Curiosity: Short Story

This post is an example piece, copyright Danny Dourado. It is the first part of a short focusing on our innate desire to know our own fate, and the feeling of control such knowledge gives us. It is as cheerful as it sounds.

Copyright Gemma Murcott 2011-2013

CURIOSITY

“Is there anyone we can contact? Anyone at all?”

David shook his head, his jaw clenched. The doctor sighed and scribbled a note on her clipboard.

“I have to go check downstairs, so I’ll be back in half an hour. Then you can give me your answer.”

She brushed through the curtain and left him to his thoughts. David had no intention of being alone with them. He lay on his bed grinding his teeth, letting the pain in his jaw and the sounds of the hospital drown out his mind. The gasp of a pump forcing breath down someone’s throat. A monitor screeching out someone’s pulse. No thoughts, just sounds.

He had been behind the curtain for days, isolated from the other patients. The doctor had thought it would calm him down, give him a chance to think in his own bubble, but David still refused to speak to any of the staff.

He scratched at his eyes again, desperate for sleep. Let someone else make the decision. He began groaning, his voice a low growl that crept higher in pitch until he was whining like a wounded dog. His gangly limbs stretched out under the blanket and snatched at the air. He hated himself. He hated this pitiful wreck that was flailing on the bed where his body should be.

Only when he had let his tired arms fall did he see the monstrous man beside his bed.

The man settled into a chair slowly. He was hunched as if his own size was a burden. His large head was hanging, weary, hidden beneath a tangle of wiry hair. He was a hasty sketch of a man, drawn in black and grey with his edges fading into the darkness, as if he belonged there. David tensed, the muscles under his control straining, warning him.

“Evenin’,” the giant said. It was a pleasant voice, deep and rich, rumbling from within his chest.

“You’re not a doctor,” David croaked.

“Very astute. Your accident left you with all your mental faculties intact, an obvious burden considerin’ the state of your physical ones.”

David felt his body slump and was ashamed. “Who are you?”

The giant leant back into the chair, a creaking oak settling itself.

“I’m the Reaper.” He smiled. “And I’ve come to tell you how you’ll die.”

David jerked. His weak hands leapt for a button, a weapon, the man’s throat, anything. The giant swept forward out of his chair and crushed David’s chest under one huge arm. The pain was sharp and deep. David choked.

“You misunderstand me,” the giant whispered, inches from David’s face. He could see the man’s eyes like two burning sparks. “I’m not here to kill you, or harm you in anyway. Unless you get the attention of those doctors. Then I can’t be held responsible for my actions, and you’ll never know why I was here.”

His looks were wild but his voice was still calm. David nodded, his throat tight. The giant stepped away and David gasped loudly, sucking air into his thin lungs.

“You’re not unfamiliar with death,” the man growled. “You’re young, but you’ve seen it. From what I hear, you’re facin’ it right now. I can understand that.” He sat. “Death makes everythin’ cold. All that life that pounded your senses from the moment you were born suddenly becomes dull and thick, like your head’s underwater. Am I wrong?”

He was watching David intently for a response. David gave him a small nod as he massaged his chest.

“We understand one another. That’s good.” The giant smiled again. “I am wrong, though. It’s not death that is doing this to you. We all know we’ll die one day. We all know it could be any day. It is the uncertainty that we fear, not death.”

He brought his hands to the lapels of his heavy coat and shrugged. It spilled off of his shoulders to the floor. Beneath it the man wore a shirt that barely fit over his large gut and broad shoulders. It was dirty and creased; it looked like it had been slept in. He began to undo the buttons on his right sleeve. David watched with wide eyes.

“Your surgery is the perfect example. Keep going with your treatment now and live at least a nice, long year, weak, in pain, but still breathing. Or have them cut you up now and risk dyin’ here for a real life again. It’s not the fear of death that’s keepin’ you from makin’ your decision, is it? That’s somethin’ that a doctor can’t understand. She spends all her time fightin’ death, so she assumes it’s always the enemy.” He raised his hand to David’s eye-level, his knuckles facing up. “No, you fear the odds. You don’t know if this surgery’s gonna save your life or cut it off right here. Death isn’t so bad. It’s just that it’s in the corner of your eye, and that’s the bother. I can fix that.”

He turned over his hand.

David flinched this time, half-expecting a gun or a knife to appear. Instead, there was a silver box, about the size of a matchbox. It was tied to the giant’s wrist with what looked like the remnants of a belt. A small light flickered lazily on its casing, next to an indentation the size of David’s fingertip. Inside that he could barely see a wicked needle, a hidden tooth in the otherwise innocent device. David’s eyes sought the man’s, but his attention was entirely on his box.

This will remove all uncertainty,” the man cooed. “This will tell you how you’ll die.”

David felt his heart thump painfully. The device looked so small. Now that the man had fallen silent the quiet felt heavy on David’s head. He wet his lips before speaking.

“You’re crazy,” he wheezed. The edges of the giant’s mouth twitched. “You’re… crazy. You’re a strange, probably homeless, man with a silly box made out of… a cigarette case… and you’re scamming hospital patients. That’s sad, low, and… pitiful.”

David swallowed the lump in his throat. The man had not moved, but as David’s rattling speech finished, he grinned.

“Huh. You believe me,” he said, twisting his mouth. “Rather quickly, too. That’s rare.”

David coughed. “How… does it work?”

The giant eased himself forward and traced a large finger delicately along the box. “You put a card in. Maybe a business card or somethin’. Here.” His fingertip continued along the device until it rested in the indentation, caressing the needle. “Then you put your finger in here. It draws your blood. No lies in blood. The mind can lie, but the body can’t.” His grin broadened. “It reads your blood, and prints it on the card.”

“… That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

The giant leant back in the chair again, satisfied. He rested his hand with the device in his lap, and placed his other hand on top of it, so that it was out of David’s view. David blinked and shook his head. A mist had settled on his mind while the giant had been speaking.

“Knowing that… knowing that would drive me mad. People who go through with this must be… mad.”

“I’ve had it done.”

“My point… exactly.”

“It’s vague. It’s enough. One or two words, just enough to set you on the right path. I’m not sayin’ it’ll give you a date and the number of a funeral company.” The giant looked David straight in the eye. “It’s not a death sentence. For you, it’d be… death advice. Just enough advice to make this decision, for when the doctor gets back.”

“What if… it says something like… ‘car crash’, and I… I’d never be able to get in a car again… It’d ruin me.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll ever be gettin’ in a car again, and that wasn’t my machine’s fault. That was yours.”

David’s words caught in his throat and his skin felt like it was being pricked by tiny needles. The man bowed his head in a small motion.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was out of line. My point is, your death is not goin’ to be shaped by what’s on this card. It was always meant to be, and always will be. Just like you takin’ this test at all.”

They sat in silence for a moment, listening to the hospital. Someone was crying in one of the wards, and the sound echoing off the walls seemed at once ghostly and frail.

“I… won’t.” David sighed. “This decision… it’ll… something will…”

The giant’s features hardened. He raised his machine again, placing it before David’s eyes. David was limp, entranced by the sight of it. He watched as the man lifted a small, white card from his shirt pocket and slipped it into the device. Then the man raised his index finger and slid it into the machine.

“You’ll take this test.” He winced as the machine bit down, drawing a drop of the giant’s blood. “Because no one has come this far and said no. Because…” The device hissed and the card slid out from its depths. David did not have time to see its message before it was swept up by the giant’s free hand. “… no one has seen this and said no. This… is why I am here. And why you will take the test.”

He held the card before David’s face. The giant watched the blood leave his cheeks and the tension in his brow begin to ease as he read the card over once, twice, until his eyes became unfocused.

CURIOSITY, it read in small letters.

David felt his body quiver. “This is how you will die?” he asked the giant.

“Yes.”

“And you’re not afraid?”

“I welcome it. It’s true, after all.”

“Okay,” David said.

It was over quickly. David lay still as the man administered the test. He winced from the bite and heard the hiss of the device. The large man turned it greedily to his own gaze first. David felt like the giant was staring at something private, some hidden part of himself; for the first time since the Reaper had introduced himself, he felt angry.

“Thank you,” the giant growled, slipping the card into David’s hand. “I have what I came for.”

“What about the girl…?” David asked, his words barely leaving his lips. “The girl in the… other car… The one I… Could you do the same for her?”

“Already did,” the giant said, standing. “Car crash.”

David went numb. He barely heard the man leave as he pulled the card to his eyes. ‘SURGERY’ it declared. It was indifferent, hollow, the truth handed to him with no fuss and no grand reveal. But it was the truth. He traced the letters with his fingers, leaving a faint trail of blood from where the device had pierced him.

The doctor found him quiet but alert. David informed her of his decision and even offered her a small smile for her troubles. Without delay, she signalled to the other nurses to wheel him into theatre.

The doctor waited until David had left the room before picking up the card at the side of his bed. Her face darkened and she slipped the prediction into her pocket.

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