The Scalpel's Path
Lisa von Biela
Clara Simmons sat alone in the chilly exam room, waiting for the door to open. She'd been waiting for a good long while, in fact. Typical they'd let her sit and stew. Why should they care? It's not like she had anywhere else to go.
After all, it was their job to make her uncomfortable. And they did it so well. Even the room's stark white bareness seemed calculated to make her feel more trapped and isolated than she'd ever dreamed possible. Nothing on the spotless white Formica counter. No drawers, no shelves. Bare walls. No windows, no artwork, not even a poster.
She smoothed her paper exam gown as best she could. Each of her wrists was handcuffed, tethered to the exam table with a short length of steel chain.
She could feel her heart thumping, restless inside her. Clara set her shoulders back, took a deep breath to try to calm herself. Today was the day. Decision day. Her palms sweat, her fingers trembled. It wasn't fair. She shouldn't be here, shouldn't have to make this decision. But she missed Tyler.
Months had passed since she'd been allowed to see her little boy. That was part of her punishment, the worst part. If Brad hadn't been about to hurt Tyler, this wouldn't have happened. But he'd left her no choice.
So now she had to decide. What would she risk, what would she be willing to give up, to be back with Tyler?
Clara shook her head. She'd done nothing but ask herself that question in the weeks since the offer had been presented. Now the deadline had arrived. In her heart she knew the answer, but that didn't erase the fear. She flinched as a knock sounded on the door.
"Ms. Simmons?" A man's voice, curt and cold.
"Yes?" Clara nearly choked out the word. She stared at the door as if she expected a firing squad to march through it.
The door opened, and the doctor stepped in. White-coated, late fifties, with silver hair and a brusque demeanor. "Hello, Ms. Simmons. I'm Dr. Wallace. Your test results have come back, and they indicate you're in good health-an excellent candidate for the procedure. Has anyone told you much about what's involved?"
"A little. If I have the surgery, I can leave here. Is that right?"
Dr. Wallace shut the door behind him, and remained standing near it, as if he didn't want to be any closer to Clara than necessary. "Yes. While it's still somewhat experimental, we are using it for cases like yours. Not for first degree or serial murderers, though. Not yet."
"What's it like?"
"Well, it is brain surgery. So all the usual caveats apply. There's always surgical risk, and you'll have to be conscious so we can be sure we locate the right spot to... vaporize. You won't feel any pain, and we'll give you a sedative to keep you calm. Not really as bad as it sounds." He flipped open a file he'd brought with him and scowled at its contents, seemingly more interested in it than in her.
Clara swallowed hard, struggled to phrase her next question carefully to try to get a straight answer. "What about... after? How will it be?"
Dr. Wallace looked up, nearly making eye contact with her. His expression was dismissive, as if she'd asked the dumbest question possible. "Ms. Simmons, we're going to eliminate a portion of your brain that got you into terrible trouble. You should feel better. You won't miss that part."
"The part that enabled you to kill your husband. For the courts to feel safe releasing you, they need to know that part has been destroyed, so you won't do something like that again."
"But I..." Clara stopped. She'd explained and explained what happened. No one listened. Brad's family had money and influence, and didn't care to hear her motives. She'd killed their precious son. No matter that he'd been about to take his frustrations out on Tyler... again. She wasn't a cold-blooded killer; she'd only intervened to protect her little boy. Brad's family made sure she suffered, regardless of the facts.
Dr. Wallace gave her a look that said he had other places to be. "Any more questions, or have you decided?"
Clara shut her eyes, pictured Tyler, and willed herself to say the words.
"All right, I'll do it."
"Remember, you must remain absolutely still during this procedure. I promise, you'll feel no pain," said Dr. Wallace.
Clara wondered how she could move, even if she dared. She lay strapped to the operating table, her head clamped into a device to keep it and her neck utterly still. A clear plastic mask covered her nose and mouth, dispensing a soothing gas in addition to whatever sedative they were pumping into her veins. She marveled at how tranquil she actually felt.
"OK, Clara, we're about to begin," said Dr. Wallace. Then someone put a drape over the restraining device to block her view of the proceedings. "You'll hear the sound of different sorts of equipment. Just relax, let the sedative do its work."
Between the effect of the drugs and having her view limited to light and shadow, Clara felt disembodied from her surroundings. Probably just as well to keep her mind off what was about to be done to her. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself somewhere else. Somewhere outside in the bright, warm sunshine. Playing with Tyler. She smiled under her mask. Then the harsh whine of a power saw invaded her ears. Her eyes snapped open, only to see shadows through the surgical drape.
"It's OK, Clara. Breathe, relax," said a nurse.
She closed her eyes tight, drew in more of the gas, and floated a little. The beeping of monitors and the clink and clatter of instruments mercifully faded into a daydream blur. Clara pictured Tyler, all innocent and rumpled in his pajamas at bedtime. He'd be six now, bigger than the last time she saw him. They grow so fast at that age.
"OK, she's open. Scalpel."
Images, impressions like sudden truth erupted in Clara's mind. She knew things about Dr. Wallace. Knew about his malpractice lawsuit, how he'd been disgraced before the state boards. How he'd moved across the country, trying to re-establish a practice. And hadn't succeeded. Until he found a job with the prison system.
He'd created the experimental procedure, intending to make a fortune off it. Off the backs of desperate convicts. How many had died? And what did they give away in return for their freedom? Parts of their minds, personalities-their souls?
Clara couldn't move, couldn't signal anyone. What had she agreed to? Her rapid breathing drew more of the gas into her lungs, chemically forcing calm on her.
"Doctor, please stop a moment. Her pulse is up."
"OK, I'm out. Let me know when I can go back in."
The impressions disappeared as quickly as they'd come, leaving Clara with a diffuse unease.
"She's good. Go ahead."
As soon as the scalpel contacted her brain again, the impressions returned, like a channel to Dr. Wallace's innermost thoughts. Then Clara knew. He had faked all the research results for the procedure. He couldn't actually pinpoint the exact part of the brain to obliterate; he just took enough to cause a visible change in personality and called it a success! A dangerous fraud, designed to line his pockets so he could drop out of sight, leaving it all behind. Leaving victims like her in his wake. Clara opened her eyes wide, straining to see through or around the drape. But it covered her entire field of view, shutting her off.
What kind of man was he? Did he have no conscience, or did he just wall himself off from it, since his victims were already society's castoffs? Clara forced herself to breathe as shallowly as she could, so she could think without getting too clouded from the gas. She tried and tried, but could think of no way to signal for help. Maybe if she just got her pulse racing again, they'd stop.
Tears rolled from her eyes, concealed under the surgical drape. Please don't do it! Don't destroy my mind! God, why did I agree to this?
Clara heard Dr. Wallace grunt in surprise. And she thought she felt hesitation, confusion coming back from him.
"What's the matter, Doctor?" asked a nurse.
"Er, nothing. Nothing. I'm continuing; I'm nearly to the site."
"Doctor, her pulse is rising again."
"Let me know if it stays high. I'd rather get done and close than draw this out, if she's going to be tachy."
Please stop! Oh God, how can I get him to stop?
Dr. Wallace grunted again. This time Clara felt it for sure. Doubt had started to creep into his mind.
"Is there a problem, Doctor?"
"No, everything's fine. I'm at the site now. Vaporizing probe, please."
Clara summoned all her strength, pulled her thoughts together taut and focused as a beam. She had to stop him now. Please, DON'T do it! Please!
Clara heard the metallic clank of an instrument being dropped onto a metal tray. "OK, close up for me," said Dr. Wallace.
"But Doctor, I didn't activate the probe yet."
"I said, close up. It's done."
Clara heard harsh footsteps fading into the distance, the slam of a door. Stunned silence around her, then quiet murmurs, whispers. Unable to catch individual words, she wondered what happened. Had she stopped him? She didn't feel any different yet. Maybe the sedatives were dulling her perception. Maybe this was how she'd feel for the rest of her life.
Another voice. "Clara, you're nearly done, we're just going to close up
now. Then we'll take you to Recovery."
Clara set the camera on the table, peered through it, and lined it up. "Hon, you ready to smile and sit still for a minute?"
Tyler's miniature image nodded in the viewfinder. "Uh, huh!"
"OK then." Clara set the camera's timer, and hurried over to sit on the couch next to her son. She put her arm over his shoulder, held him close to her side. "Smile now!"
The camera flashed them temporarily blind. Tyler clapped his small hands to his face and shouted, "Aahh!"
She got up, went to the camera, and pulled the picture out. The image arose from the murk of the instant film. Tyler's and her face beamed out from the picture, overshadowing the second-hand furniture and small apartment surrounding them. She was free, they were together. Everything else was trivial. "Looking good!" Clara walked over and showed him the picture. Tyler was duly amazed. "Wow, that's us!"
"Yeah, it's perfect." She took the picture and retrieved an envelope and a stamp from her makeshift desk in the kitchen, along with a scrap of paper bearing an address.
"What're you doing, Mommy?" Tyler queried from the living room.
"Sending the picture to someone who needs to see it."
Clara addressed the envelope to Dr. Wallace, in care of the prison where he was serving his sentence. After her surgery, he'd been seized with an attack of conscience, and confessed everything. Her case had been reopened, and this time the verdict was justifiable homicide.
She looked at the picture once more. It captured Tyler perfectly. Such an innocent face. She hoped his memories of Brad would fade over time, leaving him unscarred from those early years. Then she wrote "Thank you!" in large, joyous script on the back of the photo and slipped it into the envelope.
During the day, Lisa von Biela is an Information Technology consultant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The rest of the time, she pens speculative fiction ranging from horror to soft scifi. She is currently working on her first novel, a technothriller. Her fiction has appeared or will appear in Gothic.net, Dark Animus, Naked Snake Online, The Dark Krypt, Greg F. Gifune's THE EDGE, Alien Skin, Horrorfind, and The Swamp.
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Published by permission of the author.