WTF?: CHAPTER ONE
Please note that WTF? is a work in progress and this version of the first chapter may differ in the published book.
Arnold Leadbetter had known better days. In fact, all his previous days had been better than the one which he was about to experience. He had never had a worse day in his life.
He woke up to hear a couple of sparrows greeting a brand new day. He smiled at the bird’s cheerful chirruping of joy at the realization that they had survived another night and that a fresh day beckoned..
Except he didn’t smile.
His eyes were feeling really dry and he blinked to allow his tears to wash over them and give him relief from the discomfort that he was feeling.
Except he didn’t blink.
He couldn’t smile.
He couldn’t blink.
He couldn’t do anything.
He couldn’t move.
He didn’t recognize the ceiling. Where was his lampshade? The floral one that he didn’t really like but had agreed to buy as his wife had fallen in love with it at the store. In fact, where was the light fitting and the energy-saving bulb that the salesman had included in the purchase at no additional charge? There was supposed to be a light above his bed. There had always been a light above their bed.
Unless he wasn’t in his bed.
Come to that – where was Gillian? Where was his wife of fifteen years? She should be in bed alongside him or, at least, making their morning coffee.
He turned to the right, to check that she was there beside him.
Except he didn’t turn. He just kept looking up at the ceiling that wasn’t his ceiling.
His eyes were starting to burn. He needed to blink. In his mind, he brought his eyelids together and anticipated the refreshing flow of moisture. In reality, nothing happened. He wanted to scream, to shout out – the pain was excruciating – but not a sound emitted from his body.
Please, somebody, do something about my eyes!
Who did he think he was calling out to? As far as Arnold knew, he was the only person in the room. Perhaps Gillian was there. Perhaps not. He had no way of knowing. Was he alone? He hoped not.
A sudden thought crossed his mind.
Am I dead? Is this what being dead feels like?
He hoped he wasn’t dead. He’d only just passed his fortieth birthday. Forty was still young. Wasn’t it? He remembered that his grandfather had lived until the ripe old age of ninety-seven. His father was approaching seventy years of age but was strong as an ox and twice as lively. The Leadbetters were made of strong stuff – no, he couldn’t be dead.
He heard a door open and close.
That wasn’t right. His bedroom door was on the left and that sound had come from the right. Their bedroom window was on the right. At least, it had been. Unless Gillian had rearranged the furniture whilst he’d been at work. But, if that was the case, why hadn’t he noticed it when he’d gone to bed?
He didn’t remember going to bed. Or, at least he did remember, but he had definitely got into his own bed in his own bedroom. The light fitting and lampshade had been above his head when he’d drifted off to sleep. But now, everything was different. Everything was wrong.
Suddenly a strange face loomed into view. It was an attractive face – not beautiful, but a face that was pretty enough. But it wasn’t Gillian’s face. He didn’t know this face.
Artificial tears suddenly exploded into his eyes, first the left eye and then the second. The relief from the burning sensation was almost instantaneous. He tried to smile at the eyes that peered into his.
“That should help a little, Mr Leadbetter. It must be uncomfortable, your eyes staying open all the time like that.”
Arnold’s head didn’t move as he thought he nodded his head.
Thank you, but who are you?
The nurse ignored him and fluffed his pillow a little.
“There. That’s better. Nothing worse than a pillow that loses its shape during the night.”
Based on his current circumstances, Arnold wanted to assure her that there were a lot of things a lot worse than a flattened pillow but said nothing, both through politeness and a complete inability to activate his larynx.
The face disappeared from view and he heard the door open and close again.
About thirty minutes later (it may have been thirty minutes, but it could have been any length of time – Arnold had no way of knowing) the door opened once more. This time he could hear three distinct voices. He recognized two of them, but the owner of the third – a male voice – was a complete mystery to him. The voices became slightly louder as they approached his bed. He concentrated on hearing what the voices were saying – perhaps they’d throw some light on his current predicament.
“So, there’s really no hope for him?”
That was Gillian’s voice. It was wonderful to hear her voice – even though it sounded audibly upset –but he didn’t like the sound of what she had just said. The strange voice responded to her question.
“I’m sorry but, barring a miracle, I’m afraid your husband will never improve. Even if he did come out of this coma, he’ll have suffered irreparable brain damage. He’d never be able to do anything for himself again. His quality of life would be devastatingly reduced.”
A third voice entered the conversation.
“Mum. It’s only the machine that’s keeping him alive. Without that, we’d already have lost him.”
That explained the constant humming and pumping noise that he had heard since he had woken up. That, and the presence of the nurse who had administered the artificial tears meant that he must be in a hospital.
Gillian turned to her daughter and clasped her hands in her own.
“But Dad’s only forty, Keira. I’m only thirty-eight. We’ve got our whole lives ahead of us.”
Arnold’s eyes tried to widen as he realised the ramifications of the conversation he was listening to.
No. Please don’t do what I think you’re considering. I’m here. I’m alive. I’m not dead. I’m not dying.
The doctor contradicted the unspoken thoughts of his vegetative patient.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Leadbetter, Miss Leadbetter. Mr. Leadbetter has contracted a disease unlike any that we – that is, the medical profession – have ever encountered before. He is completely paralysed. We’ve tried all the treatments that we can think of – and even some that are, quite frankly, experimental – and mot one has shown even the slightest sign of helping to alleviate or reverse his condition.”
The doctor looked over at his patient, who heard every word but could say nothing to change the physician’s prognosis.
“We can’t even close his eyes. The best we can do is to hydrate his eyes at regular intervals. Without that hydration he would be in incredible pain. That is, if he were still able to feel physical sensations.”
Gillian accepted a tissue from the doctor and dabbed at her tears.
“Is there really no hope?”
The doctor shook his head.
“None, I’m afraid.”
Gillian squeezed Kiera’s hands even tighter.
“We’re going to have to be strong – for each other. It’ll just be me and you now.”
Arnold wasn’t prone to panic – he was a very tranquil individual – but panic was the best word to describe what he felt when confronted with what was about to happen. Yes, panic rampaged through Arnold’s now fragile veins.
No. You can’t do this. I’m here. I’m alive. Please don’t switch the machine off. Please don’t switch me off. I’ll get better. I promise. I’ll get better.
The nurse had been outside the door, waiting for her cue to come into the room with the necessary forms to sign. Most next of kin who found themselves in this tragic situation eventually consented to turning of their loved one’s life support machine. It was their final act of kindness.
Gillian took the clipboard and a pen from the nurse and was about to sign the paperwork when Kiera stopped her.
“Wait, mum. What about dad’s organs? I’m sure he’d want to donate his organs to help others.”
Arnold agreed – in principle. He tried to sit up and say something, but nothing happened.
If I was dead, I would. Yes. But I’m not dead. Not yet anyway. Not by a long chalk. I’m alive. I’m in here. Like that Descartes fellow said –I think therefore I am. He didn’t say ‘I think, but I’m not’.
I’m thinking right now, so I must be alive
The doctor shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Miss Leadbetter but, although your father himself is not infectious, any donated organs could still harbour the bacteria that has caused your his condition and we’d still risk spreading the disease. It’s not possible, I’m afraid.”
Gilliam and Keira stood in silence for a moment, looking at Arnold. Gillian’s hand gripped the pen tightly as she scribbled her signature on the assent form.
The tragic formalities out of the way, both wife and daughter gave Arnold a final kiss on the cheek and left the room in silence, leaving the medical staff to perform the emotionally difficult task of terminating a patient’s life. Even though they had done so many times before, the enormity of ending a human life was never easy.
As the bellows of the respirator machine stopped pumping, the few seconds before the vital signs monitor flat lined seemed like an eternity.
The doctor checked his watch.
“Time of death, zero seven fifty-seven.”
The room was empty once more, so quiet that if the proverbial pin dropped it would sound like dustbin lids crashing to the ground. Even the two sparrows had long since flown away. The silence was deafening.
Arnold’s body looked no different than it had for any of the previous three weeks, totally devoid of what we consider life.
A single unheard thought swirled around Arnold’s deactivated brain, unsure of what to do or where to go.
But I’m not dead.