I waited in the darkness, sweat oozing slowly from each pore. I could smell my own mortality as the old woman suffered.
The machine was tall, thick. It was a couple of inches over six feet tall and two screens glowed sullenly, casting precious little light in the dim room. A young woman sat before me, silently twisting dials; punching buttons; whispering words and telling the 86-year-old woman to turn this way and that way and this way again. To exhale and hold her breath. I wanted to pull the wires from the machine, wrap them around the technician's throat and hiss "Exhale, girl, and hold it. Hold it."
A bottle dangled at my left. Clear fluid dripped -- seven drops per minute -- into a filter and was metered and pumped into the old woman's body. Even her digestive system had betrayed her; food and nourishment from outside was pumped gently into her bloodstream. No eggs and bacon; no toast. Breakfast metered out at seven drops per minute.
"Hold it," the young technician exhorted. The old woman exhaled and held it as best she could. She gasped -- a sharp intake -- and the technician said "Good girl. That was really good. We got a good picture that time."
Sweat pooled between my shoulder blades; I wanted to reach behind, to scratch. A few droplets stung my eyes. I kept silent. I watched. I learned.
On one screen, heart valves opened and closed while lines danced madly on the right screen. Two dimensional images -- I peered into the old woman's heart.
It was no Valentine; no gentle curves or supple lines here.
I wiped sweat and reached for a handkerchief hidden deep in a coat pocket.
The heart was walls and valves and unfamiliar words like atrium and ventricle. And other words like plaque and buildup and arteriosclerotic.
The image on the left screen looked like a mutated monkey's face. The image showed a monkey whose jowls closed and whose eyes bugged out in tune with the old woman's pulse. Open, close. In, out. Pump, bulge. The eyes started from their spheres; they glared at me.
You should not see me, the monkey's eyes seemed to say.
As I watched, I saw that the heart now had eyes and lips, a mouth. Words flowed -- not blood. Warning words, empty words.
I should not be watching this, I thought.
The sweat between my shoulder blades crawled sluggishly down my spine. I could feel the moisture slowly gliding down my back. The desire to reach back and scratch was almost impossible to fight.
The old woman made a huffing sound. She gagged, and her rheumy eyes opened wide in shock. She and the technician focused their surprised attention on the screen. Even though she was startled, the technician kept her ultrasound probe centered over the old woman's heart.
They had seen what I had seen.
The screen showed that the heart was twisting, changing its form. The old woman tried to speak, but the words hung up on her dentures and could crawl no further. I heard her whimper, heard her thrash a little. Even as young technician's eyes reflected the horror on the screen, she kept the probe pressed tightly to the old woman's chest. That professional training cost her life.
The screen -- the window to the heart -- went dark.
"What happened," said the technician.
The old woman began a frenzied banging and thrashing on her gurney. The technician and turned back to her and was forming comforting words when the old woman's chest exploded.
I screamed. The condenser microphone on the machine picked up my screams and the strange noises coming from the dead woman's chest. The technician, eyes curling wide, stood silent as the monkey emerged from the cavity (I know it wasn't a monkey, but it looked like one) and snapped her arms off at the elbow like a man breaking a green stick in two. She was opening her mouth to scream when the monkey ripped out her throat. The young technician stumbled back into me and fell across my lap, her blood staining my white jacket.
The monkey's eyes caught mine. His lips curled into a snarling smile.
I continued to scream.
Jim Roberts, 501 Melrose Lane, Liberty, Missouri 64068