I arrived on campus in high spirits. This wasn’t my first choice (nowhere near my first choice if I am going to be honest) for medical school, but here I was. I was taking my first major step in becoming a doctor.
A fucking doctor! Just thinking about it filled me with jubilation.
The excitement coursed through me as I arrived at the building I would be calling home for the next year. Initially, I wasn’t too pleased that this school insisted first year students live in shared on-campus apartments. I am an extremely private person and would have preferred a place to myself. However, I remember the trepidation I felt when arriving at my dorm the freshman year of undergrad only to be elated when my roommate ended up being a great guy. As a matter of fact, Jason and I still remain the best of friends to this day.
I arrived at the door to my apartment as a requisite amount of anxiety prickled my brain.
I opened it and immediately jumped with a start.
Standing in the tiny hallway not three feet from the entrance was a giant of a man. I guessed him to be 6’7”. His height was punctuated by an enormous girth. He stared at me wordlessly. In shock, I stared back for what must have been a few seconds, but felt like hours. Eventually, I snapped out of my surprise and offered a handshake and my name. He continued to stare blankly at my face. If eyes are the windows into the soul, I was staring into a long vacant house, a condemned property.
The awkward air was almost too much to handle. I was about to put my hand away, but then he finally seemed to snap out of it. He grabbed my hand and shook it with a weak and clammy handshake that belied his imposing figure. I introduced myself and asked if he was as excited to be starting medical school as I was. He spoke to me as if he hadn’t even heard my question. He said in a high pitch and stammering voice.
“Y-You’re lucky. It’s…it’s not often that you g-g-get to meet someone famous.”
“How’s that?” I asked amicably.
“I’m going to be the f-f-first person to surgically remove their own b-b-rain.”
I looked into his unblinking eyes for some semblance of a joke to that bizarre statement but found none. His deadpan delivery put me ill at ease. He then turned around, entered one of the bedrooms, (I guess he had already laid claim to one in my absence) and slammed the door.
With my mind still hopeful and exuberant, I began to load my things into the apartment. I thought about my new roommate, Herbert. I rationalized that I must have taken him by just as much surprise as he had gotten me. In addition, he was probably exhausted from the move. I am not one to make flash judgments of others and give those around me the benefit of the doubt, often, to a fault. However, that statement about removing his own brain disturbed me. As I went to sleep that first night, it kept rolling around in my thoughts. What an extremely odd thing to say. Well, I guess that could just be his sense of humor. His weak attempt at comedy to break the ice.
As my first week in my new lodgings continued, my concern grew. It had been five days since I moved in, and I still had only seen Herbert the one time. I could hear him pace about his room as well as hear him talk. At first, I wasn’t alarmed since I just figured he was on the phone. However, it became abundantly clear he was just holding conversations with himself, heated debates for an audience of one. The only time I would hear him leave our apartment was in the dead of night. As he returned, I could hear him giggle to himself in that high pitched voice.
The day before classes started, I decided to knock on his door to ask if he would like to order some food together. He abruptly opened the door a crack. A smell escaped, a putrid and rancid stink. The smell of body odor combined with something even more heinous. It was a smell I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I was horrified I was sharing a living space with someone that smelled this bad (I had made note of the fact that he hadn’t showered once since I moved in). I asked if he would like to order some food and hang out.
“N-no, I am practicing,” he replied as he slammed the door in my face.
There was no denying it, this living arrangement was going to be less than ideal.
The first day of classes arrived. I pushed Herbert out of my mind as best as I could only to show up to my anatomy class and see his large figure wedged into one of the seats in the classroom. The elderly professor came in and looked flustered. He explained as he read through the syllabus that he was a former neurosurgeon. As he talked with a complete lack of enthusiasm, he explained that we would be exploring the breadth of human anatomy by analyzing its structures. We would be placed in groups of four to dissect these structures. As he randomly read off the group assignments my spirits sank as I, of course, was placed in a group with Herbert.
I allowed optimism to peek through my brain. Maybe working together would open him up. Almost immediately I knew this wouldn’t be the case.
He was that type of student, you know the type, who would constantly second guess the professor. His hand would always go up with every inane thought that went through his head. He would attempt to correct the professor with almost every statement he made. The professor whom I eventually gleaned wasn’t too happy to be slumming it teaching a first year anatomy course at this medical school, kept looking at him with growing ire as the semester went on as did I. I was livid and frightened that his constant pestering would affect the group’s grade for the term. The other members asked me sincerely.
“What the fuck is wrong with this guy?” I didn’t have an answer.
When not making Dr. Matthews hate his life, he would just sit with those dead eyes and giggle to himself like he was the only one in on the greatest joke never told.
As time went on, we spoke only a handful of times and very briefly. His brain always seemed to be occupied by something else. His need to “work” or “practice” would always cryptically escape his lips before retreating to his disgusting bedroom.
The smell permeating from his room became so pungent that I was too embarrassed to have company over.
One night I awoke to hear Herbert’s footsteps announcing his return from one of his nightly sojourns. They entered his room then quickly glided toward my bedroom door. My door swung open violently. The light of the living room revealed Herbert’s enormous sillouhette.
“Did you g-go in my fucking room?” he barked.
I replied no.
Though I couldn’t see them, I could tell his eyes were alive with fury. His body posture beyond threatening.
“Don’t ever go in m-my fucking room! You h-hear me!”
He slammed my door shut almost hard enough to take it off its hinges. It was then that I began to make plans to extricate myself from this whole situation. The next day strengthened my resolve.
I arrived late to anatomy. I approached the door when I realized I left my ID at home. Security had been tightened in the lab due to recent break ins and thefts requiring an ID to gain access. I saw Herbert about to enter the building and asked if he could scan me in. He ignored me and slammed the door behind him. Luckily, another student who recognized me allowed me access.
That day we were to dissect and discuss the structures of the human brain. I was squeamish to say the least in applying an electric bone saw to the donor body’s skull. Herbert saw my hesitation and wrested the tool out of my hands. He expertly removed the brain with a cringe inducing schlupping sound like a practiced coroner. I have to admit I was impressed with the skill and quickness with which he did so. As the professor began to speak about the limbic system, a smell caught my attention, a rank and indelible odor permeating from the brain that laid before me. It was a repulsive yet familiar aroma. Before I could put my finger on the scent, Herbert loudly interrupted Dr. Matthews correcting something he had said about the amygdala effectively scattering my thoughts. The entire class groaned. The professor had finally had enough.
“I was a neurosurgeon for thirty years at Johns Hopkins, and you are a first year student. I am truly fed up with your constant interruptions. If you disrupt my class one more time, I will fail you,” he shouted.
“F-fuck you! When you die… sh-shortly I might add, no one is is is going to remember you. They will talk about me for ages to come,” Herbert replied.
He flung the bone saw in Dr. Matthews direction. He stormed out of the classroom. I had had enough of his erratic and off putting behavior. Immediately after class I put in a request for a housing transfer. It was approved.
I arrived home to inform Herbert. It was late enough that he had left on one of his nightly flights. With me moving out and him assuredly kicked out of anatomy, I relished the fact that I might never have to see his dead eyes ever again. Curiosity got the better of me and as a final “fuck you” to him, I decided to violate his perverse sanctuary. I opened the door to his bedroom. As I entered, the overwhelming aroma assaulted my nostrils. I flipped on the lights.
On his desk were numerous surgical tools. I remember remarking how they gleaned red with use in the bedroom light.
So, that was the reason for increased security. Herbert was purloining medical tools under the cover of night. As I approached his closet, the smell grew reaching a crescendo of awful. It was then that I recognized the stench. It was the same smell of formaldehyde doing a piss poor job of preserving decaying flesh that I had smelled when Herbert removed the brain in anatomy class.
I steeled myself for what horrors lay within and opened the closet door.
Herbert hadn’t just stolen medical tools.
His closet was lined with human heads. The top of their skulls removed with a surgeon’s precision. On the floor of the closet lay a trough-like vat. Inside I counted seven, maybe eight brains.
I shut the door in a panic. The horror building inside me so profound and all consuming that I had failed to notice the bedroom door open. Standing in the doorway was Herbert.
His eyes were alive with wanton intent. His right hand clasping a medical bag. It looked heavy with tools and God only knows what else.
He stood momentarily frozen as did I. My mind struggling with the fact that I had found myself in a life or death situation.
I had one chance at this.
Before I knew what I was doing, I dove between his gargantuan legs with such speed and accuracy his monstrous hands grasped nothing but air. I got off the floor and ran out the front door with a speed that surprised me.
As I booked it down the hallway, I expected to hear his thundering footsteps giving chase and his high pitched voice spewing expletives as he gained on me. Instead, after a short chase, I heard him call out in defeat and resignation.
“B-but I don’t think I’m r-ready yet.”
I made my way to the campus police office and told them everything.
After a sleepless night at the hotel, I called the police. They said he was in the wind. I requested an escort so I could go gather my things.
I met the officer in front of my building. I wasn’t impressed. He looked like a kid. If Herbert wanted to, he could manhandle the both of us. This coupled with the apparent incompetence of the campus police (how had Herbert gotten away with stealing supplies and body parts for so long?) did not inspire confidence. However, as we approached my apartment door, the officer drew his firearm scattering some of my fears. He opened the door as I followed closely behind.
I flipped on the light and there was Herbert sitting at the kitchen table.
He was faced away from us. the officer called for him to put his hands up, but he didn’t budge. Something was amiss… like… like… the top of his head was missing.
The surgical equipment strewn about next to his excised skullcap began to tell the tale. I felt faint. My knees buckled.
Fearing I would lose consciousness but needing to see, I circled around to the front of this beast of a man.
Impossibly, defying all logic, the gray matter, completely detached from its home, sat in his hands, lovingly cradled in those enormous paws. I looked at his face to see a victorious smile beaming from ear to ear. As the last bastion of my consciousness slipped and I began to fall, I looked into his dead eyes one last time and saw something that has haunted my days and filled my nights with restless dreams. Below the cavity that previously contained Herbert’s disturbed brain, the right eye, followed my body as it made its way to the ground and unmistakably and intentionally, winked at me.