The medic administering the blood test at the U.S. Armed Forces Examining Station sat prominently in front of a dark green table with his chair tilted on its back legs, resting against the wall. He had thin, coarse lips that resembled a faded ink line, stolid eyes mounted to his large, immobile head like small black pebbles. Solemnly, as though he were a mystical totem to be appeased and treated with the greatest delicacy, our line of fresh meat approached him from the doorway and moved across the trim, compact room to where he sat on the opposite side. His appearance, I thought, expressed a sense of portentousness, and his darkly evil pronouncements, impeccable imitations of some gruesomely theatrical monster, confirmed it. For after each test he always had a deranged comment to make to those of us still waiting in line for his services.
"That one really hurt! I could damn well feel it myself."
"The last guy's blood spurted all over me," he complained, pointing a finger at the marks on his gleaming white jacket, "and the wall," and then pointed at the waterfall of dots on the wall closest to the table.
"Had to prick that bastard's finger five times before I got anything I could use. Struck water the rest of the time."
And following each remark he gave a hideous, hyena-like laugh that never built to a peak but started at one, full, high, and screechingly loud, then pealed to an abrupt close.
He created fear like a skilled artist. Besides his shocking commentaries and his laughter, he had the habit of waving his blood-tinged blade high in the air like a cutlass after each procedure so all of us would be sure to see it. Staring at the blade and the starched arm waving it, I thought him mad, a cruel fiend untiring of the sight of blood.
"Fee, fie, foe, fum," whispered a deep voice in back of me, "I smell the blood of a civilian."
I smiled faintly.
The line's progression was unrelenting. There were now only four people in front of me, and then the Fiend. I felt a shivering chill race through my veins. But I tried to repress it and put myself into the proper frame of mind like an athlete before an important game. To prepare myself physically, I began to dig my fingernails into those two or three fingertips most likely to be chosen to draw a sample of my blood from. I struck hard enough and often enough till I could feel a stinging sensation which, I felt, was roughly comparable to the one I would receive from the razor blade. The slight pain that I managed to produce across my fingertips did not hurt in the least, but still my confidence about facing the Fiend flagged and seemed impossible to restore.
"Lord!" someone gasped.
I heard, at exactly the same moment, a muffled but blunt crashing sound, like a sheet of paneling falling to the floor. Quickly, excitedly I raised my head and gazed toward the front where the sound seemed to have originated. I looked straight ahead, the level of my eyes fixed in an even direction, and all I could see were several obliquely hanging necks so I followed their crooked line of descent and came to a sight of stark horror: a fellow specimen lay motionless on the floor like something adrift that has been washed ashore.
Watching him as he lay there still as a corpse, and again thinking of what was waiting for me, I tried to retreat to the end of the line but quickly discovered that I was already there.
The Fiend's thickset shoulders thrusted violently against the back of his chair, crashing it into the wall behind him, and in a slow, lumbering movement he rose up, moved around the table, and stood above his listless victim, taking one long look. He seemed quite relaxed and stroked his jaw patiently. "Stand back and give the candy ass some air," he bellowed.
"Watch him go and drive a stake through that guy's heart."
"Kick him to see if he's alive."
"Check his pulse, for Godsake."
Either of two things for the Fiend to do now, I thought: revive the man with a pail of cold water or else place a foot on his chest and assume a stance of triumph. I guessed the latter. He did not choose either one, however. Instead, surprisingly, he abandoned his cultivated ferocity, knelt down, spread out his hands, and toiled over the prostrate man with a damp cloth and a bottle of smelling salts, saying nothing. Suddenly the man's head wagged back and forth, his eyes opened and closed and finally opened, and his deadened fingers began to shake and scrape at his face and hair. Then he rose up on an elbow, and after a few minutes stood and walked out without ever turning around. Just right out the door as if nothing had happened. A stone in motion.
A smattering of applause faintly trailed after him.
The Fiend, in one swift stroke, had vividly shown his power. It was an indisputable face, and still there was no way I could avoid him. From my armpits beads of sweat dribbled, steadily, falling everywhere. Self-conscious, I clamped my arms into my sides to smother the drops against my ribs, anything to keep them from being seen.
The body in front of me jerked then moved away.
I was there. I felt the cold edge of the table press against my thighs, but I refused to look at it or at the Fiend sitting behind it. I simply waved out my left hand and waited for it to be caught. I waved for what seemed like quite a long time before I finally felt the icy touch of the Fiend's rawly textured fingers and, as soon as I did, I flinched and heard him say in a darkly haunting tone, "You ain't lookin', eh?" Then he chuckled to himself.
At first, all I could feel were his five fingers curving around my middle finger then I felt the cool, soggy splash of a damp cotton ball against my skin, soft and soothing until the Fiend began to scrub with it and change it into a stiff wash rag, and then, and then nothing. I waited anxiously, knowing the blade would strike any second. Hurry, I wanted to shout to him. My finger, wet with antiseptic, was tightly enclosed between the tips of his thumb and index finger. With my eyes fixed on the wall, I was like a blindman. Hurry, I cried. Please, please. But nothing happened. Nothing. He must be doing this deliberately, I decided, he must be deviously prolonging the test out of some cruel, malicious pleasure.
Then I felt the thin, sharp blade sink into my skin; it felt no more painful than the quick scratch of a safety pin. So easy, I thought to myself, amazed. So so easy, and to think that I was actually worried about such a simple procedure. The blade pierced cleanly across the tip of my finger and, in my blindness, I tried to imagine its straight, even path and the line of redness it left behind it till I felt my finger being drawn away from my hand. Then, for the first time, I dropped my eyes from the wall and peered at the Fiend sitting behind the table in his blood-spattered jacket. A stained razor blade lay on a white cloth in the center of the table along with several other blades and cotton balls and glass slides, one of which the Fiend was using to catch drops of my own bright red blood that he was impatiently squeezing out of the tip of my finger. I looked away, hurriedly, feeling upset.
"It's all over, buddy," he said gruffly as he let go of my finger.
Sensing a coolness playing across my fingertip, I gazed down and accepted from the Fiend the soaked cotton ball he had just set against it to contain the slight trickle of redness that was oozing out and sliding toward my palm. I clamped the ball hard and grunted a response. Lifting my eyes up, I watched him wipe spots of blood from his sleeves. A pelting warmth suddenly struck my face. It was over, he had said. All over. I felt I could touch the moon as I strode out of the room and wanted to try.
© Thomas Healy