"The Small Dark Movie of Your Life" - by Leah Bobet
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
"Such calamities offer a compelling argument for withdrawing care . . . [I would] regard Houben's fate as medically induced torture--I'd hope that my family would press a pillow over my face until my breathing stopped." --Jacob Appel, bioethicist
"We talked to him, tried to say goodbye. We saw the tears dropping from his eyes." --Linda Cai, niece of coma patient Zongwu Jin; CBC News
"Without them knowing that I could still hear, the doctors and specialists in front of me said to my mum that I would die. They even asked my mum if she wanted them to turn the life support system off after a few days . . . I've always thought, fuck what they think and say--or I would have been dead at the start." --Nick Chisholm, trauma victim; British Medical Journal, 2005
The precinct boardroom was halfway empty when I arrived the next morning, small wheeled suitcase in one hand and two bakery bags in the other. The suitcase went in the corner--one week's worth of clothes packed tight as only a foreign correspondent or airline stewardess could make 'em--and the bakery bags landed on the desk. The smell that cracked out might even have bought me halfway to forgiveness for having managed a full night's sleep. I felt remarkably not gritty-eyed. I would have killed me too.
Chaz Villette reached into the first bag without comment and cornered a sesame bagel by, apparently, nothing more than feel. "There's cream cheese and lox in the other bag," I said.
"Mm," he replied, and tapped a few keys. "You caught up?"
I was. My phone had buzzed, restless, all through the night: e-mails sent through the team loop washing up in its inbox. I'd read them all at breakfast.
"Macy MacIntyre's last words were pretty similar to the other two's, Genevieve Scranton's weren't recorded, we don't have a significant enough staff overlap on the four days in question to go with hero homicide and besides, everyone cleared their background checks, and there's a definite cluster in movement patterns on the block with the coffee shop."
"Gold star," Chaz said, and peered into the second bakery bag. He didn't look as if he'd taken Reyes's sage elder advice on that sleeping portfolio. "We've got a serious police presence out this morning. It's weekday traffic now." Our UNSUB's type hit the streets on Mondays: the Wall Street professionals, the career-minded, the upwardly mobile, streaming into the office towers for another day of business. Not at all thinking themselves vulnerable.
I nodded. "Where's everybody else?"
"At the hospital," he said. "Shore's parents got in last night, and Falkner wanted to speak to them. And Worth and Lau are looking at older aneurysm cases. Brady and Reyes are on sleep shift."
"And what're we doing?" I asked, and dipped into the brown paper bag for a bagel of my own.
He quirked an eyebrow and finally looked up at me. "Holding the fort."
Ah. "He didn't want to send you out on the canvass, did he?"
Chaz's mouth crimped.
I pulled out a chair and powered up the other laptop. It wasn't an unsound decision: a morning of jamming might just net us someone or something, but it would also put an agent out of commission for the rest of the day in an investigation that might last two or three or five. One look at the circles under Chaz Villette's eyes and I would have benched him too. But I also thought I could do everything when I was younger, and that it was in fact my solemn duty to do everything, preferably at greatest personal cost and with burnout to display like a badge so you could prove how much everything you'd been doing. I lost a couple fingers and started to think different. But it wasn't so long ago that I didn't have a certain measure of sympathy.
So I just sat down and perused the whiteboard again. Should have listened/own fault stared back at me. It couldn't have been their own words.
"Okay," I said, and looked into the faces of four bright young upstanding up-and-coming go-getters. "So whose words are they?"
Chaz looked at me, followed my gaze; worked it out himself. "What d'you mean?"
"They're too uniform. It's too . . . scripted. It's the thing someone else wants you to say before you die: I'll do this and you'll be sorry. Mostly people aren't sorry." They weren't. They died confused at best: I don't get it. What do you think I did wrong? People were unfortunately just as bad about personal responsibility in death as they were alive.
He squinted; the slight wasn't quite forgotten, but it was at least on the back burner now. "So the question is, who wanted them to listen when they didn't?"
"Who doesn't get listened to in this neighborhood?"
"Waiters," Chaz said. The crease of a very different frown was plucking at his forehead. "Interns. Those people who stand on the corners and try to get charity donations."
People who didn't have money. People who were on the other end of the power differential.
The tickle of a raspy voice pulled at the back of my brain.
"Homeless people," I said.
"Did he talk to anyone panhandling that morning?" Chaz said, and flipped through the stack of canvass notes again: newsstand, coffee shop, back and back and back--
The phone rang: a boom, and then Wonder Wom-aaan, Wonder Wom-aan. Chaz slapped at it. "Hello?"
"Hey," Nikki Lau said. "We have something for you here. Dr. James Singh, thirty-five. He used to be a neurologist at New York Downtown, until he lost a patient in a fuzzy kind of end-of-life case, hit the bottle pretty badly and got fired for it. And then he just disappears."
"Down at the bottom of the harbor disappears?" I asked.
"No forwarding address, defaulted on his mortgage, didn't renew his license to practice disappears."
"Hit the bottle disappears," Chaz said.
"Uh-huh--hold on a sec," she said, and the door opened: Lau and Worth, file in one hand and cell phone in the other. She hung up with a beep.
"Living on the streets disappears," I echoed. "Let me guess: the patient he lost?"
Lau nodded; she was flushed. It was only a five-minute walk from the hospital to the police station, but they must have hightailed it. A tinge of satisfaction tugged at the edge of her mouth. "Cerebral aneurysm. And he advised that the family pull the plug."
Chaz winced. Worth closed the door behind her, stone-faced.
"Let me guess," I said, to fill the gap. "Initial trauma."
"So," I said. "What are the chances he's living on the streets in the same neighborhood? Because we were having some thoughts just now."
Lau scrunched up her face. "We have to check the shelters," she said, and opened the door again; flagged down a passing officer as if she was a cab.
"If that's the trauma?" Worth said. "Either he'd go as far away from it as possible, or as close as he could."
"One other thing, though: How'd he survive as a gamma and an alcoholic?" Lau asked.
Chaz prodded the keyboard uncomfortably. "Alcohol's high in calories. It's not a long-term plan, but . . ."
"They're bad for you in different ways," Worth said. "It could balance for a while. If you're not jamming too much, and if you don't have a lot of alternatives."
"So it's all possible," I said, and everyone nodded. "And if you worked at New York Downtown, the site of your trauma, and you stayed in the neighborhood, you might be looking for people like you used to be to replay your big mistake on."
"He's not targeting the families," Worth said softly. "He's targeting himself."
There was a silence, chill and gulping. Then Chaz picked up his phone. "We need to get everyone in here."
"Already done," Lau said. "We called them on the way."
The rest of the team piled in inside ten minutes, rumpled and busy and keen like hunting dogs. "All right, give us the whole thing," Reyes said, and Lau gave it to them clean and concise. If, then, therefore.
"So he's trying to tell them something," Lau says. "And since people in cities usually just ignore panhandlers, or pretend they're not there, they ignore him. And it's vitally important to him, and he's a neurologist and knows the brain. So he just goes . . . well, pop. "
"And if he doesn't tell anyone the story, if nobody listens to him and does differently, he doesn't exist," Chaz added. "He's erased right out of life. It's a threat to identity for someone whose whole identity was already destroyed, and that's what brings up the initial trauma all over again."
"'I pass, like night, from land to land; / I have strange power of speech; / That moment that his face I see, / I know the man that must hear me: / To him my tale I teach,'" Falkner murmured.
"'Oh mother, tell your children not to do what I have done,'" Reyes replied, and they shared a very different look.
I picked up Lau's file and opened it, began to read. The rest of it, the sorting-out of details, the confirmation of names and locations for what we already gut-deep knew, wasn't important. This was.
Here is the story. So you know. So it exists.
Once upon a time there was a doctor and a patient, and the patient's brain was bleeding slowly through its own walls like a ghost trying to scare them off the ancestral territory of their own head. The patient was unresponsive. They didn't blink and they didn't talk. Medical insurance was expensive, and the outcomes were all bad, and hospital beds, long-term-care beds in an era where many, many baby boomers were stumbling and creaking and starting to fail, their parents drifting slowly out of this world in deliriums of morphine and opportunistic infection, were as rare as steak tartare.
(I wasn't here either. I was off to the side in Washington, D.C.; or riding a dirt bike through South America; or having a Clover-made coffee in a café in New York City, with the paper spread out across my table.)
The doctor was young: very young for a neurologist, whose average ages climbed up and up as the required residencies got longer and longer. He had 98th percentile scores on his MCAT. He had attended the best medical schools in the country. He was used to being right.
And the doctor, faced with those begging eyes, and the drip of fluids, and that fixed, empty stare, and the short emergency room hours of sleep, and their beeping pager, and the constant press of people inward, always inward, needing and crying and dripping and staring and bleeding for just one more bed--
--the doctor had to make a choice.
He made the choice. He talked to the family, and held the widow's hand, and spoke soft words about chances and quality of life and compassion and pain. He meant those words. They wept. They signed the forms.
The heart monitor didn't slow, and stutter, and flatten into monotone noise. That only happens in stories too. In real life, they take off the heart monitor and the IV drip, and the only noise left is the sound of uncertain breathing. It is up to you to notice when it stops.
The breathing stopped. It took five days.
On the seventh day the topographic brain scan finally came back. Backlogged at the laboratory for weeks and weeks, ordered by the family back when the patient had twitched a little in the right leg, flicked his eyeballs under the lids once or twice in an hour, its weather-system byplay of light and color landed on his desk to his attention. The aneurysm bulged like a stain. It showed what the CAT scans, the MRA had not.
Brain activity normal. Damage being routed around, compensated for slightly. A chance at living.
It was a mistake. It wasn't quite malpractice, but it wasn't supposed to happen that way.
(Zongwu Jin, 66, of Calgary, Canada, recovered from a coma caused by head injury long after doctors issued a do-not-resuscitate order, to the point where he could speak, write, and read. Rom Houben, of Belgium, fell into a vegetative state at the age of 20 after a car crash, and after twenty-three years of his mother fighting tooth and nail to keep him on life support, was proven to have normally functioning brain activity. Journalists interviewed him shortly thereafter; he answered their questions via an electronic keyboard in clear, short sentences. Briton Andrew Devine, 22, suffered severe brain damage in the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989, but eight years later, was able to be fed orally and communicate with a touchpad. Tony Bland, also 22, suffered similar injuries in the same incident. His feeding tube was withdrawn after four years. It took him ten days to die.
These things happen. Medicine is imperfect. We can do terrible things, caught fast between despair and compassion.)
Nobody sued him. Nobody called him before the hospital board to explain his actions. These things happen, they said, because he was young, and because he was a rising star, and because the family had agreed, and the choice to be made was terrible, and because these things happen.
He studied the scans at night: the topographic and the CAT scan, the MRA next to them, over and over again. He ran his fingers over the maps of swollen arteries already rotting out of their skull. He should've listened; he should have been paying attention.
He lost weight. His colleagues whispered.
He began to drink.
Once upon a time a homeless man tried to get the attention of a sharp nice young professional--it was important that she knew it was dangerous; that it was so easy to not always be right; that she had to be careful, so careful where she put her feet--and the sharp nice young professional brushed him off, refused to listen, walked on by, and nobody saw anything out of the ordinary.
She didn't listen, and so the worn spots in her veins burst soft as snowballs, and she fell. And the choice had to be made all over again, until everyone started getting it right.
A profile's a story we tell ourselves. It doesn't have to be true. It just has to sort through the bombardment of random data, arm us to cope with the unfairness of it all; keep us from going mad with possibility until the stick-figure drawing we build ourselves can be replaced with the planes and textures of a real, human person who makes real, human mistakes.
We had the profile.
"All right," Reyes said. "Time to tell the nice people who we're looking for."
The men and women of One Police Plaza marched through the metal-detector doors of their precinct, down the steps, and into the bright streets of their city. Each pair had a photograph (He will not look like that now, Reyes said to them, thumb and forefinger over the man's clear brow, over steady eyes, over smile). They had instructions that the person of interest in this case was to be considered dangerous (Do not approach him, directly or indirectly). They had their radios.
Stephen Reyes and I sat in the boardroom, surrounded by the litter of investigatory activity, and waited.
"What're we going to charge him with?" I asked. The radio on the table crackled slightly. Reyes turned it up.
"We'll think of something. New York still has that panhandling law on the books, even though they're not enforcing it anymore. He might just come along for a chance at steady meals and a contribution to society."
"What if he doesn't?"
Reyes didn't look at me. "Worth picked up a sedation kit from the field office this morning."
I shoved myself up on my elbows, turned my chair until I was right in his line of sight. "You're planning something."
Reyes had a quality, manful poker face, honed by years of standing before academic funding committees and supervisory agents. "One might allow for that."
"This had better be good," I said.
He shrugged his shoulders slightly. The navy blue weave of his suit jacket inched up and down. "He seems to need people not to listen; the mythology hinges upon that. People don't listen, so bad things happen. We can take this one alive without a scratch," he said.
"Because he needs people to hear the story."
"Yes," Reyes said.
"Because stories not told don't exist, "I said, and gave him a little raised-eyebrow look.
"Anyway," he said. "We can bring this one in clean." Stephen Reyes parlance for We can save this one. He would never put it that way. Unprofessional.
"It's a gamble," I told him. Yes, and the sky was blue, and everyone who'd ever been on that Guyana trip back in '73 still checked their underwear for bugs every morning, even when it was folded up and came out of a drawer.
"You have to tell them," I said, and we locked eyes.
He nodded. "I will."
"Okay," I said, and flicked a stray sesame seed off of the table, onto the floor.
We waited. The radio crackled. It wasn't that big a neighborhood: nothing in New York really was, despite the illusion of abundance it projected. You got the same people in the same places at the same times, just like anywhere else. Even more than anywhere else, in fact: in the face of all that concrete, people stayed close to their familiarities. People lost their lives, lost their hope, and never went more than visual distance from the places where they'd left them last.
"You'd better get down here," Falkner eventually said, reeling an intersection, an address, an approach over the humming radio waves. "We've found him."
Climbed into bed. Terri said good night to me. Gave me a kiss. She woke up, said good night, gave me a kiss. I gave her a kiss back. I'd say, about 4:30 in the morning, I was, for some reason, getting out of bed and I heard a thud in the hall. I race out there and Terri was laying in the hall. I went down to get her. I thought, Well, maybe she just tripped or whatever. I rolled her over and she was lifeless. And it almost seems like she had this last breath.
So I held her in my arms, and I'm trying to shake her up. I ran over, I called 911. Her brother happened to live in the same complex as we did. I called him. I went back to Terri. And from there, six, seven minutes later, the paramedics . . . --Michael Schiavo, interview with Larry King, aired October 27, 2003
The police cordon was loose and flexible. It fluttered with the breeze, officers moving this way and that, keeping well clear of the homeless man sometimes walking, sometimes sitting, on the workday-littered streets of the Financial District. It whispered within itself by radio and hand signal, and calmly, firmly, undeniably turned the tourists and couriers away.
We didn't need directions to find the edge of the cordon. It set off a ripple of jangled nerves for two blocks in any direction. This was a lot more than the requisite two police officers.
Reyes and I caught up with the rest of the team on the north side of the circle. Falkner flagged us down efficiently, opened up the huddle to admit us in. It was warm. I was already sweating.
"Apparently there are some benches under the Brooklyn Bridge on-ramp where you'll get homeless people sleeping," she said. "We think he's heading over there."
"Well in sight of the hospital," I said, and Falkner nodded.
"Hasn't made us?" Reyes asked, and everyone shook their heads.
"If he has," Brady added, "he sure isn't acting like it."
"All right, "Reyes said, and dropped his voice. "We're going to not startle this one. We go in quiet and calm, and we escort him to the station. Our best tool today is this." He held up the sedation kit. "I'm afraid I'm going to need a volunteer."
Chaz's eyebrows went high enough to almost crest his forehead. "One volunteer?" he asked.
The air got a little dangerous.
I glanced at my good old friend Steve. Didn't need to say anything. He said he would tell them.
"The mythology operating here is that people don't listen, or that wouldn't be the last thing he feeds into their mouths: that they're sorry they didn't listen. That suggests very strongly that all we have to do is listen."
Falkner had a look on her face that felt very familiar. I'd been wearing it myself not an hour ago.
"The emphasis is right," Reyes continued. "And the psychology is right. And if he could just drop people outside of a set of restrictions, of causes, of . . . medical ethics, then there'd be bodies all over the south of Manhattan."
"And there aren't," Brady finished, like he'd bitten into a lemon.
"There aren't," Reyes agreed. "He's still a doctor. He still thinks in terms of protocols and preconditions. There are still rules. "
"And why go in this way?" Falkner asked. The way she kept the frost out of her voice was admirable.
"We need to keep things within his frame of reference," Reyes said quietly. "If we spook him into an unfamiliar situation, he'll panic."
And then we don't know what he'll do, everyone finished. Or we did. There was no telling how many veins, tiny and delicate, a motivated gamma could rip through in a minute, two.
They looked at each other: Lau, Worth, Villette. It needed to be a young professional; someone who still had mistakes to make. It needed to be someone who looked like his kind of bait.
Worth shrugged. "I know how to handle the syringe."
They nodded, slowly. One, then the other.
Worth looked up at Reyes and Falkner. Combed a hand through her hair. "If I'm going to pull this off," she said, "I need a change of clothes."
The pressed pantsuit had come out of Daphne Worth's go bag, but it didn't suit her: too-heavy fabric, the shirt too starched; a relic of that earliest age when she'd just been assigned to what everyone told her was a career mistake--that dead-end unit Down the Hall--and felt like she needed terribly to impress with her adult professionalism. It might have been in there ever since, for all I knew. It fit her like an old life.
She brushed hair out of her face, nearly smudging carefully applied makeup, and broke through the police cordon onto the sunny, deserted red flagstone walkway.
The man was sitting in the sun, leaned back on a weathered wooden bench nestled between a pair of highway ramps. Traffic rumbled overhead, steady and regular; yet more on the other side of the overpass and fence, where the surface road shot into the city. A little nest in the middle of the bustle, the traffic. Someplace anonymous.
The police cordon had pulled back; far enough so that he wouldn't see the sea of uniforms. We, plainclothes, commonplace, dangerous, pulled in closer. Took seats on benches far away enough to look like picnickers, tourists, normal people. Craned into our earpieces and listened.
I had loosened my weapon in my pocket a long time back.
"Hey," he said when she walked by, just as we knew he would, just as he had to. "Ma'am, I gotta tell you something."
I blinked. A too-young man, scruffily bearded, with a voice older and scratchier than it should have been. A hand thin, and not just from hard living.
Stop. Listen. Don't do what I have done. People don't ask you these things when you're old. A chill went down into my guts, and it had nothing to do with spooky.
"What's that?" Worth said. Her voice was low and calm; a paramedic's voice. The kind of voice you use with something that's bleeding. She slowed. Stopped. Turned.
I was too far away to see the expression on his face. Too far away to read the scene. "You gotta be careful," he said. "You think you know what's what. You think you have it all under control? Well, let me tell you, you don't."
Her ponytail bobbed. She was nodding. "That's true."
And now his head moved too: looking up at her. Looking up in a different way.
"You think you do, right?" she said. "And then something comes along, one regular day in your life, and just blows that all apart."
"Who are you?" he asked, wary, breathless. Knocked off script just enough to wobble.
"My name's Daphne," she said, and crouched across from him; put herself right in the line of sight and lower, lower down so he wouldn't feel a threat. "I've been hoping to find you."
I sucked in my breath. Chaz sat tense; his jaw tight. He was mirroring; monitoring. Looking for signs it was all about to go bad.
"Why?" Singh said faintly.
"You've been trying to show people, right?" she said. "That they need to be careful. That they need to listen. Well, we heard you. We paid attention."
She paused. "Make the offer," Reyes's voice murmured across the earpiece.
"And we know you've been hungry," she said.
He sat very still. Chaz's fingers were clenched tight around his own kneecap.
"You're not from the shelters," Singh said, suspicious.
Worth shook her head. "We're from a hospital," she said. "A good one."
Someone's breath hissed out over the line. No telling whose.
"Why are you doing this?" he burst. "Get out of here! Just--go!"
"Don't do it," Chaz warned softly.
Worth hesitated. And then she said, "I'm not turning away from you."
"You will," he said.
"Cut him off," Chaz said quickly. "He's trying to talk himself into it."
Worth's head came up a little; tension running down her back. "I'm not turning away from you," she said quick, irate. "You are. You're the one who's letting you down."
He stood up. My hand dipped into my pocket, pulled out the loaded weapon, leaned on the safety. She stood up. She stood her ground.
"The point isn't not to fail, James. We all fail," she said. "The point is that when you fall down, you get back up."
"This is not the script," Brady said tensely.
"Shh," Reyes cut in. "Doesn't matter. It's working."
"Look, you messed up. It was wrong. You made the wrong call, and you've been punishing yourself and punishing other people ever since. Now you have to get up and make a right one. Now you have to keep your oath."
"I broke my oath," he said, high and shaky. He swayed like a tree in the wind coming off the overpasses, dipping down below.
"Well, it's time to heal it," Worth said, and opened the case.
"Oh, neatly done," Falkner murmured, and the stretched-knuckle tension went abruptly out of Chaz Villette's clenched hands.
"I can't," Singh whispered. Even over speakers, over the airwaves, I could tell his heart wasn't in it.
"You can," Worth assured him, and pulled out the needle. "I'm going to give you a light sedative, okay? It's lorazepam. I'll show you the label. Take all the time you need with it."
"All right," he said, soft, hollow. I glanced up at the building down the path, checking for the snipers, for the glint of trained scopes and barrels I couldn't see. This was working. It was actually working.
"Right arm or left?" she said, and he proffered up an arm, rolled up the sleeve. She swabbed it with the efficiency of long practice.
The needle went into his arm, and Worth pushed the plunger down.
Singh's shoulders sagged. Too soon for the sedative to take effect: maybe it was going to work. Relief, I thought, and let out a breath.
"C'mon," she said, and took his arm carefully, and led him along the sun-dappled pathway to where we were camped out, to where the police cruisers and officers hid behind the curve of the wall. "You did good. It'll be all right."
They took one step, two, three. The traffic hummed along. I tucked the weapon away, and got ready to receive our latest houseguest with open arms.
Chaz startled beside me, sharp as an electric shock to the ribs. "Daphne! Harpy!"
She looked up. She looked toward us, sharp and surprised, and he started to run toward her, run right into the delicate, managed, careful arrest we'd spent so much time setting up.
And then I heard the honking, and saw the shadow, and then the on-ramp railing so far above us, and the relaxation on Singh's face that wasn't relaxation but resignation and finally looked up--
--and the mirrors glittered like sunspots
the engine quiet as labored breathing
and the horns beeping like heart monitors
faster and faster and faster
as the truck sparkled in the air
hung blotting out the daylight
Incident report, New York City emergency services, filed June 13, 2011:
Overturned transport truck on Brooklyn Bridge on-ramp, 11:37 a.m. Truck swerved into on-ramp railing and fell approximately forty feet onto pedestrian walkway below; enough speed to break concrete safety barriers.
James Vijay Singh, thirty-three, of no fixed address, crush injuries due to fallen truck; dead on arrival at New York Downtown Hospital.
Special Agent Daphne Worth, thirty-six: crush injuries to ribs, right hip and leg, neck, skull. CPR administered by Supervisory Special Agent (Retired) Solomon Todd until paramedic division #71 arrived on scene 11:47 a.m. Admitted to surgery at New York Downtown Hospital 11:54 a.m.
Driver, Marcus de la Costa, fifty-four, dead on arrival at New York Downtown Hospital. Preliminary coroner's report suggests cardiac arrest and/or cerebral aneurysm.