The forced leisurely pace of the treadmill gave me a chance to calm down and forget, a little at least, what this was ultimately for. I closed my eyes, not something you can usually do when you’re walking, and tried to enjoy it.
After a minute or so the speed increased. It was gradual but noticeable, plateauing out a little faster. It was beginning to get frustrating. I wanted to either walk a little slower or jog properly a little faster. Maybe for someone with legs a sensible length it was a comfortable brisk walk. Eventually I started jogging just because it gave an easier rhythm, even though it was a bit slow to be efficient.
Again, it increased. I adapted to the new speed. I was really beginning to feel it. I was sweating, my breathing had increased but I wasn’t at the point where I was struggling to breathe. Manageable, but pushing me a tiny bit. It was earlier than I was used to, maybe if I’d had a good night’s sleep, hadn’t been hurt or ill in the last few days I might have been faring better.
It worried me, how could I be good enough if I wasn’t in my best shape?
It continued, eventually reaching a point where jogging was too slow. I had to pick up the pace to a real run, increasing the length of my strides. My legs were starting to tire. Already?
Time felt like it was going so slowly, and I was tiring so quickly. I couldn’t tell if it was the monotony of running without actually moving anywhere that created an illusion or I my fitness was just lower than my peak.
The mask felt so claustrophobic, like I wasn’t letting me breathe. I knew it was, my body was at the point where it was using more oxygen than I my lungs could process. My muscles will be forced to metabolise anaerobically, I wouldn’t be able to sustain it long before the acid would build up in my body…
I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears, it was slowly transforming into a headache, with my whole head joining in the beat. He increased the speed again.
I was just sprinting now. How long was this supposed to go on for? I wouldn’t be able to manage it for much longer. Not from lack of will – I was forcing myself to keep making each step against the pain. No, my legs were just going to give up. They were already heavy, clumsy, as if I had lead weights strapped to my ankles.
I wasn’t sprinting anymore such as falling over forwards, trying to keep myself from just smashing my face into the treadmill.
Maybe I should press the button? But that would be giving up. I couldn’t ruin my chances just because I wasn’t feeling well today.
It used all my willpower to force my legs to keep going, through the burning pain.
It felt like forever before I felt the belt gently slow down. If only it did it a bit faster, I was ready to collapse.
When it got to a walking pace again, which in my condition was more like staggering, the nurse appeared from round the corner. I used my last scraps of strength to compel myself back into a more disciplined rhythm. One that didn’t make it look like I could hardly hold myself upright.
I was trying to read the expression on his face, he gave me a kind smile and I relaxed a fraction. You don’t tend to smile at someone who’s failed.
The treadmill stopped and I staggered, dizzy at being able to stand still. My lungs were still trying to make me gulp as much air as physically possible but I repressed the instinct. I can’t look bad, I can’t look like a few seconds more and I would have fallen flat on my face and failed.
“You can step off now.” I did, praying my legs not to give way when I bent them. I was happier when I could get back to locked knees. “That was very impressive; I’ve never had anyone your age get to the end of the test before.”
That can’t be right. Once I’d caught my breath enough I responded, “What do you mean, no one’s passed before?”
“You don’t have to finish to pass, it’s just to root out people who are really unsuitable. All we need is to monitor oxygen intake and pulse while you exert yourself, make sure you don’t show any heart defects or lung problems.” He said. Oh, so I could have just pressed the button earlier… That would have been a lot more pleasant.
“These results are… interesting. Your oxygen intake was very low for that kind of performance. Your muscle performance must be… Do you play a lot of sports, done a lot of training?” I don’t think what I did counted as a sport.
“Uh, I go running every now and again. I’ve been doing it for…” I thought a moment, it felt like ages. “Two weeks I think.”
“Two weeks? Is that all? These are what you’d expect from an amateur athlete, at least. Your heart beat didn’t go above eighty two – which is damn good for your age and weight.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d always been pretty bad at sports in school. I got picked last for anything. Perhaps it was just because I was too cautious to really put all my effort in. Maybe it was because even two weeks ago I’d been pretty unfit. I got tired really easily… But then I wasn’t really eating enough, things had been better recently.
“Have a sit down, you can take ten minutes to rest while I get the doctor.” He nodded to a bench beside the door and left. I threw myself onto it, thankful, but worried about the doctor part. I’d been hoping he’d be doing it. He was only a nurse and seemed like a nice guy.
I’d stopped shaking and my breathing and heart rate had gone to their normal levels when he returned. Taking my cue I fell into step behind him.
* * *
“Have a seat Alexis.” You know, that’s an odd phrase. ‘Borrow’ a seat would be more suitable, it wasn’t like I could actually have it. I could do with a chair- “You don’t need to be nervous.”
Right, let’s not get distracted by the seating. I sat.
“Ok, this will hopefully just be a simple exam. First things first, do you have any pre-existing medical conditions?” She stroked the screen of her tablet.
“No.” Not that I know of.
“Have you spent any time in hospital, when was the last time you had a check-up?” she asked.
“I’ve never been to hospital, or been to the doctors.” I often wondered why I hated them so much. This place gave me the shivers, but it was specifically doctors that scared me. I’d never really met one. But I always had awful nightmares about them when I was a child. It was the uniform, the lab coat. The aging male air that surrounded them, the way they looked so critically upon you like you were just a machine made of meat that needed fixing. I didn’t even associate it with the profession until I saw them on TV, then I could put a name to the monster I had in my head.
“Never?” She asked. “What about when you were born?”
“I was born at home, I think.” I wasn’t sure. I think my mom had mentioned it once.
“Really?” She scribbled something on the tablet with her pen. “That’s unusual. So, have you ever had any problems breathing? Pain in your joints, consistent stomach pains? Anything like that?”
“No” I lied, but all those things were usually when I was younger and just hadn’t had a chance to eat enough. I don’t think she was after that kind of thing.
“Right, well if you want to step over here we can take your weight and height.” She stood and walked to the wall where there was some equipment. After a more fiddling with whatever controls the tablet was displaying she gestured to a rectangle set into the ground. Guessing at her intention I stood within its boundaries. She reached out, I supressed a flinch, and physically moved my head until she was happy with my posture. “Ok, you can sit back down now.”
I glanced at the ceiling, curious. There was a small aperture with a circular black disk. I was guessing it used a laser. Fancy. I didn’t see what was so archaic about a ruler…
“You are quite short for you age,” she said, “and underweight.”
“Yes.” I nodded, of course I was underweight – I was really short.
“Hmm.” Her eyes settled on mine for a moment. “How tall are your parents?”
“Err, my mom is taller. About five and a half feet I’d guess.” She didn’t really stand up all that much.
“Your father?” she asked.
“I have no idea, I don’t know who he is.” It didn’t really factor into my head that I must have a father. It was something other people had. She raised an eyebrow at me and made more thoughtful noises, scribbling some yet more notes. I didn’t like thoughtful noises. I wanted smiles, the nurse smiled at me.
“The next section is on family history, I figure you don’t know about your father’s side? What about your mother?” she asked.
Does a history of drug abuse count as a medical condition? I often wondered if there was some mental health problems, but I wasn’t sure if that was a cause or effect. I certainly didn’t know of anything major. “I don’t think there is anything important,” I said.
“How about your grandparents? Are they still… alive? Have they suffered from any medical conditions?” Lots of questions, I didn’t have any answers.
“I’ve never met them. Mum didn’t really talk about them. Sorry, I don’t know.” I said, twisting my fingers together in my lap. This wasn’t going well.
“Is your mother here?” she asked.
“No, she isn’t w… I mean, she’s busy.” Not very well at all. I didn’t think my default excuse would go down very well.
“That’s fine, don’t worry.” I think she picked up that I was uncomfortable.
“I’m going to give you a short physical exam, your mother isn’t here – did you come with anyone? Would you like them to be present?” She stood and moved over to one of those fancy beds, the kind that bend in the middle and were coated in easy to clean plastic.
“No, please.” The idea of Beth or Mz Gregory being here… No.
“I can get a female nurse in if that would make you feel more comfortable? You aren’t eighteen yet, it might be best for someone to be present.” I didn’t really understand why, but if she wanted a friend here.
“I’m ok with that.” I said so she’d be happy. “Could I have the other one? The one from the exercise thing?”
“But, wasn’t that John? He’s male,” she said, looking confused.
“I…” He seemed nice, that’s all. And if I was going to get my top off for some reason I thought I’d feel more comfortable in front of him than some other woman… “If it’s not allowed, I don’t mind someone else.”
“Oh, no, I suppose it’s fine if you want it like that.” She leaned over and pressed a button on her desk, asking it – or at least someone on the other end of a phone – for this John. After a few minutes he came in through the back door, looking a bit confused himself.
“She requested you observe?” the doctor said to him. He looked at me, I wasn’t sure what to do so I just tried an encouraging smile. It probably came out more of a nervous one though. He smiled back.
“Right, come and sit down on here.” She indicated towards the hospital bed. “We’ll start with the obvious, what happened to your hand?”