Those who become doctors do so for one of two reasons: the love of life, or the love of power.
When you graduated medical school and took your first steps on the path to becoming a surgeon, you were certain that you would be surrounded by peers like yourself, peers who respected life and worked to save it when they could and protect its dignity when they couldn’t. What other reason was there to attend all those torturous years of studying and sleepless nights? What other reason was there to endure the constant sight of flesh being sliced open and stitched back together, the terror and grief of loved ones forced to wait outside the operating theatre, the unrelentingly ugly reality of the dying?
The longer you worked, the better you knew. You heard the cruel laughter of other doctors as they mocked their patients and traded stories. You were there in the operating room when another surgeon walked in, flipped up the sheet to admire the patient’s breasts and continued his conversation with the nurse like nothing happened. You watched the hope and energy drain from those around you, replaced by cynical and shrewd opportunism, until you barely recognized the people you began working with.
Granted, that could have just been because everyone kept transferring.
“I’ve finished my residency,” Doctor Bisco had told you with an unapologetic shrug as he carried his box down the hall like a trophy, “and I got a great offer from San Giovanni. I’m outta here. You’re sure you want to take over my current patients?
What, like you’re still going to take care of them? You wanted to say, but held your tongue. It wasn’t wrong to want more money—nobody would deny you were being overworked, least of all you—but something gnarled and angry stirred in the bottom of your heart when you heard him talk about numbers and connections, like it was all that mattered. Like the politics of the administration mattered more than the people.
When you opened the door to your office and found Doctor Cioccolata Torte sitting in your chair and drinking coffee out of your mug, you started to wonder if maybe they did.
“Doctor Amaretto! Having a good shift so far, I hope?” the man exclaimed as he set your mug down and smacked his lips, giving you a very obvious once over. You felt your jaw twitch. Rather than say the impulsively stupid first words that came to mind, you took a moment to wonder if his black lipstick was that shiny because it was freshly applied.
“Doctor Torte. I’ve asked you not to use a nickname with me,” you ignored his question and walked to the desk, unable to shake the feeling of being a visitor in your own office. You moved your mug away from him and resisted the urge to immediately throw it in the garbage can—even if the lipstick came off, you weren’t sure you were willing to drink from something he touched no matter how much you washed it.
“I’ve also asked you to remember boundaries. You’re not supposed to be in here when I’m gone…” Were these papers in the order you left them in? What else had been touched? Torte frowned, but it apparently wasn’t at your rebuke.
“I keep telling you to call me Cioco-lata!” he whined. “We’ve worked together too long for you to be this formal!”
“Well, I keep asking you not to call me Amaretto,” you said evenly. “Use the name I have, not the one you gave me.”
The nickname, while cute, wasn’t a flattering one. You had rankled at Torte’s dismissive bedside manner and the way the hospital administration blatantly favored him. He was their celebrity surgeon, the skilled doctor called upon to take care of the politicians and rich businessmen when they needed medical care, and in exchange for high-profile success (and the large donations that followed) was given next to no real oversight. Most of your peers were happy to follow suit, trying to curry favor with either him or those in power.
Those who love life and those who love power will never be friends.
“That’s so cute of you!” Doctor Torte had laughed, seeing the grit of your teeth when you caught him videotaping a patient’s agony-induced babbling, “You seem sweet, but you’re bitter. Just a little bitter. Well,
? If you have a problem, surely you should go and tell the director?”
The taunt echoed in your ears even today, silencing the comment you were about to make about knowing for a fact that the door was locked when you left.
Shouldn’t you tell the director?
A long moment passed as Torte leaned back in his seat, toying with one of your pens as he regarded you thoughtfully. There had always been something unidentifiable in the way he stared at you that made your skin crawl. You knew what lust looked like, and you’d definitely caught it in his face before, and you’d seen amusement when he watched you mentally grapple with the fact that no complaint to administration would touch him. This was something else.
This was something that only showed on his face in the rare moments the two of you were alone, and the unsettling sense that it was just barely restrained made your gut twist in a nameless reaction that could only be called fear.
You wanted to open the door behind you, but that would require you to turn your back to Torte. That was out of the question, so instead you took a deep breath.
“What can I help you with?” You felt your tone get even more clipped, stretching the limits of professional politeness.
“I want you…” Torte paused, tasting the words, but then apparently remembered the rest of the question. “I want you to change your scheduling. Give your cases to Madeline, or Pignoli—I’ve seen the patients you’re supposed to work on! You’re one of the brightest surgeons on this staff and they fill your days with cholecystectomies and artery bypasses for riffraff that would just get sick again anyway…” he waved his hands, words no longer sufficient for his contempt.
“I ch—“ you began, but he continued as if you hadn’t.
“You’ll never grow as a doctor like this. You could be brilliant, but you’re too worried about cleaning up the trash.”
The phase change from ‘strong dislike’ to ‘outright hate’ was like a plunge into icy water, powerful enough to make you dizzy. You felt yourself flush as your heart hammered behind your ribs, and in the next moment realized you’d moved forward to lean over the desk, close enough to Torte’s face to kiss.
“I chose,” you repeated slowly, carefully, determined to make every syllable sink in, “to treat them all. Everyone I could, especially the ones people like you would ignore.”
His eyes were so dark. Wide and black and empty, like a shark’s. How had you never noticed before? How had you never seen the nothing behind his eyes?
“I am a doctor, and that means I heal people. I will heal whoever I can, no matter how trivial their condition is or how little they can pay, until my heart gives out. Are you hearing me? Keep your politics and connections to yourself. I’ll work in the ER until I drop dead if I have to, because I’ll die first before I become anything like you.”
“I understand completely,” Torte muttered, voice soft.
“Great!” You straightened up and walked away to throw the door open. It hit the wall with a bang, rattling the pictures of your dogs in their frames. You gestured with a sweep of your arm.
“Get out of my office.”
Doctor Torte left quietly, almost meekly, pausing to study your face on his way out. It wasn’t until you heard the sound of his footsteps recede completely that you began to breathe normally again.
You couldn’t help but sigh as you finished dropping off your tools at the decontamination area. The end of your shift was finally, finally in sight. The only thing holding you up at the moment was sheer willpower, and when you made your way back to your office all you could think about was collapsing into your chair, getting to rest.
“Doctor Amaretto!” Hurried footsteps as someone rushed for you from behind.
“What?” You jerked your head, a rebuke on your lips—I don’t care if he does it, you can’t call me that—and paused when you realized you didn’t recognize the wide-eyed young nurse in pale green scrubs, mask pulled up almost over his eyes. You sighed and ran a hand through your hair as he kept pace alongside.
“I’m so sorry about that, you must be new and I’m very tired. Amaretto is…an office nickname, one I’m not fond of.” You tapped your nametag. “Call me this instead, okay?”
“You’re needed for a surgery in the new wing,” the nurse replied instead of answering, “I’m supposed to take you there.”
It was enough to make you stop dead. Now? But nothing had been scheduled. The image of your beloved office chair loomed in your mind. God, you needed to sit down…
“It’s an emergency,” the nurse offered, “life or death. You’re the only one who can do it. Won’t you come?”
You felt another sigh escape you.
“Alright. Lead the way…ah, you’ve forgotten your nametag…”
“Secco,” he replied, picking up speed to lead you away from the main operating theaters. You made one turn after another—this hospital was the oldest in Milan, and the layout could get confusing—until you started looking for signs or familiar faces to try and figure out where you were. Fewer and fewer doctors milled around as you walked, and soon the only people in the hall were you and Secco. Finally, just when you were sure he had gotten the both of you lost, Secco pulled a door open and stood aside, a mute invitation.
The operating theater was empty. You blinked a couple times to check if maybe you were hallucinating (you weren’t).
“I don’t understand. Where’s the patient?” You turned, hoping for an explanation, directly into a savage blow as Secco struck. Your vision filled with white as he drove his fist into your temple. A strangled half-cry of pain echoed in the theatre as you collapsed, gracelessly falling to the floor until your head rested on the cool tile. The blurry silhouette of a man wavered in your vision, looming over you. In the next instant, it was two.
“You’re so funny, Doctor Amaretto,” Cioccolatta Torte laughed, an unnaturally high pitched sound as Secco stepped away to shut the door, “she’s right here.”
He drew his leg back as if preparing a kick, but you blacked out in the moment it connected.
You were so cold.
The sterile air was absolutely freezing, wafting over your bare skin (what happened to your coat and scrubs?). You were reclining, resting in a chair, and for a foolish moment you let yourself believe that you were back at your office, waking up from an unproductive nap and a disturbing nightmare.
Whatever your head rested on was warm, someone’s shoulder. That someone’s fingers were trailing through your hair, moving it away from your face, and that forced you to open your eyes. Nobody touched you like this.
The first thing you registered was the lens. A camera loomed in front of you, fixed on your face, held by that nurse—if he even was a nurse—capturing every minute expression in your face. And if he was here, then that was…
You recoiled, pulling your head as far away from Doctor Torte as you could. This turned out to be a few centimeters, because you weren’t reclining in a chair, you were bound to it.
“Did you have to wake up so soon? I was enjoying that.” Torte pouted, having the nerve to look hurt, and then looked at Secco. “It’s recording, right? Plenty of battery? I won’t forgive you if you mess this one up.”
Your breath came in shaky gasps, but you forced yourself to look around. The lights here were bright, too bright for you to make out much more than the men before you and a small table of surgical tools. You had no idea where you were, but the feeling in the air made you worry that it wasn’t anywhere in the hospital.
“Doctor Torte—“ you began, but the words died in your throat as he grabbed you, cupping your cheeks in his hands and forcing you to look him in the eyes.
“I keep telling you,” he breathed, “to call me Cioccolata. When you’re begging, when you’re pleading, when you’re screaming, you’ll say Cioccolata, or the first thing I’ll do is take the tongue out of your head.”
Were you going to die? The frenzied intensity in Cioc—Torte’s eyes seemed to promise nothing else.
The moment passed, and he took a deep breath and stepped away. “You’re just trying to get me worked up,” he mused with a smile, “that’s what this is. It won’t work! This is going to be special. It’s like a first date.”
You heard the camera whir as Secco zoomed in, taking in different parts of your face with shaky glee.
“Doctor T—Cioccolata,” you hated the waver in your voice when you said the words, watching him select a large needle and an IV bag from a box (they didn’t gag you because it didn’t matter if you screamed, nobody was coming and that meant nobody would save you if he really did cut your tongue out). “This is insane. This is murder—“
“Exciting, right?” You recoiled at his clammy touch when he put his hands on you again, poking at the flesh of your elbow. He plunged the needle in without any preamble, eliciting a spasm of agony; he’d missed the vein.
He frowned as your face twisted in pain, but the camera was still going. “Oops. You know, you really should hydrate better if you don’t want this to happen.”
“Why are you doing this?” you hated, hated how your voice had become a whisper. All the angry courage you had in your office this morning had completely evaporated, leaving you weak and trembling and alone in front of Death and his sycophant.
And every instant of it was going to be preserved, forever.
Cioccolata sank the needle into your arm again, this time a cold pinching sensation instead of the electric pain you’d felt before. He taped the tube in place and attached the IV to some point behind your head, somewhere he couldn’t see. He stood, pausing to caress your jawline before his fingers wandered down to the frantic rhythm of your pulse.
“You’d die first, right? That’s what you said.” The words he threw back at you were casual, infuriatingly so, as if their significance was no greater than the date and time of an appointment. He walked back to the table, laid out with all its implements, and selected a syringe from a styrofoam box.
“I wasn’t sure what to do with you, at first. I thought about cutting the median nerve in your wrists and taking your talented hands from you forever…” he chuckled to himself and tapped the syringe, watching the clear liquid flow around, “but that seemed wasteful. Maybe I’ll do it if you’ve been bad, but I didn’t want it to be what made you mine.”
“In fact, until this morning I wasn’t sure what I would do to you. I knew what I wanted to build up to, but not how to start, what that first operation between us should be…and then you had a brilliant idea! You’re so smart.” he winked. The needle gleamed in the light, laden with unspoken promise, but it was that look on his face again—the one you saw in your office, the one that only came out when you were alone and there was nobody to help you—that really frightened you.
You couldn’t help it. You writhed in your restraints, desperately, as he approached, though they were tight enough that moving even a half-centimeter was out of the question. You watched, helplessly, as the needle plunged into the IV, delivering its payload straight into your veins.
“What is that—what is—don’t—“ you babbled, even though it was far too late to do anything. Cioccolata didn’t reply, just stroked your head.
“You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine…when we watch this together later, you’ll laugh at how hysterical you were over this.”
You wanted to throw up, but you forced yourself to try to control your breathing, to steady your runaway heart now beating fast, too fast, out of control, rushing toward the edge and plunging into hysteria…
And in that next instant, your heart stopped. You felt yourself change, from being a living person to a conscious mind trapped in a cooling corpse.
The light, too-bright before, was now unbearable, burning into your retinas as your pupils expanded unnaturally. You felt the blood pool in your legs and arms, a sensation you wanted to regard with mind-numbing terror but could only manage detached curiosity. You gasped for breath, once, twice, but no relief came with the action—air was coming into your lungs, but it wasn’t going anywhere. You were dying, you were dying, you were dying, your mind wheeled frantically, scrambling for a way to save yourself, but you had nothing. There was nothing you could do.
Ciocolatta had severed the strands holding you to life—how frail! How incredibly easy to cut!—and now you were in free-fall, plummeting into the yawning mouth of the grave.
In the instant your heart started again, Ciocolatta’s dark lips slammed into yours, stealing the breath you would have gasped as you felt life return, a hazy euphoria blanketing your body and filling the void in your chest.
His hands came up to your face, holding it steady as he continued to kiss you, pressing hard enough that they could feel your returned pulse.
“Didn’t that feel incredible, Amaretto? Don’t you feel amazing?”
You didn’t feel anything at all, actually. Shock made you dazed and pliant, submissive to his touch.
“Cioccolata…! You’re getting in the way of the shot! You’re covering up her face!” Secco, forgotten until now, made his complaint known as a petulant whine, stamping his feet and forcing the camera closer, almost delivering a kiss of its own. You couldn’t help but stare at yourself reflected in the glassy lens, a trail of lipstick smears covering your mouth and continuing towards your neck.
“What did you…do?” you struggled to get the words out.
“You’ve dropped dead!” he clapped his hands in glee. “You won’t be healing anyone anymore, you’ll be playing with me. That was our little promise, remember?”
He regarded the IV, still hooked into your arm, with an expression you would learn to recognize is dark intent.
“If you have a problem with it, though, we can do it again to make really sure. You’ve got a strong heart, you can take it.”