I, Robot: To Protect Book 1, page 13
Susan chuckled, knowing Kendall meant it good-naturedly. Somehow, it was all right for them to make fun of Clayton Slaubaugh, so long as no one outside the “family” did so.
“In fact,” Kendall said, “to show you how little concerned I am about your showing me up, I’m hoping you can help me with a patient.”
Susan looked through the glass. The nurses had wheeled out the medicine cart, and Sharicka stood near it, looking over the tiny paper cups. The little girl always drew Susan’s attention. “I’m happy to help anyone. Just don’t expect something preternaturally brilliant. I can put things together and make some intuitive leaps, but I don’t have a photographic memory.”
“It’s about Connor Marchik.”
Susan could not help wincing. The fifteen-year-old boy had primary hepatic carcinoma, refractory to every form of treatment. Genetic markers, personally targeted medications, blood cell therapies, monoclonal antibodies, radiation, and even multiple cocktails of tried and true chemotherapy drugs had proven useless against it. Every week, the oncologists came down with a new attempt at decreasing the tumor load, something to prolong Connor’s life a bit longer. The boy had built a wall around himself that kept everyone, at times even his parents, at bay. Like a badger, he remained perpetually angry, attacking when someone tried to tempt him from his cave.
Susan bit her lower lip and shook her head hopelessly. “Believe me, Kendall. I have nothing the oncologists haven’t already tried.”
Kendall rolled his eyes. “Even the nurses don’t think you’re God.”
Susan lowered her head and looked up at Kendall, trying to appear appropriately chastened.
“I’m not asking you to cure his cancer. I just wonder if you have a thought about how to draw him out.”
Susan started to speak but only sighed. She tried again. “Connor has every right to be angry; the universe or God or Mother Earth or whatever theology you ascribe to has treated him incredibly unfairly.”
“Agreed.” Kendall gave her a searching look. “Aside from that whole, rambling, politically correct ‘theology’ thing. But no one should spend his last years in a fog of impenetrable rage, especially when he has so few of them in the first place.”
Susan knew Kendall had a point. She could argue Connor ought to be allowed to act any way he wished to in his last months, but it seemed foolish. Connor’s anger had a reasonable explanation, but that did not mean he necessarily enjoyed it or wanted to spend the rest of his life enmeshed in it. “Nothing like jokes to cheer a person. And you clearly have a million of them.”
Kendall shook his head. “I’ve tried humor. I’ve gotten a rare smile, but he still chases me out of the room.”
“That rare smile is probably more than most people have managed.”
Kendall ran both hands through his hair, until it stuck up in ruddy spikes. “Maybe, but it’s not enough. It might win him over in time, but time is something he doesn’t have enough of.”
“Yes.” Susan watched Sharicka wander away from the medicine cart to sit in a plush chair and watch television. The well-cushioned chair made her look like a pudgy doll in its recesses. She no longer carried the balloon, instead clutching a stuffed monkey that looked worn and well loved. She placed the plushie in her lap, facing it toward the screen. “What does Connor do all day?”
“He lies in bed with a palm-pross on his chest. That’s about it. Day in and day out, just sitting or lying in various positions and sucking in passive entertainment.”
“What kind of passive entertainment?”
“Sports. Cartoons,” Kendall said. “I’ve noticed manga, and he does keep a stuffed animal in his bed. I’m not sure what it is; he won’t let me close enough to see it. It’s battered, though. He’s either had it a long time, or it takes the brunt of his anger.”
Susan had no special tricks up her sleeve. “Would you mind if I looked in on him this morning? It might give me some ideas.”
Kendall made a broad, dismissive gesture. “Be my guest. I’m not proud. Anything you can do to make things better is all right by me.” He winked at Susan. “If you can make me the hero this time, so much the better.”
Susan gave him a single, strong nod. “I’ll try my best.” She resisted the urge to tease him. To even jokingly suggest he did not have the stuff to become a champion meant vaunting her successes even further.
Susan headed out of the room to check on her patients before rounds. Diesel had an early-morning counseling session with his parents, a dietitian, an endocrinologist, and a social worker, preparing him for discharge. He could wait until after rounds. She headed for Monterey’s room, more in dutiful obligation than any hope she might accomplish anything. After a short visit, she intended to check on Connor Marchik.
Susan had barely exited the staffing area when an alarm bell shrilled through the corridor and over every PIPU Vox, directing them to the PIPU patient lounge. Silver light flashed around the television area, where a nurse named Alicia performed the Heimlich maneuver on Kamaria Natchez, a refractory schizophrenic patient of Nevaeh’s. Kamaria’s face had turned bluish, and she clutched wildly at her throat while the nurse drove both fists into her abdomen.
The children had scattered. A few watched curiously, including Sharicka Anson, who stood on her chair for a better view. Most bolted to their rooms, terrified either of the events or of getting blamed for them. A few cowered behind the furniture. Nurses came running, but Susan reached Kamaria and Alicia first. As the nurse was properly performing the technique, Susan did not attempt to take over. She merely stood by, waiting for Alicia to request assistance or for the situation to change.
It did, and swiftly. Kamaria went suddenly limp in Alicia’s arms. The nurse looked hopefully at Susan.
“Lay her down,” Susan said calmly. “On the floor. You need to clear her airway.”
Alicia did so. Kamaria sprawled onto the floor, fingers and face turning a duskier shade of sapphire. Placing a hand behind her neck, Alicia tipped Kamaria’s head backward to fully open her airway. Kneeling at Kamaria’s side, Susan asked, “What happened?”
“She had just taken her meds when she started choking.”
Kamaria gasped. A rubbery, vibrating sound emerged, but no air.
Susan looked into the girl’s mouth and thought she saw something red. She reached in with a finger and swept carefully, concerned she might drive the object deeper into Kamaria’s throat. Something clung to her finger as she removed it, a floppy piece of red balloon.
Kamaria huffed in another explosive breath. This time, the welcome, rushing sound of air went with it. The bluishness receded from her face almost immediately, and her eyes fluttered open. She breathed quickly, deeply, hyperventilating. Susan and Alicia helped her to the couch.
Susan put the piece of balloon into her pocket, then turned her attention to Sharicka.
The little girl met Susan’s gaze steadily, without a hint of guilt or discomfort, a slight smile playing across her lips. The whole incident had clearly amused her.
Susan could not help shivering. This was no accident. Instinctively, she knew she would find no other traces of what had once been Sharicka’s balloon except, perhaps, the string tucked away among the child’s belongings until Sharicka could find another cruel use for it.
By now, a crowd of nurses, aides, and residents had gathered. Kamaria’s face returned to normal, and she managed a hoarse “Thank you.”
Applause followed, from the staff and the other patients. Trying to downplay her role, Susan moved away and applauded Alicia and Kamaria along with the others. Monk’s expression looked pained. Nevaeh rolled her eyes. Sable clapped with the others, but she kept her gaze downcast. Only Kendall and Stony seemed truly happy for the rescue and Alicia’s and Susan’s quick reactions.
Leaving Alicia to explain what had happened, Susan hurried off to visit Monterey. The young teen sat in her bed with her earbuds in, listening to whatever music she had recorded on her Vox. Susan waved from the doorway but g
Susan saw the irony in the situation. She would finish quickly and move on to Connor Marchik, trying to reach Kendall’s patient when she could not even reach one of her own. Monterey truly seemed like the ultimate hopeless case, and Susan understood why her doctors wished to resort to desperate measures. She had more difficulty comprehending the motives of the Society for Humanity. Did those protestors truly prefer that the girl live out her remaining decades in a psychiatric institute rather than undergo a process that might give her a chance at a completely normal life? Electroconvulsive therapy had its drawbacks, of course; but how could anything be worse than counting the hours and days till death in utter silence?
Susan thought back to the years when cancer therapy was as much of a crapshoot as refractory mental illness. Then, bone marrow transplant offered the possibility of a cure for otherwise certain death. It had required massive doses of radiation and/or chemotherapy to destroy all of the patient’s fast-growing cells, then an infusion of non-diseased bone marrow, usually from a donor. Patients frequently died of overwhelming infection, bleeding, graft failure, relapse, organ failures, or graft versus host disease. Even when it worked, the patients felt lousy for months, and full recovery often took years. Survival rates varied from disease to disease but averaged about fifty percent, assuming the cancer itself did not recur.
Nevertheless, people with otherwise fatal diseases would choose the procedure, willing to risk immediate death for a possible cure rather than the slower, certain lethality of the initial illness. In contrast, mortality from ECT was exceptionally rare. The worst common complication was memory loss, most often mild. In the extremely unlikely event Monterey became wholly amnestic, it still seemed preferable to the existence she currently suffered.
Susan performed her obligatory greeting. “Good morning, Monterey.” She paused, hoping for some sign the girl had heard her.
But Monterey only stared back, blinking occasionally, her face expressionless.
Susan tried her best. “If you want me to stay and keep bugging you, do nothing. If you want me to leave, wave.”
Monterey kept studying Susan in silence. Then, to Susan’s surprise, the girl raised a hand and moved it feebly. A ghost of a smile touched her features.
Susan froze for an instant. Then, true to her promise, she turned on her heel and left the room. Her heart pounded. Monterey had not spoken; but she had communicated, even if only to send Susan away. When it came to Monterey, Susan would relish even those tiny victories.
Having interacted with her two remaining patients, however superficially, Susan felt free to visit Connor Marchik. She stood outside the room for several moments, taking deep, calming breaths and loosing them slowly. She knew she was entering a lion’s den and promised herself that, whatever he said, she would not take it personally. Having fully prepared herself, she walked into Connor’s room, grumbling loudly. “This sucks. Everything sucks.”
Connor looked up from the palm-pross balanced on his thighs. He had dark, uncombed hair that tousled in every direction, sunken blue eyes, and long bony cheeks. A hint of downy hair fuzzed the area between his nose and upper lip, and a few hairs clung to his chin.
Arms crossed over her chest, Susan glanced in his direction, then snarled, “What are you looking at?”
Connor seemed shell-shocked. Since he had transferred to the PIPU, no one had ever spoken to him that way. Susan supposed they all plastered on fake smiles, trying to sweet-talk him from the depths of his raging depression. Images flashed across the palm-pross, and Susan recognized them as characters in the newest display case in the Manhattan Hasbro Hospital lobby. The grimy stuffed animal on his pillow vaguely resembled one of the main critter characters. He finally managed to speak. “Who the hell are you?” Though hostile, his tone sounded practically neutral compared to her own.
Susan maintained her stance, half-turned away, arms across her chest. “I’m Dr. Susan Calvin, and I wish I were dead.”
Connor growled, “No, you don’t.”
“I do. I’d trade places with you in a second.”
Susan turned fully toward him. “You’ve got it made. Lying around all day doing whatever you want to do, watching whatever you want to watch, until the day you die.”
“Which could be tomorrow.”
“Or two years. Or three years.” Susan turned him a sullen look. “Or maybe some brilliant scientist will discover a cure, and you’ll have the bad luck to live seventy more years.”
“Yeah, right.” Connor returned his attention to the palm-pross. “I’ve been hearing that ‘future cure’ shit for years.” Sarcasm deepened his voice. “Be happy. Nobody knows for sure when it’s his time to go.” He snorted. “Well, I fucking know. I’ve got a few more fucking months at best, and I don’t want to spend them skipping around rainbows with dancing ponies, okay?”
Susan shrugged. “Yeah? Then why go on at all? Why not end it all now?”
She had Connor’s full attention again. “What?”
Susan let her arms drop to her sides. “Your room seemed like the perfect place to commit suicide. I have enough pills to share.” She pulled the Slookies from her pocket. From across the room, they could pass for drugs.
Connor shut the palm-pross. “Hey! You can’t kill yourself here.”
Susan drifted toward him. “Why not? You don’t give a shit about anyone else, so I knew you wouldn’t try to stop me.”
Connor looked distinctly uneasy. Susan hoped she had not over-played her gambit. “What’s so bad about your life, anyways? I heard you fixed Starling. And Diesel.”
“Yeah. And now everyone expects miracles. I can’t do anything for Monterey … or for you.” Susan shook her head angrily. “I can’t stand the pressure anymore. Better to end it all now.” She shook the candies in her hand and raised them to her lips.
“Don’t do it!” Connor shouted.
Susan froze, then slowly turned her head toward him. She wrinkled her brow, as if in confusion. “Why not? Life blows.”
“Yeah, it does,” Connor agreed. “But what if you’re the one who’s supposed to find the cure for me? Or for Monterey? Or, if not for either of us, for someone just as desperate next month?”
“Are you saying what I do or don’t do affects … other people?” Susan spoke as if she had come to a great epiphany.
“Of course … it …” Connor caught on. “You bitch.”
Susan dumped the candy back into her pocket. “That’s Dr. Susan Bitch. Now, don’t you think it’s about time to stop torturing everyone around you just because your life sucks?”
“Get over it. And yourself.” Susan refused to show any sympathy. “We’re all dying at our own speed. You’re neither the oldest nor the youngest person to die. Do you know how many people would pay good money to have a couple years’ warning? Most of us crawl into our deathbeds worrying about trivia, never knowing we won’t wake up in the morning. We leave a million things undone. At least, you can tie up all your loose ends.”
“I’m fifteen,” Connor reminded her. “My ends are all pretty tight.”
“You’re not supposed to laugh at a dying kid.”
“Well, no wonder you’re so spittin’ mad. No one laughs at your jokes.”
Though tempted to continue while she had him listening, Susan knew when she had said enough. She had given Connor something to think about. Lecturing him about how he affected his family, his doctors, and his friends would only form a wedge, losing all the ground she had gained. With teenagers, often the less said, the better. “Dr. Susan Bitch,” she repeated. “And don’t you forget it.” With that, she turned and left the room.
Susan caught up with Kendall in the staffing area preparing for rounds. “I saw your patient.”
“Yes,” Susan said with none of Kendall’s sarcasm. “I like him.”
Kendall met her gaze, his dark brown eyes lacking their usual sparkle of humor. “Seriously? Connor Marchik and neurosurgeons.” The light went on. “I get it. You’re one of those women who enjoys abuse.”
“Nope. You know me better than that. I’m way more sadistic than masochistic.” She reminded him, “I’m the evil, castrating bitch.”
“Witch.” Kendall remembered his own words. “With a capital B.” Seeing the other residents heading to join them for rounds, he returned to the subject at hand. “Any tips for reaching Connor?”
Susan looked through the one-way glass. Activity in the common room appeared to have returned to normal. Even Sharicka sprawled lazily across a couch, fiddling with the stuffed monkey, for the moment satisfied with the morning’s excitement. “Call up the original reruns of the manga series Ganuto Hiro, and spend a night watching them. If it has an accompanying collector card or figures game, you might want to invest in it.”
“Okay.” Kendall did not seem impressed. “We’re going for common ground here, I assume.”
“I did once engage him in a conversation about the Giants. He has a pennant on the wall.” Kendall sighed. “But it didn’t hold his attention long. We were right back to biting my head off within a few minutes.”
Susan stated matter-of-factly, “That might work better during football season.”
“Assuming he survives the summer.”
Susan gave Kendall a weary look. “You’ll do better treating him like an intelligent young adult rather than a dying kid.”
“He is a dying kid. That’s why he’s here.”
“He’s a dying young adult, and he’s irritated that everyone’s acting like he’s a pathetic fragment of shattered porcelain.”
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