"Oh, here they come," squawked Denise as the pack of lab coats rounded the corner. Phoebe looked on from the nurses' station, intrigued. It was always fun watching the up-and-coming doctors at work, learning and developing their skills. The flock was rather large this time around and, from what she had overheard, brimming with talent. Phoebe set her chin to rest in the palm of her hand, fingertips against her left temple amidst a thicket of brown curls. A smirk cracked across her face.
The swarm of interns rushed around the bay, taking note of the room as a whole. The tile floors were still polished to a mirror shine from the night before. The sterile smell of the hospital was particularly strong here. Around them, there was an open area lined with beds, some of which were occupied with patients of various ages and with various conditions. Blue curtains were positioned such that each bed could be isolated behind them, though most were left open. The group approached the bed of an older man with thinning gray hair and a more-than-obvious beer gut. Leading the pack was Doctor Marie Harrier, who boasted a double PhD at the age of 23.
"Mr. Mason has been experiencing stomach troubles and occasional blood in his stool. What diagnosis would you put forth, based on his prior medical history?" Harrier gave a quick glance into the crowd. "Bevins?"
"U-uh, my first guess would be Crohn's disease, ma'am."
"And I would be inclined to agree with you, but we do not simply guess here. Take note: Show confidence in your answers to questions of this nature, even if you do not believe them whole-heartedly. Having a straight answer to a patient is far better than beating around the bush because you aren't sure." Each member of the group scribbled onto the pages held by their clipboards. "Now, what sort of treatment would you recommend, Neuberry?"
Hanson perked up from his clipboard. "Normally, I'd say Azathioprine, but given his stomach troubles, he may be more responsive to an anti-inflammatory regimen to begin with."
"He's tryin' to play it safe," Denise chattered in a hushed tone from behind Phoebe. "That's one way to go, but it's less effective. He should have just gone with the immune suppressors."
"Yeah, but Mr. Mason is gettin' up there in years, and immune suppressors may be too much for him," Phoebe offered in response.
"That is a possible treatment plan," Harrier responded, "but there is a good chance that it won't have the desired effect. Patients expect results, and as a doctor it will be your job to provide them."
"Yes, ma'am." Hanson's expression dropped to a downcast state for a split second, before snapping back to attention. The group hurried onward to the next patient in line.
"See. I told you." Denise gave a light slap to Phoebe's arm.
"You say that like I was the one in that crowd putting my career on the line," Phoebe retorted with a vindictive smile. "It's not my problem if they get it wrong, as long as I'm not involved in the fallout."
But her thoughts said otherwise. Phoebe was intrigued by the rounds process, by watching doctors hurry and scurry around. She knew fully well that most of what the doctors did was, in fact, the work of the nursing staff. Still, it was interesting to see their minds at work. Each one had a different style, a different way of talking to patients, of forming ideas, of dealing with decisions. All of that was on display for her and her cohort 24/7, and yet it never seemed to get old. It wasn't the people that intrigued her so much, but rather the clockwork within their heads.
But, alas, the flock had departed, and it was back to work as usual. An uneventful day followed the brief training session, a rarity for Phoebe. The day was almost dull with how little was going on. A few pillows fluffed, pills delivered, and bedpans exchanged, but nothing severe: no codes, no dire admittances, no flatlines. This was the sort of day that left Phoebe sluggish; not drained or exhausted, but slowed and shambling, moving only to accomplish a task and proceed to the next.
When midday came and it was time for a break, Phoebe found that she was having trouble keeping her eyes open. Stumbling her way into the cafeteria, she was surprised to find that Denise was nowhere in sight. Confusion crossed through her mind, but was eased by virtue of memory as Phoebe recalled an impromptu change in personnel around this time that was discussed the day prior.
Her worries put to rest, Phoebe now had the conundrum of where to sit. Normally, it would be with Denise, as they were on the same shift, but her replacement was Garret, a boorish, overconfident man who had made it a point to be obnoxiously forward with Phoebe at every opportunity. This, of course, was not an exercise that she wished to entertain, and so she was at a loss for an alternative.
The room was filled nearly to capacity, as it seemed that the intern conglomeration had all been dismissed at once. Most of the tables were completely taken up, with only sparse occupation of other seats. Phoebe's eye caught one of the interns sitting in solitude, despite the table being large enough to accommodate up to four. He seemed lost in thought, and downtrodden in expression. She decided to introduce herself, and provide a little encouragement.
"Hey there," she said, her tray clacking quietly against the table. She swiveled her chair into place, getting a good look at the man. His hair was layered with black and brown, and despite being in fair order, Phoebe guessed that it was only because of the gel that locked it in place. The rest of his appearance, though in good shape in general, was at this point in time disheveled, radiating exhaustion. Phoebe could tell there were dark rings beginning to form around his eyes from lack of sleep. Still, he clearly valued the opportunity; he was freshly shaven, and a hint of cologne met her nose.
He looked up, seemingly out of his own thoughts, as she sat down. Lifting his head, he was surprised to see anyone choosing to sit with him. "O-oh, hi. Sorry, it's just been a long day, and I'm a bit out of it, and, uh..." he stumbled over his own words. Phoebe let out a small laugh, mildly amused by the awkward response she had forced.
"Don't worry about it. It's pretty common for the interns to wind up like that. It's something you learn to live with, or find a way around. One of the two." She chuckled again. "I'm Phoebe, one of the nurses here," she said as she stretched out a hand.
He took it carefully, replying, "Hanson. Neuberry." Her Bostonian accent was clearly evident. He surmised that she was probably born and raised in Massachusetts.
"Garrigs," she offered in return, before clarifying, "My last name."
"A pleasure," he offered politely, though the strain in his voice was still apparent.
"Weren't you the one that was supposed to give a treatment for Mr. Mason?"
"Who?" Hanson gave a momentary puzzled look, but remembered. "Oh, the Crohn's patient. Yeah, I didn't really get full marks for that one," he said, embarrassed and absentmindedly running his fingers though his hair.
"Yeah, I noticed. But, if it's any consolation, I thought it was a good call to make."
"Yeah?" he said, unconvinced.
"Mmhmm. Some of the doctors here can be really aggressive with their treatments. I get that they want to cure the patient and get 'em out of here, but sometimes there's got to be a limit."
"So, you think an approach like that would do this place some good?"
"Oh yeah. You ask me, we need more people like that."
"Well, how flattering," Hanson retorted in a playfully mocking tone.
There was a moment of silence between the two, each understanding that they had struck a chord with one another.
"So, what are you in for?" Phoebe inquired.
"Huh? In for?" Hanson was once again perplexed.
Phoebe gave a small chuckle. "I mean what sorta field are you going into? What's your specialty gonna be?"
"Oh. Uh, hehe..." Hanson's voice trailed off at that.
"You have picked a specialty, haven't you?"
"Y-yeah, I have. It's just..." Hanson cut off once again.
"Just, what?" Phoebe pressed for more information. Her curiosity was growing as he not-so-tactfully evaded her question.
Hanson took a breath, and sighed deeply. "Surgeon." Phoebe's expression changed, her eyebrows raised as high as she could press them. "I know," Hanson continued, "no chance in hell, right?"
"N-no, no, it's not that. I'm just surprised is all." She tried desperately to backpedal and save face. "I mean, surgery is a major role. It's not something you can just go and do. Surely you know that."
"So, you're saying I can't do it."
"No. Th-that's not what I meant." Phoebe struggled with her words. Her cheeks reddened as she realized how deep a hole she was digging herself into. She closed her eyes and collected her thoughts for a brief moment, before speaking up again. "All I'm sayin' is that if you're gonna go that route, you gotta make sure you're ready."
Hanson did his best to smile through the comment, backhanded as he felt it was. "Yeah. I get it."
Phoebe let out a small sigh of relief. "Good."
"So, how do I know if I'm good enough?"
The question caught her off guard. She hadn't really interacted much with the interns before, and so had never been asked to evaluate their performance, much less on skills she hadn't seen them perform.
"W-well, I guess it all comes down to execution. Can you do the job and keep the patient alive? I'd say that's a good place to start."
"Yeah, I suppose. But that's only causing another problem. We're obviously not permitted to operate on live patients so early into it. How the hell are we supposed to learn anything like that?"
Phoebe glanced around, as though worried that she'd be overheard.
"I think they have some mock-ups somewhere around here that you're supposed to practice on," she said, unsure of whether it was her place to give out that sort of information.
"Oh yeah?" Hanson's head perked up slightly, and he seemed more alert. "Whereabouts?"
"I'm honestly not sure. I guess they'd be near the operating room. Maybe Dr. Harrier would be willing to show you, if you asked."
"Heh. That may not be a bad idea." He stood from the table, tray in hand. Most of the food remained uneaten on it. "Thanks."
"Ooh, are you headed out? Mind if I snag your fries?"
Hanson chuckled at the urgency with which she asked the question. "Sure thing," he said with a smile, setting the small, cardboard carton down onto her tray. "I'll see you around."
"Mmm, you too," Phoebe replied through a mouth full of sliced spuds.
Despite her scatterbrained appearance in that moment, however, her mind was racing to figure him out. How was someone like that going to turn himself into a surgeon? It'd happened before, no doubt, but he just didn't seem very confident in his abilities. She found herself looking forward to what he would become.
Months went by, and the cycle of interns shifted. A new batch was brought in, and the previous flock was set to their own course. Phoebe looked on with great interest as the fresh minds went to work on their rounds.
"So, you got a favorite yet?" Denise crooned into her ear.
Phoebe recoiled slightly, a slight sense of violation sending a shiver down her spine. The feeling passed though, and despite being mildly discomforted by her companion, Phoebe replied, "They all just got here. Kinda hard to pick a favorite out of a nameless swarm of labcoats."
"I'm not talking about them," Denise said through a giggle. "I'm talking about the last set. They've all set out to be full-fledged doctors, saving lives..." She clasped her hands together and turned her head upward in feigned wanderlust. "Surely, by now you've found at least one you like." she said, turning to Phoebe and out of her mock performance.
"Well, yeah, a few. I feel like most of 'em just went along with Harrier, though. They're all too aggressive with treatment, and that's gonna put a lotta strain on a lotta people, includin' us," Phoebe spoke as she moved, organizing a stack of charts that she had been neglecting.
"Well, I happen to know that there's at least one that you're 'interested' in." Denise nudged Phoebe's side, a clear hint of her meaning.
"W-what? What are you talkin' about?" Phoebe looked around frantically, her cheeks turning a deep shade of red.
"Hah! You can't even hide it. I knew it."
"Yeah, say it louder, won't ya," Phoebe whispered through grit teeth. "I think some people in China didn't hear you."
"Oh come on. You know I'm just teasing."
"Yeah, well knock it off."
"So, who is the lucky guy?" Denise asked, her chin resting upon her interlaced fingers.
"I thought you knew all about him already," Phoebe retorted in a somewhat mocking tone.
"Oh, no, not at all. I've seen you talkin' with someone recently, but I got no clue who he is. I was just tryin' to get a reaction outta ya."
"Pfft. Some friend you are."
"Come on, seriously. I wanna know."
"You always wanna know." Phoebe raised her voice, genuinely aggravated with Denise's prodding. "Maybe I just want to keep this to myself for now, at least until I'm sure this is something I actually want."
"Fine." Denise put her hands up in defense. "Fair's fair. I'm mostly just happy you're puttin' yourself out there. It's about damn time."
"Watch your language, ladies. You're on the clock." A stern voice arose from behind Phoebe. Turning to investigate, the pair watched as Dr. Harrier strode quickly around the corner.
"Sorry, Doctor." Denise offered in response. Harrier's pace didn't slow, and seconds later, she was back out of sight.
"Well, in any case, you'll probably get to know him a whole lot better soon. We're really hittin' things off. I'm just waitin' for him to ask me somewhere."
"You don't think that's a little archaic?" Denise asked, skeptical.
"I think it's romantic, and nice," Phoebe retorted, partly in jest.
"Well, just don't wait too long. He might give up if you don't seem interested."
"I don't think I've gotta worry about that," Phoebe replied as a loud tone alerted her to a request for her help. She jogged around the desk before heading down the hall, toward the source of the page.
After brief preparation, Phoebe entered the operating room to find the chief of surgery, Dr. Barlow, and the newly-christened Dr. Neuberry. The patient was an elderly woman, likely in her mid-70's. Her abdominal region was exposed to the room, the rest of her covered with a blue blanket. Bright lights hung from swivels in the ceiling, allowing for each to be adjusted. Surgical instruments were laid out carefully on a rolling metal tray-table. The door clattered closed behind Phoebe as she entered, gloved hands held in such a way as to not contaminate them.
"What have we got?" she asked, her voice muffled slightly by the mask.
"Foreign object in the stomach," the surgeon spoke with a deep baritone, almost stereotypical for his African-American heritage. "It's rather large, and the procedure should be relatively simple. As such, I'm allowing Dr. Neuberry to lead on this one. You and I are here to make sure everything goes smoothly." Dr. Barlow then turned to Hanson. "You may proceed."
"Alright," Hanson said, stretching his hands inside the latex gloves. "DuraPrep." Barlow set a short, sponge-tipped wand/syringe into his outstretched hand. Writing on the handle portion of the wand gave instructions for use, but Hanson went straight to work applying the sterilization liquid to the patient's abdomen. As he went, an amber solution liberally coated the work area.
"Scalpel," Hanson requested, handing the wand back to Barlow.
"Which one, Dr. Neuberry?" Barlow asked, clearly testing Hanson on his basic knowledge.
"A-ah, 10." Hanson considered his options again. "N-no, wait, 20."
"Are you sure?" Barlow's tone was both scolding and questioning at once.
"Y-yes," Hanson replied, uncertain and unnerved.
Barlow retrieved the requested blade and set it gingerly in Hanson's hand. "Thank you," Hanson said quickly. Phoebe could sense that something was off. Hanson's movements had become a bit more jittery, a bit more twitchy. These traits were slight, but present nonetheless. She knew what was going to come next.
Sure enough, as Hanson lowered the knife-point to the woman's abdomen, his hands began to shake ever-so-slightly. He realized it immediately, and took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves. To no avail, it seemed, and the tremors grew more intense. Soon both his hands were shaking so badly that he could barely hold the delicate handle of the lancet.
"Is something wrong, Doctor?" said Barlow, more telling than asking.
"N-no, no, I'm fine," Hanson replied, but the shaking persisted.
Barlow sighed beneath his mask. "Why don't you step out? I can handle this from here."
"N-no, I want to do this," he almost shouted in response. However, as he turned to face Dr. Barlow, his fingers parted just enough for the scalpel to slip free. The tiny metal blade clinked and clattered loudly on the tile below.
"That's enough." Barlow tried to sound calm and reassuring, but his tone came across as stern. "Clearly, you are not in suitable shape to be performing surgery at this time. Please, step out of the OR."
Hanson fumed, but didn't argue. He turned to leave in a huff, throwing the doors open wide. As they clattered back into place, Phoebe looked to Dr. Barlow.
"You may be dismissed as well, Miss Garrigs. I only paged you so I could have a little help overseeing his first attempt. Obviously, that's no longer the case." Barlow gestured to the slowly-rocking double doors, illustrating his point.
Phoebe also did not argue. Her concerns lay elsewhere. She, too, exited the operating room, carefully opening and closing the door so as not to disturb Barlow further. Once in the prep room, she found Hanson standing over a sink, hair dripping with water. His hands, though pressed to the rim of the sink, were still barely quivering.
"Damn it," Hanson growled through his teeth.
"Hey, don't worry about it. Nerves are a tough thing to overcome."
"Don't give me that. I should be able to do this by now. I'm so far behind. Why can't I just get it?" He was practically shouting at this point, his head now pressed against the mirror above the basin.
"Alright, alright. Calm down. It's not as big a deal as you're makin' it out to be." Phoebe put a hand on Hanson's shoulder. "All it'll take is some more practice with the dummies."
"I do practice. All the time; every free moment, I spend here trying to improve."
"That's great, but all this does is make you better at surgery. It doesn't make you a better surgeon." Phoebe turned him to look at her, and offered a small smile. She knew the best thing to do was to be patient with him. He would come around, she was sure of it. "How's about we clear that head o' yours?"
"Yeah," he retorted, still clearly upset, "how do you plan on doing that?"
"By askin' you where you're takin' me tonight," she said. Hands behind her back, she rocked slowly left and right on one foot.
"Huh? What are you..." Hanson cut himself off, understanding what she was asking of him. "Ahh, alright. I suppose that'll work," he said, cracking a smile. "How about Vennetti's, a few blocks from here?"
"Ooh, I haven't been there in a couple years," Phoebe tittered, excited by what her newly-hooked date had in store for her. Funnily, Hanson was feeling much the same curiosity for what she had planned.
The atmosphere of the restaurant was a welcome change compared to the constant bustle and ambient whine of the hospital. Here, with the lights dimmed, the booths well padded, and uniforms exchanged for more formal attire, Hanson and Phoebe felt relaxed. In truth, this was the most relieved either had felt for months, perhaps years, even with the sense of demand for small talk and polite gestures. In truth, Phoebe thought much of that was outdated, a remnant of the past that only served to complicate the present. But Hanson, unaware of her thoughts, had gone all out and was carefully considering his every word and movement, afraid of doing the wrong thing.
The waitress returned with two large plates of Italian cuisine. Placed before Phoebe, the first was piled high with a generous helping of spaghetti and meatballs. The aroma was a bit too much, and she started in on the meal before Hanson could be given his, a chicken and tortellini dish drenched with alfredo sauce.
"Wow, you must be really hungry," Hanson remarked, hooking a noodle with his fork.
"Mmhmm." Phoebe swallowed her mouthful of pasta. "Are you kiddin' me? This place is great, and I haven't eaten all day."
"You shouldn't do that you know. It's bad for your health," Hanson joked, causing both of them to chuckle through their food. "But seriously, do you really like spaghetti that much?"
"Meh. I suppose so. I mean, it's pretty good as spaghetti goes, but I guess I don't like it any more than other types of noodles."
"That's fair. It is a classic." Hanson held up one of his tortellini. "I can't get enough of these things. They're like a miniature meal all on their own."
Phoebe giggled in response. "Yeah, I know what ya mean. Those are probably my favorite types o' noodles. Those and raviollis, pretty much for the same reason."
"So, why'd you get spaghetti, then?" Hanson tactfully countered, a smug grin on his face as he leaned in.
"Because," Phoebe mockingly retorted, an equally smug smile adorning her face, "in addition to classic pasta dishes, I also like classic movies."
Hanson had to take a minute to try to correlate what he just heard. "I don't get what you mean."
"Ah, come on. Ya never seen 'Lady an' the Tramp'?"
Hanson gave a small laugh at this. "Ah, now I see. That was a really good movie. And, you're right, the spaghetti scene is classic."
"Would you like to try a bite?" Phoebe offered her plate, twirling some noodles around on her fork.
"Sure. Never had it from here." Hanson reached across the table with his own fork, spooling some pasta for himself before carrying it over his own plate and carefully maneuvering it into his mouth. Phoebe was a bit underwhelmed that her date hadn't picked up on the hint, but she decided to let it go.
"So, how are things goin' for ya around the hospital. Gettin' taught by the chief o' surgery is a pretty big honor, don't ya think?"
Hanson's face switched from delight at the taste of the pasta to one of bittersweet melancholy. "Yeah, it's a huge honor to embarrass myself in front of him."
"Hey now, you didn't embarrass yourself," Phoebe offered consoling words, but they seemed to fall on deaf ears.
"I can't think of anything else to call that. I locked up, terrified, and damn near dropped a scalpel into a patient. It's pathetic. I should be better than that by now." Hanson's voice had lowered, as though he were trying to restrain a shout, instead reducing it to a mere rumble. His hands had curled into half-fists without his knowledge. Phoebe, however, had taken note, and reached her own hands out to clasp his.
"You think you're the first to do that? I'll bet Dr. Barlow has seen all sorts o' embarrassing stuff from residents, way worse than that. Maybe you should ask him. He might be able ta tell you a story or two."
Hanson was still disgruntled, but he couldn't really argue with that. She was probably right, but it didn't make him feel much better. Nonetheless, he appreciated the gesture, and requited it by turning to look her in the eyes.
"Even if that's true, it still doesn't make me any better."
"Well, you just gotta practice more."
"I already told you, I do practice. All the time." Hanson was getting exasperated with repeating himself.
"That's not what I mean." Phoebe took a moment to think of how best to explain. "When you're workin' on one o' the dummies, what are ya' thinkin' about?"
"Huh? What do you mean? I'm thinking about the work, obviously. About making sure I don't mess up."
"You're thinkin' about cuttin' the plastic veins, holding open the rubber skin with your tools, taking out bags of water that represent organs." Hanson was starting to catch on. "That stuff might make you good at the technical side of things, but it don't prepare you for the real deal."
"Yeah. Yeah, I see what you mean," Hanson said, his mood lightening. "So, I just need to get to the point where it feels like I'm working on real, living people, so it won't freak me out when I actually do."
"Right! It's all about the mindset. If you go in like you're a real surgeon workin' on a real patient, you'll get better at workin' that way."
"That makes a lot of sense. You're right, I should definitely do that from now on." Hanson gave a big smile to his new muse. "What say I make you a deal?"
"Well," she said, hands crossed with her chin resting upon them, "what sort of deal are we talkin' about?"
Hanson turned toward a member of the staff. "Excuse me, waitress."
The woman approached the table. "What would you like?" Hanson held up his menu, pointing to an item on it. Phoebe was intrigued. Clearly, he had something in mind, and making her wait was only making it more enticing to hear.
"Well, what is it?" she asked as the waitress departed.
"I've got a lot on my plate at work, and it's not going very well, but you have inspired me," he replied, half-mockingly. "You saw how I was today. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't professional. Would you say I'm ready to be a surgeon like that?"
"I-I suppose not," Phoebe tried to be tactful in her reply, "but you..."
"Ah ah ah," he quickly cut her off, finger held aloft, "Don't beat me to the punch line. Here's what I propose."
The waitress returned with two slender glasses and a bottle the shade of forest green. The cork of the bottle was sealed in place with red wax, mostly for decorative purposes as it was quickly removed. Phoebe couldn't quite make out the vintage. Hanson took the bottle and glasses, thanking the waitress before she left. Uncorking it, he continued.
"In, let's say, two weeks, I will make myself into a proper surgeon. I'll be adept enough to do the job, and I'll be confident and prepared enough to see it through without so much as a shiver." He looked up at her, away from the glass he had just filled with the red liquid.
"If, in two weeks, I am able to do that," he proceeded, now starting to fill her glass, "I would like your permission to take you home, to celebrate."
Phoebe was in shock, both at how she felt about the surprise he had called for, and at what he was asking her to agree to. Pictured scenarios rushed through her head at dizzying speed, which only served to make her more anxious. Still, she found that she wanted much the same for him as he wanted for himself. She wanted him to succeed, and she wanted a relationship with him. If he could actually do what he said, it would serve to accomplish both, and even if he failed it wouldn't have to be the end. She saw no real downside, besides her currently-present bashfulness.
"A-alright," she said, claiming her glass. "Sounds like a deal."
He reached out with his own glass, and they toasted to their new wager. Both of them were excited by the prospect, and eager to see what the future held.
The days went by in a blur. All Phoebe could think about was that promise, that bet that she had made. Was she actually willing to go through with that? Maybe, maybe not, but she gave her word. "That should count for something," she assured herself. She made the call then, so what reason did she have to distrust it now?
Perhaps she was on edge because Hanson was being so distant with her. They didn't go out again during those fourteen days. In fact, though they saw each other in passing nearly every day, they rarely spoke. He seemed more on edge every time she saw him, and it was only getting worse. She started questioning what she may have done for him to behave that way, but when she confronted him about it, he assured her that it wasn't to do with her. He was just stressed out from preparing, and things were getting tougher than he anticipated.
When the day finally came, she made sure to personally request to have a viewable operating room. Dr. Barlow was surprised that she cared, but explained that Hanson had already made the same request some days prior. This put Phoebe at ease; after all, why would he do this if he wasn't still determined to make good on his bet? At the same time, though, she was growing more anxious.
She caught him in the prep room before the procedure. He heard her walk in, and turned to look as he washed his hands and arms.
"Come to cheer me on? We've got a whole viewing room for that." He getured awkwardly to the ceiling. He seemed split, at once on edge and calm. The duality was a strange sight. Clearly, he was feeling the pressure, but he was also versed in handling it by this point. Phoebe took this as a sign of progress.
"Just making sure you're ready for this." Phoebe knew not to interrupt his preparations, and instead stood with her hands together at her waist. A nervous tic showed through as her fingers wrapped around one another.
"I'm ready. No doubt." He finished rinsing his hands and held them aloft as he made his way to the gloves. "I gave myself a challenge. Excision of a tumor resting on the heart. You'll see. I'm gonna kill it in there."
"I hope ya don't mean that literally," Phoebe joked. Hanson just kept going, though, sheathing his most valuable tools in latex. His face still showed the same determined expression, but beyond it, Phoebe could spot that he was exhausted and fearful as well.
Hanson hooked the ends of the surgical mask around his ears and turned to Phoebe. "You should head up. It's showtime." With that, he pressed his back to the swinging door, and disappeared into the operating room.
Phoebe wasn't sure of what just happened. They hadn't talked for a while, but he seemed so different. Before, he was bumbling and self-critical, but he was also earnest, kind, and genuine. The man she had just spoken with showed anxiety and overtiredness and fear, masked by a forced calmness. It was as though he was a completely different person.
She made her way up to the observation room. Most of the prep work for the operation itself had been taken care of beforehand, and it wasn't long before it was underway. Hanson requested some music to play in the room during the procedure. Some mid-tempo R&B song that Phoebe had never heard before. She didn't know that he liked that kind of music, and while she didn't particularly dislike it, she found it a bit distasteful.
Soon after, he set to work. "Scalpel, 22." Dr. Barlow passed the nearly-round blade to Hanson. He moved surprisingly quickly, each of his cuts precise and clean. It would seem that his confidence in his choice was well founded, and Phoebe was stunned with how much progress he had made. If she didn't know better, she'd say he had been a surgeon for years. As bloody as the scene was, it was minimal compared to what she expected.
Once inside, he held back his lancet-wielding hand. "Number 15C." Barlow again retrieved the desired blade, trading it for the bloody knife. Instead of cracking the ribcage, Hanson instead worked around it. Phoebe was sure this would be devastating, as doing so is nearly impossible. However, Hanson made it work, mostly due to the location of the tumor, being on the offset portion of the heart. This put it out of the way of the breastbone, and thus possible to excise without moving the ribs.
Hanson's hand was perfectly steady, no hint of the hesitation or fear the was all too present just moments before. With tiny motions and careful cuts, he meticulously liberated the edges of the tumor from the heart wall. Slowly, but surely, the body of the tumor was sliced away and removed. Phoebe was in awe. Clearly, he was dedicated, and a capable learner. He had adapted to the strain, and now was one of the most competent surgeons she had ever seen.
Two hours later, the operation was over. The patient was wheeled to a clean room to recover, and Phoebe thought she could see him chuckling to himself. He seemed both relieved and distraught, but she couldn't deny what he had just done. She left the room, descending the staircase as fast as she could to meet up with him.
"A deal's a deal, eh. I told you I'd do it," Hanson said, out of breath, as she entered the room, pulling his mask away and discarding it along with his gloves. He started in on washing his hands, a precaution against infection.
"Sure, yeah, a deal's a deal. Now, tell me how you did that." Phoebe rushed through her words, still baffled by the spectacle.
Hanson held a hand up to her. "Oh no no no. That wasn't part of the bargain."
"Oh don't give me that. That was incredible. I've seen surgeons that have been in the game for years struggle with that sorta thing. A novice like you, that patient shoulda been dead."
"Hey, no need to insult me. I'm not a novice anymore. I told you, I practiced with those stupid mannequins every single day for hours on end. I got really, really good at that part of it."
"Sure, but when I last saw you operate, you were so terrified that you couldn't even hold a scalpel. What happened?"
"I got over it." He turned to look her in the eye. He gave her a look that seemed to be proud, but there was something else that she couldn't pinpoint. Something about it put her on edge. She didn't ask anything further, only requesting his address so she could get there later. He gladly provided it. With that, the conversation ended. Phoebe shuffled away, perturbed. A cold sensation pervaded her spine. What did I get myself into?
As she pulled into the driveway, Phoebe couldn't help but feel overwhelmed. The cobbled path that her car now sat upon was only an introductory piece. It led the way to the grandiosity that was Hanson's home. Three stories tall, Phoebe was sure it had to contain at least thirty rooms. Its features were Victorian in appearance, though modern amenities like a steel-door, two car garage were present as well.
Phoebe stepped out into the cold night air, a light jacket wrapped around her shoulders. She decided to go with something somewhat formal: a dress shirt, skirt, and low heels. A pair of opal earrings that she was sure were fake complemented the thin pearl necklace that she paid good money to ensure was real. She made her way to the door, her footsteps echoing off of the cobblestones. As she reached the steps in front of the entryway, she took note of the knocker, a large brass lion head. She opted to use the doorbell instead, though found that it, too, was indicative of an older era. The tone was very deep, such that it would not have been out of place in the Elizabeth Tower.
Hanson answered the door proudly, a glass of wine in hand. He wore black duo of dress shirt and pants, with socks to match. His shirt was untucked, and the top button undone. Phoebe guessed that he had a pair of shoes to match somewhere in the house.
"Perfect timing. I was about to start in." Hanson turned and beckoned her to come inside. She didn't like the way she felt around the place, but entered anyway to get out of the chill.
Inside, she was greeted by a large parlor room, opulent in its design. A massive mosaic made up the polished floor, and support pillars rimmed with what appeared to be gold were openly displayed. Several cushioned chairs were placed sparsely to the left and right of the doorway, small tables just to the sides accentuating them. They seemed inviting, almost hoping that someone would sit in them and enjoy a good book with a cup of tea. However, with no bookshelves in sight, they seemed to be more decorative than anything.
Ahead, a massive staircase covered tightly in a long carpet led to a balconied second floor. Doors lined the walls above, and a few more were placed on the ground floor. One doorway to the right had no door, and led to what seemed to be a dining room. The long table within was covered with a white lace tablecloth, and Phoebe spotted the edge of a silver candlestick, complete with tapered candle ready to be lit. Above, as with the parlor she was in, the light of a crystal chandelier could be seen.
"Well? Whadyathink?" Hanson gestured toward the room as a whole, a hopeful smile on his face.
"It's not what I expected, that's for sure," she replied, taking in another sweep of the place. "I like the decor, but it seems a bit sparse, I guess."
"Hehe, yeah, I suppose so." Hanson absenmindedly scratched the back of his head. "I never really liked it either. Too open. Great for running around as a kid, but not so much for living here as an adult."
Phoebe could understand what he meant. Something about the way he said it, though, brought back the same, uncomfortable feeling as before. He hadn't said anything bad, but she still felt unease.
Pushing her irrational discomfort out of mind, she asked, "So, which way are we headed?"
Hanson perked up, remembering the reason she was here. "O-oh, this way. Down to one of the basement levels. It's the most comfortable place in the house. I spend most nights down there." He held his glass aloft. "It's where I keep this, after all, hehe."
Phoebe was hardly impressed, but followed nonetheless. As they walked, she tried to rationalize how he could be so different now. He used to be really nice and sweet, but now he was just really nervous. Something must have happened during the week they were apart that made him this way. But what could do that to a person?
He led her to a short, descending stairway that led to a fully furnished recreation room. It was warmer than she expected it to be, considering it was in the basement. The white carpet was soft beneath her feet. A pool table complete with a ready rack and cues stood as the central piece. Beyond that, further from the door, four large, brown reclining chairs stood before a massive flatscreen television. Two doors stood on the same wall as the entryway, closer to the chairs. A rack of wine bottles stood between them, and it seemed that Hanson had become clumsy once or twice with them as small stains were noticeable in front of the rack and adjacent doors. Between this and the entryway, Phoebe had to wonder where all this money came from. His parents, most likely.
"Have a seat. I'll prepare a glass for you."
"Th-that's fine. I'm not really thirsty." Phoebe's nose caught a familiar, yet faint scent.
"Hmm. Suit yourself. Really do have a seat though. Those are the best in the house."
Phobe complied, but found it hard to relax in the warmth of the room, even as the magnificent leather chair gently cradled her. Her thoughts were focused elsewhere, on the smell that underlied the room. She knew she had smelled it before, somewhere recent.
"What's that stink?"
"Hm? What stink?"
"What, you don't smell that? It's..."
Hanson cut her off. "I don't smell anything." He feigned truthfulness, but the shift in his eyes and sitting position told a different story.
"Why are you getting so nervous?"
"I'm not nervous." But it was clear that that was a lie. He spoke in more of a whimper than an actual speaking voice, and his expression was distraught.
The levy finally broke. Phoebe had had enough. "Stop lying to me. You've been hiding something from me all week, and any time I try to get it outta you, you get more upset. What is going on? What aren't you telling me?"
"I told you, I'm not hiding anything." He grew angrier, more defiant, as his fingers started to curl into the soft leather of the chair.
"If you aren't gonna be straight with me, then I'm leaving." Phoebe shouted, rising from her chair and heading for the door.
"Hey, we had a deal." Hanson got up from his own chair to grab her by the arm. His grip was stronger than she thought him capable of, and Phoebe fliched at the unexpected pain. Tears started welling up in her eyes, but more obvious was her flailing to escape his grip. He relented, causing her to stumble backward, but she maintained her footing. She turned away, reaching the doorway before he spoke again.
"You want to know what I'm 'hiding'? How I got to be the best surgeon in the hospital?"
She stopped dead in her tracks. What am I doing? I need to leave, now. But her body wasn't listening, instead holding completely still as her brain tried to force it forward. Her subconscious curiosity took over, and her need to know spurned her on to ask, "What is it?"
He stepped hesitantly over to the door to the left of the wine rack, waving for her to follow. As she approached, the stench intensified, as did the heat. Clearly, it was coming from here.
"Just remember. You wanted this." Hanson unlocked the door with a key retrieved from his pocket. He motioned for her to enter. She stepped up to the hollow, white, wooden door, taking the stainless steel knob in her hand. She gave it a twist, and let the door creak slowly inward.
Before her was a tiny room, only capable of accommodating one or two people, plus the various tools, blades, sponges, rags, implements, and buckets of water inside. A wave of warm, humid air billowed out as the door swung inward. The entirety of the room smelled of cleaning solutions, solvents, and stringents that clearly were only ventilating through the seams of the door. Beneath it all, though, was the metallic hint of blood. The red ring soaked into the cracks between tiles and surrounding the drain in the floor would have been evidence enough, but before her was something far worse.
Two mangled, mutilated bodies, propped up in dentistry chairs; a man and a woman, both sliced apart. Their bodies bore countless scars, but even now, it was clear they were still being 'utilized'. The man was far overweight, but due to the gaping abdominal cavity, it was hard to tell. Organs lay motionless, exposed, and blood dripped slowly from the incisions. One of his eyes had been carefully removed, preserved in a jar on a nearby shelf. His left arm lay on the same shelf, a recent addition as the stump had not skinned over whatsoever. His cranium was split like a cookie jar, the lid to which was casually set aside. The squishy brain matter had been thoroughly removed and sliced apart, disected for study.
Phoebe covered her mouth with her hands, a reactive measure to her urge to vomit. The face was one she recognized. "B-but that's.. Th-that's G-g-g..."
"Garret," Hanson spoke quickly, as though he'd been looking forward to finally telling someone about it. "Yes, that disgusting pig. I thought you'd be happy to see him like this. That was part of the reason I took him. I knew how you despised him, so I brought him here to practice on.
"He wasn't my first option, you know. I tried to work with the dummies, but I just couldn't visualize them as real people. I tried cadavers after that, but they were so still on the inside that they really didn't feel like an accurate comparison. I needed the real thing to pull it off. So, two days ago, I asked him out to drink, and told him I wanted to learn from him. I brought him back here, and..." He gestured wildly around the room. "I set this up the day before, and it wasn't too dificult to get him in here once he was drunk enough."
Hanson started chuckling nervously, running his fingers through his hair. "But, I uhhh... miscalculated how inexperienced I was. The room was too cold, and he lost a bit too much blood. He died in less than a day. At first, I didn't think it would be that big a deal; I'd just keep going with him. But it was no different than the mortuary cadavers. So, I brought a heater in, borrowed some blood, and..."
Phoebe's eyes darted to the woman, and widened in terror. On full display for all to see, her left leg amputated and carved apart, her chest cavity cracked open, and her veins riddled with intravenous tubes and needles, was Marie Harrier. Her face was hard to recognize, as half of it had been sliced away, removed so that the workings underneath could be studied in detail. The same was true of her right arm, which was flayed of skin, revealing the muscle, veins, and arteries beneath.
"She's still alive, you know. I've gotten very good, like you saw earlier. I shouldn't need anyone else for a while."
Phoebe collapsed to the ground, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. But it was evident that he was not lying. Beyond her broken ribs, Phoebe could see that Harrier's heart was still beating, and her lungs were still expanding and contracting. A faint, raspy breathing still escaped her lips. Phoebe could not hold the contents of her stomach anymore, expelling them onto the floor. She found herself unable to raise her head to the carnage that she had born witness to.
Hanson gave a small chuckle. "It's alright. The tile is easy to clean, I promise. I've just been too busy getting extra lessons in to keep up.
"But that's okay," he said, stepping quickly into the sterilized room, around the chair that held Harrier's limp body. "I don't need to worry about that any more." He undid the straps and handcuffs that held Garret in place, and rolled the corpse off of the chair. It splattered to the floor with a resounding splash, organs piling over one another as they poured out of his exposed abdomen.
"I did what I said I'd do. I learned how to operate on real people. I won the bet. And here you are, to celebrate with me."
"I-I-I..." But her stammering was cut off as she was ripped to her feet by Hanson's grasp. He overpowered her by inches, dragging her over to the now-empty chair. His expression was that of a man unhinged; he'd clearly broken down from all of his misdeeds. He maneuvered her left wrist into place in the handcuff, clasping the metal around it. She kicked and fought to escape, but he was determined. In seconds, she was locked in place, thrashing and screaming to escape.
Hanson enthusiastically began to strap her legs to the chair. "This is what you wanted, right? For me to practice? For me to get better as a surgeon?" He spoke loudly to be heard over her screams, his speech mingled with misplaced laughter. Her legs were soon pinned to the chair as well. "You're in the basement. There's a lot of soundproofing here. You, me, and Marie here are the only ones in the house. No one is going to come free you."
Phoebe's voice died out soon after. She was locked there for months, waited on hand and foot while Hanson continued his macabre work. Each time she saw him, she begged, threatened, pleaded to be let go. She promised that she wouldn't tell a soul what had happened. She offered to be his lover instead of his prisoner. Everything she could think of to get him to release her.
Hanson ignored every request, and over the months replaced Harrier with a new victim, who Phoebe did not recognize, and another once that one was used and shredded. Phoebe eventually grew numb to it all, deciding that instead, she would rather block it all out. Sometimes it worked. Most times, though, it didn't and the screaming from the other victims would haunt her into each and every night. She hoped, in vein, that the sweltering heat would take her, but Hanson kept her hydrated and cared for.
Then, one day, Hanson didn't come back into the room. The door remained locked, but the captor never returned. Days went by with no sign of Hanson. Phoebe wondered what had happened to him. Her mind went through everything she could muster the energy to think of to escape. In the end, though, she succumbed to the solitude, the dehydration, and the starvation. Police would find her body two days later, putrid and rotting, still locked in the chair.
Written by TheWizardOfTheWoods