Izzy Gacusan’s short story ‘Fight or Flight’ was Highly Commended in the 2016 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award. Here it is for your late-summer reading pleasure.
He’d been here before. He was familiar with the peculiarity of this place, but found no solace in this. He awoke just minutes ago, stiff bed sheets poking at him. After a moment’s confusion, his eyes centered and his brain registered. Crowe sat up with harsh velocity and sputtered a swear word before bounding out of the bed. The room was dim, lit only by the screens of the machines that surrounded him. They beeped incessantly, noises screeching into his ears all at once. But worst of all was the smell. It smelt of sterility, a kind of intense cleanliness that stung each time he inhaled. He stood next to the bed assessing the situation, forcing himself to make a decision. Fight or flight? He’d lost the fight before – he wouldn’t be here again if he hadn’t. So flight it was.
From the opposite end of the room, light flooded in through a doorway. He headed towards it when his arm was tugged backwards, stopping him in his tracks. He looked down to realize he was tethered, held captive by tubes that ensured his escape plan futile. There were four to be exact, two in each arm that connected to two machines. He hadn’t noticed them until now, but he wasn’t surprised—Crowe had seen this before. He hated these tubes, these callous restraints that took away his autonomy. They went from the machine and into his arms, where they pierced beneath his skin and into his veins. Each tube transported a clear liquid that seeped into him, four snakes that burrowed deep within the soil of his skin. They were transparent snakes capable of vile things—snakes that could immobilize him. He needed to get away from them, to stop them before they stopped him. He’d done it before, but it hurt like hell. Still, he knew he had no choice. He clutched at a tube in his left arm, shut his eyes and took a deep breath. In one swift motion he pulled downwards, ripping the restraint away as he tried to silence his exclaim. The clear liquid spilled out onto the floor where the serpent surrendered into a puddle. Meanwhile, a warm trickle slid down his left arm. It was a price he was willing to pay if it meant escaping. He did the same to the rest of the tubes, holding back tears as he tore them away. Though blood now glided down his arms, he sighed in shaky relief as he powered closer to freedom.
As he crept towards the door where the light emanated from, a voice began to boom before Crowe could peek out and look.
“The boy in 22E. He’s a flight risk.” the deep voice noted.
Crowe could tell it was late at night, and beyond the machines there was nothing but silence. Silence and this man’s voice. He spoke with authority, the kind of authority that hammered into your ears even in a crowded room. Within the silence of this night, his voice raged like a jackhammer.
“I’ll check on him now,” another man responded, in a softer tone—a whisper.
Crowe could feel his heart beating hard, a rush of anxiety swelling up inside of him. He looked over where the light shone slightly on the door and read the sign, clear as day: 22E. It was him, he was the flight risk that the man warned about. He was the boy that was being guarded, ensured to stay prisoner within the dark confines of this place. This place he knew better than he’d like to admit, better than anyone would ever want. With each heartbeat, Crowe anticipated the footsteps treading closer and closer towards him. He needed a plan, a plan better than fight or flight. But he was drawing blanks, frozen still in complete fear. He refused to be caught, to be a bird caged against his will. But all he could see was red. The red in the water of the toilet as he sat on the floor, hunched over it in pain. The red on his father’s handkerchief as he tried to hide his tears from Crowe. The red of the ambulance, with its sirens roaring and its lights flashing bright. The red of the traffic light, as the driver ignored the law and sped past it to deliver him to this dwelling once more. But most of all, he saw the red on his arms and was reminded of his will to fight. Sneaking out was no longer an option. Subtleties were thrown out the window and if Crowe wanted to fight, he’d have to take flight. Barefoot and bloodstained, he ran.
“Crowe! Stop!” the man pleaded, just moments away from 22E.
“Stop him!” another ordered. The Jackhammer.
The exhaustion was catching up with him and his feet were sore and heavy. Eventually, he began to slow down, his body getting the best of him. Not entirely sure of his surroundings, he settled on a door and opened it. It was a storeroom, dim with a single bulb dangling overhead. Trays of weird contraptions filled the shelves, along with stacks of towels and blankets. As he shifted himself into the room, his body gave out and he collapsed to the harsh cold floor, shutting the door behind him. He had been seen, not just by the voices beyond his room but by others. It was late and there weren’t many people around, but others had seen him. While some burned stares through him, it didn’t matter. They couldn’t stop him even if they wanted to. For the most part, he found comfort in knowing that he was a blur moving too fast for others to register. Crowe couldn’t help but smile at the thought of this, it felt appropriate. Everything was a blur lately.
“There is no cure,” the doctor told him not too long ago. That’s when the blur began, and from that moment on, this place became the home he never asked for. It was a place filled with too many bad memories that it just couldn’t be home at all. Those four words took the air out of his lungs and ever since then he’d been struggling to breathe. But that didn’t mean he had given up hope. It didn’t mean he had given up the fight. In fact, fighting was all that he ever did. He was a ‘chronic escaper’ just as much as he was chronically ill. At least, that’s what his father kept saying. After a few minutes, Crowe finally sat up, readying himself to run some more. He was still exhausted, sore even in his bones. As he sat in the still darkness, he thought about how far he’d ran and how much he had pushed his body tonight. He was impressed he had made it this far, that his body could keep up. But it was clearly a burst of energy fueled by adrenaline and now his body was showing signs of illness once more. Still, he was delighted at tonight’s accomplishments. He giggled to himself as he thought about the nurse with the purple hair, who squealed with embarrassment when the back of his hospital gown blew open and gave her a little too much to see. This turned into complete laughter when he thought about the last time he was here, when he escaped and they found him wearing a lab coat ‘treating’ a patient in the ER. Sure, this place was unpleasant, but it wasn’t always bad. As he sat there reminiscing about this time, and that time, and all the other times he was here; he smiled and laughed and sighed.
But then he sighed more and more, before the frustration wouldn’t leave at all. A lump emerged in his throat and his eyes began to water. He slammed at the shelves in defeat as his tears began to pour. What was his plan? He had been running for what seemed like hours now and still, he had nowhere to go. The moment he left this supply closet, he would repeat the cycle. Run until his body gave up, and find a new hiding place to recover before he would run again. He wasn’t sure how much fight he had left; how much further he could run. At the back of his mind, Crowe knew that no matter how far he ran, he’d always end up at the starting point again. It’s what happened every time he did this. This wasn’t a maze that he could escape, it was a relay race that went on forever. Sat upon the unforgiving floor, he saw red once again. The blood that had slowly dripped down his arms had stained his skin now, and only a minute trail continued to seep out of the wounds. Blended with his dark skin tone, it was now the same shade as his meds. Plastic tasting pills that kept his body as normal as a faulty one can be. There was something calming about it – the lines of deep red trickling down towards his palms. It tickled in the weirdest way, it captivated him the way rain does as it trickles down a car window. Without knowing why, he sat there in complete stillness, watching his blood contrast against the darkness of his skin. Like a red snake slithering along the forest floor, he wouldn’t dare interrupt its path. Instead he simply watched as it slithered on. He felt a strange reassurance in this, seeing his body do what other bodies can. To bleed like everyone else does. Being ill made him feel different, like his body was a constant reminder of those dreaded words – there is no cure. Words that shattered his heart and slapped a label on his forehead telling the world that his body was permanently, and irrevocably damaged. But the red snakes, they did him something to him. They showed him that his body was just a body. That it bled like all bodies do, and for a moment, Crowe smiled. He thought he had escaped these snakes just moments ago. He thought he had defeated them, left them in a puddle of nothingness back in the ward. But here they were, on his arms all along. With him the entire time he thought he was free. But it was different this time. These snakes didn’t scare him. In fact, they comforted him.
Finally, he composed himself and let out one last sigh. He knew that he could escape the room again and again, but he couldn’t escape this, not really. As he pondered his next move, the door flew open.
“There you are!” the man bellowed. It was the Jackhammer. He wasn’t angry, in fact his voice faltered with worry. He was loud, but his face showed compassion.
“Hi Jack,” Crowe said, cheekily.
“I’m Dr. Pearce” he replied, confused. Crowe simply smiled back. “Your usual doctor is out of town at the moment, but he called me when the paramedics brought you in,” he added. He knelt down beside Crowe, who sat silently staring across at the shelves in front of him.
Minutes passed as no words were exchanged. Crowe continued to avoid eye contact when the Jackhammer sat beside him, facing the same shelves his patient did.
“Why me?” he said finally, his voice breaking into a whisper as the words fell from his mouth. They felt like fire as he spoke them. He hated himself for going there, for showing how much his reality hurt him. The doctor took a breath and smiled gently at him.
“It seems to me that if anyone’s going to face this, it’s only fair it’d be someone like you. Someone with fight in them,” he responded, nudging him by the shoulder. Finally, Crowe looked at him, tears welling up in his eyes once more.
“But I ran. I always run.”
“Who says that’s not fighting?”
“I had a life before this you know! I have a life to get back to…” he answered with frustration. The doctor sighed and looked at him, staring intently.
“This is your life now, Crowe. At least, it’s part of it. You can’t run from your own body… and you shouldn’t have to. That’s why I’m here. That’s why we’re here.” He stood up and stretched his hand out to Crowe who sat for a moment, teary and bloodstained. But then he rose, reaching out to the Jackhammer as they exited the supply closet together.
When they finally returned to the ward, Dr. Pearce suggested the nurse clean up his arms and redo his IV’s. While they waited, Crowe looked down at his arms once more. It frustrated him every day to know his body was faulty, to have to wake up in the hospital every so often. But it also filled him with pride, to know how much fight he had within him. Every day he was here was another day that he was fighting. He looked up to see his father smiling at him. He put his arm around Crowe and lead him back to 22E, where they sat on the bed beside each other.
“They called me to tell me you were missing,” he started. He paused for a second, anticipating a frustration fueled remark: his son’s specialty. He knew Crowe didn’t like being brought back to the wards, and was expecting to have to cool him off. But when Crowe remained silent, staring at the blood on his arms, he continued. “A nurse with purple hair greeted me at the reception,” he said, grinning. “Said you were a bit cheeky tonight.”
He chuckled. As did Crowe, which took the old man by surprise.
“You’re different this time,” he added, when the laughter had stopped.
“It’s different this time,” Crowe finally spoke. He looked up at his father who had a question on the tip of his tongue, clearly hesitant to let go of it. Crowe nodded at him, signaling that he was ready to hear it.
“Why?” he asked simply.
“Because I can’t run from my own body… and I shouldn’t have to, Dad,” he beamed.
He lay in bed moments later, staring blankly at the ceiling. He hurt all over, his body clearly worn out by his efforts tonight. Still, as he lay there sore and tired, he couldn’t help but feel good. His father was right. Tonight was different, and different felt nice. The red snakes were gone, disappearing under the wipes of the nurse’s command. But that night, Crowe dreamt of snakes following his footsteps as he walked across a field of grass. Blood red ones that slithered in the dirt, and transparent ones that crawled up his body and wrapped themselves around his arms like tubes. The next day, when the Jackhammer asked him how he was feeling, Crowe smiled at him.
“Like I’m home.” he answered.
About the Writer
Izzy Gacusan is a writer and student based in Canberra. His work has been published in Veronica Literary Magazine and Djed Press. In 2016, he was highly commended for the Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award. Beyond writing, he is completing his studies in English Literature and Criminology.