From the author: Just what is the appendix? What is it for? Here are several thoughts on that question.
The appendix twisted in Dr. Chamberlin’s tongs, hissing and spitting.
“Careful, nurse,” he said from behind his mask. “This is a mean one. Got the jar?”
NurseKouistra picked up the jar. She hurried toward the doctor, bumping into the anesthesiologist.
“Ooh – sorry.”
The anesthesiologist nodded and Kouistra thrust the jar towards the doctor.
“Closer, please,” Dr. Chamberlin said. He glanced up at her. “A few nerves is normal,” he said quietly. “This your first appendicitis?”
The nurse nodded.
“Well, as you can see, they extrude mouths quite quickly upon extraction,” the doctor continued. “But unless you get close, and get careless, you’re safe enough. Here, now. It seems to be quieting down a bit. They tire quickly if they can’t get any blood. Just put the jar under it.”
Nurse Kouistra bit her lip and squinted, but placed the jar under the monster, now limp.
“Good,” said the doctor. “Now we just – shit!”
As he lowered the appendix into the jar, it suddenly coiled itself around the tongs, then lashed out, squirming free. It hit the lip of the jar and the nurse instinctively recoiled; the appendix slapped onto the floor and scuttled under the operating table.
“Damn it!” said the doctor.
“I’m sorry, it just--” the nurse began.
“Never mind that. Get over to that side of the bed and see if you can catch it in the jar as I herd it towards you. Watch it doesn’t clamp onto your ankle.”
Kouistra nodded and retreated to the far side of the table. She turned the jar onto its side and called, “Ready.”
“Right.” Chamberlin bent down and saw the creature in the shadows. “Git, git,” he said, thrusting at it with the tongs. At first the appendix regarded him dispassionately, then apparently decided the tongs were best kept at a distance, and hurled itself away.
As it came out of the other side of the bed Kouistra slammed the jar down over it. “Got it!” she called.
“Great!” Chamberlin hurried over to her. “Tilt the jar just a little, and I’ll see if I can work the lid into position. There, got it!” He screwed the lid tight and held the jar up to the light. The appendix slapped wetly against the sides of its glass cage.
“Disgusting thing,” Kouistra said.
“Sure is,” said Chamberlin. “But amazing, too. How they’ve managed to come to our planet, and find homes inside our very bodies. Lurking, until--”
The patient on the table groaned softly.
“Get him back under,” Chamberlin said. He turned back to the nurse. “Anyway, you’re lucky we’re leaving the tonsils alone this time.”
Kate was shaken. She stumbled onward, her left arm in the tight grip of the enormous gray being. On her other side, the old man shook his head sadly, his eyes turned towards what would normally be the ground.
“I just don’t understand,” Kate said. “I mean, I always tried to be good. To do the right thing.”
The old man nodded. “Yes, of course.”
“Maybe not all the time – but I mean, no one could be good all the time, right?”
“That would be too much to expect,” the old man agreed.
Kate looked over at him, desperation in her eyes. “Was it that I wasn’t – that I didn’t have the right religion? If I had been the right kind of Christian, or maybe a Hindu or whatever? Is that what it is?”
“No, my child, no. These distinctions are but trifles. Many paths lead to the gates. Much depends on the individual.”
Kate tried to dig her heels into what lay below her feet, but there was nothing there. She jerked her arm, but the enormous gray being walked remorselessly on, dragging her with it.
“Then why?” she cried. “Why can’t I – why do I have to go down there? I was good, I was good!”
“Strange to say, goodness has very little to do with it, if the crucial element is missing,” the old man told her.
They were approaching the ramp. Faint screams could be heard from below.
“This is where we must part,” the old man said. “I am deeply sorry.”
“But wait! I have to know -- what was this crucial element?” Kate asked.
The old man pursed his lips. “My child, at some point you were admitted to a hospital. I am sure your purpose was an innocent one, but in that place you allowed the doctors to tear from you the key to heaven.”
“What the hell are you talkingabout?” Kate was halfway down the ramp now. Only scant steps away, but already her voice was becoming faint.
“Your appendix, my dear,” the old man said, quietly. She would never hear. “You should never have allowed them to take your appendix.”
“Just put them down anywhere, Captain.”
“Sir?” Captain Heffly looked around the empty field. Scrub grass and dandelions glimmered dimly in the light of the half moon.
General Catchpole turned. “You heard me. Just put them down.”
“Sir.” Heffly motioned to the six men behind him -- two per crate – and the men gently let their burdens down. The handles clanked as they were released.
General Catchpole nodded. “Very good. Your men may return to the truck, Captain.”
As the men trotted back, Captain Heffly turned to his commanding officer. “Sir, if I may--”
“A strange business, eh?” The general said. “Very odd.”
The general took his glasses off and polished them with a handkerchief from his pocket. “I suppose you are wondering what we have there in the crates. Among other things.”
“I have wondered, sir.”
“And never asked.”
“As per orders, sir.”
“Of course. You are remarkably reserved, Captain. A quality I need. What you shall see tonight must remain a secret.”
General Catchpole walked over to the nearest crate. He kicked it. It didn’t move. “And what is in these crates, eh?” He turned and sat on it.
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Our future, Captain. Our survival. That’s what’s in these crates.”
Before Captain Heffly could reply, he felt a sharp wind tearing at his hat, tugging on his uniform jacket. At the same time, he became aware of – a sound, he supposed he would have to call it, but too deep, too disquieting, to be just sound. It originated somewhere up above, and then descended, growing in intensity. It vibrated all around him, inside him, as if the blood in his veins was dancing like a potato bug on a hot skillet.
“Back – get back!” The general was shouting, the sound of his voice only dimly reaching Heffly’s ears, as if his head were underwater. “Away from the crates!”
Heffly stumbled after the general, and after twenty or thirty meters he could catch his breath again. The vibration, still there, could be ignored after a fashion, and he could hear the sound of the general breathing loudly beside him.
“Hits me different every goddamn time,” the general wheezed.
Captain Heffly looked back towards the crates. A shadow seemed to hover just above them now, and creaking and whispers could be heard. “What is it?” he asked.
“They’ve come for their tribute,” General Catchpole said.
In the shadow, on the ground – or maybe just above it – the captain saw a vague bulbous shape, raised ten or twelve feet into the air on three massive legs. The thing came near the crates, and bent down, lowered itself. It remained there for a time, and then Heffly could no longer see the crates. The thing raised itself again, and stomped heavily back into the dense shadow.
A moment later the shadow was gone, and the vibration was stilled. Heffly found himself gasping for air, and plopped down into the grass.
The general was already there, sitting beside him, wiping his forehead with the handkerchief. “God, how I hate those things,” he said.
“What – what was it, sir?” Heffly said.
The general looked up. “I don’t know,” he said. “But they come every four months, and if we don’t give them what they came for – well, you can imagine what kind of war things like that could wage.”
“But what do they want? What was in the crates?”
“Our number one export. Our only export. Human appendixes, sent from all over the U.S. and Canada,” the general said. “And I don’t want to know what they do with them, once they get them back home. Use ‘em for food? Jewelry? Sex aids? Pets? I hope I never find out.”
Bill looked up from the report he was reading. “Hey, Rachel. What’s up?”
Rachel paused at the office door. “It’s nothing urgent, but I just wonder about--” she waved a piece of paper.
Bill took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “Come on in. I could use a break.”
Rachel entered the room and sat in the chair opposite Bill’s desk. “Thanks.”
“No problem. So, what’s the issue?”
“Like I said, not really an issue, but I was just wondering.”
Rachel pursed her lips, then put her paper on Bill’s desk. “I was just looking over some of the numbers. And it just seems like we’ve been having a lot of instances of this one particular procedure.”
“And which procedure would that be?”
“Appendectomies.” Rachel raised her hand as if to ward off a hungry ghost. “Now, obviously, I realize that appendectomies are serious – that the thing sometimes needs to come out, and it can be a dangerous situation…”
Bill was obviously trying not to smile. He wasn’t trying hard enough.
“…But there are so many cases, and the costs all add up. Our surgeons’ valuable time, bookings of the operating rooms, all the supplies. I just don’t know if there is another way, maybe a cheaper, preventative method--”
Bill burst out laughing. Rachel’s gaze darted around the room and she shifted to the edge of her chair.
“Sorry, sorry!” Bill finally managed. “No, no, it’s a good question.” He took a moment to compose himself. “Sorry. The thing is, Rachel, we love appendectomies. Everyone loves them.”
“But – why?”
“They’re a sweet little moneymaker for all concerned. The surgeons can charge for the time, and the anesthesiologists, the medical supply companies make a nice living, the--” he gestured about himself “—hospital administrators, we all get a piece.”
“Oh, I guess I can see that,” Rachel said.
“In fact--” Bill lowered his voice a bit, “we – shall we say, ‘encourage’ – doctors to perform the procedure when it’s maybe not strictly necessary. It’s easy. A kid comes in with a stomach cramp from engulfing too many Cheetohs, the doctor mentions ‘appendix’ and the parents sign off on it in three seconds.”
Bill leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Oh, yes. We love appendectomies.”
Rachel frowned. “I guess, I mean, it’s a useless organ, so I suppose the kids who have it out, well, they’re not really being harmed. Prevents later trouble, anyway.”
Bill leaned forward again. “Actually, we did the research, maybe twelve, fourteen years ago. Heard about it when I was still an actual doctor. Turns out the appendix, though it can cause trouble, is actually very useful. It can prevent cancer or heart disease or AIDS, something like that. I don’t remember the details. The tonsils do something too, but I don’t remember what.”
Rachel didn’t blink.
“What’s wrong, Rachel?”
“My daughter had her appendix out last year,” she said. “She’s ten.”
“Well, then!” Bill said. “Your money stayed right in the family – from your pocket, right back into your pocket! That’s got to feel good, right?”
“Do you have it?” Edson whispered. Only his eyes were visible in the moonlight; a dark bandana covered the rest of his long pale face.
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go,” Sureena said.
“Better ditch the nurse costume first. Shows up in the light.”
“Oh, yeah.” They slipped behind a tree, and Edson helped her remove the uniform. He tucked it into a small black bag, for the next time. Under the uniform Sureena was wearing a tight black t-shirt and bicycle pants.
“All right,” she said. Her head whipped back the way she had come, her hair swinging in her face. “Let’s go.” She picked up the carton and headed away from the hospital.
“I still think we should take it somewhere out in the wild,” Edson said as they walked. “Someplace free.”
“No, this is perfect,” Sureena said. “The hospital thugs built these gardens and walking trails on the blood of the murdered, using money they got from ripping out the innocent and leaving them to die. So we set it free here, right here, in view of its oppressors. A reminder of danger and of victory. Poetic justice.
“And the hospital administrators, looking out their windows and sucking on their cigars--”
“I don’t think smoking is allowed, even in the offices,” Edson said.
“Fine. Swilling their wine, then. They look out, and they have no idea that nestled in these bushes, scampering between the trees, basking in the sun, are those they sought to murder.”
“I guess,” Edson said.
A minute later he said, “This looks like a good spot. Close to that fountain, and a grassy opening among the trees.”
“A good place to start a new, free life,” Sureena said. She crouched down and gently opened the carton. “Be free, little one. Remember those who took you from your home, but remember, also, that the Appendix Liberation Front will always be there, rescuing your siblings from the garbage bins of the tyrants.” She slowly tipped the carton until the small lump of flesh slid out onto the grass.
“Hail the ALF!” Edson said. “Another victory!”
The appendix, of course, just lay there.
This story originally appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated.