I took off my rubber gloves, throwing them in the bin. They made a splat sound as they left my skin. I stared at my hands, my breath hitching. God. His face had seemed so peaceful. The peace of death is, after all, the most peaceful of all rests man ever enjoys. My hands seemed bathed in that man’s blood. It was –
A hand gently touched my shoulder. I turned around to look at another man, my mentor. He looked as old as he’d ever been, his gnarled visage looking down at me with an almost sympathetic gaze.
“Get some rest, son,” he said. “You need it.”
“Does it ever get easier?” I whispered, my eyes searching for an answer on his face. My heart pounded wildly in my ribcage, hammering out a scary tempo. I needed an answer. I needed to understand. But his face had no comfort. It only offered the grim hardness of the truth.
I sighed as I looked away. I shrugged out of my apron. My body went through these motions mechanically, my mind still in that room with that man. Was there anything I could have done? Anything I could have done to save him at all?
And my mind supplied me with an answer. No. A simple, straightforward answer. I had tried my best, I reasoned. I did what I should have done, and yet, I could do nothing to save that man. Why is it that these things happen? Why did he die? I mean, I know that sometimes we can’t really do anything about it. Sometimes, it’s written in our fates. It’s a delicate game we play and our opponent is Death. The stakes are a man’s life, and the die only gets cast once. And this time, before I could say or do anything, Death had spoken, “Alea iacta est.” And that man’s soul had been taken, leaving a lifeless husk behind.
I stepped out into the lobby, my hands in my pockets, my head down. It was past eight, and I had to get home soon. The lobby was empty, save the receptionist’s desk. She barely gave me a glance as I walked past, busy with her work. It was fine with me. I had my own demons to wrestle with.
I knew what I was doing when I was signing up for this job. I thought as I walked out into the chilly winter breeze. It nipped at me, trying to break through the barrier of my coat. However, I barely felt it, wrapped up in my thoughts as I was. I turned a corner, and the sound of traffic hit me like a physical wall.
I began walking, not in the mood to take a taxi. My home wasn’t very far, only a couple of kilometres from my workplace. The winter wind served to isolate me from everyone else, forming a sphere of solitude in which I would not be disturbed. People called out to me in greeting as I passed their stores, I was well known in this area. I’d grown up here, and several of these shopkeepers had known me since I was a toddler toddling on my merry way. They’d shared my parents’ pride when I’d been accepted into medical school. It had been the proudest moment in my parents’ lives. It had also been one of their last. They’d died the very next day in a blast which would make international headlines, the 9/11 blasts which had plunged the world into another war. A war of vengeance. The war against terror.
What would they think of me now, I reflected. What would they think of a son who wasn’t even able to save one life? They had such high hopes.
I walked up the driveway into my home. I had inherited it from my father. He had been planning to live out the rest of his days here with mum. Alas, it was not to be.
God has mysterious ways, my mother would say. I would try to debate with her, but my arguments would never ever break her veil of faith. She would always cling on to her faith in bad times, her faith tiding her through.
But where was her God the day they struck the Twin Towers? Where was God when I was left standing at their graves? And where was God when that man’s vitals flat-lined, allowing Death to steal away his soul?
My wife, Ruth opened the door when I knocked, her rebuke for my lateness dying on her lips as she saw my face. “Richard?” she asked, concern layering her voice, “What happened? Are you all right?”
I stared at her pretty face, those beautiful eyes and her concerned expression. She was worried for me, realised some portion of my brain dimly. She was concerned for me, a man who had blood on his hands.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and took a deep breath, forcing a smile upon my face. “Yeah, baby,” I said, stepping into the house and slipping my arms around her. Her bare arms hugged me back and I buried my face in her hair, seeking some form of comfort. “Just a bad day at work,” I whispered as I held her, a warm comforting presence in my arms. That man’s face swam into focus, peaceful, accusing. I closed my eyes, feeling bile rise up my throat. His face lingered.
I was vaguely aware of her guiding me to the kitchen and putting food in my plate. She asked me some questions and I answered her, though what I said was a mystery. My mind was still within that room with that man, watching his last moments with a sickening feeling, knowing that it was my fault.
“Are you coming to bed, baby?” She asked me, looking at me worryingly. I stared at her, the swell of her breasts and the sweetness of her mouth inviting me. How easy it would be to forget everything this night, to wake up tomorrow as if nothing had happened! And Ruth would help me forget with everything she had. She loved me, and I loved her. For a moment, I was tempted.
But his face swam into focus again, this time, an expression of hate on his face. My fault. How could I even look at Ruth again, much less sleep with her? She was lovely and pure, I was tainted with the blood of an innocent.
I stared at her without actually seeing her, and tried to smile. “I’ll be there in a bit, honey,” I replied, my false emotions not fooling her. But Ruth nodded, playing along, knowing that I needed it. She smiled back at me before moving into our bedroom. I kept up the expression till the door closed.
My head dropped down again, and I stared at my hands. How could I keep lying to her, and how could I live with myself? I was no doctor, and I knew that. The blood of innocents would always stain my hands. He was my first, who knows who would be the next? The secret service had wanted information, and I was trained to extract it, even from those who could withstand pain. I had been picked up straight after med school by them and trained to extract information even from the most unwilling. And after my first case, there would just be one word I would use to describe myself.