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Transplanter X

 Transplanter X
By Douglas Kolacki

I walk into the hospital and past the front desk without checking in. No need. The doctor's expecting me; I see her every day at three o'clock, give or take five minutes. She, however, hasn't seen me in a long time. Months, in fact. How many? I don't quite remember, but I know it ends on Christmas Eve. It's complicated.

Rounding the first corner, I see the elderly couple. The man holds the lady's arm while walking with quick little steps, the woman widening her strides; I'm not sure who's pushing or pulling who. In a moment they'll pass me, and I'll hear the lady remark that someone's appendectomy "went swimmingly, George." 

Say it differently this time, I think. Just to change something. It went "well," or "great," or--

"It went swimmingly, George." They continue up the hall. 

Beyond them walks the burly man who's always far ahead of me, going the same way I'm going. I only ever see his back, the word STAFF printed on his tee shirt. Two more folks approach and pass, the tall weathered man with the KOREA VETERAN ballcap, and the lady with silver hoop earrings--her teeth are visibly out of alignment, is she self-conscious about that? I always sort of hope to find them straightened out next time. 

I round the second corner and halt, for there's always a fellow in a wheelchair blocking the hallway, trying to make a three-point turn. I count the seconds as he nudges the wide wheels, backing up, swiveling. Three, four, five and he's clear, arms lunging the wheels like pistons. (Not seven this time, huh? Not one or two?) I wait till he's breezed out of sight, then close the distance to the doctor's office. 

The door's always open, and the first thing I see is the wall clock. Thank God for that clock. Each day it shows a different time: 3:00 today, 2:56 yesterday, 2:58 the day before that. The latest I've ever arrived was 3:04.

But the doctor's appearance, like ninety-nine percent of everything else, never changes. Wearing her standard white coat and stethoscope, yellow hair cut just beneath her ears, she sits at her desk scribbling something on a notepad. Her head is bent low, squinting at whatever she's writing. 

She puts down her pen and looks up with blue eyes bright and lively. "Well hi, Mr. Rothstein! Good to see you. How are you today?"

Today means Wednesday, July the 13th, the year of our Lord 2015. "Same as always."

"You're..." she straightens up and checks her watch. 

"You've never done that before."

She turns her head toward me, wrist still hovering. "Sorry?"

"Checked the time. I can't remember you ever doing that. Usually you just ask how I'm doing."

"Ahhhh." Slowly, she nods. She never makes any abrupt movements. "I'll have to remember that next time. Please..." She motions to the chair beside her desk. 

God only knows how it happened, but I'm confined in this Wednesday, 13th of July. And not even the whole twenty-four hours of it: 5:00 a.m. when the alarm clock beeps me awake, to 7:42 at night. That's it. So as if to compensate, it loops over and over. For how long now? I've lost track. 

The doctor, at least, has months. How many? I ask her to refresh my memory.

She shifts in her chair. "I can pretend I have a normal life until December the twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve." (Yes, now I remember.) "Then I wake up to May nineteenth. I get to live the whole holiday season, shop and everything, and then never find out what I would have gotten for Christmas. Or what my husband would have thought of the desk set I always buy him."

I lean back in my chair. "You never change it up?"

"What's the point? I like that set. It jumps out at me every time. 39.99 at Rolf's, at the Warwick Mall. And 'Walking in a Winter Wonderland' is always playing on the sound system when my eyes first fall on it."

This is my favorite part of the day, when I feel like I'm finally off the treadmill. You don't know the meaning of "routine" until you've lived this way. Every minute, every hour, the identical people saying the same words, the same cars going by and even glimpsing the same five robins and one blue jay in the trees, the same two squirrels scrambling up trees and one running across the street, and then my job, hearing the two grandmothers in the next cubicle recite the same word-for-word stories of their families and visits from relatives, the weather, politics. My supervisor assigning me the same tax returns to key into the system--about a quarter of my state's population still sends them in on paper--individual forms, non-resident forms, corporations, rentals, fuel taxes. After lunch scanning and uploading prior-year returns, the same names, the same Social Security numbers. I've made a game of it: the return on top of the stack will be for Smith, the next for Lesperance, the third a non-resident return for Cooper. I scan a total of forty-two returns into the system, but won't get to upload them as long as I'm caught in this loop. I have most of the names memorized--I can guess their names before looking--cherishing the difference when I recall more today than yesterday, for that's something unique about this day. Pretty soon I'll have them all down. 

So why go through all this? Why even go to my job? 

I didn't, at first. After the initial shock I realized: Hey! The rules have all changed now, haven't they? I slept in, didn't call out, ran to the credit union and closed out my savings. I made a down payment on a new Porsche, something I would do lots more times. Cadillacs, Mercedes, Hondas, pickups, sedans, motorcycles. I drove them up to Boston, to Salem, to Plymouth and took them on the Block Island ferry. I treated myself and everyone to ice cream. I went up to the top of the Biltmore and scattered my savings to the plaza below. I smashed one of my cars' windows with a baseball bat, just to do something new, and felt awful afterwards. I went to bed early. The next morning I returned to the lot, saw the car with its windows intact, and was glad. I feasted on steak and lobster, ate at every swanky restaurant in town once, twice, then sought them out in other areas. 

What did it all add up to? Well, I just got...bored. Whatever I did to mix things up, grew dull after a while. The feeling of routine always caught up with me. So I returned to my job. You think repeating the same day is weird? Wait till you've played hooky from work for months, and nobody even asks where you've been. 

But there's something about the doctor and me, two of us loopers together. We chat, we compare notes, we talk about whatever. Our words and mannerisms, spontaneous and unpredictable, a refreshing splash of normalcy that buoys me up for the rest of the day.

Now we get up. Another white smock like hers hangs on a wall hook. I take it down, shrug into it and follow her out the door. 

"He's still first on the list, right?" I ask. She nods.

Now we're navigating the inner hospital, the labyrinth of cut-ice rooms with open doors and charts zeroing in on the respiratory system, or circulatory system or nervous system, eyes or hands, until we arrive at a consultation room. 

A man sits in a chair by an exam table. Square-jawed face, hair like solid pitch. I see nothing out of the ordinary except maybe he was an Army drill sergeant. 

"Mr. Bendleton." The doctor makes an elegant sweep of her arm in my direction. "This is intern Rothstein."

She does this charade to humor me. I want to meet the patients whenever I can. This one, however, is a special case; we've met with him every day now for a week.

"It's a donor from this very city, and a match! You're very fortunate, sir."

That wasn't the doctor speaking--I blurted it out. I cringe as two pairs of eyes lock onto me. This has never happened before.

The doctor gives me a nod. All right, then. Mr. Bendleton is waiting, easy in his chair, leg crossed over a knee, hands folded in his lap. Clearing my throat, I begin.

"It's a young man, not yet thirty...on his own here, an orphan, no relatives..."

"He was screened for hepatitis and HIV," the doctor adds.

"Yes! It's a healthy heart indeed. Just a sad story. You see, sir, this young man, well...he..."


"He ended it all." 

"Oh." A somber look crosses his face. "Today, this happened?"


He waits; the doctor waits. I go on. "Cut his wrists. The da--" I was about to say damn fool, but caught myself--"he cut his wrists. Over--ah--a girl."

"Oh." Mr. Bendleton's features have softened now, his eyes serious. 

"It was a dum--an unfortunate thing. Too many infatuations, crushes and whatnot that never got returned, on several girls over his life not just this one, in school, at jobs, but she turned him down for a date and then he saw her going all nuts over another guy, you know, they were giggling and--" 

The doctor shoots me a warning look. I clear my throat again, and continue more slowly. "So, he lost his head, he reached the height of upset-ness just long enough to get the idea, he would show them, show the whole world, and before he could think about it he grabbed his steak knife out of a kitchen drawer and went into the bathroom and--" 

Something in me constricts. It must show on my face, because the patient sits up, hands on the chair's armrests, looking alarmed. I raise a hand. 

"And so that was it." I let out a breath.

Mr. Bendleton is sitting with legs apart now, hands clasped between his knees. "I take it he explained all this in a note."

"Yes." "Yes." The doctor and I both blurt it out this time, with accompanying nods.

"Mr.--Rothstein, is it? I have to sound like you knew this man."

Ouch. I knew I should have kept my mouth shut. I nod, and hope he'll leave it at that. 

"The other man you mentioned, who the girl preferred. By any chance, that wasn't...?"

"What? Oh! No, not me!" I shake my head. "Not me." 

He's thinking. I can see it, he's gazing at the ceiling, working his mouth. Then his eyes return to us. 

"'s been explained to me, yes...but I really don't believe my disease is so drastic as to require this."

"Sir?" She wears her concerned look, the same one as when I poured out my story out to her in the beginning. 

"You may be aware I had a bunionectomy done ten years ago. It didn't go well." (He went into this a great deal the other day--the podiatrist realigned his foot and inserted two screws, one of them caused pain and he had to get the whole operation done over again.) "And that was only my foot. Doctor, we're talking about my heart now. I'm getting up there in years, I won't live that much longer regardless. To go through all this--it's not like having my tonsils removed."

My own heart sinks. Sheesh. It's his life, but still--

"Mister Bendleton." 

Getting up, he turns that granite face on me. Inside I'm cringing again, but my mouth's gotten going and it won't stop. "This is the only life you're ever gonna have, sir!"

The doctor's giving me that warning look, but I keep going. "Lots of people get new hearts and come out fine. One guy lived thirty-three years...I know you've had a bad experience, but don't let that spook you. You've got a golden opportunity here, and you're gonna pass it up? You're a coward if you don't do this, a coward--"

Finally I clam up. My pulse is racing and I'm catching my breath. He gawks at me wide-eyed.

The doctor tilts her head ever so slightly toward the door. I retreat, avoiding her gaze. I bite my lip, head down, burning with the same humiliation I got from Rayanne, she and her guy giggling, the two managing to get in a smooch before I fled. I wanted to say All right, I get it, you don't have to rub it in. But "rubbing it in" seems to be what happy couples do, intentionally or not. 

(And truth be told, I've thought of going back to Rayanne and her guy and telling them to go to hell. Or doing something even worse--I mean, they'll be fine again tomorrow, right? But I've always resisted the temptation.)

* * *

I head up the hall, turn right at the corner and up the stairs to the seventh floor--the terminal ward. Cancer patients occupy the beds, no hope for them, waiting to die, only continuously infused with morphine since addiction won't matter now. Usually I take the elevator; this time I climb the stairs, wanting to be alone. 

The doctor arranged the room earlier, room 81, bed 2. Two beds separated by a curtain. Mine is closest to the door, the other thankfully vacant, the curtain drawn up to the wall. The first thing I do is seek out the wall clock--5:45. I've got a two-hour wait. Still wearing the white smock, I fall face-down on the bed. 

The doctor breezes in after a while, carrying a clipboard. She pulls up a chair and sinks into it. By this time I'm on my back, staring at the ceiling, not really hearing the footsteps back and forth out in the corridor, the distant voices. 

"Sorry," I say.

She waves me off. "Don't beat yourself up over it. His mind was made up, no one was going to change it."

"Is he really that resigned to just dying?"

"It's his decision. Now another person will benefit."

There's a thought. I prop myself up on my elbows. "Who is it today?"

It's a good thing the doctor's loop isn't a daily one like mine. Every time I see her, it's been twenty-four hours for me, but seven months for her, time enough to do whatever she does--I won't ask--to change the waiting list. Every night, different components of mine fly out to different patients. No shortage of patients, unfortunately; some three to four thousand people are always waiting for a heart.

She looks at the clipboard, and her face blossoms into an amazing smile that only appears at this time. It's the one detail I don't mind seeing repeated every twenty-four hours. "Her name is Sarah. She's thirty-one years old, and needs a kidney. She's waited for two years, and now she'll finally have one."

"Who gets my heart?"

"Her name is Jessica."

"How about my liver?"

"Kimberly. And a man named Jason gets an eye."

"Maybe you should give him my glasses, then."

I settle back. At these times, it doesn't seem so bad. I'll have a bond with these people from now on, the hundreds who've received my heart, the many who carry my liver, and Sarah now joining the myriads with one of my kidneys--how many? I wish I'd kept track. My lungs help others to breathe. A few carry around some of my intestines. And innumerable people sport my eyes, women and men, so that one is blue, the other green or hazel or brown. 

"Strange how you came to me," the doctor says, and my ears prick up at this, for it's still another first-time-ever statement, a final break from the routine before I start it all over again tomorrow.

"You were my primary care physician." I lace my fingers together behind my head. "And, well, you always see your doctor if something's wrong." Long story short, she noticed I had signed up as an organ donor, she got the idea, she presented it to me. I shrugged--why not try it once? Twice? Every day? 

7:35 p.m. 

Imagine ending it all, the pain and the blood, the shock and anguish and fading to black--and then you wake up. Like, in your bed, not the bathtub, and not a mark on your wrists. All a dream? No, you can't deceive yourself, it happened. And then another bombshell hits: you find it's not the next day, but the 13th again. The papers, your co-workers and everything insist it's the 13th, and keep on insisting. You encounter the same people, hear the same words, your deja vu goes crazy. 

But my body remembered. It died on this day at 7:42 p.m. And if I wasn't going to make it happen, it would simply stop by itself. How? I wish I knew. When this all started, I got the doctor to watch me. That's when she first checked me into this room. She said I simply went to sleep and stopped breathing. She kept on watching to see what would happen. I lay there, cold and stiffening, for over two hours. But then a curious thing happened. The next time she glanced elsewhere or got distracted--a noise from outside, a gust of wind rattling the window, anything at all--she looked again to find the bed empty. 

"It's the same with me, every Christmas Eve," she says. "I always fall asleep at the same time, 9:05. My husband wants me to stay up with him, but my strength ebbs and I have to lie down. Usually full of holiday sugar cookies and punch."

"Christmas." I let that word sink in. "What I wouldn't give to hear carols again, Christmas trees and the decorations at the mall. Even the dumb commercials. I want to see snow again."

She reaches out and gives my hand a squeeze. A peace settles over me and I'm okay with it, this prison of time, everything. I'll remember this tomorrow when I flash awake in my apartment, ready as I'll ever be to live this day over again for the one hundred thousandth jillionth time. 

Now the smile blooms on my face as well. I don't have to see it; I feel its warmth settling over me. It spreads through my whole body, that smile. And maybe a few tingles of it will remain in my organs when they're installed into Sarah, Jessica, Kimberly and Jason, and those people will sense it and take it into the future with them. I like to think so at least.


Now comes the part we both save for last. The doctor never initiates it; she waits for me. 

"How are Kerri, Leakanna and Adriana?" I ask.

Yesterday Kerri got my liver, Leakanna my heart, and Adriana one of my kidneys. 

"I checked twice for each one." She always begins by saying this, and keeps her eyes on me as she says it. "Their names are gone from the list."

Gone from the list. 

This is the Twilight Zone world I live in. Take Amanda, the first person to receive my heart. When everything reset back, she should have done so too, right? Transplant undone. Except it wasn't. The doctor looked her up. She's healthy, thriving, and not having to wait for anything. 

A man named Eric, who also lives here in Providence, got my liver. Like Mr. Bendleton, I got to meet him first. The next day I tracked him down. Was he waiting for an organ transplant? 

"What are you talking about?" he asked. And he gave me the look I've gotten from too many people for any reason or no reason. I excused myself and hurried away. 

My lucky recipients, they stay lucky and live on with my gifts inside them after this day restarts. Their new hearts keep beating, new kidneys distilling, the organs back in me and yet somehow within them, too. And more people join this club every day, the parts multiplying like Christ's loaves and fishes. How? I guess I'll never know.

7:41. I never feel it coming. My heart quietly thumps, my breathing normal, no sign that it's about to stop. I doze off like every other night of my life. They'll have two hours to remove what they need, then dump the rest of my mortal remains in a pauper's grave or wherever. Doesn't matter. I won't stay there. 

My last thought: One day I'll be released from this loop. People are sent to prison for a reason, I'm trapped in this day for a reason. Maybe after so many people receive their new gifts, I'll wake to find it's July the 14th. And I'll go find the doctor and we'll celebrate. Hopefully by then she'll have been released, too. I'll savor the luxury of living a new and unique day each day, all things spontaneous and unpredictable, not just when the doctor and I meet in the evenings. And every day with its own name--imagine! Wednesday the 14th, Thursday the 15th. Then my first TGIF in ages. With mad impatience I'll count the days to Halloween, to Thanksgiving, to the twelve days of snowy Christmas.

One day, it will happen. 


"See you tomorrow," I say. 

The doctor pats my hand. "See you in seven months and five days."

All fades to black.

* * *

Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed fiction in such publications as Weird Tales, Liquid Imagination Online, Aurora Wolf and The Colored Lens.

What advice do you have for other writers?

I'd like to pass on a quote from Howard Thurman: "Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." If that's writing, go for it, keep at it, and never let it go!