In Nomine Dei
by Aleks Haecky
Keara Henderson, a motherly nurse in the first plumpness of her pregnancy, looked at the motionless child in the hospital crib. She bent down a little and stretched out her hand to gently touch the child’s forehead. Three-year-old Joy Magnusson was finally asleep.
Keara turned and looked at Joy’s parents who stood at her side.
“You have signed all the papers?”
The couple nodded in unison.
“May I see them?” Keara asked.
George Magnusson, a pale slim man with thinning hair, handed her a one-inch bundle of papers. Keara flipped through them casually. At this point, paperwork was just a formality to put the parents at ease, and to remind them that what they were about to do was legal.
Keara looked at Sheila Magnusson, short, dark, reminding her of her own mother, dead five years ago from Lymphoma after indescribable suffering. Only a year later, the Release Law had been passed, and the year after that, a cure for her cancer had been discovered. Keara suppressed the thought with the practiced imagery of locking it into a safe and drowning it in the ocean.
In her legal voice, the quiver only noticeable to herself, Keara intonated the vow.
“Do you, Sheila Magnusson and George Magnusson, deliberately and in full awareness, empower the State of Oregon to terminate the life of this suffering child, because there is no medical expectation of recovery, no scientific expectation of a cure within the next five years, and you have a validated claim of financial hardship?”
Sheila grabbed George’s hand, and in unison they whispered, “We do.”
“Would you like to be present or leave for the Release?” Keara asked, looking deep into their eyes.
“We are staying,” Sheila whispered, a few tears forcing themselves past her composure.
Keara nodded and encouraged them to take little Joy’s hand. They had already said their good-byes, in a brief moment between the never-ending seizures and drug-induced sleep.
Poor Joy, Keara thought.
In spite of medications and chip implants, three-year old Joy continued to have a seizure every half hour, writhing and thrashing and frothing at the mouth, unless her body was drugged into sleepy limpness. Joy could not learn and Joy could not remember, sometimes not even her mother. Every seizure, like an electric storm in her whole brain, would flush out most of the information she had stored. Joy couldn’t walk, Joy couldn’t talk, and she knew nothing of the world around her but pain and oblivion. Her life expectancy was fifty-three years.
With practiced hands, Keara attached a second IV to Joy’s arm and adjusted the drip. She watched the drugs trickle into the transparent plastic hose and mix with saline solution.
“It will be just a few moments,” she said to the parents. They nodded, Sheila now crying freely. Then Keara dimmed the lights and withdrew into the chair in the far corner of the small room, reduced to the role of ‘official observer’, absolved from any responsibility.
Sleep well, little princess, she thought, and to avoid thoughts of the dark finality that threatened to embrace her, she invoked her fantasy of life beyond this death and whispered, “Don’t worry, little one, you’ll go to Heaven.”
Keara folded her hands over her slightly bulging stomach. None of her clients had noticed yet. Her loose uniform-tunic, a quiet green gown lightened up with a subtly cheerful daisy−flower print, hid her state well. Keara rubbed her stomach.
How will it be to have a child of my own? she wondered for the thousandth time.
Mr. Henderson, her husband and a minister of the Blood of Christ Bible Church, had left her with this parting gift.
“I want to give you life,” he had said, “so you may better understand the mystery of death.”
Then he had waved the little wand over her birth-control implant to turn it off and taken her to bed. She had been too surprised to protest, and not unpleased.
The next morning, Mr. Henderson had packed two leather-strapped suitcases with essentials and Bibles, and boarded a plane that would skip along the stratosphere and take him to one of the last missionary fields on Earth in the jungles of the Congo.
“To follow my true calling,” he had explained, “and to save souls.”
Having fulfilled the last of his obligations to his wife, he felt free to look for more fertile grounds for his hellfire and brimstone sermons.
Keara focused her attention on the parents. They were leaning over Joy’s crib. Their ashen faces showed determination and the early signs of mourning that came with acceptance.
Four months later Keara lay cuddled up in her large four-posted bed with a copy of Charles Lawrence’s latest mystery. The book and the kicking baby had kept her up all night.
The bedside phone hummed. Keara bookmarked her page and put the leather-bound ebook next to her on the pillow. She hesitated. The hospital would use her pager in an emergency, and none of her friends called this early.
Anna? she worried. Jack? What if something had happened to her best friend or to her husband?
The phone insisted and Keara picked it up with shaking fingers.
“Keara,” Anna said, her voice sounding nervous, hasty. “I just got a call. From a potential private client. It’s about his father. He is very sick and they don’t want to go through the official channels. You know I am not rich, still paying off Jeremy’s gambling debts. This would really help, but it’s not legal. I know that. I’ve never received a call like this. You’ve been doing this for much longer, Keara. What should I do?”
Keara didn’t hesitate. “You say ‘No.’”
“No ‘But.’ It’s wrong, it’s illegal. Heck, it’s almost murder for pay. If you need help with your payments, I’ll help you out. I am your friend, Anna. Listen to me. Say ‘No.’”
The line remained quiet for a long time, then Anna said, “I need a thousand by the end of the month.”
“You got it,” Keara said.
She would take it out of savings, postpone her trip to Hawaii for another two months. She could wait a little longer.
More silence in the line, then Keara heard a few sniffles and Anna said, “OK. Thank you. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Almost immediately Keara’s phone hummed again.
“Mrs. Henderson?” someone said.
She nodded and said, “I am her. I don’t buy anything and I don’t donate money. What else can I do for you?”
“My name is Moser, Laura and Hilbert Moser. We were wondering⎯do you, per chance, do, eh, private Releases?”
Before Keara could answer, Moser added, “We can afford to compensate you for the risk. This is really important to us. It’s about Laura’s mother.”
There still were people who fell through the net of the so-called Universal Health System. Hospitals had special aid programs for such cases. Once Keara brought the option to her callers’ attention, she often met them again a few months later, in the safe setting of a hospital room.
Moser cut her off when she mentioned the special funds.
“No, no,” he said, too quickly. “Money is not our problem.”
At this point, Keara felt she should hang up. She didn’t work outside the law, and she didn’t know anyone who did. Release nurses were screened carefully, and money couldn’t compensate for the threat of life in prison. But, she was curious. Mr. Moser’s call was different. If money was not the problem, then what was? He must have interpreted her pause as hesitation and talked on.
“Our mother is sick. She is suffering. We don’t want her to suffer any longer. She has Alzheimer’s. She has been a walking vegetable for two years. My wife is caring for her at home. It’s too much for Laura.”
Moser was talking fast now, urging her.
Keara was confused. Why did he need her? People with advanced Alzheimer’s could be released after medical confirmation, and there were nursing homes, of course. Keara’s eyes wandered around her room and came to rest on the Aspects of Lawrence calendar next to her vanity. Today was the seventh of November. Seven weeks were not enough to finish the Release process. On January first, the new, substantially higher, inheritance taxes would go into effect.
That bastard, Keara thought. Only her professional experience allowed her to control her voice when she said, “Sorry, I cannot help you.”
Then she hung up and fell back into her green pillows. She wasn’t sure whether Moser, if he persisted, would eventually find someone to help him. Her conscience pulled on her, but without direction. Moser was doing something utterly wrong, yet, until the wrong had been done, there was nothing she could do to prevent it. Keara considered scenarios, but none offered a way out. Eventually she fell into a restless sleep.
She dreamt that all the millionaires in the country rolled their parents into a large conference room. Everybody was dressed in surgical green. The lights in the hall grew brighter and brighter, and just before they blinded her, every son and daughter pulled a knife from under their gown and stabbed the old man or woman lying on the stretcher in front of them.
When Keara woke up, the clock showed three in the afternoon. Just enough time to print the news and eat before heading out for her shift. She pulled a quickmeal out the kitchen cabinet and stuffed it into the microwave after checking the label.
“Make me a tofu scramble,” she said.
The machine started to hum, and its little pincers and whisks attacked the package.
Keara turned towards the newsprinter. She touched the small screen and ordered her standard paper, ignoring the blinking advertisement that urged her to include the latest report on the health benefits of beef.
While she waited for her food, she made coffee the old-fashioned way, pouring hot water over instant powder. It didn’t taste as good as freshly ground, but it saved her the extra minutes waiting for the microwave. Then she grabbed the finished paper and her scramble and sat down to eat and read.
Keara quickly skipped through the headlines, then turned to the obituaries. A colorful, expensive frame decorated with flowers and ankhs caught her attention. She didn’t know the departed, a young man who’d been in a coma for three years after a swimming accident, but a small thank you notice honored her friend Anna. Releases always got the most beautiful frames, she’d even clipped and kept a few.
A short article next to to the obituary caught Keara’s attention.
“Garage fire ends in tragedy,” she read to herself. “Early this morning, a fire completely gutted the garage of the Moser residence on Fair Oaks road. One person, the elderly Mrs. Moser, was killed in the fire. The cause is still under investigation. ‘Fortunately this was one of the new fire-resistant frame houses,’ one of the firefighters commented. ‘Otherwise, the whole family could have been killed.’”
Keara stopped reading. If I had agreed to release Mrs. Moser, she would have had a peaceful death instead of this horror.
Keara imagined the flames licking and catching on Mrs. Moser’s clothes, the heat singing her face, her arms thrown up in pain, unable to understand. She would stumble, scream, and finally suffocate from the heat and smoke.
The reporter noted that this was the third garage fire in a month and encouraged readers to support a new law that mandated intelligent sprinkler systems for all residences.
Call the police? Keara wondered. I don’t have proof, it won’t go anywhere. What should I have done?
A sharp pain in her abdomen doubled Keara over. She felt wetness between her legs. After a minute, the pain subsided. It’s too early, she thought, as she heard her telephone talk to emergency services. The pregnancy monitor on her stomach had already called for help.
Keara loathed take-your-child-to-work day. Having eight-year-old Jason around broke her focus on her clients. How could anyone expect her to watch her son and do a good job at the same time?
She bent over the young boy in the bed and pressed an IV patch on his arm. The warmth and pressure activated the patch and the needle inserted itself painlessly. She arranged the hose, made sure it was clearly marked, then hid it under the bedsheets from where it ran to the drug dispenser.
“What are you doing, Mama?”
Jason rocked impatiently from one foot onto the other. This was his first visit to her work. At least, for jobs like hers, they had mandated a minimum age along with the requirement that she take him in once a year.
“I am preparing the boy,” she said. “His grandparents will be here soon to visit.”
“Then I will talk to the grandparents, they will sign the Release papers, and Arnold will go to sleep.”
“He’s already sleeping.”
“This sleep is called a coma. He’s been like this for three years, ever since he survived a boating accident. His parents and sisters all drowned.”
“Does he dream, you think?”
“I am sure he dreams.”
We all dream, Keara thought.
“What does he dream?” Jason asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe of big fish, or his dog, or a vacation at the beach.”
“I wish I could dream like that. I only dream of monsters and fires and dark holes.”
Jason cocked his head and his eyes lit up with the sparkle of a perfect idea.
“Mama, can you help me sleep like Arnold?”
Keara didn’t know what to say, so she wrapped her arms around her son and pulled him close into her warmth. I wish I could help you, she thought.
She ignored the growing lump in her chest and forced herself to say instead, “The doctors will find a medicine to help you soon.”
Another hope that she asserted in her outward life but that she could not persuade her heart to accept as truth.
She heard voices and footsteps in the hallway.
“Jason, please, go sit on the chair over there,” Keara said a little harsher than she intended.
The door opened and a nurse let in a middle-aged couple, their clothes frumpled, their eyes red from crying.
Keara gently put an arm around the woman and led them to Arnold’s bed.
“Are you ready?” she said.
A few minutes later she was sitting in her observer’s chair, with her son cuddled to her chest. His feet twitched and she hoped he was running towards, not away, in his dream.
Her pager vibrated on her left arm. She slid her sleeve back, glanced at the foil on her arm, and read the message that came in on her private line. She considered for a moment, then wrote back, “I sympathize with your distress. We will discuss your offer. I will call you back.”
Keara piled three heavy logs into the large fireplace. A strand of hair fell into her face and she lifted her hand to push it back, a gesture she wasn’t usually aware of. She stopped to look at her hand, remembering that it was dirty with ashes. The ashes on her hand were of the same color as her hair.
She mumbled, “Not yet, I am not old yet. I am fifty-five, and tomorrow, I’ll get my hair fixed.”
Her clients, especially the private ones who were usually her age, were reassured by her matronly appearance. Keara herself was sick and tired of it.
She added a couple of starter logs, then turned on the fire. Her nose reveled in the smell of real wood catching fire. The scents woke up memories of whole seasons spent in this very same place. Her parents had come here with her to escape the rush of city life, now she brought Jason to experience life in color. If her son ever found time to marry between digs, the family tradition would keep this firleplace warm for another generation and provide a small illusion of permanence.
Something moved on one of the old oak logs. Keara bent closer. A pinhead-sized brown spider was scurrying to escape the flames. Keara grabbed the poker and tried to get the spider to climb onto it, but the black metal stick only made it run more frantically between growing walls of heat and flame. Keara pushed a finger towards the animal and tried to direct it towards safety. She jerked her hand out when a flying spark singed her skin. Keara watched the spider’s struggle, unwilling to walk away from it and unable to help. She realized that there must be whole communities of creatures in old logs. In order to be cozy she was exterminating a whole world.
The flames closed in on the spider. Keara couldn’t wait and watch. With a determined gesture she pushed the spider into the burning inferno where it disappeared without a trace. She sat back to enjoy the fire, but it wasn’t as warm as she had imagined.
‘Angel of Mercy’ forever, she thought. I hand out death like other people hand out charity checks, because my death is kinder than the alternatives.
When Jason was young, his bubbling life energy had balanced the scales. Now, she felt tired and abraded. She could retire in style, could have done so for years.
So why don’t I? she asked herself for the thousandth time. Serving humanity, she thought. It seems that one can never retire from serving others.
She heard the straining motor of a snowmobile being driven too fast. A moment later the cabin door swung open and Jason, snow on his cap and boots, stomped in. He closed the door quickly, but a waft of freezing winter air still made her shiver. Dark, stout, and strong as a bear he stood before her, a wide grin taking up all of his face.
Maybe he has decided to come home early, she hoped, smiling at her childish wish, but feeling less gloomy nonetheless.
“I forgot the dress shoes for the dance,” Jason said.
Her son grabbed the shoes, squeezed her hand, and whispered, “Please, wait up for me?” and rushed out the door, complaining, “I’ll be late.”
Keara shook her head. Always running, always out for adventures, just like his father. Yet, she was still the first woman in his life. Keara turned back to the fireplace and looked into the dancing flames.
Not for much longer, she thought, and she felt her cheeks flush at the thought.
This was the first New Year’s Eve party that she had decided to skip in favor of some quiet contemplation. I am getting too old for the mating game, she thought. Besides, she had never managed to let go of Jack Henderson.
Insistent banging on her door startled Keara out of her sleep. The mantelpiece clock showed past midnight. Another first⎯she had slept through the end of the year.
She cracked the door open and saw two snow-covered men, Steven, the local vet, and a tall bearded man whom she did not recognize.
“Get your coat,” Steven said hoarsely, “Jason’s had an accident.”
Keara stared at the men. Jason, invulnerable Jason had an accident?
A mistake. This must have been a mistake. She shook her head in denial.
Steven pushed past her, inside. He grabbed her snowsuit and stuffed it into her arms.
“Put it on,” he ordered.
Dazed Keara did as his commanding voice ordered.
“He’s had a snow-mobile accident. On his way home. There was a group of kids, taking their girlfriends home. He wasn’t drunk, they say, just in love. He jumped over a snowdrift and there was a rock on the other side. Samantha was sitting in the back. She’s bruised and broke a few bones, but she’ll live. Jason⎯”
“He was an excellent rider!” Keara said, unwilling to believe. “There must be a mistake.”
Steven sealed her snowsuit for her, then hustled her outside to his rider. The three of them barely fit onto it.
“We’re taking you to town. There’s a car waiting for you,” Steven shouted as he started the engine.
Keara wrapped her arms around Steven’s middle. Sandwiched between the two men, she buried her face into Steven’s suit. She felt disconnected, as if watching a movie, waiting to wake up from her nightmare.
“His legs need to be replaced,” the trauma-counselor said, her hand reassuringly on Keara’s shoulder. “His broken bones can be mended, but⎯”
Keara looked up into the counselor’s warm, caring face. But what? It would take a while for Jason to heal.
“I can pay for the uncovered treatments,” she said, her voice thick with held back tears.
“That’s not the problem,” said the counselor. She was a young woman with perfect skin. When people delivered bad news, beauty lessened the shock. The best actors became counselors while their virtual imagoes made movies.
There is a problem? Keara wondered. The undercurrent of fear to her sadness and shock rose to the surface. She tried to listen to the counselor.
“The bleeding in his brain has done a lot of damage,” said the counselor. A heart was needed urgently in Illinois, a kidney in Sidney. Would she opt for a Release?
“No, never.” She wouldn’t let go of Jason, her only son, her only connection to Jack, to life. She thought of all the people she had released, their families. She wasn’t going to be one of them. She handed out death, she didn’t receive it.
“No,” Keara said again. “Not yet, not as long as there is hope.”
“There is little hope,” said the counselor. “And he could help others⎯”
“No,” Keara said again, looking the counselor straight in the eyes. Then she rose and walked out of the office.
The doctors fixed Jason’s body, but it refused to heal, refused to work on its own. The damage to the brain stem was considerable, the transplant didn’t help. Maybe it will repair itself, Keara thought. Such things do happen⎯on occasion.
If only Mr. Henderson was here. He always had answers, and for once, Keara wished for his scripture-founded certainty. But Mr. Henderson could not be found. Once he lost his ID card, it was easy to vanish on a planet full of people and forests.
The counselor continued to talk to Keara.
“But his brain has healed,” Keara interjected.
“But it refuses to work,” the counselor argued. “Others could get life from his body. The unit is needed⎯”
Keara wasn’t crying any more during their conversations. Her initial shock had dissipated after a few weeks, the sadness had made room for stubbornness and determination over the months. After a year, they were all that was left⎯and her love for Jason.
Another six months passed. After reading her way through The Jungle Book, all the Hornblower novels, and finally Camus’ L’Étranger, Keara reluctantly agreed to a Release. She was not convinced, only worn out, tired of fighting.
The investigation was short, the outcome obvious. Keara didn’t reconsider during the weeklong waiting period. No new arguments surfaced that could defeat the doctor’s logic.
Keara asked Anna to do the Release, hoping her presence would make the ceremony less clinical.
“I can’t, I won’t,” Anna said. “I hope you understand.”
Keara understood, and so a stranger would be the executioner of mercy.
Now, sitting at Jason’s bed, Keara waited out the last two hours, new doubts undermining her decision. Earlier in the day Jason had suddenly opened his eyes, stared at her blankly for a few seconds.
“It sometimes happens,” the counselor had said, when she had rushed to her office. “It doesn’t mean anything. Just a reflex.”
Tonight would be a good night, the counselor had suggested. The heart⎯there was a young woman in the adjacent room. She couldn’t wait much longer. Keara could visit the girl, if she liked.
Keara declined and went back to sit with Jason. She looked up when the door opened too soon. Instead of a stranger, Anna walked in and gently closed the door behind her. Her big eyes looked puffed, as if she had cried, her chestnut hair hung straight. She was only wearing an old sweatsuit under her blue medical coat.
“I came to help. I figured, to be a friend, this is how to be your friend. I’ll do it,” she said. She wiped her red eyes.
Keara nodded, lifting her arms, but she lacked the energy to stand up and hug Anna.
Slowly she said, “Actually, I have been trying to find a way to be the one. I made him, I should take him away.”
Anna grimaced, her mouth opened and closed, then she clasped her hands together and said in a strained voice.
“Keara, you are not God, even if you are his angel.”
How to answer? Keara wondered. Do I act like Mr. Henderson, on a mission from God? With my power to bestow and take away life? What if I am on a mission from God?
Anna started to install Jason’s final drip.
“Jason will go to heaven,” Anna said, as she plugged in the hoses. “He was a good man.”
Keara laughed in a dry rasp. This was what she told all her clients. The big lie. In an instant, her reassuring public construct of heaven collapsed.
For a second, she imagined herself in the tunnel of darkness and light, as if she was dying herself.
Maybe it was only a genetic program to keep the dying from killing their friends, or maybe it was an entrance to a world beyond. She couldn’t believe beyond the reality she could touch. Jason had one life, one chance. If she took that life, he would be gone, unique, special, never to be replaced. Not one in seven billion, but her son. If there was a beyond, beyond even her hopes, it was so separate, so removed, it didn’t matter for here, for her.
“Anna, I’ve changed my mind,” Keara said, “Jason is staying.”
Anna looked up. She stared at Keara until Keara started to feel uncomfortable from the penetrating gaze. Finally Anna said slowly, quietly, “Did you ever consider what Jason would want?”
Keara looked at Jason’s pale face, the intubated body, and the breathing machine. What would Jason want? He’d always wanted to live more than anything else in the world. Familiar with death, unable to believe in anything but life itself, he wanted to live. Drink the joy of life, drink the pain. In fullness, to perfection, until the end.
Keara kissed Jason on the forehead. Her lips felt his warm skin, but no response, no return of her love. She looked at his closed eyes, the relaxed, unemotional face, trying to find⎯something. There was nothing. There had been nothing since the accident, there would be nothing ever again.
Keara clasped Jason’s hand and nodded to Anna, tears running down her face.
“He’s already dead,” Keara whispered, “let’s not make him wait any longer.”
Copyright © 2017 Aleks Haecky
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