How do you explain the unexplainable? Is it possible to be clever and sympathetic simultaneously? An offering of flash fiction which drops readers into the uneasy conversations that we all one day must face…
by: Jurgen Stahl
Dr. Peterson?” The receptionist looked at him from behind her mahogany desk. “Dr. John Peterson?”
John stood up. Lydia hesitated, eyes fixed on the floor, the nails of her right thumb and forefinger scratching against each other. A move she had maintained since they met as University students. He held out his hand.
“We better go. It will be fine,” he lied.
She let him pull her up.
He planted a light kiss on her cheek. ”There are options…” She rewarded him with a tortured smile.
“May I?” John asked the receptionist. She nodded, and he grabbed an apple from the bowl in the waiting room. Lydia tilted her face towards him, disbelief flickering across her eyes. He shrugged. He hated apples, but today he took his chance. Something for his hands to hold on to while he listened.
His friend waited for them behind his mahogany desk.
“John. Thanks for coming in. Please sit.” Dr. Damian Roberts-Thomsen waved at the chairs facing him. Damian was his age, more grey hair than him, thin as a rake from his ultramarathons.
Lydia returned a quiet “hello” and placed restless fingers on his right knee. John watched her for a moment and muttered a few reassuring words. He turned his attention to the apple, caressing it with both hands, focusing on the exact nerve endings that triggered the sensation in his fingertips. Pleasure signals delivered to a specific part in the brain — the parietal lobe, that’s what it was. At least his memory still worked. Not ravaged yet by the storm inside him.
“I don’t have to lay it all out to you, my friend,” his mate said, his colleague of two decades, eyes fixed on the computer screen, right hand moving the mouse around. “You’d know better than anyone.”
John breathed a sigh of relief. At least he wouldn’t have to endure those phrases they picked up in their first couple of years of specialist training. Explaining the unexplainable.
Dr. Roberts-Thomsen rubbed his lower lip under the front teeth and avoided John’s eyes. Did he need to read that report again that he would have memorized by now? Or was he hoping that a new phrase would form in his frontal cortex, clever and sympathetic at the same time?
Lydia squeezed his leg. “Look,” she whispered, inclining her head towards a painting on the wall.
A lake space, but not just any. A vast reservoir of denim blue, rimmed by a green coastline. Villages with medieval houses in red, ochre, and pink scattered between patches of forest, snow-capped mountains in the background.
Lydia dug her fingernails deeper, staring at the canvas. There was only one place on earth like that. They had promised each other to return, but life got in the way.
“Here it is.” Dr. Roberts-Thomsen turned the screen around. John leaned forward, read the conclusion. Three pathological terms, no more needed. Words he had dictated himself a thousand times, for patients identified by their QR code. Microscopic images floated by, hordes of wild beasts, cells annihilating what stood in their path, leaving a wasteland in their wake. “Barbarians crushing through the gates,” his mentor had called them. A destruction witnessed every day between eight and six o’clock, for over thirty years. All routine.
Now they pillaged inside him, conquering one organ after the other.
He studied his wife, his friend, and himself. Observed them, took mental notes. So that’s how it was, being told something that shouldn’t be told.
A QR code floated past his eyes, and he suppressed a smile. Vertical black and white bars, a ten-digit number underneath. That’s what he was, just like all the countless others before him.
John’s fingers glided over the smooth surface of the green fruit again. His lacrimal glands had dried out yesterday after the call, no spit left in his mouth, all reservoirs scorched. John resisted the urge to take a deep bite. He hated apples. Until now.
Lydia still gazed at the painting. How long had it been? Thirty-five years? Forty even? Northern Italy, just South of the Alps. A hotter than usual summer.
His friend swiveled the screen back. “You know better than I do what the report means. I’m so sorry,” he sighed with a slight shake of his head, defeat written over his face.
John watched himself gazing past his friend’s eyes, out of the window, studying. Ever the observer.
No escape to yesterday then, with its doubt and hope. This was it. One or two mutations in the cascade of intracellular signalling pathways was enough to let the hordes crash the gates. Should he make a clever comment about the exact molecular mechanism that caused the upheaval? Show off, like he did in their clinical meetings, demonstrate how well read he was?
As if he could explain it all.
“We better talk about options. As you know, there are things we can do—”
John stopped listening. Remedies that shifted the survival curve a bit to the right? A few more weeks, maybe months, never years.
He turned his face to the Italian village on the wall. His fingertips glided over the smoothness of the apple again.
There was still time.
He stood up. He had no interest in becoming a black dot on a statistical graph in a medical publication. His friend stared at him but said no more.
John nodded his thanks and lifted his wife’s hand.
“Time to go back, don’t you think? It’s been too long.” His wife turned to face him.
“Far too long.”
He took a deep bite and savored the sweet-sour juice. There were still tomorrows to come.
Enough days to experience the surprising pleasure.
And time to return.
The storm inside him could wait.
Jurgen is German-Australian from Adelaide, South Australia. He is a medical specialist in anatomical pathology and writes about the people who spend their lifetimes in the medical world. His work has been published in the Flash Fiction Magazine (March, September 2021) and three micro-fiction stories will appear in The Centifictionist later in September 2021. He currently works on a novel that tells a story in the world of mortuaries, drug trials and human failure in modern medicine.