Nessun dorma, nessun dorma ...
Tu pure, o Principessa,
Nella tua fredda stanza,
Guardi le stelle
Che tremano d'amore
E di speranza.
No one sleeps, no one sleeps...
Even you, o Princess,
In your cold room,
Watch the stars,
That tremble with love
And with hope.
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me,
Il nome mio nessun saprà, no, no,
Sulla tua bocca lo dirò
Quando la luce splenderà,
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio
Che ti fa mia.
But my secret is hidden within me;
My name no one shall know, no, no,
On your mouth I will speak it
When the light shines,
And my kiss will dissolve the silence
That makes you mine.
Il nome suo nessun saprà
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir.
No one will know his name
And we must, alas, die.
Dilegua, o notte!
Vanish, o night!
At daybreak, I shall conquer!
Two explorers met on a road.
This is the great white space to which we all return. A vast auditorium. Theater seating, semicircular bands of chairs stretching as far as one can see. What does it mean, this nothingness? Is it the light at the end of the tunnel Betty saw? Light at the end of the epi syringe.
Eternity, in the ER lighting.
But now it's me with thousands of others, alone together, dying.
The infinite room is filling, oxymoronically. We walk down the aisle. I don't want to, but I follow. We are controlled.
The things we do, we don't want to. But then things happen--my own hands. My ideas come from somewhere. A mind outside me.
"Why am I doing this?" I ask the woman as I pass her. Walk down the aisle past her seat on the ship. An auditorium going into space. Seats in rows like a giant theater. Thousands of us marching to get to our assigned seats. Soft light all around.
"I am dreaming now," I tell myself. The woman laughs.
She tells me not to walk too fast, I'll damage the property, I'll damage the meat. Damage. I'll go to my seat, strip off my clothing, and put on the protective garments. They'll protect my body from the atmosphere. The body.
Invisible hands massage my back as I move. Invasive, firm. There's nobody behind me. No reason to look. The owner is interdimensional. He's inspecting me from another room, another ship far away.
At my seat I pick up the clothing. Two pieces. High collared shirt. Long sleeve. Long pants like pajamas. Synthetic fibers. Deep red and black weave. Inside the pants, a label. Someone's name.
I really should get out of here.
I really should escape.
It would be so easy. They offer no physical resistance. I could just turn, wade through the crowds and go home.
But I don't. I can't get that idea to motivate my limbs.
There's a label in the shirt. Different handwriting. No name.
The label says, "I'm sorry I couldn't help you. I love you."
The last people to wear these clothes are dead. The plan is to kill me and recycle the clothes.
How did I get into this crowd? All I have to do is turn to get out. They won't stop me.
I sit and they explain what's going to happen in silence, the images pouring into my mind. Behind me, several rows and to my right, a woman cries. The only sound.
My jeans, my shirt with my country club logo--gone. They've burned them.
We will stand, depart in an orderly manner, follow the arrows on the floors. No pushing. There will be no need for food nor water. We are to resist those feelings.
When we get to the front of the line we will be restrained. This is because the forces applied to the body will cause it to lose internal integrity. When the nerves are severed, it will no longer be able to stand. Once we are killed, the automated impulses will not keep the body stable, and we will be killed before the pain begins.
We watch the process. Someone in the red and black clothing stands on two yellow footprints painted on the floor. Two of our captors ask him a question, to which he replies in the affirmative. In microseconds an aparatus clamps around his neck. A giant metallic funnel closes around the neck, the wide part of the funnel enclosing the head.
This protects the brain from the rest of the processing. As the head is severed, a laser slices the torso from neck to crotch. The internal organs are collected. Bones cut in predetermined places, and each is extracted and placed into the appropriate bin. The remaining muscle and viscera is liquified and piped to a holding tank.
The entire process takes less than a second, but the body's inhabitant has been gone from the time he answered the question.
It's too easy. They're making it too easy to die.
He wakes to screaming. His, Randi's.
Air shreds his dry throat.
Randi buries her face in her arms, deflecting his misplaced blows. She sobs between her cries. Begging him to stop. Begging him. Wake up.
He assembles himself from pieces of sleep, scenes from horrid nightmare hanging in front of his mind like still photographs.
And he sees his wife, the pain washing through her, tightening the muscles against her thin frame as if to break the bones.
What has he done?
She flinches when he reaches for her, get her to lower her arms.
"This has to stop," she manages to say, one word at a time between involuntary gasps. When she lowers her arms, he sees her face streaked in tears, the whites of her eyes the color of her skin.
Dear god. What has he done?
"I had a nightmare," he says, as if there could be an excuse for scaring her this way.
"You have to stop," she shouts, slapping at him with an open palm. "You're killing yourself. You're killing me."
"I just need some sleep," he says, realizing the futility of his attempt. When he's not trying to sleep, he's working. When he's not working he's trying to sleep. Never sleeping. How long has it been now? Seventy-two? Ninety-six hours? Well into the stages of hallucination. Induced narcolepsy. The brain shuts down involuntarily.
That must have been it.
"Do you hear me? You're going to stop," Randi says. She grabs his wrist with a wet, shaking hand.
"If I can just get a good night's sleep..." he says.
"No, it's going to stop. You're killing yourself and soon you're going to start hurting other people. I can't believe they let you work this way."
She hit him where he hurt. A sucker punch he resented. He'd have to try not to shut her down. She didn't understand. Nobody who hasn't been through it can understand a residency. It's how we learn to become physicians.
As if on que, his beeper went off. He reached for it by instinct, holding the black box to his chest, staring into it while Randi pled with him to stop.
The ER nurse.
"John. You need help."
He heard her. He ignored her. He picked up the phone and dialed the hospital.
"If you go in, I'm not going to be here when you get back,"
"You don't understand," said to her, cradling the phone between his cheek and shoulder.
"Don't I mean anything to you?" she said, and started to sob.
"You knew what you were getting into when you married me. This is what I do. Two more years. That's all I need."
Randi got out of bed as Carolyn answered.
Through the phone: "She's asking for you, John. She says you know why she has to talk to you."
He watched Randi pull open the closet, yank a shirt and a pair of jeans off the shelf, and start to fumble as she put them on.
It was like a movie--a story he was powerless to stop. "Where are you going?"
On the phone: "John? What happened to you tonight? We're worried."
Randi: "I married a man who wanted to be a doctor to help people. I married a kind, loving man who had more time for everyone than himself. But I didn't get into this marriage to watch you self-destruct."
"Randi, I'm not..."
Carolyn on the phone: "John, did you get any sleep?"
Randi said, "I can't live like this." She zippered her jeans and buttoned a blouse over her bra.
"Where are you going?" he said, getting out of the bed.
Carolyn's tinny voice on the phone said, "Get off the phone, John. Go to sleep. I'm sorry I paged." She hung up.
"What do you care?"
"You're getting too emotional. Will you just think?" he said, the sight of her dressed and ready to go at four AM panicked him. And now he felt like he was in the ER, a bloodied trauma case being wheeled in by paramedics and he had to make decisions. He dropped the phone, embraced Randi.
"How many times do I have to wake up to you screaming and throwing punches? One of these days you're going to hurt me. I can't take it."
"I'll stop," he said. "All I need is some sleep."
She pulled out of his arms, took her purse from her dresser. "You always say that. You need to learn to say something else because I don't believe anything you say anymore."
"What do I have to do..."
She cut him off with a word almost whispered. "Goodbye."
"You can't mean this."
"Goodbye, John. I love you."
"You made a mistake doctor Pugelli." He heard gurgling when Betty spoke. Took the clipboard from the wall and perused the nurses' notes. Nothing about pneumonia. Congestive heart failure.
"Did you hear me?" Betty said.
"What mistake is that?" John said, replacing the clipboard. He touched her wrist. Pulse quick. Wrist cold. Her breathing shallow and labored. Her forehead was cool, sweaty.
He heard her say, "You haven't heard a word I said."
"I heard you," he said, pulling the cell phone from his belt. Something was wrong. A suture must have broken. She was bleeding internally.
Speed dial one.
"You almost killed me," Betty said. "You made a mistake and you almost killed me. But I stopped you. You looked right at me and I stopped you."
On the phone-- the surgical nurse. "Do you need Dr. George? He's got his forwarding turned off. Dr. Hazouli is on."
"I don't want Hazouli, I want George. You get him and tell him to get his fat ass out of that golf cart. The perforated liver is a bleeder."
Betty said, "I'm going to die. They're going to blame you, but I don't. Everyone dies."
He hung up on the surgical nurse, docked the phone on his belt and looked into Betty's eyes, only now processing what she'd said.
"You're not going to die," he said.
"Don't be silly," Betty said. "You saw me when I was dead."
And John remembered looking up from Betty's bloodied torso to see her standing against the wall in her Sunday church clothes, white shoes, white purse, small hat gushing a cascade of white lace over her face.
Hallucination. Narcolepsy. He needed sleep.
"It's not too bad," Betty said. "Quite nice, actually."
"You're not going to die, Betty. Who else is going to be my Friday night date if we don't have you calling?" And he remembered how Betty's heart started suddenly after the EKG read zip for nearly five minutes. CPR. Defib. Ten of Epi. Defib. Flatline.
Until John noted the time of death.
Like magic. Da dum. Da dum.
"I'm sorry I got hit by a car," she said as Carolyn came in holding a cup with Betty's meds. Betty said, "I'm sorry I died, but I had to come back to show you."
John looked at Carolyn, who gave him the perpetual, empathetic Mona Lisa smile required of all nurses. John felt nurses were closer to the earth than the physicians. Closer to the patients. Closer to what was real. They had less to lose, so they said what they saw. And as everyone knows, not everything that happens in a hospital can be explained.
"Hold off on those for a sec," John said to Carolyn.
"You don't hear me, do you?" Betty said.
"You didn't have to get hit by a car just to come see us," Carolyn said. "You know we always have space for you."
"He doesn't believe his own eyes," Betty said. "He saw me when I was dead."
By then the surgeon had received John's message. The orderlies had come to bring Betty back to the O.R. to find the bleeder John was sure was there.
"Goodbye, Dr. Pugelli," Betty said as they wheeled her out. "I love you."
"What do you think it means?"
"It's pretty obvious, isn't it?"
"To you. You do this all day."
"Well, there are a lot of different ways to think about these things. But the obvious one is objectification. You've internalized an indirect fear. In order to do your job, you have to objectify your patients. Obviously, you can't get emotionally involved. How do you feel about it?"
"Everyone goes through this. I'm not the first"
"What about the transient?"
"Every Friday she calls EMS complaining of seizures. They bring her to us. We have a nice stay, she goes home."
"But it was different this time."
"She got hit by a car crossing the street. Her chest was crushed. Liver perforated by a broken rib. I didn't catch it right away. Then she arrested. We resuscitated her."
"What was it Carolyn said?"
"She said we had to plant her."
"That means she died."
"And how do you feel about that?"
"Happens all the time."
"They box us all, eventually."
"So what does it mean, then, John?"
"The dream? You just said--"
"No. Not your dream. What does it mean? Life."
"Hey, I'm just a physician--"
"Is that what you are?"
When Betty was gone Carolyn looked into John's eyes.
"You look like shit," she said. "You're making me nervous."
John stared at her, uncomfortable looking at her face for as long as he was, but unable to look away.
"What happened down there?" Carolyn said, pulling him out through the eyes.
John forced himself to glance out the window of the hospital room. He took a deep breath. What he said next could wreck his career. So he knew he should say nothing.
Instead, he told the truth.
"I was trying to get in the chest tube and I looked up and there she was. She was just standing there, staring at me."
"When I looked down again, I saw the artery. I almost missed it."
"You saw Betty? She was on the table in front of you, wasn't she?"
"Yes," John said, and Carolyn touched his arm. It seemed she was going to say something, then thought better of it.
"These things happen," she said.
"She told me..." he started to say, and the words got stuck in his throat. He concentrated on the red taillamps on the sparse line of cars that made their way down the road in front of the hospital building. That distraction allowed him to finish his sentence.
"She told me I wasn't helping here. I was working on the parts."
"Her body," John said.
Carolyn said something, but he wasn't listening. When he noticed she was leaving, he called after her. She gave him her empathetic smile, but as she turned to go, she saw a glistening streak on her cheek.
"What does it mean that you love people?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"The kind you hate to answer, obviously."
John said, "This is not helping. I don't see how it can. Look--this is what's happening. Tell me if I'm wrong. You ask me oblique, indefinite questions and I search for answers. You observe the way I come up with answers. You think it tells you something about what's wrong with me but in fact, you can't know that so you hope I'll see it myself. Observe my own thoughts. Physician, heal thyself. I fix myself by talking to you. Do I have it?"
"That could be it. How important is it for you to be right?", asked his therapist from the seat in front of him.
John felt his face flush. "Now you're pissing me off."
The therapist said, "Two explorers passed on the road to heaven. Said the one who was going toward to the one moving away: 'Where are you going? Turn around. Everything is that way. Paradise.' The other smiled, bade farewell and offered love, and then went silently to the place he was born."
John didn't understand the story, and it made him sad. He said nothing. Stared through the window behind the therapist's desk into the white nothingness beyond. Losing himself in the void kept him from thinking. And when he wasn't thinking, he wasn't wondering if he'd been missing the point every minute he'd breathed.
The therapist broke the silence. When she spoke John saw a bright ring of energy over the crown of her head. A bright string of seven pearls glowed inside her.
"Do you love your life?" she asked him. It was something every angel wanted to know. The sentiment reminded him of when he was a child and gave his mother a birthday present he'd made. Piece of paper scribbled with crayon. His name. Love, John.
"I love them all," John said, crying and not knowing why. "I don't want anyone to die."
"Then you should consider things more carefully."
"I became a physician to help people."
"But aren't you human, first?" said his therapist, now Saint Kathrine.
"I can't help them."
"And then you try again," said his therapist, now Saint Lucy.
"They die anyway."
"That's why you love them," she said, now Saint Anne.
And then, "Everyone to the least," now Mother Theresa.
Now silently, Betty.
John woke bathed in yellow blue sunlight, the sound of the lawnmower in the distance. The sheets were piled around him as if they'd fallen from the ceiling.
Instinctively, he reached for the beeper on the night table. The power was off. He flicked it on.
He glanced at the clock. Two in the afternoon. When had he gone home? When had he fallen asleep?
He pulled himself out of bed. The soles of his feet touched the floor. When he stood he felt light, as if his shoulders were lifted by the sunlight.
Outside, Randi ran the mower across the lawn.
Suddenly she stopped. She shut down the mower and knelt beside it.
"Good morning," John said as he approached, the cool grass poking between his toes.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," Randi said, without looking up. She parted the blades of grass, staring intently. "You've been asleep since eleven o'clock Sunday night."
John knelt next to her. He saw a tuft of gray fur where she probed.
Randi said, "I saw the Halloway's dog digging here." She reached in and pulled out a tiny rabbit. John could see it breathing fast and shallow. There was a gash in its abdomen. A bit of whitish red intestine poked out.
"It's Tuesday," Randi said, cradling the bunny.
"Let me have her," John said. "Let's see if we can fix this." He took the small rabbit in his palms, providing it warmth, and as he did, the breathing stopped.
He touched the tiny head and bade the animal goodbye.
"No miracles today," he said, standing.
Randi stopped him. She touched his arm, crying.
John remembered the story he dreamed his guardian angel had told him.
"Come with me," he said, to Randi. "I can't do this alone anymore."
They buried the rabbit in the back yard.