By Larry Tyler

The doctor told me I was a sociopath and I didn't know what that meant so I asked him and he said it means I can't understand the feelings of other people. That's what a sociopath is, according to him.

I don't think he's got it right, but he's studied thousands of people — he's a doctor — and I haven't studied anyone my whole life except myself so maybe he's got something going there, but I don't think so. Frankly, I think he's full of shit.

Now, it's like this: I feel lots of different feelings, any feeling you can name, and I feel it just like other people do. I feel pain for instance, like the sudden burst of pain in my stomach when I pulled a steak knife out that someone — a gentleman named Warmbrandt — plunged into me not twenty minutes ago, and I'm quite certain anyone else would feel that exact same pain if they'd been stabbed in the gut like I was. That's what empathy is. I looked it up. That's what the doctor said I don't have. I understand pain. I feel it; other people feel it. What's not to understand about that? I'm not really different from anyone else then, am I? I don't think so. You tell me.

I mean, I've been cut before, and clubbed, even shot once, but seeing that knife hanging out of my stomach, seeing that thick black handle wobbling around in the air, and the blood — my blood — spilling onto the floor, well that memory's going to give me the creeps for a long time. It happened so quick I didn't feel a goddamned thing for a moment. Then when the pain hit it made me dizzy; it turned everything black for a second. I yanked the knife out with one hand and swung my gun around with the other, the gun I'd been pointing at him, and smacked him in the jaw. I wanted to shoot him, I wanted to put a bullet through his head right then and there, or maybe stab him in his own gut with his goddamned steak knife, but I didn't. I controlled my impulses. What would the doctor have to say about all that?

Well, never mind. I can't let that doctor get to me. I've got to put him out of my head and get focused back on my job. Got to get focused.

The guy's name is Warmbrandt, something Warmbrandt; maybe Richard or Robert. I don't know. I don't much care. I took my attention off him for a split second and he stabbed me, so now I've got to take care of that problem before I finish up my work with him.

I'm doing a little better than I was a few minutes ago. A few drinks have made the difference. I'm actually beginning to enjoy my gut ache. Maybe not enjoy it actually, but it's got me fascinated. Pain is pretty interesting.

"You might as well make this a double and save yourself some work," I tell the bartender. He understands what I'm getting at and he gives me a generous shot. He had a brief moment of hesitation and I know exactly what he was thinking. He's been counting my drinks. This will be five shots of Scotch in twenty minutes and he doesn't want me puking on his counter.

He speaks English; that's good. Here in Brussels almost everyone speaks French and English...and a lot of them know German and Italian and almost every other language you can imagine. Not Dutch all that much though, wrong part of Belgium for that. Most of all they understand body language in Brussels, maybe more than other places do. Even if you know the words, you've got to know the intent. For example, I wasn't asking for a double, I was telling him he needed to pour me a drink. I've got more work to do upstairs and I need to dull the pain if I'm going to get the work done.

I look down quickly as he turns to pour the drink. There's a pillowcase that I slit and wrapped tight around my stomach. My homemade tourniquet. I've flared my shirt around it loosely so it doesn't show, but I keep checking down to see if a blotch of red is going to appear, leaking through the strip of cloth and spreading over my torso like a red beacon. I pull my jacket around a little bit to hide the front of my shirt, but that's kind of pointless. The stab was almost in the center, just a little to the left. The jacket isn't going to hide it.

I need to drink my drink and get upstairs before the bartender sees something to be suspicious about. I want to finish this job and fly home. This isn't a good assignment anymore. I don't like getting hurt. Nobody does. I take one long gulp, throw a stack of Euros on the counter, flip a little goodbye salute to the barkeep, cross the hotel lobby, and I'm on the elevator going back upstairs. I'm alone in the elevator, so I don't have to pretend I'm not in pain or not feeling the drinks. I can be myself, but not too much. I don't want to pass out here. What a mess that would be if they found me crumpled on the floor, spilling blood out of my gut and Mr. Warmbrandt gagged and bound in his bed upstairs. If I died this way it would be my legacy; if I didn't end up dead and they found me like that I'd just kill myself anyway. Honest to god. I can tolerate a lot of kinds of hurt, and to be honest, I can inflict a lot of kinds of hurt, but not humiliation. That's a kind of hurt that is inhuman. I'm not inhuman. Doctor be damned.

I hit the button. I'm going to the eighth floor, Room 814.

The elevator goes to the eighth floor and my legs carry me to the room. I fish the card out of my pocket and open the door. He's still there, strapped to the bed. His mouth is taped shut and his eyes get big when he sees me returning. I nod at him politely.

"You tried to kill me," I say to him. He makes no attempt to answer me through the tape. "I don't blame you, but I'm still mad at you." I reach behind my back and tighten the pillowcase that's strapped around my stomach. "It hurts."

I sit down on the bed and study Mr. Robert or Richard Warmbrandt. It might be Ronald, I think it is. He's sweating a lot. "I took one of your shirts to wear because you tore mine and got blood on it when you stabbed me."

I reach over and peel the tape back from his mouth. He isn't going to make any attempt to yell out. He's scared but he doesn't look stupid. I tell him to speak quietly anyway. His jaw's pretty bruised, but not broken.

He wants to know why I'm doing this. They always ask that. "I don't know," I tell him. I really don't. "Where do you work?" I ask him.

He closes his eyes as he answers me. "I work in robotics," he tells me. He probably thinks I don't know what that is. He probably thinks I'm a thug.

"You're an engineer."

"Sort of," he says quietly, vaguely.

I nod my head. I think I know why I got hired to do this. Somehow he's in a position to sell information outside the company or he got caught trying to buy information for his company. Something like that. But either way, he got caught. I do a lot of work for corporate pirates. Robotics is probably an industry that's lousy with them. "I guess you just started dealing with some bad people," I tell him. "Some really bad people." He probably knows that already, maybe he's even one himself, but that's the best explanation he's going to get from me.

I check my watch. "They should be here by now," I say out loud. Mr. Warmbrandt checks the door with apprehension in his eyes. "Some men need to ask you a few questions. You really ought to tell them everything they want to know."

"And then you're going to kill me," he says flatly.

"Yes, then I'm going to kill you."

"Let me go," he says. "You'll be doing yourself a big favor if you do. I'll see to that. I can help you a lot."

He has a little trace of an accent. I wonder what it is. His English is perfect but the accent is the kind of scrubbed British accent they teach in school in Europe, and there's a little clip to it. Maybe he's German. He's got a little mole under his left eye, high on his cheek. The sweat rolls around it and gathers like tributaries just above his chin. The sweat drops onto his neck.

When I don't answer him, he knows what that means. He looks up at the ceiling. "I guess my time has run out," he says. It seems like a funny phrase to use, but maybe not. He's accepted that he's going to die, so why not be philosophical about it? After all, everything runs out. I ran out of cigarettes this morning. I've run out of money lots of times in my life. Last week when I was home the fuel in the furnace ran out because I've been gone a lot and forgot to keep my eye on it. A week or so before that my girl ran out on me, pretty much for the same reason. Things run out. That's just the way life is. You run out of stuff and have to keep getting refills. Rich people get refills their whole life; the rest of us just run out. Mr. Warmbrandt looks like a rich person who suddenly became very poor. All of a sudden he's run out of time, and there's no refill for him. I hear a knock at the door.

Two men walk in when I open the door. The first one swings his head toward me as he walks by. He has a little scowl on his face. He smells whiskey on me and he doesn't like it. He's right; it's unprofessional. I'll make it up to him. I'll show him I know my business. These two guys don't want me hanging around listening to their conversation with Mr. Warmbrandt and won't need me in the room, not until they're finished with him, so I tell them I'll wait out in the hall. They confer silently a moment through an exchange of glances and one of them gives me a nod of approval.

I walk outside and stand in the hall.

I check my shirt and there's a tiny dot of red just left of center, down around my stomach. I don't seem to have any reaction to it even though I suppose I should. I just want to go home. I need to go home and get this wound fixed. But how am I going to do that? I can't get it stitched here in Brussels, but this isn't something I can put off for long either. I check my watch. I can't wait another fourteen hours to get home and take care of it. Not when my blood is spilling out like this. I pull at the pillowcase and strap it tighter around me. It was already pretty tight.

Someone's coming down the hall; it's a young couple. I button my jacket even though it looks stupid that way because the pillowcase has made a bulge around my stomach when my coat is buttoned, but this is Brussels and people in Brussels are used to looking at people who look weird. Lots of people look eccentric in this town.

They walk by and pay no attention to me. They get on the elevator and the hallway is empty again.

I take a long breath and make the mistake of imagining what my wound looks like. Why am I doing that? I picture a big deep chasm with white injured flesh peeling away from it and thick globs of rich red blood pulsing through it. There's nothing stopping the blood — it's pumping out of me — and nothing stopping the flesh from tearing back. I'm feeling weak and woozy. I lean against the wall. Stop thinking about this. Finish your job and go home.

Through the door to Room 814 I hear voices. Not clearly. Low murmuring voices, almost musical and very polite: three men having a quiet conversation about robotics. I start thinking about robots. That's a good thing to think about, gets me off the subject of my knife wound. Robots.

I think about a long-armed metal machine with a camera in its head going into a radioactive room to keep chemicals from blowing up. Other people would picture one of those cartoon robots that are maids or chauffeurs or something, but not me. That's a humiliating use for a fine machine. People don't appreciate their machines. I mean, look how they treat their cars. My idea of what a robot should be is better, something that's made to do some good.

They could even make robots do what I do for work.

The voices stop for a moment. I can hear someone crying softly. It's Warmbrandt, resigned to his fate. This usually means they're about ready for me. Good. I'm very tired. I could use a long nap. I wish I had met Warmbrandt a few months ago. I could have talked to him about building robots for my line of work. It's a great idea, and it might have saved his life if I could've gotten him to stop what he was doing and focus on my idea.

But, I wonder, why couldn't they start with me? What I mean is, it's too late for Warmbrandt of course, but these people who make robots, why couldn't they start working on me? I've got all the know-how, I'm good at this. Why couldn't they make a robot do what I do? And here's how: Start working on me. Start by repairing my body, fix me up with a new stomach, or actually make a machine for me that would work as a stomach. Then they could gradually make other organs for me, then arms and legs and eyes and ears. Bit by bit. Shit, I need to talk to someone about this. I'm grabbing hold of my stomach and pressing in tighter. I've got to stop that blood from pumping out. You think it's funny, don't you, to aspire to be a machine? I don't. To live forever, do flawless work, glide smoothly when you move. Glide smoothly. Wouldn't that be pretty? Machines can be the highest aspirations of men. So clean, so pure.

I want those guys to hurry up in there. I've got to get fixed up. I need to have someone stop this bleeding. I want to get better. I've got to talk with some people about this new idea of mine.

I slide down the wall and curl my legs up. Got to stop the blood from spilling. Come on, guys, hurry it up in there. Let's go. Hurry up. Don't you get it? I've got something to live for.

Larry Tyler grew up (as much as he was going to) in California. Eventually he moved to Maine where he lives and roams around and types. He has written several articles and short stories, some of which can be found around the Internet. He created "A Hundred Handouts," a workbook for therapists that can be tracked down on Scribd, and co-created two sons who aren't on Scribd, or hopefully anything else.

Copyright 2011 Larry Tyler. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.

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