Fiction Contest 2017: 'Arts of War'
John Hooper hated waiting rooms. He didn’t think they were ever worthwhile. The magazines. The way the chairs were positioned. The whole concept itself of a waiting room bothered him.
He reached down to check his pocket for his smartphone. He padded his left front pants pocket, then his right. It wasn’t there. Then he searched his jacket pockets in his fleece. Each side. Still nothing. Finally, he remembered it was in the breast pocket of his button-down.
“Mr. Hooper,” the cold receptionist said.
“We don’t allow phone calls in our waiting area.”
“Oh, just checking the time. That’s all,” John said. She didn’t respond and went back to her miserable existence. He wanted to tell the lady to eat shit, but he figured he’d make her look stupid instead.
He picked up a year-old Sports Illustrated magazine and laughed under his breath when he read the headline. It was pre-Super Bowl, obviously, because the best team in the NFL was clearly not the team this preseason breakdown had suggested.
“Mr. Hooper, you need to fill out this form as well,” the witch chirped again.
John stood up and walked to the window to take the clipboard. She pointed to the form in question. “This one,” she said.
This time he stood there and filled it out despite the clip-art poster requesting all patients keep the area clear. Once finished, he simply placed it on the counter and returned to his seat without saying a word. The revolving door opened again. This time a pleasant person asked for him. “John?” she half-asked and half-announced. “John Hooper?”
He hesitated. Finally, he pressed his wobbly hands on the arms of the seat to stand up. It was finally time to find out what he already knew.
“Third door on the left, Mr. Hooper,” she said.
“Got it,” he replied. He entered changed into a gown and waited until someone came back in.
“Okay, how long until I’ll know something conclusive?” John, who was clearly annoyed, asked.
“We’ll just have to ask the doctor,” the nurse responded. “Dr. Harmon will be in here in just a few minutes to discuss everything with you.”
It’s torture how they bring you into one waiting room to sit in a smaller waiting room, he thought. He hopped on the table and pulled back the pant leg to reveal what he had figured was a spider bite. He hadn’t seen anything like this rash and had made the unfortunate mistake of self-diagnosing on the Internet. Still, even after his years in the jungles of Vietnam, he knew his purple rash just wasn’t right.
The door knob turned and a short man with thick, bushy dark eyebrows, entered carrying a clipboard and a cup of Community Coffee.
“Well, the good news is that it’s not a brown recluse,” he started in immediately.
John shifted in his seat.
“But the bad news is that we don’t know what it is.”
“What do you mean we don’t know what it is?”
“Well, our lab here in the building couldn’t identify it as a bacteria or a viral infection,” the doctor said, sternly. “So we sent the samples off to CDC to have them do some further tests.”
“The CDC as in the Center for Disease Control? In Atlanta?”
“Well, Decatur. But yes, the Center for Disease Control.” He opened his clipboard and pulled out a handful of papers. “They have been doing their tests since they received the samples this morning. Nothing yet.”
Before John could ask his next question, the white-coated Napoleon started again.
“They will be informing us immediately upon finding any information,” he said. “But listen, I want to go over this information again. You put here that you haven’t been anywhere ‘exotic’ since 1970, correct?”
“That’s right.” Hooper replied. “We were supposed to go to Hawaii for our anniversary in ’84, but I got laid off about two months before we left. Had to cancel plans and everything.”
The doctor didn’t care to hear the side story.“
No blood transfusions, either, right?”
The door opened again and the same nurse appeared.
“Doctor, CDC is on the phone.”
“Well, speak of the Devil,” the doctor said. He turned and looked back at his patient before closing the door.“
Stay right here. I’ll be right back.”
“Sir, do you have a laptop computer in this bag?” The squat, older TSA agent asked.
Hooper had given himself plenty of time to catch the morning’s first flight to Atlanta, so he wasn’t in any massive hurry.
By now, the rash had spread across half of his calf. And yes, he could admit he was concerned. The rash didn’t itch. It didn’t burn. It didn’t feel any differently than any other part of his skin. It simply was terribly discolored. A very unique color altogether. It wasn’t black or blue. Not red or yellow. Not brown or some special mixed between. No, this was authentically bright green. Almost neon.
“No, it’s just a computer bag,” John replied, placing it onto the conveyer belt and preparing to remove his own belt.
His flight wouldn’t board for another two hours, but he wanted to make sure he was on that plane. It was a two-hour flight from Kansas City, Missouri, but he’d already been in the car for two hours to get to the airport. John’s son had picked him up and dropped him off.
“Okay, you’re all set, sir,” another agent said as John walked through the scanner. “Have a great day.” John picked up his bag and headed toward the gate, taking a seat closest to the emergency door by the jetway.
After boarding, the 64-year-old took his time meandering through the labyrinth of seats ahead of him. Positioned near the back of the cramped airplane, it wasn’t exactly ideal to keep the suspect area elevated and avoiding pooled blood in the leg like his doctor had reminded him. Once seated, he rolled up the leg on his pants to look at his calf. No change. It still looked like an alien had given him a hickey. He laughed at his assessment.
He walked out of the men’s room on a determined mission to find ground transportation and get to the swanky hotel the CDC had booked. It’s not every day the government puts you up in a nice hotel so they can try and figure out how the hell you’ve stumped them. But he figured the government owed him just a little bit at this point.
In 1969, Sergeant John “Hoops” Hooper was with 10th Group Army Special Forces. His job was to train Mung tribesmen in Laos and Cambodia to combat the North Vietnamese. He served two separate year-long tours in Southeast Asia.
“The Hilton, Decatur.” He told the cabbie, sliding across the vinyl seat.
“Mr. Hooper, at this point in the examination we’re going to actually take a biopsy of the suspect area itself,” the lead doctor declared.
John knew that this meant they’d cut in on him and wasn’t exactly thrilled about the prospect.
“How big a sample are you guys actually planning to take?” he asked.
“We’ll need a few samples from different areas,” an associate spoke up. “We’re thinking between four and five. We’ll go inside the discoloration and just outside. But you won’t feel a thing, just a little pressure.”
And with that assurance, the nurse inserted the first numbing agent. Within a few minutes most of his calf was numb. He felt the pressure and saw the team of three physicians nod in approval as each dime to quarter-sized sample was removed. He glanced over to see the results on the metal surgical table. They were a bloody, foreign-looking mess. They didn’t even seem like they came from his body, no less a human body. Like what it would look like if the dog chewed a few chunks out of a neon green NERF football that had been rolled into paint.
“Just a few stitches now, and you’ll be all patched up and ready to go,” said the tallest of the bunch. “But we’ll still need to run some more tests tomorrow.”
With that, an orderly wheeled John through the double doors out of the operating room and back into one of the exam rooms.
“They didn’t find anything of note,” he told his son over the phone in his hotel. “Or at least nothing worth telling me about today.”
“So why did they have to fly you all the way down to Atlanta to do a biopsy?” his son returned. “Couldn’t they have done that here? I mean, you’re not in any kind of special confinement.”
“Dunno, Mark, dunno. But I do know that this place is not too shabby if I do say so myself. And besides, I probably could use a break from your mother.”
The line was silent.
“So what’s next on the test schedule?”
“Well, they did send me hope with this solution I’m supposed to drink,” John replied. “Said it’d have some chemicals in there and they are going to see how this stuff is connected to my cardiovascular system, lymphatic system and some other system that I can’t remember.”
John picked at his Taco Cabana taco salad with extra jalapenos.“Well, I’m just glad you got there safely,” the son resigned. “I’m just hoping we can get some answers and move on from this soon.”
The next morning, he was back in the exam room, wearing a new white gown, sitting on the exam table before the same set of three doctors.
“Did you bring your athletic gear?”
“Yep, shorts, T-shirt, shoes, and gym socks all right in there.” He padded a small gym bag.
“Okay great. And you drank all of the solution before midnight last night correct?”
“Well, let’s go ahead and get you set up to go on downstairs. We’ll just need you to open your gown above the stomach. We’re going to put some of these sensors on your upper body and back.”
“Looks like I’m got a giant case of the chicken pox,” John said looking himself in the mirror as he stood on the treadmill. “And Jesus, do I need to lose some weight!”
”In a way, he was glad it was only he and the cardio tech. He didn’t mind that no one was here to support him when he was vulnerable like this. His deformed shoulder long-since mangled from the chunk of shrapnel wasn’t exactly pleasing to gaze upon. Most of the deltoid muscle had been torn from the bone when the mortar had exploded, creating a terrible scar like what a mountainside would appear after a mudslide.
He wasn’t thrilled that his body had started to break down. He no longer exercised like he had during his 30s and 40s. His 50s were full of middle management and that’s when he began to “get soft” as he admitted. But then again Special Forces soldiers did have a small window. They weren’t out in the field forever. That’s why you’d find so many of them selling life insurance now.
But once a soldier always a soldier.
His knee ached as he labored on the rubber treadmill track. Ten minutes of jogging and his heart felt like it was tearing. With his heart rate steady above 130 bpm he was beginning to feel sick to his stomach.
“How much longer?” he shouted to the technician between breaths.
“Five more minutes,” replied the young woman. “Unless, you feel like you cannot go on. We’re monitoring you remember, so slow down if you need to, sir.”
He could make it, he thought. He was being tested and his pride was on the line. C’mon, he could still run for 15 minutes. He wasn’t that far gone. He remembered how far he used to run back in basic training, AIT, and Q-School at Fort Bragg. Even when he got out, he’d run with Sandy while Mark was strapped to his back in that makeshift backpack he fashioned out of his old ruck. It worked surprisingly well, everyone admitted.
They were always doing something active, physical, and outdoors. Weekends were spent on the lake, in a canoe on a river, hiking in the mountains, swimming in the ocean or miles from shore in a boat. Nights were spent camping in all weather. They had a one-bedroom place around base but the both admitted it was merely a place to store their stuff, dry out tents and clothes and resupply. Television couldn’t capture their imagination. They both had to be doing. He had seen enough fiction and reality in those early 20s.
“Mr Hooper,” the young attendant stopped the treadmill briskly. “I’m going to ask you to quickly come over to this exam table, immediately.”John looked at his calf. He hadn’t seen it like this before. The freakish yellow/green splotch had spread outside of the bandaged area.
“So basically, your telling me I’m not going to be able to leave this room, is that right, Doc?” Hooper was addressing the lead doctor as the team of four in white Tyvek suits and masks looked on.
“Sir, until we can pinpoint what exactly is going on. Yes.”
He never did leave the hospital after his EKG and heart stress test. Because of the way the affected area reacted to his elevated heart rate, they decided to take serious precautions, moving him to high-risk status and placing him in quarantine as if he was carrying an infectious disease. In fact, it was the same room where the Ebola patients were treated.
Despite the fact that his vital signs were normal, he was confined to this room for the next 24 hours. A special unit of the CDC’s infectious disease team would check on him periodically throughout the day and into the night to monitor the growth of the rash. By midnight, his entire left leg was covered. By six in the morning, it had spread up his torso. But the good news was that it seemed only topical. In other words, none of this disease seemed to be affecting the subcutaneous layers nor entering his blood stream. Yet somehow, his accelerated heart rate made it spread faster.
A medical team was evaluating him around 11:30 the next day when it all happened.
“Okay, this is just plain weird.” Hooper told one of the doctors. “I’m starting to look like the friggin’ Incredible Hulk.”
“Well, are you getting any stronger?” returned the doctor.
“No. Kinda feel like I always do,” he said. “And you know what, I think I’m about done with all of this. I’m going to go ahead and take my chances with a green body, if you all can’t tell me what’s going on with this all.”
“We don’t think that’s a good idea until we figure out what’s causing this.”
“Well, I really don’t care. So please get me my clothes and let me go.” Hooper laughed. Then, stood up.
“We’re afraid that’s not possible right now, Mr. Hooper,” two doctors restrained him. “By Executive Order, you are to stay in this room until further notice.”
“No, let me out of here. This is a violation of my civil rights and I will prosecute.” He pushed away the men holding him and lunged for the door. The handle would not move. At this point, he felt the syringe enter the back of his arm. He had a few seconds of consciousness then fell to the floor.
When John Hooper awoke, he was in the same room. A five-star Army General stood at the foot of his bed holding an American flag.
“Sgt. Hooper, on behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your honorable and faithful service.”
“Sir, what are you saying? I don’t understand.”
“Your life ends here, son,” the General replied. “Whether you realized it or not, you were one of three other soldiers used to test the Agent Orange antidote back in Vietnam. Two of your colleagues died during the War. But you were the only one we tracked. This green rash is a sign of your body reacting to the antidote losing its efficacy and it brought you right to us after we lost track of you.”
“This is not fair. I’m still happy and healthy.”
The needle was placed in this arm.
“I’m sorry. But life is not fair.”
Nick Gebhardt grew up around here, works at a local marketing agency, and is a married father/wrestler of two young boys.