the vestibule, the urge to turn and walk away more compelling now than it had ever been before. He had thought of it often, how easy it would be to just cut and run, abandon his wife to her quotes and her tracts and her TV evangelists. But whenever he got close to actually doing it, the guilt would set in. He would look at Eve and remember her, as she had been—the wide, easy smile, that cute little notch in her turned-up nose, the round, inquisitive eyes cut from a clear summer sky—and he'd be powerless to do it. Something inside him kept hoping she'd go back to her old self again, that someday they would retire together, buy that mobile home, see a bit of the world before Time finally planted them.
But in the haggard face that goggled at him now, Bert Crowell could see not even the faintest trace of the girl he'd once known.
"Is he all right?" Eve repeated shrilly, Bert's silence catching at her mouth and twisting it.
Bert drifted toward her along the shadowy hallway, his shoes whispering over, the worn runner. "No," he said before the light found his eyes. "He's not all right. He's. . . gone."
"Yes, Eve," Bert repeated firmly. "He's gone."
Eve's face wilted. She clutched her Bible to her chest, and her mouth began working around meaningless syllables; Bert got an absurd image of his wife speaking in tongues. Sick with pity, he knelt before her and took her hand.
"I have to see him, Bertrand," she wept. "He isn't dead, he can't be. . ." She drew his face to her breast, and Bert felt a warm surge of love for her. The Bible, smelling of dark leather, felt cool against his cheek. "He's my baby and I have to see him. . . I have to see him now."
This was the moment. "You can't see him now."
Bristling with fury, Eve took Bert by the ears like a recalcitrant child. "What do you mean I can't see him now? He's my boy and I have to see him now. He's not dead, Bertrand. . . It's not possible."
Now, Bert prompted himself. Tell her now.
But suddenly a part of him felt traitorous and ashamed, and the words lodged like gravel in his throat. In the ensuing silence, the grandfather clock at the end of the hallway mellowly bonged out the hour.
"The doctors asked me to sign some forms—" Bert began.
But before he could finish the clock struck four and Eve recoiled in her wheelchair, clutching her breast as if shot. Her head flew back and her face went gray, the cords in her neck bulging horribly. Bert, stunned by this display, was certain she was having a coronary.
“Evie. . . ?”
"Oh, my God," she cried, her voice laced with pain. "I can feel. . ." Her body jerked once—
Then her eyes bore down on Bert like rifle barrels.
"What did you do?" she growled, each word tipped with poison. "What—did—you—do?"
"They said there were people who needed his organs."
Bert stammered, fear spilling over him like slag. "So I—"
In a lightningquick thrust Eve's hands curled into Bert's hair, grabbing thick handfuls and pulling fiercely.
"You did what?" she shrieked like something avian.
And with strength Bert had never imagined her possessing, Eve wrenched his head back until their eyes met. He tried to pull free but couldn't, his balance in that moment pitched precariously forward. His eyes watered as he looked up in fear and awe at his raving wife.
"You did what?" she screeched again, her blue-ice eyes screwed down to baleful slits. "You did WHAT?"
With lethal speed Eve brought a claw down wickedly across Bert's face, opening furrows that reddened and wept. Bert half rose, stumbled, then toppled back heavily against the doorjamb, giving his skull a dizzying crack. In the swimming extremity of his gaze, the big mantelpiece portrait of Jesus eyed him with quiet benevolence—allseeing eyes of celestial blue, heart naked and aflame in a bracelet of thorns.
"Murderer!" she raged, her voice a bellowing roar.
"Satanspawn!" She jerked her wheelchair forward, digging a footplate into Bert's ribs, and lashed out again. This time Bert deflected the blow with an upraised arm.
"You've got to stop them! Stop them now!"
Bert shook his head, tears still blearing his eyes. "It's too late—"
"It is not too late!"
Forsaking him, Eve wheeled sharply away, down the hall to the small back kitchen. Uttering prayers mixed with bitter condemnation, she reached down the phone and dialed in the flickering light of the range lamp.
"Oh please God I beg You damn this killing heathen and hasten him on his hellbound path, wield your Holy armor and deflect the fiery darts of the fallen angel save my boy Your servant blessed issue—"
And then her whole demeanor changed. In a cadenced, controlled voice she said into the phone: "Give me the ICU please."
Bert rose to his feet, his face a stinging agony where Eve had gouged him. He moved to stop her, meaning to grab the receiver away. . . then thought better of it. Let them tell her, he decided. Perhaps the shock would settle her once and for all. He didn't regret what he had done. The boy had been his, too. It was a good thing. Good from bad. Couldn't she see that?
He started into the stairwell, shutting out Eve's voice as she made her demands into the phone. At the top landing he paused and glanced into his son's bedroom, lit eerily now by the grinning Mickey Mouse night light Bert had bought for him some twentyfive years ago.
It was a child's room still—stuffed toys with blackbutton eyes, stacks of dogeared comic books, water-marked rockinghorse wallpaper, a football dimpled from lack of air. . .
Bert pulled the door shut, suddenly nauseated by the room's musty breath. He slouched down the hall to its far end, to his own room—Eve had shut him out of the master bedroom years ago—and lay down in the dark. Far away, Eve's voice railed on.
After a while, he got up and locked the door from the inside. For the first time in their long lives together, Bert Crowell was afraid of his wife.
Once the guy was on the ventilator again, and receiving enough anesthetic to relax his muscles and dampen any reflexes that might otherwise occur, there was precious little for Ed Skead to do. Ed had been in practice for nine years now; during that time, he'd been involved in procedures like this on perhaps a dozen occasions. But as he stood and watched Dr. Hanussen preparing to remove the donor's eyes, he decided that even a hundred such cases would fail in making the process any more pleasant to witness.
In the fashion of all accomplished surgeons, Hanussen had arrived with an entourage, each member of which would later assist him in the laborious process of grafting in the eyes. Terse without being impolite, he had swept quietly into the room, nodded his greetings without inviting conversation, and set straight about his business.
The first thing Ed noticed was the color of the donor's eyes, a most striking shade of blue. Like Paul Newman's eyes, he thought. So clear and so blue they were almost silver.
He watched with sickened fascination as the surgeon set about his task, slender gloved fingers moving with deftness and speed.
The lids of the left eye were propped open using a tiny metal retractor. Then the conjunctiva, the membrane encapsulating the eye, was split and stripped away, making Ed think of peeled grapes. Next, the tiny red muscles responsible for the movement of the eye were transected and folded back. Finally, the major vessels and the trunklike optic nerve were neatly severed.
The left eye, freed of its mortal tethers, was plopped into a fluid-filled jar. The jar was tightly capped, then lowered into a bowl-shaped thermos. The pirated socket, welling blood, was packed with cotton batting.
Suddenly, the oscilloscope atop the anesthetic machine registered a jump in the donor's heart rate, from ninety to a hundred and twenty-three. Noting this, Ed adjusted the anesthetic up a notch.
On the opposite side of the surgical drape, a nurse prepared the donor's abdomen with a brownish iodine solution. At the sinks outside of the door, Ken Tucker and his assistant scrubbed their hands.
Without ceremony, Hanussen started in on the opposite side, glancing up only once to note the time. With similar ease he dissected and freed the right eye. He said something in German, and a second jar was opened. The eye went in with a plop.
Ed felt his stomach do a deliberate rollover.
Now Ken Tucker strode into the operating room, soapy water dripping from his elbows. A nurse helped him gown and glove. He nodded to Hanussen as the man skinned off his own gloves and left the OR.
Just like that, Ed thought unpleasantly. Just like that.
He looked down at the donor's unknowing face. A scarlet streamer of blood issued from the corner of the left eye-socket. Cotton batting protruded from the wet slits.
Ed looked away.
“How's he doing?" Ken said, accepting a scalpel from the scrub nurse.
Is he trying to be funny? Ed wondered briefly. But there was no trace of jest in the surgeon's eyes. He glanced again at the oscilloscope. The heart rate had settled back to eight-eight.
"Stable," Ed replied.
Ed caught the scrub nurse averting her eyes as Ken's knife traced with brutal precision a line from breastbone to pubis. White at first, the line quickly flashed red. The incision was deepened using surgical cautery, a concentrated arc of electrical fire that spewed sterile white smoke smelling of cooked fat and incinerated muscle.
Ken extended the incision laterally, creating the illusion that a giant letter "I" had been painted in red along the man's belly. Using metal clips, he turned back and anchored a full-thickness flap at each corner, causing the abdomen to gape like a hideous, viscera-filled mouth.
Again the nurse looked away.
Disturbed himself, Ed glanced uneasily around the brightly lit OR, his eyes pausing briefly on the clock over the doorway.
Twenty to four. . . Jesus.
The room was too quiet, Ed realized as, he settled into his chair and began his flow sheet. There was none of the late-hour banter they normally engaged in, none of the tasteless jokes or the endless gossip they habitually exchanged in an effort to buoy morale in the face of exhaustion. It was this damned case, Ed knew. This obscene, mutilating case. It was creepy, plain and simple, even for those inured to death, as health professionals inevitably became. All of Ed's carefully cultivated instincts were meaningless in this situation. . . because the patient was not intended to survive the intervention. It was for a worthy cause, true but Ed disliked it just the same.
Against his will, Ed's gaze drifted back to the donor's face. The guy was sweating now, great fat beads of the stuff blooming on his brow, his cheeks, under his nose. Ed's hand itched to crank up the anesthetic. In a normal situation sweating indicated a too light level of anesthesia—he reminded himself that it didn't matter, and the itch went away.
The cotton batting in the eyes. That part bothered him.
Slowly, deliberately, the donor's head rolled ten degrees to the right.
"Jesus!" Ed shrieked, hopping to his feet and spilling the chart to the floor. Jesus Christ!" The hackles were up on his neck.
"What is it?" Tucker asked calmly, peering over the drapes.
"His head just moved!"
The circulating nurse appeared at Ed's side, her eyes fixed expectantly on the donor's head.
"You mean like this?" Ken said, dark mirth narrowing his jade-green eyes.
The donor's head moved again, and this time Ed saw Ken's fingers through the drapes, nudging the donor's chin.