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My knuckles are white as I clutch the pen, waiting to etch ink over the poorly smoothed wrinkles in the page. The words, clear and bold in my mind, refuse to come; the process of recording the developments in the patients’ condition is only for the sake of consistency. Their serum-induced dreams are the same ideal heaven; their nightmares only darkening over time, a poison wine fermenting with age to reach the epitome of its potency.
A tingle skitters over my skin at the thought of the serum, the solace it brings, the placid nights saved from horrors by the drug. I set my jaw, pressing my gaze into the small rectangle in the chart with the current date slouched next to it in wild scrawl, trying and failing to write words that slip away with each second. The vials are only inches away; I feel my arm moving to reach for them, but slam the pen on the desk with a growl and sit on my hands instead.
I’m not sure I’m strong enough to keep resisting. With each dream I reap, the stronger my hunger grows, yearning for the glittering clear liquid the patients consume each night. I remember its creaminess as it runs over the tongue, how the bubbles bite the throat, the tasteless film lacing across teeth long after its consumption. After all these years, I still remember.
All my studies tell me that the hunger is just an accidental side effect, one unintentionally turning good men and women into the addicted patients I assist. I ignore it as best I can, though vials of the infernal medicine fall into my hands every day as I deliver my patients their dosage.
My eyes flicker across a graveyard of crumpled papers to the glass vials, perched side by side to form a neat row and glinting in the light from a lone caged bulb pulsing erratically above. The liquid within is all but invisible, miniature bubbles clinging to the insides the only indication that they are full at all. Lined like soldiers prepared to invade a battlefield of papers and notes scattered across my desk, they are the one item separated from the others by a wide moat of exposed table. I always keep the vials in isolation from my casual disorder. Allowing them to mingle with the geometric mountains of files and documents and accounts would remove the barrier of respect; they are a power I view from a distance, but never allow myself to harness.
Anything more, and I might not notice the next time my hunger grows too strong for sheer will to suppress.
“D---,” I mutter, leaning over the desk and rubbing a hand over my face, through thick uncombed hair. My frown remains the same, as stoic and immovable as stone, when my hands fall to join a graveyard of research.
I do my best to ignore the tubes as I select the pen once more and hastily scribble a summary of the day’s developments. The writing is a blur, strokes mechanical; though I don’t dare notice the vials, they weigh my thoughts like snow on a roof too weak to support the sky.
One taste in forty three years. That’s all it took for me to grow this hunger for the drug. I can only imagine how desperate my patients feel.
When the lopsided clock rings from its perch on the wall, clinging by fingertips to the edge of its nail, I’m almost grateful. Another hour of trying to scrounge up an impossible hope and I’m not sure I could bring myself to attend my rounds. The timer is only set to ring at a certain time; coincidentally, the only time I allow myself to lay a finger on the serum.
Trying and failing to quell the ache in my skin as my fingers wrap around the vials, millimeters of glass a dangerously thin wall between me and the liquid my body lusts for, I stand. My chair inches away at my sudden movement, a cowering animal in the jungle of my office. If a jungle, the concrete cubicle is only the kind found in zoos, and I am the caged beast within for my dazed patients to admire.
I leave the room on eager feet.
The lack of decor along the hallway doesn’t bother me; in a position such as mine, learning to deprive oneself of luxury is part of the occupation. Stained concrete gray with a road of florescent lights suits me far better than any attempt to bring warmth to my enclosure. This isn’t a place for euphemism.
The soft click of my shoes against barren floors follows me until my hands rest against an imposing steel door, pushing it open in a single fluid movement. The hangar past it is large enough to house an airplane, a small world caged under a concrete sky and artificial stars. Bubbling murmurs fog the air with their breath, a garbled mess from a distance like the constant thunder of a brewing storm.When I first began admitting enough patients to require a room this grand, the reek of sweat and pestilence itched my nose and burned my eyes. Now, the pain is a comfortable familiarity.
My gaze softens as it sweep across the floor, clogged by at least a thousand patients. Some of them are temporary. Most are not.
They huddle over lines of unwashed beds I have given up trying to maintain. There are too many for my dwindling supply of serum to satisfy every day. All I can do is give a few patients peace each night, leaving them to dream their perfect reality and block out the screams of the others too tormented to sleep.
I march into the hoard of bodies without caring to ogle at the spectacle the hangar holds. After so long in these conditions, no hint of sunlight or breath of fresh air, day after day wading into the field of dazed patients, awe is simply too redundant to bother with.
The faces are a blur as I pass; some crippled with age, others plump with a life serum stole from them. All are familiar, strangers you would see on the street and grow to recognize over years of distant interaction. None of them have names; the only information I need to know is their recent dosage of serum. Everything else takes too much hassle, too much time, too many resources I can’t afford to spare.
When I stumble upon one whose wristband states she had received serum last night, I rest a hand on her shoulder and meet her eyes. The patient - a woman around her mid-thirties, bouncing curls tumbling down her back and a gaze that would be piercing if not for the distance the serum provides - only notices my presence vaguely.
Though the incoherent babbling of the crowd is soft per individual, I have to enunciate and press my lips close to her ear to be heard. I fish out a journal and pen from pockets weighted with crumbs and stained with ink as I speak, carefully setting down the case of serum. “What did you dream about last night?”
Her expression ignites with a dizzy grin. They always do after a night illuminated by serum. “I dreamed of my family. Margaret was there, sweet baby Margaret… We were together for dinner. Everyone. My parents came, and so did Jim’s-” here, her joy crumbles for a moment, as though she knows something is wrong but can’t quite remember; it passes too quickly for me to be sure “-and we just… It was perfect. No one argued. Jim hadn’t touched any liquor, none at all, just like I always tell him to. The boys were polite and respectful, and we laughed and talked and... We were a family.”
I nod, fiercely ignoring the itch in my eyes as I scribble vague notes of her account in my journal and hardly glancing up as she drifts back into the crowd. I snap the journal closed and pocket it, bending down to retrieve the vials of serum.
“Family peace,” I had written. “Perfect interaction.” The only thing accompanying the notes is the date and marks indicating how much serum the patient as consumed since they came to me. This one had over one hundred doses; I simply wrote the number.
Her dream is like so many of the others. Perfect families, perfect careers, perfect happiness and perfect lives; that’s the illusion the serum always brings. After dreaming a heaven so beautiful as that, all nights without the drug are equal to nightmares. Even with just one taste twelve years before, inducing an illusion of tranquility, my sleep is still accompanied by nightmares alone. Perhaps this is why I hunger so for the placid illusion again; to take a break from h--- of my reality and the devil in my consciousness.
The patients, of course, are in much more dire need than I. They have forgotten their reality and replaced it with this, my home for them - less than they deserve but everything I can provide. Any nights I don’t have enough serum to spare will leave them scarred with horrors. The screams still haunt my ears as I cower under covers and pretend to sleep, in the furthest room from the hangar. Serum is their only salvation, and I am the only one left to deliver it. Until they fall to the bliss of death, a continued addiction since their arrival is the last kindness I can offer.Twenty four tubes a day; twenty four patients saved for one night. Twenty four out of a thousand. It’s never enough.
My own suffering isn’t even part of the equation.
As I wander between bodies, finding those due for serum and carefully emptying the vials through their lips, I find myself wiping away tears. The guilt, shame, regrets - it snakes like venom through my veins. I hardly feel it, anymore. Only the rounds of delivering dosage and recording dreams cracks the wall holding them back. Even now, fighting the itch in my eyes, I don’t bother to patch the leaks in my dam of numbness. More open every hour. It’s not even worth the effort.
I know it will consume me, my failure. Visiting the hollow faces of the patients I can’t save, recording and studying their heavens and hells, offering them the last kindness I have to give; I know it will. And I know the serum could save me.
The vials are cold in my hands. Empty, now; I’ve found enough patients due for their dosage to spill out their contents into satisfied mouths. Like animals, they succumb to my feeding. Unlike animals, they know better than to ask for more.
Lethargic, I wander through a teetering ocean of bodies and beds towards the steel door I came in through. It grows nearer with each step, but my weary mind - deprived of rest and sanctuary - makes it swirl in my vision, dipping and diving as though I was drifting in the waves of an actual ocean and clawing helplessly to shore.
When my hand rests on its handle, only the sheer cold of the metal shocks me to lucidity. I tighten my grip on the door, the vials, the world, and leave my hopeless patients to their dreams. The door seals like thunder behind me.
Another day; useless. No developments guiding me to saving them. No hint as to how to save myself. Only harsh confirmations that the condition of my patients is worsening with each passing day, each night I fail to bring them the serum they thirst for and deserve, each morning I record the dreams that are slowly fixating on the drug they know brings them salvation.
I return the empty vials to the desk to be refilled in the morning, toss my journal among the stacks of nonsensical hope scrawled on parchment, and leave the office; all mechanically, a machine with no other command to follow. When I fall onto my own bed, body aching for sleep but too afraid of the horrors it brings to comply, I don’t bother to wipe away my tears.
The treated patients have begun to dream of the serum.
Nothing is improving. Only getting worse. I am driving a thousand lives to failure.
I have to force my eyelids closed, my limbs to fall limp, my mind to melt into molten wax. The screams don’t wait for an invitation to begin their nightly performance. Sleep comes like a storm; I don’t see it coming, but when it does, the sky is aflame.
My dreams are haunted by the faces of a thousand hollow corpses, all familiar, all reflections of their dreams and aspirations; stolen, because I couldn’t save them. Screaming, because I preferred numbers and economics over their humanity, formulated a drug to quell the horrors of life to make me rich, stole their lives for money I spent on a love that was already dead. They are lost and forever bearing the consequence of my failure, because I have bowed too deeply to despair to solve the problem I began.
My suffering was never part of the equation.
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