All the Stars in the Sky

When my daughter Violet was born, I didn’t have much to offer her.

My wife and I both worked, but housing was expensive where we lived and much of our income went towards renting our cramped two bedroom apartment.  Owning our own home was still just a dream then.  All of the baby clothes and other items we had gotten to prepare for Violet’s birth had been purchased secondhand, and I had taken on a second job to make sure that we’d be able afford formula and other necessities.

The first time that I held Violet, I looked down at that little wrinkled face and I just knew that any struggles in the coming days would be worth it.  She was perfect, and she deserved a perfect life.  I looked over at my wife Tara and smiled.

“Someday,” I told her, “I’m going to make sure this child has all the stars in the sky.”

When Violet was five, she caught chickenpox from another child at her preschool.  Because of this, she was required to stay home for two weeks while the infection ran its course.  This was extremely hard on her.  She was a very social child, and being apart from her friends for that long quickly began to take its toll.

In an effort to raise her spirits, I stopped by a thrift store on the way home from work and purchased a telescope that I had seen a few days earlier.  I set it up in her bedroom window and turned off the lights.  She stared up into the clear night for hours, fascinated by the heavens and the things that filled it.  When she finally went to bed, she snuggled into her pillow and asked me if someday she could go to space.

“I’m sure you will,” I said to her.  “You’ll fly right up to space and become the princess of all the stars in the sky.”

Two years later, when Violet was lying in a bed in a pediatric cancer ward, I would visit her each evening after work and all day on the weekends.  I would have spent every single moment with her if it had been at all possible, but I had to remain employed to be able to continue to afford our health insurance.  Tara never left her side, though, so I was comforted that she was never alone.

The cancer was aggressive, and while the doctors tried everything that they could, the disease continued to progress towards its inevitable conclusion.

There’s no preparing for the death of a child.  My wife and I did our best to brace ourselves for what we knew was coming, but with each passing day we started to break down more and more.  There were no more words of encouragement between us, no more promises that things were going to take a turn for the better.  There was only silence as we sat next to Violet’s bed, each of us holding one of her small hands as we watched the heart rate monitor.

One day, the most terrible day that I have ever known, the lead doctor assigned to Violet’s case told us that she had less than twenty-four hours.  Something broke inside of me as he spoke, something that had been cracking apart the entire time that she had been in the hospital.  Knowing that I couldn’t go back into her room while I was in such a state, I went into the restroom at the far end of the ward hallway and locked myself inside one of the stalls.  The pain and frustration and fear and a thousand other emotions crashed down on me like a tidal wave, and I wept so hard that I was left gasping for air.

After I finally got control of myself, I took several deep breaths before cleaning myself up with toilet paper.  I left the stall and splashed cold water over my face at the sink.  I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I did so.  The face that stared back at me looked old and tired, almost unrecognizable.

A voice called my name from the bathroom entrance.  I turned to find a well-groomed man dressed in a suit and tie standing there, a briefcase clutched in both hands.  He was older than I was, although it was difficult to determine exactly how much older.

He introduced himself as Silas Pembrook.  He said that represented a private scientist that had been working on radical treatments for terminal illnesses.  His employer had heard of Violet’s condition, and he believed that she was a perfect candidate for his program.  The cost for the treatment would be high, Pembrook warned me, and if Violet were to receive it I couldn’t speak of it to anyone except my wife.  It was cutting edge, but also not approved by the government.

“Tell me,” Pembrook said as he raised his left eyebrow, “what would you give for your daughter to live?”

“Anything,” I replied immediately.  “I’d give all the stars in the sky.”

That seemed to satisfy him, and he told me that the scientist’s assistant would be in touch shortly before he left the restroom.  I didn’t know exactly what I had agreed to, but it really didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that there was one last chance for my daughter.  There was no price too high for that.

I told Tara about my encounter with the odd man, and while she agreed that I had done the right thing, she seemed doubtful that anything would come from it.  Normally I would have shared that sentiment, but there was something about Pembrook that made me believe that what he offered was legitimate.  I knew that there was a very real possibility that I only believed that because I wanted it to be true, but false hope was better than no hope.

An hour after the sun had set, a different man entered Violet’s room.  He was wearing a white lab coat, and he had a clipboard tucked under one arm.  Despite how he was dressed, however, I could tell immediately that he wasn’t a doctor.  He greeted Tara and me with a smile and told us that his name was Peter Lewis.  He was the assistant to the person that would be performing Violet’s procedure.

He told us that the scientist wished for his name to remain anonymous, and that one of the conditions of the procedure would be that we would not be allowed to be present for it.  Neither would the hospital staff, and that had already been cleared with them.  He didn’t come right out and say it, but I got the impression that some strings had been pulled and the staff agreeing hadn’t been voluntary.

The subject then turned to payment.  Lewis informed us that, while no monetary compensation was required, one or both of us would be asked to perform a number of tasks to assist with the scientist’s research.  Those tasks would be assigned whenever they were needed.  When I asked what would happen if we weren’t able to do what was asked of us, he bluntly informed me that what was being done to help Violet could easily be reversed.

Although we weren’t comfortable with the deal, we made it anyway.  What other choice did we have?

Lewis ushered us both out of the room and towards a waiting area.  As he did so, the overhead lights in the hallway began to turn off one by one.  At first I thought there was a power outage, but after a moment I realized that the backup security lights weren’t coming on.  All of the lights were being shut off deliberately.  I asked Lewis to explain what was going on.

“It’s necessary,” Lewis said.  He smiled a strange smile and his eyes grew distant, like he was recalling a long-forgotten memory.  “Monsieur Gangly marche dans les couloirs.”

I didn’t recognize the language that he spoke in, but before I could ask about it he instructed us to sit in the waiting room and he would let us know when the procedure was over.  Again, not having much of a choice, we did as we were told.  The last of the lights on the floor went out, and the only illumination was the dim glow of computer monitors and various pieces of equipment in the hallway.  Lewis was gone.

I glanced up and noticed that the red light on a nearby security camera was off.  I forced myself to look away.  Tara and I had made our decision, and we were just going to have to stand by it no matter what happened.

A door somewhere down the hallway from us slammed shut.  Moments later I heard the sounds of footsteps approaching.  Lewis appeared in the waiting room doorway.

“Your assistance is required earlier than expected,” he said, handing me a slip of paper before going back down the hall.

Using the light from my cellphone, I examined the folded paper.  It was made of parchment, and it was quite a bit thicker than a standard piece of paper.  Tara watched silently as I unfolded it.  The message inside was written in exquisite calligraphy.

Please be so kind as to travel down to the morgue and retrieve the lungs of one Ms. Caroline Tafford.

I read the sentence over and over again.  While the message was simple enough to understand, my brain just couldn’t seem to process what it was instructing me to do.  Just the thought of it was enough to make my skin crawl and my blood run cold.

It was Tara that brought things back into focus.  She had always been the practical one in our relationship, and that practicality was on full display now.  Rather than concentrating on the task detailed in the note, she instead reminded me that, mere hours earlier, we had agreed to do whatever was required of us to give Violet one last chance to be able to grow up.  Unless we were willing to let her go, to let our baby girl die, we needed to stick to that agreement.  She took a deep breath before volunteering to be the one to do it.

I couldn’t let her.  Despite my own misgivings, I wasn’t about to allow her to take the risk.  What the note was asking was disgusting, yes, but it was also highly illegal.  If she got caught trying to steal body parts from a corpse she would go to jail.  It was better if I was the one to do it.

She tried to argue, saying that we were in our marriage together and Violet was our child.  If anything, it would be safer for us to do it together.  We could watch out for each other.  I just shook my head and pointed out that if we both got in trouble there would be no one there for Violet if she survived the procedure.  She had no answer to that, and she had to give in.

Deciding that I needed to get going before I talked myself out of what needed to be done, I left the waiting room and went out into the dark hallway.  As I was crossing over to the door leading to the stairwell, I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye.  It was gone by the time that I turned towards it.  I frowned.  The deep shadows made it difficult to be sure, but I would have sworn that I had seen a thin and tall figure, so tall that it almost touched the ceiling.  Nothing else happened while I watched, however, so I dismissed it as my eyes playing tricks on me.

I went into the stairwell and started descending the stairs towards the ground level.  There was a map of the hospital near the main desk in the lobby, and I hoped that it showed where the morgue was.  That was the extent of the plan that I had formed.  I had no idea what I was doing.

It turned out that I didn’t even need to go into the lobby.  When I reached the ground floor, there was a floor listing attached to the wall next to the door. The morgue was listed as being located on the first sublevel.  I continued down the stairs to my destination.

The hallway was quiet when I exited the stairwell.  I stood still for a long time, straining my ears in an effort to determine if anyone was nearby.  There was only silence.  It seemed strange that there wasn’t anyone around, but then I remembered what time it was.  Most of the staff had left for the day, leaving just the people assigned to the night shift.

The first door that I passed had a sign stating that it was a locker room.  The beginnings of an idea began to form in my mind.  I opened the door slightly and peered in.  It looked empty.  With one last glance over my shoulder, I went inside.

I went over to the bank of lockers and started trying to open them one by one.  Most of them were locked, and the few that weren’t didn’t have anything inside.  There was a second group on the other side of the room, and I hurried over and tried those as well.

I was almost out of lockers when I found what I was looking for: one that opened and contained a set of scrubs.  I quickly changed into them, putting my own clothes into the locker.  They were large on me, but not so much that someone would immediately notice.  I closed the locker door and made sure that the lock didn’t engage.

Leaving the locker room, I continued down the hallway until I reached a supply closet.  I opened it and rummaged around inside until I produced a mask, a surgeon cap, gloves, and shoe coverings.  I put them all on and shut the closet door.

As I did so, I saw the security camera at the end of the hall and froze.  Even if I didn’t run into anyone during the task that had been given to me, there would be footage of me in the sublevel halls.  There was no way that I’d be able to get away with this.  I felt panic beginning to rise in me.

That panic subsided slightly when I noticed that the light on this security camera was off, just like the one back up on the third floor had been.  I frowned and looked around me.  There was another camera above and to my left.  It was shut off as well.  No chance that this was just a coincidence.

Still, there wasn’t time to think about it.  I walked down the hall and followed a series of signs towards the hospital morgue.  I didn’t pass anyone, and I started to feel a bit more confident that I would be able to do what I needed to without getting caught.  I eventually reached the door I was looking for and, after a quick check to make sure that there was no one inside, I entered and slowly closed the door behind me.

The room was larger than I was thinking it would be.  A line of four gurneys were neatly arranged in the center of a gray tiled floor.  A series of silver sinks were attached to the wall to my right, and above those were large light boxes that glowed white.  Three metal tables were bolted to the ground.  Various pieces of equipment were attached to these tables, and lights hooked to moveable arms hung from the ceiling above them.  A tray with small medical instruments was positioned next to each one.

It was the wall on the far side of the room that held my attention, however.  Square cabinets, stacked three high and ten across, were inserted into the wall.  The doors were all closed.  Each of them was numbered, and there were identification tags posted on a number of them.  I had seen enough medical dramas on television to know that this was where the dead bodies were stored..

I looked back at the door that I had entered through.  This was likely my last chance to turn back.  I returned my attention to the cabinets and set my jaw.  That wasn’t an option.  Violet deserved her chance to live.

I crossed over to the drawers and took the note out of my pocket to verify the name of the person that I was looking for.  Caroline Tafford.  I slowly examined each of the identification tags in turn, making my way down the wall as I searched for the correct one.  When I reached the end, though, I still hadn’t found it.  I went through the tags two more times just to be sure.  There wasn’t anyone with either the same first or last name as the body I needed to find.

“Can I help you?” a voice said from behind me.

I had been so engrossed in my search that I hadn’t heard the door open.  Reminding myself that my face was hidden behind the mask, I turned around towards the speaker.  A woman in her early to mid-twenties was standing in the doorway.  She was dressed in the same type of blue scrubs that I was, but she was wearing a lab coat over them.  Her blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail.  She was regarding me with a curious expression on her face.

Thinking fast, I told her that I had been sent down to retrieve a blood sample from one of the bodies in storage.  I surprised myself with how easy the lie came to me.  I was even more surprised that the woman smiled and nodded.

“Let me give you a hand,” she said as she walked over to me.  “Dr. Gooding’s filing and cataloging system can be a bit of a nightmare.  Who are you looking for?”

I answered her with a name that I had seen on one of the identification tags.  As I did so, my eyes were drawn to the nametag that was pinned to the front pocket of her lab coat.  I had to restrain myself from reacting.  Written in blue letters was the name Carly Tafford.

I hadn’t been sent to retrieve the organs of a dead person.  I was there to collect the lungs of someone that was still very much alive.

I knew immediately that I couldn’t do this.  I was being asked to commit murder.  That was going way too far.  I mentally began to try to work out how to get out of the morgue without raising any suspicions.

An image of Violet sleeping in her hospital bed with tubes sticking out of her came unbidden into my head.  I bit my bottom lip as I watched the woman open one of the doors on the wall.  One thought kept repeating itself over and over: either she died, or my little girl did.

As she turned her back to me to start to roll out the body on its metal tray, I reached over to one of the instrument tables and grabbed a scalpel.  I quickly closed the distance between us, clamped my hand over her mouth, and pierced her neck with the blade.  I pulled hard, and it slid across her throat with surprising ease.

She tried to struggle against me, but it was much too late.  Blood poured out of the long incision.  I closed my eyes and kept my arms wrapped around her until the last of the fight was gone.  Her body leaned up against me, and I slowly lowered it down onto the floor.  She looked up at me in fear and confusion as the light faded from her eyes.

I had done it.  I had actually killed someone.  I stared down at the woman’s body for a long moment before rushing over to a sink, ripping off my mask, and heaving up the contents of my stomach.

I knew that I wasn’t done.  Killing her had only been the first step.

I used the sprayer attached to the sink to wash my vomit down the drain.  Putting the mask back on, I went over to the body and somehow managed to hoist it up onto the nearest table.  It wasn’t easy.  She couldn’t have weighed much more than a hundred pounds, but trying to maneuver even that little dead weight was extremely difficult.

The next hour was the worst of my life.  I had no medical training, and I certainly didn’t know anything about harvesting organs.  While the tools that were needed to remove the lungs were all there, I didn’t know the proper way to use them.  The result was a horrifically mutilated body.  It made me sick to think about what I had done to this poor woman that hadn’t deserved this… this desecration.

I kept expecting the morgue door to open as I worked, but it never did.  Apparently the woman had been the only one assigned to that shift, or at least the only one actively working in this section of the hospital.

That’s how I forced myself to think of her: the woman.  I couldn’t afford to refer to her by name, not even in my own thoughts.  That would only serve to remind me that she had been a living person, someone with feelings and desires and a family.  It was better to dehumanize her in my mind.  It was the only way that I managed to get through my grisly task.

When I had finally cut the lungs out of the woman’s chest, I looked around the room for something to put them in.  I spotted a portable cooler in one corner of the room and retrieved it.  It was marked for use to carry organs for transplanting.  It would have been funny if I hadn’t been so shaken and disgusted at the horrible act I had just performed.  I placed the lungs inside.  They were surprisingly heavy.

There was no way to hide what I had done.  Gore was everywhere.  I went over to the door and at the last second stopped myself from opening it.  Just like the room, I was covered in blood.  If I went out in the hallway dressed in those clothes I was going to leave a trail.  I stripped off the scrubs and balled them up along with the mask, cap, and shoe coverings.  With the bundle under one arm and the cooler under the other, I went out into the hallway barely clothed and hurried back to the locker room.

I quickly used one of the showers to rinse off my body before getting dressed.  The entire process had only taken about five minutes, but every second that passed was one moment closer to when the woman’s body would be discovered.

I finished dressing and looked at the ball of clothing sitting on the floor in front of the locker.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  When the police were inevitably called, they would do a thorough search of the hospital.  That meant that just throwing the scrubs into the trash wouldn’t work.  I couldn’t think of anywhere to hide them where they wouldn’t be discovered.

The locker room door opened, and I felt my heart skip a beat.  To my surprise, the man from upstairs, Lewis, entered the room.  He nodded once as he looked me up and down.

“Are the… items in that cooler?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him, my voice sounding weak in my own ears.

“Good.  You should head back upstairs to be with your wife and daughter.  I’ll take care of those.”  He motioned at the scrubs with his chin.  “Leave the cooler here, too.”

“Violet…”

He smiled slightly.  “She’s going to be just fine.  The procedure is finished, and it was a complete success.  As long as you keep up your end of the bargain, she’ll live a long and happy life.”

Violet did indeed make a full recovery.  To this day there has been no further sign of cancer, and if anything she’s healthier than she’s ever been.  Her doctors are at a loss to explain it.  The term ‘miracle’ has been thrown around a lot, but Tara and I know better.  It wasn’t any divine intervention that saved her.  It was a dark deal made with a dark devil.

I was never so much as questioned about the death of Caroline ‘Carly’ Tafford.

During the past two years, we’ve received three more of the finely written notes on parchment.  Each of them has been hand-delivered to us by Pembrook, the man who had first approached me in the restroom.  I don’t know for sure why it’s always him, but from what I’ve been able to piece together I think he handles certain types of business for the anonymous scientist.  Apparently that includes messenger duty.

Each of the tasks has been as bad as, if not worse, than the one that I had to perform in the hospital.  Despite Tara’s objections I have done them all myself.  I don’t want her hands to be dirtied like mine are.  I love her too much for that.

The worst part about the tasks, the part that really keeps me up at night, is that they’re getting easier.  Not the acts themselves, but convincing myself to perform them.  I’m becoming accustomed to the killing.  I’m not enjoying them.  I’m not some kind of psychopath.  It’s just…  I don’t have that voice in the back of my head acting as my conscience anymore.  I’ve changed in some fundamental way that I can’t quite explain.

Even if I still had any internal crisis about what I’m doing, I would just have to look at Violet going about her life to silence it.  Being able to watch her grow up instead of dying scared in that hospital bed makes everything worth it.  Some people may say that one child’s life isn’t worth the taking of many others.  Those people have never faced the certainty of losing their child before.

No matter what Violet’s mystery benefactor requests of me, I’ll do it.  I’ll be the butcher that he requires me to be.

For my daughter, I’ll keep killing until blood stains all the stars in the sky.

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