The Treatment

In Fiction on April 22, 2013 at 8:48 pm

hallway2

The Treatment

I ducked and followed Meher into the narrow hall. Wide bands of rusty light shone beneath the corrugated steel roof; dust motes danced upon the strands. The air was damp and the walls were black with mold.

“Is it safe for the inmates?” I asked.

Meher smiled, barely turning.

“By your reputation, I am thinking you don’t much care what is safe, yes?” He laughed. “But don’t worry, doctor; these men cannot be harmed.”

These men… they were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Their silence, their stillness—approaching catatonia—unsettled me in a way that my work rarely does. They lined the walls and huddled on stairs, clutching their bony frames, watching us pass with milk-white eyes.

I pulled at the strap of my satchel. I was sweating excessively, and the heavy gear was chafing.

“What do you bring with you, doctor?” Meher asked, noting my struggle, not troubling to mask his lack of interest.

“Equipment,” I replied, simply enough. “Medicines to increase the effectiveness of the treatments. Atropine, methohexital…”

I trailed off as Meher began to laugh.

“Treatments!” he said, and he wagged his finger at me. “Trifles. These men are not ill—they are intoxicated with love for God. No ‘treatment’ can shake them from their ecstasy.”

We were approaching the end of the hall, and an imposing steel door studded with massive rivets. Meher unbarred it and gave it a mighty push.

“This, I think,” he said, “is what you have come to see.”

I stared. At first it was difficult to see anything at all, but slowly a pair of glimmering grey eyes distinguished themselves from the black.  Set in a soft, pale face, they did not blink and they did not move—but I could feel that they saw me.

“He came to us long ago,” Meher said quietly. “Long, I think, before you were ever called ‘doctor.’”

When I finally spoke, my voice quavered.

“Brother,” I said. “Brother—I have come to take you home.”

I’d last seen my brother when he was 11 and I was 15. I did not recognize this man—soft, bloated and white—that stared upon the world with these watery eyes. He was like a corpse, newly surfaced in some icy pond.

“Brother…” I said. “Paul.”

“He will not speak,” Meher said. “Our world is as distant to him as God’s light is to the heathen.”

I set down my equipment and tried not to sound perturbed.

“There’s nothing godly about this,” I said. “His mind has closed itself—a response to severe psychological trauma… It has been this way since we were boys.”

I handed Meher the cable to the machine and motioned for him to plug it in. I set to work placing the contacts on my brother’s scalp.

I’d long maintained that what my brother had been through had been traumatic for both of us: His unexplained disappearance and mysterious return 18 months later—as a broken boy.

The police had suspected the worst, and even blamed our father for a time, but there had been no signs of physical abuse. There was only Paul’s silence and his sad, vacant gaze, as if he’d stumbled upon some horrible secret, some ruinous truth the universe had managed to hide from the rest of us. He would not drink and he would not eat, and the simplest tasks fell to our parents to perform. It tore our family apart.

Looking upon him now I realized I had suffered merely a fraction of his pain. For nearly forty years he had been a prisoner of his own mind.

I gently rolled his sleeve and gave him an injection.

“Do you think you can cure him?” Meher asked.

“Perhaps not. But if I can open a door to his mind, even for a short time, I may be able to discover who did this to him.”

“And then?”

I gave my brother a second injection.

“Then they will find God’s light,” I said.

I watched my brother’s face as the cocktail of drugs took effect. His eyelids fluttered and his eyes rolled, and beads of sweat began to appear on his waxy skin. I made sure the contacts were secure against his scalp.

“Turn it on,” I said. Meher’s hand went to the switch, but he hesitated.

“You would do this to your own brother? Your own blood?”

“Of course,” I snapped, “as I have with thousands of patients before. I would not make myself a hypocrite. Besides, it’s perfectly safe—and if there’s any chance of finding out what happened to him, I must try.”

I composed myself in the silence that followed, and repeated calmly:

“Turn it on.”

Meher complied; the machine snapped to life and the faint crackle of current filled the room.

Paul’s response was subtle at first, but unmistakable. His mouth slowly opened and closed, as if he were trying to speak, and his eyes began to shift erratically—until finally they landed on me and were locked, with frightening intensity, on my own.

A low moan came from deep within his throat and slowly swelled like a chant.

“Is he speaking?” Meher asked. I leaned over my brother and his eyes tracked me as I approached.

“What is it, brother?” I asked. “How have you come to this place? When we were boys…”

But suddenly there was a pop and the room went silent. The machine failed, and my brother’s moans ceased.

“What did you do?” I asked, rising. “Did you switch it off?”

Meher had no time to respond, for down the hallway, echoed and faint, footsteps were sounding. I stepped to Meher and took him roughly by the collar.

“Who did you tell?” I whispered. “Who knew I was coming here today?”

“No one!” Meher gasped. “I swear it!”

I grabbed my satchel, pulled the contacts from my brother’s skin and grabbed the machine from the table.

“Get him up,” I said flatly. “We have to leave now.”

Sweat stung my eyes and blurred my sight. Meher stumbled ahead of me, walking backward and straining. My brother hung between us like a bridge, heavy and insensible, as the footsteps grew louder behind.

“Who are they?” Meher gasped. “What do they want with your brother?”

“They don’t want my brother,” I said, wheezing. “To them, he’s just a freak. They’re literally out for his blood; whether it’s hot or cold when they get it is incidental.”

Meher’s terror flashed on his face.

“I do not wish to die,” he said.

“Then let’s get him to the truck.”

Outside, the day was fully blazing. Dust hung thick in the sweltering air, making a muddy orange slush of the sky but doing little to temper the blistering sun; only the shade of an enormous sycamore had spared my rundown Mahindra. Meher and I loaded Paul into the back and climbed in.

Meher spoke between staggered breaths.

“Why—“ he choked. “Why his blood? What does this have to do with his condition?”

I threw the Mahindra into gear.

“Everything,” I replied simply. Behind, men flooded from the low, mud building, Kalashnikov’s raised. “I just don’t know what ‘everything’ means.”

The next instant, the bullets were tearing the truck to shreds, throwing showers of glass and aluminum shards in every direction. The world fell apart, a demonstration of entropy in its most brutal form, but somehow I kept my hand on the wheel, steering blindly around the sycamore and up the ravine.

As we cleared the ridge, my side exploded in pain and I felt the blood run cool and wet down my leg.

Shit,” I hissed, even as the gunfire faded and the empty desert opened before us. My pant leg was already saturated with blood. “I think that’s the artery, Meher. There’s a kit in the back, do you think you can reach it?”

Meher did not reply. He lay slumped amid shrapnel—some man made, some organic—half his jaw shot away.

I drove south over dunes and flats of rough-packed gravel, my brother groaning meaningless psalms in the back, Meher’s lifeless body jostling like a marionette to my right. My leg needed attention: Shrapnel had nicked the femoral artery, which leaked a slow pulse of blood—a violent bump might tear it completely—but our attackers were in pursuit.

Egypt’s Western Desert is a bleak expanse marked by few settlements and fewer roads, but I knew the Dakhla Oasis lay some 30 miles to the south; it would be several hours over the treacherous terrain, but I drove on, praying the dusty skies would give us cover… praying the blood I had left would last.

***

Night had fallen by the time we reached our salvation. Riding up, the date palms were gray silhouettes against an oil-black sky, rustling gently in the breeze. Above, the stars shone like a thousand far-off lanterns—as if a sea of lonely travelers had risen to shine a light, silently calling to the lonely travelers on the earth below.

I drove the Mehindra round to a copse of peach trees at the edge of a pool, silenced the engine and collapsed in the seat. My thigh burned, but the leg was numb below the knee. It was a minute or two before I found the strength to tear away what remained of my pants; beneath, the flesh was reddish blue and puckered around a deep gash. I fished my kit from the back.

Each movement of my dirty fingers was an explosion of excruciating pain as I plumbed the depth of my wound. My leg throbbed as if the blood were coursing deep within the bone, moments from rupturing and rending the limb from my body. But I found the artery—a weak little worm—clamped it, and sutured the small laceration. When I finished, exhaustion took me.

In the back, my brother chanted his laments. Meher, meanwhile, had begun to stink.

The lonely travelers watched in silence.

***

Fevered, I dreamt I crawled a burning maze, my limbs withering and sloughing off in my wake; dead men chattered nonsense, mouths filled with ash, eyes filled with pain; then a drenching rain swept up from some distant gulf, washing the ash and limbs and fire into an endless black chasm.

When I woke, dew dripped from the palms, dropping heavy in the leaves. A faint light glowed over the dunes to the east, pink like lilies in the spring. The oasis, our green cradle, seemed to sigh. We were safe.

I let my brother sleep and set to work digging a shallow grave. My leg pained me, except below the knee where I’d lost all sensation, but the work kept me distracted. I laid Meher in the fertile loam, covered his body with earth and rock, and said a silent prayer as the flies began to swarm.

Paul was awake when I had finished. He watched silently from the bed of the Mahindra, his eyes bulging in his pale face.

“This wasn’t my fault,” I said feebly. “Meher could have stayed behind. He didn’t have to come.”

Paul only stared. I hobbled back to the truck and climbed behind the wheel, where I sobbed softly for a time. At last I turned the key.

“Paul,” I said, speaking to my brother but speaking to no one, “do you remember the stories father used to tell? Poland after the invasion?”

Paul said nothing, but it didn’t matter. I needed to talk. A strange thought had suddenly gripped me.

“He used to say the worst part about the occupation wasn’t the soldiers at his club or the disappearances, but the way the language changed. Infected with German. They even changed the names of the cities. Lodz became Litzmannstadt.”

We rode east over the dunes, toward Luxor, and my conviction grew even as the light woke slowly in the sky.

“The men who killed Meher…” I said at last. “I think they were speaking German.”

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  1. […] and if you were looking for the continuation of my series, The Treatment, it’ll have to wait at least one more week. In the meantime, you can read the whole thing on […]

  2. I thought this seemed familiar…

  3. Did you ever read ‘The Egyptologist’, by Arthur Phillips?

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