When he opened his eyes, he couldn’t see anything. There was not a glint of light or even the subtle shading of shadow.
He listened. There was no external sound other than his own breathing and the slight movement of his head on what felt like a pillow.
His mind was cloudy, and when he tried to move his hands, he found they were immovable. He felt something wrapped around his right wrist holding it down, but he could still move his fingers. His left hand felt like it was set in concrete. He tried to move his legs, but discovered to his horror, he had no feeling of any kind below the waist.
Searching his mind for an explanation, he began to back peddle into memories of yesterday and beyond, but it felt like a vast wasteland.
Suddenly, his name occurred to him out of the stupor that clouded his mind. He was Steve Russell, a combine salesman working out of Kansas City, Kansas. His wife’s name was Lois, and they had two children, Jason and Jill, who were eight and four. The last thing he remembered was stopping at a rest stop to pee on Interstate 70 late at night. His mind was blank after that.
Did he have an accident? Why couldn’t he feel his legs? Was he paralyzed?
The place where he lay seemed more like an isolation booth than a hospital, and it was intensely cold.
Shivering violently, it felt like goose bumps covered every inch of his body. He tried to move his right hand inward toward his thigh, but he could only reach a small portion of his right leg, which felt as hard as an iron pipe and numb to the touch. He felt exposed and vulnerable as if lying nude on a bed with a cold blast of air-conditioning falling on him from above. He tried desperately to free his right hand since he couldn’t feel his left hand at all.
It finally occurred to him to cry out for help. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? He tried to gather the energy to speak, but he couldn’t swallow. He also discovered he couldn’t open his mouth. His jaws were locked, and he couldn’t feel his tongue. His mouth felt as if it had been stuffed with cotton gauze. Had he bitten his tongue off on the steering wheel when he’d crashed the car? He had no recollection of any accident.
Did he have brain damage? What was today? Where was Lois? No matter how strange his surroundings seemed; he had to be in a hospital. The doctors must have restrained his hands to stop him from hurting himself.
Starting to sob, he feared he was no longer Steve Russell, or not the Steve Russell he’d been yesterday. He wasn’t brain dead, but the thought of his being the proverbial vegetable for the rest of his life weighed heavily on his mind.
He might be in an intensive care facility. Maybe he was a burn victim. Possibly, an ointment covered his entire body, and this was why he felt so cold. He thought he remembered reading burn victims were always cold when they had burns all over their body. He might be in an ice bath to control the pain.
Suddenly a horrible thought swept into his mind like a sledgehammer. Was he blind? Maybe he wasn’t in a dark room. Maybe this was what being blind was like. Maybe he was in an open, airy, sunlit room and the air-conditioning was just too cold for his taste. He wouldn’t know it if he were blind.
He wanted to cry like he’d never cried before, but somehow there were no tears. Could a blind man cry? He’d never thought about it before.
He had to settle down and gather his thoughts. What did he know? He couldn’t see so he could be blind. He couldn’t speak so he might have bitten his tongue off. He couldn’t move his left arm or his legs so he might be paralyzed. He also had no awareness of a penis or any sensation he needed to urinate. He was extremely cold and shivering so he might be a burn victim. There were a lot of minuses.
What were the pluses? He wasn’t in pain. He could hear. If not tied to the bed, he could move his right arm. Hey, here’s a big one. He wasn’t dead. He was still breathing and very much alive.
What had happened before he’d lost track of time? After he’d had breakfast at the cheap motel’s restaurant the last morning he could remember, he’d made a few calls to prospective farmers in proximity to Interstate 70. After lunch, he’d sold combines to Jasper Rogers and Mike Armstrong. Other than the two sales, he could only see visions of miles and miles of monotonous interstate highway.
It was the season to harvest in Kansas, and the drive across country was flat and boring. The dust of sometimes four or five combines clouding his windshield for most of the day increased the possibility of his falling asleep at the wheel. He’d stopped several times for coffee to keep awake. The mattress was so hard in last night’s fleabag motel, he’d barely gotten a wink of sleep.
If only a nurse would stop in now that he was awake. He couldn’t reach a call button to summon one, but sooner or later, someone would come in to change his IV or check his temperature and vital signs. He’d been in the hospital with pneumonia for eight days in 1998. He knew the drill.
Suddenly it occurred to him, he’d heard no machines chirping, no televisions blaring, and no announcements on an intercom. This was certainly abnormal. How could a hospital function without these commonplace sounds?
All at once, an excruciating pain erupted in both hip joints that surpassed any toothache or gallstone attack he’d ever experienced. The agony continued to build until he passed out.
Fifteen minutes later, two men in pale green surgical gowns and face shields stopped at the door and looked at the chart hanging from an in box on the wall.
“Who’s this poor slob?” the younger surgeon asked.
“He’s just another guy who had to pee at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“The rest stop on Interstate 70?”
“Who brought him in? Crowbar or Toothless?”
“They had the night off.”
“No, don’t tell me it was….”
“You guessed it. Meathook.”
“The poor bastard. How unlucky can one person be?”
The two surgeons stepped inside the room.
“What’s been harvested so far?” the younger surgeon asked.
“According to the chart, the kidneys, the liver, the optic nerves, the left arm, and both legs.”
“The right arm and the heart.”
“For God sakes! Put something over his eyes. Bloody eye sockets creep me out.”
The older surgeon draped a small towel over Steve’s empty eyes. His head was also partly immobilized by a neck brace.
“How gross. His lips have been sewn shut.”
“Meathook loves deep fried tongue as a substitute for baloney, and he’s trying to get a side job at Morgan’s funeral home sewing lips shut and needs the practice.”
“Spare me the details.”
The younger surgeon made the initial cut to amputate Steve’s right arm. Afterward, the older surgeon severed the shoulder bone with a circular saw and detached it. One placed a tourniquet on the wound, and the other wrapped the arm in plastic and placed it in a tub of ice on a cart.
Steve awoke in a fit of agony. He immediately discovered his right arm felt like lead, and he could no longer move it.
He heard someone say, “it’ s a good thing…ah… Steve here is a vegetable on life support and brain dead. Can you imagine what it would be like to harvest all his organs while he was alive?”
The high keening sound of the surgeon’s saw obliterated Steve’s final attempt to scream as the precision blade cut through his breastbone like warm butter.
A selection from my book, “Shivers and other nightmares”
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