Step out on the stage of life, smothered by spotlight and weighted by the judgment of watching eyes. You're a dead man marching off to the gallows where concrete fantasy and intangible reality can be knotted together in a noose. Armies have gathered to herald your fall from grace, thundering in anticipation, shaking the courtroom to its bedrock.
This is the pedestal you have been waiting for? This is the culmination of all your work? Your achievements? Your life? Your neck in their rope – the hate in their eyes.
Tell them what brought you here. Tell them that you took a stroll through the valley of death and thought to yourself that you never quite wanted to leave – plant your feet down, dig your roots in, make it yours, yours, yours. Tell them that you hid behind walls built up out of glass and ice, safe guarded and visible, untouchable and scorned. Tell them that the world gasped and sputtered and choked around you while you spared it not a glance. Tell them of the blood-stained sunrise, the endless expanse of day, the finality of twilight, the hollowness it all rang.
Tell them where it all went wrong.
( Again and again and again. )
It goes something like this:
Morning, half-light, half-remembered. You're only four-five-six with infant fists and infant aspirations (or maybe you're older than that, seven-eight-nine, budding into nothing, a rose wilted before maturity). Morning – mourning – the rabbit your classroom had fostered through sickness and health collapsed one final time to the bedding beneath. All around you is the cacophony of anguish, children no older or younger than yourself sobbing and wailing over some dead-eyed thing that will never stand to once more play the part of their living, breathing toy. And then there is you, perhaps just as dead-eyed. It's just a rabbit. You never quite cared for it before, so why do they expect it from you now?
Is it wrong to not be moved to tears? Is it wrong to not feel anything in the face of death?
' We all handle grief in different ways, ' your instructor, infinitely wise, infinitely patient says.
' It's okay if you don't feel like crying, or if you don't feel sad. Some things only come with time. '
( A promise. An assurance. You're still holding out for it decades later, and it's never quite come to you. )
To the others, you have shifted, metamorphosed, bones breaking and skin stretching into the ugly-faced black sheep of your peers. Robot, they call you. Faux-faced, hollow-bodied. Robot. Can't think, can't feel.
It's better, you'll learn in time, to feel angerragehate than nothing at all.
But then, it might be this:
Elder of two, first born, favored by time if not by family. You have your advantages ( your height, your build, the way you pummeled a boy for throwing his fist first and the fear it instilled in the others who would dare try to come after ), and your younger brother has his own ( art, songs of ice and fire, the 'good looks' from your father that must have passed right over you ). What he has, you lack, and when the narrative is flipped on its head, the story rings all the truer.
Watch them beat him down with sticks and stones and words that brutalize more than a clenched hand ever could. He's reaching out to you with dirty hands and begging lips, ' Heinie, help me, help me, ' but it's four against one, and you don't like the odds. Heroism tastes like blood on the teeth. Sins of omission are preferable to those premeditated. It's not as though you ever asked for a sibling, anyway.
( You don't realize it, but this is what he comes to detest you for: just one thing among many. Your brutality. Your calculations. Your selfishness. Your apathy. Every time you turn your back, something terrible festers in him, too, and for as dissimilar as you are at the very surface, it's only the ugliest things that tie you together beneath. )
' Fight your own battles, ' you tell him. Leave him to drown.
Isolation and damnation make even the greatest men turn foul, cruel. He stills smiles as he used to; still laughs as always; careful with his feet and his actions and his words. You've only got yourself to blame for what festers beneath the facade.
And back then, you used to dream:
Dream, as all people do, of the future and what it may hold in store for you. Of what you may hold in store for it.
( You don't want to be cruel, truly; you do not want to be brittle and bristling and broken. It's simply all you know how to do. All you've ever known how to do. )
Fall in love with the men and women you see on television: hard like you, sharp like you, careless and biting with their words, but capable of a kindness you cannot wrap your mind around. It is glorification of reality, of course, brilliant white to represent a gray, gray, gray world, but you are held rapt and fascinated by an empire of crime and the machinations that combat it. Crumple it. Tear it down to its knees.
You wonder, in that way that has long since been lost to time, if that could, perhaps, be you –
A savior in what must be the only way you could ever really be.
( Noticed. Thanked. Wanted. Loved. )
Until they told you:
' That's what you want to do? Someone like you? '
' Play to your strengths, Heinrich. You won't go anywhere like that. '
' There's special kinds of work for people with brains like yours, and they aren't nearly so stellar. '
Because you don't 'get' people – not in the way you must. Intent and ability have never been mutually exclusive. A gander only at your own sibling can tell you as much, carved raw into eyes that have witnessed personal failure after personal failure after personal failure. What it is that you 'get', however, is fact. Reason. Things that can be read within textbooks, things that can be proven through thought and test. If it isn't to be, then it isn't to be. There's nothing to feel about that.
Nature and nurture. Within the calm of gentle hands, your mother holds your shards of aspirations together in a facsimile of one cohesive whole. ' You want to help people, don't you, Heinie? I think that's a wonderful thing. '
( Is it? Is that what you want? They have taken your words and crushed them, molded them, reshaped them in their ideal visage; you scarcely remember what it was that you first uttered, never mind the want singeing your tongue behind that. )
' Have you ever thought about medicine? '
There are things that you do not regret:
So you think – and your thoughts become fixations – and your fixations become actions – and your actions become wholes, until you are tearing down your boundaries, submerging yourself in a world foreign, digging a hole in your brain and filling it back up with everything that makes up the human beings you have estranged yourself from. Graduate early; claim a full ride to one of the nation's best schools; claim top of your class again and again; apple of your professors' eyes, a stunning beacon of your generation of youth. We have nothing but the highest hopes for Mr. Mann's future, heard a dozen times, each statement ringing more worthlessly in your ears than the last. He will certainly be a pioneer in his field, regarded highly by the medical world as a whole.
( And your brother, as always – who had first sought out the life of a surgeon – who had first wanted to mend and fix and heal – trailing ten steps behind, working twice as hard as anyone for the things that fall so easily into your lap. This is what he resents you for most. )
On paper, you are perfection.
Pin point precise. Deft in a way that others do not believe until they bare witness. Subservient to your superiors. You obey every command without thought and without question, and every operation you carry out is preformed to its very textbook definition. Miracle worker, they start to call you after your first-second-third success against all odds. You are without error in your work, and for it, you are rewarded lavishly: in position, in favor, in the hand of your wife-to-be.
In person, you are anything but. Phlegmatic. Callous.
The same you that you've always been.
Deadpan at those who would thank you; snap at those who would give you aid; cut with tooth and nail and word until everyone around you is bleeding out raw – but that's fine, because stitching things back up is all you're good for, anyway, isn't it? This is your ultimatum, presented with arms stretched wide, ta-da! Take you, nimble-handed, swift-brained, biting, gnawing your way through life, chewing through anyone who dare stand too close, or leave you.
( Can they afford to? )
( Not wanted, not loved – needed. )
But you're laying your mistakes bare, raw:
Like clockwork, or a record caught on its table, skipping, stuttering, repetitive; day is swallowed by dusk is swallowed by night, and you lay together side-by-side beneath a blanket of darkness and the suffocation of silence. You're a lead sail accompanied by paper anchors, weighted, waiting. All the grief you'd be spared if only you knew your way with sleep.
' Is there something wrong with me? '
This is how love is supposed to start: man, woman, nothing to lose, everything to gain. And you've tried, tried beyond anything you've ever tried for in your life to love her – really, really love her, but you ought to know better than most that a mind cannot be made to feel in any one way. When she speaks, there is no flutter of nerves or gentle warmth of companionship. When she kisses you, you're as reactive as a dead fish roasting on land. You do not unravel at touch – do not pine in absence – do not feel, all metal muscle, electric blood. Inhuman. Incapable.
Why? Why? She's beautiful by every conventional standard ( even if you have never once thought, in your own terms, that she is 'pretty'), and she's powerful in a way that most anyone else would envy. How many men would give anything to stand in your position? Take from you which you cannot help taking for granted? And here, bathed in shadow, she wonders aloud:
Is there something wrong with me?
' No. ' A lie, bald-faced. You can think of a dozen things wrong with her. The mole beneath her eye. The scar on her pinky finger. Her overuse of the word 'literally' in contexts that do not call for it. But you're working on it, being a better conversationalist, and moles and scars and misused words cannot rob a man of the capacity for love. ' Nothing. '
But there is something wrong. Something, caught in predormitum, hanging between the two of you, and if it lies not with her, then process of elimination dictates that it can only lie with you.
Robotic, you remember – or perhaps simply defective. Human-skinned. Rotting out from the inside. You lie awake for hours, a hole between you and your entire life laid out in the shape of woman beside you, and that is all you can think:
And the worst of all of them:
Incredibly, across the seven years you have clawed your way up the rungs of the ladder – the seven years you have cut and carved and stitched and healed – the number of major medical errors you've made has been a measly one.
One, you learn, is all it takes.
There is nothing special about the operation. The odds were not favorable, but you've done more with lesser numbers; the timing was not splendid, but you've woven insomnia into your personal equation. By all means, nothing should have gone wrong. But something does. Then everything else follows suit. There's blood ( everywhere, everywhere, has there ever been this much of it? have you ever even realized? ) where it should not be, and her monitors are screeching out their failure, and panic slaps you behind the eyes for the very first and very last time. The damage, as it turns out, is irreparable. Every attempt at resuscitation is met with nothing at all.
She was only eight years old.
( 'Was', not 'is'. Past tense. Because of you. )
Tell them how it goes: the difficulty of any surgery of its type, the ever-present possibility of failure. Tell them that even success would have only added a bit more time to a life already doomed to ephemerality. Tell them that their only daughter is dead, without a shred of doubt, and you are the murderer. Tell them, tell them, tell them anything –
The words, dead weight on the lip, don't leave you. That's fine, though.
Your silence rings louder than any excuse.
( Is it wrong to feel anything now? Is it wrong to be moved? You never paid her any heed before – just another face, another job, another paycheck – so why is it that you feel so strongly now? )
( Thirty years too late. You crumple over yourself – bury your being in your hands – and cry. )
It's just what you deserve, what happens after:
The free-fall. The landslide. The descent.
Your spotless record is stained in the blood of a dead girl. Her silhouette haunts you in morning fog – in dreary twilight – over dinner tables and coffee tables and operation tables. You smell her decay in the flowers on your walk home. You hear the laughter she could not make in the music you use to drown her out. Heroism, like blood on the teeth: your own failed attempt at it, copper in the back of your throat, red, welting, sickly.
You botch another not long after. No reaper to be found, but the damage is unquestionable. Once was permissive, if only for your position, your prestige. Twice is a warning, flashing, blaring. The world falls apart slowly in pieces around you three days later, again in the same room as always, watched by rotting eyes in a rotting corpse that isn't there, isn't there, and they won't even give you the chance to try.
Baseball, you think numbly, staring at your hands in the waiting room. Three strikes. You were 'out' before it had even began.
For you, it's ruination. Failure was never something you expected, and as such, failure was never something you prepared for. Faced with its towering presence, you flail – flounder – forfeit.
For your brother ( conniving, waiting in shadows for a decade, burning with want and jealousy), it's an opening. He slips his fingers in and tears, ripping you apart limb by stubborn limb. You've made it so easy.
First comes your credibility: called into question, fueled in the fire of your scathing tongue, heartless soul. Don't pretend you were ever here for the good of the patient. This hospital is what offered you the highest bid; your own fiance, daughter of the dean, taken on in a political gesture, an assurance of future rank; the endless work, the sleepless nights, always with your own personal agenda in mind. How easily you brushed off gratitude. How carelessly you brushed off dissent.
Next comes your skill: called into question, because if there is no credibility, then how can there be faith in anything that follows? Your recent failures are fresher in the mind than any past success. Any bridge that may have come to your aid now is already burned. How easily a selfish, greedy man can claim credit and spotlight from his subordinates – how easily that same man can ruin and waste on the table when truly taking the reigns for himself.
And what comes after: the accusations, the heresy, the lies. There is corruption here, vile and reeking beneath the linoleum you walk on. You played no part – were none the wiser of it – but they, even your own flesh and blood need a scapegoat, and if you're not useful with your scalpel, they'll pin you to cork board where they can.
' Where were you on the evening of August twenty-eight of last year? '
' How the hell should I know? '
It all works quite nicely in their favor. The 'evidence' he has fabricated in your name and image isn't damning enough to lock you away, but it steals from you whatever it is he can manage: your position, your would-have-been-wife, your future in the medical field. Who would take you in now? You're a plague cocooned in human flesh, netted in by bone and sinew. Pestilence, he calls you the last time you see him, mocking. The same name he's called you since the day he learned the world.
It's just what you deserve.
Old haunts come back to have their way with your present; fires you left smoldering blazing suddenly beyond your control. He has played you for a fool – and yet, he has played harder than you have for anything in your life, pushed to desperation by personal shortcoming and the shadow you cast on him simply by existing. You never asked for a sibling –
– but then, neither did he.
You relent this to him, your position, your empty love life, the aspirations you lived half-heartedly. If you were half as wise as the world heralded you, you would have seen it from a distance: the asteroid made man come hurdling down to the surface of your world.
Step down from the stage, out of smothering spotlight and the weight of glacier gazes. Slip out from their nooses and their judgment; the guillotines will not fall today, and they will not have your head. The verdict falls in your favor – lack of evidence, so they claim, though many have been convinced of your supposed foul play with or without it – and the courtroom unravels from around you.
All they have left of you is the doubt. The pitfall. The isolation. Pestilence. You stand at a dead end sign and beg it for answers: If not here, then where? Where do I go? Where is left?
And no matter the verdict without, the verdict within, echoing:
' Guilty, guilty, guilty. '