The ECG machine has just been turned on. Now here's where it starts getting confusing. Because I'm lying here in the Intensive Care Unit, connected to all these machines, but is it in the past, or the present? It could even be in the future, but then it would have to be the fairly immediate future, because I'm still in this familiar place.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
That's my heartbeat I'm listening to. The ECG machine is dividing time into little segments, like a clock. Could it be that time has finally started up again? Have I broken out of stasis? I'm not sure if I like this. My vision is clear not a trace of rippling. And my feet I'm getting some pain down there. Make it stop!
A nurse came 'round the corner
A nurse never comes 'round the corner! What's happening? Oh it's O.K. This is all in the past. It hasn't happened yet.
A nurse came 'round the corner and stopped by my bed. "Hello Stephen!", she said. "My name is Anita. I'm the nurse who'll be taking care of you this afternoon."
Afternoon? How long had I been asleep? I didn't even know what day it was. I looked at my wrist but there was no watch there; only a plastic band with my name on it. I glanced at my other wrist; there was a needle in it, connected to a long tube which ran up a metal pole with one of those bags of fluid at the top of it. Anita was asking a question.
"Do you know where you are?"
She was a young nurse, but I remember thinking it's a pity she was so ugly.
"You're in Marramlake Hospital. Do you remember?"
"Did you just wake up?"
"What's the last thing you remember?"
I searched through my memory half-heartedly, not sure if I wanted to find what was buried there. It was something to do with a secret plan. A way out. A handwritten note folded up small in my pocket. A footbridge. I decided it was all too vague.
"I'm not sure", I said.
"Well, you've been taken to the Intensive Care Unit. This is the place where you'll get all the special care you need, for your chest problem. So here we'll be babying you a bit more than usual. This is a fairly quiet place "
Chest problem? How did that happen? Was it case of mistaken identity, or did I really have a chest problem? I had to rethink everything.
" that low roar you hear is the air conditioning, that's nothing to worry about."
I couldn't hear a low roar. The strangled hiss of the oxygen mask was louder than anything, apart from the ECG. There was rubber clamped to my face I could smell the oxygen coming to me through a long plastic hose attached to the mask. How long had it been there? I felt like it had become fused to my head somehow.
"So how are your feet?", asked Anita.
"They're O.K., a bit painful."
"Yeah? If you had to rate the pain on a scale between one and ten, where one is no pain and ten is terrible agony, what would the number be?"
"Err... five. No, six."
"Aah. I think the pain will be decreasing as time goes on. How about the pain in your back? How would you rate that between one and ten?"
"Well that's great. Now the next thing I've got to do..."
"Hang on what's this about my back? What's wrong with it?"
Anita looked at me with a worried expression. "Don't you remember?", she said. "According to your chart, you have two broken vertebrae, down at the base of your spine."
"Oh. O.K.", I said, thinking she would surely give me any more information that I needed to know.
"Now the next thing I've got to do is take some blood from you. I'll try to do it as painlessly as possible hang on, I'll just get the the thing "
There was no sunlight in this place. I felt like I was underground. Fluorescent lights provided a warm, soft glow to everything, though none were directly above my bed. I remembered now what had happened I'd pieced it together in my brain, and there was no longer any doubt about why I was in hospital. As for the exact nature of my injuries, that was yet to be determined.
I didn't really know which part of the hospital I was in. I couldn't have known that the building was of a sleek modern design with a courtyard out front, or that the courtyard extended around the side of the building. As Anita fumbled around with the hypodermic syringe I scanned the pattern on the ceiling. It was composed of squares, arranged in much the same way as the concrete slabs in the courtyard were arranged. A wheelchair rolling across the squares would make a constant thunk, thunk, thunk sound. The building had six storeys above courtyard level, and they were quite an awe inspiring sight to look at. My parents could have helped me wheel the wheelchair across the concrete squares, but they knew I preferred to push the wheels myself. After all, I hardly had a chance to get around in the wheelchair when I was in the ward. And getting around in the wheelchair was fun.
"So how does it feel to be out in the open air?", asked Mum.
"Makes a change from lying in bed all day, doesn't it?"
Thunk, thunk, thunk. This was the first time I'd been out in the open air. My parents were leading me around the hospital. The flat concrete area surrounded the main building on three sides; there were no people on the far side of the building, but the view was terrific You could see the whole north end of Melbourne from there. My parents had a better view than me, naturally, as they were standing up.
"Do you want your feet covered up? The blanket's coming off there " The thunk, thunk, thunk stopped temporarily as Dad adjusted the blanket on my raised legs. This was the sort of wheelchair that kept one's legs horizontal at all times. It had a wooden board sticking out the front. With my bruised feet hidden safely under the blanket, Dad went over and talked to Mum.
I looked up at the cloud reflections on the windows as I rolled casually across the courtyard. This hospital was built on the side of a hill. The front of the courtyard was at ground level, but the rear of the courtyard was about ten metres off the ground, and surrounded by a low concrete wall. It was the wall which prevented me from seeing out across the countryside. I rolled up alongside it and tried to look through the narrow gaps in the concrete.
What were my parents doing? Weren't they keeping an eye on me? Weren't they worried that I might heave myself up onto the wall, drag my legs behind me, sit on the wall, and then jump off? It was about ten metres sheer drop, and there was a road down there which would be sure to kill me if I landed on my head. My parents were too far away to stop me. But I didn't jump. The option of suicide was no longer in the big picture, thanks to the intensive psychiatric sessions I'd been having with Dr. Watties in the past few weeks. But weren't they worried that I might still be suicidal? That I might have been just projecting a non-suicidal facade in order to trick them? That I might have been waiting for an opportunity just like this?
"No don't be silly Stephen", I told myself.
I wished I had something to fight against.
But the hospital was a beautiful place, and I was starting a new life; a life full of pleasures where stress and work were in a different universe. So what was the problem?
Beep! Beep! The ECG machine was starting up again.
"What was that 'beep beep', Stephen?", asked Dad.
"Oh, that was my watch", I mumbled.
"What time is it?"
Just gone seven o'clock.
"But why does your watch go 'beep beep' at seven o'clock?"
No, it can't be that early. It must be eight.
"My watch beeps on every hour."
Not eight. Try again. It's nine.
I don't think I even have a watch.
Aaauugh! It's ten. On the pain scale. And the longer she held the needle in there, the more painful in was. "Sorry about this", she said. "I can't seem to find the vein. I'm going to have to try again."
Anita pulled the needle out and the pain slowly receded. I couldn't believe she'd missed the vein twice in a row. She was so incompetent, it was almost funny. She'd been treating me like a child, babying me as she put it, but now she was causing me extreme pain by accident. As it receded, I felt another pain growing in the tip of my right index finger. But maybe pain was not the right word; it felt oddly pleasurable. I looked at the finger. It was topped with a dark bruise which extended about half an inch down, and when I looked closer I could've sworn I saw a tiny indentation on the very tip. "Now that's strange", I said. "Have you seen "
Anita paused in her work to look up at my half question. "What? Have I seen what?"
"No, nothing", I replied. The indentation was gone, and the bruise was fading away as I looked. It must have been a trick of the light. Anita proceeded to try again with the blood extraction, and this time succeeded. Then she asked, "Would you like to turn over onto your side?"
"'Cause you've been lying on your back since you got here, haven't you?"
I nodded. It was getting rather uncomfortable. The process of turning me onto my side was a complicated one, but she went ahead and did it. Extra pillows were brought in to support me; there was a pillow at my front, two pillows at my back, a pillow between my legs, a pillow under my feet I felt like my entire body was encased in pillows, and it was the most comfortable thing I could imagine. It almost made up for the syringe incident. I closed my eyes and started to go to sleep. But then someone else came in. It was a man in a white coat.
"Stephen Clark?", he said. He came around to the side of the bed so that I could see him clearly. "My name is Dr. Quack. I'm glad to see that you're awake at last. I just need to ask you a few questions for my paperwork here. Uh the paramedics tell me your feet were broken when you jumped off a footbridge. Is that true?"
"Can you tell me why you did that?"
"I wanted to commit suicide."
His pen moved on his clipboard. "Uh huh. And why was that?"
I answered the same phrase I had been saying to myself over and over for the past two years, "Just sick of life."
"Is this first time you've done something like this?"
The doctor nodded. "O.K., thankyou Stephen, I'll let you be now." He put a few final marks on his clipboard and walked away. I was wondering what Anita thought of all this was she learning for the first time that I was a suicidee? Would this shatter the illusions she had about me? I could've sworn she was treating me just like a child, caring for me like a mother cares for a son. But children do not commit suicide, and where was Anita, anyway? I looked around. She must have left while the Doctor was talking to me.
Maybe she wouldn't treat you like a child if you didn't act so much like a child.
Who's acting like a child?
Something is gripping me now. It's a sense of determination, mixed with fear. And something else is being gripped
"You sit there, refusing to co-operate, refusing to accept help, without any logical reason; you're just behaving like a spoilt child."
My hands were gripping the wheels of the wheelchair. One on each side. It was a symbolic grip even though the authorities had not yet tried to take the wheelchair away from me, I still felt the need to hold on.
"I'm not behaving like a spoilt child!"
"Yes you are!!" Nurse Yvonne nodded her head and opened her eyes wide, emphasizing each word. She thought she was winning the argument. But I was just getting warmed up.
"A child would have knuckled down and obeyed orders a long time ago", I said. "And besides, a child usually wants to grow up as fast as possible, doesn't he? A child wants to be independent. That's not that's not me"
Pity about the stumble, I thought. This conversation had something of an audience; there was Bill the grumpy old man in the opposite bed, and Vaclav the twenty-two year old chap in the adjacent bed. Vaclav was flat on his back, unable to sit up, just as I had been a few weeks ago. I sometimes wondered what he was doing in a rehabilitation centre.
Yvonne came at me from a different angle. "And why don't you want to be independent?", she asked.
"I just I don't see why I should put unnecessary strain on my legs."
"Oh, and walking around is unnecessary strain, is it?"
"Yes. As long as I've got a wheelchair, there's no need for me to use my legs."
"Stephen", she said. "When you choose the life of a disabled person, you're choosing a life that requires people to help you every step of the way. If you don't get out of that wheelchair, then you'll be forcing other people to help you and care for you all the time and that's the immaturity thing again, because only a child needs that much support and attention. Do you want to go back to being a child?"
I ignored the last question, as it seemed to be a diversion from the topic. "Look", I said. "There are many disabled people who live full and enriching lives. After the initial stages, they don't need much help they can live independently and and "
I trailed off. Yvonne was shaking her head. "You don't understand the amount of help they need to get to that stage of independence. If you think anyone's going to work their butts off trying to give you a rich and fulfilling life as a disabled person, then you'll have to think again. You're not disabled."
"Well", I said, rolling my wheels backwards away from her, "I can manage just fine by myself for now."
Yvonne folded her arms. "Yes well you'd better be careful Stephen. This hospital doesn't help people who don't want to be helped. It won't be long now before the doctors give up and send you home, and then there'll be no one to help you walk again. You'll have to do it all by yourself. Oh, I know you want to be a disabled person for life, but soon you'll get tired of sitting around all day, trust me."
She's walking away, leaving me no time think up a logical reply. She's making me feel helpless. I won't stand for that. Without any warning, the whole hospital scene including Yvonne flies apart as if I were giving off the explosive force of an atom bomb. The buildings are leveled in an instant. Only I am left on the windy hillside, with my wheelchair still standing on the remnant of green vinyl floor. The ceiling has gone, revealing the sky, but it's not a sky, it's
A voice cries out from the heavens: "And don't think you'll be able to take the wheelchair home with you, 'cause you won't!"
it's a large expanse of ceiling, with too many fluorescent lights in it. Hundreds of square miles of fluorescent lights, shining their artificial beams down on me. I stare up at them with a sense of wonder. The sky is on my side now. But it's too late to be staring up at the ceiling and it's too early to be blowing up the hospital. There's bound to be a big showdown eventually, me versus the system it has to happen, and I'm ready for it. But I wish things could just go back to the way they were, like on April the twelfth when I was on my way to physiotherapy through the wide corridors, pushing my wheelchair wheels faster and faster until the momentum was enough to carry me to the corner without any further pushes. Some of the staff members told me that I shouldn't roll through the corridors so fast because I was liable to frighten the older patients who were slow and infirm. Most of the folks staying at the rehabilitation centre were senior citizens; I supposed it wasn't really fair to rush past them in my speeding wheelchair, barely missing them. But in those empty corridors, I saw no need to slow down. Propelling a wheelchair at high velocity was an adrenaline rush, and it was fun, the same way that speeding in any vehicle was fun. I was coming to the corner now, and that meant I would have to stop abruptly and turn ninety degrees. But instead of grabbing both wheels, I just grabbed the right wheel and let the momentum carry me part of the way round the turn. Then I adjusted both wheels so that I was facing the right direction, and shot off again with a vigorous thrust from my arms.
Moving swiftly through the corridor towards the gym, I remembered how it was in the early days of wheelchairing at Marramlake hospital. I had a different wheelchair then, the old and cumbersome thing with its awkward wooden board out the front and its unsteady wheels which would never be touching the ground all at once. I had to take it slow in the early days, partly because my arms were weak, and partly because I wasn't used to wheelchair handling. I saw other young patients in the corridor outside my room, moving with speed and dexterity in their wheelchairs, and thought to myself, "How do they do it?" But now I had experience and a better set of wheels; I was the coolest invalid in the ward. Not that there was much competition.
My physiotherapist's name was Carol, and it was she who met me as I rolled into the busy gymnasium area. This was the woman who was responsible for getting me on my feet. I had already gotten to know her a little in the past few days, and I knew that she intended to get my whole body into shape, not just my legs. It seemed a bit pointless, really after all, I had always been a weakling, and would surely go back to being a weakling after all this physiotherapy was over. But that was the sort of bad attitude I wasn't allowed to express.
"Good morning Stephen, how are you?", asked Carol.
"Are you ready for today's exercises?"
"Now, later on today I'll get you some crutches and you'll practise walking on those. But while I'm getting them, ease yourself onto the bench and do three groups of ten push-ups. Can you do that?"
I raised myself up onto my arms.
"Wait!", she said. "You haven't put on the brakes! You've got to put the brakes on every time you get out of the wheelchair, to lock the wheels in place. Did you just forget?"
"Oh. Yes." I pulled on the brake levers. Perhaps I forgot on purpose, because it's such an unnecessary precaution; who was she to be telling me the right way to get out of a wheelchair, anyway? The choice should be mine to make.
I planted my feet on the floor.
I took a few steps, but not without using the vinyl-covered bench for support. Thirty push-ups? O.K., I would comply with Carol's bossy request, for now. Perhaps I would choose to only do twenty push-ups. Or ten. Carol was gone now. I'd probably collapse from exhaustion before the first ten, anyway.
One, two, three
Why am I doing it?
Six, seven, eight
It's not fun, it's not practical
April the tenth. That's the day I was transferred here. They said I would be here for only one or two weeks, and then I'd go back home to my parents. Back to the normal life. That's the plan.
Eleven, twelve, thirteen
Why am I not allowed to ask why?
Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen
Why should I want to walk?
Nineteen. That's how old I am. And in all those nineteen years I've never known what pleasure could be gained from a physical disability.
No. I can't go that far. Nineteen is the most I can do. I swear I'm going to black out if I go any further. There have to be limits my head is throbbing as it rests on the padded bench or the pillow, and all I can do is listen to the sounds of the gym, the patients making progress. I think I'll just lie here forever, and forget about the crutches. But above all the hubbub I can hear one conversation which stands out from the others, maybe because the first voice sounds like a loud aristocratic Englishman:
"What exactly is happening with the Clark case?"
"Well he's refusing to walk, doctor. He says he wants to stay in the wheelchair."
"Stay in the wheelchair? Is he mad? He'll never get well that way."
"Well that's what he's been told, but he says he doesn't want to get well."
"Doesn't want to get welllll?"
Two heads are talking to eachother. One of them is spluttering with astonishment.
"But hasn't anyone talked to him? Hasn't anyone told him how silly he's being? I mean, for heaven's sake, being crippled from the waste down, it's it's absurd! He can't even walk! Get him to a psychiatrist."
"He's already seeing a psychiatrist, doctor, and many other people have tried to reason with him, but he says he likes not being able to walk, and he likes getting around in a wheelchair."
The two heads are somewhat translucent. Their necks are getting longer and longer, curving around in unnatural ways.
"Well, this won't do. We can't have patients in here who refuse to co-operate."
"Oh, I agree. I don't believe he really doesn't want to get well; I think he's just doing it to get attention."
Their necks are coming out of the television. Two heads, floating around in mid-air, with only thin curvy necks linking them to the T.V. screen.
"Well I've got no time for people like that", said the doctor. "He's jolly well not staying here. Tell him he's discharged, and I wash my hands of him."
"All right. And I'll tell him he can't take the wheelchair with him when he goes, because it belongs to us."
"Yes. Ha ha. Yes, do that. I think he may well change his mind when he hears that."
The doctor's head nods. What sort of head is that? It doesn't look real it looks like some sort of exaggerated cartoon head. And the voice sounds wrong too real doctors don't talk like that. It sounds like a pretend doctor in an old English movie.
"I've had several patients like him", it said. "You try to do them a favour, you try to help them, and they throw it all back in your face. Most discouraging. Most unpleasant."
The necks are retracting back into the T.V. now. It's as if the screen is sucking them back in.
"Now, about Bill "
"Oh, yes, old Bill! Good old Bill how is he?"
The conversation fades as the two heads press together and squeeze back into the T.V. Now they are just part of the T.V. screen again, and I am alone as usual. The ceiling is above me it ripples as if wincing with the memory of that single bullet ringing out across the countryside. It will never happen again. I am safe here.
That thing with the T.V. was weird images don't usually come out of the screen and float around in the room. I would've thought it was impossible. But then I don't really understand television. Once upon a time I had a basic understanding of how it works and what it does, but nowadays I don't even understand what it's trying to tell me. When I look at my T.V., I see patterns of light and dark, and colour, but can't find any meaning in them. It's something about about representing three dimensions on a two dimensional surface, and I used to get something from it, but now I can't tell the foreground from the background. The T.V. is not a marker of time I can't tell one program from the next. And yet still I keep my eyes focussed on it. It's the most interesting thing in the room.
How many times, during that dark period just before my suicide attempt, had I wished myself to be in a comfy bed just like this one? Indeed, most people in a situation of weariness, stress, or embarrassment would wish they could just curl up in bed and forget about their worries. It makes me wonder why they got out of bed in the first place. People don't learn from their mistakes. But look at me my sheets are clean my face is clean my air is clean the room is warm, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing on the horizon that I could worry about. I am simply existing, here alone with my thoughts.
But now my solitude is broken by a man entering the room. I can hear his rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the vinyl. As he approaches me, I hear another sound, a very strange one which starts as a low roar and opens out to become the normal background noise of the hospital ward. I never noticed how silent everything had been, until that noise started up.
The man had glasses, and he was bald on top. I didn't recognise him. "Hello Stephen!", he said. "My name is Dr. Watties. I'm a psychiatrist. How are you feeling?"
"Fine", I replied instinctively, despite my obvious physical injuries which went without saying.
"I'm here to have a little talk with you. Is that O.K.?"
The Doctor sat down. He started to talk in his soothing, non-threatening, gentle voice. "Now you got into this physical condition because of a suicide attempt, is that right?"
"Yes." There was a long pause. I wasn't looking at the doctor I was staring straight up at the ceiling.
"How did you attempt to kill yourself?"
"Jumped off a footbridge."
There was another long pause.
"Do you think you could explain to me why you did that?"
How was I supposed to answer that question? The most accurate answer, I guessed, would be "Why not?", but that wouldn't have satisfied Doctor Watties. Instead I chose to give the same answer as I gave the very first person who asked me that question: "Because I was sick of life."
A patient across the room let out a whimper of pain. I couldn't see him. Why not? Because my curtains were drawn. How long had they been like that? I wasn't able to recall anyone pulling them closed.
"Is there any particular aspect of your life that you were sick of?"
"Well, it was I don't know, just everything. There was nothing about it that was enjoyable. It was school, mostly."
"School? You say you didn't like school?"
"No. It was stressful. The work was hard. I was doing the V.C.E."
"Ah yes, the V.C.E., I've heard how stressful that can be. But when you attempted suicide, you were on holidays, weren't you?"
"So you had just finished year eleven?"
"No, year twelve."
"So you had finished the V.C.E. altogether?"
"Did you pass?"
The doctor might have been confused. I didn't care. My mental health was no cut and dried case it was a mysterious riddle. I could see he was formulating another question.
"But if the V.C.E. was a part of your life that you'd finished with I don't see how it could've been a cause for suicide."
Well now that wasn't a question. How could I answer him if he didn't ask a question? I just lay there. The doctor paused for a long time. I wondered what the point of having the curtains closed was. They didn't exactly offer any sound protection from the other patients. The doctor and I were speaking so softly, anyway, that the confidentiality of this interview was assured. Maybe he wanted some visual privacy in case I had to cry or something. Well there was no need for that.
"Stephen, I'm still somewhat puzzled about the reasoning behind what you did. Could you tell me more about why you wanted to take your own life?"
I could see the doctor wanted to cut to the chase. "Well", I said, "it was kind like I knew my life was about to become more stressful because I had just been accepted into a tertiary course a TAFE course in Information Technology and I knew it would continue to be stressful and I knew that it wouldn't be worth it. So I decided to cut it short before it before it started."
"I see. So it was really the expectation of the future that led you to commit suicide."
"And you didn't want to do the course?"
I shook my head.
"But if you didn't want to do the course, then why did you apply for it?"
"I didn't apply for it in first preference. What I really wanted to do was Graphic Design at university. Information Technology was my last preference."
"Aah. So none of the universities accepted you then."
"No. Nor did the TAFE design courses." I thought of adding that I probably would have committed suicide anyway no matter who had accepted me, but I didn't want the doctor to think I'd been leading him astray again. The curtains heaved as if someone outside was grabbing them. I ignored it and continued to stare up at the ceiling.
Doctor Watties seemed to be retreating from me. "Hmm", he said. "I can understand how the rejection from those courses would make you feel sad. I know I would be very disappointed if I were in that situation. Mrs Clark, were you aware that Stephen was feeling so sad at that time?"
"Well I knew he was disappointed about not getting into university. But I didn't know the full extent of his feelings."
That was Mum speaking. Where had she come from? She wasn't there a second ago. I turned my head around to where she had suddenly appeared. No, no, I guess she was there all along.
"Were you ever afraid that he might have been suicidal?"
"Well he's always been rather unhappy. I think both Bernie and I considered that he might have been suicidal. Wouldn't you say, Bernie?"
"Yes", replied Dad. So now he was here too. But his voice came from further away from the curtain, it seemed. The space was getting bigger. But what on earth was happening to the curtains? Mum continued her speech.
"But we didn't think he'd really go through with it. I thought his Christian religious morals would have prevented him from doing it."
Religion. I used to believe in it, but not anymore. She'd find out sooner or later. I was still in bed, but my surroundings had changed. This was the room down the corridor the private interview room, where we could have an intensive psychiatric session without the need to keep our voices down.
"Religious beliefs", said the doctor, "are often a deterrent when someone is contemplating suicide. But they are by no means foolproof. I mean there are a great many believers who have committed suicide, though possibly not as many as non-believers."
He paused. There seemed to be nothing left to say on that topic, so he switched to another one. "But Stephen, did you think of telling your parents about your suicidal feelings?"
"Because they would've stopped me from doing it."
"But they would have also done everything in their power to help you and stop you from feeling so bad. Wouldn't that have been better than what happened here?"
I thought this through, but no matter how I looked at it, I couldn't possibly agree with what he said. I was about to tell him so, when he spoke again.
"You see, attempting suicide was a big risk. You could have ended up dying, and that wouldn't have solved anything. How do you think your parents would have felt if you had died?"
I shifted my legs uncomfortably. "They would have felt pretty bad", I answered. My parents were right there why couldn't he ask them?
"How bad do you think they would have felt?", he asked.
"They would've felt very, very bad, pretty devastated. But I wouldn't have cared, because I'd be dead." I spoke these last words very slowly and deliberately, trying to be firm.
"Who do you think would have felt worse? Your mother or your father?"
"I don't know. My mother, I guess." My answer was based entirely on gender bias.
"How do you think she would have reacted? Would she have cried?"
"How long would she have cried for?"
"I don't know. A few days. No, a few hours, maybe." I was weakening. My voice became wavery.
"Do you think she would get over it after a few hours?"
"No, she wouldn't get over it, she'd continue crying later, and she'd cry off and on, occasionally, for a long time."
"Do you think she would recover, from her grief about your death?"
"Well, she she would go on with her life and slowly put the whole thing behind her and cope with it. I guess."
"Hmmm." A tear slowly ran down my cheek. Get off my cheek, I thought, you are not welcome here. The doctor continued: "What about your father? Would he have been upset?"
"Would he have cried too?"
My father. He was sitting right there. I had never even seen him cry, and couldn't imagine it. He was always solid as a rock, usually fair and kind but never showing weakness. Deep down inside I knew he must be only human, though
"Would he have cried for as long as your Mum?"
"No, not quite as long", I said unsteadily. I was going down. The doctor was thwarting my efforts to stay together his questions were beating me into a soft pulp. And he kept going.
"How long do you think he would have cried for?"
"He he might have " I stopped mid-sentence and tried to regain my composure, but there it was the image of my father crying, and then not crying, and then giving support to Mum even though he was just as devastated as she was. I didn't want the tension to crumple up my face, but it did
Are you going to let him win, Stephen? Haven't you always said that no-one can make you do anything you don't want to do? This doctor, this hospital they're trying to make you cry and take away your wheelchair. They're pushing you and pulling you. Can't you stop it? With all your power, can't you stop it? I think you can. I know you can.
The pressure in the room was almost tangible. It was concentrated and focussed on me. With the doctors' relentless pushing, it was only a matter of time before a showdown occurred. And that mighty clash of powers was due to happen today, April the nineteenth. My nerve endings were tingling with fear and excitement. "Today", I thought, "is the most important day of my life."
One of my main opponents, Doctor Cantaro, seemed strangely relaxed as he stood by the bed and wrote something on his clipboard. Evidently he was unaware of the impending climax. My mother was there too, looking vaguely worried.
"You know", said Doctor Cantaro, "We don't like to do this, sending a patient home before he's fully recovered. But you're kind of forcing our hand. Like I said, all we want to do is help you."
"I'm sure I'll be O.K.", I murmured softly, staring straight at the wall. "I mean, I've got the wheelchair, right?"
"Stephen, we've already discussed this, you won't be able to keep the wheelchair. Do you understand?"
I kept staring at the wall, and with half a smile I said, "But without the wheelchair, how will I get from here to the car?"
"You'll be able to keep the wheelchair until you get to the car. But after that, you'll climb into the passenger seat and I will take the wheelchair back into the building. Do you understand?"
"I hear you."
"But I don't agree with you." I looked into the Doctor's eyes. Mum shifted her feet uncomfortably.
"Well", said Cantaro, "That doesn't make any difference, because it's going to happen just as I explained. And we may as well go straight away. Mrs Clark, would you like to take the bag?"
Mum picked up the large paper bag containing my belongings, and we set off. Doctor Cantaro led the way, with me pushing my wheelchair behind him, and then Mum. As we were passing the front desk, the doctor laid his clipboard down and asked a nurse if she could mind it for him. Then he spied a blue-uniformed orderly a short distance away, and called out "Excuse me! Brian! Are you busy?"
"Maybe", said Brian. "Why?"
Cantaro motioned Mum and I to wait a second, and he went over to have a private conversation with Brian. At the same time, Mum leaned down to speak in my ear.
"I think he's getting an extra orderly to help him", she said. "I hope you realise by now that you're not going to be able to keep the wheelchair. If you try to struggle now, you'll just look like a fool better to let it go with some dignity. What do you say, are you going to be "
But she never finished her question, because at that moment Cantaro came back and addressed Mum. "Mrs Clark, will you lead the way?"
Mum looked at me and then started walking down the corridor. We followed her towards the exit this time there was no need for me to turn the wheels, as my chair was being pushed by Brian the orderly. Once outside, we started making our way down the gentle slope towards the carpark. It was a cloudy autumn day. The grounds of the rehabilitation centre were very pleasant looking; it had been built in a riverside location, almost completely surrounded by parkland. Beyond the carpark was a natural field with the occasional gumtree. The outer limits of the rehabilitation centre were very similar to the outside nature-reserve it was hard to believe that the thriving city centre lay just six kilometres away. I shivered a little, thinking about the conflict which was about to happen, almost wishing there was another way to go. But I had to go through with it now, if I wanted to retain any measure of self-respect. We arrived at the car and Mum put down the bag while she fumbled for her car keys.
Cantaro stood by and said "Y'know, Stephen, getting into the house when you get home could be a bit of a problem. Have you figured that one out?"
It was a stupid question, and I didn't answer it. I had enough problems trying to work out when would be the right moment to make my move. Mum opened the car door. Without a word, Brian wheeled me up alongside the door and applied the brakes.
"O.K. Stephen", said Mum. "In you get."
"Wait a minute", I said, taking the brakes off. "Before I get in, I want you to promise that you'll load the wheelchair into the back, after I get in."
"We're not going to make that promise, Stephen", said Cantaro. He looked to Mum for support.
"Come on, Stephen, we've been through this already", said Mum wearily.
"Do you want us to help you get into the car?", asked Cantaro.
I looked at the authority figures slowly advancing on my left. From their position they couldn't see my right hand. I held it firmly beside the seat, ready for action. Unconsciously I formed my left hand into a fist. "Are you going to force me out of the chair?"
"If we have to, yes."
"If you lay one finger on me " I brought my right hand out of hiding and raised my voice to a psychopathic yell "I'LL KILL YOU!"
Mum gasped and the two men jumped back with their hands in the air.
Yes. That's how it was. When they saw the gun in my hand, all their calm, assured authority was gone in an instant and I was the one giving orders. It was so unexpected suddenly their normal day at work had turned into a life-threatening ordeal.
In my rush of adrenaline I was shaking the gun unsteadily and my eyes had become unfocussed. "Stephen Stephen " said Cantaro.
"Where did he get the gun from? Where did he get a gun?", asked Brian wildly.
"Never mind how I got it! You just stay back!"
"Stephen just calm down "
I drew back a little and stopped shaking the gun. "I am calm." I wasn't really, but I said it in a calm voice. The gun remained pointed at arm's length. With my other hand I pulled the left wheel and turned the chair around to face them full on. I didn't look at my mother, who was standing off to the left; the gun wasn't pointed at her.
Cantaro spoke again. "Now just put the gun down "
"Stephen, it doesn't have to be like this "
"Oh yes it does!" There was a pause. I couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Stephen, why are you doing this?"
"Because... because you've got to promise that you'll put the wheelchair in the back."
"But it's just a wheelchair. It's not worth killing people over."
"Oh, well if it's 'just' a wheelchair, then you should have no problem giving it to me, right?'
"O.K., but if I promise to give you the wheelchair, will you promise to give me the gun?"
I hesitated. Oh, he thinks he's so clever, being the hostage negotiator and staying calm under pressure. Well not for long. "No!", I said. "No, I'm not going to make that promise." I remembered the doctor saying the same words a few minutes ago, and I wished I'd said them as calmly as he had.
"All right. O.K. I promise to put the wheelchair in the car when you're finished with it. Now will you put the gun down now, please?"
"Fine." I reached down the back of my spine with my right hand. When I pulled it back out, the hand was empty.
Once again the men were surprised.
"Where did he put it?"
"I didn't hear it fall."
"He must have some kind of holster on his back."
Brian nipped around the side, still keeping his distance. "I can't see it", he said.
"Stephen, where is it?", demanded Cantaro.
"If you want the gun", I said, holding up my empty hands, "then come and take it."
Brian checked behind my back and behind the wheelchair. I knew what he would find; that there was no niche, nor pocket, nor hiding-place where the gun could have been concealed. Cantaro was searching as well. "O.K.", he said at last. "You're playing a game with us. We give up. You win. Where did you put the gun?"
I decided it was time to drop my second bombshell of the day. "You want to know where the gun is? I'll show you." I held my hand out and curled the fingers 'round slowly. The strained muscles began to change shape
The skin darkened and became smooth and shiny
And when the transformation was complete, the two men were once again being menaced by a gun.
I watched their faces with satisfaction as the eyes got wider, the jaws dropped open and they sucked in air like a pair of asthmatics. Brian rubbed his eyes quickly and then looked at me sideways as if hoping the scene would resolve itself into something normal and rational. A smirk spread out across my face. The look on Cantaro's mug was even more satisfying; for the first time he was showing a look of real fear in his eyes, where annoyance had been a moment before.
That's right, I thought. Be afraid. Earlier, you thought I was just a harmless nutcase. Then you thought I was a dangerous nutcase with a gun. But now you know that your enemy is a supernatural being with incredible powers, you're wishing you had been nicer to me, aren't you?
Cantaro was spinning out. "No, no, no, this can't be happening. This isn't happening. It's just a dream." He took a few faltering steps back towards the building, and then returned.
"Yeah that's right, it's all a big dream", said Brian, and he slapped himself on the face. "It's not a dream."
Cantaro pinched himself on the arm. He looked around to see if there were any other witnesses in the car park or in the distance, but the only other human being in sight was Mum. I had forgotten about her for a moment she hadn't said a word since the gun's first appearance. Now she was standing frozen beside the car with her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with shock.
"Stephen", breathed the doctor. "What how what are you? You're not a man! You're a a " But he could not bring himself to complete the sentence, because he had been so conditioned by all his years of scientific study.
I waved the gun in lazy circles. "Oh, but I am a man, doctor! I'm the most powerful man on earth for I cannot be disarmed!"
There was silence for five seconds, in which Cantaro looked back and forth between Mum and me desperately. 'No. No. There must be a rational explanation for this."
"Rational?", grunted Brian. "His hand just morphed into a gun. We both saw it."
"Holograms. That's how he's doing it."
"Holograms?", repeated Brian doubtfully.
"Well maybe not holograms, but something. Human flesh can't change into metal."
They were talking about me rather than to me it was one of those medical habits which I'd grown used to. Brian surprised me by showing a clearer head than his over-educated colleague.
"Well obviously it's not a real gun. It's just a part of his hand that's changed it's appearance to look like a real gun."
Cantaro latched onto the idea. "Yes! An organic mock-up of a gun. A menacing facade."
"There's no way he could shoot bullets with that."
"No. Of course not." Cantaro seemed somewhat relieved, realising that the gun was merely an object of curiosity rather than fear. "Did you hear that Stephen? You can stop pointing that thing at us we know it's not a real gun."
"Oh, so you think it's not a real gun?", I said with suppressed excitement. This was the moment I'd waited for for so long. "Then watch this!!"
I aimed carefully and pulled the trigger. The unexpected loudness of the gunshot rang out, soon to his everyone's ears with a jolt. Doctor Cantaro's eyes were on the bullet as it emerged from the chamber and started on its journey.
Time has come to a halt.
It was after lights-out in the Rehab centre, and my bed was in darkness. Night-time was my favourite time, because the darkness gave me the cover I needed to experiment with my new powers in secret. They were fully developed I was able to change my hand into a gun and back in less than one second. All it took was the power of thought. With my hand in gun-mode, I could make it wide, I could make it different colours, I could make it highly decorative with embossed floral designs and impractical curves and twists in the barrel. But it was always a gun, and it always had a bullet nestling inside somewhere, burning with lethal potency. I had never fired the gun that would be a bad move, here in a hospital ward but just the feeling of the bullet was enough to convince me that it was a weapon just as deadly as one you'd buy in a gun shop.
The question is, I thought, what am I going to do with this power? How can I use it to help myself or anyone else? Should I continue to keep it a secret?
I didn't know anything about guns. I had never had an interest in them. Not that I hated them I could remember a time when I was about five when I had said something to Mum: "If you've got a gun, you can do anything. You can point it at people and they'll give you whatever you want." Mum had gone into an explanation about how guns can't bring you happiness. She was right, of course you can't go around poking guns in people's faces whenever you want, and expect to live a long and happy life. But this new power of mine was different from a regular gun surely there was some way I could use it to get what I wanted?
What do you want, Stephen?
I looked at my wheelchair glinting in the darkness. I want things to stay as they are. I want people waiting on me hand and foot. I want an easy lifestyle. I want to get around in a wheelchair. I want people visiting me. I want attention. I want special treatment.
Trickles of black metal oozed backward along the gun barrel, as if they were being pushed back by extreme acceleration. The end of the barrel became thin and sharp, like a hypodermic needle.
I want to stay disabled. I want to be wheelchair man.
And what don't you want, Stephen?
I thought about the life I had left behind, the life that had driven me towards suicide. I don't want to be normal. I don't want to join the rat-race. I don't want to go back to studies. I don't want to work. I don't want to give up the wheelchair. I don't want to take care of myself. I don't want to walk. I really don't want to walk. I really, really don't want to walk.
But if you refuse to walk, won't people get upset?
I don't care how upset they get. They can't force me to move my legs.
But what if they try to take your wheelchair away?
They can't do that! I have the power! If they try anything like that, they'll soon find out how powerful I am, 'cause I'll prove it to them!
But would that sort of lifestyle really bring you happiness? Isn't that just the sort of thing your mother warned you about?
Maybe. But no-one's tried anything like this before. It's worth a try. What's the worst that can happen? With these powers, what can they really do to me?
Maybe you'll get sick of being disabled. Most people do. How long are you going to stay like this?
What does it matter? My options are still open. If I get sick of it, I can always change my mind. All I want to do is delay my recovery until a time when I'm good and ready; perhaps I'll decide to stay like this my whole life.
The other patients in the ward were sound asleep, but I was plotting and planning and considering every possibility. I fantasized about every potential situation that I might get into. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a viable plan. The other patients were asleep, but I was changing my gun into ever more elaborate shapes and refining the details of my daring, exciting experiment. Sleep for me was still many hours away.