Last Stand

by Ron Yates

Toby Stampler suffered from chronic tonsillitis throughout most of his childhood. Countless times his mother dragged him to the clinic where he silently endured the disinfected diarrhea smell along with needles, tongue depressors, bright lights, nurses with squeaking shoes and thin red lips, and doctors with cold hands and lifeless eyes. The scrutinizing probes and pokes were agonizing to the boy, and in the face of this torture, he felt as helpless as an infant. The tiniest baby is able to cry out, but Toby, with good vocal cords and the power of speech, could not. His father, stern and dark with thick, bushy brows, would not allow it. He would demand to know if his son had been brave, if he had been a "good little soldier." Of course, Toby's mother could always give a positive report. "Just like a little man," she would say. Disappointing Father by behaving otherwise, crying out or complaining, was unthinkable.

But the boy had ached and trembled inside, craving the relief of screaming while forcing himself not to. If only he could have screamed as a child—kicked and spat—perhaps he would be healthier now. If only he could have acted upon his wish to bust that doctor's nose with a hard little fist, perhaps now he could be like the others and not in such a tormented state—"conflicted," as Sue, his older sister, called him.

In spite of the suffering and his parents' expectations, Toby did manage a victory over the evils of modern medicine; now, as an adult, he carried the trophies of war in his throat. Toby Stampler still had his tonsils, a source of great pride. They had poked, probed, and examined them, but they never got them because he ran away from home on the day before he was to go into the hospital. It had been his only way out: he couldn't scream, beg, or throw a tantrum, but he had power to slip away. Toby decided that he would live in the sewer before letting those doctors cut out a part of his body.

He was only eight, but shrewd and strong willed. His mother had told him that the nurses would feed him all the ice cream he wanted after the operation to help him get well. Toby concluded that ice cream would help him get well without the operation. He had three one dollar bills and a pocket full of change from his piggy bank. For three days, he ate nothing but Black Cows, Nutty Buddies, and Fudgesicles. At night he dozed fitfully in a hiding place he found underneath the school gymnasium, sharing the dark crawlspace with spiders and rats.

When his throat got well, he knew he had done it himself—healed it with his hatred and willpower. When his money ran out, he went home, tired and dirty but without tonsillitis. His mother squeezed him tight against her, pressing his face with her wet cheek. Father stood over them scowling, then turned away.

Toby expected punishment and steeled himself for it, but none came. Since his throat seemed fine, they canceled his appointments. He kept his symptoms to himself after that, learning to will them all away. As an adult, he became a master at mental healing, and he stayed away from doctors and their places of misery. He developed the theory that doctors with their medicines and instruments conspired to keep patients sick and at their mercy. People who had faith in them and relied on their services were weak. Sometimes he would rail at co-workers and family members, calling them mindless robots or sheep.

The world was full of such idiots, Toby knew, and he realized they couldn't allow him to go on insulting them and laughing in their faces. Sooner or later he would have to be brought down to their miserable state, dependent upon the Lords of Medicine for wellness, breath, and life. He should have known better than to get in the car with Sue and her friends that day for a "ride in the country."

He realized it was a trap before they reached the hospital, but it was too late. They had all been telling him that the swelling, the discoloration, the odor, the red streaks running up the leg were signs of something horrible, but he knew he could have made it get well with just a little more time. He would have broken free of them in the parking lot and run away, but the foot would not support him. He looked to his sister's face for mercy but saw Father there instead: that scowl, those dark, knitted brows. He would have to become the good little soldier again. "Oh, God, help me," he prayed. "I've got to scream!"

He would have to bring back the techniques he had used as a child to keep the scream inside: squeeze the fists, bite the lip, squint hard against the pain. His fingernails cut into his palms. He wondered why that light was so bright. The walls were white and everything in the room was highly reflective. The vibrating quality of the light made it seem that things were jumping out at him.

Everywhere he looked he saw objects turning into snakes, waiting for the command to strike and fill him with venom. But the doctor had been called away. The faucet with its arching back was poised. "It can't hurt me," Toby told himself. "It's powerless without the doctor." Then the idea came to strike first, to take the faucet in his hands and throttle it, but the sink was on the other side of the room.

I mustn't get up; they will know, he thought. But how can I sit here on this table when that rubber tubing keeps inching closer, coming out of that drawer by the sink? I can see two inches of it now, only the end before. That garbage pail must know I'm frightened. It's hissing at me.

The pail's stainless steel lips were slightly opened, and Toby could see its blood-soaked insides quivering with glee.

Oh God, I want to scream!

Other things were starting to move. On the counter by the instrument trays, two limp fingers dangling from a box of disposable plastic gloves began to wriggle with unnatural animation. Toby could almost feel them groping at his throat. He couldn't sit there much longer.

I've got to scream—no!—I've got to get up. Those crutches over there—maybe I can reach them. I'll use them to dash out the bloody brains of that grinning garbage pail. Then, I'll snatch the arch out of that snake-faucet's back! Toby's hands itched and burned.

The details of a survival plan raced through his brain: I'll tie the tubing into knots, slice the rubber gloves to shreds with a scalpel. I'll attack while I still can, before the doctor comes in and commands them all to leap at once. Yes, yes, that's it. I can hop on one foot over to those crutches. It's slow going this way, but I can do it. I still have my willpower.

A low moaning came from inside him as he hobbled across the examination room. This sound, when he noticed it, startled him. He didn't want anyone to hear, to come in and see what he was doing. He was almost there. If I can just get past those oxygen tanks without triggering an explosion. . . .

Then another noise, this time a swishing that Toby recognized as the one sound he least wanted to hear: the opening of the door. He was caught, finished. He knew that he must turn around and face the doctor and his judgment, but he waited until he heard the voice.

"What are you doing up, Mr. Stampler? It's very important that you don't put the slightest pressure on that foot. Here, let me help you back onto the table."

Toby could find no words as he looked into the stern, disapproving face. He knew the man expected an answer—the voice of an adult, not the scream of a child. He turned away, groping inside for something lodged there since long ago. As Toby trembled, his jaws worked silently. It started to come from deep inside, below his diaphragm, deeper, lower. A purgative scream, massive and gut-wrenching was forming, but just before he collapsed onto the astonished doctor, the good little soldier, with a final mustering of will, turned it into words: "Help me," he groaned, "please help me . . . get better."

BIO: Ron Yates is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. His novel, BEN STEMPTON'S BOY, set in the rural south of the early 1970s, is currently being submitted to publishers and agents. His short story "Spooky House" was recently named as a finalist in the James Knudsen Editor's Prize in Fiction sponsored by BAYOU MAGAZINE. Yates also holds an MA in English from the University of West Georgia and has been teaching literature, journalism, and creative writing in public high schools for many years. He resides in eastern Alabama on the shore of Lake Wedowee, an 11,000 acre hydroelectric impoundment. Family includes his wife, Cheryl; daughter, Chandler; son, Vincent; a Jack Russell Terrier named Cooper; and a cat named Dub. Armadillos, deer, wild turkeys, and an assortment of other creatures frequent his property, but Yates doesn't consider them family as they generally do not come inside.