Can't Answer That Question, Sir


I see them approaching, slowly.
They won't catch me.
They can't catch me.
Not deep down here.
They smile, of course.
Knew they would.
Their words are honey-coated, sugar-filled.
Can't answer that question, sir.
I will stay still.
I won't move.
They can't know I listen to them, if I don't react.
Must not react.
To anything.
Don't sleep.
Don't talk.
Move my eyes, yes, following them around.
No pain.
No more pain.
They are trying to make me talk.
Can't answer that question, sir.
They have been trying for weeks, months...don't know how long.
Don't care.
All friendly faces, always friendly faces.
Must stay still.
Sometimes it's bloody uncomfortable.
Muscles go all rigid, tense.
Cramps follow.
But there is no way out.
Must remain deep down here, hidden.
Whatever they do to me, or say.
Whatever pain.
Can't answer that question, sir.
Not hungry.
Not thirsty.
Can't answer that question, sir.
Sometimes the smell is too much.
But I won't react.
I must not.
Stay hidden.
Deep down.
I can't answer that question, sir.
Deep down.
Deep down.
Can't answer that question, sir.
Can't answer that question, sir.
Can't answer that question, sir.

The doctor gave another distracted glance at the huddled figure perched on the far end of the hammock-style white bed. Then he lowered his head, shuffling the papers in his hands, eyes quickly scanning the list of data, tests and analyses results.

"No changes?" he murmured to the nurse, busy at the nearby low table.

She checked the syringe against the ceiling lights. "No. Didn't move an inch. Didn't eat, either."


"It's the third time, this month." The nurse turned around, and smiled at the woman entering the room. "Doctor Ross," she said, gently putting the syringe on the silver tray.

The doctor turned his shoulders to the glass panel separating them from the patient's room. "Kate."

"Paul." She smiled briefly, then walked past him. Her reflection was pale in the glass. Her dark eyes considered the silent figure in the observation room.

"Would you like to see the test results? No changes, I'm afraid. He didn't react at all. Sleep patterns are still erratic, to say the least. The blood tests are almost clear, now, though. Maybe we could try again. Thirty five per cent, maybe?"

"And risk a liver collapse? He can't take much more. How's the pressure?" She stretched her hand, the doctor releasing the medical charts to her.

"Still high. The new dosage seems to be functioning, though."

She was tormenting her lower lip, browsing through the numerous sheets of papers.

"It's a pity, isn't it?" the doctor said, again looking through the glass. "After making it through all that. We can pin the bones, heal the wounds, grow new skin. But we can't repair his mind."

The folder between Kate's hands was closed with determination. "There's still hope."

"You've seen the routine. He's stubbornly trying to starve himself. We can't keep on sedating him in order to make him sleep, or feed him. The cons are slowly outnumbering the pros. These men are trained to--"

"He's strong. Paul, I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready to give in."

The doctor sighed, nodding. He murmured to the nurse, still waiting. "You can call Mike and John." The nurse lifted the receiver of the internal phone and made the request.

Kate moved closer to the glass panelled observation room. Her hands touched the reflecting surface. "There must be a way of reaching him..." she muttered.

The orderlies entered, and followed the nurse inside the adjacent room. The patient stood still during their approach, then suddenly erupted in a series of wild uncoordinated movements. White spit foamed at his mouth, as the two solid men patiently restrained him. Straightjacket notwithstanding, theirs wasn't an easy or quick task. The nurse waited until the patient was positioned face-down on the bed, one of the orderlies seated on the naked legs, the other stretched upon the man's torso. The syringe was shining in her hands, reflecting and mirroring the metal caged lights high up in the ceiling. After a handful of minutes the raucous, incoherent shouts became muffled. Shortly, the frantic spasms subsided, too. The two orderlies gently turned the man around, shifting him in a better position. They began to strap him to the bed, while the nurse came out of the observation room to take the trolley-cum-tray and the IV.

"There isn't much hope, Kate," the doctor insisted, quietly. "His strength's what saved him, but it's also killing him right now. You know that, I know that. Cowley knows that, too."

Kate turned around, ignoring the work going on behind the glass window at her shoulders, the IV's needle inserted on the side of the patient's left hand, just between thumb and wrist, the other veins too worn out by now. The drops started falling regularly, the nurse handling the small butterfly valve so as to slow them down. One of the orderlies left with the trolley, the other one checked the straps once again. They had been surprised one too many times, already. The flutter of sudden activity dissipated, the room's door closed and locked, Kate turned again, the observation window the only way to be close to the patient lying on the bed. "I wished..." she whispered, the end of the sentence a confused mumble.

"What did you say?" The doctor was already out in the corridor, poking his head around the doorframe. Other patients to visit, other test results to check.

"Nothing." Kate walked out, too.

It seemed like hours, walking through the white corridors, passing by the labs, walking down the marble stairs to reach her office. Huge windows opened on the grey winter skies, the hospital stench not different from that of any other day.

The day passed, slowly. Another day.

Doyle was sitting on the wooden bench outside her office, when she finally realised how tired she was and how much she needed to eat and shower and sleep. She locked her office, and Doyle was there. Sitting quietly in the now almost complete darkness, hands clasped between his knees. Kate didn't manage to look him straight in the eyes. She was trying. She was trying as hard as she could. He ought to know that. He ought to. Doyle stared at her, then managed to stand up. Kate knew sometimes he would spend the whole night in the observation room. When he could. When he was free, and when he could stand it. Sometimes he didn't come for weeks.

She inhaled deeply and stepped forward. "You missed your last session." Not an accusation. She was always informed when agents were unable to comply with their scheduled meetings due to assignments.

His glance drifted absently to the elaborately carved door at her shoulders. There was nothing he could say. Not to that, anyway. Kate surveyed him, collecting data.

"I have a week off," he offered. "We can reschedule."

There was no expression on Doyle's face. Hadn't been one for months. Kate was acutely aware of his tension, emanating through him in silent, violent waves. He looked down at his boots, then moved away, walking quickly, his steps brutally echoing in the empty corridors.

Can't answer that question, sir.
Don't sleep.
Don't talk.
Can't answer that question, sir.
Not hungry.
Come and save me?
I'm down here.
Deep down.
Deep down.
I'll wait, Ray.
Don't wait.
Can't answer that question, sir.
Can't answer that question, sir.
Can't answer that question, sir.

-- THE END --

Originally published in Discovered in a Letterbox 24, Winter 2002

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