“Do you recognize my voice?”
“Peter, Can you hear me?”
Peter began to stir.
“Are you with us, Peter?”
Peter tried to speak, but couldn’t find his voice.
“Peter. This is Dr. Varma. You must try—.”
“Wh— what’s… what… happen…?”
“There has been an incident, Peter.”
“A… acci…? Wh— where’m… can’t… see… can’t mo—”
“Try to stay calm, Peter. You’ve just come out of surgery. But you did very well.”
“Yes, Peter. But there is no need to worry.”
“wh— can’t… oh. why. can’t I… see? Am blind?”
“Blind? Oh, Heaven’s no.” The doctor chuckled. “Your eyes are in tip-top shape. Just bandaged up is all. No more than a precaution, really. You’ll be looking at all the pretty girls again before you know it. Pe—”
“Peter. Do you recognize my voice, Peter?”
“You left us there for a while. Went AWOL, as they say. Gave us all a bit of a fright.”
“All in the spirit of Halloween, I suppose. But we’re quite relieved, I must admit, to have you back in the land of the living.”
“Why, of course, dear boy. You didn’t plan to take up permanent residence among those dreadfully tedious shades and phantoms at your tender age, I hope? You’ve still got plenty of living to do, I dare say.”
“This is Dr. Varma, Peter. Do you not recognize my voice?”
“Try to think, Peter. We’ve already been through this a number of times. I can’t believe your memory has been damaged.”
“There was… an accident. I… I still can’t see…”
“Naturally. You’ve still got bandages covering your eyes, boy. And they shall remain there for quite some time, I’m afraid. But, as I’ve already told you, there’s nothing to worry—” Peter tried to sit up. “No, no, my goodness, no.” Peter felt the doctor’s hands push him gently back to his mattress. “That is absolutely contraindicated at this stage. You must be patient and endeavour not to move about. You are only putting yourself at greater risk.”
“I… don’t remember… what happened...”
“It is important that you do remember, Peter. You must think. What is the last thing you recall before coming into my care?”
“I… how long… have I been here?”
“It will be five weeks this Friday. Peter, did you hear m—”
The nightmare tore a shriek from Peter’s throat then vanished before the hurried footsteps could reach his side.
“Ah, you are awake then, I take it?” Peter recognized the doctor’s voice.
“Splendid. Both your voice and your memory have made great strides. But why, if I may inquire, did you choose to exercise your larynx just now with such… fervor? I nearly dropped my soup in my lap at the surprise.”
“I… I don’t remember.”
“Another loss of memory? And we were making such great progress. You’re one for the medical books then, aren’t you—with your sudden relapses? ”
“I mean… I… had a dream…”
“Ah, but we all have dreams. It's what gets us out of bed in the morning—“
“I… I mean… a nightmare…”
“But I don’t remember anything… except the fear.”
“A scary dream was it? Well, that’s perfectly understandable in these circumstances. But you are awake now. The boogymen can’t get at you here. What do you say to a bite to eat, and then a chat about how you came to be here? Hmm? The soup is unlikely to win any awards, but I dare say you could use the calories. It’s time to put a little meat back on those bones.”
“Well, I don’t know how much of an appetite I—”
“Nonsense. If you don’t get your strength back, you’ll never get yourself out of here. And frankly, I’m getting rather sick of having to look after you everyday.” Peter could hear the doctor chuckling to himself as he moved to the door. “Magdelena,” he called toward an adjacent room, “be a dear, would you please, and heat a bowl of soup for our noisy patient. Soup. Yes. And not too hot. We don’t want the lad to damage his throat.”
“Yes, boy?” He returned to Peter’s side.
“I can’t lift my arms or legs.”
“Well, that’s not unusual. You were badly injured. But your spinal column is intact, and the spinal cord is undamaged—though it is to be expected that the nerves have suffered some trauma. Have you no feeling in your extremities?” Peter sensed a note of concern in the doctor’s voice.
“It’s not that. I feel a strange tingling—”
“Any pain, discomfort?” The doctor began inspecting his patient. Peter was surprised by the tenderness of the doctor’s hand as it moved across his cheek. His fears dissipated. It was like the touch of a father.
“No, the pain is somehow far away. I just feel so… weak. I can hardly move.”
“Well, the medication is working at least.”
Peter heard someone enter the room. Dr. Varma addressed the arrival. “Thank you, dear. I think I can feed our guest today.”
He turned back to Peter. “You know, Maggy has gone to a great deal of trouble on your behalf these past months. I have other responsibilities, other patients to care for besides you, and can’t be around all the time. Maggy says little and seeks no recognition, but you can thank her for the fact that you have clean sheets, clean dressings… and a clean bottom.”
He chuckled at this and dragged a chair over to Peter’s bed. “It’s been a liquid diet since you arrived—and a glucose drip for dessert, so you should be well able to tolerate a little soup. It might be good to exercise your jaw a little and give that throat of yours something other to do than frighten me with its screaming. Let’s hear you say ‘ah’”.
Peter opened his mouth and the doctor filled it with a thick, pungent broth. “We were obliged to reduce the solid bits to a paste, unfortunately. Perhaps now that you are able to chew, we can ask the chef to prepare something a little less homogenized. Say, ‘ah’.”
Peter was ravenous, but his stomach was unsettled and he could hardly get the food down his throat. Dr. Varma chuckled. "I take it you're not enjoying the fare. (Say, ‘Ah’. That's the lad.) As you might suspect, given the circumstances, flavour has had to take a backseat to nutritional balance and energy density. ‘Ah’. Besides, for the most part, your meals have been pumped directly into your stomach, so there hasn't been much cause to worry about the taste. ‘Ah’. Perhaps tomorrow we can find something a little more enticing. And maybe we can rubbish that feeding tube for good. One last mouthful. Splendid.
The doctor set the bowl down and gently wiped the paste from Peter’s lips. Then he was suddenly very serious. “And now, perhaps we can work on your memory a little bit. I am still waiting to understand what happened to you, what you were doing that led to your arrival here. What is the last thing you remember?”
Peter was groggy and slightly nauseated from the meal. It was hard to collect his thoughts. Had he been at a party? It was possible. He could hardly be expected to keep track. He and his friends would go from party to party and then hit the after hours clubs. Did he get drunk and have an accident? It couldn’t have been a drug overdose—he’d seen some close calls, and worse—he knew that if you didn’t kill yourself with drugs, you were usually out of the hospital in a matter of days. It was never anything as serious as this. “Was I in a car accident?”
“I cannot remember for you, Peter. You must concentrate. Do you recall there being a car accident?”
Peter was having trouble thinking. But he didn’t really believe he had been in a traffic accident. What could he have been doing? Chances were that he was at a party somewhere. Was it—ah! Yes, it was starting to come back to him. What a crazy night—what was the occasion…? “I… think… there was a celebration. I was out… with my friends.” The doctor said nothing, but Peter knew he was listening.
But what was the occasion? What were—and then he had it. The rest came in a rush. “It was Antoine’s birthday,” he announced at last. The doctor still waited quietly. Something must have happened at the party, but Peter could remember nothing unusual. They had gotten ruined on champagne and crystal meth at Frederico’s. Then they sent the girls home in a limo and headed over to the Filipina to see the crazy ethnic birds peel. “Oh God, what a blast!” Those little brown fuck machines grinding against that pole. It drove them so wild they grabbed a cab and headed over to Petty and Birch to see what sort of whores they could scrape off the sidewalk. “Wait, we did get in a car. A taxi. We went cruising for girls.” Peter could feel the doctor leaning over him.
Peter could remember the tears streaming down his face at his friends' antics, the mad howls of laughter as Antoine leaned out the window and professed his intention to marry some scabby crack bitch. The raghead behind the wheel finally got fed up. He hit the brakes and ordered them out of the car. “But we stopped.”
Dominic, the obstinate clown, refused to move and challenged the guy instead to an arm-wrestle over it. Man, that was funny. Antoine was trying to climb over him while the cabbie hid behind his cage and radioed for backup. Dominic didn’t give a shit about any of that. He just sat there jabbering about wanting an arm-wrestle. Then Antoine sprayed puke all over the back seat and onto Dominic’s new Berlutis. What a bunch of freaks! Peter couldn’t help smiling at the memory. And he was about to regale the good doctor with the lurid details when he remembered there was more.
They raised hell up and down the shitty east-end streets till they found just the sort of slit they were looking for. What a night—some of the filthiest, most degraded whoring he’d ever had the pleasure to indulge in. By God, they got their money’s worth, right down to the last dime. The scrawny bitch wouldn’t even stay conscious for the final few hours of it. Peter kept that part to himself. He didn’t think the old physician would approve. Besides, it didn’t have anything to do with the feeding tube sticking out of his stomach.
He could remember trying to hail a cab afterwards. He didn’t know what the hell happened to the other guys by that point. They weren’t a bunch of fags who needed to hold hands wherever they went. Peter told them he was done and they just staggered off to find more skank on their own. They let him know what a pussy he was. But it wasn’t his birthday and he needed to get his shit together for a tennis party at Ferari’s that afternoon. So with a ‘fuck you’ to the gang, he hit the road.
The most unlikely thing about the whole evening was that he got picked up at the end of it by the same fucking camel jockey who’d thrown him and the boys out at the beginning of it. Jesus that’s probably how he’d gotten himself into this shit. He was too tired to hold a grudge, so he just climbed in and tried not to get any of Antoine’s puke on his Armanis. Talk about the logic of a drunk! The bastard probably rolled him while he was passed out in the back. He explained to the doctor, “I think I was attacked. The last thing I remember was falling asleep in a taxi. I bet the driver could tell you what happened.”
The doctor took some time to absorb all of this. “Do you believe a taxi driver would be capable of doing this to you?”
Peter thought about it for a moment. “How badly was I injured? I mean, I’m not gonna die am I?”
The doctor laughed at this, and Peter’s sudden fears evaporated. “Oh, goodness no. It’s nothing so extreme as all that.” He paused for a moment and then added, “But, I dare say, you and your friends will need to consider a change of lifestyle. You must take better care—“
“My friends?” Peter was taken aback. “Have they been here?”
“Oh yes, they are patients here as well. And I must say, they have been reduced to the same sorry state as you.”
“They were attacked?” Peter couldn’t believe it. Would that raghead really have gone to the trouble of hunting them down for skipping out on a lousy fare? “Did they say who did this to us?”
“My dear boy, I may be unorthodox, but you can’t believe I would be interviewing you in this manner if I believed my questions could be answered by your companions. Alas, they are as unenlightened in this matter as you.”
“They must have some idea…”
“Your friend, Antoine, swears up and down that he was jumped by a pimp. But he can offer no other details. Cuthbert suspected he was mugged...”
“What does Dominic think?”
“You mean the stout, red-headed lad?”
“Yeah, that’s my boy.”
“I’m sorry to say, your friend succumbed to complications following surgery—acute septicemia brought on by a perforated intestine. A brave lad, he fought till the end. I know this will come as a shock, but I will also tell you now that Cuthbert passed not long afterward. I have yet to establish the precise cause of death, but it seems he was not well to begin with. Perhaps you are aware that he suffered from a serious drug dependency?”
“Jesus…” Peter didn’t know what to say. “When will I be able to speak with Antoine?”
“I shall endeavour to bring you together after surgery. What do you say to that?”
“Surgery? He still needs surgery?”
“Oh. No, no. Antoine is already in post-op. He is stable and well on his way. But there are still a few corrective procedures that you must undergo before I can safely discharge you. I was obliged to wait until you had recovered some of your strength before proceeding, but it wont be long after that before you can see your friend. I suspect you will both be ready to leave by the end of October.”
Peter was stunned. “October? But… Antoine’s birthday was in the middle of March. You mean… I’ve been here… all summer?”
“And then some. But there is no point thinking about what has already passed. You must look to the future. You are young—and Antoine too. You both have long lives ahead of you. You will look back on these past seven or eight months as a mere ‘blip on the radar,’ so to speak.”
“But what did that bastard do to me? Why have I been here so long?”
“Hush now, we needn’t dwell on that just yet. Try to rest. Tomorrow will be a long day.” Peter felt a prick in his shoulder, and his worries vanished.
“Rise and shine, my boy. It’s time to greet the world. Your friend, Antoine, is anxious to see you.”
Peter awoke to find the doctor gently peeling the bandages from his head. He wanted to ask how everything went, but all he could manage was a faint gurgle.
“Easy, lad. Don’t try to speak.” He paused for a moment, then added, “I don’t mind admitting, I’m terribly relieved to see you finally awake. You’ve had a very difficult time.”
The doctor unwrapped Peter’s face in silence for a few moments, then, almost to himself, explained, “I thought for certain you were on your merry way to join Mr. Cuthbert and that redheaded lad. Those were some very anxious weeks—I was obliged to induce a coma, you know, just to gain some control over the situation.”
As the last of the gauze was removed it felt to Peter like a knife was cutting straight through his brain. He groaned and Dr. Varma apologized. “Bear with me, boy. I dare say your eyes will adjust in short order. I darkened the room, but I need to be able to see what I’m doing. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me fumbling around here in the dark.”
Peter blinked and after a short while the room came into better focus. But there was little to see, as his bed was surrounded by a pale green curtain. An expensive suit hung neatly from a hanger near his head, protected from potential grime by a thin transparent covering. It had been cleaned and pressed.
Then a face popped into Peter's line of sight. He knew it had to be the face of his doctor, but it had such little resemblance to the face in his imagination that he was briefly disoriented.
“Don’t you recognize my voice, Peter? It’s Dr. Varma. Peter?”
Peter recognized the voice. And as his vision adjusted he recognized, with a shock, the face as well. Both belonged to the man who picked him up after Antoine’s birthday celebration. His eyes widened in surprise. He wanted to scream, but only a gurgle escaped his throat.
“You do recognize me, then? I’m gratified. I trust that after all we’ve been through together you will keep my name in confidence and not report me for practicing medicine without a license. Rest assured it's only a technicality, anyway, for I am a highly regarded practitioner in my own country. Besides, I made great sacrifices on your behalf. The cost of your medication alone has nearly exceeded my modest means. I was obliged to work extra shifts in the taxi, just to make ends meet. My work here was pro bono—and dear Maggy volunteered without a word of complaint these many long months."
"Of course, you supplied your own food—for the most part—and as that started to run low, I availed myself of the surplus left by dear Cuthbert and friend. But as I can no longer afford to keep you in food and diapers, Maggy and I must take your leave."
The doctor smiled thinly and added, "No doubt someone will pop in before too long and deliver you to a better-equipped environment. But even in my absence, you shan’t be alone, for your good friend Antoine will be at your side the whole time."
The doctor said nothing for a moment as he took out a cigarette and struck a match. Then, drawing deeply, he went on, "Alas, I don’t imagine there will be much conversation. I couldn’t resist indulging in the irony of feeding each of you his own tongue—along with all those other bits I felt you could manage without. I did leave your eyes intact, however, and as you will see, they communicate a great deal.”
With that, Dr. Varma pulled open the curtain and stepped lightly from the room. Peter could see that he was in a nearly empty basement, but he was not alone. Next to him, almost within arm's reach, was a simple cot. It appeared to hold a tightly swaddled infant with a grossly disproportionate head. As Peter stared the head turned toward him, and he saw with unspeakable terror the monstrous parody of a familiar face, and in its gurgling, wide-eyed visage Peter caught a reflection of himself. Darkness washed over him—and perhaps madness—but despite his single-minded pleas, death kept its distance.