Dr. D Saves the World

Fire

[Note: Although I wasn't selected to participate in Round 3 of the 2013 NYC Midnight, I decided (with the encouragement of friends), to write the Round 3 assignment anyway: Genre--Open, Character--Surgeon, Subject--End of the World, Word Count--1500. I hope you enjoy it.]

The approaching apocalypse had totally ruined Dr. D's view. 

When Dr. Jack Devine bought this luxury high-rise apartment, the floor-to-ceiling windows had been the crowning glory, the manifestation of his newfound stardom. But now, after the floods and the bombs and the chemicals, the wraparound view of the swirling orange Manhattan sky was just terrifying. 

 This morning, TV's "Dr. D" sipped his coffee and peered through the window at the brown water that filled the city streets below. 

"This doesn't have to happen," he thought.

 He had fought all this "end of the world" business since the beginning, just as he fought every myth. 

 He even dedicated a show to it. 

 "It's just like a body getting sick," Dr. D said on TVs across the country. "Eat beef every day, end up with arteries full of fat. Smoke every day, one day you can't breathe. Burn all the carbon and gorge on war rhetoric your whole life, you'll end up in a flooded world where people bomb each other for the few scraps of land that are left. But these are choices, people. We can either keep making the world sick, or we can make it better."

But the flood waters kept on rising. 

He looked at his watch. Time to get to the studio. 

Today was the big debate.

*****

Even when the world is ending--especially then--people need good TV.

Across America, screens lit up with images of Dr. D--slim, handsome, preternaturally fit even in baggy scrubs--cajoling audiences with his now-famous catchphrases: 

"Whether it's cancer or a hangnail, it's not fate. There's a REASON for it."

"There IS no normal!"

And finally, this beloved call-and-response:

[Dr. D] "You do the best you can..." 

[Studio audience] "WITH WHAT YOU'VE GOT!!!" 

"And here he is," boomed in the announcer. "America's favorite brain surgeon, with your brain food for today, Dr. D!"

Wild applause from the audience.

"Today, we welcome Dr. D's guest, evangelist and author of Spiritual Healthcare Reform, the Reverend Tom Privette!"

Wilder applause as Privette entered the set. He wore a nicely-tailored suit, and smiled with the rubbery face of a formerly heavy man who has lost a lot of weight.

"You look great," Dr. D said.

"Well, I've had to cut back on the ribeyes," Privette joked. "Now that the cows are radioactive."

*****

After the opening niceties, Reverend Privette fired the first salvo:

"Dr. D, there are many, including yourself, who say we disagree on what's happening to the world." Privette said. "But I don't think we disagree at all. You say our choices are making the world sick. I couldn't agree more. Just as sins like gluttony and sexual immorality make our body sick and infect us with disease, our sin is making the world itself sick. Wouldn't you agree with that?" Privette grinned. "If you say yes, this might be your shortest show ever!" 

Dr. D crossed his legs coolly and made a great show of thinking over Privette's question.

"Well, as I always say, it's about choices," Dr. D said. "So in that, you're absolutely right. Our choices are the inputs into these machines we call our bodies--and the big machine we call the world. But that's what it is, machinery. Once you start saying it's God's judgment and all that, you're going beyond science, and just making people feel bad for things they can't control. What is it I always say? Cancer or a hangnail, it's not fate..."

"There's a REASON!" the audience chimed in.

"You guys are ganging up on me," Privette frowned. "But that's to be expected. This whole show is about making sure everybody feels good about themselves, so nobody wants to face the facts. But the truth is, when there's a cancer, no matter how much radiation and chemo you throw at it, eventually you have to cut it out. Isn't that true, Doctor?"

"If you've tried everything else," Dr. D said, furrowing his brow. "I've done it myself. But only as a last resort."

"Mark my words," Privette said, "that's what God's going to do to this dying world. Sin is the tumor, and there's nothing left to do but cut it out."

More applause. 

"Who's side are you on?" Dr. D asked them, seeming a little bit rattled, even through his mask of a smile. "Reverend Privette, I do know where you're coming from. I grew up a good old fashioned churchgoing boy, and I know all about the guilt and the blame and the looking over your shoulder. That's precisely what drove me to study the sciences. Because I wanted to know the truth."

*****

Dr. D was losing control. 

He stood in the vast window of his apartment with a glass of scotch, watching distant fires reflect off the dark oily sky.

He had never lost a TV debate before. Technically, he had won today, after bullying Privette into admitting that nothing he believed could be proven scientifically, and that even faith healing was based on dubious evidence, at best. 

But the audience had known it was bullying, and it hadn't gone over well. It wasn't part of Dr. D's brand. 

The problem went deeper, though, and Dr. D knew it. 

He didn't want to believe it, but, when it came to faith healing, he was living a lie.

But the world doesn't work like that, he argued. It can't. Everything has a reason.

He went through the check list he had kept in his head since the first bomb fell. The rising sea levels? A scientific reason. The moon turned to the color of blood? A reason. The streaking missiles that looked like stars falling from the sky? A reason.

This was not judgment from above. This was something we were doing to ourselves.

When he finally felt anesthetized, Dr. D plopped down on the couch and turned on the TV. It was some catty fashion show, with terrible-looking ladies trash-talking other terrible-looking ladies. 

Suddenly, the screen went blank, and the plastic surgery cat lady transformed into the slender bearded face from Dr. D's childhood Bible school handouts. 

"Are you ready?" Jesus said, from within the flat screen. "Have you been good?"

Dr. D shook himself awake, sweating and panicked, relieved to see the fashion show was still on. 

*****

The next day was Dr. D's "Hail Mary."

"The way this world is going," he said, looking directly into the camera, "every show could be my last. So I'm taking this chance to make a confession to you. 

"I've been lying."

Collective gasp from the audience. 

"This...." Dr. D lifted his hands as if to indicate the world outside the studio. "This can't all be explained. If everything does have a reason, then yesterday's guest was right--we're all getting what's coming to us. But I know better."

Dr D. swallowed nervously, then continued.

"A few years ago, I worked as a surgeon, carefully cutting tumors out of precious brain tissue when it was needed. But once, I had a patient who told me just before the surgery that he had been praying for healing--using a prayer that he learned from Privette's show. I just said 'Uh huh' as the anesthesiologist put him out, and was ready to open up his skull, when the lab tech ran in with a printout of the last CT scan.

"I had been watching this guy's tumor grow for weeks, and suddenly, on the day of his surgery, it was gone. Not in the picture. If I had sawed open his head, I would have seen nothing but clean pink brain.

"I've tried to explain it away, but I don't know of any mechanism in the brain that can make a tumor go away. I can only imagine that something else was at work, maybe even God. 

"I tell you this because I can't just sit and listen to people tell you that God is only in the business of cutting sickness out of this world. Sometimes, He just gracefully makes it go away, even for people who have no business surviving."

*****

After the show, which left his audience and critics scratching their heads, Dr. D piloted his boat uptown to the high ground north of Harlem Valley. He walked all the way to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he felt the most comfortable. This was his temple.

He took the elevator all the way up to the roof, the highest point in Manhattan. From here he could look down at the top of the Empire State Building, half-submerged in the Midtown basin, 10 miles south. 

He gazed out over the city, with its millions of sick people, trying to survive between the infected waters below and the burning sky above. 

He could not bring himself to pray yet. Just admitting that there was something else out there was enough, for now. 

But he hoped he was right. 

He hoped he could believe what he always said:

"You do the best you can with what you've got."