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by Wayne Faust
© 2010 by Wayne Faust
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Manakey was the worst case I had ever seen, but he probably started out like most. Maybe he was taking a stroll through the park. He would have been careful. Everyone these days is careful, ever since the first suckpuppies appeared from wherever they came from. But what if it was a fine spring day? Buds on the trees. Lovers on blankets. Manakey would have let his guard down. It happens, even to the most cautious among us.
He probably never felt the slimy body of the suckpuppy as it raced up his ankle and latched on, releasing its instant euphoria juice. And moments later the fine spring day would have been replaced with something even finer. The park would have suddenly looked like the Amazon jungle, bright and green enough to hurt his eyes, birds like brightly-colored parrots instead of dull, gray sparrows.
That’s how they do it, of course. Suckpuppies hit you with the good stuff at first. They make the world seem like the most wonderful place - so wonderful that you don’t even notice that something has attached to your skin, something that looks like a beet red, marble-sized bruise. In the days and weeks to come it grows, slowly, steadily, filling up with your blood. It begins to reproduce, making more little suckpuppies inside itself, outer membrane stretching like a water balloon until it’s the size of a rotten apple, filled with a colony of squirming suckpuppies. And you don’t even know it’s there.
How can that be? That’s the million dollar question. No one has been able to figure out why people with suckpuppies are incapable of seeing them, even on their own bodies. Where there’s an ugly growth, they’ll see smooth, unblemished skin. The best guess is that it’s some sort of hallucinatory response, a sort of selective blindness. Some claim it’s a vast, alien conspiracy, gaining control of one human mind at a time, until it eventually controls the whole world. But I think that’s ridiculous, of course. I’m a doctor.
But suckpuppies can play your brain like a violin. One minute you’re convinced everything is positively excellent and the next minute it’s dismally awful; people with suckpuppies make bi-polar disorder look like stoicism. And worst of all, when anyone pokes around a victim’s body and tries to remove the suckpuppy, it brings on the mother of all panic attacks. And then rage, the kind of rage that could drive someone to kill their own family. There have been cases where that has happened.
So what about Manakey? As I said, he was the worst. A suckpuppy had been on him a very long time - probably three or four years. It had migrated up his body, growing larger and larger, looking for fresh places to get blood. It had settled onto his back and by the time they finally brought him in out of a thunderstorm at 2 AM that August night, it was the size of a cocker spaniel. How many suckpuppies were in the colony squirming around in that sack? Maybe a thousand. And Manakey was oblivious to it all, even though he had been walking around like Quasimodo.
I sincerely don’t know how he managed to avoid detection for so long, but he had. He must have hidden away from the world until someone, maybe a family member, had finally turned him in. As the sheriff and a couple of patrolmen dragged him in out of the rain that night, his eyes were wild, darting left and right in sheer, uncontrolled panic. He struggled like a trapped lion, grinding his teeth as three orderlies strapped him face-down on a gurney.
“Let me go!” he cried. “There’s nothing wrong with me!”
His t-shirt was rain-soaked and I could see the suckpuppy pulse and writhe beneath the wet fabric. Thunder crashed outside the automatic doors down the hall. The lights flickered.
“What do ya’ wanna do, Doc?” asked the sheriff, breathing hard. “Should we call for a helicopter so they can take him into City Hospital? He’s a pretty bad case.”
I hissed through my teeth. I hate City Hospital. I started my career there. All the great ones do. But I ran into a wall of politics and they booted me out. And I’d be damned if I was gonna authorize a helicopter to come out all the way from the city just so they could take a patient away from me.
“We’ll take care of him here,” I said.
The sheriff looked at me sideways. I was hoping he didn’t know all the rules about suckpuppies. They’d been a problem in the cities for quite a while now, but there hadn’t been many reports of them way out here in the sticks.
“I said, I’ll take care of him here,” I repeated.
The sheriff paused for a moment. “Suit yourself,” he said and then turned to go, the two patrolmen following. I wondered how many laws I was breaking.
I turned back to Manakey, who was squirming against the straps.
“You’ve got a growth,” I said gently. “We’re going to remove it and you’ll be just fine.” I used the most soothing voice I could muster, but God knows I was having a hard time holding back my revulsion. And I was questioning my decision to treat him here. We weren’t really set up for this. We had no protective suits like in the city, no sealed operating rooms, nothing. But we had me - the best surgeon this little piss-ant hospital ever had and I knew I could get the job done. I’d removed three here already, after all, although they had been a whole lot smaller than this one.
The nurses gathered around as the orderlies transferred Manakey to the table in the small operating room, strapping him down as tightly as they could. No one liked this particular, nasty job. John Bannerman, an intern assigned to me for the graveyard shift that semester, was looking like he was reconsidering his decision to become a doctor in the first place.
It’s a very delicate operation, taking off a suckpuppy. If you mess up, you can cause the entire sack to burst apart, splashing quarts of blood in all directions and scattering small suckpuppies everywhere, squeaking like a litter of newborn German shepherds, looking for bare skin to latch onto. And they usually find it of course, because above all else, suckpuppies are lightning quick. That’s why they wear protective suits at City Hospital. But we didn’t have any of those.
Manakey, of course, wasn’t thinking about any of this. He squirmed against the restraints and turned his head as far as he could, trying to see us as we prepped. He cursed us with some of the foulest language I’ve ever heard, and then he began to weep.
“It’s okay,” I said gently. “We’re going to fix you right up.”
I gritted my teeth and wished desperately for an anesthesiologist. But that was impossible, because at the first hint of anesthesia or IV solutions of any kind, suckpuppies release a chemical into their host’s bloodstream that sends them into violent seizures, causing death within seconds. Then you’re left with a live suckpuppy slithering away from the corpse of the patient you were supposed to be saving. It’s as if suckpuppies know what’s going to happen when you introduce any foreign substance into the bloodstream. But if you can remove the sack surgically, very carefully, without anesthesia, they go quietly and the patient will live. As long as you don’t make a mistake.
I took my scalpel and sliced into Manakey’s damp t-shirt. I made a circle around the pulsating lump and peeled back the fabric. There was a collective intake of breath in the close air of the room. The suckpuppy looked like a huge, pulsating beet, and the outside membrane heaved and rolled in waves, stretching tighter as the things inside busily reproduced themselves. Over the top of the sterile, hospital smell, I smelled the cloying, heavy odor of old blood. And in the stone quiet of the operating room, I could actually hear muffled squeaking and mewling from inside the sac. As a surgeon I’ve seen almost everything, but right about then I wanted to vomit.
Thunder crashed in the dark night outside and the light above the table flickered again.
“Where’s the auxiliary power?” I asked no one in particular.
“It doesn’t seem to be kicking in,” answered Bannerman. “Maybe we should wait until the storm passes.” His voice quavered.
“No,” I said, steadying myself. “The longer we wait, the more agitated the patient will become. We need to get this over with.”
I raised the scalpel in the flickering light. Thunder crashed again, closer this time. The lights winked out for a full second before coming back on. I began to sweat and a nurse swabbed my forehead. I cursed under my breath at the cheap bastards that ran this poor excuse for a hospital. You’d think they could at least make sure the lights stayed on during surgery.
I cut into Manakey’s skin, making an incision just below the neck, approximately one centimeter from the edge of the suckpuppy. Manakey began to scream and squirm violently, but the straps held him tight. Blood flowed around my scalpel. I could hear Bannerman’s raspy breathing in my ear as he looked on.
I continued my smooth, even cut around the outer edge of the suckpuppy, carefully skirting the membrane. I followed it around to the bottom, just above the buttocks, and then back up the other side. There was a great deal of blood by now and Manakey was nearly out of his mind, screaming obscenities. I could only hope that the pain would make him pass out soon. I completed the oval-shaped cut and backed away for a moment. The lights flickered again several times.
Now came the hardest part. Suckpuppies anchor themselves just under the epidermal layer of the skin. I would have to carve down below that layer, beneath the membrane, trying not to go too deep, but also making sure I didn’t go too shallow and cut the thing open. If I was successful, the entire suckpuppy would come away in one piece, with a thin layer of Manakey’s skin attached to the bottom of it, keeping it sealed, and we could destroy it in the portable incinerator waiting in the hallway. Then would come the time-consuming process of repairing the damage to the patient, in this case, a huge job. But the thing I was about to do, the carving underneath the suckpuppy, was the most dangerous procedure. I gritted my teeth and bent down.
I cut deeper into Manakey. Unbelievably, he was still conscious, screaming in agony.
“Hold him still,” I hissed, because the patient’s back muscles were moving in spasms and my incision was getting ragged.
The orderlies pulled the straps even tighter. I moved the scalpel deeper, going round and round, farther under the suckpuppy. It reminded me of carving a pumpkin at Halloween. But I made quick, steady progress in the flickering light. Soon I was nearly done.
Manakey suddenly stopped squirming and went quiet. I looked up, scalpel still buried. There was a moment of tense silence. Then Manakey shrieked like a banshee, just as a flash of lightning struck the driveway outside the doors down the hall, an answering clap of thunder snapping at the same instant. I inadvertently jerked up with the scalpel. And that’s when the lights went out. And they didn’t come back on.
What happened next? I’ve been asking myself that ever since. I seem to remember an explosive, squishing sound, like the sound a watermelon makes when you throw it down hard on the sidewalk. Then I think I heard squeaking from down on the floor, like a pack of rats would make. Manakey stopped screaming as if someone had put a gag in his mouth.
I know that I said something then. Maybe I swore. I simply can’t remember. But with the lights going out, and me saying something that told everyone in the room that I had messed up, there was instant panic. I must have panicked myself. I thought I felt something crawling up my leg. Or did I imagine that? In the pitch dark it was hard to know what was going on. Nurses were shrieking. Bannerman gripped my arm. And then he suddenly let go.
And then, for no good reason, a peace came over me. I knew everything was going to be all right. I remembered that I was a doctor. A damned good doctor. I was trained for life-threatening situations like this. I was in charge here and it was up to me to make things right, to calm the others down. It was marvelous how my mind focused, just when I needed it most. I took a deep breath.
“Everyone stay where you are,” I said, using the Voice Of Authority they taught us in medical school. “Everything is going to be fine.”
Within seconds the others responded and quieted down. I listened. I heard just the heavy sounds of breathing from all of us gathered around the table.
And then I knew. In the dark and confusion of moments earlier, I had imagined those other sounds. Of course I had. My mind had taken my worst imaginings and made them seem like real sounds. A mind can do that to you. I’ve seen it many times. I’m a doctor.
I don’t know how long we all stood there in the dark. It could have been five minutes or more. But finally the lights came on.
I squinted and blinked against the glare until my eyes adjusted. I looked down at the table. Manakey lay there, unmoving. He didn’t appear to be breathing. Most of the skin of his back was missing and the suckpuppy was gone. I looked down at the floor. It was covered with blood. I instinctively lifted one foot and then the other, trying to keep from standing there in all that blood.
“Doctor?” said Bannerman.
“Yes?” I answered.
“Good job, doctor.”
“What?” I asked.
“The suckpuppy. You got it all off in one piece. I was able to put it into the incinerator while the lights were out.”
“Thank you, Bannerman,” I said in relief. “Excellent work. But what about the patient?”
I reached for Manakey’s neck and felt for a pulse. There was none.
“At least we got the suckpuppy,” I said. “That’s the important part.”
The others muttered their assent. We had destroyed that pulsating, throbbing monster. And if Manakey hadn’t made it through, that was one of those regrettable things that doctors sometimes have to face. We all filed out of the hospital room and cleaned the blood off. I remember laughing and joking with the nurses. And I went home feeling good.
And since then? As I write this, watching the snow fall outside my window, I confess I’ve thought about that night a lot. I don’t go out much anymore so I have a lot of time to think. Did I really finish cutting before the lights went out? My mind tells me I did, but late at night I sometimes get a nagging feeling that maybe things didn’t work out so well. And in my worst moments I have questions. Questions about how Bannerman could have gotten the suckpuppy into the incinerator so quickly, in the dark. And sometimes I wonder why Manakey died if I was so successful at removing the suckpuppy.
But most of the time I feel remarkably good.
I’ve never gone back to the hospital. That night with Manakey was the last straw. My talents are wasted at a place like that. If they’re going to be too cheap to supply me with the proper facilities to practice medicine then they can shove it. They called here for a while but I didn’t answer the phone. I don’t answer the door either, except for deliveries from the store. After the horror of Manakey, I don’t want to take a chance on picking up a suckpuppy. So I stay home. This is a very small town and there have been several suckpuppies, including the one that got Manakey. And if there are more, the whole town might be infected by now. But not me.
At first I wondered if I actually got one that night. I’ve examined myself in the mirror several times, all over. I’d be able to see something if it was there. There is nothing there. Nothing at all. I know about that hallucination thing, but I’m a doctor. I’d be able to tell.
Oh, I get a little lonesome sometimes. I even looked up Bannerman’s number once and called to see how his studies were going, but there was no answer.
And I do have dreams. Nightmares, really. Nightmares where the world is full of squirming, blood red, alien creatures, crawling into every nook and cranny on Earth. But then I wake up and everything is as fine as a summer day.
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