Brad stood silently outside Dr. Gardner’s office within arm's length of the dark wooden door that stood between him and his future. He had been summoned but still struggled to knock. Over the years Brad had been in his bosses' office more times than he could count but never like this. This visit terrified him and he was certain his shallow breath and sweaty forehead would betray his trepidation the moment he entered the room.
As a young surgical resident, he had sought out the grizzled chief of neurosurgery and practically begging him to be his mentor. Brad had no idea the Herculean effort wasn’t the least bit necessary–Dr. Gardner had been looking for a protegee, and from the first firm handshake, he knew Brad was just the kind of man who would thrive under his tutelage.
The voice, strong as ever, startled Brad. He hadn’t yet knocked, but somehow the old man knew he was there. Dr. Gardner always knew. A great surgeon must have a sixth sense and the his mentor and friend was the best, but he also possessed humility, a trait not often attributed to surgeons and one that was conspicuously absent in many of his peers.
“You asked to see me?” Brad said as he walked into the room, closing the door as he entered.
The wall behind Dr. Gardner’s desk was covered with degrees and awards both earned and honorary. The two men often joked that a forest had been cut down to mill the paper needed for his wall of accomplishment. Opposite the desk was another similarly covered wall. This one, however, contained numerous pictures of people living because of Dr. Gardner’s skillful hands. Most times Brad felt comfortable in the photographs’ presence, but today all the eyes seemed to be staring at him. Was it possible they knew too?
“Do you know why I asked to see you?” Dr. Gardner asked without looking up from his desk.
“No,” Brad lied, as he sat down in the leather-covered chair opposite his mentor.
“I’m out,” Dr. Gardner responded matter-of-factly. “There have been whispers that I’m no longer up to the job so they gave me a gold watch, a pat on the head, and a kick in the ass.”
“That can’t be true,” Brad said, feigning surprise.
“Save it,” Dr. Gardner interrupted, “You've heard the whispers. It’s not been the best-kept secret, Brad. Everyone knew this day was coming.”
Brad knew Dr. Gardner was right. Everyone did know, especially Brad since he had been the one to send the anonymous letter that detailed Dr. Gardner's failing eyesight and shaky hands. Brad had convinced himself he was doing what was best for his friend, but in his heart of hearts, he wondered if it was his own ambition, not altruism that necessitated the letter.
“I have something for you,” Dr. Gardner continued, opening his top desk drawer and pulling out a rectangular box with a red bow affixed on top. “My last official task as chief of neurosurgery was to recommend my successor and I think we both know who I chose.”
Brad sat silently as the old doctor handed the box to his protegee. He had often thought of this moment and each time Brad felt euphoric. Yet now, with his dream finally within reach, all he felt was an ominous empty feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Aren’t you going to open it,” Dr. Gardner asked, finally allowing a smile to spread across his face. “You’ve earned it.”
The box seemed ancient. It had dents collected over countless years and the bronze hinge was dimmed with rust. Brad half expected it to creak like the door of a haunted house as he slowly opened his gift. Inside was an old scalpel that looked as if it might have been used to treat soldiers wounded during the Civil War. Its blade still shined but its wooden handle was as worn as the box that housed it.
“This scalpel was given to me by my mentor,” Dr. Gardner said, breaking the silence. “He passed it down to me with encouragement and a warning. He told me that as a surgeon I held life and death in my hands each time I stepped into an operating room. I leave you with the same admonition. Your scalpel is just a tool. How you use it is up to you.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Brad said looking up at his friend.
“Don’t say anything,” Dr. Gardner answered as he stood to put on his white jacket with the tan elbow patches for the last time. A grateful patient and seamstress had added the unusual accessory as a gift and because she wanted everyone to know this doctor was special, he was different. “This is your office now. Enjoy it.” And with that, the old man gave Brad a final firm handshake and slowly shuffled out of the room.
With a reluctance he hadn’t anticipated, Brad stood and moved to the other side of the desk, sitting down in the chair that was now his. Before long Brad was able to suppress the guilt he felt for betraying his friend. New thoughts filled his head. The pictures have to go, he thought to himself, and a good coat of paint will spruce this place up. I need to make this my own. Time seemed to stand still as he contemplated all the changes he would make. Brad wasn’t even sure how long he had been sitting there when his pager went off calling him to the emergency room.
“Gunshot wound to the head,” the nurse informed Brad as he walked into the room. As an expert neurosurgeon, the very best, Brad determined instantly it was too late for this victim. Blood hid the man's face but Brad recognized the familiar white coat with the one-of-a-kind elbow patches his patient was wearing.
“Time of death,” Brad said, tears starting to flow, “5:45 p.m.”