Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
It would be easy, I told myself. I just had to get the timing right.
I sat alone in the waiting area until I heard the elevator doors open at the far end of the hall. I heard several male voices and the sound of a cart rolling on the linoleum floor. I left the waiting area and headed toward the studio door just as they approached from the other end. I was carrying an official looking clipboard with the Angel of Mercy logo on it that I had found in the waiting area. I had my notepad clipped to it and pretended to be reading as I walked. There were three of them blocking the hallway, big boys with EMT uniforms and more equipment than they probably needed, but you can never be too prepared, I supposed.
I got to the studio door just as one of the EMTs was punching the code into the keypad that would unlock the door. When the door opened he held it back with his foot while his buddies carried their bags and rolled the crash cart inside. As he was struggling with his own bag I took the door handle and pulled it back off his foot.
“You guys work too hard,” I said with a smile. “Let me get that door.”
“Appreciate it,” he said. He went through the door without giving me another thought. By the time I slipped in behind him he was with his buddies, stowing their equipment on the backside of the fake wall nearest the door.
I quickly went to the left, feeling my way along the wall, trying to be as quiet as possible. Except for the lights focused down on the bedroom set, the studio was so dark that it was difficult to see beyond a few feet ahead. I felt my way to the far end of the studio and squatted behind some boxes that were stacked there. The floor cameras and the expanse of darkness would hide me well from anyone coming onto the set. I had a clear view of the open end of the set thirty feet away. The EMTs didn’t even notice that I had slipped into the room. They situated their equipment and went back through the door in search of food.
Now all I had to do was wait.
* * *
As I had hoped she would, Sierra forgot all about me. No texts, no calls, no search parties, no worries. If she had called I would have texted her back that I had to leave and would call her tomorrow. She would figure out that was a lie soon enough, but it would give me the time to do what I had to do, to see what I had to see. And hopefully record it for the world to see.
I set my phone to vibrate and stuck it in my shirt pocket so the light from the screen wouldn’t give away my position. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw that the boxes I was hiding behind were empty computer boxes, stacked three high and a dozen across. I scooted them around so I could hide behind them and still have a clear view of the door and the set. The floor felt like bare concrete, hard and cold beneath me, but I didn’t mind. I just kept telling myself that I had the best seat in the house, or would have once things got under way.
I sat in the dark for almost an hour before I heard the electronic door lock click open. Voices and faces I didn’t recognize entered the room. They milled around the bedroom set for a few minutes, making sure everything was ready for taping.
DeSean came in, wearing a headset with a microphone attached. He kept looking toward the high ceiling and waving. He did this several times in various places around the room. It finally struck me that he was waving at the cameras mounted in the darkness of the rafters above. He did the same thing to the cameras hidden around the set, several in picture frames, two behind plants, another in a mirror above the head of the bed. Sierra and Lou were probably in the control room, watching DeSean test the cameras, getting ready to start taping the death sequence.
Sierra told me they would bring Gary Wayne in first to get him situated in the bed, hooked up to the IV and heart monitor. They’d make him as comfortable as possible before the family came in. Sure enough, once DeSean finished waving at the cameras he said something into the mic and herded everyone out of the room. A few minutes later the EMTs appeared with Gary Wayne Biggerstaff strapped to a gurney.
Even from my vantage point I could tell he was almost at the end. He looked like a man just freed from a Nazi concentration camp. He was nothing but skin and bones, hairless, his skin the color of ash. He had a pained look on his face, as if every move caused him great distress. I wondered if he might have died days or weeks ago if he hadn’t felt the need to hang on to do the show so his family could reap the rewards.
The EMTs gently placed him on the bed and moved aside so the nurse could hook up the IV and attach the heart monitor pads to his chest. When the nurse finished she pulled the comforter up and crossed his hands on his chest, as if she were positioning a dead man in a coffin, which essentially, I guess she was. She gave him a little pat on the shoulder and said something I couldn’t hear. Then she left Gary Wayne Biggerstaff alone. He seemed to welcome the solitude.
My chest hurt, listening to him trying to breathe. His entire body seemed to heave with every breath. His throat was raspy as the air passed through it. For a moment, he opened his eyes and stared at the lights above him. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear his words. I wondered what he was saying, who he was talking to. Was he talking to God? Was he praying for his pain and suffering to end? Was he asking that his family be looked after once he was gone? Or was he just out of his head, having a conversation with someone who wasn’t really there. After a moment he brought his hands up to his eyes and I heard him begin to softly cry. My heart broke in two for this man I didn’t even know. Without thinking I loudly sniffed back a tear. Gary Wayne’s hands came from his eyes and he tried to lift his head off the pillow to look in my direction.
“Who’s there?” His voice was strained, barely above a whisper. He looked toward the ceiling and called out. “Is that you, Lord? Is that you? Please, Lord, don’t take me yet… not yet…”
I cupped my hand over my mouth like a little kid who’d been caught hiding in the closet. I felt horrible, almost to the point of going to him and offering whatever comfort I could. Before I could move the nurse came back in to calm him down. He was already being watched by the main camera above his bed. He let his head collapse on the pillow and said something to the nurse. She tugged a tissue from a box on the nightstand and gave it to him. He wiped his eyes as best he could and handed the tissue back to her. She smoothed her hand over his forehead and spoke to him softly. He gave her a weak smile and closed his eyes.
“How’s my sugar bear doing?” The peace was broken as Hildy Biggerstaff lumbered into the room with the six kids in tow. They ranged in age from two or three to nineteen or twenty. They were all dressed in their Sunday best, clothes, hair and makeup courtesy of Angel of Mercy’s stylist.
DeSean and a fat, little man in a tan suit carrying a Bible followed them in. DeSean directed Hildy to sit in the armless chair next to Gary Wayne and lined the kids up according to height from Hildy’s left and around the foot of the bed, the three young boys first, then the three older girls. He told the preacher to stand behind Hildy and wait for his cue. He looked toward the cameras above and said something into the headset, then adjusted the position of the kids.
Hildy put a meaty hand on Gary Wayne’s arm and said, “Gary Wayne, hon? Me and the kids are all here. Pastor Dave’s here, too. You doin’ all right?”
She was practically yelling at the poor bastard in a sing-song voice with a heavy southern accent. I didn’t know if she talked that loud naturally or if she thought dying people were hard of hearing. The nurse spoke softly to Gary Wayne and he seemed to hear her fine. He heard me sniff from thirty feet away. Hildy patted his hands and turned her attention toward the kids.
“Now y’all babies stand up straight and be quiet. Danny, stop picking at your nose, hon. Mary Kate, fix his collar.”
I took a deep breath and sank further back into my hiding place and tried to ignore them. I felt like a demented peeping Tom. I told myself I wasn’t doing anything wrong. One day soon Gary Wayne’s death would be broadcast for millions of people to see. I could have witnessed it all via the monitor in the waiting area, so why did I feel like I was intruding on something sacred and private by watching it from inside the studio? Because I shouldn’t be here, I told myself. This is not for me to see. I didn’t want to see it on a monitor or in person. I didn’t want to see it at all.
My phone vibrated against my chest and startled the hell out of me. I pulled it from my shirt pocket, keeping my hand over the screen to shield the light from view. It was a text from Sierra. She asked if I was okay in the waiting area and I texted her back that I was fine. She said she’d see me in an hour or so; we’d have drinks, maybe a late supper. I texted “It’s a date” and stuck the phone back in my pocket; knowing drinks and a late dinner probably wouldn’t be in the cards for us.
Then the great man himself appeared and I remembered why I was there. Dr. Adrian Zoebel came through the door wearing dark blue scrubs under a starched, white lab coat. A name tag was pinned to his chest, which I thought was pretty silly given he was the star of the show. He had a stethoscope draped around his neck and carried a silver clipboard that I assumed was Gary Wayne’s medical chart. Or maybe it was just a prop. What good would it have done to have his medical chart? He was about to die; no chart needed for that.
Zoebel looked very much like the distinguished doctor making his rounds. He went to the left side of Gary Wayne’s bed and leaned across to take Hildy’s outstretched hand. He gave it a little shake and let it go. I thought Pastor Dave was going to climb over Gary Wayne to get to Zoebel. He reached across the bed and pumped Zoebel’s arm for a minute before releasing it and retreating to his spot behind Hildy.
Zoebel offered the kids a comforting smile. He said something to them I couldn’t hear, then looked down at Gary Wayne. He set a hand gently on Gary Wayne’s shoulder and leaned down to speak quietly with him. I couldn’t hear what he said, but Gary Wayne mouthed something back and blinked his eyes. Zoebel let his hand rest on Gary Wayne’s shoulder as he addressed the group.
“Okay, we’re going to start in just a few minutes,” he said, letting his eyes go around the group. His voice was calm, soothing. “We’ve already discussed the procedure so unless you have any questions…” No one did. The three older girls were all clutching tissues. They wiped their eyes as Zoebel spoke to them.
“Hildy, if you or the kids need to stop at anytime for anything, all you have to do is say so,” Zoebel said. He paused to look each one of them in the eye as he spoke, making sure his words registered. The bastard couldn’t have seemed more sincere. He turned to the preacher.
“Pastor Dave, the control room will let you know when to step in and say the prayer. Is your ear monitor working okay? Can we get a test from upstairs?” Zoebel looked up and touched his own right ear. Pastor Dave did the same and gave a thumbs-up.
Zoebel said, “Keep in mind you have a microphone on your lapel there, so try not to brush against it as you speak.”
“Yes sir, no problem, sir,” Pastor Dave said, eager to please. This was probably the highlight of his evangelical career; the moment he would brag about to all his preacher buddies and parishioners back home for years.
“I know this is a very difficult time, but we’ll do everything possible to make it easier for you all,” Zoebel said. Hildy clutched Gary Wayne’s hand. She and Pastor Dave looked wide-eyed at Zoebel and nodded. The little boys fidgeted, probably not even understanding what was going on. The older girls stared at Zoebel as if he were a movie poster come to life.
“Someone will come in shortly for a final check of the lights and cameras and then we’ll get started. Okay?” He gave Gary Wayne a last pat on the shoulder, tucked the clipboard under his arm, and left the room.
“Such a nice man,” Hildy said. She raised her voice at her husband. “Don’t you think he’s a nice man, hon? God bless Dr. Zoebel.”
“A very nice young man,” the star-struck preacher said. He clutched the Bible to his chest and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Nice young man, indeed. God bless him.”
DeSean returned to check the lights and cameras one last time. He stood next to the bed and spoke to the family. “Okay, folks, if you’re ready, we will get started.”
“We’re ready!” one of the little boys squealed. They all giggled at him. Hildy gave him a big hug and told him to hush up.
“Is there anything anybody needs before we start?” DeSean asked. He leaned over Gary Wayne. “Mr. Biggerstaff, are you ready to proceed, sir?” Gary Wayne must have muttered that he was because DeSean turned to Hildy and the preacher. “Can you folks just say a few words to make sure your mics are picking up okay?”
Hildy and Pastor Dave did a few rounds of “check, check, check” into the mics clipped to their clothes and DeSean gave them a thumbs up. He said, “Okay, Dr. Zoebel will come back in a minute and get us started. Just follow his lead. And remember; if you need to stop at anytime for anything just say so.”
The weight of the moment must have finally hit them because nobody said a word. They all looked at DeSean, dumbfounded, their mouths open, heads giving a slight bob. When he left the room they all looked at each other and the three older girls burst into tears.
“Y’all hush now,” a weak voice said. It was Gary Wayne, his voice barely a whisper. “It’s okay. It’s my time. Y’all gotta be strong for your mama. I’ll see y’all on the other side.”
Soft music started to drift from speakers in the rafters. The lights above the bedroom set brightened. Sierra’s voice came over the speaker. She spoke softly, like a funeral director.
“We’re about to begin, folks,” she said. “Again, if we need to stop at anytime for anything just let us know.”
That was the third time the Biggerstaffs had been told that they could stop the procedure at anytime. The words sounded caring, spoken softly, sympathetically, but I knew it was just legal butt-covering; Allen Grumman dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. Hildy put a hand on Gary Wayne’s forehead and stroked it gently. She said something to him. He nodded slightly and closed his eyes.
A quiet moment passed, then Adrian reentered with the clipboard under his arm and the nurse following close behind. He positioned himself at the foot of the bed, facing the floor cameras with the Biggerstaffs behind him.
The nurse went to the side of the bed and stood holding what looked like a metal tray with a towel folded over in it. She was holding it with both hands, as if she were afraid she might drop it. I’d never seen the show, but I knew what was tucked under the neat folds of the towel. It was the syringe that would deliver the relief of death to Gary Wayne.