He was the last person on earth, he thought, and then there was a knock on the door.
The nurse — Shawna, he remembered someone calling her — was the first to make the rounds of the hospital, or hospice or nursing home. Wherever. He wondered why she knocked when she surely knew he was the only person in the room.
Truth be told, he didn’t know where he was. He knew his name was Alfred Wright; his age was 57; his occupation was, ironically, researcher into neurological biology. His memory remained clear on all those details. He never could remember his Social Security number, but no matter. The problem was he couldn’t move his arms or legs, not even a finger or eyelid.
Time passed. How much time, he didn’t know. Shawna came and went several times, and then his wife and doctor entered the room in the middle of a conversation.
“Coma,” Dr. Sternberg kept explaining to his wife Nora. “He’ll likely never come out of it. His EEG indicates there’s some brain function, but we really don’t know if he can hear you or comprehend.”
“But… what does it mean? How long will he be this way?” she asked. He visualized Nora’s face contorting the way it did when she was perplexed. She would also twist her wedding ring.
“A few scientists believe consciousness is like a bunch of old Christmas tree lights,” Sternberg said. “Some are dark, others may blink once or twice, but the string is no good and should be thrown out.”
“But, can he hear me? Is the light on or off?”
“It’s probable he’ll be like this forever. Does he have a living will?”
Sternberg had sidestepped the question by changing the subject. Alfred smelled smoke on the doctor’s breath. The vaunted specialist also was a secret smoker, flying blindly in the face of medical warnings. Figure at least one light in his string would go out soon.
“I don’t know about a living will,” his wife said. “He has some papers in his desk. I can check, but we never talked about this.”
“Then you’ll have to make the decision about keeping Alfred on life support. Why don’t you come back and see me tomorrow. We can decide then.”
That’s it, Alfred told himself. The living will is in the left hand drawer of the desk. When Nora brings it back tomorrow, it will tell Sternberg to pull the plug.
He laughed silently at the irony of being alive and unable to tell anyone. They wouldn’t know to do a brain scan to see that the lights were still burning on his Christmas tree.
What irony. Just last month, a woman in England had been in a vegetative state until a brain scan showed — a breath-taking discovery — that all the lights were on upstairs. A bridge was waiting to be built between the layman’s idea of who’s at home and the scientific understanding of consciousness. Sternberg would have to be told when the bridge opened for traffic.
Wasn’t it Descartes who said I think, therefore I am? That bit of philosophy had never made sense until now. Alfred realized he was an entire world that existed solely within his mind. A universe inhabited by one person. He considered this revelation, and savored it. He was the last person on earth — the only one. Time itself was standing still. Until tomorrow morning.
Walter Giersbach directed corporate communications at Fortune 500 companies in New York for more than 30 years while contributing to business-communication journals. His recent fiction credits include: “Big Willa and a Push Toward the Edge” in Lunch Hour Stories (July 2007), “Not My Wife” in Mouth Full of Bullets (September 2007), “Dreaded Conversation” and “Ghost of a Valentine” in Every Day Fiction (October 2007 and February 2008), and “Cable Window” and “Number Eleven” in Bewildering Stories (issues #271 and #272, October 2007). Upcoming issues of MFOB, EDF, Written Word and Bewildering Stories will also carry short fiction. His collection of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, Vol. 2, has just been published by Wild Child.