“Penicillin,” he said, staring just over her shoulder.
“I’m sorry?” The certainly-artificial smile she had been holding for an unnaturally-long time faded a bit, but didn’t disappear altogether.
“Penicillin,” he repeated, looking her full in the face now. That perfect, non-unique face, no different from the others. Noting her obvious, and infuriating, confusion, he lowered his already-drooping eyelids into a scowl. “You said laughter is the best . . . .” He closed his eyes momentarily and shifted his body. “The best medicine. In terms of absolute impact on humanity. . . .” He stopped and closed his eyes again. With some obvious effort, he re-opened them. “History will show that penicillin was the best medicine.”
Was. That word again.
“Ooo-kay,” she replied, drawing the word out like a petulant child.
“I guess it’s pointless to mention what an inap. . . inappropriate statement that is, anyway, considering” he said. “Guessing that wouldn’t mean much to you.”
The broad smile returned to her face, and she giggled, a grating, mechanical sound, like a hinge starting to lose its lubrication. “You’re a funny man, Mr. Carlton! Very funny man.”
Laying a cold hand on his thin arm, she rolled up the paper sleeve on his gown. The gown smelled vaguely of something organic and industrial, something not unlike gasoline. He knew why, knew the purpose of whatever they had laced the gown with, yet tried not to think on it, even in this late stage. Earlier in his life, in a time that seemed centuries ago now, he had worked as an electrician’s apprentice in a foundry. As part of the company’s safety regulations, he was made to wear a uniform that was constructed of material meant to resist flames, in the event that he encountered, say, an arc flash during the course of the day. Now, what a different world. A world where the standard clothing was meant to assist the flames in their work.
“Go ahead and lie back, Mr. Carlton. The meds are kicking in, and I’d hate for you to tumble off the table.”
“What’s . . . the difference?” he asked. “Maybe more work for you. Is that. . .is that it?”
She did not respond, only continued about her prep work with the broad, empty smile still plastered on her face. That damnable, faux-life face.
With a swaying shake of the head, he lay back onto the cold steel table, which was set at a shallow reclining position.
Grabbing an alcohol swab from a tray beside the table, she wiped at a spot where, presumably, a vein would be located. Evidently finding one that satisfied her, she produced a needle and syringe from the same tray and poised it over his arm. “You should not feel any discomfort in this second and final round, Mr. Carlton. This is just to . . . accelerate the process. But as I mentioned before, the pills you took earlier will deaden all sensation, so there’s nothing to fear.”
He would have scoffed if had possessed the energy, but there simply was none left.
Nothing to fear. Indeed.
“Carlton. . . hmmm. I recently had a patient named Carlton. Oh, what was her first name? I have so many patients, and I rarely remember them. Now, I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Carlton! — How could that be true for someone like me . . .like us? It’s part of the programming, I guess! Makes us more . . . relatable? But I remember her…Oh, what was it . . . Julie? Yes, Julie! Julie Carlton! Any relation to you, Mr. Carlton? Nice lady. Retired school teacher, if my memory serves. . . teehee! I made a pun, didn’t I?”
She placed the fingers of her hand against her lips and giggled like a schoolgirl. It was one of the most discordant sounds he had ever heard.
Although the cocktail he had taken minutes before was beginning to envelop his mind in a fog from which he would never recover, the anger which flared within him at the mention of her name sent shockwaves through his body and mind, giving him a fresh burst of energy. His face reddened, and the veins in his neck and forearms popped to the surface. Trying to raise his head — his entire body — from the table, he nearly spat into her direction. He tried to speak, but only one word was audible: “Wife!”
“So you DO know her! And, to be a patient so soon after your wife! That is rare! They used to space such things out. But, time seems to be moving faster these days. And, age is age, law is law.”
The flash of rage had passed now, draining him of all but the last vestiges of life energy. His head sagged, his eyelids dropped nearly closed. As he stared at the floor, he noted with a sort of grim fascination that the “nurse” wore comfortable-looking shoes, which was odd in that, surely, comfort was not something that she needed. Nor feet, for that matter. Must be just another touch to make the “patients” more comfortable, he thought.
“Julie Carlton. Yes, yes yes. Oh! She kept repeating lines from a poem. Oh, what was it she kept saying? You must know it. Please let me know, you must know! It was striking!”
“‘Some say the world will end in fire’,” he breathed, as the room began to fade.
“What was that?” the nurse asked, leaning down next to his slackened face.
“‘Some say. . .ice’” he continued, and closed his eyes.
“That’s it!” she cried. “Of course! Thank you, Mr. Carlton!” she said, although he had finally drifted off and could no longer hear her.
Walking the five feet to the wall, she pressed a yellow button and watched with folded hands and ever-vacant smile as the floor below the table opened up with a soft mechanical hum, the table descending slowly into the gap, from which came a haze of smoke.
“That’s it, Mr. Carlton. Thank you,” she said softly. “‘From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire’”, she quoted, as she turned and headed toward the door to retrieve the next patient.
Thanks for reading!