writing

The Experiment

This short story was written for the second round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2018. It was written in three days, with the constraints of Theme: Road Rage, Genre: Thriller, and Character: Neurosurgeon.


21st June 2017

‘Father of four brutally attacks doctor in road rage clash’. The paper rustles as a breeze leaks through the door and drifts past his bed. The unmistakable smell of the hospital. Next to the front-page headline is a photo of a middle-aged man, smiling directly ahead at the camera. ‘Matthew Kennedy, father of four, seriously injured a local surgeon during a traffic incident on Saturday night’. In the photo, his wife rests her hand on his shoulder. Their children surround them, three girls, one boy. They look happy.

He folds the paper and moves it to the far side of his tray table, next to the worn photograph of his son. He swallows the last sip of his coffee, takes a deep breath, and closes his eyes once more.

 

1st June 2017

“Doctor Grant, shall we use a clamp or a forcep?”. The resident peers up at him from beneath her glasses. “Scissors will be fine, Sarah.” She blushes, “Of course doctor, sorry.” He takes the scissors. They’re six hours into surgery. A craniotomy to remove an early-stage meningioma. The patient had complained of debilitating headaches for weeks and his wife finally pushed him to come in to see his specialist. A scan revealed a small tumour just below his hypothalamus. A small issue, easily resolved. The surgery was immediately scheduled and Doctor Grant, being the most advanced surgeon on the surgical team and having fortuitous availability the following week, was arranged as the lead surgeon.

The craniotomy was progressing entirely as planned. In fact, it was almost finished. He only had to suction the area around the thalamus, take one last observation to ensure the tumour was entirely removed, and then pass over to Catherine to close up. He’d done this surgery dozens of times. It was a formality.

“Excuse me, everybody.” There were three other people in the operating theatre. The second-year resident Sarah. His second in command Catherine. The anaesthetist Robert.  “Would you give me a moment alone with the patient?”. They looked up at him confused. “I have a slight migraine and could use some space, just for a few minutes.” The others frowned, concerned. Upon insistence, they stepped outside.

The moment the door swung closed, Doctor Grant slipped his hand into his pocket. He pulled out a small metal object. No bigger than a dice. Five minutes later he walked towards the door and motioned for the others to return. “Feeling better now, must have just been a dizzy spell.” He smiled reassuringly. Half an hour later, the surgery was complete, the patient in recovery, and the team scrubbed down. One thing was different, however. The small metal object was no longer Doctor Grant’s pocket.

Back at home that evening, he poured himself a very full glass of red wine. The house was silent. He brought the glass of wine into his bedroom and sat down at his desk, placing the wine beside a pile of papers and a dusty framed photograph. His son. He shook the mouse to bring his computer to life. The glow of the screen illuminated the whole room. He clicked straight into his bookmarks section, like usual. By now there were hundreds of links saved. He clicked the third one down. It was titled ’The Mind of a Mass Murderer: Charles Whitman, Brain Damage, and Violence’. He scrolled through it slowly, pouring over the details. He’d read this particular one many times before, but he still had the lingering feeling he’d find something extra this time. The case of Charles Whitman is very important to him. Whitman murdered sixteen people on August 1st 1996. He shot them down from a university tower, one after the other, bang, bang, bang. In his suicide note, he requested an autopsy to see if there was anything physically wrong with him, as he’d felt highly unusual in the few weeks leading up to the killing. They did the scan. What they found, was that Whitman did indeed have something wrong with him. He had a glioblastoma, a tumour pressing on the region of his brain related to the regulation of extreme emotion. In the eyes of Doctor Grant, Whitman didn’t kill those innocent people, his brain did. He kept scrolling.

He’d been trying to test this for almost two years now. The connection between brain damage and violence. He’d filed request after request to the Medical Standards Authority to conduct experiments. All of them had been rejected. No-one wanted to know. No-one wanted a way to excuse mass murderers of their crimes. It was an inconvenient truth.

And so today, he’d taken matters into his own hands. The small metal object? It wasn’t lost. At this moment, it was sitting inside the brain of the man who’d lain on his operating table. Pressed right up against his amygdala. The exact same position as Charles Whitman’s glioblastoma. And this was only phase one. He had a hypothesis to test.

 

11th June 2017

Doctor Grant gripped the steering wheel of his car. The receding sun soaked the road in a warm, red light. His knuckles were white. He hadn’t been to work in four days, ever since his craniotomy patient had been released. This was his last day of vacation leave. Sleep had evaded him, and now his eyes strained against the weight of his eyelids, begging him to take some rest.

But this was no time for rest. He had to finish his experiment. Ever since his patient had been released from the hospital Doctor Grant had been keeping eyes on him. He’d parked down the street from his home, outside the hospital during his follow up appointments, he’d even following him and his wife through the aisles of the supermarket while they picked up ingredients for their Sunday roast. He knew that if something were to happen, if the patient was going to snap, he needed to be there to see it. It had been four days, and still nothing.

Now, as the sun slipped away, he followed the man and his wife along a busy road just outside of the city centre. Doctor Grant wasn’t sure were they headed this evening, but the destination was unimportant. It was the proximity that mattered.

As they waited at a red light, he paused to look at the photo hanging on a thin piece of string from his rearview mirror. The windows were open a crack and so the photo was dancing through the air, the face of his son swaying back and forth. He looked at the strong jaw, the grin that plastered his face from ear to ear, the football jersey caked in mud and sweat. How content he had looked. Doctor Grant tightened his grip on the wheel.

He kept driving, his mind with his son. After a few kilometres, he looked up and noticed that his patient’s car was nowhere to be seen. “Fuck!”, he swore to himself, infuriated that he’d lost his concentration. He could feel his pulse quickening, his temperature rising. “How could I be so fucking stupid”, he thought. He continued straight for a few minutes, beads of sweat pooling on his forehead. Just when he thought that he should return back to his patients street and wait for their return, he spotted them. Their light grey four-door sedan, stopped at the intersection just in front of him, waiting to turn left. He edged his car towards the front of his queue. Now he could see directly in at the man and his wife. He stared, oblivious of the honks coming from behind him. There was a sticker on their side window, of six stick figures, above the words ‘The Kennedy Family’. A bead of sweat landed on his pant leg.

Suddenly, the stickers were in motion and he realised that they were pulling out into the intersection. Before he realised what he was doing, Doctor Grant jammed his foot into the floor, lurching his car forward. For a few seconds, all he could hear was the roar of his accelerator. And then, the air was shrouded with the sound of metal on metal. He had ploughed right into the car of the Kennedy’s.

It took a few moments to realise what he had done. He disentangled himself from the airbag. His eyes refocused. He saw the face of Mr Kennedy, glaring at him through the driver-side window.

“What are you doing?!” Mr Kennedy shouted at him. “How did you not see us there?”.

Doctor Grant didn’t respond.

“You could’ve killed us!”, Mr Kennedy yelled.

Doctor Grant snapped.

He threw the car door open, knocking Mr Kennedy backwards.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” he screamed. “Your wife didn’t even look, she just pulled right out into the middle of the road”. He took three steps forward, his neck red and pulsing. “You’re a fucking lunatic”, he yelled into the bewildered face of Mr Kennedy. “A lunatic!”

With that, Doctor Grant lurched himself at his former patient, shoving two hands firmly into his chest.

Mr Kennedy, bewildered at first, felt rage fill his body. He paused for a moment, and then launched a push back into the chest of Doctor Grant, taking the wind out of him. In response, Doctor Grant swung his fist, connecting with the jaw of Mr Kennedy and knocking him to the ground. “You got a fucking problem with me?!” he roared at the figure on the ground beneath him. From the sedan behind them, he could hear Mrs Kennedy’s tears. “You got a fucking problem?” he roared once more.

Mr Kennedy regained his feet. His eyes were aflame with a horrifying mix of rage and fear. Doctor Grant pushed further, “if you’ve got a problem, do something about it”. Mr Kennedy seemed to sway on his feet, uncertain of his next move. “Or do you want me to deal with your wife instead?” Doctor Grant taunted. With that, Mr Kennedy stepped forward and launched a fist with all of his strength into the mouth of Doctor Grant, whose jaw splintered on impact. He crumpled to the ground. A pool of blood began to gather around his mouth. His eyes closed.

 

21st June 2017

He awoke. The newspaper lay where he left it. The coffee cup had been removed. He wondered how long he had been asleep. “Doctor Grant, can I bring you anything more?”. He rolled his neck to his left and saw the orderly who’d been assigned to him. He etched out a smile across his face. “No, thank you, dear.” She turned and left the room.

His hypothesis had been proven correct, hadn’t it? Pressing down on the amygdala of Matthew Kennedy had prompted an entirely uncharacteristic and irrational behavioural response from a man who had no history of such inclination. A family man. A loving, kind, entirely ordinary, family man. He had evidence now. A scan of Matthew Kennedy’s brain would tell the whole story.

Yet, he hadn’t stopped shaking since he’d woken up in the hospital a few days prior. The feeling of relief he’d been seeking for the last two years hadn’t arrived.

He thought of his son.

It was two years today since it happened. Since he paraded into Green Valley High School and killed 13 of his peers and then himself. Two years today. No matter how much he had begged and pleaded with the authorities, they never let him do an autopsy of his son. They never let him see what he knew was there, the glioblastoma pressing on his amygdala. His son would never have done something like this. His own son. He knew the truth. How could he have killed those people without something wrong in his brain? His loving, kind, warm, intelligent son. How could he have done something like that?

He sat and waited for the relief to come. Instead, silent tears rolled down his cheeks.

Chris HaganComment