By Jocelyn Krull
White tiles, white walls, windows overlooking a seventh-story view of a sun-bleached city. White incandescent bulbs buzzed over him and his white jacket as he reached for the scalpel glistening like a silverfish swimming in a tray of medical instruments. His breath did not falter, steadfast as blade met skin, the heart monitor beeping steadily as the man beneath the white paper sheet breathed the air of the bright, sterile room. His hands were so certain, the muscles in his fingers remembering every twist of the clamp, turn of the screw as he replaced bone with steel, veins with fibres, new electricity humming. Standard protocol, textbook perfection. He installed the final component with a definitive click and suddenly the humming turned to screaming, monitors beeping frantically as the man beneath the white paper began to seize. He couldn’t stop the shaking, the body convulsing, slamming so hard against the table the instruments danced like butterflies on piano strings and his hands didn’t know what to do. He threw himself on the man to calm the tremors, using his weight to halt shifting plates and suddenly the screaming subsided, the room fell silent. The man once frantic now lay a placated, barren planet. Lifeless.
Dr Eli Fisk has woken up from the same nightmare every night for the past three months. The same cold sweats soak through his bedsheets and the same terror vibrates his bones at some dark, twisted frequency. He used to wake up screaming, but he hasn’t done that in a while. At most he wakes up startled, letting out an occasional yelp like the ones you hear in dreaming dogs. He’s visited three different therapists, all whom have taken his hand, given it a gentle squeeze, told him that it isn’t his fault the Statistically Improbable Event occurred, and that the path to acceptance will lead him to peace, the kind of peace you find in water gardens or posters of a sandy beach with two sets of footprints. But, as a man of medicine and logic, Dr Fisk cannot accept that the Statistically Improbable Event occurred out of Fate’s own volition. He is bound to an oath to always solve the human puzzle. So now, instead of visiting therapists, he just gets out of bed. His morning routine is the same each day: In the shower, he uses 2-in-1 because it saves him time; he brushes his teeth with cinnamon toothpaste because he is a firm believer that if it burns, it’s doing its job; he leaves his laces untied so that when he goes to put them on, he doesn’t waste time undoing the double knots in his black, slip-resistant sneakers. Routine is the anchor that grounds him. Providing that everything goes as he plans, he can function.
He uses the west entrance of the hospital every morning because it provides the shortest walking distance from his parking spot to the locker room. He passes the same nursing station with the same cognac-eyed nurse who always wishes him a bouncy:
“Good morning, Dr Fisk.”
And, as per usual, he replies with a curt:
He gives this greeting out to anywhere between six and ten additional colleagues before reaching the locker room. He locks up his jacket and the worn leather wallet his dad gave him when he graduated medical school and proceeds to complete his shift: he visits patients in room rounds, reminds the stubborn ones that yes, somebody has to accompany them to the bathroom; he peers at blood cultures beneath thousand-dollar microscopes; he sets vertebrae back in place with pins he knows he’ll just have to take back out; he fills out paperwork that floods his desk by the minute. Clockwork. At the end of each shift, after he reclaims his belongings from the locker room, he makes one last trip to the lab and sits at the third computer from the left. He opens a web browser and types in the letter M, which prompts the recent search bar to display the phrase “mortality rate of joint replacement surgery.” The search adamantly confirms for him, again, that only 0.29% of people die from joint replacement surgery. He knows very well that number will not change no matter how many times he checks, but daunting waves of disbelief and guilt still wash over him, wearing smooth the sharp confidence he once had. He opens a new tab and types in the letter G, which brings up “Geoffery H. Ibing obituary” in the recent search bar. He’s lost plenty of patients; things go wrong all the time, but nothing should have gone wrong with Geoff’s surgery. It was Statistically Improbable for it to have gone wrong. He looks at his picture and subjects himself to the waves. He deserves to drown. Geoff was his best friend. Eli trusted him with everything: patient stories, restaurant recommendations, how to deal with death. Geoff trusted him with his life. He closes the browser, shuts down the computer, and leaves, passing the same nurse’s station on the way out.
He threw himself on the man and suddenly the shaking stopped, the room fell silent. Geoff’s jaw fell open slantways, his neck fell to the side so that he was looking him directly in the eyes.
“What did you do to me, Eli?”
Dr Fisk woke up screaming this time, shooting upright and catching himself before he fell out of bed. The dream has never played that way before. Geoff has never addressed him before. This isn’t normal. It defies everything he had considered normal for the past three years. His mind slings itself into confusion and madness and shatters the logic wall he meticulously built. His muscles slack as he doubles over into a heap and sobs.
He can’t use the west entrance today because they are fixing the doors, something about the automatic sensor not working. He has to take the south entrance instead, which almost doubles his walking distance to the locker room and makes him pass a different nurse’s station, one with an ocean-eyed nurse who simply gives him a nod as he walks past. He typically doesn’t hold morning pleasantries at too high of a priority, but the change in his routine makes him uneasy. When he finally reaches the locker room, a maintenance worker is chest-deep in the ceiling fiddling with the wiring of the light fixture that sits above his locker.
“The bulbs won’t work. Might take a while to fix.”
He reluctantly uses a different locker. This one is situated on the opposite side of his normal locker, so it opens in the opposite direction and the hook for his jacket sits on the left side instead of the right. For some reason throughout his shift, that’s all he can think about. His jacket is now on the left side instead of the right side. The idea stalls his thought process and his shift goes by at half the speed it normally does. He drowns in the complaining patients and the insurance paperwork piling up until he’s neck-deep. When he finally finishes, he quickly grabs his things out of the opposite locker to avoid the left hook and leaves. He walks to the lab to check the mortality rate of joint replacement surgery, but when his hand twists the doorknob, it stops mid-turn. Locked. This lab isn’t supposed to be locked. He twists again, expecting it to just be stuck but the knob still doesn’t budge. He panics, his ribs knit together and the back of his head starts to feel heavy, his mind starts clouding up like it did this morning and he can’t figure out why the knob won’t turn and everything is just so different today and he doesn’t know what to do with his hands so he just keeps turning and turning but Geoff won’t stop bleeding and—
Suddenly everything quiets down in his head. His hands stop turning, but his heart still races. He looks over and sees the cognac-eyed nurse standing in front of him with a styrofoam to-go box and a lanyard of keys. Her forehead creases in concern, but the softness in her eyes never wavers. It’s…different.
“Are you okay?”
He opens his mouth to speak but swallows the words a couple of times before he can get a sentence out.
“The door is locked. I need in there.”
She puts her to-go box on a cart nearby and thumbs through her keys.
“This lab is typically open, but the knob is weird. Just gets stuck every once in a while, is all.”
She locates the right key and unlocks the lab, opening the door just a little bit to show him that it is, indeed, free to use.
“There. Good as new,” she assures him, smiling. She retrieves her box and continues to her station. He remains outside the door, watching as it gradually continues to open little by little. The nurse pauses halfway down the hallway, her eyes the brightest thing as she turns back to him.
“Goodnight, Dr. Fisk.”
The door gapes in front of him. He shifts forward to enter the lab, but he stops, his stride pausing midway through his step. After being on constant alert all day, this is the first time he realizes he is completely run-down. He’s had those days where there were enough patients and paperwork that he was a bit exhausted by the time he went home, but tonight he feels like his bones are asleep, like the muscles in his neck are holding themselves together by threads. Just this once, he decides to just go home. It’s been a different day, anyways. His eyes heavy, his mind a bit too focused on breathing, he reaches for the knob and pulls the door shut.
His headlights pluck the green highway signs from the darkness on his drive home. Snowflakes dance in the high-beams as he navigates the winding roads. He goes through the mental list he checks after every shift: did he remember to clock out, did he turn off the centrifuge for his blood cultures, did he turn in the discharge papers for the patients that left that day? As he reaches in his mind for the next item on the list, an orange blur in the corner of his eye breaks his trance and he jerks his steering wheel to the shoulder, slamming the brakes and halting the car just before the edge of a street sign. As he regains focus, he looks in the direction he saw the blur and spots a fox’s tail slinking into the tall weeds. He shifts his gaze back to the glowing needle of the speedometer resting calmly on 0. His hands grip the steering wheel tight and he lowers his forehead to 12 o’ clock. He shudders as he struggles to catch his breath, sobs jabbing his gut between inhales. The only thing running through his mind now is the fox, very much alive.
He wakes up the next morning feeling different. His head is in the same spot on the pillow he started out in and his arms are neatly tucked by his side rather than sprawled out. His chest feels lighter, uninhibited. As he slowly becomes more awake, he notices small things like how the light hits the wall in front of his bed at an angle that makes crisscross shadows appear, and how thick the layer of dust on his side table is. He comes to realize he has no recollection of what he dreamt about, which isn’t normal. But for the first time in a while, it doesn’t bother him. His thoughts aren’t plagued with blood and statistics and figuring out the math behind what went wrong. The Statistically Improbable Event should not have happened, but 0.29 is still a number. A small number, yet it leaves enough room for something beyond his control to breathe.
Jocelyn Krull is 24 years old and currently living in Indiana, U.S.A. She has provided editing, proofreading, and content creation services at both the professional and scholarly level. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Franklin College in 2018 and has had work previously published in Apogee.