Mr. Monroe's Nurse
By Christopher Michael Carter
It was a long week and continuing to be so. Harley Strahm had only just recently signed on to be the personal nurse of Mr. Antwan Monroe, a man with a curious ailment. He's been through a handful of nurses in a short period of time; none of which could handle the situation properly. Harley hadn't been out of school that long before he saw the ad and he didn't know anything about Mr. Monroe besides the fact that it was a peculiar hospice case and that he'd been through a number of caregivers before signing up. Harley's just under six feet and white with light brown short curly hair, square black rimmed glasses, and a thick beard. He's of average build if not a little chubby. Dressed in blue scrubs he gets in his car and follows the directions he's taken down.
He's not sure exactly where he's headed in terms of housing; will it be a house, apartment complex, trailer court? Will it be in a nice suburb or a dilapidated ghetto? He was told it wasn't at a hospital and that was the extent of the info given. He follows the address numbers and finally comes to his destination, a hotel. 'That's odd,' he thinks. He pulls into the parking lot and heads in.
At the front desk, "Hi, I'm looking for an Antwan Monroe."
"And you are?"
"Oh, I'm Harley Strahm, I'm his new nurse."
The woman behind the desk has a suspicious look about her, "Aahh, so you're the new one."
"Yep, that's me. Say," Harley leans in to speak lower, "Can you tell me anything about this guy?"
"Well you're probably the seventh caretaker in the last three months he’s been here as he grew tired of hospitals and he couldn't stay at
home so he came here."
"Ah, I see..."
"Mr. Strahm? Mr. Monroe is ready for you." A man in a gray blazer said standing in the hallway.
"Uh, of course." Harley adjusts himself making sure he looks presentable before nodding to the desk girl.
"Good luck." She said to the man before raising her eyebrows.
Harley walked with this man down the hall, "Are you with the hospital?" The man continued leading the nurse turned back in reply, "No, I'm Lawrence Vaughn. I'm one of Mr. Monroe's lawyers."
"ONE of his lawyers?"
"Yep, here we are." They arrive at the door. Lawrence opens the door slowly and quietly and enters the room with Harley behind him. Upon entering the new nurse can tell the difference in the air, "It's really still in here; almost stuffy. No airflow." He says fanning his scrub shirt. The lawyer replies, "Yeah a degree less and he freezes; a degree more and he burns up." They continue walking in past the opening to the main area of this hotel room to find a walled off section with white sheets draped from ceiling to floor. Vaughn looks at Strahm and opens up the sheets.
"Hi, I'm..." Harley steps in with his hand poised to shake when he stops, seeing a tall think black man lying in the bed with a white sheet over his body, Antwan Monroe.
His hand retracts, "I'm uh Harley Strahm. I'm your new nurse." He stands looking down at this fragile, helpless looking man who paused, seemingly fighting for a voice before replying, "Please, come in..." Mr. Monroe lies in his bed rather incapacitated.
"Is there anything I can get you right now?" Harley asks. Monroe's eyes peer over to his new caretaker, "Not at the moment."
"Well, Antwan, if you're set for now I'm gonna head back to the office. If you need anything, just call." The lawyer says.
"Thanks, Lawrence." The lawyer leaves and Mr. Strahm is left with Mr. Monroe.
"Mind if I sit down?" Harley asks. Antwan's eyes look to the side and his index finger lifts attempting to point. Strahm sits down beside him.
"So," Harley awkwardly starts, "What seems to be the trouble?" There's a pause before his patient speaks. "I've contracted something... A virus...that deteriorates my body from the neck down."
"Is it muscle or bone related?" Harley's curious.
"It isn't known exactly. We don't know how it happened."
"Is it paralysis?"
Monroe chuckles however struggled, "No, there's pain...lots of pain."
The nurse looks at the framed photo on the dresser beside him. The picture is of a hardly recognizable Antwan Monroe and a woman.
"Is this YOU?" Harley asks in surprise. Mr. Monroe nods but barely. "Who's this with you; your wife?"
"Yeah..." Antwan looks to have a thicker build and more filled out in the picture.
"When was this taken? You look good here."
"Six...Six months ago." The nurse is in shock. The skinny man lying before him barely looks like the healthy man in the picture. "This your wife?" He nods. "And where's she at right now?" There's an uncomfortable pause as Antwan averts his eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
"No it's okay. A little less than six months ago I became sick. My body began withering away. I started vanishing painfully. She was scared as any wife would be. We went to so many doctors it got to a point where I didn't need to make appointments. She couldn't sleep... I would start dissipating in my sleep and crying, screaming in agony. She tried to stay sympathetic and supportive but she couldn't take it anymore. She said she could no longer watch me die and we both knew that's what's happening. I left the house, leaving her and everything behind so I wouldn't pull them down with me, only to have them wither away with me. Four months ago I checked into the hospital. They considered me a special case...but there's a price to pay for being special. My regression hadn't really been seen by anybody at the actual time of transformation. My wife couldn't bear to see when she'd hear my exclamations. I wasn't in the hospital long before they'd see it. A nurse was coming in taking my vitals when my chest and stomach sunk down and my limbs appeared to be deflating. The sound was a combination of a wet plastic bag and that of an empty water bottle being played with. I groaned in pain gritting my teeth to keep from screaming. The nurse heard it at first but then she SAW. She backed up with her mouth agape and her eyes blink-less. My body continued to sink and erase while she got sick into the nearest bedpan before leaving. I didn't see that nurse again. It would seem that the usual diseased people the nurses would see daily were tolerable but a man swiftly rotting away was too much. I went through a few nurses there and my screaming would greatly bother the neighboring patients. As if this ailment wasn't bad enough I grew paranoid around the constant medical environment. Both the hospital and myself thought it would be best for me to find somewhere else to stay. I was essentially a hospice case. I grew up wealthy and I found out that no amount of money can buy your health. Sure it's easier with money; you can afford expensive medication and all, but when there's no treatment, cure or vaccine your wallet may as well be empty. As far as I know, and as far as my lawyers have researched, this is new and, therefore, there’s no medicine for it. Upon leaving the hospital I signed a form allowing medical centers the rights to use my body once I'm gone, if there's anything left. We looked around and finally found this place."
"Why here? Why a hotel room?"
"I used to travel a lot and always felt comfortable in hotel rooms; strangely more so than at home. It made sense to me to spend my last remaining days somewhere I feel content or as content as I could be."
"And your wife? Has she been by to see you?" Harley asks bringing the straw of Antwan's water to his mouth who gulps down the water,
"Mm thank you... No she wrote me but refuses to see me…can't say I blame her."
"What about your vows? Through sickness and in health; til death do us part?"
"Are you married, Mr. Strahm?"
"Well you'll learn someday that there are marital loopholes and this was one of them. You can stand by and support someone for so long but when they're dissolving right in front of you it's safe to say some space is allowed."
"You seem so calm; how? I get stressed out when I lose my phone." A slight pause later and Antwan Monroe is chuckling and comes to a full coughing laughter. "What? What is it?" Laughs Strahm.
"Before this," Monroe coughed, "That was my biggest pet peeve, losing my phone. I'd lose that damn thing all the time; it didn't matter where I was." The two men laugh together and it looks like the first time the patient's laughed in awhile. "I learned extremely fast to let go. Do you get angry if it rains? You can't change it. There are tragic things in life that can't be explained. You can question and investigate but you can't actually change them. For me it all came together when I read Chandra's letter. It broke my heart but at the same time it healed the other wounds such as the fear of dying. There are worse things than dying with a broken heart."
"Never thought about it like that. I'm gonna get you some more water..."
Upon Harley getting in the other room for the refreshment he hears a familiar sound, one just explained to him. He peeks his head back in the room and Antwan's body is squirming and he's wincing in pain before he lets out a guttural blood curdling scream. Harley drops the cup and rushes to his side, "Mr. Monroe!" Mr. Monroe shivers and shakes & his eyes roll back in his head. The sound he described to his nurse was quite accurate. Harley takes Antwan's hand & it shrinks while holding it. The caregiver pulls back the sheet and sees for himself the transformation. His already thin body looks to be deflating before his eyes. He can hear and see the flesh and bone reshaping. It's a horrific sight to see; easily the most disturbing the nurse has laid eyes on. The man's length becomes shorter as well. Nurse Strahm is at a loss for what to do. He just stays by his side with his dwindling hand in his. "Keep fighting it, Mr. Monroe; you're going to get through this." He doesn't know what he's talking about of course but he's still trying to help regardless. The moment continues as his patient is in agonizing pain. He can see his ribcage clearly and even that morphs, shrinking in size. The crinkling sound comes to a stop as Monroe's screaming comes to a fever pitch and the moment passes with Antwan's fragile dark skinned hand in his nurse's pasty white but strong hand. "You okay?"
Mr. Monroe is shaky but nods, "Yeah...now you've seen it."
"That's a hell of a parlor trick ya got there. We should rent you out for birthday parties." Harley waits for Antwan's response before chuckling and Antwan, though still in pain, laughs.
"You're terrible." He continues laughing and coughing. "It feels good to laugh."
"Well I gotta tell ya, you're not convincing." They laugh some more.
"I...think...I need to sleep awhile..." Harley completely understands and nods with his hand on Monroe's shoulder. "Alright. Are you going to be okay here, I need to grab a cup of coffee."
"You're fine. Go ahead. I just need to rest...kinda takes it out of me."
"Understandable. Let me get you your water before I go."
"Oh, bless you."
Chandra Monroe's letter:
Antwan, my love,
I feel horrible, I do. I love you so much; it's unbearable to see you in pain. This is a journey I can't take with you. You've always been the strong one and will continue to be so. Remember, let go and let God. Have faith. Have patience. If I could take what's doing this to you and carry it myself I would. Please remember that I love you and I'll always love you. I love you so much I can't bear to sit back idly and watch you die and not be able to do a thing about it. The thought alone is driving me insane. I know you're in pain every second but please stay strong. This thing can take your body but it can't take your spirit. You'll always have that over it. I want to remember you for the strong man I fell in love with and I will.
At the local coffee shop around the corner from the hotel Harley is inside trying to decide on a beverage. Having just seen what he had, a man melting and reshaping from the inside against his will, it's surprising he'd want to eat or drink anything or at least want to drink something stronger than coffee, if you catch my meaning. He's looking around this place confused.
His phone rings and he answers, "Yeah..."
"Hey, it's Shook."
"Oh hey man."
"What's up; how's the new gig?" Harley shakes his head at their menu above the register.
"Not bad. The guy's really interesting. I'll have to tell you about it when you get back in town."
"Is he there now?"
"No, he's resting. He's had...a hell of a day. No, I'm at some little hole in the wall trying to get some coffee and the place is just weird."
"Outside looks like a coffee shop, inside looks like a burger joint, menu's primarily pizza, and the only type of coffee they ever have apparently is Irish Cream flavored."
"Ugh. That is weird. Not worth it man. Get coffee somewhere else. They'll probably cut you up & add you to their list of toppings, yknow for a pizza you'd buy from a coffee shop -burger joint - pizza parlor in the middle of nowhere." The two laugh.
"Yeah I think you're right. I'd have better luck with gas station coffee."
"Yeah dysentery is better than the Jim Jones coffee you're probably about to drink there." The two laugh some more, good longtime friends.
"Yeah I'm heading out to find something then I gotta get back to my guy."
"Alright. Later man."
Antwan Monroe lies sleeping in his bed while his body twitches and shakes mildly. His bony hands grip his sheet and his head moves slowly side to side. His lips tremble and his eyes tighten as he moans. He'd be kicking his legs if he had the strength. The anguish of this poor man never seems to stop.
Harley returns to the hotel seeing the woman behind the counter that was there when he first arrived. "Oh hey." He says to her.
She shrugs in almost a half wince, "Sooo how's everything turning out for you?" He can tell by the awkward tone of her question that not only is she freaked out and disgusted by Mr. Monroe's condition but that he may be as well. Harley Strahm replies a glance to her strange look before shrugging. "Everything is...fine really. He's a cool guy." She continues with a face so silly she'd be embarrassed if she saw a photo of it on social media.
"So you don't think it's...I dunno; gross and weird?"
He nods, "It's a very peculiar case. A sad situation really."
"What happened with what?" He asks sipping his large cup of coffee.
"Like how did it happen?"
Harley shrugs, "It just...happened. Another mystery in the world of the human condition. Well I need to get back to work."
"Alright. Bye." She smiles at him as he exits.
The nurse enters the room and walks into the sheeted section to find Antwan having a nightmare. He looks concerned and moves over next to him to wake him up, "Mr. Monroe... Mr. Monroe..." He says without touching him, understanding the pain it would cause him. "Mr. Monroe... Antwan! Wake up."
The dreaming man wakes up to find Harley standing over him. His eyes are widened and he gasps for air looking around discombobulated.
"What? What is it?"
"You were dreaming."
"Oh, thank God. Another nightmare. I keep having the same one. In the dream Chandra and I are still together but this time I keep growing. My body stretches and fills doubling, tripling, and so forth in size. I outgrow all clothes made for humans. She can't stand it and leaves me. I continue to balloon up until I finally pop, bursting everywhere. In the end it doesn't matter whether I grow or shrink, I still lose her." Harley's stunned by the dream AND the situation.
"Man, that's tough. I'm sorry." He gets Antwan his water who takes a drink before shaking his head.
"Ah, don't be. It's just something I've come to expect, not that it makes it any less uncomfortable. It's just my lot in life. It won't be too much longer anyway and then it'll all stop."
"Well as long as you're in good spirits." Harley and Antwan chuckle together.
"I was always told that you can feel when your time is near; when your body's battery is getting low. I guess that's what I've been feeling."
Harley's hesitant to ask but he's just so damned inquisitive. "What... What exactly does that feel like?"
Mr. Monroe raises a single eyebrow, "You wanna know what dying feels like?"
A slight pause later the nurse replies, "Well no, I don't know. Just what does it feel like when your life's battery is running low? Can you describe it at all?"
"It's like trying to run full speed in ten feet of water. It's like trying to do pushups in wet cement. The light inside grows dim and you're never at full strength again. You can't smack it like a dying flashlight or an old TV with bad reception. It's just like you're living and someone is slowly turning your volume down." Mr. Strahm stops and thinks to himself, taking that in.
"And...what does...the shrinking feel like?" Mr. Monroe sighs and nods before answering.
"…Extreme pressure, pain beyond words, shifting, remolding, tearing, pinching, terrible squeezing; like trying to fit ten pounds of meat into a five pound bag. That's exactly what it feels like; being violently compressed and reshaped and feeling every bit of it. And because it's from my neck down I feel it all down my spine first. The feeling travels down my spine first and then spreads and everything feels like it's sinking into itself and then the bones follow suit, twisting and reshaping to fit everything else that's shrunk down."
"What's worse, the pain of the compression or not having Chandra by you?"
Antwan looks shocked. "Boy, you ARE inquisitive...but it's a fair question. It's kinda hard to answer. If I could have her but still go through this she'd be miserable and I wouldn't wanna see her like that. Without her I still feel like I've hurt her and miss her horribly. The physical regression comes about but doesn't stick around long…but the loss of my wife is always here."
The two men think to themselves beside one another before Harley breaks the silence, "Well, I'd say it's about time for meds."
"Do you know which one I'm supposed to get at this time?" Harley holds up one of the bottles looking them over while speaking low almost as if speaking to himself, "Eh, I never learned how to read but we'll get it figured out."
Mr. Monroe's eyes grow wide and his head cocks back the best it could, "Well wait now... I don't think you should be getting my medicine if you can't read!" Harley laughs holding up Antwan's chart, "I'm just playing. And yes I got your chart so I know what and when."
"Oh damn you play too much boy, but I guess you're keeping me on my toes."
"Hey, someone's got to."
Mr. Monroe laughs and coughs, "You know, it's nice to be with someone without seeing them repulsed or freaking out at the sight of me."
"Nah, you don't have anything to worry about there." Harley says still looking over the meds. "I must ask you though, just out of my own curiosity, do you feel any of this stuff helps?"
"Hard to say. We don't even know what we're treating. Could all be placebos, for all I know. I think some of it helps with the pain but of course during the change they don't touch it."
"I wouldn't imagine so."
"I know one of them is supposed to stunt my nerves and help me sleep."
"Trying to keep your nervous system stable?"
"Does it actually help you sleep?"
"Here and there. The main problem with a stagnant body is the mind continues to run wild."
"I can't even imagine what you go through. You're a strong man, Mr. Monroe. Chandra should be proud."
"I just want her happy. The sad and confusing thing about it is I kinda wish she'd forget about me so she can move on but on the other hand I always want to be in her thoughts. "
"Tough line to walk." Harley prepares the pills, "Alright, get ready..."
"Ugh." Harley uses his hand beneath Antwan's head to tilt it up. The patient's head is tilted as his nurse puts the pills in his mouth followed by the cup of water. He takes the pills and swallows hard almost choking them down. He coughs upon finishing. Harley puts the water down and softly lets the man's head down. Mr. Monroe catches his breath. "You alright?"
"Okay. You mind if I use your restroom?"
"Hell no. I'm paying for it and I don't even get to use it."
"Well with the help of a grande coffee I'm gonna put a stop to that."
"Go right ahead. I'll be here." Harley laughs from the bathroom.
Mr. Strahm finishes urinating and is washing his hands when he looks at himself in the mirror. He splashes water in his face and gives himself a long hard look. The thought of seeing that poor man morph and shrink in such an incredibly painful manner is replaying in his head in quick shards of imagery. He dries his face and hands with the towel and takes a deep in and a out, turns off the light and exits.
"So let me ask you, how does a guy decide this is the kinda work you wanna do?"
Harley doesn't take long to think, "I just like helping people."
"But this is a hospice situation. You knowingly sign up to see people die?"
Harley Strahm nervously chuckles, "Well I've never seen anyone die. I just wanna help where I can, how I can."
"Never seen anyone die? Well I'm delighted to be your first."
"Well aren't we morbid?" The nurse laughs.
"Hey death's a part of life; the last part of life. You don't read a book to the end only to skip out on the
final chapter. You wanna see how it turns out."
"Well what if you already know?"
"Look, sometimes life gives you a spoiler warning and sometimes it doesn't."
The recipient of this knowledge nods, understanding him. "Sounds like a good rule of thumb; something to live by.”
"So you're not married; are you seeing anyone?"
Harley scratches his head and rubs the back of his neck as he answers, "Nah. I was but she broke it off just around the time I signed on to come here."
"Eh, she thought I was too driven. She kept saying that I want so badly to help people that I neglected to help us."
"Breaking up with you for wanting to help? That sounds selfish to me."
"Yeah, that's what my friend, Shook, tells me."
"The decision to devote your life to helping and saving people is deep rooted and it's a gift. Not everyone hears that calling so you should consider yourself blessed. It's a gift from God. Don't let anyone try to steal your gift."
Harley thinks hard and nods his head, "I keep telling myself that but it's hard, you know? I have a passion to make a difference in the world and I can't really control that and with her leaving it feels like I'm being punished for it."
"Did you love her?"
"Yeah, I think that's what makes it harder."
"I know how you feel. You and I are a lot alike."
"Feeling like you're being punished for something you can't control? Oh yeah."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Birds of a feather..."
Another quiet moment passes between the two men who've only just met but are hitting it off. "So with a case as baffling as yours there's bound to be, um, no shortage of half cocked theories around. With that, I'm curious, what're the strangest rumors about you that you've heard?"
Mr. Monroe chuckles ending with a cough, "You should've been a reporter with questions like yours."
Harley laughs, "I'm just nosey. I figured early on the only way I'll be able to help more is if I learn more."
"Fair enough. Let's see I've had some white supremacists say that this was my punishment for being black; that God's a racist and on their side."
"Wow..." Harley says taking off his glasses to clean them.
"I've had people say that because I was a black male I must've caught an STD from being so stereotypically promiscuous."
"A lot of race related theories. I don't get what being black and having a vanishing disease have to do with each other."
"Well sadly, racism is alive and well in America even in today's age."
"It's a hatred I'll never understand."
"You and me both."
"Oh I've heard all kinds. People have suggested everything from aliens to genetics. Truth is that it's just something that happened and there's no stopping it. It came like a thief in the night with no symptoms prior and, while everyone is entitled to their opinions, there's been some pretty loony ideas about an unknown illness and the man, whom they've never met, who has it."
"Well said, well said. It's the only problem with freedom of speech, having to hear ass backwards thoughts on the universe."
"Every rose has it's thorn, even constitutionally." Harley Strahm and Antwan Monroe share a laugh.
"So, onto more important things...you know any good jokes?"
Antwan chuckles, "Yeah, have you heard the one about the..." A shiver interrupts the patient but only for a second as he tries again, "I-I'm sorry, that was weird..."
"Not normal for you?" Strahm is concerned.
"N-no." Antwan is equally concerned and is beginning to look scared. Harley runs to the restroom to wet a washcloth, returns, and springs to the man's side, "Mr. Monroe..." His eyes roll back and he begins to choke. That familiar horrific sound fills the room as Antwan's jaws clinch tightly groaning through his teeth in pain. Harley Strahm watches the man writhe in agony as his body compresses with his bones crunching down, his muscles dissipating, his blood disintegrating as air through his pores, and his breath leaving his body with the shrinking of his lungs. Harley can't believe his eyes. There wasn't much left of him before and now he's transitioning again! Strahm gripped Antwan's shrinking hand like last time as Mr. Monroe tried to get his breathing under control. The squishing and in-fighting of the patient seems to be coming to an end and accompanied by a sound of a crumbling meets a zipper his height diminishes.
The sheet looks like it's grown over his body excessively. His cries of pain come down to a whimper. Harley dabs the man's head with the wet hand towel. Antwan's trying so hard to regulate his breathing but his respiratory system is getting smaller not allowing him to speak or breath as easily as he did even ten minutes prior. Antwan tries to speak through short and sharp breathes but Harley stops him, "Shh, it's okay. You don't have to say anything."
Strahm stops, looking at Mr. Monroe curiously, "Do they normally happen that close together?" Antwan shakes his head the best he can with a look of fear across his face. Harley swallows hard and thinks to himself.
"May I...?" The nurse lifts the sheet to see just how different he had appeared, how big the change was. Scrawny with almost no muscle tone; his very dark skin isn't sagging like you'd expect, everything's taught. He's also much shorter, of course, from when Harley had first arrived.
The sheet's back down. "You gonna be okay for a moment? I'm gonna make a couple of calls." The man shakily nods so Harley gets up and steps out in the hallway on his cell phone. Mr. Monroe lies in bed trying to collect his thoughts while Harley takes another look at him through the wall of sheets while he awaits an answer on the other line.
"This is Lawrence Vaughn."
"Lawrence, this is Harley Strahm; we met earlier today. I'm Mr. Monroe's nurse." Harley's voice is shaky and concerned.
"Yes, Mr. Strahm, what can I do for you?" Lawrence's attitude is very dry and professional.
"Look, I really think you should come down to the hotel right now. I didn't know who else to call."
Lawrence doesn't seem to really grasp the urgency. "Well, Harley, Antwan's condition is a bit abstract and I understand it can be quite a horrific experience..."
Harley interrupts, "I know, that's not what I'm talking about. It-It's something else. It's getting worse.
I... I don't think he's got much time. "
Lawrence's voice corrects itself to the situation, "I'm on my way."
The phone's hung up and Mr. Monroe's nurse returns to his side. "Antwan, Lawrence is on his way." Swallowing repeatedly Antwan nods. Harley takes Antwan's hand with one of his and with the other dabs his head with the washcloth.
"How're we feeling, buddy?"
Antwan coughs and chuckles, "I'd...rather...lose my phone." The two men laugh together as Harley Strahm's eyes begin to tear. The nurse's patient is only a fraction of what he met him at. As he's fighting to stay alive, all Harley can do is try to relax him, steady him.
"What can I get you?"
"Alright I'll get your meds."
"No. I...don't think I could...actually swallow them. ...It's just...the bed hurts."
"Do I have permission to move you?"
"I don't know...if it'd help.”
"Alright, let me think..." Harley thinks to himself quickly before jolting up with his phone, "Hi, front desk?
This is Nurse Strahm, we just spoke earlier. ...I really need extra blankets and pillows. ...As many as you can. It's urgent. Please and thank you." He puts his phone down and rubs his eyes.
"Chandra... Chandra..." Antwan repeats in a near inaudible tone.
Harley continues dabbing his head, "Shh, it's okay. Why don't you tell me about her?"
"She's a...wonderful cook."
"Oh yeah? What could she make me?"
"An...Anything you could think of."
"Well I can think of a lot of good food."
"She could...do it." Antwan says still fighting to get words out. A knock at the door breaks the moment.
"I'll be right back."
Harley answers the door and it's Lawrence.
"Lawrence, I'm glad you came." The two men walk over to the hanging white sheets and open to look in but don't enter. Lawrence Vaughn, an attorney for Mr. Antwan Monroe, sees his radical decline before shutting the sheet back.
He quietly speaks to Mr. Strahm, "You don't know how many calls from various nurses I've received about how bad off he is simply because they couldn't stomach what they were seeing. When you called me, I expected to hear the same spiel I'd already heard before you quit. But I can see that this indeed is worsening."
"I'm not quitting. I just want to help him however I can. He said the bed's hurting him. Now, I wanna try to lift him and..."
There's that familiar terrible sound again cutting off Harley from his plan. The two men rush into the makeshift hospital room to find him decreasing in human stature almost entirely. The shrinking is violent as the two men watch in disgust as the man who has very little to him is about to have a lot less. Mr. Monroe shakes and shivers in pain and screams when his lungs can allow it.
Shoving the sheeted wall open, Lawrence gets on the phone, "Get me Dr. Klein immediately!"
Harley's at Antwan's side attempting to do...something while the deleting man continues to painfully wither and melt beneath his simultaneously retracting shell. He grits his teeth and hollers muffled groans and yells. His forehead sweats and his eyes are strained and bulged. His body is almost down to that of a child's. The tears stream down Harley's face while Lawrence continues his phone call when the pretty young woman enters the room with an arm full of blankets and pillows.
"Oh my God!" She screams upon seeing Antwan Monroe, dropping the supplies. The man of such a strange ailment and bad luck reaches his weak and fragile arm up grabbing Harley's shirt, "Har...Harley...I....I...."
…And now something new: with his body shrunken in both length and girth his limbs are beginning to curl. All four twist unnaturally as he screams out in anguish. His body contorts and coils violently, brutally; audibly disturbing. Harley tries to fight the limbs from curling up by to his surprise they're too strong. To make things even stranger, if possible, the one part of his body that has been unaffected by the condition is now shrinking. As his head compresses the room can hear his skull break and repair, his muscles tear and fade away, and his teeth chattering unnervingly. Antwan's body is almost curled up completely and from his neck down is the size of a toddler. His head continues to change and whatever sounds that may be a voice coming from Mr. Monroe is breaking up and cutting out. He squeals and moans in soreness. Harley quickly, but gently, tucks his arms under his patient, lifting him with the greatest of ease. Harley can feel the aggressive transformation against himself and on his hands. It's disgusting but he doesn't care about that.
"Quick put as many pillows and blankets under him as you can!" The woman's in shock.
Harley continues, "C'mon, I need your help. HE needs your help." She fights her feelings and fills the bed beneath the man with extra cushioning and support. Harley fights tears while watching the man who he's grown to know and like over the course of a day transform and regress. The woman is clearly grossed out and probably a little scared as she fills the space beneath Antwan.
"There. That's all of it." The desk clerk says while breathing heavily.
Harley sets the now baby size man down gently, "Here you go, Mr. Monroe." Antwan Monroe's limbs are stiffened with atrophy and solid with a calcified hardness. All four limbs are curled up inhumanly and he's whimpering in agony as his head continues to shrink. His eyes bulge and appear that they are just about to POP when they begin dwindling in size as well. His jaw cracks and clicks in transformation.
Lawrence Vaughn steps in and sees all this, "My God..." The three stand around this poor sick man watching him fade and/or become...something else.
Antwan's body continues to tremble and morph. His change is visibly painful and the sound is an assault on the ears. While his head diminishes in size the rest of him coils more, distorting. His cries are silenced as a sort of exoskeleton comes up from beneath the sheets, covering him from head to toe. Silence. Absolute silence. The transition has stopped. Antwan Monroe is wrapped up on the customized cushions in the bed looking like brown, black, and bone white boulder. Slight steam comes up from this thing that's left of Harley Strahm's patient. The three, Harley, Lawrence, and the desk girl, have no idea what they just witnessed and are speechless and hesitant about moving in close to it.
"It... It looks like his body shrank, curled up, and stiffened, forming this thing over what was left."
Harley is frozen. "It's crazy and makes no sense but that's what we just witnessed."
"It is crazy but we can’t take back what we've seen. It can't be unseen." Lawrence Vaughn states, as stunned as the others.
"What do we do now?" The woman asks.
"The doctor's on his way." Lawrence says. Harley steps forward to the solidified once human mess.
Mr. Vaughn tries to talk him out of getting any closer, "Strahm, I wouldn't..."
"I-It's alright..." Mr. Strahm says approaching the specimen formerly known as Antwan Monroe. He reaches his hands out to it but is still reluctant to touch it. Harley takes a moment to breathe before finally placing his hands on what Antwan has become. "He's...warm."
"Well of course he's still warm."
"No, not still warm; just warm." The nurse leans over pressing his ear to the hardened human nugget...and gasps. "Heartbeat! I can hear a heartbeat!"
"What!?" Lawrence yells.
"You mean he's still...alive?" The curious woman asks fidgeting with her nervous hands.
Harley's perplexed. "I...I think So." He digs through his nursing bag to find his stethoscope.
"This is ridiculous. I can't believe it." Lawrence states.
Harley listens to the skin coated skeletal husk using his utensil, "Well believe it. It's a steady heartbeat."
"If he's still alive then what is that...thing?" She's obviously bothered by the man-cluster she supplied cushioning for.
"I don't know," Harley thinks, "Maybe it's some kind of egg or cocoon for self preservation or...something..."
Lawrence Vaughn shakes his head in disbelief. "So he's technically a vegetable." Mr. Vaughn declares.
"He may have a heartbeat but surely there's no brain activity."
"I highly doubt it but then again, I would've completely doubted that he or, hell, anyone would or could become this."
The woman's eyes dart back and forth between the two men, trying not to look at the mass in the bed. "I'm sorry. I really gotta get back to work." She leaves and is thankful and delighted to do so. Lawrence joins Harley, coming closer to Mr. Monroe. The random assorted bones are pressing against the tight dark skin that covers them.
"I can't really tell what bone is which. I think this looks like spine over here but this looks like part of the ribcage over here." Harley examines his patient but hasn't actually touched it/him since hearing the heart from within. "If there is still a brain or a head it's in here somewhere."
The form lying still before them has no limbs, no head, and no openings to speak of.
"Dr. Klein is good but I don't know if he's THIS good..." Lawrence sighs deeply. "You ever see anything like this?"
Mr. Strahm continues to investigate, "Not even in a movie..."
There's a knock at the hotel room door. Harley looks up and stands back while Mr. Vaughn answers. Dr. Klein enters understanding it's an urgent matter.
"Mr. Vaughn." The two men shake hands and Lawrence leads the doctor into the smaller built room within. Entering through the draped sheets Lawrence introduces the nurse and Dr. Klein, "Dr. Klein, this is Harley Strahm. He's Antwan Monroe's nurse." The two in the medical field nod and shake hands.
"Nice to meet you."
"Likewise." It catches Dr. Klein's eye, "What on God's green earth is that thing?" Lawrence is curious how this will be explained.
"Well, sir, this is Mr. Monroe..." Harley says. He's baffled to say the least.
"You mean this is or was...human?" Dr. Klein looks back at his lawyer friend while still pointing at the Antwan Monroe pod, "That thing is Antwan?"
Lawrence sighs and nods. "We stood here & watched him turn into that. He just...transformed."
Lawrence shrugs. Dr. Klein is beyond curious as he moves in closer to inspect it. Dr. Klein pulls latex gloves from his pocket and snaps them while his eyes never leave his object of observation. Lawrence and Harley look at each other and then back at the doctor. Klein lays his hands on the mass of taut African-American skin and a dispersed skeleton. He rolls the wad over for a moment examining its exterior before rolling it back.
"It's as if he formed a...shell. Just this thing to die in. Damn. Hell of a way to go."
Harley speaks up, "There's something else, Dr. Klein. There's a heartbeat..."
Dr. Klein is caught off guard with this new information. Using his stethoscope he checks the new being and hears the steady *thump-thump, thump-thump *. He's even more flabbergasted. The doctor rolls Antwan over again listening to the other side.
His eyes widen, "I can hear breathing! His lungs must still be intact; his respiratory system is still at work. Mr. Strahm, come here."
Harley steps up with his stethoscope and listens. "This is incredible. In all the years of practice have you ever witnessed anything like this?"
Dr. Klein sighs with a light chuckle whilst shaking his head, "No. Never."
Lawrence has his arms up still not comprehending the situation, "Doc, what in the hell is going on here?"
"Well," Dr. Klein begins and gives Nurse Strahm a look in hopes of his agreeing, "I don't know how and I don't know why but I think Antwan Monroe is very much alive. I believe that this...transformation isn't an illness or even death but something else. Maybe it happened to help him. The human body is surely remarkable. Perhaps with his troubling ailment his immune and nervous system made a kind of cocoon for him to save him."
Lawrence runs his hands over his head, "Ugh, that's what HE said." Mr. Vaughn motions to the nurse. The doctor looks over at Harley surprised.
"Klein, are there any orifices on it? How is he breathing? How is he still alive?" Lawrence is full of questions.
"I don't know. We'll have to get him down to the lab and run some tests." Dr. Klein answers.
"Something's occurred to me," Harley steps forward with his newfound thought, "If it IS a cocoon or a shell then maybe it would eventually hatch, right? What do you think will come out of there?"
"I don't know but I suppose we better move quickly." The doctor states. The two medical professionals begin wrapping the Antwan cluster in a bed sheet.
Lawrence watches them, "And what if this is what he's actually become, permanently? A ball of skin and bones with a heartbeat..."
Harley's disgusted by his pessimism, "I thought lawyers liked to help their clients." Mr. Strahm stops wrapping Mr. Monroe and walks towards the attorney, "What is it, Lawrence; you looking to score big off of his misery? Off of him being gone?"
Lawrence is stunned and offended, "That is a ludicrous accusation!"
"Gentlemen! We have to move fast and get this man to the laboratory and see what we can do. So if you two would please stop your quarrelling we have work to do."
...And so the two men quit bickering and all worked together to bring it down with a sheet. The woman at the front desk tries not to stare and continues to be repulsed. At Dr. Klein's insistence, Antwan is placed in the back of Harley Strahm's car. The three men reconvene in the center of the parking lot to discuss directions and who's following who as the desk clerk watches from the window. The plan is set and the three separate to their separate vehicles.
Lawrence still appears bothered by the events of the day. He's on his phone, "Yeah, cancel my dinner appointment. I think this is gonna be awhile. ...I'll tell you later. Even if I could explain it you wouldn't believe me."
Dr. Klein drives with a thousand thoughts racing through his mind; from what procedures and tests he could try to the scientific opportunities Mr. Monroe and his case could hold.
Nurse Harley Strahm drives gripping the wheel and talking to Antwan, periodically looking back at him in the backseat, "You know when I signed up I thought I'd be taking care of some boring old man who would feel the need to tell me about his extensive stamp collection but I was pleasantly surprised that wasn't the case. I gotta say, showing up for work today, I would've never expected all this." He reaches back and quickly rubs the sheet covered human ball, "Don't worry, Mr. Monroe, we're gonna try our best to figure this out. Now, just uh..." Harley shrugs, "Sit tight..."
Deep within a sphere of skin and bones a heart beats while lungs inflate and deflate. We're unaware of whether or not his brain has survived the metamorphosis and it will more than likely be some time before brain activity is determined. We're still unsure if this shell of his can feel anything. Is his nervous system still intact?
The three vehicles arrive at the doctor's lab. Dr. Klein swipes his work ID card unlocking the door while the nurse and the lawyer retrieve Antwan from Mr. Strahm's car. He's surprisingly light but they still handle him with care.
"Alright, it's right back here." Dr. Klein says leading the men through the building. They walk through a long corridor seeing offices and testing labs on either side. This is the doctor's home away from home but the other two are far from used to seeing a place like this; not even in any of Harley's schooling did he find anything this advanced.
"Keep going. Almost there." Klein leads them to the back through a large door. "Aaaand set him up on the table over there." Lawrence and Harley gently set Mr. Monroe down on the large chrome table. Dr. Klein proceeds to start his equipment up while the other two look around at this hi-tech laboratory.
"What kind of lab is this?" Harley's curious and inquisitive as ever.
"This specific room is mainly for experimental works; pet projects that wouldn't exactly fall into the same kind of pharmaceutical sciences we otherwise get funding for." Dr. Klein answers still flipping switches.
"Are you telling an attorney of illegal acts?" Lawrence coyly asks.
"Everything's perfectly legal, Lawrence, I assure you. Due to experimental science's critics frowning upon it for what might be considered inhumane it's not exactly popular." Dr. Klein answers while Mr. Monroe's most recent, and probably the last, caretaker is still investigating his surroundings. The sheet's stripped off the patient.
Dr. Klein approaches the table, turning on the overhead light. "First I want a blood sample. Mr. Strahm, do you mind?"
"Not at all." Harley gets prepped. Lawrence hangs back and watches as the doctor brings up a small machine just about bigger than a toaster.
"What's that do?" Mr. Vaughn asks.
"It's a simple heater/cooler combo; I want to see his reactions to both." Klein answers.
Harley's syringe is prepped and the section he's selected has had an alcohol swab. "Alright, you're gonna feel a slight prick here." He quietly tells his patient, who may or may not have the ability to hear seeing as no ears were seen on this exoskeletal capsule. The needle pierces a section of skin in between what looks to be rows of phalanges and metacarpals and the glop of human jolts mildly at the sharpness.
"Well that answers if it can feel anything." Dr. Klein notes. The doctor turns on the machine and waves it past the lump on the table and it starts to vibrate slightly. "A mild reaction to heat. Now let's try cold." Klein reverses the settings, turns it on, and waves it over again; same results. "Same thing on cold."
"You know, doctor, I had a thought: if he's transformed into this, how do we know he's done? How do we know he's not going to go further?" Harley asks.
"We don't..." Dr. Klein brings over his EEG setup and begins putting wired suction cups all over Antwan's new form. "I'm gonna setup a brain scan to run while we check the blood."
He moves with precision and ease. The monitor's set up and Harley follows him back to his desk. Lawrence takes a seat. He understands his loyalty to his client but he really doesn't see a reason he should be present for medical experiments. Harley's dead set on helping this poor man he's gotten to know over the day and of course he's naturally nosey so he's right in the thick of the doctor's work. The doctor enjoys this kind of exploration regardless of its tediousness. Antwan's extracted blood is placed under a microscope with Klein inspecting. Harley is between the experimental doctor's work desk and Mr. Monroe on the table.
It doesn't take Dr. Klein long before he looks back up, "Huh... There's nothing morphed in the DNA."
"So what does that mean?" Harley asks.
"Just...regular human blood." Klein shrugs.
"Doctor..." Harley points out the EEG machine. Dr. Klein and Lawrence both get up and walk over to it.
"This is amazing." Klein states.
"This is insane." Lawrence replies.
The readings are astounding. "These brainwaves are strong and fluid. It's remarkable, the amount of activity inside him. I don't think his brain shrunk at all; if anything, it's probably grown. I don't see readings like this in a perfectly healthy person." Dr. Klein's excited. The strong brain activity seen on the monitor has the three men dumbfounded, surprised, and yet still confused; because, well, what does all this mean?
"Will he need an IV for hydration or feeding?" Harley asks.
"I don't know. It doesn't look to be anywhere on him to exert the waste." Dr. Klein says looking over the mass. "Help me out, guys." The doctor leads the two men over to a locked fence in which he unlocks to go in to the extended equipment storage.
"What are we getting in here?" Mr. Vaughn asks.
Klein replies, "I wanna get a camera set up on him and get him mic'd up." The men haul all the equipment needed to Antwan's slab.
"Okay, plug this one in over there." Klein says to Harley, looking through the cables before he turns to
Lawrence, "And you plug these in over here." Klein sets the microphones up while the other two line up the camera's framing.
"Whew..." The men are exhausted.
"Well it looks like all there to do is...wait, and see what happens over time." Dr. Klein says in all earnestness. The three men look at each other with an agreeing look; shake hands and part ways for the evening.
One Month Later...
Dr. Klein's on the phone, "Yes, well don't worry about it, Lawrence. If anything happens I'll be able to take care of it." Klein hangs up the phone as Harley Strahm walks in taking off his jacket and tossing it in a nearby desk chair, "What's the good word?"
Klein chuckles, "I don't know why you keep coming here day after day, Mr. Strahm."
"If he's alive he's still technically my patient." He speaks with honesty.
Dr. Klein chuckles heartily, "Ah, I wish we had more like you." The doctor continues looking over readings and Harley joins him in checking out the charts.
"Everything staying steady then?" Harley asks.
"No change in his physical state but the brain activity seems to be increasing. He hasn't really made much in terms of sound and on occasion he sort of...rumbles."
Mr. Strahm looks Antwan Monroe over seeing no physical change from the day of his alteration. Through latex gloves he feels the patient's exterior, "He feels warm."
"Yeah we've been keeping an eye on his temp as well. He's been maintaining average degrees."
"I wonder how long before this thing...hatches."
"Who knows? Might be like Mr. Vaughn suggested and this may be it."
"I don't know why but I have a strong feeling it's not. But time will tell..."
"I'm sure it will. He's quite the interesting project."
"Let's try to keep in mind that there's still a Person in there." Harley says protectively with a look.
"Of course; I'm a doctor." Dr. Klein smirks.
"Alright, what's first today?" Harley asks rubbing his hands together.
"I figured we'd try some ointments and creams to see how he reacts."
"Sounds good." The two get to work on their patient.
Two months later.
Dr. Klein enters his personal laboratory in the back of his office building and sees a beautiful black woman sitting just inside the room. She looks worried, nervous.
"Can I help you?" The doctor asks her, surprised to find someone there in a private facility.
Before she can answer Nurse Strahm steps forward, "I asked her to come. This is Chandra Monroe, Antwan's wife."
Dr. Klein's shocked, "Well hello." He greets her shaking her hand.
"Hi. I'm going to be honest; I don't really know why I'm here." She says. It's clear that Klein isn't liking this, "I'm not sure either." He says looking at Harley. "Mr. Strahm, are you sure this is a good idea?"
"I think it's necessary." Chandra continues to be confused.
Dr. Klein nods reluctantly, "Yes, well..."
"Okay, Mrs. Monroe, I believe we're ready for you." Harley takes her by her hands, standing her up and leading her deeper into the lab. "Now, Chandra, I need you to remain calm." He says nodding to her.
She replies the nod understanding, "I'm scared." She admits to him.
"I understand. You see, Antwan has given us something extraordinary..."
Dr. Klein watches this while leery but still backs up his recent unexpected partner, "Mr. Strahm is right. Mr. Monroe is something else."
Harley leads her to the table but warns her before allowing her to see, "Now, what you are about to see may appear frightening at first but it's perfectly safe and benign." She begins breathing heavily; the warning alone works her nerves.
He moves to the side revealing Antwan, or what he's morphed into.
She gasps, "What...what is this?" She looks at the spherical mass on the table coated in skin and bones assorted in an armored state, pulsating.
Harley softly says, "Chandra...this is Antwan." Her hand comes up to her mouth in shock and awe.
Tears stream down her face and she's almost at a loss of breath and she's certainly at a loss for words.
"He's alive." Harley assures his patients estranged wife.
Klein inserts, "It would appear that his rapid transformation was leading him to this. He has a steady heartbeat, strong brain activity and, while we're still not sure how, his lungs are working fine."
She can't take her eyes off of the mass on the table she once married and still very much loves. "I... I..."
She reaches her hands out to him but is hesitant to touch him, "Is he....contagious?"
"No," Dr. Klein says, "It's a solitary incident. In our research we can't find any other case like his. It's a rarity and an oddity but there's been no sign of contagion."
She sniffles with tears still flowing and the two men watch as she embraces the exoskeletal blob. She feels it with her bare hands and it reacts to her touch with a slight rumbling vibration. She pulls back scared by the unexpected movement.
"It's okay, " Harley tells her, "He reacted to your touch. That's a good sign." The nurse and the doctor look at one another at this new development.
Their eyes light up as Klein moves in close to Strahm quietly, "You made the right choice."
She touches her husband again and traces her fingers around the electrodes fastened onto him.
"Those monitor his brainwaves." Harley motions to the machine beside them answering her verbally unasked question. "Oh..." She says choked up. She gently and softly presses her palms to his...body. Antwan reacts again. She looks up at the two and smiles. Mr. Monroe continues to tremble at the touch of his loves hands. "What...is he now?"
"We've been referring to his current state as a cocoon of sorts. We still have no idea how and why it happened. Your husband's quite the mystery."
She smiles and lightly chuckles wiping her face, "He always has been." Chandra returns to the doctor's project and listens before resting her head down pressing her ear to him. *Thump-thump thump-thump* She happily cries at the sound of his heartbeat. "Does he feel pain?"
"He reacts to different things we've assumed in discomfort but we haven't looked into his pain threshold."
"We figured he'd had his share." Harley adds to the doctor's statements.
"I almost forgot," Harley says pulling a cell phone out of his pocket and placing it on the table, "He hates losing that thing."
She laughs lightly wiping her eyes, "Yes he does." She wraps her arms around the limbless and headless man, "Antwan, I'm so sorry. I've been so stupid. I just couldn't stand seeing you go through that. I don't know if you can hear me, but I love you and I hope you can forgive me."
She's draped over him crying. Her tears drop, hitting his bony skin. She kisses its exterior.
The sphere begins to quake as she pulls away in reaction. The electrodes pop off of the patient one by one as he shakes and pulsates heavily.
"Uh, doctor..." Harley calls back to Dr. Klein who's at his desk. He gets up to join the nurse and Chandra. The three stand eagerly awaiting what is about to happen. Mr. Monroe's 'body' throbs and wobbles. It begins to morph and change with that disgusting wet sound ringing in everyone's ears. Distinct lines begin forming over the mass and the bones loudly pop and snap, shifting around. The human wad starts to separate and unfold as the three in attendance step back, all breathless. The cocoon hatches and they're in awe as a new entity emerges. Antwan Monroe 2.0 comes off the table and steps forward breathing in the air. Will he remember anything? Is he the same man? For the first time in his professional career Dr. Klein is at a complete loss. Harley swallows hard. Chandra faints. The once near shapeless mass has a new form, strong and sturdy. While Chandra is passed out on the floor, Klein and Strahm’s jaws drop. Antwan's eyes open to see the world anew...
"So... What's next?" Harley Strahm asks openly to an otherwise silent room while his eyes never leave his patient, a miracle of modern science, breathing new life into his lungs.
"Harley..." Mr. Monroe speaks greeting his nurse, “…Good to see you.”