David volunteered to be murdered. He didn’t like to think about it that way – hadn’t, in fact, thought about it exactly that way before now – but as his final moments in the waiting room ticked by, that thought fastened onto his mind and wouldn’t loosen its grip. He tried to chase it away by thinking that it wasn’t really murder; sure, he would die – he would be dead in the traditional sense of the word – but he might not be dead after a while. Death, in this instance, would merely be a passage, a biding of time. It wasn’t as if he had a choice.
He looked down at his bony arms, the way his laboratory gown hung on him as it would on a scarecrow, or for that matter, a skeleton. It hung on him the same way his skin did; a covering merely, his bones defining its sharp angles and minute curves. He was sick – deathly ill – and if nothing else, that fact alone should have eased his mind’s distractions about being murdered.
Finally, he didn’t have to think about it anymore. An elderly doctor, gray beyond gray, walked up to him, leaned over, placed one yellow-fingernailed hand on his shoulder, and uttered with the smell of rotting teeth and antacids, “We’re ready for you now, Mr. Sperling.”
The doctor waited for David to stand, then led him down the bright hallway. David had prepared himself for this – gone over it in his mind so many times – that it became surreal, dreamlike. It’s really happening this time, he thought distantly.
David snatched glimpses into the rooms of the laboratory through the open doors lining the hallway. He knew that what he was about to experience was a new procedure, but didn’t understand why it was being conducted in what appeared to be a maternity ward. Every room he could see into had pregnant women in it. They were holding their ripe and swollen bellies, staring at him. He became self-conscious of this and tried to avert his eyes, looking down briefly at his slippered feet, but the sheer number of them beckoned his gaze back. He thought they were looking at him with curiosity; he was, after all, a very skinny man filled with death, quite the converse of them.
By the time he reached the room where the doctor stopped and held out his hand in a butler’s gesture that intoned, “We’re here, after you,” David realized that what he had seen in their eyes wasn’t wonder, but fear.
He looked into the room the doctor was motioning him to enter. David quickly realized it wasn’t the sort of operating room you would expect in a maternity ward. Aside from a complicated table in the center of the room, there were at least a dozen other simpler tables arranged around it, like spokes in a great wheel. The rim of the wheel was even more tables, another few dozen altogether. A young doctor in the room signaled David to the center table, and he walked in.
He lay down on the center table. The lights were bright, and he shielded his eyes with his bony hand. He let the doctors go about their work, complying with their requests; relax, arms straight out to the sides, lie still, close your eyes. One by one, the carefully calculated steps of death dissolved his consciousness.
In a burst of activity the sound of gurney wheels filled the operating room, echoing off the painted concrete walls and pale linoleum floor. Doors banged open and shut. Surgical instruments clanged cacophonously all around him. He heard the padding of women’s feet and the weight-strain of the beds around him as, he assumed, they took their places on the other tables. He wondered what was happening – these women, the rush of activity, the surgical instruments; why he wasn’t told about any of this, if he would remember any of it if he ever recovered.
David tried to lift his torso to look and confirm his suspicions, but felt like he weighed a thousand pounds. His chest and stomach felt like they were ablaze – his veins like they were filled with fire.
The last thing he heard before he was gone for good was the young doctor yelling, “Now! Cut them open!”